Seeing Easter, Practicing Resurrection

A sermon based on Isaiah 52:1-2, 7-12 and Matthew 28:1-10 preached on April 16th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s stunning how sparse the gospels are about that first Easter morning. All four of the gospels tell the greatest story ever told, and each of the writers was free to use as many words, paragraphs, pages as they needed to do so. But they all tell the Easter story in 10 verses or less. That’s it. Maybe a half a chapter. I want more. I want details. There’s so much about that first Easter morning that’s left unsaid.

It’s not as if the writers of the gospels are impatient when it comes to details. They all devote more than half their pages to the last week of Jesus’ life. Details galore! We know more about those last six days of Jesus life and ministry than all the rest combined. But the Resurrection? What we have is bare bones. The language is sparse—void of any detail. If there was any story in all of scripture to write chapters upon chapters about, this is it! Tell us more about the empty tomb, the angel who moved the stone, the earthquake it all caused.

Why is the story of Easter told so sparsely—with plain, hurried, ambiguous, fuzzy language? Maybe it’s because the gospel writers had no words for what happened that day. Maybe the story of Easter is so insufficiently told because we have no words for resurrection. It isn’t something that any of us bump up against every day.

If our best language is honed from all the ordinary, everyday stuff of our lives, from our repetitive experiences—grocery shopping, folding clothes, making eggs, cleaning up after our children—then we’re going to be speechless here. Resurrection isn’t like any of that. The only one with words that morning was the angel.

Emily Dickinson once wrote,

The truth must dazzle gradually or else every person would go blind.

We’re still being dazzled, gradually, by the resurrection promise of Easter. The light of it is too much to handle all at once.

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Have you ever noticed that Easter is not as heavily commercialized as Christmas? Yes, there’s still a huge section in every store that’s full of Easter candy, baskets, eggs, and green cellophane straw, but Easter is not nearly the overly materialistic juggernaut that Christmas is. Why is that?

Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner wonders about that on paper when he asserts that Easter is entirely different than Christmas. Christmas, Jesus is a tiny baby, and we’ve all held a tiny baby in our hands. We can comprehend such a thing as that. We know what cradles look like, so it doesn’t take much for us to imagine what a manger stall might be. There’s so much about Christmas that’s ordinary, every day. As Matthew and Luke tell their nativity stories, we can see it happen in our mind’s eye. It’s as familiar as life itself.

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At first the only thing the two Marys had to go on was an empty tomb, and there’s nothing about emptiness for us to hold onto.Easter is elusive. It escapes our grasp.

Matthew says that Mary took hold of Jesus’ feet, but that’s about all anyone in our story could handle in those first moments. And as Easter went onward, everyone who saw the resurrected Jesus had nothing to grab on to. Jesus raised from death to life overwhelms us. That’s why Easter can’t be stapled down by manufacturers of toys or electronics, clothes or jewelry. We have no idea what to make of resurrection. In order to talk about it, we have to borrow language from angels.

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Not only is our language and imagination too small to adequately describe the Good News of the empty tomb and Jesus alive among us. So is creation. With the truth of the empty tomb, the earth itself shook. That’s what happens when heaven invades earth. Earth is overwhelmed. The natural world loses its moorings. It has to make way for a thing this big! God’s news of resurrection cannot, will not leave the earth, this cosmos, or any one of us in it, unmoved. Resurrection is a Divine alarm clock that shakes us all awake—that stirs an inattentive world to life.

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The guards who stood watch outside Jesus’ tomb were to make sure everything stayed right where it was supposed to—but with one look at the angel descending from the heavens, they became like dead men. An interesting detail, isn’t it?! On a day full of new life, amid a moment when God invades the earth with Easter-vitality, the guards become like dead men.

We should all be stunned by the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s only the unbelieving among us who are stopped dead in their tracks, frozen in place. It’s the women, the ones who believed—as fearful as they were in that moment—who move into action, joy-filled, fear-filled action. Easter is that moment when we who believe are jump-started alive and awake—full of fear, yes, but also more alive than we’ve ever been!

And we’re not the only ones stirred to joyful and fearful action. All of creation is jump-started by the promise of resurrection. This news of the angels is enough to rattle heaven and earth. Even the stones shout out with joy. Absolutely nothing is unmoved by the promise of Jesus-alive! The earthquake is a message God sends: Not a single one of us can meet the resurrected Jesus without being shaken all the way down to our very bones.

To meet Jesus is for the ground to give way beneath our feet, for everything we thought was settled about our lives—not least, the notions we have about the way the world works, and the way that God works in the world—to be thrown out of kilter. Easter is the seismic center of God’s story and ours, and it jolts awake those of us who too easily become comfortable in our faith. That’s what God’s Good News does.

