Sunday’s sermon: The Flip Side of the Tomb

empty tomb

Texts used – Psalm 118:14-29; Acts 5:17-32




  • In 1942, DC Comic introduced an incredible supervillain into the Batman universe: Harvey Dent, more notoriously known as Two-Face.[1]
    • Former upstanding district attorney
    • Burned by acid when dastardly mob boss throws chemicals on him during a courtroom trial → At first sight of his reflection Harvey Dent is driven mad, and a supervillain is born.
      • Becomes obsessed with good vs. evil → And to make the decision about whether to follow the good path or the evil path with each and every decision, Two-Face utilizes what used to be his good luck charm: a two-headed coin.
        • One side = pristine and unmarred
        • Other side = damaged by the same acid that turned Harvey Dent into Two-Face
        • Constantly flipping the coin sort of like a nervous tick – when it comes to decision time: good side = perform an act of charity/goodness, ruined side = perform act of evil/lawlessness
      • With Two-Face, it all comes down to which side of the coin is visible.
  • Today = first Sunday after Easter
    • Easter = more than just a day in the liturgical life of the church → Easter = a whole season (just like Lent and Christmas)[2]
      • Eastertide = season that stretches 7 weeks (50 days) starting with Easter itself and going up to Pentecost
      • Evidenced by continued white paraments and candles
      • Peppered with Scripture readings throughout the lectionary of Jesus’ many appearances among the disciples after his resurrection → many of these appearance stories are feel-good Gospel stories
        • Luke: Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus[3]
        • Matthew: giving the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[4]
        • John: Jesus’ interaction with Thomas and his doubt[5], breakfast encounter on the beach[6], special mandate for Peter to “feed my sheep”[7]
        • All Scripture stories that leave us feeling pretty warmed in our hearts about what came next for the disciples post-resurrection, right?
    • But then we come across today’s Scripture reading … the other side of the coin (the flip side of the tomb, if you will) – the side that illustrates that things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so easy. Things in post-resurrection were not so hunky dory. Things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so safe and tame and tolerant as some of our other Scripture readings might portray.
  • Acts passage starts off with the high priest and his allies, the Sadducees
    • Distinction reminder:
      • High priest = Caiaphas, the one who asked Pilate to sentence Jesus to death
      • Pharisees and Sadducees
        • Similarities
          • Both religious sects within Judaism that included learned men with political power
          • Both had seats on the Sanhedrin (70-member Jewish council that made all the religious legal decisions for the people of Israel)
            • Sadducees held more seats
        • Differences
          • Sadducees socially more aristocratic and elite (more wealthy, held more powerful positions, friendlier/more accommodating to the Romans) ⟷ Pharisees represented common working people more (had the respect of the people but resisted Roman occupation/assimilation) → If you think about British parliament as an illustration, the Sadducees would have been more like the House of Lords while the Pharisees would have been more like the House of Commons.
          • Sadducees’ power = centered in the Temple (chief priests & high priest were always Sadducees) ⟷ Pharisees’ power = control of the synagogues → Because of this, the Sadducees ceased to exist as a sect after the 2nd destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE while the Pharisees continued to maintain power in the synagogues which survived.
          • Sadducees = more conservative and strict with their beliefs and their literal interpretation of Hebrew scripture than the Pharisees
    • So while the two groups shared power and both worked together to rid themselves of that troublesome Jesus, there was no love loss between these two groups. And yet in our New Testament Scripture for this morning, once again, they’re forced to work together to try to quell the spread of Jesus’ teaching through his disciples. – text: The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison.[8] → This collaboration alone should tell us just how seriously they were taking this situation.
      • Not the first time the religious leaders had harassed and arrested Jesus’ followers since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (previously questioned and temporarily jailed Peter and John), but it is the first time the disciples are all arrested en masse
  • Disciples’ incarceration doesn’t last long
    • Angel of God releases them in the middle of the night → Now, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that the disciples would want to get as far away from those who had arrested them as possible. You know, get out of town … find somewhere to lie low for a while … let things blow over for a bit before resurfacing. But … NOPE! – text: The angel told them, “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach.[9]
      • Shows dedication
      • Shows audacity
      • Shows resolve
    • Next part of our NT story reads a little bit like a comedy skit
      • Unaware of the disciples’ escape, the high priest convenes the Council (the Sanhedrin) and calls for the prisoners to be brought before them
      • Guards go to the cells to let them out … and they’re not there!
      • Guards return to the Council and report their findings (or, rather, lack of findings) – text: “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!”
      • of the temple guard and high priest are “baffled and wondering what happened” (can’t you just see them standing around scratching their heads?!) → And then, as they’re standing there wondering what the heck happened, someone comes running in and says, “Hey! You know those guys you arrested yesterday? Well, they’re out there in the temple teaching the people!”
      • Guards (along with capt.) go out into the temple courtyard and bring the disciples back before the Council again BUT – text: They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them.[10] → I mean, come on … this whole scenario is a little bit comical, right?
  • But once the disciples are brought back, things get serious. – text: The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”[11] → sobering accusation, to be sure, considering these men make up the council that just sealed Jesus’ death
    • Disciples response is one of courage and conviction: Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”[12] → Imagine how intimidating this situation must have been for the disciples! There the 12 of them stand facing 70 powerful men who had just recently killed their beloved teacher and friend, and they were standing there not in deference or meekness but in bold and tenacious defiance declaring the good news of Christ’s resurrection after death.
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s guilt in Jesus’ death
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s failure in their attempt to silence Jesus and his message
      • Declaring their intention to continue spreading that message despite the Sanhedrin’s blatant warnings and threats (“in no uncertain terms”)
      • And it is in this defiance, in this bold declaration, in this stirring conviction that we find the flip side of the tomb – not the easy-going, comfortable post-resurrection appearances of a Risen Savior but the challenge and accusation and persecution that awaited all those who followed Christ’s ascension charge: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[13]
        • Scholar: Today’s text, filled with the post-resurrection realities, of which we are all too familiar in our daily life, is terribly sobering. A life of faith, the author reminds us, holds the promise of persecution in tension with the promise of eternal life.[14]
        • I can’t help but think that the disciples may have had the strains of our psalm today running through their minds and their hearts as they stood there before that council. à reminder: psalms were used in worship (some as songs, some as readings) – words would have been familiar (sort of like you have your favorite hymns and Scripture passages that you remember)
          • Ps 118: The LORD was my strength and protection; he was my saving help! … I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the LORD has done. … I thank you because you answered me, because you were my saving help. The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight! This is the day the LORD acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it![15]
  • And it’s true, isn’t it? Those twelve disciples nearly two millennia ago certainly weren’t alone in having those in power trying to stop the good news of the Christ’s resurrection and grace from spreading, were they? Throughout the centuries, time and time again, there have been those who have tried to silence the word of God. There are plenty of places in the world today where it is dangerous to declare your Christian faith – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran being the top ten.[16] And even if it’s not physically dangerous, we cannot deny that we live in a culture in which people sometimes look down on our faith either because of their preconceived notions of what a “Christian” looks like and believes or because they find faith to an outdated concept. In times like that, it can be intimidating to share our faith – to declare the good news that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that God loves us and cares for us; that through God’s love, we find forgiveness and wholeness and hope. But as we continue through this Easter season, remembering the joy and light and promise that we proclaimed just a week ago – “Christ IS risen! He IS risen indeed!” – let us also remember the courage and determination of the disciples this morning.
    • Scholar: When we embrace the Easter miracle, we commit ourselves to embrace all that comes after it: joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion, celebration and persecution. … The apostles got in trouble for doing two things: proclaiming the good news and preaching truth. What wonderful, and holy, disruption![17] Go. Be disruptive. Amen.


