06-02-2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lessons: Acts 1:1-11; John 17:20-26
Today is one of those epic Sundays in our church calendar – Ascension Sunday. It is a day when we celebrate the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he is taken up in glory to reign over God’s Kingdom, which is now coming with full force. And it sets into motion the next epic adventure – the banding together of the disciples to take up the work of their teacher and rabbi. It reminds me of some of my favorite epic movie series – Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, to name a few. Stories where the Wise Teacher – Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Dumbledore – can only take their students so far while they are present with them. But we see how, in their absence, their students take their training, their teaching and come together in groups, such as those in The Resistance, The Fellowship, or Dumbledore’s Army, to rise to new challenges and ultimately do much good – defeating evil, oppression and injustice, so that a better world can emerge.
We love movies and books and stories with these epic plotlines because they mirror the epic truth of our Story, of how God is saving us and our world. Allow me to give a brief recap: In the beginning, God created a beautiful world full of plants and animals and rich soil, clean water, abundant sunlight, and it was good. But something was missing, so God created humans in the very image of God. And God gave us to each other, to live in community with each other the way that God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit live in perfect communion as One God Almighty. And God gave us free will, to choose to live in the same perfect love with which we were created, or to elevate ourselves in ways that hurt and harm our relationship with others and with God. In the scriptures of the Old Testament we read of the epic ways that God begins the work of caring and providing for us, pursuing us, and molding us into the people God created us to be, in order to mend and restore what we have broken. We see how God has been patient and persistent with an immature people who, time and again after being rescued by God continue to fall back into lives of greed, apathy and conflict, which leads to destruction, oppression, and systems of inequity and injustice.
When the time was right, God intervened by stepping into our very flesh in order to show us up close what love and mercy and grace and salvation look like. Jesus became one of us in order to demonstrate not only God’s love for us, but what God’s love looks like when it is lived by us. How God’s love is reciprocated in the living of community by acts of healing, acts of mercy, acts of kindness, acts of radical hospitality and inclusion, and acts of self-sacrifice, even to the point of death on a cross. And just when we thought all was lost, Jesus defeats death itself, and in doing so redeems all of humankind so that we in all of our rebellion can be reconciled and restored to each other and to God; so that God’s peaceable kingdom can exist and expand on earth as it is in heaven, as God intended from our creation.
Jesus spends 40 days after his resurrection explaining this to his disciples, restoring their hope and preparing them for what happens next. Because Jesus has one this one battle for us. But what comes next will be our new quest, our new challenge. And some days it may seem like we’ve been asked to walk all the way into the fires of Mordor, or to stare Death Eaters or Darth Vader in the face. But the true quest for us is perhaps much harder than that, and much simpler – it is to die to our individual selves so that we can become the body of Christ. Let us pray.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.
There is only one God, there is only one King,
There is only one Body, that is why we sing:
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.
We’ve been spending these forty days after Easter watching as the Risen Christ appears to gather together his band of followers and prepare them for their next quest – one they’ll have to take without his physical presence. We’ve already grieved with them once when they thought Jesus was dead for good. So how do you think they are feeling about now? They’ve been surprised with joyous hope. But it turns out to only be temporary. So what will it mean for these believers and followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Way that they will now have to figure out how to live out their calling without the physical presence of Jesus? What does it mean for us today?
One of the reasons that I love reading and teaching the Bible is that when you can read it all as one epic story, instead of snippets here or there, instead of reading it as a merely a history book or morality lesson, instead of struggling to make sense of coded language or flowery poetry, and instead of getting hung up on different discrepancies in this or that gospel – when you take it all together as one continuous story, you can begin to get a bigger, and clearer picture of who God is, and who we are, and what our purpose really is on this big ball of earth. And I really love this part of the story, because it’s where we come in! Are you ready?
To the disciples to which Jesus has returned, losing the presence of their Teacher and Friend for a second time might seem like another ending, another unraveling. And that’s why Jesus doesn’t leave them, or us, completely alone. The ascension of Christ makes possible two of the essential things that we need in order to fulfill our purpose in God’s new Kingdom. Jesus has just promised the disciples that they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit. So he tells them to go and wait together in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit, what we’ll celebrate next Sunday as Pentecost. And Luke tells us in the first chapter of Acts that after Jesus ascends, the groups of believers is about 120 women and men. You thought it was only 11, right? But it includes Mary and other women – all together, around 120 individuals. Now, some of us have been in meetings of only 10 or 12 individuals in which we may feel like there will never be a consensus about whatever business it is we may need to conduct. Now imagine 120 people all gathered together and no one to officially chair the meeting. I wonder if that’s how those first followers of Jesus felt. But, now imagine that the CEO of your company has come to you with an enormous problem, one that will determine the success or failure of the entire enterprise, and they’ve said that it’s up to you to fix it. You and you alone! Which scenario do you prefer? 120 people have the potential to come up with at least 120 ideas, while one person who has to figure it out on their own may be overcome with the enormity of the problem. So the first thing Jesus did was to give these followers, these believers, each other. Next week, you’ll be exploring the second thing Jesus gives them, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit – the presence and the power of God with them in spirit. But for today, I want us to focus on the gift of community.
In John’s gospel, when Jesus shares his last supper with his community, he leaves them with some final teachings, and then prays for them and in front of them this prayer for their unity after he’s gone. Jesus had already seen the squabbling and power-plays among his closest followers. In fact, right at that very table, they wanted Jesus to tell them who among them was the greatest! They might as well have been asking, Jesus, who is more popular? Or, Jesus, which one of us is prettiest, or most handsome? Jesus, who makes the best potato salad? Jesus, who has the best decorated house? Jesus, whose stock portfolio is better? Jesus, who has the only right interpretation of scripture? Jesus knew that as humans, we would be tempted to pit ourselves against one another, from the most frivolous to the most dangerous reasons and consequences. So Jesus prays for our unity.
