Sermon: The Subtlety of Easter
… and returning from the tomb, the women told all this to the eleven
and to all the rest…But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and
they did not believe them.
John Sumwalt, a retired United Methodist pastor, has written this for his Easter column this weekend in the newspapers of Madison, Wisconsin:
Author, Philip Yancey,[he says,] tells of some history he learned while visiting
“...the tip of Argentina, the region named Tierra del Fuego, (‘land of fire’)
discovered by Magellan's sailors in 1528. They noticed fires burning on the shore.
The natives tending the fires however, paid no attention to the great ships as they
sailed through the straits. Later they explained that they had considered the ships
an apparition, so different were they from anything seen before. They lacked the
experience, even the imagination, to decode evidence passing right before their
Yancey asks, "What are we missing? What do we not see?"
[And Sumwalt himself then goes on to ask,] What can we not see? What is it that
God is doing right in front of us that we cannot or will not see, that our cultural
assumptions, and our basic understanding of reality in this age of science, does not
allow us to see?
Fredrick Buechner suggests that “We have seen more than we let on, even to
ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some subtle turning of our
lives, we catch glimmers at least of what saints are blinded by; only then, unlike
the saints, we go on as if nothing has happened...”
In the Gospel story of the disciples’ first encounter with the resurrection of Jesus, I wonder if the difference between the women (who “remembered his words” and believed), and all the rest (who thought it was “an idle tale, and … did not believe”) is that the women saw and heard the two bright men – two angels, presumably, who explained to them what had happened, and helped them see what was in front of them with opened eyes.
The stone was rolled away, and with the help of the angels, the women were able to see that something even bigger than that had shifted in the world, and in what was possible and real. The tomb was empty, and more than just deepening disappointment and even greater distance from the one they loved, the women were enabled to see the tomb as a womb from which new life and new beginnings had come to birth.
For the others, though, there was no such immediate and supernatural help. A rolled-away stone is not a clear sign; it can mean a number of things. An empty tomb by itself is not proof of anything; a tomb can be emptied in any number of ways. Even the women’s story at first did not seem believable.
To the others, the good news of resurrection comes in bits and pieces, in glimpses and hints, like a series of nudges and clues of something new and holy overturning the world and touching their lives. And what they have to do is to notice the signs, connect the dots, fill in the gaps, and from them figure out the promise of new life as faithfully as they can.
I wonder if that’s where we still are today a lot of the time.
In the Gospels no one sees Jesus rise and emerge from the tomb. The resurrection happens at night and in darkness. It’s not something anyone causes or makes happen – not something we can schedule or control. It’s a holy miracle and mystery that happens in secret, in the hidden parts of Earth, in God’s own time and way. All of which make it hard for us sometime to believe in it, to trust it, and to continue to live towards it. As John Sumwalt writes, it goes against “our cultural assumptions, and our basic understanding of reality in this age of science,” of mechanics, of mathematical planning and psychosocial engineering.
It’s a difficulty we face on a global scale. I heard David Suzuki interviewed this week and he and the interviewer talked about the tragedy of some scientists and ecological advocates today beginning to give up the fight for Earth’s life – of not believing that anything can change or be raised to new life, especially within humanity, just because they cannot see how to make it happen.
And it’s a difficulty as well on the most personal level as we wonder sometimes whether anything good can come of what we see and where we and our loved ones are. Can anything change? Can anything be made new? Begun again and in a new way?
And what am I to say? What can any of us say, to prove the resurrection? To convince others, or even ourselves, to believe that God still works in the dark and in secret, under the surface of life and history as we know it, to bring new life out of death, and turn tombs into wombs of new life?
Maybe like the first women, all we can do is tell stories – simple stories that maybe provide a few clues, convey a few signs, offer a few dots that maybe we or others can start to connect – as long as people are willing to do that and fill in the gaps as faithfully as they can.
Years ago up in Bruce County I heard a story third-hand of a woman who was badly abused by her husband. She loved him, and didn’t really want to leave him, but finally for her own survival and well-being, she did. Even as she left, though, she carried a lot of baggage. She hurt a lot, and hated her ex-husband for it. She didn’t like hating him so she tried forgiving, but every time she saw him all the hurt and hate were just there. She felt trapped and closed within it. So she prayed to be able to forgive. She prayed a long time. It didn’t seem to make any difference. Until one day she phoned up her minister to say she had seen her ex-husband that day, they had talked, and even though there was still no way they would ever be together again, she realized as she talked to him that she had forgiven him. The hurt was still there – always would be, but not the hate. Without her realizing it, or knowing how or even when it had happened, a miracle of forgiveness had come and inside herself she was free.
More recently I was talking with a man struggling with addiction. Addictions, he says, never go away. Once addicted, always an addict – even if a recovering one. But then he said something about the power of acting “as if.” What happens, he said, is you sort out what life would be like if you were free, if you had the virtues you long to have, if you had the freedom you are really meant to enjoy. And you start to live and structure your day and plan your time “as if” it were true. You do it over and over again, one day at a time. And somewhere, at some point along the line, without your really even being aware of when it happens, without any fanfare announcing it, at some point it’s no longer “as if” – it’s actually “what is.” And how does it happen, he says? I don’t know. When and how does it start? All I know is that at some point along the way it has, and I can see that it has.
Are these stories of resurrection? Of God working in the dark and in secret, under the surface and in the inner parts of our life as we know it to bring something new to be? Of God bringing new life out of death in ways we cannot control or make happen, but only pray for and live towards in faith?
And in the absence of bright young men – angels in our midst to announce things to us, are we able today to hear the story of God and the power of God turning tombs into wombs of new life, and believe it?