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I Am What I Am

Acts 10:34-43; Psalms 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:3-10a; John 20:1-18 April 4, 2021 – Easter Sunday

Our scriptures this morning give us as much hope as humans have ever enjoyed upon this planet. We are saved. We are free. Our lives have meaning.

We are witnesses. We are called. We are the people of the Way. We carry the message of God…the one, true God…to mortals. This is our day.

No one can take from us what we have seen…what we have done together. None of us could have done it without the others. The others could not have done it without us.

Why we have been given a role in this all-important truth telling is a mystery …to us and to those we share it with. But we have to share it…because it is so wonderful…and because it is so true.

There is no reason you should believe me, or anyone should believe us. It is so incredible…but it is so true…and it is so wonderful…and no one can take it away from us.

Our leader has been struck down, but because of all the things he did and all the signs he showed, no one will doubt that he is the Promised One…the one God sent…the one God became…that we might see.

We cannot see it with our eyes, but we know at some deep place in our hearts, that it happened…that he happened… that what happened before and what has happened since then could not have happened without him.

It could not have happened without any of those in our story. Take one away, and no one gives him the Judas kiss. Take one away, and no one proclaims him the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Take one away, and no one falsely accuses him. No one appeals to Pilate so that this man could be condemned as a blasphemer or as an insurrectionist. Take Pilate away, and no one writes, “Jesus Christ. King of the Jews.”

Take one away, and no one goes to the tomb early on the morning of the first day of the week to find the tomb empty. No one says, “Mary!” No one cries, “Rabbouni!”

Take any of you…any of us…away… and this would be a different day. It didn’t have to be that way, you know. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls would have turned out to be Pottersville.

But because of him…and you…and each one of them…and you…we are what we are…and no people have ever had more to live for…or a greater God to serve…than the God…the son of man…the great servant…who came to serve us and save us…the Great Teacher who came to reveal God’s love to us.

Death comes to us all…but death is the final chapter. We all experience adversity…but the adversary only gets a turn…not the last word. Today we get the last word.

It is the greatest story ever told. There is a power to it, more than the power of a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and becomes a great crop, feeding thousands in its next incarnation.

The story is so powerful, in fact, that it has created one of the great religions of the world. The story calls us to be good, to be humble, and to change the world with the truth this one life revealed…and still reveals.

It is ha rd to understand, though. Could such a thing really have happened…the mighty stone rolled away…angels in white at the tomb…an empty vault? There is an unfathomable mystery in this plain statement of events so long ago and so far away.

A friend of mine and I were waiting to give our talks at a retreat weekend. Jim was a retired pastor about 20 years my senior. We began chatting about what a difference the retreat had meant to us and how our understanding of Jesus had made our lives deeper and sweeter and richer.

Then Jim leaned back and said the older he got, the more it was all about the mystery…being called into the mystery…to find our home there…like Abraham leaving his home to go to a place God would show him.

We are called to embrace a mystery, but we get little glimpses along the way to keep us wondering, and to keep us in awe.

My mother died in 2006 from complications from cancer. She had been living with me for three years and our two dogs, a border collie and a yellow lab, were her constant companions while I was at work and the kids were at school.

She was in a hospice house a little less than a mile from the house so I decided to take the dogs to see her. When we got there, the lab got so excited about going into a new house that I had trouble holding her.

I started to close the door when we went into Mom’s room, but my mother told me to stop. “Don’t close that door. A man is coming, and that door has to stay open!”

That was news to me so on the way out I stopped and asked the attendant who this man was that was coming to see her. She told me, “She’s been saying that all day. We’ve been talking about it and we guessed it might be you…but I guess not, huh?”

There was that mystery again, pecking away at our comfortable notions of what life was all about. So I asked a friend, a chaplain at a big hospital in Kansas City, about it.

That happens all the time, he told me. You go into a room where someone is dying. They know they are dying. You ask if you can pray with them and they say yes.

So you grab a chair and start to move it next to the bed. “Not that chair!” they tell you. “That chair is for someone else!” Hmm. I wondered what that was all about.

I thought it was odd when my mother said it and what my friend had told me was odd, too…until… I began to prepare my message for the next Easter.

This time the angels at the head and feet of where the body had been laying caught my eye. I remembered my mother telling me that man was coming.

So I turned to Matthew’s account of Easter morning. An angel dressed in white descends and rolls the stone away from the tomb. He tells the women Jesus has been raised from the dead, just as he said it would happen.

In Mark, a young man in a white robe tells the women that their master has been raised from the dead so go tell the disciples that he is going to Galilee and you will see him there.

And in Luke, two men in dazzling clothes ask the women why they are looking for the living among the dead.

Could this be a clue about who the man was that we had to leave the door open for? I can’t tell you it was…but I can’t tell you it wasn’t either. But there is a resonance between the two…a coincidence in between the story read and the story I lived through.

So we end this day with the disciple whom Jesus loved believing…but what is he believing? John tells us that they still did not understand the scripture about Jesus rising from the dead, so he must simply be believing that what the women had said about the tomb being empty was true.

I think the best sermon I have ever had about an empty tomb came from a seven-year-old boy on my second or third Easter at Huntley. Eddie Gabel was in 4H and he had caught a caterpillar and put it in a jar with some leaves for it to eat and a twig, on which it had spun its cocoon.

I made a deal with Eddie to bring it to church on Easter so we could let the butterfly go during the service. But on Easter Eddie showed up with a jar holding nothing more than an empty cocoon.

I was disappointed and so I cross examined Eddie pretty aggressively. Yes, it had been a caterpillar he had caught. Yes, the caterpillar had spun the cocoon we could see hanging from the twig. Yes, the caterpillar ate his way out of the cocoon the past week and he came out where the hole is.

But it wasn’t a caterpillar anymore. Now it was a butterfly. The more I scoffed at his strange story, the more Eddie pleaded to get me to believe it had all happened just as he had told us.

He wasn’t offended. He just wanted us to understand. It was important for us to know the truth, because that was just the way it had happened.

Finally, he said, “I couldn’t keep it in the jar or it would have died. I had to let it go so it could live.”

Jesus’ disciples wanted to keep him, too, but as he had told them, he had to leave them so that all things could be fulfilled…to the glory of God.

When things are going good and we can see where we are headed…or think we can…it is a disappointment… maybe even a shock…when things change so suddenly…like they did for the disciples when Jesus was arrested on Maundy Thursday…whipped and scourged and crucified on Friday.

All hope had to be abandoned once he was dead and buried in the tomb. His followers had dwindled to so few and felt so threatened that they abandoned him and denied they ever knew him.

It would be a while yet before they saw the risen Christ. It would take some time for the full gift of the truth to dawn on them.

Then…once it had happened and Jesus had breathed the Holy Spirit out on them and ascended…to his God and their God…their tears would be no more and they would be filled with joy and power that would make them as persuasive as Eddie Gabel was that Easter Sunday so many years ago now.

They would see the whole story at last. They would know how much their Creator loved them and their neighbor.

They would do all they could…and they would do a pretty good job of it… to make all nations believe that Jesus did not come to judge them but to save them…and Jesus would be ready to do it again one day…even for us.

O Lord, I am what I am and we are what we are. How can you tell your story once again…through our lives… through our words…our deeds…this day…and all the days to come? Amen.