March 27, 2016

A Poem for Easter

Early in the morning on Easter Sunday in the year 1772, Joseph Pilmore—one of the first missionaries John Wesley sent to the American colonies—proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s resurrection to the faithful assembled here on John Street. After that service—which probably included prayers and singing (maybe even some of the songs we sing today), Pilmore and several of his listeners walked to St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, as was the custom for Methodists in New York before the American Revolution, and worshiped again. They heard another sermon, a choir sang, and the people celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

That evening, after a day filled with worship, Pilmore jotted down a brief reflection on the day’s activities in his journal. Since that journal survives, Pilmore’s note—which is now 244 years old—is the oldest written record we have of an Easter Sunday on John Street. His note is much more than an interesting historic artifact, however, as his words help to center our thoughts and minds on the Good News of Jesus Christ this morning. Our former preacher, it seems, still preaches.

Here’s what Pilmore wrote,

We gladly joined in the grand festival of the universal Church in celebrating the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord and Saviour, and it was indeed a day of rejoicing. Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places. (p. 128)
Have you ever had the experience of reading an author’s words when the work stirred something within you so deeply that it was as if you’d just been jolted awake from a deep sleep? It’s a disorienting sensation, right?

Last fall we offered a class here at the church on the poetry of Emily Dickinson whose words regularly had an electrifying effect on me—like the shock I used to get as a child after shuffling my sock-covered feet across the carpet in my parents’ living room. One such encounter came not through a poem, though, but through one of Dickinson’s personal letters.

In a letter to her friend and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily offered an answer to fundamental question, “What is poetry?” This is her definition.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
By Emily’s standard, then, I experience Pilmore’s Easter Day journal entry as poetry. Specifically, I’m deeply affected by his description of what a day spent in worship accomplished within him.
Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places.
“My soul…sat in high and heavenly places.”

What a day!

I confess, though, that I’m chilled by this thought—made cold by the realization that I’ve allowed myself to be content with significantly lower expectations for the day.

Oh, I have high hopes.

I hope all of you to enjoy this service.

I hope my son has a good time hunting eggs and opening his Easter basket.

I’m looking forward to spending the day with my family and talking to my mom and dad on the phone.

And I’d guess that my hopes for Easter Sunday aren’t too different from yours. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting these things.

But this day, above all days, is the day to aim higher, to aspire to something greater, to gain our soul’s desire and see God face to face.

On Easter, we’d be happy with some inspiration, a piece of our favorite candy, and making some good memories with the people we love. That’s all well and good. In fact, if we are so blessed today, we should give thanks to God and consider ourselves incredibly wealthy.

Yet greater still are the tender mercies God pours out upon us, for this morning God offers to bless us in life changing ways through the Good News of Jesus’ victory over the grave and the announcement that, because of his glorious, amazing, and wondrous love, we can follow where he leads—into God’s holy presence.

“Soar we now we Christ has led, following our exalted Head.”

These aren’t just the lyrics to Easter’s great anthem, this is the reality of Easter people everywhere.

You see, Joseph Pilmore wasn’t trying to be clever with his description of Easter Sunday 1772. He was drawing, instead, from the wellspring of faith within his heart and drinking deeply from the fountain of Holy Scripture. He was claiming for himself the promise of transformation and new life in Jesus Christ, who said,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Yes, the promise of this day is more verdant than spring’s most fertile garden. It is deeper than the ocean’s deepest depths and lifts us higher than nature’s most stunning precipice.

It is the promise of forgiven sins and forsaken grudges.

It is the promise that God’s love defines us—not money, not achievements, not our screw-ups or failures.

It is the promise that the cross wasn’t the last word about Jesus and that neither pain, nor illness, nor suffering, nor death will ever have the last word about us, about the people we love, about any of God’s children.

It is the promise that, through faith, we are seated with Christ on high and empowered to serve and minister to a hurting world with humble acts of mercy, love, and goodness.

People of John Street Church, hear the Good News.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places...For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works… (Eph. 2:4-10)
Why would we ever settle for anything less?

Christ is risen and we are “loved,” “made alive,” “raised up,” “saved,” “seated in the heavenly places,” and “created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That’s the poetry of Easter.

That’s the Good News for which we give thanks.

Alleluia! Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment