CLICK HERE to listen to this sermon.
Spring lays her hands firmly on our shoulders. Never mind that there is much in our lives that is still very wrong, at least the weather is cooperating again. Such is the place of Easter in our lives. It’s not so much the religious significance of the holiday as it is the hope of the season. Spring is the ticket to the big game of hope.
I remember the story of the little Unitarian girl who was attending a Lutheran pre-school. The teacher asked her little class what the holiday of Easter was all about. One little boy raised his hand and “Isn’t that the day we have fireworks?” “No” replied the teacher “that is the fourth of July.” Another boy raised his hand “Isn’t Easter when we eat turkey?” “No” again said the teacher “that is Thanksgiving” Growing more impatient, she heard from two other children, about Christmas and Halloween. Finally the UU girl raises her hand, “I know” she says “Easter is when Jesus died on the cross, and he was placed in the tomb, and on the third day the stone was rolled away, and he emerged and if he saw his shadow there would be six more weeks of winter.”
All around town today, at this very hour you will hear people talk about the reason for the season; the Christian reason for the season, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s an important message, and one I will speak about this morning but let us begin by remembering that Easter is a great deal more. Easter is an ancient holiday pre-dating the Christian story by almost a thousand years. Easter or the Festival of Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, is a fertility holiday celebrating the return of life to the earth. And all these so called silly symbols of Easter go far beyond commercial trappings. The eggs which are children are gathering up even as we speak are an ancient Greek symbol of fertility. They are hidden in the Anglo-Saxon tradition to remind us that new life must be found and cherished. The bunnies – well we all know what bunnies do – but more than the obvious, rabbits were, for the ancient Celts, spiritual messengers, leading the priests and priestesses to magic circles and trees of the forest. But the bunnies were also troublemakers, much like the coyote of the Southwest Native peoples, and could easily lead you on a wild hare race to nowhere. It was part of the fun of spring. Some of you who are more chronologically gifted we remember the Jimmy Stewart movie “Harvey” about the imaginary giant rabbit. Jimmy Stewart was sure he saw a giant rabbit who was advising him on how to live his life. Spring is truly a mental condition. The ham which some of us will eat today is an ancient pagan symbol of posterity. Some years, as perhaps in the time of Jesus, Easter shares the calendar with the Jewish Festival of Passover; commemorating the Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt when the plague of God passed over the doorways of the Jewish homes marked with the blood of the lamb. Lamb, as a traditional Easter food, has more to do with this sacrificial meaning than with the new life a lamb is thought to represent. It was about the third century when the early Christian church overlaid the death and resurrection story on a spring fertility holiday that was already quite popular.
Jesus has risen! Is the Christian proclamation on this day. Easter is the primary story in much of the Christian church and since what we do here is tell stories, I want to draw out special meaning from this the most important story in the Christian Church. This morning, I want you to lay aside your own skepticism as to the factual truth of this event and journey with me into the powerful metaphors this story has to offer. The march of Jesus into Jerusalem, the show down at the temple, the last supper, his betrayal, his arrest and his trial are all powerful symbols of our own lives. I ponder the brutal crucifixion and those who stayed by his side (all of the women if you remember), I think of his cry of anguish and the death. I think about the tomb he was laid in, and the huge stone that was placed over the entrance. And how on the third day the stone was rolled away and Jesus was gone. Risen to God, they said,
To feel the power of the story, we have to look beyond our own skepticism and the literalism so many claims. Did it happen this way? No, although I bemused by the archaeologists who uncovered three caskets bearing the names Mary, Joseph and Jesus and there were no bones in the Jesus box. Then again, a lot of Jewish families were named Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
[The scripture reads: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two…There were also women looking from afar, among them Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and Salome who…had followed him.. and also many other women who came up with him…And when evening came since it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath…Pilate granted the body to Joseph of Arimathea…and taking him down, wrapped him in linen and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of rock and a great stone was rolled over the door…And when the Sabbath was past…they went to the tomb when the sun had risen and said one to the other “who will roll away the stone?”…and looking up they saw the stone was rolled back …and entering the tomb they saw a young man….dressed in white…and he said unto them “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here…” (Mark 15-16)]
