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Yellow and Blue
It has been a long week. It has been a long old time religion winter. It has been a long year.
On April 15 I jogged in the morning, down along the river. A cold day. A sad day. A mournful day. A blue day, with the slight budding wind of a yellow dawn in early spring. By the Hatch Shell someone had beautifully placed a dozen boxes, along the path and along the river. In each flower box there were dozens of flowers, of only two types and colors. Daffodils. Yellow. Violets. Blue. Daffodils and violets, yellow and blue. In Boston, on Easter, this year of our Lord, 2014, we are right in those flower boxes. One part violet, on part daffodil, one part yellow, one part blue, on part singing the hymns of Easter, one part howling with the laments of loss.
In the last year, we have been a city drenched in sorrow.
Our good words about resilience, rightly spoken, as our honest reaction this year to neighborhood terrorism, do not displace our sorrow. The best of days, the highest of moments, the most charmingly gracious of cityscapes, the culmination of the American experiment in PatriotsDay-MarathonDay-SpringHoliday-BostonDay—all trashed a year ago by senseless, needless, heedless, injurious, intentional, hateful, killing violence. When another takes what you hold dear, count precious, think lovely, and rapes it, you cannot avoid anger, and the sorrow at the heart of anger. Now the angel of hurt has come near, here. Some of the sensitive in listener land wonder whether anything religiously cast, any preachment, can carry any truth, any good. We have become closely acquainted again with sin.
Sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin. The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may “need no repentance”. As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human). But if so, hear good news: the Easter gospel is for you!
Today is Easter. Sursum Corda!
The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Early in the morning, before dawn, two women—Matthew has no place for men at the tomb, except guards so fearful they are like dead—come on a religious errand to the sepulchre. They approach quietly, on tiptoe, for the air is quiet before the storm. They listen and watch…
And behold!…There is an earthquake and an Angel, a messenger of the Lord who descends from heaven, rolls the stone away—notice this—sits upon the stone. Like lightening and snow is he—like the lightening of Labor Day and like the snow of March 6 is he. We know about lightening and even more about snow. Dazzling white, fearsome power.
Why an angel? Why all the drama? Why such an appearance? Why the stone as a stool? Why the title, angel of the Lord?
An angel is a messenger. The drama means to get your attention. He sits—to teach. Remember Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—“he sat down and taught them”. In antiquity, a teacher sat to teach. His sitting is for our instruction. And he sits—where? On the stone of death. There it is, at Easter: an angel of the Lord, sitting to teach, atop the symbol of death. Death is a part of life. In Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting. Behold I tell you a mystery… Kata staupon…Crux sola…Que es la vida…Le Couer a sais…
Let us suspend our disbelief for a few minutes, and listen and learn from the voice of an angel, sent to teach us. For we trust—that life has meaning, that worship deepens meaning, that Scripture carries meaning, and that preaching applies meaning to our very hearts for our eternal health and wellbeing.
The Angel says, “Fear Not….”
I am a Christian because I see in Jesus Christ that God has tasted all that I will ever taste—all the way to death. Am I weary? So was he. Am I alone? So was he. Am I downcast? So was he. Am I betrayed? So was he. Am I rejected? So was he. Am I to die? So did he. Where I go, he has been. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18). He has become like us, that we might become like him. As Paul says, “he was put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25)
Be not afraid! In the hour post-mortem, we learn: Fear not.
You may be fixing breakfast, either a theist in doubt or an a-theist doubting your doubt.
You may have given first aid and first response last Marathon Monday, and now are in worship finding a way toward peace.
You may have sat in your car, last Tuesday at 2:49pm, silent, weeping, and carefully mentioning by name: Lu Lingzi, Martin Richards, Krystle Campbell, and Sean Collier.
You may have realized, as a young adult, as young adults do, walking the Esplanade yesterday, that you are not as self-aware, self-critical, self-disciplined as you should be, by now.
