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Undertakers No More
Easter Sunday 2005

Sermon – 3/27/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 28:1-10

This is a day unlike any other in our faith.  I want to share with you a very familiar story, I think, from the gospel of Matthew, in the 28th chapter.  And as I read this story I invite you to listen for something new.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  This is my message for you.’

 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

This story is one that perhaps fits better on another day of the week, on Good Friday:  

Johnny was from a family that wasn't particularly religious.  Raised in the public schools, separation of church & state, didn't learn much about the Christian faith in school, etc.  But he wasn't getting much out of the math class either, really struggled.  Despite all the efforts of the family to help him and to provide him with special tutoring, he continued to fail.  And they heard that the local Catholic school had a particularly strong program so they thought they'd start that.  They weren't anti-religious, they just weren't religious people.  So they enrolled him into the Catholic school.  And sure enough, in very quick order, Johnny's grades began to improve, and within a few weeks he was at the top of his math class.  

His parents were quite surprised, couldn't quite figure out what made the difference.  And so they asked, they said "Johnny, are you using different books?".  No, he says the texts are the same.  "Well, then, are they giving you more time in class?".  No, the periods are the same.  "Are they giving you the answers to your tests?"  Oh, no, they're not giving me the answers to any test.  "Well, Johnny, why is that you think you're doing so much better in math?".  And Johnny said, "Well, I knew that I had better pay attention when I saw the guy nailed to the plus sign at the front of the class.  They take math seriously at this school!".  

Do you think that's a true story?  Well this story is a true story that really happened.  It was reported in the Associated Press a couple of years ago.  A group of nature worshipers gathered together near Lancaster California to celebrate the Spring equinox.  Spring is such a wonderful, joyous time, it was a joyous, wonderful occasion.  There were about 300 pagans, witches, warlocks, nature lovers of all kinds, perhaps from other faiths as well that came there to celebrate the Spring equinox.  A particular small group of Christians decided it was their duty to disrupt the ceremony.  So they drove up as close as they could, rolled down their windows, and played their radios as loud as they could.  That'll show 'em!  We'll show 'em the love of Christ, we'll just blast them out!  The pagans, in a bit of merrymaking and poking fun at some of the mis-conceptions people have about pagan traditions, decided to sacrifice an animal by fondue-ing a chocolate bunny.  And all might have gone OK except for the fact the the leader of the ritual had to shout over the competing noise at the appropriate time:  "Sacrifice the chocolate rabbit!".  And the Christians, thinking this was some kind of anti-Christian ritual (where else are you going to get a chocolate bunny in Springtime?  Must be the Easter bunny), rushed the pagans nearly causing a riot.  

Fortunately, the Associated Press said, violence was averted.  Thank God.

Now I can handle a certain amount of ignorance about our faith, I mean after all it's our job to educate people, not schools.  And if people don't know about our traditions then it's an opportunity for us to bring them along.  There are worse things than ignorance, namely stupidity.  I'll take a child who doesn't know the difference between a cross and a plus sign any day over some mis-informed religious zealot who thinks that fondue-ing a chocolate bunny is somehow offensive to our faith.  [Read by the way on that topic Bob Welch's column this morning from the Register Guard on the growing intolerance of some toward some particular expressions of the Christian faith -- excellent, excellent column]

Speaking of Easter candy, did you see the news about the candy companies that are now producing chocolate crosses?  What will they think of next, chocolate crucifixes?  You get all your spiritual needs met there in the grocery store -- get your marshmallow peeps and your chocolate Jesus and you're on your way J.  It's no wonder, then, that a growing number of people see the Christian faith as a joke.

I received an E-mail last year from a company called "In Time With God", and they were offering 2 dollars off for every clock that we would sell made by them.  The clocks were a Christian or perhaps Jewish version of a cuckoo clock.  Instead of the cuckoo, there was a face of Moses (I kid you not, I still have the E-mail).  On the hour, the clock would chime one of the 10 commandments.  "It's one o'clock, you shall have no other Gods before me"!  "Five o'clock, honor your father and mother" (always a good thing to do right before dinner time J).  "Seven o'clock, you shall not commit adultery" (oh good!  It must be time for Desperate Housewives!).  Maybe we need this.  But don't rush to the store to find one, because when I checked on the web it appears the company has gone out of business which probably is not surprising.  I mean who wants to set an alarm for 6:00 a.m. only to be told "It's 6:00 o'clock, you shall not murder"!  And it's really too bad, because I think that this is something that might have been a big hit in federal courthouses across the country J.

And here's my point:  Ursulla Neibuhr, the wife of the famed American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, said "You cannot explain the birth of the church with an Easter bunny popping out of the tomb".  You see, between the silly stuff sold in the name of Christianity, and the dumb stuff done in the name of Christianity, it's a wonder that anyone takes us seriously at all.

And I haven't even mentioned the case of Terry Schiavo -- but I will.  The irony that this protracted legal battle of 15 years should come to its final act, its final conclusion, drama, during holy week, when our focus is on the 1 death that brings life to all, our nation is fixated on the one life that is all but dead.  And for all of the terrible suffering of the Schiavo family - her husband and parents alike -- I think the greatest tragedy is that we have ignored the thousands and millions in a persistent hunger state.  We have forgotten the thousands and millions in a persistent poverty state.  We have added to the thousands and millions in a persistent war state while we fight over the one in a persistent vegetative state [applause from the congregation].  In the name of what God do we engage in such hypocrisy?  For the sake of decency and common sense I would pray that we would all, beginning with the media, leave that poor woman and her family alone, let her die in peace, so that we can focus on the real life and death issues in our community and world [applause from the congregation].  

Now, I asked you to listen for something new in the text this morning.  Did you notice the relationship of the stone to the earthquake and the disappearance of Jesus in the story?  Now how do we imagine that occurred?  The earthquake occurs, the stone is moved away, Jesus walks out of his tomb -- right, isn't that the way it goes?  Wrong.  Were you paying attention?  The women arrive at the tomb, the stone is still in place, the earthquake occurs, then the stone is rolled out of its place, and they look and the tomb is empty.  What on earth is going on, how did Jesus get out of the tomb?  Do you suppose the angels came down, rolled the stone away, let Jesus out, and then said "Well let's play a little trick on the women, let's put the stone back in place!".  

What is going on here?  If you're confused, I'm not surprised because in the other 3 versions of the story in John and Luke and Mark, when the women arrive at the tomb the stone has already been rolled away.  In Matthew's version of the story, however, it's different.  The tomb is still sealed when the women arrive.  Now there's two points I want to make with this apparent contradiction in our gospel stories:  first of all -- don't literalize the story.  When the stone was moved and what order things occurred, how many women were there at the tomb, was it 1, 2, or 3, each of the stories has a different group, how many angels -- whether one as in Matthew or two as in Luke, you see, is really not important.  Read the story for its meaning, not its historical facts.  Don't literalize.  Do theologize.  Ask 'where is God in the story?'. Or more precisely, where is Jesus?  Because you see the point that Matthew is trying to make, I think, is that before the tomb is opened, Jesus is already gone.  It's a way of saying in symbol as well as in story the power of God cannot be defeated by Roman crosses and the life of Jesus cannot be contained by aristocratic tombs.

For the past two Sunday's, I have been talking about the need for a new paradigm, a new way of understanding and interpreting our faith.  A new way of being the church, the body of Christ.  We're going to start a couple of groups in two weeks -- one group will be a study of faith issues and listening to and reading folks like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong.  And the other group will be an action group that will help us discern the things that we need to be doing to get the word out to say that we are a different kind of church.  So if you are interested in either of those two, please let me know.  And I suggested last Sunday that this old paradigm of a literalistic, narrow faith focused on correct beliefs about God as a way to get to heaven -- that needs to die.  We need to just let go of that.  And I know this isn't for everyone, and certainly not for all churches, and that's OK.  But for us, what we are trying to do is to bring to new life an open-minded, progressive faith that focuses on a correct relationship with God through Jesus as a way to bring heaven on earth, as we pray every Sunday:  "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".  To transform our lives and our world in this new relationship.

And you see, the Easter story is the ultimate symbol of that new paradigm.  The women come to the tomb with their spices to finish the work of burying Jesus because they are operating out of the old paradigm that says when you are crucified, you die.  That's what has always happened, they assumed that is what always will happen, it is what happens.  But when they arrive at the destination, and the tomb bursts open to reveal it is empty, you see that old way of thinking about life and death, about God and the world, about Jesus and discipleship, that's gone.


  Members of the First Christian Church congregation approach the cross with flowers

Everything that they thought they knew, everything they believed to be true was changed when they came to embalm the body of Jesus and discovered their risen Lord.

Christian faith does not come from intellectual assent to certain facts found in scripture, but rather faith comes from an encounter with the living God found in Christ.  The women arrive at the tomb as undertakers of a dead Jesus and they leave as witnesses of the risen Christ.  They are the model of faith for us.

Now, if you note in your bulletins, where we have listings of all the personnel of the church, you know we have all kinds of jobs -- ministers and administrators and housekeepers and musicians and we have elders and deacons and we have officers.  But if you look through that, you will not find a single undertaker.  There are no job descriptions for undertakers in the church.  Because we are an Easter people.  We serve a risen Lord.

So if the people outside the church are going to take our faith seriously, then it is up to us to bear witness to the risen Christ.  Not by convincing them to believe the correct things about God, but by showing them the right relationship with God through Christ.  By living out that relationship in our openness to other perspectives, in our inclusiveness of all races, abilities, and orientations.  And in our acceptance of different faiths and traditions.

You see you have a choice -- you can be an undertaker or you can be a witness.  You can believe all the right things, you can have perfect knowledge, you can even have faith to move mountains (the apostle Paul says), but if you have no love, you are an undertaker.  Or, you can be a witness to the love of God by sharing that love with others, by making that love of Christ alive in the flesh in your flesh.  You have that choice.  You can put Jesus back in the tomb (or at least you can try), you can keep him away from the world where it's safe, where we don't have to worry about the poor and the orphans and the victims of war and torture and domestic violence and injustice.  You can keep Jesus safe in the tomb.  That's a job for undertakers.

Or you can go with Jesus to Galilee, you can go with Jesus out into the world where people are suffering and struggling to survive, or fighting for their civil rights.  You can be the voice, the hands, the feet of Jesus.  You have that choice.  Or you can be like those guards -- Matthew says they became like dead men.  Pretend that you do not see the injustice.  Look the other way when you see that person standing on the corner with their signs.  Don't get involved in matters that don't concern you.  You can be like dead men.

Or you can open your hearts to the presence of Christ in others that society ignores.  And feel their humanity.  You can open your eyes and ears to the voices of the powerless and the oppressed and hear their cries for justice.  You can open your eyes to the way that our faith is used and abused by those in search of political power and see Christ leading us in a different direction.  You have that choice.

You can go into that tomb and find nothing, or you can go into the world and find Jesus.  It's Easter morning, the stone has been rolled away.  What choice will you make?

The cross at First Christian Church at the conclusion of Easter ceremonies, 2005.


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