OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGrave Words , Joyful Words                                                       April 7, 2013

John 20:19-31,  Acts 5:27-32

I grew up Baptist and here is how we celebrated Easter.  Every year we sang “Up From the Grave He Arose,” and the key to enjoying the song was the motions that went with it.  We would sit in the pews and quietly sing:

Low in the grave he lay—Jesus, my Saviour,
Waiting the coming day—Jesus, my Lord.

Then we would robustly rise and sing the chorus:

Up from the grave he arose
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes.
He arose a victor from the dark domain,
And he lives forever with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

 

For each verse, we would sit back down and quietly sing again, and then rise and sing the chorus even louder each time, until the chandeliers were shaking by verse four.  Pastor Roy knew how to get us excited for Easter.  I loved this as a kid, but it perplexed me how quickly things went back to normal once the lilies were off the chancel.  If Easter is so triumphant, why wasn’t there more follow through?  We sing at Easter as if the Resurrection of Jesus is the axial moment of history where everything changes, and yet in real life it feels like Good Friday is always chasing us down.  What kind of victory and triumph are we celebrating at Easter, when life is often still so tough?  Easter seems to parallel winning an election, in that the difficulties and challenges really start once the campaign is over.

 

The disciples were certainly not in control of things and on top of the world after they encountered the Risen Christ. Sure, they rejoiced-but behind locked doors, for they were afraid of the religious leaders.  It was dangerous to preach and share their joy.  In our Acts reading, Peter is hauled back into court for preaching the resurrection, for the same kind of trial Jesus went through.  Soon Stephen, a deacon, is stoned to death for blaspheme.  The early church was periodically persecuted for three centuries, and when Christianity became triumphant in the culture of the Roman Empire, well, many scholars think that was the worst thing that happened to the church, because it became more like Rome, rather than converting the Roman Empire to Jesus’s way.  Neither our lives, nor the scriptures are as tidy as our orderly liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.  My spiritual life is more like a New England spring, with sunshine and blossoms one minute and snow flurries in the very same day.  You have to be ready for anything.

 

I thought of this last Sunday, as we filled our Lenten cross with flowers, and turned a symbol of domination and cruelty into a sign of beauty and hope.  The organ music soared, the bells and chimes tolled, and at the same time tears flowed when we prayed for our brothers and sisters in Haiti, hearing the news that Bishop Villiers son had been kidnapped and killed.  Someone wrote me later and said they were tempted not to come to Easter service because it was hard to feel all the sadness and be present at a joyful celebration.  It made me wonder if that is why many stay away from church.  Some may wonder, are Christians nice but clueless, unable to bear the real pain in the world?

 

I was reminded how ministry began for me.  When I was ordained in 1990, I had served for a year as an Associate Pastor in Providence, Rhode Island.  The ceremony was a wonderful affirmation and I felt like I was finally all grown up!  Ordained!  After four years of college and three of seminary, thousands of hours of reading and paper writing, I was finally at my goal.  I was in the club and ready for all the privileges and respect of being a pastor.  As I came into work on Monday morning, the secretary asked if I had seen the paper yet.  No I hadn’t.  Did I get mentioned?  No, the headline was that a family from our church, were missing.  Husband, wife and eight year-old daughter had been kidnapped and were presumed dead, with a suspect in custody.  A terrible story unfolded.

 

Ernie, a member of my church, was trying to help his friend Chris get his commodities trading business off the ground, so he invested $5000 and said he could only lose half of it in this volatile kind of trading.  Chris managed to lose all of it.  When he couldn’t pay, Ernie filed a complaint with the SEC.  On one October day, all Chris’s troubles hit at once.   The SEC said his broker’s license was suspended, his wife left him, and his leased office furniture was repossessed.  He lost everything all at once.  He concocted a diabolical scheme of kidnapping Ernie’s family, having him withdraw his SEC complaint in writing, then murdered them and hid their bodies in the woods.  Chris was found driving Ernie’s car with bloodstains in the back seat, telling a bizarre story about mafia involvement.

 

What made this all more shocking was that Chris was highly involved in his community, a volunteer soccer coach, a youth group leader at the neighboring Congregational Church, (a seminary colleage was the Associate Pastor in the congregation and had worked closely with him.)  It was hard to get our minds around this.  I remember the Senior Pastor at the Barrington Church being quoted in the paper saying, “We thought we were safe here in Barrington from the evils of the city, but now evil has come among us.”  My first thought was, didn’t you know that evil can wear a suit and tie?

 

As I listened to members of the congregation pour out their grief and fears, they surprised me with their questions.  I expected people to say “Why?”  Why does God let such things happen?  But the most frequent question people voiced was this: “I wonder what evil I’m capable of doing?”  People were under great financial stress, the Rhode Island Savings and Loan insurance collapsed and one-third of the savings deposits suddenly disappeared.  It was a frightening time and people were living at the edge and fearful, and when a community-minded church goer like themselves went off the rails and murdered innocent people, it was shocking.  I did my best to reassure people, noting that if they were asking the question of themselves, they were probably OK.  It is the questions we don’t ask about ourselves that are the most dangerous.

 

The experience taught me much about how God works in community.  My role was to sit with the Sunday School children who had just lost their 8 year old friend.  I had no idea how to do this.  But a wise social worker in the congregation who worked with Hospice pulled me aside and gave me some ideas of how to handle the situation.    I said, “You know this better than I do, so why don’t  you do it.”  But she said, “You are their pastor and tell them stories on the steps every Sunday.  You are God’s representative to them.”   I also remember the Conference Minister, Dahler Hayes coming the memorial service, and he recited Psalm 46 from memory, eyes closed,

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.

This rooted me in a centuries long tradition of people getting through thousands of unbearable, unspeakable things, because they were embraced by the steadfast love of God within a church community.  It is the same scripture I recited on 9/11 as we waited in our Poughkeepsie sanctuary for the trains to come up from New York City that day to see if our loved one’s were safe, the same passage Martin Luther turned to when his life was under threat and he wrote “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

 

One man stopped into my study and told me he had a story to share.  He had been close to Ernie, the father, and very angry, wanting the death penalty re-instated in Rhode Island for the murderer.  He told me he was driving home the previous evening, feeling tired at the end of a long day, when suddenly Ernie was sitting in the passenger seat, like an apparition of the dead.  The man was not frightened, but rather comforted, as Ernie spoke from beyond the grave to him, telling the man that everything would be OK.  He said, he wanted everyone to know that we spend too much of our lives worried about money and to remember what is truly important.  And he said life is too short not to forgive.  He had forgiven and life goes on.   And then he was gone.  The man asked me if I thought he was crazy, and I said “Of course you are, you are following Jesus.  But not because you had a vision.”  We prayed together and were filled with joy.  It wasn’t the kind of joy that shouts Hallelujah, but more like the reassuring joy of watching the sunrise, and knowing that it will come up again.  No matter what troubles and challenges every new day may bring, the sun will come up in the morning, whether we are awake to see it or not.  God’s steadfast love for us is like that.  Psalm 30, written centuries before Jesus, said “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  That is the essence of an Easter faith.