Peg Ekerdt, writing in the National Catholic Reporter around Easter last year, tells this story. She writes:
For many years, I kept a note card on my refrigerator that proclaimed the message: "We are an Easter people." I received the note from a parishioner, a mother of 13, grandmother of more, who was living with an advanced stage breast cancer at the time the card was written. In the week after Easter, Barb and some of her grandchildren had scripted this pink magic-marker message on a variety of her personal note cards and sent them to family and friends.
I remember opening this Easter greeting and reading it several times. It did not say "Happy Easter," nor did it say "Rejoice, the Lord is risen." It said, "We are an Easter people." As I read the card, I knew it bore a message of profound faith. As her death approached, Barb wanted all whom she loved to know that the power of faith transforms even death. For we are an Easter people. 1
Easter is a way of Life
I have always liked the word Easter. It is related to the German word Ostern which came into old English as the word East. Perhaps associated with Çastre, the name of a goddess associated with spring. 2 Thats one of the great things about Christianity and the Christian faith, it often borrows, appropriates and even steals its ideas, rituals and beliefs from other traditions and cultures where people see that truth has emerged.
Of course the problem for those of us in the southern hemisphere is that "Easter" comes from traditions in the northern hemisphere and unfortunately falls in autumn, not spring, so we are a little out of step with the original etymology of the word. But that doesnt worry me. Easter is bigger than a word and even bigger than a one-day-of-the-year celebration. Easter is about a way of life. It is a bold, grand and even foolish belief that "Darkness can only be driven out by light and hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that," as said by Martin Luther King Jr.
So we have in the last few weeks wandered through the New Testament story and seen the way the world is. It is cruel, violent and often unforgiving. As I mentioned on Easter Day, it doesnt take much to see pain and sadness all around us. It can lead to disappointment, to despair and disempowerment. We can often respond to this overwhelming sense of futility by just putting up the shutters or building higher fences to lessen our fears; and then focus on individual interests rather than the greater needs of those around us. Or we can begin to live as an Easter people!
The Easter People
I think that we are often mistaken in the view that the early Christians went from fearful followers of Jesus after his death to courageous believers overnight. History doesnt bear that out. Those small clusters that came to be called Christians took decades to form a sense of their identity and to shape their community life. While the Acts of the Apostles, which was read this morning, gives the view that the Christian leaders of the church boldly challenged the religious leaders of the day, the Book of Acts was written around 90AD, some 60 years after the death of Jesus.
So these people who lived the Easter message of new life, had much time to grow into a new way of being. And that is important because if the only criterion to be a part of the emerging Christian community was to hold particular beliefs and practices, then it would not be a way of life, but rather it would be an institution or an organisation that gave intellectual assent to principles, precepts, rules and regulations. Sadly, in many places that is what it became. In fact, the Apostle Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, in several letters to Christian gatherings, chastised the "rule keepers" and encouraged a freer and more open approach to community life. Nevertheless, there remained a core of those who were moved by the heart of Jesus message; who held the belief that Easter was an experience and not just a date on the calendar. And they realised that one must grow into this way of life by being a part of a loving, open and forgiving community.
Easter is Love
OK, so here is the sell! What is the heart of this transformation that creates an Easter people? I suspect that you know that I am not going to say it is holding to particular beliefs about the Bible or the story of Jesus. It cant be. There is no power to change the inner core of a person or a group of people by just changing their beliefs. It must be a change of heart! And the only thing in this world that is powerful enough to do that is love.
We had two funerals in the church this week, both on Friday. One was for Elizabeth Richards who was married at TUC (well, it would have been TPC then) to her husband Michael a few decades ago. The other service was for Grahame Taylor, whom many will know and who was, with Marjorie, a member here at TUC. As I listened to children and grandchildren reflect on their relationship with these two people who had now passed on, I found what they said very moving.
While they spoke of fun times, holidays, sleepovers, words of advice given to them and a myriad other experiences, what do you think shaped and formed everything they said? It was love, pure and simple love. Not perfection, not rule-keeping. (In truth the grandchildren relished the fact that grandparents often encouraged them to break the rules.) No, it was the relationship based on love that was remembered and spoken about. And it was this love that brought both a tear and a smile to their faces.
Brené Brown, an American researcher and author, writes about the centrality of love in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. She says this:
It took me three years to whittle these definitions and concepts from a decade of interviews. Lets take a look.
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of themwe can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare. 3
Thats the heart of being an Easter people. We practise that way of being in our daily lives. Forget about judging yourself and others just practise love. Dont worry about trying to always get it right or, worse still, trying to be perfect just love. Shame, yours and mine, will never give us abundant life. Blaming ourselves or others and revisiting duplicity and betrayal are cul-de-sacs on the road to new life. Just find in yourself the power to love.
There are few better words to form and shape us as an Easter people than these from the poet Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Alleluia! Jesus has risen and we are becoming the Easter people!
Mary Olivers poem continues:
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. 4
4 Mary Oliver Wild Geese