"The first day of the week was dawning"-A Sermon for Easter Sunday, Matthew 28:1-10:
For about a decade, I served on the Commission on Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. The Commission on Ministry is a group of about a dozen or so lay and ordained folk appointed by the Bishop to help people considering ordination in our church to discern…to discern whether God’s call on his or her life is to continue in lay ministry or indeed to pursue the path of becoming a priest. And to help in this work of discernment one requirement of the commission is for those who are in discernment to write a spiritual autobiography. Which in so many ways, is simply the story of his or her life…the trials and triumphs…the pain and joy…the times of wandering in the wilderness feeling lost and unmoored and the times of standing on the mountaintop feeling entirely connected to God and full of hope for the future. Often these autobiographies were real and raw…people sharing deeply from their experience…which like all of our experiences…includes, in addition to the highlights in life, the real pain, real failure, real suffering that they have lived through…often because of their own poor choices and, of course, the poor choices and unhealthy behaviors of others. And, their stories, all of which, the good and bad, is a part of the journey that has shaped them into the person they have become…the person standing before the Commission on Ministry…at that very moment…seeking to find and understand who God is calling them to be…how God is calling them to give their one unique life in God’s service…to bring life and love to our world in real, tangible, even transformative Easter-like ways. And we always asked these folk in discernment to conclude their autobiography by answering the question: What if anything would they change about it? What would they change about their lives…their story.
So, what do you think the answer, not always, but most often was? Nothing…nothing at all. Now I don’t want to take this too far…for there are surely experiences of trauma and abuse and loss and certain sorts of choices that a person could have made that caused others deep suffering and pain…that they and we might like to change or erase from our lives. But still the answer was almost, not always, but almost always nothing. Even with all the experiences of loss and pain, trial and failure, that so often accompanied the story of people’s lives…the answer was again typically nothing. And the reason for this, at least I think, the reason for this is because, even more than the stories of triumph and accomplishment of success and reward, it is the stories of pain and suffering that are the moments, are the cauldron and crucible, in which people are truly formed. For these experiences, which are often akin to a sort of death like experience…a cross like experience…sometimes they really involve death…like the loss of someone we love, these are so often the moments that lead one to really, really living. They are so often moments of resurrection…of insight and growth…a whole new sort of life.
We have all probably heard that the darkest moment in any night, the moment that is most without light in the sky over our heads, is the very moment before the sun begins to make its ascent…the moment just before sunrise…the moment just before the sun makes its daily and glorious resurrection. For it is indeed often in our moments of great loss and suffering, when we betray or are betrayed by someone we trust…when we get that call from the doctor’s office with the unwanted diagnosis…when the phone rings unexpectedly with the news of a death…when the police call because a child has made a really poor choice…when we first realize that we are powerless over our addiction…when the notice comes to our desk that the office is downsizing and we aren’t a part of the business’ future…when…and you can fill in the blank…it is in these very real moments of suffering and loss, of pain and confusion, these moments when our own crosses are hefted upon our shoulders…almost always unwanted…these darkest of hours…that the hope of resurrection…for a new sort of life begins to emerge…begins to take shape…the sun begins to peek its head just above the horizon…like a songbird in a cemetery…like a cardinal fliting on top of a tombstone…who then begins to sing a hope-filled tune…a song breaking the utter silence, light in the midst of the darkness…even if just beginning to emerge.
For it is in these moments of suffering, loss and confusion, these cross like moments, that we so often turn to Jesus, begin a conversation with God…often for the first time in a long time…and we find that God is indeed listening, there with us...keeping our heads above the water…pushing back against the fear, the unknowing, the chaos. For we indeed worship a God who is crucified and risen…who knows the pain and death that the cross so palpably represent even before knowing the glory of resurrection. And it is in these moments of suffering, loss and confusion, these cross like moments, that we so often turn to one another, the people we love and who are in our stories and with whom we share our lives, and in doing so often discover in them God’s own love, as it flows from them to us, again keeping us afloat, helping us carry the weight of our cross, helping us push back against the fear, the unknowing, and the chaos…so that we can find a hopeful path forward…following the song we hear and the light we see. And it is in these moments of suffering, loss and confusion, these cross like moments, that we are given the gift to learn in the most real ways possible what we are made of and what we are made for. We discover that we are indeed loved and belong to God and one another, we discover what we are capable of really accomplishing, overcoming, and who we really are. And thus, we are reborn, entirely reborn into whole new sort of life…a resurrected sort of life…much like Jesus on that first Easter morning…walking out of that lifeless tomb…scars present but wounds healed…destroying the power of the cross…even overcoming death itself.
When we reach out in times of suffering…cry out to the God of the cross and empty tomb…extend a hand to others asking for their help…and the the song begins and the light starts to emerge, we become resurrected into people who are more convicted than ever of God’s love for us and faithful presence with us. We find ourselves more empathetic of the suffering of others and more willing to enter into their story, their own moments of pain, confusion and loss as an agent of God’s healing and compassion…we sing for them and bring them light. We become what Henri Nouwan calls the wounded healer…the person who has made that great move from cross to resurrection…and then uses their own experience of resurrection, of overcoming our own crosses to help heal and make others more whole…to help resurrect them. We become, as simply as I can say it, Easter people. People who know the power and promise of resurrection entirely, because we have lived it. We know that Jesus is indeed risen…for we live it, over and over again, in each moment of dying in some way and then being resurrected maybe a thousand times in a life time.
Thus, our lives are living witnesses to the glory of Easter. For Easter, for resurrection, is not only some historical event, some historical foot note, with no real impact or effect on the lives we now live. Something that happened once two thousand years ago…that perhaps we give some consideration to about once a year on this day…on Easter day. Nor is it only a future promise that we will only know when we die…so no need to think about it right now. If resurrection is only connected to physical death…then let’s put off considering it till we absolutely have to. No…resurrection is now, or certainly can be, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, a very present reality and experience for the living we do right now. Thus, we don’t say, as we began this service moments ago, Jesus was risen, or was raised from the dead a long time ago…but that Jesus is risen…present tense…for a present experience. We are eyewitness to the majesty of resurrection even now…we can hear the angles singing their alleluias even now. Each moment that we overcome our own suffering to live a life that is even more full…which is the great move from the cross to the empty tomb…we become nothing less than a living, breathing expression of Easter.
I think of two members of our church who through walking through their own experiences of suffering, caring for parents at the end of their life who were or are suffering with dementia…one of the two additionally suffering the untimely loss of a spouse…two women who, while caring for their own loved ones, have spent countless hours among people facing daily life’s end…people living often isolated lives, disconnected from family and friends packed away in nursing and retirement homes. Out of their own move from the cross to the empty tomb, these two lovely women have begun a ministry of playing piano and singing in nursing and retirement communities. Singing pouring forth out of their own experience of suffering…to those who are facing their own mortality often alone…the move from cross to resurrection…a pair of wounded healers. And whether they realize it or not, I think the gift of song and light they bring to those retirement community common rooms…to those people who are the beloved of God…is about way more than the joy provided in the moment. I think the music, the light are witnessing to something way more eternal…like songbirds in a cemetery…like a cardinal fliting on top of a tombstone breaking out into a hope-filled tune. Out of their own suffering and loss and through their own experience of resurrection, they are witnessing to all those who hear them, who see them, something of the power and the promise of resurrection its very self…for all of creation…the birds who sing in the spring time and the sun that rises at each new day, and most especially for our own lives…even me, even you.
For just like the two women whose story I tell, our own lives, that have indeed made the great move from the cross to the empty tomb, witness to the great good news that we celebrate this day, and each that follows…the good news that Jesus is risen…the first born from the dead…not the last but the first…and so now and for all time, resurrection into life and love forever…is the end of all that exists…of all who live…even me, even you.
So, let your life speak…the trials and the triumphs…the cross like moments and those experiences of glorious resurrection…leaving nothing out. Tell your own stories of cross and resurrection to all who need to hear them. Remember that our stories of resurrection always begin at the cross…that our own overcoming of suffering, healing from heartache, finding hope in the midst of the darkness, singing out a bright, clear tune in the cacophony of chaos that so often surrounds us…our very lives…witness to this Easter day that stands at the very heart of our faith. Jesus is risen…for the bible tells us so, indeed, but, also, that the lives we live tells us, and all those we will share our Easter lives with, so. Amen.