The Story of Life

This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. 

John 20:1-18

We gather here this morning to tell the story of Jesus. The story of God’s resurrection.  

The authors of the gospel of John understand the power of story, and the absolute necessity of it. They understand that we cannot know God without stories; that we cannot know ourselves without them either.  

We are a people who love story.  

We speak of getting lost in a story, but part of what draws us to a story is the promise of finding: finding a different world, finding another time, finding ourselves.  

There is something in us that hungers for a story, an empty space that is shaped precisely to its contours. We reach for the threads that a story offers, we enter the rooms it opens to us, we inhabit the skin of another and somehow, in the hands of a good story, we are returned to ourselves.  

And we are perhaps holding the threads of our own stories a bit differently, or entering a new space within ourselves, or finding ourselves able to inhabit our own skin more completely. 

Elie Wiesel says that God created us because God loves stories. (Inspired and quotes from Jan Richardson, Where the Story Begins)

The beginning of the Gospel of John begins with one of the great opening lines of all time.  

In the beginning. 

It’s right up there with… Once upon a time, and in a galaxy far, far away. 

We all know that in order to write a great story, you need to have a great story. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

In him was life, and that life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The opening of John tells us who we are and where we exist in the story. We are the people, we are God’s story in motion. And where does the power of a story lie? What is it about this story that so compels us?

We are God’s people- alive, through Christ.  

Being the Son of God, “in him was life; and the life was the light of all the people” (1:4).   

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (14:6).   

 His whole purpose for coming to earth “that we might have life, and have it more abundantly” (10:10).    

And this is not a condemning life, but a gift. For God so loved the world that he gave is son so we may have eternal life. (John 3:16)  

He tells Martha in comforting her after Lazarus dies, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

 And of course the Easter story begins just as poetically as any other, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”

We see a woman, exhausted from the week’s events. She’s tired and frail, unable to sleep she gathers her supplies quietly, and makes her way from the place where she was staying to the private garden, the property of the wealthy patron who allowed 

Jesus’ body to be laid at the last minute.  

She has come to anoint the body, come to pay her respects; she has come to mourn the loss of the life of her dearest friend.  

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he wasn’t supposed to die. Death wasn’t part of 

the deal, life was. He no longer exists in bodily form; all that’s left of him now is story. 

But that story doesn’t end the way Mary thinks it does. 

Death does not have the last word. As readers and studiers of story we are clued in to the fact that she is in a special place, a garden.  

The garden in which Mary stands mimics the one from another story, the story of creation. When God created a lush garden called Eden and we first learned of Godability to bring forth life.  

The garden is different now – not as pure – tainted with death and overgrown plants, touched by human hands. But that cannot stop God. 

In 1 Corinthians Paul tells the readers that resurrection is like a seed that must die to bring forth life. Jesus tells us that whoever wants to keep their life will lose it.  This is the moment of resurrection. The moment we realize that it is within the darkest, bleakest moments of life that we are at our most vulnerable. 

And like every good story, we have learned that the sweetest joy and the purest love comes from vulnerability. 

Mary is raw, the disciples are exposed. They are living in darkness and scarcity, facing a new reality that they never anticipated, and it came in the most cruel and violent ways.  

But it is within of that moment they find life. Real life. The life that Jesus spoke of, a live of abundant grace, and life of love and mercy, a renewed spirit.  

And they learn this lesson in a garden, the setting of our story. Because, we’re not the only thing God because God loves a good story.  

The garden reminds us that life is renewing, that we must become vulnerable, exposed to death, before we can resurrect into the next thing.  

The garden has a story in and of itself- it teaches us that life will find a way, no matter what.  

We plant a tree and suffocate it with cement.  

  
At it’s most vulnerable it not only survives it adapts to it’s environment. 

a seed scattered to the wind lands in mortar. 

  
We create suburban sprawl and waste fully abandon it, but life finds a way. 

  

Death will not have the last word, but it will have it’s day, for Jesus, it was 3 of them in fact. But on the third he was raised to new life.  

 Out of the depth of vulnerability — resurrection.  

So the story continues, and Mary mistakes Jesus as a gardener (poetic isn’t it?) Upon discovering who he is, he tells her not to cling to who he was. He’s different now, transformed by hardship, pain, and a journey.  

 

It’s a story unlike any other, the greatest story of all time the ending yet to be written, a story of relationship between God and creation that continues even to this day. 

May it live on through you and through me. And all God’s people said…Amen. 

Sermon 04 29 2012

For those that missed it, here is my sermon from April 29, 2012. Although this sermon is not exactly what I preached (we must leave room for the spirit) this is what was written for me to say… It has all the elements.

Luke 24:36b-48

About 18 months ago there was a tragic accident in my church in Albany.  Lou, the patriarch of the church, 89 years old and in great health for his age, walked across the street to his car on a rainy September evening and was struck by a car.  They never saw each other. Not even close.

The next day I am driving to the family’s house and dropping the kids off at a nearby parishioner.  When my, then almost three year old daughter says to me “Mommy, why are you sad?”

Now I try to be open to my children about the realities of life and death, but how to do that is delicate, I do not want to scare them, but I do want them to understand.

I want to be honest because sadness is a real emotion and there is no reason for her to think that it is about her, or to pretend that I am not sad because I am, obviously, very sad.

“Well honey, something bad has happened to Mr. Lou.” “Mr. Lou our church friend?” “Yes, baby, he crossed the street without looking”

Now to an almost three year old crossing the street without looking is just about the sin of all sins.

“Oh,” she says “he’s in BIG trouble” I laugh through my tears “Yes, honey, he is in big trouble.”

Explaining death to a child is just about the most complicated thing I can imagine.  It brings up so many questions… Where do we go when we die? Will grandma still have cancer in heaven? How will I recognize the ones that I love? Will they have the same body? And if so, what will that body look like?

