Once upon a time there was a preacher
who preached a big, fat, impressive sermon
for which he was a little too proud.
It was all about Joseph, the son of Jacob.
The preacher went on and on about Joseph
whose story in the Bible goes on and on.
He could tell by the reaction of the congregation
that they were into his sermon too,
as it spoke directly to the situation
of the many members with children growing up,
and the many members with children living away,
and the many members that were older
with a much shorter span of opportunity ahead of them
than the long road behind them.
After church that day,
all puffed up and greeting people at the door,
the preacher welcomed a visitor.
It was a young woman
of that much prized demographic known as Generation X,
the cohort just a wee bit older than
the even more prized Millennial’s.
Churches are mostly barren landscapes
when it comes to Gen-xers and Millennials –
as we can see here today.
There was a slight drop off in church participation
from the Silent Generation to the Baby Boomers
but nothing like the disconnect
taking place with Gen-x and Millennials.
61% of the so-called Silent Generation
(those people born between 1925-1945) –
raise your hand please –
61% of your generation consider itself religious.
For Gen-x it falls down to 52%.
For that endangered
and rarely observed species known as Millennials,
only 36% identify as religious in any way.
So the preacher was really pleased
he had given such a good sermon on the day this young
Gen-xer stuck her head in the door.
He greeted the young woman eagerly
and the young woman smiled.
They chatted briefly at the door
and then she turned to depart.
Suddenly she turned back and asked,
“Oh, if you don’t mind my asking, who was Joseph?”
The preacher had assumed
everyone sitting in the pews that day
would know who Joseph was –
after all, there was even a Donnie and Marie musical
all about Joseph.
Then again, she may not have known
who the heck Donnie and Marie were either.
That was the memory
that went shouting through my thoughts
as the reporter from the Finger Lakes Times
asked me for a quote this past week,
regarding the topic of my Easter sermon this year.
What the heck do you say about Easter
to a culture without the foggiest idea what Easter is
other than lilies, chocolate eggs,
and marshmallow bunnies?
What do you say in a sentence
about a sermon that hasn’t been written yet,
and that would surely be sweated over
like Christmas Eve’s sermon?
I taught a comparative religion course
at a Jesuit college for five years,
one of two required religion courses.
Every student had to take a section of the course I taught,
whether a physics, bio, or theater major.
The number of students that were happy
about taking my class
could be counted on one hand.
What I learned from them
was how little they knew about any religion,
and they knew as little about Christianity –
even though many had gone to Catholic school –
as they did about Judaism and Islam.
So it occurs to me
that church-people like many of us here
treat Easter as a slam-dunk –
as if we know what it is
and what it means
and that everyone else does too?
And yet we only have to take about
one and a half steps back
to see how crazy and deluded we are.
I mean, really.
Think about this story we tell today
and how fanciful it must sound
to people who hear it for the first time
as young adults.
If all you knew about Easter
was Jesus hanging on a cross and the Easter Bunny,
what would you think?
I mean really,
that is the way we have to think about Easter
because we live in culture that doesn’t know anything
about Christianity or Easter
and doesn’t really care about either one
except when some fringe group among us
gets in the way or does crazy, weird stuff.
Jesus hanging bloody on a cross
and the Easter Bunny –
those two images are all millions of people have
to tell them anything about Christianity and Easter.
It’s pretty funny on the one hand,
but also sad for those of us who are invested.
So on Easter Sunday 2016,
I want to stand before you and say:
Easter is not about the body of Jesus disappearing
from a smelly old tomb two thousand years ago.
It can be about that if you want it to be
and I wouldn’t for a minute
try to snatch that away from you
if that is where you need to hold Easter.
Hold it right there if you need to,
but I am going to move anyone else who wants to come
down the street a little bit.
And the reason we need to keep moving
is that if Christian wisdom
and Christian spirituality
rests on what we imagine happened
two thousand years ago
then instead of 36% of Millennials
being interested in any kind of religion,
it is going to be 15% for the generation after them.
Easter doesn’t even begin with Jesus;
it goes back so much earlier than him.
Easter dates back further
than the furthest human memory;
further back than the oldest story;
all the way back to whenever it was
that a hapless human being first encountered God
or some fleck of holiness
left to stumble over in the dark.
It goes back,
all the way back,
to the first time a human being imagined
he or she knew exactly
what the possibilities were
and was perfectly certain
how things were going to turn out.
It goes back to the first time a religion,
and we don’t even know what religion it was,
imagined they knew what God was all about
and that they could guide their god
in whatever direction they wanted,
bending that god
in the direction
that was of most benefit to them.
You see, Easter is about how God,
as that Rainer Maria Rilke poem says, has music we haven’t heard yet.
To my Gen-x and Millennial friends, Easter is about how you and I think we know
how a given event is going to end up, but in fact, there is a power greater than us
that has music we haven’t heard yet.
Paris, and San Bernardino
not to mention South Sudan,
Ivory Coast, and the lawless regions of Somalia,
it may seem as if the faceless explosions
and booby-trapped park benches
and bullet-riddled theaters
point to a terrible dead end for hope
but God has music we haven’t heard yet.
In Baltimore, Ferguson,
South Chicago, and Brooklyn
it may seem like black lives do not matter
to police and the powers that be,
who like most of us here, are also white
and represented in the halls of power
and corporate board rooms
by other mostly white, male power-brokers,
but God has music we haven’t heard yet.
In households where love is exchanged
for the flat side of a fist
or warmth and affections is replaced
by torment and cruelty,
boys and girls imagine there is nothing else
but bleak, loveless days ahead
yet even there, God has music we haven’t heard yet.
In places of majestic beauty
where self-centered human consumerism
has darkened the ocean with waste
and thinned the forests with greed
and warmed the air with relentless exhaust from the demand for more and more and more plastic goodies,
God has music we haven’t heard yet.
In places of extreme hunger,
in corners of genocidal madness,
in mounds of garbage,
in migrant camps, maquilas, and sweatshops,
in army-occupied territories,
wherever hope has disappeared
leaving numbing despair
or corrosive cynicism,
God has music we haven’t heard yet.
For a lot of people who are Christian these days,
especially progressive Christians,
it looks and feels like the bottom has fallen out of church. Like right here at Trinity Geneva,
so few people are left that we have to find
new and different ways to be church than in the past;
but guess what?
God has music we haven’t heard yet.
You see, we think,
because we are inheritors
of Western European Christianity,
that God’s music
sounds like Bach or Beethoven or Rutter;
and that God’s music
has a definitive score that we can follow
if we know how to read music.
But guess what?
God, it turns out,
is a jazz musician improvising on the cosmos.
God is an improvisationalist
that God has been playing for billions of years,
but who also goes off
wandering into newness when least expected.
God is more Herbie Hancock than Bach,
more Sun Ra and John Coltrane
than Handel and John Williams.
and our doctrines
and our ways of thinking religiously
and Operatic staging
but God has wandered off
into a new improvisation
and if we don’t follow
we’ll find ourselves in church on the day the music died.
All over the world
underneath the dark pall of violence,
God plays music we haven’t heard yet.
We look at disasters,
and we see vestiges of human evil,
and we taste the toxins of our own making,
and we hear hatred and xenophobia in our own voices and we cannot imagine
how we will ever make it out alive.
And of course, some of us won’t.
Jesus revealed the potential cost of supreme love, as did Martin Luther King,
as did Oscar Romero.
But those that do not make it out alive
while planting the seeds of hope for the rest of us blossom in ways far beyond our imagination.
Their lives ripple into the future
beyond the pebble-point of their death
like radio waves still echoing
into unknown galaxies.
yours and mine,
can do the same – and will,
one way or another.
Do we think
that in the tedious brutality
of their endless daily imprisonment
Nelson Mandela or Ang San Suu Kyi
imagined they would one day actually lead their nations
out in the openness of freedom?
Surely in the dark of prison,
more often than not, they contended with fear
and especially the fear that nothing would be different.
Do we really think
that on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama
on Bloody Sunday,
any of the marchers looked across that bridge
and saw an African-American
President of the United States in their lifetime?
Do we think there was ever a junkie
or addict of prescription opioids
in free-fall toward their bottom
that ever looked up
and saw a day of freedom and serenity?
Has any battered woman or child
ever imagined that the cycle of violence has an exit
before they discovered healing and recovery
and did the work of leaving such relationships behind?
Has any stream or river recovery,
animal habitat restoration,
or artificial reef project
ever begun without a vision of newness
on the other side of the dark, murky waters
of human pollution?
God has music we haven’t heard yet
but if we allow despair
or the numbing of our senses and hope
with noise, substance, or commercialism
to limit our imaginations,
we will never hear that music
and we will not see the new day.
That is what Easter is about:
opening our hearts
and opening our minds
and opening our imaginations
to hear the music we haven’t heard yet,
even when we feel as if
nothing new could ever come along.
And of course WE are that Easter.
You and I are the music.
We are the keys
upon which God plays that righteous jazz!
There may be music out there in the cosmos
that God plays on something other than us,
but here on Earth it is you and I.
If God is going to play it
we are the keys;
if God is going to hum it
we are the lips;
if God is going to tap it
we are the drum.
God needs us
to play the music that gives us life
and that will allow us to live life more abundantly.
That is what Easter is about –
music that we haven’t heard yet
and getting our hearts and minds and imaginations
opened up enough
to hear it.
Post-Easter is when WE become that music
and make our lives
and the lives around us
and life on the planet
a whole lot better than when we encountered it.
He is risen –
and so will we
when we become the music
God wants to play on our lives.