Sermon preached on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Revelation 22:12-21
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Sermon preached on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Revelation 22:12-21
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Many of you know that I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at St. Thomas’ Church in Bath in Steuben County. But many of you do not know that I really did not become an Episcopalian there. I cut my Episcopal teeth while at college in Plattsburgh, in the North Country, in the Diocese of Albany.
One of the things I loved about the Episcopal Church was the deep rootedness of its traditions. And I loved its predictability. What was called then the “new” Prayer Book was in use, but in my parish it was Rite I (Traditional language) all the time and that was perfectly fine with me.
Change was in the wind, however, a wind that would become a gale. I was taught in my parish to resist change, and among the changes I was to resist most strongly was the ordination of women. I had no reason to question that belief, so I adopted it as my own.
That was the Fall of 1979. In the summer of 1983, I was back in Steuben County and as I had every summer, I went to church at St. Thomas’, Bath. Well, there was a morning that summer when I was late; as I approached St. Thomas’ it was going for 10:45 am and the Service had started at 10:30 am. I had never been late to church before and I wasn’t quite sure what would happen.
Then I had an inspirational flash. St. James’ Church in Hammondsport had a Service at 11 am and I just had time to make it. Why not? I had not been there before although I had seen it from the outside and the time of their Service had stuck in my mind. I got there in the nick of time and swooshed into the back pew. The introduction to the first hymn began to play. When we started singing, I glanced behind me and—horror!—the priest was a she.
I debated. I could easily sneak out, but there was nowhere else to go, so I decided to stay and just not receive communion. It was one of the most fateful decisions I have ever made.
The priest that morning was The Rev. Barbara Humphrey. She was the supply priest. I don’t much remember the first part of the Service, but I do remember her at the Altar. She said, as we do, “The Lord be with you.” My lips made no response. Then “Lift up your hearts,” at which point my heart broke open. By the time for receiving communion I walked up. Despite everything I had been taught, Jesus had shown up and had said, as he always does, “Come.”
I learned that morning that the church could change, that the deep rootedness I so loved nourished a living tree with branches stretching ever toward the light. The church was not about tradition or change. It was about both. But the impact of that experience was not only about my relationship with the church. Ultimately it was about my relationship with God, with the world, and with myself. And eventually it not only changed my life, but it saved it, but that is another story.
I think one of the great gifts of the merger of the two congregations to form the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, is that it has opened you up to the reality that change, although sometimes painful—even very painful—is both possible and necessary. Not change for the sake of change. Not change simply because it pleases some or even most of our senses and sensibilities, but change that is a response to Jesus’ invitation, “Come,” change that enables Jesus’ invitation to be heard in fresh ways and, therefore, by more people.
If I have been preaching one major theme more than any other for eight and half years, I think it has been hospitality, welcome, inclusion. And you have not only been receptive to that theme, but you have taught me a great deal about it.
To maintain hospitality is to be in a constant state of change. Every new person who walks through the doors of this church changes us, particularly if they stick around. If we do not let them change us, they tend to go away. I believe that the vast majority of mainline churches, almost all of whom in all sincerity call themselves “a friendly church,” continue to shrink because they spend most of their time and energy trying not to change, and if you are actively trying not to change, hospitality is dead in the water no matter how friendly you are.
We are about to embark together on significant change. By Labor Day, I pray, you will walk in here and the front half of this church will be open. There will be chairs which can be configured to meet the needs of the moment. It will be shocking to some. You will look at it, as some of you have looked at the pictures, with the facial expression I bore when I saw that first priest who was a woman.
I pray that most if not all of you will have the kind of experience I had in Hammondsport 32 years ago. You will first have to make a choice, as I did then, to stay put, risk the experience. I do not want to tell you what your experience will then be, but of one thing I am absolutely sure. Jesus will show up and he will say, “Come.” The invitation will be the same. It never changes.
We just have to keep in my mind a couple basic principles. First, we love this building but we do not worship it. It is not our God, even if it helps us to find God. Second, we love our history but our mission is not historic preservation. Our mission is welcome. Our mission is to help Jesus make the invitation into his life-giving life, “Come.” Anything that makes that easier needs to be done.
The Book of Revelation is a very tricky piece of writing.
Jesus said, “I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”
What is this “work” that we are required to do? We immediately assume it has something to do with being holy, doing the right thing, behaving yourself, shunning sin. If that is the case, heaven will be empty.
No. What is the work? it is simply responding to the invitation, “Come.” “Let everyone who is thirsty come.” The work Jesus requires of me is to know that I am thirsty and believe he can do something about it.
Change is inevitable. People change. Buildings change. Institutions change. And all of that is OK because one thing never changes: the invitation.
I absolutely guarantee that you will get the same invitation if you walk in here one day soon and sit in a chair.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2013, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5
To fully appreciate the idyllic scene from Revelation this morning, we
Well, it was not pretty. Here’s a whirlwind tour through Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is really a letter, a letter written by a man named John to the churches of Asia Minor. It is a good sixty years or more after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we are dealing with the second generation of Christians.
John is fearful that this second generation is losing the passion of what it means to follow Jesus. The Jesus path is a difficult and wildly counter-cultural one in the Roman Empire. The state religion had become the worship of the Emperor himself. He was regularly called “lord” and “son of god.” A serious Christian knew that she or he could only say those things about Jesus. Jesus was “lord” and “Son of God,” not the Emperor. But to believe that opened up one’s self to ridicule, ostracism or even physical danger.
This reality is causing many Christians to find ways to “get along with” the Empire. This absolutely horrified John and out of his horror he has an extended vision and this vision becomes the content of his letter. All through his vision, his imagination is using bits and pieces of the visions of his ancestors. He does not really have anything new to say other than the evil that the prophets saw has not changed, nor has God’s steadfast desire for love to reign.
His vision begins with a glimpse of heaven and the two characters who will dominate his vision: the One who sits upon the Throne, and the Lamb who was Slain. In heaven they draw together the whole creation to worship in peace—from all tribes and languages and peoples and nations, John says.
The Lamb who was Slain but who is also Living is identified as the One who has changed the world, offering a transformation from the ways of the Empire to the ways of God. He alone is worthy to be trusted. The Lamb is given a scroll with seven seals which he gradually opens, revealing the reality of world of John’s day, plagued with war and prejudice and famine and sickness and natural disaster. These are the things either the Empire is responsible for or about which it can do nothing.
It is enough to drive one into despair, but at this point John is given a further vision of where the story is headed: a multitude too great to count and a creation restored at home and at peace with their Creator.
But then John is shown how bad it can and will get, what it will take to confront the Empire and defeat it. All that is good on the earth is symbolized by a woman who is giving birth, a symbol of divine and human working in harmony to create anew. But evil is afoot in the form of a dragon, whom John identifies with Satan and the devil. Satan, meaning “the accuser” and the devil, meaning “the deceiver;” the One who strips people of their dignity and then deceives them into a life based on fear and threat and rivalry and death. But the archangel Michael arrives on the scene and the dragon is defeated in heaven, only to be thrown down to the earth, to vent his rage.
There he joins his earthly companion, the Beast, and another beast we might call the “Son of the Beast.” These clearly represent for John the empire itself, and its seduction of people into dependence and worship of it alone.
What follows is a depiction of the great struggle both within us and all around us of evil and good. John’s vision is of a struggle on every scale—cosmic, earthly and personal—a struggle that is meant to say to us, this is where you are headed if you let the Empire determine your life for you. You are going to have to wake up and choose sides and it will be very, very hard, even dangerous. Evil will not go down easily mostly because so many people continue to be deceived.
But just when we thought all was lost, and that even God had turned to the ways of irrepressible wrath, a voice cries out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” The Empire cannot last. In the end it will die by its own hand, having sown the seeds of its own destruction: injustice and oppression and the reign of power by abuse cannot last. The dragon and the beast are destined to lose.
Then that great multitude that no one can count which John keeps seeing, cries out in words that Handel so famously put to music: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!” And a rider on a white horse appears in the vision with a tattoo on his thigh that says, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” And with this conviction the Beast and all who refused to embrace the truth rather than deception are eternally defeated.
And after “a thousand years,” which simply means “this will take awhile,” the dragon himself is defeated and not far behind him death itself and hell itself. It is all gone, everything that is against us. Everything in rivalry with God, never to rise again, which John calls the “second death.”
And with all that accomplished John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” and the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, and this time God comes along and pitches a tent among us and heaven and earth are joined.
And there is once again a river of life as in the garden in the beginning. And the tree of life, no longer forbidden, providing nourishment for all and then that somewhat odd vision, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
Now if you had been reading or hearing Revelation right along you would have believed that the nations had been destroyed long with the Empire. But no. They were not destined for wrath but for healing, and they will be healed as they gather around and under the tree, this particular tree, which is the tree of life. To gather under the tree of life is to gather around life itself, to leave behind all that we thought would save us but lead only to despair and death.
The thing we can discover through the great ordeal is that we belong together, different as we are. John does not see difference destroyed. He sees difference healed of any way of living that leads to indignity and injustice and war and death. And he is pleading with us, so urgently, you do not have to give in to the way of the Empire. You can choose the way of the Lamb. See, here is where it leads. Home. With God. And a multitude no one can count.
Last week I talked about the need for us to pay attention to what our Omega stories are. What is the future to which we think we are heading? And who are we headed there with? How are we being deceived by the forces of control and judgment and death? Can we be committed to and remain committed to the river, the tree, of life? Even if it costs us dearly? John’s clear answer is, “Yes,” together with the great multitude and the Lamb who was slain but is alive.
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6
Who are you?
Where I come from that question is not a simple one that deserves a
The answer would be, of course, “Avoca Hopkins.” “William’s boy?” would follow. “No, grandson.” “Willi’s boy?” “Yep.” “Your mother’s Pat?” “Yep.” “They live up there above the dike?” “Yep.”
And that might satisfy the person whom I had just met. To know who I was they needed to put me in relationship with certain people and give me a geography. “Who are you?” included the question, “Where do you come from?” and “Who do you belong to?” “Who are your people?”
The Book of Revelation begins and ends with a declaration. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” God declares it in chapter 1 and here again as we heard it this morning in chapter 21. We will hear Jesus say it two weeks from today at the very end of the book, thus sealing one of the deals of Revelation, that God and Jesus—the One who sits upon the throne and the Lamb who was slain, are one.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and one of the great preachers of our day, talks about the importance to us of our Alpha stories, the stories of our beginning, of our past, stories that define who we are and whose we are.[i] Our Alpha stories are stories that have already happened to us and so they are solid. I will always be the son of Willi and Patti Hopkins. I will always have been raised in the rural Southern Tier of Western New York.
If you go into my office, you can find out a lot about my Alpha stories just by looking around. There is my seminary diploma on the wall, from Seabury-Western Seminary, for instance, and an award of thanks for my time as President of Integrity. There are pictures of my parents, my husband, my dogs, and places I have been and people I have known. They all represent things that are true about and that I cannot change because they have already happened.
The church is certainly known for being a big fan of the past. As a community of faith we have Alpha stories and they have what we call a “catholic” character, they are from all times and all places. And it has certainly been true that in many churches the Alpha story of individuals that make it up have been important, churches that are formed along ethnic or racial or class or denominational lines.
But all this attention to Alpha stories has had a dangerous edge to it, and that dangerous edge has something to do with what I talked about and, more importantly, what we did last week. What we did was baptize four children and what I talked about was how those children belong to all of us as members of this one family. You see, in the end, so to speak, what we care about as a community of faith is not our Alpha stories but our Omega stories. We care less about where those children, and all the rest of us, come from, than we do where they and we are going.
This is precisely what Peter is trying to get across to the leaders of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem. I’ve had this experience, he said, that has radically changed my mind about just what is important to God, and it taught me that I can actually get in God’s way, I can hinder God, because God is going someplace. And God is taking with him on the journey to this place many more and different people than I ever expected, even than I was taught.
In the terms of Revelation, the Omega stories of the Gentiles trumped their Alpha stories.
So what we were doing last week was giving them an Omega story to grow up in and towards. Now it is an Omega story so it does not have the kind of solidness that an Alpha story has, because it has not happened yet. We can still choose our Omega stories and we get offered many different ones all the time. One of them we call “the American Dream,” which is quite different, by the way, from the dream of Revelation.
The worst thing that can happen to anybody is not to have am Omega story, to be quite sure that your life is not going anywhere. The destroying angels of poverty, prejudice and any sense of a positive purpose to your life let lose all kinds of sin and evil and death.
So we must choose our Omega stories wisely, and value them above everything else, because they have the power to shape and re-shape our lives.
