Monday, April 1, 2013

Our Great AMEN!

One of those questions which plague faithful Christians and their pastors are the questions that circle around the “what am I doing wrong when telling the Gospel?” variety.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I would imagine a fair number present this morning are here only because someone in your life nagged you to come.  Maybe it was a grandmother or mother.  Perhaps it was a dad.  Heck, maybe you had the misfortune of running into me this week and promising that you were, indeed, going to be here on Easter morning.  If you are an infrequent or new to St. Alban’s, welcome.  One thing I would ask you is not to think of the one who kept asking and asking you to come to church less as a nagger and more like one of those who really believes that the news we celebrate today, He is risen, is the best new ever!  The person who invited you, perhaps repeatedly, simply wants you to share in the same joy and hope.  I do, however, owe you a bit of an apology.  Most of us who have the honor of preaching often begin stressing about this sermon somewhere around the beginning of Lent.  It is ok, we start stressing for Christmas almost as soon as Advent begins.  No doubt, if you are an infrequent attender, you are used to sermons being directed at you.  We sometimes get a little zealous trying to preach the one sermon that will get you to start coming to church faithfully.  Today, you can all relax.  I will not be doing that.  Today, I am going to be speaking to everyone pretty much in the same way.  If you find yourself drawn in, hopefully it is because you recognize God acting on your heart.  We would absolutely love it if you chose to join us more frequently, but I am really not in the mood to beat you up to do so this morning.

Like most of my fellow clergy, I found myself doing a bit more preparation for today than normal.  Some of you may be shocked to learn that I do preparation normally, so the idea that I did some may be a miracle in your eyes second only to the Resurrection of our Lord.  It was during the reading and the prayers over them, however, that I ended up focusing on our worship, our work.  We at St. Alban’s are a liturgical church.  Liturgy is the Greek word for work.  We should be, we are called to be, a worshipping community of Christians.  I say should and called to be because all of this, the white linens, the Pascal Candle, the Scripture readings, the Resurrection itself are not creations of the Church.  Nobody was sitting around almost 2000 years ago with this great marketing idea.  I know what.  Let’s pretend our Rabbi was raised from the dead.  You know, the whole world will buy into that story and we’ll be rich!  Yes, there have been and are probably tons of charlatans at work in the Church.  But there are far easier ways to make way more money or gain fame than in the Church.  I know that our bishop’s pay seems generous by working standards around here; but trust me, if he was not called to work in the Church, he could translate some of those skills into far more lucrative employment.  And I know the same is true for me.  I used to be paid closer to what I thought I was worth before I accepted His call.

Look in your readings at Luke’s account of the Resurrection.  We see a struggle.  The beginning of the reading tells us that the women have come to the tomb with the spices that they had prepared.  You can imagine the internal struggle these women have faced.  The man they thought was messiah has been put to death.  And He wasn’t just killed; He was crucified.  That means He is accursed by God.  But, you know, he did some amazing things in their midst.  Like us, they probably had their favorite miracles.  Plus, unlike us, they experienced a bit of a culture war firsthand.  You see, this group, which we are told by Luke includes Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others, were treated as disciples by Jesus.  Culturally, He should have shunned them.  But He allowed them to travel with Him and call Him “Rabbi.”  Then, when He is quickly put to death by the machinations of the Jewish elite and the Romans, they are placed in a terrible moral quandary.  If we bury Him properly, we will be unclean and unable to celebrate the Passover.  Can you imagine how that gnawed at them the day before.  Everyone else is remembering the saving work of the Lord, and they are wrestling with consciences over whether to bury Him properly.  At some point in these deliberations, they decide to bury Him properly tomorrow.  So, at early dawn of the next day, they head out to make things right with respect to Jesus’ burial, taking the prepared spices.

Arriving at the tomb, they find the stone rolled away.  Do they immediately think “hmm.  Jesus said He would rise from the dead.  I guess He was telling the truth.”?  No.  They are perplexed.  it takes the angels’ reminder to get them to begin to understand what has happened.  So they head back to the men.  How do the men respond to the women’s tale?  Do they embrace the idea that Jesus is alive?  No.  These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  You can imagine the words.  Poor Mary, she is overcome with grief.  Poor Joanna, she really believed He was going to free us from tyranny.  I guess this is why only men are allowed to testify before the courts--women are just too emotional, too flighty.  You ladies gathered here in modern America have never experienced any kind of sexism, right?  No one has ever mocked you for being a woman because we are so advanced here in America, right?

And let’s not forget Peter.  A lot of attention has been paid to the newest to sit in the seat of Peter the past couple weeks.  Is Peter that paragon of faith and understanding?  No.  But something has begun to change in him.  Remember Maundy Thursday?  Who denies our Lord three times before the cock crows?  Peter.  Did he understand what he was doing?  Absolutely, he was very grieved by what he had done.  But was he unprepared for his actions?  No, Jesus had prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crowed.  And that prophesy, combined with all the miracles he had witnessed, had begun its work in Peter’s heart.  He alone goes to the tomb.  He looks in and sees the linen cloths and the empty tomb.  He does not know what to think.  He leaves for home, we are told, amazed at what had happened.  Peter does not yet comprehend what has occurred or its significance.  There is no rubbing together of the hands and plotting.  There is only confusion and doubt.  And these are the men and women who went about the world with Jesus.  These are the men and women who now, more often than not have “Saint” before their name.

The truth is that Resurrection is hard to comprehend.  Placed together with the Cross of Good Friday, the events we celebrate and memorialize this week are simply unfathomable.  The Cross and Resurrection are important, brothers and sisters, because it is the focal point of salvation history.  When God created the heavens and the earth, the events of Friday and today were already in place.  God was not surprised at Adam and Eve’s sin.  Our Lord was not shocked that humanity could not right itself after the flood, even though only the family of Noah, a righteous man, survived.  Our message, when we think about it, sounds crazy.  God chose to be Incarnate.  The Incarnation loved us so much that He was willing to become sin and die for us.  And for His faithfulness, the Father raised the Son.  He has become the first member of the re-creation.  Is it any surprise so many doubt and wonder?  Should we be at all surprised when people blow off our testimony?  Who makes up such nonsense?

Of course, if you are one of those who scoff or disbelieve, does that story sound like a great marketing scam?  If you were going to rip off people, is this a good way to do it?  Or does the story sound too far “out there” to ever work?  And, if you were propagandizing these events, why would your leaders ever be portrayed as doubter?  If you were going to package this narrative together, say like Ben Affleck in Argo, would you show your leaders as disbelieving, as confused?  Or would you rather cast them in a better light, showing them as men and women who were bright and altogether worth following?  No, brothers and sisters, the actions of the Apostles and disciples reminds us of a simple truth.  The Church did not create the Resurrection as a marketing ploy.  No, indeed, the Church was created by the Resurrection as a response to an event presumed impossible.  Because He was raised from the dead, His Apostles and disciples were transformed!  Jesus had been cursed.  Clearly.  Unarguably.  Yet, as we will read this Eastertide, He will appear to thousands.  Not as a ghost, but as a new creation!  The wounds will still be there to satisfy Thomas.  He will eat and drink to demonstrate He is not a ghost.  He is the firstborn of the new creation.  He is exalted because He walked the path set before Him by His Father and worked to redeem you and to redeem me and to redeem all who would claim Him as Lord.

And because of His teaching, we know that this was THE EVENT in history!  Together, Good Friday and Easter Sunday serve as the bookend of our salvation.  I wish I could remember which commenter wrote this, but one pointed out that “He raised Him from the dead” was the Father’s AMEN to the Son’s “It is accomplished,” spoken just before He breathed His last and gave up His spirit.  What we celebrate this week was not something that God had to overcome.  Pilate and Judas and the priests did not catch God napping.  Before He came into the world, He knew this was the path He had to walk for every single one of us gathered here together today.  And, in loving service, He walked that path faithfully for our sakes and, when near His near, He pronounced His work accomplished.  There was no “oops.”  There was no “let me figure out a solution to this one.”  This was the plan.  We know this because God raised Him from the dead.  Across the vastness of the universe, across the seemingly infinite courses of time, and even across the impenetrable obstacle you and I call death, God spoke that great AMEN and raised Christ from the dead!  He is that Son in whom He is well pleased.  He is that Anointed One whom God will honor.  We know this because He lives!

So what?  Whether one is a believer or somewhat skeptical or, like the Apostles and disciples, simply amazed, still one is left with the question of “what now?”  For the faithful, those convinced of the truth of the Resurrection, the Empty Tomb becomes the reminder that God can redeem all things.  We do the world a disservice when we claim that “everything will be great” if people will only become Christians.  Like the rest of the world we still suffer from unemployment, from diseases, from relationship hurts, from different kinds of pains, and even from death.  The Empty Tomb reminds us, however, that God will redeem all things, even us and our situations.  He may not work in the time frame we would like; He may not do things the way we would do them; but, because He has yoked us to Him and His Son, we know that He will redeem and vindicate each one of us who calls Him Lord.  We can share the stories of the amazing works He has done in our lives and throughout history certain that, in the end, we will be vindicated for being faithful ambassadors.  We can even commit sins which we should know better than to commit, and yet come again to the Cross in repentance certain that He has paid the penalty even for that sin.  Still, He will redeem us.  He has promised.  And He has the power to accomplish all that He has promised, even if death tries to grab us.

Were that all, this would be an incredible story of good news.  But our God is an abundant giver of all things, including responsibilities.  Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord have been granted honors and power and responsibilities which none of us could fathom and, if we were in charge, none of us would give to ourselves.  Worshipping the saving work of God is just one example of that responsibility and gift.  Turn in your Order of Worship to page 17 or in your BCP to page 362-3 or 368-9.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, to give thanks to God for what He has done for us, what are we doing?  We remind ourselves of His goodness and love and we recall the events of Holy Week.  We remind ourselves of His words of Institution during the Maundy Thursday service where He tells us in advance that His Body will be broken for us and that His Blood will be poured out for us.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will bless our work, the liturgy, and that we will one day enter the inheritance that He has promised through our participation in this Eucharistic Feast.  And, then, what do we do?  

Ever notice that AMEN in all capital letters before?  You ever think it was a misprint?  After all, other Amen’s have only the “A” capitalized.  Why, do you think this one has all caps?  It is known in the Church as the “Great Amen.”  Amen simply means something like “let it be so.”  So this Great AMEN means something along the lines of the great “let it be so!”  This meal that we will celebrate in a moment will recall to us the actions of this week.  Every times we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we are called in mind and heart to the events of Holy Week.  Every time.  Better still, we will remind ourselves that all of us who call Him Lord and share in this meal  will share in His Resurrection.  That is His pledge to us.  And, with our Father who raised Him from the dead, you and I will pronounce the Great AMEN!  You and I will pronounce the AMEN that rings across time and space and even across death itself.  And in so doing, you and I are privileged beyond measure or dream, to join our heavenly Father in the glorification of His Son, His Son who came to save us, even when we disbelieved, even when we were confused and amazed, even when we fought against Him.  Brothers and sisters, such is our “heavy lifting.”  Such is our magnificent contribution to salvation history.  We are called to honor and serve the Christ who freed us from sin and death simply by acknowledging His faithful obedience.

Brothers and sisters, no body is as effective at wounding its own self as the Church.  Perhaps, sitting here, you can recall times when authority figures such as myself guilted you into giving, guilted you into attending, placed burdens on you which were not yours to bear.  I am truly sorry if that has been your experience.  The reason it is Gospel is that there is no heavy burden on us.  Our Lord has born the Cross and won for us the crown of victory.  But, and this can be very uncomfortable, just as He has born your sins against Him on that cross, so has He born the sins of others against you, and yours against those others.  Now He calls you to celebrate His victory and to wait expectantly for His promises to be fulfilled.

What if you stand here this day confused?  Amazed?  Wondering?  That’s ok, too.  In fact, as I pointed out, when we doubt and are amazed, we stand in distinguished company.  The Apostles and disciples were also confused and amazed.  I would encourage you to ponder the evidence.  Consider the responses of these men and women.  None of them enjoyed the trappings of privilege.  Each one of them suffered terribly for their faith.  And yet, despite the best efforts of Rome, and the accompanying of no real reward, these men and women simply testified to what they had seen and what they had heard.  They did not create the Resurrection; the Resurrection re-created them.  Those who heard and watched them realized something was different, something had changed.  And, one by one, the Church began to grow.  I invite you to continue to watch and listen with us.  We are at St. Alban’s by no means worthy of our inheritance through our own efforts.  But we are a redeemed people, a people who rejoice in the life our Lord has given us and who find themselves awed by the fact that our Lord has called us to celebrate His death, Resurrection, and Ascension whenever we meet, a people who echo, however faintly, that Great Amen of our Father, who blessed and raised His Son our Lord from the dead on that first Easter Morning when the women found the tomb rolled away!


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