Harrowing Of Hell
April 21, 2019

Resurrection Everywhere and Place Matters

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

On Monday I found an envelope in my box over at Christie House.  It was a big, hand addressed envelope that looked like a wedding invitation. This is the card I found inside. On Monday.  It didn’t come from a parishioner, rather a neighbor who attends another church. We had heard that he was ill from an Epiphany parishioner, so, we reached out to him in his convalescence. He is recovered now, a miracle really, and doing great. He just wanted to say thank you to his neighborhood church.

As I was sitting at my desk on Tuesday, the card was sitting there. I picked it up and took a closer look. There written under the window (right here) it reads Notre Dame, The Cathedral in Paris, Rose Window.  I had received this card the day Notre Dame burned…the Rose Window survived and so did the cross. The image after the fire is on the front of your bulletin.

Notre Dame after the Fire on April 15, 2019

Later Tuesday, I heard an interview with a young woman in Paris. She was heartsick.  She walked past Notre Dame every day and she, to use her words, “just took it for granted.” And I wonder, what was it she took for granted? The building?  Its beauty?  Its tourist appeal?     Maybe? But she seemed to be reaching for something deeper.

Maybe she took for granted that for eight hundred years people prayed there, and people worshiped God there, and somehow, in some way, that mattered. As Notre Dame went up in flames, something touched her soul, bringing home to her the reality that places of prayer and worship matter; that communities, to be strong and resilient, require spiritual centers of gravity.

Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the simplest terms it means that God doesn’t go away; that God cannot be killed or exiled; and more so, that there is no place that God is not; and there are no people outside the presence of God, right here, right now; and God chose resurrection as a way of saying: “I LOVE YOU, ALL OF YOU, NO MATTER WHAT!”

That is what resurrection means, and this is where we talk about it, which is why place matters. And places like Epiphany that share this message of inclusive love maybe matters more today than ever!

As I was preparing this Easter sermon for you, I was flipping through a book, and came across a Norman Rockwell painting: Breaking Home Ties. I’ve inserted a rather poor copy of it into your bulletin. Something about it struck me, and connected (at least in my mind) with the young Parisian woman, and the necessity for locating the all-inclusive, all-loving God of resurrection in a place.

Breaking Home Ties by Norman Rockwell

Let me add some color to this Rockwell painting. Sitting on the running board of an old truck at a whistle stop, we see a young man in a crisp white shirt, and a red polka dotted tie, with a train ticket poking out of his pocket.  His face is open and eager as he looks down the tracks toward his future. The suitcase between his knees has a sticker that reads State U. Next to him, sitting close, so close their legs touch, is his father. A cigarette dangling from his lips. He is dressed in all blue denim, hunched over, his weathered face looking down the tracks in the opposite direction of the boy’s, anticipating his final duty to his son: to stand and wave the red flag calling the train to stop, and pick up his son, and take him off to a better future.

Breaking Home Ties was published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on September 25, 1954; and it captured the nation’s common understanding that the old ways were old and tired; that the new generation must leave the farm for a better life;  that a formal education was better than a working education; that the big city was better than a small town. There was pain in this understanding. We see it in the father, but we also see that he believes that if this is what is best for his son, he is willing to stand and wave the red flag. 

But that “either/or,” binary way of thinking was a lie. That is not how God made the world.  That is human thinking, and it is flawed. Even still, the father bought into it. You can tell by how he holds his son’s new dapper hat, tenderly over his own battered cowboy hat. It is a moment of teeth gritting grief: “Breaking Home Ties.”

Maybe this binary way of thinking was the beginning of the civil war that now engulfs this country: between rural and urban, between educated and uneducated, between rich and poor, and red and blue, and brown and white; we have a nation torn apart, tricked into binary thinking, by forces less powerful than God. Which is why resurrection matters. Which is why places that talk about resurrection, and the all-loving, all-inclusive God matter.

Most of us have been to our own State U. We hope our children go there as well.

It is important. They will make connections and learn some practical stuff there to help them move through the transactions of their lives.

It is also where they get a taste of the big questions, here and there: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” “Why are we here?” “What is the good life and how do we get it?”  Remember those heady days when we asked those questions? Probably we don’t do that too much now… too busy.  Too many things happening as we try to win the good life that was promised to us at State U.

Then Notre Dame begins to burn, and something stirs deep down inside us, pointing us past the transactional of our daily lives; pointing us past the achievements we are going to pass down to our children; pointing us past the binary pressures of our culture; pointing us to the still standing cross in the rubble of Notre Dame. As the smoke billows up from that ancient place of worship and prayer the big questions emerge: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” “Why are we here?” “What is the good life and how do we touch it?” 

David Brooks in his op-ed titled Five Lies Our Culture Tells Us, writes: “That unless your name is Aristotle you probably can’t come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions!  The idea of ‘You do You’ is ridiculous. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions over time. Life is a group process that works best when you can belong to a place that deals with the real questions of life.”

As I watched Notre Dame burn, I remember being there a few years ago on a family vacation. My son was twelve. He is now fifteen, and in a few short years he’ll be going off to his own State U.  Which is probably why when I look at Rockwell’s painting Breaking Home Ties, tears come to my eyes. And because I believe in the resurrection, and more than that I study it, and participate in it through worship, and I put it into the context of my life as the way of seeking the good life, not the easy life, not the no-suffering life, but the good life, because it is the with God life, that gives life meaning, and us the capacity to love the big questions throughout our life time. It opens our hearts. And I choose that life, and I hope you do as well.

It is the with God life that inspires me to remind my son, often, that the measure of a person is not their grades, or the school they attend, or the career they have. Joy in life is not found in self-sufficiency, or things owned, or some cultural standard of success.  Just the opposite. You win nothing by the number of things you tick off your bucket list. Instead, live for a cause that is not about you or your children or your tribe, but rather something bigger than yourself. Attach yourself to a place, for as long as you can, that challenges you to wrestle with the bigger questions, and helps you put into perspective human achievement and status and rank, and it opens our hearts to love.

Do so with other people because they are there; not because you choose them, or they choose you but because they are there. They are the ones who were providentially set there to change your life. Find a place that talks about love, a lot, and knows that love is from God, big, bold, divine, holy, inclusive…

Don’t take it for granted, particularly now, in a world desperate for a way to transcend the transactional and binary. Today we celebrate that way forward through the Resurrection of Jesus, right here, right now revealed by the still standing cross of God’s love.