Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Ok: it is Easter – now what?
This is our first Mass of Easter, our great celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does Easter really mean in 21st century San Francisco? Is it a time for feasting or chocolate to sit back and enjoy the annual Hunky Jesus contest in Golden Gate Park? How would you to explain Easter to someone who is completely unaware of Christianity: what would you say – or do?
In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Humorist David Sedaris writes of attending a language class in France with other immigrants. He writes:
“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’”
Part of the problem was the student’s limited vocabulary. They didn’t know how the words for “cross” or “resurrection,” so Sedaris explains: “Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”
Sometimes I face this same linguistic hazard trying to talk about Easter or Jesus here in San Francisco. After walk through the valley of the shadow of silicon, it is hard to find a common language for discussing our spiritual lives. Beyond that lack of a shared understanding, resurrection is difficult to discuss because it defies all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t rest in the grave for three days and then suddenly set out of their tomb. Do they?
And that’s part of the problem: we don’t know exactly what happened at the resurrection. We don’t have an eyewitness account, we don’t have a documented historical report of this event. And I have to wonder why God did that: why God allowed God’s greatest miracle to occur without any eyewitnesses, without any historical record, without anyone there to show the resurrection live on Facebook.
And that question starts a red warning light flashing in my head, a warning to avoid the trap of taking sacred stories as literal, as word-for-word truth. I am reminded to avoid reading the Bible as a history book instead of following it as a spiritual guide to the universe.
My flashing internal red light reminds me that perhaps resurrection is not the reanimation of a cold corpse – that the resurrection of Jesus is not the equivalent of the first-century zombie apocalypse. Instead , wonder: what if this is the story of an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer. And I wonder: if so, what does that mean for us here today?
For all that we can say about the first Easter is that those early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Utterly changed. Unalterably changed. They were never the same person they used to be. Not for a minute.
Remember Paul, that first century rabbi who went around oppressing Jews who followed Jesus? His encounter with the resurrection transformed him into serving as the self-appointed “Apostille to the Gentiles.” And his is just one example of those whose experience of resurrected life turns their life upside down and does so in a way that brings abundant new life in place of death.
Looking back we can see this clearly. But that first morning many years ago, the eleven disciples looked out on a completely different world. They saw a dangerous world and did what any good patriarch would do: they sent the woman out first. Perhaps the ‘Church fathers,” – these first ‘patriarchs’ of the Christian Church – were too afraid to venture outside. Or perhaps the women were simply not about to sit by when they longed to wash and clean the body of someone they loved. Either way, the first to discover the resurrection – and the first to meet the risen Jesus – are his women apostles. And I want to ask them: “Women, why do you look for the living among the dead? Don’t you know he is not there? That he is risen?”
The same question rings true for us today: “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” Perhaps we look in the wrong place because, by our nature, we have a hole in our heart. We long to fill that hole with a closer connection to the creator God. We ache to walk more closely with our God – and with each other.
Yet we look in all the wrong places to try and fill the hole in our heart. We seek the living God in a frantic rush work and activates that exhaust our bodies and deplete our souls. No matter how hard we work, what we buy, or the classes we take, we still miss God. And we still race on.
Or we search for God in the addictive pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, drugs, obsessive sexuality – all of these lead us away from God and to living death. Why do we still seek the living among the dead? Because we’re afraid to let go of even a small part of our current life.
Christ’s resurrection is our invitation to new life. But any resurrection must begin with death. Before we can know resurrection, some part of us must die. And what needs to die is whatever is holding us back from being the person God calls us to be: that is the impediment that we need to leave behind.
Christ is alive, and Christ invites us to a new and resurrected life. We’ll never find words to fully express what this means. But we can see signs of it in the way Christians live their lives. And their example is what shows us that joy, life, serenity and peace is possible in an anxious and uncertain world. What does that look like? Back in the fourth century, a terrible plague struck Rome. Everyone who could fled for the hills – except for the Christians. Eusebius, the Bishop of Rome and historian of the early church, wrote that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”
Eusebius adds that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.” That’s what resurrection looked like in the fourth century. You and I are now defining what resurrection looks like in this time of Trump.
Together, we have studied, prayed, and worshiped our way through 40 days and nights of Lent. Instead of giving up something for Lent, we took on Justice. We searched for a spiritual path as 21st century San Franciscans. Along the way, we have sought justice for Eve in the garden, explored justice for the woman at the well, and found justice in the healing presence of God. During our pilgrimage through a Justice Lent, we remembered God’s promise of truth that can set us free, and how God’s justice renewed life in a valley of dry bones. Tonight we will repeat our Baptismal vows and be aspurged with holy water to wash us clean. Then, cleansed of and forgive for what holds us back, we will celebrate the first Mass of Easter. As our Easter celebration continues during the next 40 days, we’ll explore resurrection. And then, we hope, we will begin living a resurrected life as followers of Jesus the Christ.
Let us pray. O God of glory, in the Easter dawn you raised Jesus from death to life. As we are united with him in death, so unite us with him in resurrection, that we may walk in newness of life. May God’s people say: Amen.