Monday, March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter

Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
Easter Sunday
March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter
What Happens on Easter

All of you, I am sure, are familiar with the Easter story. Jesus, the Christ, rose from the dead. That is what we celebrate. But what do we really know about what happened? I want to make two assertions. First, we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know. And, second, we as Christians cannot claim to know less than we know.

What actually happened on Easter? The only accounts we have about what happened on what we now call Easter Day are in the Bible, in the Gospels. There was no news story published in The Jerusalem Times! And although the four gospels all assert that Christ rose from the dead, the details are quite different.

All the gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified, and that his body was put in a tomb, which was sealed with a large stone. But then, the stories differ. All four gospels say that Mary Magdalen went to the tomb early in the morning. She is the only person so mentioned in all four gospel accounts. But John says that she went alone; Mathew says she was accompanied by “the other Mary”; Mark says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James and Salome; Luke says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Joana, and other unnamed women.

What they reportedly saw varies. John says that Mary Magdalen saw a young man, who she first thought was the gardener, but who was in fact Jesus himself. Matthew says there was an earthquake, and the two women saw an angel “descending from heaven”, ”whose appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow”.  And then they saw Jesus himself, who said “Greetings!” Mark says ”they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of the tomb. Luke says they saw “two men in dazzling clothes.”

 In each story, the woman, or the women, received a message from the young man, or the angel, or the angels – but the messages vary.

In Mark, the angel says: “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And the women, afraid, fled and told no one.

In Matthew, the risen Jesus himself tells the women to go and tell the disciples that he will see them in Galilee. The women delivered the message, and the disciples then left for Galilee.

In Luke, the men in dazzling clothes asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and told them, “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” So the women went and told the disciples, who did not believe them, except for Peter, who got up and ran to the tomb, where he saw only the cloths in which Jesus had been buried.

In John, after he called her name, Mary Magdalen recognized  that the young man, whom she thought was the gardener, was in fact Jesus,  and she heard Jesus himself say: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Which Mary Magdalen did. And the frightened disciples, except Thomas, huddled in the upper room in Jerusalem, where we remember that Jesus himself appeared to them on Easter night.

My point in going through these stories is to show that we really do not know exactly what happened. The stories vary; the details are significantly different, and the substance of the story – that Jesus rose from the dead - is beyond comprehension. It is, perhaps, a mark of authenticity that these stories do not agree in all details. When everyone tells a story the same way, we know that they have probably been coached. These stories reflect different voices. The only significant point of agreement is that when Mary Magdalen, and possibly some other women, (and remember that they all were women), went to the tomb early on Easter morning, they did not find the body of Jesus, and they all reported extraordinary visions or encounters. We don’t even know much about Mary Magdalen. Legends have grown up about her, but the only thing the gospels tell us is that one of them, Luke, reports that Jesus had healed her.  She apparently became very devoted to him. Matthew, Mark, and John report that she stood by his cross while he was crucified, and they all report that she went to the tomb on Easter morning. She is sometimes called the “apostle to the apostles” because she carried the good news to his disciples, Some scholars have even speculated that she was herself a disciple, even perhaps the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” But that is all speculation. We do not know.

And so, when we talk about what happened at Easter, we cannot claim to know more than we know. What exactly happened is a mystery, and the point of a mystery is that we do not know, we cannot explain it. If the writers of the gospels cannot explain it, neither can we.

But if we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know, we also cannot claim to know less than we know – because we do know a great deal. And what we know does make all the difference.

What do we know. We know that whatever happened on Easter was so powerful that it not only transformed the lives of his friends and disciples, but led them to be willing to die for what they knew. We know that Jesus’s disciples - not only the 11, but his women friends, his cousins, his family – came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. They didn’t know exactly how, either, but some of them later claimed that they had seen the risen Lord. And these claims were not made casually, as a matter of rumor; they were made openly, definitely, and sometimes defiantly. Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus only three days before, later was himself crucified for his testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. We do not know how many early disciples testified to the truth of their belief by giving up their lives, but we do know that many did. And of course we have the testimony of Paul, who encountered the risen Lord in what was surely a vision, but a vision so powerful that it totally changed his life, and led Paul also to imprisonment and execution. This we know. It is not a matter of speculation. It is a matter of fact.

