Easter in Solitude

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Well, this is the big day. To all the unprecedented list of things that we are experiencing, we can add this Easter Day. We’ll be telling our grandchildren about it. There may never be another Easter like it. As a child, we always went to my grandparents for Easter. They hid Easter eggs for us, and my grandmother cooked great meals. But none of that is happening this year.

Instead, we’re using Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Livestreaming like we’re doing right now. When I attended the Yale Divinity School, I never expected to be a televangelist! On Palm Sunday, one Christ Church member watched our service and her 86-year-old mother tuned in from Huntsville, Texas. “We were both in tears from the compassion during the service and the heartfelt message of the sermon,” the daughter wrote, adding, “Without knowing it we both touched our hearts during the Peace.” Wow! We’re spiritually connected.

It’s a bit surreal to be preaching to an empty church on Easter! I had terrible laryngitis on Christmas Eve. I had to miss our last three services and was devasted not to see your smiling faces, your beautiful families and to preach, but our clergy did a great job.

So, I dreamed of Easter morning – a full church, stunning flowers, choristers and choirs singing and watching our children perform “Who will roll away the stone?” Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that I’d be here on Easter morning and you’d be quarantined at home!

Each year, we give up something small for Lent, like chocolate or dessert, but this year we went big. We gave up going to school, working at the office, restaurants, bars, boats, trains, planes, trips, Tod’s Point, toilet paper, shaking hands and giving hugs, movies, museums, gyms, clubs, nail salons and beauty parlors, playing tennis, golf, spring sports, March Madness, the Major League, Wimbledon and the Summer Olympics, visiting colleges, dinner parties, galas and graduation, traveling to New York City and just about everywhere.

Maybe next year, we can go back to just giving up chocolate!

I know it’s Easter, but it feels like we’re the disciples on Good Friday. The news for the past few months has been grim. Today, may be the peak of deaths from the Coronavirus in our country. We feel fear, anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty. Lots of people have lost their jobs. Nearly two million people around the world have contracted Covid-19 and over 100,000 have died. People ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But we’ll get through this with God’s help. We always do!

We’re fortunate to be quarantined in Greenwich. We have our homes, our apartments and Fjord dip. We’re doing projects, keeping busy. I know a man who cut his wife’s hair. Talk about an act of faith!

So many in history have had it much worse. When the Plague of Justinian hit in 541 A.D. and reoccurred over the next two centuries, historians think that it killed 25-100 million people.

When the Black Plague swept across Europe in 1347 and returned eight times, it killed a third of those living in Northern Europe and half of those in parts of England. They couldn’t figure out what brought the plague, nor could they find a cure back then.

But we’ll invent a vaccine, and the Coronavirus will become history, but we will always remember living through this, what we did to stay safe and keep our spirits strong. Jesus repeatedly says, “Do not fear,” but he also says, “Take up our cross and follow me.” He knew humans suffer.

Over the centuries, we have turned to our faith while facing floods, famines, genocide, war, depressions, dictators, nuclear threats, and plagues. Every calamity has made us more resilient and the Church stronger. Our faith helped us to cope. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes, “….hardship generally makes people stronger. Fear, challenge, threat – unless they are extreme – tend to produce growth, not damage.”

One of our members is a French professor. Last Sunday, as she watched our service and heard the intercessions, she thought of one of her former students, a nurse, who graduated in 2013 from Sacred Heart. This young woman is a brave and dedicated. She has a calling and is potentially putting her life at risk on the front lines during this pandemic. She wrote this to her former teacher:

New York City has been crazy these last few weeks… stores are sold out of cleaning products and non-perishables, the sound of sirens is constant and social distancing has been really tough. However, I’ve never been more grateful to be a nurse during this time. I’m currently working on a Covid unit….and the patients are incredibly ill and lonely…. the need for ventilators has increased tenfold. As of yesterday, NYU is putting tents up outside of the Emergency Department for patients that are too sick to be admitted, and unfortunately the doctors are having to make some very tough decisions about who can and cannot be saved. 

That puts everything in perspective. The mild sacrifices that we are making, the reduction in salary, the inability to go to the gym or school. I don’t mean to minimize anything, but we can do this. Fred Rogers, who starred in “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” for 33 years used to say, “When something bad happens, my mother taught me always to look for the helpers.” You see, that’s where God is at work. Look for the helpers. Better yet, become a helper.

God doesn’t create pandemics. God never hurts people. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, ‘If it isn’t love, then it isn’t God.’” He’s right. God is a God of love. God loves everyone on this planet. You can count on that!

When life gets challenging, we return to the stories that shape our lives. On that first Easter morning, there was a lot of running according to John’s Gospel. Mary discovered the empty tomb and ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John ran to see for themselves, and then they ran to tell the others. The Bible says that they “did not yet understand the Scriptures that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9) “Truth must dazzle gradually,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson.

Some thought it was a hoax, like some thought Covid-19 was a hoax. The Romans said that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. But according to the gospels, nearly 500 people saw Jesus after he was resurrected. It was no hoax, no fake news, no misinformation. It was true.

When asked why people flock to church to worship on Easter when we proclaim the very hardest things for Christians to believe, the theological giant Karl Barth said that we worship with one unspoken question clinging to our hearts and minds, and that question is, “Is it true?” Is it true that Jesus rose from the dead and gives us life as well?

I believe with all my heart, soul and mind that it is true. Jesus rose from the dead, because I’ve seen God transform incredibly some broken, busted lives right before my very eyes, and God has done that very thing in my own life. Easter is a reality. You can trust it!

Over the centuries, millions of martyrs have died for our faith. They’ve been crucified, burnt alive, boiled in oil or beheaded, refusing to deny that Jesus rose from the dead. Unless something incredible occurred on Easter day two thousand years ago, there would be no Christianity at all. St. Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” (I Cor. 15:17)

For those who know Jesus, Easter is not the dramatic conclusion to the story. Easter is the beginning. God will guide us through this pandemic and raise us up! Easter tells us that the worst things are never the last things. God’s real name is Resurrection. God has the power to take the worst things and bring forth incredible things. The cross is ultimate sign of hope.

A medieval spiritual treatise called the Theologica Germanica suggests that we live with two eyes – one allows us to see into the eternal. The other gazes into time, here and now. The essence of living is to learn to see with both eyes. Most people tend to see only with the eye of this world. Some see primarily with the spiritual eye. The real challenge is to see with both.

The radiance shines through the stained-glass windows at Christ Church, and above all through the words of Scripture and the bread and the wine that become Christ’s body and blood. We come here to receive the light and to reflect on our lives and the moments of radiance.

I know some think this is magical thinking. They believe religion is a crutch for weak people. Not so. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet, faced great adversity. He wrote words infused with Christian faith. He said:

Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.

Yes, atheism is the real opium of the masses – no judgment, no heaven, and no accountability. It doesn’t matter what we do in this life. That’s the crutch that the truly weak to lean on.

William Sloane Coffin notes, “The Bible says that Christ is risen, pro nobis – for us – to put love in our hearts, decent thoughts in our heads, and a little more iron in our spines. Christ is risen to convert us, not from life to something more than life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life itself.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said Irenaeus.

Hence, Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. It’s radical and subversive to our normal, measured lives. God triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair and suffering never has the last word. Resurrection says, “Listen. Rethink your life.” So, the real question is how will God use this pandemic to open our eyes in new ways, to draw us together, to make us more loving, more interconnected and to help us reset our priorities? God will use this pandemic to make us more altruistic, united and empathetic.

We just need to come together, stand strong, act wisely, tell the truth, and do the right things. We’re seeing that all of life is interconnected, and while we’ve spent trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons, we’ve discovered that a little germ can bring the world to its knees.

This pandemic has been an invitation to stop, reflect and reset. It has given our environment a break. People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades and people China are finally seeing blue skies! We’ve been killing our planet and calling Climate Change fake news, but we’re learning to trust our scientists. Working from home rather than commuting to work has provided more family and personal time. These are gifts!

And we’re learning that some of us have so much that this pandemic is a speed bump while others are just a paycheck away from disaster, 30 million in the US lack healthcare and have no paid sick leave. A shift is underway. This virus is calling us to evolve, to be humane, to live a simpler life and to be kinder to our environment. These are spiritual lessons.

And the big question is how God will use this moment in time to transform us into people more like the people God knows we can be, resurrection people? Christ will easter in us. Resurrection is ongoing. It’s happening right now. Grace abounds. Easter tells us that God is at work in every arena of our life, even at the depths of our sorrow, our pain and our loss.

Though we’re quarantined, we need to connect. So, sow seeds of faith. Reach out to those who alone or worried and share words of hope and love. There are no Easter parades this year. No large gatherings. But the Empty Tomb still speaks, perhaps more powerfully than ever.

Alleluia! “Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed.” Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.