Monday, May 12, 2014

"Alleluia" is our song - a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, 2014

We are an Easter people and “Alleluia” is our song.
The reality of Jesus’ declaration was cemented in my heart on an unseasonably cold January day in Melbourne some twenty-five years ago. I remember the morning, a bit of frost covered the ground in the early hours. It remained cold throughout the funeral but my dad, my brother, my grandfather, and I, along with aunts and uncles, cousins and friends – we stood watch at my mother’s grave awaiting the final words. The comfort expressed by Jesus to Martha rang out as, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”
Easter people are those who live in the resurrection story every day. They are those people who know that death does not have the final victory.
You know, despite Jesus invitation and despite Thomas protestations, Thomas never does place his hands in his Lord's wounds. No. Though most likely filled with fear and anger and shame that comes from knowing that he not only doubted but also deserted his friend, when Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord, when he is greeted by the forgiveness and grace embodied in the words "Peace be with you," he instantly believes and makes the great confession of John's gospel: "My Lord and my God!"
In a heartbeat Thomas knows that he is in the presence of God, has been saved and redeemed by that God, and that he will never be the same again. This story, then, is not about Thomas' doubt at all; rather, it is about an encounter with the grace of God which has come down from heaven and been embodied in Jesus Christ. Thomas was Easter people and “Alleluia” became his song.
For many years, I kept a note card on my refrigerator that proclaimed the message: "We are an Easter people." I received the note from a parishioner, a mother of 13, grandmother of many more, who was living with an advanced stage breast cancer at the time the card was written. In the week after Easter, Bernadette and some of her grandchildren had scripted this pink magic-marker message on a variety of note cards. They sent one to me.
I remember opening the Easter greeting and reading it several times. No, "Happy Easter." No, "Rejoice, the Lord is risen." It said, simply, "We are an Easter people." The message bore a profound faith. As her death approached, Bernadette wanted everyone to know that the power of faith transforms even death. Bernadette was Easter people and “Alleluia” was her song.
Easter people are those who live in the resurrection story every day. Through their lives they are an example of the unconditional love of Jesus. They are unselfish in their willingness to serve their fellow man.
From the record of those early days, a modus operandi begins to emerge for the church. Within the early community, "there was no needy person among them" (Acts 4:34). Those who had more property and wealth liquidated their assets and gave the money to the apostles to distribute to those in need. This may be startling information to 21st-century capitalism; but, it is nonetheless true. They were an Easter people and “Alleluia” was their song.
We are an Easter people. We are a people transformed by the resurrection. We are a people healed and made whole. We are people given to in our need. So how do make “Alleluia” our song. Here are five simple ways to come out Easter People.
Cling to the people who love you. When times get tough, we Americans have the tendency to go try to go it alone. We think that our history of rugged individualism must extend to times when we really need someone to lean on. But this will be our undoing. It's only after we've come through the darkness that we realize that others were there, urging us on, reminding us to mind our step.
This Easter season, find joy in those who traveled through your Lent (literal and figurative) with you.
Remember who you are. Remember that you are already redeemed. Remember that you are part of the Body of Christ. Remember that you are Christ’s own forever. Remember that you are precious and beautiful and unique because you are created in the image of God and that is the source of joy and redemption for anyone walking a difficult road.
Don't wait for the other shoe to drop.  One of the thing about counting on hardship is that you'll never be wrong. So don’t count on it. Do wait for something to go wrong. Just don’t. But more, when things go right, when they have improved, when days are good, when the stone has been rolled back from the tomb, celebrate. When things are good, celebrate them. When life is blissfully boring, celebrate it. That way, when trouble finds you again, at least you're not treating it as though it never left.
Bring joy to the world. Convert your happiness into joy for others. Easter People share their hope. And they share it outwardly, lifting up those around them. Break free of the obsessive preoccupation with "me." Even after Jesus' anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke's Gospel shows him practicing compassion and a desire to protect those he loves from harm. Even on his road to the cross, Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem. Even with his dying breath, Jesus makes space for his mother and the disciple whom he loved.
