Sermon by The Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.
One of the things that we plan to start this year is chapel for our preschool. It’s a great way to introduce children to Jesus and to talk about honesty, empathy, sharing, caring and generosity – things that they will carry with them throughout their lives. Now, preparing a children’s homily is always a great challenge, especially when it’s for Easter.
I remember one day preparing for this task by selecting some props. I found a box of Legos, created a cave and made a stone to block the entrance. I found some plastic Easter eggs and filled them with symbols of the Resurrection. I hid two sticks in an egg that could be made into a cross. I plucked a daffodil from our garden as a sign of new life. I hid coins in an egg recalling the money paid to Judas to betray Jesus. I put a rock inside an egg recalling the stone that was rolled away and left an egg hollow as a symbol of empty tomb – Jesus had risen from the dead.
As chapel began, I asked the children, “What event will we soon celebrate?” A girl shouted “Easter.” “What do we celebrate at Easter,” I asked. The children shouted, “The Easter bunny!” I knew that I had my work cut out for me. So, I pulled out my Lego cave and plastic eggs full of surprises and began to retell the Easter story.
Everything was going smoothly until a little boy named Benny asked in a very serious voice, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The room fell silent. Benny had asked the question that all of children wanted to ask. Their inquisitive little faces told me that they were listening intently.
I was nervous, fearing that my words might actually stick and shape the way these children viewed God. So, I chose my words very carefully. This homily suddenly became significant, because these children wanted to know whether God was kind and good and could be trusted to care for them. After all, if God did not care for Jesus, why would God care for any of us?
Now, my audience was full of children ages two to five, and we were about to lose the attention span of the youngest ones. So, I needed an elevator message for why Jesus had to die. How would you have answered Benny’s question?
Rightly or wrongly, I took them on a 3,000 year tour of salvation history, telling them about all of the prophets that God sent to open blind eyes. I told them how God sent Jesus to teach us how to love each other. I spoke about redemption, reconciliation and Resurrection and waxed wonderfully about sin, sacrifice and sanctification while warning my little listeners of major heresies that could cause them to burn in hell forever. That was a great children’s homily!
But most of us, I assured them that Jesus really rose from the dead. Easter is not a metaphor for spring. God conquered evil and death. Then we sang a song and chapel ended.
After preaching for several decades, I can assure you that writing an Easter sermon never gets easier. The older I get the more I can relate to people’s questions, doubts and dislike of pat answers. I have found myself at times wondering, like most of you, “Why did Jesus have to die? What kind of God would allow His own Son to suffer?” My sense is that what happened on the cross was not what God intended for the world, but rather, the great alchemist God intervened after humans had done the very worst that they could do, and God transformed an incredible act of human evil into the ultimate sign of hope, forgiveness and love.
Over the years, I have read several books by Anthony de Mello – a Jesuit priest and an Indian psychotherapist. De Mello devoted his life to studying world literature and collected stories from many cultures that conveyed messages of wisdom. Carl Jung called them archetypal stories, for they are found in many traditions and speak of the fundamental realities of life.
One such story that de Mello recorded comes out of Chinese culture and tells about a poor old farmer who had a single horse that pulled his plow, led his wagon and was his sole means of transportation. One day, a bee stung his horse, and it bolted free, racing off into the mountains and disappeared. The old farmer searched for his horse but could not find it. After returning home, his neighbors came and said, “We’re sorry about your bad luck in losing your horse.” But the old farmer merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “Bad luck, good luck – who is to say?”
A week later his horse came back, accompanied by twelve wild horses which the old farmer was able to corral, and suddenly he had a great unexpected windfall. News spread through the village, and his neighbors came and said, “Congratulations on your good luck. It’s a bonanza.” To which the old farmer merely replied, “Good luck, bad luck – who is to say?”
Now, the farmer had a son, who decided to make the most of this unexpected windfall. The son saddled one of the wild horses, hoping to break in the animal and turn it into a fine work horse that could be sold for a profit. Unfortunately, the horse threw him to the ground and broke his leg in three places. When word spread about his accident, many neighbors came to the old farmer and said, “We’re sorry to hear about your son and his bad luck of getting hurt.” The old man merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “Bad luck, good luck – who is to say?”
Well, two weeks later, war broke out between two provinces, and every man aged fifty or younger was conscripted to fight. Because the farmer’s son had fallen from a horse and broken his leg, he could not go to war. It turned out to be a stroke of good luck and it probably saved his life, because every villager who was conscripted was killed in battle.
De Mello’s point is that we humans never know the whole story until it is over. Therefore, we are in no position to make ultimate judgments on the things that happen to us until all things have played out. A certain set of events may appear unfortunate or very bad at the time, but in the larger picture these same events often turn out to be blessings in disguise and bring about unexpected good. As St. Paul writes, “For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully…” (I Cor. 13: 12).
God works like an ingenious alchemist to take something as lowly as lead and transform it into something as astonishing as gold. The poet John Donne described God saying,
He can bring thy summer out of winter,
Though thou have no spring.
All occasions invite His mercies,
And all times are His seasons.
Hence, as Easter people we are wise not to jump to premature conclusions. If we reflect on Jesus’ life, we would have every reason to fall into despair at many times in the story. Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, Judas betrayed Jesus. Then soldiers arrested Jesus. All of his followers fled into the night. Jesus was tossed into prison. Then Peter, his closest confidant, denied him three times. Pontius Pilate tried Jesus before a hostile crowd. Finally, the Romans tortured Jesus ripped the ski off of his back. They made Him carry a cross up a hillside, where they crucified him and left him to die alone. At any juncture in this story, if God was like the old farmer, we might come to God and say, “We’re so sorry about your bad news and what happened to your Son.” But you and I know how the story ends.
The truth is that even the greatest theologians struggle to answer little Benny’s question about why Jesus had to die. Scholars have tackled this question for centuries. But I suspect that we are asking the wrong question. You see Jesus didn’t have to die. He had complete freedom just as we do. But as the forces of evil sought to harm him, God did not intervene just as God does not intervene in all cases of pain and suffering on earth. That is the way things are. You and I know it, but it’s challenging when we or one of our loved ones is suffering. Instead, when Jesus was put to death God waited until humans had done the very worst thing possible. Then the great alchemist God transformed the ultimate human evil into the greatest symbol of hope. God raised Jesus to life and sent him back to the very people who had harmed him and what an incredible blessing that was.
I believe profoundly in the Resurrection to eternal life, and I know that many of you do as well. It is a sacred mystery that cannot be explained fully by words, logic or reason. Poets and artists often describe it better than finest preachers and theologians. But I know this for certain. If you believe in the Resurrection to eternal life it will make all the difference in how you live each day of your life and how you face every loss, adversity and challenge that comes your way. God is powerfully at work in your life and in mine, and I assure you that the Holy One can transform the worst of things into the best of things and can even bring forth life from death.
After a poignant Good Friday service in my previous church, which was surrounded by a 12-acre cemetery, I visited the grave of a dear friend with his in-laws. We saw the new headstone where my friend lay buried. It was surrounded by flowers left by his family. As we looked down and saw his name carved in granite, his father-in-law simply said, “Thank God for Easter!” Yes, thank God for Easter! Wherever you find yourself on this Easter morning and whatever burden you have brought into this sacred place, I encourage you to remember the wisdom of the old farmer who said, “Good luck, bad luck – who is to say?” We are wise not to jump to premature conclusions, because God means to bring about good from all things. You can stake your life on that. Jesus did! Amen.