A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 24, 2011.

Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:1-10 

Printed on the side of a bag of peanuts given out on an airline were these words:  “Instructions – Open Packet, Eat Nuts.” Take a moment and let that settle in. I think all of us understand those warnings aren’t meant to protect us, they’re meant to protect the company from all the stupid things we might do with their product. But they’re not alone. Lest you think I’m picking on this one snack company, their competitor had on their packaging, “Warning: Contains Nuts.”

These dull warnings are more common than we think. Nytol, the sleeping aid has on its box, “Warning: May Cause Drowsiness.” The plastic wrapper on a hotel shower cap reads, “Fits One Head.” Sears advises this about its hair dryers: “Do Not Use While Sleeping.” The tag on a new iron reminds us, “Do Not Iron Clothes on Body.”[1]

These are all mysteries, of course. You’re likely too normal to consider them seriously despite the dire warnings they offer. Life is full of mysteries and sometimes we struggle with our chief task in life to make sense out of those mysteries. So it seems the temptation of the church is to reduce the large mysteries of faith by dismissing them or ignoring them or pretending they don’t matter. Journalist Anneli Rufus once wrote, “discussing the mystical deflates it like air escaping a balloon.”

Today is a day dedicated to one of the most profound mysteries of faith: The resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. I suppose we’re not just a little intimidated by death because we’re in denial of it. We don’t like to even think about our mortality, much less the end of life. Maybe you would prefer we simplify the mysteries by mindlessly skipping over the big questions, dancing around them like crazy Christians celebrating Jesus’ resurrection without letting its meaning sink in where we live and where we try to keep the big questions quiet. The meaning of Easter and our hopefulness about the empty tomb are with us strongly today.

Reuel Howe helped shape the field of pastoral psychology for several generations, shaping the thinking and practice of pastoral counseling as it was growing up and being accepted as necessary in the preparation of ministers. Howe tells of visiting with an old friend who was nearing death.  Howe’s old friend was fully aware of his condition and said calmly to Reuel, “You know, I am amazed at how all this is working out. I had always wondered what it was going to be like to die, but lo and behold, it is not all that unusual. Death has turned out to be an old acquaintance in different garb.”

He went on to add, “For years now, I have undergone experiences like this. From my earliest days, I learned to let go of some things I had in order to get the things I did not have. This is what I did the day I started out on a new career. It turns out I have died a thousand deaths across the years, and in all of this, I have learned something:  Every exit is also an entrance! You never leave one place without being given another. There is always new life on the other side of the door, and this is my faith as far as death is concerned. I have walked this way before. Death is an exit, to be sure, but at the same time, it is also an entrance.”[2]

Friends, if you’re looking for the big theme of today’s Easter message, it is this:  There’s life beyond the door of death. We can’t see it, but if we pay attention to Jesus as he leads us to Jerusalem where he faced a trial, and endured the injustice of suffering. Jesus walked with resolve (some would say with confidence) to face all this with a sense of knowing what we’re fearful of facing. If we’re paying attention to Jesus, we can move through life with a confidence tempered by God’s promises that all our exits are entrances to larger things.

I look over you the members of this good church and recognize how many times we’ve stood together around the graves of those of our members who’ve died or perhaps it’s been one of your close family members, a mother or a father, or a grandfather or grandmother. We’ve stood there side-by-side and loved one another in our moments of grief. We’ve stood together in the shadowed valley saying the words of faith to help us get through the moment.

There’s a point in any consideration about death and what is beyond the doorway of death we must concede is speculation, opinion, or simply a matter of one’s faith. Life, or rather death, doesn’t give us much to work with to say much more than that, does it?

Humorist Garrison Keillor believes we don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior; instead, we go to look at mysteries. It’s the mysteries of our existence that keep us up at night. It’s what we marvel about but don’t know whether we can put the weight of our lives on those same mysteries. Even as believers in God whether we admit it or not, we’re afraid to let the great mysteries come too close to how we think or believe. Maybe that’s the great irony of all persons of faith that in our hearts we’re all little existentialists.