As we’ll see later on in Acts, this unity can only be achieved with the power of the Holy Spirit, when we are willing to die to ourselves to let God’s Spirit work through us. But that is a conscious decision each of us must make on a daily, sometimes hourly or minute by minute basis. So what does unity look like? Is it uniformity, with everyone thinking alike? Is it pretending we get along in public while deep down we’re consumed by resentment or jealousy? Is it avoiding political or theological debate so that we don’t risk conflict? Is it giving in to systems or people or practices that exploit, abuse, or oppress so that we don’t make waves? Is it remaining silent or neutral, trying to please everyone in order to ‘keep the peace?’ Is it blindly following the crowd, or accepting traditions, or taking someone’s word for things without applying our own experiences or critical thoughts or convictions?
These are important questions for us, because I think at one time or another, we’ve been told that this is what unity looks like. Can’t we all just get along? But I don’t believe this is the unity that Jesus prayed for.
Jesus prays that we may be one in the same way that the Triune God has communion and union with itself. The idea of the Trinity is complex and may be hard for us to wrap our minds around. So I’ve often thought of it as a family unity – think of two parents and a child. Think of the love of the two parents for one another that grows so big it has room for another whole person. And now the three of them are each giving and receiving love for one another. The love that exists in the community of the Trinity is the same force that created us and our world. There was so much love that there was room for an entire world to be created in love. And so the unity that Jesus prays for is the unity that was intended from our creation – an economy of reciprocal love. So, before there was organized Christian religion and multitudes of different denominational expressions of our religion, there was Trinity, and then there was community, and Jesus prayed for us to be One as Godself is One.
I think it’s helpful to go back to this idea of original love any time that we experience conflict or division, and to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be united in Love?” Is love the primary motive for whatever is causing our strife? Or is it something else? Is it pride, is it fear, is it jealousy? You see, I don’t think Jesus was praying for us to all agree on the color of carpet for the new sanctuary, or on the best worship projection software. I think Jesus was praying that we would not get lost in the frivolous, but that we would be moved by love. Love that is so big that it has room for more and more and more. Love that is shaped by the cross, where Jesus willingly gave his life. Love that allows us to drop our privilege and pride and self-seeking in order to put other’s needs first. Love that opens our eyes to the world outside of our sanctuaries and moves us to ask, how can we better love our neighbors? How can we care for the poor, the addicted, the marginalized, the aging, the new parents, the children and families, the widows of our community? Love that prioritizes the way we spend our time and money. Love that informs our politics and committee work and the way we treat others. Love that allows us to let go of nostalgia or rigidness and to recognize when rules and systems cause injustice and oppression.
Unity means true peace. And true peace can only be achieved when our only true motive is God’s welcoming and inclusive love. Remember that each of us is unconditionally loved, welcomed, and accepted by God – and THAT is the love we are asked to both receive and to give. That is what brings unity in community.
Right now, I am sorry to say that the church where I have found the most complete expression of this love, the United Methodist Church, is far from united. In the history of the Methodist movement, we’re the most divided we’ve ever been except for one other time; in 1884 the Methodist Episcopal Church in America split over the issue of slavery. After reunification in 1968, we are in the midst of another divisive time over the issue of human sexuality. Many see this as much a matter of human dignity as was the issue of slavery. Here in the United States, the majority of United Methodists believe it is a sin of injustice and oppression to deny LGBTQ persons the ministry of marriage, or the call to ministry as a vocation. And as we enter into our Iowa Annual Conference next week, and spend the next year preparing for our next quadrennial General Conference in May of 2020, we are wrestling with what it means to be united in love the way that Jesus prayed.
So this is a time we must ask ourselves, does being united mean that we just try harder to get along? Does being united mean that we ignore harm being done to individuals and families, harm that increasingly is resulting in persons walking away from the church and from a relationship with God altogether? Harm that in some cases leads to rejection so severe it results in despair, deep depression, and even suicide? Does being united mean that we keep our heads down and worry about our own congregation while ignoring what’s happening at the conference and general denominational level, because, after all, it doesn’t really affect us, does it? Friends, this is a critical time in our denomination, and we all need to be in constant prayer for God’s Spirit to lead us in a new direction. Our old, human ways have only resulted in further division. We need a new Spirit blowing fresh wind, fresh ideas, for how to love the way Jesus taught, and for how to be the body of Christ on earth – so that others will come to know that Jesus is the One God sent to love and redeem us – all of us.
Jesus prays for this unity so that the world will know God’s love. Not just so that we few church-going people would enjoy doing church together. But so that hurting, broken, hungry, thirsty, dying people would know and be included in the life-giving, creating Love of our Triune God. This is not something we get to keep to ourselves. It’s not about preserving nostalgia and traditions. It’s about finding love by finding and being accepted in a community of Christian Love.
When Jesus ascended to the glory of God, he commissioned his followers to continue the work he began on earth. We are part of that commission – to be God’s representative to the poor, to preach good news to them; to tell those who are held captive that they can now be set free, and to tell the blind that they can now see; to liberate those held down by oppression. In short, to proclaim that now is the time; this is the jubilee season of the Eternal One’s grace. (Luke 24:18-19) Words that have been attributed to St. Teresa of Avila say, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”
Please pray with me:
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.
There is only one God, there is only one King,
There is only one Body, that is why we sing:
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.
Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
We are continuing this week with a series called “Unraveling,” which is helping us to see how God sometimes uses the spiraling, coming-undone moments in our lives to unravel the fears, emotions, assumptions, and attitudes that may be preventing us from experiencing transformation and new possibilities. We’ve seen this especially in the scripture lessons after Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection – itself an unraveling of sin and death – becomes the new pattern of the way that God works in our lives and in our world. We have begun to see that when our world begins to fall apart, when we are spiraling because of loss, or change, or fear, that God can surprise us with hope, with joy, and with unconditional love, as God takes those loose threads and begins to create something new.
Today’s scripture lesson is about another kind of unraveling – the kind of unraveling that sometimes needs to be done on the inside – so that we can become the person God calls us to be, and so that God can help us find our true path. And while today’s lesson is especially fitting for our graduates who are about to embark on a new journey, it is certainly a lesson for all of us, because no matter where we are on life’s journey, we all have a loose thread or two that threaten to undo us along the way.
Will you pray with me?
