Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 27, 2016: The Resurrection of Our Lord – Easter Day

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Luke 24:1-12

According to our watches, the new day begins at midnight. According to the Jewish way of keeping time, the new day begins at sunset. Still, most of us tend to imagine the new day has begun once the sun rises, once we wake up, put two feet on the floor, and get started with our work.

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I heard an explanation of the Jewish way of keeping time, a midrash, somewhere over the years that I like. It says that the day begins at sunset as our bodies are preparing to rest to remind us that God’s work comes before our work. That God is active in the night, in the dark places. That God, who neither sleeps nor slumbers, who keeps watch while we rest, continues to water the ground with dew and rain, calls to the seeds to sprout and the trees to grow. That the work of creation is ongoing, and begins without us. That when we rise from sleep, we are joining God in the work of a day already well under progress.

The women arrived at early dawn on the first day of the week because they cared about Jesus’ body. They were there because he’d been killed on a Friday, and his body had been laid in a tomb late in the day as the Sabbath was about to begin. He had been a good Jewish man and they were observant Jewish women so, despite the fact that his body had been bruised and tortured before being hung on a cross, they left him in the tomb and returned home to prepare spices and ointments that they planned to use to prepare him for burial later. Then the sun set and the sabbath began, and in keeping with tradition and the law, they rested.

They rested because it was the tradition and the law, and because they had to after all they had witnessed the previous day. The women and men who’d followed Jesus rested on the sabbath, because they needed rest. Their hearts were broken, their bodies were spent, their hopes were dashed.

Sometime the following night, as they slept for the second time since their Lord had been killed, God began God’s work. Even as God watered the ground with dew and rain, and called out to the seeds to put down roots and the trees to unfurl their leaves, God rolled away the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. Things that were living, that had come back to life, were no longer to be found in places reserved for the dead.

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Now the women had returned to finish what they’d started, only to discover that God had started something new! They came to anoint a dead body, and were greeted by a vacant tomb and two messengers who gave them an answer buried in a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Why indeed? Why do we so often look for signs of life among the ruins of death? The question spirals out in a million directions. Why do we trust our lives to things that take life? Why do we create economies that come to life when we go to war? Why do we confuse incarceration with rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation? Why do we keep looking to things that kill for signs of life?

These are all implications of the fundamental truth hinted at in the young men’s question. The women are looking for Jesus in a tomb but he is not there, because God raised Jesus from the dead!

Even today, two thousand years later, I can feel some remnant of the original power of saying those words out loud. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who came to the tomb that first morning — when they returned to the rest of the disciples and delivered the Easter proclamation for the very first time:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Except that’s not what the men said when they heard the news. They had not gone to the tomb. They had not seen the stone rolled away. They had not heard the question posed by the two men in the graveyard. They had not been challenged to ask themselves why they were still looking for the Living One among the dead. And so, because they had stayed hidden in the safety of the past they knew, they were not inclined to believe the news of the future they could never have expected. Here we get the first biblical account of the phenomenon we’ve come to know as “mansplaining,” as the men explain away the truth of what these women know, as though this profoundly good news cannot be trusted until it is witnessed by a man, which Peter promptly runs off to do.

Of course I’m making a bit of a joke here, I guess. Though I don’t think it’s irrelevant to the story that the first to share the good news of the resurrection, the first to offer testimony to God’s miracle in Jesus, were those society was least ready to believe. Even in modern times, up until the last century, women were not considered credible witnesses in American courts of law. So, ironically, Luke’s gospel offers a bit of supporting evidence that the one who had risen from the tomb was the same as the one they’d followed in life, because who else but Jesus would select witnesses the world was conditioned to overlook? Who else but Jesus, who’d taught that it is the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the despised who are blessed in the eyes of God? This detail, so in keeping with the life he’d led, suggests to us now that his life is not over, but continues on.