You may be new to your job, a responsible one at that, involving the safety of many others, rising to meet the day, and praying for an incident free tomorrow.
You may be a preacher giving his 35th Easter sermon, wondering what the judgment of them all will be.
You may be remembering a loved one who has died, and grieving that loss still, as the music subsides.
You may have been healed this winter, a long time healing in a long cold winter, warmed by the sunshine of Easter weekend.
You may be in the choir, glad for the beauty and conviviality and community of church and worship, but also convinced that none of it will last if based on shaky philosophical foundations, and you are right to be so convinced.
You may be in the balcony, ready to hear, by inspiration and grace, a saving word, a healing word, an intervening word, an angel voice.
You may remember that you have been radically accepted, as Paul Tillich would say, that you have this acceptance by the work of Christ, as Karl Barth would say, and that you have this through no good work at all of your own, as John Calvin would say. So share your faith!, John Wesley would say.
The Angel says, “He is not Here…”
Jesus’ absence is at the heart of Easter. The Gospel helps us see his absence, then and now.
Very few people are ever argued into faith, or out of faith. Persuasion does the former, sometimes. Tragedy does the latter, sometimes.
All of the Matthean touches are metaphorical: the wild earthquake, the stone miraculously moved, the guards made soporific, the clothing as bright as sunshine, the shining as white snow (the snow part is the part we get easily).
So too is the Angel Voice.
You and I do not hear such voices, normally at least.
In 1977 I sat as a seminarian with an elderly Presbyterian minister and a young first year student. The student said: “God spoke to me and said…God’s voice rang in my ears…God shouted at me…God whispered to me…The minister, aged and bespectacled and white haired and hard of hearing, said: “I have been in ministry for 50 years. God has never, no not once, not ever spoken to me.” Well, after 35 years, I am with him. God has not ever spoken to me. Angel Voice is a figure of speaking, metaphorical not literal. For Matthew. For that Presbyterian minister. For me. For you. For you all. It is a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. BUT IT HAS POWERFUL MEANING NONETHELESS.
Angel voice reverberates, resounds, rolls, undulates, crashes, sings, calls, shouts—‘He is not here’.
Like the ocean rolling at night, ebb and flow, tide and surf, wave and beach, the ocean rolling at night, a natural Angel Voice. We sense behind the phenomena, the numinous. Howard Thurman: ‘the ocean and the night…’ Angel voice beckons you from the shoreline of the world, roaring with the wild beauty of the untamed universe.
Like the still, small voice of your conscience. You have in your heart, in your mind, in your soul, in your self a kind of inner voice, which in its own way rolls in and out like a wave on the ocean. Or, it is like the ‘ping’ in a message box, echoing, lost, ringing from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Angel voice. ‘Not sure you really want to do that…’ ‘Not sure you really should have said that…’ Not sure you really do think that…’ You could help her… You could encourage him…You could think about that another way. Angel voice beckons you from that inner voice, the singing solo of your own-most self.
Like the heart felt longing, feeling, careening, caring of love. You can feel the love of those who lost limbs or senses or loved ones last year. You really reach out in love to them, and to others in hurt, tragedy, need. The Bible says: no one has ever seen God. The Bible says: if we love one another, God’s love abides in us. The Bible says: God is Love. The Bible says: Love is God.
At age 8 or so, from our little village in farm country, I had never traveled to a MLB game. But once a summer in Cooperstown the two worst MLB teams played an exhibition. I do not remember the second team. But you know, in the early 60’s, who the first team was: the Mets. My dad and his clergy friend Bruce took me. Bruce was the first Boston voice I remember: a BU graduate, a Sox fan, pork and beans and Saturday evening, he did not drop his r’s. Those two Methodist preachers had very little spare money or time, but they found a way to give a happy day to a boy who would not leave early, even though the Mets were down by at least 20 runs (J). On the way home, in the evening, though I had been warned not to do so, I lifted my new cap out the window into the breeze: off it went, in the wind, across the road, down the embankment, and into the Cherry Valley Creek (where in 1910 my grandmother had been baptized.) “It’s not fa’ down. Yo fatha and I can get it.” Every loving word, deed, act, prayer, every one has a lasting influence, lasting fifty years and more. Is it any wonder, so raised, but such, that I went into their ministry, served churches along the Cherry Valley, preached as a Methodist itinerant, and ended up, where they started out, here in Boston?
‘He is not here’. Angel voice in creation and in conscience and in compassion tells us so.
The Angel says, “He Has Risen”
Easter is a mystery, a resurrection mystery. The old creed can display its meaning for what we believe.
In God, Maker of heaven and earth. God creates the world, known to us in all its brute fallenness, its sin and death and threat of meaninglessness. This is the all the creed says about the world, life, creation. Here it is, all things visible—earth—and invisible—heaven, created from nothing by God.
In the Son of God, Jesus, in life
Conceived in the joyful explosive passionate spirited love of all conception
Born as in all birth of a woman whose self giving in delivery is utterly virginal
Suffering as all do under structured oppression, from Pilate to Putin and beyond
Crucified, dead buried, shuffling off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns
Raised from the dead, sitting on the right hand of God to judge the living and dead, all visible and invisible, a sound, solid but utterly incomprehensible mystery by which death is swallowed up in victory.
In the very Spirit of God
Which we taste in the global church
Which we enjoy in the fellowship and goodness of friendship
Which we hold for dear life, like those capsized at sea, in the saving life preserver of forgiveness
Which we trust for the renewal of the church, the body so resurrected daily
Which we leap into at last, at death, trusting that life everlasting is the last word.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
Salvation is about space, about openness! “In my father’s house there are many rooms..” “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgression…” We used to sing: “Give me land, lots of land, ‘neath the starry skies above—don’t fence me in! Salvation is about space.
Jesus goes to Galilee—the place of difference, of the unreligious. Go quickly and tell his disciples…
The angel voice speaks to you:
Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20
Whether your mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony
Whether your favorite film is Casablanca or Easy Rider or Ferris Buehler
Whether the day that lives in infamy is December 7 or November 22 or September 11
Whether bridge means River Quai or Chappaquidick or Nowhere
Whether your trumpeter is Armstrong or Jarrett or Marsalis
Whether that poster is of Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch or Madonna
Whether you fought anti Semitism or racism or homophobia
Whether your best baseball card is of Ted Williams or Karl Yastremski or Big Papi
Whether your medium is radio or television or the internent
Whether you read Ernest Hemingway or Lionel Trilling or David Foster Wallace
Whether you shout Airborne! or Right On! or Whatever!
Whether your default mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony
Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20
Angel voice speaks still…
Dag Hammarskjold: ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’
My friend is a member or the American College of Cardiology. They have instituted a new conclusion to all of their continuing education units, which he, rightly, thinks should also conclude every worship service. In short, the doctors are asked before they leave: “How will what you have learned at this conference change the way your practice? What will you do differently than you did before?
He adds: I long to hear this coda, or something like it, in every sermon, every Sunday: ‘Friends and fellow disciples of the living Christ, what will you now do differently as a result of your participation here this morning? What deeds of the body will you begin today to put to death by the Spirit, and what fruits of the Spirit will you now cultivate, harvest and distribute? What life giving, life sustaining, life affirming practices and habits will you today begin to establish. Make them specific, personal, demanding, actionable, measurable. What will be your actions and metrics? Please join us! (Dr. Larry Gage, Rochester, NY).
Through it all rings the Resurrection Hope, and an angel voice:
He is not here
He has risen
Whether you are enchanted by sincerity, or enchanted by authenticity or enchanted by irony—whether you are 80 or 50 or 20—Angel Voice speaks for and to you.
Big steps are better than small steps. Small steps are better than no steps. No steps are better than backward steps.
‘Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail.’ (Macbeth)
‘And go to church on Sunday.’ (Billy Graham).
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel