Monday, April 18, 2016

To Be One

"The Father and I are one."
--John 10: 30

This is quite possibly the most significant statement in the whole the Gospel According to John.  When it was written around the year 110 (some 40 years after the First Gospel, Mark), it reflected the ever-growing chasm between the Jewish establishment and the community of John's Gospel--which was a VERY different community from that of the earlier synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

This statement creates a new narrative about who Jesus is.  For the community of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is not just a prophet, or the Son of God, or the Messiah.  He is all of these things, but he's more; in fact, he and God are one and the same.  Raymond Brown points this out in his book The Community of the Beloved Disciple He notes that Jesus' own prayers in the Fourth Gospel are different, that there is no distinction between Jesus' will and the Father's will,  A good example is when he is in the garden.  In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, he prays "Father, not my will, but your will be done."  But in John he prays, 'It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!'  So for the community of this gospel, Jesus and God are one.  What Jesus wills on earth, God wills in heaven, and vice versa.  The fancy church would for this is communicatio idiomatum.  Basically, it means that there is no distinction between the earthly Jesus and God. 

Equating Jesus with God would ultimately drive the final wedge between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish establishment.  Many Jews were ok with the concept that Jesus was the messiah, that this peaceful rabbi showed us through his life and teachings what the kingdom of heaven really looked like.  But once Jesus was equated with God--which a lot of folks saw as polytheism, that Christians were actually worshipping two Gods, not one--the establishment couldn't take it.  So followers of the Christ God, as he was often called, were thrown out of their synagogues and forced into hiding, fearful of the consequences of publicly proclaiming their Christian faith.  Thus, the community of John's gospel is writing from a place of pain, deeply grieved that they have been kicked out of their synagogues and abandoned by their religious leaders.  Yet what sustained them was this unique image of Jesus, who throughout the gospel is calm, collected, and always in control because he is, after all, God.

So there's your lesson for the day in christology; that is, the way that Christ is interpreted, experienced, and understood by a given community.  John's christology, how that community saw Jesus, was different from the other gospels, and it would have significant ramifications for the Church.  The idea of Jesus and God being one in the same is reflected in our Creed when we speak of Jesus as "God from God" and "of one being with the Father."  Understanding the christology of the gospels is important because it helps us better see how those communities viewed Jesus.  Those viewpoints also impact how we experience Jesus in our own day.  Still, it's worth asking what kind of significance that line--"The Father and I are one--actually has for our lives here and now.  

It's true that this line is meaningful because it reminds us of the the fact that Jesus is, actually, God and not just some really awesome rabbi and faith healer.  But I do think there's more to this line than just that fact, and I think that there is a real, modern-day application for us beyond just the notion that Jesus=God.  That modern application lies in relationship.

When I was a senior in seminary we were studying for our general ordination exams--these are 7 essay questions spread over 5 days, and they cover a variety of topics like ethics, Scripture, and liturgy.  We were going over old questions with one of our professors, Archbishop Peter Carnley, who was a scholar on the Trinity.  After each question he'd ponder for a minute and say, "If you talk about the Trinity, you should be ok."  Every.  Single.  Question.  The same thing.  Until he finally threw his arms up and said, "Everything begins with the Trinity."  What he meant was that everything begins with relationship.  Every conversation about God and humanity begins with relationship.  

God in Trinity exists in relationship in order to show us what relationships are meant to look like.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another, and they do so in such a way that is difficult for us to even comprehend.  That love is so great that they move through one another--the Spirit sometimes works through Jesus (as we see in John's Gospel) but other times she works through the Father (as in the times when the Spirit speaks through the prophets or appears on the Day of Pentecost).  We're also told that it is Jesus who was in the beginning, a co-creator with the Father, and our Creed reflects that with the line that Jesus is the one "through whom all things were made." They also love in such a way that they surrender to one another, as Jesus surrenders to the will of God the Father before his crucifixion.  Theirs is a relationship that asks nothing of one another and expects nothing in return.  So when Jesus says that he and the Father are one he is not just speaking of his own divine nature, but he also means they are one because of the love that they share and the surrender that he shows.  The bond that unites the Son to the Father in this single momentous line of Scripture is love.

We are bound to one another in our relationships,  when we love one another, and when we are capable of surrendering our wills for the sake of the other.  God's hope for the world is that we will live in love the way God and Jesus live in love.  Jesus' words "The Father and I are one." come from a place not of philosophy or theology but of relationship.  The Good News for us today is that we, who are the Body of Christ, are afforded the opportunity on a daily basis to live and love in the same manner--love God, yes, but love one another as well--and to surrender our will for the sake of someone else.  The relationship between Jesus and God is the model for all of our relationships.  This is how we are meant to live and to love.

The relationship between Jesus and God is the kind of relationship that makes you say, 'I can't tell where one ends and the other begins.'  That's the kind of love we see in the Trinity, as we often can't tell where one Person ends and the other begins.  This is God's dream for us, that we will love the same way.  I in you, and you in me, so that we may be one, and Jesus and God are one.

