Easter Sermon for April 4, 2021 from Pastor John
Sermon for April 4, 2021
Anne Lamott is a popular author who writes about her life’s experiences and how her faith in Jesus helps her. I would say it is a miracle of grace that she is a Christian. She was raised by parents who were atheists. As a young adult she struggled with a dual addiction to alcohol and drugs. Some thirty years ago she showed up in a small Presbyterian Church, intoxicated. The Gospel had its healing effect. The Gospel of God’s love, made known by Jesus, was able to get through to her wounded soul. She became a member of that church, would not miss worship, and has taught Sunday School with a class ranging in attendance from one to a half-dozen. She says her students love her because she brings snacks. She has a new book now titled “Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage.” She has a friend, from both recovery and church, who has a twenty-two year old son with incurable brain cancer. So Ann Lamott asked her, “How on earth do you sustain any optimism at all, not give up on life, and stay more or less okay one day at a time in the face of such a devastating reality and prognosis?” Her friend responded, “I just cannot give up, and under the fear and terror there’s something that won’t let me.” And she admits that there are times when she is so exhausted and empty, she wonders if she will ever fill up again; fill up with faith and hope. But she does with what she called “Lunch Money Faith, nothing dramatic, and just enough.” It is an interesting way to describe your belief, “lunch money faith.” But it does speak of daily grace from Jesus, crucified and risen for us, keeping us from giving up the faith when life’s challenges are so painful. Anne Lamott wrote “Yes, these are times of great illness and distress. Yet the center may just hold.” Our faith is centered with Jesus, whose love and faithfulness does hold us in our times of trial.
In the Gospel text we heard of Mary Magdalene’s early morning journey to Jesus’ tomb in the garden. Mary Magdalene was present with Jesus’ mother and two other women at the foot of the cross, witnessing first hand Jesus’ death. She may very well have wondered is there any reason to hope: it looked as if the forces in the world had won the day with Jesus’ death. She came to Jesus’ tomb to grieve. The narrator told us it was still dark when Mary arrived. In John’s gospel we often have a dual meaning: an outer one and an inner one. Literally it was before the sun was up. But ‘dark’ was a description of Mary’s soul.
When she discovered the stone covering over the tomb was removed she suspected the worst, telling the two disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not where they have laid him.” The disciples Peter and the other identified as the “one Jesus loved” arrived on scene to investigate. Yes, they found no body. The tomb was unoccupied. The grave clothes were there but no Jesus in them. The one disciple believed but then the text said “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.” They did not fully understand the meaning of the resurrection. I recall Jesus’ promise to Peter at the foot-washing during the meal before Jesus’ crucifixion, “you do not know now what is going on, but later you will understand.” They saw an empty tomb and discarded grave clothes, but where was Jesus? Anyway they left the garden with much to talk about on the way and they left Mary weeping by the tomb’s entrance.
When Mary with tear-filled eyes did look in the tomb she saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping and who was she looking for. All she could say was ‘they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where he is.” Then Jesus stood before her with the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping, whom are you looking for?” This must be the gardener, the grounds-keeper, and certainly he would know where the body of Jesus was. What a case of mistaken identity! In her mind Jesus was dead and gone and so her insistence on finding out where his dead body was. In her grief she could not see her Lord, her Living Hope, standing before her. But then the supposed gardener called her “Mary”, and then there was recognition. She turned and said “My teacher”. Jesus did not scold her for not yet understanding that he must rise from the dead. When one is fearful and tearful the last thing needed is scolding. Jesus knew what to do. Simply call her by name. This did not mean that Jesus was good with names. This was the good Shepherd calling out to his own, seeking and saving the lost. The scriptures say “I have called you by name, you are mine, and I love you.” Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice, and I call them by name, they hear my voice and follow me.”
How does Jesus get through to us when we do not understand why bad things happen to us? How does Jesus find us when we are so troubled by national news of hatreds, and the suffering and cruelties we hear about in the world? Is faith a fraud, to be jettisoned when we cannot be optimistic? Not jettison, but we have Jesus who calls you and me by name. We have a Savior who understands all manner of suffering and fear because of his cross. The scriptures tell us that Jesus bears all our grief, all our infirmity, and all our troubles. But then we must understand, by the gracious work of his spirit, the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus spoke in the scripture “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives in Jesus and believes in Jesus will never die.” As the Lamb of God Jesus has overcome the power of sin; Jesus, the resurrection and the Life, has overcome the power of death; Jesus, who calls us by name in Holy Baptism is committed to walking with us throughout life.
Comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert was just 10 years old when his father and two brothers were killed in a tragic plane crash. He credits his mother’s steadfast faith with helping him cope with his grief. But after some years Colbert abandoned his faith. After graduating from college, he considered himself an atheist. But one day, while walking down the street in Chicago a stranger approached and handed him a pocket New Testament with Psalms. Inside the front cover was a list of verses to read if you were ever in need of help. Colbert looked up the verses that dealt with anxiety. Colbert says, “…for the first time, I understood the real meaning of the phrase, “It spoke to me.” He read the verses about casting anxiety on Jesus because he cares for you, and said “My life has never been the same.” In that experience, through Scripture, Colbert heard the crucified and risen Savior call him by name.
African-American spirituals have a wonderful way of bearing witness to the blessed assurance of faith in Jesus. I saw a spiritual “Guide my Feet” in a new Lutheran hymnal: “Guide my feet, while I run this race. Hold my hand while I run this race. Stand by me while I run this race, I’m your child while I run this race, search my heart while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain.” Sometimes life can seem like a rat-race and we may be lost, afraid, and confused. But so powerful is the promise of our baptism, we are baptized into Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection so we know the benefit of the truth that we are children of God. The apostle Paul in the second lesson spoke of the center of our faith: Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried and on the third day was raised according to the scriptures; this is the good news passed on to us, the gospel of Jesus in which we stand, the gospel of Jesus by which we are being saved, calling us to a true faith that will never be in vain.
Roman catholic Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, was selected by Time magazine to be one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A journalist asked him, just whom would he consider the most influential person in your life?” Cardinal Dolan said that is no-brainer, Jesus Christ is the most influential person in his life. The journalist said “I am sorry; I should have been more precise. The person has to be alive now.” Cardinal Dolan said in reply, “Same answer! Jesus Christ!” Cardinal Dolan then said the church has its flaws and that Jesus’ heart is broken by sin, hatred and division in the members of His church. But Dolan made it clear, the risen savior never gives up on us. At the banquet to toast the world’s most influential person in his life Dolan said “I toast Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I toast him as my best friend. I believe he is always with us. He who invites each of us to enjoy with him a future banquet of eternal life in heaven.” This banquet promised the faithful is no lunch-money minimum, but a full celebration of salvation and life eternal. We get a foretaste of this banquet at Holy Communion, receiving Jesus and the fullness of his love: calling us by name with the promise of his peace, his presence, each and every day.
Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus told her not to hold on to him as he was to ascend to heaven to complete his mission: Jesus died. Jesus rose again. Jesus returned to heaven not to retire but complete his mission of preparing a place for us in his Father’s House. Jesus would ascend so to be with us always. Mary was told to tell the other disciples that Jesus had been raised. I have read that one fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a large increase of applications to medical school. This has been called the Fauci Effect, named after the Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. May we be inspired by the Jesus Effect, so inspired by the good news that he is risen from the dead to be our living hope, that we want to share him and the good news he brings: Grace over guilt, hope over despair, and life over death.