Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter Sermon: "The Beloved's Yes"

April 1, 2018
John 19:23-30, 20:1-18


The poetry--this Easter Sunday--of Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the musn'ts, child.
Listen to the don'ts.
Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts.
Listen to the never haves,
Then listen close to me...
Anything can happen, child.
Anything can be.

Somebody, somewhere, said you musn't dance in church.  Somebody, somewhere, said you shouldn't talk to strangers.  Somebody, somewhere, said you can never marry a boy.  Somebody, somewhere, said you'll never have enough money, or enough love, or enough smarts, to make your dreams come true.

Well, it's Easter, friends, the great day of resurrection, the feast of Jesus the Risen Christ!  And that somebody was wrong.  All those somebodies were wrong!  Today there are all kinds of folks dancing in church.  Today there are all kinds of folks talking to strangers in church.  Today you can marry whomever you want, whomever you truly love.  And today, we're here to tell you that there's enough love in your heart, there's enough love in the world, to make every one of your dreams come true.

It's Easter, friends, and light shines, shines, shines in the darkness.  It's Easter, friends, and love, love, love is stronger than death.  So:

Listen to the musn'ts, child.
Listen to the don'ts.
Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts.
Listen to the never haves,
Then listen close to me...
Anything can happen, child.
Anything can be.


So imagine the two of them--the two grieving, exhausted disciples--running to the tomb in tandem.  It's early in the morning, still dark, a few birds dreaming of daylight.  Two disciples, racing to the tomb.  And you know how it goes when you're running in the dark?  You feel the road, you don't see the road.  You could go down at anytime.  A branch to the face.  An unexpected curb.  A lot of things can go wrong out there.

But the two of them--Simon Peter and the other one--they race to the tomb, just the same.  Hoping against hope.  Expecting who knows what, really.  I suspect they surprise themselves with this sprint, this dash to the unknown.  After all, they've seen terrible things, the two of them, gruesome suffering, broken hearts.  It's been an awful weekend.

Jesus was a visionary, to be sure, a beam of light, a champion for the poor.  And he loved them all so, so well.  These disciples.  But the empire had indeed struck back.  As empires are wont to do.  Jesus on the cross.  Soldiers gambling for his tunic.  A demoralized community.

But now, early in the morning, Mary bursts in with her strange news, this befuddling report.  An empty tomb.  No body to be found there.  And these two--Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved--they take off without a word.  To see for themselves.  Maybe they're counting on Mary's being wrong.  Maybe that's it.  It'd be easier if the body's in there somewhere, shrouded in a corner.  Life could proceed in an orderly way.  Or maybe they're recalling things Jesus himself had said.  Things about seeds dying and shoots sprouting.  Things about crucified prophets rising from the dead.  Mary's strange news unleashes wave after wave of longing, wave after wave of bewilderment.  A wild sea of unknowing.  So they run.  To see for themselves.  And I guess we run with them.


Jesus and the Beloved Disciple
Now maybe you're curious, as I am, about the text's description of these two disciples racing to the tomb.  Simon Peter's easy enough, one of Jesus' closest friends and followers, the rock on whom Jesus chooses to build his movement for the long haul.  But what about this other one, in the text today: the one whom Jesus loved?  Why does the fourth gospel single out this particular disciple, as one Jesus loved, as one Jesus cared for, as one Jesus attended to in a particular way?  No name, but unmistakable importance.

At the table on the last night, we see him leaning into Jesus' breast--that's in the text--leaning into Jesus' breast.  The one whom Jesus loved.  At the cross on Friday, we overhear Jesus instructing him to take Mary--Jesus' mother--into his home, into his family, into his heart.  The one whom Jesus loved.  Again, no name, but unmistakable importance.

And now, on the first day of the week, while it's still dark, the one whom Jesus loved outruns even Peter, and beats him to the tomb.  And it's an interesting moment because he bends down to look in, but he waits.  It's almost as if his enthusiasm, his passion gets him there first, but his generosity, his tenderness causes him to wait.  Only when Peter catches up, only when they can enter together, does the beloved disciple step inside, and see the wrappings and the cloth, and believe in the stunning victory of life over death.  He's full of hope, he's full of love, maybe he's even full of himself, this beloved disciple, but he honors his community.  He honors Peter.  He feels for Peter's grief too.  So he doesn't grab the moment for himself.  He aches to share this good news, this extraordinary Easter news, with his friends.  All of them.

Some have guessed that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John himself, the author of the gospel.  He knows the story so completely, he feels the story so viscerally, because he was there at the heart of it all, as it unfolded in real time.  And Jesus trusted him with the message, and with his pain, and with the weight of the gospel.  So that's one possibility.   Kind of remote, but a possibility.

Still others have wondered if the disciple Jesus loved was Jesus' lover, an intimate companion who offered Jesus comfort and understanding and pleasure no one else could offer.  Think about it.  We know that Jesus loved all of his friends in a deep and abiding way.  There's no question about that in the gospel story.  Love was his way.  We know that he loved his enemies, too, and that he had special love in his heart for the poor, for the marginalized, for the forgotten of the world.  Love was his way.

But maybe Jesus needed one friend in a special way, maybe he truly was human like the rest of us, maybe he found particular joy and special solace with one man.  I have to say this makes some sense in light of the text: that he's there, this disciple Jesus loved, that he's right there, physically close, at the table, on the last night.  Resting his head on Jesus' breast.  It makes some sense: that Jesus looks to this same disciple from the cross, both of them grieving; that Jesus insists that his beloved, his beloved, take his mother as family, as kin as his own flesh and blood.

