My life, I sometimes think, really began when I was twenty-three years old. I was working a desk job in the city, living a life of quiet desperation. One day I quit, stuffed some clothes into a backpack and flew to the Caribbean. Not one of the nice islands, either. I went to Haiti, the poorest and most violent nation in the hemisphere, the land of voodoo and secret police. I had no friends; I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t even have a decent map. And they were in the middle of a revolution.
You can imagine how delighted my mother was by this.
One of the scariest moments of my life came when the airplane door opened. I could feel the hot, tropical air come blasting in and I felt that I was heading into a completely unknown world.
But you know the old saying: Buy a man a plane ticket, and he can fly for a day. Push him out of the plane, and he can fly for the rest of his life.
So I got off the plane, and entered the new world.
If I hadn’t gone, or if I had just stayed in the airport and booked the next flight home, I would have missed so much. Some of it dangerous, some of it beautiful, some of it I regret to say not fit for a family sermon. Much of the person I have become since then – my commitments, my enthusiasms – took shape over the next two months. If I had not taken that first step, out of the plane, the rest of my life would have been so much less rewarding.
But that first step was frightening. It was, as I said, into a new and unknown world. Terrifying – and exhilarating.
Just like Easter Sunday.
What, you mean you aren’t frightened, sitting on padded seats and in an air-conditioned room? Then maybe we are not celebrating Easter right. Remember the story. Three women come in the early-morning darkness, hoping to rub their teacher’s dead body with oil and spices. When they arrive, the stone is gone – and the tomb is empty. They run away in fear.
Not just a little spooked, either. They were terrified. St Mark ends his Gospel dramatically, with the women, running away shaking and possessed by a kind of holy wonder. That’s a literal translation: “They ran away with trembling and awe, for they were afraid.”
That’s the thing about new life – it is scary. It is frightening to start over, to change direction, to break away. It is frightening, but oh my friends, oh my beloved, it is beautiful.
Daring to begin a new life – that is the stuff of legends. Dick Whittington turning back to London when he hears the church-bells, or Dorothy stepping out of her ruined house into the brilliant land of Oz.
Or in Hamilton, the musical, the poor orphan who seeks his fortune by leaving home: See him now, it says, see him now as he stands on the bow of a ship headed for a new land. … Just you wait.
A new land, frightening but filled with hope. That is God’s offer to us.
Last night, in the darkness of the Vigil, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism – we watched as God washed another person in the water of new life, as God snatched another soul from death and welcomed him into the new land.
So what would you do, if you were going to live a new life?
Would you give up some vice? Acquire some virtue? Start a new business? End a bad relationship? Or make it better, renew your vows, confirm your promises?
Would you confess – to a pastor, or to a friend, or to the person it most affects — that sin you have been keeping secret so long? And be free from its bondage, as only the forgiven are truly free?
Whatever you might do, whatever you have dreamed of doing, I know that it is frightening. New life always is.
And church, the place where new life happens, is a scary place for some people. If you are one of those people, if you are here almost against your will – here as a favor to a friend, or here by choice but you don’t know why, because church is not your thing and you have your doubts about this Jesus business, then I have something important to say to you.
If you have been hurt, and pray for healing, welcome; if you are trembling and afraid, then you are just like the first Christians, the women who ran from the empty tomb. And as in time God’s love embraced them and strengthened them, so it will embrace and strengthen you.
Because that is what we do here. We love each other. People imagine, even experience sometimes, the church as a place that is all about rules, about guilt and shame, or worse yet about a kind of forced niceness that never deals with the hard stuff in life, the ugly painful stuff.
But no. Not really. We worship a dead man hanging bloody from a tree; we know about the ugly stuff. And we proclaim that same dead man risen, victorious; we know the ugly stuff is not the whole story. The whole story, the good news, is that Christ has risen. (Oh, what’s that Satan? You you thought you’s won, Satan? April Fools!) Tell the world – this is the place where love works miracles, where fear gives way to hope, where death surrenders to new life.
Here is what new life looks like for us at Our Saviour. It looks like faith, hope and charity. Like worshipping God, remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, helping a new generation to sing the old songs and sometimes vice-versa. Like teaching the faith, to the young and to the old, passing on as of the first importance (these are St Paul’s own words) what was first entrusted to us. Like concern for the poor, in Warrenton and in Appalachia and all over the world. Like a food pantry, like Christmas presents for kids with a mom or dad in jail; like a gas card for the guy driving to his first job in six months, and running on empty.
Here is what new life looks like to us, in a single sentence: changing lives with the power of God’s love.
Because that is what love does: it changes things. It gives new life. And it will give you new life. If you are running on empty, come and be filled by the water of new life. Come, not just today but tomorrow and the day after; come, to be loved, not only by God but by God’s people.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Preached on Easter Sunday, 1 April 2018
The text is St. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 16