The communicatio idiomatum is one of those mysteries of our faith.  We could ponder it and argue it, but ultimately we cannot fully understand it.  What we can understand, however, is relationship.  We can understand that the perfect love shown between Jesus and God is the kind of love we are meant to have, not just for our families and friends, not just for our church folks or those who agree with us, but for everyone, especially those whom it is really, really hard to love.  If we can surrender our own wills, even a little bit, and freely offer ourselves for the sake of someone else, then we'll start to love the way God does, and we'll begin to understand just what Jesus meant.  And we will be one. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Power of Grace: Nobody Is Beyond Redemption

"Now as Saul was going along and approaching Damascus , suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul!  Saul!  Why do you persecute me?'  He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?'  The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.'"
--Acts 9: 3-6

"When they had finished breakfast Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these?'  He replied, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.'  Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.'  A second time he said to him, 'Simon bar Jonah, do you love me?'  He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you kow that I love you.'  Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon bar Jonah, do you love me?'....And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'  Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'...After this he said to him, 'Follow me.'"
--John 21: 15-17, 19

Back in the fall I began making a monthly visit to Randolph Correctioinal to see an inmate there.  His name is Stefan, and he's been incarcerated since 1977.  He is the first to admit that he's guilty of the crimes that landed him in prison, but he'll also tell you that when he entered prison at age 20 he was angry at the world, a broken human being, and since then he has not only found meaning and purpose--mainly through his work with the prison's art and woodworking shop--but he has found a new relationship with God.  He got confirmed several years ago by a bishop who befriended him on a weekend prison ministry retreat, and he prays and studies Scripture everyday thanks to a Prayer Book and Forward Day by Day provided by Good Shepherd.  Stefan is one of the best examples I have ever seen of the transformative power that God wields in relationships:  the relationship he had with that bishop, the relationship he has with the prison's chaplain, and the relationship he has with me when we share the Sacrament and have conversation.  I can tell you that he is not the same person he was when he entered prison all those years ago. 

Some may say that folks like Stefan are beyond redemption, especially given that he has been up for parole each of the last 20 years and has been denied each time. Surely there must something inherently evil and terrible about such a person.  But what we hear in Scripture today is something different, for we hear the call stories of two individuals on whom so much of our faith is based--Saint Paul and Saint Peter.  These are two guys that we could easily say were beyond redemption,  yet Jesus shows us otherwise.

We hear the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus from the Acts of the Apostles.  At that time he was called Saul.  He was a Pharisee, and  a staunch opponent of the Jesus movement--or The Way, as they called it.  There's strong evidence that suggests he was responsible for the death of Stephen, who is regarded as the first martyr of the church, and here we find him heading to Damascus to round up any Jesus followers and drag them back to Jerusalem. This is not a saintly individual. Yet Jesus speaks to him, causing this guy who had intended to enter the city like an avenging angel, to be led by the hand, blind and helpless.  And from that vulnerability--and the welcome of a Jesus follower named Ananais, who had every right to reject this persecutor of his faith--Saul's life is over, transformed into something new, and Paul's life begins.

In our reading from the Fourth Gospel the resurrected Jesus appears on the beach to his disciples and has breakfast with them, and afterwards he calls over Simon Peter and asks him, 'Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these?'  Three times he asks him, and three times he gives him a charge:  feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.  Simon the fisherman, who is a coward and denied ever even knowing Jesus, who ran away in Jesus' most vulnerable hours, who was always quick to show off in front of the other disciples, who dared get between Jesus and his mission and for that Jesus called him 'Satan' is the guy Jesus is calling to shepherd his flock. He is to be Peter, Kephas, the Rock, the first among the bishops of the church.  Having listened to the story up to this point, we would hardly peg this guy to be the one to shepherd Jesus' people, nor would be think him likely to head out into the streets of Jerusalem and ignite the first fires of the Church on Pentecost.  Yet Jesus' call transforms this coward into the Rock.

Were Peter and Paul beyond redemption?  It's easy for us now to say 'Of course not!'  But hindsight is 20/20, after all.  Their actions, on paper, suggest otherwise, at least by our standards.  Because our standards are pretty harsh.  Remember O Brother Where Art Thou? There's a great line in that movie that goes:  'Baptism may have put ya square with the Lord but the state of Mississippi is a little more hard-nosed.'  By our standards their actions are deplorable and beyond redemption.  But Jesus' standards are not ours.  Peter and Paul are proof enough for us that nobody is beyond redemption.

When we say that certain folks are beyond redemption we diminish the power of the cross.  What Jesus did was not just for those who followed him at the time, and it wasn't for those whose sins were, how shall we say, minor.  The love he poured out on that cross was for all, for the worst of the worst.  For Peter, for Paul, for Stefan, for you and for me.  None of us is without blemish, yet we are all redeemed.  Not because we deserve it, but because that's how grace works.   And God's grace is poured out on everyone, not just those of us who are eager to grasp it.

The Diocese of North Carolina designated this past Sunday as Prison Ministry Sunday, which seems fitting given the stories we're hearing, stories of individuals that were not chastised for their sins but embraced and loved and called to be something more.  Jesus does not hold up Paul's role in Stephen's murder, nor does he remind Peter of his abandonment.  Jesus does not deal in punishment.  Our hope, our prayer, for our correctional facilities is that reconciliation and reform, not punishment and dehumanizations, will be their goals.  This is why prison ministry is so important, because it is sometimes the only place where broken men and women can find a sense of hope.  When we make someone feel less than human we take away that hope and we kill any chance of rehabilitation.  But when we treat even the worst of offenders as a brother or sister, the way Ananais treated Saul, we can begin to stop the cycle and plant seeds of reconciliation.

It is possible.  There was a woman in Georgia named Kelly Gissendandr, who was killed by the state last year for her role in the murder of her husband.  During her time behind bars, Kelly got a degree in theology from Emory and worked to bring hope to the other women on death row.  She never denied her guilt, but she did stress that she was no longer the same person she was when she first entered prison.  She reconciled with her family, who pleaded that her life be spared, saying that she was proof that the system can actually work to rehabilitate people and bring them to reform and newness of life.  Testimonials from other inmates spoke of her kindness, her remorse, and her certainty that Jesus still loved her, which gave them hope where they never had any.  Nobody is beyond redemption.

Kelly Gissendaner hugs a loved one after receiving her theology degree from Emory.  

There is a church just over the South Carolina border whose sign reads:  Dirty rotten sinners welcome.  It hammers the point home even better than our generic 'All are welcome', doesn't it?  This place makes it very clear who has a place there. After all, those who are well have no need of a physician.  Jesus does not call perfect people but broken ones.  That's what the cross and Easter are all about:  life and hope coming from death and loss.  Those standards may not work in the world, but Jesus has, blessedly, changed the standards and turned them on their heads.  The world around us holds up our sins against us, and as far as many are concerned we are defined by worst thing we have done.  But in Jesus we are more than the worst thing we have done, more than our past sins--Peter and Paul make that point for us.  Jesus can take even the worst of us and use him or her--as he used Kelly in Georgia, as he uses Stefan here in Asheboro, and as he uses countless others in correctional facilities the world over--to show what forgiveness and grace really look like. 

So the next time we are ready to judge someone else for their wrongs, or the next time we are all too eager to punish ourselves and use our sins to beat ourselves up, remember that nobody is beyond redemption.  Nobody. Not you. Not me. Not the worst offender you can think of.  Because our Lord has redefined the standards. That's the power of the cross, the power of the love of Jesus Christ for even the worst of us sinners.  That's the power of grace.  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Embracing Doubting Thomas

Doubting Thomas.  Its not exactly a term of endearment.  If someone called you a Doubting Thomas I would reckon youd take offense.  Because a Doubting Thomas is someone who denies the truth unless there is hard, empirical data, staring him or her in the face.  It isnt a monikor most of us would embrace.

But today I'd like to invite us to rethink what a Doubting Thomas is, to actually embrace this term.  Because I think that Thomas is a pioneer, an example of what faith is all about, and the apostle with whom we are most meant to identify.  Thomas is what a follower of Jesus looks like. 

It's a familiar story, one that only appears in the Fourth Gospel.  Jesus appears to the remaining apostles, who out of fear have locked their doors.  But Thomas, one of the youngest apostles, is not there.  Where could he be?  Perhaps he is out mourning on his own.  Perhaps he is so filled with grief over the loss of his rabbi, his friend, and his Lord, that he cuts himself off from his brothers.  When he is done with his solitude he returns, and his brothers tell him that they have seen the Lord.  But Thomas won't believe it, and why should he?  He's been through hell.  He's experienced extraordinary grief.  Imagine if he let himself believe Jesus was actually alive, only to find out that the other disciples were wrong.  That kind of pain would be unbearable!  So Thomas refuses to believe until he experiences the resurrected Jesus himself. A week later Jesus returns and offers his wounds for Thomas to touch.  But Thomas doesn't touch Jesus' wounds.  He doesn't have to. Instead, filled with awe and wonder and overcome with jubilation and love for Jesus, he exclaims, 'My Lord and my God!'  And he believes.

Thomas is a model of faith.  He refuses to say that he understands or believes something that he does not understand or believe.  He has doubts and is not afraid to admit them.  Who among us here does not have doubts?  I have doubts!  I have so many questions about the nature of God.  If I told you that I have no questions, I'd be lying.  By admitting I have questions I am being honest with myself and with God.  Thomas, simply put, is being honest.  He does not believe something just because someone tells him to believe it.  He dares to doubt and question, and in doing so he finds his faith, finds the Truth (with a capital T).  Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, 'There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.'  Doubt and faith do in fact go together.

Historically, though, Thomas has been given a back rap.  We have tended to emphasize Jesus' words, 'Blessed are those who believe and have not seen.'  Those words, after all, are for us--as well as the community of the Fourth Gospel--and all those who have not seen the physically resurrected Jesus.  Still, such a sentiment makes it sound as though Jesus is chastising Thomas for daring to doubt.  Thomas' doubt, therefore, becomes the equivalent of denial, and over time he has joined Judas as an example of how NOT to be true follower of Jesus. Thus, if we ourselves doubt or question, we must somehow not be truly faithful Christians. To say, 'I'm not sure,' becomes the equivalent of saying, 'There is no God!'  Certainly there are Christians who still hold this definition of faith today.  To have faith, some argue, is to never ask questions, but to believe no matter what.  Thomas is wrong, some say, and so are all those who doubt or ask questions.

Well, if Thomas is wrong it's not for doubting.  If he's wrong, it's for leaving.  His mistake is not the refusal to believe, it is the withdrawal from the community.  He chooses loneliness over togetherness, and by doing so he misses Jesus' appearing.  How many times have we done that?  We feel so overwhelmed by grief or sorrow, or shame or fear, that we cut ourselves off.  We say things like"  "I can do it myself!" or "I don't want to bother someone with my problems."  Like a well-bred animal we venture off to deal with our wounds, to suffer in silence, alone.  I suspect that this must have been what Thomas was feeling when he left the other disciples to deal with his own grief, and it is likely how we feel when we retreat from our families, our friends, and our communities to deal with our personal problems on our own.  Yet when Thomas returns to the community of his fellow disciples, then he sees the risen Lord. Jesus surely could've appeared to Thomas when he went off by himself, but that's not how the story goes. It is amongst the community, a community of fearful, yet hopeful individuals that Jesus makes himself known.  To them, to Thomas, and to us.

What this story teaches us, brothers and sisters, is that we are in this together. Thomas' mistake is that he forgets that fact, forgets that Christ calls us to share in joy and sorrow together, so that we may build one another up, so that we may be there to care for and support and encourage one another.  Sure, when sorrow comes and sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up and refuse to meet people. But that is the very time when, in spite of sorrow, we most need one another.  For it is in meeting Christ's people that we meet Christ himself.  We are not meant to go through this journey of life alone.  We're in this together.  That is what Thomas forgets.  But it is something we forget too, all of us.  And Thomas' story is a good reminder for us that we don't have to go through our journey alone, that we don't have to be perfect, and that through our questions and our doubts, together, we find our faith.

Have you ever wondered why Thomas is called The Twin? In Greek it’s Didymus.  It isn't because he had a twin sibling, at least not one mentioned in Scripture,  it's because he embodies both faith and doubt, two sides of the same coin.  He’s like the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, or the Batman villain Two-Face.  He holds these two seemingly opposing forces within himself.  But they are not opposing forces, they go hand in hand. Thomas forgets and Thomas doubts and Thomas believes.  Thomas is you.  Thomas is me.  Thomas is anyone who dares to wonder and question. And guess what....he's a saint in the Church!  His day--December 21--is a major feast day.  That's right, we give a high holy day to someone whom history has often vilified for his doubts and questions!  

Thomas reminds us that faith is not meant to be blind, rather it is meant to be experienced, to be lived.  We don't believe solely because a book or a person tells us we should.  We believe because we have experienced.  That is faith.  It's a lived experience, a journey full of wonder, questions, and doubt, and it leads to the Truth with a capital T.  When Jesus calls us to make disciples, he calls us to invite others into that journey  And when we go on that journey together, when we see and feel and know that the Truth is in our midst, we, like Thomas, find our faith and exclaim, 'My Lord and my God!'  Brothers and sisters, may we all have the faith of Doubting Thomas. May we all have the doubts of Faithful Thomas.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Paschal Mystery

Symbols of the Paschal Triduum:  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

I couldn't decide which sermon to post from Holy Week.  So guess what!  I'm posting all of them!!  This week's entry is taken from the sermons that I preached on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and the Feast of the Resurrection.  Enjoy!

Maundy Thursday

Come risen Lord and deign to be our guest.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

And so it begins.  Our final walk with Jesus , what we call the Paschal Triduum—the Passover of the Three Sacred Days—one worship service spread over three days.  And we begin in that upper room on a day that we call Maundy Thursday, Maundy meaning “mandate.”  This is the night when Jesus gives us the new mandate, the new commandment, to love another as he loves us. 

Can it really be that simple?  Surely the disciples must have been hanging on to Jesus’ every word, hoping that he would open up the secrets to the kingdom of heaven, the meaning of life, something grand and glorious.  Is it really all so simple as “love one another as I have loved you”? 

Hmmm.  It sounds simple, sure. But this day and age, when there are so many distractions all around us, I’m not so sure it IS that simple.  At least, not the way Jesus presents it.  Here in the Fourth Gospel we get a moment that is only told by John’s community—Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not contain this moment.  In this moment, in the washing of the feet of his students, his friends, his disciples, Jesus is giving us an example of love that, quite frankly, is pretty hard to actually follow.  Because it means letting go of everything that the world has taught us about ambition and power and taking on a role that none of would dare choose:  the role of a servant.

