5 April 2015 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: Eighteen years ago, I stopped going to church, and I wasn’t sure I would ever be back. I realize that’s an unusual way to begin a sermon on Easter Sunday. But this is not a typical Sunday for any church, and I want to acknowledge that without laying any guilt or judgment on anyone. Gathered here today are people who have been in church almost every Sunday of their lives, for whom it isn’t Sunday without going to church. There are people who went to church for a time, stopped for good reasons, then came back––or didn’t. There are people who come to church a couple of times a year and are just fine with that. And there may even be one or two people here today who aren’t into church at all, but decided to go on Easter to make their families happy. At different points in my life, I have been each one of those people. Some Sundays when my alarm goes off at ten minutes to six, I wish I still were a person who isn’t into church at all. Preparing for this service, as I prayed about preaching to such a diverse group of people, I kept bumping into a couple of questions: why are we here? Why go to church on Easter, or any other day?
I can’t answer those questions for you. I can only share why I stopped going to church, why I came back, and why I stayed.
I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, in a family that took churchgoing seriously. Going to church every Sunday was just what my family did. Sunday school at nine a.m., church at ten. I was confirmed in the eighth grade and was one of the few kids who still went to church after confirmation. In high school, I was at youth group almost every Sunday night, I did all the retreats. I even spent three days on a bus with forty teens and chaperones to go see the Pope on World Youth Day. I ended up going to a college run by the Jesuit order of Catholic priests. It had a thriving campus ministry, with Sunday services at the student-friendly time of ten p.m. I could stay out late on Saturday, sleep as long as I wanted, and still make it to church. It was great! Then two things happened. First, I began to experience a call to become a priest. The Catholic Church obviously does not ordain women, and as I tried to shape my sense of call into something acceptable within Catholicism, I grew angry with the church and scared of what God seemed to be asking of me. And second, my college required three courses in theology as part of the core curriculum, and I started learning more and more about the Catholic expression of Christianity. The Jesuits are known for their intellectual rigor, so this was not indoctrination in any way; it was a critical exposure to basic doctrines of Catholicism as well as other world religions, in a depth I had never encountered in all my years of Sunday school and youth group. I was surprised and increasingly dismayed by what I was learning. The church seemed more concerned with power than with justice. It made these very human decisions, then claimed they were ordained by God and could never be changed. I knew several faithful, wise priests whom I respected, but I became suspicious of the institution they were a part of.
I spent the fall of my junior year at Oxford University in England. When I arrived that first week, I looked for the Catholic chaplaincy and dutifully started going to church on Sunday evenings. I was the only one of my ten housemates who went to church, except for the Mormon guy whose devotion put everyone to shame. The thing was, I wasn’t getting much out of it. The services were always halfhearted, as though everyone, from priest to musicians to readers, was just going through the motions. And after several weeks, no one had talked to me, much less knew my name or anything else about me. As I walked home alone one chilly evening along the wet streets, I thought, “Maybe I won’t go next Sunday.” So I didn’t go the next week, or the week after that, or the week after that. When I got back to my college, I didn’t go then, either. I didn’t go to church at all for a solid three years. And this was just fine with me. I didn’t miss church, I didn’t feel anything lacking in my life, I didn’t have to go through intellectual contortions to justify religion to myself.
And then another thing happened. I got married a year after my college graduation, and before long, it became clear that the marriage was going badly wrong. I moved out after less than a year. Divorce is uniquely devastating at any stage of life; for me at age twenty-three, the sense of failure was overwhelming. Marriage was the first really independent adult endeavor I had tried to undertake, and I had messed it up. I didn’t see how anyone could love a person who had screwed up as badly as I had. It was as though I was being buried in the tomb at age twenty-three. The stone had rolled against the door to seal the grave, and it was so cold and quiet in there. It seemed that I would be in the tomb for the rest of my life.
That’s when I started wondering about going to church again. I needed to know that resurrection was possible, that the stone could be rolled away from the tomb and the grave could be empty. A few months before I left my marriage, a graduate-school classmate who was Episcopalian had asked me why I had left the Catholic church. He listened patiently to my ranting about the Pope and women’s ordination, then encouraged me to check out an Episcopal church with a woman priest that he thought might be a good fit for me. Only when my marriage was definitely falling apart did I overcome my suspicion of organized religion enough to take my classmate’s advice.
And I found something surprising. This church was full of resurrection stories. About half its members were LGBT, almost all of them coming from conservative forms of Christianity. Most of them had been told they were going to hell because they were gay. Some had been disowned by their families when they came out. Other members, both straight and gay, had pulled themselves out of the abyss of addiction. Others had gone through divorces far more devastating than mine. They all should have been in the tomb; indeed, they knew how cold and silent the tomb could be. But they weren’t in the tomb any more. The stone had been rolled away and they’d been raised to new life. They knew that Jesus rose from the dead because they, too, had risen. Resurrection wasn’t an abstract belief to them; they had experienced it. And they knew resurrection was going to happen to everyone who walked through their doors––not just that it was possible, that resurrection was inevitable––because that was their experience of God.
I was so skittish about religion and ashamed of my divorce that it took me a couple of years to let this church get close to me. My priest said getting to know me was like peeling an onion, removing layer after layer until they found the real me. Again and again, I would reveal something that I was sure marked me as a horrible, unlovable person. And they would hug me, and pass me a box of Kleenex, and invite me over for dinner. Slowly, through their steadfast love and with the help of a therapist, I became one of their stories of resurrection. And when the time came for me to leave them so I could follow my call to be a priest, they hugged me long and hard, with lots of tears, then kindly and firmly pushed me out the door with absolute confidence in God and in me.
My problems with the institutional church have not gone away. The Episcopal Church is as human an institution as the Catholic Church, and it can be plenty hurtful, idiotic, and wrongheaded in its own way. Now that I’m part of the institution, I see all of that up close. But I’ve stayed in the church because resurrection is the central story of Christianity. I need to be part of a community that proclaims that story every week through its music and words and actions. The church reminds me, on those days when the cold stone of the tomb is close around me, that God always, always, always triumphs over death. And the church doesn’t let me get complacent about that Easter triumph; it lets the story of resurrection sink deep into my bones, then it pushes me out the door to share that story with others who are as hurting and lost as I once was. I keep going to church because Christians are at heart a resurrection people, and I want to be one, too.
Whatever brought you to church this morning, whether you are here every Sunday or for the first time in a great, great while, your presence here brings you into that central story of resurrection. Perhaps at some time in your life you have found yourself in the cold, silent tomb. Maybe you are waiting for the stone to be rolled away and you or someone you love to be raised to new life. Perhaps you have emerged from the tomb and are standing among the graves, eyes watering as you adjust to the sunlight, wondering what happens now that you have received new life. Wherever you are, whatever brought you here this morning, the story of resurrection belongs to you. It is your story, my story, our story of God at work in our lives. It makes us a resurrection people, proclaiming new life to all those who lie in the tombs of this world.
The Lord is risen indeed; we are risen with him. So, whether it’s a regular part of your life or just this once, I hope you will join with the church in crying out, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
 This sermon was inspired by Sara Shisler Goff, “Christmas Eve Sermon: Why I Stopped Going to Church and Why I Came Back,” The Seeker’s Way, February 19, 2015, https://theseekersway.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/christmas-eve-sermon-or-why-i-stopped-going-to-church-and-why-i-came-back/ (accessed March 3, 2015).
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