Sermon preached by Fredrica Harris Thompsett
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Great Vigil of Easter – April 13, 2014
In the Name of the One God Who Greets Us on this most Holy Night!
Matthew, the author of tonight’s Gospel, is in a big hurry. Did you notice that? The words “suddenly,” “quickly” jump out in tonight’s Gospel text. The imperative verb “GO” occurs again and again. “Go quickly,” “go and tell,” “go to Galilee,” “go and see!” Go Team, Go! Go Women, Go! Sisters! Go to Galilee, “GO and tell your sleeping brothers!” Matthew urges them (in a version of this Parish’s Lenten theme) to “Do something differently!”
Among the four different Gospel versions of the Easter morning story, Matthew’s text is the most emphatic, the most dramatic. The story he paints was lavishly embellished in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie classic “The King of Kings: The Greatest Story Ever Told!” My partner and I recently saw this silent-era blockbuster, complete with live organ accompaniment dramatizing the atmosphere, speedily illustrating (with all stops out) the earthquakes, fire and lightning, whole mountainous cliffs collapsing, some guards frozen in fear, others fleeing in terror. Suddenly the two Marys are sobbing at the feet of Jesus, then running off, their diaphanous gowns blowing in the wind, unrestrained joy gleaming on their faces! This silent film is spectacular, deeply reverent, and, to say the least, a bit campy!
Yet, and yet, there is One, one character that seemed to me overlooked amid ALL the movement and drama of this silent film: the Nazarene Rabbi, the Teacher/Healer who suddenly appears as large as life in Matthew’s text. Even Cecil B. DeMille, with all of his newly exciting cinematic expertise and insight, even DeMille seemingly stumbled, as you and I might do, stumbled and maybe even was humbled by the task of imaging the beginning of something new and incredible. Perhaps, just perhaps, DeMille knew that we, each one of us, in community and alone, would have to fill in the details. How do we envision, how do we experience the Risen Lord? How will we admit the reality of God’s unrestrained love into our lives (a love unrestrained by death)?
The Anglican theologian, mystery writer, and author of BBC radio plays, the great Dorothy Sayers (of Peter Whimsy fame), once wrote that for Christians “the drama, the dogma, is in the details.” Dogma – now that’s a fancy church-y word for doctrine and for theology (“conversations about God”). Dorothy Sayers (like other Anglican theologians) believed that our theology as Christians, and especially in the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition, our theology is shaped by and reflected in the details of our worship.
Here at St. Paul’s on the Green our worship is traditionally full of drama. On this night, the richness, the details of ancient worship traditions are embellished, made anew. Tonight, for example, ALL of the sacramental elements are plentifully engaged. Who among us could ignore huddling in total darkness only to be met by the blazing New Fire; the singing of the Exsultet invoking God’s blessing; and our obligation heard, in Word and Canticle, to honor the long yet liberating testimonies of Moses and the Prophets.
Did you notice that before we GO forward toward the first Eucharist of Easter we pause, again with dramatic intent, to welcome Christians born anew in Holy Baptism. Welcome, radical welcome, is here expressed in the strong, expansive doctrine of Baptism. Baptism offered by a God who waits for each one of us with unrestrained love. Meghan, Juliane, and Ashley, your presence here is nothing short of a precious gift reminding each of us of the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the sacramental elements – fire, solemn words, oil, and water – are reverently, gracefully-bestowed on each of you. Later we too are splashed with words of remembrance. Meghan, Juliane and Ashley, you honor us by your presence in this grace-filled family of St. Paul’s. I thank you for leading us in recommitting our lives to Christ. On this night of all nights, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we all are invited to “walk together in newness of life,” to go, to go forth “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
How could we keep from noticing, with the St. Nicholas Trumpet sounding and the Carillion ringing, the first Alleluias of Easter! These Alleluias herald the Risen Christ, they announce as well the urgency of Matthew’s “Go Team Go, Go quickly, Go and tell, Go and Live Your Life Differently.”
The dramatic details in Matthew’s Resurrection text are well-matched by our participation in tonight’s solemn worship. Our task as a gathered community of everyday theologians, people thinking about and engaging God’s presence in our lives, our task is to go and share what we are learning of God’s ways in word and deed.
This year as we celebrate Easter I encourage you:
► Please notice the persistent tenderness of a God creating life anew.
► Please notice the Teacher/Healer bringing light into our darkest nights.
►The Holy Spirit bathing us with the forgiving and liberating waters of baptism.
►The Living Christ who dwelling with us in life, in death, and in life born anew.
Sisters and brothers, welcome the unrestrained love of a God who waits for us and walks with us, morning by morning and day by day.
Sisters and brothers, the Risen Christ bids us go forth, living our lives anew. Amen.
Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
Mary Wolfe Professor of Historical Theology Emerita
Episcopal Divinity School
Cambridge and Cape Cod, Massachusetts