Sunday, April 22, 2012

Saved by Food

The Rublev Holy Trinity

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48.

How many times has food saved the day? 

You’re at a business meeting or an interview and the tension in the air is so thick that it’s like a fog.  But then the food comes, and one of the dishes reminds someone of a restaurant she visited. It’s in your hometown and you’ve been there, and so you begin to talk in a new way.

Or, you’re seated at a wedding reception—you know you’ll be in your assigned seat for at least four hours—and you’ve just happened to have been placed between two people whose politics and religion could not be more different, and yet they’ve decided that this is the perfect time for one to convert the other—with you in-between.  But then a dish comes and reminds one person of the way his grandmother cooked.  And the other agrees, and the tone changes. 

On a date, meeting the in-laws, settling a deal, or grieving the loss of a loved one—food often introduces some very mysterious, almost-mystical element into the mix.  Food has saved the day.  At least that day. 

Food saves the day in our Gospel reading.  Sometimes we read scripture so formally that we forget the words reflect conversations and situations involving real people—people who got nervous, or got scared, or felt emboldened and confident, or felt self-conscious and unsure of themselves.  They are human.  And when Jesus is on earth, he interacts in very human ways. 

Food does just that in today’s Gospel. It is soon after the Resurrection.  The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus begins to try to reason with them, “Would a ghost have flesh and bones like I do?” But they still can’t quite take it all in. So there in the midst of the fear, the silence, the remorsefulness and regret, the weirdness and awkwardness of it all, Jesus asks for food.  They give him a piece of broiled fish and he eats it “in their presence,” right there with them, beside them, among them. With the conversation that comes around that shared fish, the disciples begin to see Jesus as their friend come back to life. They see him as the Son of God, come to share a message of love. They see him as the Messiah, who opens the way to eternal life with God. All of this—the opening of their eyes, their hearts, their minds, their future--- is made possible over the sharing of a simple meal.

People are hungry. Physical hunger continues to be a reality all around the globe, and close to home, here in our city.  (Members of our church volunteer at Christ House, we donate food to the food pantry, and we work with the organization called “SOME: So others might eat.”  And so we acknowledge real hunger and try to do our part. 
But people are hungry and starving in other ways, as well.  Spiritual hunger also gnaws at people, sometimes to the extent that they settle for the spiritual equivalent of fast food--- easy answers and fundamentalist thinking.
The sophisticated in our culture hunger as well, but settle for a diet of cynicism, of busyness and compulsion, of reliance on other things to cover up the hunger pangs. It would be glib and simplistic for me to suggest that a simple faith in Jesus will immediately fill the stomach—nor will faith in God necessarily fill the kind of hunger that results in despair, or violence, or suicide. But I will say that faith in the God who has raised Jesus from the dead can begin to feed, and to strengthen, and to nourish. For many, such faith does feed, and even enables us to offer the bread of heaven to others.

In today’s Gospel, the conversation around a broiled fish symbolizes the way that Jesus feeds us.

He feeds us intellectually. I know that many in this country and in Western Europe think that Christianity is anything but intellectual, but that is only because of their own poor knowledge of our tradition. Some of the greatest minds in history were led to ask penetrating questions and seek answers by their yearning for God. In some places, organized religion has stood in the way of this, but not everywhere, and not always. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22). Jesus feeds us intellectually, urging us to make connections between his teachings and our lives, between his commandments, and our own culture, between his relationships with people and the relationships we are called to make.

Jesus also feeds us socially. Through programs, through volunteer efforts, through agencies and missionaries of the church, we offer literal food to the hungry. But as those of you who volunteer with the meals at Christ House know, when you help to feed others, you also are fed. You are strengthened and nurtured. At All Souls much of our community happens around food, whether it’s the breakfast on Sundays, the coffee hour and receptions, the newcomers’ receptions, foyer dinners, or social gatherings. We are changed a little bit over food, we’re more relaxed, we’re more ourselves. With other Christians, Christ appears in new ways in the breaking of bread.

And finally, we’re fed by Jesus Christ in mysteriously and spiritually in the sacrament of his body and blood, the communion of bread and wine. The Collect for the Day asks that God would open “the eyes of our faith,” and that’s what happens over time with Holy Communion. As we place ourselves before God, as we allow God to feed us with this little bit of bread and wine, our hearts grow more open to God’s presence, to God’s purpose, and to God’s love.

Dan Davis’s exciting Adult Forum on “art and faith” has me thinking more theologically about art.  And with today’s Gospel I go back to painting of the three strangers who meet Abraham and Sarah in the 18thchapter of Genesis. The Lord appears to Abraham in the form of three people—angels, they become in tradition. Abraham and Sarah entertain these angels—they make them sit down, and give them food. The three speak as one and they announce that Sarah will give birth to a child.

An especially famous example of this new form was painted in the 15th century by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev. He and others after him show the trinity of angels at table, as if Abraham and Sarah have stepped out to the kitchen. The angels represent the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The three are in conversation, as though enjoying each other’s company, completely at rest and at home. Sometimes in these paintings and icons, there’s something else in the picture.  There’s food on the table.  Food is the centerpiece without being the center, but it calms and focuses and allows God to be present in the midst of fear, in the midst of doubt, in the midst of confusion, and in the midst of hope.

The sharing of food can bring about all kinds of changes. It can open up conversation. It can bring back memories. Food can link us with our ancestors, even as taste buds pave the way to new friendships. It can bring healing. It can bring transformation.

The Holy Eucharist is food from heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ, given for us to share and become one—one people, one body with Christ, one creation with God the Almighty.

May Jesus continue to feed us physically, communally, and spiritually.  And may our eyes, hearts and hands be opened, so that we might receive the good God would give us and, in turn, share what we have with a hungry world.
 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The courage to doubt

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, and John 20:19-31.

So-called “Doubting Thomas” gets a lot of attention. Famous paintings by Caravaggio and others show Thomas placing his finger in the side of Jesus, or at least reaching toward Jesus, testing, challenging, asking for proof.  Even people who have never set foot in a church have sometimes heard of him.  Thomas is often portrayed as perhaps having less faith than some of the other apostles.  Or, it is suggested that Thomas is slower to come to faith than the others, or that he is the early Church equivalent of “being from Missouri” and he needs to be shown. 

On that first Easter morning, as Mary tells the disciples that the tomb is empty and Jesus has risen, it’s not just Thomas that disbelieves her.  The other disciples seem to doubt, as well. 

Thomas is not alone is his doubting immediately after the Resurrection, and he’s certainly not alone in scripture or in history, with his doubt. 

When Moses was called by God, Moses had his doubts.  Abraham and Sarah laugh when the angels tell them that they’re going to have a son in old age, and their doubts become a part of their son, Isaac’s very name, since the name Isaac means “laughter.”  Jonah doubts. Jeremiah doubts. 

Perhaps most surprising, if we look closely, it even seems as though Jesus sometimes doubts.  He doubts his mission:  as he first imagines he is sent only to save the Jews, it takes a Samaritan woman to widen his perspective.  Jesus doubts his disciples as he predicts that Peter will quickly lose heart will deny having anything to do with Jesus.  In the garden, Jesus wonders if God is there, and on the cross, Jesus again wonders if God has forgotten.

I mention all of these people of tremendous faith that we encounter in scripture, and (at the risk of heresy) I mention Jesus, as well, because I don’t think St. Thomas is alone in doubting.  And I think we miss a lot of what God would have us see, if we pretend that doubt is an abnormal or subnormal place to be.  Sometimes we are filled with faith.  Sometimes we doubt.  God is still God.

And so where does that leave us, when we doubt?  Well, I suppose we could ignore doubt.  We could focus only on faith, pretend doubt is an anomaly to be ignored or denied, but I don’t think that’s very helpful. 

When we’re in doubt, we can do a lot of things, but I can think of at least three that God might actually use doubt to provoke or call forth from us. 

First, we can “live the question.”  Research, read, study, question.  Paul Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith. In fact, his book The Dynamics of Faith he writes

In those who rest on their unshakable faith, pharisaism, and fanaticism are the unmistakable symptoms of doubt which has been repressed. Doubt is overcome not by repression but by courage. Courage does not deny that there is doubt, but it takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its own finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern. Courage does not need the safety of an unquestionable conviction. ... Even if the confession that Jesus is the Christ is expressed in a strong and positive way, the fact that it is a confession implies courage and risk.” (Chp. 6, Sect. 1)
“Love the questions themselves.  Live the questions now,” Rilke wrote the young poet.

Second, we can ask for help.  Share doubts with another, we’ll not only find that we’re not as isolated as we think, but chances are that the person has also had doubts and can understand our questions. 