[2] Mark D. Roberts. “The Season of Easter” from Patheos,

[3] Lk 24:13-35.

[4] Mt 28:19.

[5] Jn 20:24-29.

[6] Jn 21:1-14.

[7] Jn 21:15-19.

[8] Acts 5:17-18.

[9] Acts 5:19b-21a.

[10] Acts 5:26b.

[11] Acts 5:27-28.

[12] Acts 5:29-32.

[13] Acts 1:8.

[14] Cathy Caldwell Hoop. “Second Sunday of Easter – Acts 5:27-32, Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World” in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 202-203.

[15] Ps 118:14, 17, 21-24.

[16] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. “The Top 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus” from Christianity Today, Posted Jan. 10, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2019.

[17] Hoop, 203.

Easter sermon: God Moves … Out of the Tomb

Empty tomb

Texts used – Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12

  • Answer a question for me, all (be honest!): Who had some chocolate on this beautiful Easter morning? Or, if you haven’t had it yet, who has some chocolate waiting at home for you?
    • Probably one of the biggest names in chocolate around the world and certainly the biggest name in American chocolate: Milton Hershey[1]
      • Born in Pennsylvania in 1857
      • Dropped out of school at age 13
      • Apprenticed with a master confectioner (candy maker) in Lancaster, PA at age 14
      • First attempt at opening his own candy shop @ age 18 (Philadelphia, PA) = failed after 5 yrs.
      • Spent time working for another candy maker in Denver
      • 2nd attempt at opening his own candy shop (Chicago) = failed
      • 3rd attempt at opening his own candy shop (NYC) = failed
      • 1883: founded the Lancaster Caramel Company (back in PA) → success at last!
      • 1893: got an up-close introduction to chocolate-making at World’s Columbian Exposition → decided to formulate a way to mass-produce milk chocolate (delicacy at the time – largely done only by the Swiss and only by hand)
      • 1900: sold Lancaster Caramel Company for $1 million (nearly $30 million by today’s standards!)
      • 1903: started building a massive and modern candy-making factory in Derry Church, PA → opened 2 yrs. later … and the rest, as they say, is sweet, sweet history.
    • If Milton Hershey had allowed his path to be determined by expectations and “how it’s always been before” (failed candy shop after failed candy shop after failed candy shop), those Easter baskets … the candy aisle … chocolate-making as we know it today would be vastly different. But Milton Hershey kept hoping that something new and different could happen. He hoped through setbacks. He hoped through outright failures. He hoped and hoped and hoped … until it happened.
  • So friends, we’re here this morning to celebrate Easter – the empty tomb, the sparkly strangers bearing the good news, and the risen Christ.
    • Sermon series throughout Lent: God on the Move
      • How Christ moved throughout his ministry (physically and through teachings/parables)
      • How God moved throughout Scripture
      • Ways that God moves us to action
      • Today’s capstone = most important movement of all: God Moves … Out of the Tomb → This is it. This is the point. All of the other movement culminates in this. This is the reason for the movements that Christ made throughout his ministry. This is the pivotal moment to which all the movement in Scripture has been pointing. This is jumping off point for all of our movements of faith. Without this movement, we would not be sitting here today. And yet none of these are things that were expected. This movement was completely out of the blue – a whole new thing. And it hinged on one, effervescent, pie-in-the-sky, never-been-done-before thing: hope.
  • Love this version of the resurrection from Luke’s gospel because it’s so full of obvious shock and surprise
    • Begins with women bringing “fragrant spices” to the tomb = “business as usual” → The women were coming to the tomb that morning to anoint the body of their beloved teacher and friend. In that time and culture, it was the women’s job to prepare bodies for burial which included anointing with a number of different oils and spices, some for religious purposes, some for embalming purposes. The spikenard that we talked about a few weeks ago was one of those oils. Now, surely, this would have already been done before Jesus was placed in the tomb, so Biblical scholars aren’t entirely sure why the women felt the need to anoint the body again.
      • Maybe they just wanted to be near Jesus one more time (time to say goodbye) → spices were a plausible excuse if they were stopped by the Pharisees or the Romans
      • Maybe they wanted to further honor Jesus → anointing him again as a way of expressing their grief and devotion
    • Arrival at the tomb is anything but “business as usual”
      • Stone inexplicably rolled away
      • Jesus’ body = gone
      • Sudden and unexplainable appearance of unexpected strangers bearing the most baffling and miraculous news of all – text: [The women] didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[2] → Imagine what must have gone through the women’s minds at that point! It’s hard for us to grasp today, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve had the privilege of knowing the end of the story since the beginning. Even as we embarked on this Lenten journey – as we do every year – we know that the culmination is Easter: white paraments, celebratory flowers, an empty tomb, and the proclamation, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We are so familiar with the story that I think the shock of it is often lost on us. But to those women that morning, it was a whole new thing!
        • Jessica LaGrone captures some of that shock and amazement: The women arrived to see a stone that had rolled and a world that had changed, even though they didn’t know it yet. They expected to encounter a continuation of the message of grief and sympathy that had begun on Friday; instead they found Sunday’s message of congratulations and a Savior who would not be contained to one location.[3]
      • Reason for the passage from Is this morning → God declaring through the prophet Isaiah that God was going to do a new thing and that that new thing would be sacred and glorious and hope-filled – text: Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I’m creating, because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy and her people as a source of gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad about my people. No one will ever hear the sound of weeping or crying in it again.[4]
    • Shock and surprise of Luke’s account extends outward from there – text: When [the women] returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.[5] → That’s right, y’all! The first evangelists … the first Christian preachers to deliver the good news of a risen Savior … were women. And the men didn’t believe them.
      • 2 powerful elements to this part of the story
        • First: women’s action → We’ve spent Lent talking about how God moves us to action, and here it is right before us in black and white. These women heard the good news of resurrection, and they went out to share it. They moved. They shared. Through those sparkly strangers, God called them to go and do, and that is exactly what they did. God in Jesus Christ moved out of the tomb that morning, and thankfully, so did the women. Because that movement sent the word out.
        • Second: Peter’s reaction = powerful because it is both immediate and unresolved → Scripture says the apostles didn’t believe the women … and yet Peter is curious enough to run to the tomb and check it himself. When he does, he finds it empty with nothing but the used linen burial wrappings lying on the floor. And all that we get from Luke for a conclusion is, “Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.” There is no period on the end of this story. There is only an ellipsis … “dot dot dot” … an open space for whatever comes next.
  • And friends, that is where we come in this morning. We are a part of that ellipsis. We are a continuation of that resurrection story – of the shock and surprise, of the good news, of the movement that defies expectations, and above all, of the hope that spurs that movement. Because that is indeed what we are called to do: defy expectations with radical, hope-filled abandon.
    • Sometimes expectations can be a good thing → classroom management tactic: setting clear expectations so your students have something to strive for (parents, too!)
    • Flip side: expectations can fall short of our actual potential and hold us back
      • Expectations placed on us by others
      • Expectations that we place on ourselves
      • Expectations that come from past experiences
      • Expectations that come from things we have learned OR lack of learning
      • Expectations based on misunderstanding and prejudice
      • Expectations based on flawed or incomplete picture of who we really are
    • Everyone’s been underestimated at some point in their lives, right? Someone at some point in your life thought you couldn’t do something for some reason or another. Maybe it was a big thing. Maybe it was a small thing. Maybe you were the someone who thought you couldn’t do something. But through the miracle and audacity and movement of the empty tomb, God has said definitively, “Expectations no longer apply. Forget what you thought you knew. Forget what you thought could happen. Forget what you assumed or supposed or even what you believed what possible because I am doing a new thing. And I am doing that new thing through you. Hope abounds. Hallelujah!”
      • Scholar: Through the presence of an empty tomb, God calls on people to act. Easter morning is God’s clearest statement that the world is different and that those who follow in the pathway of the risen Lord are called to live differently. The good news is not something to observe; it is something that demands our response.[6]
        • Reason we say “Christ IS risen! He IS risen indeed!” instead of “Christ was risen! He was risen indeed!” → power and hope of resurrection are ongoing, and so is our participation in it
      • Scene from Polly[7] (“Wonderful World of Disney” made for TV movie – adaptation of the original Pollyanna story with twist of being set in the segregated south in 1950s → Polly brings people together to tear down barriers of segregation) → scene where Polly finds Miss Snow picking out her coffin
        • “That itched like crazy, didn’t it? That means you’re alive, and I want you to act like it!”
        • Miss Snow’s expectation was aging meant inertia and death à Polly’s call was to action and life
      • LaGrone: Wherever you are feeling stuck or trapped, wherever your past has told you that you will never change, wherever you encounter a world that seems to be lost in pain and grief – you will find a moving Savior. Today is a day of congratulation for God’s people. For new locations and second chances. For new hopes and dreams. … [Jesus] is alive and moving in our world and our lives today. Hallelujah![8]“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Amen.



