R. Grove

@rygrove

Anathema Maranatha

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Grilling Fish

The disciples don't know what to do after Easter. They know that Jesus rose from the dead. They know that he is on the loose. He came and ate a meal with them. He let Thomas stick his dirty fingers into his side. But now life is back to normal. It’s back to the grind. So the beginning of our story starts with them doing the only thing they know: they go fishing. They spend all night fishing, and they do not catch a single fish. They are tired, frustrated, and ready to go home. But a stranger on the beach calls out to them. "Try throwing the net on the other side of the boat." They give it a shot. And as luck would have it, they catch a ton of fish. And then they realize the truth. The stranger on the beach, is in fact, Jesus. Simon Peter is overcome with joy. He jumps from the boat, clothes and all. An endearing display, but not too bright, as the disciples quickly bring the boat to shore after him. I can imagine their confusion as Jesus sits down next to a fire, and starts to grill up some fish. He calls to them, "Come and have some breakfast!" But the discples do not want breakfast, they want Jesus to give them some purpose, some direction.

I go through a similar kind of confusion every year, right after Easter. We have witnessed the most powerful display of God’s love and mercy that the world has ever seen. We walked alongside Jesus as he was beaten and crucified. We sat with the Centurion at the cross. And we were at the garden, with Mary, when Jesus rose from the grave. He called our name. Everything has changed, ut it all still feels rather normal. Death has been defeated, but that was like two whole weeks ago. It doesn’t feel like Easter anymore. It feels like the normal humdrum of life. And so we pull out our reels and our tackle and we go fishing. The only thing we know. We go back to our normal, everyday lives. We all have moments in our lives where God shows up. Easter moments. Weddings. Baptisms. Birthday parties. Major accomplishments in our lives. Even tragedies can bring us close to God. But those moments don’t happen all the time. They pass. We move on. The majority of our lives are full to the brim of normal, boring, everyday things. Nothing too exciting. Nothing too tragic. Grocery shopping. Paying our taxes. Going to the gym. Making breakfast. Just like the disciples, it’s hard to feel purpose in the mundane. It’s hard to feel conviction and passion in the small things. It’s hard to feel direction and purpose when we are just living life, day to day.

And so the disciples go fishing. But Jesus shows back up, sitting next to a campfire. “Come have some breakfast.” It seems so trite. So normal. The Gospel of John is a roller coaster of miracles and signs. Political drama. Religious debates. Powerful sermons. And now, at the very end of the book, we have Jesus, just eating breakfast. Such a simple gesture, with profound implications. The Gospel of John opens with some of the most famous words in all of scripture. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” John makes it clear from the get go, that Jesus is not only sent by God, but Jesus is God. In the beginning, Jesus was. In some mysterious way, Jesus formed and shaped the heavens and the earth. The mountains, the seas; the deserts, and the jungles. Jesus breathed, and out came animals and birds and all the creatures of the sea. Jesus took red dirt, and formed and shaped it into human bodies, and then breathed his own life down into them. Into us. Since Jesus is God, it makes sense that he would perform miracles. It makes sense that he would heal people, and teach, and even raise Lazarus from the grave. All of that makes sense. God is powerful. What makes far less sense, is that the God that formed the universe took the time to cook for the disciples, and then eat with them. All of that is contained within the first three verses of John’s Gospel. And now, only 21 chapters later, John has the audacity to claim that the God who created and sustains the universe takes the time to cook for the disciples. And even more incredible, the God who placed the stars in the sky, and knows each blade of grass by name, takes the time to eat with his friends. The power of food.

I grew up where BBQ was just a kind of restaurant you went to. I liked BBQ, but it was just another meal. Just some meat with sauce on it. And then I moved to the South, where BBQ is not just a meal, it’s a way of life. A year after I moved to North Carolina, I was invited to a help out with a pig pickin. I had no idea what that even was, but I liked pig, and I liked pickin, so I went. We got up at like 5am. We fired up a giant grill, and my friend dragged a 90lb pig from his trunk. He placed it on the grill, just like his father had taught him, and his father before that. Generations of pig pickins. Then we unfolded some camping chairs, and we sat and watched the pig cook. All day. Until dinner. And then we ate. On that day, I was initiated into a ritual. The altar of the grill. The communion of the pig. I was baptized with smoke and BBQ sauce. I had enjoyed meals before that day, but I had never had a religious experience eating. The time it took: all day by the grill. The sacrifice of the pig, hich, you should know, was not prepackaged in shrink wrap. It’s blank eyes stared up at me while it roasted. The conversations around the grill: normal conversations, uplifted by the prehistoric simplicity of roasting meat. And the eating: such a simple act. We need to eat to live. But we were living to eat. And boy was that pig delicious. I could taste the history, and the love. All of those things came together to tell a story. A story of passion and grace. Of community, and history, and culture. All of that came together, and I understood that eating is about far more than eating.

