Join us for Easter Sunday! A sermon by Cal Chinn.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Early on Easter morning, some women from Galilee went to the tomb where they had left Jesus. They came because they had been up all night, as people in grief often are; and they came because it is somehow easier to grieve at the grave site. This is how the Easter story begins—quietly, not with everybody jumping to their feet to sing the Hallelujah Chorus—but with some women bringing spices to a tomb in order to keep Jesus’ dead, decaying body from smelling bad. It isn’t a pretty image. Death never is. When I was pastor on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, I conducted funerals, on the average, once every 2 and 1/2 weeks. And funerals on the reservation were long, drawn out affairs—the first service is a dressing ceremony where the tribal spiritual leaders and family members dress the body; next came the all night Indian ceremony at the Long House; then came the service at the church the next morning; followed by a service at the cemetery which concluded with everyone in the community taking turns shoveling dirt in the grave until the grave was filled. On the reservation, everyone—all ages—took part in the ceremonies. By way of contrast, we sanitize the experience of death, even going to the extreme of avoiding any suggestion of it. Morticians embalm the bodies of our loved ones and we praise their work with compliments like, “Oh mom looks so natural and so peaceful!”
Well death is very prominent and real in the Bible. People are dying left and right throughout. The scriptures are embarrassingly frank. When Jesus prepares to raise Lazarus, the dead man’s sister objects, Oh Lord, he stinks! He’s been dead 4 days! The reality is that everything about this earthly life is moving towards death, termination for everyone. It is like the young pastor, fresh out of seminary, entering the home of a woman whose husband had just died. The woman met the pastor at the door with a fierce look on her face and said to him: “Preacher, don’t tell me nothin’ about how he’s better off now, or he’s in a better place or any of that stuff. He’s gone and I don’t want to hear nothin’ sweet about it!” The woman knew. She wasn’t up for any of his preacher talk. Her husband was gone. It is the physician, returning from the operating room, surgical mask taken off to reveal an expression that tells it all. “No, I don’t need to
ask, do I?” Furthermore, everything in life is terminal—our careers are terminal, as are our relationships. It’s packing up and moving from the house to separate apartments, packing last the book of wedding pictures that won’t be viewed again because they are too painful. Who wants a photographic record of a marriage that failed? We have all suffered shattered dreams, ruined hopes, and broken promises. We despair at what we’ve lost in the past—the investment we should have made, that house we could have bought, the job offer we passed up on, that move we should have made, that mistake we wish we could have taken back. On that first Good Friday, death happened. Jesus died on the cross. And all the hopes of the disciples died on that cross. They could not hang onto, forever, their hopes and dreams of what Jesus could do. All were lost on the cross.
Easter won’t prevent those losses. I’ll say it again so that it will sink in—Easter won’t prevent those losses. And that is GOOD NEWS! Easter is not the happy ending in our ongoing effort to hold onto dreams. Easter is NOT the next thing. Easter is the NEW thing that only God can give. When the gospel writer Luke is finally ready to describe the Easter miracle, he begins with the word “BUT”. In the previous chapter, chapter 23 of Luke, it ended with Joseph of Arimathea wrapping up Jesus’ dead body and placing it in a tomb. The very first word of today’s scripture reading was “BUT” … BUT on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb and found it empty.” In Matthew, the word shows up once; in Mark, twice; and in Luke—in only 12 verses—that defiant, stubborn, relentless conjunction BUT shows up 6 times! It is as if Luke is grabbing us by the lapels, stopping us in our tracks, and forcing us to understand that no matter what we’ve heard, we haven’t heard the whole story yet! BUT, HOWEVER, NEVERTHELESS…I love these words! They are my favorite words in the Bible. These are words that signal God’s intrusion into death. The gospel always turns on a great however. Luke tells us that the women were perplexed—another sign of God’s interruption. Then they saw 2 men in dazzling garments and were terrified—the Bible’s favorite response to sacred intrusions. The women fell with their faces to the ground. Usually the next line of the Bible is that the angels will then say, “Fear not”! But according to Luke, these angels say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, BUT has risen”! To say that Jesus is risen from the dead is not to say that he has returned to his earthly life. That was gone. It was dead, remember? To say that Jesus is risen from the dead is to say that God reached into that tomb and into history, lifting Jesus up to NEW life. And the amazing, wonderful thing is that God will do the same thing for us. That can be terrifying; for in order to receive this new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one. We have to stop looking for the living among the dead. Stop obsessing over the right career move. Stop pressuring our children to be perfect; and worse, hovering over them like helicopters or snow-plowing away all obstacles so that they don’t have to struggle. Stop fantasizing about what the latest diet will do for our bodies. Stop worrying about the stock market. It is all going to die anyway, so stop. And go to the empty tomb, where there is the promise of a NEW life that will never die.
The historic Cathedral of Norte Dame in Paris suffered a terrible fire a week ago. At the same time that Notre Dame was burning, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem burned. But it is yet another fire that I want to call your attention to…. Two weeks ago, authorities arrested the suspect behind the burning of 3 black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, restoring a measure of peace to the rural community that had been on edge since late March. I was struck by the spirit-infused talk about resilience in the face of hatred at the news conference. Dana Nichols, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans office of the A.T.F., said (more like preached): “I want to say to the individuals who engage in these types of crimes, you have caused pain and you have caused hurt. But know this: that you cannot destroy our faith. We can have church anywhere; we can have church in a parking lot; we can have church in a field, and as many of us know, when were doing our building fund, we can have church under a tent. We can have church on a porch. And know this: we’ll have church in the very parking lot where the building you destroyed will stand as a remembrance to us that God is still with us.”
Luke’s Easter story ends with Peter, hearing the startling report from the women, running to the tomb, stooping and looking in, amazed at what he saw, turning from a coward into a preacher of renown. Only the resurrection could transform Saul into the great missionary Paul. Only the resurrection could turn ordinary women and men into saints and martyrs, preachers and prophets, activists and organizers.
Generation after generation, we make our way to the empty tomb and hear the words that rock our world: “He is not here. He is risen!” When we sing, “The Strife is o’er, the Battle is won”, it means that we must join in the mopping up actions wherever evil dares still to challenge the reign of a good and loving God. If you can say, “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, Indeed!” then get ready to witness to THAT the next time someone by their hate, or cruelty, or lust, or despair, or hopelessness, or apathy—give witness to their belief that death is in charge. So now let all God’s people say with expectation and conviction: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, Indeed!