Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus in the gospel of Luke. Since we’re in the season of Easter now, today’s story is a resurrection story.
Appearing to the bewildered disciples as a group here, on Easter evening, Jesus says to them “Peace be with you,” and then he asks them a sort of double question: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
The “why are you frightened” question, in this context, reminds me of biblical angels, who are always going around saying to people, “Fear not!” They wouldn’t need to say it quite so often if folks weren’t scared in the first place, right? Here in Luke 24, the immediate fear is that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Dead people, after all, generally don’t attend gatherings like this one. That’s already a decent reason for them to be, as the text says, “startled and terrified.” And then if we think back over what they’d just been through …
Why are we frightened? Why do we doubt, Jesus? Is it any wonder? Let’s see, it was just a few days ago that you were arrested, and our world came crashing down around our ears. We thought that you were it, that you were him, that you were the Messiah. It had been so exciting to be part of your team, to witness your healing miracles, to learn from your wise teaching. But then you were arrested, mocked, beaten, put to death. It was excruciating to watch – well, for those of us brave enough to be there, at least. The rest of us stayed hidden away for fear of the authorities. We thought they’d be coming after us next. And now we’ve just heard that two of our friends saw you along the road to Emmaus… and then while we’re still trying to wrap our minds around that, all of a sudden here you are with us, too? Or what appears to be you. You’d better believe we’re frightened! And as for doubts? What on earth are we supposed to think is happening here?
In response to their fears and doubts, Jesus makes things as concrete as he can for them, trying, I imagine, to give them something they can wrap their minds around. Here are my hands and feet, guys. It’s me. Touch me and you’ll see. And then I love the next bit: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” So touching Jesus’ hands and feet helps, but only so much. They want to believe him; they just don’t know if they really dare. And so they find themselves with this strange, but understandable, combination of joy, disbelief, and wonder.
While they’re in that state of joy, disbelief, and wonder, comes Jesus additional question: “Have you anything here to eat?” A simple request, something concrete they can do for him, even while they’re caught up in fear and doubt, joy and disbelief. They find him a piece of broiled fish, and he eats it. Now in doing so, he seems to offer them further proof that he’s really alive, ghosts not being known for a whole lot of fish consumption either. But in the meantime, he’d at least asked a question they could easily answer: “Have you anything here to eat?” “Sure, Jesus, we’ve got a bit of fish over on the grill.” That we can do!
The text then says Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, explaining why things had to unfold the way they did, through his suffering and death, and now his resurrection. Then he assured them, as witnesses of all these things, that they would soon be “clothed with power from on high.” That’s a bit of foreshadowing there, a nod toward the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would whoosh around like a mighty wind to inspire and energize the whole early church. That’s a story this same author will tell in his sequel to the gospel of Luke, which we call the book of Acts. Meanwhile, for today, which appears from Luke’s telling still to be Easter day, they have Jesus with them, they have these signs that he is alive, and they have this promise of power from on high. And while he knows they’re still pretty frightened, by the big picture, he’s also asked of them something they can handle, something more concrete: “Have you got anything to eat?”
Now I’m not one to assume that every single verse of the Bible applies perfectly to contemporary situations. Sometimes a whole lot of historical and cross-cultural interpretation is required for us to make sense of what we read in Scripture. But I have to tell you, in light of what’s been going on in our country and in our world this year, today’s questions really jumped off the page at me.
For instance, Jesus asking: “Why are you frightened?” Why are we frightened? How long have you got? I mean, it’s hard even to know where to begin. Russia, North Korea, their leaders, our leaders, terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, terrorist attacks by white supremacists – if you have a few hours, Jesus, or a few dozen hours, we’ll be happy to explain to you why we’re frightened. And as for doubts, I’m sure you know those come with the territory for us mere mortals; quite rare is the person without them, even people of deep and abiding faith. We love to celebrate your resurrection on Easter. Singing our “Alleluias” and waving our “Alleluia wands” around here that morning – these are fun, joyful traditions, but like the disciples, even in our joy we can find ourselves wondering sometimes too.
