Campfires, Bells, and Living the Resurrection Life

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest for the Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014.

UnknownA few months ago, the curate at Heavenly Rest and I took about a dozen youth to a ranch for a weekend of fun and spiritual formation. In spite of my initial apprehensions about the experience, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my ministry at Heavenly Rest. We had some incredibly powerful conversations and uncovered some extraordinary spiritual insights that would have been advanced even for a group of mature adults. But my favorite moment of the weekend took place on Saturday night. We were all worn out from a long day: we had discussed Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, hiked through the mud (I only just cleaned off my boots), and participated in a pretty emotional healing service. I assumed that our charges would want to turn in early and watch a movie, but instead we gathered around a fire that had been built a few hours before. After stoking it back to life, we began to tell stories. In this age when kids are supposedly more interested in their smartphones than anything else, a group of teenagers sat in rapt attention as we exchanged stories about ghosts and goblins. For the most part, these were the campfire stories that you and I grew up with; they followed a very particular formula that we adapted to the circumstances. All of them ended with a twist or a jump scare or a “But he had been dead the whole time!” No matter how frightening, in other words, we expected that final scare. We knew what was going to happen next. We knew how these stories were going to end.

Tonight, we too gathered in darkness around a fire and we too told each other familiar stories. In some ways, these stories are similar to those that we told around the campfire. They are so familiar to us that we anticipate what happens next; we know how they are going to end. And yet, at the same time, we must recognize how radical these stories really are. As our prayer book puts it, these stories are “the record of God’s saving deeds in history”; they are part of the larger story of how God “saved his people in ages past.” While we know how these stories end, in other words, they do not end they way they are supposed to end. These stories run contrary to the way the world works. Life is not supposed to come from nothing. Oppressed people are not supposed to be released from slavery. The poor are not supposed to feast at the same banquet as the rich. All of these stories point to a God who will not accept the status quo, a God who refuses to be complicit in oppression, a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, a God who shows us what the world can be.

No story embodies the unexpected nature of God’s love better than the story of the empty tomb. Over the past week, we have heard the familiar story. Jesus, a rabbi and healer, enters Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. While he’s there, he raises eyebrows by disrupting the Temple economy. The Roman occupiers and religious leaders agree that he is a dangerous rabble rouser and decide to execute him. After he is betrayed by a disciple and abandoned by his friends, Jesus is handed over to die a criminal’s death. Taken down from the cross, he is placed in a nearby borrowed tomb so that his remaining disciples can go home to observe the Sabbath. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ devoted disciples, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arrive at the tomb to finish what was left undone, to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. But when they arrive, they are told, “He is not here, for he has been raised.” After the long saga of Jesus’ passion and death, the women who come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus are told that he is no longer there.

Even if the story ended there, even if Jesus never appeared to his disciples, it would represent a shocking turn of events. According to the way the world works, those who challenge the authorities are punished, the oppressed are rarely vindicated, and those who are abandoned by their friends die alone. This all happened to Jesus. And yet, according to the way the world works, the dead are supposed to stay dead. Those who have been executed are supposed to remain in their graves. The world is supposed to forget those who died the deaths of criminals. The empty tomb disrupts this conventional wisdom. The empty tomb forces the disciples to embrace the possibility of Resurrection. The empty tomb challenges the status quo and points toward a God who interrupts this world with a love that raises the dead to life. It’s no wonder Matthew tells us there was an earthquake when the women arrived at the tomb; he could not imagine it any other way. Just as earthquakes take us by surprise and throw us off balance, the Resurrection shocks us out of our complacency and forces us to look at the world in a new way.

In many ways, the Resurrection is the most challenging aspect of the Christian faith. On one level, this is related to whether we are able to believe extraordinary things. Let’s be honest: the Resurrection is difficult to believe. As far as we know, people do not come back from the dead. The conventional wisdom that crucified Jesus remains to this day. The dead stay dead; that’s the way the world works. But remember that this is also how the world worked for the disciples. People did not come back from the dead with regularity during the first century. The likelihood of the Resurrection was just as small then as it is today. A few verses after what we heard this evening, Matthew even tells us that some of the disciples continued to doubt, that they were simply incapable of embracing the possibility of Jesus’ Resurrection. But in spite of all of this, that early morning two thousand years ago caused the disciples of Jesus to change the way they looked at the world. The empty tomb caused them to reshape the way they understood their relationship with God and with one another.

