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Asking the Right Questions

Luke 20:27-40
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you remember one of the great “gotcha” questions of all time. “Governor Dukakis, if your wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked this classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” question during the second Presidential debate in 1988. Supposedly, Shaw asked this question to give Dukakis a chance to show the emotional side of the Democratic candidate whom many were calling the “iceman” but I don’t think there was any way to answer it that would have made any other part of the debate the next day’s headlines. Dukakis had no choice but to reaffirm his resolve to oppose the death penalty and he did so with a typically dispassionate response. But consider his options. If Dukakis had responded less seriously, he would have been labeled soft on crime and unpresidential. If he had played the righteous husband, he would have sold out his principles and been called a flipflopper. Either way, he loses. Perhaps he should have taken lessons from Jesus in how to respond to the unanswerable, disingenuously posed question.

“In the resurrection, therefore,” ask the Sadducees, “whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This absurd question posed by the mysterious and seldom-seen Sadducees references the practice ordained by God to see to the welfare of a childless woman as well as the legacy of her dead husband. This tradition, still practiced in some cultures today, is called Levirate marriage, so named not from the Israelite tribe of Levi, but from the Latin word for brother-in-law. I do not want to dwell too long on this subject except to remind you that it is found in Deuteronomy and therefore attributed to Moses, and it exhibits God’s enduring care for those who cannot care for themselves, namely childless women with no hope of dependents to support them. It also demonstrates the Old Testament understanding of life after death, namely that a person lived on after his death by passing on his name, property, and family history to the next generation. The marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law served both of these purposes, since the children born to the brother were to be considered the original husband’s own. As incomprehensible as it might seem to North American Christians today, this was a generous expression of God’s grace in a hardscrabble culture.

The Sadducees have cleverly, if ridiculously, taken this graceful practice to its logical extreme when placed in the context of the belief that at the end of time, all of God’s chosen people would be resurrected. They, of course, did not believe in resurrection and were trying to make a mockery of the idea held by the Pharisees and, clearly, Jesus. To their way of thinking, Levirate marriage was a valuable tradition, especially for those without a belief in some form of life after death. Don’t we all have a wish for some kind of immortality, some longing to know that when we pass away, we will not be forgotten, that our days here were not in vain? Genuine believers in God’s law given to Moses, the Sadducees pit themselves against a teacher with growing repute, hoping to score one for their understanding of what happens after death, saying, “Teacher,” calling him by a title of honor, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies,” and on and on.

And will Jesus take the bait? Will he try to solve their absurd and unanswerable riddle? Of course not. Jesus is too smart for that. He knows that if he answers that any one of them gets the girl, he gives them the satisfaction of gaining a dumb answer to a dumber question, and they will follow up with the inevitable challenge to his reasoning and if he answers that none of them get the girl, he betrays the doctrine of resurrection by making it look illegal, that in the resurrection, God’s law is ignored. And so, with the same panache he displays throughout the pages of the Bible whenever people ask him absurd and disingenuous questions, he dodges the question or, more accurately, makes the questioner look silly by hoisting him on his own petard.

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,” they begin, placing all their eggs in one basket, playing what they think is their trump card right from the beginning. And after affirming that indeed there is a resurrection and that it will not be like anything in this lifetime, what with no death, and no other human institutions, including marriage, Jesus puts the last nail in their coffin by using their beloved Moses against them, reminding them that Moses also wrote that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive, a clear indication that the idea of resurrection is God’s own idea. “He is the God not of the dead, but of the living.” Nowhere in his answer will the Sadducees find satisfaction. Indeed, it says that “they no longer dared to ask him another question.” We don’t know if any of the Sadducees were persuaded to believe that resurrection awaited them, but they may have left that encounter with the burgeoning thought that without resurrection, in the end, God can only ever be the God of the dead, and what would that make them besides dead?

