4/21/2013 Sermon: “He Leads Me”

Palestinian shepherd.  CN - 2011
Palestinian shepherd. CN – 2011

Psalm 23:1  The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3  he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.5  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. 

As I’ve mentioned a few times, about two years ago, I went hiking with a small group across the West Bank of Palestine, the area within the center of Israel that has been mostly reserved for non-Israelis.  We followed what is called the “Nativity Trail” – the path that Mary and Joseph would have taken from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or at least some parts of it (http://www.toursinenglish.com/).  I’d say about 80-100 miles of walking.  One thing I learned from this experience is that Bible people must have been in shape, or at least better shape than I was when the walking started!  From green, lush fields on the north to the deserts of the south, it is amazing how a climate can change in such a short distance.

Shepherds 1
CN – 2011

We never went a day without seeing shepherds and sheep, no matter where we were.  Over thousands of years, this entire area has known about sheep and goats.  They are everywhere.  It might be one of the first places on earth where sheep and goats were domesticated.  Sheep and goats can provide a living for people who live in harsh places.  They can give you protein and clothing.  Even today, the Heifer Project probably gives away more sheep and goats that any other farm animals.  There are thousands of shepherds living in the hills of Palestine.

DSC_9783
Bedouin tent near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

So, it’s natural that one of the more common themes in scripture is that God’s people are a flock of sheep or goats.  When David wrote Psalm 23 about 3,000 years ago, he was probably thinking about his own life as a shepherd.  He was having exactly the same experience as the shepherds in Palestine today, except for cell phones and the satellite dishes on their tents.

Jesus the good shepherd fresco
Good shepherd fresco in Roman catacomb, c. 200 AD.

The earliest attempts at paintings of Christ show him as a young man with a lamb on his shoulders. And he would tell a parable about leaving 99 sheep to find one that’s missing.  If we’re the one that’s lost, he searches for us.  He called himself “the good shepherd,” compared with shepherds who may not be so good (John 10:14).  If you are lost, he will not give up searching for you.

I asked our Muslim hiking guide – does that make sense, that a shepherd would leave the flock to go find one sheep?  And he said yes.  By instinct, sheep will mostly stick together; if one is gone, it means it’s in trouble, that something is wrong – and sheep are expensive.  They are valuable. The shepherd really can’t afford to lose one.

So, now I have this image in my mind, actually a whole collection of images.  Shepherds with sheep or goats.  Usually about 20 sheep or goats.  Usually one shepherd.  Sometimes young, sometimes older.  Sometimes with a dog.  Always with a stick of some kind (that’s how you know they are a shepherd – the have a 4-foot stick).  Coming over a hill.  That’s what they do all day.  It might sound boring or unchallenging to us, but their family’s livelihood depends on them, and if they aren’t watching the sheep and giving the sheep what they need, everything falls apart.

We like Psalm 23, don’t we.  This could be the most well-used part of the bible beside the Lord’s Prayer.  When I was in second grade, I received my bible in front of the church and recited Psalm 23 from memory.  When I’ve done services at nursing homes and read Psalm 23 out loud, it seems to be something people can remember when other memories are gone.  Amazing Grace, Christmas carols, and Psalm 23.  I almost always include it in funeral and memorial services.  It brings comfort and peace.  This is mostly because of the first few lines.  But it’s also an adventure story, so get ready for some action.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.   He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;  he restores my soul.

We need God to watch out for us because we are in trouble on our own.  Big trouble.    God takes us to green pastures and still waters.  On our own, we have no idea where those things are:  Green pastures and still waters. Spiritual food and water.  The places where your soul is restored.  We have to trust God to lead us to those places.

Up north in Palestine/Israel, it’s easy to see where the food and water is, it’s so green and lush.  The farther south we walked the more I wondered, how do sheep and shepherds cope in the desert?  Not much food or water there.  Not much of anything there but rocks!  But I just didn’t know where to look.  There are springs of water in the desert, sometimes cisterns where the shepherds have collected rainwater in the winter, little patches of grass near these places, and your shepherd knows where to take you.  It’s best to follow.  Without the shepherd, you’re in trouble.  But God will take you to the place where you can be restored.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Now the adventure starts – God is taking us somewhere.  It would have been nice to stay in the green pastures by the still waters, but we’re moving.  There are forces out to get us that we have no control over – and may not even know about.  Nature is full of predators, and humans are no different from any other animal.  We need protection!  Maybe even from each other!  So God leads us in the right paths… for his name’s sake – not for our name’s sake, but for his.  God has to be known as the one who will take care of us – God has a reputation to uphold, for the sake of his name.

 

Desert valley near Jericho, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Desert valley near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The shepherd is taking us to the green pastures and the still water, but we have to walk through the valley to get there.  The valley is the place where you don’t want to be.  At sunset, that’s where it gets dark first.  The valley is where predators hide in caves and behind rocks.

We slept with Bedouins for a couple of nights in a big tent.  One night, after our usual meal of chicken and rice, a few of us started throwing our chicken bones in the campfire.  Our hosts asked us not to do that because the smell would attract animals we didn’t want.  Maybe that’s the verse in the psalm we can relate to the best – we all have that dark valley where the “wild things are.”

So many of us walk into worship in a worried frame of mind, reliving that bad experience from last week or last year, afraid it will happen again.  The valley was so dark. Someone here is in the valley right now.

Walking through that valley it gets so dark, you don’t know if you can make it through, it’s pitch-black dark and you’re breathing fast and your heart is racing and it’s hard to see what’s ahead and you start to lose your orientation…  And it gets so scary that you can forget that the shepherd is right there, walking with you. 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.  It got so scary, that you stopped talking about God and started talking to God.  God, you are with me.  God was with you all along.

And of course, this is what God wanted all along:  What God has wants is a relationship with you.  God wanted you to speak, so he God can have conversation with you – a relationship!  It’s been a long walk and it’s about time you said something!

Chicken and rice served in a Bedouin tent.  CN - 2011.
Chicken and rice served in a Bedouin tent. CN – 2011.

And now you’re at God’s table.  We step into the tent and look… there’s an enormous pile of food (you’d better like chicken and rice!).  And…. we are not alone!  We were even less alone than we thought!  You’re having a meal with all the other scared sheep – and enemies.  God doesn’t eliminate the enemies; God takes away the fear of enemies.  We can eat at the table in peace, even if the enemies are there.  And your cup is overflowing.  This is the part I really like – the overflowing cup.  Just when you think you’ve got enough – God gives you more.  When, God, when!  Enough already!  In the presence of adversity, in the presence of major trouble, in the presence of enemies, God gives you more than you were expecting.  When the dark times come, remember that overflowing cup.

And now, it’s at this meal that God anoints us, which means we are chosen by God for a special purpose.  In those times, only special people were anointed with oil.  People with a special calling – a special purpose.  The oil is usually scented – to make you smell better after a long scary walk. It’s a comfort smell.  It’s all around you; it permeates you.  It’s an embrace from God.  It’s a step of faith to let God touch you with the oil – to absorb God through faith.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

The sheep who are worshiping in the house of God don’t have to worry.  When you are with God, you are home.  The green pastures and the still waters are nice, but the safest place is in the presence of God, even though God the Shepherd may give a nudge with the rod and the staff every now and then.  That’s better than being vulnerable to the wild beasts who would love to be having you for dinner tonight.  But you can breathe deeply.  You’re safe.  This was all about getting you to trust God, to give yourself to the Good Shepherd, to surrender to the care of Christ.

Psalm 23 was written by somebody on their way from one place to another, somebody who knew the good things of life as well as pain and suffering, somebody who knew that without God, they were in a dangerous place.  The valley may not be something that you are walking through today, but you will. The people in this room represent many dark valleys.  God knows that you have been through a dark valley; you may be there today.

None of us gets out of life without walking through the valley, but it’s clear that God doesn’t intend for us to stay there forever.  The valley of the shadow is something we all go through with God, with Christ, and with each other.  Let your faith be an encouragement to someone else this week.  Ask God for that opportunity. Remember that there is a green pasture and still water waiting for you.  God will take you there, and your soul will be restored.  It’s a promise.

