Ride Out With Me

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
© Stacey Steck

There is a moment in the film, “The Two Towers,” the second in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which kept coming back to me all week. It is the moment just before dawn when King Théoden of Rohan realizes that his invincible stronghold is about to fall to the savage forces of the wizard Saruman, to the thousands of orcs, goblins, and other creatures of the night besieging them, and that not only will all his warriors fall, but also the women, children, and infirm who have taken refuge in the depths of the fortress. With a glazed look on a paralyzed face, he simply says, “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” And this week, in our own community, we might add to Théoden’s lament, and say, “What can men do against such feckless fate?” the fate that awaits each one of us, the fate of our mortal bodies, and the fate to remain behind and grieve for those who have died.

2018 has been a tough year already and we’re only four months in. We’ve suffered through a stubborn flu season, through tempestuous weather, through the deaths of five members of this community of faith. Around the world, we’ve heard the reports of Syrian civilians gassed by their government, continued chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, drivers plowing vans into innocent people on German and Canadian city streets, a troubled teen shooting his teachers and classmates in Florida, and more than one murder here in Salisbury. What can men and women do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Alas, the horror, unease, and grief our community has experienced this year is neither new, nor merely in the imagination of Hollywood blockbusters. The prophet Habakkuk seems to offer his prophecy with the same fatalistic resignation: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing, and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore justice comes forth perverted.” Give us a break, O Lord, give us a break! In Habakkuk’s time, like our own, violence begat violence; the eagerness of Israel and Judah’s kings to disregard the ways God had given to protect the beloved community, their wholesale participation in perpetrating the violence of poverty among their own people made it certain that Habakkuk would witness violence twice, first at the hand of his own people, and then at the hands of the Babylonians whose violence God used to punish the violence about which God’s people were duly warned. A witness from his watchtower, Habakkuk basically asks the same question, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” And through it all, he witnesses the grief and loss of saying goodbye to loved ones and to the promised homeland. Such feckless fate.

Several hundred years later, another group of God’s people was also feeling surrounded by violence and loss beyond their means to control or understand, a church in Thessalonica to which Paul writes, “we boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions you are enduring.” The specific violence and loss to which that church was witness goes unnamed in this letter, but it must have been severe enough to provoke prophecy of the righteous vengeance of God. We may be uncomfortable with this Old Testament sounding language about God repaying “with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed in heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus,” the orcs and goblins of his day, but there is also something comforting about hearing pretty straightforwardly that those creatures of the night persecuting the church “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” According to Paul, not only are the bad guys not going to win in the end, but boy will they suffer too. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” and better at God’s hands than our own, is all I can say, for in our clumsy hands, violence begets only violence. The waiting will be the hardest part and the test of our faith, to neither give up nor strike back in vengeance, but to endure and resist, even at the cost of our own lives, so that the violence we experience directly and indirectly might end with our own generation. God’s reply to Habakkuk is a challenging one: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely not delay.” That’s a hard kind of waiting to do, isn’t it? And it’s all well and good for God to say, “Just wait,” but Lord, it is easier said than done. We believe you, Lord; help our unbelief and help us in our grief.

At the risk of sounding like I am following the Gospel according to J.R.R. Tolkein rather than that of Luke or John, let me return us to Middle Earth and the response the dazed King of Rohan receives from another character in the story, the yet-to-be-crowned-king Aragorn. Sensing the King’s despair, Aragorn responds, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them,” meaning to ride out of the fortress and through the enemy lines and to go on the offensive, rather than remain inside on the defensive. Théoden’s face brightens, and he replies lustily, “For death and glory,” to which Aragorn replies, and here’s the Gospel: “For Rohan. For your people.” Aragorn’s reply is Gospel because it serves as the correction to Théoden’s shell-shocked reasoning, a correction to his sense of personal failure at having let down his subjects. But Aragorn reminds him of the true purpose of a true king, not to be remembered as a glorious figure that died a valiant death, but to lead one’s people bravely and faithfully even if the result was an untimely death. You see, there are a number of responses one can make to the threats to one’s life and one’s psyche, and some are better than others, but the best responses are those that issue forth from a reason worth dying for, and in King Théoden’s case, that reason was to live into his role as the King, and ride out for his people, rather than simply to his death. And since Théoden and Aragorn are the good guys in the movie, you have probably already figured out that they rode out and were victorious in the end.

If the best responses to the threats in our lives are those that come from that place in our souls which recognizes a reason, or a person, worth dying for, it behooves us to check out that place in our souls and see what and who resides there. The Apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians just what is in their souls as they endure their persecution and affliction: “…we always pray for you,” he says, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Deep down, Paul knows, and they know, that it will only be through their faith in Christ that they will endure and find the strength to continue in their faithfulness no matter their circumstances.

We do have some options as we face the horrifying hate and fate that seem to be surrounding us daily. Some people choose a form of vengeance or vigilantism, returning evil for evil, seeking an eye for an eye. Others choose despair and paralysis, turning inward because it’s just too hard to look elsewhere, retreating in compassion fatigue, taking comfort wherever it can be found. But I have a hunch that Paul would agree that neither of these, nor any ultimately human strategy, is the best option for glorifying the name of our Lord Jesus, or being glorified in him. We can ride out with our own guns blazing and extract the justice which seems perverted, or hole up in our homes with our own guns trained on the front door by day and tucked under our pillows by night, but neither taking matters into our own hands nor retreating from them seem like the works of faith to which we are called as the people of God. I think we will find that the best option is to ride out armed with Habakkuk’s wisdom that “the righteous shall live by their faith,” a faith which sends us forth according to God’s purposes and using God’s methods. It may well be that we die confronting the reckless hate of the world, as many faithful persons have done, but if we are slain, they had better find us lying on the battlefield or the street with plowshares in our hands rather than swords or guns, and pruning hooks rather than spears or missiles, for only with those weapons can our “good resolve and work of faith” be empowered by God. We are indeed called to ride out, but Christ will not be glorified, and we will not find ourselves glorified in Christ Jesus, unless we are riding out for God’s people, rather than to satisfy our own fatalistic sense of despair or our own mistaken notions of glory.

I have seen your faces these last four months, dazed and paralyzed at the suffering and loss which has touched our community, and on the news I see the dazed faces of first responders and emergency personnel descending on the scene of the crime, international aid workers digging through rubble, parents grieving children, nurses tending the sick, hospice workers comforting the dying. So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Ride out with me, Thyatira, Christ answers. Put on your armor of love, faith, service, and patient endurance and ride out with me to bring Good News to Mill Bridge, and to Salisbury, and to Rowan County, and to North Carolina. Ride out with me with your weapons of compassion, and generosity, and grace, those Christian virtues you share with the Church at Thessalonica that also shares your beleaguered hearts. Ride out with me, Church of Christ, Jesus is saying, and let my power affirm your call as my people and fulfill every good resolve and work of faith that you do in my name. Live by faith, my righteous ones, and I will prepare you to experience the dawn, a vision of Good News which will make you forget forever the horrors you have seen and the sorrow which weighs down your hearts. Ride out with me, not for death and glory, but for Mill Bridge and your people. Amen.

We Know Love By This

1 John 3:11-24 and Acts 4:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you remember that old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” You try to do the right thing and next thing you know, all heck is breaking loose. Just ask Peter and John after they have healed a man and end up in front of the High Priest. Yes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Your good intentions turn into an opportunity for criticism. You try to compliment someone and they use it to get their digs in. I knew someone who liked to respond to the compliment, “Great minds think alike” with “Yes, but fools seldom differ” and to the reminder that “Beauty is skin-deep” with “Yes, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.” Yes, every great turn of a phrase has an evil twin, as does every great doctrine of the faith. The wonderful, comforting doctrine of the predestination of the elect to heaven gives rise to the unfortunate but logical conclusion that everyone else is predestined to hell. Exalting the gifts of the Holy Spirit is all well and good until it creates a second class spiritual citizenry among the riff-raff who don’t speak in tongues. And love? Well, that’s a minefield, isn’t it? What an unfortunate word on which to base our faith, loaded with so many very, very different meanings. Maybe that’s why the Greeks had at least three different words for the ideas we lump together with the letters L-O-V-E. Love is a many splendored thing, as the old song goes, perhaps with as many perspectives as people pondering it.

Yes, we have a problem with love when it comes to faith, because we are accustomed to associating the word love with an emotion or a feeling. I love my wife and children. I love golf. I love the Cleveland Indians. I love coffee. The list of things I love could go on and on, and most of the things on that list are there because I feel something for them, an attachment, a sense of joy, a fond memory. And I love God too, by the way. I love God a lot. And sometimes that’s a problem, when the way I love God is the way I love some of the other things on my list. You see, if I only relate to God like the way I relate to coffee, you know, to get my day started off on the right foot, or golf, you know, when I want to really humble myself, then I’m just kind of consuming God, trying to get what I need out of God at very little cost to myself. I’d like to think that I relate to my wife and children differently than coffee, golf, or anything else on my list, but if I’m honest I probably use them for my own purposes more often than I’d like to admit. We do that sometimes with people we love, don't we?

But mostly love is a problem when I associate my faith with how I’m feeling about God. Yes, it’s when I think that God doesn’t love me because I’m not feeling in love with God, that I get into hot water. What do I mean by feeling? Well, I mean feeling like closeness, and immediacy, and, you know, love. Warm fuzzies. Bubble baths. Teddy bears and unicorns, that kind of thing. Or maybe it’s more like when my first girlfriend broke up with me because she didn’t “feel” like she was in love with me anymore. Guys, you ever heard that one before? Or maybe you’ve used that yourself! Yes, we are inundated by feelings, we are a feeling people, and that’s good. God gave us feelings. They are how we negotiate relationships and communities, how we build up safety nets and support systems. Feelings are how we connect with people. And some of those feelings are connected to love. You know what grief is? It’s not a bad thing. Grief is a continuation of the love we had for someone. We’re still connected with them even though they’re gone, and we feel that love in a different way, but an important way. We can’t love them the same way we did before so God has given us another way to deal with loss, and it’s a feeling, a blessed feeling.

But here’s the thing about feelings. They lie. They lie to us. Not all the time, but feelings are not always our best friends. Sometimes they delude us, and try to convince us that what we are feeling is reality. Like the thrill of victory. We win a race or we win the lottery and we think we are invincible, and then we start to act like we’re invincible, and then we get burned because we’re not really invincible after all. I used to feel pretty smart back there in elementary school; top of the class, I was. Acted like it too. A real smart aleck. And then I went to Middle School where I had to compete against the smartest kids from all the other elementary schools, and I wasn’t the smartest anymore. And it only got worse when I went to high school and the number of smart kids went up exponentially again. And so I started to feel stupid, or at least not as smart as I used to feel. I remember feeling that, and my mother probably remembers me feeling that. But you know what? It was a lie. I was just as smart in sixth grade as in fifth grade, and as smart in ninth as I was in eighth, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I had no real reason to feel threatened by anyone else’s intelligence. But feelings lie. They are a gift from God but they are great deceivers at the same time.

Maybe John in his letter was thinking about our fickle feelings. “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us.” Whenever our hearts condemn us. Whenever our feelings lie to us. Whenever we feel betrayed. Whenever we believe something based on how we are feeling that isn’t necessarily the truth, whether that’s the truth as some kind of fact, or the truth of God’s love for us. Yes, our hearts condemn us when we feel we’re not worthy of God’s love or the love of another person because we’ve done something we regret. Our hearts condemn us when we don’t believe we have the power to do what we are called to do, because we feel afraid of failure, or feel we might be judged, or feel like there’s someone out there who can do the job better. Our hearts condemn us when we feel that we don’t measure up.

But, says John, but. But “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” What does that mean? Maybe it means that God knows the truth about us even when our hearts deceive us, the truth that we were created in the divine image. Maybe it means that the existence of God, or the love of God, or the grace of God, or the mercy of God, or the justice of God do not depend for their validity on our feelings about them or about ourselves. Can God not handle our doubt? Can God not hold our fear? Can God not contain our sorrow? Yes, God knows our hearts and knows that we don’t always know how to manage what we feel and that what we do when act out of our doubt or fear or sorrow or anger isn’t really who God made us to be, or even who we really are right now. “Little children” John calls his flock, little children, and he’s right. Sometime we act like little children who are afraid of the dark, afraid to sleep for the monsters we think are lurking under our beds, but God is greater than our hearts and knows everything, including that this too shall pass, and that sleep comes, and then morning comes, and the fear of the night is gone. At least until the next night. But God knows too that eventually we learn that there are no monsters, and the night loses its terror, and we can lay down in peace. God can overcome any fear.

So, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything and if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” What’s that? We obey his commandments and do what pleases him? Yes, that’s the ticket! The golden ticket! We obey his commandments and do what pleases him even when we’re not feeling it, or when we’re feeling tired and worn out, or when we’re feeling frustrated. Yes, all of those feelings lie and tell us that we don't have to obey and do what pleases God because that’s only going to make us feel further from God or wear us down even more or make us even more frustrated. But it’s a lie. It’s a lie because the truth is that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a commitment and it’s a posture and it’s truth and it’s action. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this, [by loving in this way] we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Yes, the idea is that we love through the feelings until we can come out on the other side recognizing that love was there all along. We gotta fake it till we make it, as the old saying goes. When we act like we love, we learn to love. God never says you gotta like everyone. You can feel all kinds of things about a person that really make you dislike them. No, you don't have to like everyone, but you gotta love everyone, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. You gotta be committed to loving them because God loved you. God may not like you all the time, but God loves you all the time. “And we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Those aren't my words. Those are John’s words about Jesus the Christ, the resurrected one, the one who loved us even though he probably didn’t always like us. He probably didn’t like us when we ate that fruit from the forbidden tree and when we killed our brother in a jealous rage. He probably didn’t like us when we were stiff-necked and complaining in the desert even after we got our manna and quail. He probably didn’t like us when we ignored the prophets and went right on doing whatever our feelings told us to do. He probably didn’t like us when we competed to see who could be his right hand man. He probably didn't like us when we shouted “Hosanna” on Sunday and “Crucify him!” on Friday. He probably didn't like us when we put nails through his hands and pushed a spear up into his side. No, he probably didn't like us at all. But he loved us. He loved us in spite of ourselves and the lies we told ourselves. He loved us even though no good deed goes unpunished, even though fools seldom differ, and even though ugly goes all the way to the bone. He loved us. He loved us. “And so this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Yup, John’s words again. John’s words to help us believe in God even when we don’t feel it. And when we believe, when we love even when we don’t feel it, we’ve got access to the greatest power the world has ever known “and we receive from him whatever we ask.”

So let us ask. Let us ask God to help us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action, so that we may know the love Christ knew for us, the love that led him to lay down his life for us, and the love which calls us to lay down our lives for others. Amen.

Jesus is Sensational!

Luke 24:36-48
© Stacey Steck

I would imagine it’s pretty easy to come to agreement about the statement that Jesus is sensational. After all, he was raised from the dead. His teachings have been followed by billions of people for nearly two thousand years. Several libraries of books about him have been written. More speeches have been devoted to him than any other figure in history. That’s some pretty sensational stuff. You can’t really understand the history of western civilization without understanding the role this simple carpenter’s son has played in the development of government, law, economics, art, literature, and music, not to mention acts of charity and creativity as we as violence, and savagery. You don’t have to believe he is the Son of God, fully human, fully divine, and all that doctrinal stuff, to admit that he’s got a pretty high profile. But none of that is why Jesus is truly sensational.

No, that my friends, is because Jesus of Nazareth, the author of salvation, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, the king of kings, the Lord of Lords, the crucified and risen one, loved a good snack. It says it right there in our Gospel reading: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Dudes, got anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” Yes, the Savior of all humankind stops in the middle of explaining God’s divine plan and purpose so he can grab a bite to eat. I guess the menu options in the tomb and down there in Hades were pretty limited. And if that weren’t awesome enough, he’s a mooch! The guy who created heaven and earth, who could whip up something truly tasty just by snapping his fingers, begs a piece of fish off of his friends. Yes, Jesus is truly sensational.

