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Sermon for Easter April 16, 2017

Gospel Lesson Luke 24:1-12

Anna V. Copeland. Preaching

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the (women) came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen as he said.”

Most of the questions that matter most to us are extremely simple but nearly impossible to explain. How do I know that you love me? Why am I here? What happens next? How can I know joy? When will there be peace? Can I be forgiven? Will I recover, from this?

         Matters of the faith present particular challenges. How do you explain the Christmas story about an unwed mother and a baby born in a barn to a two year old? What do you say to children about the powers of the world that collided with a man called Jesus two thousand years ago that led to his violent torture and death? This is not the stuff of Disney movies.

         It seems to me that we take our lead from children when talking about such matters. For example, my just turned four-year-old granddaughter Addy Grace recently caught me in a rare moment alone, her two younger brothers napping upstairs. The conversation went like this. “Nana, when will you die?” “Addy, nobody knows when they will die, but I will probably be very old when I die.” “That will be sad”, she said. “Yes, it will be sad. But you will be old too. If you grow up and have children, your children will probably grow up and have children before I die. It will be sad, but it will be all right because we will have loved each other for such a long time.

         “Nana, will I die?” “Yes Addy”, someday you will die. Everything that lives now will someday die. It will be sad, but it will also be o.k. Because we will still remember each other and all the things we did together.”

“Nana, will you always love me.” “Yes Addy, I will always love you.” “Nana, will you always come back to visit me?” “Yes, I will always come back to visit you.” Nana, will you come back to visit me even after you die?”

         Now, I’m a trained professional at this but at that point I was working really hard to stay ahead of the child. I wanted to tell the truth, but I know and so do you that we humans can’t promise how long our story will last or precisely when it will end. We’re all acquainted enough with grief to know that not all of us human creatures will live until we’re really old. Telling a Good News story in a potentially bad news world is never easy.

         When Addy Grace asked me if I would come back to visit her even after I died, I told her the Easter story without saying so. Taking a cue from the Gospel of Luke, I then told her the truth, as I know it. After we die we will be with God and we will all be changed. Like Jesus and the angels at the tomb, there will be nothing left of us but dazzling light. “Addy asked if my hair would be different. I wanted to say, “Oh Child, stick around and my hair will be different next week,” but she was asking something really serious. I told her that we will all be changed, and that although we don't know exactly how we will look, we will be with God and we will be made of light and the world will see us shining.

         The women at the tomb that first Easter morning experienced the dazzling light of the Risen Christ shining through the angels, though they did not recognize what it meant. Not understanding, the women were rightly terrified and dropped to the ground. When they ran to tell the disciples what they had experienced, and they did not believe the women until after they ran to see for themselves. The disciples did not understand what had happened.

They did not know that there would be life after death.

They did not know that Jesus’ death would save them from hopelessness and despair.

They did not know that they would see Jesus again transformed, walking along the road to Emmaus, cooking dinner on the shore for them after a day of fishing, behind closed doors where they would gather to discuss all that had taken place.

“It’s not so hard for us to imagine the women and the disciples blinded by fear and frozen by grief. When our assumptions about the world are shaken to the very core, how do we move forward? Even when it is good news, how can we believe the unbelievable?”

“In Luke, the cross is a tragedy. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ innocence throughout the passion narratives. Jesus had done nothing to merit this cruel, public execution. He was innocent of all charges according to Luke. The cross is a display of imperial arrogance and incompetence. As Jesus is passed from ruler to ruler, the frailty and cruelty of Roman power is laid bare. This is not a system of justice but a broken exercise of power that treads upon the weak and the powerless.” (Eric Barrata) The disciples had felt so hopeful that God was doing a new thing through Jesus, and then so helpless and crushed when it looked as if those dreams of a better world were irredeemably shattered.

Thankfully Gods’ story ends not with death as we humans at first think, but with salvation from every disappointment, desolation and despair. When we are changed by our experience of Easter through faith, then our story ends not in despair, but hope.

On Easter the plot turns as if an epic novel or academy award winning movie. Even if you’ve never lived west of the Hudson River, or maybe even south of the Piscataqua or the Charles, you’ve probably seen a Western. If you haven’t seen a Western, you’ve probably at least heard of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.

