Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Before we go any further today, I need to take a moment to say thank you. Thank you for an extraordinarily gracious welcome to New York City and into your church. It is your church — I trust you know that. Technically, theologically, yes, it is Christ’s church, but on a day to day, practical level—you are the custodians of this place and everything it stands for and points toward.


For you are the ones who have made promises as babies were sprinkled with water and called by their truest name—child of the covenant. And you are the ones whose children have grown up playing sardines in this sanctuary, learning that the darkness isn’t quite as scary when you have a friend by your side. You are the ones who have sung by candlelight on your holiest night, and belted out the Hallelujah Chorus on your holiest morning. You are the ones whose broken hearts have sat in these pews longing for comfort, and you are the ones who come forward, week after week, for bits of bread and sips of juice or wine, trusting that that even the most ordinary things can be used for a sacred purpose.


And even if you are a visitor today, this is your church, too, for you are the ones who decided, among endless options for brunch and recreation and resting, that for some reason, this was the place you needed to be this morning.


So here we all are. And it is good to be together. I’ve been waiting months now to say those words! But the truth of the matter is — it’s not just good to be together. It’s essential to be together.


All of our scripture passages this morning point to this, but perhaps none as strongly as John’s first letter. You heard Beverly read it. Right out of the gate, the author makes it clear that community is non-negotiable in the Christian life.


These words and their urgency astonish me every time I read them.


We don’t know who it was written by or who it was written to—but it doesn’t really matter here, because the words at their core are universal. The author writes on behalf of some group of people, to another group of people, and says: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, everything we have come to know about life and faith—we are telling you about it all, the author says—everything we ourselves have experienced and know to be true, all the good news of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, the good news of mercy and grace and redemption—we are telling you about it all, the author says, because here’s the thing: that truth — it brings us more joy than we could ever have imagined, but that joy will never be entirely complete for us until it is joy that you share in, too.


In other words, on this second Sunday of Easter, we do well to remember that we know more about resurrection when we are together.


Or in other words still, we need each other.


I just finished reading a remarkable novel, The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. It is the story of Leni Allbright, a 13-year old young woman, and her parents: Ernt, a former prisoner of war who comes home from Vietnam changed and volatile, and Cora, who will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves. After Ernt makes an impulsive decision, that means following him to live off the grid in a remote corner of Alaska. I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I assure you there’s plenty more that I won’t say, but the essential piece is this:

At first, Alaska is a great plan. It is a hard place, wild and dangerous, that requires much of its residents.

This hard work is good for Ernt, and there is a very small, very close-knit community that surrounds the Allbrights and helps them learn the skills necessary to survival. But over time, Ernt’s demons return and bring all of Ernt’s old fears along. He becomes suspicious of everyone, and as they eventually prove themselves to be nothing less than human, he isolates himself and his family more and more, until he has built a literal wall around their property, locking it with a key he wears around his neck.


In Ernt’s mind, this was all to keep them safe—but kept apart from everyone else, life begins to deteriorate rapidly. The family’s problems don’t get better in isolation; instead, they become much more pronounced, until eventually their very worst selves emerge and they turn on one another. Ernt, who has long been violent towards Cora, turns his wrath toward Leni. Desperate, Cora kills Ernt, and mother and daughter panic and dispose of his body, leaving them no choice but to go to jail or return to the lower 48 and go into hiding. The story continues to unfold, but here is what matters for today: inside the wall, more than one death occurred. Ernt died, yes, but something in Cora and Leni died as well.


Fear, ultimately, always tells us a lie—that we are better off on our own. That the risk of community outweighs the reward.


First John, however, declares the truth—that we need each other. You’ve heard me say before that we can’t be Christian by ourselves. In actuality, we can’t even really be human by ourselves, not fully. We simply were not created to be that way, and when we insist otherwise, eventually, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, we discover that not only is it impossible, but the very act of trying can be sinful.


History has shown us this time and time again. When we become convinced that we don’t need anyone else, we are essentially saying that we know better than anyone else. But friends, there is no way this actually works out in real life. There are some things I know I don’t know. (Actually, today I am aware that there about a million things I don’t know.) But there are also things that I don’t even know I don’t know. And, often, that’s where we need our community most. When we need others to point our blind spots so that our vision can improve, so that more and more, we can view the world through resurrection eyes.


Here’s something of what I mean by that.


My moving truck arrived, after more than a few delays, this past Wednesday. My friend Meg arrived on Thursday to help me unpack and move furniture, securing stars in her heavenly crown.


We were having a bit of a disagreement over a sofa. I was certain it would fit in a particular room, and she was certain it would not. We went back and forth on this for a good while, until finally she said, “Okay, let’s try it.”


“You believe me!” I exclaimed, victorious, and she said, “No, Thomas, it’s just that I don’t think you’ll believe it doesn’t fit until you see that it doesn’t fit.” It was then that I decided I really need to make some more friends who aren’t preachers.


We tried it. By now I probably don’t need to tell you that it didn’t fit. It’s one of those two-piece L-shaped sectionals.


“Well,” I said, “That’s it. I have no idea where it will go.”


And Meg said, “What if we take it apart? Half of it could fit in this room, and half of it could fit in this other room.”


I gave her the “have you lost your mind” look, but agreed to try it. It was the perfect solution. I just hadn’t been able to see it. I needed Meg’s eyes and Meg’s imagination and Meg’s wisdom to show me another way forward. It’s just a sofa, of course.


But sometimes, it’s much more than a sofa.


Not that long ago, my friend Tom, back in Kansas City, had the opportunity to meet John Lewis.[1] John Lewis is a congressman representing the 5th District of Georgia. John Lewis is also a man who was beaten senseless on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965. In talking with Tom, the congressman said that half a century after that fateful day, a man came to his office in Washington. He told Mr. Lewis that he had been one of the officers who had beaten him that day. He had tears in his eyes.


“I was blinded by hatred, and I was wrong,” the man said.  “I am so sorry. I didn’t see then, but I have since learned. I have learned from others and so now I know. I know I was wrong, and I am so sorry.”


The congressman looked the at the man in front of him, and said, “I forgive you.” He said, “I forgive you because I continue to believe that it is possible for us to get it right.”


Some will say that with all that goes wrong, with all that has gone wrong, to believe that we can get it right is utter naiveté. That to choose the high road, to choose the ideal, to choose one another, to choose to live in grace and love in a world that tends to hold other priorities is naive. But I think that these words from John, First John and John Lewis both, remind us what is real and true—that we need each other. And to ignore that, to give up on what the gospel insists over and over again is possible—now that is truly naive. There is always a way forward. There is always a chance for us to be better today than we were yesterday, and a chance for us to be better tomorrow than we are today. Easter declares that this is so…but more often than not, we need a little help from others to get there.


Now, finally, one last story today—one that might hit a little closer to home. A woman named Sybil was a member of my last church, out in Kansas, and for the vast majority of her life, Sybil was married to a man named Toni. Toni was a giant of a man—not in stature, but in character. He was the one who would always stand out in our crowded parking lot, directing traffic, no matter what the weather, so that everyone could get in and out of worship. That was all I knew of him until I went to visit him in the hospital one day. I asked for Toni Diehl, and the receptionist said, “Oh, you mean Dr. Diehl.”


“Yes,” I said, “Toni.”


And she said to me gently, “Ma’am, in this hospital, he is always and only Dr. Diehl.”


I had no idea that Toni, director of traffic, was also one of the foremost surgeons in the entire state. It wasn’t long before Toni died of a routine complication during a surgical procedure. It seemed especially cruel, and it crushed Sybil. I worried about her for months—talking with her, visiting her, praying for her, but nothing seemed to make a difference. She finally agreed to attend a grief support group, but week after week she would sit silently, letting everyone else speak.


After every session, I would receive a voice mail. “I’m sorry, Jenny,” she would say, “But it’s just too hard. I cannot do it. I cannot talk about losing the love of my life.” This went on for some time, until on the very last day of our gathering, Sybil entered the room with a bag full of picture frames. When we had all gathered, she said, in her small, gentle voice, “If you don’t mind, I am ready to talk about my Toni now.”


And she took out picture after picture, and told us about his life and their life together. Before she concluded, she said to the group, “I haven’t spoken until today, because I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it was possible. It was too hard. My heart was too broken. But week after week I saw all of you do it. I saw your strength. And eventually, your strength became my strength. Thank you for helping me get my life back.”


Friends, as sure as I have ever known anything, I know that Sybil Diehl was resurrected right in front of my eyes, by the power of God working through that community of grieving individuals.


Day in and day out for nearly six years, I sat by the dying and the despairing. I stood on the chancel steps at Village Church and declared that death had no power to pull us from God’s love 188 times. And what I learned from that, what I learned from those who let me walk alongside of them, is that resurrection is strong enough to come to us on both sides of the grave. I know we talk mostly about the resurrection of the dead in our creeds and confessions, but when we talk about Jesus breaking the power of death on Easter morning, Jesus breaks the power of every form of death, including the forms that have nothing to do with our hearts pumping and our lungs breathing. The love of God that can raise the dead is simply too strong to stay away from the living, too. There is absolutely nothing that can keep that love away from us. It holds on to us, in death, yes, but also in life.


I think that is among the greatest truth, and the greatest challenge, of Easter. To live like resurrected people here and now. But I also think that is what the world needs most from us. Not for us to worry so much about us getting into heaven, but to get a little more heaven into us.


And like most challenging things, it’s always easier when we don’t go it alone.


The power of community doesn’t require us to be superheroes, or even to be our very best selves every minute of every day. It does require us to be ourselves. Our authentic, honest selves. That grief group? They weren’t moving mountains. They were having a whole lot of really, really bad days. But God can and does bring resurrection out of that. In fact, resurrection has a long, long history of doing its very best work in the dark.


Think back to those words from scripture this morning, those words from John. We need each other because there is no real joy for any of us until there is joy for all of us. We won’t know the true fullness of the resurrection until it is made real for everyone. But we are not in it alone. We have each other, and even more than that, we have Jesus Christ leading the way.


So, this week—let us live like resurrected people. Let us look around and see the people around us—the ones we know and the ones we don’t. See them. Connect with them. Listen to them. Learn from them. The world needs us to live this way. God longs for us to live this way. So, let’s give it our best effort — and let’s do it together.







[1] My friend and colleague, the Rev. Tom Are, Jr., recounted this exchange in his own sermon preached at Village Presbyterian Church in September 2015.