In Thy Light We See Light

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Luke 24:1-12

Frontispiece

The Lord is Risen!  Indeed.

In thy light, we see light, confesses the church of Christ.  In thy light we see light…in Wonder…Weakness…Whimsy. “In lumine tuo videbimus lumen.”

Joanna, otherwise a stranger to us, has been included, in Luke, in the group of women who religiously approach the tomb.  She is a newcomer. You may be too. You may be leaning toward, even longing for, a first encounter in faith. Good.  In the main, this service, in the main every sermon, is mainly meant for you.

Joanna, and others. You. You are here on Easter.  Something, some lingering memory of a lingering memory, has brought you along. Ordinary, regular religious practice—ask Joanna—can sometimes, suddenly, surprisingly, bring illumination.   Our preaching, here, is in part for those who are in between. Not religious enough to come to church every Sunday, but religious enough to listen.  Still within earshot. A paper, a bagel, a to enter a bit of religious practice from afar, by radio, by i-pod, by internet, by computer. Come Easter, many have come here. Not preaching to the choir—at least not ONLY to the choir! The beauty of the Marsh pulpit: not preaching to the choir, but to the driver, the bagel muncher, the i-pod user on a bicycle, the ecclesiastical expatriate, the atheist, the one harmed by the church, the musician attuned—seemingly—only to the music, the academic, the lonely at home.

Our festival today affirms that religious practice, affirms your choice to be hear, to listen in, and affirms that the detailed discipline of attention to the sacred, can be showered with light.  They are keeping the Sabbath by waiting until the first day of the week. They are keeping tradition by anointing the body, with materials earlier prepared. They are keeping faith by facing death.  By visiting the tomb, the flesh, the corpse. Habits lead us forward. At early dawn. Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. At the tomb.

Jan and I have grave plots in the local cemetery of Eaton, NY.  Where is Eaton? Exactly. It is nowhere. We bought them for $400 each, which is a real estate bargain.  Especially when you amortize the amount over eternity! All need to plan ahead, one way or another. In addition to burial or equivalent, you will want to employ the Robert Allan Hill planning for post-retirement system:  OOPS. O O P S. My mom always remembers the OOPS but then asks, what do they stand for? Order of worship. Obituary. Photo. Special papers (DNR, will).

Over the Hill from the fancy Hill post-retirement real estate there is a little town, Oriskany Falls, dating, like the graves in Eaton, from just after the American Revolution.  Our friend’s dad, Russell Clark, a Colgate and BU graduate, loved life as a pastor there. One winter a farmer, his lay leader died, and the widow was not in church for a long time.  The pastor tried to console and help, but she didn’t want company. Grief is a slippery dragon. If I had another two lifetimes I would spend half of one really studying, trying to understand grief.  It is a dark stranger, an opaque mystery, individual to each. For Russell’s Oriskany Falls widow it was too. Then one day she called to say that she would like a pastoral visit. She told him something, when he asked how she was doing.  She began: Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev.  (You know you are already in trouble with that prelude.)  It has been so unutterably hard for me.  There were days when I could not get out of bed.  But I did. And do know why? It wasn’t the resurrection sermons I have heard. No.  What got me going, got me out of bed was…the chickens. Every morning at dawn they would fuss, and rustle around and cluck, waiting to be fed.  They were hungry and they needed feeding. So I got up and put on my robe and went out and fed them. By then the sun was up, by then the mist was lifted, by then I was awake, and by then I could stand the thought of breakfast, and after that, well the day opened up.  So don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. (you know you are in trouble when…), don’t take this the wrong way, but the clucking of those hens meant more to me in my grief than all the hymns of Easter.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

You see?  The rhythms of life, evening and morning one day, detailed disciplined attention to the routine can by grace admit illumination, the light in which we see light.  Including religious practice. Joanna, the newcomer, found it so. So can you, especially if you on Easter are a newcomer, looking for a first helping, an initial course in faith, a church family to love and church home to enjoy.  Particularly in grief. It is one thing to attend to religious practice, and another to do so, to visit the body, when you have loved the person. As some of you have done so this year.

These daily rhythms, in Easter fact, do in fact matter, a great deal. They matter in life, and they matter all year long, too.   Our Gospel this year, Luke 24: 1-12, follows on Luke’s keen interest in history—Roman history, Palestinian history, church history—by following the women to the tomb.  They are going about their regular rhythms, in the hour of death. They are finding ritual hand holds as they walk the dark path, the pre-dawn path, of grief. In grief, they stick to their regular routines.

And along they come, toward us, along the practice road. Your bit of religious practice has brought you out into the light.  How so? Just what are we doing here? Joanna and the women, moving at dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, attending to the routine practices of the day, may teach us.    

Teach us what? What do we see illumined by the light in which see light?

 

Wonder

 

In thy light we see…wonder.

They might affirm what we find all around us, when we pause.  At dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, they find joy, order, humor, hope, virtue, beauty, music.  

There is the sweet scent of a newborn child, silent in the arm.  

There is the orderly happiness of that rarest of arts, a well-written email.  

There is touch of humor.

There is a calm.  Drop thy still dews of quietness ‘til all our strivings cease.  Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess, the beauty of thy peace.

There is the native hue of resolution behind hope.

There is the patterned simplicity of a well lived life.

There is the beauty of dawn or sunset or both.  There is music, beautiful music, invisible beauty, the ringing beauty of music.  

There are hints and allegations and forms of presence.  You cannot be fully alive, humanly speaking, and miss them.  Wonder.

Joanna teaches us:  The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Or was that GK Chesterton?

Joanna teaches us: Philosophy begins in wonder. Or was that the founder of Boston Personalism, Borden Parker Bowne?

Joanna teaches us (trigger warning for academics here):   The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it.  The larger the lake of learning, the longer the lakeshore of mystery that surrounds it.  Or was that Ralph Sockman?

Joanna teaches us: I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.  Or was that e. e. cummings?

Joanna teaches us:  Just what are you going to do with your one beautiful life? Or was that Mary Oliver?

You listen to a child singing alone just before falling to sleep, and tell me you sense no enchantment?  

You watch a 9-year old, ball glove on, striding toward Fenway park, other hand in his Dad’s other hand, and tell me you sense no amazement?  

You see Lake Lucille.  You look down from the Matterhorn.  You walk in mid- December through a jewelry store.  And no wonder?

You come into a barn at dawn, with the milking in gear, and Louis Armstrong on the radio.  You watch a daughter caring for her father in the last month of life.  You hear the hymns of Easter.  And tell me you sense no enchantment? No wonder? No “thaumadzon”?

In thy light we see wonder.  Joanna schools us about wonder.

Weakness

In thy light we see…weakness, too. Easter, inside the tomb, our frailty, our mortality, our fallibility is all too clear, well illumined you might say.

Twenty years ago, a good friend and I were competing for a position, which he ended up winning.  But so often the things we think we really want, don’t turn out to be that desirable. This winter, strangely, so quietly that I almost missed it, he said, of that job, I wish there were do-overs in life. On that one, I wish I had a do-over chance with that one.  It was a gracious, Easter, moment.  You know, sometimes, we get things wrong.  We err. You learn most, if you will let yourself, from mistakes.  

Inside the tomb, you see, in the shadow, as you see, there is much bowing and perplexity. Luke is accused sometimes of a lighter cross, that is, of seeing the cross as a human mistake, a rueful misjudgment on the part of his contemporaries, rather than the great Pauline cross of divine justice, righteousness, atonement and redemption.  Well, what of it? Let’s let Luke have his say: surely this man was innocent. (Remember Good Friday?)  A miscarriage of justice. Surely the cross is not less than that, whatever more it may be.  Luke tends to love the human side of things. So, Luke is more Methodist than Presbyterian, more Wesleyan than Calvinist.  He loves history, theology, the poor, and the church.

Most notably, we may humbly mention, the last sentence was not included in the RSV text, and would not have been read just a few years ago.  It (vs 12) is attached here, but only with cautions, for in truth it is probably a later addition. Added? Yes, added. Added to include Peter.  Added?  Yes, added.  Added to fit with what will come later near Emmaus.  Added? Yes, added. Added to record Peter’s ‘amazement’, which a few years ago was better translated ‘wondering’, which word has a tinge of perplexity, bewilderment, and uncertainty.

There is an admitted weakness, a humility, a vulnerability about Peter in the Gospels that does not always appear in the life of the church. Peter, in the Bible, is more humble than his church, in history.  Peter, come lately, at least scurries, at least sees, at least shows some humility before what in any case is beyond us. Come Easter, we may meditate on the importance, the propriety, of humility before what in any case is beyond us.

