Friday, March 29, 2013

“The Power and the Glory" - Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Text: John 20:1-18

Resurrection Sunday is the greatest day of the church year.  Beyond that, it is the only day determined by the moon.  It always falls on the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  What this really means is that you have to check your calendar.  While I know that Christmas will be December 25, I am not really up on full moons, to say nothing of the word “vernal.”  But as complicated as it sounds, in a way the placement of Easter Sunday in a given year makes sense because it means that Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and all the world comes to life.  Sap rises in the trees and crocuses pop out of the ground and forsythias bloom and birds sing and rabbits start showing up everywhere.  There is a connection between Easter and new life, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

But this connection between Easter and spring can also be a bit misleading, because spring is natural.  You can count on it; it comes every year, even if we do have a few late-season snowstorms.  You plant a bulb in the fall, something that looks like a half-rotten onion, but you expect a tulip to show up in the spring.  It is amazing, it is miraculous, but it is also natural.  It’s the way things work.

On the other hand, when we put a body in the ground, we do not expect to see it again.  We don’t wait around for the person to reappear so we can just pick up where we left off.  We say our good-byes and we try to carry on with our lives as best we can.  The only place that springtime happens in cemeteries is on the graves, not in them.

Mary was in the cemetery that morning.  She was paying her respects, saying her good-bye.  She goes to the tomb, and is stunned.  It’s like a punch in the gut.  Someone had moved the stone.  Someone had taken him to God knows where, afraid that the tomb would become a shrine, a rallying point for Jesus’ followers. 

Mary had that feeling of sudden terror that we may feel from time to time.  A pastoral colleague told of going to visit her father in the hospital following surgery.  She was unable to be there during the surgery but arrived at the hospital some time later that day.  Imagine her distress when she entered his room and found the bed empty and neatly made up.  She felt sudden panic.  She remembers going to the nursing station with trepidation and choking out through her tears, “What has happened to my father?”

That is the emotion of Easter morning.  It is a frightening thing to find that a loved one is missing.  The worst possibilities race through your mind.  As it turned out in this case, the surgery had been delayed and her father was still in recovery.

Mary goes to the tomb and finds that the stone had been rolled away.  She feels sudden panic.  She ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her.  They found things as she had said, and after a few minutes, they left her there weeping.  We don’t know if they tried to get her to go with them, but if they did, she refused. 

As you read through the gospel accounts, it is interesting that even though Jesus predicted his death and resurrection several times, no one hears the report of the empty tomb as Good News.  It can only be a bad thing.  No one responds to the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave by saying, “Praise God!”  No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they hear that their friend has been raised to life.  And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection says, “I knew it – just like he said!”  Nobody but nobody expects resurrection and no one, to be honest, believes it at first.  Mary and Peter and John all see the empty tomb, but the notion that this was a sign that Jesus was alive did not even occur to them.  And why would it?  This is not the way things work. 

Peter and John leave the scene and Mary is left in her grief.  Two angels were there when she got up the nerve to look in the tomb, and when they asked her, “Why are you weeping?” she said, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  It never occurred to Mary that they might be in on it.

Mary wasn’t thinking clearly, of course.  She was running on autopilot.  She saw the gardener, or so she supposed, and said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, please tell me where you have laid him.”

It wasn’t a reasonable question, but then Mary was not thinking reasonably.  But then the gardener spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  “Rabbouni!” she said.  “My teacher.”  She is overjoyed to find that Jesus really is alive.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus said.  “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Did I miss something?  This seems like a really weird response on Jesus’ part.  And I don’t see where Mary is holding on to Jesus.  The text doesn’t mention it at all, but the next thing you know, Jesus is saying, “Don’t hold on to me.”

How is Mary holding on?  Maybe it is in the way she speaks to Jesus.  “My teacher,” she says.  Maybe she was calling him by his old name, the way she remembered things, the way she wanted things to be.  Maybe she was calling Jesus by his Friday name, holding on to what she knew.  But this was Sunday, and now everything had changed.  This was a new day.  This was a new life.

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, this was also very unnatural.  “To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord – none of this is natural.”

It is unnatural and it is amazingly good news.  It is Good News because if we know about anything at all, we know about loss.  We are familiar with loss.

As sometimes happens, Easter this year has fallen smack in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament.  This past week, both the ISU men’s team and women’s team suffered really tough, heartbreaking-type losses in the final seconds of games that would have sent them to the Sweet Sixteen.

Well, some losses stand out more than others.  The worst this year, I think, was the men’s game here in Ames against Kansas.  ISU led most of the way, seemed in control late in the game, but the wheels kind of fell off, and in a critical call with only seconds remaining, a Kansas player driving to the basket plowed over  Georges Niang, but charging was not called.  Instead, on the bottom of a pile of players on the floor, Niang was called for a foul when he tried to reach for the loose ball. The KU player hit the free throws to tie the game, and the Jayhawks won in overtime, just like the earlier game in Lawrence.

That was tough, but the image I will remember is in the final seconds of the game, the TV broadcast showed Fred Hoiberg’s family.  Fred and his wife have twin sons, and one of the boys was just sobbing as his mother held him.  And then they showed Fred’s mother, our daughter’s fifth grade teacher, with tears in her eyes.  This was a very hard loss.

You might think that it is dumb to cry over a game.  Well, call it dumb, but it is common.  It has been shown that following tough losses, the productivity of dedicated fans goes down at work.  After San Francisco lost the Super Bowl, less work got done in the Bay Area.  Losses are hard to take.  Serious sports fans internalize losses.  They affect us.

Now, you can roll your eyes at those sports fans if you want, but this phenomenon extends far beyond sports.  Zoe got us started on watching Downton Abbey this year.  We caught up on Seasons One and Two and then watched Season Three mostly as the shows were broadcast on PBS.  I know a few of you are still catching up on all of this so I won’t give it all away, but a key character on the show suffers a tragic and unexpected death.

Now, viewers are invested in this show, they watch it religiously, they feel like they know these people, and then, just like that, the story changes.  It was shocking and unexpected, and people were stunned.  People woke up the next morning feeling like a good friend had died.  Loyal fans kept asking whether this was real and if this person really did die – it was hard to believe.  A cloud hung over people.

All of this is to say that we can all become very attached to people, to movements, to ideas.  We can become very attached to things like sports teams and TV shows, which in the big picture of life are not really all that important.  And yet sports teams and TV shows allow us to speak about our loss.  And what we feel is loss.  Maybe we talk about these kinds of losses because the deeper losses, the gut-wrenching losses, are just too raw, too close, too personal. 

We can go on and on about how close the Cyclones were robbed or about Downton Abbey and how awful it was to kill of that character and how will the others go on next season, as if these are actual real-life people, but it is a lot harder to talk about losing a parent or a child or a sibling.  We can talk about a bad call by the refs, but it is another thing altogether to talk about loss of our youth, or losing a dream, or losing control, or being sad about graduating and leaving behind a lot of people and experiences we like very much, or missing the way things used to be – all of which are losses.  It comes in different ways for different people, and we handle it differently and talk about it differently, but we all share in the experience of loss.

Easter speaks to us so strongly because life is full of Good Fridays.  Easter reminds us that beyond the hurt and pain and losses of life, even beyond death, there is new life.  Easter tells us that these Friday experiences do not have ultimate power over us, that the real power and the real glory belong to God.

We have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer these last several weeks.  Today we come to the phrase, “for thine is the power and the glory forever.”  And this is Easter in a nutshell.  Easter is the greatest demonstration we have that the power and the glory really do belong to God.

When you read the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, that phrase is not included.  It is not in the best, earliest manuscripts we have.  Some of you are from the Roman Catholic tradition, and this phrase is not included in the traditional Our Father.  It was added in the very early years of the Church to adapt the prayer for liturgical use.  The words are similar to David’s praise to God in 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty… yours is the kingdom, O Lord…”

This phrase, “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever” was added by Christian communities very early for use in worship – and continues to be used to this day.  These may not have been Jesus’ words, but they fit very well with the rest of the prayer.

In Jesus’ world - in general, popular understanding - who really had the power and glory?  Whose kingdom was it?  

Well, Roman soldiers were an occupying force in the land.  Tribute and taxes were paid to Caesar.  Tiberius Caesar is king of kings ruling a territory stretching from Gibraltar to Armenia, from Britain to the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq.  Power was concentrated in the hands of one man.  There was a kingdom of absolute power, bringing glory to one man at the top, and providing peace to those on whom his favor rested.  But it was peace bought at a great cost, enforced through brutal repression.

Caesar had the power.  Caesar had the glory.  In Israel, there were those who had power and glory to a limited extent, as allowed by Caesar.  There was Herod, a puppet ruler.  There was Pilate, the Roman governor.  There was Caiaphas, the high priest, and there were religious officials who may have detested Rome privately but who went along to get along and played the game so that they might retain what power they could.  They understood that the power they had was limited and was in a sense granted by Rome.

And along came Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a Galilean.  Not from an important family, not a priest, not a properly trained rabbi, not a government official, not a wealthy person.

This Jesus taught that the greatest power was love.  He taught that God’s kingdom was greater than any earthly kingdom.  He did not set out to amass earthly power; he did not build an army or a network of guerilla fighters to challenge Rome.  He went about healing and teaching and loving and caring and forgiving, as well as challenging evil and injustice, and the following he built was so that his disciples might go out and extend this very ministry.

The kingdom Jesus built was not coercive.  He did not force anybody to do anything and did not resort to violent means or fight evil with evil.

The kingdom he built was not exclusive.  He did not seek out the well-off and well-connected but especially included the poor and the outcast, the left out and left behind, those who were put down and written off.  And he said of his kingdom that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Whose kingdom would you put your money on? 

Jesus might have been looked at as a curiosity, a kind of sideshow, but his message was so appealing and his life was so authentic, so real, that is was very threatening to the powers-that-be.  He offered an alternative to the message that they were the ones in control.  Jesus had no regard, no interest, no concern about the powers of empire and temple and money and all around him, and that made him all the more threatening.  And so, in the end, they had no choice but to stop his movement in its tracks.  That is the way their power was built and that is the way their power was maintained.  Jesus was arrested and crucified, and that was the end of that. 

In the end, Jesus found out who really had the power.  Or so they thought.

But then came Sunday morning.  Then came the empty tomb.  Then came resurrection.  And in Easter, we learn that indeed, the kingdom and the power and the glory belong to God. 

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are committing ourselves to this alternate reality, this different way of seeing and understanding the world, this way of hope and healing and transformation and possibility, this way of love and grace and forgiveness.  When we pray this prayer and really mean it, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Easter.

“Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”  Alleluia!  Amen.

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