Easter Vigil: April 7, 2012 at St Alban’s in Albany, CA
There are moments in our lives that are shock points. Moments when everything we assume about reality, about the way this world works, are all called into question within a single event, a single moment. And we are left quivering in awe and terror. These are moments when everything gets turned upside down and we cease to know who we are, even if for just a moment. Now, we usually regain our composure and return to “normal” – that is, our usual management of our world through our perceptions of reality.
It’s as if we have this room in our mind, where we have everything ordered to our liking:
over here are things that comfort me – perhaps a couch or a chair, over here are things that I like to work on – perhaps found in a desk or a workbench, and over there, locked in those fileboxes on the shelf in the corner, are things that I don’t like to think about
And this shock point is a bit like someone has come through this room in our mind and pushed the furniture around just a bit and pulled some of the things out of those fileboxes that we thought were locked.
So, to regain our composure, perhaps we diagnose the situation, analyzing it in some way to give us a sense of power or normalcy so it fits with our understanding. Or we might blame someone for being inconsiderate enough to have messed with our world and get annoyed with them. And we might just deny it even happened, or reframe the event, preferring to see only that which already makes sense to us and how we see ourselves.
And we pride ourselves on getting over it, especially in this culture. We are pleased when we can finally put a label on it and put it in a box on a shelf in our mind, so we can keep all the other furniture in place and know who we are again. Everything in its proper place, we can breathe a sigh of relief and comfort.
It’s a tired phrase, but it’s one that fits nonetheless: “Perception is everything.” Buddhists call this “conditioning.” It is the set of lens through which we view the world – the understandings we have taken to be truth, that help us to navigate this mysterious land that is the world before us, informing our behavior and our attitudes. We believe only what we perceive to be real.
There’s a story that helps to demonstrate this. I don’t know how to validate it, but it’s a story, so just work with me: In 1492 when Columbus’ ships came onto the horizon, the natives living on the islands of what we now call the Bahamas, could tell there was a strange disturbance in the water, but they couldn’t see the ships themselves because they had never seen anything like them and they had no way to frame what they were seeing in their minds. Their brains literally could not see the ships. In other words, they could not wrap their mind around the concept of huge ships. Their perception, in this regard, was limited – just like all of ours is limited in some other way by our conditioning.
And all this makes me wonder. What was it like for these women in Mark’s Gospel? For Mary Magdalene, and for Mary the mother of James, and for Salome? How did they handle this shock point? This altering of their reality?
What they knew was that they loved was dead – a teacher they followed had been tortured and murdered and laid in a tomb. And according to Jewish tradition, they waited until the Sabbath was over to anoint his body – a sacrament typically performed by women. They bought the spices. They went to the tomb of their beloved friend early in the morning as the sun was rising and were faced with a scene they weren’t prepared for. Something so shocking, they didn’t know how to make sense of it. Indeed, they could not make sense of it.
And yet, they knew they had to tell the other disciples what had happened, even though they wanted to keep their mouths shut. What did they say to one another as they fled the tomb in terror and amazement? How did they explain this to the other disciples? How were they processing this event?
I know what I would have been saying! (something full of expletives, no doubt… but even my sometimes-questionable sense of decorum prevents me from saying it here in a sermon)
So, what would you have been saying?
“Uh-oh. How do we explain this?”
“Yeah, right! I want to know who stole his body!”
“I don’t get it… what’s happening?”
“Now what do we do with all these spices?”
Was there a so-called level-headed one who tried to explain it away and come up with a story to tell the others? Were there tears that accompanied the terror? Anger? Shame?
Or… perhaps these women were able to move beyond their fears that shaped their perception of the world just long enough for the Holy Spirit to whisper something new in their ear. Perhaps instead of trying to figure this out and make sense of it, they stopped their composure-gathering long enough to witness truth. And, as Hillel suggested in his Good Friday sermon, perhaps they learned the obedience of true self… embracing their vulnerabilities, their loneliness, their fears, and their weaknesses because they heard the invitation of the Truth of God.
Perhaps they were willing to see something new. Willing to forget what they thought they knew about themselves, forget what they assumed about each other, and forget what they believed about God… long enough to see a new reality. Long enough to witness Jesus arisen. Forgetting their perceptions long enough to remember Christ.
Tonight is about just this… this re-minding, this re-membering, this seeing anew. Tonight is a night of some magic. A night of forgetting our perceptions and simply taking things in through our senses:
the glow of the Paschal candle lit from the new fire
the chanting of the words of celebration in the Exhultant
the darkness that surrounded us
the warmth of the candle that was in your hand
the sounds of the stories from our tradition
the feel of the water sprinkled upon you in blessing
the sound of our joyous Alleluias after a long Lenten season
the feel of bread in your mouth and wine on your lips
the blending of our voices as we sing
the smell of the flowers
and perhaps, the taste of the sweet and bubbly.
For when we are truly sensing and taking in the world around us, our perceptions, our thoughts about the world and what we think it is, actually takes a vacation. When we rest in what this flesh experiences, rather than worrying about how to label what is happening, we are able to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit and see Christ risen anew.
And then our perceptions take over again, trying to make sense of what is happening until we re-mind ourselves to rest here as Christ awakens before us and within us.
God’s grace is available to us always. We are loved by God. Our stories tell us this – that we have been wholly loved from the beginning of time and we will be until the end of all days. We are both a precious treasure and an insignificantly tiny part of this amazing, beautiful, endless universe. It can be hard to believe that we are so integral to such infinity, that we are so precious to our God that is the ground of all being. But we are.
And there is nothing we can do, truly nothing we can do that will ever change this. God has never and will never stop loving you, nor the entirety of this, God’s gorgeous creation.
And as we look at our stories of salvation tonight… as we read the Exodus story once again, as we listen to the prophet Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, as we hear the song of Zephaniah calling to us…We are re-minded that our salvation is bound to our humanity and our willingness to bear witness to one another and this creation in which we live is our response to God’s Love.
And so we take the story deeply into our being, into this flesh that we share with one another, this flesh that we share with Jesus, our beloved teacher, the one we call Messiah, The Son of God, the crucified Savior… to re-member this flesh is the very home of our redemption.
It is this flesh that sees, that hears, that feels, that smells, that tastes… this flesh that reconciles us to God and to one another because it is where we rest and where we find home.
And our only job is to be in this flesh, be here in this space of magic…
where we don’t know and can’t really make sense of things, where we might bring our curiosity to see where the furniture in our mind might be now, where we might be re-minded of Whose we are and bear witness to Christ arisen, this shocking moment of utter and eternal Love.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!