Sermon transcript for April 20, 2014
Why Are You Weeping?
Belmont UMC – Easter, April 20, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Recently, I was sitting in a circle of good friends, colleagues in ministry. We were sitting on a porch on bright spring day, sipping ice tea and talking about Easter. As I looked around the circle at these beloved friends, I realized that 2 of them had experienced the death of young adult children. Then the two of them began to talk about preaching Easter sermons following their children’s deaths. This was powerful and moving experience for me. There was a lot of love and grace in that circle.
That may not be the kind of thing we want to hear on Easter. But is not this is the point of Easter. We are not here today to deny the reality of sadness, but to be reminded that the story doesn’t end with weeping. And if Holy Week is the ultimate climax of God’s love story for us, the story does not end on Good Friday and it’s just getting started on Sunday morning.
There is a lot of sadness and weeping in these weeks of Lent. Two weeks ago we read of the story of the death of Lazarus, the story of his sisters, Mary and Martha and their grief, the story of Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus and weeping. There are actually two stories of Jesus’ weeping—toward the end Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, looked out over the city of Jerusalem and wept as he expressed his longing for the welfare of his people. There is the sadness of Jesus’ last days and Passover meal with the disciples, the sadness of farewell, and the sadness of betrayal.
Today’s Gospel story begins with sadness: “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Mary was weeping. Mary of Magdala had followed Jesus with inexpressible gratitude since the day he freed her from 7 demons. Released—made whole by the love of God. If Mary wanted to know what resurrection was like, she only needed to remember how he had given her life back to her. From that moment she had lived in complete devotion to Jesus.
Mary was weeping. She had been at the cross until the gruesome end—even after the disciples ran away in fear. She had been there when they took his body down. She had been there when the body was placed in a borrowed tomb. She had listened as the stone had rolled across the entry with heavy, grinding finality.
The Sabbath had passed in silence—Mary had been alone in her grief, battling with the reality of what had happened. On Sunday she made her way back to the tomb to mourn and to help prepare the body for a proper burial. She was prepared for facing death; she was not prepared to find the tomb open and the body missing. Being a realist she assumed the body had been taken. It was bad enough that he had been executed, but then someone had stolen his body.
Mary wept at the thought of this. Mary wept because that is what we do at the grave of a friend. Mary wept because the one who had set her free had died a prisoner’s death. Mary wept over a world in which there are powers that seem to beat the life out of love and kindness. Mary wept over a kind of mob violence that would choose a Barabbas and execute the Prince of Peace.
There were plenty of reasons for Mary’s weeping—futility and despair ruled her emotions. We have felt this futility—we, too, have wept at the side of a friend’s grave or at the bedside of a terminal patient. We have wept over injustice and scenes of senseless violence. Sometimes there is nothing left to do but weep.
But on that Sunday morning Mary encountered a person she assumed to be a gardener. “Do you know where they have put his body? If you moved it, tell me where you have laid him, I will take him away.”
But the man did not answer her question. Instead he said one word, her name, “Mary.” No angels singing, no jubilant choruses, just “Mary.” The man said her name and with that her predictable, rational, cause and effect world came to a screeching halt—hope sprang up inside of her and she replied with one word, “Rabbouni” or “Teacher.”
Somehow God had wondrously intervened and defeat and futility had been turned into hope and purposefulness. That day a new hope dawned in the lives of Mary and the other followers. That day a new hope dawned in human hearts—our hearts.
God has a way of bringing hope to desperate situations. God has a way of turning things around. The resurrection means we do not have to settle for darkness and defeat—that we know that more deeply than we have ever known that love is stronger than hate, that good is stronger than evil, that truth will outlast falsehood, and that life will triumph over death. We know that faith is not in vain. We know that God has caused hope to dawn in human hearts.
We need this hope—hope that carries us through the dark days of this life. We need hope when the unpredictable or unimaginable happens. We need a confidence and courage in the midst of life events that would normally evoke resignation.
The resurrection means that we can stand by the side of the tomb and hope no matter how much evidence piles up against it. God gives us this hope!
So in the circle of colleagues on that bright spring day, one of them shared a story that she found helpful when her son died. It is a story told by a Pastor after his friend, David, had returned from a funeral near his Mississippi home town. His nephew, Zeke, had been the victim of a drunk driver, leaving behind his wife, Andrea, and two small children.
The Pastor asked David about the funeral. David began sharing his happiness at being back in his rural Mississippi community. David then spoke about the funeral, “The service was alright but gathering at the cemetery, that made the difference. As we brought the casket to the grave, the little band played spirituals, songs of pain, grief and sorrow like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” We all sang through our tears.”
“The elders read scripture and prayed as the casket was lowered into the ground. We began covering it with dirt. We wept together and we wept individually.”
“Suddenly, a stillness settled over the cemetery. Out of that quiet the band resumed, increasing their volume and tempo . . . resurrection jazz; trombone, trumpet, saxophone . . . Everyone sang their way back to the cars and to the church for dinner.”
“Incredible,” said the Pastor, “but what about Andrea and the children? They have no father, no husband.”
David continued, “They will weep for a long time . . . the house will seem empty . . . the clothes in the closet a constant reminder of what should have been. But at the cemetery that day we were all reminded that we have two songs to sing: a spiritual of sorrow and a hymn of promise.”
The Pastor asked, “Can the family sing both songs?”
David replied, “I don’t know. Perhaps they can only sing spirituals of grief . . . I do know that the church will sing both songs every week. They can will sing spiritual songs of trouble and songs of promise . . . they will sing with Andrea and on behalf of Andrea . . . My guess is that eventually Andrea and the children will sing both songs . . . for one another and for others in the community in grief and joy.” (Source unknown)
My friend was saying that for a long time after her son died all she could sing were the spirituals of grief, but others sang the hymns of promise and resurrection for her, until she was able to stand with them and sing them, too.
For a time in her life, Mary of Magdala, could only sing songs of sorrow. I don’t know what it means to have 7 demons and the scriptures don’t offer a description, but during those days, it must have felt like being trapped, and cut off from community. It must have felt like dying. Jesus set Mary free and brought her back to life.
Today, Mary stands in a garden and hears the Lord calling her name. Today, Mary stops her weeping. Today, Mary can sing the songs of promise and resurrection. And today, she goes out to preach the first Easter sermon, five words, “I have seen the Lord!”
The message of Easter is not a denial of death or grief—realities of life. But Easter means that we believe the words of Paul that “Nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8) And we affirm with Psalmist, “Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30)
And as Easter People we hope for those who have lost hope and we sing the hymn of promise and resurrection for them when they cannot. God will use us to give birth to hope. Today, hope is dawning in human hearts. God is turning things around. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Call to Serve:
We hear the call of God to take the hope of resurrection into the world.
Everywhere the church goes, Easter is happening:
Where the hungry are fed, Easter is happening!
Where the poor are raised up. . .
Where the stranger is offered hospitality. . .
Where the prisoner is visited. . .
Where the good news is shared. . .
Where the thirsty are offered a drink. . .
Where those who weep are given hope. . .
Everywhere the church goes, Easter happens!
Sermon transcript for April 13, 2014
Matthew 21:1-11; 27:32-37; 49-61
April 13, 2014—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching
The young man came up to me on the street and as he greeted me he began to pull a small black leather New Testament out of his shirt pocket. He looked earnest and he said to me, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” I responded reluctantly, “I guess.”
He proceeded to take me through the four spiritual laws, popularized by the Campus Crusade people and then he asked me, “Are you saved?” I said, “Yes, I am a United Methodist pastor.” Then he repeated the question, “But are you sure you are saved?”
I wanted to tell him about the three movements of grace as outlined by John Wesley and suggest the possibility of an ongoing work of salvation but it occurred to me that a simpler answer was what the fellow wanted and so I answered, “I am certain.”
He still wasn’t convinced and he followed up with, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven.” Again I thought of lots of theological ideas such as the sovereignty of God went through my mind but I thought better of it and answered, “Yes.” He smiled, called me “Brother,” and moved on to his next opportunity.
Are we saved? Is God’s work of salvation being realized in our lives? “Saved” is one of those church words that we used to hear more often. But on Palm Sunday we cry out “Hosanna!” a word that has come to have the tone of adoration, much like “Hallelujah!” but the word really has a tone of desperation and literally means, “Save us!” or “Save us, now!”
Jesus looks like a savior, even though scholars say that Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate political statement to the prevailing authorities. He has raised a dead man in Bethany, 2 miles away and his reputation as a teacher and healer has led many people to hail him as one who has the power to save Jerusalem. People gathered along the parade route, throwing their coats and branches in his path, like greeting a victor returning from battle. Victory is in the air! “Save us!” “Hosanna!” “Save us, now!”
It makes for a beautiful story. On that day the crowds praised and sang to Jesus in the streets, but by the end of the week another crowd would mock him and call for his death. On that day the crowds cried out to him, “Save us!” but by the end of the week another crowd would yell at him while he his hanging on a cross, “Save your self!” At the beginning of the week, Jesus looks like the victor but by Friday he looks every bit the part of a loser. How can a man who is hanging on the cross save the world?
God has chosen to save us by surprising means. It’s a paradox of sorts. But we are being saved, not from political powers, outside forces, as was the hope of many along the parade route when Jesus came into Jerusalem. But God saves us from the forces of evil and from those tendencies within us that would threaten to defeat us and keep us separated from God. God offers the salvation that we need, not necessarily the one we want.
God saves us through God’s willingness to be vulnerable and this vulnerability is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He was born of human parentage, an infant in a cruel world, a world that wanted him dead. The word became flesh (vulnerable) and lived among us.
This vulnerability is revealed in the ministry of Jesus, in his willingness to associate with the lowly, the outcast, and the poor. Jesus’ love for children, his willingness to include women among his followers, and his attention to those who had been cast to the margins of society were acts of vulnerability that resulted in the criticisms and threats.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to do what was right and what was good, to do God’s work, even when it brought criticism from the religious and political establishment. Those who are prophetic in this world, who are courageous to tell God’s truth, will always be vulnerable to the threats of the status quo.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to choose ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Even at the risk that some of those ordinary people will betray him.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in two scenes of Holy Week. The first happens in an upper room where Jesus goes to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. He shared wine and bread with them and said a very human thing, “Don’t forget me.” Later on the cross he would out of a sense of abandonment, “Why have you forgotten me?”
In John’s Gospel he not only takes his place with the 12, he gets up from the table wraps a towel around his waste and begins to wash the disciples’ dirty feet. The vulnerable one came into the world to serve, not to be served.
Dr. Doug Meeks has pointed out that servants are the powerless and most vulnerable people in our world, but the towel of a slave becomes the authority symbol of the church, for only those who serve have authority in the kingdom of God. It is the towel of servanthood—it is the towel that wipes the eyes of Saul of Tarsus, it is the towel that cradles an orphaned baby in Malawi, Africa, it is the towel that wraps the casserole carried to a grieving family, it is the towel that wipes the brow of a migrant worker. We are saved by the vulnerability of servanthood! (From lecture notes.)
It is only Jesus, the servant who has the authority to save us. Hosanna! Save us, now!
We are saved by God’s vulnerability, ultimately revealed in God’s sacrificial love. The second scene of Holy Week is the scene of the crucifixion. Crucifixion was no unusual in Jesus’ day. Yet it is our belief that not only was Jesus crucified, but he was crucified for us.
Paul wrote, “Why you might be willing to die for a good person, but God shows God’s love for us in that, at the right time, Jesus died for the ungodly (that’s us).” (Romans 5:6)
In Jesus we are reminded that God was willing to become vulnerable to our suffering. This God suffers with us and understands our suffering. This symbol of suffering as a symbol of salvation is difficult to understand, but a God who doesn’t suffer with us isn’t much help to us, frankly. It is this God who loves the world and has the power to save us!
When my wife and I were quite young, we took our camping gear and made a tour of Virginia. We pitched our tent at Virginia Beach. On a Sunday when we were packing up our little car to go home, we decided to attend worship at the campground. We met an older couple there. They were smartly dressed in white slacks and matching polo shirts. We started a conversation and the woman said, “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
After the service they invited us to stop by their RV for coffee. We found their “campsite” and their massive Recreation Vehicle. They had poodle with toenails painted pink and a matching bow in her fur. They gave us coffee and toast and we shared our faith stories. The woman said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve met you before but I can’t imagine where.” Kathryn and I had nothing in common with this couple. We were young and poor. Our clothes smelled of last night’s campfire and I felt a little embarrassed, but the older couple was gracious.
As we were leaving the woman came out of the RV to bring us a jar of honey as a gift. She said, “Oh I know where I met you before. We met at the foot of the cross.”
To find salvation we must bring our own vulnerabilities to this one who came from God. We were there at the cross and we do find ourselves in the stories of Holy Week. We were there when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” And we turned to the others and asked, “Is it I?” knowing full well the possibility of our betrayal. We were there with Caiaphas defending the status quo at all costs. We washed our hands with Pilate to rid ourselves of guilt and responsibility. We warmed our selves by the fire with Peter and refused to honor our faith. We were there at the cross when the Savior said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”