Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In 1965, Cdr. James Stockdale’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam.
Having ejected from his aircraft and parachuted to the ground,
he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese
and imprisoned in the place which became infamous as the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
In 1973, he was released, having endured eight years of imprisonment,
which included torture and extended periods of solitary confinement.
He received the Medal of Honor, and remained in the U.S. Navy,
retiring with the rank of Vice-Admiral.
Long after he had returned,
he was asked by an interviewer,
How did he make it through his torture and confinement?
Admiral Stockdale replied,
"I never lost faith in the end of the story."
"I never doubted not only that I would get out,
but also that I would prevail in the end
and turn the experience into the defining event of my life,
which, in retrospect, I would not trade."
His interviewer asked him, "Who didn't make it out?"
and Admiral Stockdale replied immediately:
"Oh, that's easy. The optimists...
They were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.'
And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.
Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.'
And Easter would come, and Easter would go.
And then Thanksgiving,
and then it would be Christmas again.
And they died of a broken heart."
"This is a very important lesson.
You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end –
which you can never afford to lose –
with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality,
whatever they might be."
The Stockdale Paradox, as it has come to be known,
is used often in business,
but I find it especially appropriate for Easter morning,
especially Easter morning in the time of the pandemic.
I find it appropriate because I feel that a lot of us may well be
at a critical time physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
For Easter has come, and Easter is going,
and we may not be close to the end of this,
and maybe you feel broken-hearted.
When the news came through that Pennsylvania’s schools would not reopen,
there was a lot of anguish, from teachers who miss their kids,
from parents whose kids are terribly sad.
The hope that they would return and be able to finish out their year
was taken away from them.
Each day business owners or furloughed workers are losing money
is a day that they are closer to losing hope,
and there’s no promise of when it will be over.
Health-care workers and grocery clerks go into work over and over,
having been lucky so far, but will that last?
And some of us have parents or spouses we can’t see
because they’re isolated in a home,
and we’re not sure when or if we’ll get to see them again.
All of this is not to depress you, not to be a downer on Easter morn,
But because we need to be aware of it,
that, in Admiral Stockdale’s words,
we need to have the discipline
to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality.
Especially if you are dealing with depression or anxiety
or any kind of mental illness,
whether it is low-grade or major,
just be aware that it is okay to feel depressed at this time,
that this is incredibly difficult,
that even though we’re not being tortured in prison or bombed or herded into camps,
we’re in a hard spot and it might not get better right away.
So it’s okay how you’re feeling.
But don’t lose faith in the end of the story.
Not simply that life will return to normal, whatever normal is,
but that God will provide us the strength we need
to get through whatever we need to get through.
And that God has already won the victory.
On the cross, Jesus was in agony.
He had been rejected by the religious leadership,
abandoned by his disciples,
The people who had cheered him were nowhere to be found;
But the faith was still in the end of the story.
Despite the most brutal facts of his current reality.
the faith was still that God was his Father,
and that he would be brought through.
What a difference on Easter morning!
His faith in his Father had been vindicated,
He was set free from death,
He had won the final victory over the evil one.
Jesus is the example for our faith,
that we can trust in all times in our Father’s provision,
even when things are dark.
But even this is not the most important thing.
For if we trust in our own faith,
we are lost, for our faith is weak and faltering.
But Jesus is not only the example for our faith,
He is the reason for it.
His victory is the reason we can put even our faltering faith in his Father.
For we say the words ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ and we can add in our hearts,
We say the words ‘born of the Virgin Mary…’ ‘for us.’
Suffered under Pontius Pilate ‘for us.’
Crucified, died, and was buried, ‘for us.’
Descended into hell, ‘for us.’
On the third day he rose again, ‘for us.’
Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, ‘for us.’
Will come again to judge the living and the dead, ‘for us.’
When we believe that Jesus endured the cross and death,
not simply as an example for our faith, but for us,
his resurrection takes on an entirely new meaning.
It means that whatever is lacking in our strength,
whatever is lacking in our holiness,
whatever is lacking in our faith
has been made good by Christ.
It means that though we are sinful, we are forgiven,
though we are assailed by evil, we are victorious,
and though we are subject to death, we are promised life.
Christ is the object of our faith,
he is the end of our story.
The end of the story in which we must never lose our faith
is not that the pandemic will end and everything will be okay again,
because it may not.
The pandemic may not end right away,
and the job may not come back,
and we might be in for several more months of separation,
and we might get sick and we might die.
Facing up to those facts is called discipline.
It’s where we get the word disciple.
I’m relatively sure that whatever discipline Jesus was preaching to his disciples,
it involved living in reality, however hard that might be.
All the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was telling his disciples
what had to happen,
that the Son of Man was to be handed over and rejected and killed,
but here’s the end of the story –
and on the third day rise.
They didn’t want to hear that reality,
but after the resurrection they were able to confront reality.
And so are we.
For we are no longer slaves to fear and sin and death.
God has made us free to act with discipline and self-control.
God has made us his people through our baptism into Christ,
and we can seek the things that are above, where Christ is,
for our lives are hidden with Christ in God.
You are God’s people, raised to a new life in Christ,
and this new life on this side of the grave
is a life of faith and discipline.
Discipline in this time means that as God’s own people,
whom he has won by the price of Christ’s blood,
you are solemnly charged
to confront with open eyes the current reality of this time,
not trafficking in false optimism or conspiracy theories,
refusing to place blame,
honoring the government
and those charged with maintaining public safety and health,
and seeking in everything to help and serve your neighbor.
There are many ways in which you have been doing this and will do this.
Not as a pastor, but as a fellow Christian,
I urge you to check up on people,
not only those who are at risk or elderly or may not have enough,
although we should all do this,
but even people who have enough and seem to have it all together,
because despair and darkness can be in unexpected places.
Send the text, make the call, send the card.
The life of faith is to hope in the end of the story,
the end of the story which God has made known on this Easter day
in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
This is why on this day have flowers and music and alleluias,
not as an escape from reality but to give us strength to face reality.
It is because we have a reality that is beyond the reality that we can see,
not a false reality but one that comes alongside of our reality
and comes into our reality,
which transforms our reality in which the evil one seems to reign
into the reality in which God is present despite all
and gives us peace.
The end of the story in Jesus means that when we falter,
though we be physically, mentally, or spiritually worn-down,
we still have a victory not that we can win,
but that he has won.
Even at the grave, where the last hope ends,
We make our song,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
For Christ is risen from the dead, and will never die again,
Death has no dominion over him;
This is the day that the Lord has made,
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!