Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year, "With Fear and Great Joy," Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon 4/16/17
Matthew 28:1-10


With Fear and Great Joy


Each one of the four gospels gives a slightly different account of the first Easter morning. Each author wants to draw our attention to something slightly different. Luke talks about remembering and the words of Jesus throughout his final gospel chapter. Mark is, as usual, the most abrupt, telling us the bare minimum he thinks we need to know, and in the fewest number of words he can manage it. John brings us into more intimate encounters, showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a one-on-one encounter, and then Jesus in a meaningful encounter with Thomas, then Peter. And in each gospel, these nuances are what draws my attention, because in those unique qualities of each resurrection account, we can find the message the gospel-writer is trying to convey to us. So what shows up in Matthew’s gospel that doesn’t show up in other resurrection accounts?
Let’s look at Matthew’s account. We find Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” heading to the tomb. This other Mary could be Mary the mother of Jesus, or another woman so named, as it was a common name. As they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake, mirroring the earthquake Matthew describes taking place at Jesus’ crucifixion. An angel, a messenger from God, whose appearance is “like lightning” rolls back the stone of the tomb, and sits down. There are guards posted at the tomb, and they are so overwhelmed with fear at the sight of God’s messenger that they shake and become “like dead men” – I’m assuming Matthew means they’ve fainted, since they don’t contribute to the rest of the conversation. To the women, though, the messenger speaks. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. But he isn’t here. He’s been raised. Come and look, see for yourselves. And then go, quickly, and tell the disciples: Jesus has been raised, and he’s going on ahead of you, and you’ll see him in Galilee.” The women don’t respond – at least not that Matthew tells us – but they do what the messenger instructed. They head to find the disciples, and Matthew tells us that they go “with fear and great joy.” Somewhere along the way – where is not quite clear – Jesus suddenly meets them, saying, “Greetings!” At the sight of him, the women fall at his feet, holding on to them, worshiping him, clearly overwhelmed. And Jesus repeats to them the words of the messenger: “Do not be afraid – go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me.” After our text ends, we find the guards and the chief priests conspiring to undermine any story about Jesus being raised, and Matthew’s account closes with a brief meeting of Jesus with his disciples, and Jesus promising to be with them always, even as he sends them out into the world to call others to become his followers.
So what stands out in Matthew’s gospel? What’s unique about his telling? I’m struck that “fear” is mentioned four times in these short ten verses. In Matthew’s account, the women witness an earthquake, an angel appearing, and the stone being rolled away, all before the messenger even speaks to them. I don’t blame them for being frightened. We can read about these events calmly, but I can only imagine that fear was the natural response. The guards, in fact, are so frightened by what’s happening that they faint away. The first words out of the mouth of both the messenger, and of Jesus himself are this: “Do not be afraid.” The women, well – the text tells us they are still afraid, at least still afraid by before they encounter Jesus himself. But Matthew says that they leave the tomb quickly, “with fear and great joy.” I love that phrase. Maybe they don’t quite reach the “not afraid” that the messenger and Jesus are leading them toward – but they seem to take strength and comfort in the fact that what’s happening is meant to fill them with joy, not fear, and so while they’re still afraid, they lean into and take action on the joy. And the joy keeps them moving, ready to share this amazing news: Jesus is not dead. The tomb was not the final word after all. Death has not won. Death did not end this story. Jesus is alive, and he’s going to meet you again, soon. 
“Do not be afraid.” “So they left … quickly, with fear and great joy.” I’ve been thinking about fear this week, about the things that make us afraid. This week, the United States dropped something literally named “The Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan. This week, as North Korea celebrated with an annual military parade, the country showed off several missiles that appeared to be capable of striking nations far away – like in Europe, or the US. Bombs and missiles, and our human tendency to try to problem solve with weapons – that makes me afraid.
