Recent Sermon from Myers Park Baptist Church
H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 11, 2004
GOD PROMISES; WE SING
Texts: I Corinthians 15:51-58; Luke 24:1-10
I write my Easter sermon with the window open next to my desk Ė so I can
see the colors of spring and hear the birds sing. Spring is the season when
God and nature conspire to help us believe!
What the birds sing is the "Yes" of God. The Apostle Paul writes:
For the Son of God whom we preached
among you . . . was not "Yes and
No"; but in him it is always
"Yes." For all the promises of God
find their "Yes" in him. That is
why we utter the "Amen" through
him, to the glory of God.
Our Bibles, our churches, our culture, our theologies give us such mixed
messages about God. Will God punish us, strike us dead, leave us, give up on
us, send us to hell? Paul is telling us that Jesus is the answer to Godís
bad reputation. There is a faithfulness at the heart of things.
A child of an alcoholic parent may never know whatís coming next: Lavish
affection or soul-damaging rages. God is not like that.
Easter is Godís yes. Not Yes and No. Yes! Not Yes, If, Not Yes, But. Not
Yes, Maybe. Yes!
There is little in springtime that does not shout Yes Ė which is reason
enough for Easter to be placed here Ė at least for us Northern Hemisphere
dwellers. Poet e.e.cummings sings an Easter song:
i thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
Easter is the message of Godís encircling undiluted, unequivocating Yes.
Take a look at Lukeís Easter account. The women closest to Jesus come to
his grave to anoint his body. The artist of our cover, Buoninsegna, paints the
scene in brilliant golds and reds, yellows and oranges, and glowing whites.
Seeking his corpse, the women find an open tomb and a couple of angels. The
angels say, with a wink: "Why do you seek the living among the
dead?" The suggestion they plant is that the Crucified One is now the
With this news Ė and all its challenges to our normal sense of things Ė
Easter begins to happen. Jesus begins to appear in a series of resurrection
appearances in forms which we can only wave at linguistically Ė we use
paradoxical phrases like "spiritual body." Well, which is it? we ask
irritably, impatiently. Is it body or spirit?
The most beautiful blue I know is the color of the blue bird I catch out of
the side of my eye as it flies by. When it is sitting still, the blue is still
blue, it is still beautiful, but it is not the same.
So it is with the elusive presence of God, of the Risen One. We see the
Risen Christ out of the side of our eye. Any Christ you can hold in a room or
capture in a syllogism is not the risen Lord.
And what begins to happen as Easter happens? Courage
begins to happen.
Paul Tillich called it the most essential form of courage, "The
courage to be."
There are three great threats, he wrote, to our being, to our personhood.
They are inside our heads, but they are as real and as lethal as bullets or
bombs or disease.
They are the anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of meaningless,
and the anxiety of death. The Risen Christ came to his disciples and
comes to us to set us free from these disabling killers.
Take the anxiety of guilt. Youíve done something wrong; youíve
harmed another. You betrayed someone close; youíve betrayed your own best,
truest self. And guilt clings likes clothing on fire.
Youíve heard of Godís forgiveness, but it has not made its way from
your head to your heart. And you are a long way from forgiving yourself.
Molly Peacock in a poem called "Forgiveness" writes:
Forgiveness is not an abstraction for
it needs a body to feel its relief.
Knees, shoulders, spine are required to adore
the lightness of a burden removed . . . .
Forgiveness is contact with the belief
that your only life must now be lived . . . .
Now the shortfall
that crippled your posture finds sudden peace
in the muscular, physical brightness
of a day alive . . . .1
I think I believe in some kind of bodily resurrection because I need bodily
Sometimes the guilt you suffer is false guilt. It is the trip the world
outside you has laid on you. Youíve been told that somethingís wrong with
you. There is a defect in your manufacture. Thereís something wrong with you.
Youíre told your deepest desires are unclean in the sight of God.
Listen: God loves you exactly as God made you. Nothing will ever change
The Risen Christ appeared to his guilt-ridden disciples, not to judge them,
but to forgive them and to give their laboring conscience peace.
There is the anxiety of meaninglessness. You feel like
giving up on any notions of truth and beauty, justice, love or peace.
Life can rip your heart out. The death of a child. The death of a dream.
The persistence of evil. The persistence of your own "loyal flaws."
Think of how Jesusí disciples must have felt to see Jesus killed.
But Jesus returned to them and to us to say: What weíve begun is not
over. Itís only begun. Godís dream of a just society, of a whole person,
of a beloved community, of a reconciled humanity: It has only begun. You can
be part of it.
