A post Bereavement Bash

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A Post Bereavement Bashhttp://www.propheticrevelation.net/misc/folded_grave_clothes.jpg

March 27, 2016


1st Presbyterian Church

Pittsford, New York

John 20:1-18

Acts 10:34-43

Text: They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; {40}but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, {41}not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Acts 10:39b-41

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, {7}and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.

John 20:6-7

Preachers get up early on Easter Sunday morning, earlier even than on most Sundays, long before dawn. I always think of that–that company of us, all over the world, literally thousands of us, up early in the morning for the biggest day of the year, some of us with responsibilities unique to this day: ecumenical sunrise services; in our case, a sunrise service along the canal which attracts a wonderfully diverse congregation: people dressed up for church, others normally dressed for warmth, finding their way to the place near where The Sam Patch will soon park. There are strollers with babies bundled, joggers, walkers in sweat suits, dogs (several First Presbyterian dogs have a perfect Easter morning attendance record), friends, and complete strangers having an early morning stroll along the path who see the small crowd and hear the hymns and can’t resist.
Later in the morning, we will face our congregations, sometimes once or twice – a few three times including visiting parents and children who have been persuaded or pressured to celebrate Easter.
I once taught a confirmation class and we met on the Sunday after Easter. I asked each member of the class to write one complete sentence that had as it subject, “What Easter means to me.” One student wrote, “To me, Easter means a whole week of egg salad sandwiches for lunch.” Wouldn’t it be helpful if it were all that simple?
We are gullible, we ministers are. We are people of high and relentless hope. Deep down we know that you will care little about what we have to say, but that you are expecting some word from God that will make the turmoil of our world a little better. We believe that we are neither so eloquent or compelling that people will alter destructive patterns just because of one service, but we hope that the message of the resurrection will give those who come and sing the hymns and hear the story from the gospels, a sense that God has something more for all of us.
We Pastors have been living with our own limitations and inadequacies this week. We have spent the preceding seven days scrambling, searching, going through files, reading old, standard texts and anything new we can get our hands on in order to find a new way to say what we’ve been trying to say for many years, trying, to put it plainly, to find the right words to describe something that is the most astonishing good news, the best news in the world, in fact; news that is simply bigger, better, and more glorious than any of the ways we have tried to tell it.
And so we are, all of us, grateful for all the assists we can have–trumpets and singers, great organ, beautiful flowers, dear children in wonderful Easter finery. This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Super Bowl Sunday, a subway series in New York, the dream that Syracuse and Cornell would be playing each other in the NCAA finals.
And we’re supposed to talk about Easter to energize people. Each of us pastors know that we aren’t up to this, but each of us will experience in the course of the morning the power of this day, and it will be felt and celebrated and cherished in spite of us.
This day is about the challenge and somberness of death in contrast to greater power of a love that conquers fear and death. Let us pray.
Dear God, we are in church this morning to hear a story that never fails to surprise us. We don’t expect miracles–nor did they. We are realistic about our prospects–and so were they. We know that death is final–so did they. And as they were startled by the unexpected, so we ask you to startle us. Astonish us out of our lethargy. Wake us up to the power of love and forgiveness in the world and in our lives. Surprise us again, dear God, with the news that death has no power over us, that Jesus Christ is risen. Amen.
One of the fun things about helping Monty Cunningham on a funeral was to listen to his stories. He was the proprietor of the Cunningham funeral home, the only funeral home in Bessemer, Pennsylvania where I was to conduct my first memorial service. Monty kept a spit cup in the front seat of his car for his chewing tobacco and I learned a great deal from him. Usually he’d drive his Oldsmobile at the front of a funeral procession and I’d ride with him to the cemetery. Occasionally he’d drive the hearse or have his son, Chutty drive it.
One day he told a wonderful story about a pastor who was asked to conduct a graveside burial. The cemetery was about an hour across the state line from Pennsylvania, in Ohio. Apparently the pastor wasn’t feeling very well, and Monty tried to drive the hearse so as to make for the least movement from side to side.
By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the pastor had become feverish with flu-like symptoms. They made it through the service, but he was deathly pale and obviously not well. As they headed back to Bessemer, Monty suggested to the pastor that he might feel better if he stretched out in the back of the hearse since it was now empty. It had curtains and nobody would see him. As Monty drove, the pastor slept.

But he awoke when the vehicle stopped. Taking a few minutes to fully awaken, he slowly sat up and drew the side curtain to see where he was and found himself face to face with a service station attendant who was pumping gas into the Cadillac hearse. Monty doesn’t know who was the most surprised, but the pastor, wearing his dark funeral suit and wingtip shoes, his color drained and his eyes wide as saucers so shocked the poor attendant that he ran back to the station, leaving the nozzle stuck in the hearse. Monty got out, finished filling the car, and explained everything back at the station when he went to pay for the gas.

