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A sermon preached at the Easter Sunrise Service in Niles Town Plaza,
hosted by Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 16, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 21:1-17 and Psalm 103:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town. Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, was busy, as most pastors are during Holy Week. At the beginning of the week, he visited Eloise Meaney in the hospital in Concord. Howard always smirks a bit when he says her full name because it is so inaccurate. Eloise has been one of the friendliest, supportive people in his church, and she seems to be the same way in the rest of her life. Hardly a meanie.
Howard wondered if he was remembering accurately as he stood at her hospital room door. Could it actually be that Eloise was in the same room her husband had been in all those years ago? Howard had been at the Congregational Church only a few weeks when Joe was rushed to the hospital by members of the volunteer fire department. Joe’s cardiac issues were critical and Joe sensed that he won’t be on the earth all that much longer.
Howard was still a wet behind the ears minister and he wanted to talk about the weather, town gossip, politics, even the pending baseball season – just not what Joe wanted to talk about. Joe wanted to talk about his memorial service.
Finally, Howard asked Joe, “Joe, doesn’t it bother you? Aren’t you frightened?”
Joe smiled and said, “Preacher, I know I’m not going to be around much longer, but I’m not afraid. I’ve taken a peek at the back of the book.”
“What do you mean?” Howard asked.
Joe said, “About 10 years before you came to Mount Willian, I had my first heart attack. They called it cardiac arrest. I can remember the medical team thinking I was dead. I can also remember the tremendous feeling of being surrounded by God’s love. I was revived by the doctors, but ever since that day I have been unafraid to die. I’ve been there and it doesn’t frighten me. I know that sooner rather than later I am going to die, but that won’t be the end. I will, once again, be surrounded by God’s love.”
Howard has held on to that description, that hope, ever since. And every time he is with someone who is dying, he imagines them being surrounded by God’s love. And every time he works on an Easter sermon, he thinks about that conversation with Joe Meaney.
And I guess I agree with him – that Joe’s experience of what comes next is a way of making sense of the resurrection of Jesus – but I can’t help but wonder if Heidi Neumark has a better understanding, or at least an understanding that impacts our living, not just our dying.
It’s been seven years since the washcloth incident, but Heidi’s regret is still fresh. Her mother, Phyllis, moved in with them – Heidi, her husband Bill, and their son Jim – when Phyllis’s Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for her to live alone. They wanted Phyllis to stay with them as long as possible, so they managed to juggle their schedules with the needs of an aging parent, and when Phyllis’s health went downhill, they were able to pay for help, thanks to the sale of Phyllis’s house. Phyllis knew who Heidi, Bill, and Jim were right up until her final night, and there was some comfort in that. But for Heidi, on the other hand, there are still things that keep comfort illusive. A big one is that she can’t forget that washcloth.
It was several months before Phyllis’s death, and the day had not begun well. Heidi made the mistake of checking her e-mail before praying and thus began the morning with an angry message from someone whose nose was out of joint because they had been excluded from some e-mail discussion. And instead of drinking coffee, she was cleaning up spilled urine that would not have spilled if she had just emptied the commode the previous night instead of letting it wait until the morning when the liquid sloshed over the top. So, she dealt with all that and then, finally, Heidi went to take a shower up on the third floor where her bedroom is.
At last she was refreshed and ready to start the day over. She was clean; the floor was clean; and the e-mail was sort of cleaned. But her mother was not. Phyllis asked Heidi for a washcloth, which was back up on the third floor. Some people have to struggle to get an elderly parent to wash, and here was Phyllis asking for what she needed to be clean. It was completely reasonable to ask for a washcloth. But she might as well have been telling Heidi to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She couldn’t do it. She was already late, and the fact that this additional task was expected of her made her suddenly furious. Even in that moment, Heidi knew her fury was misplaced, but she was helpless before it and her mother took the brunt of the fury.
If Heidi was listening to a friend tell the story, she would offer the friend absolution. She would, in fact, insist that her friend was forgiven. But it’s been seven years, and Heidi still cannot access that word of peace within herself. The tears still sting and slosh over her pail of remorse.
At some level, Heidi knows that if Phyllis could, she would grab that pail of remorse and toss it out the window. Phyllis would forgive her. In fact, Heidi is quite certain that her mother has forgiven her. But in a way, that makes it harder. Knowing of Phyllis’s unfailing love and grace makes Heidi feel worse about her own failure. Of course, this happens most strongly when Heidi envisions her mother at her very best, now in heaven knowing as she is known and seeing her daughter with the eyes of God, and when Heidi is at one of my lowest moments. What about God’s forgiveness? God is always in a best moment and ever aware of our worst. Does that divine forgiveness erase our regret or increase it?
Jesus’ first word to the disciples on the other side of the locked doors is peace. This morning, Heidi imagined herself in that room, staring at his wounds and accepting the resurrection miracle. She imagined embracing the improbable, exciting mission commended to her in the words that follow. But peace? Peace is another story.
After Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, did Peter ever think back on that day around the charcoal fire when he denied the one he dearly loved? Did Peter remember when Jesus yelled at him and called him a terrible name? When Peter stood to preach on Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized in one day, did he go home and lie awake wishing he could take back his actions on another day? According to the psalm, our transgressions are removed “as far as the east is from the west.” If we accept that as true, then it seems that regret should not linger. But in my experience, forgiveness does not erased regret. At least not immediately, anyway. At least not yet for Heidi.
This Easter morning, I am thinking that if our mind and heart are not yet in sync with what should be – with sin removed to a distance beyond my reach – perhaps mere inches matter. We might envision regret like the giant stone that sits at the mouth of the tomb. The stone is rolled aside, not away. It’s still there, inches from the entrance, but it’s not blocking anyone’s resurrection. The stone that’s rolled aside allows for feeding sheep, baptisms, and hopeful love of every kind. The Easter angel does not make the stone magically disappear. In Matthew, the angel of the Lord rolls back the stone and sits on it. Does the angel prevent the stone from impeding us? It’s still there, heavy as a regretful heart can be, but it’s not blocking anyone’s way forward.
