Sermon Easter Sunday Apr 1,2018, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18 (Year B)
On one January afternoon a couple years ago, I was standing in the chancel talking with a member of the altar guild about the fair linen on the altar, when suddenly there was a loud crack against the window from a snowball. Now this church had its fair share of broken windows over the years, so I ripped out of the church at top speed, filled with righteous indignation. And when I got outside, there were two teenage boys. One, whose face revealed a strange combination of embarrassment and contrition. The other was checking over his shoulder while he tore across the parking lot.
So intuitively realizing which one was the culprit, I mustered all of my intellectual bravado together at that moment, and shouted out, “Hey you!” To which he shouted back, “Jesus can hang on the cross for all I care…” And all of that righteous indignation inside of me, was replaced by a deep sadness.
It seems nowadays, the thread connecting Jesus’ resurrection and our lives is fragile at best, and we, as the body of Christ, are currently tasked with trying to keep it from unraveling altogether. After all, the resurrection itself suffers from certain verification problems.
It is not accessible to us by any of the media to which we have become accustomed. No Facebook updates, no YouTube video, no Instagram, no Pintrest… no one was there. The most important event in the history of the world did not take place on a battlefield, or in a palace. It took place in a tomb, between God the Father and God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, in the middle of the night, with no other witnesses.
I mean, it sure would have been convenient if the risen Jesus had only reappeared to Pontius Pilate, or if he had only walked into the Jewish Sanhedrin one afternoon and said, “hello everybody,” that would have cleared up an awful lot of ‘fake news’ claims.
But since that didn’t quite happen, skeptics have long challenged the authenticity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, asking us to show them undisputable proof. Unfortunately, we as the church, particularly the North American church, have adopted an attitude which has sidelined the resurrection, and turned it into some sort of whimsical doctrine of faith that we’ve put into the pile of verses that we call wishful thinking.
Perhaps it’s because we only think of the resurrection as an event that occurred in the past and is limited to the past. Forgetting that the past, for all of its vastness, is far too small a canvas for God to work on. For if the resurrection can be limited to the past, then we do have every right to worry about the future.
Another way that we’ve sidelined the resurrection is to only talk about it on Easter Sunday and at funerals, when we trot out the resurrection as some kind of insurance policy against loss of life. Now true enough, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s own testimony against death. But more importantly for us right now, the resurrection of Jesus is also what empowers us for living. Because if we want to live, I mean truly live, then we need to engage death in all of its forms.
You see, I think one of the most subtle, yet pervasive forms of death is in our culture is boredom. And here’s what I mean by this… In the classic movie, Old School, Will Ferrell plays a married, thirty-something-year old suburban man who finds himself at a college party. When he’s offered a drink, he declines saying, “Oh no no, I have a big day tomorrow.”
When he asked, “Doing what?” he responds, “Well, um …actually a pretty nice little Saturday. We’re gonna go to Home Depot, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond … I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have enough time…”
Now the man in this movie has the life that is often portrayed as the ideal – a wife, a house, a job, security, comfort, privilege, freedom – and yet it’s left him bored, numb, and in a low-grade state of despair. His ‘success’ has actually served to distract him from just how deeply unsatisfied he is with his life.
Now I assume none of us want to starve or be shot at or lose someone we love… but it’s possible to die a sort of death at the other end of the spectrum as well, isn’t it?
I mean, if we aren’t careful, our success and security and abundance can lead to a certain sort of boredom, a numbing predictability, and a paralyzing indifference that comes from being too comfortable. In other words, death by wallpaper and flooring.
You see, we are so surrounded by buzz, and gloss, and hype and spin, that it’s hard to know what’s real anymore. It’s hard for us to get really excited about our lives. Many of us, as Thoreau says, “lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to our graves with our song still inside us.”
We ache to be truly alive. We ache to experience the resurrected life. We ache for a life full of love, and meaning, and purpose. But it seems like we’ve forgotten how.
By the early 1990s, Johnny Cash had largely been forgotten by the music industry, which bothered music producer Rick Rubin who contacted him and suggested they work together. Rubin set up a microphone and asked Johnny Cash to play the guitar and sing whatever song he wanted to. Just a man, a guitar, and a microphone.
After doing this for awhile, Rubin suggested that Johnny Cash play a solo acoustic show at the Viper Room in Los Angeles – a solo acoustic show. Just him and his guitar, all alone, on the stage … without his band to back him up like they’d done for years.
