Easter sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, April 20, 2003, dedicated to my children Luke, Daniel, and Sarah whom I love very dearly and always to the glory of God!
(Part VIII of VIII in the Lenten/Easter Sermon Series, "For the Love of Christ")
I Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16: 1-8
It is good to look out upon you today and see your beautiful, shining faces. On this Easter Sunday, it is good to see and feel the love in this lovely house of God.
Today, I close the sermon series "For the Love of Christ." Since March 5th , I have preached on "Love that will not let us go," saving love, just love, graceful love, transforming love, and love discovered in the cross. Pastor Botts has preached on Sacrificial Love. It is my belief, that more than anything else, our Risen Savior, Jesus Christ, is a Lover of Humanity. And in the Risen Christ, we encounter Eternal Love . . .
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 and our salvation. Amen.
In the Risen Christ, we encounter eternal love in at least three dimensions: as strength to cope with anything; as hope blossoming in the face of utter despair; and as courage to speak truth with power to power which is afraid of truth. Let me explain . . .
First, Eternal Love gives us strength to cope with anything. The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ does not cancel or redress the truth that shines forth from the cross. It confirms that truth. In the sunshine of resurrection which obliterates the shadow of the cross, God's promise is not that we shall be protected from accidents, misfortunes, serious illnesses in life, but rather, as we open ourselves to him, God will empower us with human resources of endurance, insight, and selflessness that turn pain into promise.
I like the interpretation of Paul's letter to the Philippians 4:13 that reads, "I have strength through Christ to cope with anything." In the resurrection of Christ, we discover completely and fully that God will never turn back from the love which binds God to this world and which remains God's way to the end of time. God's way is a way that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Through bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things, God's eternal love is at once both the source of the grace we need in this life, and also the hope of glory in the life to come.
Personally, I have found when I feel like my hope and strength to cope with hardships are most diminished, God comes and restores me through Christ - through the cross and the resurrection. In times when I have faced depression, loneliness, undoings and uncertainties, it has been a vision of Christ embracing, holding me, walking with me, and leading me that has sustained me. It is his eternal love which has given me strength to cope with all things at times I could not cope with them by myself. Let me say, that I experience God's presence in these times in simple ways, through small encounters and remarkably transparent rendevous with God's realm - the unexpected smile of a child, a hug from a seemingly unhuggable person, a chance meeting with an artist or passionate person of faith. It is God's way of showing eternal love which gives me strength to cope with anything.
Secondly, Eternal Love blossoms hope in the face of utter despair. The tomb of our Savior was in a garden. Into that garden in the predawn hours of the first Easter, women came to anoint the dead and battered body of Jesus of Nazareth.
And in that garden, not far from the hill where his life had been extinguished, blossoms of hope sprung forth. Blossoms of hope form the 15th station of the cross.
As you know, there are fourteen traditional stations of the cross. Most Roman Catholic Churches have the fourteen stations somewhere in their sanctuary. As way of spiritually walking the way of the cross, it is an important part of Catholic tradition to pray the stations of the cross, particularly on Good Friday.
While serving my first church in Cleveland, I wrote and led an ecumenical service each year called The Way of the Cross for Cleveland's Westside. Protestants and Catholics would walk through our neighborhood lifting up the suffering and poverty of our neighbors and identifying their suffering with the suffering of Christ on his way to Golgotha. This tradition became so much a part of my Good Friday experience, that my friend, Father Jack Creegan of the Blessed Sacrament Parish, playfully teased me about my deep yearning to be a Roman Catholic at least once a year! In our way of the cross, we always ended at the 14th station of the cross.
But, in recent years throughout Latin America a fifteenth station of the cross has now been added to the worship of the faithful. The fifteenth station is the station of resurrection. It started when the people of Canto Grande began to put white carnations on the barren cross as signs of resurrection. Soon, blooming crosses began to appear everywhere in Latin America.
The cross of hunger is being replaced by the flowering cross of abundant sharing. Now, mothers collect their resources and gather after the stations of the cross to prepare community meals for their hungering children. Together, they can cook more nutritiously and economically. The cross of injustice is being replaced by the flowering cross of protest. Whole communities carry these crosses to the doorsteps of officials in many lands demanding health care, water, light, and education for their children. The cross of poverty is being replaced by the flowering cross of health. The cross of poverty becomes the flower of water and residents of communities through Latin America work together to build safe water systems for their communities. The cross of death is being replaced by the flowering cross of life. As carnations are added, the dark wood appears whiter and whiter, covered by the flowers of resurrection - blossoms of hope spring forth in the face of utter despair.
Before us stands our flowering cross of resurrection. Eternal love beckons us to come to the flowering cross. It calls us to be the flowers of resurrection in our community and in our families. From the garden tomb, we experience the risen nature of Christ's enduring love. May the flowers of our cross actualize new life in justice ministry, in care for the poor, in outreach to the forgotten and forsaken. May this cross which will lead us out the Broad doors, out of worship and into service, serve as our hopeful sign of health care and education in the world in which we live. Eternal love blossoms hope in the face of utter despair.
