For Easter to Happen, Somebody Needed to Pick Up and Carry a Cross

oklahoma city bombing firefighter baby

Luke 24:1-12 NRSV

It is Easter Sunday! Resurrection morning has dawned. New life is being born! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, on this Sunday of Sundays, I believe it is important for us to realize that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, before love can win, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that there are very few of Jesus’ disciples who understand this. They do not understand it today, and they did not understand it 2,000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain our lives, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter could not happen without some self-denial, that resurrection could not come without some self-expenditure, that new life could not be born without some sacrifice, that love could not be won without some suffering, that the the light of Sunday morning could not  dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives.

One would betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples never got it.

However, there were a few disciples who did get it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross. There were a few who chose to live selflessly and to love sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused many in the church to overlook these faithful disciples, the good news is that all four Gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…” These women helped support Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means.”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, Mark 15 reads: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: “Among them [gathered at the foot of the cross] was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

There are many problems with Christianity today. However, I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith today, especially here in North America, is that we have too few Mary Magdalenes.

There are too few people who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, always involves a cross. It always involves answering a call, taking a risk, denying oneself, going against the status quo, pushing the boundaries, stepping way outside one’s comfort zone.

A problem with the church today is there are too many Christians who believe they can sing “alleluias” on Easter Sunday without going through some suffering on Good Friday, who believe they can experience some new life without death to self, who believe they can somehow rise up from the waters of baptism without getting their hair wet, who believe they can serve Jesus without getting their hands dirty.

What this world desperately needs needs right now, and what the church needs more than anything today, are more disciples like Mary Magdalene. For Mary Magdalene understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always clear that there would be a cross involved.

I think this is the reason that Mary Magdalene is remembered today by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is the reason she is mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And this is the reason that today, on this Easter Sunday morning, Christians all over the world will hear her name mentioned as they gather to worship.

Some will hear her name as Mark 15 is read: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Some will hear her name as Matthew 28 is read: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Some will hear it as Mark 16 is read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

And others will hear it as John 20 is read: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Just as Mary Magdalene had given what she had to support Jesus’ life, Mary was still doing all she could for Jesus in death.

And because she always selflessly pouring herself out, because she kept giving, kept sacrificing, kept risking, serving, bending, expending, anointing, because she was the most faithful of all of the disciples, because she not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the cross, but courageously followed him all the way to the grave, because she followed him to the very end, she was the first person on earth to see the risen Lord.

Mark 16:9 reads: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

And in John 20:18 we read where it was Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the good news of Easter, speaking five simple words that changed the world forever: “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”  Not only was she the first person to see the Lord, she was the first person to proclaim the world-changing, earth-shaking, life-saving good news of Easter to the world!

Mary Magdalene was the very first to preach the glorious good news of resurrection on Easter Sunday, because she stayed with Jesus until the very last in his suffering and death of Good Friday. Easter happened for Mary because she had answered a call to follow Jesus, and she followed Jesus all the way.

Observing Good Friday this year was a surreal experience for many Americans, as it fell on April 19, the day of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

The story of one survivor, Terri Talley, exemplifies the suffering experienced by our nation, as well as how new life was raised out of the ashes through those who were willing to pick up and carry a cross.

Employed by the Federal Employee’s Credit Union on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building, that morning was extremely busy for Terri. She had just returned to work after spending several days away, and a stack of paperwork waited for her.

Catching up on work, Terri took a moment that morning to chat with her good friend and coworker Sonja Sanders. “For her, it was a big day. She had just been promoted into management,” states Terri, who is certain she was the last person to have spoken with her friend.

What seemed like just moments afterward, everything changed. At 9:02 am, thousands of pounds of explosives, assembled in the back of a Ryder moving truck parked in front of her office building, exploded.

Terri recounts: “I fell from the third floor to somewhere around the basement level. It was really really fast. It was so fast that I didn’t really know what had happened. The suction pulled me down so quickly.”

Surrounded by noise Terri says, “When I came to the first time, I thought: ‘This is a really bad dream. I will just go to sleep and when I wake up everything will be okay.’ But when I came to [again], everything wasn’t okay. I thought that I must have been in a really bad wreck, and I must be [pinned in the wreckage], because I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream for help. I would try, but I was really squished. And I thought to myself: ‘I hope someone finds me.’”

Terri was found by a firefighter who almost overlooked her. [Like being sealed in a tomb] she was completely encased in concrete and granite. Terri says: “There was just a little hole and a little piece of me was showing. He touched me and … started screaming: ‘Hey! I have a live one here, and I need some help!'”

