May 20, 2018 Pentecost Sunday, Steve Petrunak, President of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians
13 May 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Feast of San Isidro
“Other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain.” (Mark 4)
The gospel this morning is chosen especially for the feast of San Isidro, and is the familiar parable where Jesus tells of a sower who scatters seed on a variety of ground, but only one of which yields a fruitful harvest. The seeds sown along the path, or on rocky ground, or on shallow soil, or among the thorns yield nothing, but the seed sown into good, deep soil bears thirty, sixty, even and hundredfold.
Now, there are any number of meanings you can ascribe to the good, deep soil—it might be a metaphor for faithfulness, or learning, or hard work, or any number of things. But the one I want to explore picks up on last week’s theme of simplicity. You may recall that I invoked the maxim then that in anything at all, perfection is attained not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away. Thinking about matters of faith, I suggested that what is important is not elaborate religious ritual and practice, but the simplicity of the relationship between Christians given through Christ in Word and Sacrament: “One Bible and two Christians” is all you really need.
Simplicity, however, is not a simple matter. Indeed, the French poet Paul Valéry once remarked, “What is there more mysterious than clarity?” So today I’d like to come at the idea of simplicity from the direction of personal character. Let’s suppose, that what Jesus had in mind when he talked about seed falling onto deep, rich soil, was the planting of seed in persons whom we would describe as having a real depth of character.
San Isidro, I think, gives us a positive example of what this looks like. Isidro was a farm laborer who lived long ago near Madrid, Spain. He worked for a large landowner, but before going to the fields each day he made it his habit to go first to one of the churches in Madrid to attend mass.
And Isidro seems to have been one of those people who very much took to heart what he heard there. Motivated by Jesus’ call to serve the poor, he regularly shared what little food he had with those who had nothing. Legend has it that he frequently invited the hungry home to eat with him and his wife Maria, and their small stew pot miraculously never ran out.
Even the animals were recipients of his generosity: one winter day when he was on his way to the mill to have a sack of grain ground, he came upon some birds vainly trying to scratch the frozen ground for something to eat. So he opened the sack, sharing some of the grain with them, but then when he reached the mill, the sack was once again full.
Isidro, it seems, was a man whose character achieved a correspondence between his conviction and action. What he learned at church, he put into practice in life. It would be easy for us to hear these stories, however, as mere morality tales, and miss what seems to me is a deeper point. Isidro achieved in himself a distillation of what is important in life that gave him a depth of character in which conviction and action were in harmony and continuity. He is an example of someone who had pruned away the innumerable distractions and preoccupations of life, and was left with what in religions terms we might call discipleship and service; or in more secular terms, commitment and action.
This pruning away of whatever it is that unproductively distracts and preoccupies us is, in my experience, one of the hardest challenges of life. It is, for example, so easy to brood on the hurts and slights we receive from other people, that we become unaware of the gifts of love and friendship that are extended to us. Or we become so concerned with how we wish our children or our parents would act, that we overlook who they really are to us. You fill in the story for yourself: each of us has some story to tell of becoming distracted and preoccupied, so that we overlook what is really important.
I mentioned several weeks ago that I was going up to Fort Collins, Colorado, to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the installation of the Casavant organ at Colorado State University. Now, that may not sound like any big deal to you, but that instrument had a huge impact on my life, especially through my father-in-law, Robert Cavarra, who as the professor of organ oversaw its installation.
Dad Cavarra had thought a lot about music, and what separates the great from mediocre. For him it was not about showmanship, or flamboyance, but about clarity and musicality. And as his student, I learned a lot from him about distilling one’s thinking to get beyond distraction and preoccupation down to the essentials.
Let me give you an example. I don’t know how much you know about the organ world, but it’s a real subculture. Organists love to travel around and visit various instruments, and most of the time, upon sitting down at a new instrument, an organist will pull on all the stops to see what the instrument “has got.”
Dad Cavarra thought otherwise. Many a time, I saw him sit down at an organ that was new to him, put his finger on middle C, and then pull on a single stop: the 8’ principal (8’ means that when you play middle C, you get middle C). He would quietly listen to that one note, and then pull on the 4’ principal (which sounds the note an octave higher), continuing to listen. Finally he would pull on the 2’ principal (which in turn sounds the same note, two octaves higher). What he was listening for was whether the three pitches were three separate blobs of sound, or whether they became fused more subtly into a single sound. He could tell, just based on that test, whether an organ had been built with the kind of care that created a truly fine instrument, or whether it was a distracting smorgasbord of competing and sometimes conflicting sounds.
I know it’s a bit of an esoteric example, but my memory of Dad Cavarra testing out a new organ is for me an image of what we have to do for ourselves in cultivating our personal character. Have we done the hard work of sorting out the continuity between our convictions and actions? Are we a harmonious, balanced assortment of skills and commitments? Or are we at odds with ourselves, incongruous and conflicted, going in six difference directions at once?
Rowan Williams once said, in addressing a group of ordinands, that our vocation is the residue that is left, when all the games of self-deception have ceased. That is the simplicity toward which the spiritual life that we are together pursuing in this place tries to direct us: to find here at church (like Isidro himself), the guidance in God’s Word, and from one another, by which to sort out who we are, and what our deepest convictions and commitments are going to be. And then, as we go into the fields of our own life, to go about fulfilling them by the way we conduct ourselves in our labor, our living, and our loving. May we, like San Isidro so many years ago, receive the gift of such clarity! Amen.
Robert didn’t make a very good impression the day he came for his interview with me. I was about to appoint a new teacher of Religious Education. Religious Education – RE – is part of the academic curriculum in most British schools. One of my granddaughters has recently qualified as an RE teacher. Robert was a disheveled young man; hair all over the place, collar all crooked, shoes none too clean. But by the end of the interview I liked him enough to hire him, and he proved one of the best appointments I ever made.
In the spring of his first year at the school he came to see me. “
“It’ll soon be Ascension Day,” he said. “I would like to celebrate it here with some of our students.”
“What do you have in mind, Robert?” I asked him.
“Well, I think we should get as close to heaven as we can, and then have our celebration. I’ve found a dusty old staircase in the main building, and it leads up all the way to the roof. We could have our Ascension Day service there.”
“Good idea,” I said. And every year that’s what we did.
The story of Christ’s ascension into heaven is full of meaning, some symbolic, some almost political, but it is neglected in many Protestant churches. Some sects take the Ascension more seriously than others. My wife Bea has the diaries of her grandmother, who grew up in a Mennonite family, and it is clear from what she wrote that Mennonites make a very big deal of the Ascension. For them it seems much more important than Christmas or Easter. In the Episcopal church people sometimes seem to view the Ascension as a bit of an afterthought, tacked on as a sort of postscript to the main events of the nativity, the passion and the resurrection. We get the idea that Jesus, having finished his earthly assignment, is taken up into heaven to sit at God’s right hand and just hang about until it’s time for the second coming. Meanwhile, we are left to get on with our lives, muddling along as best we can, sustained by the memories of Jesus’ earthly life and work, and hoping that when Judgment Day finally dawns we will not be found too wanting.
That of course is a limited, superficial view of the Ascension. Because the Ascension is most emphatically not about absence. The whole point is that in the Ascension Jesus is not leaving us. As our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the ascended Christ is very present indeed. He has told us: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. After the Ascemsion he is as involved as he ever was, but now he is not just our teacher and friend, showing us how life should be lived. He is power, he is glory, he is God. And as he sits at God’s right hand he takes charge. Christ ascended is in charge of God’s Kingdom. Now and always. We have sometimes tended to look at the Kingdom of God as a distant dream, an ideal, something towards which we should work, something that should be our ultimate objective.
But here we come to the astounding thing about the Ascension. The ascended Christ, seated at God’s right hand, establishes beyond any doubt that the Kingdom is here. The Kingdom is now. The ascended Christ is no longer some kind of heir-apparent. He is in charge. There is no greater authority. There is no higher power. And, more astounding still, Christ in glory has a place for you and for me in the Kingdom he has established and over which he reigns. But how, you may ask, are creatures like you and me going to measure up to filling such a place? The disciples may well have had such a question in their hearts as they stood gaping up into the sky. But Jesus answers it. ‘You,’ he says, ‘will be clothed with power from on high.’
So what is that power? With all our faults, all our shortcomings, all our weaknesses, how are you and I empowered to take up our place in Christ’s Kingdom? Fortunately, there’s a simple answer. It’s that you and I have the power to love God and to love each other. That’s all we need to do – although of course it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. But how inspiring it is to think that the ascended Christ decides to entrust his established Kingdom to us, to give us the task of strengthening it, developing it perfecting it – and, yes, enjoying it. How inspiring, and how challenging. If we are to learn anything from the message of the Ascension, surely it must be that you and I have work to do. Fortunately, it is glorious work. It’s the best kind of work we can ever engage in. It is, in the fullest possible sense, a labor of love. We know that Jesus loves us enough to die for us. We know that we have the power to love God and to love each other. So let’s get to work. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do whatever we can to enhance the Kingdom, and as we do, we are celebrating in the best possible way the ascended, glorified and divine Christ Jesus our Savior and our Lord.
10 May 2018
6 May 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You must love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15)
St. Michael’s is not a particularly religious place, and I am more grateful for that fact than I can express. … But perhaps I need to explain what I mean.
Abraham Heschel distinguished between what he called symbolic religion on the one hand, and the experience of the living God on the other. Symbolic religion is preoccupied with what we as Christians might call the things of the church: rituals, and titles, and vestments, and rules. Such religion, however, substitutes symbols of the holy, for an authentic encounter with the living God. Religion thereby has a way of keeping God at arm’s length, all the while giving us human beings a perfect alibi for our underlying indifference toward God.
But where, asked Heschel, is the awareness in religion of what is required of us by the God of the prophets: the God whose justice rolls down like a mighty river? Where is the gospel of hope and life and compassion and mercy? Where is the wonder and awe at mysteries that are beyond our knowing? How easy it is to be long on the things of religion, and short on the things of faith! No wonder Jesus railed so consistently against the Pharisees, the true religionists of his time, who though they fulfilled every religious requirement, were nevertheless ultimately left untouched by God.
As Heschel himself put it, “The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demands of [humankind], … calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at the cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence of this world.”
The French aviator and philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (and author of The Little Prince) once wrote that, “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Perfection in other words is in simplicity, in finally reaching the essence of something—not in its painful exaggeration.
So if it is true that perfection is simplicity, how might we apply that principle to the things of faith? Or, to put it another way, what is the bare minimum which one would have to have, in order to have not the Christian religion, but the Christian faith?
The answer that came to me yesterday, as our diocese was gathered amidst great pomp and circumstance to elect a new bishop, is that all one really needs is one Bible, and two Christians: the Bible to give us God’s story, one Christian to baptize the other, and both of them to share communion with one another.
I don’t know, maybe I’m gradually reverting to my Baptist roots, but I just find that the more I read scripture, the clearer it becomes that beneath all the forms and structures of the church, the gospel is really quite simple: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, because God has first loved you.
I’ve been struck, for example, in this Easter season that every single Sunday, we’ve had at least one reading (usually from the gospel or one of the epistles of John), that basically says the same thing: God is love. Abide in that love. Love God. Love one another. Because God is love, so you should love one another. … And by the way, did I mention that God is love? And that you should love one another? Sure enough, it happened again today: for the umpteenth time, Jesus said in our gospel that we must love one another, as he has loved us. It seems that to be a Christian, you just can’t get away from that gospel bedrock.
I’ve noticed, over the years, that as the people I have most admired in the church get older, they have all fallen into a similar frame of mind about the priority of these first principles. Fr. Ed Ostertag, for instance (my beloved mentor), told me one time that after years of struggling with political issues both civic and ecclesiastical, all he really wanted to do was to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, gathered around the altar with a few people who were disciples of Jesus and friends of one another. I’ve heard other mentors say pretty much the same thing. Our own Pepper Marts, shortly before he died, said to me that “The longer I live, the more I think it is all about what you do, and less about what you believe.” Or another friend recently put it even more strongly: “The measure of our worth,” he said, “is how we support each other, and everything else is speculation.” It is as if, the greatest among us, eventually come to the point of wanting to lose their life for Jesus’ sake (somehow that rings a bell …), letting go of the things of religion and coming home to dwell in God’s love.
Which brings me back to St. Michael’s. I say that this congregation is not particularly religious, because it seems to me that temperamentally we are not prone to be preoccupied with the bric-à-brac of church life. We want to do things beautifully, and we want to do them well. But we also tend to want to see through and beyond the things of religion, to the deeper imperative to love God, and to love our neighbor. Both as individuals and as a community, we may look for that kind of simplicity in silence, or in service, or in prayer … but we’re skeptical about it’s being found in ecclesiastical conventions and elaborate ceremony.
Friday night, I was at a concert at which our own David McGuire debuted a new piece of his own composition, entitled “Night Watch.” The piece was inspired by his experience of providing protective accompaniment for an immigrant in sanctuary, who had been jailed and tortured in his home country. The piece is quite minimalist (only voice, bass, and percussion), yet it is highly evocative of the terror one human being experienced through such violent treatment: the cry of nightmarish dreams, the clanging of a cell door, the still small voice of hope. David’s piece, I thought, was a composition of such power that nothing could be taken away without loss. It was honest, it was real, it was true.
Ironically, one of you happened to comment to me at that concert (as we were waiting for the music to begin), how important to your spirituality the adobe wall is here in the church: it is so simple (you said), so common, so earthy, so grounding. Indeed, I am told that the wall was created with bricks made from the earth of this very site: it is truly local, and so it aesthetically draws us into how God is in this place, at this this moment.
Those two things—a musical piece that grew out of an immigrant’s experience, and an appreciation for a wall made out of mud—are to me signs of the determination this congregation has to be rooted in what is truly real and holy, more so than in what is established and “religious.” And it is for that, that I am truly grateful.
At the opening of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical Mass, there is a song that speaks deeply of this focused spiritual orientation toward God and to the world. As the celebrant begins to vest, wearing only jeans and an open shirt, he reflectively sings these words:
Sing God a simple song, Lauda, laude.
Make it up as you go along, Lauda, laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all.
Blessed is the one who loves the Lord,
And walks in God’s ways.
Lauda, lauda, laude.
15 April 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24)
I find that trash day is quite the drama in Albuquerque. It all begins the night before, as one hears the thump-thump-thump of plastic trash bins being wheeled down driveways to the street, like battalions of soldiers taking up positions for the next day’s battle, and by morning what had been a clear street is lined with an infantry of blue and black containers waiting pensively for their fate.
Then in the distance, one hears the roar of the approaching garbage truck, engine gunning, then brakes squealing, and the tell-tale thud of a bin being violently grabbed by its mechanical arms, like those of a mighty dragon. The bin is then hurled into the air to be violently upended so that it contents come flying out into the yawning receptacle of the truck.
There is such a brutal finality to it all: items that we have deemed to be of no further use are first discarded into the bins, and then from there they are hurled into the bowels of a truck and quickly carried away, never to be seen again. All that’s left are the scattered, now empty bins lying haphazardly along the edge of the street, like the dead and wounded on a great battlefield.
In the ancient world, crucifixion was similarly a way of discarding something that was no longer wanted, except that in this case it was a human being. A person was hung up to die, discarded, and then unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, like a landfill. So Jesus, having been tried and rejected by his accusers, was similarly hung up on a cross to die at Golgotha (which was itself the trash heap of Jerusalem), with the intent that once he was dead, his body would be thrown out with the rest of the detritus of the city.
Except that … it doesn’t turn out that way, does it? The one who had been “despised and rejected” (as Isaiah foretold) returns to his disciples from the cross, speaking words of peace.
Now, we tend to focus our thoughts about this return on the miraculous and even divine intervention that seems to have taken place in this event.
But today’s gospel wants us to refocus our attention on the human element. Jesus is determined that his disciples realize that it is him—not a ghost, not an apparition, not a mystical vision—but truly him, in flesh and blood. And so by way of simple demonstration he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish, which he eats as any ordinary human being would.
