All Will Be Made Alive!
Easter, April 23, 2000
Luke 24:1-12, I Corinthians 15:19-22 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
The story began last Christmas. A child, born of peasant stock,
marked from before his birth to be unique, to be Messiah, the Christ
. . . whose birth was announced by angel choirs and portents in the
heavens. A child who grew to be a man - a young man barely thirty -
who called his people back to righteousness and justice and
forgiveness, challenging the conventional wisdom of his day, walking
deliberately into the hands of his enemies. A man who stood
defenseless but calm before Pilate; humiliated, crucified; a young
man who died praying for his enemies. That's our story, so far.
Luke 24:1-12, I Corinthians 15:19-22
A heroic story, an inspiring story, but ultimately a very sad, tragic story - not unlike sad and tragic stories that this world has witnessed again and again through the centuries, in our own day, in our own lives. What makes the story of Jesus any different from stories of good people in all times and places whose goodness was met with fear and hatred, unspeakable sorrow, and even death?
The difference is Easter. Let us listen first to how Luke tells the story of that resurrection morning, when the women who had followed Jesus come expecting to anoint a lifeless body, but instead find an empty tomb.
And then let us listen to how, some twenty or thirty years after that surprise ending to our story, an ending no one could have guessed, Paul the apostle tries to articulate the meaning of that empty tomb, and a risen Lord. Listen for what he says has changed for all time because we say today "He is risen!"
What does it mean? This story of women numb with grief, bravely, dutifully feeling their way through the predawn light? What does it mean? This stone mysteriously rolled away, the body of an innocent man executed by the state, now gone? What does it mean? These two men in dazzling clothes, with their perfectly logical question - Why seek the living among the dead? - and their perfectly crazy announcement, He is risen? What does it mean? This story told by women, a story their male counterparts called "an idle tale" Boy, were they wrong!
It is not very often that the forces of nature seem to support and underline religious observance, but as Carol said at the Maundy Thursday service the weather this week has done just that. The wind and rain and most of all the unrelenting steel-gray skies that prevailed through Friday morning made our Holy Week observance - already sullen and sad and reflective - that much more grave. Beginning last Sunday when this chancel was stripped of all symbols and color and finally all life, continuing in Maundy Thursday's solemn tenebrae service that ended in complete darkness and silence, and the Good Friday service of quiet introspection, the mood this week has been appropriately subdued, and the weather helped us - just as the sun and warmth of this morning helps us celebrate the joy of resurrection!
But we didn't have to have gray skies this week to make us feel the burdens of this groaning old world in which we live. I need not recite a litany of the sorrows of humankind. You are as familiar with them as I. But one event this week brought those sorrows into sharp relief. I refer to the events surrounding Elian Gonzales. For into that one small boy's life converge many of the failures - sins of our past and present as a world, failures that if it were not for what Easter means I for one could grow very cynical about the future. Let me tell you what I mean, beginning a very long time ago.
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and bumped into an island we now call Cuba. Colonization by Spain, with all its usual abuses, quickly followed and the original Cubans were soon nearly extinct. And so Spain began importing slaves from Africa to work the plantations. Further exploitation of the poor, corruption in leadership, and greed over the next 400 years gave rise to various dictatorships, and revolutions. America played its role, not always well, as American corporate interests came to dominate Cuba's sugar industry. Fidel Castro's revolution, the latest of many, came in the late 1950s, establishing an oppressive government that caused many to flee to this country.
Human greed, the powerful taking advantage of the less powerful, Christians behaving shamefully toward non-Christians - all of this history came together last fall as one young woman stood on a beach in Cuba and looked longingly ninety miles across the Straits of Florida. Add to that history her own personal anguish, having suffered the pain of a broken marriage that so many of us have known, desperate to start a new life, she chooses to risk her life and that of her six-year-old son.
Of course we know that only Elian survives that fateful choice by his mother, and ends up in Miami and smack in the middle of the dilemma we have watched unfold. In the name of love - much of it surely misguided - he is made a symbol of freedom, an icon whose image is put on t-shirts and billboards here and in Cuba. To some he is made even a heavenly messenger, miraculously plucked from the sea, and enthroned in makeshift shrines - all done, we say, in his best interests. Enter too the politicians, and those all-important electoral votes and somewhere in that mix of good and evil, a little boy stands at his back door waving blankly at the adoring throngs.
