Saturday, April 23, 2011

Telling the old story, making it our own: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

My sermon from tonight:

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Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

We stand in the dark. We light a fire and follow a candle inside. We sing, we chant, we light our own candles. We ring bells, and we tell the story of creation and the story of prophets and the story of God come among us.

What we are doing is being done all over the world tonight as it has been done for two millennia. What we are doing is very ancient, very human, indeed, even very primordial.

Consider this: Long ago, before the time of mass media, before the time of Jesus and Moses and the Bible, before the time of the written word – long, long, long ago – people did what we do tonight.

They sat at the campfire and they shared a meal, and they told the story of how their ancestors were saved from certain calamity by a greater power than themselves.

In the telling and the re-telling, meal after meal, the story became their own story.

The telling was not just about reciting and analyzing dry facts, but making the story come alive to them no matter how dark it was at that moment beyond the campfire.

We, too, do this tonight. We gather around the fire, surrounded by the darkness of the world, and we tell the ancient story and make the story our own.

We affirm our deepest bonds with each other, our deepest hopes for each other, and we share again in the meal of our ancestors, our Holy Eucharist, and the darkness will not enter.

Yet if we are not careful, we can get lost amidst of candles and music, lost in the poetry and the rituals; lost in the analyzing and theologizing; and we might lose sight of the reality of the story and how it is anchored in historical fact.

If we are not careful, the story might become only a soft metaphor, or a theological allegory, and then we run the danger of missing the ultimate challenge that the story puts squarely at our feet.

So, if you will, enter into this story as fact. Step back into a time long ago, to the early dawn in the hours after Jesus was executed by the Romans on a cross.
Stand for a few moments at the empty tomb.

Yet we have an immediate difficulty: The story of the empty tomb comes to us in four versions, each a little different.

In the oldest of the gospels, Mark, we hear of a group of women who go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body and find it empty. They meet a “young man dressed in a white robe” who pleads with them to be not alarmed. But they are terrified, and flee, “and they said nothing to anyone.”

The oldest versions of Mark end right there.

The Gospel of Luke adds two men in dazzling clothes at the empty tomb instead of one. The women go back to tell the disciples – they certainly do talk about it – and Peter returns to the tomb and is “amazed.”

In the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written, it is Mary Magdalene who comes alone to the tomb to find it empty. Mary Magdalene weeps, and there is a deafening quiet, and she sees two angels, and then she sees a man, and thinks he is the gardener. Mary recognizes the gardener as Jesus and she tries to embrace him. Tears of grief become tears of joy.

In the Gospel of Matthew that we hear tonight, the story of the empty tomb is at its most dramatic – earthquakes and lightening, guards petrified “like dead men,” and an angel telling the women at the tomb: “Do not be afraid” – the same words the angel said at his birth.

The women flee “with fear and great joy” but before they run far, they meet Jesus who tells them “Greetings!” and he gives them a message for the other disciples that he will meet them in Galilee.

Roughly the same story, but the details differ.

We have the right to ask: Did this really happen? Or is this a fairy tale or the figment of hopeful imaginations?

And if did happen, what does it have to with us? So what? Maybe this one man did rise from the dead, but only one? What’s that to do with me?

Let me suggest there are good reasons to believe this story, that the creator who created all things created this amazing event.

And let me also suggest that it makes a great deal of difference to us not just in the next world, but in how we live in this world – maybe most especially in this world.
Let me explain this as best I can.

First, did Jesus really die on the Cross? Maybe his followers rescued him in the nick of time – and these stories of the Risen Christ are really about the next chapter in his earthly career.
But I don’t find that plausible. He was a trouble-making Jew, he threatened the established order of the Romans, there is no way they would have let him get away with it. He was doomed by them from the start.

The Romans would have tortured and executed him with no mercy. The Romans were very good at one thing: killing people. People did not survive crucifixion. Anyone attempting a rescue would have found himself up on the next cross.

As Andrew Guffey, in his homily on Friday pointed out, Golgatha – the Place of the Skull – was perfectly named. It was an advertisement for death. The Romans took people there to die, to destroy not just their bodies, but their hope. There was absolutely no escape.

Could his reappearance have been collective psychosis, or a product of dreams and ghost stories by people in deep grief? Maybe those dreams gradually morphed into the story of a new spiritual awakening.


