Easter Sunday 2011

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.  I am grateful to Rob Bell for his clarifying words re: the gospel's radical inclusivity born in God's grace.  And so begins another series exploring some of the themes set forth in Love Wins.  If you are in town, please join us for the feast at 10:30 am.

This is a powerful day, sweet people of God, a sweet and powerful day: Amen!?! 

• Our tradition calls it the Feast of the Resurrection – a festival of new life and a bounty of hope – born of God’s love.

• Our scriptures tell us that when the outsiders – the women who loved Jesus – went to the tomb of the Lord, they were greeted by an angelic messenger of grace who announced: “Fear not. I know you're looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross, but he is not here.”

• And our heart of hearts tells us that something bewildering and beautiful is happening today in Jesus Christ even if we can’t get our heads around just exactly what it might be.

You see, Easter isn’t something that makes sense. It is an experience – an encounter with God’s love – that is bigger than all the pain and shame and fear and confusion of the world and our lives combined! What’s more, this encounter with God’s love does NOT depend on us – and that’s the really good news – because, you see, Easter comes to the world regardless of what we think or feel or even how we comprehend the evidence.

• Did you know that?

• Easter is a gift – a blessing – that we neither control nor shape.
In the lofty language of the academy, one theologian put it like this:

Resurrection faith does not arise on the basis of evidence, of which the chief priests and soldiers had plenty, but rather comes on the basis of the experienced presence of the risen Christ – by the testimony of those to whom he appeared – and by his own continuing presence among his disciples. (Eugene Boring)

But let me give it to you in the everyday lingo of most of us who so often are just hanging on by our fingers tips - hoping for some truth about God – Easter comes to the world saying: Christ is risen whether we believe in Jesus or not. Easter isn’t about intellectual assent or sacramental integrity. Easter does not require our participation in a church. Or baptism or confession or right doctrine or conventional morality or Christianity or even a vague familiarity with the 10 Commandments; as preacher Rob Bell says: the good news is better than that!

• You see, those are all things that WE do – and they can be valuable – but the good news is really better than that…

• … Because the good news comes from God – not us – and it seeks to make us whole and fill us from the inside out with a love that makes all things new.

That’s what the story tells us this morning, isn’t it? That God has taken what was dead and discarded – forgotten and shamed – and restored it to new life just as God promised?

Look, the Jesus you are looking for Is not here - He was raised from the dead just as he said – so be on your way quickly. Go tell his disciples (in the old boys club) that Jesus is risen from the dead. In fact, tell them that he has gone on ahead of you all to Galilee where it all started… and if you get back there you will see him just as he promised.
Now that’s hard to believe for some of us – and trust – especially if we’ve been wounded or betrayed or just worn down by the harshness of real life. In a new book about his life in ministry, Love Wins, a young preacher from Michigan tells a story that has haunted me over the past two weeks because it clarifies just how hard it is to really trust that God’s love is bigger than our pain. He writes:

Every week after my Sunday message, I usually sit on the edge of the stage (it’s a big church) and talk to people after worship. And every week the same woman walks up to me and hands me a piece of paper. We’ve been going through this ritual for several years now. She smiles, and we chat for a moment or two, and then she walks away. The piece of paper she hands me is always the same size – about 4 x 5 inches –folded with writing inside in the upper left corner. I unfold it each week while she watches and then I read what she’s written on it. A number, with a few comments next to the number: sometimes the number is big like 174 but sometimes it is smaller. I remember once when it was 2. (And here’s the thing) the number is how many days it’s been since she last cut herself. She’s struggled with a self-injury addiction for years, but lately a group of people have been helping find peace and healing. But she still struggles, some weeks more than others. Not long ago she told me that every man she’s ever been with hit her. So when she hears about love it is NOT a concept she’s familiar with. (Rob Bell, pp. 165-6)

That makes sense to me, right? So how do we reconcile God’s unconditional love with everything we’ve experienced over and over again in our lives? Like that young woman with the knife – or the middle aged man with his Jim Beam – or a young person facing divorce – or the President trying to find the best course in the Middle East – or the widower who still grieves her beloved after all these years of emptiness: how do we come to trust God’s grace? I think the writer, Anne Lamott, hit the nail right on the head when she recently said on NPR:
I think that every year the world seems more and more like a Good Friday world than an Easter Sunday celebration. The writer, Barbara Johnson, once said, “We really are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And it's excruciating, whether it's Japan, or Libya, or whether it’s your own best friends and their children who are sick, which is something that makes no sense when you think about a loving God. But Easter is a time when we get to remember that all the stuff that we think makes us of such value, all the time we spend burnishing our surfaces, is really not what God sees. God, he or she, loves us absolutely unconditionally, as is. It's a come as you are party.

