Wednesday, March 30, 2016

On life's forks and tournament brackets . . .

     Why do we gather here this morning?  My guess, if I went around the room asking, I would get answers that fall somewhere along the lines of “Because we Christians are supposed to” to “I come because _______ makes me” and maybe in some places in between.  For us in the Church, we gather today to remember this amazing and wonderful act of God.  I know, for those of you who have been watching the shows on the cable channels about the “real Jesus,” we Christians seem not to know why we gather.  Maybe it is good that I address the reason first.
     We gather today because we remind ourselves that God has acted in history, that He continues to act in history and our lives, and that He will act in the future.  The world, of course, testifies that there is no God and He certainly did not nor does not act.  If there is a God, He just sits out there and watches.  He cannot reach into this world without upsetting the delicate balance He created.  The existence of evil is proof enough for some of this lie.  Various reasons are given for the Resurrection being a myth in these discussions.  My personal favorite is the one where the fishermen plotted to steal His body and hide it from the Romans because they wanted the power and prestige of Rome.  Never mind the fact that the “power and prestige of Rome” was three centuries and several persecutions off.  None of the earliest “plotter” got to enjoy their fruit of their labors, if such was their goal.  Talk about a leap of faith!  Some of us Christians contribute to that false myth.  I watched a show this week explaining that the Resurrection was not real, that the disciples had been suffering from a mass hallucination or psychosis.  The dead simply do not get up and live again.  I see the nods.  Some of you could not sleep either, eh?
     We gather today to remind ourselves, however, that God acts in history and in our lives.  The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus is simply the culminating event in salvation history.  If God can raise the dead, He can do anything and everything He promises.  Often, we need to be reminded of His power and His determination to redeem everything in the lives of all His people.  That is why we gather.  We gather to remind ourselves that we have a Savior and that our Savior can redeem all things in our lives, even death!
     A couple weeks ago, I found an incredible offer.  A local bar on Harpeth Avenue was offering half price beers for the next year, if one could correctly guess the Final Four.  Better still, the establishment in question was giving us a mulligan.  We got to pick five teams.  Well, I am an Episcopal priest.  I do like a good beer every now and again.  They serve microbrews on tap, and I saw an easy on the wallet way to enjoy them during the rest of 2016 and the beginning of 2017.  I see some of you are doing some quick calculations in your head and wishing you had heard about this offer before March Madness started.  That’s ok, your wives are doing the same calculations in their heads, too!  Yes, I played, and I played to win.  My big question was Kansas versus Villanova in my bracket.  I was not really sure who would win that matchup.  I figured Carolina would beat either Indiana or Kentucky.  I was confident Oklahoma would take down Oregon.  I had no doubts Michigan State owned Virginia.  Quit laughing.  This was two weeks ago.  How many of you had MTSU beating the Spartans?  Sure, we all pick a #12 seed to beat a #5—everyone does that, but something like only 8 people correctly picked MTSU to beat Michigan State.  And we all know Gonzaga is nigh near impossible to beat when they are a double-digit seed.  Seriously, always take God and the double digit seed when you have a chance, right?  Quit laughing, you know it’s true!  As you can all see, assuming Carolina wins this evening, I got three of four right.  I was this close to getting half price beers for the next year. 
     In many ways, life is like a tournament bracket.  Hold on.  Give me a moment.  If I spoke with 13-14 year-old you, would you have predicted your life?  Maybe some of us would have nailed everything in life, but I doubt it.  At that young age there is so much that must happen.  How many of us swore we would never get married, move out into the suburbs, change a diaper, drive the minivan, or be happy at the combined thought like that famous commercial?  How many of us ended up in the career path wanted at that age?  I daresay there would have been a lot more astronauts and professional athletes than there are.  How many of us work at the company we thought we would?  How many of us married the person we crushed on then?  And we have not even begun to think of the chaotic events we call life.  Some of us have been impacted by death or disease.  Some of us have had companies shut down beneath us, forcing us to follow professional detours or alternate routes.  Anyone dealt with natural disasters like floods or fires or tornados or some such natural violence?  Did you really have more than a few minutes warning?
     Those of you who attend infrequently or who are, perhaps, visiting, might wonder at the claim.  It is understandable.  More importantly, your doubts and confusion place you in great company.  Turn in your orders of worship to John’s account this morning.  I know most of think that John is the theologizer.  John is the Apostle who looked at the big picture.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke concentrated on the details, but John gave the meaning to the details.  In some ways, the gross oversimplification is understandable.  But, just because John theologizes does not mean he abandons all details.  Similarly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke certainly capture a number of the big statements regarding the Messiah Jesus.  But John captures some details to remind us that the Resurrection was a real, historical, transformative event and to remind you and me that we are not alone in how we come to our faith in Jesus and in God promises.
