April 20, 2014: Easter Sunday with Holy Baptism of Finn Gilmour
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Alleluia! Christ has risen! And what a great day for a baptism! In a few minutes we will welcome young Finn to our mission of peace and justice and love. If there is an ideal way to celebrate this Sunday of the Resurrection, it is with a Baptism! The sacrament of new life proclaimed on the day we celebrate the promise of everlasting life. Easter and Baptism are a match made in heaven! So thank you Finn for this amazing grace!
But while the sacrament of the new life bestowed to Finn in his baptism will happen right here before our very eyes, the everlasting life bestowed in the resurrection of our Christ is a bit less…..personally, visibly accessible. We may recognize concepts of resurrection in the world around us, like life-filled daffodils that rise up through the barren ground in the spring, or dying relationships that miraculously rise from the ashes, or seemingly squelched hopes and dreams that somehow ascend from the rubble of our failures. Nevertheless, our concept of Jesus’ resurrection is almost wholly dependent upon faith – our faith that the tomb was indeed empty, our faith that the Gospels are true, and our faith that grounding our intelligent, reasonable selves in a mystery that surpasses all understanding does not make us….suckers or stooges. It is a tall order in this secular and abundantly evidence-driven world.
Let’s face it, the resurrection is a beastly concept to articulate. It’s tough even for priests. It’s tough even for bishops. The Lambeth Conference is the once-a-decade gathering of all of the bishops in the Anglican Communion at Canterbury, England to talk about….the faith. And at their 1990 gathering, Scottish Theologian Elizabeth Templeton challenged the House of Bishops thusly. She said: Imagine someone comes up to you on the street and says: “My bus leaves in two minutes. Tell me about the resurrection before I go.” And the most authoritative collection of leaders in the Anglican Communion apparently had a very tough time responding.1 What would YOU say?
In the children’s Easter sermon, the priest asked if anyone knew what the resurrection was. One little boy raised his hand. “I’m not sure what it is exactly. But if it lasts more than 4 hours, you’re supposed to call a doctor.” I know, sort of a cheap off-color joke for a sermon, especially on Easter morning, but it’s not an unimportant point, the longevity of the resurrection. How long does the resurrection last? We are very keen on the resurrection this morning, and probably throughout Easter Week, and maybe even for the next 50 days of Eastertide. But what about on August 4th when our neighbor’s 6 year old is diagnosed with something awful. Or October 25th when we lose our job, or our house. Or April 15th when a 19 year old kid plants a rice cooker bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and kills an 8 year old kid who could well have been his neighbor? Where is the resurrection then?
According to systematic theologian Karl Barth, the resurrection was a discrete one-time-event that happened 2000 years ago. And although we celebrate this event each year, it is technically over.2 Been there done that…..Happy Easter. Is that what we celebrate this morning, a one-time past event that we hope will come again when our own tombs are full? Or, is resurrection, even literally speaking, a more fluid and experiential concept? Does it have anything to do with the way God works in the world in which we live here and now? In other words, does the resurrection have any personal relevance to us here and now at all? Or not?
Is the resurrection relevant to us? It’s a question many of us ask every year on Easter. But I can assure you that you would only need to attend one confirmation class of 12 to 16 year olds at any time of the year to know that this question is a bigger kettle of fish than the one shared between Jesus and his disciples on the beach during Eastertide. In fact, I think it is the question on which the future of our faith tradition hangs. Because without the resurrection, Jesus is just a rabbi…..a pretty fantastic rabbi with some pretty impressive gifts for healing and prophesy, but a mere fully human with just-a-sprinkle- of-the-divine rabbi nonetheless. And so if we are going to articulate our faith tradition to our kids and to their kids, we MUST to be able to articulate the resurrection. If young Finn is to live into his baptism, he is going to need something on which to hang his faith about this divine disappearing act. Because despite the best efforts of his abundantly faithful mothers, Finn’s stewardship of his own faith journey as a Christian will ultimately rest on his own faith that that tomb was indeed empty.
Last night we celebrated the Great Vigil of Easter at Trinity in Newton Centre. It is among the oldest and most traditional services in the church’s repertoire, clocking in at just under three hours. And there is a line in the exultetet which is the chant offered at the beginning of the service as we move from darkness to light. And the line says “how holy is this night that restores us to innocence.”3 Isn’t that odd. This celebration of resurrection restoring us to innocence. Restoring us innocence….which is the opposite of lifting us out of ignorance, the opposite of indoctrination, the opposite of filling us with knowledge an understanding, the opposite of clarifying the mystery. Rather, the resurrection restores us to the innocence that we knew, when we knew nothing. As we were in the womb. The innocence that is the precursor to offering ourselves wholly and fully to each other, and to God. The innocence from which Finn is not so far removed at the tender age of two ….which he will be on Thursday.
Could it be that the thing that is needed for us to love each other as God loves us is not more data points about life but fewer? And I think yes, that might well be right. It may be innocence that is needed to love each other without fear. And the innocence we know when we are fresh from the womb, brimming with fearlessness wanes as soon as we realize that life is…….painful, and thus fearful.
This is the innocence to which we are, hopefully, restored this glorious morning of the resurrection; innocence that offers us the permission to give pure love another go; to once more truly lose ourselves in our care for each other and our Creator, without fear of anything, including death. This is the innocence that God etched on our hearts in the beginning; at our creation, on the sixth day; and as God longingly remembers, it was very good. But from the start, if our scripture is to be believed (and I think it is), humanity lost touch with that innocence, with that innate goodness. And so our hearts have become hardened to each other and also to God. And with that hardness, we often tend toward the opposite of good; which Rabbi Abraham Heschel says is not evil, but indifference.4 The indifference that comes with the loss of innocence. The indifference that comes when pain and fear over take trust and faith. Once we have been hurt, we cannot dare to care the way we once did. We cannot risk co-operating with God, extending the caliber of love that God continues to risk on us. This is one of the ways we can know for certain that we are not God; they will know that we are humans by our fear. And so our hearts begin to harden with each new hurt; they cease to easily expand and contract which is to say they cease to care……we suffer a sort of carediac arrest for all but the few who, for whatever reason, can still find favor in our sight.
This life-sucking wave of indifference comes, I think, when we have been disappointed one too many times. And so we attempt to protect ourselves from life’s disappointments by refusing to care about those things that we fear will let us down. As soon as we are old enough to be disappointed we begin to construct a protective shield of indifference, a shield that readily hardens our hearts lest they be broken again. And when that happens, innocence cannot happen. Indifference inhales innocence, as fire inhales oxygen.
So what are we to do about the disappointment that fuels the indifference that robs us of our love-giving innocence. How can we respond to those who disappoint us without hardening our hearts? How can we maintain our innocence in the face of……life?
And I think that answer to that is that most of us cannot, consistently. We can only celebrate our innocence in the face of life…..everlasting. Only in the context of a life that is grounded in everlasting love; the kind of love that is the promise of the resurrection.
And then we can take our cue about how to respond to disappointment, from God’s own self. Because according to Rabbi Heschel, God has been disappointed in humanity for….just about ever. In fact, he says that God’s disappointment is the main theme of the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. But if we look to God in Jesus, God in the flesh, we will see that God’s disappointment is enacted not with violence, but rather with……mercy. Mercy is the tool that Jesus uses over and over again to restore the innocence that is necessary for reconciliation. And so mercy, I think, is a great place to begin when we try to articulate the meaning of the resurrection. The mercy that is found in the knowledge of everlasting life indeed heals all wounds…..for it restores us to that pre-fear innocence that is the context for true love. Mercy may well be the key.
Because as it turns out, mercy is a word which, in the Hebrew, has the very same consonantal structure as the word for womb, as scholar Phyllis Tribble brings to light. Mercy, she says, is mother love. A love so deep and so pure that one is not just willing, but almost compelled to give herself over to the need, the wellbeing of another…the wellbeing of her child. This is how God works; this is how God loves. This is what Jesus modeled for us in his life and ministry….and in his death and resurrection. The sort of love that allows one to give one’s self away for the love of another…literally to empty one’s womb; the mercy of the empty womb.
And so the resurrection, is not the end of the story, but the completion of the circle; the circle of everlasting life that begins in the womb and mercifully restores us to innocence in the everlasting end.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie Philomena. But if you have not seen it……go see it now! It is not to be missed. But especially today…..especially in this season of Eastertide…..and especially on this occasion of Finn’s baptism. Be forewarned, this is a spoiler alert. Philomena is the true story of an Irish woman in her sixties, who unveils to her daughter and the to the world a deep dark secret; that in her late teens she gave birth to a son whom she has not seen since he was adopted by an American couple, and thusly disappeared from her life at age 3. But on the day that would be his 50th
birthday Philomena decides that her secret can no longer endure the sealed tomb in which it has lived for the better part of her whole life. And just like that she is on a steadfast mission to find her son.