So jump with me back to the Easter story because at its core, “what the gospel does is confront our version of our own story with God’s version of our story.” (Bell, p. 171) Think about that, ok? The gospel story – no matter what chapter or verse – confronts our version of our life story with God’s version of our story. And there are a few details from the Easter gospel story that deserve comment:

• First, the women – the outsiders – who in first century Palestine were not allowed to testify as witnesses in a court of law: They were chosen by Christ to tell the world the blessed thing that God had accomplished on Easter morning.

• And let’s be clear, this wasn’t accidental, because the story goes on to tell us that what the women saw and experienced were the same things presented to the male Roman Centurion guards, right?
They were all confronted with the same realities – from the earthquake and the rolled-back stone to the presence of the angel of the Lord bearing a message of grace – they all saw the same things – and heard the same words, too. But the women – representing all of us have suffered and known grief – they listened. And what was the angel’s message? “Fear not” – that’s key – fear not is something Jesus tells us over and over again in the Bible because fear locks our hearts to trust.

That’s why the wisest spiritual masters in every tradition tell us: “fear is a refusing to trust.” And refusing to trust leads us straight to… hell. Not joy – not the marriage of heaven and earth – not thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven or the comfort of Easter Sunday: it leads us straight to hell – do not pass go – do not collect $200 – hell.
• The women on Easter morning started out afraid – marginalized and grieving and taken for granted - but they listened. “Shema, o Yisrael” the old tradition says: Listen, the Lord your God is One…

• And in listening they were able to move from fear to trust – and trust is allowed them to discover “God’s retelling of their story” in a way that was healing rather than just clinging to the brokenness.

• The men – let’s not forget the men – they saw the same things as the women: they felt the same earthquake and heard the same invitation and, in their own way, probably knew just as much pain and shame as the women.

• But what’s the difference? They didn’t listen – they didn’t trust – and they ran off in fear – and stayed in that fear while the women were empowered by God’s love to return to their ministries! 

So remember: both were invited to the party but only those who responded in trust experienced the blessings.
So let me go out on a limb and say that the whole point of our feast this morning is NOT to give you more information about Jesus. And it has nothing to do with doctrine or denomination or damnation. No, the whole point of the celebration is to say:

• God has come to us all: women and men – and children, too. The fearful and the trusting – the apprehensive and the receptive – the hurting and the healing.

• And what God says on Easter is: You are free. New life is yours if you will receive it.

Now please understand: “Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, doesn’t make it happen or even create it. God does that all by herself!”

• But trust is how we receive the gift – it is how we experience and embrace the joy – and move from the realm of Good Friday into Easter.

• Over the next 7 weeks I’m going to be talking to you each Sunday more specifically about how to receive this joy – this new life – so that you, too, can grow in peace from the inside out.

For now let’s just say that you have all been invited to God’s party to be healed; by fear you can reject it and be miserable – or not. Easter asks you not to put any limits on the Lord… because the good news is so much better than that. Christ is risen, beloved: thanks be to God.

credits:
1) Cross @ www.fineartamerica.com
2) Resurrection @ www.goodthoughts.typepad.com
3) Jesus @ www.mattstone.blogs.com
4) Women at the tomb @ www.catholica.com.au

Comments

David said…
James,

My wife has reminded me that its good to say thank you. Your blog has been a wonderful addition to my Lenten reflection. Thanks for your thoughtfulness! Happy and blessed Easter to you and your family!

Dave Comstock
RJ said…
Hey brother: great to hear from you today - and you are so very welcome - please give your dear wife my love. And blessings to you, too.

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