He is not here, he is risen: A Sermon for Easter, 2021

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

The traditional Easter acclamation rings hollow in empty churches today. Whatever joy we may feel on this Easter is tempered by the reality of our celebration. Instead of a church packed to the rafters, with most of us dressed in Easter finery; instead of brass, choir, and the voices of hundreds singing “Hail thee, festival day” and “Christ the Lord is risen today” we have soloists, recordings, livestreamed worship. Most of us are sitting at home, on our couches or at a kitchen table dressed in comfortable clothes or even, perhaps pajamas, with a cup of coffee instead of a hymnal in our hands. 

Yet all around us are also signs of new life and reasons for hope. As the pace of vaccinations continues to increase, we can glimpse and begin to plan for life after pandemic, and lockdowns, and isolation. Spring seems to be on its way. The bulbs in our garden are beginning to show flowers, and there’s clump of daffodils blooming in the courtyard garden here at the church. We are also beginning to make plans to return to public worship in the near future.

Still, the waiting continues and many of us remain anxious about the present and the future, even as we chafe at the continued restrictions and limits on our activities. It’s a difficult time, an in-between time, a time of waiting. 

The gospel of Mark was written in just such a time of waiting and anxiety; written for a community struggling to find a way forward in uncertain times, in the midst of violence, and as the old faith that had brought them into being as followers of Jesus was running up against new realities and new challenges.

The challenges facing Mark’s community are symbolized by the gospel’s ending, here, at the empty tomb. Mark leaves us hanging with the sentence: “And the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” 

Now, this is no way to end a gospel, no way to tell the story of Easter and of resurrection. If you go to your bible and look up Mark 16, you will see that in most English bibles the Gospel of Mark doesn’t in fact end with v. 8, but has 8 additional verses, often set off in brackets or with asterisks. For while the earliest and most reliable manuscripts end with verse 8 and the women’s silence and fear, very quickly editors and copyists sought to provide a more suitable ending to the gospel, one that included appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples.

But imagine those women as they came to the tomb. Mark tells us that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, that they had walked with him and the other, the male disciples, learning from, watching him as he healed the sick and cast out demons. Mark says that they had ministered to him along the way. They had heard him proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. They had been among the small group that had staged what we call “the triumphal entry into Jerusalem” casting their coats and tree branches on the road as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, a clear allusion to the Davidic monarchy.

They had watched as he turned over the moneychangers temples and silenced his opponents with clever debating tactics. And then, had they been there at the last supper? Mark doesn’t tell us, but they were at the crucifixion, watching from afar. 

All their hopes were dashed; their grief at the execution of their beloved teacher and friend overwhelming. And like Jesus, they were probably alone. The male disciples, easily distinguished by their Galileean accents were laying low, probably trying to figure out how to escape the city and Roman troops without notice. 

But the women came to the tomb, as women have done for millennia; to grieve, and to once again, minister to their loved one, to prepare his body for burial. It was probably a mourning ritual they had done before for other loved ones, but likely none was done with the grief and despair that accompanied them this morning.

And then, an empty tomb, a man clothed in white telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that they were tell the others and go meet him in Galilee. 

Why wouldn’t they be afraid? The tomb had been robbed of their loved one’s body; they received a strange, incomprehensible message, they were to take the risky journey out of their hiding place in the city and go back to Galilee. 

Mark leaves us hanging with this grief and fear. He leaves us frustrated, unsatisfied. Why did he tell the story this way, why doesn’t he end it on a high note with all of the blockbuster special effects we’ve come to expect?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question, to go back and read through the gospel again, full of mystery and ambiguity, to wonder and imagine what he might want his readers to know about “The good news of Jesus Christ, son of God”—a gospel that begins with certainty and ends here, in fear, terror, amazement, silence.

We are like those women, peering into an empty tomb. We are looking back, in fear, despair, disappointment, and anger. More than a year of disrupted lives, suffering, isolation. Two Easters now observed, I won’t say “celebrated” with live-streamed worship. More than a year since many of you have tasted the body of Christ in the sacrament; a year away from friends, family, the body of Christ gathered in community.

Our yearnings are clear, we can feel them in the marrow of our bones. If not to go back to the way things were in 2019 but an intense desire to return to this place, to public worship, to singing, and fellowship.

You are peering into an empty church as those women peered into an empty tomb. The same message resounds: “He is not here, he is risen!” 

We are being called not to return to the past, but to make our way into the future, to meet Christ, not at the empty tomb or in the empty church, but out there, in Galilee, in the streets and neighborhoods of our city, in the world. We are called to imagine a new church, a new community, inspired by the risen Christ helping to heal and rebuild our city and the lives of our neighbors. 

We are called to meet the risen Christ who is going before us into the future. There we will see him, for he is risen. There we will encounter the risen Christ in the new life and new world that is emerging through his resurrection.

That Christ is risen gives us hope. That Christ is risen reminds us that the powers of evil, Satan and his forces, do not have the last word, will not vanquish. That Christ is risen shows us the possibility and reality of new life, of new creation, of God’s reign breaking into our lives and into our world, making all things new, remaking us, in God’s image.

That Christ is risen  gives us strength and courage to imagine a new world emerging, new community where God’s justice reigns, where prisoners are released, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, where the barriers that divide us crumble. 

That Christ is risen gives us hope and courage to build a new community, to rebuild our neighborhood justly and equitably. We see signs of that already in the recent announcement that the boys and girls club will be our neighbors on Capitol Square, a symbol that this neighborhood belongs to our whole city, not just the few.

May we have the courage and hope to heed the call to go out and meet the Risen Christ where he is; and in our encounters with him, may our hearts burn with love and hope as we are healed and as we work toward the healing of our city and world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Breathed into Resurrection Community: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2018

 

 Are you tired of this weather already? Snow last week, snow forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning, bitter cold. It feels more like February than April, and while we didn’t have a particularly hard winter, this prolonged cold has put me in a rather bad mood, and I’ve got a persistent cough. The daffodil and tulip bulbs that we carefully planted last fall and nursed throughout the winter in the garage that are intended  to go in our window boxes are in full bloom, but they’re in the house, not outside, because it’s just too cold for them. Continue reading

Discipleship and Resurrection: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 2016

 

We are in Easter tide—the fifty days following Easter Sunday that ends on Pentecost. And although Easter is the Church’s commemoration of our very reason for being, for the most part, we don’t take much notice of it, certainly not in our individual spiritual lives. While Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and fasting, there are few, if any devotional traditions surrounding the season of Easter. That’s why, if you’re interested, some young adults in our area, led by Fr. Jonathan Melton, chaplain of St. Francis House UW, put together a devotional for the fifty days of Easter. We might reflect on how our personal spiritual lives might be different if we consciously and attentively focused on the joy of resurrection during these 50 days of Easter—the joy of a Risen Christ, but also our hope for resurrection, for the bringing together of body and soul in new beings, new creations, made alive through Christ, remade in God’s image. Continue reading

Poetry for Easter: Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, 1960.

NT Wright on the Resurrection

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jn 21:16

There is a whole world in that question, a world of invitation and challenge, of the remaking of a human being after disloyalty and disaster, of the refashioning of epistemology itself, the question of how we know things, to correspond to the new ontology, the question of what reality consists of. The reality that is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death.

And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.

NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins, 2008, pp. 72, 75

N.T. Wright on the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit

But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

A garden of grief and resurrection: A Homily for Easter, 2014

Yesterday morning, my wife and I came downtown at about 8:30 am. I was coming to participate in our brief and moving liturgy for Holy Saturday. Corrie was going to participate in one of Madison’s annual rituals: the first Dane County Farmer’s Market of the season. As we were driving, I remarked to Corrie as I was looking at the bare trees and the few signs of new life in people’s yards and gardens, that it was hard to believe it was April 19. After a long, hard winter, it’s still not quite clear that spring has arrived. Perhaps by tomorrow the bulbs will be begin to bloom. But who knows? It might snow, too. Continue reading

