Easter Sermon, March 27, 2016
Rev. Todd Weir
Preaching on Easter Sunday is like March Madness. You don’t have understand or care about men’s college basketball to relate. Here’s the story. Every year the multi-million dollar basketball factories like Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State compete with each other to win a national championship and make even more money. In the first round of 64 teams, they play schools like Valparaiso, Stephen F. Austin and Middle Tennessee State. These games are usually a massacre, as soon-to-be pro athletes crush a smaller state school or liberal arts college.
But every year, a Valparaiso puts up a struggle and hangs around till the end, and at the last second of the game, an English Literature major, a senior who will probably be working at a Geico call center in the Fall, heaves the ball just past the fingertips of the 7-foot giant. As the ball rotates through the air, the buzzer sounds, this shot will determine the game. Thousands of eyes and millions of dollars follow the ball. The ball hammers against the rim and bounces high in the air and Duke fans raise their arms in the air and prepare to celebrate, but before they can form words, the gravity pulls the ball back down, improbably, right through the center of the net. Unspoken celebrations are ripped from the Blue Devils throats and Valpo players fall to the floor and convulse in a big pile. And somewhere in the background Dick Vitale is screaming “Oh Yeah, Baby. Unbelievable!” Unbelievable indeed!
What does this have to do with Easter? Easter is what the church is all about, our best celebration, our March Madness. But is the church Duke or Valpo in this story? The church often celebrates Easter like a basketball powerhouse, the music proclaims Christ’s victory over sin and death, probably the only time we use the word “victory” all year. We attempt to make Easter soar with a certainty of faith, we have the best game plan for life, God is with us, so unleash the organ, and cover everything with flowers, and dress in your new spring outfit, make sure the halftime cheerleader dance team is ready. (Wait, that’s basketball. We are not doing that, you just get me in the black robe!)
I’m not convinced we have the kind of certainty of faith and sense of victory that traditional Easter liturgies proclaim, where we are encouraged to shout out, “He is Risen indeed!” (Shall we start the “wave”?) Excessive certainty of faith troubles me, it lead to hubris, arrogance, “We have the truth and you don’t.” the slipperiest of slopes towards bigotry and hatred. Its not easy to pivot from Holy Week, from refugee art exhibit in Lyman Hall, and remembering the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, to then celebrating God’s mighty act of resurrection at Easter. Because in the real world this week, my team is not winning. From bombings in Brussels and Ankara; to political rallies that look like something out of the 1930s in Germany and Italy, to the dramatic shifts in the planetary environment unleashing everything from the Zicka virus, to the 10 plagues of Egypt. We may need an ark, but all we are getting is proposals for border walls and water-boarding. In the Global March Madness, the starting five of compassion, peace, justice, reconciliation and forgiveness are defeated by halftime, and they win the sportsmanship trophies, not championships.
But here is the thing about March Madness. Every year 346 schools field a basketball team and do it all over again. 282 of those teams will not get invited to the tournament and 345 will not be champions, so why do they do it? Because hope springs eternal…because people love the game…they value the hard work and teamwork…and we love to cheer for people doing their best and giving it their all together…and sometimes, against all odds, Valpo and Middle Tennessee State improbably win. So people keep on practicing, sweating, enduring sprained ankles and setbacks, for the love of doing it. Nobody says, “We aren’t going to have a team this year and Duke will probably win anyway.” They know their why, and they give it their all. And they believe in the game no matter who is ranked number one right now. What if we treated all of life like this, giving our all despite the improbabilities of outcome?
What I like about Luke’s Gospel is that he captures the improbability, he does not rush the story of the resurrection and turn it into a self-help book. Some spiritual gurus say if you just send positive energy out into the world it will all come back to you even greater. I’m all for positive energy, but it is not enough for life’s crisis. Real transformation happens when we face into pain of loss and defeat, when we made poor choices, or we took a risk and it didn’t turn out as expected, when we face death and the reality of suffering in the world. God can be in the good vibrations, but real change is more likely when God is with us in the tough stuff, and we discover real love and true justice.
So here is what happens at the tomb from Luke’s perspective. The story should be over. A group of women- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and a few other nameless women go to do the final thankless chores that go with death. Any of you who have dealt with a death of a relative know that it is always more complicated to settle the affairs of their estate that you imagined. So too here, as the tomb is already open and they can’t find the body. Now what? In an improbable moment, angels break into the scene and ask, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is Risen!” Now I don’t know what you think angels should be like, but I did not expect them to be so sarcastic. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” From 2000 years of distance we expect good news and hallelujahs, but here among the first responders to the Jesus disaster, there is frustration, perplexity and fear.
So they run to the experts. They tell the disciples, Jesus’s dream team, what they have seen and heard, and what they get is apathy and cynicism. The disciples answer for the status quo, “Resurrection is not the way it works, don’t you know that the two things you can count on is death and taxes. Stop the idle talk. Only one of the disciples, Peter, even bothers to visit the tomb and check the story out.
The disciples are case studies for what happens when we only read the headlines and look at the statistics, looking at what is happening and forgetting the why, the vision, the love of the game. I’m am so over worrying about the statistical decline of church attendance. What we really need is to be in touch with our deepest “why?” Even scientists are starting to ask to church to live out its calling and stir a spiritual awakening:
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I though that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy…and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation…and we scientists don’t know how to do that. (Gus Speth, Environmental lawyer and former UN Development Director.)
Just two weeks ago at our Vision session Sharon Moulton, who is a strong environmental activist, quoted the Pope and said what we really need to combat global warming is to ignite awe and wonder.
Awe and wonder are not just about seeing more sunrises and rainbows. I love the sunrise, the rosy fingered dawn, and I’ll stay up and watch the eclipse, and eagerly await daffodils pushing up. Beauty is part of my faith, but that just gets you in the doorway of the awesome works of God.
The deeper wonder is in the tenacity to face into adversity and survive and love and give of self. That drama is all around us. I saw a falcon swoop down to catch a squirrel in the park, and at the last second, the squirrel escaped the talons, zig-zaging madly into the woods as the falcon wings beat to give chase. And soon after the same squirrel was happily chasing it playmate in circles up and down a tree trunk, with the pure joy of the chase. I’m not afraid of any stinking falcon. Wonder!
I came upon a young doe one early morning and unlike most deer she did not run. I became aware of her little newborn, lying hidden in the tall grass, and there she stood rail thin, and what could she have done if I had tried to attack? But there she stood, sniffing the air, small and resolute, trembling yet ready to defend her baby with her life. I was so proud and and in awe of her courage. These animals know their why of existence, as they play and chase and protect the next generation, build nest and fly south and emerge from eggs and cocoons and wombs, it is all a superb wonder.
And so too is the cross and the empty tomb. For Easter week demonstrates the tenacity of God, God’s great desire for humanity to the abundance of God’s great and steadfast love. When we see love emerge for those excluded, and take the consequences of the insiders, a love strong enough to forgive instead of hate, a love that calls evil and injustice into account, a love that is great enough to to risk its own life, we can only gaze in awe and wonder. What wondrous love is this? A love that cannot be held by death, as it leaps across time and space and fills our hearts with hope and courage.
The tomb is empty. Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Idle talk!? We search for the wonders of the universe, creating telescopes that look into light years of distance, at star light perhaps already burned out still traveling from the past. We can split the atom, discover that matter is energy, space can fold, time is relative, light is a wave and a particle, great wonders!
But like Peter, will we go and look at the empty tomb? Are we open to being amazed by the steadfast love of God a god who lifts the lowly and does and a new thing on the face of the earth? Madness, right?! Unbelievable! He is Risen!