This is a “Christmas-Easter” story. But first let me note that baseball season is back, and I am going to stand up here with two strikes against me. Strike one: I was born and spent most of my life in Los Angeles. That’s too much “outsider” for some here. Strike two: I attended seminary in New York City – now that’s real outsider stuff for South Dakota.
My Big Apple time was back in the mid-80s. Over one Christmas break, my then-girlfriend flew out for the holiday and we attended the Christmas “Midnight Mass” at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Times Square.
At that service, the Rector asked for volunteers to help at a parish Christmas party the next day. It would be a party for people who walked in off the street. Parishioners would host refreshments and give out gifts and groceries.
Well, girlfriend and me was young and idealistic, so at the church door we told the Rector we would come back to help with the party in the morning. He shook our hands and said something like, “Oh, fine, fine…” We could tell he appreciated the gesture but didn’t really think we meant it.
But we showed up on Christmas Day. The people we hosted were, well, different from your average church mouse. Since I already have two strikes against me for L.A. and NYC, I won’t strike out by telling you all the details. I don’t want you to blame me for a ruined Easter brunch when your kid blurts out, “Grandma, what’s a … (use your imagination and fill in the blank)?” Let me just say that this was years before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up Times Square and that neighborhood was, well, kinda like Deadwood used to be.
A few minutes into the party, the Rector, draped in black from head to toe, strode toward us across the crowded parish hall. His mouth was a big smile but his eyes looked confused, almost frightened. “You came back,” he exclaimed as he grabbed each of us by our shoulders. “You came back!”
A promise doubted, yet kept. Joy and confusion tumbling over each other. These images take us from my Christmas story to where we are right now, the message of Easter.
God promised the miracle of Easter. Old Testament prophets foretold that “death would be swallowed up in victory.” Jesus told his followers that he would rise on the third day after his death.
But our Gospel today tells us plainly that even Jesus’ closest companions had not taken the promise to heart, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Even Peter, who had seen the empty tomb and later the risen Lord, had trouble connecting the miracle to God’s promises. It wasn’t until months, maybe even a couple of years later that Peter could stand up and say, “I truly understand…” and then baptize a family of pagans into the eternal promises offered by God.
We have a hard time believing that Easter is more than a story. But our lessons today make clear that it is more. It is about promises offered by God to all of us here, if we open our hearts to receive them:
“And all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in the risen Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
If we receive that promise, that any evil in our life can be forgiven through the name of Jesus, then we can receive the promise of a new relationship – an eternal relationship – with God:
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”
We can be God’s forever. The grip of things that corrupt and destroy life can be broken, if we believe.
And if we believe, we will be both holy and goofy like that Rector in New York City. Holy joy and confusion will tumble over us. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the women who found the empty tomb “hurried away… afraid yet filled with joy.”
God’s promise is that the confusion will end. If we place our faith in Jesus Christ, “we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.”
God also promises that the joy will remain, but in a measure for which there is no human word.
And so the sermon must end – faith in the risen Lord must begin. I invite you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to accept God’s promises of forgiveness and everlasting joy.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.