Signs of Life

Easter sermon given by Rev, Frank Clarkson, April 1, 2018

We just heard the end of Mark’s gospel, the story of that first Easter morning, when those friends of Jesus, the women grieving his death, go to the tomb and find it empty. Here now is a second reading for Easter, from a contemporary source. It’s from psychologist Miriam Greenspan, writing about her child Aaron, who was born with a brain injury from lack of oxygen. He never left Children’s Hospital in Boston, and died two months after he was born. Hear now his mother’s words about the December day she buried her baby:

“At the cemetery, we lowered his small casket int the cold ground and took turns shoveling earth over it, as is the custom in Jewish burials. We sang to Aaron the songs we’d made up for him while he was alive and that we recorded for him to hear when we weren’t with him. Then, softly, as though spoken in my ear, I heard these words: You are looking in the wrong place.

My attention turned then, from the casket in the ground to the cloudless blue sky. And I saw there what I can only describe as a magnificent radiance—the light of Aaron’s blue eyes, magnified and shining through the heavens. The communication was clearer than speech. It was Aaron, reassuring me. He was saying, Don’t worry about me. I am all right. I was flooded with peace and remembered the phrase, “the peace that passes understanding.” I was awash in the pure joy of Aaron’s presence. These were the eyes of my child, my firstborn… In the most unlikely place, where my child’s body was laid to rest, I discovered the invincibility of spirit.”

Standing at the grave of her baby, Miriam Greenspan heard the words, “You are looking in the wrong place.” In Luke’s version of the Easter story, those arriving at the empty tomb are asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here…” (Luke 24:5-6). In both cases, things are not as they appear. There’s more going on than meets the eye.

It’s Easter, and I wonder, do you have a resurrection story? I think you know something about brokenness, pain, and loss. But what about new life? Have you been able to sense it emerging, when you least expected it? Maybe you’re still waiting. Maybe you’ve been waiting so long that you’ve given up hope. Maybe it seems too risky to hope, so you’re hardened your heart against the possibility. And yet, here you are, here we are.

Let’s tell the truth, that the walk to Easter, the way of transformation, from brokenness to healing and wholeness, is a journey through the dark night, through the valley of the shadow of death. You don’t get resurrection without death. And resurrection is not the same as resuscitation, bringing a body back to life. Though she sensed his spirit, Miriam Greenspan’s son Aaron was still dead. Those women at the empty tomb didn’t find the Jesus they knew come back to life; just a promise that his spirit would be with them, that they might still feel him near.

Resurrection is a mystery, a transformation, an unexpected grace. A bishop was once asked, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” And he responded, “I’ve seen it too many times not to believe.” Easter asks us to see and affirm that death is not the end of the story. In a world that knows too much of death, Easter tell us to be seeking and expecting signs of life.

You may be thinking, “It’s too much to hope for.” Or that it’s too quick, this pivot from Good Friday to Easter. It can feel that way to me, the same way I hope that spring will come on slowly. It takes time to live into the good news we proclaim on Easter, the age-old proclamation that “Christ is Risen!” From death to resurrection in three days can seem too fast. But today is just the beginning; the invitation is to live into this expansive understanding that death does not have the last word. 

And if you are one who says, “It’s too much to hope,” I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you need us, to hold hope for you for a while. Please trust that hope will return. Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” The morning may take a long time to come, but it will come. 

The story we tell this morning is the central story of the Christian tradition. But the church, and church people, have often focused more on the death and suffering part than on the resurrection. Maybe it’s easier to stay walled up in the tomb. To keep your expectations low, where at least you won’t be disappointed. But that is to deny the good news, the promise hat death is not the end of the story, but rather, the beginning.

And isn’t this a universal story? Miriam Greenspan’s experience with her son Aaron, isn’t that also a resurrection story? She would tell you that she was the least likely person to have such an experience. “I was a secular humanist and a social activist,” she writes, “not a spiritual seeker or a true believer.” And yet, when her heart was broken open by the suffering and death of her firstborn, she got to see that death is not the end. That we are part of something larger, and more beautiful. 

The song that James sang this morning, “Oh Freedom,” isn't it a resurrection song? “And before I'd be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” It’s asserts the hard-won faith, born out of struggle and suffering, that death is not the worst thing, and is not the end. This is our faith: life calls us on.

It is a privilege for me to lead memorial services and companion grieving families, and at the same time, I’m mindful that the real work of grieving is theirs. But this Lent, and this last month when we have been traveling this way of brokenness, this journey through the dark night, I have felt the weight of death and loss, of endings, disappointments, betrayals. Those of you who were here on Good Friday heard this plainly in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days. And this is part of being human.

A week ago I was leading a memorial service here, and all of a sudden, I saw a beautiful baby’s head bobbing up and down above the older faces in the pews. His mom was lifting him up and down, and the sight of that bouncy little four month-old was a balm to my soul, a reminder of the new life in our midst.

I am ready for Easter’s invitation to turn toward the light. I have had enough of death—I want to simply sit under a blue sky, to let the sun shine on my face, to hear the songs of birds as they flit around, anticipating spring and nest building and baby birds hatching. I want and need to just be in that state of grace, that place of small blessings, that little melting of pain and sadness, that little resurrection of turning again, back toward life and love and wings.

Last Sunday at coffee hour, Judy Allen asked me, “Have you ever preached a sermon about letting go? About the letting go that you have to do as you get older?” Reflecting on her question, I realized, isn’t this the invitation of Easter, and of our lives? To acknowledge when something has ended, to grieve that loss, to learn to let it go, so you can turn back toward life. This is practicing resurrection.

This is the invitation of these days, and it is our calling: to be Easter people. To be looking for signs of life, to be seeking resurrection where we can, in the midst and mess of our days, in this beautiful and broken world. To be intentional and deliberate about this, believing and trusting that if we seek, we will find, trusting that Love does abide.

The Universalist minister David Bumbaugh says that our church “is dedicated to the proposition that beneath all our diversity, behind all our differences, there is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.”

Let us pray that we will be be ever open to these holy mysteries; in touch with the ways the Spirit is moving in our midst. Trusting that we are part of a great Love, that will never let us go. Affirming that we are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!