In order to understand just how big a deal this action was, you’ve got to understand travel in first century Palestine.  The roads were unsurfaced and unclean.  In dry weather they were inches deep in dust, and in wet they were liquid mud.  The shoes ordinary people—like Jesus and his friends—wore were sandals, which were simply soles held on to the foot by a few straps.  They gave little protection against the dust or the mud of the roads.  For that reason there were always great waterpots at the door of a house; and a servant was there with a pitcher and a towel to wash the soiled feet of the guests as they came in.  Jesus’ little company of friends had no servants. So Jesus does what none of them appears prepared to do:  he stoops down and takes the role of a servant.

“I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”  In this moment when Jesus may have been tempted to hold supreme pride, to show his power and his majesty and his glory, he chooses instead to humble himself, to show the disciples what real power looks like.  It doesn’t look like the military might of Rome, it doesn’t look like all of the houses, cars, and other stuff that we accumulate, it doesn’t look like the size of our pension or the fancy job title we have.  It looks like this!  It looks like someone taking care of the needs of someone else, choosing the part of the servant, instead of the one being served.  It looks like forgetting everything we're taught about the way the world works.

Love is always like that.  It always puts the needs of others ahead of the needs of the self.  This week, as most of y’all know, I was struck with a bug that put me on the shelf for a few days (that’s what I get for being so dang active just before Holy Week, huh?) .  So many of you sent me messages, so many of you offered to buy me groceries or take Casey for a walk.  Some even brought me medicine. Now THAT is love, setting aside your own needs for mine.  Thank you!

I wish he were here tonight because I am always humbled to share the liturgy with my brother, Deacon Jack Ogburn, but sadly he had to back out due to an impeding procedure tomorrow to remove a kidney stone.   His very ministry, that of the deacon, is one that has embodied the servant-like love of Jesus to this community for 3 decades!  Whether it was visiting someone in the hospital, or just being a comforting ear, he has shown me, and you, what it means to be a servant.  I thank him for that and pray that I may do likewise!

In a few moments we will come forward and take part in this ministry with Jesus, will we need Jesus' words to Simon Peter?  "If you do not let me wash you, then you have no share with me."  It is uncomfortable, it is smelly, it is not my favorite part of this liturgy, let me tell you.  That, however, is the point of this evening, of this Christian journey that we have collectively undertaken. It is not always comfortable; in fact, it seldom should ever be comfortable. He rattles us, challenges us, gets us out of our comfort zones, and in so doing, it frightens us and causes us to stand firm, unwilling to compromise or move.  But on this night, maybe just this once, we can step outside our comfort zone. Maybe we can set aside our pride, just for a moment, and come forward and be washed, knowing that it is not just our brothers and sisters who are washing our feet, but it is Jesus himself.  It is the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and who tells us to go and do likewise. 

If you’ve ever been to a church camp, or a Cursillo or Emmaus Weekend, or if you have hung out with a youth group, you know the Servant Song:

Won’t you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant too

Nobody strives to be the servant.  We don’t got to fancy colleges to get degrees and make tons of money as servants.  Yet in spite of what this world would have us think, there is no greater honor, no glory higher, than servanthood.  The world is full of people who are standing on their dignity when they ought to be kneeling at the feet of their brothers and sisters, washing their feet.  In ever sphere of life desire for prominence and unwillingness to take a subordinate’s place wreck the scheme of things.  Tonight we have the opportunity to say no to such a desire.  We have the opportunity to take a pitcher and towel, and for one moment, truly be the servants Jesus has been calling us to be.  It may be a blow to our pride, but following Jesus means dying to our selves and being made alive in him and in his love, in THIS kind of love.  Maybe this experience will change us, as it changed those disciples.  Maybe we’ll go from this place and be servants,  to others, especially to those to whom we would not so much as offer a second glance.  Maybe it really is as simple as loving one another.

Look around you.  Won’t you let her be your servant? Let him be as Christ to you? Pray that you may have the grace to be their servant too?

Images from our Maundy Thursday liturgy.

Good Friday

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So here we are.  After a day full of so much emotion—everything from overwhelming love poured out for us in the washing of feet, to terrifying fear as we sat in the garden waiting for soldiers and temple police to take Jesus away--we now face grief beyond imagination as we witness the Lord of life hanging on a tree.  All the talk about the coming of the kingdom of God, now propped up for all the world to see.  Here we are, standing in front of the throne of the Sovereign of the Universe.  Never has there been a more glorious seat of power than the hard, worn wood of this tree.  Never has there been a crown more spectacular than the one cast from thorns.  For this is nothing less than the throne room of God.

Good Friday is a day that we might like to skip over.  Years ago, when The Passion of the Christ was first released, and I was a student in college, I went to see it—on Ash Wednesday of all days.  After the gruesome depiction of Jesus death I walked out of the theatre and said to my friend, ‘I don’t understand why everyone was crying.  He got better!’  And that may be.  We might choose to think of Jesus, not bloodied and broken on the cross, but in splendor and resurrected glory.  To be sure, it makes for a less frightening experience.  But it is a false experience.  Were we to deny the role of Good Friday in the story it would save us no better than if we denied the role of the resurrection itself.  You cannot have one without the other.  There can be no resurrection if there is no death.

This is because the glory of God is best made known to us in the dark, fearful, abysmal places that life may take us.  Remember the Beatitudes?  Jesus makes it clear in those statements that we are blessed, not when good things happen to us, but when bad things do.  Blessed are you when you’re poor.  Blessed are you when you are hungry.  Blessed are you when others curse and deride you..  These are the blessings Jesus spoke of:  blessed are you when everything falls apart.  Today everything has fallen apart. 

Nothing has gone according to plan. Jesus was suppose to embolden the crowd, not stir them up.  The were suppose to hail him as King, not crucify him as an insurrectionist. It's all unraveling before our eyes. Yet, it is in those moments when we truly grasp that God is real.  For we cannot ever fully appreciate and comprehend the wonder, the amazement, and the glory of God if we have not been in a place where we have been broken, as the body of Jesus hangs broken before us.  A place where nothing has gone according to plan, and everything we know has fallen apart and we lay in defeat.  How can we ever understand God's own pain, God's own torment on the cross, if we have not know what it is like to be lost, beaten, and defeated ourselves?  I suspect that on some level each one of us here has known that kind of pain--from the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a disease, the loss of a job or the premature demise of a dream---we know that pain.  Certainly our world knows that kind of pain—when terrorism holds people in fear, when children starve daily, when human rights are violated, even in this very state.  Oh yes, this world has been beaten, broken, maybe even defeated. 

But this is not defeat. This is, in fact, the glory of God. For it is in those times, the times when it seems like God is farthest away, that God's glory shines. This is why there is no greater throne than the cross.  It is from here, brothers and sisters, that our king reigns.  The king of glory finds his place of honor not in seats of gold, nor does he wear crowns of jewels.  His place of honor is that place that humanity has demonized, an instrument of death that he has made the tool for eternal life.  And to be sure we still see him reign from that place, the place that the world demonizes, the place where hope is but a flicker—in the gutters, in the lines of soup kitchens, in the welfare offices, in the places that you and I would not dare to go, he reigns there.  For that is the radical nature of the cross:  from high atop its lofty and beautiful perch, Jesus has turned the world upside down.  This.  This is our king.  And he invites us, as we gather around his holy throne, to let a part of ourselves die, to let something in us be nailed to the cross, so that we can share in his glory.  We cannot do so if we are not willing to let something in us die.  Not just today.  But every single day of our lives. 

Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’  Jesus may not have said anything, but he certainly gave Pilate a response. This is truth.  A beaten, bloody, smelly, homeless street preacher.  This is Truth with a capital T.  Good news for the poor, food for the hungry, a way of belonging for the lost.  And this Truth will be proclaimed to the whole wide world, not in a massive church surrounded by stained glass and folks wearing their Sunday best.  No, this Truth will be proclaimed on a hilltop called The Skull, with criminals on either side of him, while his friends have abandoned him, this Truth will be proclaimed with the words ‘It is finished!’ as God and humanity are reconciled once and for all. 

We call this day Good.  Why would we do that?? Because God has been glorified in the brokenness of Jesus, and because of that we are meaning in our own brokenness.  It is good because we know this day is not the en,  that, thanks to  Jesus' own death, the grave does not have the final say.  Where is thy sting, O death?  It is not here!  We call this day Good because it reminds us that it is in the darkest parts of our lives that the Lord Jesus reigns supreme, as he reigns from the darkness of the cross.  And when we come to his cross, to his throne, and we offer him all of our sadness and pain and when we let a part of ourselves die daily on that cross, we find him, our king,   Let us approach this most glorious throne, where the king of glory reigns supreme.

The Christus Rex veiled and crowned with thorns.

The Great Vigil of Easter

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This is the night.  When God brought our fathers and mothers through bondage to freedom, when all who believe in Christ are delivered, when Christ broke the bonds of death.  This, brothers and sisters, is the night.

A mentor of mine used to say that if we Christians were only allowed one service all year it should be this one. Not Christmas Eve, not Pentecost, not even Easter Sunday. But this one, the Great Vigil. Because this night is the night around which everything that we are pivots. 

In the Jewish tradition there is a custom that, on the first night of the Passover, a young person asks an elder of the house, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' The reason it is different is because it marks the end the Jews' years of slavery under the rule of the Egyptians. This night is their first night of freedom.  And tonight we ponder the same question.  Because this night is what St Augustine of Hippo called the paschal mystery, the mystery of passing over.  This is the Passover of Christ, when Jesus moves from death into life and we who had been slaves to sin are set free through the might and power of love of God.  This is a night unlike any other, as we sit in darkness, sit in a space where Christ's light is but a flicker, a space of already and not yet, a liminal space.