Breathe in the Holy Spirit. After Jesus' resurrection, he returns to his disciples, and their mission (and ours) takes on the new dimension of sharing the good news. In John's Gospel, Jesus greets the disciples by saying, "Peace be with you." He repeats himself and then breathes on them, bestowing on them the Holy Spirit and sending them out to carry on his work.
Many Episcopalians hear the word "evangelism" and shrink. It's gotten a bad rap. But the simple fact is that Easter People can learn a lot from that short passage. Jesus' tidings of peace are a call for us to bring about peace in our world. His victory over death is the embodiment of our faith and the reason we are called to spread his word. He grants us the power - perhaps even the obligation - to forgive. A bit later, he commands his disciples to tend, shepherd and take care of his sheep. That's evangelizing. That's being an Easter People. Living in the example of Jesus, everyday for everyone.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. There is nothing more that need be sung – ALLELUIA, sing praise to God. We are an Easter people and “Alleluia” is our song.

Do not be afraid! - a sermon for Easter, 2014

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised form the dead.”
There is a legend from the Orient about a traveler making his way to a large city. One night he met two other travelers along the road: Fear and Plague. Plague explained to the traveler that, once they arrived, they expected to kill 10,000 people in the city. The traveler asked Plague if Plague would do all the killing. “Oh, no. I 'm only going to kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”
When you think about it, in a lot of ways Fear is a great equalizer. No matter what age, no matter what state of life, no matter what you’ve gone through, Fear is something we all will encounter. We will all have to deal with Fear.
There are countless other examples each of us can come up with relative ease.
Yes, there are an awful lot of things all of us deal with that frighten us, and a lot of them for good reason. And each year our Churches fill as people come together with many different things weighing on our minds and hearts this Eastertide. Wondering why we’re here. Wondering what it all means. Wondering is it worth it even coming to Mass, even coming to Church . . .
“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
How wonderful!! Alleluia, Christ is risen.
That has to tell us something.  That the first words we hear in today’s Gospel from the angel of the Lord and from Jesus are DO NOT BE AFRAID. To Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, reaching into their fear of a world where crowds embraced evil, people who’s hearts had turned to darkness so much so that they could so brutally and viciously murder Jesus, the human embodiment of Love. But Jesus says to them, "Do not be afraid . . ."
Those aren’t just words. And I think for a lot of us, we’re used to treating them like a nice, wishful sentiment. Kind of like a Hallmark card - get well soon, wish you were here - do not be afraid. And that cheapens what Jesus did for us. Jesus suffered a great deal to be able to speak those words with the authority of one who could banish that fear.
Think back to Christmas, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, God seems to be telling us something through the coming of His Son Jesus: When Mary and Joseph hear they will be parents of God’s only Son, it seems (at best) unbelievable – do not be afraid Mary, you’ve found favor with God; do not be afraid Joseph to take Mary to be your wife . . .
And throughout His life, Jesus constantly healed people of their fears - through forgiveness of their sins, through miraculous healings, through the raising people from the dead. And you can sense or see that people were amazed, but not convinced. “Who does Jesus think he is?” they wondered after Palm Sunday . . . This wasn’t the political leader, the Messiah who would restore Israel and knock the Romans into their place. No he was seen as a threat to everyone who had any power or authority - from the controlling Romans to the limited Jewish leaders.
Their fear of letting go of their wants, their desires, their understanding of who God is and what God wants to do for all of his people blocked them from embracing him. And so they choose darkness in deciding he was too much trouble to deal with. "Crucify Him."
That’s what Easter confronts us with – Easter calls us out – are we amazed by this story but not convinced either? Is it an incredible tale that we’ve heard over and over but it’s just too impossible for us to really believe?
Because if we’re coming here looking to be dazzled by some miraculous sign - amazed by some new feat - we will be disappointed; Jesus isn’t a magician. And all the things that worry us, that keep us up at night that we are afraid over are still going to be there when we leave Church after Easter Sunday Mass.
Unless we cast off our fears, we won’t be able to experience the Risen Jesus Christ in our lives.
If we don’t believe that the same God who let his Son suffer and die for us . . .
If we don’t believe that the same God who raised his Son from the dead . . .
