On Asking, “What If?”
April 17, 2022
Micah 6: 6 and 8
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
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.
Today’s sermon is titled On Asking, “What If?”
Some of the greatest discoveries of humankind began with very short questions of, Why? and What If? These are perhaps some of the most powerful questions we can ask about our world and about ourselves; they are important questions to ask about God, too. Why and What if?
In the 1400’s Leonardo da Vinci sketched ideas for a flying machine and asked, “What if humans could fly?” One hundred years later Copernicus wondered, “What if the earth actually revolves around the sun?” While working as a clerk in a patent office in 1903, Albert Einstein was thinking about space and time and wondering, “What if space and time and matter are all relative to one another?” Last month, Elon Musk asked, “What if my satellites could provide internet for Ukraine? Could it turn the tide of war?”
“What if?” is a question we can ask only if we are in a creative mindset, and only if we are open to new ideas and to new insights. Church has not historically been a safe place for questions, but questions are welcomed and encouraged in this church. I have many more questions than I have answers. On this Easter Sunday morning, I invite you to join me in approaching this ancient story with questions in our hearts and minds. There are two questions, in particular, that this story of the empty tomb and Jesus’s reappearance inspires:
1) What if death is not the end?
2) What if love is stronger than death?
There’s another story that I have been holding in my heart for the past few weeks. Like the story we have in the scriptures for today, it is also a story about living and loving and dying. Before I share the story, I ask you to hold in your memory these following verses we heard today from the book of Micah (6:6 and 8): “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I will read you the following account that was published in Reed College magazine because the hero of the story was a graduate of Reed College. Our hero has an unusual name, but he is not Tibetan as his name suggests, nor is he Muslim. He is a native of Ashland, Oregon and he grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church. “It was Friday, May 26, the first day of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Muslims. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was riding in a Portland MAX train when a man got on board and began harassing two teenage girls, one of whom was black and the other who wore a traditional Muslim hijab. As the man escalated his rant about how Muslims should die, Taliesin cut short his phone conversation with his aunt. He had to help the girls; the man was out of control. He and two other passengers stepped forward to intervene when the man, Jeremy Christian, pulled a knife from his pocket, and repeatedly slashed them before fleeing the train at the next station. He was later apprehended and charged with murder.
Taliesin stumbled along the aisle, his face pale and his flannel shirt covered with blood. “I’m going to die,” he told a fellow passenger, Rachel Macy.
“We can handle this,” Macy said. “Lay down.” She crouched beside him as he lay on the floor of the train, and pulled off her tank top to stanch the blood from his wound. “You’re not alone,” she told him. “We’re here. What you did was total kindness. You’re such a beautiful man. I’m sorry the world is so cruel.” She prayed with him as he closed his eyes and tried to keep breathing.
As the lifeblood drained from his body, Taliesin had one last message. “Tell everyone on this train I love them,” he said.
Taliesin and one of the other men who intervened both died of their wounds. The third man survived.
News of the 23-year-old hero who lost his life standing up to intolerance circled the globe, and countless people who’d never met Taliesin realized that in some way, we were all on that train.”
I agree, Friends, we are all on that train. We are in this life together, finding our way through with the help of many teachers that shine as beacons of light in the darkness of fear and phobia. “Tell everyone on this train I love them,” he said, as he lay dying on the floor of that train. Love, Friends, is stronger than death.
What if death is not the end? We look to the natural world all around us and we see that death is an ending of sorts. Death marks an end to the animated outer form but aren’t we so much more than our animated outer form? Jesus appears to Mary outside the empty tomb and she does not recognize him until he says her name. Death was not the end for Jesus of Nazareth and because of his story, we, too, can confidently ask the difficult questions and I pray we can be open to unexpected answers.
In closing, Friends, on this Easter morning, I am grateful to be alive and to be here with you on this train we call life. Our God asks us to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly and to love one another. So be it. Now and forevermore. Amen.
Beloved God, we are gifted with the ability to feel so many different emotions and it can, at times, be overwhelming. Empathy for our brothers and sisters and the struggles they face can be painful to bear, Lord, and yet through this deep feeling, we become more alive, we become more humane, and we come closer to the place within where you reside. Help us to remember the life and example of Jesus Christ, that we may grow more secure in our hearts, secure in what we know to be of the greatest value in our lives. This I ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Philippians, chapter 4:
“May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.