Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day – April 20, 2014
The blessing of the victorious God, the risen Christ, and the resurrecting Spirit is upon us. Amen.
Bishop Tom Wright, New Testament theologian at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, says that “Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.”
Hope in person—the person of Jesus, falsely accused of rabble-rousing, brutalized, condemned to a violent humiliating death, buried in a cave—and, to the utter surprise of his cowardly band of friends—risen, alive, walking again among them.
A new study published in the journal of Psychological Science suggests that there are benefits to having your mind blown. Experiencing an astonishing event can alter ordinary perceptions. Researchers at Stanford University examined how things that “Wow” us, encounters of awe, can expand one’s perception of time. They found that they can actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down.
Instances of overwhelming awe bring us into the present moment, adjust our perception of time, influence our decisions, and make life feel more satisfying. People who felt “awe” were less impatient, more willing to give their time to help others, and less concerned with material things.
What could it have been like for those women who came to the tomb to complete the ritual of Jesus’ burial and pour spices over his dead body? Did time slow itself down—or seem to stop for them? Or the disciples when they went to the grave or heard the news from the women? What could it have been like for them? Hope in person surprising the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.
It’s a most compelling story. All four Gospels record it, with such dramatic details unique to Matthew’s account. The body of Jesus had been temporarily placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on Friday, since the final burial preparations could not be completed until after the Sabbath. Pilate had ordered the tomb be securely sealed and guarded so that no one could steal the body and claim his resurrection. When, early the next morning, the two Marys arrive there is a great earthquake and an angel appears and rolls back the stone, sitting there quite casually, inquiring of them whom they sought. “He is not here. He has been raised” is the angel’s news.
Resurrection: It is difficult to imagine. And the accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels are very forthright about how hard it was for Jesus’ closest friends and followers to understand and accept it. They were not expecting the resurrection. They did not believe it when the women first announced it to them. They had, remember, all scattered and hidden when Jesus was condemned and executed. Yet this band of ‘fraidy-cats was suddenly changed into an energetic body of effective evangels, spreading their faith, firmly offering the claim that Jesus lives.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the resurrection is what followed—the astounding transformation that occurred in the lives of Jesus’ followers who had recoiled in fear and then this astonishing transformation—the result of great awe?—audaciously proclaimed the risen Christ to a skeptical world. The fact that his disciples, given the obstacles presented by the culture in which they lived, and the opposition by the authorities to their mission, the fact that they were vitalized to preach the Risen Christ and would thereby change the world is one of the great miracles of Easter.
In Things Seen and Unseen, author Nora Gallagher, an Episcopalian who rediscovered her faith in God, 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.”
We are the ongoing story and our stories are all very different. Some of them include doubt, some certainty, most likely fall somewhere in between; but I believe that all of them have a chapter about hope; hoping there is something here to take away today—for hope is the anchor that keeps our feet firmly planted in this life, no matter how difficult our life may be.
Before he was a famous preacher at Riverside Church in New York City, William Sloane Coffin Jr. described a crucial transition on his faith journey this way: “Slowly, I found myself changing from the seeker who looks hoping something’s there, to the kind who knows something’s there, if only he can find it.”
The church is not filled today with those of us looking for Cadbury cream eggs or chocolate bunnies. We’ve come either hoping something’s here or knowing that there is and hoping to find it. We need Easter. We need Easter because our story includes horrible memories like the brutal stabbings of kids at a Pennsylvania high school, the tragic shootings of small children in Newtown, the increased aggression against the people of the Ukraine. Our story carries the memories of so many war-torn countries and places where our sisters and brothers are oppressed, tortured, and murdered.
We need Easter because an innocent 15 year old boy was shot in Shelton last month, because hundreds of family members mourn loved ones buried in a plane at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, because we know that 46 high school students taking a ferry ride drowned in South Korea this week and more than 200 are yet missing. We need Easter when we learn of the Nepalese guides who died on Friday in an avalanche or a mother’s loss of her son and father at the hands of a raging anti-Semite.
We need to know that there is something to this resurrection event because of the many chapters in our lives that contain sadness, anxiety, loss, and pain. There’s a Good Friday in all of us and we’re all longing to burst forth from the tomb that keeps us there.
Today we want to believe, we really want to believe, that the stone has been rolled away today to reveal the unimaginable: that hope triumphs over hopelessness, love triumphs over hate, justice triumphs over oppression, life triumphs over death.
In his weekly “E” reflection, Episcopal Bishop Stacy Sauls muses that so much of the sadness in our world makes Easter difficult to imagine. He says, “Easter, I am sure has never been more difficult to imagine than the first one. In the midst of hatred, loss, and broken dreams, resurrection catches us, as it did the first disciples, off guard, unprepared, and by surprise. Still Easter comes. It came on the third day following Good Friday.”
And it comes today— surprising the whole world, maybe even blowing our mind. We all need that. We need some awe. We need a “wow” moment. May you take a bit of it away with you today.
Do not be afraid. He is going ahead of you and there you will see him—in so many and unexpected ways—Hope in person surprising the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.”
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!