Monday, April 24, 2017

The Paschal Mystery

*This blog post contains my sermons for the Paschal Triduum, as well as the Feast of the Resurrection (April 13-16, 2017 @ The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Asheboro, NC)*

Maundy Thursday:  Washed Feet & Broken Hearts

I once served alongside a 90 year old retired priest named Joe Weaver. One Sunday at our evening mass., I was the acolyte, and when he was done setting the table for communion I went to wash his hands, as is the custom.  When he dried his hands he told me to set the pitcher of water on the altar.  He then took the bowl from my hand and said, “What you do matters!  And you matter!  And I want you to know that!”  And he washed my hands.  A priest washed the hands of his acolyte, his altar server.  I nearly cried right then and there. 

Father Joe got what Jesus meant when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Because this is what Jesus’ brand of love looks like.  It looks like taking the position of one who serves.  As a matter of fact, I think he would have washed my feet had the opportunity presented itself that night!  Because Father Joe got it!

There’s a fancy Greek word for this called kenosis.  It means to empty oneself.  When Jesus takes the position of a servant he empties himself, and he tells us that, if he, our Lord and teacher has done this, we ought to do the same. My friend Father Joe emptied himself of any air of pomposity or “holier than thou”-ness when he washed me.  Ever since that day I have tried to be like him.  I try to help every person who calls the church needing assistance, emptying myself of the temptation to pass judgments.  And I’ve seen you, my brothers and sisters, empty yourselves in those moments when you volunteer at the soup kitchen, work on a habitat house, or visit someone in prison.  There are examples all around me on a daily basis of folks giving of themselves on behalf of someone else, and it is holy and beautiful to see.

But the emptying is not just about us stooping down and taking that servant’s posture on behalf of someone else.  There is another kind of emptying that Jesus offers.  When Jesus moves to wash the disciples’ feet, Peter rebukes him—typical Peter.  He resists, telling Jesus, “You will NEVER wash my feet!”  Why does he so fiercely push back?  Is it his pride?  Does he not feel worthy?  Is he ticklish? Whatever it is, Peter can’t seem to empty himself of it.

 I can honestly say that I have a really hard time emptying myself of it, too.  When Father Joe washed my hands I felt bad.  He shouldn’t do this, I thought.  Who was I?  I felt embarrassed.  It was way too vulnerable.  After the service, though he told me something that has stuck: “There’s grace in receiving,,” he said, “as well as giving.” 

 The washing of the feet, this incredibly vulnerable moment, is not just an invitation for us to be servants to each other, but it is an invitation to allow others to be servants to us.  I’ve talked to many folks who tell me that they are uncomfortable with the foot washing piece of this liturgy, not because they have to wash someone else, but because they have to let someone else wash them. It takes humility and a vulnerable spirit to let someone else be your servant, to receive the gift of God’s grace that they offer to you.  It takes emptying oneself of that same kind of pride that held Peter back.  We get being servants to others, but do we really get letting others be servants to us?  I’m still working on that one.  But what Father Joe taught me that day, and what I believe Jesus is teaching his disciples, is that we cannot truly serve others unless we are willing to be served ourselves.   You do not know what I am doing, Jesus tells Peter, but later you will understand.

On this night we have the opportunity to empty ourselves of every kind of pride that is in us.  Not only the kind of pride that says “I’m above washing someone’s feet” but the kind that says “I’m not worthy to have someone wash my feet.”  Maybe when you come up here you will be able to let go of all that has held you back from both giving and receiving such a gift.  Maybe you will have the chance to show love in a way you never have before.  Maybe you will allow someone else to love you in a way you have never experienced.  Maybe you---and I—will realize that we needn’t hang on to our pride because it’s not really about us, anyway.  It’s about the grace and the love that freely flows from God and comes to us in the one who takes the servant’s posture and says, “You matter!”  All may.  Some should.  None must. 

