Easter A Sermon (2014)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 28:1-10;
Acts 10:34-43; Col. 3:1-4

EASTER MEANS SAVING RELIGION, TOO (PART 1)

Pastor Wayne Reece tells an inspiring Easter story of his last year of seminary, back in 1960.1 He was going to school, and he was already pastoring a four-point rural parish in the Texas Panhandle. It was the Saturday before Easter. His sermon was all prepared, a weaving together of some of his own Easter reflections sprinkled with wonderful quotes from theologians of the day.

In the evening he was at one of four the churches, preparing with several youth for an Easter sunrise service. One of the young men needed a ride home to another of the small towns he served, Tioga, which Pastor Wayne gladly obliged. But on the way home he ran out gas in the middle of nowhere. It was now dark, and this was still new and unfamiliar territory to him, especially at night. It was 1960, so there were no cell phones. He decided to start walking. It seemed like forever — but on checking his watch, it was only 35 minutes — when he came upon a Texas roadhouse with loud country music blaring, surrounded by pickup trucks and motorcycles.

Immediately as he walked in one of three guys playing pool came up to him, and said, “Hey, I’m Eric, and do you want to play pool?” Pastor Wayne must have looked like an easy mark. Little did they know, though, that he had played a lot when he was in high school. Pastor Wayne, said “Sure,” and they handed him a cue stick to break for a game of Eight Ball. His old skills came back to quickly, and a few minutes later he had run the table in one turn.

Eric said, “Oh, we’ve got a pool shark in our midst!” And they started calling him “Shark,” as they pumped him to know why he was there. At this point, Pastor Wayne decided it best to tell the truth: “Okay,” he said, “I’m the new preacher of the Tioga Methodist Church. I’m on my way back home to Sadler,” which was about thirty miles away. “I ran out of gas. I’ve got to get home because I’m preaching at four churches in the morning, and because it’s Easter.”

Roy, another of the three, said, “What’s Easter?” The other two guys chided Roy, but he said, “Honestly, I’ve never been to church before, and I want to know the story about Easter.”

Here was an opportunity for Pastor Wayne to really put his training to use. So he swallowed, and started in. “Now, there was this guy named Jesus. He was born to an unwed teenage mother, and when he grew up he gathered around him twelve guys — his friends — and they were his gang, and they roamed the countryside together, and they talked about peace and justice and love and God. And they did great things. But the authorities wanted to get him, and so they tried to find ways of either capturing him or killing him.”

Pastor Wayne told a little bit more of the story, until he came down to the end, and said, “One night, one of the gang ratted on him to the authorities. And so they caught Jesus, and the next day they hanged him on a tree, and they killed him. Two days later, some of the gang went to try to find him in the tomb where they had laid him, and he wasn’t there. And they searched around, and asked around, and finally someone said, ‘God has raised Jesus from the dead, and has given him new life.’ Now, Roy, that’s the story of Jesus, and that’s the story of Easter.”

Roy blurted out, “Man, that’s an awesome story!”

When Pastor Wayne got home, he explained to his worried wife what happened and, despite the now late hour, rewrote his Easter sermon. The next morning he began his rounds of the four churches, with the one in Tioga coming last. As they were beginning to sing the first hymn, what did he hear outside but a roar of motorcycles coming up. And in walked seven guys, not just three, dressed in their black leather jackets and their black leather pants. The usher looked at Pastor Wayne and wondered what he was supposed to say, and on his own he said, “Could I help you?” And Eric, in his great basso voice, said, “Hey, we’re here to hear the Shark tell the story of Easter . . . again!”

We’ve gone back to 1960. Let’s go back to another nineteen hundred or so years to Peter and his sermon in Acts 10. The back-story on this sermon is not unlike what Pastor Wayne experienced. It began with a bizarre dream God gave to Peter, where he was commanded to eat all kinds of unkosher, unclean, food. Then, he was sent to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter, a Jew, was sent to the home of an outsider, an unclean person by their practice of religion. And so Peter is really needing to adjust his standard Easter message on the fly, when he has his “Doh!” moment [slapping forehead]: “Aha! I finally get it! I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” It was several years after the first Easter morning, and Peter was still having “Aha!” moments. He was understanding that Jesus came not only to save him but to save his practice of religion.

