Easter – April 12, 2009

EASTER SERMON

Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly; the right hand of the LORD is exalted; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly.” I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

“I have seen the Lord!” Mary Magdalene is given credit in every Gospel for being the first person to discover the empty tomb, and as the one who began seeing Jesus in a new way. What did she see? Why did she see it? How does her vision continue to influence us?

We are often blind to things that later become quite obvious. How often have you said, “I did not see that coming!” or, “How did I not see that?” We may have been distracted or preoccupied. These things are also affected by our sense of expectation – one doesn’t go to a grave yard and expect to see a dead person walking about. Obviously, Mary didn’t.

We miss things often as not because we don’t have the mental or experiential tools for seeing, understanding and integrating what is right in front of our noses. Early scientists and medical practitioners often overlooked things which would now be considered significant. They didn’t know what they were seeing, so they paid no attention to them – they may as well have been invisible. I believe that continues to be the case.

People can be amazingly obtuse – blind – oblivious: “Did you not see Jane at the theatre? She walked right by you! How could you not have seen her?” And I have certainly had conversations with people who are frustrated that no one notices them – they go to parties and feel invisible – people walk right through them on the street – after an event, people will not remember that they were there. Such people will lament, “It’s like I don’t exist! (If that’s ever happened to you, maybe you know how Jesus feels!)

I remember a comment made many years ago by theologian John Westerhoff, at a conference I helped organize, talking about the interaction of belief and perception, that we could be surrounded by angels, but if we didn’t believe in them we’d never see them. That’s because we operate more on the principle of “automatic scepticism.” Having seen the unfortunate results of people being overly credulous, or too ready to believe, and how easily people can be deceived, we seem to have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum – so sceptical that we may actually be blind to what is. The way we saw the world at one time was shaped strongly by religious/spiritual beliefs, so we were open to certain possibilities. Now in a society heavily influenced by science, what we see is governed by a “belief” that certain things can’t happen. I believe this limits us severely.

Do you remember the book “The Power of Positive Thinking? It has sold millions and makes a lot of sense. Ironically, many Christians have settled into what I would call “impossibility thinking.” We are so confident things like the Resurrection didn’t happen as they are reported in the Gospels, that we may be closing doors of possibility that really need to be open. It’s said that “a closed mind is a good thing to lose.” A closed mind is a mind in danger of becoming totally immune to wonder, to love, to anything spontaneous or new. Small wonder so much of Jesus’ ministry had to do with healing blindness. It’s not the physical aspect of it that’s critical – it’s the spiritual blindness that is the deeper and more critical problem. Jesus obviously knew that people become blind for a variety of reasons, and being able to perceive accurately is vital. The absolute confidence with which people state that things didn’t or couldn’t happen makes me feel a little worried for them. True Science, like true religion, is a lot more open to possibility than that!

What if buildings were constantly falling down because they had been built wrong from the foundation up? Disaster! This happened recently in Canada with the bridge that collapsed in Quebec. Today’s psalm says “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” It is a warning and potential bit of wisdom for people in any category as a comment on how we are often blind when we are assessing and planning. The Psalm suggests that something that was disregarded as insignificant or useless ended up being the most significant thing. The experts didn’t see it – didn’t get it – in this case, the builders referred to are the religious experts. Operating from the ego, from the head, primarily concerned to maintain their place of prominence, and usually not rooted in any genuine mystical or faith experience of the divine, they continually build on false foundations, often leaving the really critical pieces out; they have nothing of substance to say, nevertheless they make pronouncements which influence people’s lives. Jesus said about such people, that they don’t know how to get into the kingdom themselves and they manage to obstruct and confuse anyone trying to get there. The psalm is applied to the way Jesus was despised and rejected, and without Christ in the foundation of our religious life . . .

I remember a very well educated man ridiculing Christian belief in the Resurrection and life beyond death. “But what if it’s true?” I said. He had no answer. He was so convinced he hadn’t even begun to consider the other side of the question. He had started with a particular answer and then worked hard to consolidate that position. No truly open, “scientific” approach starts with a desired result and works backward! But this man had built himself a mental fortress against ever engaging the possibility that life might be a lot bigger than he saw it. Maybe it made him feel in control somehow to be so certain, or maybe he just found death preferable to life. For all his sophistication, it was like he was playing a very juvenile game of hide and seek, much as Adam is described as attempting to play in the Garden of Eden. But why would anyone want to put themselves in a place beyond the scope of God? As for me, if resurrection is even a possibility I’d like to be open to it. I don’t think the alternatives are all that attractive!

The Gospel suggests Mary did not initially see Jesus. Let’s be at least open enough to consider the possibility that the same thing could happen to us. As we reflect on what may or may not have happened in the hours following the execution of Jesus, I would like you to consider what you are we missing now? What might be right in front of our noses that people generations from now will see and even take for granted? Do you at least think it’s possible that you have “blind spots”?

A number of years ago a group of scientists made contributions to a book called “The Encyclopedia of Ignorance.” It dealt with things which at the time remained unknown to the scientific world. The preface says, humbly: “Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic.” It is a wise person who knows how much they don’t know! Their willingness to admit how much they don’t know speaks to me of the idiocy of writing things off in any realm. That is the very nature of prejudice – to have judged and dismissed something before even encountering or considering it — to be so unwilling to see something or consider something, that it becomes impossible to see it, even when it’s in front of your face.

John Lennon may not have been the most sophisticated philosopher but he had it right when he said, “you’d better free your mind instead” — that is, instead of getting pulled in to all the latest fashionable mindsets and attitudes, which quickly become conventional, and as confining as a prison. Politically correct thinking makes us blind, makes us more like cows than human beings. The capacity to dream dreams and see visions is essential to being human, as the greatest scientists, artists, poets, and spiritual giants will readily tell you. We are in need of a “revolution,” and fundamentalists, both Scientific and religious, are not helping matters!

2000 years after the fact, I think we are only beginning to comprehend what God was doing in the life of Jesus. St. Paul speaks of a kind of insight, a kind of truth, a way of knowing, that sets people free. Jesus, I think, had a mind completely free – independent, non-derivative, original – able to see things as they are. So he is reported as speaking with an authority that the conventional religious and moral leaders lacked – someone with a free mind “tells it like it is.” Long before Lennon came along, Paul had said, “Put on the mind of Christ,” and let his mind be in you.”

I don’t tend to be credulous by nature; I tend to be mentally wary and I can be very sceptical. Automatic scepticism is the mental disease of our time, and I suffer from it too! I am not arguing for wishful thinking. I am not arguing for a specific interpretation of the resurrection events. We will never know exactly what happened and no doubt it was intended that way – because it occurred at night with no one around. But it is always good to speculate. What I am arguing for is an open mind – a mind capable of perceiving what is, as unclouded as possible by prejudice. I happen to believe that the people who were the original first-hand witnesses of all this were truly on to something – something momentous, life-altering and yet also deeply mysterious, not knowable by the normal cause and effect patterns. I believe this because I believe in the God who calls into existence things which are not – the God who is the bearer of new life. In my view, Resurrection is not a one-time event so much as an ongoing reality/phenomenon in which we may choose to participate. It is a kind of life or energy or spirit that Jesus didn’t create – he just rode its wave, a kind of “surfer of the spirit.”

Don’t close your mind to possibility! The mystics teach us that we don’t really look hard enough at things – we are usually not present enough, attentive enough, to even begin to see what’s really going on within what’s going on. We are too controlled by conventional patterns of perception and evaluation. I am arguing for a kind of sacramental mindset, that is willing to see more in things than is obvious on the surface, and that vision applies whether we are looking at social and political events, or at the person in front of us.

If the Resurrection teaches us anything, it is that sometimes a thing has got to die before it can live. In our time, that closed, self-righteous, pseudo-scientific mindset has got to die before people will be free to experience God again in any real way. It’s a choice, and you can certainly just deprive yourselves of the Resurrection if you wish. But frankly it’s not just my job, it’s my calling, my passion, to convince you to think again, and to allow God the possibility of freeing and renewing your mind.

The Gospel of Thomas offers this profound insight: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death . . . Let those who seek continue seeking until they find. When they find, they will become troubled. When they become troubled, they will be astonished, and then they will rule over the All . . . Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest. His disciples said to Him, ‘When … will the new world come?’ He said to them, ‘What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.’”

May God grant you the grace and faith to recognize the risen Christ in everything you encounter, and within yourself.

rhgr+