Sunday, April 08, 2012

We Will Dance Upon Our Graves: Easter Sunday Sermon, April 8, 2012

I was inspired by "Mary Magdalene's Story" by Heather Johnston, in Geoffrey Duncan, compiler, Let Justice Roll Down: A Worship Resource for Lent, Holy Week and Easter (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), pp. 231-233.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing.

I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed.
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Common English Bible

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
- John 20:1-18, Common English Bible

Mary Magdalene, Mary from the town of Magdala in Galilee. She rises very early on that Sunday morning, while it is still dark, and as she wakes the terrible memories come back and she knows that the last few days have not just been a bad dream. Jesus - the man who had healed her of a mental illness; the man she had looked to for compassion and understanding - is dead. She and the other women had watched in horror as he carried his cross outside the city, then they had wept for him as the Roman soldiers hung him on it and left him to his agony. The women had watched by themselves, because the male friends of Jesus had all deserted him and were in hiding. Then she seemed to move in a daze with the little group of his supporters who took his body to the tomb.

Now she gets up and carries a jar of ointment so that she can do some of the burial preparations neglected in the rush on Friday. There are faint light streaks in the sky as she heads out. She meets up with other women who had followed Jesus and watched him die. They ask each other how they can enter the tomb when there is a heavy stone sealing its entrance.

It is still quite dark in the garden where the tomb is located, but is getting just light enough to see that the stone has been rolled away to expose the entrance. The body of Jesus must be gone! They have been denied even this one last thing they were going to do for him. The shocked women back into the city, to the house where the followers of Jesus are holed up, and they whisper urgently through the locked door that it is them, let them in. Mary breathlessly tells them, “They’ve taken our Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”

And then Mary is gasping for breath again as she runs behind two of the men, Peter and another friend of Jesus, as they race to the tomb. The other friend is the fastest, and arrives first. The sun is coming up now, so as he stoops down he can make out the linen burial cloths inside the tomb, but he hesitates to go further. Then Peter runs up, enters and sees that the cloths are folded neatly. His friend goes in after him, sees and believes, but what? How is the body gone? The two men look around, then head back into the city before someone comes along and reports that they have taken the corpse.

Mary Magdalene stays there, left alone near the tomb, trying to make sense of all of this, tears streaming down her face, probably out of breath from her run. She realizes that someone is standing behind her, a man who asks, “Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” She still has her gaze set on the tomb, and without turning replies, “Are you the gardener? If you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

And then the man speaks again. And her heart jumps as she recognizes the voice, the voice she thought she would never hear again. “Mary,” Jesus says.

She turns, hardly daring to believe what she is hearing. “Teacher,” she says, and reaches out her hands to him, but Jesus says, “Don’t hold on to me. I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them that you have seen me.” And when she wipes away her tears, he is gone. And she is off running again, into the city with the news, wondering if anyone will believe her when the words explode from her, “I have seen the Lord.”

What a story. Of all of the friends of Jesus, of all the people in the world, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection, the only one who knows that Jesus is alive. And she is sent to tell everyone.

You know, these last few weeks have been tough for folks here - as hard for some people as the last days before Easter were for the friends of Jesus. I lost track of the number of funerals in Ingleside, Finch, and Morrisburg. At one point the funeral director and I realized that we had seen each other every day for four days straight. Some of us seemed constantly to be going to a funeral visitation or service.

So we can know something of the emotions of that group following Jesus. Any of us who have experienced the death of a loved one know how grief overwhelms us and it feels as if we’re just going through the motions of life. We want to be like those friends of Jesus, in hiding and not coming out. Last Easter my mother died on the Saturday morning, and I felt as if I was one of those in Jerusalem on that long ago weekend, devastated by death, emotionally raw, and wondering what comes next.

This last month it’s been as if we’re surrounded by death. And we are. We have been coping with the deaths of people we know. And around us is a culture of death which celebrates death in video games and TV shows and movies, a Good Friday world in which nations kill to preserve peace and security, just as an empire killed Jesus to keep order.

And so we can understand, and relate to, the characters in the story: Peter - who sees but returns home; the unnamed other friend, who sees and believes, but isn't sure what; and Mary, who goes from grief to joy. You know, many of us have heard the Easter story our whole lives. Yet we still wonder about it. We still struggle with it. We’re still unsure what it means for us as we cope with death. We hear the story, and we want to believe it, but we’re still hesitant. Facing the death of loved ones and friends, we’re like Mary Magdalene, crying in sorrow.

We had another reading this morning, from the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul, who wrote this letter, joined the Jesus movement long after that first Easter, but he tells the Corinthian church about what he was told: Jesus died for us as the Scriptures said, he was buried, and he rose from the dead, again in line with the Scriptures. Then he appeared to his followers.

