God Loved the World This Way

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day. “For whatever you do to the least of these,” he said, “you do it to me.”

And I know it’s a little weird to start off an Easter sermon this way. But you don’t get Easter without Good Friday. And you don’t comprehend the power of Easter without understanding the condition we were in.

Every person sleeping in a park, or under an overpass, or out in the woods, because they have no home to go to… is Christ, crucified.

Everyone who goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat… is Christ, crucified.

Every refugee who is told that our country is full, every immigrant who is told to go back where they came from, every person who is called a terrorist just because of their faith… is Christ, crucified.

Every lesbian or gay or bisexual youth who is thrown out of their house because of their sexual orientation, every transgender person who is told they’re not really who they identify as, every genderqueer person who experiences violence… is Christ, crucified.

Every sick person who cannot find care, every prisoner who walks through the prison gate, every child who is bullied… is Christ, crucified.

And, yes, there are moments when we are Christ, hanging on that cross. And there are far more times when we are Judas, selling him out. And there are far, far, far more times when we are Peter, saying, “I do not even know the man!”

And this is where we are on Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, go to the tomb that someone has laid their friend and teacher in. 

Every gospel tells this story a little differently. In Mark, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices. In Luke, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some other unnamed women going to the tomb to do the same. In John, it’s Mary Magdalene by herself, who just happens to go to the tomb.

And in Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, going to the tomb. Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went or what they were thinking or whether they were talking to each other along the way.

But… if you’ve ever been to the grave of a friend—especially a friend who died suddenly, especially a friend who you feel a little bit of survivor’s guilt over, especially a friend who you were cruel to just before they died—then I suspect you know why they were going. They were going to say, “I let you down… I wish things were different.”

God loved the world this way. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb, there was an earthquake, and an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away from the tomb. And the angel said to the women,

Do not be afraid! I know that you’re here looking for Jesus, who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised. See, there’s the spot where he should be and he’s not there. Go tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead, and tell them to go to Galilee, and tell them that he’ll meet them there.

Matthew 28:5-7

And the women ran away from the tomb with great joy. Their friend and teacher was alive! And the women ran away from the tomb with great fear. Their friend and teacher—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—was alive!

And I can understand that joy. And I can understand that fear.

We are good mainline protestant Christians. We don’t talk about judgment a lot. But…

If Christ returned today—if the heavens split open right now and the Son of Man came in all his glory and all the angels with him—I wonder how he would see me. And I suspect he would see me surrounded by the bodies of the Christs I have crucified. I suspect he would see me surrounded by the disappointed faces of the Christs I have denied.

And if he followed human justice—if he demanded retribution and the satisfaction of his honor—then he would be justified in sending me into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And I wonder if Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had the same thought. We let you down… we wish things were different, but they’re not… do what you have to do.

But as they run from the tomb in joy and fear, Jesus—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—appears to them. And he says, “Greetings! Do not be afraid. Go tell the others to meet me in Galilee.”

This is the good news of the gospel: you are forgiven.

There’s nothing you did to earn that. You are not forgiven because you did enough good deeds, or because you’ve lived a good enough life, or because you repented just right, or because you said the sinner’s prayer, or because you signed the little blank in the back of some tract.

You are forgiven—I am forgiven—because God loves the world this way. In spite of all the things we’ve done and all of the things we’ve left undone, God meets us on the road and says, “Do not be afraid.”

In spite of all the things we’ve said and all of the things we’ve left unsaid, God meets us on the journey and says, “Go get your friends and meet me further up the road.”

In spite of all the things we’ve thought and all of the things we’ve left unthought, God meets us on the road and says, “I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God sees us in all our brokenness and says, “Let me heal you. Let me make you whole. And while I’m doing that, let’s go out together and find some more broken people and heal them.”

That is the gospel, in all its fullness. You are forgiven. God’s not done with you, yet. And if you weren’t afraid before… well…

We have been forgiven. Our slates have been wiped clean. Our debts have been paid. We have been created anew. Not just once, on a Sunday morning, a couple thousand years ago, but every Sunday and every day and several times every day. God keeps coming to us saying, “Do not be afraid. You are forgiven. I’m not done with you yet.”

And the central question of Christian ethics—the central question of Christian life—is, “What are you going to do with that?”

Because there are people sleeping in parks, and under overpasses, and out in the woods, because they have no home to go to…

And there are people who go to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat…

And there are refugees being told that our country is full, and immigrants being told to go back where they came from, and people being called terrorists just because of their faith…

And there are lesbian and gay and bisexual youth who are being thrown out of their houses because of their sexual orientations, and transgender people being told that they’re not really who they identify as, and genderqueer people facing unimaginable violence…

And there are people who are sick and cannot find care, and prisoners walking through the prison gates, and children being bullied…

And so many others. So, so, so many others. All of us, in fact. Every last one of us.

We all need good news; we all need Christ. We all need you to be good news. We all need you to be Christ. We need you to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to help in any way that we need and in any way that you can. We need you to be the feet of Christ, walking alongside us on our journeys through this world. We need you to the mouth of Christ, reminding us again and again that we are the precious children of the God who is love; reminding us that we are loved and worthy of love.

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day.

And, every time—Every. Single. Time.—God gets up. God looks at us in our brokenness and our guilt and says, “Do not be afraid. Go get your friends and meet me further up the road. I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God loves the world this way: she creates you. She makes you anew… again and again… an instrument of her peace and love and pardon, of her union and truth and faith, of her hope and light and joy.

