As a pastor, I frequently am struck by the different moods engendered by
weddings and funerals. Of course, at first blush, they do seem about as
different as night and day, yet, when you really stop to think about it, both
services share one basic feature: both assume, in equal measure, the presence of
God. Or to put it slightly differently, God is just as real and just as much the
focus of a wedding as of a funeral.
In a wedding, two people commit themselves primarily to God, and only then to
each other. For it is only within the context of God's prior love that any of us
can know anything about love at all, much less the kind of love necessary to
commit to another. And yet, rarely, and I do mean rarely, do those in attendance
at a wedding grasp with any degree of urgency the true significance of God's
participation in the proceedings.
Instead, somewhat understandably I suppose, we are focused on the happy
couple: on their present joy and eager anticipation of their future, on all
their family members and friends gathered together in celebration, and even on
the beauty of the church with its flowers, eloquent music and stately charm.
On a somewhat less lofty note, we may even focus on the dress as well as all the
other such painstakingly considered outfits - right down to all the shiny shoes
and wisps of lace. Maybe we are moved by the pastor's lofty words spoken,
undoubtedly, in mellifluent tones, about all manner of godly things: words about
love, about grace, about 'til death do us part,' without, perhaps, really
grasping their deeper meaning. And though I'm sure this applies to none of us
here, there are indeed those who just wait for the ceremony to be over as
quickly as possible so they then can get on with the real deal: the party!
When all is said and done, the wedding may end with God either having been
completely ignored or, at best, reduced to an overly sentimentalized or vaguely
indiscriminant idea or feeling.
Funerals, on the other hand, are powerful reminders of God's real and lasting
presence. When we lose a friend or loved one to death, one question looms large:
where have they gone? Really. Have they gone to God? Or to nothingness? We want
an answer - and in no uncertain terms.
So we gather at church where we expect God to be present. And in our need we are
granted a rare peak into the transcendent world - the realm of the spirit - that
place we often ignore altogether.
Someone once described our mortality and eventual death as something we are
aware of but largely tune out - in the same sort of way we typically tune out
elevator music. But from time to time things happen that vividly remind us of
our finitude, such as the death of a loved one, when suddenly the volume of the
elevator music gets turned way up, so that now it is virtually impossible to
At funerals one rarely witnesses the disinterested, distracted or uninvolved
observer. Instead, one observes people actively searching for God, desperate to
find mystical meanings and divine explanations - unlike, as I said earlier, your
The problem with weddings, as with much of the rest of our life, is that we
in our age have been conditioned to systematically reject the transcendent. As
such, it often takes some kind of severe jolt to our system to get our
attention. We may loosely talk about spiritual things, but any existential
awareness of spiritual things tends mostly to be absent from everyday life. In
some ways, as I said, we can't help it, for we are, after all, the product of a
post-enlightenment, scientific age that summarily rejects anything that cannot
be touched, seen or heard. To a large extent, our contemporary secular culture
simply has no place for spiritual realities, that is to say, non-materialistic
Today the so-called archaic relics of a superstitious past have become
unspeakable because modern secularism simply has no vocabulary by which to
discern what it was in the actual experiences of faithful people, those who
brought these spiritual realities into words and speech, such as we find in the
There is today massive resistance even to thinking about these phenomena,
having fought so long and hard to rid ourselves of every vestige of
transcendence. Perhaps far more than we realize, the myth of materialism has
served as the integrating agent for contemporary society, an integration bought
at the cost of what is most deeply human and most meaningful in life.
For the simple fact is, we humans are created by God as a unity of nature and
spirit. In rejecting half the equation, our spiritual side, materialism has
renounced a whole category of human experience. And we are by far the worse for
wear because of it.
Yet there are indications that the scientific, materialistic myth is showing
signs of breaking down. The scientific community itself has been finding
compelling evidence about the possibility of ESP, of clairvoyance, of psycho
kinesis, and of spiritual healing.
Years ago, at Hartford Hospital, a strange thing was happening. For reasons
not entirely clear, patients on one particular ward were recovering at faster
rates and in general doing better than those in the other wards. In an attempt
to find out why, the hospital administrators re-assigned the doctors, then the
nursing staff, all to no effect. No matter they did, that one ward continued to
present the same confounding phenomenon.
In time, the reason for this difference was discovered, though the
explanation turned out to be as simple as it was unexpected. Somewhat
unbelievably, there was a lone cleaning woman who everyday, as she went about
her duties, would stop to say hello and talk to all the patients on that ward.
The hospital's surprising conclusion was that this simple form of human contact
had been sufficient to alter the patients' medical conditions - a spiritual
intangible distantly remote from any generally accepted scientific explanation.
When I trained years ago as a hospital chaplain, the head social worker told our
class of various studies that proved that people with religious affiliations
recover faster and, on average, spend less time in hospitals than those without
such affiliations. Similarly, recent studies I've read, in the papers and
elsewhere, indicate that scientists are now looking far more seriously into the
whole field of spiritual healing.
Of course, having long repressed such spiritual channels, modernity as a
whole finds itself wholly unfamiliar with the transcendent. In some sense, its
spiritual wells have run dry. Nevertheless, today one sees signs of a deepening
hunger for things transcendent. It seems to bubble up from our long repressed
sub-conscience and gets channeled into new and varied forms: New Age
spirituality, fundamentalism, renewed interest in angels, and even in the more
recent outbreak of Satan worship among the middle class: all in search of what
we might call "the lost language of the soul."
This morning we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ even though, for
us moderns, such a thing seems utterly unthinkable. Why? Because we have been
carefully trained not to see the invisible, not to recognize those transcendent
realities we cannot touch, see or hear. So how then are we to recover our lost
Scripture tells us that God is everywhere and seeks us continually, daily
offering us countless opportunities to perceive the divine transcendent in our
midst. But like Peter, as with most of us, we just don't happen to be paying
close attention. The keys to knowing God are actually quite simple: looking,
seeking, searching. It is only our dulled habits of body, mind and spirit which
prevent us from perceiving the hidden in our midst, that keep us from
experiencing the uplift and joy of having glimpsed God's mysterious,
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, novelist Annie
Dillard uses the image of light to express God's presence in the material world.
Having been stricken with a nearly fatal case of pneumonia, Dillard decides to
explore life more fully, spending four seasons living alone near Tinker Creek in
rural Virginia, an area surrounded by forests, creeks, mountains, and a myriad
of animal life. She spends her time outdoors mostly, walking and camping, just
being with nature. When she is inside, she mostly reads. The result of these
experiences turned into a remarkable book brimming with insight and clarity of
At Tinker Creek, while exploring the metaphor of light as an image of divine
presence, she reads a book about formerly blind people who surgically gain
vision for the first time. Some of these patients describe their first
impression of the visual world as "a lot of different kinds of
brightness" or "an extensive field of light, in which everything
At one point, the book describes one young patient's first visit to a garden
after her sight had been restored: "She is greatly astonished and can
scarcely be persuaded to answer," the account reads, "(she) stands
speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and
then as `the tree with the lights in it."
Astonishingly, Dillard discovers that many of the patients who, having
received their eyesight for the very first time, find the experience
bewildering, frightening, even unpleasant. A fair portion, in fact, choose to
keep their eyes closed rather than having to encounter this new and disorienting
world. Some simply refuse to use their new sight, preferring a world of
familiarity, in this case darkness.
By being open to the possibility of God, by seeking and searching, Mary and
the disciples eventually see what others often cannot, the resurrected Christ.
Of course, the story does not end there, for it is not enough simply to see the
light, to glimpse the divine, to peek into that reality that lives beyond the
seemingly obvious. If that were all Mary and the disciples accomplished that
day, we quite possibly would not be gathered here today. What is important is
that they choose to act upon what they saw and thus carried the truth of that
vision back to the other disciples, back into everyday life.
The blind patients who refuse the gift of sight are like those of us who
awaken to the glorious, yet radically altering experience of Easter, who glimpse
its impossible victory over hopelessness and sin, and who perceive how
powerfully it transcends the dark illusions of our materialistic age, but who
yet choose to do nothing more with it.
On this Resurrection Sunday, we gather to celebrate the extraordinary gift of
new light and life in Jesus Christ, a gift that easily can be overlooked,
ignored and rejected. Yet when it is discerned, received, and acted upon, it can
transform mightily, opening wide our hearts and stretching forth our timid
souls, and touching our spirits with an ever-deepened awareness of God's
transcendent meaning and purpose.
In the end, I suppose you could say, Easter can mean nothing to us at all -
or it can mean everything. It is within our power to choose. Amen.