Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Door is Open

Preached at Prescott Memorial American Baptist Church
April 8, 2012/ Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

I remember it myself. The April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine asked on its cover, “Is God Dead?” It was just after the release of Harvey Cox’s book: The Secular City. Bold black letters. I was fourteen. We were the kind of family who kept both the Bible and a copy of a current Time Magazine on our coffee table. Dead? God dead? I had seen my own father’s dead body. I had seen people rolling his casket into the church. Organ music playing in the background. Sweet smelling freshly cut flowers everywhere trying to disguise the reality of death. The preacher standing in his black robe saying reassuring words. Women, including my mother, with handkerchiefs dabbing at their eyes and everyone sniffing. I had seen death, thrown handfuls of dirt into the grave and come back to the church for funeral food.

But what would God’s casket look like? Would it be small and artsy? Huge and too heavy for anyone to lift? And which church would be chosen for God’s funeral? Certainly not the Presbyterians. I had seen Presbyterians smoking cigarettes and I knew God despised that sort of thing. I had seen Catholics drinking beer and wine. Their church would not be chosen. I knew Methodists who danced in their Fellowship Hall and that would leave them out of God’s favor. But beyond the chosen place, after the funeral service … what would we do without God? How would any of us (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Nazarene…) pray? All of us would be thrown into a pile together: orphans, left alone and outside the eternal life and love of God. We might have to learn how to get along – without God! We might be forced to manufacture some kind of counterfeit love on our own—without God! We might have to stop worrying and trust that life has meaning and we are loved. Imagine that. Just imagine that.

Well Jesus was certainly dead. There’s no question about that. Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome walked toward the tomb with fear in their hearts because they had seen Jesus and knew he was absolutely dead. This man who had talked about The Kingdom of God was no longer talking. The man who had urged people to be merciful toward one another had received very little mercy in his last hours. Jesus, who had recently raised a friend from the grave, was laid in the grave himself. He was dead and those who knew him best saw it clearly and without a doubt.

So very early on the morning after the Sabbath was over there was a small group of frightened but courageous women who went to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body. Their concern was about the stone. It was very large and heavy. Who would roll it away?
And when they got to the tomb they looked up (they looked up) and saw that there was no need to worry about the stone, no need to be anxious about entry into the tomb. The stone was rolled away. The door was open.

Studs Terkel has captured the story of 69 year old Helen Sclair, a cemetery familiar. She visits and tracks cemeteries as a full time occupation. She says, “I was born into death. My mother died while she was giving birth to me. I grew up in foster care in Lake County, Illinois. My foster family took me to visit my mother’s grave in Missouri. I remember the first visit so clearly. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had welts on both my knees, bee stings. I suppose I was about three years old then.

A few years after that first visit to the cemetery my grandparents started dying. Funerals were in people’s homes back then. I remember one of my grandfathers laid out in his living room and me trying to crawl into that coffin. I wanted to pat his cheek, wake him up. He was the one who taught me to read and I didn't want to let him go.

There was no movie theater in town so folks went to funerals. That was the thing to do. It was a terrible thing if you missed a funeral.”

Ms Sclair says she lived for Saturdays while she was growing up because she spent Saturdays in the cemetery—decorating graves, pulling weeds, tending old tombstones and carrying buckets of water up from the creek to water plants.

She says, “In the nineteenth century everybody knew about death. In the twentieth century nobody knows about death. In the nineteenth century nobody knew about sex. In the twentieth century everybody talks about sex and death has become the new pornography. It’s a cultural crime to talk freely about it. But to my way of seeing things—well, death is a part of life, an important part of real living.”

And real living is full of the hope that comes with recognizing that the stone has been rolled away between death and life. God’s love is the doorway of hope forever.

Yesterday’s Commercial Appeal included a story about my friends, Randall Mullins and Sharon Pavelda. David Waters wrote about their struggle with Randall’s undiagnosed illness. For a while Randall’s swallowing difficulty and his esophageal challenges made the neurologist say it was ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. That’s a death sentence. There is no known cure. Swallowing food was life threatening so Randall got a feeding tube inserted into his abdomen.

Every day presents new challenges. Randall says, “We felt like we were suddenly plunged into the abyss.” Death was knocking at their door and they decided to open it. Were they afraid? Yes. Sharon says, “We have come to believe that being afraid is not the same thing as having no faith.” They try to stay in the present where they can enjoy each moment- as it is, even with its mysteries and fears. They live in the open doorway where love is alive in life and in death.

Death is frightening. The grave leaves us living with sorrow. For many of us the experience of grief is alive and fresh in our hearts. I won’t try to act as though the pain of death can be minimized. I lost my mother a year and a half ago. I saw her lying there in bed--dead--and being dead is very different than being alive. It came suddenly—even though we had been sitting and waiting for over a week. Death comes as a permanent condition. There’s no replay button to push. Once death comes it is final.

Or is it? Is death final? The end? Or is it an opening into something new? Maybe something very familiar? I ask because we are celebrating Easter today, a day when we restore our hope that life is eternal. A day when we celebrate a tomb that could not hold our Redeemer. We, the people of hope, celebrate. A day when three women looked up from their fears and worries to see that the stone was already rolled away.

The door is open for us to recognize that the love of God is alive and intended to give us hope, peace, joy even now. Resurrection is not just about the after-life. It is not only a comfort for those who are grieving.

Resurrection is about new life and new hope right now. Because every minute we live can be a resurrection moment. Now is eternal. The door is open between life and death because the love of God lives with us here and there. In life and in death we are loved by the same God. Whether we live or whether we die we are at home with God.

As Randall Mullins says, “Our fear is in some ways a gift. It gives us opportunity to feel alive and more dependent on the presence of God’s grace.”

We find ourselves worrying about the price of gasoline and whether or not we can afford to get to work, get the kids to school. We worry about the broken relationships in our lives and whether or not we have done enough to bring healing. We worry about our careers and whether or not our work is meaningful enough. We worry about termites, paying taxes, the basement flooding and the refrigerator going out. We all worry; it's part of the human condition to worry.

Right now I encourage you to look up. Like the women at the tomb so many years ago, look up. Raise your chin and let your eyes softly gaze above your head. Just the act of looking up feels hopeful, as if there is something above us that is active and larger than our worries and fears. Even now.

Somehow in one way or another as we look back over our shoulders at by-gone worries and days gone by: the stone has been rolled away. We walked into each moment and found that a way had been made for us to let go of our fears and take hold of our faith. Over and over again.

The door is open. The women walked into the tomb to see that death had not had the last word. Life comes to us through the open door of God’s eternal love for us. And it is life that lasts forever. Beginning now.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Power on Parade

Preached at Prescott Memorial American Baptist Church
April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday)
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
John 12:12-19

People love a parade. The Macy’s Parade is the most popular holiday parade in America. The amazing event attracts 3.5 million people each Thanksgiving Day to the streets of New York City. And there are fifty million television viewers nationwide. The original Macy’s Parade was not so spectacular. That initial parade took to the streets in 1924 when most of the employees at Macy’s Department Store were first generation immigrants. Proud of their new American heritage they wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with an old- world festival. They put on costumes: cowboy and clown outfits. They borrowed zoo animals from Central Park and paraded through the downtown streets of New York City. There was much for which to be grateful. They sang songs of celebration.

The first giant balloon was Felix the Cat. He was filled with helium in 1929 and floated far overhead. Since there was no plan for how to deflate Felix, the balloon handlers simply let him fly away. That began a tradition of letting the huge balloons float wherever the wind would take them. Official Macy’s Cards were placed inside the balloons so that those people lucky enough to find a deflated balloon on the ground could redeem the card for a gift at any Macys’ store. These days the famous parade is a walk of 2.6 miles. Celebrities, media, performers, artists, bands and balloons fill the streets. 1500 dancers. 1000 clowns. About 60 balloons float overhead. These days balloons are carefully deflated and stored from year to year.

My daughter, Jennifer, watches the parade every year on television. She’s been talking about going to NYC, just to be there and see it for real. I asked her what it is she likes so much. She said, “It’s a tradition; it’s reliable. I like the way they maintain all the old familiar stuff but they add new things every year to make it more exciting.”

It’s interesting to notice what we put on parade, what gets our attention and what we consider “reliable.”

Jesus walked on water, calmed a storm out at sea. He healed the sick and set people free from demons. He caused the blind to see, lifted up the lame and allowed them to walk again. He brought sound back to the ears of the deaf. He gave voice to the voiceless, hope to the poor and allowed children a chance to feel special and valued.

He was something new and powerful. And yet he was from familiar stock, old and worn like furniture that has been in the family through several generations.

But just before the time of Passover this man from Bethlehem did something new and extraordinary. He raised a friend from the grave. Jesus shouted into the tomb and the sound of his voice, the power of his faith, the reality of his presence brought Lazarus back to life. And the whole world went after Jesus. Whatever his power, whoever he was—the world wanted him. He had power over our oldest enemy: Death.

Power that could defy death. Power that rode into the city on what!? A donkey. Have you looked at a donkey lately? Donkeys are short pudgy creatures, ears so big as to make us laugh. A hee-haw that is altogether ridiculous. I can imagine that Jesus’ knees were bent hugging the wide sides of the obstinate creature. It’s interesting to notice that Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day are the same day this year. It’s appropriate when we think about Jesus on this donkey.

A parade for the Passover, remembering when the angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrew families and spared the lives of their first born. The crowds stood along the dusty highway waving palms, shouting “Hosanna!” and hoping this new miracle worker, this Jesus, could save them from whatever traps their lives had fallen into.

Studs Terkel has captured Steve Young’s story…Steve Young and his wife, Maurine, raised four sons in Chicago. Steve was a piano technician and he coached speed skating. His son, Andrew, was competing in national speed skating championships so the father and son traveled from one frozen pond to another during the winter. Although Steve had four sons, he was very close to Andrew. All the coaching and traveling experiences made them best friends.

