Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter 2013

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
--(1Cor 15:25-26)

One of the interesting things I get to do is to go behind-the-scenes, so to speak, in our local funeral home. I really enjoy all the guys who work over there, and  I notice how much they kind of try to shield the loved ones of someone who’s died from the nitty gritty details. For example, sometimes I’ll do a service for a family without a church home over at the funeral home, and typically it’s an open casket, and the person has been made to look so nice and there might be sentimental objects placed in their hands or what have you. After the service they’ll shoo all the family out of the room and very matter-of-factly close the casket, a process that has a few steps. The first thing they do is crank down the pillow that’s keeping the dead person’s head elevated, the put a little crank into the casket, and wind down the thing so the person’s lying flat. Then they take the little blanket that’s tucked around the person and pull it over their face, and then they close the lid. I don’t mind telling you the first time I saw them do that I was pretty freaked out.  It really
brings you up short with the reality of death. All these lovely customs and the graciousness of the funeral home staff are things that have developed because you know, death freaks us right the heck out.
Those women who went to the tomb were doing the same kind of job as my friends at the funeral home, they were going to embalm the body, lay it out and wrap it in the shroud.  But when they get there, the body is gone. Totally vanished. Instead they find two men in dazzling white asking them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Don’t you remember, he told you this was going to happen.  That he’d die and then three days rise again. The women think, oh, yeah, he did say that, and they run back and tell the rest of the disciples, who dismiss their story as “an idle tale”. Actually the Greek word there translated idle tale is a lot stronger, but I can’t say it in church. Suffice it to say the rest of the disciples don’t believe them. Only Peter goes to check the tomb, to see if what the women said might be true.

And why should they? It’s pretty unbelievable. Even if you take resurrection seriously, it should still boggle your mind. It’s not really something you can take someone else’s word for.  It has to be something you experience, something you know in your own life. And sometimes we find resurrection hard credit, hard to go there, because we don’t even want to get close to death. But you have to go past death to get to resurrection. Like Peter, like the women at the tomb, we have to go to where we think there may be death and emptiness, and look it in the face, before we can begin to get it, begin to understand what God is really doing.

So St. Paul tells us on this Easter morning, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”.  I can’t hear that phrase from Paul without thinking of the Harry Potter, which I really hesitate to mention in Danielle’s presence since she did actually quite literally wrote the book on Christian theology in the Harry Potter series, but those of you who’ve read the books will remember that this quote from St. Paul appears on the grave of Harry’s parents.  And the whole struggle between good and evil, between Harry the good guy and Voldemort the evil villain in the books is really a struggle to come to terms with death. Voldemort  is so afraid of death he goes to all sorts of lengths to try to ensure immortality for himself. He breaks his soul into seven pieces, a black magic that means he needs to murder someone each time, so that he can have a guarantee that he will never die. His whole existence is about seeking immortality. And Harry, the hero, is the one willing to face death, to literally die to save his friends. Harry, of course, is the one who conquers both death and Voldemort in the end.

I wonder if we are not faced with the same kind of choice as Harry, between his way and Voldemort’s way. We can forget this preposterous idea of resurrection, this idle tale, and try to fight off death on our own, or at least keep it at arm’s length, or we can face into it, go to the tomb like Peter, check it out, and see what happens, what God might do.

How do we follow in Peter’s footsteps and go to the empty tomb? Maybe for us that means going to those places that we think might be without hope, without a future, and finding hope and life there. Maybe that means going to those places are where we think that poverty or hunger will have overwhelmed the situation and created despair, where it seems like there is no solution to the problem. But when we do go there, when we go to the El Hogar orphanage in Honduras as many of you are this summer or to serve dinner at the soup kitchen in Waltham as many of you do every Monday, we find hope and creativity and love and God doing things. Maybe those places that feel like tombs to us are the hospital or nursing home, where we think we will find illness and hopelessness, but we find courage and healing and God doing things. Maybe those places are even the funeral home.

I find it necessary to believe in resurrection because otherwise I think I’d give up hope. Hope for the world ever being able to change, to get better. Hope for there ever to be real justice for all, for the hungry to be fed, for all people to be cared for and live up to their full potential. It seems like all our efforts to make these things happen sometimes feel doomed from the beginning. Unless it’s not really totally up to us. Unless a power that can even conquer death is on our side. Unless ours is just to make the first move, to participate, to be agents of something greater than ourselves. If that’s the case, then I do have hope, then I can act. I know this is true because I experience it, I see it again and again, that when we try to act with God and for God, then things happen that nobody would have imagined or believed, then I nod my head and say, yup, there’s that resurrection thing again.

Resurrection is more, so much more, than just a dead person coming back to life. Resurrection is God declaring that our separation from him, our alienation from each other, our fear and obsession with death, are all over, are all overcome by a power that has no equal. That what Jesus says happens, happens. No matter how unlikely or strange or totally unbelievable. He said he was going to rise from the dead, and he did. He says God’s kingdom will come on earth, and it will. He says our sins are forgiven, that we have God’s love, and it’s true.

Resurrection, after all, is not idealistic thing  unconnected to the real world. “It is an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things—it is we ourselves.” (Nancy Claire Pittman in “Feasting on the Word”)
The last enemy to be conquered is death. The one thing humans can’t overcome, that we always in one corner of ourselves have a fear of, is death. But God did overcome it, Jesus rose from the grave. Therefore, something more powerful than us is going on in the world; therefore, we don’t need to fear, therefore, we have hope. “Christ is risen and death has lost its sting. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied, Christ is risen and life is freed.” Amen.

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