St. Paul’s. – Easter Sunday – April 12, 2020
On Easter morning decades ago, one of my all time favorite preachers, William Sloane Coffin said this in an Easter sermon in the chapel at Yale University: Too often, he preached, Easter comes across very sentimentally, like a dessert wafer–airy and sweet. But there’s nothing sentimental about Easter: Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathize with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the Risen One….I don’t see how you can proclaim allegiance to the risen Lord and then allow life once again to lull you to sleep, to smother you in convention, to choke you with success.
That’s William Sloane Coffin on the domesticated Gospel. A Gospel shaped to make you feel better, to achieve more, to increase your productivity, to assure purpose driven success. A domesticated Gospel is one where any hard edges are safely sanded down: edges of sacrifice, edges of discipleship that require investments of time and effort, edges that were formed by God’s call for justice and righteousness, edges of discomfort that come when thinking about the world’s poor and the coronavirus.
Easter with the domesticated Gospel is indeed all about sentimentality, and familiar hymns, and a visit with family, and a nice crowd, and brunch–or a dessert wafer, airy and sweet. The things we cling to on yet another Easter when we find ourselves outside the empty tomb waiting to hear once again of the resurrection.
Mary stood weeping. She had been the first to see the stone rolled away. Convinced that someone had taken the body of Jesus, she ran to tell the others. She remained unconvinced by their empty tomb conversion, unmoved by linen clothes wadded up in a ball. After the two disciples headed home, Mary stayed. She stood weeping outside the tomb. Every now and then she must have bent over to look in to see. To see if the body was still there–to see if this ongoing bad dream would end sometime. Not even the angels could comfort her. I don’t know where they have laid him. Even her first sight of Jesus, her encounter with the one now raised from the dead, even that didn’t convince her. Sir, if you had carried him away, tell me where you have laid him. Mary’s first brush with the Resurrection didn’t seem to shake her from that grief.
That’s when Jesus called her by name. She knew it was him. Teacher, she said in response. And he said to her, Do not hold on to me. Do not grab hold here. Don’t cling to me. Because I have not yet ascended to the Father. One preacher points out that it’s not clear that Mary was even reaching for a hug. She wonders if maybe Jesus heard it in her voice, in what she called him, Rabboni. The preacher suggests that Mary called him by his Friday name, Teacher. But it’s now Sunday. The Day of Resurrection.
Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Who knows what in heaven or on earth Jesus meant by that? It would seem Mary, in some fashion, simply wanted to hold on to the way things were; to her relationship with the Teacher who healed the sick and touched the outcasts and modeled for her and the others what a good and faith-filled life should be like. Mary wanted to stop the weeping and hang on to her world. But resurrection power comes from the hand of God. The victory over the forces of death and darkness comes when this Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in all power and honor and glory. When the heavenly chorus gathered around the throne starts to sing, Hallelujah…For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
Mary wants to cling, but Mary’s world will never be the same. As we talked about on Palm Sunday, the REM song…It’s the end of the world as we know it…. More than shaking off the grief that broke her heart and getting back to normal following the Teacher’s footsteps, yearning for a good and moral life–more than that, the resurrection life is about ushering in the kingdom of God. It’s about toppling the powers and principalities; it’s about life conquering death, forgiveness stomping on hatred, generosity squelching greed, love overtaking success, the first being last, swords being smashed into plowshares, the hungry now pushing away from the table now full, the poor being lifted up while the rich stoop down to help with the lifting. Mary’s world will never be the same because, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, Jesus was on his way back to God and taking the whole world with him.
Easter Sunday! It’s not about Mary’s world, or about your world; it’s about God’s world. Resurrection power is about the mighty act of God. God didn’t just roll away the stone and raise a dead body to life; God raised this Jesus to redeem us and our world and all of creation. God is about the task of shattering every effort at domesticating the gospel message of salvation that comes through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. Stop clinging to an Easter morning that’s airy and sweet–like a dessert wafer. Or, as William Sloan Coffin asked at the very end of that Easter Sermon, Are we going to continue the illusion of a Good Friday world, or start living in the reality of an Easter one?
