Breaking the Illusion of Separateness, Overcoming the Power of Death: An Easter Sermon


 Some of you – perhaps many of you – may have heard the story of Norma.   Norma turned 90 in 2015, a year that should have been one of celebration for having reached such a distinguished age.  But it turned out to be a very difficult year for Norma and her family.  In the midst of the year, Norma’s husband of 67 years passed away suddenly.  And two days after his death, Norma was diagnosed with uterine cancer.   Her doctors explained to her all the treatment options, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  But Norma decided to skip treatment all together.  “I’m ninety years old,” she said, “I’m hitting the road.”

And so in August of 2015, Norma, together with her son and his wife, and their dog, did exactly that:  they set out in their RV to see as much of the country as they could.

And a great trip she had.  She saw “the Rocky Mountains, visited National Parks, strolled through New Orleans, and [even took] part in a Native American ceremony.”  ( When she got to Florida, she fulfilled a life-long dream of riding in a hot air balloon, and on another occasion, tried her first mimosa.  And, as one journalist reported, she also had her first fist-bump with a girl she met on the street.  She went whale watching, and got her first view of the Grand Canyon.  She had her first pedicure.  Her family created the Driving Miss Norma Facebook page, that garnered a following of more than half a million people from around the world.   Her story became an inspiration for many.

Over the course of a year, Norma and her family traveled some 13,000 miles, staying in over 75 places in 32 states.  In October of last year, at the age of 91, Norma died in the RV that had become her home and her window on the world.  Her memorial service was held in Washington state – on the other side of the country from Northern Michigan, where her trip had begun.

Norma’s story felt compelling to a lot of people.  And why?   I think it was the nature of the choice that she made.  When Norma was confronted with the reality of death, with the truth of her own mortality, she did not choose to try to hold onto her life as tightly as she could.  Instead, she embraced what was coming, and in the face of death, she chose to live her life, embracing what was left of it as fully as she could.  More fully, in fact, than she ever had.

It was a choice that one might not have expected of Norma.  Her son described her to a reporter as someone who had very much lived in the shadow of his father.  When he would call his parents, he said, his mom was a silent presence on the phone.  It was his father who did all the talking.  In fact, before embarking on this RV journey together, he had felt that he hadn’t known his mother very well.  Since getting married and settling down in Northern Michigan, she rarely went very far from her home.  She had never even been to Wisconsin, the neighboring state.  It seems to me that when Norma’s doctors announced to her the news of her diagnosis, she was pulled out of her normal frame of reference, of her normal way of thinking about things, and pulled into an entirely new consciousness in which, suddenly, staying safely close to home no longer made any sense.  She saw herself, it seems, being invited into a journey.  And she chose to say, “Yes.”   She chose to leave behind what she knew and walk boldly into the unknown, trusting that some sort of new life – however briefly it would be experienced — was to be found there.   We could call that a moment of grace.  It’s almost as if, in her doctor’s office, Norma heard God calling her name for the first time, and hearing that, she awakened to new possibilities.

To see Norma’s story in this way is to say that, while it is very different in its details, it is essentially the same kind of story that we hear in the Gospel for this morning, John’s story of how the Risen Christ becomes known and announced.   The center of John’s story is not really Jesus, but Mary Magdalene, a woman who accompanied Jesus during his ministry.  There has been much speculation over the centuries regarding the nature of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and during the Middle Ages, Mary came to be regarded as a prostitute, a woman of questionable moral character – a claim that has absolutely no supporting evidence.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned at least 12 times in the New Testament, more than most of the apostles, and is described by both Luke and Mark as a woman from whom seven demons were cast out by Jesus.  Christian texts from the third century suggest that her status as an apostle rivaled that even of Peter.  In fact, there are non-scriptural texts that depict Mary as having understood Jesus better than the guys did, and that suggest she assumed the role of a teacher of the remaining disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Regardless of what we make of these traditions, all four of the gospels include Mary among the first witnesses to the Risen Christ and John makes her the one person to whom the Risen Christ is revealed first of all.

In telling this story, John seems to be trying to give some idea of the emotional space in which Mary found herself just before the Risen Christ is revealed to her, telling us that after Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” had gone back home, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb, Mary remained outside the tomb, weeping.  She is, of course, grieving.  Staring into the emptiness of that tomb, having witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross only days before, must have been like staring into the face of death itself.  In her mind, death had taken her beloved Jesus from her.   Whatever the nature of her relationship with Jesus was, she certainly loved him as a teacher, as someone who had come into her life and decisively changed it, who had perhaps given her a reason for being at a time in her life when she felt utterly lost.  This man was now gone, swallowed up by death, and I can imagine that she must have felt herself to have been returned by this tragedy to that lost place, wondering what her life was now supposed to be about.

As she stood in this space, overwhelmed by the power of death, where everything seemed to be coming to an end and falling apart, the Risen Christ comes to her.  She cannot at first recognize him for who he is, because she is stuck in a place of death and Christ is coming toward her from a place of life. She cannot see Jesus in front of her until he calls her by name, and in hearing the Divine utter her name, suddenly she was pulled out of her normal way of thinking, pulled out of the power of death and pulled into a completely new frame of reference, one in which death loses its power and its finality.  Mary is offered a grace-filled invitation to let go of a life dominated by the power of death and instead embark on a new journey in which she embraces life in all its fullness.

