Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gospel Non-Sense

Matthew 25:31-46
April 26, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Years ago, a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Jesus on it. On the magnet were the words: Jesus is coming. Look busy. My friend gave me this magnet as a kind of elbow-to-the-ribs joking reminder of our shared history in the world of dispensationalists.

If you are a lifelong Presbyterian, or if you were gone during our sermon series on Revelation, you may not have been exposed to this kind of thinking, but believe me, it is widespread. The short definition of dispensationalism is that it is a belief in “the rapture,” the second coming of Jesus that will take believing Christians away. This rapture will be followed by a time of terrible tribulation, war and pestilence for those who have been – are you ready? – LEFT BEHIND!

Jesus is coming back.
And he will sneak up on us like a thief, when we are busy doing something rotten, like sassing our teacher, or cheating on our income taxes, or drinking, smoking, dancing or watching a movie, and the trumpet will sound and we will be caught up into the air in the twinkling of an eye. If we aren’t left behind. To suffer. For years.

You know, I have five siblings – an our house was noisy. There was always someone practicing the cello or piano or trumpet, always someone arguing or reading out loud or shouting from upstairs, always someone looking for a lost shoe or yelling at some kid to get their coat on and get out the door, for Pete’s sake, we are late for your dentist appointment. If I came home to an empty, quiet house I thought it could only mean one thing: the rapture.
And I was left behind.

Either way, stay or go, the next big event will be the tribulation, followed by the great white throne judgment. We will all be gathered up to stand in front of this great big white throne, and I suppose the ones who got raptured will be there in special party outfits, while those of us who didn’t memorize our Bible verses like we were told will be in sackcloth pants and itchy hair shirts. And then, Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. If you are saved by grace through faith, born again, you will go to be with Jesus. In heaven. If you are not, you won’t. You will go to hell, directly to hell. End of story…

But there is a serious problem with this logic –and it comes from the Bible.
From this scripture - the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter, verses 31-46.
[Jesus said] When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let’s face it, this story Jesus tells doesn’t square with our understanding of God’s grace.
It doesn’t square with our understanding that God is merciful, and that God’s steadfast love endures forever. Nor does it square with the rest of New Testament, especially Paul’s writings. It is right there in Ephesians 2: 8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Jesus pulls the rug out from under our theology in this text. It must have really troubled his disciples, too. They have come into Jerusalem with Jesus. It’s the last week of his life on earth. Jesus has been busy, busy telling apocalyptic parables – the fig tree, the talents, the bridesmaids, all of them aimed at letting us know that God’s reign is near at hand. The day of Christ’s coming is unknown – unpredictable – unmanageable. You won’t see it coming. But it is coming, and you had better be ready to give an accounting of yourself.
To Jesus.

And it is not going to be pretty. Because the people who thought they had it knocked, those of us who thought we were righteous, the ones who had already packed their carry-ons, gone through security and were waiting at the pearly gate? Unh-unh. 

They were surprised, in the scene Jesus imagined. Wait a minute, Jesus! Is this some kind of trick? We never saw you like that – we just don’t think of you that way. Sure, we saw the kid at the bus station, looking scared, asking for change. But he certainly didn’t look like you.

And we saw the people lined up at the food pantry, and that young woman who uses her Link card at the market. But we didn’t see you. Never heard about you being in the hospital, or in prison either. You should have called. Sure, we heard the cries for help, but we questioned their authenticity. We didn’t know it was you! If we had known, if we had recognized you….

But look here, Jesus – maybe we didn’t recognize you, but you know us!
We are nice people. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. We give to the United Way, and we buy Girl Scout cookies. We had our children baptized, and we brought them to church any Sunday that we weren’t too tired or they weren’t busy at a soccer tournament or SAT prep. Jesus, surely you recognize us? But Matthew’s Jesus has said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus doesn’t seem to recognize them, the ones whose faith is only in words.
They are not his sheep! They are the goats. He doesn’t even know them!
And the sheep? The people who were just living ethical lives, unaware that they were doing God’s will? The people just feeding the hungry and clothing the naked unaware that they were feeding and clothing Jesus himself? Jesus flings open the gates to paradise for them, rolls out the welcome mat, and they are just as baffled as the goats. They didn’t even recognize him! “Wait a second, Jesus! We didn’t know it was you! We just fed hungry people.”

