The Embrace

Passage: Isaiah 25:6-9; Matthew 28:1-10
Date: March 23, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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The cross is missing. Perhaps someone stole the cross. Did you notice? Its print, its shadow is still visible on the wall directly across from the main entrance to the sanctuary. Often for Christians in America, the cross is missing from our faith as well. We say, "Life is hard enough, burdened enough. We don't need to add to it by contemplating the writhing, tortured Jesus suspended there with others, all waiting to die." Rather, we seem to opt for joyous Easter faith without the evidence, the reality of holy suffering, profound anguish, eventual death.

Yet, when we pause to look closely, we discover that that kind of happy Christianity is not true to the biblical text, nor to the historic witness of Christ's community. That first day of the week, Mary and the other Mary did not go to the tomb with even the tiniest inkling of joy. There were no "alleluias" in their throats just waiting to be sung. Rather, we can feel their dragging spirits, nearly overwhelmed with deep sorrow. What they experienced was a total surprise, to say the least. It took Jesus' followers decades to digest. In fact, we still are.

What we now know is that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, everything about life has changed. More than some isolated mysterious miracle, or tale of a miracle, Christ's resurrection is a political statement: torture has failed, Roman homeland security has failed, even death has failed, failed to stop the God we know in Jesus. Instead, everything that Jesus lived and taught is vindicated, made true, by God. Friends, Easter is not some feeble springtime optimism to go with "for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows" kind of philosophy. It is not some fragile Easter lily hope for a happy ending. In Jesus death and resurrection, new life, God's prevailing life has broken the rule, the power of death and its grip on this world, our world, and even our very lives. The consequences are huge.

This morning, unlike any Easter morning I have preached, I want to talk with you about life and death and the God we know in the crucified and risen Lord.

On February 6, Ash Wednesday, we began the season of Lent with ashes and a reminder, one we would all rather forget, thank you: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return." It is amazingly difficult for me to say that, as I place ashes on the foreheads of people I love. I do not want to go there. We do not want to go there, rightly. I suppose that is why most American Christians stay away from that service. "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Last week I visited with Melinda Littlehales, one of our members. We have known each other since 1978, and have shared much through the decades. Melinda is now in the last stage of living with cancer. As she has said to her family and others, she admitted to me again that she is not afraid to die. She looks forward to having this small piece of her rich and full life over. As a person of Christian faith, she looks forward to whatever comes next.

Times of death. Most of us, even people of faith, are often struck mute in the face of life's end. Others of us, perhaps because we feel we need to or should say something, find ourselves speaking words we do not necessarily believe. We feel compelled, in our discomfort, to speak. Some stumble through words, "God must have a plan;" "This must be God's will." Somehow that sounds much more faithful and more helpful than an honest, "I have no idea why particular people die when they do, why tragedies happen."

I, and many of you, have been beside people in times of death, trying to bring comfort. A number of you have done that for me when my mother died, when my father died, and when my wife died. At times of death, I have spoken words which I hope were helpful, and you have you said them to me. In our spiritually seeking culture, all sorts of things are said and printed in response to death. I have seen on a bulletin the words of Mary Frye which refer to the deceased this way "I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain." For some, these may bring comfort, but they are far from our Easter faith.

It is easy for many of us to imagine things about what happens after we die. So, the one who loved telling jokes, making people laugh in this life, continues that style in the next. After my father died, it was no leap at all for me to visualize my mom and dad dancing together to music from the Big Band era, still deeply loving and enjoying each other. There was some comfort for me in that: picturing that whatever comes after this life is just another version, a continuation, only a bit louder, a bit better.

But, the Christian faith proclaims far more than our wishful thinking magnified. Biblically, after death there is a very great sense of mystery. Jesus was particularly vague. Yet, scripture tells us what is necessary for us to know: what follows is all about God, not all about us. People will be overwhelmed by the welcome, the grace, the glory of God, the one we know in the crucified and risen Christ. Because of Easter, what we proclaim is that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus," not even death itself. That is what matters. In the end, that is all that matters.

Thomas Dorsey, Baptist Gospel song writer and choral director, gives testimony to this Easter faith:

Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's south side. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I did not want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye...and chugged out of Chicago in our Model A.

Outside the city, I discovered that I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But, eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room...The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger ran up with a telegram. I ripped open the envelope. [It read] : YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. ...I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was "Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead." When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that same night, the baby died. I buried [them] together in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. ...then I thought back.... Oh, if I had paid more attention to God that day, I would have stayed home and been with Nettie when she died. ... I vowed to listen more closely... But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me... a friend, Professor Fry seemed to know what I needed.... He took me up to... a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody. Once into my head [it] all seemed to fall into place: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand! I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."

The Lord gave me the words and melody. [What] I learned [is] that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when [God] is closest. So I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when [God] will take me and gently lead me home. (Email, no reference included.)

If we trust everything in this life to the God we know in the crucified and risen Christ, so also we can trust this God at our life's end. Baptized into Christ's death, we rise with him into life. Friends, God has the final word. Christ is risen. Human exclusion loses. Christ is risen. Holy embrace wins. Christ is risen. We can trust God to lead us home. Christ is risen. In life and in death we belong to God. Alleluia.