RESPONSIVE READING FROM THE PSALMS (Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24)
1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
2Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
14The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.
19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Luke 24: 1-12)
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.
SERMON “Why Do You Look for the Living Among the Dead?”
Rob Barwise came over on Friday to buy Girl Scout cookies from me and asked me how my Easter sermon was coming. “This must be a hard sermon for a Unitarian to preach,” he said. “Good luck.” Which is a funny thing to say, but he’s actually right, my Unitarian colleagues are often deeply uncomfortable or ambivalent about Easter sermons at best; with the topic of resurrection. You see, Unitarianism has long been a religion in the United States—born out of the enlightenment--that prided itself on reason as the basis for religious truth claims. The 19th century was the Unitarian hey-day—when the religious intellectuals were learning about science and other world religions, and trying to make God and Christianity cohere with all they knew. Resurrection was the first doctrine to go, I’m sure. Did you know Thomas Jefferson, who was sympathetic with the Unitarians, wrote his own Bible called the Jefferson Bible? He was truly a very faithful Christian to do this. I mean, imagine going to all of this effort to cross out all of the mysterious, magical and unlikely parts of the New Testament, only leaving the teachings of Jesus—not the miracles or the resurrection. I get why he did this, but I just hate it. Imagine taking a life and removing the mystery and miracle from it. Imagine trying to articulate something about God and removing the mystery and miracle from it. It didn’t seem like a believable story to Thomas Jefferson, the resurrection, and therefore all of those resurrection sightings were tossed out with the healings and the walking on water parts. Only the words were left, not the magic; not the wonder.
And yet you know this story; this unbelievable story, with its mystery and miracle intact. This story about three women who walk to a tomb to bring spices to treat the body of Jesus’ lovingly, to give him a proper burial. You know this story. This story about a crucified man, who was hated by the Romans for his message of the upside down kingdom of God coming to fruition, where the poor would one day rule the earth; where the untouchables would be touched; where all laws of the book would be broken in favor of the law of love. You know this story; this story of a crucified man who wasn’t in the tomb when the stone was rolled away. Where a pile of clothes and rags stayed in his place. Where an angel stood saying, “Do not be afraid. Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.” You know the story, of Jesus appearing first to the women as a gardener, dirt still beneath his fingernails where he shouldered the cross, marched to his death. You know the story, the story of the women and their disbelief; their delight; their running to tell the others. The stone is rolled away! He is risen! Christ is risen indeed! You know the story, the men not believing the women until they see it for themselves. Silly women!
(Women are often the first to know, aren’t we? And they never believe us. )
And truthfully, many of us are like the men in this story. We doubt this story really happened. We know from science that human beings can’t rise from the dead. We know that dead people don’t come alive.
Well, I am here to tell you that they do. That’s the good news of our gospel; the dead do come alive.
Some of you know, or you have figured out if you are paying attention--since everyone in my family has different last names and the girls don’t look much like the boy, and the girls are often dining with a strange man who looks a lot like them at the Harvest Grille, where all secrets are revealed--that I am divorced and remarried to my Andy.
I’m divorced. I’m sure that some of you even questioned that when I first came, and maybe even now, still. Isn’t our pastor supposed to be our moral exemplar for what a good, if not biblical, at least ethical, covenanted marriage is supposed to look like?
I am divorced. And here’s the thing: I’m willing to be your exemplar--not for my Godliness, but for my humanity. Here’s one thing I know: I am not God, and every experience that I have had further proving that fact has helped to humble me more and more as a servant of God. Jesus died to teach us that our God is a God of grace; who forgives and loves; that our covenant with God endures regardless of how many times we break it. I want you to know that, too. No matter what you have done or how many times you have done it, God has promised to love you.
I’m divorced so my girls and I experienced death worse than any death we have mourned to this date. And I have been to the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday where I said, “why me? And, where are my friends? Why do they keep falling asleep when all I need for them is to stay awake?” And I have said, “Why God, why? And Thy will be done.’ And I sat at the tomb of Holy Saturday waiting and watching, and asking God where God was. I have experienced a world absent of God. And then I slowly watched the stone being tentatively and then forcefully rolled away from my tomb, by my teachers and my mentors and my pastor and my mom and my therapist and my kids and most of all by my patient and loving Andy. And I rejoiced on the day that my baby boy was born—proof that love wins; that life conquers death. I came back to life, wounds intact—scars left on my body that bind me closer to my sisters and brothers in their own journeys of suffering. Love wins, but it sometimes bangs you up a little first. Am I right?