This is just non-sense.
This story will not fit our understanding of how God operates. It is a theological reversal, this story – an eschatological prophecy that is not even a parable, really – more like a simile. It is imaginative language, rather than descriptive. But while it is not meant to be taken literally, it certainly needs to be taken seriously. This story is a prophecy -- cosmological, political, and symbolic.

It is cosmological in that it will not submit itself to simplistic thinking. Because God’s salvation story is bigger than a mathematical equation – of grace plus repentance plus good works equals eternal life. Trying to reduce it to that is like claiming that knowledge of all the building blocks of life makes us able to create that life. We can map the human genome, but we don’t know what makes the wood frog, frozen solid, come back to life and mate in the spring. Every spring.[1]

This story is political, as well.
It is political in the way that many otherwise kindhearted Christian people do not like. There is no means testing, in this story. There are merely people: hungry, thirsty, strangers – naked, sick, and in prison. There is simply the preferential option for the poor, without regard to whether or not they are deserving. We don’t even know whether those people said thank you after they ate, whether they straightened up when they were paroled, or whether they went and found work when they got well.

When I hear this story, I’m reminded of my dad, who grew up poor, one of nine children of an abusive alcoholic father. Dad and his brothers and sisters had nothing when they were children – they were always hungry, seldom warm, often frightened. During the Depression, they survived on food from “government relief.” If the kids earned a little money, they would give it to their mother before their father could take it and drink it up.

If their mother managed to get something nice, like, say, dishes, their father would break them in a drunken rage. They scrounged up the parts to put together a bicycle, and their father ran over it. When the little kids began to cry, he backed up and ran over it again. My dad was a sucker for kids who were disadvantaged. He’d take Christmas gifts to them, give their dads jobs, help them out with gym shoes and car repairs and school activity fees.

One time, my brothers, both attorneys like my dad, got worried about a young man dad was helping. They were afraid he’d go out to my parents’ secluded country place looking for a handout, and that he’d harm my mother or father. Dad scoffed at their concerns, so my brothers took a different tack. “Dad!” they said. “He is just going to take advantage of your generosity.”

Dad laughed and said, “Well of course he is!”
And that was the end of the conversation.

Because Dad saw this kind of caring as a requirement –not a charity, but an obligation. This care for the poor, whom Jesus loves, the least of his brothers and sisters, is a requirement of Christian life. I think it may be safe to say it is THE requirement of Christian life. Making sure that hungry people have food is justified by the fact that generosity and kindness are rewarding in and of themselves. We do it for Jesus.

Finally this story is symbolic, not in a one-to-one allegorical way, but in a larger and more existential sense. These sheep, deemed righteous by their kindness to Jesus, whom they did not recognize, were clearly not acting out of any explicit faith commitment. They did not hold a Thanksgiving dinner at the church in Jesus name. They just fed hungry people.

They demonstrated, by their actions, the Son of Man, the human one, could be found outside the walls of the church as well as inside. And just as Matthew warned that no one can know the hour or the time when Jesus will come again, none of us can schedule the moment when we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Here’s the thing: we may not be able to recognize Jesus – we may only see human beings, in need. They may not be people we know, or like, or want to hang around with. They may not meet any of our criteria of eligibility. But our care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned is necessary, because Jesus said we should.

Our call to follow our Risen Lord is grounded in more than intellectual assent. We know that our good works are a product, not a cause, of God’s grace. We understand ourselves to be people who have responded to God’s grace by offering ourselves in ministry – ministry to the least of these. After the receiving and believing, we act. And maybe, just maybe, we act first, before we ever receive and belong and believe. Maybe one of the ways we reach out in faith to those outside our community is by inviting them to work alongside us, to belong before they ever believe or behave like Christians.

In fact, that scripture I quoted earlier, about being saved by grace, through faith – there’s more to it. Here’s Ephesians 2: 8-9 - For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. And here’s the next verse, verse ten: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Our way of life – feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting, caring. Because Jesus said we should. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

They’ll Know

They’ll Know 
John 21:1-14
April 19, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

John 21: 1-14

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing."
They said to him, "We will go with you."
They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?"
They answered him, "No."
He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some."
So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!"

