What We Ask of Easter

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
April 8, 2012 (Easter) Mark 16: 1-8


It begins with a question. It so often does, and like so many other times, that one question leads to so many other questions. And like so many other times, that first, seemingly innocuous, straightforward and simple question (that leads to so many others) is transformed into a profound question.

It has been a week of questions, to Jesus and about him. Who are you? What are you up to? What is your intention and purpose? What have you done? The religious council asks Jesus if he has anything to say. Bystanders ask Peter if he was a follower. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Pilate asks the crowd if they want Jesus released. Pilate asks Jesus what truth is. So many questions.

And then it happens, and he is executed, disgracefully. Still more questions. Jesus, will you remember me? My God, why have you forsaken me? And this morning, the third day. It begins with a question.

***

But first, allow me to welcome you on this glorious day. Welcome all, and a special word of welcome to those who may be visiting with us, from near and far, for many times or the first time. I hope that you find our worship meaningful and joyful, that the spirit of this community of faith will touch your spirit. Allow me also to extend a word of invitation to those of you who may be seeking a church community, a congregation with which to connect. You can learn more about us on our website, or visit our Facebook page. Talk to one of the ministers, Martha Langford most particularly. Most of all, come back on a Sunday and get to know us. Our tagline is “Seeking the Light,” and that is what we endeavor to do, to seek God’s light for our lives and for the world, through worship that engages the head and heart and soul, study and fellowship that draws us closer to God and one another, teaching our children and nurturing our youth, service to our city and beyond and especially those whose lack of physical resources puts them in need. So we welcome you and are grateful for your presence.

***

As I said, it begins with a question. It so often does. After all that has happened, three women go to the tomb on a Sunday morning to prepare the body. Their first question is logistical – “Who will roll away the stone?” It was large, and they needed access to the body, to care for it. Who will roll away the stone?

When they arrive, the stone had already been rolled back. Question asked and answered. A whole new set of questions is raised. They see a young man in white, presumably an angel, though Mark doesn’t say that. They were alarmed, scared, and so many other things, but the young man tells them not to be afraid. It is the central affirmation of the entire gospel. Do not be alarmed, do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus. He is not here; he has been raised. Go tell his disciples. He will meet you in Galilee. And they fled, again, scared to death.

If you look in your pew Bibles, you will note that the story ends there, but that it also includes additional endings. Whether you include other endings or not – and scholars disagree on this, and have for centuries – you still have an original question – who will roll away the stone – eclipsed by so many others. The three women quickly accept what has happened, but even they fumble the instructions. Go and tell, the young man says. But they tell no one.

That first ending, lacking joy, filled with fear, is probably why endings were added, even in earliest versions. The disciples, hearing the story second hand, are filled with doubt but finally believe. Jesus appears, according to the longer version, and commissions them. The first question, who will roll away the stone, eclipsed by others. Now what? What will we do? We will tell the story.

Our questions might have to do with the science of it all. What really happened? We twenty-first century hearers want to know what happened. In some ways, we echo the first disciples in wanting proof. But unlike them, we do not have a first-hand encounter with the risen Jesus. Much of the last century has been spent on that question – what happened, or more so, how could it happen, did it really happen. Those are important questions, valid and legitimate, but they were not their questions, and they are not our most important questions.

I am content this morning, with Kathleen Norris, not to seek for proof. And I am content this morning with Walter Brueggemann, to affirm that the verification of all this comes through testimony. Brueggemann writes that “you will find verification among the daily performances of the trusting ones who live out their trust in ways that the world terms foolish…in a church ready to be venturesome into God’s future…in the acceptance of those who are unacceptable…in the commitment of time to neighbors when we prefer to have that time for ourselves…in the slant toward justice and peace-making in a world that loves violence and exploitation... in hurts that have been healed, estrangements that have been reconciled, enslavements that have turned to freedom, all around us, particular, concrete, specific, for people like us.” (“Trust, But Verify,” Preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, March 4, 2012)

Proof and verification were not their questions. So, therefore, this morning, might they also not be ours. Rather, can our questions be the “so what” questions, the “how will this matter” questions, the “what will we do with this good news” questions?

That’s why you are here, I believe. That’s why I am here. Whatever we ask, this is what we get – a story that invites us to let go of our fear, to reach out and tell the world about joy and hope, to go from this place embracing an alternative narrative to death and death’s ways. This is what we get.

And I think, deep down, it’s really what we want, a story that has authenticity and integrity, that offers hope, that matters and makes a difference and that calls us to do the same. Whatever it is we ask, what we get is this community, you and me, and the countless “you’s” and “me’s” who have gathered now for two millennium, and who gather now still in many places on this morning, to give testimony to resurrection, to say that this all still matters. Some will look different than you and me, others not so much. That matters little. What matters is that we gather, and disperse, that the answers to our questions have been met in this story, and, that drawn in, we are sent out to tell it, to share it, to help it make a difference in a hungry and broken and fearful world.

During my three-month sabbatical, I engaged in a little spiritual practice. I kept a list next to my laptop of things happening in the world, things that I should pay attention to. In a three-month period of asking a series of questions I kept that list to ask the question how faith relates to culture, the world beyond the church, to ethics and morals, whether and how faith matters. Without comment, here is some of my list:

     * the very sad death of Whitney Houston
     * an awesome new Bruce Springsteen album
     * a Rush Limbaugh tempest
     * devastating tornadoes in the Midwest and the one year earthquake anniversary in Japan
     * Kodak bankruptcy
     * Trayvon Martin’s death
     * and, of course in sports – Peyton Manning cut and signed, Tim Tebow traded, Jeremy Lin and Linsanity, an NFL bounty scandal.

All of those events punctuated by ongoing crisis in Syria, rising gas prices, a never-ending primary campaign. All of those cultural and global and social happenings punctuated by situations in your own lives, and mine, and those of the ones we love.

Try it sometime – keep your own list. Pray over it. And ask the question what faith has to do with any of it. What does Easter faith have to do with any of it? What does this resurrection story and its promise of love conquering death have to do with any of it?

If we can’t craft good answers, compelling and even inspiring responses – to every issue except perhaps what football team Peyton Manning will play for, though that has pretty deep theological significance – if we can’t discern useful and hopeful answers, even difficult answers, then something is wrong. And perhaps we would need to say that something is wrong with our responses, our answers, and not the question, and not the story itself.

Whatever we ask of Easter, here is what we get. Hope, and community.

We are spending lots of time thinking about what that community looks like. Lots of time beyond the life of this particular church and lots of time within it. Apparently, it’s not an easy time to be a church like ours. In my time away, I read article after article suggesting why we are in the state we’re in and how we can fix it. Perhaps you read Time magazine a month or so back, with a focus on the rise of the “nones,” that growing group of younger adults who consider themselves to be religious but remain unaffiliated with any religious group. Everyone is thinking about them, as if they are some market share to be captured. A pastor who serves something called “Not Church” says of that group that “they’re not rejecting God. They’re rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.” (March 12, 2012, page 68)

In a blog that has gone viral – a phrase I’ve never used in a sermon – Rachel Held Evans writes that young people are leaving the church “because they believe it too exclusive, too combative with science, out-of-touch when it comes to sexuality, and an unsafe place to wrestle with doubt.” (See www.rachelheldevans.com)

I read this and get defensive, of course. Not us, I protest. But maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s the perception of us. My more thoughtful, less-defensive response asks myself, and us, what about our life together reflects those sentiments. It’s not so much about how we can get young people back, or attract young people who were never churched in the first-place. It is, rather, how we can share our story with all generations – because this is not only a young generation problem – how can we share our story, the story, and how can we change and adapt and evolve, with integrity.

I am not interested in a church that is dogmatic or rigid, that leaves no room for doubt, that fumbles every conversation it has about sex, that treats science as a problem, that is unsure how to relate to its neighbors. My hunch is that you are not either, whether you’re 25 or 105 or any place in between. And in all honesty, I don’t think Jesus was either.

As if on cue, this week’s Andrew Sullivan essay in Newsweek calls the church to accountability. “If we return,” Sullivan writes, “to what Jesus actually asked us to do and be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely. And more intensely relevant to our times.” (April 9, 2012, pages 26-31) Sullivan calls for a Christianity that comes not from the head, or the gut, but the soul. “In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession …Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.”

It begins with a question. But any questions and all questions – theirs and ours – are answered and transformed. What does this mean? How will it matter? Whatever we ask of Easter is transformed.

In her blog, Rachel Held Evans writes of the primary reasons she came back to church after leaving. Number 8 – “Sucking up my pride and embracing the fact that, like it or not, I need community.” Numbers 7 through 2 will be for another time. Reason #1 was simple – “Jesus.”

He is both question and answer, author of hope and creator of community. He is why you are here today, whether for the first time, the first time in a long time, or the thousandth upon thousandth time. The stone has been rolled away, transforming everything – life, death, the church, the world, you, me – everything.

What we ask of Easter has been answered with this good news. What Easter asks of us is a journey, an adventure, that unfolds, with these follow travelers, as we head out into the world to see what’s next.

Christ is risen indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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