 Prayer

O God, there’s danger everywhere.  We lock our houses and our cars and we never talk to strangers.  But the more we hide the more dangerous the world gets and the more frightened we become.  We forget that in all places and in all things, you are ready to give us the security we need.  We are so preoccupied, we lock you out too.

Show us what it means to be people in your family, sheep in your flock together, depending on you together.  Give us faith in your Son together; give us a new vision for worship together.  Use us to make our world a safer place.  Let there be at least one pocket of resistance to the temptation give in to the violence and terrorism we see all around us.  Amen.

04/14/2013 Sermon: “Is That You, Jesus?”

2 Galilee fishermen
Fishermen in the Sea Galilee: two boats hauling in a net between them. CN – 1989.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’6He 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.7That 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 lake.8But 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.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.12Jesus 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.13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Statue near the ancient town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, Palestine:  "Jesus Restores Peter."  CN - 2011.
Statue near the ancient town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, Palestine: “Jesus Restores Peter.” CN – 2011.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Jesus in Food.  For many years, I had been collecting news clippings of Jesus sightings.  You may have come across these stories yourself.  The image of Jesus will appear in the strangest places and in the strangest ways.  I don’t collect the news clippings any more; “image of Jesus” stories are easy to find online.

It seems to me that the image of Jesus shows up a lot in food, like toast and tortillas.  There is a company that decided to cash in on the image of Jesus in toast idea: you can buy a toaster that will always burn the image of Jesus on your toast.

I remember when the image of Jesus appeared on the side of a rusty oil storage container in Ohio.  I was riding a bicycle past it with a group of high school kids (on a bike trip).  I don’t think we were able to see the image very well, but there were cars lined up on the side of the road and people with cameras.  Around that time, there was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus in the stain of a plate glass window of an office building in Florida.  The image of Jesus shows up sometimes in tree bark or other naturally growing things.  How do we know that’s Jesus?  The long hair and beard?  I’m not sure.

Stories like these are fairly common.  Here’s one that isn’t so common:

There is a man named Chris Carrier from Coral Gables, Florida, who is in his 40’s now.  Back in the 70’s, he was 10 years old when he was abducted; his kidnapper was a man who lived in his neighborhood and was angry with his family.  Chris was wounded by a gunshot, and then left to die in the Everglades.  Amazingly, the he survived, but lost sight in one eye.  No one was ever arrested.

Then, over 20 years later, a man confessed to the crime, and Chris Carrier, who had become a youth pastor in a Presbyterian church and then a teacher at a Christian school, went to see him.

He found David McAllister, a 77-year-old ex-convict, frail and blind, living in a North Miami Beach nursing home.  Carrier began visiting often, reading to McAllister from the Bible, and praying with him.  David McAllister eventually made a profession of faith.

The statute of limitations on the crime had run out years before, so McAllister was never arrested arrested.  Carrier says, “While many people can’t understand how I could forgive David McAlister, from my point of view, I couldn’t not forgive him.  If ‘d chosen to hate him all these years, or spent my life looking for revenge, then I wouldn’t be the man I am today, the man my wife and children love, the man God helped me to be.”

Full story:  http://assets.baptiststandard.com/archived/2001/11_26/pages/carrier.html

Was there ever a time when you felt that you were in the presence of Jesus?  I have.  Sometimes in a conversation, sometimes in worship.  Obviously, there’s a big difference between an image of Jesus (or what we think is an image of Jesus) and the presence of the Spirit of Jesus.

The story about Chris Carrier might have captured the essence of Jesus better than the “image of Jesus” stories, but if that’s the case, how is it possible to point somewhere and say, “There’s Jesus!”?  That’s hard.  If it’s any consolation, the first Christians had trouble recognizing Jesus even when he was standing right in front of them.

Lets unpack the gospel story and learn to recognize Jesus together.

Actually, it was three stories.  First, a fishing story.  Jesus helps the disciples catch a lot of fish, but they aren’t sure who he is. The second is about a breakfast they have with Jesus, but there’s still some doubt that it’s Jesus they’re eating with.  The third is a conversation Jesus had with Peter.  There is now no doubt in Peter’s mind that he is talking with the risen Jesus, but it took three of these stories, three conversations for the fog to clear.

For some reason, when the risen Jesus appeared, it wasn’t obvious right away that it was him.  Recognizing the risen Jesus can take time.  But what is clear is that believing in the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of Christian life.

God uses these resurrection stories of Jesus to give us assignments as his followers.

Catch These Fish.   The first story is about how the disciples go fishing and Jesus helps them catch a huge number of fish.  There are so many fish in the net that they can’t get it in the boat.

This is a vivid picture for me.  The sea of Tiberias (which is the Sea of Galilee) is a lake not too much larger than some of the larger lakes around here.  It’s surrounded by grassy hills.  There are sheep on the hills.  This is one of those places that hasn’t changed very much from the times of Jesus.  The fishermen still catch fish in small boats the same way (except there are motors on the boats).  Two boats will go out with a net between them.  One boat makes a circle in the water and when it comes back to the other boat, they haul the net in.

Do you remember Jesus saying to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)?  That’s the same message here.  “You will bring people into my net; into my family.  Many people.”

It’s not just a prediction of what these disciples will do; it is a command for the church.  Go fishing.  Bring people into the net; into the family.  Like the folks who will join the church next week, all come to us because family or friends invited them.  And there are lot more fish to catch.  The disciples went out to fish with a net to catch as many fish as possible.  All kinds of fish.

Does it matter that probably most of the people of our own community don’t have a church family?

Eat This Meal.  The second thing we do is gather together to be with Jesus.  More than that, we eat together.  This is the easiest way to bring people into the presence of Jesus.

That is the meaning of Jesus being the short order cook on the beach:  Jesus feeds his people and they feed each other.  We grow spiritually from eating together in the presence of Jesus.  Eating together as a church makes us healthy.  The Lord’s Supper (communion), as well as breakfasts, potlucks, whenever.  It’s over these meals we honor the presence of God among us.  It’s over these meals we develop our relationships as God’s family. This is one of the ways we say yes to God and internalize God.  The more we internalize God through these relationships, the more God nurtures us, and the better able we are to catch fish!

Feed My Sheep.  The third thing we do in response to faith in the risen Jesus is feed sheep.  When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus does not respond by saying, “That’s great, Peter; kudos to you!”  He says, “Feed my sheep.” Take care of my people.

On the one hand this little story is just about Peter: the guy with the big mouth who broke down the night Jesus was tried.  If this conversation between Jesus and Peter hadn’t been included, John’s last references to Peter wouldn’t have been very flattering.  For some people in the early church, it may have been important to know that Jesus forgave him and gave him a mission to lead the early church.

In this conversation, Peter gets a new identity from Jesus.  Peter, you go spread the good news of God’s forgiveness, remembering how Jesus forgave you.  It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t say three times, “Peter, I forgive you.”  First he asks a question: “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you.”  Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”  The forgiveness of God comes with a mission to give that forgiveness away.

It’s clear from the early history of the church that Peter was not the same person after this conversation.  By the time this gospel was written, most people in the early church probably knew that Peter had died for his faith in Christ – this same Peter who denied knowing Jesus just a few days before Jesus was crucified.  And then a few weeks after meeting the risen Jesus, it was this same Peter who was preaching to the same crowd that crucified Jesus, healed a lame person (with John; Acts 4), and reached out to the local Romans to help them believe in Christ.  He was feeding the sheep of Jesus.

With faith in Jesus, with love for Jesus, you can be strong, too, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you’ve been.  In fact, God depends on you.  He asks, Do you love me?  When we say yes, he says to each of us, Feed my sheep.  Love those whom I love.

Shroud of TurinOver the years, there has been a lot of research applied to the Shroud of Turin (right), which many think has the image of Jesus on it.  It’s probably the most famous image of Jesus on something. But the place where Jesus really wants to make an appearance to someone else is through us.  People need to see the gospel of God’s love and forgiveness demonstrated in our lives.

Jesus’ Plan.  There’s an old legend that’s been told and retold for many years.  It’s the story of when Jesus returned to heaven 2,000 years ago.

The angel Gabriel met Jesus and said, “You must have suffered terribly down there, Jesus.  Do the people on Earth know and appreciate how much you love them and how you want them to live?”

Jesus said, “No, not yet.  Only a handful in Palestine know.”

