Reason for Hope

April 4, 2021

Series: April 2021

Category: What Are You/We Up To

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8

Today's Sermon


"Reason for Hope"

1 Corinthians 5:6b-8

6bDo you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Reason for Hope”

            Last year, I delivered the Easter sermon from my living room.  We were confined largely to home except for groceries and some exercise.  We weren’t sure how long the journey would be or what shape we would be in on the other side. As you know, every spring I plan the year’s worship services.  I found in my notes for this Sunday, “Where will we be with COVID?”  Will we be able to sing with full voice, “The Strive is O’er, the battle is done, the victory of life is won…”? 

            A disappointing realization landed with me part-way through the pandemic—there would be no sudden end to this, no single moment when everything would open. We would be denied a singular celebratory moment when we would fling our masks in the air.  We wouldn’t go from worshiping at home to being together at church to celebrate, break bread together and embrace our friends in the faith, in the span of one week.  This is one of the lasting traumas, that reentry will be slow and for some surprisingly scary.  There are other traumas of course, and while I know there is a tendency to rank them, for some suffering is surely greater than others, and yet honoring someone else’s pain doesn’t mean you have to downplay your own or another’s.  Hurt hurts.

            Many of us placed our faith in science, awaiting the arrival of a vaccine, praying it would come with unprecedented speed.  We just had to hold out for the vaccine, and so we held off on seeing loved ones, some went without seeing loved ones for the last time, praying the vaccine would come.  And it has. It is worth drawing to our mind’s eye images of scientists working around the clock to deliver this life-saving medicine; it’s quite moving.  We just had to hang in there and await their work. 

            And so here we are, Easter again, where we have read the story of Mary Magdelene who has come to the tomb.  Elsewhere in Scripture, it says women came to anoint the body, but John just says she came to the tomb while it was still dark.  What was she after setting out while it was still dark?  What drove her to do that?  There’s no indication she expected a miracle, or did she, having been so close with Jesus?  Perhaps she had given up on thoughts of her own safety, setting out in the dark. Perhaps a cemetery was the most fitting place for her grief.  Perhaps she just wanted to be close to him, what was left of him.  I would understand it, and wouldn’t hold it against her, if a part of her just wanted to crawl into the tomb with him.

            It takes a certain kind of strength to show up at the tomb of your hopes.  I try and be careful not to draw too superficial a connection between the grand events of Scripture the ordinary days of our lives.  That said, this year feels different.  Do you know the strength you’ve exerted throughout this? When you operate in survival mode for so long, it’s hard to render a full accounting of the toll that has been taken. I hope for a few moments here, now, you can just let down.  We’re going to have to learn to be compassionate with ourselves and one another for long after this is over we are going to feel the effects.  If we don’t, voices will grow louder until they get our attention. 

            My best counsel is follow Mary.  Mary shows up at the tomb of Jesus maybe in a way that we can understand better than before. Sometimes intuition, sometimes our soul just knows what to do.  She shows up, and against all odds, against all reasonable explanation, against presumably even her own expectations, Jesus is not there.  The men come and go, but Mary stays there weeping.  There’s a lesson for us, to stay with our grief rather than to rush to “do something,” and it’s in that moment of vulnerability to her own experience that she sees the angels, messengers from God, and Jesus himself.

            In that encounter, Mary is given what we all need, reason for hope.  A life without hope ceases to be life.  At times, a shred of hope may be all we have to pass down to our children, but that may be enough.  I may have told this story before.  Jon Walton, a now retired Presbyterian pastor in New York City was talking to a couple struggling with how to raise their young child in the faith. “When want them to be able to make their own decisions, to find their own path,” but then the real reason for their quandary emerged, “We’re not sure ourselves, what we believe; I mean how do you know?” they asked in so many words.         

            Walton responded, “If you can’t tell them what you believe, tell them what you hope.”  Tell them what you hope.  The resurrection defies reason, but the experience of these women and men gives us reason fpr hope.  Sometimes that’s all we need to show up in the midst of such grief and sorrow.  The resurrection says, sometimes it’s not over when we think it’s over and even when it is over, whatever the “it” is, and there is something beyond what we can always see.  The resurrection is God’s way of saying to the world, you, most of you anyway, may be done with me, but I’m not done with you yet.  In that sense, it’s God’s sign that God still has hope for us.  All the evil and suffering, outright meanness, weaponized ignorance, and God seems to still be standing by the resurrection and standing by us through it. 

            The resurrection is not just an event; it’s a vindication of a way. “This is the way,” our Mandalorian-loving friends would say.  The resurrection is an affirmation that Jesus’ way of radical love is the way, and in the end, this way wins.  It wins out on some timeline.  That is what it means to have faith.  When Paul writes of the resurrection (an event to which he was closer chronologically than any of the gospel writers), he says, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7b-8). Don’t get caught up with the language of sacrifice, for we layer that with later interpretations that say that somehow God had to sacrifice God’s son to appease God’s own wrath.  The paschal sacrifice harkens back to the Older Testament story in which the Israelites are liberated from Egypt, the narrow place, into freedom and wellbeing as a people.  The blood of the lamb is what protected them when the angel swooped over the oppressor to take the first-born of every family, the 10thand final plague that compelled the oppressor to let them go free.

            Paul understands that Jesus enduring what he did protected his people from their oppressor, and further it has implications for all time.  For Paul, the crucifixion puts to death a way of being based in death, people crucifying one another, the way of malice and evil.  In the Passover story, unleavened bread was they had time to make for their journey and so for this new journey, this new chapter, we are to be sustained by the bread of sincerity and truth.  In Christ, the days of malice and evil are over. Their reign is temporal and temporary. Sincerity and truth are coming and, in some form, are already here.  That’s what we claim when we claim the resurrection, that we stand with sincerity and truth.

            My Easter sermon was finished and then a man walked into my study on Palm Sunday. This is the 40thanniversary of me coming here, he said.  He proceeded to tell me about living in El Salvador, and how one day an armed guerilla came to him.  There you either joined the military or the guerillas; there was no third option. The guerilla said to him, you come with us or we’ll kill you.  I’ll kill you, one said, brandishing a machine gun.  “You’ll have to kill me,” the man told me he responded, “because I’m not going.” 
The guerrilla handed him a gun, “Come with us.”  
            “I don’t want it,” the man said handing it back.
            “I will give one more chance.  Next time, when we come back if you don’t come, I’ll kill you.”  By the way, that guerrilla was his own uncle.  Unsure of what to do, the man went to his other uncle who told him he should take his saved money and come to the United States, where he did at incredible risk and peril.  He was later granted Amnesty and later still citizenship.  From a place of utter despair and death his hope bore out.  You can ask him about it.  He’s right out there.  He is Jesus “Jesus” Posada, our beloved sexton, and if there is a finer example of sincerity and truth, I’d like to see it.  I tell his story because he has told it publicly before and told me I could share it.

            To be people of the resurrection is to trust there is reason for hope, and to draw on that hope to be committed to putting away malice and evil, the old yeast, in favor of the unleavened bread that will get us through any journey, sincerity and truth.