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

You know, Jesus spent a lot of time outdoors. It was pretty much like camping, I imagine – sleeping where you can, cooking on outdoor fires, lots of walking – or hiking, as the case may be. I love this particular story because for me it illustrates the hospitality that Jesus calls us to, and demonstrates it for us.

He could have stood there on the lakeshore, arms crossed over his chest, tapping his foot, wondering why the disciples weren’t out there doing what he told them to do. He could have asked them, point blank, why they all went back to work at their old jobs, instead of pursuing the new careers he’d given them. Of course, we can imagine why they went back to fishing – easier work and shorter hours than ministry, for one thing! But Jesus didn’t offer any recriminations. He just waited for them to finish their work and then come away to be with him, to break bread with him.

The disciples had left off being disciples and gone back to being fishermen. But seeing Jesus there by the lake shore, they remembered their calling and rushed back to be by his side.

Sitting there by the fire, tasting the bread and grilled fish, listening to the waves lap at the shore, being in the presence of Christ, they were restored and called back to themselves, to their real lives – not their old lives, but their new lives, as fishers for people.

I think that is what camp does for us.
I think that is what retreats do for us.
They don’t call us away to some other place, to get away from real life.
They call us back to real life, so that we can share the love of Jesus more fully.

For many people, their most powerful, spiritually formative moments have taken place at camp or on retreats. It was certainly the case for me – not as a camper, but as a camp director. I’ve told you this story before, but it bears repeating, as we think about Jesus calling us to our true selves through the ministry of camps.

Buffalo Gap Presbyterian camp is in West Texas, where the summers are blistering hot, the land is boringly flat and the climate is incredibly dry. Really hot. Really flat. Really dry.

I’ve never been sure if I was asked to direct camp there because of my great talent for ministry with children, or if the Presbytery leaders wanted me to get a foretaste of hell. In any case, there we were. In July.

Did I mention that it is hot, flat and dry there?

It was Sunday, and we were registering kids in the dining hall, the only air-conditioned building in the compound. And there, in the distance, came Ross. He was a stocky, blue-eyed kid with a reddish brown buzz-cut, freckles across his nose, and a slight curl to his lip that made you think he was about to squint like Clint Eastwood. and push a handrolled cigarette into the corner of his mouth.

It really was like a scene from “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” the rays of heat rippling up from the dusty ground, as he swaggered into the door and handed us his paperwork. We could tell we were in trouble. And we were right.

The first night, he beat up another boy. The second night, he cheated all the other boys out of their canteen money, in a rigged poker game, to which he had made up the rules. The third night, Ross conned Chad out of his new $80 suede high-tops. The following morning, in arts and crafts, Ross painted the shoes lime green. At lunch that day, he said, “Miss, I haven’t had to take my Ritalin all week!” And at counselor prayers Thursday morning, we gave thanks that it was the last full day of camp, and that in the morning, Ross’s parents would come and get him!

It’s my belief that there is no one in the world meaner than a 5th grade girl, and the girls at Buffalo Gap validated my belief in the way they treated Ross. They wouldn’t sit by him at Bible study. They wouldn’t look at him during team sports. They wouldn’t dance with him at the dance, even though he had put on a clean shirt. The boys were either in awe of Ross, or scared of him, I’m not sure which. The counselors in the boy’s cabin rolled their eyes heavenward and sighed whenever his name came up. Nobody liked him.

Except for Joel. Joel loved Ross.
Joel was only in second grade – far smaller than the other boys. Ross liked to pick Joel up by his head. Joel thought this was tremendously amusing. And Ross was kind to Joel, because Joel was just a little kid. Ross was obstinate, unruly, untruthful, violent and smart-mouthed – except where Joel was concerned. And Joel, my nephew, suggested that Ross should play the guitar for the Thursday night talent show at the campfire. That’s how it was that Ross came and asked me if I would teach him to play guitar for the talent show at the end of the week.

Now, you know, Jesus taught us to be kind and loving and to serve God and welcome others. Jesus said we should welcome the stranger and he liked to hang around with the worst kind of people. Jesus loves everyone. Even boys like Ross.And so, because Joel suggested it, and because of Jesus, I swallowed a scolding lecture about respect and kindness, and I bit my tongue to hold back all of my admonitions about the value and beauty of my Martin guitar. I sat down with Ross during free time and taught him to play a simple song, a two-chord song.

