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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yes, There Is Hope - John 20:1-18 (Blackburn's Chapel)

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 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 believe; 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 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 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.”

God does God’s best work in cemeteries. Mike Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, about 20 miles north of Dayton, Ohio. He is one of the leaders of the Young Pastors Network, a leadership academy for 50 United Methodist pastors under the age of 35 from around the country. We met at Ginghamsburg back in October, and as he got up to welcome the group he said, “I’d like to welcome you to Dayton, which was recently named by US News and World Report as the fastest dying city in America.” Mike was appointed to Ginghamsburg in 1979, when the population of Dayton was 205,000. The population is now 155,000, and a February 2009 issue of Forbes magazine ranked it as the “5th emptiest city in America.” During the same time, Ginghamsburg Church has grown from 90 worshipers to over 5000 per weekend. After explaining these statistics, Mike looked around the room and said, “God does God’s best work in cemeteries.”

It’s a lesson those earliest followers of Jesus had yet to learn. After surviving the unthinkable horror of that Friday, as they stood at the foot of a crude cross, watching their friend and teacher helpless against the onset of death, early on the first day of the week one more crushing blow was dealt. Not only was he dead, but they had taken his body away. They – whoever they are – had won. The powers of evil were too great. It felt so final.

Over the course of three years, they had come to know and love this itinerant preacher. Jesus had captivated their attention. They played follow-the-leader with him, thumbing their noses at the rules by which the world seemed to operate. Jesus dared them to imagine a different world – a world in which masters wash their disciples feet, a world in which the winner is the one who finishes last, a world in which a 5,000 plate banquet is served from a little boy’s superhero lunchbox and there’s not enough Tupperware to contain the leftovers. A world in which there is always enough, and where wolves and lambs sit side by side at the table.

But now, all that was shattered. Reality came crashing down around them in the silence of that early morning as they stared into the empty tomb. Insult piled on top of injury. The game was over, and their team had lost. The cemetery was but a stark reminder of the finality of defeat, the bondage to the powers of death and despair.

The powers of evil had thrown their worst at Jesus and sealed the presence of God behind a giant stone. They danced their victory dance and said, “Lights out. Checkmate. Game Over.” There in the cemetery, in the cool mist just before dawn, it seemed all hope was lost.

But friends, God does God’s best work in cemeteries. The powers of evil said, “Game over,” but on Easter morning, God said, “Guess again.” On Easter morning, God said, “The old rules as you understand them no longer apply.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God in which the rules of the world were completely turned on their head. On Easter morning, God said, “My kingdom is here.” On Easter morning, God said, “Watch out world, because I am on the loose.”

Christ is just as loose today as he was on that first Easter Sunday. We are not here for a history lesson on the details of what happened that particular Sunday at the tomb. We are not here for some sort of a pleasant memory or a sweet sentimental feeling. We are here because Christ is on the loose, because Christ is free from the grave, because Christ intends to meet each of us unexpectedly along the ordinary paths of our lives.

Resurrection is not just something we observe, or hear about, or even something we celebrate. Resurrection becomes who we are; it becomes something in which we participate. As we continue to encounter the resurrected Jesus, as the living Christ finds his way deep into the fiber of our being, a transformation by the grace of God takes place. We find old destructive habits and attitudes and relationships dying, and the life-giving things of God being born in their place. The old hymn put it this way: “’Are ye able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me. ‘Yes’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’”

Every time we celebrate a baptism, we remember this. A vow is made by every newly baptized person or on their behalf that they renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject evil, and repent of their sin. In other words, every baptism celebrates a death to those things that stand between us and God. To the congregation, we say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” As said by Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL, “We’re not asking them to remember some specific event in the past, but to remember that they are marked by the sign of baptism. As a part of the body of Christ, they are a baptized people whose life together is constantly being transformed by the grace of God that invites them into the continual process of death and resurrection.” (Jim Harnish, You Only Have to Die, p. 30).

Though we are constantly invited into that process, make no mistake about it: resurrection is about God. It’s not about the new thing that we do; it’s about the new thing that God does in and through us. The resurrection is not about our own cleverness or ingenuity or change of attitude. The resurrection is about God doing a new thing, about God making a way where there seemed to be no way, about God creating and restoring life when death was not only inevitable, but already a certain fact.

God does God’s best work in cemeteries. God inserts hope into what seems hopeless. I hope that’s why you have come this morning. Not looking for a history lesson, or a pleasant memory, or a sweet sentimental feeling, or simply out of duty. I hope you have coming looking for an encounter with the resurrected and living Christ. I hope you have come looking for the power of the resurrection to bring newness into your life. I hope you have come looking for hope.

On that first Easter, a small group of disciples was waiting for the burst of a Jerusalem sunrise, but the morning held no hope. The memory of death lingered palpably in the air, and Mary stood there weeping. But in the haze before dawn, what they got was hope.

