II Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
April 23, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In the Eastern Orthodox church, the week following Easter is called Bright Week: the liturgies are all sung liturgies, the music is joyful in tone, and people spend the week outside of church in festive activity. On Easter, the men throw water on the women to remember the disciple’s accusation that the women were hysterical when they reported the resurrection, but on the Monday after, it is the women who get to throw water on the men to commemorate the fact that the disciples were wrong. On Monday, the women shout, “Christ is risen!” as they douse men with water and the men have to apologetically respond, “He is risen indeed.” You may have heard of some of these practices because Polish Christians call the Monday after Easter “Dyngus Day,” which literally means “watering day,” and Buffalo, NY is the Dyngus capital of America. In Buffalo on the Monday after Easter, people celebrate with beer drinking, dancing, and the liberal use of squirt guns, and the festival is so popular that Buffalonians say, “On Dyngus Day, everyone is Polish.”
Many Protestant American churches, not wanting the Orthodox Christians to have a monopoly on fun, have in recent years designated the Sunday following Easter — today — as Bright Sunday. (One diocese said that they tried to celebrate on the Monday after Easter but the ministers were all too worn out from Holy Week to leave their houses so they moved it to the next week.) On Bright Sunday, congregations are encouraged to let their hair down, tell jokes, and even play practical jokes on one another during worship. In one church, a parishioner snuck up to the organ before the service and taped all of the pages of the organist’s music together. In another, the associate minister threw a pie in the face of the senior minister. These churches report that attendance has been steadily rising the week after Easter as people come to church to see what antics will ensue.
I don’t want to get your hopes up, however, because high attendance or not, we won’t be observing the customs of Bright Sunday today. I have enough problems keeping track of what I’m doing up here without worrying that someone is going to throw a pie at me during the service but I am sympathetic to the theology behind Bright Sunday. It’s hard to go from an altar crammed with lilies and daffodils, from the soaring music of “Christ the Lord has Risen Today,” from the visiting grandchildren playing in the aisles, from all of the glorious sights, smells, and sounds of Easter, back to ordinary worship. We gave 40 days over to Lent to consider the brokenness of the world and anticipate the good news of resurrection, but when Easter finally gets here, we give only one day to our celebration before returning to the old familiar liturgy, and everything too quickly feels bland again.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “Can it be possible that joy flows through and, when the course is run it leaves no change, no mark on us to tell its passing? And as poor as we’ve begun we end the richest day?” The Orthodox Christians are right in their desire to keep the Easter celebration going a little longer.
But whether we give it a day or a week, too often even we faithful churchgoers treat Easter as merely a break in the routine, a holiday whose sole purpose is to give us a nice respite from the despair and stress of the world before we go back to real life. Before the chocolate is even finished or the lilies have lost their scent, our minds are already moving on to the next event on the calendar.
“Easter’s done. Now I’ve got to think about exams coming up, and commencement, and is it too soon to start planning Memorial Day weekend?”
Easter, however, isn’t a holiday; it’s a holy day on which we hear a startling and holy proclamation: new life is possible for everyone. No matter how trapped you feel by the powers of death and despair, God can free you from those death-dealing forces in your life and raise you to new life. This is not a message that expires in 24 hours but it continues on into the days and weeks and months and years, flowing even on into eternity because on Easter we are given the promise that death doesn’t have the last word, whether literally or figuratively. At the end of our physical lives, God promises that our lives will continue and the love we shared in this world will not end but go on in a new life to come. We see that in the risen Christ. God also promises, however, that we don’t have to wait until we physically die to experience the promise of Easter resurrection because God declares that everything that kills your spirit, everything that cripples your heart and strikes your soul down, will meet its match in the grace of God. This is what Paul means when he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus — the risen Christ — may also be made visible in our bodies.” Paul knew more than anyone the power of God’s grace to free us from our past: he had persecuted Christians and his heart had been chained by the powers of cruelty and bigotry, but instead of condemning him, God freed Paul from that past and gave him a new life shaped in compassion for others.
