Preached April 20 (Easter Sunday) at Head of Christiana PC
Last weekend, while we were celebrating the odd spectacle of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – through a back gate, riding a donkey – that afternoon in Kansas, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan went on a rampage at a Jewish Community Center and a nearby Jewish retirement community, shooting at 6 people and killing three of them.
In Chicago, 36 people were shot in unrelated incidents in about as many hours. Four people are dead, and at least one more is still hovering close to death. The hate crime in Kansas was all over the news, with plenty of commentators to acknowledge how tragic it was.
And yet the ongoing violence in Chicago seems to have registered barely a blip on our radar. Last weekend’s shootings have become the norm for that city, for any number of reasons that authorities and community leaders are still puzzling out. People are living in fear. The aunt of one victim told reporters it’s gotten so bad that every time she leaves the house, she doesn’t know if she’ll make it back alive. The shootings don’t shock us anymore. We make excuses – oh, they probably had gang ties – because we don’t want to see it for what it is. The truth that young people are being shot for little more than growing up on the wrong block is too painful to bear.
Instead, we remember the absurd theater of our King of Kings riding down a back street on a donkey, while people line the streets with their cloaks and wave branches, shouting “hosanna”… which means “save us.” Save us, they cried! We are terrorized by the Romans, with their chariots and war horses, and our normal is death and oppression! Save us!
We have come to expect violence and injustice, somehow, and even death – at least in some places, happening to other people. Even in our own lives, no matter whether we think of our lives as full of death beyond all hope of redemption or whether we have just settled into a routine that is more or less comfortable, and if it isn’t always life-giving, at least we know what to expect most of the time. And the best we think we can hope for is more of the same.
Death doesn’t always look like a stopped heart or a last gasp of breath. We feel death creeping in at a broken relationship, a career ended too soon, in fears created out of nothing, or created by lifetimes of discrimination, in a young person losing hope for the future, in the ghosts of depression and mental illness that sneak into our consciousness and start telling lies; we feel death at the loss of our strength and our independence as we age, at the loss of sight or hearing that connects us to our world.
Any of those feelings might connect us with the characters in this Easter story. Whether we are with the women who come to mourn at the tomb, the guards who pass out in their terror, with the beloved friends who have locked themselves away and can’t bear to see their rabbi humiliated so publicly, with the crucified Jesus, violated by the men in power, or alone and broken in the dark of the tomb; or even with the betrayer Judas, or with Peter, terrified of the consequences of standing publicly with Jesus.
And wherever we connect, if we’re honest we don’t expect any kind of dramatic change in our own lives. If we’re going to a grave, we expect to find a grave. If we are hidden away, not speaking publicly for fear of the consequences, we expect to stay hidden for a little while. If we feel broken or alone, so often it can feel like nothing could possibly change that. We expect dead things to stay dead.
But that is not how God works. Whatever happened between that Friday evening when the tomb was closed and that Sunday morning when the stone was rolled away, somehow God has brought life, and brilliant, blinding angels, into this place where there was only death. Somehow that wounded, lifeless body is full again, with the breath of God within him and the Spirit upon him. And that is both beautiful and terrifying.
They are afraid because of the angels, sure – it sounds like angels would be pretty intimidating – but they’re also afraid because what if they’re telling the truth?? Afraid because dead people are supposed to stay dead! And afraid because if it’s true, more people will die – the Romans are not going to be happy. If this guy, the rabbi who broke customs at every turn (who dined with sinners and touched lepers and trusted even women and foreigners with his gospel), this one who preached a revolution not of violence but of loving your enemies, of all things – if this guy is back, then nothing is going to be the same.
If Jesus is alive, that changes everything.
And, thanks be to God, that does change everything. “Do not be afraid,” he says. And goodness knows he doesn’t mean that scary or awful stuff won’t happen anymore – our story leaves out the following verses where the chief priests are busy trying to spin a story that Jesus’ body was actually stolen rather than mysteriously raised – but do not be afraid because death is not the last word.
We think we have learned how this life stuff works, what to expect – at some point we think we know that friends will betray us, politicians will lie to us, someone will hate us for no good reason, and then we’ll die, hopefully not too painfully. But Jesus breaks all those rules. He was hated, betrayed, and then killed by corrupt leaders in one of the most gruesome ways that humans have devised to kill one another. And on Easter, he still comes out on top.
It’s as if to say, none of that really matters. God’s love will always beat the ways that death creeps into our lives. God’s love is always bigger than our petty betrayals, or our political maneuverings, the changes that rock our foundations (whether chosen or forced on us), and even bigger than the demons of shame and anxiety and hopelessness that torment us.
Christ is risen, and nothing is quite what it seems to be anymore. To Rome he says, you can’t terrorize us and humiliate us anymore, because we are no longer playing by your rules. To our fears he says “do not be afraid,” and we know he means it because he’s been through the most fearsome things we can imagine. To our grief he says, “Greetings,” I’m back. To our boredom and apathy he says “go and tell my brothers and sisters!” and this mission, if we choose to accept it, will send us off on a whole new life. To our anxieties he says “rejoice!” because if he can make it through the cross, then we with Jesus beside us can make it through whatever challenges face us.
Christ is risen, and that changes everything. Alleluia!