Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 9, 2023 Easter
I’ve said before that what my job boils down to is showing up and reminding people that God loves them. I recall a week when that task was both challenging and fulfilling.
Holy Week was a busy week. At church, we held daily services during holy week. For many years these were early morning services, until I convinced people that Jesus liked to sleep in and we switched to lunch time services. In addition, there was a Maundy Thursday service, a Good Friday and Easter sunrise service. Also, because as parish minister I was school chaplain, every school in the parish had an Easter service that I needed to be at.
One year I conducted eight funerals during the weeks of lent. Eight times to remind people of when Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Most of those were for the old saints whose lives we celebrated and to whom we bid a fond farewell. One was for a little girl who lived a block from the church. Alicia was sixteen months old and one day she had a seizure and died.
At the graveside her dad, uncles and grandad lowered her small pink casket into the grave. After the benediction, the grandad had a “singing book” that he used to play as the two of them sang together. He held it as it played, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” while the rest of the mourners dropped flowers and star confetti into the grave.
My prayer was the best I could do, for what it was worth –
Dear God, she was so small, so beautiful, so full of hope and promise. What a blessing she has been to everyone who knew her those few short months. She taught us to love, to hope beyond expectation, to trust in that which is unseen. She drew us together in our anxiety, our moments of despairing and hopelessness, as well as in our joys and delight and in her every breath.
Her life ended too soon. The pain will always linger. Our hearts emptier for her absence and the unfulfilled dreams she promised. But the love she brought into our lives will live forever. Thank you for giving her to us. Thank you for the blessing that she will always be. Thank you for the love we would never have known, but for her and her brief days with us. Thank you for Alicia, our blessed child of grace.
The simple story of this day and every day is that God raised Jesus from the dead. What that means and how it applies to our lives depends completely on what we do with it. Sometimes we are able to grasp it live empowered by the Spirit. These sometimes are like little glimmers of hope that keep us committed to the gospel in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Evidence to the contrary being the state of affairs in which our world has resided for the length of human history.
We think of the choices we face, big and small. Our choices may seem like drops in a rainstorm, but we still need to make them. On one level choice is about which brand of bread we prefer. On another level, our choices are between hope and fear; freedom or bondage; love or indifference.
Some of our choices are not easy to make. If we believe that the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid to rest was found empty because God raised him from the dead, then that belief changes things.
There’s no proof concerning why the tomb was empty. Nothing that would stand up to scientific scrutiny. What proof there is, is based on what a few people said; based on what people claimed to have seen. There are four versions of the story in the Bible, and each one tells it slightly differently, with different characters seeing different things. By our court of law standards, if someone were trying to prove anything one way or the other, the case of the empty tomb would be thrown out of court for lack of evidence.
The empty tomb is a matter of faith. It is about believing in something that we can’t see for ourselves, hold in our hands, point to, own or control. It is about the very thing Jesus preached, the kingdom of God. The new life that God makes possible. The life of God that is in you and among you, if you believe. There is no temple or cathedral that contains it. There is no one religion that defines it. Its only framework is an empty tomb. Our choice is to accept why it was found empty.
Like so many things that begin with life and death, heartfelt and holy realities, Easter has become a kind of happy springtime festival. Like Christmas, we secularize in order to remove its power and impact. We make it into what works for us.
The message of Jesus is good news, but it’s not always easy news. There are demands that can be anything but easy. Love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, do not judge, go the extra mile; that sort of thing. These sound good, but like a healthy diet or daily exercise, good isn’t always easy.
Whenever you give people a reason to hope, you become the enemy of the forces that rule by fear. Fear is easy. We might not go through our lives thinking about it, but so much of what we see in our popular culture tells us we need to be afraid. There’s a lot of money to be made in fear.
Be afraid to grow old. Don’t show signs of aging. Look young. Get rid of those wrinkles. Don’t let your face betray your age. Spend billions and billions of dollars on your outward appearance, so that you can fool yourself into thinking that you are holding off what is inevitable: death. There will come a time, when no matter how young we might try to look, we will certainly and without a doubt, die, and then no matter what we have done to our appearance, we will look exactly as we are, dead.
Maybe deep down we fear that we will be thrown to the wolves and so we try to build financial security. We have become the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but do we seem any more secure because of it? We worry over stock market fluctuations. Are we any less afraid because of the fact that most of us have more wealth than we ever imagined we would have? Wealth can be a great benefit to our world. But when we make it our substitute for life, we will end up living in fear.
The longer we live the more we realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way we expected. The truth of our experience can lead us to appreciate life because we have experienced death. Death comes to us in many forms. It takes the form of loss in our lives. Loss is painful. Even Jesus prayed asking God to let him off the hook. But even Jesus knew that in order to avoid loss, you must avoid life itself.
When we embrace our losses in all their painful reality, when we try not to avoid the pain but let it wash over us, in us and through us, we realize that no matter how deep we go, God is deeper. God is over us and under us. God doesn’t keep us from falling. God doesn’t keep us from hitting rock bottom with a painful thud. God doesn’t even get angry when we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!”
If we try to mask our pain, cover it up, avoid it or self-medicate it, we remain in bondage to it. If we view our faith as a feel-good response to pain, then we will remain in bondage to pain.
God did not raise Jesus from the dead as a way of saying, “Your pain is an acceptable sacrifice to me.” It was more like God’s way of saying to the forces that put Jesus to death, “If that’s the best you can do, then you have no real power.” God raised him from the dead to vindicate his life. As a way of demonstrating that everything he said and did and led people to believe was true. Not even death could diminish Jesus.
Easter is a choice between love and indifference. If we love, we care. If we don’t love, we don’t care. When someone asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, he said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, body and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Pay attention to, and care about God. Pay attention to, and care about your fellow human beings.
In the gospel of Matthew there are two reactions to the story of Easter. Jesus appeared to his disciples. It says that some worshipped him and some doubted. One would think that if Jesus appeared after what he had gone through, that there would be no doubt whatsoever. But the resurrection wasn’t like that. There was something about it that still required faith in order to believe. Faith relating to what you believe God is capable of doing.
Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want. The death of Jesus points to that. Today we are reminded that whatever the twists and turns in life’s journey, our lives are in God’s care. The resurrection of Jesus points to that. Amen.