Today in Wakefield we celebrated the Second Sunday of Easter with two baptisms. This was the homily.
Most of you know that I like movies, and I like to talk about movies in my sermons. Usually, I talk about science fiction movies like Star Wars or Star Trek, because they played such a major role in my life as a kid--the vast, vast majority of my toys were Star Wars action figures, so those movies and its characters like Luke Sykwalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, were my constant companions--I think I often even brought action figures to school in my backpack to play with at recess, and also just to have my heroes with me. I also liked the Wizard of Oz and quite a few musicals-- my parents liked them, too. So it might come as a surprise that it's not only fantasy or cheesy musicals that draw my attention. I also like serious movies that make me think. Movies that draw me in, identifying with the characters, sharing in their story.
When I was 12 or 13 years old I happened to see the old 1950s movie The Diary of Anne Frank. I don’t think I knew of her story before I saw that movie; although, I did know of the Holocaust, but perhaps without the personal face that Anne Frank gives us so movingly. My parents recorded it on TV and I was so drawn in that I watched it over and over again (I am one of those people who likes to watch movies many, many times, so I can catch all the nuances). Sometimes I wonder if that was such a good idea, when it came to Anne Frank, as it really scared me on the one hand, but it was also so compelling. Certainly it shaped how I look on the world.
You probably know the story—from reading the actual diary or seeing a production of the play or the movie. (As it happens, if you don’t know it, or if you want to see it again in the near future, our own parishioner Chip Sheeran is directing a production of the Diary of Anne Frank at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, opening this Friday. And, our super talented parishioner Emily Sheeran stars as Anne.) You may know that Anne and her family were Germans, from Frankfurt, but right after Hitler came to power they moved to the Netherlands, when Anne was 4, where they thought they would find a safe refuge. And for about 8 or 9 years they did—living comfortable middle-class lives, until 1940 when German troops rolled in and occupied that country, too. So they went into hiding in the secret apartment above Anne’s father’s office in a factory that made pectin and spices used in making homemade jams.
What’s interesting, from a dramatic, literary, and even human perspective, is how the story is really limited to what happens in the secret annex. They obviously hear about what’s going on outside, from the radio and the few helpers who bring them food and other provisions, but those in hiding never see that world, except when they take a peek through the heavy lace curtains or blackout paper that cover their windows. The adults try hard to give the younger residents as normal a life as they can—assigning books to read, math homework, and the like. But, of course, their lives are far from normal. The fear of being found out is never far away. A telephone call at an odd time, an unexpected knock on the door, or footsteps on the stairs on a Sunday fill them with terror. I can’t even imagine the strength of character and courage it must have taken them to live that way for 2 whole years, every day worrying that they might be discovered.
I read once someplace that when the authorities finally did find Anne and her family and marched them out to a Dutch prison camp, before sending them off to even worse places on the last train to leave the Netherlands, Anne—who was always so hopeful—actually expressed a sense of relief at being found. Not, of course, for the fate that would come, but a sense of relief for being freed from worrying about every knock or footstep, and relieve to be able to experience the pleasure of feeling the sunshine again and breathing fresh air. As you probably know, only Anne’s father survived the war. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sadly, just a couple weeks before the British liberated the camp. Afterward, her father devoted his life to telling the story of Anne, her family, and fellow residents of the secret annex, giving us faces and lives that we can relate to on a deeper human level while we learn about the horrors of World War II and the hope and power of the human spirit.
So, what does this have to do with Second Sunday of Easter and our baptisms this morning? Well, when I first read this morning’s gospel, I imagined that the disciples who were locked away on that first Easter felt a lot like Anne Frank and her family. They were terrified. They were afraid of any knock or footstep outside, worried that like the SS 2,000 years later, the Roman soldiers would find them and crucify them, just like they had Jesus. After all, that’s why they scattered; that’s why Peter denied Jesus; that’s why the disciples weren’t there at the foot of the cross. The women were there, but the men fled. They were too afraid—not only for Jesus, but also, really, for themselves. And probably, their fears were justified. Because the authorities ruled by fear. Like the Nazis, the Roman rulers were not hesitant to use the sword, or the cross, to accomplish their goals.
