Easter Sermon 2004, Rev. Joseph T. Nolan
The English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote these words: "It is rumored of God Almighty / that he has made us in his own image. / Pessimists complain. The Creator betrayed us, they say, / And life is a self-defensive scrimmage." It seems to fit, doesn't it. I think we all come here out of a "self-defensive scrimmage." It's called survival, the struggle to stay alive. And pay taxes. Or get your children educated, with only $30,000 to go. Or, perhaps, get yourself through college, into your career, married, the whole five-ring circus.
And then all of our struggles to enjoy life are consumed by death. But we come to Easter with the hope that the pessimists are wrong—because if we belong to the Eternal, the Holy One, then we are held, caught up, and loved more surely than parent ever held, raised up, and loved a child. We belong. And one day, all our "longing to be" will be fulfilled.
But it is risky to come to church on Easter because you are asked to believe something and to do something. Both are difficult. The first is to affirm your belief in the risen Christ, and to believe that your own existence is not a dead end but an invitation from God. The whole of life is always that—an invitation from God.
What are you asked to do? Nothing less than to live the Christ-life. And: worship, the lovely thing we do right now, in our Easter clothes and with alleluias, is only part of it. The rest is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give homes to the homeless, visit the sick and bury the dead, to do all the works that make the reign of God appear.
The Christ-life means you should bring peace, not war, into your conversation—and your politics. It means you should be consumed, you should be on fire for justice and integrity—in yourself and in the community. Your presence at the eucharist is part of a covenant. You affirm it today by renewing our baptismal vows. But we seal it when we come to Mass by saying "Amen" at the Communion, when you receive what we are—the body of Christ. We must not take these things lightly if we wish to respond to God's love—if we wish eternal life.
Let me pause here for something important, the Easter joke. It's a centuries-old custom that began when people decided the joke was on the devil—he thought he had gotten rid of Jesus, and then he's back again! So we should laugh—there are tears aplenty in life, but in the end, we should be a joyful people. I agree with all this. But I hate looking for a joke you are sure to laugh at! My friends try to help and what they offer is awful. So, I'm going to repeat a winner from last year, because many of you weren't here.
It's about a little girl in Sunday school who read the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale. She liked it very much but her teacher, a rather smarmy type, said, "Now you know, Marie, that it's only a story—science has proven that it can't be true. Whales can't swallow anything bigger than plankton (whatever that is)." Marie said, "Well it says right here that the whale swallowed Jonah and I believe it. And when I get to heaven I am going to ask him." The teacher wouldn't let go, and said, "Suppose Jonah doesn't go to heaven. Suppose he goes to hell?" Marie said, "Then you ask him."
(I knew it was a winner.) I prepared another one, just in case. It's really not a joke. It's a true story about a pious lady who did not have long to live and faced her dying with equanimity. She told her pastor that she wanted two things in her coffin: her bible and a fork. Yes, a dinner fork. He said to her, "The bible I understand, but why do you want a fork?" She said, "All my life, I've been to church suppers where they make those marvelous pies and when they clean the table after the main meal they always tell you "Keep the fork—the best is yet to come.' And that's what I believe now—the best is yet to come."
No, the point of that story is not that you will have the perfect apple pie (or strawberry rhubarb, my favorite) in heaven! If that disappoints you the answer for this, and everything, is: trust God.
To be serious again—nothing is more serious than dying. And death is so real, so ever-present. And resurrection is—what? I really want you to remember this—Resurrection is God creating. And thus it remains a mystery, even as the first creation. In our revelation God is identified as love—agapaic, self-giving love. And love in our experience is life-giving, it is powerful. In the Song of Songs love is called "a flame of Yahweh," a fire of the Lord—many waters cannot extinguish it—not even the flood-tides of death.
But this is poetry, metaphor. Is there any way to give it flesh, to see it work out in person? Yes, God proposed to let the power of love, of good surmounting evil, even death, be exemplified in the life of a man. He would have a body like ours, eat and drink and love as we do. His flesh would give him pain as well as pleasure. His spirit would grow weary. He would be tempted, as we are, to give up, to doubt the whole enterprise. He would die. But then he would be raised from the dead, as a sign that God his Father was indeed life-giving, and stronger than death the despoiler. This man is Jesus. And all this is the glorious language of Easter.
But how do we know, really know? The empty tomb, the burial cloths, are only clues; they are not conclusive. The stories of his appearances are mysterious. The Easter gospels are not a diary—you know, 5:00 am—appears in garden outside tomb. 1:00 pm—seen on the road to Emmaus; 6:00 pm—turns up in the upper room, four weeks later on the shore of Tiberias, and somewhere else, to at least 500 people. These appearances of the risen Jesus, in a new mode of existence, over a time possibly as long as two years, are more like spiritual events, excited discoveries by believers that he is really alive and present to them—as he is to us today.
The gospel says, "As yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus had to rise from the dead." Sometimes you think, how does anyone understand the scripture? It has promises beyond all human goals of fame, fortune, health, and long life. Can we really believe and firmly hold that whatever is good in this life, and all out times of gladness, are part and foretaste of eternal life? We are surrounded by people who either deny this or simply do not advert to it. For them, religion is wish-fulfillment, or beliefs presumably left behind with childhood.
We believe because God helps us to believe. But there is a natural grounding for this faith: it is our experience of love. Our sense of incompletion, yearning, longing, is a deep-down feeling that there must be more, and that we are more important than the stars and the mountains. Look: do you know how the poet Hopkins described us? At first it sounds like a putdown: we are, he writes, "a jack and a joke." And more: "poor potsherd...patch and matchwood." Not images of great dignity! But wait. He then sums up the human person—you and me—in two words. This is what we really are, and finally become: IMMORTAL DIAMOND.
Diamonds are indeed precious—so are we. They are forged from earth and fire—so are we. And they do last a long time. Yes, and some of us live to be 90, 100. But he calls us immortal! How can that be, we who die? Hear the poet again: "I am all at once what Christ is—since he was what I am." It is a glorious line, and it fits us, living or dying. He—Jesus—was what I am. Yes, he became human, one of us. But the rest of it, "I am what Christ is," that's a tall order! In his lifetime he was a compassionate servant of God who shaped the way we should live—with ourselves and with each other. It is a whole life's struggle to be as Jesus was—a compassionate servant, a person of integrity, who truly loved God and neighbor. We try and often fail—and we forget that God has made it easy. He forgives our failures. As for doing good, Jesus said that a cup of water given in his name would not go without its reward. Think what parents give—new life. What teachers give—wisdom. What healers give—health. What any good worker gives—service—all the many services that make life possible, enjoyable, easier.
But when is the poet's vision completed? When are we, "all at once what Christ is?" Two answers: in this life, when we love and when we leave this life, the moment of our death and resurrection.
That's why I want to reject, in your name, the pessimism of that poem at the beginning—the Creator has not betrayed us. And that's not how he ended the poem—here's the rest of it:
God is spontaneous.
Springs from God knows where.
And when I meet him he reminds me
of nothing on earth except myself!
I stare at him and cry, O God,
I've sure a lot to tell you!
And he replies, I know your thoughts.
I know your heart's whole story.
And I am lifted up into his glory."