I’m pretty sure that’s how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning . . . felt. They had to have run on shaky legs back to the disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement.1
What happened that first Easter is an amazing story. A man had risen from the dead. Every once in a while we hear about someone whose heart has stopped and is given CPR and revived, but several days in the ground? This is just not a common occurrence in human history.
Mike Huckabee was once a presidential candidate and as such he was asked if he believed in the resurrection. “Of course I do,” said Huckabee. “Dead people vote in every election we have in Arkansas. Resurrection is very real to us.”
Actually if more of us were confident of the resurrection, believed that when we leave this world, that we would stand before God clothed in new bodies, if we believed that Christ lives in the world today, would we not live more confident, more courageous, more committed lives? Would our faith be less anemic if we embraced with more certainty the gospel accounts we read this holy day?
Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That’s too much for some to accept. From the very beginning both dedicated disciples as well as cynical critics have struggled with the story of the resurrection. We can read that in the biblical testimony.

Some said his disciples stole his body. Remember that was Mary Magdalene’s response when she first saw the empty tomb. “She came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’” (John 20:2).

Matthew puts the blame on the chief priests for the popularity of this stolen body scenario. He says in chapter 28 that the chief priests gave the soldiers a large sum of money to say that his disciples came during the night and stole Christ’s body while they were asleep. Then Matthew adds, “And this story has been widely circulated to this very day” (v. 15). To some people, the stolen body scenario was credible.
Others contended he was not really dead when he was laid in the empty tomb, but rather he passed out on the cross and he only seemed to be dead.
One lady wrote in to a question and answer forum. “Dear Sirs,” she wrote, “Our pastor said on Easter, that Jesus just passed out the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? (Signed) Sincerely, Bewildered.”
Charles wrote back: “Dear Bewildered; Beat your preacher with a cat-of-nine-tails with 39 heavy strokes, nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for six hours; run a spear through his side . . . put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Charles.”2
When Peter arrived at the cemetery he peered into the tomb. What did he see? A napkin, folded neatly by itself. The linen shroud, also folded. And that was it. Another disciple arrived. He looked. He saw. "He believed," says John. Believed what? Not that Jesus was risen from the dead. Nobody thought that. The text continues to explain that they did not as yet know anything about resurrection. So having seen, having believed that Jesus was dead but that Jesus' body had now been stolen from the tomb, these two men went home and had breakfast. And that as they say, was that.

"It was a good campaign while it lasted, wasn't it? They talked on their way back. "I'll never forget that time with Jesus at the wedding, where was it? O yes, Cana of Galilee and he turned water into wine, so help me. You know, we ought to write this stuff down so we don't forget it." "John's good with words, maybe he'll do a gospel." They came, they saw, they went home.

One of the most painful times of grief is when you return home. The funeral is over. Friends and family depart, leaving casseroles . . . then all is quiet and you're at home. You see that chair at the table where she sat. Oh, no, there's her knitting bag. Put that away. The grocery list in her handwriting in the book. The list of telephone numbers of her friends . . . the folded linen. It is a painful time when you look at the linen, all folded and lying there so neatly.
Why would the linen be so neatly folded, with the napkin all by itself? The Jews buried their loved ones with a simple linen shroud. This was true of rich or poor believing that we came into this world with nothing, and we exit with nothing. There are no pockets in a shroud, so there is no way to take anything with you.
If they had come to rob the grave, you can't imagine that they would have been gentleman bandits to take the time to fold everything so neatly, not with soldiers stationed outside the tomb to guard it. They would have wanted to make a hurry-up getaway.
Would Jesus have done this had he arisen? Well, it would be somewhat in his character. The Master did seem to have a proper place for everything and he was sensitive to others.
"Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." He seemed to have a proper perspective and place for everything. Could he not have done a proper thing with these grave clothes. After all it was a borrowed tomb and he wanted to make the bed for his friend, like an evening guest makes up the bed the next morning.

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping, fixed in her grief at this final outrage. Where have they taken the body of Jesus? Where can she find the body of Jesus. It is very hard to love dismembered humanity. We love those eyes, that hand, that touch. Mary was coming to the tomb, as if she was attending calling hours, to make sure that, well yes, he was dead.

