Remember Mark Twain’s famous funeral scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Tom, Huck Finn, and Joe Harper had disappeared down the Mississippi River on a log raft living out their boyhood dreams of being river pirates. Like lots of little boys on big adventures, they got lost and before they could find their way home, the townspeople assumed they drowned in the great ever-flowing Mississippi River. On the next Sunday, the whole town turned out to mourn the 3 lost boys. While they gathered, the boys secretly climbed up to the balcony where they could watch.
Like many funerals, the preacher went on and on about how virtuous the boys were and the townspeople who were there began to feel a sense of remorse that they hadn’t recognized the apparent goodness in them. Why had they been so critical of the boys’ shortcomings?
The townspeople felt so badly they began to break out in quiet sobbing and soon a flood of tears flowed freely among the crowd so they didn’t hear the footsteps of the boys as they clamored down from the balcony. Then the doors at the back of the sanctuary broke open and there they were, Tom, Huck and Joe. They were home! The congregation didn’t know what to do so they rushed out to embrace them. The providence of God had delivered them back to their beloved homes! The preacher was so overcome with emotion he broke out shouting, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! – Sing! And put your hearts into it!”
The way Twain tells the story, we are co-conspirators who join the three mischievous pirates up in the balcony. We watch the story unfold already knowing what we need to know to get the point. Twain tells this story as insiders and helps us know how to act and feel on a day like today. When we hear the story from the gospels, we hear it without the fear and the deep sense of despair borne by the disciples. We want to reach out to them and whisper in their ears, “It’s okay … the story isn’t finished … there’s more! Don’t give up hope!”
It’s on Easter that we gather together in a unified celebration of this magnificent truth: Jesus broke the shackles of death holding him in the grave and on Easter morning stepped “Lazarus-like” out of the tomb where his lifeless body had been placed. We make no claims to fully understand this great mystery but we do stand together testifying that God conquered the grave and that Jesus is our promise of the power of God to transcend both life and death.
A few years ago on a Palm Sunday, tornadoes ripped through Alabama where rescuers pulled bodies from the ruins of a Methodist church. The pastor’s family was struck by death just like many of her parishioners. No one said it out loud, but it seemed to be the worst kind of betrayal on God’s part. If anyone in the world should have been spared destruction, surely it was those believers gathered for worship in God’s house. In those areas, the nightmare continued through Holy Week. Survivors woke screaming from their sleep. Chain saws roared through the day and into the night as they attempted to cut their way out of their destruction. Local shelters pleaded for food, water and clothes for the homeless.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal minister just across the state line, wrote, “I thought of this Methodist pastor when it came time to write the Easter sermon. I thought of everyone who had literally been scared to … or by … death. I thought of the Alabama mother burying her child, the church members burying their dreams of safety, everyone whose trust in God had been dealt a deadly blow that Palm Sunday afternoon and I wondered: “Does this ruin Easter? Or is this what Easter is all about?”
Maybe Reverend Taylor is on to something. Easter faith is not just about all the niceness of the happy and the lovely who gather for the pageantry of the church’s celebration of Jesus’ victory over the grave. It’s also about the kind of faith that meets us in the garden of our pain and sorrow.
Some of you are here this morning because you feel a need to be here. Maybe it’s your family’s tradition to worship together on Easter morning. Deep in your heart you know that faith is not something you lean upon the rest of the year. But here in the quietness of this place of worship, you’ve come to realize that you are unusually burdened and weary. And you come here needing to experience the good news that Jesus is alive. Know that the Jesus who conquered death and is now alive stands quietly near calling your name.
The best the Bible seems to offer us on the great mysteries are promises wrapped up in metaphors and stories and analogies. That’s it. No comfort in science, no verifiable uncontested statements of fact … only poetry and hymns and the testimony of a handful of the saints to assure us. “Things hoped for,” the book of Hebrews tells us, and “the conviction of things not seen.”
For people of faith, it’s enough. We hold onto our candles of truth and love and cling to the great mercy and goodness of God who promises us life eternal.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023