A Snowstorm for Easter

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on Easter Day, 2013.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds n things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God . . .”  Colossians 3:1-3

You may not want to hear this, but I was kind of hoping for a snowstorm this morning.  A really outstanding blizzard would have been the perfect way to round off the Winter of 2012-13. What’s the point of having grandchildren, if you can’t tell them you survived the Winter of 2012-13 when it snowed so hard Easter morning we couldn’t get to church?  But more than that, and my real reason for hoping, was that a snowstorm would have given me the perfect illustration for my sermon. And I’m sure you know how important that is.

After all, a good sermon illustration is often remembered long after the point is forgotten.  Years from now people would still remember how the Vicar actually wished for snow on Easter. As the years went by people would even recall that he actually prayed for snow.  Finally there would be stories of how snow began to fall as we left church that morning.  And what was the sermon about?  Well, that’s not so easy to say. I called on a woman once who told me how much she liked y sermon about pizza.  Pizza?  I couldn’t remember ever mentioning pizza in a sermon and she couldn’t recall what the sermon was about.  There’s nothing like a good sermon illustration to make a sermon memorable.

But you see, snow would make a marvelous contrast with the Easter hymns like the one we sang at the beginning of the service: “’Tis the spring of souls today . . . all the winter of our sins long and dark is flying . . . Now the queen of seasons bright with the day of splendor . . .” There’s another hymn, not on the agenda this morning, that says, “Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the Winter arising . . .”  And still another you may remember that begins “Welcome, happy morning . . .” and goes on about “Bloom in every meadow, leaves on every bough…” But you see the point?  It’s all about springtime and flowers and such.  And my thought was that with a good, old-fashioned nor-easter raging outside we would be struck by the contrast between the hymns and the weather, aware of the total incongruity between outside and inside, between what we were saying and what the outside weather was doing. And I thought that would be the perfect illustration of what always happens at Easter year after year.

I’ll offer three examples based on my text from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

One: We live in a highly competitive, selective world. Some of you might experience this in terms of college admissions. There are lots of colleges that turn down five or ten applicants for every one they accept. And beyond schooling, there’s competition just about everyone faces sooner or later for a job and career advancement.  At every step of the way someone is checking credentials, saying “yes” to some, “no” to others. If we want a car loan, a credit card, club membership, the question is always the same: “What are your credentials? Are you qualified?”  That’s our world.  And if it were snowing outside, inside it couldn’t be more different.

Like: what are your Christian credentials? Do you tithe?  Were you in church every Sunday all Lent?  Have you said your prayers every day, fasted on Fridays?  Have you visited the sick, fed the hungry?  Did you see someone at the door checking your credentials, marking the lists of those to be accepted or turned away?  Well, of course not.  This is the church, not the outside world, and this is, on principle, the least selective place you can find anywhere. The Christian Church has no standards.  Beliefs, yes; criteria no.  Jesus Christ died for us as we are. That’s the Gospel.  So come, respond, as you are. Time enough to change later on.

Today’s epistle is a turning point passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  He’s laid down the story of God in Christ and how we have been set free from fear and death by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  By baptism, no questions asked, available to the tiniest infant who has no clue, we’ve been given the gift of life.  And now, says St. Paul, “if you are indeed raised to new life in Christ,” let’s think about what that means. Let your life begin now to be changed, let it begin to reflect the gifts God gives you.  But, you see, it’s first things last: backwards by the world’s standards. Know that Christ died for you; come as you are to accept the life he offers.  There are no qualifications, no exams or admissions fees, for God’s gift of new life.

A second illustration: Together we make up a world that’s in an awful mess. You have probably noticed. We read the papers, turn on the news each day, just to see whether the scotch tape is still In place that holds it more or less together.  If it isn’t the Middle East or Cyprus, it’s North Korea or Syria or Afghanistan or somewhere else.  Do you remember that song the Kingston trio used to sing that went something like this: “There’s rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain; there’s hurricanes in Florida and Texas needs rain. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don’t like anybody very much.”  That’s still what the world is like.

