Monday, 25 March 2013

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”: a sermon for Easter Day (Luke 24:1-12)

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

When I moved to Australia from the United States over thirty years ago now, one thing that amazed me then - and still amazes me now - is that Easter is in the middle of a long weekend here.  With both Good Friday and Easter Monday being public holidays in Australia, Easter is in the middle of what’s often the longest long weekend of the year.    On the other hand, Good Friday and Easter Monday are both working days in the United States.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like long weekends.  I think it’s a great idea to have a four-day weekend sometime in the autumn.  But, personally, I wish the four-day autumn long weekend was on a different weekend than Easter.   Here’s why.

Often, if people go away for the Easter weekend, or if they have visitors, and they want to attend worship some time on the Easter weekend, the easiest time to attend church is on Good Friday, at the beginning of the long weekend, rather than on Easter Day, in the middle of the long weekend.  This creates its own problems. 
 
·        On Good Friday, the focus is on Jesus’ sufferings and death.  From the perspective of a regular worshipper, the service (appropriately) is solemn, restrained, and austere.   From the perspective of someone who doesn’t attend worship all that much, it may be absolutely depressing. 

·        On Easter Day, today, the focus is on Jesus’ resurrection, his triumph over death.  The tone of the worship (also appropriately) is joyful, hopeful, and exuberant. 

Now, obviously, you get a clearer picture of the Christian faith if you experience the worship on both Good Friday and Easter Day, but (if you have to choose) you really get a better view of what the Christian faith is all about on Easter alone rather than on Good Friday alone.

But, there are many people (both frequent worshippers and infrequent worshippers) whose main exposure to Christian worship this week is on Good Friday, year after year after year.  And that is what creates the problems.  There is already too much of a view in our society
·        that the Christian faith is all something negative;
·        that the Christian faith is all about gloom and doom;
·        that the Christian faith is judgmental;
·        that the Christian faith is just ... well, depressing.

This isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that a few Christians - very few, really - are negative, or judgmental, or into gloom and doom.  It also isn’t helped by the fact that the sort of Christians who are negative, or judgmental, or into gloom and doom are frequently far more vocal in identifying themselves publically as Christians than those of us with a more positive approach to our faith.

But I also believe that a big part of this is the fact that so many people, if they attend worship at all during this time of year, they see the solemn austerity of Good Friday rather than the exuberant joy of Easter.

So, as we and our broader community encounter the story of Jesus once again at this season, we need to keep in mind the angel’s words to Mary Magdalene and her friends:  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Mary Magdalene and her friends went to Jesus’ tomb to perform the ancient burial rites of the Jewish faith.  On Friday, Jesus’ body was put in the tomb quickly, without ceremony.  The burial needed to be completed before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night.  The burial rites had to wait. 

So, on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over, the women went to the tomb so that Jesus’ body could receive the washing, anointing, and embalming that was expected in the culture of the times.  Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb to do the decent thing for the dead body of a friend.  They were surprised to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, but they were still looking for a corpse.  But two strangers, attired (as Luke tells us) “in dazzling clothes”, said to them:   “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

They went to tell some of the other disciples, some of the men, but - except for Peter - they weren’t really interested in their story.  “...these words seemed to them an idle tale...”  

And, in our culture, there are many “idle tales” floating about.
 
·        Some of the “idle tales” take the form of gossip; gossip about neighbours or co-workers; gossip about entertainers, sportspeople, politicians, or those vague “celebrities” who are famous just for being famous.  Some gossip is deliberately malicious; some gossip is well-meaning.  All gossip is destructive.

·        Some of the idle tales take the form of racial, ethnic, religious or other stereotypes.  Some people persist in attributing a wide range of faults and vices to all members of any particular group, without exception: to all Jews, to all Muslims, to all Catholics, to all Aborigines, to all Freemasons, to all homosexuals … and so on.

·        Some of the idle tales take the form of conspiracy theories; far-fetched theories that say that widely disparate groups of people have conspired with each other to keep you and I “in the dark” either about historical events or about present realities.  People are prepared to pay good money to hear or to read even the wildest of these conspiracy theories.  Just ask Dan Brown.  Just ask any climate change sceptic, creationist, or holocaust denier.

In our culture, and in many cultures, there are many “idle tales” floating about.

Some of the male disciples thought that Mary and her friends were indulging themselves in an “idle tale”.  Peter, though, ran to the tomb and found it empty.            

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

In our own day, we too are called to look for the presence of the risen Christ in the midst of life, not death.  We often find the risen Christ in the presence of those who may themselves not be aware that he is there.
 
·        Whenever individuals seriously try to face the difficult ethical decisions of life with integrity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever families seek to nurture their children as people of honesty, kindness, and generosity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever communities, divided by fear and prejudice, seek to discover new ways of reconciliation in their common life, it is not “an idle tale”:  the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever nations reject the paths of war to explore new options for peace, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever congregations gather week after week, not to be dazzled by the latest religious gimmickry, but to break open the Word and to bread the bread”:  the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

For some, these signs of new life may be viewed cynically as “an idle tale”, but, for us we can see these as signs of the risen Christ.  

Christ is risen, bringing us:
·        life in the face of death; ...
·        ... life despite death; ...
·        ... life in defiance of death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

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