Homily - 05.24.20

by Rev. Karen A. Cherwien

Easter 7A, Narrative Lectionary.

1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57.

First Presbyterian Church, Batesville, AR.

I suspect most of us have asked at least once during this pandemic: Why?

Granted, the virus hasn’t really affected most of us directly yet, aside from perhaps a few changes in how we conduct our daily lives and vocations. [Okay, for most of us, our daily lives have been quite thoroughly interrupted.] But still, we occasionally (or frequently) check the updated death toll, here in Arkansas, and in the country, and think how unfair it is that so many are suffering and dying from this virus.

We hear Paul’s words today about death being “swallowed up in victory,” and Christ indeed being raised from the dead - I wonder if these words may hit us a little differently than before?

I wonder if it feels more like death is swallowing us up? - And it is not at all a victorious way to go. We may feel resentful, sad, hopeless, powerless that so many are suffering, dying from COVID-19. We feel afraid of what will happen if the virus erupts in our community. We feel constrained, that we feel obligated to do things like wear masks in public, and to stay away from our friends and neighbors. We feel devastated that we cannot gather in person to worship.

Nothing is the same anymore, or at least it doesn’t seem that way. We just want to get back to normal!

It feels like this virus, and the many deaths it is indeed causing, does threaten to swallow us up. It can feel very overwhelming, especially when we know that, to continue to love and protect our neighbors, this new “normal” may continue for some time.

We hear this promise today, that “death will be swallowed up in victory”: maybe it feels a little questionable to us, because it maybe doesn’t seem all that possible. Death, to most of us, often feels like a defeat. Often, too, change feels much like death. It can be hard to see a way forward.

And, with all that is going on, I suspect more than one of us has wondered, “Is it really true? Can we trust Christ’s promise of new life? How can we have faith, when all these terrible things are happening?”

How can we trust that, even when things look really bad, when we’re not sure what the future holds, when the possibilities look pretty depressing, how can we trust that things will be okay? How can we trust that God will provide?

At first, Paul’s words to the Corinthians sound a bit superficial - it might feel like he’s offering an empty promise. But the deeper we look, the more we are able to realize that Paul does mean what he says; he has confidence that even in the worst of circumstances, Christ is alive; Christ is at work.

Even when we maybe can’t directly see it.

I met this man once whose wife was dying in the hospital. He wanted someone to come pray with them, because he thought it would comfort his wife. So I went to the room. He told me about his wife, and their teenage son. And then he told me about his fears: how would he go on without her? How would he raise his son alone? He had no preparation for this. Then he shared what he was really struggling with: “How can I believe in a God who lets something like this happen? How can God possibly be at work in the midst of this??”

In other words, how could he trust Christ’s promise that new life will indeed come? How could he have faith?

Perhaps those of you who have experienced the death of a spouse or family member can identify with this man. Perhaps you’ve asked similar questions.

The problem is, we’ve been trained to think that these questions are forbidden. There can be a lot of shame for many of us in admitting that we have, at one point or another, doubted God’s presence. To be a “good” Christian, we think, we have to be faithful, not faithless. We are afraid of what would happen if we “lost” our faith - perhaps we are afraid we would lose ourselves.

“We will all be changed,” Paul writes. We cannot remain the same, even if we wanted to. Granted, many of us will try - but it won’t work. For as much as we make an effort to get back to “normal,” “normal” will not be the same. It can’t be.

Perhaps Christ is using this time to open our eyes and ears to things we couldn’t see or hear before. Perhaps Christ is using this time to help us focus our energy and attention in new ways. Perhaps Christ is using this time to provide us an opportunity to become our most creative and authentic selves.

This is scary, because becoming creative and authentic requires us to be vulnerable and exposed.

John O’Donohue writes, “The irony of being here is that sometimes it is precisely what you want to avoid that brings you further towards creativity and compassion” (Eternal Echoes, 190).

“Our fear and limitation invent the barriers that keep us locked out from our divine inheritance” (O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes, 193).

Christ does indeed transform death, for all of us. This does not mean we can escape it, but rather, that we do not need to be so afraid of it. Christ invites us to work to offer comfort and hope to our neighbors, but also simply to journey with them in the midst of their suffering and pain. We cannot always avoid or prevent the difficult experiences, but we can trust that God goes with us.

The story of the man at his wife's bedside did not conclude where I paused the story earlier. In fact, as our conversation continued, the man began to realize that he was not as alone as he might have thought. He remembered that he had a brother-in-law, whom he was confident would be there for him, whom he could turn to for help. He began to recognize the “small” ways that God continued to show up, even in the midst of his pain and grief. He noticed things he otherwise would not have paid attention to. He was able to see that, even when he felt that he may not be able to enter the unknown future on his own, that he really was not alone, and that God was working in ways that he couldn’t fully discern yet.

In the end, it came down to trust. Not trust that he already had on his own, but rather, the ability to trust became real in him as he accepted the mystery; as God gradually opened his heart to a new reality. He couldn’t fully understand until much later, but he saw God lighting a candle for him, giving him the faith he needed for the present moment.

Similarly, we might think of the moment in the Harry Potter series ("Deathly Hallows") when Harry sees the words written on the Snitch, and realizes what they mean: “I open at the close.” He had to become fully vulnerable, fully exposed, in order to gain access to the gift inside. Reading the words on the Snitch gave him the courage to fulfill his purpose, and reminded him that he was not alone.

Similarly, we can trust that God does offer a word of life in the midst of suffering and pain; that God can and does transform death into new life. What might be opening for you, in the midst of darkness and fear? What new star might be emerging in the dark of night? As one chapter perhaps is ending, what new chapter may be beginning for you?

How might Christ be awakening new life in you this day? How might Christ be calling us to life in this time, these circumstances?

We don’t have to know for certain what the answers to these questions are - but we are invited to truly wonder about them. We are invited to become open to the unexpected ways that Christ may be at work; the ways new life continues to show up in our own lives, and in the world.

We drift through this gray, increasing nowhere

Until we stand before a threshold we know

We have to cross to come alive once more.

May we have the courage to take the step

Into the unknown that beckons us;

Trust that a richer life awaits us there,

That we will lose nothing

But what has already died;

Feel the deeper knowing in us sure

Of all that is about to be born beyond

The pale frames where we stayed confined,

Not realizing how such vacant endurance

Was bleaching our soul’s desire.

(O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, 143)

May the gifts of faith and trust be yours, may the gift of new life continue to emerge in ways we cannot yet imagine. May we indeed trust Christ’s promise of life and love. Amen