Preached at Hope UCC on Easter Sunday, 2013…
One of the best things about Easter Sunday is that is the one day in our sometimes more straight-laced churches where a call and response is not just acceptable but expected. So if I say “Christ is risen”, then you say “He is risen indeed!” And then we can all shout Alleluia and Amen and smile huge smiles and even sometimes throw our hands up in the air and everybody is perfectly fine with it.
But I wonder if we often don’t actually think about the words we say. We just say them. And what I mean is that to say, or even shout that someone is risen from the dead is actually just plain odd and maybe even a little grotesque. Think about it. If we replaced the word Jesus in that sentence and said instead “John Doe is risen indeed” and we meant that our neighbor down the street named John had actually risen from the dead, in today’s society our first thought would not be happiness. Instead our first thought would be either “Lock all the doors John is now a zombie!”, a la The Walking Dead, or “Get the wooden stakes out, John is now a vampire.” Let’s face it: in Jesus’ time, as in our time now, saying someone has been raised from the dead is at least unexpected news and it could even be a little bit terrifying. People die and we may talk about then having gone on to a better place and we pray that we get to be with them again some day, but we don’t talk about them coming out of their graves, with their wounds still visible, and having a chat in the garden with us.
But somehow this story of an empty tomb, this story of Jesus’ resurrection, is different for us. This story we think we know, and so we celebrate it instead of bolting the doors. This story is familiar, maybe sometimes too familiar so that it no longer really surprises us. Growing up I was told that this story is about what happens to us after we die. Now because Jesus has conquered death, if we believe in Jesus then we have too. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our sins are forgiven, we now have eternal life and when we die we will go to heaven. Story told and reasoned out and done. Blow the trumpet, shout alleluia, be sure to join us for brunch, and don’t forget to pick up your lilies on your way out the door as you go on to the rest of your week. We got this!
But what if we’ve tamed this story so much that we fail to see why it really matters? What if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t about a heaven some light years away, but this world in the here and now that is in desperate need of resurrection and redemption? What if the real reason we numb ourselves to this story is that we desperately need a resurrection but are afraid to hope that one is truly possible? What if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t as much about how we die as how we live?
“The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is are you alive before death.” I actually think they are both wonderful questions. But it is the second question that stops me in my tracks. Am I alive now? What does it mean to be alive? Because if I am honest I can admit that sometimes I am breathing, but I am not fully alive. Sometimes I make decisions that lead to numbness and darkness, because it is easier. Sometimes I don’t just ask that God take this cup from me, I demand it and I throw a tantrum if it isn’t. Sometimes I choose death-in-life. Sometimes we all do.
Given all that, I might be tempted to give up. Am I alive before death? Sometimes. Does it really matter? What is the difference anyway? What does my one little life matter? This world is a disaster area, always has been and always will be. Does God even care? And in the midst of that pit of doubt, that apathy that often makes us numb, the terror that the world really is falling apart at the seams, God whispers in my ear, “Christ is risen” and then I know yes, God cares far more than I can imagine.
I can say that because I have come to believe that the story of “Christ is risen” starts with the idea that Christ is with us. Christ is with us means that God decided to come and join in our story at our most basic level by becoming one of us, to convince us that we are loved, that we are capable of great love and of living that love out in community with one another, and that such love makes a difference. Christ is with us means that in the midst of God trying to teach us and lead us and show us a better way to full and abundant life, humanity still said no. Humanity chose the way of violence and death and a thirst for power.
The story of Christ is risen continues with Christ crucified. Christ crucified means that God went all the way to the cross, through Jesus. Some will tell you this was to pay a ransom for us, to atone for our wrongs. But to me this way of thinking simply perpetuates our human system of violence and extracting payment at all costs. I believe that Jesus on the cross is a statement of solidarity, the at-one-ment of God with humanity in our darkest hours. Pain and suffering, God has been there. Abandonment and horror, God knows. Torture that is physical, spiritual, and mental, denied by those closest to you, put at the mercy of an unruly mob, God has done that too. Come face to face with mental illness, demons, the death of those you love – none of this is foreign to God. When Paul says nothing can separate us from the love of God I believe that this is what he meant. God knows, God has been there, God goes with you.
But Christ is risen means even more. Christ is risen means that even after all that, even after we put God’s son on a cross and choose death and violence again for the umpteenth time, God says love is stronger. Love is stronger than killing and violence. Love is stronger than our worst fears. Love is stronger than death itself. Jesus’ resurrection is a radical statement that no matter what, no matter how bad things seem, or how hopeless the situation looks, or how many tears we have wept, no matter what we need redemption for, God can bring new life where we least expect it.
Author Rob Bell says that Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up God’s dream for this world. Hear that again: Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up God’s dream for this world. God created this world and it was good and God created humanity and we were good. And the creation story in Genesis tells us that God placed us in the garden and hoped for the best. We all know that story did not have such a happy ending. But God didn’t give up. Did you ever have a dream you could not give up on? A vision you fought and worked and prayed for? Maybe in that we can know a sliver of God’s dreams for the whole of creation.
And as that dream began in a garden, so it continues in one. The Gospel of John connects this story of Jesus’ resurrection to God’s dream for creation. Because when Mary first sees Jesus she doesn’t recognize him. Instead, she assumed him to be – the gardener. God really wants that beautiful garden for us and all we have to do is read passages like the one from Isaiah this morning to see God’s plan for a better life and a better world. Not a far away heaven, but a new creation here on this earth.
Christ is risen and a new creation is born. So we don’t have to be afraid anymore – of death yes, but more importantly, of life. And maybe that is the hardest part. Fear sometimes seems hard wired into our systems – Fear of death, of not having enough, of being forgotten, of not being in charge or in control, of not having purpose or passion, or our loved ones not being taken care of. Fear trumps hope all too often. Maybe that’s why this new creation is taking so long to birth. Maybe that’s why Paul says the whole of creation cries out, groaning in birth pangs. Birth is usually messy and painful. Christ is risen is the already and not yet. We wait for resurrection now and we wrestle with it because we want it, oh how we want it, and yet, we don’t. To become a new creation is to let go of the old. To be resurrected is to no longer hold on to the pain, to no longer drown yourself in darkness, to stand up and do something, to demand that the rest of the world recognize and practice resurrection. To look for and make sure we recognize resurrection in others. For if we just would look we could see that there is resurrection happening all around us.
Resurrection is when Malala Yousafzai, after being shot in the head by the forces of violence who disapprove of girls going to school, heads back to the classroom as an example to all. Resurrection is when the families of Newtown and Aurora and Columbine and all the places around the country affected by gun violence stand together and say no more. Resurrection is when my facebook feed turned red earlier this week as person after person, many of whom I would never have guessed, showed their support for marriage equality in a very visible way. Resurrection is when friends shave their heads in a show of solidarity with a friend who is suffering with cancer.
Resurrection is the story of the Seaton Hall women’s lacrosse team – On March 16, just a few weeks ago, a tour bus carrying the Seton Hill University women’s lacrosse team to a game ran off the PA Turnpike, through a guardrail, and into a tree. The bus driver was killed. Pregnant coach Kristina Quigley was flown to the hospital, where she and her baby also died. Many students were injured, some seriously. At least one is still in the hospital.
The campus minister there wrote: “I teach at Seton Hill, where I am also a campus minister. This past week has been painful, as you can imagine, yet it also has been a week of extraordinary comfort. We in the community have supported each other, and we have received support from all over the nation. For instance, many college women’s lacrosse teams across the country have worn Seton Hill colors as a show of support. Thank you.”
He went on to say, “The story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection teaches us how God gives us eternal life, but it also teaches us how God brings resurrection out of death in this life, too. We suffer horribly, but God transforms our suffering into healing, comfort, strength, and calls upon us to be God’s agents of transformation. I don’t believe that everything happens for a divinely ordained reason. I do believe that God suffers with us and changes the suffering into healing.”
One day, 2000 years ago Mary and Peter and the disciple Jesus loved were suffering the deepest grief because they had lost their beloved friend and they believed the movement that they had given their lives to had fallen apart. Then quite unexpectedly they encountered an open tomb and the risen Christ and their lives were changed forever. Today you and I in our everyday lives encounter the risen Christ over and over again in stories of resurrection – other people’s stories and our own stories and we are witness to the new creation being born. Amidst those birth pangs you need to ask yourself – Where do you need to encounter the risen Christ today? Where do you need resurrection? Where do you need to choose peace over violence and assurance over fear? Where do you need to come alive, to choose to live? What stone needs to be rolled away from your tomb? What dream are you willing to work towards, to die for, to LIVE for? When you imagine the world finally done with its labor pains, and the new creation reborn what does it look like for you? Where is your place in it? What are you willing to do in this life, right now, to get ready for it?
There have been many moments of doubt and fear in my life – when I wept over losses and grappled with fears, when I found open tombs that I didn’t understand, when I couldn’t recognize the resurrection happening right before my eyes and I despaired. But Easter Sunday shows us that God never gives up – on me, on you, on the disciples, on the world. The resurrected Jesus calls us by name and we weep in amazement aware that this is no ordinary story. This is a story of new creation being born again in us right now, if we let it. And so the people say: Christ is risen – Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.