In sending the Sadducees away humiliated, or at least scratching their heads, Jesus has pointed up the folly of spending time dreaming up unhelpful questions for which no answer can ever be satisfactory, all the while missing out on what the God of the living has to offer and has promised. The tragedy of this story is what was lost during the time it took to ask the wrong question: the opportunity to learn at the feet of the master and experience abundant life by asking the right question. The Gospels are littered with wrong questions which Jesus turns on their heads: “Should we pay taxes?” “Whose likeness is on the coin you use?” “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” “Can my sons take their place at your side in your kingdom?” “Are they able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” “Who is my neighbor?” “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” On and on and on.

If you don’t know the stories I am mentioning, go home and read the Gospels in your Bibles, they’re all there. You’ll see that Jesus never responds to the satisfaction of those who ask questions with the wrong focus, questions which focus on weakness or self-justification, questions which contain the intent to humiliate or establish power, questions which seek to make acceptable greed or injustice or self-grandeur. When he responds, he skillfully redirects their focus to God and to the questioner’s relationship with God. I’m guessing that poor Michael Dukakis wished he had been more practiced in the art of refocusing the wrong question.
The Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and even the disciples and their families are not the only ones to ask the wrong questions, the questions we all should avoid, the truly unhelpful questions, the ones which sidetrack us from following Christ, the ones which send us squabbling with others, the ones which divert us from experiencing our God as the God of the living instead of the God of the dead. Even the wisest, most Spirit-led among us probably rarely ask the right question. Thanks be to God that usually, Jesus takes advantage of the teachable moment created by the wrong question innocently posed and makes it an experience of grace. We will be faithful disciples indeed if we can do that for one another.

Yet still, it might be helpful to give some thought to the kinds of questions from which there is little profit. At the risk of appearing to try to sound like Jesus, let me offer some examples of unhelpful questions I have heard from the lips of Christians, questions for which there is an alternative, more helpful question not far away, a question the answer to which puts the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the disciple who asks it.

If you’ve asked the question, “What is God’s will for my life?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “What is God’s will for the world and how am I called to participate in it?” Remember, it’s not all about you; it’s about God.

If you’ve asked the question, “How am I going to survive this thing going on in my life,” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “What is God making available to me so that I can thrive?” If you strive to thrive, you’ll do more than survive.

If you’ve asked the question, “Why me?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “Why not me?” And that applies to issues of tragedy or celebration.

If you’ve asked the question, “Why have they taken prayer out of the schools?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “Why should I expect the schools to encourage prayer when I won’t even pray out loud in public?” Logs in our own eyes perhaps?

If you’ve asked the question, “Why hasn’t the pastor, or someone from the church, visited me?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “When is the last time I invited the pastor or someone else from the church to come to my home?” Hospitable is as hospitable does.

If you’ve asked the question, “Why didn’t anyone notice I was absent from church for three weeks?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “When is the last time I observed someone’s absence and reached out to them?” Self-sacrifice is always preferable to self-pity.

To one degree or another, every human question about God is inadequate, incomplete, or inept. But that’s OK because God doesn’t judge us on the basis of our questions. Rather God extends abundant life through the asking of the right questions, the ones that come ever more easily the deeper we fall in love with God, the more disciplined we are in seeking to follow Jesus Christ, and the more open we are to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Friends in Christ, if you’ve asked the question, “Am I worthy to enter into the kingdom of heaven?” you may have asked the wrong question. A right question might be, “Is anyone worthy to enter into the kingdom of heaven?” The answer, of course is no, but God welcomes us anyway, thanks be to God. Amen.

Of Infinite Value

2 Corinthians 6:11 – 7:1 and John 16:25-33
© Stacey Steck

Throughout the history of the church, and even before, there have been movements that sought to isolate themselves from outside influences so that they might not be corrupted by those influences, or at least to practice their form of the faith unimpeded by outside influences. Of course, one of the most famous, and ultimately influential, occurrences was when the first monks took to the deserts as a form of protest and protection of the core of Christianity that they perceived was being threatened once Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire. Saints like Anthony worried that the teachings of Jesus were being subverted by the power of the powerful. When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, it took a faith that had been focused on the marginalized and excluded of society, and consolidated it into a force for social control and political conquest. Before the year 323, you were suspect if you followed Jesus and after 323 you were suspect if you didn’t. Before 323, the rich and powerful couldn’t be bothered with Jesus, and after 323, they couldn’t live without him. And so those who took to the desert feared that if they did not, there would not be much left of the authentic faith that had sustained the church through so many years. It is, of course, hard to realistically gauge the success of their endeavor to save the church, but the monastic tradition has surely played a role in helping the church maintain some of the focus of those early years.

In more recent times, there have been what are called Utopian movements in Christianity that have sheltered themselves in order to remain untainted by the world. You have probably heard about the Amish and maybe the Hutterite communities from the Anabaptist tradition that choose not to integrate themselves thoroughly with the wider community, but these Utopian movements set about to specifically exclude themselves. One such movement was the Zoar Community in Ohio. That group’s leader, Joseph Bimeler decided to bring some 200 separatists to the United States to escape persecution in their native Germany from churches that did not think they belonged to the faith since they did not believe in baptism or confirmation. They chose to name their new town Zoar after the Biblical account of Lot, who escaped to Zoar from Sodom in the book of Genesis. Now, the community of Zoar was not originally organized as a commune, but its residents had a difficult time surviving in 1818 and early 1819. As a result, on April 19, 1819, the group formed the Society of Separatists of Zoar. Even their name stated their purposes. Each person donated his or her property to the community as a whole, and in exchange for their work, the society would provide for them. And it worked for quite a while. In the decades following the establishment of the Zoar commune, the separatists experienced economic prosperity and the community was almost entirely self-sufficient and sold any surpluses to the outside world. In addition to agriculture, Zoar residents also worked in a number of industries, including flour mills, textiles, a tin shop, cooper, wagon maker, two iron foundries, and several stores. They seemed to have achieved their goals. But over time, and especially after the death of their founder, the outside world influenced the community more and more, as strangers traveled to Zoar and stayed in the town’s hotel, so in 1898, the remaining members decided to dissolve the society, and the Zoarites divided the property among themselves. Nothing lasts forever, I suppose.

Perhaps these two groups, and others like the Amana communities of Iowa and the Harmony communities of Indiana, took their cue to separate from the Apostle Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians to “not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?” We are different, are we not? We have Christ, they have other gods, or no God at all. We have the truth, they have a pack of lies. We have eternal life awaiting us, they have eternal condemnation. They might contaminate us, those unclean unbelievers. They might corrupt us. They might tempt us into all manner of sin. They might drink the blood of our children. But here’s the thing about these separatist communities: they actually separated not from unbelievers, but from believers who believed differently. Perhaps the monastics had a better case since they could see the church changing away from its origins, but in these 18th century German groups, it was they who were doing something new and they were the ones who were considering the unchanging past to be the church of the unbelievers. Were these groups being faithful, or just schismatic?

The passage we read from Second Corinthians is considered by biblical scholars as out of place in both its own book, and among Paul’s other letters and even the rest of the New Testament. There are many reasons for that, but the most significant one is that it just doesn’t jive with the way Jesus dealt with outsiders, nor the way Paul writes about outsiders in other of his letters. Of course, we know that Jesus was infamous for associating with outcasts, both Jew and Gentile, which is to say, believers and unbelievers. But Paul himself makes it very clear that he doesn’t condemn contact with unbelievers, even marriage to unbelievers, the most intimate form of associating with unbelievers, when he talks about how believing spouses have an advantage when it comes to converting their unbelieving spouses. And so these few short verses are a bit of a mystery, coming as they do as Paul is trying to remind the Corinthians about the need for a close relationship with one another. But they are here and so we must deal with them.

Whether it was Paul himself, or somebody later on who thought Paul needed to be firmer abouts such things, whoever wrote this little passage recognized just how hard it is to disentangle ourselves from the negative influences of our lives. We don’t have the Confession of sin only once a month, do we? No, it’s there every week because we even when we know better how to lead our lives and love one another, we fail at it constantly. Just like the Israelites, we have the law and the prophets, and just like the early church we have the Gospels and Paul, and yet there is still pain and violence, sorrow and suffering in the world. And we can’t blame it all on “unbelievers.” Christians may have had their sins forgiven by the blood of the Christ, but they haven’t had the inclination to sin purged from their hearts. Christians still cheat on their spouses and their taxes, Christians still overindulge on alcohol and gambling, and Christians still practice greed and stinginess, and the list could go on. It’s true that we probably get some encouragement from non-Christians to do these things, but it is just as true that we would do them even if we were all Christian. And so, even though Paul might suggest abandoning our associations with the rest of the world, we’d only be marginally less sinful, and culturally much poorer for the effort.

Now it’s also true that sometimes it is a good idea to leave some things or some people behind, and to not look back. A friend of mine in Costa Rica spent years wasting his life on drugs and alcohol and came to me for advice one day about his challenges in avoiding relapse. And my advice to him that day was to change the people he associated with, to leave his bad influences behind, and find a new, sober community. And lo and behold, he actually took my advice, and the turnaround in his life has been nothing short of miraculous. And there was another gentleman there in San Jose who sought and received from me the same advice, and the last time I saw him, he was lying bloody in the street, so drunk he couldn’t even recognize me. So it’s hard, hard to do, but there can be a payoff for literally choosing to no longer hang with the same people. If you hang around people who tell derogatory, off-color, racist jokes, the chances are better you’ll do it too. If you hang with people whose aspirations are to accumulate as much wealth as possible, that will probably be your focus too. So there is some value in exchanging old friends for new ones, spending time in new environments instead of revisiting the same old haunts, and looking for new information from different sources.

But maybe that’s not an option for you. Maybe you work with the same people every day, or are economically dependent on the same family members week after week, or maybe you can’t just pack it up and move away a secluded island somewhere. The true story is told of a family that spent a year searching for the perfect place to retreat from all the violence of the world, and were finally able to make their escape: to the Falkland Islands, right before the war there began between the British and the Argentines in 1982. And I can tell you from personal experience that there are grumpy old monks at monasteries all over the world whose withdrawal has not turned them into joyful Christians. No, seclusion and escape aren’t really options for most people and even when they are, there are no guarantees.

So what’s a person to do to follow Paul’s command to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God,” to recall his closing words to our passage. I’d like to be able to give you the magic Jesus vaccination but the supply is short these days so you will have to settle for a couple of brief suggestions taken from our Scriptures this morning. The first is this: keep your attention focused on what is of value in God’s eyes. Paul uses a vague and curious reference in our passage today. He asks rhetorically, “What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?” Now, you will be forgiven for not knowing who Beliar is. Beliar is actually a variant of belial, a Hebrew word found twenty-six times in the Old Testament which doesn’t refer to a specific person or being, but to an idea or character trait akin to wickedness or worthlessness. The literal meaning in Hebrew combines the word for “not” with “profit” or “benefit” and not in the philanthropic sense. Stuff and people that are belial have no profit, they are worthless, useless, like the salt Jesus says is good for nothing once it has been tainted. And over time, belial became associated with the idea of demons and other evil influences and through a linguistic quirk, the final “l” became an “r” and makes its one and only appearance in the New Testament in the form of a proper name which suggests a specific demonic entity. Now, it’s pretty daunting to think about having to run away from a demon all the time, so that’s why I suggesting the more helpful route of trying to steer clear of the worthlessness that belial is really all about. There are activities in our lives, pursuits we can follow, that have more value than others. We spend a lot of time on worthless activities and worthless pursuits. You can probably easily name five things you do all the time that don’t really offer you very much in your life, but you do them anyway, and while you are doing those five things, you are not doing any of the other things you could be doing that would have value in God’s eyes. And you can include things like watching baseball or playing video games on that list if you want, but I’m thinking about things like worry, and feeling sorry for myself, and thinking I need to be perfect or popular to be loved, and looking for things or people to blame for my inadequacies or my unhappiness. Those are belial, worthless, time consuming obsessions that have no place in the kind of life God wants me to have, the kind of life God values.

