The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed.
Let us ask ourselves how we shall live with these mysterious tidings.
St Mark famously concludes with either an open or a lost ending, either an intentionally ambiguous ending or a lost fragment from the end of a codex. Either way, we face the Gospel challenge: how shall we live with these wondrous tidings? Either way, we pick up where Mark leaves off…
Scientists: Do they kindle in us a sense of enchantment? Historians: Will they firm up in us the freedom to escape? Philosophers: Could they require of us a respect for eternity?
Is there awaiting us a resurrection from the dead which brings real learning and virtue and piety?
Thirty years ago today, at 6am, our parsonage phone rang, an odd sound in the Easter dawn. I was already somewhat awake. The sermon I had hoped to finish the night before lay in jumbled bits on the dining room table. I was counting on finishing the job early in the morning. But the morning had thoughts of its own. This is why we do not advise students to leave the sermon to the last minute.
Over the phone line I could hear a light sobbing. In our North Country village, it was not common or considered good form to use a formal greeting, such as, ‘Hello, this is Marion’. It was assumed that one would know from the sound of the voice who was calling. If you did not, you were clearly ‘from away’, and would be sensed to be an outsider until such time as you did recognize, without formal introduction, the voice and so the personhood of the caller. This expectation carries to this day, so that, when our dear friends from south of Montreal call and say ‘How are you?’ we are to know who it is who asks. In the main, we do.
This Easter sunrise sobbing did have no familiar hold to it, so, in the first of several failures that day I had to ask who was calling. From under the muffled sadness, a name arose. I will use the name Marion. Marion was calling because she and her husband, a nearby farmer and a dear friend, were at odds. 6am is not early, by the way, when milking starts at 4am. The distance from the farm kitchen to the barn, a visible path by sight connecting sink to milking parlor, is not great, in this case thirty feet. But when there is acrimony that 30 feet, given the daily closeness and interdependence of a bustling farm, might as well be the circumference of the earth.
With this young couple and family we had shared many utterly joyous meals, and some of the finest food ever consumed. In the autumn, just before dessert, we and our two little children left the dinner table with the farmer and family to help a calf into the world. Then back to the ice cream and mince pie. Here we had found real friends, in a winter world at 40 degrees below Fahrenheit zero. In this home our children had stayed while we spent time in the city, and here they would return many years later to learn to work in the barn in haying season. I can taste the roast, smell the coffee, feel the warmth, hear the cattle lowing, and see the path from barn to kitchen, right now, as if it were last week.
But there was a breach, a break, something gone wrong, and badly enough to ask a friend for help. When we went north, the District Superintendent said, ‘They may pound on you a little to see if you are for real”. They did. But once they did, and once they trusted, they trusted in full. A place and a time when a relationship of trust could the bear the weight of an expression of need.
With the sermon lying in tatters, I went down the road two miles, and past the kitchen and into the barn. The appearance of the minister on Easter morning, in the barn, is a recognition or sign that something is ajar. John eyed me with that realization, and we had I think a good talk. It seemed like a moment of reflection and honest hashing out of some not very uncommon marital difference, at least for the moment, worked out. Into the sunlight I went, with a wave toward the kitchen window. On the radio I could hear in the barn Louis Armstrong, his unique voice, and a simple tune, its unique melody, saying in full what I felt that Easter: I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Our assignment included two churches, the one with the farm family and others and our parsonage just mentioned, and the one ten miles away, ‘the out appointment’. You know where you stand in the scheme of things when you are the ‘out appointment’. I hustled back to pick up the sermon scraps, get dressed, and pile us into the car. I had the great good fortune to have married a certified and excellent organist and choir director, who, two little one in tow, ran the music in both churches. That was the good news. The other news was that her dad, with a PhD on Paul Tillich from Iliff, was an excellent preacher, all his life. She new from music, and she also knew from sermons. Driving from the ‘out appointment’ back home, she said, ‘Was that an Easter sermon?’ The rest of the ride I remember as remarkably quiet.
Now the second Easter service in the bigger church was starting, and I needed somebody to come and talk to me about my marriage. No one did. I looked in vain across the congregation, hoping to see the young farm couple, but they were not there. I began to collect my sorry self and sorrier sermon, as we sang ‘In the Garden’. I offered the prayer and began the questionable homily. Then they came in, and sat, as you have to when you come late on Easter, right down front. Somewhere in the course of the non Easter, Easter sermon, I noticed something. His hand just slid over a bit, and sat on top of hers, his left hand on her right, and a holding clasp.
