Sunday, March 27, 2016

doubt, trust and hope being poured into our hearts by the spirit...

NOTE:  It was noted after worship today that nine years ago next Sunday I first preached at
First Church - and was called to be pastor. My message was taken from Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11:28:  learn the unforced rhythms of grace. So I will be away from writing and blogging for a few days to let that sink in.  Blessed Easter.

Easter Sunday is a hard one to preach – always has been and always will be – fundamentally because it was and is and always shall be so unexpected.  Even though Jesus spoke of his own death and resurrection a number of times according the Scriptures, it still startled, perplexed and even terrified those who were first on the scene.  One old preacher put it like this:

No one greets the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave and defeated death and the devil by saying, “Praise God!” No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they first hear that their friend and Lord has been raised to life. And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news that death itself could not hold the Lord of Glory captive, says, “I knew it – just like he said – I knew it!”  (David Lose, Working Preacher)

It doesn’t happen – in scripture, in tradition, in our ordinary lives of faith – because no one expects resurrection. And, at first, no one believes it. The women in the gospel of Luke had no expectation that Christ would be raised from the dead by God. They didn’t go to the tomb with any such anticipation, right?  They went to care for and cleanse a corpse. It took two angelic strangers dressed in dazzling white garments to remind them of what Jesus had already told them and still they were incredulous.  

And in their bewilderment, when they rushed back to tell the brothers about what God had done, they are greeted there not with joy but with profound skepticism. In fact, the text tells us that the women’s words were considered an “idle tale.” Scholars say that “an idle tale” is a rather generous translation of the word leros in Greek from which we derive the word delirious. In reality the male disciples first thought these women were nuts – crazy – bonkers – hysterical women filled with utter nonsense. Which probably rings true for many of us when it comes to trusting, believing and living into the promise of Christ’s resurrection, right? Not only does it call into question almost everything we know about how the world works, but it also tells us that God’s love is not bound by any of the rules or limitations that we depend upon nearly every day.

That’s why throughout the 40 days of Lent I’ve been saying: the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is control.  I’ve needed to hear that over and over and you’ve needed to have it reinforced, too because at the heart of our faith is something that turns everything upside down.  And the upside down kingdom of God is lovely and cherished when it comes to the forgiveness of our sins.  But start spreading that grace around to everybody in the form of resurrection – including our enemies all the while insisting that God’s love can break ALL our rules, upset every apple cart and make ALL things new including a new life for the crucified Messiah – then we aren’t so certain.  Then this whole grace and Easter business becomes more complicated and uncomfortable, profoundly harder to fathom.

Small wonder that what the Bible tells us – and the first witnesses proclaimed – happened in the dark.  Have you noticed how each of the four gospels are not entirely clear what occurred in that Easter darkness? Think about it:  in Matthew there is a rolled away stone – and an earthquake.  In Mark, Mary Magdalene and another Mary flee in pure shock and awe after a single angelic visitor speaks to them. In Luke, it was two angels and a whole group of women. And in John, it is Jesus who appears speaking first to Magdalene, then Peter and John, and later all the disciples locked in the upper room and a week later to Thomas and then again to Peter out by the Sea of Galilee.

And all of it takes place in the dark causing Frederick Buechner to ask:  What the devil DID happen?

Confusion was clearly everywhere and there is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself (in these stories.) Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom? What did he say? What did he do? If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell this story in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. But here there is no skill, no fanfare for they seem to be telling a story simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete and dark as life itself. When it comes to just the facts, there can be no certainty

Except to say that something totally unexpected happened that led them from the darkness into the light.

So here’s what I want to tell you from my heart:  we can’t prove that God raised Jesus the Christ from the dead by reading the Bible alone; nor can we verify what took place on that first Easter by appealing to science or human reason.  So if you are having a hard time getting your head around all of this – if you find the resurrection story hard to believe – please know you are in good company.  All of Jesus’ first disciples had an equally difficult time with “this new reality for the resurrection overthrows death, triumphs over sin and declares once and for all that life in God’s love is more powerful and enduring than any and all tragedy.”  (David Lose, Working Preacher)

For way too long Christianity has insisted that authentic faith casts off all doubt, right?  But the testimony of our story suggests that faith and doubt are woven closely together, so skepticism and questions are vital not forbidden.

Faith, as the book of Hebrews announces, is the assurance of things hoped for: it is not the absence of doubt, but rather the relinquishment of control – a willingness to be inspired by hope so that we can live more fully into this new and blessed gift from God.

+ You know that old rabbi Saul of Tarsus got it right when he spoke about the link between trust and hope in Romans 5.  He told the early church that they could endure suffering and shame once the Spirit had poured hope into their hearts because hope is not manufactured by human beings. It is not bought or sold either; he said: we can even boast in our suffering knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And once God starts to fill us, there is nothing that can stop us.

Trusting the truth of Easter took me a long time to come to grips with. As a young man, I came 
of age when it was de rigueur to question everything:  don’t trust anyone over 30, don’t trust institutions, don’t trust the church. And I know I didn’t want to look like a fool, so I didn’t buy this stuff at all.  After all, there are plenty of good reasons not to trust the resurrection.  It violates the natural order of life as we know it. In fact, the only two things that are certain in this world are… what?  Death and taxes.

But preacher, David Lose, has reframed all of this by asking: what would be possible if it were true?  Can you think about that?  What would be possible if God’s love was, in fact, greater than our ability to comprehend? 

Death would not have the final word. Love and life would be stronger than fear and death. We could expect to see those we’ve loved and lost again. In fact, we could trust that God has a future in store for each and all of us because in the resurrection anything is possible with God.  (Lose, Working Preacher)

That may be hard for some here today – I think imagining the possibilities of hope is always hard – but here is what I have experienced on my own journey of faith:  when I am open to trust, all things become possible. In my lifetime, I’ve seen down and dirty junkies get clean – and stay clean for decades.  I’ve seen arrogant and mean-spirited politicians give up the BS and become humble servants of the poor.  I’ve seen soldiers advance the cause of peace and bigots learn to love their Black, Asian and Hispanic neighbors as part of their own family.  I’ve seen those who have been scarred by sexual abuse learn to love their bodies and trust their lovers with vulner-ability. I’ve seen the staunchest Southern segregationist and bigot, Strom Thurmond, change his heart to become an advocate for HIV/AIDS research in African. I’ve seen Jews love Muslims and Muslims love Jews.  I’ve seen the strong become weak and the humble become leaders. I’ve seen homophobes come to trust their gay and lesbian sisters and brothers as kin, I’ve seen those scandalized by the church’s historic hatred come to trust their straight allies, too. I’ve seen people of all races breaking bread – and marching together in Black Lives Matter rallies across America – I’ve seen bodies healed, minds opened and hope restored because with God all things are possible. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…

There is a story Harry Belafonte tells about MLK and the days when the Civil Rights movement seemed to have hit a brick wall. Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and he would not budge when it came to supporting action that would expand or protect African American voting rights. So some of Dr. King’s lieutenants began to disparage and denigrate RFK during a strategy session. And after a short time, MLK called the whole thing to a close: we can not and will not continue talking about Mr. Kennedy in this way – with hatred rather than love. So this conversa-tion is over.  Dr. King went on to charge his aides with finding a way built on love to change the Attorney General’s heart while making it explicit there would be no more Kennedy bashing.

Chagrined, these civil rights leaders sulked at first, but later strategized and came to realize that Kennedy was a devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass almost daily. So, they started meeting and talking with his Bishop. In time, the Bishop’s heart was changed – and that led to some deep conversations with RFK. And over the course of a year, there was a change of heart born of repentance that helped move Kennedy into an alliance with the civil rights movement. And in time, RFK became an advocate - and by the end of his life Kennedy was known to be totally committed to the cause of caring for the poor and marginalized with justice and compassion.

So what I’m trying to say is that through the eyes of faith, the power of God’s love at work in ordinary human lives has compelled me to trust that this same love was at work raising Christ Jesus from the dead. I don’t control this love. I don’t comprehend how it works. And it certainly wasn’t persuasive to me all at once – it never is.

Resurrection faith comes slowly to everyone including Christ’s first disciples:  the women ran away, the men dismissed their sisters as delusional, the soldiers stood in fear and no one grasped what love was doing in the world. But when you, like the first disciples, start to see amazing grace in action – when you have experienced your own release from the bondage of sin and the oppression of fear – then you know from the inside out that the Easter proclamation is the most important truth in all creation – and it is NOT idle talk.

On that first Easter Sunday, after “dissing” the women, Peter ran to the tomb for now he starting to imagine what might be possible if God’s promise were true.  And stooping and looking into the empty tomb, he saw some resurrection evidence in the linens lying on the floor. So he went home puzzled – puzzled but amazed – letting God’s hope be poured into his heart by trust. And at just the right moment, in God’s time not Peter’s, he too encountered the Risen Christ. And then from the inside out he knew the Christ was risen indeed. 

It takes time, beloved, God does not expect us to grasp the magnitude of this blessing all at once or overnight. So be tender and gentle with yourselves on this day of days.  And also consider what all the saints have come to trust from Peter and Paul, to Mary the Mother of our Lord and Mary Magdalene: that faith is the assurance that Christ has been raised from the dead by the uncontrollable love of God being poured into your heart as hope.  He is risen, sisters and brothers, he is risen indeed!

credits:  John Levesque, Banksy, Dianne De Mott, Karen Schlitz


Elmer Ewing said...

Beautiful Easter sermon. Thanks for sharing it.

RJ said...

Thanks, Elmer, I am grateful.

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