But then comes Jesus’ other question - “Have you anything here to eat?” - to bring things back down to earth. A simple request, a concrete task to do. What might be our contemporary equivalents? Where is the invitation from Jesus to which we can say: “Oh, but that? That we can do!”
If we’re unsure where to start, the Bible certainly offers plenty of places to begin. Feed someone who is hungry. Welcome a stranger. Look after someone who is sick. Visit a prisoner. Pray for one another. Pray for your enemies. Stand with the powerless. Speak out against injustice. Practice hospitality, compassion, generosity. Pick any biblical mandate you wish, and focus your energy and attention there, to distract you a bit from your fears. Listen for an invitation from Jesus to do something concrete, in his name. And be as candid as you like as you pray for direction - “I’m a little freaked out, Jesus, quite terrified, frankly, by some of the things going on in our world, but … oh, that? Now that I can do!”)
After all, it’s been said that courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. So it’s ok if we look around us and find the world to be frightening in times like these. The key is not to let that fear shut us down, but to find ways to resist it. Some of us may even be able to do that on a grand scale. For instance, I’m overwhelmed by the tremendous courage and love and forgiveness being shown by Coptic Christians right now, even in the wake of a horrifying Palm Sunday attack in their church. But all of us can surely look for simpler, smaller scale ways to master our fears.
Watching for opportunities simply to do the basic things God commands us to do in Scripture, can help us become fearless, even in the face of all that unsettling news out there in the world. Fearless in the sense of not giving in or giving up to fear. Fearless in the sense of not being afraid to take risks and to reach out to others in love, kindness, compassion. Fearless in the sense that we know there is Something, Someone greater than our fear. Someone that will hold us no matter how scared we are, and no matter our particular balance of joy to wondering, belief to disbelief on any given day. Fearless in the sense of remembering all of those wonderful biblical angels telling us to “fear not” – why not? because God is with us.
So when Jesus asks us here in Luke 24 “Why are you frightened?” I don’t imagine there’s anything wrong with giving him a whole list of reasons why. So long as we also hear him saying, in this same text, “peace be with you,” … I’m alive and well… and “you will receive power from on high.”
Sure, it’s scary out there. But showing up when we’re frightened is one of the things God does best.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Does anyone else think it’s interesting that Mary Magdalene, when she first sees the risen Jesus outside his tomb, doesn’t recognize him? She’s not alone in this, to be fair. In other stories in the gospels – walking along the road to Emmaus, in Luke’s gospel, fishing early in the morning, later in John, other disciples have difficulty recognizing Jesus after his resurrection too. Maybe it’s something about his physical features in his new, risen state? And whatever else is going on, no doubt they’re caught completely off guard by the fact that he’s there at all; after all, they’d just seen him put to death a few days earlier.
But what has intrigued me most this Easter about Mary’s encounter with Jesus here is this line: “supposing him to be the gardener…” Mary had been first on the scene at the tomb early that morning, according to John. It was up to her to run back and tell the other disciples that Jesus’ body was no longer there. Two of them run back with her – there’s that marvelous foot race between Peter and his pal – but then they leave again, when they find the tomb empty, and head home. And Mary is left on her own. At least she thinks she’s on her own. Because she’s the one, in John’s telling, who then sees the two angels in white, when she peeks her head back into the tomb. They ask her why she is weeping, and she tells them she’s worried that someone has stolen the body of her dear friend. Then she turns around and sees someone else standing there, and he, too, asks her why she is weeping. And just as we’re about to read her reply, John throws in this fascinating subordinate clause, “supposing him to be the gardener…” As in, “supposing him to be the gardener,” she says listen, if you’ve had to move Jesus’ body somewhere, just tell me, and I’ll take it from here. It’s not until the supposed gardener says her name, “Mary,” that she realizes he is Jesus, and he’s alive.
