Making a Way out of No Way

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 17, 2022

Scripture: Luke 24:1-12

. . . on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Easter was always the odd holiday in my home.  At Thanksgiving, we went back to Connecticut to have a traditional family feast at the farm.  At Christmas, we had a tree and presents, just like all my friends.  But at Easter, we were different.  Sure, we observed Easter – but really only in a secular way.  I had an Easter basket, and we had traditional Easter food – a big ham dinner.  But in church, there was little mention of Easter – usually just a children’s story about the miracle of daffodils returning in the spring.  And no new Easter clothing…. not in my family.

I was raised a Hicksite Quaker, in the Philadelphia area, the home territory for our kind of Quaker.  Hicksites were about as theologically liberal as you could get, somewhere over near the Unitarians.  As I learned the story, Orthodox Friends believed Jesus was real; we (proud tone), preferred to think of him as a metaphor for life.   I can still remember my astonishment at meeting a rational adult who thought Jesus was a real person and the stories about him were factual.

Reality, for us, was living in a Christ-like way; everything else was just illustration.

As an adult, as a seminary graduate, as someone who has moved into a denomination where we do believe Jesus was real, it’s been a delight to discover that Jesus was so much more than a metaphor or an illustration.  At the same time, I want to state, for the record, and on Easter, that the physical questions about the realities of Easter are still no where near as important as how we live out our beliefs, about recognizing that Easter is not about resuscitation.  Easter is about  the renewal, the rebirth, the resurrection of all of human life.

Outside our doors, Easter is about Spring…. bunnies, and daffodils, the renewal of the earth and the return of warm weather.  Inside our doors, in our hearts, there’s a whole ‘nother layer to the Easter story.

And it’s a layer that begins with failure, frustration, and struggle, with denial and death.  Let’s be clear, the triumph of Easter is not one of unending good and never ending success.  It’s a story of struggle and betrayal, about being found guilty and being executed.  It’s about being a loser.

And only then, comes the triumph.  Preacher Brett Younger writes that Easter is not for folks who have no worries, for those for whom the only issue is which restaurant to go to for Easter dinner.  Easter is for those of us who have seen the dark side of life, and who trust and hope that light will come in the morning.

A friend’s husband died this week, way too young.  For more years than I’ve known her, he’s been ill, unable to work, housebound with something that gradually ate away at his personality while destroying his body.  It’s been hard.  

Another friend wrote this week that her family’s brand-new sofa, the one they’ve had less than a month, the first brand new sofa they’d ever had, was broken this past week by their teenaged son – a six foot tall teen who engages the world through a welter of cognitive limitations.  My friend recognizes his challenges, and understands, and at the same time mourns the loss of “something nice” that they can’t afford to replace.  It’s hard.

Easter recognizes that life is hard.  Easter tells us that it’s when we really recognize and name our realities that we’re able to move forward, that we are freed from the limitations of tough circumstances, freed to live with joy anyway.

The disciples were lost on that first Easter morning.  They were afraid, hidden away, worried that the Romans would be coming to get them.  They were most likely planning how to slip unnoticed out the city gates and on the road to their homes in Galilee, cloaked in broken-ness.

Then the women came and said “Jesus is gone”.  Nothing about that announcement made any sense.  

No one has ever explained the “how” of the resurrection story in an entirely satisfactory way.  For what it’s worth, I think that’s ok. Building our faith on trying to understand “how”, misses the point entirely.  Because we don’t believe in resurrection because we know how it took place, because we have answers to all the questions the stories bring up.

We believe in resurrection because we see it happening in the lives of the followers of Jesus and in our own lives.  

This is really important this year as we come out of the COVID season.  It is such a temptation to put our lives back together the way they were, to rehabilitate, even resuscitate the life that’s gone before.  The story of Easter points us in a different direction.  After Easter, Jesus did not go back to what he’d done before.  He checked in with his disciples a few times, and then he disappeared.  The disciples did not go back to what they’d been doing.  They took what they had and built something new…. they didn’t throw everything old away; they used the experiences of the past to make something that fit the needs of their present time.

That’s resurrection.  That’s the resurrection we’re facing this year.

We’re not looking back.  We’re not trying to re-create yesterday.  We’re not trying to rebuild the successes of, say, 1965, with a full church and fantastic church school… all the 1965-era appurtenances of success.  We’re not trying to resuscitate what’s dead and gone.  Leave it to Beaver is not going to happen again. We’re aiming to build in the ways this world, this time, needs.  We’re plotting resurrection here.

In the introduction to Katherine S. White’s masterpiece Onward and Upward in the Garden, her husband, EB White, wrote: 

“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director’s chair – a folding canvas thing – that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. 

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion – the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

That’s resurrection as well…. plotting and planning for a world most of us will never see.  And it’s the courage of Jesus, setting his face to Jerusalem, hoping and trusting that the God he loved would help his followers bring resurrection to the world.  

You may remember that when Peter speaks to all the followers on the day we call Pentecost, the first accusation he has to deal with is that folks think he’s drunk, even though it’s only like 10am.  Resurrection’s like that as well, something that can seem so absurd to those around us that they think we’ve taken leave of our senses, as foolish as an old dying woman planning a garden she knew she would not live to see.

We see, in Resurrection, the promise that nothing can separate us from God.  We see a promise that, even in the midst of the worst that life can throw us, there will still be good. We see the promise that even if we perish, life will continue. With these promises, what is the scorn of the world?  

I don’t think Wendell Berry was quite writing about Resurrection in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, but the words describe what I’m talking about.  Whether he intend it or not, there they are there and so I’m going to close today with a part of the poem, a snippet of Berry’s description of resurrection life:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child