Monday, April 27, 2015

April 26 Sermon:The Lord is My Shepherd

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters
He restoreth my soul
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me,
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Isn’t it wonderful. I mean, it’s just wonderful on its own, and you don’t really need a complicated sermon on the topic. It’s funny—every time I hear the 23rd Psalm I hear it in the old King James, just because the poetry is so beautiful, it almost moves me to tears. But the thing is, so few of these images are actually modern, you know. I mean, I know what it is like to like down in green pastures, I guess, or at least I can imagine it. But I don’t walk through many actual valleys. I don’t know what it means to be comforted by a rod or a staff, or to be anointed with oil. Or rather, I know in my head what it means, but I don’t experience it regularly. That’s not what my life looks like, is what I mean to say.
And yet, it comforts me. This passage comforts me. It brings me peace. I can’t read it aloud without offering a big exhale at the end of it. Sometimes we just need that, you know? Life gets so crazy, work is nuts and home’s not much better, if you’re not driving between ballet and soccer practice, you’re pulling the dog out of the dishwasher or trying to catch up on emails at 2 in the morning or my God, just trying to get some sleep, and then Sunday morning comes around and good grief, maybe we ought to just read this 23rd Psalm every week and dispense with the rest of it.
I mean, there’s something about this psalm that really is calming. There’s a reason we call this scene, a lush pasture, something out of a painting, we call it “pastoral,” which the dictionary defines as having the simplicity, the serenity generally attributed to rural areas. And the root word, “pastor,” comes from the Latin word for Shepherd. This is where we get that name, and you read this psalm, and you get it. The Lord is my shepherd.
And yet for as calming as this is, I do think it is important to look at it realistically and note that the actual business of being a shepherd was anything but pastoral, at least in the sense of the idyllic. Being a shepherd, in the context of this psalm, was really pretty gross. I mean, you were out in the cold for weeks at a time, without showering of course, and your job was simply this: to protect a bunch of sheep who smelled even worse than you did, from getting stolen or eaten by wolves. We have this lovely picture of a guy dressed in white with a well-carved shepherd’s crook and a well-manicured beard, but that’s not it at all. Being a shepherd was difficult work.
And I admit to liking that a little bit as I think about God being a shepherd. I like the idea that God’s a little dirty, that God has dirty hands and nails and is less concerned with maintaining a perfect image and more concerned about taking care of me, taking care of all of us. God isn’t some idealized version of a deity that we can never approach. God gets dirty. God stays out in the woods with us at night. God leads us from where we are, rather than calling from some faraway, unreachable hill. In fact, the Gospel of John tells us, that God is so much right there with us that we will not be left alone. The good shepherd, it says, lays his life down for his sheep. That’s the very opposite of the kind of God I think we think of sometimes, the kind of God, who, like the hired hand in John’s Gospel, stands so far away that the sheep are left to fend for themselves. God is with us, right here with us, in the midst of the dangers, and the snares, in the midst of the dirt and the mess of life.
Why, when you think of it that way, this is a revolutionary idea, the idea of Jesus as shepherd. As a pastor, as someone whose very title comes from the latin word for shepherd, I am very moved by this idea, that to truly love people you must be among them, not some high priest, the height of the pulpit here at North Decatur notwithstanding, but down in the dirt. That is where I need God, not when things are great, but when my life is in danger, or when I feel like I’m wandering like a sheep without direction. That’s where God lives, among us, here, in this life, in this crazy life, with its soccer practices and midnight email. That is good news, unquestionable good news.
I will admit, however, that when I am stuck in the weeds, when I find myself in the wilderness, while it is good to know that God is with me, I do crave a way out. I do wish for any way out, someone to make sense of my crazy life and give me a sense of peace. In other words, Psalm 23 is nice, but it doesn’t do much to help me when I am on hour three of sitting on the phone with Todd from Dekalb County trying to get my water bill straightened out.
Do you know what I mean? Yes, this classic passage helps us catch our breath, but if Psalm 23 is just a rest stop on a crooked highway, what good is it? What good does it to do take a temporary side trip from your crazy life only to have that craziness bedevil you, hang over your head the whole time? You might as well not take the vacation.
