Benediction Online

Sunday, April 24, 2011

He is Risen!

Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4 Matthew 28:1-10

Each day all over the world some people’s lives are irrevocably changed. It may be because of an accident or an argument, a diagnosis or a disaster or perhaps something joyful, a job offer, a birth, a new love. For the disciples, Easter morning changed their lives more than they could imagine possible. They probably thought that living with Jesus, they had gotten used to surprise and sudden change but this was the biggest yet.

They had seen Jesus’ broken, bruised and bloody body put in the tomb. They knew that Jesus was really dead; dead dead. That was as real and solid to his disciples as any experience they had ever had. And now the tomb was empty. The angel said he was alive. The two Marys were amazed. Everything they thought was solid suddenly changed to liquid. Even death was no longer as definite as it seemed.

From this point on, the rest of the New Testament, the rest of the history of the church, is an attempt to understand what this means. Christianity is not a neatly worked out system where everything fits nicely together – it is the attempt of ordinary people to make sense of a life-changing and bizarre event.

The stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. Jesus got out. Somehow, somewhen, Jesus resurrected in a new body which could move through stone but could still eat breakfast. Amazing, weird.

What does it mean to you?

I doubt that any of us can remember a time when we didn’t know the story - Jesus died on a cross and was raised from the dead. It’s hardly life changing when you’ve known it for ever. We don’t have the startling and astonishing experience of the earthquake and the angel and then meeting Jesus on the road and grabbing his feet…

So is it even important?

It is important because it is an integral part of God’s Plan conceived in the creative and all-loving dance of the Trinity. We only get glimpses of this plan in which God created a universe, an ever-expanding, ever-changing cosmos of an infinite number of planets, stars, black holes and other celestial beings whose names I don’t know and probably cannot pronounce. And then on one small planet God created humanity. God made humans with the potential to wander away from God, and as she knew we would, we do.

In order to continue her creative process and bring this project into reconciliation with herself, God sent her Son, who is one with the Creator God, to become human, to die, to rise again to…to… to what? Why did Jesus the Christ die and rise again?

The writers of the New Testament describe their experiences in several different ways – the principal themes are freedom from sin, forgiveness of sins, salvation, peace, and new life. So let’s take a brief look at each one.

Physicists tell us that the world is not solid. It just seems like it is. In fact the whole of creation is made of infinitesimal particles moving very fast so that the blur of their activity creates matter that appears to be solid.

Perhaps through Jesus’ death and resurrection he showed us that evil isn’t solid either, that sin isn’t as powerful as we thought. If it were solid, if it were truly powerful, Jesus would still be trapped in Sheol, his body cold in the tomb. In our baptism we have mysteriously died with Christ and been raised again into a world where evil, sin and addiction only have the power we give them. Because Jesus’ resurrection shows that they are not solid.

Because they are not solid we can have freedom from sin – Jesus gives us the power to change, to become godly. It almost certainly won’t happen overnight and it may take the interventions of modern medicine and the faith community to help us let go of old patterns and destructive behaviors. But we no longer need to feel trapped by this powerful negativity, because Jesus has shown that it is hollow and weak.

Sometimes we define sin as separation from God but there is nowhere we can go where we are truly away from God. The psalmist says, “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.”[1] So sin is not separation from God as much as that which stops us experiencing oneness with the divine. Sin is what makes us question whether we are truly loveable, sin is what makes us feel guilty and ashamed at a gut level. Sin is everything we do and think which is less than godly. From the earliest days in the Garden of Eden, our willfulness and our longing to explore and to know have got in the way of a simple, innocent relationship with God. We are not infants sitting innocently and trustingly on her lap… we are people of wisdom and creativity and sometimes of anger and hatred.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection assures us that God doesn’t even see all the things that we think get in between us. God became human… God moved towards us and has now fully experienced what it is to be human and mortal and to feel separated from the very source of life. God has open arms, waiting for us to come and be reconciled, to come back to God in a mature adult relationship of two free beings. God is waiting for us to soften our hearts and forgive ourselves and others and accept his free gift of loving mutual relationship.

Perhaps that’s a good description of salvation or redemption. It’s what brings us back into loving mutual relationship with the divine. It’s what brings us back into the relationship with God that we were created to have – a relationship like that of the Trinity with one another, a dance of free spirits bound to each other by love, joy, thanksgiving and mutual obedience and submission.

