Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 27, 2016
John 20:1-18; Isaiah 65:17-25
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
How do we find Easter hope in the Good Fridays of our lives? When we are hit hard with the death of a loved one, a serious health diagnosis, the loss of a job we feel the darkness closing in around us. Grief can be all-consuming. How can we find our way toward the dawn of Easter hope and new life?
My partner and I learned an invaluable answer to this question 10 years ago when we had a serious car accident. After the first few weeks in the hospital, pain and frustration began to shut us down. My worst day was when I was told that I had not only broken both knees and a wrist—I may also have broken my foot and my neck. Further x-rays determined that this wasn’t the case, but when I received this news, I was alone. Nancy was in another room, immobilized by her crushed vertebrae and broken knee. Our world had suddenly become frighteningly small. It was no longer a safe place and we automatically shielded ourselves from anything outside of us.
We began to receive cards and emails from across the country—some from people we didn’t even know. They assured us of their prayers and that was when we realized something crucial to our ability to move into the light of Easter hope. We had a choice. We could continue closing down our hearts by putting up protective shields, or we could open ourselves to the healing energy of the Spirit and the prayers of people across the country. We decided that it wasn’t fair to the hundreds of people who were praying for us, not to be open to their healing energy. We had to make this decision to lower our shields and risk openness over and over again, but it proved to be crucial to our healing. It proved crucial for my ability to walk again.
After almost three months of being immobilized in casts, the auspicious day finally came for me to try to stand. There was a slight possibility that I might even try to walk, but my physiotherapist and occupational therapist warned me not to get my hopes up. My knees were larger than my atrophied thighs—we didn’t know if my legs could support me.
I awoke that day with my heart pounding. My palms were sweaty and I realized that I was just as nervous as the day I defended my PhD dissertation. My fear started closing me down, but as I was wheeled into the physio room, I heard Josh Groban’s song, “You Raise Me Up”:
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
As I heard the song, I felt the prayers raising my spirit and my courage. My physiotherapist literally raised me up with a belt onto my wobbly legs. I stood briefly, then collapsed into the chair. He told me to try again. This time, I remained standing, holding tightly to the parallel bars. Then, he told me to take step forward. I forced one foot in front of the other. As tears streamed down my face, I was able to shuffle the length of the bars!
Although this was a good news day, I knew that I had to be open to bad news as well.
We learned that we couldn’t be selectively open. We had to be open to receiving whatever came our way, open to healing in whatever form, open to the news of no, not yet, open to the body’s energy needs, open to weariness, new pains, new limbs. My cast had just come off my left arm and the limb was ugly, but I had to be open it. Open to a hardened, yellowed, flaking claw gradually unfolding from its encrusted cocoon, stretching forth, owned and claimed and loved into being.
When life hits us hard, whether it’s an accident, a broken relationship with a spouse, children making unhealthy choices, a significant loss, we may feel our world caving in around us. We naturally retract from pain to protect ourselves. We take less risks because we know now that we are not invincible. Our passions cool into caution. We become more afraid, less confident, less certain.
Such was the case with the disciples on that Easter morning. Their Rabbi and Lord had been crucified and they were terrified. They went into hiding, closing their world tightly around them. In John’s gospel, we are told that Mary went alone to the tomb to grieve and discovered it empty. She ran back to tell the other disciples and found Peter & John. They ran to the tomb, finding it just as she said, but their fear took them back to their homes and they shut the door on any hopes that may have been kindled.
Mary alone remained, determined to find her Lord. She asked whomever she saw, including the gardener, to tell her where the body had been taken. The gardener responded to her gently, calling her by name. That was when she recognized Jesus. She went to embrace him, but he stopped her, saying that he was ascending to God.
Unlike Peter and John, Mary did not return home nor hide behind closed doors. She found the rest of the disciples and told them all that she had seen. She risked ridicule and denial, but she refused to close down. She had seen the risen Lord and had been set free of fear.
Fear can be a powerful force that causes us to hesitate to grasp new hope, new life. It keeps us shut down, with shields up in our little protective circle. We are afraid to take risks, we don’t want to be hurt again. But when our hearts begin to close down, we are damaging our own souls, as well as our loved ones around us.
Our Moderator’s Easter Message is entitled “Risking Resurrection”. She speaks about the types of death we experience in our lives—death of loved ones, of abilities, of relationships, of self-image, of dreams. When we experience death, we have a choice. We can cocoon within and say “no” to change, to transformation. Or, we can risk resurrection and say “yes” to new life, to new possibilities. This is a very real risk, because we will also be opening ourselves to pain.
When we are open unreservedly to life and love, to the Spirit of the risen Christ, we also open ourselves to sacrifice, to suffering. There will be a cost to saying “yes”. But when we risk being open to love, we will find healing. Our senses will come alive and our world will burst into technicolour. When we risk resurrection, we will find new life.
e.e. cummings has written a prayer of gratitude to God for renewed life emerging from death:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?