Text: Matthew 28:1-10
For Easter Sunday, preaching experts advise, “Keep your Easter sermon short and simple.” Alleluia! I know, it’s hard—even for 20 minutes—to get that Easter ham and the potato salad, deviled eggs and green beans off your mind. Just mentioning it makes your mouth water, right? If you are a little person and have been made to put on the itchy dress, floppy hat and uncomfortable shoes (as I was made to do on Easter) or the cute bowtie that is making you feel like you can’t breathe (I would have much rather been made to wear the bowtie), then I guess “short and simple” works for you, too.
But for us preachers “short and simple” seems like a joke. We are asked to take the most mysterious part of our Christian story—the resurrection of Jesus—and make it simple. And we are asked to engage the most political aspect of our faith story—the crucifixion and resurrection—and make it short. That’s a little bit like asking the renowned chef Gordon Ramsey to cook a five-course meal in 15 minutes without saying a bad word. Impossible.
It seems, sometimes, that the meaning of Easter has become, at best, a special Sunday when we wear our fancier clothes to church while hoping for a “short and simple sermon;” and, at worst, a weekend where most of us get an extra day off to sleep late. In 1957, at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his Easter sermon struggling against this “short and simple” advice. He begins:
We come once more to Easter Day. And one begins to wonder what this day means. For some, Easter is little more than a fashion show. For others, Easter is little more than a national holiday with no semblance of a religious holy day. We look upon Easter in diverse ways. And as I look over this congregation this morning and see the beautiful hats and the beautiful dresses and all of the things that go to commercialize Easter, I wonder if we really know the real meaning of it. But in the midst of all of that I imagine that most of you assembled here this morning for something deeper and something more meaningful than outer show. Easter is a day above all days. It surpasses the mystery and marvel of Christmas with all of the glory of the incarnation. It asserts that [humanity’s] extremity is God’s opportunity. It affirms that what stops us does not stop God and that miracle is as much a part of the end as of the beginning. Above all, Easter provides answers to the deepest queries of the human spirit. Easter symbolizes an event that provides answers to questions that have puzzled the probing minds of philosophers and theologians over the generations. You raise basic questions about the universe and about life and about all of the mysteries attached to it. And the Christian faith comes back confirming in words that echo across the generations that Easter has the answer. And I want to deal with some of these questions this morning, some of the questions that Easter answers, questions that we raise sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.
King went on that Easter Sunday, in what was NOT a short sermon—10 typed single-spaced pages—nor a simple sermon. He asked three questions: “Is the life of man immortal?” “Is life doomed to futility and frustration?” And, “Is the universe on the side of the forces of justice and goodness?” Yep, all in one sermon! No cute Easter bunny stories for King. He asked life’s hardest and most profound questions. And he concluded his sermon with the affirmation that the Easter story answers all of these questions; and if you are looking for a good Easter read this afternoon, I recommend King’s sermon.
But on this Easter morning, I come not with three questions or 10 typed pages but with one faith affirmation: we are a people who still need Easter! And as we come once more to Easter Day, I want to proclaim why I believe we still need Easter.
We need Easter because our world is filled with so much darkness and death—
the darkness and death of poverty and racial injustice;
the darkness and death of housing and food insecurity for so many of our neighbors;
the darkness and death of a country willing to use the Mother of All Bombs;
the darkness and death of a disproportionate number of brown and black lives being lost in our criminal justice system;
the darkness of the denial that our planet is suffering;
the darkness and death of our inability as a nation to help those suffering.
All of the darkness we see and feel in our world right now is real. We can’t ignore it, even and especially on this Easter morning. We can’t protect ourselves from it. We can try but we can’t. And because the darkness is real and because we can’t feign otherwise, we still need Easter. For it is Easter that reminds us that darkness and death are not the final word and that as people of faith, we are called to life and light. My colleague, Rev. Jenny Shultz-Thomas writes: “Centuries ago, for fear of what truly living might do to us, we tried our hardest to put God in a grave…to seal the tomb. The truth is that while we…are often busy pointing out where death [and darkness] is winning all around us, we often fail to see the graveyard beneath our own two feet.” Easter and “the power of resurrection is the recognition of our call as co-creators of truth, love, and peace [to life and light] in this world; to ‘rise up,’ to ‘embody’ like Jesus, the promise that we are not, in fact, lost to death, nor the wicked ways of the rural south [nor the militarized ways of our nation]…but that today, we are called to choose resurrection life. To celebrate that Jesus is as alive as we allow him to be, ready to infuse our moments with Hope, Peace, and Love.” And that is why we are a people who still need Easter—that moment when we are willing to have our eyes opened and we realize that the stones of our lost dreams and hopes have been rolled away. We are a people who, more than ever, still need Easter—that moment when we allow our hearts to break open as we become witnesses to life and to the light of Easter morning, as did those courageous women on the first Easter morning. For our own personal times of darkness, for our world’s darkness, we still need Easter.