Why a gardener? Perhaps it simply didn’t occur to Mary that anyone else would be there early in the morning? Or might there have been something about the way Jesus was dressed that led her to that assumption? Maybe not overalls and a big floppy sun hat, but was there a 1st century equivalent? Or was it instead about what Jesus was doing? Had he just stood up and brushed the dirt off his knees after communing with the flowers and earthworms or doing a bit of spontaneous weeding outside the tomb?
I realize we’ll never really know, but it’s an interesting image to play around with, because, after all, God had been in the gardening business for quite a long time, by this point in the story. The big story, I mean. The story that runs through all of the other biblical stories. The story that began back in Genesis.
There was a garden there too. God had created absolutely every plant in it – every living thing on the whole earth in fact – and God had even formed the first human from the dust of the ground, and planted that garden in Eden for him. One of my seminary friends used to refer to this part of the creation story as the “dirt under God’s fingernails” chapter, with all that divine playing around in the clay and the soil. We even learn, in Genesis 3, that God enjoyed “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” (Genesis 3:8) The Creator, enjoying the work of his creation, admiring the plants in his garden.
Later, biblical poets would talk about God’s care for his people in language reminiscent of gardening. The book of Psalms, for instance, begins by describing those who follow God’s law as “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Psalm 1:1) That’s God, of course, doing the planting and watering there; we who try to live as he commands are the trees he’s tending. There’s also a beautiful passage in Isaiah promising that “if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted… the Lord will …satisfy your needs in parched places… and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:10-11) And returning to John’s gospel, back in chapter 15 Jesus had used the analogy of a vine and its branches, explaining that God is the vine grower, busily pruning the branches on the vine to ensure steady growth. So God’s caregiving for his people as tree planting, garden tending, plant watering, vine pruning. Again, God’s been in this gardening business for a long time.
Of course, it’s also in a garden that the story of Jesus’ passion began, (passion here simply meaning the final events of his suffering and death). For the Garden of Gethsemane is where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and turned him over to the authorities. Jesus had sought out Gethsemane as a quiet place to pray, following his Last Supper with his disciples. It would be an agonizing night for him, once he was arrested, but I love that it begins with Jesus walking in a garden at the time of the evening breeze, just as God did back in Genesis.
And then back to Mary, and what must have been some sort of garden around Jesus’ tomb, for her to suppose it was a gardener standing there, speaking to her.
Of course it would have been impossible for her to believe it was Jesus. After all, she’d just seen him put to death a few days earlier.
No wonder she thought he was the gardener.
But to a certain extent, she was right.
“Supposing him to be the gardener…” Maybe not a guy in a floppy sun hat with a bucket full of gardening tools, but surely the Gardener who’d promised to refresh his beloved creatures when they found themselves in parched places, and to make them like a watered garden. Here that Gardener meets the frightened, exhausted Mary and restores in her gifts of life and hope and great joy. Her parched spirit refreshed, she runs back to the other disciples - the very first witness to the resurrection - to tell them “I have seen the Lord!”
“Supposing him to be the gardener…” Maybe not a guy in overalls with dirt on his knees, but surely the Gardener who’d created Eden, humanity, every tree and every plant, all of it, out of absolutely nothing, and who so loved walking around in his beautiful creation. For it turns out that the very same God who enjoyed ambling around Eden also chose to walk the dusty streets of Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Galilee, as one of us. And most importantly of all – and the reason for all of our Alleluias today - it turns out that the very same Gardener who created life in the first place, back in Genesis, also had no trouble at all bringing life from death.
The Gardener of Eden became the Gardener of Israel. And ultimately this same Gardener gave himself away in Gethsemane on a Thursday night, leading to death on the cross on a Friday. But three days later, here we find him, standing with Mary, beside his own empty grave.
“Supposing [Jesus] to be the Gardener …” Granted, this wasn’t just any gardener. But in a sense, it turned out not to be a bad supposition after all.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we wrap up our Lenten sermon series on Letting Go, we find ourselves, in a sense, back where we started.
