Easter Homily – 2014/04/20

EASTER DAY 2014

Easter really begins on Good Friday, because these events cannot be separated.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into the death AND Resurrection of Jesus.  Easter is rooted in the death of Christ and the absolute dereliction of his followers, especially Peter, who despite their promises of loyalty and steadfastness, all deserted Jesus.

There’s a story of woman who was not known for her moral perfection and yet persisted in seeing herself as a Christian.  When someone asked her what she was going to say when she arrived at the Pearly gates and had to account to St Peter, she replied that she would walk right up to St Peter and say to him “Cock a doodle doo!”

Indeed, the cry of the rooster has a different meaning on Easter Day than it did on Good Friday.  Today it heralds the birth of a new day dawning.

Easter invites us in – all of us — saint and sinner; arrogant and humble; wise and foolish; and invites us to open our eyes to a new reality – a new vision of life.

“He saw — and believed.”  Always highly symbolic in language, the Gospel of John is clearly talking about more than merely observing something; he would seem to be speaking about a deeper kind of perception.

Over and over we ask, in an ongoing dialogue through centuries: What was really going on in this great drama?  Certainly much more than met the eye of those present, as it took decades and even centuries to contemplate and interpret its true meaning, to allow it deeper significance to become apparent.  That meaning continues to unfold before our eyes.

One of the key lines in the Gospel today is from the encounter between the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Mary is distraught, beside herself, after discovering the empty tomb, when she is confronted by the figure of a man in the garden. “Supposing him to be the gardener,” it says, Mary wants to know where Jesus is.  His response opens her eyes and shocks her into the new reality which enabled her and all the disciples to begin to see Jesus in a new light.

Blindness and the problem of people not seeing things is a central theme in the New Testament and a key aspect of Jesus’ healing ministry.  It’s been said we see what we want to see, because how we see things depends so largely on our preconceptions, prejudices, precedents and experiences. Easter is the time when the disciples truly began to see.

One of the persistent problems of the religious life is that people often become convinced that they need to look elsewhere for the presence of Christ, as if God is always somewhere other than where they are, and so God remains hidden in plain sight. Let me illustrate:

In a previous parish we had the youth group out cross-country skiing  in Kananaskis country – moving through the quiet forest, we came around a bend and came upon three adult moose not 20 feet away, just standing there grazing on some low branches. These majestic creatures just looked at us and calmly went on eating. There was a hush in our group that was part reverence and part fear.  The children were enthralled and we continued to move by them quietly (they are after all a REALLY big and powerful animal) but behind me I could hear the voice of one of the children whispering loudly: “Dad! Dad!  Dad!”  Dad, one of the adult volunteers, was bringing up the rear, and he was totally engrossed in some theological discussion with another adult volunteer.  Despite his daughter’s signals, both of these “theologians” moved past the moose totally oblivious to their presence – and when told about it later, seemed skeptical about what the rest of us had seen.

So it goes with God.  So it goes with the Resurrection.  Like the three moose, the Holy Trinity might be standing right there in front of some people, while they continue discussing theology.   Do you remember Jesus saying we need to become like children?  This is one of the reasons why.  Those two unconscious adults became for me a metaphor of the church, because we often seem to talk a lot of theology and go skiing right past the God who is standing beside us.

Unfortunately, theology is one of those subjects where you can make all the right arguments, and come to all the right conclusions, and still have the wrong answer.  As CS Lewis said, reality is usually something you could not have guessed.

The message of the Easter Gospel is that Christ was not dead – he was not somewhere else – he was not an illusion.  He was right there, right in front of their eyes, and yet people looked right at him and did not recognize him.

God is often “hidden in plain sight.” God is present; it’s just that we are either oblivious, distracted, preoccupied or unprepared to encounter the reality of what it is we pray and sing and preach and speculate about.  Or perhaps we just assume we are too sophisticated to allow our wary intellect a bit of a rest in the presence of something that exceeds our capacity to understand.

We are often quick to dismiss people and situations, and fail to see what’s really there.  In general, we are inclined to see what’s wrong with things and so we gradually slip into a state of chronic cynicism.

Throughout Lent, a number of us have been wearing purple wrist bands, as we have been studying the book A Complaint Free World – in a conscious effort to counteract our ingrained and habitual negativity, the dismissive and cynical attitudes toward other people and the world in general.   The goal is to become more and more conscious – more and more aware – of our own behaviours, catching ourselves in our own habits, and switching the wristband to the other wrist each time we foul up.  The goal is to get to 21 days complaint-free, but as you start noticing the whining, the sniveling, the sarcasm, the offhand insults, the criticism and general pessimism that trails out of our mouths on a regular basis, it’s kind of shocking to admit and acknowledge how toxic we can be toward the world around us and how hard it is to stop the negativity.

