Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Visiting Sacred Spaces

There are times when I miss Canterbury Cathedral. I have visited the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion twice. Once as a sightseer in a visit to England, when the seeds of Anglicanism were being planted in me; and then again after my first year in seminary, but then I visited as a pilgrim and as a guest, during Eastertide.

I hope to return to Canterbury one day. I miss the daily round of prayer, especially Matins and Choral Evensong, Evensong might be the most lovely and distinctive service of Anglican worship. It features exquisite music and sung prayers and psalms. But I miss Matins equally for its silence.

Matins is said each morning by the Dean and Chapter[1] of Canterbury in Our Lady Martyrdom Chapel (pictured)—the chapel closest to the site where Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. Just before the entrance of the chapel is a stark inscription in letters that look as if they were stabbed into the stone floor. It simply reads: Thomas. Above the inscription are three iron crosses, or are they swords? The ambiguity of what they are is surely a deliberate artistic intention.

Matins is Morning Prayer, then said from the Alternative Service Book (ASB), which has been replaced by Common Worship.[2] It is a very quiet service, no music. In the acoustical space of the chapel, even a full voice sounds more like a whisper. But why would one want to pray loudly in such a beautiful space?

The daily celebration of Holy Eucharist at Canterbury revolves around the many side chapels in the cathedral from day to day; however, Matins is always said in Our Lady Martyrdom. The chapel is lovely, but austere compared to the glory of the whole cathedral. Its only liturgical distinction is that it is the only chapel where the Sacrament is reserved—and it is reserved in a pyx[3], which is made of wood in the shape of the sun with the very appropriate image of an Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God) on the front. The pyx is suspended in the middle just before the Altar, and the tiny sanctuary lamp—actually just a candle—burns continually as a symbol of Christ's sacramental presence. The candle is tucked away on a high shelf in a supporting stone column. It would be easy to miss it.

Matins is not a very long service, but at 7:30am the bells toll, the Dean and Chapter, vested simply in black cassocks, who sit behind the congregation, rise and the officiant will say the words that begin Morning Prayer throughout the Anglican Communion, “Lord, open our lips,” and we respond, “And our mouth shall declare your praise. Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.” Thus begins the daily round of prayer and worship that takes place without fail everyday, and will continue, God willing, till the return of Christ.

The whole of Canterbury Cathedral is sacred space; however, the presence of the reserved Sacrament in Our Lady Martyrdom makes it, to my mind, the center of the cathedral. You can visit the Great Quire (Choir), the High Altar, the Throne of St. Augustine, which is the cathedra of the Archbishop. But the lamp is not lit in any of those places. The treasure is found in place where a martyrdom occurred—the place where the true bread which gives life to the world is found, and where its silent but constant presence offers its benediction to all who enter.

You might consider making a spiritual pilgrimage. It doesn’t have to be to Canterbury. It can indeed be to any place that offers a blessing to you. For some that might involve a pilgrimage to a place where the Sacrament is reserved; for others, perhaps, a place far from any church.

And yet still, perhaps, a special journey to your own parish church might be fruitful. Let us suppose you went to your own home parish, and knelt where you knelt as a child, and felt beside you the presence of those who taught you what it means to be a Christian. Those can be very moving experiences, and might even cause a slightly deeper movement in your devotional life. You never know. It could happen.

And if any of you manage to get to Canterbury before I can return, please, while you are there, offer just one little prayer for me.


[1] The Dean is the vicar of the Archbishop, and “head priest”, the Chapter is the group of priests (cathedral canons) who assist the Dean. The history of these terms goes back to the Benedictine monastic traditions of England.
[2] Common Worship is the new alternative to The Book of Common Prayer. Choral Evensong is still sung from The Book of Common Prayer 1662
[3] A pyx typically only reserves the consecrated bread.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Easter 3B. 26 April 2009.


            It was a day like any other day.  The humidity was low, the air warm, the sunshine was beautiful and the leaves and grass were green. If you were walking around college campuses you would have seen college students—newly in love—strolling hand in hand.  In schools, you would have seen children in their new school clothes.  In private schools, the kids' uniforms still had knife-edge creases in their trousers, and their backpacks smelled like fresh plastic binders and pencils.


            On this day, like any other, children were being born in hospitals.  People were falling in love, cleaning their houses, starting a new job, leaving an old job—in other words, just your average day. 


            But when I tell you the date of this day, you will know instantly that this was not your average day.  I'm talking about the 11th day of September, 2001.  And when I say the date of that day, your brain starts to dart around, doesn't it?  You think about where you were.  Who you were with.  How you felt. 


            I remember it vividly.  I was working on a paper, when I heard the sound of the explosion of the plane after it hit the Pentagon.  I was at Virginia Seminary, less than five miles away.  I didn't know what happened; I thought it was thunder.  It shook the window frame of my dorm window.  I remember thinking nothing of it.


