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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Easter III - Because He Lives


Because He Lives - Easter III
A Sermon Preached at 

St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
April 14, 2024

It was right after Easter that I started asking myself, “Well, Elizabeth, you say you believe in the Resurrection - and, you do - but how would anyone know that about you? If Christianity were a crime and you were charged with believing in the Resurrection, would there be enough evidence to convict you? What does it mean to live a life that believes in the Resurrection?”

I sat with those questions for a few weeks and I have come to know that my work as a Hospice Chaplain provides substantial evidence that I believe in the Resurrection. I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe in the gift of Life Eternal. I really do believe with all my heart the words I say in the Eucharistic Prayer at a funeral that “we believe that life is changed, not ended.”


I also know that I am a hopeful person. I confess to you that I do believe St. Paul was right when he wrote in the 28th verse of the 8th Chapter of his Letter to the Romans, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

I don’t think you can say a sentence like that unless you believe in The Resurrection. We have faith, and faith gives us hope and hope leads to a life that reflects a belief in the message of The Resurrection of Jesus that
having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1).

And so, my ministry is Hospice. And, my message to you, every time I’ve been here, even in those days of doubt and anxiety during the COVID pandemic, even in those days of deep frustration and discouragement that there would ever be another rector for St. Philip’s, I kept saying - do you remember? - “Just you wait. Something, someone, is right around the corner. The Holy Spirit isn’t done with you yet. Something good is about to happen. You just wait.”

And now, you have Jack Anderson as your rector. I hate to say it but I’m going to, anyway: See? I told you so! The Holy Spirit, which is the gift of the Resurrection, always gives us hope.

But there is another question that has been circling around in my brain as we enter the third Sunday of the Easter Season. It came to me as I listened to this passage from Luke’s Gospel. The Resurrected Jesus meets the disciples and some were startled and others terrified. I mean, Duh! Of course they were. Can you just imagine being there in that room and seeing the Resurrected Christ, right there, talking to you, telling you to calm down and, hey, if you want, you can even put your hands in the wounds of my hands and feet and my side?

I can imagine their terror but I can’t even begin to imagine their joy when they realized that their greatest fears had been transformed into the realization of their greatest hopes. Jesus is alive! Jesus lives! And in my religious imagination, I can imagine them singing the words to that great hymn:

Because he lives, I can face tomorrow (sing it with me). Because he lives, every fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because he lives.”
Ah, it’s a wonderful feeling, this resurrection feeling, isn’t it? We could just stay here forever, couldn’t we, in this moment of the joy that the disciples first knew. But Jesus is not having any of it. Do you know what comes next? Well, scripture says this: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

I mean, honestly! That Jesus! He’s gone down to hell to set the captives free, then back to earth to bring the good news to his disciples which leaves them delirious with joy. But, he brings them right back down to earth and reminds them of what’s important right here and right now. The important, basic stuff of what it means to be human.

Which brings me to the question that has been bugging me ever since I read these scriptures. And that is: “Well, Elizabeth, you say you know that Jesus lives but if that’s true and God is everywhere in creation, then why do you go to Church? Do you go just for the joy you feel in the beautiful music and the meaningful words of the prayers? Or, is there something more you’re supposed to be doing? To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s Church got to do, got to do with it?”

I found myself remembering a refrigerator magnet my kids gave me years ago. It said, “Going to church won’t make you a Christian any more than going to the garage will make you a car.” You know, they were right. They were naughty and snarky but they were right.

And then, I remembered a dear woman I met in Baltimore who taught me more about church and prayers and community and love than all my years in seminary. I was a fairly wet behind the ears new priest and it was part of my portfolio to preside at the weekly Wednesday Eucharist at the Senior Residence which had been built by the church, just a block down the street.

The folks who attended were concerned about a new resident. She was the widow of a fairly prominent Black Baptist preacher. Her children had convinced her to sell their 5-story brownstone walk up and move into this lovely but small two bedroom apartment.

She hated it. She was angry. She was refusing to engage in the many activities provided by the Resident’s Association. She was taking more of her meals in her room. Folks would occasionally see her come down for her mail but someone overheard her children talking to the manager and saying that if their mother insisted on having her mail delivered to her room, they were to decline.

Some of the residents ambushed me one afternoon, after church, and asked if I would kindly go and see her, visit with her, say some prayers with her, maybe even offer her communion. I was young and enthusiastic. Of course, I said yes.

So, off I went, up to the tenth floor which had, I’m told, one of the best views of the city (It was true). What’s that old expression? Fools rush in? Yes, and it’s also true that God protects fools and children. Or, at least, God had a few lessons in store for this fool to learn while she thought she was going someplace to do someone else some good.

Mrs. Parks, was her name. She was not happy to see me, that was clear, but she was a Christian lady, the widow of a Baptist preacher, and she was nothing if not painfully polite and courteous. We had some polite conversation. I think the word “chat” sums it up quite well. We chatted about oh, this and that. After about 30 minutes, we seemed to have exhausted our reserves, so I offered to pray to close our time together.

She said yes, of course, and then raised an eyebrow ever so slightly when I pulled out my trusty, brand new, BCP. She tried not to sigh as I flipped through the pages to find just the right prayer and then read it with as much piety as I could muster, given the situation.

When I looked up from my book, the expression on her face could only be described as ‘sour’. I asked if there was something wrong. She demurred, at first, and then her Baptist self just couldn’t resist. “Well,” she said, with a little more than a tease in her tone but chiding me none the less, “is THAT how you Episcopalians pray? Out of that . . . book?”

I was horrified. I mean, I LOVE that book. You know? That’s how I had been taught to pray. Whatever could she mean? She saw the panic in my eyes and immediately regretted her words. She “there-there’d” me for a while as she shooed me out the door.

I wasn’t entirely sure she’d let me in the next week but she did. And, to my surprise, the weeks and months that followed. She was always polite and courteous, but when it came time for the prayer at the end of our visit, she was always noticeably tense when I reached for my BCP.

Until one afternoon, several months into our weekly visits, I decided to take a risk and try to pray without my prayer book, to trust the spirit and pray from my heart. I mean, I figured, what did I have to lose? If I really messed up, I might just win her sympathy and, along with it, her permission to continue to use my beloved BCP.

As we came to the end of our visit, I asked if I could pray with her. Even before she could agree, I shut my eyes - maybe a little tighter than I intended - clasped my hands together, a little more vigorously than I had intended - and prayed. I have no idea what I said. I just opened my heart, opened my mouth and let fly.

When I opened my eyes I looked at her face and, to my surprise and distress, I saw that she was crying. Horrified, I said, “Oh, Ms. Parks, I’m so sorry. Did I say something to offend?”

She took a few slow breaths and then said, “Oh no, child no. You did good. Just fine. It’s just that, when we get to this time, I know it’s time for you to leave. And today, with you offering a prayer from your heart and not your book, it really hit me that it was time for you to leave. And then,” she said, “and then, I realized just how lonely I really am.”

“Ms. Parks,” I said, “let’s talk about that loneliness. You must still be grieving the loss of your husband. I can’t imagine how much you miss your old home and how hard it’s been to adjust to this apartment and this community. Can you tell me about that?”

And, for the next hour, we did just that.

Jesus did not leave his disciples in the moment - “while they were in their joy and disbelieving and wondering” - he reminded them of what was important - the needs of others. Loneliness. Grief. Sadness. Disbelief. Hunger - either physical or a hunger for community - relationship.

And that, my friends, is why I go to church. My kids were right. Going to church doesn’t make me any more of a Christian than going to a garage will make me a car. But going to church gives me the place from which I can go out and meet people where they are.

Going to church allows me a place where I can share a laugh, or my astonishment at something that has happened, or my disappointment that something hasn’t happened. Church in its best sense is a sanctuary, a safe place, where I can grieve my losses and celebrate my joys.

Being church takes practice. It takes patience with others. It requires tolerance of differences.

Jesus was known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread and he is also known to us in the broken places of our lives. Going to church allows us to hear the old, old stories and tell our stories and, in so doing, to deepen our relationship and trust, so that we can be there for each other in the broken places of our lives.

At St. Peter’s Church in Lewes, where I go to church, a new portico has been built and a statue of St. Peter is being installed. A plaque is going to be mounted on the brick wall. It says this:

"This portico statue of St. Peter is dedicated to the oppressed and the marginalized; the poor and the poor in spirit; seekers, mystics and misfits; and all those for whom the failings of the Church have caused immeasurable pain. St Peter’s freely offers the keys of the Holy Realm of Heaven to all. May all persons find sanctuary in this place.”

That plaque makes plain what many churches, like St. Philip’s, believes. It’s the reason I go to church, because it incarnates my belief in the Resurrected Christ who is standing at the door with open arms, welcoming each soul into this place, just as he did when he entered that Upper Room and startled the disciples with his resplendent self.

But Jesus did not leave the disciples there in their joy and wonder and disbelieving. He showed them his humanity, his needs, his vulnerability. “Got anything to eat?,” he asked. And so every person, every image of God, who comes into this place, hungering for justice and thirsting for peace, longing to know that they are loved, hoping to find forgiveness and reconciliation, those misfits and seekers and mystics, each and every one, come to this table and are fed.

I am fed when I come here which allows me to go back out into the world and feed others, to sit with those who are dying, to be with their loved ones and family members. And, when asked, I can say with conviction, “Yes, I know that my Redeemer lives. Yes, I believe life is changed, not ended. Yes,

Because he lives, (sing it with me) I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, every fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because he lives.”

And let the church, the Risen Body of Christ say, Amen.

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