A sermon preached at Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
at the sunrise service
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a holy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. On Wednesday, the teachers, students, and parents gathered in the elementary school lunchroom for the annual Victorian Tea. I think they should hold it on a Thursday so it can be billed as a Throwback Thursday event. But it’s always held on the Wednesday before spring break. I think that’s because spring break almost always is the week after Easter, that would put the Victorian Tea on Maundy Thursday, and there are enough families and teachers who attend Maundy Thursday services … So, the Victoria Tea has always been held on a Wednesday.

I don’t think it will be as much fun next year as it’s been since it started, next year after Ginny Spinola retires. Each year I’ve been amused by how seriously Ginny takes the Tea. Since the very first year it was held, she has made sure everyone in her fifth grade class dresses up for the event. Boys in shoes that pinch their toes and neckties, even though they can’t keep their shirts tucked in. Girls in spring dresses and ribbons in their hair, some even wearing white gloves. It didn’t take long for the parents and the lower grades to follow suit, and now it reminds me of what church looked like in my childhood on Easter.

There is something that happens to us when we get dressed up. The tradition of getting new clothes for Easter actually has roots in the early church. Baptisms were celebrated during the Great Easter Vigil. Those who had spend Lent preparing for baptism would step into the waters of baptism as naked as the day they were born.[1] When they emerged from the waters, they were given a new robe, new clothing to symbolize their rebirth as a new creation.

Baptism is a reenactment of the Easter miracle. We die to our old selves, are buried in the waters with Jesus, and we rise to new life with Jesus, transformed, a new creation.

Dylan Manetti witnessed a transformation this week.[2] The prison guards at the State Prison know Dylan not just as a lawyer, but also as a spiritual person, so they asked him to try to get through to a depressed convict. Dylan simply sat with the prisoner and told him that he believed with all his heart that God already dwelled in this prisoner’s heart. That was all – no sermon, no extensive prayers. The prisoner began to weep.

Dylan understood what this prisoner did not understand: that his life was already in Christ. Perhaps his life was so deeply hidden beneath all kinds of mistakes, crimes, and sins that few could see this truth either, including the prisoner himself. But Dylan saw it and he revealed the great mystery of God’s love and the prisoner was overcome by a glimpse of it.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a contemporary setting of an ancient hymn of the church, O magnum mysterium.[3] The translation begins, “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!”[4] The mystery of Jesus is not just that farm animals were the first to see him. The mystery of Jesus is the depth of love his life and death and resurrection reveal, a love that embraces even the people our society throws away – and that embraces even us.

The youth group at Mount William Congregational Church had a discussion about the expansiveness of God’s love last Sunday. Somehow the conversation drifted and one of the kids started talking about efforts to criminalize homelessness, something about anti-sitting laws and rules that say you can’t hand out food on the street. Some of the kids got pretty heated and the next thing the youth group leaders knew, a group of the youth were planning on going in to Concord sometime during spring break to hand out food. They decided they didn’t care if it’s illegal. If people are hungry, we should feed them.

Poor Sally and Jim. This was not the youth group meeting they had planned, but they knew they were witnessing something special. There was a passion in these kids’ hearts, something different, something transformative. But what should they do about it? They decided to talk with Howard Friend, the minister at Mount William Congregational Church, about it, but it was a particularly busy week for him. Not just because it was Holy Week and he was preparing for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services, but he was also spending a lot of time at the hospital with Sheila Peck.

Sheila[5] was a Congregational minister and, when the Congregationalists merged into the United Church of Christ, she became a UCC minister. She retired 21 years ago, moved to Mount William to be near her grandchildren, and joined the Congregational Church. Three years ago, she started to disappear into the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This past week, she was not wearing the black Geneva robe she wore for decades during Holy Week. This past week, she wore a blue hospital gown. Rev. Friend was there every day this week. She had been a friend, a sort of mentor who didn’t muddle, when Howard arrived in Mount William and started his ministry, so he went every day to the hospital. And on Thursday, after the Maundy Thursday service, he headed back. He kept vigil with the family that night. The end was very near.

Howard has been with people when they’ve died before. This time it was different. This time he was there for the duration, and with that much time, he didn’t know what to do, so he and the family started reading Psalms.

He wasn’t sure which Psalms to read. Psalm 118 might have been a terrific choice. It celebrates God’s victory over death, calling us to celebrate the steadfast love of God and to rejoice in the day that the Lord has made. But maybe she needed a psalm of lament, such as Psalm 22. “My tongue clings to my jaws” – how often had the family moistened her parched lips with a sponge? Or a Psalm of confession, since she knew she depended in life and in death on God’s mercy.

They decided to read through the Psalm. They trusted that God’s Spirit would be at work as needed and that the fullness of Sheila’s life with God – joy, lament, confession, and all – had not been defeated by tangles and plaques in her brain.

They were long past Psalm 23 when Sheila stepped into the valley of the shadow of death. Rev. Friend and the Peck family watched as she made her transition from this life to the one to come. Just before she died, Sheila opened her eyes and seemed to be staring off into space. But Howard was certain that she was seeing something that the rest of them could not see.

When Howard got home to get some rest he found himself wanting Sheila to be there to tell him what she saw. But she can’t be there, so she won’t tell anyone anything.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is its abrupt ending. The angel tells the women who’ve come to the tomb that Jesus has been resurrected and that they should go tell the other disciples. But they “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I can’t help wondering if Howard will end up telling others what he saw in Sheila’s eyes in the early hours of Friday morning. I wonder if Sally and Jim will tell Howard or the parents about what they witnessed in the youth group meeting – not so much about the plans the youth made but about transformation they witnessed in the lives of the youth. And I wonder if Dylan Manetti will ever tell anyone about the transformation he witnessed at the State Prison.

“Bright is the day that dawns with new life, casting death’s grim shadow from the garden. Bright is the future for even the most humble soul, rising up in the arms of angels. Bright is the promise to all the Earth, sharing peace among the children of light. Let every voice sing this shining song, for we have been set free, we have been ransomed from our own history, given a chance to live again, to hope again, and to see the healing of God spread like sunlight into the rooms of time.”[6]

The resurrection, it seems to me, is happening all around us. Will we notice it? And if we notice it, will we tell the good news about it?

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, were all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] See, for instance, http://nudebaptisminearlychristianity.blogspot.com.

[2] This character and exchange with the prisoner is based on a story told by David Keck, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 20.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7ch7uottHU&feature=kp.

[4] Translation from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Magnum_Mysterium.

[5] This story of Sheila’s dying is adapted from a story told by David Keck, op. cit.

[6] Bishop Steven Charleston, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5/posts/10204044984111911 (19 April 2014).