The movie flashes back and forth from Philomena’s early life to her current search. We learn that her mother died when she was 10. And when she became pregnant as a teenager, her father, in his abject shame, sent her to a convent and told the rest of his small world that she was dead.
Sadly, the nuns at the convent were no more forgiving of Philomena’s carnal indiscretion, and so after her son was born, her dreary little life consisted of hard labor in the laundry punctuated by a short one hour visit per day with her gorgeous and abundantly innocent son; a visit which seemed to make her desperately difficult life just about worth living. Until one dark day, a large fancy car pulled up and the boy was gone. Just like that. Sold for 1,000 pounds we later learn…..as were all of the children born to unwed mothers whose parents had sent them to the convent…….the Little Sisters of Mercy; or, as the journalist who helps Philomena find her son calls them, the Sisters of Little Mercy. But mercy is the one thing that Philomena needs. The mercy that will wipe away the guilt of her “Sin,” the “Sin” that gave birth that beautiful baby boy; the “Sin” that has haunted her entire adult life. The “Sin” that is the opposite of innocence.
So, after fifty years of sitting on this “Sinful” secret, Philomena enlists journalist Martin Sixsmith to help her with her search. The two of them travel to America, looking for immigrant records around the time the boy would have been adopted. And in fairly short order they find an article on the internet that indeed features Philomena’s son, all grown up. And it includes biographical information from the time of his birth in Ireland….to his death. At age 40. From AIDS.
And Philomena is distraught to her core. Not because her son turned out to be gay. She never even flinches at that realization, And not because he died of AIDS either. She weeps because the question that has haunted her for nearly fifty years is unlikely ever to be answered. Philomena wanted to find her son for one reason and one reason only. Very simply, she wanted to know if he ever thought of her. Period. That was it. Did he ever remember her. Does that sound familiar? That longing to be remembered by one’s children.
Because this, my friends, and especially my young friend Finn, this I believe, is the one and only thing that God wants from us. To be remembered. No matter who we are or how we think we may have disappointed ourselves or our families or our community, God still yearns for us above all else. Whoever we are, just as we are, God yearns to know that She is on our hearts and minds. That She is remembered.
As God said to Jesus at his baptism, and God says to us in our baptisms: You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. And with that merciful assurance, we are free to go forth and love each other with wild abandon.
As it turned out, Philomena had indeed been on her son’s mind. So much so that his dying wish was to be buried in Ireland. On the grounds of the convent where he knew his mother would eventually find him. And with this knowledge, with this merciful realization, just like that Philomena was resurrected. The horrible pain she had carried for so many years, the insatiable yearning to know that she had not been forgotten by her beloved, with whom she had always been well pleased. The mercy that accompanied her reconciliation with her son had restored Philomena’s innocence, and enabled her to forgive even those who had kept her from her son, out of nothing more than spite.
For me, this film has been very helpful in thinking about the ways in which the resurrection is relevant
in our lives today; the ways in which mercy can restore the innocence that frees us to live with God forever. And the ways in which God makes all things possible. As Eleanor of Acquitaine says in my favorite movie of all time, A Lion in Winter: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.” I think these are key concepts as we struggle to articulate the resurrection for ourselves and for our children. It is not indoctrination, but innocence that allows us to risk love. It is mercy, not justice, that allows us to forgive the disappointments that preclude our love. And our God offers a possibility that surpasses all understanding.
So on this day of your holy baptism Fiin, I hope that you remember “how holy is this day that restores us to innocence.” The resurrection restores you and us to the innocence that we knew, when we knew nothing. Your baptism is the first step toward that restoration. Welcome to the fearlessness of the empty tomb! Alleluia!
© April 2014, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
- 1 ChristianCentury, May 2013
- 2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Westminster John Knox Press, English Translation 1994.
- 3 This train of thought was inspired by Br. Curtis Almquist’s Lenten meditation at the March 2014 Fresh Start gathering
- 4 From an interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR radio show On Being, June 5, 2008.