(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 16, 2017)
Several years ago, I read the book “Boys in the Boat”.
I already knew the ending, because somebody had told me these University of Washington rowers won Olympic gold in 1936 (sorry if I just ruined it for you). But actually, my point in bringing this up is that I don’t think it WILL ruin it for you. Somehow, the author does an amazing job of building suspense all through the book, and even through the final race…even though I knew what was going to happen.
Today is Easter…and we know the end of that story too. But I love the layers of meaning we can continue to find!
The truth is I love rehearsing things I already know and love. I re-read favorite books and re-watch favorite movies. I read through old track articles, I look at old pictures, because I’m a nostalgic person, like I said last week. To re-immerse myself in the things and people and memories that are important to me is to remind me who I am and what has shaped me. It helps me make sense of today, challenges me to act now in line with the values that have always shaped me.
Whether you are like me or not, perhaps that idea can give a glimpse of why there is value and meaning in looking at the central truth of Christianity, looking at Easter resurrection when Jesus was raised from the dead. To tell the familiar story and to hold it today is to remind us who we are and what has shaped us. It helps us make sense of today, and challenges us to act now in line with the values that have always shaped us.
We already know the end of the story; we began the service together saying “Christ is Risen!” But let’s rehearse, remember, re-enter this central truth. Turn with me to Matthew 28.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.’
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ (Matthew 28:1-10, TNIV)
It’s not going to surprise you, is it, that I went back and read things I said on previous Easters?
11 years ago, I did this whole thing about how in high school, I was voted most spirited boy and was co-president of the pep club and a cheerleader. I would do just about anything to get people fired up about the Clackamas Cavaliers!
But I realized I didn’t want to be president of the Jesus Pep Club. Because you can’t really force or manipulate people into joy or into following Jesus. I said something then that I think still holds truth:
I’ve thought a lot about how wonderfully important it is to have Good Friday AND Easter, both of them, as the center of what we believe as Jesus’ followers. If we only had Easter, the church and its leaders would be stuck with the one and only option of being pep club-type cheerleaders. We’d have to plaster on the smile, and the clapping, and the “head bob”, and yell encouraging cheers to each other no matter what life brought to us.
If we only had Easter, Christianity could become an other worldly, pretend faith that just told everyone “smile, everything’s going to be great.
Easter DOES give us the hope and the promise that everything will be made right. It DOES scream out to a broken world that God is not powerless, God is not silent, God is not impotent. God has the power and the desire to turn our worst experiences into redeemed hope. But Easter comes after Good Friday. And they are impossible to separate from each other.
I still can stand by these words.
But I have a confession.
Reading that message, and even more so some of the other ones, I get the gnawing feeling in my stomach that there have been times I was talking at you. A little removed. A little like I had something to give you all. A little condescending.
I think I see that in re-reading because…because this year, I don’t just want to tell you this stuff. I need this stuff.
I need some Easter in my good Friday. I don’t want to just talk about an empty tomb, or speak words of truth. I need living, breathing, nail-scarred Jesus telling me “Do not be afraid.”
My friend died a few weeks ago. Our family has faced health scares. Dear and close friends have been slogging through more than anyone should have to slog through. We’re all watching long standing friendships and community splinter.
We need Easter. We need living, breathing, nail-scarred Jesus telling us, “Do not be afraid!”
Sometimes when we look at these familiar stories about Jesus, one of us pastor-types will say something like, “Where do you put yourself in the story?”
But the question that is coming to my mind this year just changes one word, but is making a whole heap load of difference to me. The question coming to my mind this year is: “When do you put yourself in the story?”
And I’m drawn to verse 1.
I’m drawn to the “when” when these women, these two Marys, are chilled at dawn, death-spices pungent in their noses, eyes red and cried out, noses rubbed raw from the heaving uncontrollable sobs, because their worlds crashed in on them on Good Friday when they watched their friend and their hope be executed.
The “when” that is in-between time, that time when hope seems absent, when all these women know to do is what they’ve done before: come try and make the best of what’s horrible, come with love and care and spices while they grieve their loss.
It’s the “when” of not-yet. I want to be like these women, these women who haven’t given up trying to find a way to show love and care, who sacrifice by getting up as soon as the law allowed after the Sabbath, to serve Jesus for what they think will be one last time. It’s the “when” when even though it seems Jesus has been proven wrong, you’re still willing to keep serving.
It’s the “when” before God reveals power beyond our thinking, beyond our hoping. [PAUSE]
I also notice that the center of the hope, the center of this first Easter, is Jesus suddenly meeting both Marys.
The center of our hope is Jesus alive! Jesus greets us! And we, too, can cling to him, just as they did. To me, it’s the realization that at both of these “whens” of the story…the cold, dark, hopeless when of the dawn walk to the tomb, or the holy moment clinging to his feet…it’s the realization that in both of the “when’s”, Mary and Mary are doing the same thing. They are doing all they can to go to Jesus.
As Easter people, we can remind each other to come back to the very basic center: be with Jesus! Go to Jesus! Hope in Jesus! That is where our hope is born and where it can be rekindled. As I put myself at Jesus’ feet once again, I turn toward the hope as I expressed it last year:
We are Easter people! The ones who beyond all hoping, beyond all imagining, saw death turned upside down and inside out. We are Easter people, the ones who don’t just learn about a historical figure, but talk and cry and laugh with a risen Lord!
We are Easter people, the ones who believe in the craziest reversals, the ones who have watched faithful, loving sacrifice and submission be vindicated and validated by the greatest show of Godly power in the history of all creation, who believe that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, defeated sin and death and evil power once and forever more when he took a breath in that silent, deathly still tomb.
We remind each other to trust God’s power to bring Easter to our lives.
I want to close today with words from St. Gregory of Naziansus, a saint from the fourth century:
He’s one of the early church people that has captured me over the years, and these words challenge us to connect our lives with Christ. These words refuse to allow us to stay at a distance, but pull us to depend completely on Jesus…and to offer Jesus our lives.
Yesterday, I was crucified with Him;
Today, I am glorified with Him;
Yesterday, I died with Him;
Today I am quickened with Him;
Yesterday, I was buried with Him;
Today, I rise with Him.
But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us — you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work, or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material things of earth…
Let us offer ourselves,
The possession most precious to God, and most fitting; Let us give back the image that is made after the Image; Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honor our Archetype;
Let us know the power of the Mystery,
And for what Christ died.
Let us become like Christ,
Since Christ has become like us.
Let us become God’s for His sake,
Since He for ours became Human.