Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

Tears, Comfort, and Old Hymns

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This morning, our church choir shared some of the great hymns of the faith with our church in a cantata style celebration of music.

Instead of our traditional Easter cantata, we picked some of our favorite hymns, our fearless leader researched their stories, and we presented a morning of lessons, messages and songs.

And tears were abundant.

There was a moment at some point in the process where I had noticed that we hadn’t picked a lot of “cheery” songs.  Typically, our Easter Cantata is full of life and energy and joy and pep.  But this wasn’t, after all, an Easter cantata.  So I let it go.  God knew what was in the works.

Each hymn, each song we shared, celebrated the promises of life after death in their own way.  Each was filled with hope, even if they were born out of tragedy.  Each was a reminder of the power of music to sustain our faith and keep us going even in the hardest moments along the way.

We didn’t need trumpets and fanfares and complicated melodies or driving beats.  We simply sang the faith that has formed us and it filled our souls.

Thanks be to God.

A Different Kind of Proof

A man named Bob Ebeling thought he was a loser.

Mr. Ebeling was an engineer on the Challenger Space Shuttle and discovered that the O-ring seals in the rocket might not hold up in the cold temperatures of the 1986 launch.

He and fellow engineers pleaded with NASA to stop the launch, but they decided to go ahead anyways.

He went home, knowing the shuttle would explode. “And it did, 73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died.” (NPR 2/25/2016)

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Ebeling shared that for thirty years has been carrying the guilt and the burden of the loss of life on that day.

Lots of people told him that it wasn’t his fault…

That he had done everything he could…

But he couldn’t forgive himself.

He believed one of the mistakes God made was picking him for the job.

And because NASA and the contractor in charge of the launch had never given him confirmation that he had done the right thing, he didn’t believe it.

 

What fascinates me about this story is that Mr. Ebeling did the right thing. He told the truth. He did everything he could to prevent the launch. And after his story first aired in January of this year, calls and letters poured in to his home. People who had been close to him. People who had worked with him. Complete strangers who had been moved to write and let him know that he wasn’t a loser, but a hero.

And yet, he wouldn’t believe… he couldn’t forgive himself…

Unless there was a specific act of proof – a call or a letter from NASA themselves.

 

I hear in his story the same kind of need to know and to find proof that I hear in our gospel lesson this morning.

Women trek to the tomb are the break of dawn. And they have no idea what to make of the stone rolled away. The body of their Lord is no longer there. What they are experiencing doesn’t make any sense until the angels appear and remind them what Jesus had told them: that on the third day, he would rise. And they remember.

Can you imagine their amazement?

They rush back to the disciples and tell everyone about what they have discovered. They tell them about the tomb. They tell the crowd: He Is Risen!!!!

And no one believes them.

They need proof.

They need something more concrete.

They need to see it to believe it.

 

And so Peter runs to the tomb himself, looks inside, and sees nothing but a cloth.

And the scripture says… he returned home, wondering at what had happened

But what I find amazing is that this account leaves out a key detail:  It never says he believes.

And I think if I had showed up there, I would have been surprised and amazed, but I’m not sure I would totally understand what had happened.

I think he was unsure.

Filled with doubt and questions.

He didn’t have enough proof to believe that what the ladies had told him was true.

Unless there was a specific act of proof…

 

Friends, it isn’t easy to believe the story that we share with you this morning.

Resurrection? Yeah, right.

We haven’t seen it or experienced it.

We can’t go back in time and run to the tomb ourselves.

Angels aren’t popping in to worship this morning to tell us how it is.

If even the disciples had a hard time believing, how are we supposed to understand this good news?

Where is the proof? Where is the concrete evidence?

 

Mr. Ebling wanted a word from specific people in order to forgive himself.

And he got it. He got a call on the phone from one of the vice presidents for the contractor, Thiokol who told Mr. Ebling – you did all that you could do. (NPR)

And George Hardy, a NASA official involved in the Challenger loss wrote to Mr. Ebeling – “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you.”

And it started to make a difference.

And then came a statement from NASA itself: “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant… and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

That was it. That was the thing he wanted to see and hear. The proof he needed to let go of his burden of guilt.

 

The disciples wanted to see it with their own eyes… to touch their Rabbi with their own fingers.

And Jesus appeared to them.

He showed them his hands and feet. He ate a piece of fish with them. He personally reminded them of everything he had said – that he was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.

