Posted in Sermons, Writing

Easter 2019 Sermon: John 20:1-18

Before I was ordained and became a pastor, I worked in a garden. To make a beautiful job even cuter, I worked in a preschool garden. Now, all you adults are great, but 3-5 year olds are my people. I absolutely loved this job. Preparing the ground by weeding and hoeing and composting leftover organic material. Carefully planning and planting seeds, sometimes in long rows and sometimes in mounds and honestly, sometimes just scattered on the wind by a four-year-old. Even through the steamy Nashville summers, I thrived on being outside every day and living close to the earth and witnessing the brilliance of young, brand-new humans. Being in the garden was a perfect place to nurture my mind, my body, my spirit and my faith. Because miraculous things happen in the garden. Plots of ground where a child dumped a whole packet of watermelon seeds wound up being far more fruitful than the carefully-managed sections I planned; they just grew slowly and steadily. There were always just enough strawberries for each preschooler to have one. Plants that looked like they’d died, either from drought or heat or too many five year olds pulling at them all the time, still gave off seeds so their species would continue on. Squashes and pumpkins and decorative gourds grew out of the compost piles because they just couldn’t be kept from growing! As the saying from Jurassic Park goes, “Life finds a way.” 

You just can’t keep life down in a garden! Perhaps this is why there are so many wisdom sayings that have to do with gardens and harvest and planting and seeds. A favorite of mine, heard often from the mouths of those advocating for justice, and especially quoted by people searching for the disappeared students in Mexico, is “they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” As Pastor Tim shared just moments ago, it often happens that what is buried comes back, sometimes in ways we never expected or never dreamed about. Seeds, harmless though they may be, looking like they’re devoid of life, actually are harboring immense amounts of energy. Seeds, planted in fertile soil, can rise again and give life to the next generation. Seeds, in the right conditions, remind us that resurrection isn’t a one-time event. It is ongoing, unstoppable, prophetic force. 

Perhaps this is why Mary went to the garden on that early morning so long ago. She should have known that Jesus was dead. Mary had seen him die. Mary had seen it all–she had traveled with Jesus, heard him preach and teach and heal. She had been with him at dinner. I imagine she ate the bread and drank from the cup, perhaps being confused at what Jesus was talking about: where was he going that she could not follow? And despite her confusion, she stayed. After watching Jesus be arrested and beaten and paraded through the streets carrying the cross on which he was to be crucified, she stayed at the foot of the cross. She stayed with his mother Mary and the other women. She stayed, when the male disciples went away, afraid for their own lives that they would be associated with this man who was executed like a criminal. She stayed, while Joseph of Arimathea retrieved God’s body and lay it in a tomb. She stayed, while the stone was rolled in front of the tomb. Mary of Magdala should know what death means, having gotten up close and personal with it. She should know the finality of death, that once the body is washed and prepared and wrapped in linen and laid away, that body is not coming back to life. 

And yet…miraculous things happen in the garden. And so that’s where Mary went. The garden, the site of God’s original creation, the place where “the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “all things came into being through God and the Word.” The garden, the site of Jesus’ prayers and sanctuary. The garden, the location of the tomb hewn out of the rock. The garden, where the things that are buried rise again. We come, this morning, on the first day of the week, to the garden, asking “is it true?” This is what theologian Karl Barth said that every person who shows up to church holds in their hearts: the question, “is it true?” 

The question this morning is, “is it true that Friday not the end of the story? Is it true that Love really can not be put down? Is it true that God’s justice is coming, no matter if the authorities and the warriors and the politicians and the empires say it’s not?”

Nathan Roberts from The Salt Collective shared these words on Facebook on Friday: 

“Good Friday is the day Christians remember the public execution of Jesus. A day we are reminded of the consequences of living with revolutionary love. Love that stands beside assaulted women, love that flips over corrupt tables, love that throws parades, love that tells people to pray for “our daily bread” not just “my daily bread”, and love that provides free healthcare to those who society gave up on. Love without cultural boundaries, without fear of the government laws, without fear of religious judgement, without fear of dying. Jesus was publicly executed by a world that refused to change. And on Friday his body hung as a warning to all his followers. But Love would not stay dead.”

Miraculous things happen in the garden. Maybe Mary, showing up in the garden, not sure if she was too early or too late, would say, “Pilate tried to bury Jesus, but he didn’t know Jesus was a seed. The empire tried to bury Jesus, but they didn’t know Jesus was a seed. The powers of death and destruction tried to bury Jesus, but they didn’t know Jesus was a seed.”

Jesus, planted in the ground, buried in a tomb, rose again early in the morning, a life-cycle completed and yet ongoing in seed and bud and blossom. 