My favorite answer to that last one came from an eighty something year old woman who told me that she believed that when she arrived in heaven she would look like she did on her most perfect day in life.

The day where everything fell in to place, her hair was just so and her makeup just right, and where she felt the most confident about herself.

It is a comfort to us, when we are grief stricken, that when we arrive in heaven we will see those whom we loved most dear to us.  And it is a comfort that although different, we will recognize them by body and in spirit.

In our scripture lesson this morning we meet the disciples again, this time in Luke, huddled together in their fear, frustration, guilt, grief and suspicion. Their leader, their beloved, is dead and now his wounded body is missing. In the midst of their escalating alarm, out of nowhere, Jesus himself appears.

And again, just as in John, the first thing Jesus does is provide comfort and assurance.  “Peace be with you” Jesus says.  And immediately follows it up with “Why are you freaking out?” As then he does something really odd, something very strange, but something he has done so many times in the Gospel of Luke, he asks for something to eat.

These words, this scripture, this moment assures the disciples, this is the same old Jesus- different now but yet the same- once dead but now alive- caring but still fussing.  Jesus is acting as if nothing happened, he seemed normal, natural, just what they had come to expect.

Yet he still carries the marks of his brutal death. And the very fact that he shows up after his cry of abandonment is anything but normal or expected. Earthly, human power had triumphed over him, it has seemed. The high priest, the scribes, the governor, soldiers, and the innocent bystanders had all condemned Jesus as a scoundrel and blasphemer.

Even God seemed to have condemned the verdict. There were no rescuing angles, no last minute acquittal, no surprise witnesses to change the verdict. According to the law he got what he deserved and this should be the end of the story.

But we are surprised- for God and Jesus are in cahoots against the powers of the world. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared to the political leaders, “This is not about you!”

While they thought they had the upper hand and exercised all power that mattered, God declared that God has been working behind the scenes the whole time.

Today’s text brings the work and ministry of Christ full circle. Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. God transformed a tragic consequence into a new thing- an acquittal and ultimate redemption. The ugliness of crucifixion gave way to the power of resurrection.

As we think the story over, we see God had something to say. It has always been about God and continues to be so.  Jesus did not launch into explanations about the mechanics of the resurrection, nor did he provide an itinerary about his whereabouts since Friday…

Instead, Jesus did what Jesus does best: he taught and commissioned: his whole life, death, and rising were about what God is doing in the world- reconciling the world back into the arms of God.

From the law of Moses, to the prophets, to the Psalms, it has always been about God and God’s purposes, aims, and agenda for us- it has always been about repentance that leads to forgiveness of sins and creating God’s shalom- peace, wholeness, restoring the world.

And that restoration is not far and it did not die with Jesus, because he was raised, here, in front of them, eating fish of all things! One of the greatest moments in Luke’s resurrection stories is this moment of Jesus eating fish.  This resurrection, this body- it lives.

It not only lives, it is real and tangible.  You can touch it, he can smell and taste, he can feel things like hunger and hear the disciple’s cries.

The risen Christ appears to groups and couples to assure them that he lives; to teach them to put their fear and doubts in the context of God’s grand plan; to open their understandings of the scriptures. To commission them as witnesses of all that God has done and is doing in the world.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear to his disciples and commissions them to put their fears and doubts in the context of God’s grand plan, so they may be able to witness of all that God has done and is doing for the world.

They are now ready to witness in Jerusalem, and to all the nations because of what they have seen and what they now know.

The work of Christ begins and continues because we are the witnesses and bearers of the promises of resurrection!

Today we live in a world where fear and doubt overwhelm us.  And we ask: where is God? Because the powers of the world- war, poverty, disease- seem to have won.  Today we are looking for that reassurance, that God is not powerless to the evils of this world.[i]

Yet here we are, witnesses to the resurrection, bearers of the gracious mercy of God. And we too have been commissioned to spread the good news of the gospel, to live the good news.  But the real questions becomes how will we do this?

What in our communities needs the presence of the risen Christ? What kinds of experiences or understandings so we need so that we can be credible witnesses to God’s reconciliation in the world?

What is our communal response to God’s presence and work in the world? How do we participate in God’s work on earth?

Although I do love that woman’s answer about what she will look like in heaven, I think I would change it a bit.  I pray that in heaven I will look like I did on my best day.  But not about hair and makeup, but the day I was the most kind, the most generous, the most forgiving.

I pray that when I arrive in heaven there will be all those whom I love being the best and most authentic selves, the people God called them to be on earth.

So why not start today?

Answering questions about death is hard, answer the questions about how we will bear witness to the resurrection may be harder still, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give it our best shot to answer them.

Years ago, Winston Churchill planned his own funeral. And he did so with the hope of the resurrection and eternal life which he firmly believed in.

And he instructed after the benediction that a bugler positioned high in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral would play Taps, the universal signal that says the day is over.

But then came a very dramatic moment as Churchill had instructed. Another bugler was placed on the other side of the massive dome, and he played the notes of Reveille (I can’t get em up), the universal signal that a new day has dawned and it is time to arise.

That was Churchill’s testimony that at the end of history, the last note will not be Taps, it’ll be Reveille. There is hope beyond the grave because Jesus Christ has opened the door to heaven for us by his death and resurrection.[ii]

Jesus commissions us to declare the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy, despair and death.  They are not ultimate- God is. And the risen Christ makes himself known to us in ways big and small.  So as people of faith we are to be witnesses to Christ’s people among us, in our words and in our deeds.

May this be so for you… Amen.

[i] This section from Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2, Luke 24:36b-48

[ii] 750 Engaging Illistrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers from Craig Brian Larson and Leadership Journal #127