Pastor Pete’s Easter sermon was all ready – or so he thought. Having only graduated from seminary three months prior to taking his position at the Episcopal Church of St. Perpetua and Her Companions, Pete was well versed in all the latest and most interesting theology. He made the final touches to his sermon on Holy Saturday morning and outlined its content to his wife. He told her that his sermon was based on the theology of Paul Tillich and spoke of the resurrection as a “symbol that the existential estrangement from our authentic self that is our essential being is ended and that human beings need no longer be estranged from the world and God.” His wife shook her head, but Pete didn’t seem to notice.
Early that evening, Pastor Pete drove to the church for the rehearsal of the sunrise service the next morning. When the practice ended, a youth, lovingly called “Tiny” because of his six-foot five-inch frame, asked, “Pastor Pete, can you give me a ride home?” Pete said he would be glad to do so, but that the young man would have to give him directions. With Tiny pointing the way, Pete delivered the youth home without incident. When he left, however, he couldn’t remember if he was to turn right at the end of the road and left at the crossroads or the other way around. It had only taken ten minutes to reach Tiny’s home, but now after twenty minutes of driving Pete found himself on a deserted dirt road, hopelessly lost. When the car sputtered, Pete realized he was out of gas.
Pete was overcome with anxiety. It was 10 p.m. on Holy Saturday evening, he was lost, out of gas, and needed to be at the church by 6 a.m. to set up for the sunrise service. He got out of the car and began to walk. Ten minutes later he saw some bright lights up ahead on the right. As he drew closer, he could see that the lights came from a bar, the neon sign reading “Smitty’s.” Everyone, including those new to the community like Pete, knew that this was one of the seediest taverns in town. As he walked to the front door, he saw a group of motorcycles which made him nervous. When he entered, he smelled rancid beer and the stench of tobacco. He did not see anyone he recognized — a fact that was both good and bad. Pete wondered what church members might think if they knew their pastor was at “Smitty’s” on Holy Saturday night.
Pete approached the bar intending to ask for a ride to town but found himself ordering a Coke and, noticing a billiard table behind him. Pete was soon engaged in a game. He had played pool since he was 6 years old and was very good. This night, however, he was fantastic; he twice ran the table after the break. This action was noticed by Dirk, a short but powerful “biker” who, taking off his leather jacket, challenged Pete to a game. Dirk was good, but that evening Pete was better. After three consecutive wins, Dirk conceded defeat. He bought Pete another Coke and announced that henceforth Pete would be called “Shark.” He then asked the inevitable question, “So, what do you do?” Pete wasn’t sure if he should tell the truth or lie, but he summoned his courage and said, “I’m a minister in town at the Episcopal Church of St. Perpetua and her Companions.” The crowd was shocked and began to mumble, but from the background Dirk bellowed, “Quiet!”
Immediately the mood in the bar changed. One by one, the patrons began to tell their stories. When Dirk’s turn came, he began, “I’ve never been to church. My mother was never married so people told her she was not good enough for any church. I’ve never been to Sunday school, either. What I know about the Bible comes from television. I don’t even know what we celebrate at Easter.” All the eyes of the patrons trained on Pete, who realized that Dirk had given him an invitation and he needed to respond. Thus, Pete began to tell all the assembled about Jesus. He told about Jesus’ birth and how when Jesus was old enough, he began a public ministry. He told them that those who were rich and powerful had little time or energy for Jesus, who reached out in a special way to those who were despised by society at large. Jesus did many wonderful things, cured many of diseases, forgave sins, and demonstrated love in every word and action of his life.
After three years of active work, Jesus, who mostly stayed in the northern section of his nation ventured south to the capital city of Jerusalem. Although he had done many wonderful things and taught people about the love of God, he was, nonetheless, hated by many of the very people whom he came to save. Thus, on Friday, after a rigged court had agreed he was guilty of high crimes, he was led to crucifixion, wearing a crown of thorns. All his best friends abandoned him, save a couple who watched all these horrible events. Because he was tortured so severely, Jesus died on the cross after about three hours. His loyal friends took him down and laid him in a tomb.
Hearing the story, several of those in the bar began to cry openly. Pete then told the men that on Sunday morning some women who were among Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to visit, but they met two angels who told them that Jesus was no longer there; he had risen and was alive.
Dirk and the others were impressed but they said, “That’s a crazy story.” Pete responded, “It is a crazy world. But with God, anything is possible. Losers can be turned into winners; and weakness in a person can be a strength. Most importantly, Jesus demonstrated that God will always be there for us. By raising Jesus from death, God had destroyed death forever.”
When all was said, Pete then told Dirk about his car problem. Quickly the rugged “biker” siphoned some gas from another vehicle, gave Pete directions, and sent him on his way. When he arrived home, his wife, who was obviously concerned about her husband’s late return, told him that he needed to get to bed and rest. But he told her, “I need to rewrite my sermon.”
The next day, Pete did not talk about “New Being” or “Existential estrangement from authentic selfhood.” He simply told the story of how God raised Jesus from the dead and in the process gave him and all people new life and hope. People in the congregation thought the sermon was good, but what really got them talking was the strange group of visitors who parked their shiny motorcycles in front of the church and sat in one of the front pews. When one of the Ushers welcomed them and inquired about who they were, one burly man, obviously uncomfortable in a suit and tie, growled, “We’re friends of Shark.”
Pastor Pete’s encounter with Dirk and his friends at Smitty’s is a story of encounter, engagement, and transformation – which, in terms of the Christian faith is the movement from death to life. A chance and unintended meeting between a young and inexperienced minister and a hardened “biker” allowed both to cast off their own blindness, to remove the veil that kept them each in darkness and separated from each other, and to discover new possibilities each had never explored.
Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection, we are challenged to see Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, his movement from death to life, as the opportunity and experience we need to transform our lives and conform them to that of the risen Christ.
Our Lenten journey that just ended provided each of us with opportunities to evaluate our lives of faith and to make adjustments. Initially we were challenged to go to the desert with Jesus and be tempted with the three great sins of contemporary society – prestige, wealth, and privilege. Today’s world is filled with examples of overindulgence. We find ourselves bowing down and giving homage to the contemporary “gods” of what the world defines as success. Jesus was strong enough to say no to such temptations; and we have to learn to do the same.
Then, over several weeks, we listened as Jesus confronted people about where they were in their relationship with God. And in the process, we, too, sought to be converted on the inside to a new and stronger relationship with Christ. We were told of our need to break down barriers that keep us from one another and from God. And we were told about how we need to pursue the life God asks of us and that Jesus is the one who can unbind us from the restraints in our life and set us free.
Then, in today’s gospel, we hear how Jesus triumphed over death and encouraged us to be transformed too. And we were left with the question, what needs transformation? The answer can be found in the women’s encounter with the angels at the tomb. Luke reports that the angels asked the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And we need to ask ourselves the same question. Why do we continue to look for life among the things that cannot give us life?
The Gospel says that the women “remembered Jesus’ words.” What had he said that they suddenly remembered? Was it perhaps when he told them a parable about a son who, after living a selfish and foolish life came home to his loving father who welcomed him with open arms? Or was it perhaps when he admonished them to “examine how you are living so that you might bear fruit that shows you have changed your heart and lives.” The question for the women was – and for us is – can we empty ourselves enough of these things to receive God? Can we see and believe or are our lives too cluttered? We are all busy people; our lives are filled with things that we tend to get addicted to. Some of us are addicted to our work; some people are addicted to pleasure; some, unfortunately, are addicted to themselves. At times we are so focused on these things that the world tells us are of value that our priorities get messed up. Sometimes our addictions come ahead of God. But if we are to know true fullness, true completeness, true love, it simply cannot be this way!
We might not feel comfortable doing nothing and just being. It’s difficult to just accept the moment and not be worried about the past or the future. If we just start by taking one moment and in that moment emptying ourselves somewhat, then we can make a little room for God and for God’s works. But in order to make room we must have the hope that God can fill our needs and desires.
I have often questioned why Peter ran to the tomb that morning. After all, Jesus had died. No matter what the women had said, was there really a need to run? That is, unless Peter was holding onto the hope that Jesus’ promise that he would rise, was true. Peter ran because he had hope that he would find the resurrected Christ.
The reality of Jesus’ resurrection is a message of hope for all of us. In the resurrection, we come to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death itself. And importantly, the resurrection also says that we need not wait for our union with God in eternity to know the love of God. Because we can know that love now, by emptying ourselves of that which gets in the way of it. Jesus’ resurrection asks us to revive the love that is planted in the human spirit deep down inside each one of us. Reviving that love transforms us like it transformed Pastor Pete and Dirk and the others. The empty tomb encourages us to be empty enough of ourselves to be filled with God. Empty ourselves of greed so that we might be filled with generosity. Empty ourselves of indifference so that we might be filled with compassion. Let us today be resurrected; let us empty ourselves and let us be transformed so that we too can see and believe.