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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Unholy Loss, Holy Surprise

2024-03-31 Easter

John 20:1-18

John 20 verse 1 begins the Easter story. It says:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb 

One of the miraculous things about the Bible (and there are quite a few miraculous things about the Bible) is something I've learned again and again. 

Other people have reported the same thing. 

So I know I'm not alone. 

And it's this: 

That no matter how many times I read certain scriptures – 

like the one we read today, on Easter, it never fails that I find something new. 

Maybe I've getting older and wiser. 

Maybe I'm just slow. 

Either way, it feels miraculous. 

Do you do that? 

You re-read something special, 

maybe in the Bible, 

maybe a poem or favorite book, 

something you've read or heard many times before, 

but this time something totally new jumps out at you. you go, "Eureka!" 

You probably don't say, "Eureka." 

These days it's more like, 

Wow, Awesome, Gnarly, Rad, or Groovy.

Probably something more like, 

"Wow. I never saw that before." 

It feels like your brain grew a size bigger. 

Scripture will do that.

It feels like a miracle. 

You didn't expect it. 

It's a gift from beyond you.

I can easily imagine Mary Magdalene, or the Apostles, or anyone else who saw the empty tomb, saying something to the effect of, "Wow. I never saw that before." 

They'd be more enthusiastic. 

Less Presbyterian. 

More Pentecostal, shouting and singing and jumping up and down.

If there was ever something to shout and sing and dance around about, it ought to be Easter. 

For sure, Mary and anyone else who saw the empty tomb had never, ever, ever seen anything like that before. 

They would have been to graveyards lots of times. 

But this – this was something miraculous. 

Completely unexpected. 

Completely unpredicted. 

A gift, from beyond their wildest dreams.

A scary gift? A happy Easter gift? 

Let's say, a startling gift.

A surprising gift.

That's the thing about Easter. 

That's the thing about Jesus. 

That's the thing about the Holy Spirit. 

That's the thing about God. 

It's God's nature to catch us off guard. 

It's God's way of making a point. 

Time and again throughout the Bible and throughout our experience God can't help but surprise us. 

Because God's God. 

And we aren't. 

It only makes sense that God's miraculous works, 

God's miraculous presence, 

would surprise us.

"I never saw that before," can be the holiest words we ever speak. 

Because it's an admission to ourselves, a confession, 

that we've encountered something totally different, 

totally new, totally other. 

Something we know, 

something we feel, 

that's plain and simple: beyond us.

"I never saw that before." 

Well. Good. 

But now that you've seen it, 

What does it mean? 

And what are you gonna do with it?

A few weeks ago, this church was just driving me crazy. 

Not any of you.

But that's the thing about churches: 

They're people.

And people are people no matter how Presbyterian.

People are the best.

Until they're not.

Anyway, I just needed to decompress over something I can't remember now at all.

So I got in the car.

And drove as far away as I could and still be back for a meeting. 


I drove to Enterprise to worship at the Weevil. 

I discovered some things I'd never seen before.

Did you know there's a recreation place called, Boll Weevil Lanes?

Why didn't they call it Boll Bowl? 

Missed an opportunity.

There's a great coffee shop on the town square. 

It's a good place to go and hide. 

Much better than under my desk.

I sat there in the coffee shop, sipping a latte and watching TikTok, as one does. 

And my empty brain started thinking about Jesus, as preachers do. 

And I remembered all the times Jesus went off into the wilderness to get the heck away from all those people. 

In particular, I remembered Mark chapter one, after he's spent the day healing the mob. 

The Bible doesn't say this exactly, but in my translation, he puts his phone on Do Not Disturb. 

He turns on the email Vacation Reply. 

It says,

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 

Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

"Behold, I stood at your door and knocked. Repeatedly."

The Bible says he "prayed." 

Sometimes prayer is getting on your knees and talking to God.

Sometimes prayer is just staring off into the distance and enjoying the quiet. 

It's why young mothers park in the driveway, with the windows up, singing very loudly to Adele.

That's prayer.

This past week, our Worship and Discipleship committees and our staff provided a Maundy Thursday and a Stations of the Cross service that let us do just that:

Be still and know that God is God.

So, I was thinking about Mary, and I was thinking about Easter morning, and it suddenly hit me. 

Mary when she went to the garden alone, Mary was pulling a Jesus. 

John 20 says,

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb 

Now, as I understand it, women of that day and time and faith, didn't just go wandering off by themselves, early in the morning, while it was still dark. 

At least, not unless they really, really wanted to sneak off by themselves. 

Mary Magdalene must have been a good student. 

Because she was doing exactly what her teacher, her friend, Jesus – had taught her how to do.

Sometimes, you just have to get the heck away. 

Maybe you drive to Enterprise. 

Maybe you go for a long walk alone. 

In a graveyard. 

To get away from all the noise. 

To visit your loved one.

To sit on bench, or a rock, or the ground.

To run your fingers across what's really real.

Not email or apps. Not someone else's anger.

Not to think about thinky things.

To just feel. 

To feel again.


But something I had never seen before was the connection between the start of Jesus's ministry, the end of Jesus's ministry, and the start of Mary Magdalene's ministry. 

Because this time in the garden is the start of her Christian ministry.

After all, in just a few verses, Mary's going to get to preaching. 

She's going to become the first Christian preacher ever and preach the first Christian sermon ever. 

"I have seen the Lord." 

Only 5 words. 

She'll get better. 

To all the preacher boys, remember: a woman did it first. 

And Christians had never seen that before, either. 

God was at work. 

God was at work. 

And God's signature is always 


Back when Jesus was starting his ministry and had gone off by himself to pray, who was it that came looking for him with their hair on fire? 

Simon Peter and his companions. 

On the first Easter morning, when the tomb was empty and Mary had run to tell them the news, who was it who raced – literally had a race – to the tomb? 

Simon Peter and John. 

The same guys as at the start of his ministry. 

Bad news. 

Because either they weren't seeing it or maybe they were just slow, 

but they missed the prayer at the start of Jesus's ministry 

and they missed seeing the angels at the end of it. 

20:9-10 says: for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

I don't want to dump on the Y chromosome, but come on, fellas. 

No wonder we miss all the stuff we've never seen before.

The author, Neal Stephenson, wrote a story about men working at a computer company. 

He says, "Boys only want to know two things: Who's in charge and what are the rules." 

I don't know if that's always true, but it rings a bell.

On the other hand, in my experience of the workplace and the home, women only want to know one thing: What can I do?" 

Again, this isn't a scientific study, but it seems to ring true. 

Is this kinda accurate?

Because I think something similar's going on in this scripture. 

Simon Peter and John are racing toward the facts. 

Tomb? Empty. 

Grave wrappings? Folded. 

Head linen? In the corner. 

Check. Check. Check. 

Nothing to see here, folks. 

Return to your homes.

But Mary. 

Mary, who had come – Luke says with spices and perfumes to cover up the odor of death – but Matthew and John don't say why. 

John just says that she went. Why? Just went.

If my theory is correct, at the very least, Mary had come to pray. 

Mary, whether she was praying on her knees with her hands folded 

or just staring into the distance. 

Mary, through the lenses of her tears, sees angels. 

Mary, through the depth of her tears, 

sees someone who looks like the gardener, 

but you know how tears mess with your eyes. 

Mary, the one who stays, 

Mary, the one who prays, 

Mary, the one who will not leave – 

Mary is the one who sees Jesus.

And even though she must have seen him countless times before, 

she saw him this time, 

like she had never seen him before.


And with a surprise like that, it can only be the work of God.


Easter morning is glorious. 

But for pastors, it's the biggest, busiest, most potentially stressful day of the year. 

Like the other Mary's sister, Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. 

It's the big day, when everybody shows up.


Pro tip: If you see someone and you're not sure, don't say, "Are you new to Dothan?"

Or worse, "I haven't seen you since Christmas." 

Or worse, "I thought you'd died."

Epic fails.

Just say, "Hi, I'm [insert name here]. It's great to see you."

You want Easter all to be absolutely perfect. 

You want the technology to work seamlessly. 

You want the choir hitting their cues and reaching their high notes. 

You want the ushers ushing like they've never ushed before. 

No mistakes in the bulletin. 

No kids knocking over plants. 

No forgetting anyone's name.

"Smiles, everyone. Smiles."

Easter's a lot. 

A few years ago, about 1.3 minutes  left on the clock, right before worship,

I was almost but not quite 

running down the church hall, 

my robe billowing behind me, 

on my way to pray with the choir and keep them on time (no easy feat). 

My dear, dear, friend, Lt. Col. Frank Pettway, US Air Force, Very Retired, 

stepped in front of me, planted his feet to take the charge, and said, 

"Christ is risen!"

Without thinking, and in my very best Han Solo, I replied, "I know."

Talk about a racing man missing the whole point. 

Peter and John got nothing on me.

That Easter, Col. Pettway was my Mary Magdalene.

And he was radiant.

If you – and if I – slow down this morning, early in the day, what could we possibly see this Easter that we've seen before but never, really, seen before? 

What does it mean? 

And what are we gonna do with it?

Race off to a dinner? 

Run out for pictures before the kids mess up their outfits? 

Go home and take a nap? 

Cheer for the Davidic Vols as they take on Goliath Edey and Purdue?

All are possible. 

But this day is a day when God promises to do something, 

something like we've never seen before. 

God promises that every day, 

but THIS day, especially,



is the day to pay attention. 

The day to read scripture a little deeper. 

To think a little harder. 

Or maybe just to stare off into the distance in silence a little longer.

Nobody understands the mechanics of the Resurrection. 

We're wasting our time trying. 

But what we CAN do is what Mary did. 

Tarry there.

Stay with it. 

Feel something you may not have felt before or for a long, long time. 

After all, that IS resurrection – 

the awakening of that which we thought was no more. 

A holy surprise. 

Even if you've seen days like this a million times before, 

there is no other day exactly like this.

God guarantees it.

Mary didn't get to see Jesus because she was so good. 

She wasn't picked because she was extra faithful. 

She was just there. 

Getting away from whatever else.

Mary just showed up.

And God came to meet her.

God came to her. 

I believe God comes to each of us when we stay in the moment just a little longer.

That's just the Jesus way. 

What in the world are we gonna do with that?

Sunday, March 24, 2024

"The Mystery at the Parade"

 “The Mystery at the Parade”

Palm Sunday 2024

First Reading

Zechariah 9:9-12

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you;

    triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

10 He[a] will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

    and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off,

    and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;

    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

I want to give a shout-out to all the Sunday School teachers. 

Especially a word of thanks to the ones trying today, to make Palm Sunday make sense to small children. 

As a little guy attending Sunday School in the West Virginia hills, I loved Palm Sunday. 

It was one day at church when kids got to be kids. 

Everybody got their own palm branch. 

The quicker ones got two, maybe three. 

And then, we got to shake them when the preacher said shake. 

And kinda whenever we could get away with it without our parents getting after us. 

We tiny Presbyterians got to praise Jesus like real boys and girls. 

And I now believe that if that’s the only message kids get on Palm Sunday, that’s enough. 

Jesus wants you to be you. 

Shake what your usher gave you.

The Sunday School teachers tried. God bless them. Mrs. Allen tried to explain Palm Sunday to us. 

The lessons usually focused on miracles. 

Which is weird, because Palm Sunday is the one day Jesus didn’t perform any of his usual miracles. 

So, God bless the Sunday School teachers. 


Was it a miracle Jesus knew there was a donkey in the next town. Really? 

Because in first century Israel, I’d think that was a safe guess. 

Was it a miracle the man would loan Jesus his donkey. Really? 

Because Jewish law required hospitality to strangers. 

Was it a miracle everyone recognized Jesus and praised him. Really? 

Wouldn’t they have read about him on the internet? 

Or heard about him through the grapevine? 

It’s not a large country. 

When I got a little older and started asking questions of my God-forsaken teachers, there were mysteries about Palm Sunday that just didn’t add up. 

It seemed as if we were only getting half the story. 

And… we were. 

Palm Sunday gives us clues. 

And like good detectives, if we follow the trail, 

or, more precisely, if we follow the parade, 

we find that the whole story – is a whole lot more interesting.

The Mystery at The Great Parade

Mark 11:1-11

When they (Jesus and his disciples) were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,


Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Foreigners from up north don’t know Dothan, Alabama. 

They don't know how Dothan literally changed the world. 

With rich soil and fertile minds like George Washington Carver, Dothan is the Holy Land of agricultural science – 

the Mecca, the Jerusalem. 

People should be making pilgrimages, HERE.

Some do. 

In October. 

For the Peanut Festival. 

For the fair. 

For the parade

The Peanut Festival Parade. 

Maybe it’s not the fanciest. 

Certainly not as over-the-top as Macy’s in “New York City.” 

But I’ve been to both, and the Peanut Festival Parade is far more pleasant, definitely warmer, and has way fewer nuts. 

If you know what I mean. 

Dothan’s parade is a “people's parade.”

As a Junior Detective, new to the area, I nosed around the internet to find out more about the Peanut Festival Parade. 

I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you, 

to find out there’s more than one Peanut Festival. 

There’s one in Sylvester, Georgia. 

There’s one in Floresville, Texas.

One in Suffolk, Virginia.

That’s just to name a few. 

And guess what. 

Every one of these festivals – has a parade.

Festival, festival, festival. 

Parade, parade, parade. 

Sounds like someone’s selling cheap knock-offs of the original. 

But to be fair I haven't seen their parades. 

They might be pretty good. 

But how would we know?

We should have a Peanut Parade-off. 

Right here. Dothan would be the perfect place. 

Station the parades around Ross Clark Circle and have them march to the center of town. 

Then we’ll know which one’s best. 

Chamber of Commerce, you're welcome.

But with that many paraders, you’d have to have some serious crowd control at midtown.

Who knows what could happen when that many opposing forces converge? 

Historians would write of The Great Peanut Parade Pandemonium of 2024. 

Eisenhower. Napoleon. Saliba.

This is kind of like what happened on the first Palm Sunday, 2000 years ago. 

Christians talk about, we teach our children about, Jesus and “the people’s” Palm Sunday parade. 

The joyful crowds spontaneously and miraculously lining the streets. 

Waving palm branches. 

Laying their cloaks on the dusty road to make a route for their Messiah. 

Everyone shouting, “Hosanna!” 

Following and singing praises as Jesus makes his way from the outer walls to the inner center, the Temple of God, the beating heart of Jerusalem. 

On his way to Easter. 

On his way for us. 

On the way to us.

That’s the parade we celebrate and sometimes re-enact in church. 

But that parade’s only half the story. 

Because, just a little investigation reveals there was another parade that day, too. 

And this was no “people’s parade.” 

Jesus’s Triumphal Entry parade makes much more sense when you know about the (un)holy parade converging from the opposite side of town.

Christians tend to forget. 

We don’t talk about Parade Number Two, the alt-parade, the unholy one. 

Probably because the Bible doesn’t even talk about it. 

Why not? 

Probably because the Bible was written for people who remembered the Bad Parade all too well, and who had seen it too many times. 

Some things are better forgotten. 

Some things are best left unsaid. 

Especially when the authorities are listening, just waiting for the chance to stage another of their marches.

So, what’s the meaning of these two parades for us? 

Why does it make any difference? 

Because, I think, 2000 years later, we’re still replaying this investigation. 

We still have to choose. 

Which parade do you want to go to? 

Which parade are we marching in? 

Which route is Jesus leading us down, this Palm Sunday?

This is going to take some detective work. 

So first, we need a map. Set the scene.

The Bible tells us Jesus was up north in the region of Galilee, making his way south to Jerusalem. 

Every Passover, good, observant Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, down in Judea, to the Temple, God’s holiest place, for the holiest feast of the year.

So, plug in the GPS and go, right? 

It’s a little more complicated in the First Century. 

First, there were no satellites. 

Second, the highway system was, let’s say, underdeveloped. 

And, third – and this is big – if you’re Jewish, going from Galilee to Judea, you can’t just “Go South.” 

Because look what’s between Galilee and Judea. 


You remember Samaria, the home of the Good Samaritan. 

In the Jewish mind, a “good Samaritan” was a contradiction in terms. 

No such thing. 

Observant Jews went around Samaria rather than setting one foot in that nasty place.

So, Jesus’s journey would have detoured around Samaria. 

To the east. 

That’s a clue. 

East is important.

The eastern path is the red dotted line. 

So Jesus would have likely gone through Beth Shean, Pella, Sukkoth, and Jericho.

The clues add up because Bible tells us Jesus entered Jerusalem after passing through Bethphage and Bethany, also east of Jerusalem. 

We have to zoom in to see them.

Bethphage and Bethany are little tiny towns east of the city. 

But they’re important. 

More clues.

If you were celebrating Passover, you would have wanted to enter the Temple from the Holy Gate, what’s called the Golden Gate, on the east side of the city. 

Another clue.

In Jewish religion, East was the sacred direction. 

East is the direction of the rising sun, where God puts each day in motion. 

The prophet Zechariah, who we read earlier, says in chapter 14, that the Messiah will come from the East after setting his feet on the Mount of Olives. 

See the Mount of Olives just south of Bethphage? 

Even the way Jesus entered town was full of religious importance.

So, putting together the clues, the Palm Sunday “people’s parade” for Jesus, would have entered the city from the holy east, for religious motives.

OK, there’s parade route Number One.

Meanwhile, from the west, the very UNholy west, came Parade Number Two. 

This was NOT a parade of the people. 

This parade would have been led by Pontius Pilate and his Roman legions, coming – 

not to celebrate the Passover festival, but to maintain order

Pilate and his forces always came to keep order – with an iron fist – 

and plenty of crucifixes for anyone who might think of committing treason against the Emperor. 