Liminal comes From the Latin word Limin, meaning 'threshold',and right now, in this moment, in the darkness, we sit at the threshold.  The threshold of everything.  This is the waiting period, the moments before the sun rises, the flower blossoms, or the child is born.  This is the same threshold at which we sit tonight. Joey, Sam, and Jay, you sit now at the threshold of a new birth, a new life in Jesus Christ.  The person you are now, sitting in your pews, will not be the person you are when you leave this place tonight.  You, in mere moments, will pass from darkness to light, from sin and death to everlasting life.  And your world will never be the same again.  You’ve been preparing for this day all through Lent.  You’re ready.  We’re ready, too.  But not just yet. 

We sit here in the darkness, and we, like Jesus, are enveloped in it.  These final moments of Holy Week, being stretched out—seconds feeling like hours—as we steel ourselves for the moment that is to come.  Oh but not just yet.

Our emotions have been running all over the place, culminating in excruciating grief at the foot of the cross yesterday. Now, Jesus carries out his rabbinical duty,  observing his own Sabbath rest, and now he waits.  We wait.  For God to do whatever God plans to do.  It is our great trust and surrender, together with Jesus’ trust and surrender.  A new "creation ex nihilo" ,creation from nothing, is about to happen. But there can be no creation without there first being nothing. There can be no light without there first being darkness. This was true in the beginning at the creation, it was true on this night at Jesus' resurrection, it is true even still for us. There must be darkness before there can be light and transformation. 

This night Christ's Body, the Church, gathers from around the world in preparation for this necessary transformation, a transformation not only of Jesus, but of our selves and our world.  Yes, Jesus is the one who walks from the darkness of death into the light of resurrected life, but we gather tonight so that we may follow.  We gather with the church here in Asheboro, in the Diocese of North Carolina, and throughout the world, so that we may walk through that great Paschal Mystery and experience it for ourselves.  Can you feel the moment inching ever closer?  Can you feel the prayers of Christians throughout the world wrapping around us as we prepare to cross that threshold? 

We do not gather simply to remember Jesus' Passover or to somehow reenact it. That is not what being the church is about. It is about living these moments with Jesus. We ourselves are making that passage from darkness to light.  Joey, Sam, and Jay will make that passage through the waters of baptism, the waters that parted for God's people, the waters that christened Jesus as the Messiah. They will soon become the newest members of Christ's Body, and we make that journey with them. And we will sprinkle ourselves with those same waters to remind them that they will never be alone as they begin their new lives in Christ.

We are all passing over this night with Jesus. Our sins, our prejudices, and all those thing that've separated us from God have been nailed to the cross, and tonight, tonight we are free. Sin and death no longer have the final say. And tomorrow will be different: Easter Sunday, the first day of the week, the ever-new day of Resurrected Life, which will allow us from here on to read all our lives backward with understanding, and read them forward with hope, the kind of hope that tells us that things finally have a victorious meaning, no matter how grim they may seem,.  It is the kind of hope that sustains us through our darkest and most difficult hours. It is the hope that tells us in sprite of our disappointments, failures, and broken hearts, the light of Christ will never be extinguished, and that, as Julian of Norwich said, all manner of things shall be well.  We may have to go through tremendous darkness first, but all manner of things shall be well.  This is the biblical hope. The Easter hope. This is the hope we Christians rest in because we have journeyed with Jesus from the darkness of sin into the light of Easter. And this is the night when that hope is realized.

Images from the Great Vigil liturgy

The newest members of the Body of Christ.

The Feast of the Resurrection

Let all things seen and unseen, their notes together blend, for Christ the Lord is risen.  Our joy that hath no end!  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Welcome!  To those of you whom I've seen everyday this past week.  To those I haven't seen in a while.  And to those I have never seen before.  Welcome!  Welcome to this happy morning!

Before I became a rector and was tasked with preaching on the morning of the Resurrection, I said that, if I ever had such an opportunity,  I would get in the pulpit and say, 'Alleluia!  Christ is risen!'.  To which the congregation would respond:  'The Lord is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!'  And then I would sit down.  Because, really?  What is it that I can say, that any of us can say, that can add to the glory of this happy morning besides the unbelievable fact that Christ our Lord is, indeed, risen?  Well, I'm a rector now, and you've called me here to at least give it a try.

It is the very definition of unbelievable, that Jesus is risen.  That God could take something as shameful as the cross, an instrument of capital punishment reserved for only the worst of offenders, and turn it into an instrument for life.  That a human being, flesh and blood like you and me, could be raised from the dead, and in so doing cripple the power that death has over humanity.  The Resurrection is not to be believed.  It is not to be understood.  It flies in the face of every piece of conventional wisdom that we have:  the laws of nature are broken, logic is thrown out the window, nothing makes sense anymore, and yet everything makes sense again.  Because on this happy morning, when the world is turned upside-down, humankind is reconciled to God. 

