Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sermon - All in a Word

Isaiah 65:17-25
John 20:1-18

We start Easter morning in despair.  We start with Jesus dead, and a journey to a tomb where we will be comforted by at least preserving the body.  And we go to the tomb and even the body has been taken away.  There is nothing left of the man who was hope, who was God, who had become everything to us in such a short time.  There is nothing left of the one who led, instructed, healed, freed, saved and LOVED us more than his own life.  We start Easter by facing an empty tomb that appears to be a sign that every single part of this Lord we loved has been taken from us.  Everything we have known, everything we counted on, everything we believed and trusted and which gave us life and a reason to get up in the morning, EVERYTHING has been taken.  It is all gone.  There is nothing left.  This, THIS is how Easter begins. 
Women are crying, men are desperate.  And God appears to be silent.  In the face of Jesus’ suffering and death, where is God for those couple days?  He dies on Friday evening.  A day and a half pass and there is nothing.  Emptiness.  Silence. 
BUT, God’s silence is not God’s absence.  I want to say that again because I think there have been times when all of us have felt angry, hurt or abandoned by God.  God’s SILENCE is not God’s ABSENCE.  I think it is sometimes in the silence that God is most profoundly with us.  It’s just that there are times when the pain is so deep, so profound that there is simply nothing left to be said.  Have you ever come across someone at the point of tragedy where you know that there just simply isn’t anything to say?  What do you say to someone who has just been evicted from their home?  What can possibly be said to a child whose dog has died?  What words of comfort are there to a parent whose child has just committed suicide?  Phrases like “it’ll be okay”, or “everything happens for a reason” or “he’s in a better place now” not only mean nothing in those moments but often do more damage than good.  The best we can do is to be present with one another in those times.  Deeply, and completely present.  And that’s what God does. 
We see it first in Jesus.  When Lazarus dies, Jesus first response at seeing the tomb was not to speak words, but to weep.  So, too, when he comes before Pilate.  Pilate asks him “what is truth?” and Jesus does not answer but stands there in the silence – a profound statement in itself. 
Here we see it again.  Jesus has been killed, is dead.  And some of his last words are those feelings that we share, too, when we are faced with tragedy and devastation.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And we feel that too in the face of our Lord’s death.  He is gone.  He is dead.  And now even his body is removed from the tomb, it would seem.  And God?  Where is God in this?  The answer is silence.  Silence for almost two days. 
               But I say to you again, God’s silence is not God’s absence. 
A pearl begins its life inside an oyster's shell when an intruder, such as a grain of sand or bit of floating food, slips in between one of the two shells of the oyster.  In order to protect itself from irritation, the oyster quickly begins covering the uninvited visitor with layers of nacre — the mineral substance that fashions the mollusk's shells. Layer upon layer of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, coat the grain of sand until the pearl is made. 
In the silence, as God sits with us, weeps with us, grieves with us, carries us, God is also doing a new thing.  In the silence, in the quiet, in the stillness, God is transforming the evil into good.  God is changing that which is ugly, devastating and destructive into new breath, new beauty, new meaning.  God is bringing life out of death.  Making the sand and pain and irritation into a pearl.  Can we see it?  Is the silence around us so loud that we cannot see the new thing God is doing?  Like Mary, are we so blinded by our tears that we do not see the risen Lord standing right there beside us, but instead mistake him for the gardener? 
And yet, even then, God has the final word.  Even then, in that moment of ultimate despair when the silence, when the loss was so great that even that which was right before her could not be seen, even in that moment, God reached across the divide, and called for our attention when we did not want to give it.  In that moment, Jesus called Mary by name.  He spoke into her heart, opened her ears to hear that which she could not SEE, and through his voice, his naming her his own, his calling her by her name, he invited her into belief.  And that belief allowed her to SEE, finally.  Because, though we’ve been told that seeing is believing, we here know that the truth is that some things must be believed in order to be seen.  And resurrection is such a thing. 
Resurrection is not a past event.  The God of resurrection, the God who ended the ultimate tragedy and brought Jesus into new life continues to do the same.  That is what God is about.  That is what God does.  Can we believe in it enough to see it?  Can we have the faith to experience the resurrections that surround us?  Whenever a friendship that has died is replaced with a closer friendship that is even stronger.  Whenever a divorced or widowed person meets someone new to love.  Whenever a lost job leads us to find a new job that we really, deeply love.  Whenever our tragedies are made into something new and whole, resurrection is occurring again. 
               But perhaps the even deeper question is not only can we see it, but can we allow ourselves to be part of the resurrection?  I think about the women who began MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  One of the two women was a person who had lost her 13 year old to a drunk driver as the child was walking to a church carnival.  The other was a mother whose 5 ½ month old baby was hit in a car by a drunk driver, leaving her a quadriplegic.  These two women began MADD, taking their rage, their pain and their loss and transforming it into a group that educates, tells the truth and works hard to prevent any further tragedies such as their own.  The tragedy still happened.  Lives have still been lost, others severely and permanently injured. The resurrection doesn’t happen without the scars being there. 
               I was sent this story some time ago and found it appropriate to share with you today:  The author wrote: I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy.  But I had never had a mentally handicapped employee and wasn't sure I wanted one. I wasn't sure how my customers would react to Stevie.  He was short, a little dumpy with the smooth facial features and thick-tongued speech of Downs Syndrome. …I knew people would be uncomfortable around Stevie so I closely watched him for the first few weeks.  I shouldn't have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff wrapped around his stubby little finger, and within a month my truck regulars had adopted him as their official truck stop mascot.  …He was like a 21-year-old kid in blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and eager to please, but fierce in his attention to his duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly in its place, not a bread crumb or coffee spill was visible when Stevie got done with the table. Our only problem was persuading him to wait to clean a table until after the customers were finished. He would hover in the background, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully bus dishes and glasses onto his cart and meticulously wipe the table up with a practiced flourish of his rag. If he thought a customer was watching, his brow would pucker with added concentration. He took pride in doing his job exactly right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each and every person he met.  Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow who was disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They lived on their Social Security benefits in public housing two miles from the truck stop. Their social worker, who stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they had fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid him was probably the difference between them being able to live together and Stevie being sent to a group home. That's why the restaurant was a gloomy place that morning last August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work.  He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new valve or something put in his heart. His social worker said that people with Downs Syndrome often have heart problems at an early age so this wasn't unexpected, and there was a good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at work in a few months.. A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that morning when word came that he was out of surgery, in recovery, and doing fine. Frannie, the head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle when she heard the good news…But when asked what was going on by the customers, she responded, " Yeah, I'm so very glad that he is going to be OK, but I don't know how he and his Mom are going to handle all the bills. From what I hear, they're barely getting by as it is." One of the customers nodded thoughtfully in response.  After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She had a couple of paper napkins in her hand and a funny look on her face.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I didn't get that table where Marvin and his friends were sitting cleared off after they left, and Pete and Tony were sitting there when I got back to clean it off," she said. "This was folded and tucked under a coffee cup." She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 bills fell onto my desk when I opened it. On the outside, in big, bold letters, was printed "Something For Stevie."
"Pete asked me what that was all about," she said, "so I told him about Stevie and his Mom and everything, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they ended up giving me this." She handed me another paper napkin that had "Something For Stevie"scrawled on its outside. Two $50 bills were tucked with in its folds. Frannie looked at me with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply: "truckers."
That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day Stevie is supposed to be back to work.
His placement worker said he's been counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn't matter at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in the past week, making sure we knew he was coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his job was in jeopardy. I arranged to have his mother bring him to work. I then met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his day back.
Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn't stop grinning as he pushed through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing cart were waiting.
"Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast," I said. I took him and his mother by their arms. "Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your coming back, breakfast for you and your mother is on me!" I led them toward a large corner booth at the rear of the room.
I could feel and hear the rest of the staff following behind as we marched through the dining room. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty and join the procession. We stopped in front of the big table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins. "First thing you have to do, Stevie, is clean up this mess," I said. I tried to sound stern.
Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of the napkins. It had "Something for Stevie" printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table.
Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or scrawled on it. I turned to his mother. "There's more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. "Happy Thanksgiving."
Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody hollering and shouting, and there were a few tears, as well.
But you know what's funny? While everybody else was busy shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table..
Best worker I ever hired.”

