April 9, 2023, First Church UCC, Middletown, CT
Scripture: John 20:1-18 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Christians the world over are engaged in a lifelong disagreement about the meaning and purpose of Easter.
Some think Easter is primarily about what happened back then, about the literal truth of the story. For them, if the story is not literally true, it has no value at all. They are primarily focused on a better life after death, and the literal truth of the story is the guarantee that Heaven is real and that there is a place for them there.
Some think that Easter is primarily about the self-offering love of Jesus Christ; that it is a call to love and serve the world. For us, the literal, historic truth of the event is not essential; for us, it’s the enduring effect of the story, the way we are changed by it, that is its power.
Dean Greg Sterling, of the Yale Divinity School, said what I believe is most true about Easter, when he wrote: “Easter is not only the transit from death to life, but from injustice to forgiveness and from despair to hope.”
How resurrection happened, and all that stuff, is intellectual fun, but it’s like spending the whole meal eating dessert and then wondering why we’re falling asleep. Those discussions don’t have much nutritive value, not in the long run.
If we spend our Easter celebration discussing about the science of resurrection, we’ve lost sight of what’s really going on, because the week from Palm Sunday to Easter changed everything.
Christmas is a festival of potential, but Easter is a festival of new beginnings, of things coming to fruition. Christmas is a festival of dreams; Easter is a festival of realities.
This is the time when we celebrate the ability to make a difference even as we’re in the midst of all the mixed up stuff of life.
You’ve heard now that Tim Behl died last week. Those of you who knew Tim knew that his life was hatch-marked by challenges and limitations, that it was far from a joyous journey from high spot to high spot. I know you all know more than I will ever know about the challenges he faced. But what I remember is that in the midst of COVID, when we struggled to begin the process of improving our online service, Tim was one of the volunteers who gave of his time and skills to help us all worship together. That’s living an Easter life.
We are called to always remember the Resurrection story in the context of all the events of the past week. Because you know, this week gives us in miniature, a picture of real life – great highs, actual successes, brave attempts, disaster, betrayal, failure, death – and then new life beginning. That’s the story of Easter. It’s not boxed into a picture of bunnies and flowers and heavenly admission tickets. It’s broad, and deep, and terribly real.
Easter is the story which tells us how to outlive hate. It’s the story which pulls us into a life based on love, a life oriented towards justice, a life lived for mercy, for one and for all.
In my files, I have a cartoon – you can see it now on the church’s Facebook page, but right now just imagine a chemistry lab, complete with bench, Bunsen burner, flask and retort. The flask is filled with ignorance, and it is being heated with hot, burning fear. Out of that ignorance, the setup distills pure, thick hatred. That’s our world today.
It is as if we are stuck at Good Friday, stuck in a place where the best we can do is blame someone else for everything we hate about ourselves. We’re stuck filled with anger, stuck attacking those who cannot defend themselves. It’s Good Friday, and hatred walks our streets.
Here we are, in a beautiful room. It’s been lovingly decorated and blessed by gracious music…. What place does hate have in this room, in this company?
On such a beautiful day, can’t we just once ignore the slime of hatred oozing into our world? But there is no safety, no beauty in ignoring what’s going on right outside our doors.
The power and joy of Easter is that Jesus Christ came just for days and times such as these, to give us a way to live in the worst of times.
When we hear hatred voiced, we know there is a better way.
When we hear worries and concerns met with callous disregard, we know there is one who calls us to a path of love.
When we recognize the negligent disregard of racism, we know there is a way to live in perfect equality, one with another.
We know this because, in the worst of times, Jesus Christ came to be in this world. He came to teach us to measure our world against the standards of generosity, justice, righteousness and love. We know this because after he died in pain and shame, on the third day, he rose from the dead.
It’s easy to say that this Resurrection, this central act of our faith, makes no sense. Of course, it doesn’t. Resurrection makes no sense at all. It’s not sensible; it’s not logical; it’s not scientifically reproducible, like a chemistry experiment.
It’s the sheer irrationality of the event that testifies to its essential truth. Because, you see, this isn’t about science, isn’t about rationality or historical fact. It’s about light shining in the darkness.
Easter began, not at sunrise this morning, but in the darkest events of Thursday and Friday, in the despair of Saturday. Easter began with betrayal. It deepened with desertion, abandonment. It continued with a trial, condemnation, and execution.
Buried in haste, his body was gone when the women came to the tomb. Nothing about this made any sense, not in that long-ago time, and not today. And out of that senselessness, new life came. Out of confusion and fear, courage bloomed, lives were changed.
The despair and terror of Jesus’ followers is our despair and terror when we face an unknown future. Their joy when they realize they are not alone, is our joy as well.
This story, this resurrection isn’t about science experiments; it’s about real life. It’s about life where things just don’t go right. It’s about those times of quiet desperation when you just can’t see any way forward.
It’s hard to remember our need for God when all is going well. We humans like to take good times and good weather for granted. We may well expect everything to always turn out well, but we’re doomed to disappointment. It’s a fact of life, and not plain pessimism to point out that good does not continue in perpetuity.
Now some will argue that the blessings of our lives come because we’re better than those who suffer. We’re smarter, we’re more generous, we have louder voices and are better at pushing our way to the front of the line and we thus get the best rewards. This is the “everyone gets what they deserve” school of life.
And others will say that we get what we work for, and so all we have to do is work hard and rewards will appear. That’s kinda the “I went to Wesleyan, so my life will be great” school of life.
Both run thin when we face a cat-scan filled with signs of cancer. Neither has any comfort or strength when the factory closes and we’re out of a job at the age of 59. And neither has any explanation for school shootings, or laws to restrict the medical options of kids in pain. Neither works for the kinds of evil we see every day in our news feed.
Christianity is faith for the tough times. It’s not an “always sunny weather” way of living. It anticipates challenges, knows we’ll face ethical dilemmas, personal disasters. It knows that at the end of all, we will die – the ultimate failure in American life.
Through all that, it helps us understand the value of our lives. It shows us that life isn’t about toys, or job success, but about the grace with which we live.
And today it reminds us that hatred leads to death. Only love leads to life.
Because we serve a risen Savior, we will not incite riots.
Because we follow the way of Christ, we will not stand for condemnation of the poor.
Because we carry on the love of Jesus, we will not join in the disenfranchisement of the downtrodden.
We are Christians; we will condemn hatred and practice mercy.
Today is the spring of souls, the beginning of a new year of following God’s way.
When we sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today we proclaim that death is not the end of things. Hope rises up out of despair, creates justice, proclaims mercy, practices love.
Today, we are a resurrection people, born anew out of a culture riddled with hate, born to be messengers of God’s love, to all the world.
Christ the Lord is Risen! Hatred will not win the struggle.
© 2023, Virginia H. Child