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
We learn first about this man named Saul in Luke’s writings of the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are basically an extension of Luke’s Gospel, which tell of the events that happened after Jesus’ resurrection – events which led to the creation and spread of the early church. In chapters 7 and 8, Saul is described as the one who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, a Christian who was stoned to death by a religious council who saw the entire Christian movement as heretical. And Saul, himself a devout Jewish leader, was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder. After that, he took it upon himself to go from door to door in Jerusalem, looking for anyone who claimed to follow the way of Jesus, the heretic, and would drag them off to prison, women and men. Here in chapter 9 we learn that he continued to “spew out murderous threats against the disciples” and even asks the high priest to give him letters authorizing him to go outside of Jerusalem to continue to weed out this religious sect. And Luke places the story of what happens to Saul on the road to Damascus right among several other stories of surprising transformations that involve the most unlikely people of diverse backgrounds – those of a Samaritan, an Ethiopian Eunuch, Saul the religious terrorist, and a Roman centurion. What is God up to in these stories, why is Christ calling “those people” into a relationship with him?
As we think about life journeys today, even though we are not starting off on a path to new educational opportunities or new jobs, or new phases of life like our graduates, we all do have the opportunity to travel on a spiritual journey of letting God unravel our assumptions and attitudes and preconceived notions about those that we would call “other.” In our world today, we have perhaps never felt so divided. There is such a culture of “us vs. them” especially here in the U.S. as we grapple with politics and global migration and the continued fight for civil rights and liberties. So what does it mean for us who are followers of Jesus’ Way today to see others the way Jesus sees them? You see, Saul thought he was completely justified because of his own religious convictions to harass and persecute Christians. He approved and even helped orchestrate the imprisonment and murder of those who he and others thought threatened their religion. If Jerusalem was a Jewish nation, then imagine how threatening it must have felt for them to see a new religion spreading and taking hold in their land! They thought that their religion was the only true religion, that their interpretation of scripture was the only correct interpretation, that they had the moral high ground.
I don’t know about you, but I can draw some parallels here to the way I’ve heard people comment about how “America used to be a Christian nation, and we’re losing our heritage! We need to make America great again!”…. or about how those in the United Methodist Church today are arguing over who’s in and who’s out when it comes to ministry and ordination and marriage. Kind of sounds like the kind of attitude that God saw in Saul. And graduates, you are not immune from this kind of thinking, either about nationalism or religious interpretation or status or race. Even though you have known a more diverse world in your lifetime, be careful as you go out into the world that you don’t allow others to shape and form your opinions for you. As you become adults, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know so many new people. Be careful that you don’t assume or decide something about people before getting to know them. Don’t equate people with stereotypes. I think that’s one of the things we can all ask for God’s help to unravel within us. Because as humans, we want to associate with people who are like us. We want to find our tribe. And we’re competitive. We want to think that our tribe is better than all the other tribes, and so we may pit ourselves against the other. But is that the Way of Jesus? Is that the path that God calls us to?
On the road to Damascus, to find and rout out other Christians, Saul was surrounded by a light from heaven, which blinded him and took him to his knees. Flannery O’Conner who wrote some of our beloved hymns of faith once said of Saul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (William Willimon, Acts Interpretation Series) Here Saul has been thinking that those following Jesus were the heretics, but then God breaks in with blinding light to begin the work of unraveling. Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” and he replies, “I am Jesus, the one you have been persecuting.” Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would just speak that loudly and clearly to us all the time? Even Saul’s companions heard Jesus’ voice speaking, even though none of them saw anyone. But Saul’s experience isn’t typical, it isn’t the norm. That’s not how Christ chooses to get our attention. I think Saul in his blinded state is like a lot of us most of the time. Who knows how many times Christ has spoken to us through another – through the hungry man on the side of the road, the imprisoned mother, the addicted son, the abused daughter, the abandoned child, the elderly relative, the lonely neighbor, the grieving coworker, the foreigner waitress or farm worker – saying to us, “I am Jesus, the one you are harassing, the one you are persecuting, the one you are ignoring, the one you are looking down on, the one you are shaming, the one you don’t recognize, the one you are too blinded by pride or arrogance or prejudice to see”? Or, how many times have we been so caught up in trying to become who we think we’re supposed to be that we have let ambition, cultural values, economic security, fear of conflict, or even love of conflict keep us from being our authentic selves, and from hearing Jesus saying to us, “I am Jesus, the One who loves you just the way you are”?
And then, sometimes, Christ speaks to us like he spoke to Ananias. Times when we may perceive a nudge of the Spirit, a tug at the heart, something that convicts us that we should answer God’s call to open our minds, to offer help, to love those we perceive as enemies, which might even include our own self. Now we get the chance to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Saul is not the only person in this story who needs an unraveling. Ananias was a disciple of Jesus. Philip had taken the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to the Jews who were living to the north of Jerusalem, so there were already pockets of Christian disciples in Syria, including Damascus, where Saul was heading. When Christ spoke to Ananias and told him to find Saul and put his hands on him to restore his sight, his first response was that of self-preservation. “You want me to do what? You want me to go out myself to the person who has come here looking specifically for people like me so he can drag me off to prison and a religious inquisition which will probably result in my death?”
It seems that Ananias also has a bit of a pre-conceived notion about Saul. And, like we all probably tend to do at times, Ananias questions this call, and makes excuses. And we can relate, because we also don’t want to take risks to share our faith with people who scare us, or volunteer our time and talents for the fear of missing out on doing something more fun or important, or spend our money on things other people may need if it means giving up something we’ve been saving up for, or associate with “certain people” if it hurts our own popularity or social status. We’re pretty good at coming up with all kinds of excuses when God seems to be calling us to a new path. But Jesus isn’t having it with the questions or excuses. Christ commands him to Go! Telling him, “this man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.”