Each of the gospels gives the details of that first Easter morning just a little bit differently. Last night we heard the account from John, with the heart-wrenching reunion between Jesus and Mary in the graveyard, full of passion. But I also appreciate this version from Luke, in which Jesus does not even make an appearance. The only evidence we are offered is an empty tomb and a question — “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” — which leaves us with our own work to do, as we wrestle with that question, and our own choice to make as we decide whether we will have the courage to do as the women did and proclaim Jesus Christ risen from the dead, or instead if we will be like those who discount all this as an “idle tale.”

One last hint as the truth dawns on us. The women would not have been at the tomb to perceive the miracle that had taken place during the night, while their bodies were resting, if they had not come to care for Jesus’ own body. But it was the women who got up early with the sun, to take care of a real body, not a disembodied idea of a person or a life. They were ready to deal with the stench of death, to touch flesh that had become cold and hard, to witness the disfiguration of torture and crucifixion. They were not content to let somebody else attend to these things, but were prepared to anoint the body of the Lord they had loved.

If we are struggling to believe in the truth of the resurrection, perhaps it is because we are not willing to go and sit with those who are dying, those in prison or without a home, those disfigured by torture, those who are still being crucified even today by empires near and far. In my own faltering experience, it has most often been the case that the reality of the resurrection never seems more self-evident than when I am with those whom Jesus put first, when I trade people in the abstract for people in the flesh, the way God made them.

That’s where Jesus lives now, not in our ideas about him and his resurrection, but in our encounters with him as he lives in the bodies God has washed and anointed, the Body of Christ, which is not dead, but is risen, and is still rising today.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 5, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — Easter Day

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Mark 16:1-8

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

6a00d8341bffb053ef0120a6e0b890970b-500wiThat was the question preoccupying the women as they came to the place where Jesus had been lain that first Easter morning. I guess I’d never given it much thought before, how striking it is that scripture makes a point of telling us that after “the sabbath was over Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome the follower of Jesus” came to the tomb prepared to do the heart-breaking work of anointing Jesus’s body for death even though they had no idea how they would get to it because there was a massive stone blocking their entry.

Who does that? Who sets out to do a difficult, a heart-breaking task without a plan for how to even get through the door? Not the men, apparently. It was the women. It was the women who had stayed with Jesus even at the hour of his death. It was Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, a sign that she’d suffered from a complex, life-threatening condition. It was Mary the mother of James, one of the young men who’d followed Jesus throughout his ministry. It was Salome (not to be confused with dancing Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who’d asked for the baptist’s head), remembered by early tradition as the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who I imagine came so that her sister would be spared the sight and smell of her own son’s dead body. These were the women who came to the tomb without any idea how they would get in, just knowing that their love for the Lord would not allow them to stay away.

A woman grateful to have been given her life back. A den mother to the pack of young people chasing after Jesus. A sister who did what needed to be done. Don’t these women sound familiar to you? Don’t you think they exist in some incarnation in every community? I feel like I’ve met them over and over again in every church I’ve ever belonged to. I know they are members of this church. I suspect if you stick around long enough you may become one of these women.

Before, I’d always heard that line about them not knowing who would roll the stone away as a clue in the text about the size of the stone, the impassability of the barrier, a set up to the miracle of its movement signifying that nothing could contain the risen Christ. But if it’s that, then it is also something else, it’s a clue about the depth of their devotion to the Lord they had known, their unyielding love, a signifier that nothing would keep them from the new life they’d just begun to taste as they followed Jesus. Even if they did not know how they would ever move forward, they knew there was no going back.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

They came with their spices, prepared for the worst, ready to find someone to help, a gardener perhaps, or some day laborers who would roll the stone away so that they could do their duty in that place, that blessed cavern where they thought they’d find their Lord. Instead, when they arrived that Easter morning they found the stone already moved and inside the tomb a young man, dressed in white, sitting on the right side.  Our minds immediately make the leap from “young man” to “angel” because of the texts in later gospels. Matthew’s gospel calls the greeter at the tomb a “messenger” (the word we often translate as “angel”) and Luke’s gospel describes two men in dazzling white garments, but Mark’s gospel simply says a “young man, dressed in a white robe.” I immediately think about our brother Ryan Coffee who was baptized last night at the Easter Vigil. When he asked me what to do to prepare for his baptism, I told him he might consider wearing something white as a gesture to the ancient tradition of draping those who emerged from baptismal waters in a white robe. So he showed up last night in a crisp white shirt and a blue tie and told me he felt like a waiter. From where I’m standing right now looking out into this vast, cavernous sanctuary he was seated with his family and with Rachel over there, on the right.

I kind of adore this little detail in Mark, “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side.” When the faithful women arrived at the tomb that first Easter morning expecting to find no one, no help, instead they find a young person, and he’s sitting on the right side. I wonder whose seat that was he’d taken. It was such an aggravation that when the gospel writer sat down to turn the oral tradition into a written text it couldn’t be forgotten that the young man was sitting on the right side!

And what a counterpoint this young adult is to the mood of the three women who came when the sabbath was over, ready to perform the appointed rituals. There he sits, as if waiting for them to arrive, as if knowing that they would come because wherever the Lord was, these women would be there too. But also, wherever the Teacher was, this young person would be as well. We don’t know what drew him to the cave that morning, or who sent him there, but he was also there that Easter morning and with a message for the women: “He has been raised. He is not here.”

“He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7)

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Galilee by the sea, as it might have appeared during the life of Jesus.

Where was Jesus to be found? Ahead of us, in Galilee, where it all began. In Galilee where Jesus appeared after John the Baptist was arrested, proclaiming the good news of God’s immanent reign. In Galilee, where Jesus had called the disciples away from their nets. In Galilee, where Jesus had preached and healed and drawn a crowd. In Galilee where he’d told them he would be after he was raised up, though they’d not understood what he was saying (14:28). In Galilee, where Rome still ruled but people were rising up. In Galilee, where life was happening, in all it’s painful, messy, uncertain ways. In Galilee, the crossroads of the world, where I’m imagining the risen Lord met this young adult and asked a favor. “Could you go to Jerusalem, where I’ve recently been hanging out, and look for these three women. You’ll find them in a garden, at a tomb. They will come, I know they will. They keep coming, even when everyone else abandoned me, they keep coming because they love me and I love them. They will come with oil to anoint my body, but they’ve forgotten that I was already anointed for death at Simon’s house in Bethany and I have no need of that particular gift any more because I am not dead, but alive. Will you tell them I’ve left this place, but that I wait for them in the future, and will you ask them to share this message with the others, Peter and the rest of the brokenhearted?”

They met at the tomb, the faithful women and the unknown young person. They were there, together, but Jesus was not there with them. Jesus was already back out in the world scattering seeds that would break open settled earth bearing new life.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

It was God who rolled away the stone. To Mark it doesn’t seem to matter how that happened. Matthew’s gospel says there was an angel and an earthquake, but to Mark and Luke and John it could just as easily have been the grounds crew in the garden. What matters is the barrier is gone, the stone is rolled away, a certain death has given way to a risky, new, uncertain life.

So the faithful women flee, terrified of the future but still amazed at everything God had done in that place, because they were afraid; and we can understand their reaction because who hasn’t felt such fear when they suddenly realize that the rest of their life, no matter how short or how long that span of time may be, will look nothing at all as we’d imagined?

And that’s how Mark’s gospel ends, at least originally. No great commission to go and make disciples, no meet up on the road to Emmaus, no seaside breakfast with the disciples after a hard night of fishing. Just this meeting between the faithful women and the unfamiliar young man, a message delivered, an assurance made, and a fleeing in terror as if to leave the question with us, who hear the story today, to decide what will happen next.

What will happen next?

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

Amen.

Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.

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