Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In my family, growing up, you simply couldn't have Easter without chocolate bunnies. Every Palm Sunday after church we'd all go to this wonderful old-fashioned candy store in town and choose the little critters that would appear the following week in our baskets. Occasionally my sister and I would break with tradition and choose a chicken or a duck instead of a rabbit; sometimes I got really radical and went with a white chocolate rather than a milk chocolate bunny. But it was one of those things you could always count on, year after year. A deliciously consistent tradition. And to this day, whenever I smell Easter chocolates, I'm transported in my mind decades back to those Palm Sunday visits to the Kandy Kraft store in Albany, NY and the sense of excitement and anticipation that built in my young heart as we drew closer and closer to Easter Sunday.
The smell of lilies does it too. Though I've worshipped on Easter with any number of congregations since, whenever I walk into a sanctuary and am greeted by the scent of spring flowers, it triggers more of those early memories, in this case of the church I grew up in -- crisp cotton dresses, short-sleeves and white shoes, signs of springtime hidden under our warm wool coats; snuggling in next to my parents in our usual pew; special choir pieces, favorite congregational hymns, and, of course, the flowers. What would Easter be without flowers? And believe me - in upstate NY in March or April, unless there happened to be one or two brave crocuses pushing their way heavenward, the lilies decorating the front of that sanctuary were often the first flowers we'd seen in a long, long time.
Bunnies and chicks and lilies. Signs of springtime. They're all, in my mind and perhaps in yours, closely tied to memories of Easter Sundays past, and have worked their way into my ideas about what Easters present and future ought to look and smell and taste like. They're all appropriate accessories on this day insofar as they help us to rejoice in the beauty of life and to give thanks for God's good creation. Easter is about life, after all, and it's time to celebrate.
Yet while springtime seems an appropriate time to do Easter, the Easter story told in the gospels isn't about the natural rhythm of the seasons or the regular cycle of life. Easter isn't about the expected regeneration of the earth at all, but about the totally unexpected resurrection of a person. For Christians, it isn't so much life before death, but life beyond death that's the theme for the day. That's an entirely different thing, and it means that we have to take death seriously as an integral component of our Easter celebration.
Not that we need reminders to take death seriously. There it is, every time we scan through an online news source or flip through the morning paper. There it is, staring us down, as we stand nervously beside the bedside of someone we love, or linger at their grave. It's just that it would be so much nicer now that we've finally made it through the solemnity of Good Friday if we could put all that behind us, and focus on the softness of bunnies and the brightness of flowers and colored eggs. We want to think about life and hope today, for heaven's sake, not death.
But for better or for worse, death is a big part of what it's all about this morning. The gospels are united in their clarity on the point: Jesus of Nazareth really died. The Apostle's Creed affirms it in three different ways, so there will be no confusion: Jesus was crucified. He died. He was buried. In the verses immediately preceding our gospel reading for today, Luke has gone into a fair bit of detail explaining when and how Jesus' body was removed from the cross, and where it was placed. "Luke wants to make sure, because of what is coming, that we know there really is a burial; that it is in a legitimate rock-hewn tomb; that a man as real and respectable as Joseph [of Arimathea] is in charge; that there are friends watching . . . [and] that there is no question about which tomb or where it is."
Jesus really died. And so as one preacher puts it: "resurrection [isn’t] surprising in the way that green leaves are surprising after a long winter -- for though the first green catches us off guard while we are blinking, we expected it to happen. Jesus [wasn’t] a daffodil sleeping underground until the warmth of [spring] brought new life. Jesus was the child of Mary, born as any child is born. And when Jesus died in the darkness of midday, his mother wept as every mother weeps at the inconsolable death of a child. She [didn’t] expect him to appear come spring or any other season."
Nor, apparently, did those other women who came to the tomb following the Sabbath. They were just doing what you do, when someone has died. Every culture in the world has its rituals associated with death. When the unimaginable has happened and the earth is shaking all around us, when someone we love more than life itself has finally slipped away, or been torn from us without warning, we know this much, at least: that we should call the funeral home, make arrangements with the church, prepare some food, write the obituary. And so the women went with their spices to Jesus' tomb, preparing themselves for what they needed to do, knowing what they would find there.
The surprise of Easter Sunday, of course, is that the women and the other disciples were completely unprepared. They found nothing even close to what they had expected. They were in totally uncharted territory. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" the men in dazzling clothes ask Joanna, the two Marys, and their friends. "What do you mean, 'living'?" "He is not here, but has risen." "What do you mean, 'risen'?" And the course of history was forever changed.