I mean, seriously, this kind of thing makes me think of what had to be the most miserable vacation of my whole life. I had some big project hanging over my head at church, I don’t even remember what it was, but there we were on the beach, on the blessed beach, and I couldn’t seem to do anything but keep checking my phone to make sure everything back at the church was going like it needed to. There were a lot of moving parts, and somehow I decided it was my job to make sure they were all still moving, from my beach chair, on the beach, on vacation, which was supposed to be from work.
I am ashamed to admit that it took me about halfway through vacation to realize I wasn’t on vacation at all, in fact, I was still at work; I was just telecommuting from a very expensive office. I might as well have just stayed home. In the interest of trying to stay on top of things, I’d both made myself miserable and made my life harder than it would have been if I hadn’t even been on vacation.
And one day, as we sat on the beach and I wiped sunscreen off the screen of my phone so that I could check it one more time, Stacey finally said, you know, you aren’t the most important person in the world. The church is going to be there when you get back.
She was right, of course. She was right. The psalm doesn’t say, I am my own shepherd, I shall not want; I leadeth myself beside the still waters. The Gospel doesn’t say, the sheep really don’t need the shepherd to lay his life down for them because they can fight enemies off on their own. It says, the Lord is my shepherd. Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down from his sheep.
I guess what I mean to say is that when I am stuck in that mess, when I feel like Psalm 23 is just a rest stop on the road to more insanity, maybe I ought to spend less time trying to get myself out of the mess and more time trusting in the One who promises to lead me beside the still waters, who pledges to lead me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Maybe I ought to spend less time trying to be my own shepherd, and more time letting the good shepherd do what he’s good at.
You’d think I would know this. You’d think we all would know it. I mean, after all, Jesus is the guy we have professed to model our lives after, and yet, for some reason, rather than putting all of our trust in him, all of my trust in his grace, we seem to want to save a little for ourselves. You know, just sort of dip a little bit out, like it won’t hurt anything, a little bit more here, a little bit more there, until the trust I have left for Jesus pales in comparison to the effort I put into trying to figure things out on my own, and it’s no surprise I’m in this mess.
It seems obvious, but we have trouble trusting the shepherd, trusting Jesus, which is funny because it’s that it’s not like this is his first rodeo. We’ve been doing this for two thousand years, and when you include the Old Testament, more thousands than that. In fact, I don’t usually get bogged down in talking about what this or that word meant in the original language, but in the 23rd psalm, when we talk about God leading us along the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, it is the case that the Hebrew word that is translated as “path of righteousness” is used elsewhere in the Bible to mean “track” or “entrenchment,” as in the kind of rut that is carved into the ground by decades and centuries and millennia of ox-carts. If you have had the chance to go to some of the great ancient European cities, you know what I am talking about. When I visited Pompeii a number of years ago, I was struck by how deep those grooves were. Here we were walking on stone, and you had to watch your step because if you didn’t, you’d trip on grooves in the rode several inches deep! They weren’t carved in the road. They were worn in the road. When we talk about the paths of righteousness, we’re not talking about something somebody clear cut yesterday. We’re talking about centuries of people taking the same road.
In fact, the scholar Joel LeMon, who is up the road at the great Candler School of Theology and who also happens to be a jazz musician says that “walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God.”
I don’t know about you, but I am intrigued by this idea, that when you are in the weeds, when you are out in the wilderness like sheep in the night, you’d be better served to spend less of your time trying to find your way out of the wilderness and more of your time trying to find your righteous groove. You ought to worry less about the fact that life is messy and worry more about your relationships with your neighbors, and your God. You ought to be less concerned with the mess and more concerned with love, for love is the most well-traveled path there is.
Maybe, if you’ve brought some of the wilderness with you this morning, that isn’t completely encouraging, and I acknowledge that it takes a good deal of trust. But if I learn anything from this business of God being shepherd, it is that while walking that path of righteousness isn’t easy, there are hundreds, thousands of years-worth of footsteps to follow, and between the shepherd and those billions and billions of footsteps following him, they’ve worn that rocky ground awfully smooth.
For yea, though I walk the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me,
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


Monday, April 20, 2015

April 19 Sermon: The Love That Lets Us Share Our Name

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

1 John 3:1-7
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
I’ve had this song stuck in my head all week and I’ve heard that the best way to get a song out of your head is to get it stuck in somebody else’s, so I want to do that from the pulpit this morning. It’s a song called “Murder in the City” and I first heard it covered by Brandi Carlile but it is originally by the Avett Brothers, and incidentally those are both bands you should know. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers says that he wrote it because he gets paranoid when he travels, and he’s been known to leave notes with instructions in case he doesn’t make it home. I’m not quite that bad, but I get the instinct. I’m a pretty nervous traveler. Every time I travel, before I get on the airplane, I make sure my affairs are in order, that the bills are paid, that sort of thing. Stacey laughs at me because I have airplane shoes, which are comfortable, reliable shoes I know I can run in in case I need to get away from the plane quickly, as if that would make any difference from 10,000 feet in the air.
At any rate, I get the sentiment. And maybe that’s an unusual premise for a song, but it’s a sweet song, really. The final verse goes like this: “If I get murdered in the city, go read the letter in my desk. Don’t bother with all my belongings. Pay attention to the list. Make sure my sister knows I loved her. Make sure my mother knows the same. Always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.”
I think that’s a pretty profound statement, that there’s nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Why, it reminds me of this morning’s scripture passage, the kind of love the writer of 1 John tells us we have been given by the God who claims you as God’s own child.
I have to tell you, I find it to be one of the most striking things about the Christian religion that we are all adopted as children of God. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you are God’s beloved child. Black, white, rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, prostitute, politician, screaming baby, sullen teenager, hipster, brony, sinner, saint: you are welcomed in God’s name.
I will tell you, this is not just a church growth strategy. We don’t take all people just because it makes the church grow. We welcome all people in God’s name because the Bible tells us to do this! And because being reminded that each of us is God’s beloved child is increasingly important in a world that constantly tries to divide us. I have quite a view up here as the pastor, and I can tell you that when we celebrate Holy Communion, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper--we’ll do this next week in fact—when I break the bread and raise the cup, and I say the bit about the fact that this is not the United Methodist Table, but that it is God’s table, and that if you are here, you are invited to participate, because you are God’s beloved child . . . you can hear a pin drop. It’s probably the most profound moment we experience together. It is not unusual for me to look out and see people crying. You can sort of feel the emotion in the room rise, because, my God, everybody wants to be loved, and here it is, on display, this love so powerful that it claims you as God’s own child.
The same thing happens at a baptism. I have said this before but I love that we baptize infants in our tradition. Each time it happens, it is a reminder that even before we can speak God’s name, even before we can accept God’s grace for ourselves, it is offered to us. It is given to us. We are claimed by God as part of God’s family, and it is an incredibly moving thing to watch a community of faith respond to that claiming with a claiming of their own, so that it is not just that God claims each of us as God’s child and that’s all there is to it. There are no only children in the kingdom of God! If we are all children of God, we are all connected, we are all responsible for one another. It as the hymn says, I am the church, you are the church, we are the church, together.
But it is not enough to revel in that connection to God and to one another and to leave it there. Yes, we are children of God, yes, we are members of God’s family together, but if it matters that we are God’s children—and I think we agree that it does—then surely we can agree that there are expectations of being’s God’s child. Surely we can agree that if it means something to be a part of God’s family, we ought to respond somehow to this great gift.
This is where I think 1 John is particularly helpful, where untangling the scripture that Hannah read this morning can help us understand how we ought to respond to this gift. Some of it is obvious, I guess, when you think about it. Whether or not the whole “God as parent” image is helpful to you, whether or not you were fortunate enough to have loving parents, everybody has people in their lives they’ve looked up to, who have shown them love along the way, and so the obvious thing is to mirror that love, to share it with others. Of course, it’s easier said than done, mirroring that love, for in our relationship with God we encounter a love so powerful that it will knock you on your rear and make you reprioritize everything. It’s a love so powerful that it is liable to mess you up. And so it’s not as easy as just mirroring it, because I’ll be honest. I’m just not yet at a place in my own spiritual life where I can share that kind of love without working at it, without being intentional to respond to it. And this is where 1 John is helpful, because it tells us how to respond to that love.
What it says is this: purify yourself. Purify yourself. Maybe that sounds a little unusual, purifying yourself, but it just means that we ought to move away from sin, that we ought to try to become better vessels of love. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we all probably realize we have a ways to go in this department.