During the last few centuries, some skeptics have tried to discredit these testimonies by saying the story of the resurrection was a hoax, based either on a plot to steal the body of Jesus and claim that he was resurrected, or on hallucinations.  Such skepticism, for me, fades in the face of the facts that we know: disciples experienced imprisonment, torture, and execution. Would they do that to perpetuate a hoax or a delusion?

Consider the testimony of Paul, which we read earlier, but which we should listen to more carefully now, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. The he appeared to more than five hundred 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 to one untimely born, he appeared unto me.”

Paul’s account here is different even from the account in the gospels -  but remember, Paul had not read the gospels. They had not been written when he wrote his letters. But he had received the stories, the stories on which some people whom  Paul himself had been persecuting were betting their lives.

So we know for certain that what happened on Easter caused many people not only to believe it, but to bet their lives on it, to live for its truth, and to die for its truth. That is what we know. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

We also know that the meaning of Easter has not yet been fully understood. We are slow disciples. We know that, in addition to proclaiming the love of God, and the power of the risen Christ, as one who has experienced and transcended torture and violence and death, we know that Christians have sometimes - indeed, far too many times – have inflicted torture and violence and death on others.  This is a sad but undeniable fact. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

But we also know, beyond dispute, that people, many people, thousands of people, millions of people have gathered on every Easter Day for almost 2000 years to proclaim their hope, their faith, their belief in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, the victory of the crucified one. In good times and bad, wartime and peace time, in youth and in age, among admirable people and sometimes among unadmirable people, the faith has endured. We know this, don’t we, even if we know nothing else. That itself is miracle.

And we are part of that miracle today. Some of us, some of you, may be, like Thomas, doubters. You have heard the testimony, but you cannot fully believe it. You are not like the apostles, who saw the resurrected Christ. You are not like Paul, who was stunned into blindness by a vision of the resurrected Christ. You are still, however, part of the  throngs who have heard the  word, and whose life is sustained by the possibility, the hope, the faith that God has shown us that death does not win, that power does not prevail over goodness, that our suffering, whatever it may be, is somehow redeemed in the crucified but risen Lord. You are among those who yearn and work for the day when, as promised in Isaiah, there will be an end to torture and violence and disease and war, and “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” To the extent that the story touches your heart and finds a place in it, you are also part of the miracle. We do not know everything about what happened on Easter, 2000 years ago. But we do know what happens on Easter, right now.

We cannot claim to know more than we know. But we also cannot claim to know less than we know. And what we do know makes all the difference in the world. Amen.

Easter Prayer March 27, 2016

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ, the resurrected one, you have conquered the power of death, cruelty, violence, and despair, and you have called us to follow him, in faith. We pray, O Resurrected One, strengthen our faith:

In a world where violence and hatred are resurgent,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For a world in which many live in poverty, with no access to the riches around them; and where many a, driven from their homes, are in search of refuge;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those facing the trials of loneliness, disease, and despair; for loved ones who have died, and those of us who are approaching our own deaths,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For our families, whose lives we value more than our own, but whom we know we cannot completely protect.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those imprisoned, justly or unjustly, and for those who are imprisoned by addiction.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For the church, for all its ministers and members, that we may more boldly follow in your way,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For ourselves, in the trials we face, the doubts that paralyze us, and the false gods in which we so often put our trust;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

Give us grace¸ we pray, to follow in the way of the Resurrected One, who taught us to pray:

Our Father

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Our Society is Corrupt

Richard R. Crocker, Dartmouth College Chaplain
“The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it?”
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
August 15, 2010
Isaiah 5:1-7,  Luke 12:49-56

