Monday, April 17, 2017

fake news vs. good news: a sermon for Easter

Rev. Teri Peterson
Fake News v Good News
Luke 24.1-12
16 April 2017, Easter Day, NL3-32

Today’s scripture reading comes from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 24, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
At noon on Friday, the day had become dark, and at 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus breathed his last. His twelve male disciples had already fled in fear, but the women stood nearby and watched until the end. It was both the first day of Passover and the day before the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council of Jewish elders, had taken Jesus’ body and laid it in his own family tomb. Luke tells us that the women who had followed Jesus through his ministry in Galilee and Judea went with Joseph, and they saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid and the tomb sealed. Then they returned to their lodgings, and prepared spices and ointments. The next day was the Sabbath, and they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I sometimes think that Easter is the hardest day of the Christian calendar. It is without question the most important day, when Christ was raised from dead and so the power of God’s love was proven to be greater than even the worst humanity could do.

But sometimes it’s still awfully hard. For one thing, “we do not have language large enough for the reality we have now entered.”[1] The resurrection of Jesus changed everything—the world can never be the same. But I’m not sure that now, thousands of years later, we think much about that. It’s so commonplace that we have become used to the domesticated Jesus. We have carefully contained God in words—lots and lots of words, sometimes big fancy ones—and therefore carefully put God exactly where we’d like to keep him (because this God is always a him) safely out of our way. We are no longer shocked by the idea that God would become a human being, let alone one who would be killed by the state and then raised from the dead. And we have often dismissed Jesus’ teaching as nice stories and good ideas that can’t really be applied in modern life.

We have far more words now than at any time in human history, and yet we still can’t quite express just what God is up to. No matter how many fancy words we create or borrow, we just don’t have language expansive enough to describe God, love, or resurrection, without confining Christ in our limited human ideas. And if there’s one thing we learn from Easter, it’s that Jesus cannot be confined. He is out of the tomb, alive in the world, no matter what we think or say about that.

From the beginning, he’s been turning things upside down. His mother Mary, on meeting the angel, declared that God had filled the empty with good things and lifted up the poor…and brought down the powerful and sent the rich away empty-handed. Jesus’ first sermon nearly got him thrown off a cliff, as he proclaimed that his job on earth was to bring sight to the blind, release to the captive, healing for the lame, and relief to the debtor—and that God’s love was for those outside the chosen people as much as it was on those inside. At the end, God in the flesh absorbed all the violence we could throw at him, and he didn’t return a word of it. And then the end turned out not to be an end at all, but a new beginning that is beyond belief.

As if all of that weren’t difficult enough to find adequate words for, there’s also the reality we live in every day, which looks very little like the kingdom of God. Think of all the things that have happened in the world just in the past couple of months. Political turmoil throughout this nation and others, children gassed in Syria, missiles shot from US Navy ships, a shooting at a school in California, the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, posturing in North Korea, bombs in Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt, landslides in Colombia…a complete list would take an entire sermon to recite.

No wonder more than a million people watched April the pregnant giraffe give birth yesterday morning. We could use some joy and new life! We live in a world that almost seems to be starved for good news.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning could use some good news. They didn’t expect any, though. They’d been waiting…waiting…waiting in the valley of the shadow of death. They saw where Jesus’ body was laid on Friday afternoon, and then they had to leave him there, carrying their sorrow with them throughout the Sabbath. All the other disciples had hidden themselves, fearing the long arm of the Empire and the mob mentality that had gripped the leaders and crowds during Jesus’ trial. When at long last the sun set on that terrible day, and rose on a day when nothing would ever be okay again, and they survived waiting the whole Sabbath day for it to set and rise again, then finally the women went out, bearing the burden of loss along with the spices and ointments for a proper burial. The first rays were just peeking over the horizon when they arrived, unable to wait another moment. When they got there, the stone was rolled away from the door, the tomb was open.

So, naturally, they went in. But the body was not there.

The women were confused, and rightly so. They’d watched him be put there, and the door closed, a final end to their friendship and their hope.

In the midst of their confusion, two dazzling messengers appeared, and without so much as a “do not be afraid” preamble, said: why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has been raised. Remember what he told you.

They remembered. The pieces came together in their minds, as they remembered all he had said and done, and they went back to tell the others—what? Tell them what?

There’s no way to tell this story that doesn’t sound crazy. Jesus back from the dead? The men listened to them as if they are hysterical in all the worst stereotypical senses of the word. They called the story ridiculous nonsense, a load of crap. No matter what the women thought they experienced, it’s not possible—the others, who had been hiding away in the locked room, knew this for sure even without having been there. I imagine Mary and Joanna and Susanna and Mary Magdalene standing there, as many women have done in our lives, with joy turning to frustration as they realize they will not be believed, that they are being written off as silly deluded women making up stories to ease their own pain, as they realize that there are no adequate words, because this is a thing that doesn’t happen. It is beyond belief. The truest good news in the history of humanity has been labeled fake news.

Peter, at least, went to look. He didn’t go in, though. Even though he could really have used some good news about now, he stood outside the tomb and looked in, and then went home again and locked the door. Seeing was not believing.

But what if it’s true?

What if it’s true, that the tomb was open, and Jesus was alive, somewhere out in the world?

What if it’s true, that all it takes to experience resurrection is to remember what he told us?

What if it’s true, that all the fractured pieces of our own lives, our own communities, could be  re-membered, put back together with unbelievable grace as the glue?

What if it’s true, that God’s love is the most powerful thing in the universe?

What if it’s true, that the Christ who is alive is the same one who reached out to sinners, ate dinner with outcasts, touched lepers, called some of the dimmest bulbs on the tree to be his disciples, and really believed we could do it when he taught us things like “love your enemies” and “welcome the stranger” and “blessed are the poor” and “come, follow me”?

What if it’s true, that grace is a gift and not something we have to earn?

What if it’s true, that death does not have the last word, that darkness cannot overcome the light?

The truth will set us free…free from the need to prove ourselves, free from our impulse toward violence, free from fear of those who are different from us.

The truth will set us free…free to love as we have been loved, free to reach out and welcome as if we are Christ’s hands and feet, free to be changed and so to change the world.

We live in a world so full of bad news and fake news—like the idea that God’s love is only for some, that you have to be good enough to get into heaven, that human vengeance is the same as divine justice, that my skin is safe but Jesus’ brown skin makes him suspect, that violence can lead to peace—all of this exclusion and superiority is what closes us off, separates us from each other, from ourselves, and from God’s true good news. But remember: the tomb is open! We may not have language large enough to tell the story of God’s unfettered redeeming grace, rolling away the stone and leaving the tomb empty, but that only means that we’ll have to use our whole lives—music and dance and art and poetry; relationships and work and everyday choices and voting levers. The world needs us to walk right in to the empty tomb, and then walk right out again to share what we have to offer, the truly good news: Christ is alive, love wins, and nothing will ever be the same.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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