Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
Easter Day – April 24, 2011
May the wonder of Christ’s rising be seen in every dawn, the love of God be as wide as the skies, and the power of the Holy Spirit invite us into each moment. Amen.
Today churches around the world are full of all kinds of people—some who come with great faith in the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, some who come because of years of tradition behind them or who are drawn in by splendor of the worship of this day, some who are full of doubt, some outright denying that such a thing as resurrection is at all possible.
Yet they come—we come—because of a story told every year for the past two thousand years about how on the first Easter morning some women who had gone out to the tomb of the newly buried Jesus returned to tell his cowering band of friends the most unbelievable news they had ever heard.
These women said that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus had risen from the dead. To these rationally thinking first century males, it seemed like an idle tale. It would not remain so for long. They, too, would encounter the risen Jesus and would be the witnesses who passed on this unbelievable news that would completely change the world forever.
The accounts of the Resurrection in all four Gospels should be comforting because they describe how difficult it was for Jesus’ closest friends and followers to understand and accept it. Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb “with fear and great joy,” but Mark’s version says that “terror and amazement seized them.” Even Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, doubted until he saw it for himself.
The Resurrection is, as theologian Karl Barth once asserted, “a difficult dark truth and a word that can scarcely be tolerated by our ears.” He says that we are threatened by resurrection because we do not like to admit that we are deeply imprisoned in our world and incapable of helping ourselves. “Admit it,” Barth dares, “there is no way out of this life with its thousand festering needs. Nothing except the possibility of a miracle can help us.” Resurrection is a call from God into the depths of human suffering and death, “Rise up!” says God. I summon you to life!”
Longing as I am for the real presence of spring, I was musing this week about what it must have been like for the very first human beings on this planet when they experienced what we know as “winter.” Bare trees, the absence of color. Darkness, Cold. Snow and ice. Gone were the green grasses and plethora of species of flowers. Death prevailed. It must have seemed as though the world as they knew it was slowly dying. “What if this is all there is?” may well have been their hopeless question.
Months passed and at last a bud appeared on a tree. The ice and snow melted. The daylight lasted longer. The sun warmed the earth and the gentle rains rejuvenated the grass and flowers burst forth from the tomb the earth had become and there was life all around—abundant life. How truly amazing that must have been for our ancient ancestors! That is what we celebrate today: the call to life from our God. And for those who lived millions of years ago, experiencing the transition from the dark death of winter to the rebirth of spring, it must have been an almost unbelievable event—a veritable resurrection.
Yet you and I may take this annual transformation of the earth for granted and the new life that is ushered in by spring seems a natural phenomenon whereas the raising of a dead Jesus seems so unnatural.
Writing about a year in her life as an Episcopalian and as a woman who rediscovered her faith in God, Nora Gallagher in Things Seen and Unseen describes an Easter Day experience in church “Belief and disbelief in the Resurrection,” she says, “trade places in my heart like watchmen taking shifts. I’ve known for years that even those words – “belief” and “disbelief” – don’t really describe what I think when I think about the resurrection.
“Something happened to him, is the way I put it to myself. Something happens to me. Because Jesus lived fully in hope, fully in love, something happened to him. Nothing kept him, nothing held onto him, the past didn’t weigh him down. Nothing is hopeless any more.
Then the watchmen take their shifts. I think this is amazing, and then, how do we know it’s true? We could be making all this up sitting in the pews. The people in front of me stand up one by one and walk forward to the communion rail. I get up to join them. Whether or not I believe in the resurrection makes no difference, if I don’t make a different life. We are the on going story.”
We are the on going story and in each of our stories there is a Good Friday chapter—maybe even two or three—a chapter that tells of our brokenness, pain, rejection, illness, loss, shattered dreams. We desperately want the next chapter of our story to be one of hope, one of God’s call to life, one of transformation, one of resurrection.
My ears perked up this week when a member of our Tuesday morning study group related this story to us: “Around Easter time, back when our daughter Jessica was about three and a half years old, her mother decided that there had been quite enough of Easter bunnies and cuddly little rabbits in the markets and stores.
“So she sat Jessie down and explained the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and ended by saying, “Now, isn’t that amazing?” “No,” said Jessica, “Snow White did it too.” You may want to try a different approach.
If we reduce the mystery we celebrate today, the miracle of Easter, the cornerstone of the Christian faith to the Easter Bunny, jelly beans, decorated baskets and egg hunts we have cheated ourselves and our children out of one of the great gifts that is offered: to hear the Resurrection story as a story that teaches that, in the times of our lives when things seem most impossible, most unattainable, most hopeless, we can trust in the possibility and attainability and hope of God’s power to give life and expectation and faith and grace.
Today churches around the world are full of all kinds of people, yet the one common thread that unites us is the reality that the resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate is a huge belief to accept—one that may take a lifetime to fully wrap our head around—yet one that is so compelling because of our intense human longing for something beyond what our limited minds can grasp. We all want to be people of hope, even in the face of death and devastation—especially in the face of death and devastation.
The strange reality of this day of Resurrection is that when Jesus died, hope died. His closest friends grieved and trembled. Life as they had known it with him had ended. The public was scandalized. The Temple leaders cheered the loss of a huge troublemaker. It all collapsed—fore both his followers and detractors.
In the end, out of death and loss and apparent failure, came new and stronger life—a small community that grew and thrived and flourished and spread its influence throughout the entire world, teaching us that hope prevails over despair, love prevails over hate, freedom prevails over oppression, life prevails over death.
And so it does for us—in the chapters of our story. A good friend of mine lost her husband very suddenly and unexpectedly last November. Days later she fell and broke her leg. In March, realizing that her grief was more than she had bargained for, she resigned as rector of the parish she had served for eighteen years. On Good Friday, she posted this on Facebook: the thing about new life is….it’s not the same as the old one. So Jesus tells us today through his resurrection when one phase ends, a new one arises. Sometimes in order for something to be born anew, something has to die.
The challenge it not to spend too much time grieving what we have left behind so that we will allow new grace to flow through us and embrace the truth that this day shouts out to us: Resurrection strikes failure to the core. “Rise up,” says God, “I call you to life. I call you to life.”