March 17, 2005

All May Enter

A lot of people think that, for pastors, the Easter sermon is the easiest to preach. After all, you couldn't ask for a better story. It begins on a dark night. Jesus is dead. The disciples are disillusioned. Then the sun begins to rise. Some women go to the tomb, only to find that the body is not there. Suddenly, Jesus himself appears to them: he's alive!

The truth is, the Easter sermon is not easy. For one thing, most everyone already knows the story. How can a preacher be original when everyone's heard it before? For another thing, how does one apply the Easter story to contemporary life? What are we 21st century Christians supposed to make of a story in which a man comes back to life? How does one answer the biggest theological question of all concerning the resurrection: So what?

As a person who likes to plan ahead, I've already been thinking on these things, and worrying about Easter Sunday. Yesterday, I got called to substitute teach seventh grade, so I put aside these thoughts and worries, and headed up the street to the local K-8 elementary school.

After a math test and morning recess, the kids were reading an essay by Clifton Davis about a high school golf team in Louisiana. The year was 1991, and the team was invited to play in a tournament at a nearby country club. The whole team was excited by this opportunity.

However, when the team arrived, the country club said that one of the team members, Dondre Green, would not be allowed to play, because the country club was "whites only," and Green was African-American. The golf team's coach told the team that they had to decide whether to play without Green, or forfeit the tournament. The team unamimously voted to stand by their teammate, and forfeit.

"The Kid" was in that seventh period class. His mother is Japanese-American, his father African-American. He likes to call himself "Blackanese." He's the only person in the seventh grade with African-American blood, and he found the essay a little disturbing. I talked with him for a few minutes, but soon it was time to move on to a lesson on the Mayas. However, the story of what happened to Dondre Green stayed in the back of my mind.

After the school bell rang at 3:00, I started thinking some more about my Easter sermon, which means I started thinking about Jesus. It appears that early on, Jesus spent a lot of time in the synagogue, and even made a trip with his family to the temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve. Then when he began his ministry, we see him back in the temple, reading and interpreting the writings of Isaiah.

As things progress, though, he seems to be spending less and less time actually inside houses of worship. For one thing, some of the religious leaders don't want him there. Perhaps more importantly, the people with whom Jesus was most concerned weren't allowed in either. The sinners, the tax collectors, the social outcasts, the physically disabled---all were kept from entering the most holy parts of the temple.

I wonder if Jesus thought to himself, well, if they can't go in, then I don't really want to go in either. Just as Dondre Green's teammates stood by him, Jesus stood by those outcasts, and he stood by them until the end, until he himself became the ultimate outcast, being crucified on a cross. Three days later he was resurrected, which was his way of saying, "If they won't let you in, then I will. Come to God through me, and have life, and no leaders, no rulers or authorities will be able to keep you from God's kingdom."

I read in Anne Lamott's new book about some evangelical Christians who told a woman dying of cancer how sorry they were that the woman wouldn't see her nieces in heaven, since her nieces were Jewish. Lamott writes that if those nieces aren't in heaven, then she doesn't want to go there either; that if there was any problem, she'd refuse to go. She'd organize.

Fortunately, organizing won't be necessary, because Jesus has already taken care of that. He tore the curtain in the temple that kept the holy of holies hidden from the masses, and made it clear that there is full access to God and God's kingdom. For everyone.

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