It is wonderful to have all of you here for what is the highpoint of the Christian year. This is the one day every year when just about everything seems over the top – trumpets, tympani, and flowers everywhere, long lines for services. I have to admit we clergy have been known to say to ourselves, “Why can’t it be like this every Sunday?”
I remember once hearing of a man who complained to the priest one Easter morning, “You know, I’m getting tired of this. Every time I come to church here you sing the same hymn, ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.’” Well, I want you to know that we’re actually here doing this 52 Sundays a year. And I hope you’ll come back again. I promise you, the crowds won’t be nearly so bad!
But if you are going to choose one day a year to come to church, this is the one. The music is magnificent, and everything here looks its best, including you. And this is the day when we explore the central claim at the heart of Christian faith – that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and because of that nothing in this world, not evil, not cruelty, not illness, not loss, not even death, can ever be the last word for us.
Do you find that a lot to believe? I think all Christians struggle with it along the way. For one thing, the world often looks more like Good Friday than Easter Day. I know it does for the people of Red Lake, Minnesota after a teenager shot to death ten of their friends and loved ones. I know it does in Iraq, in Israel and Palestine, among the tsunami victims in southern Asia. Every front page brings ample reason to grieve. And on a much more mundane level, pain and loss continue to make their way through our lives. Day by day our world often looks very much like Good Friday.
But for many Easter is hard to believe for more fundamental reasons too. It goes directly against our materialistic mindset. It challenges head-on our deepest belief that birth and death are the only certainties, that the only things we can know and trust are what physics, chemistry, biology, Madison Avenue, and television tell us, that “nothing but” is the real truth of our lives. Love is nothing but a feeling, or a survival mechanism. Life is nothing but a few years to enjoy before we die.
You see, from the beginning Easter has been confrontational. There is nothing subtle, for example, about the Easter story we just heard. It’s a string of startled discoveries. First Mary Magdalene, coming to visit the tomb of her Lord, is stunned to see that the stone at the entrance has been rolled away. So she runs to tell two of the disciples, and then they run to the tomb, and this time they see that it is empty, that Jesus’ body is no longer there. And then we see Mary again outside, talking to a man she thinks is a gardener, and in a moment of stunning recognition she realizes that she is seeing her risen Lord, back from the dead.
Now, what do you make of that? There are no efforts to win you over, no gentle bridges to understanding. Those followers of Jesus came to the tomb with their minds sealed tight in grief. The world had done its same old brutal business – killing off their Lord, reminding them, as if they needed it, that death and defeat are where everything is headed.
For all the differences in their reports of the first Easter morning, the four gospel accounts agree on this: that Jesus’ followers visiting his tomb heard news of earthshaking proportions: “Do not be afraid. He is not here; he is risen as he said; he has gone before you to Galilee. Go back to your homes and he will meet you there.”
That is the shocking Easter message. We shouldn’t assume somehow that it was more believable then than it is now, as if we are so much more sophisticated. Those disciples had invested their whole lives in their Lord. They knew how dead he was.
There is no way to my mind to conceive that these frightened, defeated disciples would make up a story of seeing their master again and galvanize themselves into a force capable of spreading their faith across the Mediterranean world. No, they saw something, encountered Someone, and that simply broke open the closed worldview in which they were living.
Easter says something immense—that the Source of all life, the Power behind the universe, is capable not just of creation, but of new creation. Those early disciples experienced something vast and nearly incomprehensible—that the God who brought the universe out of nothing into existence brought Jesus out of the nothingness of death into eternal life. Of course it’s almost impossible to imagine. And so we naturally keep the tombs of our minds firmly shut, the stone rolled securely in place.
But what if we let this Easter news begin to roll the stone away? What if we began to imagine a world where death is not the end, where God always has more life to give every last one of us? What if we saw that this world of loss and injustice and violence is not the last, dreadful word?
Of course it’s hard to imagine it. Remember it wasn’t easy for the first disciples either. Their first experience of the risen Lord was of an absence, not a presence. “He is not here,” they were told. Now go back home and look for him. Trusting that God brings life out of death can take years, even a lifetime.
In fact, I don’t know anyone who started out being a Christian by accepting the notion of resurrection first. It’s too outrageous, too much an assault on our shrunken worldviews. For most of us, trusting Easter comes slowly as we spend time learning about Christ, following him, coming to meals like this, slowly getting a sense of a dimension of love and holiness embracing all of life, including death.
Recently I had a chance to watch a movie made from the Broadway play called Wit. It tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a brilliant woman who is a crusty, demanding English professor, whose specialty is the poetry of John Donne, the 17th century poet and Anglican priest. Vivian is dying of cancer, and she seems to be going through it alone, having kept virtually everyone in her life at a safe distance. We watch her deal with doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and see her go through grueling chemotherapy. She is miserably sick from it, losing her hair and a lot of weight, and what’s more, the therapy doesn’t work. It’s a dark tomb of a world she’s in, and she uses her ferocious mind and wit to cope.
Strangely enough, though, the poem she keeps thinking and talking about is a John Donne poem about death that goes like this:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not soe,
For those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me…
It’s a poem mocking death. It belongs to the Easter world that Vivian seems to have missed. And yet it comes back, awash in the memories of her revered mentor, a distinguished professor who managed to etch it permanently in her mind. It ends in more proud defiance:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
In so many ways the great driving force in our lives is fear. Nations live in fear, our professional lives are haunted by fears of losing our jobs or not getting promoted. Our politics are often driven by fear of the polls. We fear illness and getting older. We fear violence and terror.
And to all these fears the risen Lord this morning says, “Do not be afraid.” He doesn’t say it, though, because hard things won’t happen to you. He says it because God has raised him from the dead, and that means no loss, no illness, no terrible mistake, can ever be the end for you. Death, be not proud.
On Easter Day a few years ago an English newspaper published an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the great Christians of our time, and in it the interviewer asked him his thoughts on Easter. Tutu smiled.
You have traveled to the Dark Continent [of Africa] for an Easter message for your readers. God has a great sense of humor. Who in their right mind would have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but awfulness? We were destined for perdition and were plucked out of total annihilation. God intends that others might look at us and take courage. At the end of their conflicts, the warring groups around the world—in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Angola and the Congo—will sit down and work out how they will be able to live together amicably. They will, I know it. There will be peace on Earth. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: ultimately goodness and laughter and peace and compassion and gentleness and forgiveness will have the last word.
That is a mind and spirit living in a bigger, brighter world than the one we usually inhabit. It is a spirit filled with hope that God isn’t finished with us yet. And it is that big-hearted, Easter hope that has made it possible for Desmond Tutu never to give up on his work for peace.
Any way you look at it, this Easter vision is an immense mystery. It says that the risen Lord is alive and here, speaking through the magnificent music and the beauty of this Cathedral, speaking through my words this morning, and through the bread and wine we will share. The risen Lord is at work in these troubling times, calling a divided world, a divided nation, a divided city, and yes, even a divided church, to new possibilities of reconciliation and working together. And this Lord is at work in you and me, opening our own tombs, calling us forward.
The play Wit takes a surprising turn near the end. Vivian’s mentor, now an old woman, comes to visit her, as Vivian seems near death. This sophisticated scholar brings with her as a gift not another great literary work but of all things a children’s book, a book about a love that will not let us go. And when she sees her gaunt former student near death, she lies down on her bed beside her, and reads this:
Once there was a little bunny, who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
“Look at that,” Vivian says. “A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it.”
“I will become a bird and fly away from you,” said the bunny.
“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”
No matter where life takes us, God will find us.
“I have seen the Lord,” Mary Magdalene said. “He is not here, he is risen,” the disciples heard.
“And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
What a vast world this day opens to us, because Christ the Lord is risen!