Sermon, Easter 2014
Meet Us Where?
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Text: Matthew 28: 1-10
1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
My only brush with acting fame was in High School. And to call it that is a stretch. Maybe, ‘a not really noticed by anyone else, barely perceptible encounter with fame, once removed” would be a more apt descriptor. I was in a production of “Christ in the Concrete City,” a modern day passion play of sorts featuring a four male, two female ensemble cast. The play received some small notice in secular circles, although most of the performances were in church venues. It wasn’t Godspell, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or anything, but the play is an intriguing effort to make the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection relevant to the contemporary scene. The production is theater in the round with a bare stage and few props. Actors take on various roles and move in and out of character as 1st Century Palestinians and 20th Century Brits. If memory serves, I was “Man 3.” The “farfetched brush with once removed fame” part of this story is that Man 1 was played by David Busey, younger brother of Gary Busey, an actor nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in The Buddy Holly Story, but now better known for his bizarre behavior and various and sundry reality TV appearances. Although he announced in 1996 that he had become a Christian, my guess is that few Easter sermons include reference to Busey. I know that for me to say I’m a famous actor because I was in a play with his brother is like a 1st Century Palestinian saying he was mentioned in the Bible because a neighbor of his was in attendance at the feeding of the 5000. But the point of this is not to make a case for my being well known; the point is that it connects me to the story in a memorable way. Mine is a story about a story – the passion and resurrection of Christ – to which we are all connected.
Thus, my delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, recalling the “Christ in the Concrete City” play is a valuable holy week and Easter exercise for me, and this morning, I suggest its message can be valuable for you as well. For it serves as an important reminder that the crux of our faith, the cross and the resurrection and everything that led up to it, is not a tale solely about long ago and far away. Instead it intersects with where we live in our own here and now. How Jesus lived, taught, healed, was killed, and then raised, — is a story for everyone in every generation. And it becomes real amid the messiness of the lives we live, not in some removed holy time and place. That is the message of “Christ in the Concrete City.”
But I keep forgetting this. Instead, every year, I think that Holy Week and Easter are supposed to pull me away from my everyday life, and that this should be a special, set apart time when I don’t have to deal with the daily grind, and I can concentrate on spiritual things.
It never happens, but I think it should. And, I don’t know about you, but this year, Holy Week and Easter have seemed even less set apart. Life’s business has intruded even more than usual. More unexpected things have popped up that need attention; a greater number of unanticipated needs have made themselves known.
Some of it is sorrow filled. The empty cross reveals to us that death does not triumph, but it still occurs. Even though Easter has come, we still mourn. We mourn with those in South Korea who have lost loved ones in the horrible ferry sinking. As we meet, we also know that recovery efforts continue in the Washington mudslide and more bodies have been found. Then there are the victims of the anti-Semitic hates crimes in Kansas City who were buried this week. The physician who, along with his grandson, was shot and killed at the Jewish community center is a graduate of the same small Oklahoma college where Teresa and I went. I was in school with his sister. I have a once removed connection with the tragedy that puts me closer to the story and pulls me further away from Holy Week and Easter. Or, does it draw me closer? Some of you are dealing with heartache and pain, and challenges and uncertainties that don’t make the headlines, but that weigh heavy upon you. These things do not let up just because it is Easter.
It is not just tragedy that demands our attention. There are next weekend’s events with John Dear; the crew has started on the roof, but found more rot than we thought there would be; and summer is just around the corner and we need to be ready from summer lunch and Methodist camp and Vacation Bible School It’s not just things at church, of course. The workaday world grinds on for everyone. The hope was that the legislative session would have wrapped up by now, but alas, there are mountains of matters still to address. Issues of education and taxation, and the economy, and Native languages recognition, and other important matters have yet to be finalized. I am among those who have spent time this week contacting legislators to offer my views on matters under consideration. Those who labor at the Capitol are spending their Easter hard at work; some of them otherwise would be with us in worship. Then there is the search for a new school superintendent. Numerous constituency meetings seeking input about the search were held this week, including one I attended, on Maundy Thursday no less. Doesn’t anybody know we are a little busy preparing for Easter?
