A few years ago I was sitting in the conference room of Macedonia Baptist Church on the Northern Neck waiting for a board meeting to begin. It was an excellent board with really lovely, inspiring people; people whom I thought of as my friends as much as anything else. The work we did together helped create programs through a community development organization that was making lives better in real ways. And it was also the only board I sat on that had Black people and white people sitting around the table making decisions together for our community. So it was a deeply gratifying and joyous group to be a part of.
But in the chit chat and checking in conversations going on before the meeting started, I felt sort of disconnected and not so joyous. My mind was working on some things that it had been working on for weeks but just couldn’t seem to figure out. It was like…well…have you ever tried to untangle a wad of tangled fishing line where the harder you try the worse it gets? I think that is sort of where I was with these things my mind has been working on: just ruminating and ruminating and getting nowhere. I was mostly the poster child for proverbial cat chasing its tail, truth be told.
Then a member of the board swept into the room full of enthusiasm and energy. “Someone get me something to eat before I perish!” she said. Her name was Carolyn Hines and she has since gone to glory. Caroline was a Black woman, a Ph.D., and a consultant who travelled up and down the east coast doing strategic planning for corporations and universities. But mostly what she was was a daughter of the Kingdom of God, a disciple of Jesus, who acted that way with every breath.
She came to the seat next to me to sit but first hugged my neck and said, “I love that you’re here and I love you!” I whispered, “I love you too.” She said, “well, of course you do!”
When my sons were little, we used to go on walks in our neighborhood that took us beside an old, abandoned rock quarry that over the years had filled with water and become a little lake. Mostly, the surface of the water sparkled in the sunshine; if you looked, it was like a mirror reflecting the sky and clouds above and our faces when we peered over the edge. But as you went along the path, we’d pass beneath great oaks whose branches hung over the water and shaded the surface. We always stopped in those places because something magical happened. We’d get down on our haunches and stare into the water. But instead of just seeing our faces reflected on the surface, you could suddenly see, really see what was there through the clear water. All the way to the bottom. At one of our favorite spots, my sons would scream and point, ‘a fish! look! do you see it? a fish!’
The life we live even now in the resurrection of Jesus is something like that. It’s what we just prayed for in the Collect of the Day: give us eyes of faith to see Jesus in all his redeeming work. All the resurrection stories point towards that and have that quality – of not being able to see what is right in front of your eyes (usually Jesus!) and then suddenly seeing what is there, him, and what he is doing for us. Like Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name, and she can see him. Or Thomas when Jesus shows him his wounded body, and he sees him. Like the disciples in Emmaus when Jesus takes bread and blesses and breaks it and they suddenly see that it is Jesus. Or today when Jesus calls out from the beach, ‘cast your nets on the other side’ and the water boils with thrashing fish as they pull the net to the surface where all night there had been nothing.
In fact, if we get down on our haunches and stare into this sacred story of resurrection, so much comes into view – our whole life with Jesus, all of life really, all the way down to the bottom. Take a look.
After the utterly mind-blowing, totally incomprehensible, life-changing, world-changing, creation-changing experiences of the first Easter morning, after seeing all the way to the depths of God’s very life, I just love what Peter decides he’s going to do. He says, ‘I’m going fishing’. And the others say, ‘we’ll go with you’. What else do you do when everything you thought was settled gets turned inside out and outside in? I think there are lots of ways that we too decide, ‘I’m going fishing’. I need a moment. I need to just stand on solid ground and get my bearings.
And so they do. And catch nothing all night long. Oh well. That’s what fishermen do too.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Last night, the liturgy for the Great Vigil of Easter began in the parking lot. The service began by lighting the Christmas tree that had stood here in the church at Christmas time. At Christmas, that tree had been adorned with ornaments the children of the parish had made representing God’s Story: creation, the fall, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Sarah hoping against hope for a baby, and Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. We burned that tree last night that exploded into a roaring pillar of fire to kindle the first light of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and to light the new Paschal Candle burning right there.
It used to be odd, a novel thing to have church in the parking lot. But after the two plus years we’ve been through, it felt pretty normal. Remember, we celebrated Easter morning last year in that same parking lot with pods of people in lawn chairs inside squares we’d painted on the gravel so we could be spaced out safely.
