Matthew 28:1-11; Acts 10:34-43
— with thanks to and gratitude for the Saturday night sermon writing club —
I invite you this morning into the preacher’s annual dilemma: what to say Easter Sunday morning. Now, on the one hand, it’s easy, “He is risen!” (“He is risen indeed!”) Wasn’t that easy? Now, I know it’s traditional for the congregation to respond with a loud “He is risen indeed!” whenever anyone up here says “He is risen,” but I’m going to ask you to hold off on that through the sermon, because I’m going to say it a good bit, and I want you to think about it a good bit, and then at the end, if that’s what you want to affirm, then I’ll invite you to say it. I’ve actually had professors say “he is risen” is all you need to say Easter Sunday morning. That’s what people expect, and that’s what people need.
But here at Woodbrook, that affirmation fits into the larger conversation of our Lenten/Holy week worship theme, and just as we’ve been acknowledging throughout Lent and Holy Week, that Easter pervades Lent, that the light shines in the darkness, that white stoles can be wrapped together with black stoles even on Good Friday, now it’s time not to shy away from the fact that Lent pervades Easter as well, that the light shines in the darkness, that black stoles can be wrapped together with white stoles even on Easter Sunday.
As much as we long for a pure, unadulterated affirmation—for a celebration characterized only by joy—for the ultimate triumph—the ultimate vindication of love, the fact of the matter is that Ed Ruth just buried Shirley and he’s not expecting a resurrection and neither are we. Not one like we read about in our Scripture texts.
There are those among us who struggle so bravely against the demons of depression and stress and old angers that keep them firmly in their grasp, and those folks didn’t wake up this morning to find those demons vanquished for them. We have people living with a disease in their bodies that turns their own cells against them. There’s the crushing ever-presence of the grief of those for whom beloved presence has become painful absence who live surrounded by reminders of what was. And there are others who live with a persistent and debilitating fear, still others with a paralyzing loneliness. And y’all are still living with those realities, aren’t you? We have folks whose lives overwhelm them. We have people who feel invisible. We have those who know the intimate betrayal of loved ones, and we have those who have had to redefine normal in light of change they didn’t seek or want. And saying “He is risen”—believing “He is risen” doesn’t take away any of those hardest parts of living.
And yet, here we are, somehow, expectant. Within all that we don’t expect, we are, nonetheless, expectant—of something to transform our experience. Something to transform our living. Something to transform our world. Something to give us a truth bigger than our experience—bigger than our fears and griefs. Something we have a deep sense of needing. Something to sustain our hope in—something else—something other—something more true.
One of my preacher friends, on our weekly Saturday night Facebook exchange spoke for all of us saying, “Oh preacher friends, I am somehow unable to put words to the sermon. Every Easter I feel this way: functionally unable to come up with something adequate. WHY??? I confess to all of you, my pastors, that I actually googled ‘best Easter sermon stories’. Pray for me.”
There’s a rhetorical strategy known as the argument from lesser to greater. It goes something like this: last night at the Easter vigil, Greg was talking about taking a piece of a diseased oak from a home on Regester and a piece of sugar maple that a storm knocked over up at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center up near Philadelphia, and creating beautiful turned bowls from them. That’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
And another preacher friend remembered the movie Castaway. “The one where Tom Hanks [stranded on an island after a plane crash] says he tried to kill himself and that didn’t work so he just kept breathing, and then one day this ‘sail’ washed up on the beach that made it possible for him to leave the island, to [go] back home, where he found that his wife had married another man. It was that crushing grief all over again. And yet he seemed to have learned something from being on that island. He just kept breathing. And right there at the end of the movie he meets that sassy redheaded artist with a twinkle in her eye, and just before the fade to black you see the hint of a hopeful smile on his face, as if this might be the beginning of something beautiful.” That’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
And we’re surrounded this time of year by the gorgeous colors of spring—lush greens, vibrant pinks and luscious reds, deep purples, splashes of lavender, bright yellows. we’re surrounded by trees budding and flowers blooming—gardens are growing—seeds sprouting. And if you listen carefully, you can hear that small, defiantly assertive cheeping of baby birds. That’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
And let me confess to you that I wondered if there would need to be the resurrection of a little girl this morning, because she was frustrating enough that I wasn’t sure she would survive yesterday. But to see her asleep in her bed last night was to know only the love that absorbs even the greatest of frustrations … at least until the next great frustration! And that’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
There are some among us who have worked for reconciliation and more among us who have worked for forgiveness, and from a sick relationship have worked toward something healthier. And that’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
Another pastor friend wrote in, “There is a really simple pattern that turns a simple pillow case into the cutest little sun dresses you have ever seen. The statistics are saying that after the earthquake in Haiti, the birth rate was three times higher than normal—mostly because of the abuse of young girls in the tent cities. Studies have found that the girls that wear dresses are less likely to be targeted by predators—seems to be a symbol that the girl is cared for/has someone caring for her… Tomorrow, the choir rails, communion table, and pulpit [will be] covered with 177 pillowcase dresses…. Without that, I would have nothing, but that’s about the best symbol of resurrection I’ve had in a long time.” Service and ministry—that’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?
And as much as I sometimes worry about our children growing up in this world of greed-shaped priorities, of shortsighted, selfish, one ideology-oriented leaders—this world of soundbytes and lies—of thoughtlessness and violence and violence justified, there is also my deep and abiding hope. And hope is a resurrection word. And so is prayer. And so is love. That’s a kind of resurrection we experience on a regular basis: love of family, love of friends, love of family of faith, love of God.
