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The Peaceable Presence

(a sermon for April 11, 2021, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-23)

Well… all I’ve got to say here is that it’s a good thing that we know the Easter story the way we do, because given the readings we’ve shared over the past couple of weeks, you’ve got to wonder where the happy endings are! 

After all, as you’ll remember last week our Easter Sunday reading of Mark’s resurrection story ended with the women running away from the tomb seized with “terror and amazement;” saying nothing to anyone, so stunned and afraid they were over what they’d seen and experienced.  And now, this morning we’ve got this passage from John that begins with the men this time, all cowering behind locked doors, quite literally paralyzed by fear!  For those of us still seeking a definitively triumphant end to this whole Maundy Thursday/Good Friday narrative, this would not seem to be it; for here we are, still… even now, as John tells the story, in the evening “on that day, the first day of the week” – understand, we’re talking about Easter evening itself here (!) – waiting with the disciples amidst their lingering hopelessness and fear.

Simply put, the disciples are hiding out; quite possibly hiding out in the very same upper room where Jesus had shared the Passover meal with them, where he’d spoken of the broken bread being his body and the wine the new covenant in his blood; to say nothing of promising them that he would not drink of “the fruit of the vine until that day [drinking it new] in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25) It had only been three days since all this had happened, but it might as well have been a lifetime ago; because of course, everything – everything (!) – had changed: now the window shades are drawn tight, the doors of the house are barred and locked and these disciples are all huddling together for fear that what happened to Jesus would most certainly happen to them.  So they kept quiet, so not to be heard by passing authorities, religious or governmental.  All through these three days and long into each  night, they’d listened for every footstep on the stairway; they’d braced for the sound of a knock at the door that meant that they’d been discovered.

What’s interesting to me as I think about all this is that surely by this time, the disciples had to have heard the news, at least in rumor: this news about the tomb being empty, this incredible, “impossible possibility” that just maybe what Jesus had said would happen had actually come to pass, and that he’d risen from the dead.  Mark, of course, doesn’t allude to this at all, what with the women running off in fear; but at least in John’s version, Mary has her encounter with the risen Christ in the garden and then announces to the disciples that she’d actually seen the Lord! You’d have thought that this would have had at least some effect on the disciples; but not even this first-hand account of Jesus’ resurrection could serve to transform or even lift their spirits. 

No, what’s clear even here is that in this “upper room experience” the disciples’ fear was far too great and all-encompassing; and not, we should add, merely in the sense that they feared for their lives.  For you see, in these dark days since the cross, the remaining eleven disciples were wracked by their own sorrow and grief, intermingled with the horrible, dull pain of guilt and shame. To put it simply, life as they knew it was over; and the thought of going on was… terrifying.  In truth, this upper room where just a few days before they’d gathered in Passover faith and sacred tradition served now as a prison to them; every bit of their own anguish and fear having become every bit as impenetrable as bars on the windows or a locked cell door.  No Easter joy and triumph in this moment… just a lingering sense of hopelessness.

And you know what?  I can understand that… and, I suspect, you can, too. 

Truth be told, most of us know something about fear and dread; the kind of fear and dread that life and living can inspire on a regular basis:

Fear about whether we’ll be able to get by; to be able to work, make ends meet, and deal with all the financial pressures today’s world thrusts upon us. 

Fear about the kind of fiercely divided, increasingly amoral world our children are growing up in, and fear about what happens to us all in such an uncertain time as this.

Fear about the lingering effects of a global pandemic, if things will ever return to “normal” and what if, still, the people we love get sick.

 Or, for that matter, fear about whether life and living holds any meaning, or if in the end who and what we really are ends up a disappointment to everyone. 

Fear of being alone; fear of being helpless; fear of being powerless; fear of being out there on the road of life without any answers and no hope at all.

And if that isn’t enough, how about you?  What about your greatest fear?  What do you most dread in your life?  What is your greatest doubt?  Friends, if you can put your finger on that, then you know what it is to be locked away in a prison of fear. This is what it means to live as though the tomb still held Jesus.

But here’s the good news… this is exactly where the risen Christ appears:  stepping right in the middle of the disciples’ fear…  and ours.

Although the doors were shut and the disciples were locked within, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”  In the Greek, eirene, but referring to the familiar Hebrew greeting of shalom:  peace… God’s peace, not merely peace in the sense of feeling good or calm, nor peace as simply the absence of war or strife; but peace in the sense of true wholeness, health and harmony: the fulfillment of a promise that God would bring all of life’s blessings together for a common good: shalom!  Now, this was a greeting these men had likely heard every day of their lives; but as it was Jesus who had brought it to them – Jesus himself, risen from the dead and standing there before them – as such it was more than a greeting, but in fact a true and lasting peace!  Windows might have been shut, doors locked, hope lost: nonetheless the risen Lord had broken into the disciples’ upper room prison to free them from their fear; showing them his hands and his side, assuring them by his very presence that nothing in life, death or all creation would ever be able to separate them from God’s love.

This is the gift of resurrection, friends: that amidst all of our fears and dread, through our confusion and our lingering anxieties, in the challenges of our lives and even at the obstacles of our faith, the risen Lord stands with us and brings us his peaceable presence, fortifying our faith so that we might withstand the doubt. 

When the disciples saw Jesus standing there, of course they rejoiced; and it’s no wonder that immediately they were able to open those locked doors and go out and boldly witness to what they had seen and experienced!  Think of it:  from fear-filled followers to fearless missionaries in a single moment!  But that’s the power of God’s peaceable presence that comes through the risen Christ; he is not about to let us be shut up and shut out by the sorrow and sadness of life, but will meet us face to face precisely in those places where we dwell in fear; freed go out into all of life’s uncertainties with courage, with faith and with joy.  Not even good old “Doubting Thomas,” whose story immediately follows our text for today, could stand by his self-imposed skepticism once he himself met the risen Christ.  Even when he’d been given the opportunity to have the kind of “proof” he said he needed, in the end all it took was Jesus’ presence – and his peace – for Thomas to believe.

And here’s the thing; it’s a peaceable presence that ours as well.

No… we weren’t there with them in that upper room prison on that Easter Sunday evening; but just as I suspect we know what it is to be imprisoned by our fear, I also sense we’ve had the experience of having the breath of God’s own spirit blow divine peace into our lives right in the midst of that fear.  Perhaps it’s come to us in those inexplicable moments of grace when our despair and confusion has been transformed into a palpable sense of serenity and, dare I say, even power; perhaps we’ve felt it in a time of prayer, or have shared it in a community of faith or in the embrace of a kindred heart.  The point is that we don’t need to see the risen Christ – put our fingers “in the mark the nails and [our hand] in his side” in order to believe – because the “proof” is that wherever we are in our lives – physically, emotionally, spiritually – Jesus comes to us where we are and fills us with his Spirit, giving us his peaceable presence that drives out our fear and dread, calms our anxieties and eases our weariness; so that, like Thomas before us, we might “not doubt, but believe.”

Some years ago now, there was a powerful piece in Newsweek magazine written by James Harford, a writer and educator from Texas, who wrote about how, when he learned that he was dying from AIDS, decided to do everything in life he’d always wanted to do… against the emphatic advice of family, friends and doctors! He set out to take a cruise on the River Nile; he explored just about every street in Cairo (despite warnings that “there might be terrorists there,” and he’d get shot), and he literally crawled around the burial chambers of the Great Pyramids! After that he went snorkeling in the Caribbean, explored Mayan ruins, and when that was all done, he cashed in his retirement money and bought his dream sports car! 

Harford was a self-described practical, cautious man; but now, he said, an uncertain future gave him the freedom to travel the world and do everything he’d ever dreamed of doing… without fear.  And the upshot is that rather than killing him, all this increased activity actually served to improve his health!  In fact, his  prognosis was so good two years after he’d set out on his travels that he was forced to sell his beloved sports car.  “I needed something cheap and dependable,” he said, “because I had a future.”

