Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Encountering the Unexpected," Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017

Community United Methodist Church, Quincy
“Encountering the Unexpected”
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 20: 1-18

        Happy Easter!!  I don’t think we can say it enough; Christ IS Risen!!  HE IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA!!  While we might be enjoying the chocolates, sweet treats, and other goodies we may have sworn off during the forty days of Lent, something special has been happening during that time that has led up to this moment today.  During these last Forty Days, we have journeyed with Jesus through the wilderness of Lent, journeyed with him into Jerusalem, then journeyed with him to the cross.  While Good Friday is a day of darkness and while it may also feel that all hope died along with Jesus on that afternoon, we had to go through it so that we can come to the empty tomb and see that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life, as he is not there.  He’s no longer dead, but he lives just as he promised, whether we expected it or not!! 
Christ is Risen!!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
        For the longest time, it took me quite awhile to fully appreciate the significance of Easter.  In fact, these last five years is where I have really come to appreciate Easter even more, as it is the hope and joy of this day that makes me feel as if the world is alive once again, but also feel a sense of new energy and renewed faith each time Easter rolls around.  And after this long and sometimes unforgiving winter that we have experienced here in the Sierras, I think all of us are ready to see the new life that’s starting to appear around us, thanks to all of this rain and snow, which has surpassed the levels from 1982-83.  While things were lay cold, sometimes gloomy, and dormant during the winter, I always look forward to those first hints of warmth in the air, the longer days, and seeing all the flowers and trees in full bloom.  I’m not sure our allergies like it too much for us with allergies, but it is a wonderful sight that lifts the spirits when we are in the midst of so much beauty around us here in Plumas County.  Even while driving through the Sierra Valley to Reno a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice how many calves are out in the pastures, plus think I saw a couple lambs across the street from the high school when I was walking the bike trail one day.  And as you were on your way to worship here this morning, have you had a chance to look around you and see the new life that is happening, even amidst the lingering winter weather?  Have you been listening to the sound of nature’s symphony ranging from the frogs at night to the birds in the morning and during the day?  In some ways, going through winter has been like going through Good Friday, in which all the trees and grasses appear lifeless until Spring when the world comes alive once again.  And each Spring when I’m out hiking or walking, I always encounter something unexpected along the way in one way or another, usually something wonderful or awe-inspiring. 
        As we just heard in John’s account of Jesus’s resurrection, I invite us to imagine putting ourselves in the shoes of Mary Magdalene on that early morning after the world went dark after the gruesome way that Jesus died on the cross.  Even though it was early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene expected to come to the tomb to weep and grieve the loss of her teacher, savior, and friend.  Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s mother Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus’s sister were among the few to remain with Jesus as he died on the cross, while the other disciples ran away in fear.  Yet when she arrives at the tomb, Mary Magdalene encounters the jarring sight of the stone being rolled away, not sure what to make of it.  Could Jesus’s body been stolen, or moved to another burial site?  Mary’s encounter with the unexpected is startling and could easily lead to jumping to conclusions, so she goes to get a second opinion, running to get Simon Peter and the unnamed, Beloved Disciple who are equally as puzzled and jarred as she is when they arrive at the empty tomb.  But it takes looking inside the empty tomb to defy their expectations; instead of finding a corpse, they find the grave clothes folded and rolled up neatly.  There is nothing in that tomb except the folded linens, at least until the angels, then the risen Jesus appear to Mary after the two disciples leave. 
        However, the Beloved Disciple gets it, as he believes from what Jesus taught earlier, in which Jesus would have to die in order to be resurrected, the same notion of going through Good Friday to get to Easter.  We may not like it, but going through Good Friday is something the disciples had to experience in order to encounter this unexpected sight of the empty tomb, as they too would ultimately encounter the resurrected Jesus amidst their running away in fear.  At the same time, Jesus will remind Mary not to hold on to him, as he is telling her that this is a new day, or like the Fleetwood Mack song goes, “yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Letting go of what was is part of living into the resurrection and new life.  But as Jesus reminded Mary Magdalene, will remind the disciples, and remind us, believing in the resurrection and new life has that kind of power to transform each of us in exciting ways, sometimes in unexpected ways.  
Sometimes encountering the unexpected requires us to go through something we don’t like in order to experience something new, much like going through Good Friday to get to Easter, or letting go of and not holding onto something forever even though some things are not meant to last forever.  Sometimes we have customs and traditions that have run their course, yet we want to hold onto them as long as we can, but then when something happens such as the loss of a family member or someone near and dear moving away, or even simple changes, it can rock our world.  While we might mourn and grieve the loss of traditions and customs like Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” or family patriarch, Sam Krichinsky in the 1990 film “Avalon,” there is always something new that is possible that can happen when we let go, even when it is unexpected.  
Sometimes, we have to die to an old way of life and let go so that we can experience a new sense of self and live our lives to their fullest.  And along the way of that journey we may have various encounters with the unexpected, as sometimes those encounters can be life changing and transforming.  In his book, Renegade Gospel, Rev. Mike Slaughter at Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, OH writes that
Resurrection faith begins with a renewed way of thinking.  Before you can be raised to a new level of life, you have to die to old ways of thinking.  You have to have new life pictures!  This means releasing past assumptions, feelings, and practices.  Resurrection thinking affects every area of our lives.  From our relationships to the way we think about the stewardship of time and financial resources, we must die to old patterns of thinking and be raised to the new.[i]

