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 The Stone that Didn't Roll Away

Sermon - 3/31/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 118: 14-24

So, what do you think about this Jesus and resurrection thing? Are you here because the Pope, a priest and your Momma told you to come? Or is it some sense of curiosity? Maybe you love the special music. Maybe you're feeling some need for an uplifting word after that Good Friday defeat -- of the Ducks against Louisville :)

Or are you here because that whole Jesus thing changed your life? You have felt that presence of the risen Christ. That you have known that peace of God that comes through that wholeness that comes in Christ. Or maybe you're just searching for any of these, or all of these.

So I hope the video we saw got you to thinking about some of those things. What convinces you? If you're answer is (as the one person says), "Well, I go to church", we are in a heap of trouble! My favorite answer in the video was: "I wasn't around back then. . . . . " :) So what do you think of this whole slavery thing? Well, I wasn't around back then. . . . . .

Well, I wasn't around back then either, so I can't tell you precisely the details of everything that happened, because there are different stories. I can tell you that whatever happened, it changed people's lives. And it has continued to change people's lives in some pretty powerful ways. And I know many of you have some of those stories.

And actually, truth be known, few of the New Testament authors were there for those events either -- they have passed on the stories to us that they collected and heard. And that's one of the reasons we have the differences in the resurrection accounts, and the different ways of telling that story. It's almost as if the gospel authors, in telling each story differently, each story is unique, want us to know that every experience of the risen Christ is unique. Your experience may be different than mine. We each have our own experience of that reality.

Because Easter isn't so much about what happened to Jesus long ago, it's really about what happens to us, now. It's about that new life that we receive in Christ, and that is why I hope we come on Easter Sunday to celebrate.

Now, even while the details of the Easter story vary from gospel to gospel about who was there at the tomb, what Jesus did or said, when he appeared, to whom he appeared and the like, if you asked each of those writers "What does it mean?", they would all agree -- that God raised Jesus from the dead and therefore he is Lord and Savior of the world. That is, the way of Jesus is the way of our salvation. The way of humble service, as illustrated so beautifully by Mother Teresa. And now by Pope Francis -- if you caught the news from the Maundy Thursday service, when the new Pope washed the feet of 12 juvenile delinquents, including -- for the first time ever, against tradition, against even canon law (but he's the Pope!) -- he washed the feet of 2 women, including a Muslim woman. Now that's a pretty powerful symbol.  That is the way, you see, that will save us.

It's the way of on-violence, as demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr and Caesar Chavez in his work with farm-workers, and the Dali Lama (coming to see us in May).

That is the way that will save us. It is the way of truth and reconciliation, so beautifully illustrated to the world by Nelson Mandela (god bless him, now apparently perhaps approaching the last days of his life), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa with that Truth & Reconciliation Commission that helped that country rise above and overcome the terrible decades of oppression and injustice against the majority people.

It is the way of love that seeks to include all people, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, even favorite sports team :)

It's the way of peace that seeks to end all violence -- from domestic violence to international violence. From political violence to sexual violence. From that violence of the terrorist to state-sponsored violence. Ending that violence is the way that will save us.

It is the way of justice, that defends the cause of the widows and the orphans, the poor and the weak, the oppressed and persecuted, as did Jesus. That is the way of our salvation.

You see, Easter is about all of that. God has raised Jesus from the dead, therefore he is our Lord and Savior. It is that way that is our salvation. The world's way of death has been overcome by God's way of life. It is truly a wonderful and miraculous thing that we affirm and proclaim as the work of God the resurrection of Jesus, as the Apostle Paul says "Is but the first fruits". It is the beginning of this wonderful work that is to save all of us. All of creation.

You know, cats are said to have 9 lives because of their way of surviving death. So I tell this story especially for our children present, but adults you can join in :) It's a story I've not shared for over a decade or more, of a Pastor who had a new kitty in his home. The kitty got caught high up in a tree in the front yard, and his wife called very concerned about the kitty that wouldn't come down, couldn't come down. He's got to come home and save the poor little kitty!

Well, pastoral emergencies, you just have to drop everything. So he goes home, and being an educated man, he figures the easier thing to do would be to lower the kitty to him, rather than to try and climb up into this tree and risk his life & limb to save this kitty. Unfortunately, he was educated in the laws of God and not the laws of physics :) But the tree was a young, sturdy maple tree made by God. The car was 3,000 pounds of steel made by Ford. The rope was made in China and bought at the Dollar Store :) And so using his eagle-scout skills, he ties the rope as high as he can get in the tree, and then with the skills and the foresight of the captain of the Titanic, he ties the other end to the bumper of the car. Has his wife slowly drive the car ahead, inch-by-inch, as the tree bends down more & more. And the pastor waits with outstretched arms to save the poor little kitty, and just as the kitty was just about there, just about to reach his salvation, he heard the sound that put a lump in his throat -- KA-POW! As the rope gave way. BOING! As the trees snapped back into position. SWISH! As the cat went flying off into the heavens :)

Frantic, the pastor jumps into the car with his wife, and judging from the last known trajectory of the feline astronaut, they make their way through the neighborhood looking for the signs of cat splotches on the sides of houses and roadways. Finding none, they returned home broken hearted.

