March 2013 Sermons:
"Stand With the Fig Tree" — March 3
If you were choosing a Bible story to read to one of your grandchildren, would you pick this fig tree story? I’m sure you wouldn’t. It’s not cheerful. In fact, it’s downright scary. But what do you expect? After all, we are in Lent. It’s important for us to understand what Jesus means when He tells these two stories together.
People are asking Jesus why God lets terrible things happen. The message of the first story is that life is full of disasters that we cannot prevent. God doesn’t punish people by making bad things happen. We are mortals, and we won’t live forever. Accidents occur. In case you get hit by a car tonight, or slip on a banana peel, you had better be right with God. This is tough talk to hear from Jesus. The message of His fig tree parable is that God gives the lucky people—meaning US--second, third, and fourth chances to live well, even if we don’t bear fruit the first, second and third times around.
The story begins with two senseless disasters. A crowd of pilgrims, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, gets slaughtered by Roman soldiers. Then a tower falls on innocent people. The ancients tried to find explanations for tragedy—just like we do. We try to find simple cause and effect. If a neighbor has lung cancer, we comment that she chose to smoke for forty years. If a house burns down, we ask why the family never installed smoke detectors. If a child gets in trouble, we assume that his parents raised him wrong. We feel safe from God’s judgment because, after all, we would never make the mistakes those people have made.
What about the pilgrims, slaughtered by Roman soldiers? They must have been rabble rousers. The collapsed tower killed eighteen people. They probably deserved to die for their sins, the people commented. If something bad happens to you, it shows that God has judged and punished you, they reasoned. Jesus would have none of that. “We are all sinners,” He tells the crowd. You folks got more time to get right with God than those poor folks who died, but you won’t live forever.
Well, that’s hardly comforting, is it? Jesus is making clear that there is no such thing as one person being "a worse sinner" than another person. Sin is separation from God. We try to shape the world our way, instead of trying to live in the world as God intends it to be. We all sin in that way.
In the parable of the fig tree, everything and every person stands for something else. A fig tree bears fruit twice a year. We are fig trees, and sin is our failure to bear fruit. This fig tree Jesus is talking about, is in God’s vineyard, but it’s not producing figs. For three years, the vineyard owner, who is God, has been waiting for it to bear fruit. So He’s ready to cut the tree down, but the gardener stops Him, and, of course, the gardener is Jesus. The gardener says, “Please give this tree another chance! I’ll fertilize it, and if it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”
That fig tree isn’t growing figs. As God’s people, we are expected to “bear fruit” in return for all that God has done for us. Sin happens when we fail to be who we were created to be. God is disappointed when that happens, Jesus says. That tree may be giving shade to the vineyard workers, but it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. The tree is us. Jesus has interceded with God and has bought us more time to bear fruit.
On the one hand, God does expect us to bear fruit. On the other hand, we must bear the fruit that we are capable of bearing. God doesn’t expect a fig tree to produce apples or oranges. I don’t have to play the clavinova this morning, and Megan doesn’t have to preach the sermon. Joanne doesn’t have to be sure the heat comes on in the chapel, and Sue doesn’t have to direct the choir. God wants us to use the abilities we have, not the ones we don’t have.
This is important to remember as we grow older, and we have to give up bearing the fruit we once gave. As we age, we have to discover what fruit we can bear as older adults. Our days of bearing fruit aren’t over, but we’re called to serve in different ways.
So, what fruit are we to bear? What kind of work are we to do, if we "give a fig"? The writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner, writes: "The kind of work God usually calls you to do, is the kind of work that you need most to do and that the world most needs to have done." If you really love your work, you’ve probably met the first requirement, but if your work happens to be hacking into email accounts, you’ve missed out on the second requirement.
On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you’ve got it made on the second requirement. But if you feel miserable while caring for the lepers, then not only have you missed out on the first requirement, but you’re probably not helping your patients either! And keep in mind: Whether we’re talking about work that you do for pay, or work that you choose as a volunteer, a public servant, a parent, or a caregiver, it’s all the same when it comes to the question of bearing fruit. Frederick Buechner suggests that "the place God calls you to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet." Each of us needs to figure out, together with God, what fruit we are called to bear in the church. Jesus, the gardener, has bought us this extra time, time that many people we have known through the years, never received.
What does this mean for our congregation? Our church has survived a long economic downturn. We are not the church we were in the sixties. We’ve lost three members in the past month, our Sunday School enrollment is shrinking, and our building repairs are costly but necessary. It’s the end of a cold winter, and church leaders are tired from “giving our all” to keep ministries going. But we mustn’t lose heart. Jesus has bought us some time to discover the ways we need to go—and to move ahead with joy.
Jesus, on His way to Jerusalem, asks the people that are standing along the road, “Will you repent, change your life’s direction, and walk with me?” Let us confess our sin, for all of us have sinned-- and then turn and follow Him.
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
The best-loved Bible stories can be the most difficult to figure out. Parables have several meanings, so don’t assume you understand the Prodigal Son story. Yes, it gives a beautiful picture of God’s love. But this story disturbs people because it reminds them of the darker side of childhood. Children see their parents make decisions that seem unfair, and they resent it. If you watched television in the sixties, you’ll remember Tommy Smothers, who kept saying to his brother Dickie, “Mom always liked you best!”
Jesus, who tells this story to the Pharisees, seems to take a permissive attitude toward sin. The father in the parable is supposed to be God. But he seems to be a fool. If he forgives His younger son so easily, where does that leave the older son?
The story begins when the younger son marches up to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance he’s been expecting all his life. The father writes out a big check and hands it over. Then the younger son moves to a faraway land. He spends all the money Dad has given him. At last he hits rock bottom and has to take a job as a pig farmer. Why would Pharisees have a problem with pig farming? Remember that Jesus was telling this story to His fellow Jews. It would be safe to assume that the younger son in the parable is a Jew. For them, pigs are unclean. But times get so bad for the younger son that he finds himself getting hungry enough to eat pig slop. That’s when he realizes that he can’t make it on his own.
The boy says to himself, “If I go back home and tell Dad I’m sorry, maybe he’ll take me on as a hired hand. And that’s a whole lot better than pig farming.” So he starts off for home. As he walks along, he rehearses over and over again what he’ll say to his father.
The scene then shifts back to home. The father is sitting on a rocking chair out on the front porch, when all of a sudden he sees someone coming over the hill. And before you know it, he recognizes his son. So he runs out to greet him. In ancient Judea, older men were the respected leaders of the community. An upper-class elder like this landowner would never have run to greet someone, for any reason. It was considered dignified. But this father ran, because he was so glad to have his son back. I expect you all would do the same.
The father doesn’t give his son a chance to apologize, or to beg for mercy, or to say anything at all. There’s no mention of punishment. No, the father calls the servants and has presents brought in for his son—a ring and a new pair of sandals. This young man is definitely not being demoted to hired hand! Then the father calls his servants and tells them to set up for a celebration that very night. When people ask the father what all the fuss is about, he replies, “My son who was lost is found. He was dead, but now he’s alive again.”
We all enjoy a good party. But to give a party for a disrespectful child who returns home becomes he wants a free meal ticket, is that a good reason to give a party? Maybe he needs to be taught a lesson, instead! It’s one thing to welcome a wayward child home. But when a child has failed, we figure that he or she should be asking for forgiveness and a second chance to succeed. But we are human, and this father is God. There’s another way we can look at his parenting decisions. He has trusted his son enough to give him the freedom to fail, and to learn valuables lesson about life. Isn’t that what God does for us?
Can you imagine how the older son must feel? He’s never asked for money and has never thought about running away from home. This story had begun with the father giving both sons their inheritance. The older son, in the ancient Jewish tradition, would have inherited two thirds of the estate, and the next oldest, one third of it. This younger son had gone out and blown his share. It’s the older son who is the sole owner of the property now, not the father. He’s footing the bill for this party. That fatted calf on the barbeque is HIS fatted calf. Imagine how the “good” brother feels when he hears about this party. And to make matters worse, it was the ancient custom for the oldest son to be the head waiter at a party and serve all the guests. He wants no part of this celebration.
The father tries to resolve the conflict. He will give anything, not to lose either son. He doesn’t want his older boy to miss out on the party. The older son challenges his father, “Have you ever thrown a party for me? That good-for-nothing son of yours waltzes on in here, and you celebrate for him! After all the years I have worked my fingers to the bone, never giving you any problems.”
Does the older son ever go to the party? Jesus doesn’t say. Would you go into the party and celebrate your wayward brother’s return? Another disturbing parable with the same theme is the story of the laborers in the vineyard, in the Gospel of Matthew. A vineyard owner goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers. He promises them the usual day wage. But he doesn’t have enough workers, so later in the day, he hires more men. The last group of workers gets hired at five in the afternoon. All the workers get paid the same amount, whether they work a seven hour day, or just one hour. No worker is cheated, but the laborers hired in the morning believe they’ve been shortchanged. After all, they worked a longer day. It’s not fair—or is it? Is another person’s gain, always our loss? Is life a party, or a hard task that is up to us to finish all alone? It depends on your outlook. Could it be that God reaches out into the lonely dark of our righteousness and invites us to come inside and party?
Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, even before they made themselves right with God. Are we willing to do the same? The younger son shows up to the party right away. So the question is: will the older son decide attend the party too, and sit down to eat with the reformed sinner who is his brother?
We have a God who gives each one of us the love that we need, not the love we deserve. God loves us extravagantly, never counting the cost. God is the kind of parent who waits patiently for us to come to our senses. In telling this story, Jesus is saying that we should take God’s grace as seriously as we take sin.
The parable invites us to make up our own ending. I’d like to think that the younger brother offers to help the older brother manage the family farm. I would also hope that the older brother, after standing outside in the dark, might decide to go in the house, kick off his shoes, and join in the dancing.
John 12: 1-8
This dinner party is a very special occasion. Jesus has just raised His best friend, Lazarus, from the dead. Lazarus’ family is thrilled to see their son and brother alive. Imagine how you would feel. They’re throwing a party for Jesus and His disciples to thank them. This party is almost an act of worship. Lazarus, the young man who’s come alive again, is sitting next to Jesus. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, are the hostesses.
Which Mary is this? In first-century Palestine, the name ‘Mary’ was as common as it is today. Because there are six Marys in the New Testament, it gets confusing. First, there’s Mary of Bethany. She is the Mary in our gospel lesson for today. There are a few “Marys” in the Bible, of whom you’ve probably never heard! There’s Mary, the mother of the disciples, James and Joses; and Mary, a member of the Christian church of Rome. There’s also Mary, the mother of John Mark. She was an early Christian, and a house church met at her home. Finally, we have the two famous Marys: the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. Neither one appears in today’s story. Martha’s sister, Mary of Bethany, is our main female character in this gospel reading.
I’m sure you remember this Mary. She prefers to sit at Jesus’ feet while Martha works hard in the kitchen. When Lazarus comes back from the grave, it’s Martha who runs out to greet Jesus. Mary just stays in the house. In both of these stories, Martha seems irritated because Mary has left her to do all the work. We’ve all felt this way about our siblings or our co-workers, at one time or another. Remember the “group projects” when you ended up doing all the work? At this party, Mary seems to have gotten herself out of kitchen duty. Martha is busily pouring and serving and running back and forth. Mary is not helping; in fact, she’s nowhere to be found. Suddenly, she appears in the dining room with a big jar of perfume. What could she possibly be doing with that?
In the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time, men and women never attended parties together. Women served the wine and the food. Then they were supposed to retreat to the kitchen. It was considered scandalous for a young, single woman to socialize with men at dinner. And yet, here’s Mary, walking right over to the men’s table, lifting a flask of perfume, and pouring it over Jesus’ feet!
Mary’s perfume was called nard. It was a fragrant oily liquid that came from a rare plant that grew only in the Himalayas. That much nard would have been worth three hundred denarii--- as much as a day laborer would have earned in a year! Jars of nard were carried all the way from the Far East on camel caravans. Only very wealthy people could afford this perfume.
When Mary pours out the perfume on Jesus, the men are startled. Judas Iscariot sits near Jesus and Lazarus. He’s especially horrified by what Mary has done. When he can finally speak, the first words out of his mouth are, "What a waste!" He reminds them all of how many hungry people who could have been fed for the cost of this Himalayan perfume. Judas is the keeper of the purse for Jesus and the disciples. He’s been known to slip a little of their money into his own purse every now and then—and Jesus knows it. Judas’ remark makes Jesus angry. The first words out of His mouth are, "Leave Mary alone, Judas. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me."