We still need Easter because we need to hear loudly and boldly that Easter proclamation that Jesus gave to the women at the tomb, “Do not be afraid.” We are living in a time of fear. I read it in our headlines – “Planned Parenthood to Lose Funding;” “Icecaps Melting;” “North Korea tests Long-Range Missile.” I hear it in our conversations, “What is going to happen?” “Is he going to get us all killed?” I see it in our faces, hear it in our voices, feel it in our times of fellowship. This fear isn’t just hyper-active anxiety; it is deep, it is real, it is justified. AND, it is not the Easter message!
Walter Brueggemann names this fear in a prayer. He writes:
We are fearful folk, and we dwell in the midst of a fearful people,
fearful of our world falling apart,
in terror and moral decay.
fearful of too many “dangers, toils, and snares,”
fearful of not doing well,
of being found out,
of being left out,
of being abandoned,
of our own shadow.
And then we hear, astonishingly in the midst of our fearfulness,
your mighty, “DO NOT FEAR”
do not fear, I am with you,
with you in wealth and in poverty,
with you in success and in failure,
with you for better or for worse.
From the beginning to the end and all throughout our faith story we hear those words over and over again, “DO NOT FEAR.” In the midst of hearing daily our need to fear something new or even something old, to choose to live fearlessly may be the most counter-cultural action we can take as people of faith. Living fearless is the most Easter thing we can do. For it is the Easter story that most boldly calls out to us, “do not fear.” So, when it comes to our personal fears and the world’s political fears, we still need Easter.
Last, we still need Easter because Easter is the event of our faith that tells us the truth about life – that there is pain—there will always be Good Fridays—, and there is more than pain—Easter morning does eventually come. Easter tells us the truth—there is death, and that out of that death comes life and hope and the power of love. Easter tells us the truth—that fear is real but that fear does not have to have power over us. And ultimately Easter shows us the truth—that love always conquers hate. Here I want to come back to King’s Easter sermon. In that sermon he concludes:
People are always asking, “What is the most durable power in the universe? And the fact is that Easter answers that question too. You wonder about it. What is it that is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos?…It’s the power of love. Easter tells us that. Sometimes it looks like the other powers are much more durable. Then we come to see that isn’t true. But the most durable, lasting power in this world is the power to love…it seems to me that history tells us that. History’s a running commentary of it. We have seen the forces of military power hold the throne for a while, haven’t we? And it looked like this was the most durable power in the world…It seemed that somehow the more guns and the more ammunition you could get, the greater the power was, the greater the durability of it. Then at every point in history, we have been able to see that this kind of power passes away…This is the Easter message, this is the question that it answers. It says to us that love is the most durable power in the world than all of the military giants, all of the nations that [base?] their way on military power. I wish this morning that you would go tell Russia, go tell America, go tell the nations of the world that atomic bombs cannot solve the problems of the universe. Go back and tell them that hydrogen bombs cannot solve the problems of the world, but it is only through love and devotion to the justice of the universe that we can solve these problems. And then we can go away saying in terms that cry out across the generations that “God reigns, [God] reigns supreme…
I wish this morning that we would go tell Russia, go tell Syria, go tell America, go tell all the nations of the world that the Mother of All Bombs cannot solve the problems of the world, that mass incarceration cannot solve the problems of the world, that having more when other have less cannot solve the problems of the world. And then we can go away from this Easter morning saying in terms that cry out across the generations “rise up, embody life, for the power of love drives out darkness and fear.” Christ is Risen. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
The Easter story gives you the best news you could ever hope to hear: it gives you the promise that you are not lost to death, that your darkness does not overcome your light, that your life need not be controlled by fear, and that you can rise up from your dead places, come out of your tombs, and live a resurrected life. And when you dare to live that life, you give witness to the ultimate power of love. And right now, our world needs witnesses to the power of love. Yes, my friends, we still need Easter. But the final truth is this: just as the first Easter needed Mary Magdalene and Mary to give witness, Easter still needs us! Let us leave this place ready and willing to be Easter people. Alleluia!