Keillor tells of the time he went to a funeral for someone he had known very well and an extraordinary thing happened at the cemetery. The priest stood at the customary position at the head of the casket, containing the mortal remains of the deceased as it stood resting on the frame just over the hole in the ground it would fill for all time. The priest said prayers over the coffin meant to comfort the family … prayers meant to add meaning to the moment. Then the priest turned to those present and said to the people gathered there in the cold, “Whoever in our group may be next – it may be the youngest, the oldest, the most infirm, or it may be the one who is strongest in health – we do not know how it will be, but whoever’s time is next, may God grant you a happy and peaceful death.” What struck Keillor was that some people were offended by those remarks (as some may be this morning) but he thought it was an example of the church in a rare moment of truth telling.

But this theme may be the centralizing idea that permeates the whole of Scripture and once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. There is a truth larger than death and mortality and the Bible speaks right into the heart of that idea in historical events, in sermons and prayers, in confession, metaphors and analogies from Genesis to Revelation. We stand this morning in faithful expectation that while we do not fully understand this mystery we are here to testify to an idea that gives our lives meaning.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist that mapped the processes we go through in grief was not known as a particularly religious woman. But on this topic of our innate fear of the mystery of what’s beyond the door of death, she said, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow.”[3]

Easter is a bittersweet celebration … it’s a sorrow to be sure, but it’s a sorrow swallowed up by a greater joy. Both are necessary in order for faith to be honest and real. There is still the mystery that must be faced whenever we stand in front of the tomb and allow the moment to sink in that death is real and the weight of sorrow lingers in all of us. The mystery still stands and some of us tremble in the face of it no matter how strong our faith.

Some of us take heart in the wisdom of Paul who claimed, “we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just I also have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

Easter faith is to wonder what it means for Christ to have conquered death and for us to stand in solidarity with the Jesus who came forth Lazarus-like. In the end, maybe a simple word of hope is all that’s needed on this day. Maybe a parable about life beyond the doorway of life and death will help us understand what I mean …

A blessed event occurred that twin brothers were conceived. As the weeks passed, the brothers grew. The more they became aware of themselves and their surroundings, the more their joy increased. “Tell me now, isn’t it great that we were conceived?” Isn’t it wonderful to be alive?” they shared with one another. The twins explored their world and when they found the cord that connected them to their mother and nourished them, they sang for joy:  “How great is the love of our mother, who shares her own life with us!”

As the weeks went by and weeks turned into months, they suddenly noticed one day how much they had changed. “What’s this supposed to mean?” asked the one.

“This means,” answered the other, “that our stay in this world is going to come to an end.”

“But I don’t want to go,” the first responded. “I would like to stay here forever.”

“We have no other choice,” the other answered, “but perhaps there is a life after birth.”

“How could that be?” responded the first in a dubious tone. “Our umbilical cord is going to be cut, and how can we live without it? Besides, others have left the womb before us, and none of them has ever returned and told us of a life after birth. No, birth is the end.”

So one of the boys began to be deeply worried, and said, “If conception ends with birth, then what’s the meaning of life in the womb? Life has no meaning. Maybe there’s not a Mother behind all this.”

“But she must exist,” protested the other. “Otherwise how would we have gotten here in the first place? And how could we have remained alive?”

“Have you seen our Mother?” asked the first. “Maybe she only lives in our imagination. We have created her in order to make some sense of our own lives.”

Thus the last days in the Mother’s womb were filled with many questions and great anxiety. Finally came the moment of birth. As the twins left the watery world of the womb, the only home they had known, they opened their eyes. They cried. What they saw went beyond anything they could have imagined.[4]

[1] Jud Edwards, The Timber (newsletter), Woodland Baptist Church, San Antonio TX, 11/11/98

[2] From John Claypool, Stages: The Art of Living the Expected, Waco: Word Books, 1977, 87-88

[3] Ananda Shorey, “’On Death and Dying,’ Author Dies at 78,” (AP), Kansas City Star, 8/25/04

[4] M. Eugene Boring, no original source for this parable is known; Boring heard of it in 1999 as part of a German lecture in Göttingen from the lecturer Klaus Berger of Heidelberg who claimed not to be the author; the translation from German to English is by Professor Boring

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