As Barbara Lundblad puts it, "there may be experiences which are [a little] like resurrection, but resurrection is not like any of them." So it takes some imagination to live in a world like ours and to believe the staggering claim that death has actually been defeated.
Now by imagination I do not mean to imply that the gospel accounts are fictional, that the story of the resurrection is a work of someone's imagination. Only that attending to the story of Christ's resurrection requires us to stretch our minds beyond the bounds of what is apparently reasonable and rational. To allow the possibility that there are truths beyond those we can objectively prove. To imagine that with God, things happen that otherwise never could. And the miracle of Easter Sunday is not only that Christ himself rose from the dead, but that we have been promised a share in the resurrected life as well. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26) Even after we die, we will live again, a new life in which we will never die? How wild is that?! We're way beyond newborn chicks and fragrant white lilies here. We're talking about promises that make a difference in our whole approach to life, and even to death.
These promises may not be easy for us to believe. Even those first disciples, who'd heard from Jesus' own mouth that he would rise again, had trouble imagining the reality of the resurrection at first. Luke says that to the disciples, the women's report about the empty tomb "seemed . . .an idle tale, and they did not believe them."(24:11) "What a burden the resurrection of the dead places on faith, even among those close to Jesus." But as one commentator suggests, if we even consider the possibility that Jesus truly rose from the dead, if we even let the door open a crack, we can never entirely put aside the thought again. And so we believe. . .or try to.
Believing anything about God requires a bit of imagination. God is so far beyond our experience of reality that we can never fully comprehend God, and certainly can't rationally explain God's ways in the world. Any of us who've ever tried to explain the resurrection to someone know how difficult it is to get across its power, to instill its hope in someone who insists on rational explanations, who thinks the world should always make sense in predictable ways. But “you only get anywhere near the truth when all the sensible things to say about God are overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus just stepped up out of the grave.” Anyway, it isn't up to us to prove the truth of the Easter story to anyone, even to ourselves, only to open the door a crack. . .
In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God. That's what resurrection hope is all about. The miracle of Easter isn't the natural regeneration of the earth, and it isn't resuscitation, a second chance in a lifetime that will still ultimately end in death. No, the miracle of Easter is Christ's bodily resurrection in the past, Christ's living presence in our midst, and the promise of our own resurrection in the future, to a completely new life in which we will never die.
“The statistics [may] say, ‘Death wins. Every single time.’ [But] the Resurrection says, ‘Hold on. Not so fast…’” For Jesus has triumphed over the grave. Death is swallowed up in victory. We have cause for celebration. We have reason to hope.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! May signs of resurrection hope abound!
 Bruce van Blair, The Believer's Road: A Journey Through Luke, 261.
 Barbara Lundblad, "Preaching Easter," Journal for Preachers (Easter 1996), 11.
 Lundblad, 11.
 Fred Craddock, Luke, 283.
 Lundblad, 9.
 Matt Fitzgerald, “Thunderous Yes,” Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 10.
 Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection, p. 41.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the crowds – for all of their “Hosannas” that day – didn’t understand what was about to happen. He knew many would turn on him in the end. After all, the word “Hosanna” in Hebrew means “Save us!” And if it was salvation from Roman rule they were after, that wasn’t what Jesus was about. If they wanted a revolution, he certainly offered one, but not the kind they expected. So as you know, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was in a sense the beginning of the end. It was a dangerous ride, because once he was inside the city – to invoke another biblical story we read together recently – he had entered the lion’s den. He was handing himself over, knowing “the powers that be” would finally have their chance to get rid of him. Granted, only for a while, but that’s next week’s story. And if we know that happy ending, we also know what he had to endure first, to get there. It was truly a dangerous ride Jesus took into Jerusalem that day.
What struck me this week, rereading the familiar Palm Sunday story in conversation this time with the final portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is how long he’d been trying to prepare his disciples for that danger.
If we were to have done a quick poll before we began our Lenten series on the Sermon on the Mount, asking what any of us recalled about it, I wonder what would have come to mind. Perhaps the beautiful blessings or Beatitudes at the beginning? Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and so on? Or perhaps those inspiring words about our calling as followers of Christ to bring salt and light to the world? But having spent the whole season of Lent studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we can’t really get away with selective memory anymore, can we? Because we’ve just been reminded what else is in there.