Danny Boyle (British film director, producer, screenwriter): It’s a good place when all you have is hope and not expectations.


[2] Lk 24:4-6a.

[3] Jessica LaGrone. “Lenten Series: God on the Move – Lent 7: God Moves … Out of the Tomb” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 201.

[4] Is 65:17-19.

[5] Lk 24:9-12.

[6] Pendleton B. Perry. “Luke 24:1-12 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 346.

[7] Polly. Released by Walt Disney Television, Nov. 12, 1989.

[8] LaGrone, 203.

Palm Sunday: Journeying to the Cross

journey to the cross

As we’ve been going through Lent with our God on the Move series, we’ve come to the place of God moving toward the cross. So for our service on Palm/Passion Sunday, we read through a number of Scriptures taking us from Jesus’ predictions of what was to come straight up to the cusp of Maundy Thursday with the preparations for the Passover meal. And we paired those readings with hymns. So instead of a sermon, here’s our service:


Letting God In
                During this time, we invite you to prepare your heart and your mind for worship. We want you to be able to use this quiet time to settle your thoughts, set aside any distractions that may be troubling you, and focus your whole self on God. Open your heart, your mind, and your spirit, and let God into your life.

Centering Prayer: We walk with you, Crucified Christ.
As you breathe in, pray, “We walk with you.”
As you breathe out, pray, “Crucified Christ.”

* Gathering Hymn – Come into God’s Presence (verses 2-4)

* Opening Praise
One: This is the day that the Lord has made.
Many: Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
One: The day is filled with God’s presence.
Many: The Holy Spirit’s breath permeates every moment.
One: God’s grace fills each experience.
Many: God’s promises move us toward hope.
One: Through Christ’s faithfulness, we know God’s great faithfulness.
Many: Through Christ’s grace, we know God’s unending grace.
ALL: Through Christ’s love, we know God’s deep love.

Lenten Reading

* Opening Hymn – Be Still and Know That I Am God (sing through 3 times)

* Joining in Prayer
                 Have mercy on us, O God. Where despair lingers, grant us hope. Where fear threatens, grant us comfort. Where strength fails, give us courage. Where faithfulness wanes, grant us endurance. Where sin invades, grant us forgiveness. Shine upon us with your love and grace, O God. Strengthen us with your Holy Spirit, that we may be ever wakeful, ever alert – as we worship, as we live, and as we follow where you lead. (Please take a moment for personal reflection and confession.)
In Christ’s blessed name, we pray.

* God’s Promise of Grace

Passing of the Peace

* Song of Peace: Come and Fill Our Hearts with Your Peace (sing through 3 times)


Jerusalem is Coming
                Scripture readings
Luke 9:18-22
Luke 9:44-45
Luke 18:31-33
Hymn – Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley

Coming into Jerusalem
                Scripture reading – Luke 19:28-40
Hymn – Prepare the Way, O Zion

Lesson from the Fig Tree
                Scripture – Luke 21:29-38
Hymn – Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said

Prayers of the People
Sharing our lives in prayer
Silent Prayer
Pastoral Prayer
Lord’s Prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Plotting to Kill Christ
                Scripture – Luke 22:1-6
Hymn – O How He Loves You and Me

Preparing for the Passover
                Scripture – Luke 22:7-13
Hymn – An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare


* Hymn of Response – Praise to God the Father
* Prayer of Dedication



* Charge & Benediction

* Sending Hymn – Go with Us, Lord

Sunday’s sermon: God Moves Us … to Empty Ourselves

poured out

Texts used – John 12:1-8; Philippians 3:4b-14

  • Question: How many of you have heard of Marie Kondo?
    • Kondo (aka – Konmari): Japanese organizational consultant
    • Written 4 best-selling books
    • Show on Netflix: “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” (started Jan. 1, 2019)
    • KonMari Method = all about decluttering → go through your house room by room, spend time touching/holding every item in that room (first clothes, then books, then papers, then miscellaneous items, and sentimental items last), keep only those things that speak to your heart – those things that “spark joy”
    • Popularity in the U.S. has exploded in the last 3 months → her name has even become an action: “I Marie Kondo-ed my shoe collection,” or “I Marie Kondo-ed my bookshelf”
    • From her website: “People around the world have been drawn to this philosophy not only due to its effectiveness, but also because it places great importance on being mindful, introspective and forward-looking.”[1]
  • Now, Marie Kondo falls into a wider trend that has been growing momentum in this country for a number of years – that of minimalism: “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”[2] It’s an emptying out of sorts. This whole idea of minimalism is about emptying out – emptying out your home and your schedule and your life of all those things that clutter it up and keep you from living and being your best self.
  • Lenten sermon series: God on the Move
    • So far – all been ways God moves
      • Week 1: God moved into the desert and, by extension, intentionally into the human experience
      • Week 2: God moved past all the obstacles in Christ’s ministry with compassion and mercy, not power and force
      • Week 3: God moves toward us again and again in grace, not slowly and hesitantly but with purpose and passion
    • This week = different → talking about one of the ways that God moves us to action: the action of emptying ourselves of all those things that distract us to make room for God
  • See this dramatically played out in Gospel story this morning
    • Basic story: Jesus and his disciples stop in Bethany on their way to Jerusalem (stop out of desire to see their friends, not out of necessity: only about 1.5 miles from one to the other = basically like stopping in Bloomington on your way to Minneapolis) → once again, Martha is serving the meal → after they sit down to eat, Mary comes in and anoints Jesus’ feet with almost a pound of “very expensive perfume”[3] → Judas berates Mary for not selling such a treasure and giving the money to the poor → Jesus confronts Judas with stark reality: “Leave her alone. This perfume was used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”[4]
    • A couple of cultural scandals we need to understand about this encounter between Mary, Jesus, and Judas → pertain to the oil itself
      • Scandal #1: the oil itself → First, understand what this stuff is [WALK AROUND WITH SPIKENARD SO PEOPLE CAN SMELL IT]
        • “Pure nard” = spikenard: oil made from the roots of a plant that only grows in the Himalayas of China, Tibet, and Nepal → something that wasn’t readily available, something the Israelites would have had to trade for
        • Oil = very pungent and very distinctive scent → And spikenard, or pure nard, was an oil that was used by the Israelites primarily for both anointing the dead and dying and the anointing of kings.
          • Jessica LaGrone: Mary’s anointing carried with it the scent of brokenness and death but also ironically the scent of power, a king coming into his kingship.[5] → Think about it for a minute. Scent memories are incredibly powerful things, more powerful than memories tied to any of our other senses.
            • Physiological reason for this: Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why [scent], more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.[6] → So in the midst of this dinner, all those present would have been overwhelmed with this powerful scent – one that would have brought back memories of death and grieving. (Not exactly a polite or desirable dinner party theme.)
      • Scandal #2: the gravity of the expense of the oil
        • Text (Judas): “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” → A year’s wages … a year’s wages. And we have to remember that Mary is a woman – a woman in a society in which women were not allowed to work. Ever. Period. Widows had to be taken in by relatives or beg on the street. We don’t know whether or not Mary was married, but if she wasn’t, then she was likely living in her brother Lazarus’ home. He was providing for her, so it was a year’s worth of his wages that she had just dumped all over Jesus’ feet.
          • Generally the kind of offering that we assume Jesus would scoff at or even condemn → cannot argue that it feels extravagant … frivolous … wasteful
          • Mark Achtemeier: Mary’s discipleship is of a wholly impractical and [lavish] sort. Judas’s critique rings true: surely Mary could have found a more practical and measured stewardship of a year’s wages than this over-the-top extravagance poured out upon Jesus; yet Mary is the one Jesus commends. It is difficult to justify Mary’s action on practical grounds. In her defense, however, it is clear that Mary’s love for Jesus echoes, in a small but significant way, the lavish impracticality of Jesus’ own love for the world.[7] → And that’s where the rubber meets the road, friends. Mary finds herself once again in the presence of her honored and beloved Teacher, and she wants to show him just how much that means to her. There are all sorts of theological and exegetical debates about whether Mary chose the pure nard because she knew that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die. But frankly, I don’t think it matters. Mary poured herself out at the feet of Jesus in this passage. She throws caution, propriety, fiscal responsibility, and even her own dignity to the wind. She empties herself of everything except the love and devotion that she displays for Jesus in this beautiful and shocking moment.
    • Also in our Gospel story this morning = Jesus’ call that we do the same → But it’s a call that’s hiding just a bit in the language and the translation.
      • Okay … time for a mini Greek lesson (and I mean mini because Greek is not my thing!) → In Greek, the order of the words in a sentence doesn’t matter. They can basically be put in any order the writer chooses. What matters is the form and tense of the words. The different permutations and endings are what tell you which words go where. (sort of like those sliding picture puzzles … which I’m terrible at … which is why Greek is not my thing!)
        • Much debated verse in today’s passage (very end – Jesus to Judas): “You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”[8] → Throughout the centuries, scholars have tried to posit what this verse means in terms of how we should or shouldn’t care for those who are in need. And we can see why they’ve spent so much time and spilled so much ink debating it because it’s a tricky verse, right? I mean, it sort of sounds like, for the moment, Jesus is minimizing the importance of the poor … which is the exact opposite of what he’s done throughout the rest of his entire ministry.
        • Scholar sheds some very interesting light on this[9]and it all comes down to, you guessed it … the Greek. → 2 forms that look and sound exactly the same
          • Indicative form → indicates/suggests something: “you always have the poor with you”
          • Imperative form → commands you to do something: “Have/keep the poor with you”
          • The Greek word used in this passage is written in that ambiguous form. So Jesus could indeed be saying, “You will always have the poor among you.” Or he could be giving the disciples a powerful reminder and an edict as they move forward in their ministry: “Keep the poor among you. Remember them. Do not forget them after I’m gone. Pour yourselves out for them as I have poured myself out for you. Because they matter.”
  • Hear this echoed in our NT reading from Phil this morning, too
    • Right off the bat, Paul acknowledges that, if there is anyone that has reason to boast, it’s him. → remember that before his powerful conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul (aka – Saul) was an up-and-comer among the Pharisees
      • Had a pretty strong Pharisaical pedigree – all the right schooling, all the right connections → And yet, after encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and being struck blind for three whole days, Paul turned his back on that life of influence and prestige and became the most prolific of “those crazy Jesus followers.”
      • Text: I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. … These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.[10] → Paul truly emptied himself in order to make room for God and Christ to move and work in and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
        • Started this morning with Marie Kondo example of decluttering à Paul “Marie Kondo-ed” his soul to make room for the Savior of all
          • Takes bravery → Decluttering a room means you’re going to see all the imperfections – the dust in the corners, the cobwebs, the scuffed floors and scratched paint on the walls. Once that room’s been decluttered, you can’t hide those imperfections, and it takes bravery to be that vulnerable and that bare with our souls.
          • Takes intention → Decluttering doesn’t happen by mistake. It doesn’t happen accidentally. (Don’t we wish it did!!) When you take on a task of decluttering, you have to intentionally handle things … consider things … release things. The act of decluttering requires engagement just like our faith requires engagement.
          • Takes love and desire like Mary’s → Let’s face it. We don’t declutter spaces that we don’t care about, right? If we’re going to put the time and effort  into decluttering, it’s going to be for a space that we love and care about. And if we’re going to put the time and effort into decluttering our souls – into emptying ourselves out so God can move in and through us – we need to have that same love and care and desire for ourselves. We need to see ourselves and treat ourselves as beloved and precious and treasure … because that is how God sees us.
          • But friends, we cannot deny that as we draw closer to the cross with Christ, we are indeed called to empty ourselves for the sake of Love Incarnate. Can we do it? Amen.


