Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning
EASTER SERMON, APRIL 20, 2014
ST. MATTHEW’S PARISH, Pacific Palisades CA
Welcome! welcome, happy morning!
Welcome, happy morning! Age to age shall say;
Hell today is vanquish, heaven is one today!
These words will be sung at the offertory today as the choir premieres a piece by a composer and member of this church, John O’Reilly. It comes with a dedication: in thanksgiving for the ministry of the Rev. Betsy Anderson, the newly retired associate for pastoral ministry here. The music certainly captures Betsy’s spirit, for she was marked by joy and hope— that which is also meant as the gift of this worship, this day, for all of you.
On the first Easter there was joy and hope, but something else. It was Surprise. It was totally Unexpected. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb as any who mourn, many of us even, when our love takes us to the place where the body was buried. Matthew’s Easter story has an earthquake, and an angel who rolled back the stone. I like the picture. The angel sat on it. Oh how I wish I knew what was on the face of the angel. A smile, probably. But what kind of smile?
In the story the two women didn’t see Jesus. They saw where he was. Or where his body was and now where it wasn’t. The angel had a message for them.
We get a clue to what was on their faces for the angel told them “Do not be afraid.” They were to go and tell the disciples what has happened. And then they ran away, with both fear and great joy. A most interesting complex of emotions. And then? And then Jesus meets them, also telling them also not to be afraid. His brothers were to go to Galilee where they would see him.
So we sing with great joy and hope about the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had joy tempered by fear, by unexpected news — an event that was incomprehensible, and still is. There is no way to explain how it happened, for no one saw it happen.
Remember this: two days before these women had watched him die and presumably they reported the details to the disciples who had abandoned Jesus out of fear. Fear, or maybe it bordered on terror, was a character playing a role throughout the story. The fear of the religious authorities; Pilate’s fear of the crowds; the fear of the two who were crucified with him; and even the anguish of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
And so like a grief many of us have known coming to the end of our story with someone we have loved, in coming to that tomb those women may have wondered if there could ever be another tomorrow. But that empty tomb signaled the message, to quote one theologian, “God’s tomorrow has already taken up residence in humanity’s today.” [Lewis, between Cross and Resurrection, page 65]
In the days to come, for those first disciples, and for us who will continue for seven weeks to celebrate Easter, fear is transformed into joy, and then into a faith and hope that serving as a beacon light to overcome despair in those times when the world gets shattered again.
So often the Psalms from the Old Testament speak with a real honesty about those times of despair—when we ask “Why?”, “Why did this have to happen?”, “Why me?”.
This Easter morning Psalm declared: God is our strength and our salvation. It speaks of victory and triumph. Earlier in verses we don’t read, however, we hear about distress, fear, being surrounded by your enemies. The Psalmist says he was falling but the Lord helped him. And then there was this reflection on rejection: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
Now a cornerstone sounds like what is needed for starting construction on a building that can last. In Jerusalem they often used solid limestone for their buildings, but I learned from Michael Seiler, who’d been to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that it was site of worthless limestone. Marked by cracks and crevices—useful only for crucifixion and burial. Thus the Christian understanding of the cornerstone of our faith begins in a place where building something to last wasn’t possible. Or was it.
After all, the cornerstone of the faith of the Apostles was that it was Jesus crucified raised by by the power of God.
You will not find any suggestion that Jesus somehow survived crucifixion and burial. Resurrection is not the survival of death. The message from its earliest days was that it was Christ crucified whom God raised from the dead. And Paul wrote that this was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Two days previously, the world of unforgiving legalism and the world Imperial power declared it alone could crucify people. They were victorious on Friday and that Sabbath. Their world was safe — Jesus was dead, and buried.
Easter morning tells a different story. The world will still have its unforgiving legalism. Violence will mar the landscapes of many lives. Tragedy strikes so many who are innocent and mortal. We must note the cloud of grief hovering over those in South Korea on this Easter morning who lost friends, and most side of also many children in that ferry that sunk. The story told to frequently in the pages of history called anti-Semitism was there in Kansas City, and the Jewish residents for the elderly, and their three died, three who were Christians, but who died nonetheless because the killer thought they were Jews. Hatred tells so many—really too many sad stories.
Two days ago, on Good Friday, Brian Palmer, emphasized that the cross pointed to love—to the way God loves the world. And last night George Daisa in his sermon, that almost bordered on an altar call, we emphasized God’s call to all of us to be disciples of Jesus. Disciples who would be part of a revolution of love—indeed a living sign to the world that seeks success and things as if what we possess and achieve brings us ultimate hope and joy. Instead we are to be servants in the way of Jesus.
I had already put into my Easter sermon a story about a man who failed in that world of success and having things. It wasn’t that this man found God or the church, but he did find Starbucks.
Michael Gill’ book is called How Starbucks Saved My Life. It’s not a rags to riches to story. He had a riches to rags story, days away from being homeless when he got a job at a Starbucks coffee shop. There he learned to clean bathrooms, and eventually became a barrista. It was finding dignity in a world he never expected to be in.
The story he tells about cleaning a bathroom the Starbucks way was powerful; it was Crystal who had taught him how to do it, but then he also locked his newly clean bathroom to a non-paying homeless man. Then he’d had to face the stern warning from Crystal to never make that mistake again.
Crystal was like Jesus in his story. “In my store, in our store, (p. 80)we are welcoming.” she said. “Don’t refuse that toilet to anyone especially someone who really needs some welcome and someone who doesn’t need another person putting them down.”
It was a turning point in Mike Gills life. He reflected on his journey from being unemployed to cleaning a bathroom at Starbucks.
“Back off, I told myself. You are not on some high-flying spiritual journey. You are a guy who made a series of stupid mistakes, some like the ones you made tonight, and you blew an easy existence. Pace it, Mike, I told myself, you didn’t get religion … you got broke.
I admitted at that moment that I would never have found this new world I really loved unless I had had to.
And I had not been on some spiritual journey for the perfect job or satisfying life: I had been caught in a struggle for survival. Which was common for most people in this world, but uncommon for the spoiled prince I had been. Crystal had noticed me, the way you might see someone having trouble swimming, and given me a hand.
What was that famous poem about swimming by Stevie Smith when she says she was not waving but drowning?”
I liked that book. And Jesus showing up as Crystal. There are many Easter stories around us and they don’t always have to speak of Jesus.
The key for us is to remember that the Jesus story isn’t about success. And it’s not just about surviving. It’s about an abundance of joy and promise in the face of realities that seem like huge stones guarding tombs holding something or someone who has died. Or maybe they are the stones rolled over the hidden things in our life that need to be resurrected. I like what the theologian Leslie Newbigin said about the Jesus story: in the New Testament the emphasis is always on what’s unexpected. It’s always about surprise.
“It is the sinners who will be welcomed: to those who are confident thinking that their place in the world is secured will find themselves outside. God will shock the righteous by his limitless generosity and by his tremendous severity. The ragged beggars from the lanes and ditches will be in the festal hall, and the man who thought his own cloths were good enough will find himself thrown out (Matt. 22:1-14). The honest, hard-working lad will be out in the dark while the young scoundrel is having a party in his father’s house (Luke 15) .” [ The Open Secret, Page 173]
So many stories of reversal in the ministry of Jesus. If you come back often enough you’ll discover its a really long list of unexpected surprises. Easter tops the list, but all the others prepared the way. And it is the crucified messiah is the one who is resurrected. And now we know! Death does not have the last word upon human destiny. The powers of darkness will not have the last word. Yes welcome happy morning age to age shall say!
That anthem concludes with:
God of life the authored death did undergo,
Tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
Come, then, true and faithful, now fulfill your word.
On this bright third morning praise the risen Lord.
So let Easter not just be a day but let it be a verb — verbs are the energy that makes sentences work. Verbs that get us somewhere. Verbs for keep us moving. So it was that one poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, prayerfully asked that God Easter in us. May God Easter in us in whatever days are dark or fearful. May God Easter in us in our uncertainties. May God Easter in us in all our doubts. May God Easter in us and in all that we do in our families and what we share among our friends. And may the blessing of this day Easter in us this day and always. Amen.