Things haven’t much changed.  The world’s in bad shape. And if we were involved in politics, we would spend our time flying endlessly from here to there and back again like our Presidents and Secretaries of State: scotch taping the cracks, trying to keep the crazies under some sort of control. If we’re involved in any human society, from the U.N. and Afghanistan down to the Town of Litchfield and Borough of Bantam, be it what to do with the Stowe house or the Court House or the number of ribbons on the trees on the village green, life is an unending succession of crises. If we can take enough time away from it, to get to church at all, we hope for a short sermon so we can get back to the telephone and television and newspapers and the latest crisis.

But here again, you see, if it were snowing outside, the church couldn’t be more different.  The epistle says: “Set your mind on things above, not on things in the world” and that’s obviously ridiculous.  What sensible person with practical problems to solve is going to take advice like that?  The President should tell his staff, “Well, today I’m thinking about heaven, setting my mind on things above, so Syria can wait?” No, of course not.  We have to be sensible.  And notice how well we’re doing by being sensible!  Is it time to think again?

Corporately or personally, when we set out to solve our problems, we always apply the same standards don’t we?  We have to be practical, don’t we?  Have to be fair and just, and treat everyone equally. It sounds good. But does it work?  If Arabs bomb Jews, it’s fair and equal to bomb them back.  But what exactly does that solve?  If a couple have marriage problems, do you think the main concern should be to make sure they share responsibilities equally, that they’re fair to each other, that they respect each other’s rights, balance out his and hers?  I don’t.  I think that marriage counseling that centers on that sort of human dynamics has about the same chance of success as a U.N. peace-keeping mission. It may be better than nothing, but it isn’t the real solution.  lf love of God isn’t primary in a marriage – or any part of life – there’s potential for trouble.  I side with St. Paul.  First get straight your relationship with God, and then all the rest will follow.

Who was more responsive to human need: Jesus with his mind set on God, or the disciples, worried about food, afraid of the storm, concerned for their position?  It’s about as logical to the human mind as a snowstorm on Easter Day, It really is too bad we couldn’t arrange it!  “Set your mind on things above,” says St. Paul; set your mind on faith. That’s the new, backwards logic of the Gospel that sets us free.

Example Three:  The world cares about life.  People tell us, “So and so’s full of life’ Bill or Sue is the life of the party; that’s a live organization; that’s really living.”  But come to church on Easter full of life and spring-time hope and the joy of living and what happens? The Vicar’s sermon text, St. Paul’s letter to early Christians, says, “You have died.”  You see what I mean by contrast?  But the question to ask is this: if we are serious about life, if we care about our world and each other at all, isn’t it time to recognize that no human effort, no plans, no strategy, however sincere and well-meant and energetically pursued can accomplish any more than such efforts have usually achieved through all the centuries.

Why do we go on thinking that we are the first ones to see things so clearly, or care so much, or work so hard? We are, of course, terrific, the world is lucky we’re alive. And we’ll deal with all those unsolved problems first thing tomorrow and this time, for sure, we’ll get it right.  That’s the old story; we’re here to tell a new one: once, one man did something more, something new: he entrusted the totality of his existence to God. He died.  He made the radical, total break that had never been made before. And that’s why we’re here.  Not because he lived, but because he died.  That death gave God the opening to do what human beings couldn’t do.  He raised Jesus from death to life and opened the door to that new life to all mankind to share.

The Gospel I’m talking about is a proclamation of life and freedom.  There are no standards to worry about. There’s no need to concentrate on the world and its problems.  Even life is nothing to clutch at and death is nothing to fear.  This is the new community built solely on the power of God.  So let go of everything else and trust in that power.  Believe. Rely on him. That is indeed the difference between night and day, slavery and freedom, death and life.

If the time has come for you today to take a step toward that new life, that freedom, then come.  Here today at the Altar, receive that gift, be raised in Christ, and live in Christ a life so new, so different, that whether it snows today or not, you will remember it only for the joy of the springtime of this new beginning.

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