The sight of the linen folded there and the absent corpse didn't move her to thoughts of resurrection. She knew of one conceptual possibility: they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. Her logic is faultless. Dead bodies do not simply disappear. This is a rational world. All science, human reasoning and perception are based upon the pervasiveness of the familiar: only that which has occurred before can occur now. Find the body, Mary, and then get on with the grief.
This became painfully obvious to me when a few weeks ago Martha and I made the trip to Grove City College to see two plays being directed by my sister, Betsy. She had two complete plays in production on the same night. One was as challenging as the other. We attended The Diviners and a performance of The Women of Lockerbie. Both plays drip with pathos. The Women of Lockerbie is set around one woman and her husband. They had lost their son when Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Parts of the plane killed 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie. All 16 members of the crew and 243 passengers perished in the bombing. Most of the passengers were from New Jersey or New York.
In this play both a husband and wife who had lost a son seven years earlier had come to Lockerbie. The walked the Scottish hillside looking for some evidence of her son. The father was a bit more realistic. Prior to the play, Martha and I had wandered around the lobby of the theater looking at the portraits of 35 students from Syracuse University who died on that flight. These students were returning home for Christmas following a semester studying in London at the London campus of Syracuse. There is much to tell about the play, but we talked all the way back to Pittsford about the pain these parents felt and especially this mother who wanted to just hold something that had belonged to her son. In the very last scene, she was given a suitcase that had been her son’s. Everything in it had been neatly folded for the return flight to New York. A new T-Shirt purchased in England, and his underwear, washed and folded.
As this mother clutched these items from the suitcase, I pictured Mary, expecting to see Jesus, but now looking at everything in which he had been draped at the last, carefully folded, the covering for his head in a place by itself.
How will she find Jesus? Perhaps she will have to search for the Christ like we do . . . through science or history or whatever manner of thought holds a privileged place in your economy. We are confronted with something unusual and we seek to make sense of it. Put the napkin under a microscope, test it for DNA, that's the scholarly consensus.
Then Mary heard her name, "Mary," the voice said. The illogical, unthinkable, impossible, unnatural, incredible broke. The one certified as dead, greeted her by her name. The voice of Jesus called to her across the cavernous expanse between logic and wonder. It is not the empty tomb or the folded grave linen which yielded the evidence, it was the resurrection appearance to Mary, the encounter with the risen Christ which gave hope to her searching faith.
Until it becomes more personal, we have trouble understanding just what this resurrection might do for us who are living.
Joyce Hollyday tells how as a school teacher, she was assigned to visit children in Philadelphia’s city hospitals. She was a tutor of sorts. One day she received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child.


Joyce took the boy's name and room number, and was told by Mrs. Flanagan, the teacher on the other end of the line, "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now. I'd be grateful if you could help him with his homework, so he doesn't fall behind the others."


It wasn't until Hollyday got outside the boy's room that she realized that it was located in the hospital's burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy so horribly burned and in great pain.


Joyce felt that she couldn't just turn around and walk out. And so she stammered awkwardly, "I'm the hospital teacher, and Mrs. Flanagan sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs." This boy was in so much pain that he barely responded. Joyce stumbled through his English lesson, ashamed at putting him through such a senseless exercise.


The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" Before she could finish her outburst of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: "You don't understand. We've been very worried about him. But ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. His energy level has soared; he's responding to treatment. It's as if he has decided to live."


Later, when the boy was abler to communicate he explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the hospital teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears, the boy said through his bandages: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a boy who was dying, now would they?"


We’re here in wonderful upstate New York to celebrate the gospel’s good news. We sing these familiar hymns of resurrection hope even when around us is pain and disappointment and brokenness. We watch people still sweeping the remains of this winter’s flooding from their homes. We are haunted by images of bombing victims in Brussels and the innocent shot in rampages in our own country. Some of you in this room this morning have entrusted those you love to almighty God this year. We’ve come today to hear again that on the other side of pain, there is resurrection. It reminds us of what is possible whenever there is hope.3

There was something else in our Bible readings that I also thought was odd. It was in our reading from Acts where Peter was speaking. At the time, Peter was in the port city of Caesarea having just had an encounter with a Roman centurion. While in that city he said to its citizens,
We are witnesses to all that Jesus did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 
I really hadn’t seen that before. Peter ate and drank with Jesus after he rose from the dead? They had dinner and partied after the resurrection? Well, that is not what I would have expected, but the assurance of resurrection can let us move forward with life.
Sometimes when it is still dark, there is a little light that shines through. For some this day is resurrection hope that life does not end with folded linen in an empty tomb, but that Jesus lives triumphantly and desires to live with us. We need to hear this good news as they remember those whom they have lost who are resurrected with him. And for others, who are living, it may be a call to radically different living, to re-evaluation of life, not by scientific scrutiny but by the wonder of a God who values us and was willing to die for us, and who calls us each one by name.

1 Similar story told by Rev. Billy Strayhorn at http://www.epulpit.net/080323.htm. Monty Cunningham was such a story teller. He may have fabricated this or shared accumulated “funeral lorel”

2 Royce Hendry, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=34943.

3 Donald William Dotterer, Living The Easter Faith, CSS Publishing Company, 1994.

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