            I started walking across campus and a friend named Michael told me.  My ethics professor did not cancel class, even though every five minutes a fighter jet buzzed the seminary.  No one new what was coming next.  A hastily arranged service was called for noon, and we all packed into the seminary chapel.  The sound of the jets flying overhead was the only noise, other than the familiar sounds of the organ.  We read scripture, we sang "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," and other hymns.  I remember being on my knees praying, "God, please make it stop, make it stop, make it stop," because we really didn't know whether it was over, or it was just beginning.


            I went to sleep that night, and woke up in the morning hoping that it was all a dream.  I walked to breakfast. One of my dearest friends asked, "Are you all right?"  I just looked at her.  I didn't know.  She read the look on my face and gave me a hug.  I needed that hug.


            Over the next few days, I discovered that my hope for the future was seeping away.  Where does the next plane land?  I recall walking around the seminary at night, thinking, "That's it.  The next thing is going to happen and we'll be gone.  There will be no graduation.  There will be no ordination.  There will be no falling in love and getting married.  It is all just coming to an end."


            Once in awhile something happens that becomes—by sheer force of relevance—a reality we live.  Bad stuff happens—car crashes, plane crashes, people getting sick, tragic accidents.  If you know the people who get hurt, those events change you.  You remember them in a different way than someone who wasn't involved. 

            I'm not saying that we shouldn't care when tragic things happen to people we don't know—but the well of human misery is much too deep to drink from for long.  Yet when it's you or someone you know, it changes you.


            And there are all sorts of questions that come up.  Will I ever be back to normal again?  What will normal look like?  How I will live the rest of my life?  What will happen to me next?  How will this change how I relate to my family and friends?  These become questions we live, and the answers evolve over time.


            There is a book by Rachel Naomi Remen called Kitchen Table Wisdom.  It was a New York Times Bestseller, you may have heard of it.  There is a chapter in the book that is titled "Endbeginnings" and it's spelled as one word.  Remen writes that we should never speak of an end without a beginning, because something always begins after something ends. 


            The events that really shape our lives are events that become a new reality for us.  When you're a child you bump into them all the time.  My son is three years old.  He is learning that doing "this" gets him a time-out, and doing "that" hurts.  He's learning that daddy gets angry when all the toilet paper has been stuffed in the toilet, or when he empties out the entire bottle of talcum power all over his room.  He's learning.  He's growing.  It's all happening on a very fundamental level, and after awhile he'll start to understand things, and get a handle on life, and then he'll be an adult. 


            And you and I like to think that when we become adults that the learning is pretty much over.  But it's not.  No matter how much we think we've got things figured out, we still bump up against things. 


            We discover that some things hurt, and some things make people angry.  We don't get time-outs anymore—the punishment is worse now, isn't it?  Yeah, time-out was easy.


            There are events that become, just by sheer force of relevance, a new reality that we live.  An accident, a diagnosis, a note from a long lost friend, a phone call, a pool of water under the fridge, a leak in the ceiling.  Big things, little things. 


            I remember when Fr. John told me that I had to wait a year before going to seminary.  I was very disappointed.  My mother said, "You cannot see why this has to be, but your life will be for the better if you wait a year."  If I hadn't waited a year, I would have graduated before Karin came to seminary.  We might not have ever gotten to know each other, and fall in love.  And Peter and Maggie…  Never would have happened.  (Pause.)


            When you think of Easter, what do you think about?  I don't mean lilies and eggs and bunnies; I mean when you think of the Resurrection, what do you think about?  Do you think about happiness and joy?  Well, sure.  Of course.  We have the perspective of history here.  There are no churches yet to be built.  No Councils to be formed, and the whole New Testament yet to be written. 


            But you look at those disciples in their room, all huddled together, not knowing what happened, and Jesus appears before them.  Look at how Luke describes them: startled, terrified, disbelieving and wondering.  The word "joy" is in there—they were disbelieving and wondering in their joy.  But think about it:  They had seen Jesus crucified.  He was dead.  I mean, dead. 


            Ask the soldiers who nailed him to the cross.  He was dead.  Ask Mary Magdalene, ask Mary the Mother of Jesus.  He was dead.  Ask the disciples.  He was dead.  Dead.  Lifeless.  Listen for the heartbeat.  Watch his chest to see if will move up and down.  Shout in his ear.  He's dead. 


            So when Jesus came back to life this was an event that became by sheer force of relevance a new reality for them.  And they did not know what else was about to change.  You can just imagine the questions that popped into their minds, "What's next?  Are we going to pick up where we left off?  Are we going to topple Pilate and Herod?  Has death just stopped happening to anyone?  Quick…someone go out to look at that sheep that died yesterday…is the sheep alive again, too?"


            They were in shock.  They believed that Jesus standing there was an optical illusion, or some sort of apparition, so Jesus asks for something to eat, and he eats a piece of fish, right in front of them.  "Yeah…it's him…he's really alive.  Well…what next?"


