Meeting Again for the First Time

And so we meet again. Last week this place was packed out with people, just brimming with bonnets and brass players, and here we are again, back for more. More tales of the resurrection, more facets to this fabulous story, more details of the disciples’ doings on Easter Day. This week, we meet again in this place to hear, as we do every year, the story of Easter and the disciple Thomas.

And because we do hear this Gospel every year on this Sunday, we’re all pretty familiar with the story. It’s Easter evening, and the disciples are hiding, huddled together in the same room, terrified that the next crosses will be for them. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his wounds, offers them peace, and heads off again into the ether, destination unknown. But Thomas missed it. He was out, somewhere, and when he returns and hears his friends’ wild tale, he is unconvinced. Let him show me the marks of the nails in his hands and the gouge in his side, and then I’ll believe that this man we saw killed is dead no longer.

And Jesus, apparently, hears him. Because a week later he comes back, appearing to the group just as he did before. Only this time, Thomas is there. He meets the risen Lord for the first time and is completely converted. He sees and believes; he exclaims, my Lord and my God! The doubter finally comes around – he’s in the right place at the right time, and he becomes the first to name Jesus as Lord and true God. And there you have the story.

But there is a question we encounter every time we hear this story, a question that remains unanswered, that nags at our hearts and minds. And that question is this: where did Thomas go? When Jesus appeared the first time, where was he? All the rest of the disciples were clinging to each other in fear in the darkness, trying not to imagine the feel of the nails in their own wrists, and Thomas was, what…just out? Running an errand? Visiting a friend? Stretching his legs, getting a bit of fresh air – what? Where did Thomas go?

Well, today, my friends, that question will be answered. Because I can tell you that on that first Easter Evening, Thomas wasn’t there because he had gone to catch Sunday night baseball on ESPN. It’s true. Thomas was out at his favorite Jerusalem sports bar, watching the Sunday night game. And why not? He’d had a rough weekend – the roughest – and he needed something to take his mind off of, well, everything. He’d been in the room with his brothers. He’d listened to them whine and worry, he’d smelled the fear that was pouring out of them like sweat. It reeked, and it freaked Thomas out, and so he thought to himself, where could I be other than this. And the only thought that popped into his sleep-deprived and fear-addled mind was the image of a beautiful, green, pristine baseball diamond. The sound of the announcers’ voices, overly-chummy and confident. The triumphant blare of the Sunday night baseball theme song, the surety of it, the ordinariness of it. He could see the shots of the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, the overhead views of the diamond, and suddenly he wanted all of it. The commentators, the replays, even the commercials sounded great to Thomas just then. And so he got up without a word and walked in the dark down the winding staircase, leaving his fellow disciples behind without a word. He stepped into the street, muttering to himself: Let us go to the bar in Jerusalem, that we may die with him. And so he, alone, went.

At the bar, it was quiet. It wasn’t a great matchup that night – the Phillies playing someone who was likely going to kick their butts – and with it’s being Passover, lots of people had chosen to stay home. After all, unleavened bar food is no great shakes. Thomas found a stool in the back corner, where he could see the screen…and the door, just in case. He ordered a pint and cautiously looked around as the barkeep rinsed the glass and pulled the tap. There were only a couple of other people there, most nursing their beers with eyes on the game, one digging through the bar mix for the salted peanuts. The bartender walked over, slapped down a cardboard coaster, set down his beer, smiled, and walked back to the other side of the bar to assume the classic bartender position of polishing a glass while watching the TV.

Thomas kept his eyes on the game, too. A sip from his beer now and then, but what he really wanted was the distraction. Strike one, ball two, popup, inning over. Just keep rolling out the pitches, just keep swinging that bat, just keep running those commercials. Just keep those thoughts from swirling around in his head. Just keep that grief and fear tamped down. Just keep playing, and let that keep him.

He wasn’t even sure who was winning when the man who had been digging for the peanuts looked up and grimaced.

"Another rough night for the Phils," he said to Thomas. Thomas grunted back, an assent without an encouragement for more conversation.

The man didn’t take the hint. "It’s brutal," he said. "Every year it’s something. No starters, no closers; young bats, old bats." He sighed. "You a Phillies fan?" he asked.

Thomas took a sip. "Not really – I just love the game."

"Yeah," the man said. "But I love the Phils, too, even though they break my heart. I guess that’s just being a fan. I keep showing up and watching. And praying." The man laughed. "And someday, they’ll win. It might take nineteen hundred and thirty odd years, but they’ll win."

"Mm," Thomas said again.

"It’s not easy," the man continued, offering Thomas a handful of peanuts. Thomas shook his head. The man popped them in his mouth and continued. "There are some years when I’ve just had enough. I think, this is it – they’re really dead now. There’s no way they can come back from this. No trade, no amazing up-and-comer, no miracle coaching switch is going to help them next year. They’ll be as dead in spring training as they are right now, and they’ll just keep dying, all season long." Thomas took another sip and kept his eyes on the game. The man sat up. "But then every year, I find myself back here, waiting and watching and – oh, I dunno – caring. Every year I find myself filled with…well…hope, wouldn’t you say?"

Thomas glanced over. He saw the man, still now, looking over at him with a twinkle in his eye. But Thomas wasn’t interested in twinkling eyes and philosophical barflies. "I suppose so," he said, directing his gaze back at the TV.

He felt the man lean in a little bit. "No, that’s it," the man said. "That’s what it is. It’s hope. It’s a little hope, but it’s hope. When it looks like there is no life in this team, and I’m still waiting and watching, that’s hope. It’s maybe even belief."

Thomas nodded absently. Watched the game. The man grew quiet and eventually disappeared. And when the last batter grounded out to the third baseman, Thomas went home. He walked up the staircase and into a whirlwind. His friends, all talking at the same time, telling this wild story. How could they be surprised that he wasn’t as excited as they were? At worst, his friends had gone mad, and at best, he had missed something miraculous. Of course he was tetchy. And so he blurted out the first thing he could think of.

"I’ll believe it when I see it," he said, knowing how much that made him sound like a six year old.

By the next Sunday, tempers had calmed down, and they were all together and mostly friendly. The room felt less stifling tonight, but again Thomas found his thoughts drifting to the ball field, the green green grass and the sweet sound of the crack of the bat on the ball. But this night, he decided to stay. Why not? I stay and I watch and I wait and… suddenly the voice of that man in the bar drifted into his mind… "and that’s hope." I suppose he was right. That is hope, that is the sign of belief that something good is coming, that something new can happen, that even if things look completely dead, there’s always a chance for new life.

And just at that moment, a breath of wind fluttered over his hair. He looked up and saw a man standing in the middle of the room. Where had he come from? The man looked over at him, and Thomas’s heart jumped as he found himself looking into a pair of eyes with a very, very familiar twinkle. Jesus smiled and the twinkle brightened. He came over to Thomas and leaned in so that only he could hear.

"I would have told you last week," Jesus said to him.

"But I couldn’t have heard it," Thomas interrupted.

Jesus smiled and leaned in. "But don’t you know that I am always there with you, that I will always find you? Wherever you go, wherever you flee to, wherever you find yourself, I am there, with you, to the end of the age. Have faith, my friend. Have hope. Look for new beginnings, new life, a new world. Do not doubt…"

"But believe," Thomas replied, grinning like a kid with a new glove on opening day. He reached out and grasped Jesus’ arm. "So happy to meet you again, for the first time. My Lord and my God."

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

23 April 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 25, 2017 .

Willie Lincoln's Easter

William Wallace Lincoln died of typhoid fever at about 5 pm on February 20 of 1862, less than a year into the Civil War.  He was eleven years old.  He was not the first child that Abraham and Mary Lincoln had lost.  Their son Edward, not yet four years old, had died twelve years earlier.  But Willie’s death, by all accounts, was harder on them.  At first sight of his son’s lifeless body, President Lincoln is widely reported to have said, “My poor boy.  He was too good for this earth.  God called him home.  I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.  It is hard, hard to have him die.”[i]

The brilliant and imaginative contemporary writer George Saunders published a novel in February of this year that imagines what took place among the dead who were supposedly already at rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown on the night of February 24, when Willie Lincoln’s body was placed there in the Carroll Family vault (Lot 292).  President Lincoln is believed to have visited the stone mausoleum several times, stooping beneath its arched entryway, maybe even on that first night after the funeral, and to have asked to have the casket opened.  There is some debate about whether or not the Lincolns believed that the living could communicate with the dead; but they were Presbyterians, so I can neither account for nor even vaguely imagine what they might have believed.

Saunders’s book imagines that young Willie found himself in “the bardo,” that is, in a sort of limbo, a liminal place or condition that is part of Tibetan Buddhist thought, in between lives, a “bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next.”[ii]  In Saunders’s imagination it is a difficult state in which to be.  Many of the souls there in the cemetery with Willie – let’s call them ‘ghosts’ for lack of a better word – are there because they have not accepted that they are really dead.  They insist that they are only sick, their bodies, quite removed from their souls, are “sick-forms” resting in “sick boxes,” until they can return to the unfinished business, hopes, and dreams of their lives on earth.

For Willie, this in-between state is somewhat tantalizing not only because he is so young, but also because of the visit of his beloved and be-loving father, who is struggling to let go of his dead child, just as the child is struggling to let go of his father.  Saunders imagines Lincoln thinking:

His little face again.  Little hands.  Here they are.  Ever will be.  Just so.  No smile.  Ever again.  The mouth a tight line.  He does not (no) look like he is sleeping…

 “If there ever really was a Lazarus, there should be nothing preventing the conditions that pertained at that time to pertain here and now….

 “Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise.  By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to …make [the boy] rise…

 “Please please please.

 “But no.

That is superstition.

“Will not do.” [iii]

There is no amusement to be found in imaging the grief of a father (or a mother) for his (or her) dead child.  The question – for the parents, most poignantly – is whether or not there is any meaning in that death.  Or to put it in a Christian way, the question is whether or not that death leads only to the grave, or whether or not death leads beyond the cemetery to some new life, prepared for us by the God who made us and who loves us?

Easter is, of course, the day for empty graves – well, at least the day for one empty tomb.  And what a joy it is to be here and to proclaim the Good News of that empty tomb and of our risen Lord!  In truth, however, you probably do not need me to reiterate this story for you.

But it may be that, like Abraham Lincoln, you have had trouble letting go of someone who has died.  It may be that that someone is a child.  It may be that you have wondered, still wonder, if that death has any meaning.  It may be that you have wondered, or still wonder, whether or not death leads only to the grave, whether or not death leads beyond the cemetery to some new life prepared for us by the God who made us and who loves us.  This is a poignant question.  And it may be that the question on Easter Day that is far more poignant than the disposition of Jesus’ grave, is the disposition of Willie Lincoln’s grave; the more poignant question being the status of the body and soul of someone from whose grave the stone has not been rolled away.  What does Easter mean to the dead?

In nine pages of exquisite writing, George Saunders allows himself to imagine what the scene might be like in the vicinity of the gates of heaven – or more precisely, the gates of judgment that may lead either to paradise or perdition.  This kind of imagining is a fool’s errand, of course, but, oh my, is it beautifully carried out by Saunders’s hand.  I won’t read it all to you, but I will tell you that he writes of“a tremendous set of diamond doors at the far end of the hall [that] flew open, revealing an even vaster hall.

Cloth of gold from the Easter vestments at Saint Mark's

Cloth of gold from the Easter vestments at Saint Mark's

“…  [and] within, a tent of purest white silk (although to describe it thus is to defame it – this was no earthly silk, but a higher, more perfect variety, of which our silk is a laughable imitation)… on a raised dais sat our host, a magnificent king, and next to the king’s place sat an empty chair (a grand chair, upholstered in gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy), and that chair was intended [for the newest entrant].”[iv]  Oh, what a heavenly vision!

It has always seemed to me that some version of Purgatory is a hopeful doctrine, since I am not at all sure I will have worked out all the repentance in this life that I need to, and, as has been the case for me on almost every assignment I’ve ever had, I’d like a little extra time.  But the thing about “the Bardo,” that in-between state in which Saunders imagines Willie Lincoln and his cemetery neighbors, is that they cannot accept that they are dead.  This denial seems like an apt insight into a society like ours in which people seldom can bring themselves even to speak words like death, dead, dying, died, preferring instead to say in hushed tones that someone has “passed.”  Although I could be wrong, this vocabulary choice always sounds to me more like a euphemism that is trapped in denial than like a statement of faith.

In the book, the turning point of Willie Lincoln’s time in the Bardo comes when he is finally able to admit that he is dead, having overheard his father make that heart-breaking admission as well.  Only then, can he begin his journey to the diamond doors, and the vast hall, and the magnificent king who awaits him.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter did not know, even when they found the tomb empty, exactly what it meant.  Even when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, and realized who he is – how could she possibly have know what it meant for him or for her?!?  But we celebrate today that first Easter morning when the Good News of the Resurrection began to dawn on believers, to whom God was revealing some new thing in the resurrection of his Son.

