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Pentecost Sunday B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘There was a sound like the rush of violent wind that filled the whole house.’ “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). Sounds crazy. Yet I wonder, did those extraordinary events happen only once, and on that particular day, or did the disciples see something existing behind the veil of everyday life, a part of the reality unfolding and continuing to unfold even now? I ask you, would this story matter, either to us or to young Natalie, who confirms her faith today, if it were only the former?

The Day of Pentecost was a eureka moment for the disciples. Their great discovery adds to our own understanding of how to live the good life that is our birthright as children of God. The Holy Spirit is like wind and fire. We are, all of us, flickering with the heat and flame of the burning bush that Moses saw from the corner of his eye. We have but to turn aside to see it.

The Book of Acts tells us there were 120 Christians hiding in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus was arrested, including many women. They were an utterly unprecedented and egalitarian community without exclusive boundaries of race, class, or gender. They were a transgressive community, breaking deeply held religious and cultural norms; a new community without walls was being born!” They were also wanted criminals, co-conspirators of an executed political instigator. They were 120 people who knew they had failed. They were counting all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.
Their great discovery was that God didn’t care about all that. Instead, the undying life revealed in Jesus was now their life too. ‘Give me all your failures and I’ll give you a new life,’ Jesus said. Your body is the temple of God with power to heal and to burn away the old afflictions that haunt us. Mission-impossible became mission-possible. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples went into the streets to proclaim the good news.

Their great discovery was good news for them and for us—but it wasn’t entirely new. A thousand years before, at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, (in 950 B.C.E.), the shekinah (or glory) of Yahweh descended and filled the temple like a thick cloud of fire from heaven (1 Kings 8:10-13). Centuries before that, fire and cloud had filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus. Now on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) fire descends from heaven, not on a building or a place, but upon people! All peoples, of every nation, may receive a sign of this Spirit in baptism (Acts 2:38-41) to become living stones of a new sanctuary.
The disciples discovered the temple of God is the human person. They discovered, or more precisely they re-discovered, “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22). They discovered each of us has a standing invitation to become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).

Natalie, we can point literally anywhere and everywhere for examples of people whose lives are transformed with an indelible dignity and grace by unity with God. You may have heard about the diary of Anne Frank. She was just 15 when she died. Fewer people know about her adult counterpart, Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943) who died at Auschwitz at the age of 29. Her diary and letters are published in a book called, “An Interrupted Life.” Etty Hillesum shows us how to live the good life, even in the most extremely violent and evil situations.

Living at the Westerbork transit camp, first as an employee of the Jewish Council and later as an inmate, Hillesum did everything in her power to help others. Etty discovered that her relationship with God deepened in the last two years of her life through solidarity with those who suffered, and more surprisingly, in her attempt to love God even in her enemies as Jesus did.

Etty wrote, “I kneel once more on the rough coconut matting, my hands over my eyes, and pray: “Oh, Lord, let me feel at one with myself. Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love… Then it won’t really matter what I do and where I am. . . .Etty discovered what the first disciples had discovered that enabled them to come out from hiding and enter the streets through participation in the undying life of God. She wrote, ‘By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich [life]. . . . We could fight war and all its [banal, evil outgrowths] excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live. . .Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.’ (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 70, 96, 155, 95, 164, 185, 198, 218.)

The great shekinah fire and wind of the Holy Spirit transformed fearful fugitives like Etty and the first disciples into bold public witnesses. Nevertheless, some will say they were foolish. Some accused the disciples of being drunk. Yet we have seen a deeper and more lasting truth in Christ Jesus. We are all “walking around like the sun” as the famous Christian monk and theologian, Thomas Merton says. The gospel is not a fire insurance policy for the next world, but a life assurance policy for this world. To be fully alive we must not suppress the shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire.

Natalie, this Pentecost fire of hope and new life is kindled in us as we bring everything to Jesus—our strengths and weaknesses, success and failures, our pride and our shame—put it all on the altar along with the rest of our offerings. God will transform it. God will redeem it. God will set it on fire to bless, purify and dedicate the living sanctuary God has prepared within you to heal the suffering world.

Easter 6B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia grew up in a logging family in Canada. She was a 20-year-old forester when she noticed a particular young spruce tree, planted in a clear-cut forest, was dying, but others nearby were not. That was 40 years ago. Her life’s work is about explaining how forests are not collections of isolated organisms but webs of constantly evolving relationships. Her latest book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, was published last month.

There is a scientific revolution underway that can help open our hearts and minds to today’s gospel. You’ve heard that evolution is propelled by survival of the fittest. Yet as biologists progressed from studying individual organisms, to species, to communities of species, to ecosystems, to higher levels of organization, they began to notice other forces at work: cooperation, collaboration, and even memory. Nature loves diversity. More plants and animals leads to greater stability and resilience. These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They’re beautiful to look at, fragrant to the sense of smell, full of sounds, and textures. Mature forest communities are in some respects more egalitarian and efficient than our own.

Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you. Abide in my love.’ (John 15:9 & 15). Are we surprised to discover that we live in a world of subjects, and not mere objects? John’s gospel famously proclaims, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3 & 4). Could a forest or a prairie teach us what abiding in God looks like, feels like, sounds like, and even smells like? Today we hear Jesus pray for the disciples. In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: A Beloved Community of Spiritual Resistance)

Yet we refuse. We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or attempt to remove our roots from the soil. We do not abide. It’s absurd. We are like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that? We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi — better known as Tani —is ten years old now. He and his family are refugees. When Tani was a toddler they fled Nigeria because of fears of Boko Haram, the terrorist group. When Tani was seven he was living in a homeless shelter in New York when he sat down at a chess board in school and learned how to play. His school then agreed to his mom’s plea to waive fees for him to join the chess club. Tani wasn’t any good at first. His initial chess rating was 105, barely above the lowest possible rating, 100. After little more than a year, at age 8, he won the New York State chess championship for his age group, beating well-coached children from rich private schools. When people heard about Tani they helped raise $250,000. The family used the money to set up a foundation that helps other homeless people and refugees.

This month, as a fifth grader, Tani won a tournament in Connecticut open to advanced players of all ages. He emerged with a chess rating of 2223, making him a national master. Tani said, “I want to be the youngest grandmaster. I want to have it when I’m 11 or 12.” The youngest person ever to become a grandmaster, Sergey Karjakin, achieved that honor at 12 years 7 months.

A reporter said, “The larger lesson of Tani’s story is simple: Talent is universal, while opportunity is not. In Tani’s case, everything came together. His homeless shelter was in a school district that had a chess club, the school waived fees, he had devoted parents who took him to every practice, he won the state tournament (by a hair) and readers responded with extraordinary generosity. But opportunity shouldn’t require a perfect alignment of the stars. (Nicholas Kristof, Remember the Homeless Chess Champion? The Boy Is Now a Chess Master,” NYT, 5/8/21) How many talented Tani’s are there in the world, or here in the United States, or right here in Chicago, who miss out on connecting with their potential? We are all the poorer for it.

There’s an old Swedish proverb that says, “Sorrow shared is cut in half; but joy shared is doubled.” Jesus came and taught us. He showed us how to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other “…so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) The early church thrived and grew as it lived into the radical, inclusivity of the gospel to break down barriers of privilege, of culture, and of religious self-righteousness. They put themselves out there. They went into the streets. They went person to person. They carried the gospel upon their lips. They used their hands and feet. Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort. He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch. Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

Abide in me. Abide in my love, Jesus said. Be rooted in Christ. Let your hearts and minds become as clear and pure as a mountain stream. Then you will know the wisdom of the forest and of all living things. We cannot be saved while others suffer. We cannot be the church and be indifferent to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the victims, the perpetrators, and all those caught up in the endless grinding cycle of violence, fear, and hate.

You have heard it said Jesus came only to save Christians, but the gospel of Christ says, the knowledge of God and the love of one another are equivalents. To know God is to love, and to love is to have true life. To share the love of God is to make our joy complete by sharing it with each other, with strangers, and all living things. This is the path to true joy, true wisdom, the truly abundant life. Abide in my love. Then we shall find abiding peace and shalom welling up like a spring of water from deep within. Then we shall discover and know the true joy of every living thing. Then The sea and what fills it will resound. The rivers shall clap their hands, and the mountains shout with them for joy (Psalm 98).

Easter 5B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Remember this hat? I can hear some of you groan even through cyberspace. Years ago, I wore this hat at the Easter Vigil and for all the Sundays of Easter. People say it makes me look like the apple in fruit-of the loom commercials. This fez-style hat is hand-made. It was a gift from Cantor Scott Wiedler. Scott brought it from Ethiopia in 2007. The processional cross on the altar today, and other things like the colorful umbrella we use at the Vigil, and a few liturgical dance moves we learned, also come from Scott.

Today is Easter in the Orthodox church. This hat would be worn by priests as a festival garment. The Ethiopian church traces its origin to the story of Phillip and the eunuch whom we read about today. It is among the oldest Christian traditions on the continent of Africa –or on any continent for that matter.

Not five blocks from here, worshippers, including my son Mehari, celebrated the resurrection at St. Mary’s Eritrean Orthodox church. If you visit there, as I have, you would not recognize the order of service, or understand the language, or any of the hymns, yet you would know with an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, that we are connected by faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). We are joined together in mystical communion to the One Vine giving life to all.

By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. From one end to the other, it is not clear how one branch ends, and another begins. Like a vine, the church stretches across the world and throughout time. Connections made long ago, are forgotten, hidden behind the veil of history, visible now, only to God. What connects us is faith. The common denominator is the courage to trust in the holy spirit. The Ethiopian trusts Phillip to teach him and to baptize him. Phillip trusts the grace of God to set aside everything he had internalized as a child that would exclude foreigners, outsiders, especially sexually non-conforming people and embraces him as a brother, a beloved child of God. The communal life envisioned in the Vine of Christ raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. The community God intends for us makes no distinction among race, gender, social status, or place of origin.
How much do you know about vines? The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended with the death of the last hold outs on the rocky fortress called Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Our ancestors knew about vines. Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1).

The little I know comes from tour guides. The vineyards of Baja, Mexico run for miles along river valleys that gently rise inland from the coast into the shallow hills. The soil is hard and brown. The heat is uncomfortable and intense during the day. But at night, the cool winds off the water bring fingers of fog up the valleys. They cover the vineyards like a cool, moist blanket.

Row upon row of vines stretch across the valley, turning the normally brown dusty soil into carpets of green. I was told, however, that once the growing season ends, the verdant branches are pruned back to almost nothing and the land returns to brown. The vines are reduced to mere stumps that look as if they will never again produce anything. But every year, as they have for hundreds of years, the growth is returns –branches, leaves, and grapes that almost pull the branches to the ground with the weight of juice in them.

Sometimes we count our loses and not our blessings and lose perspective at how much potential for growth God has stored up in us. I read this week the average human life span doubled, from 41 to 80 years, just since 1920. For most of human history, the average lifespan was even shorter, just 35 years. I wonder, would our ancestors want to know, what shall we do with the two, wild, lifetimes that we have been given? Might we somehow close the gap in lifespan between those in Streeterville, who live on average to 90, and their neighbors nine miles south in Englewood who only live on average to 60? God’s garden is big. God’s people are connected. We all do better when we all live better.

In our gospel today, the disciples and the budding Christian community are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked and dreamed about is done. Their hope will seem lost. But in three days, after the resurrection, the young community will rise again. They will grow back, larger, stronger, and better than before—the first fruits from the new body of Christ. Alleluia. Christ is risen! (R)

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when it is done to us. We certainly have been pruned this past year—and the process of reducing and holding back is not quite finished yet. Our hopes for re-opening and mingled with our prayers for brothers and sisters in India, and South America, throughout the world, and in nearby hospitals coping with the full force of Covid-19. We are connected.

I do not say the pandemic is God’s will. Yet I draw hope and inspiration from the fact that God can bring fine wine from flinty soil. God can coax blessing out from the most tragic of events. God breathes new vitality into tired lives. We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

St. Mary’s is quiet this morning. The doors are locked. Everyone has gone home to their bed. Easter worship began last night at sundown and finished up at about 3:00 o’clock this morning. The peaceful exhaustion that follows Holy Week has just now begun. We know what they’re feeling. We recognize the pattern because Christ’s church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ. We are called into being in the world for the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken and pruned for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for the benefit of all. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another and people throughout the world whom Jesus has made one with us as part of the One Vine.

Easter 3B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He showed them his hands and his feet (Luke 24:40). He showed them his wounds. When Luke and John tell us, Jesus invited the disciples to touch and to see him, it wasn’t merely to identify him as the same person. It was a way to ratify the gospel message.  In life, Jesus proclaimed the kindom of God in words and deeds. After rising from tomb, he taught them the meaning of resurrection in flesh and bone. Yes.  Violence has consequences. It scars and wounds us. Yet truly, goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than shadow; life is stronger than death (ELW #721).  Violence, torture, and even death on a cross cannot erase the life we share in God.

Jesus proclaimed the good news in flesh and bone. Today’s gospel is astonishingly intimate. Our bodies tell a story –don’t they? One which we are quick to cover up and ignore. Many of us feel more comfortable imagining ourselves before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates than standing in front of a full-length mirror. Each successive year adds to the record of the pluses and minuses that somehow add up exactly to who you are now. Jesus, wounded yet living, proclaims that our poor flesh is not shameful but is the dwelling place of God. God with us, our mistakes become “experience.”  God in us, our scars can become a source of compassion and wisdom.  And we are scarred—aren’t we?  Our bodies testify to all the ways we have been wounded, if we would listen, in body, mind, heart, and soul.

This makes Christianity unique among religions by its portrayal of God as one who bears wounds, like us. “We become forgetful that Jesus is the prophet of the losers not the victors camp, the one who proclaims that the first will be last, that the weak are the strong and the fools are the wise” ( Malcolm Muggeridge). To those most afflicted, whether by slavery, by war, by famine, injustice, racism, or hypocrisy—this fact has always been a source of the most profound hope.

In the midst of WWI, pastor Edward Shillito’s poem pays homage to “Jesus of the Scars.” He wrote, “The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone” (Edward Shillito,1872-1948).

Like our bodies, faith must be nourished. It cannot be stockpiled but requires daily a pattern of replenishment. The answer to someone’s hunger is not to ask why they are hungry. Nor is the answer to doubt a question about why they cannot believe. The answer is food. The answer is Jesus’ real presence in flesh and blood. When our stomachs are rumbling, when faced with the lingering fear wrought from trauma and violence, time is not always a healer. Our deepest wounds can take decades to fade without gospel medicine, the bread of life and living water to restore us in body, mind, heart, and soul. This is what Jesus in flesh and bone means to us at Easter.

When faced with trauma, some people manage to emerge stronger than ever. How do they manage it?  Marie (not her real name), a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, should expect to endure a life of avoidance and anguish due to her experience of violence and trauma. When Marie was 16, a group of militiamen came to her village, killed her family and many of their neighbors, and took her as a slave into the forest. She was assaulted continuously for weeks, before one of the soldiers took pity on her and led to the Rwandan border. From there she found her way to the capital, Kigali, and eventually by plane to Turkey.

At first, she slept on the street, then in a center run by the Turkish government. She was taken to hospital, where she discovered she was four months pregnant. She regularly hallucinated about her mother, and she had severe PTSD: “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was very scared. I couldn’t stay five minutes on my own. I couldn’t be in the dark because I would see the soldiers in my mind and all that they did to me. I was afraid of men. In a bus I couldn’t be near them. I didn’t even want to sit next to a beautiful woman. I’d rather sit next to a veiled woman so no one would look at us.”

Marie ended up at The Center for Behavior Research and Therapy in Istanbul. She found new friends who encouraged her to sit on buses, to walk in the street, to sleep in the dark. They watched documentaries about sexual assault.  Victims of torture say the healing begins when we can show one another, our trusted friends, our wounds.

Marie is much better now. Although she avoids eye contact and twists her hands together when she describes what happened, she is no longer trying to hide from life. She has started working in a hair salon.

Resilience and recovery do not require extraordinary resources or an innate toughness. It doesn’t require us to ‘just get over it,’ or somehow diminish the horror of what happened.  It comes with help when we show our wounds and let them tell their story in all honesty. It comes with a recognition that the future doesn’t have to be determined by the past. It comes with awareness that there is something which can never be destroyed or erased that is meaningful and purposeful about our life.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, during his internment in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II, helped his fellow prisoners endure the horror around them by getting them to focus on the lives they might lead after the war – the work they would do, or the nurturing of their children. In his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, he observed that prisoners who lost faith in the future lost their “spiritual hold” on themselves, and quickly declined mentally and physically. (Michael Bond, “The secrets of extraordinary survivors,” BBC, 8/14/15)

Faith in the future, confidence that we are loved, knowledge that our dignity as human beings is indelible, and the realization that we do not bear our grief and suffering alone but that God is with us and suffers too, that God can heal our wounds and transform them into something like wisdom –this is the essence of Easter.

I am heartsick this week at hearing about guns in America. As of April 16th, there have already been 147 mass shootings, and 11 mass murders. (Daniel Victor and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2021,” NYT, 4/16/21) Since testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement, at least 64 people nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead.” (John Eligon and Shawn Hubler, “Throughout Trial Over George Floyd’s Death, Killings by Police Mount,” The New York Times, 4/17/18) We cannot be healed of our affliction of violence and death while we cover our wounds and pretend that they are not happening. We must honestly reckon with the toll in flesh and blood.

During his ministry, Jesus healed so many wounded people. On Easter evening, Jesus was the one with wounds. The disciples had witnessed Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people. Now they were the ones called to open their eyes. Jesus had touched and ministered to the unclean, often breaking the Sabbath and purification rules. Now the disciples were asked to break the rules—to touch this convicted and executed criminal. Jesus says to them, “Touch me and see.” The disciples are invited to begin a new community where we acknowledge that we all are wounded, that we are both righteous and unrighteous, Yet, by our wounds, we may also be healed. Thanks be to God!

Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Easter Darkness

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair.

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world.

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty?

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367).