Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"Love Leads the Way" - Easter Sermon, April 1, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Love Leads the Way”
Easter Sunday: April 1, 2018
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 20: 1-18

            In conversations with many of my clergy colleagues leading up to today, many of us are convinced that God really has a sense of humor this year.  Back in February, we began the 40-day journey of Lent on Ash Wednesday, although Ash Wednesday happened to fall on Valentine’s Day.  So, if anyone was giving up chocolate or candy since Lent is often associated with giving stuff up, God may have had the last laugh there.  Likewise, today happens to fall on April Fool’s Day as we celebrate this beautiful Easter morning.  Typically, on April Fool’s Day, we may want to pull some fun pranks, or maybe engage in a little holy mischief here and there.   
On the other hand, one of my favorite comics I like to read regularly is “Coffee with Jesus,” from Radio Free Babylon, which puts Jesus in a contemporary setting, business suit and all, having coffee and conversation with people who are searching for life’s greatest answers and are at different stages on the journey of faith.  Sometimes, we see Jesus being a little sassy, or even doling out some tough love in many of his responses, although the people in the comic are modern-day disciples who get it and don’t get it, even clergy.  Every year on the day before Easter, Jesus is having coffee with the Easter Bunny and both ask each other if they’re ready for the big day.  Of course, the Easter Bunny is a little smart and responds to Jesus, saying “I bring the basket and you jump out of the casket,” in which Jesus responds, “Tomb, Bunny.”[i]
            However, I don’t think the resurrection was any kind of an April fool’s joke either.  While the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” pokes fun at life and death, death is not really a laughing matter.  I say this in light of the unexpected death of one of my cousins on Sunday night, which has brought a whole new meaning to Holy Week and Easter this year.  After a moving and meaningful time of worship last Sunday, I was still on a spiritual high from that and being recommended to move forward in the UMC’s ordination process a week ago this past Wednesday, only to learn of my cousin’s passing on Monday morning during our Lenten study.  For the rest of this past week, I have found myself reflecting a lot about Jesus’s own life and how things quickly changed for him when he triumphantly entered Jerusalem, as the crowds shouted ‘Hosanna to our King’ only to have those shouts of Hosanna change over the course of the week to ‘crucify him,’ in which Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and executed on the cross, then laid in the tomb with Mary Magdalene, his mother, and the unnamed, beloved disciple in John’s gospel staying at his side.  The other disciples on the other hand, ran away in fear.
It went from triumph to tragedy that week, kind of how this last week has felt for my family.  So often, we are quick to gloss over the ugly parts of Jesus’s story and even our own lives, although as one of my friends who is now a UM bishop says, ‘we need to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter.’ We have to die to ourselves and die to the things that prevent us from fully living, so that we can rise with Christ to the new life and hope that we are celebrating this morning, even if it means enduring the ugliness and messiness that life will bring us at one time or another, or knowing that the ugliness and messiness won’t go away either.  We need to let love lead the way, especially as we do our best to live into the Easter story of how Jesus overcame death and humanity’s sin out of his deep love for us. 
            In John’s gospel that Anna just read for us, we encounter Mary Magdalene, being the first person Jesus sends out to tell the disciples that He is risen.  Now if we have read Mark or Luke’s accounts of the Easter story, Mary Magdalene is one whom Jesus has restored to wholeness, casting out her demons and giving her this new opportunity at life, in which she too becomes one of his followers.  In her final commentary for Discipleship Ministries, Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser writes that
Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord is not an idea, or an allegory, or a metaphor. It is a physical experience. And it is life changing, not just for Mary, but for the other disciples, and for all who would come to follow Jesus, including you and me.[ii] 

            The fact that Jesus calls her by name and that Mary is able to touch the risen Christ, turning her mourning into joy says a lot about Jesus and how it opens up the channels for transformation and for love to lead the way, especially when Jesus says he will ascend “to my God and your God” (John 20: 17, NRSV). 
Even though Peter and the un-named beloved disciple we see in John’s Gospel go back to doing what they were doing after seeing that Jesus’s body was not in the tomb, Mary Magdalene stays behind and because she was willing to stay, gets to have this first encounter with the risen Christ!! 
A few weeks ago on another social media platform, Instagram before his passing, my cousin mentioned how Jesus is his Lord and Savior, which is one of the first steps we take in our journey of faith, and my hope is that even in death, my cousin can have a profound experience with the risen Christ and experience God’s grace.  I know that we weren’t all that close, as he was eleven years older, but still had that familial love and were able to stay in touch, even though I didn’t always agree with him on everything.  Nevertheless, he was still a beloved child of God. 
When we think about who are beloved children of God, things can get a little tricky and can open up a can of worms.  It’s tricky and challenging because so often, it’s easier to operate under what one of my seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems Jr. refers to as “a presumption of judgment” instead of “a presumption of grace.”  In the midst of the stories of violence, protests, and unrest that we hear about on a daily basis these days, I try to operate under a presumption of grace and err on the side of grace, which I know might make a few folks upset too. Nevertheless, there definitely are some challenges, maybe even some barriers in letting love lead the way for us.  As Dawn Chesser explains,
All sorts of things get in the way of our ability to love one another as God loves us. We get caught up in our own needs and fears, our vision limited…our wounds from our life experiences that have never fully healed. It clouds our ability to see some people as fully human, fully beloved children of God.[iii]

