Easter Homily April 21, 2019
As you are traveling east out of Eagle River past Trigs and the Ford dealership you will see a sign on your left. There is a giant eagle statue next to the sign which says “Glad you are here”. Not far from the sign is the city cemetery. I guess the city doesn’t want to leave anyone out: both the dead and the living are welcome. I read a story about a pastor running an errand in town. He has his five-year old son with him. They pass by the cemetery. Near the road is a freshly dug grave with a mound of dirt next to it. The five year old became quite excited and said to his dad, “Look, one got out!” The father, a pastor, thought that might be a good Easter sermon title: “One got out!”
Years ago in another parish the phone rang. An elderly lady, who was a member of the church, asked if I could please give her ride to the cemetery. Some relative of hers had died recently but she was not able to come to the funeral service. So at the appointed time I picked her up and we went to the church cemetery. We found the grave and I stood back figuring she wanted some time of quiet meditation. But she was anything but quiet. She stooped down as far as her aged back would permit, and she stared right into the top of the grave. With a loud voice she quoted scripture: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also….I am the Way, and the Truth, and Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” After quoting that text from the gospel of John, she told me she was done and so I drove her home.
I had to think about what she did. At first I thought it strange, did this dear elderly saint think her deceased relative could actually hear her? Did she stoop low to the grave and shout thinking it would help him hear? Afterwards I felt she was having a little funeral service for her loved one. She was preaching to me, the birds, the trees, and to herself using Jesus’ words of promise. Death is certainly troubling, but the call is to have faith, faith born from the good news of the Father’s house. Jesus is our welcome into the eternal home of no more death, crying or pain. Jesus will come and take us to himself. A cemetery is often called a final resting place but that woman had the gall, the spunk, the nerve to shout, “NO!”: death does not have the final say. Even though we die, we shall live, thanks be to Jesus. He will bring us to the eternal resting place, the Father’s house, heaven, to live with God forever.
In the gospel reading we heard of women going to the cemetery at the crack of dawn. These are the women the gospel of Luke said followed Jesus and supported his work with their resources. After Jesus died on the cross, they noticed Jesus did not have a proper burial. A good and righteous man named Joseph of Arimathea got permission to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, wrap his body in a linen cloth and place the corpse in a newly made tomb. The women took note and decided to prepare spices and ointments to properly prepare the body once the day of Sabbath rest was over. They entered the tomb and discovered something was missing. The body of Jesus was not there. Then angels appeared suddenly and the poor women were terrified. The angel asked, “Why do you look for the living one among the dead? As you can see, Jesus is not here. He has risen from the dead. Take your funeral ointments back to the store and get a refund, you won’t need them. Don’t you remember what Jesus told you on several occasions? He would be crucified and on the third day rise again.” I like what was said next in the text, “Then they remembered.” The first to have faith on the first Easter morn was the women disciples.
Now the disciples became apostles, sent on the mission to tell the rest of the disciples, the eleven and the rest of the men. But they were met with a solid wall of unbelief. Even more, they thought the women concocted an idle tale. The word the gospel writer used was where we get the English word “delirious’. The men thought the women were out of their minds. For them Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. The last anyone checked the dead remain dead. Those eleven disciples and others did not remember what Jesus told them. Now Peter got off his behind and went to the tomb to have a look. He saw no dead body and went home amazed; no word whether he believed or not.
When I first read the text from Luke for today, it struck me as incomplete. It seemed to end with a lot of doubt and unbelief. How do you deal with a text where the first witness of the resurrection was considered, to use a term common of late, fake news? But the text is very human and hits home. How many times has our faith been tested and troubled? Look around and death is alive and well. By death I mean two main things. Death is the end of your life. Most of us have been hit hard by the death of loved ones. It is overwhelming for some and they become angry with God. As a pastor I have been amazed at the faith of some people during a time of a loved one’s death. But I have also seen the opposite. Hard questions are asked and I have no satisfactory answers; some leave the church. We can’t just shrug death off and say, it is the natural way of things. We are human beings who form relationships of love and care, and death indeed hurts. It is no wonder the word “bereaved” means “robbed”.
Death is also that underlying power that pits human beings against one another. I think the Bible is very insightful when it says the fear of death holds the human race in a kind of slavery. We are tempted to thoughts, words and deeds that do not promote life and love as our Creator intends. The apostle Paul famously struggled with this and honestly admitted: “the good I know I should be doing is not what I do; the evil I know not to do is what I end up doing. Then he called out for help, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
We can be like those first disciples, manipulated by our fears. And we may think the news of resurrection of Jesus is an idle tale, or to put it bluntly, nuts. We come to church, which is an act of defiance against the power of death, and we hear :”Do you not remember what Jesus told you.” Jesus said he would be crucified with the appearance the power of sin, death and the way of the world has won. But he is risen from the dead, and with us as Savior and Lord: the Compassionate one who forgives our sins and saves us by being with us always; He is Lord because nothing can cancel or end his love for us, not even death. Resurrection does not have for a scientific explanation. Resurrection is the work of God who has not abandoned this world. Resurrection is in my vocabulary because of Jesus: he has been raised and is called the ‘first fruits’, meaning Jesus is the first of greater harvest to come. Resurrection means for me God will take care of me no matter what the devil, the world, and my own sinful nature may do. For me resurrection means all the enemies of life as God intends, all under the heading of death, will be destroyed. Life in this world involves suffering, but Jesus suffers with us and give us hope, and is leading the faithful to the springs of the water of life, the healing of creation. This new creation the book of Revelation insightfully pictures as the union of heaven and earth. Our home is with God. I think I may do something a bit crazy today: I will buy two steaks, one for me, and one for the dog. It sounds nuts, I know, but resurrection involves all of creation. I love those psalms that speak of clapping trees and singing rivers rejoicing at the coming of God to judge the earth. And we know God’s judgment: new life in God, assured by Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and death to death and its power. So I need to keep coming to church so I remember what Jesus told me, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
In Moscow, Russia, there is the famous Red Square, often the location for military parades. We have seen pictures of tanks, missiles, and other military hardware on display. In the background is an archway called the “resurrection gate”. The original had been destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s, but restored to an exact facsimile in the 1990s. On the gate is an icon, a Russian Orthodox painting titled “Anastasis”, the word for resurrection. It shows a victorious Jesus rising from the dead. In one hand Jesus is holding a cross. With the other he is holding Adam and rescuing him from the power of death. Adam stands for all humanity. Resurrection is to bring hope for all of humanity. As we heard in the first lesson “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins though Jesus’ name.” When Russia holds military displays in Red Square, it represents the power of death. But standing as faithful witness is the icon, the painting depicting Jesus’ rescue of humanity from the power of death. So let us come and remember what Jesus has told us, he is risen from the dead for us and all creation, let us rejoice and be glad.