Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008

I Have Seen the Lord
John 20:1-18

The First Story: It’s a starless night in 1944. A cattle train loaded with scared Hungarian Jews pulls into a depot. They are loaded off the trains by German guards who send women to the right and men to the left. The place is called Auschwitz. Flames, smoke, and guns greet the disoriented Jews as they are prodded to the registration area. The smell of death is in the air. A boy named Elie Wiesel is separated from his mother forever, as he follows his father and the other men. Talk of uprising is whispered among the men, as well as the advice of elders who say, “You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That’s the teaching of our sages.” After he survived the horror of the holocaust, Wiesel came to a different conclusion. In his book entitled Night, he writes, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke . . . Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever . . . Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Another story: Two men carry a dead body to a tomb. A man named Joseph wipes the wounded face of the corpse, and with a soft towel, he cleans the blood that came from lashings and a crown of thorns. When this is done, he closes the man’s eyes tight. Another man named Nicodemus unrolls some linen, and together these two men lift the body of Jesus and set him on the aloe covered cloths. They prepare the body in a hurry, for the sun is beginning to set and the Sabbath is about to begin. Across the city, 10 men sit in a darkening room. The door is locked tight. Each man feels embarrassed and guilty. These are Jesus’ disciples. After all of their courageous talk, all but one ran away in fear when Jesus was taken away from them. After Jesus dies on the cross, these disciples appear in the upper room, too overwhelmed to go home and too confused to go on. Each has an anxious hope that it’s all been a bad dream. Each has betrayed the man whom they promised to follow with their lives. Now all seems lost and senseless, for the man who claimed to be one with God now lies dead and buried in a garden tomb.

These stories have a common thread -- people who began to lose faith when their God died. Wiesel and the Disciples mourned the death of God in their hearts. Each faced a crisis of hope; a feeling that all was lost and that not even God could make the future any better. I believe that we also face a crisis of hope today.

In the modern era, it was generally agreed that life was a steadily upward moving process. Education and science seemed to guarantee the moral progress and enlightenment of the human race. As time went on, we were confronted with world wars and military occupations. We faced the holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, ecological disasters in our own backyards, and wars throughout the world. These events shattered the dreams of moral growth, as we saw the consequences of our inhumanity. All the naive ideas about progress were eclipsed by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Many of the people of my generation, the so called “Generation X-ers” grew up wondering, “Why hope in the future, if there’s no future to live for? What is there to hope in if nuclear Armageddon destroys us all? What kind of future do we have if the environment won’t sustain us?” We achingly asked, “Where is God?” These aren’t just the questions of the X-ers. I believe that the conclusion of many generations is the same as Elie Wiesel’s -- the same as the defeated disciples. We dare to think, “If God were alive, there would be no holocaust. There would be no Hitler, or Stalin or Saddam Hussein; no Jonestown, or Waco? If God were out there, we wouldn’t have to live in fear of what the future holds.”

I once read about a town that was to be flooded as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? Week by week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled, more decrepit, more miserable. As one citizen of the town said, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”

If there is no hope for the future, then there is nothing else to do but live for the moment. Our society trains itself to live for immediate good feelings and thrills. After all, God is dead. And if God is alive, he’s been very irresponsible. Or maybe God’s not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening. God can’t be trusted to heal. God can’t be counted on the bring justice and stop evil. If God isn’t there for us, then we only have one reasonable means of survival -- we will take care of everything ourselves. If the future is not sure, we will make here and now as pleasurable as possible. If we can’t hope in God, if there is no one greater then ourselves to believe in, then we will put our trust in our own abilities to make ourselves happy for the time being.

As this behavior continues, we will observe it’s destructive power. Can you see how cycles of self-gratifying behavior have left a void in people’s lives? We scramble for status. We seek the next rush of immediate pleasure. We dream of money and power. But our striving doesn’t seem to fill the lonely place inside of us that wants to believe that there is something greater than our own attempts at happiness-that there is a God who cares, and loves, and promises a future for us.

So far, I’ve presented the grimmest view of our natures, yet a view that’s embraced almost daily by world news. Rebecca West in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon makes an accurate statement in her observation of the Balkans, that trustworthy theater of hatred. I think it applies to us all. She writes:
Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live in our nineties and die in peace, in a house we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
It’s easy to fall into heartsickness when we have to rely on our own striving to make the future. Out of this turbulent swirl of hopelessness, I have heard only one thing that has helped me to know that there’s a God in this universe who cares. It’s a message that was spoken at a tomb in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. This is no time for sadness. This is no time to mourn. This is not the time to be afraid. Jesus is no longer in the grave! God is not dead. Jesus lives!

Today, the living Christ stands before us. He knows us and our fears. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environ-mental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Easter is about none of that. Today we proclaim that God overcomes death and gives birth to a new hope. Jesus was raised from death so we would know that there’s something more beyond the painful and inhumane offerings of the world. Because Jesus has been resurrected from death to life, we have the hope of eternity. Those without hope ask, “Where is your God?” The answer is this: look in the place where you would never expect God to a cross. Look again in the places of pain and agony, and there God is, in the flesh. God isn’t stumped by the evil in the world. God doesn’t gasp in amazement at the death of our faith or the depth of our failure. We can’t surprise God with our cruelties. God knows the condition of the world, and God still loves it. God loves it enough to become one of us, to undergo the greatest kind of punishment imaginable, to die . . . and then rise above it. God doesn’t use the world’s ways against the world. Through the resurrection, God declares that worldly powers really have no power at all. We have a living God who knows our pain and offers us hope in the midst of it.

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day , a hospital program teacher went to see visit a boy. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. " We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He said it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

There is hope beyond our suffering. God doesn’t leave us alone. Jesus comes remind us that we have a future. We see the effects of atrocity, genocide, and hate all around us. But God reaches beyond that and says, “I am greater. Don’t mourn a dead God. This is no time for sadness. I’m alive! And because I live, you also will live.”

That’s real comfort. That’s real hope. This Easter, my prayer for all of is that, with the women leaving the tomb, we can affirm a word of hope: “I have seen the Lord.”
I have seen the Lord and I refuse to be controlled by fear.
I have seen the Lord and so I refuse to dehumanize another.
I have seen the Lord and so I will tear down the walls of race, class, and sex.
I have seen the Lord and so I we love my enemies.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll stand with the poor.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll forgive those who've wronged me.
I have seen the Lord so I’ll resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll demonstrate the power of resurrection in our world!

Yes, after seeing the risen Lord, let's dedicate the rest of our lives to claiming and acting upon our good hope in Christ . . .

That when all our work seems useless, new hope blooms.
That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs.
That in the midst of darkness, a light shines.
That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth.

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