I find some comfort in noticing that Easter seems to have come in inches for the disciples as well. A week after that first word of peace they are back behind the same closed doors. It seems that they have scarcely moved at all. But there is nothing solid to hinder them, and soon they will head out.
After her own week of years, Heidi’s not in the same place. She still hasn’t left the washcloth behind with the old grave clothes, but she hopes to. And she is inching her way forward in the light of Easter. And this year, perhaps, when she pauses to consider that familiar stone (or the wash cloth), her eyes will be drawn instead to the bright robes of the angel who keeps the stone in its place. And the resurrection will continue to inch forward – in her life and in ours.
That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
 The rest of this sermon is adapted from Heidi Neumark, “Resurrection by inches: Living with regret,” Christian Century, (14 May 2014): 13.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:1-35
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It was a Saturday, the Sabbath day. But it wasn’t any Saturday. It was the day after the Roman government brutally executed Jesus. His followers saw his arrest, followed his trial, though from a distance. Some even witnessed his execution and, we are told, took his body and laid it in a tomb.
A friend of mine points out, “There are no stories in the sacred text of my tradition about his family’s grief, about the pain of his intimates Mary Magdalene or John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), no stories about his friends’ despair or his followers’ shock. The text is silent. But any of us who have lost a beloved, particularly to violent and tragic death, need no stories. We know what they felt.”
I try as best I can each year to enter into the story of Holy Week. I try, as best I can, not just to read the story, but to imagine myself there. And so this week I have tried to imagine what the disciples were feeling. Deep grief, no doubt. The one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been crushed by the elites. The religious authorities and the government authorities colluded to have him killed. I imagine they were angry, too. I get angry when I hear about injustice, let alone witness it. And I’ve always assumed they were scared of the Romans, scared that they might be next.
But on re-reading today’s gospel lesson, I realize that it doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid of the government. So I went back and re-read all the Easter accounts in the four gospels and I was surprised to find no mention of the disciples being afraid of the Romans. There’s plenty of fear in the stories, but with one exception, that fear comes from seeing angels or seeing the appearances of the resurrected Christ himself.
Only in John are the disciples in a locked room because they are afraid – and then only on Sunday evening, not Friday night, not on Saturday, not on Sunday morning or afternoon. John says they locked the door out of fear, not of the Romans, but of “the Jews.” And if you read the Passion story in John, you’ll see how readily he blames “the Jews” for Jesus’ crucifixion. It can end up sounding quite anti-Semitic, which, given the likelihood that John’s gospel was written around the same time that the followers of Jesus were being kicked out of the synagogues, isn’t too surprising. John probably had an ax to grind.
The fact is that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, so Jesus was killed under Roman authority, and any collusion on the part of any Jews would have been collusion on the part of the Jewish elites, especially members of the Temple priest class. If the disciples were afraid of the Roman government, that reality didn’t make it into the stories.
I am not the only one who has this assumption that the disciples were huddled in a locked room on that first Easter morning, fearing for their lives. One commentary I read on our Gospel story in preparation for this sermon says, “The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a ‘He told you so, didn’t he?’ way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. ‘Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now …’ [the women say] – and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they’ve seen and experienced in the past few days).”
Only the text doesn’t say any of that. The text says the women are terrified by the angel, and the text doesn’t say anything about the men being afraid at all.
Maybe it’s projection. Maybe we read into the story something that isn’t there. Maybe our own fears get projected into the gospel narratives. It sure seems like we have reasons to fear. The attack in Brussels on Tuesday initially evoked that response in me. But then, that’s the terrorists’ goal, isn’t it: to instill a sense to terror in the populace?
So, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the disciples to the death of Jesus in the context of terrorist attacks. And if you’ll permit a short aside here, I’d like to make a confession. Just this month, there have been at least eight terrorist attacks around the world. On March 7, the small town of Shabqadar, Pakistan, was rocked by a suicide bomb, killing around 10 and injuring around 30. On March 13, gunmen belonging to the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast; 22 were killed. On the same day, Kurdish militants set off a car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing at least 37. On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured around 30 people in Pashawar, Pakistan. Also on March 16, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a mosque in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing 26. On March 20, a suicide bomber killed five people and injured more than 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. On March 21, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Bamako, Mali; only one person was killed, one of the attackers. And on March 22, there were the attacks in Brussels, killing 31 and wounding some 300. Eight terrorist-attacks this month.
My confession is this: I want to acknowledge the narrowness of my own awareness, that it took an attack in a European country (that is, a white country) for me to pay attention. The same seems to be true of the news media in my country, at least the news media I consume. I, right along with the rest of the mainstream of this nation, still have work to do to address the racism that is baked into our identity and being.
Aside finished; now back to the main thrust of my sermon.
So, what if the disciples weren’t afraid of the Roman government the way I’ve always assumed? What if, despite all they knew of the cruelty of the government, its willingness to torture and maim and kill for its own political goals, the disciples weren’t afraid? I think, perhaps, that might have been one of the things that made them open to the transformative power of the resurrection.
I don’t pretend to know what happened on the Sunday after Jesus was killed. I know that for some Christians it is really important that the tomb was empty, that the resurrection of Jesus involved his physical body. It may have. But if it did, I don’t think it involved a resuscitation of his flesh. One of the reasons John may have written about the locked room was so that Jesus’ appearance there would include an element of the metaphysical. Certainly the story we heard in the second part of our gospel lesson suggests something other than the reanimation of Jesus’ molecules. These disciples don’t recognize him and when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes. Poof. But maybe I’m wrong.
My point is, I don’t think it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection included the reanimation of his body. What’s important about the resurrection is not the impact it had on Jesus. What’s important about the resurrection is the impact it had on Jesus’ disciples.
The faithful women who went to the grave to tend to Jesus’ body, to tend to death, changed as a result of their experience at the grave. And it started with them remembering what Jesus had said. The men in the dazzling clothing (angels, we assume) remind them. In the same way, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it started with the remembering of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that Jesus said and did.
The God who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about “new heavens and a new earth” began with the resurrection a new creation and grounded it in hope. The resurrection “isn’t only about ‘my own personal life after I die,’ then, but about God’s whole new creation, God’s new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God’s new age, God’s new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.”
With the resurrection, the uprising begins.