Even in the Beatitudes, you’ll remember reading: “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake… blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:10-11) Up next were all of those difficult teachings – “you have heard it said, but I say to you” – reminding us that we are accountable for our lingering resentments and lustful thoughts, just as we are for sins like murder and adultery. Jesus then made the outrageous demand that we love our enemies. He warned that we must step away from money as our god, and cease worrying about material things. He told us not to judge others, without first noticing our own sins. And urged us to pray persistently, not only when we are given fabulous answers to prayer, but even when it appears we are not getting what we are asking for, at all.
In today’s text, the conclusion to that same sermon, the hard teachings continue. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright compares making our way through this section of Matthew’s gospel to making our way along a treacherous drive, saying: “Jesus ends the great Sermon on the Mount with a set of warning signs. If you’ve come this far with him, you need to know it’s not just a matter of holding on to the steering wheel and hoping for the best. You need to concentrate, to take note of danger, to realize that you can’t presume on anything. You’ve got to keep your wits about you. This passage has three of these warnings, coming in quick succession like road-signs on a motorway. Make sure you get through the gate – it’s not very wide! Watch out for people who will lead you off the road! Don’t think that because you’ve been tagging along with the others that you’ll get there in the end! These are sharp and worrying. We need to take them seriously.” (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 75) In fact, Jesus says, hearing my words and not acting on them is self-destructive foolishness, akin to building a house on a bed of loose sand. (Matthew 7:24-27)
In other words, anyone who thinks Jesus just was a nice, friendly guy inviting his followers to a simple life hasn’t read the gospels very closely. Because he’s been saying all along: it’s not easy to follow me. Sign on, and you’re signing up for all kinds of trouble. The journey of discipleship – like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem - is a difficult and dangerous ride.
I’m guessing Jesus didn’t wait for polling data or consult a press secretary before he launched into his Sermon on the Mount. Because it’s clear to any of us that he’d scare off more people than he’d win, with this kind of talk. No matter. His concern was to offer his listeners the cold, hard, challenging – and life-giving – truth of the kingdom of God.
His risky behavior continues, in the chapters that follow the story we just read about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey. His very next recorded action, according to Matthew, is furiously to overturn the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Then he tells a bunch of parables about those who think they’re in the kingdom of God really being the ones who are out, follows that up by telling the religious leaders they’re all going to hell in a hand basket, and brings it all home by foretelling the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem temple.
Jesus, listen, you had them back there. The crowds were cheering you on, waving palm branches, throwing down their cloaks for you. Let’s be a touch more diplomatic, shall we? At least don’t take on everyone all at once. Maybe if he’d listened to that kind of advice, Jesus wouldn’t have found himself in such deep trouble later in the week.
But again, Jesus knew from the start that telling people the truth isn’t about winning popularity contests. And ushering in the kingdom of God doesn’t generally involve caving in to the demands of the crowds. Truth telling requires a strong backbone. Kingdom building requires tremendous strength of character. And it often brings with it tremendous risk. Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day with his eyes wide open. He knew how dangerous that ride would be, from the very start of his ministry.
It’s clear from his Sermon on the Mount that he knew we’d be in for a dangerous ride too, if we signed on as his followers.
Which is why he offers us these critical warnings as he concludes his Sermon on the Mount. Don’t get confused and think “you can simply ‘go with the flow,’ allowing the crowed to set the pace and direction…You really have to want to get in through this gate. If you just drift, allowing the current to take you where it will, you’ll miss it…. Choices matter; actions and motives matter. Learning to follow Jesus and to know God … matter. Eternal issues are at stake… And as soon as you hear a little voice saying ‘maybe Jesus didn’t mean it – surely he can’t have been that strict – maybe it’ll all come right in the end no matter what we do’, you need the next warning.” (Wright, p. 76)
“The next warning… is against ‘false prophets.’ In ancient Israel, ‘false prophets’ were people who claimed to be speaking the word of YHWH but actually weren’t. If people listened to them they would end up going the wrong way, and disaster would follow. But the trouble with false prophets is of course that they seem very nice, very reasonable, very trustworthy. No wolf is going to let you see his claws and teeth if he can dress himself up as a harmless sheep – and that’s what they will do.” (Wright, p. 76) Know them by their fruits, Jesus says. In other words, pay attention not just to their appealing words, but to whether their lives measure up to God’s standards.
True knowledge of God, true obedience to God, honest efforts to follow Jesus rather than running off after this fad or after that charismatic leader – that’s what we’re called to as Christians.
And just when we start to despair of ever getting it right, just when we’re most convinced that we might as well throw in the towel because there’s no hope for us, just then, we remember… Palm Sunday may have been the beginning of the end for Jesus, in a sense, but once the events of that fateful week were over, it also turns out to have ushered in the beginning of all beginnings. Not only for Jesus himself, but for us too.
As people of the resurrection we shouldn’t despair of not being Christ’s perfect followers. The whole point of resurrection hope is that we shouldn’t despair, period. Jesus turned out to be plenty strong enough to handle Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Turned out to be plenty tough enough to take on death itself; so I’ll wager he can take my personal faults and failures in stride, and still manage to keep his overall kingdom work on track.
The gospels never told us following Jesus would be easy. The demands of discipleship are huge, and if we sign on, we’re in for a dangerous ride. But look around you this morning – we’re not, any of us, doing this alone. We can cheer each other on, and pick each other up when we fall.
We can also remind one another that we’ve got all the help in the world – and then some – standing by to get us through it. And for that, gracious God, we thank you. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
There’s a lot packed into those 12 verses Jeff just read for us. The so-called Golden Rule at the end likely being the most familiar: do to others as you would have them to do you. This teaching wasn’t unique to Jesus, though it certainly fits nicely with other things he taught, and even sums up a lot of those teachings. Its internal logic makes good sense too, doesn’t it? We can’t beat on others and expect them to be nice to us in return. If you want others to treat you well, treat them well. Fair enough.
I’d actually like to focus more of our attention this morning on the other sections of this text. First, “do not judge, so that you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) On the one hand, it sounds as simple as the Golden Rule, a variation on that same theme of treating others the way we’d like to be treated. And it, too, has become a popular saying; I hear it quoted fairly often, don’t you? “Judge not” or some variation of those words? Unfortunately, sometimes the way it is quoted moves us in the very opposite direction of Jesus’ intentions. You’ve just heard the context of the verse in Matthew 7. Jesus was actually reminding us to pay attention to our own weakness. Remember – that’s why he encouraged us to take that log or plank out of our own eye before getting all bothered about the speck in someone else’s eye. But when I hear this verse quoted I often hear it said in the spirit of: “Look, just leave me (or him, or her) alone. I’m ok; you’re ok; we’re all ok.” As if the reason we shouldn’t judge is that there’s nothing really wrong.
But “are we never to raise an eyebrow in concern, a voice in protest? … Are we [always] to look the other way, throw up our hands, and say ‘It’s not my business to judge others?’ Absolutely not.” (Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 77) It’s important to remember that Jesus stood firmly in the tradition of the law and the prophets – he invokes both here in this morning’s passage. Both traditions were extremely clear about there being right and wrong actions in this world, and both were insistent that the people of God should do what is right. So let’s not misunderstand “judge not” to mean that we cannot have standards for moral behavior. That’s not what Jesus was saying at all.
Instead, Jesus was talking about the direction we should be pointing, when we’re tempted to do some serious finger wagging. If we see others out there screwing up, making mistakes, and certainly when we see them doing something truly awful, there’s nothing wrong with calling those things what they are, so long as we’ve taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and acknowledged our own sins first. Jesus wants to transform all of our lives, the lives of the self-righteous right along with lives we might consider scandalously sinful. Tom Long says “when we recognize that we, too, are broken and flawed…then we move from harsh judgment to a tender concern to help the neighbor… Instead of a finger poked in the neighbor’s face, we reach out mercifully to wipe the neighbor’s eye.” (Long, Matthew, p. 77)
The next little section of this morning’s passage is trickier to understand. What’s Jesus trying to get at when he cautions us not to give what is holy to dogs, or throw our pearls before swine? That sounds pretty harsh, particularly when we understand that in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a very uncomplimentary term. (We have enough dog lovers in this room that this might not immediately come across to you.)
