April 21, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
In the hushed quiet of the early morning she made her way to the tomb, while the dew was fresh and the sun had not risen yet…Mary Magdalene. In each of the four Gospels, with some variations, we encounter her, the loving and dedicated disciple of Jesus. Through her grief and fear, her pain and sorrow, she makes her way to this tomb, the place of death. She walks with a heavy heart, imagining what she will encounter. It’s a simple moment as she makes her way into the garden, knowing that death has claimed her dear teacher Jesus. Let us pray, “We rejoice in the hope that is Easter, O God of the living, and we pray that your message of forgiveness and grace may inspire us each day to live as a Beloved Community, to build bridges of hope and to extend hands of love.” Amen.
This morning, we come together to celebrate Easter morning. We are joined by friends and family; we are dressed for celebration and we celebrate the beauty of spring as it unfolds slowly here in Maine. Some of us were together as the sun rose, imagining ourselves that first morning, in the dark and in the quiet, venturing to the garden, not knowing all that would come after that very first Easter morning. “Once again, we listen to that old, old story, of a very different morning and at a deep level, it speaks to us. We all know of such moments, standing at the gaping tomb-times when we too have been held in the grip of fear or grief, when dreams seem to have collapsed into ash, our hearts and bodies, wearied from a night of tears, we emerge into daylight. A death, a divorce, a diagnosis, the darkness feels overwhelming.” (Rev. M. Westfall) Heartache, loss, worry, the darkness may obscure the brightest sunrise.
Mary came to that tomb expecting one thing. Her friend, her teacher has died, but in the quiet of that morning, something unimaginable has taken place; the stone has been rolled away and she leaves to run and tell the others that the tomb is empty. When she returns, she hears these words, “Whom do you seek?” and she thinks she is speaking to the gardener but she hears her name, Mary, and in that moment, she understands. The one whom she has lost is calling to her, in the deepest part of her soul, she understands that something new is happening. Hope has replaced despair. Life has overcome death. Resurrection has transformed the world.
She had come that morning with a heavy heart of loss and grief. What have you come with this day? Are you in need of a resurrection moment? Are you in need of hope, of transformation, of love? What has happened in the moments of these days that brings you to a place in need for hope, of promise of new life?
Last winter, I heard a story of profound sorrow and grief, of death and new life. On Oct. 2, 2006, Matt Swatzell headed home from his job as a firefighter paramedic in Dacula, Georgia. He had completed an exhausting 24- hour work shift and as he drove, he started to nod off and within a few seconds, he crossed the center line and changed his life and the life of another family forever.
Inside the other vehicle was a young mother and her 19-month-old daughter.
The crash would forever bind the lives of Matt Swatzell, then a 20-year-old rookie firefighter, and another man of service, pastor Erik Fitzgerald. At a nearby hospital, Fitzgerald was met by a grief counselor who shared the devastating news about his 30-year-old wife, June. A few minutes later, Pastor Fitzgerald walked into his daughter’s hospital room and walked over to the toddler’s bed. “She crawled into my lap and then she just went to sleep,” he said, breaking down at the memory. “And I was thankful because I didn’t have to pretend that everything was okay.” His wife lost her life that day, but thankfully, his 19-month-old daughter, Faith, survived.
In another hospital room, a police officer was having a different but similarly tragic conversation with Matt. He was told that the mother, who was seven months pregnant, as well as the baby, had not survived.
As you might imagine, the news left Matt in despair. “I’m supposed to be a helper,” he said. “The EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I am, I caused this,” he said.
When prosecutors approached the Pastor, Fitzgerald to see whether he wanted them to pursue the maximum sentence against Matt, the newly widowed father felt enough lives had been destroyed. He also recognized an opportunity to practice the forgiveness that he often preached about.
“I remembered somebody said this in a sermon — in moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance,” Eric Fitzgerald said. “Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.” The judge sentenced Matt to community service and a fine.
The two men, who never spoke throughout the court case, did not meet until the 2-year-anniversary of June’s death. The firefighter, Matt, had gone to a store to buy a condolence card for the Pastor, Fitzgerald. “Erik starts walking out of the grocery and starts walking towards my truck,” said Matt, who became overwhelmed by the moment. “He was just bawling,” Erik said. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.” The two years of guilt and pressure poured out of Matt.
“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt, he remembers now a decade later. “ He just said from the start that he forgave me,” he said. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.” The two men talked for two hours that day, bonded by an unexpected and indefinable connection. The two both felt strongly that they were meant to stay connected to one another somehow.
They continued to meet up regularly and talked about life and the process of moving forward. “He said, ‘Don’t let this define you,” said Matt, who is now 32. “Meeting with Erik, it gave me hope. That we’re going to be okay.”
“I just don’t want people to think that Matthew’s a bad person because he isn’t,” says the little girl who survived the accident, Faith, who is now 12. “He just made a mistake.”
Their friendship deepened as the years unfolded. Matt has come to know Fitzgerald’s daughter, Faith, now 12, and eventually married and had children of his own. Pastor Erik Fitzgerald, 42, has since moved to Florida, but the two men have stayed close, often spending time together during holidays. The firefighter thinks of the Pastor as a big brother to him. They have a lot of fun together, despite the unique and tragic circumstances of their relationship. They especially love seeing their children play together.
“Just seeing Faith, holding my kids — it puts a smile on my face,” Matt said. “It hurts to see that, but it’s the cards that we were dealt. And now it’s our story together. It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”
“Throughout her whole life, I’ll be there for her. No matter what,” Matt says of Faith. And while he knows Erik has forgiven him, Matt continues to live with guilt and admits he’s not sure if he has forgiven himself. He shared,
“I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t. It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life.”
Both of these men view their friendship as a sign from God, a feeling that was confirmed recently after Fitzgerald welcomed another child into his life with his new wife. The baby was born on the same due date of the unborn child he and June had been expecting. “I mean, June’s in heaven. And one day, we’ll get to all kind of hang out,” Fitzgerald said. “God’s a big God and I think that’s going to be a great day one day.”
We know too well that life doesn’t always give us the happy endings we hope for. Over time, we carry the grief and sorrow, the despair and worry, and yet, grace breaks into our lives and can give us the promise of new hope, of new life and new love. Whom do you seek? In the stillness and beauty of this blessed morning, can you hear the voice of God calling to you? Can you feel the promise of Easter singing in your heart? Out of the sometimes messy and painful moments of our lives, love triumphs. We are loved; that is the promise of Easter. Love has overcome death. God is continuing to call each one of us by name, calling us to a life of joy and of resurrection. Can we hear that Good News? Can we feel it in our hearts? And most importantly, can we share the hope and promise of this beautiful Easter morning with those most in need of beauty, of hope, of grace as we run from the empty tomb and back into the lives we have been given?