During World War II, a Navy submarine became stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. There was no electricity and oxygen was running out. Rescue divers heard the sound of tapping coming from inside the submarine and recognized it as Morse code. From inside the submarine, the sailors were asking, “Is there any hope?” The rescuers tapped back, “Yes, there is hope.”

Any sociologist will tell you about the important human phenomenon called hope. Without it, life seems trivial. What God did at the resurrection was to insert hope into a world desperately in need of it. The world can be an awfully difficult and burdened place sometimes. But the resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a testimony and a downpayment of hope. It will not solve all the world’s problems. It won’t eliminate suffering or poverty. It’s not a good luck charm or a legislative principle. The world continues to have its pain and suffering, but in the resurrection of Jesus, hope forces its way through the cracks. When we are wondering if there is any hope, the resurrection is God tapping back that yes, there is hope. The resurrection is a God-given sign that the lives of all people, including you and including me, are meant for more and not for less, that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, that even death, as authoritative and final as it seems, is not the end.

And friends, resurrection is happening all around us. The change from death into life is happening all around us, as God works transformation in the depths of the human heart. When an alcoholic go into recovery, that’s resurrection. When unhealthy relationships are healed, that’s resurrection. When a community rallies to meet the needs of its families, that’s resurrection. When a person is changed from self-centered living to God-centered living, that’s resurrection.

And everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen here at Blackburn’s Chapel is resurrection. I remember when retired Bishop Lawrence McCleskey said, “A church can believe its best days are behind them, or they can believe their best days are ahead of them. In either case, they’ll be right.” This congregation chooses to believe that our best days are still ahead of us. God is working and moving here. The sense of God’s presence is so palpable that we have no choice but to believe that God is doing a new thing right here in our midst, that God is, in the words of Charles Wesley, changing us “from glory into glory.”

Friends, we believe that our best days as a congregation are still in front of us. That’s resurrection! Easter is not just a day or a season that shows up on the calendar and then disappears. Easter is a lifestyle. We are Easter people! We are resurrection people! Easter happens when lives are transformed, when the things of God graft themselves into the core of our being and we find ourselves alive with the newness of God’s presence. Easter is not a one-time occurrence, it is something that happens over and over again. The early Christians recognized this. They worshipped every Sunday expecting the things of the world to die, and for God to show up and transform the world. Every time we gather, I hope we gather with an expectation that God is in our midst, that God still inserts hope into what seems hopeless to us, and that God still transforms the world.

It’s what we have each shown up looking for today. We are looking for an encounter with the risen Christ, and we expect to be changed because of it. In today’s text, Jesus encounters Mary outside the tomb, and she mistakenly believes he’s the gardener. He asks why she is weeping and who she is looking for. She was looking for Jesus, but she had no idea she would meet the risen Jesus. Her tears of mourning were transformed into tears of joy, and my hopeful expectation is that will happen for each of us.

But it doesn’t stop there. The good news that Jesus is risen was good news on that first Easter Sunday, and it continues to be good news today. And while it’s certainly good news for us as individuals and as a congregation, it isn’t only for us. It was and remains good news for the entire world.

And so today, we gather, and we celebrate the good news that Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Today God takes on the broken ways of the world and says, “You shall not win. The game is not yet over, and I have been set loose.” Today we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and not the powers and principalities of this world. The same power that rolled the stone away is ours in all the circumstances of life. Today, though we may be pressed, we are not crushed; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. Though the powers of the world have literally paved over hope and tried to wipe its memory from existence, today that same hope begins to bubble its way to the surface. When we are wondering if there is hope, the resurrection is God tapping back the message that yes, there is hope.

Every day but especially on this day we remember not that Christ has risen, but that Christ is risen! Resurrection is not a one-time event, but an on-going reality. Every day but especially on this day we proclaim that the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to everyone – certainly at the hour of death but not only at the hour of death, certainly in the greatest trial but not only in the greatest trial. The life-giving power of God is available here and now to help us live in the face of uncertainty, suffering, guilt, and shame. But those things do not have the final word, for even death itself, by the life-giving power and grace of God, is not the end of the story. In the words of John Donne, “Death be not proud, thou hast died.”

The cemetery is empty and Christ is alive; therein lies our hope.

1 comment:

  1. I love how practical and readily applicable your messages are. For instance, ¨When an alcoholic go into recovery, that’s resurrection. When unhealthy relationships are healed, that’s resurrection. When a community rallies to meet the needs of its families, that’s resurrection.¨ Superb. Resurrection is NOT just an abstract concept reserved for Dieties and the afterlife, but something which we may experience every day. Something that not only happens to us, but which we may participate in. Something that Matters to my day when my children are crying or my boss is being difficult or I haven´t had enough sleep.

    Thank you.

    -Annie Laurie

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