[2] Josh Becker. “What is Minimalism?” from Becoming Minimalist. Accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[3] Jn 12:3.

[4] Jn 12:7.

[5] Jessica LaGrone. “Lenten Series: God on the Move – Lent 5: God Moves Us … to Empty Ourselves” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 200.

[6] Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D. “Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions” from Psychology Today online. Posted Jan. 12, 2015, accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[7] P. Mark Achtemeier. “John 11:55-12:11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 76, 78.

[8] Jn 12:8.

[9] Lindsey Trozzo. “April 07, 2019 – Commentary on John 12:1-8” from Working Preacher. Accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[10] Phil 3:5b, 7-8a.

Sunday’s sermon: God Moves … Down the Road

down the road

Texts used – Isaiah 40:26-31; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

  • Lenten sermon series: God on the Move
    • Following movement of Christ throughout his ministry
    • Talking about continued movement of God in our lives and the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through us
    • 1st week: way God moved into the wilderness for 40 days when Jesus was tempted by the devil → how God intentionally choose to take on the human experience in its entirety (“the good, the bad, and the ugly”)
    • Last week: talked about God moving past obstacles, not by conquering or overpowering them but they loving God’s way through them with grace and compassion
    • This week: talking about movement in Christ’s ministry not through Jesus’ actual physical movement but the movement of a familiar story/parable that he told
  • Today’s NT text = most often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”
    • Familiar story → probably one of few stories from the Bible that is recognized/known by people who haven’t heard it in church context
      • Story that you’ve probably heard preached a number of times → I know it’s a story I’ve preached myself a number of times! (sermon series a number of years ago → preached a different perspective/voice from this story every Sunday in Lent)
    • Certainly a story of movement
      • Movement of the younger son: out into the world, through the circles in which he squandered his money, into place of poverty and need, finally back home again
      • Movement of the father: place of generosity (maybe reluctant?) in giving the younger his inheritance early, movement on the road at his return, movement in planning his welcome home party
      • Movement of the older son: (not much at the beginning), movement against his younger brother when he returns home, movement away from the homecoming party
    • Frequently, when we read this story or hear this story (or preach this story!), we focus on the younger son, right?
      • Gets the most “air time” in the story
      • Other devotional writings and sermons focus on the other 2 main characters
        • Father
        • Older brother
    • But today, I’m going to take a slightly different approach to this well-known text. Instead of focusing on one character or another, we’re going to focus on two particular, short phrases today. → explore how those phrases speak to the movement of Christ in his ministry and the continued movement of God in the world
      • One phrase speaks to interior movement – that kind of movement that we cannot see but can feel in the deepest, most elemental parts of ourselves
      • One phrase speaks to exterior movement – movement that is powerfully visible from the outside
  • 1st phrase: “when he came to himself”
    • Text: When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”[1]
      • Remember what preceeded this parable
        • Part that we read this morning – text: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[2] → Pharisees giving Jesus grief and grumbling amongst themselves because Jesus deigned to welcome and eat with those who had made mistakes … those who were unclean … those who were imperfect in the eyes of those who judged them
        • Leads Jesus to tell not just this parable of the prodigal son but 2 others as well
          • Parable of the Lost Sheep
          • Parable of the Lost Coin
          • Jesus = trying to clue the Pharisees in on the fact that the “lostness” is not the point of faith (who is lost, how they got lost, how long they stayed lost, whether the “lostness” was their fault or not) … the point of faith is the “being found”
            • Scholar: Like the two parables of joy that precede it, the story of the prodigal son is about the joy of finding and being found. Only this familial homecoming is different. Unlike the sheep and the coin, which are accidentally lost, this prodigal son intends to get lost. He loses himself on purpose, and in the process leaves his family behind. This family is not broken by accident. It is broken by an act of selfish will. The phrase “he came to himself” takes on weighty importance as it begins the long slow turn of the younger son toward home. Before someone who has intended to get lost can be found, they must first want to be found.[3] → It is exactly this wanting that gives us hints of God moving in the younger son to make that long slow turn toward home.
