Locked Rooms and Open Wounds: A Sermon for the Second Saturday of Easter

Thomas

I spent Easter Monday in a small monuments showroom picking out a headstone for my father’s grave. That’s right, after all the Easter Day pomp and ceremony, all the acclamations of the risen Christ, all the joyous words of new life and resurrection, there I was face-to-face with death. I had quickly gone from the dizzying heights and palpable energy of Easter Day liturgy to the all too familiar, real world grind of pain, loss and grief. In that moment the previous day’s shouts of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” rang as hollow as a politician’s campaign promise. My very own “Low Monday”.

Now I do not say this to get you to pity me. No…because you have all been in rooms like mine. Rooms and situations that make you question Easter and its talk of resurrection. Hospital waiting rooms and bedside vigils where you pray and wait for good news that you know just won’t come. Palliative care rooms where every breath could be your loved one’s last. It seems that every hope and dream you ever had dissipates with every exhalation. Medical rooms where the doctor or psychologist says we just can’t get the medication right, where it seems the darkness of anxiety and depression will snuff out your last remaining light. Rooms where the bankruptcy, the divorce, the unemployment become all too painfully clear. It’s in these rooms that Easter morning seems light years away.

But if the Easter message of resurrection cannot speak to us in these rooms, in the Mondays of our lives, what good is it? If the resurrected Christ cannot pass through the lead thick walls of these rooms, then we might as well leave him in our manufactured Sunday sanctuaries. We need Easter here and now, in the untidy, disordered mess of our lives.

It is here that the story of Thomas and Jesus, and the room where they meet, tells us something of the gap between our own lives and Easter. Now poor old Thomas has not been treated fairly by the church. His moniker ‘Doubting Thomas’ is undeserved. Thomas doesn’t so much doubt as ask for the same privilege as the other disciples. He only wants to experience the risen Jesus.

John tells the story that on the evening of the resurrection of Jesus, the first Easter Day, the disciples are locked away for fear of the opponents of Jesus. Presumably their fear is that they would do to them what they had done to Jesus. Suddenly Jesus appears in their midst. It’s a moment that would make Houdini himself envious. Jesus wishes them peace, bestowing on them an evangelistic mission and breathing on them a pre-Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course when Thomas hears about this from his fellow disciples he is understandably upset. Upset like any of us would be at being excluded from such a miraculous encounter. His friend with whom he had travelled the Galilean countryside for three years, his rabbi, the one he thought was the long hoped for messiah, arrested and executed, now reported raised from the dead. Who wouldn’t be a little put out by missing such an event? All this resurrection talk is one thing, but for Thomas, the thought that he had missed out on it is too much to bear. “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it” (the Message). Thomas’ words could be my words in that showroom, could be your words. Any of us would utter these words, when the Easter message meets our real life situation.

And I have to ask, where was Thomas when Jesus came to visit that first Easter evening? Why is he not with the other disciples, locked away in fear? Perhaps he was out taking care of arrangements for his dear friend. Perhaps Thomas, more than any of the other disciples, knew that life must go on in the face of death. We just keep living. What else is there to do?

I am also struck by how Jesus approaches Thomas in this scene. There is no hint from Jesus of the accusation and finger pointing that the church has heaped on Thomas. Jesus does not upbraid Thomas on his lack of faith. He does not chide him for believing without evidence. He does not launch into a theological treatise on the metaphysics of resurrection. No, he only offers Thomas the one thing he asked for. He offers Thomas his wounds. And seeing his wounds, Thomas believes.

Another question haunts me: why does Jesus’ resurrected body bear the scars of the resurrection? Only John and Luke include this detail. One would think that a glorified, resurrected body would not bear the marks of suffering and pain. The skeptic would say that it is a literary device of the gospel writers to eliminate any confusion that this person might be anyone but Jesus. These resurrection accounts could not be a ruse because his body bore the marks of his execution. Perhaps that is all it is, clever storytelling. But perhaps not.

A clue to the meaning of these wounds can be seen in the other John reading this week. In it, John (not the evangelist but another John), writes that Jesus, in his death, is an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. In Jesus, God enters into our human condition and takes on all of our humanness. He exposes himself to the worst that we have to offer. He endures our violence, our hate, our pride, our deep desire for retribution. He dies from it; dies for it. But he is raised to new life to show that God’s way, the way of love, peace and forgiveness, is the far better way than the ways of the world, of empire and crooked religion. His wounds are not just his own, they are ours too. An eternal symbol of God’s solidarity, God’s covenant love for all people. What were meant to be wounds of defeat and brute force, in the hands of God become wounds of love.

Jesus bears our wounds even now, so we do not bear them alone. Even as we sit in our isolated rooms, seemingly far from the joyous Easter celebrations, perhaps especially there, the Easter message of a wounded, resurrected Lord echo on and on. In Jesus we see a promise that our wounds, though they may define us now, will not always. As Jesus has been raised so shall we. As the great theologian Karl Rahner said, In the risen Jesus a piece of this earth, real to the core, is now forever with God in glory. The seed that was sowed in death has given rise to new life to all creation. The resurrection of Jesus is our destiny too. Behold God is making everything new! Beginning with Jesus, the first fruits, and spreading to us. We glimpse this eternal truth right here and now as we bear the wounds of the broken, the poor, the hurt, the suffering. We participate in the resurrection when we bear each other’s burdens, we who are wounded healers, followers of a wounded saviour.

So here, gathered in this room, around this table, we share this sacred meal of broken flesh and blood. And we push ourselves back from this table, full of God’s grace and love, and go and serve a broken, wounded world.

+ In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

The Rev. Robert Cooke, Rector of St. Mark’s. A sermon preached at Saturday worship on Easter 2, April 7, 2018.

 

 

 

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What Is Confirmation Anyway?

confirmation

I was confirmed at 12. I then spent the better part of my teenage years totally disgusted with the Church and everything it stood for (sorry about that, by the way!). It wasn’t until my late teens I started to experience a change inside myself, when a real faith started to grow and I was on my way to becoming the “ordinary Christian” I am today.

I participated in my husband’s Confirmation, when he was 32. To me, 10 years past my own Confirmation, it seemed so much more meaningful, and to be frank, I was sorry that I hadn’t appreciated it when I did it 10 years earlier.

At St. Mark’s we are taking a year of discernment around Confirmation – to try to find a way forward that is true to the sacrament and to the members of the parish. I have noticed that many people agree that confirmation is about transition, accepting responsibility, commitment, and affirmation. There is less of a consensus around how we prepare for Confirmation and who is eligible. Honestly I believe the idea of “Confirmation Class” is outdated.

I taught several groups of confirmands, aged mostly 11 and 12, and tried to help prepare them for Confirmation. I do not feel that it was a successful venture, but try I certainly did. While I know there are kids out there who are absolutely ready to take on the vows made at Confirmation, I didn’t see many of them in my classes. Generally the kids were there because their parents told them they had to be. It was just time to get that done.

We are supposed to be taking on the vows made on our behalf at baptism. It is a “confirmation” of our faith. Confirmation has certainly evolved over time, just like many other things (including baptism!). As it is now, Confirmation is not really about Christian education, disciple making, conversion, graduation, or initiation. Those things are the work of the Church as a whole. Confirmation is a sacrament, an “outward physical expression of an inward spiritual grace.”

We have to have that inward spiritual grace, in order to make the outward physical expression. The only way, as far as I can tell, to experience that is to be actively involved in the work of the Church. What does that mean exactly? Well there is no one size fits all solution.

Active involvement is many things, often begun from a very early age. We have to live our faith, and do as Jesus instructed us: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. Only by witnessing God’s love in the world, and in God’s church, can we really be prepared to seek Confirmation. No curriculum, or gimmicks, or videos, or study can teach us that. We have to DO it. Afterall, how can we affirm a faith we haven’t experienced??

I would (and do!) argue that at 11 or 12, most (but certainly not all) kids have not experienced faith in that way, and to force them through confirmation defeats the purpose of the sacrament. We need to approach confirmation more intentionally and with support and encouragement of those who are interested in pursuing it, no matter their age. But that’s just my opinion, what’s yours?

Allison, her husband Robert and two young sons attend our 10:30 am Sunday worship. Allison is a St. Mark’s vestry member, and our former Youth Minister. She writes regularly for Anglican Life where this column was first published in the April 2018 edition.

A Vigilant Vigil: An Easter Vigil Sermon

advent candle

Exodus 14:10–31; 15:20–21 / Romans 6:3–11 / Mark 16:1–8

Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we come to know your Living Word, O Lord. Amen.

I must admit, when Reverend Robert invited me, about a month ago, to give the homily for the Easter Vigil service this year, I was not only deeply honoured, but I was very excited. The Easter Vigil service has, for quite a while now, been my favourite church service of the calendar year. If you would permit me to share a personal anecdote with you, I will tell you how it came to be so.

About fifteen years ago, when I was living in Montreal, and trying very hard to improve my French (although without much success, alas!), I used to like to go to French mass at one of the Catholic churches downtown. I grew up Catholic, so I knew the liturgy and all the responses very well, and this helped me to absorb the French a bit more easily. The church I liked best to go to was the Cathedral of Mary, Queen of the World (Marie-Reine-du-Monde), a replica on two-thirds scale of St. Peter’s Basilica, complete with the great Bernini altar in the middle of its cross-shaped floorplan. To the side on the right of its long axis is a small baptismal chapel furnished with a slightly larger-than-life-sized stucco crucifix, well-meritedly considered to be one of the most impressive pieces of Québec religious sculpture, by the famed Québec sculptor of the late 19th / early 20th century, Louis-Philippe Hébert.

It is typical as a crucifix: Jesus hangs on the cross with his eyes towards heaven, his many wounds of flagellation visible, a crown of thorns on his head, nails prominently piercing his hands and feet. What is remarkable about it, however, is the depth given by the artist to the flagellation wounds. I mean literal depth: gouges measurable nearly in inches into the flesh, chunks of flesh torn off, or seemingly just hanging on by a membrane, littering the surface of the figure’s chest, abdomen, and legs to the knees. Of course, in some sense, this is standard (if medieval) Catholic fare for meditation on the crucifixion, for meditation on Christ’s suffering and death for the sins of humankind.

Yet it was not the crucifixion, neither suffering nor death, that I meditated upon one day after the mass, as I spent some extra time in the side chapel looking at this crucifix. Rather, it was the resurrection that I contemplated; or, to be more precise, it was the vigil of Holy Saturday. For it struck me then that, despite the brutal mutilation of the torso, the stucco skin was nevertheless particularly alive. It seemed as if Jesus’ body had become, precisely with the severe rupturing of the flesh, so porous that it had become in some sense susceptible to the resurrection⎯physically, materially, intimately open to the inflow of the transforming love of the divine into its very cells. If I may quote here the late, great Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

We are celebrating tonight the Easter Vigil which includes the Service of Light⎯the Light which is the Love of God, and which is also the Life everlasting. The Greek Orthodox tradition puts especial emphasis on this Light in its core teaching of theosis, or deification, of transfiguration into the resurrection state, a process that begins even in this very life. One of the 10th century Byzantine saints, a monk and poet named Symeon, was said to be so receptive to this Light that his body glowed; in one story told about him, some of his fellow monks wanted to kill him, but when they came at him with knives, the Light from his body shone so powerfully that it repelled them.

Ever since that day, fifteen years ago, before the crucifix in that cathedral in Montreal, the guiding question of my life has become how to open myself, body and soul, to that Light. The guiding task has become how to become porous, body and soul, to receive into me the life-giving love of God. Such openness, such porousness, requires a vigilance. We are not, naturally, significantly open to God. We like settled structures. We like the comfort of closed systems. The body loves to sleep. In our first reading today, we hear of how the Israelites, a generation of Israelites who knew only slavery, were afraid and spoke against Moses, saying that they preferred slavery in Egypt to dying in the wilderness. They did not know, they were not open to the wilderness as a place where God’s Spirit, as a pillar of fire, as Light, would lead them forth to freedom. The heart that has long dwelt in darkness, or even dimness, is afraid of that Light. The body that sleeps in the tomb, and even in the bed, is afraid of the Life that quickens unto everlasting glory. And the older we get, the more set in our ways we get too. Our lives unfold most of the time as in a series of self-protective grooves. Our institutions become stagnant. Even our muscles tighten and shrink and could really use a good stretching at least once a day. But this is to be expected. We after all carry within us, within our bodies and souls, the consequences of the fallenness of humanity; or, if you prefer, the evolutionary residue of about four billions years since the emergence of life on Earth. It takes a long time for settled structures to open to higher forms of life; and in the mean time, many die.

This evening we are also renewing our baptismal vows. Let us take a moment to appreciate the radical openness of a baby. Babies are like sponges for God’s Light. They barely have any structure at all. They are all growth, all burgeoning life, all openness to the unknown, because everything is unknown ⎯ drinking in love like water, because they know not yet the life in which a lack of love requires them to close themselves to survive. The word “radical”, of course, means, literally, “root”. It can traced back through both Latin and Greek to the Proto-Indo-European word wrad, meaning “root”. (A radish is, quite literally, a vegetable that is “root-ish”.) And, of course, Newfoundlanders know all about roots and love root vegetables. Therefore, we should be particularly good at being radical, of radically opening ourselves to God’s Love and Light and Life, even unto the very root of our being. That root is neither pure spirit nor pure physical matter, but somehow their communion. It is also the place where we are fully consciously in communion with God, and with others in God. Imagine the intimacy of that root then. Imagine the intimacy of the tomb in which a body and soul has become so open, so porous, that it is capable of receiving into itself the infinite. Imagine a heart, a mind, a soul, a body so open – imagine yourself so open, that you allow yourself to be gifted to yourself as your own immortal life. Imagine the intimacy of that moment of awakening, the very first breath, the first heartbeat, the first feeling in the transfigured limbs, the first awareness that someone has called your name⎯and you hear it as if you are hearing it for the first time, and yet, at the same time, as if you have always heard it, as if from eternity, yet you are only just now remembering. Imagine the dazzling intimacy of utter communion with the voice of that eternal call; and then allow yourself to be embraced into Him and glorified in every cell of your being, even in this lifetime.

Such imagination is the vigilance of the Easter Service of Light. It is the vigilance that welcomes the Light of the divine in the resurrection. It is a vigilance in which one feels oneself welcomed by the divine. A few years back I wrote a poem about this vigilance. I was meditating on how the human nature of Jesus received into itself to be transformed the Light and Love of the Father. I always enjoy when Reverend Mark, in his sermons, reads poetry. I ask you to indulge me then, and forgive me for reading my own poetry. But this is the poem that I wrote about the vigilance of Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday

Yeshu’a, beloved of You, Father, was enfolded in shade,

sleeping in that tomb of death within which he was laid.

But something he commended to You, which was his gift

just before he died upon the cross, encountering that rift

between worlds, the rupture housing th’emptiness of being;

something he delivered up just as Nothingness, decreeing

its domain and rule and triumph, embraced him in night –

while that which he had offered up found You in Light,

and so was by You welcomed mightily as a King’s son,

victorious after battle, glorious in the splendour of deeds done.

What was that treasure bequeathed? Lo! He called it “spirit”;

and from the depths lifted he it that You might hear it! –

depths which anon slept cold without breath (so suffer the dead).

But beauty so immortal had in living hours knelt upon his head

that You would have it not be but a truth of one passing day.

That which he delivered, thus, You returned to that which lay

still in the shadow-tomb without You (so suffer those in hell).

But You⎯with that which he had gifted – woke him. O! Tell

all the world, tell my heart and soul what his first thought was,

his primal feeling, what his heartbeat sang then – tell what does

such a waking give to Man on the inside! Yea! infinite Love

is wholly what Your Person is if to depths You bent from above

so as to glorify not just the gift, but even the son who gave it,

to make to breathe eternally a singular earthly fact to save it

from the dust of its undoing in time, down history’s tall ways.

O! Let the earth rejoice! A child of her flesh now lives always!

May we receive into ourselves, body and soul, this evening,

the Light of God and the Love of God, which

is our everlasting Life. Amen.

Dr. Michelle Rebidoux is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Memorial University and Adjunct Professor at Queen’s College Faculty of Theology. She attends the 10:30 am worship at St. Mark’s and is the artist behind our chancel mural project.