        Mary sure did not expect to have the encounter that she did with the risen Jesus, as she thought he was someone else until he called her by name.  But when she did encounter this unexpected sight of seeing Jesus again, risen from the dead, her instinct is to hold onto him in which he tells her not to, as he has yet to ascend to God, who is also our God.  Yet she would never be the same after that.  Hopelessness and despair gave way to hope and joy.  And that is part of why we sometimes need to die to old ways, because in order to experience the same joy and the same hope that Mary did on that morning and the same joy and hope the disciples will ultimately experience as they encounter the unexpected when they too see the risen Jesus, we can’t always hold on to what was.  Encountering the unexpected has that kind of power, in which we can see things in a new light.  By rising, Jesus is showing us that death, despair, and hopelessness is not going to have the final say!  Instead of finding her Lord dead and buried, Mary Magdalene ultimately found hope and joy, as Jesus was risen as he had promised earlier.[ii]
        Encountering the unexpected can be life changing for each of us, as it involves a change in perspective.  Professor Karoline Lewis explains that
[Mary Magdalene’s] first-person sermon suggests that she has confidence in her words and now in her true identity because in calling Jesus “Rabbouni” she views herself as a disciple. This is perhaps the oft-overlooked promise of the resurrection -- it alters your perspective on your identity, who God wants you to be in the world, toward what God is calling you to do. All of a sudden you start to trust that who God said you were all this time might actually be true; that God might have something in mind for you that you have not allowed yourself to believe.[iii]

