And the women came and found the tomb empty! This morning, Easter 2003, we are drawn into confronting a paradox. Taken from the Greek “paradoxan,” the word paradox literally means a statement that is seemingly contradictory to common sense and yet in a sense is perhaps true.
To illustrate this in a rather common way I would like to share with you a story. My wife Karen and I were flying from Miami, Florida to Los Angeles a few years back on a Boeing 747. As we approached LAX in Los Angeles we both became acutely aware that we were spending far too much time circling the airport. I noticed the other 240 passengers with connecting flights from Los Angeles were also becoming somewhat impatient.
And then came the news from the Captain. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure that by now you’ve been wondering why we have been circling Los Angeles for what must seem a long time. On our initial approach to the airport, the flight crew determined that we have experienced a hydraulic failure preventing us from engaging, among other things, the aircrafts wing flaps. Flaps are deployed to help slow the aircrafts landing speed. At the present time we are in contact with the tower and the aircraft’s technical people. We will be back with you in a few minutes. Now, don’t worry! Your flight crew has everything under control. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of your flight with us. And thank you for flying American!”
I looked at my wife Karen who was sitting across the isle from me. We nodded to each other. At the same time we both mouthed the word, “right!”
Ten minutes later the captain shared more news: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have determined that we will definitely not be able to lower the aircraft’s landing flaps. Don’t be alarmed! Your crew is well-trained to handle every conceivable “in-flight” situation. We will begin our final approach to Los Angeles in just a few minutes. We will be landing on the runway at a much greater rate of speed than you might normally be accustomed to. Also, as a routine precaution fire trucks and other emergency vehicles will be on the right hand side of the runway. Do not be alarmed! Incoming and outgoing air traffic from Los Angeles has been temporarily suspended to help expedite our landing. These are all just routine, precautionary measures.”
Looking out the 747’s windows I could see two television news helicopters hovering not far from the runway. Two elderly women sitting near Karen pulled out their rosary beads and were beginning to quickly wear them out. I looked at Karen and as the Captain said, “flight crew, prepare for landing,” we both simultaneously mouthed the word “right,” one more time. I am here with you this morning as a testimony to the fact that we did land safely but very, very fast, thanks to lots of reverse jet thrust, some burned-out aircraft brakes and a talented Captain and crew.
To me what was truly amazing in all of this was the “paradox” of it all. The bottom line was that we had a Boeing 747, fraught with hydraulic complications that could have crash-landed. But the Captain had so explained the paradox of the crisis that the crew could have come out into the isle and sung “When You’ve Come to the End of a Perfect Day,” and the passengers would have politely applauded.
Easter is the greatest day for Christians. It is also the celebration of a paradoxical event.
Today Christians throughout the world will observe Easter in their own, unique way. For us gathered in this great cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, “The National Cathedral,” we are gathered as one body experiencing a beautiful, timeless liturgy of the spoken and sung word that celebrates the great, holy mystery of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. As our culture continues to morph into more secular spirals, so do our celebrations of Easter. Modernity forces the continued conversations as to whether Jesus was actually resurrected. They are interesting but do not shake my faith in the living Christ.
Easter is the great paradox for the world because of its clear message that hate, ugliness, intolerance and the violence of human beings will always be overcome by the living Christ’s unconditional love, unending forgiveness and embrace of non-violence as the way to overcome violence, hatred and physical repression.
In the ongoing “paradox” attached to Easter by culture and a Christianity that continues to be in a state of metamorphosis and where diverse theologies have become part of contentious religious behavior, we need to understand that the respect and tolerance of diversity is the only hope for bringing peace, not only into the life of Christianity, the Episcopal Church and other great world religions but also in very truth to a world currently torn asunder by war and by the “real” axis of evil: poverty, disease and illiteracy. It is through diversity that we experience the very face of the living God that we celebrate during Easter.
Today we as a Nation are still engaged in a moderating, pre-emptive war with Iraq. We keep in our prayers today the men and women who currently serve in our armed forces and remember those on both sides of the conflict who have died or have been wounded. We pray for their families and loved ones. We pray as well for the many civilians, especially children who have died or have been wounded. Easter reminds us that war is the ultimate definition of human failure. We must be careful as a nation in using the theological concept of divine providence as a foundation for our political life. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and The Commonwealth has said, “Politicians have power, but religions have something stronger: they have influence. Politics moves the pieces on the chessboard. Religion changes lives. Peace can be agreed around a conference table, but unless it grows in ordinary hearts and minds, it does not last. It may not even begin.”
We need to be reminded, as we focus on the current war with Iraq, that during the three-year war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which still continues on this Easter Day, an estimated 2 million people have died. Where have we been in responding as a people to this horror? Where is the Christ in all of this?
From September 27, 2000, through April 16, 2003, 2,945 persons have died in the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict with 2,201 Palestinians killed and 744 Israelis. These numbers in no way reflect the horrendous number of injuries and destroyed lives that have been sustained on both sides. This war must stop! It is an abomination to both the sacred traditions of Easter and Passover and demeans the very corpus of the Koran! Where is the one God of all three Abrahamic religions in all of this? Where have we really been in responding to this horror?
As we find amazement and celebration in Christ’s resurrection, we are sobered by the present state of the global community. There are currently 1.3 billion people in the world (22% of the world’s population) currently living below the poverty line. 841 million souls are malnourished. 880 million are without access to medical care. One billion lack adequate shelter. 1.3 billion have no access to safe drinking water. 2.6 billion go without sanitation. Among the children of the world, 150 million are malnourished. Each day 30,000 will die of preventable diseases. As people of the resurrection these figures should jar us out of our complacency and force us to recommit ourselves to the Easter reality that God calls us into a new relationship with the resurrected Christ and that our responsibility is not to live in the world through inactive passivity but through engagement, and with the clear recognition that every human being is in truth a member of our own human family.
In the ongoing transformational paradox of Easter generated by our culture and a Christianity that continues to metamorphose into new multi-denominational mega churches and broadly diverse belief systems and theologies, the profound truth of the message of Christ’s victory over darkness and death can never really begin to be grasped in its mysterious unfolding, unless each of us reflects upon the experience of that message in his or her own life and remembers what it felt like to betray a close friend; or touch the weakness of their own character which gave them permission to hide behind the mentality of the crowd to condemn something that they didn’t have the courage to confront by themselves; or by placing the blame of one’s own behavior on someone else by rationalizing, “well, everyone else does it;” or by confronting the symbolic washing of our own hands in a particular situation by not taking responsibility for confronting the ugliness and unpleasantness in our own lives and in the world around us, just for the sake of expediency, our own self interest or our own comfort.
The grace of Easter’s mystery and the unconditional love of Christ for every human being cannot be understood solely by colored eggs, great gobs of chocolate, a sumptuous Easter dinner, the pure whiteness and fragrance of newly opened Easter lilies, gorgeous Easter music and rousing hymns of praise. Nor can it be purchased with the currency of a culture that secularizes Easter as just another day to sell goods and services.
The great promise of the Easter resurrection of Jesus is that by choosing to experience this confrontational, paradoxical encounter with reality and holy mystery, each one of us is promised an invitation to dance forever with the resurrected Lord of Life, and in that dance, our lives and hearts will be changed forever. But we have to accept the invitation; for it takes two to dance. Without acceptance on our parts there can be no Easter party.
This morning you and I have the opportunity to become the working hands, feet, eyes, ears and heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our confrontational, paradoxical encounter with reality and the holy mystery of Easter provides each one of us with a simple choice. It is the same choice that the very first disciples were faced with. They could either believe or disbelieve in the victory of Christ over death. Some did and others didn’t! Some of you already believe or will believe and others have not and never will. Oh how I wish I could give to each one of you the great unconditional love, acceptance and vibrant life that is available to any who seek it and are willing to risk the Easter confrontation with God. That acceptance will change your life forever for the good and will empower you to help change the world for the better.
For those who do believe, you will in fact become the hands, feet, eyes, ears and heart of Jesus. It is in our living and in our faith oriented acceptance of Him that he becomes known to the world. Is Christ really present in AIDS torn Africa? Is he present in the poverty, despair and violence of our American cities? Is Christ in Iraq, the Congo, Afghanistan, our jails and prisons? Is Christ in Palestine and Israel, in the broken city of Jerusalem? Is he there in 18 countries in Africa where one’s life expectancy is less than 50 years and in Sierra Leon where it is a mere 37 years? Is he there in America where children make up 39% of those who live in poverty? Is Christ here in the District of Columbia where we live with one of the highest rates of violent crime per capita of any state in the union and where human poverty statistics rank us 51st out of the 52 states in the country?
Christ is not visible anywhere unless we are there – to say enough to war and the violence, exploitation and indifference that destroys all of God’s children wherever they may be. Christ is not visible anywhere unless we are there to say that war is no longer an option for settling international disputes. Christ is not visible anywhere unless we are there to say that poverty is the result of exploitation, racism, selfishness, ignorance and apathy. Christ is not visible anywhere unless we are there to say that violence and oppression are the handmaidens of fear, intolerance and injustice.
Easter is once again God’s offering to you and to me to embrace Christ’s words to his first followers, “as you have done it to the least of these my friends so have you done it to me.”
Easter is now the time for all of us to make choices and to rededicate ourselves to the admonitions and teachings of the Prince of Peace.
Easter is once again that time where we have be given another chance – a chance to love one another as Christ loves us and to claim the truth that it is only through the gift of holy paradox that our gaze will ultimately be fixed on the very presence of God!