April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday Service

Preached by Rev. George Yando on April 1, 2018.

Isaiah 25: 6-9
Psalm 118
Acts 10: 34-43
Mark 16: 1-8

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God’s Power Play

Many if not most of you have been involved in the life and work of the church long enough to have an appreciation for the rhythm of the life in the church.  If that has been your experience, then you know from experience how Holy Week is unquestionably the busiest week on the liturgical calendar.  Extra services, literally back to back, in some denominations even more so than here at St. Andrew’s. Each year, Holy Week comes around and each year ministers and lay leaders and musicians gear up for it, knowing that it’s coming, yet still ending up scrambling and being somewhat frazzled by the busyness of the preparations, the weight of making sure that everything is done, all in the face of deadlines that are immutably immovable.

Since retirement at the end of 2009, I’ve been spared much of that busyness and pressure – until now. Being back in the pastorate and the pulpit has brought a sense of déjà vu.  Been here, done this, you know the feeling.

It was Wednesday this past week, much busier than usual.  With not one, but two full services to prepare for this week, and two sermons to write,  plus a communion liturgy for the Maundy Thursday service at Calvin Goforth, and then communion here this morning, I was in full flight.  The experience of déjà vu arose out of a recollection of a similar mid-Holy Week morning a number of years ago.

I was sitting in my study at home, working through a similar Holy Week “To-Do” list  while serving the little church on the Mistawasis First Nations reserve.  I remember sitting there, thinking back to previous Sunday, when we had gathered for Sunday worship at the home of Frank Pechawis, one of the elder members of the church there, and the fact that we were meeting in his home, and not at the church.   I recall thinking, “Here we go again,” that annual season of uncertainty about whether or not the road to the church would be passable had begun.

Where were we going to end up having church on Friday, and then again, on Sunday?  Should I print the words to the hymns in the bulletin again so we don’t have to worry if we end up worshipping some place other than at the church and have to cart in hymn books.  We wanted to have Communion on Easter Sunday, but where would it be held?  At the community’s Family Centre?  At someone’s house?  With the Band elections coming up that week, the Office would probably be closed not only Thursday, but Friday as well.  Who would we contact to open up the Family Centre if it became necessary?  Would they even show up with the key?

All these questions running around in my head as I tried to make some decisions and plans for those services, planning for future events with so much uncertainty complicating that whole decision-making process.

With the day and time for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services looming ever closer, and not knowing which way the matter of where to hold services was going to unfold, I called Harvey Pechawis, one of the church elders.  Harvey promised to drive up to the church, check the road out, and call me back.

I went back to work, and back to my fretting.  The morning passed with more fretting having been accomplished than real work.  But in the midst of my fretting, wondering how I was going to solve problems I might have before they really became issues, the phone rang.  It was Harvey.

When the phone rang and the Call Display revealed that it was Harvey, I remember thinking, “Here we go.” I expected bad news: the road to the church was a swamp, there was no way we were going to get in there before July, let alone in time for Good Friday and Easter and there was no guarantee we’d be able to arrange to get into the Family Centre.

Instead, Harvey said that he had gone to the church, found that the road was actually pretty dry and that someone had been in with the Band’s road grader or front end loader to push back the banks of snow from the edge of the road.  In his opinion, the road should be pretty good for both Friday and Sunday and we should plan on having Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at the church.

Then he said to me, “You should stop sounding so scary. You don’t need to be scared.”  “Scared?” I thought.  I wasn’t sure what he meant so I let the comment go.

Well, after we hung up, it occurred to me that perhaps what he meant was that I was sounding anxious, rather than scared.  If so, he was right.

The problem I had been fretting about was solved, before I knew for sure whether or not there might be a problem.

When the phone rang, and it was Harvey, it was as if I someone had plunked a large stone down in the middle of my path, a hindrance to get around or surmount on my way to Good Friday’s cross and Easter Sunday’s tomb with my sermons in my hand.  A roadblock I didn’t need, a hurdle I didn’t want to have to deal with.  But going to the tomb, in a manner of speaking, I discovered the stone had already been rolled away.  Problem solved.

The gospel lessons assigned for Easter Sunday begin with one or more of the women who had followed Jesus going to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest.  Whether it’s John’s account that focuses on the role of Mary Magdalene, or the other gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – who tell us that Mary was accompanied by two others is a debatable point.  The Sabbath now over, she – or they – were now free to complete the task that the ritual purity required for Sabbath observance had prevented her – or them – from accomplishing what they had needed to do the day that Jesus was buried.

In the version of the story we read this morning, Mark tells us the women were concerned about how they were going to move the stone so that they might anoint the body of Jesus. I was wondering how to deal with the stone that had been dropped in my path before a phone call on that now distant Wednesday of Holy Week morning.

