Risen Together: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2018

On very rare occasions, Easter falls on April 1st. Or, as we often call it, April Fool’s Day. So, as we were preparing for worship today many of us who are clergy wondered if that meant we needed to make our sermons funny. 

My spouse is a pastor as well so we started to tell each other bad Easter knock-knock jokes as a way of preparing. Mine was this:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Not Jesus!

Yeah…they groaned at the sunrise service too.

So, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell any more of those, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying this year that Easter is an April Fool’s story in the sense that when everyone thought Jesus was dead and buried and that hope was gone, God’s love and grace had the last laugh. It’s as if Jesus jumped from the tomb with confetti and yelled “April Fools”!

But the Gospel story we read today reminds me that it didn’t happen quite like that. You see, that first Easter, Jesus wasn’t playing a joke on his friends, hiding out in a tomb, waiting to surprise them. Jesus was plain and simply dead. The worst that the world could do had been done to him. He had been betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and crucified. 

On Friday night they had hastily buried him before the Jewish sabbath began, which is what his faith required. It had needed to be done so quickly that they hadn’t been able to prepare his body fully before the sun set. And so on Sunday morning, after the sabbath had ended, three women, three friends of Jesus who had loved his dearly, went back to his tomb to finish.

As they were walking there, they thought about the big, heavy stone that had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and they asked themselves, “who will roll it away for us”? It was far too heavy for them. And as the tomb came into view, they saw something that only compounded their grief and fear; they saw that the tomb was open. And looking inside, they couldn’t find Jesus. And they assumed that something even worse had happened, and that his last resting place had been disturbed. They wondered why, even in death, Jesus couldn’t find any peace.

But then, they saw a man sitting there dressed in white. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed!” 

Now, that’s probably the most unhelpful thing you could say in that situation. “Do not be alarmed.” And yet, the man knew why they were there. He said, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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.”

Scripture tells us that the three women were “seized” by “terror and amazement”, and that they ran from that place. 

That’s fair. If I went to my friend’s grave and someone said, “oh, they’re not dead anymore” I think I might be running too. At the very best, I might think that someone was playing a particularly cruel April Fool’s Day joke on me.

But this was no joke. There was no prank. This was something different entirely. This was Resurrection. The world had done its best to destroy God’s love and grace, embodied in Jesus Christ. But God’s love and grace refused to stay in the ground. God’s love and grace triumphed over even death. 

That was the first miracle. But the second was this; the second was getting the world to believe it.

Like the three women at the tomb, we hear a truth that we can’t yet fully process or believe. A hope rises in us, and we begin to wonder, “Can this possibly be true?” “Can what was once destroyed live once more?”

It’s no wonder that the three women had trouble believing. And it’s no wonder that we sometimes do too. Because though we live nearly two thousand years later, though we know what our faith teaches, though we know that the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there, sometimes that is still as hard for us to believe as it was for those women at the tomb. 

That’s no surprise. That’s no surprise because we live in a world that is sometimes so broken. We live in a world where children are afraid to go to school, where neighbors distrust neighbors, and where corruption and abuses of power speak louder than kindness and understanding. 

It has often been said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are people who believe in the promise of new life, but we live in a world where we are surrounded by pain and suffering. 

I get that, but I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to this. I wonder if we don’t live in a Good Friday morning so much as we live in a very early on Sunday morning – before anyone has heard the good news – world. I wonder if we live in a world much like those women did on that morning, when they had heard an unbelievable story, and were running from the grave terrified and amazed, and yet, they dared to hope that maybe, just maybe it was true.

I think that for those of us who want to follow a Resurrected Christ, we live like Jesus’s friend did in those earliest hours. We live in the hope that these rumors of Resurrection are true, even as we acknowledge the reality of the world around us. We live as people who come at dawn, prepared to weep, and yet who are met with the baffling evidence that perhaps something amazing has happened. 

And so, we start to spread the news. Tentatively at first, and to one another.

“Christ is risen?” We ask, in hushed tones. 

“Could it be true? Is Christ risen?” Our friends whisper back.

And later, dumbfounded, the first ones to see him would begin to tell one another. “It’s true. Christ is risen.” 

And slowly, the news begins to sink in. “Christ is risen. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

And we respond to one another, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” 

And then we begin to tell the world, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

For Christians, the work of our life is to live in such a way that we witness to the victory of God’s love and grace, even in the face of the brokenness of the world. We spread the good news of resurrection not by what we say so much as by how we live, and how we work for new life in this world. We live in such a way that even on the hardest days, we can proclaim through our every action that “Christ is risen” and that there is hope.

A funny thing happens when you live that way. You start to see hope and resurrection everywhere you look.

Last night I went to a meeting held in a nondescript room here in town. A friend of mine just celebrated one year of sobriety, and she was celebrating by speaking and getting her medallion. And as I listened to her speak, all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and she is risen too.”

And then about a week ago, I watched some high school kids do some amazing things, standing up for themselves and for their classmates in the face of violence, and all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too!”

And so often I sit in my office talking with someone who has survived something unimaginable, someone who is still fighting day to day to believe that the Resurrection is true, even for them. And though they might not yet believe it yet, I can still see it, and I think to myself, “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too.”

Recently someone who has found their way out of their own metaphorical tombs, told me this: “Resurrection is real and can never be taken away.”

That’s true. That’s true for me, and that’s true for everyone. Even you, the person who might be sitting there today, wondering if it’s even true for you. It is. “Christ is risen, and you are risen too.” It’s not an April Fool’s joke. Just like Christ, your resurrection is real, and it can never be taken away from you.

I Have Seen the Lord – Sermon for Easter, 2012

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (response)

Two nights ago, some of us gathered in the sanctuary here for Good Friday services. Together we read the story of the Passion, Christ’s trial, crucifixion, death, and burial together.

We did something new this year. Instead of just one person reading the Gospel, we split it up, and took parts, and read it with different voices. We sat with each other and listened. And after the service some of you told me that you really heard the story in a way you never had before, and it profoundly affected you.

It did me too. The story about how Christ’s love and compassion for us all was so threatening to some that they would kill him. The story about how God became human like you and I, and told us how to live and how to treat one another, and the world wouldn’t hear it. The story of how the world sometimes does its worst to those who deserve anything but.

It’s a hard story to hear. It gets to us. But not long after the story ended, like the rest of you, I got in my car, and went home, and had dinner, and started getting ready for Easter morning.

Two thousand years after the Christ’s death, we have that luxury. We have the luxury of being what some call “Easter people”. We know how the story plays out, and we know that Jesus does not stay in the tomb. As much as the story affects us when we hear it again, we have that consolation. Good Friday is not the end.

Now at this point you may be saying, “You’re right…Good Friday is not the end. So stop preaching the Good Friday sermon and get on with the Easter one.” And I will.

But before I do, I want you to think about this. What if you didn’t know? What if you were hearing the story I read you this morning for the first time? What if you had lost your friend who was love embodied, and you’d driven back home not with hope, but with a gut-wrenching sorrow?

That’s what his friends were going through. He was their teacher, and they were his disciples, but they were also his friends. And they had loved him. Even the ones who couldn’t bear to stay with him for the end, they loved him.

They loved him so much, that as soon as they could they went back to his grave. Maybe just to be close to him. They were good Jews, so they would never have gone to a grave on the Sabbath, but as soon as they could they went. Mary first.

She got there and the stone that had sealed the tomb was gone. And she looked in and so was Jesus. And she runs to Simon Peter and John and tells them, and they race each other to the tomb and look inside.

Nothing. Just a few cloths that had wrapped the body.

Simon Peter and John leave Mary there. She stays, weeping, until she hears a voice: “Why are you crying?” She thinks it’s the gardner. She says, “If you took him away, if you have him, just tell me. I’ll take him myself.”

