Thursday, April 20, 2017

Get Out!

Get Out! (4/16/17)

 Qi He, The Risen Christ Appears

I borrowed the title of my Easter sermon from the comedy/horror movie Get Out. That might seem like an odd choice for an Easter message, but maybe not. Please read on to find the connection.

          He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)
          Today I do not wish you a good morning, because today is a great morning! Today is the day we remember the resurrection of our Lord; today is the day that we proclaim the empty tomb! Thanks be to God! He is risen!
          Sometimes, when I’m writing my sermons, I feel like I’m repeating myself. Sometimes, I worry that I am just hammering you folks, over and over again with the same message. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself. Repeating myself. Repeating…it’s okay to laugh at this. I’m making fun of myself; I’m not calling you folks out for anything.
          The message that I keep repeating is this: Get outside of these walls; go forth and be the church! Sometimes I worry that I’m spending too much time preaching that part of the message and I’m not spending enough time preaching the hope and the joy of the resurrection. There are times when I really want to write a nice, happy sermon, but in the end, it feels like I’m telling you—one more time—to go out and be the church. And that’s what I’m going to say this morning, but perhaps with a bit more hope and joy.
          Mind you, I’m convinced that we are called to go forth and be the church. I will continue to preach that message. That’s why I borrowed by sermon title from a recent comedy/horror film, Get Out. Let me say, this movie isn’t for everyone and I’m not telling any of you to go out and see it. My tastes may be very different from yours. Get Out is sort of a parody of the typical horror movie plot, in which the main character has to get out of a dangerous situation. It also refers to the unbelief of people who are on the outside of that situation. When one of the supporting characters goes to the police, to explain that his best friend is missing, the police don’t believe him. They laugh at his claims. In essence, the police tell the friend to get out of their office. Actually, they laugh him out of their office.
          This same sort of disbelief affects Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. She can’t believe that the stone has been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. Get out! She can’t believe that Jesus’ body isn’t there. Get out! And when the risen Christ speaks to her, Mary Magdalene initially thinks that she’s speaking with the gardener. Get out!
          This is the pattern in the Gospel of John. People see Jesus perform signs, yet they still have trouble believing. Think of Nicodemus. He visits Jesus in the dark of night. He knows that Jesus is a teacher who was sent from God, he knows that Jesus has performed many signs, but he doesn’t understand the nature of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, born from above, born through the Holy Spirit, to become a child of God. Nicodemus cannot yet understand the truth that Jesus is from God and Jesus is God. In disbelief, Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Get out!
          Throughout this Gospel, Jesus heals people; he performs these signs on the Sabbath. The Pharisees hear reports of these healings. Certainly, the Pharisees believe that God can heal the sick, but they cannot accept the idea that a person who is sent from God would heal people on the Sabbath. God wouldn’t break God’s own commandment. Like Nicodemus, the Pharisees can’t imagine that Jesus is both human and God. Get out! Healing on the Sabbath? Get out!
          The reports of Jesus’ miracles ought to be enough to convince everyone. Heck, these stories ought be enough to convince people in this generation to come to church every Sunday, but they’re not. Jesus’ incarnation defies all other categories. The human Jesus existed only once. God had never entered the world in human form prior to the incarnation. The Word made flesh is a form of existence that had no category before the incarnation. Everyone expected the Messiah to fit a category, to look like something that already existed—someone like King David.
          Of course, the Pharisees couldn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah! The Messiah would be sent from God, so the Messiah must be righteous. Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. That wasn’t righteous. Jesus didn’t fit the category.
          Of course, the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna!” also shouted, “Crucify!” Sure, maybe some of them had believed that Jesus was the Messiah when they saw or heard tell of Jesus’ powerful signs. But Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified. That wasn’t what a powerful Messiah would do. Jesus didn’t fit their category, either.
          And of course, Mary Magdalene doesn’t realize she’s speaking with the risen Christ on Easter morning. Mary expected to find the broken body of Jesus, the body that hung on a cross. A living, breathing, and walking Jesus didn’t fit Mary’s expectations. In the Gospel of John, seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
          And what about us? What are we expecting to see?
          Expectations are funny things. Truly, truly I tell you, I never expected to be up here. I never expected to be a pastor and I certainly never expected to serve in this community, that is so closely tied to my own family history. You have to understand, in recent years, I have felt isolated, disconnected from my past.
