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New Heavens, New Earth, New Future

(a sermon for April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday, based on John 20:1-18 and Isaiah 65:17)

Well, let’s just start by stating the obvious:  this year Easter feels different… very different.

I realized at some point this week that as I’ve been talking with family and friends about my plans for our worship today I’ve almost always begun with the words, “Well, under ordinary circumstances…” as in, “Well, under ordinary circumstances we’d have a sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers (not to mention a sanctuary filled with beautiful people!)… under ordinary circumstances we’d be all here together singing out the triumphant hymns of our resurrection faith, and we’d be shouting our alleluias and our “Christ is risen, indeed’s” so loud and so often that our voices might go hoarse in the process… under ordinary circumstances, our Easter Sunday worship would be such a wonderful time of freshness and renewal and true celebration that we’d all leave church today with the feeling that everything around us had suddenly and gloriously become brand new… and us along with it!

But of course, these aren’t “ordinary circumstances,” by any means; in an unprecedented set of new circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic we’ve had rethink and reconfigure how to “do” Easter… or at least how to do it from a distance!  So yes, this year Easter does feel very different; and I’ll confess that like most of you I’m really missing all the traditions, both in and out of the church, that have made our Easter celebrations so great every year!  But that said, I also have to confess that lately I’ve been thinking that maybe this idea of our “feeling brand new” on this particular day should maybe have less to do with how we “do” Easter than what’s been done for us on Easter.

Believe it or not, it’s reminded me of how once many years ago, on a whim I decided to shave off my beard.  Now I’ve had this protuberance of whiskers on my chin for over 30 years now (I actually grew it so I could look older (!); I know… so much for that concept!), and I’d never totally shaved it off before nor have I since.  But for some reason on this one day I got it into my head I needed something fresh and new in my life – I needed to be fresh and new – so literally just like that, off came the beard.  

Now at this point, (our youngest son) Zach hadn’t been born yet, and it was just Jake and Sarah; and Jake, who I don’t think was even in school yet, took one look at the “new” me and cried his eyes out!  On the other hand, my lovely wife Lisa – my lovely, supportive wife, Lisa – started laughing hysterically; as I recall, her first three intelligible words were, “Grow… it… back!”  But my daughter Sarah, who was barely a toddler at the time, eyed me warily at first and then as I drew closer to her, she took her two little hands, tapped me on the cheeks and said, rather nonchalantly, “Daddy.”  From that moment, you see, it didn’t matter to her that I looked so different; I felt the same and inside I was the same, so she could tell that I was still her Daddy!  I was grateful for that, but I also immediately realized that shaving off the beard wasn’t going to give me that “newness” of life, so to speak, that I was seeking!

My point here is though appearances may change and circumstances around us can and do drastically shift, who we are deep down inside remains the same; try as we may, we can’t make ourselves to be “brand new” simply by our own effort.  We can’t do it by wealth, it can’t happen through the exercise of power, and it doesn’t occur out of the sheer force of will and determination.  In the end, you see, no matter what kind of “extreme makeover” we attempt for ourselves, there’s nothing we can do that makes us brand new.

But here’s the good news of Easter, beloved, and the real reason for celebrating today: it’s that God can make us brand new, and does.  The same God who promised to “create new heavens and a new earth,” makes us brand new as well and has done it through Jesus, who is the Christ: Jesus, who in rising again has conquered the one absolute certainly of our human existence – our death – and has opened for us the gates of life abundant and everlasting.  By the resurrection, we become a new creation; a people of a new heaven, a new earth and a new future.  And the experience of that is what moves this day of celebration far beyond the realm of candy and flowers and new spring clothes; it’s what makes our worship this morning infinitely more than simply an exercise in hymn singing and alleluia shouting; and it’s how it can utterly transcend our being unable to gather together as the church “in person!”  It’s the resurrection that makes our lives – yours and mine – something fuller and greater than we had ever thought possible.  For you see, when God enters into our lives in such a way that we are enabled to see this world not as a place of death, decay and defeat, but as the place awaiting God’s final victory of life, we are, in fact and forevermore, made brand new!   

Christ is risen; and because of that, friends, this world and our lives in this world can never be the same as it was before; and thanks be to God for it!   In fact, in the words of the late British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, in this world the resurrection can only be viewed as “a total starting point… the ultimate protest against things as they are, in the name of what ought to be,” the proclamation that “the world as it is is not God’s last word.”   It is no wonder that throughout the history of the church, Easter has often been referred to as “Day of Days,” or, more pointedly, “The First Day.” Because from this first day on, everything is brand new.

Of the four accounts of the resurrection that are contained in the gospels, I think I’ve always been drawn the most to John’s version of the Easter story. I love, for instance, how John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning early “while it was still dark,” suggesting that the day hadn’t even begun yet, but rather that time between darkness and the dawn when things still seem so gray and uncertain.  I am always struck by how Peter and the other disciple race to get to the tomb first, but then, so amazed by what they discover there, end up wandering back home and leaving Mary alone, weeping outside the entrance of the tomb.  And I am always moved by how she cries; that so great is her anguish and  grief, first over the death of her Lord but now also over the apparent theft of his body that she doesn’t even recognize the voice of Jesus when he speaks to her… how she assumes Jesus to be the gardener, of all people!

Isn’t it interesting that it’s only when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” only then does she recognize him; only then that she can begin to understand this incredible thing that had happened; only in that moment did her world and her life become brand new, and the overwhelming tears of grief and anguish are replaced by tears of joy and even laughter.  Suddenly, despair turns to hope, defeat becomes victory, and what was impossible now becomes not only possible but real!   Where before there was nothing but death staring Mary in the face, now there’s life with this brand-new future laid open before her!

That’s an incredible moment; for what we sometimes forget in remembering the great theological and cosmic implications of the resurrection is that while God so loved the world, God also so loved the one.  In this exchange between Mary and the risen Christ we discover that God does indeed seek to bring each one home to him in a love that is as real and close as our very hearts. 

But then, this shouldn’t surprise us.  One thing Jesus was always teaching us is that God is not about to let us go, that he calls us by our names, and that he will transform heaven and earth if it’ll bring us home.  And now, through Christ, crucified and risen, God makes the world brand new, and makes us brand new along with it.

And that’s why, even in these most stressful and uncertain of days: even in these times when the struggles of the world have become our struggles; even as in life we suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous, cruel and sinful humanity; even now, we can still dare to love; even now we dare to wonder and to trust that even in the bleakest of times that God is good. 

We dare to hope in God’s shalom to bring forth a new day of resurrection and hope to every dark place in the world, and we dare to work boldly as persons and as a people for the sake of God’s kingdom; all because we know that Christ has overcome the world, and that there is a new heaven, a new earth and a new future for you and for me.   And, friends, that is what makes all the difference for us not only today, but also tomorrow and every day to come.

Someone once asked the poet G.K. Chesterton what personifies a Christian, and he replied that “a Christian will do two things:  dance out of the sheer sense of joy, and fight out of the sheer sense of victory.”   Well, beloved, today on this day of resurrection, we dance!   Wherever and however we happen to be today, we sing and celebrate that Christ is risen, and we praise the God of resurrection and new life… today is for dancing!  

But tomorrow, when life continues in this strange “new normal,” we fight.  We fight out of a sheer sense of victory; we fight because by the power of the risen Christ we are not the same as before, but different; we fight because of a new sense of who we are and what our lives are about; we fight because we are made brand new and our lives are starting all over again! 

Can you imagine what that means?  What do you think could happen to us and to this world if we could just be bold enough to live that way?

My prayer for all of us amidst the “extra-ordinary circumstances” of this Easter Day is that the Risen Christ, the one who is alive in the world and alive in our hearts, will give us courage and grace to dare to live that kind of life: not only on this day of days, this first of days, gut also on every day that’s to come.  And may we always be joyful and bold in proclaiming…

…Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)

Alleluia, and AMEN!

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

 
 

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For Whom Is Christ Risen Today?

(a meditation for Easter Sunrise 2019, based on John 20:1-18)

“Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!” 

Friends, that is the ancient greeting of this day, the clarion call and response of our Easter celebration.  Moreover, in one single proclamation, it encompasses the incredible, earth shaking good news that brings people of faith the world over together in triumph and victory: from small clusters of people sharing the chill of early morning on hillsides and shorelines to the multitudes who even now are gathering in sanctuaries and cathedrals filled with flowers and song.  It’s  the curious, the seeking and the believing together as one, all seeking out an empty tomb and a word of rejoicing from angels in dazzling white.  This is the “Day of Resurrection, “ and it truly unites us: for no matter our background, nationality, language, politics, tradition or even our denominational affiliation (!), as Christians we share at least this much in common:  the liberating and unifying gift of divine redemption in which we gladly proclaim, “Christ is risen–he is risen indeed!”

It’s a proclamation borne out of a singular moment: a happening, a one of a kind event and an old and familiar story in which we know the “where and when” so well, and yet never fails to stir our hearts in the retelling.  Mary Magdalene approaching the tomb “while it was still dark,” coming to this place that didn’t simply represent death, it epitomized the loss of any kind of hope; her discovery that the stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away: Peter and John literally racing to the tomb so to investigate, only to find it empty, save for the burial linens, and then – almost inexplicably – going back home, presumably to ponder what might just have happened (!); and then there’s Mary, all alone and weeping outside the tomb encountering someone she assumed to be the gardener but then realizing (when he called her by name!) that this was, in fact, Jesus himself, risen from death!

“I have seen the Lord!”  says Mary to the disciples, and as we tell her story once again this morning it is as though we have seen him as well.  Yes, we know very well what happened on that day so long ago; even the smallest of details in this story resonate with us.  The fact is, we know how to tell the story; after all, as Christians this is the culmination of our Lenten journey to the cross and beyond!  So we know all about Easter; and we do know that “Christ is Risen Indeed…”

…but the harder thing for us to understand is why.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to confess that even as we’re out here “in the wee hours” shouting our alleluias and sharing ancient greetings I’m, well… humbled.  I mean, we’re singing songs of praise and giving prayerful thanks for love and light and life, but even in all of that I find myself wondering how, in the face of the most indescribably wondrous and miraculous event in all of human history, God saw fit to make it happen; how God would sacrifice Jesus on the cross and then raise him up in Easter glory.  What did it mean to do that… truly, what does it mean?

Truly, we know that Christ the Lord is risen today – Aleluia! – but perhaps the bigger question is why, and for whom?  For whom is Christ risen today?

It would be easy for me to proclaim that Christ is risen for you and for me who are seeking to be faithful and live life with integrity and purpose and love… Christ is risen indeed for those who seek to live in the light!  But… can the same be said for those struggling in the darkness of life… and the darkness of the soul?  Is Christ risen for the prisoner alone in her cell trying to find some kind of way to put her life back together?  Is Christ risen for children born the midst of poverty, or who live in fear of violence every single day of their lives?  Is Christ risen for the one who’s suddenly facing the loss of a cherished relationship or the destruction of a home?  Is Christ risen for those who struggle with disease, for those who grieve, for those who are lost or confused about their lives, for those who have felt every day and in every way judged and marginalized and disenfranchised?  Is Christ risen for those for whom death, in all of its many guises, is a way of life?

And the answer is… yes!

For those, as scripture might put it,  who are “dwelling in deep darkness,” it is hard to conceive that Christ is risen, that death has been defeated and that life is new; but it is precisely these for whom Christ has most surely risen.  Beloved, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead for all those who dwell in the darkness that they might have the light of life!

For me, one of the most powerful elements of the Easter story is how it happens “while it was still dark,” the time that’s no longer night but yet morning.  Darkness, by its very nature, is the time for grief and hopelessness, but Christ arose to banish that darkness forever; because of the resurrection the light of a new day shone forth and life began anew with infinite possibilities; resurrection is the the only way it could have happened!

Truly, the risen Christ comes to us in risen glory to banish our darkness, yours and mine; he comes in the middle of our sin, our pain, our regret and our grieving for all that has been lost in the midst of it all.  Jesus Christ is risen to assure us once and for all that we need not fear, because now, at last, darkness is done and the day has come!  The power of death has been defeated forever, and life has prevailed; and you and I and everyone who dwells in the deep darkness can now rejoice in the light; for a new day has dawned, a day of resurrection alive with the power of divine and limitless HOPE!

For whom is Christ risen today?  Quite simply, Christ is risen for all those who need to experience that divine rebirth of heart and spirit.  Christ is risen for all those who know deep within their souls that the night, as dark and horrible as it has been, is now over, and a new day ripe with joy and celebration is about to begin.  For all the hymns sung today, for all the lilies blooming in our sanctuaries, for all the fellowship that’s to be shared amongst families and friends it can scarcely begin to express the true scope of Easter joy that comes in the resurrection.  Ultimately, it’s a gift that we’ve neither earned nor deserve, and yet it’s ours by the grace of an infinitely loving God.

And what can you say to this, except that… “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed!”

This is a great and glorious morning, beloved…  and the wondrous good news of Christ’s resurrection is ours to proclaim! So let us go forth today doing just that in our worship, our celebration and the opportunity we have here, now and in every new day from now on, to live in the light of life we’ve been given.  We have seen the Lord, beloved, so let us not be reluctant, but bold to share that news to all the world, and for the sake of all who are still mired in darkness and who need to know what light and life and resurrection truly is.

One more time, then…  Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!

Alleulia, and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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Is There Hope?

(a sermon for April 1, 2018,  Easter Sunday; based on 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20:1-18)

Somewhere in the midst of all the busyness of this past week I did the math and discovered that as of this morning I have had the joy and privilege of standing in a pulpit somewhere and preaching the gospel on 34 (!) Easter Sundays!  Now, not only did that suddenly make me profoundly aware of the passage of time, it also got me to thinking about how no matter what I happen to plan or do for today, there will always be much about our Easter Sunday worship and celebration that’s “a given.”

For instance, it’s usually a given there’s going to be some kind of sunrise service in the “wee hours” of the morning (some years more “wee” than others!) when we’ll huddle together in the cold and try to reach the high notes of “Up From the Grave He Arose!”  I also know that there’s going to be plenty of joy and exuberance in our worshipping together; that there will be lots of upbeat music and inspired hymn-singing; and a great many “alleluias” shouted and sung throughout the day.  Also it’s pretty much a given that come Easter Sunday there will be beautiful and fragrant flowers spread throughout the sanctuary; that there will be a whole bunch of children running around in their new clothes, having perhaps already partaken of Easter candy and yet very ready to go out and hunt for some eggs after church!

But perhaps the best “given” of all is that you’re all here, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed; because what better day for us all to come together to worship and praise God than this one?  Because this is the Day of Resurrection;  and everything about it, from choir anthems to unison prayers to the fellowship we share, just bursts forth with triumphant joy!   Christ is risen indeed, and that shatters the commonplace of our lives; truly, worship becomes celebration!  In the best possible sense, friends, so much about our coming together today has to do with raucous, noisy, triumphant celebration; and praise God for it!

Which makes it all the more interesting that as we finally settle in to hearing the gospel reading for this Easter Sunday, what we encounter there is not so much an air of triumphant celebration as it is the darkness just before the dawn, an atmosphere of what the Old Testament often refers to as a “deep, crushing silence,” and also, it’s important to note… a lingering sense of hopelessness!

For you see, it’s important to realize that there were no trumpets blaring early on that morning “while it was still dark;” nothing at all victorious about Mary Magdalene drawing near to the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  All Mary knew in that moment was the enveloping quiet and the heaviness of her heart and soul.  This was, in every sense of the word, a funeral processional, a silent walk of death; for Jesus of Nazareth was gone.

Remember, Mary had been there with Jesus from the very beginnings of his ministry, and she’d seen and experienced it all: bodies healed, eyes given sight, countless lives made new simply because of his presence.  She’d seen the throngs of people clamoring around him to glean even the smallest bit of his teaching; and yes, she’d also seen the rulers and leaders who were perplexed and threatened by him.  And later on, with the other women beside her, she’d stood by helplessly as Jesus hung on the cross to die; and it was then that her own heart was broken.

Only a few days before, there’d been so much rejoicing, so much praising and so much hope; it had seemed like every one of their hopes for life, for living, and forever had come to fruition in this man who had become their master, teacher and friend.  But that was all over because now Jesus was dead; and not just dead, mind you, but crucified, hastily brought down from that tool of execution and placed in a borrowed tomb without even the dignity of a proper burial.  Whatever else was going on deep within Mary’s soul as she approached the tomb, one thing was for certain: any kind of hope she’d ever had was gone forever.  All that remained now was to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices and that would be the end of it.

The truth is, I suspect that there are probably some of us here today who can understand that kind of hopelessness; who know what it means to have sadness, disappointment and emptiness be the prominent emotions of life and living.  As the late Rev. Dr. William Self once wrote, “We all have our days when we stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet.  Our children go astray.  We get the pink slip from our employer, or worse still, the test comes back from the lab as positive.”  These are the times when everything we’ve ever wanted, worked on, sacrificed over and hoped for simply, in whatever circumstance and for whatever reason… falls apart!  It doesn’t matter how good, or how faithful you’ve been in your life and it has nothing to do with what’s fair or just!  As Self concludes, “If you have blood in your veins and skin on your bones, you will have some darkness.”  And sometimes in that place of darkness, all you think of to ask is, “Is there any hope at all?”

Well, that’s what happened to Mary Magdalene.  What’s interesting is that as John tells this story, even after Mary had discovered that “the stone had been removed from the tomb;” even after Simon Peter and “the other disciple” ran to investigate and saw “the linen wrappings lying there;” even after that other disciple “saw and believed;” and even when she herself “bent over to look into the tomb” to find “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying,” all this time Mary is still weeping!  But this we can understand as well; for hopelessness is not something that is so easily disposed of, especially when it goes hand in hand with death.  We all know about the fragility of human life, and of death’s irretrievable finality; and so we also understand that at some point that reality of it must be accepted.

So it just follows that as she was sitting there in the garden, Mary’s heart had to have been reeling from grief and loss.  Remember, at this point she’s still wondering if in the night someone had come and stolen Jesus’ body, which would have been the final indignity to be heaped upon this man that she loved; so there would most certainly have been some panic and even anger mingled in with the grief!  There was no way that Mary would even begin to comprehend or even entertain the notion that this was anything more than what it appeared; any potential evidence to the contrary, Mary was not about to pin her hopes on an empty tomb!

But here’s the thing: though Mary was still weeping, though the disciples had gone home to ponder what they may have seen at the empty tomb, and though as far as all of creation was concerned death was still the one hard and fast reality of life, something amazing had already happened: death had been vanquished forever!  The tomb was empty, for Jesus had risen from the dead; and by his resurrection, God gave his people not only the gift of new life in the present, but also the promise of salvation and an eternal home.  In this moment when any and all hope seemed to be gone forever, now in the risen Christ there is hope unending!  It’s truly redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale; but even in that moment of victory there is still one thing that remains.

Mary.

