16 April 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3)
Guido Calabresi was a legendary dean of Yale Law School, relishing the bravura of his Italian heritage, even while insisting that everyone—including the lowliest first year students—simply call him Guido. He was especially famous for having once posed this question to one of his classes in law and economics: Suppose that a new machine could be invented that would contribute dramatically to the general population’s happiness and freedom—a machine that could be made available to every household, at a relatively modest price, and from which each and every person in the country could benefit. Suppose, however, that the gift of this new machine would also require the regular sacrifice of some 30,000 lives per year. Would you accept the gift?
After the class had debated the seemingly hypothetical issue for some time, with most students coming down on the side of the obvious injustice of acquiescing in the deaths of 30,000 people each year, Dean Calabresi would rather wryly say, “Ladies and gentlemen, what I have described for you, is the automobile.”
It’s odd, how we human beings choose to make the calculus that we do about what to accept and what not to accept in life. Yet there are many aspects of what we choose to do that contain within them similar bargains with fate as our maleficent love affair with the automobile.
Among the most profound of these bargains is with life itself. When we bear children, for instance, we are choosing to bring into being a person about whom one thing is absolutely certain: he or she will die, and most likely someone’s heart will be broken as a result, perhaps even our own. And yet knowing that inescapable truth, that life ends in death, we still choose to bear children nonetheless. Why? Why begin a life, only to know it will someday be ended?
Of course, the biologists among us would point to brute instinct as the reason. Life in all forms is programmed to reproduce, in order to continue. And that is indeed true enough, as far as it goes.
But because we human beings consciously make the decision to bear children, something more has to be at work as well. Some greater appreciation for what life is, other than merely its own continuation. Some intuitive grasp that the physical cycle of life and death is only an intimation of something much greater.
And this is where Easter enters in. I was struck, last Sunday, when we read the passion story from Matthew’s gospel, that Matthew is very clear that the experience of resurrection—the breaking down of the wall of separation between life and death—begins before Easter. If you were here, did you notice that at the moment of Jesus’ death, Matthew records that there was an earthquake, and the tombs of Jerusalem were opened then (on Good Friday), and “many bodies of the saints were raised.” So even before we get to Easter, the dead are mysteriously present again in an astonishing breakdown of what we think is the inviolable boundary between life and death.
And then today, in Matthew’s account of the resurrection itself, perhaps you noticed a telling detail in the sequence of events: again, there is a great earthquake, and this time an angel descends to roll back the stone that encloses Jesus’ tomb—but it is not to let Jesus out, but to let the women who come looking for him in to see the empty tomb. The resurrection preceded the opening of the tomb! So whatever the resurrection is, it is about something more than the resuscitation of a corpse: it is about revealing a dimension of life that cannot be held captive even by the grave.
In fact, many theologians will refer to the resurrection rather obliquely as “the empty tomb tradition,” hinting that it is about something deeper and more mysterious than mere resuscitation. Even the most holy site in the Christian faith, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, witnesses to this observable absence as somehow at the heart of the matter.
So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that Matthew is above all intent to help us to understand that in God, life and death are on a continuous and intertwined relationship, rather than life simply leading inexorably in the single direction of death. In other words, we come from God in our birth, and return to God in our death, so that the spiritual and physical dimensions of life are unbroken. They are intimate companions of one another, rather than intractable enemies.
Let me give you an image. If you were to take a thin strip of paper, give it a 180-degree twist, and then join both ends, you would have the famous Mobius strip which has the peculiar property of being single-sided; that is, if you run your finger around its entire surface, you never cross from one side to another. What was two-sided, has by a single twist become one-sided, and its surface now lies on an uninterrupted continuum. If you can’t quite visualize that, make one for yourself when you get home today: a strip of paper, twisted once, ends put together …
And what if life and death are like that? What if the two, which we think of as opposites, run continuously in and through one another, like the twin surfaces made one in the Mobius strip?
What if the message of Easter is not the counterintuitive two-sided idea that a physical body comes back to life, but the single-sided idea that our physical self is not the limit of the life that God shares with us?
What if the calculation that we make in choosing to have children, is a deeply intuitive response to the fact that in God, life and love are not exhaustible, but that our experience of them opens us to participate in the divine mystery that is at the heart of the universe?
What if, in the calculus by which we choose to create life, we are not faced with a hapless and inescapable rendezvous with death—like the pact we make with the automobile—but rather are entering into the bargain offered in the resurrection: that, as St. Paul says, though we be dead, our lives are hid with God in Christ. And with life’s greatest dilemma resolved—which is death itself—the resurrection makes us free to address our other challenges with a certain confidence and equanimity: whether illness, divorce, disappointment, loneliness, or whatever else may weigh upon us. As we pray time and time again in that well-known prayer offered at the time of burial: “Life is immortal, and love is eternal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” Amen.