As N.T. Wright, in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (the book that the adult Sunday School will start studying next week), says, “Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever.” And they are what this uprising is all about.
I’m with John Dominic Crossan. “What could not have been predicted and might not have been expected was that the end was not the end. Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place.… Jesus’ own followers … talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and [therefore] probably female [or perhaps unnamed so this person can be any of us]. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake[, with the multitude, and in the upper room]. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits.”
It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, because it happens all the time. Every time we come to the table, we are invited to participate in the resurrection. The bread is broken and we are invited to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst. We are invited to participate in the drama of Jesus’ body and blood being alive again in us, reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection.
Easter is the beginning of a new age. But like Jesus at the table who disappeared when he was recognized, that new age had both begun in an uprising and has not come to its fullness. People still suffer. Terrorists still bomb and kill and countries still war. Our hearts are still torn and our health still worries us. Our loved ones still die and our doubts still trouble us.
And yet, Christ is alive.
And so we know, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “life defeats death, peace is more powerful than war, love is greater than hatred, and good will outlasts evil. Foolish people think that killing the Messenger will kill the message! They don’t understand the power of Resurrection! Graves are temporary. May Divine Life spring forth out of the ashes of all of our struggles and renew us for the challenges to come.”
Now, to add one more dimension to the sermon, as we enter into a time of quiet contemplation, I invite you to imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.
 Lizann Bassham, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 26 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/lizann.bassham/posts/10154066387264288.
 Kathryn M. Matthews, “Additional Reflection on Luke 24:1-12,” Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_27_2016 (accessed 21 March 2016), emphasis added.
 Tanvi Misra, “Beyond Brussels: 8 Other Cities Attacked by Terrorists in March,” The Atlantic Citylab, http://www.citylab.com/crime/2016/03/apart-from-brussels-here-are-8-other-cities-attacked-by-extremists-this-month/474855/ (posted 22 March 2016; accessed 23 March 2016).
 Jess McHugh, “Europe Terrorist Attacks 2016: Timeline Of Bombings And Terror Threats Before Brussels,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/europe-terrorist-attacks-2016-timeline-bombings-terror-threats-brussels-2341851 (posted 24 March 2016; accessed 26 March 2016).
 Kathryn M. Matthews, op. cit.
 Quoted by Matthews, op. cit.
 John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiii.
 Yvette Flunder, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 24 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/yflunder/posts/10153388229660894.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 19, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:13-48
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s the middle of the night in a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. Calvin’s mom is startled awake from the yelling coming from another room: “MOMM! MOM!”
His mom comes to his bedroom and turns on the light. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Do people grow from spores?”
“SPORES?!? You wake me up at 2 AM to ask if people grow from spores? Are you out of your mind?? Why are you even awake?! Go to sleep!!”
“She didn’t answer. She must not know.” Calvin says in the dark.
“I’m telling you, it’s true,” Hobbes taunts.
“Go back to bed. Don’t ask. Don’t bother me when I’m trying to sleep.” Sometimes that’s my problem. My search for truth often begins in the middle of the night. I can’t fall asleep because I’m thinking about a problem. Or I suddenly find myself awake in the darkness of the middle of the night. Maybe it was my own snoring that woke me. I don’t know. The rest of the world is quiet. It’s the middle of the night, for crying out loud, and I’m supposed to be asleep.
But maybe God knows that the middle of the night is the time when I am most apt to listen. This can be a time of prayer and for asking the questions that seem to have no answers. During the daytime there is so much noise and static in my life that I can’t hear myself think – let alone listen for the voice of God. But in this silence of the middle of the night … Words and ideas roll around, reflect, move deeper into my being. And my filters are turned off. I end up expressing exactly what is weighing most heavily on my heart and mind: Friends who are experiencing brokenness. The violence in the Middle East. My government’s willingness to use military might in ways that seem immoral to me. The continued threats of climate change and the seeming international commitment to do nothing about it.
And not just these things. What really comes up are the feelings – the feelings that I’m unable to do anything about these things. What really comes up are my anxiety, my fear, and my anger because of these unsolvable sufferings. And sometimes what comes up is my disbelief. Still, sometimes I am given the grace to listen. I try to be open to God’s word of teaching and challenge and hope in the middle of what is happening in my heart, in my mind, in my life, in the world. Maybe in the middle of the night there is an opening to the presence of God.
Thanks be to God that it is okay to cry out in the night like a frightened child. It’s okay to bang on God’s door in the middle of the night. God’s love for us does not sleep or stop. God doesn’t say, “For crying out loud, Jeff, it’s 2:00 a.m. Why are you even awake?! Go to sleep!”
In the daytime, things are different. In the daylight, I don’t typically raise the questions that I don’t already know how to answer. Or if I don’t know the answer, I can at least rationalize my lack of answers. In the daylight, I deal with practicalities.
That’s what was happening in the daylight in our first scripture lesson. Idle tales were told at the break of day of the one whom they thought would redeem Israel, the one who was tortured and executed, was somehow alive. It’s later in the day now and two disciples are on the road out of Jerusalem. It’s a practical decision, whether they’re heading back home or just heading out of town. Jerusalem is a place of sorrow and of danger now. The practical thing to do is leave.
A stranger comes to them and opens the scriptures to them and they invite him to stay and share a meal. And the idle tales told earlier in the day somehow take on flesh. There’s a mad dash back to the city, back to the disciples, huddled in the room.
If only one story about Jesus survived, I’d pick that story. The story has it all – well, almost all of it. It is a resurrection story that talks about the horror of the crucifixion, these the defining events of Christianity. It has the outline of a worship service in it – Jesus discusses scripture and then celebrates the Eucharist (communion). It speaks to the spiritual dimensions of faith and the mysteries of faith. The only things it’s missing are an ethic for living and an overt call to follow Jesus.
I love this story, and it doesn’t matter to me that most of the Biblical scholars I most respect say that it’s ahistorical. In fact, that’s something I like about the story. It is a beautiful example of how what we read in scripture isn’t meant to be taken literally, even though it’s true.
John Dominic Crossan, one of those Biblical scholars I respect, writes about the importance of non-literal interpretations of scripture using the Emmaus Road story as an example. It’s a rather lengthy paragraph, but he writes quite well.
“Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place. A prudently neutral Jewish historian reported that, at the end of the first century, ‘When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.’ And an arrogant Roman historian reported that, at the start of the second century, ‘Christus, the founder of the name [of Christian], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.’ Jesus’ own followers, who had initially fled from the danger and horror of the crucifixion, talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and probably female. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits. The symbolism is obvious as is the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon. Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”
Don’t take this story literally, as if it is an historical account. Take it as a “parabolic afternoon,” a “metaphoric condensation” of how those first century followers of Jesus understood what had happened and was happening when they gathered for worship and broke bread together. There, at the table, their eyes were opened and they recognized Christ, there in the midst of their community.
The story goes on. We’re now into the evening of Easter day. It’s dark out, the time when questions from deep inside come to the surface. The disciples are huddled in the upper room when the two disciples came running back from Emmaus to say that Jesus was with them on the road, and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And as they were discussing these strange things, Jesus suddenly was there in their midst. The disciples were startled and terrified. They thought it was a ghost!
But Jesus said, “I’m no ghost. I’m real. Look at my hands and feet. Give me something to eat.” And the disciples were overcome with the simultaneous feelings of joy, disbelief, and wonder.
I’m grateful for their reaction. So often, I feel like I should have no doubts, that I should only know joy. Christ is in my heart. Isn’t joy supposed to fill my life? Nope. Discipleship isn’t an easy path. And the world is a complicated place. And sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night …
Jesus invites our questions, our doubts, and our fears to surface and then helps us discover the answers which give new life and hope in the midst of our fears and doubts. No need to run away from reality. We can recognize the Christ at work in the middle of it.
Jesus stepped into the disciples’ reality. And he brought a new reality: the good news of peace; and the triumph of life over death. He also brought a mission: “You are witnesses of these things.” Despite their fear and doubt, Jesus called them to bear witness to the truth they knew.
Despite our fear and doubt, Christ calls us to bear witness to the resurrection. So, I’ve been asking myself this week, how have I been a witness to the resurrection? Where do I recognize the living Christ? And I came back to two things: bread and scars. These are the two places where I most recognize Christ.
There’s a United Church of Christ in Washington that had as a motto, “Christ takes form in a band of people.” I’ve seen this phrase attributed to Dietrich Bonheoffer and that might be where they got it. Regardless of where the saying comes from, I’ve known it to be true in my life. There is something about a group of people uniting in the Spirit that transforms it into the living presence of Christ.
Back in the days when the Winter Relief program was still using churches for emergency shelter, I saw Christ take from as people from our church rallied together to create a space of welcome. When I’ve protested with others against injustice, I’ve felt the presence of Christ in our efforts. When I’ve sat in silence with others, focusing on God, I’ve seen Christ take form. When I’ve gathered with others at the table of grace, I’ve encountered the risen Christ. I can bear witness to the resurrection.
It has long fascinated me that in the resurrection, Christ’s scars remain. You’d expect there to be scars if he was simply resuscitated. But Jesus was resurrected, not resuscitated, brought to a new and eternal life, not back to the old life. Yet the resurrection didn’t erase his scars. The Christ of Easter bears the scars of Good Friday. It makes it easier to me to understand why my life isn’t a total joy, why fear and doubt remain even in the midst of my faith. The scars remain. In fact, the scars are signs of the resurrection.
When I reflect on my scars, I have stories of the resurrection. My first scar is a story of new life – I wouldn’t be here without my bellybutton. Hidden in my right eyebrow there’s a scar that keeps the memory of my mother alive. As a toddler, I tripped and cut myself on a Tonka truck. As my mother told the story, my great-aunt was freaked out by how much blood came out of my little head, but she (my mother) was cool as a cucumber. The scar on my left knee brings back memories of the joy of summer camp when I was seven.
But it’s the deeper scars, the ones you can’t see because they are scars from wounded emotions and a wounded spirit, that really hold resurrection stories: stories of coming out on the other side of betrayal; stories of finding wholeness within myself when the world said I wasn’t whole. Scars are marks of healing, of life being brought forth by the power of God from pain and suffering. They are little Easters lived out in our bodies, lived out in our lives. My scars remind me that I can bear witness to the resurrection in my life.
My scars also remind me to look beyond myself to recognize Christ. My scars remind me that Christ is present in the hurting ones, the outcasts, the powerless. The 4th century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, found the same thing to be true. “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
We come to the table to recognize Christ. We look to our own stories of healing and new life to recognize the power of the resurrection. And we look to the one from whom we might recoil to recognize Christ in our midst.
Let you hearts and your eyes be opened.
 John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” from The Historical Jesus, reprinted on http://www.johndominiccrossan.com/The%20Historical%20Jesus.htm (accessed 18 April 2015).
A sermon preached at the Niles Discovery Church sponsored
sunrise service held in the Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:1-18 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
You might think that a religion that’s about 2000 years old would have done all the changing that it’s going to do. Not so. Christianity is a living religion and new understandings of old texts bring changes, looking at old ethical questions in new social situations bring changes, and sometimes even archeological discoveries (like the discovery of ancient manuscripts) bring changes.
Well, I have the manuscript that hasn’t been discovered yet, that I would like to share with you. Like many ancient Christian texts, it is a letter, and like ancient letters, it begins by saying who wrote it.
Mary of Magdala, a disciple of Jesus.
To Joseph of Arimathea.
Grace and peace to you, my brother in the Messiah.
It is that time of year again, that time when I venture to the cemetery on the first day of the week, before sunrise, by the light of the just-past full moon, to remember that morning that seems to be both in the distant past and as if it happened just days ago. How can it feel both ways when in reality a decade has past?
Of course, I think of you whenever I go to the graveyard, when I go to the place where one day we will lay your body. But you came to mind several weeks ago when I was telling the story to someone new to The Way. I told her about how the Roman’s had executed Jesus and how you had asked the governor to let us bury his body in your own grave. I’m so glad you’re open now about being a follower of Jesus and that, when I tell these stories, I can share your part in them. I don’t know what it was about my story that so intrigued this sister of The Way, but she asked me why you had done it, why you had given up your grave for our Rabbi. Before I knew what I was saying, I heard the words come out of my mouth, “Well, I guess Joseph knew Jesus only needed the grave for the weekend.”
