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This just in – breaking news! The state legislature has just restored full funding to the core services of government and set us on a bright & stable path! Of course you know what I’m going to say next – April Fools.
Easter comes at such a hard time this year. Not only is it on April Fools, and what does one do with that liturgically, but why put it at the end of Holy Week? Don’t they know us pastors are real tired? I find myself fretting every year over what to say in this very sermon and I rarely have the energy or creativity left after a Palm Sunday, a Maundy Thursday, and a Good Friday to give it the justice I think it deserves. And this year, even more so because I’ve spent a lot of extra time planning for, organizing with and debating over a planned teacher walkout. This year I am tired, not only physically and mentally tired, but soul tired from the mix of perpetual outrage and the onslaught of challenges that leave me feeling that I’m constantly trying to get a drink from a firehose.
The more I read this week, the more I listened to commentaries and wrestled with stories that would fit, and tried to prepare for this moment in the best way I could, the more I found myself thinking – why mess with this? Why do I feel like I need to work Easter to have Easter work? Why not just let it work? Its really rather arrogant, you know? To think that I can top Easter. I mean, how do you top resurrection? “Yeah, so there’s being raised from the dead and all that, but wait until you hear this sermon!”
Today is the bookend of our High Holy Days, Christmas on one side and Easter Sunday on the other – the whole life of Jesus in between, something we gloss over far too often in the mainstream theology of our time. We are surrounded by what a colleague of mine used to call “Airport Christianity”, only concerned with arrival and departure, no room for the life as we rush from birth to resurrection.
What Easter says to us, however, is that the life of Jesus matters. After all, we don’t acknowledge that someone was crucified, LOTS of people were crucified in Jesus’ time. What is important is that Jesus was crucified. And it’s not just resurrection that is critical, though being raised from the dead is, I grant you, rather special all by itself.
But for Christians it is that JESUS was raised from the dead. Jesus was lifted up, raised up the Greek says, as God’s great “YES” to the Jesus plan. God’s affirmation that the way of Jesus, rather than some role Jesus plays leads us from death to resurrection, so that Jesus ceases to be some magic talisman, and instead models for us in his life a trust in God that we can emulate. And when we have trust in God like Jesus had trust in God, then we too can participate in the kin-dom. It’s the meaning behind the Easter story – that the resurrection of Jesus would compel us to live lives of resurrection, to live as Easter people. No longer does death hold any sway on us, no longer will fear rule our decisions, no longer will we turn away from compassion, from hope, from trust – from the things that bring life, but can now live fully into hope and promise and that wonderful, beautiful story does the same thing for us that it does for the women at the tomb – it scares the crap out of us.
I mean, I’d much rather the story be that Jesus pays the price for our sins and I can just believe in him and move on with my life. If I have to believe like him…yikes…we just saw what happened to that guy! Even if great beauty is part of this equation, we’re still viscerally aware that it is life, death and resurrection…and it’s the death part that stops us in our tracks. Yet we need that transcendent story, the power of the “joy comes in the morning” assertion that enables us to make it through the brutality and suffering. It’s what makes Holy Week so difficult, because we have to be able to take the ugliness of the cross, the cruelty that we know lives in our own world in so many ways, and hold that in tension with the beauty of Easter morning and the amazement of an empty tomb. Being able to experience pain and loss and to still imagine love and hope is precisely what is critical to seeing Easter not as an event, but a way of living.
This is perhaps what happened for the disciples, not so much on Easter morning but in the days and weeks and years that followed as they began to live Easter and to understand the connections between a Jesus who was executed, sentenced to the death penalty by the religious & political elites because of his inauguration of the Kin-dom of God, and their own lives.
The Easter story from Mark ends very abruptly. In Greek, the final sentence of this passage literally reads, “and coming swiftly they fled from the tomb it had them trembling and amazing and to anyone nothing they said they feared for.” Part of that weirdness is because of how Greek sentence structure is different than ours, but it does end with a “for”, and even the Greeks don’t end their sentences with prepositions. The word gar in Greek is a conjunction…it’s like Mark wrote this to end mid sentence, like perhaps he means to suggest even down to the grammar that the story isn’t over. After all, if they had really fled and said nothing to anyone, we wouldn’t be here, would we? Mark’s assertion was so unsatisfying that we have three other versions of what happened Easter morning in the other gospels, AND there is also a so-called “longer ending” of Mark, another 12 verses that our earliest versions of Mark don’t contain this abrupt ending.
