Shelly: One of the most joyful parts of our jobs is to lead worship services on Easter Day. But one of the hardest things for ministers preaching on Easter Day is to think of a good sermon title. As evidence of this, Andy and I give you a short list of some of the fun Easter sermon titles that have been used by others but that did not exactly fit for us.  “Good News that Never Ends” (I kind of like this one, but then I wondered if it would keep people away if they thought the service might never end, too, along with the good news)

Andy: Here’s one: “A Holy Footrace, Peter and John and You and Me and the Empty Tomb.”  (again, I’m already tired and I’m not even running)

Shelly: “Conjunction, Junction, What’s your Function?”  (I don’t even know what to say about this one), and my personal favorite, a sermon for the spiritual, but not religious:  “A Preference for Bunnies”… (Cadbury is the best, I think) Easter is challenging for preachers. There is a lot of pressure! It’s our big day, right? Some of you haven’t been here since last year, and we need to make it good, tell you the whole story, give you big glorious music, communicate some hope, life beyond death, God loves you and all that jazz. We want you to experience all the good news you can before you leave today because, goodness knows we all need the best news we can get. We want you to hear that there is hope in spite of how things are going in our world, and that, as the last hymn will remind us, in our end is our beginning, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Andy: But we also want to challenge you a little bit. Part of that challenge is to push back against some of the preconceived ideas we already have about Easter.  Trigger warning—in this sermon we are going to use the word, “Empire” a lot. But wait! Before your mind already goes to that place I’m sure it’s already gone, I want you to hold that word up and allow us to give it a different twist than the one that I know you’ve already squeezed into it.

The definition of Empire that we want to share with you today is one that we feel resonates deeply with what we feel is that quintessential aspect of the Jesus story that makes this resurrection celebration so vital and so important in this day of days.

Our definition today comes from Peter Block, whom many of you may remember as the one who launched our three year plan visioning process with his extraordinary question, “What declaration of possibility can you make that has the ability to transform the community and inspire you?”

But first! A little background on the importance of Empire in relation to Easter Sunday. Empire is that entity that we commonly accuse of being the primary agent responsible for the death of the beloved. The crucifying element of the culture of the day that permitted and perpetrated the tragic actions that took our anointed son of God to his most horrific demise.  The Empire was the cultural element that was so threatened, so frightened, so intimidated by the prevailing message of Jesus the Christ that it did the most decisive action available to it to constrict and confine his message of love and to bury is deep in the ground.

But some messages are so inspiring that the spirit of God lives in them and gives them wings like eagles. Some are so beautiful that they inspire even the trees of the fields to clap their hands. Sometimes the redemptive power of hope can overcome the most powerful entities of the earth, and move the mountains that might stand in the way of their whispered blessings of grace, enabled by the core credo of the Christian faith. Love.

Jesus’ message of love is one that stands in direct opposition to the definition of Empire as postulated by Peter Block. According to him, this most nefarious entity that has the capacity to dictate and define our life, livelihood and culture in such a saturating and strangling way is this; ourselves. Empire, according to Peter Block, is a belief in self-interest. And so, the prevailing message of Jesus, the one that cannot be constricted by the grave and that has found the capacity and sovereignty to be a message that still stands relevant 2000 years later, is that the biggest demon we may face that would seek to blockade us from the overwhelming love of God is, quite simply, our own self-interest; putting the needs of one (me) over the needs of the many. Any and all forces that dominate our desires to be of good service to others are ones that are beholden to the Empire; and therefore must be fought against. The empire exists within us. We are the Darth Vaders. And we are the ones capable of overcoming empire; and the template to follow to do so is the one modeled for us in the one who so believed in capacity of our human goodness that he was willing to be killed for it; because he knew that love never ends.

Shelly: Easter is what happens when we push back against that Empire (inside us and out in the world by doing justice)–when we shiver the timbers that undergird the Empire–dare to speak truth, to be real, to suggest that there is a different way, a less needs-driven and more abundance-based way to go. When we open ourselves and choose to listen well to another’s reality, to look into the eyes of another, to work together and to walk hand-in-hand, to choose vulnerability and to make room at the table for the differences, the Empire pushes back in a hurry. When I only care about me and my kind, it feels safer, more insular. When there is no room in our lives beyond the usual structures of power over, top down, and consumer-based narrative of scarcity–and when someone like Jesus comes along with a re-created way of living, and pushes back the veil, throws open the shutters and dares to open the tombs, the usual powers that be are threatened. That’s what happened to Jesus. He threatened the empire’s reality.

Andy: Who would have thought it would have been so controversial to teach that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves! Who would believe that it is a capital offense to preach and teach that the people designated as outcasts among us are the ones who are often most capable of the most good, and most receptive to God’s blessing? And why were those messages of acceptance, of good service and mercy so enduring that they still live on today?

Shelly: Why? Because Love crucified arose. Love silenced breaks into Hallelujah, Love defeated is not down for the count. Love embalmed and placed in the grave with a stone in front of the door shows up before the dawn, while it is still not yet light, still night, on that great gettin’ up morning, rolls back the stone from the inside out, shakes the grave clothes off, and goes out gardening in the world.

Yes, Mary Magdalene thinks the risen Christ is the gardener. She’s not wrong–growing new verdancy in a world of burned-over suffering is the creative work of the one who loves and re-creates us on Easter and every day, inviting us to come out of the silent tombs of greed, self-interest, and the deeply dead tombs of divide-and-conquer. Come out of the tombs of death-dealing judgments and hatred and the usual rhetoric, come out! Practice resurrection!

At first, Mary and the other disciples in the story just can’t help themselves–they encounter the mystery of the new life, the stone rolled away and the door open, and there is only one set of assumptions they can muster. I do that sometimes, too.  I often can’t see beyond my usual limited ability to reason through to solutions, the edges of my love and my willingness to forgive, the prejudice with which I have filled in the blank spaces of my experience, and yet, I have also had the experience described by the poet R.S. Thomas when he writes:
… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
grave clothes of love’s risen body.

Andy: We would do well to keep our eyes peeled, too, for resurrection moments like this. My current favorite resurrection story comes soon after the Easter story you heard us tell at the beginning of the service. In John’s Gospel, the disciples are locked away, hiding out from what must have been an overwhelming fear for their own lives. But suddenly Jesus appears among them, and his message to them is so simple. He says, “Peace be with you.” I love this stark contradiction. Surrounded by the empire of sure death, locked behind closed doors to shield their own self-interest, the message of Easter life comes, and offers them peace.

Shelly: So, we wish you the most blessed and hopeful Easter. I know for sure, no matter what you have heard in what Andy and I have brought to you this Easter Day, you’ve definitely received the gift of the great music, am I right?  And if you aren’t patient enough to wait all the way through the “Good News that Never Ends,” and if you just showed up here today and are not even sure why, or you came just because someone else wanted you to, we wanted to be sure you heard the good news of hope in these challenging days. The message of Easter is that you and I may live from a spiritually true place that is beyond self-interest, and centered in love–no greed, no fear.  There is life beyond Empire. Choose vulnerability. Trust. The wall is broken down–and the doors are opened wide.

Andy: The path has been cleared; the stone has been rolled away. Perhaps we too will be blessed by the spirit of Easter, and will see a world more blessed as a result of your being here. Perhaps, on this resurrection day the spirit of service to others and of sacrifice in the name of love will find resonance again, and will inspire each of us to work beyond whatever constraints have been placed upon us, beyond the mantra of self-interest, beyond the empires of our own making.

Shelly: You and I are invited out of the tomb to be courageously alive in this world—embodied Christ. Jesus said that would happen, that he would be gone, but still alive in the world because those who followed his example would do greater things than he. In the Easter story, Mary hears her name and then she and the other disciples are sent out into the world to share the love, assured that Christ has gone ahead of them.  It becomes possible to live beyond Empire when we know that we, too, have our place as the beloved because our names are whispered this Easter day, too. You are being invited into the world. You. Yes, you. However known. The you other people see. The you you wonder about when the night drags on too long and you’re getting afraid. The you who might be comfortable remaining in whatever tomb you’re lying in at the moment. The message of Easter is that the life of love is being created and recreated in you. You and I are invited to experience reality anew–not from the viewpoint of the Empire.  Beyond.

Andy: Beyond.

Both: Amen.

Shelly: Let us pray: Beyond empire’s limits and fears, may we allow the mystery of Love to rebirth and renew and sustain us, awake and alive. Alive. Amen.