And if even some of the traditions that arose in the early church with respect to Mary are true, then she certainly accepted that invitation whole-heartedly, becoming a woman who proclaimed the gospel in word and deed, with wisdom and insight.  Jesus, who had changed her life once already during his earthly life and ministry, changed it again when she met him as the Risen Christ.

Norma and Mary are two very different women, who lived in very different times.  Yet they both had an experience of standing before the reality of death and being invited by the Risen One to refuse death the power it desires, and the fear that comes with it, and, instead, allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the mystery of life as it is given by God.  Their decision to accept that invitation changed both of them in wonderful and amazing ways, and made them powerful and inspirational witnesses to others.

It is this grace-filled space of being overwhelmed by the mystery of the life that God gives to us that I think is where the true celebration of Easter is to be found.  As we gather this morning, we are tempted to think that we are celebrating an event of the distant past, to think of this day only as a time to remember the Resurrection of Jesus and give thanks for it.  But the events of Jesus’ life, as unique and unrepeatable as they may be in their details, are always meant to point beyond themselves, to reveal not simply the way in which God worked in the life of Jesus centuries ago, but to reveal the way in which God seeks to work in all of our lives all the time.  The New Testament is filled with language that talks about Christians being “in Christ” and acquiring the “mind of Christ.”   All of this language is meant to point us toward the deep truth that what God is doing in Jesus is what God is always doing everywhere, all the time.

Which means that Resurrection is not just a one-off event in the life of Christ, but is a dynamic reality in our own lives, a reality that seeks to change the way we see and interact with the world.  As we sit stuck in the power of death, the Risen Christ continues to come toward us from the power of life, continuing to call us each by name, seeking to awaken us to the divine presence that is right in front of us.

The great 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, had his own experience of awakening, which he describes in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  He writes,

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .  This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . .  I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.   As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Merton’s experience of “waking from a dream of separateness” is the sort of awakening that happened, I think, to Norma in her doctor’s office, and to Mary in the garden.  For Norma, for Mary, and for Merton, they were – each in their different moments – delivered from the power of death into the power of life:  the inexhaustible, overwhelming divine life in which we are all held, in which we are all connected to each other, in which – as Merton so beautifully describes it – we are all walking around, shining like the sun.

We human beings live much of the time dominated by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of hopelessness rather than hope, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of fear of others, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we place the safety and security of a few above the well-being of the whole, we are being run by the power of death.  The power of death makes us selfish, the power of death makes us fearful, the power of death makes us feel that we must grab as much as we can for ourselves because there is not enough to go around.  The power of death sees every ending, every difficult point of transition, as threatening, and desperately tries to hold on to what has been out of a fear of what might be.  Ultimately, it is the power of death that closes borders, launches missiles, denies human rights, and makes judgments about people based on whatever makes them different.  It is the power of death that generates the illusion of separateness, giving us permission to withhold our compassion from those who need it most, and convincing us that we must live at the expense of others; that this is the way life is supposed to be.  It is this power that crucified Jesus, and it is this power that God exposes as a fraud on this Day of Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has been called in the Christian tradition the “apostle to the apostles”, because she it was who first conveyed the news that Christ was alive to the 11 remaining male disciples of Jesus, who acquired the title “apostle” after their own experiences of the Risen Christ, for which Mary prepared them.  The word “apostle” means “witness”, and those who bear the title “apostle” are those who are able to see life, and to interact with the world, through the lens of the Resurrection, those who are able to bear witness of the good news of God’s abundant life to others.  Apostles are people who have been delivered from the power of death to embrace the fullness of life, who see that all people shine like the sun.  Apostles are people who, as Merton says, recognize the immense joy of being human, a joy so powerful that they cannot be overwhelmed by the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition.

Our world needs such apostles.  Our world needs people who can reach across dividing lines in the name of a shared humanity, in the name of the one life that God gives to each of us, out of the simple joy of having been gifted with this amazing human existence.  When we are able to see the world through the lens of Resurrection, we are able to rejoice in the humanity of all people.  And when we are overwhelmed by that immense joy, when we see the divine light shining in others, then we cannot ignore the world’s suffering and sorrow, we cannot ignore its injustices and its violence.  But we can engage them from a place of life rather than death, allowing our voices to become the voice of Christ who calls our fellow human beings by name, and seeks to awaken the whole world from the dream of separateness and the power of death.

We gather today to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, but in doing so, we celebrate the possibility of Resurrection for us all.   Just as the Risen Christ came to Mary filled with the power of life, so the Risen Christ comes to us.   Just as Norma perceived a calling coming toward her, inviting her to set aside her fear and set out joyfully into the larger world so does that calling come to us.  Just as Thomas Merton suddenly saw the oneness of humanity as the illusion of separateness dropped away, so does the Risen Christ seek to draw us away from that illusion.

May we go forth from this place today deeply aware of how we shine like the sun .  When we leave here today, may we find ourselves standing firmly at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, the corner of life and death, and may we have the courage, the strength, and the grace to joyfully choose life – for us, for our planet, and for all people.