Special Easter Message
Last Easter was my first in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of Somerdale, New Jersey. Well, I don’t actually spend much time in the pulpit as I am too busy moving about at ground level…..but so to speak. I was informed that like at almost any church, Easter was a big day. Many people were expected to bring family and friends, and we might even have some visitors or friends of the church who haven’t attended in a long while.
Up to the challenge, I girded my loins and prepared myself to produce the: “best sermon ever!” I gave the matter hard thought. So, what is the message of the scriptures about Easter? What is it that makes Easter one of the big special days of the church year, so special that there will be many attending that don’t normally come? What is the Good News?
I asked myself then, why is it that so many people actually pay so little attention to the story of the resurrection of Jesus? I mean the number of people self-identifying as Christian in our culture and country is at an historic low percentage wise. For the first time in history, more citizens of this country (51%) self-identify as something other than Christian. Church membership and attendance are all at all-time lows nationwide.
Worse is that people just do not seem to be hearing, understanding or accepting the Good News of Jesus rising from the grave all those thousands of years ago—or they just don’t see any relevance in that story to their lives.
Greater minds, theologians and scholars then I have been trying to answer that question lately. Nonetheless I have my personal theories about why it seems that the Gospel message doesn’t seem to have traction in our society and culture today. It seems to me that people are distracted. There is so much more to distract us in the world as it is today than in decades and centuries past.
I am old enough to remember when the only phones that were, were hooked to walls. As a child in those days, if I was dropped off at an event, and it was canceled or over early, that meant finding a pay phone, finding change, and hoping someone answered at home—or waiting. So situations like this gave a child plenty of opportunity to sit around and wait for the designated ride time—and hence gave one time to contemplate, and to think about things beyond whatever was being scrolled on a little screen in front of one. In those days one had time to contemplate life, death and maybe even God. Today there is constant chatter and distraction—endless entertainment and information on a myriad of devices—always something before us to keep our attention.
As a kid I grew up around farms and pets of my own. The very first time I was left in charge of a stable of horses, one of them died. Death, while not a constant, was present enough for me to beware of it and wonder about the mystery and finality of it. When I was in Iowa I heard old timers tell stories of bathing their loved ones bodies who had died at home, and laying them out on the dining room table for visitation of neighbors and family—the bodies of the deceased in whatever form nature chose. No mortician magic then. Today bodies are whisked away at death, and if ever seen again they are made to look sometimes even better than they did in real life. We are removed from death and all its ugliness, and also its finality.
Our culture has also embraced the popular theologies exposed by Hollywood. That is that every death is assured of an afterlife. No questions asked. Just die and you will go to heaven, good, bad, believing in something, or not….no matter.
So, I determined last Easter that what I would do, would be to sharply illustrate that the world is not how it was originally created to be, and that the world was filled with death, decay, destruction, brokenness and it is fallen. I wanted to expose people to what our culture fervently seeks to ignore. I reasoned that once I did that, perhaps the news of someone rising from the grave would have an effect on people; maybe even change some lives!
I think I have learned that I cannot make the resurrection any more profound than it is by contrasting it by the realities of life that our culture so desperately hides from, and ignores.
The truth is there for those who wish to see it. One cannot make someone else ‘see’ the profoundness of the resurrection and what it means to us.
But that does not change the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor its profoundness. That resurrection gives eternal life to those who believe it happened, and promises a resurrection for them as well. It also promises that one day when Jesus comes again the world will be made perfect again and we can stop pretending that it is pretty good now, or ignoring the realities of a broken world. For those who look away from the reality of the resurrection? They are left to the mercies and grace of God. Or perhaps to the result of their own free will?
My Easter sermon last year was a disaster because I tried too hard to make people see the power of the resurrection. Its power stands on its own, and it is enough for those who choose to see.
He is risen!
Happy Easter, Pastor Paul
“Are humans basically good, or basically bad?”
Mr. Stolzman, my 6’4” Vietnam Vet 9th grade civics teacher asked our class this question as he limped (war injury) across the front of the class. I remember the general apathy in the room in response. Perhaps it was because of the early morning hour due to the split sessions, or just the age of the students—everyone was worried more about whether or not the girl (or boy) in the next row was looking at them then about whether or not humanity was good or bad.
Eventually Mr. Stoltzman began to call on random people and press them not just for an opinion as to whether humanity was good or bad, but for explanation as well. When it came to me to answer, I remember that I was filled with optimism! We are basically good! I opinioned that as humanity learned more, and our technology advances, eventually we will become the utopian society—maybe in our life time! I pointed out that we had recently witnessed the moon landing, and we had just found out that smoking was bad for us. The Civil rights act had been passed a few years prior, officially recognizing rights of minorities. And there were even push button phones now! Surely it is just a matter of time until the problems of society and humanity are solved. In my adolescent mind, the problem was not the system of government, just who was controlling it at the moment. Sooner or later the people will learn enough to vote for the right candidate(s) to lead us to a better, and even a perfect society. (My hope in technology and knowledge was classic modernism.)
The discussion and eventually debate went on for days. The vast majority of us were of the opinion that humanity, and us, were basically good! We were sure that we humans were on a path of advancement. After all we had gone from living in caves to forming governments and societies. We would eventually perfect it all.
Mr. Stoltzman pointed out that with the advancements of technology that improved humanity also came advancements that harmed humanity—the atomic bomb, pollution, monopolies, etc, and that while society had advanced throughout history, the same problems that humanity had in its early stages have stayed with us: greed, dishonesty, coveting, violence, etc. We no longer use clubs, but we kill each other just as successfully as, or even more successfully than we did in the caves.
Mr. Stolzman asked us if we had ever stolen anything. Silence. Again he asked: “is there anyone here that has ever taken something that didn’t belong to them?” No response, no movement, silence. I was feeling guilty because I was remembering shop-lifting a hot rod magazine and candy with my friend from a convenience store years before, but I was worried about what others would think and so I stayed quiet, as did everyone else.
Little did we know that Mr. Stolzman had set some traps for us in the previous weeks. One of the traps was that he had planted cash in random desks between classes, several times, several days. Students finding money in their desk would be left with one assumption: that it belonged to the student who sat in that seat in the previous class. Logically the thing to do would be to report the find to the teacher and ask him to relay the money to that student.
Mr. Stolzman then revealed that at least half the class had found money in their desks that didn’t belong to them and no one turned it in, and further there has been no one yet to say anything in the discussion about taking something that didn’t belong to them. We sat in guilty silence.
Lent is a time of fasting, penitence and renewal for Christians. It is a time to meditate on, and be mindful of our morality, sinfulness, and most especially our need of a savior. We humans have yet to solve our problems, and because we humans, whether basically good or basically bad, all contain some sinfulness within each of us. Our problems will remain until someone, or something removes them. That someone is Jesus.
There will be a special Lenten class held after worship March 12th, 19th, 26th and April 2nd during Lent. We will be examining the subject of our humanity, our sinfulness, and our need for a savior through viewing re-enactments of passages from scripture, and then contemplating and discussing them. And as this church is so gifted in hospitality of course there will also be food served as well. Please join us. This Lenten season, consider spending time meditating on humanities plight, and our individual plights, but do not ever despair or lose hope: we have a Savior.