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Resurrection Stories

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These are stories that might give us hope at a time when hope can seem in short supply.

Today’s texts – John 20: 1-18 and Acts 10: 34-43

Pastor Phil

For Morgan William, new life came on a basketball court.

For Billie Moore, new life came on death row.

For Garry Civitello, it came in conversation with a woman named Heather McGhee.

I’m going to tell you a bit about their stories today because I think that in a variety of ways, they illustrate some of the central themes of Jesus’ resurrection story: life emerging out of death, goodness overcoming evil. I think their stories might give us hope at a time when hope can seem in short supply.

Morgan William sometimes gets called “Itty Bitty.” She’s a basketball player for Mississippi State University. But she’s not built like a basketball player. Her height is listed as 5’5”, but her coach says that’s a generous listing. “We need to re-measure,” he said, “because I’m pretty sure she ain’t the 5 on the second part of that.”

She is maybe closer to 5’2” or 5’3”.

This 20-year old junior rocketed into a moment in the national spotlight on March 31 during the Final Four game that propelled her team into the championship game for the women’s NCAA championship. But there is more to her story than that game.

Here’s what happened. Last year. Mississippi State lost to the perennial women’s basketball power – the University of Connecticut Huskies – in the NCAA tournament. They did not just lose. They were annihilated. They lost by 60 points – 98-38.

By the time they met again on that last day of March, U Conn had won 111 games in a row – a college record. They were the national champions the last four years. They were invincible. Almost.

In that game on March 31, Mississippi State and U Conn battled to a tie and then went into overtime. The score was tied in overtime with 11 seconds left in the game. Mississippi State brought the ball inbounds and raced down the floor, the clock ticking down.

With four seconds left, the ball went to Morgan. With one second left, she stopped, jumped and shot from 15 feet away from the basket. Swish…and the buzzer. Mississippi State had done the seemingly impossible. (Video clip)

That might seem like a resurrection story in itself. But Morgan William was a rising star even before then. In the game the week before that brought Mississippi State to the Final Four, Morgan scored 41 points, seven assists, three rebounds, one steal and one block. Itty-bitty simply dominated.

That day was the third anniversary of her step-father’s sudden death from a heart attack. He was the one who told her size and rankings “don’t mean anything.” She had dedicated her tournament play to him this year.

This is where Brett Favre enters the story. Those of you who know the legends of the Green Bay Packers quarterback from 1992-2007 know about that game on Dec. 22, 2003 against the Oakland Raiders. It was a critical game for the Packers’ playoff hopes.

But that morning, Brett’s father, Irv, died while driving his car. Irv had been an enormous influence in Brett’s life. How could Brett play this game? How could he not play it?

So Favre took the field. By the time the game was over, Favre had completed 22 of 30 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns as the Packers decimated the Raiders 41-7. It was one of the best games he ever played.
Do you see the common thread here? Out of death, came life.

One more note about Morgan William. I mentioned she played for Mississippi State. Until 1965, no black students were allowed at Mississippi State. Now their hero is a black student. Her roommate is a white student. In an era where the racial divides in our nation seem to be deepening, there was another sign of life and hope here.

Billy Moore did not have much hope in his life.

When he came home from an Army deployment in Germany in 1974, he was 22 years old. His wife was involved with a drug dealer and addicted to heroin. Billy took their three-year old son and moved into a trailer, but because his checks from the Army were going to his wife, it would take three months to get them changed. And he had no money.

He was getting desperate. Desperate enough to break into a man’s house where he heard there was a large supply of cash. The 77-year old man was home and shot at Billy, who then pulled put a pistol and shot him. The man died and Billy was charged with murder.

He knew he had done wrong. Very wrong.

“The minute the man died, part of me did too,” Billy said later.

He pled guilty. He expected to get life in prison. Instead, he got the death penalty and went to death row in Georgia.

He sent the family of his victim a letter. It said:  ‘If you can find it in your heart to forgive me I would appreciate it; but if not, I understand because if I was you, I wouldn’t do it either.”

A week later, he received a letter from his victim’s niece. “Dear Billy,’ she wrote, “we are Christians and we forgive you and pray to God for your soul and hope for the best in your life.”

Moore was stunned. He would say later, “This was showing me this is what real Christian people do. That really helped me because I’m still hurting and I’m writing to hurting people. And they’re helping me.” Their correspondence continued over the years.

His lawyer kept trying to stop the execution, but Billy was focusing on where God was in the midst of all this. Over 16-and a-half years, his execution was scheduled and postponed 13 times. As others in his cell block went to their executions, he immersed himself in studying the Bible, in leading Bible studies with his fellow inmates.