All the hymns of Easter, all the lilies of resurrection Sunday, all the bonnets and suits and parading joys of the end of Lent in all the rest of these thirty years, all the anthems and all the celebrations cannot eclipse the enchantment of a healing, a reconciliation, a hand clasp, in small country church, a long time ago. A wonderful world, a world of enchantment. Over dinner, Jan said, well the second went a little better.
M Robinson wrote a bit ago, of her experience in church as a child, Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded, for all that opaque as figures of angels painted on gold. (DOA, 228)
Up from the dead can also refer to escape from prison. In fact, in the long history of Christian faith, inspired by the Word of faith, a sense of liberation, of freedom, of freeing, of escape has been paramount. Easter morning brings an escape hatch, a map to freedom, a key for the jail cell.
It can happen to individuals, all of us sharing as we do some experience of entrapment. ‘In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all’.
Now with some advantage of reflection, and a few years on which to reflect, I can see by memory, by the mind’s eye, women and men and communities for whom Easter has meant escape. I wonder if it will be so for you this Easter morning?
Here is a woman whose husband was working but drinking, drinking too much. Spring came and she confronted him. He looked for help in the church, and found escape from addiction. You will find AA groups quite near here, Monday to Friday.
Here is middle aged fellow who had his heart set on a certain job, which he did not get, not even close. Holy Week, with its recognition of change and failure and loss, connected to him. He came to church on Easter and heard something. He was liberated, freed from a false hope. He set his sights on other jobs, and found one.
Here is woman who has done something for which she is ashamed, unhappy, guilt ridden. Whether she should have felt any of that is another issue. She did. A stone moved away from a grave, and an empty tomb presided over by angels in white, these images said something to her, down deep. She went home feeling better, and cut herself some slack.
Here is a young person who is pretty sure he has disappointed his parents. College can instill a lengthened adolescence. In the lilies, trumpets, hymns and words of Easter something jars loose for him. So what? I will honor my parents, but with the long life that gives me, I will live my life, not my version of what I think they think my life should be.
But you have to lift the escape hatch. My friend had an office mate who hated his lunch. Every day when noon came he opened his bag and said, ‘Oh, this again. Awful. What a terrible lunch.’ My friend sympathized and then asked one noonday: ‘Who makes your lunch?’ And the reply: ‘Oh, I make my own lunch’.
Christ unhelled Hell, and said Margaret Fuller: ‘each should fulfill her own peculiar secret on her own’. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee!
It can also happen to groups.
18 to 23 year olds, according to C. Smith of Notre Dame, lack any capacity for moral discernment, are steadily drunk or drugged, practice amoral sexuality, are severely materialistic and greedy, and with only 4% excepted are entirely apathetic about the hurts and lives of others. To all these issues, argues he, with a shoulder shrug, emerging young adults respond, ‘Whatever’. But you know, a problem identified is a problem soon solved. There is an escape route away from the kind of narcissism, the kind of selfishness that easily entraps many of any age. That route lies through a daily response, a daily set of responses. Practice in ethical discussion: intentional moderation, temperance in use of spirits, a spiritual use of spirits if you will: a recollection that the body is the temple of the Lord: some experience in the joy of giving: daily practice at listening, connecting with the needs of others. Of course I think this is what happens, in the main, on every Sunday morning. Easter opens the prison house door. We can learn not always to ‘reply all’.
As M Robinson recently put it: Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethic or a morality (DOA, 71)…The banishment of the word ‘liberal’ was simultaneous with the collapse of liberalism itself. (DOA, 260).
We are getting a taste for preemption in our country, you might notice. Yet nagging at our conscience, at our memory and judgment both, is a sense that attacking others who have not attacked you cannot be lastingly good, nor good judgment. We can change. You do not have to be a pacifist to insist that your country, your government not throw the first punch. We can learn together to save our resources, bank our cash, and look for a more peaceful future. Love is for the wise.
We can strive for a better life, world, and society. Adrienne Rich looked for the creation of a society without domination. We can too. Marx said ‘History moves with iron necessity toward inevitable results.’ But you don’t believe that, nor do I. There is at least as much historical evidence for freedom as there is for necessity. We may need move away from sensation and closer to reflection, to sit quietly with Pascal in his solitary room, and think about the wagers we are making… We can park our car and care for our planet.
Recently Elaine Pagels, known mostly for her scholarship with regard to Gnosticism and the New Testament, spoke about stopping for a moment in the vestibule of a church at worship, and realizing that “here is a family that knows how to face death” (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 3). Honest lament and faithful thanksgiving are both parts of facing the uncertain present in light of God’s future.
Can we recall what we affirmed last week?
To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.
Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”.
In the Chapellear Drama center at Ohio Wesleyan University, on which stage our daughter and future son in law met and fell in love, there are several photographs of plays past. One is from the opening of the center, in 1972, with Shakespeare, of course, The Tempest. Others show our daughter and her husband, in the 1990’s, with the leads in Sweeney Todd, Once Upon A Mattress, Skylight, the Adding Machine, Antigone, Galileo Galilei. There are also nameplates for alumni of the theater department, going back into the history of the school, nearly to its founding in 1842, making it the oldest incorporated Methodist school in the country. I’m just sayin…
It turns out that many future physicians, scholars, lawyers, and others began as thespians. I stood one evening under the nameplate of one such, Ralph Sockman. Sockman preached for decades at Christ Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC. I sometimes pull down one book or another of his sermons, and I sit back and I read and I smile. They are lastingly good, eternally so one might say. And, I feel a certain responsibility to support my fellow OWU alumnus, now that he is long dead and largely forgotten, outside of the small circle of devotees to a certain kind of Methodist preaching, at its zenith, nadir and apex.
I tried to hold my children’s attention, that evening, under the nameplate of Sockman, to some little avail. He tried to give people a ‘lift for living’ this life, by reference to an eternal horizon: help in time by way of reference to eternity. They are long, carefully braided sermons, polished and refined. He spoke though from memory, I am told, without notes, as the British say, ‘ingenious, pithy, and without book’. He wore a morning coat, I am told, and looped his index finger under the vest button, beside his watch chain, and in that posture he preached. With beauty.
This winter, one of the few cold late afternoons, I fetched one of his old now out of print volumes. Whence the book? I have no idea. My office over the years has become a last resting place for clergy preaching gowns, old Bibles, various home communion travel kits, and, as in this case, the overflow and unneeded spillage of clergy books. Someone left it off. We have a saying in the itinerant ministry, a way of describing somebody who has done what he could in one setting and is waiting for another appointment: he is packing his books. Anyway, I read through some of the sermons, and then turned to the last in the collection.
Sockman was preaching about eternity. It read like a valediction, like maybe the last sermon he gave in some setting, or the last in a year’s efforts, or, maybe, the last of his life. It raises a good question. What would you say if you knew this were your last—sermon, letter, conversation, book, paper, speech? My fellow Battling Bishop, graduate that is of OWU, in four moments, gave his thoughts about heaven. You may have heard BU’s magnificent rendering of Rachmaninoff’s favorite work, The Bells, also in four parts: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, tolling bells. Sockman’s last will and testament rang with those sounds. I give you his symphony, his four bells ringing out a lasting trust in eternity.
Sockman said he had an intuition, a sense of heaven, based on integrity, in four octaves. He believed in the integrity of personality. So do I. He believed in the integrity of creation. So do I. He believed in the integrity of Jesus Christ. So do I. He believed in the integrity of his own intimations. So do I. You can hear him at his best in a single sentence: The larger the body of knowledge we survey, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it. The larger the body of knowledge we survey, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it. Mystery increases with knowledge, and so, at least possibly, piety with learning, faith with understanding, spirit with mind, and love with education. The more we know the more we do not know.
I ask you something, especially if you are drawn to faith but not yet convinced. Can you appreciate the difference between absence and evidence? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The thing about faith is that there is always a leap involved.
When I see a newborn child I feel eternity. When a couple takes and gives their vows in marriage, I hear the bells of eternity. When I think about how much I would give to see my Dad again, I think of eternity. When I hear St. Paul place this life in the context of another life, I yearn for eternity. When I observe tragedy that has no earthly recompense, and so to have any at all would depend on heaven, I long for eternity. When I worship on Sunday at Marsh Chapel, I sense eternity.
As m Robinson recently put it: Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world (DOA, 84).
“All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” – Thornton Wilder, Our Town
As many of you know, Dad nearly died in September of 2008. We had two extra years with him before he died in 2010. In November of 2008, as he recuperated, I saw him one morning learning to walk all over again, with my mother every present and loving alongside. It was a miraculous sight, as was the rest of his healing. He told us in those days about a vision or dream he had had, in the coma. I share it with you to close, not as evidence of eternity, for heaven neither needs nor admits of evidence from us, but rather as evidence of a longing for eternity, and so a comfort and an encouragement. He said that in the hours near death he saw a kind of light, shining through what he described as a lattice work. “Behind and around me I could hear voices”, he said.
Do you remember what we said last week?
If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
If we believe that divine love lasts
If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
If we believe that God has loved us personally
If we believe in God
Then we shall all trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
Psalm 46 will carry us home: God is our refuge and strength…
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel