"Out of the Shadows, Into the Sunlight"

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Matthew 28:1-10

First Congregational Church, Columbus

March 31, 2002 -- Easter Sunday, 9:00 a.m.

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

Garrison Keillor, host of Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion," tells this true story of a Minnesota farmer:

[The farmer was] tilling manure into a field in the spring, using a tractor and a disc plow. It was a long field. The tractor was moving at 5 mph and the man was bored. It was a warm day and he wished he could be anything other than a farmer. He was tired of working for his father.

Out of sheer boredom he dozed off and started to fall backwards off the tractor seat. He woke up falling and, because the tractor was an old model with a throttle lever that was notched into place, the tractor just kept moving.

The man fell between the tractor and the discs and, as he hit the ground, he grabbed on to the tow bar. He hauled himself up as far as he could, but he couldn't pull himself all the way up. He just hung on to the tow bar with both hands as the steel discs were moving behind him. His body was literally being dragged through the dirt and manure. He held on as tightly as he could because, if he lost his grip, he would have been cut in two by the moving discs.

He was just about to lose his grip; he didn't even have enough strength to cry out or weep-- he just kept hanging on. The tractor kept on moving, ever so slowly, until it came to the end of the field, traveled up an incline, and into the woods. Finally it hit a tree and stopped, although the wheels kept spinning. It took him about ten minutes before he could stand on his two feet, climb up into the seat, and turn the key off.

What a terrifying experience that must have been, to be confronted with the very real possibility of death, to see no way of escape, and then-- miraculously-- be delivered from such a terrible fate!

Even in that short period of time the farmer must have realized that he might never see his family again, never accomplish the things he wanted to do, never feel the warm sun again on his skin or the refreshing breeze move across his face. During those moments that he held so tightly to the tow bar, he had to wonder if all his efforts were being expended hopelessly. Even as he struggled to keep living, there must have been a point where he had to think that his life was over. Finished. Ended.

And then the tractor comes to the end of the field and its unpredictable path takes it right to a tree that will not be moved. The farmer can now let go of the bar that was his lifeline and nothing will happen. His body and the steel discs are still inches apart, but they will get no closer. He is safe. He will continue to live.

Keillor relates that it took the man about ten minutes before he could get to his feet because of all the trauma and punishment his body had taken. That's not surprising because the body requires some time to recover when it is stretched to its limits. What we're not told is how long it took the man to recover from his emotional ordeal.

What a terrifying experience; yet through this the farmer was presented with an unexpected second chance on life. It would be interesting to know how this one day might have changed all the following days for this man. Did he look at life through new eyes? I suspect he did.

Well, in some ways this man's story is not totally unknown to us though the circumstances certainly are. For instance, many of us have been in a serious automobile accident at some time or another. Usually there are at least a few elongated seconds where the impending tragedy unfolds before us and we are acutely aware that we may not survive whatever is about to happen.

Our thoughts go fleetingly before us--the terribleness, the injustice of it all, the strong regrets--and then the crunch of metal and the awful quietness that follows. And then we realize that it is all over, that we will survive. Our life will go on.

The accident itself is a matter of seconds and minutes, but not the flashbacks which follow. Even as we go about our life in the next few weeks, we picture again those awful moments when life hung in the balance. We have trouble ridding ourselves of those frightening images, and yet we have this exhilarating feeling that we have been given a second chance for living. It makes us look afresh at everything.

Even when we go to the doctor with some ache or pain, and we fear the worst, we are usually relieved to find out it is not as serious as we worried about. We come away from the physician with a prescription and, emotionally, have the sensation that life has been given back to us again. Or we come through a difficult operation and have our health restored.

These little points of "resurrection" often spur us on to make changes in the way we live because they get us to thinking about what is really important in life and what isn't. It's an amazingly good feeling to find we've been given another opportunity in life.

Our Gospel today tells of the two Marys as they go on Sunday morning to the tomb where the body of Jesus has been laid. They are filled with despair, not only because they have lost one so close to them, but because they realize Jesus was blessed by God in a special way. Their grief must be evident as they prepare to go.

The women arrive just before dawn but, instead of finding what they expect--and what they have reconciled themselves to--they find the tomb empty. There a holy messenger says to them, "Do not be afraid." But, of course, they are. Who wouldn't be?

"I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see, the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."

It was in those moments, and in that message, that the world of the spirit made a full turn. It was as dramatic as if the physical world stopped rotating one way and started anew in the opposite direction. All history could not have been changed more dramatically.

Like the farmer who had been confronted with his own death, the two Marys and the disciples were faced with a profound emptiness in their lives without Jesus. Their world had completely fallen apart in the preceding days. But now, what looked like the end, was revealed to be a new beginning. Jesus was no longer to be understood in terms of the lifeless body taken from the cross, but as the risen Messiah.

On that Sunday the followers of Jesus were lifted from the pit of "no future" and given a rare second chance on life. They were brought from out of the shadows into the sunlight. The Book of Acts records how the faithful lived like changed people as they followed the Living Christ and the letters of Paul lift up the devoted work of those who made up the early church. Down through the ages the first Easter has been the decisive event of all time for Christians.

And now, you see, that story continues in us. As it was for those who came before us, life is filled with second chances and new opportunities. Some big and some small. Some life-changing and some just moment-changing. But, indeed, here is exceedingly good news for there is much in life that attempts to deaden the spirit, to make us feel like failures, to cloak us in utter despair. There is much that wants to squeeze the joy out of living and leave it empty.

The power Christ gives us--today and everyday--is resurrection power. It is to see no direction on our own and then to suddenly find our answer. It is to feel utterly alone and then to remember we have companionship. It is to cower in weakness and then to discover the forcefulness already inherent in us. The dark way turns into light when we walk alongside our Master. In Jesus our weakness is overcome, our strength made sufficient.

Easter is a day when we are reminded how much we are loved. It is a day when we dare to dream and hope. Easter is a day when our sorrows and confessions are put aside for the exceeding joy around us. It is a day of second chances, of possibilities yet to be realized. All this and even more. Truly this is the time and place for celebration. That's why we are here.

Thanks be to God! Thanks be to the Son! Amen.

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