            And the disciples then went on to discover that this event was to become the new reality—that every end is a new beginning.  Every tragedy, no matter how sad, has the seeds of life in it somewhere.  And that's what means to be a Christian.  It means believing that God will always raise up that which has been cast down, and make new that which has become old.[1]  (Pause.)


            I feel like our world is handling more and more endbeginnings.  A lot of people are out of work right now; we have all been touched by the world-wide economic downturn.  We watch the news and there's a shooting here and a killing there.  It is absolutely unthinkable how many stories have been in the news lately about little girls being abducted and mistreated and killed.  This past week there was a story about a whole group of thoroughbred horses that died; a family of five gunned down…oh, and the ten year anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School.


            They show the house where the family who died had lived and there are plastic-wrapped flowers, teddy bears, notes scribbled, candles burning. 


            It's as if we have a culture of tragedy.  Not that bad things haven't always been a part of life—but the pathos is greater these days.  Part of it is that the news covers these stories in such detail, but that's only a small piece of it.


            We seem to be in a period of transition.  And I'm going to hazard a guess that the transition is a global transition from greed and isolation to a deeper sense of our need for each other. 

            There is a mentality that you start off in a small town, move to the big city, and make a lot of money, and then do what you want.  It's a mentality that has created over-burdened cities and under-funded rural areas.  But it is also a spiritually bankrupt mentality.  It says you are nothing but a consumer of goods and services.  You are what you own; you are how much money you can spend; success that cannot be measured in money, or the ability to generate money, is not real success.


            As a result, people who are unable to make a ton of money, be beautiful or sexy, or be able to show success in tangible ways are reacting with radical violence.  The world says you have to want it more than anyone else, so maybe you're willing to kill for it. 


            There is a lot of violence out there of all shapes and kinds.  And I think it's a reaction many people to have to believing that that their existence is meaningless, if they can't be as successful as they think they should be.  It's drilled into us by our parents and teachers and the whole of society:  be the best, get the most, you deserve it.


            There are churches that actually preach that message.  Follow God and he'll give you money.  Follow God and you'll be victorious, because Jesus wants you to be rich.  No.  "Take up your cross and follow" is what I read.  But that doesn't sound like success.




            A lot of people do not think they are worthwhile.  They may never have felt love from their parents, or their spouses.  They may be so indoctrinated in the world of haves and have nots that they only see dollar signs.  "Can't afford the best?  What good are you?"


            This mentality has got to die.  It is crippling our world.  Greed will never completely go away.  We're not going to suddenly all come together and sing "Cum-bay-ah," but when we learn that everyone is valuable—worldly success or not—then a new life will begin to rise in all of us.


            Authentic Christianity has always preached a very simple message.  Do you know what that message is?  "If it dies, it blooms. And if it blooms, it dies; but if it dies, it blooms."[2]  Endbeginnings, Good Friday-Easter.  Jesus was dead; and lo, he has come back to life. 


            This is the truth of Jesus Christ:  that after each and every crucifixion is yet another Easter.  If it blooms, it dies.  But if it dies, it blooms.

[1] From the Collect for Ordinations and Good Friday (BCP 528)

[2] A Fred Craddock expression

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The heartbreak of Easter

Some years ago I served a church where they had an Easter egg hunt after the last service for the children. The church had a large and historic graveyard, where the eggs were hidden. One could get into some symbolism there, but I'll just leave it for now. At any rate, the director of Christian education had gotten bags and bags of plastic eggs, and had asked people to bring candy to put inside them. No chocolate, she said. Please don't bring chocolate. Why? Because it melts, and if it's a sunny day, the chocolate will melt inside the plastic eggs and the children will open them up and cry when they see that their candy has melted.

The Rector, upon hearing of this possible scenario, dubbed it "the heartbreak of Easter," which instantly set us off in rounds of laughter. The heartbreak of Easter! What a funny thought. Easter is a day (actually 50 days) of joy. We are intended to be as joyous in Easter as we were penitent during Lent; but there is actually a heartbreak to Easter--there is always something of a let down.

You drive around town and it's Spring. The grass is green again, daffodils are up, lilies in places. Little seedlings are popping out of the soil. The sun's up later. All is well, but it's not. There is a let down--a little melancholy. Back to the routines. This year we've got all sorts of crazy things going on in our world. Bad news abounds, violence everywhere. Even near little `ole Woodstock we had a car accident that killed three and caused HazMat teams to come out and shut down the Interstate.

Life goes on. Christ is risen! Yes, the Lord is risen indeed, but now what? Death is conquered, but still we wait for the consummation of the Kingdom of God. We live in the "already and not yet" of John's gospel.

So, yes, there is a little heartbreak to Easter. It is the heartbreak of Peter and the disciples (John 21) sitting by the sea of Galilee not having any idea what do next. Peter says, "I'm going fishing." The disciples respond, "Yeah...we'll go with you." And they get out in the boats and they can't catch anything. Miserable. Jesus has risen, but he is gone. No fish. No fun. They fish all night. It's what they knew.

