Easter: How do you encounter resurrection?

Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this morning, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to accompany them. Some of you are here because it is Easter, and you are supposed to go to church on Easter, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. If you need help navigating this ancient liturgy, someone nearby can help. Some of you are here to hear our choir sing, and maybe support a particular member of the choir. Thanks to you. Whatever brought you here today, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Happy Easter.

To all of you, I want to ask a question. How do you encounter the resurrection?

There are truths that the mind cannot discover, only encounter. Love, might be the most commonly understood one of those truths that the mind can’t discover. You can’t quantify love. One of the ways to make a dogmatic scientist, someone who only believes what can be proven, one of the ways to make such a scientist angry is to ask, “do you lover your family?” When they say yes, you respond with “prove it.”

I recently participated in a friendly debate about the existance of God at our program Theology on Tap. My colleague James is the assistant leader at the St. Louis Ethical Society, and he describes himself as an Evangelical Atheist. Now James has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge, so I’ll confess at times in our friendly debate I felt a little overmatched. But in the question and answer session, one of our members asked him about “love” could he prove the existence of love, and he was stumped. I smiled with pride thinking, “She’s one of ours!”

There are books out there that attempt to establish a quasi-scientific case for the Resurrection of Jesus. They count the guards on the tomb, and analyze linen wrappings. You can watch History Channel “documentaries” which use lasers to show images on the shroud of Turin that supposedly wrapped the body of Jesus.

As a side note, I kind of hope someone someday brings charges in court against whoever decided to call that channel “The History Channel.” Now I don’t want anything terrible to happen to them. In my mind, the ideal sentence would be that inventor of the History Channel has to endow several chairs for actual history professors at universities, and then attend history lectures every week for the rest of their life. Please don’t get your history or your theology from cable television. I simply wonder is the Resurrection a fact that we should spend a lot of time and money trying to prove with data? Or is Resurrection a truth, like love, like many truths of faith, is resurrection more meaningful as an encounter.

In our Gospel this morning, Peter and another disciple start out running. You can almost feel the chill in the morning air as each of them passes the other. The disciple Jesus loved reaches the tomb first. He has a sense that something sacred is going on, so he pauses. Peter catches up, and rushes past. He enters the empty tomb, sees the linens cast aside. But he doesn’t understand. The facts don’t add up. The Beloved disciple believes, the text tells us, but the Gospel doesn’t really fill out what this guy believes. The boys rush home just as quickly as they came to the tomb.

We’re left with Mary Magdalene. Thank God for Mary Magdalene. When I get to heaven, she’s one of the first people I want to go meet. Mary has some of what our Jewish neighbors call “chutzpah.” Mary gets to the tomb early, the Bible tells us, while it was still dark, and she sticks around after the boys go home. John’s Gospel likes to play with light and dark. John is the Gospel where Nicodemus, a powerful Jewish leader comes to learn from Jesus under the cover of darkness. Our presiding Bishop likes to call Nicodemus “Nick at Night.” Jesus tells him to come out into the light. There’s an interplay in John between light and darkness, day and night, clarity and obscurity. So there’s no mistake that Mary comes in the darkness.

Mary comes to Jesus before it all makes sense. Mary deals with the chaos, and the danger of what has just happened. She responds with faith. John wants us to understand that there is real danger here. She’s going out there on her own. The other disciples are doing what is sensible. They’re hiding. After all, their leader has been killed. They are in real danger. Mary exhibits bravery here, foolishness maybe, going out in the dark. As you well know the dark is allegorical in the Bible. Darkness, in John’s Gospel, stands for the oppression these people are facing from the Roman and religious authorities. The darkness stands for the evil, the injustice, the chaos. Darkness isn’t safe. Mary takes brave steps on Easter morning.

And after she finds the tomb empty, after the boys have checked it out and rushed home. Mary sticks around. Mary isn’t leaving without an answer. The frustration brings her to tears, but she’s going to figure out how to respond. She comes early, and she stays.

And because Mary makes these choices. Because she steps out with bravery. Because she sticks around. Mary encounters the angels, and then she encounters Jesus. She doesn’t know it is him at first. Mary also could be a sensible woman. She sees someone, and supposes him to be the gardner. You can tell she’s working this thing over and over in her mind. She says, “tell me where you have laid him. I will take his body.” She thinks she has added up the facts: there is a gardner. Oh, the gardner must have moved him.

Then comes the encounter. Jesus says, “Mary.” All the logic falls away. My teacher, she exclaims. Resurrection. Just as bravely as she set out, she returns to the disciples and says to them, “I have seen the Lord.” Hers is the first proclamation that Jesus is risen. She is the first witness of the resurrection. Hers is the first encounter. And Mary’s encounter with the Resurrected Christ has and will continue to remake the world.

How do you encounter resurrection?