And having had more time to consider the implications of Christ’s rising, we can say that part of every acclamation that Christ is risen, is the belief that we shall rise as well; that Christ has staked out, lighted, and the led the way to what might be something like a tremendous set of diamond doors that open into a vast hall wherein waits for us a magnificent king, who is, himself, Jesus.  And that beside that king sits an empty chair: a grand chair upholstered with gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy.  Although the details may be incorrect, the meaning of this description is what matters.  And the meaning is that such a golden chair was made for Willie Lincoln.  And one will be made for you, and one will be made for me.

152 years ago yesterday Abraham Lincoln died, having been shot the night before at Ford’s Theater in Washington.  When the casket carrying the president’s body was loaded onto the funeral train, it was joined by the much smaller casket of his son Willie, retrieved from Lot 292 in the cemetery in Georgetown to make the three-week journey to Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.  Just a bit more than three years had passed since Willie’s death.

Across Rittenhouse Square, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, eight days later, as the train bearing those two bodies stopped here in Philadelphia, the greatest living preacher of the time, Phillips Brooks, rector of our neighboring parish, delivered a sermon that eloquently eulogized the 16th president and deeply bewailed not only his death but also the awful sin of Slavery at whose feet Brooks laid responsibility for that death.  The sermon draws on the image from the Psalms which tell us that God “chose David… his servant and took him away from the sheepfolds.”[v]  But you can tell, reading the sermon, that Brooks was having a hard time accepting Lincoln’s death.  Perhaps it was a convention of the preaching of the time, or the urgency of the moment in the midst of civil war, but it is notable that almost all of the sermon deals with what the President had done in this life; there is no mention at all of the Resurrection, of the ministry of Jesus, or that some new hope lies ahead for the slain president, or for his little son.[vi]

It would be normal to say that Lincoln and his son were reunited in death, and brought together at last forever in their twin burial in Springfield.  It’s the kind of thing you say.  But it would also be wrong to say that, because we would be assuming that both Lincoln and his little son Willie were still in the Bardo, stuck in between this life and whatever comes next; it would be to imagine that their graves are their homes forever now, not even sick-boxes, just a place to decompose together quietly, as if this were a noble activity for a father and a son to undertake together in death.

But the real implication of our proclamation this morning is that somewhere in heaven there is a weaver weaving cloth that’s made of gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy.  And that weaver is preparing the fabric for a seat, or a chair, or a sofa, or a chaise longue, or some such thing that has been placed beside a king: the only king who has known death and also conquered it.  And who has won this awesome victory not so that he could claim his throne, but so that Willie Lincoln and his dad could claim their thrones, and so that you and I can claim ours.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Easter Day 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

 

[i] Brady, Dennis, in The Washington Post, 7 October 2011, “Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain.”

[ii] Sheehan, Jason, on NPR.org, “Letting Go is the Hardest Thing for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo,’” 18 February 2017

[iii] Saunders, George, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” New York, Random House, 2017, p.  243

[iv] Ibid . p. 190

[v] Psalm 78:70

[vi] Brooks, Phillips, “The Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln”, 23 April 1865, published by Henry B. Ashmead, Philadelphia, 1865

Posted on April 16, 2017 .

Death and Taxes

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend in which he described the state of this new nation that he had helped to form just over a decade before. In the letter, he was particularly intent on reporting on how these new United States were faring under their very new Constitution. The upshot, according to Franklin, was so far, so good. The Constitution, he wrote, “has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes. It wasn’t the first time this expression had ever been written, but it was the first time it had been written by someone so famous, and so for all of the intervening years, this quotation has had Franklin’s name all over it. Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.

It’s a rather cynical turn of phrase, don’t you think? Clever, but grim. We use it to try to make ourselves feel better by reminding ourselves that at least we’re all in the same boat, even if that boat is expensive and capsizing. We use it when we don’t get the job we were promised, when our team loses to an underdog, when we get our heart broken by the person we thought was the one. We say it with a sigh and resigned smile. Well, nothing is certain, right?, we shrug. Except DEATH – which is, admittedly, a dark thing to bring up when you’re already feeling pretty discouraged – and taxes – which is the part that’s supposed to make you laugh. Or laugh and wince. Or just wince. As I said, a rather cynical turn of phrase.

It’s a turn of phrase that I imagine has been uttered for a lot longer than two hundred and some odd years. I mean, really, how could this phrase not have been originally coined by some ancient Judean who was feeling a little salty about the Roman occupation? Can’t you just picture a particularly cantankerous native of Galilee, shrugging and shaking his head while talking to a neighbor who’s a bit down on his luck? So, my friend, that wonderful wine you were hoping to make, from the vineyard that you had prepared so carefully with the perfectly cleared ground and the grand shady trees and the brand-new watchtower – you say that instead of being wonderful the wine turned out to be as sour as vinegar? Well, you know what they say, the crusty Galilean would say, throwing a glance over his shoulder to the Roman soldier loitering behind him, nothing is certain except death and taxes.

For the women who arrived at the tomb in those grey grainy hours just before dawn, nothing was certain except death. Just a few days before, they had known, deep in their hearts, that the man they had followed was the Messiah. They had been absolutely sure of it. They wouldn’t have followed him if they hadn’t known that the words he spoke were the truth, that he was the one of whom prophets had spoken. He was the one they had been waiting for, since the Garden and the Red Sea, through the wilderness and the exile, in their hunger and their thirst, in their joy and in their pain. He was the one, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. They had been so certain.

But then they saw him arrested and tried. They watched him beaten and nailed to the cross. They heard his last words and his last breath; they witnessed his death. And in that moment, everything they had thought was solid and true simply crumbled away like the ground beneath their feet. Nothing was certain anymore. Nothing except death.

And perhaps taxes, too. I can imagine the women on their way to the tomb, clucking together over the irony that at least they wouldn’t have to worry about coming to harm in the early morning darkness. After all, the Romans had made sure to station a couple of guards at Jesus’ tomb for the duration of the Sabbath. So good to see their taxes put to such good use, Mary Magdalene would say, with an epic eye roll. Death and taxes, the other Mary would say. Death and taxes. Nothing is certain but death and taxes.

But then…well, you know the story. The earthquake and the rolling stone, the angel and the lightning, those resented Roman guards collapsing in fear and the unexpected voice telling them not to be afraid, and finally the sight they could never have imagined even in the most desperate dark hours of the past three days – their Lord, standing before them, alive, and well, and telling them to go tell the others to go into Galilee where they, too, would meet him. In the face of this astounding new truth, what else was there to do but fall down and worship? What else was there to do but to smile and laugh and shake their heads and hold on to his blessed wounded feet and know that once they had been in the darkness but now they had seen the light. Their Lord, who was dead, was now alive. Of this they were certain.

And on this night, we too proclaim this great good news. We were once in the darkness, but now we see the light. Christ, who was dead, is now alive. Nothing is certain but death and taxes? Bah, humbug! Here we are, on April 15, 2017, and it seems that death and taxes are both on hold! Oh death, where is your sting, oh taxes, where is your victory? Well, your taxes are actually due on Tuesday, but death – ? Death is conquered, we are free. Of course death still is, and death with a little “d” will come for each of us, but tonight we proclaim with certainty that this is no longer anything to fear. Death no longer has the last word. Because Death with a capital “d” is no more.

This is why, tonight, when we’re presented with a grim turn of phrase like Did you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death, our response is simply Hallelujah! And when we hear that we have been united with him in a death like his we say Hallelujah! And when we hear that we – and Phoebe and Joshua – have been buried with him by baptism into death, we say Hallelujah! Because this night confirms for us that these turns of phrase are not grim at all. There is no room for grimness or hopelessness or cynicism after this night. For we no longer have anything to fear, not even death. When we are baptized with Christ into a death like his, we will also walk with him in his resurrection. We know this. We proclaim it. We celebrate it. The life Christ lives is for all of us, and Death has no more dominion. Nothing is certain except Death is dead.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Because there is something else that is absolutely certain. And I don’t mean your taxes. Yes, we do have to render unto Caesar on Tuesday, but I’m talking about something else, something much more. There is one other certainty in what we proclaim this night. And that certainty is love. What is most certain, what we know is most true, deep in our hearts, is that all of this was done for love. This death was for love. This resurrection was for love. This appearance to these wonderful women, this instruction to go into Galilee, this promise that he would appear again, was for love. The holiness of this fire, this water, this baptism, these new Christians – all for love. All was and is and will forever be for love. Hallelujah.

So, you holy people on this holy night, do not fear. This night truly “has an appearance that promises permanency,” the permanency of eternal life in the glory of God the Father. And on this night, this can be said to be certain: death is no more, Christ is risen, and all, for certain, for love.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Great Vigil of Easter, 15 April 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 15, 2017 .