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“Easter Isn’t About Belief. It’s About God” (April 16, 2017)

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

You know the story. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, was raised from the dead 2000 years ago. Good news! Because it’s good news, we can ask what difference it makes in our lives right now, today? That’s a fair question.

Maybe the resurrection of Christ comforts you so that you can trust that there is life after you die. That’s good.

Maybe this story in Matthew helps you believe that there is a God who is more powerful than death. Again, that can be great comfort for when we face death. That, too, is good.

Or maybe these biblical resurrection texts help you find solace in a God who can work amazing, supernatural miracles. That’s good too.

If your faith is somewhere along those lines, and this Easter Day helps you there, that is absolutely wonderful! Keep it up. Continue to grow in your faith. Keep on your spiritual journey of trusting and believing. Keep going.

But again, if that’s you, you need to understand that you’re now  a diminishing minority. Fewer and fewer people find that kind of spiritual significance in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Fewer and fewer people take this text in Matthew literally. Fewer and fewer people consider Jesus’ resurrection from the dead very meaningful to their lives today at all.

If that’s you, and you find yourself struggling with the meaning of this Easter day, know that you’re not alone. What’s more, wherever you find yourself right now on these issues of faith and God and resurrection is not only OK, it is good! You are among a growing number of people who are thinking deeply and personally about this cornerstone of Christian faith, who are facing legitimate doubt with honesty and asking appropriate questions about the relevance of a claimed event 2000 years ago. Your thoughts and opinions on this whole resurrection thing matter. And you are worth hearing. Whatever you think about Jesus’ resurrection, whatever you believe about it is actually important! And it needs to be part of the conversation.

We need to  listen to each other and be open to what another person thinks about all this—whether the other person is devout in their Christian faith, or whether the other person has never been inside a church.

As important as those conversations are, and as helpful and inclusive as they need to be, here’s the thing: Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Easter day should never have been about correct beliefs or right doctrine or coercion into a particular set of religious values that you have to claim if you want to avoid eternal hellfire. This day isn’t about that at all. Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Whatever you believe about God, Easter shows us is that God isn’t a far-off, distance entity watching over the world and occasionally intervening if we ask nicely. Easter shows us that God enters into, is fully present, in the very fabric of life. God is already there in all aspects of creation. Easter is a declaration that there is nothing, there is nowhere, that God isn’t already completely and totally present. Nothing can keep God away. Nothing can keep God out. Not so much because God is more powerful, but because God is, and has always been the very essence of creation.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

What this story in Matthew tells us is that nothing can stop God from being present. Not political authorities who bring death. Not religious authorities who self-righteously call for death. Military guards who, out of fear, are now “like dead men.” A gigantic stone rolled over the entrance of the grave. Death itself. With God who is the essence of creation, life is real, it is absolute, and it is unconditional. Life is what God is about.

The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration of just one more normal thing for God. It is a continuation of what God has always done, of who God actually is. And nothing can get in the way of God being present and therefore bringing life.

In Genesis, God who was already there, breathed life into dead clay and it became a living person. In Ezekiel, God who was already there, brought dry, dead bones lying in the desert sun back together, and they became living people. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard about Jesus being present, restoring life to Lazarus, calling him forth from the grave. Life is what happens because God is there. Life is the way of God, central to who God is. Life isn’t earned, bought, coerced, bargained for. Where God is, there is life. And nothing can keep God out. God is in all things and through all things.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

And like it or not, believe it or not, trust it or not, the God of Easter day is present in you and gives life. To everyone. Even you. Especially you. Isn’t that what we witness every day in creation? It’s what we witness in our own lives. The very presence of God. All creation sings with life because God is fully present there. We sing today of new life because God is fully present with us.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.  

We celebrate today because we recognize the presence of God: the source, the essence, of life. Life that cannot be stopped by politics, military, graves, fear, or disbelief. This is the good news of Easter day. God is here. Fully and completely here. That means there is new life here. That means there is hope for creation here. Hope for us. Hope for you. God is here. God is life.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Sermon

 

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What Are Your Resurrection Stories? (March 27, 2016)

Luke 24:1-12

 

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

There’s a saying in some of my circles which goes, “It doesn’t matter what the topic is, if you get three Christians in a room, you’ll have four opinions.”

That’s true for everything about our faith. We all have different experiences and backgrounds. Because we each have a different starting point, the Spirit of God leads each of us on a different path. This is also true for  the resurrection of Jesus. Believe it or not, there are lots of different opinions about and interpretations of this event.

We have a tendency to think of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as a right/wrong, black/white, yes/no, either/or dichotomy. But if being human teaches us anything, it’s that there are as many different ways to experience resurrection as there are people. We do a disservice to the resurrection of Christ if we don’t acknowledge the reality that we understand it differently and experience it differently. So no matter what your experience of resurrection is, it is valid and it is necessary in the conversation. Otherwise, this amazing experience we all have ends up nothing more than a happy ending to a nice 2000 year old story. Then we can forget about it and go find our Easter eggs and eat our chocolate bunnies. To know the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we need to listen to each other’s experiences of dying and rising.

What are your resurrection stories? You have them, you know. How has this Jesus event become real in your life? What does your new life look like, and how is it different?

Let me share one of my death and resurrection experiences. Many of you know that I’ve had a struggle in my life with depression. It’s a chemical imbalance that can affect my outlook and my energy. But it’s in depression that I’ve experienced resurrection. Let me explain—

My experiences with depression have made it very clear that I can’t handle everything alone. It’s not healthy to do so, and we aren’t built for that—no matter how much we may think we’re the exception to that rule. No one can be strong all the time. So I reach out for help now. I’m closer to my wife. I lean on trusted people when I need to. That’s a whole different way to live for me, connecting with people in a more authentic way. Not just me serving or helping, but a real relationship where there’s mutual give and take. I see the world with entirely new eyes. It’s a whole new life. I would never have experienced this newness without going through the difficulty of depression.

What are your resurrection stories? You have them, you know.

Where are you asking different questions than you’ve asked before? What’s changed that has brought about new questions? That’s a sign of something new going on. That’s a sign of a death and resurrection experience.

Where do you have a new understanding or new perspective? What are the experiences that have led to that new outlook? Chances are, there’s a death and resurrection story in there.

I’ve come to the realization that resurrection is normal for God, though no less miraculous. It’s part of who God is. And since we’re created in God’s image, it’s actually normal for us too. We experience little deaths and resurrections throughout our lives. What matters is that this is God at work in us. This is God’s gift of new life for each of us. This is who God is and how God comes to us. Resurrection from the dead. New way of living when an old way of living no longer makes sense. New perspective, when our previous views don’t hold water any more. More openness to love, when the things that have divided us become irrelevant. As God brings life from death, we get caught up in that movement and become part of God’s normal resurrection activity.

What are your resurrection stories? You have them, you know.

Still, we hesitate to acknowledge our resurrection stories, or see them as good. Because in order for there to be new life, something else has to give way. E.g., if you get married, you can no longer be single. If you move to the 3rd grade, you will never be in 2nd grade again. Resurrection involves death. Living a new life means part of an old life can no longer exist. Before Jesus could be raised from the dead, he had to die.

That can be frightening. Sometimes we cling to the old and familiar because that’s more comfortable. A new way of living is unknown and, well, new. We aren’t always sure what that will be like. So we don’t always jump into it with enthusiasm.

But resurrection, again, is normal for God. Therefore it’s going to happen—even to you.

Some of us here right now are in that process of resurrection and rebirth. Maybe you don’t see any new life yet. Maybe something old is still dying and you aren’t ready to give it up. But resurrection, again, is normal for God. Therefore it’s going to happen.

Perhaps you are longing for something new, yet it is slow in coming. You want to die to something old and move past it, but it won’t let go. But resurrection, again, is normal for God. Therefore it’s going to happen.