Our world needs more people like Mary Magdalene today. We face a world that is, in some ways, filled with John’s allegorical darkness. The political rhetoric this season seems particularly heated. The threats of violence are real. Economic tension is the new normal. Terrorism dominates the news. That’s a lot of darkness.

We need some brave women like Mary Magdalene. We need brave men too. People who are able to step into that darkness with faith.

Many of you know Julie Farrar who sings in our choir. Julie can’t be with us for Easter today because she has been in Dijon France on some business. France has been more than a bit tense after last week’s terror attacks. Julie wrote just a couple of days ago:

On this Good Friday evening as I arrived at the church, two armed soldiers were standing on the steps outside. The battle between love/hope and power/hate still rages on. But in the dim light of the sanctuary the music of Gregorian chants rose a couple of hundred feet into the vaulted arches and floated over the crowd as the congregation followed them past the multitude of stone columns, stopping at different stations in the church to listen to the songs of love and sacrifice that had been heard there for 800 years. By the time the service was over, it was fairly easy to believe “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” — Where charity and love is, there also is God.

Dare I say, Julie encountered resurrection, even on Good Friday. In our world, all may appear to be darkness. The facts may tell us that the world is filled with danger, all hope may seem lost. But hope has a way of breaking through. Light has a way of breaking through. God has a way of breaking through.

Faith is for times like ours. Faith is about taking those first steps out into the dark. Faith is about sticking with the mysteries, even when others shake their heads and go home. If faith isn’t easy for you, that’s okay. Can you be like Mary? Will you stick it out? When the encounter comes, you will be glad you did.

In the short term, Rome was able to silence the revolutionary Jesus of Nazareth. They shut him down. Terrorized his followers, and cast them into the darkness. But then Mary Magdalene took some brave steps into that darkness. She had an encounter. She told the other disciples. Together they made sure that the Good News was told throughout the world. It might seem dark. It might seem like all is lost. But world, they said, you can take some brave steps. Light is more powerful than dark. Love is more powerful than hate. Life is more powerful than death.

How do you encounter the resurrection?

Thomas, Romero, and the Importance of Doubt

Today’s Gospel tells the story of Thomas Didymus, Thomas the Twin, but we call him by another name…”Doubting Thomas.” Thomas didn’t find belief in the resurrection easy. What does it mean to believe in the resurrection? Belief is the crux of this story. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe, says Jesus.” And the Gospel writer tells us, “these things are written that you may believe.” What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?

Now, I know this room is true believers. After all, it is the Sunday AFTER Easter. And you’re HERE, at Church…again. We jokingly call this “low Sunday.” The crowds from last week are gone. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. The Church needs some true believers. But, if you’re not quite a true believer, if someone you love is not quite there, I want to stand with Thomas and say, doubt is also important. Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian and author “A Wrinkle in Time,” was once asked by a little girl if she believed in Jesus without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe, with LOTS of doubts.” You see, I think we all need doubt. Faith without doubt is certainty, and certainty isn’t faith.

I’m not certain about much in our tradition. I have to be honest. I think we are a culture that is used to the scientific method and to hard facts. We like to be certain. We like definite answers. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith is trickier. Faith is less about our heads, and more about our guts. Faith needs doubt, because faith is a balancing act. We walk the tightrope holding a big balancing pole. On one end of the pole is blessed assurance, and on the other is doubt. If we have too much of either, we fall of the rope, but you need some doubt, and some assurance to make the balance of faith work. So, if you have doubts about the resurrection, you’re in good company. I have my doubts too. For me, faith in the resurrection has become less intellectual and more visceral in recent years.

I want to tell you a story resurrection. This story is also a story of pilgrimage. The week before Holy Week 2010 I was in El Salvador. I walked with fellow seminarians and some college students through the hot dusty streets of the Salvadoran capital. We were marching to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was chosen as archbishop among El Salvador’s bishops in 1977 at a time of great conflict for the church. Rome thought he was a quiet bookworm who wouldn’t make trouble.

Soon after Romero became archbishop, a close friend was killed. Rutilio Grande was a Jesuit priest who was ministering with poor farmers, campesinos, seeking freedom from poverty. When Grande was killed, Romero was outraged. He began demanding that the military and the government “cease the repression!” Romero preached on the radio, and stood with the poor. He challenged the status quo, especially the violence used to supress free speech. Just three years after being named archbishop, Romero was assassinated.

Romero understood he was risking his life for his beliefs. Because he had faith in Christ’s resurrection, the archbishop believed death wasn’t the end of the story. That didn’t mean he wasn’t scared. The threats had been coming for months. Romero lived on the grounds of a cancer hospital run by a group of nuns. He had turned down the traditional archbishop’s residence and moved into the sacristy behind their chapel. The nuns wanted the bishop to live somewhere a little more fitting, so they built him a little three room house, and asked the cancer patients to bring him to his new home. The sisters knew Romero wouldn’t refuse a gift from the patients.

You can still visit his little house, it is a shrine now to Romero. The house sits under a mango tree at the hospital, and sometimes at night, ripe mangos fall on the roof. When this happened, the nuns often found the archbishop sleeping back in the sacristy, scared that the mangos might bombs thrown onto his roof. Romero was scared. He had doubts. But Romero also had faith. Before he died Romero said famously, “If they kill me, I will resurrect in the Salvadoran people.” He had doubts, but he also had faith.

As the sun set that March 24th, our group processed with a crowd of thousands that made its way through the streets of San Salvador. We were headed to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. As we walked, we passed countless fried chicken places, pizza huts, and relief organization headquarters. El Salvador still struggles with poverty, and an imbalance of wealth. Groups of activists for the poor joined with the religious pilgrims, seminarians, monks and nuns, all walking together. On signs carried by the marchers, and on their t-shirts, one slogan stood out more than the others: Romero Vive! Romero lives.

Later that week, still in El Salvador, I heard a story from a Jesuit theologian about the Easter after Romero died. The scholar priest told of preaching in a congregation that Easter Sunday in 1980. He asked his congregation same question I began with this morning, “What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?” A tiny Salvadoran woman stood up. She said that she had always believed in the resurrection, because she was a Christian. People told her she HAD to believe in the resurrection, so she said, “okay.” Lately though, she said she felt she began to know what resurrection means.

She went on: when Archbishop Romero died, she felt very sad. He had been her voice, her hope, she said. She felt that she had an advocate in Romero. So she was devastated. But in the few weeks since his death, she felt something new. She felt that Romero was alive again, that he was giving her power. She felt that she could stand up for herself. She could claim her own voice, instead of relying on him to speak for her. The woman said that she knew what the apostles must have felt like, as they came to believe in the resurrection. They took up the work of Jesus, and he was with them to give them power.

I began this sermon with a question, and my writing teachers said you should never ask a question without providing an answer. What does faith in the resurrection mean? I’m not sure I have a complete answer. When I’m asked about faith, I often return to that story about Madeleine L’engle, who said, “I believe with lots of doubts.” Madeleine “I believe with lots of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” I’m not sure any of us will ever know the full answer, but, like Thomas, I can tell you what I have seen.

With Thomas, we can point to what we see. I see faith in the resurrection when an old Salvadoran woman raises her hand during a sermon. I see faith in the resurrection looks when public servants head to work each day to educate our kids and keep our streets safe. I see faith in the resurrecion when I walk with young people protesting in the streets, claiming their voices. I see faith in the resurrection looks when I join a bunch of true believers who show up for church on the Sunday AFTER Easter. Embrace the doubts. Keep the faith. Keep looking for the signs of resurrection. Just like Thomas, you’ll see them. Amen.

Easter Sermon: Life wins, quietly

There is a certain poetry today. Today, we get two resurrections, Jesus and baseball both come back to life on April 5th this year. We want Jesus’ resurrection to be big, like a Cardinals’ World Series. We want fireworks like when Yadi hits a home run at Busch Stadium. But what strikes me about the Easter Gospel this morning is the quiet.

We don’t do quiet on Easter Morning in The Episcopal Church. We shout Alleluia. We sing loudly “Jesus Christ is risen today!” The organ roars. The nickname of this parish after all is the Church of the Holy Commotion. We do it up. Easter today is a feast for the senses.

The first Easter was quiet. If we are to follow Mark’s Gospel, the first Easter began in the early morning. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome come to the tomb, walking through the slanting dawn light. “Who will roll away the stone?” they wonder aloud. They look up, and the stone is already rolled away. The tomb is empty. No trumpets. No fanfare. No shouts. Just the quiet confusion of bleary morning minds.

The Resurrection is a quiet event with cosmic consequences. Though in heaven the choirs of Angels may have been singing, down on earth all was quiet that morning. The savior who was born on a silent night now silently returns to life. But the Resurrection echoes through time and space.

I think the silence is good for us, necessary even. For me, the quiet of the Resurrection holds a great deal of hope. Quiet is hopeful for those of us looking for Christ in the twenty-first century. We live in a world with a lot of noise. Televisions and radios constantly blare. We hear so much bad news from the 24 hour networks, and we hear that news proclaimed loudly. In the supermarkets, as we check out, tabloids tell us the latest horrors of celebrity culture in bold bright block letters, 140 point font. Did you know George Clooney is getting a divorce? Even the text today is loud.

William Sloane Coffin, the great preacher of Riverside Church in New York, once preached on Easter day about the seemingly “Good Friday World.” We have a world that loudly, loudly proclaims bad news. We have a world that wants to sell us on fear and on division. We know that world well in St. Louis, especially this year. Our region has been the focus of so much media attention and, in case you didn’t notice the media seems to have a slant. Racism, institutional racism, violent racism, race riots they have torn us apart, they say. We live in a world divided. Our loud newsmedia would have us believe we live in a Good Friday world. The Good Friday news is loud.

Easter is quiet. Even in the midst of all of our noise, Christ quietly comes. The mighty weapons of the Roman empire, the political ambitions of Pilate, the articulate sermons from religious authorities, all of the power and violence of human social structures couldn’t keep Christ in the grave. Christ quietly overcame death. God wins quietly. Love wins quietly.

This is the proclamation of the Resurrection, this is the Good News of Easter: Life wins quietly. Yes, two thousand years ago, but also today. The good news, though quiet, is cosmic in importance, all encompassing. Love wins. Life wins. God wins. As Dr. King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It may not seem like it each day, but in the end God wins.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa put it another way. I think this prayer of Archbishop Tutu may be the best summary of Easter I know: Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. God knows, Desmond Tutu lived and worked in a time of Good Fridays. As a black man struggling against apartheid in South Africa, Tutu knew a lot of bad news. His words are all the stronger.

It is a quiet truth, but a cosmic truth. Goodness IS stronger than evil. Love IS stronger than hate. Life IS stronger than death. Goodness, Love, Life they tend to be quiet. Evil, Hate, Death, they tend to be loud. But in God’s math volume does not correlate with power. The good news is quiet, but the good news wins out. Easter invites us to see, that beneath all the noise, goodness, love, and life are winning, will win, have won.

I have two invitations for you this Easter. The first is to look for some quiet good news. One of my favorite Christian writers is a Roman Catholic Franciscan named Richard Rohr. I heard Richard speak in Oxford, England a few years ago, and he talked about an important realization he’d had. Richard lives in Albuquerque. If you’ve spent any time in Northen New Mexico, you know about the sunsets. Most every night the sky in that whole region turns improbable shades of red, orange, pink and violet. There in rainy Oxford, Richard talked about the evening he caught a glimpse of a particularly vivid sunset out the window as he was watching the evening news. “I realized” said Richard, “that I was missing an important cosmic event. I turned off the TV and walked outside.”

Where do you quietly notice God? In the the night sky? In a loved ones arms? In the smile of a neighbor? More often than not, I think God comes to us quietly.

I do wish God’s presence was louder sometimes. I want a God who breaks through with loud trumpets. I want clear revelations of God’s will. I want big showy miracles. But I get the sense that God is rarely loud, though his followers often behave otherwise.

That brings me to the second invitation. As the women leave the tomb, the young man in white asks them to tell the other disciples what they have seen. As an aside, I said the “other disciples” because I think you have to count the women among Jesus’ closest followers. After all, it is the women who first witness the Resurrection. The church discounts women at its peril. Trust me. The young man asks these three disciples to go, go and tell. God’s action is quiet, but God invites us to proclaim.

Our world needs some good news. Our world needs loud alleluias. Our world needs goodness, love, light and life. Our world doesn’t need any more Christians giving out bad news. We’ve got enough. But we do need some Good News Christians. Our world needs messengers on the lookout for goodness, love, light, and life.

I can tell you, from my limited experience, when I’ve gone to places that I’d heard were “bad news” places, when I’ve visited so-called “third world” countries, and when I’ve volunteered in the neighborhoods in our cities that face similar economic struggles, I’ve never failed to be surprised. We hear so much bad news about specific cities, specific neighborhoods. But I’ve never gone to one of those supposed “bad news” places and not been surprised by some good news. God is already at work in our world, everywhere. God invites us to find the quiet good news, and to amplify that good news.

The women, of course, don’t take up the angelic young man’s invitation. They hurry away quietly afraid. They don’t say anything. I think we all know something of that quiet fear. We want to appear confidant. We work to appear confidant, even bold, but we know that quiet anxiety. I think that’s what Isaiah is talking about when he speaks about the “shroud over the nations,” that quiet anxiety we all experience, I think Easter is directed exactly there, to our subconscious worry. I think the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection is aimed exactly at that quiet anxiety we all face sometimes.

One of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer is found in the back, in the section of prayers for everyday life, page 832. It’s called the Prayer for Quiet Confidence.

O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and

rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be

our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee,

to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou

art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That’s why we gather this morning, to return, to be quiet. That’s why, in a few minutes, in the prayer over the bread and the wine, we will be invited to “lift up our hearts.” Christ returns this Easter, in quietness, inviting us to lay down our anxieties. Easter invites us to take a break from the loud proclamations of bad news. Our world may seem like a Good Friday world, but quietly, it is Easter. Look for God in the quiet places. God will meet you there. Go, find the places in our world that need good news. You will meet God there. Let your hope come back to life this Easter, quietly.