Hancock Church Easter Sunday Sermon  http://youtu.be/K2aFRgxZzkY

Rev. Paul Shupe

Psalm 118:1-2, 18-24 Acts 10:34-43 Luke 24:1-12

March 31, 2013

LUKE 24:1-12

    The Good News of Easter morning according to Luke: the women disciples of Jesus have gone to his tomb to prepare his broken body for burial.  They are astounded to find instead that the tomb is empty but for a messenger who tells them they are wasting their time looking for one who is living among those who are dead.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

“Continuous Discontinuity”

    On Easter morning in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-five, my career as a minister nearly ended before it began.  I was a seminarian then, a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, and for the past year I’d worked at Brookmeade United Church of Christ as Youth Coordinator.  It was a small youth group, just six, but we’d had a great year of fun together, and for Easter weekend, I had a great program planned.  We gathered on Saturday evening, and in a very dramatic way I’d helped them reflect on the events that led to Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion.  We’d stayed up late, keeping vigil.  Then we “slept” on the floor in the fellowship hall.  I’d rousted them up at the dawn’s early light and we’d gone outside to the small meditation garden where we heard the words of the gospel that you just heard, and we gave thanks for the Good News of Easter.  We had breakfast then, in the still chilly morning, hot chocolate and pastry, and then we prepared for the big Easter egg hunt we’d planned for the little children of the church after the main worship service.  We “hid” the eggs, scattering across the church lawn and garden the plastic kind that open up (we put crème-filled chocolate bunnies inside these), and dozens of egg-shaped chocolates wrapped in foil.  Enthusiasm was high.  I was already counting on the praise I would receive from parents grateful for my ministry to their children, the perfect mix of thought-provoking theology and mindless fun.  We went back inside just in time to clean up and get ready for the service.

    It was a full house, as is so often the case on Easter morning, and energy was high.  The little children seemed especially active, no doubt anticipating the big Easter Egg Hunt to come.  Just before the benediction, my group slipped outside to be ready for the kids.  Outside.  In Nashville.  In late April.  Where it was now well over eighty degrees with bright sunshine focusing with laser-like intensity on the chocolate and crème-filled balls of bright and colorful and intensely attractive foil, scattered across the lawn: Easter eggs now become small and fragile chocolate bombs exploding when the children picked them up, and worse, when they began to throw them at one another.  It was a disaster.  Little girls in Easter bonnets and dresses of lace and crinoline, wearing white gloves, now smeared with Hershey’s’ finest.  Little boys in blue blazers and khaki pants discovering that their neckties were perfect for wiping their chocolaty hands.  There wasn’t a happy parent within miles, and their looks could kill, I’d have been in serious need of resurrection myself.

    Afterward, moping through the post-mortem, I focused my irrational anger on the idea of eggs and bunnies.  What had such things to do with Easter anyway?  Luke records no Easter bunny.  And bunnies don’t lay eggs anyway.  Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb and go hunting for eggs in the garden.  What was the point?  Well, I did some research, discovering that bunnies and eggs are symbols from pagan religious traditions, lifted up annually in the spring as signs of fertility and the return of the growing season to the earth.  As Christianity spread, its great spring festival, Easter, became associated with the symbols of the annual rites of spring: eggs and bunnies no longer harbingers of spring, but now the trappings of resurrection and new life.

     Fear not.  This is not an anti-bunny rant.  I am not opposed to the continuous renewal of life that spring represents.  I even have my own pagan ritual to symbolize the coming of spring: it’s called Opening Day, and it happens tomorrow afternoon in the Bronx.  But there is an important point here that we will need to get clear about if we are to understand Easter.

    Spring is wonderful.  The greening of the grass, the warming of the sun, the disappearing of the snow, the lengthening of the days:  all these are delightful in their own right, and they do remind us of mystery and wonder of life on this planet.  And for those of us living in New England, spring is always a revelation.  At the end of our long and brutal winters, it is an amazing thing to shed our coats and scarves and to replace our ski hats with Red Sox caps.  We feel that we have triumphed, that we have come through, that we have endured.  It’s a wonder; and always it comes with an element of surprise.  Suddenly, it’s warm.  Spring is here!

    But listen, spring is an annual event.  It always comes.  It’s as predictable as anything in this world.  Spring is a joyous moment in the continuous flow of life.  It’s a wonder, and it’s a joy, but it is a part of the continuous flow of creation.  Eggs and bunnies are suitable signs of spring, of the continuity of life, the reaffirmation of the fertility and fecundity of God’s creation.