Is Jesus saying that He doesn’t care about needy people? Not at all! But He’s saying that the world’s needs are literally endless. Only I can satisfy all those needs, Jesus is telling His friends, but you’re not always going to have me with you. Judas doesn’t understand what Jesus means. He’s a judgmental person and, like Martha, a literal thinker. Mary is different from her sister. She and Jesus understand each other. Mary isn’t lazy at all----she’s spiritually gifted. The perfume is her worshipful gift to Jesus, who is her hero. She is so thankful to God that He has raised her brother back to life, that she can’t express it in words. She understands that there’s not much time left to praise Him.
How much time do we have left to praise Him? None of us know the answer to that question. Christ meets each one of us, but we have to meet Him halfway. Each time we come to church we have an opportunity to express our love for Jesus. Knowing ABOUT Jesus, and knowing all about the Bible, are good things, but they aren’t the same as loving Jesus. Mary of Bethany understands this. Recently I talked with a young person who didn’t. She told me that going to church is a waste of time. I disagree! Worship is never wasteful. But many people agree with her.
Mary is a prophet. Mary understands that Jesus is under a death sentence. In a week’s time He will have sacrificed His life for her, and for us. Somehow Mary has figured this out. Being a prophet is a dangerous job, because prophets dare to tell the world what lies ahead, and sometimes that turns out to be bad news. The anointing of Jesus’ feet with perfume is a goodbye gesture. With this extravagant gift, Mary proclaims herself a disciple—at this, the most dangerous time to follow her Savior. His death on the cross is only days away.
A few days after the party at Mary and Martha’s house, Jesus gives His disciples His last commandment-- to love one another in the same way He has loved them. As we move toward Holy Week, keep Mary of Bethany in your mind. Remember the worshipful way she lives. Worship is like Mary’s gift to her Savior. Mary’s sister, Martha, would think of going to church as a time to work hard: to make business contacts or fulfill obligations or cross items off her “to-do” list. When we come to church, I hope we get all something out of the Bible readings and the music. But that’s not the main reason why we’re here. Mary understood that worship is a spiritual gift to God, even if Martha didn’t.
My prayer, as we begin this longest journey to the cross with Jesus, is that we find ourselves filled with the fragrance of love so powerful that all we want to do is fill the world with that sweet smell. To do so, I think, is to live as Christ would have us live.
There were two and a half million people in Jerusalem that day. They had come into town for the Passover Feast. For the Jews of the Mediterranean region, this holiday was an even bigger deal than the Super Bowl is for us today. The law required that the Jews make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with their families for Passover week. The word had reached many of the pilgrims that Jesus, the famous healer from the Galilean hinterland, was outside the city. With Jesus in town, this was promising to be a Passover to remember. Earlier in that week, this same healer had grabbed the people’s attention by raising Lazarus from the dead. It was rumored that He would proclaim Himself Messiah in a day or two. Some people hoped He would throw the Romans out and take over the state. Their king had come to save them, at last.
Jesus’ disciples had borrowed a colt for His ride into the city. Obviously, Jesus was different from the Roman generals. They always came into town on a warhorse with drums beating and a thousand legionnaires marching behind. Jesus wasn’t a military hero. His fame had come from the miracles He had done. Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, and the people crowded the streets to hail Him Messiah: "The One who comes in the name of the Lord!" He was going somewhere important, and they intended to follow. Whoever Jesus was----a king or a man of peace---He had these pilgrims in the palm of His hand. They thought He would ride up to Herod’s palace and sit on his throne.
But there is more to this story. The crowd hasn’t seen Jesus for who He truly is. He’s not an ordinary king, flaunting His power. He’s the king of tax collectors and cripples and fishermen and even of prostitutes. On Monday He throws the money changers out of the temple. The violent scene He makes, by knocking over the tables, provokes the Jewish leaders to try even harder to get rid of Him. On Tuesday He argues with the rabbis in the city and curses the fig tree for being barren. This is a message to Israel’s leaders that God isn’t pleased with them. On Wednesday, He’s anointed with a pound of expensive perfume by Mary of Bethany, much to the discomfort of Judas Iscariot. And Thursday, which we call Maundy Thursday, He is preparing for Passover. This is the evening of the betrayal, the arrest in Gethsemane and the beginning of His trials. The crowds call for His crucifixion. Friday, He is crucified. On Saturday, His body is in the tomb. Sunday is the day of resurrection, the day of victory.
The same crowd that yells, "Hosanna" on the first day of the week will cry, "Crucify him!" in a matter of days. Why? When they see the demands of His kingdom, do they decide not to change the way they’ve been living? The answer is simple. Most of these people are unwilling to be His disciples. Jesus will not allow any compromise with the secular culture, or the government, or the religious establishment. As this becomes clear, the crowds begin to melt away. They aren’t much different from people we know, today. Any faith that claims first place in our lives is simply too demanding.
We can relate to those people who lined the streets on that first Palm Sunday. We live in a day of instant everything, from instant mashed potatoes to instant information. We no longer want to wait for anything. We spend money we don’t have, using our credit cards. We’d rather bank unlimited sums of instant faith, something like winning a spiritual lottery, than commit ourselves to a deeper relationship with Christ. We are like the lady who prayed, "Lord, give me patience--and I want it now!"
For many people today, religious commitment is an “add-on,” like an accessory to a new car. A God who doesn’t give us something new and shiny, and give it to us right now, seems useless. A church service that can’t be immediately translated into four ways to accomplish something on Monday morning seems a waste of our time. We pray and we contribute to the church. We attend regularly when many folks don’t. So we expect God to jump.
Jesus would not adjust His message to the popular image of the Messiah that prevailed in His day. He rode no high horse, but just a lowly colt. He called His disciples to a life-time commitment. He wouldn’t stroke their prejudices in order to attract more followers. God stretches us. He does not stroke us or give us glory.
God is very much more concerned with our holiness than with our happiness. He wants our commitment, not our pleasure. A high school teacher doesn’t care whether or not her students are happy the night before a big chemistry test. Instead, the teacher is concerned with her students being committed to learning chemistry. In the same way, Jesus is not interested in being Messiah for a day. He wants to be Lord of our lives.
Commitment is the way of faith. This is the theme of so many stories in the Bible—from Abraham and Sarah to the Apostle Paul. We don't know the joy of loving and being loved unless we really commit ourselves to the one we love. We don't know the satisfaction of serious accomplishment if we avoid the toughest challenges. Christian faith can only be understood when it is a commitment of a lifetime. Commitment carries us through the times of temptation when we feel we can get away with being less than God calls us to be. It carries us through the valley of doubt, when we feel dissatisfied with our lives and ask, "Is this all there is?"
Jesus was crucified, in large part, because He wasn’t the leader the crowd thought they wanted. For us today, Holy Week calls our tendency to join up with second-rate causes into question. For too many of us, our loyalty to our favorite team or charity or political party gets more energy than our commitment to Christ. Jesus’ triumphal entry invites us to re-examine our understanding of His mission. We will start to see the crowds on the streets melt away, as Jesus’ challenges get more intense. His call to us gets more clear—and much more frightening. A weak religion and a fickle group of followers is no match for the evil that fills the world. That was true then, and even more true now.
The passion story dominates the gospel accounts of Jesus. It is the central story of our faith. Are we prepared to walk with Him up the narrow path to the cross, as the city that had welcomed Him begins to scream for His blood? Are we ready to follow Jesus out of the city to the place of the skull? On this joyful day in the Christian year, the first day of Holy Week, we need to ask ourselves, "Have we made Jesus our king for a day, or will He be the Lord of our lives?"
John 13: 1-17, 31-35
There are things we need to remember once a year. Mostly, they have to do with holidays. For example, the day before Palm Sunday, the Deacon moderator has to find the artificial palm plants and get them out into the sanctuary. The same thing happens with the Christmas tree decorations, right after Thanksgiving. Some of us have to ransack our attics at home for our seasonal decorations. On New Year’s Eve, we look around for the noisemakers, so we’ll have them when the ball drops at midnight. Not to mention the plastic pumpkins and trick or treat bags we need for Halloween.
What is “Maundy?” During Lent, a lot of people ask me what this word means, and most of the time I remember, but occasionally I have to look it up. “Maundy” means “mandate,” or “commandment.” The earliest Christians sang an ancient Latin hymn, called “Mandatum novum do vobis.” The title of that hymn means, “I give you a new commandment.” Maundy Thursday is the traditional day when Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper during His last meal with the disciples, the day before He died on the cross.
The gospel of John doesn’t mention of the sharing of bread and the cup in this meal. Instead, John tells the visual parable of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and commanding them to wash each other’s feet. This is a profound act of self-giving love. At the end of that story, He commands them to love one another. Here are His words: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This “new commandment” doesn’t seem so new, really. Isn’t the Bible all about God’s love? The Torah says to love your neighbor a yourself. But the love Jesus is describing here, isn’t ordinary love. It’s action, not just emotion. Maundy Thursday is a powerful time of receiving and giving. We receive the benefits of Christ’s body and blood, and we promise to give ourselves as Christ’s disciples, to live out His love for the world through our own loving actions for others.