            Summer is a time when many people attend family reunions. Some of the reunions, especially the large ones, can be very trying. Although you are related somehow to the many people who gather, you may feel little kinship with them, and, if the truth be told, you may not even want to talk to them. Indeed, you may discover, as soon as you try to enter into a conversation, that there is no safe subject except the weather. Just because you are related to them doesn’t mean that you share deep beliefs about things that really matter.  Race, religion, politics – talking about these subjects reveals, very quickly, deep seemingly unbridgeable disagreements, and each party seems to think that they are absolutely right. Too many of my conversations at such gatherings end up with one of my relatives saying to me, “Our society is corrupt; what are you going to do about it?” – or, since most of my relatives are southerners: “This country is messed up, and what are yewe goan do about it?” Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them really want to hear my suggestions. Especially is a nation as polarized as ours is now, we often find the situation that Jesus described: father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in law. This is of course not a universal experience, but it is a common one. All of us prefer to have deep conversations with people who share our basic values. We find it hard to talk comfortably with people who hold strong convictions that are antithetical to ours. It is hard to have a pleasant conversation with someone who is deeply convinced that you are going to hell.

            Now this fact, this reality, is something we wish were not true. All of us love the sentimental picture, I expect, of the large family gathering where everyone agrees and is delighted to see each other; where there is no tension or conflict; where everyone is right-thinking, appealing, and accepting. But that just doesn’t describe reality. Even at the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, where 1000 of the most saintly of Christians gather every two years, the tension over issues like homosexual clergy, evangelism, abortion, the second coming of Christ, the right way to interpret the Bible – sometimes threatens to disrupt the fundamental Presbyterian love of doing things decently and in order. Even people who claim to love Jesus sometimes find themselves in violent disagreement with each other. The ideal picture of Christian love and charity is sometimes very far from reality.

            So we know that the simplistic description – if everybody just loved Jesus, we’d all get along – is not true. I know most of my family deeply love Jesus, and most Presbyterians do too – but that doesn’t mean we can always get along. Somehow we seem to love Jesus in different and sometimes conflicting ways. And then there are those people who say they don’t have any love for Jesus at all, yet who seem, in some ways, to be more agreeable to us than the members of our own family of faith.

            This is not a new situation. The passage that we read today from Isaiah states the situation well. Isaiah speaks for God, who likens the people Israel to a vineyard. God wants to sing a love song to Israel, a vineyard that he has carefully planted and cultivated. But what God discovers is that the beloved vineyard, which should be producing good grapes, is full of wild useless bitter grapes. So God resolves to tear up the useless vineyard. It is a metaphor that is explained in these words: The vineyard “is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” (Isaiah 5:7).   Even 2500 years ago, there was a fundamental tension within Judaism about what it meant to be God’s people. Isaiah was among the prophets who spoke in God’s name to tell them that their way of life was wrong, leading to destruction – that God’s patience with his beloved vineyard was running out. The demand of Isaiah – God’s demand, really, - was for justice, but what God found was bloodshed; God demanded righteousness, but heard instead the cry of people being abused. In other words, Isaiah proclaimed to the people Israel, just as so many today proclaim, “Our society is corrupt, and what are you going to do about it?”

            Throughout our history, our nation, the United States of America, has often seen itself as a second Israel – as God’s chosen people, a chosen nation. Certainly many of the early English settlers saw it this way – a land they considered all but empty, fruitful and fertile beyond measure, offering an opportunity to establish a godly society, to start anew and do things right. John Winthrop, in his famous sermon to the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony, (called A Model of Christian Charity) proclaimed that they would be a city on the hill, an example to the nations. And we have thought of ourselves in this way ever since. We have always assumed that we are a righteous people – the most righteous on earth. Our government is divinely inspired, our way of life sacred, our mission to spread light and democracy and prosperity to the world.  This makes it extremely difficult for us to hear criticism. Even if we have strong disagreements among ourselves, we will hardly brook any criticism from "foreigners” – especially the benighted Europeans. It makes it hard for us to hear the words of prophets who call us into question today, who say, “What have you done with the advantages you were given? I planted a vineyard and expected good fruit. I expected justice, but what I see is bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but I hear people crying.”

            Now the irony is that although everybody thinks the society is corrupt, everybody also thinks that they are righteous. And so we have people who condemn the inexcusable greed of our financial system, rightly pointing to the inequality of wealth that it perpetuates, but the investment bankers think that they are the victims of corrupt politicians who are only grand-standing for public approval, and who are themselves corrupt. We have supporters of the president blaming congress for our corrupt society and opponents of the president blaming the president for a corrupt society. There is blame and accusation coming from every quarter, and those of us who sit out in the hinterlands observe it all as we would observe two armies clashing in a far off field, each firing at the other, but with smoke so thick and noise so great that he participants are indistinguishable, and nothing is certain except carnage.

            Is this what Jesus meant when he said, in this difficult passage, that he did not come to bring peace, but rather division? Did he mean that people would always claim his own name for their fights, cloaking their self-interests in piety? Did he mean that there would be perpetual jockeying for power? Did he mean that there would be endless violence,  endless greed, endless abuse of the poor, endless self destruction, all justified in the name of God? Does not Jesus himself offer a way out of this endless conflict?
            There is a way out, but it requires great sacrifice. It requires that we give up the desire to be right and seek instead to be compassionate. And that’s hard – because most of us would rather be right than compassionate. But Jesus does not so much expect that we be right as that we be compassionate. Compassion means “Suffering with someone”, or feeling their suffering. It is hard to replace our desire to be right – our own righteousness, if you will - with compassion, but it is not impossible. Even in war, the most extreme situation of people willing to die because they think they are right, those who serve under the red cross seek to treat the wounded without ever asking which side the victim is on. Their only concern is healing.

            Yet, it is a sad thing that even compassion brings division – for there are those, always, who argue against it, who see it as weakness rather than strength. Take, for example, the current debate about immigration. What is to be done with people who are in this country illegally? There is no right answer. Certainly borders need to be respected, since we have not yet reached a world of totally unrestricted movement. But how does one deport illegal immigrants whose children, born here, are US citizens? Does upholding the law demand feeling no compassion for those who are desperate?

            There is no way always to be right. Compassion cares less about being right, and more about alleviating suffering. Our scripture lesson today says that God looked for righteousness, but heard, instead, a cry. Righteousness does not mean always being right; it means being in right relationship, and the right relationship between human beings is compassion.

            Compassion, however, does not always tell us what to do. We may feel someone’s pain without knowing how to alleviate it. In fact, our action may make it worse. We don’t always know what to do. But at least it’s a start. Compassion does not ignore the cry. And that’s a start.

            I have been reading a wonderful a book about the Civil War (or the War Between the States) – that time when our country was most bitterly divided. The book, called Upon the Altar of the Nation,[i] describes how both North and South were equally convinced that they were right, and each side was fervent in its faith that God favored their cause. At first each side thought it would be a short war; each side thought it would win quickly. But, as you know, the war dragged on for four years, with over a million people killed, countless others wounded. It was this war which inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the hymn that we sing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which, drawing upon Isaiah’s imagery, describes the judgment of God against the South  - God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It has taken a long time for many Southerners to be able to sing that hymn. Yet all of us now acknowledge the truth of President Lincoln’s words, near the end of that bloody war, who said in his very brief second inaugural address that it was our primary duty “to bind up the nation’s wounds”[ii] (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”)– for he knew that a nation cannot cohere if it is divided between those who are right and those who are wrong. Righteousness, as Lincoln knew, requires, above all, compassion.

            The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it? Let’s start by paying attention to the bloodshed, and listening to the people who cry. That is what God expects of us all.

[i] Harry S. Stout, New York, Viking Press, 2006