The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas: April 9,2023
Happy Easter! On this holiest day of the year in the Christian calendar, welcome to every single person here. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe, you belong here this morning. If you a little bit apprehensive about setting foot in a church this morning, I don’t blame you. There are some pretty messed up things being done in the name of this religion these days. This may be the first church service you’ve ever attended, or maybe it’s your first time back in church after a long break…or maybe you’re just here to humor someone you love. It doesn’t matter—you’re so welcome here. I can think of no greater honor a church could receive than the presence of someone who was hesitant to come. Of course we would love to see you again, but if this is our only time together, let this morning be a blessing to us all.
And to our Jewish friends and family, Chag Sameach! A blessed Passover to you and yours—and thank you for spending part of it here.
Last Sunday, after our beautiful Palm Sunday liturgy, I went to another All Saints’ Church—All Saints’ Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the East Village. I wanted to talk to them about their perspective on the war and how it has impacted them. The people of All Saints’ greeted me warmly in their parish hall. I walked in on their coffee hour, which was almost just like ours—spiritual friends catching up on their weeks, children running around, their priest, Father Vitaly, checking in on his flock. They sat me down and served me a slice of delicious chocolate cake and instant coffee, and then they told me what life is like for them.
This is where All Saints’ Ukrainian Orthodox Church became different from this All Saints’. The president of the congregation—a layperson—had just returned from the front line, where he commanded an artillery unit. The parish raised money to buy a car and surveillance drones for his unit. He left church early last week; they said he doesn’t talk about his experience, and they respect his silence. There is a steady stream of new families who have arrived from Ukraine—and they too are hesitant to talk about what they have survived. They take comfort in the familiar rituals of the liturgy in Ukrainian, but rarely stay afterward. One mother at the table said the hardest thing about welcoming these refugees is the trauma she sees on the faces of the children.
Orthodox Ukrainians recently split from the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the war began, the Russian patriarch has said that Ukraine is in the grip of evil forces and that Russian soldiers who die on the battlefield will be automatically forgiven for their sins. I asked Father Vitaly what he thought about this, and he was pretty blunt. “The first commandment of any religion is: don’t kill. But here he is saying, kill. So this is not a religion from God. It is a religion from the Evil One.”
I let the gravity of his statement sink in for a moment. And then, I looked up at the ceiling of the hall. The whole time we had been talking, there were little paper angels floating above us. The Sunday school children had decorated them and hung them as prayers to protect the people and soldiers of Ukraine. As we talked about the horrors of war, the paper angels gently fluttered above us, blown to and fro by the air currents in the room.
I thought about those angels as I meditated this week on the Easter story from the Gospel of Matthew that our beloved Deacon Jennifer just read. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the central belief of Christianity. In life, Jesus was pure love. He loved every person he met. He had no attachment to earthly things like power, or doctrine, or money—and yet he was fully in the world. He died just as he lived—in love and for love. The resurrection tells us that his love is stronger than death, that the veil between life and death is, for God, hardly anything. This love is already within us. It has been in us since our birth, it is within us now, and it will remain until our dying breath—and beyond. That is the Easter story.
But the story isn’t complete without the angel who descends from heaven and rolls back the stone at the tomb. Angels in the Bible are the bridge between heaven and earth, between mystery and fact, between the ineffable and the concrete. When you see angel, you know you are about to experience something that makes no sense—and yet, somehow God is present.
Friends, God cannot be contained by our narrow thought and understanding. If you think the resurrection is strange, that it’s unsettling, that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—then you are correct. On the other hand, if you think Jesus rising from the dead is a neat and tidy thing, a clearcut path to salvation, then I actually want to challenge your assumptions. God is working and moving in our world in ways we will never fully be able to understand. Easter is the bold proclamation that in God, life triumphs over death. We don’t know entirely how this happens—any more than we know what went on inside that tomb where Jesus was laid. But because of the light of the empty tomb, we will always be able to have hope that even in the darkest of situations, God is present and will bring us to the other side—even the other side of death.
Think again of the paper angels gently swinging from the rafters at All Saints’ Orthodox Church. Why should Ukrainians have any hope this Easter? Civilians have been massacred. Children have been stolen from their families and taken to Russia. Drones and rockets rain down on cities and towns every day. Ukraine is being told by its much larger, nuclear armed neighbor that resistance is futile. And yet—there are children who have etched their prayers with crayon on little paper angels. This is Ukraine’s second Easter under siege, and it’s still standing. There is little logical explanation for why. Yet those angels in a church hall a few stops away on the F train are heralds of something beyond rational explanation—a hope that’s as mysterious as it is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it is holding back a brutal invading army from an innocent people.
But you don’t need to be Ukrainian to experience the sheer force of the resurrection. Perhaps you have suffered a personal tragedy recently. Maybe you feel the absence of a loved one you’ve lost, or you’re facing a difficult health challenge. Maybe you’re recovering from addiction, or you’re feeling lost, or life at home is stretching you farther than you can bear. In spite of all these things, you’re still here, sitting in a beautiful building on a beautiful April morning. You are drawing breath from the same air as hundreds of other human beings who are also here out of good will, and—dare I say it?—love. When you strip it down to this, this moment is a miracle. We do not know how we got here or how we have been sustained through the trials of living—other than to say that some mysterious, loving power has given us life, redeems the bad, and sustains us with the Good. I choose to call that power: God. And I see the resurrection of Jesus in all the ways that this life keeps unfolding, against all odds.
But it’s also important on this day to go back to what Father Vitaly said about a religion from the Evil One. He was talking about a religious leader who glorifies killing. But there are plenty of other religions out there that are not of God. And as sophisticated as we 21st century New Yorkers can be, we too often worship at these inverted shrines.
If the resurrection leads to hope and selflessness, bad religion does the opposite. It feeds on fear and greed. It tells you you aren’t good enough and that you are hopelessly flawed. It wants you to give up hope—unless you take what it has to offer, if it has anything to offer at all. We’re all victims of this bad religion in some way, but it touches some of us more than others. People of color know what it means to suffer from the one of the founding bad religions of this country: racism. Bad religion is especially focused right now on trans and queer people. It’s especially shocking to see it scapegoat kids and their families. Bad religion tells us the destruction of the planet is inevitable, that there’s no reason even to try resisting climate change. And look, I’m an Episcopalian, and this is an Episcopal church. I love our church, but it’s not immune to its own unique form of bad religion, which, when unchecked, makes an idol of itself at the expense of the very God we exist to worship.
Do you see a pattern in all these bad religions? In each and every one of them, there is no resurrection to be found. But we confess the faith of Christ crucified and resurrected, which is so much more powerful than any stumbling block. The angels herald this transformed reality, God’s reality. The empty tomb reveals holy dignity for every person, regardless of what systems and societies say about them. The resurrection places our bodies inside creation, not above it. And it is the foundation of all that is good and life-giving about religion.
So on this Easter Day, we follow the angels to the place where Jesus rose from the dead. They appeared to the women at the tomb, they are watching over Ukraine, and they are here, fluttering among us today. When you follow them all the way, you discover that resurrection and new life are all around you, among you, and within you. You were made out of the love that bridges heaven and earth. Now let that love which passes all understanding be your Easter joy. Amen.