Saturday, March 30, 2013

Keeping Christ Dead and Buried

Luke 24:1-12
24 But on the first day of the week,
at early dawn,
 they came to the tomb,
 taking the spices that they had prepared.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they went in,
 they did not find the body.
While they were perplexed about this,
 suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen.
Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners,
and be crucified,
and on the third day rise again.”
Then they remembered his words,
and returning from the tomb,
they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna,
Mary the mother of James,
and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale,
 and they did not believe them.
12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb;
 stooping and looking in,
 he saw the linen cloths by themselves;
then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

        On occasion, I find myself spending some time in cemeteries.   For one thing, I’m a minister and cemeteries are where funerals end up.  But there are other reasons I sometimes find myself in cemeteries.  I enjoy researching family history.  And visiting cemeteries I’m able to get information about when ancestors were born, when they died, and sometimes something else about them. 

        Sometimes it is interesting to visit cemeteries simply to read grave stones. 

        For example, years ago I found myself and my family in Tombstone, Arizona, which is a fascinating old town.  It’s the location of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Coral, in which the Clanton gang fought Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday.  The graveyard in Tombstone is called Boot Hill and there are some interesting grave markers there.

        For example, “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les No More.”

        And then there is this one:  “Here lies George Johnson. Hanged by mistake 1882.  He was right . We was wrongl But we strung him up and now he’s gone.”

        In Key West, Florida, there is supposed to be a gravestone that says, “See, I told you I was sick.”

        Even modern epitaphs show up with a bit of humor.  Comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004, wrote his own epitath for his grave:  “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”

        But cemeteries can also be scary places.  And because of that, cemeteries can be a lot of fun.

        Several years ago I took a group of young people on a camping trip and next to the camp there was an old cemetery.  Late at night, I took them on a tour of the cemetery and I taught them that one of the best ways to read an old gravestone that has worn out lettering is to take a flashlight and shine it on the grave stone.  You don’t shine it directly on the gravestone, but at an angle.  That way all the shadows help you to read the shallow lettering that is almost worn away.

        We read several grave stones and were amazed at how old they were.  People who died in the Civil War.  A few who died in the Revolution. 

        I took the young people to the oldest grave in the cemetery and asked if they could read the old lettering.  It was hard to read.

        “Get closer,” I said.

        So one of the young people got closer.

        Still couldn’t make out anything.

        “Get closer,” I said.

        And he got closer.

        What he did not know, was that earlier that evening one of the other youth advisors had gone out to the cemetery.  It was late in the Fall and the leaves covered the ground.  The youth advisor had placed himself on top of that grave, laid back and relaxed, and covered himself with leaves.

        “Get closer,” I told the poor unsuspecting member of my youth group.

        He got real close.

        Suddenly a hand popped out of the leaves and grabbed the poor kid by the shirt collar.  He yelled and screamed and got free and took off running.

        It took almost an hour to find the kid.

        I don’t think I’m going to do that again!

        Of course, one of the reasons we go to cemeteries in not just to have fun – we go to pay our respects to the dead.

        To the dead – which means these are not breathing.  They don’t walk around.  They don’t pop out of the grave and grab unsuspecting youth by the shirt.

        Which brings us to our Scripture lesson for this morning.

        On Friday, Jesus died.

        He was buried very quickly because the Sabbath was about to begin, Saturday being the Sabbath day of rest in the Bible.

        He was buried so quickly that his body was not properly prepared for the burial.  So on Sunday morning, a group of women go to the cemetery to prepare Jesus for his eternal resting place. 

        Once there they find the tomb empty.  They see two men, apparently angels, who tell them that Jesus has risen from the dead and he is alive.  They remind the women that Jesus had told them this would happen, and the women remember the teachings of Christ. 

        They go tell the men, and the men don’t believe them.

        Well do you blame them.

        If one of your friends died and a couple of days later someone tells you your friend is alive again, the likelihood of you believing them is pretty slim.

        As Luke tells this story, Peter gets up and runs to the tomb.  He bends over and looks into the now-empty grave.  Then he leaves.  He just walks away, in the words of Luke, “wondering to himself what had happened.”

        Now eventually, Peter figures out what happened.  And so do the rest of the disciples and followers. 

        Luke later wrote the history of the early church in a book he called “The Acts of the Apostles,” or simply, “Acts.”  There he tells us that Jesus walked the earth for another 40 days – over a month!  Then he physically ascended into heaven.  He didn’t die a second time, but he continues to live.

        It occurs to me that by the time Jesus rose from the grave on the third day after his death, people had started to feel comfortable with Jesus being dead and buried.  I’m not saying they were not still grieving, but they were getting used to the fact that Jesus was dead and buried.  Some of them had gone back to their fishing boats, which they had left behind three years earlier.

        There is, after all, something comforting about following a dead leader.

        A dead leader will not challenge you too much.

        A dead leader is going to be predictable.

        A dead leader is safe.

