It’s an odd Easter, to be sure! Instead of cramming into church with our friends and family, we are scattered on sofas and at tables on laptops, phones, and television screens. The format of our observance may have changed, but the core message has not. With that in mind, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually to share the good news as is found in Jeremiah 31 and John 20:1-18.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog.
Have you heard about The Carnegie Club? I don’t mean the ritzy nightclub in New York City, where a $40 cover charge and two drink minimum guarantees you the chance to smoke cigars and listen to folks sing covers of old Frank Sinatra tunes.
No, I’m talking about The Carnegie Club that is based at Skibo castle in Dornoch Scotland. It’s one of the most exclusive venues in the world, founded, as one might suspect, by Andrew Carnegie – one of the richest people in the history of people. Here, members can truly retreat and relax as they play golf, go horseback riding through the Scottish moors, shoot skeet, and learn falconry. All this can be had for a one-time joining fee of $35,000 and membership dues that are currently approximately $11,000 per year.
Maybe you’d like something a little more urban and sophisticated. If that’s the case, let me recommend the 1930’s Club in Milan, Italy. This exclusive watering hole has no phone, no published address, and the only way in is through a secret door in a rather humdrum bar on the first floor. If you make it through that entry, you’ll be greeted by a doorman who will want to see your membership card, which contains features that are only visible under ultraviolet light. For high-end networking and outrageous cocktails, the 1930’s Club is the place to be.
And maybe you don’t care about that. Maybe you’re thinking about how to get into the college that is best for you; maybe in this time of social distancing you’re just thinking about that sign at Kennywood that tells you that anyone can ride the Swing Shot as long as they are 48” tall.
Do you know that feeling of wanting to belong? I think that all of us, deep down, want to know that we’re “in”. That we’ve got what it takes, somehow, to get through the process and into the club – whatever the club might be. We long to know that we are special enough to belong.
If that idea of membership and exclusivity resonates with you, well, I’m afraid that you might not like this sermon very much.
I think I’m not stretching it when I say that for many of us, being human means that we want to earn our way, to deserve special treatment, or to achieve some level of recognition. We see that as a hallmark of some of the world’s great religions. There’s a tradition within Judaism that the world itself exists because there are 36 Lamed Vavniks – individuals who are themselves so righteous and holy that they ensure the survival of the planet. There is the Hindu notion of samsara, which is a way of describing reincarnation, where a soul is born and reborn into the mortal world a number of times, each time achieving growth and new levels of maturity in its own karma. And, of course, there are certain branches of Christianity that seem to indicate that while anyone can get into heaven, there’s a special class of people who have been, somehow, superior believers. Most of the rest of us buy into this hierarchical notion when we say things like, “Well, I mean, I’m no saint, but for crying out loud, Karen, even I know better than to be like him…”
All of these exclusive clubs and hierarchical religious notions are problematic for a number of reasons, but particularly more so today, as we celebrate Easter Sunday. I don’t have to tell you what Easter is – it’s the high holy day of the Christian faith. It’s our “super bowl” – or, most years, anyway. It is the festival of the resurrection of our Lord.
And here’s the thing about resurrection – there is only one simple requirement. There’s not a lot of mystery here – if you’re gonna have a resurrection, there is one thing that you can’t do without: death. If you want to participate in a resurrection, you’ve got to be dead. There are simply no exceptions to that rule.
And we hate that.
We hate that because a) I don’t particularly want to die, and b) everybody dies – what’s so special about that?
It’s pretty plain and simple, as much as we don’t like it. “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus. He invites us to follow him, learn from him, grow with him while we can; he calls us to love and serve our neighbors and to give what we can (as we discussed on Thursday night), but at the end of the day, to really get in on the biggest deal of all, we’ve got to die. Not even Jesus can work a resurrection with somebody who isn’t dead.
And fundamentally, Christians teach that this is why Jesus came. He came to bring hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless. To fundamentally initiate what he called “The Kingdom”. A whole new manner of existence.
And because most of us don’t like contemplating death very long – our own or those of our beloved – we think about other reasons that Jesus might have come. Maybe Jesus came so that you would clean up your act a little bit. Maybe Jesus wants you to try a little harder at school or drink a little less or do something about that mess in your room. Maybe Jesus came to reform the reformable or to rearrange the furniture of your life or to shore up something that has been in bad shape (like the sound system on these livestream broadcasts in recent weeks).
Theologian Robert Capon points out that we say those things, not because they’re true (because they are not), but because they are a little more acceptable to us than acknowledging that the fundamental work of Jesus was to “proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem.”
The historical record is pretty clear. Being called “The People of God” hasn’t ever done anybody much good. Jeremiah was called to proclaim the Word of the Lord to a people who had already been defeated in war and carried off into exile and slavery. Most of the book that bears his name is filled with news that is heavy and dispiriting, to say the least.
Except for these four brief chapters in the middle of Jeremiah. They are called “the book of hope” by some, and that only goes to show you that hope is a relative thing. In our reading for today, he tells them that the folks who survived the sword (yay) will find grace. Wow, that is good news. What a relief!
Except, the prophet continues, the relief will come in the wilderness.
What? You’ve got to be kidding, Jeremiah! Who wants to go to the wilderness? Everybody knows that the wilderness is the place of desolation, disease, and death. The city is where it’s at – the wilderness is a chaotic, random place…
And then the prophet goes on to point out that Israel’s ability to survive as a people is rooted in – not the people’s ability to be better tomorrow than they were today, not the people’s spunk and stick-to-it-iveness, not the people’s ability to progress as moral and ethical creatures… their ability to survive rests solely on the basis of the Divine promise. God looks at God’s people and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” The perseverance and commitment is not human in origin, but heavenly. God’s faithfulness to the creation is noted and then there are five times where the word “shall” appears in connection with new birth and new life and new hope.
This new birth and new life and new hope comes to the People of God not when they are in Jerusalem or even in Babylon, but when they are sent into the depths of the isolating wilderness and desolation.
And I’m here to tell you that it only gets worse with Jesus. Jesus does not make it easy for people to follow him. I have to tell you that many people whom I love dearly and respect greatly have left the Christian faith. They read the gospel and they just can’t figure how it works out.
I don’t blame them. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the things that we are here to proclaim as the central events of human history this morning – have made no apparent difference in the way that this world is running. My friends want to know where God was when the COVID-19 virus mutated. Couldn’t God have stopped that?, they say. Where is God in the refugee camps, the carnage, the oppression, the inhumanity? And, at the end of the day, I’m still dying. We all get sick, and we all die.
Again, listen to Robert Capon:
It is not an easy Gospel to proclaim: it looks for all the world as if we are not only trying to sell a pig in a poke, but an invisible pig at that. The temptation, of course, is by hook or by crook to produce a visible pig for the world’s inspection to prove that trust in Jesus heals the sick, spares the endangered, fattens the wallet, or finds the lost keys. But it does not. And it does not because the work of Jesus is not a transaction – not a repair job on the world as it is now, but an invitation of the world as it now is into the death out of which it rises only in him.
On Thursday night I told you that the current state of the world invites us to imagine a new way of being Christian. That’s all we have, beloved – our imagination. We don’t know what is coming, and we don’t always know how to make sense out of what is – we can only carry on in wild, reckless hope that Jesus is who he said he was and who his best friends found him to be.
I can’t prove this idea of resurrection to you. We have some great songs about it, and there are a lot of folks more eloquent than I who’ve spoken about it over the last two thousand years. But at the end of the day – and, frankly, at the end of our lives – we’re simply going to have to step forward in imagination and trust. The idea that the God who has been with me every step of my way in this world has promised to be with me in richer, deeper, more complete ways in the next – well, that’s an image I want to get in on.
For some of you, these are frightening times. For many of us, they are at best irritating, if not alarming. Where do I get off proclaiming that Jesus is risen and, in the words of the old hymn, “the strife is o’er, the battle done”?
All I can say, beloved, is that if we walk together, I promise you that we will see some signs of hope, some glimpses of Divine love, some evidence of Holy intent, some places where the Splendor of heaven breaks into this sphere.
It’s not a club, my friends. It’s a story. It is the best story I know. And at the end of the day, we all have to choose a story by which to live – and in which we’ll die.
I choose Jesus.
More to the point, I am grateful that Jesus has chosen me. I believe that Jesus has chosen each of us. His is the only story that makes any sense to me. And so if you’ll come, too, we can move forward one day at a time in trust and hope. There’s no annual fee. There’s no membership requirement. Trust him. Thanks be to God, there’s nothing else to do. Amen.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 175-176.
 The Parables of Judgment, pp. 179-180.
Below is the entire worship service from Easter Sunday. https://youtu.be/G7ukXYxNF8c