I hope Jesus isn’t offended by my making light of his death. I can’t think he is. After all, his resurrection is the greatest joke every played on death.
That day, it felt like he was playing a joke on me. My shame had never been so great, nor my grief. Grief just isn’t the same anymore. And shame – I see what a wasted emotion it is now. Yes, I know I had reason to be ashamed – we all did. They came to arrest him and we ran off. Well, Peter tried to stop them. He drew a knife, even drew blood, but Jesus stopped him. Violence has never been his way.
My goodness, we were so slow to understand. His whole mission was confronting the domination system, the system that makes victims of one group so others can feel superior, the system that oppresses and marginalized, the system that believes violence can somehow save us.
Jesus knew that violence couldn’t save him any more that it could save us. So he stopped Peter and they arrested him and led him away.
And we fled.
We went into hiding. Would they come for us next? Once he was arrested, we knew where things were going. We knew it was only a matter of time before the Romans killed him, tortured him to death like an insurrectionist. I suppose he was a threat – he is a threat. His message of love threatens the domination system, and the domination system keeps them in power. He stood up to the system and we ran away and hid.
They killed him and we – and you, Joseph – you got them to release his body so we could bury it. And you let us bury it in your own tomb.
I may have been in hiding with the others, but I couldn’t stay away. It was just past the full moon, so there was enough light in those hours before the sun came up for me to go down to the grave. So I went and what a cacophony of emotions! Grief that he had been killed. Horror that they had stolen his body. Breathlessness at running to the other disciples. Anger at how quickly they ran back to the grave; I just couldn’t keep up. Bewilderment when they returned home after a quick look in the tomb.
Abandoned again, I wept. My heart cracked open, crumbled into a million pieces. Something happens to our spirit when everything falls apart. I think that is why I could see the angels, because I was so broken apart. I know people don’t believe me, that I saw angels, but I know I did. They, too, seemed bewildered, wondering why I was weeping. In that moment, they seemed the stupidest of angels. How could they not know about how Jesus had been killed, buried, and his body stolen? But they knew I had the story wrong, so of course they were bewildered.
Yeah, he knew. And when he called me by my name, I wanted to smack him! You know I never liked practical jokes. When he called my name – well, another cacophony of emotions came flooding in: anger, joy, relief. He wasn’t dead after all.
Except he was. That’s the thing that is so hard to explain to people new to The Way. Jesus was dead. Death is very real. Jesus is dead. And Jesus is very much alive. I don’t know how else to explain it.
But I heard last year that a husband and wife traveled to Jerusalem from some town in Greece – I don’t remember which one – to celebrate the Passover. They came with her mother. It was the first time for any of them to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. It started out as such a happy occasion, but then the wife’s mother died. Sad enough, but the husband insisted on bringing his mother-in-law’s body back to Greece with them. When he was asked why he was so insistent, why he didn’t want is mother-in-law buried here in Jerusalem, he said that he had heard that a man died and was buried here in Jerusalem and came back to life – and with his mother-in-law, he wasn’t taking any chances.
Yes, I know: I’m not as funny as I like to think that I am. But I get this way when I return to the scene of the joke. You see, I don’t think the resurrection is just about the big joke Jesus played on death. It’s not just about heaven. It’s about Jesus’ continuing work to transform the world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what he was doing, to what he is doing. It’s about Jesus continuing to transform the world through you and me. Nothing can stop him, not even death. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting.
I know you know all this, Joseph. I guess I’m writing because I know you will understand in a way that few others do. You understand why I go to your tomb, to the scene of the joke: I come to laugh and rejoice and to dance, for nothing can separate us from the love of God that we know in Jesus, the Messiah.
The grace of Jesus be with you always.
 “It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying ‘Yes’ to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.” ~ Marcus Borg
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Jesus was a dangerous man to have around. He was not a terrorist. He was not a violent person. He did not carry a weapon. But he certainly was a revolutionary.
He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. He stripped religious leaders of their pomposity. In short, he demonstrated to the world what God was really like and the world didn’t like that very much.
As might be expected, Jesus was adored by some, and hated by most. The majority, or at least the people in power, wanted him dead. He was too great a threat to have around. What if his radical views should become a way of life?! That would so upset the status quo that life would never be the same.
So get rid of him!
And they did. The political and religious leaders got together and arranged for a Roman execution, the torturous death of crucifixion. Followers and Roman soldiers watched him die. Once he was dead, his followers buried him in a tomb carved out of solid rock. And a big stone was rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb.
Jesus was dead. End of story.
Or so the political and religious leaders hoped.
But God had a different idea. God rolled the stone away and resurrected Jesus the Christ.
Now, it’s important to remember that this is not an account of resuscitation. When someone is resuscitated, they are still flesh and blood. And they will still die. No, resurrection is something different. Jesus was there. But the seeming final defeat of death held no hold over him anymore. New life. No more death. God rolled away the stone and brought forth new life.
Some of you may have heard of Clarence Jordan. He was a Christian civil-rights crusader and is perhaps best known as the author of “The Cotton-Patch Gospel.” In the 1960s Jordan, a white pastor, founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms. He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. (In other words, he acted in a Christ-like manner.) As a result, he was shunned by the culture around him. Threats were made to his life, but he persevered.
In 1969, Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack. Not one of the local funeral directors was willing to help with his funeral – either out of prejudice or fear of violence – so he ended up being buried in a plain cedar box on a hillside near his farm. Jordan’s friend, Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. When everything had been said, and nearly everything done, it was time to lower the casket into the ground. Just as this was happening, Fuller’s two-year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing. She sang the only song she knew: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Clarence, happy birthday to you.”
As Fuller later told the tale, it seemed to everyone there that God was somehow behind that innocent child’s song, for what they had all been celebrating that day, on that Georgia hillside, was not a death after all, but a wonderful, glorious rebirth. That’s what the resurrection is all about: new life coming out of death.
And it’s more than this. You see, God’s resurrection plan doesn’t stop at overcoming mortal death.