But people of the time were accustomed to ghost stories, and as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, they were also accustomed to dreaming of the dead. They knew about ghosts. 
They were also accustomed to gradual spiritual awakenings and they knew about collective psychosis from grief.

And they were accustomed to venerating the tombs of prophets and holy people.

But they were not accustomed to this.

These stories of the empty tomb and the Risen Christ describe something very different than anything they had every experienced.

Not ghosts, not dreams, and not a gradual spiritual awakening.

They describe a sudden, unexpected, startling – frightening – reappearance of a human being they saw tortured and executed. And he comes back to them not as a ghost, but whole and healed.

The details of the story changed with the telling, the details morphed by word of mouth. But one basic fact did not change in the telling: that these fearful followers encountered the Risen Jesus with them again, and it changed them.

If you read the descriptions closely – he looked the same but was strangely different. They could touch him physically, but he would pop into a closed room, or walk beside them on a road to a town called Emmaus, or would cook them breakfast on a beach.

Sometimes they recognized him instantly, other times it took awhile to recognize him.
The greatest evidence that this happened is in the change to the people themselves. These encounters utterly transformed them. They became new people right then and there.

The key are these words – “Do not be afraid.”

Their encounter with the Risen Christ stripped them of all fear. They had scattered to the wind soon after the arrest of Jesus; now they didn’t care what the Romans threw at them.

They might be arrested and tortured themselves – as, indeed, many were. But nothing would turn them around. Nothing. No power on earth would turn them around, and they were willing to die rather than change back into the fearful people they had once been.

I believe the only way they went willingly to their own death is that these encounters with the Risen Christ were rooted in fact.

What does this have to do with us?

Everything. This same Risen Christ comes to us, and is present with us here, now, and every single day.

Yes, we may get sick, and our bodies will surely give out one day. We may stand against injustice and get beaten back.

But we have nothing to be afraid of – nothing at all.

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I want tell you a story – a very old story; the story our ancestors told around the campfire.
The story begins in darkness, where there is only nothing.

Then God created the universe from nothing. There was a spark, and there was light, and there were stars and planets, and this fragile earth, our island home.
And God saw that it was good.

God created every living being on this earth, and God created human beings, and God saw that life was very good.

God sent angels and prophets and sages to tell the human beings:
“Do not be afraid, God is with you, God made you good, so take care of all that I have given you, and love each other and love all that I have created that is good.”

But human beings were full of fear, and they began to believe that death had more power than life, so they made a pact with death.

People became filled with hatred and greed, they exploited one another, they brought forth wars and dictators, genocides and Holocausts.

So God sent them laws, Torah, and God commanded them to love God and to love each other as God loves them.

But then human beings began to worship the letter of the law and forget its purpose, and they became rigid and tribal, and still all they could see was their own fear.

So God came to them, as one of them, the Word made flesh, a man, to show them how to love each other, how to heal each other, and how to live without fear and without hatred.

God walked with them for a time in the only way God knew how – as a poor, lowly servant, a peasant carpenter, a healer and a teacher.

He taught them to do as he did, to love each other as he loved them, and to not be afraid, and a few began to understand that these blessings, especially in the moments when they were hurting or grieving or in danger.

But human beings still lived in fear and hatred.

So the Word made flesh went to the Cross, and surrendered to the powers of fear and death to show them that those powers ultimately have no hold on them.

He died as we died, and then came back to his first followers, and he touched them.
He showed them that the line between life and death is only a horizon.

And he kept coming. He came to many, whether they believed in him or not.
He came to them in closed rooms and in closed hearts.

He came to them where they lived and worked; in classrooms and hospital rooms; in churches and in homeless shelters; on the battlefields and the killing fields; on the streets and in the cotton fields; at the lunch counter and in the jail; in farm labor camps and in concentration camps.

The Risen Jesus came wherever God’s people are hurting.
He came everywhere.

He told them – and us – that we have nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all.
Love each other as I have loved you; do not be afraid.

Life and love, healing and wholeness get the last word always, and I will be with you always – always.

Have strength, have courage, and do as I do: feed the hungry, heal the sick, be with the lonely and the prisoners. Love each other, and show your love every single day. You have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.

And they were not afraid. Not ever again.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

To find the biblical readings for the Great Vigil of Easter (and they are many), click HERE.  May you have many blessings this Easter and always . . .

Photos by Bonny Bronson of our Great Vigil of Easter at St. Paul's Memorial Church, April 23, 2011.

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