Saturday, April 21, 2012

Easter Vigil Sermon

The Easter vigil
Saint Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
April 7, 2012
Scott Richardson +
Gracious God,
Let these words be more than words and give us the spirit of Jesus.

One of the most memorable events in my ministry occurred in the basement of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in the early 90’s. Trinity Church on Wall Street sponsored a three-day seminar that featured, among others, Frederick Buechner. The topic was spiritual autobiography. Buechner invited us to reflect on the sacred story through Scripture and through the varied details of our own lives – the mundane and the extraordinary. He then shared some aspects of his own journey, including his father’s suicide and his daughter’s anorexia. One got the sense that Buechner knows a great deal about exile and deliverance, not only because he reads the Bible but also because the story is etched into his heart.

Shall we think about our several readings from this perspective? What do we know about creation, deliverance, renewal, salvation? Plenty. All of us have brought things into being, things marvelous and good. All of us have walked between walls of water, waves that threatened to crash down at any moment but somehow never did. Our dry bones have been scattered across the landscape and our bones have been fitted together again. We know a lot about the Easter story, as well – death (a job, a relationship, hope, a vision) and resurrection.

Four different authors report the resurrection in Scripture. This is the peak of their narrative and the climax of our celebration tonight. What comes through in all four is this; he was severely tested and he was vindicated. He spoke the truth in love, he challenged the idols of his day, he was crucified and raised. He now dwells with God and his spirit is available to us. And here’s the key: we not only assert that, we remember and claim and celebrate that tonight. We remember and claim and celebrate the many times we have been lifted out of death and into life.

So let me pose the crucial question for the evening: have you fully accepted this good news, at least in outline form? You may quibble with the details (you wouldn’t be an Episcopalian if you didn’t fuss) but have you received the heart of the message? Are you willing to trust this story – life over death – with your whole life? Those baptized, confirmed, received, or reaffirmed just made a public profession of their faith – we know where they stand – so these questions are directed to the rest of us. Will we receive this word and make it our best hope?

If the answer is yes then everything changes. We know where we come from, we know to whom we belong, we know what to do when confused, and we know where we’re going. We claim hope over despair, charity over selfishness. We seek the common good. We are kind, wise, and fair in our dealings. We are absolutely forgiven when we fall short. We are not alone in the universe. We know that the end of biological existence does not spell the end of life.

All of that accrues to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A thousand gifts and one requirement – that we try, to the best of our ability, to share these same gifts with others. Now let me be more specific: I said a moment ago that we are absolutely forgiven when we fall short of God’s hope for us. Let me add to that; we are also perfectly and eternally forgiven. But you know how the prayer goes: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. I’m coming to believe that the only unforgiveable sin is nurturing a spirit of unforgiveness. Hard-heartedness is unforgiveable not because God is merciless but because our hearts are closed off by hateful or vengeful thoughts. Think back to Maundy Thursday – it was only after Jesus fed his friends and washed their feet that Judas, his betrayer, left the table. Jesus, knowing full well how things would transpire, included Judas in his ministrations. The foot-washing was not just a sign of his great humility but also a sign of his even greater mercy.

That’s the gift we are to carry to others. We’re not expected to be perfect in this regard but we are required to try. And we’ll get better at it as we make the effort because he will be with us. That’s the Easter promise. And that, by the way, held true for the first followers, as well – the fullness of Easter was not available to them on that first day. They discovered more power and more peace and more love as they lived with him in the months and years that ensued. His first friends saw him face-to-face; they were privileged to walk with him even after the cross. It doesn’t happen exactly like that anymore but it does happen. Sometimes the awareness of his presence comes now through intuition, through feeling more than face-time.

I mentioned Frederick Buechner at the beginning of this homily. In his spiritual autobiography he records an incident that occurred after a conversion experience led to seminary: “I hear you are entering the ministry,” the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?” And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death.

That death, of course, is the one that patterns his – the death to self that leads to new life. We come to know the truth of that, we come to know him, not by solving theological riddles but by walking with the crucified and risen Christ every day. We come to know the truth of the Easter proclamation in exactly the same way his first friends did (there is no other way) – by surrendering, following, trusting, listening, watching, and serving. So may he bless us tonight, and in the days ahead, with curiosity, passion, thirst, tears, holy death, goose bumps, an unmistakable sense of his presence, and the assurance of the bond that endures forever. Amen.

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