It happened in June of 1996. Andrew and his twin brother, Sam, were out in the afternoon. Sixteen year olds. They had just gotten their driver’s licenses. They were at the grocery store. Some kids from a gang started throwing gang signs. Angry words were exchanged. The gang kids were on a bike. One bike with two fifteen year old boys on it. Andrew and Sam started driving toward home. It was five o’clock rush hour traffic. The car was stopped at a traffic light. The kids on the bike rode up beside the car. One kid said, “Do it.” And the other kid aimed a gun at Andrew’s shoulder and shot him. There was too much damage done to Andrew’s heart. The doctor’s couldn’t save him.

Later the kid that shot Andrew would confess that he only meant to scare Andrew. He had no intention of killing him. But the kid was only fifteen. He had no idea how powerful and lethal a gun can be. What does a fifteen year old kid know about power and death?

Steve and his wife went to the funeral home to make arrangements. They purchased a casket for their 16 year old son’s body. As they were leaving the funeral home, Steve’s knees buckled under him. He fell to the sidewalk and sobbed. He knew that if the cops would let him in the cell with that shooter, that stupid kid, he would snap his neck in an instant. Steve’s rage and pain were overwhelming.

Steve lost his motivation for life. He couldn’t go to work. People called for piano service and Steve ignored the calls. Bills came in the mail. The mortgage payments were due. But Steve took to throwing the bills on the floor and walking on them. He didn’t care anymore. He had lost his son in a senseless incident. In one moment so much had been taken from him. He stayed in bed and let the world take care of its own problems. The power of Death settled in on the man’s shoulders and pushed him down.

Maurine, Steve’s wife, went to church, a Bible church where people were a little too extreme for Steve’s taste. Sometimes the people there got emotional and waved their hands in the air, shouted out. Steve didn’t go to church with her. The people at the church were concerned about the Young family and they started taking up special offerings. One Sunday Maurine came home with a check for $600. Another time she came home with a check for $900. The money helped but the family’s debt was out of control.

Yet somehow this kindness and generosity from the church people helped Steve enough to get out of bed. That $900. gift shed some light on Steve’s darkness. He got up. He took his tools and tried to work.

He went to visit a regular customer, an older woman in Glencoe. A sweet woman, she asked about Steve as he worked on her piano. “How are you and your family dealing with this tragedy?” she asked and then she listened carefully as Steve answered. She sat with him and offered safe space for the man to cry. Then the woman paid him twice what she owed him for the work.

There was an incident in the courtroom. It was six months after Andrew’s death. Steve and Maurine were at a sentencing hearing for the boy who had handed the gun to the shooter, the boy who had said, “Do it.” The judge said “Fifty-five years.”
The convicted boy’s father was a small man, a short Mexican immigrant. Steve heard someone translate for the father what the judge had said. Cincuenta y cinco.

The man put his head in his hands and started sobbing. His son was going to prison for basically the rest of his life. Steve felt sorry for the father. He, too, had lost a son. And somehow Steve knew this man did not raise his son to be a murderer. Steve knew a very little Spanish. So he went over to the man and said, “Yo siempre su nino.”

I’m sorry for your son. Steve put his arm around the man who barely came up to his shoulder. And the fathers held each other up as they cried.

Journalists were in the courtroom and a photographer caught a picture of Steve and the other father in each other’s arms. The story and the picture ran on the front pages of the next day’s Tribune and Sun-Times. Television reporters called for interviews. It was strange for Steve to suddenly receive so much attention for such a small gesture.

The regular customer in Glencoe, that kind older woman who had asked about Steve’s struggle and allowed him to cry in her living room, saw the story in the paper and she sent Steve and his family enough money to get them out of debt and back on their feet financially. A fresh start. New life. Death conquered by the power of love, compassion and forgiveness.

When the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003, there was a new tradition begun in Pasadena, California, a Palm Sunday Peace Parade. Each year on Palm Sunday the parade marches from a poor and marginalized neighborhood in Pasadena to the economic center of the city. Along the way people sing and lift prayers for peace. The parade is a witness against the powers and authorities of this world: those who make war, build bombs, provide guns to fifteen year old kids.

The Palm Sunday Peace Parade organizers say: “In these days of endless war we march as fools who believe that another world is possible. We march in the footsteps of one who journeyed on a donkey, as a fool into the hearts of his people to reclaim them for peace.”

It’s interesting to notice what we put on parade, what gets our attention and what we consider “reliable.”

This is Palm Sunday, a day to praise a God of power. As we deal with the death of Trayvon Martin, as we continue to cope with the ugliness of today’s political parade, as we each deal with crimes in our own cities and homes—let us wave a palm frond for the power of forgiveness. Our God has conquered death and sets us free to celebrate the power of love.

That has gotten our attention and brought us together here in this place. May it sustain us for the living of our lives.