Easter Sunday Sermon
by Rev. J. Michael Solberg
Senior Minister
at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.

From the 10:45 a.m. Service
on Sunday, April 5, 2015

“The Ruling Has Been Overturned”
(Luke 23:50 – 24:12)

So, it’s Easter Sunday, 25 years ago, my first Easter as a Pastor.  I’m 26 years old, inexperienced, trying to hold my first Easter together, and this guy walks up to me before the service, and says, “Reverend, Easter is a joke.”  I had no idea how to respond.  I’ll come back to that.  First…

Just a minute, I need to check something…Jer, Stephen, am I crazy, or are there a few more people here than most Sundays?  Yes, I thought so.  You tricksters, you think we don’t notice, but we do.  And, hey, we’re very glad you’re here.  The more the merrier.

You know, I should probably catch you up on some of the things that have been going on around the church over the last few months.  And there’s a lot going on.  I’ll just, eh, look back through some of our recent church newsletters to remember some of this stuff…

Oh yes, we had our annual spaghetti dinner a few weeks ago.  We went with a more spiritual emphasis this year.  The announcement in the newsletter said, “Spaghetti dinner this coming Sunday.  Prayer and medication to follow.”

This goes back a few months, but did you hear about the ice cream social we had?  The newsletter said, “Sunday evening at 6:00 is the ice cream social.  All ladies giving milk please come early.”

The youth group has been collecting old electronics to be recycled.  Apparently you can make a little money doing this.  The newsletter says, “Proceeds will be used to cripple children.”

Oh, that’s right, I had a Sunday off a while back, and the week following, the newsletter said, “During the absence of our Sr. Pastor, we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when Jeremy Hylen offered the message.”

And I want to remind those of you who are not here too often, perhaps because of illness, that we are always praying for you.  Right here in the newsletter just a month ago it said, “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church.”

Here’s another thing you should know: we had a great stewardship campaign last fall.  The newsletter summarized the way Jeff Zimmer introduced the theme, “I Upped My Pledge — Up Yours.”

And of course last September we had our Women’s Association Re-Sale.  The newsletter said “Ladies, don’t forget the Re-Sale.  It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house.  Don’t forget your husbands.”

And back to the present, maybe you have heard that dear old Darlene is in the hospital.  Right here, the prayer list says, “Darlene remains in the hospital and is undergoing further tests.  She is having trouble sleeping and requests copies of Reverend Mike’s sermons.”

So now you are up to date with what has been going on around here, we are one big happy family again, and we can get on with the business of the day.  Christ is risen!

You wouldn’t know it from the attitude of a lot of folks, but I am pretty sure that God likes humor.  A lot of humor is based on setting up a familiar situation, getting you going in one direction, and then (snap your fingers) twisting it another way.  Humor has a way of disarming us.  Of letting us see some truths about ourselves that we might not otherwise want to see.  Humor, puts us in our place, in a good way.

You all know how comedy works.  The basic structure is often just the set-up, and the punch line.  The set-up has some unnoticed complexity, or nuance, something that is there, but we don’t see it at first.  Then the punch line twists things, so you see it in a new way.  The set-up is usually something familiar: This Sunday please welcome our guest preacher and his wife: Rev. and Mrs. Green.  And then the punch line reveals what’s hidden: following the service we’ll have the hanging of the greens.

I think we don’t normally see it this way, but that is just how Easter works too.  There is a set-up and then God delivers the punch line.  And because this is God we are talking about, the twist not only gives us laughter, it gives us life.

We mostly fail to see Easter for what it truly is though, because we don’t like to admit just how familiar the set-up really is.

If you were here last week it is probably easy for you to see what I mean.  I read the familiar story of Jesus’ death.  By “familiar” I don’t just mean that a lot of people know the story, but that the events are so predictable, so familiar because of what we know about human nature.  A guy came into this world and taught nothing but love and forgiveness.  He told people that God was doing a new thing through him.  God was fulfilling the promise that had stood for centuries, and he said that all who dared to live with the reckless abandon of self-giving love would have the fullness of life.

