Sermon for Sunday, March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday
Text: Luke 24:1-12
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
I am so glad to see all of you here on Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of Our Lord, the end of Lent and culmination of Holy Week, or, as the calendars call it, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
It’s a bit confusing. I mean, we’ve been scheduling Easter this way since the 4th century, but to be honest I’m not sure it’s really caught on. So there is now a thought bubble floating out there, mentioned both by the Pope and by the Archbishop of Canterbury, there’s a thought bubble about pinning down Easter Sunday to something a little more memorable. A little bit less esoteric. It could just be the second Sunday of April, or the last Sunday or March, or anything that doesn’t require measuring the tides or checking the fossil records just so that we can plan a breakfast. Apparently people with much fancier titles than mine are going to sit on this thought for a few years before anything happens. Which seems about right. I mean, it wouldn’t be church if something that hasn’t been working for 1600 years couldn’t get fixed without first having a period of study.
But while we’re in this period of study, I’d like to make a proposal. In my memory, there are perfect Easters, Easters where the sunrise comes over the first hint of spring in the air, blossoms on the trees and tulips just peeking out of their buds, Easters where you walk outside during the postlude and hear the bluebirds singing it back to you. In my memory, there are perfect Easters, where you go into Holy Week during winter and you come out on the other side in and we’re done, and the colors come back into the land. And you can’t perfectly set your clock by springtime, but we do have a pretty good cultural analog for its beginning, so I’d like to suggest that we therefore schedule Easter always to be on the Sunday of Opening Day in Major League Baseball. In my memory, it’s always this perfect weekend, it’s always the end of the men’s college basketball tournament, and it always overlaps with opening day, and you get this perfect moment where the winter finally breaks, and we all go outside, and somebody says “Play Ball.” If that’s the distillation of this moment, if that’s the perfect Easter of our memories, then why not set it in stone?
Of course, if I try hard enough, I can remember the other ones. That’s the problem, Easter moves around. It’s not always blossoms and tulips and bluebirds. If I try hard enough, I can remember, I’m 24, before I ever went to seminary, and I was living on my own, and I hadn’t really found a church home in a few years, and I hadn’t tried that hard, and Easter came around, and I went somewhere on Sunday morning and didn’t know anybody, and then I called a few friends who didn’t care about church one way or the other and I dragged them out to some fancy dinner because I needed something and that was the best I could think of. And I told them, well, this is the closest I get this year to Easter dinner, and they kind of looked at me funny, and then we went about our business, and that was the end of it. It was a good meal. But it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite Easter. It felt lonely, and afraid, and dark, and when you say Easter, what I conjure up, what I remember, is springtime, and possibility, and, just perhaps, the crack of the bat. So I say let’s lock it in place. The first weekend of April. Somewhere it can always be just what I remember.
The problem, of course, is that our memories are not as reliable as we would like them to be. And the characters in this morning’s version of the Easter story are no exception. They seem to — as the saying goes — they seem to have forgotten more about Easter than most of us will ever learn. Luke’s story starts with these women, they come to the tomb on the third day after Jesus’s death, they come to the tomb with spices to anoint his body in accordance with Jewish custom. Of course they do not find the body, they find the stone rolled away, and Luke says that they are perplexed, understandably, and then these angels appear beside them and accuse them of a failure of memory. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, that the Son of Man must be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” I mean, honestly, that seems like the sort of thing that would stick in your mind. Your friend tells you that he’s going to be killed and then rise again from the grave and I might just file that away somewhere, or at least, when you come to the grave, and he’s not there. It might trigger something. But not in this case. Not for these women.
And not for the disciples, either. After the women remember, after the angels spark their memories, they go back to tell the men, to tell the apostles, as Luke says, but the men have forgotten all of this, too. Luke says that the words of these women seemed to the disciples “an idle tale,” which is a very pleasant way of saying “hogwash,” which is a very country way of saying something I’m not going to say but which might in fact be the most accurate translation. The point is, Jesus said he would be killed and then rise from the grave and even his own disciples have apparently forgotten all of it. There’s something in the water here that has made all of our central characters forget everything that’s gone before, and the problem is that even Luke, even the Gospel writer himself isn’t above reproach. The angels talk to these women as if they were there in chapter 9 when Jesus talked about the resurrection but Luke chapter 9 never mentions the women. It’s almost as if Luke has just realized that he’s forgotten some pretty important details in the earlier chapter and here at the end he’s just going to squeeze them in under the wire and see if anyone notices. Like nobody here, not even the writer himself, can seem to remember how this story is supposed to go.
Still. Remember. It’s the call of the angels on this Easter morning. Remember how this story is really supposed to go. Remember how this story really works. Remember that if you try hard enough you will find memories you don’t always want to find. Remember that Easter isn’t always tulips and bluebirds. Remember how sometimes Easter has clouds in the sky. Remember how sometimes it rains. If I try hard enough, I can remember. This time I’m 22, I’m in Richmond, because my grandfather has entered hospice care just weeks before, and my father has gone to be by his side, and I’ve bugged off my first job out of college to go be there for Easter weekend, but Grandpa’s not leaving the room, he’s not going anywhere. And so we huddled in the dark, waiting for something, and my father, who has pastoral instinct running through his veins, my father decides we’re going to have church, my father decides we are going to proclaim the resurrection, and he finds a CD player, and he finds scripture, and before I know it, the hospice nurses have gathered in the doorway to be a part of our stuttering worship, and all of a sudden I realize that this is my Easter service, this is what I’m getting, whether I like it or not, whether it feels right or not.
And I wish I could tell you that it felt right. I wish I could tell you that it felt like Easter. I wish I had been mature and wise enough not to feel just a hint of disappointment, I mean, where were the bluebirds? Where were the lilies? Where was the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the special one,with the brass quintet that the choir director has hired just for the weekend? How are you possibly supposed to proclaim the gospel of the resurrection without trombones, and maybe a tympani, and certainly the rites of spring? How are you supposed to proclaim the gospel of the resurrection here in this dark room overcome with the inevitability of death? I wish I could have remembered then what the Gospel asks us to remember now: that the Easter story can be a little messy. That it doesn’t always come on time. That the actors don’t always know their lines. That even the Gospel writer trips over his own words. I wish I could have remembered then, these women, who enter the tomb while it is still dark, these women who come with mourning and grief, these women who have lost their friend and their brother and their leader and their hope, these women who enter this dark room overcome with the inevitability of death. Inevitable, until they remember. Jesus said he would die, and rise again. Until they remember. Jesus said he would die, and rise again. Until they remember. Christ has died. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Remember! That’s all I want to say to you today. Remember! You go from here into a dark world overcome with the inevitability of death, but remember: Death has been swallowed up! That’s all I want to say to you today. Remember! You go from this story into your own story, and your own story may be as messy as they come, but remember: If God is for us, who can be against us! That’s all I want to say to you. Remember! Maybe this Easter feels just like Easter, I mean, maybe the Easter Bunny brought you everything your heart desired, maybe you woke up this morning and bluebirds helped you put on your Easter dress, like something out of Snow White, maybe the clouds parted when you walked out the door, maybe you’ve got a five-piece brass band in the car and you’re just waiting to bring it out, maybe this day is everything it’s supposed to be but I kinda of doubt it. Easter can be a little messy. It has lots of shadows, and it has lots of ghosts, and it surely feels like death wins all the time. But remember. Easter started in a cave. Before sunrise. In a dark room overcome with the inevitability of death. And then Jesus rose from the dead. So if today doesn’t feel much like Easter, remember: It didn’t feel much like Easter on the first Easter and then Jesus rose from the grave. So remember! Christ is risen! That’s all I want to say to you.
But it won’t be enough.
If only I could just say that to you, and we could all just remember it together, and we could all bring that story with us into all the hospice rooms waiting just outside those doors. But it doesn’t work like that. It won’t be enough. We won’t remember. We never do. That’s the problem in this story. Nobody remembers. These women have heard it before and they’ve already forgotten. Those disciples have heard it before and they’ve already forgotten, and, if you’re keeping score, they’re going to hear it again, and they’ll forget, again, before Luke’s Gospel even comes to a close. So when I say it won’t be enough just for me to remind you and you to remind me and then we go out into the world reminded and things get better, it doesn’t work like that, we forget, we always have. There’s something about the Easter story beyond our capacity to remember. The miracle of it. The wonder of it. The joy of it. There’s something about this Easter story that just doesn’t fit into our heads. In some ways I wish it were different. I wish I could remind you — Remember! Christ is risen! — and then we could all say that over and over, like we do, Easter Sunday, we say it over and over, like we’re cramming for a test, like we’re trying to memorize something and then go through the doors and sit down and take the exam and get it out before it leaks out so remember it carefully but it doesn’t work, it won’t stay in our brain, it never has. It’s too big for us. It’s too big for these women. It’s to big for these disciples. It’s even too big for the Gospel writer himself. And it’s certainly too big for us.
The only one who can carry it is God.
This is the biggest story we have, and the only one who can really tell it is God. The only one who can really hold it is God. The only one who can really remember it is God. That’s the grace embedded into the very fabric of that first Easter morning, that nobody can figure it out, that nobody can wrap their heads around it, that Easter keeps moving around and nobody can get a read on what’s happening and what it means and where that body went and why those angels showed up and what the heck is going on., nobody can figure it out but it doesn’t matter because the story’s not in their hands. This story is God’s to tell, and it’s God’s to remember, and it’s never been in our hands.
And that’s what I really want to say to you. Your story isn’t just in your hands. As you go from here into all the hospice rooms waiting outside these doors. As you go from here into the one giant hospice room waiting outside these doors, as you go from here into that darkness overcome with the inevitability of death, as you go from here, when you lose your way, when you lose your mind, when you feel like you’ve even lost yourself, your story’s not just in your hands. God remembers. And when you lose your hope, and when you lose your mind, and when you lose that thing you’ve forgotten and you’ve forgotten what it is, your story’s not just in your hands, God remembers. And when you lose your path, and when you lose your faith, and when you even lose who you are and you don’t know where you’ve been and you don’t know where you’re going, your story’s not just in your hands, God remembers.
Your story is part of God’s story. Your story is part of the one story. And when you get scared. And when you get lost. And when you forget where the story is going. And when you forget how the story ends. This is the Gospel for Easter Sunday. God remembers.
Margaret Hutchinson tells the story of an old woman. An old woman with dementia, pacing furiously the corridors of her nursing home. All day long, from morning until night, she would pace, furiously, up and down the corridors, speaking, under her breath, one word, over and over, “God, God, God, God.” The staff were dismayed, of course, but nobody entirely knew what to do, with a woman who couldn’t hold a conversation in her mind and couldn’t hold a memory in her brain and what to do with her in her distress. It was just the ravages of time and the frailty of memory and eventually the brain can’t hold things anymore and what do you do.
And then one day one nurse decided that she would just walk the route alongside this old woman, up and down the hallway, over and over. All morning long they went at it, up and down, back and forth, “God, God, God, God, God.” And then the nurse had a moment of inspiration. “Are you afraid that you will forget God?” Is that why you say the word over and over, God, God, God, are you afraid that if you stop saying God’s name that you will forget about God altogether? And the response was emphatic. “Yes! Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly it!”
“But don’t you know, my child,” the nurse said. “Even if you forget God. God will not forget you.”
And the woman came to a stop. And Hutchinson says that she became peaceful, immediately.
And I know what it was. The peace of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. Alleluia! Amen.