Friday, April 6, 2012

The Easter Sermon I Won't Preach

I'm not preaching this Easter because the dream many of us shared about a church with new life has died, for now. But after 35 years of Easter sermons, I couldn't resist writing one anyway. If I WERE preaching this year, this is what I'd say:

I’ve been reading Gospels this year – lots of them. Those that made the Bible and those that didn’t. Reading all those accounts of what mattered to first and second century Christians brings me to Easter in a new way. I notice the differences in the biblical story more closely now. Who was at the tomb on the day we call the first Easter? What did they say and do? What happened? And what happened next?

Most of us believe in an Easter story that mashes all the nuances into one dish and serves it up in easy-to-chew bites complete with joyous angels and rejoicing disciples. But the reality is more complex and meatier than that. Some gospels don’t mention resurrection at all. Some mention hardly anything else. (The only remaining fragment of the Gospel of Peter is a crucifixion/resurrection story complete with giant angels who whisk Jesus away through the air followed by a giant cross which answers questions for him.)

So what’s to be gained by stirring around in all these resurrection stories? In a word: significance.

When the simplified Easter story becomes the heart of Christianity – Christ is risen, indeed! – then being a Christian boils down to believing that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb after three days and “everything’s gonna be alright.” Some years ago when television followed the search for the tomb of Jesus, complete with bones, a friend of mine at a neighboring church said, “If they find those bones, I’m out of business.”

I responded, “Well, then, come on over. We’ll still be open.” And we would be, because the physical resuscitation of Jesus isn’t the cornerstone of discipleship as we understand it.

To be honest, Jesus probably believed in a physical resurrection. He anticipated the day when God brought heaven to earth, wiped out oppression, and established a kingdom. The graves would open and the dead would rise and everyone who had been treated unjustly would be vindicated. He shared this belief with the Pharisees, who looked forward to a similar event. After all, if the Jews were God’s chosen people and everyone in the world was dumping on them, then God must have some better idea in mind for the future. Jesus announced that the kingdom was starting among the folks right then, and later the disciples “proved” it by pointing to Jesus as the first one to rise, but the Pharisees weren’t willing to grant them that point. History tells us that things got a lot worse after that, and we can debate whether they’ve ever gotten better.

I’m happy for people to believe in a physical resurrection from the grave, but not if they stop there. Following Jesus isn’t about what happened to his body. It’s about living in community and believing that the reign of God is among us – believing so hard that in small ways we make it true. If being a Jesus-follower means coming to worship every Easter (no there aren’t lilies and trumpets every Sunday), and shelving all thoughts about life after death because “I’ll rise like Jesus,” it just isn’t enough for me. And to the extent that Easter celebrations let us stay there, they do us more harm than good.

Americans no longer believe that our physical bodies are going to heaven when the trumpet sounds. In the 19th century we believed that. We saved severed body parts to bury with the rest later on so the bodies would be whole when they rose up. Now we promote cremation, which pretty much assumes this body isn’t going to be part of what’s to come.

It’s time to acknowledge that if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection, we’re in good company – with lots of first century Christians who knew that Jesus was much more important than just that. The resurrection stories vary. Clearly most of the folks who encountered Jesus after his death didn’t recognize him at first. Some say he walked through locked doors. Others that he appeared and disappeared at will. Most of the evidence point to visions and similar spiritual experiences, not a physical resuscitation. Because of time and distance, we’ll never know for sure just what they saw and heard.

But we do know the experience of Jesus being alive. We know it because we have that experience ourselves – in our hearts and minds. Right in the middle of everyday life, we’ll realize that Jesus is still here - listening to us, encouraging us, lifting us up, giving us life. Or if we don’t know that, we should be asking to know it, pleading to know it, demanding to know it. See, that’s the danger of letting Easter be something that happened to a broken body two millennia ago. It stops us from expecting that Easter is going to happen to us every day. And it short circuits the joy that’s possible in living with Jesus right here, right now. That’s the affirmation that Jesus’ followers came to over the days and weeks that followed his death – he’s alive! He’s not gone; we can feel him, talk with him, walk with him, live with him. That’s the good news they had to share. We can still know Jesus because not even death could take him away.

The disciples didn’t celebrate that first Easter morning. The gospels tell us they were afraid. They were confused. They hid in locked rooms. They went home to try to figure out what to do next. They prayed and they wept and they cast about for an idea of what happens to a movement whose leader is executed. And they simply didn’t know. There’s no celebration in that. They were busy mourning because all their hopes and dreams had been cut loose and the one they cared about most was dead. Even those who “saw” visions of Jesus risen didn’t know what to make of them for sure. It was too soon.

The celebration came later, when it dawned on them that what came next was what they’d been doing before – following Jesus. Living in community like he showed them. Healing and teaching like he showed them. And spreading good news that the reign of God is among us if we’ll only believe and live like it’s true. Lives that had changed when they traveled dusty roads with the master were still changed, and they still could count on the master to help them understand that, even if in new ways.

It’s na├»ve to think that just because the calendar says it’s Easter, everyone is going to be ready to celebrate resurrection. Some folks are still caught up in confusion and despair. Maybe their marriage shattered on the rocks of betrayal or is slowly sliding into a coma to wait for a brave soul to remove the life support. Maybe their parent or spouse has wandered off into the fog of dementia and they’ve been left caring for a live body with a dead mind. Maybe they wonder why children can be shot for wearing hoodies and old white men can go free – or they know it’s because deep down we’re all afraid of what looks different from us. There are a lot of folks who come to Easter with the wounds of death and loss too fresh and new to celebrate anything. The followers of Jesus have good news for them. We’ve been there, and we know what can come next. We know that you can bury bodies, but you can’t bury life. You can’t bury hope. You can’t bury the reign of God among us. They just keep on rising up.

Just when you think it’s all over and there’s no way to keep going, Jesus comes. Follow me, he whispers, and our hearts strain to hear. Follow me, he shouts, and our minds stretch to believe. The one who was crucified and died is still leading the revolution, and in his name people keep on rising up and believing in mercy and compassion and justice. People keep on rising up and taking to the road. And communities of hope grow. And those who are hurting are healed. And the powers of the world hear the challenge. The powers that crucified Jesus said, “no” but the people who knew he still lived within them answered “yes.” Sometimes our lives crash around us and say “no,” but the Spirit within us reaches out to Jesus’ strong hand and says “yes.”

This year a church community that I loved with my whole heart decided to die. So there will be no Easter sermon. No lilies or trumpets for me. No celebration. It’s too soon and I’ve only just buried the remnants of that life. My head says, “That body can’t rise.” But my heart stirs, because it knows that death’s “no” has nothing to do with God’s “yes.”

“Hurry,” it says. “Get over this burying and mourning stuff. The Spirit is stirring. We have good news to tell. And work to do, and life to live.”

The first disciples were right: you can’t find Jesus in the grave. You may find bones, but Jesus isn’t in the bones. Because no matter what, he won’t stay dead. He walks with us and goes before us and urges us to hurry up. Life is calling. God is calling. Every moment is ripe for celebration.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!