What are you afraid of? Some of you know that I have a real phobia of flying. You can share with me any number of statistics about how it is safer to fly in an airplane than it is to drive in a car, but in my experience, logic and rational thinking isn’t often able to touch on our fears. I used to be able to fly without a problem, but overtime, I found myself getting more and more anxious every time I was on a plane. Now, I’ll drive almost any distance to avoid getting on an airplane. I’ve flown when I had to, but I will admit there are some opportunities I’ve let pass me by so that I didn’t have to get on an airplane.
What are you afraid of? Sometimes, I’m afraid of conflict, and of people getting mad at me. I’d prefer – who wouldn’t? – if everyone thought I was great, and got along with me, and liked all of my plans. Being afraid of conflict and anger isn’t always a helpful quality when you’re a pastor of a congregation with a lot of wonderfully unique people, and when you want to forge ahead with the vision God has, even when not everyone is on board though. I’ve had to work hard over the years of my ministry to face conflict head on, to stay fixed on my purpose, on God’s purpose. Otherwise, what paths that God is leading me to will I bypass, in my striving to make sure everyone likes me? What are you afraid of? And what are the consequences of your fears?  
Earlier during Lent I was meeting with our worship team to talk about our plans for Holy Week and the Season of Easter. I started with a devotional time, and usually I pick a scripture text that’s related to worship, music, and praise. But I’ve been using a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann called A Way other than Our Own this Lent, and the passage for the day really spoke to me, and so I shared it with our team. Brueggemann reflects on Isaiah 43:1, my mother’s favorite Bible verse, which says, “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’” Brueggemann writes,    “Being unafraid is an odd vocation; but it is the vocation of all those who have been baptized. We are different when baptized. The Acts account of the early church says that the Spirit of God came upon Jesus in baptism …. What the Spirit does is visit our lives … with the freedom of God, so that we are unafraid in the world, able to live differently, not needing to control, not needing to dominate, not needing to accumulate, not driven by anxiety.” The disciples, he says, were “known, named, and unafraid people,” who “turned the world upside down.” “Or better to say, they turned the world right side up.” He continues: “The truth is that frightened people will never turn the world, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized, the known and named and unafraid, to make the world whole:
            The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
            The unafraid, are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.
            The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
            The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at the night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” (60-61)
            I don’t know about you, but I want to be unafraid. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want fear to be the guiding force in my life. And I can tell you this: that’s not what God wants for us either. From one end of the scriptures to the other, the Bible is filled with this repeated message: “Do not be afraid.” Well over one hundred times. From the voice of God. From God’s prophets and messengers. From Jesus himself: Do not be afraid. What would your life be like if you weren’t afraid? What would you be doing differently than you are right now? “Do not be afraid!”
            The women, these Marys are still afraid. The scripture is honest with us – even though the messenger tells them not to be, even though Jesus tells them not to be, they are afraid. But it isn’t all they are. They are joyful. Something so wonderful has happened, so wonderful that their fear wasn’t the most important thing anymore. Their fear wasn’t making the decisions. “With fear and great joy.” David Lose writes, “I think it’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about … There is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient -- real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.” (1)
            Mercy overcomes judgment. Love is greater than hate. Life is stronger than death. These women, and the disciples with whom they’ll share the news don’t snap from fear to no fear in an instant. But they make room for the joy, and they commit to a journey of learning to be unafraid in the world, and day by day, the joy of living the abundant life that Jesus gives them overwhelms the fear that once drove them. And so Easter doesn’t end for us at the empty tomb. After all, we, like the women, are looking for Jesus, and he isn’t in the tomb anymore. He’s not in this place where death has the last word and fear will knock you off your feet. He’s going on ahead. And he’s inviting us to come with him. Let’s go: maybe with some fear. But with great joy that’s transforming fear into courage.
            Amen.  