After all, sin is just what happens when we do things that don’t honor that great love that comes from being claimed as God’s child. It’s what happens when we do not do God’s will, when we rebel against God’s love, when we do not love our neighbors, when we do not hear the cry of the needy. And to honor that calling as a child of God is to move past sin, to say, I am not perfect, I am not capable of saving myself, but just as we all agreed to do this morning, with God’s help, I will so order my life after the example of Christ that I can move in the direction of love. That’s not to say you’re ever going to have it all together, or that the process of working through your sin is going to be easy. But it is to say that to honor God, we can’t pretend nothing is different. We can’t live as if that love doesn’t exist.
This is why, as a pastor, I never shy away from telling people who want to join the church that there are some expectations! Everybody’s welcome here, sinner and saint alike, but if you want to be a Christian, if you want to be a member of God’s church, there are some expectations, and I think that’s fair. I think it is fair to expect that if you want to be a member of God’s church—and I hope you do!—that you do your best to honor this passage of scripture, to say, “I am God’s beloved child. I best act like it!”
I mean, this isn’t some club you’re joining. It’s the Body of Christ. We ask everybody who joins the church to be loyal to Jesus Christ through this church and uphold the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ! I think these are all fair expectations! They aren’t easy, but they seem to me to be fair responses to being claimed by love! I think it is fair to expect people to pray: to pray for yourself, for your family, for the world and for this church, that it would thrive, that it would reach out and show new heights and depths of love to the North Decatur Community. I hope you’re praying that prayer—if not, now’s a great time to start! I think it’s fair to expect people to uphold the church with their presence, to be here when they are in town because the church is stronger when you are here! I think it’s fair to expect that you’ll serve others and share your witness, that you’ll share the love of God out in the world in word and deed, for these are essential parts of what it means to respond to God’s love, essential parts of what it means to be a Christian.
And I think it’s fair to expect you to respond to your calling as a child of God by sharing the talents you have been given and the resources God has entrusted you with. So when I have this conversation with people about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, I try to be really clear. To respond to God’s love is to offer all of yourself to God, and that includes your money! We certainly don’t require people to tithe, which is the Biblical standard of giving 10% of your income to the church, but we do say that we expect that you move in that direction. Start with 1% if that’s what you’re ready to give, and then next year, bump it up to 2, because responding to God’s love means growing in faith. And it’s not about paying some sort of dues, or a pay-to-play kind of thing. It’s about being generous. It’s about having the kind of generosity that allows the church to do what it is supposed to do, which is reach out in love to brand new people, to share with them the good news that they beloved by God, that whether they knew it or not they are part of the family, too! That whether or not “family” is a dirty word to them, no matter their experience searching for love, there is a love even greater than what they hope for, and it is found in this place, among these people, from the God who claims each of us as children.
I know, I know these expectations are not easy. I struggle with them, too. I also know how to daydream about how I could have spent that 10% of my paycheck every time it’s drafted from my bank account. I know that following Jesus is not easy. But I also know you’re not here this morning for lack of better things to do. I am aware of the great Sunday brunch specials in Downtown Decatur. I know you don’t have to be here. But here you are. And maybe I’m way off base, but I have a sneaking suspicion you know there are expectations, that you like that there are expectations, because anything meaningful has them. Anything worth doing is worth doing on purpose. And if we are to be called children of God, if we are to wear that name, we ought to act like it.
I will end with this. A friend of mine was telling me the other day what it was like to grow up learning from his father, who was the kind of person who would give a stranger the shirt off his back but who had high expectations for his own children. And when my friend would complain about having a hungry neighbor over for dinner, or about the inconvenience of helping a stranger, his father would sit him down, sort of lower his glasses a little bit, and say, “Son, we are Johnsons. This is what we do.”

So it is with the children of God, with those of us who call ourselves Christians, who literally take our name from the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to recognize that the great love that claims you as God’s own child is a love worth responding to. It is to always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Sermon, April 5: Room to Run

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
John 20:1-18
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.
It was still dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and I will admit that there are days when I know how she feels. The writer and preacher Shannon Johnson Kershner says that Mary is someone who has experienced so much darkness that her eyes have adjusted to it, and if that is the case, my eyes have adjusted, too. I know what it is like to experience darkness. It seems like every other day, some unspeakable tragedy comes across my news feed. It is really hard to shock me these days. There is so much darkness out there that it can make a person feel stuck, like you’re out of options to battle it, boxed in with no place to go.
Maybe you can relate. I do not need to tell you that the world can be a dark place, that the circumstances of our lives can make us feel stuck, and so perhaps we should all join Mary Magdalene in this journey this morning, this search for light in the midst of darkness.
