Andrew’s Note: I am the lay chaplain at my school. It’s a role that I sometimes perform reluctantly, but I try to do my part. This was approximately the sermon I delivered tonight during our chapel service. Sorta. I never write a sermon script ahead of time. I wing it, after some preparation and outlining. I hardly ever write them down after; writing them down changes the sermon. This one is no different; it’s a different thing than what you read here.
Texts: Exodus 14:10—15:1 • Romans 6:3-11 • Matthew 28:1-10
Good evening. Anyone have any questions about the readings?
Virtually none, till one of the girls raises her hand, and asks why we’re reading the Passover story at Easter. What’s the connection? Some murmuring.
That’s a great question, actually. In the New Testament, Jesus is executed on Friday, the day before Passover begins. In fact, even today, Christians and Jews use approximately the same formula for finding the dates of their spring festivals: For Judaism, Pesach begin on the night of the first full moon after the spring equinox. Christians find the date of Easter based on the date of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Which is tomorrow.
So why are we sitting in a dark church on Saturday night, with no lights and only that one candle? Tonight is the vigil of Easter, possibly the most important night in the Christian calendar. And tomorrow morning, both the services here will be packed full of people — and there won’t be space for us, the students and faculty, because of the regular parish services.
Christianity has always told the story of Passover tonight, and the passage through the Red Sea, because Christians have always thought of their own story as intimately entwined with Judaism’s story. God reached out and saved the Israelites at the Red Sea in their physical bodies, and made them his chosen people on that night. Christians believe that God reached out to us and saved us on this night. And that’s why these two stories are wedded together here, tonight, in this place.
Normally there are nine readings in this church tonight, but we know that you don’t have the patience to sit here for that. Those readings are designed to tell a specific story, and we’ve given you an abbreviated version of it — the free sample of the Cliff Notes, if you will.
The story goes like this:
God created human beings and gave them paradise to live in, with just one simple rule. Those first human beings, though, couldn’t get that one rule right; they broke it almost immediately. Adam and Eve lost paradise, and human beings haven’t been quite right since. We commit sin — that is, we do evil things, both to ourselves and to one another, and it’s terribly damaging.
God kicked us out of paradise because he saw that if we had both paradise and sin, we wouldn’t just damage ourselves — we would destroy everything. He decided that he would need to cure us somehow, or fix us, so that we wouldn’t be so dangerous, or at least that we would understand and do the right thing for the universe and not the wrong thing. So he chose someone named Moses to lead a group of unlikely folks out of servitude and slavery, and become a messenger service that would change humanity and cure us of sin. The tool God gave to the Israelites to accomplish this was Law. Rules.
Only, it didn’t work. The Laws were good, of course, and they spelled everything out in black-and-white. They were specific, and pretty easily followed.
And that would have been fine, if humans had actually followed the laws, and obeyed the rules. But they didn’t.
So God chose a bunch of people — prophets, we call them — to offer additional commentary on the Laws. Some of the prophets were men, and some were women. The basic message God gave them was the same: it doesn’t matter if you follow all the Laws, as long as you are being a decent person to everyone and not actively trying to ruin them, damage them, kill them or cheat them. Do good things for other people, and in general things are likely to work out, and there won’t be any sin.
This didn’t work out as God planned, either. People didn’t seem to be any better at following the advice of prophets than they had been at following Moses’ Laws. It didn’t matter how many magical powers God gave the prophets, or Moses — people still did exactly what they wanted to do, and people got hurt, and killed, and tortured, and it was all very troubling.
Put yourself in God’s shoes, here. You’ve got awesome, cosmic power. You can make anything you want, do anything you want, and cause anything to happen that you want — except make human beings be nice to each other. You have awesome, cosmic knowledge. You know everything that there is to know about the universe, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing — except that you don’t know WHY human beings won’t be nice to each other.
What would you do?
That’s right. You’d go find out for yourself. And so God puts himself in a human body, as a real human being, Jesus of Nazareth, and comes into the world, to find out what’s going on. And you can almost hear the lightbulbs going on in God’s head…
- Being a human being, a soul in a body, is really difficult!
- Following the rules all the time, is really, unbelievably, incredibly hard!
- Being nice, and kind, to people when they’re being self-centered, selfish, and violent is unbelievably, incredibly, appallingly impossible!
NO WONDER THEY DIDN’T LISTEN TO MOSES! NO WONDER THEY DIDN’T LISTEN TO THE PROPHETS!
And, in the process of explaining this new understanding of the world to people, Jesus of Nazareth uses his God-powers in ways that ordinary humans can’t. He performs miracles. He explains things. He winds up causing such turmoil and upset that the authorities decide he’s a trouble-maker and a lawbreaker, and that he’s essentially a terrorist.
And they do what anyone, everyone, anywhere in the world would do with a terrorist. They grab him out of his encampment in the middle of the night with a special forces unit, rush him to trial, and execute him as fast as they possibly can.
But he’s INNOCENT!
And death isn’t really a problem. God just brings himself back to life. Because he, God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has finally figured out that Law isn’t the way to solve sin. Being a good person isn’t enough to solve sin. And he comes back to life to tell us what it is that makes everything a-o.k.
You need forgiveness.
God realizes that it’s not possible to obey all the rules, all the time. It’s not possible, as a soul in a physical body, to live up to the perfection of any set of rules — no matter how thoughtful or how well-crafted they are. It’s not possible either, as a soul in a physical body, to just be nice and kind all the time. There are chemical processes at work that make you angry, sad, lustful, hateful, racist, sexist, mean, violent… and some of them you can control, and some you can’t. Not without practice, and patience; and even then you might fail.
Sin is going to happen, yes. But the beauty of God’s forgiveness, in the eyes of this Church, is that it is all-encompassing. God was able to let go of his anger toward earlier generations and forgive them for not obeying him, because he understood now how hard it is to be a human being. He was able to forgive the people who arrested him and killed him, too, because he understood the reasons why they acted as they did, almost for the first time. And he was able to forgive us, too, because he was able to imagine the kinds of situations that we here tonight would face, and the truth that we might not always choose wisely in making decisions.
And that’s the story you would hear tonight in a longer form, had we worlds enough and time.
So tonight, in the face of God’s forgiveness, I ask your pardon and forgiveness for the offenses I may have committed against you. I am only human, and like you I cannot follow every rule, or be good every moment of every day. Nor can I be perfect, as you cannot be perfect.
All we can do is forgive each other our imperfections, and thank God that he sees us with all our faults, and loves us anyway. When we exchange the peace of God tonight, try to remember how human we all are, and offer forgiveness to others as it has been offered to you.
(Note: it’s not really appropriate to applaud after a sermon, but it somehow became the custom here at school, and we have two kinds of applause. Sometimes the students applaud because it’s good, and sometimes because it’s over. Tonight it was the good applause. I’m proud of the work.