Friday, April 3, 2015

"Give Up Death" - Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

This past week, our dog Rudy and I went for a walk.  It was pretty brisk out but perfect for an early morning walk.  We turned a corner and I saw a small tree just starting to bloom – I think it was some kind of magnolia.  It was the first flowering tree that I had seen, and it made our walk even better.

Our crocuses bloomed the week before.  The lilies and daylilies at the back of the church are green and growing.  The grass is greening up.  There are signs of spring around.

In spring, we celebrate the renewal of life, and we often relate that to the new life we celebrate at Easter.  And that is fine, that’s great.  But there is a big difference.

You put a bulb in the ground, dead as it looks, and you expect a tulip to come up in the spring.  In the fall, leaves will turn brown and fall off a tree, and the tree may look lifeless, but nobody is surprised when spring rolls around and the tree starts to bud.  This is natural.  This is expected.  This is ordinary.

But there is nothing ordinary about Easter.  Jesus is crucified and buried and in the tomb for three days, and then is raised from the dead.  When you bury a person, you do not expect to see them again.  This is about as far from ordinary as you can get.

What is ordinary, what is typical, what is expected, is death.  Life is transitory.  We are finite beings and have our limits.  As far as our own personal experience, Good Friday is much more familiar to us than Easter Sunday.

St. Augustine said that our lives are like when a man is sick and near death, and friends look at him in his deathbed and say, “He is dying, he won’t get over this.”  Augustine says that the same could be said of us on the first day of our lives, as we lie in the crib, “She is dying, she won’t get over this.”

I know that this is not polite conversation on Easter morning, or any morning, really.  We want to ignore death, and if we do talk about it, we talk as though we can defeat it.  Flip on the TV and you will find advertisements for “age-defying” makeup.  Cosmetic surgery, botox, hair implants and the like are popular because they make us appear younger, as though we are winning the battle.

But you know, we can only do so much, and our efforts don’t really make us any younger.  We can try and hide aging, but it doesn’t stave off death.  When you are ill and go to the hospital, they don’t treat you with Grecian formula.

You might remember last fall daredevil Nik Wallenda walking on a high-wire between two skyscrapers on either side of the Chicago River.  There was much to-do and it was televised live.  (I didn’t watch - I don’t enjoy watching that sort of thing.)  It was billed as a “death-defying” feat.

There is this image of defying death, taking on death and winning that we find appealing.  In a sense, every time we wake up in the morning, every time we get in our car and drive to school or work or church, we are defying death.  And we can get away with it for awhile, but not indefinitely.  Evel Knievel used to perform death-defying feats on his motorcycle, but he could not defy death forever.  We all know how this story is going to end.

The disciples knew.  Jesus had been arrested and taken away, just after their Passover meal together on Thursday night.  He had been beaten, he had been mocked, he had been tried in a rush trial.  He had been sentenced to death as an enemy of the state, a traitor, an insurrectionist.  He had been crucified on a cross, dying an agonizing death.

Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code, was a New York Times bestseller made into a blockbuster movie.  At the center of the story is the contention that for 2000 years, the Church has prevented the world from finding out that Jesus had been married to, and had children with, Mary Magdalene.

Well, this certainly would be a startling thing to discover.  What would it be like to do genealogy, get on and discover that you are a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?  But here is the thing about The DaVinci Code: it is based on the notion that if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, it would destroy the faith because it would prove that Jesus was human.

But isn’t that what we believe?  Isn’t that the claim of Christian faith?  That Jesus really was born, really lived on this earth, really and truly experienced what it is to be human: pain and joy and hurt and loss and laughter and temptation and uncertainty and anticipation and happiness and fear and foreboding.  And death.  He really did experience human life and he really did suffer and die.  If Jesus did not really live and really die as one of us, then Easter Sunday would have no real meaning.  Without a real death, there is no resurrection.  Without really living as a human being, there is no connection to us and no reason for Mary’s tears early that Sunday morning.

Filled with grief, Mary went to the place where Jesus was buried.  Like many of us, she went to the grave of her loved one to remember and to grieve.  The tomb was a small cave in the rock.  A great stone was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it.

Mary was not prepared for what she saw.  The stone had been moved.  It was almost more than she could bear.  Jesus had been beaten, humiliated, and finally crucified.  Mary could only watch helplessly.  And now, one last humiliation.  She was filled with fear and terror.

She ran to tell Peter and John.  Peter had not shown his face in public since Thursday.  He had denied Jesus and stayed far away from the cross.  But Mary did not know where else to go.  On hearing her report, Peter and John hurried back to the tomb.  John ran ahead.  He arrived and saw the stone moved away.  Then Peter caught up.  He went on inside.  He saw the linen burial wrappings rolled up.  Peter and John saw for themselves what Mary had reported, and then they went back home.

By now Mary was back at the tomb, but she stayed.  She wept.  Finally, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels.  They asked why she was weeping, and Mary told them.  Someone had taken away her Lord, she said.  Someone had stolen the body.  She turned around and saw a man she supposed to be the gardener.  She said, “If you have taken the body, tell me where you have laid him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  She knew.  He was alive!  It was Jesus!

We have heard this so many times that it is hard to catch the joy of that moment.  It is not such a surprise anymore.  We know what is going to happen.  Year after year, like that tree beginning to flower in spring, Jesus comes out of that grave.  The story is so familiar that it loses its shock value.  We can’t feel the raw emotion, the incredible surge of amazement and joy and euphoria that Mary felt that morning.

