Note: This was my farewell sermon at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, where I spent the 2014-2015 academic year as a seminary student.
It was just a small slip of paper, but I dreaded seeing it a little bit every Sunday. It was this slip of paper, calling on the congregation of St. Paul’s to add the names of their mothers or other important women in their lives to an annual Mother’s Day list. Every Sunday morning for the last few weeks, I would grab a bulletin, take out the insert, and place it in the garbage can by the water cooler. I have nothing against the idea itself; I think it’s a great way to honor our mothers. It was just too painful for me to look at.
What I really dreaded wasn’t the slip of paper, but the fact that Mother’s Day was coming up. This will be the second Mother’s Day without my mom, who passed away last April on the Saturday after Easter. So seeing inserts like that, hearing announcements about Mother’s Day, and watching tv ads for cards and chocolate can be difficult for me. So can Easter, as I found out last month. Easter this year didn’t feel like any of the previous ones in my house. It didn’t feel like a day of new life and hope. It felt sadder, more like a Good Friday than a resurrection day.
The last sermon that I gave here, on Doubting Thomas, was in many ways my own way of working through some of my experiences last month, working through the challenges of trusting in a god of unimaginable love and mercy, believing in a god of resurrection and new life when the world around us sometimes doesn’t seem to allow for such a god to exist. Thomas’s realization that the first Easter morning had already dawned, that his master had defeated death and sin on the cross and given us new life in his resurrection, was something I badly wanted to feel this past Easter, as I sat in my bedroom missing my mom.
Luckily for me and for all of us, God’s new life and hope are not confined to our annual commemoration of Easter. In many congregations I’ve seen, people tend to forget about Easter a week or two after celebrating it, and the long countdown to what many people consider to be the more important holiday, Christmas, begins. That’s why I’ve really resonated with and appreciated Pastor Kopp’s frequent reminders about us being Easter people and encouraging us to give this time of the year its due celebration. Because, in the midst of all of our church seasons, as we worship here during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, even as we solemnly remember Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the light of Easter shines on everything. In spite of appearances to the contrary, God’s Easter presence lies over our hearts, over our lives, over a world that is even now in pain from natural disasters, social injustice, and violence.
Easter dawns on the world every day, even if it’s hard to see. There are hints of it everywhere, if we only know how and where to look. Peeking outside and seeing how beautiful the weather is, noticing the vibrant colors of all the trees and flowers, helps me to see new life. Being here worshiping with you all, and being fed and given strength to go out into the world at our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, helps.
Perhaps most helpful for seeing new life, however, is the sacrament of baptism. It seemed like every time I was having a rough week, a baptism would be scheduled here. And, sitting up by the choir watching it or by the baptismal font for Andy Lau’s baptism, I loved every minute of them. Baptism for me is more than an initiation ritual into the Christian community, an occasion to get the family dressed up and take pictures, though it is certainly that. In baptism, we become brothers and sisters of each other, children of God, because we have died and been given new life, the new life of Easter, in that water. God comes to us in such commonplace and mundane things as water, bread, and wine, because God has promised to be there. “This is my body,” Jesus said on the night on which he was betrayed. “This is my blood.”
In the midst of our crazy lives, God has promised to be with us and amongst us. Our Lord Jesus Christ has sworn that he would be with us whenever we are gathered together in his name. And he has sworn that he would be in the places and in the people we would least expect God to be: on the cross, in our weakness, in our neighbors in need, in the poor, the hungry, the unfamiliar, the sick, the imprisoned.
These promises to be with us and amongst us are unconditional and unwavering. It doesn’t matter how sad we might be that day, how angry, how much in pain, how unworthy we might feel of even receiving these gifts of the sacraments and of each other. It doesn’t even matter if we can feel God’s presence at those times. Those gifts are given to us by our eternal God, and so they are there for us always, helping us to know that we are God’s children, that we are new life children, that we are Easter children.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Jesus’ resurrection, I want to thank you for allowing me to see God in this congregation, in your ministries, your mission, in each of you. Thank you for allowing me to worship with you all. Thank you for listening to me as I’ve tried my best to preach God’s Word in the pulpit. Thank you for your kind words, your guidance, for our conversations before and after worship, for welcoming me to your Bible studies and youth education classes, for sharing your joys and concerns with me. Thank you for letting me get to know you. Thank you.
I’d like to leave you by asking you a favor and then telling a story. Life, as we all know, is uncertain and often difficult. Although we come up with lots of plans for ourselves and our families, life has a way of throwing us for a loop. We have no idea what kinds of joys and sorrows our futures hold. So I ask that we try our best to grasp on to what is certain and steadfast: the promises of God. Let us hold onto the forgiveness of our sins and our status as beloved children of God which Jesus Christ has bought for us with his blood. Let us hold onto those promises of new life and hope which cannot possibly be taken back, because of who has promised them to us. Let us stand firm in the love of God in Christ Jesus, which nothing in all of creation can keep us from.
And, a story: It was the Friday after Easter 2014. I was in my mom’s hospital room, getting ready to leave because visiting hours were over. I held her hand and said, “I love you, mom. I’ll see you on Sunday.” I wasn’t able to keep that promise, because that was the last thing I ever said to her. The next morning, she slipped into a coma that she never came out of.
After my mom passed away, my dad, my sister, and I went out into the hallway of the hospital. Over the previous weeks we had spent a lot of time there when we we weren’t allowed to be in my mom’s hospital room for various reasons. There was a big window there that overlooked much of the city of Newark. And as we talked and watched, a rainbow started forming. And it grew bigger and brighter and more colorful, until there was a crowd of nurses, doctors, and visitors around us at the window, all in awe and in agreement that it was the biggest rainbow they had ever seen.
I don’t know if that rainbow was intended for my family, for someone else, or if it was just a natural phenomenon that happened to occur right after my mom died. Whatever it was, it sparked a tiny bit of hope in my heart in the midst of all that pain. The day before she passed away, I made a promise to my mom that I couldn’t keep. But I hope, and even more than that, I trust, that God will make it a reality nonetheless. As much as I struggle with faith sometimes, I believe in my core that God will bring us together again on a Sunday a long time from now, on an Easter to trump all Easters, on a day when God will truly be with us, when God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because Christ will have made all things new. The signs of Easter will be undeniable then, and all will shout together, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!” Amen.