Then it looked like the end was at hand. Billy was moved into the deathwatch cell 72 hours before his execution. He filled out the final paperwork about the disposition of his body. He was terrified at a whole new level of what was to come.

Billy was being prepared for his execution when the sergeant came out and told the guards to stop. Billy had gotten a stay of execution – seven hours and 15 minutes before the scheduled time.

The advocates on Billy’s behalf – including the victim’s family – had prevailed. Billy spent a little more time in prison until his release in 1991. Now he is an ordained minister, working as a prison chaplain, traveling around the world speaking about the power of forgiveness. He remains in contact with his victim’s family.

Out of death, new life for Billy, new life for the victim’s family, new life for those Billy now ministers to. Goodness overcame evil. (Here’s an account of Billy Moore’s story.)

One more story. Some of you heard the first part of this story last August when I showed a clip from an extraordinary moment on C-Span. Heather McGhee, president of a progressive public policy organization known as Demos, was taking questions from callers. She is African American.

A man identified as Garry from North Carolina called in. He said: “I’m a white male and I’m prejudiced.” He talked about his fear of blacks. Then he asked, “What can I do to change? To be a better American?” (Video clip from C-Span)

Heather McGhee gently offered a few suggestions, but the story does not end there. A few days later, Garry found her on Twitter and messaged her. She replied and soon they were having a phone conversation, both of them nervous about how this might play out. It went well. They talked a few more times.

Then McGhee was in North Carolina for a speaking engagement, so she arranged to drive over to Ashville to meet Garry in person. They talked some more. (Video clip from North Carolina) Then he came up to Washington D.C. to meet her there.

Garry is a 58-year disabled Navy veteran. His understandings of black men and women were shaped by images he saw on television, by the common prejudices that are part of the white experience when it is lived in isolation.

With McGhee’s encouragement, he has found ways to, as he put it, “be a better American.” He read books about African American history. He stopped watching TV shows that play-up inner city crime or cater to racial stereotypes.

“My fears, my anxieties—those still linger,” he told McGhee when they met in Washington. “But I’m starting to see root causes.”

Then he took the next step, finding ways to engage people personally. He developed what he called a rating system. When he would encounter a black person, he would grade his expectation of how friendly they would be towards him. Usually it was a three on a scale where 10 was the best rating.

“Then I have a little conversation with them,” he explained, “like, ‘Wow, the traffic really got bad out this way,’ and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, it really did. How long you been living here?’ All of a sudden, I’m having a laugh with them, and I’m giving them eights and nines!”

Garry’s phone call to C-Span, his tracking down McGhee on Twitter, their subsequent conversations, changed his life. For him, it offers hope that others can change as well, saying, “There are probably a lot of other people like me who have these fears and prejudices.”

Out of the evil of racism came a new way of engaging those who differ from each of us. As McGhee said, “We have two options – to fall victim to our own protective bubbles, the ones that feed us the information that we want to hear; or we can seek to heal ourselves by creating spaces for open and authentic conversations with people who are ready and willing to listen and speak their truth, regardless of how painful.”

Let’s acknowledge that bringing death out of life, goodness out of evil, is not a straightforward process.

Morgan William was a star one night, her team lost the national championship two nights later.

Billy Moore avoided execution, but still lives with the nightmares of the night he killed a man and the tears of that man’s family.

Garry Civitello is working on overcoming his prejudices, but the nation still struggles with the racial divides that have been with us for centuries.

Of course, for Jesus and his followers, the resurrection changed everything – but Pilate was still in power, the Romans still ruled the world, the powerful held onto their wealth and exploited the poor. The resurrection offered hope of what could be.

As Jesus said in the prayer he taught his followers, may God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We can see the brightness at the end of the journey, but the journey goes on and we have work to do along the way.

I would like to end with a thought from my friend Jeff Vanden Heuvel, who is pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church just off Cottage Grove Road on Madison’s east side.

He was talking about people supporting one another in the aftermath of their grief, but his words could just as easily apply to the people who sustained Morgan William from her grief to her triumph, who walked with Billy Moore from the eve of execution to the work of ministry, who nurtured Garry Civitello as he swam against the tide of racism.

Here’s what Jeff said:

“Before there can be resurrection, there have to be people who come together in love. And when people come together in love, that’s the body of Christ. And where there’s the body of Christ, there is new life, there is resurrection.”

This Easter, may we be the body of Christ as we bring new life, as we bring resurrection to our world. And let us join together in a song of resurrection. It’s #245, “The Day of Resurrection.”