Jesus rose from the dead. Everything has changed, and yet, it pretty much all feels the same. The disciples don’t know what to do. They need purpose. And without them even knowing it, Jesus gives it to them. They want clear direction, but instead, Jesus does something very simple. He invites them to breakfast. As Jesus roasts fish on an open flame, he is inviting the disciples to something far greater than a meal. He is inviting them to the whole point of the Christian life. From bathing, to brushing our teeth, to paying our taxes, to roasting pigs. The God of the universe has seen fit to make all of it his. The miraculous and the ordinary. All made Holy. Life is full to the brim with banality. We spend so much time doing the routine. Sleeping. Brushing teeth. Going to the bathroom. Making beds. Washing clothes. Cooking and eating. Which means there is great hope in Jesus grilling fish. There is great power, for us, in Jesus taking the time to eat with his friends, because in that grilled fish, we discover that God takes as much joy in creating galaxies as he does in eating breakfast with you.

Whistling While We Work: A Palm Sunday Reflection

I love hearing about high school jobs. It's a strange time in life where you will do just about anything for almost nothing. I had several fairly entertaining, tortuous summer jobs. But I have a friend who tops them all. He was an assistant gravedigger for a summer. His job was to wait around during funerals, and then when all of the mourners had departed, he would use the winches to lower the casket down into the hole. Then he would help the backhoe driver cover over the grave. At the beginning of the summer, the job was somber and introspective. He would ponder mortality and pray for the people he helped to bury. But, like most things repeated over and over again, day after day, digging graves became monotonous and the gravity of the task began to wear off. He started to loosen up. This very abnormal task became more and more, normal. In the immortal words of Snow White, he began to whistle while he worked. I don’t know if he actually whistled, but he started to chat with the other guys on the crew, and he would eat his PB&J on the green, hands still dirty from gravedirt. At one particular burial, towards the end of the summer, they had to bury an extra long coffin, but apparently no one told the backhoe driver, who cut the hole too small. As my friend slowly lowered the casket into the grave, he heard a grinding. The casket was stuck, halfway down in the grave. It wouldn’t go any lower, and he couldn’t raise it back up. He looked up at the backhoe driver. What should I do? And the backhoe driver pointed, and with troubling nonchalance, said “jump on it.”

Out of respect for the departed, I will not go into detail on how my friend chose to respond, but they did eventually get the casket into the grave and properly buried. Repetition has the tendency to normalize completely abnormal activities. Even the most grotesque tasks, if we aren’t careful, can become natural, unthinking, unconscious. And if we aren’t careful, we can become like that backhoe driver, thoughtlessly disrespectful, unseeing and uncaring, whistling all the while.

In 1945, Joseph Hirsch painted The Crucifixion. In his painting, Hirsch does not focus on Jesus. Instead, the only person you can really see is a Roman guard. Jesus is up on the cross, suspended by ropes. And the viewer is situated just under, and behind, Jesus’ left arm, which frames the soldier’s round face and muscled arms. With one hand, the soldier is holding Jesus’ hand down, and with the other he is pounding the nails through Jesus’ hand. And he is whistling. Apathetic to the brutality that his own hands are performing. Detached from the horror he is inflicting. Just whistling a jolly tune while he works. I can see this Roman soldier taking his lunch break, sitting down in the shadow of the cross, eating his PB&J, unseeing and uncaring of the blood caked on his own hands. Unseeing and uncaring of Jesus, gasping for his final breaths, only a few feet away.

When I look at the painting, I can almost hear his tune, intermingled with the screams of Jesus, and the pounding of the hammer. Hirsch’s painting captures a brutal truth that is often ignored. A normal guy nailed Jesus to the cross. He was not extraordinary evil. He was just desensitized to performing abhorrent violence. He was, at least in his own mind, just a guy just doing his job. Not all that different from the crowds, chanting for Jesus to be crucified. Just another willing participant in the horror of the crucifixion.

Every Palm Sunday, we read from the Passion Gospel (Luke 23). But we did more than read. We participated. Some churches, my own included, has the congregation chant along with the crowds, Crucify him. Crucify him. It’s haunting. This is because, in a very real way, we are just as much to blame for Jesus’ resurrection as the soldier who swung the hammer. We are at fault. It is our sin that crucified him. Our evil. Our malice. Our apathy.

