Sermon preached April 12, 2009 Easter Sunday
Texts: I Corinthians 15:1-10; John 20:1-18
It had been a crazy week, an emotional roller coaster from the heights of elation to the depths of depression. Guilt, too, cast a dark shadow over the week – first the guilty verdict rendered by the authorities sentencing Jesus to death, then their own sharply felt guilt over abandoning him, some even denying they ever knew him – their teacher and friend. Since the guilty verdict things had gone from bad to worse. Whatever hope they may have had that the imperial authorities might not be in cahoots with some of the religious authorities was quickly dispelled. Some of the same voices that had been cheering Jesus early in the week seemed all too willing to cry out, “Crucify him” when encouraged to do so. And so he was executed, crucified, a form of execution reserved for runaway slaves or those fomenting insurrection – a brutal form of execution, painful and degrading Often there was nothing left to bury after the birds and the scavenging dogs had their way with the victims of crucifixion. In that way, Jesus was fortunate. He was put in a tomb. Apparently the Roman authorities had seen Jesus as a threat because they sentenced him to die like that. Because they had been a part of his movement, after the crucifixion the disciples tended to speak in hushed tones, to meet, if they met at all, behind closed doors so as not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities. The person they had followed to Jerusalem was dead. The dream he had inspired in them was broken and shattered. The power and might of the political and religious status quo had crushed Jesus and his message about God’s love, about the possibility for new life in God’s love, about the opportunity to turn our lives around, about the possibility for a newer world.
Now it is the first day of the next week, and weird and wild news comes to Peter and another disciple from Mary Magdalene. The stone had been rolled away. Jesus body was missing. At first it is just a puzzle, and it left them sad and confused. But then pieces of the puzzle begin to come together – Mary experiences Jesus alive, calling her name, telling her to share the news with others that Jesus is not missing, He is living.
What did this mean for those disciples? It meant new life. It meant that the pieces of the shattered dream that Jesus had taught and lived could be put back together again, though it would not exactly be the same dream. The dream of God’s kingdom that the disciples imagined did not go through the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, but the new dream of God’s kingdom had to make sense of this. Somehow God’s dream for the world might go through death before new life emerges. The dream is alive again, but it is more complicated, it embraces more of the world, more of life.
And what does this story mean for us, we who have gathered to hear it as Christians have done now for centuries? What do we hear here that makes any difference for our lives? Will we hear the words, sing the songs and return to our homes unchanged, as initially Peter and another disciple did? Or will we wait more profoundly, ponder more deeply, as Mary does? Will we let the risen Jesus call our name?
Often we take this story and leap to talk about Easter and life after death. If Jesus was raised from the dead, so might we be raised and so we hope for a life beyond death. This story, and Christian faith more generally, speak to issues of life beyond death, but I believe the Easter story speaks as powerfully, even more powerfully, about this life, about life after death within this life, about life after our dreams are shattered, about life after our hurts and disappointments, about life after living in the shadow of guilt, about a life of hope in the face of a world which often give us little to hang hope on. Earlier in the Gospel of John, from which the Easter story was read today, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). In another letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul writes “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17) Easter, the story of the resurrection, is about abundant life now. Easter, the story of the resurrection, is about new creation now.
In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau, considering humankind writes, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (111). Thoreau sought something else in life, sought to live differently. I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived. (172) His words resonate over the years. In a 1989 movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Thoreau’s quote serves as a life philosophy for a group of prep school students and the popularity of the movie is evidence that many yearn for a deeper engagement with life, yearn for a life that embraces life, that engages us deeply heart and soul and mind.
That’s what Easter is about – fullness of life, new creation, rolling away the heavy stones that get in the way of life, leaping out of tombs that trap us in a life that is not life. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of life and new life, a God of new creation, a God of the marrow way who wants us to live life fully, live deeply.
The 2009 major league baseball season began this week and in the line-up for the Texas Rangers was outfielder Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is coming off a remarkable 2008 season - .304 batting average, 32 home runs, 130 runs batted in – leading the American League. Enormously talented, Josh Hamilton has not always turned his talent into success. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999 as a high school student, Josh first tried cocaine in 2001 while battling a back injury. It began a winding road for this gifted athlete - numerous cycles of failed drug tests, suspensions, short rehab trips, stretches of sobriety, reinstatement and relapse. When it was at its worst, his addiction included downing a bottle of Crown Royal daily along with crack and cocaine. His addictions used up his nearly four million dollar signing bonus. From 2003 to 2005 he was out of baseball entirely. But after four years of struggle with addiction, Josh Hamilton made it back to baseball and had a phenomenal year last year, and he credits the love of his family and his Christian faith for keeping him clean and sober (Lindy 2009 Baseball Annual). Faith in Jesus Christ has given Josh Hamilton the opportunity to live his life more deeply, to use his gifts to their fullest. It helped him escape the tomb of addiction. It put him on the marrow way.
