“Sustained by Grace”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 5, 2015
University Baptist Church
We come together on Easter Sunday and we love the music. We love the visits from family and friends. We love the fact that color has come back to the sanctuary if not to our world. A good friend died two years ago and her family planted bluebonnets on her grave. And just this weekend, they bloomed. We love the celebration and the chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps and jelly beans and deviled eggs and a feast fit for kings and queens. It’s all to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Like springtime, he emerges from the tomb and we can’t believe our eyes at first, but then we see. The gracious gift of God. Sure as the spring comes, so does the resurrection.
But it’s not just about Jesus’ resurrection, is it?
I mean, we love the story: the early-morning tomb visit, the gardener, the angels, the rolled away stone, the sleeping guards, Jesus’ visit to all of them and the beginning of the next chapter of the people’s lives. They suspected that God was great, but this proved it. No emperor or guard or magistrate would ever again hold sway over them. Their God was alive. It’s about courage and grace.
Throughout the worship year, we have looked at the theme Rooted in Courage, Sustained by Grace. We have considered the stories of some of the major characters in the first century or two of Christianity. We have been moved by their courage in the face of great opposition and even death. Most of them were especially inspired by Jesus’ courageous life and his death on the cross. But that is not what makes a movement. What makes a movement is the way that it is sustained. And that comes from the grace of God.
The resurrection is the start of the Easter miracle. And grace is the gift given by God. To each of us. It’s a gift to sustain us.
We know the Easter story so well. Each Gospel tells it a bit differently. Listen again to the slant Mark gives it: After the Sabbath had ended, very early in the morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices to the tomb that they might anoint his body. In Mark 15:40, these three women were the only ones who witnessed the crucifixion. It is no accident that they were there at the tomb, too. This is not simply a pious act on the part of the women. In fact, it was risky. They could be imprisoned or stoned for being associated with an insurrecitonist. But they courageously did it anyway. It was an act of defiance. It was a form of disobedience. It was the way they got to say that they were in control. There was no power that was going to keep them from honoring Jesus’ life.
The disciples, on the other hand, were all hiding for their lives. They had been brought into Jesus’ inner circle, yet they never quite understood the import of all of Jesus’ teachings or actions.
But these three women were clearer than the others and kept a closer and perhaps even a more faithful witness than any disciple.
They came to the tomb, found the stone rolled away and an angel inside the tomb telling them that Jesus rose and that he has gone ahead of them in to Galilee.
And the story goes in Mark that they left the tomb and that terror and amazement had seized them, and here is how the oldest of the Gospels ends, “and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Most scholars agree that the final 12 verses of Mark 16 are later additions written by others uncomfortable with Mark’s ending, “and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”
We know that’s not how it ended. Because we have the story. But maybe Mark wrote it like that because we were the ones to write the next chapter. We are the ones who are to be captured by this story, overcome our fear and preach the Gospel to every creature…
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” Think of those hate-mongers out there. Isn’t there some kind of fear at the base of it? Think of people who are virulently anti-LGBT. Isn’t there a bit of homophobia mixed up with the homo-prejudice? Think about the hateful terrorists, isn’t there at their core some fear that their world is falling apart and they need to step in to right it? Might there be some fear for their children’s lives? The enemy is fear. We think it’s hate, but it’s fear.
The women needed something more powerful than fear, like courage and grace.
Somehow they mustered up the courage to get on with their lives. They show up in other Gospels telling Peter and the other disciples. We’re here as the church, so they must have said something. Courage is not something that you have naturally. We are hard wired in our amygdale, that reptilian part of our brains, to protect ourselves. Fear is an important thing. It helps us. But courage in spite of fear is what it is really about. It’s that prefrontal cortex that overrides the amygdale and makes a calculated choice to be brave.
And that courage is a gift from God. It’s the sustaining grace that God has given us. Isn’t that good news?
And so we dress up and bring color back to our lives, we OD on sugar. We love a good celebration. But an Easter celebration is not what sustains us. Sustaining implies more than a one-day celebration. Sustaining is hanging in there for the long haul, remembering that with each crucifixion, there is a grace-filled community that will stand by you and help you imagine a new reality. That’s what started on Easter. A grace-filled hope-sustaining movement that became the church and while we don’t always live up to our values, we come back to this day, not to congratulate ourselves but to commit again to be that kind of transformed community that will really make a difference. We are sustained by grace in the form of people inspired by grace.
The women got up their courage and remembered the story and told it to the disciples who told it to others who told it to us. And lest it be an idle tale, it has inspired many people to have courage in the face of great adversity.
Who would have believed even a week ago that there would be a nuclear arms deal with Iran, negotiating a peaceful settlement to a long and contentious battle. It appears to be a win-win. Reduction of weapons grade plutonium, dismantling the factories which could make nuclear arms, stiff reporting and verification in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and the dying away of war-drums. First Cuba, now Iran.
What shall we call this, the season of diplomacy? What will be the next country? Dare we dream it could be Israel and Palestine or Syria or Kenya or Yemen? The world seems to know war, but I’ll take a negotiated peace any day.
In Nigeria, the opposition leader has won the election. It’s the first time that a sitting president has been voted out. When Jean Lubke and I attended the global Bapitst Peace Conference in Rome six years ago, the African Baptists spoke with awe about the US succession of powers. In most African countries there is no such thing as an ex-president. Because most presidents leave office by coup or death.
Mahatma Gandhi said that “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.” Martin Luther King who died 47 years ago yesterday, was inspired by Gandhi and Jesus. And he took the mantle seriously that fear never sustains us. It can have a long staying power, but to transform the world we need to get beyond fear. Even fear of death. And like Jesus, both Gandhi and King showed that love is more powerful. That’s the sustaining grace. And when you have that, you can do courageous things, like imagine peace between warring factions, like imagining reconciliation amongst feuding family members, like taking that step for another job interview, knowing that God is by your side. Jesus showed by his death that love is more powerful than fear.
Mark says that Jesus went ahead of them to Galilee. And we know that Galilee is gentile land. It is far away from the powers which are held in Jerusalem.
It is the boondocks, the country where Jesus did most of his ministry. Galilee also implies a diversity of religious backgrounds and a sense of racial diversity which would be part and parcel to the hope which is born on Easter. Galilee implies the whole world!
The white robed one said to the women at the tomb, “he is not here. He is risen and he goes before you to Galilee.” He goes before you. That doesn’t mean he goes instead of you. It doesn’t mean that he goes so you don’t have to go. It doesn’t mean that he goes with someone else. But he goes before YOU.
He is your guide if you are willing to take up the cross of your own lives and follow him. He is saying, come with me. Cross to the difficult path. And don’t be afraid.
Because hope is reborn today and I will be with you to sustain you.
The point of the gospel is not to show how Jesus overcame the world so we don’t have to. The point of the Gospel is to give us courage and remind us of grace. That changes lives.
Think about what gives you life. What sustains you? What contributes to peace and wholeness? Music, gardening, nature, a good cup of coffee in the sunshine. A walk in the park. Sitting around a fire making maple syrup. Spending time with children or grandchildren that is not about scolding but is about fun, discovery and joy. Enjoying a baseball or soccer game in the sun. Biking around one o four 10,000 lakes, the wind blowing in your hair, or as my daughter likes to point out, lack thereof.
Jesus is going ahead of you to renew you, to enliven you. He’s in Galilee. Go meet him there.
Jesus didn’t say much after the resurrection. The gospels show him saying very little: “Feed my sheep, peace be with you.” But I wonder if he might have been thinking something like this:
So much has been written about me. So many have put words into my mouth—their imaginations or their hopes and dreams running wild. I arose on Easter. Yes, it’s true. I appeared to Mary first and then the disciples. Most of them didn’t believe it was me. I don’t blame them. Just like the curtain of the temple was torn in two, their lives were torn in two. But the curtain hid God. Now there was no barrier anymore.
The real miracle of Easter is not that I arose. God is powerful and can do many wondrous things. The miracle is that the people arose. It’s a miracle that people believe in spite of the evidence and common sense. The work of the church doesn’t make sense according to the world’s standards. It’s absurd to love one another and even our enemies. But that absurdity is what it’s all about. It’s Good News.
So I am glad that the people arose. It is a great way to celebrate Easter. I look forward to seeing the ways that they rise. I look forward to the ways that they muster the courage to do amazing things. And I will be right there beside you. Amazing grace. Hallelujah. May it sustain you after I’m gone. If it does, then I will have done my work, inspiring courage in you to make a difference in this world.
God bless you, like I did, may you rise, indeed.