Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Paschal Mystery

*The following post features all four of my sermons for the Paschal Triduum and Resurrection Sunday at Good Shepherd, Asheboro (April 18-21, 2019).

Maundy Thursday:  An Invitation to Service 

Welcome everyone to this first leg of our final liturgy for Holy Week!  We call it the Paschal Triduum—the Three Sacred Days.  One liturgy, one service spread out over three days.  We begin the first—this Maundy Thursday—with a mandate, a new commandment:  “love one another as I have loved you.” 

There are two ways that that love is shown by Jesus.  The first is the story we hear recounted by Paul in his Letter to the Church in Corinth.  Paul had received this message, perhaps as part of his conversion experience or from one of the folks who were there that night, that Jesus, on the night of the Passover—the last Thursday of his life—took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to those gathered and told them, “This is my Body,” and then did the same thing with the wine, saying “This is my Blood.”  As often as we do likewise, Paul says, we proclaim Jesus’ death and we know his presence with us.  These familiar words are echoed every single time we celebrate Holy Communion, that sacred meal where we experience Jesus’ love poured out for us in bread and wine made holy, love that unites us to Christ and to one another. 

Paul was not alone in writing down this story.  He would later be joined by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all of whom recalled this Last Supper between Jesus and his closest disciples.  But when the story made its way to the community that produced the Gospel of John, it was given a new spin.  Yes, there is a meal.  Yes, the purpose of the evening is for Jesus to show his love for his friends and to commend to them an action, in which by participating they will know and share his love.  But in John’s version of the story it’s not on the night of the Passover, and there’s no bread or wine—no “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.”  Instead, there’s a towel, and a basin of water, and the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. 

Growing up I attended only a handful of Maundy Thursday services, and I’m pretty sure I did not let my feet get washed at any of them, nor did I do any washing.  I don’t like feet.  They smell.  That stuff between the toes feels icky.  And I’m super ticklish, so nobody is touching my feet!  I held firm to this stance until February of 2008.  At that time I attended Cursillo, a Christian renewal weekend that is popular among many Episcopalians—the Methodist version of this is called Walk to Emmaus.  I didn’t go to Cursillo willingly, but I was voluntold that I would be going by my boss, the rector of the church where I was serving as a youth minister.  The first night we walked the Stations of the Cross in the dark.  Beautiful, but not overpowering.  The next night, though, was.  We gathered to worship, to celebrate Communion, but just before we got to that part, the staff came out with buckets and pitchers.  Oh no, I thought, they’re doing a foot washing?! I was not told there would be a foot washing!  And there was no escape, as we were all seated in a circle, and I couldn’t just get up and walk away.  One by one the leaders came up to us and slowly, gently, washed feet while the music team played some slow melodic versions of Ubi Caritas and The Servant Song.  Then Father Phil, one of the weekend’s spiritual directors, got to me.  Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, I took my shoes off and reluctantly put my feet in the bucket.  And I lost it.  I cried.  And I cried.  And I cried some more.  Who was I to have such a loving act poured out for me?  Father Phil didn’t know me, didn’t know my soul, didn’t know the dirt that I was carrying on me.  Why would he do this?  It was all so overwhelming, but by the end of the weekend I got it.  “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Touche, Jesus! 

Because of that experience I have not passed up any opportunity to either wash feet or to have my own washed.  It’s still not my most favorite thing to do, but it matters.  It matters because it cuts through all of my pride, both the kind that says I am above washing someone’s smelly, calloused feet, and the kind that says I am not at all worthy to have my own washed.  It matters because Jesus’ action subverts all of the hierarchical structures that human society has erected, placing the most powerful person in the room on his knees serving his friends and giving them an example to do likewise, to create a beloved community, a new way of being, where structure is undone by the act of service.  And it matters because they all get washed, yes, even Judas.  “You also ought to wash one another,” Jesus says, and when he says it he doesn’t single out the most wounded, flawed, person in the room.  It’s not about who is the most faithful, who is the least sinful, who is the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the nicest, or the best at all the things.  All are washed, all are loved, and tonight Jesus gives not only that example to his closest friends, but he gives it to us.  It is a new way, the Way of Love, the way that leads to a transformed life.  Tonight, we are invited to participate in this new way and not only have our feet washed but to have our souls washed, to go from this place ready to serve, ready to love, as he does.  This love is more than just a nice feeling, more than mere charity, but it is personal, intimate, raw, and holy. 

It is a daring act to love in such a way as to stoop down on one’s knees to wash someone’s feet, especially a stranger.  It is, in some ways, even more daring to let the stranger wash our feet. Our shame, the dirt that we carry on our souls, as well as our feet, tell us, like Peter, “No, not me!”  But may we dare tonight to be brave, to push through that shame and remember that we are more than the dirt we have accumulated.  Tonight, may you know that you are loved.  Loved by Jesus and by the brother or sister who washes you.  May you be transformed by that love tonight, so that you may go and share it.  For this is the mandate, the maundy in Maundy Thursday:  love one another, as I have loved you. 

Good Friday:  A Deconstruction of Substitutionary Atonement

Did Jesus have to die?  For the first 1000 years of Christianity’s existence, this wasn’t exactly a question everyone was asking.  It wasn’t that the story of the crucifixion was ignored, far from it—the pilgrim Egeria wrote in the late 4th century about the Holy Week scenes she observed in Jerusalem,. She saw folks walking the Via Dolorossa, the path Jesus took when he carried his cross up to Golgotha, stopping at each station and observing periods of silence as they reflected on those events some 450 years prior.  So, no, the crucifixion wasn’t to be ignored.  Instead, the faithful were invited to walk the same walk as Jesus, to be transformed by their participation.  But the event itself was to be remembered for what it was:  a senseless act of violence carried out by the Roman government in collusion with a small group of fundamentalists within the religious authority.  It was gut-busting, heart-breaking, and not at all redemptive.

Yet we hear all the time that Jesus died for our sins.  Didn’t those folks know that?  It’s not that they didn’t know it, it’s that such a theory wasn’t part of Christian thought and theology until around the year 1050.  It was about this time that a man named Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury first formally introduced a doctrine that shaped how Christians in the western world would view the crucifixion all the way up to today.  His theory, called substitutionary atonement, stated that the sin committed in Paradise was so great, so awful, that all humanity was damned from that day forth, and nothing was going to satisfy God’s wrath against us except a blood atonement, a sacrifice like that of the Passover lamb. Enter Jesus.  Anselm’s theory, then, stated that Jesus substituted himself on the cross for all of the rest of us.  His death, his sacrifice, like that of the Passover lamb, erased all of our sins, paid the debt humanity owed to God, and thus made it possible for us to know God’s love now that God’s wrath had been assuaged. It’s around this time that images of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixes showing a dying Jesus on the cross, started popping up, and slowly but surely they became the norm, much more often seen than images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or the Christus Rex, or other life-giving, triumphant images. The emphasis shifted toward the wretchedness of humanity, rather than the goodness of God, and the crucifixion as atonement hammered that point home.

The problem with thinking of the crucifixion in this way, as something that had to happen, is that it implies that the end justifies the means.  Our salvation was wrought by the cross, therefore the killing of Jesus by the state must ultimately be considered a good thing.  Yet this thinking naturally led people to consider that, perhaps, there were other instances where the end justified the means, other instances where killing could be a good thing, where violence could be redemptive.  For the first 700 years of Christianity, however, the idea that violence could be redemptive was antithetical to the faith, as soldiers could not even be baptized and monarchs had to do penance if they participated in any kind of war. But shortly after Anselm proposed the theory of the atonement, all of that change when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims.  To kill a Muslim infidel was not murder, the Pope decreed, but it was the ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven and could even absolve you on your sin.  The end—the restoration of Jerusalem into the hands of Christians—justified the means—the killing of Muslims. 

From there, well, you know the rest of the story.  The myth of redemptive violence is all around us.  From our favorite superhero films that show the “good” guys killing the “bad” guys, to the state killing men and women in the same manner as Jesus, we cannot escape redemptive violence.  And in the most painful and evil circumstances, individuals are left stuck in cycles of abuse because they are told that their suffering is a good thing and will lead to something positive in the end.  It is not really suffering, no, it is salvation.  Jesus suffered, after all, so why shouldn’t they.  Enslaved Africans who were taken into captivity and mercilessly beaten so that their so-called savagery may be cleansed by the violence of their Christian masters.  Women who have suffered at the hands of men who told them they deserved their beatings and would learn from their mistakes.  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans folks who are thrown down to the floor and kicked by family members who claim they’re beating the devil out of their wicked children.  Every single day we see the harm, we see the false Gospel that violence is salvific, that the end justifies the means.  And this, we are told, is why the crucifixion is a good thing.  Because without the violence committed against Jesus, humanity would never know salvation.

But we must remember that God did not crucify Jesus.  Humanity did that, and to be more specific, human institutions of power did it.  That aforementioned collusion between religion and state did it.  This is where human power leads, to violence that is reframed as being redemptive; to abusers claiming a sense of righteousness over the abused, who go about their lives believing that this is what they deserve., while those in power wash their hands of any blame, just like Pilate.  No!  This is not God’s power. God’s power invites humanity into something more, into a relationship that deconstructs the myth of redemptive violence.  God’s power calls out OUT of those patterns of being, not into them.  And Jesus’ death is the last straw. 

