301 First Street NW
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
Worship Sunday at 9:30 am
Our family is on our fifth year of Parks and Rec sports…and we have the collection of t-shirts to prove it. Teddy has played soccer, T-ball, coach pitch baseball, basketball and this fall we added flag football.
As every parent who has been through this knows, it is great fun to watch the kids grow and develop and gain confidence. We are to the point that we are watching actual games now with the kids working together as a team, rather than just running around on a field like an amoeba.
Every coach we’ve had through Parks and Rec has one a fantastic job of cheering the kids on and encouraging them to have fun.
And the kids do have fun. But do you know what else they do? They keep score.
There is no official competition in Parks and Rec sports, no scores are recorded or reported. It doesn’t matter if it is a scrimmage with members of their own team or the weekly games in which the score is never announced or recorded—the kids know which team—and usually which kid—has scored what.
But then, we see the same thing when it comes to following the rules at our house. We ask Teddy to take his shoes off when he comes in the house and you better believe he notices whenever Jim or I forget and leave our shoes on! Fair is fair, right?
The truth is, on some level or other, we all do this. In families, in classrooms, at work…we know when others have been recognized or treated better than we have been. Keeping track of who did what, who got what—keeping score, if you will—is an innate part of being human.
Which is what makes today’s scripture passage so challenging.
First, we have Peter asking Jesus a follow up question to the instructions on how to deal with conflict in the church. He asks, how many times must I forgive another person, a church member, who sinned against me?
Now, Peter may have suggested “seven times” because seven was considered a holy number, set aside for God, perfect. So what Peter may really be asking is, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?”
And when Jesus responds by saying seventy-seven times (which could actually also be translated “seventy times seven” times, so 490), Jesus’ point may be that when it comes to forgiveness, we want to be beyond perfection, beyond even counting and keeping score.
Then Jesus tells a parable to make the point. A king is settling accounts with all of us servants. He found a servant who owed him an impossible, un-payable sum. What was fair, according to the rules the world plays by, is that this servant, his wife and children, all his possessions could all be sold in an attempt to pay back this debt. But in a last ditch effort, the servant throws himself on the mercy of the king, asking for patience to pay a debt he can never, ever repay. And surprise! the king is merciful and forgives this servant’s impossible debt altogether. Whoa!
What follows is a study in contrast. This same servant meets another servant who owes him money—a hundred denarii was about 100 days wages; a paltry sum in comparison to what the first servant had owed his master. When this other servant pleads with him, using the same words he himself had used, the forgiven servant shows no mercy and has his fellow servant thrown in prison.
Uh uh. Not fair. Other servants report back to the master and the master rescinds his incredibly generous and merciful offer.
What’s the moral of this parable? It turns out that forgiveness is not entirely unconditional:
God forgives us so that we will forgive others.
Scholar Eugene Boring writes, “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time. The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation…”
Which is difficult for those of us who have been keeping score since we could add 1 + 1.
So we are reminded again in this passage that Jesus calls us to think of forgiveness in a very different way than the world does.
Father Richard Rohr sends out a daily email on a different theme each week. Three weeks ago the theme was Forgiveness, and he had all sorts of wisdom to offer.
Early in the week, he pointed out that the conventional wisdom around what should happen when there is an injury is this:
sin [offense] > punishment > repentance > [forgiveness or] transformation.
But for God, the pattern looks completely different:
sin [offense] > unconditional love and acceptance > [forgiveness or] transformation > repentance
Unconditional love means that God loves us not IF we change, but SO THAT we can change.
Forgiveness is God’s gift to us. Actually, that’s not true. Forgiveness is God’s gift to the world. Because forgiveness—the way God intends for it to work—is about the truest, realest liberation and freedom and acceptance that we have ever known or experienced. And it is so good, we cannot possibly keep it for ourselves.
Church council records from 16th century Geneva reveal the story of a man who pretended he did not know the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because he knew that if he said it (including “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”) , he would have to forgive the merchant who had once cheated him—and he had no intention or desire to do that!
And who was punished by this? Only himself. His refusal to forgive served no purpose other than to chain up his mind and heart and most likely push others away while he was at it. He was not free; he was bound and chained by his unwillingness to forgive.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman who was in his congregation. She was a single mother of young children, divorced from a man who had run off with another woman. She had difficulty paying her bills each month and she seethed with anger when she had to deny her children a simple pleasure such as going to the movies when she thought of her ex-husband and his new wife living it up in the next state. “How can you tell me to forgive him?” she asked Rabbi Kushner.
His response: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry [person]. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”
Practicing forgiveness in God’s way means not waiting until someone else has earned our forgiveness, or for the equation of right and wrong and repentance and remorse to be balanced out. Rather than keeping score, we are invited to remember God’s unconditional love and acceptance…for all of us…even the one who hurts us.
To be clear, Jesus is not telling us to be a doormat, to forgive those who abuse us or take advantage of imbalances of power. Injustice is not acceptable.
But it is an invitation to live into and seek after the freedom that comes from recognizing the grace and forgiveness and acceptance God pours into us in Jesus Christ, and allowing that to spill out us to others.
It is about laying the scorecard aside, putting down the ledger, doing something that does not compute in the world’s eyes because we ourselves have been loved with such abundance and grace.
Is it a difficult way to live? It can be at first because it is so counter cultural. But it is the way God calls us to live, the way God calls us to live into.
And through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do it. Amen.
 Lewis R. Donelson, Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 18:21-35 in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4. p. 69
 Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.
Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder at First Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon, Iowa on August 27, 2017
So, I’m reading a novel right now. Actually, I’m re-reading it. I finished it on vacation and decided it was so good, I wanted to read it again. It’s called When the English Fall by David Williams and it was just published last month. (Fun Fact: The author is also a Presbyterian minister, serving a church in Maryland—which is why I know about the novel. Because Presbyterian pastors stick together.)
The book is written as the journal of an Amish man named Jacob as he describes a huge solar storm that causes planes to fall out of the sky, phones and computers and motors of all kinds to cease working, and all that comes after this event. The Amish community in which Jacob and his family live is largely unaffected, but the “modern” (as the Amish call it, “English”) society around them begins to unravel and before long, it reaches the Amish, too.
It’s a fascinating premise and I have to admit—it feels somehow timely with the general madness of the world around us.
It is also a book about faith. Jacob prays and reflects on how he believes God is at work in him, in the crisis, in the world. Even with such a troubling backdrop, there is hope and trust in this book.
Why am I beginning my sermon with a book review? Because I think it is Ecclesiastes in a nutshell.
Just a few reminders about Ecclesiastes:
It is attributed to Keholeth, the Teacher, who is purported to be Solomon, the wise heir of David. Like Proverbs, the collection of wisdom writings here is very likely aimed at young men of means in Hebrew society. Unlike Proverbs, rather than teaching mainstream thinking that living in ways that are righteous, taking the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness, Ecclesiastes recognizes that it’s not always that simple. Chapter 7:15 says, “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”
One of the Teacher’s favorite words is “hebel,” a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is translated as “vanity” but in the Common English Bible that we read two weeks ago, it was “pointless.” Other possible translations include meaninglessness, absurdity and emptiness.
Ecclesiastes begins with, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (1:2, NRSV)
This morning we read, “This also is vanity and chasing after the wind.” That phrase “chasing after the wind” is also a bit difficult to translate; the point is that it is pointless and impossible.
This theme of vanity and pointlessness is heard throughout the 12 chapters.
And so is this:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” (2:24)
And a few verses after the “everything has its time” section:
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (3:12)
But let’s be clear—the Teacher is not advocating, “ do whatever feels good.” This is not about a life of hedonism and self-indulgence. It is about finding joy in the everyday things of life—eating and drinking, marriage and friendships, satisfaction in our work. We enjoy these things in spite of the reality that calamity may strike at any moment, and that people don’t always get what they deserve. Rather, the Teacher wants his students to understand that God works in mysterious ways, AND is the creator and provider of life’s blessings and gifts.