Benediction:
“Do Not Be Afraid”

We should be afraid, of course,
to be so near to God.

We should be startled by the glory of God
and the disruption of angels.

We should be freaked. out. that God even blinks
in our direction, let alone that God dares us
to walk a new path just to see what
God can do with life.

“Do not be afraid; have a child.”
“Do not be afraid; leave your home.”
“Do not be afraid; give up your reputation.”
“Do not be afraid; press on through hardship.”
“Do not be afraid; face a powerful enemy.”

Or,
be afraid.
Be totally overwhelmed.
Be stunned and terrified, in fact,
but here’s the critical part:

be near to God
anyway.



(1) Lose, David, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3174
(2) Rachel Hackenberg, Rachel G Hackenberg. http://rachelhackenberg.com/blog/






Monday, April 03, 2017

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha," John 11:1-45

Sermon 4/2/17
John 11:1-45

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha


Today, on our last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins, we encounter a strange scripture text. I call it strange not because of the story itself so much – after all, Jesus is always doing incredible things in the gospels – but strange, at least at first glance, because this text shows up for us as a Lenten reading. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday. We’ll celebrate Jesus’s victory over death with irrepressible life. And yet, in our text for today, we seem to get an early start on resurrection, with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even some of the musical suggestions for the day in worship planning guides seem confused, with lists of hymns that fit with the text choosing some traditional Easter favorites that we won’t be singing for another two weeks. What’s with this resurrection before The Resurrection?
As with some of our other Lenten texts, there’s a lot to think about in these 45 verses. But it is Jesus’s encounter with Martha that catches my attention in this text. Our text from the gospel of John is another story that appears only in John’s gospel, although the players, the main figures, are somewhat known to us. John starts by telling us that a man named Lazarus, who lives in Bethany, is ill. His sisters are Martha and Mary. Mary had once anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and wiped them with her hair. We talked about Mary and Martha way back over the summer, when Jesus was having dinner at their home, and Martha was upset because she seemed to be doing all the work of the household, while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, a phrase used to describe a disciple.
            Now, their brother Lazarus is ill, and since Jesus seems to be friends with their family, they contact him to let him know. They tell Jesus via message, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Their words reflect the closeness Jesus shares with this family. When Jesus gets the message, he says, “This illness doesn’t lead to death. In fact, it is going to be a way that God’s glory can be revealed.” So, John tells us, even though Jesus loves the siblings, he stays where he is for two more days. The word gives a sense of “lingering.” There is a decided lack of haste in Jesus’ actions.
            Finally, Jesus sets out to see Lazarus. He tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and they take him literally, but Jesus explains that no, Lazarus has in fact died. Jesus says he’s glad he wasn’t there, so that through Lazarus’ death, the disciples will come to believe. Thomas says, “Let us go too – that we may die with him.” We usually think of Thomas only for his moments of doubt later in John’s gospel, but here, he shows himself a faithful friend.
            By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived, and immediately comes to greet Jesus, but Mary stays at home. Once again, Martha has a chance to tell Jesus what’s on her mind. But where last time, Martha was filled with hostility toward her sister, this time, in this encounter, even in the midst of her grief, things are different. Martha confronts Jesus right away, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Ouch. She doesn’t pull any punches. But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It’s hard to say exactly what Martha means by this. Although we know what happens next, Martha certainly doesn’t suspect or think she can ask Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. In some ways, then, her statement is all the more remarkable. She’s in the midst of grief, in those first days of loss that are a blur of pain and sadness. She wishes Jesus had come sooner, to heal Lazarus. But even though he didn’t, she trusts him, and knows that God can do anything through Jesus that God wants to do. She may not have seen clearly before, but she’s changed.
            Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha response, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus’ words aren’t particularly comforting to Martha in the moment. It’s all very well that she might see her brother again someday at the end of the world, but that doesn’t dull her grief right now. But that’s not what Jesus means. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And though Martha might not know why Jesus is saying these things now, Martha again shows that her faith is deep, that she’s changed, that she has learned who Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I love that last part – “the one coming into the world.” The way Martha phrases it, it isn’t a one-time event, Jesus arriving in the world. It is ongoing – Jesus is continually breaking into the world, continually arriving among us.
