Easter faces! Pastor Anna and Robert “Bob” Stehlin, our assisting minister for Easter Day.
For all our fretting in the institutional church that its numbers are shrinking and its influence waning, Easter still draws a crowd. It’s still acknowledged and recognized by our wider culture, even though it tends to culturally play second fiddle to Christmas because well, people like babies and presents, and the Christmas narrative gives us both.
But Easter remains, calling the church to open its arms even wider than usual to everyone on Easter morning: we get to meet new people, including the families of beloved members and other out of town visitors and folks who can’t make it at other times of year. Easter is our all hands on deck day, our Super Bowl, when we remember how Jesus came back from 28-3… no, just kidding.
There’s something bigger here than just a big comeback and there’s definitely something bigger than bunnies and eggs though believe me, I will be enjoying my share of chocolate today.
(A feast day is a feast day.)
But seriously, other than the feast day element, the bunnies and eggs don’t make that much sense in light of the Gospel story. Admittedly. You heard it from the pulpit. In the words of the late Robin Williams and children everywhere, “Bunnies don’t lay eggs!”
But then, I guess crosses and tombs don’t make for fun children’s decorations.
Just this week, Late Show host and faithful progressive Roman Catholic Stephen Colbert described Easter as only a liturgical church person really could: “Jesus is the reason we celebrate Easter, okay? He’s why we have the eggs! It’s the true miracle of Easter that Jesus emerged from the tomb and made that bunny lay an egg. And then the bunny did goeth forth to hide those eggs… this is the Word of the Lord.” (1)
You may miss the idea or even get offended if you don’t know that Colbert is a faithful Catholic.
His point, of course, is not to make fun of Easter, but to poke fun at how we get wrapped up in the details of our celebrations of spring and egg hunts when there’s actually a much better, older story that you can’t get at Target. And, that story, given the absence of any bunnies or eggs in this service, is why you’re actually here. I hope. I did not dress in white to recall the Easter bunny, but you can tell your kids whatever you like to get them to like church. That’s fine.
Look, I’m not here to make you feel guilty. Quite the opposite, actually. Eat all the Cadbury eggs you like today. I will be!
I’m not here to do what pastors have too often done on holy days: tell you to put aside the fun stuff and focus on a serious, somber thing for a moment. Not at all.
Today is a joyful day, and Lord knows we need some joy these days. But it’s bigger than egg hunts and the Easter bunny and the details of what’s for lunch.
You see, in a world where governments gas their own citizens and we’re all a little more on edge than usual, in a world where we’ve got a lot more fear than love and a lot more death than new hope, Easter finds us just as the weather warms up and creation, too, comes back to life.
And quite frankly, that’s even better than a chocolate bunny. And I love chocolate.
Because people debate whether God is real all the time, but one thing that we cannot deny is that death is real. We see it all the time. In our lives, on the news, on social media.
Dead refugees washed up on the beach. Videos of ISIS killings.
And closer to home, we cope with injustice and fear and death of our own. We struggle with violence of every stripe. We struggle with the opioid epidemic that has taken so many brilliant people from among us.
And in our own personal lives, we hear of sudden deaths of friends and loved ones. It all starts to wear on you. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you think that if you hear of one more shooting or one more cancer diagnosis or one more missile launched, you might lose hope entirely.
Death is real and, thanks to technology, it’s more in our faces than ever, and it’s terrifying. We hug our loved ones close and we pray death won’t touch any of us any time soon despite our fears.
But you didn’t come to church to have an existential crisis. You came to hear the story of the empty tomb.
In that story that we read from Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the mysterious “other Mary” head over to the tomb to visit Jesus’ grave, like any of us have done for loved ones whom death has taken from us.
Then all of a sudden the earth shakes and, well, you know the rest.
Just last night at the Vigil, we remembered the ancient Easter proclamation that says “let this holy building shake with joy.” (2)
Well, it’s about to. This morning’s sermon is participatory. (Don’t worry Paul, there won’t be anything to repair.)
You see, since ancient times Easter has been much more profound than Easter eggs, which only help us celebrate something bigger — springtime. New life. The end of death and the beginning of hope.
With death always in front of our faces, today we dare celebrate in hope. We dare dance and be happy. We dare make this holy building shake with joy.
Because Jesus was dead on Friday. Real dead. Dead dead.
And now the earth shakes and the tomb is empty ad we stand with the women at the tomb in baffled hope and wonder the same thing: Are we crazy?
Is it crazy that you came here, when so many went to brunch? (If you got forced to come, you may think so.)
Yeah. We are. And today we’ve come together in our illogical hope that someday, somehow, even the tragedy death we see today will be swallowed up in victory too and all things shall be made right. It’s illogical, yes. But it’s what gets some of us up in the morning despite our nihilistic tendencies and today, we’re all invited. Today, we dare to have hope that death’s days are numbered.
Scholar N.T. Wright laments at how often we attend to Easter out of obligation, murmuring alleluias instead of shouting them. He writes: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to [the Lenten] forty days of fasting and gloom?” (3)
And so, adults, children, youth, wake up — this is where you come in.
St. John Chrysostom lived in about the 300s and was considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church. His Easter homily is still a feature in churches around the world as a tradition arose around it: stomping out death. And so, before we go to the table, in celebration of Christ’s victory over death, you are invited into the ancient tradition of stomping out death. In the early church, after the long Lenten fast and the observation of Holy Week and the Great Three Days, it was a tradition to read St. John’s Easter homily at the Easter celebration and for the whole congregation to stomp their feet at every mention of the word “death,” symbolizing how death has been defeated and put under our feet.
We’ve come through Lent and Holy Week to Easter. And now, I’ll be preaching John’s short but rousing Easter homily in celebration, and you, for your part, are welcome to listen, enjoy, and stamp your feet in victory whenever you hear the word “death.” And thus, we remember the thunder at the tomb. And thus, this building shakes with joy.
Let’s try it: “death.” Good.
Here we go.
“Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary from fasting? Let them now receive their due!
If any have been working from the first hour observing of Lent, let them receive their reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them with gratitude join in the feast! Those who arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed. Those who have tarried until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate; but let them come too. And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to those who toiled from the beginning. To one and all the Lord gives generously…. The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together! Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day! You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread! The calf is a fat one — let us feast like royalty! Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith. Enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness!
Let no one grieve being poor, for God’s universal reign has been revealed.
Let no one lament their constant failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.
The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it. The Lord vanquished death when he descended into it. The Lord put death in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said,”You, O Death, were sent into chaos when he encountered you below.” Death was in chaos having been eclipsed. Death was in chaos having been mocked. Death was in chaos having been destroyed. Death was in chaos having been abolished. Death was in turmoil having been made captive. Death grasped a corpse, and met God. Death seized earth, and encountered heaven. Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.
O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and death is cast down! …Christ is risen, and life is set free! Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty! For Christ, having risen, is only the firstborn of those who have fallen asleep. To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (4)
And that, my friends, is why I enjoy my chocolate bunnies.
And so, in short, it’s a good day. So be happy. Throw your hats in the air. Celebrate. Or, as the kids say: turn up. Amen.
Pastor Anna’s favorite Easter card of all time.
1. Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, 8 April 2017.
2. The Exsultet, an ancient Easter proclamation. Learn more here.
3. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperOne, 2008.
4. St. John Chrysostom, Easter Homily. Another translation can be found here.