Both of these men have been called by God to experience an unraveling of who they thought they were, and of what they thought about the “other.” One experienced a blinding light followed by three days of darkness, in order to finally see clearly the path that God has chosen for him. The other wanted to talk his way out of following Christ’s Way, questioning whether this was really the path he had to take. Sometimes, we may need to be knocked off our horses like Saul, in order to confront the thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that cause us to make enemies out of those who don’t see things the same way we do, or those who don’t share the same religious or political or cultural values. May we, like Saul, be willing to humble ourselves enough to let God lead us to a new path of seeing each person as a beloved child of God. And sometimes, like Ananias, we may feel that nudge to be the answer to someone else’s prayers, and be tempted to let our fears, our ambitions, our pride or our pursuit of happiness keep us from being the person God is calling us to be – a person who is generous with our time, our resources, and our kindness; a person who is attentive to the needs of others; a person who is willing to offer help and healing and comfort. May we, like Ananias, find the humility and vulnerability to be a true follower of the Way.
The transformation from Saul to Paul was a dramatic one. But the blinding light and voice from heaven may keep us from seeing another important aspect of this transformation – it did not happen with God alone. Once God spoke to each of these men, it was only through their connection to each other – through relationship and community – that each finally found their true path, their true calling. Graduates, as you go out into the world, remember that you are not alone. This community of faith called Maple Grove goes with you in prayer. But there will be other communities of faith wherever you find yourself who would be happy to welcome you, and walk with you, and give you strength and courage for whatever path you find, and for becoming the person God has called you to be.
And friends, the church is the gift that Christ has given all of us to find our identity as disciples and world-changers. Saul found a new identity as Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and he found a new path as a missionary and church planter among the gentiles, those who didn’t grow up in a religious tradition of knowing God. Paul spoke of his conversion in his letters to the church in Corinth, and I love the way he phrases it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
What parts of your identity can you ask God to unravel today so that you can become part of a new creation? How is God calling you to make the world around you a better place, by instead of breathing threats and destruction, breathing words and acts of kindness and peace? Let’s pray:
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
May 12, 2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: John 21:1-19
In today’s gospel reading, we have another post resurrection appearance by Jesus. After the dramatic events of Passover which included a last supper with Jesus, his arrest in the garden, and the betrayal and denial of his closest followers before being brutally beaten and executed, Jesus’ followers scattered for a time and then found their way back to that upper room where their world last made sense. Late on the day of his resurrection, as his disciples’ fears forced them to hide behind locked doors, Jesus appeared to them, bringing them peace and reassurance that he had conquered death and lives again. But just as he told Mary Magdalene in the garden not to hold on to him, and just as he had vanished from view of the two friends in Emmaus, almost as soon as they recognized him, so now, Jesus does not stay with the disciples. So his disciples do the only thing that makes sense – they return home to Galilee, to the lives they knew before Jesus; back to that same place where many of them first encountered Jesus when he met them as fishermen and invited them to “Come, follow me.” When Jesus appears to them in Galilee, it is with a surprise breakfast of fish and bread.
I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced a surprise breakfast before. Maybe that’s not really a “thing” here in Iowa, but when I was growing up in Mississippi, my mom threw me a surprise breakfast for my 16th birthday. I woke up that morning to a bedside of giggling friends, yelling “Surprise” and singing “Happy Birthday.” My mother had arranged it all with them, had even gone and picked up a few of my friends who didn’t drive, and had cooked breakfast for us, all before 6:00 am! (It was a school day, after all!) I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t believe my mom would go to that much trouble to do something that extravagant for me! By the time I had turned 16, I had already racked up a number of mistakes, and knew there were plenty of times that I had disappointed my parents and broken my mother’s heart. There were plenty of reasons, some seemingly small and some more serious – talking back, telling lies, staying out too late, pulling pranks that bordered on trespassing and vandalism, and the list could go on – reasons for my mother to have stayed angry at me; reasons I should have been grounded for life. And, as I recall, it was around that age that I flung terrible words at my mother, once. Words that, as I mother myself now, I understand how incredibly hurtful they are: “I hate you!” And so, on that morning of my 16th birthday, when the recognition hit me of all the things my mother had done to orchestrate this breakfast with smiling friends and painted toast, my first response was tears of shame, at the ungrateful, irresponsible, and unkind daughter I had been.
On this mother’s day, I think it’s fitting to think of Jesus there on the beach cooking up this surprise breakfast for his dear children – for the ones who have deserted him and denied him, and who undoubtedly are experiencing their own shame and regret as the realization finally and fully dawns on them of all that Jesus is and how he loves them.
As we look closer at today’s scriptures, I want to invite you to step into Peter’s shoes. Remember that even as Jesus warned Peter that his faith and courage would waiver, that before the dawn came after Jesus was arrested that Peter – the Rock – would deny Jesus three times, Peter indeed found himself huddled around a fire that night, and succumbed to self-preservation. Peter must be wrestling with his shame over his inability to remain faithful to Jesus, over his fear which led him to tell lies, denying that he even knew the man, over his regret that he abandoned Jesus the moment things began to get hard or real. As you imagine Peter’s struggle, I want to ask you to think about your own. When is the last time that something you did or failed to do left you feeling embarrassed or humiliated? What was it that left you feeling like you had failed to live up to a promise, or a something entrusted to you? Or, when was it that you last said or did something out of fear or anger that you really wish you could take back? As you take a moment to think about this, I invite you to acknowledge and confess this to Jesus silently as we pray:
Prayer: God with a mother’s heart, you gather us as your children. You comfort and hold us in your warm embrace. When we hurt your arms enfold us. When we are afraid your wings protect us. When we are hungry you feed us with the bread of life. Today, as we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to love you with our whole hearts, and as we confess the things we have done or left undone that have denied you, that have betrayed your love for us and for all of your creation, we ask for your love to come and heal our brokenness, and to restore our relationship with you and those whom we’ve hurt. Remind us that your love and mercy are new every morning. For this we give you thanks and praise. Amen.
So, how often does our regret leave us feeling guilty or ashamed? That’s the part of today’s gospel that I want us to focus on today. Peter is likely wrestling with guilt and regret over the way that he denied and abandoned Jesus. And these feelings would only be compounded in Jesus’ absence, without a way to make amends. Sometimes, when we are struggling with our own feelings over things that we regret or for which we are left feeling guilty, like Peter, we go back to what is comfortable. Peter seems to need to do something to take his mind off things, so he announces, “I’m going fishing.” Fishing is what Peter did before he met Jesus, before Jesus made him a fisher of people. And in this uncomfortable state that Peter finds himself, he goes back to what he knows. Maybe we do something similar when we are discomforted by our own failures – we begin to doubt or deny the person we think we’re supposed to be; we may tell ourselves we’re not really good enough to do that new thing, to be in that relationship or part of that group; we may talk ourselves out of trying too hard to take on something difficult. And so, we go back to what we know, back to what’s comfortable, back to our old habits, or our old ways.