While I was chaplain at St. Paul’s Episcopal school in Baltimore, we organized a series of trips to Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, some of us were in a group working alongside a construction crew that had been all over the Gulf Coast. The foreman on the crew confessed that he was worn out with the tearing down and the hauling away of debris. He really wanted to shift to rebuilding something. He really had had enough of hauling people’s lives out to the curb. His crew was operating some heavy equipment and lifting pile after pile onto big trucks to be taken away. One pile at the curb, just down from the house we were clearing out, included an old piano. The homeowner told us about this warped, soaked, moldy piano. My grandmother taught my mother to play on that piano. My mother taught me. And I taught my children, she told us with tears running down her cheeks. Now look at it! And then, she asked if they could leave it there. And as the crew moved to the next pile, she sat down and started to play it. Right there at the curb, surrounded by destruction, she sat and made some music. Maybe she was clinging to the way things used to be. Maybe, just maybe, she was searching for the strength to play a new song! She sat down in a Good Friday world, yearning to play for herself and Easter world. An Easter song.
Standing in a Good Friday world and daring to live into an Easter one. Yearning deep down to cling to that which you know, and yet being willing to point to that which God knows is yet to come. The end of the world as we know it. Standing there next to the tomb; the very threshold of death, and boldly announcing, I have seen the Lord. Surrounded, indeed overwhelmed, by the grief and suffering and heartbreak that so mercilessly defines what it means to be human, and yet daring to live as
Easter people who find the strength even at the grave to proclaim, Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. To stand up in a Good Friday world, daring to live into Easter, by begging, \pleading, even demanding, the more excellent way. To live the reality of Easter by singing a new song: Christ has Risen! He has risen indeed! CHILDREN OF GOD! Those who find the courage to stare a Good Friday world right in the face, and ignoring the sentimentality of Easter Lite, they’re bold enough to say to you and to me, to the world, No, there’s another way.
Don’t cling to the world as you want it to be; work for the promised Kingdom that God describes. Don’t cling to the pressures of achievement and the stress of success, work for the promised Kingdom where kindness and humility and gentleness count for more. We see this everyday in the news during this pandemic. Don’t cling to the hatred that resides so deep within, work for the promised Kingdom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, a male or female. Don’t cling to the mentality of winner takes all or that charity begins at home or what’s in it for me, work for the promised Kingdom where you rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep and if one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. Don’t cling to the necessity of violence or the inevitability of a march to war, work for the promised Kingdom where strength comes from those who are weak and security and power and trust come from God alone.
Playing the piano at the curb! Playing music out your window while keeping your safe distance or the many blocks in neighborhoods around the world dancing in the streets at a safe distance.That’s not a bad image for the church at Easter. Among other things we are teaching one generation after another what it means to be an Easter people, what it means to be the children of God!
We are being called to stand at the curb of the world that would just as soon pass us by. Children of God! It’s the Day of Resurrection.! And so, right here at the curb, surrounded by the debris and disease, with more than enough sentimentality to share, confronted day after day by this Good Friday world, God is calling you to live in the reality of Easter on this day.
Resurrection Day…This day, this wondrous, glorious, blessed, fabulous day – this day is the greatest day in the history of the universe and the story of heaven. This is the day in which all the suffering, all the imagination, all the love, all the freedom, all the grief, all the justice, all the hope, all the wonder are combined in a mixing bowl, left behind a huge stone, and like yeast acting on a mixture, burst out, push that stone away because there’s so much life there nothing can keep it in, no one can keep it down, no force in heaven or earth can stop it now.
This is the day. This is the great day. This is the glorious day.
Let us pray:
Jesus our Risen Lord,
Your Easter people gather with joy to celebrate your great victory this day. Whereas we are intimidated by the forces of evil,
the dominance of death,
The pandemic throughout our world
the heartache and sorrow abroad in the world,
you are not.
You went head-to-head with the powers and triumphed.
Therefore, we shout and sing Hallelujah.
In this time of Easter worship,
move us beyond praising you with our songs and music
to praise you with our lives and witness.
Having gathered us by your resurrection miracle,
now send us forth to do your resurrection work in the world.
Give us what we need to be faithful, vibrant agents of Easter.
We thank You, Lord, for re-igniting the flame of hope within us,
for filling our hearts with light and evicting the darkness,
and for giving a new vision of Your glory. Amen.
Go now, as light-bearers to a world in darkness,
Go now, as hope-carriers to a world in despair;
We go in the name of Christ,
in the love of God
and in the power of the Spirit.