Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sermon for April 20, 2014 / Easter Sunday

Giving Up Death

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed—for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. Then they went home.

Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her. Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

“Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message. John 20:1-18
They have lost everything -- deep in the valley of despair. They grieve, all of them.

Nothing can compare with it . . . the sense of hopelessness that floods over you like a tidal wave when death rips someone from your life. Tired days and sleepless nights steal your energy. A fog of sorrow leaves you feeling like you live in some kind of twilight zone. No one can prepare you for it.  You can’t know ahead of time what it is like to be on the receiving end of the words, "I'm very sorry, we did all we could." Your world simply caves in. The emptiness that follows is a gaping void in your soul. Will it ever stop hurting?

I’m sure that’s how the followers of Jesus feel on the first Easter morning. The illusion of their spiritual potency is shattered. Their power as a spiritual community -- gone. Their status as disciples has come to an end. They gather to hide and to suffer the weight of grief. Oh, they’re probably scared out of their wits, too, worried that the authorities will hunt them down and kill them. That’s how Mary Magdalene finds the men who followed Jesus -- stuck deep in the emotional gloom. And with one sentence, she begins a work of healing. She gives them the great, “What-if.”

What if there was someone you loved who died? You were there when it happened.  You planned and endured the funeral. You went with the procession to the graveside and watched the burial. It was final. Nothing in all of God's creation could change it. What if two days later you came home and your buried loved one was standing there right before your eyes? Would you consider that, oh I don’t know, an important event?

What if? What if Mary Magdalene saw Jesus die and then two days later went to visit his grave, only the grave was open and Jesus was not there? What if it’s true that she saw and talked with the Jesus who had died two days before? What if the words she spoke to those grieving and aching, lost and afraid followers of Jesus are true? "I have seen the Lord!"

Because that’s what she says. “I have seen the Lord.” With those words, the disciples resurrect their journey of becoming the church -- a mighty fragile beginning for a religion that has lasted almost 2000 years now.

Many of us still focus our energy on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to people who don’t happen to believe it. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen one take place, which is why it helps me to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning either. It’s still a bunch of what ifs.
What if death does not get the last word? What if we could give up the idea of death as finality? What if, in the depths of despair, we could know the promise of life?

Because we can use some of that promise right now. I know my heartaches and fears. And I know what I hear from others. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. We’re afraid of economic hardship. We’re afraid of rising debt. We’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental 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, and between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We’re afraid of a Church that seems more aligned with the power of Empire than the love of our peasant Christ.

Like those first disciples, we can be insecure, frightened by our emotions, not sure who we can trust. We feel the vulnerability of our broken places. And I think, more than anything else, many of us fear pain, suffering and death.

The influence of death is not going to stop threatening us. There will always be a thousand little losses of spirit, the criticisms we carry with us, the discouragements and sorrows that weigh us down, the sense of frustration or futility when we lose hope that the world can change.

Death threatens us when people work night and day in thankless jobs and still find themselves deeper in debt.

Death threatens us when a child gets caught in an ugly cycle of drugs and alcohol dependency and we watch them slip away.         

Death threatens us when after working forty years we realize we're about to lose our home or don’t have enough money to retire.

Death threatens us when we wake up one morning and realize nothing matters to us anymore.

Death threatens us when at the end of life, our family and friends are all gone and we are left alone to negotiate a world that does not honor its older members.

What if we are like those first disciples, stuck deep in the emotional gloom? What if we are the ones hiding behind locked doors, afraid to come out? What if we are the people who need someone to burst in the barricaded doors of our lives and shake us up with a word of hope? What if we are the followers who need someone to draw us back to life by saying, “I have seen the Lord”?

What if the living, resurrected Christ stands before us? What if he knows our heartaches and fears? For everyone here today who feels that you dreams have been destroyed, your hopes dashed, your spirits crushed, Easter has some good news for you. Death threatens us, but it never gets the last word. Easter is the promise that we can be reborn. Easter is the promise of new life. Easter is the assurance that in the midst of heartache and fear, life wins!

For me, Easter is not about whether a resurrection actually happened or not. Whatever went on in the tomb is entirely between Jesus and God. You and I will never know. For me, Easter is not about truth. It’s about meaning. Easter’s meaning begins the moment Mary Magdalene recognizes the Risen Christ and declares, “I have seen the Lord.” That’s where the miracle happened and goes on happening -- not in the tomb but in an encounter with the living Christ. Whether we view resurrection as a physical reality or as a spiritual symbol doesn’t really matter. What matters is the meaning. The risen Christ says, “Today is not time to hide in fear. Today is the day to believe! Today is the day to arise! Life wins!”

What if Easter is an impossible story written for everyone who has ever felt the sting of death and wishes for something more?

What if Easter is a story for anyone who loves life so much that they pray for more life to follow?

What if Easter is a story for people who can envision a loving divinity who will not be conquered by evil?
What if Easter is a story of immoveable objects that get tossed aside?
What if Easter is a story of happy endings in a tragic world?
What if Easter is a story of faith rewarded and vision restored and hope justified?

Because that’s what Easter is for me!

May you have joy this Easter, a joy born of life well lived.
May you have love this Easter, a love stronger than death, -- a love that brings healing and new growth to your life, a love that brings light where it feels dark;
And may you have peace this Easter, peace which allows you to be open to newness and gives you reason to sing.

O Spirit of Life and Renewal, we have wintered enough, mourned enough, oppressed ourselves enough. Our souls are too long cold and buried, our dreams all but forgotten, our hopes unheard. We are waiting to rise from the dead. In this season of steady rebirth, we awaken to the power so abundant, so holy, that returns each year through earth and sky. We will find our hearts again, and our good spirits. We will love, and believe, and give and wonder, and feel again the eternal powers. The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another, and now another. May we be forever grateful.  Alleluia. Amen.


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