Love one another, as I have loved you, Jesus says..  That is the new commandment.  That is the mandate—the "Maundy" in Maundy Thursday.  And this night we see what love looks like.  The vulnerability of the one allowing her feet to be washed.  The willingness of the one washing to let go of himself.  For in this moment, as you hold each other’s feet, love flows.  The love of Jesus for us.  The love of us for him.  The love we have for each other.  It is the nature of love to flow, as Marcus Borg said.  Let love flow tonight, brothers and sisters, and maybe it will flow when you leave this place.  Flow in such a way that you can give Jesus’ gift to others, as well as receive it. Even if you do not know what is happening, later you will understand.  We all will. 

Good Friday:  Pain & Glory

Everything is lost.  Friends have fled.  Those who sang songs of praise at the beginning of the week have turned their voices to shouts of ‘Crucify him!’  And the broken, lifeless body of Jesus hangs from the cross. 

The cross.  A fate that awaited a very particular kind of criminal:  an insurrectionist.  Murderers were not crucified, no.  That was reserved for the ones who spoke out against the government, who challenged the power of Rome.  Murderers got quick ends, but not those who were crucified.  It was long.  It was agonizing.  And perhaps worst of all, it was public.  Those who were crucified hung there in a public place where folks walked by throughout the day.  Those folks spat on the crucified ones.  Mocked them.  Taunted them.  And when it was all over, they weren’t even given the dignity of being buried within the city walls.  The cross.  As shameful an end as one could imagine.  A symbol of pain, of hopelessness, of defeat.

Why did he do it so willingly, take up his cross?  Why not fight back, run away, hide in the caves behind Mary & Martha’s house?  Perhaps he did it to prove a point, that this is not a symbol of defeat but of life.  In his wonderful book The Last Week, which takes a day-by-day account of Holy Week, Marcus Borg answers this very question by suggesting that the cross was Jesus’ way of proving once and for all that God has the final authority, not Rome, not any human being or human institution, not the lure of death that permeates so many areas of our lives.  So Jesus takes up the cross, that instrument of death, and God transforms it into a symbol of life.  When Jesus calls out, “It is finished!” it is not just his earthly life that ends, but the man-made systems of power and fear, which had previously held the world in the grip of sin, are destroyed.  It’s finished.  God wins. 

We know what comes next.  We want desperately to get there, to avoid the bad feelings.  But life doesn’t work that way, does it?  We cannot avoid the bad, but we must sit with it.  So today we sit in this moment of pain and grief.  Because the cross reminds us not only that Jesus conquered death while on it, but that God resides in the spaces of pain, hopelessness, and defeat in our regular day-to-day lives.  When we lose our jobs.  When a loved one dies.  When we are diagnosed with a terminal disease.  When relationships end.  When we are beaten, tormented, and denied our basic human rights and liberties. When we are humiliated, mocked, and told we don’t matter. These are the moments of crucifixion that we experience everyday.  These are the crosses to which we have been nailed.  Hanging there we look around and we see no friends standing by.  We hear the taunts and the jeers of those passing by.  And we utter those words: “ My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!”

We don’t like this pain, and for good reason. Yet these are the very places where Jesus reigns.  As he does from the hard wood of his own cross, Jesus is there with us, whether we know it or not, whether we feel him or not, he is there.  Crying.  Bleeding, Agonizing.  Somehow allowing us to hang on to life, to hang on to hope, even in the face of unspeakable pain.  There has never been a greater throne, never been a more beautiful crown, than those that Jesus bears.  For God has been broken.  We have been broken.  Sharing the brokenness we also share the promise of what awaits us. 

What is the cross to you?  We wear them around our necks and on our fingers.  We decorate them and admire them.  That is why we call this day Good, for an instrument of shame and death has been turned into the symbol of hope and life, and we bear it proudly,  But as much as we want to celebrate the cross’s life-giving power, we need this day, this moment, too. After all, there can be no resurrection without death.  So on this day we call Good, we sit with death, with pain and suffering, with loss and humiliation.  We dare to embrace them.  For it is in them that we find our God.  And it is through them that we are born to newness of life.

