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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Marguerite L. Buel following her stroke and to Leslie Fulford and family on the death of her mother, Barbara Campbell, and always to the glory of God!
Resurrection as a Moral Value Part VIII of VIII in the Sermon Series: "Moral Values: Which Values and Whose Values?"
Acts 10:34 -43, Matthew 28:1-10

The first Easter was an extraordinary day. According to Matthew's Gospel, as dawn was breaking, an earthquake hit, splitting rocks in two. An Angel of the Lord descended from heaven like lightening, with raiments as white as snow, rolled back the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb and sat on it. The guards fell down like dead men. The women, who went in the predawn hours to anoint a dead body, heard the angel say from his perch on the rock, "Do not be afraid . . . Jesus is raised from the dead . . . Come and See . . . Go and Tell! ...Go to Galilee . . . He will meet you there!"

Before sleep had cleared their eyes, before fear had left their bones, the women saw their Risen Lord! This was more than they could handle. Immediately they fell to down, kissed his feet and worshiped him. Our Risen Lord echoed the words of the angel, "Do not be afraid . . . Go and Tell! ...Go to Galilee !" With the sun barely touching the face of the earth, the world was turned upside down. The world would never be the same again!

The first, extraordinary Easter story has the power to guide us to a new place of understanding this Easter morning. From Matthew's gospel we learn the value of Resurrection Faith. From Luke's account of Cornelius' conversion in Acts, we learn that inclusion is a moral issue. More specifically, we learn that purity leads to exclusion and inclusivity leads to God. Finally, Matthew's account teaches us the value of finding home and going home.

1. Resurrection faith is a moral issue. "Do Not Be Afraid!" says the angel of the Lord and Risen Christ to the women at the tomb. Fear is one of our greatest enemies in life - no matter what the sphere of fear is. Years ago, facing the his fear related to his own battle with cancer David Watson wrote these words in Fear No Evil: A Personal Struggle with Cancer:

(I discovered in my battle with cancer) that nothing is certain . . . Everything is a matter of faith . . . (In fact), the opposite of faith is fear, and I have found that there is a constant running battle between the two. In one sense, fear is faith in what you do not want to happen. Job once said, "The thing I fear comes upon me, and I what I dread befalls me" (Job 3:25 ) . . . Fear is a great deceiver and destroyer. It robs our minds of peace; it breaks up relationships; it ruins our health; it goads us into foolish, impulsive and sometimes violent action; it paralyzes our thinking, trusting, and loving . . . (David Watson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984, pp.152-153).

"Do not fear!" We cannot pass over this angelic and Messianic proclamation as superficial. Quite the opposite! Both the Son of God and the Angel of the Lord knew all too well how paralyzing fear can be! Jesus spent his entire ministry battling fear. Fear consumed his enemies. Fear strangled his disciples at times. Fear of the stranger or the neighbor! Fear of commitment to a relationship with God and one another. Fear of salvation. Fear of living and fear of dying. Fear of eternal life!

The Risen Christ tells both Marys, "Do not be afraid." We can see the faces of the women on the stage of global politics and war. We see fear in terror anywhere and war everywhere. Fear greets and grips us in our personal encounters of everyday life. We see fear in the Schiavo family and all too many families faced by death and dying. One week ago, fear gripped a teenage boy from Red Lake , Minnesota , who then, out of fear, terrorized and killed others and himself.

But, Faith rose on Easter morning! Faith blew the rock away! Faith raised Christ! Just as it did then, faith frees us now to do and be more than we could ever do or be while sleepwalking in our fears! Faith frees us to a enter new relationships with God and with one another! Faith leads us to encounter the stranger and the neighbor in our midst! Faith makes this life and eternal life real. Faith in God gives life, sustains life, holds life in the balance and raises the dead. Such faith as this is needed on behalf of all the Schiavos, the people of Red Lake Reservation and every person, family and community in times of extreme terror and war.

We are blessed with a Risen Savior who proclaims "No Fear!" Resurrection Faith is a moral issue. It is a moral issue because resurrection faith empowers us as ordinary people to become extraordinary witnesses to life over death and faith over fear. If you stand at the edge of faith, leap into a relationship with the Risen Christ. As you do, you will find that fear gives way to faith.

Secondly, Inclusion is a Moral Issue. From Luke's account of Cornelius' conversion in Acts, We are presented with a very important life lesson. It is this: purity leads to exclusion and inclusivity leads to God. In Cornelius' conversion, Peter discovers that the true power of faith in the Risen Christ comes when we realize that "God shows no partiality!" Unfortunately, this central lesson of inclusivity has been lost on too many people and too many nations in our times. Ours has become a world of ethnic, ideological and theological cleansing in search of a kind of purity.

In their book A Spacious Heart, Croatian theologians, Miroslav Volf and Judith Gundry-Volf address the terrors and tragedies both politically and religiously driven by the claims for purity - terrors which both Judith and Miroslav have witnessed firsthand in their homeland. They suggest that sin is not so much a defilement as it is a certain form of purity - the exclusion of the other from one's heart and world.

