Sermon for Easter, April 17, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
He is Risen (he is risen indeed). let us pray….
Here we are on this glorious Easter morning, and the evidence of new life are all around us. Trees are budding; green shoots have succeeded again in poking their head up through layers of dirt and mulch and leaves to show evidence of new life. Daffodils and Hyacinths are blooming. Our church gardening crew was summoned this week to admire the results of their handiwork last fall. At my new house, I’m learning through the big reveal of mother nature that I have not one, but two large patches of day lilies spreading in my back yard area. My neighbors have these interesting clusters of tulips dotting their front lawn with no apparent method or design, just the evidence of new life planted by someone long ago before they occupied the house. The spring of Easter makes it easy for us to celebrate new life.
In our Easter scripture this morning, the women go to the tomb. The women - heartbroken and devastated - go to the tomb not to witness a miracle but to do that which they always do after death; to bring the fragrant oils and spices - the Myrrh and Frankincense - to anoint the body.
And there, they were confronted with a mystery. Two men in dazzling clothes say to them the most intriguing Easter phrase; Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?
I love this question because it’s such an audacious question - well, of course sir, we are here because we watched him die and believed what was before our eyes. What else would you have us believe? And then they are reminded… of his words…of his promises… and they remember his teaching… and they become perplexed, and amazed, and infused with wonder and return…
Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?
But it’s also a kind of paradox. We know from nature that we must have death, and darkness, and dormancy, and decay, and decomposition to get new life. In my former church we started a garden, but instead of putting the garden seeds into the ground, we put them onto hay bales! Straw Bale gardening, as it is called, utilizes the decomposition of the Hay to supply nutrients to the sprouting seeds. You prepare the hay for 2 weeks prior to planting by soaking it with warm water to begin the decomposition process. Then you add a thin layer of soil and you poke the seeds into the soil. The hay continues to break down throughout the growing season, constantly feeding and nourishing the seedlings. It works - amazingly well - and is even reusable for a second or third year. From the leaf remains in your yard, the decomposition of plant litter by worms, the mulch covering the flower garden, to the fertilizer you purchased at the garden store; all of it comes from death converted back into the energy needed for those tiny blades of life coming through the ground. The process of decay recycles the dead and resupplies the building blocks of life. Far from being the end, death marks the start of a series of events that together complete the circle of life. So it’s natural to look for the living amongst the dead.
I also love it because it makes my mind leap to what it means, metaphorically, to be living. What are the signs of life that would help us recognize the living? I mean, obviously as we will see in the weeks to come, walking, talking and eating are some strong indicators for signs of life. But what else helps indicate vitality? Would it be joy? Vibrancy? Connection? Passion for a purpose? Hope for what comes next? Confidence and faith in the future?
What do you think is important to detecting life?
I’ve heard colleagues who tell stories of congregations they’ve served; congregations that are stagnant and shrinking as the life long members grow older and move away or pass on. These minister colleagues of mine might have been called to present a comprehensive, detailed strategy to the congregation to bring new life into the church - to break patterns of disfunction or decline and create new opportunities to reach the community. But when it comes down to changing, the church refuses change in favor of the comfort of the way it’s always been done, obliviously consigning themselves to decline. And yet there are congregations like ours eagerly experimenting with all kinds of events to connect with our communities - through service, through fish fry’s, through patio concerts, and through a host of new ideas we are batting around for the coming year.
And this Lent, we’ve read stories and heard first person testimony from immigrants and refugees - bringing us much closer to people who have had so much tragedy thrown into their lives that they should have given up long ago. Yet these people push, and save, and and sacrifice, and fight for a future that hints toward the abundance of peace, love and prosperity - the abundance that God wants for all of us.
“why do you look for the living among the dead”?
This Easter morning, the women come to the tomb to find it empty. According to Luke, they are not terrified, but confused. But once they have been reminded, by the men in dazzling white, they remember. They remember the words, they remember the promises, they remember the teachings, and they are filled with the hope of new things, and connection to what had come before, and passion again for the will of God, and purpose in sharing it with everyone they know. They run back to the disciples to share the good news.
The disciples though, weighed down by defeat, and grief, and despair, and anxiety about what comes next, cannot process what the women said. Their worries weigh so heavily on their head that they cannot look up to entertain the unimaginable. The bible actually says they ‘dismiss it as idle talk’.
Peter goes to see. Peter, the Rock. Peter, the one renamed Simon. Peter, the one upon which Jesus will build his church; he does not dismiss the women. He goes to see. But he comes back only perplexed. Peter, the most steadfast disciple who nonetheless denied knowing Jesus three times the night before, gets bogged down in the ‘how’. How is this possible? How is the tomb empty? How is he gone? How do you know for sure? How? How? How?
We see in today’s scripture the disciples getting stuck on the ‘how’. It’s easy to get stuck in the ‘how’, to doubt the possibility because of the details, to miss the forest and get lost in the trees, to surrender the idea to the stumbling blocks before it. We can get stymied the ‘how’ and stop all forward movement. Or we can lean into faith and trust and remember God’s promises.
Just look at us. Look at our project for co-sponsoring a refugee family. When we introduced this idea, I heard the anxiety that bubbled up in conversation. I heard the quiet fear and insecurity rippling through the congregation that we would be, that we are, somehow, inadequate to this calling of supporting a family newly landed in this country. I heard the concern, the worry about the ‘how’. How will we do it? How will we find the money? How will we find the volunteers? How will we manage?
We almost got lost in the ‘how’.
But look where we are now! As of this weekend, we have raised more than $3000 - much much more, actually - I imagine we are closer to $4000 - and have more than 30 volunteers signed up to assist us. We’ve even found some volunteers from our partner Colonial UCC and a few names from our neighbors who attended the fish fry. We are inspiring this neighborhood, and our ‘idle talk’ is calling on them to get involved. Why worry about what’s possible when all things are made possible when motivated by love? Why get lost in the ‘how’s when we know that God made the ‘how’s mere stumbling blocks, not true obstacles. Are we afraid of success? Are we afraid of all the ways we’ll be changed when we alter our lives, open our hearts and open the door to new people and new responsibilities? Are we afraid step into the future with faith? Are we afraid of resurrection? Do we believe in the power of love to conquer all?
In our other reading today, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that resurrection is God’s power to create a new reality for all creation, a new heaven and earth. Isaiah paints a picture, where former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. In this new reality, there will be no more infant mortality, no more premature death; no more slavery or exploitation. This new creation reconfigures relationships. It puts people at the same level, arm in arm and across the table from each other. What you build, you will inhabit; and people shall enjoy the work of their hands. Neighbors will work side by side, and a person’s life and labor and intention will all bring joy, satisfaction and good fortune. And the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion becomes vegetarian. Wait, how’s that? If the king of the jungle becomes a vegetarian, how will the circle of life be maintained?
Again, getting lost in the how. How can we expect this to be true?
We know about the truth of the cross - the boundless mercy of God, and the death defying power of divine love and the victory over the domination powers of this world because people witnessed to it, with testimony, and with their lives. People were touched by it; first there were few, some women with their ‘idle’ tale of wonder and surprise. Then there were men, first 2, then 11, perplexed by the events and transformed by their experience of the risen Christ. First they were touched, and then they became participants in the resurrection. And then there was Paul, transfixed and transformed by his vision on the road to Damascus. Because of these people, this story didn’t end. The end of the story was suspended. The resurrection wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning. Those 12 plus the women plus Paul became dozens, then hundreds, then thousands and millions of people who have experienced the wonder and revelation of this paradox of God, all the way down to us sitting here this glorious Easter morning.
How did it come to be believed by so many? We know this story not because of some idle reporting, but because people witnessed to it by upending their lives. We know something significant, cataclysmic, earth-shattering happened that early morning because people put their lives on the line to tell the story. We know about the power of God’s transformation because so many before us testified to how they have surrendered their desires, their anger, their greed, and their grudges – their very selves to God’s call of compassion, serving others, loving their neighbors, and self-sacrifice…and through this surrender they have, themselves, been transformed.
God wins. The victory has already won. As a part of this story, as people sitting here in these pews, we are already a resurrected people. We don’t need to worry, we don’t need to fret. God has already shown us that the impossible is possible. The resurrection is an invitation. It is not a way to avoid pain or skip death. It doesn’t undo the horror of the crucifixion or absorb all our trauma. But it opens a door through to continue life. It is an embossed invitation to become part of what will be. It is an invitation to be the signs of life - to find the living amongst the dead.
Because every ending is a new beginning. What has come before nurtures what will come next. Within the compost is the nourishment needed by the seeds. Underneath the decomposing leaf cover is new life, new growth, new sprouts. From the beginning we have been challenged to see the unexpected, the bewildering and impossible. God is always doing new things. Because the truth, the paradox, is life is always sprouting from places where there is death. The fertility of spring is always coming after the dormancy of winter. Our resurrection is always connected to what has come before, and what has come before will always nurture what comes next. Today we stand with the disciples, in wonderment of the empty tomb. Let us not get stymied by the ‘how’s but proclaim ourselves on the doing end, the end bringing hope, and passion, and connection, and joy, and purpose to a resurrected world. Let us not get stuck at the empty tomb. What comes next will be our story. Amen.