We stopped reading at that point. But this chapter was also read at my mother’s funeral, and it continues: "If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our faith is useless. If we have hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else." But, Paul says, "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He’s the first crop of the harvest of those who have died." Paul means here that Jesus being raised from death at Easter is the first of many resurrections to come, as all the dead will be raised. Paul says, "each event will happen in the right order: Christ, the first crop of the harvest, then those who belong to Christ at his coming, and then the end," when he brings every authority and power to an end, including death. And Paul concludes this chapter with stirring words: "we will all be changed, in an instant, at the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will all be changed. Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

Paul also writes to another group of believers, the Thessalonians, telling them, "brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t grieve like others who don’t have any hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus."

Brothers and sisters, because of Easter, death may still be with us, but it has no sting. All of the dead will be raised.

I was in Nashville, Tennessee, last fall, and got into a lot of new country and gospel music there. I was listening to two women from Texas, who call themselves The Reliques, and they have a song called The Love of God. They sing, “I will dance upon my grave, when you’re calling out my name.”

It’s been difficult this last while to think about dancing on graves. But Jesus was raised to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love. Jesus was raised to free us from death’s hold on us. Jesus was raised to break the power of all death: physical death, the death of relationships and dreams and hopes, the death inherent in human systems based on violence. Death will come to an end

Right now it’s hard to feel like this is an Easter world. It’s still a Good Friday world much of the time. But Easter is the first day of the week, the first day of a world changed forever, because of that moment when Mary Magdalene in her grief hears a familiar voice say her name. The Lord of heaven and earth, through whom and for whom everything was created, who did not exploit equality with the Creator but emptied himself to become human, to suffer with us, and go to death on a cross – Christ speaks her name with love. We may not recognize him through our tears, but he is there, speaking our names so that we will not grieve as people do who have no hope, speaking our names so that hope can set us free from sorrow to share the new life of Easter with others.

Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes with the dawn. We will dance upon our graves, when Christ is calling out our names. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Easter Sunday slides

I was late with the Good Friday slides, and most worship planners are probably done at least their lectionary presentations for Easter Sunday - that is, if they have a projector, which we don't at either Newington or Trinity Ingleside (but we're looking at it). Here are the beautifully done PowerPoint slides with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Easter Sunday from the Common English Bible.

It's the story that we can never tire of: "Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here."


Good Friday (at the last minute)

I'm very late posting these, but I'm probably not the only worship leader rushing to get things ready with a day left! Here are the PowerPoint slides for Good Friday worship, with the Revised Common Lectionary readings from the Common English Bible.


Another concept video: Project Glass

A while ago I posted Microsoft concept videos set in the near future. This one is from Google's Project Glass, and shows interaction with the cloud through augmented reality glasses. Temperature, calendar events, location-based checkins, sharing with Google+ circles, voice calls - all come through the spectacles.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Faithgirlz! and Boys Bibles

I was pleased to receive copies of the NIV Faithgirlz! and NIV Boys Bibles for review. These have been developed for children 9 to 12 years old, adding a number of features to the New International Version text of the Scriptures. Both Bibles have topical indexes of Bible verses, blank pages for journaling, and introductions to each book that state clearly who wrote it, why they wrote it, for whom they wrote it, when it was written, and what are some of the book's important teachings.

Faithgirlz! has material designed to let tween girls imagine themselves in the story as "Dream Girls," "Treasure This" words to live by for memorization, and "Oh I Get It" answers to Bible questions. The Boys Bible has highlighted verses for memorizing, fun facts about Bible times and characters, "Makin' It Real" help for applying Bible stories to tween lives, and - what I am sure will be a much-read section by boys - "Grossology," gross and gory stuff boys never knew was in the Scriptures ("If it oozes, bleeds, smells, or make your spine tingle, it's in the Bible"). These features are interspersed with the Scriptural text in both Bibles.

I outsourced the Faithgirlz! review to a 10 year old girl. She was very pleased with this Bible. She found the features very interesting, and liked the "Bring It On!" bubbles in particular - these are short quizzes about life issues that lead to applicable Bible verses. For example:
I have trouble being patient when:
A. Other people act stupid.
B. Someone does something to me and just expects me to forgive them.
C. I try to be good but things get in the way.

If you answered:
A. Go to Romans 15:1-6.
B. Go to Colossians 3:12-13.
C. Go to Hebrews 12:1-3.

She also appreciated the two indexes: Promises From the Bible lists God's promises when you are...sick, confused, impatient, and so on, and helpful Bible verses for each; and Perspectives From the Bible, what the Bible says about anxiety, compassion, love, revenge, etc. The same indexes are in the Boys Bible. Her mother looked at the Faithgirlz! website and was very impressed at the range of material, not just the Bible but fiction, devotionals, and other non-fiction, all intended for tween girls discovering "the beauty of believing."

