A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Click here if you’d like to read the scripture.
Hit the play button below to listen along… sorry about the recording. I missed the joke at the beginning (which I got from the Vicar of Dibley) and I wasn’t at the pulpit when it was over so it goes a little long. Still, you get the gist. 🙂
Given that Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day this year, I thought it best to start with a joke. And I didn’t know this until this year because it’s not something they teach in seminary… or, if they do, I missed it. But there is a tradition to start every Easter morning sermon with a joke.
The idea is that God has played a joke, you see, but not on us.
Because Christ defeated death, every Easter morning, the joke is on the Devil – the diabolos, the spirit of division, that which splits us apart.
But people still die, as we know. Death hasn’t really been conquered in the way we think it’s supposed to be. We still live in the midst of enormous pain and suffering. How can we possibly say that death has been defeated once and for all and the world has been redeemed through Christ?
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who is well known for her amazing preaching ability, puts it this way: Christianity is the only religion that confesses a God who suffers. It is not a popular idea, even among Christians. We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we’ve got. What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.
Think about that… “we prefer a God who prevents suffering” How true that statement is. I can’t tell you the number of conversations where someone says, “Well, if there is a God, why does he allow…?” And just fill in the blank.
Why does God allow war? Why does God allow people to be enslaved?
Why does God allow racism, misogyny, abuse, homophobia?
How about global warming, enormous islands of plastic floating in the ocean, toxic drinking water.
Why does God allow poverty?
Why does God allow me to personally suffer… death of a loved one, illness, relationship loss, estrangement, financial problems, or just plain fear.
Why does God allow the violence… never-ending violence.
But Taylor reminds us: God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.
I took a poll of people on Facebook last week. I asked them to tell me how they were disappointed in Jesus. I said, I invite your thoughts on how Jesus is (or would have been, had you been a first century follower of his) a disappointing messiah for you. I said, ignore Christian theology and speak from your humanness.
And, I was heartened to see people respond honestly. People offered all kinds of ways in which they were honestly disappointed in Jesus, in God:
That healing doesn’t look like we need it to look.
That, in all his power and popularity, he wasn’t able to employ anyone.
That he was too political.
That he wasn’t political enough.
That he was unorthodox and too much a radical hippy-type.
That we feel abandoned by his leaving.
That he isn’t intimate enough.
That he didn’t just get up and leave the garden so he was safe from death.
That he died too soon.
That he continues to allow injustice and cruelty.
Of course, we have a laundry list of expectations for God. But, if we learn anything from the story of the Resurrection, we learn that God does not conform to our expectations.
I mean, there was Mary, Mary, and Salome… preparing the herbs and spices to anoint the body of their friend and teacher. They must have been angry and depressed and sad and, resigned. This teacher they had been following, gave them reason to hope after all. But now, he was dead. Their expectation, dead along with their messiah. It felt like God had abandoned them.
And they get there, and nothing was as they expected. Instead of the burden of removing a stone so they can get to the dead body of their friend, there is some young person in white who tells them something that completely freaks them out. So much so that they fled in terror and amazement.
They were told: Don’t be alarmed. The person you seek is not here. He is in Galilee. Go and tell the others.
What a strange thing to have come upon that morning.
But God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain. As Taylor says, It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.
Yes, we still live in the midst of war, and enslavement, racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty, global warming… all of it. The Devil, the spirit of division, is alive and well and we see it every day.
And… God is here with us in the suffering, not forcing human choices, but helping us in the midst of all this so we can find the way through.
We may wish to believe that God abandons us when things get bad, but the God of Life, this incarnate God, never abandons us.
I have proof because I hear the peepers return every spring. The birds find their way back and the earth warms and the sun keeps rising every day.
Death is never the final word. Life finds its way through, sometimes in the most inconvenient of ways.
Because God doesn’t prevent pain. God stays with us in the midst of it.
Finding, with us, the ways to help.
Discovering, with us and through us, the ways to make things brighter and better… not just for us, but for the whole of creation.
Does that mean that we might be uncomfortable? Yes.
That, perhaps, we may be asked to give something up so that all life may continue? Yes.
Because, and here’s the really important part… In giving our life, we receive life. As we give up our expectations… as we give up our disappointments…
As we give up the thing that we hold so precious – our anger, our sorrow, our pain, our fear, our cynicism, our self-judgment, our self-indulgence…
As we give these things up, we receive so much more, more than we would have ever received if our expectations been played out.
We receive life. And that means death is never the final word.
So, like the person in white, sitting there at the edge of the tomb, I say, don’t be alarmed, my friends. In the midst of your pain and suffering, when God helps you find a way back to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy of them… don’t be alarmed that you lose the thing that you held onto.
God is just doing what God always does… giving you new life. Giving you new breath. Giving you Hope.
I say, embrace this new life, grasp this Hope, and run with it. Flee the tomb and go! Run all the way to Galilee, where the world is waiting for the Hope that you bring, for the Love that you are.
Hope is the primary Christian vocation. All Christians have a vocation to be people of Hope, people of Love. This is the core of who we are. The Body of Christ is nothing more than a group of people who are devoted to being Hope in and for the world.
It’s not about what God can vanquish from the world on our behalf. It’s about what God can do through us when things happen to us. That is the joke God plays on the Devil. That the people of God do not succumb to the ways of the world but, instead, we become what we receive – the Body of Christ, broken open for the world.
I say, don’t accept the terms of death the world gives us.
Be healers and justice seekers.
Be people who feed and nourish others. Be climate activists.
Be artists and supporters of artists who tell the powerful truths.
Be helpers. Be friends.
Be change agents in this world.
Be a sanctuary for God’s creation.
Why? Because the God we worship compels us to pull together the shattered fragments the world so often leaves behind and, in doing so we become co-creators with God, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here and now… right close up.
That’s the joke on the Devil. We are the punchline.
The Reign of God is not something that happens when we die. The Reign of God is something we are capable of bringing to life right here and now in this place. As we give our lives over in service to Hope, in service to Love, we are capable of bringing the Reign of God to bear. That is hope.
Ooh Child by the Five Stairsteps
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done.
Someday when our heads are much lighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much brighter
Repeat as your heart desires…