A sermon preached at a joint service of St. George’s Anglican Church and Prince of Faith Lutheran Church, Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018.
Easter Sunday – Year B
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In 1903, a young man, not yet 20 years old, who was studying to become an officer at a military academy, found himself overwhelmed with a deep uncertainty about his life. He was deeply uncomfortable in the military, uncomfortable with the rough and tumble of the other young men, uncomfortable in anticipating a life of violence. Instead, he preferred to spend his time reading and writing poetry.
One day, he was sitting under a tree, deeply engrossed in a work by one of his favourite poets, when the chaplain of the school came over to sit with him. The chaplain took up the book of poetry, and revealed that the poet was a former student of his, from another military academy. He told this young man about the poet’s early life, and in that very moment, the young man decided to write to his hero, and send him some of his poems, and ask him about the deep questions of his life: should he become an officer, or was his poetry good enough that he could think about becoming a poet?
And the great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote him back, beginning a correspondence so beautiful and so powerful that after Rilke’s death, these “Letters to a Young Poet” were published.
What is extraordinary about Rilke’s letters to this young poet, Mr. Franz Kappus is that while Rilke is unafraid to be honest – in the first letter, he writes, “let me only tell you further that your verses have no individual style” – yet he never ceases to be encouraging, and gracious and generous with young Mr. Kappus.
These are the kind of letters any young person would treasure receiving: to be seen and encouraged by such a great artist, who was already so famous. To feel that you were not alone in all the struggles and challenges of finding your way in the world. To be mentored so generously and so tenderly by someone whose life and success you so admired.
And there’s never a harsh note, never a discouraging word. Even when Mr. Kappus, after a 4-year break in their correspondence, tells Rilke he has gone ahead with becoming an officer, and given his life to the military, Rilke is only ever generous, encouraging, and inspiring.
But during the time he was writing these magnificent letters to young Mr. Kappus, Rilke’s own life was anything but easy. Although Rilke was already very famous by this time, he seems to have made no income from the sales of his poetry. He lived a life of poverty, not even having enough money to buy his own books, let alone give them to his friends. He and his wife moved from place to place, leaving their daughter with her grandparents, staying in tiny hostel rooms or at the homes of generous patrons and friends. He was often quite seriously ill. He was hypersensitive to the environment around him, oppressed by the various cities he stayed in: the climate, or the smells, or the feel of the crowds. It took him weeks or months to accustom himself to a new place, and then often they’d be up and moving once again. And this was a period in his life when his poetry came only with hard and lengthy labour.
Mr. Kappus looks “up” to the great poet Rilke, standing on the pedestal of success and artistry and fame – but the generous, tender, encouraging letters he gets in reply are in truth written by the poor, sick, anxious, hypersensitive Rene Rilke, who hardly ever references his own bitter struggles, and whose tender encouragement has inspired generations of young people since.
We seem to think that we will see God at work in our lives when we are stronger, or more healthy, or less stressed, or less anxious about money all the time – as if God only works through the great, the powerful and the good, but the entire history of faith tells us the opposite. God works in the lives of fractured, struggling and damaged people all the time. In fact, it is in the midst of struggle and hardship and brokenness that God is most at home, that God is most powerfully at work.
God chooses an abused, enslaved, geopolitically insignificant people as his own, saving them by way of Moses who was himself a fugitive, a murderer, who would one day bring down God’s Law from the mountain, with the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill.
God works in the life of David, himself an adulterer and a murderer, who grows to be the greatest king Israel ever had, and who wrote psalms of deep, pious faithfulness and intense personal confession.
God works in the life of Paul who had been a violent and vigorous persecutor of the early Christians – Paul, who had some life-long affliction, the thorn in his flesh which was never healed, but who in turn became the great builder of Christianity and the healer of many communities afflicted with various spiritual diseases.
We seem to think that God is only at work in our lives when things are going great – but the truth is, God is at work in our lives even when we are suffering and struggling. In fact: in the deepest suffering, at the heart of the struggling, that is where the resurrection happens.
It is hard for us now to hear the Gospel of John with the ears of those first generations of Christians; to get a taste of what they might have been feeling as John’s crucifixion narrative unfolded. Because John has neatly sanitized the horrors of the crucifixion. Now, we hear these details and our minds don’t fill in the horrors, the hardships, the intensity of the pain and the suffering – but John’s early readers did. They knew these hardships intimately.