To understand these words you have to understand not only the time in which they were written but the form of story they take. These passages, like much of the Gospels are a Jewish Midrash. Midrash is a way of interpreting legend to reinforce other teachings. Jesus, the man, did live and did amazing things and spoke a timeless and loving message. But his life and death are reinforcements of earlier Jewish teachings. That Jesus died a gruesome death on the cross is no small matter. Not because he had failed, but because he reminds us of the human frailty of all life, and more importantly, he reminded his earlier Jewish followers of another “suffering servant for God”; the prophet Isaiah. The death and resurrection story, as John Shelby Spong and many other scholars have shown is a replay of the death and message of the prophet Isaiah who died five hundred years earlier. Isiah too came to bring the people a redemptive message of love, he too, spoke of loving thy enemy and turning from the obsession of rituals and laws to the care of each other, and he too died an common death. It is in that same tradition that Jesus is laid in a tomb, an eternal grave. The fact of the matter is that Jesus was probably not laid in any kind of marked grave at all, much less a tomb. Crucified criminals were taken down and tossed into a common grave, as we might imagine from Mary Magdalene’s lamentations in the gospel of John when she says “they have taken my lord and I do not know where they have laid him”. (Just a little aside here in light of the reinterpretation of Mary Magdalene in the Da Vinci Code: there is compelling evidence that Mary Magdalene may have been the real ‘beloved disciple’ and in fact may have been Jesus’ wife. The fact that she survived thousands of years of patriarchy to be the woman who stayed through his death and lamented the loss of her ‘lord’ a Jewish woman’s common reference to her husband)
The story of the tomb, far from being a Christian event to glorify a death was probably a Jewish take on a very old story. “The messiah has risen” wrote the disciples, the one promised to lead the Jews out of bondage. Only then did they realize his leadership was spiritual not physical. Ponder that my friends, its important “Spiritual Not Physical” The death, the tomb, the stone and the empty grave are metaphors of a great truth in life. They speak of the unmistakable suffering we all feel, the hope for a better tomorrow, and the spirit that carries us onward despite the odds. Resurrections happen to all of us.
What would it take for any of us to experience a resurrection? “Life” observed an old friend of mine “is the tomb”. We are surrounded by finitude. There is only so much time to fill, only so much money to spend, the people we love die or they go away and our days are, more often than not, filled with sorrows punctuated by happiness. The Buddha who said, “life is attachment, and with that comes sorrow.” What would it take to roll away that great stone of our troubles, and feel the sunshine on our faces once again?
Life can only come from death. One depends on the other. Only from the renewed earth do tulips rise to a warming sun, only from the ashes does the phoenix rise, only from the tomb does Jesus walk. Only from death comes life, physical or otherwise. Think about those new directions that your life took after some failing in another; the death of the loved one, a divorce, losing your job. The good news is this: Each of has an Easter awaiting. It’s not reserved just for the holy, or even the courageous. Each one of us has the power of resurrection, right here and right now. Today, one of you is feeling the pain of a separation, today one of you is struggling with the demons of addiction, today one of you is feeling numb after seasons of meaningless labor, today, more than a few of us are feeling the chill of winter’s sorrows. We want to feel spring but it’s so hard!
What stands in our way? Stones. Big stones. Stones of doubt, control, and fear. One of us must face a life of new choices but feels powerless to move. The stone of fear. A marriage seems stuck and while others have suggested how to get it going again we resist. The stone of control. We feel anger at a loved one for an almost unspeakable hurt. We know we need to forgive but how? The stone of anger. We need to make a decision about our future and soon, but what if the path we are considering is the wrong one? The stone of doubt.
I have no illusions here, my friends, I have been through some of these troubles. These stones are not easy to roll away from the tomb of our lives. There is a lot more to resurrection than daffodils and bunny rabbits. This can easily be the most difficult work you will ever face. But you can do it! I know that God is within us and around us always and know that we can roll away those stones and walk again into the light.
How? With trust and hope. Of all the characters in the Christian Easter story I am heartened most by the hope and the trust that the women had. It was the women, the ones Jesus himself had declared, “the least among you” who stayed to witness a new beginning. They had trust and hope.
So it is with any of us. We will rise again from our struggles to a new day with trust and hope. Trust is what underlies our hope. So it is there that it must begin. Resurrections are only possible when we begin with the ones we love. When couples struggle in a relationship their ONLY salvation lies in trusting again. These can be big stones; doubt that the person will not hurt us again, fear that we will be hurt again, and our desire to control the relationship so that we won’t be hurt again.
Trust is the leap into love that says “it’s going to be o.k. to open up again even if the worst does happen.” Trust says “whatever happens, it will all right”. When Jesus gathered his disciples he asked them for that same trust; “Take of this bread my body and eat of it. And know that I am in you always.” Trust rolls away the stones of fear and control.
It is the depth of our struggle that gives us hope as long as we can trust that it will get better. From death, new life. But how many people the world over this Easter morning, American families, Syrian families, Belgian families,
Resurrection doesn’t mean freedom from life’s struggles but a renewed willingness to live through those struggles. One old friend used to say “It’s a great old life as long as you don’t weaken.” But you know what? It’s a great life even if you do weaken. Because rolling away the stone has more to do with openness than strength. The women who kept watch over Jesus didn’t roll away that stone but they believed in a new life. And their faith set him free. “He is not here,” said the angel, “he has risen”. To new life, and New Hope.
Norman was a big man. He worked six days a week. With four daughters to support he had to. Days he worked as an auto mechanic and nights he pumped gas. Norman was full of life. His feet would be running as soon as they hit the floor, 5 AM rain or shine. Kate, his wife, loved Norman with all her heart and wanted to give him one great gift – a son. Oh, Norman loved his girls but he was guy’s guy and a boy was what he wanted, to do guy things, although he would never breathe a word of that to his daughters. So Kate and Norman decided to give it one last try. When Ben was born Norman was ecstatic. But when the doctors told them that Ben had Downs Syndrome, Norman fell. Hard.
He lost his will to work. Kate had to push him out of bed in the morning. They fought. He watched as his dreams of Little League games faded away. They stopped going to church. He started drinking. Kate said “Isn’t this bad enough but now you want to go to hell too” He just looked at her and said, “I am in hell.” She got really mad. She left the house, slamming the door so hard she thought the roof would cave in, maybe it had. She slammed the car door too. But just as she was about to start the car, she thought to herself “this is nonsense, so I go to church and pray and have Jesus feel sorry for me, so what? I need to get back in there.” She walked towards the door and looked through the glass. Norman was crying. For the first time in years. She went inside and held that big man in her arms as he cried, a lifetime of tears. “We need someone to help us with this, Norman” She thought of the priest but then thought better of that. She whispered the next name that popped into her head, their doctor. Turned out Kate was right. The doctor talked to Norman the next day man to man, hombre to hombre. “Norman” he said, “I want you to understand what your son will become. I want you to spend some time volunteering at the State Hospital.” Norman flinched but agreed. That next week he gave up one afternoon to play with these boys. Boys his son would be like someday. It was really hard at first; the stones of dreams and expectations were big over the door of his life. The more time he spent with them the more he saw they were still boys. After a few months, he asked the hospital if he could start a Little League for the kids. They quickly agreed, soon the league was formed, soon after that other hospitals were playing against them. Soon other sports were started. Kate and the girls got involved and life was whole again. At first Norman would wince when people would describe his team as special. He soon learned to be proud: “You’re dam right we’re special” he would say. Recalling that resurrection years later, Norman said, “It was when I said that that I knew I had crossed over to the sunny side of the street.” (Adapted from Robert Coles’ The Call to Service, 1994)
Easter reminds us that the stones can be rolled away. Easter reminds us that spring follows winter. Light follows dark and even today, when it seems cold we can remember that with faith all life is possible. We learn, again, that just beyond the stones of our struggles lies a new life of grace and giving, a creative power that liberates us from tomb of our winter to the light of day that whispers, Hallelujah, life rises once again. Amen.