“FINISHING THE MUSIC”
Sermon Preached by
The Reverend Dr. Gary A. Wilburn
On The Beach of La Mision, Baja, CA, Mexico
EASTER SUNDAY, MARCH 23, 2008
A Rabbi friend told me recently of a Jewish couple in Florida who had been married for 45 years. One day the husband called his daughter in New York to tell her they had decided to get a divorce. “I’ve had it,” he said. “All your mother does is nag, nag, nag – and she says the same about me! We’ve put up with each other long enough. There’s no hope. Time to call it quits.”
“You can’t do this,” his daughter yelled, “I’ll be there in a few hours.” “It’s no use, honey,” her dad said. “Call your brother in Chicago and tell him it’s over.” So she hangs up and immediately calls her brother to tell him the tragic news. The brother calls the father and says, “Look…I’m booking my flight right now. I’ll be there tonight. Don’t you and mom do anything ‘til I get there!”
When his son hangs up, the father turns to the wife and says, “Well, we got ‘em here for Passover Seder. Now what are we going to do for Yom Kippur?”
Well, we got you all here for Easter Sunday! Now what are we going to do for Christmas? Whatever it is, it has to include a pitcher of margaritas and a case of “2-Buck Chuck”!
I heard a cute story the other day of a little girl who decided to have a funeral for her worn-out teddy bear. She digs a small grave in her garden, lines up her dolls as the congregation, and dons her raincoat and scarf (‘cause she thinks it looks sorta ‘preacher-ish’).
She holds high the bear and proclaims: “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and ‘in the hole he goes!’”
Isn’t this girl a bit like you and me? She knows that the Easter story is important, but she has trouble “getting it”. (1)
At the time of the Jesus, almost all Jews believed in a resurrection of the dead. Ezekiel and other prophets had foretold that all of Israel would finally be resurrected at the last days. What Jesus did on Sunday morning was to start the process early. That promised future became a present reality.
The story of Jesus is our story. As my friend, Bill Coffin, put it, “Christ’s victory is our victory. For Christ is risen ‘pro nobis’; that is, ‘for us’. Christ rose for us, to put love in our hearts, noble thoughts into our heads, and steel up our spines. Christ rose to convert us - not from earthly life to something beyond life - but from something less than life to the possibility of being fully alive, fully what God intended us to be right here, right now.” (2)
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Founding Pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, who fought so hard against Religious Fundamentalism in the early ‘20’s, once said, “The world has tried in two ways to get rid of Jesus: first, by crucifying him, and second, by worshipping him!” Jesus doesn’t ask us to worship him. In fact, he specifically told his followers not to worship him. What he did invite them to do was to follow him. Faith is a matter of acting faithfully. Of doing what love requires of us. Faith is not believing without proof; it is trusting without reservation, and acting without hesitation.
God’s love doesn’t seek value; it creates it. It’s not because we have value that we are loved. It is because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift…not an achievement. We never have to prove ourselves to any church, or to any political party, or to anyone else. All we have to do is to express ourselves – to return God’s love with our own.
There is a lot of religious talk going on this election year. And most of it is misdirected. Over the years I have become convinced that the more important question is not “Who believes in God?” But rather, “In whom does God believe? It is not we who must trust God and have faith in God. It is God who must trust in us and faith in us. Rather than claim God for our side, it’s much better to wonder whether we are on God’s side. Faith is being grasped by the power of love. And there are many atheists with “believing hearts” – the part of us that should be religious if you can offer only one.
Easter is not about escaping from the grave to go to heaven. It is about defying the powers of death on the earth. Easter is not about who’s saved and who’s not saved. It’s about saving our common humanity and our planet together. Easter is not about believing a dozen unbelievable things before breakfast. Easter is about doing hundreds of impossible things together.
Most of us have been taught to believe in the empty tomb. Don’t do that. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen. Rather, stand before some human being in whom the dead Christ still awaits resurrection. Extend your hand, and offer to walk with her into a new way of being human.
We are surrounded by death today:
- the moral death of all those who love things and use people,
- the economic death of every child and family we refuse to empower,
- the political death of every oppressed person, race and country,
- the social death of every handicapped, uneducated, unemployed, powerless and sexually outcast person,
- the spiritual death of every person who will not lift their eyes above the horizon of their imprisonment,
- and the soundless death of the apathetic and uncaring.
We stand before these in whom the dead Christ still awaits resurrection and say, “Be made alive! I’m here to help.” “The Easter story is about the triumph of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. And it is that hope that arouses in me, as nothing else can, a passion for the possible.” (3)
My experience over the years - not as a preacher, but as a person who gets up each day and tries his best to make some sense of it, and some difference in it – my experience is that…
No suffering is too great to comforted.
No sorrow is too great to be consoled.
No slight is too personal to be forgiven.
No structure of a selfish society is too great to be converted.
No scourge of war, nor violation of human rights, nor destruction of the earth is too devastating to be reversed by good people and the solidarity of civilized nations banding together to work for justice in order to live in peace.
The final word of the Risen Christ in the Easter Story is not, “In the hole he goes.” The final word is “HE IS ALIVE. GET OUT OF HERE AND TELL SOMEBODY…GET OUT OF HERE AND DO SOMETHNG DIFFERENT FOR SOMEBODY NEW.”
The resurrection of Christ is nothing short of the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. It happened once. It can happen again. It must happen again. Through each of us.
“Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son.
Endless is the victory, Thou o’er death hast won.”
Giacomo Puccini, the great musician who wrote Madame Butterfly, La Boehme, Tosca, and so many other majestic operas, was stricken with cancer in 1922. So what did he do? He sat down to write a new opera - Turandot. His students asked him, “But suppose you die?” “Oh,” he replied confidently, “never fear. My students will finish it!”
Puccini died in 1924…and as he predicted, his students did finish his music. The premier of the great opera, Turandot, was held in Milan at La Scala Opera House under the direction of Puccini’s best student – Arturo Toscanini.
The gala performance of Turandot proceeded and came to that point in the music where the composer had finally laid down his pen. Tears streamed down Toscanini’s face. He put down his baton and turned to the audience and said, “Thus far, the master wrote…and then the master died.”
Then, picking up his baton, his face wreathed with smiles and determination, Toscanini shouted to the audience, “BUT HIS DISCIPLES FINISHED HIS MUSIC!” And they played on through the grand finale.
So shall you and I play on. Amen.
1 David Steele, “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” The Presbyterian Outlook, May 3, 1999, p. 12.
2 William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2004).
3 Coffin, A Passion for the Possible: A Message to U.S. Churches (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).