          I grew up in a big extended family. I know I’ve told you this before, but my grandmother was one of ten children. I grew up going to big family gatherings. Once a year, we’d have a family reunion at Flatwoods. And also, once or twice a year, there’d be a family funeral at Ferguson’s. That was the rhythm of life in my family. It was good.
          Grandma died twelve years ago. She was 97 and she was ready to go, God bless her, but she was the last one left from her generation. In the years since, many of my elderly cousins have passed away, too. I lost my dad three and a half years ago. I felt like a boat, cast off from its moorings. I was adrift, no longer connected to my roots. I didn’t realize how deeply my identity was connected to these family members who had passed away.
          I’m not alone in dealing with uncomfortable changes. In the last two generations, we’ve seen an awful lot of changes here in the Mon Valley. You saw so many of your children and grandchildren leave the Valley for other opportunities. We also saw the decline of the industries—coal and steel—that gave this region its identity.
          We’ve seen our churches decline, too. We can all remember the times when the pews were completely full. And woe unto you, if you sat in the wrong pew! I’m sure most of you can tell me where the Smith family sat every Sunday. No doubt, some of you remember when every classroom in the Sunday school building was full, too.
          We long for those things that are familiar and comfortable. When we look to the church of the past or the Mon Valley of the past, we know what we’re looking for. We know all the categories. We know where everyone and everything fits. Now we’re not so sure. We’re searching for something, but we can’t quite find it.
          The past has shaped our expectations in ways that we don’t fully appreciate. In a sense, we’re looking for something that we can never find, because the things that we’re looking for existed in a very specific time and place. So, part of the problem is our expectations. The rest of the problem might simply be that we are looking. Remember, in the Gospel of John, seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
          The Pharisees see a lawbreaker who heals people on the Sabbath.
          The crowds in Jerusalem see a prisoner being led away to his execution.
          Mary Magdalene sees a gardener.
          Mary Magdalene sees a gardener, because she’s expecting to see a dead body. She can’t separate her seeing from her expectations. She is blind to the truth of the risen Christ before her eyes—but she doesn’t stay blind!
          One of the most important details in this story is that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb before sunrise. It’s still dark. “The reference to the time of day again reinforces one of the major theological themes” in John’s Gospel, “light and darkness.”[1] Darkness symbolizes ignorance, not knowing Jesus’ true identity. Light represents knowledge and relationship. To be in relationship with Christ is to know that Jesus is the Word made flesh; it is true enlightenment!
          Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus when she hears his voice. Hearing is believing. Jesus explains this earlier in this Gospel. After he heals the man who was blind from birth, Jesus explains that he is the Good Shepherd, and that his sheep will know him by his voice and they will follow his call: The man who was born blind knows who Jesus is because he heard Jesus’ voice. Lazarus is raised from the dead and walks out of the tomb when Jesus calls: “Lazarus, come out!” Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Christ when he calls her by name. “The sheep know and recognize the voice of the shepherd because he calls them by name.”[2] And in the knowledge of the risen Christ, she went to the other disciples and she testified. She stepped into the light of Christ’s love and she shared her knowledge with others.
          Jesus got out of the tomb. He called Mary Magdalene by her name and she responded to that call; she got out of the garden and she testified to what she heard and saw. Beloved, sometimes I worry that I am repeating myself in the pulpit. But you know what? Sometimes we don’t fully understand something the first time we hear it. It wasn’t until I was thirty-five years old until I began to hear the call to ministry—and even then, it took me another five years to get myself to seminary!
          The Gospels are filled with stories of the disciples, and how they don’t fully grasp who and what Jesus is. So, if all of us don’t quite get it first time around, then we’re in really good company! The incarnation is a unique event; it baffled people in Jesus’ time and it still baffles us today. And the resurrection isn’t the easiest thing to explain, either.
          We come to understand these things by sharing our experiences with one another and by the careful study of Scripture. We gather here in church to hear the Word and reflect on its call. And we are sent from this place to share the Word with everyone. This is the faithful response of the sheep who has heard the voice of the shepherd. This responsibility falls on all of us.
          So, yes! Get out! Get out there and listen! Get out and love! Get out and witness to the risen Christ! Get out and shine with the light of love in and through Jesus Christ! This is our calling; the burden is light, but the need is urgent. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 238.
[2] Lewis, p. 241.

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