Monday, April 19, 2010

An Easter Sermon

My friend, Bruce Coggin, has done it again -- preached a sermon that I wanted to share. So read and chew on this.

A Sermon
preached at All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Wichita Falls, Texas
Easter 2010

V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let me tell you a story I hope is true. I’d hate to tell a fib in church on Easter Day, but I believe I heard it from Fr. Alexander Schmeeman, for many years dean of St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary on Long Island. I’ll say it was him, if it wasn’t, maybe nobody’ll find out.

The story goes this way: in the first years after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Soviet government in Moscow was at pains to stamp out religion all over Russia, to re-educate the benighted Christians about the opiate of the people. They sent teams of propagandists into the rural villages to explain the folly of religion to the peasants and give them the good news that the Soviet government was about to start doing all the things the church had promised forever and never delivered on, as well as a lot of other wonders. A team goes out to Village X somewhere in the Urals—think Doctor Zhivago—calls the few hundred villagers to some assembly spot, and harangues the silent, sullen crowd for a couple of hours.

When the speeches are over, nobody moves, nobody makes a sound. So the leader of the atheist pep squad hauls the village priest up to the front and asks him, “And what, you scum, do you have to say about all this? How can you answer us?”

The old priest, likely nobody impressive, shambled up before the crowd in his grubby cassock, summoned all his lung power, and barked out, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

The response thundered back, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

End of re-education session.

Now, that’s a wonderful story of faith in action, of a belief so profoundly fixed among a community, such a habit of life, that even the fear of bloody repression could not pry those villagers loose from it. Great moment. Great story.

Now . . . I can’t help wondering how that story would play out if something similar happened today in some little town in, say, Montague County down the road a piece here? You know and I know it would be a far different story. As our country becomes more and more biblically illiterate and either non-Christian or just reputedly Christian, you’d be justified to wonder how people would respond—because it’s anybody’s guess what people believe Easter is all about.

And who’s to blame for that? The church hasn’t done as good a job of selling Easter as we have Christmas, have we? I mean, even though the slobbering orgy of conspicuous consumption and aggressive generosity that mars the way this country celebrates Christmas has little or nothing to do with what the birth at Bethlehem was all about, you’ve got to admit that almost anybody you’d ask what all the fuss was about could at least tell you it’s Jesus’ birthday, and everybody’s for birthdays. But Easter? The worst I ever heard was a bad joke about “that’s when Jesus dies and then comes out of the cave on the third day and if he sees his shadow he has to go back in for six more weeks.” And we hear a lot about Spring and the renewal of life and all that, none of which makes much sense in the southern hemisphere where winter’s coming on. You’d hear most Christians say something about the resurrection, though if pressed on the details, you’d get responses running anywhere from bedrock fundamentalist literal reading to a vast range of lower octane attempts to deal with the improbable Bible story. Probably the most innocuous and engaging response we see is all the Easter bunny lore, fuffy hoppers everywhere and happy kids hunting for eggs. The lady at the check out desk at the motel this morning had on bunny ears, and I wished her a happy Easter, which she returned all bubbly and . . . well, just glad about it all.

Why do you guess it is Christmas is so much more popular than Easter? I think I know why. I mean, after all, Christmas begins with a baby, at the manger, and everybody loves babies! But Easter? Easter starts in a graveyard, in a graveyard, which is a little discomforting, and the story is . . . well, just not very believable. Today’s version: Mary goes to clean up the corpse, finds the tomb empty; tells the men who come, take a look, and run off; and then sees somebody she doesn’t recognize who tells her he’s Jesus.

Now, who’s gonna believe that? The resurrection story goes against everything we know about death, doesn’t make any sense at all. Even the biblical narratives reflect the difficulty of believe any such thing. In today’s gospel, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus, thinks he’s the gardener—and several Renaissance depictions of this story show Jesus with a hoe or a little sharpshooter in his hand. Thomas didn’t believe it until he touched Jesus’ wounded hands. The travelers on the way to Emmaus didn’t know him during an eleven mile hike home. The disciples on the lake sorta kinda recognized him but weren’t sure until he fixed their breakfast. And on and on. It’s not believable.

