Sermon: Hanging Onto Easter

A few years ago, after an Easter worship service such as this, a parishioner of mine told me a joke and graciously suggested that if I found the right place to plug it in I was welcome to use it; if, that is, I thought it was appropriate. The thing is, parishioners frequently tell me jokes and rarely are they appropriate. But I told this one after a men’s breakfast a month or so ago, and since then I’ve had two or three guys who were not at that breakfast try to tell me that same joke. So I thought I’d better go ahead and tell it before the whole village has heard it.
It’s about three clergy types – a Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor, and a Presbyterian minister – and their churches are all in the same neighborhood. And they have a common problem: squirrel infestation in their respective churches. So, one day they’re having an ecumenical lunch together and commiserating about their problem and brainstorming about how to solve it.
The priest tells his two colleagues that he had already set a series of traps throughout the church, without success. They, indeed, caught a number of squirrels, which the priest then took a few miles away to humanely let loose in a local park. The problem, however, was that, like a flock homing pigeons, those same squirrels found their way back to their church home.
At that point the Baptist Pastor interjected, “Well, I wasn’t quite so tolerant,” he said. “We placed poison at all those places that the squirrels were getting into the building. All we had to do then was gathered up the dead squirrels and dispose of the bodies.”
“Unfortunately, though,” this Pastor went on to lament, “apparently there are more than enough squirrels in the area to take their place.”
Biding his time, the Presbyterian minister finally spoke, “Actually, I think we found the perfect solution,” he instructed his colleagues. “We simply made the squirrels members of the church,” he said. “Now we only see them twice a year: on Christmas and Easter.”
So, for those of you I may not see again for a while, let me give you something today that you can `hold onto’ in the meantime.

You know, there is an awful temptation, on Easter Sunday, for preachers to preach about change: resurrection—transformation—change.
It seems like kind of a natural progression of themes.
When I first arrived at this church about eight months ago, I would tell people that I was a transformation pastor. And the response I would typically get was, in effect, “Not transformation . . . tradition.”
Tradition is good. Folks who honor tradition tend to be faithful to their church and to their Lord; tend to be serious about mission and about passing the heritage of their precious beliefs on to the next generation. Tradition is a good thing.
Besides, I’ve learned over the years that sermons on change have a rather limited effect. And perhaps even less appeal.
The reality is, very few people – me included – really welcome change in their lives. And frankly—and I don’t have to tell you all this—not all change is good.
Today’s Gospel story begins with a sad scene of a disillusion little band of disciples, broken-hearted over a very traumatic change in their lives: the death of their beloved leader.
Our story revolves around Mary Magdalene, who arguably was Jesus’ most devoted disciple. Since Jesus had freed her from her demons, Mary had been a constant st companion, following him wherever he went.
When all the men in the company had deserted Jesus in his hour of mortal trial, Mary stayed faithfully by his side. As soldiers mocked him, dividing his clothing among themselves, Mary was found kneeling at the foot of the cross, enduring Jesus’ pain as if it were her own.
So, understandably, it was Mary who, after a long sleepless night, was the first to go out to the cemetery long before the dawn.
We don’t know what was in her heart or mind.
Maybe she went to pay her last respects to her dead Lord. Or faithfully say the proper prayers on his behalf. Or maybe, in the depths of her grief, Mary simply doesn’t know where else to go, or what else to do.
The thing about grief is, sometimes just getting up out of bed to face the day ahead is a major victory; just putting one foot in front of the other can be a huge accomplishment.
When a person has been through a profound trauma – has experienced significant loss in their lives – we don’t really expect them so much to `triumph’ over life. Because just surviving is triumph enough.
Maybe that’s all Mary was trying to do; just make it through that horrible day.
But just when she thought things couldn’t possibly get any worst, she arrives at the cemetery to find her Master’s grave site desecrated and his body gone.
She runs back, panic-stricken, to the other disciples to report this horrifying turn of events. Peter and John immediately raced back out the cemetery with Mary to see for themselves what has happened.
Once they had seen the empty tomb, they too believed what Mary had told them was true, and then simply turned away and trudged, dejected, back to their abode to shroud themselves in grief.
But Mary remained behind; she lingered there at the cemetery; perhaps so grief stricken that she was unable to take even one more step.
Mary just stood there alone, weeping uncontrollably outside the tomb.
And that’s when it happens.
And the more I think about this, the more incredible it seems to me, because at some point in the middle of the mysterious, cosmic process of being raised from the dead – at some point enroute from earth to back to heaven – Jesus makes an unscheduled stop along the way; he remains a while in the cemetery for one reason . . . in order to tenderly care for one of his bereaved flock: Mary.
It’s often been said that pastoral ministry is a `ministry of interruptions’, but that truly takes the cake.
And, so, the first law and founding principle of this Gospel of Resurrection of ours is this: that Jesus Christ meets us wherever we are…however we are, especially when we need him the most.
Whether He finds us weeping alone in a cemetery or hiding in fear from the world in our room; Jesus seeks us out, intrudes upon our lives and then promises to remain with us always, to the very end of time.
Once, when ask how he felt about death, Woody Allen glibly replied, “I do not approve.” Apparently God feels the same way about it.
The late Henri Nouwen put it like this: “The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost . . . The risen Jesus reveals that God’s love for us, our love for one another, our love for those who lived before us and who will live after us, is not just a quickly passing experience but an eternal reality.”

Now, I told you a few moments ago that I wasn’t going to preach about change. And I’m not, because, here’s the thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not really about change.
It is about something way more radical than that.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel of Resurrection.
It’s not really about us making some sort of personal change in our lives. It’s not about self-improvement techniques, personal fulfillment, or success God’s way. It’s not about mission statements or growth strategies.
The Gospel of Resurrection is not about something that we can do.
It’s about something that God does. Has done already.
Like the proverbial caterpillar who instinctively climbs up out on a limb and shrouds himself in his own cocoon; but it is God who effects the transformation. All the caterpillar has to do is basically `hang in there.’
Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success in life is just about showing up.”
Or just staying in one place despite surrounding difficulties.

A colleague (William Willimon) tells the story about being appointed to a very troubled church that had lost hundreds of members in the last decade. Like so many inner-city churches, this congregation had lost touch with its neighborhood and had been in steady decline.
“But, by the grace of God,” reported my colleague, “eventually things got better and things started to change on their own.”
‘By the grace of God,’ he says, “We grew.”
One day he took the opportunity to thank one of his older members for her leadership and support. He thanked her for just `hanging in there’ through its tough times, and because she did stay, she helped lead the congregation forward.
And this elder woman told the pastor, “I stayed here because I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that God had a purpose for this church. I stayed because I was convinced that God would one day bless us and use us. You came to us as our pastor,” she told him, “and, despite first impressions (!) you turned out to be that blessing that we needed.”
“I’m glad I stayed,” this matriarch concluded, “because if I had left, I would have missed out on a resurrection!”
I recently read somewhere that, if you want to know who somebody is, just look at their feet. That is to say: look at where they allow their feet to lead them. For where people go can tell you a great deal about them.
But, I also believe, that you can learn just as much – perhaps even more – about somebody according to where they choose to stay; where they remain. Where they hold fast. Where they choose to hang on.

Another pastor reported that his church went through a traumatic battle over sponsoring an interracial daycare center in the basement of his church. Two families left the church in opposition to the opening of the daycare center. But most of the members stayed. One of those who stayed reported a conversation a couple of years later with one of the people who left in opposition to the daycare center.
“She asked me how things were going at the church,” the woman who stayed said. “I proudly told her that things were going great, that we had experienced more growth in membership last year than in any previous year of the decade. I explained to her how the daycare center had been the key to getting back in touch with our neighborhood. I told her that it was a miraculous thing to behold.
“And then, God forgive me, I said to her, `Aren’t you sorry that you didn’t stay to see the miracle? When you left, you cheated yourself of experiencing one of the most miraculous works of God that I’ve ever seen.’” (ibid)

Apparently God does some of His best work in the cocoons of life. What we view as a `tomb,’ is for God another opportunity to create new life.

I don’t know if you came here this morning on winged foot and with a song in your heart, or just got here by putting one foot in front of the other.
I don’t know if, when you responded, “He is risen indeed!” it was with strong, joyful voice and unshakable faith in the reality of the resurrection, or meekly through a veil of tears.
Maybe you’re here, having endured some traumatic crucible in your life and you need to find healing.
Maybe you’re here, today, because, like Mary, you’ve seen the empty tomb and now your longing for something more; and maybe, in hope against hope, you don’t want to miss the possibility of resurrection happening somewhere nearby.
Whether you come once a week, or once a year, you are here today.
Whether this is one more step in the midst of a journey of a thousand miles; or the first step on your journey back to God.
The important thing is that you are here. And maybe that’s all that Jesus expects of any of us today.
You are here to receive, once more, the joyous message of Easter:
The Lord is risen!
And he will find you, whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are, and in the power of resurrection, will transform your life. So just hang in there.

(*Grateful acknowledgement to William Willimon for inspiration and some content.)