There’s an ancient prayer which talks of God “whose service is perfect freedom”, “whose service is perfect freedom”. As Americans we’re very attached to the idea of freedom. Although we can’t always define exactly what we mean, I am sure that most of us would not consider serving someone else “perfect freedom”. Yet we are made to live in service of God and each other and in that service we find the perfect freedom which is salvation because that is the life of the Trinity to which we are called and invited.

When we live in relationship with God there is a quality of peace which starts to permeate our lives. This is not a superficial feel-good peace. Jesus’ life was hardly peaceful – he found it difficult to get away from the crowds of people wanting his attention, he was constantly harassed by the religious authorities and finally he was betrayed, tortured and killed. Not an example of a quiet peaceful life. So the peace of God which passes understanding is something different.

It is the peace that comes from knowing that nothing, nothing can separate us from the amazing, extravagant love of God. As the apostle Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And perhaps that is the secret of the new life which is in Christ. The incredible, unconditional love of God keeps us safe. Not from hardship or pain but from the fear that these things are all there is. When we know that the safety net is in position, we can fling ourselves with abandon from one trapeze to the next, trusting that even if we miss, all will be well.

Trusting in our ever-deepening relationship with the great triune God whose very nature is love, allows us to live life to the full. And that is what God wants for us. For each one of us God wants us to live the life we were created to have, abundant life in relationship with her. It will be different for each one of us – for some God is a tangible presence, for others more a longing and a burning desire, but however God manifests in our lives, she brings life and hope.

As the second century French bishop Ireneas said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive”. The apostle Peter who preached forgiveness of sins in our first reading was not the bumbling fisherman but a new human being fully alive and empowered by God’s Spirit. The Jesus that the two Marys met that fateful morning was a human being fully alive in a resurrection body.

The fact that Jesus is alive gives us hope and new life so that we too can be the glory of God.

The Lord is Risen!

[1] Ps 139:8

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Vigil

This is the night of the great mystery. The great not-knowing. This is the night when Jesus the Christ mysteriously resurrected; the night when his broken, bruised and bloody body changed into a new resurrection body and he left the tomb totally changed and yet the same; the night when the human relationship with evil and death changed forever. We cannot know what happened or indeed fully understand what that really means for us and for the universe.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, has written a number of books, all of which challenge us to be comfortable with not-knowing. In a similar way contemporary physics reminds us that the universe is not what it seems. It’s not solid. Creation is very definitely here and yet at the same time it is not here. Perhaps it is created by the breath of God in a much more literal way than we have imagined possible. We don’t know. All that seems to be solid is changing even before our eyes. We have changed even in the time since I started this sermon. In a world where nothing is solid, nothing is stable, it behooves us to be comfortable with not-knowing.

There are of course, significant differences in the way that Pema Chodron, as a Tibetan Buddhist, understands the universe, from the way that we as Christians might conceive it. But in the book I am currently reading and pondering, she suggests that evil is no more solid than anything else. So I have been wondering whether that is a way to understand the great gift of this night.

There is nothing more lifeless than a corpse… I am often amazed at how small a person’s body looks after the life has gone out of it. Jesus was really dead; dead dead. That was as real and solid to his disciples as any experience they had ever had. And then he was alive. The tomb was empty. The disciples came and they were amazed. Everything they thought was solid suddenly changed to liquid. Even death was no longer as definite as it seemed.

Tonight we have reminded ourselves of the salvation story of the People of God. We heard the great stories of the ancient tradition which Jesus came to fulfill. And then we had the joy of baptizing Vandria and Gio, and recommitting ourselves to our baptismal vows. In baptism we make the salvation story our own.

The Holy Spirit brings us through the waters of baptism into a new life in Christ. Baptism symbolizes an inner migration from the realities of our old life into the realities of life in the reign of God. In the New Testament reading, Paul points out that when we are physically dead we can no longer sin. Through our baptism we become as dead – we die and are resurrected with Jesus so that we are no longer enslaved by sin.

It sounds good but it’s difficult to unpack that and have it make a whole lot of sense. It’s a mystery. It isn’t solid.