I know I shouldn’t feel this way. I am committed both to separation of church and state, and to religious pluralism. There is no compelling state interest in changing a work schedule to accommodate Christian holidays, nor should there be. We don’t alter things for Passover or Ramadan or number of other observances of various religious traditions, so why should we for holy days on the Christian calendar? Intellectually, I do not think we should, but emotionally, I confess that it doesn’t feel right.
Just when I’ve worked up a good whine about all this, I hear again this morning’s gospel. Did you notice the only portion that is repeated twice? It is about where the risen Lord goes to meet the disciples. First the angels give the women the news, and then it comes from Jesus himself. Where will Jesus meet them? In Jerusalem where the temple is? In Heaven after they die?
No! In Galilee! The point of this part of the story might be missed by a casual read, but I am convinced of its importance. Jesus will meet his friends in Galilee.
So what is the big deal about Galilee you might wonder? Galilee was not the center of religious life as was Jerusalem. For Jesus’ contemporaries, Jerusalem was associated with the temple – it is where they went to do religious things. For Christians, hearing that Jesus would meet his followers in Jerusalem is akin to saying that we will meet the risen Christ at Church. Galilee is not church. Neither is it a symbol for life after we leave this earth. It is not heaven on earth, not some Palestinian Shangri-La.
I’m not saying Jesus does not meet us at church. The way Luke tells the story, Jesus met his followers in Jerusalem. I’m not saying that Jesus does not await us in heaven. John’s gospel records that Jesus told his followers that he was leaving this world to go to his Father’s house where he would prepare a place for them. In the Father’s house, there are many rooms. But the earliest witness, Mark, whom Matthew follows in his telling the resurrection news, lets us know that it is in Galilee that Jesus will meet us. Galilee was Jesus’ home town. It was where he grew up, learned a trade and interacted with all manner of folk. But Galilee is also a symbolic place. It was not some spiritual retreat center where Jesus withdrew from life and bids us come retreat as well. Rather, Galilee was a crossroads community, a place world travelers passed through as they traversed the Roman road system. It was also an economically and racially diverse place where Jews and Gentiles lived together. It was a place with rural, agricultural roots that in Jesus’ day was rapidly urbanizing. Not quite the concrete city, perhaps, but a place where day to day living was actively engaged, and all manner of folk were encountered.
The point of all this is that Jesus meets us where we live. It is not my commitment to religious pluralism and separation of church and state that reveal this to me. No! It is the gospel itself. Jesus meets us in Galilee! So why shouldn’t the school district seek input on Maundy Thursday and legislature meet on Easter? The risen Christ meets us in our Galilees, not some set aside time and place, but amid the day in, day out workaday world of commerce and contact and interaction and legislation and deliberation and planning and decision making and working and playing and living and dying, together with the full array of the earth’s peoples. (This is the point in the sermon that if you are among those who were drug unwillingly to church on this Easter day, and you are still listening, you can elbow the person that made you come and say, “see the minister says we don’t have to go to church; we can meet Jesus any place.”) If you think that, you would be right, but what is also true for me, is that I forget. I don’t go to church to meet Jesus, I go to church to remember the story – to be reminded that God is everywhere, and that my calling is to live as a follower of Jesus, everywhere.
The message proclaimed again this day is one of a compassion too life giving, a joy too deep, a forgiveness too thorough, a love too wondrous, and a hope too persistent to keep it cloistered in church or held in check until heaven. No! The glorious news of the resurrection is that the gifts of God are ours and the worlds, right here, right now in our Galilees, amid the everydayness and the diversity, amid the opportunities and the challenges, amid the struggle and the accomplishments, amid life and death. Gospel values can and should shape our interactions in the marketplace, government chambers, and classrooms, not in some triumphalist, doctrinal way but in how we live and treat one another.
Christ in the Concrete City, or the Southeast Rainforest. Wherever our Galilee is, Christ will meet us there and show forth the way. May we dare rise up to meet him there. Because he lives, so can we live this day and in all our days.