So do not be afraid. Go and tell the world that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed! And carry him into the world, being the love of Christ for each other and for everyone you meet.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia! Amen.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 1, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Mark 16:1-8.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

In churches around the world today, congregations are shouting with joy that the stone has been rolled away, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that hope has been restored to the world. This is a joyful day. Christos Anesti! Le Christ est ressucité! Atgyfododd Crist! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And, as usual, the women are there first.

Go into any of those churches who are shouting with joy today, and chances are good that you’ll see someone who looks like me standing in front of the congregation, giving his Easter sermon.

While we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women — about half of the ordained pastors in the United Church of Christ are women, and this congregation has had five women serve as settled or interim pastors, stretching all the way back to Mabel Mannington in 1918…

…while we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women, we know that many do not. In churches around the world, you are far more likely to see a man preaching this morning than a woman.

But it is important to remember that it is women who went to the tomb; and, for countless generations it has been women who have kept the church going. In the same churches where men are giving their Easter sermons, women are teaching Sunday school and caring for the children; playing the piano and singing in the choir; running food pantries and delivering casseroles; sitting with the dying and serving funeral luncheons.

Women buy spices late on a Saturday night. And women get up early on Sunday morning to go down to the cemetery and anoint the body of the crucified.

In today’s gospel reading, it is the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified. The first day of the week after is an important moment. If you’ve ever had a first-day-of-the-week-after then you know that. Your universe has changed. Your world has been turned upside down. But the rest of the world is still moving on. For you, it’s the first day of the week after; for everyone else, it’s just another day.

We haven’t seen Peter since he denied Jesus three times. We haven’t seen the other disciples since Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane. But on Sunday morning — on the first day of the week after — when the sun has risen, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome are on their way to the tomb.

And they might not know it yet, but this is the work of the church.

It’s easy to think that the gospel is about the miracles and the parables. It’s easy to think that the church is about worship and programs. It’s easy to think that, if we just had a more impressive sign or a more dynamic pastor, we would grow our membership and this sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all of the people.

And that’s not untrue. But it’s not the whole truth.

The gospel is also about quiet words with a woman at a well and eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. The church is also about stocking a young family’s fridge and sitting down with someone who’s crying. And if we let our care and our warmth radiate out, and we invite people to come and see for themselves, then our sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all the people.

Maybe. I’m not making guarantees. The gospel is about the miracles and the parables. And the gospel is about going to the tomb on the first day of the week after.

And something amazing happens when these three women go to the tomb. They are wondering who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb so that they can anoint the body of their crucified Lord. And they look up, and the stone has already been rolled back.

And sitting in the tomb is just… this guy. And he tells them, “Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here. He’s been raised. Look, there’s the place where they laid him. It’s empty. Go tell Peter and the disciples that he’s going to Galilee and he’ll see them there.”

And the women are seized by terror and amazement. And they flee the tomb. And they say nothing to anyone.

And that sounds bad.

Allow me a moment of biblical nerdery. Today’s reading is from the gospel of Mark. And in our earliest copies of Mark, from the fourth century, the gospel just ends there. The women fled, they were afraid, they said nothing to anyone. End of gospel.

And some Christians decided that that was a bad ending. So they added to the gospel. Some added the shorter ending, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she does in fact go and tell the disciples what she was told to tell them. Some added the longer ending, where Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples and adds some teachings and ascends to heaven.

And there are theories about what happened. Maybe Mark meant to end his gospel there. Maybe Mark meant to write a better ending but never got to it. Maybe Mark wrote a longer ending but we lost it.

But no matter what, the ending we have — the ending that we’re sure Mark wrote — is this: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that matters.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. They went to do something perfectly ordinary.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. Click To Tweet

And by doing that — by showing up in the every day work of the church on the first day of the week after — they discovered something amazing. There was no big sign, there was no praise band, there was no powerpoint presentation, there was no dynamic preacher. There was just the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And they were amazed. And they were afraid. Because that was a transformative moment. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome were no longer the women they were on the last day of the week before. They were no longer the women they were in the last hour of the night before. They were no longer the women they were in the minute before they walked into that tomb. They had been changed. They knew the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And that kind of transformation is amazing and terrifying.

But here’s the thing: when we learn that truth, we don’t need to say anything to anyone. When we learn that truth, people will see it on our faces and in our actions. When we learn that truth, people will know that we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know we are Christians by our love.

And here’s the other thing. Maybe we learn that truth in worship. Maybe we learn that truth from hymns. Maybe we learn that truth from our dynamic… young… handsome… pastor. But I think — I strongly suspect, I’m pretty sure — that all of those things are a response to that truth. We find that truth — we learn that truth — in the every day work of being the church.

We find it in teaching Sunday school and WOW Kids and Faith in Motion. We find it in playing the piano and singing in the choir. We find it in giving to the Referral Center and making casseroles. We find it in sitting with the dying and making funeral luncheons. We find it in showing up in the moment and on the first day of the week after. We find it in dancing for joy and mourning with our friends and neighbors.

We find it, in short, in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world.

We find that truth — that Christ is risen — in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world. Click To Tweet

We are fortunate to be part of a denomination that invites men and women and people who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary to participate in every aspect of the life of the church, from delivering an Easter sermon to cleaning the kitchen and everything in between.

And we are fortunate to be part of a church that invites everyone to be transformed by that work.

Today is the first day of the week after. And just like Mark’s gospel, we don’t know how this ends. But there is today. And there is tomorrow. And there is next week and next month and next year. There is work to be done every day. And sometimes it’s terrifying. And sometimes it’s amazing. And always it’s transforming.

Because in all of it, all of us can learn a little more of that truth and what it means: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Luke 24:6-11 (for Easter)

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

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