They got the proof they wanted.

 

But there is something that those disciples didn’t quite understand…

something that Mr. Ebeling didn’t quite understand…

something that we don’t quite understand whenever we are looking for a specific piece of proof or evidence… something concrete to demonstrate truth.

 

Yes, Jesus gives them the proof they wanted – he shows them his physical resurrected self – but the proof they needed was still to come.

Jesus isn’t there to show them his body. He is there to send them forth to live out his message.

“A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending you to what my Father promised.”

 

What if we have it all wrong?

We always say, “seeing is believing.”

But what if DOING is believing?

 

What if in the very act of living out the resurrection and the good news of Jesus Christ we find the proof we are looking for?

What if we are looking for proof instead of living out the proof with our very selves?

 

You see, Jesus, didn’t ask us to intellectually understand the resurrection.

He didn’t ask us to be able to explain it scientifically.

He doesn’t want us to have a philosophical debate with people about it.

Jesus wants us to live it.

To change our hearts and our lives.

To go out in the world and turn it upside down.

He started a resurrection insurrection and Jesus rebelled against the powers of evil, sin and death… and now he calls us to follow him in turning the forces of destruction on their heads.

It is in the process of living it, that we discover just how true and real the power of the resurrection is.

 

Over the last few weeks here at church we have been reading this book, Renegade Gospel. And it hasn’t been an easy book. The author has challenged us time and time again to get out there and live our faith!!!

That has been a hard message to swallow, because so many of us feel like we aren’t doing as much as Mike Slaughter asks of us. We feel guilty because we don’t go as far as he asks us to go. We aren’t sure we are ready to give it our all.

But what Slaughter reminds us in the very last chapter is “that an abundance of faith is not necessary.” Jesus told the disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed could change the world. “It’s not about how much faith you have, but how much of what you have that you commit to action.”

You don’t have to believe every single word of the gospel to live out the power of resurrection.

You can have all kinds of doubts and questions and you can still live out the power of the resurrection.

 

I’m begging you… don’t sit back, waiting for definitive concrete proof before you decide to become a Christian.

I’m not sure it’s there.

But what I do know is that when I live out my teeny tiny little mustard seed faith and trust in the power of resurrection, I find intangible, mysterious, holy truth everywhere.

I find it in this room when I hear the stories of healing in this life and in the celebration of a life that will continue in the next.

I find in in a letter I received from one of you this very morning that describes how you have awakened to a new understanding of faith and discipleship.

I find it at the food pantry in the hope that comes to life on the face of a mom who was desperate.

I find it in the pile of goods and sleeping bags and food that are outside the sanctuary, waiting to be delivered to homeless people through Joppa.

I find it in the discovery on a child’s face when they learn a new word.

 

Mike Slaughter writes that “the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his followers in a very personal and real way. But he made clear its impossible to know him apart from the commitment to become intimately involved in his life and mission. Intentional participation in his life and mission is part and parcel of faith. Faith is a verb!!!”

So friends, don’t wait for proof.

Don’t spend thirty years of your life waiting for some kind of external validation.

Just follow Jesus.

Go where he sends us.

Join the incredible movement to transform this world!

Live it out by showing forgiveness and grace to every person you meet.

Live it out by praying for the sick.

Live it out by loving the unloveable.

Live it out by holding the hand of someone who is dying.

And you will find the proof you are looking for…

Because Christ is risen!

Awaiting the Already: The Promise of a New Dawn

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Have you ever sat and watched the sunrise?

The hints of purple… turning pink… and then neon orange as the sun peeks over the horizon.

What a profound thing to realize that each morning, as we wait for the sun to rise in our sky, it has already risen for our neighbors to the east… and set for our neighbors to the west.

We are waiting for something that has already happened.

Throughout this month and the season of Advent, we will be exploring these sorts of paradoxes and promises…

The already and the not yet…

The things that have happened that are about to happen again.

Of course the most obvious of these is the coming of Christ.

We remember that he came as a child to Mary and Joseph to save us from our sins.

But we also are waiting for him to come again and take us home.

Already…

And not yet…

Today, we will explore words of great comfort, as we are reminded that the promises of the resurrection are real and present for those we have lost… even as we await for the glorious day of resurrection with our Lord.

Already…

And Not yet…

A sunset, seen from the other side is a sunrise (Bishop Rueben Job)

Today is a special day in the life of the church when we take time to remember those who have experienced the final sunset of their lives.

