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. 

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Yesterday, through my great powers of manipulation, a small miracle, or perhaps just dumb luck, I somehow convinced our Director of Christian Education to preach on Rally Day (the day Sunday School returns). Because she is a people pleaser and cannot say no to me, (and because she somewhere must have a deep seeded need to be punished for something she did in a past life) Katie said yes. As if she didn’t have enough to do that day…(FYI- Katie is our Christian Educator, she is a Pastoral Counselor, and has the voice of an angel)

Anyway, Katie, a double PK (meaning both of her parents are ministers) did a beautiful job, really. And as she preached about forgiveness and reconciliation Using Matthew 18:15-20 she preached about how to be the church together, how to be communal. On one hand I felt proud of Katie, I felt happy for the congregation, and I admit, it was also nice to hear a word from our pulpit that is so similar to one I would have given, but as she preached, I felt myself being moved, being preached to, being “fed” by the word. (yes, “fed” is problematic for me, but it’s the only word I can come up with- hold on, I’ll get more coffee).

This is an interesting thing as a preacher. I preach to myself most often. It just happens sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But I am preaching the word God is wanting me to hear. I often get comments on the way out the door like “You can stop talking directly to me now!” or “How did you know?” or “That was exactly what I needed to hear.” These are high compliments as a preacher, but what I really want to say is, “Yeah… that’s great, but that word the Spirit was bringing, it was for me too.”

But then Katie preached, and I heard the gospel in a new way, I asked her to send me the sermon, she did some good exegesis that I wanted to share:

In the Old Testament there is salach, which most of us would understand as pardoning or freeing from the constraints of guilt. Salach is the forgiveness that God offers as it is exclusively used in instances where God is the subject. Kipper or atonement is related to the journey from sin to forgiveness, again usually between a person or people and God. And then there’s nasa’, which is used in the context of expelling sin from the individual, usually by way of communal sacrifice.  Did we catch that? Individual sin, communal sacrifice. The remedy for one person’s wrongdoing is reconciled within community.

community prayer

Did you catch that? I talk a lot about community here on this blog, it is vital to my faith. But think about this: The way to be reconciled to God, to yourself, to your neighbor is through a communal act. Individual sin. Communal Forgiveness.

We do not sin alone, even if the sin is to ourselves. Say I self hate, that still effects the community. Think about what self hate does to my work, my children, the people I encounter at the checkout line in Target. “Working on myself” is a communal act. We need the community to be free from sin. This is even easier to understand if I sin against another. Then I don’t just effect my bubble, I effect another’s as well.

It was a beautiful message, one worth sharing. One my heart needed to be reminded of, and one that we all need to remember. There is hope for me, me who tries to make it all happen myself. There is nothing wrong with needing others, needing them in order to reconcile with God, with my neighbor, and especially, with myself.

Thanks Katie, and Thanks be to God!