If I were to begin a story by describing a big city with twin towers, how many people here would know exactly what city I was talking about? And how many of us would find our minds flooded with memories of that terrible day when the twin towers came down: the scenes we saw, the terror and the tragedy as it unfolded? We need hardly more than the barest reference to make the story come alive in our minds, visceral in its terrible details.
The same is true for John’s early readers. The details aren’t there because they didn’t need to be. Crucifixion was the Romans’ favourite tactic of state terrorism. Thousands of people were crucified every year. Publicly. All of John’s early readers would have seen crucifixions, and been traumatized by them. There was horrific violence attached to every detail that John recalls: sights they had witnessed; sounds they couldn’t un-hear; memories of friends, family or acquaintances killed in the same way; the deep grief and fear that rose up before their eyes, just by the merest word.
But we no longer feel it; and so likewise we don’t feel the fear that rose up in Mary Magdalene when she thought that the Romans had taken the body of Jesus away, and we don’t feel the shudder run through our bodies, and the bile rise in our throats at the thought of what they would have done with it. But she felt it, like all those early Christian readers, the horror that their beloved Rabbi’s body, lovingly tended, had been taken away to be defiled by animals. It was the worst sacrilege imaginable; a horror the Romans often employed, to further shock and terrorize.
Here is Mary, overwhelmed with grief and shock, now pleading with the gardener to tell her where she can find her Rabbi’s body -
And it is right here, at the deepest moment of her suffering, when things could hardly get any worse, that the resurrection happens in Mary’s life. She hears the voice she’d never thought to hear again, tenderly speaking her own name.
When we separate the joy of the resurrection from the deep pain and suffering of the crucifixion; when we sanitize the story so it’s less distressing, we miss out on the deep truth God has revealed to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not even the deepest pain and struggle we face in our lives; not even the worst trauma; not even the darkest depression; not even the most desperate sin; not even illness, or hardship, or abuse, or many years of suffering can separate us from God’s love – for Christ is with us through it all – suffering cannot defeat Him. Suffering cannot overwhelm God’s longing for us; it cannot overwhelm God’s determination to offer us new life.
In the deepest, darkest moments of our lives, Christ is with us, weeping with us, suffering with us, and yet always undiminished in hope for us; for Christ wishes to see the light of the resurrection burning in our lives.
It is that resurrection hope that set Mary on fire that day in the garden, to become a leader of the Christian movement. It is that hope that sustained Paul through his endless trials as he built the Church. It is that hope that has sustained Christians down through the centuries as they faced enormous struggles and terrifying situations. It was that hope that lived in Rainer Maria Rilke, that sustained him to reach out so tenderly and so generously to encourage a lost young person; and it is that hope which we celebrate today: that hope that no matter what we face in our lives; no matter what hardships and challenges we face, God is with us even at the deepest suffering, even in our hardest struggling; and God is offering us new life.
Sometimes it is from the deepest suffering that that new life can burst forth the strongest. I think of the young people I know who have faced terrible illnesses, and they’ve devoted their remaining life to make the world a better place. I think of the survivors of the Florida school shooting, who are turning their trauma into one unified voice for change. I think of the military service men and women, injured and traumatized by war, who are turning their lives to hope by competing in the Invictus Games. And I think of those I’ve known who have died at an old age, who, as they lay dying, cared about their nurses, prayed for others, and asked what was happening in the Church.
God does not wait for all to be well in our lives in order to appear: God is deeply, powerfully, profoundly present in our lives, at work offering us new life, even in the midst of suffering and struggle. We may see our lives as lives of weakness or hardship, but God sees us as people of resilience, and possibility, and transformation.
It is with great tenderness that Jesus ministers to his friends in these last days. With such tenderness does he take the towel and kneel before them to wash their feet; and with such tenderness does he share the bread and wine. Jesus spends a few of his last breaths tenderly arranging a new home for his mother. And with what tenderness does he now speak the name of his beloved disciple Mary, so as not to startle her.
So Jesus speaks the name of each one of us too, with such tenderness, in the darkest moments of our lives. And Jesus invites us to believe that the resurrection is happening in our lives too: invites us to believe that the new life is offered to us in every moment, in every choice, in every daily action. Invites us to see ourselves as he does: people of resilience, and possibility, and transformation; people waiting, like candles, ready to light up again and shine.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, may we each receive this Easter grace.