But we do so, holding firmly to the promise that what we see as a sunset, is merely the beginning of a new dawn, a new life.

And we acknowledge that those who have died… these flames that flicker before us… they are still with us… still waiting like we are to experience the glory of God.

I have very little knowledge about the mysteries of death. No amount of book learning can prepare us for whatever might await us. But I can speak with certainty about the promises of scripture.

One of those promises comes to us from the Wisdom of Solomon – the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will every touch them… they seem to have died, but they are at peace… their hope is full of immortality.

One of those promises comes to the thief crucified beside our Lord – he is promised that today he will be with Jesus in paradise.

In the book of Revelation we have the promise of the day of resurrection – when we will all be raised and clothed in our recreated bodies and there will be weeping and crying and pain no more.

In the gospel of John, after their brother has died, the sisters Mary and Martha are besides themselves with grief… each one pleads with Jesus – “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Martha knows in her heart – she trusts in the promise that on the last day her brother will be raised again. She knows that he and she and all of us are pressing on and that Christ is the Messiah – the Son of God who will bring us to the other side; to the dawn of resurrection.

And surely Mary understands this also. But that doesn’t take away their pain and grief at the loss of their brother in this life. No longer can they reach out and touch him or hear his laughter or look into his eyes. While they trust in the promises, it doesn’t take away their sorrow.

It doesn’t take away the grief Jesus himself feels as he weeps before the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

What Jesus then does, is to give us a glimpse of the resurrection.

Lazarus – who had been dead for four days – is called out of the tomb.

We are reminded of what awaits us all.

We are reminded that the Lord God will swallow up death forever.

We are reminded that God will wipe away every tear from our faces.

This year, we have said goodbye to many people who were a part of this church family. We have lit a candle for each of them, in honor of their lives among us, the ways they helped to shape our faith, and we wait with them for the day of resurrection.

They have joined the countless other faithful who surround us with love and encouragement.

They join the company of saints with whom we sing praises to God every time we gather around the communion table.

In Isaiah, we are reminded that God will prepare for all peoples a rich feast…

Bread and wine, joy and celebration…

As we gather today around this table, it is a reminder that the feast we are waiting for is already present among us.

It is present here today in the bread and the cup.

But it is also present here today in the company of those we love and lift before God.

As you came in this morning, I hope you received one of these paper angel cutouts.

If you haven’t… will you lift up a hand so we can bring one to you… ?

These slips of paper represent those saints in our lives who have and continue to encourage us in the faith.

We shared meals with them while they lived among us, and we continue to feast with them around the table of the Lord.

They are the names of people who took risks and showed us what trust looked like.

They lived through tough times and survived.

They refused to give in.

They were kind to us when no one else was.

They believed in the promise of resurrections.

This table this morning is set with bread and the cup, but what we bring to this meal, every Sunday we gather, but especially on this All Saints Sunday is the fellowship of each of these saints.

I want to encourage you to take a minute and think about who has been a saint in your life and if you feel led to write their name on your paper.

“Behold, God has made a dwelling among the people. God will live with them and they shall be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying…”

I really wanted to take a moment to tell you a story about one of the saints written on my slip of paper… my Grandma Doni.

But the truth is, I couldn’t do it without crying.

I had the honor of sharing a few words at her funeral in 2002 and I bawled through half of it. I’d be a blubbering mess if I even tried to start.

The day Isaiah lifts up, and John lifts up in Revelation… of no more tears?

That day is not here… yet.

But we hold fast to the promises.

We hold fast to the glimpses of resurrection we have seen throughout history.

We hang on to the amazing, powerful, awesome love of Jesus Christ that went before us through the valley of the shadow of death, who walked through the sunset so that one day, we all might rise again to a new dawn.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

**Photographer Don Poggensee

Knowing the End of the Story

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Welcome, friends, to Holy Humor Sunday. This day is part of a tradition (a very old tradition) of laughing on the Sunday after Easter as we celebrate the cosmic joke that God plays on sin and death when Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.

 

It is a day to laugh, to lift up our hearts, to thank God that we know already the end of the story.

And its important that we hold on to that promise, because while we look out at the world and think about our personal lives, we discover all sorts of things that might cause us to yell or scream or break down in tears.

Another unarmed black man was killed this week in our nation.

A tornado levels a community in Illinois.

Friends diagnosed with terminal illness.

Job losses.

So many people in our community are homeless today, are broken, are struggling right now.

 

I know in my bones that God has already won.

I know that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

I understand.  I believe.

But I find it so hard to keep that Easter joy in my heart because we haven’t reached the end of the story yet!  We are inbetween times… in between the empty tomb and the new creation.  It’s here, but not fully.  It’s already, but not yet.

How on earth can we laugh at a time like this?  How can we laugh as towns are ravaged by deadly winds and little ones go to bed hungry tonight?  How can we laugh when people are staring death in the face and losing?  How can we laugh when the disparity between the haves and the have nots is so stark?

Maybe the question is… how can we not laugh?

How can we not just take a deep breath and remember that God is in control… not us.

St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Easter sermon:

If anyone is devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If anyone is a wise servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord.

He gives rest to him who comes at the 11th hour, even as to him who has worked from the first hour. And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first. Let all then enter into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, keep the feast. You sober and you heedless, celebrate the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast… Let all receive the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and life reigns.

Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

This world is broken and imperfect and horrible things happen all around us.  But if we cannot laugh in the midst of our sorrows, then the Devil has already won.

If we cannot laugh and lift up one another’s spirits, then there is no hope.

If we cannot laugh and rejoice, then why keep going at all?

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t have to be scared.  We know the end of the story and we can laugh in the face of all that tries to hurt us.

Those words are so powerful…  and so hard to believe in.

But maybe… just maybe… if we get together as a community and we laugh, if we practice together what we preach, then we will find the faith we need to trust.

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

And because of that our hearts are filled with joy. Amen.

What's Your Story?

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Living, Risen God, May the words of my mouth be your words, and may I be blessed with the courage to say them. May the thoughts of all of our hearts and our minds, be your thoughts, and may we be blessed with the courage to live them. Amen.

This morning, I invite you to hear our gospel reading from Mark once again…

We know the story, about how the three women made their way to the tomb just after sunrise. They went expecting to finish the funeral rites for their beloved teacher… but what they discovered forever changed their lives.

In that tomb, they discovered not their teacher, but a man in dazzling white who whispered to them:

Don’t be afraid! You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, but he’s not here! He has been raised, just like he promised. Go – tell the disciples and Peter that he will meet you in Galilee. He’s waiting for you!

What surprises us about this story, however, as Mark tells it is that the women freeze. They had come to honor a dead body and they were met by a mystery. He has been raised?! He’s… waiting for us? Was it a trap? Was it true? Could it possibly be?

It was all so completely overwhelming. They felt like they were standing in the presence of the holy – like Moses before the burning bush – like Elijah standing on the side of the mountain and hearing God in the silence… and yet nothing made sense.

The world was turned upside down for these three women by this radically holy encounter. Terror and amazement seized them and they turn and fled from the tomb.

Was it unworthiness?

Was it the weight of the message that they were called to proclaim?

Was it fear and awe that come from being face to face with God’s power?

The world may never know. But Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

They said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

 

Believe it or not – that is the way that the Gospel of Mark ends. Jesus never shows up in his resurrected glory, there are no witness from the disciples, no sharing of the good news. Mark ends his account of the life of Jesus with three women, fleeing from the scene because terror and amazement had seized them and he tells us they said nothing to anyone.

 

We, of course, can say this probably didn’t actually happen for a number of reasons.

First of all, Every gospel has Mary Magdalene there at the tomb, witnessing first hand the resurrection of Christ. And every other gospel tells us how she and other women who may have been with her shared the good news with the disciples.

Secondly, if we believed Mark’s account above the others – if that truly was the end of the story – then how did we get here? If they didn’t tell anyone, then how was the church born?

No, Mark has a reason for telling his story this way. His goal, in writing the gospel, is to teach us about what faithfulness looks like. Every time the disciples make a mistake, we learn something. Every time they fail, we find out what it truly means to follow God.

And this cliff-hanger ending functions the same way. Mark tells us the women were afraid and said nothing to anyone… so that WE are invited to live the rest of the story. So that WE are invited to take up the call and tell the story ourselves.

 

Peter was also called to take up the story. Even after his failure on the night of Jesus’ trial, he was called by Jesus to tell the story of resurrection wherever he went. And he found himself in the home of Cornelius… a Gentile… someone who was never part of the plan of salvation that Peter had imagined… and he found him telling the story of how God saves to even such as him.

