Saturday, March 26, 2016

What the Women Could Not Do

Luke 23:54-24:12
Easter Sunday
March 27, 2016
William G. Carter

It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Happy Easter, church! This is our big day. The music is big, the message is big, the crowds are big. This is the day when God did something never done before. A man crucified as a political criminal of the empire and a religious outcast from Jerusalem was raised from the dead. It turned everything upside down and jump-started the movement that we call “church.”

I was thinking of that at 6:00 this morning, when my wife kissed me goodbye and drove off to play the organ at a sunrise service in the Lackawanna Valley. Only Easter is a big enough day to get some Presbyterians out of bed before dawn – and then to celebrate it with balloons and organ music. I wished her well, quietly grateful that we don’t have a sunrise service over here.

But I recall a sunrise service when I was a teenager. The pastor asked our youth group to put together the service, and then asked me as the youth group president to preach. I don’t recall if he was present, but no matter: I was ready to preach. At 6:00 in the morning, I was going to prove the resurrection actually happened to a group of about twenty bleary-eyed Presbyterians.

It was the first of many occasions when I overshot the mark. Of course they believed the resurrection; why else would they pull themselves out of bed, drive to a farmer’s field overlooking the Susquehanna River, and listen to some kid read from 3x5 cards to argue an event from two thousand years ago actually happened. I could have simply honored the fact they were present, that God raised them out of their comfortable beds. But no, I had to insist it was all true – and then one old duffer lingered behind, and said, “So do you really think it’s all true?”

It is an extraordinary announcement that the church has held through the centuries. Jesus is risen, he is alive. To read the story as Luke tells it, it hardly provides any rational proof. Most of the people in the story are going about their lives as Easter happens, and then they are scratching their heads.

We are told the same women who followed Jesus from Galilee wanted to anoint the body of Jesus. He wasn’t properly buried. The work was rushed, because the Sabbath was near. Some of them observed the place where his body was entombed, so they quickly prepared the necessary spices and ointments. Then, as the Law of God declared, they rested for the Sabbath. Jesus was safe in his tomb, they remained in the place where they were staying.

Luke says they got up at “deep dawn.” That’s his description of the time: “deep dawn” (24:1). Just as soon as they could get moving, they hurried to the tomb. And then follows at least seven different things that they could not do (I made a list).

First, they could not move the big boulder in front of the tomb. It seems they are in such a rush, they hadn’t even thought it about it. When they get to his grave, the stone is rolled away. It has been done for them.

Second, they could not anoint the body of their friend. That’s why they went there, after all. For the pious Jew, a graveyard is considered ritually unclean. But they were going to risk it and take on all the purification rituals afterwards, because they loved their friend Jesus. They wanted to offer him one final act of dignity, and they couldn’t do it.

Third, they could not make any sense of this. It was strange, it was odd. He wasn’t there. The linen cloth that had wrapped him was over here by itself. It was confusing, they couldn’t understand it, and then two men – the approved number of witnesses – appeared in dazzling light. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is risen, he is not here. Remember how he told you?”  

Fourth, they could not avoid his promise of resurrection. If they had forgotten, they would not forget it now. It was so strange, so disorienting. These two men, were they angels? Here they are on level ground, beside these women, telling the truth, that Jesus had died but now was risen.

Fifth, the women could not contain the news of what they saw, heard, and remembered. There was no reason to stay among the dead if Jesus was now among the living. So they run back to the place, knock on the door, and blurt out what they knew – Jesus is alive. We saw him die, but now he is alive.

Sixth, they can’t convince the eleven men of anything. He’s alive. What are you talking about? We know he is risen. Did you see him? No. Did you hear him? No. Did you see the moment when he was raised. No. This is an idle tale, they said. Chit-chat. Silly gossip. Empty words. The eleven remaining disciples were not convinced of anything. There is no proof. Faith is not created in others by hitting them over the heads.

Seventh, the women could not stop Peter from checking out the news for himself. In a strange, open-ended move, Peter jumps up, runs to the opened tomb, pokes in his head, risks defilement himself, and sees the linen cloth, but never hears any angels. He wonders what has happened. It is so much bigger than he ever imagined. He doesn’t have it all figured out yet.

The story is a chain reaction of what the women could not do. The women couldn’t move the boulder. They couldn’t anoint their friend’s body. They couldn’t make any sense of the event. They couldn’t avoid his promise. They couldn’t contain the news. They couldn’t convince the others. They couldn’t restrain Peter, restrict or manage the message. That’s because Easter is never really about us. Easter is about God, and what God has done.

Luke has a marvelous way of telling the story. He leaves some holes in it. The story isn’t air-tight. It is not a logical argument that intends to prove everything. No, it’s the discovery that the stone was moved and the burial shroud is not needed. It’s the question, “Why do you look for the Living One among the dead?” It’s the reminder that everything we have seen about God in the words and work of Jesus has brought to the point of affirming that somehow, the words and work of Jesus are going to continue.

What Luke says about Easter is this: there is a Power beyond our own. The God who makes everything brings Jesus alive again. Nobody can shut down what God intends to do. That’s why the first Easter is awkward, unmanageable, so beyond our control. That’s why Luke will not let us reduce the story and dismiss it. He tells us just enough to remind us that something is afoot.

The writer Frederick Buechner tells about some useful advice he received from a ship’s officer on a Bristish freighter. It was night; the ship was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the officer had been peering into the darkness, looking for the lights of other ships. He told Buechner that the way to see lights on the horizon is not to look straight at the horizon, but to look just above it. You can see the lights better, he said, when you do not try to look at them directly. “Since then,” Buecher writes, “I have learned that it is also the way to see other things.”[1]

Luke tells his Easter story in a way that can create faith. He does not try to contain the resurrection and make it manageable. Rather, he points to what is happening in the margins, around the edges: the surprise on the women’s faces, the shock that Jesus did not stay where he was expected to stay, the bewilderment of eleven frightened disciples, and the impulsive reaction of Peter who runs to the tomb in astonished wonder.

God has done something just out of sight – it’s beyond our expectations, it’s beyond our understanding, it’s even beyond the hope of those astonished women and defeated disciples who had walked with Jesus in the days of his ministry. God raised Jesus from the dead.

Do you know what that means? The prophet who spoke the truth is freed from death to keep speaking. The Savior who healed the sick and restored the outcasts is free to keep working. At the point of his death, Jesus was pronounced “innocent” by the centurion who stood beside the cross (23:47); now in his resurrection, he is vindicated by God.  

Easter means that God keeps working in Jesus Christ. Where there is death, he brings life. Where there is sorrow, he brings joy. It always happens around the edges; rarely when we expect or demand it – and suddenly, life happens again.

So happy Easter, church! This is the day when everything we believe about God is confirmed and enlarged. This is the day that announces it’s OK to still be figuring out your faith, it’s OK to ask big questions, and it’s OK to have big questions asked of you, such as, “Why you are looking for the living among the dead?”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The End is Life,” The Magnificent Defeat (New York: HarperCollins, 1966 )79-80.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Missing the Moment

Luke 22:24-27
Maundy Thursday
March 24, 2015
William G. Carter

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Here’s one of the wonderful characteristics of scripture: it doesn’t sugar-coat the people who say they love Jesus. Oh no, we get to see them as they are. Even a passage like this, written down some forty or fifty years after the Last Supper – there is no hesitation in describing the twelve disciples just like they are.

Luke says, “A dispute arose among them…” Actually that’s a polite translation of a more contentious word. In Greek, the word is much harsher. Other translations say “they bickered,” or they were contentious. One scholar says they had “an invidious dispute.”

I had to look up the word “invidious” to see if was as bad as it sounded. It was. The dictionary says, “calculated to create ill will or resentment.” “Discriminating.” “Provoking animosity.” “Hateful.” “With a deliberate purpose of inspiring envy.”

Get the picture? It’s when brothers and sisters say to one another, “Momma loves me more.”

A father of twins hears it all the time. “I want to sit in the front seat.” “Well, you sat in the front seat last time.” “It’s my turn.” “But Momma loves me more.”

That’s what the twelve children of Jesus are doing at the final Passover meal, following the four glasses of wine. They are posturing among themselves. They are poking one another with forks. They are looking over their shoulders to see if he’s noticing. And these are the people who have been following Jesus to the end.

It’s embarrassing to think Christians might act like this. Where do you sit? Who do you know? Do you have the inside track on gossip? Do you make the most conspicuous gift? Do you get noticed? Do you get all the attention you so desperately crave? This is how they are when their bellies are full with the bread and wine. It’s almost unbelievable…except that the sin of competitiveness is highly contagious.

