Easter Sunday: April 1, 2018
Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
My earliest Easter memory was when I was about three years old, and my parents got me this seemingly life-sized Easter bunny. This Easter bunny made of chocolate was so tall it was like we could look at each other in the eyes. And I’ll never forget the moment – he was not really looking me in the eyes, he was kind of shaped sideways and gave me the side- eye, but we were really on eye level. And I was astonished.
And they said to me, when Easter came, you could eat the bunny now. I’m like, “Eat it! That’s what you do? Okay.” And so I remember reaching up and grabbing the ears and I pulled hard, and the bunny ears broke off the bunny. And then I looked and I discovered that the bunny was hollow. And I was like, what witchcraft is this that the bunny is hollow? I thought there must be some kind of mistake, and I tried to be nice to my parents because it was a gift.
And I said, “Well where’s the inside of the bunny?” And my parents laughed kind of knowingly and said, “There is no inside to the bunny. The bunny’s hollow.” And I was like, “The bunny’s hollow!” I was so disappointed, I was so struck – a hollow bunny. Now in the years since we have gotten better with marketing. Now when you go and shop for chocolate bunnies, some will advertise them as solid, which is a good thing. But I’ve often reflected on that moment of disillusion when I saw and looked and discovered that the bunny was hollow.
I was disappointed and this troubled me even from an early age in a philosophical way. Because there are a lot of things that are hollow about Easter, aren’t there? There’s a lot of attention to the exterior in Easter, but not always a lot of attention to the interior – to what’s inside, to what is real. And we are living in a time in which we need to attend to what’s inside, to what’s real. Not simply to what is exterior. And we’re not the first ones to face times such as these.
In 1925, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem called The Hollow Men. The first stanza goes like this: We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without color, Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;
Eliot ends this incredibly famous poem with lines that have become even more famous. They’re probably the most quoted poetic lines in the English language. He writes,
This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
Now commentators have said that Eliot was responding to a lot of things when he wrote that poem. He was responding to personal tumult and trial in his life. His wife, it is said, had begun an affair with Bertrand Russell. He was also responding, so some commentators have said, to a kind of social degeneration. It was the roaring twenties, and the Western World, Europe and the United States, was trying to somehow live down the traumas of World War I by focusing on ostentation and fancy.
And finally, some commentators have said that Eliot was concerned, as he later put it in another writing, that Christian culture, Christianity as a culture was in decline. And this alarmed him because he wondered what would happen to the world that Christianity had created once the culture of Christianity collapsed. And I think that those concerns are very much our concerns today. And they are present not only in the things you read, and the different venues where you go to read them, but they are real in the life of this congregation.
On Good Friday we carried on a ritual that we started about three years ago in which we asked people to write down on slips of paper the things that were concerning them. The things that broke their hearts. The things that they were tired of carrying. The injuries that they were trying to get over. The traumas they were trying to forget. The experiences they were trying to heal from. And over a hundred people wrote down these incredibly personal, beautiful, powerful, painful statements. And they put them in this font, and the font was full of them. And then the clergy came and we gathered them together, and we prayed yesterday over each of the concerns.
And then I placed them carefully into this pyre that we created. And I put a match to them. And they burnt up in a moment and became smoke. And I engaged in that ritual because I think it bears with it an Easter message to us today. An Easter message which you and I need to attend to with all of our attention and might. Because the Easter we need to celebrate today is an Easter that attends to the inside, that speaks to the real. And only a real resurrection, and only a real Jesus can give us a real Easter.
And so we burn those prayers, we offer them up to God, because we believe that by the resurrection of Christ, all of those things which hold you captive today, all of those things from your personal life, all of those things and your worries about our political life and our social life, all of your concerns about our cultural life – all of those things have already been defeated by Jesus Christ who is risen from the dead.
So those things cannot touch you anymore. The power of sin and death and evil have been vanquished. They are present in our world, but those things have been defeated in a powerful and real way by Jesus Christ. And the resurrection of Christ is more than just the promise of a return. It’s more than just the promise of a return of your love, a return of your hope, a restoration of your faith in humanity. The resurrection of Jesus Christ promises something that philosophers would call natality.
It promises new birth through Jesus Christ and Christ living in you which is the ultimate purpose of the resurrection, so that you would have Christ in you and Christ would be part of all of us and we would all be in Christ. By virtue of the resurrection you have been given not a return of old love but new love. You will become capable of loving which you never could love before, and whoever you could never love before. You will be given the power to experience new hope, in the midst of hopelessness you will be able to speak words of hope and share your own experience of hope in your life.
And you will experience new faith, not of faith based on exteriors or the things that you have inherited from previous generations, but alive and living faith today. That is the message of the resurrection. And we need that message because we need a real resurrection, we need a real Jesus if we’re going to have a real Easter.
In 1922, G. K. Chesterton, was in the midst of a poetic battle with William Butler Yeats. Yeats, like Eliot, was deploring the state of civilization. They were both in that depressive state. And Chesterton wrote a response to Yeats which is also a response to Eliot, and a poem he entitled The Mortal Answers. He said:
“There is the strange strong cry in darkness, of one man praising God, which convinces him that though is world is hot and cruel, and we are weary of heart and hand, it is more full of glory than you can understand. Though this world is hot and cruel, and though we are often weary of heart and hand, there is more to the picture around us. There is more to this world which is full of glory that you can hardly understand it.”
The resurrection is your invitation to see yourself and your world anew. To see it as the theater for God’s glory in this world. Now all of our readings today are meant to reinforce this core work that we are given to do today, which is to be witnesses to the resurrection. And to be a witness in the New Testament means that you have to have confidence that God hears you and that God is present. And also to be a witness in the New Testament is to say that another world is possible.