Maybe it means that the story is still going on, that resurrection wasn’t a one time deal, or Easter a single day on the calendar, running around between March and April.
Maybe it means that we are meant to live Easter, as Easter people, trusting in the cycle – life, death and resurrection. But that means expecting it and expecting it means looking for it and looking for it means that we have to know what resurrection looks like. And a story from 2000 years ago doesn’t always do the trick. Where can we see resurrection today? Perhaps we should consider a group of teenagers from Florida who have looked in the face of death, said, “No more!” and are marching their way into new territory, taking heat and breaking down barriers that we thought unbreakable. Or what about the continued efforts of people of color to stand and shout, “Black Lives Matter” in the face of overwhelming odds, a justice system that fails them again and again, and encounter after encounter with law enforcement that goes south, sometimes with 21 shots fired into a young man holding a cell phone, 7 of them in his back? Might we look closer to home? Like an impending teacher walkout – tomorrow, in fact – that is not just about salaries, which are woefully low, but clearly about whether or not we’re going to put our money where our mouth is, for there is not a single legislator who will publicly call for the degradation of teachers or the dismantling of public education. To which I reply, quoting James Baldwin, I want to believe what you say, but I see what you do.
Look, I know it’s cold and wet out there today, and that yesterday was this strange mix of sun and clouds, but the trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the stinky Bradford Pears are stinking, the redbuds dressed in their deep purples and bright pinks and you cannot turn your head these days without seeing a robin, their fat orange chests stuck up in the sky as if to say – here I am – spring can start now. Life is happening all around us. And so is resurrection. This is the Good News in which we stand, that all the powers of oppression and hate cannot defeat the God who says “yes” to Jesus on Easter morning in the most unexpected and fantastic way imaginable. It is enough to stun us into silence.
What is remarkable about this moment that Mark captures is that we know the women didn’t stay silent. In fact, without women, there would be no pulpits at all for them to be kept out of by the church that wouldn’t exist, either. We know they spoke, and spoke loudly, and that Peter probably mansplained to them what they actually saw. We know that the story continued. That’s why we’re here. Sure maybe some of it is obligation, or habit, but I really would like to think that it’s because deep down, in the places we don’t let ourselves talk about nearly enough, we also have a dream, something transcendent that helps us through the challenges and suffering in life. We need that empty tomb.
The root for word “tomb” in Greek is the same as the word for memory – neumeon. It’s where we get mnemonic device, a technique for helping us remember things. So when the women arrive at the tomb what they literally ask is, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of our memories?” And when they are greeted by this “young man”, kind of a code for some angelic being, he says, “Remember what Jesus told you – He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Living as Easter people means that we live remembering what Jesus has told us, which stands in great contrast to what the world teaches. And though we may be no more likely than the disciples to remember, or to follow, that doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to remind ourselves. So, on Easter, as we claim again that he is risen, let us also remember that Jesus taught us:
- Our greatest command is to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
- Greatness in God’s kin-dom is measured in humility and generosity.
- Money and power are inherently dangerous, they can get in the way of connection to God and to other people.
- And maybe the most important thing to remember after the cross – violence is not God’s answer to sin, nor was Jesus a sacrifice to appease an angry God – that God is not the Father that Jesus taught us about.
He is risen. And we are meant to be Easter people, living out these memories, in the spirit of resurrection, continuing the story of the Gospel, picking up right at the end of that dropped sentence, practicing the kin-dom right here and now in the ways that we live, working to structure our lives together in ways that reflect kin-dom life.
I dare say that’s why we’re here this morning, to hear the stories once again and to reinforce our faith with rituals, like coming to this table, where everyone is welcome and all are fed, without cost and without exception – a model for how we might think of shaping the world outside. This is our spiritual gym, a place we condition our souls for the work outside this place – protecting the environment, caring for the poor, forgiving often, rejecting racism, fighting for the powerless, sharing earthly and spiritual resources, embracing diversity, loving God and enjoying this life.
All ways in our time and place to live resurrection, as Easter people.
Christ is risen. Thanks be to God.