Thomas Leinbach
Congregational Church of Brookfield
04-16-2006 -- Easter

Easter Sermon


As a pastor, I frequently am struck by the different moods engendered by weddings and funerals. Of course, at first blush, they do seem about as different as night and day, yet, when you really stop to think about it, both services share one basic feature: both assume, in equal measure, the presence of God. Or to put it slightly differently, God is just as real and just as much the focus of a wedding as of a funeral.

In a wedding, two people commit themselves primarily to God, and only then to each other. For it is only within the context of God's prior love that any of us can know anything about love at all, much less the kind of love necessary to commit to another. And yet, rarely, and I do mean rarely, do those in attendance at a wedding grasp with any degree of urgency the true significance of God's participation in the proceedings.

Instead, somewhat understandably I suppose, we are focused on the happy couple: on their present joy and eager anticipation of their future, on all their family members and friends gathered together in celebration, and even on the beauty of the church with its flowers, eloquent music and stately charm.
On a somewhat less lofty note, we may even focus on the dress as well as all the other such painstakingly considered outfits - right down to all the shiny shoes and wisps of lace. Maybe we are moved by the pastor's lofty words spoken, undoubtedly, in mellifluent tones, about all manner of godly things: words about love, about grace, about 'til death do us part,' without, perhaps, really grasping their deeper meaning. And though I'm sure this applies to none of us here, there are indeed those who just wait for the ceremony to be over as quickly as possible so they then can get on with the real deal: the party!
When all is said and done, the wedding may end with God either having been completely ignored or, at best, reduced to an overly sentimentalized or vaguely indiscriminant idea or feeling.

Funerals, on the other hand, are powerful reminders of God's real and lasting presence. When we lose a friend or loved one to death, one question looms large: where have they gone? Really. Have they gone to God? Or to nothingness? We want an answer - and in no uncertain terms.
So we gather at church where we expect God to be present. And in our need we are granted a rare peak into the transcendent world - the realm of the spirit - that place we often ignore altogether.

Someone once described our mortality and eventual death as something we are aware of but largely tune out - in the same sort of way we typically tune out elevator music. But from time to time things happen that vividly remind us of our finitude, such as the death of a loved one, when suddenly the volume of the elevator music gets turned way up, so that now it is virtually impossible to ignore.

At funerals one rarely witnesses the disinterested, distracted or uninvolved observer. Instead, one observes people actively searching for God, desperate to find mystical meanings and divine explanations - unlike, as I said earlier, your typical wedding.

The problem with weddings, as with much of the rest of our life, is that we in our age have been conditioned to systematically reject the transcendent. As such, it often takes some kind of severe jolt to our system to get our attention. We may loosely talk about spiritual things, but any existential awareness of spiritual things tends mostly to be absent from everyday life. In some ways, as I said, we can't help it, for we are, after all, the product of a post-enlightenment, scientific age that summarily rejects anything that cannot be touched, seen or heard. To a large extent, our contemporary secular culture simply has no place for spiritual realities, that is to say, non-materialistic realities.

Today the so-called archaic relics of a superstitious past have become unspeakable because modern secularism simply has no vocabulary by which to discern what it was in the actual experiences of faithful people, those who brought these spiritual realities into words and speech, such as we find in the Bible.

There is today massive resistance even to thinking about these phenomena, having fought so long and hard to rid ourselves of every vestige of transcendence. Perhaps far more than we realize, the myth of materialism has served as the integrating agent for contemporary society, an integration bought at the cost of what is most deeply human and most meaningful in life.
For the simple fact is, we humans are created by God as a unity of nature and spirit. In rejecting half the equation, our spiritual side, materialism has renounced a whole category of human experience. And we are by far the worse for wear because of it.

Yet there are indications that the scientific, materialistic myth is showing signs of breaking down. The scientific community itself has been finding compelling evidence about the possibility of ESP, of clairvoyance, of psycho kinesis, and of spiritual healing.

Years ago, at Hartford Hospital, a strange thing was happening. For reasons not entirely clear, patients on one particular ward were recovering at faster rates and in general doing better than those in the other wards. In an attempt to find out why, the hospital administrators re-assigned the doctors, then the nursing staff, all to no effect. No matter they did, that one ward continued to present the same confounding phenomenon.

In time, the reason for this difference was discovered, though the explanation turned out to be as simple as it was unexpected. Somewhat unbelievably, there was a lone cleaning woman who everyday, as she went about her duties, would stop to say hello and talk to all the patients on that ward. The hospital's surprising conclusion was that this simple form of human contact had been sufficient to alter the patients' medical conditions - a spiritual intangible distantly remote from any generally accepted scientific explanation.
When I trained years ago as a hospital chaplain, the head social worker told our class of various studies that proved that people with religious affiliations recover faster and, on average, spend less time in hospitals than those without such affiliations. Similarly, recent studies I've read, in the papers and elsewhere, indicate that scientists are now looking far more seriously into the whole field of spiritual healing.

Of course, having long repressed such spiritual channels, modernity as a whole finds itself wholly unfamiliar with the transcendent. In some sense, its spiritual wells have run dry. Nevertheless, today one sees signs of a deepening hunger for things transcendent. It seems to bubble up from our long repressed sub-conscience and gets channeled into new and varied forms: New Age spirituality, fundamentalism, renewed interest in angels, and even in the more recent outbreak of Satan worship among the middle class: all in search of what we might call "the lost language of the soul."

This morning we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ even though, for us moderns, such a thing seems utterly unthinkable. Why? Because we have been carefully trained not to see the invisible, not to recognize those transcendent realities we cannot touch, see or hear. So how then are we to recover our lost sight?

Scripture tells us that God is everywhere and seeks us continually, daily offering us countless opportunities to perceive the divine transcendent in our midst. But like Peter, as with most of us, we just don't happen to be paying close attention. The keys to knowing God are actually quite simple: looking, seeking, searching. It is only our dulled habits of body, mind and spirit which prevent us from perceiving the hidden in our midst, that keep us from experiencing the uplift and joy of having glimpsed God's mysterious, transcendent truth.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, novelist Annie Dillard uses the image of light to express God's presence in the material world. Having been stricken with a nearly fatal case of pneumonia, Dillard decides to explore life more fully, spending four seasons living alone near Tinker Creek in rural Virginia, an area surrounded by forests, creeks, mountains, and a myriad of animal life. She spends her time outdoors mostly, walking and camping, just being with nature. When she is inside, she mostly reads. The result of these experiences turned into a remarkable book brimming with insight and clarity of thought.

At Tinker Creek, while exploring the metaphor of light as an image of divine presence, she reads a book about formerly blind people who surgically gain vision for the first time. Some of these patients describe their first impression of the visual world as "a lot of different kinds of brightness" or "an extensive field of light, in which everything motion."

At one point, the book describes one young patient's first visit to a garden after her sight had been restored: "She is greatly astonished and can scarcely be persuaded to answer," the account reads, "(she) stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as `the tree with the lights in it."

Astonishingly, Dillard discovers that many of the patients who, having received their eyesight for the very first time, find the experience bewildering, frightening, even unpleasant. A fair portion, in fact, choose to keep their eyes closed rather than having to encounter this new and disorienting world. Some simply refuse to use their new sight, preferring a world of familiarity, in this case darkness.

By being open to the possibility of God, by seeking and searching, Mary and the disciples eventually see what others often cannot, the resurrected Christ. Of course, the story does not end there, for it is not enough simply to see the light, to glimpse the divine, to peek into that reality that lives beyond the seemingly obvious. If that were all Mary and the disciples accomplished that day, we quite possibly would not be gathered here today. What is important is that they choose to act upon what they saw and thus carried the truth of that vision back to the other disciples, back into everyday life.

The blind patients who refuse the gift of sight are like those of us who awaken to the glorious, yet radically altering experience of Easter, who glimpse its impossible victory over hopelessness and sin, and who perceive how powerfully it transcends the dark illusions of our materialistic age, but who yet choose to do nothing more with it.

On this Resurrection Sunday, we gather to celebrate the extraordinary gift of new light and life in Jesus Christ, a gift that easily can be overlooked, ignored and rejected. Yet when it is discerned, received, and acted upon, it can transform mightily, opening wide our hearts and stretching forth our timid souls, and touching our spirits with an ever-deepened awareness of God's transcendent meaning and purpose.

In the end, I suppose you could say, Easter can mean nothing to us at all - or it can mean everything. It is within our power to choose. Amen.