Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13
Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How is tonight different from all other nights? That’s the question that Jewish children were asking at Passover seders last night. It’s an equally good question for those of us gathered here this evening.
Let’s start with the most obvious difference. We are at church at nine o’clock at night; that’s different in itself. It’s pretty dark in here. The only light we have comes from the candles. You’ve heard the Exsultet chanted, so you know that “This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”
I’ve heard it said that if a person only goes to church once a year, the Easter Vigil is the service to go to. You might think that’s because so much scripture is read at this service that it packs an entire year’s worth of church into one evening. We’ve certainly heard a lot of scripture so far, and we’ll hear more later as well. Tonight we’ve heard about God’s creation of the world and all that is in it. We’ve heard about God’s promise to humankind after the flood. We’ve heard the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. We’ve heard the story of God breathing life into the dry bones.
This is the night when we’ve had the chance to hear, in one sitting, the foundational stories of our faith. They form part of the rock on which our faith is built. These stories provide a context for the overarching story of the night, the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. They are stories that took place a long time ago. Everyone in these stories and the people who wrote them down are dead. But the stories aren’t dead. Far from it.
These stories live today. These stories live in you and me. They’ve been told down the generations. Our many times great-grandparents heard these stories and passed them on. If we were lucky, we might have first heard them sitting in the laps of our own grandparents.
Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. These stories endure today because they are about love. These stories endure today because they are about God’s great love for us, about God’s faithfulness to us throughout history. These stories endure today because they are about God’s faithfulness to us throughout history even when we haven’t been particularly faithful to God. Did God deliver perfect, faithful people out of the wilderness? God most certainly did not. God delivered a group of people who whined, who complained, and who didn’t appear in the least grateful for God’s care for them. But God delivered them out of Egypt anyway. Consider that the next time you think you’re not worthy of God’s attention. God is faithful, even if we come up short.
These stories live also because, if we look at our own lives, we’ll find that we’ve lived these stories ourselves. If you’re shaking your head because you weren’t around for the creation of the world, or the great flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, just wait a minute. Creation is still happening every day in our lives. Look at the green shoots on the trees and baby birds in the nests. While God promised never to repeat that great flood, you’ve been around for a natural disaster or two, and you’ve seen the damage repaired and lives put back together. I remember seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in coastal Mississippi and thinking I’d seen a disaster of biblical proportions. If you’ve ever been lifted out of poverty or learned to enjoy life again after the loss of a loved one, you have some idea what it must have been like to have the Red Sea parted in front of you and to have been delivered out of Egypt. Like the Israelites, you probably did some moaning and groaning along the way. I know I have! But God has been faithful, despite our lack of appreciation for that faithfulness and even despite our lack of cooperation with it at times.
And then, of course, there’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is the story that may be the hardest to get our minds around, the one we find stretches our credibility to its limits. And yet, it happened and it continues to happen. Jesus lives. At any given moment, someone somewhere is celebrating the Eucharist, remembering Christ’s death and resurrection by consecrating bread and wine. There’s resurrection in the natural world as well. Have you ever seen a forest that’s come back from a devastating fire? Have you ever learned to love again after having your heart broken? Those are resurrections in more familiar form. I love the story about the pastor, who when asked if she believed in the resurrection, replied that she had seen it happen too many times NOT to believe.
Like our Jewish sisters and brothers at their Passover seders last night, we are a people with a story. We are people with more than one story. Our stories tell of the God who loved us enough to create us, who cares for us in times of tribulation, and who can bring us from death into newness of life. These stories are the fabric of the Christian community; these stories are part of the limbs and sinews of the Body of Christ.
So how perfect it is, that the night on which we retell our stories is also the night on which we welcome a new member of the Body of Christ. This is the night when M. will make these stories HER story. This is the night when she will make promises to share these stories as well. She’ll promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. She’ll promise to persevere in resisting evil, and when she fails to do that, to repent and return to the Lord. She’ll promise to proclaim both with her lips and in her life the word and example of the Good News of God in Christ. These are mighty promises indeed.
Tonight M. will also promise to live into the love that our stories contain. She’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love her neighbor as herself. She’ll promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.
The promises of the baptismal covenant reach to the heart of what it means to be part of the stories we’ve heard this night. Our faith isn’t just about WHAT we believe. It’s about HOW we believe it. While our faith is grounded in history, while our faith has been passed down to us through many generations, it’s not JUST history. It’s about how we live now. Diana Butler Bass said in a recent interview that the Christian tradition isn’t about dead dogma. It’s about whom we love, how we practice that love in the world, and who we practice it with. In other words, it’s about loving God in Christ, about loving our neighbor as ourselves, and about living into this love in community.
WE are that community. So let us prepare to welcome our sister M. into the household of God. Amen.