Sunday, April 4, 2010

Yes, There is Hope! (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. 2So 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.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.’” 18Mary 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 early Sunday morning – the day after the Sabbath. Mary lay in bed, somewhere in that place between asleep and awake, relaxing out of slumber before beginning the day. Suddenly, the events of the past few days startled her into sober alertness. She remembered it all, and she remembered it so clearly it couldn’t have been some horrible dream. They had arrested her teacher, her guide, and her friend. They had trumped all sorts of false charges against him, beaten him, held his trial, sentenced him to death and carried out his execution. Now, he was dead. She couldn’t believe it. He was such a good teacher. He performed so many signs and wonders. He taught as one with authority. He had placed a glimmer of hope in the lives of so many people. But now, he was gone. May we pray.

Our Easter story from John is a familiar one. Mary goes to the tomb while it is still dark. She finds the stone rolled away and Jesus' body gone. Weeping, she looks inside the tomb and sees two angels. Elsewhere in Scripture, when angels greet people, the people are frightened. Madeline L’Engle jokes that since angels so often greet humans by saying, “Do not be afraid,” then angels must be frightful creatures. Moses, Elijah, Zechariah, Joseph, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth – over and over again the angels say, “Do not be afraid.”

Mary, however, seems to have no fear of the angels. She is weeping over Jesus, and she happens to see two angels sitting inside the tomb. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they ask. Mary marches right over to those angels and says "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And so help me, if you did something with him, you’d better come clean now, because I mean business.

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. Insult piled on top of injury. They – whoever they are – had won. The powers of evil were too great. It felt so final.

Reality came crashing down around Mary in the silence of that early morning as she stared into the empty tomb. 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. 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.

Mary turned, and saw Jesus, but she didn’t recognize it was Jesus. She thought he was the gardener. He said, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"Sir," Mary said, "if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

"Mary," Jesus said.

And the second he says her name, Mary realizes that this stranger standing before her was the risen Christ.

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 here because Christ is free from the grave and intends to meet each of us unexpectedly along the ordinary paths of our lives.

When I was growing up, my sister Megan liked to experiment in the kitchen. She made all sorts of experimental dishes that the rest of us were forced to eat. Lord knows she tried. Now, one thing I’ve learned since I have moved to the South is that you can say just about anything you want about someone else as long as you follow it up with “Bless their heart.”

Well, in Megan’s kitchen experiments, the thing she had the worst luck with were biscuits, bless her heart. One time, she used baking soda instead of baking powder, causing the jam to fizzle when it was placed on a biscuit. Another time, she forgot the baking powder altogether, and produced from the oven what looked to be a tray of hot toasty brown hockey pucks. I think you could have dropped them on the floor and woken the dead. Without baking powder--without that key ingredient, those biscuits became heavy and flat. So, too, life without the resurrection, life without Christ, life without hope, can be heavy and flat.

We tend to think of the Easter message as a message for the end of life. But, frankly, I think we need the Easter message right now, because as many of us know, death can come long before the end of life.

How many people do we know who are walking this earth physically alive but dead of spirit? Maybe you are one of them. How easily life can beat us down; where is resurrection then?

It's not just resurrection after death we're talking about, it is resurrection during life. Like biscuits without baking powder, life without the resurrection can be heavy and flat. But, today, I say we bring that missing ingredient back.

Mary recognized the living Christ. She recognized hope in her midst. And it's exactly the same for us. We have the risen Christ right in front of us. We have hope in our midst. And that's the missing ingredient we must reclaim.

In 2005, Death Valley had received a few more inches of rain than normal and the otherwise bleak sand dunes and rocks of the desert were covered with tiny wildflowers. Desert gold, blazing star, poppies, verbenas, and evening primrose blanketed the desert landscape. For years, those little seeds had remained dormant, hidden under rocks and sand, in cracks and crevasses, waiting, hoping, for rain--that missing ingredient--to bring them back to life. The rain came and flowers bloomed in the desert. It was such a brilliant symbol of renewal--of life from no life.

Like those little dormant seeds, there is still life in us all. We just need to find that missing ingredient to bring it back. And that ingredient is Jesus.

The best thing we can do in life is to get out of the way and let Jesus do his work. Oh, we can put up a whole lot of blocks to the spirit. Things like anger, negativity, fear, doubt, things that shut us down, weigh us down, things that keep that key ingredient of life and spirit from working in our hearts. It's like Ann Lamott says, "God can't clean the house of you with you in it."

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 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, the disciples were 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.”

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 goes 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 St. Paul United Methodist Church is resurrection. A church can believe its best days are behind it, or it can believe its best days are ahead of it. 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, Mary’s tears of mourning were transformed into tears of joy, and my hopeful expectation is that will happen for each of us.

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.” 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.”

Growing up, I watched the movie Mary Poppins more times than I really care to count. One scene that really sticks out to me is when Uncle Albert laughs with such great joy that he floats up the ceiling in the bank vault. The laughter and life and passion he felt brought him a lightness that made him float. And everyone around him began to laugh and float up as well.

That scene taps a deep human truth: that we all have a spirit that yearns for joy and lightness--a spirit that yearns to soar.

And then life gets in the way--key ingredients go missing--and over time our spirits sink and become flat and heavy and bleak.

For everyone out there who feels that their dreams have been destroyed, their hopes dashed, their spirits is the good news of Easter morning: The risen Christ can take our flat, heavy hearts and put back that key ingredient. that our spirits are not stuck on the ground, that our spirits are not dictated by human pain or loss or disappointment, that our spirits are not mired in a tomb.

Easter brings each of us a second chance. A chance to see the life force in our midst. A chance to recognize the risen Christ right in front of us. A chance to start again. A chance to hope.

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

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