April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday Celebration

Luke 24:1-12

“I See Live People!”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Hear a podcast of this sermon HERE:  110424SermonPodcast

Sacred Reading:

Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV)


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Contemporary Reading:

Still I Rise

Maya Angelou



Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously [miraculously] clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.


In Maya Angelou’s epic book of poetry, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” she writes, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.” (1)

Like the bird in Maya Angelou’s poem, some people just have a knack for seeing life where there’s only death to others.  You know the type.  They look at a blank piece of paper and see a magnificent painting or a heart-wrenching poem.  They look at an empty plot of ground and see a rich, fertile garden or a tall, elegant building.  Some people look at a swath of fabric and see a dress or a suit, others look at a piece of metal and see a machine part or an auto body.  Some people just have a knack for seeing possibility where most of us only see bareness.

And then there are the folks – and we all know a few – who do just the opposite.  They see nothing but death.  Nothin’… and they are quite willing to tell you about it… again and again and again, ad naseum.  Ded’, ded’, ded’!

The 1999 block-buster thriller, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, brought into our common vernacular the phrase, “I see dead people.”  Little did Haley Joel Osment know when he uttered that now infamous line that he would be speaking for the multitude of individuals who cannot help but see, feel, taste, hear, and know death.  In the movie Osmet’s character, Cole Sear, has a gift, but it is a horrifying one.  Alongside the living individuals of his life, he sees those who have died, and they always seem to want something from him.  Bruce Willis’ character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is trying to help Cole be freed from this terrifying predisposition, while battling his own ghosts. (2)

While it may be an interesting movie plotline, few people actually see dead people (or at least admit to it).  The kind of person I’m speaking of today is the individual who is so bound up in the pain, or the oppression, or the heartache, or the frustrations, or the disappointments of life that they cannot see past these troubles and can only stare at the face of death.  To say that they always see the cup half empty is an understatement.  They can’t help but see that eventually the cup will be empty, and someday, there won’t even be a cup.  Sigh…  After a while, they come to believe that death is all there is.  They see each day as a step closer to death, rather than another day to live life to the fullest.  “One day closer to death… This may be your very last breath… Happy Birthday… ugh!”

And that brings us to our scripture text for the day.  The disciples weren’t by nature death-seeing people.  They yearned for life, and that’s why they followed Jesus, this life-giving troubadour.  But, like many of us when we’ve been battered and bruised by the conditions of life, the disciples were shell shocked and weary.  They had put all their hope and trust in this amazing one who had spoken to their hearts in ways that stirred their souls to the core.  He had stood up to the principalities and powers and had preached a truth that both honored the weakest and confounded the dominant.  They had put their complete and abiding loyalty to one Jesus of Nazareth, and then they witnessed him appallingly humiliated, brutally beaten, and then shamefully murdered.  Everything they had left home for was dashed and destroyed.  Every risk they had taken, from leaving families and livelihoods, to risking the wrath of Rome, was for naught the moment Jesus’ limp bloody body was taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb.

The followers of Jesus, and that’s not just the twelve officially named as “disciples,” but all who had been seen with him, had been healed by his hands, had hung on his words, scattered like mice when the light is turned on, to dark rooms across the crowded city or out to the hillsides beyond.  Peter would bear history’s burden of denying Christ, but almost every one of the followers of The Way would disavow in one way or another the Jesus to whom they had pledged undying allegiance.

Now dejected and forlorn, embarrassed and afraid, the disciples truly could only see dead people.  They saw people who were going to betray them.  They saw people who were going to disappoint them.  They saw people who were going to reject them.  They saw people who were going to abandon them.  They saw people who were going to ridicule them.  They saw people who were going to take advantage of them.  They saw dead people.  They saw dead people, and not really much of anything else.