Imagine then the hero in the story, a rancher named Jed who homesteaded a rich section of land along a bountiful stream high on the western plains. In the early days of westward expansion, there were great political battles over who owned the land, and the water and the mineral rights that included silver and gold.

Jed became a friend and advocate to other homesteaders, helping them secure their land, start their herd, build a church, a school, and provide for their families. He encouraged them to create a new life together in the wilderness, where all travelers could thrive.

A group of white shirts from out of Chicago had other ideas. They wanted Jed and his kind off the land. The settler’s desire to establish communities interfered with the city folks plans to get rich quick through the hype of gold and the expanding railroad.

Eventually things got ugly, as things do. Hired thugs were dispatched by the white shirts to scare Jed by any means necessary, including burning down his home. If they could get rid of the ringleader, they reasoned, everyone else would pack up and leave too.

Confronting Jed out front of his homestead along the fence, Jed knew who they were and why they had come. As he looked them in the eye and responded to their questions, he signaled behind his back for his wife Magdalena and the children to get away. The eldest James moved to protect his mother while someone snatched up the baby Paul, who was too young to remember what happened next.

Jed motioned too for his ranch hands to slip off into the woods, though the head wrangler Peter resisted at first, eager to put up a fight. A couple of disreputable miners who had spent the night on their way to California were more than happy to slip away through the crowd, along with a terrified neighbor Joanna who had the unfortunate timing to have dropped by to borrow some salt. The conversation grew ever more threatening until finally, one of the thugs killed Jed, while all the family, neighbors, travelers and laborers escaped.

Word of Jed’s death spread quickly, and the shared grief of the community he helped build seemed unbearable. His death had saved their lives. God knows how many of them would have been killed if it had not been for his courage. How could they now go on?

Then they remembered who he was and all the things he had said while he was still with them. Now instead of asking how they could go on, they knew the answer. How could they not? He would not want them to give up and scatter. He would not want them to build a shrine to him and give up their lives to take care of the shrine. He would want them to flourish in this rich and abundant new land. They would fulfill his legacy by telling his story that was now their story, and creating the vision of a new world he believed possible for all of them.

Like these ranchers in our fictional movie, the women who loved Jesus and went to attend to him at the tomb, and the disciples who were his closest friends pondered the meaning of these horrifying events. Like any four-year-old child trying to understand life’s mysteries, the Disciples remembered all the things Jesus had said to them while he was still with them. The disciples remembered that Jesus had said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled by what will happen. Believe in God, believe also in me.” John 14  

They remembered then what he said before he died, words they did not understand at the time. “(After I’m gone), If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth and he will be in you…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Jesus encouraged them in advance so that they would trust the Spirit to help them speak truth to the death-dealing powers of the world when the time came. And Jesus challenged them in advance so that they would remember when the time came to get out of the cemetery. “If you love me,” he said, “Go. I saved you for a purpose. Don’t look back.” Jesus said: “Do something. Love someone. Share the good news that God is with you in this entire messy, sometimes disappointing world. Enjoy life for God’s sake.” I did all this so you and all creation could live.

As Jesus challenged the disciples before his death, so now the angels challenged the women after his death at the cemetery. The dazzling angels confronted the women with a similar message, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is Risen, as he said.

Jesus’ message in death and in life was pretty simple and also hard to explain. When the angels asked the grieving survivors why they were looking for the living among the dead, they delivered the shocking message that Jesus lived and wanted them to live God’s continuing story through them too.

Don’t be afraid about your future. God knows we’re anxious and afraid about so many things. Like little Addy Grace, we ask lots of questions when we’re afraid. “Will somebody love me always? Will we recognize each other after we’re die?” The empty tomb promises us that God will always love us and God will always come for us, and on that day, God will take us to God’s own self. When we follow Jesus to new life, we have nothing to fear. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Here then the Easter story begins, with hope: for the women at the tomb and for the disciples before us and for our children and grandchildren who will tell this story of life long after we’re gone to glory.

Our future like theirs is not at the cemetery. Disappointment and death and even despair are not our story. Through faith we become transformed into people not of death, but life, not of despair, but hope. God’s angels say to us as to them, “Get on out of here now.” Jesus is not here. He is Risen.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!