Now, our gospel reading says that the disciples were locked away for fear of the Jews. That’s very misleading. Jesus was Jewish. The disciples were Jewish. Absolutely everyone they knew—Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jesus’ mother, Joseph, absolutely everyone—was Jewish. Maybe the disciples were afraid of the Jewish religious authorities whom Jesus had upset, but then, they didn’t really have the power to do anything. So more likely, the disciples were locked away afraid of the Roman government. Because, you see, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area around Jerusalem, was a ruthless man. In fact, Caesar later removed him from office for being so over the top in terrorizing the people under his authority. The gospels sort of portray Pilate as being reluctantly caught up in the situation with Jesus, but that seems less likely as we learn more about who Pilate was. He wouldn’t have given the crucifixion of Jesus (or anyone) a second thought, if it would have kept the peace and kept him in power without news of a disruption traveling to Caesar in Rome. The problem is that by the time the gospels were written, especially John’s gospel, the church leaders knew that Rome had the upper hand, and they wanted to secure as much protection as they could from the government. They couldn’t portray Rome as the bad guys, so they shifted the blame for everything on not just the Jewish leaders but on the Jewish people. Unfortunately, we Christians have been dealing with the fallout of that shift ever since. Sadly, tragically, it’s part of what gave rise to Jewish persecution throughout history, including in Europe during World War II, including families like Anne Frank’s.
But you know what, in today’s gospel, as the disciples are cowering in fear, afraid for their lives, hope breaks in. Because Jesus breaks in. He literally breaks in, in fact, showing up in their locked room, saying “Peace be with you.” Peace. Do not be afraid. He tells them, in fact he shows them, that they have no reason to fear, because God is in charge—not the religious leaders, not the soldiers or Pontius Pilate or not even Caesar. But God. Jesus appears to them that Easter evening so that they will know that their life and the life of the world is really, truly, in God’s hands, despite how it may seem sometimes. Easter is God’s way of telling us that there’s nothing that the world can dole out, however fearful, however horrific, that God can’t transform into something better. It doesn’t erase what happened earlier, it doesn’t make it go away—the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion are still there, after all—but God takes it and is able in some mysterious way to bring new life.
And it’s that new life, that promise that we celebrate today as we baptize Kate and Madison. By baptizing them, what we are really doing is telling them that their lives are, in fact, in God’s hands, and that they are marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever. There’s nothing that the world can do to change that. They will forever and always belong to God. And time and again, God will work through Kate and Madison to bring wonderful new life to the world. That’s God’s promise for them, for us, for the whole world. It’s a promise that we saw fulfilled that first Easter 2,000 years ago when Jesus appeared to the disciples in their locked room, and it’s a promise fulfilled each and every time new life conquers fear, death, and despair.
Before I close, I want to go back to Anne Frank for a moment. I know it probably seems like a weird thing to talk about Easter and a Jewish girl who died in World War II in the same sermon. And sometimes, we may wonder how it is that these promises of new life are actually lived out when we see so much destruction around us, not only a generation ago, but today as we hear the news of Libya and Afghanistan and Iraq, the earthquakes and nuclear disaster, and even this week’s tornadoes in the south. But I believe, because I believe in Easter, that somehow, in some way, God really is working to bring experiences of the resurrection and new life into our lives and our world. Most especially I believe that God is doing that work of resurrection through us.
And consider this: Anne Frank, the girl who lived in hiding and simply wrote a diary has touched the lives of millions of people in the 60 years since it was first published. In fact, next to the Bible, her diary is the most translated and most widely read book in the world. By Jewish people, of course, but also Christians, and Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and people of no religion at all. Eleanor Roosevelt described it as “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that [she had] ever read.” John F. Kennedy said, “Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank.” And so it is that through her, and people like her barriers between people—whether because of religion or culture, or anything else—are broken down. Through her story we see the human spirit soar and transcend the terrors of the world. In her story, we find God’s promise of new, abundant life.
And you know what, it’s a promise shared by the whole human family, regardless of our religions or cultures. It’s a promise that we will make when we baptize Kate and Madison today, and it’s a promise that we receive each and every time we see signs of new life, of resurrection, of Easter in our world.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
May that peace, joy, and new life fill our hearts, today and always.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell