But…..not what you might expect!
Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing by Revd Maggie Hindley, Easter Day, Sunday 17th April 2022
I was taught, many years ago, in relation to emotional literacy – I can’t remember what the context was – to be very careful in the use of the word but. But trumps whatever went before. So if you say I love apples but I hate rhubarb, what goes home to your hearer is not your love of apples but your hatred of rhubarb. And if you say to your partner I love you but I wish you’d take the rubbish out without being asked, the but cancels out the love. It’s specially important with children. If they are told You’re a nice child, but you’re too noisy, they grow up believing they are objectionably noisy and forget they’ve been told they are nice. It works the other way around, too. You’re a rascal, but I love you.
The Bible is full of buts used positively. Here’s one from today’s Isaiah reading:
The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind
BUT be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.
And here’s one I love, from 1 Peter: The disobedient stumble
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, Gods’ own people……..
And what struck me this week, reading John’s fast-paced narrative of the resurrection, is that there are a lot of buts in the story. Peter sets off at a run to see what Mary was talking about when she reported an empty tomb, but is outrun by John. John arrives but doesn’t go in. Who’s going to get the good news first? It’s like a race. First it seems like Peter, then John, then Peter again. Actually, they both go away, nonplussed, but Mary remains, weeping. Jesus speaks to her, but she doesn’t recognise him until he says her name. She clings to him and he tells her not to . Don’t cling! he says. But go and spread the word. It’s as though those buts mark developmental stages in the dawning of realisation. Not just running, not just peering in, not just staying anyway to mourn, not just hearing what you take to be the gardener, but sensing its personal significance, and embracing it, and realising what amazing news it is for the whole community and the whole world.
Terrible things happen. But the outcome isn’t as you expected. There’s a miracle of new life. That’s a biblical pattern. It needs an openhearted way of reading the bible. It’s good to be open-minded, to be curious, about the bible; to note, for examples, the way the evangelists tell the resurrection story differently, contradicting each other; and it’s good to ask questions about why, about how our sacred scriptures came to be recorded in writing, about what was going in the different communities that were their first audiences, about what really happened in the events that are recorded, about language and allusion and style. Its good to apply all the tools the reasoning part of our brain, on the left side, offers us.
And – not but, note, and – and it’s good, when all has been said that can be said, to take the texts we are looking at to heart, to sit with them in God’s presence, to allow imagination time to play over them, to apply the intuitive right side of the brain. That’s how we come to appreciate those miracles within it that can change us, delight us, send us to our knees, lift our eyes and our faces and our hearts. You can’t reason this kind of truth into existence; you can only let it emerge of its own accord. Over and over again, all is lost, but……….
Maybe you know that pattern in your own life. After the worst has happened, after we have lost what we dearly wanted to keep, after grief has torn us apart, after the miracle simply hasn’t happened, after all the pain, sometimes there is an inkling that it hasn’t been for nothing, and that there is something wonderful bubbling up from below the awfulness of our lives. Like spring after a long hard winter. And death no longer seems a calamity. Both religious and non-religious people have these insights, but we people of faith can give it a name. It’s a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John; the Samaritan woman at the well), it’s landing dry footed on the far side of the Red Sea (Exodus), it’s liberation, it’s grace. Suffering, destruction and death are normal. So too is regeneration.
If we are in touch with the way new life has a habit of rising from he ashes, if we let that truth seep into our bones, then we may become capable of staying calm under life’s great stresses, in the face of terrible news, because our lives have become rooted in a different reality, where love is at the heart of the universe and is our own guiding star.
If we have been touched by the resurrection of Jesus then the terrible things that are happening in our world – that we are on the brink of climate catastrophe; the suffering of the people of Ukraine and the risk of a disastrous escalation and spread of the war; Afghanistan and Syria and Myanmar and Palestine; Covid and the internal threat to our democracy from irresponsible and self-serving leadership – all these things are alarming still. They need our attention and prayer and whatever action is within our scope to carry out (and it’s good to see this church’s action especially on the climate issue) but they don’t tell the whole story. Death doesn’t tell the whole story. Under it all is the love of God for the world and its people which God created, and cherished, and saved in the events of this past week. Under it all is God’s great love for each of us individually.
Roberta’s prayer that we shared earlier in the service alluded to an affirmation by the late Great Archbishop Tutu, who lived the awfulness of South Africa under Apartheid and the joy of seeing it come to an end. I’ve chosen it as our prayer for the week. Let’s read it together, then. The message of Easter:
Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through Him who loved us.