But perhaps Jesus is also a gardener. After all, that’s what Mary thought when she saw him, when she heard him call her name so personally, so intimately, so lovingly. So if Jesus is a gardener, maybe it is by being a seed that does its own propagating, like wild dandelions shed their seeds to their surroundings. Maybe it was no mistake that Mary thought the Risen Christ was the gardener, because he was living proof of the resurrection. He had planted a seed of hope in the midst of the despair of Good Friday and the waiting of Holy Saturday and the deep night going into Sunday morning. Jesus had planted a seed of hope amidst the sacred spaces that were burning and the faithful who are grieving and the modern-day crucifixion that keeps claiming people for death who have so much more living to do. Christ Jesus has planted a seed in each of our hearts, in each of us a tiny resurrection, a small piece of Godself loving and dying with us. 

Because that is the true miracle of the resurrection–when the empire tries to bury us, push us to the margins, separate our families, destroy our home Mother Earth, drown us in anxiety and apathy, console us and keep us complacent, shove us into strict binaries of identities, crush passion and creativity…the empire forgot that we are seeds and we rise again. We are planted in this garden, in loving community, to be nourished and challenged and loved and held accountable by each other for the flourishing of all. WE can be the resurrection because Jesus planted the seeds of resurrection in each of us, preparing each of us to respond to God’s voice as God calls our names, telling us that the powers of this world, the powers of might and force and destruction and even death, hold no sway against love, justice, mercy and grace. 

And so, this morning, I remind you of the words of one of my favorite poets, lifelong Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry: “practice resurrection.” And practice we must, every day. Like Mary, we are showing up in the garden, maybe some of us fearing it is too late for redemption, some of us feeling like we are too early, it’s too soon, for new life to take shape…but y’all, just like Mary, we are right on time. Right on time to catch the first rays of dawn breaking through. Right on time to receive a promise of something more than grief and depression and anxiety and fear. Right on time to hear the God of Love speak our names in a way only God can call us…like the way only your mother can hug you just-so, or only a dear friend can discern the sly winks and nods. We’re right on time to witness God turning the world upside down, bringing forth something miraculous from something grievously mundane. We’re right on time to witness the seed bursting from its seed coat, sending its delicate tendrils up through the soil to convey a message of life ongoing, flourishing from bud into blossom. We’re right on time to be resurrected, out of the holy compost of our own lives, ready to see the rays of the Son, we’re ready to burst into bloom for all to see. 

Let us go forth to BE the resurrection this day, and every day of our lives. 

May it ever be so. 

 

This sermon preached Easter 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church, in collaboration with Pastor Tim Phillips, who preached first on Joseph of Arimathea.

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

No Heart of Fear

Scripture: Psalm 27

When I was little, I was afraid of a lot of things: being separated from my mom in the supermarket, getting in a car wreck, breaking a bone, losing teeth, the dark, spiders– things that I heard on TV or saw on the covers of cheap tabloids in the grocery aisle would stick in my brain until I was sure they’d happen to me too. Once, when I was too scared to sleep in my own bed, I wound up sleeping on the couch and my mom came in and said something that I will never forget:, “How are you ever going to live if you’re so afraid all the time?”

—-

Flash forward: I had just turned 19 and, having just finished my first undergraduate semester at Oberlin College, was visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize in southern France on a winter term trip. My first semester of college had been hard: living away from home, getting used to a roommate, a high school relationship breaking up, and right before Christmas, my grandfather, to whom I’m extremely close, had a stroke that ended my grandparents’ independent living. To be honest, I was terrified about being out of the country for the month of January. You might have heard the term “FOMO”, “fear of missing out”? Yeah,  that was me. FOMO big time, but for huge scary reasons like fear of losing my grandfather. It felt like all of my life was converging in a huge, hot wave of worry and fear, and I was losing control. I was forgetting who I was and Whose I was. I remembered what First Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a heart of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” But in my heart, it just didn’t feel true.

So there I was, on my knees in front of a small carved wooden cross, my forehead bowed to the ground, weeping. I wept out of fear, out of worry, out of terror that I didn’t know what was happening in my life, where I was going, if my family would be ok, if my grandpa was going to live. I was praying as I’ve never prayed before.

Suddenly, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I heard beneath my sobs a whisper of “It’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright.” I felt held, felt cradled in the arms of the Holy. I reached next to me and grasped a Bible, and did one of those “open-it-to-any-page-and-maybe-it-will-speak-to-me” things. In fact, I turned to Psalm 27, our text for today.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

I’ve held these words close to me for six years, through college and graduation and moving to Nashville and beginning graduate school this past fall. These words continually help me contextualize my fear.