Was I wrong to worry about the stone?  Were the women heading to anoint Jesus’ body wrong to worry about the stone covering the entrance to his tomb?  Should we not, instead, relax and have more trust, whether in God, or in other people, in whoever controls the stones that stand as impediments in our lives’ journeys?

My mini-crisis that Wednesday morning was, admittedly, a mere pebble on the road through life, not even a significant speed bump.  But at some level, it was a stand-in for other, larger stones.  It was there, it was real, it needed moving.  My deeper motivation at the time wasn’t just cranking out two memorable, or at least, mildly thoughtful sermons before the approaching deadlines; my concern was being able to keep my hands wrapped around something I could manage: my timetable, at least a small piece of my life. That desire was driven by the realization that there was  much – now, as throughout all of my life – that is annoyingly beyond my control.

Granted, one women – or even three – might not have been strong enough to roll away the large stone set in the opening to Jesus’ tomb.  But she – or they – could have gotten help.  The stone was actually a symbol, a metaphor for a much larger impediment.

That larger stone was despair.  The stone that stopped up not only the entrance to the tomb but stopped up the forward movement of their lives, the stone that could, quite fairly, be labeled sadness, doubt, grief, loss.  Had their brief adventure with Jesus been meaningless? Had the darkness won so easily? Having left their homes to follow him, where would they go from here?

They were ruined for normal life, tarred and feathered in the eyes of their neighbours and the average citizens of their country, but even more, they were alienated from the old life which Jesus had unmasked. What now?

So, they worried about the stone, not simply as an impediment to their more immediate task. At another level it was also a kind of physical stand-in for much larger issues.

What they found was the stone already rolled away.  That physical worry was removed.  Now they had no choice but to face up to their larger issues, their bigger stones, if you will.

The problem they now had to deal with was the mystery of how the stone had been rolled away. Moreover, the body of Jesus was gone, too, and all they were left with were questions.  What they now they needed was not some broad-shouldered, strong-armed stone-mover, but  faith – faith and answers, explanations and direction, hope and confidence, and perhaps most of all, courage – courage to believe the unbelievable, the seemingly impossible.

Wrestling with the faith issues would occupy the rest of their lives.   It would be a journey no less tumultuous than the final days of Jesus’ ministry. They would know fear, doubt, amazement, questions with no easily and readily recognizable answers and most of all, they would face opposition and scepticism.

If we could stand the uncertainty and the confusion, the fear and the not-knowing, it would be good for us to linger with this one woman – or three – who first discovered an empty tomb.  Because the journey they began as they left that tomb and from that day forward is our journey also.  We, too, worry about pebbles when larger stones block us.  We, too, fuss and fret over speed bumps on the road of life, as a way of avoiding or delaying or ignoring the larger obstacles and hurdles that must be overcome.

We’ve all known and experienced that feeling.  It’s what we’ve often called, “majoring in the minors,” or “sweating the small stuff,” a sub-conscious way of avoiding or putting off having to deal with the really big, important, life-challenging stuff.

If we are fortunate, we will find those smaller stones rolled away, but then we will, of necessity, be forced to face the larger ones. And when we do, we will taste the acid of despair, the salt of tears, the sweetness of grace.  And it will all beg explanation, because we won’t know for sure.

And we’ll hear strangers speak to us, with voices that seem vaguely familiar and yet, uttering words and sounding tones that engender awe and wonder and amazement.  For we will hear the strange voices through which God will speak to us. And we will be driven to belief, a stance that sounds noble but difficult to sustain.

We will have spices, but no body to anoint.  We will have small worries replaced by larger ones. We will long to know the whereabouts of a body we can rebury so we can return our world, to the safe conventions we’ve come to expect and with which we’re comfortable.  But we will instead hear a voice that calls us by name, the words of  a Lord who knows us, and commands us to “Go.”

And we’ll wonder, “Now what?”  The “what” is that God has acted, in power, to remove from our lives the largest stone, the greatest obstacle to life: death.  In the resurrection of Jesus, God has defeated the last and greatest enemy, death. Nothing stands in the way of Jesus, and those who trust in Him, from living eternally, living lives transformed by God’s power play.

So what if we were to ask ourselves: What if I decided to REALLY get serious about this following-Jesus business? What if I made it a life’s goal to love others as he has first loved me?

What if I was determined to take seriously the command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptising in the name of the Triune God, teaching all those whose lives would be similarly transformed to do all that Jesus commanded, trusting unreservedly in his promise to be with me always?

Our Lord’s command to “Go,” is a challenge to “Live.”  To live, eternally, to live transformed.  “Now what?” becomes a question to be asked, not with fear and trembling, but with breathless anticipation and confidence and trust, a trust and confidence born of the conviction that One who has removed the largest stone from our path now stands ready to walk with us on that path, journeying together into the future that He has already prepared for those who love and trust and declare,

“We have seen the living Lord.”  Thanks be to God.

Amen.