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According to Matthew, it’s only the two Mary’s who see Jesus that first Easter morning. None of the other disciples lay eyes on the resurrected Jesus that day. They’re left to catch up with what God is doing by traveling back home to Galilee.

Go to Galilee,

Jesus says to the two Mary’s.

There, the disciples will see Him.

The tomb is empty. We can look inside if we want to. But there’s nothing there. Yes, it was occupied yesterday, but if there’s anything for us to be sure of about Easter, it’s that yesterday—all of our yesterdays—don’t matter anymore. Easter brings an end to all of our yesterdays, and it sets us on our feet toward our tomorrows. Go to Galilee, Jesus says. There the disciples will find their Lord.

Do you know what that means, friends?  It means that we have been anticipated! By the time we have any clue about what God is up to on Easter morning, the tomb has already been emptied. By that time, He had already made His way to Galilee! And from now on, we who call ourselves disciples will spend our lives catching up to Jesus. That’s the message in all of this! Go to Galilee, He says. God always has a head start on us! Seeing Easter and practicing resurrection means going to Galilee.

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Galilee was home for those 11 disciples. That first Easter day, the followers of Jesus spent their afternoon walking away from Jerusalem and back home. That’s where Jesus wanted them—in their own neighborhoods, strolling the streets, in the shops along the dusty roads of their own hometown. With and among the locals. That, friends, is how we practice resurrection. By going to Galilee, which is a way of saying, “Take the news of Jesus-alive and resurrected back home with you!” Spend slow time making Easter and the reality of resurrection that comes with it a reality for everyone you see. And do it every day, in your coming and going, right where you find yourself the most. Practice resurrection while you work, and play; while you do the dishes, as you watch out your window at the neighborhood kids playing kickball. See Easter as you visit the sick in hospitals. As you go to work, or buy your groceries, or do your laundry.

Go to Barboursville, West Virginia.

If we were there that first Easter morning, that’s what Jesus would have said to us.

There you will see me.

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Go to Galilee. Because that’s where resurrection happens. Go to Galilee! Because that’s where eternal life begins. Right here, right now. As in heaven, so on earth. Go to Galilee! Because Easter is underway, and it unfolds right where we find ourselves. Go to Galilee! Don’t wait for the future before you find abundant life. It’s all right here. In front of us! Go to Galilee—all those tens of thousands of Galilees around us!

So don’t stay here. Go. If there’s anything true about Easter, it’s that Jesus never stays put. Even tombs with big boulders blocking the entrance can’t keep Him penned in. We will not find Jesus where we think we will. He’s ahead of us. He’s made our way for us, and we will have to leave a day’s worth of footprints in order to catch up to Him. So, keep walking. That’s the Easter life. That’s also the life of discipleship.

May we pray to be dazzled by the Truth of Easter, not all at once but gradually—slowly stirred awake and alive by the resurrection promise of this and every day! May we, too, make our way to Galilee, for there we will see Him.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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Be Fed

A sermon based on Psalm 63:1-8 and Isaiah 55:1-13 preached on World Communion Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Sermon Audio

The changing of the seasons is a wondrous thing. Just a few weeks ago we were in our bathing suits, diving into pools to cool ourselves down, and now all the sudden cold rain is falling from the sky, and we find ourselves fighting the temptation to turn on the heat in our houses just because it feels too early to give in to the colder weather, as if our stubborn resistance to the inevitable changing of the seasons will somehow keep the warm weather among us for a bit longer.

Even if we invite the change of Summer into Fall, each and every year still the same, this abrupt changing of seasons takes us all by surprise. The lavish growing season is past and now among us is the Harvest, where we gather in what we need to last the upcoming winter. It’s in these colder seasons that our traveling circles grow smaller. We stay closer to home. We take out the extra blankets from our closets and drape them over our beds and our sofas. We huddle in closer to one another. We rely on one another a little more to get through the unkind weather that awaits us. Such is the signal that Autumn sends out.

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Last November in New York City, about 500 people gathered at Saint Bartholomew’s Church the day after Thanksgiving to eat together. The meal was catered, and guests were served roasted turkey, buttered mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, and pumpkin cheese cake, among other fine foods provided by some of the greatest chefs in Manhattan. Each table was adorned with red table cloths and candles. The guests were serenaded by piano and saxophone. Some well-off residents paid $100 for a place at this great banquet. Others there paid nothing. Nothing at all. But each were invited to the feast, anyway. See, this was a holiday dinner for the homeless, and each $100 ticket paid for 2, maybe even 3 plates. Some of Manhattan’s most well-off residents paid the bill in exchange for the honor of eating side-by-side with some of their worst-off neighbors. There in that hallowed space of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, a wonderful, sacred thing happened—something with the power to change everyone who gathered around table that day.