As you approach the cross of Christ, I wonder what pain you will bring?  What burdens will you lay down?  What will you nail to its hard, cold wood?  What will new life look like for you, once you have been to the cross?

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.  Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.    

Holy Saturday:  Darkness & Light

Darkness.  All around us.  And in the middle of it all, a light.  Tiny.  Flickering.  But its there.  The light of Christ, waiting to be poured out over all of us, waiting for the moment of resurrection glory.  This is the night, brothers and sisters.  This is the night around which our entire faith revolves. 

We begin this liturgy in the dark, recalling how God brought light out of darkness, brought life out of nothing.  We hear the story of Gods redemptive power working in the world, freeing the children of Israel from their bondage, reminding us that the God we worship this night is not a passive one, but instead is active and moving in human history, and on this night God is about to move in a way that the world has never seen, a way the world cannot comprehend.  For as the Gods words spoken through the prophet Ezekiel brought together the dry bones and gave them life, Gods Word with a capital W is about to bring life out of death.  A new creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing. 

This is what our faith is all about, light coming from dark, hope coming from despair, life coming from death.  Ive been telling yall for the past few weeks that if you could only make it to one service this week, THIS was it.  This is the Christian experience right here!  There is no other day of the yearnot Christmas, not Pentecost, not even Easter Sundaythat sums it all up like tonight.  This is the night. 

This is the night that Christ broke the bonds of death and hell.  He has done his duty and observed his own Sabbath rest.  He has gone to hell, to Sheol, to Tartarus, to the dead people place.  He has locked the doors from the inside and because of those actions we are free.  Sin no longer holds us back.  Our own shortcomings, failings, and fears mean nothing.  Even death itself is mocked and shamed on this great night.  As we sit here in the dark, we sit with Jesus, waiting for the moment of Easters dawn, inching closer and closer, stretching ever single moment of this Holy Week out until Christ is ready to burst forth with resurrection light.  But were not quite there yet. 

This night personifies our faith not only in the real experience of being in the dark, and then moving into the light, but also because tonight we will welcome three new members to the Body of Christ through the oldest, most sacred of all Christian practices, the sacrament of Baptism.  Michael, Julie, and Don you have been preparing for this moment during the season of Lent, studying the catechism of the faith, praying in new ways, wrestling with Holy Scripture.  But really your whole lives have been preparing you for this moment.  The waters of baptism are the waters of a new birth.  The person you are now will not be the person who lives this sanctuary at the end of our liturgy.  That isnt to say your old lives mean nothing anymorefar from it.  But after tonight your old lives will have new meaning.  After tonight you will be able to look back on all you have done and all you have been with a new sense of purpose and claritywe all will.  Jesus knew each of you before you made the decision to come to these waters.  And each of you served him in your own unique way in that before-time.  Now he calls you to know him even more intimately.  It doesnt mean youll never ask another question or that all the secrets of God will be known to you.  This night is not the end of your journey, but it is the beginning.  And as you start your new journey  I want you to remember something:  as you are washed in those waters and take your vows, you dont do it alone.  Your sponsors, your families, and this community of faith will stand with you and make those promises once again.  And so, in a very real sense, neither your lives, nor our lives, will ever be the same after this night. 

In these last moments, brothers and sisters, let the darkness wash over you….now gaze upon that marvelous and holy flame.  Flickering with a light that cannot ever be extinguished.  Our hope lies in that flame, in the light of the world, which burned at the beginning of creation, which led the way for the children of Israel, which could not be snuffed out, even by the darkness of the tomb.  This is our hope, Easter hope, that new meaning and new life can come from the death of our old lives.  And this is the night when that hope is realized.  