I was talking to a guy who dropped in when the church was open this week. He told me he had never been baptized and he wondered if doing that would change his life. Not in any kind of magical way, I said, but it can mean choosing a different path with a built-in support group. It occurred to me later, he was looking for a different Omega story.
The reading from Revelation this morning is a version of our Omega story. Whatever you think of the Book of Revelation, these last two chapters are critically important for us Christians, and one of the reasons is that provide the true correctives to what some of our assumptions have been and are about the Christian Omega story. Barbara Brown Taylor notices three things about them that are vitally important in terms of knowing where we are going.
First, our Omega story is not about going up to heaven. It is about heaven coming down to us. “What we call the “end of the world” is not, in Taylor’s words
[About] the earth [being] struck by a rogue meteor, laid waste by aliens, destroyed by nuclear holocaust, or otherwise demolished so that humans have nowhere to go but up, like steam escaping a cosmic forest fire. That is Hollywood, not Revelation. In Revelation, the same God who created heaven and earth the first time is please to create them both anew….and [this time] God comes too—joining humans right where they are.
The radical implication is that our Omega story is not about getting into heaven, but about co-creating a new heaven and a new earth with God. If you have trouble believing this just ask yourself what it is that we pray for in the prayer that Jesus taught us? “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Second, our Omega story is about a city. The new paradise will not be a garden built for two but a city built for all who would live in it, and whose gates are never locked. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor,
Anyone who cannot get along with the neighbors now is going to be miserable then, unless they let the vision get to work on them ahead of time, softening their hearts and opening their minds to embrace all whom God embraces.
Third, there is no temple in this story, no churches in the New Jerusalem. We won’t need anything to mediate God to us because God will be among us. In essence, every place will be temple, every place will be church. Every place will be the place you seek God and God seeks you.
Last week when we baptized, all of us rehearsed our baptismal covenant. Think of the covenant as our agreement as to what the rights and responsibilities of living in this new city are and will be. They are primarily about our Omega story. We say I will with God’s help,” not “I have been doing it or am doing it.” It is a commitment to our future. To say “yes” to this covenant is, again in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, to say “yes” to
A certain direction—toward full communion with God and neighbor, away from evil and despair; toward justice and peace among all people, away from anything that might persuade you to respect the dignity of some human beings but not all.
Once you have decided to go in that direction [she continues], any step away takes you away from your own destiny—though fortunately your vows cover that too. If you ever look in the rear view mirror and see your destination getting smaller behind you, you can, with God's help, stop and turn around. Sometimes you can even call AAA and the Lamb will send someone to pick you up.
Hospitality means we welcome you whatever your Alpha stories, and when we say that we do not mean that we do not care where you have come from. We want to know, because it is who you are and if we are to love you, we must love who you are. But once we love you for who you are, we love you even more for who you will be, and who you will be is not alone, but with us, the thirsty, who together receive the water of life from the One who is not only Alpha and Omega, but our Alpha and Omega.
[i] This sermon was inspired by, and the quotes are from, a sermon preached by Barbara Brown Taylor at the Washington National Cathedral on All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, 2012. It can be found at http://www.nationalcathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/bbt20121104.shtml. It is available to there to be read, listened to, and or watched.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17. We baptized four children this day.
What a very, very strange week we have had. Bombs going off at the Boston Marathon, ricin found in letters to a US Senator and the President, a huge explosion and fire in Texas, a massive hunt for a nineteen year old that kept many of us glued to our televisions or computers or i-phones, and we even got a piece of hate mail here, an anonymous screed about the evils of gay clergy and the congregations who they “manipulate,” mailed from Nashville, Tennessee.
As the week went on, I was so grateful of the coincidence that we were having baptisms today. There is nothing like baptisms to get us re-grounded, re-focused, facing our fears but handing them over to the God from whom we can never be separated. Whatever is wrong with the world, and this week it seemed like the answer was almost overwhelmingly, “a lot, too much.” What we celebrate here today is the answer. If the world is sometimes a nightmare, here is where we renew the vision.
Before the craziness of this week, I actually was beginning to think along these lines because of a news story I came across Monday morning. Some of you may know the name of Melissa Harris-Perry, a weekend commentator on MSNBC. MSNBC for quite some time now has been showing promos featuring its various hosts and commentators giving us a few sound bites on the theme “Lean Forward.”
