Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Joy is the Power

The thing gardeners do during winter in most everywhere in the United States is wait. Tulip and daffodil bulbs lay under snow and ice, dead to the world. Berries and asparagus become dried sticks, barren. In that season Advent prepares us for the hope of Christmas, the hope that light conquers darkness, that the sun will once again return to warm newly fertile earth. There is a magical quality to the contrast between light and dark, warmth and cold, that adds to the cheeriness of that season. The comforting promise is repeated: all will be made well. 

But spring is different. Seeds planted around Ash Wednesday have silently, slowly stretched roots deeper while reaching toward the well-lit surface. Stems have grown taller, widened into stout stalks. Leaves now extend to soak up the sun. Gardeners in the spring aren’t waiting anymore . . . no, they’re smiling and laughing and enjoying the unmistakable signs of life sprouting around them. The work of Lent has borne another season of growth, thanks be to God, but that is not why we are celebrating this morning. And we are not celebrating a comforting promise of hope either. No. We are celebrating something else entirely, something beyond the expressible, something radically unexpected, something defying the first and concretely steadfast natural law that every one of us learned as a kid, the law that every living thing must die. And stay dead. No exceptions. Even sons of God. 


Almost everything about the Christian story can be explained away somehow. There is nothing particularly unique about a poor first-century Palestinian Jew with an inspiring message and a knack for healing. And this man, Jesus, was clear that he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, much less a new religion. But something happened that propelled us to these pews today. Quite a force, apparently, that still resonates across two thousand years. Resurrection. Resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead. 


He lived. He died. He lives. 


If you have trouble believing this, so do I. There’s no way to believe it with your head. Because the job of your twenty-first century’s head is to separate out the important stuff from the fluff, the agenda-riddled commercial and political ads that bedevil us. 


But help me with this. What was the agenda of a bunch of faithful Jews in Jerusalem confronted with the empty tomb that first Easter morning? I know if I were one of them my first response would not be appropriate to share from this pulpit. Because nothing good was going to come from telling the Roman authorities, or the religious authorities, that this man Jesus who was dead, was, according to him, alive. Yes, according to him, because we’ve just been talking to him. Yep, that wasn’t going to be a great message to tell the folks who just put a lot of effort into killing him. 


There was only one power that propelled those first women and men to tell their friends about what happened: joy. Just joy. Joy! Nothing else. What else could it have been? And do you know when you experience something and tell a friend about the story and it can be quite striking, but when they tell their friends it’s a little less compelling, and the energy and enthusiasm and accuracy of the tale fades away in the retelling? That didn’t happen. How can that be? How can that be? The story sustained its persuasiveness. 


I’ll tell you how the Church understood this to have happened, and I can’t think of a better reason myself. Somehow the risen Jesus was making himself known to more and more people. Sure, there were some good storytellers out there who could tell quite a compelling tale about it all, but there was something else at work, there is something else at work, God’s very Spirit, making Jesus himself known to the hearers of this unbelievably good news. What other explanation could there be? I mean, the four Gospels are good, but between you and me, they’re not that good. Not good enough to sustain two thousand years of this movement’s growth. 


But you know this already, because you’re here this morning. You’re not here because someone told you that two thousand years ago a wise and plucky Jewish teacher died and rose again. No, you’re here because Jesus has made himself real to you in some way. Or because resurrection has made itself real to you in some way.

 
Because resurrection is something we’ve seen. We’ll witness it tomorrow as 36,000 Boston Marathon runners safely cross the finish line. We’ve seen it in the lives of sobered alcoholics, healed victims, the re-housed homeless. We’ve seen it in our own lives, how the inexplicable has come to pass anyway, and for our own good, however we understood it at the time. We’ve watched how our mistakes, our fears, our sins do not have the last word, that somehow lightning hasn’t struck and we are still living and breathing, thanks be to God. 


So if I may let me tell you what I know -- that God raised Jesus from the dead. Not in some metaphorical, hazy, figurative or poetical way. No. God raised Jesus from the dead. I trust this with all that I am. I know of no other explanation for the behavior of millions of thoughtful people over millennia, starting with those first flabbergasted disciples faced with an empty tomb. I know of no other way to explain my sense of Jesus’ loving presence in my life, reminding me again and again that I am not my fears, I am not my sins, but I am alive and loved and live in Christ, the Risen One. 
No, Easter is not like Christmas. Easter is unlike any other day, any other season, any other event recorded in the history of our people. My friends, the waiting is over. The hoping is over. The living has begun. Living our lives out from under the shadow of death. Living our lives free from the fear that enslaves. Beginning to live our lives in love, like the love we feel for those dearest to us, that kind of love, living our lives with that kind of love for everyone. 


