Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection, by Invitation Only

Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

I want to go right back to that Gospel reading while it’s still fresh in our minds.  The reading begins “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).  John’s gospel does a lot with light and dark – it begins by telling us Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness (1:5); and when Judas goes out to betray Jesus, that story concludes with the ominous words, “And it was night” (13:30).  And as today’s reading begins, early in the morning three days after Jesus was killed, it’s still dark from that spiritual nightfall.  Of course, we know what’s ahead for Mary Magdalene as she sets out that morning; most of us have heard this story before.  But we may forget that Mary isn’t going to the tomb expecting a miracle.  She’s going to the tomb in deep sorrow, struggling to make sense of the death of her leader and the death of their movement.  She’s a ghost of who she’d been in Jesus’ presence.  The best she can do that morning is simply take each next step.  Sometimes, that’s as good as faithfulness gets.  Sometimes, all we can do is just take the next step.
My hunch is that Mary Magdalene isn’t the only one here who’s walking in the darkness this morning.  On Easter Day, it’s easy for the Church to be so triumphant that we leave behind the people who are struggling.  For many of us, we’ve been walking through a pretty rough patch recently.  Just watch the news.  The conflict in Syria keeps intensifying.  A terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Sweden, killing four and injuring a dozen more.  Last week, 44 Christians in Egypt were killed by terrorists simply because they went to church on Palm Sunday, tragically dying as they marked they mystery that Jesus died to save them.  And here in our own family, many of our younger people are reeling from the death of one of their good friends just a few days ago, a tragedy literally beyond our comprehension.  We sing “Hallelujah” this morning as we celebrate resurrection, and rightly so; but we have to remember that the path to “Hallelujah” is the way of the cross – and not all of us are feeling the joy just yet. 
Sometimes, when God breaks into our worlds and transforms them, we hurt too much to see it.  In the half-light of that early morning, Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away from the tomb, and in her devastation she presumes grave robbers are desecrating the body she’s come to honor.  She runs off to get help from her friends, and the disciples Peter and John rush to the scene of the crime.  Mind you, they too are blinded by their sorrow and their pain.  They look into the tomb and believe Mary’s report that the body’s been taken – they can’t yet see God’s hand at work here.  They hurt too much to feel anything but salt rubbed in their wounds, and all Peter and John can do is go back home again to mourn and hide, still afraid the authorities might come after them, too.  So Mary just stands there in the half-light, alone and weeping.
But then, something happens.  When she looks into the tomb, she sees something that doesn’t jibe with grave robbery.  As she gazes into the tomb, looking tragedy in the eye, she sees two men dressed in white.  We’re told they’re angels, but Mary doesn’t necessarily know that.  She still hurts too much to see the miracle, and she sobs to these strangers why she’s so upset.  Then she hears a voice behind her, asking her why she’s weeping and whom she’s looking for; and all she can think is, “Here’s one more guy who isn’t going to be of any help.”  She gets mad, I think, supposing that she’s now found the idiot who took the body and put it somewhere it wasn’t meant to be.  But then, Jesus stops her short.  It is Jesus, after all, not the gardener; and he stops her short simply by calling her by name, reminding her of the person she’s been in his presence.  And when he does, she comes to herself.  As the half-light turns to morning, and the long, dark night finally ends, Mary hears Jesus call her name, and she sees God face to face.  In that face, she sees the one thing she lacked most, which is hope – hope that death does not get the last word. 
In fact, it’s a hope powerful enough to heal her, transforming her from a mourner into an ambassador.  She knows she has to take that hope that life conquers death and bring it to the guys hiding out back home.  She finds Peter and John and the rest of Jesus’ friends, still blinded by their long night of despair, and she opens the door onto the sunrise, proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).  Resurrection happens, Mary says.  Come, and live it.
 Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to all of us.  But here’s the mystery about that:  The offer is open to all; as Peter says later, in the Book of Acts, “[E]veryone who believes in [Jesus Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).  So the offer is open to all – and yet, it comes by invitation only.  By that, I don’t mean some doctrine of divine election.  I mean the offer is open to all – but it comes only when one person invites another person into it. 
