First Fruits of Salvation
March 31, 2013

Sunday, March 31
Easter Sunday

Focus Theme
First Fruits of Salvation

Weekly Prayer
We exult in your love, O God of the living, for you made the tomb of death the womb from which you brought forth your Son, the first-born of a new creation, and you anointed the universe with the fragrant Spirit of his resurrection. Make us joyful witness to this good news, that all humanity may one day gather at the feast of new life in the kingdom where you reign for ever and ever. Amen.
 
Focus Scripture
John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Focus Questions

1. Two thousand years ago, what questions would you have struggled with after the death of Jesus?

2. How do you respond to the idea of Jesus as Shepherd of Planet Earth?
 
3. What does it mean to you to "live lightly from the land"?

4. What do you yearn for in a "new heaven and new earth"?

5. In what ways is your church "a good tree that bears good fruit"?

(Adapted) Reflection on All Readings for Easter Sunday
by Dr. Carole Fontaine, Andover Newton Theological School

Throughout the Gospels, we have seen Jesus of Nazareth as a Shepherd, not just of people or flocks, but of Planet Earth. He is the Mortal One ("Son of Man," which originally meant a typical human who could die, before it ever became a special title for a chosen Messiah), living lightly from the land and rejecting the notion that Roman wealth and power were the source of meaning for people. When we fretted for worry over what might come next, he directed us to consider flowers and how they grew--naturally, beautifully, brilliantly, as God made them to do. When we wondered what to pack in order to follow him on his mission, he gently taught us that we need much less by way of material comfort than our acquisitive natures would have us believe. When it was time to eat, he told us all to share what we had, because there is always enough to go around--such is the abundance of the Good Land when we give up ideals of personal profit. When it was time to pray, he directed us to the wilderness, or to remove ourselves from the show that requires man-made temples in which to flaunt our faith in fine robes; instead, he taught us to sigh deeply, to move off into the silence of a garden or a mountain, and find God, as always, everywhere we turn. 

It is a matter of amazement, generally, that such a humble and approachable Teacher could have been perceived as such a threat to the establishment of Roman exploitation of occupied countries. Jesus was likewise a goad to the local leaders of his own people in Judea who collaborated, hand in glove, with the Roman authorities. Together, these two groups conspired to denude the Promised Land of all its natural products on which the people lived, turning them instead into commodities from which Rome could profit--an easy harvest with no planting, a windfall with no bother--and if the people of Judea and Idumea starved, well--they weren't the chosen ones for whose benefit the Empire flourished and consumed land after land. It is no wonder that Jesus’ first ministry was in Galilee, a formerly neglected area under Roman Occupation, but one which had recently come under harsh policies of Romanization under the cagey Herod Antipas, described as a fox (no doubt meant to remind the listeners of the "little foxes" who steal and spoil the harvest of grapes in the Song of Songs). Fishermen were starving and growing poorer by the day, while their daily catch was appropriated, processed and salted to be sent on to Rome for consumption by the wealthy.

What must that have been like, to watch the result of your work, the livelihood you needed to feed your children and elders, wrenched away by overlords, as you were sent away to catch more, only to turn it over to the occupiers once again? Is it any wonder that when Jesus proclaimed "blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," there was as much consternation and confusion as there were cheers? What COULD he have meant by that?? Was it a joke? Was it true? What did it mean? and How could one come to be part of that kingdom, especially if you found yourself at the very bottom of society’s heap?

