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Easter Places

April 4, 2013

“Easter Places” Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12 © 3.31.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The great classic Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Be sure it is not for nothing that the Landlord has knit our hearts so closely to time and place—to one friend rather than another and one shire more than all the land” (Pilgrim’s Regress). This is the way God has made us. We are here or there, but not everywhere. And our particularity, our embodiment, as Lewis observed, is not random or without purpose. It’s part and parcel of what it means to be human. We are our bodies as much as we are our spirits.

Places, then, become very important to us. It may be a physical structure or a natural setting, but a place can sustain our souls or take us to the brink of despair. It can almost literally wrap itself around us like loving arms and remind us of God’s presence or the joys of family. Or it can be so full of pain that we cannot bear to set foot in it unless it be somehow transformed to take on new significance. As a Scottish writer has observed about his land: “Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives” (Alexander McCall Smith, Love Over Scotland).

It is not true that one place is the same as another. How many houses will a couple look at before they find the one that feels like home? How many people over the years have said something to me like “This church building means so much to me; my daughter was married here” or “I know you’re wondering why I haven’t been in church since the funeral. It’s just too painful right now. Every time I come in I see the casket.” There are some places we want to go back to again and again. As for others—for one reason or another, we will never return.

Jerusalem had been a special place for the people of God. It was the center of commerce, at one time the capital of an empire, the crossroads of the world. But most of all it was a sacred city, where God had made his name to dwell in the Temple. Then all that was gone, swept away by an invading army. What remained was only a painful reminder of what had been.

A generation later, when world politics changed and the Middle East was under new management, many of the Jews who had been carried off from their homeland and their beloved city returned. But they faced a daunting task. They had to rebuild both their buildings and their dreams. This place, once so full of life, had to give them sustenance again.

It is with that need in mind that the prophet writes. His promise is glorious, the kind only God can fulfill. Jerusalem will once again be a joy. And it would have the qualities that make people feel at home. Safety, so nobody is going to come sneaking in your home at night to rob you of your goods or even your life. No terror stalks the streets to threaten your children. Continuity, so you can count on being somewhere long enough really to know it, appreciate it, feel settled in it, where your children can make friends and find meaningful work. And you can live a long, happy life. There, too, will be meaning, hope, joy, all those things that move life beyond survival—like art and music and service and worship—so you can celebrate life, know a fresh perspective, anticipate a future even better than the present.

I know what you’re saying: there is no place like that. At least not consistently. True. Not right now. But we know one day there will be. How? Because God promised it, and he always keeps his promises. And because he’s already started making it happen. He raised Jesus from the dead, and in doing that, God turned the grave from a place of weeping and longing to one of joy, a passage into new life beyond our imagining.

Even now we catch glimpses of God’s resurrection promise. Those places we live our lives can become and are Easter places, that lift us up, inspire us, bring us new hope. They are places of profound experience.

It may be that our Easter place is one of majesty. We think immediately perhaps of the Grand Canyon or Denali National Park, Yellowstone or some other natural wonder. But so might our place of majesty be our backyard with the full moon shining down or the sun rising in glory.

As one writer has put it: [Some places] are hallowed by a particular kind of beauty, often quite simple, that lifts up your mind and heart. Indoors, the single most effective element of this kind is light… In the evening, you can make a sacred place in any dark room just by lighting a candle or a fire in the hearth.”

She continues: “Frank Lloyd Wright, who insisted that even ordinary homes should offer hearths and openness to the outdoors, said, ‘Nature is my manifestation of God.’ Many of his fellow Americans agree. Now that most of us live in vast, urbanized metropolitan areas, the sheer novelty of a natural environment helps to cut us off from quotidian reality and put things in a different perspective. Many of us choose to vacation near a mountain range or an ocean, which both evoke what psychologists call the ‘diminutive effect’—the transcendent realization of being a very small fish in a very big pond. But you don’t have to travel to a national park, the seashore, or a far-off resort to be inspired by a sunrise or sunset, a canopy of stars, or a full moon” (Winifred Gallagher, http://www.usnews.com/news/sacred-places/articles/2007/11/16/the-sanctity-of-personal-places).

But our Easter place could also be one of memory. As Flannery O’Connor said, sometimes “nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” Then it is we take a journey into our own interior, reflecting on days gone by, lessons taught by loved ones now gone, old friends whose laughter cheered us, successes that emboldened us to achieve even more. We may be decorating a parent’s or a child’s grave, touching a veteran’s memorial, looking at photos, handling some family artifact, recalling what happened on a particular day years ago. Memories like that can be painful, but they can also be empowering, reminders that despite some present difficult situation, things were not always this way. We draw strength from the example of others. We recall the blessings of God, the providence of God that lifted us out and up, and we experience the new life God bestows in the resurrected Christ. We claim our baptism, the sacrament by which we are made one with our Lord in his defeat of death.

But if our Easter place can be one of majesty and one of memory, so could it be one of mission. St. Augustine observed: “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.” By God’s providence, people come into our lives who need our help, and in helping them, we are made new. How often have you or I realized that in doing mission, giving care, we are actually ministered to more than the hungry or the sick or the despairing person? That’s because we are encountering Jesus in them, and he is imparting his life to us by our service to him. As the hymn reminds us: “Across this wide world, we shall always find those who are crying with no peace of mind. But when we help them or when we feed them, we belong to God. We belong to God” (“When We Are Living”).

Easter reminds us we do indeed belong to God, and God will not give up what is his. Not his only Son in the grave. Not his children in any place or time. In his powerful love and providence, he can make all our places Easter places. Jerusalem the destroyed became again Jerusalem the blessed. The tomb, once full of death, is now gloriously empty. So even our places of pain, places of betrayal, places of death—all can become Easter places. They can have new meaning and be full of new possibility because God has conquered death, because God has made it so, because God is everywhere, bringing joy, fulfilling dreams, granting life. Because there was a morning long ago when some women heard amazing news: “He is not here; he is risen.”

Thanks be to God.

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