We began with talk of spring cleaning, with texts that invited our attention to the physical clutter in our lives: what is mine to keep, Lord, and where are you inviting me to let go?
We then spent the next few weeks talking about letting go in ways which were less concrete, but certainly no less important. Letting go of our illusions of control, in order truly to trust God with our lives and our plans. Letting go of hurt, in order to move toward healing and forgiveness. Letting go of guilt, to embrace more fully the gift of God’s amazing grace.
But lest we think God is only concerned about the more spiritual side of things, the state of our souls rather than the physical details of our lives, today’s texts bring us back to those overstuffed closets and drawers again.
Because ours is an incarnational God who is intimately involved with our physical lives. Jesus was all about feeding and healing bodies, as well as forgiving souls. He also spent a fair amount of time talking with people about their stuff. Their real estate, their possessions, their money.
As he does in both of this morning’s Scripture texts.
First, the story of the rich ruler in Luke 18. A fine upstanding citizen from the sound of it. Jesus doesn’t call him out for being a bad guy. But this man is seeking something he hasn’t yet found, by carefully following the commandments. So he comes to Jesus to ask what more he can do. What is the key? Where is the path to eternal life? And Jesus answers him - “There is one thing still lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, and follow me.” It doesn’t surprise us a bit that the man went away sad. How many of us would want to be issued those directions? Sell everything you have, and give the money away? 100% of your assets, out the door, and you’ll find peace?
It’s only a chapter later in Luke’s gospel that we meet Zaccheus the tax collector. Here the story unfolds rather differently, with Zaccheus climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus on his way by, Jesus asking him to come down and inviting himself to Zaccheus’ house, and Zaccheus volunteering to give away half of his possessions to the poor, as an expression of his gratitude that Jesus has befriended him, in spite of his dishonest past. But the punchline is almost as dramatic as the story of the rich young ruler. 50% of all he possessed, out the door, to those who needed it far more than he did. Oh, and in Zaccheus’ case also a 400% return paid back to those he’d defrauded. Following Zaccheus’ generous declaration, Jesus says “salvation has come to this house.”
It’s hard to know what to make of stories like these. What’s the takeaway lesson?
It’s easy enough to get all caught up in whether Jesus is asking us to give away all that we own, or half of it. We hear challenges like this and all we can think about is the numbers – which is it, Jesus? 50% or 100%? But are we asking that question because we really have any intention of doing either? Or because worrying about percentages helps us inch us away from the real challenge of these stories? After all, the Old Testament benchmark involves giving away a mere 10% of all we own and earn, a tithe. And that can already sound daunting to those who haven’t tried it. (Though I can assure that those of us who do this, and more, find that it truly can bring joy.)
How much does Jesus want us to give away? Certainly enough that we notice. Enough that we feel it. Enough that the before and after shots of our lives look significantly different.
So these can be hard words to hear. There’s no point pretending otherwise. What interests me is that Jesus presents the idea of dramatically lightening our load of money and possessions as a path to freedom, rather than as an awful burden. As we read through these chapters in Luke, giving away some incredible percentage of what we own is seen as a life-giving opportunity. In gospel economics, this isn’t bad news. It’s good news!
Maybe what really makes us squirm about gospel texts like these is not so much that they sound too farfetched to be real, but that we know – at least for many of us in this room – that increasing what we give away, perhaps even significantly, is entirely possible. We just don’t want to go there, because we like the comfort level we have now.
In fact, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we might very well want to shoot a bit higher in our standard of living. Compared to a friend or neighbor, or to ads on TV, or to Facebook or Pinterest posts, it’s all too easy to feel we’re missing something. I’m no more immune to this danger than you are. But there’s an incredibly simple remedy for that particular problem. Just glance down the socioeconomic spectrum, rather than looking around at your peers or focusing on those who have more than you do. And things fall back into perspective very quickly. Right here in our own country, for instance, I read just this week about parents turning down food stamps and avoiding food banks that could help them provide meals for their children, for fear they’ll be deported. And how many times here in Seattle have you seen people camped out with just a sleeping bag under a freeway off-ramp? Compared to folks in these kinds of situations, most of us are unbelievably wealthy.
