Bp. Mariann: “How the Story Ends”
At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. —Jeremiah 31:1-6
Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” —Acts 10:34-42
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” —Matthew 28:1-10
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy?” (Tolkein)
In the name of the Risen Christ. Amen.
Good morning! What an honor to be here with you. Thank you for your part in this wondrous celebration and many thanks to the Cathedral community for your hard work and artistic care so that we might celebrate Easter in such beauty.
I greet you in the name of God who loves you with an everlasting love, love that does not let go or give up. A love that is patient and kind; that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; a love, in short, that does not end. May you feel that love today.
I greet you in the name of God who shows no partiality—none. There is nothing you or I need to do to earn this love, nor can we lose it. It is a love that does not take into account those things that we imagine are what make us worthy or unworthy of love. Nor does it join us when we divide others into categories of relative value. May you feel that lack of partiality for yourself and remember that it extends to all.
I greet you in the name of the Risen Christ, whose life could not be contained in death, whom God raised and through whom we also live.
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy?”
How could the end be happy? We know that if it had been up to us, the story would have ended badly. For while we are undeniably a gifted and competent species, capable of many grand and inspiring things, resurrection is not in our repertoire. Remarkable as we are, we do not have the power to bring life out of death. Try as we might to breathe life into dead bones, restore what has been irretrievably lost, or make the kind of change in ourselves that we long for, we can’t do it. Even with our best intentions, we can’t make resurrection happen.
It’s humbling to come up against such limits, particularly if you are among the spiritually sincere. I read a memoir years ago written by a woman who spent a year working very hard at being spiritual. She did in that year all the things we imagine spiritual people do that we never seem to get around to ourselves. I’m not clear what she did for a living, because she seemed to spend every day at a soup kitchen, serving the poor. She volunteered at her church and showed up at every conceivable worship service. She read spiritual books, thought deeply about her own life, kept a journal, cared for two friends who were dying, supported her priest when he came out as a gay man to a congregation not particularly equipped for that kind of announcement. In short, everything she could think of to be a good person—more than that, a Christ-like person—she did, to great effect. But do you know where she was on Easter Sunday? Sitting on the perch of the baptismal font in the back because she arrived late and all the pews were filled. And why was she, Miss Spirituality of the Year, late on this of all Sundays? Because before church she got into a very unspiritual fight with her husband, one of those nasty, bitter arguments going nowhere. Worse still, she provoked it, out of loneliness. A year’s worth of trying to be good blew up in her face and she was left in raw humanity. There are some things beyond our power to change. (Gallagher, 1988)
But to say that resurrection is not in our repertoire doesn’t mean that it is outside our experience. We know this; we have felt its power, coming from somewhere else. It’s hard to describe the experience in words, which is why Scripture tends to give us imagines instead. Take, for example, the large stone in front of Jesus’ tomb, a weighty obstacle between the women on their way to care for his body and their task. We know that stone well, for it embodies the weight of the world—all the guilt, regret, and grief, failure, fear, and anxiety of our life. Sometimes we find that same stone on our path, blocking us from where we need to go or what we need to do. Sometimes it rests on our shoulders and we buckle under its weight. Worse still, sometimes, we see it on the shoulders of another, and no matter how we want to, we can’t remove it for them. In another version of this story, the women walk toward the tomb fretting about the stone, just as we fret about the ones impeding us. Yet when the women arrived (and this was for them the first indication that things had changed) a mysterious young man had effortlessly moved their stone and for good measure—I love this part—sat on it, as if to say, “I’ve got this one. It is no longer your problem.”
Resurrection feels like having a stone removed. You can still see it, off to the side; you can go up and touch it, if you want. But unless you step in front of it intentionally, it is no longer in your way. You wake up one morning and realize that the grief you’ve been carrying, or the resentment, or the envy, pain or fear is lighter; or maybe it’s still with you, but the poison is gone. The change is not necessarily dramatic; it may feel at first like the subtlest of shifts.
There’s something unsettling about having the stone removed. “Don’t be afraid,” the mysterious angelic boy said to the women, another great line, particularly in the wake of an earthquake that so frightened the guards of the tomb that they fell down in a dead faint. (I’m thinking we could stage this as a comedy.) In some ways, it’s easier to live with the stone on our shoulders than without it. It’s certainly safer. It’s easier to stay behind the protection of fear, anxiety, illness, and guilt than to move beyond them to what lay ahead. That’s why we are so prone to self-sabotage, or to give up on our gifts when they start laying claim on our lives. It’s safer. But life with Christ is never about safety; it’s about freedom. The stone has been rolled away, the angel said, and if you run, you can catch up with the rest of your life.