This parade – if you can call it a parade – would have come from the west, from Caesarea.

Pilate was the governor of Judea. 

Mainly an absentee landlord. 

Like most wealthy Roman appointees assigned jobs as political favors or political punishment, he despised the people over whom he got stuck dominating. 

Like most wealthy Roman yes-men, he had or was given a palatial home on the seaside. 

At Caesarea – note the name, Caesar-ea. 

Caesarea Maritima. 

Caesarea By-the-sea. 

Here are the remains of Pilate’s palace. 

Note the swimming pool with ocean view. 

It’s a fixer-upper. 

But in its heyday, it was something.

And, like all wealthy Roman appointees who dared not displease the imperial overlords, every crowded religious holiday, Passover being the biggest, Pilate would march his troops into Jerusalem and establish crowd control. 

With extreme prejudice.

So, while faithful Jews like Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east, Pilate would have marched his parade of troops from the unholy west, straight through the front gates of the city, the way any self-admiring dictator would naturally go. 

So now we get to the collision course. 

Think about it. 

If you were a Roman Emperor, or a representative of the Empire, riding into a city, in full military regalia, astride a massive stallion draped in tiger skin, surrounded by your troops, you’d look pretty darn impressive. 

Pretty darn pretentious, too. 

That’s what the oppressed, suppressed, distressed subjects in Judea thought. 

Who is this sniveling little man who dresses up like a god and who calls himself “Lord?” even, “The Son of God?”

And if you were a royal, and if you saw, or heard reports that people had seen, a peasant, entering town through the back door, on a borrowed donkey, welcomed with waving palms and hailed by your subjects as the true Lord, the true Son of God, might you think you were being made fun of? 

Being mocked? 

Being defied? 

Would you think, treason? 

The one, crucifiable offense?

So, two parades in Jerusalem that Palm Sunday.

One parade – an arrogant, expensive show of imperial force. An exercise in intimidation. 

Led by an earthly ruler. 

Staged by a tyrant.

And another parade – a parade of the people. 

Led by a man of the people. 

A man whom all the clues added up to his being maybe, maybe THE true liberator, the one prophesied, the one prayed for – for centuries. 

The one to be the eternal ruler, the Savior, the Messiah.

Two very different parades. 

How could there not be a collision? 

On the streets? 

In the heart? 

In the mind of the holy city? 

A head-on crash of not just parades, but of souls?

For me, once I have more clues about Palm Sunday, the story starts to add up. 

Knowing these things doesn’t solve the mystery, but it does make it make a little more sense. 

But even Nancy Drew couldn’t solve The Mystery At The Parade. 

Because it’s not that kind of mystery. 

The case is never closed. 

The questions are always with us. 

Two parades. 

Which one do you want to go to? 

Which one are we marching in? 

Where does the route of Jesus lead us? This Palm Sunday?

There are SO many parades. 

Not just two. 

Not just one for every festival. 

Every day, we’re invited – lured? – into the next one that comes along. 

There are parades of distraction. 

The ones that fill our time and take up space in our brains. 

Parades whose only purpose is to distract us, and harvest information from us. 

Looking at you, phone apps.

There are parades of half-stories and full-blown lies. 

Bandwagons that are easy to jump on because that’s where everybody else is headed. 

Looking at you, cable news.

There are parades of politics, parades of pleasure, parades of propaganda. 

Even religious parades where court jesters dress like kings, and live like them, too.

The mystery that’ll never be solved is why we like these parades so much. 

What in us likes the brute force of getting in line and being ordered about, knowingly or not?

But there are other parades, too. 

Pop-up parades that catch us up and draw us in. 



When we see someone doing acts of kindness, someone standing up for justice, someone just walking humbly with their God, as in Micah 6:8. 

When we see these things or when we do these things, and when we think, “That’s how I want to be.” 

“That’s good, and gentle, and faithful.” 

“That’s right.” 

“That’s true.” 

“That’s going to be MY route.”

Why do these parades attract us? 

Why were so many attracted to Jesus’s parade on the far side of town? 

The quiet side. 

The holy side. 

I don’t know why, they’re just something we can’t turn away from. 

Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit, whispering in sighs too deep for words. 

When Jesus’s parade comes by, and when you know it, you don’t have to explain it. 

You follow the clues, instead of following the crowd. 

Can you have a parade of one? 

That’s another mystery. 

But all parades have to start somewhere.





Sylvester GA Peanut Festival Parade


Suffolk VA Peanut Festival


Brooklet, GA Festival Parade


Floresville, TX Festival Parade