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No More of This

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Apr 20

Easter Sunday

Text: Matthew 28: 1-10

 

I begin today with a poem by Mary Oliver. The title is Mysteries, Yes. 

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood. 

How grass can be nourishing in the

mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever

in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds

will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the

scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem. 

Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers. 

Let me keep company always with those who say

"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

 

Mysteries, yes!  A mystery too marvelous to be understood! An almost comical sense of wonder, awe and astonishment.  And ultimately, bowed heads.  Mary Oliver might as well have been writing us an instruction manual for how to approach this and every Easter! And indeed, it follows closely the reactions of the women outside the empty tomb, before the angel, and before the Risen Christ himself. Though we too may find ourselves weighted down by a certain allegiance to the laws of nature and gravity, today we let ourselves dream and smile and by all means sing about a miraculous and marvelous and mysterious rising.  From days of the early church, the greeting on this morning is Christ is Risen!

Whatever else that phrase may mean to us and to countless Christians before us, most of us can agree that the Easter story of resurrection and new life gives rise to an astonishing range of metaphors. Like the flowers springing out of their bulbs and blooming in glorious array, especially after such a long winter!  Like a butterflies once bound in tomb-like cocoons. Like birds in flight or the rising dawn that follows a dark night! One would have to be a total Grinch, or whatever his Easter equivalent is, not to want a day to celebrate the irrepressible fecundity and renewing of life around us, and again a special thanks to Sarah and Don and the kids for so colorfully and creatively bringing these images into our celebration! After the deep dive inward during Lent, after a hard and Holy week of solemn remembrance and anniversary, who’s not ready for the taste of joy that comes with the morning, and this morning especially!   If you are feeling a little of that spiritual whiplash, still in a Good Friday mode, not quite sure you are ready, I’m with you, but like a reveille at dawn, God calls us to rise this day anyway!  Ready or not, the time has come to rejoice!  If we can’t get there ourselves, we’ve got bells and birds and butterflies right here and with them boisterous children bouncing like bunnies, and bunches of really bad alliteration.  Are you there yet?  Praise God for the astonishingly good news of hope and joy and beauty, for a powerful story of life rising over death, of love rising over suffering and sorrow and violence. If only we could stop right there and pour the mimosas!

For the skeptics in our midst thou, and I’d venture to say that at some level that includes just about all of us, the Easter story also gives rise to a myriad of questions.  Did it really happen?  Can we really trust those first witnesses?  Can we trust anything that the church says given its centuries of hypocrisy, and corruption and self-serving power plays?  Though we may believe in God, a God who made this beautiful world all around us, can we forsake our allegiance to gravity, to basic science, and give our hearts to this central Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead?  Give me this fabulous community, give me its strong stands for social justice, give me quiet time for meditation and music and worship, give me Jesus the teacher and prophet, but this whole resurrection bit, can I really let myself go there?  More deeply, if we don’t go these places, where are we left with when we think about the source of our hope? How much are we circumscribing God’s power?  How do we feel about giving death the last word? What at first may seem like esoteric questions best left to the mystically minded can quickly become important matters of our own hearts and souls. Besides, what on earth do you say when the kids ask “what’s the resurrection?”  These are like those questions about the poet David Whyte writes: “questions that can make or unmake a life, questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.” The questions themselves are an ample gift and grace!

The firebrand nineteenth century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once said  "The way to rise into God is to sink in your own self." Though I’m not sure it's the way he intended it, I read this as permission to sink into our questions and even our doubts, to hold fast to them, to let them lead the way of continued conversation with our texts and traditions.  Hear me out:  these questions and doubts are the stuff of mature and robust faith.  By all means, if you’ve got ‘em, sink into ‘em, make ‘em your buddies, see what they provoke in you.  It may be a deeply faithful humility, or a sense of reverence for those fundamental mysteries of life and death. If God raising Jesus means God raising these big questions, then good for us all!

This talk of sinking in brings me to a Haiku sent to me this week by Dave McCann and penned by Richard Wright, the pioneering African American writer best known for his classic texts Black Boy and Native Son:

Leaving its nest

The sparrow sinks a second

Then opens its wings.

Who knew that Richard Wright wrote Haiku?

Leaving its nest

The sparrow sinks a second

Then opens its wings.

 

There’s one question—I could call it THE question—that I’d like for us to wrestle with just a bit today, that I hope can allow us to sink in for a second and glimpse deeper mystery and freedom God offers at Easter. The question is why. Why a torturous cross of grief and shame? Why such suffering and the resurrection that follows?  When I got to this point in my prep, I thought to myself, boy, I really could use a mimosa. Bear with me here. Why this most profound of human suffering and death, why such violence before Christ’s rising, and how are the two related?  One answer that theologians like Mark Heim and others have given is that the resurrection is a divine response to the endless cycle of human violence and victimization. Here’s where Matthew’s over the top cosmic and earth shattering account of the story can help us.  By virtue of the resurrection, in a cosmic and tectonic shift, God’s love and power rises over those deep-seated, unremitting patterns of human scapegoating. Consider for a moment the way that Jesus suffered and died, without a vengeful or hateful word ever leaving his lips. What's more, when he rises on the third day, rather than coming back looking for vengeance or violence, looking for someone to judge or blame for his death as so many Hollywood scripts would have it, instead, he utters a greeting of peace.  He says peace be with you and at that the two Mary’s sink to their knees in worship and adoration.  My Lord. My savior.  In this astonishing and miraculous sign of the power of divine love, God breaks the cycle of blame, shame and judgment that separate us from ours elves and others.  Thank God the story comes around here every year! We get a new chance to try to understand it again and again.  After preaching and teaching forgiveness and love of enemies throughout his life, Jesus rises to set the ultimate example of non-vengeful response to violence. In the powerful words of Kate Layzer’s hymn that we sang on Maundy Thursday, God says in the passion narrative, let there be “no more of this! No more blow for blow. No more spite for spite.” Instead, words and actions that speak peace to his friends, and including the one who denied him.  