So we do what we know to do. We go back to cleaning up the living room after the children tear it apart. We go back to the routine, shower, shave, work, lunch, snack, walk, mail, bills, talk on the phone, make dinner, watch TV, go to bed... No fish. No fun. Where's Jesus? It's the heartbreak of Easter.

Just after daybreak, we will eventually see a man off in the distance. He'll shout out something like, "No fish, huh? Life a little boring?" We'll shrug...we don't know the man. "Yeah...what's it to you?" He'll say, "Put your nets out again..but on the right side of the boat this'll get some fish."

It'll happen. Just you wait. There will be fish for you to catch, and you'll have fun again. I don't know why there's a let down around Easter, but there is. I suppose it's God's way of making sure we don't wander off too quickly. But I don't know. I continue to be amazed at how much I really don't know about God. Maybe that's part of the heartbreak of Easter, too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Easter 2B. 19 April 2009.


          A couple years ago, my vacation came around and we were working our way up to Poughkeepsie to visit Karin's mother.  We had spent the night in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and for some reason I remember getting breakfast that morning.  It was a perfect sort of summer morning, low humidity, light breeze.  We had stopped at the drive-thru at McDonalds, and had pulled forward to get everything situated.


          The McDonalds was on top of a hill, and from the parking lot you could look down into a valley where there were houses and shops.   The sun was coming up over a distant hill; I took the first sip of my coffee and had a bite of the Egg McMuffin.  You know what it's like?  The day is brand new.  You've got a drive ahead of you and it just feels like it's going to be a good day.  I can't tell you how many times I've thought back to that morning. 


          It reminds me—in some respects—of the Ronald Reagan campaign ad from 1984—do you remember it?  "It's Morning Again in America."[1]  In the ad, you see the sun rising over the Capitol and people heading off to work.  A paper boy tosses papers from his bicycle as someone's dad rushes out to his car. 



          A couple gets married, and the voice over talks about young couples having a better chance of financial security than their parents.  And then you see a fireman raising the flag, which cross fades to an elderly man raising the flag.         There's something about morning, when the light is just coming up and first sips of coffee are making their way into the bloodstream.  There's a promise in the air; you can taste it.


          I never used to like mornings.  I still don't really like having to get out of bed, but I'm better about it than I used to be.  I used to be a night owl. 

Back in college, my best friend and I used to stay up till 2, 3, 4 o'clock, just talking.  Those were great times, too.  I miss those talks.  We use to stay up and talk about absolutely everything.  We talked philosophy, religion, music.  We liked to talk about meaningful things.  We talked about girls, too, but even those conversations were thoughtful.  If you had been a fly on the wall, you would have heard two young men who were (and—I'll speak for him—still are) fascinated with the human condition.


          Night is a special time.  Some years ago, I heard about a study done that said that people who like to be out at night tend to be very friendly.  There's a bond among night people.  I think that's right.  I think night people like the feeling of being a little tired, a little more reflective.  I know I do.


          Even the most primitive religions mark the passing of time from one day to another.  There is something about the fresh start of the morning that makes you want to ask God that the events of the day will be good.  Anything can happen, after all. 

          Some people like the promise of the day.  Some people feel more comfortable when "the busy world is hushed," and life can seem a little more controllable, a little more peaceful.  Night people tend to be more drawn to give thanks for the day that has past.


          Our Anglican forms of worship, which are really taken from the Benedictine monastic tradition, recognize this primal religious impulse, giving us the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer.  But you'll find almost every religion has some recognition of the simple passage of one day to the next—sun and moon, light and dark.


          In the community of early Christians for whom John's Gospel and the letters of John were written, they used this symbolism of light and dark quite a lot.  In the prologue of John's Gospel we read, "In Jesus was life, and the life was light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."[2]

          See, for John's community there is this black and white, light and dark, mind and body kind of talk.  I've already spoken a little bit about the Gnostic influences in John.  Gnostics also liked the simple duality of mind and body, light and dark. 


          In our lesson from the first letter of John we read, "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

          Now John's not talking about light and dark as morning and evening, but that metaphor gets the message across.  God is a mystery, but not some dark, shadowy kind of mystery.  God is light.  God does not seek to hide himself—that's why he was happy to send Jesus.  Jesus is the revelation of God's openness and accessibility.  God is a plain-dealing God. 

          But more than that, Jesus says: "If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and we are cleansed from all our sin."

          John is trying to get his community to see that Christians cannot just follow Jesus and obscure their lives from each other.  God is light.  We are called to come into the light where we are able to be seen and understood and loved by others. 

          This is a hard teaching to accept, really.  It's very hard for those of us who would prefer to keep to ourselves.  Episcopalians are not generally well-known for being all that open about what's going on personally—so perhaps this is a growing edge for our denomination. 


