For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Easter

I usually reserve sermons for my church blog, but I actually had a manuscript, and several friends asked to see it, so here it is. What I actually delivered was slightly different, to be sure. This Easter sermon, both in its writing and its delivery, felt very personal and pastoral–the coming together of my love for folks as their pastor, and what testimony I wanted to share with them. It’s not fancy or creative or clever, just honest.

 

Our Easter altar

Our Easter altar

I’m always struck by the vast differences between our Easter celebrations today and that first Easter in the garden.

Neva and Becky and I—along with the choir and the liturgist and the bells and everyone else leading today’s service—we’ve been planning and organizing and working for weeks toward this morning’s service, so that we know where everything goes in the Order of Worship, what words to say, what songs to sing, with the music in the right order and the props in the right places. But that first Easter was confusing and disorganized from beginning to end. Mary and Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb and back, frantic, panic. Where have they laid him? We don’t know where they put him. Sir, if you know where he is please tell me so I can go and get him. Where is he? No one knew what was going on. It was a mess.

And look at all of you here in your Easter finery. We’ve got ourselves and our children looking their best, our sanctuary decked out in all its splendor. But that first Easter had everyone dressed in mourning clothes, bleak, tear-stained faces, carrying the spices to tend to the body, buried in fear and bereft of hope.

Today, we sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” with the radiant Christ before us. That first Easter, though, there was none of that—there was Mary, silently standing before the empty tomb, weeping into her hands. Jesus did not appear radiant or majestic or powerful—he was so humble, so earthly, she mistook him for the gardener.

Today, we started with a shout of Alleluia—but that first Easter moment began with a whisper: “Mary.”

And in that moment, everything changed—and Mary went from asking “Where is God?” to testifying to everyone: “I have seen the Lord.”

On the surface, all those contrasts seem so dramatic—our Easter experience and the experience of Mary and the disciples seem so out of sync and disconnected. And yet. And yet I’d wager that more than a few of us came to church this morning—even with our Easter finery on the outside—more than a few of us are still wrestling with Mary’s question, with Peter’s despair, with the unnamed disciple’s doubt.

We may look pretty today, we may have our family together, starched and ironed—but the grief and the pain of day to day living are not far from the surface, are they? Death, illness, loss, financial woes, addiction, family tensions—all this and so much more may have been put aside for Easter Sunday, but they will find us again soon enough—come tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon.

We are hopeful that showing up to this church service will lead us to joy and beauty this day, that it will make Jesus alive for us somehow—because much of the time we cast about from day to day wondering, like Mary, where he is. Can you tell me where they have taken him? Please, someone tell us how to get back in touch with Jesus again, because he is lost and we are lost without him.

We go along with the Alleluias and the shining glory this morning, because we want it to be true, we want it to be real—but many of us are still wondering if the empty tomb is just, well, empty—if this whole thing isn’t just plain empty, if it all just amounts to nothing.

empty tomb

I believe we all come here this Easter day looking for the same thing Mary was looking for in that garden that morning, the same thing that she sought inside the empty tomb. We come here looking for Jesus. We are here not because we are convinced of the resurrection, confident and assured in all things—we are here in this place of worship because we need to be convinced of it again. We come not because we’ve found Jesus, but because we are still looking for him. We want to hear, even if just a whisper, our Savior call our name, so that our panicked and doubt-filled “where is God?” might be transformed into “I have seen the Lord.”

My friends, as your pastor, as one who cares for you and loves you, as one who wants nothing more than to provide a splendid Easter service that sends you all out proclaiming “I have seen the Lord,” the reality is that there is only one thing that I can do before you this day.

It is the only thing that Mary could do, the only thing that has kept this Christianity thing going, year after year, Easter after Easter, resurrection after resurrection for two thousand years. I can testify. I can tell you that I too find myself asking “where is Jesus?” Where have they put him? Why have they taken him away? I may stand up before you looking starched and ironed and put together, but I bear the same burdens of doubt and despair that you do. I too wonder sometimes if the empty tomb is just plain empty, and there’s nothing there, nothing here at all.

But when I sit here in this empty sanctuary, late at night or early in the morning, praying at nothing, wringing my hands with despair, every now and then I hear it—quietly, silently, coming from the back of my mind yet somehow beyond me—I hear the Savior whisper my name.

And then I remember—I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord. I stand before you today and proclaim to you that I have seen the Lord, that I believe in the resurrection. I don’t believe in the resurrection because of something that happened 2,000 years ago—I believe in the resurrection because I have seen Jesus today, and he is alive among us.

