A happy Easter to all of you, my dear people!
I don’t want to be a party pooper, but…
Have you ever noticed that the days that we celebrate — days that we either call “holy” for religious reasons — Holy days like Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter — or days that we observe for civic reasons like the Fourth of July, or Memorial day, always seem to contain a rather distinct ironical quality?
If we’re going to go out of our way to drink pumpkin-spiced pseudo beverages, fill the sky with exploding pyrotechnics, and bedraggle hapless evergreen trees with tinsel, we ought to at least feel confident that the reason for all the frightful hullabaloo isn’t undermined by a covert stinker.
And yet, from where I am sitting at least, most of our celebrations happen in spite of a painful irony that lies hidden like a snake in the proverbial grass.
There’s nothing wrong with honoring those who have died in defense of our way of life, for example, but we can’t observe Memorial Day without rueing the awful fact that humans seem incapable of coexisting without starting horrible wars — the likes of which just get worse as our technology advances.
The Fourth of July would be a lot sweeter if we could eat hamburgers and hot dogs without the pesky awareness that the founders of our nation categorically ignored the equality of women, and defined Black people as 2/3rds human so that they could continue to be used as farm animals for an extra hundred years.
Christmas would be a lot more meaningful if it wasn’t obscured by a heavy layer of treacle and we didn’t feel obliged to get worked up into a frenzy of consumerism. Valentine’s day suffers from a similar dysfunction, and Halloween is all very well, except what’s with all the decapitated skeletons and inflatable spider’s crawling about in everyone’s front yards? Yuck! I know I’m supposed to think it’s all in fun, but some years, I eagerly anticipate November 1st, just so that I am not assailed by cheap nightmares each time I’m out on an innocent errand to procure a gallon of milk.
The casual observer may think nothing of this holiday, which comes and goes with little more fanfair than the fleeting appearance of a playfully colored cardboard bunnie in the seasonal aisle of the local Rite Aid, and a gauntlet of chocolate eggs to tempt you at the register …
But if you are here, in church, and you have even the slightest knowledge of the story behind the holy day, the irony isn’t hard to find.
It’s right in front of us.
We cannot celebrate the resurrection, without first accepting the horror of the cross.
We cannot speak of being saved by God, without first acknowledging the utmost depths of human suffering.
And when I say utmost, I mean utmost.
The cross is a diabolical instrument. It is simple to construct, but difficult to outdo, when it comes to sheer cruelty. Victims die slowly, in a constant and unrelenting state of pain.
I don’t like to think about it.
I don’t like to think that any human is capable of doing this to another human being.
The irony here is a powerful one that is hard to ignore. In order to properly celebrate Easter, we have to be a bunch of ostriches hiding our heads in the sand…
And it’s hard to sing triumphant hymns when your head is buried in the sand…
(Oh my!… excuse me… let me turn this off… Oh wait… It’s Liz! Is this really you Liz?
Mark: uuhh… ok… [answers the phone]
LIZ: Hello Reverend Mark?
L: I’m sorry to interrupt, but do you mind if I make an observation here?
M: Ahh…. Well, usually this sermon time is my time to speak…
L: Yes, that’s true, but I just thought of something from that we discussed in Bible study that…
M: Oh wow! Well, great — shall I put you on speaker?
M: OK, go ahead…
L: The thing is, I was thinking about the other day in Bible Study, when we were talking about the Transfiguration… and about how that story — in which Jesus is up on the mountain speaking with Moses and Elijah — is considered, in many traditions, to be the moment when Jesus becomes fully divine. You remember?
M: Yes… he starts to glow…
L: Yes! And Sarah pointed out that just at that moment God speaks from the clouds and says something like “this is my son and I love him.” And so we made the connection that the moment when Jesus is fully divine, is the moment when he is loved.”
M: Yes! I remember! That was a real highlight of our discussion! But what does it have to do with this sermon?
L: Well, you were just talking about how horrible the cross is and I thought… maybe this is a key to how we can imagine the crucifixion — as the opposite of the transfiguration… The moment when Jesus is the most human…
M: Is when he is in the most pain?
M: Wow Liz… that’s amazing! Is there anything else you want to say?
L: That’s it! Sorry to interrupt! Bye..
M: No problem! Bye.
Thank you Liz! What you have pointed out, is not only a super interesting way to connect the story of the Transfiguration with the story of Easter — it is also a really good plug for our Bible Study.
Sermons are as good, but they are the work of one brain, one heart, one soul. Bible studies have the advantage of being the coming together of many brains, many hearts, many souls.
And this makes me think that…
Oh my!… Do you suppose?… No it’s not Liz! It’s Tina this time!
Mark: Tina? Shall I put you on speaker too?
M: So what’s up Tina?
T: The thing that Liz brought up reminds me of something else from Bible Study.
M: Really? What?
T: Well remember when we were talking about that passage from Isaiah
M: Yes… When God says: “Your thoughts are not my thoughts…
T: And my ways are not your ways…”
T: God also says “my ways are higher than your ways…”
M: So what?
T: So… that goes along with what you were just saying — if the crucifixion is Jesus in the greatest pain — that is the human way, but God’s way…
M: is a higher way…
M: Wow, preach it Tina!
T: That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
M: Anything else?
T: that’s it… Bye…
What Tina has said is helpful too when you think about the problem of the cross, right?
If the crucifixion is something that God did to Jesus, it presents a real challenge to our faith in a loving God — but if the cross is a human way, and not God’s way, it places the responsibility on us.
This story brings together the human and the divine together at the cross, and…
M: Hello? Oh, it’s Brenda… Hi Brenda…
Brenda: I was just thinking…
M: Let me guess, is it something to do with something that came up in Bible study?
M: Well if it’s anything like what Liz and Tina has to say, I want to hear it!
B: Well… I don’t know, but… it’s like this…
Brenda: That thing that Tina just said about God’s ways and human ways…
B: Well, if you think of it that way, the whole irony thing that you were talking about at the beginning of the sermon is kind of off, isn’t it?
M: What? What do you mean?
B: Well… the story is only ironic from one side, right? You only have to be an ostrich, if you are looking at the story from the cruel human side of the story. If you look at it from the divine side of the story, it’s all about love, right… Its all about…
B: Right! God isn’t the one who puts Jesus on the Cross. We are. God is the one who rolls away the stone…
M: Amen to that, Brenda!
Let us pray:
Open our eyes to see the light on this new day
Open our lips to tell of the empty tomb
Open our hearts to believe in the good news.
When we were unspeakably cruel,
You answered with the promise of life,
The challenge of love.
Help us to gather our combined wisdom
And discern your ways through
The goodness of our hearts.
Let us rely not on doctrine, but on compassion.
Let us believe, not in dogma, but in the irrepressible
Truth of your way.
We are most divine when we love
And we are loved…
When we roll away the heavy stone
And give life.
And so we follow you,
Resurrected out of pain,
Out of exile…
And into your new way…
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!