        These women were probably going to the grave, not only to prepare Christ for permanent burial, but to start a new Christian ritual.  The church already had baptism.  The Sacrament of Holy Communion had just instituted.  Now these women were about to start the newest Church ritual – the pilgrimage to the tomb of Christ.

        There are, in fact, many people who would be perfectly happy to keep Christ dead and buried.

        There is, after all, something comforting about following a dead leader.

        A dead leader will not challenge you too much.

        A dead leader is going to be predictable.

        A dead leader is safe.

        But to follow a living Christ means we’re going to be challenged.

        To follow a living Christ means life will not always be predictable. 
        It will not always be safe.

        The living Christ tells us to love one another.  But a dead Christ – well, you can ignore a dead Christ and feel free to hate at least a few folks.

        The living Christ tells us to pray for our enemies.  Well, how many of us really want to do that?  That’s not easy.  It’s not pleasant.  But a dead Christ – well, you ignore him.

        A dead Christ is someone you can honor with a little worship now and then.  But a living Christ requires your constant devotion.

        There is something comforting about following a dead leader.

        A dead leader will not challenge you too much.

        A dead leader is going to be predictable.

        A dead leader is safe.

        However – a dead leader is as useless as a car with a dead battery.

        A dead Christ will not comfort you.

        A living Christ has the power to sustain you in times of difficulty, to raise you up when you stumble or fall.

        A dead Christ cannot forgive you.

        A living Christ forgives you, and frees you from all guilt.

        A dead Christ cannot do anything.

        But living Christ, can make all the difference in your life.

        Which brings me to a question – what are you doing here today?

        Are you seeking the dead among the living?

        Are you here to pay your respects to a dead Christ?

        Or are you here to follow the living Lord?

Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Treasure Hunt

                                                 Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

As you know, my wife and I have been moving from Ft Myers to Orlando.  Moving is a challenge.  Part of the challenge is that you find yourself evaluating the things you have accumulated.  Every item is looked at and you wonder – “do I really need to keep this?”  

You may not have used that item for ten years, but for some reason that one item is hard to let go of. 

And for other things, you look at them and think how you once valued them, but now they are easily parted with and end up as donations to the thrift store or the trash can.

We live our lives and we gather such wonderful treasures – or junk.

Sometimes it is hard to know what’s a treasure, and what’s trash.

Paul is writing to the Philippians and in his letter he talks about his treasures.

            He is at the end of his life, and he is on a treasure hunt – answering the question about what is most important in his life.

What is the most valuable possession you own?

            What do you treasure in your life?

            If you went on a treasure hunt in your home, what would you find? 

            Years ago, I read in one of Ann Landers' columns an interesting story about a woman who had married a tightwad.   This man married a real skinflint and she could never get any thing out him -- not even an extra quarter.  He controlled every little bit of money in the household.  And he would take his money and put 20% of all of the money he earned, and save it. 

            But he would save it by putting it under his mattress, because he did not trust banks.

            Whenever the woman would ask for money from her husband, he would refuse, and would insist that the money was going to come in handy in their old age.

            When the man was 60 years old, he was diagnosed as having cancer. Toward the end, he made his wife promise, in the presence of his brothers, that she would take the money he had stashed under the mattress and put it into his coffin so he could buy his way into heaven if he had to.

            They all knew he was a little odd, but this was clearly a crazy request.  But sure enough, the wife made the promise.

            Then, when the man died, the first thing she did was to take the money to the bank and deposit it in a new account.

            But she found a way to honor her promise.

            The first check she wrote was for the full amount -- $752,457.99. 

She made it payable to cash, so that anyone could cash it, and then -- right before the burial -- she very quietly put it in her dead husband's casket.  Let's see him cash that check. 

            She had the best of both worlds – honoring her husband’s request, and yet also having the ability to spend the money in that account. 

            We all value the strangest things.  We go through life being told, "You can't take it with you," but this man sure tried.

            What do you treasure most in your life?

            In 1923, nine of the world's most successful financiers met at Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel.  Financially, they literally "held the world by the tail" -- anything that money could buy was within their grasp -- they were rich -- rich -- rich!  Listen to their names and the high position each held:

 1. Charles Schwab, the president of the largest steel company.
 2. Samuel Insull, the president of the largest electric utility company.
 3. Howard Hopson, the president of the largest gas company.
 4. Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange.

            And on down the line.  Each person a CEO of a great company, or a person who held enourmous wealth and power.

            A tremendously impressive group .  But let's look at what happened to them a few years later, after the famous Wall Street Crash, the Depression, and World War II. 

            Twenty five years later, you'd find that
 1. Charles Schwab was forced into bankruptcy and lived the last five years before his death on borrowed money.
 2. Samuel Insull not only died in a foreign land, a fugitive from justice, but was penniless.
 3. Howard Hopson was insane.
 4. Richard Whitney had just been released from Sing Sing prison.

            And on down the line.  Many were poor, some had died, and several had died at their own hands.

            Still impressed with this group?  A vast amount of talent and potential went down the drain with these men.  What happened?

            Their lives were out of balance!

