This is a transcript from the April 12, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Well, how are we to celebrate Easter in 2020? That's a question that has been working in my mind for a while. How do you celebrate Easter if you don't get to have all the services? If you don't get to have all the people? If you don't get to go up to Daniel's Park and celebrate the sunrise service? If you don't get to come in and fill the sanctuary with people over multiple services? How do you celebrate Easter without the great music? How do you celebrate Easter without the congregational affirmations of who God is and what God is doing in our midst? How do you celebrate Easter in 2020 when none of those things are available to us?
I believe that the answer or at least a clue comes from the very first Easter because the very first Easter has a lot of similarities to Easter in 2020. In the first Easter, as in Easter 2020, that Easter is going to be experienced by many inside their homes who are cloistered away. There is a sense of anxiety on the inside about what's going on the outside. Maybe even wondering where God is and if God has abandoned us. It was on that first Easter Sunday that we learned the truth that before Easter became the global event, before it became the event and a holiday for many, the holy day for many, it was the holy day for one.
This Sunday, I want to focus in on Easter for one, Easter for you, Easter for me. Not that it stops there, but it has to start there. To do that, I want to talk about how Easter came to three other individuals. Peter, Paul, and Mary. In each of these three, there is this resurrection experience, and it comes to each of them differently. It comes in a different time, in a different way and it speaks to different places in their heart. They each illustrate the Easter for one, and how an event called the resurrection is one thing. It is something else when it becomes the experience.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. Let's begin with Mary because that's where John begins. It begins with the one person. The one person who is in the dark. The one person who is in the shadows. The one person where it is not clear what's going on and it feels vulnerable. Even when she meets Jesus, she doesn't understand what's going on. She doesn't even recognize Jesus, which is amazing because Mary's whole life had been changed by Jesus. Mary, who we are told, came as a person, a woman who was possessed by many spirits, she literally didn't know who she was.
In the healing, Jesus gave her herself her true self. Tradition has gone on and been cruel because, oftentimes, when we don't know what to do with people, we give them labels and we label often from our deepest and darkest places. Too often with women, it has to do with being a harlot or a whore or a prostitute. All those things were part of the tradition of who Mary was. None of those are indicated.
You can't help but wondering if on that day, in that morning, Mary was wondering what is going to happen to me, because Jesus is the one who gave her her true self. He gave her her name, her identity. Lifted her to a place of prominence. Now, what was going to happen without Jesus? Would she just fall back into the shadows? Would she just have to live her life as a label? Easter came and the resurrection became more than an event, it became the experience precisely at the moment, I believe, when Jesus gave her her name, and called her, Mary. It was then she recognized who it was because she recognized who she was in Christ's presence.
There are people on this Easter, whose lives and whose identity is little more than a label to others. That's how they are known, and often with the worst projections or the worst events of their life. They're never allowed to be who they are. They're waiting to hear and waiting to know that they are known and loved like Mary, and then it transforms their life.
The darkness of Peter was different than the darkness of Mary. The darkness of Peter had nothing to do with the time of day, it had something to do with the time of his life and the season he was in. Peter was known as the disciple, the one who spoke on behalf of all the disciples and so his victories, as well as his defeats, were magnified. He was a spectacular failure. He made unbelievable promises. He made unbelievable affirmations and yet they all crumbled under the weakness of his own cowardice. He betrayed his best self. The cracks in his heart were exposed.
Perhaps no better than in a prayer of confession that was offered by Dana Hughes, our transitional pastor at the Denver Presbytery, when she wrote these words that stand for all the disciples, and therefore particularly for Peter. "Lord Jesus, we could not keep our eyes open when You begged us to stay awake with You and now we cannot watch as You die on the cross. We have taken to the shadows where we tremble with shame and fear. As You forgive those who kill You, forgive us for letting them. Forgive us for knowing the weight of our sin and for our silence as You carry it for us. Let the sunset quickly on this terrible day."
Well, the sun did set quickly on that terrible day and it rose again. Then it set again. Then it was Sunday, and it rose again and now Mary is coming with the news that the tomb is empty. Peter goes to that tomb and even as he sees it, he understands that the issue is not that the tomb is empty, that his heart is empty. Because the event of the resurrection means one thing, it's the experience, and that experience didn't come to him on that same day, I don't think. I think it came over a period of time. It came slowly.
I don't think it fully came and filled his heart and healed those places until weeks later, when he was on the shore of Galilee and Jesus comes and has the conversation that restores him and lets Peter know that he is known not for who he wants to be, would like to be, he is known for who he is. He is loved. He begins to know it. It is there that he begins to understand that all those failures, all those betrayals, in the light of the resurrected Christ, don't disqualify him, they act merely now as preparation for what is yet to come.
What is yet to come was the big question for Paul. Paul was a person who fought against this new movement, this insurrection of people who claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and he did everything he could. If Peter's faults had to do with his weaknesses, Paul's had to do with his strengths. It had to do with all his accomplishments, his successes. Paul's fault lines had to do with his certainties. He knew he was right and he was good at what he was doing.
It was on his way to Damascus that he met the resurrected Christ for the first time. How appropriate, not in the shadows, but in the bright noonday sun because it was in full light of all where he lived his life. It was in that moment, he began to understand that all those accomplishments and all those successes and all those things that he could point to as his strengths amounted to nothing, less than nothing. They had become a detriment. It was an experience that shook him to the core. It was days, it was weeks, it was months, some think, maybe even years before he was able to put all of that together. That he was known and he was loved and that the event of the resurrection now became experience.
Years later, when he wrote to a church in Rome and said, "I've become absolutely convinced of this, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ." It wasn't just idle gossip. It wasn't something he heard from someone else. This came out of the depths of his own soul, of his own experience. When he was talking about that, he talked about how it had come to him.
In First Corinthians, he says, "I handed on to you as a first importance, what I had, in turn received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Sisyphus, Peter then to the 12th. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though, some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as one who was born untimely, he appeared to me."
That Paul understands that this message had been passed from one person to the next and it went from the one to the many and then finally it came back to the one. Because no matter what time, what place, Easter still comes down to the experience of one. Before it can change lives and change the world, it has to change us first. That's what we have in common between Peter, Paul, and Mary. All of them, each in their own way, each in their own time, each in their own type of experience went from the event of the resurrection to the experience of the resurrection.
Each of them understood that as they were encountered by the risen Christ, that something changed inside of them. Each of them began to understand what Beachner would later say that because Jesus rose from the dead, because of the resurrection, the worst thing is never the last thing, that God gets the last word, that all the worst things in life, whether they are forced upon us or whether they are of our own doing are real, but they are temporary, because the last thing, the last word is not our failures, it's not the evil, it's not our betrayals, it's not all the people we have hurt, it's not even our own pain. The last word comes to God and it is a word of love, indomitable love.
Then the resurrection becomes an experience. Then we begin to know, even today, how is it that we are supposed to celebrate Easter in 2020? It has nothing to do with whether or not we get to meet in a sanctuary, nothing to do with how much music we have, nothing to do with the affirmations that we have, nothing to do with how many people we are with.
It comes down to you and it comes down to me, and it comes down to that experience that God has for us, where we begin to know that we are known and loved. We begin to know that all those things in our life, that the worst thing is not the last thing.
That God gets the last Word and I believe in the words of Richard Rohr, it begins to sink in that there is nothing that we're going to do to make God love us more and there's nothing we're going to do to make God love us less. When that begins to sink in, oh my goodness does life begin to change. The stone rolls away, the sun comes out, new life begins, and we begin to understand truly, Easter for one.
How are we to live and celebrate Easter in 2020 when nothing is as it should be, when everything seems off? We began as they did in the first century at the first Easter with, before it was good news for many, it became good news for one, but just as surely as it becomes good news for one, then it extends to the many. "As I handed on to you as a first importance, what I, in turn, had received what was handed on to me, I'm now handing on to you," Paul says. That Christ died and then He rose, and that is more than just words to recite. That is a reality to live in because Easter is not just an event to memorialize. It's a reality to live regardless of the circumstances.
How are we to celebrate Easter in 2020 is a very personal question for me. This will be the first Easter since my good friend Rich Gantenbein died. He died last year, the week after Easter. The next day we were supposed to be together to do our annual planning, as we have done for more than 30 years, do our planning for all the sermons and all the seasons including Easter of 2020.
More than one person has asked. What do you think Rich would say about this situation, about all the changes that are going on? I don't know all the things that Rich would say, but over the 40 years that I have known him, over the 40 years that we have talked about Easter sermons, over that time, there has been a phrase that has meant a lot to both of us and we would share it often, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
I think that was a max to pray line first, but whatever it is, it has given us great comfort, great solace, great courage, and great focus over the years as we would find something that was distracting or find something that was pulling us away. Remember, keep the main thing the main thing. That's what we're about.
When it comes to Easter 2020, how do we keep the main thing, the main thing? It begins by recognizing that first off, there's a lot of things that are wonderful about Easter, but they're not the main thing. It's wonderful to be in multiple services with all the energy of this room and sanctuaries around the world, but that's not the main thing. The music of Easter and the great affirmations of praise are wonderful parts, but they're not the main thing.
The main thing of Easter has to do with encountering and being open again to the presence of the living Lord, to encounter God in those places, in the cracks and crevices of our own soul. The places we would rather hide, the places we would keep people from, to have God meet us in that place. The place that each of us needs, each in our own way, each in our own time and for God to meet us there and in that place, precisely in that place to know that we are known and then we are loved.
To let it begin to sink in that it begins here. It begins in our own life. It begins with the realization that the worst thing in our life is never the last thing because God is the last thing and God gets the last word. It starts here, but it doesn't stay here. As it begins to take root in our lives, then it begins to get lived out into the world. Then we give ourselves to the very same things that Christ gave Himself to. We go to the places where the cracks and crevices of the world, where there's the vulnerable, where there's the hurting, where there's the poor, where there's the sick, where there's the grieving, and we bring that same reality there.
The main thing of Easter is to be open, again, to the encounter with God, to embody it, to make it part of ours, to remember and to let it sink into our soul that there is nothing that can make God love us more and nothing that can make God love us less, and to let it start from there and then to extend out into the world. To be able to live into and become answer to the prayer that we pray every Sunday here, Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth, even as it's done in heaven because as we give ourselves to those things, those are the things of God and those are the things that last. None of that is lost because it belongs to God.
Those are the things that we get to lean into and give our life to and as we do, then that gospel, that resurrection message gets passed from one to the next, not just as words, but as living lives, living souls, living messages. When we do then my story and your story and all of the stories of those who've come before us and all of the stories that are yet to be, they all get pooled together and gathered up until the great story of God.
This Easter 2020 may you know that you are known and you are loved, may you know, and be able to keep what is the main thing of Easter. May you experience the love and the presence of God and may you extend it into the world and into all of those around, and may your life and your story be seen as part of the great story of God so that not just on one day of the year, and not just one slogan of that day, but the living reality that at the core of our being is He is risen. He is risen indeed.