Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a + Genesis 7:1-5,11-18;8:6-18;9:8-13 + Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21 + Isaiah 55:1-11 + Ezekiel 37:1-14 + Daniel 3:1-29 + Romans 6:3-11 + John 20:1-18
This sermon was preached by Pastor Erik Christensen at the ecumenical worship service held by St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square and Iglesia Episcopal de Nuestra Señora de las Americas at the Easter Vigil (3/26/2016).
If there’s any movie in recent memory that’s lived up to the high ideals of my youth, it was last year’s relaunch of the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m just old enough to remember when the original Star Wars movies came out, but still young enough that they entered my imagination as a child, forming me for life.
Do you remember the words that scrolled up from the bottom of the screen in the opening scene back in 1977?
Episode IV: A New Hope
What a brilliant way to begin a story! “Episode IV” — not at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle, we are joining a story already in progress. “A New Hope,” communicates so much. Old hopes have been dashed, times are tough, the people aren’t sure what will happen next, but just wait, help is on the way! All of that, communicated with incredible efficiency in just five words: “Episode Four: A New Hope.”
We have not been quite so efficient tonight. Instead of five words, we’ve told seven stories, and read part of a letter. Nevertheless, the effect is intended to be quite similar. This is the night! For two thousand years Christian people have gathered on this night, are gathered right now, all around the world: lighting fires, telling stories, singing alleluias, and baptizing new sisters and brothers into the faith — welcoming them into a story already in progress. Here’s what we know so far:
This world, everything in it, me and you, we were created by God. Not as an experiment. Not as a test. We were created by love, from love, for love. When God was creating the world, God looked at everything God had created and called it good. This is the first story of salvation. We are saved by the reality that underneath the other stories that have been laid on us, underneath the thoughtless jokes and stupid stereotypes and the bigoted rhetoric floating around in the world, the word God uses to describe us, the name God chooses to call us is “good.” That is the truest thing about you. That God loves you and calls you good. If you forget everything else and just remember that you and everyone you run into over the course of the day is God’s favorite person; that every patch of land you walk on is God’s favorite place to be; that all the people and places the world writes off are exactly the people and places God delights in most, then it’s enough. There is salvation in that story.
But, while that would have been enough, God gives us more. Because we also have a story that says that God recognizes all the ways that the other stories that get told about us hurt us, twist us, deform us, embitter us, warp us into something hard, something violent and cruel. So we tell a story about waters so deep, so profound, that they wash away all the ways we are killing ourselves and each other, and replace those habits with a covenant between God and the whole creation that says “never again.” Never again do you need to worry that God cannot forgive you. Never again do you need to worry that God will deal harshly with you. Never again do you need to worry that God will not save room for you in God’s heart. A story of new life on the other side of waters that made the world and everyone in it new, of wood that carried us across the gap between our past and our future. There is salvation in that story.
And, while that would have been enough, God gives us even more. Because we also have a story that tells us that even after the flood, even after we are washed in the water, there are ways that our cruelty and self-centeredness re-emerge. Ways that consolidate power and concentrate wealth. Ways that transform the sin that is working in each of us into an empire that is working against all of us. So we get the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and God’s liberation that parts waters and sets us free. A story that tells the truth, that sometimes we look back at the ways the world enslaves us with nostalgia for the past. We’d grown comfortable with our own oppression. We’d gotten used to those lies. We’d learned to live with those shackles. But God will not settle for slavery. God wants us free, and will lead us into the movement for freedom that was not over when the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, but continues in us each time we march, together, for human dignity and justice in our world, in our time. There is salvation in that story.
And if it had stopped there, it would have been enough, but God gives us even more. God sends the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel to instruct us on what this liberated, water-washed life will require from us. Isaiah tells the hungry poor to come to the waters, to invest themselves in a way of life that we cannot put a price on; to stop wasting our lives working to prop up the same system that keeps us down. The prophets imagine a world where the things that are needed for life aren’t hoarded, but are shared as freely as the rain that falls from the sky. Water as the sign that life is not earned, but received, as a gift.
Ezekiel prepares us for the truth that this water-washed life will not be easy, that the empire will strike back, that our struggles will sometimes leave us tired, worn out, defeated, left for dead. That sometimes the covenant written in water will seem to have evaporated completely, that we will feel dry, brittle, fragile, useless. That faith will feel like foolishness, and hope like a child’s dream.
That will be the moment when God’s power is made known in our weakness. When God’s covenant will prove stronger than our confidence. When the Holy Spirit will be poured out on us like a river in the desert. When strength will return to our bodies, and joy to our hearts, and alleluias to our lips, not because of what we have done, but because of what God can do, and has done, and will do again! There is salvation in that story.
And it would have been enough, but God gives us another story, a story about testimony, about speaking truth to power. A moment of foreshadowing when three young adults stand before the face of empire, like Jesus stood before Pilate, and are thrown into a fire so hot no water could withstand it. Because we face that moment every day, as we choose between the values of empire and the reign of God; and because sometimes we are called to testify to our faith in the God of abundant love and ongoing liberation in ways that put us at odds with those who have invested themselves in the myths of scarcity and control. Sometimes we will be thrown in the fire. Sometimes we will be nailed to the cross. And if not us, then our neighbors, and we will have to decide if we bend the knee or make a stand. The story tells us that when we stand, God stands with us. That no fire can withstand this water. There is salvation in this story.
Jesus knew all these stories, because they were his stories. The legends of Israel’s salvation were to him what Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope was to a generation of us — stories that acknowledged the epic struggle in which we are always engaged. In his ministry he took those stories and adapted them, interpreted them, retold them so that anyone who was really listening could tell that these were stories about them and their lives, just like they are stories about us and our lives.
So, when the empire demanded that Jesus cease and desist, that he back away from his solidarity with all the suffering people of the earth, he knew that his hour had come. Would he bend the knee, or would he stand? Was the choice real? Without a doubt. But, to anyone who knew the story, the end was already clear. He had been baptized at the Jordan by John. He heard the voice of the Creator calling him Beloved. He knew who he was in a way the empire could never call into question. So he stood in the fire and he hung on the cross and God stood with him, because it is in the nature of God to stand with all who being crucified by this world. There is salvation in that story.
And if it ended there it would have been enough, to know that God stands with those the world is killing. But God gave us more, because as the story goes, on the third day after his death they came to his tomb and discovered that he was not there. First Mary, then others of the disciples, came to the tomb to see what had happened to the body of their Lord. In fact, as the story goes, he was there, but Mary mistook him for a gardener. As if the graveyard was a garden, like the one at the dawn of creation, and Jesus had been there all along. “Do not hold on to me,” he said, “but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
That’s how Jesus saw them. That’s how Jesus sees us. As sisters and brothers, members of the same family, children of the same God. That’s what we say happens to us when we are dipped, dunked and drenched in these storied waters. We become members of one another in ways even death cannot tear apart.
There is salvation in this story, the story of Jesus, which is our story. And this is the night when we invite new sisters and brothers to join us in telling this story with our whole lives. This is the night when we proclaim that “God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism.” A story, your story, already in progress. A story of salvation. A new hope.