Easter declares that new life is possible for the most broken, the most lonely, the most imprisoned, the most despairing among us, and yet that claim of Easter is so remarkable — so unbelievable to us — that too often we treat it like a wonderful fairy tale to be celebrated for a day and then put back on the shelf with the other fantasy books while we get back to the old familiar way of being.
There is a story of an elderly man who once lay on his death bed, too weak to move, knowing he was in his final days. As he contemplated his last hours, he suddenly smelled a delicious aroma wafting up the stairs. It was the smell of his favorite chocolate chip cookies baking in the kitchen on the floor below. As the tantalizing scent filled his nose, his eyes opened, and his heart lifted. He realized that maybe there was life in him yet. Gathering his remaining strength, he lifted himself from his bed, and leaning against the wall, made his way out of the bedroom. As he approached the stairs, the aroma became more intense, and with it his determination. Gripping the railing with both hands, he slowly worked his way step by step down the staircase until he arrived at the kitchen. There before him, spread across the table and the countertops were hundreds upon hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies!
“Have I already died,” the man wondered, “and entered heaven? Or is this an act of devoted love from my wife, wanting to make sure that I leave this world a happy man?”
Full of a newly awakened desire to live, he kneeled before the table and he grasped one of the warm cookies in his trembling hand and for the first time in days, felt his appetite return. He bit into the cookie and as it melted in his mouth, he felt strength flowing into him, as if life itself was returning to his wasted soul.
He reached for another cookie but suddenly, a pain shot through his hand, a hard stinging sensation. He looked up to see his wife holding the spatula she has just used to smack his hand.
“Stay out of those cookies!’ she said, “They’re for your funeral!”
The story makes us laugh because of the irony of the wife who is so intent on preparing for her husband’s funeral that she can’t even rejoice in his return to life. Heaven forbid that he should come back to life and upset her carefully laid plans to prepare for his death. New life sounds wonderful but let’s admit it; it can be disturbing because it is new. The new life that God offers us may be very different from what went before. It may require that we change: we may have to give up cherished prejudices or assumptions as Paul had to. We may have to let go of comforting behaviors that are in fact hurting us or the people around us. We might have to change our expectations about what our lives should look like or who we have always assumed ourselves to be — and change is frightening. So we say our alleluia’s and proclaim the possibility of new life, but deep down inside, we are already making plans to return to our old ways of being even if the old life we were leading is killing us. One of the strongest weapons that the powers of death have in their arsenal is familiarity. How many people have stayed in jobs or relationships that are sapping their souls just because they are familiar? Or how many of us have retreated into memories of the past, remembering when we were healthy and physically whole, remembering when our families were young and life wasn’t so much of a struggle, remembering when we could take for granted the presence of friends and loved ones now absent, retreating into memories of a life that is no longer possible but too tired and too afraid to step into the new life that God offers? The reason we are often reluctant to accept resurrection is because what we really think we want is resuscitation, not resurrection. We just want the old way of being to come back. God can’t turn back the clock no more than God could erase the cross — the risen Christ bore the marks of the nails on his hands and feet still. God can’t take away all of the grief and loss that we experience in our lives, nor can God remove the wounds of our own mistakes and sin; but God can offer us a new way of being. God can help us to move forward and discover that there is still meaning and purpose and even joy ahead of us if we can accept a new way of being.
We can carry the death of Jesus with us even while the life of Jesus is made visible in us.
In her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard writes about a summer when she suddenly noticed how tattered the world around her looked. She begins to keep a record of what she calls, ‘survivors:’ spiders missing legs, butterflies with tattered wings, a tailless sparrow, a toeless killdeer, scarred sharks and whales “hilly with vast colonies of crustaceans called whale lice.” What she also notices, however, is that these chewed, chomped, fractured creatures continue to go about their business living and mating and making plans to keep the world going. Dillard writes, “[I realized that I too] am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world where everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under wind-rent clouds, upstream and down…. That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is… a surprise… The new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden.”
God promises you that the wounds and the brokenness that you bear in your souls is not the final word; there is new life awaiting and new possibilities for you. Easter isn’t just a day on the calendar; it is the first step in a new road unfolding before you where you can discover that death has lost its power and grace instead is victorious.