An Easter Message

by Rev. Scott Summerville

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8
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Some of you may be surprised to see me here today. Last year I took Easter Sunday off. That is an unconventional thing for a pastor to do. But I did have a good excuse: my daughter got married on Easter weekend, and I promised her that no matter what, I would definitely be with her on her wedding day. You were very understanding last year, but I thought it best not to test your forbearance by taking Easter off two years in a row, so here I am.

I want to add my personal welcome to the welcome that our lay leader has extended to you today on behalf of the congregation. In that spirit of welcome I want to read aloud the formal welcoming statement of this congregation:

All are Welcome Here

Asbury United Methodist Church in Yonkers, New York, established in 1771, has long been a welcoming community. We strive to follow the example of Christ, grow in love and welcome into full fellowship persons of every race, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic circumstance, age, physical and mental ability, family and marital status. We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth.
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Whether you are brand-new here, or have been here for seventy years, whether you are dropping by for Easter or looking for a long-term relationship as part of a spiritual community, whoever you are and wherever you have been, you are welcome here on this Easter day. I know this is a long worship service for the children – I promise not to be too long-winded with my message.

Easter is a strange day. It is not every day that the dead come back to life. We have no analogy for this in our life experience, so Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, will always be an amazing and puzzling thing. The Gospel stories do not make it any less puzzling.

The way the resurrection story is told in the Gospel of Mark is the most curious of all. Mark tells us that certain women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried; they saw that he was no longer there, instead there was a young man in the tomb who announced to them:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Mark ends the story this way:

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid!”

So – according to this Gospel the first witnesses to the resurrection were several women who decided not to tell anybody. How’s that for strange?

The Gospel of Luke will give us this story in a rather different fashion. According to Luke the women visiting the tomb were told of the resurrection by two men, but the women did not keep this news a secret. According to Luke the women went from the tomb and “they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” However, Luke adds that when the women reported to the disciples that Jesus was risen, the men scoffed at them – the women’s words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” “Ah – crazy women – what do they know?”

These women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, whether anyone believed them or not. [By the way, certain Catholic scholars have argued for years that the restriction of priesthood to men only cannot be supported Biblically, and they cite the fact that women were the first proclaimers of the Risen Christ.]

The Easter stories in the Gospels are indeed quite confusing. To this day there is probably no subject among Christians where we find so many different concepts and opinions. Some people hold a very physical notion of the resurrection. The physical body of Jesus is revived and in physical form Jesus is present for a time with his disciples and then departs from this planet.

Other people cannot square that physical notion of the resurrection with their understanding of the universe, and they expres their understanding of the resurrection in terms that are more spiritual and psychological, rather than physical. This makes for very interesting discussion and debate. In the United Methodist Church, we are given great latitude to use our hearts and intellects together to interpret the Scriptures and the doctrines of the faith. You can be as literal as you wish to be in your theology or as imaginative as you wish to be – each person is granted wide freedom to be an interpreter of the Gospel and of the faith.

However Christians interpret the resurrection, we share the Easter faith, that the living Christ is among us and that the power of God shall prevail over every power of death.
When I was a boy of ten or eleven a retired Methodist minister lived in our neighborhood. To me he was as ancient as a person could be, ninety years old. He lived with his daughter, who cared for him, and my parents were friends with his daughter. One day my mother sent me to their place to pull up weeds and to mow their lawn. I said, “Do I have to?” She said, “I think it would be a nice thing for you to do, and they said they would pay you.”

I did not like mowing lawns, and I hated, hated, hated digging up weeds, but I did it. And I did get paid, I got 75 cents for three hours work, 25 cents an hour. I complained to my mother, but she said, “Darling, the money doesn’t matter. It was a good thing you did for them.” And she said, “Rev. Larson is going to die soon. But he told me the other day that he is not afraid of dying, and he is ready now to die.”

I could not wrap my ten year old brain around that. I did not want to think about dying at all. All I could think of was that dying meant no more baseball, no more fishing, no more going camping in the summer, no more making snow forts, no more vanilla- chocolate ice cream cones. My mind raced away with all the things that dying meant you could not have anymore. At the time I had not yet discovered girls, so I did not know that there was even more to life than I imagined – what I did know is that dying was something I was not ready to think about, even though I couldn’t help myself from thinking about it from time to time and worrying about it, the way a child worries about things sometimes and does not tell anybody.

It was scary to think that Rev Larson was dying. But the words my mother spoke made a deep impression on me, as you can see from the fact that they mean something to me even to this day: “Rev. Larson is going to die soon. But he told me the other day that he is not afraid of dying, and he is ready now to die.”

He was my first witness to the resurrection. I am sure that I had heard sermons about eternal life and resurrection, but this was different, because the person who was speaking was actually dying.

We try sometimes with our human words and human brains to explain great matters such as life and death, resurrection and eternal life, even though these things can never be expressed intellectually.
What matters most, day in and day out, is whether we experience the power of life over death, whether we live with faith in God’s ultimate power over all things, even death.

Since those days long ago when I tried to take in the words of that aged dying man, I have been blessed with countless witnesses to the power of life over death. I watched and listened as a teenage girl on an Easter Sunday morning walked up to the pulpit and read the Gospel lesson, even though she had only a few months to live, before her leukemia ran its final course. What a witness she was.

And this past week it was brought to my attention that one of the pledge cards that was mailed out to the congregation was returned, filled out and with a check to pay that pledge in full for the coming year, even though the person making this pledge is a hospice patient. It was an unusual gift carrying a profound message for all of us.

This pledge and this gift signify what we proclaim in our creed: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.”

We may never know how it was that the first followers of Jesus experienced his living presence after his death on a cross. But in whatever form he came to them, it was with such power that it transformed their lives and made them witnesses to power of God in the face of suffering and death.

That is the faith that has been passed on to us. Generation by generation people have proclaimed that faith in words, and they have given witness to this faith in the way they have lived and in the way they have died.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Christ is risen! In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.

Hallelujah!

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