At the Vigil service last we night, we were back in the parking lot again. But then we travelled behind the light of the new Paschal candle like the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, like our own wanderings in the wilderness these past two plus years, along the sidewalk and beneath the bell tower and up the stairs into the dark narthex and travelling on into the dim nave and came together in this church in our pews, gathered around this Holy Table beneath that mighty Cross for Easter; like we are now.
Maybe we haven’t arrived at the actual Promised Land, but it’s pretty close – we’re finally home together on this Easter morning!
So before anything else – to be together like this for the first Easter morning in this church in three years, having travelled so far together to be here now, I want to say, ‘Thank You, God!’ You can say it too or you could just give this preacher and Amen!
So, I don’t want to think about it – the brokenness of this world, that’s happening right now. I don’t want to imagine it. But this is Good Friday – the one day out of all the rest when I think we should at least try to be honest – to the extent that we can; and put down every explanation and rationalization, every excuse and all the words of denial and avoidance I conjure up to try to make things make sense – like who’s at fault, like who’s to blame, who his guilty and who is innocent. None of those things holds water on Good Friday. It is the one day, at least, to take a deep breath and open our eyes and try to stay awake with Jesus.
Which is hard to do. It is hard to stop talking and stop thinking about all the things we talk about and think about to make sense of this broken, disordered world.
But I’ve noticed, over the years, that this ancient story we just heard about father Abraham has a kind of power to make all my words and excuses fall silent. It is a story not one of us would ever think up on our own. None of us would ever say such things about God and none of us would say such things about a father and a son. It is inconceivable, impossible. Only God could conceive and speak such a word; a word that is as irresolvable as flint and steel; a word that has the power to stop our mouths.
Hearing this story is like taking a sounding at sea. A sounding is when you drop a line from a boat and let it out til it hits the bottom so you know how deep the water is that you’re in. At first we let it out an arm length at a time thinking we will hit the bottom soon. When we don’t, we let it free fall for a while – the rope singing on the bulwark. But the weighted end finds no bottom. And we watch the coiled rope on the deck grow smaller and smaller til to our horror, the last length skitters over the edge and is lost in the depths. And we know that somewhere down there in the great fathomless depths in the black dark where no sunlight will ever come, it is still falling. There is no bottom to this. The only thing we can do, is fall silent, and watch the wind blow across the face of the deep.
I used to cross the Norris Bridge that connects the Middle Peninsula with the Northern Neck at White Stone all the time. Where the bridge goes across the Rappahannock River the water is a mile or more across. It’s hard to take a good look when you’re driving across the bridge, but even a quick glance is breathtaking. To the west, the river stays broad into the distance; to the east, the wide river flows out into the great Chesapeake Bay and beyond. If you were to trace the river west, (say you could fly just above the surface) it would still be broad – a mile across at least – as you reach the crossing at Tappahannock. Further west, as you go on, the river stays broad until it narrows suddenly just east of Port Royal near the fall line below Fredericksburg. At this point, the ocean tide ceases to influence the rise and fall of the river, and the water becomes entirely fresh for the first time. Traveling still further west, you arrive at a branching where the Rappahannock continues to the north while the Rapidan River flows off to the south. Into the hilly country still further west, the Rappahannock narrows more past Culpepper , and runs northwest til it plunges into the mountains south of Front Royal. Somewhere below Chester Gap, in the shadow of Mount Marshall’s 3,368 foot peak, the Rappahannock contracts from a hurrying river to a narrower stream, to a racing creek, til it arrives at its spring and source. In all, the river runs 184 miles, from a spring breaking out of the mountains, to the broad ocean-like mouth near the bridge at White Stone.
One day when I was stopped at the top of the bridge for roadwork perched 110 feet above the river’s surface, I had a funny thought. I thought, what if you could find your way to the source where the original spring breaks clear of the earth and begins to flows out…and what if a leaf dropped onto that fresh surface. (For all we know, that could’ve just happened!) Could that leaf make it all the way to the Bay? Seems unlikely doesn’t it. Too many obstacles along the way. It would just have to get lost somewhere along the way, rigtht?. But stranger things have happened. Consider this…