    Continuity is important.  It helps us plan, helps us understand, helps us cope.  Take the women on that first Easter morning.  They were counting on continuity.  Here is what they knew: Jesus, their friend, was dead.  And dead people always remain dead.  So after they die, we tend honorably to the dead body, and we dispose of it, we bury it.  We do this work weeping and sorrowing over all we have lost.  We do this work wailing out of the open wound in our hearts.  We do this work knowing that we will hurt, and then we will heal, and then we will live.  Mourning follows death and healing follows mourning.  Continuity.  It’s as reliable as spring following winter.  The women go to the tomb in expectation of continuity.

    Well, if Easter were no more than a celebration of spring, their expectations would have been met.  Continuity would reign.  Jesus’ body would be there.  They would tend it.  Bury it.  Weep over it.  And then, with God’s help, learn to live with grief so that they didn’t have to cry all the time anymore.  And the anniversary of Jesus’ death would be, like the first robin, another marker of the coming of spring.

    But listen!  Easter is celebrated in the continuity of Spring, but it is not about Spring.  Easter is celebrated annually, but it is not a moment of continuity.  There are no eggs or bunnies at the tomb of Jesus because it’s Easter there, and the continuity of everything has just been shattered.  One who was dead, for once, has not stayed dead.  The body, for once, is not available to be buried.  And the tears of grief and loss become in an instant the uncomprehending blinking at mystery and wonder that is at once exhilarating and frightening.  This is why they weren’t believed at first: their story was discontinuous with everything that everybody knew.  “What do you mean, ‘dead isn’t dead’?  Dead is always dead.”  But then Peter got up, to see for himself.  He ran to the tomb and looked inside.  And then he went home, amazed.  The discontinuity was life giving to Peter.  He was ready to have the continuity of life shattered.

    Remember Peter on Thursday night?  “I’ll die,” he told Jesus, “before I let anyone get their hands on you.”  But a hour or so later, Peter was sound asleep in the Garden while Jesus prayed, and when the mob showed up to grab Jesus, there was Peter, skulking off to the edge of the crowd, in the shadows where there was less light, and he could hide, and when they put Jesus on trial, Peter was outside in the crowd cursing and denying that he even knew who Jesus was.  Remember Peter on Friday?  That’s right, you don’t.  Because he wasn’t there when they nailed Jesus to the cross.  He didn’t even show up.  He was off alone, licking his wounds, or fearing for his life, or beating himself up with shame and embarrassment, no one really knows.  What we do know is that he wasn’t at the cross when it all went down.

Peter hadn’t covered himself in glory.  And if continuity is all that there was to this world, Peter was in deep trouble.  Because we know what follows shame, right?  We know what follows embarrassment, right?  We know what follows denial, right?  Peter had nothing to look forward to but condemnation and shame and derision.  If continuity is all, Peter is dead where he stands.

    But it’s not just springtime for Peter.  It’s Easter: it’s discontinuity day.  And the dead one isn’t dead, but raised up.  And the victory of violence and fear and hatred has proved to be temporary at best.  And the One who embodied love: healing the troubled, forgiving the sinful, accepting the outcast, setting free the captive; this One lives, and love triumphs over all.  The expected continuous flow of shame from failure, of violence from hatred, of grief from death, has been interrupted, the chain has been broken, and love has shown itself to be the most powerful force in all creation, even more so than death itself.  It is discontinuity day.  Christ lives.  And because Christ lives, Peter can too, his failure turned into the prelude to a lifetime of service and love.

    Friend, I do not know what brought you here this morning.  Maybe continuity.  It’s Easter Sunday, so you come to worship.  It’s Easter Sunday, and you expected to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  It’s Easter Sunday, so you got up early and hid the eggs, and made plans for brunch.  It’s Easter Sunday, so you put on your best clothes and came here, hoping you’d hear again that Christ has risen.  If so, that’s good.  Continuity isn’t always a bad thing.

    But listen, because this isn’t merely a lovely spring day.  And it isn’t a day just to do what you usually do.  It’s discontinuity day.  The dead are raised.  The despairing are comforted.  The despised are loved.  The captive are freed.  And you, caught in whatever trap it is that you’ve made for yourself, whether of shame or guilt, or of addiction or bad habit, or of rationalization or denial, or of fear or worry: well, it’s Easter!  And your trap is sprung.  Come, race to the tomb, and find it empty, watch as hate looks for its prize, and finds him in the loving arms of God.  Come, and listen to the Good News: you are free!  Free to love, free to serve, free to care, free to be what you have not yet been.  Put away the bunnies and the eggs of spring and see that it’s Easter and that nothing is as it was.  Christ is risen!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.