April 1, 2018 Sermon

 

Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 Lectionary B

ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr., Rector                                             Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

 

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

What are we to believe?

 

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit that we might encounter the risen Lord, Jesus Christ even now, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

Some of you may remember a story I told from some years ago.  Emily and I were still living in Montgomery, AL then.  We were just getting ready for bed when the phone rang.  This was in the days before caller ID and cell phones.  I picked up the phone to hear my brother’s voice say, “Clark, Bo, who was my first cousin’s husband, Bo has been killed in an automobile accident.  I was dumbfounded.  In fact, I did not believe my brother. Bo was no more than 35 years old—too young to die.  In disbelief I called Bo’s next door neighbor, a friend of ours.  I asked, “Are there a bunch of cars at Bo’s house?” This was after 10 PM. The response was an unequivocal yes.  Bo had indeed been killed in a car accident.

 

Some five or better years later during our first year in seminary Emily and I received a phone call from my mother around 11:30 PM.  “Clark, she said, there is something terribly wrong with Sally, our sister-in-law.  Pray for Sally.”  Not knowing what was wrong, Emily and I were not sure how to pray.  Thirty minutes later the phone would again ring. This time my mother said, “Clark, Sally has died.”  It is perhaps tragically ironic, but unlike when my brother called to say Bo had died, I did not believe him, but I had no trouble believing that my brother’s wife, Sally, had died at the young age of 43.

 

A seminary friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a copy of a letter his son, a junior in high school, had received from Harvard University.  The letter began, “Dear Mr. Purdue, have you ever consider going to Harvard?”  Harvard, of course, is one of the premiere universities in the country if not the world.  Who would have ever believed that they would actually go looking for a student when they turn down so many?

 

And of a more distant history what about this story to challenge our capacity for believing?  March 30, 1858: Episcopal minister Dudley Tyne, burdened for the salvation of husbands and fathers, spoke to a rally of 5,000 men in Philadelphia. “I would rather this right arm were amputated at the trunk than that I should come short of my duty to you in delivering God’s message,” he said. Over 1,000 men were converted. Two weeks later, Tyne lost his right arm in a farming accident, and he died soon after. His last words, “Stand up for Jesus,” inspired the hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”

 

What are we to believe?  In today’s pluralistic culture where there is no truth, every truth, and fake news indeed what are we to believe?  Science tells us one thing.  A certain political group tells another.  One religion says it is their way and another that it is their way.  What are we to believe?  That question may never be more pertinent than on Easter when we celebrate the presumed resurrection of a man named Jesus—dead for three days.

Most of us know something about when a creature is dead.  You hunters are used to seeing the carcass of a deer for example.  In the low country, we are used to seeing plenty of road-kill with their accompanying buzzard fan club.  Dead is dead and if it has been lying around in the heat for three days it not only is dead, it also stinks.  It has begun to decompose no less than the food we eat when it has exceeded its expiration date.  Dead is dead, or is it?

 

This is what the resurrection of Jesus would have us answer.  Is dead necessarily dead?  Is it? Based on our education and upbringing we have been taught to evaluate whether something is real (has happened) or not based on certain criteria or values.  The most obvious of these are touch, sight, and hearing and then comes smell and taste.  If we encounter any stimulus through those senses we are inclined to say that something is real; that it has happened; that it exists.

 

Reason is another means by which we evaluate whether something is real or exists.  Whereas we know that most birds can fly, if I told you rocks can, you would not believe me unless I told you someone had thrown a rock.  It just does not make sense; it defies reason that a rock can fly.  You and I cannot fly unless we are in a plane or are attached to some other flying device.

 

The five senses and reason are the primary means by which we ascertain the truth and reality of anything.  Science, of course, has extended those means by the use of mathematics and technology.  If a thing cannot be ascertained by the senses, reason, or science, then it is not real.  It does not exist, and could not have happened, right?

 

There is also another means of perception called hermeneutic.  It is the interpretive grid we apply to the world around us, otherwise known as worldview.  Some folk see this as a matter of attitude, as in the glass is half full or half empty.  Others hold certain assumptions to be true about the world in which we live—a philosophy if you will.  It is always darkest before the dawn.   Sometimes this means of perception is called prejudice, meaning prejudged.  Being prejudiced doesn’t only apply to racial relations. We can be prejudiced against a certain football team, for example, and then are shocked when they do something impressive.  In fact, because of our prejudice towards that team, we may even discount its accomplishments.  Just dumb luck, we may say.

Also, as a matter of perception, we might ask whether something is to be taken literally or figuratively.  In respect to the resurrection of Jesus we might ask whether it was a literal event or whether it is to be taken figuratively.  Some might say it is symbolic—symbolic of new life, a springtime kind of thing, new growth and all.  So, as we can see or cannot see (now that we have acknowledged that the word “see” has so many different levels), seeing may not be as simple as we thought.  Similarly, knowing what is real or not, or happened or not, can likewise be a challenge.

 

So, in respect to the resurrection of Jesus, which is the cardinal belief of the Christian faith, we bring this bundle of perception tools.  And, if we can be honest with ourselves, we might be able to identify what our preferred tool of perception is and ask ourselves, “What is our hermeneutic or interpretive grid?”  “Are we prejudiced in some way toward the resurrection?”  Does our attitude affect our judgment?  Do I take a scientific approach to the resurrection, requiring some kind of measurable proof?   Is not science the ultimate authority on what is real, what exists, what happened?

 

The famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, recently died. He had a brilliant scientific mind, and his research focused on the deep complexities of cosmology. He will be remembered for advancing a new model of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, showing that space and time are infinite. Hawking will also remain infamous for saying, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”  If science is your god, your interpretive grid, then there is no god, no hereafter, and certainly no resurrection.

 

One of Hawking’s distinguished, English countrymen, Dr. Alister McGrath, brilliant in his own right, has made this contravening observation.   “The starting point for any sensible thinking about God is to realize that the human mind just isn’t big enough to cope with such a concept. It’s like trying to pack the Alps into a suitcase or the Niagara Falls into a coffee mug. How can the little word ‘God’ do justice to the magnificent reality to which it points? We can no more reduce God to words than we can take hold of the smoke of a candle that’s just been blown out, or capture sunbeams in a glass jar.    “

 

In other words, we can’t comprehend God — human reason is simply not capable of grasping God in full. It may try to prove and to define things about God, only to discover that what it has defined and proved bears little relationship to the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ So while it’s great fun to explore human ideas about God, in the end we need to pay God the ultimate compliment. You tell us who you are! You tell us what you’re like! You approach us” (The Living God: A Guide for Study and Devotion. Westminster John Knox, 2014, 2-3).

 

In this morning’s gospel from St. Mark perhaps it caught your attention that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome did not see the resurrected Jesus.  We heard, “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

 

These women did not; they did not see the resurrected Jesus.  If we were to turn to page 929 of the pew Bible and look at the bottom of the page for the line identified as “q”, we could read the following.  “Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book of Mark to a close at the end of verse 8.” It reads “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  They saw no resurrected Jesus.  What are we to make of that?  Is it all a myth—this resurrection?

 

During the Second World War, an 18-year-old German named Jürgen Moltmann was drafted to serve in Hitler’s army. Assigned to an anti-aircraft battery, he experienced the horror of watching fellow soldiers being incinerated in fire-bombings. After surrendering to the British, he spent three years in prison camps, and saw how other German prisoners “collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, become sick for the lack of it, some of them dying.”

 

Moltmann had not grown up as a Christian, but an American chaplain gave him an Army-issue New Testament and book of Psalms, signed by President Roosevelt.  He read the Psalms and found something he desperately needed: hope. He became convinced that God was present with him, “even behind the barbed wire.” After being transferred to a camp run by the YMCA, Moltmann learned Christian beliefs, and experienced the love and the acceptance of the local population. They “treated me better than the German army,” he told journalist Philip Yancey.

 

Jürgen Moltmann found new life in Christianity after seeing only death in the Second World War. The gospel was life-giving good news for him, and there’s more. The risen Christ was moving ahead of Moltmann. After the war, Moltmann became a Christian theologian and focused on the ideas that God is present with us in our suffering, and that God is leading us to a better future.  Easter Sunday is the beginning of the “laughter of the redeemed,” he says; it is “God’s protest against death.”  If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, how was it possible that Jürgen Moltmann had encountered Him, knowing His presence?

 

The author and theologian, Frederick Buechner, makes this observation about the resurrection.  “One of the earliest references to the Resurrection is Saint Paul’s, and he makes no mention of an empty tomb at all. But the fact of the matter is, that in a way, it hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing because in the last analysis, what convinced the people that he had risen from the dead was not the absence of his corpse but his living presence. And so it has been ever since” (The Faces Of Jesus.New York: Harper&Row, 1989, 219-20).

 

You see, it’s very possible that Mark intentionally wrote the un-amended version of Jesus’ resurrection, known as the Short Ending account, in order to be interactive. The frustrating, hanging ending that has the angel telling the hopeful disciples, “He has gone before you into Galilee,” can be seen as an invitation to each of us to write our own ending; see the resurrected Christ for ourselves. We do so by deciding to follow Jesus, and seeing where He leads us.  In other words, Mark had so much confidence in the resurrection and the continued, abiding presence of Jesus, that Mark was willing to allow us to have that encounter with the risen Jesus ourselves, just as Jürgen Moltmann had.  Do you hear what I am saying?  Do you hear what I am saying?

 

Coming to faith in Jesus does not start by believing in the resurrection.   Coming to faith in Jesus starts with relationship, your and my relationship with Jesus. Whatever bundle of perception tools (our senses, our reason, our hermeneutic, our prejudgments, or science) that we may bring with us, believing in the resurrection comes not through them but through a relationship with Jesus.  Ultimately, the reality of anything is affirmed in our hearts. We have all heard the expression our heart tells us one thing and our head another.  So I am not asking you to believe in the resurrection today, rather I am asking you to have a relationship with Jesus, He who is risen from the dead.

 

As you know, the Rev. Billy Graham recently died.  Rick Warren, well-known author and pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County recently wrote this about Graham.   “Part of Graham’s brilliance was that he understood how to throw the net.  A lot of great preachers don’t. They preach really great sermons (not to suggest that mine is) but they don’t know how to call for commitment.  It takes courage to stand up there and say, “Will you do this?” And then, just wait. I watched Graham do this for years” (CT p36. April 2018).

 

Using the words of Billy Graham I am going to do something very un-Episcopalian this morning, quoting Graham now, his words, “I am going to ask you to do something  . . . I’m going to ask you to say, ‘I do want my life to change.  I want to be certain that when I die I’ll go to heaven.’ I’m going to ask you to come (up to this altar rail) and make this decision.  Make certain that you know Christ as your Lord and Saviour.  You may want to re-dedicate your life.  You come.”  Come now.  I’ll wait. We’ll wait.  There’s no hurry.  Come as you are.