Easter Sermon 2015

Sermon for Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015
Trinity Church in Menlo Park
The Rev. Matthew R. Dutton-Gillett

This past summer, I was one of three adults who accompanied six Trinity youth to Spain, where together we walked the last 86 miles of the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route that runs from France to the Cathedral in Santiago, Spain, wherein (it is said) the bones of St. James the Apostle are at rest. Church tradition maintains that St. James ventured into the Iberian Peninsula to proclaim the Gospel, and then eventually returned to Palestine. There he was put to death, and his body was returned to what is now the Galician region in Spain, ultimately to be entombed in the cathedral that bears his name.

A popular pilgrimage route to the cathedral eventually sprang up along ancient Roman roads. Over the centuries, people have walked this pilgrimage for many reasons, and it has been more or less popular at different points in its history. These days, according to official statistics, about 200,000 people walk the Camino annually, and about half say that they do so for a religious or spiritual reason.

Our little band of pilgrims was certainly among that half. However, if you were to ask me what that spiritual reason was for our pilgrimage, I would have to say that it was probably different for each person. And, I would dare to say that none of us really knew what our reason for walking was until we had done it. The call of the Camino often doesn’t become clear until one is on the path.

As we neared the end of our pilgrimage, we began to talk about what it would be like to return to our lives, and how we would tell others about our experience. We realized that our ability to communicate our experience would be very limited. Certainly, we could tell people stories about what we saw and heard, about the people that we met, about how it felt to walk all those miles, about the thoughts and feelings that were stirred in us. But even after telling those stories, no one who heard us (unless they had walked the Camino themselves) would really know what we experienced. They would know things about that experience, and if they were very familiar with us, they might see that the experience had changed us in some way. But they would never be able to know our experience from the inside, so to speak. They would be limited to the externals, which, in the end, is only a pale representation of what it was really like to walk that ancient path.

If all this is true of the Camino experience, how much more is it true of the Resurrection of Jesus.

When the women who came to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning on that first Easter heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection, they did not know what to do with it, at least according to St. Mark, whose account of this story is the Easter Gospel appointed for this year. Mark says that they were both amazed and terrified, and opted to say nothing to anyone. In fact, Mark’s Gospel originally seems to have contained no story of anyone encountering the Risen Jesus. If you were to open your Bible and read the ending of Mark, you would find some stories of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and then to others, including the 11 remaining apostles. But analysis of the way these stories are written have led scholars to conclude that they were added sometime later, probably by people who were embarrassed that Mark had not included them.

Why would Mark not have included what all the other gospel writers considered important? Why would Mark have chosen not to share stories of Jesus’ followers meeting the Risen Christ?

We will never know, of course. But I think that perhaps Mark chose not to relate these stories because he knew how impossible it was for him to communicate the experience. The stories told by the other gospel writers, and by whoever added those stories to Mark, are like the stories that Camino pilgrims tell to those who have not been on the Camino: they tell us about what people saw and what they heard, and in some cases, they tell us how meeting the Risen Jesus made people feel. But all of these stories leave us who read them on the outside of the experience. To put it another way, the gospels are the means by which we know about the resurrection of Jesus, but they cannot give us an experience of the Risen Christ.

Mark, I think, knew this. He understood the limits of storytelling, and he knew that for the Resurrection of Jesus to mean anything to later generations of people, those people would need to find a way into the experience themselves. The stories could be nothing more (and nothing less) than an invitation to discover the experience of Resurrection in one’s own life. And, therefore, each follower of Jesus would need to supply his or her own ending to Mark’s Gospel, his or her own personal story of Resurrection.

Our celebration of the Risen Jesus today invites us not so much to believe in an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but rather to embrace and explore the very possibility of “risen-ness”. The appearance of the Risen Christ is not primarily about a dead person popping into life again – if that were the main point, then we would have an interesting miracle to talk and wonder about, but we would have no experience that would make the resurrection of Jesus mean anything to us here and now. No – the appearance of the Risen Christ is important to us because it declares the possibility and the promise of living a life that is characterized by “risen-ness”. Our proclamation today is not, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen.” It is, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen.” The real story of Easter is of resurrection as a dynamic spiritual energy that can transform our lives and, through us, the life of the world. And when we talk about this dynamic spiritual energy of “risen-ness”, we are talking about an experience that draws us inside the life of God. And when we are drawn inside the life of God, we are being drawn into what Richard Rohr and others call our true self, or what I like to call our larger self, that place in us where our soul is found in God and God is found in our soul.

So how do we discover our larger self? How do we move into the spiritual energy of resurrection and begin to live a Risen Life?

Well, if we have a larger self that participates in the energy of resurrection, then we also have a smaller self that participates in what we might call the energy of  crucifixion. The tragedy of human life is that most of the time, most of us live with our hearts centered in this small self; the challenge of human life is to move beyond the small self and center our hearts in our larger self.