It may not surprise you to know scholars are rather divided on how to interpret this part of Jesus’ teaching. Among the various options, I’ve found most helpful Tom Long’s take on the passage. He suggests that Matthew is alluding here to a dilemma within his church, a dilemma about which we don’t have all of the details. If we follow this logic, this particular Christian community has apparently faced a situation where all of their attempts to be gracious and compassionate have run into a dead end. In Long’s words: “What if a congregation is careful not to judge others harshly and self-righteously, careful to follow the process of compassion and moral care, but to no avail? What if all attempts to provide empathetic moral guidance are met with indifference, resentment, or anger? There are people who, for whatever reason, are hostile to the ministry of the church … and there are others who feign obedience to the kingdom while distorting its every claim. When the church has done all it knows how to do to claim and reclaim such people and failed, it needs to be prepared to admit that some things are beyond our power to help and heal.” Long continues: Jesus’ “language is tough… It sometimes takes tough talk, though, to get good news across. The good news here is that the certainty of the kingdom does not depend upon the success of the church or the grateful response of every person we encounter. We are called to show compassion, but often our compassion is not enough. We are called to be the light, but there are places of gloom that our light cannot make cheerful. But because the world is in God’s hands, and not the church’s, the church can be free, when it has exhausted every ounce of mercy it can muster, to walk away from failure and leave it to the grace of God.” (Long, Matthew, pp. 78-79)
Finally, Jesus returns to the topic of prayer, something he discussed earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, focusing there in that prior section on not being showy with our prayers, and then offering us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer as a model. Here in chapter 7, he brings up prayer once again, but this time it is to remind us to keep on praying. After all, God’s not a mean old Scrooge who gets his kicks out of denying your requests. God loves you with the love of a father for his children. So “ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Beautiful words. Inspiring words. We love to remind one another of these words, and to sing these words together. But am I the only one who’s bothered by the fact that these words don’t always seem to ring true? The frustrating truth of the matter is that we don’t always get what we ask for, even from God, even when the request seems to us to be a mighty good one. “Ask and it shall be given to you?” Jana Childers says “if it were true, all 8 year old girls would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies!” And far more importantly, if it were true, all children would be going to bed at night in safe places with full tummies. If it were true, all cancer patients would immediately go into remission. So what is Jesus really saying?
N.T. Wright believes the point of the passage is simply this: don’t be afraid to ask. “The fact that there may be a war going on in one country, a famine somewhere else, earthquakes, tragic accidents, murder and pillage all over the place, and that he is grieving over all of them – this might be a problem for a high-ranking authority at the United Nations, but it is no problem whatever for [God]. When he says he’s still got time, space, and love to spare for us, we should take him at his word.” (Wright, p. 73)
Certainly there are times when for reasons we cannot understand, God seems to answer ‘no’ to a perfectly legitimate request. We may never know why. But we can’t let this stop us from asking. “Jesus calls for an open, free, venturesome prayer, a communion with God that is like a child curling up in the lap of a parent, pouring out our fears, dreams, desires, needs, and wishes. If earthly parents know how to give good gifts… how much more will God, who is wise and loving, hear the rushing torrents of our undisciplined prayers and respond by supplying us with all good things.” (Wright, p. 80)
In other words, there’s no point trying to figure God out before we pray. No point trying to second-guess God, as if to say: I don’t think he’s likely to grant this request, so why bother asking. “Overly careful prayers betray an assumption that we, the ones who do the praying, are in control. [As if] we must … be cautious and meticulous about our prayers lest we pray for something we shouldn’t. What are we thinking? That our prayers will somehow put God in a bind or that prayers are magic words that manipulate God’s will?” (Wright, p. 80)
No, the delightfully, (perhaps infuriatingly?), freeing word here is that God will act in God’s own time and in God’s own way, sometimes responding to prayers with a yes, and sometimes with a no, and sometimes with a terribly long wait before they are answered. If you’ve seen the movie “Bruce Almighty,” I’m sure you remember that when Bruce, acting as God, tries to answer everyone’s prayers with a yes simultaneously, utter chaos ensues. We simply can’t foresee all of the consequences of getting the thing we’re praying for. Sometimes our requests can even conflict with one another. So not having a particular prayer answered the way we want doesn’t mean God’s not listening, or that God doesn’t love us, or that God doesn’t care what happens to us. Far from it.
Tom Long invites us to think of Jesus words here as invoking a steady rhythm of prayer, like the ticking of a clock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Because God’s listening. And God loves you, so very much. So why not ask? Because whatever else God may give you, God will always give you his presence. That answer to our seeking, asking, and knocking is never denied.
In terms of advice here in the first part of Matthew chapter 7, then, Jesus actually offers us a few ‘golden rules.’ Monitor your own mistakes before you get wrapped up in pointing out the mistakes of others. Show compassion and grace, and try everything you can to convey the good news of the kingdom of God to everyone, but if you cannot get through to someone, leave it in God’s hands. And finally, keep on praying. Ask. Seek. Knock. Whatever the final result, your prayers will never, ever fall on deaf ears. It starts to sound a lot like what we do around here on a Sunday morning, doesn’t it? Confessing our sins. Sharing God’s peace. Demonstrating persistence in prayer.
And of course what we do in here is always meant to be taken out beyond these walls too. For as we’ve seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount, as followers of Jesus we are blessed, not in order to keep that blessing for ourselves, but in order to be a blessing to others. So in our judgments, in our acts of compassion, and in our prayers, let’s keep on finding ways to shine God’s light, and to salt the earth with kingdom-of-God flavor.