          Some year ago I was part of a group of Episcopal clergy.  We were all parish priests, and we decided to get together once a month to share our lives.  It was a support group.  I was very surprised at how unwilling some of us were to talk about problems.  There was one priest in that group who was the nicest man you'd ever meet, but he never opened up to the group.  Now, please understand, we were supposed to be a support group.  None of us had loose lips, but still…he wouldn't open up. 

          Everyone has their own comfort level; it takes trust.  Sometimes people have opened their hearts and had that relationship abused.  It's always a very sad thing when that happens. 

          But even beyond that, people like privacy.  Sometimes that privacy is because we know that some of the things we've done would embarrass us if anyone found out.  We read that in John's Gospel "For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed."[3] 

          But then again, you also meet folks who are willing to let it all hang out.  Back when we lived in Stafford… oh, my. Well, okay, you have to understand that Stafford is near Quantico, and if you're a man, it's expected that you want a military haircut. 

          Almost every barbershop is run by Korean women, who are very nice, but they don't speak much English.  And since men, typically, don't have too much to say about how they want their hair done, it was simple: you just got in the chair and said, "Medium, please" and they fired up the clippers and ten minutes later you had your hair cut. 

          Well, I got tired of being just "Medium, please" so I decided to go to a salon.  I got in the chair, and a nice looking woman came over and started to shampoo.  She started talking with one of the other customers about her boyfriend. 

          She proceeded to relate information about Brian that I'm sure Brian would not want me to know.  Did she think I would just tune her out?  Did she think that I didn't speak English?  I came home from the salon with clean hair and a dirty mind.  It took weeks to get some of that stuff out of my head.  After that I went back to "Medium, please"…too much information.     

          I don't think that's what John's after.  I could be wrong, but I don't think "walking in the light," is about sharing your dirty little secrets.  No, no.  Walking in the light is living in a way that your motivations and actions are on the up and up—that you're trying to live a blameless life.  Now, none of us are perfect.  We all have private things, but Christians strive to lead lives that are open to God and to each other.

          We begin each celebration of the Holy Eucharist with words from Gregory the Great, the great-great-grandfather of the Anglican Church, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and no secrets are hidden…" 

          For John, there is no way that we can enter fully into the light without being open to others where we find fellowship with one another—and in that fellowship we are cleansed from wrong-doing. 


          How do we do this?  Well, it takes place in phone calls, and emails, at coffee hour, at the store—sharing our lives.  If you want my honest opinion, I have been privileged to serve in some capacity in six Episcopal parishes, and two other churches in other denominations.  I have never known a parish that does this better than Beckford Parish.  You all seem to live quite naturally in the light.  If we could bottle it and sell it, we would make a mint.

          Some years ago I was talking with a woman whose husband had died.  She came to church every Sunday.  I'm sure she still does.  She's a lovely woman.  She said, "You know I've always loved my church, but when my husband died… well, I don't know how I'd have ever made it through without it.  These people know me, and I know them.  How do people get by without that?"

          Well, that's a good question.  I'm grateful to say I don't know.  And I'm sorry to say that far too many people do.  You might know some people who seem a little lost.  I don't mean that they're not intelligent—they just sort of seem a little adrift—like they have no real sense of belonging. 

          Let me suggest something to you.  Don't dismiss this.  Think about it a little bit. What if you were to invite them to your home for dinner?  What if you were to call them up and ask them how they're doing?  What if you were to show up at the edges of their lives when you know they could use some support?  And maybe, eventually, not too soon, what if you invited them to church?  No strings. 

          We won't hand them a pledge card; we won't ask them to teach Sunday school.  We'll just give them some light.  Just a little light to see the way.  What would happen if we did that?  What do you think would happen? 

[1] You can see it again on YouTube. 

[2] John 1:4-9

[3] John 3:20

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter B. 12 April 2009.




From our Gospel lesson for today:


"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb… Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher)."[1]



          Well, this is Easter, in case any of you might not have noticed.  Liturgically this day is called the Sunday of the Resurrection—or if you want to be hyper about it, The Sunday of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the Queen of Feasts. 


          Even though each Sunday of the year is considered an Easter feast, this is the Sunday we proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus directly and openly, without parable, and without nuance.


          It is the great joy of my life to be entrusted with this story.  All Christians are entrusted with the Easter story.  Indeed the story of the crucifixion and resurrection defines us as Christians—it is the reason we gather each week to give thanks to God, and to learn how better to live out this single truth that is above all other truths, that God, acting by his own initiative, embraces us totally, and redeems us completely.  That is the Gospel of Christ. 


          And it's one of the great joys of my life that I am given the opportunity each week to remind the Church why she exists.  Every sermon is predicated on my steadfast belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  That he was tortured, crucified, and gave his life because he would not disown us.  He died.  He was dead.  He was completely and utterly annihilated as a complete and total self-emptying act, but on the third day, he came back to life.  And his new life, gives life to everyone who follows him.



          That truth is the implicit message of each Sunday, each celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and each sermon I preach.  Even when the text we read is tricky to understand—no matter how obscure that text is, no matter how seemingly trivial it is—the Resurrection is always in play. 