Years ago, in my first church, I encountered an unusual situation that has never been repeated. Two of my church members were roommates in the same hospital. With all the various choices in health care, it was a bit unusual. Two people from the same church, in the same hospital room, side by side. Now, you would think they would be singing together, praying together, supporting one another.

Well, I stopped in to say hello. I had received the room number of one of them and discovered the other was there. They didn’t know one another, until they realized they had me in common. I said hello to both of them. I chatted with both of them, prayed with both of them. As I’m walking out of the room, I overhear one say, “Well, I think he was here to see me.”

The other said, “Well, I’m sicker than you are.”

The first said, “But I’m sure my wife called him first…”

“Yes, but I’ve known him a lot longer…”

And I’m only a pastor. I wonder what the Lord has to put up with when he listens to our prayers.

Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” As one of his final teachings before his arrest, he gives us the  model for the Christian life. It’s not about competition or comparison. It’s not about getting ahead or even getting what we want. The Christian life is about imitating Jesus. It’s about becoming like him in his self-giving love. And it takes a while for this to sink in. Even then, we must return to the posture of a servant over and over again.

Sometimes life itself is the teacher. Maybe you heard that a tabloid reporter found David Letterman on an island beach the other day. He has a full beard, and he’s lost more hair on top. Since retiring as a late night talk show host for thirty years, he’s gained perspective on his work.

“I never realized how insignificant my job really was,” Letterman confessed, “no doubt reinforced by a revolving door of self-important celebrities. You believe what you are doing is of great importance and that is affecting (human)kind. And then when you get out of it you realize, that wasn’t true at all. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and realized I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.”[1]

As we hear the story of Jesus and his passion tonight, we hear of a Savior who had every reason to claim equality with God, yet he sets that aside and empties himself, taking the form of a servant. To follow him to the cross, and beyond, is to follow him as servants, servants of God and servants of one another.  An over-inflated ego will misguide any of us, and we will miss the moment.

For here is the Christ who gives us his body, who pours out his blood. And he does it so that we might follow him each day and night, giving our lives for the healing of a broken world, ever announcing that his kingdom is at hand.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Visiting Hours Are Over

Luke 19:29-44
Palm Sunday
March 20, 2016
William G. Carter

As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

If you stick around the hospital late enough at night, you may hear the ominous voice: “Visiting Hours Are Over.” It is meant as a gentle reminder that patients need their rest, and that nobody gets healed by conversation alone.  The few times in recent years when I have been a hospital patient, the announcement has sometimes come as a helpful reprieve. Even those who love us might stay too long.

The voice intrudes to say the visit is over. There’s a time when all good things must come to an end. No need to linger, for it won’t improve the circumstances anyway. So it’s time to go. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

How curious that Jesus should talk like this as he views the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There lies the city in full splendor. It is gleaming with light. The throngs of Passover pilgrims surge with energy. There is a palpable buzz in the air – and Jesus speaks of the “visitation hour.” It has come to an end. The people have missed it.

Jesus is speaking like a prophet here. God has gone to the people and they pushed him away. It is a plot line repeated many times in the Bible. This time, it causes Jesus to weep over the city. Luke says he is just like the prophet Jeremiah, often called “the weeping prophet.” Jeremiah says:

  • “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my people.” (9:1)
  • “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride.” (13:17)
  • “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for (my people are) struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound.” (14:17)
This is how the prophet Jeremiah spoke about God coming to his own people and they reject him. And when Jesus sees the holy city, he has a clear view of how it is going to go for him and his people, too. Luke reports that Jesus erupts into tears. Then he announces, “The days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

Most of us might find this a harsh word for Palm Sunday. It’s not what we expect when there are sweet hosannas in the air, words of blessing from the book of Psalms, and children singing. As you would expect, even the stones are hollering out! This is supposed to be the day of exuberant affirmation, where everybody rejoices in a major key as Jesus rides on in majesty. And while all this excitement swirls in the air, the Gospel of Luke reminds us there is something else going on.

That is the nature of holy moments, after all. There is more going on than anybody can perceive. If God is present, some will get it, some will not. I recall a moment in another Gospel; God speaks, some thought it was an angel, some believed it was thunder, and others didn’t know what it was.[1] Not everybody is given the eyes to see or the ears to hear.

