This sermon is offered as part of the Eastertide Sermon Series at Evensong here at Trinity, exploring facets of Jesus’ resurrection. Today I preach on the resurrection as hopeful; using as my focus a line from the Te Deum, which was just offered by our choir: Jesus “overcame the sharpness of death.” Continue reading
just over a year ago, a clergy colleague said to me, “You’ve got to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter Sunday.”
I’ve known since last April that this year’s Holy Week and Easter would be a turning point for me; last April, I had a very painful ending to a job and place I had started to love very much, and this last year has been a trudging road toward a new, good normal. It’s not that I’ve necessarily arrived somewhere now here in Easter week, but that Lent and Holy Week were a big looming hill that I’ve crested–April 2014, and though I’m aware enough of God’s work to keep me dependent on Him, I feel like I can see beyond for a little ways, and oh my goodness, is the view lovely. I want to share a bit of my view.
Last June, I showed up on Trinity’s doorstep bedraggled, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve spent a lot of my first year trying to “balance” self-protection (having suffered deep burns in my formative first year of full-time ministry) and priestly vocation. Parishioners did not take offense, but patiently loved me, offered themselves, gave encouragement–they showed up. On Sunday, as I walked in procession through these dear people, I realized how I’d fallen in love with them; how their love had given me balm to heal. They showed me that even in the midst of pain, the best way to be is honest and real and unprotected–“balance” as such doesn’t exist, and ought not be sought.
As a two-clergy family, we have to work hard to find non-“work” friends. It’s a good thing that most of our community comes from our churches, but it’s also comforting, on the road to healing, to have a few friends who you know truly only put up with you because they really do like you for you (this is my own trust issue, not a commentary on the faithful friends I’ve been given through Trinity). The first time one of these now-friends said, “Hey lady, you’re looking different today; you doing okay?” I almost cried & hugged her. Someone who had no social contract to notice me decided to notice anyway (it happened to be Ash Wednesday, so yes, I was a little tired).
Less than a week has passed, and already I’ve been shaken to the realization that it’s not a storm that I’ve come through and left on the other side, but a shift into a new way of being. In doggedly pursuing healing in the last year, I’ve been learning to notice things–notice and relish the faces in the Easter Day crowd who you’d last seen pained and in hospital; notice and celebrate the tears welling up while you process through the middle of this loving crowd who has shown you Jesus; notice and be curious about the super-tight feeling in your stomach that won’t go away–don’t try to figure everything out, or to label every passing experience, just notice it, be present to it, say “Hello, you’re here right now, and I’m here, too.”
This is a more vivid, larger, and more painful way to live, being present. But that’s what God is about. God is so determined to be present with us that he came to sit with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, and he continues to be present with us through the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Comforter comforts us in all our troubles so that we may comfort those with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (something like 2 Cor. 1:4).
A poem inspired by several independent experiences of Ash Wednesday at Trinity this year, shared with me over the course of the week:
As we prepped for Lent, we were all very clever,
We had last dinners out in spite of the weather.
We emptied our houses of sweets and libations,
Dashing to the grocery store for kale and healthful rations.
Wednesday dawned, and we traipsed to church in the rains,
Our challenging food-fasts at the top of our brains.
We knelt in our pews, and the Holy Spirit hovered:
we heard, “Not food—it’s your heart I want covered.”
Look inside—what is it that’s holding you back?
Is it worry that makes you think you’re in lack?
Or maybe it’s anxiety that eats you up;
or achievement that runs over your cup.
Whatever the vice that puts up a wall
between you and your Lord, between you and us all—
God wants to take it away;
so loosen your grasp,
ask him when you pray.
As we sojourn through a Holy Lent,
Remember it’s not garments that’re rent—
It’s our hearts which need loving, honest evaluation;
For God living in us, it’s the best preparation.
Today we celebrate the feast of Cornelius the Centurion, lauded as the first Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian of the newly-minted church in Acts. His story is recounted in Acts 10, but I want to imagine this afternoon what might have happened if he hadn’t been converted. In the Gospels and in Acts itself, there is some disagreement about how non-Jews are supposed to figure in to God’s plan for redemption. Looking backwards, as we in the 21st century do, through the New and Old Testaments, we can see with our clear hindsight God’s love for all people (Naaman in 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 56:6-8, etc); in the moment, it seems like it wasn’t always quite so clear–even the Apostle Peter struggles with the answer (Acts 11). Often this struggle is interpreted as exclusivity, the Hebrews are made out to be an uppity people.