The miracle of life, the miracle of the seed that dies deep in the earth so that it might grow, this miracle is what will feed us in the days, and weeks, and months ahead. The harvest is so plentiful. Be filled by it. Be filled by its joy. There is enough for all and then some. Even death cannot rob us, finally, of life in God, the One who loves us as much as Life itself. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Lenten Meditation on Resurrection

What does the resurrection have to do with Lent?  it’s jumping out at us with the story of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel and in the raising of Lazarus.  In Lent, resurrection is about suffering and hope.  


Resurrection begins with suffering -- it begins with those very many, very dry bones lying in the valley.  The valley was full of them.  Resurrection begins with a beloved friend who becomes unexpectedly ill and dies while we are away so that we cannot be near his side for his final breaths.  It begins with a teenager addicted to meth who can’t seem to shake the pull for another hit.  It begins with a Savior who teaches and heals but is still misunderstood so that he is tortured and crucified for his trouble.  Resurrection reaches down to the depths of our suffering and sits with us there.


Resurrection invites hope.   Ezekiel is shown the wasteland so that he might comprehend the sorrow buried there, and then is offered the chance to address the bony devastation with a powerful, prophetic word.  Could that word revive God’s people?  Family and friends of Lazarus gather to weep over a life ended too soon, and hear that Jesus is on his way.  He couldn’t still do something to help, could he? The drug-addicted teen, now in college, finally admits to a friend her inability to control herself and agrees to enter rehab. Is this the beginning of her road to recovery?  Disciples huddle in hidden chambers and remember together what Jesus said about rising again.  What did he mean?  Resurrection troubles our sense of certainty about what comes next.  It plants a seed of hope that cannot help but grow toward the light.  

Resurrection also tells us about God.  It tells us that God does not give up on us when we fail, when we let God and others down.  It tells us that there is much that we don’t understand about how the world works, that there is mystery here among us with real power.  It tells us that Love is no flimsy Hollywood concoction, but rather a tough-as-nails companion on life’s stony roads.  And God tells us about resurrection.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” declared Jesus.  What do we do with resurrection during Lent?  We pay attention to suffering, and we search for hope.



As some of us heard from Father Benedict at last Sunday’s forum, Lent is not a time to cause ourselves suffering  -- there is enough already in the world!  Instead, Lent is a time to pay more attention to suffering that already exists -- perhaps suffering we have yet to acknowledge in our own lives.  What in our own life causes us great pain?  And surely Lent challenges us also to notice anew the suffering around us.  What do we see in our family, in our community, in our country and across the globe that cuts us to the core?  


Church can help cultivate a fresh sensitivity to the pain of others: Holy Week is fast approaching  -- Our Lord’s suffering is soon upon us -- and our full participation in worship will help us cultivate new eyes to see the very many dry bones that surround us.  I invite you to clear your schedule as best you can for the evening of Maundy Thursday, all day on Good Friday, and all day on Holy Saturday.  Then join us at the Great Vigil of Easter that Saturday night.  These three days pack the whole Christian story into a strikingly moving drama.


Now God doesn’t want us to be only suffering spotters -- God calls us to search out the tiny seeds of hope buried deep within the earth of that dried-bone valley and deep within the tomb in that cave.  And here is why there is reason to hope: God is never the cause of suffering.  And here is another reason: God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus is the resurrection, Jesus is the life.  Which means that our search for hope in life’s saddest, darkest places is really our search for Jesus among us.

That college student who ended up in rehab?  She didn’t have an easy go of it -- for the next twelve years she struggled to maintain her sobriety, falling and getting up again, praying even and sometimes often, winding her way into and out of church.  Addiction was no easy burden to bear.  When she ended up in jail overnight on an overdose, she prayed like she hadn’t before.  And she noticed Jesus beside her like she hadn’t before.  She discovered a new reason to hope that with God’s help, and with the help of a 12-step group, she could indeed remain sober.  She has, and last year a nearby church baptized her at the Easter Vigil.