It happened in a garden.  Just like it happened in a garden way back at the beginning, where God and humanity walked side-by-side in the evening breeze.  Then, as now, God chose light and life over darkness and chaos.  Then, as now, God chose to use humanity as the vessel which would brighten the whole wide world with the radiance of God's grace.  But then, humanity fell, chose pride and self-satisfaction over oneness with God, and embraced the grim reality of death.  Yet now,  on this happy morning, humanity has chosen life, and the second Adam reaches his hands down into the grave and embraces the first, and says, 'Come with me.  Death has no power over you anymore.'  The freeing of Adam and Eve, which is found on the front of your bulletin, is not just an image of the redemption of our first parents.  No, it is an image of the redemption of the whole world, of all humanity--past, present, and yet to come.  For this human, Jesus of Nazareth, is everything Adam was meant to be.  He is the truest of human beings, and for that reason he  is the only instrument by which this broken world could have ever been saved.  And to be sure, this morning, the whole wide world is saved. 

Do not think that I mean we are saved in the sense that we needn't worry about anything anymore.  There will always been violence, war, oppression of all kinds.  But this morning assures us that the casm created by Adam's sin--which separated humanity from God for far too long--has been sealed.  Forever.  Jesus' resurrection makes it possible for all of us to know the closeness of God, makes it possible for us to see the face of God, makes it possible for us to come into the glory and splendor of God--without fear of condemnation, just as we are.  Christ has defeated sin by becoming sin, has defeated death by becoming death, and has made it possible for us to be called children of God.  Broken, yes.  But redeemed, as well.

We do not see the resurrected Jesus in our gospel account this morning.  Instead, the women come upon the tomb, only to find it empty, charged by the heavenly being standing there with the task of returning to Jesus' disciples and sharing the good news of his resurrection with them.  There is a part of us that might feel slighted by this.  We were expecting Jesus this morning!  Oh, but that's the point. 

Like the women and Peter this morning, we do not get to see the physically resurrected Jesus.  Instead, we are given the same instruction that they are given:  go.  Go and tell someone else.  Go and share the good news that he is alive.  Go and tell others that death has been defeated.  In short, we--like them--are given the task this morning of, as Wendell Berry puts it, practicing resurrection.

When we speak of resurrection we speak of the physical kind--the kind Jesus experienced this morning, the kind that we will all experience one day--but we also speak of the emotional and spiritual kind.  We practice resurrection each time we choose hope over despair.  When a young woman battling addiction reaches out to her family and at last admits, 'I have a problem, help me!' She is practicing resurrection.  When a transgender man stands up to a government that seeks to dehumanize him and those like him and says to that government, 'I'm not going anywhere!' He is practicing resurrection.  When Nigerian Christians form protective barriers around Muslim mosques on Friday, so that their brother and sisters can pray in safety, and when the Muslims turn around and do the same for their Christian brothers and sisters on Sunday, they are practicing resurrection.  Oh, today is not just a day for Jesus' physical resurrectiion.  It is day for the spiritual, emotional, and psychological resurrection for us all.  A day we are invited into as active participants.

Practicing resurrection happens when we recognize that God can and will take the worst set of circumstances and use them to bring life and grace. Sometimes we barely see that grace. Sometimes we refuse to see it--as the apostles refused to believe Mary Magdalene's initial report. But when we choose to practice resurrection, when we choose hope and life over despair and death, our whole lives begin to make sense again. Everything, even the ugliest pieces, now has meaning. We are no longer held hostage by the mistakes of our past; we see and know hat we are so much more than those mistakes.  Because love has won, as it always wins.  And in this new resurrected life we hold on to that promise of the amazing transformational power of love.  Christ's own resurrection of love makes it possible for us to practice resurrection ourselves, to know that love always wins. 

We are an Easter people.  The whole of the Christian faith hinges on that fact.  If Easter is not real, then Jesus is little more than a super awesome prophet.  A good dude who showed us how to be good ourselves, but who sadly got killed for it.  Easter knows better.  Easter knows that he is these things but so much more. Easter knows that Christ is alive.  IS alive!  No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, as the hymn says.  IS.  Present tense.  Today is not a day we gather to remember Jesus' resurrection, it's a day when we collectively acknowledge that he is, in fact, alive right here and now, as much as he was on that first Easter dawn.  And if he is alive, then that means it's up to us to tell people.  It's up to us to go, as Mary Magdalene went and told Peter.  It's up to us to practice resurrection, to shine the Christ light in the darkest places of this world, to give hope for the future, even when folks may not seem like they deserve it.  It's up to you and me, Easter people, to turn this world upside-down with the message that God's love, which defeated death itself, can and will defeat whatever evil still lurks in the heart of humanity. 

So practice resurrection, brothers and sisters.  Go and be apostles yourselves, be the ones who are sent out into the world to share the good news that Jesus is still alive.  Proclaim the joys of this happy morning from age to age.

Images from Resurrection Sunday