Going through to Go Up

Welcome:  Welcome friends!  He is risen!  And you know what to say here, even from your homes….He is risen indeed!  So sad that I can’t see your beautiful faces in person this Easter.  Even so, it is good to be together in spirit and through the spirit that binds us all together. That time will surely come again, make no mistake.  When we look back through history, we will note the patterns that after every time of difficulty, there comes ease again.  Bill Gates recently said that “Life is cyclical, and this is just a phase in this great cycle.”  May Easter bring you the reassurance that this too shall pass—this time of suffering.  Let us therefore join our spirits, hearts, and minds together for the Easter worship of our Lord.   

Jeremiah 31:1-6

31At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. 2Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. 5Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 6For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: “Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”

Matthew 28:1-10

28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Colossians 3:1-4

3So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Sermon: Going Through to Go Up preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony Easter, 2020

A few years ago, my siblings and their spouses, Clint and I all took a family trip to Guanacaste, Costa Rica together.  My youngest sister and her husband are avid marathon runners, and they researched some fun activities for all of us to do together and booked all of us on an all-day multiple adventure tour including whitewater tubing, zip-lining, horseback riding, and hiking to mineral pools, where we could smear mud all over ourselves and then soak in the hot water.  Now, this was one busy day that took us from sunup to sundown; We all rode in the small van, white-knuckled from the speed the crazy driver dared on the narrow, potholed roads.  And most of that day was pretty much okay, even though I was the first to flip over when whitewater tubing.  Yep, it was mostly okay, even for someone like me, in her fifties, with, let’s just say gravity tugging on me a bit harder than most.  You know what I mean. 

The one part of that day that wasn’t that okay though was the zip lining.  Gravity really tugged hard on me there.  We zip lined through a great chasm, from one tree-top station another station—so many stations that I lost count.  From platform to platform I got going so fast that I couldn’t stop myself, and the saintly Costa Rican men who worked there had to stop me, because I couldn’t seem to put the brakes on with my gloved hands like I was supposed to.  They said, “Mama, slow down!”  I just couldn’t.  I thought the worst of it was over once I got to the last tree-top station, but I was wrong.  Here I had to climb from the platform up a vertical rock wall.  I had to climb straight up—some fifty feet or so—using metal staples in the rock wall to get out of that gorge—to end that particular adventure and move on to the tamer horseback riding phase.  I couldn’t believe it.  Here I was shaking and exhausted from the zip lining, and I had to climb fifty feet up a sheer rock wall using staples to get out.  I was furious, screaming something like,” I am too old for this!  Why aren’t we just hanging on the beach sipping passionfruit mojitos?  I’m no marathon runner!”  The Costa Rican guides encouraged me, “Mama, you can do this!”  And I thought to myself, the only way this is going to end is if I just get this over with.  And with grim determination, I mounted those thick metal staples in the rock wall and began to climb, using every ounce of strength I had left in my body to fight the relentless pull of gravity.

The only way out is through.  I had to go through that chasm to go up and out.  I had no idea what my youngest sister and her husband had gotten me into that day; perhaps if I had known or paid attention, I wouldn’t have gone on that day excursion.  But there I was.  And I wouldn’t have had such a story to tell or such a rich memory if I hadn’t participated.  I wouldn’t have known what grit I actually possessed.  Here all of us are in a vastly different world that we found ourselves in this time last year.  We are worshipping in a vastly different way, meeting on zoom, checking in with each other by phone and text and email.  We are adapting, because that’s what humans do when we are stressed.  As Richard Rohr said in his March 22 Meditation, called The Path of Descent:  “We are learning while we hang in there, and rather than losing our lives, we are gaining a larger life.”  And friends, this is the message of Easter.  Resurrection surely comes after the suffering of the cross.

Our three lectionary scriptures today speak to this—this inevitable rising after a great descent.  The prophet Jeremiah speaks to the people of Israel after a time of exile after the fall of Judah.  The 31st chapter of Jeremiah, from which our text today is taken, is part of the section of Jeremiah called the Book of Consolation.  This part of Jeremiah is devoted to proclamations of the restoration of the people; it is not like what comes before this in Jeremiah, which included prior condemnations of their behavior.  The theme of hope runs throughout our passage today: the people’s land and cities will be restored, its population will multiply, prosperity will return and all the festivities will come roaring back.  This will all culminate in a pilgrimage to Zion.  All of this is made possible by the Israel’s repentance.  And I would like to remind you that repentance is not feeling sorry and guilty about sin as much as it is having a change of heart and mind about something—so much so that it drives us to new behavior as individuals and as nations.  Perhaps our nation’s old ways of doing things will soon change, now that we have been stressed by this virus and see how not caring for the health and well-being of the least of these impacts the health and well-being of everyone.  When Israel has a change of heart, God promises to build them again.  The festivities will resume and the people will take their tambourines and dance, making merry.  The vineyards shall once again be planted, and they will go up to Zion once again. 

And so it is with us—the day will come when we can resume our parties together, in person.  The day will again come when we can gather in this space with one another and worship.  We have to go through this time, however, before we go up.  Going through, to go up to Zion.

Our gospel scripture today, that beloved story we listen to each Easter, contains the same theme of hope, of ascent—going through the suffering before going up. Jesus, you know, has just been through a horrific time of torture, the cross, and death.  Sunday was dawning and Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  There was the great earthquake and an angel of the Lord came down and rolled back the stone.  The angel then announces to the Marys that Jesus has been raised, and the angel shows them the empty place where he had been lain.  In fact, Jesus was not only raised, but he was on the road ahead of them on his way to Galilee, where they were told that they would soon see him! 

The suffering that Jesus went through was essential in order to reveal the cosmic lesson of resurrection.  Richard Rohr wrote, in his March 22 meditation, The Path of Descent, that God holds up “the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: ‘I know this is what you’re experiencing.  Don’t run from it.  Learn from it, as I did.  Hang there for a while, as I did.  It will be your teacher.  Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life.  It is the way through.”  And I know that might feel impossible right now as you are all at home, lives and schedules disrupted, anxieties compounding.  But God always resurrects and brings about something new.  Even God went through suffering to go up and on to something larger, for all of our benefit.

Our last scripture passage this Easter Sunday is from the Epistle to the Colossians.  Paul, or someone writing under the authority of Paul’s name, tells the church at Colossae that they have been raised with Christ.  Because the believers there (and this all applies to us as well) have died with Christ, they (and we) are also raised with him.  That is the symbolic essence of our baptism.  We go down into the water and are raised to new life.  We have to go through that water to go up again.  That new life is all about having a new identity, a new mindset, new interests and obligations.  It is less about the ego and more about the other.  We have been down in the muck and have gone through that muck, but we have been raised with Christ.  That is our hope.  That is the cycle of suffering and resurrection. This is the Christian message:  We must pass through times of suffering to strengthen our souls; how else would we be fit for heaven? 

When I called through our church’s directory, I have already seen how many of you want to help—you are truly people of such wonderful altruism and love!  I have no doubt that we will come out stronger and more deeply connected to one another when this is over.  But, again, we must go through to go up.

It’s like the story of the caterpillar becoming the butterfly.  I know I’ve told you this before, but it is great Easter story and is worth repeating.  A little boy watched a butterfly struggling to get out of cocoon.  He thought he would help it and snipped the cocoon with a pair of scissors to help it get out.  When the butterfly emerged, it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.  Those wings could not support the swollen body.  The wings never expanded, and the poor creature spent the rest of its very short life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings.  It was never able to fly.  The boy’s mother took him to a scientist from the local college.  From the scientist the boy learned that the butterfly was supposed to struggle.  The struggle of the butterfly pushing its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon was what nature intended for the butterfly to push the fluid out of its body and into its wings.  Without the struggle, the butterfly would never fly. 

Similarly, friends, we don’t go up until we go through.  Even God experienced this, going through the struggle on the cross before going on to the miracle of the resurrection.  We don’t know what grit we’re made of until we go through life’s chasms.  We are not fit for heaven unless we’ve struggled.  This is a time of struggle, make no mistake, but the whole narrative of scripture, including the hopeful passages we read today, promise us ascent and resurrection.  He is risen indeed!  Amen.