Easter Day Sermon
The Rev. Kenneth L. Schmidt, Rector
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 31 March 2013
A religious commentator whom I read regularly said in a recent column that for many years now, as he approached Easter, he read a poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike. It’s the fourth stanza he finds particularly striking:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
In other words let us not try to explain the resurrection of Jesus by explaining it away, as if it were primarily a metaphor, an analogy, or a parable—not that he has anything against it also being all those things too. “Some things cannot be reduced to an explanation and are greatly diminished in the process of trying,” he writes. “The task is proclamation, not explanation—offering an invitation”. . . an invitation to “walk through the door.”
So from John Updike, through John Buchanan, and by way of our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, I invite you this morning to “walk through the door.” Not that we are absolved from trying to understand the resurrection as best we can, After all Jesus himself challenged us to love God, not only with all our heart and soul, but also our mind. Still when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the worship of God with all our mind often brings us to a dead end. We definitely know what the resurrection of Jesus is not: it is not the resuscitation of a corpse, creating some kind of frightening, zombie-like figure, who flies off into outer space at his Ascension, splashing down back to earth at his Second Coming. That we know this is probably best seen by the fact that even though there are many quality books published each year for children on the birth of Jesus, you can count on one hand the authors who try to tell the story of the resurrection of Jesus to children.
So if that is what the resurrection of Jesus is not, what is it? Sorry to disappoint you, but I have no plausible explanation to offer. And how could I? Or anyone else? We are celebrating a mystery that is unimaginable, for that reason unexplainable, and therefore [to be quite honest] unbelievable. That’s why I sometimes think unbelievers know more about what we are celebrating today than those of us who believe.
But however deficient we believers may be in trying to explain the resurrection of Jesus, we have the opportunity by the power of Jesus’ resurrection to [using Updike’s words] “walk through the door.” Because ultimately it doesn’t matter to what extent we may or may not understand the resurrection of Jesus. What matters is that you and I extend to each other the invitation to live the resurrection of Jesus.
That invitation came to me in several ways this past week. I relate them this morning as samples of the ways I hope the invitation to “walk through the door” may come to you, Today, of course. But always. All of them happened on Thursday. Which means that for me Maundy Thursday was very much an Easter.
The day began, as most days do, with walking Maisie, our dog, and then reading the New York Times. Two articles not only gave me news, but helped me “walk through the door” of Jesus’ resurrection.
One headed: “Dolan Goes Behind Bars To Commune With Inmates: Mass at State Prison was Inspired by the Pope.” ‘Dolan’ is Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York. Following the example of Pope Francis who decided for his principal Maundy Thursday Mass to wash the feet of youth at a detention center in Rome instead of visiting one of the grand basilicas, Dolan visited the Shawangunk [maximum security] Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley. With his usual vivaciousness and good humor Dolan commented in his homily, that in the papal enclave in Rome, he, like the prisoners at Shawangunk, “was locked in,” adding the disclaimer “I was locked in the Sistine Chapel, which is a lot nicer than here.” He went on to say that “I love to say mass in a prison. Nobody ever comes late and nobody ever leaves early.” But according to the article, he also was very serious: “Jesus Christ was a prisoner,” mentioning his arrest before his crucifixion. “Jesus Christ, God’s only son, felt [as] alone [as you do].” He also humbly described his visit as selfish. Because of his visit to Shawangunk, Dolan hopes that at the Last Judgment he’ll be able to answer in the affirmative when Jesus asks him when he had visited those in prison. “I’m going to able to say, ‘Yes, Jesus. You ask the guys at Shawangunk.”
Let us walk through the door.
The other article was headed: “Plaintiff, 83, Is Calm Center in a Legal and Political Storm.” The article was about Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the case argued in the Supreme Court the day before over DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. Windsor brought the suit against the US when she received a whopping estate tax after her wife Thea died, which she would not have had to pay if, in her words, “Thea [her partner of 40 years whom she legally married in Canada just a couple of years ago] “were Theo.” Though she has difficulty walking and is quite hard of healing, her wit is thoroughly intact. As she said to the reporters and admirers surrounding her on the Supreme Court steps following the hearing:
Hi, I’m Edie Windsor, and somebody gave me a large speech, which I
am not going to make. I am today an out lesbian, O.K., who just sued
the United States of America, which is kind of overwhelming for me. . .
For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it,
it is magic. As we increasingly came out, people saw that we didn’t have
horns. People learned that . . . we were their kids and their cousins. . .It
just grew to where we were human beings like everybody else . . .
Then as shouts of “Edie! Edie!” came from the crowd surrounding her, she politely excused herself. “There are a lot of people who came here to see me, and I’m just going to go see them.’’
Let us walk through the door.
I can’t spend all day reading the paper, of course. Nor would I want to. Especially this past Thursday. Not only was I looking forward to the Maundy Thursday service that evening here at All Saints’, but I had [among several other things] on my schedule my participation every Thursday at the Quaker Vigil for Peace on the corner of Laguna and Golden Gate in front of the Federal Building a block away from Civic Center. Usually the times I “walk through the door” of Jesus’ resurrection happen by surprise. This one I plan weekly. And it almost always work. It’s like a retreat, in the old-fashioned spiritual sense of the word. For while some see the Vigil as a protest, for me it is pure prayer. My practice is to walk to the Vigil. Once that got me press in the San Francisco Chronicle I didn’t find very flattering. After identifying me as a priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rector, of All Saints’, the article said “at the age of 60, he walks all the way downtown.” Why, I walk that far all the time! Even now. Six years later.
Anyway, once I get to the Vigil, I pull out my Anglican Rosary, and recite the words from the Rosary for Claire of Assisi, based on the Psalm for her day: “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you.” Over and over again. 84 times. To some that sounds like “vain repetitions.” But for me those repetitions are not vain at all. They place in my heart a keen sense that God is my God. And they help me strive to eagerly seek God. There in the midst of all the noise of traffic and the conversations of passers-by, the Quaker Vigil carves out a zone of inner silence that opens me, as few other places and times, to pray for peace on earth among all people of good will.
Let us walk through the door.
Of course walking through the door of Jesus’ resurrection will [a lot of the time, maybe most of the time] seem as difficult as understanding it. If you and I despair. Think of how God must be tempted to despair too. Said so humorously in a cartoon in The New Yorker a decade ago. There’s the old, white haired, wrinkled faced God sitting on his throne in highest heaven speaking to an angel on the back of his throne as he looks across the cosmos at the distant planet earth and says, “And this time—no ark!”
But thanks be to God, God always builds an ark: the ark of Jesus’ resurrection and the example of those who walked through the door before us. Like the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we honor in the Episcopal Church this coming Thursday, 4 April, the anniversary of his assassination. The rest of the nation honors him on his birthday [or the Monday closet to it]. But the Episcopal Church prefers to be out of sic. Not because we are ornery —though there’s some truth to that. But because we see Martin Luther King, Jr..not just as a saint, but as a martyr. And martyrs are honored not on the date of their birth but on the date of their death.
Whatever else we know about someone we now affectionately call MLK, we should at least know the account King gave in a sermon in 1956 to a death threat he had recently received.
“Nigger,” the voice on the phone said, “we are tired of you and your
mess now, and if you’re not out of town in three days, we’re going to
blow your brains out and blow up your house. Something said to me,
you can’t call on daddy now; . . . You’ve got to call on that something,
on that person your daddy . . . told you about, that power that can make
a way out of no way. And I discovered that religion had to become real
to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over a cup
of coffee. And I prayed out loud . . . “Lord, I’m down here trying to do
what is right . . . I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must
confess . . . I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage, and I can’t let the
people see me like this because if they see me weak . . . they will begin
to get weak.
Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice: “Martin . . . stand up for
righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, I will be
with you, even until the end of the world.
I was ready to face anything.
And you and I will be ready to face anything too. If like Martin Luther King, Jr., we know that when we “walk through the door” of Jesus’ resurrection in all the deaths we face in life and at the end of life, we enter the wide embrace of God’s everlasting love.
So, let us walk through the door.