As Ecclesiastes 11:5 puts it, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”
Ellen Davis again:
“The key verb in the book is not “seize” but “give,” which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is “Receive the gift.” We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God. And the truth is, most of those are given so regularly that we never even pause to recognize them for the gifts they are.”
And this is why the novel I am reading is shouting “Ecclesiastes!” at me. Jacob, the Amish narrator constantly expresses gratitude for God’s good gifts of family and friends and community, the earth that produces so much abundant food, the satisfaction of hard work done well. He sees everything in his life as a gift and blessing—his wife and children, their home and fields and trees and animals, their community, their faith. There is a clear recognition of their need for one another, such as when a tree in a storm lands on a neighbor’s roof and the community comes together to fix it the next day, or to harvest apples or shock oats. Not a blessing goes by that Jacob does not recognize and give thanks for.
He is not immune to the terrible confusion and difficulty that hits the English, and the anxiety that comes with hardship and the unknown. However, through prayer, through trust in God’s provision and those with whom he shares his faith, Jacob and his community persevere in faith, hope and love.
In contrast are the English, who are so busy and distracted, so stressed and unhappy, even before the catastrophe.
While it is “only” a novel, and it’s premise of our technology-based society coming to crashing halt is only fiction (or so I hope!) there is much truth in it.
Our culture, our economy depends upon our relentless consumption and the pursuit of more, as well as a constant injection of whom or what we should fear. When we are busy eating the bread of anxious toil (as Psalm 127 so aptly puts it), how can we possibly be aware of the goodness, kindness, and provision that surround and uphold us?
The Teacher, Kohelet, would say—we can’t determine the future, we can only live in the present and receive the pleasures and opportunities it offers [paraphrased Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, p. 113].
This is not to say we ignore the problems that exist in our own lives, our communities, the wider society. But it is to say that as we seek to live in God’s way, to teach our children kindness, to demonstrate love in all we do, to work for justice for all creation, we also keep our eyes and hearts and minds wide open to receive the joy.
Henri Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Here’s an invitation for you: today, or tomorrow, or throughout the week make a list of ten things—at least ten things!—for which you are grateful. Remind yourselves of the many good gifts, the blessings that surround and uphold you. Choose joy.
Life is a mystery, and it is a beautiful gift. It is not a rose garden, but there are roses to be found. And there is nothing better for us than to sing in the lifeboats. Amen.
 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001. pp. 107-108
There is nothing new under the sun, says “the Teacher” of Ecclesiastes.
What a fitting verse since I have been feeling a strange sense of deja vu this week.
We have had a verbal sparring match with North Korea that could lead to the launch of nuclear warheads. I thought we had settled this in the 80s and decided nuclear war was mutually assured destruction and therefore a bad idea?
Then Saturday morning, President Trump suggested at a press conference that military intervention in Venezuela—where democracy has truly gone off the rails—was a possibility. I thought we had figured out that invading another country because we don’t like the way their leader is doing things doesn’t work and only puts us deeper in debt?
And then, of course, there was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. Confederate flags, but also Nazi flags and arms raised in the “Heil Hitler” salute; rhetoric lifted directly from Nazi propaganda from 80 years ago. All of it done quite openly and without apology. This is the one that really gets me. I thought that, except for a few hold-outs, humanity had collectively decided that the Nazis are the universally acknowledged bad guy.
But apparently, history is repeating itself.
Which is not to say that I am viewing these events with a shrug of my shoulders. It is more with disbelief and grief.
People of Color—who are on the front lines every day—aren’t surprised by what is happening in Charlottesville. A friend and colleague in Raleigh, NC, who is black, posted on Facebook yesterday:
“… Outside of my prayers and concerns for all involved, I really don’t have anything to say (this is the point at which you may or may not understand that what is happening makes people of color like me “tired”). I am not shocked or surprised at what is happening. Many may blame the current administration for what is happening but in reality we are seeing the fruits of racism that has been planted and rapidly germinating – since about 1619.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters have been warning us this was coming. That was part of the reason we decided to include Hebrew as well as Arabic on our “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign.
There are a few things that need to be acknowledged this morning:
White supremacists carrying torches on Friday night and surrounding a group of University of Virginia students; groups of angry young white men attacking individual black men with the poles of the flags they were carrying; driving a car into a crowd of people; and yes—paramilitary groups dressed in tactical gear and armed with assault weapons—these are violent actions specifically designed to intimidate, to make those who disagree with them afraid.
We need to name this for what it is: Racism. Sin. Domestic Terrorism. Wrong.
And deeply embedded in our history and culture. White people—this is in us and on us. My fellow white people, we do not have the luxury of looking away. We have soul searching to do.
Because although this is happening in Charlottesville, far away in Virginia, it could be happening anywhere.
Charlottesville is a progressive college town, surrounded by more conservative areas of the state. Just like Iowa City, or Ames, or Cedar Falls.
The car that plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors? It was from Ohio. This was not just a “local problem.”
Charlottesville is us. White Supremacy flyers for a group called National Alliance were distributed in the Quad Cities this week. I not infrequently see trucks flying confederate flags in Cedar Rapids. Thanks to the internet, groups promoting these beliefs are available to any angry young white man (and yes—that is the demographic we need to be concerned about), anywhere. The sin of racism is right here in our midst.
Still here in our midst. Shouldn’t we know better by now?
“There is nothing new under the sun.”
The opening lines of Ecclesiastes seem right on target—cynical, jaded, weary.
Biblical scholar Ellen Davis notes that she met a Vietnam War chaplain who said Ecclesiastes was the only part of the Bible his soldiers were willing to hear. And she has a former student prone to depression who said that reading Ecclesiastes is like “slipping into a warm bath.”
The Book of Proverbs exhibits mainstream thinking on wisdom, that living in ways that are righteous, the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness while the ones who follow temptation or steal from or mistreat others will end up ruined. It’s like a reliable mathematical equation—do that, and this will happen.
Ecclesiastes knows that while this equation sometimes holds true, sometimes it doesn’t. Chapter 7:15 “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”
There have always been those who wondered why Ecclesiastes made it into the canon, but I am grateful for the recognition that when we are being honest and vulnerable before God, even cynicism has a place.
As Ellen Davis says, in Ecclesiastes, “Alienation and despair are recognized as one moment, at least, in the journey toward faith.”
We need this honesty, this lament for the times when we are feeling tired and weighed down by the events of our own lives, or the world around us.
But we don’t stay there. Ecclesiastes is one of 66 books in the Bible. I’ll talk more about Ecclesiastes on August 27 but let’s look to the rest of the Bible for guidance here, too.
One of the things we hear over and over again throughout scriptures in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is “Be not afraid.” And while it is rarely said, the idea is, “Don’t be afraid because God is with you.” We can trust God to help us, to guide us in our thinking and doing. White Supremacists and other terrorists are trying to make us afraid. The media use fear to keep us tuned in. Don’t be afraid. Trust God instead.
Here’s another thought:
At Easter this year it finally occurred to me that even though the tomb was empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead, the Roman Empire was still in charge along with the religious authorities who were more concerned about their position and power than the well-being of the poor. That was all still there. On the surface, it seemed like nothing had changed. But when Jesus’ followers trusted in God, and lived their lives as if the resurrection promises were true, they changed the world.
It was the people of God who believed and trusted in God who changed the world. And have continued to change the world. WE are the ones to change the world.
So even though we’re sitting here in disbelief that in 2017 we are still dealing with the KKK, with people who think the Nazis might have something to offer us, with people who think Jews are to blame for our problems, we are going to stand up and say, No. That’s not okay.
We are going to lead with love and compassion.
And we are not going to lose hope. Because that’s what it means to be the people of God.
Many years ago Voltaire wrote something which Ecclesiastes would agree with:
“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
So friends, let’s sing in the lifeboats. Together. Amen.
~ Rev. Lori Wunder
 Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159
 Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159
Wisdom, according to the Book of Proverbs, is a woman.
Perhaps more accurately put, Wisdom is a feminine noun, and is personified as a woman in the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures.
When I first learned about this some 20 years ago, I was pretty excited. There is a lack of female representation in the Bible, and “getting” Wisdom seemed like a pretty big deal. I still think it’s kind of cool. But I have to say, my enthusiasm has been dampened by closer study.
Yes, Wisdom is personified as a woman. But so is foolishness and folly. In contrast to upright wisdom who will always lead you in the right paths, there is also a “loose woman.”
Listen to these lines from Proverbs 5:1-14 (Common English Bible):
My son, pay attention to my wisdom.
Bend your ear to what I know,
so you might remain discreet,
and your lips might guard knowledge.
The lips of a mysterious woman drip honey,
and her tongue is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as gall,
sharp as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps lead to the grave.
She doesn’t stay on the way of life.
Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it.
Now children, listen to me,
and don’t deviate from the words of my mouth.
Stay on a path that is far from her;
don’t approach the entrance to her house.
Otherwise, you will give your strength to others,
your years to a cruel person.
Otherwise, strangers will sap your strength,
and your hard work will end up in a foreigner’s house.
You will groan at the end
when your body and flesh are exhausted,
and you say, “How I hated instruction!
How my heart despised correction!
I didn’t listen to the voice of my instructor.
I didn’t obey my teacher.
I’m on the brink of utter ruin
in the assembled community.”
When we began this sermon series on Wisdom Literature, we talked about how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes at their heart answer the question, “How does someone live a good life?” And even though we are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, the answers put forth by the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have much to say to us in our time.
However…first we have to acknowledge that the intended audience for the Book of Proverbs, the target market for its instruction—young males.
So…do you see why it made sense to portray both wisdom and folly as women for young males? Certainly, describing the choice of how to live in terms of two women vying for their attention might make their lessons more interesting. If you’ve been reading through Proverbs on your own, you know there are some decidedly PG-13 passages, warning about the dangers of being seduced by what (or who) is very desirable but ultimately destructive.
At first glance, I admit that I found this rhetorical device rather prudish, not to mention more than a little unfair in its portrayal of women. Previous generations have warned of the dangers of alcohol, gambling, sex outside of marriage, sometimes even dancing. The “desires of the flesh” were portrayed as dangerous.
Younger generations today (my own included) have poked fun at this prudish perspective. But as Krista Tippett points out in her book, her Southern Baptist preacher grandfather frequently warned in his sermons about “the body as the entry point of danger” because he lived in the age “before Twelve Steps made addictions like gambling and alcoholism something less than a death sentence, before sex was unhinged from a high probability of pregnancy, before childbirth out of wedlock upended many lives.” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016, “Flesh” p. 62)
There was wisdom in those warnings.
For those of us who live in an age in which science and psychology have blunted if not eliminated the possible consequences of such behaviors, biblical scholar Ellen Davis makes the case for how these passages still speak to us:
“In using the language of love and desire, the sages alert us to the hidden but essential connection between what we want and what we may come to know. Those two things are always connected, for good or for ill. Through holy desire we may indeed gain what Israel called wisdom, which is a true, realistic knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world. But we may also waste our desire, by turning it to things that are unworthy of us. Or perhaps we desire things that are good in themselves, but they are not the things that God wants to give us now. So our desire, which is meant to draw us closer to God, instead sets a barrier between God and ourselves. For desire is never spiritually neutral. It either sharpens our perception, so that we may see something of what God sees in us and the world, or else it distorts our vision. In countless subtle ways, wrong desire skews our understanding of our God-given situation in the world. In other words, wrong desire deprives us of wisdom and thus brings us, often by slow degrees, into misery.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001, p. 149)
It seems to me that we live in an age in which we are encouraged to follow wherever our desires lead us. If there is something we want to have or possess or accomplish, we should do it because we deserve it. Everything is allowed.
Now, to be clear, I think our culture has done well to dismantle the shackles of shame that were so often clamped on anyone who stepped out of line. Saddling someone with shame can destroy a life every bit as much as whatever the “original” sin was. We still shame people, but we find fewer behaviors shameful all the time. So, anything goes!
Another dynamic in our culture is the constant buzz of marketing messages. From birth, we are programmed to desire products so that we buy and consume…and immediately start the cycle over again. Our economy depends on a never-ending cycle of desire, consumption, and dissatisfaction. It goes without saying that this cycle is folly and foolishness, wasteful, the wrong kind of desire.
Ellen Davis again: “Wrong desire separates us from God. It blinds us to the goodness of the situations in which God has placed us. It separates us from one another. We may indeed learn something from following wrong desire, but too often what we come to know about the world and about ourselves embitters us.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001, p. 150)
A laundry list of wrong desire in our modern culture would include
Even right desire can go wrong, such as when the pursuit of health and fitness, self-improvement and personal growth, education and learning, etc. becomes such an obsession that they take too much time away from our family, friends or community, or lead to us judging or condemning others.
And there is another phenomenon in our culture that is worth noting:
Our tendency toward numbing behaviors. Sometimes life can be overwhelming and we need to escape reality for a little bit—so we watch TV or movies, play video games, surf the web or scroll on Facebook. Sometimes we numb our worries and anxieties with food, alcohol, sex, working out. We need escape sometimes but any of these behaviors can go too far so that there is far more numbing happening than dealing with and working through.
Krista Tippett writes, “[There] was a pattern of unintentional self-destruction glorified in the twentieth century–to enrich on the outside, and impoverish within.” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016,, p. 169)
I fear that too often in our nation we are keeping up appearances on the outside while we are impoverished within.
And this is where True Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, comes in. God invites us to more, asks more of us.
When we cultivate our relationship with God, when we make time for regular prayer, reading, meditation, being in worship, yoga, whatever spiritual technologies bring you into communion with God…
when we spend time appreciating the beauty of creation and the world around us…
when we cultivate a sense of gratitude, contentment, “enoughness” in our life, our family, our home, friends and community…
when we see our lives and well-being as integrally connected with others, whether across the street or across the globe…
THEN we have learned to desire what God desires for us and our neighbors.
May each of us open ourselves to the leading and healing of the Holy Spirit, that we, too, may grow in wisdom and desire for the truly good things in our world, and for our world. Amen.
Preached by the Rev. Lori Wunder at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, Iowa on Sunday, July 16, 2017. With much gratitude to Ellen F. Davis and Krista Tippett!
So it is Easter morning and so that means we are going to talk about really important things. And I will begin with a question, so get ready:
Ham? Or egg casserole? Or lamb?
Brunch or dinner?
Chocolate bunnies? or Cadbury eggs? or Peeps?
My question, of course, is a bit tongue in cheek, but not entirely. Holidays, in large part, are centered on special foods, and gatherings with family and friends, yes?
During the last week or so I have had a number of conversations with people about Easter: what it means—is it about bunnies and eggs and baskets, or an empty tomb? but also how some like Christmas better than Easter.
And I can understand that, for many reasons. Easter is a moving target—the date is different every year because Easter falls on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Last year it was March 27; the year before that, April 20; next year it will be April 1. It is difficult to pin down and to plan accordingly.
Christmas is always, reliably, on December 25.
Christmas is about a baby being born, and who doesn’t like that?
Easter, on the other hand, besides being difficult to keep track of, involves a good deal of suffering and death, and if there is anything we human beings want to avoid talking about, it is suffering and death. We don’t even like to say “death.” We say “passed away” instead.
No wonder neon colored, rabbit shaped marshmallows are such a thing.
The celebration of spring and loved ones getting together and delicious food and getting creative with eggs are all good things. But they are not the main event.
To paraphrase the Grinch, “Maybe Easter…perhaps…doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Easter…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
The main event is that empty tomb, God’s big surprise, and what it means for us.