If we don’t believe that the same God who, by the Sacrament of Baptism, has made us his own Sons and Daughters whom he looks upon with the same Love that he looks upon Jesus . . .
We will wallow in all of the fears that we were burdened with when we first walked into Church on Easter Sunday morning.
But if we believe the words of the angel, “DO NOT BE AFRAID.  I KNOW YOU ARE SEEKING JESUS THE CRUCIFIED. HE IS NOT HERE.  HE HAS BEEN RAISED.” And so we behold the Risen Jesus who comes to us right here, right now on our way as we deal with our own darkness, plagued by our own Good Friday stories, then the Easter story becomes our story.  Then the resurrection becomes real in our lives. Jesus says to us today "Do Not Be Afraid," and if we let go of our fear we, too, will see Him.
We go, having beheld the Risen Jesus, to practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry wrote – to practice the resurrection go Jesus and to practice our own resurrection. “Do not be afraid…” Those two Mary’s went to practice resurrection. “Do not be afraid” Peter and James and John and Andrew and Philip and all the others went to practice resurrection. Stephen practiced resurrection and was killed for it.
Friends, it is simple (though not simplistic): The good news of Easter is that Jesus, who was crucified, died, and was buried, has been raised from the dead. And this resurrection changes everything – nigh, it is everything. Death does not have the final say. Death is not the final power. No, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Pardon and peace, joy and hope, love and life are the final realities of the world. It is complete!
Practicing resurrection: It is the story of William Wilberforce as he took on the aristocracy and the merchants to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It is the story of Martin de Porres, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta as they served the poor even in their own poverty.  It is the story of Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, and John Paul II in their passive resistance to tyranny. It is the story of Archbishop dom Helder Camara, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero as they died for those they did not know. It is the story of Juan and Clare and Maria and so many others who courageously fight for justice and peace in Polk County and who Campaign for Fair Food, fighting to end slavery in America today, guaranteeing a decent life for all – immigrant and migrant alike.
Practicing resurrection: Friends, it’s the story of you and me as we live out our baptismal covenant. It will be the story of Hannah Frances, who will be baptized tonight. Easter did not happen one morning 2,000 years ago. Easter does not happen just one Sunday in a year. Easter is ongoing. Easter happens happening over and over again throughout the life of the church and in every day of our lives. Easter is even after the chocolate bunnies have been devoured and when the jelly beans are gone. Easter is when even after the ham has been put away and the eggs have been colored.
Easter is whenever we give hope. Easter is wherever we bring joy. Easter is always in our love. Easter is with every new generation and in each new life as it is proclaimed: “He is alive!"
Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen, indeed!  Alleluia.

Why did Jeus have to die? - a sermon for Holy Thursday, 2014

I was asked not to long ago by a little child, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
What a question! This is perhaps the question of questions during the Triduum, these three holy days when we recall Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Why did Jesus have to die? What a great question! But it’s one of those questions that the more you look for an answer, the more there is to see. And to be honest, since talking with the child, I have seen so much more. But here is the response that I gave – or, at least, the one I would have given if I had written it down.
But friends, before I begin, let me implore you: Do not let this answer suffice. Keep asking the question. Keep looking to the story for the answer. Keep looking to the story of the bible for the answer. Keep looking to the story of your life with God for answers. Ask the question your whole life long. And look to the story – the story of Jesus, the story of you, the story of us – hoping to find the answer.
So, why did Jesus have to die? 
We talk about Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion and death a lot during Holy Week. We hear the story, in part or in whole so often, during this week: on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. The story is fresh in our hearts and in our heads and so we think about Jesus and his death. But, in the end, we must remember that the answer also has everything do with Easter, with the resurrection. Anyway, here are some of my thoughts about the question, Why did Jesus have to die? Remember, though, that they are just my thoughts. Keep asking and thinking about the question for yourself.
To start with, everybody knows that Jesus went about doing good works and telling the truth about life. Luke, one of those people who wrote about him, even said that people spoke of him as a prophet “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” A prophet is someone who tells the truth to powerful people who sometimes don’t like what they here. It makes them angry, or mad, or frightened. 
