Easter, Year A April 24, 2011
Alleluia! Let the Whole World See and Know The Reverend Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction: Alleluia! Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. But listen, there’s even more. “Let the whole world see and know . . . that things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made [God’s] Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” These words constitute part of a collect from The Book of Common Prayer’s Good Friday Service. This prayer has special meaning for me because it was given as an ordination gift to me in calligraphy by the Sisters of the Episcopal Convent of the Holy Spirit in New York City. The Mother Superior there had been my spiritual director as I was going through the ordination process. It was she who had helped me comprehend that the Easter story is not just an accounting of an historical event, although it is that. But rather, the Easter story of suffering, darkness, and new life is written into the very fabric of our lives. There is more to the Easter story than first meets the eye.
II. Let’s start with the miracle of Easter as an event. Some 2000 years ago, God sent his Son Jesus Christ into this world to be one with us, to be born as we are born, and to die as we die. But the life he lived, short by human standards, was not extinguished by his crucifixion. Just as he had told his disciples, in three days he rose from the dead in bodily form. Matthew dramatically recounts the story in this morning’s Gospel.
For a very long time I understood and believed that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected. Because of Christ’s Resurrection, death has no hold over us. But just as my spiritual director had hoped, I more recently began to see the full multi-faceted meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. So therefore, this morning, in addition to celebrating anew Christ’s resurrection from the dead, I ask you to ponder the many meanings of new life in Christ and the way new life in him can overcome shame, fear, and despair.
III. Shame is deadly because it causes us to constrict and to draw in upon ourselves. In our shame, we fail to appreciate how wonderfully God has created each one of us. By way of example, as a child, I constantly struggled with issues of shame. I was asthmatic. When I ran I wheezed; when I woke up at night wheezing I became anxious, which caused me to wheeze even more. In retrospect, I understand now how my asthma attacks became a trigger for anxiety about where my next breath would come from. When I played sports I wheezed and thus never had a chance to learn the stuff that little boys learn about how to throw and catch a ball, hold a catcher’s mitt, and how to successfully hit a ball with a bat. The longer this went on, the less forgiving my friends became. When I came time to choose up sides I was inevitably one of the last ones to be chosen. I remember feeling the shame of standing there as all the other boys were chosen before I was. Because I believed that I was less than all the other boys my age, I lived with shame, deep down inside of me, shame that followed me for many years and often got attached to other areas of my life.
What changed that? In no small part, the lifting of my shame emerged from my relationship with the resurrected Jesus Christ. There is no shame that I felt that he had not already experienced many times over. His shame on the cross was a part of his passion. But he emerged from that shame intact and whole. Over time, I began to realize that Jesus’ love for me had nothing to do with how well I could throw or catch a ball. He loves me altogether, through and through for who I am. When Jesus died for me – he redeemed that shame. I believe that my struggle with shame has made me more empathic in ministering to those dealing with their own wide-ranging experiences of shame. Let the whole world know, let each of you know, that things which were cast down are being raised up.
IV. New life in Christ can also overcome fear and despair. In today’s brief gospel reading from Matthew, fear is mentioned four times: the guards shook in fear; the angel told the women not to be afraid; the women left the tomb with fear and joy; and Jesus greeted the women telling them not to be afraid but to go and tell the others that they would see him. Observe the crescendo of fear in this passage. The soldiers were “scared to death;” the women were frightened, but did as requested with fear and joy when they met Jesus. They heard him, they saw him, and they touched him. Then fear no longer bound them, just as our fear need no longer need bind us. Let the whole world see and know that things that were cast down [in shame and fear] are being raised up. Jesus Christ dispels fear and nothing, no, nothing, can separate us from his love and presence.
Despair can keep us bound in dark, hopeless places. When our experiences are dreadful and solutions seem improbable, we can fall into a place of desperate futility. But it does not need to be so. Several years ago, Peg introduced me to a friend, Becky, who had lost all of her children, one through illness and three in a tragic episode of violence. For a year Becky mother retreated to her bed in despair. Slowly, however, by God’s grace, that began to change. For Easter this year, she sent Peg a card with this story inside. I share this with Becky’s permission:
“When the blooms die, plant it outside, Mom! That’s what the lady at the florist said to do and it will come back next year,” exclaimed my nine year old daughter, Kami, as she proudly presented me with a beautiful potted stargazer lily for Mother’s Day. I told Kami that I did not believe the lily would come back next year. “But Mom, the lady said it would!” When the blooms faded and died, Kami kept reminding me to plant the lily outside. I kept putting her off by saying I just didn’t believe the lily would come back. Kami remained persistent and insistent until I finally relented, and together we went outside to plant the lily in the backyard. Winter came and the lily died. Kami and her older brothers, Buzzy and Todd, also died that winter. My world became totally dark.
The following spring when the lily sprouted and grew to produce 27 fragrant pink blooms, I was filled with an inexpressible joy. Joy in my darkness! How could that be? Without my children I believed I could never feel joy or happiness again. Yet here was this beautiful gift. A gift from Kami, which was a gift from God. Kami, an innocent child, had no trouble believing that the lily would live again. Jesus said we are to have the faith of a child. God can resurrect even those things which we believe can’t be resurrected. I did not believe the lily could survive the darkness of winter and I did not believe that I could survive the darkness of my grief after losing my children. God was working on the lily in the darkness of the earth, and He was working on me in the darkness of my grief. I just couldn’t see it. Just because we don’t always feel God’s presence with us doesn’t mean He isn’t there. God has not promised that bad things will not happen to us, but He has promised that He will never leave us. He has kept His promise to me and I am thankful. Because I believe His promises are true, I know that my children will be with my always.” Becky concludes her story with a verse from Matthew: “You are blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you” (5:4) (from The Message).
V. Conclusion. Jesus’ promises are true, his resurrection from the dead is true, and his willingness to bring light into the dark spaces of our lives is true. To experience these truths, we need only believe that Jesus Christ is risen today; he is risen around us; he is risen between us, and he is risen within us. “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia, Alleluia, Amen.