The first Easter sermon I ever preached was behind bars, in a prison in New Jersey where I was a chaplain.
It was a morning service, and it was held in the prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans.
No one wore their Easter best in that congregation. The men all had on their state-issued beige jumpsuits. Sister Rose, the nun who was the chaplain supervisor, wore the plain gray pants and plain white shirt she always wore. No one wore their Easter best that morning. Except for me.
I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet- I was still in school. So, I wore a suit…with a pink shirt and purple, flowery tie. My wife that morning had said I looked ‘handsome,’ but when the inmates saw me- they said I looked ‘pretty.’
‘Do we have two lady preachers this Easter?’ one of the men asked.
Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing. I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly thought that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more ‘contemporary.’
Sister Rose insisted that we all do what looked like jazz-hands as we mumbled our way through ‘Trading My Sorrows’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ The hispanic inmates all pretended, suddenly, not to know a word of english. The others all stone-walled Sister Rose. No one was about to participate in the “worship.”
No one except for me, who had no choice.
My sermon was simple. I just unpacked the Easter Gospel for them.
‘Because he lives,’ I said, ‘so will you live…forever’
And someone replied: ‘Amen.’
You might have 5 months or 5 years, you might have LIFE in here- but because he lives you have a lot more LIFE to look forward to.
You have more future with Christ than you have time to serve in here, more time ahead of you than days to measure behind bars.
And some sitting in the plastic chairs started to rock and respond: ‘Come on, come on now.’
It’s not just anybody God raises.
God didn’t choose at random to raise from the dead.
God chose Jesus.
The Jesus who was:
Hassled by the authorities.
Accused by the rich and the powerful.
Beaten and Sentenced and Sent Away to be Forgotten.
‘That’s right’ some of them shouted out.
God raised Jesus. The Jesus who:
Doubted he had the strength to get through the trials that lay ahead of him.
Promised Paradise to the convict next to him.
God chose him. God chose someone like you.
And the ‘Amens’ grew louder.
As soon as he’s out of the tomb, what does he do?
He goes to his friends. The same ones who lied to him, turned their backs on him, broke their promises to him.
And what does he do?
He sits down and eats with them. He embraces them. He forgives them.
I looked at them as I said it, knowing that everyone of them had lied and denied and broken promises to land where they were that morning.
Easter, I said, means you’re forgiven.
Many of them were up on their feet, with their hands in the air, saying ‘Praise Him.’
And if you needed one word to describe how the Easter Gospel hit them
one word heard in their praise’s inflections
one word seen in their eyes
If you needed one word it was: Joy.
Sticking out like a sore thumb, sitting in the second row was an inmate named Victor. I had seen him around. I’d talked to him in the laundry room.
That Easter morning you could tell from his eyes and his clenched hands and the way he was sitting when everyone was standing with their arms in the air: he looked terrified.
In the midst of all that joy there was also fear.
Easter begins with fear.
At least that’s the way Mark tells it.
Early in the morning three women approach the tomb, carrying herbs and expensive oils. They come that morning to comb the tangles out of Jesus’ matted hair, to sponge away the dried blood and to massage myrrh in to his bruised and broken skin.
They come that morning to anoint him, to perform the ritual cleansing before the tomb is sealed for good. Only, when they get there the tomb is empty.
And then, an angel tells them the news.
And they’re struck with fear.
They’re so terrified they run away, so scared they don’t breathe a word of what they’ve seen or heard.
“Jesus has been raised; he is not here…he’s gone ahead of you to Galilee.”
The Easter message, the good news, it fills them with fear.
But fear is not what we associate with Easter.
When we think of Easter, we think about springtime renewal or life after death or how love is stronger than the grave. But we don’t think of Easter as being something that could strike terror- that’s what Mark calls it- terror into our hearts.
How is fear any way to conclude the greatest story ever told?
The fact is the four Gospels are all a bit different in how they tell the Easter story. You can almost feel the writers wrestling with how to reduce the mystery of resurrection into words.
They’re all different.
Except for the fear.
I’ve heard my skeptic friends say the empty tomb was just invented the by the disciples. But that doesn’t make any sense because the one thing the Gospels all agree on is that the disciples- none of them- wanted a resurrection. They’d all gone back to their lives, back to fishing and to their families.
They didn’t want a resurrection and when they first hear news of it they’re struck with fear.
The first time I ever baptized someone- it was at that same Easter service in the prison.
When I finished my sermon, Sister Rose led another hymn. For most of the singing Victor sat in his chair, looking scared, until he came up to me.
His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.
While the others sang, Victor bent in towards me and he told me he wanted to be baptized.
You mean, like today? I asked.
And he said: Yes, right now.
Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing, I said. I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.
It was then I realized the hymn was over and everyone was watching us.
Your bishop would never even know, Sister Rose giggled.
Okay, I said.
You know how, right? Victor asked me.
Sure. I mean, I’ve read about it.
You’ll need water, Sister Rose pointed out.
Right water- can you get us some water? I asked one of the guards.
And a bowl, Sister Rose said.
The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a styrofoam soup bowl and a dripping water bottle. I poured the water into the bowl.
Sister Rose reminded me that usually the minister prayed first so I did that. When I finished the prayer, Victor asked me:
Can I say something?
Sure, testify. Give your testimony.
Some in the crowd started mocking him, expecting another jailhouse conversion kind of story. But he ignored them and in his quiet Spanish accent he said:
Jesus Christ appeared to me two months ago in my cell.
I know it sounds crazy but he was as alive as any of you.
I haven’t told anyone about it until now.
It scared me to death and it still does.
Because if Jesus is really real then he could upset my whole life.
He turned back towards me. Are you ready? I asked. No, he said, but go ahead anyway.
And I baptized him.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
How can that scare anyone?
What about the Easter Gospel could make you run from here, never to come back and never to tell a word of it?
Would it scare you to discover that God is out there? On the loose.
Would it frighten you suddenly to believe that God isn’t in this sanctuary or up in the clouds or in our hearts but out there, in the world, waiting for you to show up?
You should be scared.
Because this isn’t a God who comes back from the dead to tell that when you die you will be with him in heaven. No, he doesn’t say anything like that, and he doesn’t even wait by the empty tomb for his disciples.
He goes to Galilee.
Where Jesus first proclaimed good news to the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed.
Where Jesus cured those the righteous wouldn’t dare touch.
Where Jesus stood on a hill and told the crowd to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies.
Where he ate with sinners and forgave sin and stilled storms and told his disciples that with just a tiny bit of faith they could the same and even move mountains.
If the story ended at the Cross, then the disciples can mourn him. They can remember the good times, and they can go back to their lives.
But if he’s risen then they must go out. They must do and teach and preach and serve. Because the angel says he’s in Galilee and that means it’s all starting all over again.
If he’s risen, if he’s waiting down the road in Galilee for us, then you can bet he has plans for us.
If he’s risen then there’s a good chance he’ll mess up our lives just like he messed up theirs.
If he’s not cold on the slab, if he is raised, then there’s a good chance he’ll ask us to march out into the world to make some kind of difference for him.
And maybe that’s what’s scary about Easter. Because when you get down to it, we really don’t want God to interfere with us, to make demands on us, to cost us anything.
We prefer a God who is safely inside this sanctuary or up in the clouds or locked away in our hearts.
We don’t want a God who is wandering around the broken places of our world, tapping his foot and impatiently waiting for us to show up.