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.