Early One Morning (3/27/16)

easter_cross.fwA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: John 20:1-18

She showed up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. She was alone. What was she doing there? What had drawn her to the burial ground in the gloom of a barely emerging dawn? The other gospel versions of this story say that it’s a group of women that shows up very early on Easter morning. The tradition suggests that these women come to finish preparing the body for its final resting place. There was simply not enough time between his death on that Friday afternoon and the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. He was hastily placed in the tomb without the proper anointing, so these women arrived at the tomb at their first opportunity to finish their work.

But in John’s account Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken care of the burial. At great risk to fortune and reputation they have claimed the body and buried it properly. John writes, “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 38-42). Under the cover of growing darkness they had cared as best they could for this one who was so cruelly and wrongly executed. It was finished – or so it seemed.

So here Mary is, all alone, in the fading darkness of the early morning. Why is she there? The text does not say for certain but I assume she has come to grieve. Graveside grieving is not for everyone, but some find comfort in being near the burial site of a lost loved one. And I believe Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. He was crucial to her life, her faith, her sense of well-being. His death is devastating for her. Somehow mourning is more meaningful for her in the cool, dark, damp of early morning in the graveyard.

Here in the lessening shadows she is searching for something – a quiet, private place to shed her tears, away from the confused and grieving company of his followers? Answers to her own questions? A bit of solace? There is no sense that she, or the others, expect what is to come. Her repeated concern makes this clear. “They have taken away my friend, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She assumes that the body has been moved for political purposes or by body-snatchers or for some other mysterious reason. No thoughts of resurrection are apparent for her, Peter or “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” I know the text says the latter disciple “saw and believed,” but I take this to mean that he saw and believed that body was indeed missing. He had no more idea what was happening than Mary did.

Once more we find Mary alone, still pained and confused in her sorrow in the waning darkness in front of the open, empty tomb. Suddenly a shadowy figure appears in the garden. She assumes it is the gardener, and why not? In the dim light of a breaking dawn, who else would show up to begin his day’s work? Through her red and swollen eyes, with a downcast gaze, not expecting anyone else, least of also Jesus, she makes a logical assumption. She sees a stranger. The truth does not dawn on her until he gently calls her by name. “Mary.” The half-darkness may still surround her but something blazes deep inside her as it never has before. Here is the living Christ, calling her by name. As he calls out her name, she begins to see that even in her grief and confusion, she is not alone. She never really was. She never will be. This is a great truth of learning to walk in the dark, we are never alone. The Holy One, God’s Steadfast Love, goes with us every step of the way.

We want to celebrate Easter with voices raised, instruments blaring, flowers in full bloom and hearty alleluias. There is nothing wrong with Easter joy, but in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that resurrection actually happens in the dark. In today’s Words of Preparation, she writes that “By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection.  Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.” She says, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.” I will confess that I had never really thought of resurrection this way.

She continues, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p.  ).  ”Now the green blade rises from the buried grain…”

Mary is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. “My God, how could you let this happen? Why have you forsaken me?” Neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. “What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him?” It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That lack of awareness may still be too true today.

My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows. She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church). On this Easter morning, what, if anything, might rob you of the energy to exercise your own resurrection power?

Most of the time we live in what Melanie May calls the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday,” somewhere between the deep and terrifying darkness of Good Friday and the brilliantly overwhelming sunshine of Easter. Because of this, she says we have to learn to “practice resurrection.” I’m assuming this something very much like learning to walk in the dark or claiming our resurrection power. Consciously or not we wrestle with death and its equivalents – addiction, violence, illness, the burdens of existence. Practicing resurrection, learning to walk in the dark, claiming our power, entails a recognition that there is life-giving energy beyond anything we ever imagined, that there is resurrection power in all creation, that, somewhere out there, God, in Jesus, the Risen Christ is gently calling our names – yours and mine. Do you have eyes to see? Ears to hear? Hearts to open?

Here’s the resurrection reality. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced a Living Christ. We can speculate all we want on what exactly that meant for them and what it means for us. But, whatever happened in the early morning darkness that first Easter changed Mary’s life, transformed the lives of us Jesus’ first disciples and ushered in the new creation, God’s beloved Community, here on earth as in heaven. At times, we may have difficulty seeing, hearing, holding onto our resurrection power.  In our current context, with so much distrust, hatred and evil, we may not recognize Jesus at first, but he is there in all that claim the promise of abundant life offered to each of us and, indeed, the whole creation. He is present in all who serve and seek to do God’s will. He can be seen wherever compassion is practiced and love made manifest. If you’ve been there for one of the least, you’ve been there for him. We may live for now in the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday;” there may be times we come to the tomb alone and heart-broken; there will be days when it’s hard to believe our eyes, but, early one morning, we will find the transformation complete. We will know that God has gone with us all along the way. There will be singing and dancing and shouts of “Alleluia!” Since we know that day has both come and continues to come, we might as well practice resurrection today, right here and right now. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Amen.

