I have some tapes from Masses at St. Cecilia’s, my old church. Tonight I felt like hearing a random sermon from Father Dan. I guess you can’t say picking out an Easter Mass qualifies as random, exactly, but let’s say the choice was relatively unpremeditated.
The words not only reverberate all around Father Dan and our loss of him, but also the recent news events in Charlottesville and its ramifications. You may not agree with Father Dan’s take, but there’s no doubt what he says here would also be his take today. Let me know how it strikes you.
There was also, by the way, a good deal of laughter during the sermon. As when, for example, he assures the kids he’s about to baptize that he’s not going to hold them under water.
Explanatory notes. As an Easter Mass (2008, to be exact), baptisms were the order of the day, and so Father Dan at times seems to be addressing the four children about to be baptized. The readings for the day were Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-8.
I was thinking about how much we talk about rising from the dead. I think sometimes it’s important to stop and say, “What is ‘dead’?” Is “dead” only when the breath of our body has stopped, and the heart stops beating, and the brain stops functioning? Or is “dead” when change is not going on anymore, when we’re stuck, when we have no more forward motion?
And I was thinking that the kind of death that Jesus endured gave meaning to all of his life. If his life had been nothing but coming down and healing people and walking on water and multiplying loaves and fishes and then ascending into heaven, it would have been a story that meant nothing to us. We couldn’t relate to it. It doesn’t connect, because our lives are a struggle. Our lives have difficulties. Our world has all kinds of ugly in it. There’s all kinds of violence. There’s all kinds of hatred. There’s all kinds of difficulties, even with things that are natural, whether it be floods or storms or snow or ice or whatever it is. There are so many difficult things. It’s like an obstacle course.
When Jesus comes, he comes not to say, “I’m going to pull you out of that obstacle course.” But rather, he says, “I am going to show you the way through it, so that every struggle, every suffering, every difficulty that you go through is going to have a meaning now, because it’s all leading to this eternal life.” And because he lives, we see him coming to a way of life. He came though all the difficulties, including death and then his resurrection.
I think this is such an interesting resurrection story, as you think about him in the tomb. The cloth that was on his head, he folded it up separately. And I thought, when I rise from the dead, I’m not going to fold up the cloth. But I think I would also be thinking, “What am I going to wear?” All those things—those are the things that keep us dead. We worry about all this stuff that’s earthly. Our minds are held captive to the struggles of life. Our minds are not allowed to fly free.
The second reading today has such a challenge for all of us. It says, “Seek what is above,” where Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. Think of what is above, not what is here on earth. Die to yourself, and let your life that is hidden with God come to light.
Our life is going to have struggles. We have to face our children and tell them. That’s what baptism means. Baptism means we go down into the waters of death. In a sense, think about someone holding you under water. The longer they hold you under water, pretty soon you forget about everything else. You don’t care whether you made your bed this morning. You don’t care whether your clothes are clean. You don’t care whether you did your homework. All you want is AIR! Give me air! That’s what you want.
We’re not going to do that! We’re going to pour water over the top of your head. That water symbolizes that going down and forgetting about everything, dying to the self that would keep us focusing on the things below, the things that would get us lost in our meanness, lost in our violence, lost in our greed, lost in all that is negative. Baptism challenges us to breathe in that spirit that focuses our minds on what is above, so that we may have a positive hope that our God loves us, that our Savior has risen to show that this struggle that we’re going though is only temporary, and that we will be freed to experience the new life.
And I think coming to that understanding means that our life is not going to be a joy binge and God’s not going to solve all of our problems along the way. That’s not why we come to church. We don’t come to church so that God will fix everything today, take away all of our diseases, take away all of our struggles, make us never die. It’s not going to happen. We come to church to find the guidance of one who knew what life was about, lived that life fully, lived that life in the face of all that would attack him, and then in the midst of it, changed the lives of all who would follow him.
And then, his followers! Even more powerful to me sometimes than Jesus rising from the dead is that people believed he rose from the dead so much that they gave up everything to follow him. They gave up all their wealth. They gave up their homes. Their whole lives became focused on building a world of love. They put aside all of their weapons. They no longer could choose violence in their life. Their response to violence from now on was love. Their response to meanness was forgiveness. Their response to everything was, “I will love until I die, like my Savior loved until he died. I will keep on loving, and you can’t make me stop.”
When I was a kid, I had lots of older brothers and sisters, and they’d tease me by saying things like this: “Don’t you laugh. Don’t you smile. Don’t you let me see those teeth.” Of course, I would always laugh and smile. At last I swore I would come to the point where I would never have to do that. They couldn’t make me do those things, and they can’t. They would tickle me, and I came to the point where I no longer am ticklish.
You have to play a game with it! You go out in the world, and you say, “Nobody can make me stop loving! Nobody can make me act ugly. No matter how ugly they act, I’m not going to act ugly. Nobody can make me mean or nasty, because no matter what they do, I can do better, because I have a Savior who lives in me who shows me another way, a better way. And even if no one goes with me, still, I will follow Him.” It is that Savior whom we choose.
It’s not always going to feel good. But we have these Easter moments. Some of them just happen to us. So it’s exciting to have four children to baptize this morning. That is lovely. Last night it was so exciting to have eight adults to baptize and a couple to bring into the church. That is lovely. That is an Easter moment. There are moments when suddenly we find out we have a healing or somebody we love has a healing. Easter moments call us above life.
The good news is that we’re called to keep sharing those good moments, not to get lost in the negative. We have a world that is so bent on the negative! A world that focuses on what’s wrong with people, what’s wrong with our country, what’s wrong with the politicians, what’s wrong with the Church, and all of it’s true. All of those things are wrong, but it doesn’t mean that we have to dwell there. We have died to that. We’re challenged to rise above, so we can bring the people and the country and the Church above, so we can bring them to a life that is filled with Easter moments–Easter moments that don’t depend on whether I suffer or not, Easter moments that know for certain that because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone. Because he lives, life is worth the living all the time.
You may recognize these last lines as coming from the old hymn “Because He Lives,” which the choir immediately broke into at the sermon’s close. You can find all the lyrics here; the last verse goes like this:
And then one day
I’ll cross the river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death
Gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights
Of glory and
I’ll know He lives