Sermon – April 21, 2019 – Easter

He Is Risen!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friends, that is what we have to share today. Jesus Christ, who was dead is alive! In our Easter story today death has receded to the shadows, has conceded his chief role in the crucifixion to now a conquered character slinking away from the scene casting a few last missiles of sorrow and uncertainty over his shoulder from a receding distance.  Good riddance!   Christ is risen! There is no denial of the effect of the cross… But now death is overcome, and Christ is alive! I can detect no invitation for us to parse the moment when the dead man breathed again.   This is not a proposition.  This is not like Martin Luther posting thesis for debate on the door of the Wittenburg Church.  Sometime in the dark morning God brought life out of death, somehow in the face of loss and sorrow, enacted salvation. And that remains between Jesus and the Father. But what happened with Mary is where we can pick up the story and find our part.  Because it’s personal.

Mary has come to the tomb alone with her heart on her sleeve. She was in mouring.  But what she finds compounds her grief as she fears grave robbers have defiled the tomb of her Lord.   Grief is made more bitter by outrage and bewilderment. So, hurting, she turned to her friends, looking for support.  She ran to the disciples to report when she found. They received the crazy news, they ran to the tomb. . .. To form the same opinion—Jesus is gone–then just went home.

But not Mary.  Here’s what Mary believed then. She believed in death, for that what is what had become of Jesus.   She believed that there was enough cruelty and evil afoot in the world that someone would steal his body. She believed in her sorrow and her yearning and her tears.  She believed what she felt and what she saw. And she believed in the gardener, one whom she hoped would help her figure this out.

Mary was sadly and not surprisingly, a mess. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but that is how we come to the empty tomb. Not intellectually.  Not with some abstract formulation, but with the moments and the burdens and the pain and the hopes our own lives.  We come with our hearts.  Because it’s personal.

Last Sunday, I began to relate the account of Palm Sunday during the children’s sermon and one young man interjected, “Aw, pastor we know this story. We’ve heard this one.” Undeterred, I continue to tell the story  . . . . . but his observation has resonated with me all week.

Yes, we have heard the story. We know this story and most of us believe it. Theologian and writer Chris Barnes says, “the question that Easter asks of us is not, do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection? Frankly, he says, that’s not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, do you believe?, But, have you encountered the risen Christ?… We come to the empty tomb as ourselves for good or ill.   We don’t shed our baggage ahead of time; it barges in us and shapes our perceptions and conclusions. What matters then, he says, is encountering the risen Jesus in the particulars of our own messy life… Whatever universal claims we make as Christians must begin in the rich, fertile ground of our own hearts and our own stories. Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday must begin with a willingness to linger in the garden, desolate and alone, listening for the sounds of our own names, spoken in love.”

There is where change came for Mary. What she believed about death, what she believed about sorrow, what she believed about what would happen next, what she believed about that gardener, was changed and transformed when Jesus spoke her name. Mary!   And immediately she knew and immediately all things changed and have never been the same since. “My sheep will know my voice,” said the good Shepherd. Christ spoke her name, knew her and she knew him.   And the resurrection became real in her life and she was able to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!”.

We have come today to hear Christ call our names, or to be reminded that he named us and claimed us in our baptisms. That is a gift that can never be and will never be retracted but we need to hear the story again and again and again so that the resurrection happens for us again and again, too, as we stumble into places where death’s handiwork lingers.  To that young man, that would be my answer. “Yes we know this story in quite well, but we need to hear it again and again and again because life is hard and relationships are difficult and the world can be cruel and evil and so we need to know that we are known and called and loved and belong. And as we promised together at the baptisms of Joshua and Madelyn last night, “You may not understand this all right now, but we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

When we make the proclamation that Christ has triumphed over death, that life emerged from the finality of the tomb, that good news is ours as he calls our name.

Barnes goes on to say,  “for our testimonies to ring true, they must originate in radical, intimate encounter. The question is not, “why should people in general believe?” But rather, “why do you believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

That is the question we come today to ponder. It may not be easy or automatic because it requires the risk of hanging on to hope when all else fails or the evidence is to the contrary or questions loom.

Poet R. S. Thomas suggests this in his poem, “The Answer”:

there have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked in
and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
grave clothes of love’s risen body.

Encountering the resurrected Jesus is it deeply personal experience that is met in an alertness to listening for our name, waiting to hear as we ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.

And while this encounter is personal it is not for you alone. Resurrection makes us vectors of hope and grace, mercy and new life. Like Mary, changed and transformed, we are quick to call the names of those who cannot speak for themselves, bearing the good news to the least of these that Christ knows their names. And if we claim with Mary that we have seen the Lord, then we see this creation through a new lens. It turns our vision towards the places where death haunts, to those broken by betrayal or failure, to the ones too different to belong.  It gives voice to our cry for justice as families are torn apart and children are caged. It is our claim and comfort for those who are suffering or dying. It brings us to the side of the poor and the imprisoned and hungry who, like Mary, weep for good reason.  To these, we bring the resurrection hope.

We know, encountering the risen Christ while personal, is not private because like Mary and the disciples it changes and transforms us.

That’s a lot this morning.  Resurrection is a big deal.  But, finally I would say just this. Don’t try too hard.  Don’t break yourself trying to wrap your mind all around this, stumbling on your own uncertainty.  God has done all the work here. None of us is equipped to battle death to the death. We are simply the target and end of this miraculous love.   God accomplished the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That was the hard stuff.  Now the resurrection works in and through us.  Ours is to simply to open our eyes, tune our ears and follow in faith where the Risen One leads us. . . . so to that end, brothers and sisters, we will continue to tell each other this good news until we make it our own. . . . . .

Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed, alleluia.

Amen