After much hard work, Terri was freed and rushed to a nearby hospital, where her injuries were identified: temporary blindness, a concussion, temporary amnesia, a cracked first vertebra in her neck, a broken right ankle, skin damage on her foot, and multiple abrasions. During her seven days in the hospital, and for weeks following, a sense of shock permeated her life.

However, today, she has this powerful message for the world:

I always tell [even] the littlest of kids: ‘Don’t think that there is nothing you can do, because kids would color pictures and send me notes. Those made me feel like people were really thinking about me. You can always do something, no matter what age you are.’[i]

This illustrates that to experience Easter Sunday, we have to have a Good Friday.

Before new life could be experienced, before resurrection could be celebrated, before “alleluias” could be sung, before love could be won, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

-First Responders needed to run toward an explosion.
-Firefighters needed to go into a burning building.
-Doctors and nurses needed to give all that they had to give.
-Friends and family and church members needed to pray.
-And little children needed to pick up some crayons and color a picture.

To make Easter happen for someone–today, right here, right now–we can all do something, be something, risk something, sacrifice something, give something, create something.

We can all pick up and carry a cross.

We can feed someone who is hungry.

Visit someone who is lonely.

Love someone who is hurting.

Include someone who has been left out.

We can mentor someone who lives in a foster home.

Care for someone who is sick.

Forgive someone who has made mistakes.

Believe someone who has been abused.

We can share grace with someone who faces discrimination.

Stand up for someone victimized by injustice.

Speak out for someone devalued by oppression.

We can stay close by and anoint someone who is dying.

Be a friend to someone who is grieving.

With the spirit of Mary Magdalene, let’s keep the faith, and let’s keep the faith going, keep it moving forward, all the way to the foot of the cross, through the betrayals, through the fear, through the denials, through the suffering, through the shame, all the way to the grave, even to a tomb that has been sealed by granite or concrete.

Let us keep doing whatever we can, with whatever we have, wherever we are, to love one another until the entire world is able to sing:

“Alleluia! Alleluia! I have seen the Lord!”

 

[i]https://www.nps.gov/okci/learn/historyculture/stories.htm

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A Day for Fools

fool

John 20:1-18 NRSV

For the very first time in my lifetime, Easter is on April Fools Day, which presents the preacher with the perfect opportunity to point out the foolishness of it all.

The Apostle Paul outrageously asserts:

“The way of the cross is foolishness” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

We witnessed some of the foolishness last week. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior of the World, arrives in the capital city, not on a powerful war horse, not on a white stallion, not in a royal entourage, but bouncing in on the back of a borrowed donkey.

I believe ne of the most troubling things about our faith is the attempt by the church to try to deny or even conceal the foolishness of the gospel. Ashamed of to be labeled a fool, there is this tendency to take the all of the foolishness that is inherent in the gospel and re-package it as just another brand of worldly wisdom, common sense, something on which all Americans easily accept and agree.

A recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”[i]  However, that statement is from deist Ben Franklin; not the Bible.[ii] In fact, “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But, deep down we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we?  Doesn’t sound so foolish.

Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, writes: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock, and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry.” He goes on to name a few of Jesus’ shocking and foolish assertions: “Blessed are the meek; love your enemies; go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”[iii]

Listen to some of the most popular preachers today. Christianity is not about absurdity; it’s about positive thinking. It’s about how to be successful and happy and satisfied and effective at home, at work and at play, in marriage, in friendships, and in business. There is no cross bearing. No Jesus bounding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. No foolishness. It’s no wonder the church today looks more like a country club than it does the living body of Christ.

Perhaps this tendency to rationalize the gospel has been with us since day one. Just listen to Mary and the way she rationalizes that first Easter morning when she saw that the stone had been removed.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple…and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…

Of course this is what must have happened. Anyone with a lick of common sense can deduce this. It would be foolish to believe anything else!

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

A very reasonable thing to do in this situation.

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white…

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.”

“And I do not know…”

She almost confesses to her problem right there, that she “does not know,” but it becomes obvious she is still grounded in earthly wisdom, still constrained by common sense.

“I don’t 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

Of course it’s not Jesus. That would be absurd.

1Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener…

Of course he’s probably the gardener. That’s just good common sense.

 She says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

A rational request, a reasonable appeal.

But the good news is that the risen Christ is continually liberating us from the restrictions of rational thought, reasonable assertions, and all of the limitations of human reason!

The Risen Christ is continually breaking the restraints of common sense, pushing the boundaries of human logic. He is continually calling us out of the world that we have all figured out to live in a new realm that many would regard as foolish.

And notice how is does it. He breaks the barriers of worldly wisdom, the presuppositions that Mary has of what is going on in this world and not going on in this world, by calling her by name.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

And for Mary, this is the moment she takes a great stride into the absurd, the moment her whole world is suddenly transformed. This is the moment Mary began walking by faith and not by sight.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes these words:

[Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The Apostle Paul is writing about a miraculous change that has been wrought in his life because of the change that has been wrought in the world through God in Jesus Christ.

Paul is saying that at one time he understood Christ with the wisdom of mortals—as a great teacher, a fine moral example.

But now he is able to see in the death and resurrection of Christ, a radical shift in the entire world. In Christ, a new age has been inaugurated. The whole world has changed. Just as God brought light out of darkness in creation, God has now recreated the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This is what the great theologian Moltmann was trying to point out when he said,

“We have attempted to view the resurrection of Christ from the viewpoint of history. Perhaps the time has come for us to view history from the viewpoint of the resurrection!”

Paul was saying that when Jesus was raised from the dead, the whole world had shifted on its axis. All was made new.

This is exactly what happened to Mary when the risen Lord called her by name.

 Mary recognizes the risen Christ, turns and says to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

And Mary experienced a transformation that was so real, that she was compelled to announce it to the world: “I have seen the Lord!”

You know, it’s one thing to experience something that you know the whole world thinks is foolish. But it takes foolish to a whole other level when you go out and share that something with the world.

But that is just what people who have experienced the good news of Easter do.

That is why on this April 1, when some look at us gathered here, praying and singing, preaching and baptizing, and say that everything that we are doing here today only confirms their preconceptions that this day is a day for fools, we smile, and we respond: “You have no idea just how foolish we are!”

How foolish? You ask.

Oh, we’re foolish enough!

  • We’re foolish enough to believe that the only life worth living is a life that is given away.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe those who hunger and thirst for justice will be filled.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe the last shall be first.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that all things work together for the good.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that this world can be a better place.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that character still counts, morality still matters, and honesty is still a virtue and all three are still possible.

And we are foolish enough to take foolish to whole other level!

  • We’re foolish enough to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • We’re foolish enough to forgive seventy times seven.
  • We’re foolish enough to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the very shirt off our back.
  • We’re foolish enough to feed the hungry, love an enemy, welcome a stranger, visit a prison, befriend the lonely.
  • We’re foolish enough to stand up for the marginalized, defend the most vulnerable, and free the oppressed.
  • We’re foolish enough to call a Muslim our brother.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that someone with Cerebral Palsy can run a marathon.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe students can build an affordable house for a family who struggles to make ends meet.
  • We’re foolish enough to get back up when life knocks us down.
  • We’re foolish enough to never give up, never give in, and never give out.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that nothing can stop us, not even death.

 

Because, although it may seem absurd, Somebody loves us.

Somebody came and taught us to see the world in a brand new way.

Somebody picked up and carried a cross.

Somebody suffered.

Somebody gave all they had, even to the point of death.

Somebody arose from the grave.

And that same Somebody found us and called us by name.

 


[i]Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine, July 7, 2005.

[ii]Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world.  Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious teaching.

[iii]http://sojo.net/magazine/2007/08/foolishness-cross

Another Point of View

Callie Anne

Philippians 3:4b-14 NRSV

There are many things that happen to us that make us look at the world in a brand new way. Things happen, and our whole world changes.  We see things differently, have a new perspective, see things from another point of view.

Oftentimes, this new perspective comes to us by way of tragedy or pain. Sometimes, when someone suffers a heart attack or another life-threatening illness, they can experience such a radically new perspective that their entire personality changes.

Our world changes every time we lose someone we love. “Without them, the world is just not the same,” we say.

Our world changed when we woke up on Monday morning and learned of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. We were reminded how vulnerable and fragile life is, how evil human beings can be. We were given a new sense of humility. We appreciated life more. We cherished our loved ones more. We were given a brand new perspective for living.

Likewise, something very good can also bring a new perspective. Love can do that. When we are with someone we love, the sky seems bluer, the sun shines brighter. Love makes us more grateful, more giving, more kind. When we fall in love, the whole world changes.

And of course, having a baby changes everything. It brings a whole new perspective. A brand new point of view. There’s more responsibility, more worries, and more fun, and there’s less sleep, less time, and less fun. Parenthood: it’s a brand new world.

In this morning’s scripture lesson, the Apostle Paul is writing about the miraculous change that has been wrought in his life because of the change that has been wrought in the world through God in Jesus Christ.

The things that used to matter to him no longer matter: being religious, having religious parents, observing all of the religious rituals, obeying and defending all of the religious laws. It’s all “rubbish,” says Paul. He is saying: “In the power of the resurrection of Christ, I have a brand new faith, a brand new way of relating to God and to the world!”

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he puts it this way:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, a new age has dawned, the whole world is different.

This is what the great theologian Moltmann was trying to point out when he wrote:

We have attempted to view the resurrection of Christ from the viewpoint of history. Perhaps the time has come for us to view history from the viewpoint of the resurrection.

Paul believed that when God raised Jesus from the dead, the whole world shifted on its axis. All was new.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that when we read the gospels, we discover that Jesus doesn’t tell us how to have abundant life through our religion, but tells us how to have abundant life through our sight. Perhaps Jesus figures, in his stories and actions, if he could just get us to see the world through some new angle of vision that is larger than our limited “human point of view,” then we will know how to live that vision.

Maybe that is the purpose of every Sunday morning in this place. Sunday mornings is less of a time to get some religion, be religious, learn some religious laws, and more of a time to help us to no longer see the world “from a human point of view.”

And let’s be honest, from a human point of view, church can be depressing. The forces of evil are so strong, hate is so commonplace, our political system is so corrupt, religion is so crazy; everyday, I know clergy who feel like throwing their hands up in the air and just giving up.

But we keep at it. We keep going. We keep working. We keep preaching, hoping and praying that somehow, someway, someday, someone’s going to catch a new vision. Someone’s going to gain a new perspective. Someone’s going to start seeing the world in a brand new way. Someone’s is going to start giving more generously, speaking more courageously, serving more compassionately, loving more unconditionally. Someone is going to open their eyes and answer the divine call to do something, anything, to make this world more kind, more just and more peaceful.

This is not wishful thinking. This is not a failure to come to terms with reality. This is a staunch faith that when people truly experience the life, death and resurrection of Christ, there is a whole new creation, a brand new world.

When he was told that he was going to be laid off from work, he thought his life was over. He believed he had no other possibilities, no other options. He could see losing his house, his insurance, his pension, and so many things that he had worked so hard for.

However, that was just his narrow-minded, limited, human point of view. What he couldn’t see was losing that job was going to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He couldn’t see that a new job awaited him that would utilize his gifts more fully, thus giving him greater fulfillment.

After the doctor’s diagnosis and the decision was made to place her under the care of Hospice, some said that it was just not God’s will for her to be healed. Some grieved for they knew her last days would be a time of sadness and pain.

But that’s just a narrow-minded, short-sighted, restricted, human point of view. They failed to remember that in Christ there’s a whole new creation. A new creation where spiritual healing is greater than physical healing.

Can you see it?

Of course, she would be feeble, and she would be tired, but she would be more alive, more whole, more blessed, and more engaged; she would possess more hope and share more love than the most physically fit person anyone knows.

Before she was born in 2012, she was diagnosed a rare genetic disorder called Apert Syndrome. The bones in her skull, hands and feet fused together prematurely. Two surgeries to split the bones of her skull would be required, along with surgeries to split the bones in her hands and feet. To survive, she would need to be fed through a feeding tube for two long years.

“Oh, how tragic,” the people said. “How horrific,” they cried. “How is she going to ever be happy?” they asked. “How will her parents afford her costly surgeries, attend to her special needs? How will they ever survive the stress? It’s difficult enough to raise a healthy child in this world? How are they going to raise one with so many challenges?”

But that’s only seeing the world from a limited, incomplete, dimly-lit, narrow-minded, human point of view. What they failed to factor in is that in Christ there is a brand new world, a new brand new creation.

Can you see it?  I think you can.

Despite her many challenges, she will be one of the happiest, spirited little girls that you’ll ever know. Fundraisers and generous donations by God’s people would help pay for the enormous medical expenses. Like raising any child in this world, there will stress, but the strength and courage and peace that flows out of a relationship with Christ will be more than enough to see this family through each day. And they will never be alone.

They will be surrounded by families of faith that care for them, prays with them and vows to help Callie Anne and her family see their world with brand new eyes—to see life with a new vision, with a fresh new perspective.

A terrorist thug shoots and kills 58 people, injuring over 500 more.

“The world is going to hell!” they say. “God has given up on us!” they bemoan. “This is the new normal. There’s just nothing we can do to prevent this from happening again!” they quibble.

But that’s only a narrow-minded, limited, shallow, shadowy, defeated, and very ignorant human point of view.

There was only one cowardly terrorist, but did you see the countless brave men and women who were willing to lay down their lives for strangers, forming human shields, carrying the wounded to safety? Did you see the police officers risking it all by running towards the gunfire, courageous men and women bearing witness to the truth that God still loves this world, God has not given up on this world, God still believes this world is worth fighting for, sacrificing for, dying for!

The good news is that we will not allow the personal evil of a single killer affect our sight, cloud our vision, and shape our worldview.

No, with faith in Christ, we will continue to see our world from the viewpoint of the resurrection. We will see a world where when there seems to be no way, God is always making a way. We will see a world where no matter how bad things sometimes get, God is always working those things out for the good. We will see a world where no matter how distant God seems, God is always present resurrecting, recreating, reforming and transforming sorrow into joy, despair into hope, and death into life!

Let us pray,

Lord Jesus, in whose light is our life, we pray that you will give us eyes to see your work in the world, eyes to see your presence moving among us, and eyes to gain a new vision of who we ought to be. Release our grip on the old, familiar world of death and defeat. And help us thereby live out your resurrection everyday of our lives. Give us grace to see.  Amen.

 

 

Easter People Behind Locked Doors

Andrew Finiish
As a Special Olympian, Andrew has run in many 1 mile “fun runs,” but he has always dreamed of finishing a 5k race. However, Down’s Syndrome and surgically-reconstructed knees have made it impossible. The good news is Easter transforms impossibility into reality.

1 Peter 1:3-9 NRSV

It’s the Season of Easter. The Lord is Risen. Christ is alive! Jesus is on the loose. The Messiah is on the move. And he’s coming for his disciples! He’s coming to offer them an incredible gift!

As our Epistle Lesson testifies:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1:3).

And where are the disciples?

The first verse of our gospel lesson this morning reads: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked…”

Jesus is alive. He is moving out in the world, and the disciples are inside a building, cowering behind locked doors.

Now, it is nighttime, a dangerous time in any city, and here in the city of Jerusalem on this night, maybe they had a good reason or two to lock their doors.

The most obvious reason being their fear that the religious leaders who organized to crucify Jesus would soon be coming after them. The ones who began plotting from the very beginning to put an end to Jesus and his message were quite possibly even now plotting to put an end to them.

So, who could blame them for locking the doors.

But then, there may be have been another reason those doors were locked.

Remember, Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord.”

And what do the disciples do? They lock their doors.

Could it possibly be that they did not know what kind of gift the Risen Christ was bringing to them: a new birth into a living hope through his resurrection?

Or could it be that they knew exactly the kind of gift Jesus was bringing?

After all, they were all witnesses to what had to taken place before Easter could happen: Before a new birth into a living hope could come, somebody had to pick up a cross.

So Jesus might be coming with the promise of new birth into a living hope, but before this new life can fully realized, there might be some more cross bearing to do.

And this was certainly no new concept for them. For they had heard Jesus say on numerous occasions: “to gain one’s life, one must first be willing to lose one’s life.”

They had heard Jesus say, the road to rebirth, the way to new life, the route to resurrection, the path to Easter, was very narrow and very few find it. For it’s a road of self-denial. It’s a way of self-expenditure. It’s a route of sacrifice. It’s a path of suffering.

So, when they heard that Christ was on the loose and he was coming with the promise of new birth into a living hope through his resurrection, of course they locked the doors.

Just like we lock our doors.

And my, my: The locks that we use! The barriers we create! The walls we build!

His way is just so radical, so revolutionary, so scandalous, we do all we can do to shut him out.

“I know Jesus said that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ but we still prefer to do things our way, make up our own truth, live our own life.”

“I know Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ but isn’t that the Salvation Army’s job?”

“I know Jesus never excluded anyone, but perhaps we ought not advertise that.”

“I know Jesus said ‘the first shall be last,’ but I still think we should put America first.”

“I know Jesus called women to be his disciples, and I am aware that whenever he had an opportunity, he elevated the status of women, but they really shouldn’t serve behind the table or preach behind a pulpit.”

“I know Jesus stopped the self-righteous from throwing rocks at a sinner, but if we are not careful we are going to make our church ‘a haven’ for all kinds sinners.”

“I know Jesus said that when we welcome the stranger we welcome God, but ‘pardon me, I believe you are sitting in my pew.’”

“I know Jesus said ‘forgive seventy times seven,’ but the Bible says those people are abominations!”

“I know Jesus said we could learn from Syrophoenicians and Samaritans, and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ but surely he did not mean for us to love our Muslim neighbors!”

“I know Jesus said ‘there are other sheep who do not belong to this fold and we must bring them in also,’ but ‘You’re not a member of this church. So, what are you doing here?’”

“I know Jesus said feed the hungry, but we have to be fed too.”

“I know Jesus talked about being salt for the world, but are we going to let those people use our salt…and our pepper…and our sugar… and our sweet ‘n’ low?”

I want to suggest that it wasn’t just great fear that caused the disciples to lock those doors. It was also great courage.

For it takes some incredible nerve, some brave audacity, some serious brass, to lock the Risen Christ out of the building.

And sadly, ever since that first Easter evening, people who claim to follow the way of Jesus have been brazen in their attempts to thwart the way of Jesus.

Think about it. We have to be pretty bold to dare to reduce the meaning of the death-defying power of the resurrection. We have to be pretty brave to call ourselves “Easter People” and then water down the meaning of it.

I am grateful that church pews all over Enid were full last Sunday. However, I am afraid that the only reason many people came to church was merely to thank God that they, like Christ, will one day be resurrected to live forever. I am afraid the reason some church pews were so full on Easter Sunday was simply because “Easter People” wanted to remember Jesus’ resurrection and look forward to their own.

But if that is all Easter truly means, do you really believe those disciples would have locked those doors on that first Easter Sunday?

No, those doors were locked, because those disciples knew exactly what Easter means. They knew that Easter means the resurrection offers a living hope for this world, and not just for the next world. Easter is something to be lived today and freely shared with all who need re-birth and new life now.

But to do that, to offer that Easter hope to others, to truly live as Easter people, means that someone is going to have to pick up a cross.

It means that someone is going to have to deny themselves. It means someone is going to have to lose themselves. It means someone is going to have to open a door, leave a building, remove a barrier, tear down a wall, go outside, bend down to the ground, pick up a cross and walk in the steps of Jesus.

It means someone is going to have to share. It means someone is going to have to sacrifice. It means someone is going to have to suffer. It means someone is going to have to do something more than study a lesson, sit on a pew, sing a hymn and listen to a sermon.

So, the disciples, like you and like me, locked the doors.

Now listen to the good news:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked… Jesus came and stood among them.”

The good news is that the doors we lock, the barriers we create, the walls we build, will not thwart the way of Jesus! Despite our bold and brazen attempts to stop Jesus from coming, to shut him out, he’s still coming. And nothing is going to stop him or even slow him down.

And he is coming to lead his Easter people get out of the building, to pick up a cross and bring rebirth and new life to all whose lives have been diminished, to all those who have been de-humanized by poverty, disability, bigotry and hate.

And here is some really good news: To bring new life, by the grace of God, we may not have to hang on that cross. We might not have to shed any blood. We may not even have to get arrested. We just need to be willing to pick up a cross and carry it a little way. The Risen Christ will carry it the rest of the way.

Running 3.1 miles is nothing for Gary Hula. Gary has been running 26 miles before church on Sunday for the last several weeks in training for the Oklahoma Memorial Marathon. Gary can run 3.1 miles while reading the News and Eagle and drinking a cup of coffee!

But that is how far Gary usually runs while pushing someone with special needs for Ainsley’s Angels.  Just 3.1 miles. Takes Gary 20 minutes.

But after a 3.1 mile race last week, the mother of the 26-year-old man with surgically reconstructed knees and Down’s Syndrome, who rode in a running chair that this church purchased for just a few hundred dollars, said and I quote: “My son’s dreams have come to life.”

Can you hear the resurrection in that statement? Do you hear Easter in that mother’s voice?

The next day the risen Christ came and helped us to welcome some of the most impoverished people in this community for a meal in our Fellowship Hall. Now, we didn’t do that much. The Oakwood Country Club prepared all the food. All we had to do was warm it up and put it on some plates. We just had to show up, unlock a couple of doors, and invite people in. We just had to be kind to people, treat people as we would want to be treated.

But after serving that meal, one of the guests said to a volunteer: “Today, you have made me feel human again.”

Do you hear the rebirth in that statement? Do you hear the new life? Can you hear Easter in that woman’s voice?

The good news is that because the Lord is risen, because Christ is alive, because Jesus is on the loose in this world, because the Messiah is on the move, all we may have to do to be the Easter people the Risen Christ is calling us to be is to be willing to unlock a door.

Easter People

Welcome Table

The Easter Sunday timing of the Enid Welcome Table’s debut could not have been more appropriate.

The front doors of the church building swung open wide, as guests, some homeless, some extremely impoverished, all hungry, were greeted with smiles and words of welcome. As they walked into the fellowship hall, a host guided them to a table that was beautifully decorated with an Easter-themed table cloth and a spring flower bouquet centerpiece. Soft jazz  played from the sound system adding to the welcoming ambiance.

After the host fulfilled the guests’ drink orders, a waiter approached the table to read the menu that was displayed on the TV monitors in the front of the room. Guests had a choice between pork tenderloin, peel-and-eat Cajun jumbo shrimp, and baked chicken. Sides included sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, a medley of roasted vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and deviled eggs. Desserts included lemon cake, cherry pie, apple pie and chocolate cupcakes.

The attentive wait staff promptly served the guests with generous portions and while keeping their drink glasses full.

Volunteers who had come to serve, some members of our church, some members of other churches, some members of no church, joined the guests at the tables to share dinner and conversation.

Upon experiencing the extravagant welcome, a genuine welcome devoid of any agenda, strings, or ulterior motives, one of the guests said to a volunteer: “You have made me feel human again.”

“You have made me feel human again.”

Let that sink in.

It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she felt alive again. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she experienced new life. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that they felt resurrected.

Christians often like to call themselves “Easter People.” However, I am afraid that what that means to many is that they, like Christ, will one day be resurrected to live eternally in heaven. I am afraid the reason some church pews are so full on Easter Sunday is simply because “Easter People” want to remember Jesus’ resurrection and look forward to their own.

However, what if being “Easter People” means something more?

What if the resurrection is not just a gift to remember or a gift to look forward to, but a gift to be experienced now? What if resurrection is a gift to be shared with others today? What if being “Easter People” means that we are people who offer the gift of resurrection to those whose lives have been diminished by the sin and evil in our world? What if being “Easter People means we are called to resurrect those who have been de-humanized by poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia?

What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to do much more than sit on a pew on Easter to thank God for the promise of God’s kingdom that is coming after the resurrection? What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to get off of those pews to bring the promise of God’s Kingdom that is coming now to those who need resurrection today? This Easter Sunday at Central Christian Church, that is exactly what being “Easter People” meant.

Loosening the Bonds of Death

Lazarus

John 11:32-44 NRSV

John 11 is a great example of why I love the Bible. I love the Bible because the Bible is honest. The Bible is real. The Bible does not hide, cover up or try to sugarcoat the difficulties and even tragedy of life in this fragmented world.

I love that, because this world in which we live is sometimes incredibly painful. We live in a world surrounded by poverty and economic pain. We live in a world where the rich take care of themselves while taking advantage of the poor.

We live in a world where so-called “Christians” in the church are some of the meanest and most evil bullies we know. We live in a world where our loved ones suffer with all sorts of dreadful diseases. And we live in a world where we are continually reminded our own mortality.

Thus, I love John 11, for here in this very honest chapter, there is no denying the harsh reality of this fragmented existence we call life, especially in dealing with the most tragic aspect of this life: the death of a loved one.

Too many Christians, for many reasons would rather treat the tragedy of death as if it does not exist. We don’t want to talk about it.  And when we do, we try to deny the harshness, the sheer austerity of it. We do not even like to call it “death.” We would rather call it “passing away.”

We say things like: “there are worse things in this world than death;” however, in death there still exists an inescapable starkness that cannot be denied or ignored. When we are honest, we would admit that death is the most difficult thing about life. Losing someone we loved is the worst of all human experiences. We try to comfort ourselves by saying things like, “at least our loved one is no longer suffering.”  “At least she is now finally at peace.”  But if we are honest, just a second later, we find ourselves questioning why she had to get cancer and suffer in the first place. Why did they have to die as young as they did?

And we like to comfort ourselves by saying that he or she is in a far better place. But then a second later, we question why he or she would not be better here with us, at home, surrounded by family and love.

Yes, in John 11, there is no refuting the stark reality of death. Notice that Martha is absolutely horrified when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back from the tomb. Her horror reminds us of something that we would rather ignore: the body was beginning to decay. The very sound of the words of verse 39 “Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days” seems inappropriate to read from the pulpit. Dressed in our Sunday best on a beautiful spring morning, we don’t want to hear that!

But this is reality. This is truth.  And sometimes we simply do not want to hear the truth.

And sometimes we just think it is our Christian duty to be an example to the world, to the weak, to the unfaithful, how to be strong, how to put on a brave face and hold back the tears.

But notice in John 11 that there is no holding back.

Mary, the brother of Lazarus, weeps. The mourners who had gathered at the cemetery that day weep. Even Jesus himself weeps. The harsh reality of death and grief is evident everywhere.

We are told twice that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Is there really a difference there? That is like saying that Jesus was grieving and mourning.

Just looking at the tomb of Lazarus caused Jesus to burst into tears.  Even Jesus, who we believe is manifestation, the very embodiment of God, the creator of all that is, who became flesh to dwell among us, does not remain calm and serene as one unmoved and detached from the fragmented human scene. Jesus himself is deeply disturbed at death’s devastating force. There is no denying it or escaping it or muting it. Neither is there any dressing it up with euphemisms like “passing away” or “gone on to be with the Lord.”

John 11 also points out why Jesus grieved. In verse 36 we read: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.’”

It has often been said that the only way to miss pain in life is to miss love in life. Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Grieving only means that we have loved as our God has created us to love. The only way to never grieve is to never love. But to never love is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So, I believe John 11 gives each of us permission this morning to grieve. May we grieve long and deeply. May we never dare to run away from it.  May we never treat it as it was some stranger that we could send away, or deny that grief, because someone who doesn’t know any better thinks grieving means our faith is weak. Let us grieve what is lost. Grieve honestly, lovingly and patiently. Let us grieve until our cups are emptied.

However, (and here is the good news for all of us this day) as the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that those of us who call ourselves Christians should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  As Christians, our grief is real, but our grief is different. Our grief is not despairing, because as Christians, we possess hope because Jesus, who himself was not immune to grief and even death, always brings resurrection and new life.

Those of us who are not immune to grief and death need to again to hear Jesus’ prayer which came in a loud voice.  “Lazarus, come out.”

I heard a preacher once ask his congregation, “You do know why Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come out’ and not simply ‘come out’ don’t you?  Because if he did not call Lazarus by name, if he did not say specifically, “Lazarus, come out, then every tomb in Jerusalem would have opened up that day!

We need to hear this voice and see this very real and foul, decaying corpse walking out of the grave, still wrapped in burial cloths, coming, at the voice of Jesus, to life.

And then I believe we need to hear again, and hear again loudly Jesus’ words: “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is loosed from the bonds of death. He is freed from the shackles of his past. He is let go into a brand new future, liberated and set free.

Then, I believe we need hear John and Jesus himself tell us over and over that this event reveals the glory of our God. What we have in this story is much more than the resuscitation of one dead corpse by one man.

Always for John, miracles are much more. Miracles are always signs that point us to something greater. Thus this miracle is the revelation that the God in whom we serve and trust and love, this God who is not unmoved and detached from the human scene, is always a death-overcoming and life-giving God.

The good news that we need to hear is that this God is still working in our world today unbinding, letting go, loosing, freeing. God is here enabling us to confront death and grief, us to acknowledge it, to look it straight in the eyes, to see all of its harshness and starkness, and then be liberated from it.

And if God is here liberating us from the shackles of death, then there is nothing else in all of creation from which God cannot set us free.

From evil bullies bent on crushing our spirits.

A job that is draining the very life from us.

A relationship that is killing us.

Fears that paralyze us.

Disease that is destroying us.

Economic hardships that never seem to end.

Depression that never lets go.

One of the great things about being a pastor is how I have the awesome privilege to witness this good news all of the time.

Someone loses their job. They come to me believing it is the end of the world. But a year later, working a new job, they share with me that losing that job was the very best thing that could have happen to them.

Someone else comes to me and says that their marriage has fallen apart. And that they are partly to blame. They said they thought life as they knew it was over. But a few months later, they tell me that they are beginning realize that although they cannot go back to the good old days, they have plenty of good new days ahead.

Someone comes to me sharing their deepest fear: the fear of being known for who they really are; the fear of rejection and ridicule. Then I see them a short time later, and they tell me how they have been surprised by unconditional love and unreserved acceptance.

People call me to share their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They say that they had just received a death sentence. But a short time later, I visit with them, and they tell me that they are beginning to understand that being alive and whole have very little to do with physical well-being.

And then I have visited with countless people as they are facing what is certainly their final hours on earth, and I hear in their voices, and I see in their eyes a faithful awareness that there is nothing at all “final” about them.

Thus, like Lazarus, in this incomplete and fragmented world where death, divorce, disease and hate entomb us, we can be loosed. We can be freed, and we can be unbound.

We can come out and let go and celebrate the good news together: where there is incompleteness and brokenness, there can be wholeness. Where there is tyranny of the mind, there can be freedom of the heart. Where there is an imprisonment of the soul, there can be a liberation of the spirit. Where there is grief and despair there is hope. And where there is death and even decay, there is always life.

Let us pray together…

O God of New Life, may we be a church that shares this good news with all people, honestly and truthfully and faithfully. May we weep with those who mourn. May we be deeply moved with those who are afraid. And may we be deeply disturbed in our spirit with all who are suffering. Stay beside them. Befriend them. Accept them. Love them…until they are whole, liberated and fully alive now and forever through Christ our Lord. Amen.