The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, offered the following sermon on Easter Day, April 12, at St. James, Florence, Italy.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia! This is the great feast of the Christian year, for "on this day the Lord has acted" (Ps 118:24), "This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice" (Isa 25:9).
New life has come out of death, for God has raised Jesus from the dead.
When I landed here on Wednesday, I had a phone message. It was from the woman who cuts my hair in NY. She"s a Brazilian immigrant, who"s been in the US for 20 years. Her English is pretty good, but one day she said to me that she couldn"t write in English, and she wanted to take an ESL course, but the fees that language schools charge in NY are beyond her. She asked me if I knew any churches that offered ESL classes. Well, I went back to the office and started looking, but I kept running into dead ends. I"m sorry to say that the churches where I left messages or made inquiries didn"t call back. I couldn"t find anything on the website of the Diocese of New York, and I didn"t have any luck on the internet. I had to go back to her the next time and say that I hadn"t been able to find anything.
Well, I kept thinking about it, and it finally dawned on me that there must be some community offerings. Somebody must offer ESL classes in NY! I finally found the city department of education, and a list of the centers where adult education classes are offered. And, oh yes, ESL is part of those offerings. I printed out one page that gave the contact numbers for the different adult education centers in NYC. The next time I went back to see Val, I took that single piece of paper and told her what it was, and that most of the centers seemed to offer ESL classes. I offered to help, and told her I could probably find some funds if the classes had a fee.
The phone message was hard to understand, but it was from Val. She had gone to her first class the day before, there was no fee, and she said they even offered help with looking for other employment. She was falling all over herself with joy. This was a different person, and that was evident even in a garbled recording.
Sometimes we can recognize something new in a different context, but other times we may see but not recognize what we"re seeing.
Mary of Magdala went to the tomb early on the first day of the week to finish the burial rites. She discovered the tomb empty and figured the body had been stolen. She runs home and tells the guys that Jesus" body is missing. Peter and the other one maybe John run to the tomb, and there"s this fascinating series of encounters. The other one gets there first and peeks in, but he waits for Peter. Peter goes in and sees the burial clothes, but doesn"t get it. Then the other disciple goes in, and it says that "he saw and believed" even though it"s not clear just what he believed. The gospeller is careful to tell us that they didn"t understand what they were seeing. So they go home essentially unchanged and apparently still clueless.
Mary stays, and continues her grieving. Two angels confront her and she admits that she can"t even grieve properly without the body. She turns around, runs into the gardener, and asks what he"s done with the body. She sees, and doesn"t see. She sees him, and recognizes him as the gardener, but not the gardener she thinks she"s seeing. However, this is the gardener, the new Adam, the one who has restored the promise of the first garden. Jesus, risen, has renewed the life first given to Adam and Eve in the garden. When Jesus calls her by name, she finally figures out who he is. He tells her not to touch him or hang on to him, because he still has to finish rising. This heavenly bread-body is still waiting for its final proofing. The breath of spirit has yet to bless the disciples, though the process has begun. He will remain with them for a little while, for the work of his lasting presence isn"t finished just yet. Wait for Ascension and Pentecost, Easter isn"t done yet. The spirit is yet to come.
The Easter question for us is always, do we recognize what we"re seeing? Can we see newly risen life in l"Aquila? Can we find the presence of the risen one in those who come here to St. James to be fed? Can we see Jesus in unexpected joy?
We all spend at least part of our lives waiting, more or less expectantly, for that newly risen life, for that unexpected joy. The Afghani refugees I met Friday at St. Paul"s refugee center in Rome are waiting for justice, for the state of Italy to recognize them as human beings deserving of real dignity the dignity that looks like viable employment and assistance to rebuild their lives. The Ecuadoran immigrant women I heard about are also waiting for real dignity, for recognition as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law, and the help of the community to raise their children in a vision of more abundant life. The Italian families who are served here at St. James each week are finding a glimpse of new life as they wait for the kind of dignity that will let them feed their families in an ongoing and reliable way. The students who come here for dinner on Wednesday are eager for community that will tell them they matter, even as strangers in a strange land.
While we wait, how is that hope sustained? What finally lets us recognize new life in what we"re seeing? The great assurance of Easter is that nothing can finally separate us from that hope, not even death. In Easter, God has reworked the nature of creation. Death is no longer the end of things. We live in the assurance that the deaths in Abruzzi are being turned for life, even though we may not see or recognize it for a long time. That hope is sustained in communities like this one where the resurrected one keeps that hope lively in some so that it may inflame and infect others" despair. Mary didn"t find that hope in solitary and lonely grief, she found it in her neighbor, Jesus in the guise of a gardener. Then she ran to tell the others. The Orthodox still call her the apostle to the apostles the one who first announced the resurrection. We are meant to be gardeners of hope as well, and let the hope planted in us sustain others. That hope transcends the languages we speak and the cultures we inhabit. This hope is for all languages, families, peoples, and nations.
Our Easter joy is to recognize the gardener, and to help others to see the risen one in our midst. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Episcopal Church