Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection April 19, 2020
"A Final Easter Sermon" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Sisters and brothers, death wounds us all. But as our brother Paul cautions us in 1st Corinthians 15:26: Death will be the last enemy to be destroyed.
Have we not all, during these weeks of self-isolation, pondered the possibility of our own death? It’s profoundly unsettling that any time I leave my house for the grocery store or the post office that some action on my part could start a cascade capable of whisking me from this life to the next. We see each other as threats to our own life. We anxiously assess the health of those near us on the streets and in our hesitant ventures away from home.
Where lies Easter? Where lies the joy of Resurrection? Where lies the hope found in that ancient empty Palestinian tomb? Brothers and sisters, this is my final Easter sermon to our beloved faith-family. After preaching Easter many times, what else might I preach?
During these weeks of mandated self-isolation, I feel myself becoming a solitary, someone given more to silence, less to words. And today for a final time, I struggle to put words to what is ultimately ineffable, ultimately indescribable. While I wrote the words of this sermon yesterday, I’ve been pondering this sermon for a long time now.
Here is some of what I’ve been pondering. I believe Jesus went to the cross, went to his death, went to his tomb, not knowing what might happen. Now I know this clashes with certain passages in the Gospels, but I try to see the historical Jesus as he really was.
Jesus could not have known, fully human as he was, what might happen after his execution. Did Jesus have hope? Yes, of course! But it was a tempered hope. Look at his final words from the cross in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus on the cross was broken and he felt abandoned by God. Let’s not try to sugar-coat these terrible words. Jesus did not know what awaited him. Easter must have come as a staggering surprise.
The traditional time of Jesus being raised is 3 am. It seems God does God’s best work in the dark. And yet we fear the dark, do we not? But what might the dark teach us? Must we always fear the dark?
Let me add wise words from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark: “Here is some good news you can use: Even when light fades and darkness falls, as it does every single day in every single life, God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone in that darkness … here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God, the night is as bright as the day.”
We live now in a difficult kind of darkness. Right now we don’t know when the dawn will come. But come it will; when is unknown and somewhat unknowable. We’re in a deep unsettling darkness; a time to ponder our own deaths, which, of course, can come at any time. Life is exquisitely fragile. Here today, gone tomorrow! Or as I prefer: here today, gone to Maui!
Now I certainly don’t want to make fun of our current battle with the corona contagion. This is life and death. But, being Irish, as I am, we Irish have a genetic propensity to look death in the face, have a good laugh, and then a wee drink!
Sisters and brothers, this virus pandemic forces us to ponder our mortality. We can’t stay here forever. In my professional and personal life, I’ve walked many from this life into whatever awaits us.
I’ve learned that life and death are actually one thing. We can’t have one without the other. And isn’t that the riddle of Easter? Life and death are one. And Easter has wrapped its arms around life and death and given the promise of an antidote to death. Death and its power, death and its profound silence, cannot be the last, the final, word.
Easter is the start of a new creation. In the account of creation in Genesis 2, when God forms the first human from the dust, God breathes life into that first human.
In John 20: 19 and following, what does Jesus do when he appears to the gathered disciples that first Easter? (And remember that there were many disciples gathered together not just the apostles) Jesus breathes on them! A new creation begins, a new and exciting creation story to be sure!
Let me add another piece of Scripture for us this sacred morning. This is from the Book of Revelation: 21:5: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ’See, I am making all things new!’”
Sisters and brothers, Jesus Christ is making all things new. The Risen Christ is now working on a new creation. You are slowly being made new. I am slowly being made new. Everything we see is slowly being made new. All who have gone before us are slowly being made new. All creatures, great and small, are slowly being made new.
When might this new creation be completed, when might this new creation be fully implemented? I don’t know. Only God knows. But it’s in process, like a fuse that is burning, as I wrote in this week’s The Advance.
I think of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “The Fuse.” This song is one of my favorites from Springsteen. “The fuse is burning …” The lyrics are about sexual tension, but, then again, so is any new creation.
Easter is about flesh; flesh and bones. As the Risen Christ states to his startled disciples in Luke 24:39: “Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have!”
Flesh and bones! Matter matters to God. Matter matters to God. And we will, at some unknowable point, be ourselves resurrected, flesh and bones. I, for one, can hardly wait! And resurrected flesh and bones will never be overcome by the corona virus nor any other diabolical contagion.
Brothers and sisters, when did you hit your peak? When were you in your absolute prime? When were you at the top of your game? (I ask this of those who have more than a few years on them!)
For me, I’d say I hit my peak at 39. I was the youngest pastor among the Franciscans, pastor and campus minister at the Church of Saint Benedict the Black in Grambling, Louisiana. My first book had just been printed. I had completed my first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was on the way to my second and third degree belts. It’s been slow downhill slide ever since. And, actually, the slide has picked up speed in the past few years!
But, here’s the thing: I’ll be resurrected, flesh and bones, at my absolute peak. Not sure when this will happen but happen it will. This is our deepest, most sacred, Christian hope!
I look forward to seeing you at your resurrected peak! And all my family and friends who have disappeared in the fog, the obscurity, the dusk of death. It’s absolutely wild what’s on the way.
I really like wild things! This past Thursday night, I was sitting in my home office, drinking a cup of herbal tea in the dark, looking out my windows. This is a ritual I do most every night. Thursday night, at 11:10 pm, all of a sudden, a fox ran out next to my house, across the street, and into the park across from my house. I watched in amazement. I love wild things!
And, yes, I even like the classic song by the Troggs: “Wild Thing, you make my heart sing!” The ultimate Wild Thing? Come on - you know the answer! God is the ultimate Wild Thing! “Wild Thing, you move me!” Wild Thing, indeed!
Sisters and brothers, Easter is beyond my paltry words. After 13 tries to get my Easter preaching right, I rest in the assurance that I’ve given it my best shot. Too bad I wasn’t your pastor when I was at my peak, my prime! But, as they say, the best is yet to come! That’s the ultimate message of Easter.
And after preaching Easter for more than 45 years, I now know that Easter can’t really be preached. We must be mute before its inherent mysteries, silent before its stunning sacredness.
Let me end with a lovely story from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church: “A couple of weeks ago, a stiff wind blew a homing pigeon off course. I was just standing there in the garden when she dropped from the sky with a whirr and looked at me as if I should know what to do with her. I could see the orange band on her leg, but she would not let me catch her so I could read it. I was sure she would be on her way as soon as the weather improved, but instead she stuck around. For about two weeks she met me every afternoon for a little visit over cracked corn.
“She was an entirely different kind of bird from the ones I was used to. She was not wounded, she was not tame, and she was not wild. She did not need me to take care of her. She left me no eggs. When the wild geese flew over, she and I both looked up at them. When the red-tailed hawk cried, we both gave a little start. For reasons beyond my understanding, she seemed to enjoy my company. For the same reasons, I enjoyed hers. She was a message I could not read, but she was sent to me nonetheless, and simply to see her seemed blessing enough.
“Now the wind has taken her away again. At least I hope it was the wind and not a fox. The chickens and I are back to our daily routine, which is pleasant enough. Still, I cannot walk down to the garden without hoping to be startled by that descending commotion of beating wings and loose feathers, settling into something like a dove with a message for me. She came once, so I know she can come again. I keep a handful of cracked corn in my pocket, just in case!”