Easter Sunday

April 5, 2015

Bible Text: Mark 16:1-8 |

When I sat down earlier this week to read this morning’s scriptures, I was deeply moved by the Old Testament reading, actually, by Isaiah’s vision of a feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

Maybe it’s simply that after a long Lent with very little wine and absolutely no feasting, my response was no more than the craving of the meal I intend to eat when I leave here today. But really, my heart was responding to the recognition that this is the funeral reading.

You see, this Isaiah passage is one of the most frequently requested readings at an Episcopal funeral – this vision of a day when the feast on God’s mountain will be a celebration that God has swallowed up death forever; of that day when God will wipe away the tears from all faces, when the disgrace of God’s people will be taken away from the Earth: Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him.

When I meet with a family to prepare a funeral, I always tell them that in our tradition, every funeral is an Easter service. It’s an Easter service being celebrated on the occasion of their mom’s life, death and resurrection, of their dad’s or their child’s. It is an Easter service being addressed to God: “If your gospel is true – the resurrection real – then it must be true for this woman, for this man, for this grieving family.”

And here we are on Easter Sunday itself, hearing the same passage, invoking this same vision, our hearts yearning to believe that God is a God of redemption, that indeed: more powerful than hate is love; more lasting that death is life.

For the hope we cling to in every bereavement is the hope began this day – this day when the women came to the tomb to prepare Christ’s body for a funeral, and discovered there would be no funeral that day or ever. For there was no body and death was no longer. It had been swallowed up by God forever.

The women came to the tomb with a love so true, that even in Jesus’ death they were devoted to him. Their love was not bound by what great things he might have accomplished; it was rooted in who they knew him to be. And to the end of days these women will always be held in a place of honor. Death could not stop their love.

Resurrection, however, seems to have pushed them over the edge. When they arrived at the tomb they found the stone rolled away and inside the tomb a young man dressed in white who told them that Jesus had been raised: Go tell his disciples! But instead, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

The end. That’s how the gospel of Mark concludes. Even these women – who in the face of death are the exemplars of faith – when they are confronted with resurrection – now that’s too much. They run in fear, without a word to anyone.

I love the way Mark ends his gospel. These are the kind of people we can relate to. Because as much as our hearts deeply, deeply yearn for that holy mountain where death is swallowed up forever and tears are wiped away from all eyes, the truth of the matter is that resurrection faith, in this world filled with anguish, is very hard to sustain.

But hear this: We do ourselves a grave disservice when we imagine some ideal life of faith that is totally free of doubts. Doubts are not the antithesis of faith. I actually feel quite the opposite. Faith is learning how to live with doubts. The antithesis of faith is certainty – that smug, absolute confidence that everything you believe about God is rock solid and true. You’ve got it all figured out. People like that are very annoying.

Of course we don’t have it all figured out. We don’t even know how own bodies work. Scientific knowledge can still only take us so far before it all dissolves in mystery, to say nothing of our brains or our psychological complexity. So if we can’t even explain the workings of our own selves, how on earth do we expect to explain the mind and heart of God?

Faith is full of questions and doubts. But if you can learn to make your peace with them, then resurrection faith can live among us with substance and meaning and hope. It can help us to become the truer version of ourselves that we want to be.

Our spirits already know what resurrection hope means, even if we’ve never connected it with the church’s Easter message. We know it because our hearts were made to seek it and to love it when it emerges. Another way to say it is that our experience has already taught us to hope that love is a greater force than evil. All of our great stories, both real and fiction, insist upon it.

When we hear of people harboring Jews during the holocaust, at great risk to themselves, we celebrate their rebellion because it is the defiant insistence that love is more true than all the might of Nazi aggression. Even when they were found out and killed, their actions testify to an unconquerable truth.

When we hear of neighborhoods rallying together to support one another in the aftermath of earthquakes and floods, we instinctively recognize that that is real living – of humanity discovering its truest calling to love our neighbor as ourselves. Charity and community overcome isolation and vulnerability.

When we hear about a little league team that welcomes a kid with Downs Syndrome, then casts its striving for victory to the wind, when they discover the intrinsic beauty and rightness of letting him just run with abandon around the bases regardless of the outcome. We know – deep in our hearts – that that is real. Winning and conquering are meaningless in the face of loving. We know it when we see it.

Yes, this world is filled with violence and greed and fear and hatred. And what makes it all so awful is that we know it is wrong. What makes it even worse is when we admit that we are participants in it – when we defend and rationalize our choices because we foolishly believe that we’re benefiting from them. Our hearts know otherwise. Only love and the fruit of love have meaning in the end.

And so our spirits soar when we see love triumph over evil, because we are witness to the greater truth – to the eternal purpose of our very existence. And that is the fundamental glory of our Easter song.

The evil of the world slayed Jesus; jealousy and fear unleashed all their strength to destroy him. But evil was rendered  temporary when love revived the fallen. God is love and so God spoke into the depths, Rise my son. You will not remain the victim of lies and untruth and injustice. Rise and live into my eternal truth which alone will survive. The shades of death have no grasp on you.

The message of Jesus is fantastic – in both senses of the word.

Fantastic in that it sounds like fantasy – something too preposterous to believe.

And yet, fantastic because it is so wonderful.

This ancient story cannot die. Throughout the world: through cultures and classes – the rich, the poor – to people in the west and people in the east, the human spirit continues to resonate with this story and pass it on because its message is so universally welcome, its wisdom so timeless and recognized so deeply within our bones.

It’s fantasy and myth, some say, that at one point in time, in one specific location, in one particular man – Jesus of Nazareth – that the cosmic purposes of God and eternity should be realized. That in him all holiness and truth should reside and that – somehow – by his death and resurrection, God should accomplish the forgiveness of sin and the undoing of death. I know. I know. So ridiculous. And yet: why not? Why not be true?

If there is a God – and surely there must be – why not pick this way, this one particular way to be the fulcrum of redemption? For surely this world is broken and in need of redeeming. And the gospel message matches our needs precisely.

Why on earth do we think that keeping ourselves in a posture of fear and suspicion is more secure and reliable, than striding into the greater hope of love and mercy and grace? Because here’s the thing about Jesus: his life and his teaching correspond precisely towards what our hearts are already leaning. Everything about him resonates as a truer, more worthy way of living and being.

The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and lived out is an upside kingdom where giving is greater than hoarding; where pardon is stronger than bitterness; where faith is deeper than fear, and – ultimately – where love is truer than evil. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not some crazy conclusion tacked on to an, otherwise respectable life. To the contrary, they are of an absolute unity with the life he lived and taught. His death and resurrection vindicate the substance of how he lived.

As fantastic as our Easter story may be, its message is what our hearts want to believe and, dare we say? already believe. “Already”, because it claims the intrinsic human conviction that evil is foreign. Our native land is love. What is untrue must one day dissolve, and what is true strengthen.

In Christ, truth meets truth, then extends its hands to us in love: “Come home. God has made all things one: heaven and earth; divinity and creation. All that is true shall remain true forever.”

Jesus Christ is risen today. And today is not merely the anniversary of a day so long ago, so far from our experience. Today is today: in the midst of any evil, of ISIS trying to provoke an apocalypse in the Middle East; of racial tensions in our own country; of climate change; of cancer and divorce. Jesus Christ is risen this day. Love is still truer than evil. Forgiveness is still the greatest power in any relationship.

What we yearn for so deeply is already ours. For God has given us the gift of resurrection – a thing not merely hoped for in the great by-and-by – but lived into today. Choose to participate in such a life, and walk in it. When you stumble and fail, know that resurrection will be that day as well. For God’s is a mercy without limit and without end.

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