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“Presente”: a sermon for Easter

April 8th, 2007 by isaac · No Comments

After struggling for the past week, I came up with an Easter sermon. The people at church had good things to say about it. One of the things I appreciate so much about my church is that I can be honest with them—they are my friends. And I know that I couldn’t say the things I said in many churches.

You can read how my sermon thoughts developed by reading my past few posted notes from Sebastian Moore (look here and here) and Rowan Williams. Also, my sermon is extremely indebted to Rowan William’s Easter sermon from 2004 (check it out here: Easter Sermon, Canterbury Cathedral).
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Title: “Presente”
Date: Easter—April 8, 2007.
Texts: I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12.

On that hill outside Jerusalem, Golgotha it’s called, a man in his thirties was killed. And with him, something significant, something intimate, something deep inside the people’s psyche died as well. For that band of followers, we could say that part of them died, a piece of them died, part of who they became died. Their hopes and dreams, their excited imaginations, died with Jesus on that cross. The revolution died with Jesus on that cross.

They had walked with him. They had seen his miracles. They had heard his teachings. They ate with him, talked with him, sat in his presence—and they came to discover that there was something special about this man. It almost seemed like something divine was at work—or at least those were the rumors. In his presence, they could taste and see the God who would not forget the plight of Israel.

And after giving their lives to this Jesus movement, after betting the house on Jesus as the hope of Israel, the end of Jesus seemed like the end of their lives. Jesus’ death was an apocalyptic event. It marked the end of the world. How would they go on? Life, in a sense, ended. Even though Jesus may have mentioned that death was on the horizon, no one ever expected his execution—no one could predict or imagine that sight on Golgotha, the hope Israel hanging, covered with blood and tears, on the cross.

(pause)

In the 1880s, the United States military finally defeated the once powerful Crow Nation, and forced them onto reservations. The Crow people were forced to give up the nomadic life of their ancestors in order to save what lives remained from the US war machine. This marked the end of their lives, the end of the only life they knew—a life of wandering across their native land of America in search of their livelihood, the buffalo.

When the chief of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coup, reflected on the cultural, social, and religious death that occurred when they surrendered, this is what he said:

when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.

After this nothing happened. It was the end. Life ended. Sure, they continued to breath and eat and raise children, but they no longer could say that this life on the reservation was true life, real life, the life that they learned to call life; they could no longer go on and be the nomadic Crow Nation while confined to a reservation, without the buffalo.

The hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again, said chief Plenty Coups. How would they go on? (see Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope)

(pause)

This is the sort of death the faithful followers faced when they saw Jesus disfigured and dead on that instrument of torture called the cross. This was not supposed to be the end. To steal chief Plenty Coups’ line, after this nothing could happen. There was no possibility for the only life they knew to go on.

But the women, those faithful women, woke up at daybreak on Sunday, and did what they knew to do; they did the only natural thing. What are you supposed to do on the day after the world ends? Well, the dead must be anointed, they knew that much. The women walked to the tomb where the body would be, probably still under the spell of trauma—that think fog that settles on those caught in the midst of tragedy.

And then with a shock, angels break through the haze and announce what the women will see with their own eyes: the tomb is empty. What could this mean? One impossibility was replaced with another. The death of Jesus was impossible; someone with God on their side, the one who embodied everyone’s hopes, wasn’t supposed to die before the revolution, before the liberation of Israel. And now they faced another impossibility: Jesus is no longer among the dead. And the angels reminded them of something crazy, something unheard of, something they now remembered that Jesus spoke of—a resurrection.

And they rush back to the disciples to tell them of the strange and impossible, yet wonderful news. But as Luke tells us in the 11th verse, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

This is probably an obvious point, but one worth noticing. The first preachers are women. These women, rushing back from the empty tomb, are the first to declare the good news. And it’s the men with authority, the disciples, who doubt their message. They dismiss it as an idle tale, empty chatter.

(pause)

But there’s one thing I want to ask us this morning, this Easter morning. It’s a basic question, basic to what makes us Christians. Forgive me if it’s too elementary. Here’s my question: What does the empty tomb mean? What does it mean that death doesn’t hold Jesus in the grave? What does it mean that Jesus was resurrected?

The first thing I think it means is that the people who killed him will panic at this news. In the ancient world, it was thought that the dead would appear in a vision or a dream and haunt their killers, and possibly persuade someone to avenge their death. And the Roman empire specialized in silencing unwanted voices by killing them. It was not good news to hear news that someone they killed is back from the dead—that could only mean trouble.

This life would not be silenced; Jesus will not disappear; he will not fade out of history. He comes back. The powerful tools of death are rendered impotent. And what’s more, Jesus is the “first fruits” of resurrection, as Paul says in our passage from 1st Corinthians. “All will be made alive in Christ.” And “the Last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The victims will not be silenced by death. Killing someone will not render them forgotten or mute. Jesus conquers death; and that means no one will be forgotten.

And if God refuses to let death have the last word, if God makes a way beyond the silencing and forgetfulness of death, then we shouldn’t forget either. In the resurrection of Jesus we see a God whose justice doesn’t rest in peace. And if God conquers the power of death that isolates and annihilates, then maybe we should also use our lives to confront and resist all mechanisms of isolation, all the ways our society forgets people when it’s convenient—the homeless addict, the abused woman, the mentally disturbed, the chronically depressed. And the list goes on.

I was confronted by the chronic forgetfulness of our society when I served as a chaplain at the Murdoch Center. It’s a state facility in Butner, 20-30 minutes North of Durham that houses and cares for the mentally handicapped and people with developmental disabilities. I don’t want to say it’s not a good place. I can bear witness to the heartfelt care the people there receive.

But it’s also not a mistake that we send people like that to Butner, far away from our everyday lives. We want to forget them because they are an eye-sore. And when I say “we”, I’m not referring to something you or I do self-consciously—it’s about a forgetting that’s bigger than you or me. It’s a social arrangement, the way things have been established, the way geography is manipulated to forget people. But that doesn’t mean we should participate in these sorts of social forgetfulness.

The one Rome tried to silence, God raised from the dead. On Easter we come to see that the justice of our God rebukes all forms of forgetfulness.

(pause)

I have a friend named Dan. I work with him during the week I work for Steve—Dan’s also on Steve’s crew. A few years ago Dan did something pretty crazy, at least I think it’s crazy. It happened at Fort Benning, a US army facility in Georgia. Every year people go down to Fort Benning and protest what’s called the School of the America’s. This is a military school that has trained the most disgusting of South American dictators and commanders in the skills of killing and torture, all in the name of fighting against the communists, or Marxists, or insurgents, or terrorists—the name depends on the decade and the US administration’s whimsical agenda.

And every year, thousands get together and peacefully demonstrate outside the military compound at Fort Benning. But what’s interesting to me is the way the protest looks and sounds different than most other marches and protests in the United States. It’s a demonstration that looks and feels like the marches the people of Argentina or El Salvador or Chile when they march to remember the disappeared, los desaparecidos.

They dress up in black, or make themselves look like skeletons, and they carry crosses and coffins. And as they march somberly, someone calls out the names of those who have disappeared under the reign of terror administered by their governments. And the people respond by saying, “Presente”—present. The people remember the victims; they shout out their names and make they present; they will not forget those who were secretly tortured or executed.

One year at these marches down at Ft. Benning Georgia, my friend Dan joined a number of other protestors and crossed a line marked on the ground. He walked across the line right in front of the authorities, and bowed down to his knees, and prayed. He knew he was going to be arrested. But he wanted to make public what the military wanted to hide. So he went to court and testified—he told everyone in that courtroom, even the judge who is supposed to stand for justice, about what everyone wants to forget and keep silent—that the US government has trained many South American executioners and torturers.

Dan got sent to prison for something like 3 months. And, interestingly, they sent him to the prison at Butner.

I think Dan shows us what Easter is all about—it’s about the way God remembers. Resurrection is God’s remembering; it’s about God conquering all the forces of forgetfulness; it’s about destroying that enemy called death, that seemingly ultimate silence, the solitary silence of the grave. And Dan shows us one way to remember what God doesn’t want us to forget—the victims, the silenced.

(pause)

In a few moments we will gather together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Communion. That part of the service is probably the high-point of our Easter celebration. It’s the time we celebrate the reality of the resurrection, and our participation in the resurrected life—it’s a time to rejoice in God’s presence. And as part of that celebration, we read the words of I Corinthians 11: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread…” I’m sure it’s a passage that’s familiar to all of us. But there’s something interesting that happens at end of that passage we read as part of our celebration; it’s something that I’ve only recently paid attention to: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v26).

The last words of our celebration are somber. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. At what many call the central practice of the church, communion, we remember a death. We celebrate the resurrection by remembering the death. I think it’ important to see that resurrection doesn’t forget the death. We misunderstand Easter if it simply replaces the gloom of the Good Friday cross with the joy of Easter Sunday. Easter doesn’t cancel the cross. (see Herbert McCabe, God, Christ, and Us, pp. 89-90).

Rather, our Easter celebration is the way we look further into the cross to see in it and through it the mysteries of a profound love, love that doesn’t not forget, a love that sustains us through the Holy Spirit, a love that will come again in all it’s wonder.

At Easter we remember our Lord’s death, the way the world ended on that day, and we celebrate the new life now available through the gift of his life, and we wait for the return at the consummation of history.

Easter, and our communion celebration at Easter, seems to me to be our supreme protest against the powers of death that continue to rule this world. We gather together and celebration the Lamb that was slain, and announce to the world, like those faithful women did in our story from Luke, that death will not have the last word. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

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