Brother Roger, the founder of the Christian community at Taize, offers this wonderful prayer in one of his books: Jesus… you want to turn us into people who are fully alive, not lukewarm. It is a prayer that captures the meaning of Easter beautifully. It is a prayer for the marrow way.
Rwanda is a beautiful country haunted by the brutality of its recent past. Fifteen years ago, after the plane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down, the country was plunged into chaos, a chaos of slaughter and brutality. John Rucyahana is an Anglican bishop in Africa and a native of Rwanda. Though he was living in Uganda at the time of the terrible violence, he decided he needed to return to the land of his birth, to preach hope standing on a “pile of bones” as he puts it. He moved back to the country in 1996. In 2001 he opened a boarding school for orphans, a crying need in a country that had lost over one million people. He called the school “Sonrise” because he says, “the Son of God rises into the misery, into our darkness.” Bishop Rucyahana has been involved in prison ministry, reaching out to those who perpetrated violence in 1994, encouraging them to accept responsibility for their actions and turn their lives around. He has established reconciliation villages where victims and perpetrators live together A pastor in one of those villages, when asked how it is possible for perpetrators and victims to live together with some trust says, “They have to learn that life goes on. So instead of dwelling on the past, they embrace the future. And, if their faith is strong, they even embrace the people who killed their children, destroyed their homes and left them traumatized and afraid.” Bishop Rucyahana says about his country, “I think God is using this, the humility, the brokenness, the ashes, to set an example for other countries… If Rwanda can recover from this… other nations can recover.” (Newsweek, April 13, 2009)
This is an Easter parable, a story about the marrow way. Embracing life means dealing realistically with the hurt, pain, and disappointment in life. It means having our eyes fully opened to the brutal facts about human cruelty. It means knowing that human beings can be unkind and insensitive, and that we will experience that unkindness and insensitivity. It is looking at life fully, but not recoiling in fear. It is emerging from the tombs of our hurt and disappointment, ready to engage life again. It is about coming back when the forces of injustice have momentarily triumphed. In his book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, Harold Kushner writes, “broken hearts, like broken legs, hurt but heal and… the scars they leave are testimony to our having had the courage to dream, to love, and to risk being hurt” (130-131). The marrow way is the way of courage to dream, to love and to risk being hurt, because unwillingness to risk that is the way of quiet desperation.
The marrow way, the way opened to us in the Easter story is a way of hope. Joan Chittister, author, teacher, nun, writes about “the task of hope in the face of despair: to find out how much life we can still make with whatever of it we have left.” She continues: The hard thing to come to understand in life is that it is the becoming that counts… but becoming is our most byzantine task. Giving ourselves over to be sculpted can take a lifetime of shifts and gyrations, of aimless orbits and dizzying spins, of near despair and of dogged, intransigent, tenacious hope…. Hope… is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God. Surrendering to the demands of the moment, holding on when holding seems pointless, brings us to the point of personal transformation which is the juncture of maturity and sagacity. (Scarred By Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 110)
In another place Joan Chittister shares a wonderful story about a woman who seems to have gotten what it means to live the marrow way, hopeful and alive. Joan was in her fifties when she met an eighty-one year old woman who impressed her deeply. The eighty-one year old had decided to go on a train trip to San Francisco with three friends. Joan was concerned about this plan, a train trip across the country at 81. “How long are you going to be there?” asked Joan. “Oh, I think about three weeks. After all, I’ve never been there before, and I have no idea of how long it will be before I go again.” Joan reflects: That, I decided then and there, was an icon I would hang on the wall of my mind forever entitled “Live till you die. Nothing else is worthy of life.” There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it. (Living Well, 48-49) The marrow way.
In all these stories, I hear the Easter story – buried and raised, weeping then joy when Christ calls your name, seeing the risen Christ, life transformed, hope renewed, the invitation to live deeply, to suck the marrow out of life rather than live lives of quiet desperation.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. We can move out of the tomb of our destructive, life-denying habits. Forgiveness and freedom are possible. We can walk the marrow way.
Christ is risen. The stone of injustice is rolled back. Justice, peace, reconciliation can emerge, can live again along the marrow way.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. We need not be entombed by our pain, our hurt, our disappointment, our shattered dreams. We are free to walk the marrow way, maybe scarred here and there, but free to walk the way of courage, of dreaming, of hope, of love.
I am going to end this morning with a poem, a poem about Easter, about new life, about new creation, about the marrow way. The poem is by Mary Oliver and is simply entitled, “Prayer” (Evidence, 33)
May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.
Christ is risen. The marrow way is open. Let’s dance. Amen.