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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sermon 2008

Here is the text of today's Easter sermon. We played this song for our meditation. Here are the lyrics.

All I Need to Hear
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
March 23, 2008
Easter Sunday

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory….

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:1-4; 12-15


Have you noticed that Easter is early this year? Here is some fun trivia to take home. The earliest Easter can occur is March 22nd. That happened most recently in 1818 when James Monroe was president. It will happen again in 2285, when George Bush X becomes president. We will never see an earlier Easter than this one today.

Those of us who are at least 95 years old might have celebrated Easter on March 23rd, 1913 just 19 days after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Easter will not fall on March 23rd again until 2228, 220 years from now. There you go, not only is Easter early, it is the earliest we will experience it this side of that heavenly shore.

It is those little bits of trivia that keep folks coming back to First Pres. We are nothing if not trivial.

Easter is a big day for the church. It is such a big day that the all the other Sundays are called “Little Easters.” For the church, Easter is bigger than Christmas. It is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of Resurrection. Notice I said mystery of Resurrection as opposed to fact of Resurrection.

We modern folks like facts almost as much as we like trivia. Did this happen? Did this not happen? What are the facts? The problem with religious symbols such as Resurrection is that they are not fact-friendly.

I would say that I trust in the mystery of Resurrection rather than say I believe in the fact of the Resurrection. I think it is important to make that distinction because we can get caught up trivia. Trust in the mystery of Resurrection is far more complex and difficult than belief or unbelief in the fact of Resurrection. Believing or not believing in the fact of something is a mental activity. Trust or lack of trust in something is a way of life. Trust demands more from me and gives more to me than belief. I can believe things about you, but to say I trust you requires a monumental shift. It is a risk. It is a relationship.

Trust is not always consistent. When I say I trust in the mystery of the Resurrection, I need to be honest, and say I often do not trust. In fact, if the cards were down, and I was fully honest, I would have to admit that I am far less trusting than I think I am or pretend to be.

Why? Because I want things my way. I want to be in control. To trust makes me vulnerable. Trust is the act of allowing someone or something else to have a say. When I engage in trust I give up my power for shared power. It is a risk. It may not work the way I want it to work.

Trust is the opposite of control. When we say the word trust, our arms open. We are vulnerable and able to receive. When we say the word control, our arms close in, we tense. We want to keep what we have and keep others out. Trust is a giving and a receiving.

Two forces are at work within me. One seeks control of the situation, the other trusts. If I am not aware of what is happening, I generally seek to control. But if I do remember to be aware, I can step back and allow others to participate. Trusting doesn’t mean I don’t participate, I do. Trust means I don’t need to control the outcome. Trust is accepting that even though I don’t know how it will work out and even though it may not work out the way I originally planned, it may work out beyond my expectations when others participate with me in the process.

I would have to say that from experience, trust works better than control. So why don’t I trust more and control less? That is a mystery. I get afraid and I spin wheels thinking or calculating and before you know it, I am controlling. I like to think I am learning and growing regarding that. Or at least I am remembering that I have a choice.

What does this have to do with Resurrection? I can do a couple of things regarding the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I can treat it as a belief, which is a form of control. I can believe it or not believe it. Then call it a day. I have controlled the issue. I have turned it into an historical fact that I can either affirm or deny.

Or I can treat it as an act of trust.

16th century Reformer Martin Luther said: Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

Resurrection is a symbol of death and rebirth. The sun sets and rises. The caterpillar enters its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly. The ground rests in the winter and sprouts forth life in the spring. Our evolutionary history has shown us that species of life die and new ones form. Stars are born, die, and from their debris, new stars form. We go to sleep at night and wake in the morning. The pattern of death and rebirth is all around us. Trusting in the resurrection can be as simple as appreciating and trusting in the cycle of nature.

I have been born. I will die. What will come after I trust in forces beyond myself.

We know that before Jesus were many stories of individuals, whether they be gods or human beings, who died and were resurrected. Osiris, Dionysius, Odin, Vishnu, Bacchus, Phoenix, Tammuz, Baal, and many others from different times in different places and cultures.

The symbol of dying and rising is a symbol that is deep in our collective human consciousness. These stories are not just stories, they point to a reality of how the universe works.

Trusting in the Resurrection of Jesus can be the act of trust in the power of a story that is shared across civilizations that points to the mystery of death and rebirth.

Even though there is a commonality between these stories, there is a particularity to each story. The resurrection of Jesus is particular in an interesting way. Some apologists have argued that while all the other stories of resurrection are myths, Jesus’ resurrection really happened. It is historical. Believe it.

I think that is an interpretation based on control. If the church approached its own story and the stories of others with an attitude of trust it would have something good to offer. Because much of Christian theology approaches its story as true as opposed to others that are false, it misses its opportunity to share what is healing and powerful about its story as well as appreciating what is healing and powerful about others’ stories.

When I say the story of the death and resurrection of Christ is particular, that does not mean it is better or worse, or more true or less true, than other stories. We are all particular human beings. Our particularity does not make us better or worse, more true or less true than others; it simply means that we have something to offer and to receive from others.

Here is one thing I think Christianity could bring to the table if it was humble enough to sit around a table. I owe what I am about to say to a number of scholars of Christian origins, most notably John Dominic Crossan.

The story of Jesus Christ is rooted in an historical time and place. Its story formed over a period of four centuries. The setting is the occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire.

Jesus as we read him in the gospels was executed by the Roman Empire with assistance from the Jewish temple authorities. He didn’t die of the flu or of old age. According to the story, he was executed by established authority as a criminal and as a threat to the peace. His resurrection has no meaning outside of his crucifixion. His crucifixion has no meaning outside of his resurrection.

Rome was not an evil empire. Crossan calls it the “normalcy of civilization.” Rome kept peace and kept the economy going. As Lenin said to justify the killings of Russian citizens to make the communist state: “If you are going to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs.”

There were eggs that needed breaking to bring Roman peace to Palestine. They broke these eggs through crucifixion. Thousands of people were crucified. Usually, petty criminals and slaves as an example. The crucifixions were public so people would get the message: Don’t do what this one did, or you will end up like this one. It was state sponsored terrorism.

Jesus was one of thousands. He was in the way. He was in the wrong place. He got above his raisin’. He threatened the peace. As his story is told in the Gospels he represented anyone who was ever crucified by Rome. The title most often given to Jesus in the gospels is the son of the man—it means the human being. Jesus is everyman. Not just everyman, everyman who was crushed by Rome’s wheel. He represented the poor and the suffering. He represented the collateral damage of Rome’s expansion. He was another egg that needed breaking for civilization to progress.

We could end the story right there. It is a story that happens all the time to this day.

A recent poll has determined that a million Iraqis have died due to the war. The normalcy of civilization says: “That is unfortunate, but we are making progress.”

The people of Tibet die and lose their freedom and their country and the normalcy of civilization says: “We grieve over the deaths, but we are making progress.”

The story of Jesus could have ended there. We are sorry for Jesus, but we are making progress. But the story didn’t end there. I don’t know how it happened. But his story became the focal point of a larger story that built around him. It grew. People began to tell each other: Rome doesn’t get the last word this time. Whether those who had the original idea had a spiritual experience, I don’t know. But people began to tell each other that God raised Jesus from the dead. The one that Rome executed, God raised. The Resurrection is God’s yes to Rome’s no.

The history of the church shows us that that story was bought and sold, tamed and distorted. The normalcy of civilization turned it into a way of controlling people through threats of hell and rewards of heaven. The Resurrection changed from a mystery to trust to a fact to be believed.

And yet, we still have echoes of the story’s transforming power in the gospels themselves. Despite the normalcy of the institution and of civilizations, people throughout our history to this day have found hope and power to say no to violence and injustice and yes to sharing, peace, and cooperation.

This is the opinion of one preacher. This is the way I see it. I have no corner on the truth. There certainly is much more to be said about the mysteries of Christianity and the mysteries of others’ stories. But I do think that this interpretation of the Resurrection is a valid one. I think it can be a life-transforming interpretation. I think it can be a way for Christian communities today to find the spiritual energy and hope to engage a world that is beset with violence and the desire to control.

For me, to trust in the mystery of the Resurrection, particularly, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to trust in the shared power of non-violent change. That is a Divine power. It is to die to the old way of control and to be raised in the new way of trust.

The author of Colossians wrote: “So if you have been raised with Christ…” then…

“…As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

That doesn’t sound like powerful, normalcy of civilization language. It isn’t. It is the language of trust. Don’t let the soft words fool you. They are the words of shared power that no power of violence can destroy.

When I titled this sermon “All I Need to Hear” I was thinking about the song we heard in our meditation, “Wanting Memories.” I was thinking of this stanza:

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me,
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.

That is the presence of the Risen Christ. With us. Present. Alive. If we trust, we will hear his voice.

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