The Logic of Easter

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber on Easter Day, 2011.

I’ve come to believe in the last week or two that I made a bad mistake this Lent.  What I should have given up for Lent was watching the evening news.  I think I would have come to this Easter with a much greater joy if I had no idea of what’s going on in the world. How about you?

I wish I were the kind of person who can see the world in black and white terms – we’re right; they’re wrong – but I can’t.  And I have the further problem that I always imagine for some reason that there are logical solutions to everything and that if I could just explain the logic of the situation to others, they would always agree with me.  But I’ve lived long enough to know that there are lots of people out there who never will understand how right I am and how much better it would be if they did it my way.  No matter how logically I explain it they just don’t get it.  Logically, everyone in the world should be an Episcopalian and go to church every Sunday and vote the same way I do. But they don’t.  I don’t understand it, but they don’t. And the result is that the world is a mess. Here we are with war in Libya and Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism at home as well as abroad and terrible divisions in our church and our country.  The threat of shutting down the government still hangs over us. And instead of asking me for a logical solution our politicians seem to feel they can work it out by shouting at each other.

I was living in Japan in the worst days of Vietnam when colleges were closed down by demonstrations and the National Guard shot down students at Kent State. I was living in Tokyo at the time, so I don’t know exactly it felt like here but I wonder if it felt like this.  Why can’t we understand each other: Afghans and Americans,  Republicans and Democrats, Moslems and Christians, Episcopalians and Episcopalians?  I wish there were ways to reach out across the divisions and build the kind of world in which the joy of this day could be shared without fear, without the shadows of hatred and division.

But meanwhile it’s Easter, and if Easter doesn’t have a message for us, even at a time like this, especially at a time like this, we’re in even deeper trouble than I think. Christ is risen; death is conquered: that’s the message of Easter.  And it comes out of a specific background that we have rehearsed this last week. Easter for many people comes, I guess, out of a different context; it comes out of a context of Easter bunnies and spring flowers which is basically irrelevant.  The real context of Easter is Holy Week, and that includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Even; it includes betrayal, suffering, and death. And it passes through that betrayal, suffering, and death to get to the joy of this day.

Now I think that has something very specific to say to us. We don’t have to go to the gospel to find stories of suffering and death. There’s certainly suffering and death enough to go around just in the daily news.  Families all over this country continue to hear that someone they love has been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Death there and death here; death then and death now. But notice also the difference. In Palestine then as in Afghanistan today an army of occupation was attempting to impose  a new way of life on a deeply resistant country. In Palestine then as in America now there were those who were prepared to use violence to gain their ends.  That part of the story is the same; everything else is different because the story of Jesus is the story of one who did not resist, who told his followers to put away their swords, who was willing to die rather than resort to the use of violence.  It’s the story of one who triumphed over death by suffering and dying and trusting wholly and solely  in the ultimate power of God.

As a follower of Jesus Christ I have no choice but to take that example seriously.  I deeply believe that his way is the only effective way to deal with our divisions. We cannot force people to be nice to us. We cannot resolve our problems by anger and division. We cannot create democracy by military power.  The Christian Church, the followers of Jesus, converted the Roman Empire, transformed the world’s greatest military power, but they never had an army in those days.  They did it by love – and a great deal of suffering – and it didn’t happen over night.  It took them three centuries and thousands died for their faith along the way.  But it was they, not those who killed them, who conquered.

I wish it were simple to apply that faith to our times, but I don’t believe it was simple then and it certainly isn’t simple now.  Every human instinct tells us to respond to anger with anger, to violence with violence, to overcome force with force.  The effectiveness of that is on the evening news every day. And yet in the real world around us when evil leaders are killing people daily as they are in Zimbabwe and Libya and Syria and Yemen and we have predator drones, and Patriot missiles, and bombers that can fly to Libya non-stop from Kansas is it right to stand by while people die? We held back in Rwanda while 800,000 were massacred; we’ve intervened in Libya with widespread support; we are involved in Afghanistan with increasing opposition; we seem to want to ignore such places as Syria and Yemen and Bahrain. And whatever those in charge decide to do there will be shrill voices denouncing it.

Episcopalians, you know, are famous for their ability  to avoid black and white choices and argue about shades of gray. The devil, I believe, tempts us with easy answers but there are no easy answers in an enormously complicated world. American power may make a short term difference half way around the world but in the long run it won’t change very much. Finally those who live there have to solve their own problems and perhaps the only question is whether we can keep them apart until that begins to happen or whether we can just keep out of the way in spite of the consequences in the cost of gasoline. Far too often American power has been used  for the benefit of American economics rather than the people involved.  In the long run, on God’s schedule, it’s not power that solves problems; it’s love and faith that make real and lasting change.

So what can we do? Keep our eyes on the goal.  The final answer is not responding in anger or building bigger bombs but keeping love and faith in focus and remembering that only as we rely on God’s power will real change take place.  Prayer changes more things than bullets. We have an army of unprecedented power but it cannot create a peaceful world apart from faith and prayer.

Let me suggest two things you can do: 1) don’t think of yourself as a spectator.  It’s God’s world not ours,  but God places us in it with a part to play.  We play the biggest part by our prayers. Pray for peace.  Pray for an end of violence.  Pray for a growth of understanding. If today’s news looks like yesterday’s, ask yourself what you did to make a difference. Ask yourself whether you asked God to make a difference and change people’s hearts and if not make this Easter day a time to start. Find ways to de-fuse anger in others. Don’t re-enforce hatred when you hear it; speak peace if you can; walk away if you can’t.  Leave some things to God who can make more of a difference than you.  2) remember that changing the world is a process that begins in the human heart and builds one life at a time.  The problem is not Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden or Robert Mugabe or Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck.  They don’t know it, but they are powerless, they would cease to exist in a world without hatred.

Your job and mine is to begin creating such a world here in the northwest corner of Connecticut.  In fact our job begins at home and involves the people we know best.  Anger and impatience can be dealt with right here – in your home and mine, your heart and mine.  And maybe therefore, I shouldn’t have given up the evening news for Lent.  It reminds me I have a job to do and it begins here at home. And that could seem like a really impossible job: change my heart, my life? Well, think of the disciples who went to the tomb on Easter Day sure that the world was the same as it had been the day before and the year before and always and found the tomb open and empty and a risen Lord. They found out there that life can be changed, that not even death can overcome God’s will or defeat God’s purposes, that love is strong enough to change the world, each life, every life, all life, even your life and mine. It’s up to you and me, each of us every day by faith and prayer and the lives we live to make that difference.  What we are reminded of today is that with God’s grace we can indeed make that difference; death does not have the last word, human power cannot defeat God’s purpose, and the world can indeed be changed.

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