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.