Easter Sermon

happy easter 2017

As I am between (I hope!) calls, I attended church yesterday with extended family, with whom my husband and I were visiting for his mom’s 85th birthday.  But I miss preaching!  And so . . .  here’s last year’s sermon:

Empty Tomb, Overflowing Love

The stone sealing the tomb – it was heavy.  The tomb contained a body, laid there just day before yesterday.  And now, this morning: the stone rolled away, the tomb empty – what do these things mean?

The gospel of Luke doesn’t offer us many clues.

When we read this story, we are often left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with a sense that much of the story is missing, with an empty feeling of having been left hanging.  It’s a simple story which makes a big claim – but what is Luke trying to tell us?

There are some women, three of them named –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna – and at least two of them not named.  They have prepared spices with which to tend to the body of their beloved friend Jesus, the one who was killed by crucifixion two days earlier.

They arrive at the cemetery, they find the cave-like tomb open, and inside, instead of the broken body for which they hope to care, they are confronted by two men, dressed in dazzling clothing, who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he is risen.”  Then the men remind them of what Jesus had told them in the past about this event – that he would be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again.

The women do remember, and so they leave to find the other disciples, and to tell them what has happened.  The other disciples don’t believe them; they call the women’s story “an idle tale,” or “nonsense.”  But Peter, apparently wanting to see for himself, dashes to the graveyard to look inside the tomb and then, finding nothing but the grave clothes lying limply where a body should be, goes home.

And that’s it. That’s the story as we have it from Luke.

It’s not much of a plot to go on: We have a few individuals, several of them not even named, in a desolate setting, having some sort of supernatural encounter, hearing the words “He has risen.”

And we have the verbs that the gospel writer used to describe these few people, these few followers of a man who has been killed and whose body has now mysteriously disappeared.  Depending upon your translation, the women and the other disciples are variously described as:

Perplexed. Terrified.  Frightened.  Amazed.  Wondering.

Maybe those are our clues as to what Luke is trying to tell us.  These words, these responses:

He has risen.  Confusion and fear and amazement.  The women, ridiculed.  Peter, so stunned that he . . .  goes back home.  They had been told, by Jesus himself, that this would happen but, come on!  As another preacher has said, and I wish I could take credit for this one, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what CAN you count on?”[1]

You can’t count on the dead to stay dead.  You can’t count on bodies to stay in tombs.  You can’t count on people to remember what they’ve been told, or to understand what they see with their own eyes.

What you CAN count on is that God is not stymied by heavy stones, or dark tombs, or human confusion or fear.  What you CAN count on is that God is not bound by the old, and most definitely not defeated by death.

What you CAN count on is that God is doing a completely new thing.  A completely different thing. Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend.

Something so vast, so powerful, so all-encompassing, that we can only begin to grasp it by allowing ourselves, like Jesus’ first disciples, women and men alike, to be perplexed and terrified and frightened

And to wonder: What force has been unleashed in the world, what power is so grand, that it has emptied a tomb?

There is only one such force in the entire universe, and that is the force of love.

What that empty tomb represents, what those limp and useless grave clothes tell us, is this: That things are not as they were.  History has been challenged.  The course of events for all of creation has been altered by a God who will. not. be. satisfied. to let sin and destruction and hopelessness and death have the last word. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, God’s kingdom of love reigns over all other kingdoms of self-centeredness and acquisitiveness and materialism and manipulation and politics and violence.

The disciples don’t seem to have understood all of this at once.  How could they have?  We don’t understand it ourselves, 2,000 years later.  I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ followers talked about among themselves that morning after they went home.  I imagine that much of the conversation was like that which follows any death.  “What now?”  And that it was heightened by the missing body.  And by the words of those dazzling men, whom we presume to have been angels: “Remember what he told you.”

Perhaps as they sat together, made breakfast, drank their coffee, expressed their fears to one another, perhaps those early followers of Jesus recalled not only his words, but other words they had learned.  Who knows?  Perhaps they even recalled those other words given to us this morning, from the prophet Isaiah:

“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  . . .  I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  . . . They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  . . . Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   . . .   They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

New heavens and a new earth.  Joy.  Delight.  The building of houses and the planting of vineyards and the lusciousness of fruit.  The peaceful cooperation of those who were once predator and prey.  The absence of hurt and destruction.  A God who answers before we call.  A God who hears before we speak.

