Easter Two -- Year A
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Lord have mercy. (Christ have mercy.) Lord have mercy.
I am just as surprised as you to be standing at this lectern about to preach but when Robert asked if I wanted to preach sometime during Easter, and I said “Yes” straight away. So, here I am. He may not have known how much I love this season.
You may not know that St. Matthew’s has its own Resurrection Story. It’s really the story of the beloved late parishioner Isabelle Webb and it occurred many years ago. But since she is no longer here to tell the tale, I will. Isabelle lived in Carol Woods. Another Isabelle also lived there and it was this Isabelle that died. However, someone in the office confused the two and mistakenly called Elizabeth Matheson to share the news. It was a Sunday, Elizabeth told our former rector, Brooks, and Brooks relayed the sad message to the congregation. We were all grief stricken. The next morning there was an urgent voice mail from our Isabelle with an important point of clarification: “I am alive. I am not dead.” I saved that voice mail for the longest time.
Eastertide is full of surprises. Different outcomes from what is expected. Almost magical. I made this association when I was preparing the opening remarks for the Faith & Arts hosting of Josh Lozoff, a local magician. He came during the season of Easter and I realized those liturgical readings continually contrast seeing and believing and believing without seeing. Magicians have a talent for making something you know can’t happen, seem to happen before your very eyes. Thomas, speaking for many of us, would not believe that Jesus was alive until he saw him for himself. I’ll bet, even then, he could scarce believe his eyes. Such is Faith: Believing the Unbelievable.
The days of the post-resurrection Jesus upended the tidy way we have of understanding birth, life, and death. Linear no longer. The veil between heaven and earth, torn from top to bottom. The space between: especially thin, full of mystery and power. We are living sometime between the now and the everlasting. Someplace between here and there. Not This. Not That. Both. Utterly new.
Jesus left the shroud of death in the tomb and emerged a new state of being. He tells Mary, do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father. He enters locked rooms and leaves in a poof. He is unrecognizable to people who knew him well until he gives them new eyes to see.
In Jesus, the eternal joined with the temporal. The promised Kingdom of God was at hand. Everything previously known needed to be reconsidered. Words required new definitions. Death not death but life. Bread not bread but the body of Christ. Wine not wine but the blood of Christ. Slave not slave but sister, brother, mother, father. A whole new language was needed to explain what had just happened and The Holy Spirit brought it: Tongues of Fire on the Day of Pentecost. Through Christ, because of Christ, we live both in this day and in the day that is to come as if they are one and the same. We live in The Kingdom of God.
So, that’s why I love Easter: the Season of Joyful Astonishment.
As soon as I got home after Robert asked me about preaching, I read all the Easter lessons for Year A. The week that gave me a spark were today’s, Easter Two. I hoped this would be my assignment and it turned out that it was.
It was Peter’s epistle that sent my spirit-birds aloft:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. . .
In particular, the words: He has given us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you . . .
The notion of inheritance and the words, in the present tense, kept in heaven for you caught my attention. Kept in heaven for you. You meaning me as I read it; you, yourself when you just heard it; you, meaning all of us, sitting here together in the church this morning; and you the whole church universal, all creation, earth, moon, stars, and constellations. This is Unbelievable: God giving us an inheritance and keeping it intentionally for us. Keeping it, protecting it, preserving it – imperishable, undefiled, unfading, a living hope. It is something to live for, something maybe even to die for.
After all, all inheritances come from death.
I have a corner cupboard. It belonged to my great aunt Mary, my mother’s mother’s sister. She was a doctor and it was in her waiting room. I remember it from my childhood. In it are a collection of tea cups and saucers, wedding china, a bowl and two pitchers belonging to my great-grandmother Fiddy, and a tea set that was a wedding gift to my forbearers married in 1775. Even though these items have been cared for and treasured, their age is showing. Some plates are faded, some cups are chipped and cracked. The wedding china has missing pieces, previously broken and thrown away. They may not have been everyday items but they were used and then passed down from one set of hands to another’s. Frankly they are completely fragile and will, one day, all be broken.
I like having these reminders of my past because Living Memory is frightfully short, as much as we may want to remember those who came before and want to be remembered ourselves when we’re gone. Even those who carve tombstones know that most of their etchings won’t be readable in 100 years’ time. We will be forgotten.
St. Matthew’s has a rich inheritance. So much is obvious. The windows. The organ. The carvings in the chancel. The land itself. But there have also been gifts, intangible gifts, gifts of goodwill from really good people who are on their own way to being forgotten as our membership ages and new people join: Joe Rosemond who lovingly tended the churchyard; LT & Betty Matthews who befriended newcomers with their broad smiles and good cheer; Steve Lockwood who revitalized the Christmas Pageant, clothing the angel Gabriel in a gold lamay jacket and sequined tie; Paige & Joyce Fisher, who gave stuffed church mice to families with newborns; and the previously mentioned Isabelle Webb, who was a keeper of our memories.
But, we all know that inheritances are a mixed bag and bring their own encumbrances. I inherited my father’s eyes. I may also have inherited a tendency to dementia. All the people I know who have had these eyes of mine succumbed to that disease. Beyond such unintended inheritances we also live with the choices, biases, prejudices, and world view of those who came before. We are, in fact, reeling from the effects of choices individuals and society, in general, made. We know this in our bones here at St. Matthew’s, here in Orange County, in this state, in the South, in this nation. And what about us? Our children and grandchildren are inheriting a world, on our watch, at a perilous ecological tipping point. The fact is we have a poor record of bequeathing. Everything we do has a whiff of decay.
God sees something in us worthy of receiving an inheritance, a goodly inheritance. We believe the unbelievable: despite the fact that our bodies will turn to dust, despite being blind to our own sins, God has not turned away. God is not finished. God has other plans. We will not be abandoned to the grave. Rather, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are shown the path of life leading us to the fullness of joy found in the presence of God.
Again, the idea of inheritance has been turned on its head. We inherit the keys to the Kingdom, as it were, not through the death of God’s only son but by his resurrection. There is no downside to this inheritance. God gave a promise to Abraham and is keeping it. It was a promise of land: a home. It was a promise of descendants: a family and community. And it was a promise of blessing: to be blessed and to be a blessing. Jesus was and is the fulfillment of this promise. He says “I go to prepare a place for you,” he is our home. He says “Lo, I am with you always,” he is our family.
Again from Peter:
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you …
Going back to that magic Easter theme, it is as if God is sprinkling pixie dust on us. We are taking on through Christ, because of Christ, in Christ a new birth, a new life, and one that offers redemption from this failed attempt we call living.
Without the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our life lacks meaning. What we have to pass onto our children, the next generation, lacks substance.
But in this hopeless world, in our hopeless condition, we are offered a living hope, a portion and cup, a fullness of joy, gifts we can offer the world during the now in which we live and the then that we will come to know: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Gifts that keep on giving. A life reconciled to the past, the present, and the future. A life redeemed and ready to serve. A life that does not wither and perish but finds fulfillment in the life God bids us to experience.
Mysteries, miracles, magic if you will, are all around. The mystery of why God created us, loves us, wants us; why God considers us worth it. The miracle of life itself, each breath we take, each breath the planet takes. And the magic of that thin space: that yesterday, today, and tomorrow forever bound. God holding us there. We are given an inheritance of faith that is being kept for us, in each of our names, ready to be drawn on now and later: imperishable, undefiled, unfading.
This may require a new way of thinking about each day we live, a new way of seeing the world around us, a new way of relating to our neighbors near and far, a new way of understanding the tasks that lay before us, a new way of describing the mystery unveiled. Like Thomas, we may need to ask Jesus to show himself to us. And like Thomas we may find that sighting Unbelievable. The reality of what is Unbelievable transformed into Faith accompanied with a profound sense of joyful astonishment.
Alleluia!! Happy Easter!! Amen.