In looking at this text, David Lose makes the very interesting point that “the space between ‘woman’ and ‘Mary’ is perhaps the distance between the cross and resurrection.”  Remember that at first, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’” and Mary, supposing him to be the gardener (and perhaps even thinking him complicit in the robbery of Jesus’ grave), fails to recognize him even when they’re standing face to face.  It’s only when Jesus calls Mary by her name that she recognizes him as “Rabbouni,” that is, her beloved Lord and teacher.  It’s the fact that Jesus knows Mary and reaches out to her personally that ends up making all the difference in her belief and understanding of what’s taken place.  As Lose puts it, “Known, [Mary] knows.  Seen, she can see.  Loved, she loves… and then [she] goes and tells [the others] what she has seen, known and loved.”

And once again on this Day of Resurrection, we rightly proclaim it a wonder, a miracle, and a sure cause for celebration with songs of triumph and shouts of joy; and that it is!  But it’s also an affirmation of how God always works, isn’t it?  In the end, you see, it’s not in pursuing God’s favor that we earn righteousness or that we’re given salvation; it’s that God pursued us in the person of Jesus Christ, that he went to the cross and died for us, and that then was raised from the dead so that by grace we could be given life abundant and eternal.    Moreover, it’s not mere wishful thinking, nor the passing hopes and dreams that we build up for ourselves that offers us security for the living of these days; it’s rather the unending hope that comes in knowing that in our most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations God is working specifically and directly on our behalf, yours and mine; bringing much needed light into our darkness.  And it’s not – and this is important, friends (!) – merely a one-time only historical event that happened some 2,000 years ago; but rather it’s the divine experience of rebirth that happens again and again in the hearts of those who have been named and claimed by the one, as 1 Peter proclaims it, who “by his great mercy… has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”  Beloved, the good news of Easter is that there’s always hope; because Jesus is risen from the dead; and because Jesus is alive, so are we, now and forever!

I said to you earlier that as a pastor I’ve been in the pulpit for 34 Easter Sundays; what I didn’t say is that there was, in fact, one particular and very memorable Easter that I wasn’t.  As I’m sure I’ve shared with some of you before, that was the year that I had to undergo emergency back surgery: I’d had some spinal disc issues that were causing me incredible pain and were getting much worse during Holy Week; moreover, the doctors were concerned for complications and even possible paralysis if something wasn’t done soon.  So I was told that if I had a “Plan B” for worship on Easter Sunday morning, I’d better put it into action because my surgery was being scheduled for the same hour as Sunrise Service the next morning!

And I’ll be honest; even in the pain I was in, for this particular pastor, that was a hard thing (I’ll let you in on a little secret; we clergy types can be a little possessive about our Sunday morning worship, especially on Easter!).  But I really didn’t have a choice; and so while I was under the knife Lisa and Jake, along with a layperson from the church, took care of the sunrise service; and our choir director, who was in seminary at the time, learned how to preach an Easter sermon on the fly!  Everything went fine, for the church and for me, as it did for the next few weeks as I recovered; and I mention it to you this morning because along the way I did learn something that I shared with everyone who asked me: that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” whether I show up for worship or not!

But it also served as a good reminder that Easter cannot and will not be contained… by a day, by a service, an certainly not by a pastor… or anybody else!  It can’t be hemmed in by any of the limits or boundaries we set upon it, and it won’t be diminished by our doubts!  Friends, Easter won’t be over when in a few moments we pronounce a Benediction, nor will it be finished later today after dinner is done and the family’s all gone home for the evening.  It won’t even be over when you get up tomorrow on “Easter Monday” and return to the busyness of a new week and all the challenges it will bring.  Easter continues…today, tomorrow and in every day that comes; and resurrection happens for you and for me as we move through this new and abundant life that our Lord has given us.  Christ is risen, beloved, and by the power of his resurrection we are given all the hope we need to live full, empowered and purpose driven lives.

It’s Resurrection Day, beloved, and the future is wide open; so let us rejoice and be glad in all the possibilities before, and of this life that God has given us…

… for Christ is risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia, thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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