The following is my draft of my sermon for this coming Easter Sunday, which will be delivered at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, where I am Pastor. There’s a lot going on here, perhaps too much, although it’s still not terribly long, and I’d love to hear your feedback. I am preaching from the lectionary, although modified a little, primarily upon Colossians 3:1-4 and Matthew 27:45-28:15. I will be incorporating the children’s book, Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, into the children’s message and into the following sermon. Thanks for reading.
UPDATE: Revision posted 4/22, noon (EST)
When was the last time something happened to you that was just too good to be true? Like finding out that the one you had a crush on also has a crush on you? Or that after searching for a long time, you finally got a job that you like? Or after years of waiting, your prayers are answered?
But we also live in a world where sometimes what could be believed to be too good to be true doesn’t happen and we are just faced with a long line of bad luck.
And we can also conceive of the fact that when things do go our way, and when our prayers are answered, that we are rarely, if ever, satisfied when the things that we believe to be too good to be true actually happen. They might be “good” but we can always think of something better.
And we also can relate to times when what is believed to be too good to be true ends up being a big disappointment. Or even that what is too good to be true ends up being something we wish we had never encountered or desired before.
The problem that we have with our desire for tangible objects and for the consumption of things is that we always want more. There is almost always something that we want, and when we get it, we are on to the next thing, much like the story of the Bear in Jane Chapman and Karma Wilson’s Bear Wants More.
The situation we are presented with in our scripture reading for this Easter Sunday is precisely about an event that is too good to be true. Jesus dies on the cross, and he offers a final gasp of desperation, or dereliction, from the cross, the disciples become afraid, and run away. A guard is placed to watch over Jesus’ tomb to ensure that nothing strange happens, and then—we know the story—Jesus reappears, alive, to the women. The guards are, the scriptures tell us, so overcome that they shook and passed out, as if they had died, frozen in their tracks.
But the women are told not to be afraid, to tell the disciples that Jesus has returned. They are so overcome that they do just this, and then they encounter Jesus, and are so overwhelmed that they immediately leave to tell more people what has happened. What has happened is simply too good to be true. The truth of what has happened has become secondary to the goodness and overwhelming joy they were experiencing. The resurrection of Christ is too good to be true.
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The characters that are often overlooked in this story include the guards who are placed to watch Jesus’ grave. The religious leaders came to Pontius Pilate and requested that a guard be placed to watch the tomb to be sure no funny business happened. Since Pilate saw Jesus as a threat to the peace between his political control over the Jews, he agrees so as to keep them happy, and he sends several guards.
But when the angel appears at the grave, an earthquake happens, the stone is rolled away, and the soldiers’ bodies convulsed, and, as the Bible says, they “became like dead men.” What was happening around them was unbelievable, beyond their comprehension. But the women, who were mourning, and apparently frightened by these events, did not fall down as if they were dead. Instead, they are told that Jesus has been raised, which up until this point could only have been something that remained with them as an imaginary possibility, as something that would just be too good to be true. The Good News was something that was in fact Good News for the women, whereas the Good News of Easter could only be something bad for the soldiers, who failed in preventing any funny business from happening.
So the guards had to then answer to the priests, who conspire to make up a story that makes sense—that they fell asleep and the disciples stole the body of Jesus. The soldiers had to report the facts of what happened to someone, because they are interested only in doing their job, and now that it appears that they failed at their job, they can only respond to the facts by making up a false story that remains within the realm of the possible. The priests even conclude that their story will dupe Pilate and that the soldiers would then not get in trouble with him. To sweeten the situation, the priests even give the soldiers money to bribe them to tell the story exactly the way the priests wanted it to be heard.
What is interesting to me here is that the guards, who are interested in the facts, become, according to the scriptures, “like dead” when encountered with the resurrection of Christ. A radical reversal is occurring here: those who are mourning, and those who thirst for justice, that is, the women, are no longer walking in a death that ends like a dead-end, but instead, in the death of Christ they are faced with a reality that is too good to be true. The truth of the events no longer matters, because death, and burial, all become relative to a New World that is Now Occurring. Little would they understand that while they watched Jesus bleed to death a few days before, and listen to Jesus cry out in dereliction a bold statement of atheism, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”—that is, Jesus, as God, renouncing God on the cross—that through this death of God on the cross, life itself is now given new life, it is given new meaning.
To try to understand the resurrection as a factual sequence of events, as something that historically happened in the past, is something that is being done in churches all around the world on this Easter morning. The reality is that the conspiracy of the resurrection of Christ as simply a historical event of the past began on the first Easter Sunday, as this is what the guards tried to do when they awoke, as they began to make sense of what happened and tried to figure out what to do, and then they went to the priests, who could only make sense of the resurrection by denying that it had any reality at all. To the priests, it made no difference whether the resurrection happened or not, in fact, I suspect that they believed that it happened; yet they were far more interested in explaining what had happened, because this secret of the resurrection was just too good to be true.
I am convinced that by reducing the resurrection to an argument about history—which is what I would suspect you would hear in many churches today, on this Easter morning—is really no different than what the priests instructed the soldiers to tell Pontius Pilate on that first Easter morning. In fact, as some of you know I have been reading the holy text of Islam, the Qur’an, in the past few months, and I have always known that Muslims deny the resurrection of Christ, but I have been especially struck by the words of the Qur’an, which claims that neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection happened, but instead, the book teaches, the Christians “just imagined it,” and that Christians “have no knowledge” about the end of Jesus’ life, instead, we are “just guessing” about Easter (Sura 4:157). The Gospel of Matthew, at the conclusion of our reading today, said that the story the priests told the guards to say about Jesus “is still told” today, and I believe that this statement is true.
The reality is that we don’t know exactly what historically happened on that first Easter Sunday morning, and if we do take a historical position we just create an argument. The Good News of this Easter is that we have a third option away from the argument about whether the resurrection happened or not as a fact: namely, this third option is the position of the women who encounter Christ in the garden, where the resurrection is too good to be true, and it’s too good to be false. The return of Jesus enacts in us a call to step away from the downward spiral of our typical lives, and of our sufferings, and of our angers, and our mournings, and our injustices, and in this suffering, find new life and New Creation. When it’s too good to be true, the absurdity of the resurrection calls us to joy. When it’s too good to be true, we are led from our ordinary lives to something extra-ordinary.
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A good question might be raised about the practicality of living out Easter, and what this might mean.
I think we can learn something from the children’s book Bear Wants More by Jane Chapman and Karma Wilson. In the book, the bear comes out from his hibernation in his cave, and walks around the forest, meeting his other animal friends, and his hunger and desire for food leads him to eat, and eat, and eat. And while he is out getting food, some other friends are back at his cave getting ready to throw him a party. But when the bear returns, he has become so fat that he can’t get in his cave anymore. The bear gets stuck, and his friends pry him out, and throw a party for him outside of the cave.
I like to think that if we are to find ourselves in the story of Bear Wants More, we’re not really the bear, although we can see ourselves in the bear, always wanting more, and for some of us, getting so fat that we don’t fit through the doorway of our caves anymore.
I would suggest that living the Easter life, the resurrection life, is being the friends for the bear, preparing food for the bear after he is out-on-the-town, in the forest, eating food that is not fulfilling. The bear came out of his cave and intends on returning to his cave.
Because we do not live in death, because Easter is just too good to be true, we meet our friends who are determined to live in their caves, or tombs, outside of their caves, and meet their basic needs. We seek those who are poor, and mourning, and downtrodden, and we feed them, we comfort them, and we work to dismantle the social powers that hold them in chains. And in doing so, we teach and proclaim that now it is Spring, and a New Creation is blossoming all around us, and there is no longer any need to stay indoors, in our caves, and hibernate. We all know people who stay in their caves, or tombs, all year long, watching flickering shadows of the world on their walls, and never really venturing to see the new life that awaits them outside.
As a resurrection people, it’s our job to stand by the tomb and proclaim that we have seen the resurrection, and it isn’t just about making our life better, and it isn’t about starting an argument about what has happened at the tomb of Christ, but instead it’s about the life that is better than life in the cave, that the un-resurrected life is not worth living. That there is an abundance of new life outside of the tomb.
* * *
You have surely heard of the story about the minister, who, on Easter Sunday, decided to quiz the children during the children’s sermon. He asked the children if they knew what day it was, and they looked at each other and answered, “Easter.”
He then asked them what happened on Easter. One very astute child courageously spoke up and boldly proclaimed, “The stone rolled away from the big hole!”
The congregation chuckled at how bold the little child said this, and then the pastor said, “But then what happened?” The same child rose her hand, and the pastor said, “How ‘bout we ask someone else to talk?”
A little boy looked up and asked the pastor a question, “You mean what happened after Jesus came out of the hole?” The pastor nodded and said, “Yes, do you know what happened then?”
The little boy said, “Jesus came out of the big hole.”
The pastor said to the boy, “Very good!”
But then the boy added: “And when he saw his shadow, there was six more weeks of winter.”
This is my point. Easter gives us the opportunity to step out of our tombs, and to help others in coming into the light outside of their caves and encourage them, against the choice of letting the moment of Easter to be sealed in the tomb of a dusty story of long ago. We must proclaim that the resurrection of Christ is not only Good News for Jesus, as the one raised from the grave on the first Easter, and Good News is not only Good News for the women mourning by the tomb on the first Easter, in taking the next big step of history by proclaiming that this Easter, our Easter, is too Good to be true. It is stepping boldly out of our own tombs, basking in the light, and joining Christ in our own transcending of “life” and of “death.”
For if we are bearing the cross of Christ on our journey, and fulfill our baptism as being baptized in Christ’s life and his death, we too are invited to cry from the cross in our darkest moments, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And out of the deep and empty cave of our cries of dereliction and abandonment, we may have hope for ourselves, and for others, that these dry bones may find new life, and that must proclaim boldly that this New Life, which is truly too good to be true, loudly into every cave where there is death and despair, for this Good News is not just a resurrection of Jesus, but a resurrection of ourselves, as we walk out of this church this morning, smashing behind us the chains and tombs that hold us back from living New Life. For on this Sunday, this Easter, we are empowered to enact the New Creation with every person we encounter and touch, and ask those around us, “why are you weeping?” Our presence alone, as living New Life in Christ, is now reason alone to reverse the course of the world.