On Thursday, a man who had been lost at sea for 66 days was found 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  Louis Jordan was sitting on the hull of his overturned boat.  He had somehow survived on rainwater, fish, and prayer.  He was spotted by a German container ship.  Search efforts had ended back on February 18.  You can imagine the great relief this man felt upon being rescued, and maybe even more, the incredible shock and joy of his family who found that he was alive.

It was an amazing story, but at least it seems in the realm of being possible.  If you have actually died and been buried for three days, nobody expects to see you again.

Tom Long (in Whispering the Lyrics) tells the story of Clint Tidwell, the pastor of a small-town church.    One of his blessings – and curses – is that the 80-year old owner and still active editor of the local newspaper is a member of his congregation.  The blessing part is that this veteran journalist considers Tidwell to be one of the finest preachers around, and wishing the whole town to benefit from his wisdom, he frequently publishes a summary of the Sunday sermon in the Monday newspaper.  The curse part is that this well-meaning editor is a bit on the eccentric side, and Tidwell is sometimes astonished to read the synopses of his sermons.  There is often an ocean of difference between what he said and what the editor heard.  This man owns the paper and nobody dares edit his columns, and so what shows up in the paper is often a source of embarrassment to Tidwell.

The pastor’s deepest amazement, however, came not when the editor misunderstood the Sunday sermon; it came when he understood it all too clearly.  Early on the Monday morning after Easter, Tidwell went out in his bathrobe and slippers to get the paper at the end of the driveway.  As he approached it, he could see the headline in “second coming” sized type.  What had happened?  Had war broken out?  As he got close enough to read the headline, he was startled to read the words, ‘Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose From The Dead.’

Long wrote, “A red flush crept up Tidwell’s neck.  Yes, of course, he had claimed in yesterday’s sermon that Christ rose from the dead, but golly, was that headline news? … I mean, you’re supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that Jesus rose from the dead, but that’s not like saying some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it?”

I guess that’s the question for all of us.  Does Jesus’ resurrection mean anything to us, here, today?  Does it affect our lives, right here, right now?

The Good News of the gospel is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that the power of God is greater than the power of death.  Death does not have the final word.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face, and God will swallow up death forever.”  That is Good News, because we are surrounded by death.  Death doesn’t just come at the end of our lives, it comes little by little.  We die all kinds of deaths along the way.

We all know folks who are in the midst of hurt and pain and grief – and maybe right now, that person is you.  Heartbreak and disappointment, disillusionment and uncertainty, rejection and losses of all kinds is pretty much par for the course.  Without knowing it, we can begin to live under the cloud of death.  Rather than pursuing joy, we just try to avoid pain.  Rather than succeeding, we just try not to fail.   Instead of living, our focus, maybe even subconsciously, can be on simply not dying.

In Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of the resurrection of the dead by the power of God.  We celebrate life on the other side of death.  But we celebrate more than that.  We celebrate resurrection and new life that we experience right here and now – in this life.

A couple lost their adult son in an automobile accident.  They were a very close-knit family. The man’s parents and sister were overwhelmed with grief.  They lived in a Good Friday world for months: confused and angry, loving a person who no longer met them for Sunday worship and dinner once a week, and called every day between.  Shortly after the early December accident, the family was driving home from church in silence.

They all noticed it at the same time.  Someone had sawed off the cap of a lone pine tree that stood in a field near their house.  Clearly, someone had wanted a perfect Christmas tree without paying the local nursery, so they stole the top six feet of their neighbor’s tree.  The ruined tree hit a nerve with this family.  They were “tree people” to begin with, the kind of people who plant seedlings on Arbor Day and write polite notes to their congressmen to protest the destruction of rainforests.  But seeing that tree cut off just knocked the wind out of them.  It was a perfect symbol of their unbearable loss, and though they never talked about it, each of them took to taking the long way home in order to avoid facing this pine tree.

A couple seasons later, the three were on their way home from church again.  The mother missed the turnoff for their detour, and so as they turned the corner that would take them past the tree, an invisible shroud covered them, stirring up their grief.  But what they saw took their breath away.  The tree had healed.

When the father told this story, weeping, he made this motion with his hands, to illustrate: open hands, reaching to one another, until his fingertips touched.  The tree once again had a perfect, tapered crown.  And once again, it was a perfect symbol for the family.  For the first time since the accident, they felt hope in their hearts.  The mended tree held so much promise: the slow but sure restoration to life had begun.  They believed what they saw: every suffering, every life cut off short, would be healed.  Their grief wasn’t erased, but they were released to open their hearts to the hope and promise of resurrection.

Through the season of Lent, we have organized our worship around the theme of “Give It Up.”  And today, on Easter Sunday, our theme is “Give Up Death.”

I have to admit: to first hear it, “Give Up Death” doesn’t even make sense.  You can give up chocolate or red meat.  It may be difficult, but you can theoretically give up worrying or gossip or criticism.  But how do you give up death?  You can’t.  It is beyond our control.

We can’t stop death from happening.  But what we can give up is the hold that death so often has on us.  We can choose to live joyfully and abundantly.  We can choose to live boldly, generously, hopefully, in the light of God’s grace and goodness and with the promise of eternal life.  Or we can choose to live as people just going through the motions of life.  We can live small, cautious, miserly lives, living under the specter of death.

Maybe another way to put it is that we can spend our lives truly living, or we can spend our lives trying not to die.  And when you think of it in that way, “giving up death” – giving up the hold that death can have on us - makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ resurrection is an invitation to go all-in on life.   We can choose to live small, but the resurrection gives us the promise that God’s power and love is greater than anything this world can throw at us.  We can live in hope and in confidence that in the end, God will swallow up even death. 
Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen.  

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