Judith and Miroslav turn to the story of the Prodigal Son in which the real sinner was the older brother who withheld an embrace of his fallen and then forgiven younger brother. The older brother's sense of purity expected exclusion. Volf writes, "Sin is the refusal to embrace others in their otherness and a desire to purge them from one's world by ostracism or oppression, deportation or liquidation . . . (and ultimately) the exclusion of others is the exclusion of God." (Judith M. Gundry-Volf and Miroslav Volf, A Spacious Heart, Harrisburg, PA., Trinity Press International, 1997, p. 49).

In the name of Christ, there are all too many who exclude God by their practice of excluding others. Some of you in this room have suffered exclusion in such a way as this. This exclusion is centered in beliefs that don't fit into particular definitions of purity. Using the words of "Sin" and "Sinner" - words which actually include each one of us - whole systems of exclusion are established and executed effectively and efficiently. Grace evaporates. Forgiveness becomes conditional. The God of these systems is not God at all.

When I see this, I become self-righteous, too. I get angry and say, "How could they exclude others? What right do they have? And how does this reflect the love of Christ?" But, all wrapped up in my self-righteousness, God taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that exclusivity runs through our congregational bloodstream. Remember the Massachusetts Puritans of the 17 th Century?! Ostracism and oppression were practices of our faith once. In 1660, Mary Dyer, a Quaker freethinker, was hanged on Boston Commons by Puritans. The Puritans called her a heretic when she dissented from their theology, morality, and politics. Before she died, she declared, "Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth." Sounds like Jesus to me.

As we look at our lives and the world in which we live, each of us needs to ask: "How am I excluding others? Who am I excluding?" Like Peter facing Cornelius, we need to say, "Surely God shows no partiality." Who am I to exclude when God does not?

We in the church have practiced purity over inclusivity. Forgiven, redeemed, and risen with Christ, I invite you to walk out of the empty tomb of exclusion and step into the brilliant light of inclusion. On this most extraordinary Easter Day, remember that to exclude others is to exclude God! Embrace inclusion as a moral issue.

Finally, Finding our "Home" is a moral value. The Risen Christ tells the women to pass on this message to his disciples - "Meet me in Galilee ." What does this mean to you? It seems to serve as a coded message. If I said to you, "Meet me in Tuscaroras County ," Or "meet me in Portage County ," or "meet me at Lakeside " - would you know where to go for our rendevous? Of course not! But, my wife and children would know where to go! We have traveled together. We have roots in these places. We have shared experiences there.

The disciples knew that "Meet me in Galilee " was shorthand for Peter's house, or Capernaum , or a specific location somewhere by the seaside! They knew how and where to reconnect if they became separated. Galilee was far from Jerusalem . It was rural. It was on the outskirts. And, Galilee was home - home to all the disciples except Judas.

You see, we find our home in God on the outskirts . We find our center in God, away from the flurry of activity and the bustle of life! We go to our Galilees to reconnect with God and with loved ones. Where is your Galilee ? Where is the place you go to commune with God on the outskirts? There you will find your home.

Coming out of the Holocaust, Jews tell stories of "The righteous gentiles." "Righteous Gentiles" were Christian men and women who hid Jews and transported them to freedom and thus saved thousands of lives. Studies have been done on these ordinary people who risked their lives to do extraordinary acts of mercy and love. There were only two common traits among all the "Righteous Gentiles." First, they were people who looked Jews "in the eyes and made immediate decisions to help." In other words, they had face-to-face encounters with those whose lives were in immediate and immanent danger. They were not necessarily neighbors. In fact, there are horrific stories of locked doors and turning neighboring Jews away when they came for help. But, the righteous ones looked them in the eyes and opened their doors.

Secondly, all those who helped were people "on the outskirts." Perhaps they lived on the outside of town. But, they definitely were people outside the power structures, or outside the local religious or civic leadership circles. They were outsiders in some way, shape, or form. Like the Righteous Gentiles, the Risen Rabbi of Nazareth understood the power of looking into stranger's eyes and making immediate decisions to save them. He also understood that the Galilees of this world are people and places "on the outskirts" - where transformation and salvation happen!

So, what does it mean to go to Galilee ? It means to go home to God! Galilee is the place of call and the place of compassion. While home may be where we were born and raised, this is not necessarily so. Home is where we are loved and taken in. Home is where moral values are lived and not simply given lip service.

Home is where God's Grace is actualized. Home is where Love abides. Home is where Gratitude guides lives of generosity and kindness. Home is where Justice is practiced. Home is where Forgiveness leads us of brokeness and hate. Home is where Christ in his passion meets us and guides us through suffering to glory. When the Risen Christ says, "Meet me in Galilee ," he is calling us come home.

In the time ahead, we will continue to hear the expression, "moral values" delivered from the lips and pens of those who wish for us to follow a certain set of issues they deem moral. Whenever you hear Moral Values, ask: "Whose Values and Which Values?" I trust the answer to whose values will be the values of Jesus Christ. The answer to which values will be: Values which embrace and embody grace, love, gratitude, justice, forgiveness, passion, and inclusive, resurrected, and values of heart found at home in our Risen Savior. Amen.

 

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church