Perhaps through Jesus’ death and resurrection he showed us that evil isn’t solid, that sin isn’t as powerful as we thought. When we are caught in an addiction it seems that it would be next to impossible to change. We make all kinds of excuses to ourselves – “I really need a drink”, “I deserve to have another pair of shoes”, “everyone has to eat”… but the reality is that the addiction seems the most real and powerful thing in our lives. Often it is the central point around which we organize everything else in our lives. On this most holy of nights Jesus showed that the power of addiction is hollow. It isn’t solid. It shifts and changes as we look at it, so we are no longer bound by it.

Now when we are challenged by forces of evil, when our addictive patterns, our negative behaviors threaten to overtake us we can remember that we are baptized. We have passed through the waters with the people of Israel, we have mysteriously died with Christ and been raised again into a world where evil, sin and addiction only have the power we give them. Because Jesus’ resurrection shows that they are not solid.

We have baptized Vandria and Gio with a little water. A little water which is taken from the water that refreshes all living beings on this planet. Just like air, water is constantly recycling, so that water that the Israelites came through in their great migration from slavery into freedom, the water that floated Noah’s ark, the water that John used to baptize Jesus, is all present and represented in this little sprinkling of Los Osos water.

Just as all water is interconnected, so are all beings interconnected. In Romans Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning as if in childbirth waiting for humanity to be redeemed. As each one of us is baptized and live into our baptismal covenant, in some small way we are contributing not just to our own salvation but to that of all beings. So tonight Vandria and Gio have contributed to God’s Plan for the redemption of the whole creation and in our eucharist we celebrate a foretaste of the day when all beings will come together in reconciliation with God and with each other.

Tonight we are taking part in the great cosmic drama, the plan of God, conceived in the creative and all-loving dance of the Trinity. We only get glimpses of this plan in which God created a universe, an ever-expanding, ever-changing cosmos of an infinite number of planets, stars, black holes and other celestial beings. And then God created humanity to be in a special relationship to the Godhead and to the rest of creation. Just as through Jesus we come to God, so through us the universe is brought to God in a new relationship, one which is like the relationship the Trinity has with one another – a relationship of love, joy, creative mutual submission and obedience.

We humans play a vital role in bringing the whole of created matter into reconciliation with God – bringing it to its perfection.

We only get glimpses of this plan and the glimpses we get are so limited and so brief that we can’t hold on to them as real, solid facts. Yet the vision is amazing and glorious; deeper and more vibrant than the most brilliant sunset, broader and more thrilling than the most breath-taking view or the most overwhelming special effects.

We want things to be solid. When the disciples had the first glimpse of the resurrected Jesus they grabbed his feet. They wanted to hold on. We too want to hold on. We make stories based on the glimpses we have received and we call them Truth and we fight others who don’t share our glimpses of reality. But all the ideas we have are mere shadows of the reality which is the Godhead and the plan to bring Creation into full union with the Trinity.

As we allow ourselves to explore not-knowing, as we allow ourselves to live with the uncertainties and the doubts as well as the vision and the hope there are some things we can hold on to. We can hold on to God’s unconditional and extravagant love for us. This is not just a general non-personal love for humanity, but a love for each one of us personally.

God finds you infinitely loveable. Just as you are. You are God’s beloved.

And in our baptism we are joined in some mysterious way with Christ dead, buried and resurrected. So the other thing we can hold on to is our baptism. When things are bad, look in the mirror, splash some water on your face and remind yourself that you are sealed as Christ’s own for ever. Sealed as Christ’s own for ever.

We are the people of God and the future is ours.

As St Paul said in his letter to the Romans, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Resurrection and the Life

The Rev. Donna Ross

These past few months our world has suffered through many tragedies.
Do you realize that it was only six months ago that those Chilean miners were trapped for 70 days?

Remember how long they waited in the dark before anyone knew they were alive?

Remember how they waited while a tunnel was drilled, half a mile down into the earth?

Remember how they were lifted back to life in a specially-made capsule? Before the capsule began lifting them up from the total darkness of the mine, each miner was given sunglasses to protect him from the brightness of the daylight. And, as the capsule reached the surface, a worker yelled out the miner’s name: “Esteban!” or “Claudio!” or “Carlos!” When the miner heard his name and answered, the crowd – miners, their families, community leaders – chanted his name aloud and applauded, encouraging him to come out of the darkness back to the light, from death back to life.

I cannot imagine living in the darkness for all that time, knowing all the time that I was slowly dying. And I cannot hearing my name called from above, as the surface light began to penetrate the 70th day of my life in darkness. With what fierce determination I would call back, “Yes, here I am! It is me! I am alive!”

The raising of Lazarus

Do you think that’s what it was like for Lazarus and his family, for Lazarus and his village?

He had been in his tomb for four days, and no one ever expected to see him alive again.

Yet Jesus came to his tomb and shouted his name: “Lazarus, come out!” And, hearing Jesus call his name, Lazarus came out of the tomb, trailing his bandages, staggering into the daylight.

Was this the greatest of Jesus’ miracles?

While the other gospels give us many stories of healings and miracles, John’s Gospel gives us only a few. And in John’s Gospel these events are not presented as supernatural miracles, God’s overturning the laws of nature. Instead, John calls them signs – they are signs of the power of God’s life in Jesus.

A sign is something that points us to something we need – something that, without the sign, we might not see. And Lazarus’ return to the daylight, his return to life, is a sign that points us to something we need to see.

A sign is “a finger pointing to the moon”

What does John’s Gospel mean when it speaks of signs? Marcus Borg writes, “Buddhists often speak of the teaching of the Buddha as ‘a finger pointing to the moon.’ The metaphor helps guard against the mistake of thinking that being a Buddhist means believing in Buddhist teaching – that is, believing in the finger. As the metaphor implies, one is to see (and pay attention to) that to which the finger points.

“To apply the metaphor to the Bible, the Bible is like a finger pointing to the moon. Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that being a Christian is about believing in the finger rather than seeing the Christian life as a relationship to that which the finger points.” (Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time)

The meaning of life

In this story, the raising of Lazarus is the finger – and that finger points to the meaning of life.

Like the miners in Chile, Lazarus was brought back into the daylight, given back to his family and his community, given fresh air to breathe and hot food to eat – and a life to live again.

But just like the Chilean miners, almost all of whom struggle with daily life six months after their rescue, Lazarus had to live his very ordinary life again – life with all its sweetness, yes, but also life with all its difficulties. And ultimately, just like the Chilean miners, in the natural course of things Lazarus would truly die and be buried. The new physical life he was given was every bit as provisional as the life each one of us here lives.

Remember what the story tells us: Jesus and some of his disciples were in the Jordan Valley, far away from Bethany when they received a message from Martha and Mary: “Lazarus is very ill.”

After two days Jesus decided to go to Bethany, only two miles from Jerusalem – the city where already the authorities are looking for him. Bethany is close to danger, but Jesus chooses to go anyway – even though he knows that Lazarus has already died.

As he approached the village, he meets Martha – who, in her forthright way declares, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

(Have you ever thought that Martha gives us an example of how we can talk to God – plainly, with all our feelings, saying exactly what we think?)

Now listen to the rest of their conversation:

Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
And Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and I am the life.”

(Have you thought of what it would be like, to live your life with Jesus, to walk the roads of your life with his Spirit, to live in daily relationship with a God who cares, a God who comforts, a God who guides?)

Here’s the moon this story points to: The life Jesus is talking about is not just resurrection life. That is, the life God wants to give us is not just life in heaven after we die. The life Jesus is talking about is life right now: we don’t have to wait to die before we can live our life with God.

Life with God NOW – what gifts does that give us?

So much to say! But right now, I’d like to point to two of those gifts:

God’s presence: God is always with us, God is always loving us, God is always keeping us alive in the Spirit.

And God’s courage: If we have united ourselves with Christ – his life, his death, his continuing presence – we have already died, so we might as well really live!

Here’s how St. Patrick understood the meaning of the daily presence of the Spirit of God, with him and around him and in him and before him:

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
God's eye to watch, God's might to stay, God's ear to hearken to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach, God's hand to guide, God's shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech, God's heavenly host to be my guard.
(Hymn 370, v. 5)

As we walk together through the remaining days of Lent, we are preparing for the Easter feast, and – this Lent especially – we are preparing for the Easter Vigil, when two members of our community will be baptized into the Life of Christ. After their baptisms, we will pray:

Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Sonmay live in the power of his resurrection…

What does it mean to live in the power of Jesus' resurrection - and in the power of Jesus' life? Again, we can sing with Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. (Hymn 370, v. 6)