April 2014

An English clergyman in the 16th & 17th centuries by the name of John Donne wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the English language. One of them rings especially true to the heart of today’s message. He wrote this (perhaps you’ve heard portions of it in other venues):

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a book and the band Metallica wrote a song with the title being what the ending of that poem says – “for whom the bell tolls.” When Donne wrote about the tolling of the bells he was referring to funeral bells. In saying that “it tolls for thee,” Donne was expressing a couple of things: that when funeral bells were heard it was a reminder that we are all nearer to our own death each day; and he was saying what some of us believe to be true about the human family– that all people are socially and spiritually interconnected. That is, when someone dies, a part of all of us dies. If you have lost a loved one, you certainly have certainly felt this reality. It might be seemingly apparent that when a bell tolls it is for the one who is deceased, but make no mistake that it tolls for all of us.

The stone rolled away... (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

The stone rolled away… (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

So what about the question that our text raises: “For Whom the Stone Rolls”? It might seem apparent just from thinking about it, that the stone rolling away is how Jesus could escape the tomb. It’s the opening of the tomb so he could get out, we tend to think, right? In fact if you read the account in Mark, Luke, and John, there would be no reason to necessarily think otherwise. But Matthew tells us something that the others don’t – Matthew tells us that the Marys witnessed the stone being rolled away themselves. Matthew tells us, then, that the stone rolls not for Jesus, because he was already out, but for Mary Magdalene, for the other Mary, and then, by extension, for you and for me. The stone rolls, church, for us that we can see that death does not have the final word, that death has lost its sting, that death cannot contain Life; that we may see that Jesus is alive once again and forevermore!

The bells that tolled, according to John Donne, were a sign to those who heard that we are all mortal and meet the same end known as death; that when one dies a part of all of us dies. The stone that rolled, according to St. Matthew, was a sign to those who witness it that the end known as death is not, in fact, the end; but that when this One is made alive again, a part of all of us becomes alive again, and that all who believe and trust this Resurrected Lord will know of the same resurrection that Jesus himself experienced nearly 2,000 years ago! Church that is good news! That is Easter! The stone rolls for you and me! So know that it is fine to ask for whom the stone rolls; it rolls for thee! And when we hear the sound of the stone rolling, it sings a beautiful harmony in our ears that the chief end that draws nearer to us is not death, but resurrection!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

I’m going to show you what is unquestionably, indisputably, and with no near rival, the greatest movie clip of all time. Are you ready? Here it goes:

“I’m the wild man, Jon Favreau! It’s me!” Doesn’t seeing that want to make you chant, “RUDY! RUDY! RUDY! RUDY!” as I preach today? No?

As the movie fades out with Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger being hoisted up onto the shoulders of his teammates and taken into the locker room, we’re told, “Since 1975, no other Notre Dame player has been carried off the field.”

Could there be any more glorious moment for Rudy than being lifted up and carried off the field? There could be no greater height, no higher exaltation of a boy who had dreamed his whole life of playing football for Notre Dame than being lifted up and carried off the field in such a fashion. He had reached his goal; this was the apex of his life.

I’m going to name a few ideas and I want you to hear the words, let them sink in, and see what images come to your mind when you hear them:

  • Exalted
  • Honored
  • Glorified
  • Lifted up
  • The hour has come

What images come to your mind? Something like Rudy being hoisted and carried off the field in celebration? Something of praise and bowing before a powerful monarch? The enthronement of a king or a queen with all the images of beauty – gold, crown jewels, robes, crown? Likely these are the sorts of images that enter our minds and we get goose bumps because of the grandeur of it all, our hearts race with excitement, and there’s a sort of ecstasy about just how awesome this moment is!

The thing is that while we have these same words in John’s record (12:20-36) of this interaction with Jesus – exalted, honored, glorified, lifted up, the hour has come – it somehow lacks the grandiose excitement that we might expect from such talk. In fact, we get exactly the opposite! Perhaps we could expect some nervous jitters on the eve of some great occasion, like a wedding celebration, a championship game, something like an inauguration or an enthronement ceremony. But what Jesus expresses is of another quality altogether!

He says, “Now my soul is troubled.” Troubled, Jesus? Yes, “troubled!” The Word made flesh, the one turned water into wine, who fed multitudes, who opened blind eyes and raised Lazarus to life: he was troubled. I mean deeply troubled, troubled right down in his heart.

Let me ask you: Is your picture of God big enough for that? That Jesus is really and deeply troubled that he’s about to die? Or (as NT Wright once asked), “When God speaks, do you just think it’s thundering?”

Jesus is troubled because in his exaltation, his enthronement, his being glorified, his “being lifted up” he knows that it is not like being carried off the field at a football game in celebration; he knows that it will not be by the sitting on a throne and being a given a crown of gold, but of thorns that he is enthroned as king; he knows that he will not be receiving a royal robe, but will be mocked with a false robe and then stripped naked of it in an attempt to shame him; he knows that the cries that said two days ago, “Hosanna! This is our King!” will be exchanged for a sign from the empire that says, “This is what we do to kings! Here is your King!”

Yes, we know that Friday is not the end of the story – Thanks be to God! But the exaltation, the “being lifted up” is about the torturous enthronement of Jesus on the cross. And John, so that we wouldn’t miss Jesus’ point, lets us know that when Jesus says ‘lifted up,’ he is not talking about the ascension but is rather, as verse 33, tells us: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

Jesus had said, “Now is the judgment of this world! Now the world’s ruler is going to be thrown out!” That was the sort of talk people were expecting. That’s what you expected to hear from a would-be Messiah. It sounds like the beginning of the battle cry and so would begin this ‘kingdom’ Jesus had been talking about. The next thing you knew, he’d be telling you to sharpen your sword and help him attack the Roman soldiers throughout Jerusalem.

But wait! Jesus wasn’t that sort of Messiah. He came to bring a victory alright, but the victory would come through a very peculiar and unexpected means. It would come through his being ‘lifted up,’ exalted – on a pole, like the serpent in the wilderness in the book of Numbers, which was the source of healing and deliverance from the poison that had infiltrated the people of God.

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God - see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God – see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

Through an exaltation on a Roman cross: that’s how the world would be rescued. However odd that is to us, and really it should be so long as we’re thinking in worldly paradigms, that’s how God, the true God, the God of astonishing, generous love, would be glorified. Not through swords. But through self-sacrificial love. That is how Jesus glorifies God and is glorified by God.

And so the invitation goes to his followers to embody this self-sacrificial love, to know that being exalted is NOT about getting a gold crown and (…this one might get me in trouble…) NOT about getting a ‘mansion over the hilltop.’ The glory of God is displayed when we take up the cross. If that ‘troubles’ you deeply, then know this: you’re in good company. So let us have the faith and hope that believes that God will raise us on the other side of the cross just as he raised Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is with both great sadness and tremendous excitement that I share the news that was broke Sunday that I am projected to move from Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in Camden, Tennessee to become the Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.

It was only two years ago that my family packed up our stuff in Nicholasville, Kentucky to move to Camden, where we were welcomed by a remarkably hospitable community of people at these two loving churches. Liberty & Post Oak have undergone several leadership transitions in the last few years. What is a true testament to the health and resilience of these congregations is that amidst these transitions, Liberty & Post Oak have experienced growth in worship attendance, professions of faith in Christ, and increased participation in mission efforts and lay leadership, including young people who are often taking the lead in exciting new ways. It is truly difficult to leave these growing congregations when things are moving forward. But I want to commend Bishop Bill McAlilly (see his recent post about pastoral appointment announcements here) and the cabinet for identifying and sending a quality pastor here in Rev. Travis Penney, who has served as the pastor at Big Springs UMC in Hardeman County the last four years. Travis is young, energetic and eager to lead Liberty & Post Oak as they turn the page from this short chapter I have shared with them. Just as my predecessor did a great job of making my entry into this appointment quite seamless, I will do my best to do the same in working with Travis to make this transition a healthy and fruitful one!

While I will greatly miss these great folks in Camden, I am also thrilled for the opportunity to take on a new role by joining the great work that the people at First UMC in Jackson are doing by serving as their Associate Pastor. First Church is located in downtown Jackson and has recently added a campus at Andrews Chapel, which is situated just a few miles west of the downtown campus. With there being two campuses, I will still be able to preach on a weekly/regular basis and lead in worship, which is one of the most fulfilling parts of my ministry. I will also have pastoral care responsibilities, which is one of my strongest spiritual gifts, including leading Stephen Ministry. In addition, I will have opportunities once or twice per week to lead in Christian formation and discipleship by teaching classes. To go along with this, I will get to work with the Senior Pastor, Rev. Dan Camp, who is a great leader from whom I will have much to learn. One of the areas where I feel confident I will grow in this context will be in terms of administration.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of what all is going on at FUMC and I am very eager learn more of how I can and will be co-laboring with them and taking part in the great kingdom work being done in their midst! See you in June, Jackson!

A look inside the beautiful sanctuary at Jackson FUMC! (photo credit: jacksonfumc.org/about/wedding_policies)

A look inside the beautiful sanctuary at Jackson FUMC! (photo credit: jacksonfumc.org/about/wedding_policies)