Sermon: The Poetry of the Resurrection

Resurrection

[Given on The Great Vigil of Easter Saturday, April 4, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark 16:8a

In the name of our Creating God, our Risen Lord, and our Abiding Spirit. Amen. +

May God’s grace and peace, abide with this house.

On this most holy of nights, we gather to mark a momentous event in the history of cosmos – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In the words of my dear friend and poet, Randall Weiss, I invite you to “suspend your disbelief” and enter into the world of our Gospel this evening. Think of this Gospel as God’s voice speaking poetry against our prose-flattened world. Prose, according to Walter Brueggemann, is “a world that is organized in settled formulae,” whereas poetry is not simply “rhyme, rhythm, or meter” but “language that…jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace.”[1] The Gospel as poetry is God’s way of breaking through our normative and comfortable ways of being, whatever they may be, and calling our spirits higher “from glory to glory.”[2]

In this way, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is nothing short of divine poetry penned to perfection, the picture of pulchritude. The Resurrection is to God as the “Mona Lisa” is to Da Vinci, as the “Starry Night” is to Van Gogh, as the “Messiah” is the Handel, as “The Mountaintop Speech” is to that Prophet Martin Luther King, and as “Still I Rise” is to Sister Maya Angelou. The Resurrection is God crashing the mundane formulae of life and death and offering us a new world of unspeakable joy and unfathomable glory.

Jesus had spent his whole life as a street poet, shattering the debilitating prose of everyday life and offering new possibilities for living and being. In fact, even at his birth, the chorus of angels broke through the cold and starry night and dared to sing about glory in the ghetto. That’s poetry in a prose-flattened world.

He fed multitudes from a sleeve of saltines and a can of sardines, he cast out demons, he raised the dead, he healed the sick, wrote a Womanist theology in the dust of the ground, and when the religious authorities castigated him with their myopic reading of Torah, Jesus broke open the Law to them in new ways – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength,” he said, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” No asterisk. No exclusions. No conditions. That’s poetry in a prose-flattened world.

And just when everyone thought it was all over, when the powers of sin and death had done their worst, when empire had exacted its ultimate punishment, when the tomb was sealed and the crowds had gone, Jesus dared to break out into poetry again in order to prove the reductionism of prose false – light not darkness, life not death, love not hate always has the last word.

That’s what this Great Vigil of Easter is all about – an poetic reconceptualization of the world at its most fundamental level in a way that reignites the light of hope amidst a lingering cloud of despair and disaster. And, if we “suspend our disbelief” for a few moments, we may leave having been reignited with the divine fire that pierces the long, dark night.

This confrontation between paralyzing prose and the power of poetry is at the center of Mark’s Gospel. The two Mary’s and Salome, three women who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry even to the foot of the cross, approached the tomb of Jesus to follow the prescribed formula for burial, but when they arrive they bore witness to something absolutely mind-blowing. The tomb was opened and a “young man dressed in white” was sitting at the foot of the burial slab. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. Well, he’s not here. Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Christ is Risen!”

And what was the response from these three apostles of the resurrection? The exact opposite of what the angel told them. They ran out of the tomb in in terror and amazement and told no one what they had seen because they were afraid. The Greek translation literally says they ran out “trembling” and “bewildered.” And that’s how the original Gospel of Mark ended – with the trembling bewilderment of the three women.

Somewhere else down the line, someone, apparently unsatisfied with the response of these women, added two endings to the Gospel of Mark – the second half of verse 8, and then verses 9 – 19 – both of which have the women sharing the Good News of the Resurrection with the other Apostles because, after all, that’s what good and obedient disciples do. But for the sake of our gathering this evening, I want to sit in the “trembling bewilderment” of the resurrection – the sermon spoken in stunned silence.

Truth be told, the Gospel is BIG! And the message of Easter is too much for us to take in. It is an icon, a passport to a world that we cannot conceive of right now – a world where the blind see, the lame leap, the hungry are satisfied, and the dead live again. It’s no wonder the disciples never got it. It’s no wonder the disciples walked with Jesus for three years and never seemed to grasp the kingdom of God. It was too big for them and it’s too big for us. It’s no wonder Paul told the Corinthian church that “…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…”[3] In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too ‘illustrious with being.’ They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.”[4]

But I want to suggest that in our reductionistic world, we have reduced the awesome and bewildering claims of the Gospel into palatable formulae “compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.”[5] Too often our Gospel is too safe and too small. Too often we settle for a Gospel that we can experience with our five senses, that doesn’t demand too much from us, and we lose the sense of awe and wonder that we rightly ought to have in relating to the “Ground of all being.”

And then there is Easter.

An occasion that invites us out of smallness into the bigness of God. An event that summons us from earth to heaven. An incident that calls us to the fullness of our humanity.

That’s why Jesus came. That’s why Jesus lived. That’s why Jesus died. And beloved, that’s why Jesus got up. Humanity was living too small. We were living below our potential. We were living too much for ourselves. And so God in God’s divine providence came down that we might rise up.

He was born in the ghetto so that we might “find glory in the little things.”[6]

He healed the sick so that we might comfort the afflicted.

He fed the hungry so that we might provide for those who suffer under weight of the sins of the world.

He overturned tables so that we might overturn systems of oppression.

He died that we might live.

He rose that we might rise – above hatred, above bigotry, above smallness, above division, above gloom and into the dream and the Glory of God.

A glory the articulates a story that far exceeds our imaginations or out expectations. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think [according to the power that worketh in us].”[7]

The most glorious singing from the most glorious choir we can imagine goes mute in presence of the singing of angels.

The brightest suns in the most luminous galaxies pale in comparison to the Light that is at the center of City of God.[8]

In fact music and light themselves are nothing in comparison to the glory of the presence of God.

“Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience.”[9] That’s why we describe heaven poetically, in terms of glittering crowns, and sumptuous banquets, and luminous light, and glorious music, because we have no words to describe that glory.

And yet it is that very experience that we must be messengers of.

The world needs beauty. The world needs poetry. The world needs glory. The world is thirsty Resurrection. The world is hungry for Heaven.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”[10]

Come on in where the table is spread, and the feast of the Lord is going on.


 

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), xv – xvi.

[2] 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NRSV)

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:50 (NRSV)

[4] C.S. Lewis. “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), 111.

[5] Ibid., xiii.

[6] From “Victorious” by Janelle Monae.

[7] Ephesians 3:20 (KJV)

[8] Revelation 21:22-23

[9] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), 33.

[10] Isaiah 55:1 (NRSV)

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