One Easter Sunday when I was in middle school, my hometown pastor got this idea that we would all gather in the cemetery for the sunrise Easter service and he asked me ahead of time to say the words that the men in Luke tell the women who gather at the tomb. The trouble is, that's how he wanted the worship to begin, but I wasn't sure what the cue was. This didn't occur to me until I was there, standing among all of these people in the wet grass and wondering exactly how I was going to know when to say my line. So we stood there for awhile, until I'm sure everyone was wondering exactly what we were doing out there on a chilly Minnesota Easter morning, and then I realized that my pastor was giving me the eye-- you know the one-- the one that says, "Okay, this is it. Are you going to do it or should I do it myself?" And in that instant I panicked and forgot my well rehearsed line and instead blurted out as loud as I could, "why are you all here? Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Go!" Everyone was a bit startled at what this crazy red head was doing, but my pastor graciously just grinned, finished the Scripture reading and ushered everyone inside for worship. Later he told me it reminded him a lot of the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
These Scriptures are startling, aren't they? We read them year after year, so I'm afraid they sound almost common to us now, but if we really allow ourselves to hear what they're saying, than we can find ourselves caught up in the confusion and fear and wonderment of that first morning. As a colleague of mine once wrote, "If you don't have serious doubts about the Easter story, than you're just not paying attention." (1)
Who doesn't have doubts about this amazing story? Everyone in it is doubting. The women are confused and afraid by finding the tomb empty, and I don't think the two men who show up and chastise them help much. Then they run and tell the disciples who, if you translate it literally, think that they're completely loony; that what they're sharing is just an idle tale, a bunch of trash. And all anyone is left with is an unsettling feeling about the whole ordeal.
You'd think the story might get clearer as it continues with the two disciples walking to Emmaus, trying to process all that has happened in the last 72 hrs, especially when someone shows up and begins to explain the whole thing to them-- explains to them how time after time in Scripture death seems like the obvious ending and then God brings new life and that this isn't any different than that, but even with a wonderfully laid out theological explanation, everyone still seems confused. It's not until they recognize Jesus-- see that it is him when he breaks bread with them-- that their confusion turns to joy and without delay they run back a whole day's journey to tell the others what they've seen.
Doubt is part of this story. It is part of this story because we know death so intimately. So reliably. Doubt isn't about not believing something as much as it is about believing something else more strongly. And we have every reason to believe strongly in death. (2)
And yet God keeps calling us to step into life.
God patiently listens to all of the reasons we have-- some very good reasons, I might add, for clinging to our ways of death-- and God keeps calling us into life.
About a month ago when we heard on the news that scientists believe there is a ninth planet in our solar system everyone in my household got very excited. We are intrigued by this planet that is ten times the mass of Earth, that is 50 billion years away, and that hasn't actually made it around the sun since our planet was formed. It boggles my mind. What a crazy thing! What an exciting thing-- to imagine what is out there that we cannot see. One of the scientists, when reflecting on how we can know there's a ninth planet if we can't even see it, said, "It must be there. Nothing else could exert such influence."
How many of you just got used to Pluto not being a planet? And now we have another one that we never even knew was out there. And overnight, things shift. New worlds are possible right here in our own solar system. And we have to ask ourselves-- how strong is our belief that there are only 8 planets in our solar system? How strong is our belief that we have to see it in order to believe it?
The women disciples didn't see Jesus. They told the men and Peter even decides to run back to the tomb just in case what they were saying is true, and he doesn't get to see Jesus either. Then Cleopas and his friend walk to Emmaus, and even though they get to see Jesus, by the time they realize it, he disappears. And if we were to read a little bit farther in the Gospel, then we would know that when Jesus does appear to them all, we are still told by the author of Luke that "while in their joy, they are still disbelieving and wondering."
That just seems to be the way with God. God seems to know that hitting us over the head with information-- appearing in this way or that way-- only seems to cause more confusion, not less. And yet even as we come together this morning, knowing nothing of the risen Christ except what we've heard from second hand accounts, the same way those first disciples first heard the news, we do know what has happened since that time. We know that those first fearful disciples became emboldened through the Holy Spirit to defy their fear of Rome, their fear of being crucified like Jesus, and instead went out proclaiming the good news of life that God invites us into. We know that those first believers, even in the middle of great persecution, continued to risk their lives to share what they knew of resurrection and that the word spread to another generation and then another and then another. Until today we, along with millions of people around the world, are gathered together proclaiming to one another, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
What happened on that first morning? I don't have a clue. No one saw Christ rise from the dead. No one has seen Planet 9. But "what else could exert such influence?" (3)
Resurrection changes everything, which is why it's so hard to believe.
In an interview with Yo Yo Ma, the famous cello player, he said that when he comes out to perform he does so not to prove to any audience that he can play the music, but rather to share with the audience the beauty that unfolds. (4)
This God that comes to us in Scripture and in Tradition and through our own reason and through our experience of the Holy Spirit is a God that is not much interested in proving anything to us. This is a God who isn't invested in making sure we know how mighty or amazing God is. This God isn't interested in those kinds of games. Instead, God comes to us through one another-- inviting us to reflect back the same kind of vulnerability, kindness, and strength that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. God comes to us, inviting us to trust in God's love above all else-- to trust in life even when we are in the midst of death-- to live not in fear, but instead to allow God's love to transform our relationships, to send us out to love our neighbor, and to heal our broken world.
Articles/People that influenced my thinking and writing of this sermon specifically include:
(1) Quoted from David Lose at davidlose.net
(2) This idea is from Craig Koester's commentary on Luke 24 from Working preacher.org out of Luther Seminary.
(3) I found this idea of Connecting Planet 9 to the resurrection from Shawnthea Monroe's article for "Living by the Word" in the March 16, 2016 issue of The Christian Century Magazine.
(4) This interview was from the MPR show, "On Being" with Krista Tippett from March 3, 2016 and can be found at MPR.org
(5) Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking