Saturday, April 30, 2011

Conspiring at the Empty Tomb

Matthew 28:11-15
Easter 2
Holy Humor Sunday
May 1, 2011
William G. Carter

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Of all the jokes that are told today, here is the most comical: did you hear the one about the guys who thought they could lock-up the tomb of Jesus? They couldn’t keep the door shut. The stone was rolled away.

Today we celebrate the great joke that God has played on the powers of evil: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead! And we join in the heritage of those who name this as God’s Holy Humor.

In the Orthodox Church, there is a custom that I have heard about but not yet seen. The day after Easter, all the Orthodox priests gather for cognac and cigars (that sounds so civilized). They eat fine food and tell jokes. The room is filled with raucous laughter.

I’ve discovered that Presbyterian clergy are a bit more muted. This year, nine of us went out to lunch at Twigs in Tunkhannock on the day after Easter. There was no cognac, perhaps some strong coffee, and certainly not enough jokes. But the desire was there, and it is appropriate.

Jesus is alive. That is the joyful news that stays in the air after Easter. He is alive, and he brings us alive. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way: “With Easter, the laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy begins.” We know God in Christ is breathing – breathing in, breathing out, and upon us. As Moltmann says, “From ancient times the Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life: they laugh at death, mock hell, and drive out the demons of the fear of sin . . . O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 110)

So we celebrate Easter by celebrating God’s gift of life. The operative word is “celebrate.” Celebrate. I bet you know the old joke:

A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they were copying copies, not the original books. The new monk went to the abbot to ask him about this. He pointed out that if there were an error in the first copy, the same error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The abbot said, 'We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.' The abbot went down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody had seen him, so one of the brothers went downstairs to look for him. He heard a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and found the about leaning over one of the original books, crying.

“Father,” he asked “what is wrong?” The abbot spoke through his sobs, “The word was celebrate.”

It’s an old joke with an ever-fresh punch-line. We get snared in the grim routines of discipline, the hum-drum rituals that have long since lost their purpose. Each generation of Christians must live the Gospel in a true and meaningful way. We cannot put our hearts on autopilot. We are invited to welcome what God is creating among us, in the joy of God’s Spirit. We welcome what Christ has been raised to keep doing.

That is not always easy, of course. Sometimes we just don’t get the point.

Three recent converts to Christianity die and arrive together at the Pearly Gates. “We are running late today,” says Saint Peter, so I will just ask each one question. “Tell me, why do we celebrate Easter?” he asks the first man.

“That’s easy,” he replies. “That’s when Jesus was born.”
“I’m afraid not,” says Saint Peter, “and I can’t let you in.”
Turning to the second man, he says, “Do you know why we have Easter?”
“Certainly,” he replies, “that’s when Jesus split the Red Sea.”
“I’m sorry,” St. Peter replies, “you will have to study some more.”
Turning to the third man, St. Peter says, “And you? Why do we have Easter?”
“Easter,” he says tentatively, “is when Jesus came out of the tomb.”
“Excellent. Please continue.”
“He was in the grave for three days.”
“Very good. And then?”
“And after three days he comes out of the tomb, sees his shadow, and we have six more weeks of Lent.”

Sometimes our dullness of spirit prevents us from receiving the joy of God. The French philosopher Voltaire put it this way, "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh."

Other times, as I said last week, it’s our fear of Easter – our fear of God doing something new, something vital, something alive, and especially – fear of God doming something right here.

As a professional religious leader for twenty-five years, I confess my own reluctance at God getting a little too close. It’s frightening. It’s risky.

Fred Craddock tells about the pastor who went to visit a lady in the hospital. She was quite sick, had been for some time. She could barely hold up her head. Evelyn was tired and burdened. They chatted for a bit, and she said, “Before you go, could you pray for me?”

“Sure, Evelyn, I would be glad to pray. ‘Lord, bless this woman, for she is your servant. Cure her affliction, restore her to health, and heal her in your grace.” Just as soon as he said ‘Amen,’

Evelyn looked up and said, ‘Thank you.’ And then she said, ‘You know, I’m actually feeling better.’ She sat up, shook her head, slid to the side of the bed, put her feet in the slippers, stood up. She turned and looked at him, and said, “I believe I am well. Thank you for your prayer, pastor. This is amazing. I feel great. Thank you so much for your prayer. It has made all the difference!” The nurses came in, they were all amazed.

The pastor, however, was quiet. He went out to the parking garage, got in the car, and before he turned the key, he prayed again, “Lord, don’t you ever do that to me again!”

Do you know what he feels? We want God to keep running the world in the way that we have seen the world being run. But all of a sudden, God interrupts his own world with something amazing.

There was an old lady named Sarah. We heard the story about her today. She chuckled about the possibility of pleasure in her old age. She knew God to be good, but not particularly generous. Then this ancient woman finds out that she’s having a baby and Medicare is picking up the tab. All she can do is laugh. And God replies, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And God tells her and her husband that the baby’s name must be “Yitzak – Isaac” – the Hebrew word for laughter.

Did the enemies of Jesus really think they could shut down God? Matthew tells us this crazy story of how the religious establishment tried to pay off the guards at the empty tomb. They set up a conspiracy to lie about the resurrection. What they missed, of course, what was totally hidden from them, is that Jesus really is alive. It is God who cracked open the tomb. It is God who will not be bought off. It is God who gives life where nobody expects any life. Easter begins in a graveyard . . . and it propels us toward the Great Banquet. This is God’s doing.

When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the miracle of miracles: that Jesus Christ is alive. He is risen from the dead. The sacrament is not a funeral meal – of course it’s not a funeral meal! Look at the menu: there is no ham, no scalloped potatoes, or no green beans almondine.

No, this the joyful feast of the people of God. The betrayal is over, the crucifixion is finished, the tomb is busted open from the inside – the One who was dead now lives. That’s the difference between Last Supper and Lord’s Supper.

We take in the Risen Christ by faith. His life fills our lives. And Easter happens again and again.

Note: This sermon is plundered from a variety of sources. Any original portions (c) William G. Carter

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