The host that day said he was encouraged that only 2 of 167 people who bought dinners asked not to be seated with the more than 250 homeless people there. At each table, there was a host assigned to foster conversations between the well-to-do and the homeless—to make everyone there feel at ease—and the night was a smashing success. They hope to do it again this year. They also hope that it becomes a nation-wide trend.

One of the paying guests had this to say:

How many parties do you go to with people of the same socio-economic status and you’re bored to tears? It’s good to mix it up.

One homeless man declared to his fellow tablemates with a smile upon his face and a good amount of dignity in his voice,

Tonight, I’m not homeless.

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Today we gather for a Feast around the Lord’s Table. On this World Wide Communion Sunday, we share in a meal with countless Christians in many different places who gather around the same table because, just like us, they have been invited to come—to be reminded that wherever a community gathers together in God’s name, there everyone will have a place at the Table—will be fed, nourished, sustained, and upheld.

There’s no A- or B-list here. No qualifications needed, no reservations required. No labels like homeless or well-to-do. We all come to this table with empty hands. In fact, that’s the only way to come. We must come knowing that no matter what we could bring, it would never be enough. We must come only with our hunger and our thirst, nothing more. In fact, if we brought anything else to this table, it would only show our distrust of God’s powerful ability to sustain us. All we’re told to bring is our emptiness, asking that God may fill it at this meal. God is our host–out Heavenly Host–as we gather around this Table. It is here that we are reminded of God’s great love for us. Here, we are astounded that we have a God who ardently and zealously seeks and finds us, calls us His own, and ushers us in and says to us, “come, accept, delight, and be fed!”

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There are so many empty things in our lives. So many questions we’d like answered. So many relationships we’d like healed. Most of us have made mistakes that we regret making, some of which may have changed the course of our lives in one way or another. We have all said cruel things to others. Thought even more cruel things about others. We have valued things that weren’t worth valuing, people who weren’t worth our time and effort; and we have too easily dismissed other things and other people who we wish we had valued more. God knows about all of these things—our brokenness, our failures, our mistakes and shortcomings—and invites us to the banquet, not despite them, but because of them. Because we who are hungry and undernourished and broken need to be fed with the right things.

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It’s at this Table where we will find, as Isaiah suggests, what’s truly valuable, worth partaking in, worth giving ourselves to. He exclaims in verse 2,

Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?

We hear voices all over the place, no matter where we go, that do a great job convincing us of what we need to buy, and be, and do, and accomplish. Most of them are offers to spend our money, our effort, and our time, our devotion. And don’t we realize, after buying in, that whatever it was they were selling wasn’t worth buying in the first place? It never really delivered on its promise to fill a missing need of ours. We find out that, whatever it is, it was wasn’t made to satisfy us, but only to appease us temporarily.

This message from Isaiah isn’t only an invitation to a meal. It’s an invitation to assess what’s important and what will truly satisfy. That’s what stewardship is. At its heart, stewardship is earnest reflection upon those things in our lives that have true value and worth. It’s the practice of setting our hearts in the right place, so that we can do all we do—live or entire lives, time, talent, treasure, and all—giving ourselves to those things that truly build us up and nourish us—and our whole being to things that satisfy. The rest are empty calories, junk food for the heart, mind, body, and soul. God wants us to be satisfied, but only with the right things.

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We’re entering Stewardship season. Next week and for the rest of October, we will hear from each of our Committee chairs about what we have done this last year, and what we hope, with God’s help and direction, to accomplish in the coming year. Stewardship season too easily gets whittled down to money. There are, indeed, important questions and considerations we will focus upon this next month that have to do with money, but stewardship is bigger than that.

This month, there will be a time for you and your loved ones to consider how much to give to the the mission and ministry of your church, and we will talk about that, but stewardship season is also a time to ask ourselves bigger questions—far greater questions, like:

How much time and energy do I spend simply sustaining my existence—the existence of my family—rather than celebrating a Divinely-inspired life?

That question is printed on a slip of paper right in front of you. And this one, too:

How can each of my days be lived as if I am the one invited to a lavish banquet of God’s grace?

Keep this slip of paper. These questions are for you. They are your preparation for this Stewardship season.

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And here’s the most important thing about the Stewardship season: It starts here. At the Lord’s Table. With God as our Host—our Heavenly Host—treating us to feast. Without money. At no cost at all. Here’s the thing about what happens at this Table that you’ll never see anywhere else: In a world of self-service, scarcity, stinginess, and empty calories; when we gather together for this feast, we don’t feed ourselves. Instead, we are fed. Here, we rely not upon our own own devices, our own worthiness, our ability to afford this meal: We cannot afford it. It’s simply impossible to afford it. It is instead given to us, lavished upon us, because God is gracious and merciful to us. Come, and be fed!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.