Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 1, 2018
God’s steadfast love endures for ever!Let Israel say,
‘God’s steadfast love endures for ever.’
The Lord is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
I don’t have a long, fancy sermon this morning.
Today I just want to tell you a story – the story of “a radical rabbi born to a poor carpenter and his teenaged fiancé.” He spent the first few years of his life as a refugee and his childhood in a backwater village of an occupied land. And “He grew up to tell everyone that God is loose in the world.” He ate with outcasts and he healed the suffering and he saw straight into the hearts of those who thirsted for something more and gave them living water. “He caused such a ruckus that his loved ones begged him to lay low for awhile; but he wouldn’t, because he had a mission” – to reveal to everyone that God is not some far-off, distant deity but that God is here with us, here for us. His insistence that the realm of God is breaking into every nook and cranny of creation challenged the authority of those who thought they had cornered the market on holiness. They arrested him and “mocked him, beat him, and killed him while the people looked on” and called for his death. “His body was buried inside a stone cold tomb, presumably forever, like every human who had died before him.”
And then, three days later, three of his women disciples found that tomb empty, only an angel to alert them that their beloved rabbi had been raised – that God was, once again, on the loose; that Love had won.
In the Christian tradition we celebrate this day as unique, as history-altering – and it is. But this story also tells a truth that has been real since the beginning of Creation – dawn always follows the darkness; seeds always sprout forth after winter; ashes enrich the ground for a new season of growing. Somehow God’s life-giving love always finds a way, even after our deepest losses and greatest devastations. As fellow UCC member Glennon Doyle says: “First the pain. Then the waiting. Then the rising.”
It can be so hard in the aftermath of a tragedy, a loss, or an imploded dream to remember this – to imagine in the thick of our despair that new life could be on the horizon. Like Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, we come to the tomb expecting death to greet us; in our grief there is no room, no oxygen for envisioning something beautiful growing out of the ashes.
Yet like the women disciples, we are met by God’s promise of new life. It may take time; the new growth may be invisible to us at first. But the heart of the Easter story promises us that whatever has died – within us or around us – can be made new in God’s resurrecting love, regardless of what we think is possible.
When I was a kid, my family visited Mount St. Helens, the Washington state volcano that erupted in 1980 with a blast more powerful than 1500 atomic bombs. The explosion was so powerful that my grandparents’ house, over 250 miles away, was blanketed in ash. Scientists were convinced that the hundreds of square miles of forest annihilated by the history-making eruption would never recover; there seemed no way that the grey, alien landscape could be anything but hostile to new life.
But in fact, life had begun to return shortly after the devastating blast. When scientists visited just weeks later, ants and pocket gophers that survived the eruption in their underground homes had already burrowed through the thick ash, looking for food. Soon mosses began to spread; and just months later a fireweed plant, sprouted from a seed carried to the site by wind, was discovered not as a timid shoot, but in full, death-defying bloom.
Nearby Ryan Lake, September, 1980:
Just five years later, on the slopes of the mountain:
I remember vividly the way stripped trees still blanketed nearby Spirit Lake like matchsticks when we visited, over 12 years after the eruption:
There was a burnt out car still parked by the side of the road. But the areas around the mountain were greening; life was returning. Now, almost 40 years later, the landscape that President Carter had said made “the surface of the moon look like a golf course” is thriving, bolstered by greater biodiversity than before the catastrophe.
First the pain. Then the waiting. Then the rising.
We all have our alien landscapes; our dead, burned-out places marred by grief and loss and despair. These hard things – a diagnosis, a bout with depression, a fractured relationship, a miscarriage, a parenting struggle, a layoff, an addiction, caregiver burnout, the death of a beloved one – are simply part of being human. The good news is that bringing forth beautiful things out of our alien, barren landscapes is simply part of being God.
You see, God is in the business of bringing life out of the ashes – not because God is a drill sergeant convinced that no pain equals no gain, but because God is a gardener, tending lovingly to our scorched places, sure in the knowledge that they will return to life. Wherever there is barrenness, it is God’s nature to be there, turning the earth and pouring out love like water, growing us into wholeness once again – even amidst our harshest landscapes.
Easter morning reminds us that after the mockery and scorn, the betrayal and abandonment, the torture and crucifixion; after the abrupt failure of an entire movement and the unbearable finality of death; when all seemed charred and bleak – a wind blew in, carrying a seed. God’s ruach, the Hebrew word for both wind and Spirit, bore something new that would take root and grow and, with time, become a forest of unquenchable beauty, a forest in whose trees is nestled all kinds of new life, including this very faith community, watered and nurtured by God’s extravagant love.
Because the One whose very existence was the simple yet astounding truth that God is with us, and for us – well, that One could not be destroyed by the worst life had to offer. Nothing, not even complete and utter devastation, could stop Love made flesh from coming to whisper into our ears, once again: “Do not be afraid. I am risen. I am alive. I am on the loose; indeed, I am here with you, my beloved, right now; and no matter how things may look, it is not the end. No, I am the end – and in Me, all things find new life.”
Thanks be to God. Alleluia and amen!