Luke 24:1-5; John 14:15-21
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 21, 2019
In 1976, Mike and I both began as chaplains at Wake Forest Univ. Medical Center in Winston-Salem, a hospital the size of Strong with an attached medical school also. As with Strong, that hospital was an awfully confusing place at first. It was easy to get lost there– for anyone. It was especially easy for Mike, who after a short time there had established an amazing reputation for getting lost. His horrendous lack of sense of direction, coupled with the complexity of the hospital made for some wonderful, memorable stories that we all enjoyed on a regular basis.
Not long after we arrived, Mike was on call one night. The telephone rang in the on-call room and he was asked to go to the Recovery Room, where a patient recovering from emergency surgery wished to speak with a chaplain. So Mike set off for the Recovery Room, located on the ground floor of the hospital, to see the patient, whom I’ll call John Jones. Somehow Mike got lost on the way and he ended up in the medical school building, which connected with the hospital. Finding an elevator, he took it to the floor marked “G.” Getting off the elevator, Mike saw in front of him an area that looked like what he imagined the operating room complex would look like. Down the hall, he spotted a desk. Sitting at the desk in green scrubs was a person he assumed was a nurse.
“I’m here to see John Jones,” Mike said. The person in scrubs looked at the clipboard on the desk. “Sorry, we don’t have any John Jones down here,” she said. “Well, he must be here,” Mike responded, “because he asked me to come down here a few minutes ago. I’m Chaplain Mike and he said on the phone he wanted to talk with me.” “Well,” she said, “I’m really sorry he’s not here, because I’d really like to see that, and I’m sure a lot of other people would too. You see, Chaplain Mike, this is the morgue. If you’d like to talk to some of our other patients, I’d be glad to get the rest of our staff together. I’m sure everyone would like to watch!”
Although Mike did get lost at the hospital plenty of times after this, he never again wound up at the morgue. Of course, what he did wasn’t that unusual. He just looked for the living among the dead. Maybe we all do that in a way. This whole idea of resurrection is so hard for us to understand that we all tend to lose our bearings at first, ending up looking for life among the parts of life that can’t sustain it.
The good news of Easter is not so much what happened, but what is still happening. God is still at work in our world, still challenging all that we believe to be set in stone, still calling us to see life in whole new ways, still asking us to tell the story that is filled with far more mystery than we are able to handle all at once.
The story is only important if we begin to tell it in such a way that it becomes our story, a story of God’s presence, even when things seem hopeless, a story of the amazing mystery of life still unfolding in our life and our world, a story of going beyond all that we are very comfortable with, and encountering God in the events of our life.
Some people work very hard to take all of the mystery out of Easter. Some people try to explain resurrection as only something that happened literally, something that is linked completely to life after this life for us. Yet, resurrection is a word that tries to explain something that is unexplainable.
In order to really understand Easter, we have to realize that our literal minds can tend to keep us from ever seeing the depth of meaning in what happened after Jesus died.
When we stop seeing the resurrection as only a literal story of something that happened a long time ago, then we begin to make room for much more meaning. As Fr. Richard Rohr describes it:
Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.
Metaphor is invariably more meaning, not less. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning.
Only the right symbol dives deep into the good, the true, and the beautiful and retrieves these like pearls from the ocean depths. The right symbol at the right time allows us to move beyond complexity and illusion.
Symbols allow us to reframe, reorganize, and reset the core meanings of our lives again and again.
Religion should be a master at such mining for meaning.
Somehow, we must allow the resurrection to mean more, not less, to be a call to us to reframe, reorganize, and reset the core meanings of our lives in 2019 in Canandaigua, NY.
Easter was much, much more than what happened on a single day. Easter was the change that happened in the minds and hearts of Jesus’ followers. By focusing solely on whether or not the tomb was empty, we miss the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life, and of Easter.
If we focus only on the empty tomb, and we don’t believe it happened, then we can dismiss this whole Christian faith pretty easily. If we focus only on the empty tomb, and we do believe it happened, then we might only focus on life after death, in heaven, and it doesn’t mean a lot for our lives here and now. Neither view captures the real meaning of Easter.
The main message of Easter for me is that despair is presumptuous. One of my friends, an ordained minister, told a story about how a Jewish Rabbi actually helped him to understand one of the meanings of what happened at Easter, and the Rabbi’s words stuck with him for his whole life.
When John Claypool was a young minister in Louisville, KY, he worked with an older rabbi to try to resolve some of the deep-seated community issues. After a community meeting at the synagogue John wrote:
As I left, I said to him, “I think it is hopeless. This problem is so old, so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply is no way out of it.” He responded by saying, “If you have a few minutes, I would like to talk to you about what you have just said.” With that, he ushered me into his study and we both sat down.
I still remember how unhurriedly he lit his pipe and disappeared for a moment in a cloud of smoke. As the smoke began to dissipate, he said, “I need to tell you something, young man. To the Jew, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair.” He continued, “Humanly speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future that we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough. Think of the times you have been surprised in the past as you looked at a certain situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything.”
John reflected on these words from the Rabbi:
We do not know enough to embrace the absolutism of despair and, theologically speaking, despair is downright heretical. If God can create the things that are from the things that are not, and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?”
-The Hopeful Heart
Despair is presumptuous, no matter what it is that we face.
On this day, more than any other day, we must remember this. But if we do, then it makes Easter a much more difficult day than perhaps we would like it to be. Easter is much simpler if it is just about an empty tomb 2000 years ago, about something that will only impact us after death when we find out for sure if God is going to take care of us in the next life. We can either believe that or not and not let it be much more than an intellectual exercise.
But if resurrection is instead a powerful metaphor for what we are called to do in our own life, then it gets personal. What we are being called to do is to struggle with the meaning of what happened to Jesus, not for what it might mean after we die, but for what it might mean for us today, tomorrow, and this week.
Joan Chittister dedicates her new book, The Time is Now, to people who refuse to give in to the presumption of despair. She writes:
Everywhere there are people who, despite finding themselves mired in periods of national darkness or personal marginalization, refuse to give up the thought of a better future or give in to the allurements of a deteriorating present. They never lose hope that the values they learned in the best of times or the courage it takes to reclaim their world from the worst of times are worth the commitment of their lives. These people, the best of ourselves, are legion and they are everywhere.
It is the unwavering faith, the open hearts, and the piercing courage of people from every level of every society that carried us through every major social breakdown to the emergence again of the humanization of humanity. In every region, everywhere, they are unsung but mighty voices of community, high-mindedness, and deep resolve. They are the prophets of each era who prod the rest of the world into seeing newly what it means to be fully alive, personally, nationally, and spiritually.
We each have to struggle with our own presumptions of despair when we see all of the violence and hatred and meanness in our society, in our world. And resurrection and what it means is also something we struggle with all our lives.
Lauren Winner in her book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, tells the following story:
I think of a story my friend Julian told me. She was twelve, and she was preparing to be confirmed. A few days before the confirmation service, she told her father- the pastor of the church- that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever. “What you promise when you are confirmed,” said Julian’s father, “is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”
If the resurrection is not a story we wrestle with, then it is no longer a personal story, just a nice Easter lesson we hear once a year. If the resurrection becomes personal, then we have to begin to understand that despair is indeed presumptuous in the events in our life. It means that we have to be about the tasks of being regularly re-made, re-created, challenged and changed. It is not a one-time thing.
Perhaps we should remember what Harriet Tubman once wrote: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
We are called to be dreamers, as well as do-ers. Resurrection means that we do not have to give up our dreams, do not have to give in to the presumption of despair. In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloane Coffin described Easter:
In Paul’s writings, the living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never clearly differentiated, so that when he says, “Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,” he is talking about the same Holy Spirit that you and I can experience in our own lives. I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as it were, to close the show with the tune “Thanks for the Memory,” but rather to reopen the show because “Jesus Christ is risen today.”
Yes, we come here to celebrate an event that happened 2000 years ago. Yes, we come here to acknowledge that Jesus was killed because he dared to challenge the powers of his day. Yes, we come here to celebrate that Jesus’ death was not the end, that something mysteriously powerful happened. We come here to acknowledge the presumptuousness of despair, to acknowledge that we cannot know all of the meaning hidden in any event, and we cannot know all of the possibilities that will open up in the future.
Easter is not about overcoming the fear of death, but about overcoming the fear of never having really lived. Howard Thurman, a UCC pastor and writer once said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The only important thing about Easter is whether it enables us to come alive.
The good news of Easter is that God is stronger than anything we know, that Jesus is still alive, and that we come alive as we become all that God has created us to be. It is not our words that are important. What is important is how alive we are on this Easter day.
The meaning of Easter is that God was not destroyed 2000 years ago. The meaning of Easter is that God is still alive in our world and in our lives.
So let us allow God to Easter in us- renewing us, recreating us, refreshing us, reinvigorating us- that we may come alive, each of us in our own way.
On this Easter day, may God Easter in each of us!