There is no easier road ahead for her; baptism is no magic bullet; but she has new eyes now to see the world around her anew -- a world filled with great pain, and underneath, a thousand seeds struggling to the light.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Encounter, Story, Curiosity: Going Public in Epiphany

The process had started innocently enough.  Lily Myers, a 20-year old sophomore at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, wrote a quite personal poem about her family.  Then that poem, entitled “Shrinking Women,” won the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April.  The three-minute video of her winning performance was posted on YouTube.  Over the summer, more people steadily watched the video.  Then a friend sent it to an alum who worked at the Huffington Post, one of the most popular online sources for news and cultural commentary.  The Post recommended it in October.  Then Upworthy, another popular online page, recommended it.  The video went viral and now has 3.5 million views.  Another hundred thousand this week alone.  For a poem.  By a college student.  A serious poem about gender stereotypes and body image.  On Monday, Robin Young of NPR’s Here and Now interviewed the poet, who’s still in shock.  She wrote a poem about an encounter with the truth that resonated deeply with her, and as she shared it, her story resonated deeply with others.  Lots and lots of others.

*********
Now John the Baptist had been sent by God to baptize folks with water to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  He’d know who this was by a sign: when you see the Holy Spirit descend and remain on someone, that’s your man.  How much time passed between this divine insight and Jesus’ arrival?  Who knows?  But Jesus does arrive, and the Spirit does descend on him like a dove, and the public encounters with the Christ begin.  John, wide-eyed, becomes Christ’s first evangelist.  “Behold!  The Lamb of God!” John would cry out, pointing.  
When Jesus came back the next day, and when John blurted out his incredulous proclamation yet again, two of his disciples heard.  And followed Jesus out of the curiosity John’s story had kindled in them.  Who was this man?!  Seeking an encounter themselves with the Holy One, the Anointed One, the Christ, they scuffle slowly along the dusty path some distance behind Jesus until he turns around and says, “What are you looking for?”  And when Jesus invites them into his life, they remain the rest of the day.  Now these two ex-disciples of John are the wide-eyed ones.  Andrew runs back to the house to grab his brother Simon: “You’ve got to come and see!  We’ve found the Messiah!”  Simon runs to Jesus, and his encounter leaves him utterly changed.  Jesus marks this by changing his name to Peter.

And so it went: every encounter with Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word, God’s Truth incarnate, sent each person out to his or her friends and neighbors, coworkers and cousins with a new story.  These new stories kindled fresh curiosity that drew more and more people into an encounter with our Savior.  Encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity: for two thousand years.  And here we are today.

Why are you here?  Did someone in your past tell you a story that kindled the curiosity that drew you near to God?  You sought then God in prayer, or in Scripture, or in an inspired conversation or in a startling act of compassion.  Do you now have a new story to tell?

Or are you here out of curiosity?  Have you heard a story of healing or forgiveness or love that seemed too good to be true?  Did someone tell you in all seriousness that God loves you no matter what?  If you’re curious, you’ve come to the right place: like John the Baptist, the Church has helped point people toward encounters with God for a long, long time.  It does this through its members and its Holy Scripture and through its sacraments.  So take that first step and introduce yourself to one of our members at the welcome table outside.  Join us at the rail for communion and taste holiness.  Walk to the healing station and receive a prayer for wholeness and health.

Or maybe you’ve done these things and you’re wondering what’s next.  Have you ever read a Bible story a few times and then imagined yourself as part of the story, perhaps observing from the back of the room as Jesus heals the paralyzed man or turns the wedding water into wine?  Scripture’s stories can also generate new curiosity that will lead us back into bright encounters with God.

And some of us here have already had an encounter or two with the holy, and we have stories to share, but we cannot tell them for they do not make sense to us and we’re sure they won’t make sense to others.  If that’s true for you, I’d like to invite you to participate in a wonderful experience of group discernment that we call our Listening Hearts ministry.  Over a few hours of your time on a Saturday God is present with you and a few trained and caring parishioners who are praying that the Spirit help you understand and articulate more clearly a truth already inside of you. In the silences and questions and even confusion, epiphanies emerge. I wonder what you might discover about yourself and about your encounters with the holy if you participated in a Listening Hearts session?