I am divorced, and I’m preaching this on Easter Sunday because that experience is my proof of the resurrection; that you need not see someone walk on water to appreciate the miracle of the sun rising this morning. Love wins. Not sin, not death, not broken covenants—God has the last laugh. Resurrection is the Truth.
And you’ve lived through similar resurrections. And some of you are still sitting with the suffering of Good Friday. There are people here in this room right now who are shouldering their crosses, who are keeping vigil at the Holy Saturday tomb, asking where are you God—you are not there when I call.
Those of us who have lived through this dark night of the soul are holding that little glimmer of light for you because we know that you can’t quite see it yet. We are keeping vigil for you with a candle and some soup, we are holding space for you outside the tomb. We are reminding you that the darkness will end, that the light will come. We will help you roll away the stone when it’s time.
Because we know that the Good News is that death doesn’t win, that life does. That God gets the last laugh. You are sitting here in front of me, survivors all. You’ve survived cancer and death of spouses and deaths of children and divorce and friendships ending and job losses and addiction and recovery and coming out and identity losses and strokes and heart attacks and heartbreaks. You aren’t lying in your bed with the shades drawn and the lights out; we won’t find you there. Why would you look for the living among the dead? We have risen.
This resurrection story is not a story about an implausible event at all. This resurrection story is a story about God—the God that is now let loose in the world, our God who gets the last laugh: death is a comma, not a period. Why would you look for the living among the dead? We have risen.
This resurrection story is not a story about an implausible event at all. It’s a story about God—our God who has been let loose in the world, our God who gets the last laugh—empire doesn’t win, love does. This may have been Caesar’s week, but it is God’s world. Why would you look for the living among the dead? We have risen.
This resurrection story is a story about a God who can’t be contained, and who can’t be killed. God gets the last laugh, our God has been let loose in the world—religion—church buildings, practices, books, sacraments—those trappings don’t--can’t--contain God. People do. Jesus got up on a cross and died to tell us this--that the living, risen God resides in us. You can see the living Christ in the living, breathing person sitting next to you. Why would you look for the living among the dead? He is risen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber says:
“The thing that really cooked people's noodles wasn't the question "Is Jesus like God?" It was, "What if God is like Jesus?" What if God is not who we thought? What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, not through a sin and punishment program, but through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God's self in Jesus?
Because that changes everything. If what we see in Jesus is God's own self, revealed, then what we are dealing with here is a God who is ridiculously indiscriminate about choosing friends. A God who would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore. A God who would not lift a finger to condemn those who crucified him, but went to the depths of Hell rather than be apart even from his betrayers. A God unafraid to get God's hands dirty for the ones God loves. This is the God who rises to new life with dirt still under God's nails.”
This is a God who is on the loose, who can’t be contained in a time period, or in a specific community, or in one religion, or in one book. This is the God who rises to new life ridiculously indiscriminately—in all of us. This is a God who threatens to make us new, again and again. Who can’t be contained, who will not die.
I’m going to close with a poem by my friend and colleague The Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, another Unitarian who has managed to figure out the resurrection.
Being the Resurrection By Victoria Weinstein
The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year.
Roll up your sleeves.
He is not coming back, you know.
He is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him
We who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he did
on his behalf --
We who rage for righteousness in his insistent voice
We who love the sinner, even knowing that "the sinner" is no farther off than our own heartbeat
He will not be back to join us at the table
To share God's extravagant banquet
God's love feast, all are invited, come as you are
And so it is you and I who must feast for him
Must say the grace and break the bread and pass it to the left
and dish up the broiled fish (or pour the wine) and pass it to the right.
And treat each one so tenderly
as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort
to make it back from heaven, or from hell
but certainly from death
to be by our side.
Because if by some miracle (and why not a miracle?)
He did come back
Wouldn't he want to see us like this?
Wouldn't it be a miracle to live for just one day
So that if he did, by some amazing feat
come riding into town
He could take a look around and say
"This is what I meant!"
And we could say
it took us a long time...
but we finally figured it out.
Oh, let us live to make it so.
You are the resurrection and the life.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.