Sunday, March 27, 2005

Standing Under the Mystery (Sermon for Easter Vigil)

A sermon for the Easter Vigil,
March 26, 2005
Preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Some of us may remember from 1998 the Oscar-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. It was a fanciful retelling of Shakespeare’s writing his famous play, Romeo and Juliet. The movie was, by turns, comedy and romance, and is among my personal favorites. But of all the good lines and memorable scenes, the bit which really sticks in my head involves two relatively minor characters.

Phillip Henslowe is the owner of the Rose Theatre and he owes money to a fellow named Fennyman. Henslowe promises to pay Fennyman out of proceeds from a new play by Shakespeare, with the improbably name of Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The problem is the theatres have been closed down due to plague. Fennyman approaches and threatens Henslowe, worried that he won’t get his money, to which the theatre-owner replies:

“Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a trifle in the ups and downs of owning a theatre.” His creditor then asks, “So what do we do?” to which Henslowe replies “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” At which point, Fennyman’s rather dense hired goon offers to kill the theatre-owner.

Continue reading Standing Under the Mystery

This notion of everything turning out well – though just how being a mystery – comes up several times in this film and is a prominent motif. And, setting goons aside, it strikes me that there is some parallel between that and the great good news that we are celebrating tonight. Jesus had been killed by the authorities and laid in the tomb. Yet, strangely enough, it seems that it all turns out well – though just how is rather a bit of a mystery.

We heard tonight the story of God’s acts to deliver his people, a story which reaches its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This story is central to our faith as Christians. It’s in this story that we learn who we are, and whose we are. It’s in that story that we hear of God’s love and care for the whole creation. And it’s there that we hear of our destiny. The importance of this story for our lives as Christians cannot be overstated.

Which makes it all the more surprising then that in the gospel we read tonight we are not treated to a detailed account of just how it happened. In fact, none of the canonical gospels dare to relate how he was raised. This might be, in part, because there were no eyewitnesses to it. But given the centrality of the resurrection and its fantastic nature it is a bit surprising that these early writers were not tempted to let their imaginations run wild. Certainly Hollywood would not be so reserved about an opportunity for over-the-top special effects.

Yet in tonight’s account, one gets the sense that the two women – and even the narrator – are late on the scene. When they arrive, the tomb is already empty, Jesus has already been raised. There aren’t going to be any eyewitnesses, authorities, or experts to testify to the event itself. There is simply the brute fact of an empty tomb.

As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said about the event of resurrection, there is a “central silence” in our gospels, a reserve that resists our easy analysis.* This is not an event which yields to our curiosity. It cannot be taken apart, duplicated, understood completely, and put back together again. It is not something that we can package and use for our own purposes. It’s not something that we can grasp or have on our own terms. This resistance, this silence is the distance between what seems like imminent disaster and what, strangely enough, turns out well. Yet just how remains a mystery.

But even if Jesus’ resurrection is not something that we can fully understand, it is still something we can stand under. In the resurrection of Christ and his new life, God invites us into his own divine life, to find there our truest and deepest identity, to interpret our own stories in light of his.

And it is precisely at that point that even our own lives elude our easy grasp. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, in our baptism we are united with Christ in his death and his resurrection to new life. So then at the heart of each of our lives, and our life together as the church is this mysterious other, raised to new life, alive and active. This is wonderful, great good news.

But frankly it can also be scary, because we do not control him. With new life in Christ we give up our illusions of being masters of our own destinies and makers of our own lives.

Yet both the angel and Jesus himself this evening start out by saying “do not be afraid.” For these women who came to the tomb all those years ago, fear might have seemed like the most natural response. Grief and loss for Jesus dead must have been difficult to bear, but at least it was a firm certainty, something to hold onto. But that he has been raised as he said – suddenly the world seems to spin out of control. We, too, might have stirrings of fear, at the prospect that what seemed like a fairly good way to occupy a Saturday evening may have turned out to be much more than we bargained for. And, honestly, it is a little scary when our firm certainties and our illusions of control fall by the wayside.

But again comes the refrain of Jesus and the angel: do not be afraid. It is as if to say: just because you don’t fully understand and are not yourself in control, don’t turn up your nose at this gift of transforming love, do not let fear curb your sense of wonder and great joy. For who among us does not at one time or another suspect that, as Fennyman said about the theatre, the natural condition of life is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster? And yet, with the gift of God in new life in Christ, strangely enough, it all turns out well. How? Friends – I don’t know, ‘tis a mystery.

And yet we find ourselves caught up in this new life in Christ which is no less than the very life and love of God. And how can we but join our voices to the chorus of two millennia that began with fear and great joy outside of an empty tomb near Jerusalem, and that begins again today with our proclamation “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Amen.

* Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Longman, Dartmand and Todd, 1982. P. 89.


Blogger Terry Finley said...

Interesting blog---thanks.

I invite you to visit my blog and to study baptism and the Holy Spirit with me.


Terry Finley

Tuesday, March 29, 2005 8:11:00 PM  

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