Looking around the world can be quite a wake-up call too. Have any of you seen the movie “Queen of Katwe?” It focuses on a girl named Fiona, living with her family in a slum known as Katwe, in Kampala, Uganda. Based on a true story, we learn how quickly this illiterate – but brilliant – young woman picks up the game of chess, ultimately representing her country in international competitions. It’s a wonderful film, and the visuals alone make it well worth watching. There is no romanticizing of poverty here, and plenty of times there is no need for words - much of the family’s hardship is simply shown on screen. I highly recommend it as a simple way to wake yourself up to what many of our fellow children of God are facing every single day of their lives, around the globe.
Of course it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems in our world, including the extent of global poverty on this level. It’s easy to feel like anything we could possibly do ourselves can’t possibly make a difference. But Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, offers a really helpful take on this. Here’s what he has to say:
“[Yes] global poverty statistics can be overwhelming, even to those of us at World Vision who dedicate our lives to helping. More than two billion people live on less than $2 a day. More than 1 billion don’t even have clean water to drink; hundreds of millions are chronically hungry and malnourished. And children suffer the most… In light of these staggering statistics, I am often asked ‘Isn’t my small contribution just a tiny drop in a very large bucket?’ The answer depends on how you see the world…” He then tells the story of a little boy, once considered a throwaway, whose life was completely turned around at a World Vision home for street children, to the point where they found him regularly singing for joy. “So is helping one child just a small drop in a very large bucket? It’s all a matter of perspective. Those who helped him were not just putting their very small drop in the very large bucket of human suffering. No, they were filling [that one little boy’s] very small bucket to overflowing. If we see the world’s needy children as millions of tiny buckets just waiting to be filled, the question changes to “how many buckets, Lord, do you want me to fill?” (Rich Stearns, He Walks Among Us, pp. 62-64)
I love that way of framing the question. How many buckets, Lord, do you want me to fill? And just how many buckets can be filled through the coins our church kids are collecting in their fish banks this Lent? How many buckets can be filled through the ministries we support as a church? How many buckets can you or I fill ourselves?
I think it’s really important as we read biblical stories like those about Zacchaeus, and the rich young ruler - that we keep in mind last week’s lesson too, about letting go of perfection, and not allowing ourselves to wallow in guilt. I can’t imagine that beating ourselves up is really the purpose of hearing these gospel texts today.
What if instead we simply heard an invitation to take a good long look at what we have, and consider where we might let go. What if we challenged ourselves to think through what we purchase and what we own, on the front end as well as the back end. Not simply asking “do I still need this, or can I give it away?” But “do I need to buy this new item in the first place, or could that money be used for something even more valuable?” A larger gift this year to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, for instance, for hungry and hurting people around the world. A donation to the church to help with our mission work right here in Seattle. A microloan for a third world mom trying to start a business to support her family. A bag of groceries for the local food bank, or a hot, delicious meal for Tent City.
We don’t have to get a spiritual discipline right all the time, for it to be worth practicing. As Martin Luther put it: “This life… is not godliness, but the process of becoming godly …We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way...”
And when it comes to our possessions, the invitation to travel lightly is somehow tied to the promise of living in the light of Christ. Without quite so much money and stuff weighing us down, we are freed for greater trust, and more joyful obedience.
So the choice is ours. With the rich young ruler we can go away grieving at the invitation to give our money and our things away, because we have so much. Or, with Zaccheus, we can find a percentage that is freeing, and then claim with joy and gratitude the invitation to let it go.
While traveling lightly might seem challenging, remember that in gospel economics, it’s also very good news.
And there are plenty of little buckets out there in the world, waiting to be filled, to help us practice. Amen.