A new heaven and a new earth

The Kingdom, of course, was already much nearer than the people could imagine, requiring only a deep listening to the yearning of the human heart, and a reassessment of what mattered and what did not. Jesus was not speaking of a "place," especially not one in some distant sky, where all would be trouble-free; he was gesturing toward a "dimension" in which God's Presence is felt fully and continually in the moment, every moment.  In such a frame of reference, it truly does NOT matter if one is rich or poor, as material goods come to mean less and less. In the dimension of God, the pain of one is shared by the other; the hunger of a child is experienced as one's own hunger, and through that new relatedness, hungers are fed, and goods are shared. The poor have always lived in such an existential kingdom, though usually it is bound up with want, care, and hopelessness: they have no plans for a better future; they are simply hoping to survive the day at hand.* So, asking for their daily bread on the day they need it is eminently sensible, and having the trust that on the next day, God will make those needs manageable, too, through Christian generosity and shared responsibility--well, just imagine what it would be like to live with so little stress of future worries, based on the trust in God and community we have experienced in our Now!  It would be, on many levels, like having been resurrected from the horror of need, and the grind of acquisition. One would be free to simply be, existing in the moment of fellowship with God and humanity...and Earth.

This new Heaven and new Earth is the creation which the ancient prophet longed for, and which the Easter Event creates in the new believing community. All is to exist in a harmonious whole, each according to its nature: there will be no hunger, no barrenness, no war, no illness, but rather a shared reality where each contributes and each is sustained. This balance of human and natural ecology is the exact antithesis of the consumer mentality that has invaded the modern world, teaching us to rape and trample Creation rather than celebrate it for the miracle it is. We look for unending expansion, endless goods to use up and toss aside when finished, as we stomp through a landscape already made pathetic and lifeless by our careless treatment of natural living systems. We have interpreted our Scriptures to focus on only ourselves as the "crown" of Creation: made in God's own image, we have taken that affirmation to mean NOT that we must be thoughtful caregivers of Creation, but that we are owners and users of lifeless matter whose only meaning is in our consumption of it.

From consumers to caretakers again

But God has other ideas, and Creation itself witnesses against our careless use of it. We are part of Creation, subject to its same laws of increase and decrease, of intertwined dependency. As one generation yields to another, like one crop coming to harvest after another, we must use our Easter Dimension consciousness to return ourselves to proper relationship to all else. If the seas rise because we have heated the planet to boiling and launched a feedback loop which has changed our planet's living conditions, will we call it an "Act of God" when the coral reefs die, the crops fail, and the land is plagued by drought?  When whole peoples are displaced because of flooding and climate degradation, when wars break out over scarce resources, when culture declines when the carbon fuels are all gone, will we wonder why God has "done" this to us as punishment, or will we finally realize then that in the web of connection, our bad acts against creation are all just waiting to catch up with us? Will we try to hop off to another planet to exploit, having spoiled this paradise for future generations? Or will we turn and repent, and discover that Easter is waiting for us with hope?

Peter says in Acts 10 that Jesus' death comes "by hanging him on a tree," the common way in which the Romans publically displayed the results of contradicting Rome's narrative of power. Just as we cut down trees for quick and cheap energy, and at the same time remove some of the powerful intertwining benefits provided to oxygen-breathing creatures by the primal rain forests, so Rome thought it could cut down trees of hope, and turn them into instruments of murder and torture. Yet, trees, all through the stories of our sacred texts, have carried a powerful symbolic meaning for the community. The first trees supply the human diet (Gen. 1:29), without benefit of sowing and reaping; the special trees in Eden are the source of infinite knowledge and endless life--unless appropriated by greedy and blind human hands that eat at the wrong time or for the wrong reason (Gen. 2:9, 17). Abraham meets angels beneath a great Oak tree (Gen. 18:1), and Moses learns that God is indeed a savior to the slave when he encounters a tree-like bush that burns with divine flame without dying of it! (Ex. 3:2) Prophetesses sit beneath their trees (Jdg. 5), giving counsel and leading the people; trees in Psalms are the very image of the Good Life, flourishing by streams of pure water (Ps. 1:3). Divine Wisdom, who scolds like a Mother or beckons like a Lover (Prov. 1:20-33, 3:13-17), is said to be a "tree of life" (Prov. 3:18) to all those who find her and hold fast to her sage teachings. Even Job, as he hungers for a death which can end his pain of living, believes that "there is hope for a tree" (Job 14:7-12), even if it is cut down: when the scent of water reaches it, it will revive and live again. And out of the burnt stump of the Tree of Jesse, the line of David of which Jesus is said to be the latest manifestation, comes finally a Messiah, someone anointed to open our eyes, and spare us from the fate of our silly, narrow goals and visions (Isa. 4:2, 11:1-2; Zech. 3:8, 6:12). In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, the pure River of Life flows from God's throne and beside it is the Tree of Life, once again producing every kind of fruit for healing and sustenance of the life of the world (Rev. 22:2-3). What the world meant for the death of hope, that Tree of the Cross, God instead transforms into the First Fruits of Life in Jesus. We need not fear death, or want: our future is secure as blessed creatures living in harmony with all that God has made and given us as gift, and on Easter, we finally come to realize this. The Gospel is quietly directing us to this happy ending, even in so dreadful a moment as when the women disciples find that Jesus' battered body is nowhere to be found: instead, Mary is questioned by a Gardener about her concerns, only to realize that it is indeed Jesus, her beloved Teacher, who addresses her. Death cannot conquer Love, however it tries: whatever the questions our lives may pose, Love is always the Answer, and the death of Jesus as the Innocent who in no way deserved it is our Emblem of Hope. 

It's not too late!

Is it too late for Planet Earth, then? Are the seas too hot, the glaciers too fragile, the drought too great? NO! It is not too late; it is never too late, says the God who Resurrects Life. Yes, even if we act now, as we surely must, there will be great change to the climate and planet into which we were born. This is the clear result of our arrogance, greed and sin, and much of it cannot be averted--but we must never name it as God's Will, or the Final Chapter of the Earth. If we begin now, and act with clear vision and relentless purpose, we may yet conserve much of this beautiful world we have inherited, and keep it verdant and fit for life. But our dedication must be complete and absolute, equal to the depth of the risks we face. We must be like the early Christians who took their message into every village, every country, and every place of power. Only a sustained commitment can turn back the disasters that we have unthinkingly unleashed upon the worlds we know, and there is no better group to take up this challenge than the people who know about Life. The Tree that symbolized death, in our eyes of faith, has been transformed into a vision of the Tree of Life, nourished by the healing, pure waters that feed all life on this planet. We have seen the First Fruits already; we share it amongst ourselves every time we come together to worship in the name of Jesus. Now, we must turn outward, and share it with the whole Planet in one, whole affirmation of God's New Heaven and New Earth. We can do this; God has promised us so. Good trees bear good fruit, says our Beloved Messiah; by our fruits, then, let the World come to know us as His.
 
 * God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, J. Dominic Crossan (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 97-123.
 
For a longer version of this reflection for preaching, go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-31-2013-1.html.

Our guest writer this week for Mission 4/1 Earth:

Dr. Carole R. Fontaine, the Taylor Professor of Biblical Theology and History at Andover Newton Theological School, is an internationally recognized feminist scholar in Hebrew Bible. She is the author of Smooth Words: Women, Proverbs and Performance in Biblical Wisdom, and is co-editor of the biblical "classic" text, A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods, Strategies as well as several volumes of the Feminist Companion to the Bible series. A long time Human Rights defender, Dr. Fontaine has served extensively on governing boards of Women’s Human Rights NGOs that study the impact of religion on women's status, rights and freedom, especially in Muslim theocracies. She currently works with a clandestine Human Rights network of prison mothers inside Iran, which supplies current data to the Department of Public Information at the United Nations (www.womenfreedomforum.com). She has written extensively on feminist theological topics, including disability. She is Religion Editor of the World Book Encyclopedia, and her translations and study notes have appeared in the HarperCollins Study Bible and the New American Bible, Revised Edition. 
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For further reflection:

Carl Sandburg, 20th century:
"I was born in the morning of the world
       so I know how morning looks....
"Morning looks like any strong beautiful wanting.
   There is your morning, my morning, everybody's morning." 

Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century:
"Power consists in deciding which story shall be told."

Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Emily Dickinson. 19th century
"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."

George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. "

Martin Luther, 16th century
"Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
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