In this sad and complicated and tragic tale is embodied all the evidence for why we could say that in this world the forces of greed and exploitation, of politics and corruption are so widespread, so long-standing, and so deep that to hope for a better world is to be hopelessly foolish. I must tell you, by the way, that as I was writing this sermon I thought that I had better check to see if anything new had transpired, and so I went downstairs and turned on the TV, and what do you think came on the screen? The World Wrestling Federation! If you want to get me depressed about the depth to which our culture has descended, start telling me how popular that stuff is! But I won't be going there very far . . . .
What does Easter mean in such a world as ours? What does that story nearly 2000 years old now mean for us who profess to be Christian people, but who like the women in the story still feel our way through the darkness of our days, not sure what we may find, not sure if it is the darkness just before the dawn or the last light the day?
Among many things, Easter means to never give up hope. No matter how deep the darkness, how lonely the night - never give up hope. No matter the confusion, the disappointment; no matter the failure we see in ourselves or others - never give up hope because the story is not yet over.
The crushing disappointments of the Good Fridays of our lives may seem to drive all hope from us. How easy it would be to sink into the resigned pessimism that sees a good man hanging on a cross and say, "There! There's reality for you! You hope and you trust and you work, and what does it get you, but tragic and senseless disappointment!" But the Easter story keeps telling us: never give up hope.
Desmond Tutu formerly Episcopal archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and recipient of the Nobel peace prize is surely one of the most respected church leaders in the world because of his faithfulness through the struggle for human rights in his country. He has written a book describing the transformation - the miracle - he has witnessed. The title alone is worth the cost of the book: No Future Without Forgiveness, and it is the story of how a nation so divided, with a history of such atrocities inflicted by black and white people could ever come together. It is a moving account of how instead of pursuing the path of revenge blacks and whites have bravely sought both truth and reconciliation, and even forgiveness.
The people of South Africa didn't give up hope. They if anyone certainly were entitled to. After centuries of apartheid, institutionalized by the rule of law and blessed by the dominant white, Protestant church, black South Africans had little reason for hope. But somehow by faith they clung to the hope so eloquently and powerfully expressed in the Easter story that we celebrate today.
Tutu tells of the years in which he and others had to struggle to keep the faith that a better day was coming. He writes,
There had been so many moments during the dark days of apartheid's vicious awfulness when we had preached, "This is God's world and God is in charge!" Sometimes, when evil seemed to be on the rampage and about to overwhelm goodness one had held on to this article of faith by the skin of one's teeth. It was a kind of theological whistling in the dark and one was frequently tempted to whisper in God's ear, "For goodness sake, why don't You make it more obvious that You are in charge?"
But they did not give up hope. And on April 27, 1994, "the day for which we had waited all these many long years, for which so many of our people had been tear-gassed, bitten by police dogs, struck with batons, for which many more had been detained, tortured, and banned, for which others had been imprisoned, sentenced to death, for which others had gone into exile" that day came on which the first fully free election was held and Nelson Mandela - himself a political prisoner for seventeen years - was elected the nation's president. It was a complete trunaround - a "metamorphosis" - truly a resurrection as the man who once was deemed an enemy of the state was now the head of state, and he invited his white jailer to attend his inauguration as an honored guest! As Tutu says, "the world saw a veritable miracle unfolding before their eyes. They witnessed the almost unbelievable." And we witnessed Jesus resurrected once more in his people!
What does this Easter story mean in a world such as ours? Desmond Tutu concludes his book with these words.
Who in their right minds could ever have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but the most ghastly awfulness, of how NOT to order a nation's race relations . . .? We South Africans were the most unlikely lot and that is precisely why God has chosen us. . . . We were a hopeless case if ever there was one. [And] God intends that others might look at us and take courage. God wants to point to us as a possible beacon of hope . . .to say, "Look at South Africa. They had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. [Your] nightmare will end too."
As one of your pastors these past twelve years, I am keenly aware of at least some of the sorrows and challenges, disappointments and questions and nightmares - burdens that are born by the people of this congregation. There are loads of pain born by some of you - burdens that would have crippled me long, long ago and yet you are persevering. And your faith and just plain strength of character humble me, and is an encouragement to many. To you - to all of you - I say this Easter morning:
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. And two men in dazzling clothes appeared and said to them and to you: He is not here. He is risen! Amen.