A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 3, 2016 (Easter 2, Year C)
I’m pretty sure the most anticlimactic thing I have ever witnessed in my entire life, happened on live TV in 1986. Some of you may remember the great hype for a program hosted by Geraldo Rivera called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” This was a live two-hour special at the conclusion of which Geraldo was to open a newly discovered stone vault underneath the Lexington Hotel in Chicago.
Most of the show, which was also watched by 30 million other suckers, was spent speculating on what might be inside the vault. Cash, bodies, liquor, gangster secrets. Just in case, Geraldo had a medical examiner on hand to inspect any rotted corpses as well as IRS agents to deal with any unclaimed piles of money.
Once the audience had been worked up into a lathered frenzy, the moment came for Geraldo to open the vault. There were a series of detonations and then a giant chain yanked open the vault. After two titillating hours spent rehashing the glory days of Al Capone and the Untouchables, once the smoke cleared, Geraldo had unearthed…absolutely nothing. Well that’s not entirely true; he did find two empty gin bottles and a stop sign. But that was it. Perhaps the greatest anticlimax ever.
Which brings us to the Sunday after Easter. In many parishes this day is referred to as “Low Sunday.” Certainly in comparison to Easter, the “highest” feast on the Christian calendar, anything might be considered “low.” And in many places everything about the day is low — the attendance, the energy, the music, the preaching. The whole day can feel like one giant holy hangover.
And as long as we’re on the subject of liturgical minutiae, you may be interested to know that this day was also traditionally known as Quasimodo Sunday. Not because there was a lot of bellringing, but because the Latin introit for the day started with the words quasi modo geniti enfantes, “as newborn babes.” That bell-ringing hunchback from the Victor Hugo novel? He was abandoned as an infant at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on, you guessed it, Quasimodo Sunday; hence his name. But in comparison to the day we celebrate the miracle of the empty tomb, Low Sunday can feel like an empty vault. Unsatisfying; anticlimactic.
But not here! We have baptisms and Bible presentations and a full choir and pancakes after the service! This morning at St. John’s we are sticking it to the Low Sunday Man!
And one of the great things about this day is that it reminds us that resurrection, like baptism, takes time to live into. Yes, there is a decisive moment involved. “The tomb is empty — alleluia!” or “Let’s splash some water on you — you’re a Christian!” And while these are indeed once-and-for-all events — in resurrection, Christ vanquished the power of death for all eternity and in baptism, the newly baptized are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever — we never stop living into our Christian faith and identity. We continue to be formed in the ways of Jesus Christ day after day, week after week, year after year. By listening to God’s word and being drawn to the altar; through prayer and by sharing the journey of our common life with one another.
So, far from suddenly solving everything all at once, these life-changing moments draw us ever deeper. We are invited deeper into living a life of resurrection; deeper into the waters of baptism; deeper into our relationship with God.
This doesn’t make Easter or baptism anticlimactic. But it does bring us to the realization that these defining moments are beginnings, not endings. Easter is a 50-day season, not just a single day; baptism is a lifetime, not a single moment.
And of course we can and should revel in those climactic moments — jelly beans or a fancy brunch, the sugar high of celebration. It’s important to mark and enjoy such joyous moments. Too often we skip over the celebration and just move on to the next thing. Like Bill Belichick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning yet another Super Bowl while his thoughts immediately move on to the NFL draft or next year’s training camp. It is a good and joyful thing to revel in the moment.
And yet we can’t stay there forever. Life moves on. The dishes get cleared, the chocolate gets eaten, the dog needs a walk, a diaper needs changing. And we have a need to get on with things, to move past the initial euphoria and into something deeper. That’s what this day is all about.
Of course when you go deeper in your faith, when you move beyond the surface, you do encounter doubt. Perhaps this is why every year on the Sunday after Easter the unfortunately and unfairly named “Doubting” Thomas shows up. The poor guy who missed the disciples’ resurrection party and simply wanted a side of proof to go along with the joy.
He’s certainly not the only one of the disciples to have doubts about this crazy resurrection story. As you may recall from the Easter gospel, Peter and the other other male disciples didn’t believe the women’s eyewitness account of the resurrection. They, too wanted proof before they would deign to believe that Jesus had risen. But it’s Thomas who gets saddled with this unflattering moniker. History doesn’t speak of Doubting Peter or Doubting Bartholomew or Doubting James but Doubting Thomas.
But I love Thomas because he reminds us that doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have a tendency to shove it away; to lock it up, to try and keep it inside a tomb. We feel it’s safer that way. Ignoring any seeds of doubt. But in the long run, it’s much healthier to embrace the doubt; to acknowledge it; to engage with it. Like the disciples we are both doubters and believers. These are not mutually exclusive; there is nuance involved in faith. Shades of gray in the midst of a world that so desperately craves black and white.
But that’s the thing about going deeper. Faith no longer just bubbles on the surface. And suddenly you find yourself in church not just on Easter Day but the week after as well, wrestling with the deeper issues of faith that lurk beneath the surface. That’s what it means to be a practicing Christian. Walking with Jesus even when it’s not all joy and jelly beans.
Now, I don’t recommend it, but you can watch the full two-hours of “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” at geraldo.com. That’s the epitome of anticlimax. But today, we stand firm in our faith; a faith that transcends any potential anticlimax. Because the life-giving, death-conquering empty tomb, has absolutely nothing in common with the disappointment of an empty vault.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck