There is no resurrection without death
The Bible readings for this sermon are Mark 15:42-16:8 The empty tomb, and Luke 24:13-35 The road to Emmaus. The sermon was delivered in a small congregation at a time when the Uniting Church in Australia is facing major changes.
'Change and decay, in all around I see…' (Abide with me)
The scrub where I played as a child has gone in a bushfire. The goannas and the eagles are gone. Other people own our farm. The church has been knocked down, and the cairn is hidden by weeds. The old couple I hiked across the paddocks to visit as a five year old, are long dead. Even the pile of rubble in the corner of a paddock- the one which was my nanna's house as a child, has been cleared away.
It's the same in the city. People grew up playing in sand hills which now bear rich people's houses. The warehouses are in dis-repair, the factories are closed. Churches are turned into funeral parlours or knocked down for flats. Childhood's corner stores, and the empty paddocks…. are all gone. Visions have faded. Hopes and dreams have died along with our friends.
The future feels bleak. Standing at a job centre computer this week, I heard a 17 year old say wryly to her friend; "Here's a job for you! Can you speak Vietnamese and shear sheep?!"
The words of scripture could be ours! "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." So many hopes we have had…. and now, often, it feels as though only a tomb remains, and even that is empty.
There is a temptation to use Easter to deny death... To pretty it up… To say everything will be OK because life is eternal…
But when we honestly feel our disappointments and fears we see that all things die. Jesus died- he died- he was dead. And when all they could do was put the spices on his body, even that was gone. It was as though we came to a cemetery with flowers, and there was not even a trace of the grave.
When he died, everything they had was lost. That… is death. And everything dies. All things come to an end.
We had a pot of beautiful marigolds…. lush and green, with bright yellow flowers. Some plague came; the plants were covered with white, and died. Nothing we did seemed to help. "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls…" 1 Pet 1:24-25
Everything ends. We have to face this fact or we will never really experience Easter. Our best efforts will come to an end. Our business may fail, or our job disappear. What we have depended upon may be removed. Perhaps we will escape that, but some one will buy our house, and rip up our garden, or tear down our walls.
Even the great and powerful die, and their work is undone. You might know Shelley's poem of the fallen statue in the desert:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away…..
Jesus does not shield us from death or change. A grain must die, and be reduced to an empty husk, for new life to rise. What Jesus does… is promise us victory over death. The promise is that we will go through death… in all its forms and find… resurrection.
The marigold pot I told you about is full of little shoots. New life is springing up. But it is growing in the midst of dry, ugly, dead stalks. It is not a manicured pot plant, but a picture of real life… a picture of resurrection. Resurrection: is new life in the midst of death. Resurrection: is the overcoming of all that may happen. It is the living through... and overcoming, our faith says, even of death.
Resurrection here in our congregation, will be the green shoots of a new life amidst the wreckage of an old and dying way of being the church. On the Emmaus road The Resurrection came to Cleopas and his companion in the midst of death; "we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel."
The pain, the proximity, the very smell of death, and the sour sweat of despair- it was all still with them. They were travelling with despair. Their hopes were in ruins. What they had wanted could never be! It was utterly destroyed and never to be had again. Jesus was gone forever-! He was dead- there was no doubt of it.
And yet amongst the wreckage of despair and death, their hearts burned within them as resurrection grew. Death had no final victory- the Christ returned.
The people on the Emmaus road didn't hide from death. They felt it. They talked about it. They shared their despair. They were the opposite of some dying churches, who pretend they have no problem- or the parent who never changes the room of a dead child, as if she will come back.
Life- real life- goes through death. Life looks death in the eye, and gasps and weeps with the pain and futility. And then… a Living person goes on. They make the journeys that must be made through grief. They keep the faith- hospitable to the stranger, saying the prayers, blessing the bread- and in the midst of death's wreckage resurrection comes!
The meal at Emmaus is a thinly disguised reference to Communion. They knew him in the breaking of the bread. They found he was still with them as they kept the faith they had learned. In acting out the faith, even in the midst of death and hopelessness, they met him again. He was with them in such power and such reality that 2000 years later we are telling the story again.
I believe God asks us to face something squarely:
the church as we know it and love it… is dying. There is no way we can continue with the old pattern of minister and congregation. The way of being church which has nurtured us with God's love over the years, no longer works! It doesn't reach the world around us. It cannot even sustain itself!
I tell you most seriously, if we deny this fact of death… then the reality of resurrection will be denied us! And this place, and this congregation, and this denomination… will be lost without a trace.
But- if we will face the fact of death……
If we will face the fact of death then there is a future!
As a minister, I have to accept that 'the ministry' to which I was called is finished. It's time is past. The Ministry of the Word will continue, but not in the way we have known it.
If I will struggle and weep through this, there will be a new calling for me… a resurrection out of the pain, and the poverty, and the homelessness. If I deny the death of 'the ministry' as we have known it, then I will sell my soul to get a dying, death denying parish, and know only death.
As a congregation, if you… will face the pain that what you have strived for and built and live with and hoped in here is… in a way… dead- you will find life! There will be resurrection. In the tired, run down remains of an old way of being the church you will find a new life in Christ- a new life beyond what was ever expected. The scars and disappointments and memories will always be here. But there will be resurrection. There will be a new way of being the church… a new life… more blessings of the Spirit… and grace in all its richness. Long ago, Moses said to the people of Israel, "Choose life!"
Jesus says today, "Choose life! I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly."
Easter is the promise of life. Resurrection life. Life beyond death- in the midst of death. Life that prepares us even for the death of body and soul itself.
Choose Life. Amen
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