Several weeks later, the pastor is in a grocery store, and he sees one of his parishioners loading a bag of cat-food into her cart. He knows this woman is not cat lover, he knows she does not have a cat, so he's curious. Still overcoming his grief from losing his own kitty, he can't help but ask: do you have a new cat in the house? She said: "Pastor, my daughter has been begging me for weeks and weeks and weeks for a cat. And I finally said to her, honey, if God gives you a kitty, you can keep it. Pastor, you're not going to believe this, she went out into the front yard, and she kneeled down, and she prayed. And then she looked up, and she said "Look Mommy! Here he comes!" And down came this cat with his paws outstretched, flying through the heavens, dropping out of the sky right there into our front yard! It's the strangest thing, I've never seen a cat who so avoids trees :) ".

So God works in mysterious ways :)

I don't know how that mother ever made sense of the flying kitten dropping out of the sky. Maybe the pastor confessed to her his sin, praying to God for forgiveness, and that the Society for the Protection of Animals would never find out :) Whatever the case may be, when the followers of Jesus tried to make sense of this miraculous, incredible thing that had happened, they didn't look to the skies. They looked to their scriptures. And they found there, in Psalm 118, it's one of the texts that suddenly jumped out, as if it had dropped down from the sky. Just jumped out at them. It's a text that's used in the Passover, that would have been read in the week immediately prior to Jesus' death. That they would have read every year as they celebrated the Passover.

And in that text, we find -- 5 times quoted in the New Testament -- one particular verse. I'll read the larger section of it from verses 14 through 24 (you may want to follow-along in your own Bible or the Pew Bibles). The Psalm speaks of a time when the people of God, the armies of Israel presumably, have surrounded them, and defeat is imminent, and they fear for their lives, when the hand of God saves them from this disaster. And so the Psalmist writes, presumably in the voice of the King:

The Lord is my strength and my might;
   he has become my salvation. 
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:

‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; 
16   the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
   the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’ 
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the Lord. 
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
   but he did not give me over to death. 

[Imagine them coming up to Jerusalem, up to the Temple of God]

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the Lord. 

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
   the righteous shall enter through it. 

21 I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation. 

[And then the verse that is quoted 5 times in the New Testament:]

22 The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone. 

23 This is the Lord’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes. 
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

 

So it turns out that Easter, as told for instance in the preaching of Peter in the 4th chapter of Acts (where this text appears one of those 5 times) isn't about the stone rolled away, it's about the stone that stays there -- the stone that is rejected by the elders and the leaders of the nation that becomes the chief cornerstone. The foundation for the church.

And that reversal reveals the work of God, through Jesus. It is made possible precisely because Jesus did not flee from the danger -- unlike the Disciples, you see, who fled. He stands up to the evil, without participating it in -- "Put away your swords", he tells the Disciples. He does not perpetuate the violence by adding to it. So take note, that the resurrection of Jesus does not include retribution by Jesus.

So imagine if this were Bruce Willis, you know, one of his movies. Raised from the grave, what would he say? Yippee-kay-yay, right? And then he would wipe out all of his enemies, that's what he does in those movies. It's a good thing, too, because otherwise our Easter greeting wouldn't have quite the same ring to it :)

So the reversal of Easter is not just about the reversal of death for Jesus, it is about the reversal of the way of death, the way of the world itself. And by that I do not mean the natural cycle of death. The good news is not that God overcomes the way of nature that God created in the first place. No, the good news is that the power of death, the hostility of the world towards the way of life intended by God for all of creation, that that way has been rejected by God, has been defeated by Christ.

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that Christians have taken the Easter message of life and turned it back into the Good Friday message of death. Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, and taking out revenge in the Inquisition. Or blaming Muslims for the fall of Jerusalem, and taking out revenge in the Crusades. Mistaking retribution for justice, and promoting capital punishment -- a life for a life -- contrary to the teachings of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Claiming everything from hurricanes from HIV/AIDS as God's punishment on homosexuality, contrary to common decency and the universal declaration of human rights. Such is not the Easter message. Such is the way of death. It is a return to that way that has been defeated by Christ, and we are a people -- an Easter people -- who gather this day to proclaim that way of life, the reversal of the way of death.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. It's not a story about what happened to that one man, it's a story about what happens to all of us. It's a story about the body of Christ built on that cornerstone. It is the story, if you read the first chapter of John's gospel, of all creation that is built on that cornerstone.

So let me end with how I began -- what do you think about this Jesus and resurrection thing?

Are you here because you were raised a Baptist, or a Catholic, or a Disciple? You know, that's not a bad place to start. And whatever brought you here -- because you just love the fellowship and all the people, the beautiful flowering of the cross, the wonderful music that we have each year, maybe you just came because you needed a good joke :), or maybe it's because it's a tradition in your family -- whatever it is that brings you here this day or any other, that is a good thing. But we who gather here as Easter people, we are called to build on that cornerstone. To join in God's reversal of the ways of death, transforming them into the way of life. To turn hate into love, grief into joy, wrong into good, despair into hope, war into peace.

For Christ is risen. The way of death has lost. The way of life has won.

So Easter people, say Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Let us celebrate and praise God.

 


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