          But I have to tell you, that when I sat down to read the Gospel lesson for today of all days, I have to confess to a little disappointment.  Maybe you felt the same way when I was reading it to you.


          Last Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, we read the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  It was high drama.  You had Pilate's interrogation of Jesus.  I always feel some knots in my stomach when I read those verses.  The crowds shout out "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"  And you have people spitting on him, and mocking him, and the crown digging its knife-like thorns in his forehead.  You hear the clink of the hammer as he is nailed to the Cross.  In the background of every scene I can hear nothing but the crowds laughing, mocking, shouting, and humiliating. 


          This was not done quietly or gently.  You go out the County Fair and you see people from all over, noisy, laughing having fun—completely oblivious to anything other than having a good time.  Imagine that same group of people with someone to tease and provoke.  It doesn't have to make sense.  One person starts making fun and suddenly they're all doing it. 




          I remember when Barack Obama was running for president they were interviewing someone on the news who didn't seem to know if it was night or day—they asked her, "How do you feel about a man being president whose middle name is Hussein."  And the woman responded, "I would not vote for him.  I've had enough of Husseins."  Makes no sense.  But that's what happens.  Cheap little nothing criticisms about who a person is and what they're like.  Anything to bring them down to size; to make them seem less than human so that we can dismiss them, humiliate them, and maybe even kill them.


          You read the story of the crucifixion and it makes your blood boil.  How could they have done this?  How could we, as human beings, do this to a man who did nothing to deserve such treatment?  And you read the story of the crucifixion and you can't wait to turn the page and let them all get their comeuppance, right?  Sure!  It's all about the end of the story.  We'll show them.


          And then we come to Easter morning, and it's time to show those Pharisees and scribes and Pilate and everybody else just who they were messing with.  But look at the story…  I have to tell you.  I think John could have done a little better, don't you think?  I mean, if you're going to describe the return of the Son of God from the dead, don't you think this falls a little short?  Compare it to the crucifixion.  Look at it.


          Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene sets off for the tomb.  She notices the stone has been moved, so she runs to get Peter and John to have them see it, too. 

          Mary goes to the tomb and Jesus is gone.  She looks inside and there sit two messengers.  They ask her why she's weeping.  She replies that she's weeping because they've taken the body of Jesus.  And then she turns, and she sees Jesus but she doesn't recognize him.  Jesus asks her the same question, "Woman, why are you weeping?"  Mary says, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where, so I can go get him."  And Jesus says, "Mary!"  And it's at this point that she realizes that it's Jesus standing in front of her.  She simply says, "Rabbouni…teacher."


          Now, look at this story critically for a moment.  Aren't you a little disappointed?  You don't get to see him open his eyes.  You don't get to see the stone get rolled away.  And no comeuppance!  No Pharisees, no scribes, no Pilate, no Roman soldiers, no crowds.  The story is almost the complete opposite of the crucifixion!


          I find this a little disconcerting.  And what about the fact that the first recorded time Jesus speaks to another human being after his Resurrection, he speaks to a woman!  Do you understand how laughable—how utterly unbelievable it is in the culture of Jesus' time—that this moment of all moments would be shared with a woman?! 


          I'm telling you: if you're looking for fireworks, and a big dinner with ham and green beans, and children dressed in patent leather shoes—well, you won't find it in the text.  John doesn't seem to want to punch it up at all.  Even the angels just sit there. 


          I don't get it.  I want a parade.  I want the triumphal entry back into Jerusalem with Jesus sitting on a throne carried by the twelve disciples with streamers, and trumpets.  I want elephants and tigers bowing in obedience.  I want Pilate shaking in his shoes and all the Temple priests to stand there with their jaws dropped to the ground.  That's how you tell the story!  That's how you show who won the day!  But no.  No…  No, it's just a little chat beside the tomb.   There won't be a parade. 


          "I want to thank the boys from the Jerusalem High School marching band for coming.  I'm sorry, the parade is cancelled.  Thank you to Mr. Ringling of Ringling Brothers circus.  Thank you for bringing the tigers and elephants, and all the trapeze artists, and that man who walks on the big stilts.  I'm sorry, there won't be a parade.  No." 


          "I'm sorry, what?  Yes, he rose again from the tomb.  Yes, it's wonderful news.  It's the best news in the whole wide world, as a matter of fact, and we're thrilled about it!  But Jesus has said no to the parade.  He is only going to meet with people one on one.  Yes, I know he used to preach to the crowds.  I know that very well, thank you.  Yes, he was a magnificent speaker.  He used to have more people listening to him than even John the Baptizer.  I'm sorry, what?  No, I don't know why." 


          You know, this part of the story can be downright frustrating.  You would think that Jesus would have had at least a party of some kind, wouldn't you?  Wouldn't you think that? 