And such self-awareness can be very, very powerful.  Look at what some honest reflection by the college poet Lily Myers led to!  Indeed, it is stories that allure us, inspire us, and compel us to action.  Stories that mean something, that mean what they say because they come deep from within who we are.  Now is the time, during this season of Epiphany, the season of the Church that invites us to make known Christ to the world, that we might revisit our own story of faith, to remember and retell anew our treasured experiences of God-with-us.  God calls us to share these stories with those around us.  Curiosity will follow.

In this age of social media, sharing our stories is easier and more influential than ever.  As Christians, we represent Christ and the Church to the world.  How will we share, like, tweet, and otherwise send out our treasured stories into the world to God’s greater glory?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Remembering the Familiar

Text from a sermon delivered during the Christmas Eve family service

Welcome. Welcome to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We are delighted you are here with us on this holy night. 

But you’ve been here before. Well, maybe not this place, or if you have been to the Cathedral, maybe it’s been a while. Or maybe you’ve sat on another church’s wooden pews (or folding chairs, as the case may be), and smelled the piney wreaths, or stared at the stained glass. And even if you’ve never stepped foot into a church until now, you’ve still been here before. Because as a child you knew that something great was happening on this night. Something you couldn’t explain but felt with great certainty. Then you waited expectantly beside brothers and sisters or cousins for your parents to finish dinner or get out of bed the next morning so you could open a present; then you let the music of the season write its melodies deep within you; then you wondered on a cold, clear night just what that wild star over Bethlehem would have looked like. 



But you grew up, and like a shepherd you’ve roamed untamed hillsides and managed dangerous valleys trying your best to keep your flock and yourself together. It wasn’t easy, it isn’t easy. Some nights you awoke and only the great questions sat beside your bed. Other nights, you were surprised by the sense that God’s great Love wouldn’t let you go. 


And when the angels came dazzling white and powerful and pointing toward a small stable on the outskirts of town, you drew near to that place, relenting, and put down your pack and gazed on the face of the Christ Child, quiet and vulnerable and unspeakably holy, and you were undone. There, there, you have been there before. 


We have been here before, year after year, century after century, a people overcome by curiosity with the Child born two millennia ago. Come! Come closer and see! See his fingers tiny and perfect, his just-opened eyes. Hear a cow lowing, a sheep bleating, a donkey stomping. Take in the starlight radiating from this simple shelter, the relief on the face of the father, the calm love pouring forth from the mother. Warm your hands, wait for a nod from his parents, and place your fingers gently on his chest. Touch him. 


It is unsteadying this memory that is not just another story in a book, or even another reading from the Bible, this memory that already resides inside each of us, housed deep and waiting for us to return and be made strong yet again by its blessed food. Now it is time to feast together. 


In minutes we will invite the children to join us at the altar while we prepare the feast for God’s people. This is the feast of more than enough, the feast of plenty and then some, the feast that celebrates the day when God’s Son, God’s only Son, whom God loves, came to be among us. 


Our elders once said that a little child would lead us. Here he is, where we have been before, this place where a memory will not fade but will only grow, inviting us again and again into the mystery of God-with-us, into the dear truth that God loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine. It is the truth that rings out in golden, glorious song on this cold, clear night when we search, and find, a wild star within the cosmos, a hopeful Light within the darkness, the Christ Child in a bed of straw. 


We are never alone. God has been here before. To be with us. So come, young and old, and let us adore Him. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

People's Prayers for Sunday, the Seventh Week of Easter

Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C)

Prayers of the People

O Holy One, we pray for your Church universal;
that its members may be strengthened to carry out your mission in the world.

Give the leaders of all nations wisdom, patience, and wide hearts;
that peace and justice may reign, and all peoples flourish.

Grant safety, stability, and sufficiency to every home, neighborhood, region, and country, especially in Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Nigeria;
that every person may seek after you and find you.

We pray that your good creation may be honored and conserved;
that our children's children may enjoy the riches of nature's blessings.

We pray for all in distress, and particularly for the victims of sexual violence, the incarcerated, the abducted, the hungry, and those without access to adequate health care;
that all needs may be met through the power of your Holy Spirit and the generosity and courage of your people.

Grant the departed rest eternal;
let your never ending peace be with them, now and always.