Dear Friends in Christ,
Having just recently returned for our “trip of a lifetime” to the Holy Land, we are filled with so many thoughts and emotions. This tremendous gift from our sons turned out to be all that we had hoped it would be – and more. Having read and studied the Scriptures our whole lives, it was awe inspiring to visit the very places that we have read about so often.
The easiest thing for us to “get over” was the idea that we would see and touch the “actual” places where Jesus was born, died, healed folks, etc. We had no illusions that the modern sites and shrines were anything more than guesses. We just wanted to breathe in the air, look at the hills, and wade in the water that was so much part of all we knew and had read about of our ancient faith.
What was a bit of a shock, though, was just how much things had been built over. Though we knew better, we longed to stand on the hill of Calvary and imagine what had transpired there – now there is a church there, making this, like every other supposed holy site that we have in our minds, unrecognizable.
So when people ask us what it was about our trip to Israel that affected us most, the answer is that it was simply the fact of being there – of walking the stone streets and traversing the narrow alleys of shops and trying to transport ourselves back in time.
There is an old, old poem, written by William Stidger, that kept running through our heads, particularly as we stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and gazed at the surrounding hills:
Judean hills are holy …
Judean hills are fair,
For one can find the footprints
Of Jesus everywhere.
This was the sense we had while in Israel, and the greatest impression that will remain with us.
Upon our return, we were especially blessed to learn how well our church leaders, staff and congregation handled things in our absence. You worked your way together through two funerals and a funeral luncheon, with the help of our superbly gifted “on call pastors” Rev. Pamela Short and Rev. Karen Vanderploeg; you tended to our folks who were sick or in distress at home or in the hospital; and all this was handled with grace and aplomb. Our Deacons rose to the challenge of shepherding their “flocks,” and our staff and elders handled all the details surrounding worship. Elders Michael Penrod and Christina Guenther, along with former ruling elder Chris Dunn, proclaimed the good news and offered challenges to our congregation in admirable fashion.
And so we move ahead into the summer, with a variety of activities ahead of us. We will have fond memories of our time in Israel to reflect upon together with you in the days ahead, and we will continue to offer up prayers of thanksgiving for all the ways in which church members and staff stepped up in our absence. As someone posted on Facebook a while back – “This church rocks!”
Grace and peace –
Mary Jane and Gary Saunders
Easter Sermon 2017
(This was presented in the form of a dialogue sermon with the pastors alternating reading the text.)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Jesus is gone.
He is done with the death business.
No stone was going to hold him in a state of death.
Mary took a look inside.
She ran and reported
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.
With good intent, she was wrong twice:
No one removed him, and no one laid him elsewhere.
He was gone – left the scene.
He left behind those death cloths…
The much mentioned “linen wrappings” (3 times in two verses)
They were strewn around.
Like the wrapping paper after Christmas presents are opened.
Nothing to unwrap here…
He was gone.
And he left one final touch,
Demonstrating who was Master of this incomprehensible scene.
“The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was not lying with the linen wrappings but – rolled up in a place by itself. “
Neat and tidy, tidy and neat.
Others came and looked and studied
The disciple detective squad
But despite the clues, they were clueless, and went home.
But not Mary, who did what we do when shattered and confused:
As Jesus had done outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
So many of US are in the weeping stage.
It is our nature, no matter how close or long we have walked with Jesus.
Life keeps dealing death-blows, and they seem so final.
Our Saviour seems powerless against them. Many of us are so very aware of those who are no longer with us. Hearts are heavy as we feel the absence of those we love. Death seems so final – and so awful. And we, like Mary can feel so very alone.
As the good things, the good people of life are destroyed, our image of Jesus as the Rock, the Good Shepherd, the King of kings, dies in our hearts.
So we stand with Mary, weeping at the tragedy, the unfairness of life.
But then, she took a look inside the tomb.
It was rocking – Two angels, and all those linen wrappings.
He was not dead, or lying wounded.
He was GONE.
There was a future to shape up, a kingdom to create.
He had laid out the architectural plans in his ministry – now it was time to build.
But he did stop back.
Is that a smile on his face as he sees Mary, and sees us, in our frustration and our tears?
We don’t even recognize him – our last image was of the defeated one on the cross.
Who is this guy so full of life? The gardener?
He breathes out our names, and the scales fall from our eyes.
This is not the third day of death – this is Easter.
This is not 9/11 in the evening,
This is the Freedom Tower in the morning.
This is not the pink slip with the paycheck,
This is the first day of a whole new free future.
This is not the day of death’s victory march –
This is the day of resurrection.
There are linen wrappings everywhere.
(slowly) Some of them look very familiar.
They are the shreds of our life failures.
Our sins…our shortcomings…our guilt…our anxiety…
They had seemed so powerful…they had a strangle-hold on us.
But they have met their match. They belonged to the realm of death, which Jesus has just faced straight on and overcome. Torn up. Shredded.
The wrappings, the shreds are all around in this Easter world. Let’s look for a few of them.
We don’t have to look far. We’ll eat our brunch in a room where every week folks in 12 step groups confront their addictions and step past them into God’s future. That room is crammed with linen wrappings…as is this sanctuary, where many have been bound by destructive temptations or other ways of death – and found freedom in the power of the risen Christ.
More linen wrappings…Ashley England told a Charlotte North Carolina TV station that she went to dinner with her family on a Friday evening, including her 8-year-old son, Riley. At the table, Riley, who has special needs, began to get “a little rowdy.”