Rubin recalled in an interview, “I remembered he was terrified before going on. This was a guy who did 200 shows a year for forty years. He’d played in prisons. And the idea of going up by himself, with a guitar and singing songs, absolutely terrified him. I remember watching him, how nervous he was through the first song – you could hear a pin drop – dead silence.”
And in the terror, Johnny Cash found new life, and a whole new career. Rick Rubin stripped away all the other instruments and musicians and staging and trappings that Johnny Cash had learned to rely on over the years. And in the process, Johnny Cash rediscovered his confidence and a voice that had been there all long. Rubin reflected later, “people who were there that night, they still talk about that show as one of the greatest things they’ve ever seen.”
Sometimes, the most important part of life is knowing what to let go of. Because the one deep truth, the most important truth that I’ve learned over my fourteen years as a priest, is faith is not about holding on. Faith is letting go… Faith is not about holding on. Faith is letting go.
In our gospel this morning, the first person who sees the resurrected Jesus is Mary Magdalene. Now Mary was part of Jesus’ entourage; a group of women who travelled with Jesus, who learned from him, supported him and paid his bills out of their own pockets. But of Mary in particular, we read that she was once possessed by seven demons until Jesus freed her.
So I think it’s safe to say, that this was a woman who had a story. But her life had been dramatically transformed because of Jesus. She owes him everything. I mean, imagine spending that kind of time with someone you deeply care about, and then watching them nailed to a cross. So it’s no wonder that she stays around after everyone else has deserted him.
And then she’s the one who comes to the tomb a few days later and finds out it’s empty. And when she goes looking for his body, she runs into this man whom she thinks is the gardener, and then all of a sudden she realizes it’s Jesus and he’s alive and he’s back.
And so she goes to embrace him and Jesus says… “Mary, don’t hold onto me.” You see Mary assumes that things are going to go back to how they always were – back to the good old days when they would all eat together, when they would travel together, and tell stories and laugh. But Jesus hasn’t returned to get the band back together. Things have changed, and need to change, in order for new life to emerge.
Mary needs to let go of the past – to let go of everything that represents the old way of doing things, so that she can receive a new spirit, a spirit that will empower her to truly live the resurrected life that God has intended for her.
In Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, he tells a powerful story about a group of people who were able to let go of the junk that was holding them back and oppressing them, so that they could receive a new spirit, a spirit that would allow them to create a new reality and embrace the resurrected life.
He tells a story that took place in South Africa when, to all outward appearances, apartheid still had a strangle-hold on power, and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Wallis was at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of St. George’s where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding, when a group of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the service. Wallis writes:
“Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding clubs, writing pads and tape recorders. … They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days. … After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, Tutu reminded them that he served a higher power than their political authority.
Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African Apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
And he said it with a smile on his face, and an enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to embrace a new spirit.
From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began dancing. We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces, who, not knowing what else to do, backed away to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”
Wallis reflects that apartheid did not die on the day Mandela was released or inaugurated, but that it died that day of the celebration in the church, when they danced for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
On that day in South Africa, our brothers and sisters reminded us of something that we here seem to have forgotten. Christians have spent too much time trying to prove the resurrection, instead of being proof of the resurrection. For the good news of Easter is not only that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is alive, but also that the power of the resurrection can transform our lives as well.
You see, when we talk about resurrection, we are talking about something that both includes, but goes way beyond simply saying that there’s life after death. Because when we talk about resurrection, we’re saying that what happens to you matters. What you do with your life matters. What you think and feel and say matters. Who you help matters. How you care for each other matters.
Because we are not the ones who stand idly by while our friends are being bullied. We are the ones who stand up for those who are on their knees. We are the ones who protest for peace. We are the ones who feed the hungry. We are the ones who volunteer to help others rebuild. We step in when others step back, because we are bold enough to believe that what we do in this world matters. That the resurrection announces a new creation has begun in this world, and that we have been invited to take part in it here and now. In this body. In this life. In this world – this world that God loves, and is redeeming, restoring, reconciling, and renewing.
This is why the resurrection is such a profound and radical thing. Because we believe with great passion that the resurrection was not just an historical event – it’s a way of living in relationship with God and with each other. And that through the resurrection, new life is possible, right now, here, today. You don’t have to wait until you’re in the grave to sing your song.
So let go of those things that are keeping you numb. Let go of those things that are paralyzing you with indifference. Let go of all those things that are holding you back from embracing a bold new spirit… and enjoy the resurrected life that God has intended for you today. For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. And so are you.
The Rev. Victor Kishak
Apr 1, 2018