Aren’t too many of us like the disciples in the days immediately following the crucifixion?  Because of some major crisis or unthinkable loss, of just the weight of it all, don’t we begin to exist expecting the worst and preparing for it as well?  Aren’t we too often, like the old hymn suggests, “tossed about, With many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings and fears within, without?” (3)

Fra Angelico, The Resurrection, San Marco Museum, Florence - Courtesy Christus Rex

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women came to the tomb expecting to see dead people, or at least one very special but very dead person: Jesus.  Both the men and the women in his group of disciples had felt equally betrayed by their master, but the women, who were, perhaps, just a little more familiar with death, betrayal, hopelessness, and powerlessness had found it in themselves to at least give their beloved friend and almost-savior a proper burial.  They had come to the tomb Joseph of Arimathea had provided with the supplies they needed to prepare the body for it’s time in the tomb, where it would decay and all the fleshy organic matter would rot and fall away.  And, if they remembered to… or cared to… a year or so later they would gather the clean bones and place them in an ossuary, or funeral box, for final burial. (4)

But the women were presented with something completely unexpected.  The tomb was empty.  Two strangely angelic figures confronted them with the question that was the classic contrast to the statement, “I see dead people.”  They asked: “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”

Jesus was not dead, but alive!  You see, the one to whom they had given over their lives was different.  This Jesus, the very one who had touched their hearts, stirred their souls, lifted their burdens, and emboldened their people, was actually true to his word.  He did bring life, and not death, but not necessarily life in that picture-perfect image we all have in our minds.  He brought us a life of faith, which is not dependent upon circumstances, but upon our ultimate goal.  A life lived abundantly was not, is not a life filled with riches and ease and consumption or even always breathing, but an abundant life is a life lived with intentionality, compassion, meaning, and faith. Jesus, once dead but now alive, proved life is always stronger than death…  Hope more tenacious than doubt…  Love more real than hate.

This question that the angelic figures asked the women is the question that rings throughout history and beckons us this day. “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”  Why is it that we so quickly, or at least so predictably, look for the worst in a situation and in people?  We talk about the schools and education in Cleveland and we throw up our hands in defeat, seeing only dead people. Jesus asks, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”  We talk about downtown Cleveland and pine about the way Euclid Avenue used to be, and we see only dead people walking the streets.  Jesus asks, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”   We talk about friends and neighbors who have succumbed to addictions or bad habits and write them off forever, and we see them as dead people.  Jesus asks, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”   We talk about relatives with whom we have had conflicts and past lovers with whom we have severed ties, and write them out of history, seeing them as dead people.  Jesus asks, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”

The resurrection message is that we who take this Jesus seriously can no longer give in to the temptation to see dead people.  We must see living people, living situations, living possibilities!  We must look with the eyes of our hearts enlightened and see life where others only see death.  We do so because we know the one who is the author of the story, the creator of all things, is heaven-bent on life, and abundant life for all.  Like Angelou’s bird, we don’t sing because we have answers.  We sing because we have a song!

Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai

Let me end by telling you of another woman, one who sees life where others see death.  Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya (Africa) in 1940. (5) Ms. Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree.  But this isn’t her primary fame, though it well could be.  In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting.  Yes, I said “tree planting” in Kenya, where deforestation was killing not only the land, but all the creatures and people who depend upon the land.  She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organization whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting.  With the organization, which became known as the Green Belt Movement, Professor Maathai has assisted women in planting more than 40 million trees on community lands including farms, schools and church compounds.

In 2004 Professor Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts at addressing environmental devastation and poverty reduction. “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope,” Maathai wrote in response to receiving the Nobel Prize. “We also secure the future for our children.” After learning about the prize, Professor Maathai planted a Nandi flame tree at the foot of Mt. Kenya. (6)

She could only see living people, and she did something about making sure her people would live.  The disciples, once forlorn and on the road to seeing only dead people, would quickly bounce back once they were reminded that Jesus never was talking about a picture perfect life, but a life well-lived on behalf of others and on behalf of the One who created it all.

You, my beloved, can no longer say that you only see dead people.  We can no longer wallow in the pity of negativity and misery because today you have been told, or reminded, that Jesus is not here, he is alive.  The angels have asked you, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”  You must respond with a commitment to life.  Go sing your song.  Go plant your tree.  Go live your life and live it abundantly!


(1) From Maya Angelou’s official website: http://mayaangelou.com/

(2) Internet Movie Database’s article on “The Sixth Sense” can be found at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167404/

(3) “Just As I Am,” http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/j/u/justasam.htm

(4) Interesting article on ossuaries: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/02/25/tomb_arc.html?category=archaeology

(5) To learn more about Professor Maathai, go online to: http://greenbeltmovement.org/w.php?id=3

(6) in Sojourners, January 2005, Rose Marie Berger, found online at: http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0501&article=050142c