Sunday, May 13, 2012

Even at the grave we make our song

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Easter is a celebration of Life. But we do not celebrate Easter in a vacuum.

The prayer book tells us:

In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.

We are called, this Eastertide, to celebrate that God lives.

Our Gospel today tells us, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; live in my love. Live in my love.

But "Live in my love" is hard.

In the midst of life, we are in death. Recently, it seems the news of death just keeps coming in.

Early Tuesday morning, Becky passed away. Becky, who worshiped with us. Becky who sent birthday cards to all of us on behalf of the church. Becky who was alive. Years ago, my wife worked at what was then the camp for this diocese. One of her co-workers, an 18-year-old counselor, later developed cancer. His funeral is this afternoon. He was 30. A friend of mine, a priest from New York, my age, died of a brain aneurysm a few weeks ago. Another friend of mine, a priest in the Roman church, lost his mother in the past week. In the diocese of Maryland, a homeless man killed a priest, a parish administrator, and then himself at a church outside Baltimore, not far from where my god daughter lives.

In the midst of life, we are in death indeed. The cumulative effect of all news of death is heavy. I know I've wanted to be able to do something about it, but, of course, I cannot. That helplessness in the face of death is why I wrote to Diane last week offering to preach two weeks in a row so she could have more time to visit her dying father. I couldn't keep people alive, but here was something I could do. Offering to help made me feel the slightest bit less helpless in the face of all this death.

Jesus tells us: Live in my love. But the live part is seems hard. So does the love part. Listening to the news this past week, I couldn't help but feel that the forces of selfishness and narrow-mindedness seemed to keep winning some victories this week. War between the Sudan and South Sudan seems to become more and more likely, while developments in Israeli politics seem to be making peace there less and less likely. We learned of more terrorist plots to blow things up, and our own nation's drones continue to drop bombs, killing terrorist and by-stander alike.

And then there's North Carolina. This week, voters there did what voters here in Michigan did back in 2004, approving an amendment to the state constitution to prevent any future session of the state legislature from extending the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Even sadder, in my view, is that in a survey conducted by the New York Times this week, support for the amendment was strongest among married people - people who enjoy the rights and protections of marriage were the most eager to deny those rights and protections to other families.

In other news, one of our nation's largest banks (and the one that holds my savings) revealed the amount of money it managed to gamble away trying to make the rich get even richer, and then it was revealed that the rules that enabled the bank to engage in such behavior had been changed in large part because of the extensive lobbying campaigns that same bank conducted.

Now these are the news stories that drove me near despair this week. Some of you might be bothered by different news. These were the headlines that hit me the hardest, but each of us is different. But in the face of all this Bad News, how can we celebrate life? How can we celebrate Easter?

But just as we do not celebrate Easter in a vacuum, neither did Easter happen in a vacuum. In the midst of life, we are in death, but Easter itself is a reminder that in the midst of death, we are in life. Death and despair and selfishness and bigotry and war and unkindness and evil do not have the final word.

The resurrection was not a random affirmation of life, but rather it followed the crucifixion. Resurrection came after violence and fear and oppression and death. The mighty Roman Empire used its full force to try to end the Jesus movement. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter, right? The enforcement apparatus of the empire publicly tortured and killed Jesus to say to all his followers and potential followers that this is the end that comes of those whose nonviolence challenges empire. This is the end that comes of those who live as though God and not Caesar is king. This is the end of your movement.

And Easter is our celebration that the empire was wrong. The cross is not the end. Despite the full force of empire, Jesus lives. Despite the full propaganda campaign of the passion, the followers of the Way did not give up hope. Despite the full force of hate, love is more powerful.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. The feast of feasts is our celebration that despite all the forces that oppose it, love wins. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We do not need to fear death. We can live in love. Jesus died horribly, and yet he lives.

The people whose of death I learned this week all were people who very much lived right up to the end of their lives. Becky's card ministry touched so many of our lives. My wife's friend has been fighting cancer for years, knowing that his prognosis never included recovery, but determined to live his life to the fullest. A few months ago, he and his partner of many years, who has helped him through so many rounds of treatment, got married.

The priest and parish administrator in Maryland died while running a food bank to feed the hungry.

Life and service to God continue even in the face of death. And God's love empowers us to work for justice and love even against staggering odds. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

It has been terrible sad to hear so many people use religion to justify denying civil rights to their brothers and sisters. And yet, in response to the North Carolina amendment vote, I heard two pieces of news that gave me hope. Wednesday evening I received an e-mail from a mailing list I am on. The President of the United States said that he has rethought his previous position, and come to the conclusion that he was wrong to oppose including all couples in the protections of marriage. He referred to his faith, and in particular the Golden Rule, as instrumental in coming to this conclusion. Now this doesn't change the law. This doesn't undo the damage that has been done and is being done by discrimination enshrined in the statutes and constitutions of our land. But it's an amazing sign of hope that the leader of our empire can be called to repent from his previous stance.

While leaders from some religious communities decried this announcement, I read a beautiful press release from a friend of mine from New Jersey, a priest named Jon Richardson, who is now Vice President of Integrity USA: "I am deeply grateful to President Obama for his vocal support of marriage equality. This growth and forward movement in his thinking is particularly heartening after the unsurprising, but disappointing vote yesterday for continued discrimination in North Carolina. While some churches and local governments are holding fast to socially irrelevant and outdated political positions, we are proud to lift up the Episcopal Church as a growing beacon of hope for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people of faith and our allies."

Jesus calls us to love our enemies, do good to those who hurt us, pray for those who persecute us. We fall short, so often, as these words are hard. But this week, several churches in the Diocese of Maryland reached out to the family of the man who killed the priest and church worker and offered prayers and a funeral service. Sometimes, by God's grace, we get it right. God enables us to live like Jesus, reaching out in love against all odds, even in the face of death. God's grace empowers us to act in love. Death is powerful, but death does not have the final word.

And so we can turn to God and say, as the prayer book tells us:

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

[The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!]

Happy Easter, everybody. The Easter season goes on for fifty days. I hope you’re not still looking for that last missing colored hard boiled egg the Easter Bunny hid, because by now, it probably doesn’t smell very good. I suspect the chocolate bunnies are mostly eaten, and infestations of Peeps and Cadbury Cream Eggs have been tamed, and yet the Feast of Feast continues for a week of weeks.

To be honest, I find this to be one of the hardest parts of the Church year. Fifty days of rejoicing that our Lord is risen indeed. Fifty days of celebrating that Christ, our passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Fifty days of feasting. Fifty days of celebrating the here and the now of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have to confess that I more readily find God’s grace in reading lessons from the Old Testament than I do in lessons from the New Testament. The messiness of Hebrew scripture and its competing narratives speak to my condition more often than the passages the Lectionary gives us from the Epistles, or even from the Gospel. But in Easter, our first lesson changes. Rather than a reading from Hebrew Scripture, our first lesson comes from the Acts of the Apostles. If the Church is the new Israel, then in Eastertide, rather than hearing the foundational stories of the first Israel, we hear the foundational stories of the establishment of the new Israel, where the twelve tribes find their successors in the twelve apostles. Exciting stuff, and it’s the one time of the year we get to hear the stories of the early Church that the Acts of the Apostles recounts. But for me, it’s a challenge, losing my fall-back plan: for most of the year, I know that if I don’t hear the Spirit speaking to me about the day’s Gospel, I can always preach about the lesson from Hebrew Scripture. Come Eastertide, that option goes away.

I do a lot better with the forty days of Lent. Preparing. Listening. Waiting for the Lord. I suppose I can better identify with meditative silence and fasting than I can with trumpets and feasting. But here we are in the Easter season, when we are called not to reflect on broken-ness, not to wait for our deliverance, but to rejoice that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!

Apparently, I’m not particularly good at extended rejoicing. But the Church year is a gift. God nudges us out of our comfort zone, so we can grow. And if extended rejoicing is the end for which we were created, to join in the anthem of the seraphim singing Holy Holy Holy at the feast of the Lamb for all time, perhaps it’s best if we take this opportunity to grow. All this practice at keeping the feast of the resurrection just might end up serving us well.

Our lesson from Acts today begins with an angel telling Philip “Get up and go!” There is a time for healing and a time for rest and a time for recovery and a time for fasting and praying and listening for the still, small voice of God – all of this is true, and vitally important, but a time also comes to take action.

If scripture were a movie, we’d switch genres here. We go from a contemplative drama in The Garden of Gethsemane – “stay awake with me and keep watch” – to an action adventure flick. God says “Get up and go,” so Philip races to catch up the Ethiopian eunuch. On foot, Philip outruns a chariot, known throughout the ancient world for their speed. And what happens at the end of this chase seen? Philip catches up to the chariot and… conducts a bible study. That’s right, they sit down and read together. Okay, maybe this isn’t the next Indiana Jones movie.

Yes, in this action-packed post-resurrection world there is still thought and discernment and study. But, keep in mind, Philip’s bible study here takes place in a racing chariot. And then, the Ethiopian eunuch hears what Philip has to teach him, and makes a decision instantly: Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

The action of salvation accelerates. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch, and then is immediately whisked away by the Spirit to his next task. It’s go, go, go in this outfit.

Now, to be honest, I’ve thought about this story many times in the past twelve years. In January of 2000, I approached my rector, John Keydel, to talk about the process of exploring a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. And for much of the last twelve years, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from God and the Church to wait. And wait. And wait. And there have been times this lesson from Acts has come to mind, where the Ethiopian eunuch says to Philip, “Here is water; what is to prevent me from being baptized” – no catechesis, no waiting for the Easter Vigil, no paperwork, no delays. Just stop the chariot, go down to the water, and boom – you’re baptized; start your new ministry. I’ve dreamed that perhaps someday a bishop might just be wandering by (not that there would ever be a bishop around this place) and say hey, there’s work I want you to do. Here are my hands – what is to prevent you from being ordained? And then it’s boom – on to the next mission.

Now it doesn’t work that way, and for good reason. An ordained leader in the Church can do a lot of damage, so the Church needs to be careful that it calls people who are well selected, well supported, and well prepared. But when the message is wait, wait, wait, when, one can start to expect that the word from the Lord is always “wait.” In the time of Elijah, the voice of the Lord was not in the wind and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. When that happens, it’s easy to become complacent. To expect that the message is always “wait until later.” To miss the call to action of the Lord speaking in the sound of sheer silence. But after the wind, earthquake, and fire, God did speak to Elijah, and said Get up and Go. And just like Philip, once God said Go, Elijah went indeed.

For us here at Nativity, we’ve been in a time of healing. We’ve been in a time of praying, and listening, and waiting for the Lord. And when God isn’t calling us to get up and go yet, the proper course of action is indeed to wait for the Lord. But today’s lesson is an important reminder that the hour is coming when the word from the Lord won’t be wait, but rather Get up and Go. We’ve got to be listening for that call, and ready for the change of pace that might follow. There’s a time to wait for the Lord. A time to pray and study scripture and discern. And also a time when God presents us with opportunity: here is water. What is to prevent us from doing God’s work in the world. And we do it, and boom! It’s on to the next mission. Amen.