Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sermon: Anything Less than Everything

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Anything Less than Everything

Luke 24:1-12
24But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Every preacher longs for this day, and dreads this day. Because it is the day we are to have the best words crafted together for the sake of all who have ears to hear them. And, this text, quite simply, is the beginning of our narrative as Christians. But, it’s not a recollection of Christianity’s first sermon. It’s the story about the people who preached it. Which means that what the women, Christianity’s first preachers, said… wasn’t what mattered. It’s not what they said, it’s what they expressed.

They expressed to the apostles something they believed to be “an idle tale,” and the apostles did not believe the women who preached it to them.

Except for Peter. Loving Peter. Peter, the rock. Simon Peter. The disciple, the denier, the saint. He didn’t preach a sermon about the resurrection. He went home, amazed, and told no one. Because sometimes that's all you can do with your amazement, is tuck it in your heart and let it sit for a while. 

Because what Mary, Joanna, Mary-mother-of-James, and Mary Magdalene said maybe the truest sermon ever preached. Mary, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t say, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but “I have seen the Lord.” Upon these five words hang all of our theology. "Resurrection is not a third person confession but a first person testimony. We don’t want to hear that the resurrection is a creed of the church -- we need to hear that the resurrection is a truth we might witness and to which we might give witness on a daily basis.”[1]

The problem with that is that the resurrection isn’t something that can be easily explained or paralleled, or even witnessed. It’s not a myth or a metaphor. Resurrection is, as we say, the great mystery of our faith. This is why Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51) There is no explaining it. We must live into it. But how?

I think we need to approach the story of the resurrection with a healthy dose of gumption and willingness to lean into our faith. Because, as Paul states, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:17)   Perhaps it’s not the cross that’s salvific, but the resurrection. Maybe the cross was a means for God to enter into our suffering, but not what was necessary for salvation.

Maybe I’m a heretic.

But, what Paul is really asking, and what the women are telling the apostles is quite simply this: “What’s the point of anything less than everything?”

This is the reason for Christ’s resurrection.

It’s because, God knows, we crave a whole and complete relationship with our creator, with the one who loves us first and best.

This is what God is trying to tell us, through the intention of the incarnation and through every sliver of revelation we receive.

God is trying to tell us that God is in it – literally putting on flesh. "God has skin in the game because we have skin in the game."[2] And because God does, we can. We can look at death, which is going to do terrible, horrible things to our lives. Death will chase us, mock us, pursue us. Death will tell us we are unworthy or unlovable, but death will never EVER define us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels said. This is the question for us all.

That's because we are not people who worship a God of absence. When the stone is rolled away, and Mary proclaims, “he is not here, for he has risen,” she isn’t speaking about the absence or distance of a savior who was once so real that she held his bleeding head in her lap as she anointed him with oil and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, just as she’d done when he was a baby. Not in a manger, but now in a tomb. This is not a distant God who exists only in comfortable ways. This is a God of food troughs and caverns. A God of hunger and scarcity. A God of anger at injustice. A God of righteous indignation.

THIS is the God of whom we speak when we say, “He is not here, he is risen!”

Christ has risen because anything less than everything wouldn’t be enough.

Anything less than everything would be what we are capable of.

But, aren’t we capable of more?

Aren’t we capable of more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more righteous indignation. And not always on our own behalf, but on behalf of others?

After all, how do you take a lifetime of small victories and a lifetime worth of sorrows and pull them together into a space that makes sense? How can we take the joys that are fleeing and the griefs that are abiding and hold them in the tender care of who we are, as children of God? How do we make sense of the narrative that sometimes seems more like struggle than it does like comfort?

We do it because this narrative is real and true. God didn’t defeat death by making us immortal; rather, God lived into the suffering. We worship a God who is unafraid to go hungry, who is not reluctant to get dirty, who is willing to get hurt.

My boys play baseball, and they have a teammate named Josh. He is eleven years old. The only brother of 3 sisters, a stellar athlete and a brilliant boy. He is good and kind, tenderhearted and compassionate.  And, he was diagnosed 8 weeks ago with an inoperable tumor on his brain stem.

And his cancer is aggressively growing. 

After reading one of the most recent updates, I sat and cried and shook my first at God with the demand to understand why this would happen to such a person. Why does a young child have to suffer like this? How can God ask me - us - *anyone* to preach faith in a good and loving God when the manifestation of evil that is Cancer is slowly and painfully robbing this boy of his life and this family of their wholeness. God may not have willed this but I want desperately for God to stop it. THAT is the great mystery of why I keep my faith.

