May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be rightly acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen. Today we have gathered, once again, to make one of the most remarkable, indeed, one of most outrageous claims of human history: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
We are here this morning at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Washington National Cathedral and a House of Prayer for All People. We have come to proclaim that God is victorious over the three enemies of human existence: our natural, historical and spiritual foes. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the Jewish celebration of Passover occurred at a time when people already in the land were already observing an agricultural spring festival. The first fruit of the crops was a fertility feast. God’s victory over the death of winter and the natural enemy of human kind.
The children of Israel included this celebration in their annual remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt. God conquered Pharaoh and brought to God’s chosen ones out of slavery into freedom.
And so Passover became a two-layered event. The Jewish people not only remember God’s acting in human history almost 4,000 years ago for their release. They continue to expect future victories when all their enemies are vanquished. At the Passover Seder the gathered families and friends cry in union, “This year in exile; next year in Jerusalem!” This is God’s triumph over our political period.
And with the resurrection of Jesus the Christ proclaims God’s victory over the final enemies of sin and death. The love of God for men and women has defeated human alienation from God. On the cross, our atonement, at-one-ment, has been accomplished. And as the writer of the Song of Solomon knew so long before that, “Love is stronger than death.” And as St. Paul said to the Church at Rome, “Nothing, no nothing, can separate us from the love of God, not even death.”
And so in the resurrection our spiritual foes are vanquished.
There is a 8th century hymn by St. John of Damascus which makes clear the fact that Easter is indeed a three-layered festival. “Come ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness; God has brought his Israel into joy from sadness. Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, Jacob’s sons and daughters led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters. ‘Tis the spring of souls today, Christ has burst his prison. And from three-day sleep in death. as a son has risen. All the winter of our sins long and dark is flying. Welcomes into his light from whom we give laud and praise, undying. Neither might the gates of death, nor the tombs dark portal, nor the watchers, nor the seal hold thee as immortal. But today amidst thine own thou didst stand bestowing, that thy peace which ever more passeth human knowing.”
So then, what our, yours and my, response to the God who has conquered our natural, historical and spiritual enemies?
First, it is to have the eyes and the heart and the mind of faith to see the resurrection. Christ is risen is a sign of God’s remarkable act of redemption and outrageous love for all of God’s creatures. Like God’s gracious act of creation, God gives us free will. And once again, in the resurrection, resurrection is a sign—and we are given the freedom to choose—for proof coerceth, and a sign provides us with a free decision of faith.
And so we are called then to be believers, those who see this sign, as a sign of live here and of life eternal.
And our second response, like our Jewish brothers and sisters at Passover, is to hope to expect that God’s victory is ultimate, even in the face of continuing natural, political and spiritual destruction. It is that faith and hope in God’s amazing love that gives some people in Honduras, in El Salvador, and today in Montana and Minnesota, the courage to rebuild and plan for the future after the natural disasters of hurricane, earthquake and flood. It is that same hope, that same faith in a resurrected God of incredible and outrageous love, that gave Desmond Tutu, then the Archbishop of Capetown, the strength in September of 1998. That was at a time when apartheid was worse than it’d ever been. To lead a throng of 30,000 people out of St. George’s Cathedral there, to the City Hall, and to shout to those who were inside the government building, and say to them, even when oppression was the worse, we have already won! We have already won! Join us. For we are victorious!
And it is that same faith and hope in the never ending eternal love of God made known in the world by justice, that allows or even causes the human spirit to know that the monstrous evil of the Holocaust, the evil of the lynching of two young men, Emit Till and James Bird, and the evil of the crucifixion of Matthew Shepherd. All the worse that human kind could do are not the final word. And at death, and their death, were not in vain.
And as our final hymn that we will sing in a few moments tells us today, “Someday, someday we will surely know God’s joy, God’s justice, God’s love, and God’s praise.”
I want to close this morning with an Easter story that is so personal, so real. It’s a sign of the resurrection that in my mind comes as close to proof as I can see. It was a story that was written about in the Washington Post on Good Friday. And some of you may have read it. But when I challenge you this day, as we leave here, is to know that there are Easter stories all over the place. But it is the eyes and the heart and the mind of faith to see those stories of resurrection.
This is the story of a woman named Deborah Johnson, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. And it’s a story about an Easter dress. It’s frills and bows, ribbons and chapoes, eyelets and smocking, and sock trimmed in pink. It is shoes the size of eggshells and colors just as bright. It is fashion for the younger set. Sweet frippery that sings of spring and celebrates new life. But for Deborah Johnson, the Easter dress is even more than all that. It is the constant. So much else in her life is changed in her 49 years. She watched her downtown Annapolis neighborhood of upstanding row houses go from being the best in the neighborhood to a place where drug deals go down outside her front window. She watched her eldest daughter graduate from college and then find trouble instead of a job, leading Johnson to raise her three grandchildren, two small boys and a five year old girl. Which means that the Easter dress is back once again.
Johnson has gathered, as the story tell us, at the Boys and Girls Club in Annapolis with those who have brought their children to a safe place to swim and to be together. It is in this same Boys and Girls Club Johnson’s eldest daughter grew up. She was the bright one with the sparkly eyes and long hair. One of the women there knew her. The daughter is now in Mississippi, or least Johnson thinks so. “I lost her to the world,” she says. The other women nod. That the harsher realities of peer pressure and drug deals and lives gone awry should come up so quickly and so easily while discussing the lure of lace dresses says something about the need for Easter, the need to believe that all things will turn around, that new beginnings are possible. It isn’t just the way that one of the women exalts in Easter displays, but as she puts it announces, “It’s spring, and we’ve got some pretty colors.” And it isn’t just the way that another woman, with relief says, “Oh it seemed like warm weather was never going to get here.” And it isn’t just the reality of Johnson’s older, wiser words that tell these younger women, “Don’t get too excited yet; it’s going to rain for a while.” It is this. It is what Johnson confines as she and her granddaughter take the Easter dress out of its wrappings. And that she will wear this very day. “My daughter called last weekend,” Johnson said, and she says, “will you pray for me?” And I said, “I always do.” So much as changed in the 49 years of Deborah Johnson’s life. But amid the upheaval, she has held on to one essential constant—hope. And so today, we have come to this place, you and I, with great joy and praise saying, “Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” For the unconditional love of God has triumphed over all our enemies. And hope in that remarkable proclamation conquers all our despairs. Christ is alive, let Christians sing. Amen.