And hidden in that gesture, is something of the greatest importance that can easily escape our attention amidst all the trumpets and flowers of Easter. The resurrection is not just about some godlike occurrence that happened to Jesus, but it is an affirmation of the reality and destiny of human nature itself. For when Jesus carries our physical nature with him into death, and then continues to carry it beyond the grave to the other side, he embodies for us the message that we human beings are not bound simply by the constraints and limitations of our physical mortality. We are not a commodity.
Rather, we human beings have a meaning, and a purpose, which is bound up with the inextinguishable life of Jesus. And this life, as John’s epistle puts it this morning, is nothing less than love itself, given to us through Jesus. Our meaning and purpose is to love, to love endlessly, to love until it hurts—and through Jesus we know that love has no bounds, and most certainly not the grave. As one person remarked to me recently, in offering assistance to our immigrant family, “I think the measure of our worth is how we support each other, and everything else is speculation.”
This conviction that our life is given meaning by how we love one another is, of course, precisely what Jesus taught his disciples at the Last Supper, and it is the core of what we commemorate each time we come to this table: the duty and gift of loving one another, of sacrificing for one another, of standing up for one another, of suffering with one another.
And so, this love that we celebrate at this table, is what gives us hope in our struggles, courage in our fears, and perseverance in our challenges. For in the risen Jesus, we know they do not lead to the dead end of death (so to speak), but through his life they are woven into a web of commitment and concern that stretches both backward and forward in time.
It is as if the resurrected Jesus says to us, “There is more to you than you think,” just as there was more to him than his disciples had imagined. And if that is true then it is also true that through us, there is more to the world than we think. Or, to put it more bluntly: the world doesn’t have to be, the way it is now.
As Rowan Williams puts it in his little study of resurrection, The Sign and the Sacrifice:
The way things are is not the way things are destined to be. Under God, with wisdom, discernment and courage, you can find out what changes are possible, because the world can change. God can be known and served: human beings can live differently: the body of Christ shows us there are ways of living together as human beings that are not tribal, violent, exclusive and anxious. (p. 89)
And so, there is a “fundamental fearlessness” that comes from the resurrection gospel, which is a message that we are very much in need of hearing in these days. In himself, Jesus gathers up all our doubts, our fears, our anxieties, even our death—and returns them to us when we least expect it, transformed through a loving embrace and the simple phrase, “Peace be with you.” In those four words, who we are, and who we hope to become, is affirmed, blessed, encouraged and refreshed. So may Christ’s peace be with you all. Amen.
St Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Second Sunday in Eastertide – April 8, 2018
Karen Cobb, preaching
It would have been easier to run away. It surely would have been safer to hide til the coast was clear. There are days still when it takes every ounce of courage to just keep moving, head down, alone in the crowd, stumbling toward God knows what. It is exhausting work. The gospel of John doesn’t say where Thomas was, that Resurrection morning when Mary ran from the tomb. He was missing in action when the weary, frightened, grieving band was stunned as Jesus stood among them, announcing, “Peace be with you!”
There is also palpable lack of fanfare a week later when Thomas returns to the group. No “Where you been, Bro? You won’t believe what you missed!” Where was his community when he needed them most? It is no wonder that he cried out in desperation, “Unless I put my finger in the print of the nails or place my hand in his side, I will not believe!”
Church history tells that eventually, Thomas’s faith culminated in taking the mission of Christ to India… but that’s a whole other story. For today, the gospel encounter with Thomas is a resuscitation, not of Jesus, but of the faith community. It shocks overwhelmed followers back into faithful, dependable rhythm as witnesses to the incarnational word. This story, often referred to as Doubting Thomas is in fact the account of how the disciples got their groove back.
Even Mary recognizes Jesus only when he calls her by name. He tells her “Don’t cling to me. I must ascend to my Father in heaven.” The Disciples rejoice when he stands among them, shows them his wounds and breathes on them, much the same way Yahweh breathes life into Adam. Jesus offers the same physical proof to Thomas, ready to meet Thomas in his demands. However, the text does not record that Thomas laid hands on Jesus that night. His faith was not restored by touching Jesus but by seeing him and hearing him face to face. All of these disciples respond with confessions of devotion, “My Lord and my God.” It’s our story too.
I know many of you as friends for years of journeying together at St. Michael’s. Almost twenty one years in fact. But today is a new experience for me in this place, proclaiming gospel on a Sunday morning. As for many of you, Holy Week is a rich and spiritually cathartic time for me, culminating in a glorious Resurrection celebration just a week ago. Like many of you, I joined in the liturgical ritual of the agape meal and the foot washing, the prayers, the stations of the cross, and pilgrimage as a way of deepening and focusing my attention on the Passion of Christ.
Another regular part of my Holy Week rhythm is to listen again to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”, usually on Good Friday. I know, I know, I’m a child of the sixties. I was seven years old when my parents took me to see a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. I fell in love with Jesus that night when I heard Mary Magdalene’s plaintive song, “ I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. It occurs to me that my spiritual identity is closely bound to the devotion poured out by Mary. Although I hope I have matured a bit spiritually since age seven, I still resonate with Mary, who is often misunderstood, often maligned, her witness dismissed as an idle tale. But, she is also faithful and loyal in pouring out all that she has to glorify Jesus. Whenever I hear that song, it still gets me.
Most days I like to say I’m preaching without words in my calling as a psychotherapist, offering a listening ear, a metaphor, toys, or art materials to help clients find meaning and healing, encouraging their expression of loss, reframing and healing conflicts and naming their truth. I recognize many of the feelings portrayed in this morning’s gospel: grief, fear, confusion, longing, anger, defense, and self-protection. They walk into my office every day. These feelings are also familiar furnishings of my own interior castle. I recognize these human feelings not only in Thomas but in his community and in myself and in you. This gospel lesson is everything about the community of Christ, then and now, in answering the question, “How do you know what you know?”
What some of you may not know is that before I was a therapist, I was a pastor for twenty-three years. It’s been about thirty years since my first sermon on this gospel passage before the Presbytery of San Gabriel where I was first approved for ordination. I can say with some certainly that the process of preaching is no less exhilarating… and terrifying than it was way back then. It is one thing, to walk and study and pray and sit at Jesus’ feet in adoration. I imagine his followers felt that way as well, enchanted and convicted by glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. It is quite another endeavor to stand naked in your beliefs before those whom you love and respect and proclaim your partial understanding of the mystery of God’s redemptive love for the world.
As safe as it might feel to stay in my own head, locked in my own room, safe in my own protected world view, that is not all I am called to be and do. In my dining room I have a poster that reads, “A ship is a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” It may have felt exhilarating for those first disciples to be hand-picked for Jesus, but I imagine it was terrifying to imagine life without him. What do we do now?
The journey of moving from earthly incarnation and ministry, through the betrayal and abandonment, the horrors of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension presented in the gospels is hard to take in all at once. The synoptic gospels of Mathew Mark and Luke describe Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Acts of the Apostles portray the life of the young post resurrection church. But, in John these events are compacted into a few chapters. No wonder the disciples are like sheep in the headlights. The doors are shut, they are in the midst of traumatized grief, and now, Jesus is among them, breathing life into them, and telling them God’s mission of redemption now rests on their shoulders. Wait, what?
The issue here is not Jesus’ resuscitation. It is ours. Remember the opening words of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to the Gospel of John, in the space of a few verses, from Easter morning to Easter evening, Jesus has ascended to the Father, completing his incarnational reunion with God and returning to breathe new life into his followers who will continue his work of transmitting peace and forgiveness of the Living Word.
The story of salvation is not complete with the empty tomb. Our discipleship is not complete if it ends with adoration, denial and falling asleep. Thomas was not the only one missing, who needed to hear empowering news. The early disciples did. Mary, Peter, John and all the others did. The early church to whom John preached needed to hear good news, as they hid from a splintered Jewish community. Practically none had witnessed the resurrection. The signs of belief were no longer sight or touch or even hearing one’s name, but rather the witness of those whose lives were irrevocably changed by encounters with the living Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ was born in that Upper Room that night by the breath of Christ, giving the disciples the power and courage to transmit peace and forgiveness as the Father had given it to him.