The Bible is, of course, filled with what God values, but Paul sneaks some really awesome stuff into this same passage in which he condemns worthlessness. Each one of his rhetorical questions contains a nugget to keep ourselves focused on. “What partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?” Partnership, fellowship, agreement, and sharing. Those are enough values to focus on to keep us busy our whole lives. And when we focus on that stuff, we won’t have time for belial. When we focus on those things, we are focusing on people and relationships, with believers or even unbelievers, but relationships which bring value, rather than worthlessness to the world. When we focus on treating each other with those characteristics, we can’t go wrong. Partnership, fellowship, agreement, and sharing.

To conclude, I want to return to our Gospel reading in John just long enough to point out what God really values. And that is us. “The Father himself loves you,” Jesus says, quite explicitly, “The Father himself loves you, because you have believed that I came from God.” And then he goes on to acknowledge how hard life can be, but that even when it is, we have infinite value in God’s eyes. “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” Our peace is God’s concern. Our peace is Jesus’ focus. Our peace is of infinite value, and there is no belial in that, only the shalom God has always desired for us. Friends, we are not in it alone. We don’t have to figure it out all by ourselves and we don’t have to leave this world behind to be the people God wants us to be. But by remembering how much God values us, we can value others by practicing the partnership, fellowship, agreement, and sharing that Christ has shown us, and that Paul has commended to us. Let us help one another to do just that. Amen.

More Than Funny

Don’t miss the video above for this Sunday’s great music, but if you want to see the message full screen, it’s available here on Youtube.

Below is the eulogy delivered for a beloved member of our community.

But before we begin with the humor, it is with the saddest heart that I must pass on the following news.

Please join me in remembering a great icon of the entertainment community. The Pillsbury Doughboy died yesterday of a yeast infection and complications from repeated pokes in the belly. He was 71.

Doughboy was buried in a lightly greased coffin. Dozens of celebrities turned out to pay their respects, including Mrs. Butterworth, Hungry Jack, the California Raisins, Betty Crocker, the Hostess Twinkies, Little Debbie, and Captain Crunch.

The gravesite was piled high with flours.

Aunt Jemima delivered the eulogy and lovingly described Doughboy as a man who never knew how much he was kneaded. Doughboy rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with turnovers. He was not considered a very “smart” cookie, wasting much of his dough on half-baked schemes. Despite being a little flaky at times, he still, as a crusty old man, was considered a roll model for millions.

Doughboy is survived by his young wife, Play Dough; two children, John Dough and Jane Dough; plus they had one in the oven. He is also survived by his elderly father, Pop Tart.

The funeral was held at 3:50 for about 20 minutes.

Empty Tombs

John 5:19-30, 20:1-18, and 2 Corinthians 1:1-11
© Stacey Steck

So, we’ve heard all about the empty tomb. It’s probably the most well-known story in the world. Anybody who knows anything about Christianity, whether they believe it or not, knows about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every Christian tradition, no matter what other differences they may have with any other, affirms the empty tomb. Every Easter morning, we celebrate that empty tomb once again, because it is the central fact of our faith, without which all the rest makes a lot less sense. Sure, Jesus is still worth following even without being raised from the dead, but his resurrection is the sign that death, our very worst enemy, has been defeated, and that gives us our ultimate hope. And that sign of hope is declared in the starkest terms possible by the image of the empty tomb.