But, this text reminds us: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here!” It’s because we expect something less than everything.

Two days after we got the most dire update about Josh, we received word that there was more news.

The MRI had been read incorrectly.

Josh’s tumor wasn’t growing aggressively. It was possibly shrinking. His cancer is still present, he is still fighting through the sedation, there is still a lot of wondering and hoping. But, his prognosis is much better than anticipated.

I want God to be a mighty force for good. I want the cancer gone. I want miracles of healing and hopefulness and to be right without a shadow of a doubt. I want Nothing Less than Everything from this God of all creation. I want the mystery to be about how his cancer disappeared without a trace.

But, sometimes what we get is a matchstick’s worth of light in the darkest of valleys. And, what we find is that it’s enough. It’s enough to give us all the light that we need to see what’s next. And, though we may want fireworks, God knows that we’d be overwhelmed. The soft glow of hope allows our eyes to adjust, to take it all in, and to focus as we see what’s next.

“Anything less than everything” is what we anticipate, but we are loved by a God who will do nothing less than everything to abide with us.

In the name of the God who is with us, for us, and refuses to be God without us. Amen. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday: Meditation in Word and Art

Table by Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts
"The Crucifixion," James Weldon Johnson 

Jesus, my gentle Jesus,
Walking in the dark of the Garden --
The Garden of Gethsemane,
Saying to the three disciples:
Sorrow is in my soul --
Even unto death;
Tarry ye here a little while,
And watch with me.

Jesus, my burdened Jesus,
Praying in the dark of the Garden --
The Garden of Gethsemane.
Saying: Father,
Oh, Father,
This bitter cup,
This bitter cup,
Let it pass from me.

"Betrayed," Bobby Strickland

Jesus, my sorrowing Jesus,
The sweat like drops of blood upon his brow,
Talking with his Father,
While the three disciples slept,
Saying: Father,
Oh, Father,
Not as I will,
Not as I will,
But let thy will be done.

Salvador Dali, "Vision of Fatima," 1962

Oh, look at black-hearted Judas --
Sneaking through the dark of the Garden --
Leading his crucifying mob.
Oh, God!
Strike him down!
Why don't you strike him down,
Before he plants his traitor's kiss
Upon my Jesus' cheek?

"Jesus Before Pilate," Jan Richardson
And they take my blameless Jesus,
And they drag him to the Governor,
To the mighty Roman Governor.
Great Pilate seated in his hall,--
Great Pilate on his judgment seat,
Said: In this man I find no fault.
I find no fault in him.
And Pilate washed his hands.
But they cried out, saying:
Crucify him!--
Crucify him!--
Crucify him!--
His blood be on our heads.

"Via Dolorosa," Bobby Strickland

And they beat my loving Jesus,
They spit on my precious Jesus;
They dressed him up in a purple robe,
They put a crown of thorns upon his head,
And they pressed it down --
Oh, they pressed it down --

And they mocked my sweet King Jesus.

Graffiti Art, London

"Simon of Cyrene," Bobby Strickland
Up Golgotha's rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.

And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,

And Simon bore the cross.

"This I Do For Love," Bobby Strickland

On Calvary, on Calvary,
They crucified my Jesus.
They nailed him to the cruel tree,
And the hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem's streets.
The hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!

Rang through Jerusalem's streets.

"Stripping of Garments," Bobby Strickland

Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his hands;
Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his feet.
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the Roman spear plunged in his side;
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound.

Oh, look how they done my Jesus.

Weeping Mary,
Sees her poor little Jesus on the cross.
Weeping Mary,
Sees her sweet, baby Jesus on the cruel cross,
Hanging between two thieves.

"Heaven Weeps," Bobby Strickland
And Jesus, my lonesome Jesus,
Called out once more to his Father,
My God,
My God,
Why hast thou forsaken me?
And he drooped his head and died.

"Sealed," Bobby Strickland

And the veil of the temple was split in two,
The midday sun refused to shine,
The thunder rumbled and the lightning wrote
An unknown language in the sky.
What a day! Lord, what a day!

When my blessed Jesus died.

Oh, I tremble, yes, I tremble,
It causes me to tremble, tremble,
When I think how Jesus died;
Died on the steeps of Calvary,
How Jesus died for sinners,

Sinners like you and me.