Living on This Side of the Stone

(sermon 4/1/18 – Easter Sunday)

empty-tomb

They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. 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 Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – (excerpts from John 19, 20)

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Imagine that scene – that first Easter morning. Walking out to the tomb in the still and the calm and the cool of the morning, your heart and your mind and your feet so heavy with grief and disbelief over the events of the last few days that it’s hard to even keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Then, finally, arriving at the tomb only to find what appeared to be one more shock, piling grief on top of grief, discovering that apparently, crucifixion wasn’t humiliation enough, now someone had even taken his body away.

Imagine the emotions of learning the reality of things. Imagine the confusion of finding these two strangers in white inside the tomb, where no one had been just moments before. And then, the joy of encountering the one you’d seen with your own eyes to be stone-cold dead, but now standing in front of you, face-to-face, every bit as alive as you were yourself.

This is the defining moment of the Christian faith. Resurrection. To be honest, the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, most all of the major religions of the world, only differ to a very slight degree, But the most significant difference between Christianity and all the others is the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, and if it happened what it meant, and if that’s what it meant, what implications that has for humanity. The resurrection is truly a miracle.

This is where we, as people of faith, can get into trouble. We understand that faith in God, trust in God, is based on hope, on things that are unseen, and not based on physical evidence. At the same time, we honor and value education, facts, evidence, the scientific method; and we know that the universe operates on a set of established scientific and physical rules, a system where miracles really have no place.

So how do we square this contradiction? How do we live, as people of faith, in the tension of these two things?

I started off by asking you to imagine what it was like to be at the tomb on that first Easter morning. But in the truest sense, we really can’t imagine it. We’re people who are living entirely on this side of the resurrection; on this side of the stone at the entry of Jesus’ tomb. We can’t fully understand it; even the people who were really there couldn’t understand or explain what was really happening on that morning. They did their best to explain it, to put words to something that there really aren’t words for. And ever since, we and literally billions of other people have wrestled with the question of what these words were really describing, every bit as much as the people who were there struggled to find words to describe it.

Despite that struggling to understand, though, make no mistake – Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely, unquestionably real. It is as real as the earth and the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. It’s as real as the immutable scientific facts that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, or that paper cuts hurt way out of proportion to the actual  injury, or that all church pews get really uncomfortable after about twenty minutes. More to the point, the resurrection is as real as the fact that love is real.

How do I explain what physical, scientific, biological processes took place in Jesus’ resurrection? I can’t. More importantly, I don’t really care to; I don’t even think it’s an important question to ask. I know that I’ve said this before, but if tomorrow, archaeologist found a tomb marked with Jesus’ name, and that held his bones, his high school yearbook, his library card and a W-2 Form that proved beyond any doubt that these were Jesus’ physical remains, would it do anything to shake my faith in resurrection? I don’t really think it would. It wouldn’t, because despite that hypothetical box of bones, it’s absolutely, incontrovertibly a fact that resurrection happened that resurrection is real. Without having any idea what happened at the molecular level on that first Easter Sunday morning, we know that something unexplainable – something miraculous – happened that day. Something so powerful and convincing that couldn’t be doubted or denied; something that proved that death and the tomb weren’t powerful enough to contain or defeat Jesus. These people who knew Jesus in the flesh best, and who saw him die with their own eyes, encountered a living, loving, very real Jesus. And at some point not long after all this happened, whatever the details of what God did at that tomb on that Sunday morning, it was so real, so miraculous, that people who had never seen Jesus, or met him, or even heard of him, also came to believe what would otherwise have been unbelievable, and became followers of Jesus. And that evidence, that miracle, is repeated every time God works within the life of any person and gives them the faith to profess that Jesus is Lord, and to see the change within their lives that it causes.

Yes, despite all the nay-sayers and all conventional wisdom that would say otherwise, the resurrection is real. It’s a sign that points to God’s good news for us all – that God loves us, and has reached out to us, and in that love, calls each one of us worthy of being united with God, and called God’s own.

For all of us living on this side of the resurrection – all of us living on this side of the stone – the reality of the resurrection means that the God who created us loves us, and through Jesus, has experienced life like us, even injustice like us, and even death like us. The resurrection means that at every step of the long journey of our lives – every joyful, exciting, hopeful, uplifting step; every fearful, stressful, grieving, soul-crushing step – *every* step along the way, we are *never* without hope. We are *never* without love. We are *never* alone, because the God who somehow made the impossible possible, and the unbelievable believable, walks every one of those steps with us.

*That* is the great reality; *that* is the great truth; *that* is the great miracle that we celebrate today, as we say

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

Amen.

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The *Something* of Resurrection

(sermon 4/16/17 – Easter Sunday)

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbaraMary Magdalene, bronze, Bruce Wolfe, sculptor

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. 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 Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Mary Magdalene’s world had spun out of control. Everything she’d come to believe, everything she’d put her faith in, had come crashing down. Jesus was dead. Since Friday, she’d been nearly crushed with grief, and now, early Sunday morning, when she must have thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Now, not only was Jesus dead, something had happened to his body. She couldn’t even give him a decent burial.

