A sermon for Easter Sunday: Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10,
Many years ago, some decades ago, I joined a Christian formation class; I forget its exact name. but I will always remember the principle bible study method. You read a gospel story, and as you are reading it you listen for what character in the story is you? It does not have to be a character that is named in the story; it can be one you see, hear, for yourself, or you just imagine is there. The reflections are how are you this character in the gospel story? and how is this character you in your story? You share all this with your group. The group cannot challenge the character. They can ask for clarity. They are to share with you, their react to you and your character both in the gospel story and in your life. It takes some practice and some time; however, but it is an excellent way to study the bible; it is an even better way to learn about yourself.
Occasionally, I’ve used this method in sermon preparation. Occasionally, I have preached from that character’s perspective. Today is a new experience, because, I see a character I have never before seen, in the Gospel but, I know, has been in the Easter story from the beginning. This morning my character is the tomb, a place of death, darkness, and chaos. I do not see myself as the tomb. I hope you do not see me as the tomb. But the tomb is a very present in the world today; as it has been for all time.
The tomb is manifest in the many ways death, darkness and chaos are present in our world. There is chaotic political leadership here and abroad. There are threats from and toward N. Korea. There is the confusion and fear that brought on and are caused by Brexit. There are the threats emerging from Arkansas’ plan to execute 7 prisoners in 11 days, just because a drug is about to expire. It is supposed to be the initial anesthetic; however, the drug not designed to be an anesthetic. The State is forced to try to use it because no manufacturer of anesthetics will sell anesthetics to any state prison system that executes prisoners (Arkansas Online). All of this is on hold because Saturday morning, both a state and federal court injunction suspended all this and there was another injunction this morning. But the underlying concern of the State of Arkansas’ behavior is still a threat, still a source of confusion and fear. There is fear for our community; there is fear and concern for our schools, our churches, and maybe even for St Stephen’s. And I am sure all of us have individual concerns and fears as life goes on. The tomb is a very real, a very powerful presence in all our lives.
So, today, when we celebrate the empty tomb, does the continuing existence of the tomb, death, darkness and chaos. diminish Jesus’ resurrection or the promise God and Jesus make to us for eternal life? No, because the truth is that the empty tomb fuels the new-found Easter hope. Yes, the tomb, death, darkness, and chaos do continue; but they are not the end of the story. This morning I experience the empty tomb that provides us two little all-empowering verbs: do and be.
The first verb: ‘do’ is an inspiration from Martin Marty’s column about Reinhold Niebuhr and his theologian siblings. Marty explores the Niebuhrs as “public theologians,” and reflects on the growing number writers who are wondering Where are today’s Niebuhrs? He suggests we would learn much more if we were interested in what Reinhold did. Marty grounds his observation in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Borrowing from Martin Heinecken, he asks
Did the Samaritan take that poor victim, strapped to his ass like a captive audience, and hand him a tract or preach a sermon? No, he did what the situation demanded, and that was good (Marty).
Everyone is seeking to find their way through the midst of our current chaos and anarchy. Marty suggests that we should assess what the situation demands, and then address it by doing what the situation demands. He puts to very practical use Reinhold’s (Niebuhr) Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference
It is an awesomely powerful call to do (Marty).
The second verb is ‘be’ and it is an inspiration from Stephanie Paulsell’s article Life together as an empire collapses. Paulsell draws from David’s Brooks models of resisting the Trump administration. If this is an authoritarian threat, then we should follow Bonhoeffer and hit the streets. If this is an incompetence threat, then we should follow Gerald Ford and restore public norms. Paulsell thinks we are in the third possibility a corruption moment and that we should follow St. Benedict and create new forms of community (Paulsell).
Benedict lived as the Roman Empire was collapsing. One response to that collapse was the proliferation of monastic communities, walled enclaves that provided safety from the gathering storm and cultivate humility, mercy, and forgiveness. But a key factor in Benedict’s rule is the insistence on welcoming every guest that comes to the door with honor and respect. For Benedict, the monastery was not a refuge, but a community that bears witness to the sacredness of our common humanity.
Knowing that [w]hen your open space for people to encounter the mystery of their creation in the image of God, they become more finely attuned to the dignity of others.
The continuing threats of the tomb, death, and chaos are very real; they diminish the humanity dignity of all people. Benedict offers a path of resistance, to see and welcome the stranger as Christ (Paulsell).
I hear Benedict calling us to be a monastery, a walled safe community with an open door – welcoming everyone. I hear Niebuhr calling us to use the power of the empty tomb as courage to change the things that we can. Yes, I am suggesting it is time for you, time for us, to go into the darkness of this world in the face of the dehumanizing power of death and chaos, and be the open door welcoming all who are drawn to you, and who are drawn to us.
What better Easter surprise than the empty tomb being the power that defeats the tomb, death, darkness, and chaos in our lives.
Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1A Matthew 3:13-17 . 8 1 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Marty, Martin E. “Niebuhr and the situation.” 5 4 2017. religionnews.com /2017/04/05/niebuhr-and-the-situation/. <religionnews.com /2017/04/05/niebuhr-and-the-situation/>.
Paulsell, Stephanie. “Life together as an empire collapses.” 12 4 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/life-together-empire-collapses>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.