Easter Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir, April 5, 2015
There are moments in life that resonate with energy and meaning. Some are personal like the moment you know when you fell in love. Others are historical. If I say “Selma” or “July 4, 1776” you know what events I’m talking about. Think with me, what are other examples of personal or great events that grab us and will not let go, and keep speaking to us throughout our lives.
The Civil War resonates for many Americans, and more than 50,000 people gather annually to re-fight battles, firing muskets and cannons and holding slave auctions to remind us of the history. It is the great wound in American history that will not go away. I walked on the battlefield of Gettysburg and stood on Culp’s Hill between the lines, where the Culp brothers fought and died that day, one fighting for the North and the other for the South, and I wondered if one shot the other, and I wept at the thought.
My first solo pastorate was an abolitionist church formed in 1837. An abolitionist speaker at the First Presbyterian Church of Poughkeepsie, NY was dragged from the pulpit and beaten in alley, so a group of 12 lay men, began meeting in secret, in a loft they called the Upper Room, and they formed the First Congregational Church with an anti-slavery clause in their founding by-laws. When I preached there, I was conscious that Rev. James Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, had preached there after serving as a Colonel of a black regiment. If my courage ever failed me in preaching I remembered that history, and if I didn’t, I knew there was an old Deacon who would not hesitate to bring it up.
My Father told me the story of going to Gettysburg with his Uncle Lloyd and they were looking down on the wide, grassy hill where thousands of Confederate soldiers lost their lives during Pickett’s charge, and out of the blue, his Uncle says, “I was here. This is where the Iowa regiment stood, and he described the scenes of battle unfolding and pointed as he spoke. Dad later got out books and maps and found out that my Uncle was exactly write, and he quizzed Lloyd to see if he had read something or studied ahead, and Lloyd laughed and said, “I don’t read books.” I don’t know how to explain such things, Lloyd was a little weird and scary to me as child, but sometimes things connect across time and space and it’s not at all linear and logical-it’s a great mystery.
In Christian theology, we also speak of Holy Week, the Last Supper, Crucifixion of Jesus and the Resurrection of Christ as an axial moment, the Christian Gettysburg, is the turning point of history against sin, death and evil. In a way, we are re-enactors, every communion Sunday, sharing bread and cup, we remember. From the outside, we may look much like the Civil War enthusiasts, who enjoy growing long beards and collecting historical relics, doing things the old way. It’s a fine hobby, but can you really make meaning from reenacting the past, fighting bloodless mock battles? I am suspicious some Southern reenactors want to keep the battle alive, hoping the Confederacy can rise again. Some Christians act like they want the same thing, a world where it is OK to exploit other people, who are not like us. But many people see all Christians as weirdo-hobbyists, blue or gray, whether Southern Baptist fundamentalists or United Church of Christ progressives, reenacting our own war.
Someone recently told me that they went to church with their spouse, and they liked the community, agreed with the ideals of love, justice and inclusion, but drew the line at attending Lent and everything through Easter. “It was too much to believe in, that dreadful cross and resurrection myth, who can take that seriously?” I feel awkward in those moments, like the guy at the party with the heavy beard, blue suit, and smells like black powder. I’m one of those weird hobby people who experience the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as focal parts of my being. To many people I am like a Trekky who wasted my summer learning to speak Klingon. As some family members have said to my wife, “Todd seem like such a smart guy, so how can he believe all this stuff and be a pastor?”
I’m totally fine being that guy. Yes, I am a Christian reenactor. I loved preaching in James Beecher’s pulpit, and Jonathon Edwards too. After 25 years of ministry, I can recite wedding and funeral liturgy in my sleep. My times of feeling fully alive have been reciting Psalm 46 on 9/11 waiting with church members to see if their loved ones were coming home on the next commuter train. I have probably served communion 300 times, and I love breaking the bread and handing it to people, bread of life, cup of blessing, and if I keel over someday after saying those words, be happy for me.
Here is why I am a Christian Re-enactor, who will always show up in full garb to play my role in the great Holy Week struggle. Participating in the re-enactment helps me re-imagine my life and the future of the world. On Maundy Thursday, I am reminded of the great sadness that goes with betrayal, false friends and unjust accusations. As the candles go out one by one, I find strength and wisdom to deal with those situations in my life. When Jesus later forgives Peter for denying him three times, I find grace for the times that I fall short. I have found the strength to face divorce, my failures in parenting, and my fears of death in this reenactment.
On Good Friday, as I survey the wondrous cross, I am mindful of the times that humanity does its worst, warfare, cruelty, a disregard for the poor. It gives me strength to be in solidarity with those who suffer, because Jesus shared our common lot and calls me to not separate myself in fear of suffering. The cross keeps me from disillusionment (you can only be disillusioned if you had illusions to begin with!) I know how the world is, so I don’t despair if my party loses the election, or at anything Fox News says. There is always going to be a Herod to deal with.
When Martin Luther King and the marchers faced the hostilities at the bridge in Selma, they keenly felt Moses with them, and they were re-enacting the crossing of the Red Sea. To claim that Moses didn’t really do that and it is all a myth misses the whole point. Living it again through the ritual of the faith gives us the strength to re-imagine life and challenge the Pharaohs of our age.
I live from my burning bush moments, I’m challenged by the grace of the prodigal son story, and to hand out bread and cup and say that Jesus is the vine and you are the branches, abide in his love and he will abide in you. Scripture helps me re-image the world.
Easter hallelujahs teach me to expect and watch for moments of transformation. The Berlin Wall fell, Apartheid ended. I have failed at love and found love again. And I trust that the Spirit will move as God is out ahead of us. So every year I will re-enact the old, old stories, to evoke the great and wondrous mystery of faith. God with us, God for us, God ahead of us, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. The world is re-imagined! Alleluia!