A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
April 20, 2014
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
This has been one of the most difficult weeks we’ve faced as a community since I’ve been here. In this past week, we’ve faced sickness and death in our own membership … more so than normal in a week’s time. As tough as that’s been, we’ve also faced the terrorist violence of an anti-Semitic white supremacist who attacked the Jewish community last Sunday. He intended to shoot and kill Jews and ended up killing three Christians.
This might explain why putting together an Easter sermon has been so tough. Thoughts of Easter should be painted in pastel colors and on the faces of children whose thoughts are of finding the sweet treasures of the Easter egg. To cast Easter in such somber reality makes it difficult for the day.
We’ve had our challenges this week, haven’t we? It’s been an overwhelming challenge in complexity and impossibility. The weight of the moment is felt when one considers “What does resurrection’s joy have to say to us in the light of such pain?”
But perhaps that’s as it should be, the way that it was, and perhaps what it will always be. Our community has been stunned by a form of terrorism that’s marked other communities but no so close that we’ve had to become so personally involved. Perhaps standing in the shadow of death is what’s needed to properly understand the empty tomb. What do these things mean in light of Easter, when the power of the resurrection should infuse us with hope? How are we to make sense of these things?
Here are the bones of the story: It was dark on Sunday morning and the women came to the tomb. They were among the followers who had been with Jesus since his Galilean days. Then the earth trembled. Then when the angels appeared, the Roman guards began trembling and fainted dead away. Something of a gospel joke we presume: Jesus is alive, but the soldiers of the Empire are as dead men on the ground. The trembling women were greeted by the angels who say, “Do not be afraid.” This is what New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz means when he writes, “Faith is a relationship to God without fear.” The angels keep the conversation going: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come see the place where he lay.” We do not know whether they take a peek, would you? Then the women ran to tell the disciples …
Theologian Ulrich Luz, who wrote 3-volumes and 1700 pages on Matthew’s gospel adds, “It speaks indeed of an action of God that bursts open not only tombs but perhaps even perceptual (tombs) in which we are imprisoned.”
But what we don’t see in the text I read from Acts 10 is how the message of Christ’s resurrection was already at work breaking down the barriers of racism and bigotry. Take these brave words, the first gospel preached by the community of followers, and plug them back into the context in which they were first uttered and you can see the gospel tugging against their biases, racisms, and religious bigotries.
Simon Peter had arrived in Joppa, a sea coast town where the world came together in all its varieties. Boats were coming and going and cargo was being loaded and unloaded. Peter was on the rooftop where he a commanding view of the busy seaport. He could see a ship full of animals being emptied out on the dock.
The way this was done was to take the mainsail down and to use the mast as a sort of crane with the sail as a net to lift the animals hoisting them over the ship’s edge and lowering them down to the dock where handlers would receive the animal for delivery overland.
With this fresh in his mind, Peter fell asleep and had a dream. What Peter saw was a sheet descending filled with all sorts of animals found on the list in Leviticus 11 known to be on the “Do Not Eat” list. And he heard the Voice of God saying, “Peter, rise … kill and eat.”
He awoke hungry but a lifetime of Jewish teaching prompted him to say, “Oh no Lord, I have never in all my life eaten anything that was common and unclean.” The Jews had divided the animal kingdom just as they had the human family. There were creatures they could not touch or eat. It all started back in the day when certain meats were unfit for consumption.
The dream ended when Peter was told to ignore those teachings, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common or unclean.” This was an affirmation of all creation that stood in sharp contrast to Peter’s narrow prejudice. This was an inclusiveness that matched both the attitude of Jesus and the mystery of what had happened at Pentecost.
In truth, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are woven together, inextricable from one another, and we’re often surprised to come to terms with that inseparable relationship. One cannot be fully understood without the other. Both are impossible to know fully without the other.
A friend I’ve known through college and seminary and on to our lives in ministry is now teaching at Boston University in the arena of public faith exploring the realms of power where government and faith communities can hold real dialogue with one another in exploring the common good. Not now preaching regularly, he wrote me this week and summarized the complexities of the day. He raised key issues: “These events don’t make sense, individually or collectively. Hatred, terrorism. Psychiatric problems. Guns, knives, bombs. On top of this, internationally there is Putin in the Ukraine, al Assad in Syria, and the Central African Republic.” Where does one stop? What do we think about Easter when this kind of violence is occurring in our midst?
Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote, “You only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled, so your image of God is no longer just a big projection of your own self-centered wish fulfillment fantasies.”
My good friend Pastor Marcus reminded me this week of a Good Friday sermon preached years ago by peace activist William Sloane Coffin. It was a sermon preached in the face of just these kinds of questions. In that good word, he claimed our challenge is to live an Easter faith in a Good Friday world.
Good Friday needs no explanation because this is the nature of complexity and confusion. Good Friday needs no proving. It is self-evident and shockingly true. Acts of violence and use of coercive force are never in short supply to illustrate what Good Friday is about. Just a few hours after worship had come to an end on Palm Sunday, violent hate took the lives of three innocents in a place called Shalom.
In Anne Lamott’s novel, Crooked Little Heart, Elizabeth is trying to rebuild her life after the tragic accidental death of Andrew, her first husband. She’s since remarried and raising Rosie, her teen-aged daughter. But the work of grief has been buried under the pressing needs of her daughter’s life and she’s not been able to invest herself fully in her second marriage. In honestly, she has not been able to invest herself in much of life. To suppress the grief, she turned to alcohol as a way of handling her depression.
Near the end of the book, Elizabeth begins to come to life, now able to say good-bye to the past in order to live in the present. Her best girlfriend is Rae, a woman who has recently become a Christian. Rae gives Elizabeth some advice:
“I keep trying to do what Wendell Berry said,” Rae tells her.
“What did Wendell Berry say, Rae?”
That line, “practice resurrection,” comes from a poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front.” Berry has written a series of Mad Farmer poems over the years … these are prophetic poems that resemble his prophet predecessor, the Hebrew prophet Amos of Tekoa. Here’s Berry on practicing resurrection:
So, friend, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it …
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias …
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Go with your love to the fields …
As soon as the generals and politicos
Can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it …
That’s our gospel today … to go from here to practice resurrection! There’s nothing shy at all about this response. We are to live fully in God’s thunderous YES! We are to live God’s resounding affirmation of the world and all God’s children who need God’s offer of love and reconciliation.
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 605-607
 Jim Wallace, personal correspondence, 4/17/14
 Marcus McFaul, newsletter column, Crossroads Church, KCMO, 4/17/14
 Anne Lamott, Crooked Little Heart, New York: Pantheon, 1997, 287