Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Easter Day – April 8, 2012
May the wonder of Christ’s rising be seen in every dawn, the love of God as wide as the skies, and the power of the Holy Spirit invite us into each moment. Amen.
The four-year-old in Sunday School was waving her hand franticly in response to her teacher’s question “Does anyone know what today is?” Unable to contain herself, she shouted out “It’s Easter.” “That’s wonderful,” said the teacher. “Now, does anyone know what makes this Sunday Easter?” A little boy in the back of the room answered, “Today is Easter because Jesus rose from the grave,” and before the teacher could say another word, the boy continued, “but if he sees his shadow…he has to go back in for seven weeks.”
Whether we are adults or children, it’s not easy to wrap our heads around the idea of resurrection. It is a mind-boggling concept—so much so that there will always be a tension between the Gospel of Jesus and the prevailing culture of the day. The tendency of the world of consumerism is to turn this sacred day into a Godiva Gorge or Bunnymania.
The mystery of this day of resurrection gets lost in the shadows of egg hunts, Easter bonnets, marshmallow peeps, and chocolate filled baskets. Not that there is anything bad about these commercial traditions but they can certainly distract us from the big picture. Easter, I think, carries a message that should raise the hair on the back of our neck. If it doesn’t, we’ve missed it.
Mark’s Gospel account tells us that in the darkness, a small group of women, followers of Jesus, make their way to the grave they left just the day before. It is Judea and in that part of the world, a body begins to decay at the moment of death. There was, of course, no embalming, so they covered the body of the deceased person with sweet-smelling spices, from which we likely get our modern tradition of sending flowers to remember the departed.
Apart from being such an astonishing story, the Easter morning account turns the mores of the prevailing culture of the time upside down on their head. In all four of the Gospels, the distinction of receiving and announcing the news of Jesus’ Resurrection was given first to women—not men. Understand that women were of no regard in first century Palestine culture. They were second class citizens. Look at some of the images of the way women are treated in Middle Eastern cultures today and we get a glimpse of what it was like for Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome. Jesus, however, is a barrier breaker. Over and over he taught that there is no partiality with God and there are no outcasts in the household of God. Jesus demonstrated that truth again and again—not the least of which was on the first Easter when the news of resurrection came first to women. They are central to the resurrection story in all the Gospels. They are the witnesses of both the very real death of Jesus on the cross and the amazement of the empty tomb.
On their way, the women realize that the tomb had been covered with a huge stone. How will they get in? “Who will roll away that stone?” they ask. When they arrive, they discover that, mysteriously, miraculously, the stone has already been rolled away. Cautiously, they peek inside. There is little time for them to figure out what has happened. What was to be their final act of tribute to someone they loved, bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body, becomes an ironic gesture in the face of their discovery. There they stand with the accessories of death confronted with the proof of resurrected life.
The “Easter faith” of the earliest Christians came not from argument—but from experience. They had no way of assembling a “body of evidence” to convince unbelievers about the resurrection of Jesus. All who were met by it called it the same thing. However unclear many things may be … there was a consensus in the early community that whatever it was that people were experiencing, the correct term for it was resurrection—Jesus was risen from the dead.
More than two thousand years later, the world still marvels at this mystery and still celebrates it, albeit too often with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks. So this morning I will not attempt to argue the truth of the resurrection or reason it out. Easter is something to be experienced, enjoyed, and wondered at and I hope that you leave here today with a sense that you have in at least a small way done all that.
Writing about 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 ongoing story.”
There is one question that I would pose to you on this Easter Day: What is the big, seemingly immoveable stone in your life experience?—the giant, obtrusive stone that needs to be rolled away; the stone that keeps you from discovering a richer and fuller life? Where have you encountered that kind of barricade?
Perhaps it is the stone of oppression, of hateful discrimination or intolerance that is so rampant in our world. Or the stone of denial of justice like we have witnessed recently in Florida. Or the stone of poverty and homelessness and despair. The stone of addiction that wreaks havoc and destroys relationships. What are the barriers that keep you from discovering something as astonishing as those women found in the empty tomb; What is in the way of knowing deep in your soul the unconditional love and acceptance of God?
I strongly suspect that, in addition to carrying those sweet spices to the grave, the women who came on that early dark morning carried something else—the human inclination and longing for good news in the face of a Good Friday world. Easter is, after all, a metaphor for hope because it promises that God will do for us what God has already done for Jesus. His resurrection two thousand years ago was not the end, but the first of many other resurrections to come and—if we keep our eyes wide open—we will see them all around us.
Hope tells us that there is a power at work outside ourselves that will help us carry on. Hope gives us the capacity to struggle even when we’re not so sure about the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
This morning, the Gospel proclaims this good news: although we are frail, mortal, confused, uncertain, finite human beings, and our vocabulary and experience is totally inadequate to understand and fully engage in the mystery of the Resurrection, God—the one who creates and gives life—is determined to be the creator, the renewer, the sustainer, the giver of life even in death. The last word about life is not merely an empty tomb. The last word is that God cares for us deeply and that God’s Way is triumphant. In the end, God will always roll away that stone behind which lies the hope for resurrected, recreated, grace-filled life.
Today we will say these ancient words once again: “We believe in Jesus Christ…who rose from the dead.” What we are really saying is that we believe that resurrection goes on and on; that God continues to resurrect lives. Every time we let God’s love rise in our hearts, every time we accept a call to live into some new and exciting facet of life, every time we raise up some person from the crypt in his or her life, we have experienced the miracle of resurrection—in fact, we are a part of it.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and preacher extraordinaire, says this about Easter: “By the light of this day, God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we remember that then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.”
When you leave this sacred place today, go out into the world today to live fully in hope, to live fully in love. May the light of Christ gloriously rising dispel the darkness of your hearts and minds and empower you to make a difference, to move some gigantic stones, and to be the unfolding story of Easter today, tomorrow and forever. Amen. Alleluia!