Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter Sermon

Easter  Sermon

Transforming Absence

By Rich Gamble


I prefer the Gospel of Mark’s original version. In that Gospel there is just an empty tomb, no sign of Jesus, just a guy wearing white waiting to greet whomever might show up to honor the body not there. By the time Matthew wrote his later version there is a bigger cast and special effects, an earthquake and an angel to move the stone from in front of the tomb.


Easter is the most important day of our faith, this day whose symbol is an absence, an empty tomb. In this story there is no throne, no victory parade, just some discarded burial linens in an empty tomb. It is in that place, that image, that moment where all that has gone before and all that will come after collide.


The whole story of the Gospel leads us to this moment. Jesus is a prophet, hated by people in power and sought out as a human cure-all by those in need. He was utterly misunderstood by his own followers. He was loved by the some of the crowds, and then hated by some of the crowds, and eventually arrested, tortured and executed by those who saw him as a threat to their power. He had drawn a group of strangers together as a family but when his end came, there on the Roman cross, most of them were absent, hiding, denying that they ever knew him.


Until this morning we knew the story. A good person speaks the truth to make the world a better place and those who have the world’s power, use it to silence the truth teller and intimidate everyone else. We know the story. It is tragic but that is the way of things. The brave ones, the uncompromising ones, the truth tellers, are tolerated as long as they speak their truths in obscurity. If ever folks start to listen….they are silenced.


And so we live in the shadow of fear, a fear so pervasive that we cannot even see it. We do not even consciously experience it as fear. As much as we love those stories where the little guy wins against great odds, deep down we know that ninety nine times out of a hundred the little guy gets run over without a second glance. So, as much as we love those stories, we know enough to keep our heads down, keep our retirement accounts as robust as possible and to stay with the herd and hope for the best. And even when we strongly believe that the herd is racing for the cliff’s edge…well, it seems safer to just run along with the rest than to stop and go a different way.


It is an ancient story. Until this morning we knew the ending. Good guys finish last. Prophets finish alone.


Jesus came to town and took on the Powers that Be and met a horrible end. We know the story. It is the story of the one who speaks up about poor working condition, and gets fired. It is a story that played out thousands of times in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and Argentina. An activist priest, a labor organizer, a civil rights advocate disappears and if they ever show up again, it is as a mangled corpse along side a road or in a city dump.


I met a man once, when I was working with people in crisis. He came because he wanted money for a bus to go back to his home. He said that he had given away all of his possessions because that is what Jesus did. I explained to him that we had limited funds, we prioritized families with children, and we only helped with more desperate needs like rent or utilities. I told him that I could recommend a shelter for him to stay in. He got angry. “I can’t stay in those places,” he said, “it’s filled with drunks and addicts.” Somehow he expected that by seeking to be like Jesus he would deserve better than the most reviled amongst us. I don’t think he understood the meaning of the cross.


We know how the story ends. Stand up, speak up, put your life into the work of love and justice and of course you will find yourself alone, penniless and reviled or worse…


And because we know how the story goes, we praise Jesus for taking the hit for us. Because we know the story we fritter on the edge of commitment, we quietly wash our hands of the responsibility for the world that hurtles towards the destruction which we can see coming but do little to stop. Because we know that there is no real hope; there is no chance that anything we do will change things. We know that the only thing that will happen if we throw our hearts and lives and savings into the struggle for a better world is that we will end up with our hearts broken, our lives and resources spent for nothing and the world continuing to sprint towards catastrophe.


And the proof that it is all futile, the proof that there is no sense in sticking our necks out for strangers, the proof is that person there: that woman who spoke up to her landlord and is now evicted. Those people who spent years of their lives, to end homelessness, to save the environment, to stop a war all to no avail. Not to mention that dead guy in the tomb who didn’t have the sense to keep his head down and his mouth shut.


And since we know, we crawl into busy safe lives. We build our own tombs of fear and take up residence. We work in jobs that we don’t believe in, we seek status that means nothing, we narcotize ourselves with electronic diversions, and seek the most comfortable cabin on this iceberg bound Titanic of a civilization.


That is where we are as a people this Easter morning, thinking that we know the story, standing at the tomb, and staring aghast at the discarded linens, trying to get our minds around what it all means.


If Jesus isn’t locked away in a tomb, then why are we? If death isn’t the end of the story, if somehow God has written a different end to the same old story, then maybe our lives are not what we thought they were. Maybe this precious time that we have between birth and death is about something more than carving out a safe niche for ourselves and the ones we choose to love. If Jesus’ story does not end with the tomb, then maybe all those other stories of defeat were misunderstood. Maybe all the suffering and sacrifices of those who sought justice and peace and fullness of life for all were not wasted. Maybe theirs was not the story of loss but part of a bigger story, of a broader victory to come. Maybe we can be a part of something bigger whose limits are beyond our limits whose life is beyond our life, whose dream is beyond our dreams.  


If Jesus isn’t locked away in a tomb, then maybe we have the power to roll away the stone that keeps us safely silent. Maybe we can awaken from our slumber and see the God given power we have to transform our lives and the world around us.


Maybe we can dare to act as if we truly do have hope.


That empty tomb stands as a challenge to those of us in comfortable communities in a world of suffering and need.


That empty tomb stands as an invitation to risk what we hold dear so that God’s love may be shared.


Just maybe that hopeful, fearful absence in the tomb of Jesus sings in its silence of the possibility that death and all the little deaths we fear, have no real power in the reality of God’s dream.


“Do not be afraid,” the angel says.


We have a choice, here at the empty tomb; we can live our lives in the fear of death, or live our lives in the hope of God’s power of life over death. We can crawl into a tomb of conformity to a world ruled by lies and fear or we can abandon our fear like an unneeded shroud.


Take away the special effects budget and that’s what we get: a choice, an invitation, a hope founded on an ambiguity that only faith can sort out. In the Gospels the resurrected Jesus invites his followers back to Galilee, back to where the story began. Only this time, they will be the Christ, they will be the truth-tellers and healers and this time they will have faith in a different ending to the same old story.


“Do not be afraid,” the resurrected Jesus says to the women at the tomb and to us.


At the heart of this day stands a choice, an invitation to live with hope or be buried in fear. Is Jesus’ life a story that we bury in book, a history, a few tired rituals and a ticket to heaven? Or is the spirit of Jesus’ moving among us, inspiring us, leading us to embody the love of God and become hope for the world.


That place of absence where death should be is our place of choosing and in that choice our future and the world’s hope hang in the balance.  Amen

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