So in speaking the truth and doing mighty deeds, Jesus made some very powerful people very angry and they killed him to quiet him. And that, I think, is a good answer about why Jesus died. He was a truth teller.
But, you know, Jesus was more than just a truth teller. He did tell the truth. He challenged those in power. He was a prophet. But Jesus was more. You see, Jesus also loved people. Jesus loved ordinary people like me and the not-so ordinary people like you.
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And that is one of the thing, maybe even the thing that people noticed about Jesus from the very beginning. Jesus loved people; but, not just some people, Jesus loved everyone. Jesus loved even everyone including some people who seem pretty un-lovely. The Gospels, the stories about Jesus love, tell us that Jesus had a particular love called compassion. Compassion is the kind of love where you share pain and sorrow as well as joys and delights. But it is easier, if we’re to honest with ourselves, to share with people when they are happy and when everything is all good. But what people remembered about Jesus was that he loved them when things were hard, like when they were accused of sin or when they were sick or in need or like after their brother died. 
Most of the time, at least in the story of the Gospels, Jesus’ compassion led to action. People remembered that Jesus cured the sick, he helped the blind to see, and he even raised people from the dead after they had died. And most of the time Jesus made people well because his love for them made them realize that they were not alone, that Jesus was with them as they suffered and that our suffering could be overcome or, at least, it could be borne because of a love that makes us feel close and safe and cared for.
There are all sorts of people out there who think that they can make our lives better. Religious, political, and business leaders who can make us better if we just have more money or elect them or do as they say.
But Jesus taught that he had the way to make our lives better and whole. Do as he did! What Jesus did was not just for others but it was for us. What Jesus did was for us to do also. It is the extraordinary power we are given by God. And so Jesus gave us a new rule, a new task. He said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” All of a sudden Jesus takes away all the power of all those others who would presume to rescue us and he replaces it with the power of compassionate love. And this power belongs to all of us who love as he loved. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Jesus was killed because he showed that all the promises of all the leaders were less important than the promise that Jesus made to us and that we make to one another. The promise to be with one another in pain and sorrow as well as in joy and peace. The promise to follow the way set by Jesus. The promise to do as Jesus did and love everyone with compassionate love. Jesus never really told us what to believe; but, instead, Jesus showed us how to be and what to do. He showed us how to love one another and that that was a beginning of a whole new way of being.
Jesus didn’t have to die the way he did. He didn’t even have to die because he could have left. Jesus was executed. He was killed by those in power because he didn’t run away from the truth. And the people with the power, the armies, the people who hoard their money, the people who withhold knowledge, they do not like this kind of talk about compassion. They do not like it because those who love one another and are willing to suffer for one another, they just might give themselves for someone else in love without fear of death. Death has no control over them. Death has not the victory. And without fear, they have no power over us.
So Jesus accepted that his way, his way of love. And it was a dangerous way but if he ran from the danger it would be like living a lie. It would be like saying that he wouldn’t suffer as we do. As one writer said, “Having loved us, he loved us to the end.” They killed him but he lives still, raised in the compassionate love he asked us all to share.
Sometimes people say Jesus died for our sins. That’s one way to look at it – Jesus died because of our failure to love. “Why did Jesus have to die?” 
My answer just now is that Jesus died because he loved us. Jesus loved us, as un-lovely as we find ourselves to be sometimes, to his end. And now he asks us to love one another the way he loved us. Jesus gave his life to show us the way so that we would know what compassionate love looks like. And to demonstrate that the power of such love is stronger even than death. And we who share the power of love will stand by one another – one spirit, one body, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, showered in laughter and in tears, standing in joy, in grief, in pain, and whatever else might come. In the end that compassionate love, which is God’s love for us, will endure.
On Easter, at the Great Vigil, we will celebrate that love in a special way has Hannah Frances is brought through the waters of baptism, made one of Christ’s own forever. And we will give thanks to God for God’s compassionate love in Jesus, which is showered upon all creatures great and wonderful.
Why did Jesus choose to die? So that we might believe in love and in the one who loves.
Why did Jesus choose to die? So that we might believe in a love that endures.
Now, just as this story began with the question of a little child, let love be the beginning of a new question for you and let it be the beginning of a new story with new questions.