The love Jesus showed on Maundy Thursday was love in the very face of the devil. Jesus washed all twenty-four of the disciples’ feet. He even washed the feet of Judas, the man who was getting ready to go out to report Him to the authorities. The type of love Jesus showed was in spite of, or perhaps, because of the devil in Judas. Jesus knew exactly who was going to betray Him, but He washed Judas’ feet anyway. The type of love that Jesus shows is love in the face of death itself.
People who traveled on those ancient dirt roads always had filthy feet. In Jesus’ time, no host would wash a guest’s feet. Washing feet was a dirty task. The host would set a bowl of water and towel out, but no free person would ever willingly wash the feet of another free person. Even a Jewish slave couldn’t be compelled to wash another person’s feet—it was against the Jewish law. Either a foreign slave would be ordered to do it, or you did it yourself.
But Jesus turns the table upside down in this story. Jesus wraps a towel around His waist, like the lowliest slave would do. He kneels to wash feet covered with dirt, from the dusty roads of Palestine. Instead of showing weakness by doing a menial job, He shows strength and humility.
"Love one another," Jesus said. Today we don’t really need to have our feet washed, the way these ancient folks did, because we wear shoes, and most modern roads are paved. But we can still serve in humble ways: by meeting others’ needs before our own; by looking for jobs nobody wants and cheerfully doing them. We think we are pretty good at loving one another. But the truth is that, when life gets messy, we aren’t always holy or humble or loving or reverent. We get crabby at other people and grumble about the things they say, and we want others to do the grungy work.
We can all do better at showing love for others. God sent Jesus to show the world how to translate love into action. The powers that be, couldn’t handle it. So they put him to death.
As a congregation, we are sent to carry on that love of Christ. We do so here, within these walls, but outside them as well. The love Jesus commands is a love of community that reveals itself in action. The love Jesus shows in this story should push us all even further than we’re used to. Jesus takes risks, in the way He shows love. The temptation Jesus’ disciples were met with that night was that they could interpret Jesus’ new commandment too narrowly and only love one another there in that room as Jesus had loved them. Loving actions among the disciples would be relatively easy—with the exception of Judas, whom none of them would want to love anymore, after he had betrayed their leader. There was danger in the fact that the disciples would be able to love each other really well, but forget to pass that love along, from their little circle of friends to the ends of the earth.
Washing one another’s feet feels funny in church. It’s pretty far outside our comfort zone. Some churches are considering making foot-washing on Maundy Thursday another sacrament. Presbyterians aren’t likely to do that. I once tried foot-washing with an entire congregation in a Maundy Thursday service in New Jersey. We set up a basin with hot soapy water and towels, but no one was willing to have their feet washed but the two pastors! Even the choir didn’t want to. I haven’t attempted to re-enact this story since then, and probably won’t.
Jesus knew that we would fall short of God’s expectations. He gave us the sacrament of Communion, so we would remember His love for us. We receive the Holy Spirit and the strength to serve others when we share His body with Christians around the world--- not because we are perfect, but because we are needy; and not because we love rightly, but because we are loved first by God.
Mary Magdalene went back to Jesus’ tomb just after dawn. This was the second time she had returned, that same morning. She was wandering in a state of shock, after her earlier visit that day. Mary had gone running, in the dark, to tell Peter that Jesus’s body seemed to be missing. Two of the men had gone to check out her story. They had confirmed that His body had indeed disappeared, and then they had left the cemetery. Later, Mary had returned, alone. She wanted it that way.
There was no need for her to be at the tomb now. Women always anointed the bodies of the dead, but that had been done. On Saturday, Jesus had had a burial fit for a king. Now, the bandages that she, herself, had wrapped around His poor head and torso were rolled up neatly on the ground, and He was gone.
Why, then, was Mary lingering in the cemetery? She had come to grieve; and grieve, she did. But she had had another reason for going back to the tomb—a reason that wouldn’t have made sense to another person. By visiting the last place where she had seen His body, Mary had been able to keep her teacher alive in her mind. Jesus had been the one who had helped her turn her life around. In this quiet garden, she could--almost—travel back a week in time, before the terrible things had happened to Him.
