Preaching Notes for Easter Sunday, Year C (March 27, 2016)
A couple of weeks ago, while at the Fusion: The Future of Worship in the United Methodist Church event, I had an impromptu conversation with a group of three or four young female clergy. They shared with me how much they appreciated being at a United Methodist event that did not seem designed for or driven by a desperate need to help save the denomination from certain death. One of them said she couldn’t remember ever attending an event that didn’t convey futility or even outright negativity about the future of the church.
I said, “Really? You hear this from church leaders and event speakers?” When they said yes, I responded, a little too facetiously I’m sure, “That surprises me. Don’t we believe in Resurrection? Don’t we believe God can bring the dead back to life? Don’t we believe God can birth something totally new?”
As I have been thinking about Easter and what I want to say about this text from the Gospel of Luke, my mind has returned over and over to that conversation.
So I decided this must be the Holy Spirit prompting me to share it with all of you and to use it as a springboard to think about not just the future of worship in the United Methodist Church, but the future of the church itself, and the faith upon which the church is founded.
Because I don’t want to completely misrepresent the conversation, I contacted one of the women I spoke with to check the details and ask permission to share the story with the readers of my sermon notes. This wise and incredibly insightful young woman not only gave permission (and wished to remain anonymous), but wrote an email in response that inspired me further. She wrote, “I literally just had this conversation this morning with a colleague—that despite the fact that we have this amazing, amazing narrative of death and Resurrection in Christianity, that we are so afraid to let certain things die. But we have to go through the pain of the crucifixion before the glory of the Resurrection. And being stuck in this limbo between the two is wearing on so many of us. Personally, I feel enormous pressure to keep things the way they are while I am also expected to midwife what new thing is being born.”
Well, all I can say to that is, “That’ll preach!” And indeed, I hope not only will it preach, but that you will preach it. Do you feel this pressure to keep things the same and, at the same time, be present to assist while God gives birth to something completely new in our denomination, if not in the whole world?
I believe she is right. We are like midwives. We are, at this moment in history, standing between the safety of staying inside the womb, and the sure and certain reality that birth is going to happen whether we are ready for it or not. A new life is going to enter the world, and it is terrifying to witness, let alone assist. The passage through the birth canal is never easy. Indeed, some do not survive it, while others are harmed, even permanently disfigured, by the journey. But the fact is, no one can stay in the womb forever. We pastors are indeed like midwives.
I was so moved by her words that I immediately sent an email back, to which this fine pastor responded with the following: “Okay, so I was going to say this before, but I’ll say it now. Women are the ones who get the news of the Resurrection first. And this little tidbit made it into texts written in a male-dominated culture, which is amazing. I wonder if the people who benefit the least from the institution as it is may be the very ones who are present when it is reborn, standing right there saying, ‘Let’s get this show on the road!’ (And this is why I stick around.)”
Well, I hope it isn’t only women (and others who benefit the least from institutions) who will continue to be present as the United Methodist Church makes its passage through the birth canal and into a whole new kind of existence in this world. My hope and prayer is that there will be all manner of God’s people present to assist in the birthing process: men and women, young and old, black and brown and yellow and white and multiracial, rich and poor, able-bodied and differently abled, formally educated and streetwise, rule followers and rule breakers, progressives and conservatives, traditional and nontraditional, married and single, straight and gay and transgendered, artists, scientists, philosophers, and businesspeople, all kinds of people from all walks of life. I hope there will be representatives of the great multitude of humanity who will be standing right there saying, “Let’s get this show on the road.” And this is why I stick around and continue to serve the church of Jesus Christ to the best of my ability.
Nevertheless, it is amazing and worth noting as my colleague has pointed out, that in every one of the gospel narratives it is the women who are the first to discover the empty tomb. In some accounts, these women are named up front. In Luke, they are anonymous at the beginning, and only named later in the story. But there they are, year after year, sticking around and being present to bear witness to the simultaneously joyous and terrorizing nature of birth. They are midwives. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them, are all there when God does this amazing, amazing thing and births Jesus back into the world in a completely different manner from the way he entered it the first time around.
This time there is no decree from Emperor Augustus. No burdensome trip to Bethlehem. No harried father and pregnant mother. No overbooked hotel. There is no manger in a stable, no tiny infant wrapped in swaddling cloths. But there are angels.
These angels are not singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). They are terrifying to the women just like they were to the shepherds. Luke does not actually identify the men in dazzling clothes as angels, but I can’t imagine they were anything else, given the earlier witness to the birth of Jesus. And just like the shepherds, the women are terrified by their encounter with these divine creatures; but at the same time, they are amazed and inspired by them. The angels prompt them not only to remember what Jesus said to them in Galilee, but also to believe Jesus has been born anew into the world.
We know the rest of the story. These women, who suddenly are transported out of a climate of death, despair, and grief and into a world of hope for the future that they have never imagined before, can’t wait to go and tell the others what they have seen, what they have witnessed with their eyes, and more important, what they have known in their hearts personally. They are so excited. They literally cannot run fast enough to reach the others and share the amazing good news. Jesus is not in the tomb! He is alive! God has borne him back in the world as he promised God would!
Their joy, alas, is not met with corresponding enthusiasm. To the men, their story seems be an idle tale. Only Peter is intrigued enough to leave his place of hiding behind locked doors, trying to protect his own hide from suffering the same fate as his teacher and master, to go to the tomb and see for himself. And so he is the only other one who sees the bands of linen cloth that had been wrapped around the body now lying empty on the ground. He is the only male to join in the women’s amazement at this point. And Luke doesn’t tell us what kind of response Peter gets when he goes back to the others and makes his report.
My friends, we are living in a time when fear, despair, and predictions of certain death abound. We hear these voices from the business world, the political world, and the church. The voices tell us over and over again that we are not safe and that the future holds little hope. The voices say that death is coming to us and nothing is strong enough to stop it.
Don’t we believe in Resurrection? Don’t we believe God can bring the dead back to life? Don’t we believe God can birth something totally new?
Maybe this Easter, as we continue the march toward events that seem monumental, like the presidential election and the General Conference, we should try listening to the voices of those who benefit the least from the establishment over the shouts of those who stand to benefit the most. Maybe we should not only listen, but also respond with enthusiasm and joy not only to what they are saying, but also to the deep and abiding faith that causes them to take such risks and to witness so boldly.
This text serves to remind us that for Peter, and for all of us, proclaiming the Resurrection is at the very center of what it means to be a Christian. Peter simply tells it like it is. He tells the story of Jesus Christ without assuming that the people who are there to hear it know anything at all. We might want to follow his example and remind people of the whole story as we prepare to preach on Easter. There may very well be folks sitting in our pews who have never heard the “old, old” story before, so be sure to tell it!
Consider using this text as a response to the sermon. One possibility would be to have two people, perhaps an older person and a younger person, or a male and a female, read it aloud, alternating verses. Another possibility would be to have the congregation read it together with the males joining together and females joining together in alternating verses.
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