An Easter Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Easter Sunday, 11am service, April 15, 2001, dedicated to all people who believe in the Resurrection of Christ by "faith" and those who are seeking to grasp the meaning of power of Christ's Rising from death to life and always to the glory of God!
(Part VII of VII in Sermon Series on "Diversity in Christ")
Acts 10:34-42, Luke 24:1-12
Today brings an end to the sermon series "Diversity in Christ: Woven Together in God's Love." During this Lenten series - through six different sermons, I have explored issues of racism, inclusion of persons who are gay and lesbian, and economic justice concerns. In addition, through the preaching and presentations of Dr. Daryl Greene, himself a man with severe neurological and physical challenges, we have listened to a person who is battling disabilities. We have also been touched by Van Barndt, a witness to God's love.
I opened this series with four foundational principles for diversity and the inclusive love in God. They are: 1. The God we worship and proclaim is a God of inclusion, wholeness, and shalom; 2. "God with Skin on" (in Christ Jesus) embodies diversity and non-conformity; 3. Transformation begins at the lowest point. From Cross to Resurrection, from confession to forgiveness, from humility to unconditional love, we begin at the lowest point to reach the highest point; 4. The Holy Spirit leads us from grave silence to joyful inclusion!
Today we close the series as the tapestry is complete and we are woven together in God's love. I begin with a story.....Let us pray....
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock & our salvation. Amen.
"Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside. If you lived in this village you knew what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. The village lived by the law of Tranquility - nothing changed. Through good times and bad; through famine and plenty things didn't change until one day a sly wind blew in from the North." So begins the film Chocolat, a story about the changes that happen within a small French village during Lent, 1959.
The story begins on Ash Wednesday. As the boyish priest is delivering his sermon, he asks the question, "Where do we find the truth?" and just as he seeks to answer, "We will find it..." - the North wind blows the doors of the church wide open. And the question is left unanswered. It is the course of events in the story which unfolds that gives breath and life to his question - "Where do we find the truth?"
The cold North wind brings a woman and her daughter to the town. Wrapped in red capes and bringing their free spirits to the village (which itself is wrapped in oppressive secrecy and lies), Veanee and Anouk settle into a little store front shop by the church and open a Chocolaterie - a Chocolate Shop. Question: A Chocolaterie opening in a French Catholic village during Lent - the season of penitence and self-denial? The town's mayor, The Count DeRenaud will have none of this.
The Count visits the Chocolaterie and explains the main rule of the town to the free-spirited newcomers. Everyone goes to church. As the mayor, he greets all the villagers (and counts them) each day at the church's doors. He runs the town (as the narrator tells us) through his example of hard work, modesty, self-discipline, and control. His is the trusted wisdom of generations past, and although the Count is respected and feared for his firm principles, he is not loved. His rules (which he earnestly believes are God's rules) are tradition, the ritual of daily worship, resistence to temptation and change of any kind, and strict personal discipline.
It is clear, Veanee does not buy what the mayor is selling. Although she is sweet to him, she does not comply with his rules. He leaves her Chocolaterie as sternly and firmly as he has entered and declares shortly after to the village priest, "You should stop by the new Chocolaterie. You must know who your enemies are."
What ensues, throughout the season of Lent, is a strange Holy War between the Chocolaterie and the Count. The Count uses the church's pulpit as his public platform - re-writing and editing all the priest's sermons, and among other things, including direct reference to Satan wearing the disguise of the maker of sweet things. As he sits in the front row immediately below the pulpit, he mouths the words of the sermons - words he himself has written! Privately he declares to Veanee, "your Chocolaterie will be closed by Easter. I guarantee it!" But in fact, he is wrong.
In the Chocolaterie, the village people find what they are missing in the rest of their lives. They not only find special tasting chocolates made from the ancient Mayan recipes (Veanee's mother is Mayan and her father is French). But, they also find gentle friendship and relationship in a compassionate woman who listens to them, touches them, and brings them together through the power of her unconditional love. She embraces the village with love and mends the broken relationships of husband and wife; grandmother and grandson; and two elderly people who have respectfully not courted one another because the woman (still wearing black) is in mourning for her husband lost in battle (January 12, 1917 - 42 years earlier - in WWI). Veanee also shelters and befriends an abused wife, Josephine, and nurtures Josephine as she discovers self-respect and self-esteem. And as she helps all of them heal and come together, they in turn rally around Veanee in her darkest hour.
The vast differences between the mayor's laws and Veanee's grace come to a confrontational head when the mayor commands the villagers to refuse service and food to a gypsy band of poor River people who dock their boats at the town's river edge. In spite of hateful posters and a mean-spirited speech by the Count DeRenaud against the River people, Veanee and Anouk befriend them and treat them with dignity and respect. In the end (which I will not give away), Veanee is able to touch and help even the Mayor when he finds himself in a crisis.
This metaphorical story begins in Lent and ends on Easter Sunday. It begins in winter's cold darkness and ends in the Spring's new light and life. It begins in Tranquility and ends in Inclusivity and joyful diversity. In the end, from the high pulpit where he has mouthed the Mayor's words, the priest ascends to find his own voice. On Easter Sunday, without a sermon in hand, but with a clear vision of what is in his pure, beautiful, young heart, the priest begins, "I am not sure what I want to talk about today. I don't really want to talk about Christ's divinity. I would rather talk about his humanity - his kindness, his tolerance of all people, his love. If we truly want to follow Him, we can't be measured by what we exclude, but by what we create and who we include."
As they listen, all the villagers agree, it isn't one of his most fiery or inspiring sermons, but they also agree that on this Easter Sunday, they all feel strangely released. On Easter Sunday 1959, they feel a freedom and tranquility. They experience the resurrection as a real event in their lives.
This film, (based on a novel by Joanna Harris), reveals to us where we find the truth. We find the truth in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a living reality beyond the grave. This Truth, God's truth, is found when first, we stop looking for dead among the living and start loving the living who are right before our eyes . Second, God's truth is found when we remember what Christ tells us and trust the liberating power of the Holy Spirit to guide us. Finally, God's truth is found in the seemingly insignificant single threads of inclusion. Let me explain.
On the first Easter Sunday, in a garden, outside Jerusalem's walls, several women arrived at a tomb. They had traveled there in the pre-dawn hours to care for the broken body of a friend, a son, and their Savior. They found the tomb empty. With the boulder covering the face of the tomb mysteriously rolled away, they found only linen cloths lying in the place where their beloved had been laid just three days before. Was he stolen or was he Risen - as he promised?
Two men in "Dazzling white clothes" appeared to the women and ask a question - "why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here," they continue, "He is Risen. And remember what he told you!" Running from the empty tomb, the women tell the eleven disciples and "all the rest" what they have witnessed. But they don't believe the women. Peter, at least, runs to the empty tomb to see this for himself. There he is amazed by what he doesn't see! Later, in Acts 10:34-43, Peter's eyes are opened to see the Christ he couldn't see on Easter Sunday. (I'll come back this point!)
1. God's truth is found when first, we stop looking for the dead among the living and start loving the living who are right before our eyes. Like the women of Easter, many of us, look for the dead among the living. We focus our energy on events and people who are gone, are behind us. Our grief often clings to us and calls us to look back on what was. And as we look back, the past and the figures of the past can seem more real to us than those who are standing before our very eyes. When this happens, we find ourselves defined by past, not present relationships.
Sometimes, those relationships have fulfilled the essence of our lives with passion and love we never imagined possible. And sometimes those relationships have defined our lives with pain and hurt which we never imagined would end. Whether through love or in pain, we carry the dead in our living and they act upon us - for better or for worse.
The message of the Easter angels is to "stop looking for the dead among the living." When we focus our energy, our vision, our language, our memories, our seeking, our love backwards, we are left drained and breathless to interact with the living who are right before our eyes.
I do not mean by these words to forget those who have died. Our family's Easter Lily along with many of yours, honors my dead beloved grandmother. No, I don't mean to forget those who have died for I believe they teach us much. But, in the words of the late, Dr. Washington Gladden near the end of his life, "we must stop putting God and people far away from us. (When we do this - looking backwards) our religion. . . becomes mainly a tradition (Washington Gladden, Recollections, Houghton Mifflin Co, NY, 1909, pp. 427).
By seeking the living while we walk among the living, we discover new relationships and deepen old ones of which we have lost sight. Again, reflecting on a life well lived at the end of his days, Dr. Gladden said:
The time is drawing near when the Christian church will be able to discern and declare the simple truth that religion is nothing but friendship: Friendship with God and with people. I have been thinking much about it in these last days, and I cannot make it mean anything else - so far as I can see this is all there is to it." (Recollections, p. 429).
If we as the church could accept this truth - that resurrection is friendship with God and people - and build our teachings and life around this, we would experience an explosive revival of Christian faith. And it all begins when we seek Christ in one another and seek the Risen Christ among the living!
Second, God's truth is found when we remember what Jesus Christ tells us and then trust the liberating power of the Holy Spirit to guide us. The Easter angels say to the women, "remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of (God) must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified and on the third day rise again. And they remembered his words, and returned...." (Luke 24:6,7a). He has told us, from the ancient of days, that he would suffer, die and rise again. Do you remember? He has told us from the beginning of the Christian Era that we are to "love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves." Do you remember? He has said we are to love one another as God has loved us? Do you remember?