Our small self is heavily invested in things that, by their nature, do not last – although, the small self likes to pretend that they do last, that they are the most important things in life. The small self invests itself in work, tending to believe that its truest identity is found in what we do for a living. The small self likes to accumulate things, and takes a great deal of pride in its material success, believing that wealth confers status and importance. The small self is very concerned with its reputation, and worries about what other people think, fearing what would happen if its deepest secrets or failures were to be discovered. The small self believes that these things are what life is truly about. But, at the same time, the small self knows – though it does not like to admit – that these things will one day disappear. Aging or adversity will eventually take our work and our wealth away from us, and the opinions others hold of us can change like the wind. Ultimately, death takes all these things from us – you can’t take it with you, and one day there won’t be anyone to remember you anymore. And so, the small self is terrified of death because death means the end of everything that is important to it. And since the small self believes that these things are what life is about, the small self cannot see that there is any possibility of anything existing beyond death.

It is not that the concerns of the small self are bad. It’s just that they don’t go deeply enough, and they cannot provide us with lasting meaning in our lives. And, because the foundation of the small self is fear, when we are centered in that self, we tend to divide the world into us and them, categorizing people according to their work, their wealth, their reputation, making easy judgments about who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out. The small self has trouble seeing a connection between itself and other people, let alone between itself and creation. The small self’s very smallness makes it the root of injustice, cruelty, prejudice, and the like. It’s vision is simply too limited.

This is why, if we wish to experience the Risen Life that the Risen Christ is pointing us toward, we must move our center out of the small self and into the larger self. When our hearts are centered in our larger self, then we are living from that place of “risen-ness” that knows that death is not the end of what is most important in life. Rather than living in competition with others, we know ourselves as part of the great web of connection that is life itself. Rather than focusing on what makes us different from others, we appreciate that which we hold in common, and we are not so quick to pass judgment. Rather than living based on a fear of death, we live based on a confidence that death cannot take away our essential self – for we know that we are connected always to life and to God, and that this connection cannot be broken – it merely changes in form when our bodies die. Rather than distancing ourselves from the suffering of others, we desire an increasing solidarity that moves us to an ever deeper compassion. Our larger self knows that the essence of life is love, and love never passes away. And because our larger self knows that it is loved always by God, it does not fear failure or mistakes or setbacks, it does not need to  hide anything because it knows that all of this is just a part of life’s journey, and in the end, everything in life simply makes us larger and moves us closer to God if we allow it.

If you think about it, despite all the energy we put into the concerns of the small self, the moments that we tend to most cherish in our lives are really larger self moments. They are the moments when we have a sense of being lifted out of ourselves and put in touch with something much larger and much more meaningful.

For me, these moments have included things like being present at the birth of my children and with those who are dying. They have included staring out over the vastness of the ocean and being momentarily overwhelmed by both the beauty and power of creation. They have included moments when I have been deeply moved by the suffering or the compassion of others. Music, works of art, services of worship, married life, abiding friendships – all of these have held for me moments of transcendence, when life has opened up in a larger and more deeply meaningful way. I feel confident that everyone here has had these types of moments in your lives, when you have been overwhelmed and plunged into a far deeper ocean of meaning than you normally inhabit. These are moments when the heart shifts its center from the small self to the larger self – these are moments when we become connected to the spiritual energy of resurrection and have a taste of the Risen Life. These are moments when we are brought inside the life of God, when the nature of life as love is revealed. They are the moments that often bring us to tears – sometimes of sorrow, often of joy.

The question is not whether we have such moments, but what we do with them. Do we allow the memory and meaning of such moments to be overtaken by the concerns of the small self, or do we allow these moments to become anchor points whose memory we nurture as a way to remind us of the Risen Life of love and meaning that lies just beneath the surface of daily life? Do we allow these moments to soften our harder edges, making us more vulnerable? This, it seems to me, is the essence of a spiritual practice: the habit of using the transcendent moments of our life to connect us to a larger whole, to connect us to God, to connect us to the energy of resurrection.

This is what we do in church today, and every Sunday: we gather to remember and celebrate the anchor points of the church’s life, the moments of transcendence that Jesus opened up for his first followers that connected them to the Risen Life, that brought them inside the life of God, that shifted their hearts. We remember and celebrate these anchor points in story, in song, in prayer, in the sharing of a sacred meal. And in remembering those moments, we are invited to remember our own moments of connection, to draw a direct line between their experiences and ours, and to recognize that the essence of those experiences is the same: the energy of resurrection, raising us out of our small selves into the larger self.

This, it turns out, is what the Camino helped to teach me. The Camino is much like life itself. As we begin the journey, we tend to be preoccupied with how uncomfortable it can be and how much our feet hurt sometimes. We worry about getting to the next destination, and how far we will need to go to get there, and what sort of terrain we might have to travel through. As we move deeper into the journey, however, we accept that hurting feet are sometimes just a part of life, and that there will be a destination eventually, whether far or near doesn’t really matter. We begin to notice more of the terrain around us, to appreciate its beauty and the mystery of life from which all this beauty arises. We notice other pilgrims, fellow travelers on the way, and the small kindnesses that they offer to one another. We begin to appreciate their beauty, too – and give thanks to the One who allows all this human beauty to arise. We begin to feel the preoccupations and worries of the small self fade into the background, and relax into the moments of connection to God and to God’s resurrection energy that the journey offers, often when we least expect it. We feel ourselves becoming more gentle with our own humanity, and therefore with the humanity of others. We begin to have faith: not in a God who organizes and controls the journey, but who allows it to happen, walks it with us, and always holds us in love no matter what twists or turns we may encounter.

