April 21, 2019
Then 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.”
‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Good morning! Thank you for choosing to come here, or watch from your home, to be part of this celebration of hope that meets despair; love that is stronger than hate; and life that awaits us all on the other side of death. It is an audacious faith, and it always has been.
On behalf of all of us gathered, I’d like to take a moment to thank those who have worked so hard to make this day, and this place, one of great beauty in sound and sight. In a month when three African American churches in Louisiana were destroyed by arson, the world watched as Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed by flame, and just this Easter morning when three churches in Sri Lanka were bombed, we realize the importance of sacred spaces and how devastating it is when they are damaged, destroyed or worse still, attacked. Yet we know that the living God cannot be contained in structures built by human hands, and nor can arson, fire, or a bomb destroy a living faith. Easter morning asks us to believe that neither can death.
I’d like to speak to you about living faith. Now if you’re here today not at all convinced that what Christians celebrate on Easter is true, or if it is true, if it matters; or if something’s happened in your life, or in our world, that’s caused you to doubt what you once believed, or thought you believed to be true; or if you want to believe, but simply can’t wrap your head around what people describe as their faith in God, faith in Jesus; or if you’re not even in the zone, as they say, but just trying to make it through the day and somehow you landed here, trust me, you’re not alone. You’re not alone among Christians. Faith without doubt, as they say, is faith without a pulse. Every one of us, no matter how good we might look on the outside, carries our share of doubt and worry and unresolved pain and the weight of burdens others do not know. It has always been so.
I grant you that this is not an easy time to be a person of faith, if there ever was one. Thinking back on all that’s happened in the past year alone, and is happening now, we don’t know what the future will bring. But then again, our ancestors had struggles that certainly put ours in perspective, and the first witnesses to the resurrection didn’t have an easy go of it, either. I’ve spent the better part of a week reflecting upon the four written accounts of that first Easter morning. Taken together, they paint a scene not of triumph, but first of sorrow and fear, then chaos and confusion, to which I think we can all relate.
Yet I suggest to you that this is also a fine time for faith–maybe the best time– particularly for faith in resurrection. For resurrection is the assurance of God’s empowerment and presence in and through the worst that can happen to us. Those who promote Christianity as a faith of ease, triumph and prosperity are not reading their gospels carefully. Christianity is a faith that insists that God suffers alongside us, that Jesus’ solidarity is with suffering. It is that solidarity that carries us through, giving us a quiet amazement that life can indeed be lived after something precious is lost. The grace and mercy of Christ meet us in the crucible of real life, where real things happen, not all of them easy. These are the times that faith, living faith, is for.
I’m not speaking of faith only as the acceptance of particular religious ideas about Jesus or anyone else, although that’s certainly important. Faith is an orientation toward life defined by courage and trust, a willingness to risk, to live one’s life, facing the future with hope even when the light you’re living by only extends out a few feet, like headlights in the fog. It involves seeking out meaningful experiences and searching for the truths that are, in the end, worthy of your life.
Peter Gomes, the late, great professor of ethics and chaplain at Harvard University used to preach essentially the same sermon every spring to the students at Harvard that he entitled, “How Are You Going to Live after the Fall?” “Innocent pagans that most of them are,” he wrote about that sermon in a book entitled, The Good Life, “they assume that I’m asking them what their plans are after September. But I’m not. I’m asking them what they are going to do after their first dreams fall from the sky. What are you going to do, I ask them, when you don’t get the job, when you don’t get the girl or the boy, when you are brushed aside or hurt, when your children rise up to treat you as you treated your parents? What are you going to do?” “The Good Life, that you rightly seek,” I tell them, “must serve you in your most difficult, desperately hard times. It must help you to cope in your moments of doubt and despair. If what you live by does not serve you then, it is no good for you, even in the good times.” (Peter Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).)
We can put our faith in resurrection. I’m not talking merely about what happened to Jesus a long time ago, although I’ll start there; nor am I referring to awaits us when we die, although I’ll get to that, too. What I want to describe is how we can experience and trust–that is, put our faith in–the experience of resurrection now. And here’s the thing: you don’t have be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to experience resurrection. For resurrection is God’s way with us; it’s embedded in Creation. Once you experience resurrection, and recognize it for what it is, you might better understand what keeps a life-giving, self-sacrificing, love-for-others faith in Jesus alive in the midst of everything we human beings do in the name of Jesus to discredit him. In the words of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, “The Risen Christ is not a one-time miracle but the revelation of a universal pattern. . . Love is the energy that sustains the universe, moving us toward a future of resurrection. We do not need to call it love or God or resurrection for its work to be done.” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019). Pp.99-100.)
The gospel accounts of the first Easter morning reveal the pattern and process of resurrection that we can trust. All four describe an experience that begins in grief. So the first thing to remember about a resurrection experience is that it must begin in death, a loss of something or someone so profound that a part of us dies, too.
