Easter is not a single day of the year. Liturgically, in a very significant way, Easter is a season, the Great Fifty Days between the Great Alleluia at the Easter Vigil and the Feast of the Ascension. The Great Fifty Days remind us that what we celebrate at Easter is not something to be commemorated on one day like an anniversary. Instead, Easter is a reality to be settled into, unfolded and expanded. Our eyes need to adjust to the light of that new dawn, seeing more and more clearly day by day as we get to know the new creation that is revealed by the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. We need all fifty days to celebrate rightly.
On the Second Sunday of Easter every year, the story of Thomas from the Gospel of John is our first sign-post in this journey. Each set of readings helps us go deeper into the Paschal Mystery, the new covenant of reconciliation made manifest in the Risen Christ. So why begin with Thomas every year?
Sometimes the Thomas story gets told (or heard) as a cautionary tale, aimed at doubters. There is almost a scolding tone, a rebuke in Christ’s ‘Do you believe because you have seen?’ But I honestly think this misses the point in a way that is a stumbling block to faith. The message of this story is not -- ‘You doubters, you who find all this hard to swallow, you’ve been bad, do you want Jesus to have to stop the car and give you something to cry about?’ Not, not, not.
In the spirit of the entire Gospel of John, which is emphatically about giving testimony, that is, speaking aloud not what we have been told but what we ourselves have seen and heard with our own eyes and ears that has changed everything, I will offer this re-telling of the story of Thomas.
When I was in my early twenties, I left the embrace of the church. I walked out one day and did not come back for a long time. There were lots of reasons: reconciling our contemporary worldview and an ancient worldview, knowing that good portions of that church believed that who I was as a gay man was an abomination before God, the questions that have bigger, deeper answers than I had been taught. I doubted mightily everything I had been told. Doubt comes naturally to all of us, because we have lost our innocence. We know that all is not as it seems. We have been deceived, intentionally or not. Our trust has been betrayed. And it hurt not because I had never believed but because I had believed.
So I walked away and locked the doors to my heart, from the inside. And I would sit in that little room sometimes and long for what I had believed to actually be true.
As I approached thirty, with a new relationship and the deaths of my most important family, I decided to try going to church. Just try it. No commitments. I went to my local Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And I said the words in the bulletin, even if I didn’t buy them all. And I sang the songs. And I went up to the rail to receive communion, for the first time in years. Not because I was already home, but because I wanted to find my way back.
And in that little locked room deep inside, dead-bolted in, someone was there with me. It was not a blinding light or incontrovertible proof, but it was a surprise. Just a kind warmth that understood and enfold my suffering to which my soul responded by unclenching like an anemone that is no longer in danger. And tears.
The doors were still locked. (Did you notice in the story that when the Risen Christ returns to give Thomas with open hands exactly what he asked for, the disciples are still huddled behind locked doors?) It would take years before the one I became reacquainted with in that room would lead me to risk opening the doors and send me out to tell what I have seen and known to you today and to anyone who needs good news in this troubled world.
But I am not just recounting something that happened in the past. It would be dishonest of me to imply that I have left that locked room behind for good. But Christ continues to come for me today, the same now as then.
The story of Thomas is not a reprimand. This story is about the lengths to which Christ is willing to go to enfold each and all of us in his grace. This story is about how nothing in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, nothing in our hearts or minds, nothing in our lives or worlds, no violence, no suffering, no loss, no deception, no powers, nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And that is the reason for all our Alleluias, then and now, here and there, from birth to the grave. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
(Readings, RCL: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42)
Whenever we or someone we know is going through something terrible, we may ask: "Where is God in this suffering?" We may respond with the ancient wisdom of our faith: "God is in the midst of the suffering". We know that God is Emmanuel: God-with-us. In Jesus, God is in-carnatus, God-in-flesh. If God really becomes fully human in Jesus, where else could God be in human suffering than with us?
The question today is not so much “Where is God in our suffering?” The question today is one that God asks us, "Where are you in my suffering?". We have a choice in this life, whether it is long or short. We can either spend our energy running from the fear of suffering – our own and others. Or we can make a different choice. Someone who made that different choice, not to avoid suffering but to immerse himself in was Fr. Rutilio Grande. Fr. Tilio, as his community called him, was a Jesuit priest and martyr, who chose to work among those who were suffering until the end of his life, who died within many of our own lifetimes in 1977.
Fr. Tilio’s story is deeply personal to him and also remarkably typical of millions of lives that are gradually transformed by the gospel. Fr. Tilio was for many years besieged by doubts of various kinds about being ordained priest. Not doubts about God, rather doubts about himself and his worthiness and fitness for ordination. Three times he asked for his ordination to be postponed because he was so conflicted. Eventually he was ordained but he was still tormented by depression and anxiety. After seminary he was eventually sent back to his home country of El Salvador to serve. His parish was Aguilares and Fr. Tilio began to really see the poverty and the suffering of those around him. At that time, the Roman Catholic church was part of the establishment; part of the problem. This was the problem: in the 1960s and 70s, 14 families owned 90% of the wealth in El Salvador. Not 14%, 14 families! This income inequality and the poverty it produced began to eat away at Fr. Tilio so deeply that he began to forget his own internal struggles and started to look outwards and devote himself to his community. He listened to their needs and they discussed the gospel together. Fr. Tilio became so committed to socio-economic justice that he became a threat to the government. One day as he was driving to a small village to say Mass with another adult, three children and a 15 year old boy, their car was ambushed. Fr. Tilio and the other adult were shot and killed first. Then the assassins shot the 15 year old boy because they knew he would be able to identify them. The three young children got away. One of the children said later that Fr. Tilio’s last words before he was murdered were: We must do what God asks of us. We must do what God asks.