It is our gift this morning as well. So, receive the peace of Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit. Go ahead, close your eyes and let it sink in, a deep, cleansing and renewing breath. You are forgiven. You are not bound by your past. You are a new creation. You are freed for new life you can only imagine. What will you do with it? Now consider who else needs to hear this, in your life, in our community, in our world. Who is missing? Open your eyes and look to your left and to your right. Peace be upon you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet, have come to believe. Amen.
1 April 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16)
In a 1969 essay on religious pluralism, the American Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote that, “the common challenge for all religions today is to resist the rising tide of nihilism.” Nihilism: the belief that nothing is of intrinsic value or worth. On this Easter Sunday, I would like to sharpen the focus of that observation to say, that the most urgent challenge for all people of faith right now, is to resist the increasingly strident and global attack upon the dignity of the human person.
We see signs of the ebbing of our ability to value one another everywhere. Ideologues of both the right and the left look upon one another as unworthy even of a hearing. Political leaders cynically scapegoat the foreigner and the immigrant. Movements driven by supremacist creeds rally in the public square. The terrorist with his bombs regards other people only as instruments of his own cause. Children—teenagers—marching in the streets to advocate for their own safety are ridiculed by those who would suppress their voice. Citizens ready to risk their life for their country are denied the opportunity to do so simply because of their gender identity.
But what, you may ask, has all this to do with Easter? Well, everything, actually. When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered what is perhaps the most dehumanizing form of execution humanity has ever fashioned. And yet … hidden within that pitiful spectacle, another and more powerful force was at work that could not be put down or defeated: the strength of God’s love surging through him even in what appeared to be his utter defeat.
The physical Jesus dies on the cross, but the mystery is that the spirit within him did not stop loving us even then. In Jesus we find that God is not exhausted by what we do, even putting him to death. It turns out that we are powerless to change God’s mind, which is focused upon us purely for life and for mercy. So on the third day, the love that is the life-force of Jesus comes roaring back into the lives of those who had counted him as lost, simply because God cannot do otherwise.
And suddenly the picture comes clear: Jesus’ death on the cross is a bit like the cross-section that we might take of the trunk of a tree, where we can see and count the rings. But the cross-section gives us only an intimation of the whole picture: the veins we see there, running circularly around the tree, in fact also run longitudinally up and down the tree from bottom to top, just as God’s creative love runs through human history from beginning to end.
In the historical Jesus, we see only a cross-section of that love. At first, it seems to come to an end in his death, but then when that life and love reasserts itself in his resurrection, we realize that Jesus is not limited by historical time after all, but is the one about whom scripture says, “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” In short: Jesus’ resurrection is not a miraculous resuscitation of a human corpse, hard for us to imagine, but a revelation of the metaphysical constant of God’s love, wondrous for us to contemplate, radiating uninterrupted through the cosmos much like the elemental energy from the moment of creation.
And what has this to do with human dignity? Well, if God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, it was to live in a reciprocal relationship, mirroring back to God the same love with which God loves us. When we look into the face of another human being therefore—no matter who or what they are—we see there nothing less than what God does: the likeness of God’s own self. And if it is God we see, then that person is truly holy, worthy of every dignity and respect we can bestow. To do anything else, is in effect to curse God. As Abraham Heschel put it, “To denigrate another human being, is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Easter, then, is the ultimate celebration and consecration of the dignity of the human person, because it is the vindication of the power of the love through which we were created, and by which we are sustained. In what Jesus suffered from us on the cross, and in the still stronger power of his love for us as it reasserts itself in his resurrection, we encounter the decisive truth of who we are: creatures made holy by the divine nature God has bestowed upon us, and unsparingly loves in us.
There at the front of the church, you see a multitude of icons of saints, and angels, and of Christ himself. They cumulatively weave together the human form we bear, with the divine image in which we are created. On this Easter Day, these images are a bold and unequivocal restatement of the primordial truth which we as Christian people hold: that all people are created equal in God’s image, and that they are therefore endowed with an inalienable holiness and dignity that cannot be desecrated, except by violating Christ himself. In that regard, resurrection must include insurrection, whenever and however that dignity is defiled. Amen.