And yet, if we are not careful, we run the risk of turning that sign of hope into nothing more than a sign by the side of the road, a kind of historical highway, like the one we have out on 150 that commemorates Samuel McCorkle. Can’t you just see it in engraved in bronze: “Here lay Jesus the Christ, King of the Jews. But he is not here anymore. He is risen.” And people would pull over and have their picture taken with it, maybe put it on Facebook or in a scrapbook sometime, and eat their picnic lunch next to it before moving on to the next curiosity on down the road. Yes, the resurrection was a historical event, but it must be more than a footnote, or even just a chapter of history. It must be the whole story. Perhaps the blame should be placed on us preachers who only read the story of the empty tomb on Easter morning instead of other times of the year too. We may make reference to it during the rest of the year, but we don’t, like Mary, stand before it with our jaws dropped, our eyes wide open, and tears streaming down our faces nearly often enough. And so the memory of the empty tomb retreats further into the annals of history. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a shrine to fixate on either. The empty tomb can’t be the sole object of our religious devotion, but it does deserve to be a sign we carry with us rather than one we simply pass by once a year.

So today, to avoid turning the event of Jesus’ resurrection over to the Holy Land Department of Transportation, let me say something about the empty tomb that might make it stick with you between Eastertides. For that job, I will call upon the Gospel of John, and Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, because each, in their own way, speaks to the empty tomb in additional categories beyond simply history. Before we get to that, however, let’s recall what tombs are for in the first place. The plain fact is that tombs are for holding dead bodies until they decompose into dust. It’s not a pleasant thought, of course, but it is the fate of each one of us. We don’t really do tombs anymore because they take up a lot of real estate, at least the way they are described in the Bible, so maybe the word grave would be a better one to use on Easter, since that’s what we call our burial spaces today. But whether we call them tombs or graves, they are filled with nothing more than death and decomposition, worms and dirt, and maybe some memories and mementos tossed in there too. Graves are an eruption, an interruption, of our lives and of the soil. The best guess anyone has about the origin of the word tomb, is that it goes back to an old Greek word for swell, as in the earth swells up beneath the dead, and creates a mound. And that’s not the way the landscape should look. We can make our graveyards look lovely with trees and paths and flowers, but that is only putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. The hard truth is that tombs are about death.

But cemeteries aren’t the only place we find tombs, are they? There are tombs all around us, tombs inside of us, tombs everywhere full of the same darkness and decay, despair and disappointment as the ones that hold the bodies of the dead. These other tombs hold our spirits, or our dreams, or our hopes. These are the tombs that leave us as the walking dead, or the walking wounded, or as people who have “one foot in the grave,” as the old saying goes. You may have your own stories about being entombed, but let me tell you what one person wrote about such a tomb: “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead.” Yes, those words were written by the Apostle Paul from inside his tomb, from that place of hopelessness created by whatever circumstances led him into his distress. There is no record of just what Paul and his companions were facing that was so dire, but it was clear to him that there was no way out that didn’t involve divine intervention. No amount of their own effort would matter. Sounds like not even MacGyver or the A-Team could have come out alive. You read such a description and it brings to mind people whose cars have rolled down a cliff, or who have been forced to their roofs by the raging waters of a flood. If someone doesn’t come along to save them, they’ll be done for. They have no way to dig their way out of their tombs in which they have been buried alive. Someone else will have to be their salvation, if there is any at all.

Of course, Paul is writing his account after the fact of his distress. He has come out of it alive, and he comes out of it praising “the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” He wants everyone to know that he has been rescued, and expects to be rescued by God again and again. He wants people to know that the stone has been rolled away, not only from Christ’s tomb, but from his tomb as well and that it is now empty. He was as good as dead, but now he is alive, and haven’t we all felt that from time to time, in one way or another. Haven’t we all felt trapped? Haven’t we all felt helpless. Haven’t we all felt hopeless from time to time. You see, there are all kinds of tombs which can hold us. The tomb of grief. The tomb of addiction. The tomb of loneliness, the tomb of chronic pain, the tomb of poverty, the tomb of racial injustice, the tomb of domestic violence, the tomb of depression, the tomb of anxiety, the tomb of broken heartedness. And these are tombs with stones too heavy for us to move by ourselves, and the only way we will get out is by divine intervention, but don’t you know that God is in the divine intervention business? God has been opening tombs like these since the beginning. Cain killed Abel and thought his life would be forfeit, but God left him with a mark that would keep him safe as he wandered the earth. Joseph was left for dead in a pit that might as well have been a tomb, until he was rescued so that God’s plans could proceed. The prophet Jeremiah was thrown into the bottom of a well, another place very much like a real tomb, and yet he was hauled out so that he could continue to proclaim God’s word. The man named Legion, named so because he had so many demons inside of him and who literally lived among the tombs of his town, was found in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus while the demons drowned in their new hosts the pigs. And don’t forget about Lazarus, the man who was literally dead, and literally buried in a tomb, who came out on Jesus’ order. Yes, God is in the resurrection business, and that goes for all of our tombs as well, and not just the famous people from the Bible. It’s true that all those people in the Bible whom God saved went on to die later. But that doesn’t change the fact that they left their tombs to live before they died.