     Mary Magdalene and another lady or two are headed to the tomb before dawn.  It might seem an inconsequential detail to you and me, but to those living at the time of John’s ministry, such a claim is outlandish.  Sorry, ladies, but women in the ANE had very few rights, as you and I understand them.  Jewish ladies, in particular, though they were treated well by comparison to other groups in the ANE, were unable to study under a rabbi or to provide testimony in a court of law.  Right off the bat, in this chapter, John breaks both those understandings.  The women are the first to come to the tomb and see Jesus is not there.  Mary calls Jesus “Teacher” when she finally recognizes that the gardener is THE Gardener.  If John was propagandizing, this is a crazy way to start the story, by ANE standards.  Woman are the first to witness the Resurrection?  Judges would have tossed that case in a heartbeat.  Yet John tosses in that other little detail, “while it was still dark.”  Some of us are of an age when gender roles were significantly more defined.  Some of us may have been raised in a household where the woman got up to get lunches made, clothes ironed and laid out, and breakfast made.
     One of my greatest memories as a child is the visits to my grandmother’s.  She very seldom ever had to come in and wake me.  Usually, it was the wonderful wafting odor of bacon that brought me out of my sleep.  As wonderful as a warm bed was, the thought of bacon, eggs, and toast still make my mouth water.  My grandmother was always the first up.  She had to get everything ready for the day.  Whether it was just my grandfather or she had some family in the house, she was up first brewing the coffee, starting breakfast, packing lunches, and doing all that other stuff the matriarch did in those days.  I see the nods.  Some of you may have done that yourself for a time.  Today’s world might find it sexist that a woman was up first to get the household going, but the world of 2000 years ago would have understood it as normal.  Jesus’ death likely hung like a pall over the women that Sabbath, and they wanted to get His body spiced and moved from the preparation table into His shelf.  It makes sense they were up and about early.  That John highlights the fact that it was women, when women were deemed too hysterical for testifying, makes it appear as if it really took place in this world.
    What happens next?  Mary returns and tells the disciples the body is missing.  In the beginning of the account, she cares only to find out where the body of our Lord is so that she can minister to it.  Naturally, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved go running to see for themselves.  What happens?
     The younger guy, John, gets there first.  He bends down and looks into the tombs, sees the strips of linen lying there, but does not go in.  If John was writing propaganda and seeking to raise his own influence with this Christian group, it is a weird way to do it.  Why not have himself understanding Jesus’ teachings that He must die and be raised after three days?  Why not be brave where Peter was a coward?  Why not enter before Peter, rather than after?  Because that is how life works!  This is not a propaganda piece.  This is not fiction.  This is an account of how the disciples first encountered the greatest act in salvation history!
     Lastly, of course, Peter gets there.  Poor Peter.  Not only does he not understand, but he gets there after the young guy.  Unlike John, though, Peter enters.  He sees the head-wrapping all rolled up.  Were somebody to have stolen the body, why roll up the head-wrapping.  If the body was moved, and someone was willing to risk defilement, the linens and wrapping should be trailed, as if a body was carried out of the tomb.  But these are lying where the Body was, and the wrapping is purposefully rolled up.  Peter leaves, and then John enters the Tomb.  John, we are told, puts the pieces together and believes, but Mary and Peter do not yet.
     Mary, of course, stays by the tomb weeping.  The two angels appear and challenge her, then Jesus appears to her.  At first, she presumes He is the gardener and asks where her Master’s body is.  Once Jesus speaks, Mary hears His voice and knows Him, a confirmation of John’s recount of the Good Shepherd earlier.  The angels’ presence, supernaturally, testifies to the fact that what has occurred here is of divine origin.  It is then that she claims Him as Teacher and clings to Him.
     John’s account of the Resurrection encounters is quite detailed.  Our selection today, though, focuses on the response of three.  My guess is that you who are visitors, and you who are infrequent attenders, and you who are faithful attenders are drawn to John’s account.  My guess is, if we went around the room, we are all on the same path as Mary, Peter, or John in our faith walk with God.  Look again at their response and compare them with your own standing.
     Some of us come to faith by hearing, like Mary.  Perhaps there are signs of God’s power in our lives all around us, but we are too blind to see them.  We are overcome by the problem and find ourselves oblivious to the Lord’s response and actions in our lives.  Maybe it was the story of our parents, maybe it was the story of our grandparents, maybe it was the story of a spouse or a child, maybe it was the story of a small group or coworker, but in some way we were drawn into this walk, this search, of the Lord who was always seeking us.  Perhaps some of us are still looking.  Some of us, no doubt, have heard His voice as clearly as Mary did 2000 years ago.  But Mary’s struggle with the Resurrection ought to comfort us.  Hearing the stories of the marvelous deeds He has done can be the catalyst that causes us to wonder at events that have transpired in our lives.  Hearing the works of power that He has done may cause us to look back on our own experiences.  Maybe there has been provision in the face of privation.  Maybe there has been incredible saving in the face of death or extreme danger.  Maybe there has been reconciliation that defies all expectation.  Chances are, though, there are events in all our lives that remind us that God is acting in our lives every bit as much as He did in the lives of those disciples.  Maybe, for those of us who need to hear His voice, He is speaking even now to us in the same gentle tones He did with Mary that Easter morning, placing us in the midst of that saving embrace.
     Of course, not all of us respond to voices or lectures, right?  Some of us need to see for ourselves.  Certainly John falls into that category, as will a number of disciples, Thomas the most notable.  Does John understand the significance and believe in the beginning?  No.  He does not know what to believe.  He stands at the entrance of the tomb trying to solve the puzzle in his own mind.  My guess, and it is only a guess as he does not record his thoughts, is that he was trying to figure out why somebody outside the disciples might steal the Body.  Then, as he reflects on the details, he begins to wonder about our Lord’s teaching.  Even when he writes that he believed, he qualifies it with the understanding that he still did not understand from the Scriptures.  What had taken place took place to fulfill God’s promises to humanity.  As far back as the expulsion of Adam and Eve, God promised to work to restore humanity to Himself.  But John has no understanding of that yet.  We might see he has not attended the Bible studies, listened to enough preaching, or spent enough time in prayer.
     Many of us are like John.  The details are before us.  The testimony is right in front of us, but we are not sure.  We are scientific.  We are too smart to be gullible (except when it comes to electing politicians).  We need to figure these things out for ourselves and reconcile them with what we understand.  The problem, of course, is that God is beyond our understanding.  Just when we think we understand Him or have Him right where we want Him, He acts!  Outside the faith community, outside the study of Scriptures, outside intentional communion with Him, we may miss the significance or even miss the sign altogether.  But we understand He is working in the world around us; we desperately want to believe that He is working for us!
     If you have never paid close attention to the story of the Resurrection before, Peter’s response may surprise and encourage you.  In many ways, Peter describes our own walk with God.  Peter is the one upon whom Jesus promised to build His Church.  Peter is the one who will preach that incredible sermon on the Feast of Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and begin to place the activities of God in the lives of those who hear and in the world around us.  But that is some time off in the future.  Peter, remember, just lied about his relationship to Jesus this past Thursday.  Peter, who was willing to die with Jesus and who raised the only sword in defense of Jesus, chickens out when confronted by powerful serving maids.  Can you imagine the shame?  Can you imagine the self-loathing?  Most of us do not need to imagine it because we live it.  Every one of us gathered here this morning, each and every one of us gathered this morning to celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection has those disappointments in our own lives.  During the church year I often refer to them as our secret unlovable sins.  We know we know better, but we do things which we know disappoint our Lord.  Maybe those secret sins are simply the blowing off of the gathering to which He calls us.  It is an easy command to break bread, to pray, and to teach and study with other Christians, but life sure tries hard to get in the way.  Before we know it, weeks, months, years, and maybe decades have passed before we know it.  And we fear to approach a church again for fear that God is disappointed in us.  Maybe our sins are more professional.  Maybe we sacrificed family to climb the corporate ladder.  Maybe we trusted in mammon when we should never have forgotten God.  Maybe we sought happiness in anything other than God’s saving embrace, and we came to see ourselves as a disappointment in His eyes.  Maybe our secret sins are relational.  Perhaps we are judgmental of others but know ourselves deep down to be hypocrites of the worst sort.  Maybe we are quick to condemn the sins of others and do so to deflect such criticisms that could be leveled at us.  I see the squirming.  It is tough to learn that our Lord died for us, too, isn’t.  It is tough to learn that our Lord can forgive us and restore us, just as He did Peter, some twenty centuries before.  It is tough for us to accept that He can love us and forgive us, even when we know we are, like Peter, unworthy of such love and such forgiveness.
     Brothers and sisters, the Feast of the Resurrection is that wonderful time when we gather and remind ourselves that God has acted, that God acts, and that God will continue to act for the welfare of all His people.  God has promised, through our Lord Christ, that all our sins have been forgiven and that we are a redeemed, a freed, people.  That shame and fear and self-loathing which should rightfully belong to each of us has been embraced by our Lord on the Cross.  And, although such good news would be grand in our ears, still it is not Gospel.  He has promised that everything in our lives will be redeemed.  As we travel though the bracket or forks we call life, making decisions, we do so confident of our destination.  We can make the absolute worst decision and know that He will redeem it for His glory.  We can make choices that while maybe are not the worst, are certainly not the best.  Still, He will redeem even those choices.  And when we make the right choices, the ones which we are confident glorify Him, we know we will be blessed.  True, to outward appearances it may seem as if we lost.  We may be taken advantage of, we may be hurt, we may even make choices which involve tremendous self-sacrifice, but He has promised that He will justify us all in the end, even as He justified our Lord Christ.  Put in the language of the day, you and I are guaranteed a spot on the top of the podium.  We may miss the excitement of the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, we may even seem to lose at important times, but in the end, we who claim Him as Lord get to share in His glory!  And we are reminded this day, this day when death’s sting was taken from our side, that He has the power to accomplish all that He purposes in our lives!  More amazingly, He has the willingness to address us all, whether we are a Peter, a Mary, or a John, and remind us that His is the Voice calling to each of us, calling each of us to His loving embrace.  Brothers and sisters, do you claim that embrace?  Do you hear that voice?  Why not claim Him as Lord and watch Him turn all things new in your life, even as He did those faithful three about whom we read this morning?  


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