It was Melissa Harris-Perry’s turn last week, and she chose to talk about education and the raising of children in America. Here’s the line that seems to have set off the controversy:
We need to break through the private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
The howling about this statement over the weekend was fierce. Her statement was generally interpreted to mean that children should belong to the state and not to their parents and that this dangerous idea that children belong to the community is the height of Socialist/Marxist/Communist ideology.
Admittedly, “belongs” is a strong word and most parents would chafe to be told that their child does not belong to them. But she did not say that she thought that children belong to “the state,” but “to whole communities,” two very different things. I do not know if such an ideal is socialist or Marxist or communist. But I do believe that it is both biblical and Christian.
Sarah Palin tweeted that Harris-Perry’s comments were “unflippingbelievable.” What is unflippingbelievable to me is that a Christian person like Governor Palin would not know that Christianity has been teaching this from practically the time Jesus first opened his mouth, and he was only emphasizing what his Jewish tradition had taught him and that teaching had come straight out of the Scriptures. But I suspect she would call my understanding of the Bible “unflippingbelievable” also.
I do not believe in any way, shape or form that the Bible is anti-parent. “Honor your father and your mother” is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments. But the Bible also clearly teaches several things that build on each other:
· First: Everything we have is an absolute gift, including all our relationships. Nothing belongs to us. “Possession” is not a word that should exist in at least the Jewish or Christian vocabulary. That alone says that Harris-Perry is right. Children do not belong to us any more than anything else does.
· Second: We are not possessors of things and relationships we are stewards. Stewardship is our way of life, not possessiveness.
· Third: Stewardship is not something we ever do alone. We are stewards together. Why? Because every decision I make about my relationship to anything or anyone is part of a web. It not only affects the object of my decision, but reverberates beyond it. The Bible is not big on our notion of “privacy,” especially as an ultimate value. We are, ultimately all responsible to each other for everything.
· Fourth: Jesus very clearly understands these values that are rooted deep in the Hebrew Scriptures and has a notion of “family” that is just about as expansive as it can be. He asks
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” and pointing to his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50).
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” and pointing to his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50).
· Fifth: The followers of Jesus carried this way of life forward. There is a glimpse of that in the Acts reading this morning. This is not a traditional family as we think of it that Peter stumbles upon. It is a community of disciples. That is the biblical “familyunit.”
· Sixth: Baptism has been understood from the very beginning to be the continual creation of a new family of disciples, brothers and sisters who live in equality and mutual responsibility.
This understanding of Baptism is still in the rite we are about to go through even if we choose not to pay attention. The very fact of having sponsors and godparents is a very clear sign that responsibility for this child belongs to a wider circle than just its parents. And we are not being the least bit sentimental when we ask the question, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” The spiritual upbringing of the children we are about to baptize is not the sole responsibility of their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. It is not even primarily theirs. It is primarily ours. Why? Because we are taking responsibility for them here. We are making them members of our family. For Christian people, water is thicker than blood.
And so, traditionally, we do not use last or family names when we baptize. I like to tell people in preparing for baptism that there are no last names in heaven, in the kingdom of God. And so do we say when we respond to their baptism and chrismation by saying “we receive you into the household of God.” “Household” is a much more important word in the New Testament than family, especially as we tend to define family.
There is one Table in this house, and one Family that is fed around it, a community of disciples, brothers and sisters who live together in mutual service and responsibility.
What does this have to do with this crazy week? First of all, when tragedy strikes we often get a glimpse of this desire of God for one family, one beloved community, because suddenly who you “belong” to is no longer important. We call people “heroes” in these situations when they forget about themselves and serve others, often at great cost, sometimes even of their lives. But in the eyes of God they are not heroes, they are being that “kingdom of priests” that is God’s vision for all of us. They are acting out what is God’s dream for everyday living.
Second of all, it is only this expansive notion of community that can save us. Often we say that it is only love that can save us, and that is right, but community is love in action. Community is love taken out of the realm of theory and sentimentality and exclusive notions of who “belongs” to whom, and made real in the relationships of women and men, all human persons with each other and with the creation. Love in practice means we all belong to each other and live in a world where the nightmare turns into the vision only when we live in mutual responsibility.
Oddly enough, that is the primary message of that strangest and perhaps scariest of the books of the Bible, the Revelation to John. Evil is what divides and controls and enslaves, and it is only overcome by the action of one who takes responsibility for the whole world, the one John repeatedly calls “the Lamb who was slain.” And this Lamb who was slain is also the Good Shepherd who gathers a community together, a new family,
…a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…
This image is such an important part of John’s vision that it is repeated six times in the book. It is what turns the nightmare into a vision, a dream, of a new heaven and a new earth where weeks like we have had do not happen.
Why is it so hard for us to get that we are all in this together, all of it, all the time. If we truly believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God, than we must also truly believe that nothing can separate us from one another. Perhaps we ought to say after we baptize someone what we say after we marry them: “What God has joined together let no one put asunder.”
In the midst of the nightmare that was this past week, it was also the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King got it, and I’ll let him have the last word.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Sermon preached on Easter Day, March 31, 2013, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 24:1-12
Remember how he told you…
My last parish had started its life as a small country chapel built in the 1870’s for the local landowner and his tenant farmers. Surrounding the little chapel on three sides was about an acre’s worth of cemetery. The sight is quite common in that part of the country.
I have only visited my old parish twice since I have been here. Each time, I took a goodly amount of time to roam around the cemetery. Seeing the graves of people whom we had buried during my time there stirred my memory. As I was remembering faces and stories it occurred to me that I was not so much re-creating the past in my mind, but envisioning a future where we would all be together again, alive with the Lord of life.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women,” went to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid early on Sunday morning to give him a proper burial, which they had not been able to do because the Sabbath had begun soon after his death and they could do no work, especially since Joseph of Arimathea and the others who had buried Jesus had done so very quickly before anyone could interfere. How they thought they were going to get into the tomb is anybody’s guess, but they were obviously determined to be faithful.
We can imagine what they were feeling because we have all been there. In the cemetery, dazed, sad beyond description, stuck in the present moment of mourning or even despair. They do not, of course, find what they expected. The tomb was empty. They were terrified, as any of us would be at such an unbelievable sight.
Suddenly they were not alone, but “two men in dazzling clothes” stood with them. I always get distracted at this point in the story because I imagine these men as Liberace, or Ray Charles, Elvis, or Sammy Davis, Jr. Oh, why not?
I hear what they first say, these two dazzling men, as a kind of tease. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” If they weren’t so terrified the women might have answered them with a good slap across the face. But then comes the word that the whole story turns around, “Remember.” “Remember how he told you while you were still in Galilee…”
“Remember” is a powerful word. It means to recall, to bring back into the mind, something from the past. It literally means “to put back together again,” “re-member.” When I was walking around that cemetery in Maryland, I was putting back together people and stories with my life, re-building, re-constructing the past.
But to remember is not solely about re-creating the past. At least that is not the case in the Bible. Remembering biblically is not about reenacting. It is not nostalgia for a former time. Then what it is? It turns out it is not about the past at all. At least it is not about the past for the sake of the past. It is, rather, about the past for the sake of the future. “Putting things back together,” as I experienced in that cemetery, is about being propelled into a future.
That’s what we do here each Sunday. We “remember the future,” to put it in a very odd sounding shorthand. We take bread and a cup of wine to keep the memory of Jesus, but the effect of remembering is to create a bit more of the future. This keeps us moving forward without leaving anything behind.
We do not always do this very well. We are often better at forgetting than remembering. In fact, in our hyper-technological world, we cannot remember. We are, for instance, bombarded by e-mail and text messages that barely contain whole thoughts and cannot possibly be remembered. And if they cannot be remembered, they cannot help us build a future, and so we remain stuck as children of the present moment, a moment because it lacks a remembered past and an envisioned future, opens us up to self-absorption, greed and an apathetic lack of compassion. Perhaps our greatest sins in this day and age are apathy and amnesia.
I remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu once saying to a gathering of Americans, “You Westerners are very good at taking things apart. You are so good at breaking things down and analyzing. It has been such a gift to the world! But you are not so good at putting things back together. You are not so good at re-membering the whole. You need us Africans for that.”
This is why it is so vitally important that we continue to do this thing that Jesus left us to do, because it helps us to do survive and thrive as liberated people. Here we put things back together. We re-member, and in doing so we envision and even create a future and in doing so we transform the present, in that great act we celebrate today, resurrection.
Just one example of how this works for us. At the end of the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, leading into the Sanctus, the presider says,
Therefore we praise you joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:
Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name as we sing:
The singing of “Holy, holy, holy,” is a moment when time collapses. We are re-membering the past. We are en-visioning the future. We are transforming the present. It is, as we sing, glorious.
I submit to you that the collapsing of time that we create around this table is a powerful source of healing, liberation, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. It redeems a past that liberates a future that produces healing in the present so that we might be people of hope, justice, and love in a world that is too often stuck in Good Friday.
I am going to invite you to do something this morning, and all the rest of the Sundays of Easter. I am going to pause in that sentence before the Sanctus and I want you to name, aloud if you are able, those who have been part of your story and whom you know to be present around this Table with us. Just shout them all out together to give us a sense of how we are putting back together the beloved community so that we might sing our way into the future with them, with no one, no thing lost.
Let past and future collapse in this moment and empower us with courage and strength and perseverance and all that we need to be the people in the world that God intends us to be.
Remembering ends up being perhaps the most important tool for practicing resurrection.
Monday, April 01, 2013
Sermon preached at the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Stephen's Church, March 30, 2013
Here’s a bit of trivia. English and German are the only major languages that call this holy day we are beginning to celebrate tonight by a name other than the name that is derived from the Hebrew word for “Passover.”
Passover in Hebrew is Pesach. Greek and Latin writers in the early Church called what we now celebrate, Pascha. In Spanish it is Pascua, French: Pâques, Russian: Paskha, Dutch, Pasen, and on and on. So where does “Easter” come from? Éostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn. Her name came to be that of a month in the spring in German.
Now I know I may have already lost some of you, but hold on. Why is this important? Because in the English-speaking world we have forgotten what this night was all about because we lost the name that described it.
Tonight is the Christian Pesach. Tonight is the Christian Passover. I sang about it in the Exsultet awhile back:
…for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people. … This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
And the song goes on and on, describing this “Passover” in many images. This is the night:
· when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grace
· when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away
· which restores innocence to the fallen
· joy to those who mourn
· that casts out pride and hatred and brings peace and concord.
We are stuck with the word “Easter,” which says nothing to us about what is actually going on here. This is the Christian Passover. What was once (and still is, as it is to be honored) a celebration of how God liberated a chosen people who had lived in bondage to another people, is now a celebration of how God has liberated everyone from everything to which we live in bondage.
United as we are with Jesus’ Passover from death to life we have the capacity as individuals and as a people to Passover anything that enslaves us.
Things like sin, of course. But also things like pride and prejudice. And things like anxiety and despair, or your inability to forgive your brother, or your boss, your anger at something cruel your parents did to you when you were a kid, the injustice of not making enough money to live basically well, or of the racial divisions that stubbornly impede equality—you and I could sit here and name a thousand things together.
And the one thing all those things have in common is that they all passed over with Jesus. Every last one of them, for all time and eternity, whether you or me wanted them to or not. The other side of all those things already exists in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
No more, can anyone, at least anyone who believes this story is true, say, “I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am,” or, “It’s just the way I was raised.” Bull*&$%! Because of this one word, “pesach,” “Passover,” there is no one who cannot change. There is no one who cannot change their mind. There is no one who is stuck in the rut of loneliness and despair. There is no one who is fated to remain prejudiced or mean or cranky or unjust. There is no one who cannot be free of anything that binds them.
Because it all passed over with Jesus. Now I am not saying that letting go of any of these things is easy. Letting go of any of these things can be as hard as letting go of an addiction, and that’s because most of the sin that enslaves is, in fact, an addiction. An addiction to pride can be just as death-dealing as an addiction to alcohol. And it takes the same steps to get rid of both, and the first two are the most important.
To say with all one’s heart and mind and soul and strength, “I am powerless.” And, for a Christian, to say, I need to give this to Jesus and let him help me pass over it to the other side.
It is not just a nice and hopeful story we are celebrating tonight. It is the ultimate and absolute victory over death and sin and judgment and bondage that we are celebrating tonight. To call this great celebration “Passover” is to say that it has not ended, and it never will. Jesus is “passing over” through all time and space and offering us to Passover with him.
Easter, as we unfortunately call it, is not a story about the past—something that happened in history. Nor is it a story about the future—what will happen to us, our own resurrection to live in heaven. Easter is about now. Easter is about the ability to pass over anything that threatens our freedom, either from without or from within. We do not have to be slaves to any one or any thing. We are free! Jesus has passed over to freedom, and he has taken us—all of us—with him!
Monday, March 25, 2013
Sermon preached on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 19:28-40; 22:14--23:56
The inauguration of Francis as the Bishop of Rome has raised the old issue of the church and politics. Francis was leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970’s, a time of political turmoil throughout Central and South America. At the same time, a man named Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador, a country which then was run, like Argentina, by a brutal regime. Like Francis, he was also a Jesuit.
Archbishop Romero was unafraid to criticize the government of El Salvador, or anyone else, who was abusing people, especially those who were poor. In some of his first public words, he said,
The Christian must work to exclude sin and establish God’s reign. To struggle for this is not communism. To struggle for this is not to mix in politics. It is simply that the Gospel demands of today’s Christian more commitment to history.
By this he meant that how the world is unfolding, and the forces that are directly affecting the lives of women and men, are absolute concerns of God, and, therefore, of the Church. We cannot in our day and age (if we ever could) afford pie-in-the-sky religion.
Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, 33 years ago today, as he was leading Mass in a hospital chapel. The day before, he had called on soldiers to disobey orders that violated human rights. Nine months later four Maryknoll nuns were also assassinated in El Salvador. We remember them on this day in the Episcopal Church as Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador.
Romero was simply repeating a pattern in his life which he believed had been the pattern of Jesus’ life. We have just heard the story of that pattern playing itself out.
It is easy to read the story of Jesus’ final few days as if it were ahistorical, as if it occurred in a bubble outside of time. If you read it like that, furthermore, you can easily believe that this story is solely about how every individual is saved by the mercy of God and the sacrifice of his Son. But much more than that is going on here. This was a moment in history, and so it is not only a story about how we get into heaven. It is also a story about how we live on earth.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this Service to the Gospel reading about the procession into Jerusalem. Notice that Jesus is doing something very deliberate. First of all we had been told way back in chapter nine that Jesus had “set his face to go toward Jerusalem” (9:51). And here he is arriving, and he wants to make a statement in doing so. The riding of a donkey recalls the kings of Israel, and Zechariah the prophet had foreseen a day when a new king would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9).
What’s going on here? Why this funny little parade of peasants using language as if they had power that they clearly did not have.
It was almost Passover, and right around this time another procession would have entered Jerusalem, the procession of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, with a cast of hundreds, most of them Roman foot soldiers. The Roman governors chose not to live in Jerusalem, but in Caesarea Maritima, on the coast, about sixty miles to the west.
It was the governors’ custom to come to Jerusalem for the great Jewish holy days, and bring a lot of soldiers with him, because the city would swell with pilgrims and the chances for trouble increased exponentially. This was especially true at Passover, when the Jews were celebrating their liberation from another empire.
Pilate’s procession would have been truly impressive, a clear demonstration of Roman power, but also of Roman theology. The Emperor was, after all, the “Son of God,” who was called “savior of the world” because of the peace Rome had brought everywhere it had conquered, the Pax Romana.
The Pax Romana, however, was built on and guaranteed by violence, the experience of violence and the threat of violence. One powerful sign of this was the crosses outside every major city and town, where lawbreakers and rebels slowly and horrifically died in Rome’s favorite way of threatening people into peace.
Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem speaking of peace as well.
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
But this peace would not be secured by violence. God was not going to war with the Roman Empire. Jesus did not seek to rule in place of either King Herod or Pontius Pilate. Quite the opposite, the Pax Christi would be secured by giving in, by letting the violence of the Pax Romana have its way with him. And so it did.
This Jesus whom they crucified, whom we crucified, is always calling us to a new way of life, the risky way of Pax Christi instead of Pax Romana, which is to say the way of vulnerability offered in love which brings peace or the way of violence that keeps us threatened enough to be quiet.
In preaching on the latter portion of Luke’s passion reading—the death of Jesus—Oscar Romero said this:
The church is calling to sanity, to understanding, to love. It does not believe in violent solutions. The church believes in only one violence, that of Christ, who was nailed to the cross. That is how today’s Gospel reading shows him, taking upon himself all the violence of hatred and misunderstanding, so that we humans might forgive one another, love one another, feel ourselves brothers and sisters.