March 31st, 2013
It seems to me that any Easter sermon worth its salt will address two important questions. First, what is the resurrection? Second, why did you come to church this morning? These two questions must be creatively intertwined, instead of one emphasized at the other’s expense. I don’t think that anyone came to church to hear a dense lecture on theological doctrine, but neither do you want this holiday to come and go with nothing more profound to reflect upon than Easter eggs. To repeat, the key is to hold these two questions together: what is the resurrection? Why did you come to church? As we move towards an answer, we find ourselves moving with the women to the tomb on that first Easter.
Even across time and space, I think it is relatively easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes. Who among us has not suffered loss, either of a loved one or a dream or a hope? And who has not felt that this loss was unfair and unjust?
No doubt, you have heard the phrase, “Life goes on.” But a more accurate assessment for one who is suffering from deep grief is that death goes on. Read the paper, check the Internet, and you’ll see that the death machine hums from Jesus’ day until ours along seemingly without missing a beat. Crucifixion may have been replaced by lynch mobs and then drones, but the result is eerily the same: the innocent die.
Death goes on at a personal level too. When you have lost a loved one, that person will be dead today, tomorrow, and the day after, next year and for as long as you live. And there’s nothing you can do about the reality of death.
But paradoxically, because there is nothing we can do, therefore we must do something. Anything to keep our minds occupied and fingers moving. And so the women bring costly spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Obviously this had a pragmatic function in a hot climate, but it strikes me that they put the spices on Jesus’ body more for their own mental therapy than as aroma therapy for the dead. They were a community engaged in a ritual for mourning. There is nothing we can do to bring back the dead; but we can do little things together.
When someone dies here at New Dublin, the women of the church host a reception afterwards. We give the best that we have: the best food, laid out on white linen tablecloths with freshly cut flowers arranged in centerpieces. No plastic forks here! We set the table with our best china and silverware. Why go to such a fuss? Why make such an effort? Well, if you have ever seen the grieving faces of the family light up when they take in what has been prepared, then you would know why. But what’s more, making a casserole for someone else can lift our spirits, give us a purpose, and help us deal with the fact that death goes on and on. We may not be able to bring back the dead or even take away the pain; but we can help. They bring the spices. We host a reception. That community of support is part of the answer why you should go to church, on Easter or any other Sunday . . . but don’t forget the other question!
What is the resurrection? In the Presbyterian tradition, a service at a death is not called a funeral; rather it is known as a witness to the resurrection. It is so named because the women witnessed the empty tomb. Then they ran and told the disciples the good news. In a similar way, we cannot grasp the resurrection intellectually; we can only point to our greatest hope, that just as Jesus died and was raised to new life, so will we. Death goes on and there is nothing we can do about it; but we believe that God can do something. We believe that God can do anything and everything! This is resurrection hope: the promise that all things will be made new; that God will act to swallow up death in the victory of life. As we shall shortly sing, “Thine is the glory / Risen conquering Son / Endless is the victory / Thou o’er death hast won.”
In essence, such a sense of hope is all you need to know about the resurrection. It is the only “answer” we need. And maybe I should stop right there . . . but I want to return to that other question, why did you come to church? Part of the answer is that it affords you the opportunity to make friends, to be a part of community, to give and receive grace in little acts at the most important moments of your life.
But I also have a sense that you come to church out of the desire to take something with you, a little light to shine on the path ahead; so that, as death goes on, hope might be rekindled anew, even as we wait for God to make all things new.
So I want to leave you with an image: seeing with resurrection eyes. You cannot control much of what happens; but you can choose how you see the world around you, how you view these events, and so, how you respond. Here’s an illustration of this idea:
The Channel Islands are tiny pieces of land, so named because they are across the English Channel from Great Britain, very close to the northern coast of France. In 1940, Hitler and the Nazi army were cutting through continental Europe like a hot knife through butter, and when France fell, the Channel Islands were next. Though insignificant in size, they loomed large in Hitler’s strategy as the base for which to launch airplanes to bomb England.
For almost five years, these British citizens lived under Nazi occupation. They were completely cut off from the rest of Great Britain, not only in terms of food and medical supplies, but information. One of the first acts of Nazi occupation was to confiscate any communication devices; if an inhabitant of the Channel Islands was caught with even a little radio, he or she would be shipped to a concentration camp.
But, my friends, never underestimate the indomitable human spirit. Despite the risks, many people smuggled radios into their basements, and as a result, some knew about the Allies landing in Normandy and the victory known as D-Day. But here’s the catch: their land was still occupied by the Nazis! So they had to continue to look into the face of death; but with one major difference. They knew that life would begin again. They had good news in their hearts, and this changed the way they saw the world around them.
This is what I mean by “resurrection eyes.” At Easter, we celebrate the belief that, despite all appearances to the contrary, death has been defeated. “Thine is the glory / Risen conquering Son / Endless is the victory / Thou o’er death hast won.” Like the Channel Islands under Nazi occupation, it may seem like the entire world is in the grip of the power of evil. But we know better; we know that life will begin anew. We see the world with resurrection eyes.
So what is the resurrection? Why come to church?
When you see the world with resurrection eyes, you want to sing and share this hope. In a very real sense, every church service is a witness to the resurrection. It is God who resurrects; we who are called to witness. So let us stand and sing of God’s glorious victory over death.