Let me tell you a story to shine some light on that mystery.  There is a man in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth named Gerald.  He’s in his early 40s, and he’s spent more than half his life in prison – drugs and weapons charges.  He never knew his father.  His mother is addicted to drugs.  Gerald would have every reason to be living in the long night of despair.  But Gerald decided to turn his life around, so he did what he needed to do at Leavenworth to qualify for the Life Connections program, which offers spiritually based mentoring to help prisoners prepare for new life after release.  Four men here at St. Andrew’s have served or are serving as mentors there – Ron Spradley, John Norton, George Kroh, and Deacon Bruce Bower.  It’s Bruce who’s serving as Gerald’s mentor.
So one day recently, Gerald happened to say to Bruce that, back in the day when he was still on the outside, he would never walk or drive in the rain.  It seemed an odd thing to share, so Bruce asked him why he wouldn’t walk or drive in the rain.  Gerald said that when he was a kid in St. Louis, he noticed that every time someone was shot and killed in his neighborhood, it rained the next day.  So he asked his grandmother why that was, and his grandmother told him God sent the rain to wash the evil off the streets.  OK, that’s a lovely word of comfort.  But why wouldn’t Gerald walk or drive in the rain?  Because, he said, he’d been told he was evil – and he was afraid God would wash him away, too.
If the story stayed there, we might join Gerald in despair.  But here’s the thing:  Gerald now sees God very differently because Gerald now knows how God sees him.  In an earlier day, Gerald thought God judged him as nothing more than evil, wanting to wash him off the streets and wipe him away.  No doubt, Gerald had done some pretty sinful things, and he himself would say so.  But all Gerald knew of God was distance and judgment and wrath.
Then something changed:  The risen Christ called Gerald by name.  But it came in the voice of Bruce Bower.  Bruce showed up and kept showing up.  Bruce honored Gerald’s humanity.  Bruce respected Gerald’s dignity.  Bruce helped Gerald see that he is a beloved child, not an evil stain to be washed away.  In his mentor, Gerald sees Jesus’ face and hears him calling him by name.  In fact, after that visit to Leavenworth, Bruce received this email from Gerald:  “Thanks be to God for sending you my way to help me when I feel weak and worthless and down.  I won’t be afraid of the rain anymore.”
Resurrection happens.  It’s not a one-time thing; it’s a way of life.  And it’s offered to all – but remember the mystery:  It’s offered to all, but it comes by invitation only.  Gerald found new life precisely because Bruce invited Gerald to live the truth that God makes all things new.
But you know, the invitation goes back farther than that.  Gerald found new life because, seven years earlier, someone invited Bruce Bower to consider getting involved in a new ministry.  Ron Spradley had been a mentor at Leavenworth for a few years, and he knew Bruce, and he could see Bruce as a good fit for this work.  So Ron did one of the most powerful, most holy things there is:  Ron invited Bruce to take part.  Now, think about the difference that single invitation has made.  Because of that invitation, Gerald will leave prison able to walk in God’s love, he and all the others Bruce has mentored and will mentor.  And you know, that holy power of invitation goes back even farther than that because, of course, 50-some-odd years ago, someone invited Ron Spradley to get involved here at his new church, St. Andrew’s…..
This church family, the body of Christ in this place – we are Mary Magdalene.  We are a family of wounded healers and tongue-tied ambassadors sometimes.  We’re each haunted by our fears and by the shadow of despair, just like anyone else.  But the difference is, deep in our bones, we know that death is not the end.  We know resurrection happens.  In the midst of war and terrorism and untimely loss, we know that Christ has defeated the power of sin and death, making all things new, now and always. 
If you’ve come here this morning haunted by your fears and the shadow of despair, know that you are not alone.  And know that you can find healing in this place – that in the voices of this family, you can hear Jesus calling you by name.
And if you’ve come here this morning as part of this good family, remember and claim the healing power you hold.  It was a word from one person to another person here that has saved Gerald’s life.  So remember the gracious mystery of life made new:  Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to us all.  But it comes by invitation only.  

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