Finally, Eternal love gives us courage to speak truth with power to power which is afraid of truth. The first ending of the Gospel of Mark ends abruptly with these words, "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for fear and astonishment gripped them. And they told no one anything, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8).
Along with you, I wonder how we arrived at this Easter Sunday, if in fact, the women at the tomb were so gripped by fear and astonishment that no one was told about Christ's resurrection. At some point, at least one of the women must have blown the whistle on the resurrection sighting. At some point, the deep eternal love of God got into their voices and gave them courage to testify to the truth which they had witnessed. At some point, their fear was overcome by faith and their astonishment gave way to courageous admission of the truth! Then, at some point, they said, something to somebody because they were unafraid!
Put yourself in their sandals. It's not easy to tell people that the dead Christ is risen. It's not simple to tell people that he who was physically dead is alive again. But, when eternal love and courage grip you, and when truth with power gets inside of you - baby watch out! It is then that it becomes harder to stifle the power of truth than it is to open up and speak truth with power!
To all the women listening - from very young to the very old (and men I invite you to listen in), I want to you remember six names of women today - along with Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome - I want you to remember the names of Cynthia Cooper, Sherron Watkins and Coleen Rowley. Cynthia, Sherron, and Coleen are witnesses to speaking the truth to the powerful who are afraid of the effects of such truth.
Do you know who Cynthia Cooper, Sherron Watkins, and Coleen Rowley are? They are three of the most courageous American women of our times. They were Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2002. Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Sherron Watkins of Enron, and Coleen Rowley of the Federal Bureau of Investigation blew the whistle on lies, thievery, coverups and abuse of power and money in their respective organizations. While Cooper and Watkins blew their whistles in the corporate world, it was Coleen Rowley whose memo to FBI Director Mueller was leaked and clearly indicated that the FBI had substantial information on the plans and operations of terrorists in America -- plans which included flying commercial airliners into the twin towers of New York's world trade center.
Like the women who discovered the empty tomb and eventually spread their news to a listening world, each of these women spoke up. There are striking similarities between these three women of our times. None of them sought the spotlight. Each grew up in small town, middle America. All are firstborns (I will leave that one for those better suited to psychological assessment). They are all women of faith (when Watkins went public, she did so with her pastor by her side). They are all married with children and two are the sole breadwinners in their families, with stay home dads. As such, confronting their higher-ups meant jeopardizing their families' only income. Each one of them is an ordinary woman who did not wait for higher authorities to do what should have been done - that is - tell the truth. In Henrik Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People, one of the characters reminds us what we admire about women with such courage as this. He says, "We live in times in which everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm."
In a few days, First Church will join over fifty other Jewish and Christian congregations for a BREAD Action meeting at Veteran's Memorial Hall - please see your insert. For the Love of Christ, I expect each and every one of you to be there. During this important public meeting, we will challenge our public officials to do the right thing related to health care for the poor on Columbus' much unserved and uninsured south side. In addition, we will present testimonies and facts about an effective reading program called Direct Instruction or (DI) which is set to be terminated just at the time it is showing tremendous results in ten Columbus Public Schools.
For two hours of your time, you will join with more than 2000 other witnesses to courage and hope as common people of faith speak clearly to issues which impact all of us. Teaching our city's children to read, especially in high poverty and high crime areas and providing health care for the poor are issues that are important investments of time and energy for all of us. The old saying, "Pay now or pay later," is certainly true when speaking of long term effects of illiterate children or uninsured people who need health care.
I know that speaking out is not comfortable for many here. It creates fear in some of us. Some of us feel like we need more information before we can step forward. Some of us have bought what others have sold - such as - "it's not the place of people of faith to speak to public issues." Well, if we don't speak out of our faith and our commonly held values, principles, and beliefs, then who will speak? If we don't speak clearly to public officials or community business leaders, then perhaps in the vacuum, people with poor values or no values will set the agenda for generations to come. What if Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Salome, Cynthia, Sherron, and Coleen had said nothing to anyone because fear, not faith gripped them? If that had happened, we would have no faith called Christianity and the revelations of abuse in business and government would still be veiled.
In 1918, just weeks before his death, Dr. Washington Gladden was asked by his pastor, then First Congregational's Senior Pastor, Rev.Irving Maurer, where he found the courage to speak out on so many public issues. Dr. Gladden replied, "I often felt like I did not have the courage to speak out. Every time I spoke out, it took something out of me. But, every time, all I could think of was how my silence would afflict those who had no one to speak for them."
We really do live in times in which everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. There are growing numbers of people whom our silence will afflict. Give them your voice. Give them eternal love in the same way eternal love has been given to you: as strength to cope with anything; as hope blossoming in the face of utter despair; and as courage to speak truth with power to power which is afraid of truth.
For the Love of Christ, may you experience the transforming power of God in our Risen Savior. For the love of Christ, may you know his resurrection power in your life. For the love of Christ, may you transcend old ways and be transformed by his saving and graceful ways. For the Love of Christ, may you live the rest of your days embraced by eternal love. Amen.
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