Joining with Christians around the world, the people of Massanutten Presbyterian Church gathered today to bear witness to God’s power to give life. Matthew’s version of the Easter story as told by some children from our congregation served as the scripture text for the sermon I preached. While this is a bit longer than my typical blog post, I do hope that you will be sure to check out the children’s video through the link which follows. Below that is a semblance of the sermon I preached. Blessings this Easter day.
Prayer for Illumination
On that first Easter morning, O God, the women went to the tomb expecting only death, but you surprised them with life. Surprise us now by rolling away any stone which prevents us from hearing and believing your word. Help us to trust in your power to make all things new. Through Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
The story of Easter is ours to tell–from the youngest to the oldest among us. Isn’t that why we want to get the story right?
Sometime when I was a child I was introduced to the cutting edge Christian Education tool of my day. And by cutting edge, I mean just that.
Our Sunday School teachers would try to help us learn a particular story by cutting the passage into a puzzle of sorts, with each strip of paper containing precisely one verse, and no more.
And they would deal out those slips to us with a clear directive: “Put the story back together.”
All of those suppressed educational memories came rushing back to me as I thought about the task Randy had in producing the video we have just watched. About 4 gigabytes of raw footage, an almost endless stream of disconnected verses as smaller children offered shorter lines and older children spoke longer lines. Context was out the door. It was just a jumble of disconnected verses, as if cut apart by my Sunday School teachers from ancient days.
I was a bit worried when Randy sent me a text earlier this week with a simple question: “I have all the video sections cut out. Now I just have to put them in the right order.” Now here was his question: “Do you think anyone would notice if I skipped that step? Would anyone notice if I leave it out of order?”
He was kidding. At least I think he was kidding.
But, as some of you already know, there are folks who keep getting the order wrong in this Easter story, which is how I ended up in a battle of sorts with one of my neighbors in our subdivision.
My battle began about mid-way through Lent when I noticed that someone had put up a yard sign that got on my last nerve. It’s near the entrance to our subdivision–the only entrance, mind you–which meant that I had to pass that sign every time I left the house and every time I returned home. I mentioned it in my sermon last week, and you need to know that it just got worse as the week went on. I almost called in sick for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as I just couldn’t bear seeing that sign again.
Several times each day that sign would taunt me. After all, we were deep in the season of Lent–in those 40 days absent of alleluias in which the frailty and uncertainty of human life take center stage–that season which begins with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return–those 40 days when we walk with Jesus toward his rejection and suffering and death on the Cross.
And yet, right in the middle of that carefully crafted season of reflection and contemplation, someone took their slip of paper with their clipped verse from the Easter story and stuck it on a neon green yard sign out front: “Christ is risen!,” it announced. And I would mutter back, “No he’s not. He’s not even to Jerusalem yet.”
“Christ is risen!” I would see upon my return.
“No he’s not,” I would protest. “He’s riding a donkey and a colt into Jerusalem this very day.”
“Christ is risen!” the sign shouted at me. I swear the font got bigger each time I passed. I think I saw it in all capital letters one day. It about drove me over the edge.
So I started imagining whatI could do.
I had heard about how some political signs disappear from people’s yards under the cover of darkness. Some dark night, I thought to myself, when the clouds cover the moon, I could just sneak down the street and remove that sign. It wouldn’t have been stealing exactly, as I would have put it back today, on Easter morning. Still, it didn’t seem quite right, even for a cause as righteous as this one.
So then I thought about taking a big Sharpie and just adding an asterisk at the end, with an explanatory note: “See next sign for further details.”
I thought I could just make another sign with a proper theological rebuttal. By the time I had continued onto the 59th yard sign, however, I figured nobody would take time to read all of that.
That’s what led to my best idea of all. I could capture it in one sign. It would be placed right beside the “Christ is risen!” sign, and it would offer a simple invitation: Honk once if you think He’s risen. Honk 10 times if you’re trying to mark the Lenten days decently and in order. Wouldn’t that have been fun?
Even one of my children finally joined my side of the battle. She had been a skeptic at first. I knew she was softening a bit when she came home from school one day with a confession: “I sang ‘alleluia’ in chapel at school today. I’m sorry, Daddy, but all the other kids were doing it. Even as I was singing I thought, ‘My Dad would so not like this….'” Can you imagine that? One of my own children singing alleluia during Lent?
She made up for it on Good Friday though. We were driving home from somewhere, and as we approached our subdivision, out of nowhere she announced, “Surely that sign’s not up today! Please tell me they took it down today?!? This is the day we remember he died!”
She was right. Good Friday is the day he died, after all, and the resurrection means nothing if we don’t remember that Easter begins in death.