Mortals, Can these bones live? A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2014

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

It’s a wonderful passage of scripture, powerfully evocative of resurrection and new life, full of earthy and eerie images. The reading from Ezekiel 37 practically shouts itself out and as a lector, it’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to add one’s own dramatic effects. We imagine ourselves Lawrence Olivier, or Maggie Smith, or Morgan Freeman declaiming it from the stage. Continue reading

Resurrection: It’s not about zombies! A Sermon for Proper 27, Year C

Every Sunday evening these past few weeks, my Twitter feed and facebook page have filled up with messages about a TV show called The Walking Dead. Given that many of those I follow on Twitter are younger and hipper than me, perhaps that’s not surprising. What did surprise me was when an Episcopal bishop I know declared on twitter and facebook that he was settling down this past Sunday night to watch the current episode. In case you don’t know, and I only know thanks to social media, The Walking Dead is something of a cult hit. It’s about a zombie apocalypse. A guy wakes up in his hospital bed and discovers that everyone is either dead or has become a zombie. I watched an episode yesterday so I could talk about it and I’ll admit that I used to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and when I was a teenager I loved the Creature double feature on Saturday late night TV that was hosted by the Ghoul. Our culture, film and tv are awash with tales of the undead, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. We seem to be fascinated by the prospects of life after death, even if we find it hard to believe in it. Continue reading

Resurrection and the Authority of Scripture: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 27, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

The Gospel reading this week is one of the most interesting pericopes in any of the gospels. It offers a view into the world of first-century Judaism and the lively debates that were occurring over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and of the doctrine of the resurrection.

First, a little background. Jesus has come to the end of his lengthy journey to Jerusalem (it began back in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel; for us it began back in June). We’ve jumped over the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple. Luke has returned to Mark’s chronology here and like Mark, he has Jesus teaching in the Temple. As he teaches, he is confronted by various groups of his opponents–Pharisees, for example. They pose questions to him, they are seeking to trap him in some way so they can bring him up on charges.

In this week’s gospel, the group challenging Jesus are the Sadducees. They are aristocratic, well-connected, conservative. It’s likely that they are among the chief beneficiaries of Roman rule. As leaders of the Temple cult, they are also in position to benefit economically from their position. We know relatively little about them; in fact, much of our knowledge derives from what the gospel writers tell us in this incident. They reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. It’s also the case that they believe only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are authoritative. That narrow understanding of scripture helps to explain why they reject the doctrine of the resurrection. It’s very hard to find evidence for that doctrine in the Pentateuch.

They come to Jesus trying to force him to take sides on the resurrection (it’s common belief among the Pharisees, for example). So they use the example of Levirate marriage; the custom that if a man dies without an heir, his brother is obligated to marry the widow and provide an heir.

Jesus doesn’t take the bait (he never does in these confrontations). He points out that life in the age to come is qualitatively different than life in this age–that there is no marriage, or taking in marriage. It’s interesting, though, how he argues against the Sadducees. He quotes from Exodus (one of the books of Torah), to make the case that “God is the God of the living and not the dead.” He appeals to Exodus because the Sadducees consider it authoritative. Had he quoted this week’s reading from Job, or any of the other texts in the Hebrew Bible that seem to imply resurrection, the Sadducees would not have considered it valid because they didn’t think those texts were authoritative.

What makes this text so interesting is that it opens up the internal debate within first-century Judaism over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and over the resurrection. It’s easy for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history through the lens of 2000 years of Christian history and theology and to assume that ideas that are now considered central doctrines were contested in earlier centuries. The resurrection of the dead was a topic of much debate in first-century Judaism for one simple reason. It was an innovation. We can see its origins in Daniel and Ezekiel (remember the dry bones?) but even centuries later, in Jesus’ day, it remained a controversial doctrine.

And so it remains today. I wonder how many “good” Christians really believe that one day their physical body will be raised and reunited with their souls.