Gabriel asked, “Then how will everyone know?”

“I’ve asked Peter, James, John, Thomas, and a few more to tell the others about me.  Then they will tell others and they will tell others, and so on.”  Gabriel said, “What if they grow weary?  What if some forget? What if somewhere down in the twenty-first century people don’t carry on your message?  Haven’t you made other plans?”

Jesus said, “I’ve made no other plans.  I’m counting on them.”

Prayer

O God, make us dependable to represent you in our lives.  Help us help others find you.  We start with our own hearts, coming to you for forgiveness.  Forgive us for our pride and selfishness.  Forgive us for getting in the way of the love and forgiveness you constantly extend to others.  Make us instruments of your peace; give us the strength, courage and wisdom to be ambassadors for your in our families and community.  Make us more like you.  Amen.

3/31/2013 Sermon: “Have You Heard?”

DSC02296

Let’s begin our worship with one of the most ancient Christian greetings in its original language:  Christos Aneste!  Alythos aneste!  (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! – in Greek)

John 20.  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. 2So 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.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 One of the “perks” of my job is that on this Sunday, in front of a lot of people, I get to stand up and read the story about Mary and Jesus at the tomb.  You know how it feels when you hear music you really enjoy, how you play it again, and turn it up a little bit the next time?  That’s what this is like for me.

You do realize that the Christian faith isn’t as much about church and making a positive difference in the world as it is about this story and whether you believe it.  What this story is about, in fact, the reason we are here, the reason we are in this room together today, is that a woman named Mary went to a cemetery, to a tomb, expecting to find Jesus dead and he wasn’t.  The highest holy day of the church has it’s roots in something that happened in a cemetery. When was the last time you had a good experience in a cemetery?

Courbet - "Funeral at Ornans" (1850)
Courbet – “Funeral at Ornans” (1850)

There is a nineteenth century painting by a French artist named Courbet.  It’s of a funeral, the part of the funeral when people gather around the grave and the final words are said; the part of the funeral that’s called the committal.  It’s a gray fall day, or maybe early spring, when there are no leaves on the trees and the grass is brown.  There’s a crowd of people around the grave, all dressed in black, with somber expressions on their faces.  The priest is saying a prayer and there is a group of women off to the side who are weeping – they are the only ones in the picture with any emotions – but since they don’t stand next to the grave, you get the idea that they might not be “family.”

But there’s something wrong with this picture.  It takes a few minutes to sink in, but suddenly you realize no one is looking at the casket.  Most of them don’t even look at each other.  They gather out of instinct.  These people don’t even need the casket to have a funeral.  For them, living means waiting your turn to die.  There is no hope.  The funeral might as well be for them, because they are the ones who are dead.

This was the painter’s commentary on life.  No real wish to die, but no good reason for living either.  We all know what that’s like: filling our weeks and months with chasing after experiences that don’t mean anything once we’ve had them.  Chasing things that break and wear out and become a burden once we’ve got them.  Habits and attitudes that are like prisons.  You don’t have to be in a grave to be dead. 

West CemeteryWhen Mary came to the cemetery that morning, she was dead.  She had no hope.  She had no reason to be hopeful about anything.  She may have been weeping because of the trauma of watching the execution of Jesus.  That would make me weep.  I don’t know about you, but that would leave me with Post Traumatic Stress.  She may have been weeping because the tomb looked like it had been vandalized. She may have been weeping because that was the custom: to mourn at the tomb of a loved one for three days (then after three days the soul leaves the body – an old Jewish tradition).  She is there for closure.  Jesus is dead.

Jerusalem cemetery - outside southeastern wall of old city.  CN - 2011
Jerusalem cemetery – outside southeastern wall of old city. CN – 2011

Cemeteries seem to have a strange kind of power over us. In Jerusalem, cemeteries had to be, and still have to be, outside the city walls.  But our cemeteries are often right next to our most public places, like church buildings.  I know that there is a hidden one here at St. Paul’s in Manheim – behind the building under the parking lot (some of the tombstones from the early 1800’s are in the basement).  In our culture, it has even been possible to be buried in a church building.  This goes back to the cathedral days in Europe when rich people would leave money to the church so that the priests would regularly say mass for their souls after they were gone.