Resurrection is also controversial, as it should be, but not in the ways we’re inclined to line up on this or any other religious issues. You may have read in yesterday’s Washington Post a story from the Religion News Service with the deliberately provocative title, “Must a Christian believe literally in the Resurrection?” Free-lance journalist Kimberly Winston writes that this is now, apparently, the source of one of the deepest rifts in American Christianity. (Winston, 2014)
As polarities go, I don’t find the one between the literalist believers and metaphorical believers particularly surprising or even that interesting. Having spent significant time on nearly every point on the spectrum of Christian experience in this country, I’m not convinced that things we imagine are the most important to argue are what make a difference in the life of a Christian. For there will always be people drawn to the concrete—facts and nothing but the facts—and those drawn to the symbolic and metaphorical meanings within or alongside facts; those who only trust the truths that can be proven (whatever that means) and those who prefer telling stories that also speak of truth. And we all gravitate toward the arguments and evidence that buttress what we already believe to be true. But wherever you happen to find yourself on that literal-metaphorical spectrum, remember, friends, that God shows no partiality.
I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that God cares more our experiences than our opinions. Literally or metaphorically, what do you know about life after death? And what kind of a person are you as a result? That’s the question. Do know what it feels like to have something or someone taken from you, or a part of yourself taken from you, and then after what is surely death, to feel some kind of invitation to live again—not the same life you had before, but a different one? And are you, because of your sojourn from death to life, more compassionate, less judgmental, willing to go where death still reigns because that’s what Jesus asks you to do for another’s sake? And if not, why not? Look around. There’s some urgency to the work God needs us to do.
You know that there are four different versions of the Easter story in the Bible, one at the end of each Gospel, each with its own perspective and story to tell. I urge you to take time this week and read them all—it will take about half an hour—and see which one speaks to you. What they have in common is the arc of emotion. Each begins in grief and ends in some combination of fear and joy. Moreover, in every one there is chaos at the tomb scene, lots of people running back and forth, Jesus appearing and disappearing, not always being recognized. In each, the women are instructed not to stay at the empty tomb because Jesus isn’t there anymore.
What’s noteworthy about the version printed in your Easter bulletin this morning is the sense of urgency. Things happen suddenly, dramatically, and the angel keeps telling the women to hurry up. Quick, look around if you must, to see that Jesus is gone, but then go, tell the others, he’s waiting for you in Galilee. Then as they’re leaving, Jesus shows up, tells them basically the same thing, and off the women go running in search of their comrades, out of breath, telling them to go to Galilee.
So I wonder about holy urgency. The clock is ticking for all of us, you know, personally and for us as a species. Where is Galilee? And how will it take for us to get there?
For Christians, this is the great story. This is the one that really matters.
One final thought: I’ve just come back from Israel, and I’m here to tell that for someone traveling on foot or donkey, it’s a long journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. I’m guessing that it would take at least three days. From the way the angel talks to the two Marys, you’d think Galilee was around the corner. Go quickly! He’s in Galilee, right there, and he wants to meet you. And in the very next scene, they’re all right there, like a fast cut in a movie. I’m just saying that both physically and spiritually, moving from death to life may take awhile.
But remember as you go that God loves you with an everlasting love. “God’s love,” as William Sloane Coffin once said, “is a long distance runner. Love has a longer wind than any other contestant in the race.” (Coffin, 2008)
Remember that God shows no partiality—we don’t earn resurrection or make it happen. The end of the story is not in our hands, and, as fabulous as we are or wished we could be or feel we ought to be, that is a good thing.
Remember that the story ends well. Too much has happened for it to be happy in a simplistic way and there’s no going back to life as it was before. But the ending is, nonetheless, really, really good. The stone that’s been in your way, weighing you down, is gone now. It’s gone. Take one more look around just to be sure, but then be on your way. Hurry! Run if you can. The rest of your life is up ahead and Jesus is already there, waiting for you to arrive.
Coffin, W. S. (2008). “Living Beyond Our Moral Means.” In W. S. Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1. Knoxville, TN: Westminster Knox Press.
Gallagher, N. (1988). Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. Albert Knopf.
Tolkein, J. The Two Towers.
Winston, K. (2014, April 19). “Must a Christian Literally Believe in the Resurrection?” Washington Post.