And finally, we can do what saints and sinners of every age have done:  we can give the doubt to God.  Teresa of Avila, the famously prayed for some 18 years feeling as though her prayers were not really being heard, and were accomplishing very little.  But she persisted, and is one of those very few saints who is said to have found union with God in prayer. 

And so, when we’re doubting, we can learn something.  We can lean on someone.  We can love God.

We are given “doubting Thomas” as a brother in doubt and faith, a fellow disciple who paved a rough way for us to faith. 
St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.
It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Living till we look like God

A homily for the marriage of Kristen Read and Peter Walker on April 13, 2012.  The Gospel reading is John 15:9-12 .

A few years ago, a study was conducted.  In the study, people were presented a random array of photographs of faces, with the backgrounds blacked out, and were asked to match the men with the women who most closely resembled them. Two dozen of the photographs were of couples when first married; another two dozen were of the same couples 25 years later, most taken around the time of their silver wedding anniversary.  Guess what the findings were?

Couples who originally bore no particular resemblance to each other when first married had, after 25 years of marriage, come to resemble each other.

The psychologist who did the study suggests a number of reasons for the resemblance:  similar diet over time, similar environment and habits.  But also, he suggests that over time, couples begin unconsciously to mimic one another’s expressions.  The same doctor was asked to comment on whether people really might also come to resemble their pets.  He had no comment.

Whether that study was truly scientific or not, we all know couples who actually grow to look a little like each other.  They might dress in the same style.  They might laugh at the same things.  They might roll their eyes when irritated.  This resemblance bears witness to the idea that we grow not individually, but together. 

The Gospel this afternoon uses an old-fashioned word to talk about this:  “Abide” in my love, Jesus says.  To abide is to wait for, to endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to be stable.  “To keep calm and carry on” is to abide.  To affirm some faith in a God of creation in the midst of a world that sometimes seems to fall every more deeply chaos is to abide.  To believe in the power of resurrection, to model one’s life after that of Christ, and to pledge one’s love to another human being:  these things--- THIS is to abide.  It is to grow together, in God’s grace. 

In just a few minutes Lindsay will sing a setting of an e.e. cummings poem. 
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                              i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Peter and Kristen, I pray that you’ll carry one another’s heart in your own heart so long that you’ll look like each other, that your love look like the love of Christ for the world; and that through it all, you will abide in the eternal love of God. 

May God bless you and your families richly, this day and always.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Considering the Lilies

One day last week I stopped into a pharmacy that seemed as though it was in the middle of an inventory, was a few days from closing, or had just undergone an earthquake.  The place was filthy.  One register was open and staffed by an angry, tired, and probably underpaid employee.  As I stood in the line with nine other people, the only thing that kept me from joining in the complaining and muttering was that I was wearing a collar and at least looked like a priest (even if my internal disposition was anything but priestly).  And then I saw something that changed my mood.  Over to the side of the chaos, inefficiency, and grumpiness, there were Easter lilies.

While I’m sure this is not good news for local florists, I’ve been surprised this year that Easter lilies seem to be everywhere.  They are at the hardware store, in the grocery store, and all kinds of other places. As I stood in line at the pharmacy I realized that I could make a decision.  I could be peeved that everyone was racing toward a cultural celebration of Easter, missing the point of a Holy Lent.  Or I could do what Jesus says and “consider the lilies.”        

Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on” (Mt. 6:25).  I think Jesus offers this list of possible worries as representative, not exhaustive.  The Spirit of Christ elaborates, “Do not be anxious about your work situation, or your relationship issue, or your retirement, or your savings, or your children, or your aging parents….” Do not be anxious, Jesus says, because God will take care of you.

“Look at the birds . . . Consider the lilies,” Jesus says.  Among the many messages of Easter, one of the most helpful for me is that Easter is about the power of God—the power of God to take care of us and all creation, the power to turn what was old into something new, and the power to carry us into life eternal.  Earthly anxieties will tug at us as long as we are on this side of heaven, but with Easter eyes, we can see beyond whatever troubles and worries us and have faith in God who raises from death to new life.
An article for the All Souls Weekly, April 8, 2012

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Disguised Resurrection

Detail from Christ with St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, Rembrandt, 1638.

A sermon for Easter Day, April 8, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2,  14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 , and John 20:1-18 .

If you go downstairs in the National Cathedral, in the very heart of the building, you can find yourself in the St. Joseph Chapel.  The chapel is dedicated not to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus. Instead, this chapel is dedicated to Joseph of Arimethea, the man who donated his own tomb to be used by Jesus.

The chapel is Romanesque or Norman in style, and has a very old feel with its massive, thick walls and rounded arches.  Behind the altar, as a focal point for the space, there’s a mural, done by Jan Henrik DeRosen in 1939.  It shows the Entombment of Christ, as befits a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph.  Though the picture clearly indicates the burial of Christ, the face of Jesus still has life to it.  It has character and particularity.  Jesus is not some vague spirit-presence.  He is someone’s son, someone’s brother and friend.  Here is a body, a particular body, who is recognized and loved even as he is now being mourned. 

The face of Jesus in that mural looks lively, in part, because it was based upon a person who in the 1930’s was very much alive.  All of the characters in the mural, as with many of the carvings, paintings, and sculptures in the cathedral, were modeled on real people in and around the life of the cathedral.  In this picture the model for the Jesus is said to have been the head man from the boiler room.

I love that.  The artist didn’t pick a bishop to be the model for Jesus.  He didn’t pick the best looking person, or the smartest, or the one with the most money.  Maybe he picked the one who could sit still the longest.  Or maybe it was totally by coincidence.  Or maybe there was something about the boiler room man that seemed vaguely Christlike—a smile, a gentleness, a strength, a glimmer in his eye—who knows?

Our cathedral is not unusual in suggesting through art that the Holy shines through regular, ordinary people.  God does it all the time.

Over and over, in scripture, in history, and in our lives, God shows up in what might seem like the least likely person, in the most unlikely of places.  God shows up to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three strangers.  God shows up to Jacob in a wrestling match of a dream.  In the Book of Esther, God shows up in the words and acts of Queen Esther, Mordecai, and even a Persian King.  God shows up in Bethlehem, in the carpenter’s shop, and in dusty Palestinian villages.  God is in the garden.  God is on the cross.  And God shows up at a fish fry on the beach that first Easter morning.  God shows up as a wanderer on the road to Emmaus.

When has God shown up for you?  Was it in someone you knew, or a total stranger?  Was it through a book, or a movie, a piece of music, or a sudden insight?  Did it happen in church, or at work, or at the beach?  Or was it, like with Mary Magdalene, in a garden?

That Easter morning, Jesus shows up as a gardener for at least two reasons, I think.  The first is to remind us to be on the lookout for him.  God is often disguised in our world, but with eyes of faith, we can see and rejoice and be a part of the continued resurrection of his love. 

But there’s a second reason why Jesus appears as a gardener:  It’s because sometimes we are called to appear as Jesus, to be his hands and feet and mouth in the world.  We’re called to speak up for those who have lost their voice or had their voice taken from them.  We’re called to reach out and help heal.  We’re called to grow and cook and feed the hungry, to build and provide in order to house the homeless. 

Symeon (the New Theologian), a tenth century mystic, puts this beautifully as he writes  

We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? -- Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
And so, this Easter and always:  Keep your eye out for the gardener.  Or the boiler room man, or the taxi driver, the nurse, the waiter, the politician, real estate agent, teacher, or kid playing soccer.  It may be Christ shining through. 
And live aware, as well, that Christ may just as soon shine through you to bring his light more fully into the world.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Fearsome with Christ

A sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 7, 2012.  The lectionary readings for the Mass are Romans 6:3-11 , Psalm 114, and Mark 16:1-8.

With all the candles we’ve been lighting, with our journey this night and this season from darkness into light, I’ve been thinking about a contest that’s going on right now.  You may have read about what is called the Flame Challenge.  It’s a contest sponsored by the actor Alan Alda in an attempt to encourage scientists to explain “what a flame is” in language that can be understood by an 11-year-old.  In part, Alda’s interest in making science intelligible stems from when he was about 11 and he asked his science teacher to explain a flame, a simple flame such as one would see from a fire or a candle.  Whatever the teacher said, Alda was not impressed, and so ever since, he has done what he can to encourage clear talk about science.  For the Flame Challenge, 822 entries have been submitted, and now the entries are being judged in more than 130 schools by, (you guessed it) 11-year-olds.  It got me thinking about flames.

