By Charles Rush
March 27, 2005
Matthew 28: 1-14
wish you all a brisk but Happy Easter. Especially parents of young children, going through the Spring ritual of dressing young children up in fancy dresses and sport coats for a very cute photograph. I was looking through a series of shots from that age, my boys in sailor outfits, their sister in lace with Mary Jane shoes. Their mother was trying to get them to sit down and hold the baby. A fight broke out over who would hold the baby and I just started shooting. There is a picture of my oldest two whacking each other. Another of their mother rushing to break it up and wipe tears. One with all three just howling at God knows what. One with one brother biting another. It is a series of 24 pictures and one… yea one… has all three smiling holding the baby.
And good luck trying to explain the
meaning of this day to the wee ones. Another year, I tried my hand at explaining
the Christian story of Easter. I was talking about Jesus dying and I pulled out
a picture of Jesus, a very Aryan looking Jesus on the cross. Ever the educator,
I said, "of course, this isn't a real photograph of Jesus, just an artists
rendering of what he thought Jesus looked like. Number two son raised his hand
and said, "But Dad, you gotta admit, it looks a lot like him."… That
discussion didn't advance the ball much either…
Probably it is just as well. We try to
dumb Easter down so that even children can understand it. The reality is that
we are dealing with a mystery that none of us will ever get our minds around
completely. Not now, and not then either.
Whatever happened that first Easter
morning, and we have only poetic hints at it in our scriptures- whatever
happened, it was a stunning surprise. The disciples had all gathered together
in fear, dejection, disappointment. The women were going about their ordinary
tasks of preparing the dead for a funeral.
I think of the archeologist Howard
Carter at the turn of the century. He had been digging in the tombs of Ramses
II for about 15 years, looking for the tomb of one the sons of the Great Queen
of Egypt Nephertiti, a young Pharoah of Egypt that died about 1323 BCE. He was
not a significant historical figure, but his was the last and only tomb in
Egypt that had not been opened or robbed in the past several centuries.
After many years on the site, they had
turned up nothing and they were right near the end of the money for their last
dig. It was about over. Carter had the workers dig around a building that
workers had used for many years right near the royal tombs. A worker hit
something solid that turned out to be a series of steps. They dug down,
discovered a hidden entry that had the royal seal above the top.
Behind the door, they found a 30 ft.
hallway strewn with debris, at the end of which lay another door. After
clearing the rubble, Carter opened the door, stuck a candle into the crack of
the room and there- as his eyes adjusted to the darkness- was the unmistakable
glint of gold shimmering from all around the room. Animals, statutes, a
chariot, all gold. He had chanced on what the Indiana Jones's of the world only
dream about, a complete, undisturbed burial chamber, the tomb of Tutankamen,
In the next few weeks, he would enter
several more rooms in the dig, including the actual burial shrine, a gold
structure over 10 ft. wide and 9 ft. high. Inside the shrine was a
scaracophagus of quartzite block covered with a rose granite lid. Inside that
was a solid gold case over 6 ft. long, a quarter inch thick. The burial mask
for King Tut, which you have probably seen in a magazine article, was solid
gold and weighed 22 lbs. Buried with the young king were 143 pieces of jewelry.
It was simply awe inspiring.
One day, Carter is walking the site,
like every other day for years and years, with nothing substantial to show for
his efforts. The next day, the find of all time.
Our story has even more of the same
grace filled sense of awe and incredulity. The disciples could not believe that
Jesus had actually died to begin with. There was no Jewish tradition that predicted
that the Messiah would die before restoring the Davidic throne and throwing out
all of the occupying army. There certainly was no tradition of the Messiah or
anyone else being raised from the dead in Jewish tradition. No I have to
presume that they viewed the death of Jesus pretty much the same way that those
on the sidelines of history today would view such a death. Their hopes that
Jesus would be "the One" dashed, power once again holds sway, right
and good are smashed by strength. As Mao Tse Tung once put it so banally "All power begins at the end of a gun
barrel." How depressing, how dejected, the good guys just don't ever
quite measure up. Hope is just a chimera.
…And then… something… what we don't
know… but some epiphanic experience unlike anything they had ever experience,
unlike anything anyone had ever experienced. And whatever it was, it filled
them with a courage, a hope, and a confident power that no longer feared any
man, any army, any government.
It is not that it was unambiguous… Actually,
even the story in scripture reports that some people didn't believe it. No one
really understood it. But it unquestionably changed their view of the world
forever. They no longer felt bound by the mores and customs of Rome; they no
longer feared the military might of the Imperium. They were citizens of God's
kingdom now. They were slaves that had been freed from the fetters of
this world, freed from the constraints, the values, the perq's of this world.
It was not simply that they had moral integrity that impressed the Romans,
which they did. It was not simply that they were a peace promoting and
reconciling people that impressed the Romans, which they were. It
was the fact that they were no longer afraid of death; they could
endure torture and violence. It was the way that they calmly and confidently
faced execution, sometimes singing hymns as the Lions were released in the
Colesium to tear them apart.
When that happened, when they refused
to run in fear, when they stood quietly, calmly singing in faith and peace-- It
ruined the spectacle of the Collesium. No one could laugh at that kind of dying.
No one could cheer a woman dying in prayer. It turned the gladiatorial events
on their head.
Those early Christians were reverently
impertinent. In dying, they snubbed the authority of the Imperium; they
defied the fear that the Imperium induced in the public. Though few in number,
though of no account of reputation, their quiet, confident defiance undercut
the basis of Imperial power; the people
were moved morally speaking; they were impressed by the spiritual disposition
of those early Christians. Some of them even applauded those early Christian
martyrs; the Governor's had to quickly change the venue; they came to dread the
sight of Christians in the Collesium. Like dictators of every generation that
watch as their tried and true methods for manipulating and controlling the mob
slip away, they experienced the dread of helplessness while holding the reigns
What did those first Christians see in
the resurrection that so changed them? The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says
that in the resurrection, those earliest disciples got a glimpse of the
end of history and it forever changed not only them, but Christians of
every age. They saw unmistakably that the telos of history is good, that the
destiny of all of us is in the presence of the goodness of God. They saw, that
ultimately speaking, the Goodness of God cannot be stopped.
We tried to ignore God's goodness. We
have tried to contain and corral it. In the person of Jesus, we tortured and killed
it, but the "Goodness of God" cannot be stopped. They saw that God does not need us to accomplish this
ultimate goodness. God wants us to participate, for sure. But if we do not
participate, the goodness of God pulls us forward anyway ultimately. There may
be set backs sure, but there is a disturbing, inexorable direction that history
is moving- in the broadest, ultimate sense- whether we work for it or against
Karl Barth used to say that we can
prepare now or we can prepare later but we will be changed. Our souls will
become mature and we will grow into the children that God would have us to
become. That is the frightening, liberating thing that the women and the
disciples experienced that Easter morning. It gave them an unshakable
confidence in what they were about and it made them fearless of torture,
This may not mean so much to many of
us gathered here today because we have experienced lives that are full of
blessing; we have avoided very much set back, hardship, suffering or tragedy.
But what those early Christians
experienced was a profound transcendent sense that each and every one of them matters to God. They experienced the
promise of God that illness will be healed, that suffering will be redeemed, that
justice will triumph, that tragic loss will be restored. Though the world
around us forgets and does not care, God does not forget and God does care.
I think of our brothers and sisters
this day in South America, in the countries like Argentina and Chile, where
they endured decades of military torture, and people were just arrested,
carried off, tortured, killed, and never heard from again. They are called 'the
At the liturgy today, the priest will
lead the prayers of the people, and he will begin to read the names of the
disappeared one by one. And one by one, from the congregation, someone will
respond, "Presente". Maria Sanchez. Presente. Guillermo Perez.
Presente. They may be forgotten by the authorities, they may not matter to
world opinion, but they are not forgotten by God. They are kept alive in the
Community of the God.
Those that are raped, shot and
dismembered this week in Darfur are not forgotten by God. Those that were found
headless in a ditch in Baghdad two weeks ago are not forgotten by God. And if
you should be here this morning, silently carrying some heavy burden of
tragedy, loss, disappointment- though your burden may seem small by comparison
to the egregious heinous acts that make the headlines of our papers, your
burden is not forgotten by God either. This news is good news for everyone but
it comes first and foremost to you who have burdens, to you who have suffered,
to you who have lived injustice.
The end of history points in the direction
of a God who will conserve, who will heal, who will reconcile, who will take
our broken parts and make us whole. And for those whose lives in history have
been 'nasty, tragic, and short'…
this is especially good news.
For those who really don't think we
need or want the healing of God, the message of Easter is good/bad news. We are
headed for God's healing anyway. God's healing matures us. God's healing makes
us spiritually stronger. For those of us who have grown spiritually flabby
living on inordinate material privilege, the idea of getting in spiritual shape
by shedding our excess stuff is not particularly appealing… at first. The good
news is that God will not let us stay so spiritually bloated.
For those of us who have grown
spiritually self-centered through the inordinate exercise of unchecked power,
the idea of getting in spiritual shape by renouncing all things that stand in
the way of our unfettered dependence on God alone is not particularly appealing…
at first. The good news is that God will not let us feed our ego at the expense
of others forever.
For those of us who have used our
intelligence and our education to manipulate the system and evade our
responsibility to create a fair and equitable distribution of perq's and
privileges for everyone, the idea of getting in spiritual shape by healing our
compromise in the direction of integrity is not particularly appealing… at
first. The good news is that God will not let us create unjust and
dysfunctional social systems forever. God will not let us continue our bad
Those disciples saw the end of history
and in the end we are all moving towards the healing, maturing grace of God.
And that will mean different things to different people. Karl Barth used to say
worship a God whose judgment is mercy… but whose mercy is judgment. God
doesn't forget and simple let it go. God stays after us until we mature, until
we heal, until we are spiritually disciplined and strong.
That 'good news' witnessed by the first disciples, filled
them with outrageous hope, a quiet, confident courage and a remarkable
spiritual freedom that few of us ever evidence in our lives. But it should. I
think of the poet Wendell Berry. Wendell is a farmer in Kentucky. One of his
best poems is entitled "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front."
The poem starts with a description of the spiritually deadening safety that
defines all of us at some level. He says:
the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
The only antidote, according
to Berry, is to break into the radical freedom of the Spirit that
God beckons us to experience.
So, friends, every
day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
Be joyful though you have considered
all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
That sums it up in two simple words:
Practice resurrection. With God your ultimate pull, don't take anything around
you too ultimately or too seriously. Live with a certain frisky, irrascable,
laughter filled, loving independence. Drink deeply of the mystery of this world
and be free. And may God bless you with equal parts of courage and creativity.
And may you keep them all guessing. Amen.
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