And so it is that on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb of Jesus so that she may grieve, and she finds that his grave been desecrated. The thing that couldn’t possibly have been made worse was made worse. Someone had pried open the tomb, rolled away the stone, and stolen Jesus’s body. It is the sort of thing that boggles the mind, the kind of tragic horror that seems so beyond the pale that you can’t even really imagine it. Sure, they’d killed Jesus, Mary’s friend and savior, but surely, now, they’d finally leave him alone. And then this.
So she high-tails it back to where the rest of the disciples were gathered, and she tells them what has happened, that someone has taken the body of the Lord, and Simon Peter and another disciple drop everything they are doing, take off for the tomb, run as fast as they can, so focused on the goal that one of them started to outrun the other but just kept going anyways, until he reached the tomb.
The first disciple approaches the tomb and sees the linen wrappings that had been placed around Jesus’s body lying in a pile on the floor of the tomb, and he stands outside the tomb and waits for Peter to come in. And when Peter does get there, he goes inside the tomb, and Jesus is indeed gone. Peter sees the linen wrappings, but he also sees the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’s head, and it’s not in a pile. It’s neatly rolled up, as if Jesus had said to himself, I’m not going to need this anymore, so I might as well clean up after myself so that the next guy doesn’t have to deal with the mess.
And it is when they see that rolled up cloth that they know that this isn’t a grave robbery. Grave robbers wouldn’t have bothered to roll up the cloth. They’d have taken it, or let it fall on the ground under the cover of the same darkness that Mary Magdalene brought with her. And seeing this, the disciples believe. They understand that while it is true that Jesus is not there, it isn’t that his body has been stolen. It’s that it has left on its own accord. And so the disciples, John’s Gospel tells us, go back to their homes.
I have to say, that despite the detective skills of Peter and the other disciple, I am most impressed with Mary Magdalene in this story. For even though she has already come to the tomb, found it empty, and run to tell the disciples, she comes back. She turns around and comes back to the tomb, and I wonder what she was thinking. I mean, there wasn’t anything there. Just an empty cavern, a rolled back stone, some old linens. And yet something must have told her to return, to put one foot in front of the other and walk forward to the empty tomb, to stand there and then to bend over and to look inside, and this time, the tomb isn’t empty at all. There are two angels inside, in fact, dressed in white, one sitting where Jesus’s head had been, another where his foot had been, and you wonder how Mary’s life had been different if she’d stayed home, if she hadn’t ventured back out into the darkness, into the unknown, because even though the grave was empty the first time, even though she was faced with the horror of the abduction of his remains, this time was different.
I don’t know why she came back. They say insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different outcomes.
And yet this is how the mystery of the Resurrection begins, with the same thing happening twice, but the second time, the second time was different.
It is a mystery, of course, the Resurrection. I can’t tell you exactly how it happened. I can’t explain the physics of the Resurrection, just how it is that Jesus is raised from death to life, how his body is able to do the one thing that bodies aren’t able to do, which is quit being dead once they are dead. I don’t know how it happened. In fact, of all the Gospels, of all the stories of Jesus’s life, only one thing, one event happens in pitch dark. It is the Resurrection. We do not know the particulars of how it happened. The Resurrection, this central moment in history, the thing that changes everything forever and ever amen happens between God and Jesus, happens in the dark with nobody else around.
That’s not to say it didn’t happen. It’s not to say I don’t believe it happened. I do. I believe it more deeply than I believe the things I can prove. I’m just saying it takes faith.
Now, I want to acknowledge that faith isn’t always a popular word, and I get that. When hateful groups use the banner of the church to promote racist, homophobic agendas, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When people of faith are resistant to science, the ongoing exploration of the beauty and intricacy of creation, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When the church focuses so much on its own preservation that it misses people starving to death just outside its doors and around the world, when it forgets that the crucifixion teaches us that self-preservation is less important than God’s mission, I understand how faith can have a bad name.
It’s enough to make you feel stuck, like there’s no room to have faith in our modern world.
And yet even in the midst of all of this darkness, faith is what we’re called to have: not a hateful faith, not an anti-intellectual faith, not a self-serving faith, but a faith that acknowledges that there is a love beyond explanation, there is hope beyond tomorrow, there is life beyond death.
And on this day when we read the Easter story once again, when we gather to hear the story of the empty tomb and the risen savior, I am giving thanks for Mary Magdalene, whose eyes had already adjusted to the dark and yet who kept looking for light anyway. That’s faith, you know. Here’s a woman who saw Jesus die, went to the tomb and saw that it had been robbed, and went back anyway. That’s faith. And thank God for it, thank God for the faith of this woman we know very little about, for it wasn’t until her second trip to the tomb that things changed. The two angels. I don’t know what compelled her to go back. She’d seen with her own two eyes the first time. And yet she looked again anyway.
Isn’t this the message of the Resurrection? To experience pain but to look again anyway, because when you are willing to look forward, even in the face of tragedy and death, there is hope on the horizon?
I mean, here’s Mary, returning to the tomb, the scene of the crime, and this time, there are two angels, and they ask her why she is weeping, as if that were unusual behavior at a graveside, and then she turns around and sees the gardener and he asks the same thing, and she says, just tell me where he is. Just tell me—I will go get him. I will break the customs and laws that are supposed to prevent me from touching a dead body and I will go get him. Just tell me where.
Now, we don’t know why Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize that it was Jesus all along. The Gospel of John doesn’t go into specifics as to whether Jesus somehow changed his appearance or if Mary, so distraught at Jesus’s execution and the supposed robbery of his grave, couldn’t bring herself to believe that the Lord was standing in front of her. I get that. She’s watched him be killed. That’s not the kind of thing you usually come back from. Whatever the reason, honestly, I don’t think it matters, because when Jesus hears Mary offer to break her own religious customs for his sake, he simply says her name. Mary.  And she knows. She realizes this is not a gardener but the savior of the world, and despite everything she’s seen happen, despite the trial and the crucifixion, the death and the burial, none of it is strong enough to stand in the way of God’s love.
And, you know, then Mary does the strangest thing. I am not quite sure how to say this, but it is as if she is running in two directions at once. It is as though even though she runs back to tell the other disciples, she’s actually running forward towards hope. Even though she’s returning, she’s running forward into uncharted territory, because she carries with her a message unlike any before, the message of the Resurrection. And the message is this: no matter how stuck you are, no matter the circumstance, no matter your station in life, there is room to run forward. There is nothing so strong, no force in life too strong for God. Fear and greed, bitterness and squalor, pain and loss. None of these things are more powerful than the love of God. Not even death.
This is the message of the Resurrection. Not just that Heaven is for real, though it is. Not just that God will save us, though God does save us, every moment of every day. The message is that there is always room to run forward. The strongest force in the world, death, is no longer the strongest force. It has been defeated by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by the God of love, and because of that defeat, there is always room to run forward. The barriers that used to stand in our way are no longer there. Not even death.
And maybe this is overplayed, and it’s Easter, so you’re already well aware of this, but can you imagine what this means? This defeat of death? It gives us license to stand up to the agents of fear who threaten us because fear no longer wins. Love does. It gives us the ability to go out into the world and proclaim the good news that God loves us, that God loves all of us, that the things that keep us down are no match for God. And at the end of our earthly lives, the Resurrection reminds us that there is room to run forward still, for death is not the final word. There is room for life, even beyond death. There is room to run forward.
This is the message of the Resurrection: that there is life beyond fear, that even in the darkness of the world, even in the darkest moments of our own lives, there is room, for just on the other side of the veil is God’s eternal goodness.
This kind of gift, this kind of grace reorients our lives, because preserving, maintaining is no longer the most important thing. There is a new most important thing, running forward in the name of Christ, because the old things can’t hold us back anymore. Nothing you’ve ever done can hold you back. Nothing you’ve ever done can keep you from God’s love. If not even your own death can separate you from God’s love, nothing stands a chance!
If you ask me, that’s pretty substantial. It helps you understand how Mary Magdalene would run in two directions at once. It helps you understand how people, for two millennia, have dedicated their lives to it.
Why, I have it on good authority that it’s enough to make a person stand in front of the church, in front of God and everybody, to declare his allegiance to God and to accept the waters of baptism. It may even be enough to make the people of God go out into the world to declare that death is no longer in charge, that fear is no longer in charge, that love is in charge, and then in what would have to be the most revolutionary thing of all, to act like we really believe it. And that would shake up everything, everything. Can you imagine? Can you imagine what that would be like?