Easter 2014: Do not be afraid

DO not be afraid.

Not the way you expect Easter to begin: do not be afraid.

After all, the hard part is over, the trial, the cross, the tomb, the harrowing of hell. What is there left to fear?

Yet twice in ten short verses the phrase appears: Do not be afraid.

Each evangelist tells the story a little differently; this year it’s Matthew’s turn.

In the Matthew account, after Jesus was placed in the tomb, a guard was set against the possibility of interference by his disciples. Worried that they might stage a resurrection, those who had manufactured the death sentence against him took steps to ensure that he remained dead and buried. So the women of Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, those faithful souls who attend the tomb in every account of it, they arrive empty-handed. They do not bring spices to anoint him. They do not wonder who will roll away the stone, because they know that’s not going to happen, with two guards keeping watch. They go to see the tomb because they simply want, need to be close to him, close to Jesus. They miss him. It’s as simple as that.

We have heard what happens next: the earthquake, the angels, the guards playing dead, quite sensibly under the circumstances. The women are told, “Do not be afraid.”

The guards are allowed to stay afraid, possibly because they have fainted and can’t hear the angels’ instructions not to be. In the part of the gospel we don’t read this morning, they return to their bosses, terrified that they have fallen down, literally, on the job. They concoct a story to say that exactly what they had feared was what had happened: Jesus’ body had been stolen, a resurrection faked.

Is that what we are afraid of, that we have been duped? That it wasn’t real, isn’t real, that our faith is based on a lie, a trick? None of the accounts in the Bible attempts to describe the moment of Resurrection. Some later gospel accounts do, some of the ones that are not in our Bible, but they are full of special effects and CGI; you can see the strings, and catch a whiff of smoke in the mirrors. Better, as Matthew does, to respect the mystery.

The women knew that the Resurrection was real not because of the earthquake and the angel, but because Jesus came to them. They sought him out, but it was he who found them. They knew him. He knew them, and he told them, “Do not be afraid.”

Why would they be afraid? They had longed for him, they had missed him so badly that they had gone to the tomb simply to be close to him, as close as they could manage when he was on the wrong side of the gravestone.

Were they afraid that Jesus would be angry? The women had done their best, but they had given up hope. They were looking for the living among the dead, expecting him to be there in his graveclothes. Or was his message for the men: Peter, who had denied him? The ones who ran away? Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss? Were they afraid that their sins would demand an accounting now that the Master had returned? They fell down at his feet.

But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” and he called his disciples brethren, family, still beloved. “Tell them to go home, to Galilee. Tell them I will be with them when they get home.”

Jesus reassures the women that he has come back not for judgment but for relationship, not for an accounting but for an embrace.

 

 

The message of the empty tomb is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Jesus has taken on everything that torments us, and he has defeated it, and he has returned to meet us. We seek him out, and he finds us, in our homes, in our own lives, as our brother, as our friend, as our God to remind us, always, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

Whatever it is that we fear, Jesus has defeated it. Not only death, but the pain of dying; it was not for nothing that he suffered; it was for us. Not only death, but the grave, the far side of dying; he descended to the dead, and rose again. Not only death, but life. Jesus knew all about betrayal, about hunger and homelessness. He knew about oppression, war and rumours of war, wondering what the world is coming to. He was experienced in false imprisonment, bereavement, grief and family strife. Whatever it is that we fear, Jesus has lived through it, died for it, defeated it.

And now on Easter morning he greets us, “Do not be afraid. Tell my brothers and sisters they will see me in Galilee, I will go home with them.”

Put off your mourning clothes and celebrate, in the midst of the empire, in the daily battles of life, even in the pain that dogs you and the weariness that defeats you – Jesus has defeated even those things, and invites us to celebrate with him. I can only imagine the party they put on as soon as they got home to Galilee, the welcome home banners they drew up, the fatted calf they roasted, those footsore and faithful, dazed and doubtful disciples.

With them we put off the mourning clothes of Lent and bedeck the church and feast on fattening chocolate eggs, we bewildered and bedazzled disciples. But Jesus did more than make a guest celebrity appearance at a party.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you,” says the Lord through the prophets.

Love that is everlasting; love that survives death. Faithfulness that reaches beyond the grave. How much more clearly can God say it than to live it in the person of Jesus, risen and returned to his friends, to his family, to bless their homes.

Jesus died and descended to destroy death. Jesus rose and lives with us to defeat our fear and strengthen not only our Easter but our everyday faith that in God through Christ we are forgiven, restored to our true selves, beloved.

Do not be afraid. It might not be the Easter message we were expecting; but it is Jesus’ first word to his beloved Marys on this Easter morning, and it is his word to us.

The Incarnation – the life of God in Jesus – the Cross and the Tomb, all say that God is absolutely and intimately involved with us. The Resurrection replies, And God is still God, and will always act beyond our imagination, doing impossibly unexpected new things in fearful and wonderful new ways.

“Go, tell my brothers and sisters I am coming to meet them.”

Tell them, do not be afraid: Jesus is alive!

Alleluia. Amen.

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Good Friday 2014

With condolences to all victims of violence and their families.

Last Sunday, a short while after the Passion Gospel was ended in churches across the nation, across the world, a man took a shotgun to the parking lot of a couple of Jewish community establishments and killed three randomly targeted people.

What does that have to do with reading the Passion Gospel? The man was reliably insane, repeatedly reported as an extremist and a hatemonger. We don’t know but that the timing might have been a coincidence. So what does it have to do with us, gathered here on Good Friday?

Try this: it didn’t take long, it took less than a generation for Jesus’ message of love, of forgiveness even from the cross, of prayer for an enemy, peace in times of persecution; it didn’t take long for those words to get buried under a mountain of righteous and ironic indignation on behalf of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

It is a frighteningly short step from righteous indignation to revenge.

In the garden, it is Peter who strikes out at a slave, a scapegoat for his anger and fear. But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus would die before he would have anything to do with such denigrating, violent oppression of another human being.

I don’t believe that any of us here is a crazy extremist, but we have all used other people, or groups of people, even people in our own families sometimes as scapegoats for our own anger and fear. We use the language of code to test out who is one of us and who is one of them. At our worst, we twist their differences from us into excuses for righteous indignation against them. We use the cross as a weapon with which to stake others through the heart, or we stand by in silence as others do the dirty work for us. Yet, in the words of James H. Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured.”*

Every time we use the cross, or stand idly by as the cross is abused as a weapon of oppression, prejudice or hatred, against anyone, we crucify God anew.

Sometimes we try justify our hatred of one thing, one group, one aspect of our humanity by our love of something higher; but real love does not beget hatred. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently illustrated on a radio phone-in show how using the cross as a tool for the appeasement of oppressors can land us in the moral marshlands, wet, sticky and muddy. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. It cannot be constructed out of lies. It cannot be based on insulting others, or undermining their stories, or denying their dignity.

The Archbishop was right about one this: how we talk about one another matters. How we are heard and seen to treat one another matters immensely. “By this shall they know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.”

The services for two of the victims of last Sunday’s violence took place today, Good Friday, I am told, at a church called the Church of the Resurrection. I am a big fan of irony, but I think that we may be sinking in it by now.

On Good Friday we celebrate the cross, yes, we are so thankful that Jesus was willing to suffer for us. But we are called to do more than to stand at the foot of the cross and wait for him to die so that we might live.

As Lent closes, we are called, again, to give up more than we ever have succeeded in leaving behind us before, and not only for forty days. We are called to give up those voices inside us that cry violence, that cynically scapegoat, that secretly insult our neighbor,that would crucify Christ anew. We are called to give up our pride, our paltry righteous indignation, our revenge, recognizing that these were not what Jesus chose to employ, but grace, and love. We are urged to give up using the cross as a weapon of oppression or as a tool for appeasement, allowing that Jesus intended that symbol of hopeless inhumanity to be a beacon of hope to all people.

We are called to take up the cross of love, to bear with gentleness the burdens of others, to forgive as often as we fall, to help one another, to hold one another up, as though we were Jesus’ mother and the disciple that he loved, leaning on one another at the foot of the cross.

Jesus had told them. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

Drawn to the foot of the cross, in sorrow, in trembling, let us draw close to one another in our grief and gratitude, and stay awhile with Jesus.

 

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011), 27

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Maundy Thursday: footprints

Almost all of you have heard this poem at one time or another, or seen it printed on pretty pages in the inspirational section of the bookstore or Christian gift shop. I refer, of course, to the both famous and infamous, “Footprints in the Sand.”

I would hate to offend anyone who draws comfort from the image of being carried like a child across the rocky parts of life’s beach. But because I have at times a slightly inappropriate sense of humour, I find myself drawn to some of the various parodies that have necessarily sprung up around such a ubiquitous text. My favourite is a cartoon that was going around the internet a couple of years ago, in which God tells the beloved child, “This, where there is one set of footprints; this is where I carried you. And that long groove over there? That’s when I dragged you along for a bit.”

There is, in this scene between Jesus and his disciples, there is in the backdrop to the tender moments a battle going on. The devil is at work behind the scenes, plotting to disrupt Judas’ relationship with Jesus, to sow betrayal and heartbreak even in the middle of the most intimate and loving moments that Jesus shares with his friends. Entering into an intimate relationship with Jesus, with anyone; entering into an intimate relationship with God, is not simply a sunset stroll along the beach.

It bothers Peter immensely. It bothers him that Jesus would both lead him and serve him – how can that be? Can’t Jesus do one or the other and leave it at that? Peter tries to hold him at bay, first by refusing his ministrations, and then by focusing on the water instead of the man pouring it – wash my head and my hands, too! Jesus laughs at him a little bit for that one. No, Peter. It is not about the water. It is about me, taking your feet in my hands, with your eyes in mine. It is about crossing that line of comfort that keeps me at a safe distance, praiseworthy but a little out of touch. It is about knowing that I would do anything for you; that I will lay down my life for you.

It makes Peter quite uncomfortable. How about you?

The act of foot washing makes many of us uncomfortable precisely because it is so unusual for us to hand over our feet to one another. It is more usually the prerogative of a mother bathing her child, or a daughter bathing her elderly father, a nurse caring for one who depends upon him, or maybe the undertaker. We do not often wash the feet of strangers.

When Jesus told his disciples, told us, that what he had done for us we must do for one another, he was not talking just about the water. He was not talking just about a yearly uncomfortable moment. He was inviting us to get real with one another; to become real to one another; to be a family of believers, bound by love for him, caring for one another with the love he gave us.

It is not without danger, nor without trouble that we enter into these relationships. The devil is at work behind the scenes, plotting to disrupt relationships, to sow betrayal and heartbreak even in the midst of our most profound moments with Jesus. And Jesus will not summon the hosts of heaven to drive him away. He chooses a longer road, and a harder one, but he chooses it for us, so that we will not lose him in a cloud of fiery archangels, but can walk with him every step of the way, as far as the cross on the hill.

When they placed him in his mother’s arms, a newborn child, she counted his fingers and his toes, kissed each one. When they laid him in her arms again, she counted the holes in his hands, in his feet, and kissed each one.

By the time the tomb was opened, no doubt there was a mess of footprints around and about, and one set strangely marked and marred.

“It was there that I carried you,” said the Lord.

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A sermon for the Palms and the Passion

At the beginning, the tempter had urged him to make bread, to bow down, to throw himself from the temple and be saved by the angels. In the end, the people would taunt him and tempt him to leave his cross of shame and show them all what he could really do. On the night that he endured as much stress as any one can handle, the knowledge that he was about to die, to leave his friends, his followers bereft, his legacy in tatters, smeared as a criminal, his mother in tears. In the garden, he wrestled with his own issues, wondering whether he could go through with it, whether he might take them up on it, either quietly, leaving them sleeping in the grass, or loudly, with legions of angels to cloud the air.

Instead, he stayed.

Despite the sting of the betrayer’s kiss, he stood still. Despite Peter’s denials, he would not deny himself. Despite their choice of another saviour, another Jesus, one who lived by the sword instead of by love, he loved them; he let them call him their king. Despite the taunting and the torment and the scourging, he would not leave his post.

Welcomed through one gate as with Hosannas, he was ushered out through another with hatred, yet he never turned his back on them.

God has never turned away from us.

Even in our deepest provocation, when we grieve the soul of God so deeply that the divine one can barely bear the cup of sorrows that we hold up, the gall and the bitterness; still God does not turn away. We see in the person of Jesus, in the Passion of Jesus, the endless endurance of a God who loves us, without reservation; who forgives us, without exception; who redeems us from the mouth of the grave, without counting the cost.

We see a God who stays with us.

What can we offer in return to one who gives us everything: in whom we live and move and have our being? What does he ask of us but this:

Sit here a while, and pray with me. Keep awake a while; stay with me.

It is so hard to stay still in a world that is constantly running around. It is harder still to sit with someone in their pain, their sorrow – our instinct is to turn away, to find something to do, to busy ourselves instead of listening, pull away rather than to draw closer. We fall asleep with the news on, begging us to pay attention to the need that surrounds us, the need for reconciliation, for justice, for peace. We fall asleep while the world pleads for our prayers.

This Holy Week, I would invite you to try to sit awhile with Jesus, to stay with him and pray, in this Sabbath of the Christian year, this seven-day set aside for the redemption of the world. Stay with Jesus, walk with him as he journeys the Way of the Cross. He has, after all, never left us lonely when we needed him; and the more deeply we can enter into his life, death and resurrection, the more keenly we will feel his presence in our own.

If you can bear to hear it, Dom Denys Prideaux OSB put it this way:

‘The Cross is the only key to prayer. You will never pray well unless you take the hammer and the nails, and the spear and the thorns, and the hyssop dipped in vinegar, and go to Golgotha stripped and bare, and in physical agony as well as agony of mind and soul, re-enact the Crucifixion in your own members, making up what is behind of the sufferings of Christ. You can only plead through Lips that were once parched and cracked and stained with blood – your prayer can only be heard if it is joined to that stream of intercession that pours forth unceasingly in Heaven from One who once was “slain.” Impassible though He be now, He is not unfeeling, and His very memories of Good Friday wing your prayers.’[1]

It is hard to find time, in a world run wild, to sit and to pray. And yet it is so little that Jesus asks of us, really, when all is said and done, and he asks of us nothing that he has not already done for us. All he asks is for us to stay with him a while.

The church will be open each day of the coming week, and each evening, one way or another. Services are offered Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, culminating in the Eve of the Resurrection, a foretaste of the Feast to follow, on Saturday night.

Sit here a while, and pray with me. Keep awake a little while longer; stay with me. Because if we sleep through Holy Week, the empty tomb makes no sense, the Easter bells ring hollow. But if we stay, we discover piece by piece, as Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote, to whom I’ll give the final word:

‘He wept, that we might weep no more; but God should be “very gracious to us at the voice of our cry.” … By that Cry did He, with His Own Blessed Spirit, commend our spirits also to the Father. For us, “though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered;” that “being made perfect,” He might become “the Author of Eternal Salvation to all them that obey Him.” His Shame is our glory; His Blood our ransom; His Sweat our refreshment; the Streams from His Side our Sacraments; His Wounded Side our hiding-place from our own sins, and Satan’s wrath; His Death our life.’[2]

 

[1] Dom Denys Prideaux OSB, ‘Prayer and Contemplation’ in Laudate (Quarterly Review), Nashdom Abbey, December 1944, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, complied by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; paperback 2003), 547

[2] Edward Bouverie Pusey, Sermons during the season from Advent to Whitsuntide, Oxford, 1848, pp. 120-3, quoted in Rowell et al., 398

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How to read a palm

Examine the heart; is it sappy, or made of stone?

Trace the veins that indicate the wisdom of Solomon,

or the mercurial folly of man.

Follow the lines of travel: do they cross?

If the life line looks long enough, break off the branch,

toss it in the street, to be trampled by donkeys and pilgrims.

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Lenten meditation

Today’s meditation, offered as part of a multi-authored series available through the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio @ http://www.dohio.org:

It is a day like no other, this Thursday in the fifth week of Lent. It isn’t one of the “big” days, like Ash Wednesday or Palm Sunday, or Fish-Fry Friday. Yet it is a day like no other.

On this day, in the garden, a plant shivered and began to bud in anticipation of the need for comfort and beauty ahead.

The man who owned the colt fed his animals and brushed the donkey’s tail. “Not long now,” he whispered, and the animal tossed its head and stamped impatiently.

The merchants and money changers began to stock up ahead of their busiest week of the year, grinning and cackling as they thought of the profit, and wondering why their wives looked at them strangely.

Somewhere, a baby was born. A child spoke her first word – “Abba.” An old man breathed his last, with a prayer that sounded like a sigh of relief. A woman had a fine dinner with friends and went to bed with a headache, to awaken never the same again.

For some, this will be remembered as a red-letter day. Others will misplace it in the jumbled narrative of a busy life. For some, it will be buried deep, and carried like a stone that splits the current of their river of beating blood.

It is a day like no other. When God created Time, that fitful and fine creature, and saw all of its minutes and hairbreadth moments stretching out (and it was good), God appointed this day to you. How will you live it?

The Rev. Rosalind Hughes. Priest-in-charge, Church of the Epiphany, Euclid

The odd thing is that I had forgotten (having sent it in six weeks ago) that I had slipped my mother’s stroke in there, in acknowledgement of its anniversary this week. It would be, for her, the beginning of an ending, the opening sentence of her next and last, eternal chapter. It is one of the quieter anniversaries that my father and I keep. She would have approved this message. Strange and rather lovely that eight years after her death, she is still teaching and inspiring me.

Wishing you all a blessed day.

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Year A Lent 5: Lazarus and other resurrections

Of course, they all would ask him about it, after the event. What was it like, being dead? Lazarus would tell them, “I don’t know what I can say to you about that. I can tell you what it was like to come back.
“You know, when you wake up but your dreams carry on, so that you can’t move your arms or your legs? I couldn’t move my eyelashes, let alone open my eyes. My mouth was sealed, my nostrils stuffed up with stale, sour bandages. I could hear him calling, and I had to get out there, I had to reach him. They make it sound, in the stories, as though I lifted to my feet as though pulled by an invisible string – nothing could be further from the truth. I was wrapped tightly like a swaddled newborn, and the best I could do was to roll and to squirm and to twist my way across the floor like a baby who has not yet learned how to crawl.
“When I reached the mouth of the cave, I could feel the sun’s warmth, hear the hissing breath of scores of men, and my sisters. I heard him again, telling them to unbind me, to set me free, and I have never been so grateful for the touch of a human hand.”
They would ask him, then, “What will you do now? What did you miss the first time around?”
Lazarus would get a faraway look in his eye. “I would awaken the sleepwalker, unbind his eyes. I would loosen the shackles of those bound by sin, or by fear. I would seek out and untie the ones who walk as though they are dead, because I have walked in their grave clothes.”

In a sermon preached in London in 1884, the Baptist minister Charles H. Spurgeon said,

In many things our Lord Jesus stands alone as a worker. No other can unite His voice with the fiat which says, “Lazarus, come forth!” Yet, in certain points of gracious operation, the Master associates His servants with Him, so that when Lazarus has come forth He says to them, “loose him, and let him go.” In the raising of the dead, He is alone, and therein majestic and Divine—in the loosing of the bound He is associated with them and still remains majestic—but His more prominent feature is condescension. How exceedingly kind it is of our Lord Jesus to permit His disciples to do some little thing in connection with His great deeds, so that they may be, “workers together with Him.”

Sometimes, something happens that stops us in our tracks. It may be the end of a relationship, a betrayal. Someone does a thing that makes us wonder if we ever really knew them. Or I do something that shakes my own self-image, makes me wonder about myself. Somebody dies, and you feel as though they might just as well lay you out right alongside them.

We wonder, can these dry bones live?

And yet, God demands our life, our resurrection. Lazarus had no more choice to resist the pull of Jesus’ command to live than the dry bones on the valley floor. Life goes on, and we go right on with it.

The question becomes, then, not one of whether to live or to die, but whether to live wrapped in a shroud or clothed in life.

Spurgeon went on:

A notable miracle was unquestionably worked, but it required a finishing touch. The man was wholly raised, but not wholly freed! Look, here is a living man in the garments of death! That napkin and other grave clothes were altogether congruous with death, but they were much out of place when Lazarus began to live again! It is a wretched sight to see a living man wearing his shroud. … Such was their condition that unless you observed carefully, you would think them still dead. And yet within them the lamp of heavenly Life was burning. Some said, “He is dead, look at his garments.” But the more spiritual cried, “He is not dead, but these bands must be loosed.”

It is Jesus who commands, who brings life, who is the Way and the Truth and Life – and yet he invites us to help one another, to loosen the bands of death, to change our clothes for the raiment of light and life. None of us does it alone. Even Jesus, who had no equal, relied on his friends to say, “Let us go also and die with him,” to roll away the stone from the tomb that held Lazarus in, to unbind the living.

There is much work to do. Whether it is lifting the dull darkness of lazy prejudice; it is our task, our call to remove the bandages that blind us to the beauty that God sees in each of us, in all of us, no exceptions. Whether it is teaching those who have lived in fear to stop holding their breath and believe what God has said, that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people;” to be the kind of friend, the kind of companion who will walk through the valley of dry bones, the valley of the shadow of death, when we are needed to give confidence and comfort to another. Whether it is loosening our own death grip on weapons of destruction and violence, opening ourselves instead to love and peaceful ways – we have seen yet again this week in Fort Hood a brutal reminder of the dead ends that war and weaponry can lead us down, and we know that there are many more threads that we never see, that wind in silence to the grave. Whether it is unstopping the mouths that need to cry out their truth, their love, their pain, their joy – it is our work to unbind them and set them free, those to whom God has given life, and life eternal.

When Jesus set his face towards Bethany, Thomas the Twin said, “We can’t let him go alone.” When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he made sure that he was surrounded by his family and his friends; he told them to go and lay hands on Lazarus, to unbind him, to unwind the winding cloth, so that he would know the tenderness of their touch, and know himself wrapped in love. Such is our work, to love one another, even our enemies, and our neighbours as ourselves, and not to hold back our help from the living dead, the walking wounded, the fettered and afraid, from one another.

The body count at the beginning of today’s readings is incredible – it is not just Lazarus, but there are dry bones and filled tombs everywhere – which only makes the miracle more stupendous. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” says Paul.

And so the glory of God is revealed, and we follow in the footsteps of Lazarus, helping each other off with our grave clothes and working out, every day, how to shun the shadow of the tomb and live in the light of life.

And Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Amen.

Ref.: Charles H. Spurgeon: http://www.gospelweb.net/SpurgeonMTP30/spursermon1776.htm

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