I’ve mentioned before that in my early 20’s I found help for turning my life around through a support group that practiced the Twelve Steps. If you’re not familiar with the twelve steps of recovery, I encourage you to go home today and Google them. They were written specifically for those who needed a disciplined way to stop drinking; but they have been adapted and used by a variety of other support groups these days, and can even be a way to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith. After all, they are based on Christian principles! These steps begin with an admission, or confession of the problem, a belief in a Higher Power, and a decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God. The next few steps deal with a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” admitting our shortcomings to ourselves, God and others, and making amends to those whom we have harmed. I think this story of Peter’s encounter with Jesus is a wonderful example of the restoration that can come about as the result of making amends.
Peter is out on the sea, in the dark, wrestling with his shortcomings. What a metaphor! The sea can be stormy, tumultuous, deep with mystery and difficult to navigate – just like our human lives. And the darkness can represent our confusion, or the things that we hide, or the things that bring us pain or regret. And that regret can lead to shame. Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher who has written extensively on shame and vulnerability. You may be familiar with some of her books such as, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and her latest one, Braving the Wilderness. She has written, “Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
What Jesus does for Peter in this resurrection story is to restore Peter’s connection and relationship, both with Jesus, with the community and with himself. In essence, Jesus takes away any feelings of shame that Peter may be experiencing because of his failings. Notice that when Peter recognizes it is Jesus calling to them from the beach, he first covers himself. This may remind us of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In becoming self-aware of our failings, we may be tempted to internalize the feeling of guilt to such a point that we let the failing itself define us as a person. If we give in to shame, we may begin to believe that as a person, we are worthless, that as a person we are a failure. I remember sitting around the table in those 12-step meetings and listening to person after person describe themselves in this way. And their descriptions echoed my own. I began to realize that from an early age, I had so internalized some of the most insignificant failings of my youthful self as something that was wrong with me! As if that’s just who I was – a disappointment, a failure, a rebel. I began labeling myself, and then acting like those labels. And it wasn’t long before other people started labeling me, and I began acting like those labels, too. Many of us who found ourselves struggling to life life in a healthy and productive way found that because of our shame, we had come to believe that we were unlovable, unforgivable, and unworthy. We lived out the rule of the self-fulfilling prophesy. We assumed that others thought we were just as much of a failure as we did. So we acted the way we expected that others’ thought of us, and then others’ thought of us that way.
According to Dr. Brown, shame can drive people to try to hide it or numb it; shame can lead to resentment, anxiety or depression; shame can erode relationships, destroy careers, and even cause physical harm. According to her research, the only way to end our shame is through vulnerability. Vulnerability looks like becoming honest with ourselves and others about our stories. She says, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
In the light of the dawn, Peter recognizes Jesus, and becomes vulnerable enough to throw himself into the water and swim for dear life towards Jesus, towards second chances, towards the hope of something new. On the beach, Jesus begins this work of restoration with table fellowship – with a breakfast of bread and fish. I can’t imagine how hungry Peter and the others must have been; so hungry for this opportunity to be nourished and fed again by their Lord; to be brought back together in community by the One who made them a community; and to be able to experience firsthand the presence of the Divine.
After breakfast, Jesus walks with Peter. To me, this is where the real miracle of the story happens – this is the real encounter with resurrection. Maybe Peter was hoping that Jesus wouldn’t say anything about, would just gloss over his mistakes. Isn’t that the way of it in our own relationships sometimes? We fail, we disappoint, and then we just ignore the other, or they ignore us, until – one day – the freeze out is over, they start talking to us again, and we just pretend that never happened. Or… we have huge argument about it. We keep score, we bring up all of the past mistakes, all of the other hurtful words that have ever been said; we punish, we resent, we hold grudges. But not Jesus. He neither avoids the topic, or uses it as a weapon. He simply invites reconciliation.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (vs. 15-17)
Jesus made it safe for Peter to return to the incident of his denial. Without blame or resentment or punishment, Jesus opens the door for Peter’s own interspection. With Jesus’ questions, Peter is able to make a searching, fearless moral inventory. Yes, three times I denied you. Yes, I abandoned you and everything you taught me. Yes, I forgot who I was, the purpose you gave me. You know everything. But Jesus also opens the door for Peter to reclaim his identity, for Peter to find renewed purpose. Fish for people. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. You are not a failure. You are my child. I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.
In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances were not to multitudes of people like they were in the days when he was teaching on the hillsides. He appeared in the context of relationships, and fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread. He appeared at times when it was least expected; when hearts were broken, when hopes were dashed, when guilt and regret stood in the way of love and community. Jesus comes to us in the same ways today. What is it that is standing in the way of you seeing your place in the eyes of Jesus, your place in the context of family or community? Or, who do you know who is struggling today with a broken heart, a broken dream, or a broken life? Jesus still comes to us offering to be our Bread of Life, offering to heal our shame, offering grace upon grace to remind us that we are each a Beloved child of God.
05/05/2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35
It is the first day of the week, and three days have passed since Jesus’s death on the cross – long enough, in Jewish belief, for the soul to have left the body. Those who followed Jesus and believed him to be the Messiah, the one sent to deliver Israel from Roman domination and restore its earthly kingdom, have stayed in Jerusalem for three days after the Passover; now, they begin to return to their homes – disillusioned and disappointed. Despite Jesus telling them he would be raised from death, nothing has happened. They heard a rumor that some of the women claim that he is alive, but when John and Peter went to see for themselves, all they found was an empty tomb. It just doesn’t make sense. How could we have been so sure that this was the answer we’ve been waiting for? That God had finally heard our prayers and our hopes and dreams were finally coming true? And now, God just pulls the rug out from under us. It feels like a cruel joke.