        Encountering the unexpected can help us see ourselves differently, which is wonderful and sometimes scary.  However, encountering the unexpected can be a place where we can have some of our most profound encounters with God just like Mary Magdalene did with the risen Christ.  Look at the way Jesus sends Mary out to tell the rest of the disciples the Good News, that he has risen from the dead, and look at how she tells the disciples everything that she saw.  We see a contrast of emotions in John’s account of the resurrection that begins with weeping, with despair, and hopelessness that turns to unbounded joy and excitement when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ.  She is never the same and the disciples won’t be either when they encounter the risen Jesus in the days that are ahead. 
So, what is it that we expect to encounter on Easter that may be unexpected?  For me, while I may know the story and know what’s going to happen each year, I try to do so as if I’m hearing the story for the first time and trying to ask myself what resurrection means for me personally.  At the same time, I also think about how to live more fully, enjoy life, and how to have a new sense of life when I think about what Jesus’s resurrection means to me.  And I’m sure each of you may have similar, or even different experiences with how each of you approach and encounter the story too.  And, this may even be the first time hearing it too, which is so awesome because this is a huge part of our faith as Christians and followers of Jesus!!!  Perhaps hearing this story might be a way of encountering the unexpected.
Even though I sometimes struggled with my faith for a time in my younger adult life and even had a love-hate/hate-love relationship with organized religion (which I admit that I still sometimes have), I know that I sure didn’t plan on moving to Washintgon, DC for seminary, nor planned to be a pastor of a church (although I think many of my colleagues could say they didn’t plan to either).  I didn’t expect to meet what have become some of my closest friends while in seminary either.  And I definitely did not expect to come to a great church like this, in a such a beautiful place.  Sometimes when we encounter the unexpected, God works through us in ways we would never think was ever possible.  But just like Jesus’s resurrection and the encounters with the risen Jesus, nothing is impossible!!  But it does take an ounce of faith and belief, trusting in God’s promises.  
        And each of you has a story too, as all of us have encountered the unexpected in one way or another.  There may be unexpected ways that you have encountered God, or someone who may have been God’s voice speaking to you, almost like the encounter Mary Magdalene and disciples had with the risen Christ.  But you know what?  We too can still encounter the resurrected Jesus in our own lives today, as each of us are his hands and feet through our words and our actions when we roll up our sleeves and fully live into our faith, as we are here to support each other whether we are beginning the journey, or if we’ve been on it for a long time now. 
But sometimes, it takes an encounter with the unexpected, a small ounce of faith, and belief to totally transform who we are; and as a result, we will never be the same when we encounter the unexpected and risen Jesus just like when the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene had their AHA! moments at the empty tomb.  Rev. Mike Slaughter further explains in Renegade Gospel that
An encounter with the resurrected Jesus, however, doesn’t just transform the way we view ourselves; it causes us to see others in a new light.  The poor are no longer lazy, ignorant, or simply unlucky; they are the people God loves, so much so that more than two thousand scriptures are dedicated to justice for the vulnerable and poor, the widow, and orphan.  God teaches us to love ourselves and love others as ourselves; the resurrected Jesus reveals that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive, that ultimately the measure of our lives will be based on whatever we do for the least and the lost.  Jesus even redefines enemy, not as someone to hate but as someone worth praying for, an individual of sacred worth and God-potential.  Our encounters with the resurrected Jesus give us new eyes and a new resurrection worldview…the impossible becomes possible.[iv]

        That’s the Good News about living into the resurrection and encountering the unexpected, as we get a new sense of self, but also new eyes to view everyone in the world just like Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple did when they saw and when they believed.  Mary was never the same, so as each of us experiences the resurrected Jesus in our own way, let’s remember that encountering the unexpected can change and transform us and how we see others.  I feel the power of resurrection within this very church right now, as we are arising to the many possibilities of how we can help our community and grow in spirit; whether through our work at C.A.N. (Community Assistance Network), PCIRC (Plumas County Intervention and Resource Center), Sierra House, discerning new outreach ministries to Ohana House, exploring ways to reach out to the new housing for Feather River College, resurrecting our Sunday School program so that we can better serve families in our neighborhood and surrounding communities, or the installation of our new lift which will make it easier for people to enter this beautiful sanctuary for worship.  We are trusting God’s promises as all of this happen and we are seeing how anything is possible in living into new life as a community of faith. 
As we think about ways we can better help our community and reach outside of the walls and share the Good News of the resurrected Jesus with others just like Mary did with the disciple, each of us can be personally transformed in the new relationships that we can cultivate, and even encounter the unexpected in seeing some of the gifts we may not have realized we had before, but it takes an ounce of faith, even a small ounce and belief in what is possible, as Jesus as showed Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and us that ANYTHING is possible through him and trusting in God’s promises. 
        As we begin this new journey of resurrection and keep the celebration of Easter going this week and in the coming weeks, what are some of the unexpected things that have happened when you have encountered the risen Jesus?  What are some unexpected ways that you have received Good News, or some unexpected Good News that you have received?  At the same time, what are things you might be hanging onto that you need to let go of so that you can fully experience new life and resurrection on your own journey of faith?  Let us think of all the possibilities that are out there as we go and share the Good News with everyone and anytime that we encounter the unexpected.  Christ is Risen: HE IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA! 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN. 

[i] Mike Slaughter, Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 123-24.

[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. 2017. "Easter Sunday — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed April 13 2017. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/easter-sunday-2017-preaching-notes.

[iii] Lewis, Karoline, and Karoline Lewis. 2017. "Not Proof But Perspective By Karoline Lewis - Craft Of Preaching - Working Preacher". Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 13 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4859.

[iv] Slaughter, 135-36.  

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