- Parish House
Sermon for Easter Sunday
The Rev. Scott Walters
A couple of weeks ago Roddy Doyle published a remarkable story in the New Yorker. Now, I have to say, I’m a little self conscious about dropping a New Yorker reference into an Easter sermon. Some of you will find it pretentious or maybe even precious. So then I’ll feel obliged to say, “Yeah, well, I hardly read anything but the cartoons these days.” But the doubters won’t be reassured by that weak confession, and those of you who didn’t think there was anything wrong with the reference might change your mind now that I’ve exposed myself as a posturing fraud, and a waste of a perfectly good magazine subscription.
Then again, I could be overthinking things… But there’s some pressure on an Easter Sunday preacher. After all, I won’t see some of you again until Christmas. I need to make a good impression. And I suppose none of this digression is helping my cause much, is it?
Well, anyway, back to the Roddy Doyle story which really is splendid, if terribly sad. It’s a story titled “Box Sets.” And it’s a story about the need for grace.
Sam’s an Irishman who’s been out of work for three months. And as the story opens, a kind of culturally literate bar fight has just about erupted over the superiority of “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” to “The Killing” (the Danish version, of course). Sam had watched some of these shows, but not all the episodes, and it’s not like he had a job to keep him from it. And what’s worst, is that he knew that even if somehow he actually caught up on “House of Cards” or “The Wire,” should he meet the same people at another bar on another day, they’d have moved on to other box sets or Netflix series that he’d never heard of. And he’d be lost again.
At this point I was hooked, because I share Sam’s insecurities. It’s bad enough to know you’ll never have read all the books you should have. But now TV is high art? What’s a person to do if he’s only seen, say, the first two episodes of “Breaking Bad” and not any of “The Wire” or “Friday Night Lights” or any number of the brilliantly written series of the past decade? I’m not saying whether or not this is true of me… but all this good art feels a little oppressive. It’s kind of piling up on some of us thank you very much…
Sorry. Back to the story. Sam and his wife, Emer, wander back home from the bar. She tries to comfort him about his not having a job. But all his inadequacies seem to be eating away at him at once. Even her kindness stings. She makes him coffee. He throws the mug, furious at the world, at the wall. Says he’s sorry. Says he’ll take the dog for its walk and he leaves the house.
Things still weren’t quite bad enough for poor Sam at this point, so Roddy Doyle has him get run over by a bicyclist and lose his dog. Then he’s back home, alone, and delirious with pain from his injuries as the story closes. But he decides, in the story’s saddest moments, to make things right.
He climbs up onto the kitchen counter and starts wiping the coffee stains off of the wall. The road of pain running through him has split in two. It’s now curving under his ribcage and across his right side, but it feels like a punishment he’s supposed to take. He and Emer, he decides, will be OK. He’ll start volunteering. He’ll get a bike and a backpack. Join a walking club and a choir. He’ll read more. They’ll watch more good television. There is so much of it out there.
“Thirty years of box sets,” the story ends. “They were living in a golden age of television drama. He’d read that somewhere. And he believed it.”
Happy Easter, right? Sam is risen! Sam is risen indeed, all the way up onto the countertop to redeem himself from his sins. Ever been there?
That’s not an Easter story, you know. It’s a story about the kind of people Easter is for.
When Mary Magdalene (and only Mary Magdalene was there in John’s gospel), when Mary comes to the tomb in the dark, she finds a strange void. She finds nothing of what she was looking for. The stone’s been pushed away from the tomb. Jesus’s body is gone. The wrappings are, evocatively, still there, and an angel sits at the head and the foot of where his absent body should have been. They frame the strange emptiness that is the first image of resurrection.
The angels point Mary and Peter and the other disciple to an absence that announces to them that whatever happened in the dark that night, it was nothing that you planned for, nothing you arranged, nothing you expected or brought about by your prayers, or wits, or faithfulness, or failures. Whatever happened was a deep rupture in the way things are, brought about only by God. Not you. Not me. Not even Jesus. He was dead, stone cold dead, when whatever it was that happened, happened.
It’s especially wonderful the way Mary Magdalene has the nerve of a woman in shock to tell two bona fide angels that somebody’s been messing with her story. “They—whoever they are—have taken away my Lord,” she says. And I don’t know about you, but I hear her statement spoken less as the meek acceptance of a tragic fact, and more as an expression of her resolve to find out whatever it is that’s just happened. “I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she has the chutzpa to tell two shining members of the heavenly host, “but I’m going to find him,” is what I imagine her adding. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” said Mary, faithful Mary, last one at the cross and first one to the tomb. But even Mary Magdalene can’t see the risen Christ until he comes to her and speaks her name.
Every detail of the story screams that whatever happened at the resurrection, it had nothing to do with anyone’s actions or expectations. Mary couldn’t even go out in search of what happened. Her eyes had to be opened. As if redemption has nothing to do with us and our precious little wills at all. As if it’s a kind of metaphysical weather event. Something that happens to us, not because of us.
A few weeks ago I was at a conference at which someone said, “Recently my wife and I decided to experiment with believing that people don’t have free will.” Now that’s a nonsensical statement. If you don’t have free will, you can’t “decide” or “experiment” or do anything really that involves an action verb. But he was clearly a pretty bright guy and he didn’t seem crazy so I decided not to tune him out completely. And it turns out that he and his wife didn’t start robbing banks and cheating on their taxes, when they decided that their wills were not free and therefore they couldn’t be held responsible. No, he said, “We started to have a lot more compassion on people. Forgiveness came easier when we decided that maybe none of us really knows why we do what we do. Kindness seemed more natural.”
Now, I happen to think we do have a little free will. Probably a lot less than we think we do, but I think we have a little sliver of it at least. But we live in an age so enamored with freedom of the individual and self determination that a healthy dose of skepticism about how much of what we think and do is a matter of our own free choice might just be sane. We think self reliance and self determination are virtues. Christian tradition says they’re the roots of the very first sin, and probably of every sin since. And that conviction that everything that matters in my life is up to me and my perfectly free will, is probably also what gets me thinking that, in the face of the sheer gift of redemption, I’ve got to muster up the courage or the gumption to do something to make it effective.
Put another way, I’m afraid that if I were Mary Magdalene, standing face to face with resurrection life itself, I’d ask, “So what’s the catch, Jesus? What do I need to do now, since you’ve apparently gone and gotten yourself resurrected and everything?”
Mary, thank God, was more patient and wise, less frightened of the impossible. So she just stayed put. If she drew any meaning at all, if she made any sense of that moment at all right then, it was only the mind blowing sense that, in Francis Spufford’s words, “Far more can be mended than you know.” Even death. That’s what resurrection first evokes. Before we twist it into a set of obligations, or package it up as a doctrine, it’s the simple hunch that more can be mended than we know, because the deepest mending that happens is not up to us.
And that is what I want for poor Sam, up there on the kitchen counter, dizzied with pain, trying to scrub his failures from the wall and redeem himself from his sins, believing that redemption, if it comes, can only be a matter of his own doing, that it can only be a matter of his own getting his stuff together, knowing deep down all the while he never will. There are too many box sets to watch, their number ever expanding. Too many Easter sermons to get perfect. Too many children to raise flawlessly. Too many bosses or clients or lovers or neighbors or parishioners to please and impress.
We’re all up there with him, in one way or another, aren’t we? And we’ll all climb back up there again, up onto the countertop with Sam, for another desperate try to wash away our own sins, knowing all the while that we never will. But the good news of Easter, before it gets cluttered up by anything else, is just a clear, kind call to climb down. Christ is risen. And this one impossible thing is not up to you. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are redeemed. And far more can be mended than you know. Amen.