It’s ingrained in our culture.  We are taught to be critical and make fun of things long before we ever know anything about the subject we are dismissing.  Small wonder we often miss what’s really significant and fail to be surprised by joy.

We look at the elderly and tend to dismiss them as irrelevant. We look at immigrants and tend to see them as a threat.  We look at the homeless and tend to see them as a nuisance.

I love the valley of vision passage from Ezekiel because so often we look at situations and at people and we fail to see the life that is in them – the potential that’s there.

In his vision, Ezekiel considers this valley and all he sees is death – remnants of life – and yet he is persuaded not to dismiss what he sees, but to prophesy to the bones.  Surprisingly, the bones come to life.  His vision enables him to realize that the people, enslaved in a foreign land, are not doomed.

He hears God’s voice, saying:  “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. The people are saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from the dead places you have become accustomed to, because you are my people.’”

Clergy sometimes see their congregations merely as dry bones and can be very dismissive toward them,  not seeing the life that’s there, and  not appreciating what makes them tick.  Congregations do that to their clergy as well, and the result is a massive stalemate, with our lack of vision causing an obstruction and a darkness that can almost nullify what God is trying to accomplish.

The good news is that God opens up the dead places where our spirits are choosing to dwell – the dead-end attitudes and perspectives that dismiss and reject life even when it is right in front of us.

The English mystic Evelyn Underhill, in her poem Immanence, said:

“I come in the little things,
Says the Lord
…  I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart.”

Simple things like butterflies, another symbol of Easter, remind us that even when something looks grotesque and offensive to us, there is always a potential there, and only those with eyes to see recognize the possibility of a butterfly in the grotesque caterpillar or the improbable-looking chrysalis.

People like Mother Teresa are able to see a person ravaged by disease and starvation and a lifetime of hard living, and see in the face of that person the face of the risen Christ.  As Easter people, THAT’s what we supposed to be.  As Easter people, we are meant to look at the world through the eyes of love and hope and faith – not of fear, pessimism and hostility.

This isn’t Pollyanna-ism! As the wristbands remind us again and again – it takes real effort to change our way of seeing things.  Thank God for Lent, because it takes at least that long to change any ingrained behavior.

“We see what we want to see” – it’s so true.  We need to re-train ourselves to WANT to see the life, the potential, that is in people and situations.

Mary didn’t see anything because what she was seeing was so far outside of any reference point she had that it simply didn’t register. Dead people do not walk around – her brain being programmed that way, she assumed what she was seeing must be something else.  She wasn’t oblivious to it; she just didn’t have any clue what it meant.  Once she experienced the resurrection, she was a woman with a vision, a powerful leader of the early Church.  As I see it, the real job of the Church is not closing people’s minds, and urging them to operate within a safe, respectable and narrow rationalism; the real job of the Church is opening people’s minds to infinite possibility.

Outside a huge church, filling up for Sunday service, a disheveled and dirty man was asking people for money to buy food – a pretty typical scene in some areas.  Only three people out of the several thousand people even said hello to him; no one in the church gave him change.

He went into the sanctuary to sit down at the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back.   He greeted people entering the church, only to be greeted with stares and dirty, suspicious looks.

As he sat in the back of the church, the church announcements began. Then the elders went up front and one of them announced they were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation.  He said: “We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.” The congregation applauded with enthusiasm and anticipation, and looked behind them to where the elder was gesturing.

The homeless man sitting in the back had stood up and had started walking down the aisle.   The applause came to a dead stop.  The “homeless guy” was their new pastor!

Shock treatment?  That’s an understatement!  Maybe even a bit manipulative.  Pastor Steepek’s entrance was almost as dramatic as that of Jesus emerging from death, but sometimes that’s how drastic a wake-up call that we as church people really need in order to become people of the Resurrection.  He was trying to teach them to see.

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
My starry wings I do forsake,
Love’s highway of humility to take:
Meekly I fit my stature to your need.
In beggar’s part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead—
As man, to speak with man—
Till by such art
I shall achieve my immemorial plan,
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.
        (Evelyn Underhill – Immanence)

 Like Mary, once we begin seeing, there is, as St Paul promises, a new creation.   If you have that vision, don’t ever let go of it; if you don’t, try to be open and expectant, because it is the one treasure really worth having.  May you choose to open your eyes to all the good things that are around you, and be profoundly grateful and happy, and may God bless you with the willingness to see the risen Christ who is as near to us as our own breath.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+

Readings for Easter Day:

Ezekiel 37:  1—6;  11—12  The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

2 Corinthians 5: 16—21  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

John 20:1-18  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.   He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.  But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”   Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”   Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.