And so we find our first clue as to how to make the empty tomb not just a long ago event, but a characteristic of God in our own time. What does Paul say? “He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again.” We think that God did it once, but God has been doing it all along, and God will continue to do it. What good is Christ raised from the dead if we too are not raised from the dead? Didn’t God do it all for us? And so we must believe that God desires for us the same life Jesus enjoyed after he was raised, a life spent in community with others, a life opening other tombs, a life that looks like the shalom God intended for us from the very beginning. Yes, tombs are still being opened.

And yet, as I mentioned before, though we live again released from our tombs, we will die again. Our bodies wear out; they are perishable. But God seems to have a solution for that too, one that may take a little longer, but one which comes with a promise. Earlier in the Gospel of John, as Jesus is trying to reveal the truth about the kingdom of God, he makes one of his only references to the general resurrection that some of his Jewish compatriots already believed in. “Do not be astonished at this,” he says, “for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Of course, it was statements like this that got Jesus into trouble with the authorities, but it wasn’t so much on the basis of the subject matter itself, but more about who was making the claim. The Pharisees were believers in the resurrection from the dead, but they just weren’t believers in the idea that any old carpenter’s son could make it happen. But here Jesus is making the claim that not only will it certainly happen, but that it will happen soon, and that he will be the one to make it happen. Now, the Pharisees believed that when God was good and ready, and who knew when that would be, the righteous dead would be raised from their graves as a sort of compensation for the persecution they had endured. If you had been faithful and righteous and suffered because of that perseverance, you would be rewarded by God, that’s how they thought about redemption. What is noteworthy about this conversation this morning, as we contemplate the empty tomb again on Easter morning, is the promise that tombs of every kind will be opened when the right time comes, including our real tombs, the ones even God does not rescue us from in the span of our lives. We may indeed get rescued from all kinds of things while we are still alive, but we also get rescued from death, even if the date of the unsealing of our earthly tombs in uncertain. We have something guaranteed to look forward to, a future with God, the down payment for which, the precedent for which, is Jesus’ own resurrection, he who had been faithful, and he who had been righteous, and he who had suffered because of his perseverance. God delivered on the pledge that even the Pharisees believed in, and God will do that for us too, we who hear the voice of the Son of God.

The empty tomb happened a long time ago. But it also happened last year, last month, last week, and maybe even this morning too. And it’s going to happen again and again, until that time when it happens for the final time when we time is fulfilled. It happened for Jesus and it happened for you, didn’t it? How could you be here, how could you believe in God if it hadn’t already happened for you at least once? Yes, God has already opened your tomb to the life we find in Christ, the life of grace and peace, the life of consolation from affliction, the life of generosity, the life of mercy, the life of compassion, the life of knowing that God is looking out for us, even when we don’t deserve it, and even when we can’t imagine a way forward. Yes, the empty tomb is a sign of hope, but it is a living sign, a sign you carry around with you in the resurrection you have already received, the next one you can expect, and the final one to come in the Kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God for empty tombs of all kinds. Amen.

Easter Vigil

Thyatira’s Confirmation Class led our first celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Eve. Enjoy the new fire! Christ is risen!