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Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Passion Sunday, Cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Where do we stand? Where do you line up? Can you see yourself parading with the peace marchers who threw their garments on the ground and waved palm branches in the air striding into Jerusalem through the East gate? They shouted Hosanna! It means, ‘Lord save us!” (Mark 11:9)
Or perhaps could you picture yourself on the other side of town at that other larger and more organized parade scholars tell us rode into Jerusalem that day by the West gate, the one celebrating the power of Empire, and the mighty spectacle of military hardware, human ingenuity, order, and discipline represented by the Roman army? They were like so many who crowd the lakeshore at the Air and Water show here in Chicago.
Or perhaps, you can see yourself lining up with that other crowd of religious nationalists and cynics who found fellowship with each other in heaping scorn upon a scapegoat. Finding someone to blame for all their troubles, they shouted, “crucify him.” (Mark 15:13) Or are we like Simon of Cyrene, compelled into service, somehow, almost by accident, we became part of this story through no decision or desire of our own? (Mark 15:21)
Or perhaps, you see yourself lining up with that battle-hardened, world-weary Centurion standing at the foot of the cross, who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39) The bible doesn’t say. I wonder, what did that Centurion see that no one else did? Some say the Centurion was merely being satirical and ironic rather than faithful.
The peace march, and the military parade, the self-righteous, and the accidental tourist, both the faithful and the cynical confessor –I confess, I have played them all. I have visited all these places. Whether by commission or omission, I have marched in all these parades.
But Mark seems to say something we haven’t thought of. Mark seems to see us standing, not among the living, but among the dead. He tells us the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. Literally, the realms of heaven and earth are now joined together. The undying life of God now lays in, with, and under, all that is. So that even the sky could see and mourn the tragedy of Jesus’ death.
We are like poor Lazarus stumbling out from his tomb, called from darkness into the light. Freed from death we would yet close our eyes. We long to lay down again in the cold comfort of our graves, but for the call of the Lord of Life, who now stands with the crucified, the bloodied, the brutalized, the betrayed, the executed, the lynched, the refugee, the suffering, the afflicted, the poor. God with us. We stand with Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, even to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) Our parade follows the winding way of Jesus and his cross, so that, like him, our weakness may become our strength, our emptiness a fountain of abundance, our unknowing a source of wisdom, our very mortality a gateway to eternal life.
  This Thursday, March 25th, was the anniversary of my baptism. Some of you will remember I didn’t always know the day that I was baptized, or the place, or even (briefly) I worried whether I was baptized at all —until we undertook a baptismal project here at Immanuel some years ago. I had to do some sleuthing.
March 25th is significant for another less personal reason. Nine months before Christmas, in which the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, it is a festival day, the Annunciation of Our Lord. The ancient church believed that this was also the date of the world’s creation and of Jesus’ death on the cross. March 25 was marked as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries.
Christmas and the cross go together. In Mark’s gospel, the cross, like the day of Christ’s birth, is a sign of the incarnation. I was marked with the sign of this cross at my baptism, as you were. We would be mere clay and ash but for the breath God breathed into us. Where do we stand? We stand with Jesus. Where do you line up? We line up behind the Lord. Stand beneath the warm gaze of God to be healed. The cross shouts once and for all, stop striving and trying and planning to make yourself better and stronger. Try instead this other plan. Let love draw you. Let fellowship with Christ elevate you. Let the undying life of God fill you. To God be given praise.

Fourth Sunday in Lent – cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One of the matriarchs of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, told me several years ago, she used to carry snakes around in a basket as a child. I’ve always shied away from snakes. I take comfort in the fact snakes want to avoid me almost as much as I want to avoid them.

Only 400 of the known 3,000 snakes are poisonous. And the venom can lead to death. More people are killed by bee stings than by snake bites, but that statistic doesn’t stop most of us from having an almost primordial fear of them. A Harris Poll (1999) found nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the thing they feared most. People are more afraid of snakes than they are of public speaking and spiders! Are you one of them?

You remember the scheming serpent Adam and Eve Encountered in the Garden of Eden. But what about this bizarre, mysterious and fascinating story about Moses, the Israelites, and the poisonous serpents that bit them? Slavery in Egypt is behind them. Somewhere in the middle of their 40-year sojourn to the promised land the people were forced to back track. They had to make a lengthy detour around the territory of Edom rather than go through it. They were already tired and impatient—literally, “short of soul.” This was too much.

