I was driving home from Maine several years ago on Route 2. As you know it’s not easy going. And when it’s tourist season, as it was, it can be really tough, especially if you are in a hurry, as I happened to be. I got behind a very large RV just this side of Lunenberg. The RV’s top speed was just exactly the speed limit, if not slightly more, on the downhill. He slowed to 25 mph going up the many hills on Route 2 between here and St. Johnsbury. Well, you know the drill. You finally get so tired of slowing down and speeding up, that you attempt to pass on a downhill that is sketchy at best. In order to do that you’re clearly going to have to break the speed limit.
I passed that RV, and it wasn’t 10 seconds after I got over into my lane that a Vermont State Trooper came around the corner, and clocked me going 65.
That was the second time I’ve been given a ticket, and the third time in my life I have been pulled over. I can remember each occasion. I suppose that’s the point of the whole ritual. The blue lights, the slow saunter of the officer up to the window, while he or she adjusts the hat on his or her head. There are no pleasantries — May I see your license and registration. The walk back to the cruiser and the long wait before you are delivered the news. To help you to remember to slow down, here’s a ticket for $75. Have a nice day.
I am generally a slow driver. Living in town can do that to you. But I still find myself in a hurry, whether behind the wheel of a car coming home after a long week away, or a computer chasing a reluctant sermon. The question today is not about driving. It’s about our back pains, and headaches and nervous breakdowns and burnout. Why do we do think that racing through life is the solution to our constant behindness?
The answer to this question is not factual. The answer to this question is not something we will discover in a laboratory or on a therapist’s couch. The answer has to do with the fact that we have been taught that the meaning to life’s most persistent questions is elusive, will never sit still for us while we are sitting still. We have been taught that the truest true is supernatural in origin and will apparently only come to those who strain to see beyond the horizon of this world. And Easter, isn’t that what it is all about? Perhaps we’ll catch a glimpse today?
In the next few minutes permit me to say why this way of thinking about God is so bad for us. And how the gospel can be so much simpler, so much freer.
So, a few minutes on the problem. And then a few more on a better way.
Let me begin with another story. A church in Michigan held an art show in their sanctuary. It was a show designed to show-case the talents of its members and of artists in the community, talents not always identified in this culture as important ones for our collective welfare, but which are actually essential.
One artist submitted a sculpture of the bust of Ghandi. Some few days into the show, the pastor of the church discovered that someone had put graffiti on the sculpture which said, “Don’t you know that Ghandi is in hell?”
Ghandi is in hell? thought the pastor. Ghandi is in hell because he grew up in a hindu nation and like his compatriots embraced hinduism? Are the people who lived and died before the time of Christ all condemned by God because they did not know Jesus? How does any of us know anything about a time and place beyond our death? And why do some feel compelled to advertise to the world their certainty that God only enjoys and offers the benefit of God’s love to those who say they are a Christian? Or, even more narrowly, who profess to follow a certain “correct” path of Christianity?
I do not tell this story because I think this community thinks like the tagger of the Ghandi bust, proclaiming that God’s reward for a Hindu life well-lived is eternal punishment. It is an extreme example, however, of something we have all internalized — our liturgy expresses it, as does our hymnody, and some of our scripture too — that God, in order to be God, must function as a complete, total, and ultimate Being of power and might. A God who from his heaven ordains the wind and the rain, to say nothing of the thousands of daily decisions that inform our actions. Our petition and our right action might just get God to act on our behalf.
Easter, in this view, is proof of God’s omnipotence. Or, to put it in more personal terms, we show up for Easter worship, to catch a glimpse of God’s other worldly power — hoping that here the longing of my heart and soul for that elusive, tricky God will be met and I can rest.
There is plenty of support for this version of Christianity, a version that feels it must constantly be in search of this awesome God, but it is, I tell you, bad for your heart and bad for the church.
Let me talk now about the God of love who calls us to a calmer, albeit less pyrotechnic God. A God who loves without condition and with utter abandon, which conditionless and abandoment lie as the foundation for who we are as humans, as creatures of God.
It was a year ago, last Easter, that I stood here for the first time after being out of the pulpit for over a month recovering from a freak illness. That recovery has been long and has forced me to slow down.
When people ask how I am doing, I usually tell them that I am doing well, but that I need to take a nap a few times a week in order to function. While this is a brand new experience for me, if it is a retired person with whom I am speaking, invariably they respond, “Ahh, isn’t that nice?!” It’s as though they’ve discovered an open secret, open because everyone knows it, secret because nobody knows it until they’ve let go, until they’ve lost something.
Easter will forever be very tangible reminder to me to stop, to take a breath, to exit the rat race and to prove to myself that the world doesn’t run because I’m in it.
Our religious ancestors had a name for this. They called it “keeping Sabbath.” And when the first Christians, those Christians who lived in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ execution, found refuge from the storm of persecution in which they daily lived, by worshipping together in the upper room of a friend’s house, or in the catacombs in Rome, they weren’t just hiding out, they weren’t just worshipping on the run — they were keeping Sabbath. — except they called it Easter. It was like taking a nap in the middle of the rat-race. It was the medicine they needed to go on living in a world that wanted them dead, like Jesus. It was Easter that let them live freely, without obligation to the tyranny.
One of the hardest parts of those months of recovery was Sunday morning. At 9:50 Marty Brooks faithfully rings the two hundred year old steeple bell, calling all, far and wide, to worship. My house was quiet; the rest of the family had left for church.
Because our tradition does not teach the daily office of prayer, I was left to my own devices, but I felt like an Episcopalian colleague of mine who upon her retirement felt like an invalid too, confined to her house on Sunday morning, with only her prayer book as a guide. I couldn’t move off the couch for my morning worship on the porch, and I had no prayer book — instead I had a copy of Metaphysics and the Future of Theology — fine for me — but we each found in the silence something welcome and healing.
My Episcopalian colleague writes of this healing that “Sitting there on my porch that first Sabbath morning, I understood what Native Americans mean when they speak of “medicine.” In the strictest sense, they are speaking of how a little yellow root can help with indigestion or a tea brewed with chamomile can help you sleep. In the broader sense they are speaking of the curative power of creation. Sitting there in the healing presence of the mountains, the waters, the birds, and the beasts, I could not recall why I had so often neglected this medicine, though it was lying all around me.”
She concludes: “As I rounded the corner on my first front porch sabbath with the congregation of creation, I framed an apology to all the people who had ever told me they were not in church the previous Sunday because the weather had been so nice.”
We pastors do that. At least until an Easter happens and we can let go of the illusion that grace lies around the next corner, if only we would all suck it up and not shirk our responsibilities to keep things running.
The practise of keeping Sabbath hails back many thousands of years. Jesus’ teachers would have said, “Keep the Sabbath and you will fulfill all of the law. Stop one day out of the week and rest and you will know what it means to be created in the image of God, who rested on the seventh day, not from weariness, we note from the text, but from sheer delight, from complete freedom.”
Surely one of the things that the unnamed women in this morning’s Easter story must have reflected upon when the text says that they “recalled what he had said,” was just this — the promise of God is for all who rest in God. To rest in God is to subject yourself to no other person or agenda or fear. To rest in God is to be free.
Let us not strain after Easter like a gnat. Let’s keep it instead, and keeping it, be surprised to see God in all things, in each other’s faces, in snow in April, under a rock in your garden. Let’s keep Easter, and keeping it, be free to let go and be free.