Peter couldn’t yet see the big picture but was taking the first step to seeing that all our religions, going back many millennia, had functioned to give us identities in ways that said God blesses us but not them. Curse them. It wasn’t just the Jewish religion, but all religions had gods who led the way in cementing the us-them thinking which divides us as human beings.

In the home of Cornelius, one of those unclean Gentiles, Peter was beginning to understand just how radical the Easter message was. The true God of Jesus is Creator of all people and as such shows no partiality. So Jesus came not just to save us as individuals. God knows that we are religious beings, which has been crucial to our being able to live together. None of us can survive and flourish on our own. If we are to be saved as individuals, then we also need to be saved in how we live together in peace. And religion thus far, throughout millennia of human practice, had been a key in the solution but ultimately also part of the problem. It helped us to live together better in groups. But it did so on the basis of us-them, clean-unclean, righteous-unrighteous, believer-unbeliever. And this was always sanctioned by the gods.

But Peter was now following this Jesus, whose climactic act of faith was to let himself be declared by his own people as someone unclean, unrighteous. He let himself be declared Blasphemer, ungodly, pagan. He let himself be expelled and executed. Unbelievable! How could this lead to anything?! It was a dead-end, right?

But then something even more amazing happened. God raised him from the dead on Easter! The question was not just how, but why? Why would the God who presided over us-them, clean-unclean, raise someone who had been duly declared to be unclean, one of them. Unless. Unless that’s not who God really is in the first place. The religions of the past had succeeded in helping people live together in their own groups, their own tribes, even their own nations and empires. But if the true God really created all of us, then was God also trying to lead us beyond those ancient religions and understand that God is not a god of us-them? God is a God of us, period, all of us, every person on this planet.

Isn’t that what Peter’s “Aha!” moment is all about? That he understands that Jesus not only conquered death. That he not only came to save individuals from the ultimate fate of death. But that Jesus also came to save us from our killing — from all our us-them games that lead us to killing each other in such huge numbers. Peter says it simply a moment after his “Aha!” moment: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” Not perfect phrased yet. Better would have been: “We put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” But give Peter a break. It was several years after Easter, and he was still just beginning to get the full impact.

Two thousand years later, have we gotten it yet? Who are the Corneliuses, who are the motorcylists like Eric and Roy in our lives? Who needs to hear the Easter message in all of its radicalness, that Jesus came not just to save individuals from death, but he also came to save humanity from its killing? Have we had our true “Aha!” moment like Peter?

Do you know who I think our Corneliuses are today? Our Erics and Roys? It’s not just those from another religion, like Cornelius. It’s not just nonreligious people like Roy. I think it’s the growing number of folks in our time who are anti-religious. There’s the spokespeople like Bill Maher on TV, and the authors of best-selling books like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, whose book title says it all: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But these are just the spokespersons. Aren’t there a growing number of our children and grandchildren’s generation who are not just nonreligious but even antireligious. They don’t see the good in religion; they only see religion as more a part of the problem and not the solution. That religion has been one of the chief things to divide us. Don’t we know some of these folks well? Aren’t they among our loved ones? How do we begin to shape this Easter message for them? How do we come to see and proclaim that God in Jesus was not coming to start a new religion, but to redeem the religions we already had?

I’d like to try that message out with you … but not yet this morning. I’d like to save it until next week, when we hear the story of doubting Thomas, and what he was really doubting (the why of God raising Jesus, not the how). For Peter it was the Aha! that God reaches out to people of other religions. For Pastor Wayne it was the nonreligious. Next week we’ll focus on that for us today the challenge has become reaching the anti-religious. Today we celebrate that the first Easter set this all in motion. Ste-by-step, the world is changing. And God calls you and me to be carriers of the message, despite our failures. We come to the table to be forgiven and fed to be sent out with an amazing message that God is redeeming us, transforming us, religion and all. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 20, 2014

1. The primary venue of this story by Wayne Reece is The Moth Radio, primarily carried on National Public Radio. Link to a podcast here. I also consulted a text version in The Moth, edited by Catherine Burns (Hyperion, 2013), pages 88-93.

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