We’re beginning a worship series today called, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Your Plans Fall Apart.” One thing our gospel lesson reminds us today is that we’ve all experienced times of disillusionment and disappointment. We’ve all gotten out hopes up for something, only to have our plans, or our world, fall apart. So in this series, we’ll be seeking to answer the questions, How do we move forward when our tightly-knit plans unravel into loose threads? What do we become when our identity—or the path we’re on—comes undone? What if all of this is not the end we fear it will be?
I want you to take a moment and think about the most recent time that you became disillusioned or disappointed. When is the last time your plans, or your world, started to become unraveled? Perhaps it came with an unexpected illness or injury; maybe it was a job or promotion that fell through, or a relationship that ended, or any other number of life situations that didn’t work out they way we had hoped. As you remember that sense of loss, those feelings of sadness or despair, don’t be afraid to confess silently to Jesus, to tell him about your disappointment, as we offer a prayer together:
[moment of silent prayer]
Our scripture today begins when Cleopas, a relative and follower of Jesus, along with his unnamed companion, set off on the road to Emmaus. They are leaving Jerusalem, their place of shattered dreams, their place of pain and disappointment, their place of grief. As they journey, they feel free to discuss their pain and disappointment with each other. It is good that they have one another for this journey, so that they don’t have to suffer alone, in isolation. It is also good that there is an openness, a vulnerability between these two friends, that makes it possible for them to be real with one another, to speak honestly about their grief and despair. There are no masks to be worn here, no reason to hide or pretend. This is what spiritual friendship looks like. In church lingo today, we may call this friend our accountability partner – that person who shares your faith, your beliefs, your values, and who is there to listen when you need to talk and who will offer encouragement and prayer and support. And you offer the same to them.
One of the first things I want us to hear from the text today is that this is a pattern for spiritual friendship that God expects us to have with others. Corporate worship can only take you so far on the journey of faith. We all need close spiritual friends with whom we can talk and share intimately about our struggles, our disappointments, our fears – as well as our joys and hopes. And, we need to learn to be this kind of spiritual friend to others – to be willing to listen and not cast judgment, to be a safe place where confidences are kept, and to be an encourager to others on their own journeys. Spiritual friendships like these most often develop out of smaller settings, out of Bible studies, Sunday school, and small groups, or out of conversations over coffee, or pie or even a beer. Remember that even though Jesus taught crowds of people, he gathered regularly with a group of 12, and had an even smaller inner circle of three – Peter, James and John, with whom he was even closer. If our faith is a journey, then who are the two or three close spiritual friends that you are journeying with?
As we return to our text, notice how, when a stranger begins to walk with these two friends they bring him into their conversation. Even though they didn’t know it at the time, this stranger was the Risen Christ. Their willingness to share openly with each other created an opportunity for Christ to join their conversation. Does that ever happen to you? Have you ever been willing to share something about your life or faith experiences with another, and as they begin to share something about their own life or faith, you suddenly recognize that this is a God-moment? That there is a divine presence in the conversation, that in connecting with another person in this way, you’ve somehow entered into a holy encounter with the divine?
Over the past few weeks, I have been privileged to have some of these encounters. They’ve occurred as I had coffee or lunch one-on-one with another, or as I sat and talked with a family in distress, or as I’ve listened to others ask or reflect on questions in our Wednesday small group. When we experience doubt, worry, fear, disillusionment, grief or disappointment, and then are willing to share those experiences with another in a search for hope, for answers, for God to help make sense of it all, then we’ve opened a door for God to step into that very situation, that very pain, and to take the unraveling and do some mending. Psalm 139 reminds us that God hems us in, before and behind. (v. 5) This is the next thing I want us to learn from this lesson today: God is always waiting for us to offer our doubts, our shattered dreams, our sense of loss, our pain and despair, to God; then, God can show us what resurrection looks like.
In the midst of the conversation, as Cleopas and his companion begin sharing their pain and disappointment with this stranger who has joined their journey, Jesus begins explaining the scriptures to them – explaining the whole God story. Theologian N. T. Wright imagines this part of the conversation, with Jesus saying, “Hasn’t it occurred to you that all through the Bible God allows his people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, and finally exile in Babylon – in order to do a new thing? Isn’t that what the prophets and the Psalms were about as well? Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery, even from sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they have to go through it and out the other side? Well then, supposing that’s what had to happen to the Messiah himself, Israel’s personal representative?” (Lent for Everyone: Luke, Year C: A Daily Devotional. Westminster John Knox Press.) In other words, Jesus is giving them the new picture, the new pattern for faith. That even though our world is filled with pain and suffering, that even though our plans sometime become unraveled and world falls apart, that the holy work of resurrection and restoration occurs precisely out of such circumstances. It is only when we have let go of the other things we use to try to bring joy, healing, comfort, happiness, and admit the truth of our pain, our loss, and our need for restoration that God can begin to mend.
After a long journey of talking together, the two friends invite this new companion to share a meal with them. They’ve made a connection, a new friend, and so they extend their hospitality – welcoming him even further into their lives. I want us to consider honestly for a moment when we have made room for someone new in our lives? Have you ever asked a complete stranger into your home for a meal? That may be taking it a little too far, you may think. So let’s think about the context of our faith community. When is the last time you personally invited someone from church to your home for a meal, or to meet you for coffee, or lunch? In what other ways might God be calling each of us, individually, and the church as a whole, to be inviting others into our lives, into our homes, into our inner circles – for friendship, for community, for encouragement and support along the journey of life and faith? When is the last time you offered a meal to someone – someone grieving, someone recovering from surgery, someone dealing with a long-term illness or injury, someone that just had a baby, or someone who eats most of their meals alone? Aren’t we all hungry? Not just physically hungry, but aren’t we all longing for connection and relationship? Don’t we all have unravelings in our lives that need mending, and that it sure would be a relief to just talk to someone about?
