As a native son of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have a Saturday ritual that often finds me when time permits, listening to National Public Radio and the Cambridge based Tappet Brothers, “Click and Clack,” the diagnosticians of internal combustion.
On one particular Saturday morning they shared this story. A Husband and wife were in conversation about the wife’s impending birthday. Now the wife had always wanted a Corvette and took the opportunity to express her desire in a somewhat circuitous way. She said to her husband; now it’s my 50th birthday and I would like to ask you for a special present. On my birthday I would really love something that is bright yellow and goes from 0–200 in less than seven seconds. Her husband nodded and the conversation ended. Several weeks later on her birthday she received a number of small gifts and then her husband presented her with a somewhat strangely shaped box that was handsomely wrapped and topped with a bright yellow bow. Thinking that it was a model of her most desired birthday gift, she carefully opened the box and to her shock, pulled out a bright yellow bathroom scale. Need I say more about her surprise and disappointment?
Now if there ever was a story of paradox, this is it. And yet paradox is at the very heart of the Easter message. Paradox from the Latin “paradoxum,” is defined as a statement or event that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet perhaps is true.” William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain at Yale, Pastor of Riverside Church, good friend and mentor who died and went home to God this past Wednesday re-told this story of paradox, offered by the founding pastor of Riverside. “The world has tried in two ways to get rid of Jesus: first, by crucifying him, and second by worshipping him.” Jesus doesn’t ask us to worship him. He said, “Follow me.” Coffin adds his wisdom to an understanding of paradox by saying; “Faith is a matter of being faithful. It is not believing without proof; it is trusting without reservation. No easy task. But faithfulness is joyful. As it has been sung thousands of times in Handel’s Messiah, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Now there is a biblical paradox if there ever was one!
I am struck on this Easter morning by the paradoxical narrative of John’s Easter Gospel. Mary Magdalene, a woman whose character has been questioned by some and is often referred to as a woman of ill repute, is the first to encounter Jesus and his victory over the cross and death. Although mistaking him for a gardener at first, she is overwhelmed by the reality in conversation with angels, that she has just encountered Jesus who has come back from the dead and is in process of ascending to his father. It is curious and filled with paradox that the most valued and respected of the disciples travel to the tomb and find it empty, and then apparently keeping the news to themselves, return quietly back to their homes more than a bit confused. On the other hand, it is Mary Magdalene who is filled with the reality of Christ’s victory over death and who runs wildly back to the disciples to convey the joyous news. How curious and paradoxical that God should choose the least among the chosen ones, the one with the questionable background, to convey this great Easter message. How very strange and paradoxical it is that the person with the most tarnished of reputations among Jesus followers should be the one God would choose to convey Christ’s victory over death, instead of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples.
Interesting isn’t it how God reveals himself to us and to the world? And if there is any merit to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s victory over death as recounted in John’s Gospel, it should cause us to pause and think why this might be so. The power of Revelation 21:5 takes on an even more mystical nuance when it is said; “behold, I make all things new.” And in 1st John 2:8-11; “Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person, there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”
The Easter message is really a message not only about the resurrection but it is also a message for those who have faith in the living God as we know him through Christ. And it is living into that faith that will transform us into a new creation, a new being, not humbled and broken by the way in which the world might judge us, but by the liberation, freedom and joy that comes from being accepted and forgiven by the risen Christ. And it is that reality that lifted up Mary Magdalene to a level above the disciples.
Another story of paradox involves a youngster of 13 that Karen and I knew while we were in seminary in New Haven. His name was Andre and he was severely handicapped as a Downs Syndrome child. Not long after his birth he was rejected by his parents and sent off to a place where they warehouse people who are not able to fit into society because of their handicap. Andre was a child who possessed no value to society. Or so it seemed. One of my professors who was visiting another patient ran into Andre one day and was exposed to some colorful images he had scribbled on a piece of paper. They were images hard to identify as being anything but colorful blotches, but through more careful inspection the professor saw images of what he thought were birds, trees, bumble bees and suns. Eventually other seminarians went out to visit Andre, and with Andre’s hard work and the patience of an excited and dedicated staff, Andre started to draw many beautiful and brightly colored images that began to take significant shapes. Primitive in their design, the birds, bumblebees, trees, suns, and even buildings that Andre captured through his gifted eye were committed through acrylic paint to posters, and murals. As he became encouraged by others who could see God’s gift in him he began to paint in religious themes and his art now became transposed onto religious vestments; stoles and chasubles, altar frontals and banners. His work became celebrated and was shown throughout the United States and even in Europe. One night Karen and I attended one of his shows at Trinity Church on The Green in New Haven. Socialites, art critics, collectors and others swooshed about the display of Andre’s work in amazement, while Andre shyly sat in a corner by himself, in his own world untouched by all the fuss. Andre had a hard time feeding himself and he couldn’t talk, but God took that which was of no account, that which had been discarded and deemed to have no value and forced the world to confront God’s living presence in a most unimaginable way. Andre lived for a short while, his condition finally taking his life at the age of 18, but Andre’s gift to the world lives on. The chasuble that I will wear at the celebration of the Eucharist this Easter morning was painted by Andre and was a gift given on the day of my ordination to the priesthood. It is a constant reminder to me and hopefully to you to never to lose sight of the Easter message of resurrection and the wonderful and mysterious ways of God; for that which was cast down has been made new. On one side of the chasuble is Andre’s vision of the world, replete with the tree of life, surrounded by birds and bees. On the other is a cross embellished by brightly colored suns. This was the joy of Andre’s world and it was a gift to all of God’s creation.
Unfortunately we haven’t yet mastered the power of God’s Easter message. We continue to discard the Marys and Andres of this world as having no place, no meaning no relevance. Our sensitivities are dulled by our own material wealth, our love of things and our own judgment of who has value and who does not. With our own self righteous insensitivities too often amplified, we are oblivious to the ugly and contemporary side of paradox.
We live in the richest, most powerful, most educated nation in the world and yet within our borders 13 million children live in poverty, countless millions go to bed hungry every night, and over 48 million have no health insurance. Our own public school systems are in a state of collapse and are a product of an American apartheid, where too many inner city schools are made up predominantly of persons of color, and diverse cultures who live in poverty and where spending per student, and clean, safe and adequate school facilities and programs are dreams only to be lived out in the wealth of the suburbs and within the growing private school sector. The division between classes based on income and wealth continue to widen, and the Civil Rights Act and the gift of Brown vs. the Board of Education seem now to be too often distant memories of the past. Our public schools are more segregated today than they were more than 40 years ago. Believe it!
If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more fortunate than one million souls on the face of the earth who will not survive this week, If you have never been a participant in war, or been imprisoned or suffered torture at the hands of your captors, or suffered the pangs of hunger, you are ahead of 500 million souls on the face of this earth. If you attend church or a religious meeting without being harassed, arrested, tortured, or put to death, you are ahead of three billion people in the world. If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world’s population. If you have money in the bank or in your wallet, and spare change in a dish or jar at home, you are ahead of a large percentage of the world’s population. If you have parents still living and married you are rare indeed. If you can read your Prayer Book, Hymnal or Cathedral service leaflet, you have been blessed: someone cared enough to support you on your educational journey, and you are ahead of two billion people in the world who can neither read nor write. It is imperative that we get beyond the beauty of Easter flowers, the Easter liturgy, and the stained glass windows that tell the story of Jesus, the Apostles and the early Christian Community. And we need to ask ourselves these very critical questions: What does the celebration of the resurrection really mean? What does it mean to our spouses, our partners, our lovers, our friends, our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren? How is it understood by the paradox of a secular world that defines Easter by chocolate bunnies, yellow marshmallow chicks, colored eggs, Easter spiral cut hams, flowers of all kinds delivered by the truck load, and religious services attended by millions around the world? What does it mean to be an Easter people here, now and in a world and country of paradox?
To be an Easter people means to claim a relationship with Jesus Christ that is based very little on history and far more on relationships, the unknown mystery of unconditional love, the active, living presence of God in our current world and an earthly journey compassed and directed by faith. It means “fessing up” to not having all the answers, theologically or otherwise. It means standing up and saying, maybe I don’t have a clear understanding of the resurrection, how it happened or what ultimately, did occur. But in some mysterious and wondrous way, God simply came to be understood in and through the human spirit, by the witness of outcasts, and in the form of Jesus. And as a gentle reminder, the world still cannot tolerate such proximate love and liberation, and so it simply continues to try and kill the reconciling and unconditional presence of God. But in truth, no one, not even the world can kill God, the power of life, the embrace of love, the warmth of compassion and the excitement of passion.
Easter is a timeless concept filled with paradox. It cannot be purchased through the constructs of history nor can it be defined by the embellishment of myth. Easter can only be understood by taking the risk of living into it by stepping out in faith. By taking such risk, each one of us will encounter the real presence of Jesus who could not be consumed by death, or corrupted by corruptible churches, theologies, or governments.
For it is Easter that reminds us that there is nothing stronger than love, not even death, and that as Bill Coffin used to always remind me; “faith puts people on the road, hope keeps them there and indeed love makes the world go around. Despair is not an option.” There should be nothing stronger than responding to our neighbors’ needs. There should be nothing greater that living into the joy and new possibilities that are offered to you and me through the resurrected Jesus. For today we can cast off our old selves and become a new creation. May this Easter be a time of new beginning for each one of us.