04/21/2019 Sermon

Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019  

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

Deborah Fortel

Luke 24: 1-12, Isaiah 65: 17-25

The signs of spring are obvious all around us: dogwood trees in full bloom, azaleas adding their beauty, while maple seeds float to the ground and birdsong fills the morning air. Spring is easy to see and hear and smell, and even taste in spicy radishes and new spinach. But Easter? Well, that’s a little harder to perceive. It’s because most of us, at least in this hemisphere, have grown up making an automatic connection between springtime and Easter. And to make it still more complicated, we have all the links between Easter and new clothes, not to mention the tradition of the Easter bunny and baskets of jellybeans and chocolate candy. Here’s the thing: none of it is bad or wrong. Not customs, like the Easter bunny that give pleasure to children and the adults who love them, not new clothes, and certainly not the annual transformation of the earth from gray and brown winter sparseness to abundant color and growth. But none of that is what Easter really is. To discover, or rediscover Easter and its joy we have to be willing to step back in the deepest parts of our souls to reclaim the truth that  Easter faith begins in suffering, continues in tears, often takes a stop in disbelief, and only then moves to life shaped by trust in the power of God to bring life from deadly loss.

            That’s the pattern of the stories of the first Easter in all four of the gospels. Luke remembers that the women who had been disciples just as surely as the men, went on Friday to see where the dead body of Jesus was laid and then they went home and gathered up all the spices and ointments they would need to prepare his body properly. After the Sabbath, just as soon as they could, while the sun was beginning to be barely visible on the eastern horizon, they went to the cemetery. Luke doesn’t say so, perhaps because he didn’t think it needed to be said, but surely we can assume that the women were all grieving, some of them were weeping, and that all of them were overwhelmed by Jesus’ death by torture. They expected nothing more than a dead body and nothing less than the suffering of deep grief and disappointment, tears and weeping. They were looking in the cemetery for the reality of death and loss.

            There are times when, like the faithful women on that Easter morning, we cannot imagine anything good or hopeful or life-giving We focus on what used to be, on the past when everything seemed fine. Like them, we can only see what we expect. When the women saw the huge stone rolled away from the empty tomb it didn’t make any sense to them. They were perplexed, Luke says, and then, terrified when the messengers appeared to them, reminding them of what Jesus had told them.

            Once they began to understand they ran to tell the rest of the disciples who reacted with disbelief. The testimony of the women was discounted as nothing more than an “idle tale,” just so much silly chatter. Of them all, only Peter took the risk of going to see for himself – and returned home “amazed by what had happened.” None of them, not one, was prepared for what had happened. They were looking for a dead body rather than living in the hope of encountering the Risen Christ.

Like them we need the reminder of God’s messengers that we do not find the Risen Christ in our yearning for the past. No matter how good it used to be, or used to seem, if we are looking for Jesus by trying to replicate the way things were in the 1950’s or even six months ago, we are wasting our time. It’s too easy to confuse the way it has always seemed to be with the way God intends it to be. Over and over again we have to be reminded that God is always announcing, as Isaiah put it, “For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth. The things of the past will not be remembered or come to mind.” What used to be is what used to be, still part of who we are and what we are, but God is inviting us to see something new, to become someone new, to be transformed by our trust in God’s power to bring new life where we least expect it, even in us; even in this church; even in our nation. We find God’s power for life as we open our eyes to see the hints of what the future may become.

I don’t mean to say that it’s either easy or automatic. I know a congregation that was thriving sixty years ago in their upper-middle class urban neighborhood. The church was justifiably proud of its heritage of excellent preaching and fine music, but they were especially proud of their ministry with children. The littlest ones met for Sunday school in a large well-furnished room that came to be known as the Red Chair Room because all the little chairs were painted red. Every few years the chairs were given a fresh coat of paint and every year there were fewer children to sit in them, until the entire Sunday school enrollment was three children who occasionally came to church with their grandparents. And still the little chairs received their annual touch-ups. The whole congregation was caught up in the logic of the way things used to be and the vain expectation that if only they kept doing the same things they had always done they could make the good days of the past come back. They spent a long time pretending it would certainly be true and a longer time wishing it could be true. And, finally, they quit repainting the unused little chairs and they put a lock on the gates to the church parking lot that was only opened on Sunday mornings and once a month for committee and board meetings. They resigned themselves to death: their own individual deaths, and the death of the congregation. Their expectations came to center around having their own funerals in their own church building.

Then someone remembered to look beyond what seemed so sadly  obvious. At first it was perplexing, and even frightening to others in the congregation. But that first someone didn’t give up, and God certainly didn’t give up. It was the beginning of their new life when someone remembered that there were still children in the neighborhood and still families in need of ministry. They weren’t like the families who had lived there sixty years ago and used to be members of the church. But they were there, and their children played, not in the Red Chair Room, but on the sidewalks in front of the church building and in the side streets nearby. Slowly, a little at a time, the congregation began to consider how they could reach out to the neighborhood, to wonder what their neighbors needed and wanted, and to look for ways to build community with people who were very different from the members of the church. Even more slowly, a little bit at a time, the people of the neighborhood let go of their disbelief and began to trust that something good and new was happening in that old church building.

There is new life in that congregation now, although their membership numbers are smaller. But the locks have been taken off the church parking lot gates and the basketball hoops that the members installed there are used almost year-round. Residents of the neighborhood and members of the church even speak of “us” instead of “those people.” Oh yes, and the little red chairs are still in place, only now they are used in a day care center everyday and twice a week in a tutoring program for kids from the elementary school a block away.

Is it a lot in the grand scheme of things? Maybe not. But who knows? Who knows what difference it makes for some children and their parents and grandparents and siblings and neighbors? Who knows what difference it may someday make for the welfare of the city that a church that was once a fortress defended against its neighbors, now sees itself as part of a community? Who knows what difference it makes that the good people of the congregation decided to look outside the walls of their sanctuary as they seek to follow the Risen Christ into the future?

We experience the power of God wherever we discover life, especially in unexpected places, no matter how precarious: in migrant encampments along the border between the U.S. and Mexico; in immigrant detention centers in the southwest; perhaps in France coming together to rebuild Notre Dame cathedral, that great national monument and symbol; but certainly in the three Black congregations in Louisiana whose buildings were burned down by hatred and arson and who will continue in ministry with and for their community, buildings or no. Life flowers like a crop of violets in hard, rocky soil in us and among us. We find the Risen Christ when we leave the cemeteries of the past and dare to risk stepping into the future. Once the disciples finally understood what had happened, they walked away from the past and into places they never would have dreamed of going. Like them, especially on this Easter Sunday, we are invited to leave the past behind and step into the future, looking for and trusting in God’s power for new life.