That the world we live in is not the only world we know, but another world is possible. And in all of our readings there are different descriptions of what it means to be a witness. For St. Paul in First Corinthians this meant actually seeing the risen Lord. And one picture I’ve given you today is on the cover of your bulletin. It’s by William Blake and this is Blake’s depiction of the resurrection which is this Jesus coming through a darkness and shining on us and changing our lives.
And for many of us that is what it means to be a Christian. And perhaps for all of us at some point, you will see Jesus as He appears or as Blake imagines Him to appear. But to be a witness to the resurrection also means something more than that. There are different ways that we can be witnesses to the resurrection. And to help us with that I’ve provided you with another picture which is an etching by Philips Galle that he did after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel. And I have to apologize for those of you who are art historians, we left an E out of Bruegel.
But at this point in the church’s calendar, I’m just glad it didn’t say bagel. Bruegel, B-R-U- E-G-E-L. And Bruegel writes this or does this incredible drawing, and Galle takes it and makes it into an etching because in many ways this beautiful incredible picture is meant to teach us to read the scriptures before us. That is to say that in a lot of Renaissance art there’s a pictorial tradition where you’d see Jesus kind of out and He’s up, you know? None of that is actually what you find in the scriptures. What Bruegel wants to do in this picture is help you learn to read your Bible better.
And so you have in this picture on the lower left-hand side, you have the soldiers and all the men who were there to protect the tomb of Christ. And they are all looking down and they’re seeing all of the evidence of the resurrection. They’re seeing, what commentators at the time using Latin would say the signa – the signum, the signs of the resurrection.
They’re seeing the empty tomb, they’re seeing the stone rolled away. And then on the right you have the women coming in. And the women see the signa too, but then they also see the martyrdom, the martyrs, the witnesses.
They meet the angels who are messengers, the angelus, and they are delivering the news that Christ is risen. And by looking at those angels, and the women are coming through on the right, they are able to look beyond the messenger and see Christ himself who is gesturing down at the empty tomb and over at the sunrise. Christ himself, who is as bright as the sun, is gesturing towards the sunrise. And this is to teach us – so a recent article has argued an incredible kind of pedagogy for reading the Bible and reading this kind of art.
Which is that the difference between the women and the men is not simply the fact that women are usually right, that’s always the case. That’s always the case. The difference here is that the women come according to the tradition around it; they come with a disposition of faith, the disposition of faith. And they come in and because that they have that disposition to believe they see the same signs, but the Lord is revealed to them as risen.
You see, they have a fides activa, because they have a disposition to have faith.
And Bruegel is trying to teach us to become witnesses in the full sense in the resurrection. Bruegel is trying to give us the sense of how you become a witness in everyday life, so that the resurrection is real. So that it attends to the inside and not merely to the exterior. And this is the resurrection we need. This is the real resurrection, because it tells us about the real Jesus. And we need that real Jesus if we’re going to have a real Easter.
Now I believe that all of you have the same obligation and privilege to be witnesses. And I believe that no matter what you have experienced in this life, or what you’re going through now, the challenges and struggles you have today, whether they’re personal or social or whether they’re cultural, I believe that you are already surrounded at the same time by the signs of the resurrection. The challenge for us and the prayer we have to offer ourselves today is to have the eyes of faith so that we can see this resurrection around us.
So that we can have the hope that we need, and the love that is new, and the faith which can walk through dark places and yet speak of the joy of Jesus. That is what it means for you and for me to experience Easter today. The resurrection is not a promise in the future, it’s not a story from the past, it is the present. Christ is risen. And you and I – in this congregation we’ve had a couple of artists who we’ve asked to do some incredible work.
And I’ve been thinking about them over the past week as they delivered their art to the church.
And that you get to see this for the first time, because artists are in some ways witnesses to us. They take what they have in their hands and they make something beautiful out of it – something transcendent. And we had this artist named Scott Lankton, who we asked to make a new baptismal font for us, so that we could have something that would be mobile but also speak to our tradition of iron work which our founders had. And he created this incredible bronze baptismal font, hammering everything by hand and putting it together.
And we were talking over the months while we were doing this, he said, “I don’t allow the workmen in my shop to swear when I’m working on this. Because I tell them that this is holy work.” And I wanted to say when he was telling me this like, “Well no wonder it’s taking six months, God!” But I thought to myself as well, what an incredibly beautiful thing. He wanted to make his iron shop holy. That was his witness to the resurrection, working it’s way back into what he was doing everyday. How will you take the risen Christ into your shop? Into your place?
And on our annual meeting we had an artist named Daniel Cascardo, who as I was preaching he began to draw by freehand this outline of this painting. And over the course of Lent, the congregation came and we filled it in with colors. And somehow through some kind of amazing alchemy, he took the colors that we put up and he somehow integrated them and put them together so that you can see this incredible mural of the resurrection.
And although he and I hadn’t talked about it, this was a mural about the resurrection from the beginning. There is an empty cross over here. And there are people that I mentioned at the annual meeting over here. One of them is Stevie Beer, who you’ll recognize because he spent so many years of his life in a wheelchair, but he was a blessing to this congregation. And you have the four things that we believe God has called us to do, to meet Jesus, to find joy, to share beauty, and to serve others. And all of it is right here under the arms of a risen savior, who has come to set us free.
So Daniel picked up on the work that God is already doing in our midst and made this into his witness to the resurrection. In what way will you find a real resurrection today? In what way can you cultivate within yourself that disposition of faith so that you can see your world anew and bear witness to the new love and hope and joy that is in Jesus?