Lost & Found
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Easter Sunday/A • April 16, 2017
A few years ago, our family was driving from Omaha to Kansas City to attend a convention. When we got to the hotel, we settled in. For Jacquelyn, that means unpacking clothes; for me it means setting up the computer, getting online, setting up my iPod for music. I had one of the first iPod and it was a prized possession. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered it wasn’t there—not there in the bag, not there in the car. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you know. I knew I’d had it on my belt in the car and I searched and searched, moved the seat back and forth until finally it dawned on me that somehow my iPod was gone. Then I remembered something. At a rest area where we’d stopped, there was an odd little thunk noise I’d ignored. With a sick realization, I suddenly knew the iPod was gone: left an hour or more up the road, gone for good. It was lost and all I could do was rant at my thoughtlessness and sputter in anger. I didn’t know what to do so that’s what I did.
When You Don’t Know What to Do
What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at your cookbook. But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.
Can you see them on the way to the tomb? Like a group preparing a funeral lunch, like people setting up the tables and chairs, they’ve come to properly bury Jesus. They wonder about the difficulty; they’ve brought the things they’ll need. Ancient Palestinian tombs were places where families gathered for picnics, where they went to remember and they are going to get everything ready. They are following a map, as we do, the map of grief. We look at its ways, we check off its steps. They are not prepared for Jesus’ death; nothing prepares us for death. But they are prepared for him to be dead. They know what to do: they do what they did last time. Matthew tells the story with care. Everything is just as expected. It’s early, just after dawn; the soldiers are guarding the tomb, the world is quiet, Jesus is dead and buried. They are doing what they did last time.
At the Tomb
But at the tomb, everything changes. Matthew says there is a kind of earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to this moment. For Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree on this stunning surprise: that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet this strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: go, tell, see. Go tell his disciples he is going to Galilee, going home, and there you will see him. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.
It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.
An Easter Story
One of the great bedrock proverbs of our culture, a saying we hear in our heads and recite to each other is, “People don’t change.” But in fact people do change, people change every day and that is resurrection. In his book, New Mercies I See, Stan Purdum tells about a little baby that would not have survived if he had not had the right people in the nick of time.
Lucille Brennan had lived a hard life, but found faith in Christ in her mid-fifties and turned her life around. As a way of making up for being such a poor parent to her own illegitimate son, Lucille became a foster parent. The director of the Department of Children’s Services considered Lucille one of their best foster parents and asked her to take one of their sadder cases.
Little Jimmy, five months old, had been beaten unmercifully by his mother’s live in boyfriend whenever he cried. Jimmy had been so emotionally damaged that now he wouldn’t cry even when he was hungry or wet or cold. Everyone was afraid that the damage was permanent. Lucille determined that Jimmy needed to be held, and held a lot. So for weeks, Lucille did everything one-handed. Her other arm was busy cradling Jimmy, who remained silent as ever.
Jimmy wouldn’t cry to tell her he was hungry, so Lucille made it a point to feed him on a regular schedule. Lucille would get up in the middle of the night and check on him. Sometimes he was asleep, but other times he just lay there awake and quiet. When she found him like that, she picked him up and rocked him until he drifted back to sleep.
Of course Jimmy went to church with Lucille and the entire congregation heard the sad story of this baby who was too afraid to cry. On the fifth Sunday after Jimmy had been placed in Lucille’s home, the pastor was well into his sermon when he heard something and stopped talking. It was a little cry. And when people turned to look, they saw Lucille with a big smile on her face and tears pouring out of her eyes. But the crying sound wasn’t coming from her, it came from the bundle she held in her arms.
Eileen, who was sitting next to Lucille, stared as the little boy took a deep breath and started crying louder. Finally, Eileen couldn’t contain herself and in an action unusual for a bunch of quiet Lutherans, she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord.” At that same time the entire congregation broke into an enthusiastic applause – probably the first time in history that worshipers had applauded because a child cried in church.
Do you see that this story is the Easter story? A woman, a person, finds resurrection and lives her life from it, giving life to others. She embraces a baby who’s silent and dying. Through her embrace, Jimmy learns to cry. Now if you search the scripture, you will find this ever present reality: God hears cries. Whether it’s Hagar in the wilderness, or Jimmy in church, God hears cries and makes them the occasion for grace. Someone changed: someone loved, someone was saved by which we mean able to grow up into the person God hoped.
Resurrection Is Where We Are
We come to the tomb today. It’s important to recognize where we are today. It’s important to know this place. This is the tomb. This is the cemetery. This is the world. It may be pretty. It may be familiar. It may look nice and smell sweet but this is the tomb. The world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory. Where is Galilee? It’s back where he came from; it’s back where we come from, it’s home. Resurrection is where we are, not some other time or place. So get up: don’t be afraid, if he could escape the tomb so can you. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go where he told you. Get up: go find him.
It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. This is why we’re here together. It’s not just Lucille that taught Jimmy to cry; it was a whole congregation who loved and nurtured. Jesus never works alone; he always gathers people together. We are among the people he gathers. So in our going, we go together, helping each other, nurturing each other.
Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.
We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” he says. We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us as important the decoration of our tables. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind. Then,, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him.
We’ve been thinking about conversations with Jesus for six weeks. We’ve heard them, I’ve preached about them, we’ve imagined them. It’s time for our own conversation with Jesus. For if we believe he is alive, wouldn’t he still be talking with us, sharing with us, meeting with us? And here is the question we ought to be asking, all of us, every day: what now, Lord?