In Every Time and Place

+In the Name of God: who raised Jesus from the dead. Amen.

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be rememberedor come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…

Isaiah 65:17-25

Many years ago, a traveling pastor sat down to write a letter to one of the congregations that had sprouted up in response to his preaching. The letter he ended up writing was one of several he wrote to this particular faith community. The little church was in a city called Corinth, located on land bridge between two Mediterranean port cities.

People had been living in the area for a very long time – all the way back to the Bronze Age – but Corinth was a young city. It had been re-established by the Romans less than 100 years earlier. Because the land bridge was short – only three and a half miles across – and because the Romans had made Corinth the capital of one of their provinces – it was a thriving city. There was a lot going on.

The preacher, an energetic young man named Paul, knew a thing or two about how to get an idea into circulation. So his choice of Corinth for a church plant was a strategic one. He knew people traded ideas in the marketplace right along with the merchandise that came from all over the world. Once things got going, Paul turned the leadership of the church over to others.

That’s what he’d done with every church he’d ever started. Because the only social media available to him was “snail mail,” that’s what he used to communicate with Corinth and the other churches after he’d left. Like Zoom conferences and live-streamed church services, it was less than ideal. But it sustained his connection with the community and their connection with him.

On this particular day, Paul wrote to the Corinthians about things he’d talked to them about before – about how to handle conflicts in the congregation, about avoiding some behaviors that would probably make most of us blush, about how God had stored his treasure in clay pots, meaning all of them. “We have this treasure [of God’s love and power] in jars of clay,’ he said. He said this so they wouldn’t get too big for their britches. And, then, he wrote to them about their disappointment that he hadn’t visited them as soon as they hoped he would.

In one section of the letter – a particularly powerful section – he asks them to see the world with new eyes instead of expecting everything to conform to the old world they were used to. Let me read you a line from this part of the letter. Here’s what Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” It’s a remarkable statement. The new creation has come. The old has gone. The new is here.

Although Paul wrote these words almost 2,000 years ago, they are words we need to hear this Easter morning because we find ourselves desperate for good news, constantly on the lookout for hopeful signs, grasping at even the slightest of straws.

I had to look hard for Good News during this past week. It was the darkest and most difficult week of the pandemic so far. Here were a few of the bright spots I came across: Travel is now being allowed from Wuhan, months after the coronavirus first infected a human being there. Social distancing is flattening the curve in this country so that fewer people are projected to get sick and die. On Thursday, the Federal Reserve unleashed another $2.3 trillion to provide as much relief and stability as possible for the damaged economy. Plasma from patients who have recovered from the coronavirus seems to help those who are fighting for their lives. And then there was this literal bright spot: the full moon on Tuesday was the biggest and brightest one of the year – the Pink Moon, the Passover Moon, the Paschal Moon.

We human beings are wired to be hopeful. In an article for the Huffington Post from 2012 – long before the current pandemic changed everything – Dr. Judith Rich wrote this about hope:

. . . hope is a match in a dark tunnel, a moment of light, just enough to reveal the path ahead and the way out. Hope is a flashbulb that lights up a room . . . Hope gives us a glimpse of possibility not seen in the darkness.

Hope is the mother of change, . . . For anyone committed to transformation, we know it’s not just about one person or only the few. It’s not just for me or for you, but for an entire world that excludes no one.

I don’t know if Paul had been reading his Bible before he wrote to the church in Corinth, but when he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” it sure sounds like the Isaiah passage we heard this morning as our first lesson. Here’s the beginning of the Isaiah passage again, God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” Isaiah is talking about a radical change, about something completely new that has happened, about the transformation of the entire created universe . . . and Paul picks up on the theme. He connects the resurrection with new heavens and a new earth.

For Paul, the Good News of the Resurrection isn’t only that the dead are raised. It’s that God makes everything new when he raises Jesus from the dead.

How do we begin to conceive of this, much less respond to it? e. e. cummings wrote a poem that captures something of the joy and thankfulness I experience when I catch even the slightest glimpse of resurrection hope. The poem begins, “I thank you, God, for most this amazing day.” Let me read the entire poem to you. It’s not very long:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
 
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
 
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

The poem has been set to music by the American composer Gwyneth Walker. She wrote a glorious setting for treble voices that, in several sections of the piece, repeats the words over and over again that cummings uses to start the poem, “I thank you, God.” . . . . I Thank you, God! I Thank you, God! I Thank you, God!   The words and the music both reverberating, echoing, cascading.

Since we are all becoming on-line experts, I commend to you a YouTube version of Walker’s composition sung by a group of women called the Vox Nova Chorale. During the dark moments that scattered themselves throughout this past week, I found myself going back to it again and again, especially the second stanza of the poem:

Gwyneth Walker’s setting of the poem includes a word that e.e.cummings did not write, but the word is a completely appropriate addition since the poem is a prayer. That word is Amen. “Let it be so. So be it.” On this Easter Day, we proclaim that the one who died is alive again. This is the birth day of life and love and wings.

I would love to be able to celebrate this day as I have been privileged to do every Easter I have served as a parish priest – in a church packed with people in their Easter best – a church full of spring flowers – and glorious music – everything contributing to make the day a magnificent celebration of life and hope.

But that’s not this Easter. It was not how the first Easter went, either.

St. John’s story of the first Easter begins in darkness. There are only three people who were there – Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They are together at the place where Joseph of Arimathea had laid Jesus’ body – but they are only together for a few moments. Instead of smiles and happy faces, there’s confusion and tears – especially Mary’s tears. When the others return to their homes, she is left alone, crying for someone she loved and who loved her as she was.

Then Jesus comes – the “i who have died and am alive again today” – but Mary mistakes him for someone else. She thinks he is the gardener. Jesus speaks her name; the darkness is lifted and she sees him for who he is – the One who has died and is now risen. Now the ears of her ears awake and now the eyes of her eyes are opened.

So it is that the Risen Lord always comes to us in every time and place. Christ comes whether we are in a church full of candles and flowers and light and music, or whether we are by ourselves just like Mary was. Neither grand or simple celebrations have any effect on what God did, what God does, or what God will do. God brings life out of every death.

Isaiah prophesied in God’s name, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” The new creation has come again this Easter. The old has gone. The new is here!

I thank you God. Alleluia! Amen.