As I walked the Camino last summer, I could feel myself being raised up from my small self into my larger self. I could feel my heart shift its center, and I could taste the Risen Life that the Risen Christ promises is there.  This Easter that is my primary anchor point into the experience of Resurrection, the ending I would supply to Mark’s Gospel.

What is your anchor point this year? What is that moment that opens you up to your larger self, and to connection with the energy of Resurrection? You may know already, or you may need to walk a little further before it comes to you. But know this: as we celebrate the Risen Christ today, we are not just celebrating what God did in Jesus. We are celebrating the fact that what God did in Jesus reveals what God is always doing: looking for those anchor points into our lives that will become invitations into the larger self, invitations to the inside of God’s life, to the Risen Life that is always there, under the surface.

Contending with the Crucifixion

The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God.  The resurrection is the banner of what God does [for] us in return.

— Richard Rohr

Every Palm Sunday, and every Good Friday, Christians must contend with the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is something that should really be quite simple, even as it challenges us emotionally and spiritually.   But Christians have tended to try to make it very complicated.

Here is the simple part:  Jesus was murdered.  It was a murder that was brought about by a collaboration between the religious and political authorities of his time, who manipulated crowds of people who were desperately wanting Jesus to start a political revolution, and were bitterly disappointed when he did not.  That disappointment, coupled with the cunningness of those in authority, allowed Jesus to become the scape goat for a lot of pent up anger and frustration.  The authorities successfully redirected that anger onto Jesus, making him (in religious language) the bearer of sin — the one to be made responsible for the fact that life was not what people wanted it to be.   And killing him promised to take the fire out of their anger, to make everyone feel better (whether it actually did is another matter).   And so, an unjust, state-sanctioned murder occurred.  Jesus became the victim.

Here’s the spiritually and emotionally challenging part:  Jesus knew he would be made the victim.  He had spent most of his adult life (and, perhaps, even his childhood) among victims, people who had been on the receiving end of their family’s or society’s anger and outrage.  He was intimately familiar with the human habit of victimizing a person, or a group of people, in an effort to resolve pain that really had nothing to do with the designated victim or victims.  Jesus knew this intimately as the truly original sin of humanity.  And he voluntarily allowed himself to be pulled into this victim role, carrying the Divine with him, so that he — and God — could fully inhabit this space of the victim, taking upon himself (in religious language) the sin of the world.  Notice that this has nothing to do with God requiring Jesus to die.  God does not need to make victims.  God became the victim:  of human beings.  And so the crucifixion does not show us God as Perpetrator but God as Victim — meaning that we are the ones in the role of perpetrator, as we so often are in so many ways.  The crucifixion of Jesus shows us who we are when we allow ourselves to be run by a fearful ego.   And that is hard stuff to take in.

Here’s the complication:  We have been so unwilling to allow the crucifixion to tell us about ourselves that we have insisted on turning it around and forcing it to tell us something about God.  That would have been okay, at least in part, if we had made the crucifixion tell us about God inhabiting the role of the victim, of our victim.  But that’s not what we have done over the centuries.  Instead, we have made the crucifixion tell us about God involving God’s self in violence, and insisting on violence and sacrifice as the only way in which forgiveness and salvation can be offered to us.  We have, in other words, interpreted the crucifixion to put God in the role of Perpetrator, and insisted that this was part of some complicated divine algebra that was necessary for reasons we cannot understand.  And so we have turned God into a monster, supposing that violence and sacrifice is what God is about.   We have imagined God needing the death of God’s Son, even as we can’t imagine demanding such a thing of our own children.  Somehow, God is a worse parent than we are.   I find myself wondering how we have carried on believing this for so long.

If we wish to see what God is up to, we need to look not at the crucifixion but at the resurrection.      That is the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.  And what we see in the resurrection of Jesus is not vengeance and retribution visited upon those who murdered the Son of God.  No, what we see is forgiveness and love:  this is the pattern of God’s response to our violence.  First, God in Christ becomes our victim — Jesus is indeed a sacrifice, but not to God.  Jesus is a sacrifice to us.  Then, God reveals that life is stronger than our violence, that love is stronger than death, for God in Christ returns to us to forgive us, to love us, and to invite us into the path of non-violence, in which there are no more victims.  It is through the resurrection that we get invited into the inside of God’s life, a life in which there is no room for any more crucifixions.

As we contend with the crucifixion on Good Friday, let us not contend with a complicated theology that somehow makes God responsible for the death of Jesus, or a prejudiced theology that somehow makes the Jewish people responsible for it.  Let us, instead, let the crucifixion help us to realize the patterns of fear and violence that run so deeply in us.  Let us allow the cross to expose all that is within us that draws us away from God’s love and forgiveness so that, on Easter, we might be prepared to receive God’s love and forgiveness in ways that allow us truly to walk with Jesus the path of compassion and non-violence.  For this is truly the life to which God is calling us in the Risen Christ.