But as we heard, things didn’t go so well for this Jesus.  And here’s the thing, his troubles were perfectly predictable.  Life might not have been great for everybody in Jesus’ day, what with the heavy hand of the Roman military in the streets, with the taxes that made it difficult for people to support their families, with the seeming remoteness of God from everyday life.  But at least it was familiar.  It was known.  And after a while it was comfortable.  It may have been that life was one-darn-thing-after-another-and-then-you-die.  But faced with the choice between change and death, most people choose death.  In this case, they chose their own death by choosing the death of Jesus.

For I’m sure you remember that Jesus’ death wasn’t an accident.  The movement to kill him starts within days of him coming on the scene, he tells people it is going to happen – and not because he has some special vision of the future, but because he knows the way of the world.  It wasn’t a surprise that people would act like this.  The whole of humanity joined in choosing to put him to death.

There are four actors in the gospel story.  Jesus, then the authorities, the crowd, and the disciples.  First the authorities, the powers that be, who saw from the start what a threat he was.  Their actions were entirely predictable.  The grace and unfathomable love that were at the heart of Jesus’ message don’t leave much mechanism for control of the populace.  Authorities and powers, be they in form of Roman guards, obscene corporate profits, or nationalism with no humility – they have a way of making the people prefer the status quo, and maintaining the status quo required the death of Jesus.  Sadly, their actions are no surprise.

The second actor in the set-up is the crowd.  At first they go along with Jesus.  They think he is going to overthrow those principalities and powers that oppress them, lead a revolution, us against them, our greater numbers against their greater weapons.  But then the crowd realizes that Jesus loves the principalities and powers just as much as he loves them, the crowd, and they realize he isn’t blindly on their side.  The grace and unfathomable love that are at the heart of his message don’t leave much room for their hopes of victory the old-fashioned way, so, in what comes as no surprise at all, in the end they turn on Jesus and choose the route of death.

The third actor in the set-up is the disciples.  Ah, the disciples.  His friends.  His followers.  The ones who learn from him, eat with him, laugh with him.  But, as predictably as can be, they are also the ones who refuse to suffer with him.  Last week, I read the most depressing line in all of scripture, and the one which most fully reveals the heart of human nature: “they all disowned him and fled.”  The grace and unfathomable love that are at the heart of his message don’t come easy.  The cost is control of our own lives, the right to choose our own way, the desire to have forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, life-with-God without death-to-self.  So in abandoning him, the disciples do the predictable, everyday thing, and even they choose his death.

So, everything is just as we would expect.  Jesus is executed.  The story is over.  Humanity, in all its forms and stations, has fulfilled its role.  Everything is familiar.  This is the way life is.  This is how things work.  It’s not just that we have to accept it, and learn to live with it.  It’s that we are a part of it. It’s life.  It’s us.  It’s familiar.  The set up is so normal, natural, predictable that we don’t even see it.  There is no comic potential there.  No pregnant pause.  No room for surprise.  “Joseph of Arimathea took the body down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”  The end.  (Long pause.)

But then.  But even then.  The master comic brings it home.  “But, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared [to anoint his body.]  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb and when they went in, they did not find the body…He is not here.  He is risen.”

And those words change everything.  Everything we thought was normal, predictable, familiar, natural…all of it is exposed.  It’s not real.  Or at least it is not the true heart of reality.  The world thought it could declare death as the final verdict.  But that ruling has been overturned.  It is not we who decide what is true, what is normal, what is final.  That is the decision of God.  And God flips the world around.  God flips our lives around.  Not death, but life.  Not fear, but love.  Not suffering, but joy.  Not punishment, but freedom.  Not loneliness, but friendship.  Not violence, but reconciliation.  Life.  Life.  Life.

You know, among all of God’s creatures, humans are the only ones who laugh and weep.  And there is a real connection between the two.  If the story of this world were ours to tell, then honesty and familiarity would require us to admit that death and all its cronies have the last word.  But Easter shows that this is not our story to tell.  Our part of the story is only the set-up.  And God is the master comic, able to take things as humourless and predictable as death and fear and suffering and self-centeredness, and flip them around to life.  With the empty tomb, God puts us in our place, in a good way, revealing how funny it is that we think we have the last word.

So this guy walks up to me and says Reverend, Easter is a joke.  It has taken me 25 years to realize what I should have said: Yes, it is.  Thank goodness, it is.  Thank you, God.  Thank you.

You can see a list of all available UCH sermons online at: http://Hinsdale.Church/podcast