Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Good morning. What an honor to address you this morning. I pray that my words may convey something of the hope that Easter represents, and where my words falter, that the Spirit of God will speak to you directly with whatever it is your heart most needs to hear.
To set the context for what I hope to convey, let me begin with a few vignettes. They’re mostly personal accounts, but as I speak, perhaps similar or analogous memories will come to mind for you.
When I first stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and then spent several days hiking down to the bottom and up again, I was completely undone by its majestic, wild, dangerous beauty. Whatever the word sacred had meant to me before, it now had to take into account what my eyes beheld at every switchback. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr speaks of creation as God’s first incarnation, and the Grand Canyon had that impact on me–it was a revelation. As I was leaving, I remember feeling strangely comforted by the fact that the canyon would always be there, and that no matter where I was I could call the canyon to mind. I haven’t been back for 30 years, but it remains for me a mystical place of connection.
In Celtic spirituality, places like the Grand Canyon, or any location that is sacred for you, is called thin, in the sense that the veil which separates this world from all that lies beyond is transparent and porous. These are places where we can connect to the past, present and future all at once; and they confirm, at least for some of us, the ancient human intuition that there is, in fact, another realm beyond this life.
A thin place isn’t always one of beauty. Gordon Cosby, one of the most influential mid-20th century pastors in Washington, DC, described when the veil was lifted for him on the battlefield of Normandy during World War II. As a chaplain, he helped bury hundreds of young soldiers, including his best friend. At the grave of his friend, reading from Scripture he had a powerful revelation that there was life on the other side of the grave. He also realized that most of the soldiers he ministered to had little or no spiritual resources to draw upon in the hell that they found themselves in. So when he returned from the war, Cosby was determined to create a faith community where people could develop a spirituality that was both deep and wide. He called it “the Church of the Savior,” one of the first truly inter-racial faith communities in Washington, DC, dedicated to a ministry of deep spiritual growth and sacrificial service and commitment to justice.
These thin places and experiences speak to us of a dual reality of life as we know it and life beyond what we know. When we’re in a thin place, we sense the presence of that realm to which we cannot yet go, but whose reality we no longer doubt.
In late August and September of 2005, the residents of New Orleans and throughout southern Mississippi and Louisiana experienced the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. You may recall that nearly two thousand lives were lost, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and the damage to property and community infrastructure was catastrophic. Moreover our national systems for crisis management failed the impacted communities miserably, and it was clear for all the world to see that thousands of people in this country couldn’t get clean water, much less shelter or adequate food. I was living in Minnesota then, just a few hours south of where the Mississippi River begins as a tiny trickle out of Lake Istaka. The river that served as a peaceful backdrop to my life in Minneapolis was, at the very same time, wreaking havoc on countless people two thousand miles south.
Every time that I passed the river, or a tributary to it near our house, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were suffering at the river’s end. I could carry on my normal life, but I was somehow connected by that river to others who were experiencing incalculable hardship.
Now there are many ways we can feel that kind of visceral connection to other people who in real time are experiencing life in a vastly different way than we are. Perhaps right now you have family or friends, or you yourself have lived or served in a part of the world that is at war now, or experiencing famine, or some other hardship. And you’re here, and there’s this urgency inside you, a desperation to do something for those you love or care about–in large part because you’re fine and they are not. That disparity–and that’s what I’m asking you to think about–motivates us all to do brave and sacrificial things; it calls upon one of the noble attributes of our species. that of empathy. Empathy is like muscle; the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. That’s not by accident. We were made that way for a reason. More on that a bit later.
One final vignette: Once, as a favor to a neighbor, I presided at a wedding for a couple that I did not know well, the sister of my neighbor and her soon-to-be-husband. It was an outdoor wedding at a city park, not at all religious, except for me, but it was lovely, as most weddings are. After the ceremony, a young woman approached me, introduced herself, and asked if we could talk. When I said yes, her eyes filled with tears. She told me that she had once dated the groom. The romantic side of their relationship didn’t last, she said; they were still friends, and she liked the woman he married. Yet she was still single, and lonely; she had dreaded attending the wedding, and it was just as hard as she feared it would be. “Still, I’m glad I’m here,” she said through her tears. “I really am. I wanted to be here for them, you know? To celebrate their joy.”
That is one of the most poignant expressions of our capacity to hold two realities at once, that in our sorrow, we can be genuinely glad for another’s happiness. It is the love of a dancer or an athlete sidelined because of an injury, who is nonetheless present to cheer on those able to fulfill the dream that is now denied them. It is the love of parents who realize that what they have to give isn’t what their children want or need, yet even in rejection, they offer their blessing.
With all those vignettes in mind, here is what I’d like to say about the meaning of this day. We will never fully understand it, but we experience its power as we hold seemingly opposite experiences together–this world and what lies beyond; our capacity to feel the sufferings of another to such a degree that we are moved to take them on as our own; being willing to share in another’s joy even when we are grieving.
Easter lands there. Richard Rohr describes the Easter mystery this way: “the body of Christ is crucified and resurrected at the same time.”1 That’s not an historical assertion. It’s a mystical one–an act or way of being that unites death to life, this world to the next, reaching down to the deepest human sorrow and raising us up to whatever joy is possible after the greatest loss.
What we need to remember when we consider all of this is that Jesus, before the resurrection, was, for those who knew him, a human embodiment of a thin place. Before he died, people in his presence couldn’t stop thinking that they were in the presence of God. Listen to how the world religion scholar Huston Smith describes Jesus:
Circulating easily and without affectation among ordinary people and social misfits, “healing them, counseling them, helping them out of chasms of despair, Jesus went about doing good . . . He did so with such single mindedness and effectiveness that those who were with him found their estimate of him persistently modulating to a new kae. They found themselves thinking that if divine goodness were to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave.2
And then died, a cruel and vindictive way. His followers were devastated, not only because they loved him and that he was such a good man, but because he seemed so much more than a man. “We had hoped,” one of the disciples says a bit later in the Easter narrative, “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
That’s why the empty tomb became such a powerful place and symbol. It became a thin place for the women who went there early in the morning to care for Jesus’ body. They were terrified, as you just heard. They hadn’t yet encountered Christ, but his body was gone. There were these men telling them to go back to Galilee, which is where they came from, and that Jesus would meet them there. It made no sense, but the women knew that they were on sacred ground, that the veil between this world and that other realm was lifted for them, and Jesus was somehow moving freely between those two realities.
The reason we are here, friends, in this Cathedral is that for those who follow him, he still moves between both those realms. Whatever happened to Jesus on that first Easter morning, Christ is now and forever a spiritual being in the realm that lies beyond us, who is also with us in our reality with us in all its heartbreaking and wondrous complexity. That’s what Christians believe and experience. It’s what anyone can know if we let him in.
There’s another dual reality of Easter: the juxtaposition of grief and joy. There is no getting around it. So if you’re not feeling super joyful today, rest assured that you are in good company–if you noticed, the women at the tomb weren’t especially joyful, either. For it takes time for a new life to emerge for death; it takes time for grief to ease; for forgiveness to do its reconciling work.
But if you are feeling joyful, for Jesus’ sake, shield your joy. For even in times of great sorrow and struggle, there is a place for laughter and goodness, and when they are given to us, we need to savor and protect them, lest the world keep us forever anxious and afraid. In the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize, “Say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony hushers, ‘even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.’” That was her way of saying to all those who would keep her down, “No one is going to steal my joy.”3
Which brings me back at last to the ways we are connected to one another. For while resurrection is something that only God can do, it’s also about us, how we experience death and life at the same time, too. It’s what my colleague Bishop Jake Owensby calls “a resurrection-shaped life.” By God’s grace, we, too, can be for others walking thin places, whenever we show up; whenever we reach across the disparities of human experience with a love that shows no partiality, that’s focused on doing good and offering our blessing.
So when your heart is breaking for what another is going through, follow where your heart leads–that’s resurrection working in you. Go to the places where love is needed most with whatever love you have to give–that’s resurrection in you. Wherever there is joy, do your best to celebrate and protect it, even if it’s not yours–that’s resurrection working in you. Be open to the people and places that help you believe that there is another realm of life beyond this life, and trust that when the time comes, Jesus will be there to help you cross over.
But in the meantime, you are here, as I am, and we are called to live with compassion and love, even as our hearts break. We can’t do this on our own, or perfectly, and we aren’t meant to. Resurrection is God’s best work, and it’s happening right now in all the wounded and sacred places of our lives and of this world. We can be part of it, whenever and however we choose to receive it for ourselves, and then offer what we can in a resurrection-shaped life.
May it be so. Amen.
1It Can’t Be Carried Alone by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, April 6, 2022
2Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 48.
3Speech to the Young by Gwendolyn Brooks, from BLACKS (Chicago, IL: Third World Press, 1991