Easter, b, April 8, 2012
If you haven't heard through the grapevine let me share that Becca and I are expecting the birth of our second grandchild. He or she is due today. Even the distance between Austin and Scranton does nothing to lessen the sense of wonder and miracle that we inhabit as a new child who is already dear to us prepares to come into this world.
New beginnings and endings are much in our thinking, and now my word our, includes all of you. For proclamation of the resurrection is a proclamation of the ultimate miracle…perhaps causing us to question what ultimate reality is. Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung put it this way many years ago: "The resurrection faith is not an appendage to faith in God, but a radicalizing of faith in God. It is a faith in God which does not stop halfway, but follows the road consistently to the end...the end which is also a new beginning. Anyone who begins his (or her) creed with faith in 'God the almighty Creator' can be content to end it with faith in eternal life." [i]
Küng goes on to describe the God we worship as the one "who raised Jesus from the dead." So the One who begins things in creation ends them in resurrection. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.[ii]
God is the Creator, and Easter tells us, Resurrection tells us God is the Completer, the Closer, the Finisher, as well. As Charles Cousar puts it, "To affirm that Jesus is raised from the dead is to believe that God is able to do as God has promised."
This strikes me as both a strange and a refreshing word in our day when it seems to me people are cynical because promises are not kept and endings seem final. We are quite accustomed to closure, but hope is in short supply.
What if, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, "It ain't over when it's over"? Have you ever been to a movie that was so powerful that people did not leave at the end? They sat in silence as the credits rolled. I have had the experience several times and on each occasion the movie had ended but those of us in the theater knew it was not over. The movie’s message, the movie’s images would go with us as we left and would change who we become.
One movie after which many sat in silence at the end was "Schindler's List." It has already been 19 years ago that the movie first appeared, but it still wields an enormous psychic power.
“It was about a man whose life is changed. He was not a saint—far from it. He was a German trying to make a quick mark during the Nazi period. He was using Jewish labor to manufacture military supplies. But something happened. He saw a little Jewish girl being rounded up for the death camp. He could not continue with business as usual and what he did made a difference.”
Did you sit in the theater silently as the credits rolled?
Do you still remember the power of evil at work in the death camps?
If so, it is the same silence we experience today at the sight of children dodging bullets in our cities or starving in Sudan . Or maybe we sat in silence because we had sensed a power at work in Schindler’s life which was more powerful even than death. Through the lens of faith, we might realize that this power is the same power, the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. Even in the face of death camps, that power is set loose in this world where it can change us. It can make a difference. That is why we are silent. We recognize in that moment the holiness of what we witness.
The Easter message is about an ending which isn’t final. And the implications of that message for our lives are staggering.
If God is the finisher, then things are not as they appear and
God may have some new things to teach us.
On Easter Mary Magdalene is our chief witness (John 20:1 -18). She gives us a clue as to how resurrection faith may work in our lives." We all know that after death comes, people really do need to do their grief work. Mary Magdalene was doing her grief work. She went alone to the tomb. She operated on the same assumption we do: Endings are final and we should get about the business of a decent and orderly burial. But the tomb was open and she made the logical conclusion that someone had taken the body. Through Mary's weeping we see the human response to death. She is engaged in what Emily Dickinson called the "solemnest of industries: The sweeping up of the heart, and putting love away."[iii]
But is this the end? A strange thing happens at the cemetery.
In the face of death, a new beginning is born. Mary thinks she is trying to strike a deal with the gardener. "Tell me where you have put him and I'll take care of him."
Then Jesus calls her by name, "Mary." She recognizes him, “Rabbouni” and becomes the first witness to the resurrection when she says to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."
Let me call upon another witness. Famed writer, Reynolds Price in a remarkable book, A Whole New Life, tells about his struggle with cancer. I mentioned him here briefly 4 years ago. He has died since that mention. In his book he shares how in 1984, a tumor was discovered in his spinal cord. Surgery and radiation to get it caused him loss of control of his lower body.
Price discovers that he has been called to live what he called,"a whole new life." Striving to be the person he was before cancer was a futile exercise. When he accepted the challenges after cancer, he discovered a new life. He tells about two experiences along the way.
One is a vision in which Jesus appears to him in the Lake of Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee. Price relates:
Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back till water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once, "Your sins are forgiven." To which Price responded, "It's not my sins I am worried about. Am I also cured?" Jesus turns and says to him, "That too."[iv]
The cancer did not killed Price, but he experienced tremendous pain. He looks at his life: "A realistic estimate included paralysis, dependence on others, untouchable pain, and the absence of work. Maybe I'd really been tricked in my 'vision.' Death would solve at least the other quandaries." So he cried out to God, "How much more do I take?" And then he heard a voice that said one word. "More."
Where would he get the strength to endure more? The next day Price asked to take the sacrament of communion. In tasting the elements that morning he writes, "I experienced again the almost overwhelming force which has always felt to me like God's presence. Whether the force would confirm my healing or go on devastating me, for the moment I barely cared. No prior taste in my old life had meant as much as this new chance at a washed and clarified view of my fate.... In many calmer hours to come, I'd know that my answer to the one word More was three words anyhow.. .Bring it on."[v]
Price lived on to age 87, 27 more years after his cancer diagnosis until he was finally taken, not by cancer, but by a heart attack. In that long span, rather than retreating in defeat from his art of writing, Price employed one beginning student writer a year, in a sort of private fellowship: in exchange for tending to his daily needs, the young poet or prose writer received room and board, time to write, and a master of the craft as their personal tutor. And this second life was fruitful, indeed. Before his cancer diagnosis Price had written 13 books. After the diagnosis in this whole new life, he wrote 27 more.
Reading the book affirms a faith that a power is at work in life whose end, as Küng suggests, is a new beginning. Such is the nature of resurrection faith. It points to the possibility for us of a faith that is literally limitless.
The story is told about a witness at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. He had escaped a death camp and the gas chamber. This witness survived by living for a time in an open grave in a Jewish cemetery in Wilna, Poland. While he was there, he saw a young woman give birth to a child in a nearby grave. In her delivery she was assisted by an eighty-year-old grave digger. When the baby uttered its first cry, the old man
prayed, "Great God, hast thou finally sent us the Messiah? For who but the Messiah could be born in a grave?"
Who but God the Finisher who can turn endings into new beginnings?
When Finished Isnt Final!” by Joseph S. Harvard of First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina