RebirthScripture: Isaiah 65:17-25 & John 20:1-18
Given on Easter, 2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
In the very month in which I arrived to pastor our church, Hurricane Sandy made made landfall on our coast devastating parts of our state. It was one of the most destructive storms in terms of cost in lives and property. Sandy hit Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas, the United States, and Canada. From Florida to Maine, the east coast of the United States was hit but most devastatingly just to our South where the surge engulfed streets and subways. Folks were left without power, without necessities, and without hope. Our church, seeking to do a bit to help the clean up effort joined with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program of our denomination. We filled shopping carts with cleaning supplies and then joined one another in the Fellowship Hall to pack buckets to the brims with sponges, gloves, and cleaners. I drove all of the buckets to another church where a shipment down to New York City would be made. My wife, Lesley, and I unloaded our church’s buckets and set the many we brought next to the many other churches had also compiled. When we finished unloading the many buckets, we looked with satisfaction upon where the buckets had been. The emptiness filled us with hope.
Soon after I had gotten settled in, in the church, in Amsterdam, in my new house and home, Laurie Bargstedt approached me with an idea to form a partnership between her organization, Hamilton, Fulton, Montgomery BOCES and our congregation. Now, I have to admit that when she approached me, I knew next to nothing about either adult education or the plight of many of the poorer and immigrant populations that reside within a stone’s throw from my office. So I began meeting with Laurie and her staff in the different spaces where they were housed throughout the downtown area. I spoke with her teachers and their students, many from other countries, virtually all in one or more communities of dispossession. I heard first hand from each student stories of struggle and sadness, but also a flame of hope that continued to burn inside each one of them, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome whatever obstacles are placed in the way. The session and I invited them to our space to tour our facilities so they at least had some idea what we could offer them. The looks on their faces as they moved from classroom to classroom, the shared glances, the sparks in their eyes, the clear signs that their imaginations were being sparked as they each looked at what was, for them, a completely blank canvas on which they could paint educational works of art. For us, as a community of the faithful, this building contains stories and memories that come to us each time we set foot in this place, but for them, the sheer emptiness of these classrooms and the potential to fill them with many of the “least of these” in the community, to give folks a chance at a better future, that emptiness gave them hope.
Tami Bedell and I have had for awhile now, as part of the vision for the future of UPC, the shared desire to begin a youth group here. At the end of the year meeting between the session and the deacons we both decided to circle a Sunday on the calendar for January and see if there was any interest amongst the older youth at the church to get together on Sunday nights and break bread, and have fun, and talk about Jesus. The first Sunday we gathered we had 4. We began by doing “make your own” pizzas in the kitchen and then we ate in the room in the back of the fellowship hall. We talked about what we wanted to do as a group, what kinds of places we might want to go, what we might want to put in this room if it was going to be the “youth room,” what kinds of questions of faith we might want to tackle. Tami and I assured them that in that space they could raise any question about God or Jesus or the Bible. And then we took a large dry erase board and we filled it from one end to the other with their hopes and dreams for the group, from mundane things like, “what do we want for supper each week?” To life-altering questions like, “If God is all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?” Just four youth and me and Tami on that first night. Then something odd happened. The next week, two of those four youth invited two friends and we went from 4 to 6. Then a few weeks later, another person joined us and we went from 6 to 7. I know that doesn’t sound like much but in the first two months we have almost doubled in size. Just imagine where we might be a year from now. I’ve thought a lot about that first night, not having any idea if anyone would show up, and if they did show up would they determine that come to youth each week was worth their time, but more than that, I’ve thought about that empty dry-erase board, and the excitement with them those older ones filled it up with passion, like maybe they had found a space of their own. That room, that board, completely empty of words or meaning when that night began, but from that emptiness, hope emerged.
A couple years ago, I attempted to sit down with all the members of this community. And for consistency sake, I asked each person with whom I met the same set of questions. Each session concluded with the question, “where do you see United Presbyterian Church in five years?” I don’t imagine that it will surprise many of you to hear that the answer that garnered the most support was “closed.” I have thought about those meetings, those conversations, often in the time that has passed since then. And maybe it is that I’m an outsider to this system in the grand scheme of things. I wasn’t here in 2000 when the fire created a void of emptiness where before had been a thriving congregation. I wasn’t here to see all the hands, all the people, who banded together determined to see a new building rise out of the emptiness of the space. I wasn’t here for the years that followed and the rise and fall and rise and fall of the congregation as you searched for a new identity, a new mission. Maybe it is that I don’t possess a long enough view of this place and this community. But when I talk with members of the community about this place, I excitedly tell them about the different ministries that are going on here. About the adults that come here everyday to gain more knowledge in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families. I tell folks about the amazing prayer shawl ministry and how in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston, SC our congregation reached out to the families at Mother Emanuel church with a letter of support and prayer shawls for each of the 9 families. And when I talk to pastor friends both in the presbytery and throughout the country, I tell them of the strength of this congregation, of its resiliency in the face of devastation, its warmth and love towards all who come to this place, it’s heart for mission, both locally and around the world. I think back to those meetings and the pronouncement of so many that five years from now we would be closed and I think, we’re not dead, we are being reborn, and there is no way we are going anywhere, it’s in the song, “when we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise then when we first begun.”
I suppose it is human nature to view events through the lenses that we know and being an early riser, I have long believed I knew what that early morning some two millennia ago looked like to Mary as she made her way in that space in between darkness and light to the tomb in the garden. And in my mind’s eye I can see Mary making her way through the light mist that rests over the undulating fields and forests that are so prominent throughout eastern North Carolina. And because it is so early in the morning, it is possible for Mary to make her way to the tomb before the heat of the day begins to bathe all that you see in a layer of humid air and sweat. She can look up into the sky and see both signs of the previous nights, the last remaining stars fighting the arrival of the new day and the orange and purple and pink hues that begin to appear in the eastern sky foretelling the coming of the new day with all its challenges and its endless possibilities. In the cool of the morning, if Mary is quiet enough, she can hear the sounds of squirrels beginning their daily quest for sustenance and play. Just beyond where she can see, she can hear the sounds of a male and female squirrel chasing one another from tree to tree as they are oft to do. In the distance, maybe she can hear the reverberation of a babbling brook that winds along the countryside and flows with her on her journey. Because it is still relatively dark in her world and the mist is still resting on the trees, because this garden is not likely somewhere that she has ever been before, because she is no doubt lost in a swirl of emotions and almost all of them are completely devastating, I picture her getting closer and close to the tomb but not knowing it until she is right on top of it and the bleakness of death comes from nowhere to tackle her and her senses once again. The somber peace of the walk annihilated by the stone cold silence of a stone that has been rolled away. And as if the traumatic death of the one whom she desperately loved wasn’t horrific enough, at least she can caress the body of Jesus. At least she can prepare it for a proper Jewish burial. At least she can take time to bathe each part of his body with sweet smelling spices and the intoxicating aroma of the oil of myrrh. She has derived some degree of comfort from that knowledge alone. One final chance to share intimacy with this man that she would have followed to the end of the world. And yet, there she finds herself, staring at an empty tomb, the huge stone that had guarded its entrance rolled away. And this is more than she can take and she has to find someone. Because at that moment, she needed someone to share in her pain, to tell her what was going on, to make her feel as if everything was going to be ok. But instead, they leave her there and they race to the tomb, leaving her there alone with her sadness and her confusion. And we are told that after the two disciples have been to the tomb and returned, she is there once again by herself. We are told that she continues to stand there with tears running down her face desperately looking for the body of the one that she had loved all this time. And through the pain and confusion, through the emotional exhaustion and the tears she bends down and stares into the emptiness of the tomb and sees two angels sitting at the place where Jesus once lay. “Friend, why are you crying?,” they said to her. And she manages to get out in the midst of her tears, “They have taken my Rabbi and I don’t know where he is.” And it is at that point that all the emptiness in the universe has completely subsumed her in her grief and loss. The empty tomb, the empty place in her heart and soul that this child of God had occupied, the missing body, the overwhelming darkness that must have felt like it was swirling all around her and swallowing up everything. And just when it must have seemed like the darkness was about to swallow her too, she hears, she really hears his voice, “Mary,” “my Rabbi.” And she is able to completely collapse into him and into forever, knowing that she is, as she has always been, held in the loving hands of God, and in the loving embrace of Jesus. He is reborn, she is reborn, the whole of creation is reborn. From the emptiness of the tomb arises life everlasting for all people.
What happened that moment can never be wholly contained in that moment. What happened then began a revolution. A revolution of love. A love flowing freely between God and people, between God and creation. A revolution that has lit the world for two millennia with the promise that peace can always arise from even the most violent moments. A promise that hope always arises out of despair. A promise that love can always, always, always transcend hatred, and we are, as we have always been, the children of light, bathed in the love of God. What was started some two millennia ago, in an unremarkable country, in an unremarkable part of the world, little more than a region the size of a postage stamp on the edge of the mighty Roman Empire, what was started there continues to challenge the world today. Continues to change the world today. And it has to. It has to because left to our own devices, humankind’s ability to hurt one another may well be close to limitless. The events of the past week bear witness to that sad reality. And yet. And yet, we still gather with Christians from around the world on this day and declare with one voice that the hateful actions of a few can never be given the last word, can never triumph over the the spirit of Christ, that emerged from that empty tomb on Easter morning and continues to emerge in each of us that raises our hands and declares, “here I am, send me!” We are those people. We are the people we have been waiting for. We are the small group of committed followers of Jesus who are here to change the world, because it’s the only thing that ever has. Changes don’t come from mass movements of thousands or millions or billions. They come from the guy who stands in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. They come from the one who knelt in prayer as the hoses sprayed and the dogs attacked. They come from the nameless ones who stand in the face of the junta and declare, “¡No mas!” Those are the ones who change the course of human history, those are the ones on whose shoulders we stand when we become the hands and feet of the risen Christ. Those are the ones who light leads the way, those the path be rocky, and stormy, and dark. Those are the ones who have been reborn in Christ. And so are we. We must never shy away from that calling. We must never avert our eyes and ears from the one who cries out in anguish and pain. We must never be silent when the time has come to raise our voice. We must be Christ for a world that desperately needs to experience Christ again and anew. That is rebirth, that is redemption, that is resurrection. This. Is. Us. Alleluia, amen.