Now I realize that saying this out loud, on Easter Sunday of all days, probably means I'll never get that lunch invitation from Pat Robertson and his wife.  I'll never win that Southern Baptist preaching prize either.  And I realize it also flies in the face of thousands of years of Christian theology around Jesus and celibacy and hetero-normative ethics.  But, heck, this is Peace United Church, and we're pretty good at this kind of thing.  So maybe Jesus--the Son of God, the Savior of the Universe--truly was human like the rest of us.  Isn't that the point, the scandalous point of the gospel itself?  Maybe he found particular joy and special solace with one man.  Maybe he needed to be touched on the last night of his life.  Maybe he needed to know his lover would take care of his mother, would call her family and shield her from harm.  Whatever the case, the beloved disciple was there.  Present.  Available.  Tender to the end. 

Now the point here isn't to quibble about details.  And obviously the point here isn't to arm-wrestle around orientation and sex.  What I want us to see is how compellingly human Jesus really is, and how dear and near he is to you and me.  If Jesus needs connection like you and I need connection, he knows us, he gets us, he sees the vulnerable beating heart inside you and me.  If Jesus gets turned on like you and I get turned on, he blushes like you and I blush, he gets us, he sees the fragile freaky soul inside you and me.  "The Word becomes flesh," says the fourth gospel, "and dwells among us, and we have seen his glory..."  So he might be queer, sure he might be queer.  Who really knows?  It's possible.  The point is, he lives a human life.  The point is, he yearns for human community.  The point is, he stirs in our human hearts. 


Now you may have your doubts about this.  About Jesus stirring in your heart.  Maybe it's been a bad week.  Hey, maybe it's been a bad year.  Maybe you look in the mirror at night, and you can't possible imagine God stirring in your heart.  Or maybe anywhere in this big broken world of body counts and betrayal.

I get it.  Your doubts are probably a lot like my doubts.  There are days when this whole love and tenderness bit, this whole heaven on earth project seems like pure lunacy.  And we're probably not alone in the room.  In a way, I guess, we're all in the dark--like those two disciples running to the tomb.  We're hoping against hope, and we don't quite know what to expect.  But I want you to know there's something wise about doing this together.  There's something sweet about showing up today, in a place like this.  And there's something so right about singing songs of hope, and love, and resistance.  Even in the darkness.  Especially in the darkness.  It's a place to start.  I've got to believe, it's a pretty good place to start.  This wild sea of unknowing.  And this little boat we call the church.

Resurrection's a strange and bewildering thing.  How can it be otherwise?  That Jesus' love, that Jesus' life, that Jesus' yearning lives on in us, in folks like us, in a world like ours?  Our God--like the old hymn says--is an awesome God.


You know, the dear, complicated Mother Teresa--the woman they called the "Saint of the Gutters" in Calcutta--used to say, "Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you, you can't begin to know who he wants to be for you, or what he wants you to be for him."  Check this out: "Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you, you can't begin to know who he wants to be for you, or what he wants you to be for him."  See what I mean about resurrection?  About all this love?  A strange and bewildering thing!

Whatever the particulars of their life together, whatever their ordinary days look like, the beloved disciple knows that Jesus thirsts for him, that Jesus lives for him, that Jesus loves him with all his heart.  And the knowledge, the experience of being loved like this liberates  his spirit for tenderness, for courage and for service.  Love is in his bloodstream now.  Jesus' love is in his bloodstream now.  Does that make any sense to you?  He knows who he wants to be.  He knows who he needs to be.  For Jesus and for the world.  So he's right there with Jesus that last night.  Breast to breast.  And he's c lose to the cross when the Romans bring the hammer down.  And he takes Jesus' mother as his own, loves her as family, builds a new life around hers.  Love is in his bloodstream now. 

So my friends, the real question this morning, the most important question this morning, is this: Are you going to be that beloved disciple?  Are you going to put your head on his shoulder and comfort him when he's frightened, when bullies bear down, when armies nail him to a cross?  Are you going to take his mother for your own, join your life to hers, invest in a beloved community bound, not by blood, but by love and compassion?  Are you going to be that beloved disciple?  That's the real question this morning.  

Because Jesus thirsts for you.  Because the Creator of the Universe thirsts for you.  Because God yearns for communion with you.  That's Easter.  That's grace.  That's gospel.  Jesus thirsts for you.  Not because you're perfect, you don't have to be perfect, but because you're you!  Not because you're an angel or a saint--you don't have to be an angel or a saint--but because you're you!  Jesus thirsts for you.  Are you open to that kind of love?  Are you aware, are you awake, are you available to the grace that has shaped your life, called for your life, from the very beginning?

If you are, if you're awake to that kind of music, if you're available to that kind of love, Easter's so much more than a day, so much more than a liturgical blink in the spring.  If you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you, that God needs you, that the Universe claims you as kin, Easter's a promise you cherish.  And Easter's your way of life.  You know that love conquers death.  You know that hope outlasts fear.  And you live to bless every breath and welcome every day and love every neighbor.  Even if it costs you everything.  Especially if it costs you everything. 

So I wish I could tell you I had this whole resurrection business worked out in my mind.  I wish I could tell you I knew how Easter worked and how it all went down and what heaven really, really means.  But I just can't.  What I can tell you this morning is that I think Mother Teresa's on to something.  What I can tell you this morning is that I think you're called, as I think I'm called, to be that beloved disciple.  Jesus thirsts for you, specifically you, exactly you.  It's your YES God wants most this morning.  It's your YES that transforms suffering into compassion, and despair into hope, and isolation into community.  It's your YES that leans into the light and love of the risen Christ.  I think you're called.  I think you're needed.  I think you're blessed.  Right now.  And right here.  With us. 

So say YES.  Be that beloved disciple.  And say YES!