So, they complained their usual complaint to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers21:5b). ‘There is no food and no water. We’re sick of this miserable food.”

When they were starving, manna was heaven-sent. But the people were fed up eating manna cakes every day. Vegetarian manna stew, manna and quinoa loaf. It was much too much. “Like us—when things don’t go our way, when patience runs thin, when gratitude is scarce, and when the past is idealized—they grumble. They whine. They complain. The King James Bible says: they murmur!” (Rev. Craig Mueller, “Antivenom,” 4/7/18) Things were so much better back in Egypt, they murmur. Sure, we were slaves, but the food was delicious. So, the people went to Moses to have it out with him. Seeing no end in sight, they fear they will die in the wilderness.

The saying goes, every church, even to this very day, has a back-to-Egypt committee. We all take turns serving on that one. Sometimes, we just want things to go back to the way things were rather than expose ourselves the slings and arrows of the unknown future. So, God answered their murmuring with poisonous snakes. The snakes bit the people back to their senses. And some of them died. Yet it gets the people’s attention, and they repent.

They return to God seeking healing and forgiveness. And God provides a very strange and shocking remedy. Not snake bait, or an exterminator, not even a snake charmer! But an antivenom. The snakes still exist and they continue to bite people, but now, they do not die. God told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole. The snakes are the result of the people’s disobedience and sin. But the snake-on-the-stick is the means to their healing and salvation. They would look at it and live.
If you’re wondering what in the world is antivenom? Snake venom is injected in mammals such as horses, sheep or rabbits. These animals have an immune response that naturally generates antibodies against the venom. The antivenom is harvested from the blood of the animal and stored to treat snake bite victims.
Antivenom. The cure for snakes is a snake. Amazing. As one preacher (Barbara Brown Taylor) said, Moses takes the very source of the people’s fear, their rebellion, and their death. Pulls it up from beneath their feet and puts it on a pole for the people to look at.

Strange story. Yet this is the story Jesus tells the late-night Rabbi, Nicodemus, to explain himself when he came asking about who Jesus is. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him might have eternal life” (John 3:14). Jesus is the antivenom. Jesus takes the poison of this world and gives it back for healing.

In the desert, God simultaneously taught the people about their sin and about God’s grace. The problem and the solution came in the form of the same bronze serpent. Pastor and author Max Lucado says, “To see sin without grace is to despair. To see grace without sin is arrogance. To see them in tandem is conversion.” In the fiery serpent, just as in the cross, sin and grace are combined into one symbol. Jesus, our holy serpent, lifted upon the cross, draws us out from the darkness of our hearts and minds. Jesus will crush underfoot and replace the powers and principalities that rule this age with the air and light and grace of the Kindom of God.

In John’s gospel Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are comfortable and familiar with this idea. It is Jesus, after all, who gently, patiently, and tirelessly sought us out though we were lost. Yet, for John, Jesus is also the antivenom who meets us in the unseen depths of our hearts and minds. Jesus, our Immanuel, comes among us, slithering into our delusions of self-sufficiency, into our fears, our hatred, our love of violence. Out of his mouth come words that cut like a sword, venomous, prophetic words. They bite and threaten our delusions in order to heal us.

Almost as a reflex, we reach for a club or pole to beat him to death. And yet, by that very pole God lifts him up, raises him toward heaven, exalts him above all other creatures. God delivered us from destruction. Jesus is lifted up on the cross. Jesus is lifted up from the grave. Jesus is lifted up at the ascension and we are lifted up with him.

The poisonous, prophetic Word of Jesus is our anti-venom, our antidote for sin. Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us out of the heart of human darkness. Jesus shined a light upon our path to leads us out of our lostness. Now, we, together with all who meant to kill him, standing at the foot of the pole meant to destroy him, look up and say, ‘Truly this man is the Son of God.’ Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. We are lifted up. Thanks be to God!

The daily newspaper chronicles our will to death and darkness –political corruption, violence as media entertainment, corporate greed, religious wars, and the extinction of countless species of living things. But “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Like the bronze serpents of old, Jesus uncoils our fears, cleanses our hearts, is remaking us and our world from the inside out. This is grace. Amazing grace. This is life. Eternal life, beginning now and stretching into forever. This now is our mission. Alive and at work with Jesus to lead all people out from darkness into light, from hatred into mutual love, from judgment into mercy, from death into life. Amen.