Monday, April 1, 2013

What Does Easter Mean? (A Sermon)


Luke 12:1-12; 1 Corinthians 15:19-28

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, (the very timing of it has theological significance), the women arrive at the tomb bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus. They come looking for the body of Jesus, but they do not find the body of Jesus. The stone that sealed the tomb is rolled away and the body is absent. Their first reaction is bewilderment. They stand there “perplexed” Luke says.

Just then, while they are standing there perplexed, not knowing what to do, what to say, where to go, two men in dazzling clothes appear beside them, and ask them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

Fred Craddock tells about the time he was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. Pastor Joe Roberts had invited him. The time had come in the service for Fred to preach. He walked up to the pulpit, opened his Bible, and was about ready to read his text.

But before he could get started, the Pastor, seated up front, started to sing. He just starts singing. Then the other pastors joined in. Then the people started singing and the musicians went to their instruments, the piano and the guitar and drums, and in no time at all that place was rockin’. Then, at a certain point the pastor put his hand out, and things got quiet, and Fred started preaching.

Afterward, Fred said to the pastor. “That shocked me a little bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.” The pastor said, “Well, I hadn’t planned to.” Fred said, “Then why did you do it?” He said, “Well, when you stood up there, one of the associates leaned over and said to me, ‘That boy’s going to need some help.’”

These women at the tomb needed some help. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” There have been Sunday’s I have asked myself that very question. All of us need some help at times seeing and connecting with God. I consider that my first priority of my pastoral vocation. But sometimes, I can’t find God either, and it takes one of you to show me where God is.

Sometimes we do not find God, because we are looking for God in the wrong place. I use the term “place” metaphorically, because God is actually everywhere and in everyone, but we don’t know it. We don’t recognize God.

If we go looking for Jesus to endorse and sanction policies and practices, systems and structures, attitudes and actions that restrict, exclude, oppress, or diminish life in any way, then we are looking for God in the wrong place. And if we have read the Gospel stories at all, we should know that that the living Christ cannot be limited to what is safe, traditional, and predictable, for he is always breaking out of old tombs. He is always more than what we expect.

One of the reasons we fail to see the living Christ is because we look through the wrong lens, through the wrong set of eyeglasses. There are all sorts of things that can blur the lens, that can distort our vision. Our prejudices, biases, presuppositions, beliefs, assumptions, ideas, worldview—all of these things can blind us.

If you don’t believe that God is everywhere, you may not see God anywhere. Or what you think is God, may not be God at all. What you call God, may not have anything to do with God.

For example, if you don’t believe God loves the enemy and God is with the enemy, then you will possibly have no problem wishing harm or inflicting hurt upon the enemy. If you believe that God hates the enemy, then you may feel quite justified in hating or even killing the enemy. (Remember, how Paul persecuted Christians before he experienced the living Christ.)

This is why toxic religion is so dangerous. It gives people justification for hating, condemning, and excluding; people can hate and inflict pain on others and not feel guilty about it. If Easter means anything it means that God is on the side of life, God is always drawing us toward that which heals rather than harms, that which mends and restores rather than separates and excludes, that which renews, restores, and gives hope.  

When the two men in dazzling clothes stand before the women, the perplexity of the women turns to terror. The two men are stand-ins for the Divine. In the Hebrew Bible, in story after story, when an angel appears or when there is some visible or apparitional manifestation of the Divine, the first reaction is always fear. God was so regarded as “Other” or “Holy” or “Separate” from the creation, that any manifestation of God’s presence produced fear. There was even a tradition that said, “No one can see God and live.”

One of the great revelations about God that is mediated through Jesus of Nazareth is that God is not the kind of God one needs to be afraid of. In Jesus we meet “Abba” – the compassionate One, the loving Father or Mother, a God who even cares about the lilies in the field and the birds of the air, a God who takes note when a sparrow falls to the ground. God takes care of the flowers and the birds; God will surly take care of us. In Jesus we meet a totally nonviolent God.

And in the risen Christ we meet a God who is not totally “Other.” The One who is the Great Beyond is also the Intimate Within, the indwelling Spirit. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: He says that we did not receive an enslaving spirit that produces fear; rather, we received the liberating Spirit who cries “Abba,” who bears witness with our human spirit that we are the children of God. The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the indwelling Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit. So also is the mystical body, the church, the community. The Spirit is within us individually and with us communally. Paul or one of his disciples writing to the Colossians says, “Christ in you, your hope of glory.” Use whatever language you are comfortable with, the point is that the Divine Presence is at the core of who we are.

I heard about a lady who teaches first grade. At the end of a particularly long day she decided to scrap the lesson plan. Instead, she had all the first graders in her class sit in a circle and tell each other what they wanted to be when they grew up. One by one each child got up and announced, “I’d like to be a nurse like my mother,” or “I want to be a banker like my father,” or “I want to be a teacher like you, Miss Smith.”

The last child to speak was the shyest and most timid boy in the class. He said something like: “Well, when I get big I’m going to be a lion tamer. I’m going to work in the circus. I’ll get in a cage full of fierce lions and tigers with my gun and my whip and my chair and I’ll make those animals leap through hoops of fire and obey all my commands.” Suddenly, in the midst of his exciting tale, he looked around to find all his classmates staring at him with their mouths wide open.

He realized they were finding it hard to believe he, of all people, was going to be lion tamer. Embarrassed, he was quick to reassure them. “Well, of course,” he stammered, “I’ll have my mama with me.”

No matter how cautious, shy, timid, or introverted we may appear, each of us in our inner recesses may be a potential lion tamer. Let us take no one for granted. Anyone who encounters the risen Christ, any one who comes to see God through the lens of Jesus and becomes aware of the indwelling presence will find the inner strength, vision, hope and courage to dream new dreams and live an adventurous life for the kingdom of God.

When the Christ calls us, he does not promise safety, long life, or even good health. He calls us to a risky adventure. But he does say, as he says to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you even to the end of the age.” We are not alone; never alone.

Sometimes our vision gets blured, sometimes our view becomes distorted because we follow our egos, our selfish ambitions, our pride, rather than listen to the Spirit. But we are never alone.

Easter means that the power of new life, the power to love deeply, unconditionally, inclusively, freely, without distinction and partiality—the potential and power of that kind of love resides within every one of us.

The stand-ins for God say to the women: “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.” And the text says, “Then they remembered his words.”

What happens? It clicks. It makes sense. They see with new eyes, they hear with new ears. There is understanding. Call it spiritual illumination, spiritual discernment, awakening, a new birth, call it whatever you want to call it, but they get it.

One of the reasons we who teach spiritual truth teach the same truth over and over and over in multiple ways, approaching it from multiple angles, employing multiple stories, utilizing different methods, is because we are crazy enough to believe at some point you are going to get it. We know that when you are ready, you will get it. And then you will remember. It will all come together.

The women get it, so they rush to the apostles with the good news. And guess what. The men don’t get it. Luke says, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale.” Some of you women are thinking, “I go through that everyday.”

Interestingly, though, there is an exception. Luke says, “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 (not afraid) at what had happened.” Not afraid, not perplexed, not disillusioned, but amazed.

Peter seems to get it. If not, he’s right on the verge of getting it. It won’t be long. Luke will tell us in his sequel in the book of Acts that Peter will be the one who delivers the first sermon to Israel calling them to repent and embrace their risen Messiah.

This is the same Peter who, you may remember, rambled on at the Mount of Transfiguration and Luke tells us that he did not have a clue what he was saying. This is the same Peter who confessed that he would never forsake Jesus, even if everyone else did, that he would be loyal. Then he turned coward and cursed and denied Jesus and fled.

If Peter finds his nerve, if Peter can be redeemed, if Peter can finally get it, then we can all get it. If there is hope for Peter and the disciples who never seemed to get it, then there is hope for all of us. God does not abandon any of us.

Easter means that forgiveness is unlimited, that grace is inexhaustible, that new beginnings are possible for any of us at any time. Easter means that there is hope for all. No one is ultimately lost. The invitation to repent and come home is never withdrawn. Easter means that love will eventually gather up into the arms of God every thing and every one.

This is Paul’s vision in the passage we read from 1 Corinthians. Paul envisions a universal redemption where all life diminishing elements are subdued, all systems of injustice dismantled, and death itself is defeated. Then, everything is gathered up in Christ. Paul says, “In Christ all will be made alive.” When the end of the age comes, says Paul, the kingdom will be handed over to God, “so that God may be all in all.” That’s an unbelievably non-dualistic and universal. In a world dominated by apocalyptic dualism that is a radical vision. In our world of dualistic “us versus them” thinking, it is a radical vision. Easter means that Love (with a capital “L”) will triumph. Love is going to win.

Denzel Washington stars in the movie, The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s, he was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life.

While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens, the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and commit to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives.

After twenty years in prison Carter is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict, Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.”

After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He then says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra responds, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching his hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.”

Even if the verdict didn’t bring about justice, Carter had been liberated from his bitterness and resentment and need for revenge.

That’s how love wins, sisters and brothers. Even when the prison doors remain shut, love bursts open the prison doors of our hearts and souls. Love rolls away the rocks that entomb us in disillusionment and despair. Love breaks apart the shackles of misunderstanding, insecurity, and fear. Loves pierces the darkness and drives back forces of injustice and violence. Love liberates us from the chains of greed and pride. Love frees us from our narcissistic addictions.

Love is what saves us from our own self-destruction. That’s what we have to fear. Not God. What we have to fear is our own demise, our own self-destruction. But Love can turn that around and set us on a new path in a new direction. That is what Easter means, Church, it means that Love will have the final word.

Our good God, help us face our fears and insecurities, our perplexities and confusion, our worries and anxieties, our addictions and bondages, and to see through them to new possibilities. May we realize that no matter who we are or where we find ourselves, we are loved with an eternal love, and that love can break the chains that keep us bound in cells of our own making.

There are circumstances that we may not be able to change, but we do not have to let the deadly forces over which we cannot control diminish our faith, deplete our love, or destroy our hope. May the power of the living Christ, which is nothing less that the power of Divine Love, roll away all the stones that would hold us back and keep us down. May the living Christ live anew in us today. Amen and Amen. 

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