Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Third Day Always Comes

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 24:1-12:

Charlie was a standout football player in the state of Missouri when he was growing up.  But not only did he stand out on the athletic field, he also excelled in the classroom and was accepted to the United States Naval Academy, where he also flourished, graduating near the top of his class.  After graduation he became an officer in the Marine Corp and served on the front lines of the first gulf war, we need to stop having wars that have sequels.  While he was in Iraq, Charlie was awarded several decorations and he came home to his small town as a hero.  Everyone was proud of their boy and couldn’t say enough things about him.

But as happens with many soldiers, Charlie came home with some issues that were not properly dealt with and he began spiraling downward into mental illness and he started committing violent crimes, which ended him up in jail, where his mental issues left untreated only proceeded to get worse.  He lost an extraordinary amount of weight; he chewed off the tips of some of his fingers, and then gouged out one of his eyes with his own hands, and ended up in the psychiatric unit at the prison.  Every week Charlie’s parents, Bill and Barb, would visit him, and would sometimes bring the pastor of their Methodist church, Scott Chrostek.  But Charlie was no longer known as the great athlete or war hero, he was now known for the crimes he had committed and what he had become in prison.  He was not talked about as much and certainly was not heralded as the person that others should emulate or people they wanted their sons to be like.

After being released after serving several years in prison, Charlie was placed into a half-way house near his parents’ home and he began coming to church with them, and then he asked the pastor if he could begin serving as an usher.  Rev. Chrostek said he was got scared, and wondered how people would respond.  How would they feel about seeing Charlie serving in this position? And what would they see, after all he didn’t look great, he was missing some of his fingertips, and one eye was gone, what would people do?  But Scott said yes, and the next week Charlie was handing out bulletins.  Scott still said he was so afraid of what might happen.  The first few people through the door, kind of smiled and took their bulletins from Charlie, and then as more people saw him they sort began to brighten up and say “hey Charlie, good to see you, how you doing,” and Charlie thrived in the role.  He began to put on weight, he began wearing nicer clothes, he got his hair cut and eventually began taking some courses at a local college.

Today, Charlie, with the help of his parents, owns 34 acres outside of town where he raises sheep, and he invites people to come out and help shear the sheep, and he teaches children about how to turn the wool into yarn and then turn that yarn into everyday objects.  Charlie is a shepherd who tries to pass on to some of the kindness and compassion he has received from his brothers and sisters in Christ.  That, said Rev. Chrostek, “is what the resurrection looks like.”

But, Rev. Chrostek also wonders what would have happened if he had responded differently? What would have happened if the congregation had responded differently? What if the congregation could not get past into all the worst fears they had about Charlie?  What if they could not push themselves beyond their boundaries to see Charlie as more than what they saw on the outside, or for the terrible stories they had heard of whom he had become? If they had responded differently, Rev. Chrostek said, this resurrection story would not be possible.

Today we come together to celebrate that when the women went to the tomb all those many years ago that Jesus wasn’t there that he had been raised. It is the one day of the year in which new starts and new life and new beginnings directly intersect with the determined effort to consume as much chocolate as possible.  But I wonder if Charlie’s story is what we think about when we think about resurrection? Is this what the resurrection story is about? Is it just about new beginnings and new life? I think part of the problem we have when we think about Easter Sunday, is that we already know how the story will turn out. There is no longer any suspense for us. It would be like if we knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s father before we ever went to see the first Star Wars, and I hope I didn’t just ruin it for anyone. But would Star Wars have even held our attention, or would we instead have moved onto other things or missed seeing it altogether because we already thought we knew what happened and what it was about? And in thinking we already knew what the story was about, we would probably be likely then to miss other aspects of the story entirely.

But the women who went to the tomb all those many years ago for the first Easter Sunday, certainly did not expect to find what they found, or really what they didn’t find. Nobody expected to find no body. They had no idea. They had spent the past days sitting in mourning waiting for the Sabbath to be over so they could go and anoint Jesus’ body to properly prepare it for burial, because there had not been enough time to do that when he was taken off the cross. Everyone who has been in mourning knows that in those first few days, you’re not really thinking about things, you are disconnected from the world and your life; you’re just going through the motions. I imagine that’s what the women were doing as well. Just putting one step in front of the other, doing what had to be done, making arrangements, because it had to be done, and if they didn’t do it, they would just be a pile of mush wherever it was they were staying. I know that sounds familiar to so many of us.  And in their shock and dismay and mourning they forgot some crucial pieces of information of which they angels must remind them.

When the women find that the tomb is empty, big surprise, the angels then appear and say to them, “why are you looking for the living amongst the dead?”  Of course the women are looking for Jesus there because it was the last place they saw him, and as I ask my daughters every time they are looking for something, “where was the last place you saw it?”  So it makes sense that they would look for Jesus at the tomb, but they don’t find him there because they are looking in the wrong place, it’s not where he belongs. But when we are looking for a resurrection in our lives, when we are looking for a new beginning, where are we seeking it? Where are we looking for it?  Just like we might look for love in all the wrong places, we look for resurrection in the wrong places as well.  We look for it amongst the dead and amongst the things that are not really about resurrection. We look for it in chocolate bunnies, and in the marshmallow peeps, we look for it in troubled relationships, difficult situations and in the valley of the shadow death.  But that’s not where resurrection is found, because it’s not where new beginnings and new life are found. If we are looking for new leaves and flowers to be blooming in the middle of winter, we are always going to be disappointed, because that’s not where it is found either. Instead we have to look outside of the current situation to look for something new, a new way and new life. Now that is not to say that in difficult situations that resurrection is not possible, because that is exactly where resurrections come from. You need death to have a resurrection; you need rainstorms in order to have rainbows. But if Charlie or Rev. Chrostek or the congregation had only focused on the current realities, their resurrection story would never have been found. Instead that had to look outside of it to something new and they had to believe that not only were new possibilities present and available, but that resurrection was possible as well.