She did comment that the font is quite small and it's easy for a tween reader to lose focus on the page. With all of the extra material, the publisher, Zondervan, likely found it difficult to use a larger font size in a 1480-page volume.

So thanks to my reviewer! Overall, these are great resources for pre-teens in the target age group. As a minister in a liberal Protestant denomination, I can critique the exclusive use of masculine pronouns for God and the literal approach to Biblical authorship (for instance, scholars are pretty certain that Paul did not write the letters to Timothy or Titus). But I realize that parents are searching for Biblical resources that will engage their tweens, and these pre-teens are looking to be engaged with a Biblical text that has features added to appeal to them. My generation had to make do with the unadorned King James Bible; when we were teens the Good News Translation ("Good News For Modern Man") came along. Perhaps we would have read more closely if our Bibles had Grossology or Dream Girls features.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Riding On a Donkey: Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
- Mark 11:1-11, Common English Bible

We’ve heard from all the characters in the Palm Sunday story: Jesus, riding into the city; his followers, sent to make the arrangements for his entrance; the onlookers, who ask what these people are up to; the crowds who shout Hosanna and lay branches and clothes on the road in front of Jesus. Well, we haven’t heard from one, the character no one wanted to play when we looked at the story in confirmation class: the donkey. But how much of a story would there be without the donkey?

The donkey is the character that doesn’t get any respect. Donkeys get overlooked, or are seen as stupid, or ugly, or pitiful like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, or amusing like Donkey in the Shrek movies. Remember the first Shrek movie, how when Donkey is brought to the roundup of the fairy tale creatures the soldiers laugh at him and mock him, which sounds like what happens to Jesus when he is arrested. But this Donkey can speak – when Princess Fiona says, he can talk, Shrek says “yeah, it’s getting him to shut up that’s the trick.” And he can fly when he is sprinkled with pixie dust, calling out to the guards, “Now I’m a flying talking donkey! You might have seen a housefly, maybe even a superfly, but you ain’t never seen a donkeyfly!” As great as this Palm Sunday story is, imagine what it would be like if Jesus had come into the city on a flying donkey. That would be awesome.

There is actually a talking donkey in the Bible, back near the beginning in the book of Numbers. Whenever I read that story, I think of the donkey speaking in Eddie Murphy’s voice from Shrek. But a talking donkey still doesn’t get respect. Even his friend Shrek calls Donkey useless, pathetic and annoying. And Donkey says to Shrek, “You don’t know what it’s like to be treated as a freak! Well, maybe you do.”

So there’s a point here for any of us who ever feel left out, useless, looked down upon, laughed at, freakish, because of our appearance or disability or other circumstances – the Palm Sunday story doesn’t work without the donkey. G.K. Chesterton, who was an English writer, wrote a poem about this, told from the donkey’s point of view, and part of the poem goes:

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.

The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour,
One far fierce hour and sweet;
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Today the donkey is the object of contempt. But in the time of Jesus it was the beast of kings. In the first Shrek movie Donkey gets excited when the princess calls him a noble steed, but 20 centuries ago the donkey was noble. A king rode to war on a horse, but when he came in peace he rode on a donkey. The prophet Zechariah says in the Bible, “Your king comes to you, riding on a donkey.”

Jesus is acting out this prophecy, and he needs the donkey to do it. He doesn’t walk into the city like the other pilgrims coming for the festival. The story really doesn’t work without the donkey, to show that Jesus is the king who comes in peace. And he is greeted as a king, with the crowd laying branches and cloaks on the road, and shouting Hosanna, save us.

Jesus is not claiming to be the kind of ruler people expected, who would smash the Roman legions and free Palestine from foreign occupation, then go on to shatter all of the world’s empires. He is indeed a king, but not one who relies on political and military power. He is not a ruler like the Roman governor, who is having his own parade as he leads his troops on his horse, marching into the city to beef up the garrison and keep order.

No, Jesus is a king who comes in peace, on a donkey. He is a king who reaches out to all who are despised and put down and rejected. He is a king who is despised and put down and rejected himself: betrayed by one of his friends, abandoned by the rest of his friends, convicted at his trial through false testimony, mocked by his guards and then by the crowd, beaten then executed in the most painful and shameful way the empire knew, and buried instead of his corpse being tossed into the city dump only through the intervention of one of his supporters. He is a king who is humble, who does not use his power to save himself, who asks forgiveness for those who are torturing him. He is a king wearing a crown of thorns, and with a sign on his cross, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, put up by the authorities intending to make fun of him, not knowing how true these words are.

Jesus is a king, a different kind of king because of all this. And at Easter he will be raised from death, putting the world’s empires on notice that their might is no match for a king who comes humbly, riding on a donkey.