The natural horror of earthquake.  The historical tragedy of warfare. The social failure of poverty.  The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. Wonder comes along with a full measure of our weakness.  There is no avoiding or evading, and, worse, no explaining. As Ivan Karamazov tellingly put it, even one, just one suffering innocent defies explanation or defense.   Ours will be a muted, a humble, wonder, won by living through more than by thinking through.

 It is strange.  Some of the strongest people, the most radiant and generous, are often those who know weakness, who are living ‘after’ and ‘over against’ and ‘nonetheless’, and ‘in spite of’.   I knew ‘David’ for several years, admiring and enjoying his radiant generosity, his love for his family, before over lunch I learned his early loss of his first wife.  Emile Fackenheim, Canadian Jewish philosopher, said of his faith practice, post holocaust, that he lived so in order to deny Hitler any posthumous victory.  

In thy light we see weakness.  Joanna schools us about our weakness.

Whimsy

In thy light we see…whimsy, too.

 

The Gospel of Luke later makes a telling point: ‘he showed himself to those who loved him’.  Those who hear and receive the abandon, the self-abandon of faith, ‘see’ Him. Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly, like the angels. Not by historical inquiry, but by participation is the gospel known (Tillich).  By routine, by regular practice of faith in worship and learning and service.

Whimsy.   God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. Freedom means this: Reality is the arena of God’s cosmic process of redemption. (What is going on around us is infused with the divine.  Freedom is the Easter gospel laid bare, and lived out in happy abandon. It is the freedom to live each day on tip toe, to live each day as if it were the last, to live each day with abandon, to live each day with self-forgetful freedom.  Lost in wonder, love and praise! Or, lost in wonder, weakness, and whimsy. Watch fight and pray and live rejoicing every day.

A priest, minister and rabbi were driving across Ireland and had car trouble.  They emerged from the car and could see no one, only a horse. Suddenly a horse leaned over the fence and said, ‘Open the hood, and let me have a look’.  ‘You are a talking horse?’. ‘Yes. Clean the gaskets and retry the ignition.’ The car purred, and off the clergy trio drove, terrified. They stopped in a nearby pub to calm their nerves. ‘You look terrible’ said the barkeep.  ‘What happened to you?’ ‘You won’t believe it. The car broke down. Then a horse came up and spoke, and fixed the car’. ‘Really? What color was the horse?’ ‘Black. Why?’ ‘Well, you were lucky it wasn’t the white horse.’ “There is white horse over there, too?  But he doesn’t speak?’. ‘Oh, no his speech is fine, his English excellent. But he just doesn’t know anything about car mechanics.’ A little Irish whimsy, don’t you know.

Our seven sacramental moments in life are each and all meant to release us to self-abandon, self-giving, self-mockery.  In Tillich’s phrase, to move from self-centered life to life of the centered self. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  

We had a Bishop who loved golf, and would include college students to fill a foursome.  One day we finished and went to drink ice tea. A man from the foursome ahead of us shouted: “I left my putter on the eighth green. You were right behind us.  Why didn’t you pick it up?” I wanted to say, you know, he is a Bishop, but I kept quiet. After a while the Bishop excused himself. He was gone a while, then came in the shop door with a putter and silently laid it on the man’s table.  Afterward, thinking about cheeks and cloaks, I saw him in a new light, a confirmed light, a resurrection light.

Out of the blue in February a friend recommended Wallace Stegner’s novel, Crossing to Safety.  It is an exquisite book, about two couples, and about grief, tragedy, academic life, and, especially, friendship. In New Hampshire one summer, on a long hike, the men find themselves under a waterfall and near a beautiful natural whirlpool.  It demands baptism, one says, and in they go.  Of the swim, of the day, of the friendship, of the baptism, of that present moment, Stegner writes, It was a present that made the future tingle.  That gorgeous sentence is Easter in wonder and weakness and whimsy;  a present that makes the future tingle.  We could even say, a future that makes the present tingle, but that would take another sermon.

In thy light we see whimsy.  Joanna schools us in whimsy

Coda

Are you, like Joanna, new to the story, new to faith, new to religious practice?  Welcome. In light of Resurrection, we pray, Lord grant you, and grant us all, the revelation of wonder, the admission of weakness, and the liberation of whimsy.

I could give all to Time except — except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

(Robert Frost)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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