No wonder Luke leaves us hanging on Easter morning, pauses us in a moment of stunned silence.  No wonder the women and men who followed Jesus are a bit bewildered and lost, wandering back to their homes in a state of confused apprehension.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The wonder is not that they respond as they do.  The wonder is reserved for what has happened.  Death has been conquered.  Love has triumphed.

Jesus has completely, powerfully, overwhelmingly, defeated death by transforming it into life.

Jesus has taken the horror of death — the torment, the bodily disintegration, the despair, the grief – and demolished them all.  He has begun the work of the new creation; in his rising he has flung open the door that leads to the light and life of new heavens and a new earth, to the full presence of God in which we, too, will be transformed by love.

That tomb?  It’s empty.  Those grave clothes?  Useless.  Those befuddled disciples?  Witnesses to something so new that they could not yet grasp it, not on that perplexing, terrifying, amazing morning.

But pouring, rushing, overflowing from that empty tomb and into the universe: a love so complete, so powerful, so creative that it rises victorious over all that threatens to harm or break or destroy  . . .  a love that destroys even death.

Go ahead:  Be stunned.  Be amazed.  But be NOT afraid.  Because love wins.

Happy Easter.

 

[1] Anna Carter Florence quoted by David Lose in Working Preacher

 

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted (Retreat for Survivors of Third Sunday in Lent)

Samaritan Woman Roman Caracombs

The story of the Woman at the Well (name not recorded; how surprising) in the Gospel of John recounts an encounter between Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher, and a Samaritan woman, someone with whom, due to her gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, he is expected to avoid.  It’s the longest conversation he has with anyone in the Bible, a conversation in which he elicits from her an acknowledgement that she has been married five times and is now with number six, but swiftly moves on to a revelation of who he is, which in turn upends her entire life.

The Samaritan Woman and I have had a long relationship.  A decade or so ago, I spent several days meditating upon and praying with her story, and her movement from an encounter with Jesus at the well and out into the world to tell what she had heard was a pivotal factor in propelling me into seminary.

A few years later, my son gone, I often focused on her exhaustion and disappointment.  She has a history of negative characterizations due to those five husbands, but there is no indication in the story of anything untoward on her part.  (My father was widowed three times and divorced once, and I was once a family lawyer, so I am well acquainted with the disillusionment and heartache that follow the end of dashed hopes, whatever the reason.)

This year, I find that I am really, really liking the Samaritan Woman.  I mean, I always did, but this year, her persistence in leaving behind her water jar, the symbol of a life tangled in the expectations and promises of others and in the sadness and hardship which have come her way, and walking confidently into a new future ~ this year I am seeing not only the gift of water rushing from Jesus’ life into hers, but the gift of determination that she packs up and takes with her.

I don’t know where you are as you read this.  If you are in the early years, it may be all you can do to sit by your well, and that’s okay.  But if you can look ahead, even of only for a minute or two at a time, perhaps you can see a future.  Not the one you wanted or planned for, but the one that came your way due to the past being smashed to bits.

How might you respond, when you can?

 

 

Night Journey (Sermon for Lent 2)

Below you’ll find a sermon I preached three years ago.  I pulled it out a few days ago, as there’s a chance I’ll receive a last-minute call to preach for a friend tomorrow.  It’s a looong sermon, so I’ve been working on a shorter version.  But I do like the corn crake story, which might disappear altogether.  And for tomorrow I’ve written a Nicodemus prayer, so it might be helpful to remember his journey today.

*****

Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland.  It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades.  It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona.  It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s.  Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program.  You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons”  (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.

Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island.  It was very late, and very dark – finally!  Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.

Corncrake2

I knew exactly what was making that call.  The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover.  We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland.  I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.

Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today?  We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake.  But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night. 

What is it about the night that’s significant?

We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms.  We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus.  He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously.   So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone.  A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one.  That’s what we usually hear.

And maybe that’s all true.  But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.

Night is a time, isn’t it? — when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings.  In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble.  We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day.   Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country. 

The  song  “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

 Consider other night journeys:

When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting.  We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses. 

Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse.  On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam.  He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.”  His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance.  Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.

Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened.  In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day.  And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night.  While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north?   I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.

And so: Nicodemus.  What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus?  Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected.  Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:

Night journeys are different.

Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief.  We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night.  We learn differently at night.

And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.

This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith.  We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we?  What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean?  What does it mean to be born from above?  What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?  What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?

What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,

All night my heart makes its way/ however it can over the rough ground/of uncertainties . . .

“The rough ground of uncertainties.”  That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties.  The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before.  They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?

But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night.  And in the night we hear things differently.  The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games.  But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above.  In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.

Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors.  Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.

Let’s return to words from “The Music of the Night”:

Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar/ And you’ll live as you’ve never lived before . . .

 Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world/ Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .

A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us.  A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life.  A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.

Sometimes we can’t see any of that in the light of day.  Sometimes we have to journey by night to know with clarity both the call of the corn crake and the love of God.  Sometimes in night’s “rough gound of uncertainties” we find the answer: the Son who came not to turn on us in anger , but to gather us up into love.

And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth!  Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.

Amen.

A Book of Lament ~ Retreat for Suicide Survivors (Second Wednesday in Lent)

arthur3 lament

The Bible contains an entire book devoted to the subject of Lamentations.  Many people are unaware of this little book; many are unaware that the Bible, one way or another, covers the entire range of human emotion.

The Book of Lamentations records a response on behalf of an exiled people ~ the battle lost, the city destroyed, the people led away to an unfamiliar destination.  It is thus a book of community,  pertaining to a specific episode in the history of that community.

The book is not entirely helpful for those who grieve.  The emphasis on loss as a consequence of sin, on God’s destruction of a city ~ no.  But it can be helpful to know that the Bible contains wails of lament, and to translate communal cries of anguish on behalf of a city into individual cries on behalf of a family.  There have always been others expressing solidarity with those who mourn.

Cry aloud to the Lord!
O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
your eyes no respite!  (Lamentations 2:18)

First Sunday in Lent (Retreat for Suicide Survivors)

The rhythm of the Christian calendar brings us each year to the first Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday on which we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Before he can embark upon his ministry of healing and teaching, he is, according to the Gospel of Matthew, led into the desert and into a confrontation with the devil; into a 40-day period of hunger, silence, and temptation.

The “wilderness” in the Bible, the literal wilderness of Sinai, looks to those of us in North America more like a desert.  Rocky, barren, seeimingly devoid of life, stretching across a great landscape of emptiness broken only by peaks and valleys.  And 40 ~ in the Bible, the number 40 means a lot, or many.  Forty days for the flood from which only Noah and his family and the animals were saved.  Forty years that the Hebrew people wandered the Sinai wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Forty days for Jesus’ purifying and preparatory time, hungry ~ and alone, but for the tempter.

The pattern of the church year invites us to revisit this desert time at the onset of Lent.  “Revist?,”  you may well ask, and add that your own desert time lasted, or continues to last, much longer than 40 days.  Perhaps you have only recently been tossed into the desert and left lying in a heap on the cold, rocky, ground.  Perhaps some time has passed and you have come to know the terrain well.  Perhaps you have encountered the angels who, finally, arrived to tend Jesus.  Perhaps you have walked out of the desert and into a new version of your life.

In any case, this season, and this Sunday, invite you to take a look around.  There is always something to observe in the desert.  If nothing else, the sun rises and the sun sets, placing  you in the midst of a much broader universe than you may be able to absorb.  But there are also flickers of movement in the desert.  The shadows separate into distinct patterns, merge into a haze, separate again, and fade.  Small mammals and reptiles make momentary forays into the light or into the darkness, seeking sustenance.  Birds occasionally soar overhead, briefly marking the stark landscape with their own pegasauran shadows.

arches

Look around.  Look around your own desert.  Look up, look down, look through.

Jesus, as far as we know, took nothing from the wilderness with him when he walked back out, into a world in which food and water and companionship were plentiful.  But he carried with him the experience of having been hungry and thirsty and utterly alone, an experience which marked him forever as a man for others.

Look around.  What will you carry with you; what do you carry with you, that marks you as a woman or man for others?

 

 

(Image: Arches National Park in Utah.)

 

 

 

 

Friday Five for Lent

friday-five-lent

The RevGals Friday Five is, not surprisingly, focused on Lent:

1.) Are you giving up, or taking on? Some combination thereof?

I’m taking on . . . accompanying a college student through an eight-week version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and trying to do the daily prayer and reflection alongside her.  I also pulled out my journal from my own year-long experience of the Spiritual Exercises in 2005-06, because I wanted to see what I had to say then.  I am somewhat surprised, although it all rings true.

2.) Fasting? What does that look like for you?

Fasting has never been a meaningful practice for me.  I suppose the whys and wherefores of that might be worth considering.

3.) In what way is study helpful to you this season? Are you reading, studying, journaling…?

Since I find myself without a call, I have plenty of time for reading.  This week, I am finishing up Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets and David Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads, and skimming Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

4.) Purple. Do you find that your wardrobe is drawn to participate in the season?

Nope.  Now that I think of it, there is very littler purple in my wardrobe, although I have some great purple earrings.  And, as I look down, I see that I am wearing a fuzzy purple sweater, because I am staying inside today and it happened to be lying on a chair instead of in the laundry.  Maybe it’s an unconscious thing.

5.) How are you finding ways to take “time apart” in order to avoid getting worn thin?

I don’t have to worry much about wearing thin these days.  A year ago, I was brand new to my congregation, looking at an extra service and sermon every week, and in the process of getting really, really sick, which I ignored and thereby prolonged.  Today, I am declaring a snow day and working (or not) at whatever pace I choose on whatever projects appeal to me.

Ash Wednesday (Retreat for Suicide Survivors)

ash-wednesday-clipart_13922520451

Many of us have an intimate familiarity with ashes. My surviving son and I collected his twin brother’s ashes from the funeral home about a week after the funeral.  When I described that day to a friend whose daughter had died in a sudden accident, she asked if we had looked inside.  “Immediately,” I responded.

Since that day, I have scattered those ashes all over the place, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from a Canadian river to the tip of Florida, and across mountains and waters in between.  Perhaps you have done the same.  Or perhaps an urn, or the body which remains, rests in a place sacred to you.

No doubt those first days are emblazoned in your mind and heart, whether they took place recently or long ago.

And, unless you have blocked them out, the words you spoke, or prayed, or didn’t, may still echo, as today’s words from the prophet Isaiah do during Ash Wednesday services

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.(Isaiah 58:9)

I don’t know whether you felt God’s answer to your call for help, or whether you did not.  I don’t know whether you know a strong faith, or have never imagined any such thing, or have abandoned what you did once believe.  I tend to think these days that God’s presence materialized in the form of the friends and family who arrived on our doorstep almost immediately.  And since this is a day for pondering the dust to which we shall all return, I am thinking of the friends, already having become sad and yet also sometimes humorous experts, who sat around our kitchen table in those first dark days, sharinging their stories of bodies and ashes and decisions made and questioned and made again.

Perhaps the next few days would be a time to give thanks for those who share so generously out of their own heartache, so that we might not move alone into the depths of grief.   May we treasure them even as we wish that none of us know what we know now.

 

Lenten and Easter Retreat for Suicide Survivors

 

green-river-1  This 2017 Lenten and Easter seasons, I am offering a free online retreat via this blog for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.  This means that I will be posting on this topic on Wednesdays and Sundays, with something each time designed to serve as a springboard for prayer, meditation, or contemplation ~ however you choose to characterize a time of quiet for yourself or a small group.

Because Lent and Easter are seasons in the Christian Church, and because I am a Christian (Presbyterian) pastor and spiritual director, these posts will have a Christian flavor and tone.  However, I am ecumenical in outlook, and will endeavor to make this a hospitable space for anyone who stops by, whether of any faith or none.  All are welcome.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