Easter sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, April 21, 2019.
That’s a prayer we just sang, isn’t it?:
For the world we raise our voices, for the home that gives us birth;
in our joy we sing returning home to our bluegreen hills of earth.
I so love this season of slowly unfolding warmth and growth, the invitation to be in touch again with this good earth. Earlier this week, I was driving down the highway, and a little patch of grass caught my eye. Because it was green! Which it hasn’t been for a while! And the thought came to mind: “Just this, right now, is enough.”
The choir just sang, “Look at the world: so many joys and wonders, so many miracles along our way.” A line so beautiful and true that Lisa suggested we print it in the order of service. And isn’t that the invitation of this day, and this season? Look at the world. And look inside yourself. In addition to what is painful and broken and even what is dying, see that there’s more. That there is beauty and wonder and cause for joy. So many miracles, if we will only see them.
And that’s the challenge, right? That’s why we need Easter; to be reminded, to look up and to look out and to lift up our hearts. Mary Oliver wrote a few lines that speak to this need, they are also like a prayer:
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.
Some of you may be tired of this cool spring we have been having. Not me. I always hope for spring to unfold slowly. I prefer a two steps forward, one step back kind of spring to what we get some years: a headlong rush from freezing cold to full-blown summer. I want to savor spring, slowly.
But maybe I’m just slow. Like a turtle or something. And what about Easter? Do you ever think the swing from Good Friday to Easter Sunday can seem a bit dramatic? Like it could give you whiplash? Suffering, death, devastation. Sad. And then, Alleluia! He is risen! Joy!
Maybe it’s just me, but I can be like, “Whoa! What just happened?” I can be wary of good news that comes too fast. I worry that it can’t be true, and I’m only going to be disappointed later. Sometimes slow is good, and necessary. “… grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart.”
A few years ago, I was talking with my spiritual director about the resurrection, and she said, “I think the resurrection took longer than three days.””
I don’t know if she was thinking about the followers of Jesus, or her own experience and understanding. Maybe both. But this idea, that resurrection takes time, feels right to me. Kind of like a slowly unfolding spring. Kind of like the recovery you experience when you have reached rock bottom and you start the long, slow walk of sobriety. I don’t think you’re jumping for joy at the start, are you? Or like the path of grief, or coming back from loss, or betrayal. It takes time to find your way back to hope and joy. More than three days.
I think that must have been true for the disciples. The oldest version of the story, from Mark, ends with women finding the empty tomb, running away in terror and amazement. The followers of Jesus surely must have scattered after his death, fearing for their own lives. But they remembered what it was like when he was with them. They told stories, and sometimes, they sensed his presence in their midst.
Bible scholar Marcus Borg says we modern people can confuse resurrection with resuscitation, which is bringing someone back to life, who is eventually going to die again. If you pay attention to the stories, of the empty tomb and later the appearances of Jesus to his friends on a road, by the sea, in a room where they have gathered, they have a dream-like quality to them. “Don’t touch me, because I am going to be with God,” implies a different kind of presence.
Sometimes when the building is quiet around here, I see something, someone, out of the corner of my eye. I turn to look, and there’s no one there. Or so it seems. Have you ever had the sense that someone you knew, and loved, who has died, is somehow near you? Some of you have told me about these experiences. Which are certainly not that person come back to life, but there is something that you sense. And you tell me you are grateful for this presence, for this connection.
Something happened among those friends and followers of Jesus in the years after his death. They felt his spirit moving in their midst. They came to see the empty tomb as a powerful symbol of the fact that even death could not contain his spirit. And we can still sense that liberating and life-giving presence still moving among us; still “loose in the world,” as Marcus Borg put it.
This story has great power for me. I know it doesn’t for all of you. And the last thing I want to do is to try and convince you to embrace it, if it isn’t the path that calls to you. I love and appreciate our theological diversity. We need one another, our different perspectives and theologies.
And isn’t there something universal about Easter? Isn’t there within us a need and a longing to be in touch with the depths and mystery of life; with the shadows and with the light, with the sorrow and the joy? In a world that knows plenty about brokenness, death and loss, don’t we need to be reminded that is not the whole story?
This is my faith, and it is an Easter faith. And it is also our Universalist faith. That we are part of a great Love, that is stronger even that death. That in the end, Love wins. And this theology has real life implications, and consequences.
You remember the protests in Richmond, Virginia, almost two years ago, that started because of Civil War statues, and ended with one person, Heather Heyer, being killed by a white supremacist. Lots of people of faith were there, some of them people I know, facing down those Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and fearing for their own lives, because the other side was armed, and the police had retreated. But still, they stood there and they chanted, “Love has already won!” They proclaimed this positive theological statement, and they put their bodies on the line because of it: “Love has already won.”
In my prayer time on Friday, I was mindful of the hard and sad story that many people were remembering that day: Jesus’ trial and beating and execution, his slow and painful dying on the cross. And out of that silence, I heard these words: “It is going to be all right.” It felt like God’s voice, speaking to me. And then I had the thought, “Is this just my ego, trying to get out of the pain of Good Friday?” But this voice didn’t sound like the ego. And then I thought of Jesus, and wondered, “Did he hear this voice in his suffering? In the garden? At his trial? On the cross?” I hope so. I hope he heard God saying, “It is going to be all right.” And I hope that you can hear that too. This is the message of Easter: “Come what may, it is going to be all right. I am with you. And it is going to be all right.”
“Your great mistake,” the poet David Whyte says, “is to act the drama as if you were alone.” You know, it’s not good to go through life believing you have been abandoned, or that you are entirely self-sufficient.
…Surely, (the poet writes)
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice….
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
The invitation of this day and this season is to see that life is unfolding all around, is calling us and inviting us into deeper living and more active engagement with the earth and with the Spirit, with what is good and true and right. And to trust that there is no expiration date with this invitation—you have the time you need.
I don’t think Jesus was the only one. But he was one who helped people to feel alive and free, and that spirit, his spirit, is still moving in our midst. The invitation is to be open to that life-giving Spirit, and to join the chorus: Alleluia, he is risen! Alleluia, we are risen! To trust that everything is waiting, that anything is possible; to know, deep in our hearts, it is going to be all right.