Regardless of where you are or how it happens, know that God is with you in the journey. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God who is raising you to new life too. We don’t have to be afraid of living a new life. This is the day of resurrection. For Jesus. For you.

What are your resurrection stories? You have them, you know.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Life Can’t Be Contained (Mark 16:1-8)

Of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible, this one in Mark is my favorite. Most scholars agree that the text we read today is the original ending of this gospel, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.

There are no resurrection appearances, no putting away doubts, no assurances. Just an empty grave and some frightened women, who, even though they were the only ones who stayed at the cross while Jesus died, now they run away in terror. It’s simply stated that Jesus isn’t here, he’s raised from the dead, and that he will meet them in Galilee. So, go tell his disciples and then get on the road to Galilee if you want to see him.

As faithful and courageous disciples, these women came to the cemetery early in the morning expecting Jesus to be there–at least his body to be there. They are ready for that encounter. They brought all the appropriate spices for anointing. They are on a mission of love and compassion. They aren’t hiding, they aren’t playing it safe, they aren’t giving up. They are expressing their love for Jesus by coming to the cemetery where they expect to find him and where they can perform this act of service for him.

The only problem is that he isn’t where they expect. He’s not contained in the grave. He’s gone on ahead of them. If they want to see him, they need to go where he is, not just where they think he ought to be. If they want to perform acts of love and service for him, they need to follow him back to Galilee, not stick around a cemetery.

So Mark’s point isn’t that we had better believe this account of resurrection. This gospel’s point is that Jesus isn’t to be found in a cemetery just because we think he ought to be there. He isn’t safely tucked away in a convenient place back where we left him. No, Jesus is raised and goes out ahead of us, to Galilee—the place where our lives are.

Too often, I think, we come to a church on a Sunday morning looking to find Jesus. Because, we think, that’s where he ought to be! Don’t you expect to find Jesus in a church? So we put on our piety and our best behavior to show Jesus we love him and believe in him. Even though we may be nervous about entering a church building, we do so. It’s brave, it’s showing respect and love, and it’s where we think Jesus ought to be found.

That’s wonderful! But Mark’s gospel will tell us that Jesus can’t be contained in a church building on a Sunday morning. He’s not just where we expect him to be. He’s risen, he’s gone ahead of us to our homes, our schools, our neighborhoods, our workplaces. He’s gone ahead of us to Galillee. There we will see him. In our homes we will see his unconditional love. In our workplaces we will see his grace and compassion. In our schools we will see his forgiveness that defies explanation. In our neighborhoods we will see his unexplainable generosity. There we will see him.

And what’ more, there we will join him in loving the world. We get to reveal new life in Galilee. There, too, we get to live out the forgiveness he gives. There, too, we get to see his new life in loving others, in forgiving others, in being generous to others.

Whether we believe a particular view of resurrection or not isn’t Mark’s main thing. This gospel’s point is that nothing can contain this risen Christ. Not a building, not a church, not a belief system, not a doctrine, not a religion. Wherever we go, Jesus has arrived there ahead of us. When we leave here today, Jesus leads the way. Are you going to brunch from here? Jesus is there waiting for you! Gathering with family today? Jesus is part of it. Heading out for a quiet afternoon in the mountains? Enjoy your time with Jesus, who’s there already. He’s already gone to Galilee. There, too, you will see him.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Sermon

 

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When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, Easter Does

Matthew 28:1-10

One of my favorite things about being a Lutheran is that we aren’t afraid to ask hard questions. We ask real-life, down-in-the-dirt, significant questions about real-life, down-in-the-dirt, significant things. We don’t mess around with fluff answers that fit only the questions we want asked. Nope, we take them all. We don’t have all the answers, but this is a place where we acknowledge up front that if the question is important to you, it’s important.

Lutherans recognize that life doesn’t always make sense, that there aren’t always easy answers. We know that things aren’t always black-and-white; that sometimes life is complicated; a paradox. There are lots of gray areas and cul de sacs in our life journey. No matter how comforting it might be to have a liar with the title of “pastor” tell us that it’s easy if we follow steps or the road is straight if we believe the correct things, we Lutherans know life just doesn’t work that way.

So we do things like openly talk about being “at the same time, saint and sinner.” This doesn’t mean that sometimes we are good and sometimes bad. It has nothing to do with whether choices we make are holy or evil. It doesn’t even divide us into part saint and part sinner. No, we Lutherans talk about every part of who we are is at the same time absolutely broken and absolutely redeemed. We talk about things like light present in the darkness and life coming out of despair of death. We proclaim that the God who can raise Jesus from the pit of death is the same God who brings life and hope and newness out of our deepest, darkest places.

That’s why Easter works. It makes so much sense and explains so much about our life experience. No matter how much of a scoundrel we are, God’s goodness and love can bring something new and beautiful out of us. That’s Easter. And no matter how wonderful and delightful we may be, our brokenness gets in the way. That’s why we need Easter.

Think about that next time your best efforts fail miserably. Doesn’t something valuable and even life-giving out of that? And when you are being praised for a doing something wonderful, don’t you always know deep down that you’ve somehow kept your inadequacies covered up–at least this time? That’s honesty. That’s the experience of real life. That’s Lutheran. That’s Easter.

Doesn’t this “saint/sinner,” “life/death” theology make sense for our faith community too? Sometimes I think we are harder on our congregation than we are on other organizations. Maybe because we somehow expect more saint and less sinner, more life and less death in the church. Maybe because the church can often be places where we feel we have to pretend saint-ness and hide sin-ness.

But the reality is that the church is made up of people. Not better than anyone; not worse than anyone. Just people. People who are, at the same time, saints and sinners. Congregations are real places with real people. The church is completely messed up, broken, and selfish. And at the same time, the church cant stop feeding the hungry, keeps showing mercy to the helpless, and walks with other saint/sinner people at major turning points in their lives. Jesus is Lord of all creation, not just the church, and yet we understand the brokenness and hypocrisy of the rest of the world. But we somehow expect something different from our church.

Because here in this place we do ask hard questions and do recognize hard answers, we know that this faith community will never, ever be whole and magnificent and holy. We will never reflect God’s love the way we should. We will fight and be divisive and mean. Everything we do will have selfish motives. Just like every single one of us.

And at the same time this faith community is amazingly forgiving and merciful. This congregation will go out of our way to love. God’s grace and compassion and new life of Easter are lived in and through this congregation. Just like each one of us. Lutherans know this happens! We aren’t afraid to admit both realities exist at the same time.

Easter is here, and we Christians celebrate the reality of life coming out of death, of newness springing forth in the midst of hopelessness. This is a time to boldly proclaim our confidence in the God of life, of hope, of mercy. In our lives, and in the life of our church, and in the world around us.  We aren’t looking for pat answers here. We aren’t playing at phony holiness. If you’re looking for a fake community that puts on a show of holiness, that pretends to have all the godly answers, you probably won’t stay here for long. Because we’re too honest for that. We’re too authentic for that. We take the reality of Christ’s death and the gift of new life in him too seriously for that. Our hope is in him, so we aren’t afraid to admit that we are a broken and imperfect community that, because of Christ’s resurrection, at the same time reveals God’s love and grace and forgiveness in the world in ways that are more beautiful and more holy than words can ever describe. There is new life here; new life given to us in Christ. We are honest about that.

