Harrowing Of Hell
April 7, 2012

Easter Vigil Sermon

Speaker: Rev. Kate Wesch

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this most holy night, we gather in vigil and prayer, in darkness and with light, for this is a pivotal moment. Right now, we stand in a liminal space – on a precipice between death and resurrection. It isn’t Easter yet, but Lent has drawn to a close.

For a brief time, we are in between death and life.

I told a story a couple years ago about going spelunking. Spelunking is when you put on old clothes, kneepads, and a hard hat, and climb around inside caves with only a flashlight to lead the way. I used to do this in Oklahoma with my mother and younger brother. We loved camping out for the weekend at a state park and exploring what they called the “free caves.” That is, undeveloped and natural caves with no pavement, electricity or handrails. I have many memories from these fun weekend getaways, but one experience sticks in my mind.

There were about eight or ten of us all crowded in the room of a cave. We were pretty far away from the entrance, deep in the bowels of the earth. At the same time, each of us turned off our flashlight, and there we were – in utter darkness – total silence. I could hear people breathing softly. I could smell mud and sweat.

I could hear water trickling in the distance, but besides that, there were no stimuli.

The absence is what was odd. The total lack of light, movement, sounds, or smells crept into my awareness and unnerved me. And so, I sat with it. I embraced the anxiety of feeling smothered inside the earth and took a deep breath. It became real, transcendent, liminal because I knew it wouldn’t last.

And then someone coughed, shifted their feet, and sent small pebbles flying. A light came on, chatter resumed, and we kept going.

It was short-lived. The “it” being the moment of stillness and quiet – kind of like the stillness and quiet we will embrace immediately following the sermon.

Our souls can be rediscovered in that stillness. God lives in those spaces and can perhaps be more easily embraced when we relax into our discomfort or anxiety.

The stories we heard earlier this evening chronicle the historic narrative of God and God’s people. In these stories, God creates, blesses, tests, and blesses again.

God saves and destroys. God issues blessings and curses. God provides and God renews. It is a cosmic story, one that is our story, our history and corporate memory.

Once upon a time, a community of faithful people reflected on their relationship with God. Oral tradition was the norm and everyone knew the stories, but finally, someone decided to write them down. Pen was put to paper and the stories we heard tonight were the result.

In the story of the Flood, God institutes a covenant with God’s people. The story of the Israelites escaping Egypt demonstrates God’s pattern of blessing and curse,

which we see repeated over and again in the Old Testament. Isaiah reminds us once again of God’s lasting covenant that transcends generations. And finally, the prophet Ezekiel conveys the numerous blessings bestowed on the faithful by a loving God.

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

“And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

“And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

That is what I hear in this mysterious and liminal silence tonight – on the cusp between death and life. God whispering in our ears, reminding us of our ancient covenant, and swearing a solemn oath – “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Tonight we also remember our baptism because in ancient Christianity this was the night to celebrate baptisms. Adult catechumens spent years preparing for the sacrament with a period of intense preparation during Lent. During their long process of formation, the catechumens attended regular Sunday worship, but left before the celebration of the Eucharist.

At the Easter celebration, clothed only in a simple white gown, they died to their old selves and were reborn by water and the Holy Spirit. They emerged from the baptismal waters made new and remained for their first experience of Holy Communion.

Can you even begin to imagine the overwhelming emotion of such an experience? With baptismal water still dripping from their body, they heard the prayers of thanksgiving, the words of Institution, and partook of Christ’s body and blood with their new sisters and brothers in Christ.

Our own observance of this tradition occurs in the renewal of our baptismal vows, which we will do in a moment.

Tonight is all about transition – as we move from death to resurrection.

But it is also about moving forward and the continued presence of Christ in the world. Easter is about us, the body of Christ. Easter is about emerging from the darkness of the cave having found our inner stillness and reserve. Through this period of active listening during Lent, we have been invigorated to engage the world anew. And that is just what we are called to do. We are called to tell our stories. We are called to be the body of Christ. Tonight God creates, blesses, saves, destroys, provides, renews…and tonight God sends us out into the world saying, “Go! Tell! Tell the story!”`

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13, the Flood
Exodus 14:10-15:1, Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea
Isaiah 55:1-11, Salvation Offered Freely to All
Ezekiel 36:24-28, A New Heart and a New Spirit