Now I’m not sure how much faith played into James Harford’s story (although I will say that looked up and discovered that before he eventually passed away and many years serving as an advocate for those with HIV/AIDS, he was an active member of a Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas!) but it struck me that in a very real way this illustrates what happens when God’s peaceable presence comes into play.  It’s the knowledge that while life is arbitrary, God is not; and whatever the challenges are that we have to face, Christ does come to us that we might be totally freed from the fear of it, and thus be able to live as fully and abundantly as we God has always meant us to live. And isn’t that the whole reason, after all, that Christ has come?  As John’s gospel has said it at the close of the 20th chapter, it is “that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] way have life in his name.”

It reminds me of something that the French scientist, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said.  It seems that Pascal’s daughter had recently died, and a friend had come to visit him; and this friend was amazed by Pascal’s sense of peace in the face of such of tragedy.  And the friend said to him, “I wish I had your creed, then I would live your faith.”  To which Pascal replied, “Live my life and you will soon have my creed.” 

Truly, friends, the faith that frees us to live – abundantly, joyfully and eternally – is a faith that’s not about words printed on a page or found in verses memorized, but is ultimately experiential; about a real Savior who conquers death and comes to us in amidst our real life fears to set us free now and forever.

We need not be afraid of what this world and the uncertainty of this life brings to us.  For the risen Christ has overcome this world, and promises us a peace that we will overcome our world as well.

So breath on us, breath of God, given us in the risen Christ… that we might be free…

…and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2021 in Easter, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Afraid of Easter!

(a sermon for April 4, 2021, Easter Sunday, based on Isaiah 25:6‑9 and Mark 16:1‑8)

It really is quite a story, isn’t it?

The whole gospel story, I mean; the Bible is in large part narrative, part of the larger story of God’s relationship with his people throughout the course of history; but I have to say that that which is encapsulated by the four Gospels…well, that’s the stuff of high drama; a tale that even before one considers its greater and deeper meaning, has all the elements of what the British call a “ripping yarn.”

Central to this story is a noble, wise and kind hero who stands opposed to a corrupt and oppressive establishment; who speaks boldly and eloquently of a wonderful and divine realm that is coming soon.  Based on this truly “good news,” the hero develops a great following from amongst the people, and they begin to place all of their hope in him; and indeed, for a while great things – some might even say miraculous things – are starting to happen.  The blind are having their sight restored; the sick are being healed of their diseases; and the poor, the dispossessed, all those who by worldly standards were ever on the fringes of life… suddenly they’re being welcomed in; forgiven of sin and set free.  It was true; whenever the hero was near amazing, life-changing things were always taking place, and before long the crowds around him were growing so large that when the hero made his entry into the city, the event took on the air of a coronation!

But then, the dreams of his followers are shattered when the hero is brutally and unjustly murdered at the hand of the “authorities” of his time; and afterward his friends, whose spirits by now are irreparably broken, flee in fear for their own lives.  The hero is dead, and the story is over…

except it isn’t! 

Just when everything seems at its darkest, just when there’s no hope left at all, the hero bursts forth from the grave, victorious and vindicated by none other than God!  His followers joyfully discover that their hero is alive; and this realization instills within them new confidence and hope, and they are empowered to go boldly into the world, proclaiming his good news of salvation!

That’s the story of Easter, friends, and you can almost hear strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” rising to a crescendo as we tell it! Because that’s our story; that’s what all our singing and shouting is all about; and it’s what we’ve all come here to celebrate this morning… it’s Easter, the Day of Resurrection, the time in which Jesus is alive and the whole gospel story comes to an end in joy and in triumph!

Or does it?

Did it not seem to you, as it did to me, that our reading for this morning didn’t really jibe with that synopsis I just offered? To begin with, Mark’s version of the story only allots a scant eight verses to the resurrection; it almost comes off sounding like a mere footnote to the rest of the gospel story.  Moreover, Jesus himself doesn’t even make an appearance; and perhaps worst of all, instead of concluding with an air of joy and triumph, the whole thing ends abruptly – mid-sentence, in fact (!) – with the three women fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement.  No shouts of joy and triumph to be found in this passage; in fact, there’s no shouting of any kind, as we’re told very simply by Mark that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Afraid!

Not exactly what we’re expecting, and certainly not what we came here this morning to hear; I mean, what an abrupt, awkward and ambiguous ending to such a spectacular story!  We should note here that there is a little bit more of Mark’s gospel; but in fact most biblical scholars believe that those words were added later, to “wrap up the story,” as it were, albeit in a rather general fashion.  No, most believe that Mark intended the story to end right there at verse eight, with the women running in fear.  With no further appearances of the risen Lord; no comforting words of shalom unto the fear-ridden disciples hiding in the upper room; no conversations on the road to Emmaus; no breakfast of fish on the beach with Peter and the others. None of it; just this abrupt, stunned, stupefied, silent, fearful ending to an incredible story…

…which actually, when you think about it, kind of makes sense given the situation.

Some years ago there was a news story about a man who’d suddenly disappeared from his home in Ohio, and after a long and fruitless search, after eight years was declared officially dead.  And of course, in the time that passed life went on; his wife and children worked through their grief; she eventually remarried, this man adopted her children as his own, and together they had more children.  And then, all of a sudden, the first husband turns up alive and he returns home to Ohio!  It was amazing – it was the kind of story you only see in the movies, really – and you’d have thought it would have brought forth some level of joy on the part of his family; but instead there were more questions than there were exclamations.  I remember the reporters asking this woman how she was feeling about her husband’s sudden reappearance and all she could say was, “I just wish it wasn’t true.  We had gotten used to him being dead.”

Resurrection, you see, isn’t all that easy a thing to deal with.

So here were these three women – “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” – who ventured out to the tomb early on that cold, dark morning so that they might perform one final act of devotion for their departed master; anointing his dead body with aloes and sweet smelling spice. Remember, these were the only ones close to Jesus who dared to do so: the rest of them were still in hiding for fear of their own lives; to say nothing of all their grief in the aftermath of everything that had happened. Despite all of this, however, these women knew that even in death there were things to be done; matters to be attended to.  Just this one more thing remained: a decent burial, done according to tradition, and it would all be finished; best to get it done and over with.

So imagine what it was for them to come to the tomb and see that the stone blocking the entrance of the tomb, a stone so huge that they’d already wondered how they were possibly going to move it without help, had already been rolled back!  And then, entering the tomb to investigate, to find there “a young man, dressed in a white robe” who as Mark puts it, “alarmed” them, and gives them news that’s even more alarming: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

 Given that kind of news, it’s no wonder at all they ran from that place in terror and amazement!  To put it bluntly, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go!  They’d come to pay their respects one last time to poor Jesus; to say good-bye and bring some closure to it all, because that’s what you do when somebody dies.  Death is the end, after all; it’s the one great equalizer, the one thing that no one can avoid forever; death represents the ultimate defeat, and Jesus was dead!  They’d seen it happen; they were there when he’d been crucified. But now, hearing this strangely heavenly messenger bring news that not only is Jesus alive, but that he’s already gone on ahead of them to Galilee; well, that was more than they could even begin to comprehend. 

What were they to do with this… this incredible, inconceivable possibility that Jesus had actually… risen… risen from the dead!

You know what?  I think I understand, because the truth is, I probably would have reacted in the same way: scared half out of my wits!  “Go, tell his disciples and Peter,” the messenger had told them.  Go and tell?  Go and tell!? It’s a wonder they could move, much less speak!  They were afraid; as simple as that.  They were afraid… of Easter!