That is the second point on which the women need to be reminded is to remember what Jesus has said. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised. Remember how he told you, he was to be crucified and on the third day rise again.”  The women forgot. They got caught up in their sorrow, they got separated from their lives, and they forgot what Jesus had said.  Even if they might not have believed it in the moment when Jesus first said it, they might have remembered it when they found the tomb empty, but they didn’t. We too often need to be reminded about the resurrection possible in our own lives when we are in desperate need of a miracle resurrection in our lives. We need to be reminded because we forget. We know the end of the Easter story and so don’t get the surprise each year, but when in the midst of turmoil, suffering and mourning, we forget what the outcome of our story will be because we see the story of Easter as something separate from our lives. We forget that what Easter tells us is not just that God has redeemed and resurrected Christ, but that the same is also promised to us. Now we think that means just as the promise of eternal life, but what Paul tells us is that God makes all things work together for good for those who love Jesus. That is resurrections are possible, that God’s hope is always with us because Christ is always with us, because Easter is always with us.

But to make that a reality in our lives we first have to start looking for the living outside of the dead, second we have to remember what has been promised to us, and third we have to remember that resurrections take time. If we were to have someone visit who knew nothing about the seasons, had never experienced winter, and so all they saw was dry and brown and cold and apparently dead, and you told them about spring, and that everything would return, do you think they would believe us? Probably not because what we were telling them didn’t match the reality they were experiencing. They didn’t see life nor would they probably think new life was possible, why? Because they were looking for life amongst the dead, and they didn’t yet know how to remember the promise of what is to come, and they didn’t remember that Jesus told that that he would be raised on the 3rd day. Sometimes it may seem like it takes forever for the resurrection to arrive, but eventually the third day will come, and wherever there is death, resurrection is possible.

So what that means is we have to plant a seed in expectation of new life, and then not only believe that something is going to happen, but to actually water and tend to the seed to make sure that it gives new life.  If you just plant a seed and expect it to grow what’s going to happen? Well you might get lucky and it will get enough of what it needs to give new life, but more than likely it’s not going to do anything, but even watering it with your tears is going to make a difference for it. But new life will come, because the third day will come, but just like with Christ’s resurrection, it doesn’t happen overnight.

But we must also deal with the reality of the situation we are facing, not to make more, or less of what’s happening, but to see a new reality, to see something different, we have to be able address where we are. The women didn’t pretend that Jesus hadn’t died, even after they found the empty tomb.  They knew he was dead, they just didn’t know what had happened to the body.  There is something known as the Stockdale paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was the highest ranking officer in the prisoner of war camp known as the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.  When he was asked about his experience and what got him through, he said that he never lost faith in the end of the story, and that story ended with him getting out and prevail in the end and turn what was happening into one of the defining moments of his life.  We might say that he understood the resurrection story.  But then when he was asked who had the hardest time in the prison he said, “Oh the optimists.” They were the ones who said, “we’ll be out by Christmas, and Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say “we’ll be out by Easter,” and Easter would come and go, and then it would be Thanksgiving, and then back to Christmas, and the optimists would die of a broken heart.”  Then Stockdale said, “This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

I take that to mean, don’t look for life amongst the dead, that you must look for it outside, but also to realize the situation you are in for what it is.  As I said, the women went to the tomb to find Jesus because that is where he had been, but then to remember that the third day always comes, that resurrection is possible, that new life is possible, that new realities are possible, that a future is possible, not as some idealistic pipe dream, but as a reality because that is what Easter means for us, it means not looking for the living amongst the dead, remembers what Jesus had told us and remembering that resurrections take time.  What God did for Jesus in turning death into life, crucifixion into resurrection, suffering into celebration, God does for us as well, because just as the women and the disciples will encounter the risen Christ and thus have their lives and realities transformed, so too are we called to encounter the risen Christ.

The gospels ground our faith not in the stone and the linen cloths but in the presence of the risen Christ in human experience. It is not the persuasive power of the empty tomb but a personal encounter with the risen Lord that leads to faith, seeing that the third day has indeed come, that resurrection is not just a possibility but that resurrection is a reality.  Jesus said he came to bring us not just life, but life abundant (we were made to more than just survive, we were made to thrive), which means we have to look for life amongst the living. That if we are in the midst of pain, suffering and mourning to remember this moment and as Stockdale tells us, as the angel tells us, as Jesus tells us, to know how the story ends, regardless of what happens, we know how the story ends, it ends with new life, it ends with new possibilities, it ends with resurrection, because God has promised to walk this journey with us, God has promised us love, God has promised us forgiveness and mercy, God has promised us hope and God has promised us life because the third day will always come. Sometimes it seems to take forever to get here, but it will always come because we know how the story ends. It ends not with death, but with life, with Easter, with celebration. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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