Archive for March, 2016

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia! “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels ask the women at the empty tomb. We have the disadvantage of knowing the Easter story well – too well—that we forget where these women are coming from. These women were at Jesus’ crucifixion. “They stood at a distance and watched,” Luke tells us in chapter 23. And these same women followed Joseph of Arimathea who took Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapped it in linen cloths, and laid it in a tomb. They “watched how Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb. Then they went to prepare some sweet-smelling spices for his burial. But on the Sabbath they rested as the Law of Moses commands.” This was the end of the story from Luke that we heard last week on Palm Sunday. Jesus was dead. The women saw him take his last breath on the cross, and they saw his body put in the tomb. They were getting ready to prepare his body for burial after the Sabbath, on Sunday morning.

Now, I realize that modern-day science has taught us many things since the days of Jesus, but these women knew about biological realities like birth, sickness, and death. Jesus was dead and there was absolutely no reason that they would find the tomb empty from how they left it on Friday night. Perhaps that fact can help us relate more to understand that their first reaction is not overwhelming joy, hope, or a sense of relief! Luke tells us the women were “perplexed” and “terrified.” These women do not speak to the angels, but I imagine if they did they’d say something like, “Why do we look for the living among the dead? Because Jesus IS dead! We’ve seen his dead body with our own eyes! What are you talking about?!”

The Easter story is about something much deeper, much more astounding and confusing than getting dressed in pretty spring clothes, pigging out on Easter candy (peeps being my favorite, I have to admit), and decorating hard-boiled eggs in pastel colors. As Christians we make the crazy assertion that when we hear that people are dead, they are not really dead. We believe that God has power over death. We believe that God even USES death for life-giving purposes – and not just for sentimental value so that Grandma can be with us forever (which is a nice thought) but so that the WORLD might be saved from darkness, despair, and destruction. Can we take some time this morning to let the power of this simple statement: “Jesus Lives!” sink in? (pause)

Wow, do we need the power of the Easter story this morning. On Tuesday of this week, we heard news of another terrorist attack in Europe- this time in Brussels – at least 31 dead, 250 wounded. On Friday, we said good-bye to our beloved long-time member Dorothy Nimrod, who died just shy of her 100th birthday. I know many of you here today are struggling privately with very difficult issues: mental illness, addiction, caring for parents or children who can no longer care for themselves, the list of our needs and reminders of the reality of death are all around us. If we want to look for signs that remind us that death is inevitable, we don’t have to look very far at all. In fact, I just noticed the other day that our flag has been flying at half-mast for almost a month now after the death of Justice Scalia, then Nancy Reagan, then with the Brussels attacks. At the loss of a loved one or when we hear of yet another tragic mass shooting or terrorist attack, if someone asked us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” we’d call them crazy, insensitive, or worse. Just like for those women at the tomb, there’s plenty for us to be perplexed about, and plenty of stuff to be terrified about. The world and our own experience tells us that what is dead is dead. People who have died are gone. We will never see them again on this side of heaven. The women at the tomb know this, the disciples know this, we know it.

BUT –God has something else in mind for us! Jesus lives. Jesus lives so that we might live with him, even when we die. In Galilee 2000 years ago, Jesus lives. In this church, right here in Omaha Nebraska, in 2016, Jesus lives. And in Brussels, in Paris, in Columbine and in Sandy Hook…Jesus lives. Even death itself is no match for the power of God in Christ Jesus our Savior. We can look for death and easily find it– just hop on Facebook, look in the newspaper or turn on the TV. God in Jesus Christ gives us a different message: He is not here, among the dead, where you are looking. He has risen. He is living! God calls us to look for the living.

Each Easter, we hear a different gospel account of the same story of Christ’s resurrection: from Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke. This year, in Luke’s account, what’s remarkable is that the women and the disciples have not even SEEN Jesus yet. Did you notice? All they have is the angels’ message that Jesus is risen. They have the memory of the words that Jesus had told them: “The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” They haven’t seen Jesus yet, but they believe and hope against hope that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about death is in fact not true: that the dead aren’t really dead and that live in Jesus is more powerful than death. Wow. These women, these disciples, believe without seeing. That’s kind of where we’re at here today. We believe without seeing that Jesus lives. We look for the living even in places where death lurks. We believe God has the ultimate victory, and that we have live everlasting with God.

So, how do we look for the living, even in the face of death? Just recently I was reading in our Lutheran magazine about the ELCA’s missionary efforts in South Sudan. A Sudanese pastor who had served a church here in the States told people back in Sudan that in the winter here, everything looks dead: the grass is brown, there are no leaves on the trees, the weather is cold and gray. But every spring, flowers bloom, the grass turns green and grows again, the trees grow new leaves. Nature itself reminds us that there is life after death. We can look to the faith of those who face their own death knowing that there is more for them in the life to come with Jesus, like our beloved Dorothy Nimrod. Like those first women at the tomb, we can listen to the message of Christ’s resurrection and ask God to help us have the faith that it is true. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia! Look for the living, not the dead. Amen.

Filling Our House with Christ’s Fragrance

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, March 13, 2016

John 12:1-8

Mary took a pound of costly perfume, made with pure nard, and poured it on Jesus’ feet, John tells us. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” he goes on to say. This got me wondering…what is nard? And what does nard smell like? What did it smell like in Lazarus’ house that night, after dinner, as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet – perhaps the smell of grilled lamb or goat still hanging in the air, mixed with that nard perfume? A quick search on Wikipedia tells me that nard, the full name being “spikenard,” also called “muskroot,” is an amber-colored essential oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. Nard is very thick in consistency and comes in about twelve different varieties, some of which smell like lavender. With that information, I imagine there were some pretty good smells in Lazarus’ house that night – perhaps of freshly baked bread, the smoke of a wood fire after dinner mixed in with the fragrance of lavender. John paints an intimate picture for us of Jesus and his disciples gathered together to share a meal and fellowship with one another along with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It’s an image of comfort, warmth, and love. You almost feel like you’re there. How awesome it would’ve been to be there with Jesus and to smell all of those good smells!

But then Judas interrupts this warm, comforting scene with an unsettling question, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas stinks, John basically tells us. Not literally, necessarily, but something about Judas doesn’t smell quite right, if you will. He’s a thief – he doesn’t really care about the poor, but as the group’s treasurer he steals from their collected offerings instead of giving them to the poor. We know just a few days later he’ll betray Jesus and hand him over to be put to death by the Roman authorities for thirty pieces of silver. In contrast to the fragrance of Mary’s loving devotion and anointing of Jesus, Judas stinks of greed and betrayal, self-interest instead of self-sacrifice for the sake of Jesus and his mission.

So, what do you smell like? This isn’t a question to make you feel self-conscious, although for the sake of your neighboring worshippers I hope you put on your deodorant this morning! What I mean is, in the way we live our daily lives, in the way we welcome and offer hospitality here at church, can people “smell” the fragrance of Christ, or do we come across as disingenuous, insincere, or even self-serving, like Judas?

The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2 wrote, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” I have always liked this idea that as Christians that fragrance of Christ rubs off of him and onto us as we grow deeper in relationship with him. The fragrance of death, the smell of Judas’s inauthentic and self-serving faith stank more like a pile of garbage, to be honest, as one of Jesus’ closest disciples hands him over for thirty pieces of silver. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial, so that the smell of death, the smell of Judas’ betrayal, would be overpowered by the flowery fragrance of nard. So think about it — when the disciples discovered the empty tomb that pound of perfume covered the stench of rotting flesh and death so that not only could they smell the fragrance of the RISEN Christ, that fragrance could stay with them, hanging on their clothes and in their hair. The sweet smell of Christ’s resurrection was more powerful than any lingering smell of decay.

Here’s an example of what I mean. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to travel to India for a month long class where we learned about Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. As you may know, Indian food is very spicy, and Indians use a lot of spices that we aren’t necessarily familiar with in the U.S., so it takes some getting used to. I happen to like Indian food, but I was not prepared to eat VERY spicy food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner day after day, after day. Let’s just say that there were days where not all of us made it onto the bus for our daily outings because of the digestive issues we Midwesterners were all dealing with! What’s interesting, though, is after a month of eating Indian food, I came back to the United States, to my dorm room, started unpacking all of my clothes, and my roommate came in and said, “Whoa! It smells like an Indian restaurant in here!” After living in India and eating Indian food for a month, I smelled like India! India came home with me! Those spices, that onion and garlic, were literally coming out of my pores.

Mary and the disciples, in hanging around Jesus, in listening and following to his teachings, hung around Jesus so often and so closely that the fragrance of Christ was in their pores, too. So much so that after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Christ’s aroma continued to be with them as they formed the early church and started bring the good news of Christ to other communities around the world. When they encountered others, even though Jesus was not physically present, they could smell the air of who Christ was. Christ’s fragrance was powerful enough for them to be the aroma of Christ to others so that the church grew.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how powerful the sense of smell can be? One whiff of a certain perfume might remind us of an aunt, our mom, or a strict teacher. My parents’ house will always smell like home to me. And just recently, not one, but two people who grew up here at Bethel have commented to me about how the church smells “just like it always used to.” I hope that’s a good thing! I hope Bethel smells good, and I mean more than just literally that this place doesn’t smell offensive! Mary’s anointing of Jesus causes the room to be filled with a fragrance of Christ that ALL present will remember. They will smell the smell of that nard as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They will smell it as he prays with them in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Perhaps even before they see the stone rolled away and the empty tomb, they will smell Christ’s presence again that Easter morning. They will smell and remember his teachings, remember how he healed those who were sick, remember how he loved them.

When people come to this place, do they smell a fragrance that reminds them of the aroma of Christ? Do they leave with the scent of welcome, of genuine hospitality, with memories of prayers of joy and concern shared and heard? Do they have a sense of security and safety, that here and with these people gathered here it’s OK to both laugh and cry, to wrestle with the questions of faith as well as listen to the powerful faith stories of others? When people walk through these doors, I hope they continue to say, “Ahh, this church still smells the same. It smells like Jesus. It smells like the aroma of Christ.” And I hope, too, that when you all go about your daily lives, that same fragrance of Christ goes with you and lingers when you leave a room. Like that Indian food, may the aroma of Christ that you see and experience here sink deep into your pores, so that people can’t help but notice you smell like a Christian! Amen.


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