What a great day this is! Flowers everywhere, trumpets and tympani booming, great hymns and huge crowds. We clergy love this day. Here you all are in church on Sunday morning, just the way you’re supposed to be!
And, you know, we clergy are hopeless optimists. Every year as we look out over the vast crowds for Easter we fantasize that this will be the year we will hook you, and you won’t be able to help yourself, you’ll have to be back next week for more!
I remember another grand Easter Day a few years ago, when as usual I was greeting people who were filing out after all the hallelujahs. Among them was a young man who said to me something that in one way or another crops up whenever Easter rolls around.
“It was a great service,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?”
“Why, what do you mean?” I asked, as he moved by me.
“You know, life after death, resurrection… Don’t you think this is really a lot of wishful thinking?” And he was gone.
My guess is that his question is one that will linger for many of us when the last organ note has sounded, and Monday rolls around, and we’re headed back to work.
Isn’t it time, you might say, that we accept the fact that the only true things are what we can physically touch and see and measure? What you see is what you get—isn’t that right? Kids can have fantasy lives. But we grownups learn to quit whining, face facts, and get on with it.
And isn’t this Easter story really a lot of wishful thinking because we don’t want to face a world where death has the last word and where things often go badly, and where loss and suffering are woven through everyone’s life? In short, isn’t this world of ours really a lot more of a Good Friday world than an Easter world?
It was a Good Friday world for Mary Magdalene as she made her way to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. That’s what all of us sober realists would call the “real world”—a world where good people die unjustly, where we learn not to expect a whole lot, where things drift along to no particular end.
It doesn’t take much looking around to see Good Friday. The Iraq War grinds on with its agonizing toll of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed. The economy is tanking and taking with it the dreams of many Americans of owning a home and building a nest-egg. Terrorism, global warming, racial divisions erupting again in America, devastating death tolls from AIDS in Africa. The litany could go on and on.
And we all have our own lists of personal Good Fridays—a child struggling, a parent fading, a cancer battle that goes on, a marriage staggering, a job search that won’t end.
Good Friday. Maybe if we were honest with ourselves we would say that’s all there is to it, and get on with making the best of a bad situation. Jesus is sealed securely in that tomb. What you see is what you get.
And you know, there’s also a strange freedom we have if Christ is still buried in that tomb and all we have is Good Friday. For one thing, if we’ve just seen the tragic end of this man Jesus, it means we don’t have to worry about him unsettling us any more. All the time he was alive he kept saying and doing things that asked more of his followers than anyone wanted to give. Give yourself away, become a servant, turn the other cheek, serve the lame, the weak, the blind, the crippled, the outcast, the least and the lost. And so if Christ is still in that tomb, then we can be done with him. We don’t have to allow him to prod us, to confront us, and try to get us to see and care about things we’d rather not think about.
And it means we can just get on with living safe, small lives. I remember when I lived in Chicago talking one night to a lawyer in his mid-thirties who said that he and many of his friends were living with golden handcuffs. They were bored by most of their work, he said, but they couldn’t live without the big salaries, and they thought they would just ride it out until retirement. No hope, no thrill, no passion. Just hold on for another thirty years.
Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and poet, wrote a poem once about living in a familiar, materialistic Good Friday world:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready made…
Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
If Good Friday is all there is, then life is simple. Make good grades. Go to a good college. Get a job. Make some money. Have a few friends, a spouse, some kids. Sip a few drinks. Vote your pocketbook. Give up on the cities. Give up on church. Above all, don’t expect too much.
Not a bad way to live, you might say. That’s my point. In a lot of ways Good Friday is what we want. Our real wishful thinking just may be that Christ is still in that tomb. Then we don’t have to try or care any more.
But that is not what happened. When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb drowning in grief she saw that the massive stone at the door of the tomb had been rolled away. And of course she “knew”—thought she knew what had happened. She ran back and told her friends that Jesus’ body had been stolen.
Soon she was back again, and even when an angel asked her why she was weeping, she still didn’t understand. But then the Risen Lord appeared and she thought he was a gardener, and only when he called her name did she recognize him. “Mary,” he said. “Rabboni!” she cried. Mary was so clear about what was not possible, that she was unable to recognize the new life right in front of her eyes.
Of course this resurrection is hard to believe. It belongs to a world beyond the closed, materialistic space-time world of Good Friday. But as writer Walter Wink has put it, “We are just suckers if we let the reigning intellectual fashion decree that resurrection is unbelievable. What is believable changes from generation to generation.”
Take a time machine back a hundred years to when this Cathedral was founded, and tell those good people that passengers now travel around the world in machines called airplanes, defying the law of gravity. Tell them about this little gadget people can hold in their hand and talk to someone on the other side of the world. See if they believe you.
Tell them about black holes in the universe that have the capacity to suck whole galaxies inside them. Explain to them that what looks like a nice firm chair you’re sitting in is really made up of billions of flying bits of energy that come into existence for awhile and then disappear again. So much for the iron laws of nature.
The universe is getting stranger by the moment. We once said prayer couldn’t heal. Then we started talking about psychosomatic disorders, and some started to wonder. Now you hear talk about the placebo effect—that hoping and trusting have powerful healing value. Maybe all that laying on of hands and praying for the sick Christians have been doing for two thousand years wasn’t so crazy after all.
The Risen Lord’s appearance to Mary and the other disciples was the announcement that the stone has been rolled away from the tombs of this world, that beyond the cruelties of time, beyond sorrow and dying, beyond deathbeds and crying in the night, a new world is breaking in. Death is never the end for any of us.
But it wasn’t any clearer for them at first than it is for us. Mary was so focused on the “real” world of Good Friday that she couldn’t see the new life standing in front of her.
“Truth must dazzle gradually,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson, “or every man be blind.” It takes time for Mary and the disciples to understand what is happening. In the earliest appearances they are mostly confused, even afraid.
And, you know, I don’t know anyone who started out being a Christian by accepting the notion of resurrection first. It’s too big, too outrageous, too much an assault on our shrunken worldviews. For most of us trusting comes slowly as we spend time learning about Christ, following him, coming to meals like this with him, slowly getting a sense of a dimension of love and holiness embracing everything, including death.
Which world are you living in? A Good Friday world or an Easter world of hope and possibility and healing?
What if Christ is still loose, calling a new kind of Christian and a new kind of church to live his love in ways they never imagined? What if Christ still wants to turn our world upside down? And what if he wants every one of us to find our role, however grand or small?
What if we began to believe that this isn’t a closed world? That anything can happen. That Communism that looked as if it would go on forever could fall after 70 years. That racist South Africa could become a multi-racial society. What if we as a nation decided to become the world’s leader in ending desperate global poverty? What if we led the way to protect our fragile planet? What if we decided at last to have the honest conversation about race and racism we have been needing to have for decades? Those would be signs that the Lord of Life is loose, stirring new, risen life in all of us.
In that Wendell Berry poem describing Good Friday living he gives us another picture—of what life looks like if Christ is risen:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Ask the questions that have no answers…
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection, my friends. Live as if the Easter world were true. Refuse to be bound by the closed in tomb of this world. Stop making excuses and start doing things boldly. Give yourself to causes that matter, simplify your life so that you can really be present to it, work to make a difference in this world in the few short years you are given on this earth.
And keep your eyes open for this Risen Lord—when you read the scriptures or come to his meal of bread and wine or start to pray or begin to serve. Find a community of friends to help you see.
Could it be that the real wishful thinking is that this Christ is still in the tomb, safely put away?
And the hard news of this morning is that he won’t leave us alone in our death or in our life. No Good Friday will ever be the end. None. He won’t stop…
Opening doors, calling us, confronting us, healing us.
Because Christ our Lord is risen! Alleluia.