The story is told about the old flower lady. She could be found most days in her usual spot – an archway near the entrance to the Cathedral. At her feet one would find an assortment of corsages and boutonnieres neatly laid out on some newspaper. She was dressed – well – shabbily and she seemed to be very old. Yet she always seemed to have a smile on her wrinkled old face. She was alive with some inner joy.
One Sunday morning a woman named Cindy left the Cathedral, noticed the flower lady and, on an impulse, decided to pick out a flower. As she put it in her lapel, she said, “You look happy.”
“Why not?” the flower lady answered. “Everything is good.”
Given her dress and age, this response surprised Cindy. “You’ve been sitting here for many years now, haven’t you?” said Cindy. “And you’re always smiling. You wear your troubles well.”
“You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” the flower lady replied. “Only it’s like Jesus and Good Friday …”
She paused for a moment. Confused, Cindy urge the flower lady on. “Yes?”
“Well, when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, that was the worst day for the whole world. When I get troubles I remember that, and then I think of what happened only three days later – Easter – our Lord rose from the dead. So when things go wrong, I’ve learned to wait three days and somehow everything gets much better.”
That’s God’s resurrection plans for before our deaths. When we have troubles,
when our lives are stuck for whatever the reason, God wants to work with us to bring forth new life. I can’t guarantee that God will always take care of your troubles in three days, but that it God’s plan: to bring forth new life.
A deeply spiritual movie that I love is “Chocolat” – in came out about 15 years ago. It’s set in a little French village in 1959. This village is governed by a philophy of “tranquilité.” In this town, you know what is expected of you and where your place is. If you happen to forget, someone would remind you. They trust in the wisdom of ages past, including tradition, family, and morality.
The Mayor is the self-appointed guardian of the town. He writes the preacher’s sermons, guides the townspeople in their moral decisions, and overall, tries to maintain the status quo, to maintain this tranquilité at all costs.
Into this town sweeps a vibrant, young woman named Vianne who is anything but traditional. She does nothing by the any book (except her cookbook). She does not go to church, she has a daughter without a father present, and she has the gall to open a chocolate shop in the middle of Lent.
Her shop and her grace unexpectedly transform the town and its people. A wounded woman finds the courage to escape her abusive husband. A grandmother renews a broken relationship with family members. Even the mayor, after an intense Easter Saturday conversion experience, is described as “strangely released.”
If a young woman selling chocolate can make that much of a difference (albeit in a fictional town) – mending family relationships, breaking the chains of abusive situations, opening hearts for love – imagine what God can do. God wants to roll away the stones and bring forth new life.
The passage we heard from the gospel of John this morning has both types of resurrection stories in it. Mary comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Jesus’ body isn’t there and she jumps to the (logical) conclusion that the body has been stolen. When Peter and the unnamed disciple get there, they discover evidence that the body wasn’t hastily removed; the burial clothes have been neatly folded. But they still don’t understand that Jesus is no longer dead. Meanwhile, we know that’s where the big story is going.
The boys go home and leave Mary alone and we get a glimpse of at both the big resurrection story and the little one. We learn that the grave could not hold the crucified Christ – the life after this life resurrection story. And we learn how little resurrections happen in our lives, now, too.
Standing there, Mary runs into someone she doesn’t recognize. But why would she recognize who he is? She knows Jesus was killed and that’s the last word on the matter. She still assumes that Jesus’ body has been removed, so she asks the stranger (she assumes he’s the gardener) if he’s the one who took the body.
When the stranger calls her by name, she recognizes that she is in the presence of the resurrected Christ. The story implies that she reaches out to him. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Mary’s reaction is completely understandable. Her friend, her rabbi, the one she called “Lord” was dead, killed by the government. She was in deep grief. And when she caught a glimpse of a way out of her grief, she reached for it. I can hear her subconscious saying, “I can hold on to the way things were if I can just hold on to him.”
But the resurrected Christ says, “Don’t hold on to me.” Giotto’s fresco reproduced on the cover of your bulletin shows this scene. Jesus is pulling away. He’s pulling away so hard he’s almost pulling himself out of the frame of the picture.
Holding on to the past feels like it makes sense, especially when we are grieving. There is comfort in knowing what was. And anxiety is a normal response to change. But letting go is necessary if we’re going to experience God’s resurrection in our lives.
Jesus doesn’t stop at what Mary should not do. He tells her not to hold on to him and he tells her to go start spreading the news of the resurrection. “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” God is doing something new in your life, Mary, if you just let go of the past.
It is so easy to live in the past. The slight and the fight with the mate or the family member or the friend was last week, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. The ending – of a job, a relationship, whatever – came two years ago, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. Whether the loss is coming or it’s already been experienced, we hold on to the past to soothe the pain.
Perhaps more than anything else, fear keeps us from letting go. We fear change and hold on to the way things are. We fear that someone will find out who we really are and we hold on to the façade we’ve built to hide behind. We fear no one will ever know who we really are and we hold on to a loneliness we learned years ago. We fear death and we even fear new life.
Resurrection requires letting go. When we insist on complete control over our own lives, when we try to control our circumstances, our relationships, our futures, Jesus calls us to let go. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection teach us that it is when we have no control over our lives that resurrection becomes possible.
You see, resurrection requires death. It needs sinking down into God and crying out, “Why have you abandoned me?” It needs tear-shedding and truth-telling about that which is already dead in our lives. Resurrection blossoms in us when we are unable to help or fix or change things and instead let go, opening our hands and hearts praying “Thy will be done.”
And God wants this so much for us.
 I don’t remember where I gleaned this story from. It’s one of those items that I found in a file of ideas for Easter sermons I’ve collected over the years.
 Another story from that file of Easter sermon ideas.
 The concluding paragraphs are based on writings by the Rev. Deborah Howland, a UCC Pastor who was serving in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area when I added this to my file of not well-cited sermon ideas for Easter.