God had a different plan for this woman’s future—but she hadn’t been ready to see Him, not yet. In a strange twist to this very strange story, the resurrected Jesus had appeared next to her, and she hadn’t even recognized him. She had thought He was the gardener.
Why hadn’t Mary seen Jesus, when she had wanted to see Him so badly? We can come up with rational explanations. Maybe it had been too dark to see anything, or the tears in Mary’s eyes had blurred her vision. Maybe she had been turned away from Him and couldn’t see his face. These reasons all make sense. But, there may have been a deeper reason. I think Mary had failed to see Jesus because she had been looking for the old Jesus she had lost, not the new Jesus God had given to her, and to all of us.
It’s important to know what resurrection means. It does not mean reincarnation. That belongs to Hinduism. Resurrection isn’t immortality of the soul. That idea comes from Greek philosophy. No, resurrection means dying completely—and then breaking forth in totally new ways. The resurrected Christ is not physically the same as the crucified Jesus. He is a new being, with a completely new body. Resurrection means life bursting forth out of nothing.
Mary had wanted things the way they used to be. She wanted the old familiar Jesus as her teacher, encouraging her and making decisions for her. If she couldn’t have things the way they were, then she wanted things to be the way they might have been. The last thing Mary Magdalene had wanted was to relate to Jesus in a new, spiritual way. Why? because if Jesus had changed into a completely new being, then she would have to change, too.
We understand Mary. We cling to the way things used to be—just like she did. We want to go back to the good times before our children left home, before our spouse died or we got sick, before our bodies began to sag and our energies started to dwindle. We’d like to return to the days before our hearts were broken, before the economy tanked and people seemed to lose their faith, and the world began to pass us by. If we can’t go back, then we would prefer to live in the pain of our loss. We figure that, if the pain is there, the past is still there, too.
Others of us yearn for the way things could have been. If only that child had lived, if only we had taken that exam for a promotion, if only we had accepted that job on the West Coast, and if only we hadn’t gotten married so young. But when we dwell in the past, we can’t see what God has in store for us, now.
Mary finally recognizes Jesus. He speaks to her gently and firmly. "Don’t cling to me," Jesus says, in effect. “Don’t concentrate on the way things were. Instead, go and tell." With these words, Jesus commissions Mary as an apostle, to spread the word and to love others in His name. He shows her the wonders God is working all around her. When He transforms Mary’s sorrow into hope, she becomes a leader of the early church.
There is a Jewish folktale about a widow whose son died in a tragic accident. The woman mourned her loss so deeply that no one could comfort her. At last a friend took her to the house of a holy man. She pleaded with him: "Use your powers to bring my son back. Surely you can pray to the Almighty to lighten my grief!"
The old man spoke kindly to the woman, "Bring me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. I will use that seed to remove all the pain from your life." The woman immediately set out in search of a magic mustard seed. First, she visited the home of a wealthy family, because she was convinced that they had never known sorrow. But as soon as she spoke to the wife, she learned differently. With tears and lament, this rich woman began to tell the tragedies of her life. And the widow listened.
Wherever she traveled, from mansion to hut, the widow was greeted with tales of sadness. Everyone found her a willing listener. After months of travel she became so involved with the struggles of other people that she forgot about her search for the mustard seed. In a way, the holy man was right. The mustard seed had driven away her sorrow.
Easter morning greets us with an offer of new life. We don’t have to wait until we die until we experience it. Jesus makes everything different, because of what God has done. Out of disappointment and rage and loss, Jesus resurrects us. The Apostle Paul is a good example. He was re-created in Christ. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became the foremost missionary of the early Christian faith. Resurrection happens for us ordinary folks, too. When we try new things that gladden our hearts, we can hear His call. When I was holding down a life-draining administrative job, I could feel my spirit shrinking. I started to take voice lessons with our daughter. We found a wonderful teacher. We sang together in church a few times. Laura and I still sing together. Laura loves singing and being a Christian. So do I.
The Lord is lovingly calling your name. What do you love to do, that the world needs you to do? That is your calling, according to theologian Frederick Buechner. You can have a calling at any age. You can let go of the sandbags that hold you down, and fly until you touch heaven. You can live out God’s call to care, and to serve. Such is the promise and the gift of this day.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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