There is a lot of fear in the world, not just my own. As individuals, we might list: spiders, small spaces, snakes, heights, airplanes, the dark. As a western, United States American culture we might list: people who are different from us, terrorism, people who don’t speak our language, nuclear war, losing our material possessions, just to name a few. We have plenty of tangible fears like these, but also existential fears: as a Christian, one of mine has always been: “How do I know I’m really saved? Am I saved ‘enough’?”

What do we do with all this fear?

I believe that fear is often paired with a longing for something…when afraid of heights, we long for groundedness and stability. When afraid of terrorism, we long for security and safety. When afraid of the dark, we long for clarity and enlightenment. When I was afraid of missing out on important moments in my family’s life or losing my grandfather, I longed to be close to my family, geographically and emotionally.

Similarly, Psalm 27 is thought to be written out of the Israelites’ fear and pain when they were held captive in Babylon, away from their homeland and their god. Articulating this fear, the psalm writer describes the longing Israelites felt for their temple. Before the exile, the people of Israel understood their god as being a local deity, residing in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel had not yet written about his vision of God sitting on the wheeled throne that symbolized God’s mobility, and thus God’s presence everywhere, even with the exiles in a different land. The Israelite exile community wished and hoped and prayed to be with their god in the temple: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple…I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.”

Psalm 27 combines two psalm genres: psalms of trust and psalms of petition. And you can really hear that pairing of fear and longing, petitions and trust here: “Though an army encamp against me” –and, reading this, we must imagine that this community has indeed experienced this personally, or at least in recent historical memory– “my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” Wow. What a deep confidence in their God. Reading this in the monastery chapel, I let myself dwell in the comfort of people who lived two and a half thousand years before me.

Let’s return to my mother’s question: “How are you going to live if you’re afraid all the time?” And I still don’t know the answer to that question. My problem is that the world is scary. Climate change,  extreme weather events, natural disasters, domestic and global terrorism, systemic violence, hatred and bigotry and internalized oppression, and even loving people, all make for a really, really scary world sometimes. And fear seems to be an appropriate response to some of the events we read about in the news, and some we experience firsthand. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, that “The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there.” Sometimes we don’t even want to think about maybe possibly venturing outside our comfort zones to find out what the truth is about this fear–what are our deepest longings trying to tell us, hiding behind our fear? Is it our longing for security, connection, consistency? Do we have a choice of what to do next when facing our fears–do we run away and hide, putting up our walls and forgetting the interwoven community of creation of which we are all a member? Or do we lean into it, embrace it, learn the shape of the fear, befriend it and try to transform it?

Frederick Buechner simply writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” But I say, yes! the world is beautiful and terrible, but–it’s ok to feel afraid. But we must not let it define us. It’s what we do with the fear that matters. I don’t think we honestly acknowledge fear enough; often when hearing someone describe their fears, we can so easily brush them off with a “Well, it’ll be ok. It’ll all turn out in the end. Don’t worry so much.” Or we can judge people with different ideologies from our own who pay attention to their fear such that it multiplies and inspires terror in others, while not examining our own fears in turn.

So whether our fears include not being able to pay our rent, getting bad grades, leaving our homeland, losing our parents, or experiencing prejudice because of our race, gender identity, sexuality, class or citizenship status–know that each of these fears are legitimate. But also think about what happens if we were to let our fears stop us from truly living? Or let our fears stop others from truly living?  We must not lean away from embracing the God who hears our cries aloud; who calls our name; who invites us into the holy tent of community; who sets us high upon a rock, sure and strong; who holds us as we weep and walks alongside us in solidarity with our pain and anxiety and depression and terror–we can’t let our fears stifle our heart’s deepest call to living and loving.

The end of this psalm carries one of the most beautiful promises I’ve read in scripture, and, incidentally, these words have been turned into two Taize chants: “I am sure that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

And, before I finish, just a word about waiting: waiting in the Bible is always active. Remember Mary’s waiting before Jesus’ was born, or any of the other mothers who had to overcome huge obstacles before they conceived children (Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel and more) who became significant parts of God’s promise for the Israelites. The waiting was always anticipation of God’s handiwork, and in fact, God was already working in their lives, active and creative, and most of all, was present with them. Sometimes when we are engulfed in fear it is hard to wait for it to end, hard to see out of that deep, dark hole.

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that  

“…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.”

It starts with waiting. So as we wait to feel God’s presence in the land of the living, be assured of God’s presence, and how God has already prepared you for your life—not to live without fear, but to continue living into it. Again, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor:

“When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall.”

God has given us no heart of fear, but a heart to live in spite of, because of, in and with and through our fear.

No heart of fear can get in the way of the good that God is creating in our lives.  

No heart of fear can cause God to leave our side.

No heart of fear can convince us that we are not worthy of God’s love–that truth is too powerful and vast.

No heart of fear can separate us from the love of God.

 

(This sermon was originally preached 2/16/16 at the Scarritt Bennett Center.)