            After this encounter between Jesus and Martha, Martha goes to get her sister Mary. When Mary comes to Jesus, she shares the same words as her sister: “Jesus, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.” Unlike Martha, though, Mary doesn’t move beyond those words. Jesus sees her crying, and sees all the others who are weeping for Lazarus, and he’s deeply troubled. He too begins to weep. He knows what he intends to do, but he’s not untouched by the suffering he sees. He comes to Lazarus’s tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. He orders the stone rolled away. Martha warns that Lazarus has been dead for four days – this will not be pleasant. But Jesus says, “I told you – if you believe, you will witness the glory of God.” Jesus offers a prayer to God, and then cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus, still bound up in the burial cloths covering his body and face, emerges from the tomb. Jesus orders some bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go.” After this, many who were present come to believe in Jesus. After our passage concludes, others, like the religious leaders, find Jesus’ raising of Lazarus to be so troubling that they determine Jesus must be put to death. We don’t hear from Mary, or Martha, or Lazarus though. How must they have reacted to this incredible miracle? We can only imagine. How about us? How do we react?
            I think of these three siblings, Mary, Lazarus, Martha, and I wonder if we can learn something in the way each of them responds to the events that unfold in this passage. Mary is so mired in grief, it doesn’t even occur to her to try to see anything else, to wonder about Jesus’ presence, to look for God at work even in her pain. I don’t blame her – her reaction is pretty natural! But I’m surprised too – Mary has sat at the feet of Jesus. She seemed to “get” it. But here, she hits a wall in her faith journey. Has that happened to you? Have you come to God saying, “God, if you had intervened, this bad thing wouldn't have happened to me!” Mary’s anger blinds her from hope for new life, at least at first.
            For once, for a change from the typical pattern of the scriptures, we hear from the two women in this story, but not a word from their brother. We don’t hear from him in his illness, and of course not in his death, but we hear nothing from him after he is raised from death either. What we do get are some pretty vivid mental pictures. Jesus calls out to Lazarus who has been lying dead in a tomb for days, and when he emerges, he doesn’t just spring back to it. No, he’s still bound up in grave clothes, wrapped in the linens that prepared him for the tomb. He’s been resurrected, but he still needs to be unbound. I think I find myself even more likely to end up in Lazarus’ shoes than Mary’s. The promise of new life and resurrection put right into my hands, but I’m getting too caught up in the things I’ve wrapped myself up in to take hold of it. Out of what caves do you need Jesus to call you? What still needs to happen for you to claim the gift of new life Jesus offers? Have you been resurrected, but you’re still bound up in grave clothes, not yet living the new life God has given you?
            Or maybe, maybe, we can be like Martha, who clearly listened to Jesus when he urged her to choose a better way the last time we saw them interact. She, like Mary, is immersed in her grief – but she trusts in God, trusts in Jesus, even if he didn’t do what she had hoped he would do. When Jesus says he is resurrection and life right now, Martha responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus is offering new life, and Martha says Yes as emphatically as she can.
            As strange as it is for us to encounter this new life story right in the midst of Lent, it is also exactly right that we do so. Because the amazing news is this: We don’t even have to wait until Easter to experience resurrection and life, because Jesus just is those things – is resurrection and life all the time. And so even as we journey through the darkness and pain of Holy Week, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we grieve at the cross, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we wait for the light of Easter Day to shine, we are already Easter people, resurrection people, new life people. Jesus was already, is already, will already be at work raising us from death to new life. He’s already transforming us, so that our lives become like nothing we could recognize from before. That is resurrection, isn't it? It’s ours, now, from the one who is coming into the world, always. Jesus is resurrection. He is life. He is continually coming into the world to encounter us. Let our mourning be turned to gladness. Let’s tear away the bindings, discard the grave clothes. Let’s step out of the cave into the light. Jesus is ever-coming into the world, offering life. Amen.