Saturday, April 15, 2017

Riding Eastward: Sermon for Easter Vigil, 2017

Jesus riding a donkey; detail from a window at St. Stephen's.

One of the disciplines that is highlighted during Lent is the discipline of self-examination and confession. For any of you who came to our book group on Wednesday nights, you will remember how much we discussed this each week as we made our way through Rowan Williams’s book Being Disciples.

True confession is not possible without self-examination, as Williams pointed out. Self-knowledge is only possible if we cultivate honesty, as well as stillness. From these two gifts we learn and grow, even when what we learn about ourselves surprises us. And often, when we DO that examination, we are taken aback. Even St. Paul acknowledged this when he once confessed, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The poet John Donne spoke of much the same thing in his poem entitled
“Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward:”

Let man’s Soul be a Sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey:
Pleasure or business, so, our Souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the West
This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.

Donne describes our souls as spheres, like planets. Each of us has a course that we intend to run. But something has to set us into motion. For Donne, the primary mover of our lives as Christians should be devotion to Christ. Yet if we are honest, we acknowledge other forces, what Donne calls “foreign motions,” that attract and pull us, adjusting our course, possibly from the one we had originally envisioned. If we are living the examined life, we realize how turned around we can get. Rather than evincing devotion as our primary impulse, we get wrapped up in our own cares and concerns. And too often, they are not the things that bring us love, or community, or peace.

That westward movement is the way of human authority, the sin of Adam and Eve that led humans to test their freedom through disobedience that still stalks us today. Yet the events of this night remind us that God’s love, the power of life itself, cannot be held behind the sealed stone of any tomb. That power, the power of Love, is what calls us here tonight. Thanks be to God, we are reminded here tonight that no matter how much we have gone astray, nothing is impossible through Christ.

Our gospel from Matthew tonight shows us clearly the two directions that contend to reign in our lives. The guards that are there at the tomb are there because of the arrogance of human authority, an authority that believes it has the final say of life and death to those it considers an enemy.

East light, La Sagrada Familia.
Yet there is no guard that can prevent Love from destroying the chains of death itself. We are called tonight to stand with the two Marys, to see, and what we see changes us forever, urging us once again to turn from the Westward to the East, toward the light of impossible hope and unconquerable Love, Love that calls us to reconciliation with God and one another. The Resurrected One calls us to resurrection, too, which is scary and thrilling and incredible all at once. One who has been resurrected with Christ will be changed down to the very center of their being. One who has been resurrected has been turned, and turned hard, from death to life, from sorrow to joy, from West to East. And that’s good news, indeed.

In turning toward reconciliation and resurrection, we called to shake off who we have been, and turn instead to embody who we are called to be. It’s not enough for us to see the glory of resurrection and what promises it holds for ourselves. We are called to witness to that resurrection and how it continues to work in a world that desperately needs to see it and be transformed, too. And that resurrection must be seen through us, as we rise too into new life, now, choosing to set our faces and hearts toward Christ.

As we heard in the Exsultet, sung a few minutes ago, “This is the night.”

This is the night of liberation— for deliverance from death and sin is indeed liberation, that frees us all to pull ourselves from the orbits that force some into oppression and entices some into the role of oppressor. This is the night when instead of being plunged into the waters up to our neck, we have laid before us instead the dry land of deliverance for the life of the world. And we shout Alleluia to God.

This is the night we are delivered like a newborn, from sin to grace. This is the night we remember our baptism, and that that baptism was itself a resurrection for us from the shadow life we once lived into the life in Christ that fulfills the humanity God has consecrated and perfected in Jesus which we are all called to model by living for each other. And we shout Alleluia to God.

This is the night when Love’s call transforms darkness into light, and that light beckons us to turn again to our proper course, our proper orbit around the one who is our All-in-All, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Shepherd. This is the night when Love repeatedly bids us not to be afraid, for through fear we close our hearts to keep prisoner the little we have, rather than open them to receive the abundance offered to us by a Savior who holds nothing back, not even himself, that we may have life by loving and serving the world. And we shout Alleluia to God.

This is the night when Christ breaks open the grave, not just for himself, but for us all, “when Earth and heaven are joined, and man is reconciled to God.” For the Resurrection changes the world, and our orientation in it, forever. Resurrection is not something we must wait for in the future, no, but rather is a resurrection we are called, as the Body of Christ in the world, to embody today, right now. Earth and heaven are joined here, right now. The powers of death and hell are defeated, right here, right now, wherever we are gathered together, renewed in our commitment to be a priestly people offering ourselves for the whole world.

Jesus Christ is risen, not just once, long ago, to disappear, but Jesus is risen and alive, right now, here among us, we who are called to turn our faces Eastward toward Christ, our Passover sacrificed for us. We are called to embody the Love that drives away the darkness and gloom of sin, a resurrection freely given by the one who intercedes for us, and gives himself for us continually, yesterday and today and tomorrow. As 19th century Episcopal priest and poet Phillips Brooks proclaimed:

Tomb, Thou shalt not hold him longer:
Death is strong, but life is stronger;
Stronger than the dark, the light;
Stronger than the wrong, the right;
Faith and hope triumphant say,
“Christ will rise on Easter Day!”

Yes, even though we have rung the bells, and brought the alleluias back, the resurrection of Jesus is not a singular event in time. Jesus continues to rise again, continually, and we are called to witness to that resurrection with joy and gladness, and most of all, love that binds us and makes us one.

What does Christ’s resurrection mean for us today? It means that we live in Christ, and Christ lives in us, this moment and throughout our lives and beyond. Christ will never desert us. We only have to turn and embrace that love, trust in that love, for that is the way not just of devotion but of life, of self-giving, itself.

Christ seeks to rise in our hearts right now, turning us to the East, toward resurrection within us and for the world. We are called to tell and embody the story of Love that will not die, Love that in binding us sets us free from all fear, sin, and death. Love that makes us holy as Christ is holy, by making us fully human as Christ reveals to us what full humanity can be: not just a mirror reflecting Christ’s Easter light back into the world, but making ourselves windows through which Christ’s love shines through us against the forces of darkness and death. Jesus has and is vanquishing the powers of fear, hatred, death, and destruction that pull us from our intended orbit. Jesus, in rising from the grave, has given us everything, and in doing so, calls us to share in that holy work by being true disciples witnessing and being the resurrected Christ in and for each other and all creation. Alleluia!

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