I have seen lives I thought were over—people whose addiction was so severe that I thought they were lost forever. But Jesus appears to them, calls their name, and they find a way to let go of their addiction and live again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen relationships so estranged, marriages so pain-filled, parents and children so filled with anger and hurt that I thought they were dead—but somehow Jesus shows up, calls out names, and people find a way back to love again, back to life again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen people who have been victims of violence and hate and abuse, people who have every reason to be bitter at God and bitter at the world, hear Jesus call their name and stand strong to proclaim instead that “love wins,” because nothing else but love will set them free to heal. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen tornado survivors, in this congregation and beyond, whose lives have been torn to shreds and scattered across the fields in destruction. Survivors like Louella Akers, who lost all four of her limbs due to a tornado-borne bacteria, then lost her home to foreclosure while she was hospitalized for more than year. She believed her life was over, that she would spend the rest of her days lying in bed, helpless—but Jesus called her name and told her there was more to do. New technology has given her four new robotic limbs, and March2Recovery and New Hope Services gave her a new apartment equipped with everything she needs to adapt and live independently. She started out walking everywhere, but now she can even drive again. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen my former congregation, the Old South Church in Boston, just feet from the finish line of the Boston marathon and last year’s terrible bomb blast, transform an occasion of terror and catastrophe into a witness of hope and new life. They requested people knit scarves in the blue and yellow marathon colors, to be delivered to runners at their annual Blessing of the Athletes service held this morning, the day before the race. Hoping for a few hundred, they received more than 7,000—and they have been out on the street every day since Tuesday passing them out to athletes, to first responders, to survivors, with prayer and tears and so much love, transforming a scene of blood and death into a place of triumph and love. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen St. Luke’s, once left for dead after conflict and betrayal, hear Jesus call our name, challenging us and reminding us that God still has need of us in this place, serving this community—and watched a miracle unfold here, as we let God remake us in a new way—new people, new worship, new ministry, new building—so that now we are alive and we have been resurrected. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

None of these resurrections are simple, or instant, or magical, or easy, or pain-free—coming back from the dead is not for the faint of heart. It demands faith, and trust, and hope, and often a great deal of hard work. But resurrection is possible. The question of “where is God?,” the doubt-filled emptiness of the tomb, the despair of death—those things are real, as real as the cross on which Jesus died. But resurrection is real too. I have seen the Lord, not 2,000 years ago, but right here in our midst, and he is indeed alive, and he is whispering your name, and he is inviting you to be resurrected with him. Because Jesus is alive, you can be too. Whatever it is that is afflicting you and killing you, Jesus can call your name and set you free. Whatever it is that is burying you and entombing you, Jesus can roll away the stone. Whatever keeps you in the darkness of death, Jesus is the light of resurrection. I have seen the Lord, and he is alive. And that means we can be too. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.

Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)

Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.

So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:

In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.

So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”

On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)

As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.

However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.

Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.

B’s grandparents were here visiting for Easter and brought with them a super-cool new tool bench with about two dozen tools, a tool box, plastic nuts and bolts and screws, tool belt, hat and even fake wood for building. B has been thrilled with his new workshop and playing with it all the time.

The grandparents left this morning, after we dropped B off at preschool together.

B came running in the back door at the end of the day: “I have to see if they are gone or if they are still here!”

Aww, I thought, he is looking for his grandparents. Until he exclaimed, “They’re still here!!!” and revved the batteries on the plastic drill.

He had been contemplating all day whether the grandparents were taking the tools back home with them, and he delighted anew in their wonderful gift.

It’s the end of the night on Good Friday, and I am aching and exhausted. Just like I always am on this night. And it just feels right.

Ever since I have been in ministry, the churches I have served have participated in a long walk through the city as part of their Good Friday commemoration, in addition to a traditional solemn service of prayer and passion. On the day of Jesus’ great suffering, we draw close to the places of poverty and suffering in our own community, and pray for the ministries of healing that take place there. The walk is a physically demanding exercise at the end of a full and often sleepless week of preparation for Holy Week services.

It adds an element of physical exhaustion to the typical emotional exhaustion I feel in response to the stories of the Last Supper and the Passion. Preaching and praying and being present in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services leaves me feeling emotionally raw and grief-stricken.

Every Good Friday night I come home and collapse, my spirit wrung out and my feet throbbing and grimy from the city. Not that my suffering should be compared to Christ’s suffering, but I feel like it’s just right for this day, like the experience somehow puts me in touch with the mind and hearts of the disciples that loved Jesus so long ago. I can’t imagine spending the day in a spa, or eating a luxurious meal, or anything of the sort. This is just the way it should be. I guess that’s why I’m in the business I’m in.

Tomorrow, like always, I will wake up only slightly more rested and journey to church to help decorate the sanctuary for Easter, then work on finishing my Easter sermon, still feeling the rawness and the exhaustion of it all. But that’s how it should be.

I love waking up on Easter morning dragging my feet and just waiting for it all to be over, then discovering when the last hymn is sung and the benediction offered on the morning service that I wish we could do it all over again that afternoon. It’s like I discover the power of God’s resurrection and new life all over again.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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