To be sure it has a long way to go. We can catch sight of it only out of
the side of our eyes, like we catch sight of Jesus. But it is on the way.
Those who believe will always be in a minority. But God and a minority are
Martin Luther King, Jr. called it "a transformed and transforming
The Apostle Paul used these words: Donít let the world squeeze you into
its old but let God remold your minds from within!
It is Easter faith which led Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the Civil
Rights Movement, which led Rosa Parks to sit in the front of the bus, which
led Toyohiko Kagawa to the slums of Tokyo, which led Solzenitzen to oppose
Soviet terror with his pen. It is what led Dorothy Day to the poor of New York
City, led Bonhoeffer to help Jews escape Hitler and to die opposing Hitler.
It is what leads teachers of children to teach, public servants to serve,
parents to parent, rabble rousers for Christ for the good to rabble. It is
what leads you to fight for human dignity and freedom. Donít worry that you
may be in a minority. When has it been different?
Jesus came to his beaten disciples to call them again, to say: "Donít
give up. Life is winning; death is losing. Pass the word! The kingdom of good
will prevail over the kingdom of evil. Get to work. Spread the word."
Finally there is the anxiety of death. What will happen
when I die? Where will I be? Will there be any me to be anywhere?
This anxiety: It is our fear of dying, our fear of a particular way of
dying, our fear of being a burden on others, our fear of dying alone. It is
our fear that death may really be the end of it all. It is the fear that when
I die there will be too much left undone, unsaid. It is the fear that I may
have more in my debit column than in my credit column, as if love keeps count.
Jesus came back to tell us that death is a door, the door to the Final
Healing and to the Final Mercy. What is on the other side of the veil is
unimaginably good. As scripture says:
Eye hath not seen, nor ear
heard, nor has entered
into our human imaginations
what God has
prepared for those who love
People have many different images of the life to come. But the Risen One
says it will be a Final Healing and a Final Mercy.
What do I have to believe about resurrection, about eternal life? As
I said eight weeks ago: The question is not what do I have to believe
but what do I need to believe. And when you need to believe more than
you do now, or differently, God will give that to you then.
What Easter brings is wonderment, and wonderment is the door to the deepest
kind of faith. Not certainty, wonderment.
If you look closely at the Easter accounts in Lukeís gospel you will see
that Easter begins not in certainty but in wonderment.
Look at the language: Disciples are perplexed, puzzled, amazed,
startled, frightened, dumbfounded. When the women tell
the disciples what happened at the tomb, they diagnose it as an idle tale,
When Jesus appeared they still couldnít make sense of it, but they
tingled with excitement. Luke uses the phrase: They "disbelieved for
joy." It was all there mixed together: Joy, doubt, faith, perplexity. In
a word: Wonderment.
Perhaps there is something very right about why many
Christians around the world begin their Easter not on Sunday morning but on
the night before at the Easter vigil.
Why? Because before Easter is a ray of light it is a "ray of
darkness" to use the wondrous phrase of Dionysius the Syrian, There is a
divine ray of darkness. It is close to what the seventeenth-century poet Henry
There is in
A deep but
Before Easter is a ray of light it is a ray of darkness, because a ray of
darkness can reach where a ray of light cannot. It goes to that place within
that John Keats called "Negative Capability" Ė a dwelling in, a
"being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts."
The divine ray of darkness reaches into the place where uncertainties,
mysteries, doubts, anxieties and terrors live. The ray of darkness reaches as
deep as a cross, as deep as the hells we inhabit and the hells we make. This
is where Easter begins because this is how deep Christ has gone. John Donne,
the poet/preacher of St. Paulís Cathedral, wrote, preached:
He brought light out
not out of a lesser
He can bring the
summer out of
winter though thou
hast no spring.
It is as a ray of darkness the first words of Easter come to us:
It is I. Be not afraid. It is I, alleluia. Peace be to you. Alleluia.
Be of good courage, Jesus says this Easter day. "In this world you
will find tribulation. (Tribulation, you may say, is my middle name. Hello,
Trib!) But be of good courage. I have overcome the world."
Then the church begins to sing Ė even those who canít sing, those whom
educators euphemistically call "uncertain singers." Then the church
begins to sing:
Blessing and honor and glory and power
be unto you, O God, forever.
To Godís great Yes the church utters its Amen, which means, Let it be,
which means our Yes, which means "count me in," which means thank
you and thank you and thank you and thank you.
Which is what I mean by Radical Doxology: That in face of it all, we say,
Christ "eastering" in us, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank
And Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen.
Now itís your turn.
1. Cornucopia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002) p. 227.
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