A sermon preached at Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
at the sunrise service
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s been a holy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. On Wednesday, the teachers, students, and parents gathered in the elementary school lunchroom for the annual Victorian Tea. I think they should hold it on a Thursday so it can be billed as a Throwback Thursday event. But it’s always held on the Wednesday before spring break. I think that’s because spring break almost always is the week after Easter, that would put the Victorian Tea on Maundy Thursday, and there are enough families and teachers who attend Maundy Thursday services … So, the Victoria Tea has always been held on a Wednesday.
I don’t think it will be as much fun next year as it’s been since it started, next year after Ginny Spinola retires. Each year I’ve been amused by how seriously Ginny takes the Tea. Since the very first year it was held, she has made sure everyone in her fifth grade class dresses up for the event. Boys in shoes that pinch their toes and neckties, even though they can’t keep their shirts tucked in. Girls in spring dresses and ribbons in their hair, some even wearing white gloves. It didn’t take long for the parents and the lower grades to follow suit, and now it reminds me of what church looked like in my childhood on Easter.
There is something that happens to us when we get dressed up. The tradition of getting new clothes for Easter actually has roots in the early church. Baptisms were celebrated during the Great Easter Vigil. Those who had spend Lent preparing for baptism would step into the waters of baptism as naked as the day they were born. When they emerged from the waters, they were given a new robe, new clothing to symbolize their rebirth as a new creation.
Baptism is a reenactment of the Easter miracle. We die to our old selves, are buried in the waters with Jesus, and we rise to new life with Jesus, transformed, a new creation.
Dylan Manetti witnessed a transformation this week. The prison guards at the State Prison know Dylan not just as a lawyer, but also as a spiritual person, so they asked him to try to get through to a depressed convict. Dylan simply sat with the prisoner and told him that he believed with all his heart that God already dwelled in this prisoner’s heart. That was all – no sermon, no extensive prayers. The prisoner began to weep.
Dylan understood what this prisoner did not understand: that his life was already in Christ. Perhaps his life was so deeply hidden beneath all kinds of mistakes, crimes, and sins that few could see this truth either, including the prisoner himself. But Dylan saw it and he revealed the great mystery of God’s love and the prisoner was overcome by a glimpse of it.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is a contemporary setting of an ancient hymn of the church, O magnum mysterium. The translation begins, “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!” The mystery of Jesus is not just that farm animals were the first to see him. The mystery of Jesus is the depth of love his life and death and resurrection reveal, a love that embraces even the people our society throws away – and that embraces even us.
The youth group at Mount William Congregational Church had a discussion about the expansiveness of God’s love last Sunday. Somehow the conversation drifted and one of the kids started talking about efforts to criminalize homelessness, something about anti-sitting laws and rules that say you can’t hand out food on the street. Some of the kids got pretty heated and the next thing the youth group leaders knew, a group of the youth were planning on going in to Concord sometime during spring break to hand out food. They decided they didn’t care if it’s illegal. If people are hungry, we should feed them.
Poor Sally and Jim. This was not the youth group meeting they had planned, but they knew they were witnessing something special. There was a passion in these kids’ hearts, something different, something transformative. But what should they do about it? They decided to talk with Howard Friend, the minister at Mount William Congregational Church, about it, but it was a particularly busy week for him. Not just because it was Holy Week and he was preparing for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services, but he was also spending a lot of time at the hospital with Sheila Peck.
Sheila was a Congregational minister and, when the Congregationalists merged into the United Church of Christ, she became a UCC minister. She retired 21 years ago, moved to Mount William to be near her grandchildren, and joined the Congregational Church. Three years ago, she started to disappear into the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
This past week, she was not wearing the black Geneva robe she wore for decades during Holy Week. This past week, she wore a blue hospital gown. Rev. Friend was there every day this week. She had been a friend, a sort of mentor who didn’t muddle, when Howard arrived in Mount William and started his ministry, so he went every day to the hospital. And on Thursday, after the Maundy Thursday service, he headed back. He kept vigil with the family that night. The end was very near.
Howard has been with people when they’ve died before. This time it was different. This time he was there for the duration, and with that much time, he didn’t know what to do, so he and the family started reading Psalms.
He wasn’t sure which Psalms to read. Psalm 118 might have been a terrific choice. It celebrates God’s victory over death, calling us to celebrate the steadfast love of God and to rejoice in the day that the Lord has made. But maybe she needed a psalm of lament, such as Psalm 22. “My tongue clings to my jaws” – how often had the family moistened her parched lips with a sponge? Or a Psalm of confession, since she knew she depended in life and in death on God’s mercy.
They decided to read through the Psalm. They trusted that God’s Spirit would be at work as needed and that the fullness of Sheila’s life with God – joy, lament, confession, and all – had not been defeated by tangles and plaques in her brain.
They were long past Psalm 23 when Sheila stepped into the valley of the shadow of death. Rev. Friend and the Peck family watched as she made her transition from this life to the one to come. Just before she died, Sheila opened her eyes and seemed to be staring off into space. But Howard was certain that she was seeing something that the rest of them could not see.
When Howard got home to get some rest he found himself wanting Sheila to be there to tell him what she saw. But she can’t be there, so she won’t tell anyone anything.
One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is its abrupt ending. The angel tells the women who’ve come to the tomb that Jesus has been resurrected and that they should go tell the other disciples. But they “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
I can’t help wondering if Howard will end up telling others what he saw in Sheila’s eyes in the early hours of Friday morning. I wonder if Sally and Jim will tell Howard or the parents about what they witnessed in the youth group meeting – not so much about the plans the youth made but about transformation they witnessed in the lives of the youth. And I wonder if Dylan Manetti will ever tell anyone about the transformation he witnessed at the State Prison.
“Bright is the day that dawns with new life, casting death’s grim shadow from the garden. Bright is the future for even the most humble soul, rising up in the arms of angels. Bright is the promise to all the Earth, sharing peace among the children of light. Let every voice sing this shining song, for we have been set free, we have been ransomed from our own history, given a chance to live again, to hope again, and to see the healing of God spread like sunlight into the rooms of time.”
The resurrection, it seems to me, is happening all around us. Will we notice it? And if we notice it, will we tell the good news about it?
That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, were all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
 See, for instance, http://nudebaptisminearlychristianity.blogspot.com.
 This character and exchange with the prisoner is based on a story told by David Keck, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 20.
 Translation from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Magnum_Mysterium.