          He was humiliated and killed very publicly.  It just stands to reason that he would want to publicly proclaim his innocence—show the world who he was, and proclaim that his followers would also rise from the dead.  I mean, the whole thing was meant to be for all humanity, so don't you think it would really kick-start things if Jesus makes some big entrance?  Sure it would!


          But no, he appears to Mary Magdalene.  It's a quiet conversation.  She's obviously very excited, but it's still a very quiet conversation.  Next week, we'll see Jesus appear to the twelve disciples, and then the Sunday after that we'll read another story about the Risen Jesus talking to his disciples.  But there will be no parades.  There will be no public appearances. 


          You might have come here expecting to see him today.  It is Easter after all.  I would love to just sit down and have Jesus come out and share some stories—give a little reassurance that things are going to be okay, maybe drink some coffee and have some cake—like when the bishop comes.


          I know for a fact that many people who would otherwise never come to church would believe in Jesus Christ if he would only show himself openly like that.  It's not going to happen.  Not until he comes again; it's not going to happen.  The Resurrection is never going to be on the cover of the Newsweek.  You will never hear of Katie Couric sitting down with Jesus for a post-Resurrection interview.  He doesn't do that sort of thing.


          Now he comes to people one on one.  And he reveals himself to them very gently.  Like Magdalene, they might not even notice who it is at first.  They might be stumbling around, looking for some kind of answer for the meaning of life—why they're here.  And he shows up at the edges.  He works his way across the room.  He sits beside the bed, or across the table at the office, or behind the counter at the store.  He's never going to say, "Hi, I'm Jesus, resurrected from the dead."  He doesn't want to frighten people. 


          He'll drop hints; he'll put people in touch with devout Christians; he'll send missionaries to people across the world, and across the street.  He'll keep coming to people again and again, face to face, one on one.  And eventually, people recognize him.  And they say, "Teacher."  And teacher becomes Jesus.  Jesus becomes Christ.  Christ becomes Savior.  And Savior becomes Lord.  And little by little by little, Joe Shmo becomes Christian.  Christian becomes disciple.  Disciple becomes an apostle, and an apostle becomes a saint.  That's how it works.  No parades.  It's one on one.


          So I should correct myself, because what I've just told you is not strictly speaking true.  Jesus has not stopped doing public appearances.  As a matter of fact, his calendar is full of them.  His presence is requested at the Food Lion.  He's been asked to speak at your workplace.  He's got a speech to give at Rotary, Lions, Lady Lions, the Masonic Lodge, the Moose, and Kiwanis Clubs.  His presence is requested at the Town Council and Board of Supervisors' meetings, the public library, Wal-Mart, Lowes, and even the Ben Franklin wants to hear him.  He's got all kinds of public appearances to make—in fact more than he can get to personally.  So he's decided to share the responsibility.  He's given some of his public appearances to you. 

[1] John 20:1-3, 11-16  The complete text is 20:1-20, but I have redrawn the boundaries of the pericope to emphasize Magdalene's conversation with Jesus.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom ~AD400


Let ... all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and praises the effort.

Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh.

When Isaias foresaw all this, he cried out: "O Hades, you have been angered by encountering Him in the nether world." Hades is angered because frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because it has been destroyed, it is angered because it has been reduced to naught, it is angered because it is now captive. It seized a body, and, lo! it encountered heaven; it seized the visible, and was overcome by the invisible.

O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are abolished. Christ is risen and the demons are cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday 2009.

          I cannot tell you what to think or how to feel today.  I was out taking a walk a couple months ago, thinking about Good Friday.  I find that praying and walking are very natural companions.  Many's the time I've taken a sermon text for a walk, only to find that I did all the talking. 


          I was walking around thinking about Good Friday.  This was, I don't know, sometime around mid-February.  And I started to think about Holy Week, and the challenge of preaching on this day.  I cheated last year, you might remember.  I asked Walter to preach, and I was so grateful that he said yes.  He had a great sermon, too.


          This day is hard to speak about.  It's a day that is reflective, thoughtful.  It is also affective—it is very emotional to consider the Passion.  But no emotion seems appropriate, truth be told.  If the Holy Spirit allows you to enter into the sorrow of the day, it is very appropriate to cry.  At the same time, we know what's around the corner, so it seems delusional to become too sad, yet, at the same time, callous to rejoice. 






          I will admit that long about the fifth Sunday in Lent I begin to think about Easter hymns.  They come to mind because I'm working on the bulletins.  I try not to hum them, and then I'm spooning peas into Maggie's mouth, and out comes an Easter hymn—and I want to stifle it, of course, because it's still Lent.  I feel twice as guilty thinking of those hymns on Good Friday—it just doesn't seem right.  Do you know what I mean?


          Sorrow doesn't seem right, but neither does joy.  We are not supposed to forget the Resurrection on Good Friday, but we're not meant to dwell on it, either.  We are intended to walk the path of the Cross with the disciples and Mary, and Mary Magdalene, and the other women.  We are meant to hold their hands and experience the depth of pathos of this day.  Yet there are no "comfortable" emotions.


          It's hard to imagine, because we're all sitting here in the solemnity of this liturgy, but life out there is still humming with all sorts of activity.  Today, this very day—perhaps even at this very minute—a man is bending his knee in a fancy restaurant and opening up a tiny, little ring box, and asking the woman he loves, "Will you marry me?" 


          And if it's right, the woman is joyfully responding, "Yes, yes, I will!"  And all around them, people they don't even know, will be wanting to share their joy.  And it will be unthinkable to any of them that you and I are sitting here, not rejoicing, not clapping our hands, not being excited.



          In a hospital room, possibly right at this very moment, a woman is giving birth.  The baby will cleaned up, and the nurse will hand the baby to the mother who will attempt a first feeding, and she will be cruising on endorphins, and the crash of emotions.  When that baby is in her arms, she won't care that her gown is falling off her shoulder and her hair is a mess, or anything of the kind.  She has her baby.  It would never occur to her in those moments—never even cross her mind—that you and I are sitting here, not being happy with her, not popping champagne corks, and toasting the newborn. 


          In that same hospital down a couple floors, there is a man who is just now learning that his wife of thirty years was not able to be resuscitated.  They did everything for her they could.  They tried everything.  "I'm sorry, sir.  Please, come over to this little room, the doctor wants to talk with you.  That telephone over there is for you, if you'd like to call anyone.  Would you like us to bring you a bottle of water?  Maybe a soda?  Please, sir, just let us know." 


          There is no one to call, not yet.  He stares into the mid-distance.  She was fine that morning.  Just a little indigestion from breakfast. 


          It will never occur to him that you and I are sitting here.  This day is just any other day, except that this is the day that she died…or that my baby was born…that he popped the question…


          Why are we doing this to ourselves?  You know a lot of people wonder that.  It wouldn't occur to them to ask the question obviously, but a lot of people—people who know about this service—are wondering why in the world anyone would come.   It's like a funeral.  Why would you go to a funeral if you didn't have to?  Death is so sad, so…ugh…  And here we are.   Why?


          Well, let me begin by saying, "I don't know why."  I really don't.  And yet, at the same time, there is nowhere else I'd rather be than in church on Good Friday. 


          There has been a lot of ink spilled on what the crucifixion means—a lot of theology about what's going on cosmically, spiritually, and why it is necessary.  I'm not going to go into all of that.  It all just sounds so hollow.


          But let me tell you what I think.  I think that the unique ministry of Jesus Christ is that he reconciles all things within himself.  In Jesus, light joins hands with darkness.  Birth joins hands with death.  Man joins hands with woman.  Hunger and satisfaction.  Tired and rested.  Love and indifference.  Creation and annihilation.  They all come together in Christ.  This is a mystery.  Do you know what I mean by that?  Do you know what a mystery is?  A mystery is a truth that is slowly revealed. 


          Slowly but surely, the mystery of Christ is revealed.  I don't think that the fullest knowledge of who he is has yet been fully revealed, if you want my honest opinion.  I mean, it's been two thousand years since the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus, but I think humanity is still striving to understand who he is—the truth of who he is: it's still a mystery. 


          Theologian by theologian, sermon by sermon, from one celebration of the Sacraments to another we get little insights, little epiphanies, and they amount over time, but we don't fully know all that he is, and all that he means.


          But I feel that I can say for certain that in Jesus Christ everything and everyone joins hands.  And it could not have happened if he had not died, and died in as horrific and as violent a death as he did.  This is part of the mystery.  And perhaps this mystery is why no particular emotion or thought seems appropriate—because they all are.  Laughter and tears join hands, you see?


          At the end of this service, I would like to ask you please to go home in total silence.   Please don't stand around chatting with one another.  When the service is over just get up, and go.  And as you do, in the holy silence that surrounds you, think about this mystery.  Think about what it means to be someone who carries inside the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is the mystery of the man in whom all things are reconciled.  Sin and redemption, laughter and tears, life and death.


          You carry Jesus within you.  Like St. Mary carried the physical and spiritual body of Jesus, so you carry the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—in whom the fullness of all things are reconciled.


          Let me just share one last thing with you.  No words can touch the profound love with which Jesus shares this day with you, because today would be incomplete without you.  Please listen to me very carefully.  You are integral to this day.  Without you, this day—today and two thousand years ago—would be incomplete.  Jesus reconciles all things in himself.  You are one of those things.  He can't reconcile all things, without reconciling you, too.  Do you see that?  He has to absorb you, and join your hands with fullness of who he is, which is the fullness of all things.


          What I'm trying to say is, Jesus cannot redeem anyone—if he can't redeem you.  You are an integral part of his sacrifice.  Without you, it would be incomplete.  Which is why I say, no words can touch the profound love with which he shares this day with you.  Because without you—it would be incomplete; he would not be able to say the words, "It is finished."


          Think about that.