1st Reading :: Acts 10: 34 – 43
Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24
2nd Reading :: Colossians 3: 1 – 4
Gospel :: Matthew 28: 1 – 10
Almost everything about Easter has felt wrong to me this year. I mean, yes, work in congregational ministry inherently means that Holy Week will feel different than it did before we were the one in the pulpit or at an organ console; we understand that leaving the pew behind is part of the job, and that the shift from laity to clergy (and yes I know I’m a long way yet from ordination) also comes with some wonderful new additions to our faith. But this year… This year is different.
It’s not just that prerecording services means I don’t get to wait until Saturday to actually write my sermon (let’s be honest – I definitely take a leaf or two from Pastor Kristin’s book), no. The difference was decorating the sanctuary for Easter two weeks early to record a favorite hymn, in case we weren’t able to leave our homes this morning. It was recording Good Friday service, and then going home to find my family joyfully cooking together the day before Palm Sunday. It’s the preaching of an Easter sermon to an empty room. I ran across a Tweet this week from the Reverend Dr. Emily Heath, who said, “The first Easter didn’t happen at a church. It happened outside an empty tomb, while all the disciples were sequestered in a home, grief stricken and wondering what was going on. So we’re going to be keeping things pretty Biblical this Easter.” And that Tweet, those couple of sentences, they hit on a chunk of reality that I’ve been chewing on these last few weeks. Because all of the rapid jumping around, from Lent to Easter, back to Lent, to Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, and then back to Palm Sunday. It’s been pounding all these different chapters of the Passion into my head in new and strange combinations. What’s more, we find this pandemic exposing many deeper secrets and truths that we, our nation, and our world have long attempted to hide within ourselves. Really, to me, that there is the Passion of Jesus Christ: our deepest secrets and truths laid bare, while we sit at home – grieving, isolated.
You know, at K-State, when I was studying architecture, there was one thing that came up again and again. We heard it as we began our first week of freshman design studio, and kept hearing it all the way through to the end of our thesis designs five years later: you’re never done designing. It’s a common idea in many professions I think, and we students began to understand its truth pretty quickly. The design process up to the final production of your project is an endless sink of creative energy – a bit like a black hole, to be honest. You can pour and pour and pour yourself into your idea, and it can grow and shift and change, but there’s always more to do. The thing was though, that we kept getting into the habit of saying “alright, my design is done” when the time came to build final models, or to sit down for critiques. Now this was much to the delight of our waiting professors, because they could sniff out that “finished design” mentality a mile away, and they were always ready to let – you – have it.
So what am I getting at here? After all, Jesus’ last words from the cross on Friday were literally “it is finished”. Why bring up this whole “the work is never done” idea, and ask all these questions when God seems to have already given us the answer through Christ’s life, death, and now joyful resurrection? Stick with me.
Because on the one hand, Easter really does mark an endpoint for the Creator’s whole plan of deliverance. God’s covenant with Abraham, the safe passage of the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, in and out of exile – God’s people seem to have experienced every possible twist and turn to finally reach this point: their Messiah who has finally come into the world, and saved it from sin through his death and resurrection on this, Easter Sunday. And see that’s the thing – In many regards, God’s work is done. The tomb is empty. The body is raised. Death has no enduring power, and we are once again brought back into the fold, the flock, the kingdom. But the thing is, on that first Easter two thousand years ago, that flock was still pretty small. The early church, much like the Messiah – was of God, and filled with incredible power and beauty, but was born into this world isolated and frail, tiny and human. That church of a dozen or so Jews would need time to grow in strength and wisdom, and at first didn’t even see their deliverance as something for everyone. But that would soon change…
You might have noticed that our reading from Acts this morning is actually one we read a couple of months back. And if you remember any of my sermon from that weekend (absolutely no judgement if you don’t), you might recall that there was a really cool thing about the translation of Peter’s words in this text. Peter doesn’t really say “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” in the Greek, but instead says something closer to “I am truly beginning to understand that God shows no partiality”, a difference which might seem unimportant, but is actually incredibly – stinking – cool. Because Peter, the apostle and faithful Jew – Peter, who is in the household of a powerful Roman centurion: a foreign occupier of Peter’s nation and people, the very empire which helped nail his Messiah and dear friend to the cross, a man who is supposed to declare Caesar as Lord, not Jesus. It’s to this man, and his household, that Peter casts off the exclusivity of his God and his Messiah, which had been a key piece of his culture and religion for centuries, to say now that all people, and all nations can be brought salvation through God and Christ. Church, this moment for Peter points to a greater movement of the Spirit in our world. She is showing Peter that there is far more work to be done. Christ has died and is risen, but God’s tent needs to be stretched much, much wider. And my dear siblings in Christ, it’s here that I arrive back at the now, the us.
During this next part church, you are welcome to disagree with me, but these last few weeks I have thought – honestly, I have prayed, that this pandemic might show the people of our country a dark secret, a truth we have tried to hide for a long time now: that, like architecture students, we have been pretending our design is finished. Because for so long, I have heard, heck I have joined in with, the scorn against the words “Black Lives Matter”. But now I look to the reality that in Chicago, 70% of COVID-19 fatalities are black. And I look to the almost non-existent statistics for coronavirus in people of color (it’s worth nothing that those with power only tend to record the facts we consider to be important), and I see the reality that African Americans in this country are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus than someone who is white. And persons of Latino descent are 50% more likely to die than a person with the color of my skin. I look to our industrial prison complexes, which are full to bursting largely because of minimum sentencing and because people who commit petty crimes cannot afford their bail. I look at the apathy towards dismantling those institutions, while at the same time the single greatest concentration of global coronavirus cases is in Cook County Jail in Chicago. And to me, this isn’t partisan, it’s human life. I look to global efforts against this pandemic, and read news of the research going on in Senegal and so many other countries to create a home test-kits, because we Western nations wield our power and privilege to purchase nearly all manufactured coronavirus tests for ourselves, leaving others with next to nothing. Folx, these aren’t new problems or situations, it’s simply that the coronavirus has dressed them up vibrantly enough that we are actually forced to notice them. Yet the urge for so many of us is going to be to decry these colorful outfits as nothing more than a clown. Dear church, I beg that we don’t.
Our Psalm today declares that famous phrase, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Christ is risen, “it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The foundation of faith and salvation has been laid through the resurrection of Christ and it is our one firm foundation. But church, we’ve still got to design the building that goes on top of it. And the reality is that – the design is never finished. You know, the Greeks originally built all their temples out of wood, but they didn’t stop there. They went on to master masonry, and rebuilt all those temples in beautiful stone. And then the Romans learned from them, and invented new ways of building – concrete, and the dome, and indoor plumbing. And then that empire fell, and those secrets were lost for hundreds of years before we began to rediscover them. This art of design is a process of trial and error, but that’s why when we Lutherans fall, we lean into God’s grace, pick up our tools back up, and continue the work.
We so often declare ourselves saved by grace, rather works. That is the chief joy of our faith. Christ has died and risen, taking the burden upon himself so that we do not have to carry it. I asked earlier why I should bring up this idea of “the work never being finished” in the light of our redemption? But it’s precisely because there is always more celebration, joy, and love to pour into this world, that our Christian work is never done – just as God has poured endless life and grace into us on this Easter morn. It’s the joy we find in Christ’s lifting the yolk from our shoulders, that drives us, as church, to follow the way of Jesus in our own lives. Now for some reason, as I was pondering all of this, the words to the preamble of our nation’s constitution came to mind. But let me tell you how I read the mission set before us by that famous “We the People”: That we human beings, in the full scope of our diversity, in order to celebrate the beauty of that diversity, to live in equity and equality, to ensure peace for this family, to defend and sacrifice ourselves for one another’s safety, to lovingly lift up all members under our roof, and to protect the blessing of freedom for us and all who follow us. That is what I have always seen as the witness of our congregation. That is our resurrection message. That is the Easter message that Reformation shares with the world, if only we can cast off our privilege and realize that there is no country, party, or flag tied to this kingdom we are to pursue.
No, there is only the kingdom of Christ, whose realm no wall, no mountains, no ocean can divide. A kingdom of boundless grace and love, for which we waited so long. But finally Easter has come, and Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Let us ever more ardently strive to share that peace and joy with the world. Alleluia, Amen
In peace, in love, and filled with resurrection joy,