Christ is risen, which is why we live a new life right in the midst of our imperfection. Christ is risen. That’s where our hope lies. And we don’t have to fake that. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Hoping the Resurrection is Real: Sermon, Easter (4/8/12)

The Resurrection of Our Lord

Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 14:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

If you’ve ever doubted the resurrection of Jesus or some aspect of it, I believe you are in the right place. If you’ve ever wondered this whole “raised from the dead” thing is real, then the church is probably a good community for you. If you’ve ever considered the possibility that this whole Easter message is made up, just a story told by the original disciples for some unknown reason, then being part of a church community is likely to be well worth your time. Because if you have doubts, ever wondered, been skeptical, or out-and-out disbelieve this story of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead, then welcome! You’re in good company this morning. I’m not just talking about the doubt of honest Christians here, but even Jesus’ best, first, and closest disciples.

If you read any of the gospels, including the text from Mark today, you discover that none of the apostles, upon finding the tomb empty, say, “Oh, that’s right, the resurrection WAS today! Should’ve checked my day-planner before I left home this morning.” When confronted with the news of Jesus’ rising by an angel, two angels, or (in today’s text) a young man dressed in white, not one disciple proclaims, as we did this morning, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!”

Every one of them met this news with disbelief, with fear, with confusion, and with surprise. These women in today’s text, Jesus’ most faithful disciples,the only ones who stayed faithful to Jesus all the way through his crucifixion, “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The fact that even the most ardent followers of Jesus sometimes wonder about all this isn’t surprising. For those of you who are church members and for those of you who are not, curiosity and honest doubt about the resurrection of Jesus Christ don’t separate us. You see, there’s a difference between “certainty” and “hope.”

When I read of more civil unrest in Syria, more violence in Palestine, and the longest war in US history continuing in Afghanistan, I hope that there is a God more powerful than death. Because that God is also more powerful than violence. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

When I see more school bullies, hear more racist remarks, come across self-righteous judgment of our gay brothers and sisters, see cruel policies toward the most vulnerable among us, I hope that there is a God who is capable of defeating the powers of sin and death. Because that God can also defeat the powers that keep us hurting one another. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

When I understand  there are church people excluding those who believe differently, and clinging to their their status quo lives instead of giving away everything for the sake of the 47,000 people currently living in poverty in Jefferson County,[i]  I hope there is a God who raised Jesus from the dead. Because that God can also raise a church that will lay down its life for those who are different. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

We can continue to trust our future to politicians, military powers, or human intelligence. But because of resurrection, I have hope there’s something more than that.

The resurrection of Jesus is, above all else, a message of hope. We can stand around and debate the specifics and the details of it all day. The four gospels even differ on the specifics. We can try to convince each other that our personal certainty of what actually happened on that first Easter morning is the only possibility. But more than anything, the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope that the impossible just might be possible after all.

If there is a God who can do the impossible in raising Jesus from the dead, then we can hope that this God can do the impossible by bringing new life in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Syria. We can hope that this God can do the impossible and bring new life and make schools safe and heal us of our deep-seated resentments and hatreds. We can hope that this God can do the impossible and bring new life and even forgive me for those parts of myself that are dark and shameful.

The resurrection of Jesus creates communities centered on that hope. Rather than fighting over doctrines or competing for levels of spirituality, we can join the God who gives us hope for the future. We can eliminate poverty, not because we are capable of it on our own, but because we act in the hope that we are joining God who brings life from death. We can love our enemies, not because our beliefs are better than others’, but because the God who destroyed the power of death fills us with that kind of love. We can stand with those who doubt, welcome those who are different, empower those who are pushed aside, not because we have perfected the doctrine of grace, but because the God who is more powerful than our differences unites us.

If you find yourself a little low on hope, this is your day.

If you’re not sure about all this resurrection business, this is your community.

If you long for a better future than humanity has been able to provide, this is your story.

On this Easter Sunday, this day of resurrection, we are given the gift of hope. Whether we all believe the specifics of the first Easter morning in the same way or not, we hope for a future that a God-more-powerful-than-death now promises.

So, all doubters and questioners, skeptics and disbelievers, welcome. We join with countless others who have gone before us, and who’ve probably asked better questions than we have, as we boldly proclaim a new reality, a new future, a new hope.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Halleluiah!

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Sermon

 

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