Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Bad News of Easter (J. Barry Vaughn, Easter Day, Apr. 20, 2014)

One of the truths that all clergy confront is that there are people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. Sometimes they are referred to as C and E Christians. There are even people who only come to church on Easter. Some of my colleagues give these people a hard time. Not me. I’m glad you’re here. The people of Christ Church are glad you’re here. I think even God is glad you’re here. On the other hand, Krister Stendhal, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, used to advise young ministers not to try to preach everything they know in one sermon. The danger of doing that, he said, is that you just might succeed. Easter may be the most important Sunday to be in church but it is not the only Sunday. So if you want to know more, you’ll just have to keep coming back. But I’m glad you’re here today.

A few years ago I participated in a seminar with clergy of several different denominations.  While we are discussing the ways that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church said, “I think we are embarrassed by the crucifixion.”  After a moment of thought, I challenged him.  “I don’t think the crucifixion embarrasses us as much as the resurrection.  After all, we know what the world does to brave people who speak out – they become martyrs.  But what we haven’t seen is anyone rise from the dead.”  We haven’t seen it; we don’t expect it; and maybe we would not only be embarrassed by it, we might even prefer that it didn’t happen. 

Think about that for a minute: Why might we want the dead to stay dead?

Well, for one thing, it’s much safer for all of us if the dead stay safely in their graves.  We all admire Dr. King for raising his brave voice against discrimination and prejudice and leading the fight for civil rights.  Does anyone not get teary-eyed when they hear his “I have a dream” speech?  The nation mourned when he was assassinated in Memphis, and we designated a national holiday in his honor.  But could there be just a tiny corner in most hearts that is relieved that he is silent?  What might Dr. King have to say to us today?  Would he speak out against the terrible disparity between rich and poor?  Would he challenge our policies in the Middle East?  Our indifference to poverty and hunger in the developing world?  We are familiar with martyrdom; we mourn when the good and the brave are cut down and silenced – the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther Kings , and so on – but would we really want them to come back to challenge our complacency and indifference? 

Could it be that Jesus’ disciples felt that way?  The gospels tell us that on the morning of the resurrection, the women took spices and other embalming supplies with them to the place where Jesus had been buried.  Of course, they were performing the last kindness that one friend can do for another – to prepare his body for its eternal rest.  Of course, they were grief-stricken because their friend and teacher had been given a mock trial, tortured by the police, and put to death on the cross.  But could they also have been a tiny bit relieved?  Could they have thought, “We will miss his stories of good Samaritans and prodigal sons, wise maidens and unjust judges, lilies of the field and seed sown among the rocks and thorns.  Who will restore sight to the blind and cleanse lepers, free the possessed from demonic power and so on? But then again, we won’t have to listen to him challenge us to take up the cross, to lose our lives for the sake of the kingdom, to be glad when we are reviled and persecuted.  Life is hard enough without that.” 

But when they arrived at the tomb, they found it empty.  How did they react?  Did their hearts leap?  Did they dance a jig or burst out in laughter or song because he had risen? Every single one of the gospels tell us that the women who came to the empty tomb felt fear, disbelief, sorrow.  Why is that? 

Perhaps they feared the challenges that Jesus had set before them and sets before us -- to be poor in spirit, to embrace mourning, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to seek service rather than self-aggrandizement.  Life is so much easier without these things.  We want comfort, not challenge; ease, not adventure. 

By and large, we want life to be stable and predictable.  However, we worship a God of surprises.  We worship a God who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty; who promises us that life abundant and everlasting is to be found not in safety but in risking our lives for the sake of the gospel. 

Life is so much easier when we have three meals a day; when we know that General Hospital is always on at one o’clock in the afternoon; when school is out at three and mom or dad comes home from work at five-thirty; when there are drinks at six and dinner at seven.  But when a stranger barges into our lives and commands us to drop our nets and follow him; to put down our knitting needles or hammers or turn off our computers and plunge into the great adventure that is God’s plan for the universe –no, that’s a little too much for us.  We want to know who will pay for our medical insurance, who will feed the dog or cat, how we will pay the Visa bill, who will pick the kids up after school.  Thanks for the parables and miracles; they’re lovely and we’d like to keep them, but we can do without the resurrection.

But surprise, disruption, and resurrection has been God’s plan from the beginning.  To be sure, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; they moaned, they complained, they cried out and God heard them and raised up Moses to lead them out of bondage.  But what happened as soon as they were free?  “Why have you brought us out of Egypt only to let us die of hunger and thirst in this wilderness?” 

We want life to be predictable, and the older we get, the more predictable we want it to be.  But God finds ways to surprise, upset, and disrupt us.  We prefer the sofa, the television, the internet; in short, we prefer the tomb of our own safety and comfort.  But we worship a God of the living, not of the dead, a God who calls us out of the tombs of our own making.  We worship a God of resurrection.

Both individuals and institutions get stuck in ruts. Institutions, such as churches – maybe especially churches – develop ways of doing things. We call them the culture of the institution. Christ Church became stuck in a cycle of conflict that was fueled by rumor, innuendo, and gossip. That was a way of resisting God’s summons to new life, to rise again. That cycle of conflict, those patterns of rumor and gossip will not die easily. They never do. But they will die. You might as well try to resist the force of gravity or the rising of the sun.  

God’s will for Christ Church is resurrection.  But as Father Rick reminded us last night, the only way to get to Easter is by going through Good Friday. The English writer G.K. Chesterton says that the church of Jesus Christ has died and risen many times because the church worships a God who knows his way out of the tomb.

But resurrection may not happen in a moment, a day, a week, or a year.  Jesus’ followers waited three days for him to rise again; the resurrection of Christ Church may take much longer.  But I believe it will happen and I believe there are signs of resurrection all around us: our thriving Latino ministry, new members, new staff, our commitment to evangelism. And so on.

I want to conclude with a mystery story: The gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel. Mark has at least three endings the most likely ending of Mark is also the strangest.  More than likely, the last four words of Mark’s original ending were:  “and they were afraid”.  What an odd, even bizarre ending!  Why would the women who went to the tomb, saw an angel sitting there, and heard the outrageously good news of the resurrection flee in terror?

I think we know why.  Resurrection seems too good to be true.  We do not want to be hurt or disappointed.  We want our lives to be safe, predictable, boring, dead.  I know I do!!  But God has other plans for us.  God’s plan for us is resurrection, surprise, amazement, joy incomprehensible and full of wonder.  So lose your fear, forget about comfort, embrace God’s adventure, drop your net and make a mad dash after the mysterious stranger who invites you to participate in God’s magnificent, surprising, and unpredictable plan for your life.  Sing and shout the Easter alleluia, dance a jig, for Christ is risen He is risen indeed..  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!