Our Gospel story is full of such conflicted disagreements. A large crowd of pilgrims shout praises, and the religious leaders tell them to be quiet. The disciples sing of peace, and Jesus says, “You don’t know what makes for peace.” Jesus himself affirms the joyful noise of the moment, declaring “if these were silent, even the stones would cry out.” But then he goes around a bend in the road, sees the city, and breaks into sobs of heart-broken grief.

It’s this tension that is so instructive. It cannot be reduced. It cannot be smoothed out easily.

I remember an old preacher confessing that he wouldn’t let his congregation sing any happy songs on Palm Sunday. What?! We couldn’t believe it. No “Glory, Laud, and Honor”? No “sweet hosannas” ringing? “Not any more,” he said. “The people in my church don’t come to Holy Week services any more. They skip communion on Maundy Thursday and the Passion story on Good Friday. So the accumulated effect moved from rejoicing on Palm Sunday to rejoicing on Easter. They sang resurrection on Easter but never heard Somebody died. That’s part of the story too.”

As Jesus rides into the city, there’s more going on than joyful songs and singing stones. There is also the deep resistance that the human race has to the love of God. “You missed the time,” says Jesus. “The visitation from God is over.”

Maybe that’s a description of who we are. A few years ago, I went to learn from an expert on conflict resolution. At one point, he put his elbow on the podium and said, “Do you know why churches can be so full of conflict and damage? It’s because those same churches are all about the work of peace and forgiveness. We hear Christ speak of mercy; it sounds so good, until we are invited to cut a break for somebody else.”

It’s the religious people in Palm Sunday who praise God for Jesus. It’s more religious people who tell Jesus to make them quiet down. To diagnose this doxological schizophrenia, Jesus says, “You missed the time of your visitation.”

I believe he is not talking about those people back then; no, he describing the human condition. We resist the things that can make us well. We know better, but it’s so hard to live as if we know. I remember the radiologist who looked at other people’s lungs every day; he was a chain smoker. Or that sweet lady, so kind and benevolent, and she was the biggest gossip in town. Or the police officer who broke up bar fights; he went home and couldn’t restrain his temper. Or the man who ran for office so he could serve his community and, well, you can guess what happened to him.

We know better, but we don’t know. We know the things that make for peace, but we are incapable of making peace.

So here’s the thing: none of this is a surprise for Jesus. He knows how people can be. He knows what resistance God has faced time and time again. He knows what lies ahead of him in Jerusalem. Yet he rides into the city one more time, because this is the way God is. God does not allow our refusal and resistance to call all the shots. God goes up the hill one more time, to see if this time we will receive the surgery our souls so desperately need.

It is profoundly moving to see Jesus make his way into the city. He is not swayed by the happy songs. Nor does he turn aside from the threat of suffering and crucifixion. He goes with a clear eye of where he is going and what he is doing. It took tremendous courage and extraordinary clarity to see us for how we are . . . and to still go into that city.

A theologian named Alan Lewis puts it this way:

In Jesus, God has been enfleshed not as a sovereign but as a servant, emptied of grandeur and privilege, coming among us slavelike and self-abasing, solid in his fellowship with the outcast and defenseless, selfless in his capacity for suffering and pain. Yet it is precisely the innocent one, who comes as a lamb to the slaughter, not opening his mouth in self-defense let alone retaliation, who provokes our violence and contradiction, our intolerance and hatred, and our thirst for blood. The gentle embodiment of God’s own love proves intolerable to the human objects of that love… Thus by the cross of Jesus the truth about us is smoked out; we are unmasked.[2] 

It is then, on the cross, that Luke overhears Jesus to say, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”[3]  You know, our lives depend on the answer of that request.

Palm Sunday is about the passion of Christ and the perseverance of God. Our Lord goes right into the city that will reject him and put him on the cross. Do you know why he does it? Because he believes every last one of us is worthy of the grace and forgiveness of God. It is his courage that saves us.

So when he comes back – and I assure you, Jesus will be back – don’t miss the time of his visitation. Welcome him with open arms. Receive him with an open heart. Extend to him the same grace that he has given to you.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] John 12:28-29
[2] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) 84.
[3] Luke 23:34