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Death, Rebirth, Renewal, Repeat: A Sermon for Easter Day

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

It’s good to be with you, and if it’s only in this way, for now, that’s OK. I know we will all be back together soon, and our appreciation of one another will only grow as a result of this absence.

This is an Easter we will not forget. One of my favorite Easter traditions is the egg hunt, which I have cherished since before having children myself. And I’ll cherish it long after my children are grown. Here at St. James, it’s in our graveyard, on this beautiful hill in Scarsdale, where I intend to be buried one day, so perhaps I’ll cherish it even when I’m there. I’ll ask in my will that lots of eggs be hidden around my grave site.

Some listening out there weren’t tuned in two weeks ago when I mentioned that this isn’t the first time St. James has had to close its doors for a pandemic. We are nearly 175 years old, so enough time to have seen a little bit of everything.

In 1918, 100 years ago, the church was closed for 3 months because of the Spanish flu. The church newsletter entry about it was surprisingly short, given the scope of that crisis. That’s in keeping with what we’re learning about coverage back then of that event. There wasn’t much of it. The entry in our archives praised the people of this parish for supporting each other; for seeing to it that no one was forgotten. And I have to say, that is unchanged today about this church. If you’re new out there, and you’ve only experienced us online, not in the flesh, please come visit us when the world opens back up. There is something very special here, and we want you to be a part of it.

Easter comes like clockwork, year after year. It’s a movable feast. That means its date isn’t fixed like that of the Annunciation (March 25) or Christmas (December 25), but has to be calculated anew each year. The method for dating Easter was established at the 4th century Council of Nicaea – that’s where our Nicene Creed comes from. It was also the council where the Church decided that a priest doesn’t have to be perfect to administer the sacraments. I don’t know exactly what other options they had in mind.

So it was a big council, resolving a lot of disputes. Including when to celebrate Easter. They decided that the date would be The first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. (Thankfully you can also just look it up online.) But it worked. That’s how Easter Day has been calculated in the West ever since.

There is a rhythm and regularity to the church year and in the natural world both. And in this case the two work nicely in tandem with each other. The resurrection of Christ comes as spring dawns and the first shoots peek up from the ground after a long winter in hiding. Most years, we feel like part of that cycle as well. We’re creatures, with moods and clocks that follow the sun and the seasons.

Only this year finds us collectively (not just individually, as happens, but all together) in circumstances that seem out of step with this cycle. We’ve been holed up in our homes–how long has it been now? We’ve been away from our church, from Communion, from fellowship with one another. We’ve been deprived of touch, of simple pleasures like going out for a meal, hopping on a train. Going to a play, or a museum. A friend’s house. Thank God we can go outside, but we do it tentatively. The usual joy of spring is dampened by this virus that keeps us apart from each other and wary of the world.

And the hardest part about this is: We don’t know when it will end, or how.

Easter breaks the fast of Lent after 46 days. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday you can tick off the boxes. You can count on it, plan for it. But the truth is, in Life, the Other Side, where a crisis ends and new life begins, is often hard to pin down. Sometimes only hindsight shows us when that moment was.

The church maintains this predictable pattern of death, rebirth, renewal, repeat; not because there’s anything predictable in real life about when crises begin and end, but in order to show us that, by making us act out this movement each and every year, there IS another side. The more we act it out ritually, the more we trust that this is how the world works. Death, Rebirth, Renewal, Repeat.

We don’t have any other musicians today beyond Dr. Lewis. Normally, on Easter, there would a trumpet, a string quartet, a full choir, probably a solo or two and a grand organ prelude and postlude. We’re socially distancing; but we’re also trying, as many of you know, to uphold the contracts we’ve made with our musicians, by having them come at a later date. Most of them have said Yes. Dr. Lewis joked with me the other day that When we do finally come back together as a church community, we’re going to have some really amazing services. And we should. It will be like a second Easter for our church when that time comes.

Look at it this way. We get two easters, two resurrections. That of our lord Jesus Christ this morning, and that of our community, soon, which wouldn’t be possible without the first. What matter that we don’t know exactly when. We know the pattern we live by, and we believe in it: Death, rebirth, renewal. Repeat. Thus it always was, and always Will Be. Amen.