Year after year; crucify him, crucify him. With that repetition, comes a danger. We can, very easily, become desensitized to the brutality of the crucifixion. We can, very easily, forget the blood on our own hands. We too risk becoming like the soldier in Hirsch’s painting. Inserting our cries at the proper time. Unseeing. Unthinking. Just doing our job. We might even whistle while we work. Hirsch’s painting asks us all an important question: have we too become desensitized to the crucifixion? Has crucifying Jesus, year after year after year, become like a job for us too? Are we whistling, or wailing, when we chant as a congregation, for the blood of an innocent man? For the blood of our own savior?

Towards the end of our very long Gospel passage, Luke gives us an interesting detail. Another Roman stands at the foot of the cross, a Centurion. Just another soldier doing his job. Centurion’s were not ordinary soldiers. They were rockstars. Commanders. Powerful and well connected. Incredibly dangerous. Quiet. Reserved. Always ready to follow an order, no matter what it was. And so, when Luke mentions a Centurion at the foot of the cross, his audience would have taken immediate notice. This is the enemy. These guys are bad news. And like the ordinary soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross, the Centurion is also complicit in Jesus’ death. He may have even been in command of the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. He may have given the final order. Either way, Jesus’ blood is on his hands.

In the very next verse after Jesus breaths his last, Luke tells us, “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” In that one exclamation, the Centurion communicates so much. His own guilt and regret. His terror at the horror he has committed. And, ultimately, his hope in God. He risked a glance up at Jesus, and he was met with his own brutality. His own brokenness. But in it, he also met the grace of God. We can learn something profound about the crucifixion, and about the Jewish God, from this pagan Centurion.

Jesus not only laid his life down for us, he laid his life down to us. He went willingly to the cross. He went willingly into my hands. And I swung the hammer. Before we get to Easter, we have to face the cross. Every year. Because it doesn’t go away on Easter morning. It is a part of Easter. The lengths Jesus goes to save us is as much a part of the Gospel as the empty tomb. The cross is the only road.

The same blood shed through violence, our violence, given as life. Redeeming, transforming, resurrecting. What a glorious paradox. What a sanctified mystery. Crucify him. Crucify him. On Easter morning, these demonic words will walk from the tomb, resurrected. Hallelujah Hallelujah. But we aren’t there yet. We have some dark work ahead of us this week. We will crucify an innocent man. We will crucify the Lord of the universe. Will we swing the hammer on Friday night, whistling while we work? Just another Good Friday. Unwilling to look up at the terrible work we have accomplished. Unwilling to look down at the blood on our own hands. Apathetic. Unseeing. Uncaring.

Or will we, like that Holy Centurion, risk a look up at the cross, and see the man we crucified? With shock? With horror? And with praise? “Certainly this man was innocent. Certainly we killed him. And certainly he was innocent.”

Lord have mercy.

Friends of Death

A few months ago, a friend of mine, who is a youth pastor, told me, "I'm glad you feel called to that work, I could never do it." By 'that work', he was referring to ministry among an elderly population. At first, his words poked with a patronizing jab, but then I began to question. What does it mean to feel 'called' to a particular demographic of Christ's Church? Are we called to serve particular groups of people, based upon markers like age, race, orientation, or political affiliation? Does this kind of focused ministry, necessarily, come at the expense of ignoring those groups we do not feel called to?

I heard Bishop Will Willimon speak a few times while I was at Duke, and he spent a great amount of energy discouraging Methodist clergy from visiting the elderly. The church will die if we spend time with the dying. Ministers must engage with young people if the church is to survive the great secularization of our society. Out with the old, in with the new. I agree with Bp. Will in one sense. Many mainline churches are focusing their energy and resources on their ageing populations, or even cushioning their equally aged pastor's pension, all while the accounts drain and congregation dwindles. This is a serious concern for many church, especially in the South.

However, there is equal danger in abandoning the faithful elderly (besides it's immorality, which is obvious): we lose our connection to our own mortality, and dreams of immortality come so easy to our entertainment-soaked culture.

Jean Vanier writes, "Jesus wants us to become friends of truth." In the age of fake news, Qanon, and a general cyncism towards objectivity, our friendship with truth is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. But, one truth stands above all other truths, as the most irrefutable of realities: you are going to die. At one point, maybe sooner than later, you will either be underground in a box, or ashes in a jar on someone's mantle. There is no escaping this fact. It is coming for me, and it is coming for you. If we are to become friends with truth, then we must also become friends with death, or at the very least, honest adversaries.

I do not know if I am called to elderly minstry, mostly because I am not even sure what that means. However, I am sure of one thing, I am called to die, and my elderly friends are great at keeping me honest.

