The event that defines us

Good Easter morning! 

There is a question that is sometimes asked in group exercises, which we’ll engage this morning: What is the defining world event in your life?  What event altered your world and the way you see and walk through it?  What event stopped you in your tracks and made you realize things you can’t take for granted, that shifted your priorities and made you see the world in a different way?

For my grandparents’ generation, one of three events was almost always mentioned: The stock market crash of 1929, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.  The first event revealed that economic prosperity is ephemeral and can be gone in an instant.  The second event revealed our national vulnerability, no matter how powerful our military.  The third event revealed that we are children playing with toys beyond our understanding, and who have taken upon ourselves the power to destroy everything we love.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was defining for my grandparents’ generation.

For my parents’ generation, one of two events is almost always mentioned: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  Both events shocked us into the realization that, even in our modern age, we will revert to brutality to silence voices that frighten us and with which we disagree.  They upended our pretention to civility and made us recognize that we still live in a personally violent world.

For my generation, for a long time we would cite the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which revealed to us that our godlike technology we have assumed will save us is actually fragile and paper-thin.  Of course, the defining nature of that terrible event was supplanted on September 11, 2001, when, as with Pearl Harbor for our grandparents, we were reminded of our vulnerability in ways that we are still processing, and often poorly.

For the generations younger than me, we are living through the long, protracted defining event even now.  My own children will never know what a “normal” high school or college experience is like, because the COVID-19 pandemic has so irrevocably affected—and in some way stolen—these years.  At the end of their lives, they will undoubtedly look back and say, “The pandemic changed everything.”

 If it suddenly feels like your Easter morning joy is seeping away, that may be because each of these events is awful.  Each shatters our illusions, uncovers our ugliness to one another, reveals our desperation.  So often, the events that define us are negative.  And when the events that define us are negative, first our emotional disposition, then our outlook on the future, and finally the very lens through which we perceive the world all become negative, pessimistic, fatalistic

But what if we’re defined by the wrong events?  What if the events that seem to run so deep really only skim the surface?  What if there is a current of reality that runs beneath all the rest, into which we can tap, and which counters all the negativity, pessimism, and fatalism?

In a sermon some years ago to the clergy of the Diocese of Texas, crusty theologian Stanley Hauerwas (always the oddest prophet of hope) said, “9/11—or pick your event—didn’t determine the meaning of history.  A.D. 33 determined the meaning of history.  Preach that!”[i]

Hauerwas is, of course, correct.  The defining event in all our lives did not happen in 1929, 1941, 1963, 1968, or 2001.  The defining moment in our lives happened in A.D. 33, when the Incarnate God said “No!” to the world’s drive toward self-destruction and will-to-death and defeated death with the power of the empty tomb. 

If we forget this, then our god becomes the god of economic prosperity, or the unholy power of atomic might, or the circle-the-wagons fear in which we’ve lived since 9/11.  But these are all idols.  None of them reflects the character of God.  In his cranky yet oddly and hugely hopeful sermon, Stanley Hauerwas went on to say, “We didn’t know who God is until Jesus was resurrected from the dead.”

God is the God who casts out fear.  God is the God who will stick with us all the way to the cross.  God is the God who will not allow that cross to have the last word.  God is the God who, in the midst of every danger, after every disaster, beyond every tragedy, will show us resurrection…will resurrect us

So often this work of God seems small in the face of all those other events, writ large and writ small, that the world incessantly throws at us.  But God persists, and grace moves, and resurrection happens always and everywhere.  When the grave seems ready to swallow us all, and we obsess over the seeming finality of happenings around us, God empties the tombs and asks us again, and again, and again, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It is the Easter event to which the Prophet looks in hope today.  No matter what the world looks like or insists we see, through Isaiah, God says to us: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating, for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.  Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

In Mere Christianity, writing just after World War II, C.S. Lewis describes God’s Easter action like the work of Allied soldiers moving slowly but surely into occupied France after D-Day, liberating inch-by-inch, sometimes, as in the Battle of the Bulge, progress seemingly arrested to the point of worry, but always remaining steely in resolve, and moving forward with the inexorable power of grace. 

A French friend of mine, Bernard Marie, was a child in occupied France.  After years of living in daily, paralyzing fear, Bernard’s village was liberated, and Bernard was handed half a chocolate bar by a smiling G.I.  For Bernard, that was the defining event, the bite of chocolate standing in for the Communion host, reminding Bernard writ-small what was truly happening writ-large.  The world was still full of darkness.  The power of darkness, in human beings and in the world-at-large, was still great, but the outcome was no longer in doubt.[ii]  In that very moment, Bernard experienced resurrection.

 So it is on this Easter Day.  Christ is risen!  God is on the move!  Grace is real!  Resurrection happens!  Whenever we are asked about the event that defines reality for us, the event that shapes our world more than any other, Good Christian people, we must always and only say, “Easter!”  The empty garden tomb outside of Jerusalem is our reality.  It is our power.  It is our hope.  Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!         

Easter joy to you. 

[i] Hauerwas, Stanley.  Keynote address to Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, October 2015.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, 45.  Admittedly with some gentle interpretation on my part.  This is Lewis’ famous “enemy occupied territory” passage.