The crucifixion does, in fact, save us, but it only does so in hindsight.  It only does so through the lens of the Resurrection.  We dare claim that this day is Good, only because we know it’s not the end of the story.  Plenty of Christian preachers focus solely on the crucifixion, pouring the guilt ontop of faithful people wo have known nothing but shame and fear of an angry, wrathful God, and family members and people in power who tell them their suffering is a good thing. Violence is NEVER the answer, it is NEVER redemptive, and it is NEVER the way of Jesus.  The crucifixion does save us from hell, as one theologian put it, “This (the crucifixion itself) is the hell we are saved from!”  We are saved from the heretical belief that this is what we deserve, that the end could justify the means. 

Today is not about trying to put a hopeful spin on a tragic situation.  No, I do not believe that Jesus HAD to die because God was so wrathful. But Jesus DID die, and he died in the most gruesome fashion imaginable at that time.  Today is a day to let that sink in.  Today is a day to pray that we will learn from it, that we will forsake notions that violence such as this can be a positive thing.  Today is a day to lay everything at the foot of the cross and pray for God’s grace to move us out of such patterns of being and into the way of love.  Only then can we call this day Good. 

The Great Vigil of Easter:  A Night Unlike Any Other

This is the night.  Every year during Lent, as we get closer to Easter  I tell yall, especially new folks, that if you can only make one service during Holy Week, it should be this one, the Great Vigil of Easter, for everything about our Christian journey is wrapped up in this one liturgy.  We begin in darkness, just like the world, just like we were first conceived and resided in our mothers wombs.  We hear the story of the elder covenant with our brothers and sisters, the children of Israel, how God saved them, and how God showed them the power God has to bring life from that which is lifeless.  We sit in this darkness with the light of Christ flickering, our own candles lit from its marvelous and holy flame.  And in a few moments our little brother Samuel will go through the single most important rite of the Church, that which unites all of us as Christians, the sacrament of baptism.  And when thats done, then, my friends, then its Easter, our lights will go up, the bells will soundyou can even jiggle your car keys if you got em.  The hosts of heaven will join us as we sing our praises, and the light and the love of Jesus will be made manifest to us once again.  Yep, this night has all of the things. 

But right now, in this moment, something is happening with which perhaps we are not totally comfortable.  That is that Jesus has gone to hell.  That causes us to shudder sometimes because our understanding of hell mostly comes from Dante’s Inferno, images of imps and demons and people being tortured for all eternity.  Yet until Dante—who was not a theologian, mind you—wrote the Inferno in the 14th century, whenever it was proclaimed that Jesus had gone to hell folks had a different idea.  Call it Sheol, or Tartarus, or Hades, or simply the place where the dead people are, that is where Jesus has gone.  And that fact is so significant that we proclaim it in our Creeds when we say that he descended to the dead—or descended into hell, if you’re using Rite I.  This matters because until Jesus death was something to be feared because it meant separation from God.  God did not live in Sheol or Tartarus or Hades, so to die and go to such a place meant that God was nowhere to be found.  At least on earth we get glimpses of God through our worship of God, but death was total separation; that is, until the Day of Resurrection, when all things would be reconciled to God.  But by going to hell offers Good News to those who have died.  They are no longer separated from God, death is no longer something to be feared, because now, just as Jesus has conquered death, we are given the promise that what awaits us is not the cold, dark, grip of death, but eternal life with our God.  That happens because Jesus has gone to hell, grabbed Adam and Eve by the wrists, and proclaimed to them and everyone else there, “Come on brothers!  Come on sisters!  This night you are free!” 

We are free this night.  We are free from the power that death and the grave have over us.  We are free from the fear of being separated from God.  We are free from the very forces of darkness that crucified Jesus, and we are given a new future, a more hopeful future, one that can look back on our lives with purpose and meaning.  This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and freed us all.

This, Augustine of Hippo said, is Jesus’ Passover, what he called the Paschal Mystery.  Just as we hear the story of the first Passover, of the people of Israel passing over from slavery to freedom, Jesus passes over from death to life, and we, brothers and sisters, are passing with him.  Samuel will pass through the sacred waters of baptism this night, and he will never be the same.  We too will be splashed with those waters, a reminder that year after year, no matter how fearful our lives may be, no matter how deep the darkness, Easter still comes.  Jesus is still raised.  Light still shines.  And love still wins.  Love, God’s love, love in its purest, most fierce form, always wins. 

This is the night, brothers and sisters, when the Christian story, the Christian hope is given form and substance.  In the stillness of the darkness, in the flickering of the Paschal light, in the splashing of the waters, in the brightness of Easter’s dawn, and in the celebration of the sacred mysteries of bread and wine, we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the kind of hope that Julian of Norwich proclaimed when she echoed the words that Jesus revealed to her:  all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  This is our hope.  And this is the night. 

Resurrection Sunday:  A Story We Need to Hear 

It’s amazing, isn’t it??  How every single year, he wins.  Every year we tell the story once more.  We feel our hearts break when he is betrayed and when he dies.  We wait in the dark with him when he is held in the grip of death.  Every year looks like this might be the one where he doesn’t pull it off, but Jesus proves everybody wrong year after year after year. He wins again.  God wins again.  Love wins again.  And that victory happened long before I ever stepped into this pulpit this morning.  Each year preachers are tasked with telling the story of Easter again and trying to come up with some deep theological point, something new that’s gonna hit home, something catchy that’s gonna make you folks who haven’t been here in a while say, “Man, I’ve been missing out!  I’m coming back next week!”  We sort of treat Easter Sunday like our Super Bowl, one big day to blow all y’all away! But the truth is, no matter what I say, Jesus still wins.  No words of mine can fully articulate the power of an empty tomb and a rhetorical question “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Year after year it happens.  Death is conquered.  We are free.  Christ has, once again, won the victory. 

In spite of the fact that we hear the same story each year—albeit told from a different point of view depending on our gospel—it is story worth telling and hearing again and again.  Because it is a story we need to hear.  We need to hear, when a loved one dies tragically and suddenly, that death does not have the final say.  We need to hear, when hate mongers shoot up synagogues and mosques that love, not fear, always wins. In a world of freed Barabasses, we need to hear once more how the one executed saved all of them and us.  We need to hear this story again. 

Quite simply it is the story of love and life defeating death and fear.  Each and every day, brothers and sisters, we are indoctrinated by and desensitized to, the latter. Our 24-hour news cycle would cease to be were it not for the endless rounds of reporting on death and fear—oh, by the way, did you hear that the Rapture is finally gonna happen on Tuesday?  Sleep in fear tonight and hope you make the cut!  Last week the world watched in horror as four churches were burned.  The response to those burnings were very different.  Almost immediately upon seeing fire engulf The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris those news outlets were looking for someone to blame, probably terrorists, right?  Meanwhile, in Louisiana, evidence quickly mounted against a 21-year old white man who had destroyed three predominantly black churches, but that story didn’t seem nearly as interesting.  Some took to the Facebooks and the Twitters in anger, but by the grace of God—and I’d say the grace of Easter—something shifted, at least on my social media feed. Rather than trying to point fingers and blame someone for the severe damage to Notre Dame, I saw stories of how the cross at the high altar and the huge stained glass window survived, and how powerful those images were for people.  Instead of lamenting a lack of news coverage over the Louisiana churches I saw people commenting how they were going to send money to help with the repairs.  I saw life and love prevail in a week engulfed by the flames of hate, and as I saw the communities of these four churches rising out of the ashes I was reminded of this day, of the resurrection of the one every member of all four of those communities calls their Lord, how he rose again, how they are rising again, and yes, how we will rise again, as well.  Because you can’t kill the church, y’all!  The church is the Body of Christ, not a building, and because Christ has beaten death, it means the church, the people of God, has as well We need to hear that good news today.

Pain and death are a constant reality for every person here.  The philosopher Philo is credited with saying, “Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  And it’s true.  We do not need to be reminded of the grim reality of pain and death this day, we simply need to be reminded that those realities are not our ultimate reality, that Christ is risen, that love has won the day, and that every year, and every day, Christ will rise, love will win, and hope, Easter hope, will prevail.  Those Easter stories are all around us, even in the mixed up madness of our daily news and social media cycles.  Resurrection is real, brothers and sisters.  Was then, is now.  This is our story.  This is our song. 

The story of Easter is intricately linked with the story of Christmas—maybe that’s why even folks who have all but sworn off organized religion will come to those two services each year.  At Christmas a child was born who would go on to show people that God had broken loose into the world, that the Kingdom of God had come near—a child born not into wealth and power, but into poverty in an occupied land.  He was born to an fierce, unwed, teenage mother, and his whole life folks were trying to get him to shut his mouth.  But he didn’t.  Even when some thought they’d done it when they hung him on a tree, he still got up, and blessedly a group of fearless women didn’t keep their mouths shut, either, and we are here today because of them, because they followed his example of sharing that Good News, because they beloved, as he did, that God’s 2love would always win. 

Christ is alive, brothers and sisters!  He is loose on this world!  Love is loose!  The way of the cross has been transformed into the way of love.  Once more hope rises from the tomb, so that our own emptiness may be filled, filled with the Good News that no power on earth, no flame, no sword, no peril, not even death itself, can or ever will separate us from the love of God! 

It may be a story that we hear year after year.  It may be one that we preachers keep trying to give a new spin.  But it’s a story we need to hear, so that we can know its truth for our own lives, so that we can witness and practice resurrection ourselves.  The Lord is risen, indeed.