               We participate in God’s resurrections whenever we transform the negative experiences we or others have had into life-giving, life-changing work.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we can forgive and reconcile a relationship.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we see an opportunity to give through a crisis or be present with someone else in their pain.  We participate in God’s resurrection work whenever we become creative in our solutions to problems that seem impossible and step out to make a difference in the life of one or more people.
It doesn’t mean the bad things didn’t happen.  They DID happen.  The resurrection does not wipe out what took place.  When someone hurts us, it DID happen, and the reconciliation cannot look like the injury never took place.  The women who began MADD still lost their children or watched their children suffer.  In the story I told Stevie was still a boy with Down’s Syndrome who would still struggle physically as well as mentally.  Jesus, too, was resurrected with his scars, which we know because Thomas put his hands in them and in Jesus’ side.  But a resurrection with the scars is a resurrected life that has deepened, that understands pain and loss and that can walk with even deeper compassion and fully love. 
I want to end by sharing with you a poem written by Brian McLaren for pastors during this Easter time.  But since all the people of the church are the ministers of the church…I think this will none the less resonate with all of us:
  A prayer for pastors on Easter
Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
 Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
 Match the greatness of the subject
 and will surely feel they have failed.
 (I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)

Help them to know that it is enough
 Simply and faithfully to tell the story
 Of women in dawn hush ...
 Of men running half-believing ...
 Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...
 Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...
 Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home ...
 Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.

Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
 Surpass all homiletic flourish
 On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.

Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
 And more confident of the Risen Christ
 Whose presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.

Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won't,
 And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
 And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
 And those that will disappoint ...
 I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
 Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
 Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
 Risen indeed! Alleluia!

For death is not the last word.
 Violence is not the last word.
 Hate is not the last word.
 Money is not the last word.
 Intimidation is not the last word.
 Political power is not the last word.
 Condemnation is not the last word.
 Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
 No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
 And from that tomb,
 Arises Christ,

Help the preachers feel it,
 And if they don't feel it, help them
 Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
 To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter