Easter Sermon

Passage: John 20:1-18
Date: April 1, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Presbyterian pastor and scholar Craig Barnes says this about Easter. “No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen. Easter is the last thing we are expecting. And that is why it terrifies us. This day is not about bunnies, springtime, and …cute new dresses. It’s about more hope than we can handle.

“…The question Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ but ‘Have you encountered a risen Christ?’”

When Mary and Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid, they saw nothing, or rather, they saw no one. It was an unfilled space, littered a bit by some cloths, but a space that had been emptied. It was proof of nothing except the reality that the body of their beloved Jesus was no longer there. That was their dark place, the place where hope could not be seen.

But then, outside the tomb, in a garden still a bit damp with the morning’s frost, Mary meets someone – a gardener, maybe; a savior, maybe. That is when Easter happens, when the risen Christ calls Mary by name, and she knows that everything he had said was really, truly true. That is when Mary experienced more hope than she could handle.

Easter did not happen in that mystery between God and Jesus when God raised Jesus from the dead. Easter did not happen when Mary saw that the stone had been rolled away, nor when Peter and the disciple wondered at the folded grave cloths. Easter happened when Mary encountered the risen Christ. And Easter happens when we do the same.

Perhaps it would be helpful to bring that phrase to life, to imagine or describe what it is to encounter a risen Christ. I think encountering a risen Christ has to do with those things that show to us that life is stronger than death, and that love prevails through it all. Let me share a few stories with you about what I think are encounters with a risen Christ, where life is stronger than death, and where love prevails.

Perhaps you, like me, are concerned about our kids – about the pressures they face, and what life is like right now in our schools and our neighborhoods, and as we learn more about how childhood experiences affect adult life. Perhaps you have also heard about kids doing something positive for themselves and their peers.

Imagine you’re at school, it’s lunch time, you’re in the cafeteria, and you don’t know where to sit because you don’t know who will welcome you. Teenager Natalie Hampton has been there. A few years ago, when a high school junior, she created an app called Sit With Us. She explains, “At my old school, I was completely ostracized by all of my classmates, and so I had to eat lunch alone every day. When you walk into the lunchroom and you see all the tables of everyone sitting there and you know that going up to them would only end in rejection, you feel extremely alone and extremely isolated, and your stomach drops. And … you know that if you sit by yourself, there’ll be so much embarrassment that comes with it because people will know and they’ll see you as the girl who has nowhere to sit. …there’s so many awful feelings that come along with it.”

She changed schools and her situation got better, but, as she said, “I felt that if I was thriving in a new school but didn’t do anything about the people who feel like this every single day, then I’m just as bad as the people who watched me eat alone. I felt like, with my story, it was my job to stand up and do something about all the kids who feel like this every day. And I wanted to create something that would address bullying, but in a positive way.”

Boca Raton high schooler Denis Estimon had a similar experience. An immigrant from Haiti, Denis remembers as a first grader feeling isolated, especially at lunchtime. He says, “To me it’s like, if we don’t try to go make that change, who’s going to do it?” So with some friends, Denis started a club called “We Dine Together.” Their mission is to go into the courtyard at lunchtime to make sure no one is starving for company. There are now hundreds of We Dine Together clubs in high schools around the country.

Both Natalie and Denis, and those who helped them, knew a dark place, and responded by creating something that offered hope.

Many of you are aware of the terrible fire in the auto salvage yard in the nearby Cully neighborhood a few weeks ago. I had been checking the website and Facebook page of Living Cully, an organization committed to housing and other livability issues in Cully, for ways to help those affected by the fire. I’d not seen anything until last week when our friends at Northeast Emergency Food Program sent a request for some specific items for one neighbor who lost everything when his apartment was destroyed in the fire.

So last Sunday I announced that there would be a list of items needed at the mission table at coffee hour, and I made twenty copies of the list. By the time I got to coffee hour, all twenty pieces of paper had been picked up. One donor brought a bag to the church, which I took over to NEFP on Thursday.

I took the clothes into a storage space. There was a metal shelving unit, taller than me and about six feet wide, that was overflowing with donations. I spoke with Cece and Travis, two of the NEFP staff members, who told me the response to their plea was overwhelming. As an addendum, more items will be needed for more of those displaced by the fire, but at the moment those families are staying in shelters and hotels and have nowhere to store anything. So stay tuned, and thank you all for your generosity.

I cannot imagine what a dark place it must be to lose all your worldly goods, but perhaps there is hope in the generosity of strangers and neighbors.

Last week in The New York Times I read a piece by a woman named Margaret Renkl, writing about why she will be going to church this Sunday for the first time in a year. She says, “During college and graduate school, I tried to talk myself out of believing in God. The reasons not to believe were multifarious and convincing. The reasons to believe came down to only one: I couldn’t not believe. I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.

“The year away from church hasn’t made me miss the place itself. I don’t miss the stained glass. I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. But I do miss being part of a congregation. I miss standing side by side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world. I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parents’ shoulders. I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace. I miss the singing.

And she concludes. “So I will be at Mass again on Easter morning, as I have been on almost every Easter morning of my life. I will wear white and remember the ones I loved who sat beside me in the pew and whose participation in the eternal has found another form, whatever it turns out to be. I will lift my voice in song and give thanks for my life. I will pray for my church and my country, especially the people my church and my country are failing. And then I will walk into the world and do my best to practice resurrection.”

How will you live into Easter?

Margaret Renkl will practice resurrection; Craig Barnes encourages encounters with a risen Christ. I invite you seek out those places and those events and those people who will give you hope that life is so much stronger, and better, than death. I invite you to look for love in any situation you find yourself or the world in, and if you do find love, to mirror that. I invite you, when you find yourself in that dark place where hope is unimaginable, not to flee the dark, but to wait there a while, because often it is while waiting in the dark that we begin to see the light.

On Good Friday, two beloved members of our congregation died. Sue Reif and Chrissie Thomas have joined the great cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before them, and there will be time in the coming weeks to celebrate their lives and to remind each other of the promise of life after death. I know on this Easter day, some are still waiting in that empty tomb, grieving the loss of dear friends. There is a holiness to that empty space.

As I said when I began, I am glad you are here today, because it is better to go through grief and joy in community, where if we fall, someone will catch us, and if we sing, someone will join us. It is in community that we find hope—hope that someone will sit with us when we’re alone; hope that someone will help us when we lose all that we have; hope that there is a God who is greater than all the misery and pain of the world. It is the hope of encountering resurrection, for Christ is risen, and waiting to meet us again.