Fr. Tilio was assassinated on March 12, 1977, just after Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. The two were good friends since seminary -- Fr. Tilio was the MC at Romero’s Ordination and installation as Archbishop. Fr. Tilio’s assassination had a profound and lasting impact on Archbishop Romero and changed the shape of Romero’s ministry. Fr. Tilio was the first Jesuit to be martyred in El Salvador. Oscar Romero was the first Archbishop to be killed while saying Mass since Thomas a Becket.
Jesus is our model of the man for others, our pioneer and perfecter, in this aspect of our faith as in all others. Everywhere and in every age, there are those like Fr. Tilio and Archbishop Romero who follow Jesus in their self-offering. Their stories are remarkably different and yet remarkably the same. We could have picked any one of thousands of examples. They all bear the imprint of holy living and holy dying. All their lives are cruciform. They bear the marks of Christ’s Body. All their lives are primarily other-directed, focusing on how to serve the needs of others. And what makes their lives cruciform is not a heroic manner of death but their way of life.
We see the journey of following Jesus in Fr. Tilio’s own spiritual journey also in this way. One of the classic definitions of “sin” is Incurvatus in se. Literally, (Latin) being “curved in on ourselves”, making self and our needs the central reference point for all our decisions. God gently calls us to loosen our anxious bondage to self and self-preoccupation, our anxious clinging, and to begin to open our hands to others. We are afraid of this. We resist the loving invitation of God to unbend, to open out. But God asks us to do this because liberation from self alone is the beginning of liberation from everything else. It is the beginning of the liberation of the world. This is what Fr. Tilio discovered in his own journey out of bondage to his own self-doubts and anxieties into an incandescent life-for-others that continues to bear fruit long after the grain of wheat fell to the ground.
“Where are you in my suffering?”, God asks us. Where are we helping to shoulder the burdens of others whom God so loves and for whom Jesus is dying today? We can make the choice Fr. Tilio and millions like him have made. He never deluded himself that he could change the fate of the whole of Latin America or even redistribute wealth in the whole of El Salvador. Even Jesus didn’t heal everyone. But those whom God placed in his path, he could serve, he could help.
Today is about Jesus’ loving gift of himself, even unto death. Today shows us what God asks uniquely of Jesus. Today is also about what God asks uniquely of each of us. We must do what God asks. What is God asking of you and me?
(Readings, RCL: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18)
When life is full of grief and loss, we cannot believe that there will be a next chapter. This is Mary Magdalene early this morning. In all four gospels, Mary is identified as being among the women who first discover that the tomb is empty. John’s gospel implies that Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus is very special and unique. Mary is the first to arrive at the tomb and she stays behind after the other two disciples leave. Mary’s life has been transformed by Jesus. Jesus says: The one who is forgiven much, loves much. (Lk. 7:47; cf Lk. 8:2). We might say that Jesus has become the love of Mary’s life.
And so we have an echo in this Easter encounter of the beautiful love poetry we call “The Song of Songs”. The poet is looking for their beloved and the poet goes up and down the streets saying I must seek the one I love. It is a desperate, feverish search. Such as we would make if someone we love is missing. And the poet asks everyone: “Have you seen the one I love?” And finally: … “I found the one I love. I held him fast, I would not let him go”. (Song 3:1-4). It is fully human love that the poet feels and Mary feels. Of course Mary wants to hold on to Jesus forever when she finds him. But in the story of God’s love for us, there is always more. Jesus says that there is another chapter for him, for Mary, for the whole community. Go and tell that Jesus is alive. “The only place we won’t find Jesus now is in the empty tomb” (as our Presiding Bp. Katherine Jefferts Schori recently said).
Mary’s search for Jesus and her joy in finding him alive is a deeply personal story. It is also a story about all of us; all of our longings for joy that doesn’t end; for love without death or loss or tragedy.
We live in a world where we tend to assume that the boundary between life and not-life is absolute. Yet modern physics (as well as faith) is questioning this more and more.
I wonder if you have seen the recent movie The Theory of Everything about the physicist Stephen Hawking? The movie tells the love story between Hawking and his first wife Jane. The movie includes Hawking’s scientific breakthroughs. And God also makes an appearance. Hawking has a gently sceptical relationship with God. From the start of their romance at Oxford University, Jane is clear with Stephen that she is a person of faith, an Anglican. “I suppose someone has to be!” says Hawking. And then when Jane cannot meet him for a date on Sunday morning because of church, Hawking says: “Oh Him….”, with an ironic little smile. But Hawking isn’t as condescending towards God as it sounds. Sometimes he has even spoken and written of physics as seeking to understand the mind of God.
Even if we come this Easter morning as skeptical of the Resurrection as Hawking, we can all connect with his search to find what he calls “a theory of everything”. He is on a profound spiritual quest – as we all are. The quest is to make sense of all that is, and of our place in the universe. Hawking is on a mission to discover the beginning (and end?) of the universe itself. Recently Hawking’s research – along with contemporary physics - has moved into superstring theory, and M theory. M can stand for: Miracle, Master, Mystery, Magic, Membrane. Scientists are leaving the “M” open until they learn more. Among the recent theories is that there may be as many as 11 dimensions. Physicists like Hawking see that everything is connected. String theory governs micro and macro behaviors from tiny subatomic particles to the life of galaxies. Life and death, contraction and expansion in the universe are not linear, either/or absolutes but sequential and infinite. We can see this universal pattern reflected on our own beautiful and fragile little planet every 24 hours: dark-light-dark. In the changing of the seasons: life-death-life.
The Resurrection of Jesus is a dazzling affirmation of this life-death-life sequence at the heart of God’s creation. Resurrection fits and prefigures what physicists are discovering: life-death-life is the normative pattern of our universe. Re-creation, transformation, is at the heart of the universe. It seems that whether humans start from quantum physics or religion, we arrive at some version of “M theory”. For people of faith, we hear the truths of God’s undying love in the Resurrection of Jesus. For centuries we have been drawn to this spiritual M theory. Miracle, Mystery, Master…..More.
God writes love letters to us in so many ways. The Resurrection of Jesus is a definitive one. But there are other love letters. Physics is another. The joy of human love and the curiosity of brilliant minds. In the power of nature and the beauty of the arts. For me, one compelling reason to take the idea of God seriously is music. For me, “God” is the only Name, the only “container” big enough to be the source, to begin to hold this amazing reality. I would call it “the problem of joy”. Much is written about the problem of evil, the problem of suffering, and where God might be in such mysteries. But what about the “problem of joy” that is at the heart of Easter Resurrection? Where else can we find a container big enough for all the joy, hope, new life and goodness in the world than God?
Today I invite you to consider God’s love letters to you. God is a poet. God is writing love letters to you in every day of your life. In your loves, in everything that gives your life meaning and purpose, in the joy of Spring; in all the fragile beauty and loveliness of this life. God is there in all the Miracle, Mystery, and More of your life. We are Mary in the garden for whom Jesus is looking, even though we think we are the ones looking for Jesus. Like the poet God seeks us: “Have you seen the one I love?”. The one God loves is you and me. Happy Easter, beloved.
I am someone who is a planner and who prefers to be organized as much as possible in everyday life. Perhaps you are the same way? For me, it is partly temperament and partly a theology. I figure the more we can schedule tasks and appointments and take care of our mental to-do list by planning, the more available and truly present we can be physically and emotionally to others throughout the day. This is fine as far as it goes. However, there are serious limitations to how much of life can be planned for. There are some times in life when we feel out of control because we are. Events overtake us.
Jesus is at such a point in his own life path. Jesus is entering Jerusalem and is approaching his own Holy Week. John’s gospel has a very high Christology, meaning that Christ is very clearly Lord of life and death and fully Divine. And yet over and over again, even John emphasizes that Jesus chooses our human experience of real life and real death. Jesus allows events to overtake him, and chooses to live fully into his humanity, especially his vulnerability. Part of Jesus’ vulnerability is the fear we hear in today’s gospel: Now is my soul troubled. He debates his options: What shall I say, Father save me from this hour? And then he decides: No, for this I have come. Jesus chooses our experience: not to be in control, to be subject to the machinations of others, to suffer, to die.
Lent and Holy Week are for following Jesus and learning from him how to let go, not only how to die but also how to live. How do we allow greater life in us and through us for others?
There is a big difference between being there for others from a position of strength, empathizing with the vulnerability of others, and being vulnerable ourselves. When we are coming from a position of strength and non-vulnerability, a benefactor position, we can be removed from experiencing our own vulnerability. Jesus is not the only grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies in order to bring new life. Part of following Jesus into Jerusalem and into his Holy Week is letting ourselves to go all the way down into our own vulnerability as Jesus does. To be still for long enough to experience our own fear, our own diminishment, even the shadow of our own mortality.
It is easy to connect the dots in the life of faith between God and joy. Beautiful sunset: God is good. Falling in love: God is love. We are forgiven: God is merciful. We need more help connecting the dots between sickness and death and God-with-us. We need help approaching the grief and fear and anxiety we all have about suffering and loss and dying. This is part of what Lent and Holy Week are for.
And what we find is that God is already there. God has been there from the beginning of time. God has prepared a place for us with himself not just in heaven but on earth, in suffering as well as in joy. When we are afraid, we are with Jesus in Jerusalem. When we suffer, we are with Jesus on the Cross. In some small way, we are with Jesus in his vulnerability and suffering. God does not hold back any part of God's self from us, including God’s own suffering. Suffering is an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of God's love and closeness to us in our full humanity.
We don’t have to go looking for suffering; sooner or later it comes to all of us. Sometimes we say particular losses are necessary, or particular pain is self-inflicted - our own fault. Well, I think suffering is suffering and pain is pain and sufferings cannot be quantified, nor need they be set against each other and measured. It is not so much that we offer up our suffering or that our sufferings “complete” Jesus' own suffering. Jesus’ suffering is already complete and I am not sure what that really means. We don’t have to suffer as Jesus suffered. But Jesus can help us to see how to surrender to our own humanity; how to live through fear and remain present with others; how to endure and to forgive the wrongs done to us and to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have done to others.
We are not meant to “like” how this feels all the time. And in truth, the Way of Jesus is deeply at odds with much of our culture teaches is the good life and the meaning of life. Instead of acquisition, giving away; instead of mastery, surrender; instead of grasping, releasing. The Christian life is not about feeling good all the time. It is not happy people getting happier or nice people getting nicer, or knowing more and more intellectually about God or the correct way to “do church”. It includes but goes deeper and higher than feelings or intellect. Christian life is the formation of the heart, soul, mind and strength. It is about the growth of our whole person towards God. We gradually let go of (die to) a false egocentric self that imagines we are masters of our universe so that we can live to God and neighbor more fruitfully and lovingly.