One pastor was wondering, in fact, about using the line, “Love doesn’t follow the rules” throughout his sermon as a refrain to talk about Jesus’ living and Jesus’ loving—to explain his relationships and actions and decisions. And because love wouldn’t follow the rules, Jesus was put to death. “The religious authorities said no to Jesus, and put him to death, but God said yes, and raised him to life. I know it’s not supposed to work like that. Dead bodies aren’t supposed to come back to life again. But you know how it is: Love doesn’t always follow the rules.” There’s a lesser to greater progression in that too, isn’t there? Love breaks this rule and that one … until it breaks the biggest rule there is.
It’s called the argument from the lesser to the greater because all these things we name a kind-of resurrection, well, they’re not—not really. Not like what we read about in our texts today. They’re qualitatively different. Because we can’t take the affirmation “He is risen” and wrap it into a good story—find a good illustration. Because we don’t have any. We don’t have any. What we have are but pale imitations at best. We see through a glass dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). It’s the argument from lesser to greater because all we have is the lesser. The greater (“He is risen”) is not within our realm of experience. But we do have what we have. And if we deem all that we’ve noted as our experience, as important as it is, as the lesser, doesn’t that indicate some greater truth, deeper, more profound to inform it all?
Do we say, in other words, that we have the experiences we do—those experiences of hope and prayer and love—those experiences of a kind-of resurrection—we have the experiences we do because he is risen? Do we say that the kind-of resurrections we experience exist because that’s who God is? Because that’s the only way God knew to create and it’s the only way God knows to relate? Because it’s God’s commitment to God’s own being that undergirds and pervades creation? We do. It’s not conclusive. But we do.
And so the fact that we keep breathing … keep hoping … keep praying … keep loving …. the fact that we try and love each other through the worst of it … create something new and wonderful out of something broken and diseased … the fact that somehow, in the midst of the worst that life can throw our way, we begin to experience some of the best, we believe that’s because there is truth to the affirmation: “He is risen.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Another pastor friend wrote “I make it a point almost every Easter to talk about those of us who come in celebrating, but also those of us who are here because we need someone else to believe for us on this day.” Even on this day. Especially on this day.
Yet another pastor checked in last night: “I remember thinking that it would be so great to preach on Easter! Silly boy! The expectations are too great to be managed. People come wanting to hear the story, and be wowed and we so much want to share the good news of everything that this means and why we have literally dedicated our lives to this endeavor and everything we say just falls so short of what we know we should say! I want to sell tires!!! But I am convinced that somewhere in the midst of Googled Easter sermons and dresses for girls in Haiti and the reminder that love doesn’t follow the rules, somewhere in the midst of all this Easter will happen. Because it really doesn’t depend on us. Thanks be to God.”
You see, I believe, whatever else it is, you are the resurrection: the prayers you offer on behalf of others, the hope you represent for each other and others, the love you show each other and others. You are the resurrection. Whatever bigger truth there is (and I do believe—I do believe that there is a so much bigger truth)—but whatever that bigger, transcendent truth is, you are the resurrection I experience on a consistent basis. And somehow in the sum of all those so-called lesser arguments—those kind-of resurrections, you are more—you are greater—you are God’s yes resounding in our world. You are God’s unfolding way in the world.
Paul said if the resurrection isn’t true, it’s all a big joke. What he actually wrote is: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and you faith is in vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile …” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17). And that’s true. If God’s story does not continue to unfold in the lives of those committed to God’s way—if you are not the resurrection, then it is, just a big joke—no matter what the bigger truth might be. If Jesus rose from the dead only to be let down by his own followers … what a joke of a tragedy that would be!
Another pastor friend posted this: “Best advice I ever received from a seminary professor: ‘Tell ’em what you know. Don’t tell ’em what you DON’T know.’ She was talking about writing comprehensive exams, but it’s my preaching mantra, too. I don’t know much. It’ll be pretty short, and heavy on love and community.”
Well, here’s what I know. Here’s what I know clearly if dimly: you are the resurrection—for me, for each other, and for our world. And here’s what I know dimly if clearly: all this is true because he is risen. Because that’s who God is. And I know love and community—the profound meaning of a hug—a call—the ministry of presence—reconciliation and forgiveness—177 pillowcase dresses—a community of friends and preachers on line—hope, prayer, and love—sometimes just breathing—bright yellow spring flowers in worship … and through the dim glass, I know, shines the greater truth—the truth beyond our fear and our pain and our loss—the truth beyond even death.
And though we don’t know how to put words to it—can’t grasp it, the truth for which there is, in fact, no other story, for which we can find no other illustration, it grasps us—wraps itself around us. And it embraces both Shirley and Ed. And I know that on Good Friday (on Good Friday), we affirmed together a mystery: that Shirley Ruth now knows what it means for death to be swallowed up in victory. And I know that Shirley also now knows that the best of what she experienced, as bright as it was in her life, she had always seen but dimly, and she now sees face to face. I know this truth of God, that is God, grasps us—God wraps God’s own self around us. God embraces each of us in our struggles with depression and disease and stress and fear and grief. God embraces you, and God claims our stories—and we become translucent to the greatest truth shining through the dim truths we know in the brightest ways.
The testimony of Easter is not that the tomb was empty. There were plenty who knew that for whom it made absolutely no difference, but the testimony of Easter is that the story they tried to end goes on: the translucent story we tell—full of kind-of resurrections, the truest story we can sometimes only hear others tell, the living story we help each other kind-of live into, God’s story we struggle to incarnate—the word we labor to give flesh to, the unbelievable story inspired, informed, and sustained by the Easter affirmation we make …. Now here it is. If you believe it, then say it like you mean it—say it like you know it deep down—say it like you need it!: “He is risen.” He is risen indeed!