She was almost paralyzed in her grief; she couldn’t even pull herself together enough to walk back into town with the others. She just slumped down on the ground, seeming to weigh a ton under the sadness, the dread, the fear.

And then, everything changed. There, at the tomb, Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. There, in that moment, Mary experienced the power of resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and because of that, the resurrection of hope. In an instant, everything was new again – and not just as good as things were before Jesus was killed, but even better, exponentially better. You can just picture Mary making her way back into the city, laughing, giggling at the impossibility of it all, part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying, hurrying back to tell the others what she’d seen; what had happened.

That’s what this day is all about. That’s what we celebrate today – the great truth that we see in the resurrection that no matter how dark things may seem, no matter how much it seems like the wheels are falling off of everything, no matter how bad things might appear, God will never let Jesus’ message of love be defeated. God will not allow darkness, or fear, or evil, or even death, to triumph over love, not in this world and certainly not in the next.  And so today, we proclaim “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” and we hold fast to the hope and joy that comes with the resurrection, in good times, and especially in bad.

Resurrection is what our faith is all about. Resurrection is what our faith hinges on. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, if Christ hasn’t risen, then our faith is just a fairy tale, a pipe dream, and we Christians are the most pitiful people on the planet.

And still… still… we really are basing our faith, our hope, on what appears to be a pretty incredible story. People in Jesus’ time certainly knew that people didn’t just come back from the dead, and we’re far more sophisticated than them. We aren’t stupid; we know that things like this just don’t happen. Just this past week, someone said to me that the one real thing they had problem with in the Christian scriptures was the “miracle stuff.” It would all be so much more reasonable, more logical, more believable, without all the miracle stuff. And yet, here we are today, celebrating the granddaddy of all miracles – rising from the dead, and not just in spirit, but in body, and not just the old, normal body, but a new improved one, a transformed one; one that can apparently change appearance so even your closest of friends might not recognize you if you don’t want them to;  one that can seemingly appear out of nowhere or move through walls or locked doors. I mean, really, this is quite a story that we’re being asked to believe. And somewhere, in the middle of singing all the great Easter hymns, and cheering “He is risen!” a voice within us – I suspect within all of us, at some point, or in some way, asks, “Really? Is this really true? Or did someone just make all this stuff up, to feel better after Jesus was killed? Is all this just a house of cards, built on the foundation of this impossible thing?”

I know I’ve asked myself those questions. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, even though I know it’s illogical, and to put it mildly, highly improbable, to believe that a person could physically rise from the dead, I believe Jesus did. I suppose I believe it in part because the scriptures say it happened, but I believe it at least as much because based on my understanding of God, I believe that God is capable of, and maybe even enjoys, pulling off the impossible every now and then.

But even though I believe it, as odd as it might sound, it really isn’t the bedrock, ultimate deal-breaker of my faith. In other words, if tomorrow, some archaeologist in Israel stumbled across a first-century tomb, and inside it they discovered an ancient ossuary, a bone-box, and the box said, “Here are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah, and the Son of God;” and if inside the box, in addition to his bones, there were Jesus’ original, long-form birth certificate, his high school yearbook, and his Social Security card – if it proved beyond all doubt that Jesus’ physical, earthly body wasn’t resurrected, I asked myself, would it destroy my faith? Would it significantly change my faith? I have to admit, it really wouldn’t. It wouldn’t substantially change my faith, because I know that, whatever it was, *something* amazing happened on that first Easter Sunday. Something that could only be described as miraculous happened that instantly turned Mary Magdalene’s soul-crushing grief into absolute joy. Something turned her life completely around and made her dance all the way from the tomb into the city. Something otherworldly happened to a bunch of demoralized, terrified disciples to make them believe they saw and touched the one they saw dead as a mackerel just days before, and to turn them into an emboldened, supercharged bunch ready to tell the world about the risen Jesus they’d encountered.  Something very real, and transforming, something life-changing and life-giving. That something – whatever its details – was resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection because of what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and because of what I’ve experienced of God within myself. I believe in the resurrection because in the kingdom of God, sometimes what sounds like a fairy tale is actually the truest thing, the thing to really believe. I know that just as happened with Mary and the other disciples, the hope, the truth, of the resurrection has the power to change lives. To turn the deepest sorrow into the greatest joy. To turn the most hopeless of situations into the most hope-filled moments of our lives.

So this morning, if a piece of you – whether a small piece, or a large one – brings doubts and cries for logic on this, the most illogical of Sundays, that’s OK.  You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of doubt within the Church, in pews and pulpits alike. But remember that even where there is  doubt, there’s still  faith. The two are absolutely inseparable. And even if our faith is imperfect, that’s OK, because Jesus’ faith is perfect, and it’s Jesus’ faith, not our own, that reconciles us with God. Remember that something that changed Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Remember that something that ended up changing the world – and that eventually has changed, and will continue to change, and give hope, and joy, and life, to you, and to me. Remember the something of resurrection – that indeed, Christ has risen! – and for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God!

Creaky Rafters (sermon Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015)

snowy roof

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. 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 Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  – John 20:1-18

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This past winter, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person here who occasionally looked at all the snow piled up on their roof and wondered just how strong the roof framing was. Sitting alone in the house in the evening and hearing an occasional pop or a creaking rafter, and wondering if this was it, that in the next moment the roof was going to collapse under the pressure, and they’d end up finding your body underneath it all during the Spring thaw, your frozen fingers still clutching that last slice of Wegman’s pizza.

I have to admit that over this winter, I’d started to feel something like my roof. My own mental rafters, my emotional rafters, were starting to creak under the stress of a winter that seemed like it would never end, just a great big cosmic piece of hate mail; but it was more than the weather, too. It was also the whole idea of picking up and moving away from 30 years’ worth of familiarity and support systems and connectedness – family, friends, church, everything. Don’t misunderstand, I love the excitement and challenge of new things, new experiences, and making new friends, and new connections. But even at that, some of these winter days were pretty lonely. Sometimes, I felt like I was going it all alone. It made for some pretty creaky rafters.

I guess I hadn’t quite realized just how much that had affected me until this past week. Some of you know that about a week ago, my pastoral mentor and friend, Phil Hazelton, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly; and that I quickly rearranged my Holy Week schedule to run back to Columbus for his memorial service. It was a gut-wrenchingly sad time for me. I spent most of the service trying hard not to cry, and sometimes even succeeding.

But then something incredible happened. At the full-to-capacity reception that followed the service, as we were coming together to mourn and honor this very inspiring man, I was caught off guard by the overwhelming number of people who made a point to gather around and greet me – old friends I’d known for decades, as well as people whose faces I barely recognized, all offering hugs and handshakes, and smiles, and love, saying how good it was to see me again, and wishing me well. I have to admit, I was kind of embarrassed at first; I mean, we were there to honor Phil, not me. But gradually, bit by bit, with every smile, every hug, every hand on the shoulder, the snow started melting off my rafters, and I realized I’d been mistaken. I recognized something that I guess I knew in my head but I’d forgotten in my heart, and these kinds of things you have to know in your heart. No matter how I’d felt in those moments over the winter, I’d never been alone at all. God’s love, the face of Christ, seen in the faces of all these wonderful old friends, and also all my wonderful new ones, had really been there all along. I was, and am, so blessed because of God’s presence. Over the years, God had used my friend Phil to teach me, or at least to remind me, of so many important things. And now, God had used Phil indirectly to do that again, one last time.

So what does all that have to do with Easter? Well, all through Lent I’ve been thinking about just what Jesus’ death and resurrection really means. I’m not talking about the official party line or the right answer according to the Heidelberg Catechism. And I’m not talking about any doctrines of substitutionary atonement or any other mind-numbing theological arguments, I mean: what does it really mean, to me? And after thinking about it a lot, I think it comes down to something very simple, something very basic, something very much like my experience this past week, and that’s this:

There will certainly be times when things will be difficult – very difficult. You’ll go through times of upheaval and uncertainty that will sometimes seem unbearable. Maybe it will come from not knowing what to do about a decision about work, or school. Maybe it will come when you get a frightening diagnosis from the doctor. Or maybe it will come in the wake of a broken or lost relationship, or the death of a loved one. It could be any of these things, or any of a hundred others. There will be times when you’ll go through hell. And whenever that happens, whatever it is that causes the weight, that causes your own emotional rafters to creak under the pressure, it can make you feel very afraid, and very alone.

But the resurrection means that whatever it is that you’re going through, you are never alone. God raised Jesus from the dead, and however you personally understand that to have occurred, it was real enough and powerful enough for hundreds of his closest friends and first followers to experience it, and for all of them, all devout monotheistic Jews who prayed every single day “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”, to suddenly start worshiping Jesus as divine. Jesus went through hell, and was given new life, a life that he shares with us – invisibly, directly into our hearts, but also visibly, concretely, through the love and fellowship and support of all those around us who make up the whole community of faith – old friends, new friends, each one of them being the face of Christ to us in times of trouble and uncertainty and loneliness and fear.

In the very last sermon he ever preached, Phil Hazelton said that whatever it is that you’re going through, have no fear. Don’t be afraid. Trust in Christ; he’s got your back. Trust in Christ, keep moving forward; he’s got you covered. Whatever else Jesus’ resurrection means, whatever else the message of Easter is, it’s most definitely this: that through Christ, God is with you – you are not alone. In Christ, every end brings a new beginning, every death brings new living, every uncertainty brings new growing. And we can say that with all confidence and boldness and joy this morning, because on this day, Christ is risen – Thanks be to God!