What Jesus does through his Passion is puncture our defenses by letting us stand with him, if we allow it. In Lent we are urged to repent for our sins. Repentance is really an abiding and true sense of our humanity, our vulnerability. Repentance is being punctured by God's love. It has been described beautifully by Sr. Miriam Pollard as "taking our finger out of the dike, of letting our walls be broken, our shell punctured" - by the love of God (from The Laughter of God). We “open the barred doors and the arms wrapped around ourselves, so that we can embrace the love which has never ceased beating on those doors and waiting for our arms to be free". Jesus gets through his own Holy Week by letting God in. Jesus takes his finger out of the dike and the waters pour in, drowning him and baptizing him into his death, and into our Resurrection. AMEN
The story of the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness is a strange one. Everyone thinks so. Its strangeness is one of the reasons we only hear it read in church once in our three-year cycle of readings, and always paired with this reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus refers to it.
Why strange? Well, where to begin. The story takes place after the death of Miriam and then Aaron, siblings to Moses. The wandering Israelites are trying to gain entrance to the land of Canaan but have been denied safe passage through Edom, so they must go around by an indirect route. They are tired and grumpy. The text says they are “short of soul” or “short tempered.” They are at the end of their rope. And they complain of the wilderness and the God-given manna they eat day after day.
Who can blame them? It’s been a long three decades plus wandering in a hard place, even with the miracles of God’s providence keeping them alive. They want to come home at last. How long, O Lord, how long?
God becomes angry at them and sends poisonous snakes in the camp to bite them. Many die. (Does anyone else think the punishment seems a good deal worse than the crime?) Understandably, they just want the snakes to go away. So they repent of their grumbling and ask Moses to pray that God will deliver them from the fiery serpents.
Here’s where it gets weird. The same God who has told them in no uncertain terms that they are never to make any graven image of anything that is in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth commands Moses to make a graven image of a serpent and set in on a pole, that those who are suffering from the bites of the fiery serpents should be able to look up at the image of the serpent and be healed.
Even the rabbis shake their heads at this one in the Mishnah and the Talmud. This is clearly over the line. Why would God command the breaking of another commandment? And if we doubt that the bronze serpent falls in the same category as an idol to be worshipped, the second book of Kings tells us that hundreds of years later, one of the kings of Israel had to destroy it--this same bronze serpent Moses had made in the wilderness--because the people had given it a name and offered incense to it day and night as if it were a god.
Without the Gospel of John’s glancing reference to the story, it might have fallen into obscurity like so many other stories that we file away as important, but perhaps not central to our understanding of what God is doing in the world.
But here is the reference: Jesus makes an analogy between the raising up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness and his own raising up (on the cross) for the salvation of all of us who suffer.What do the stories have in common? How does one illuminate the other?
First, it’s not hard to see ourselves in the wandering Israelites, in their grumbling and complaining even in the midst of God’s providence and generosity, in their affliction by fiery bites. We are bitten by all sorts of snakes in this life: anger, jealousy, lust, hatred, greed, fear, pride, contempt, envy. Indeed, as we look around, the world seems to be full of snakes and bites and suffering, in need of lots and lots of healing.
Second, healing begins to seep in as our eyes are drawn up to the image of something we fear being lifted high for all to see. The earliest disciples must have been surprised that they were drawn to contemplate the paradoxical glorification of Christ through his shameful and excruciating death on the cross. And that gazing upon his loving surrender, his willingness to suffer for us and for our salvation, brought an unexpected comfort and healing.
In the village of Isenheim, near the town of Colmar, in France, there is a painted altarpiece that I’m sure many of you have heard of. It was painted by Matthias Grunewald in the early 16th century for the Monastery of St. Anthony, widely known in its time for its ministry of caring for sick people, especially those suffering from the plague. Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion is graphic, painful even to look at, yet if you look closely, it looks as if Christ crucified is covered with pock-marks and sores like those of plague sufferers. It was painted so that those receiving care at the monastery could look at the image of Christ crucified and know that they were not alone.
How can gazing upon Christ crucified bring comfort? Only because, through the eyes of faith, we see the image of the one who emptied himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, to show God’s love for each and all of us and this broken, crazy, suffering world. In Christ, the one Henri Nouwen referred to as the descending God becomes one of us, shares our human nature, suffers what we suffer, endures what we fear most, betrayal, injustice, pain, abandonment, failure, mockery, annihilation.
Maybe we can take the risk to trust a God who comes to us like this, who will walk the valley of the shadow of death with us. And in that trust, there can be healing and the beginning of a new life.
Our reading from Exodus this morning is one of the classics. Whether you think of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner or the more recent animated adaptation, Prince of Egypt, you have to admit the scene is iconic. Moses converses with God on Mount Sinai. The horns, the cloud, the thunder and lightening all set the stage for the reception of the Ten Commandments by God’s chosen people Israel.
This morning I would like to focus on one specific commandment. In my opinion, it is perhaps the most overlooked. The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
What does it mean to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy? Well, when I was little… like any good Episcopalian child. I assumed honoring the Sabbath meant going to church and going to brunch. The church was the keeping it holy part and the brunch was the eating waffles with friends part. As I got older, the idea of keeping the Sabbath always seemed like the easy after thought of the Ten Commandments. I interpreted it loosely as enjoy your weekend and try to make it church. I am not so sure that is the originally intending meaning. We tend to fall short of keeping this commandment. We are tired and the Sabbath often gets lost in the busy shuffle of our lives.
One thing that I think is often over looked when contemplating the Decalogue, is often over looked is that all ten of the commandments are equal. There is nothing that specifies that one is more important than another or that breaking one is more of a sin than breaking another. Yet, I think we would all agree that we take thou shall not kill is taken a lot more seriously that remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. But why? Why is it less important? And it begs the question… what if we kept all of the commandments equally? What would it look like to take Sabbath rest as seriously as murder? How do we hurt ourselves, each other and our relationship with God by not taking rest seriously? Are there time is your life where you have said something you wish you hadn’t or done something you really should not have because you were exhausted? I know I have had those moments. What would our world look like if rest and relaxation weren’t luxuries but a base line necessity?
My own personal journey with Sabbath keeping started in seminary with my dear friend, Liane. Liane and I met our first year of seminary at Yale. At the time she was an Episcopalian in the ordination process in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Devoted to social justice and peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, during our time at school, Liane fell in love with Hebrew scripture, Hebrew language and Judaism. God works in mysterious ways. After long and prayerful consideration, she withdrew from the ordination process and began the process of converting to Conservative Judaism.
By the time we lived together, our third year, she was deep in the process of conversion and was meeting twice a week with her rabbi about her spiritual journey. As part of her process, she observed Jewish law, kept Kosher and journaled about all of it. One of her biggest struggles was during this process was Saturday, the Sabbath. The important and often under emphasized part of both Jewish and Christian tradition, keeping the Sabbath was made mandatory by her supervising Rabbi.
The root of the Hebrew word for Sabbath means "to stop"--stop doing what you do during the other six days of the week. Our model for Sabbath rest (Sabbath stopping) comes from Genesis 2:2; when God finished the creative work, he "stopped" on the seventh day. Our instruction for Sabbath rest comes from Exodus 16. God commanded that humans stop, put aside their daily chore of gathering bread, and marvel at God's provision for them. In the wilderness, God forged a relationship with the people that called them to trust God to provide for their every need, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is observed from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday.
During that time, Jews are supposed to refrain from anything that resembles work… that includes but is not limited to cooking, cleaning, running errands and using technology (even for recreation). Some people even refrain from driving, and using electricity. On the Sabbath, people are supposed to spend time together, praying, worshipping and being with family. It is a time for visiting neighbors and relaxing.
For me, Sabbath rest always sounds intensely rewarding but near impossible. So how did Liane do with Sabbath… well… it was hard… really hard. She went off Facebook, disconnected the Internet, turned off her cell phone, put down all her school books and flashcards. She did not wash dishes. She did not watch TV. She even unscrewed the tiny lightbulb in our refrigerator so she would not accidentally break Sabbath prohibition against kindling fire. I know first hand… her first couple weeks were miserable. She was bored and grumpy. She was so worried that she would miss something going on in the outside world. She was so worried that she would fall behind on her work… It was just so hard to stop, but an amazing thing happened. It got a little easier. Liane found that really she did not miss anything or fall behind in her work. She got some sleep and actually spent time with her friends and family.
Liane is now at the University of Chicago where she is working on her Phd in Hebrew Bible. While it is still a struggle for her to keep Sabbath, and I know she occasionally watches TV and studies, carving out a little bit of time for true rest is a powerful thing. It is a beautiful idea that taking care of ourselves can be a way of honoring God.
Sabbath rest is something that I aspire to but struggle with… I am not quite ready to turn off the cellphone or unscrew the refrigerator light but I know that I need and the God wants me to rest… Sabbath rest is a difficult concept in our twenty-first century world. How can we simply "stop"? What will happen to our jobs, our families, our sense of identity if we "stop" for Sabbath? And, what does it mean to "stop"?
I know in my life, just because I am not at work does not mean I am not working. Sabbath rest will look different for each of us in this room. For some people it may be visiting family, for others it might be turning off the ipad, some it may be curling up with a good book and cup of tea, or being out in nature…
Sabbath has to do with cessation, with taking time to contemplate our place within the created world. Stopping has to do with reflecting on the good provisions of God in our lives. And that is the wonderful gift of coming together for worship. We can gather together here and pause from the business of our lives and spend a moment with each other and God. We can let these moments of peace and contemplation set the tone for the rest of our lives. It is my hope that each of us will do ourselves the favor of intentionally taking time to rest. In a culture were over functioning and over performance is not just the norm but something to be aspired to, perhaps remember and observing the Sabbath is a radical way for all of us to remember God and remember to take care of ourselves.
There are no literal crosses in my life, other than devotional objects. I don’t ever walk out to find that someone has been strung up by the police or by the Army and nailed to huge cross-beams to die, naked and exposed to the elements. You and I are not likely to be crucified. So what does it mean to take up my cross? I ask that question with a desperate urgency because I want to follow Jesus. And this instruction is at the heart of the Gospel: the way of the cross is the way of life. Unless the seed dies, it remains alone.
What is my cross? How can I take it up unless I know what it is?
The first thing that comes to mind is enduring suffering. Whether it’s wrongful imprisonment or psoriasis, slander or the craving for chocolate, ridicule or a bad tempered friend, we all have things in our lives that are painful and that don’t go away as we would like them to. For better or worse, our best course of action seems to be to just put up with the suffering as gracefully as possible. And there are certainly those who have interpreted this passage this way, as an acknowledgement that life is prone to painful episodes and sometimes we just have to grin and bear it. But is this really what Jesus means?