But what if it wasn’t that the Jews thought of themselves as a prestigious club, but they instead desired to be “tolerant” and “accepting” of other religions? What if, having married a Norwegian, I was expected to start worshiping Thor because that was just the culture of my husband’s people? To start carrying on about this Jesus character would just be rather Mediterranean of me… Or to put it more accessibly, how many times do I change my outfit before going out to dinner with someone new? How long do I spend fretting over what to bring to a party? I spend my time trying to impress others, trying to control what others think (of me), trying to make myself defensible against any imaginable criticism. These are all idols–attempts to create security in the wrong place, to control our environment. We know well that we’re not safe from any possible danger, or ever in total possession of the world around us. Us humans are actually all the same.
And this message that Cornelius heard is not just for Jews, or Romans, or Americans, but for all people. There is one God, and anyone (no matter how they identify themselves), who loves God and loves those who serve God, who remembers that she is not in charge of the world–that person belongs to God, she knows and follows God (Isaiah 56:6-8).
The Gospel passage assigned to the feast of Cornelius is a challenging one (Luke 13:22-29)–if we purport to know God, we are to “strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (v. 24). Though a deep connection with the living God made known and close in Jesus Christ is the only true security humans can enjoy, it is not an easy relationship to forge. It is the relationship that completely changes you, you become someone new and different because of God. This is not just a cultural opinion, or a Jewish way of understanding the world and humanity; this is the root of our existence.
Let God put a new song in your mouth–words of praise for the way you are being remade, that many may hear and see what is happening to you, they may recognize the work of the living God, and they may put their trust, too, in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Cornelius (rephrase of Ps. 40:3).
Sunday mornings are rough. Getting the kids up, fed, dressed, hair-combed, and out the door (or, if you don’t have kids, doing the same thing for yourself, after your Saturday night…). When you get to church, don’t you just want to park it in a seat? Why do these cruel Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (and others) make you stand, and then sit, and then kneel, and then stand again, and then kneel again? Add in crossing yourself and bowing–if you’re the CrossFit type–and it’s practically a full-fledged work out before noon on a weekend!
Firday night, I visited our girls’ choir rehearsal. It’s been almost 15 years since I attended one of my junior high choir rehearsals, but when the choirmaster gave the command to prepare to sing and poised his fingers above the keys, my spine involuntarily straightened and my lungs filled with air–and then I reminded my body that I wasn’t part of the choir. I’ve been out of a choir longer than I’d ever been in one, and yet, dear Mr. Johns, our music teacher, had so drilled into his students–at least me!–the importance of posture in singing, that when my body was put in the same kind of environment again (not in a physical sense, as we were in the cathedral and not an old high school great room; but in a psychological–and spiritual–sense), it still responded the same way.
Early Friday morning, I’d taught a Men’s Bible Study (the new priest gets invited to visit everywhere, without regard for gender!) on the Psalms. Explaining the five-book structure of the psalms, we turned to the end of 72:
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
When I started reading verse 18, my right hand had an insatiable urge to reach up to my forehead. What I mean to say is that I had said and heard “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel” at the beginning of the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68) so many times (it’s used at the service of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer) that my body, and a piece of my mind, forgot that wasn’t the same environment–in Morning Prayer, when we begin to say Zechariah’s song together, we cross ourselves, because it is a New Testament canticle (song/psalm). My body is learning the same involuntary response to God’s Word that it learned in response to the prepare-to-start-singing command from junior high.
Episcopalian (or Roman Catholic, or other) gymnastics trains our bodies, minds, and souls to have a particular response when holy things happen–when holy words are said, when we ask the Holy Spirit to come into us afresh, when we admit that we’re sinners dependent on God’s mercy. These actions, which are the most important things we do all week, train us to recognize those moments and to respond to them appropriately–with reverence, with fear, with joy, with attention.