March 27, 2016
St. James’s Episcopal Church
Welcome! We are so glad you are here with is today. Whether this is your first time at St. James’s or you come every Sunday, welcome. We are so glad you are here to celebrate the most joyful day in the Christian year.
There is a 1600-year-old tradition in the church that says every Easter should start with a joke because God played a joke on the Devil Easter morning by raising Jesus from the dead. It’s called the Risus Paschalis – the Easter laugh. So here you go. Have you heard the old story about a priest and a taxi driver who both died and went to heaven? St. Peter was at the Pearly gates waiting for them. ‘Come with me,’ said St. Peter to the taxi driver. The cabbie did as he was told and followed St Peter to a mansion. It had everything you could imagine from a bowling alley and tennis courts to an Olympic size pool. Wow, this is wonderful, thank you,’ said the taxi driver. Next, St. Peter led the priest to an old broken-down shack with a bunk bed and an old black and white TV. Surprised, the priest said, ‘Wait, I think you are a little mixed up. Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a priest, went to church every day, and preached God’s word.’ ‘Yes, that’s true.’ St Peter said, ‘But during your Easter sermons people slept. But, when that cabbie drove his cab, everyone prayed.’
Well, I certainly hope I don’t put you to sleep this Easter. But what I do hope, what every preacher hopes on Easter, is that you will hear the good news of this day in a new way, that the love of God shown to us in the resurrection of Jesus might move you in ways it never has before. Because, no matter who you are or why you are here, this is your day. Maybe you are one of those people who cannot imagine not being in church on Easter – and just about every other Sunday, for that matter. Maybe you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, only gets to church on Christmas and Easter. Maybe you came this morning just to make your spouse happy or your parents happy, or your in-laws happy. Maybe you came for the kids, or to see the beautiful flowers and sing the old familiar hymns. Maybe you are curious about his whole empty tomb, resurrection thing. Whatever the case, the fact that you are here is evidence that God is moving in your life. That’s right, God is moving in your life, whispering in your ear. I hope you will pay attention. So welcome, this day is for you. It is God’s gift to you, and to me. It is God telling us that we are loved so much that not even death has the final word. It is God telling us that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than the grave.
But I am moving too quickly. Let’s back up for a minute. Let’s go to the beginning of our story for today. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Easter morning, she thought she had lost everything she cared about. Mary was frightened and in despair. In fact, all the disciples were frightened and most of them were in hiding. The man they had pledged their lives to, this wonderful teacher and healer named Jesus, who they thought was the promised Messiah, had been arrested, condemned and executed, all in a very short period of time. From their point of view, the world was as it had always been. The powerful always win over the weak and death always has the last word in this life.
Mary, standing in that garden full of grief and sadness, faced the same kind of questions you and I face every time we stand in front of the grave of someone we love, every time we are confronted by death. How do we make sense of our existence when, in spite of all our striving, our dreams, all our triumphs, our lives seem to end in the same place – at the grave? How do we avoid despair when we ponder the ultimate fate of everything and everyone? Woody Allen once said in an interview that there is nothing in this life that doesn’t end in destruction. As a result, nothing in life really has much meaning. In light of this terrible reality, the job of the artist, Allen said, is to help people understand why it’s still worth going on. He admitted that this is a “tough assignment”.
Standing in that garden, Mary knew the pain of destruction and death. What Mary could never have imagined, was that there was an alternative. What Mary could never have imagined, was that the tomb was empty. Indeed, she had no idea what was happening until Jesus spoke her name. But in that one word, in that split second of recognition, Mary knew that God’s love and God’s promises are bigger than suffering, bigger than the grave. Jesus was alive, the grave could not hold him. He was not a ghost, he had not been resuscitated, rather he had risen from the dead, transformed and totally alive. At that moment the world was forever changed and the good news of this day is that those who trust in Jesus are promised that they too will follow their Lord from death into life. Abbott Marc Oraison once said that death is nothing more than the final stage of birth. I like that idea. In this sense, when we die we don’t reach our end, rather, because of Christ, we move from life to life. Death becomes just another event in the ongoing process of living – something one lives through with Christ.
The question this Easter Day is – where are you going to stand in all of this? On which side of the tomb are you going to stake your claim? Is the tomb open and empty, or is it sealed tight? Maybe you don’t have all the answers, maybe you don’t even understand some of the questions, but can you trust the good news of this day enough to build your life on it? If not, where are you going to find your hope? If you are going to stand with Woody Allen, then God bless you. I can’t do it. I’ve been down that road and for me it leads nowhere.
My friends, I know it sometimes seems like we live in a permanent Good Friday world. You can’t open the paper without reading about death and destruction. The tragic events this week in Brussels seem all to common in our world today. But I agree with the Rev. Sam Lloyd when he says that Christians are supposed to live with a kind of defiant joy. Christians are supposed to hold up in the world all that is good and redemptive and life giving because we know this Good Friday world doesn’t have the last word. We are supposed to live with defiant joy because when all is said and done, we know there is a love that cannot be defeated. The same love that rolled away the stone and raised Jesus from the dead. The same love that promises to raise all of us as well. Wendell Berry in one of his poems said that we should be joyful though we have considered all the facts. I like that. I get that. In a poem that describes this kind of defiant joy he writes, “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. … Love someone who does not deserve it. … Ask questions that have no answers. … Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. … Practice resurrection.”
My brothers and sisters, today we come together to proclaim resurrection. We sing “Welcome Happy Morning” and “Hail Thee Festival Day.” In spite of the world around us, we stand together as Christians have for more than 2,000 years and proclaim – Alleluia, Christ is risen! So – Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.