Good Morning!

A sermon for the Easter Vigil  at All Saints Church, Haight-Asbury, San Francisco by Christopher L. Webber.  March 31, 2018.

Good morning!
Don’t check your watches or iPhones. What do they know? It’s morning at All Saints. We’re here to celebrate a new day, a new beginning,
“The light of Christ.
Thanks be to God.”
That’s how we began the service and if that isn’t an announcement of light and the dawn of a new day, I don’t know what we were doing. I mean, are you going to be limited by clock time. What was it, three weeks ago, we all changed our clocks because Washington said to. So who are you going to believe: Washington or the Gospel, Washington or the Easter liturgy. My Prayer Book says its morning, it’s the start of a new day, new world, new life. The liturgy says it; I believe it. That’s why I’m here.

Ronald Reagan used to talk about “Morning in America” – we’re talking about “Morning for the world.” I think the Jews have it right. The day begins at Sun down, not sun up. “In the beginning. . . ” Read your Bible: Book One, verse one: “In the beginning, the world was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In the beginning . . . darkness. In the beginning of life . . . the forming foetus has its beginning in the darkness of the womb. The sprouting seed lies in the covering darkness of the soil. Life begins in the dark. The women came to the tomb – You heard it read – at the rising of the sun, but they were too late. The new life was already at work. They were too late. New life burst out in the darkness

The women were too late. Let’s not even ask how late the men were. Life was up and out and long gone before it occurred to them to go look. That’s our problem, isn’t it. God is ahead of us, always ahead of us. R S Thomas says in one of his poems
“His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left.”
Or as Thomas says in another poem, “. . .
He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.”
Don’t wait for the sun to come up; it’s morning now. God is at work now in the dark. Thank goodness. Thank God. Do you worry when you watch the news? Seems as if the world is a dark place? Yes, it does. But God is at work in the dark. Light is on the way, but don’t wait for it. Work now. Work with God now. Make a difference now. Don’t wait. Tom Paine wrote about “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” Don’t sign up when the battle’s over. Be there at the outset.

No, Mark is onto something. This service makes the connection. The new day begins in the dark and its coming. In God’s time, it’s coming. And notice how once Mark makes that point, he stops dead almost in the middle of a sentence. “And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” You have no idea how many scholars from that day to this have complained about that ending. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid . . .” It’s worse in Greek: “ephebunto gar.” “They said nothing to anyone, afraid for . . .” One scholar suggested that Mark was writing away with only a paragraph or two left to finish the story when a Roman soldier grabbed him and carried him away yelling, “Hey, wait, let me finish.” But he never did. No, I don’t think so; he wrote as much as he could, told the whole story that mattered, and left it for us to finish.

Just imagine Peter or Paul coming to Mark and saying, “Aren’t you ever going to finish your gospel?” And poor Mark, bewildered, saying, “What do you mean? I thought I did.” And Peter says, “Well, what about how John and I came to the tomb. Shouldn’t that be included?” And Paul would say, “What about how Jesus appeared to me, shouldn’t that be included?” And I imagine Mark saying, “Exactly my point. There is no ending. If you don’t stop where I stopped, the story expands and grows and I would need an endless supply of scrolls to tell the rest of the story. You want me to write a new chapter every day? I broke off before it got out of control. There is no end for the gospel.

If you remember the previous Prayer Book – some of us are old enough to remember it – when the Epistle was read, the reader said, “Here endeth the Epistle” but when the Gospel was read, the reader just stopped and there was only a response: “Praise be to thee, O Christ.” But you never said, “Here endeth the Gospel” because the Gospel has no end. Mark’s Gospel also has no real end. As we heard it tonight, “they were afraid” but their fears would be overcome and the Gospel story would continue down to our day and to us in this church and still no end in sight. No end in sight; not here in the dark; not this early morning.

Point One: it’s morning now, a time of new beginnings.
Point Two: the gospel goes on.
And that brings us to Point Three: it’s early in the day and hard still to see clearly where we’re going, but it’s God who directs the story; God who empowers it.

I happened to turn up an old diary recently. When you move from one apartment to another things surface. Things also disappear, but that’s another subject. This diary emerged from the first year or two after I was ordained. Long ago – some of you may remember – the church was growing, new churches were being planted, new buildings erected. I was finishing a graduate program in the seminary in New York and serving part time in an inner city parish in Brooklyn. I could tell you stories about that parish: not a single college graduate in the parish, but some deeply committed Christians. The diocese thought it couldn’t survive; they’d tried to close it once or twice. It was too small, too poor, not worth the effort, but it was still there, and what got my attention as I reread my diary and remembered was the couple of places I had noted the attendance. 32 at an 8 am service, 62 at 10, 80 at the main service on a hot 4th of July weekend, 150 at the main service on Palm Sunday. It didn’t look very successful to the diocese, but it was far from dead.

I went from there to a suburban parish that had a graded church school through 6th grade and three different women’s groups, and a confirmation class my last year there of 25 young people. There would be 150-200 in church in an average Sunday. Those days are over and that church is closed. The Brooklyn parish is still there.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, we thought we had it figured out – we thought the church would continue to grow because we knew how to make that happen. But the times have changed. Well, you know all about it. I’ve heard stories of what this church was a generation ago. But ask around – you hear the same story everywhere from Roman Catholic to evangelical. Things aren’t what they used to be. Or maybe we don’t go back far enough. We hear a lot about the faith of the founding fathers, but many of them were barely Christian and colleges like Yale that were founded to train men for ministry had been taken over at the end of the 18th century by people like Tom Paine who were great on freedom but not Christians by any stretch of the imagination. Jefferson, you know, went through his Bible with a pair of scissors and produced a sort of Readers Digest version including only what he thought he could believe and it wasn’t very much. Those were bad days for the church. Then there were waves of revival and things changed again. When I was ordained there was a church year book that had a table every year showing the membership of the Episcopal Church decade by decade and the percentage of the population that were members – greater every decade. They don’t include that page any more. There are almost as many Muslims in America now as Episcopalians.

I think back then, back when I was ordained, we thought we were pretty smart; we knew how to build the church and we were doing just fine – until we weren’t. Because God’s church is built by the power of God and not any human skill or wisdom or strength and God seems to need to remind us of that from time to time. It would be lovely if the story of the church were a steadily rising curve of success, but it isn’t – it never has been. There have been good times. In the early 20th century they talked about converting the whole world in the next hundred years. Not going to happen. First we have to convert the church. What message do we have for the world when so–called evangelicals support a man like Donald Trump? What example do we set for the world when Christians are so divided? It was sad recently to hear of the death of Billy Graham and read about his second thoughts, late in life, about the amount of time he had spent basking in presidential approval instead of calling on presidents to repent.

It’s hard – it’s very hard – to remember that human power is not God’s power, that we are not called to be successful in human terms, but to open ourselves to the love and power of God. The so-called early church spent almost 300 years enduring waves of persecution, dying for their faith. Jesus, after all, gave them an example not of how to build better synagogues or how to convert the Roman emperor but how to die for others and the first Christians did that/ One early Christian wrote that, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Maybe we’re not providing enough seeds. But seeds grow in the dark, and it’s still early morning, and it’s God’s church, and we don’t see clearly what God is doing but we know a bit more than Mark. “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of sin and death; this is the night when Christ rose victorious from the grave. How blessed is this night when heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God!” This is the night that turns into God’s morning and brings us the promise of life and new beginnings and great joy.

This is the morning to open ourselves to the gift of new life on this new day, this new morning, this new beginning, this next chapter, of the breaking day of the life-giving Gospel of God.

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