Thursday, April 2, 2015

Are We 'There' Yet?: Fearing Fulfilled Promises (Easter Vigil 4 April 2015)

RCL Easter Vigil
4 April 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Are We ‘There’ Yet?

            When I began my doctoral studies at Notre Dame in 1984, Paula found work at a local bank in their mortgage loan department.  She had done similar work in Denver some years before, so she quickly settled into the job.  One day she came home from the office and said, ‘I met a family today that your father would love to meet.  Their family name is Leggett and I bet that they could fill a number of pages in his genealogy --- they’re African American.’  With these few words the weight of my family’s hidden history suddenly fell upon my unsuspecting shoulders, a hidden history my father was happy to share with me.
            On my father’s side I am a descendant of the Leggett’s from the county of Kent in England and the Myrick’s from Bodorgan on the island of Anglesey off the northwest coast of Wales.  Members from both families emigrated to what is now the northeastern region of the United States in the early 1600’s.  We came as farmers and as sea-farers, eager to find a new life in the ‘promised land’ of the Americas and, to be honest, to escape from some political entanglements in the ‘old’ country.
            We prospered and by the early 1700’s we found our way up the Hudson River to Saratoga Springs and the surrounding communities.  We survived raids from the French and their aboriginal allies from Qu├ębec during the French and Indian War.  We survived the Revolution, even when the Battle of Saratoga raged on our farmland and around our farmhouses.  Our story is the quintessential American settler story including the shadow side of that story --- we owned slaves.
            African slaves arrived in New York in 1626 with the first slave market occurring in 1655.  On the 4th of July 1827 all slaves were emancipated, but two hundred years of slavery could not be erased overnight.  From census records I know that my family owned slaves until 1800 at least.
            When the slaves were freed, they often took the family name of their former owners, a practice reaching back to Roman imperial times.  So here I was in 1984, face to face with the reality that in South Bend, Indiana there was a family likely descended from slaves my family had freed sometime between 1800 and 1827.
            The ‘promised’ land of my ancestors had not been the promised land for their ancestors.  All my pride in being a Northerner with kin who fought for the Union during the Civil War evaporated.  Neither family, slave-owner or slave, had yet achieved the fullness of the promise of the New World.  Neither family were ‘there’ yet.
            Promises have a way of inspiring hope in us even when these promises are not yet fulfilled.  But sometimes we become so accustomed with ‘unfulfilled-ness’ of the promise that we are surprised when the moment of fulfillment confronts us.  When a long-hoped-for promise is finally fulfilled, we can even fear the future because we have become so used to living in expectation of something that seems so distant and so unlikely.
            Imagine for a moment the women who come to the tomb.  They have heard the words of Jesus and seen the deeds he has done.  They have even dared to hope that the promise of new life that Jesus has proclaimed throughout his public ministry might come true.  His death, though, has rolled a stone and locked that promise in a tomb.  But here, in the pre-dawn darkness, it would seem that the stone cannot lock the promise away.  Thousands of pages have been covered by litres of ink as commentators have tried to explain the abruptness of what is the original ending of Mark’s gospel:  ‘So [the women] went out and fled form the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16.8 NRSV)
            Why are they afraid?  Isn’t the empty tomb good news to those who fear the power of death?  Yes, it is good news, but so long as we insulate ourselves from the power of this good news with the sweetness of chocolate, the cuteness of ducklings and lambs and polite but trite sentiments about the joy with the coming of spring, we do not have to confront the fearful truth:  If the tomb is empty, the promise is fulfilled and everything has changed --- for ever.
            In the immediate past this parish has supported Emilie Smith, a priest from this Diocese, who served in Guatemala.  Guatemala has a painful and violent history of oppression and murder, especially of aboriginal people.  Even the bishop who ordained me to the transitional diaconate and to the priesthood, Bill Frey, had been deported from Guatemala for speaking out against the violence.  But in the midst of this violence, Julia Esquivel, a poet who endured thirty years of successive dictatorship, wrote a powerful reflection on the good news of the empty tomb.
There is something here within us
which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
which doesn’t stop the pounding deep inside.
It is the silent, warm weeping of women without their husbands.
It is the sad gaze of children fixed there beyond memory . . .

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings for years,
we continue to love life,
and do not accept their death!
In this marathon of hope
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary . . .

Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will know then how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected.

Translated from the Spanish by Gloria Kinsler

To believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead is to dare to believe that anything is possible ‘in a world where carpenters are raised from the dead’. [1]  To believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead should cause the heart to flutter for a moment and the mind to consider how one lives into this promise.  The courage to live into this promise does not mean we have no fear; courage is not the absence of fear but the decision to act despite one’s fears.
            We know that the women did eventually find the courage to speak.  If they had not, then you and I would not be here on this night, a night filled with candle-light and a promise that has not yet been realized in its fullness.  Are we ‘there’ yet?  Not yet but the hope of the promise fulfilled draws us on.

[1] From James Goldman, ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1966).

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