Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunrise Sermon: 5 April 2015, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

2015 Easter Sunrise Sermon: 5 April 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

(Preached on the Mt. of Olives, Augusta Victoria Hospital Campus)

Grace and peace to from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Just before the Easter sunrise service on the Mt. of Olives
Photo by Cindy Alexander
As I was preparing to move here to Jerusalem eight months ago, I received a lot of advice from family, friends, and church members. Some of it was helpful, some…not so much. A few of my favorites were these two, seemingly contradictory bits of advice:

“Just keep your head up, Pastor!”


“Whatever you do, keep your head down, Pastor.”

Of course, it’s impossible to do both of these things at the same time, but I think these well-meaning folks were trying to say nearly the same thing. In other words, “Keep your head up – watch out for trouble!” and “Keep your head down – stay out of trouble!”

I’ve tried my best to do both in my time here so far, with limited success. After all, trying to avoid trouble when preaching the Gospel—whether you’re in the middle of an occupation or the middle of nowhere—is like trying to avoid getting scrapes on your car when driving in Jerusalem.  Impossible. Never going to happen. Or, as I’ve learned to say in Arabic: “Bukra fil mishmish.”  (“Tomorrow, there will be apricots.”)

Just keep your head down! On the first Easter morning, it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome who kept their heads down as they walked to the tomb. Of course, Scripture rarely gives us details about the women in any story, but a few small words help us to imagine their posture as they approached the tomb:

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

When they looked up…” These women were not looking around to enjoy the scenery as they set out that morning. They weren’t enjoying a bit of exercise strolling outside the Jerusalem city gates, either. They were walking with shoulders heavy with grief and heads lowered in determination. They were just trying to get to Jesus, whom they loved.

Many of us here today can identify with this kind of journey. Whether you’re here in Jerusalem for a few weeks, a few months, or a few more years than you planned, you are here doing difficult work—studying far from home, providing humanitarian aid in Gaza, teaching children, running a hospital, advocating for human rights, and parenting small children in the middle of a military occupation. As it was for the women charged with the task of anointing the body of Jesus, getting the job done around here often requires keeping your head down and your eyes on the few steps immediately before you.

Keep your head down! There are times when we keep our heads down simply to avoid trouble (some more successfully than others), but more often we, like Salome and Mary and the other Mary, find ourselves weighed down by a different, greater concern: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Like those faithful women, we know very well that what lies on the path ahead of us is a tomb, and in front of the tomb sits a stone, and the stone is very large indeed.

We know that in this place, the stone at the entrance to the tomb looks like a wall topped with razor wire. It looks like checkpoints and guns. It looks like demolished houses. It looks like failed peace talks.

It looks like persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa.

Here, as in every place, it also looks like cancer, and depression, and broken relationships.

It looks like death.

Sadly, in these last weeks—and even days—the stone seems larger than ever. The tomb even seems to have an ever increasing capacity, as 147 of our Kenyan brothers and sisters werelaid there just a few days ago.

In these difficult times, the journey we are on starts to feel less like a pilgrimage of faith or a walk to freedom and more like a last goodbye. Like the women who set out early in the morning to anoint the body of their friend, we may wonder if we are on our way merely to say goodbye to the dream of peace, of justice, of equal rights, and a hopeful future.

The sun rises over the Jordan Valley during the Easter service
Photo by Cindy Alexander
But “when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

Salome and the Marys may have been walking with heads lowered and their eyes to the ground, but after all they knew what to expect when they arrived. They expected to see the stone which was placed on Friday afternoon to be standing in place on Sunday morning. They expected large, intractable problems to remain large and intractable. They expected dead things to remain dead. Oh, what a shock it must have been when they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back!

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Along with the women of that resurrection morning, we come to the tomb expecting to see the stone. We come expecting the same obstacles, the same powers and principalities, and the same barriers to peace and justice and abundant life standing in our path.

But when we look up on Easter morning, we see that the stone has already been rolled back!

When we look up, we see the sun rising over this land that we love.

When we look up, we see the international community pushing back against the stones of injustice, hatred, and indifference.

When we look up, we see the resurrection of the Cremisan Valley’s future.

When we look up, we see the living hope and strength of our neighbors, standing steadfast in the land of the resurrection.

When we look up, we see this loving and diverse church community, our family away from family, our home away from home, which gives us life.

When we look up, we see an open door and the empty tomb!

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Dear sisters and brothers, Easter Sunday is not a day to pretend that all is well in the land called holy, to ignore the present reality of the wall which stands in the valley behind me, or to downplay the suffering of our sisters and brothers in Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and many other places.

But this is the feast when the people of the resurrection proclaim the risen Christ has already defeated the powers and principalities of the world. On Easter, we rejoice that the stone has already been rolled back by the power of the living God. That open door, where the stone once was, is our hope and our strength.

Because Christ is risen, we know the rules of the game have changed.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of love is greater than the power of guns and tanks.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of forgiveness and understanding to open hearts and minds is greater than the power of hatred to keep them closed.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of God’s love for all humanity is greater than humanity’s brutality toward one another.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Photo by Cindy Alexander
As people of the cross, we are called to continue on the path to peace, justice, and reconciliation—even when it is difficult. Even when it is dangerous. Even when others call us foolish. Even when the world insists the stone is too large, too heavy, too complicated to be moved.

But on Easter morning, we are reminded of the Good News that the stone has already been rolled back! Therefore, as people of the resurrection, we walk not with heads down and backs bent with grief, but with eyes on the empty tomb. As people of the resurrection, we lift our eyes to the hills and mountains of Jerusalem, the city of resurrection, from which we draw our help and strength. As people of the resurrection, we have nothing to fear: no stone, no terror group, no extremist rhetoric, no unjust policy, no racist agenda, no diagnosis, no wall. For we know that our Redeemer lives, and what sweet comfort that sentence gives!

Dear sisters and brothers, fellow workers in the kingdom, faithful servants of the Gospel, on this resurrection morning I pray the Good News of the empty tomb will strengthen and encourage you on your journey. I pray that the rising sun of Easter will shine the light of God’s love on your path.

And I pray that peace of the risen Christ, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Jerusalem, Easter morning (on the other side of the mountain!)
Photo by Cindy Alexander

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