Let’s look at the context. Let’s rewind to the chapter before this one, when Jesus asks who the disciples who the people think he is. Peter alone confesses that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells them all to hush and tell no one.
Jesus then goes on to tell about how he will suffer and be scorned by the religious authorities and be killed. Peter doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk. The Messiah is the one who will come with power and great might to rescue Israel from her oppressors, who will vanquish all her enemies without mercy and restore the nation to the glory and prestige among nations promised it by God. Peter takes Jesus aside to talk some sense into him.
But Jesus talks sharply to Peter, not in private, but publicly, in front of all the disciples, saying, in effect, “Get behind me, Tempter, Adversary! I met you in the desert when you promised me the kingdoms of the earth if only I would bow to you. I said no then and I’ll say no now!”
THEN Jesus says, “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I don’t think Jesus is complaining about random suffering or the pain of human limitation or misfortune. He is not ruing the fact that he has nowhere to lay his head or that his students are slow learners.
He is talking about the suffering that comes from telling the best truth you know, no matter who doesn’t want to hear it. He is talking about the violence that lashes out from the centers of power at anyone who rocks the boat or calls their bluff. He is talking about putting his body on the line for the truth. And he is saying that running from that suffering--the suffering that comes of standing up for what’s right--is worse than pain and death.
He is not doing it so we don’t have to. He is doing it so we know how to.
I am convinced that what Jesus is talking about is what Gandhi called satyagraha, the force of truth. Gandhi coined the word out of two words in sanskrit, satya meaning “truth” and agraha meaning “insistence or holding firm to.” It is the force of love that stands in the face of violence and oppression and will neither run nor fight. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the heirs of Gandhi’s teaching: satyagraha informed the civil rights movement here in the United States. Essential to the teaching of truth-force is the insistence that those who take up the practice of truth-force to confront the injustices and lies of the world must be willing to accept suffering for the sake of the truth.
When Rosa Parks sat down in the white section of a bus and would not get up, she was taking up her cross. When Dr. King was imprisoned during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was taking up his cross. When both Dr. King and Gandhi are assassinated by gunmen, each was taking up his cross. Each was an icon of the One who was willing to put his body on the line in the service of truth and love, no matter what the cost. Each one was following in his blessed footsteps.
So we return to the question: what is my cross? Well, to answer the question, we have to begin with another: what is the truth I am so convinced of that I would be willing to risk my possessions, my reputation, my career, even my safety? What is that truth, that reality, not just a word or an idea, but a comprehensive perception of the mystery of our existence that will not yield to rationalizations or deceptions? What is the truth that I would die for?
Please understand. Though I believe this is what Jesus taught, this language makes me deeply uncomfortable. Haven’t we seen enough of fanatics who are more than willing to exploit and kill in the grasp of some truth that only they can see? Isn’t harmony in this world about learning to see everyone’s truth, partial though it is?
I have to believe that there is a bedrock to reality, a large clear truth of which we partake. Because I know all the ways I deceive myself. And I know all the ways in which I have been deceived in my life, told lies about myself, about my family, my country, our humanity, our place in this world. Behind the veil of deception, there has to be something that is true, something we share like blood or like our DNA. And that truth is so fundamental to our humanity that losing it or obscuring it would be worse than the death of my body. It would be the death of what makes me, and us, human.
We take up our crosses by placing our bodies on the line for that truth. By speaking what no one wants to hear though our voice may tremble. By giving of our time and money without knowing for sure what will come of it. By showing up wherever oppression and deception have the upper hand and saying ‘Enough.’
Until we find that lifeblood of truth and the will to accept pain and discomfort to make it plain, we are at risk of gaining everything, but losing what matters most. There are many roads that will lead us away from that pain. We can run by shutting ourselves down, by shielding ourselves, by numbing ourselves, by fooling ourselves. But all those roads lead to death. There is only one road to resurrection and it leads through the pain
But we have a consolation, a hope that lights the way like a star: that Jesus has gone before us. And that he will meet us in the suffering and lead us through to the other side. The way of the cross is the way of life.
The story of the Transfiguration has puzzled generations of New Testament scholars. The origins of the text are obscure, and they have little consensus about what it is doing in the narrative. Theologians also have scratched their heads, offering a number of different guesses about what this event might mean.
While scholars remain unsure of this story’s meaning, it appears in our lectionary all three years. For the Church, therefore, it is a central story. As a preacher, I always feel pushed to give theological explanation of the Transfiguration. To explain how or why…but when has the idea of a glowing holy figure hovering over a mountaintop never made logical sense anyway. Perhaps, the transfiguration is not something that is supposed to be figured out, reasoned with or explained. It is something to be appreciated and wondered at. Maybe this is one moment where we are not called to deduced or analyze but instead marvel and be in awe.
Artists throughout the history of Christianity have given insight into the experience of transfiguration. 10 years ago, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens put out his Seven Swans album, which included a musical rendering of the transfiguration story. An almost haunting banjo chord progression undergirds his airy, almost ethereal voice. His lyrics focus on the voice of God coming out of the clouds, and the listener is brought evermore upward, higher and higher until it feels like the listener is floating.
Renaissance artists also were inspired to paint the images of the transfiguration. One of the most famous depictions, Raphael’s transfiguration expresses the raw power of the moment. Rather than sharing the airy or wispy quality of Stevens’ song, one is struck by the dominant figure of Christ in the center. Jesus is surrounded by bright white clouds, floating off the ground, flanked by Moses and Elijah who also float just below Jesus. A massive group of people gather around, bodies contorted, looking shocked, terrified by the scene. The viewer is overcome with the glory of the moment—the painting itself is commanding 13 feet by nine feet.
Yet other artists pull us down out of the clouds. Giovanni Bellini, of the Venetian School, painted the image of the transfiguration twice. His first image has Jesus not on a cloud, but rather on a high pedestal like a statue. Bellini’s second composition was even simpler. Jesus is depicted plainly in a pastoral landscape. No bright lights, no flashy clouds. The three apostles have been knocked over and look at the ground. There is no large crowd of people witnessing the event, as in Rapael’s painting. On the contrary, people in the background seem to be going about their everyday lives. Off to the side of Moses, there is man caring for his cow. I love the everyday nature of this. The viewer wants to yell out to the man… “hey the transfiguration is going on!” “ Hey you… come over here… heaven and earth have just met?” Bellini is successful in capturing the ordinary quality of the scene. Jesus is on a walk with his friends—nothing strange there. And then, suddenly without warning, Jesus is transfigured. The sublime breaks through the monotony of daily life.
In our postmodern age, where people are talking more and more in terms of being spiritual and not religious, maybe what we all long for is the transfiguration. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the luminous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder. We all long for transformation and treasure those moments in our lives. . More than just a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, Transfiguration matters.
In his book, Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing”
(Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
Buechner captures the heart of the gospel. The glory of God’s presence revealed to us in the midst of our ordinary lives. Our experience of transcendence can come where and when we least expect it.
Elizabeth Barret Browning captures this brilliantly in stanza from her poem Aurora Leigh, she writes.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
And daub their natural faces unaware.
If we are not careful, like the folks in the poem or the man with the cow, we miss the presence of God so often because we don’t look past our everyday lives. How often are we so absorbed in the trapping of our own reality that we miss God among us? There is a story told about St. Francis of Assisi. He, much like Jesus, was out one day on a walk with his friends. When suddenly, they heard the approaching of a clanging hand bell. “Leper approaching,” the voice cried out. In the middle ages, it was made the law that lepers had to ring bells and announce their arrival so people could clear the way. The voice and bell approached closer, and Francis’ friends dashed off into a ditch where they thought they would be safe from the disease. Yet to all of their surprise, Francis ran toward the bell and voice. Finding the man, unwashed, in tattered clothing, with skin decaying, Francis embraced the leper and kissed him. The leper was then transfigured, engulfed in a bright fire, and he vanished. Francis was thrown to the ground his lips and hands burnt. His friends came out of the ditch to help him. “Where is the leper?” They ask. But Francis smiles and replies “ There was no leper here, only our Lord Christ, hidden in ordinary flesh, waiting for us to help him.”
I think most of us would love the courage to be like Francis to reach out past ourselves and be open to the possibility of being transfigured. But when we are honest with ourselves, we find that we are much more likely to be his friends hiding in the ditch. The transfiguration asks us to find God breaking into the all earth’s spaces— to see God in the most unlikely places and most unlikely people. What in your life needs to be transformed? How can we get out of our own way and let God in? There is a reason that this is the reading for the Last Sunday of Epiphany. That is the invitation as we move forward from Epiphany into Lent. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of God that is all around us if we are brave enough to see it.
What are you giving up? For centuries now, each time Lent rolls around, Christians ask each other this question. Traditionally, Western Christians gave up eating meat for the entire season. In remembrance of the crucifixion, faithful Catholics still avoid meat on Fridays. In some Orthodox Churches, the Lenten fast is even stricter. The faithful are encouraged not only to abstain from meat but fish, dairy, eggs, wine and oil as well. In the past, these practices served a double function. Not only were they a spiritual discipline, reminding us that we do not live on bread alone, but also a way of conserving limited resources. As winter continued on, dwindling food supplies made Lenten fasts necessary.
Lent has changed over the years. Fortunately, we live in the age of supermarket and refrigeration and to us fasting is not done with the same sense of urgency. However the desire to drawer closer to God during this holy season remains. People have shifting ideas about what to give up, when, and for how long. So, what does it look like to observe a Holy Lent in 2015? What are people giving up these days?
Well, this has become a topic of great debate on social media. That’s right… as it turns out in 2015, Facebook and Twitter have a lot to say about Lent. At least my Facebook and Twitter accounts do, I suppose it should not surprise me that my friend group is a rather religious one. So all forms of social media have been a buzz with Lent prep. As far as I see it, my friends and clergy colleagues really like to talk about two topics in particular; giving up and taking on.
People post about giving up things for Lent. All sort of things: Chocolate, alcohol, coffee, meat, television, swearing, gossiping, Netflix, driving a car… even Facebook and twitter. Yes, my Facebook is currently littered with people saying goodbye to Facebook for 40 days of technological silence. And it is all done in the name of Lent. These are all forms of fasting.
The idea of giving up something for Lent has taken on a certain cultural cache. It is a strange phenomenon in our culture of overindulgence. On the surface, I see it as a good thing. Self-denial is a much overlooked virtue. So I applaud all of those that, in the name of God or their faith, are trying to give up something for Lent.
I just want to add a tiny word of caution. Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace an actual relationship with God. We give things up to make room to take things up. That brings me to my second group of friend. More and more, I see people adding to their lives as a spiritual discipline for Lent.
One of my favorite examples of taking on is Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz Webber 40 Ideas for keeping a Holy Lent from her site A House for all Sinners and Saints.
On her website, Bolz Weber outlines 40 days worth of spiritual practices which include:Praying for enemies, donating to nonprofit, looking for beauty in nature, checking out daily office prayers online, giving clothing away to Goodwill, baking a cake, introducing yourself to a neighbor, Praying the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news) and lighting real and virtual candles.
The invitation of Lenten disciple is clear. We are asked to give up things that are getting in the way of your relationship with God and take on things that draws us closer in relationship with God and each other. At no other day in the church calendar is this more poignant. Yet Ash Wednesday is more challenging than giving up chocolate or taking on new prayer practices. Ash Wednesday is not an easy day. It asks us to remember an uncomfortable truth. Ash Wednesday reminds us of core truth of Christianity: we must give up in order to take on.
The solemn ashes to ashes, dust to dust, points to the paradoxical, deep truth of the Christian faith: those who lose their life will gain it. What we must give up is not a food, habit or even a particular sin, but the practice of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust…
This is not something we can fix or escape. It is true for all of us. All human attempts at controlling our own destiny are stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. Power, money, self-control, even efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death.
Our return to dust is inevitable. The penitential rite is recognition of our inability to love and do perfectly. It points to our need for God’s grace.
On Ash Wednesday, our confession of sin really is saying, “we give up.”
Ash Wednesday is a day for honesty. While that honesty can be challenging, It is also hopeful. Even while we fall short, even while our efforts are in vain, we are still held in the hands of a loving God.
As St. Paul wrote, “Neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. “
So let’s give up… give up on the delusion that we don’t need God and can fix everything ourselves. Give up on the delusion that we will live forever in this mortal form. When we give up on our own abilities and efforts, then the reality of God’s grace truly is felt.
So what do we take up? Love and acceptance… If we give up the delusion and the myth of self-sufficiency, we can take up a loving acceptance of ourselves in all of flawed imperfection take on grace and the redemption of Christ.
Tonight I would like to begin with a quotation from C.S. Lewis. It gets to the heart of what Ash Wednesday is for. C.S. Lewis writes:
“The Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay… and it is no use at all trying to go on to the comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in …everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” [From Mere Christianity: C.S. Lewis].
Another way of describing the “dismay” C.S. Lewis speaks of is the brokenness of the world and our part in it. Closer to home, it is our resistance to the love of God making all things new.
Sometimes, as we confess our sins, we may think that we are not so bad on the whole. At least, we may think, I haven’t done anything bad to anyone else. Not really. Even when I have felt angry or resentful, I have kept that to myself. I haven’t acted on my less good impulses. OK... So let us ask ourselves: have there been ways in which I have resisted the love of God?
There are so many ways in which we can keep God at arm’s length. We don’t want to be forgiven so we don’t ask, we would rather stay angry, we don’t want reconciliation with that person or those people. So our struggle with the love of God might not be something bad we do but something good we resist. We might be pretty good at identifying the moral crusades, the causes for justice, the marginalized needing our advocacy at home and abroad. We are perhaps not so great at building a human community based on acceptance and vulnerability. Grace grows and people blossom when we co-create with God a community where it is safe for people to come out from hiding, to be vulnerable and to give and receive love and acceptance based on who they really are without fear of being shamed or excluded or gossiped about. This is the hard work of love that we can so easily resist because it asks of us daily change of habits of exclusion; habits of mind, habits of the heart.
In his sermon on the ordination of the Rev. Allen Shin as Bishop, the 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold spoke of the essential poverty of any Christian. Bishop Griswold said that we can put all kinds of fancy clothes on bishops, but spiritually they – like all of us - remain in spiritual poverty. I think that this is true for every one of us – for all Christians, and I think for all human beings. This essential poverty may or may not be connected to material poverty. It is spiritual in nature and although it is not depression it certainly can include emotional discouragement, even despair. It is the place of honesty in us when we say to ourselves: I can’t figure this out. I can’t do this. Why is this happening? I don’t know where God is in this. And unlike material poverty, spiritual poverty is something we all experience. We may not talk about it much, even with God, but it is there. It is the moment when the knowledge of our utter dependence on God and of our own mortality moves from our intellect to our heart to our gut.
There is another sense in which awareness of our poverty is at the heart of things tonight. Essential poverty. Our spiritual poverty is the little door that opens to the infinite treasure house of grace. Our spiritual poverty is directly connected to the grace of God. This is how Lent is Holy. This is why Lent is a gift. Ash Wednesday tells us that our poverty, our sinfulness, our brokenness of spirit is not useless. Our spiritual poverty is not meaningless -- just the opposite. It is the path to grace and the real comfort on the other side of dismay. Our sins are not the stopping points but the starting points of grace.
Our own spiritual poverty – admitting it – honoring it – loving our own need of God as much as God loves us in our need of him -- here is where the hope comes. This is what C.S. Lewis is talking about. This is the comfort on the other side of our despair when our illusions of self-sufficiency are unmasked. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to be less defended against our own spiritual poverty. This is a day to remember that grace is not only for other people, it is for you and for me.
Repentance and forgiveness are difficult for us, so Jesus hardwires it into the basic prayer he teaches his disciples: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again, we practice admitting our need to forgive and be forgiven by God and by others. Forgiveness is difficult for us but apparently not so hard for God. It seems that God is less defended, less afraid to be vulnerable, than we usually are. There is no limit or condition attached to God’s grace. We call it unconditional, and we mean it. There is nothing that cannot be confessed tonight and nothing that cannot be forgiven.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. AMEN