Sounds a little bit like some of the things we talked about during our series on Rehab during Lent, as we need to come to terms with some of our own baggage and assumptions, which I am constantly doing on a daily basis.  I’ll admit that extending grace and letting love lead the way is a challenge when people have royally screwed up, as judgement is so easier to do.  One of my answers to the dCOM about the human condition is that our choices have consequences.  Despite the choices people make in life, we still need to see people as fully human, hurts, baggage, and all and allow OUR love to lead the way in how we respond, regardless of how we might feel or what they did.  As followers of Christ, we are called to take the higher road and to let love lead the way for us.  It doesn’t mean we have to condone the actions of those who have done us wrong, yet Jesus does call to love our enemies just as he calls us to love our neighbors, which he showed as he died on the cross with the two bandits at his side on Good Friday and to the people who executed him.  Love leading the way is challenging, yet Jesus never said the way would be easy. 
            This past week, I’ve been re-reading Lutheran pastor and author, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s first book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint and if you have ever seen a picture of Nadia, except for her sleeveless clergy collar shirt, you might not think that she’s a pastor based on her appearance, as she always seems to have a scowl on her face and has tattoos covering her arms.  And having met her while I was still in seminary in Washington, DC, she’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy person and swears like a sailor.  But, that’s who she is, and her story is one of redemption, kind of like Mary Magdalene, and she let’s love lead the way, even it’s not warm and fuzzy.  One of her arm tattoos is an image of Mary Magdalene, who Nadia likens to be the least likely one called to share the Good News of Jesus’s resurrection, just as Nadia thinks that she was the least likely person called by God to be a pastor.[iv]  Nadia overcame drug and alcohol abuse and now ministers to people who have varied pasts and have experienced rejection, even in the church.  The name of her church in Denver, CO is fitting, as it’s called A House for All Sinners and Saints and love leads the way there. 
In the final chapter of Pastrix, Nadia shares about the response to a deadly theater shooting in Aurora Colorado in 2011 during her church’s night at “Beer & Hymns” the day after. Nadia says that oftentimes when tragedy strikes, people are so often to jump to conclusions and resort to platitudes and “vapid words of comfort;” superficial, yet well-meaning sayings intended to bring comfort, but end up causing more hurt and pain.[v]  Just as Mary Magdalene was “a deeply faithful and deeply flawed woman, whom Jesus chose to be the first witness of his resurrection and to whom he commanded to go and tell everyone else about it,”  Nadia shares that in light of tragedy,
If Saint Mary Magdalene had been the “Pastrix” of my congregation, she would not have shied away from the news of innocent people slaughtered while it was still dark.   She would have showed up and named the event from two days prior exactly for what it was: horrific, evil, senseless violence without a shred of anything redemptive about it… 

She would reject nihilism, or the idea that there is no real meaning in life or death – ideas present in so much of post-modernity. 

What Mary would do is show up and remind us that despite the violence and fear, it’s still always worth it to love God and to love people.  And always, always, it is worth it to sing Alleluia in defiance of the devil, who surely hates the sound of it.[vi]

            In light of everything we face, triumph, tragedy, and everything in between, we need to let love lead the way as a followers of Christ and people of faith…singing Alleluia in the face of tragedy, evil, and destruction.  Whether it’s in the nation, world, or our own backyard here in Quincy, we need to let love lead the way in how we respond to anything, even when we may not agree with what others may have to say or how they act.  We need a constant reminder that it is worth it to love God and neighbor, something Jesus instills in us and how he still loved those who sent him to the cross.  Just as Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to go and tell the disciples the Good News, we need to be the ones that keep telling the Good News all around us today, and let love lead the way because amidst evil, amidst darkness, amidst violence, and hatred that rear their heads at us way too often, we can still have hope and sing ‘Alleluia’ in the face of evil, sin, and death, as we are a resurrection people and death and sin will NOT have the final say.  When we put our faith, trust, and hope in Jesus, and when love leads the way, we too can conquer our sin, and join him in the resurrection when it’s our turn to go onto Glory.   
As we prepare to come to the Communion table in a few minutes, love leads the way for us to become one with Christ when we eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine, nourishing us on this journey of faith and offering us grace through this joyful feast.
Know that you are welcome to this table, because it’s God who offers us this free gift of grace, even if you might feel like you’re not worthy enough to come to the feast.  No matter how much we’ve screwed up or mis-stepped along the way, we have this opportunity to accept God’s grace that has been given to us through Christ, and an opportunity for a new beginning when we come to this table and live into the new life and hope of this day as love leads the way. 
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say, AMEN!!

[i] "Coffee With Jesus". 2016. Imgur. Accessed March 22 2018. https://imgur.com/gallery/XZed0go.

[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. 2018. "Easter Sunday 2018 — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed March 28 2018. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/holy-week-2018-worship-planning-series/april-1-2018-easter-sunday/easter-sunday-2018-preaching-notes.

[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 198. 
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid., 198-199.

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