    • Hear this internal movement/turning in one of the other Scripture readings paired with today’s in the lectionary = Ps 32: When I kept quiet, my bones wore out; I was groaning all day long— every day, every night!— because your hand was heavy upon me. My energy was sapped as if in a summer drought. Selah So I admitted my sin to you; I didn’t conceal my guilt. “I’ll confess my sins to the LORD,” is what I said. Then you removed the guilt of my sin. Selah That’s why all the faithful should pray to you during troubled times, so that a great flood of water won’t reach them.[4]
      • Hear repentance in this
      • Hear longing in this
      • Hear a dawning awareness that something is not right
      • All things that we hear in the younger son “what he came to himself” as well.”
        • Most Rev. Michael Curry, currently presiding bishop and primate (aka – head honcho) of The Episcopal Church (and probably most famously known for giving the homily at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle less than a year ago): Wallowing among pigs, the prodigal “came to himself.” He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, “You were not meant for this.” … So he decides to go home.[5]
  • 2nd phrase: “he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him”
    • Text: So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.[6]
    • Okay, first, let’s talk about the name of this parable for a minute. It’s most commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, right? But do we know what “prodigal” actually means? I think most of us might guess that “prodigal” means someone who has gone away and returned. That’s sort of what it’s come to mean in our culture because of this parable. But that’s not the actual definition of “prodigal.”
      • Definition of “prodigal” = having or giving something on a lavish scale → often applied to the way the son spent his portion of the family fortune BUT maybe this should more appropriately be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Father” for the father’s extravagant grace
        • Very deliberate wording → Gr. “compassion” (“his father saw him and was filled with compassion”) = word used throughout the NT to speak almost exclusively of the compassion that Jesus expressed for the people
          • People he healed
          • People he taught
          • People he sat and ate and spent time with
          • You know … all those pesky sinners that the Pharisees were complaining about.
      • Scholar: The economy of such love and grace surprises, even offends, us in its extravagance. While the ways of the world suggest that yes, the son might be welcomed home, but reasonably so – on a ration of bread and water in answer to his deplorable sin – the economy of God is such that rejoicing for the return of a child is simply not enough. Joy must be made all the more complete by abundance.[7]
    • Expression of that abundant joy = obvious, observable outward movement of the father running to his returning son → And while that may seem like a natural response to us today, we have to recognize what a big deal that was in the context of 1st-century culture.
      • Jessica LaGrone: When the son appears on the horizon, prepared for chastisement, servanthood, even banishment, the father stands still no longer. He runs. It’s hard for us to understand what an incredible picture this is unless we know that in those days the men wore long robes, and men of age and stature did not run. It was not dignified. But this father loved his son more than his dignity, hiked up his [robes], and sprinted off to reach him.[8] → This father is so overwhelmed with joy and relief and love that he throws caution and propriety and his own dignity to the wind and he runs. He runs to the son who had abandoned him, scorned him, and disrespected him by requesting that inheritance early. He runs to the son whom he had counted as lost. Not knowing or caring where he has been, who he’s been with, what he’s been doing, or why he’s returned, he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
        • Always pictured this scene like the end of the Don Bluth animated movie “An American Tail”[9]

  • Hear this overwhelming grace and love echoed in our OT passage this morning – text: Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.[10]
    • Shows us that this is a parable in which God, just like that father, moves down to the road to us, meeting us where we’re at … wherever we’re at
      • Doesn’t hesitate
      • Doesn’t approach cautiously
      • Doesn’t hold us at arm’s length
    • Bishop Curry: As the story unfolds, it is clear that the parable is more about the determined, compassionate, infinite providence of God than it is about the ways of God’s prodigal children. In the end, this parable points to the great embrace and deep expansive love, compassion, and justice of God, deeper, wider, and higher than our imaginings.[11] Thanks be to God. Amen.


Pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian: This morning you woke up to something infinitely better than a new opportunity to get it right. You woke up perfectly loved despite all of your blown opportunities to get it right.

[1] Lk 15:14-19 (NRSV).

[2] Lk 15:1-2 (NRSV).

[3] Christopher H. Edmonston. “Luke 15:11-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 91.

[4] Ps 32:3-6.

[5] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[6] Lk 15:20 (NRSV).

[7] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh. “Fourth Sunday in Lent – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 118.

[8] Jessica LaGrone. “Lenten Series: God on the Move – Lent 4: God Moves … Down the Road” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 198,

[9] An American Tale. Directed by Don Bluth. Los Angeles, CA: Amblin Entertainment, 1986.

[10] Is 40:27-29.

[11] Curry, 121.