There have been times when death has been more accepted as part of living.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).

People in New England used to express it on their tombstones:

“As you are, so were we; as we are, you shall be.”

“Be ye also ready.”

(Inscriptions on early eighteenth-century stones in the town cemetery in Essex, Mass., where I served my first church.)

In older New England houses, there is a casket door – a doorway in an odd place – positioned in such a way that you can get a casket into the house without having to go around an interior corner.  Caskets, tombstones, cemeteries, death.  For everything there is a season…

And then, the interruption…

Mary just ran in the room with the most amazing thing anybody has ever heard.  Where were you when you first heard, or understood, that Jesus is alive?  Some people remember that day; the day you find out that Jesus is alive could be the best day of your life.  This news is too good to keep to ourselves; we have to give it away!  It’s not as hard as you think.  It could be as easy as telling somebody you learned some Greek in church today.  You can do it.  We all can do it together.  Christos aneste!  Alythos aneste!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

On this day, God turned all our thinking about cemeteries and about death upside down.  Because of what happened on this day, at that cemetery outside the city wall in Jerusalem, for Christians, death is nothing more than a transition.  It doesn’t matter that there’s life at the end of the tunnel or even that there is a tunnel.  Death is the next step in living.  I said living.  On this day, God changed the meaning of death by changing what it means to be alive.  God sent Jesus to change life, your life right now.

On this day, God turned living upside down.  Mary was the one who came to that cemetery dead and left alive.  That’s what happens to anybody who meets Jesus.  They begin to live. Physical death is just a moment of transition for those who are alive in Jesus.  That is the point of this story, and that is the point of our being here today.

The Apostle Paul makes it simple:

Romans 10: 8 ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’  (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’

We are here together because of our faith in something supernatural that happened in a cemetery.  Don’t be confused – it’s our faith in that living one that makes it all work.  Find a moment to tell God you believe, then tell someone else.  It’s not as hard as you think.

The Nervous Little Monk.  I’d like to tell you the story of a little monk.  He was a nervous little guy who had no confidence in front of other people.  One day he was asked to do something that he feared more than anything else in life.  He was called to speak before all the other monks in the monastery.

He was very nervous.  He stayed up all night thinking about what he would say.  The next day, with bags under his eyes, he finally went to the chapel.  He was nervous, ringing his hands, and he stood before his fellow monks and began to speak.  Nervously he said, do you know what I’m going to say?  They all shook their heads: no.  And he said, “neither do I, receive the benediction, God be with you, you are dismissed.” And he walked off the platform.  The other monks couldn’t believe it!  The supervising monk pulled him aside and said, “This is totally unacceptable, tomorrow you must do a better job.”

The poor little monk stayed up all night worrying, wondering how he would control his fear and what he would say.

The next morning, with bigger bags under his eyes, he walked out in front of all the other monks, with his knees shaking, he said, “Do you know what I am going to say?”

This time all the other monks wanted to help him out a little bit and they nodded their heads: yes.  The little monk said, “Good, then I won’t have to tell you!  Receive the benediction, God be with you, you are dismissed!”

The supervising monk grabbed him and said, “I warn you, tomorrow you must come and do a better job.  If you don’t there will be severe punishment!”

The little monk stayed up all night long worrying and wondering what he could say, what he could do.

The next morning the chapel was packed.  People from the village had come; they had heard about the chapel services and they couldn’t wait to see what this little monk would do this time. Finally, he began to speak, and he said, “Do you know what I am going to say?”  This time some of the people nodded yes, and some of them shook their heads no.  The little monk said, “Will all of you who know kindly tell all of those who don’t know?  Receive the benediction, God be with you, you are dismissed.”

Have you heard?  Jesus is alive!  Will those of you who know kindly tell those who don’t know?

Prayer

O God, on this day you amazed the world.  You took the worst that the human race had to offer and turned it into the best thing that ever happened.  You saved us.  You make life out of death.  Now bring life to us.  Make the living Jesus real to us in ways we’ve never experienced or expected.  Help us make him our Lord.

Bring us out of the tombs we live in.  Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for.  Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us.  Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive.  Make us like him.  Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference.

We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus.  Amen.