“The past few weeks have been very hard and trying for us – especially with public outings,” England said. “Riley was getting loud and hitting the table and I know it was aggravating to some people.” That’s when she says a waitress walked over to the table with tears in her eye and a note. “I’ll try to do this without crying,” the waitress told the family. “But another customer has paid for your bill tonight and wanted me to give you this note.” The note read: “God only gives special children to special people.”
That wasn’t just a note – that was a linen wrapping, a leftover of the risen Christ’s demolishing of death and all its ways.
These wrappings swirl all around us – but it’s so easy to miss them with our tear-filled eyes.
More linen wrappings: On a Facebook post, we read: Ten minutes after I got home from work today, a car pulled up to the curb outside our home. A man, maybe 30, Middle-Eastern, got out and began walking across our front yard toward the door; I stepped out to meet him. Indicating the sign in our front yard that says “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” he said this:
“Sir, I am from Syria. And I wanted to thank you for this. Because of people like you, we feel safe here in the United States. We feel wanted.”
I shook his hand. He handed me a plastic bag with two tulips in it, which are now sitting in front of me in a vase as I type this. And I cannot stop crying.
Those weren’t just tulips…they were the linen wrappings, left behind by the resurrected Jesus, who had been there and was gone, out creating a world of New Life, of peace and justice and neighbors loving neighbors,
Creating a new fellowship that dismisses loneliness – where no one is marginalized, but ALL are welcome.
One more, linen wrapping told by Pak Yadi of Indonesia.
In 2004 the great Tsunami – tidal wave – took his whole family. He buried them all, with his own hands. His community was utterly destroyed. Death did a victory dance.
In the midst of his tears, he had to start life over. As a farmer – he had to plant something.
He received a $400 grant for seeds from One Great Hour of Sharing.
And used it to plant watermelons and chilis.
His plants grew, he remarried, and he became the seed bank for the other broken farmers. And now they have become a community once again.
Those seeds were linen wrappings, evidence of Christ’s resurrection power – provided by us, and showing that the risen Christ always has the final dance.
Today we have traditions of hiding Easter eggs. Where are they – can we see them? We’ll let our children and youth enjoy that tradition after the service.
But the far more important task for us all of us is to look around for the linen wrappings.
To clear the tears from our eyes. To see in the places of death – in the places of our deepest sorrows – in the places of our greatest failures – in our families – in our classrooms – on our campus – in our community – in our nation – in the depth of our inmost hearts – to see the forces that seem so powerful and awful tossed aside and defeated by our Lord – linen wrappings left behind.
To see angels where demons seemed to reign.
And with these Easter eyes, finally, to see the Lord, leading us out from these contemplations of death.
Dismissing our fears and doubts, leading us onward, and upward,
We wipe the tears from our eyes, we step up and we step out
The message of resurrection is this: Love wins. Or as we sang earlier in the service,
Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate,
Light is stronger than darkness, Life is stronger than death.
Victory IS ours, through God who loves us!
We join with Mary Magdalene and all the faithful of all the ages with the shout of faith:
WE HAVE SEEN THE LORD!
CHRIST IS RISEN –
(all) HE IS RISEN INDEED!
Dear Friends in Christ,
March is turning to April and in the world of nature, the great flowering celebration of spring is beginning to show up, as promised by the Author of all seasons. On the church calendar, we have a different celebration approaching, the most important of the year. April 16 is Easter – the great Day of Resurrection – the highest holy day of the Christian faith.
But – it doesn’t come until the 16th. Right now we are in the later, gritty days of Lent. We have purple up in the sanctuary; some of us have sacrificed some things in our lives and others have added tasks of loving our neighbor. Some are regularly building up their One Great Hour of Sharing gifts to the Lord; some are eating in the manner of people in less developed countries; some are trading computer time in for devotional time.
All together, we as a church family are buckling down, gearing up, and stepping into the most fundamental, most deeply seated, most sacrificial and most inspiring matters of our Christian lives. Because there is no way to get to Easter without journeying through the conclusion of Lent – Palm Sunday, Holy Week, the passion and crucifixion of Christ, his death-cry from the cross, his forgiveness of his betrayers and tormenters, and the crushing sound of a boulder rolled against his tomb. This is not kids’ stuff. This is the time when we confront how hard , unjust and tragic life can be, and how far we fall short of God’s dreams for us and for this world.
The temptation, of course, is to try to turn a blind eye to the hard matters. We even did this in the churches! Many congregations had strong Palm Sunday services, focused on children, the great parade and the waving Palm Branches. In former days our tradition then called for a major Good Friday service, chronicling the crucifixion, and back in the day employers let many workers off at noon to attend those services. But the world turned, and many/most folks couldn’t or wouldn’t turn out for the somber and reflective worship on the day of the Cross. So in effect we created a “short-cut” from Palm Sunday to Easter – from celebration to celebration, bypassing the grit of Christ’s path to the cross.
Those of us who live in the real world know that there is no such short-cut. M. Scott Peck sold millions of copies of The Road Less Travelled, starting it famously with three words: “Life is difficult.” From injustice to tragedy to suffering to loneliness to death, we all must walk the path of the cross, forged by the footprints of Christ. These are part of life. No short-cuts.
We’re offering a wide range of Holy Week events, described inside. We invite you to take them very seriously and to attend at least one. This is a time to let God improve our souls for the great journey of life. There will be no other week like it in the year.
And then – we will be ready to gather for the Good News of Easter – that God’s love is always the last word, even against the gates of hell; that God’s power transcends all injustice and even death itself. It will be the time for triumphant music and flowers and yes, candy, – and for offering ourselves “lost in wonder, love and praise” to our good God. And to wish each other…
Revs. Mary Jane & Gary