What has no eyes, ears, tongue, fingertips, or nose, but senses all? If you think the answer is God, you’re close. It’s actually your brain. Your brain does all that sensing, and then makes sense of it too. Without the brain processing the data coming in through your eyes, it’s just waves or particles of light. Without the brain processing the data coming in through your ears, it’s just air vibrating on your eardrums. Of course, the brain needs those sense receptors found in each of those body parts before it can give meaning to the world around you. But God has given us brains to let the natural phenomena say something to us. And what the brains of the disciples were taking in when they saw the risen Jesus reaching out for something to eat, when they felt that fish in their hands as they passed it over to him, when they heard it crunch while he was chewing it, and maybe even when they could smell it on his breath, was that this man they had seen hanging on a cross, and heard saying, “It is finished,” and smelled beginning to decay, and touched as they wrapped him in linen cloths and laid him in a new tomb, was alive and well and standing before them. Yes, Jesus is sensational, because he uses our five senses to proclaim that God has defeated death.

Helen Keller, someone who knew a little something about sensory deprivation, having been both blind and deaf, once wrote that, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” Yes, Helen Keller knew that our senses connect us to our experiences, good, bad, and ugly. They let us know if we are in danger or if we are safe, if we are among friends or enemies. They help us orient ourselves to our surroundings, to our history, to our needs. You know what it’s like to be real hangry? You know, so hungry that you get grouchy? Well, for me, hungry becomes hangry when I smell something really great that I know I can’t have just then. It’s one of my senses triggering me, telling me something. Our senses are so very important for our surviving and our thriving.

Jesus was sensational since birth, wasn’t he, that baby wrapped by his parents in swaddling clothes, held in their arms, laid in a manger? Those three kings brought their gold, frankincense and myrrh, things that delight the senses. He sweated as a carpenter’s son, walked miles in the Galilean desert, touched unclean people’s bodies, smeared mud on their eyes, heard them calling his name from the side of the road, smelled the stink of Lazarus in his tomb, saw lepers keep their distance, tasted bread broken with his disciples. And that real life, that incarnation, that God made flesh, himself endowed with senses he used among them, was what connected him with the people around him. He was one of them. Their senses told them so. He was no ghost, no apparition, no sheep in wolf’s clothing. He was the real deal, a guy who could mooch off his friends for a snack, and turn around and drive a demon out of someone. Not only did his followers see the incarnation, the humanity, but they saw the miracles, the compassion, the integrity, that divine stuff, and their brains made meaning of what their five senses received.

And Jesus knows that the disciples need that sensory experience when he comes back from the dead too. Maybe even more than before. After all, they’d seen rabbis come and go, but they’d never seen the dead raised. And so he lets them touch him, and he eats in front of them, and he helps them reconnect with him as he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures and to prepare them for what comes next: that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Yes, he uses their senses to reach their hearts and minds, because that’s how we learn, by taking it all in, and letting our God-given brains sort it all out. Yes, Jesus is truly sensational.

So we’re in this season of resurrection when we celebrate the very real risen Jesus who has come promising us abundant life. It’s the season to celebrate his first century resurrected body, yes, but also the body he has bequeathed to us upon his ascension to God’s right hand, his own body we call the church. We are now his body in the world, called now to do what he did then. And so this season of resurrection is the perfect time to remember how sensational we are now as his body, and to claim the charge he has placed upon us. It’s a big job, this proclamation of repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations. We’re gonna need a snack for the journey don't you think. Wait, what’s that I smell? Leftover donuts from the Happy Place. OK, now I’m getting hangry. Y’all got anything here to eat?

If you’ve followed any of the religious surveys done in the United States over the last few years, you know that although a lot of people say they believe in God, fewer and fewer people are going to church. This growing group has been called the Nones, because they mark “none” when asked their religious preference or affiliation. They say they are spiritual, but not religious. They cite the church’s hypocrisy, and claim that it doesn’t accurately depict the Jesus they’ve all heard about, the one who changed the course of Western civilization, the one with all those libraries and speeches to his credit. They say we don’t practice what we preach. And maybe they’ve got a point. Libraries and speeches didn’t get Jesus very far, did they? Mere words didn’t connect him with the masses. He didn’t only talk about spiritual matters, he got down and dirty to teach about spiritual matters. He wasn’t a ghost. He was a mooch. He was sensational.

The Nones want good news as much as anyone else. They hear the same bad news we do. They have the same aspirations we do. They want abundant life too. We can’t just put their absence down to bad parenting or the influence of school sports on Sunday or violent video games. Maybe their absence has something to do with what their eyes, ears, tongues, fingertips and noses are, or aren’t, perceiving as they make their way through the world. Maybe what they’re not seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling is the body of Jesus Christ moving among them. Are we really with them in their lives, filling their senses with what abundant life looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, feels like? How sensational is our witness? Have we mooched a little fish off of anybody lately?

As much as the Nones, or the nations as the Bible calls them, need to use their senses to perceive Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s body needs to use its senses too. That’s where Jesus started, right? He took it all in and let his divine mind figure out how to share what the kingdom of God was all about. In his parables, in his stories, in his examples, he was always using the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches familiar to his people. And when we can do that, we’ll be better able to share ourselves with those in search of good news, and healing, and forgiveness. So, let’s be a sensational church and,

Let us hear the cries of the lonely and the forsaken, the abused and the heartbroken, and take heed, bringing their voices to the halls of justice;

Let us see the malnutrition and neglect of those affected by famine and make others see until every hungry person is fed;

Let us smell the stench of poverty and pollution, poison and pestilence until we can no longer stand it. and we make it stop;

Let us taste the bitter tears and the brackish water of communities pushed to the margins by our society’s pursuit of wealth, and open up the floodgates of hope and healing instead;

Let us touch old, papery skin and thin, aged hair as we make all our elderly and infirm comfortable and cared for.

Friends, we are no more ghosts than Jesus Christ was a ghost. Spiritual beings, yes, but not ghosts. We are his body. We are his heart, his hands, and his voice. Let us be as sensational as we can be, so that we may bring the same good news to our friends that he brought to his friends when he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” Amen.

Roll Back My Stone, Lord!

Mark 16:1-8
© Stacey Steck

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that as the sun set on one day and rose on the next that Jesus’ disciples were demoralized, beaten down, really and truly afraid. Even if you didn’t hear again in church this week the awful story of Jesus’ death, you’ve probably heard it before. It may be the best-known story in human history, for a little while longer at least. It is, of course, a little distant from the life most of us have experienced. Our present day public executions are just a little more sanitized, our trials and verdicts take a little longer to conclude, our appeals last for years; by the time it is all over, there is a considerable disconnect from the original event. The public figures we adore usually turn out to have clay feet, which are only made more visible when they retire or die. Few of us have really, really given up everything to follow anyone, much less Jesus. But let’s try to imagine ourselves as those disciples who had just seen such horror, and let’s see where that takes us.

If it is true, as the Gospel accounts suggest, that many had given up everything to follow Jesus, these faithful ones faced the prospect of returning to their homes and villages and families with their proverbial tails between their legs, or, deciding that there would be too much shame in that, to figure out how to start over again, starting with nothing but broken hearts and shattered dreams. I don’t know how soon after Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit that they would have begun to formulate these thoughts, but if it were me, it wouldn’t have been long. I’d already have been thinking not only about what was next, but also about what was not next. Maybe that left them in a kind of limbo state, not quite ready to give it all up, but also knowing it wasn’t going anywhere. And maybe that is how the two Marys and Salome found themselves as they made their way to the tomb on that first day of the week, asking themselves, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb.” Yes, they had the spices. Yes, they went with the intention of anointing Jesus’ body. Yes, they went there together to mourn his loss. But it wasn’t really his tomb they were talking about.

You see, it wasn’t really Jesus sealed up in that tomb at all. Well, it was him, but what I want to suggest to you is that what was crucified, what was dead and buried in that tomb, what was wrapped up in a linen cloth, were the hopes and dreams of his disciples and family. Yes, there was the normal grief people experience when someone they love dies, but there would also have been all the expectations of the coming kingdom, all the longing for yet more wisdom from his mouth, more healing from his hands, more life from his life. All of that was shattered, all of that hung on the cross too, just as the Romans had planned, for that was the purpose of a public execution such as a crucifixion. It is a lot less work to simply separate a man’s head from his body, a la Herod and John the Baptist. The executioner’s blade easily does the job of fulfilling a death sentence. But to make an example of someone, to put the fear of the Emperor into someone’s friends and followers, something more is needed, something like a preemptive strike at witness intimidation, something like a crucifixion. And so, even though it was Jesus who took the nails to his hands and feet, it was the family and disciples of Jesus who received a stake right through the heart.

We all have fantasies about how good life should be, but we also all know the reality that life can be pretty hard. Even if we have not suffered as severely as some others have suffered, we still know pain and loss and loneliness and jealousy. People we know and love die. Dreams from our childhood go unfulfilled. We are subject to disappointment and heartache and trauma, and for some of us abuse and abandonment. We know well our own failures, and we can recount quickly the times others have failed us. If any of this is a surprise to anyone in this room, praise God for you and that blessed life the rest of us look at in envy. But for the rest of us, at some level, there is a tomb somewhere in which part of us is trapped behind a stone too large and too heavy for us to move on our own, especially from the inside. It may be depression, it may be an estranged relationship with a parent or child. It may be an addiction, or a too-strong desire, or burning shame. It may be a grudge or a secret or a wound. It may be shattered hopes and broken dreams like the Marys and Salome, and all the other disciples that day. At the very least we can say that we are trapped daily in that tomb by sin, for none of us is perfect. Christ may not be in that tomb any longer, but we are, and we long to get out, and we wonder, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”

And this, of course, is the question Easter answers, and no, the answer is not a young man, dressed in a white robe, as the women found sitting there. It’s God, of course, who rolled away the stone from Jesus’ tomb, and the Marys’ and Salome’s tombs, and the disciples’ tombs, and the Apostle Paul’s tomb, and Saint Augustine’s tomb, and John Calvin’s tomb, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb, and your tomb and my tomb. The power at work in the historic resurrection of Jesus is the same power at work in our resurrections, in the freedom granted us from our tombs. God does for us what no power on earth can do – not psychology, or medicine, or genetic engineering or even art and music – God does for us what no power on earth can do, to free us from whatever binds us, because God loves us, in some inexplicable and blessedly divine way that shines forth on Easter more brightly than on any other day. God broke God’s own rules to move that stone, to answer the women’s question, to open up the door of life for you to pass right through, to grant you the freedom to really, really live the life we were intended to live. That’s the answer Easter offers to our never-ending question, “But who will roll away the stone for us?”

There is an interesting aspect to the resurrection story in Mark’s gospel, and that is, that in the earliest, most reliable manuscripts, the entire gospel ends where our reading this morning ends. They call it the “shorter ending of Mark” and it ends on this abrupt, fearful note we heard earlier, with the women fleeing from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. That’s how it probably originally ended until someone centuries later felt like it lacked a little closure, oh, and an appearance by Jesus to kind of prove that although the tomb was empty, that he was also actually resurrected. But I rather like the unresolved ending, because I think that it is a little more true to our lives today. You see, we don’t really get to see Jesus, do we? At least not face to face. No, we, like the women that day, we see the empty tomb, and we hear that Jesus is going on ahead of us, and that we will see him one day, but still the future is kind of uncertain. Our lives could still go any which way. Certainly that was the case for Peter and James and Paul and Barnabas and all the rest, who were carried along by this story to places they never could have imagined. This is not a happily-ever-after, let-the-credits-roll kind of a story, this Gospel of ours, but a finding-true-joy-and-contentment-in-whatever-situation-we-may-find-ourselves-in-as-a-result-of-following-Jesus story. It is a dream-come-true story, but with the dreams God dreams for us. Even when we are set free from our tombs, we don’t really know what awaits us, either among whatever friends and family to whom we may return, or to a new place, meeting new people, getting settled into a new life. Only God knows, and God invites us to find out what happens after the shorter ending of Mark, or Mary, or Salome, or Peter, or any one of us. I could call out any of your names too, not because I know of any skeletons in your closets, but because God calls your name too, like Jesus did when he called Lazarus out of his tomb, into life and life abundant.

The glory of Easter is not just that the tomb is empty, but that Jesus goes ahead of us, not to Galilee, but to each of our futures, rolling away the rocks and opening our tombs, releasing us, and our hopes, and our dreams. We may find ourselves seized with terror, for freedom is a strange and scary thing, but it won’t take long for God to lead us into the peace Jesus promised. May God bless us as we take those first steps out of our tombs, and into freedom. Amen.