It’s easy to forget that after 2000 years of Easter celebrations. We enter the sanctuary fully expecting to hear the news, “Christ is risen!” And we are ready with our response, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
But it wasn’t that way the first Easter morning.
Matthew shows Mary Magdalene and the other Mary making their way to the tomb on that first Easter morning. As he tells it, they carry no spices; they aren’t going to prepare a body for burial. No, they simply make their slow journey to the grave where Jesus lay.
And they of all people know that he was dead. They had stood at a distance and watched as Jesus died on the Cross. And they had watched as Jesus’ body was placed in the grave, and they had seen the large stone rolled over the entrance of the tomb, sealing in not only Jesus, but all of their hopes as well.
Not only had Jesus died; everything they believe God was up to in Jesus–all the letting go, all the welcoming, all the forgiving, all the serving, all the loving–everything good and right and just and fair–all of it died with Jesus, and they are just walking to see the place–to see the tomb–where all of that death was.
But something happened they could have never expected. The ground beneath them began to shake, rippling what one preacher describes as “a seismic shock through history and signaled that the fault lines of human history had shifted dramatically toward grace and hope” (Long, 322).
As they made their way to the tomb, they left one world and entered another. They left the old world behind–the world in which power controls and manipulates and death stalks and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the world in which the invasion of death in all its forms is doing its worst. That world is the one in which the dead stay dead and things that are dying keep on dying and begin to fade away.
But when the ground shifted, it marked their move into a new world. I don’t even think they saw the neon green sign announcing the news, “Christ is risen!,” but when they got to the tomb, they saw an angel come down from heaven, roll back the stone and sit on it, his legs dangling off the gravestone as if to show what he thought of death’s attempts to hold back God.
I love that image of the angel sitting unafraid in the place of death. And I love his message even more. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
I guess you should know that I’m not the only pastor who cares about the story being told decently and in order. My friend Chris is just as bad. No, he’s worse.
And since we wait until Easter day to actually have our Easter Egg Hunt, he knows that he is open to all sorts of grief from me because they have theirs on Saturday. Imagine how pleased I was to read the words he shared in his Easter sermon from three years ago on this text. Here’s what he wrote:
Yesterday, the children of the church and the community gathered for what I like to call ‘The First Presbyterian Annual Holy Saturday Easter Egg Hunt.’ (I like to imagine I was responsible for his coming up with that title.)
When I arrived at this church, I had a certain view of Holy Saturday. It is the day Jesus is in the tomb; it is a day that calls for reverence. Not First Presbyterian. The children are out hunting eggs all around the grounds. The cross is draped in black, and right beneath it, a toddler is cracking open a pink egg and eating a piece of chocolate.
I was appalled. This is a day for gravity, for speaking in whispers, respecting the sacredness of the day. This free-for-all eating and drinking and playing seemed bizarre.
I mentioned this to one or two, who wisely patted me on the shoulder as if to say, “That Pastor Chris. He’s got so many odd ideas about things. Bless his heart.”
Last year’s Holy Saturday was the first one with our Memorial Garden, and I went into it nervously. I imagined children playing on the wall, chasing after eggs right in the middle of the circle. I was worried about what people might think. Hunting eggs on Holy Saturday is bad enough, but this would be too much.
I expressed my concern Anne. She just laughed and said, “When I’m buried out there, I think I will like the idea of the children playing above me.” That’s just like Anne; never wants to miss a party, even in death.
Then the day arrived, and I was out there when the children were released to hunt the eggs. Sure enough, right there among the black-draped cross and the Memorial Garden were laughter, joy, and play, as if all the children were joining with the angel seated on the rolled-away stone, singing, “Death, where is your sting?”
I glanced at the wall and saw a lone, unafraid child seated on it, dangling his feet. He could have been reseed in lighting and snow.
I need to get over it. Apparently God has no problem with a party in a cemetery.”
Now, please don’t tell Chris, but maybe I need to get over it too. Maybe God doesn’t mind a neon green sign announcing that Christ is risen showing up right in the middle of Lent.
You see, as much as we want to get the Easter story right, it can never be tamed. I think Rick Lischer, a professor at Duke, is right to say that
the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot ultimately be explained; just practiced–performed: not in a seminar or even a sermon but in people worshiping together, standing to sing ‘Lift High the Cross,’ praying and then rolling up their sleeves and practicing resurrection in their families, communities, institutions, by loving serving, giving…and living, always in hope, not only for personal resurrection but for the ultimate victory of truth, goodness, and grace and love in our lives and in our world.
That’s what Massanutten Cares, our congregation’s day of service and caring, is all about. We will join God’s invasion of resurrection within this community by going out of this sanctuary to bear witness through simple acts of caring that G0d is at work in this world to defeat death in all of its forms.
You know, I really wish we had time to print up some neon green tee shirts to wear as we go. Because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.