Our Lenten SNAP Challenge ended last night with this acclamation at the Great Vigil of Easter. We threw on the lights, rang bells, cranked up the organ and began the celebration of the most joyous festival of the Christian year.
In his homily, Bishop Prince Singh began by noting that fearing death is a perfectly rational human response. Certainly there is our physical death to fear, but we also fear all the little deaths that punctuate our lives: loss of a job, loss of a relationship, an illness, a failure, a disappointment, an uncertainty, an unmet expectation, an unanswered prayer. Even contemplating these little deaths can leave us paralyzed by action-altering fear. I’m reminded of the aphorism: “What would you do if you knew that you couldn’t fail?” [I would write books. How about you?] Singh argued that these fears hold us back from being our true selves—who we are called to be. In church language: We are not living fully into our baptism. In army language: We are not being all that you can be. To emphasize his point, Singh described an fantasy meeting between the ruthless Roman emperor Caligula and Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus brought back to life after he had been dead for four days and become, by Martha’s own report, quite stinky (John 11:1-43).
Caligula: Lazarus, I’m going to kill you!
Lazarus: HA HA HA HA!
The point, of course, is that if you’ve already been dead and have been raised to new life (and presumably had a long, hot shower), there is nothing left in death to fear. “Go ahead, kill me,” Lazarus might say, “I’ve already been there and it’s really okay.” The punch line for us is that what paralyzes is not the actual event but our anticipation of it and our inability to imagine that new life might follow whatever little death we contemplate. This is a simple—but quintessentially human—failure of imagination.
That’s the Good News in the Christian story. If Jesus can overcome the capital-D death by rising to new life than certainly we can pass through all of our little deaths with the confidence that life will eventually triumph, if we allow it to be. And you thought it was all about sin!
Singh could have stopped there and had a perfectly orthodox Easter sermon. But he didn’t. He went on to think about what that “new life” might look like. And here, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not all bunnies and jelly beans and Easter lilies. We are called to live into the promised that we made at baptism. We reaffirmed that Baptismal Covenant right before we threw on the lights and began ringing bells. Chillingly, the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant calls us to resist evil, to repent sin, to seek and serve all persons, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. If we take even one of those seriously, it is a very tall order indeed. No wonder we hear “don’t be afraid” so often in scripture. The kind of life into which we try to live is seriously scary! Any rational person would be afraid.
After the service, a dear friend with whom I’ve talked about our Lenten SNAP journey asked if I was glad to be done. I hesitated and said that I wasn’t sure. “You’re not sure that you have the take-away?” she asked. Basically, yes. It’s not that I haven’t learned things. I’ve learned quite a lot. The piece that is still missing is what do I DO with what I have learned. The Easter message is that we no longer need to fear because there is always new life. And the new life to which we are called is about seeking and serving and neighbors and justice and peace and dignity. We fast, study and contemplate in Lent so that we are ready to hit the ground and run when the sun rises on Easter morning and our fear lifts with the mists. What I don’t yet know is where I’m called to run.