We are all called to tell the story, and we are called to tell it to anyone and everyone we meet.

Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus… it is your story!

From the Sunday School teacher that first taught you the words to Jesus loves me…

to the grandparent who always encouraged your faith…

to the girlfriend who made you get up and come to church this morning…

Someone, somewhere along the way shared the good news with you. You heard the story and you believed it enough to show up. You have responded. You are here.

And because you are here this morning, you have a story to tell.

Your story might not be as dramatic as peering into an empty tomb and being a first hand witness to the resurrection, but you do have a story to tell.

A story about how God has been present in your life. Your story doesn’t have to be filled with drama… it just has to be yours.

Sure, God chose some people with wild stories, like Moses the murder and Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute… but God also used people like the farmer Amos and the fishermen James and John and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to pass along the good news of salvation to the world.

And we are here because they did.

We are here because they were not afraid to speak about what God was doing in their lives.

 

Over the next two months here at church, we will be following some of the first disciples of Jesus who were not afraid to talk about what they had seen. And along the way, we will use their stories to help us claim our own story of faith.

We discover in that book of Acts that the message moves from Jerusalm to Samaria and to the ends of the earth… all the way to Des Moines, Iowa in 2015!

But here is the real question we have to wrestle with this morning.

What if they women really had been silent?

What if the disciples had never left Jerusalem?

What if Peter had not gone to Cornelius?

… who would have shared the story?

 

And who is not hearing the story today, because we are too scared to tell it? Who isn’t hearing the good news of God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness because we have been overcome with terror and amazement and haven’t figured out what to say?

 

We have fear in our hearts because we have come face to face with the holy and we are no longer in control. And any encounter with the holy rightly puts awe and trembling in our hearts.

It is the kind of fear portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, as the people rightfully fear and revere Aslan the Lion. He is dangerous, he is righteous and there is no escaping him, no containing him, no forgetting him. He is wild and wonderful.

And the wild and wonderful Christ, who cannot be escaped or contained or forgotten is calling our names and has a word for us to proclaim. That on an old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify us all….and…. AND… this is the part we leave out of the song… AND death itself has been defeated.

Sharron Riessinger Lucas calls this: living in the tension of holy fear and prodigal joy.

We are filled with joy because God has run out to meet us like a father who destroys all barriers in order to welcome home us wayward children! Christ is Risen! Jesus destroyed death in order to give us life! The tomb is empty! Amen!

But in the midst of that joy, that holy fear is present… Because with the empty tomb comes the amazing and awesome announcement that “Jesus is risen and on the loose in this world” (Lucas).

And if God is really out there – really present in this world that we live in… then as the great theologian Karl Barth once said… “each of us has some serious changes to make in our living.”

This morning… you have encountered the presence of God and witnessed the miracle of the resurrection…

So, what will you do?

Will you let fear close your mouths?

Will you roll the stone back in front of the tomb and conveniently forget that this all happened?

Will you be silent?

Or will you find the courage to risk it all to share the good news with the world?

As Mark asks us: when – not if, but when the terror and amazement of the gospel seizes your life – what are you going to do?

Unrecognizeable

As we sit here this morning and think about feasting with the saints, I’m thinking about eating a honey and butter sandwich with my grandpa, my Deda.  I’m Czech, you know, and my Babi and Deda were big parts of my life growing up.

He was a really quiet sort of guy.  He didn’t say much unless you had spent an hour or two shelling walnuts with him at the kitchen table.  Every so often, you would get a story out of him about peeling potatoes in the Korean War or about a neighbor down the street.  He also loved to make up stories and when I was little he had all sorts of silly tales that he would tell us.

In October of 2006, my dad’s dad, my grandpa, my Deda, passed away. It was a long and slow and painful process – with diabetes doing a number on his body and its ability to heal itself. I was living in Nashville at the time, attending seminary, but it was fall break and he was still with us, so I went home to see him.

I got to spend an entire day in the hospital with Deda. It was probably the best day that he had had in a long time. The Hawkeyes were playing that morning and he was aware of the game and together we watched them win. Five or six of us were gathered in the room and he would try to talk, but his throat was sore and ravaged from the breathing tube that had been there. He grunted and moaned, tried to tell us things, but mostly we just held his hand and tried our best to understand. The next day wasn’t nearly so good and the next evening he passed away. Because of my break from school, I was able to be there not only for the funeral, but also stay farther into the week.

Because I was, you know, the seminary student, I did a lot of care-giving during that time.  I gave one of the eulogies at the funeral.  I sat in with my dad and uncles and aunt as they planned the service. I helped to decorate the funeral home ( complete with stalks of corn, pumpkins and gourds). I sat with my Babi.

It felt so good to be home and surrounded by my family during that time, but I remember the hardest part of it was going back to Nashville. Going back to a place where no one knew my grandfather, or even that he had been that sick. Going back to a place where no one knew that he had died or what a gaping hole was left in my life.

But I hadn’t missed any classes because of how the break fell. I didn’t have to call any professors about making up a test or getting the notes from lecture. Everyone had been gone, so there was no reason to notice I was gone.

And so I didn’t tell anyone. I kept my grief to myself. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself out there and be greeted by all of the condolences and “I’m sorry’s” right then, so I hid it all. I don’t think I really wanted to be left alone – but I was somehow embarrassed by my grief.  I felt like I had done an okay job of caring for everyone else and I could probably care for myself too.  I guess I thought that I could handle it on my own.

As long as I’m being honest, I’ve always had this attitude that says, “I can do it myself!” Whether it is putting something together or cooking a new recipe, or, as it turns out, grieving – I’ve always wanted to figure out my own way of doing something. Like I know better than how countless people have done it in the past or will continue to do it in the future.

Our whole culture it seems has that do-it-yourself mentality. We are expected to be strong, resourceful, and even if we don’t have it all figured out – with the right tools, or YouTube video, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.

But you see, the problem is, we were not made to do things ourselves.

It is exactly when we are down and out that we are more in tune with what it really means to be part of the body of Christ.

Christ tells us that it is precisely our places of vulnerability that we will find the promise of God being fulfilled.

The world may think that being vulnerable means you are weak and you can’t cut it, but in the strange and wonderful ways of God, our vunerability is the source of our greatest blessings.

Hear again some those very familiar words of the Beatitudes, but through the Message translation of the bible:

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are-no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

Not only that-count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

The world gets uncomfortable around us, because they don’t understand the Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom full of good news for the poor, freedom for captives, and comfort for those that mourn.

We have been blessed, precisely because of our vulnerability. We have been the poor, the down and out, we have grieved, we have struggled for peace. And we are blessed, because every step of the way, Jesus has been by our side.

The world can’t comprehend the love God has for us and the love we have for one another. And a big part of that love we share is the trust and belief that we can be vulnerable with one another. Our love is the most powerful, when we share our lives with one another, when we are honest about our weaknesses and our need for healing and love and grace.

And yet, that is precisely why the world doesn’t recognize Jesus. It is why the world doesn’t know him. Caught up in our bravado, believing we can do it on our own, John writes in his letter that the world can’t see the love God has for us. If the world can’t understand that love, they it can’t understand why the poor and the brokenhearted would be blessed.

And I experienced this. I tried to grieve on my own when my grandfather died. But I realized I couldn’t do it myself when I back our car into a parking barrier after church the first Sunday I returned to Nashville.

I was actually so anxious about getting away from the church where everyone seemed so happy and whose lives seemed to be so together that I wasn’t paying attention and clipped the parking barrier.

If I had been just an ordinary person of the world, I probably would never have gone back into that church. I would have backed my car out, gone straight to the repair shop, and would have continued quietly carrying my burden. I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have recognized the love God has for us. I would have believed all of those happy people inside of that church building were strange and out of touch and in my grief, I didn’t belong.

But, I worked in that church and for half a second remembered that it was exactly because it was full of strange people that I loved it and them. Those peope inside that building were not perfect. They were happy and blessed precisely because they refused to handle their problems on their own.

I carefully shifted the car back into drive and parked it back in the spot. I got out and I walked back inside. I would deal with the car later. I sat down on the couch in my friend’s office and I just cried. And I finally let someone else be there for me. And I was overwhelmed by the love that community demonstrated.

The church – this body of Christ – should be a place where any and all of us can stand up at any time and freely share our lives with one another. It should be a place where each of us can trust that those joys and concerns and struggles will be heard faithfully and held onto sacredly – that they will be gently placed into God’s hands and that together we will weep, together we will laugh, together we will learn to forgive and live a new way.

That is why our lives are unrecognizeable. It is why we seem so strange to the rest of the world.

So many of the saints that we lift up this morning were those strange and unrecognizeable and wonderful people. They gave so much of their lives to this church and to other people.

You know their stories far better than I do.

You know how they loved one another.

You know how they shepherded the church through adversity.

You know how they leaned on one another in difficult times.

You learned from them what it means to be strange and unrecognizeable… what it means to be blessed.

And from them, we have learned how to share those blessings to others.

I’ve heard this saying many times in my life – when you share joy, you double it, when you share a burden, you cut it in half.

That is what community is for, that is what the body of Christ is for – to help you to carry your burdens and your joys.

Being a part of community means being vulnerable with one another, but the strength of the body of Christ is shown when we do whatever we can through God’s power to overcome that weakness.

And we can do so because we know death is not the end. Because we believe that sickness is not a curse. Because we have faith in the power of the resurrection and because we have seen miracles. We have felt the power of prayer. We know what hope truly is.

The saints we celebrate today are part of the people of God and present with us in this very room as we break bread and feast at the heavenly banquet.

And that is why this place and this people are so strange and wonderful.

I Am dust and ashes

Landon Whitsitt had a thoughtful post about how we engage with Lenten disciplines today: Giving up chocolate and beer for Lent is not what Jesus had in mind. In it, he reminds us about the basics of spiritual practices surrounding Lent: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. He reminds us that it is not about us at all.

I have realized that most of the times I have given something up for Lent or taken something on, it was for my own benefit.  It was so I could do something for God – sacrifice something I cared about so God would be more pleased with me.  The practices were hoops I jumped through.  Sometimes they were rigorous disciplines, sometimes they were difficult, and they have helped me to focus on God… but it all revolved around me.  What I could do, what I would gain, how I was living out my faith.

If Lent is truly about dependence on God,  if it is about our time in the wilderness, our discovery of who we are and whose we are… then Lent is about letting go of “me.”

In the anthology, Speaking of Silence: Christans and Buddhists in Dialogue, there is an interesting discussion about what it means to be “me.”  What is the self?  What is its relationship to the divine? To briefly summarize the conversation, Lodrö Dorje begins:

The Buddhist path is therefore primarily concerned with the question of how to see through ego, how to tame it, and how to let it go.  (pg. 157)

Father George Timko responds with an analogy:

When you put it [a sugar cube] into a cup of tea or coffee, the sugar dissolves, and yet it is still there.  It is there in a completely different way, in a different dimension: it is no longer there as a cube.  So, as Gregory of Nyssa would say, “We have to be dissoved and to be in Christ.” You are no logner there as an “I,” as an individualized center or self. There is no “you.” You are dead, as Saint Paul experienced…

We just simply don’t want to completely let go of that self, so we say, my true self is there. There is no such thing as a true self or a false self.  There is only the self or the no-self. And as Saint John Chrysostom said, “He alone truly knows himself, who knows himself as nothing.”  (pg. 158-9)

As the conversation continues  Joseph Goldstein adds:

I could play the Zen role here a little bit, and ask whether it really is a question of dissolving anything, or whether it is just that in a moment we see that the self never was.  I think we could speak from both perspectives.  Really there is nothing to dissolve, because the self was never there in the first place. (pg. 164)

to which David Steindl-Rast responds:

But how so many Christians have been stuck in this imaginary projection!  How they have clung tenaciously, thinking that the Christina way is based on promoting the ego from the level on which it is now, to some super-level in heaven!

Goldstein:

Well, it is an appealing idea, Brother David!

It is an appealing idea.  We want to please God and be faithful and follow the rules and reap the rewards.  We want to hear the call and respond.  And it is SO difficult to not focus on that individual achievement and to instead let go.

As the Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, they were forced to lay aside their past, to stop forging gods with their own hands, and to embrace a life of dependence upon the one who is the creator of all.  They were shaped not as they desired, but as God desired.

As Jesus wandered for forty days in the wilderness, he let go of what he could be, denied the temptation to achieve all the amazing things he could have, in order to accept the call to die to self and live in God.

And as I enter this time of Lent, I am challenged to stop focusing on myself and what will benefit me spiritually and what I can do to please the Lord and instead place my life into those hands.

Lent is a time to die to oneself… or maybe to realize that your “self” never was.

I am nothing.

I am a dissolved sugar cube in a cup of coffee.

I am dead and in the tomb.

It is Christ who lives in me. It is the Spirit who has given me breath. It is God who has enabled me to love.

Ashes to Ashes… Dust to Dust.