The night of the talent show, we gathered around the campfire. We roasted marshmallows and weenies. The counselors did skits making fun of the kids, and the kids put on skits making fun of the counselors. We sang songs together. Then Ross walked over to me and took my guitar. Everybody fell silent – either in horror or disbelief. And then, Ross began to play and to sing. As he did, all forty children joined in:

“We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love”

We adults listened in stunned silence, and when they finished, there was only the crackling of the fire and the locusts whirring, until someone began to pray.

Now, none of us dared to ask,
because we knew
that Jesus was with us in that moment.

And this was not the first time, and surely it was not the last,
that the risen Lord came to his disciples
while they were at camp.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

One Heart and Soul

Psalm 133: Acts 4: 32-37
April 12, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Psalm 133 
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Acts 4: 32-37
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Let’s admit it.
This scripture tweaks the cynic in many of us.
We read this glowing description and nod our heads as if we believe it, but, really …. REALLY?
Shouldn’t we just unpack this a bit?

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”
Oh, I don’t think so. There was somebody in the corner shaking his head, somebody in the kitchen muttering about their own ideas being better. There was somebody that knew she knew what was best, biding her time to say “I could’ve predicted this.” There was somebody who withdrew in silence, waiting for it to all fall apart. They couldn’t possibly all have been of one heart and soul, could they?

Then there’s that next phrase: “and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” In a word, psssshhhhh!
In fact, in the very next verses, the very next chapter, a couple of people demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about. They sell a piece of property, and they give SOME of the money to the church, holding some back and lying about it. When they are confronted, they drop dead.

That would make for an interesting stewardship campaign, wouldn’t it?
“Please complete your pledge card. Be aware that holding back may result in being suddenly struck down dead.”

Seriously, though – this story can’t possibly be the whole truth, but I do think that it is the truth. There really are times in the life of the church when all the believers are of one heart and soul. Often, that happens during periods of extreme outside pressure. Paradoxically, as persecution increases, the body of Christ grows stronger. It is often a matter of choosing to hang together lest they all be hung separately. For example, during the time of the persecutions under Nero, the Christian community in Rome was certainly united.

Somehow, the possibility of being crucified, run through with a sword, then fed to wild animals as entertainment in the coliseum puts most minor issues or disagreements into perspective. It probably was a kind of “one for all and all for one” community, at least for a period of time.

When your very life is threatened, it is probably a lot easier to hold all property in common, making sure that everyone has everything they need. They weren’t wealthy, that first century congregation, though some of them must have been – like Barnabas. He was from Cyprus, a worker in the early church. This is the first time he is mentioned in scripture, but not the last. Barnabas traveled with Paul doing missionary work and establishing churches. He understood that Christian community required sharing, participation and contribution in the common life.

That word, “common” – referring to things held in common, and the root word of community, commune – that word in New Testament Greek is koine. In fact, New Testament Greek is also called “koine Greek,” because it was the language of the common folk. Koine is the root word for “koinonia” which gets translated often as fellowship.

But it is more than that – it is fellowship, to be sure.
It is also sharing, participation, and contribution.
In other words, you can’t have fellowship without sharing.
The community relies on our participation.
The common life depends upon our contributions.

That kind of common life, the one heart and one soul, is very uncommon. Perhaps it is because we are so resistant to it. We’ve spent our whole lives learning that Christianity and communism are diametrically opposed. We have learned that communism is by its very nature godless. But what we have depicted here is a bunch of first century Christians. living communally, sharing everything in common.

And we aren’t very comfortable with that depiction.
We like the far off stories of the early church, when things were different.
But we don’t like to think about living that way now!
Honestly! I love y’all, but I don’t want to move in with you!

So we resist this type of story. Things were different then, we tell ourselves. They didn’t have the kind of pressures we did. They didn’t have student loans and house payments. They weren’t on fixed incomes. We tell ourselves that this can’t possibly apply to us. Whether we like it or not, though, this story does speak to us – maybe in ways that make us uncomfortable. We may not all live together communally – I’d just as soon not, if that’s okay with y’all! – but we can be “one heart and soul.” We can be “one body.” We can offer care for one another in times of loss or need.

Maybe it isn’t economic need, so much as spiritual.
Maybe rather than sell some land, we need to give up some territory that belongs to us - making space for others who may differ from us. Maybe that territory is different for each one of us. Maybe we need to give up positions or locations which we hold on to so tightly, and which hold on to us and keep us from being one heart and soul. Places like privilege, and judgment. “I have the right to my opinions,” we tell ourselves, as if we earned our race or place or the privilege into which we were born.

Maybe what we need to give up is our certainty about our closely held opinions on religion, or politics. Maybe what we need to give up is the rush to say what we think, and instead offer our listening to others; Maybe what we need to give up is our comfort, tolerating some discomfort as we make space for others.

You know, the reason some people “don’t like church” is that the common life asks just this of us – to be in close community with each other, to share, to participate, and contribute. The reason some people don’t like church is this very thing that church gives us, and asks of us – the grace and challenge of living in close quarters, so to speak, and finding ways to be one heart and soul, one body.

Obviously, churches don’t always get this right.
Obviously, we have a lot of work to do – you can pick up the newspaper almost any day and see that Christians are not exactly “one heart and soul.” Just this past week, a friend and seminary classmate of mine, an African American woman who is a minister in the AME church, started a discussion on Facebook about the most recent shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer. She talked about her pain about this continued divide in our country, about her hope, about her fear. It was all very thoughtful and respectful until someone called my friend a racist. Mind you, my African American minister friend. It was painful – painful for her, painful for everyone in the conversation, painful to the body of Christ. As the Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

So we suffer. And we keep not getting it right.
But the fact that we aren’t getting it right is exactly the reason we need to keep doing it, keep trying. Not getting it right is not the reason to give up. Not getting it right is the reason to keep on, to stay together!

Because we know, from this story and others like it in the Bible, that it can happen.
It can, and does, happen, because of Easter.

We can be one heart and soul together because we are brought together in baptism and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That grace that claims us and nourishes us at Christ’s table enables us to develop the moral imagination to live this common life – this communion life, sharing, participating, contributing, and making space for others to do the same.

To be one heart and soul, to live as community, asks us to be Easter people:
sharing love in thought, word, and deed,
participating in grace with acts of mercy,
contributing ALL of our gifts – everything we have! –
for the good of the body,
this resurrected body of Christ, that lives and moves and has its being
with one heart of love
and one soul of grace,
raised to new life in our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

One heart and soul.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

I AM the Resurrection and the Life - Do You Believe This?

Do You Believe This?
John 11:1-26; John 20:1-18
April 5, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

John 11: 1-26
Narrator:  A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying,
Mary and Martha: "Lord, the one whom you love is ill."
Narrator:  When he heard this, Jesus said,
Jesus: "This illness isn't fatal. It's for the glory of God so that God's Son can be glorified through it."
Narrator: Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, "Let's return to Judea again." The disciples replied, "Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?"
Jesus:  "Aren't there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn't stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn't in them. Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up."
Narrator: The disciples said, "Lord, if he's sleeping, he will get well." They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus' death. Jesus told them plainly,
Jesus:  "Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I'm glad I wasn't there so that you can believe. Let's go to him."
Narrator: Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, "Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus."
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother's death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus,
Martha: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you."
Jesus:  "Your brother will rise again."
Martha:  "I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day."
Jesus:  "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
John 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.  

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

For the last forty days, as we prepared for this celebration of resurrection, we have been studying the Gospel of John and the “I AM” sayings of Jesus. As you came in, you might have seen some of the symbols of that study – the gate, the bread, the light, the good shepherd, the way, the path, the vine and branches. Meanwhile, in our Wednesday morning Bible study, we’ve been studying the Book of Esther, and the ways in which God is present, even when it seems that God is absent.

Throughout the scriptures, we encounter this seeming paradox, a God who is at once obscure and obvious, distant and also present.  The I AM saying of Jesus you’ve heard today, “I AM the resurrection and the life,” comes at a time when God must have seemed far, far away from Mary and Martha. Jesus has come to Bethany, to the home of his dear friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They had sent him word that Lazarus was dying; they sent word, and he DID NOT COME!

They were wondering where he was, why didn’t he come?
But, as you heard, Jesus does return to Bethany, and when he does, he comes bringing resurrection and life – to Lazarus. Our second scripture, also from John’s gospel, is the story of that first Easter morning, when another Mary comes to the tomb, and finds that resurrection is real, and Christ is truly present, even though she does not recognize him at first.