The second thing to remember, as I mentioned, is that there’s a certain amount of chaos and confusion involved. As it turns out, resurrection is a rather messy process. I don’t know how you feel about that, but for me, to be reminded of that is somehow validating and a relief.
The third thing the ancient stories tell us about a resurrection experience is that in some real way, in the midst of the worst that can happen, God shows up. I don’t know how else to describe it. God shows us for us, and with us, and sometimes even through us, and not because of anything we did or didn’t do. In fact, God typically shows up in resurrection where we least deserve it. The wondrously articulate Nadia Bolz Weber describes the experience this way: “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.” (Nadia-Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky and Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint)
The last thing I’ll say about the experience of resurrection now is that it almost always comes with an invitation to pay it forward, to show up for someone else as God showed up for us. This is what St. Paul means when he describes Christians as “ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:20) Christians, to quote Richard Rohr again, are meant to be “the visible compassion of God on earth more than those who are going to heaven.” And whenever we do this, whenever we show up, and get close enough to other people to allow that suffering to change us, we are taking up resurrection work. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “redemptive suffering,” suffering in the service of life for someone else. It’s not an easy way to live but once you’ve seen it and has a taste of it, nothing else quite measures up.
Years ago, Anne Lamott wrote of this same search for goodness in an essay she entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” which when I was a parish priest was required reading for parents seeking baptism for the children. “Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church,” Lamott writes of her son. “He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there and they for him. All that matters to him is that he alone among his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.”
“You might think,” she goes on, “noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weekends, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say. I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.”
But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful…Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food…When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on…” (Anne Lamott, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Random House, 1999.), pp. 99-100.)
For those of us called to be followers of Jesus, we have the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of living a resurrection faith, staking our lives on its assurance that God will meet us in whatever happens and guide us on a path of hope. If we’re looking for a something quick and easy and hugely dramatic, we won’t find it here. Resurrection is a subtle process, one that doesn’t gloss over the hardships we endure. It feels more like a wind shifting, the gradual turning of midnight to dawn, a seed breaking through the muddy earth after a long and frozen winter, a stranger appearing out of nowhere to tell you precisely what you need to hear. Sometimes it feels like a second chance; other times like a new possibility where there was once a closed door.
Resurrection also takes time, a lifetime, in fact, to experience as real. Which is why we celebrate it not only on high days like this one, but also on low days when it’s all we can do to crawl out of bed in the morning and throw on a pair of jeans. Easter is not a day for us, but a way of life. Today is but one day on a long and wondrous journey. After today, followers of Jesus will show up here or in other places of worship next week, and the week after that, and the one after that. In between, we’ll be out living our lives and doing whatever we can to bring good into the world. We’ll march, cook food, read stories to our children, make appointments with our legislators, go to the theatre, listen to glorious music, and work for peace. Resurrection is everywhere, and after today we’ll give thanks for the excuse to throw a great great party and invite all of you, and then go back to work of living it even when it’s hard and little scary.
“Nothing worth doing is completed in a day or in our lifetime,” Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote of this path back in the Cold War years, “Therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in its immediate context; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe. Therefore, we must be saved by that final form of love which is forgiveness.” (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (The University of Chicago Press, 1952).)
This is not an easy faith, but it’s good, in the best sense of the word, full of grit and promise and fierce calm. Christ is not a panacea or a platitude, but an authentic presence of love, forgiveness and empowerment. No, this is not an easy time, but it’s our time. We don’t live easy lives, but they are good. As St. Paul said, by the grace of God I am who I am, and God’s grace has not been in vain. It’s not an easy faith, but it’s our faith. And remember your faith need never be as strong as what we can all put our faith in–the mystery of resurrection, the empowering presence of Christ, a light to go by and a way to live.
One final word, now, about about the mystery that lies beyond our physical death, about which I know nothing first hand. I speak especially to those grieving the death of one taken too soon, or who, like me, feel overwhelmed by the amount of senseless death in our world, or those who are facing your own death.
None of us knows for certain what lies behind the grave, but I have come to trust the ancient human intuition, embedded in spiritual traditions across humankind, that there is another side, there is another realm, there is a place–not a physical one as we know it nor that we can fully grasp–where souls are safe, and spirits live on. St. Paul wrote, “It is not for this life only that we have hope.” (I Corinthians 15:9) Thank God for that.
One tangible fruit of a living faith in resurrection, intentionally practiced over time, is that it gives us a way of imagining what it will be like at the final crossing, and a place to entrust all those who have gone before. The mystics assure us that distance between us and that place isn’t a great as we imagine it to be, and at times we may feel what can only be described as even proximity to that other realm. Should you experience it, I think you can trust it. When your time comes to surrender this life, I pray you can lean back, trusting that Christ’s arms are there to hold you and bring you home.
In the meantime, may you live your life to the full, invest in the places and people and offerings that are worthy of your life and will sustain you through the hardest times. Dare to believe that Christ has you back, now and when you need him most, and that nothing in this world–not in life or death–can separate you, can separate any of us from the love God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.