April 16, 2017

Grace in the Wilderness


Text: Jeremiah 31:2: "The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness."

After all these years I think I have finally figured out who you are. Heaven knows it has taken me long enough. Looking back on it I'm sure the reason it took me so long was that I thought I knew, you know, who I was dealing with here.

Part of the blame has to go to my seminary training, I guess. Because that's where they tell you for the first time about this peculiar tribe of people you're going to meet up with when you step into your church on a day like this. Maybe you've heard of them—I'm not sure if they're spoken of outside of seminary walls. But I learned of them as "Christmas and Easter People."

Calling the Christmas and Easter tribe...

Calling the Christmas and Easter tribe...

The legends were that this was an ancient tribe—something more like a cult, really—that mysteriously materialized in churches on the two principal feast days of the Christian year. Well, actually, on Christmas Eve and Easter day; I think there are few reported sightings of Christmas and Easter people on Christmas Day.

But on virtually all other days of the year, and for fifty-one out of fifty-two Sundays, they mysteriously vanished. Research expeditions were launched in the middle of the twentieth century in an effort to locate and study their native habitat, which was thought to be somewhere in or near the suburbs of the large cities; but none were ever found, and some of those brave explorers never returned.

So I suppose I thought, you know, that this would be my experience here at Saint John's. I guess that's what I thought I had figured out. On this day, on Easter Day, there would be another fleeting glimpse of that momentary species.

But, you know, that hasn't turned out to be true. Oh, there are Christmas Eve people, that's for sure. But you—all of you, well, you're different. You're not the disappearing sort.

I've been thinking about this, and I've come to the conclusion that —like so many other things, what really happened to the Christmas and Easter species was, well, climate change. The Christmas and Easter species turned out to be highly sensitive to changes in the climate—the climate of our religious culture.

That climate still turns out to be pretty safe at Christmastime—there is a huge cultural affirmation of Christmas, mostly having to do with the peculiar alignment of the religious holiday with an economic culture of consumerism. Pretty much the entire species can flourish in that climate, and they bloom in the pews of the church right on time every Christmas Eve.

But one of the most dramatic changes in the climate of religion and culture has been its effect on the season of Lent and feast of Easter. All of a sudden all the cloud cover the culture used to provide for the Christmas and Easter tribe has evaporated. To come to church on Easter day now, they have to venture out into the harsh sunlight of publicity; they have to be willing to say something about just why they would be going to church on Easter Sunday morning. The change in our cultural climate has stripped away what used to be the protection of the crowds.

To be here in church on Easter Sunday morning, well, it used to be the thing you automatically put in your diary right before the brunch reservation. But now—now it really means something. Going to church on Easter day these days means you are standing for something. It isn't just going to church—it's going to church for the reason the church exists!

So now I think I have figured it out. A new species has emerged. You are Easter people. I am too. We Easter people, we are the ones who have adapted to that cultural climate change and can come out in the sunlight without fear. We know why we're here.

We might be a little hazy on the particulars, but we know what today is about. Today is about resurrection. Today is about God acting in human time to give us a way of living outside of time—a way of eternal life. Today is the day we are taught that God never abandons us, that the power of love always wins in the end, and that between now and the end there are some pretty stiff odds against mercy and justice ever getting a fair hearing.

Today is the day we stand for something we know is true even if we can't explain it to the standard of scientific proof: That the Jesus, not the baby in the manger but the crucified, broken body of the executed man, was restored to life in some way that fundamentally changed the whole of reality for the people who experienced it.

Of course we can't explain it to the standards of science. If we could, it wouldn't be faith that we were about here. But that is what it is. Thanks be to God, we are a community of faith, not a community of proof.

The gift that Easter gives to us Easter people, if we trouble to hunt for it just a little in the places it gets hidden, is grace—not just the possibility of leading graceful lives, but the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it and the sense to recognize it all around us. And whether it's in our own lives or the lives of others around us, that grace that is what sustains us in faith beyond the need of any evidence. It is what brings us back to life again when we feel doubt, or despair, or confusion.

Back before the days of cultural climate change we lived in a lush and supportive environment for faith. Nobody looked funny at you for going to church. In fact people sort of looked funny at you if you didn't, especially the people who went every week and still didn't get very clear on the mercy and forgiveness idea.

But now, when we leave here we go out into what is a pretty barren wilderness. That's the place where we Easter people have to dwell through the days that stretch between one Sunday and another. But we have this to hold onto: Christ is risen. Grace is around us, even in this wilderness, if we will just look for it. Love will win, though the trials may be long and sorrowing.

And even if it takes angels and earthquakes, God will break down the power of death—the death of our hopes, the death of our little ambitions, the death of our cherished loves, even the death of our bodies. God will reach right into our tombs with the insistence of irrepressible life.