Monday, April 17, 2017

Gardeners in the New Creation: An Easter Sermon

John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Good morning, and Happy Easter to you all! It is indeed a joy to share with you in celebration of the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is a holy season of beauty, light, and gladness. All around us it seems that creation too is sharing in our celebration.

Just as we once again sing our Alleluias and our Easter hymns, so the birds sing their songs. We are swept up together with them in rejoicing. The Hebrew poem, The Song of Songs, from Holy Scripture says it like this,

Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away; for now the winter is past,   the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth;   the time of singing has come,and the voice of the turtle-dove   is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs,   and the vines are in blossom;   they give forth fragrance.Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away.

It woos us does it not? After the sometimes dreary winter months here in New York, the return of warm weather, sun, and green grass, as well as the blooming of flowers does indeed feel like a kind of resurrection. To me, each spring is a miracle, a gift, and the promise that God has not given up on the world. He restores it every year and each time he dazzles us with beauty.

We eagerly await its signs, and look for them. Like that lonely crocus that pokes its head up from the ground, amidst snow flurries in the middle of March or like the robin that suddenly appears in our back yard. They are promises that spring is coming! It will soon be here! Likewise Jesus burst fourth from his tomb in the midst of our dying world oppressed by the long winter of sin. His resurrection is a promise of a new creation, a restored Earth.

Jesus is making all things new. He is fixing what has been broken and misshapen by sin and death. He is setting us—and all creation—free from our bondage. He is bringing the joy of spring to our dreary winter. What signs does Saint John give us in this morning’s gospel of this coming new creation—of it indeed having already arrived in our midst?

The first sign given is simply the opening words of our reading, “Early on the first day of the week…”

In the Biblical story of creation, God fashions the world in seven days. On the seventh day, the Sabbath day, he rested from his labors. He commanded that his people also rest on that day. It is a day set aside to restore the soul, to restore relationship with God. It is a day of recreation. Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, is the first day of a new week, the first day of a new creation. All things are made new on this day. There is a beautiful hymn that captures this well:

Morning has broken like the first morningBlackbird has spoken like the first birdPraise for the singingPraise for the morningPraise for them springing fresh from the world Mine is the sunlightMine is the morningBorn of the one light Eden saw playPraise with elation, praise ev'ry morningGod's recreation of the new day

The second sign is the empty tomb. The stone is rolled way, because on this new day, the first day of a new creation, the resurrection of the dead has begun. The Jewish people, and the party of the Pharisees in particular, believed that when the messiah came he would restore all things and the righteous dead would be raised to share in the new age.

Long ago the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed,

“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead.” He is the first among many brothers and sisters. Where he goes we will follow.  There is a sequence of events as scripture describes the resurrection of the dead, first Christ, then at his coming again those who belong to him, and then the final consummation when all creation will be made new. 

Saint John gives us yet another sign that the new creation has begun. This new day, like the first day, begins in a garden. When our risen Lord first appeared to Mary, in her grief, she did not yet recognize him, but thought he was the gardener. She was of course mistaken, but in another sense Jesus really is a gardener. This was how Jesus chose to be perceived by her.  He is a gardener in the sense that Adam was a gardener when he was made a steward of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus is the steward of a new and better creation. He is a new Adam, a fresh start for the human race.

The first commandment given to the human race was to tend and keep-serve and protect—the beautiful garden that God gave them for their home. Human beings are unique among God’s creatures as gardeners. We plant and we grow, we prune, and we cultivate. We continue God’s project of creation. We take what he has given us and we care for it, we nurture it, we multiply, and beautify it.

When human beings are participating with God in creation as wise stewards we are at our best, but Adam has fallen down on the job. Instead of caring for creation he has abused and misused it. Instead of making the world a more beautiful place we have paved paradise and put up a parking lot! Creation has been dragged down with us into corruption and bondage.Christ has come to repair what Adam ruined. He has come to pull up the weeds and irrigate the dryness. To cut off the dead branches and graft in new and healthy vines. 

When Mary recognizes Jesus for who he is, she clings to his feet, she never wants to let him go. Again, the Song of Songs says,

“When I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.”

But Jesus tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” And earlier he had told his disciples, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper—the Holy Spirit—will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”

She must not hold him to the earth! It is not yet the end, when Christ will return to take his bride—the people of God—to himself. The day of the final consummation has not yet come. The new creation has begun but it is not yet finished. We have a job to do!

Just as Adam was made a partner with God in creation, so are we made partners with Christ in the new creation. He sends us his spirit to remake us after his own likeness. He gives us his spirit so that we too can share in the redemption of the world, so that we can become with him wise stewards, gardeners in the new creation, bringing beauty and truth to a world that has far too little of either.

Just as Jesus sent Mary to tell his brothers and sisters the good news, so he sends us. We are to announce to them, “Arise, winter is now past and the spring has come! Flowers appear on the earth. Now is the time for singing!” Let our joy be so contagious that all creation is swept up in our songs of praise!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What Does God Think of Death?