Look around, and look within you, and you will find the pattern that God is trying to break, the pattern of finger pointing is everywhere, from the world news to those those little jabs you give your sister or brother or partner or retail worker when you “know” you’re right and they're wrong and you just can’t help yourself, or even in those voices of self-accusation, those little crucifixions that have us questioning our gifts, our self-worth, our beloved.   To it all, God says “no more of this!”

One of the things that made me so proud this week at the Marathon Tribute, and I was lucky enough to be in that room, was the testimonies of survivors spoke of a new community that rose up from the smoke in acts of courage and compassion and solidarity and resilient love.  Deval Patrick said, “there are no strangers here” and he totally meant it! There was a hardly a negative word uttered throughout the event, and this as a public responses year after an extreme act of violence was wrought upon our city! 

Remember the haiku:

Leaving its nest

The sparrow sinks a second

Then opens its wings.

 

We all have our tangled nests we are called to leave, those scripts of grief and shame that leave us stuck in self and other crucifying cycles.  Leaving these nests, learning not to fight, nor to fly out of fear, but to let ourselves be restrained from our worst instincts and then lifted up with that divine love, even for our enemies, this is the task of the brand new day that dawns on Easter, this is the work of the new community founded in Jesus’ name.

Some of you may remember a young man named Angel Padilla.  He came to First Church last fall and told a moving story during worship about growing up poor in Roxbury and about how he was once hurt in the shoulder.   Angel and my wife Nancy and I have become friends over this year.  Last weekend on that beautiful Saturday, Angel and I found our selves alone in our backyard with some time to catch up over a cold beer. (I know, a minister drinking a beer with an Angel... how could I resist, right?) . 

Jokes aside, he told me a powerful story that I have his heartfelt permission to share.  About two weeks ago, he was riding an MBTA bus on his way to see some friends down in Randolph.  When he first got on the bus, and soon after he sat down, he noticed a few guys sitting behind him.  He could tell they were part of a gang.  For the kids with us this morning, that means these were bad guys, or even better, let’s say they were deeply troubled souls! Angel remembered in the moment that he himself was once a part of a gang.  At the time, years ago, people knew Angel as “Ace.” Well, Angel sat and tried to mind his own business but he soon overheard them talking.  They were whispering to each other, passing texts on their phones and it was clear that they were talking and texting about him.  They hadn’t taken their eyes off him since he came on the bus.  He also saw out of the corner of his eye that they were carrying things that were not safe.  Angel pondered what he should do.  He thought of his old life, about what Ace would have done.  Ace, he knew, would have turned around and tried to take them on. Ace would have tried to beat them to the punch.  Ace would have never have backed down and Ace most definitely would never have asked for help. But he told me that instead of relying on those well-practiced instincts, he felt something -- he wondered if it was the divine - he heard something like voice of God telling him to move away from these guys as quickly as he could.  Without wanting to make a scene, he mustered the courage to stand up and deliberately make his way to the front of bus, where he leaned down to a stranger, and then to the bus driver. He told them he did not feel safe, that he thought the guys in the back wanted to hurt him.  He quietly asked the driver and those at the front of the bus for help.  The driver eventually reached for his cell phone to call 911.   By this point, they all could tell that the tensions were rising at the back of the bus, that the gang members were getting more and more energized to do something.  While Angel was talking with the driver, by this point, asking him to pull over, a man sitting just behind where he stood and who overheard Angel say he was in trouble, rose up on the bus, grabbed two handles, deliberately put himself directly between Angel and the bad guys, with his back to them.  The bus came to its next stop.  Before Angel even knew it, the gang members had stepped off the bus.  As I sat on a patio chair, Angel reenacted the story with a vividness of a someone who was still rattled to his core, and yet astonished by a different outcome than would have been possible five years ago when he was known as Ace.

Beyond the metaphors and questions that rise up this and every Easter, there is another kind of rising, a rising above, a rising over and a transcending our world as it is and an ushering in a new world as God intends it to be.  A person sinking into one’s soul, remembering an old life and patterns. And then the rising within of a divine urge saying “no more of this,” the rising up of a stranger to help a brother in need, saying, “no more of this!”  This is the work that Easter calls us to do, to take a second and be aware of our lesser, all too human instincts, and when we know we cant help ourselves to reach out, turning to God and to each other to practice a new instinct of peace, especially toward the troubled souls around us and within us. Watch for that moment when you sink for a second, then hear God calling you to open your wings, to a new life and to a peace the world cannot give. Don’t forget to bow your heads, but by all means let yourselves smile and sing and live into the miraculous and marvelous and mysterious rising that is ours today. Amen.

 

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