March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
Good morning again and Welcome! I mean that I’m very glad you’re here!
Since This is a celebration … a festival party. It’s always good to laugh, so I have a few letters that kids wrote to their pastors. All these kids range in age from eight to ten.
Dear Pastor, Please say in your sermon that Peter Peterson has been a good boy all week. I am Peter Peterson. Sincerely, Pete
Dear Pastor, I know God loves everybody but He never met my sister. Yours sincerely, Arnold
Dear Pastor, My father should be a minister. Every day he gives us a sermon about something. Robert Anderson
Dear Pastor, I’m sorry I can’t leave more money in the plate, but my father didn’t give me a raise in my allowance. Could you have a sermon about a raise in my allowance? Love, Patty
Dear Pastor, My mother is very religious. She goes to play bingo at church every week … even if she has a cold. Annette
Dear Pastor, I think a lot more people would come to your church if you moved it to Disneyland. Loreen
Dear Pastor, Please say a prayer for our Little League team. We need God’s help or a new pitcher. Thank you. Alexander
Dear Pastor, Who does God pray to? Is there a God for God? Sincerely, Christopher
Dear Pastor, I liked your sermon on Sunday. Especially when it was finished. Ralph
For all the Ralph’s out there I will do my best to keep this short.
Let me begin with what may sound like a strange story for Easter Sunday. Strange, because it is a story about a man who identified himself as an agnostic, if not an atheist. The story is told by Philip Gulley and is about a conversation they had over lunch one day.
One summer day pastor Gulley entered into a local restaurant to eat lunch. It was noontime, and the restaurant was full, and as he turned to leave, an older gentleman seated by himself invited him to join him. The pastor knew him, mostly by reputation. He was quite intelligent and tended to be outspoken, but also capable of great kindness. The pastor also knew that he was someone who identified himself as an agnostic. So when he invited Pastor Gulley to lunch, Gulley was quite surprised, but also grateful for the invitation.
After some initial pleasantries the man asked the pastor, why he had become a pastor. Why would one want to do that? The pastor gave him his standard answer. “I did it for the money, of course!”
After a few chuckles, the man said, “No, really. I really want to know.” So Pastor Gulley began to share with him a few of the reasons or at least the reasons that first came to mind.
“Well,” he said, “I found theology interesting and I valued the sense of community that the church supplied and helping others navigate life was very meaningful.”
That must have satisfied his curiosity because he followed the Pastor’s response with this statement. “I don’t believe in God,” he said. “Would I be welcome in your church?”
Without hesitation the pastor replied, “Certainly.”
“Would I have to believe in God in order to stay there?”
The pastor thought for a moment before answering him. “If some people discovered that you didn’t believe in God they might try to encourage you toward belief, but, as for me, I don’t think belief can be compelled and you are welcome as long as you like and we’ll see what happens.”
The pastor thought a little more, in the still of the silence, and then said,
“I only care about your beliefs insofar as they affect your behavior. I would actually prefer a congregation of kind atheists over a congregation of hateful Christians.” But, Pastor Gulley added with a smile, “If you became a kind Christian, I would not be disappointed.”
I mention this story on Easter Sunday for several reasons. First I’m a lot like Pastor Gulley. I think that Christianity has gotten too concerned and hyper-vigilant about having the right beliefs. It’s not as if Jesus went around giving orthodox tests to those desiring to follow him.
I know many people who are atheist and agnostics because they just can’t believe in the Bible literally or believe the things in the Bible as they think “real Christians” do. And so they have left the church and think there is not a place for them in the church.
I’m sure there are people here today who feel like they are not really welcome here this morning because they know they probably don’t fit the traditional Christian orthodoxy mold – that they don’t really believe all the “right things.”
I say to you this morning, Welcome to a congregation where that is not the most important value!
My first concern is to share with you the good news that you are loved and God’s love for you is just as real and secure even if you hold different theological beliefs than I or your neighbor in the pew.
If you follow Jesus around through the narrative of the gospels you will discover that he acts with love and compassion and never gets too concerned with proper beliefs.
Jesus simply reveals God’s passions for the world and then begins to live out those passions – a passion for unconditional love, passion for the poor and the sick, passion for the marginalized and the broken.
So what might that mean for us this Easter Sunday?
Well as far as I’m concerned, if you are a person who is looking to energetically interject new life into the world and transform the world with the same passions of Jesus then you are someone that is ready to practice resurrection in the world – and you are welcome here.
One of the thoughts of the day that is printed in the bulletin says it like this. “Some churches do not just celebrate Easter. They live it!”
This is a community of faith that is ready to live Easter. In the liturgy we proclaim that we are Easter People. That we are Resurrection People. That we are Good News People.
Easter people are people that open their eyes to death and all of the first cousins of death – cousins like: poverty, inequality, hatred, violence, depression , isolation, rejection. And as Easter people we work hard to find opportunities to offer the new life that comes through love, compassion, understanding, shelter, a warm meal, and a myriad of ways to serve.
Many of our ministries here at North Riverdale are ministries that offer the new life of Easter good news. This past Christmas we held a luncheon for 35 homeless men and women and offered them the simple gift of a new pair of boots or a warm coat.
But I think the real gift was the new life we offered through just remembering them and treating them as God sees them … treating them as beloved and having worth and dignity. They kept saying, “You don’t know what this means.”
That’ the same thing the first followers of Jesus said after his death … once they experienced him still being present in their lives … You don’t know what this means.
I know what it means. It means that we are Resurrection people. We are people who continue offering the same love of God that Jesus offered. We are the people that continue to transform the world as Jesus did. We are the people that continue to give our lives to something greater than ourselves and align our passions with the passions of God.
The story of Pastor Gulley and the agnostic man eating lunch together ended this way: after they took their last sip of coffee from their mugs and began to stand up and get on with the rest of their day. The man said to pastor Gulley, “You know,” he said. “I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leavers me cold.”
I hope that this is a place where the practice of this church will not leave anyone cold nor leave them feeling like an outsider. We practice the new life of resurrection here and I invite you to participate in bringing new life to those that deal with death – and the first cousins of death – in their lives. I hope that this is a place where you feel welcome … whether you are an agonistic or atheist … a progressive or conservative … whether you are into orthodoxy or orthopraxy (that means whether you are more into right belief or right practice).
I invite you not only to not just celebrate Easter – which we are doing today – but more profoundly important … to live it.
For living it is the only way that the world will be changed and transformed. Living it is the only way to make the good news good! And living it will bring you the gift of new life, renewed life, and abundant life … until we enter into the glory of eternal life.
Today we celebrate resurrection. Tomorrow we practice it!