And that’s where Mark ends the story; with the fear, and with the women unable to say anything about what just happened to anyone.  As I said before, that’s not the way we like this story to end; if this were the movies, we’d much prefer the triumphant finish, with “The End” up on the screen in bold, red letters; but once again, right now it seems like we’re still getting those fateful words we talked about getting at the end of the story last Sunday… to be continued. And that’s because there’s more to this story, you see; there’s a sequel in the making, if you will, a new story that begins with the risen Christ, going on ahead of them.

Speaking of movies, Steven Spielberg was once quoted as saying that “stories don’t have a middle and an end.  They have a beginning that never stops beginning.” Well, it seems to me that this is our story, friends.  For you see, at the center of our story is the truth that God, in Jesus Christ, has conquered death. God has removed the one final barrier of life and living; what Isaiah refers to as “the shroud that is cast over all peoples;” it is “the sheet spread over all the nations,” and it has been destroyed; he has “swallow[ed] up death forever!”  By the resurrection of Christ Jesus, there are truly no more “dead” ends; death can no longer have a hold on us, and because of this ours is a story with no end; it’s a story – a life – that is full, abundant, eternal… and keeps on beginning afresh. Christ is risen, and the story goes on because the future is ours now and forever! 

Beloved, our salvation does not come in some twisted notion that if we somehow manage to do everything we’re supposed to do in just the right way, we might just achieve righteousness before God.  That part has already been done for us; by his death on the cross, Jesus already paid the price of our sin, that is, our not being able to do what’s right before God.  Indeed, by his resurrection we are shown beyond any kind of doubt that we are loved and utterly cherished by God now and forever; and alleluia and Amen for that!  But this does not mean that the story is over; for the world that God so loves, and certainly not for you and for me who God loves.

Once again this year all throughout the Lenten season we’ve been talking about our shared “journey to the cross” and how that journey ultimately does not end there but eventually comes to the empty tomb.  But even there at the empty tomb; even now, as we are confronted with a risen Lord, it turns out that the journey is far from over. Resurrection, you see, doesn’t end the story of our discipleship. Our walk with Jesus is far from finished; on the contrary, it’s just now beginning! 

That’s the thing about our reading today; that’s the thing about every telling of this wonderful, amazing, triumphant tale: in every version the disciples eventually encounter the risen Christ, and then, he sends them forth with what that little coda in Mark refers to as “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation,” what we call “the Great Commission.” And so it is for us; we come to this day and this place in Easter joy, but then we are sent out into a needful, hurting and very scared world to be disciples of our risen Savior Christ Jesus, accepting its joy and its cost.  This is where the story really begins; with fears transformed, with joy made real, and lives filled with hope and promise… and triumph!

There’s an old story about the little boy who came home from Sunday School and announced that he’d just learned a new song.  And when his parents asked which one, he said, “You know, the one about drums.” “About drums?” they asked.  “Yes,” he insisted, “you know… Christ the Lord has rhythm today!”  Well, beloved, it seems to me that that’s a fitting hymn for this wonderful day; for the risen Christ, in his victory over death, has indeed set a new pulse, a fresh beat for our lives, yours and mine. And in the resurrection, we go forth from this place today telling a story of triumph by our very lives.  It’s a story that is still unfolding, even now, with lots of twists and turns yet to be revealed; but it’s a story that you and I can go boldly out into the world and tell with confidence and joy; because Christ is risen, and he has already gone on ahead to lead us forward, both now and in the glorious life to come.

So let us proclaim it today, and tomorrow, and again and again in every day that comes, beloved…  Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen indeed!  

Alleluia! And AMEN!   

© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2021 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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Keeping Watch

(a sermon for March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday, based on Mark 14:32-42)

One of very first jobs in the “real world” was that of a midnight security guard on the weekends at the newspaper plant of the Bangor Daily News.  

Actually, to call me a “security guard” was a gross exaggeration of the facts: I had no uniform, I carried no weapon, and I had absolutely no authority to deal with any situation that might have arisen!  Basically, I was there for insurance purposes; my job (my only job!) was to walk around to about 15 different stations around the mostly empty plant once an hour, punching a time clock at each station so that the insurance company would know that everything was fine and somebody was keeping an eye on things; which was interesting, because had anything actually gone wrong, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it!  In fact, I remember asking my supervisor what I should do if I ran into an intruder or some kind of dangerous situation, and his answer was simple:  run!

It was a terrific job, though, especially for a young seminarian with a boatload of schoolwork to do; basically, as long as I did my walk around the building every hour, the rest of the time was my own.  The only hard and fast rule was that I could not, under any circumstances, fall asleep on the job: the insurance company needed to have that regular, hourly accounting and the time clocks were such that there was no fudging on that rule!  So it was crucial that I stay awake all throughout my shift, which seemed simple enough when I took the job, but which in reality was the hardest part!  Turns out that reading thick volumes of Church History and Systematic Theology at four in the morning doesn’t aid in keeping you awake (!); and though I drank all the coffee I could hold, turned up the radio and sang along with every song that played, there was always this period of time in the wee hours of the morning when it was actually painful to try to keep my eyes open!  I knew I shouldn’t fall asleep; I knew I couldn’t if I wanted to keep the job, but what I remember even now is how overwhelming that urge to sleep could be, and how very close I came a number of times getting caught at it (Friends, I may very well have invented the concept of the “power nap!”)!

I tell you this as a way of confessing that on some level I understand how the disciples could fall asleep that night in the garden of Gethsemane: how, even when Jesus had said to them that he was “deeply grieved, even to death,” and for them to wait and keep watch; how, even when the disciples seemed to know that their master was struggling with what was about to unfold (to the point of where Luke, in his version of this story, tells us that Jesus was actually sweating blood!), still the disciples’ eyes became heavy and their bodies overwhelmed by the need for slumber. 

Over the centuries, many historians have theorized that the events of that night, and all that Jesus had said to them had simply drained all their strength and resistance; others have suggested that maybe it was the Passover feast itself, the dinner and the wine, that had left them drowsy, not unlike how you and I might feel after a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Then again – going back to Luke again – in that gospel we’re told that the disciples were “exhausted from sorrow,” (22:45) overcome with grief in anticipation of what was to come; and truly, anyone who’s been through it knows that grief can be physically and emotionally exhausting.  Or maybe it was that the disciples didn’t fully appreciate what was happening; or didn’t want to see this for what it truly was; sleep was their way of pretending that what Jesus had been telling them wasn’t really true, that after a good night’s sleep everything would be better and things would go on the same as they had before.

So we don’t know why, exactly; only that on this long, dark night of prayerful agony, it ended up that Jesus’ disciples – his closest friends – rather than keeping watch with him, not once but three different times had to be rousted out of their sleep.  And you can almost hear the disappointment in Jesus’ voice when he finds them sleeping and asks this question:  “Could you not stay awake for one hour?”  It is a moment of profound sadness and vulnerability in Jesus which is arguably unlike anything else we see in the gospels up to that point; and not only is it the point that the Passion begins for Jesus (you’ll notice that our reading this morning ends with the arrival of his “betrayer”), it is also the point where the Passion begins for us as well…

…and quite frankly, that is more than I want to consider.

Because after all, all throughout this Lenten season, we’ve been on this journey to the cross; if not literally then at least spiritually speaking, we’re following Jesus on the way to where he was going for the sake of our redemption and salvation.  But what that means, you see, is that on that journey we have essentially taken our place alongside his disciples, or for that matter, with the countless others who followed on behind Jesus as, as scripture alludes to it, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) And I don’t know about you, as the scene shifts, as it does this morning, to the garden of Gethsemane, I don’t want to think of myself that way. 

I don’t want to think that on the night of our Lord’s greatest agony, I would have fallen asleep.  I don’t want to consider that there was a time when the one that I need more than life itself needed me to simply keep watch with him, but I might well have been among those who could not even have stayed awake long enough to give him that. 

I don’t want to be a disciple in this story; because if it’s possible that I’d  be among those who could not even have kept watch with Jesus for one hour, then maybe I could have also – just as quickly and as easily – denied knowing Jesus at the moment it mattered the most, like Peter did.

Or that I could have been swayed to cry out with the rest of the angry mob to crucify him;

Or that I’d have joined with the countless people along the streets of Jerusalem – the same crowd who’d been shouting hosannas and waving palm branches just a few days before – who now were watching with morbid fascination as the Roman guards mocked him and beat him within an inch of his life;

Or that I’d be one of those looking on as they made him carry his own cross up the long and narrow streets of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha; standing helplessly, saying and doing nothing, as they nailed his hands and feet to cross and hung him in blistering hot morning sun to die a slow and painful death… lingering there in the cross’s shadow until at last, Jesus cries out, “’It is finished,’ [and] With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”   (John 19:30)

You see… that’s why I don’t want to have to answer Jesus when he asks me: “Are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep awake for one hour?”

Because I want to stay at the Palm Sunday parade, thank you very much; I want to shout my Hosannas and wave palm branches in “festal adoration!”  And then I want to come back next Sunday and join in all the alleluias and resurrection hymns: I don’t want Maundy Thursday to interfere with that; I don’t want to have to wait in the garden as the darkness descends, I certainly do not want to face the agony of the cross; and above all, I don’t want to be confronted with my own weakness and shame and utter brokenness before God, because then I would have to admit that I was there when they crucified my Lord. And the thought of that does, as the song goes, cause me to tremble.

What Jesus asks – Could you not keep awake? – in many ways seems an impossible question.  But it’s our answer that makes all the difference as to whether next Sunday will truly break as a bright and glorious day of resurrection, or merely exists as another fun celebration of springtime, bunnies and marshmallow chicks. The truth is that there’s more going on here than whether or not the disciples can keep their eyes wide open in the wee hours. What Jesus is asking is whether we’re able to be with him in all that is to come; whether we’re fully able to embrace what God was asking of him as Maundy Thursday dawned inevitably into the Friday that is so unthinkably referred to as “Good.” 

And it’s not easy to answer; because to be with Jesus now puts us face to face not only with the utter pain and absurdity of human life, not only with the reality of sin and death, but also places us at the foot of the cross on which we see above us the one who took on our pain, our sin and our death as his own. It’s hard – excruciatingly hard – and it ultimately defies our human understanding and sensibility; but that is how we need to be with him if we are also to rise with him at the day of resurrection.

The ancient church had a name for this, you know: they called it “the celebration of our Lord’s Pascal mystery,” which means, quite literally, “the mystery of Christ’s passion;” how it is that Christ’s death on the cross cannot ever be separated from his resurrection; how it is that our faith, our very salvation hinges on the sacrifice made on that cross; how it is that you and I, though undeserving, are redeemed by that act; how it is that this one single act of sacrifice, the bruises by which we are healed, brings us to the crossroads of all human history, and brings us into the kingdom of God.  As John Howard Yoder has written, “the cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.” 

Are you willing to keep watch with me for one hour? One day?  One week? That’s what Jesus is asking us on this Palm Sunday morning, friends.  Palm Sunday – this day of great paradox, a celebration of joy and triumph that also points the way of agony and shame; the glory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem that becomes the looming sadness of the passion.  But it is when we keep vigil with him on this “holy week,” in prayer and devotion, confronting ourselves at the foot of his cross that we are met by the brightness of God’s presence and glory in Jesus’ resurrection.  It is a difficult vigil; and overwhelming for us as it was for the disciples before us; but as Ann Weems says beautifully in one of her poems, “It’s Golgotha that we fear… [but] keeping covenant means keeping covenant under a cross as well as by an empty garden tomb.”  

So let us not be found sleeping on this Holy Week; but rather, let us keep watch with him in the bleak darkness of the night, that we might go with him to Golgotha and finally to the empty tomb… for it is indeed only in dying with Christ that we rise with Christ.

And yes, Christ will rise… Christ will rise!

Thanks be to God, beloved!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2021 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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