Sermon: Easter Sunday 2013

March 31, 2013

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! ) That ancient dialogue is music to my ears and heart. But the first Easter cry of, “Christ is risen!”–which emerged from a group of grief-stricken women–did not receive the same enthusiastic “Christ is risen indeed!” response you just gave. The disciples to whom they proclaimed the news dismissed it as an “idle tale,” impossible to believe. Later, Peter, who has been eaten up with guilt for turning on his friend Jesus earlier in the week, goes to the scene to verify their story, but then, Luke writes, he went home, full of wonder. It was not a festive morning, to be sure; it was filled with questions.

Sometimes I wonder if everything we’ve been taught to believe about Christ’s rising from the dead is, indeed, “an idle tale.” After all, who’s ever heard of someone coming back from the dead? Lurking in the back of my brain is the final question asked in the spiritual “Were You There?” (“Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?”) because the honest answer is, “No I was not there. And neither were you. Nobody was. We don’t know if it took hours and hours, or if happened in a single flash of heavenly light. We don’t know if a host of angels helped Jesus out of his burial shroud, or if he did it all by himself. Not one of the four Gospels describes the actual event of Jesus’ resurrection. All we hear about is what happened before the tomb and what happened after it. Nor is news of Jesus’ resurrection reported by any early Roman historians, though Tacitus does mention his crucifixion. So why are intelligent people gifted by God with brains and reason and sophisticated systems of scientific evidence all around the world saying to one another this morning, “Christ is risen indeed!”?

Let’s remember that the Bible is not a science book or a history book. It is a book of faith. So, whatever questions we have about the facts of the resurrection, if we look at it as one in a long line of stories Luke shares with us about faith, it opens us up to remarkable ideas. Remember how his Gospel begins? I’ll give you a hint: it also involved angels. Back in the very first chapter of his Gospel, Luke opens his story with an angel talking to an old priest, promising him and his elderly, infertile wife a child. Shortly after that, the angel tells a pregnant teenager she is going to bear the child of God, and then visits her fiancé to tell him that it’s OK to marry her, all appearances to the contrary. Nine months later, the angel appears again—this time with many friends—to terrify some shepherds, instructing them to go tell the world that God has arrived in the form of a human baby, and is lying in feed-trough in a barn in Bethlehem.

The most astonishing thing to me about these astonishing stories is that the people involved actually listen to the angels and do what they are asked to do. They don’t argue, they don’t disagree, they don’t laugh it off. They may indeed have thought the angel’s messages were idle tales, but nonetheless, they act. Joseph does marry Mary. Elizabeth does bear a child in her old age. The shepherds do go to the manger. It is mind-boggling, isn’t it?

And I think Luke truly meant for us to ask questions about his Gospel. It’s worth remembering that neither shepherds nor women were considered qualified witnesses in first century Palestine. They were forbidden to give evidence in a courtroom because they were considered too unreliable for their testimonies to be counted as official. My guess is that old men and unmarried pregnant teenagers weren’t high on the list of credible witnesses either. And yet, who does God choose to spread the pivotal stories of our faith? As far as we know, the Angel Gabriel never visited King Herod to announce Jesus’ birth. And as far as we know, neither angels nor the resurrected Jesus ever appeared to Pilate or Caiaphas the High Priest or to Barrabas (though it’s hard to understand how he could resist). Luke seems to be making the case that God’s preferred witnesses tend to be people whose word might considered unreliable: shepherds and women. (Tell that to your friends who don’t believe women can be pastors!)

So what questions does Luke’s Gospel raise for us today? What are we meant to ponder when Luke once again has angels delivering a message to the wrong people? When the women arrive at the empty tomb in today’s Gospel reading, the angels ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The woman had not come to the tomb looking for a living Jesus. They had come to tend to a corpse.

And what about us? What are we doing here this morning? Have you come to hear an idle tale? Or is it possible that in a non-scientific, non-historical way, angels are here again today? How can we, as members and friends of Trinity Lutheran Church, engage with their question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I do not know all of your stories, where you are on your personal faith journeys, what joys and struggles you are experiencing right now. But I invite you to find yourself in today’s Gospel. I’m guessing that some of you find yourself among the women in today’s story, eager to be of service to your Lord, no matter what. You show up where you expect Jesus to be. When you do not encounter him there, you are shocked, but after the angels nudge you, you remember the things you saw Jesus do and heard Jesus say. You recall that God is often at work in unexpected places among unlikely people, so–however improbable the idea of new life might seem, you trust that Jesus is capable of producing it. Maybe you have felt a cold lump in your heart beginning to melt, or have seen signs of rebirth in a barren landscape. If so, give thanks for the springtime of your faith.

But maybe you find yourself among the disciples to whom the women tell their story. You would like to believe some of the impossible things they are saying about an empty tomb and angels, but your heart is too fragile. You are still heavy with the failure and struggles of the recent past. You are still feeling the wounds of Good Friday or the numbness of Holy Saturday. You are not yet able to believe that Christ is risen, or that new life can ever come to you, even if you are willing to concede it might be available to others.

Maybe some of you are among the skeptics who watched Jesus die and thought, “Well, that’s the end of that crazy story.” Maybe you continue to watch innocent people suffering and dying and you doubt that any good can come of tragedy. Perhaps you feel that if there is a God, it isn’t one who is gracious and good. Or maybe you simply don’t believe that there is a God at all, at least not a God who ever has or ever might be interested in or able to influence your life.

The Good News is that wherever we are personally on that spectrum of faith, we are in the story together. The angels in Luke’s Gospel don’t appear to well-adjusted people who are strong in faith and courage. They show up to people in varying stages of dysfunction and confusion. Take heart, Trinity! Together, we can take turns assuring one another that Christ is risen indeed and that the God we worship is not decaying in a tomb in Palestine, but is, in fact, living, breathing, and working in Madison, WI! Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

The angels are singing for us today! Together, we are privileged to share the ancient stories we cherish about life coming out of death, about dry bones coming together again, about God making a way through famine or flood, about second chances! We get to tell our own stories about times we’ve encountered the Living God in our own lives. Our stories may come across like idle tales to those who need their stories to be factual. But to people who cling with our hearts to what we cannot understand with our heads, we can be angels, reminding one another not to look for the living among the dead.

We can nudge each other into action, face our fears and our doubts together. Don’t forget that the angels brought that song to shepherds who felt powerless and overwhelmed, and angels announced the good news of the resurrection to women who were grief-stricken and afraid.

And right now, on this first morning of Jesus’ new life, the angels approach unlikely suspects who have questions on their minds and in their hearts. And they ask the same question they asked the women who came to tend to Jesus’ corpse that first Easter morning: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” The angels remind the women and us–and we must remind one another–not to spend too much time peering into the tomb where something used to be. Instead, we are invited to look for how Christ is active and at work NOW. Christ is on the loose again this Easter, and we get to ask one another not only, “What happened?” but also “What’s happening now?” and “What’s coming next?” We get to bolster up one another for the preposterous, outrageous ways that God is at work in this context, on this morning, and always, finding new ways to bring hope and light!

It is true that Trinity will never again be the congregation it was in1940 or 1960 or 1980. It is true that once your heart is broken, it might be mended, but it can never again be unbroken. It is true that what is ahead may not be what we hope or expect will happen. All those things are true. But it is also true that we are people of the resurrection! We do not look for the living among the dead. We do not spend our lives trying to make things the way they used to be. Instead, with Christ we have been raised to new life, and are part of God’s new creation! Impossible as it sounds, God is calling us to be Easter people, guiding us into ways of doing ministry in ways that may be as surprising and delightful as an empty tomb Easter morning! As we run with the women to tell the others what we have seen and heard, the Kingdom of God expands. As we turn toward hope and faith instead of disbelief and anxiety, the Church becomes re-membered. The Body of Christ becomes alive again!

So listen! Against all odds, the angels have chosen to sing to this particular, weird little group. They tell us that we have been chosen to bear witness to what we have seen and heard. Remember how you have come to know God’s presence alive and well in your own life. Tell someone about this!” The angels are singing, “All that once kept Jesus safely tucked away behind a rock has been cracked wide open today! Jesus is not only in this sanctuary, but out in the streets! Hear the Good News, people of God! In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, new ways of being human together, of being church together, of being witnesses together are emerging.

Let’s not look for the living among the dead. Jesus is proof that love is stronger than death, that hope is stronger than despair, and that faith is stronger than fear. Even if it seems like simply an idle tale, let’s go tell the others! Alleluia! Christ is risen!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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