Just One Word: An Easter Reflection

My earliest church memories are of Easter Sundays.We didn’t go to church. Ever. Well hardly ever. We went once a year. The guilt would finally get to my mom and she would drag me to an Easter service. A different church every year. And I cared about a single thing. Every service was followed by an egg hunt. But, as we all know, churches are cruel; they made you earn that egg hunt. You had to sit still for an eternity. Through bright lights, loud music, and confusing celebration. But above all, you had to sit still through a long and excruciatingly boring sermon. The only thing that kept me going in those services was the dream of the egg hunt. Eggs filled with reeses cups, money, or maybe baby butterfingers.

I just wanted to stand up during the service, and yell out, let’s get to the point! Those eggs aren’t going to find themselves. And as I grew older, and it became less and less appropriate for a grown man to participate in a children’s egg hunt, I started to question the point of Easter altogether. None of the celebration, none of the joy, and especially none of the sermon, mapped onto my actual life. What does Easter have to do with bullies on the bus? What does Easter have to do with a father that left? What does Easter have to do with hospital rooms and grave sides?

And then there is the Gospel of John, quite unlike anything else. There is no triumphant heavenly hymns, or ear splitting earthquakes. Just a garden, a pile of rags, and a woman, crying for the loss of her beloved friend. Something we all can relate to. Easter confronts us with a question: Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?

At the beginning of John’s resurrection account, we find Mary Magdalene, by herself at Jesus’ grave, overcome with grief. The crucifixion is still fresh in her mind, and she misses her friend. Mary gets a bad rap. Many folks, me included, learn at a young age that Mary’s previous career was less than admirable. But this isn’t true at all. We actually know next to nothing about Mary before she met Jesus. We know a little from Luke’s Gospel, but in John’s story, she just join in, another of the countless followers magnetized by Jesus’ presence. Mary arrives at the tomb, sobbing, and finds it empty. A pile of rags, just some burial garments, cast aside on the floor. She panics. She runs from the scene and finds Peter and another, unnamed, disciple and tells them, “Someone has stolen Jesus’ body!”

John asks us the important questions. What do we do with that pile of rags? 2000 years and counting, what do we do with that pile of rags? Do we celebrate or grieve? Do we sing hymns, or gather up a search party?

Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?

John tells us that Peter and the unnamed disciple return home. But Mary sticks around. Weeping. John tells us, “But Mary stood weeping.” And as she weeps, she notices a man standing behind her. Since she’s in a garden, she assumes he’s the gardener. He asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” And she answers him, with what I can only imagine as grief filled rage, “If you have taken him, tell me where.” But the gardener responds with one simple word. The most important word Mary could have heard in that moment. The one word that undoes her. The one word that slices through her grief. The one word that resurrects her.

Her name. Mary.

As the syllables hit her ears, the scales fall away. The gardener is her beloved. Blinded by grief, she didn’t see it before, but she sees it now. And all it took was a single word. Her name.

Mary.

Her doubt evaporates and she knows the truth. Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. Notice that Jesus does not condemn her lack of belief, he embraces it. He accepts it. And he soothes it away. Faith is at home among grief, and loss, and weeping. As Mary weeps, she doubts, we know that. She doesn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But as she weeps, and as she doubts, her ears are open. Her heart is open. Even in her doubt, she hopes. And she listens. And Jesus speaks, and she hears, just one word.

Mary.

In our doubt. In our confusion. In our grief. Even in our certainty. Are we still listening for God’s voice? Are we still listening for God to call our name? Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?

I know many Christians that have banished the idea of doubt from their minds. They are certain of their convictions. But are they listening? Are there ants in their pants? There is as much danger in blind faith as their is in cynical doubt. Both lead to hubris and a hardness of heart. Both have their ears firmly shut. Madeleine L’Engle, the Christian novelist, says it best, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men… Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”

Have we fallen in love with idea of God? Are we still listening for his voice? Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?

Easter is a celebration, but it is not primarily about church services on Sunday. Easter is meaningless if it is contained to Easter Sunday. As we celebrate, do not forget that our celebrations on Sunday are only as good as the hope they bring on Monday. Our celebrations today point elsewhere. Easter is at the bedside, as cancer wrecks havoc. Easter is on the school bus, as the bullies torment. Easter is in the driveway, as a careless father leaves his son. Easter is at the graveside, as the widow throws gravedirt on her beloved. Easter is in the doubtm, the grief, the rejection, and even in the death. Because that is where the risen Christ meets us. Jesus is on the loose. And he is whispering.

Just one word.