John 11:1-45

What does God think of death? It is clear from Holy Scripture that death is not part of God’s ultimate plan for his creation. Scripture depicts death as an enemy with which God struggles and is in conflict, a malicious weed that he must pluck from his garden. When it speaks of the New Heavens and the New Earth, the goal of God’s creation project—the world as it will be when God finally has his way—it says, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away.”

Our lesson from the Gospel of John is helpful in giving us a  theology of death. It tells the story of a man named Lazarus, who has taken seriously ill. Jesus was a close friend of Lazarus and his sister Martha and Mary as well. He was often a guest in their home, and appears to have genuine affection for them, which is why it is so perplexing that he reacts the way that he does. Even after hearing about Lazarus’ grave illness, he remains where he is.  He tells the messengers, “This illness does not lead to death.”

One explanation of Jesus’ behavior would be that he was simply tragically mistaken. Perhaps he did not realize the severity of the situation. I don’t think that is the case. He seems to be acting with deliberate intention. He waits a couple of days until Lazarus is dead. Did Jesus want Lazarus to die? Of course, not, he loved him. Did he directly cause his death?  No, but he did allow it. He did not intervene when he could have. He knew that he was going to raise him to life which is why he said, “this illness does not end in death.” He allows it in order that “the Son of Man might be glorified through it.”

The first thing I want to say about what this passage teaches us about death is that, although God is not the direct cause and creator of death, he allows it in order that his purposes might be achieved through it. God does not delight in death. He intends to destroy it once and for all, and yet, penultimately this very enemy is the servant of God.  How so?

First, death can be the executor of judgment. The scriptures say, the wages of sin is death. The presence of death lets us know that all is not right with the world. The scriptures also speak continually of death as setting a limit on the human sinfulness. How would humans—sinful as we are—behave without those limitations?
Secondly, death has a necessary and vital role in the God’s creation. Death is the bedrock of the food chain. Other creatures grow and develop because others die. Forests grow tall and strong because other life forms decay and fertilize the ground. Even your ability to hear and see this sermon is dependent on the ongoing death of millions of perfectly healthy cells in your body. And yet all these arguments for the utility and the necessity of death does not change the fact that the presence of death in creation is also a source of continual pain, sorrow, and suffering for us. It is still an enemy.

Finally, Just as God uses death as the generator and preserver of life in natural world, so also God uses death as the means through which he gives us eternal life. More on that later, but at the moment let it suffice to say that God uses Lazarus’ death to demonstrate the fact that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life.

The next thing I want to say about what this passage teaches us about death is that God is grieved with us over the pain and sorrow that death brings. When Jesus finally arrives on the scene Martha and Mary are happy to see him, but they are also confused, and a bit angry. The first thing they say to him is, “Lord if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.”

 Jesus consoles Martha by telling her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Even though Martha does not understand what he is about to do, she believes that Lazarus really will rise again on the last day, but she is still grieved.

Sometimes we try to be super spiritual and resist grief by saying that our loved ones are in a better place or that they will rise again. All of this is true, but grief at times like this is still appropriate
. We grieve, just as Martha did, not because we are without hope in the resurrection, but rather because it is hard to say goodbye to those we love. Grief is not unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. When Jesus was brought to the grave of his friend Lazarus, he too wept. In doing so, he sanctified our own grief over the death of those we love.

Jesus wept even knowing that Lazarus would rise from the dead. His grief was in recognition that all is not yet right with the world, the presence of death continues to mar God’s good creation.  The gospel of John tells us that he was “deeply moved and troubled.” Our English translations just do not get at the heart of what the text actually says though. The word John uses actually means to snort like a bull ready to charge. Some have suggested a better way to translate what Jesus is feeling is to say he was angry in spirit and deeply agitated. He was mad! Mad at death!

Jesus stares death down and says, “I’m coming for you!” And as if to say to death, “you have no power over me,” he calls out “Lazarus, come out!” and the man who had been dead four days walks out alive.

This brings us to the final point I want to make about what this passage teaches us about death; Jesus has power over death. He is the resurrection and the life. He demonstrates his authority over death by raising Lazarus from the tomb.  However, this was only the sneak preview. It is sort of like the trash talk before the big match. Although Lazarus is raised from the dead, he will still die again. The final battle will be fought on the cross at Calvary

God allows death for his own purposes, but he doesn’t stand far off as we suffer its effect. He isn’t afraid to take his own medicine. In Christ, God suffers and dies with us.  Ironically it is through Jesus’ own death on the cross that the power of death is broken. In going down to death and rising again, Jesus breaks its bonds and sets us free. Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

Death is an enemy but it is a defeated enemy. We need not fear its power. We wait in expectation for its final destruction and the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps no one expresses this more eloquently than the Anglican priest and poet, John Donne. I want to end by reading one of his sonnets. 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.