When I think of my earliest understanding of a flame, my earliest experience of fire, I would have to say that “flame” equaled danger.  Whether one prefers the word, flammable or inflammable, it’s going to burn you up, if you’re not careful.  Most of us learn at an early age that fire is dangerous and flames are not to be played with.  Don’t go near the fire.  Don’t put your finger near the candle.  Don’t let sparks pop out of a fireplace.  Fire is something to be feared. 

And yet, as we grow, fire is very soon our best friend, as fire cooks food on a grill in just the right way.  Fire warms and provides and comforts.  God uses fire to lead his beloved people through the wilderness, out of slavery, and into the land that is promised.  We’re told that the Holy Spirit speaks through tongues of flame, and with Jesus, the Spirit baptizes with fire. And tonight, don’t we follow in primeval footsteps as we give thanks for the hope and promise of New Fire?

Fear and flame are connected also in that we have ambiguous and changing relationships each.  If our own life involves conflicted feelings around fire, then “fear” brings its own complications.

In the early days of Lent, some of us gathered at church for a quiet day (a mini-retreat)  in which we thought and prayed about our relationship with fear—how fear can paralyze, but also how fear can motivate.  I shared with folks then, that though many will say that “faith is the opposite of fear,” I don’t believe that.  Instead, I think that an honest, healthy, faith that grows in the Spirit of Christ is full of fear.  But fear almost fertilizes the new life.

There’s a lot of fear in tonight’s Gospel.  Mary Magdalene and the other women are afraid they won’t be able to move the stone away from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  But then they see the stone already moved, and their fears change.  Stepping inside the cave-tomb, they see a young man—maybe an angel—and now they’re really scared. From him, they learn that Jesus is not there.  He has been raised and is going on ahead.  

The women stumble out of the tomb terrified, amazed, and fearful.  The scripture says that at first, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  But then an amazing thing happens, Mary Magdalene finds the other disciples and becomes the very first Christian preacher as she tells them what she has seen.  The other disciples don’t believe her, (They think she’s been smelling too many Easter lilies, or maybe she’s gotten into the poppies) but she keeps on.  

What’s happened to her fear?  Was it replaced by faith?  I don’t think so.  I think her faith surrounded her fear, the faithful fear and fearful faith commingled, and the two become an even more powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Throughout scripture people are confronted with angels, messengers from God, and on occasion, God himself, and each time the first words are “Do not be afraid.”  “Fear not.”  And so, on one hand, it’s clear that we’re not supposed to be full of fear, eaten up by it, paralyzed by it, defined by it. 
But if we look carefully at these interactions with God, often the “fear not” comes in the midst of action already begun.  The person visited has not run away, is still afraid, and yet, is compelled to lean forward.  And so, on the other hand, it seems we’re not called to be completely without fear, either. 

What this means, I think, is that God calls us not to be fearful, nor to be fear-less, but to be a little of both, to be fearsome. 

Fearsomeness is the quality of being able to cause fear, to instill fear, but it also carries with it a slight sense of one’s still being afraid.

As a church, we’re called to be fearsome.  Even though so-called “organized religion” gets a lot of criticism, we can quietly and faithfully offer our experience.  In the face of corporate greed and economic amnesia, we can be speak out.  And if we aren’t heard at the ballot box, we can make the voice of faith heard at the cash register.  We can be fearsome, if we allow the Holy Spirit to ignite us.

As a parish, we’re called to be fearsome—to get more deeply involved in our community and city, to take on more creatively the issues that are on our front doorstep as well as on the other side of the world, and to try to be a parish that is truly for All Souls, even when the souls that present themselves may not be exactly like us.

As individuals, we’re called to be fearsome.  Granted, I don’t sit at your desk and I don’t work with your colleagues, have your boss, or deal with neighbors, coworkers, inlaws, or family.  But I know this:  Fear can be a means of avoidance, and if we avoid too much of life, we’ll miss the miracles.  
And so even when it’s dark out, we can go forward with the light of Christ.  The devils scatter, the doubters slink off into the shadows.  And even though we may be shaking in our “baptismal boots,” we go forward. 

We celebrate the Light of Christ, renewed and resurrected.  Jesus spoke the truth even when it made people uncomfortable.  His words did not sound good to everyone.  He was the Good Shepherd of the sheep, but he also carried a staff that could trip a wolf into taking the tumble of its life.  But Jesus also got afraid.  He got afraid when the religious authorities started closing in, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and also at the Cross, when he thought God had forsaken him.  

But Christ moves forward in spite of that fear, with that fear, using it to feed the flames of his love as he moves through death and hell, and rises again to new life.

It is a fearsome Christ who loves us. 
It is this Christ who calls us to be fearsome, as well. 

Alleluia. Christ is risen.  (The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A lonely cross

The Procession to Calvary, Peter Breugel the Elder, ca. 1520-1569

A sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, April 1, 2012.  The lectionary readings are the Palm Gospel, Mark 11:1-11, and Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11 and Mark 14:1-15:47.

A few weeks ago I mentioned one of my favorite crosses, the St. Francis Cross or San Damiano cross.  It’s filled with people.  Mary and John are there.  Disciples are there.  Other followers and friends of Jesus.  It’s a crowded cross and one that seems to invite us to find our place alongside Jesus, alongside others who suffer, or who await new hope or new life of any kind. 

The San Damiano cross is a very different one from the cross that might be symbolized by the Passion according to St. Mark.  Mark’s version is lonely and bleak.  Two criminals are there, but they say nothing.  Mark does not mention Mary the Mother of Jesus being there (though he does say Mary Magdalene and some other women were there).  John the Beloved disciple is not mentioned.  The whole scene seems darker than in other Gospels, less crowded, and lonelier.  It’s like the Breughel painting, The Procession to Calvary.  That painting pictures the world going on about its business, oblivious to the pain and suffering that takes place on a lonely hill. 

But Mark’s Gospel reflects the way life is sometimes.  A woman I met recently knows that feeling: the only relationships she’s had in life have been abusive.  She continues to fall through the cracks of programs and agencies, so that two days before she was to have a room at a women’s safe house, a friend called her and she went back on the streets, ending in a month-long spree.  Now she’s much further behind than when she started out.  She knows the loneliness of that hill top. 

Others know that kind of loneliness. The person who faces a chronic disease or condition knows that feeling.  Even though there may be well-meaning friends and family in the foreground, or in the background, on center stage, where the painful action takes place, it feels lonely.  One simply feels out of reach of other people, in spite of their best intentions. 

Too many in our world know the kind of loneliness of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Why have you left me?  Why don’t you show up?  Why . . . ?

The simple, yet admittedly unsatisfying answer is this:  The story isn’t over yet. 

Like the recent campaign to try to help young people live another day, grab hold of a little hope, “It gets better.”  We may not see the light for all the clouds.  Our hearts and heads may be so filled with internal noise that we don’t hear the word of encouragement or kindness when it comes.  And we may not believe that God is concerned or even cares.    But the power of the cross of Christ is to remind us that God does care.  God cares more than we can possibly imagine.

Christ is not a random victim pulled from a crowd.  Christ is God.  God who has come for us.  God who was born for us.  God who is like us and for us—this is God who is made a victim.  But God nails that status of “victim” to the cross, and there it dies.  God shows the power of love to re-shape, to re-new, to re-invigorate, and to re-birth.

Palm Sunday does not end on a high note.  It appears to end in defeat, in loneliness, and in death.  But that’s not where it ends.  And that’s not where life ends for us, either—this day or any day.

In the words and images of St. Paul, God takes what was enslaved, and sets it free. God takes what was humble, and lifts it up. God raises up, brings to himself, and exalts all those who claim the love and power of Jesus Christ.  We all are raised up into the place where, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
It’s tempting to race through any kind of painful time.  It’s tempting to fill the lonely places with something, anything, anyone.  But something else entirely happens if we’re able to pause, even in the painful places.  Christopher Morley has written that “April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.”  And it does feel that way some times.  But this Holy Week invites us to stop.  It invites us to pause by the Cross (whether it is the cross we endure, or the cross carried by someone else, or the cross of Christ) and to ponder what it means that God chose death on a cross to unleash the power of resurrection.  What word of hope is there for those who suffer today?  What word of hope might there be for us?

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to slow down, to set aside the calendar and the “to do” list. We can put on hold the endless list of “should’s.” Instead, we are invited to worship. We are asked to watch, to wait, to pray, to adore, that we might claim the power of our baptism, that we have died with Christ, and that through him, we are raised to new life.

May this Holy Week bring the blessing of God’s deep and abiding presence.  And in that presence, may we find the hope of eternal life.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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