            They treasured the wrong things.  They committed themselves to the wrong things of life. What do you treasure?

            It is said that about 200 years ago, the tomb of the great conqueror Charlemagne was opened.  The sight the workmen saw was startling.  There was his body in a sitting position, clothed in the most elaborate of kingly garments, with a scepter in his bony hand. On his knee lay the Holy Scriptures, with a cold, lifeless finger pointing to Mark 8:36: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and loose his own soul?"
What do you treasure?  That is an important question, because life is a treasure hunt, and if you go through life and begin to treasure the wrong things, you lose meaning to your life.  You lose your very soul.

            Paul's life, on the other hand, is in perfect balance and harmony, because he knows what he should value. He knows what he needs to be committed to.

            Not the money.

            Not the fine home.

             Not the car.

           Not the smart phone.

           Not the clothing.

           Paul said, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

           For Paul, nothing was more important than Christ.

           Most of us think of Christ as important to our lives.  But for most of us, Christ is NOT the most important aspect of our lives.

           But for Paul, he said everything else in life was rubbish compared to knowing and following Christ.

            Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives for us to think about what is important -- really important -- in our lives.

           Fred Craddock tells a story about friends of his who were missionaries to China many years ago.  At one point all missionaries were being forced out of the country.  Fred Craddock's friends were told they had 24 hours to leave.  Each adult missionary would be allowed to take with them 400 pounds of luggage, but nothing more.

           So the missionaries began to ask themselves, what is it that we treasure? What are those things that are most important to us? 

           The typewritter?  No.  Too heavy and too easily replaced.

           The vase that has been in the family for generations?  Yes.  Pack that.

           The family photos?  Sure.

           The candlesticks the church had given them in honor of their work?  Hard to say. They mean a lot, but they are so heavy.  Set them aside, we'll decide later.

           Finally, they had their luggage.  Each adult missionary had packed 400 pounds each. They had measured and remeasured and they had left no room for error.

           They got to the boat docks and they were being checked out by the authorities when one of the Chinese officials said, "Did we not explain this to you?  The 400 pounds includes your children."

           So much for the candlesticks, the vase that belonged to Great grandmother, and many of the other items they thought they had valued. 

           In the moment of the crisis it had become clear what they really treasured most.

           We live in an age that seems to treasure all of the wrong things.

           We put great value on the home, but not so much on the family within the home.

           We take time for golf, but not for Christ.

           We want to be served by others, but we've forgotten how to be servants of God.

           We really don't know what we treasure most.
            There is a point in the Gospels when people are ready to make a commitment to Christ, but Christ turns them away.

           Why?  Because to be committed to Christ is an all or nothing experience.

           You can't make half a commitment to Christ.

           It is all or nothing.  Because God's commitment to us, was all and total.

           In Luke's Gospel, (Luke 9:57-62), Jesus encounters a man who says, "I will follow you wherever you go."

           Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

           "He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."  Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."  Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."  Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

           I think we all treasure Christ, otherwise we would not be here today.  But are we still on a treasure hunt looking for something better?

           We have a commitment to Christ.

           But how deep is our commitment?

           We cannot follow Christ with half of our heart.

           We cannot be half way committed to him.

           Christ himself rejected such followers, telling them that it was better for them not to follow at all, if they could not follow all of the way.

           What do you treasure?

           If you do not treasure Christ above all things,

           if you have not committed yourself to Christ above all things,

           then you have no commitment to Christ at all.  Your life is out of balance.

            It is an easy thing to treasure Christ.

           It is a difficult thing to treasure him above all other things in our lives.

           How can that be possible?

            Tom Long is a friend of mine who served a church in Georgia as a pastor.  A man came into his office he hadn't seen in years.  A high school buddy he'd lost track of.

           Tom greeted his friend with open arms. The laughed and talked about old times.  They talked about this. They talked about that.  And finally, they talked about IT.

           Tom's friend said, “You know I'd heard you'd become a minister, so I thought I'd look you up.  I really need to talk to someone about my life.  I don't seem to value anything.  Nothing is important to me.  And that bothers me.  I've been thinking about it, and I've come to the conclusion that my problem is that I'm not committed to anything.”

           Tom told me that he had just written a stewardship sermon, and he was tempted to preach it to his friend right then and there.  “You better believe your life won't count for anything, so you'd better get your life in order and find something to be committed to.”
            But then, it dawned on Tom that this might not be the right approach.  He looked at his friend and said, “I hear you saying you don't believe you are committed to anything.  I'm wondering if what you're really feeling is, 'no one is committed to you.'”

           Paul was not committed to anything, until he learned how committed Christ was to him.

           Paul is in the midst of a crisis.  He is in prison. He is writing a letter to the Philippians and he says, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ  and be found in him.”

           Christ is fully committed to us.

           Therefore we need to be -- we are able to be -- fully committed to him.

           We treasure our smart phone, we treasure our car, and we treasure our home.

           But in the end, what we should treasure most is Christ – above all other things in life.

Copyright 2013
Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.