And then the voice says her name, Mary, and she knows. She cries out, “Rabbi”. And she knows it is him. And Jesus picks her, the one who stayed, and wept, and searched, and sends her to tell the other disciples what she has seen.

Mary is the first witness to the risen Christ, the first to testify to what she has seen. The first to get to share the good news.

It’s an awesome task to be given. To see the risen Christ, and to be told by him to spread the word. Don’t keep it to yourself. Go…tell the ones who need to hear it the most, the ones mourning and in pain, that I am risen. Go and tell them, suffering and pain and hate and death did not win.

Mary got to do it first. She went and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

She was the first one Christ asked to do it. But that doesn’t mean she was the last to get the job. Because every person who would follow the risen Christ gets the same assignment. Everyone who would call themselves a Christian gets asked to do the same thing as Mary: go to the ones who need to hear it the most, and tell them you have seen the risen Christ.

It was an important job two thousand years ago, when the disciples mourned for the one they thought they had lost. But it’s still an important one today.

As much as we are Easter people, much of the time we still live in a Good Friday world. We’re still a world that chooses violence, and fear, and hate, too much of the time. Though Christ is risen, we often choose to act in the exact opposite way than what he taught us.

That means that on most mornings, a fair number of people are feeling the same way the disciples must have been that morning. They’re wondering where hope has gone. They’re crying out for another way. They’re listening for any news that suffering doesn’t win. That death doesn’t get the last word. That God is so good, and so full of grace, that God doesn’t give up on the world, and the stone rolls away from the tomb.

There is a world that needs to hear that. Maybe even you need to hear that. I know there are days when I need to hear that. And I don’t think I’m alone.

And that’s what the Easter story teaches me. That love wins. And that people need to hear that. And also, that I’m one of those people.

To be a Christian is to be a witness to the Resurrection. And that’s not always easy. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to get sidetracked.

But that’s why it’s so important to put yourself in the places where you know you will hear the Resurrection story again and again.

I’m sometimes asked what the point of coming to church is. Does God love us more if we come, or get angry at us if we don’t? And my answer is, “no”. I don’t think God has some sort of a church attendance checklist.

Instead, I think this: I think church matters because it’s a community of witnesses to the Resurrection. I think it matters because when I see new life, when I see Resurrection, I know I can’t keep it to myself. I have to run and tell the ones I love who need to hear it the most.

And I think it matters because sometimes, when all of life feels a lot like Good Friday, I need to go to a place where I can hear there is an Easter. I need to go where other witnesses are running to from the tomb, shouting with Mary, “I have seen the Lord.”

I need that. I think we all do. I think we all need a place where we can tell the story together. Just like we told it together, and really heard it in a new way on Good Friday, how much more powerful can the story of Easter be when we deliberately tell it together? We need to tell the story of love that triumphs over everything. We need to tell the story of the Easter that comes after Good Friday. We need to tell the story of new life where none was thought possible. And we need to tell it together. Because each of us holds a piece of that story, and each of those pieces needs to be heard.

I’m thankful for all the little Resurrection stories I’ve heard over the past year. Thankful for all the reminders that Good Friday isn’t the end of the story, and that Easter is real. I’ve heard a hundred different Easter stories in this congregation this year. And most weren’t in April.

I’ve heard of new babies born, and those who were given up for dead regaining life. I’ve heard of new families begun, and old relationships mended. I’ve heard of marathons run, and addictions overcome. I’ve heard of judgements being discarded, and anger being transformed. I’ve heard of cancer in remission, and the indomitable spirit of those who aren’t but still fight. I’ve heard of two churches becoming one, and new witnesses walking in the doors. And I’ve heard of those who once were lost but now are found, and those who helped a valley that was nearly washed away to rise again. And those are just the stories of the ones who were here. There are so many others we still want to know.

We’ve celebrated Easter in this church nearly every week. And we’ve celebrated it in our hearts even more. Don’t let anyone tell you that those weren’t Resurrections. They were, because God was there giving new life in each one of them. And I look at each one and say, “I have seen the Lord.” May it be so this year, in Easter, and everyday.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen…