Easter Songs and Stories!
Let me first wish you again a blessed Easter! In my teen years, when I celebrated Easter in the island nation of Sri Lanka where I was born and where my father worked as a local pastor in several rural churches, he always began the Easter service with a wonderful call to worship: CHRIST IS RISEN, and people responded: CHRIST IS RISEN INDEED! How many of you who are here able to recapitulate those same childhood memories and of that kind of a call to worship? Let us try it now.
I know you like humorous stories. In the good old days when the Syracuse University had a great basketball team in America, a coach prided himself by saying whenever his team played against any other team the stadium would be filled to the brim on that day. So one day during a big match as he looked around the stadium, he found one empty seat there. He was furious. When the half time came he went up and asked that person sitting next to that seat “Whose seat is this”? The elderly lady responded “It belongs to my late husband”. Well! Don’t you have a son, daughter, niece or nephew to fill it? She said “Yes there are. But they are all at the funeral. Friends I am glad that you are here and not anywhere else this morning and if you do get some nourishment to your soul today, please do come back.
I like the Easter stories of the bible. It evokes excitement and exuberance in my soul no matter whether they are factual or fictional. All the gospels refer to an open grave on Easter morning. All gospels tell us that Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection. Appeared to them on the road to Emmaus, appeared to them in the upper room and displayed his wounded hands. Appeared to them at the sea shore in Galilee, on a night when they failed catching any fish. After the whole night struggle the resurrected Christ directed them to the best spot where they could catch fish. Matthew and Mark and Luke report that Jesus was at Galilee after the resurrection and John refers to the same Galilee as the sea of Tiberius. I have often wondered why Galilee out of all the biblical places. Then I realized that Jesus spent 90% of his ministry in and around Galilee. Capernaum and Tire and Sidon were the places where Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, taught the meaning of prayer and preached the message of peace and justice in the Sermon on the Mount. So when we are summoned today to see the resurrected Jesus, we must get to Galilee. We must get to the Galilees around the world, Fairport included. Wherever people are victimized by the systems of oppression, suffer by violence and hunger, wherever the rich exploit the poor the children are forced to work as slave laborers and innocent people are tortured as political prisoners, there is a Galilee. It was on Galilee Jesus touched and blessed the little children and it was in Galilee Jesus pronounced forgiveness to those suffered from Guilt. And now even after the resurrection the Spirit person Jesus makes god’s presence real to us in every appearance, every word and in every gesture.
Easter transcends our religious and denominational barriers. It is about the goodness of a presence. It is about love and beauty and life in its multidimensional forms. When I served for ten years as a Pastor in the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka our worship services began before dawn around 5:A.M.We dressed in white and went around the town on a procession carrying a lighted candle and sang songs accompanied by guitars, violins accordions and tambourines. As we processed, people in the neighbored also joined us. On our return to the sanctuary around 6:A.M, the organ would peel out the triumphant music in the dark, announcing “CHRIST THE LORD IS RISEN TODAY. We would see then the tropical sun rising over the Indian Ocean and the coconut palms swinging in the breeze. In that setting no matter how much the weight of suffering and sorrow immobilized me, the message of life over death simply overpowered it. The mystery of resurrection became so natural and real.
In 1980 I travelled to the United States for the first time. I came to Rochester to study in the Divinity school. When I left my country my children were very small and I knew I was not going to see them at least for a year. They gave me an emotional send off and we wept and howled kissed and hugged and the train slowly moved. It was a one night’s journey to the city’s capital Colombo, 270 miles from home and 20 stations in between. As the train stopped in every station even though my family was not there physically I sensed their presence. The next day I came over to London and spent ten days there and flew again from Heathrow to JFK in New York. Even though my family was not with me physically I sensed them in every flight, every airport every stop. Resurrection is not about a physical transformation of a body into some extra-terrestrial beings. It is a way of seeing in the dark. It is a way of feeling connections. Just because you can’t see someone with your physical naked eye, don’t ever say they are gone. Learn to see like an owl. It has a way of seeing in pitch darkness which you and I cannot do.
My topic is Easter songs and stories. Here is an Easter song: “Because He Lives,” written by Gloria and Bill Gaither. The song was written in 1971 when our country was going through great turmoil. We have just crossed over the’60s of the Vietnam War, the rise of drug culture, a decade of sexual revolution. It was a time noted for extreme radicalism expressed by the Death of God theology, and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Here was a couple – the Gaithers -- who were expecting their third child Benjamin and they struggled and prayed to God as to how were they going to bring up that child in those turbulent days and in the most crucial times. These words naturally sprang up in their hearts and then they composed the music.
HOW SWEET TO HOLD A NEW BORN BABY, AND FEEL THE PRIDE AND JOY HE GIVES, BUT GREATER STILL THE CALM ASSURANCE, THIS CHILD CAN FACE UNCERTAIN DAYS BECAUSE HE LIVES. BECAUSE HE LIVES I CAN FACE TOMORROW AND THE LIFE IS WORTH THE LIVING JUST BECAUSE HE LIVES.
Friends! Let me now draw your attention to today’s gospel. It was early in the morning and the grave was empty and Mary saw a person there. She surmised him to be the gardener, but to her surprise, her name was called out “Mary”. And she immediately recognized it was her Lord. She responded “Rabonai”.Which means in Hebrew a teacher or a guide. Actually it is an Eastern concept. “Guru” for us has a deeper connotation than a teacher. For in guru- disciple, relationship, there is devotion and loyalty, great affection and reverence between the two persons. Perhaps those who have seen the musical “JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR” should be able to relate more meaningfully to what I am saying here. Mary Magdalene sings in that musical, I don’t know how to love him for he has changed me. I don’t know how to take this for he moves me. Perhaps her question when she moved closely with Jesus was: WHO IS HE? She stood with Jesus on that Friday and witnessed the whole agonizing scene of crucifixion and now on Easter early in the morning she showed up at the grave, had an encounter with the risen Christ. Perhaps her question was again: WHO IS HE?