When the friends invite this stranger to a meal, their eyes are finally opened to see that this is indeed Jesus when he becomes the host himself, taking the bread, as he had done before, blessing it, breaking it and sharing it with them. When Jesus broke the bread, something in themselves broke open. Hope welled up within them. What had seemed like an ending maybe wasn’t an ending at all. True, Jesus would not be there in the physical body to continue teaching and healing they way he had before. But Jesus wasn’t dead. Christ is alive! His teachings are true! The kingdom is real! And they’ve just had the privilege of experiencing it firsthand!
Rachel Held Evans, a 37 year old Christian author and progressive evangelical, died yesterday from complications due to an allergic reaction to antibiotics. She forged new paths for women in the more evangelical and fundamentalist denominations of Christianity, most of whom do not accept the authority of women to be pastors or faith leaders. She sort of rose to fame with her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But the first book of hers that I read was a sort of memoir called, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. I was drawn to it as soon as I saw the title, because I had had my own journey with losing and then finding my faith. You might say it was my own journey to Emmaus. I left behind the Jerusalem church of my childhood, where nothing made sense to me, the words I most often heard quoted from the bible were used as weapons to shame and denounce some, while being used to justify the power and control held by others. Many of us in the Christian community are grieving Rachel’s death. As one of my friends wrote yesterday, “I’m not one to be emotional about a person I’ve never met, but this one is very difficult. Feels like I’ve lost a friend.”
I want to share an excerpt from her book, Searching for Sunday:
“The very first thing the world knew about Christians was that they ate together.
“At the beginning of each week they gathered – rich and poor, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, women and men – to celebrate the day the whole world changed, to toast to resurrection. While each community worshiped a bit differently, it appears most practices communion by enjoying a full meal together, with special prayers of thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, for the bread and wine. They remembered Jesus with food, stories, laughter, tears, debate, discussion, and cleanup. They thanked God not only for the bread that came from the earth, but also for the Bread that came from heaven to nourish the whole world. According to church historians, the focus of these early communion services was not on Jesus’ death, but rather on Jesus’ friendship, his presence made palpable among his followers by the tastes, sounds, and smells he loved.”
She goes on to quote another writer, Barbara Taylor Brown:
“With all the conceptual truths in the universe at this disposal, Jesus did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself… ‘Do this,’ he said – not believe this but do this – ‘in remembrance of me.’”
“So they did.” (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books.)
In the United Methodist church, we believe that in the sacrament of holy communion, when we share the broken bread and the cup of blessing, that we encounter the presence of the Risen Christ. Jesus used table fellowship to teach his disciples how to live in the kingdom of God. Jesus himself sits at the table, and everyone is invited to be fed with the Bread of Life; and to drink from the cup of salvation. When our world falls apart, Jesus says, let me fill your need, your hunger, with my Bread from heaven. As you remember my body being broken, remember that I know your own brokenness, your own pain, your own suffering. And I have overcome death and hell. So eat this bread, be filled with my love, my compassion, my strength, my hope. Let me quench your thirst for justice and righteousness with the cup of blessing, offering forgiveness for many. Eat and drink and be restored. I am with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. There is grace and mercy and healing at my table. And look, look at all those others sitting around the table with you. They are on this journey with you. You are not alone. You have a whole community of spiritual friends who also know what it is to experience pain, and loss, and discouragement. But they also know the miracle of resurrection. You are all my witnesses. So walk with each other. Invite strangers into your conversations. Tell them about the power of God’s love to heal and mend, to restore and bring new plans and new relationships to life, to give you a hope and a future.
When Cleopas and his friend realized what they were experiencing, they got up and ran back to Jerusalem, to tell the others their story of hope and resurrection. And when they arrived, they found out that others had also seen the Risen Christ – had their own resurrection stories. And so the church was born.
Prayer: Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent; abide with us, and with Thy whole Church. Abide with us in the evening of the day, in the evening of life, in the evening of the world. Abide with us in Thy grace and mercy, in holy Word and Sacrament, in Thy comfort and Thy blessing. Abide with us in the night of distress and fear, in the night of doubt and temptation, in the night of bitter death, when these shall overtake us. Abide with us and with all Thy faithful ones, O Lord, in time and in eternity. (A Lutheran prayer)
Easter Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Gospel Lesson: John 20:1-18
Throughout the forty days of Lent, we have been on a journey with Jesus – one that began in the wilderness as he prepared for his three years of public ministry: healing the sick and afflicted, seeking the lost and the outcast, restoring dignity and relationships and connections to the community, and demonstrating time and again what it means to love God by loving your neighbors, by sowing seeds of peace, and by humbling oneself to serve others.
Throughout our journey, we have seen glimpses of God’s own heart – how God longs to provide for our needs; how God longs for our love and devotion; how God longs to nourish us toward vibrant, fruitful life; how God longs to welcome and celebrate those who have wandered, who have squandered, who have lost everything and are finally willing to come home out of desperation; how God generously pours out love in a way that liberates, and heals, and restores; how God is Love itself and longs for us to live out of our relationship with Love by loving and serving one another; and how God’s love took our very humanity and endured all the cruelty, hate, fear and abuse of power that mocks, tortures and kills the spirit and the body.
Today, our journey with Jesus takes us to his grave with Mary Magdalene. The gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene is one of the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples. Mary herself had been healed by Jesus of seven demons that had tortured her own body and spirit. She had seen and heard Jesus as he preached and ministered to the crowds throughout the region of Galilee. And she journeyed with Jesus on his final pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She, along with Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister remained at the cross with the disciple John to the bitter end, even after all the other disciples had fled out of fear.
John’s gospel tells us, “There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.” (John 19:41-42) Sabbath began that day at sunset, and so they had to ‘make do’ with what they could pull together in order to bury Jesus’ body according to their customs. Someone brought some aloe and myrrh and linen cloths, and they quickly wrapped his body and laid it in the tomb.”
John’s gospel tells us that “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. Perhaps she felt they had not given Jesus’ body a proper burial in their rush on Friday. Or perhaps she returned, as many of us have, to the graveside of a loved one in order to grieve, in order to try to better remember the face or the voice, or in order to feel near them once again. So as we remember and celebrate all that Easter means, I don’t want us to skip over this part of the story – because it is so much our story.
