Sunday, April 12, 2009

Last Year's Sermon

When I preached this in my home church on the Sunday after Easter last year, I was acutely aware that in the congregation were a gentleman who had just lost his wife of 70 years to a lingering illness, a couple who had just lost a 22-year-old son to a sudden tragedy, one of my best friends who had just lost her husband of 35 years to a devastating two-day illness, and all of our group of close friends who had been so affected by his death. I did not know, of course, that in another five months, my own family would be completely shattered. I am just going to repost the sermon today without comment because, really, I have no comment to make.

“So The Darkness Shall Be The Light”
(T.S. Eliot)

Any photographer will tell you that light changes everything. And that often we don’t know quite how to respond to it: where to stand, how to change focus, whether to try a filter on the lens. A bright light, in particular, can be confusing.

This is a confusing Sunday. That’s somewhat surprising, coming as it does so close upon the Sunday with the empty tomb, the celebration of lilies and trumpets, the sense of victory. But here we are a week later and Scripture presents us with a confusing picture, a whole horde of characters who are all over the place in their response to the light of the Resurrection. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising – we, too, struggle to respond to Jesus, this week and into the future, as we try to absorb the light and the mystery of Easter.

We have the disciples on Easter evening, the women and men who have been the closest followers of Jesus, huddled in an upstairs room, hushed and fearful, wondering whether a crowd of Roman soldiers is about to burst in and arrest them, when instead Jesus himself appears among them. Absent from the group is Thomas, a man who has been brash in his confident determination to follow Jesus to his death if need be, intense in his questioning of Jesus with respect to what lies ahead – and now, when the story begins to unfold on a new level, he is not even present. When he shows up he refuses to believe what the others have to say. Still brash, still intense, but now confused and frustrated, he insists that he must see for himself. And when he does, when his beloved leader appears, he is astonished, satisfied, contrite – all simultaneously, all in an instant. Such is the powerful presence of the risen Jesus.

We have Peter, someone whom we have known all along as a bundle of impetuous and contradictory emotions. It was Peter along with his brother Andrew, way back at the beginning of the story, who dropped his nets and followed Jesus immediately upon his first invitation . It was Peter who, when Jesus wondered aloud to his disciples who people thought he might be, responded without hesitation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And yet it was Peter whose instinct for self-preservation took over and caused him to deny his relationship with Jesus three times in rapid succession on the night before Jesus was taken to his death, and Peter whose heart was broken by the recognition of the ease with which he had put his own survival first and betrayed his companion and lord.

But now look at Peter! The Acts passage we have today is from Pentecost, still a few weeks into the future, and shows us Peter trying to convince a large assemblage that God’s plan and will have been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter, like Thomas before him, has been changed by the events of Easter morning. The impulsive, excitable, self-serving Peter has become a confident and articulate spokesman for Christ crucified and resurrected, so effective that it is reported that 3,000 people were baptized in Christ that day. Such is the powerful presence of the risen Jesus.

What happened to these men, Thomas and Peter? What happened to the people around them? They were ordinary people, people with both great strengths and dramatic limitations, people just like us. What can happen to us out of an encounter with the risen Christ?

The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond the appeal of Jesus as a person, the charisma of personality that drew people to him in the first place. The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond his ethical teaching and compassionate concern for others, both hallmarks of the Jewish community in which he had grown to manhood. The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond the miracles, and beyond the positions he takes that stretch the boundaries established by the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. The resurrection of Jesus brings a light into this world, a light of re-creation and liberation that alters our understanding of all the suffering that precedes it, both his and our own. What can happen to us out of an encounter with the risen Christ?

What would it mean for any of us to encounter life after death, as Thomas and the other disciples did, as Peter did, as Mary Magdalene, the first to see and proclaim the risen Jesus, did?

I had some sense of what that encounter might have been like two years ago, in Lakeview Cemetery, which is three blocks from our house and is one of my favorite places to walk. Lakeview, like all cemeteries, combines life and death in unexpected ways. It’s a place of abundant plant and animal life – although the flora has yet to come back this spring, I saw one of the foxes on Maundy Thursday, and a red-bellied woodpecker called furiously during last week’s Sunrise Service. It’s also, of course, a place where one is constantly reminded of death as the ultimate loss. Having lived here for 30 years, I have increasingly frequent encounters with that aspect of Lakeview, most recently with the death of a dear friend two weeks ago. And sometimes the combination of life and death there is especially striking, thanks to the beauty and uniqueness of some of the gravestones – for instance, the stained glass bonsai tree through which the sun shines with a surprising light on spring mornings.

The Lakeview Sunrise Service is celebrated before a large cross that stands on the edge of a deep ravine, and most years the sunrise behind the cross is preceded by jagged streaks of purple and pink in the eastern sky. Two years ago, I was making a year long prayer retreat through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I had been deeply engaged in the life of Jesus for months. When I walked over to Lakeview in the dark on Easter morning, I was worn out by the sorrows of Holy Week, and very much ready for a Jesus of the Resurrection.

And then, because I had been so immersed in Jesus’s life, I found myself looking at the cemetery in a different way. I found myself imaging Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb on that morning 2000 years ago and I found myself imagining her grief. Her confusion and disorientation. Her anguished attempts to come to terms with the reality that this person she so loved was gone, completely and irrevocably, from the daily interactions they had shared. Many of us have been there; some of us are there right now. I remember so well, when I was a teenager whose stepmother had just died, my own mother having died ten years earlier, sitting out on the back steps of our house on a sweltering July day as my slightly older stepsister wondered aloud at the strange reality that is death as those of us who remain behind experience it. “She was here,” said my stepsister about her mother, who had died very suddenly,“she was completely here, talking and laughing, and now she is completely not here.” Death, she seemed to be registering, is such a complete breach in the fabric of life as to be entirely unfathomable and completely unacceptable.

And so as I was walking through Lakeview to the Sunrise Service two years ago, it was not hard for me to imagine Mary Magdalene, not hard to imagine her saying to herself the words my stepsister had said. “He was here, he was completely here, and now he is completely not here.”

And then it struck me: that as many times as I have walked in Lakeview, and as familiar as I am with its 300 acres, and as well as I have known some of the people buried there, there is one thing I absolutely never expect to see: I do not expect to see a single one of those people standing beside a grave, alive and whole and waiting to greet me. I know as well as I know anything at all that such an event will not, cannot, come to pass. That knowledge is, after all, the foundational knowledge of grief. That is why our sorrow when someone we love dies is so complete, so overwhelming.

And yet: that is what happened. He was there. He was there waiting for Mary Magdalene. So completely there with a newness that at first prevented her from recognizing him, and yet so completely there as himself. So unmistakably there for this woman whose terrible grief we understand only too well that she was completely transformed and became, according to the gospel of John, the first person to express a sense of joy that has reverberated for two millennia. So unmistakably there, then and a week later, that Thomas would abandon doubt for absolute adoration and conviction. So unmistakably there that Peter would abandon fear for the assured proclamation that “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

And where is this “there” to which he has come, this risen and renewed Christ? In the story as initially portrayed in Scripture, “there” is a material place, an empty tomb in a garden that must have surely been filled with a surprising light of its own that morning. A first century version of Lakeview, although no doubt in that era much more a place of abandonment than care: a place isolated and empty, a place where birds perhaps sang, but which most people avoided.

But that “there,” that geographic locale, is not the real place to which our risen Christ has come. The analogy of cemetery terrain helps us try to grasp in concrete terms what happens to our lives when the crucified and resurrected Christ comes toward us, but eventually it must dissolve, as we discover that Jesus comes to us in all the spaces of our lives.

We do not see Jesus as Mary Magdalene and Thomas and Peter did. But we look for him as they did, and he finds us as he did them: people who have been devastated by loss, people who doubt his presence, people who dissemble and betray our relationship with him, and yet also people who long to share his companionship, people who long to make of our lives courageous responses to his call. We are all of them, and like all of them, we are changed by what happened on Easter Sunday. Peter claims that it is impossible for Jesus to be held by the power of death – a power that can seem strong indeed when you walk through a cemetery, a power that seems strong when you have just said good-bye to a loved one or are pondering the thoroughness with which loss has altered your life – but a power that cannot hold Jesus and, therefore, cannot hold us.

God invites us into a mysterious story in which a faltering Peter in a courtyard, a heartbroken Mary Magdalene in a cemetery, and a petulant Thomas in a darkened room are all transformed by the sure knowledge that someone who was “completely not here” is completely here and completely with us. We stand anew as people liberated and re-created by a God who sought to share and enjoy and suffer life as we experience it, and then to open it to dimensions beyond our imagination. We live in the knowledge that death is not the final answer, knowing that the Jesus Christ of the resurrection offers life in a fullness that stretches beyond time and space as we understand them. Let us and see as Mary Magdalene and Thomas and Peter saw, and let us embrace life itself and the people with whom we share it as Jesus does: extravagantly and wildly and gloriously. Jesus calls us to step into the surprising light of Easter morning, and to know that it changes everything.


Sophia said...

Powerful, Gannet. Thank you.

Cynthia said...

It's even more powerful this year than last.

Carol said...

Wow. And I'm not even Christian. I am struck by the power of your images and the sensitivity of your words. You are, indeed, a gifted clergy person and friend.

Lisa :-] said...

What an odd place this must put you in have become the person to whom you were preaching that sermon.

I hope it helped...

Jennifer said...

In reading this sermon, I understand anew how God rests and works outside of time in ways that continually astound and amaze me. Your gift to yourself is much like the Christian singer-songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman who lost his small daughter nearly a year ago--comforted with the lyrics and lines he had composed previously for friends who had lost children. It defies the imagination, and yet it seems a way that God says, "Let me tell you in a voice you can trust that the deeper knowing is there and has been there all along." Thank you for sharing this.

Stratoz said...

I am stuck on the words "completely shattered" in your pre-sermon paragraph. I try to imagine. I read this yesterday and those words keep coming to mind.

Peace and Healing be with you.

Rev SS said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing this ... and what Jennifer said. Shalom.

Deb said...

I'm struggling immensely tonight... and this helped me with some perspective (a little).

I'm reading frequently and commenting little.