The Rev. David Schell preached this sermon at Fairplain Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023. You can view a video of this Easter Sunday service below, and an audio recording. The manuscript is below the recordings.
Remember: Sermons are preached, not read, so the recordings and the text of the manuscript may not match perfectly.
Sometimes it’s hard to be in church on Easter
– especially if you have a hard time believing the story we’re celebrating on Easter is a story of something that actually happened, and especially especially if you heard some preacher at some point say that if you don’t believe in it you’re not a Christian and you’re out.
I have certainly had my share of feeling “out” on Easter. I don’t even know how many times I’ve gone into church on Easter Sunday and just thought, “What am I even doing here?” When you don’t believe, but used to, or don’t believe but wish you did, Easter is a really hard time to be in church. It’s even harder if you’re a pastor.
On Easter Sunday 2018, I was driving north on Route 8 in the dark hours before dawn to Mars, Pennsylvania where I was supposed to help lead the Sunrise Service at Old Union Presbyterian Church.
Back then I went back and forth on the resurrection a lot more than I do now, even though the previous year, I had written a blog post about why I both do and don’t believe in the Resurrection at the same time, and that Easter morning I was very firmly in the “Do not believe” camp.
That Sunday I did not believe in the resurrection at all, and it was so depressing. I was literally on my way to go lead a celebration of something I didn’t believe in that moment was a historical reality. I didn’t believe in it and I couldn’t make myself believe in it.
That Sunday I had an experience, listening to some music that put tears in my eyes and made me believe in the resurrection. I still argue to this day there’s absolutely no way to prove it happened historically because it’s impossible,
but starting that day, I decided I believe in the resurrection because of those tears, which makes it sound emotional but there’s a line from author Frederick Beuchner where he says tears are the surest sign of truth we have, and I decided to go with that.
So that’s fine. That’s cool. I had a religious experience listening to some religious music on a road most of you have never driven on, and that’s lovely for me, right? Why should you believe it? Why should anyone believe it?
I got the idea for this sermon a couple weeks ago, on Sunday, when I was sitting at the desk in my room at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center during the CREDO conference you all and the Board of Pensions sent me to, which was so helpful, by the way – and I just didn’t want to think about the Bible anymore.
I started to imagine what it might be like to just let go of the trappings of Christianity, to stop reading the Bible, stop going to church and tithing; to toss the Book of Order and the things Jesus said, and just live my life and try to feel deeply connected to God without all that complication.
As I was mulling this all over, I thought about the easter story, about the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and how, actually, given the stuff still going on in the world we live in, that story is still pretty darn important.
And I wrote in my journal the beginnings of this sermon:
A thought for Easter: Why go back to that story? Because we still need it. We still need love, defeated by death, rising undefeated and indestructible.
That thought, just that one right there, is the basis for my whole sermon.
And I was gonna do a shpeel here about Martin Luther King, and about every oppressed person who read that story, every enslaved person who saw that story and got hope, about how this story still has power in it, how just the RETELLING of that story is still dangerous and still threatens empires and inspires those working for good in the world, how (in the words of the author of Hebrews) that the word of God is living and active, that this story is still alive out in the world, still causing good trouble; how “Christ playing in ten thousand places,” (Gerard Manley Hopkins),
I was going to talk about that, but then I saw this video clip and I knew I had to share it because it was EVERYTHING about that.
This video is of a young man whose father is a preacher, giving a miniature sermon on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
A pastor friend of mine shared it with the comment, “This is the message for this weekend,” and I made the mistake of not believing her – ON EASTER WEEKEND.
Easter weekend is THE DUMBEST time of year to not believe a woman. There’s never a great time for that, but Easter weekend, the weekend when the women came back to the disciples and said they had seen Jesus and the disciples didn’t believe them? That’s the worst time for thinking you’re going to disbelieve women and have a shot at them being wrong – but within 5 minutes of watching it, I knew I had to show it to you because THIS IS WHAT MY WHOLE SERMON WAS GOING TO BE ABOUT, and it had to be today. I try to stay away from politics on Easter but I started writing this sermon TWO WEEKS AGO and the CORE of my sermon was in this video.
And I just thought, “Oh no” because I know this is a purple church and there’s a chance this might offend somebody, because he says about halfway through that Jesus fought for single mothers and the LGBTQ community, refers to Jesus as “Black Jesus,” and none of those things are in the Bible, but
the answer to the question in my sermon title, “Why do we keep telling this story,” IS IN THIS VIDEO CLIP.
This is a speech Justin Pearson gave immediately before the TN House of Reps voted to expel him. (A transcript of this video is available if you click through to YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuTA8hQLdgQ
THAT is why we keep telling this story.
Because people like Justin Pearson believe in it and then they go out and to that. They say “You can’t keep us down because they couldn’t keep Jesus down.”
They taught me in my college history class that history is written by the winners,
but in my Bible classes I got reminded again and again that the Bible is history written by the losers.
And white European men, people who look like me, have built all kinds of systematic theology on top of that story and that’s all great and everything, but on Easter morning it was, as Justin Pearson described them, some Black women going to see Black Jesus, and I started thinking about it this weekend, thinking maybe we can’t even hear the Easter story unless we’re hearing it from the mouths of the oppressed.
The white church doesn’t speak that language, because we don’t have that experience that lines up in that way with the experiences of Jesus and his Jewish disciples living in a Roman world, but I believe that story is true and I know it matters.
I can’t prove that this story is true, I can’t prove with science that it happened, but I do NOT want to live in a world where that young man is wrong about what he said about the fundamental nature of the universe.
I can’t prove it happened just the way the gospels say it did, but
We’re still telling this story because it tells us that the power at the heart of the universe is love, and love will not be beaten by anything, even death and oppression.
I can’t prove Jesus’ resurrection is a thing that literally happened but, to borrow from that great saint of deconstruction Rachel Held Evans, “it’s a story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”
This story keeps coming up because Jesus’ resurrection keeps reverberating through time and across history.
They said Jesus was dead, but on the third day he rose again, and
British theologian N. T. Wright
says what’s happened to Jesus at the resurrection is going to happen to the whole universe, and the only problem I have with that is (if I’m remembering right) that it’s future tense.
It’s already happening.
God’s been doing it since day one!
Jesus’ resurrection echoes both forward and backward in history!
It literally starts in
Genesis 1 – Day and night
“There was evening and there was morning, the first day.” You thought it was over, but no; there’s a tomorrow.
Fun fact: In Jewish culture, the day starts at evening. The day is over? No, the day is just beginning – I recently met a Messianic Jewish preacher who reminded me of that. Oh, and our Adventist siblings in Christ begin the day at evening as well. The day starts when the sun goes down.
But keep going in Genesis 1 – God creates every plant bearing seed. Seeds! You put them in the ground and something altogether new grows.
The protest slogan – “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were SEEDS!” which was adapted from a poem by Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos.
But you see this happening in John 12:24 where Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
And Paul uses that analogy in I Corinthians 15:35 and following – “And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain… So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
It’s the whole story of the Bible;
it’s the story (to borrow a phrase from Beuchner) of “the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.”
- Abraham and Sarah can’t have a child and God says, “Eh, no.”
- Gideon is the least of his tribe living in an oppressed nation and God says, “Eh, no,” and sets them free.
- David is the youngest son and his father doesn’t even think to bring him and God says, “Eh, no.”
- If you look at Revelation it’s the story of a people who are oppressed and God says “No.”
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are” (I Cor. 1:27-28)
If you look at the story of the Exodus, it’s the story of people who are stuck in a land not their own, and God tells their oppressors, “Let my people go.”
That story, by the way, links up with Jesus’ story, the story of a dark-skinned man unjustly executed by local law enforcement, because it happens at the same time of year; Jesus is executed around the time of Passover, around the time they’re celebrating God defeating the undefeatable, but for Christians, what God did for Israel in Egypt, was just the appetizer; the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the main course.
And of course Easter and Passover are Springtime Celebrations because
Impossible things happen in Spring.
Things that were dead come back to life anew; trees with no apparent life sprout buds; oppressed people escape oppression in Egypt; and an unjustly executed dark-skinned man unjustly executed by local law enforcement walks out of his borrowed tomb alive.
And of course, any newly minted atheist will tell you about other cultures’ stories of someone who was killed and then raised from the dead, and I think they have those stories because, well, look around!
Do you see the pattern here?
- Days – they end, but the new day begins at sundown.
- Seeds – when you bury them, they come back up
- Seasons – winter always gives way to spring
- Things that look dead in the winter come back in spring.
In CS Lewis’s story
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
which in many ways is very much an allegory for this story, when the lion Aslan, his Jesus stand-in, is killed by the White Witch and is brought back, he says it happened because the witch knew the deep magic, but there’s a magic deeper still that she didn’t know about, that
when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
Of course it’s the deeper magic –
of course it is! It’s the magic embedded in the world, in days, in seasons, in seeds, in life itself.
From the perspective of someone who is perhaps not paying attention the resurrection looks impossible, but when seen through this lens, the lens of death giving rise to life, the lens of night giving way to day, the lens of winter giving way to spring,
Not only is the resurrection not impossible, it is INEVITABLE.
And that is a very dangerous idea if you benefit from a system of power that marginalizes people like Jesus.
People in that system know it’s dangerous; that’s why slaveholders in the American south had to give the people they enslaved heavily edited Bibles, but the truth got out anyway.
They know it’s dangerous and that’s why they had to stop Jesus, why they had to stop Martin Luther King Jr., why they kicked Justin Pearson and Justin Jones out of the Tennessee legislature, if you’ll have it.
But we’re still telling that story about Jesus who died and rose undefeatable two thousand years later because it is POWER,
and it is dangerous to oppressive people in power.
Because if it’s true, if we can dare to believe it, it means hatred will never get the last word; it means death will never get the last word.
It means that after the story is over,
after the last word has been spoken
and the last card has been played
and it’s all over but the crying,
love has one more story to tell,
one more word to say
and one more card to play,
and that word is
And that word is resurrection, HALLELUJAH and thanks be to GOD who RAISES THE DEAD. AMEN.