A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sermon (April 8) - Nikos!

     Nobody likes defeat.  It’s one of the most awful feelings in life.  This is what Mary and the disciples were experiencing as they were facing the harsh reality of Jesus’ death. 
     Join Mary as she stumbles through the dark cemetery, tears dripping on the cold ground as she makes her way to the tomb.  Can you picture yourself there with Mary during that early morning hour?
     Many a people have been there with Mary.  The teenager whose friend was killed in a tragic accident and she’s left with a broken heart.  The widow who sits at her kitchen table staring at the calendar marking the anniversary of her husband’s death.  The little child whose dog, a Golden Retriever dies and she experiences a deep grief for the first time in her life.
     Yes, we’ve been there with Mary.  We’ve walked that walk.  And it’s early in the morning and it’s dark.
     When Mary reaches the tomb, she is shocked to find that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  Frantically, she runs and tells Peter and an unnamed disciple about this startling news.
     It’s when Mary returns to the tomb that she encounters the risen Christ.  And from there, she races off to tell the disciples this good news and why we’re here today.  Jesus is risen!
     Friends, Easter is what it’s all about.  It’s because of Easter that sin and death do not have the last word.  This is why the Apostle Paul concludes his magnificent chapter in I Corinthians 15 with the words, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
     The key word in that verse is the word, “victory” or in the original Greek language, “Nikos.”  What a great word to describe the good news of our faith!  What a great word to describe what happened on that first Easter morning! Victory! Nikos!
     Many of you know that I have a personal web blog that I maintain on a regular basis.  I named it “Nikos” after this wonderful verse in I Corinthians.
     Nike, the sports apparel company that has the famous swoosh symbol is a variation of this same Greek word for victory.  Back in my youth pastor days, I tried to tie in the popularity of the Nike brand by naming our monthly youth newsletter, “Nikos.”  It was my attempt to tie in a popular cultural image with the good news of the resurrection.
     I often told the youth of my church that whenever they received their Nikos newsletter in the mail to remember the victory of Easter.  I told them that no matter what they were facing at that time, no matter what struggle or disappointment or despair they were going through to always remember the resurrection and the victory of Jesus Christ.  I wanted my youth group to have a faith that was grounded in and centered on the victory of the resurrection.
     Mary’s darkness turned to light when she saw the resurrected Jesus.  And our darkness turns to light when we remember the empty tomb and God’s victory over sin and death.
     “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Victory!  Nikos!
     Nobody likes defeat, which makes victory so wonderful.  I experienced a victory this past week.  Penny and I watched 60 Minutes last Sunday.  Big mistake.  Those of you who watched 60 Minutes last week know what I mean.
     They talked about how sugar is really bad for you and they used the word, “toxic.”  The doctor who was interviewed on the show believes that sugar should be in the same category as tobacco in terms of its health risks.  As Penny and I watched this episode, we became convinced that we should be much more careful with our sugar intake.  I was all excited about this new change in my life.      
     Everything was going really, really well until about Monday afternoon when I was getting hungry.  Did any of you buy chocolate Easter candy from our youth group?  That innocent looking box of chocolates was staring back at me.  I stared right back into the eyes of those tiny chocolate bunny rabbits.  “No,” I thought to myself.  You made a commitment.  You can do this.  And I said, “Get behind me Satan!”
     Tuesday offered up no toxic temptations.  And then Wednesday came.  While walking through the church parlor, a gracious church member handed me small piece of cake but I kindly declined.  During our Wednesday Fellowship Dinner, I purposely sat as far away from the dessert table as you could possibly get. 
     Thursday rolls around and there’s another church meal.  When I shared that I didn’t have time to stay for lunch, one of our wonderful cooks says to me, “Oh, let me fix you and Pastor Cheryl some food and at least you can have it later.  Which pie do you want?” 
     I told her about my new commitment. Since she knew I had a sweet tooth, a look of confusion came to her face and she said, “Oh that’s too bad because we have some peanut butter pie.”  She said, “But why don’t you just take a piece with you in case you change your mind?”  She caught me in a moment of great weakness and I said, “OK, if you insist.”
     As Pastor Cheryl and I were finishing up our late lunch together, I began to stare at that delicious piece of pie.  I said to Pastor Cheryl who now knew about my new life change, “What would it hurt if I just have this one piece of pie?  It’s all about moderation, right?  Just don’t tell anyone, alright?  This will just be between you and me.” 
     And then I came to my senses.  “What am I thinking?  No.”  And with Pastor Cheryl and Sandy Roberts as my witnesses, I gave my piece of pie to one of our church office volunteers.  Friends, I have made it through a dessert-free week!
     “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Victory!  Nikos!
     This past winter, I officiated at a funeral.  The service was held at one of the funeral homes here in town.  Following the service, we processed to the cemetery.  We got out of our cars and slowly walked through the brownish green grass that had endured the harshness of the cold winter months. 
     I watched as friends and family members walked ever so slowly toward the folding chairs that were awaiting us by the tombstone.  I have observed countless numbers of these cemetery rituals and this one was no different. 
     Taking my place next to the tombstone, I waited patiently as the people strolled through the bumpy and uneven ground.  The sorrow of the day was matched by the gray skies and the wintry chill.
     The elderly widower took his place in the center chair and other family members sat in the chairs next to him.  Almost no words had been spoken.  The pain of death had stricken them.  My heart went out to this husband who was saying goodbye to his wife of 63 years.
     The funeral director nodded for me to begin.  I opened with a few verses of scripture and then offered the words of committal.  I closed our brief service with a prayer for God to bring comfort to us in our time of sorrow and loss.
     But then something happened following that prayer that I will never forget.  When I raised my head after saying, “amen,” I noticed that the widower was looking intently into my eyes and I could tell that he wanted to tell me something, something very important.
     After a few seconds of gathering his thoughts and while others carefully listened out of great curiosity, this elderly gentleman said, “When you were saying that prayer, the sun came out from behind you and it was shining so bright.  And I felt a warmth.”
     And the way he told me this, I knew that he wasn’t referring to a physical warmth.  He had felt a spiritual warmth in that moment. The clouds of death and grief had given way to an assurance of God’s presence at the top of that cemetery hill.
     I nodded my head to indicate that I understood what he meant.  And as he got up from his chair, he kept repeating to himself, “It was the strangest thing.  It was the strangest thing.”
     Just when you think the tomb is sealed and shut, your heart is broken, and the grief is so deep, resurrection happens!  Victory!  Nikos!
     This past January, I was on facebook, scrolling down through the updates of my friends and one update caught me off guard.  A friend of mine who I attended seminary with had a post which stated that it was the three year death anniversary of his son Bradley who was fifteen at the time of his death.
     Bradley was severely handicapped all his life.  Here’s what his dad, my friend wrote about Bradley at the funeral service three years ago.  I share this with his permission.
     I remember when you were born a few weeks premature.  I remember going home for the first time and showing your new bedroom.  We had decorated your room with a Winnie the Pooh theme.
     I will remember an amazing fight you displayed during 44 days at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, absolutely beating all of the odds in your quest to live.
     I remember wheeling you down Main Street USA at Disney World.  I remember the tender touch of Tigger’s hand and the gift that was to me.  But more importantly, I remember the tenderness Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and all of their friends showed you.
     I remember when you graduated from high school.  It might have been the best day of your life.  You smiled as the wheelchair lift elevated you up to the stage level.  More than 4,000 people cheered as they wheeled you across the stage to receive your diploma.  In May of 1989, the doctors gave you no hope to survive.  They told me “don’t bother signing him up for preschool.”  But on that day in May of 2007, they gave you a diploma.
     I remember your graduation party and your ability to stay in your chair the whole day to greet all of your guests.  Hundreds of people came to celebrate with you.  It was a grand day.  As we took you back to the nursing home that night and gently laid you back in bed I will never forget the smile that came across your face.
     I remember your last hospital stay.  You fought with all of your might and strength.  You never gave up. Some people die with a tank half full.  You died empty.  You gave it your all.
     As you were dying I told you it was OK, and for you to take the hand of Jesus and go.  Don’t waste one minute worrying about me.  I’ll make it.  Somehow, someway, sometime I’ll be OK, by the grace of God.  I love you, Bradley, from the bottom of my heart. – Dad.
     So when I saw my friend’s facebook post about his son’s death anniversary, I couldn’t help but to feel the darkness of that moment for him.  Usually facebook posts are on the lighter side and uplifting, but sometimes, you’re reminded of the reality of death and sadness.
     Thankfully, there’s another part of this story that I’d like to leave with us today.  Bradley became the inspiration for a facility that ended up being built in Nicaragua which offers therapy for extremely impoverished handicap children.  It’s called Bradley’s House of Hope.
     With the help of 400 families from more than 20 different states, a grass hut was replaced with a 3,600 square feet facility, complete with utilities and a horse stable.  Operating on a modest budget of $50,000 a year, Bradley’s House of Hope provides transportation to the facility, physical therapy, equestrian therapy, special education classes, English language classes for the parents, bible studies, and social support for 80 children and their families.  All these services are provided free of charge because of the generosity of the friends of Bradley’s House of Hope.
     It’s because of the empty tomb that hope is alive in a severely poverty stricken part of Nicaragua.  Out of deep grief and darkness, has come new life and hope.  Victory!  Nikos!
     I wonder if on this day of resurrection, we might want to have a part in this remarkable story of hope.  A special offering envelope is available in one of the pew pockets in front of you if you feel led to make a financial gift to Bradley’s House of Hope.  Checks may be made payable to our church with “Bradley” on the memo and we’ll make sure these gifts get sent to this new mission outreach for handicap children in Nicaragua.
     When Mary went to the tomb, it was dark.  But then John tells us that she saw the risen Lord.  Victory!  Nikos!
     Happy Easter!

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