Let’s take a moment to go to the tomb with Mary. It is still dark. The full weight of grief and despair fill her heart. Having been forced to leave the tomb after witnessing such a cruel death, maybe she has been trying to make sense of all that has happened. Maybe she walks to the tomb to confirm the reality of Jesus’ death. And so she goes to confront her worst fears, to see the lifeless body of the One who called himself the Bread of Life.
How many of us have had mornings like these? You wake on the day after something terrible has happened, or on a morning in a season of despair, and maybe for a moment you forget… but then the reality comes crashing into your consciousness, and the pain is there immediately. Today is the day you must deal with hard things, the day you must face the very thing causing your pain, your distress, your heartache. Many of us have experienced this day. The day after a tornado or fire destroys; the day after an accident or diagnosis; the day after a child leaves home or a spouse walks away; the day after a death – death of a dream, an expectation, a belief, or the death of one we love. It is a day that begins in darkness as you become fully aware of the defeat, the devastation, and the loss.
So Mary goes to the tomb and only has her grief compounded when she realizes that Jesus’ body is missing! Despair turns to confusion and panic. And so she goes for help. I think that is such a wise choice in that moment. She realizes that the situation has become too much for her to bear alone, and so she returns to her community, to her tribe, to find strength in numbers, to ask someone else for their perspective.
John, the faithful disciple as well as Peter who denied Jesus and ran away, both come with her the second time. And they run to the tomb, even, it seems, racing each other to see who can get there first – as if there is some merit for that. It seems almost inappropriate against the seriousness of the situation. We could understand them running with urgency, to get there as quickly as possible. But why should they race? Why does it matter who arrives first? Didn’t Jesus say something about how the first should be last? On this morning of darkness, the disciples are confused, too. Do they race each other as a distraction from their own grief and despair? Or maybe, John ran faster than Peter because Peter is just not ready yet to face the guilt and shame from abandoning just days before Jesus. What we can see is that all three of these followers of Jesus – Mary Magdalene, John and Peter – each make the journey to the tomb on this morning, carrying with them their own baggage, and their own perceptions. And we see that they each leave with their own conclusions, as well.
John arrives first, looks inside and sees the grave-cloths lying there. Peter doesn’t just peer inside but enters the tomb and sees more than John. He sees not only the grave-cloths, but also the facecloth. And it’s not just lying there, but is folded up in its own place. John then decides to enter, as well, and apparently sees enough to “believe.” But it doesn’t seem to be enough for him to understand. Perhaps he believed that Jesus had simply ascended to heaven. But his behavior doesn’t indicate any change of heart, because he and Peter both return right back to that room where they and other disciples have been hiding.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t leave with them. Even through her grief and tears, she’s still looking for answers. When she enters the tomb, she sees even more than the other two. “She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.” (v. 12) And they ask her why she is crying. But their presence doesn’t seem to shake Mary from her grief. She continues her search for Jesus by telling them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” (v. 13) There are two angels dressed in white, sitting inside the tomb. Peter and John didn’t see them, but Mary does. And yet, she seems completely unfazed that two of God’s messengers have appeared to her. In her panicked search for what she’s lost, for what she believes has been stolen, she dismisses these angles only to turn around and nearly bump into Jesus himself.
He also asks her, (v. 15) “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Sometimes our grief, and despair, and heartache over what we’ve lost can cloud our sight and our judgement to the point that we don’t even notice God’s presence.
And then, Jesus calls her name. “Mary!” And suddenly, it’s as if she’s been shaken from a dream, or a nightmare. As if a heavy fog has lifted and she can finally see. When he calls her name, she immediately recognizes him, and responds to him, “My Teacher.” Because Mary chose to remain fully present – physically present at the tomb, but also mentally and emotionally present to her pain and grief – she is blessed with the appearance of Jesus. And I think that’s an important part of our story, as well.
Deep pain like this – raw and heart-wrenching sadness and grief – these are not pleasant. Some of us would do almost anything to avoid experiencing the deepness of these feelings. So we may deny or avoid our feelings, stuffing and burying them, ignoring them, or pretending they don’t exist. Or we may try to numb them or cover them up with alcohol, painkillers, food, or other distractions. But eventually, these feelings will tear us up if we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge them, to fully feel them, and let go of our need to try to control them. When we are able to be fully open to those feelings, then we also open a door for Jesus to appear. When we acknowledge our grief, our brokenness, our need we find God drawing near; we hear Jesus calling our name.
But here’s the most important part of the story – what Easter morning is really all about. When Mary recognizes Jesus, she tries to reach out and hold on to him. She is probably reacting to her memory of who Jesus was, and so she is relieved that he is alive. But what she doesn’t understand at first is that Jesus was not just resuscitated, like Jesus did for Lazarus. This is not Jesus in the physical body that was beaten, tortured and executed. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus after the holy and mysterious work of defeating death and hell once and for all. Mary did not recognize Jesus because of how he looked, but because of the way he called her name. Jesus tells her (v. 17) “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
"Don’t hold on to me.” Remember the words of Isaiah 43:18-19, “Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”
Don’t hold on to the past. When you have encountered your worst day, when the worst possible thing has happened in your life, when you wake up to deep darkness, and grief, and despair, look for Jesus. Bring your pain and your sorrow to Jesus’ tomb and wait there until you see him, until you hear him call your name. God can take our worst days, our worst experiences and transform them with resurrecting love, to bring life out of death, and to create a new thing – a new way forward, a new normal.
Next week, we’re going to celebrate what God can do in song. Our entire worship next Sunday will be a service of Easter hymns and a celebration of our ministries at Maple Grove. You’ll also have a chance to hear next week about upcoming ways that you can get involved in making a difference right here in our community with some mission and outreach projects. And then, beginning May 5th, we’re going to explore the Easter stories of resurrection and Jesus’s appearance to others in a worship series called, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Life Falls Apart.” Because the Easter story is our story.
We have all had a ‘worst day.’ Some of us are living through that day, or that season, right now. And we are all looking for resurrection, for God to come to us in our time of struggle, worry, and grief, when everything starts to come unraveled, and to mend our pain and brokenness, to lead us to a new path, a new morning of light and healing and a new creation. And once we’ve experienced resurrection like that, then we, too, can say with Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18)
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