Somewhere between the teaching and the learning there is a disconnect in the neurological synapses of the body of Christ. Somewhere between the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth, we have lost a mental and visual recall of what that means. We have not remembered! We have forgotten! We must have forgotten. For if we remembered how to love God, self, and neighbor, we would not have to preach and teach about loving all of God's children on this Easter Sunday. I would not have had to do seven sermons on Diversity in Christ - because it simply would be obvious! We all would have remembered! We all would be living it!
Just like the Easter Women forgot His story somewhere between Galilee and Jerusalem, somewhere between the Cross and the Empty Tomb, we have forgotten to Love, to trust, and to be in relationship with God and with people! The women forgot that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was Friday's story, not Sunday's Story! When they arrived at the tomb on Sunday, the Banner Headline across the top of the grave read, "HE IS RISEN!" Sunday's story was and shall be forevermore, the Story of Christ's Resurrection! We cannot forget that He is Loose in the world transforming the world through the power of his love!
And we, as Christ's Easter People, must be loose in the same world trusting in the power and the wind of the Holy Spirit to guide our feet to be God's transformational partners this day and forevermore. Our families, our church, this city, this state, this nation, this world, needs us to weave the tapestry of love from now and forevermore! We must remember that as long as one is hurting, as long as one is homeless, as long as one is hungry, as long as one is excluded because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any disability, as long as one is treated with hatred instead of love, as long as one is shot to death or one is put to death by the state unjustly, as long as one is lonely and forsaken, we must remember - we follow a Risen Savior and through the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to be transforming agents in this world! We must never forget this! In our remembering, we will act in compassion, love, and justice!
Finally, God's truth is found in the seemingly insignificant single threads of inclusion. When I started this sermon series on Ash Wednesday, I started with the language and the idea of weaving God's tapestry of love. Frankly, I don't know much about weaving. The few words I learned through the years I learned from my wife Susan. Many years ago, Susan painstakingly wove my liturgical stoles. Not this one... This one was woven by Mayan women in Guatemala.
Nevertheless, I know the importance of one single thread. I know that if one thread of the fabric is out of place, and woven incorrectly, it can lead to the unraveling of the entire tapestry. Each thread is important. No one single thread can be forgotten, or left out if the weaving is to be complete.
As I come to the end of this series, I see the same is true in the body of Christ. Each one of you is an important single thread in tapestry of love which God is weaving in the world and through First Congregational Church. Each one of you, in some way, through some witness, makes an important contribution to our life faith here. Perhaps you have not yet discovered how the single thread of your life, of your faith matters in the beautiful tapestry which is being created here. But, you are and you will be making a difference today and in the days to come.
In Acts 10:34-43, Peter, the rock of the early church, is converted by Cornelius. This Gentile centurion and his household of faith, change Peter. Before Cornelius comes into Peter's life, "The Rock" is convinced that Christianity is really a faith made for Jews who are seeking a path to God through the Messiah, Jesus Christ. But, Cornelius asks Peter to baptize him, a Gentile, into Christian faith. Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit, and as I like to say, in Cornelius, he sees the spirit and person of Jesus Christ before his eyes. Peter baptizes him! Then he proclaims, " Now I truly understand that God shows no partiality!" Amazing!
Cornelius is the first single thread which weaves a new people, with a different culture, and different religious background, and different family systems, and different facial and racial features, and different world-views and different experiences into the fabric of the tapestry of Christian faith. We are connected to the thread which is Cornelius. Most all of us have come from the seemingly insignificant single thread of Gentile fabric. From that thread of adoption into the family faith, we have come today to worship the Risen Christ.
So, my question is: who are and where are the Cornelius' of our generation? Who and where are the single threads seeking to be joined with us in the tapestry of God's love? Who and where are persons seeking to be adopted by us into this family of faith?
Let us join with Peter and proclaim, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality." If we truly understand that God shows no partiality, then the time is now for us to seek and to add the Cornelius' whose seemingly insignificant single threads in the human family we need as we continue to weave the tapestry of God's love at First Church.
"Where do we find the truth?" We find the truth in this: The tapestry of God's love is not complete -- yet. Your single thread of unconditional love is needed to make it even more beautiful. And the threads of our world's Cornelius' are needed to weave a seamless creation of immense beauty and perfection in Christ. So my sisters and brothers, be open to the face and the person of the Risen Christ this day. It is not I who calls you to be open. Rather it is The Great Weaver of All Creation and Love who is calling you to do so. Amen.
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