“The Living among the Dead”

March 27, 2016


Isaiah 65:17-19, 21-25

Luke 24:1-12


When does Easter begin?

It depends.

It depends on what Gospel you’re reading.

The Gospel of John says that the women arrived at the tomb early on the first day of the week while it was still dark.

The Gospel of Mark says that they came when the sun had risen.

And Luke tells us it was at early dawn—that time between the dark of night and light of day—when the women who had long followed Jesus went to the tomb.

When does Easter begin?

It depends.

It depends on when the morning dawns.

There is the story about a rabbi who asked his students: “How is one to know the precise time when night ends and day begins?”
One student volunteered, “It is when one can distinguish between a dog and a sheep in the far distance, that is when day begins.”
Another said, “It is when you can tell the difference between a fig tree and a date tree, then night is fully gone.”

A third offered that “It is when you can distinguish a purple thread from a black thread.”
“No, it is none of those things,” said the Rabbi. “It is when you can see your brother or sister in the face of a stranger. Until then, night is still with us.”

In what is one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost says, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” This is the description of all of us.

We are living through a time when the darkness seems to loom large. We are living through a time when the night is very familiar.

 Political rallies become occasions of fist fights when those with different opinions or of another race are no longer fellow citizens but strangers. War in the Middle East, drug cartels in Central America make refugees of many and their suffering is only compounded when other nations cannot see the common humanity in the strangers at their borders. Terrorists bomb the airport and subway in Brussels because their shadowed minds see only strangers in every face, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, making life worse for all in their twisted quest for power.

In describing the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, Luke says, “Darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed.” It was not an eclipse, which would be impossible given the full moon at the time of the Passover. Nor do we need to explain this, as some try, as the result of a dust storm. The Gospel is telling us that the powers of evil loose in the world were doing their very best. The death of Jesus is the judgment that, even at noon, humankind is well acquainted with the night.

The night is still with us.

But Easter comes to us as a dawning, as the start of a new day, a new week. It is the time when our eyes are opened; it is a time when, with clear sight, we begin to see new possibilities, when we might look at another and see the face of a brother or sister.

This is why we practice hospitality, welcome, in our churches—and specifically in this congregation—so that as our eyes are opened in the dawn of this place we might also go from here, letting our light shine, illuminating the shadow places, and bringing the light of God’s love to the world around us.

One person put it this way: “In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative. The expectation that God’s people are people who will welcome strangers and treat them justly runs throughout the Bible. This expectation is not based on any special immunity to the dangers unknown people might present—far from it. Rather it emerges from the hospitality”—the welcome, the acceptance—“that God has shown us.”[i]

Of course, God’s resurrection sight is not limited to Christians. There are times when the light dawns in unexpected places, when the “strangers” are those who recognize the face of a brother or sister in another human being.  A week before the Brussels bombing, there was an encounter of hope in Germany. It began when the right-wing politican, Stefan Jagsch, known for his anti-refugee stance, crashed his car into a tree and was knocked unconscious. Two Syrian refugees were in a bus that passed the scene of the accident. They pulled Jagsch from the car, performed first aid, and waited with him until an ambulance arrived. Even the leader of the fiercely anti-immigrant National Democratic Party thanked the refugees for what he called “their very good, human actions.”[ii]

There are times when Easter morning slowly dawns here as well—and we need to remember such times.

When we opened this church to the homeless for many winters, the light began to dawn.

When we open this church to weddings for all people, the light begins to dawn.

When we open this church to people learning to read in our still developing program of adult literacy, the light begins to dawn.

We need to remember such times and give thanks.

At times, of course, the light that we take into the world is not always welcomed.

Earlier this month we learned of the death Ed Heininger, the beloved minister of this congregation from the late 60’s to the late 80’s—a time of great turmoil and change. In the days after Ed’s death, I came across an account of his experience working as a civil rights volunteer in Carthage Mississippi in 1964.

Ed took a student, John Polocheck, to a clinic for medical treatment. Ed and John were met in the waiting room by the clinic doctor who began berating Ed for his civil rights work. While they were talking, Ed was hit from behind. Polacheck estimated that between 5 and 10 men beat them for approximately 5 minutes. Ed reported that the doctor pushed him from the front into the punches of his assailants. Ed was knocked unconscious and suffered severe injuries to the left eye, severe lacerations on the scalp and face, contusions on the back of the neck, a bad cut on his left ear, and swelling of the mouth and lips. Polacheck got to their car, parked outside the clinic and pulled in Ed, who was on his back outside the car. One of several whites standing around the car grabbed the keys so that the two men could not drive away.

When a deputy sheriff arrived, you guessed it, the deputy handcuffed Ed and John, and jailed them for disturbing the peace. Oh, and the doctor also reported that they had used profanity.[iii]

I tell Ed’s story this morning with gratitude for his life and for his service here—how fortunate this congregation was to have had him as a pastor.

But even more I tell it because it is one example of the way in which the Easter dawn, the light of the resurrection, has risen in the world—even if many did not want that light.

And I tell it because it gives me a new perspective on that Easter morning question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

We, of course, all know what those angels were getting at when they asked this of the women. Jesus was not to be found among the tombs. Christ was alive. Death could not hold him. He was—and is—now free in the world.

This is the substance of countless Easter sermons. It is the affirmation that is the foundation of our hope, our life, and the life of this congregation.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Go, look elsewhere for the living Christ who goes before you.

Now, I’m not one who normally argues with angels—which, let’s face it, is a losing proposition in most cases.

But maybe we should look for the living among the dead. “Among the dead” might be just the place to look for the living.

Indeed, it is our calling to be the living among the dead.

We are called beyond the much needed ministry of hospitality in this place.

We are called beyond these walls.

We are called to be the living, bringing resurrection light, among those who still insist on the racial hatred that continues to fuel much of the discourse in this election year.

We are called to be the living, bringing resurrection light, among those who want to continue the history of shame and hatred and fear inflicted on people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We are called to be the living, bringing resurrection light, among those who call for the exclusion of people, or as we heard this past week, the policing of people in our nation, simply because of their religious beliefs.

We are called to be the living, bringing resurrection light, among those who continue to exploit the poor of this nation, this world, who continue to exploit our increasingly fragile home, this earth.

We are called to be the living among the dead, announcing by both our words and our actions that God is doing a new thing—that God is bringing about a new creation, bringing joy, bringing peace. The risen Christ is the first sign of this new creation, offering new life to all who follow in the way of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us.

Yes, Ed’s story also provides the cautionary truth:

We will not always be welcomed in the same way that we would welcome others.

We will not always be embraced in the same way that we would embrace others.

Yet at times the light that we, the living, bring will be seen as a welcome dawn in the darkness.

At times people will, just as Jesus said they would, see our light shining and give thanks to God for what we are doing.

The resurrection light shines upon us and God calls us to be the living among the dead.

When does Easter begin?

Easter begins when the day breaks in your soul and with hope and joy and maybe a little trepidation you go from this place to be one who shows new life in Christ in the way that only you can show it.

Easter begins when your unique and special light dawns in the shadow places of our world.