 This story of Sheila’s dying is adapted from a story told by David Keck, op. cit.
 Bishop Steven Charleston, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5/posts/10204044984111911 (19 April 2014).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Earlier this week, an older couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away. The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come for a visit over spring break after all. “The grandkids say hello,” he said. The couple assured him that they understood, but when they hung up the phone they didn’t dare look at each other.
Earlier this week, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they had to let her go. “So sorry,” the supervisor said. She cleaned out her desk, packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her kids.
Earlier this week, someone received terrible news from a physician.
Earlier this week, someone heard the words, “I don’t love you any more.”
Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified. And the darkness is overwhelming. It seems as if it is all over. That is the natural thing to assume.
It sure seemed like it was all over to the disciples. By some political maneuvering, they’d managed to prevent the soldiers from feeding his broken body to the wild dogs. With pain filled faces they took him down from the cross, maybe they washed him, but they probably didn’t have time to anoint the body before they wrapped him in a shroud, and laid him in a borrowed tomb. It was a better fate than being fed to the dogs. But not by much.
The One who’d told them he had no place to lay his head, was still far away from home. When his flesh had decayed, would his bones be gathered to those of his ancestors? Over the coming generations, would anyone remember him? I imagine that all that day and the next, a stillness hung over his disciples. Occasionally, the stillness was broken by the fear filled sobbing of his disciples … and the glad cries of those who had sought his life.
Then, something happened, something that is so hard to explain, perhaps the only way to explain it is with stories. Matthew tells the story this way.
In the last moments before the sun rose on the third day, there came a noise. At first the soldiers who guarded the tomb listened to it in amazement. Then they covered their ears and fell to the ground in terror. For angel voices, the ones who sang a wondrous pianissimo of beauty over the stable of Bethlehem, burst into a fortissimo of sheer, raw, unadulterated power. Blinding light sprang forth, not from the sun, but from the rocks themselves as the earth heaved and pushed the stone away. And in a roar never before heard on earth, the bonds of death were shattered forever.
Death became a joke in that moment. It can no longer win. Evil can no longer win. Darkness can no longer defeat light. Seemingly powerless love has triumphed over loveless power. And for all eternity the angels’ song rings through the heavens and in the hearts of those who open them to hear. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection is not only the greatest day of the church year; it is also the only one that is set by the moon. Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. As complicated as that sounds, it makes ancient sense, since it means (at least in the northern hemisphere, where this dating scheme was created) Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.
Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life. Sap rises in dormant trees, spring peepers start their peeping, and trumpet lilies spill their sweet smell on the air – causing people like me to reach for the Zyrtec. The connection is a happy one, guaranteed to renew our faith in the creative power of God.
But it is also a misleading one, because spring is entirely natural. Buy a daffodil bulb in the winter and it looks like nothing in your hands – a small onion, maybe, with its thin skin and scraggy roots. If you have had any experience with bulbs, however that does not worry you. You know that all you have to do it wait. Come springtime it will escape the earth and explode with color, a yellow butterfly of a blossom shedding its cocoon. As miraculous as it is, it is completely natural.
Resurrection, on the other hand, is entirely unnatural. When a human being goes into the ground, that is that. You don’t wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off – not this side of the grave, anyway. You say good-bye. You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.
That is all Mary Magdalene was doing that morning – paying her respects, going to his tomb to convince herself it was all true, John tells us as he tries to explain what happened. It was still dark, but even from a distance she knew something was wrong. She could smell damp earth, cold rock from inside. Someone had moved the stone!
The conclusion was obvious. Afraid he would become a saint, afraid his tomb would become a shrine, someone had taken him away – God knew where. To a steep cliff? To the town dump? Allowed his body to be fed to the dogs?
His body was all she had left and now it too was gone. So she ran and brought two of the others back with her, but once they had satisfied themselves that what she said was true, they left her there weeping. If they tried to lead her away, she refused them. She was like an abandoned pup who had lost her master, staying rooted to the last place he had been, without the least idea of what to do next.
Even angels could not soften her resolve. They were there when she worked up her nerve to look inside the tomb, sitting where the body had lain. “Why are you weeping?” they asked her.
“They have taken away my lord,” she answered them, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” It never occurred to her they might be the culprits, apparently, but it was not as if she were thinking clearly.
She was operating on automatic pilot, so that when she left the tomb she bumped into the gardener without even seeing him. His only value to her was that he might know the answer to her question. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” What did she think she would do – have the gardener lay the body over her shoulders, or pick it up all by herself?
It was not a reasonable request, but the gardener did not seem to mind. Perhaps he was even a bit amused. “Mary,” he said to her, and she turned to stare at him.
“Rabbouni!” she cried out. “My Teacher!”
“Do not hold on to me,” he cautioned her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What peculiar thing for him to say since there is no evidence she was holding on to him in any way. Unless it was by what she called him – my Teacher, the old name she used to call him. Maybe he could hear it in her voice, how she wanted him back the way he was so they could go back to the way they were, back to the old life where everything was familiar and not frightening like it was now.
“Rabbouni!” she called him, but that was his Friday name, and here it was Sunday – an entirely new day in an entirely new life. He was not on his way back to her and the others. He was on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him. This may be why all the other gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us not to be afraid – because new life is frightening. It is unnatural.
To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord – none of this is natural.
Death is natural. Loss is natural. Grief is natural. The good news is this: the story does not end with death and loss and grief. Our stories, our lives are changed by this highly unnatural truth: those stones have been rolled away. By the light of this day, God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do. We can move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.
The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him. He has asked us please not to do that, because he knows that, all things considered, we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going. Better we should let him hold on to us, perhaps. Better we should let him take us into the white-hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way.
 Adapted from Craig Barnes, “Savior at Large,” published in the March 13-20, 2002, edition of The Christian Century, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 26 March 2013.
 This next section of the sermon (through Matthew’s telling of the Easter story) is adapted from an email Frank Fisher sent to Sermonshop_Sermons on Ecunet on April 11, 2004.
 The rest of this sermon is almost a direct quote from a sermon “The Unnatural Truth” by Barbara Brown Taylor, printed in one of her books, Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 109-112.