It is at this, much deeper level that the Resurrection truly challenges us. Trusting the Resurrection is not just about believing that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Trusting the Resurrection is about believing that Resurrection and renewal possible in our life and the life of the world. Too often, we are plagued by the notion that we are hamstrung by fate or destiny, that our lot in life is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Too often, we are convinced that reconciliation between adversaries is impossible, that old hatreds never die. Too often, we affirm that the powers of this world have already won, that we are mere pawns in a game that is beyond our control. Yet the Resurrection calls us to recognize that our lives are filled with possibility. The Resurrection calls us to recognize that the only thing required for reconciliation is relationship. The Resurrection calls us to affirm to the principalities of this world that their power is fleeting and that true victory belongs to God. In the words of that hymn we heard at the beginning of this service, we are called to recognize that the Resurrection puts wickedness to flight, casts out pride and hatred, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. Trusting in the Resurrection means turning away from despair and living our lives with hope.

imagesIn the kitchen of the house where I grew up, there are bells hanging from the window locks. For 364 days of the year, these bells remain in their places, gathering dust and occasionally prompting the odd question from a curious visitor. But on Holy Saturday at about 4:00 in the afternoon, my father, my brother, my grandmother, and I gather up these bells and carry them into the living room. There, my father cues up an old record of the choir of Saint Stanislaus (his childhood church) singing Polish liturgical songs. We listen as the choir sings about Jesus’ temptation, passion, and death. Then, just after an old priest warbles a sentence about the Resurrection, we start ringing those bells as loudly as we can as the choir sings the Polish version of “Jesus Christ is risen today.” As you can imagine, it makes a terrific noise, one that generally impels my mother to go outside. The ringing overwhelms any conversation; it even drowns out the voices of the choir on that old record. The ringing of those bells interrupts our day, casts out all other distractions, and makes us completely present to the reality of the empty tomb. In so many ways, this is exactly how we are meant to understand the Resurrection. Just as those bells interrupt our day, the empty tomb interrupts the status quo and forces us to look at the world in a new way. Just as those bells cast out all other distractions, the Resurrection casts out despair and insists that we live our lives with hope. Just as those bells momentarily make us live completely in the present, the Resurrection requires us to shape our lives in light of the empty tomb. Ultimately, the Resurrection reminds us that we are part of God’s story, the story of a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, the story of a God who shows us what the world can be.

Stories

Forrest Gump was on television the other day.

forrest-4For those of you who don’t remember, Forrest Gump chronicles the life of a man from Alabama who manages to be present for every significant event of the 1960s and 70s.  He serves in the Vietnam War, participates in the Olympics, and is responsible for catching the burglars at the Watergate Hotel.  Forrest narrates these events as he sits at a bus stop in Savannah, and he shares the stories of his life with his fellow passengers in the most matter-of-fact way possible.  It gradually becomes clear that these stories shape the way that Forrest looks at the world and define his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his beloved Jenny.  He derives meaning from these stories because they remind him who he is.

In a similar way, the Jewish Sabbath always begins with the telling of stories.  Every Sabbath includes the same words: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord your God is one.”  The people gathered around that table tell the story of their relationship with God.  They tell the story of God’s faithfulness to their people in ages past and remind themselves that God is faithful to them through the changes and chances of their own lives.

This is why the gospels tell us that the disciples are in such a hurry to entomb the body of Jesus.  According to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Jesus in a nearby tomb simply because it is conveniently located.  They do this so that they can return to their homes in time to observe the Sabbath, so that they can return to their homes to tell the story of God’s faithfulness, so that they can be reminded that God is faithful even through the changes and chances of their lives.  There is something very powerful about this.  Even though Jesus Christ had been betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, his disciples reminded themselves that God had been faithful to them in ages past.  Even though their world had been shaken to its core, the disciples renewed their trust in the faithfulness of God.

There are times that all of us feel betrayed, abandoned, and rejected.  There are times that all of us doubt the presence of God among us.  But this Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the face of these challenges, we are called to tell the story of our relationship with God.  We are called to renew our trust in the God who is faithful to us even when our whole world has collapsed around us.  We are called to be faithful to a God who is faithful to us even to the point of death.

Faithfulness

As I was driving home from our Good Friday services this afternoon, I caught the tail end of a sports radio talk show that I listen to on a regular basis.  The hosts had apparently exhausted their sports-related talking points and were discussing their plans for the weekend.  One mentioned that in honor of Easter, he had planned to do some community service, but, finding the process of signing up for a project too daunting, had abandoned those plans.  Oddly, his partner praised him for his generosity, even though he was no longer planning to do anything.  At first, I could not understand this exchange.  I didn’t understand why the one host talked about his failed community service plans or why the other host thought that his willingness even to think about doing community service was praiseworthy.  As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that most people listening to the program probably identified completely with the conversation.  As a rule, human beings are full of good intentions, and as a rule, we like to be praised for our good intentions.  Whether it is going to the gym or giving money to public radio or volunteering for a local service organization or calling our parents on a regular basis or telling our spouse we love them every day, we always say that we are going to do good, that we are going to put the effort into making a difference in our community.  But, invariably, life gets in the way.  We run out of time because we have to work late.  We run out of money because we have to bring the car into the shop.  We run out of patience because we are in a bad mood.  Inevitably, our plans crumble around us and we fail to do what we said we would do.  This is one of the undeniable realities of the human experience: try as we might, it very difficult for us to be faithful to our good intentions.

On Good Friday, the Church has always emphasized the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.  Few texts embody the Church’s understanding of the cross better than this verse from Venantius Fortunatus’ “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle”:

Faithful cross among all others: the one noble tree.  Its branches offer nothing in foliage, fruit, or blossom.  Yet sweet wood and sweet iron sustain sweet weight.

crucifixion_iconThe first adjective used to describe the cross, and by extension the one who was crucified on the cross, is “faithful.”  Perhaps the most important thing we affirm about Jesus’ experience of his Passion is his faithfulness, his obedience even to death on a cross, his willingness to do what he said he was going to do.  Jesus Christ did not succumb to the very human tendency to look for excuses or be derailed by doubt.  In spite of the abandonment of his disciples, in spite of his betrayal, in spite of his own self-doubt, Jesus marched inexorably toward the cross, because that is what he said he was going to do.  Through Christ’s example, we can trust that we can be faithful to God and one another even in the most challenging and overwhelming circumstances of our lives.  We can be faithful because in his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ revealed that God will be faithful to us.  More than anything else, the “goodness” of this Friday is intimately tied to the faithfulness of a God who is with us even when we come face to face with death.

Phone Call

I got an unusual phone call yesterday.

imagesOf course, in my line of work, most of the random phone calls that I receive are unusual in some way.  On occasion, people I have never met will leave messages on my voice mail asking questions ranging from my thoughts about to Scripture to my opinion on the godlessness of the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  I love responding to these messages, because I am always fascinated to hear people wrestle with their faith.  Needless to say, I am also entertained by people’s creative and often surprising interpretations of Scripture and theology.

The call I responded to yesterday started out like any of these other phone calls.  A woman left a message wondering where to find the story of Easter in the Bible.  Thinking it might be a quick conversation, I dialed the number and prepared to give her a simple answer to what I thought was a simple question.  But, when I tried to give her the simple answer (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20, in case you’re curious), she said “I don’t have a Bible with me.”  It quickly became clear that the call was not what I had expected.  The woman proceeded to ask me, not about Easter, but about Maundy Thursday.  She kept asking, “Why did Jesus have the Last Supper with his disciples?”  I tried to explain the liturgical, theological, and historical significance of the Church’s Eucharistic celebration, but it wasn’t making sense to her.  It seemed that I wasn’t going to be able to help her.

But when I was about to end the phone call, to tell her that I had to attend to other matters, she asked very cautiously, “Do you think that God loves me?”  Oh.  Suddenly I realized that this woman did not call the church to find out where the story of Easter is or why Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper.  She called because she had come to doubt that she was in relationship with God.  While I could have responded to her with Scripture passages and theological treatises, I called her by name and said simply, “Yes.  I know God loves you.”  And then an amazing thing happened.  Through her tears of joy, she professed that she understood everything that had mystified her only a few minutes before.  The stories of Easter and the Last Supper suddenly made sense because she had been reminded that God loved her.

Ultimately, this is what we are called to remember this evening as we celebrate Maundy Thursday.  We remember that Jesus Christ took bread and wine, called them his body and blood, and gave them to his disciples, essentially telling them, “I love you so much that I have given myself to you, not only in this bread and wine, but also in my very body.”  None of our celebrations this week make any sense unless they remind us of God’s deep and transforming love for the world.  I pray that as we enter the next three days, we will remember that love which transforms us and helps us make sense of who we are.

Fear

PrintA few months ago, I was eating a disappointing breakfast sandwich  in a restaurant at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when I overheard a group of people mention the word “theology.”  Being a sucker for theological inquiry, I slowed my chewing and listened a little more closely.  To my surprise, the group was not discussing Athanasius or Thomas Aquinas (the fact that this surprised me tells you a lot about who I am), but rather the Illuminati and their sinister plot to take over the world.  For those of you who are not up to date on your conspiracy theories, the Illuminati are supposedly a secret cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals bent on world domination.  While this narrative is boilerplate for any self-respecting conspiracy theorist, I was curious to hear it framed in terms of Christian theology.  The group of people I heard talking in the airport apparently believed that the Illuminati’s secret control of the world was part of God’s plan to bring the world to an end.  Several members of the group repeatedly said things like, “God has already set the plan in motion” and “It’s only a matter of time.”  When I decided I could no longer remain in the same room without holding my tongue, I abandoned my sandwich and wandered to my gate.

Though I was initially surprised by this marriage of old-school conspiracy theories to dispensationalist theology, it occurs to me that these worldviews have similar perspectives.  Those who subscribe to both of these worldviews are convinced that someone else is in complete control of the world, that there is nothing they can do to influence the course of history.  In both of these worldviews, the only solution is enlightenment; the only way we can deal with our lack of control is to realize that we have no control, to realize that the puppet strings are being held by someone else.  And I think that both of these worldviews stem primarily from fear of the unknown.  The only way some people can deal with the very human fear of uncertainty is to deny that anything is uncertain.  If it’s all part of the plan, and they realize that it’s all part of the plan, then they can take solace in their enlightened understanding of the world.  Both conspiracy theories and dispensationalist theologies, in other words, can be sources of profound comfort.

Yet, by denying the reality of uncertainty, these worldviews fail to help people deal with reality.  Not only that, the idea that God has set a definite plan in motion is not terribly Scriptural.  As I mentioned yesterday, one of the central affirmations of Christian theology is that we have free will, that we have a choice to be in relationship with God.  In fact, St. Paul argues that our reconciliation to God occurs because of Christ’s faithful obedience, because of Christ’s exercise of his freedom.  Faithfulness, therefore, is not about being certain about what is going to happen next, it is about trusting that God will be faithful to us even when we don’t know what is going to happen next.  Faithfulness is not about believing that God is controlling every aspect of our lives, it is about trusting that God is with us as we move through this life.  As you walk the way of the cross during Holy Week, I pray that you will be comforted by the fact that God is with you even in the midst of uncertainty.

Certainties

Today is Tax Day.

imgresThough I generally take a moment in this paragraph to explain the provenance of what I have mentioned in the first sentence, I suspect the vast majority of those reading know exactly what I’m talking about.  April 15, the day that US Tax Returns are due, has the quality of Judgment Day.  For accountants, it is the finish line after a long marathon.  For the self-employed, it is the day that we have to send an inappropriately large check to Uncle Sam.  And for the procrastinators among us, it is a day of panic, stress, and promises that we will not wait this long next year.  Tax Day touches everyone in some way because taxes touch everyone in some way.  The ubiquity of sending money to the government supposedly led Benjamin Franklin to quip that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

With Franklin’s words in mind, it occurs to me that Tax Day is appropriate way to wrap up our Lenten experience.  After all, we began this season of penitence and renewal with a reminder of our mortality.  Part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us about the certainty of death.  And here in the waning days of Lent, the IRS reminds us that taxes are also inevitable.  This year, our Lenten journey is bracketed by Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties.

It’s easy to read this quotation in a fatalistic way: we are going to die, and we are going to pay taxes.  That’s all we can count on; everything else is ephemeral, like dust blowing in the wind.  But I think that these words about life’s inevitabilities are actually hopeful.  The only true certainties are death and taxes, but the rest of our lives are full of possibility.  We are not hamstrung by fate or destiny; we have the power to make choices and forge our own way in the world.

In certain strands of Christianity, one often hears people say things like “God has a plan for my life.”  This has always fascinated me, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on the notion that human beings have free will, that there is not a plan that we must follow slavishly, that we are responsible and accountable for our actions.  In fact, the story of Christ’s Passion indicates that Jesus himself exercised free will on his journey to the cross.  He had the choice to turn back, he had the choice to utter recriminations, he had the choice to reject his disciples, and yet he faithfully made the decision that would reconcile the world to God.  Jesus Christ was not subject to some plan that was beyond his control; he made the choice to walk to Calvary, trusting that God would be with him.  In the same way, we are called to recognize that we are not slaves to our circumstances; we can walk through our lives, make the best of our situations, and trust that God will be with us even when we feel like we are losing control.  While death and taxes may be inevitable, we are called to trust in the God of boundless possibility.

The Crucifixion Game

As I listened to Matthew’s account of the Passion yesterday, I was once again struck not only by the fact that the trial of Jesus seems to take place in a kangaroo court, but also that so many of the characters abdicate responsibility for the events surrounding the death of Jesus.  Pilate washes his hands of the matter, the chief priests refuse to entertain Judas’ act of contrition, and even the crowds use the passive voice when they urge Jesus’ condemnation.  Below is a short scene I wrote a few years ago that explores the absurd nature of the trial of Jesus and also the theme of culpability in Matthew’s account of the Passion of our Lord.  

Scene: Two stools (or chairs) placed in front of a large sign that reads “LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED” in garish lettering. JOHNNY stands just offstage (left). JESUS sits in the stool on the right; BARABBAS sits in the stool on the left.

Johnny: (in an incredibly affected game show announcer voice a la Rod Roddy of “The Price is Right”) Hey Jerusalem! It’s the Passover and you know what that means? It’s time to play LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED. And now the host of Let Him Be Crucified: Pontius Pilate!

imgresPilate: (entering from stage left) Thanks Johnny. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Let Him Be Crucified, Jerusalem’s favorite game show! I’m your host, Pontius Pilate; let’s meet our contestants. First we have a young zealot from just outside the city. He’s the boy next store, everybody’s favorite son of a father, Jesus Barabbas! Tell us a little about yourself.

Barabbas: (as jovially as possible) Thanks Pontius, Let me start by saying that I’m really happy to be here. Well, like you said I’m a zealot. I’ve been in prison for a little while because I committed murder during the insurrection…let’s see, in my spare time I enjoy Temple worship, embroidery, and plotting to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: That sounds…fun! And what’ll you do if you win our grand prize?

Barabbas: My associates and I will probably get together and plot to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: All right then. Let’s move on to our other contestant: Jesus who is called the Messiah (probably not by his mother-in-law. Am I right? Am I right? ANYWAY). Tell us a little about yourself Jesus.

Jesus remains silent and stares directly in front of him.

Pilate: Kind of a strong, silent type huh? And what will you do if you win our grand prize?

Jesus turns his head ever so slightly in Pilate’s direction, regards him briefly, and then turns his eyes to the ground (these motions should take an excruciatingly long time).

Pilate: (shifting nervously and clearing his throat as if to say “let’s change the subject”) All right, let’s play our game. Johnny, why don’t you remind us of the rules?

Johnny: Well Pontius, though each contestant has been charged with a crime that only you are technically able to adjudicate, we’re going to ask our studio audience what they think!

Pilate: Fantastic Johnny! Here we go. May I have a drum roll please? (the crowd obliges) Now…which of these two men do you want me to release for you?

Crowd: BARABBAS!

Pilate: We have a winner! (striding over to Barabbas) So, Barabbas, how does it feel to win?

Barabbas: Well Pontius, I’m really excited; I can’t wait to get back on the street and start causing trouble for the Roman authorities again.

Pilate: Well that’s just great! (laughs perfunctorily) In the meantime, Johnny, tell him what he’s won!

Johnny: Barabbas will be released from prison and forced to live under the tyrannical rule of the Roman proconsul!

Pilate: That sounds like it’ll be just swell. (shaking Barabbas’ hand) Good luck to you, and we’ll see you again real soon (exit stage left). So ladies and gentlemen, you know what time it is! What do we do with our other contestant, Jesus who is called the Messiah?

Crowd: (chanting the title of the show a la “Wheel of Fortune”) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: One more time!

Crowd: (in the same vein) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: All right, all right…Tough beat, Jesus; have anything to say to the crowd? Jesus turns and stares at Pilate for an extended period of time (at least 15 seconds). Pilate nervously shifts from foot to foot, loosening his tie, etc., but never shifting his gaze from Jesus’. Pilate’s demeanor becomes noticeably more subdued.

Pilate: (still looking at Jesus but slowly backing away) Well everyone, that’s all the time we have. Remember, whatever’s happened here: I’m not to blame. So…yeah. Thanks for joining us on Let Him Be Crucified. I’m Pontius Pilate…goodnight.

Pilate turns and shuffles off stage left, frequently looking at Jesus over his shoulder the entire time. Once Pilate has departed, Jesus slowly stands and walks slowly and purposefully off stage right, staring directly ahead of him.