A sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter
April 8, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Matthew 28:1-10
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The cross comes first, then glory. The cross comes first, then life and peace. The cross comes first, then forgiveness. The cross comes first, then resurrection. Sometimes we want to shortcut everything, go immediately to glory, to life, to peace, to forgiveness, to resurrection. But we can’t. It all depends on the cross.
Brian knew something about that. He had walked the way of the cross. It wasn’t the literal way that Jesus walked through Jerusalem, the via dolorosa. But he had walked it in his soul after that car wreck that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He had walked it through the despair of learning he would never walk again. He had walked it through the shame and guilt of coming to terms with his affair before the wreck. He had walked it in humility, as he learned to let his family, like Simon, carry his burden when he could not. Brian knew pain; he had experienced a kind of crucifixion; he had lost it all, been stripped of who he was, of all his self-created dignity. He had walked the way of the cross.
It was a long way. The wreck happened when he was 44. It would take a decade to come to terms with everything. It would take a decade for healing to happen. I don’t mean physical healing; he is still paralyzed. I mean a more profound spiritual and emotional healing. It took a decade for him to feel the forgiveness of God, to accept that his wife had forgiven him, and to forgive himself. It took a decade for him to accept where he was, and to allow his family to care for him without resentment, without humiliation. It took a decade for the depression to lift, for life to come back, for joy to return.
Brian remembers the day the fog began to lift after that decade. His church had a new priest, and she stopped by to meet him. They sat in the living room, talking. Brian told her, “I just don’t feel like I have a purpose anymore. What can God do with me. All I do is sit in this room day after day; I think; I talk to myself; sometimes I talk to God; I watch the news and I just cry.”
“Cry?” the priest asked. “Who are you crying for?”
Brian replied, “I don’t really cry for myself anymore. I cry for the people I see, for suffering in the lives of people I love. I wouldn’t have cried a decade ago, but I cry now, all the time. I guess my pain has helped me feel the pain of others.”
“Brian,” the priest replied, “Have you ever heard of intercessory prayer?” Intercessory prayer is where we lift up the concerns of the world to God. We are all called to this prayer. But there are some people who have a special vocation of prayer, some folks who are called to be intercessors for the world. People like St. Julian of Norwich, a medieval woman of the 13th and 14th centuries. Called an anchorite, she lived in a small room connected to a cathedral for the entirety of her adult life. She prayed, she gave spiritual direction, she interceded, day in and day out.
The idea lit something up in Brian. He tried it the next day. “I’m not going to pray for myself today,” he told himself. “I’m going to pray for the people around me.” He began to pray, lifting up concerns to God. He entered into the pain, the distress, the heartache of others, something he could do because he had walked the path of pain, distress, and heartache himself. He didn’t just do it that day, but day after day after day. Like Julian long before him, he became a kind of holy anchorite, bound to a chair physically, but spiritually moving mountains. Before long he was his parish’s intercessor. He and the priest worked together. They had a prayer list put together. They started a prayer team. Brian led them in intercession. Eventually he became a spiritual director, a counselor for people in distress, a teacher of prayer. From his home office, in his chair, unable to move, he opened the unseen world of faith to many.
Resurrection happened. New life happened. God raised Brian up into something new. As surely as God raised Jesus from the dead, God raised Brian from despair. Like Jesus, Brian came out of the tomb with scars. Brian carried his ordeal in his body. He was confined physically to a chair, but no longer confined spiritually, no longer confined emotionally. The scars, his physical condition, instead of being the thing he hated most, became part of Brian’s testimony to the greatness and power of God. He would say, “Without the wreck, I wouldn’t know how to pray.”
The cross must come first. But resurrection comes second. That was true for Jesus. That was true for Brian. And it’s true for us. Most of us don’t walk the way of the cross like Brian. We don’t walk it like Jesus, either. We are not given a cross to bear with such intensity. Our crosses are carried in spurts, in small trial after small trial, in one difficulty after another. Our valleys are broken up by mountaintops. We have a reprieve in our via dolorosa, our path of suffering. But we each, all of us, are given a cross to bear at some point.
But then the third day dawns. Morning comes, as it always must. A new fire is lit. New life is given. God takes those sufferings, those pains, those heartaches, those wounds, and God heals them to make something new. God meets us when we are down, in despair, in the pit, in the grave, with tear stained faces, and God yanks us out of our tombs to faith, to hope, to love, to resurrection and new life. And when that happens, all we can say is Alleluia! Christ is risen, indeed, and my life is the proof.
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