The Feast of the Resurrection:  Death Conquered & Humanity Freed

You wanna know who reminds me of Easter?  Darth Vader.  Yeah, that’s right!  The Dark Lord of the Sith, the guy voted by the American Film Institute as the number 1 villain in the history of cinema.  He reminds me of Easter, and I’ll tell you why.  Darth Vader—or Annie as his friends called him—lived a life of devotion to a religious practice that did a lot of good.  He was a peacekeeper, a healer, a defender of those who could not defend themselves.  The corruption of his day—both religious and political--eventually led to him falling into darkness, into a kind of living hell, but eventually the love of his son brought him back into the light.  Love saved Darth Vader and gave him new life.  Yeah, Star Wars has lots of blows-em-upsies and sweet laser sword fights, but watch the first six movies again—heck, watch Clone Wars and Rebels while you’re at it—and you’ll see it:  the original Star Wars, the story of rising, falling, and rising again of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, is the story of Easter. 

Love is what brings Darth Vader back from the darkness, love saves him, and love is what saved Jesus.  The corruption and sin of his world nailed Jesus to the cross and drove him into the darkness of hell.  We sat there with him last night and let that darkness wash over us in the moments before Easter’s dawn broke.  It was cold and frightening.  And then light, warmth, the love of God poured out over us.  That love brought Jesus out from the darkness of death and gave him new life.  Jesus may not have had a sweet laser sword, but he knew what it was like to be held in the grip of death, to live in the darkness of hell and to be brought back into the light of life.  That’s Easter, folks. 

Life.  Death.  Resurrection.  It’s a kind of endless waltz that we all participate in.  We’re all born, we all die, and we are all raised.  This is the Christian promise, after all, but resurrection is something we can find everywhere.  We can see it in film—Darth Vader.  Comic books—Superman.  Or tv—practically every character that has ever appeared in a daytime soap opera.  Still, this isn’t just some cool, popular culture storytelling technique, no.  This is real!  And not just for Jesus.  This is real for you and for me!  Resurrection is all around us, if we have eyes to see. 

The heavenly being told the women to “Go to Galilee!  There you will see him!”  Galilee?  How’s that possible, we can’t just hope on over to the northern region of modern-day Israel and go find Jesus!  So what does that mean for us?  I’d like the think she meant for us to go to the places where Jesus is most alive; after all, it was Galilee where he did most of his ministry among those vulnerable folks.  So that’s where we should go, if we want to see Jesus, if we want to know what resurrection looks like all we gotta do is go to Galilee.  That’s the place where life is flourishing, even when death is all around, where love refuses to compromise in the face of fear and despair.  Galilee is the hospice room where a nurse just sits with someone who is dying.  It’s the playground where a kid has the courage to stand up to a bully on behalf of someone who is being picked on.  It’s the rehab facility where the man who has struggled with addiction his whole life breaks down in tears asking for help.  It’s the steps of the legislative building where those who have been denied equal rights hold one another’s hands and proclaim that they matter too.  It’s the  little town where pink bows can still be found, showing love and support for a family who has suffered a tragedy.  That’s Galilee!  That’s where you’ll find Jesus most alive, where love is alive, saving the world!  That’s where folks are practicing resurrection, as the poet Wendell Berry says. 

You can practice resurrection, too, when you remember that God can and will take the worst set of circumstances and use them to bring life and grace, when you choose love  and life over despair and death.  That’s what Jesus did.  After his followers met him in Galilee, that’s what they did.  It’s there for all of us to do on this happy morning.

In case I don’t see y’all for a while, I want you to hang on to this one little suggestion:  practice resurrection.  Go to the Galilees.  Go meet Jesus there.  Let love, crazy, makes you giggle with glee, unbelievable, love bubble up inside you.  Look for resurrection.  Find it in the movies you watch or the books you read, because the more you notice it in those places, the most attune you’ll be to it, the more you’ll see it in the real world, and the more eager you’ll be to practice it yourself, to share the message that love is what saves us, as it saved Jesus.  It’s right there on your bulletin cover.  Love is what is pulling Adam and Eve out of those graves.  It’s love that pours from Jesus, that says, ‘Come on, my brother!  Come on my sister!  You are free!”  Because love always wins.  That’s resurrection!  Go to Galilee, brothers and sisters, seek out and share that love, and practice resurrection.