Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sunday sermon: Joy is the Power

The thing gardeners do during winter in most everywhere in the United States is wait. Tulip and daffodil bulbs lay under snow and ice, dead to the world. Berries and asparagus become dried sticks, barren. In that season Advent prepares us for the hope of Christmas, the hope that light conquers darkness, that the sun will once again return to warm newly fertile earth. There is a magical quality to the contrast between light and dark, warmth and cold, that adds to the cheeriness of that season. The comforting promise is repeated: all will be made well.

But spring is different. Seeds planted around Ash Wednesday have silently, slowly stretched roots deeper while reaching toward the well-lit surface. Stems have grown taller, widened into stout stalks. Leaves now extend to soak up the sun. Gardeners in the spring aren’t waiting anymore . . . no, they’re smiling and laughing and enjoying the unmistakable signs of life sprouting around them. The work of Lent has borne another season of growth, thanks be to God, but that is not why we are celebrating this morning. And we are not celebrating a comforting promise of hope either. No. We are celebrating something else entirely, something beyond the expressible, something radically unexpected, something defying the first and concretely steadfast natural law that every one of us learned as a kid, the law that every living thing must die. And stay dead. No exceptions. Even sons of God.

Almost everything about the Christian story can be explained away somehow. There is nothing particularly unique about a poor first-century Palestinian Jew with an inspiring message and a knack for healing. And this man, Jesus, was clear that he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, much less a new religion. But something happened that propelled us to these pews today. Quite a force, apparently, that still resonates across two thousand years. Resurrection. Resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead.

He lived. He died. He lives.

If you have trouble believing this, so do I. There’s no way to believe it with your head. Because the job of your twenty-first century’s head is to separate out the important stuff from the fluff, the agenda-riddled commercial and political ads that bedevil us.

But help me with this. What was the agenda of a bunch of faithful Jews in Jerusalem confronted with the empty tomb that first Easter morning? I know if I were one of them my first response would not be appropriate to share from this pulpit. Because nothing good was going to come from telling the Roman authorities, or the religious authorities, that this man Jesus who was dead, was, according to him, alive. Yes, according to him, because we’ve just been talking to him. Yep, that wasn’t going to be a great message to tell the folks who just put a lot of effort into killing him.

There was only one power that propelled those first women and men to tell their friends about what happened: joy. Just joy. Joy! Nothing else. What else could it have been? And do you know when you experience something and tell a friend about the story and it can be quite striking, but when they tell their friends it’s a little less compelling, and the energy and enthusiasm and accuracy of the tale fades away in the retelling? That didn’t happen. How can that be? How can that be? The story sustained its persuasiveness.

I’ll tell you how the Church understood this to have happened, and I can’t think of a better reason myself. Somehow the risen Jesus was making himself known to more and more people. Sure, there were some good storytellers out there who could tell quite a compelling tale about it all, but there was something else at work, there is something else at work, God’s very Spirit, making Jesus himself known to the hearers of this unbelievably good news. What other explanation could there be? I mean, the four Gospels are good, but between you and me, they’re not that good. Not good enough to sustain two thousand years of this movement’s growth.

But you know this already, because you’re here this morning. You’re not here because someone told you that two thousand years ago a wise and plucky Jewish teacher died and rose again. No, you’re here because Jesus has made himself real to you in some way. Or because resurrection has made itself real to you in some way.

Because resurrection is something we’ve seen. We’ll witness it tomorrow as 36,000 Boston Marathon runners safely cross the finish line. We’ve seen it in the lives of sobered alcoholics, healed victims, the re-housed homeless. We’ve seen it in our own lives, how the inexplicable has come to pass anyway, and for our own good, however we understood it at the time. We’ve watched how our mistakes, our fears, our sins do not have the last word, that somehow lightning hasn’t struck and we are still living and breathing, thanks be to God.

So if I may let me tell you what I know -- that God raised Jesus from the dead. Not in some metaphorical, hazy, figurative or poetical way. No. God raised Jesus from the dead. I trust this with all that I am. I know of no other explanation for the behavior of millions of thoughtful people over millennia, starting with those first flabbergasted disciples faced with an empty tomb. I know of no other way to explain my sense of Jesus’ loving presence in my life, reminding me again and again that I am not my fears, I am not my sins, but I am alive and loved and live in Christ, the Risen One.

No, Easter is not like Christmas. Easter is unlike any other day, any other season, any other event recorded in the history of our people. My friends, the waiting is over. The hoping is over. The living has begun. Living our lives out from under the shadow of death. Living our lives free from the fear that enslaves. Beginning to live our lives in love, like the love we feel for those dearest to us, that kind of love, living our lives with that kind of love for everyone.

The miracle of life, the miracle of the seed that dies deep in the earth so that it might grow, this miracle is what will feed us in the days, and weeks, and months ahead. The harvest is so plentiful. Be filled by it. Be filled by its joy. There is enough for all and then some. Even death cannot rob us, finally, of life in God, the One who loves us as much as Life itself.

The Rev. Colin Mathewson

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