(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
The third day, he rose from the dead. The central event in all of human history happened in the middle of the night, in a tomb, in the dark, with nobody around, nobody to say much of anything about it, and even now, it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I remember listening to one of my preaching professors in seminary, Gail O’Day, who is now the president of the divinity school at Wake Forest, as she told the story of one sermon she’d graded, as the student tried to explain the resurrection, tried to find a way to use the words of a sermon to give the Resurrection the weight it deserved. He compared Jesus, she said, to a box of oreos. Here is what he said in the sermon:
It was raining, as I put on my rain boots and got in the car to go to the grocery store one afternoon about 3 o clock. I walked in the store and walked straight to the cookie aisle, as I had a hankering for some double stuff oreos. Not the regular ones, mind you, double stuff. As I approached the aisle, he continued, I noticed that there was a conspicuous hole where the double stuff oreos were supposed to be. They had the regular oreos, plenty of them. They had the watermelon ones—did you know there were watermelon oreos?—which of course they had those because who wants to buy watermelon oreos? And yet in the middle of all the different kinds of oreos, there was a hole, a place where the special, sacred double stuff oreos had been but were not anymore. Just like the women who watched the crucifixion, I was crushed.
And I want to the manager, he said, because I wanted these cookies, I needed them, and the manager said, I am sorry, but we are all out of double stuff oreos. They are gone. But I can give you a rain check, if you like, so that you can come back and find, that in that hole, that tomb-like hole in which you couldn’t find what you were looking for, you will find the double-stuff oreos you are looking for. And I asked him, so, how long do you think it will be before I can come back and you will have double stuff oreos? And he said, oh, come back in three days.
Let’s just say that that sermon didn’t get an A. I hope this one does better, though I want to acknowledge that when we talk about the Resurrection, we are talking about something that really defies logic. I mean, here’s your assignment: explain to me, in twenty minutes or less and using your own understanding of science and the universe, how somebody who died can come back to life three days later? I mean, without saying, oh, he was just in a coma, or whatever, which is silly, how can you explain it? You really can’t. And it is important, also, to acknowledge what the Creed does not say, which is that God somehow brought Jesus back to life. Jesus was raised all on his own, thank you very much, not reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, not undead like a zombie, be he was dead and then he was alive, and it goes against everything we know to be true.
And that’s why it matters. That’s why it is so important. Jesus does this one thing that can’t be done, which is that he dies and then he is not dead. And in that action, in that one moment, the whole world is split apart, not in a destructive way, in fact, quite the opposite. The world opens up and love pours out, for death has been defeated, what was once the last word no longer is, for we discover in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, that the worst thing ever to happen to you will not be the last. In the Resurrection, he says, what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death there ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.
And isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful. We celebrate the Resurrection each Sunday, and never as poignantly as at Easter, and we fill our baskets and hide our eggs and make the ham salad . . . and then we go about our business. I get it. The lead-up to Easter is a lot, and so when you get there, once Easter rolls around, it can wear you out! There’s a reason, after all, that the most attended Sunday of the year, Easter, is followed by what is typically the least attended Sunday of the year. When I was an associate pastor at a large church, we used to call the Sunday after Easter “National Associate Pastor Sunday.” That has the convenient acronym of NAPS, which is what the senior pastor was definitely doing that morning and what the congregation probably was doing, too.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think that Jesus was raised on the third day so that we could celebrate it and then move on. Like, I don’t think God would go to the trouble of disrupting the laws of physics and splitting time in two just so we could see what happens when you put marshmallow Peeps in the microwave, though if you haven’t tried it . . ..
I think God went to the trouble of being raised so we could be raised, too. And what is more, I think God went to the trouble of being raised on the third day so that we could have hope that is bigger than death, so that yes, we have hope of Heaven, but not simply this, for the implications of the Resurrection are much bigger than what happens when we die. Dead people don’t need hope. The rest of us do, and so it is the case that this defeat of death matters for our lives now, for the way we live and serve God now, for the way we do church now.
And so I guess I get the post-Easter slump in some ways, but in a very real way, if the Resurrection is the most important thing, then shouldn’t the Sunday after Easter be even bigger than Easter? Shouldn’t that Sunday be huge? In the wake of the Resurrection shouldn’t everything be different, I mean everything?
But then that National Associate Pastor Sunday rolls around and we’re just so tired, you know, so we take the week off, even the pastor goes out of town for some R&R, and it’s not long before we drift into familiar patterns, act like nothing has changed, fall into the same old ways of cheap grace and call on God only when we’re in a bind, or feel like we’re up against a wall, or we need to find a parking space or whatever.
I’m just wondering, what if we took the Resurrection seriously? What if we were willing to try really believing that when we speak, each week in the Apostle’s Creed, that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, that we actually meant it? What would change? Think about the events of your life, the things that plague you, the things that frustrate you, the things that you go about your day doing. How would those things change if you viewed them through this lens, this reality of Jesus’s Resurrection, the promise of eternal life? What if we, together, decided that we really believe this stuff?