And let us be honest for a moment: this whole notion that God raised Jesus from the dead—it does not make sense to our rational, empirical, scientific brains. So if you get stuck there, no judgment.
More important is this:
The event of Easter is not about proof, it is about perspective.
The truth is, we can’t prove that the resurrection happened.
And the predominant message I see about Easter in hymns, cards, memes on Facebook is, “Jesus died so we can have eternal life.” But the resurrection is so much more than a get into heaven free card.
Easter is about a different way of seeing, perceiving, understanding. It is a way of living. A lifestyle, if you will.
We see this transformation from the old way to a new way in Mary Magdalene.
When Mary headed to the tomb at dawn on that first day, she was a wreck. The crucifixion of Jesus had dropped the bottom out of her world. We don’t know why she was going to the tomb—in John’s version of the story, Jesus’ body was already wrapped with linen cloths, spices and ointment. Maybe she just wanted to be near him, to see if it was all real. Maybe she just didn’t know what else to do with herself and wanted to get away from her friends who were also in shock and deep grief.
Of course, Mary finds the tomb empty and instead of being joyful, she is terrified. If possible, her grief is intensified. A missing body can only mean foul play—grave robbers, or someone wishing to inflict further indignity on her beloved friend. So her grief is compounded. Everything was terrible, and getting worse.
Perhaps that explains why Mary doesn’t seem moved at all by seeing two men in white inside the tomb. When she turns away from and sees another man, she assumes he is the gardener.
Then he says her name, and somehow, there is something about his voice, because all of the sudden, she recognizes him and she calls him, “Teacher.” Jesus tells her not to hold on to him and sends her to the others. When she gets there she says, “I have seen the Lord!”
Now, seeing is a huge metaphor in John—John includes stories about people who are blind understanding who Jesus is, while the religious authorities who are supposed to know everything get caught in the weeds of whether the healing happened on the right day, etc. Rather than saying, “Come, follow me” to prospective disciples, in John Jesus says, “Come and see.”
So when Mary says, I have seen the Lord, this is significant. It means, she gets it. Which means, we are supposed to get it, too.
We are supposed to see that it is about relationship. When Jesus said her name, she responds by saying, “Rabbouni”, teacher. Not his name, but that he is her teacher and she is his student, his disciple.
Although John’s Jesus doesn’t say it here, the message is, Do not be afraid. Trust me. Follow me and do what I do, live how I live.
And that is the new perspective that is so different from the world’s view.
Now—I think it is critically important to point out that in many ways, the world that first Easter morning was no different than it had been the day before. The Roman Empire still ruled their land with an iron fist; the religious authorities were still in cahoots with the Romans; the powerless and vulnerable were still suffering. Nothing appeared to have changed.
But those who followed and believed had a different perspective. They lived as if the world had changed and guess what? They changed the world.
Let me say that again:
After the resurrection, the followers of Jesus lived as if the world had changed and because they did, they changed the world.
The Roman Empire is gone and other empires have risen in its place. The Jewish religious authorities who use religion to benefit themselves? Still around, just in more religions. People are still vulnerable and suffering. And yet…when we live as if the world is different because of Easter, we still change the world.
That’s perspective. That’s a change in perception. That’s an amazingly hopeful call to us in a time in which it feels the world is swinging off its axis.
You have probably heard it said that “Perception is reality.”
You have probably seen the inspirational message, Believe there is good in the world. Be the good in the world
These are true. But we don’t do it entirely on our own.
Farmer, New Testament scholar and co-founder of Koinonia Farm Community Clarence Jordan said,
“The resurrection of Jesus was simply God’s unwillingness to take our ‘no’ for an answer. He raised Jesus,
not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life.”
This is the message of Easter, one not for just this day, or the Easter Season that lasts for fifty days, but for every day and ever more:
Jesus has taken up permanent residence,
standing beside us as teacher, friend, encourager,
whispering constantly to us that the world has changed, that the world is different, in spite of the evidence…
so that we can—side by side with him—change the world.
Friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
~Rev. Lori Wunder