Harrowing Of Hell
April 11, 2021

Higher Love

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends:

So, a friend thought it would be funny if I were to begin my sermon today that old joke “A priest, a rabbi, and minister walk into a bar….” And she assured me that if I did so, she would laugh out loud. So, I thought, what the heck? I would love to hear her to laugh out loud And I’d love you all to laugh out loud too. You see, we are in a glorious season. Not just the spring of the year, but of Eastertide. And it is wonderful, indeed, to be alive. To have survived this pandemic and to know for sure that my future is secure in the love of Jesus Christ. So, my greatest prayer for us this Easter is to laugh, rejoice, notice our blessings, and be willing to see and embrace things in a new way.

The thing about seeing things in a new way, however, is that we have to be willing to be a bit vulnerable and to be okay with not only knowing that there are other ways to see and do things but also with admitting that the way we’ve done things in the past may not ultimately be the best way to do them going forward. One of the gifts of the pandemic is that we have come to understand in a way that we have not for a long time, that our families, our friendships, and our communities really are incredibly important to us. The old normal often seemed to feature folks finding ways to ‘get away’ from it all by binge-watching Netflix at night, spending a lot of time on social media, and searching for a perfect ‘destination’ that would allow them to ‘leave it all behind.’ After just a few months of this during the pandemic, however, a lot of folks found out that an enforced diet of ‘getting away from it all’ wasn’t as fun as it had once seemed. We got fatigued. We were on screens. All. The. Time. And we may have realized how cut off from the world and one another we felt from one another, and we craved connection and contact. So, my question is how will we take our new insights about the significance of our relationships with us as we go forward? How will we structure our time and amend our priorities to better reflect their importance? We have been given the gift to re-imagine of our relationships with God and one another. So, what will we do now, and will we dare to love bigger, higher, and deeper?

This year as we recall the disciple Thomas, I can’t think of a Bible story that fits our situation better. Because we find the disciples of Jesus–fearful for their own lives after Jesus’ death on the cross—trying to understand what new life they are being call to as well. While Jesus had tried to ready them–tried to help them understand—about his death, when it came, they, like a good number of us who grieve, were not ready. So, when the risen Jesus appears to them, they are overwhelmed–with happiness and confusion and fear all rolled in to one. And Thomas wasn’t there. When the other disciples tell him about their experience, he says: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So, Jesus returns to them and to Thomas and invites him: “Put your finger here…. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas then cries out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” As modern readers of this story who have long been taught that we should at all times be “fine.” [ “How are you doing?” ‘Fine.’ “How are you feeling?” ‘Fine.’]  We read Jesus’ response as a bit of put down hearing it as: “You should have believed if you were really a good disciple….” Yet, I don’t think that the scripture necessarily leads us to this conclusion. Jesus appeared to the other disciples to help them believe in and witness this new and higher love that he had been teaching them about. Why would he expect Thomas to believe just because the others told him what had occurred? He hadn’t required this of any of the disciples when Mary Magdalene and the other women told them about Jesus being raised from the dead, so why in the world would we expect Thomas to get what the others did not? The Johannine author certainly didn’t think he should. We read:” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” How I read this is that Thomas was willing to ask out loud for the thing that no one else did… for help to believe and live into this new life in Jesus’ name.

At this liminal moment–this threshold to our future post-pandemic life, we are being given the opportunity to have a new life in Jesus’ name too. And it is okay for us to ask for help from God and those we love. In my first year in seminary, I found myself in a similar situation that asked me to re-conceive of my relationships with God and others. My call to the priesthood came to me as a rather unwelcome surprise in terms of my self-made plans for the future in my late teens. After trying to deny the call for years, I found myself a rather reluctant seminarian in New York City. During my first semester, my sister Lynn was diagnosed with leukemia. Before the holidays, they determined her condition to be terminal. She would die in February, and my beloved grandfather would die six weeks later. During all of this, I was trying to do the necessary things that we ‘have’ to do. But what I hadn’t understood before was that grief isn’t just about feeling sad–it affects our whole system. Grief affects our ability to concentrate, it affects our bodies, and our souls.

We know something about grief during this pandemic-tide, don’t we? I recently read an article about how us not being able to grieve together, as a group, all together, has affected us ways we can’t imagine. We haven’t been able to grieve together at funerals or memorial services. We haven’t been able to crowd around someone’s bed at a hospital as they teeter between sickness and health. It is often through grief that we show our love. How we grieve may never be the same.

Before my sister’s diagnosis, I had started to date a fellow seminarian from Union Seminary. He was smart and kind and funny and from a totally different tradition–he was studying to be a pastor in the AME church. Anyway, I went with him to his huge, vibrant church in Queens a couple of times. Now I have been blessed to work in several large Episcopal churches but Sherwyn’s church had 23,000 members. Their youth church, comprised only of young adults, had 3 or 4 thousand worshipping each week. This church had done and continued to do amazing work in their community like buying and renovating derelict properties and starting a school which made their community safer and better. When I attended the church had, once again, outgrown its space so we worshiped in an indoor stadium of sorts while they re-built and renewed their church properties. 

Now I have grown up in the Episcopal Church–I was baptized here, and I honestly haven’t worshiped in too many different denominations. So, going to Sherwyn’s church was a totally different worship experience for me. Folks were dressed up in beautiful church clothes; dresses, suits, gorgeous hats–not a hair out of place. The preacher was stellar, and the congregation was so engaged–punctuating some of the preacher’s points with an “Amen” or an “Alleluia” or a “Preach it,” the same sort of thing that Doyt invited us to do last week… The choir and the band were fantastic—with folks not just singing but swaying and clapping and doing all sorts of joyful noise making…. Now as Sherywn was in the service, I sat in the congregation by myself, a strange traveler from the land of the frozen chosen. As folks went forward for prayer and laying on of hands and the congregation, and the musicians sang throughout, I was awkwardly praying sit-kneeling in my fold up chair when a beautiful woman in her glorious Sunday hat came over to me across the little aisle, scooched in beside me, grabbed my hand, and stood me up. “Child, you gotta move,” she said and smiled. She saw me and she made me part of her community. I started to cry, and then I shut my eyes and began to hear and feel the music resonate deep within, and I swear I was swaying and moving too. Friends, during this Eastertide, I pray that we might be willing to be vulnerable enough to share our feelings, our grief, our love, and our faith….together. Because sometimes out of grief comes love. Sometimes this hard won love allows us to ask for what we need to live into this new life in Christ. God only knows what wonderful things lay ahead of us. When this priest walked into a bar, she met her husband Jeremy. And when we dare to ask, Jesus will bring us nothing less than a higher love.