Sermon preached Easter Sunday April 24, 2011
Text: John 20:1-18
John Updike was a well-respected American writer who died in January 2009. He had a wonderful gift for language. He could use his gift to evoke a smile. Updike was a golfer, and sometimes took up his pen to describe that experience, as in an essay “The Trouble with a Caddie.” Updike was sharing his most recent encounter with a caddie wherein he found out more about the person than he really wanted to know. So, in addition to my golf worries, I had to shoulder concern over his job prospects, his state of fatigue and hangover, his girlfriend’s literary life, and his tip. (Golf Dreams, 42)
He could use his gift to send a shudder through a person as you read the beauty of a sentence. A book, once read, can only be reread; a machine, used, imperceptibly wears out. But she, she came to him always beautifully clean, and unexperienced, and slightly startled, like a morning, and left, at noon, immaculate (The Music School, 83)
In one of his short stories, “Short Easter” Updike writes the story of a man named Fogel, age 62, and an Easter day that seemed out of whack because it happened also to be the beginning of Daylight Savings Time. Yet there was even more to the story than that. Easter had always struck Fogel as a holiday without real punch…. Generally the festivity that should attend the day had fallen rather flat: quarrelsome and embarrassed family church attendances, with nobody quite comfortable in pristine Easter clothes; melancholy egg hunts in some muddy back yard, the smallest child confused and victimitized; headachy brunches where the champagne punch tasted sour and the conversation lagged. (The Afterlife and Other Stories, 95-96)
Fogel’s Easter Sunday is spent, in part, doing yard work, and he is none too excited about that, either. One of his fantasies was a kind of ray gun that, directed at a plant or a tree, would not only kill it, but instantly vaporize it into a fine, fertilizing ash. Agricultural labor, this endless plucking of weeds and replowing of fields, had always seemed to him the essence of futility (102-103). Maybe he would have rather gone to church? Yardwork is followed by a neighborhood brunch which Fogel also considered pointless – the same dozen aging couples, with three widows and a bachelor, that they saw every weekend (103)
Easter disappoints Fogel, still there remains a sense for him that there may be more. The final line of the story reads: Everything seemed still in place, yet something was immensely missing (106).
We are here this morning because we know that something would be missing in our lives if we did not mark this Easter day by coming together for worship. Without Easter, without the word that God raised Jesus, that Christ is risen, our lives would be missing a certain dimension of faith and hope, of wonder and possibility. With Easter we know that life is more than the futility of the same old, same old.
One of the gifts of Easter to us is the gift of hope in the face of death. In I Corinthians 15, Paul writes, “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality…. Thanks be to God , who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The message of Easter is that we, like Jesus, can trust our lives to God even in the face of death. God will receive our lives in love and renew them in love. We are a deeply hopeful people, and we don’t want to miss that today.
But even if we trust that Easter offers us some assurance about life in the face of death, we still risk missing Easter, we risk missing its most potent punch, if we confine the meaning of Easter and the power of Easter to a single day, or if we make it only a message about trusting God in the face of death.
You may know that the Easter resurrection story is not the first resurrection story in the Bible. It is not even the first resurrection story in John’s gospel. In John 11, we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and there is a fascinating exchange in that story between Jesus and Martha. Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responds: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This exchange is a precursor to the raising of Lazarus.
Martha is a little like those of us Christians who put our focus on the message of Christian faith and Easter on life after death. Yes, I know that my brother will be given life again in the future. There is a word in Easter about trusting God with our lives even in death, but the power of the resurrection story is a power for life even now! Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even now, resurrection happens. Even now the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead is at work to bring life and new life into our lives and into our world. Even now, the heavy stones that seem to be in the way of richer, fuller, more abundant life, more meaningful life, are being rolled away.