9 April 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’” (Mt. 27)
Everything about today is a contradiction. The Jesus whom we greeted with cries of “Hosanna!”, quickly became the Jesus whom we also condemn with cries of “Crucify!”
Jesus, the prince of peace, is made the victim of violence.
Jesus, the lover of souls, is made the object of hate.
Jesus, the giver of life, is put to death.
These contradictions should not, however, astonish us. For they are not unique to the drama of Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion—but we encounter them every time we come into church.
Think of the visual dialogue that is set up for us right here in the front of us in the sanctuary. On the wall hangs a cross, a vivid reminder of all the pain and violence which human sin has wrought. On it hangs all the pain of Auschwitz. Guernica. Hiroshima. Aleppo. Selma. Juarez. Albuquerque.
Beneath the cross, a table. A table around which Jesus gathered with his disciples—his friends—inviting them to live as a community not of violence, but of love. It is a table upon which bread and wine are both given and received as signs of that community, which stands as the antithesis of the very violence evoked by the cross that hangs above.
As a rule, we human beings are not good at dealing with such contradictions. We tend either simply to ignore them, denying their very existence in our mind; or we resolve them artificially in favor of one direction or another. We have an extraordinary capacity, in other words, for self-deception—for looking reality square in the face, and then denying it. In fact, the current political climate relies upon our willingness and ability to do just that: to render the egregious as normal, to accept the unacceptable.
The volatile drama of the Palm Sunday liturgy, however, suggests that to follow Jesus, we must go deeper. Faith is not a method of papering over the contradictions and complexities of life, but a mode of entering into them, confident that they ultimately lead us deeper into the mystery of ourselves and of God. That’s why the church focuses so intently each Holy Week on the inherently contradictory story of Jesus’ Passion: it’s about coming to terms with the reality of the human condition.
We have to learn over and over that it is not enough either to think naively that when Jesus comes, all is well (“Hosanna!”), nor is it enough to lapse into the cynicism that lies behind violence (“Crucify!”). The contradiction, the tension, have to be maintained—and that forces us to go deeply into who we truly are.
Our culture, however, resists depth. Ideas are reduced to 140 characters. Relationships succumb to posts. And in the midst of such shallowness, we are encouraged to believe in a rather simplistic picture of ourselves: our culture tells us that we are essentially free and autonomous individuals, encouraged to self-actualize ourselves as we see fit, unbounded by any substantive restraints of personal obligation or serious expectations of self-sacrifice.
Yet the biblical view of humanity is much more complex. We are, as Psalm 8 puts it, made but only a little lower than the angels, adorned with glory and honor. And yet, only a bit later in Psalm 22, the psalmist laments that he is a worm and no man. We are the saints of God, yet sinners in God’s sight.
So one way of entering in to the Holy Week drama, upon which we embark today, is to let yourself be drawn into this fundamental contradiction within human nature. Hold within yourself the tension between that cross, and that table. Wrestle with why it is (as St. Paul says), that the good you would do, you do not; but the evil which you would not, you do (Rom. 7:19). This is the confrontation that Peter has to have with himself, when he realizes how he has betrayed Jesus, and so weeps bitterly. Let yourself go deeply, to the very core of your being. Find the contradictions within yourself.
What you might discover, is that beneath the contradiction between both the dignity and corruption of human nature, lies an even greater mystery hid within you, which is that death and life are likewise present both at once within us. In the burial office, we sing that “in the midst of life we are in death,” reminding us that physical death is the inevitable conclusion of being alive. Yet in God, the reverse is also true: in the midst of death, that part of us which is love itself is given life. So this is the mystery of faith:
Both life and death.
Both dignity and corruption.
Both table and cross.
Both hosanna and crucify.
Yes, today is a contradiction, a contradiction that calls us into depth. Depth of soul; depth of character; depth of honesty with ourselves.
So let me leave you with an image upon which you might meditate during this coming week. We here in New Mexico are very attuned to the rising and setting of the sun: we relish the soft dawn breaking over the Sandia Mountains, or the dramatic red glows of the sunsets in the western sky. The imposing presence of such spectacles might cause us to reflect that within each dawn, there is the anticipation that in due time the night will return. But likewise in each sunset, the promise of a new day is also given. That’s why a Navajo greets the new day in the dawn, while a Jew give thanks for the new day at sunset the night before: one day greets another in an unbroken sequence, and rhythm of which we can be very much aware in this land where “sky determines.”
Could it be, in the contradiction between that cross and table, that there is a similar continuity? In Jesus, who brings the two together in himself, peace is interrupted by violence, but violence is met with peace. The communion he shares is disrupted by betrayal, but that betrayal leads to resurrection. Life recedes toward death, but death also flows into life. That is the trajectory along which this Holy Week leads and invites us.
Faith, then, at its most basic level, is simply that authenticity which allows us to be drawn into, and then to be held, in the mysterious depth of these holy contradictions. Amen.
2 April 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37)
Given today’s lessons, you might think that it’s already Easter. The valley of dry bones reading from Ezekiel, for example, is one of the most vivid of the readings in the Great Vigil of Easter, as God commands the prophet to prophesy over the bones, that they may live (“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them that they shall live”); and then in the Gospel, we go to Bethany where we discover that the resurrection of the dead is already happening, when Jesus summons Lazarus out of the tomb, and he comes stiffly walking out, blinking incredulously at what is happening. It’s as though we’ve skipped right ahead to Easter itself!
In fact, this skipping around in the story of Jesus is at the very heart of its meaning. Just last Saturday, for instance, March 25, was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive a child (its celebrated on March 25, because that is exactly nine months to the day before Christmas, and … well that’s obviously when it would have happened—fact are facts!). So right in the middle of Lent, when we are turning our faces toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion, we already hear the story starting to turn in upon itself, starting again at the beginning.
During Holy Week, which is just around the corner, we’ll have multiple instances of this twisting and turning of the narrative, one moment racing ahead, only to circle back again. Think of Palm Sunday, which is just next week. We first celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, only to race ahead to the events of Good Friday by reading the passion story; then by celebrating the Eucharist we have really skipped ahead to Easter itself, calling the risen Lord into our midst. No sooner than we have done that, however, than we depart in silence, as if moving back into the loneliness and foreboding of Gethsemane. It’s like the novel Hopscotch, by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, where at a chapter’s end there is a suggestion of another chapter you could skip ahead to—or back to—if you don’t want to continue reading sequentially.
One of my favorite examples of this narrative dance is the service of Tenebrae, often celebrated on Holy Wednesday. It is a service of darkness (“tenebrae” means shadows), and as lengthy psalms and readings of lament are read, the church is gradually drawn into the dark as candles are extinguished one by one. It’s as if the black clouds of Good Friday are descending. At the end, only a single candles remains lit, reminding us of the Paschal candle that is first lit on Easter morning at the Vigil. That one candle is carried out of the church, as if to burial: then, after a long silence, a great noise is made (which always makes everyone jump, even though you know it’s coming), symbolizing the earthquake of the resurrection, and the candle is brought back into the church, in whose light all disperse. So on the eve of the three Great Days, (the “Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter), Tenebrae summarizes them all in a single service.
So before we ever start to tell the story, we already know how it ends. From a literary perspective, it’s not very good drama, because there’s no suspense.
But of course, that is exactly the point. God does not hold us in suspense, leaving us to wonder what the outcome of life is going to be. In Jesus, we have already been shown what lies ahead: forgiveness, mercy, resurrection, life (as he says in today’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life”—and so we know even now, that our lives “hid with Christ in God” as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (Col 3:3).
And not only that, but our past too is also incorporated into Jesus, for he is the one who (as the woman at the well discovered) already knows us as we are. No secrets, and so nothing to hide.
So therein lies the good news: knowing us as we have been and as we are—warts and all—Jesus leads us beyond ourselves into a future which we already know will be shaped by his inexhaustible mercy and compassion. Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end: and both our past and our future are to be found in him.
And this is the source of Christian hope: we know where our story ends, it ends in Jesus. There’s no suspense, no anxiety. Our story will not ultimately end in loneliness; nor in failure; not in disease or dementia; not in alienation and separation; not in depression or doubt. Our story ends in his light and love—whatever that turns out to be.
So we tell his story, which ultimately is our story, over and over again, year after year, knowing in advance where it ends. Yet paradoxically, we also never know what will come of its telling. For every time that we retell it, even though the story is the same, the meaning is new, relevant to the moment. If when we tell the story we are weak or uncertain, Jesus comes to as strength; if we cry out for justice, Jesus comes to us as judge; if we are joyful, Jesus enters as our guest; if we are alone, Jesus comes to us as friend. As we sing in that old hymn, “Tell me the old, old story, of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”
So yes, today is a little Easter (it’s Sunday, after all, and Sunday is always Easter), and the lessons are all about new life, whether it is breathed into dry bones—a whole valley of them—or called forth in the dead man Lazarus. But these lessons are just pointers to what lies ahead, as we already know: that our destiny is with God, who is life itself.
This past week we commemorated the poet John Donne, who died on March 31st in the year 1631. His well-known poem “Death be not proud” is deeply expressive of this confident, radiant hope that we have, even in the face of death, knowing already that the outcome of our story is not death, but God. With that valley of dry bones in your imagination, waiting for the spirit to breathe life into them; or with Lazarus in your mind, standing awkwardly outside his tomb, bound in
burial shrouds, hear that poem that reads:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory, both now, and at our end! Amen.