Let me butt in a minute and say how I define belief and how I define faith. Belief, in my book, is something we have when we’ve been given enough evidence to suit our empirical minds that this or that fact is in fact a fact, where all the columns add up the same way, and all the pieces fit: that’s something I can believe. Faith, the way I use the word, is something more in the realm of a corroborated notion, something we hear about or perceive ourselves, singly or in community, something that doesn’t submit to empirical proof yet also something that tugs us, inclines us, somehow seems to ask for our . . . what? . . . mental consent? Spiritual consent? I can’t say exactly, just something that pulls us toward acceptance and trust when we can’t gin up what I’ve called belief. Faith and belief are two very different critters in my book. And can say for sure that I have faith in a good bit I don’t believe, can’t believe. That’s what we call a paradox, and I sure didn’t invent that. I think we misuse the word faith a lot, load it up with more certainty than it can bear. It’s sort of like the way we misuse brave and coward: a coward, you’d say, is not brave; a brave man is fearless! But if he’s fearless, why does he need courage? I say the brave man is the fellow who’s scared to death of the boogher on the porch and still musters the gumption go out and face it. A man who can’t believe can have faith. St. Paul prays, “Lord, I believe! Help thou mine unbelief!”

Now, since I’m talking about faith, I can witness only to my own and the way it finds itself in the faith of the whole church. Most of you from around here know what it means to testify in church, and I’m about to give my testimony.

I first became really aware of the reality of death in the late forties when my Aunt Cecile died and was buried from the Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood where she and Uncle Mose were every Sunday members for decades. I was ten or younger, and I adored her. Mose was my Grandfather Yeager’s brother, the baby of that big family, ran a barber shop in the Southern Hotel for years, and Aunt Cecile was his soft, talcumed, sacheted, laced up, blowsy, sweet, cooky baking, great-nephew spoiling wife, my favorite among many great-aunts. And she died. And I was taken to the funeral. And we did as Baptists do, filed past the casket for a last look. I thought she looked funny. Not natural. Not much like Aunt Cecile. Her stomach was all pouched out, and her face was . . . well, she didn’t look much like Aunt Cecile to me. I asked questions.

I was raised in a standard Bapto-Methodist middle class Texas family, and I got the standard answers both at home and at Sunday School: Jesus came back to life. His body, dead as a doornail when they laid him in the tomb, miraculously once more possessed life—he re-booted—and got up. And talked. And all the rest. Nothing more. Just that. Especially at Sunday School I got the notion I ought not ask.

It bothered me considerably. I right quick transferred the whole scenario to myself. I knew I was going to die. I knew since I’d been baptized in 1948 I would be resurrected, so I really wanted to know how that was going to work. One of my earliest phobias—one I still have—was the fear of drowning. I’d read a lot of Horatio Hornblower books and knew about men going down with the ships or walking the plank or otherwise getting dead under water, and I really did not want to do that—unable to breathe, eyes all blurry and dark like in the swimming pool. That made the idea of the resurrection worse, because I knew what happened to men who died at sea: fish et ‘em, fish and other critters, because they were just skeletons when they washed up. And if I were going to be resurrected, would God have to get all my bits and pieces from the fish that ate me? That’s a childish fret, of course, but it was sure real to me.

Later as a young adult, still pondering these matters, I learned that about every seven years my body swapped all its atoms—all its atoms—for other atoms, that by the time I got as old as I am now, I’d have shucked eight, nine, ten bodies, might even been toting around some atoms some of you used before. In the resurrection, whose would they be? It all seemed almost laughable.

And, by the way, if I’ve got resurrected body options, which one would I get? The one I died in? Could I get a better one? It was laughable. And so by the time I was a brilliant undergraduate, I’d abandoned all that. Just not believable. Did not make sense, any of it, and especially all that about resurrection. To borrow a trope from Gertrude Stein, death is death is death. Period.

Yet . . . before I graduated college, I was confirmed at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on the campus in Austin, and by the time I finished a first graduate degree, I knew I was headed for the priesthood. Now, what kind of sense does that make?

You never know where you’re gonna find help articulating things, finding a way to express your living experience, a lot of it not easy to understand, a lot of it pretty hard to relate. I found help for this moment today—I must preach to you about the resurrection this day—very recently in a place you’d not expect. You know I’m an English teacher, and I’ve been re-reading Tennessee Williams’ short stories recently. Yes, I said a place you’d not expect. In one reflective narrative about his life as a script writer in Hollywood, he tells of an afternoon when he’d written for hours, then decided to call it a day. He said he rubbed a place on his chest that hurt, and that led him to consider what he called “this rubbery machine,” our body, this funny thing we get around in, not perfect and not designed to last very long, not a very reassuring habitation. And yet, he says, that little house we live in has a tenant, someone, a being, a presence, a conscience, a person, who tries endlessly to describe himself, who peers anxiously out as if listening for something, waiting for something. He said he wanted to know more about that tenant and what he’s up to. I think that’s really good. Somebody inside this funny rubbery thing, a tenant who describes himself—and what do we do all our lives? Try to decide who we are, why we’re here, what we’re here for, where we’re going. Describe ourselves. And always looks anxiously out, expecting something, listening—and hearing things, seeing things. I think that’s really a helpful formulation of . . . who, what, I am. Or believe I am.

I know that I came back to the church—not to faith, mind you—to the church on the purest whim. I went to a wedding in San Antonio at St. Mark’s Church and walked into All Saints’, Austin, the next day—and I’ve hardly been outside a church on Sunday morning since. What called me to do that? I know that when I was a graduate student at Columbia, I could not stay away from St. John the Divine two blocks down the street, went almost every day to hear the boys sing Evensong in St. Ansgar’s Chapel. Why? And I never once thought about priesthood until one day a woman there, a perfect stranger, asked me if I were a seminarian. I was trying to describe myself, and little pieces of the picture kept falling from somewhere into my little rubbery machine head. And heart. Off to the seminary I went, under Bishop Mason’s hands I went, and into the priesthood I went—but I have to tell you, I could not then and cannot today say I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the survival of that little tenant in my rubbery machine. It makes no sense.

But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory, I can say with as much certainty as I’m capable of that I have faith in the resurrection, maybe could say I believe in it by faith. It still makes absolutely no sense, goes against everything I know about death empirically—and yet faith enables me to stand up here in front of you and tell you it’s God’s truth. Whatever tugged and pulled and notioned me back into the church and into the priesthood and into a life of looking out and listening and being up to finding what I’ve defined as faith has vanquished my unbelief horse and foot. And how’s that? Why because the notion has been corroborated more times than I can tell you. I have faith in the resurrection because I’ve seen so much resurrection. Without going into lurid detail, most of it not news anyway, I can tell you that about twenty or so years ago, I died and went to Hell. Or may as well have. Life was Hell—horrible, tasteless, joyless, painful, full of my own ugliness and what the Heart of Darkness calls the horror. Horror. Yet I came back to life, by no means through anything I did or even tried to do. I came back because that tugging started again and pulled me right up from the grave. I won’t tell you about all that, but here I am.

I’ve seen resurrection all over the place. I could but won’t tell you stories of dozens of people I know who’ve died one way or another, some who needed to, some who just got bludgeoned, and over time and with love and God’s grace shared by people they maybe didn’t even know, found themselves alive again. Funniest thing is, they often don’t recognize themselves any more, others say, “I hardly know you any more!” I’ve seen it in individual people and in congregations, among them this one. When I met you these eighteen, twenty months ago, about all you had left was resentment, anger, fear, enough Hell on earth to qualify you for a death certificate. But this morning here you are, alive and kicking and skipping forward to meet the Bridegroom on Resurrection Day. I can’t say any of the cadavers I’ve prayed over at countless graveyards has reappeared, but neither can I say for sure they’re not alive somehow. I know I’ve got all kinds of dead people I’m in touch with, and I imagine you can say the same thing or will one day when you’ve sent a lot of people you love across Jordan. Resurrection is real. That which was dead is made alive, that which was cast down is raised up, that which was old is made new. Life is not ended but changed—and you don’t even have to be religious to believe that. Just raise a garden. Raise some kids. Just look at all the busted down rubbery machines in this room, the lame and the halt, half of us not ten years from the grave—and did you ever see so much life?

Resurrection is real.

Yet . . . it’s not just resurrection we preach, not just the return of life in the Spring, not just the general greening of the earth up here on this half, not just an existential philosophical concept. This is not the Sunday of Resurrection: this is the Sunday of the Resurrection, of a specific resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection. And that makes everything every so much more . . . pointed. I mean, we have here both a real challenge to belief and a real moment when nothing but faith will do.

Let’s watch Jesus as he faces his earthly doom, the breaking and failure of his own rubbery machine, let’s watch how he behaves while the world, the flesh, and the devil break his body. Let’s keep our eye on his spirit, on what goes on inside him, and how that tenant behaves. When they come to seize him, he chides Peter for resisting and heals Malchus’ ear. When the Sanhedrin revile him, he stands them down. When Pilate condemns him to please the mob, he is civil—the guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. He’s compassionate with the crowd—“Weep not for me but rather weep for yourselves.” He forgives the soldiers who nail him to the tree. He pardons the thief and promises him paradise that very day. The more the outward man decayeth, as the old Prayer Book said, the more the inner man is strengthened, the brighter the flame burnt.

Don’t take that to mean it was all just a show, that he knew he was going to be all right, could therefore be generous. Divinit√© oblige. None of that. His spirit held out nearly as long as his rubbery machine, but if Jesus is to be fully human—and he is fully human—then he must go through not only the best we know but also the worst. If Jesus is fully human, then he has to know what despair is, what death in the spirit is. Those last words from the cross—Father, why hast thou forsaken me?—come from a broken, terrified heart. Oh, I know it’s the thing to say he was reciting the psalter, but I don’t believe that for a minute. The man is in pain you and I can’t imagine, people are laughing and spitting and jeering, his poor mother and a pair of friends are helpless in front of him, he’s vomiting blood and pushing up against the nails, writhing just to draw a breath. He felt forsaken, all right. That cry was not piety. That cry was the anguish of every human being who ever lived or will live. God, why are you doing this, letting this happen to me? You said you loved me!

And then the rubbery machine fails, shuts down. With his last breath, Jesus lapses into habit, into trust, into faith. Usually we hear the last Word read as some kind of triumphalist boast in a Charlton Heston voice: “It is finished! Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Never has seemed that way to me. I see a man, body broken, spirit broken, fall back on what’s left—faith. I think it sounded more like, “Oh, Father, it’s all over now. I can’t go on. It’s all in your hands now.” And that is the voice of faith speaking in the face of some mighty believable circumstances that point to the contrary.

They take him down and they put him in the tomb and they leave him. Yet before you know it, they see him again, alive, talking, eating, walking, teaching, encouraging, praying. And from that day to this, people who’ve known resurrection in themselves and known Jesus’ resurrection in the faith of his risen body have proclaimed that Christ is alive, that the Lord is risen indeed.

Do I believe that? I can’t answer the question that way. Do I have faith in Jesus’ resurrection and my own and yours? You better believe I do. I’ve bet everything on it, committed my life and my loves and my hopes to it. And I pray that when my rubbery machine turns off I’ll have the presence to say “Oh, Jesus, take me with you. It’s all up to you now!” with my last breath. After all, that’s the only hope we have.

It’s also the only hope we need, because if Jesus is who we say he is, then our death is part of his act of gathering us up into his victory as he promised time and time again to do—If I be lifted up I will draw everyone to myself . . . those the Father gives to me I will not lose . . . my Father’s house has many rooms . . . come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you before the worlds began.

That, dearly beloved, is Easter faith, Easter victory, Easter joy, and we’ll sing and pray that victory for the next forty days and for the rest of our lives and on into whatever wonders eternity holds for us in God’s good grace. That’s Easter. And if people want to celebrate that by putting on bunny ears, it’s just fine with me!

V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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