Easter sermon 2005



First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California.
_An Open and Affirming Congregation._ Rev. Robert F. Cramer, Eucharistic Minister.

Christ the Lord is risen today, Allelluia!
Mortal tongues and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, glad heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Let the Victor’s people sing, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now your sting? Alleluia!
Dying once, he lives to save, Alleluia!
Where your victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
God has opened Paradise, Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Author and composer unknown. From Lyra Davidica, London, 1708.

_Our prayer: We would praise you every day, our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer God,
for the gift of life you conveyed in your servant, our pioneer, Jesus. Especially this
day we praise you in song. Accept our Alleluias. Amen._

How modern much of this old hymn of praise is. I want to share some thoughts arising from some of the words.

__”Angels”:__ We expect angelic voices at Christmas. Students of Hebrew scripture, our Old Testament, encounter angels frequently in stories. It may escape our attention that angels figure prominently in stories of the resurrection of Jesus. [See the enclosed list of Easter stories.]

I like angels, although they can be bothersome. Angels are considered to be messengers from God — words from God, one could say. They meet us deep within ourselves where no one else can see. Or they may appear in dreams, including daydreams. Bible stories tell us people used to think an angel might be flesh and blood — but think about how often the “person” suddenly appears and instantly departs, as from the graveside Magdalene.

For the Apostle Paul, the spiritual, risen Jesus appeared only as light, using a voice he could not possibly have recognized. In the gospels’ many accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus there are many big differences among them. Angels are experienced very personally and individually, and it is pretty hard to offer a journalistic accounting. The gospels do not.

There can be times when we recognize, in the face, or words, or actions of someone (whom we may know, or not know), a powerful reminder of the way love shone in Jesus’ eyes, or words, or actions. We can say that is an encounter with Jesus, or the spirit of Jesus, or with some sort of being we would call spiritual — a real being, but real in a special sense.

It is my belief that as spiritual beings ourselves — not completed, as angels are, but as spiritual humans — we are equipped to recognize spirituality in others. Sometimes it is so strong, or we resonate with that recognition so intensely, that we could say we are encountering God, or maybe Jesus.

The hymn, above, says not only our tongues, but tongues of angels, sing “Alleluia” at Easter. We are in tune with a reality many people still don’t know is “really real.”

Especially at Easter we are called to acknowledge we are one in spirit with all of God’s creation. Let some Christians argue that Jesus’ body reappeared and was transported to heaven. I know it is okay for me, and for you if you wish, to celebrate Jesus’ own spiritual rebirth after death, just as on earth he was animated through baptism.

__”Where (is) your victory, O grave?”__

Is this not the essence of Easter, that death is not really victorious?

Yet it is possible that modern people put aside questions about the reality of death. Global news coverage of the Terri Schiavo case just now makes us realize that people everywhere fear, and try to avoid, death. Much is said about Catholics and Evangelicals believing in artificially supported physical life instead of seeing Terri as ready (long ago) for release. Do we really believe in resurrection?

“Don’t trust anyone wearing religion on one’s sleeve.” I’d like to think it is not too audacious for those of us who believe in eternal life, who act out our belief by living into deep spirituality, to announce, as the early Christians did, that Jesus in life, death, and life after death is good news. “Alleluia!”

It certainly is great news to me.

This year, as always since 1987, Judy and I come to Easter with a story of faith and hope growing within ourselves.

I love to tell that story, and yet I wonder if even more people need to hear our Easter witness. I’d like to tell you now.

Our only son, who came into our lives in 1982 after our grief over several
miscarriages, fell ill with what turned out to be incurable epilepsy at five months of age. Kern Silvernail Cramer, and we, fought for hope and against despair; but, at last, the grave seemed to have won.

Yet it was strange how our thoughts immediately turned to our belief that he continues to live in some way. We both have been visited, not often, but in some way we call real. In fact, soon after he died, we began visualizing him, free at last, happily going cosmic on his very own cloud.

_Maybe that’s silly._

But is saying God welcomed Jesus into Paradise and that he still lives — silly? I don’t think so. It is not necessary or even helpful to believe that after
resurrection, Jesus was carried aloft in a cloud. Judy and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking we believe that Kern — truly a spiritual being, made like all of us, and like Jesus — is still somehow a bodily being. A reality far more hopeful and exciting than that is possible; and is true.

_What to say; what to be able to hear when resurrection occurs?_

A friend offered words for the plaque on Kern’s niche at a Santa Rosa columbarium: “Always part angel, now he’s all angel,” Denise Keller said and it struck home with us. Of course there are angels, who live forever and visit others of God’s creatures. We know. We know one by name. So yes, “Death in vain forbids _us_ rise.”

__Hope and eternal life come with a cost—changing our fear of death.__

I don’t know if you’re comfortable with calling Jesus “Christ the King,” or even Christ or Lord. It is how the early churches settled a lot of huge questions about the meaning of Jesus and the nature of God. The traditional view was, and is, that God sent Jesus to die for our sins as a sacrificial lamb. It was the Plan and it worked, Christians have said.

That view, called atonement, doesn’t work for me. It may work for you. What does have meaning for me is that Jesus, in showing us the essence of God’s nature, also showed us, by word and deed, the essence of human potential. He was the very model of how he believed God intended all of us to be. He made that case powerfully and often, and was killed partly because religious leaders thought him nonsensical, even dangerous.

The cost of conquering death, for us, is to radically “metamorphose our very mindset,” to put modern language in place of words Paul used.

It could be very risky to be as “born again” as Jesus and Paul meant. Great benefits can carry great risk; I think the biggest risk is not to risk.

Now, back to that old Easter hymn we sing every year. It has some very surprisingly liberal and modern elements as it reaches its climax.

Look at it again with me now. I refer especially to the fourth stanza, above. “Soar we now where Christ has led.” Not just in some far off general resurrection which fundamentalists, and maybe most Christians, hope for, but now. To follow is to soar.

Okay, so far! And if we soar into life, now, as Jesus did, we can certainly be part of God’s realm now, as Jesus presents that strange and wonderful idea in the gospels.

I guess afterwards, after death, we can be taken into Paradise just as the Apostle Paul preached about that. “Exalted,” to Paul, I think, would have meant given new life — on earth and eternally: deep in the realm of God.

We might remember that when Jesus was asked if the realm of God is now or later, he said, “Yes,” meaning that now and later are the same. So by our following Jesus’ radical leadership we are raised, in fact, now.

Again, good so far. But the hymn ends, “Made like him, like him we rise, _ours_ the cross, the grave, the skies.” –Ah, the cross, the grave before the skies. Crosses now; deaths in our spirits now; bodily death sometime; all to be conquered simply by grasping the deeper meanings of resurrection.

I would say with Kern’s death something deep within us died. We were given a new way of looking at life, and Kern’s and God’s gifts to us most certainly continue.

Other “deaths” and other “rebirths” visit us all. If we have eyes and ears to see and hear God continuing to speak, as he did through Jesus, then we are fully citizens of the “realest” of real worlds. __Alleluia, Amen!__