This is obviously not as easy as it sounds, as we already all profess to believe it, but it’s another thing to live it. I sometimes get asked about my own faith, about what it is that most shakes my faith, that makes me doubt the most. And I think people are looking for some sort of watershed event in my own life, a loss, a tragedy, something like that. But you know what makes me doubt the most? It’s not any of those things. The thing that makes me doubt the most is people who call themselves super religious and then, functionally, live as if nothing is different. We all know people like this—they’ve got the t-shirts with Bible verses and the faith-inspired jewelry and the little fish on the back of their car that says “truth” eating the fish with feet that says “Darwin.” None of these things bother me. What bothers me is when people—many of whom wear these shirts and display this fish—when these people come to church, or they don’t even bother, and they get in their enormous vehicle that guzzles fossil fuel like it belongs in a twelve step program for cars with drinking problems, and they proceed to peel out of the church parking lot and cut off anybody and everybody who gets in their way, and they pass the hungry guy on the sidewalk and nearly run over the poor woman crossing the street while balancing piles of groceries, all the while sporting a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you love Jesus.”
If this is you, and I hope it isn’t, let me suggest that Jesus has very little to do with the reason most people are honking at you.
And yet if I am honest, it is probably true that this caricature bears more resemblance to my own life than I would like to admit. I do believe in the Resurrection, I really, really do, but I don’t always act like it. I don’t always act like death has been defeated, such that the one thing in the world stronger than fear is the kind of love showed by Jesus on the cross. I don’t always live such that people who look at me can see that love written across my face. I sometimes get so stuck on my own life, my own stuff, that it seems like death has won, evil has won, and there’s nothing to do but look out for number one. I will own that.
But you know the biggest reason I think I get stuck on all that stuff? You know the biggest reason I think people come to church and worship God and then go about their business as if little has changed? I don’t think it’s because everybody is a terrible hypocrite or anything like that. I think the thing that keeps us from living into our heritage as children of God it is that the gift of love that was made manifest in the Resurrection, that defeat of death, that breakthrough of grace, I think it is quite simply so overwhelming we don’t know what to do with it.
Even the people we hold up as sterling examples of faith, of responding to the gift of the Resurrection, even those examples feel overwhelming. I don’t know why preachers do that sort of thing, you know, tell this passionate and moving story about the multimillionaire who sold everything he had and gave every dime to the poor. If I hear one more story about how wonderful Mother Teresa was and how we should all be like her, I’m going to roll my eyes so far back in my head they may get stuck there forever. I am glad the world had Mother Teresa. I know God is pleased, too. But these kinds of stories are so foreign, so overwhelming, that they can render you totally immobile. I am no multimillionaire. I am certainly no Mother Teresa.
The thing is, people don’t get to a place where they lead radically transformed lives because they hear a sermon. They get to a place where they do that sort of thing because they have experienced the God of Resurrection, the God who proves that love is greater than fear.
And so these kinds of stories, like the Resurrection itself, are so overwhelming that I don’t know what to do with them. And yet I am reminded that it was Mother Teresa, of all people, who said that small things done with great love can change the world. Small things done with great love can change the world. This, too, is the promise of the Resurrection, that God can use the smallest thing, the widow’s mite, the child’s gift, the smallest thing can be used to breathe hope into the world.
After all, the Resurrection started small. There was no trumpet, no Hallelujah Chorus. It was the middle of the night, pitch dark, no one around but Jesus and the angel—or whatever it was—that helped him move the stone. Nobody even noticed anything was different until well after sunrise, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James and Salome, these three women arrived at the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’s body with spices and found that there was nothing to anoint. The tomb was empty. Death had been defeated, and nobody had even thought to put out a press release.
It started small, and look what happened. A single act which inspired a cadre of misfit believers to form the Christian church, of all things, to withstand generations of abuse and torture, to reach out and welcome new people into the community of faith, to ride the waves formed by the ebb and flow of the centuries, and here we are, the beneficiaries of that act, of that small, revolutionary act, which happened in the stillness of night with no one around.
I can’t defeat death. I’m lucky to get out of the house in the morning with both of my shoes tied, and not together. But I can do small things with great love.
Since I started the sermon with a story about Oreos, I should probably end with one, too, especially considering the middle was so sweet. I was reminded of a story this week, a couple of you actually posted it on Facebook, about Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, one of our sister churches in the North Georgia Conference. Don Martin, the senior pastor of that congregation, happened to be seated next to a soldier on an airplane, as the soldier made his way back home after 18 months in Iraq. Don asked him, “What did you miss most during your time overseas?” and the soldier, without hesitation, said, “Oreos. Double Stuf!”
Now, of course, you can’t do justice to the Resurrection with a cookie, any more than a rain check to be redeemed in three days is anything like three days in the ground. But since that conversation, six years ago, Alpharetta First has partnered with a number of other churches, and this year alone, just three weeks ago, in fact, they blessed and shipped over five-and-a-half tons of Oreos to men and women serving in the armed forces overseas who craved a taste of home. We were reminded again this week of the unspeakable danger these folks face, and so what a gift that they were reminded, because of a church of all places, that they are loved. And, when you get down to brass tacks, the reason that the soldiers received that reminder is that a bunch of people in Georgia believed in the Resurrection.
I don’t mean to suggest that you can give somebody a cookie and be on your way and have properly honored the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But what you can do is act like you believe it is true. What you can do is sow hope: serve the homeless like some of our folks are doing today, break bread with strangers like others will do this week, welcome new people into the life of faith like you do every Sunday.
What you can do is take that gift of grace we have received because of the Resurrection, and find little ways to share it in the world, ways that start small and then before long add up to five and a half tons and then some, so that the greatest event in the history of the world doesn’t stay in history, but bursts forth every day from your heart and from your life. You can do that, and thanks be to God. Amen.