One of the challenges of Easter morning worship, as I am sure you can imagine, is that preaching Christ’s resurrection necessitates acknowledging his crucifixion. To say that Christ is risen and lives means nothing unless and until we first say that Christ was crucified and died. Most of us would prefer to skip over that part – we like the happy ending of Easter, where Jesus is raised from the dead. Otherwise, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, our church services would be packed!

We like the promise of new life, and an eventual resurrection and life in the world to come. That gives us comfort, when we, like Martha and Mary, stand by the grave of a loved one. It helps us to believe in resurrection, to believe in another world, better than this one, when we are crushed by problems, grieving, when we are struggling, when we feel alone. We express our Christian hope in the future tense, like Martha: "I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day." And that is truth.

But we fail to recognize resurrection here and now, in the present. So often, like Mary Magdalene, we see Jesus right in front of us, and we don’t even recognize him. Perhaps it is because, like Mary Magdalene, we are not expecting life, not looking for resurrection. Look for death, and you will find despair. Look for resurrection, and you will know new life. But to recognize it, we have to first become acquainted with death. Before a new beginning, there must be an end.

We have to acknowledge our own our eventual final, physical death. And we have to send some of ourselves to the cross to die: we have to crucify all those traits and actions  that blind us to life. When we put to death those things that make us less alive: self-will, self-deception, self-indulgence-- we experience new life: compassion, honesty, generosity.
Do we believe this?

If we do believe it, then Easter is something more than a Sunday School lesson or a once-a-year-nod to religion. If we really do believe in resurrection, here and now, our very lives will be demonstrations of that truth. If Jesus really, truly is the light and the way and the resurrection, Easter is more than just a preview of coming attractions. Easter is here, now.

This past week, we began a new ministry in our community. This program provides bags of food for kids,  food they take home from school for the weekend. It’s a small thing – a bag of cereal and fruit, some spaghetti-o’s. It is also a huge thing – a bagful of hope. It’s a bag of life! 

Last week we received a note from a fifth grade teacher at our partner school. She said, “A student in my class received a buddy bag on Friday, and he was THRILLED!  I wish that I could properly express the look on his face.  I explained that he would get a bag each Friday as part of a special program.  He had a HUGE grin and said, ‘You mean I get this every Friday?  Wow!’
Then, he ran around the classroom and showed the two other students who were also still there after school.  His expression was one of happiness, pride, and relief.  I could tell that the bag of food meant more to him than any one of us could ever imagine.  He left clutching it in his arms.

Such a small thing – a bag of food.
But such a big thing – a gift of hope.

We do this because we believe in resurrection.
We believe in the one who was raised from the dead who calls us into new lives of grace and mercy and love. So as we gather here for worship today, surrounded by the symbols of the great I AM, surrounded by the lilies and the Easter light streaming in the windows, we gather in the presence of the risen Lord. He is here, standing right in front of us.

When the crowds asked for bread, he answered, “I am the bread of life.”
We have this bread of life, here, today.

When the lost asked for help, he answered, “I am the light of the world.”
His light shines for us, here, today.

When the flock felt lost and afraid, he answered “I am the good shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold.” Jesus guides and protects us, here, today.

When his followers needed strength, he answered, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Cut off from him, we can do nothing; but connected to him, and to one another through him, we feel his power, here, today.

When his disciples, in those last moments before he left them, worried about how they would find their way, he answered, “I am the way.” That way is open to us, to all of us, here, today.

When Martha stood in front of him, wondering why he had been so far away in her moment of need, he answered, “I am the resurrection and the life.” That resurrection and life, God incarnate, is here for us now, today.

I challenge you, people of God, to be open and aware of resurrection, here, now, today.
You will find it in a thousand places –
listening to a story you have already heard a hundred times,
cooking a special dinner for those whom you love,
struggling with a fugue at the piano;
putting a baby to bed;
gazing at the sunlight reflecting on the water,
singing songs of hope,
writing a note of care.

Resurrection happens when we are open to God’s spirit, to recognizing Jesus.
Resurrection happens when we die to ourselves and arise to life in Christ.
New life is now.

Because standing right in front of Martha, at her brother’s graveside, is Jesus, the resurrection and the life.
Standing right in front of Mary Magdalene, at his OWN graveside, is Jesus, the resurrection and the life!

Resurrection is right here, right now, right in front of us!
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Do you believe this?