This Sunday

On our journey through the darkness of the Lenten season we come this Sunday to the remarkables conversion of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road. In his miraculous encounter with the living Christ, he is struck temporarily blind. He must learn to walk in his own uniqueness darkness until he can complete his own transformation into a new creature in Christ. But the good news is that he does not have to walk this road alone. Reluctant as he may be initially to make a witness to the fire-breathing Saul of Tarsus, Ananias follows God’s lead into the darkness of this unfamiliar and frightening relationship. As their roads converge, Paul, with the aid of Ananias, begins to craft a new perspective on the faith that will change the world.

I am delighted that Greg Griffey has agreed to preach this Sunday. Greg, a hospice chaplain with Sutter Health, has been attending our church since the first of the year. Greg is a native of the hills of western Virginia and a graduate of Wake Forest Divinity School. I look forward to his contribution to our Lenten discipline of learning to walk in the dark. Sunday is also an all family service with communion.

We had a very good discussion last Sunday in Adult Spiritual Formation, so we decided to continue exploring our Lenten study book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Tayor. You are welcome to join us.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

 

Learning to walk in the dark

Jacob wrestling with the angelOur Lenten exercise of learning to walk in the dark continues. Last week we focused on Jacob’s dream of the liminal space between heaven and earth. Here we heard God blessing this child who is really something of a scoundrel. Though Jacob clearly doesn’t understand what God is offering, God keeps God’s promise to stick by Jacob and bring him home. In this week’s text, Jacob is older; how much wiser remains to be seen. On his way home, about to to confront his brother, Esau, Jacob has another great dream. This time he spends the whole night wrestling with God. The net result is a limp and a promise. God renews God’s desire to bless Jacob and his offspring. Jacob – “usurper,” “schemer,” leaves the encounter with a new name “Israel” – “God rules.

Have you ever wrestled with God? Have you ever felt like you wanted to? It is no easy encounter and only occurs when God comes near enough to take us on. As we learn to walk in the dark, will we welcome night visitors, those who come to challenge us and to bless us? It may be that either will entail effort on our part.

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will take more time to consider our Lenten study book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Tayor.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Dreams and Night Musings…

LentThis week’s Lenten theme is “Dreams and Night Musings.” The focus text is Jacob’s dream of angels descending and ascending. Jacob is fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, whom he has deceived and generally treated poorly. The Taize commentary on this story suggests that, in this dream, “Going up, the angels carry to God the fear, the guilt feelings and the suffering of Jacob. Going down, they bring to Jacob God’s presence, God’s words and promise.” Learning to walk in the dark may mean letting go of our fears and trusting God’s love and care for us and for all creation.

We are privileged to have in our sanctuary in this Lenten season a stunning work of art, “Colors of Hope,” from the art and spirituality program in the Santa Clara County jails. The program says, “The weaving represents the importance of community, the importance of each individual’s contribution to the community and the connections that are necessary.” I believe it adds something unique and beautiful to our worship space. As I did with Sunday’s congregation, I encourage you to sit on the sides so you may take it in more fully and let it enhance your worship experience.

During adult education hour this week, we will hold two events. One will be led by Pastor Gregory and will focus on our Lenten study book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor. At the same time, Carolyn Shepard and I will host a conversation about church membership in the Sunday School room. Several of you should have received invitations to participate in this conversation, though anyone is welcome to participate.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Pastor Gregory Says…

Greg StevensLast week was full of birthdays and brew! As you know, Monday was Rick’s birthday, it was great to start out the month and the week celebrating our Pastor. I am so very thankful for his life, leadership, and liturgy! Thank you to everyone who shared in celebrating Rick’s birthday. The second half of the week was marked by Homebrewed Christianity podcasts. Dan Cudworth, Rick, and I traveled up to Berkeley for a live podcast recording on Thursday night. The next night we hosted our own gathering here in the Youth Room. Chip Clark and Greg Griffey joined the hilarity, along with community members and podcast listeners alike. It was another great week of networking and nurturing relationships! I’m now picking up our Lenten book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, hopefully you’ll join us in the reading journey.

Gregory