Monday, April 1, 2013

A New World: Surprised by Hope

Preached on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013 

Scripture reading: Mark 15:37-16:4 

Once I served a church that owned a cemetery. That was my first church after I was ordained. It was down on the south coast of Oregon.

Photos near the Snake and Palouse Rivers, Washington
It seemed that the pioneer way of life lasted a lot longer there than it did in many other places. It was a pretty rough place (a tough place), and I learned a lot there. Some of what I learned was not very good.

It was a free cemetery, and my little church never had any funds for maintaining or operating it. According to custom, when someone was buried there, the funeral directors from the neighboring towns would come to the Lakeside Cemetery, along with the family, and look for a spot they liked. Then they would probe the ground to see whether the spot was already occupied.

The cemetery overlooked the famous sand dunes along that part of the coast. In fact, it was really nothing more than a collection of stabilized sand dunes covered with a pine forest.

There was more than one homemade grave marker there with a dog collar fastened to it. The local people knew this, and they were good with it.

There was a sweet spirited member of my church named Mary Nash who was in her late eighties when she died. She had lived there for more than fifty years.

When Mary Nash died it was the family’s decision to bury her in that cemetery, near the town where she had spent the happiest years of her life, with her husband and her children as they grew up. The family also decided that they would dig the grave themselves. Her daughter Tracey explained this to me, “It’s the last thing I’ll ever be able to do for my mother.”

This made a huge impression on me. It was a powerful act of love, and a powerful act of grief. It came from a grief that had been growing for some time, because Mary’s health had been declining for some time. It was a lesson that I was learning, as well; because I had come to love Mary and I had also been watching her with a growing sadness.

The gospel speaks to this. The women who came to the tomb came in great sadness. If we had Easter songs that sang about the first part of the first Easter they would all be about sadness, and worry, and fear, and confusion, and grief, and doubt, and maybe even anger and outrage at the evil that had been done to Jesus, and to them.

They had not watched Jesus with a growing sadness. Perhaps they had watched him with a growing fear. With Jesus, the end had come suddenly and, even though they had feared it, they had not been wise enough to prevent it.

But the death of Jesus on the cross simply confirmed their notion of the world as it really was. It was a world build on wealth, and power, and pride, and fear.

Their place in that world was that of an occupied nation. They had been occupied or enslaved for most of their history. 

Their country was full of violence. It was always in crisis, always in doubt; and it was full of their own people, hung on Roman crosses. The gospel, as they soon were to discover, was going to contradict their grieving and grim notion of the world.

The women who came to the tomb of Jesus, and the other disciples who thought it better to stay safe at home, were God’s people. They were us. They and we have long been growing afraid of the world; or we have lived in it with a long, slow grief in the face of defeat, and crisis, and decline.

The gospel tells us that God contradicts this world. Some people find faith impossible because they think the world contradicts God, but it is the other way around.

In Jesus God found a way to die and to be killed by the sins of the world, as well as dying for those sins. In Jesus, God found a way to die under the world’s grief, and yet to rise as a contradiction against that grief.

The gospel tells us not to grieve, not to fear, not to give in to outrage, and not to run away from this world, because God has met our world. God has risen up against the worst that this world can do. God chose a time and place in history to do this as a sign for all times, and for us in our time.

In Jesus, when we see him for ourselves, we see that he is still this God. He bears the scars of the cross in his hands, and feet, and side, and he lives because he arose from the dead two thousand years ago. It seems like a long time ago, but the power of his rising is still the most important event in the history of this world.

The women were alarmed when they found the tomb empty and the messenger, the angel who looked like a young man in white, told them not to be alarmed. And they ran away in fear.

They were afraid, because they had been so wrong, and they were completely at a loss to know what to do next. They had been so wrong to live in grief and fear when Jesus had promised them hope.

The gospel promises us hope in Jesus. Politics, struggling communities, feuds in families, the economy, our health and the health of those we love, the moral and social issues of the world, and even the church often teach us to live in fear, and outrage, and grief. What Jesus did on the cross, and through the empty tomb, tells us that we are wrong to do so. Jesus tells us to live in the hope of his promise to work his good will through the power of his rising.

We find the truth of Jesus too amazing to believe, and the thought of changing how we live to fit this truth scares us, because we cannot see how to pull it off. We do not know how to live in a world of hope because it is such an amazing and alarming contradiction to the world we have grown used to.

In the New Testament stories, God’s people did not always get it right, but they learned the basics. When they did not live in hope they learned that they were going wrong, and they listened to those who reminded them of hope.

The world tried to teach them brutally and stubbornly that their hope was wrong. They were mocked, and threatened, and robbed, and chased, and jailed, and tortured, and killed for their hope.

The gospel tells us that hope is the right side because Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. He will always win, and we will win because of him. If we love him, if we want to belong to him, then we will trust him and live, and speak, and work in hope. And we will share that hope with others.

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