This past week writer Anne Lamott was interviewed on National Public Radio. She was asked about the meaning of Easter for her and she shared this story. When I was 38, my best friend Pammy died, and we went shopping about two weeks before she died, and she was in a wig and a wheelchair. I was buying a dress for this boyfriend I was trying to impress, and I bought a tighter, shorter dress than I was used to. And I said to her, “do you think this makes my hips look big?” and she said to me, so calmly, “Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.” And I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, and when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that “you don’t have that kind of time,” you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back (National Public Radio, All Things Considered, Monday April 18, 2011)
Easter is about those transforming moments in our lives when we come to realize that life is about presence and authenticity and service, and also, maybe, about getting our sense of humor back. Easter is about knowing that Jesus is resurrection and life, not just at some future time, but here and now. We risk missing Easter if we look for it only in the future.
We also risk missing Easter if we look for it only in the grand gesture, if we look for it only to come with fireworks and bullhorns. We need grand celebrations and wild gratitude from time to time. Dramatic changes are often needed and welcome in individual lives and in the world. Yet we know that after Easter Sunday comes work-a-day Monday. After the dinner comes the dishes. Where is Easter then?
Thursday evening at Ruby’s Pantry I talked with a man I first met when I was in high school. He was well beyond graduation then. He and I were in a Jesus People group. He told me that he was going to be marking his fortieth high school graduation this summer. Then he said, “I thought Jesus would have come back by now.” He is looking for Easter in the grand gesture, but where is Easter in the mean time?
Easter is all around, if we are open to seeing it. Easter is there when children from families who don’t have much ask how they can help our daughter Beth when she goes to Haiti, donate their own pencils, bringing some tooth brushes to help children they will never meet. There is a little bit of Easter there. Though it was only Thursday, Easter was here this past week. I heard one man coming into Ruby’s Pantry say to another – “Hi ________.” And when the person he was talking to looked puzzled, the man continued – “Remember, Denfeld High School twenty-five years ago.” People connecting with old friends, maybe both struggling a bit – there is a little bit of Easter there. Another man that evening said, “we kind of messed up your Holy Thursday worship” and I was able to tell him that we thought this was a great way to mark Holy Thursday – on a night when the church remembers Jesus eating with his friends, we decided to help feed our friends in the community. There is a little bit of Easter when the story of Jesus really changes us, even in that small way, helping us see worship as more than what happens when we sing and pray, as important and necessary as those are.
Then there was this moment that night that sent chills up my spine. While people were waiting for their numbers to be called Thursday night, I was playing some cds recorded by our own Tom King. I got to the end of one cd and there was this beautiful orchestral piece and I was curious about it. I kind of remember hearing it, but it really grabbed my attention at that moment. So I looked at the cd notes – “St. Croix Summer” - Thomas Wayne King, composer; arranged and scored by Carol Donahue; recorded at First United Methodist Church, and among the artists: Nicole Craycraft, Jenna Mattson, Kevin Peterson, Rebecca Peterson, Michael Hintzman, David Craig, Erin Wiig; conducted by Mary Whitlock. I thought how wonderful, how beautiful – people sharing their gifts and talents to make beautiful music which became the worship music for a really unique Holy Thursday service here at First UMC. Gifts shared, beauty created, people fed, things turned a little upside down. There was a little Easter here Thursday night, but we would miss it if we think Easter can only happen in the great and grand and splashy.
So you are here today. You’ve not “missed” Easter, but you still might. If you think of Easter as something that will be over after the ham or turkey or lamb dinner; or if you think of it as something that might only be relevant again in another year, or when your health fails, you might miss Easter, might miss its purpose and power. So as not to miss Easter, ask yourself where you need Easter most in your life today and tomorrow, where you need the presence of the God who is about resurrection, where you need the presence of Jesus who is resurrection and life. Do you need courage to confront your own inner issues, to deal with the wounds within? Do you need the grace to forgive or to be forgiven? Do you need to know that you are loved deeply just as you are? Do you need some faith to keep working to repair a frayed relationship? Do you need hope to keep working for a better world and to struggle against a cynicism which says nothing is going to change? The message of Easter is about a loving God, a living Christ and a lively Spirit. Easter is about faith, hope and love, even now. Easter is about the small moments in our lives that make so much difference. Don’t miss it. Amen.