Monday, April 21, 2014

The Easter Sermon I Didn't Preach

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I posted this as a FaceBook status update:
"The importance of the empty tomb, I think, is not just that it was empty. It was empty before Jesus' body was placed in it. What matters is that it was emptied. That it had been full of pain, and suffering, and death and yet was then emptied. May the tombs in our own hearts be emptied as well."
A friend commented that she'd love to hear the rest of the sermon.  I've realized, so would I.

It has not been my practice to preach a sermon on Easter Sunday.  (Christmas Eve, too, for that matter.)  For many years I have preferred pageantry, to let the entire service -- words, images, music -- come together as the sermon for the day.

And yet, just this past week I've found myself wondering about what my Easter sermon would be if I were to choose to write one. Yesterday I read John Shore's meditation, "The Kind of God I Want," and Brian McLaren's reflection on, "The Scandal of the Resurrection."  And, of course, I had to stop by my friend James Ishmael Ford's blog, Monkey Mind, to see what he had to say.  ("Love is as Strong as Death.")

I've been told that my first book, Teacher, Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus in a secular age,  put me squarely in the Unitarian Universalist Christian (or Christian Unitarian Universalist) category.  (I suppose my inclusion in Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism underscores that impression.)  I have resisted this label or, perhaps to be more precise, I have not embraced it.  I have wanted to be, simply, a Unitarian Universalist preacher who happened to find meaning in the stories about Jesus.  But I find meaning in the stories of the Buddha, too, and those about the Jewish people found in the Older Testament (as Rabbi David Zaslow likes to call it).  If I could only bring one book with me to the proverbial desert island it would be Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching.  And Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson bring me to awe and wonder beyond words.

And yet ...

And yet, as I wrote in T,G,C, there's something about Jesus.  There's something about the Christian tradition that resonates in my soul.  Not Fred Phelps' Christianity, of course.  Nor the kind that puts pastors on trial for officiating at their children's weddings just because those children happen to be gay.  Not the kind that expects you to check your mind at the door, and close your heart to those who "believe" differently.  But if Marcus Borg's definition of Christianity is right -- "taking seriously what Jesus took seriously" -- then I can get behind that with no problem.  I can get behind that with some gusto, in fact.

So what would I have preached if I'd preached an Easter sermon yesterday?  This isn't the perfectly manicured manuscript I might aim to bring with me to the pulpit, but there are a couple of thoughts I know I'd have liked to dance a bit with.

First, I'm not sure what the big deal about Jesus' resurrection is.  After all, the Gospel of John (chapter 11) tells us that Jesus' raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.  And according to the Gospel of Mark (5:35-43), he'd also raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  And in the Gospel of Matthew (27:51-53) we are told that about the moment that Jesus died on the cross, 
"At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people."
So what's the big deal about God raising Jesus from the dead?  It seems to me that it can't be the act itself -- whether physical, mental, spiritual, or metaphoric -- because the same thing reportedly happened on other occasions as well.  It could be, as McLaren wrote, "It was not simply that a dead man was raised. It was who the raised man was. ... A nonviolent nonconformist who included the outcasts - and therefore became an outcast - was raised."

Jesus of Nazareth -- Yeshua ben Miriam -- was a preacher, a teacher, and a healer who pointed toward a God he said could be trusted.  He said that love was more powerful than any of the emperors, empires, or systems of oppression and control that we humans had ever ... well ... raised up.  He was someone whose message the authorities had tried to dismiss yet he was, we're told, raised up.  Could that be the importance of the story of his resurrection?

And what of that empty tomb?  As I said in the FB update that got this post started, I don't believe that it was its emptiness that matters most.  It's that it had been filled and was now empty that matters.  The hopes and dreams of Jesus' friends and disciples had been placed in that tomb.  The potential of a young "God-intoxicated" man had been placed in that tomb.  The promise of his message had been placed in that tomb along with Jesus' corpse.

It is, I think, so important to remember that according to the stories that have come down to us the community that had gathered around Jesus were not expecting the resurrection.  Yes, they'd been told to expect it, but from the stories it's clear that they didn't.  Hope had been lost.  Dreams had been dashed.  Their despair was real.  It was crushing.  It was final and definitive.

Except that it wasn't.  And whatever else came out of that tomb on that first Easter morning, that community's hope was resurrected.  Its faith was raised up.  Its vision proved more lasting.

That hope, that faith, that vision continue to this day.  They have taken many forms and continue to change, to transform, the evolve in ways every bit as surprising as that initial Sunday morning.  What has been entombed in your life?  And what might roll the stone away?

Pax tecum,