Easter Vigil--The Great Unhorizoning
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Great Vigil of Easter: Romans 6:3-11 ; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
Assuming the Bishop or I don’t accidentally set ourselves alight at the kindling of the New Fire for the Easter Vigil, one of the most beautiful sights at the start of the liturgy is to see the new fire passing from the Paschal Candle and spreading neighbor to neighbor through the entire nave. The light of Christ passes through the midst of the congregation, leading us, guiding us, illuminating us with light in a recapitulation of the Exodus story in which God draws the Israelites up out of Egypt from bondage under Pharaoh, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and into freedom in the good and broad land, the land of milk and honey.
That’s an important thing to notice—that God has really only been up to one thing since the foundation of the world: the fashioning for Himself of a people who know the freedom that is life in Him. Freedom takes many forms in the Old and New Testaments: freedom from political oppression, freedom to worship without fear, freedom from blindness to the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land, freedom from debilitating illness, freedom from ritual impurity and being cast out, freedom from diminishing, shame-based stories that we’re too old, too young, too prodigal, too __________ for God to love us.
This is the night when we glimpse most clearly that freedom and liberation is God’s primary desire for his creation. God’s deepest desire is to welcome us into his very life that we might enjoy Him, be en-joyed by Him, to know in the depths of our being our status as God’s beloved children, surprised insiders in the very life of God. God in the person of Jesus came among us into order to draw us to Himself, to show us the way through the waters, to lead us and guide us that by Him and with Him and Him we might know the grand destiny for which we were created. The Great Vigil of Easter reminds us that we as human beings are made for something, we have an end to which all things point, a telos, a goal, a purpose, a destiny. And what is that purpose? To be a place where God can tabernacle, to be, through the proper use of our gifts, a vehicle for the transformative power of God.
Tonight, we are baptizing six beautiful children into the Body of Christ. In the early days of the church, of course, the Easter Vigil was the one time, after three years of baptismal preparation that new Christians were incorporated into the Body of Christ. They would face West towards the setting sun standing on a prickly hairshirt and confess their sins—everything that separated themselves from the love of God—thoughts about themselves, others, and God, seeking for happiness in places that ultimately disappoint. And then, they would turn towards the east, the direction of new life and resurrection. As the sun rose they would make their baptismal promises and step into the font, disappearing in the baptismal waters. Coming up for air they would be anointed with oil, be dressed in white gown and partake of their first Eucharist.
Some of the details have changed, but the basic arc of the Vigil remains one of the most ancient liturgies we move through. This is the night when we, with these baptisands, turn from everything that doesn’t bring us life, to the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth—opening ourselves, yielding to love, that God might kindle in our hearts the new fire that is God’s love for us, and our love for all of God’s creation. Just the light of Christ spreads out through the entire congregation, so does God’s love for each and every one of us, just as we are, spread outside the walls of this Cathedral that we might be love to, for, with others. We journey with Jesus on his mission to the margins as bread to feed, oil to heal, water to wash, and wine to slake the thirst of the parched. We travel with Jesus in his mission to the margins in solidarity with those who have stepped over, shoved aside, and left behind. We travel with Jesus towards those whose cries have been drowned out by the deafening roar of commerce, of getting and spending, that renders people into objects, products for exploitation and use.
Paul writes, in his Letter to the Romans of being baptized into Christ Jesus’ death, of being buried with him. What is it, we might ask, that we die to in baptism, and indeed each time we turn in the midst of our daily lives to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, each time we turn to the source of beauty, goodness, and truth, each time we yield to love and let ourselves be loved into loving, made beautiful by the beautiful One as his hands and feet in the world?
One way to understand this turning, this reorientation, is “to change the direction we are looking for happiness.” We turn from looking for lasting happiness in controlling other people and treating them as playthings for our personal preferences—we respect the dignity of every human being, and the goodness of creation. We turn from using people and the good earth as something to exploit for our self-centered purposes and profit. We turn from thinking that through our own efforts we can find the safety and security for which our hearts yearn—the peace that passes understanding. The peace that doesn’t come at the bottom of a pint, or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, the peace that comes from surrendering to God and finding ourselves already found in Him—our castle, our stronghold to keep us safe: the one who walks us through the waters, the one walking free and unbound in flames, the one who journeys to the depths of separation and alienation from the Father in order to grab us by the hand in a fireman’s hold and pull us up into new life. And we turn from all those stories about ourselves, about other people, and about God that we inherited from teachers, parents, and nation that tell us we are not good enough, not smart enough, unlovable—the one person in all of creation whom God won’t run out to meet. We turn from all of that. We renounce all of that. We let those tombs of our own devising be emptied. We let those stones be rolled away. And we make a little space in which God can be God in us and begin to love his life in and through us.
When the women discover empty tomb, it’s a sign that the world is not what they think it is. They are not who they’d thought they were, and Jesus is not who they’d thought he was. The empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances are a jarring, puzzling, interruption into the accepted order of things that pronounces God’s power over the power the death. In many ways, all the things we turn from—seeking poor substitutes for happiness through power/control, affection/esteem, safety and security—are different expressions of and strategies for managing our fear of death. When we come to know Christ and power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10), our fear of death gradually lessens, and our other anxieties fall into their proper place. Don’t get me wrong. Death is real. We die. But the resurrection tells us that we when we are at the end of our resources, God is not at the end of his. God is not exhausted by the horizons we place on him.
As members of Christ’s body, this means we have a tremendous power working through us. People who no longer are driven by the death of death, those for whom death no longer has dominion, are the ones who can pluck up the courage to go where Jesus goes. It’s what steadied Martin Luther King during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama when he was receiving 40 death threats a day. It’s what made the Christians such a nuisance in the Roman Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, China. When the horizon of death has been exploded, when the power of God is truly glimpsed we are suddenly able to say, “The world doesn’t have to be this way.” We suddenly have the ability to imagine alternative futures, and more just social arrangements. We learn that, with God’s help, things can be different. The way things are is not the way things are destined to be.
That’s why the men in dazzling clothes say to the women, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The two angels remind the women and us that God doesn’t play according to our rules. Stop trying to think of him in terms that you understand. That’s the way of death. The way of what you already know. God is doing a new thing. God has emptied that tomb. Stop digging around in the dirt and get out into Galilee! Live from the freedom that has been God’s desire to gift to us all along. He is Risen, now let Him live His risen life in you. He is light. All he has ever desired is for us to be that light, His light, in a world where darkness, death, hatred, bigotry only appear to have the last word.
Let’s follow him out of the darkness into the His light, out of the nightmare of our own devising into His dream for the world. Let’s follow him into Galilee, into Salt Lake City, free and unbound as those who have been loved into loving that everyone, and all of creation, might come within the reach of His saving embrace.