Monthly Archives: April, 2011
Twice she stood there, alone.
The first didn’t last long. She was up, early, while it was still dark, to make the silent walk to the tomb. She took her time, body heavy with the grief. But something was amiss; it didn’t make any sense. The stone had been removed. They took him! And she runs back, bursting in: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and John leap up, gathering their clothes and sandals, sprinting. John recorded the footrace, making sure we know who gets their first, chest heaving, to the edge of the tomb. And the linen wrappings, oddly, were there, Simon saw them, too, others rolled up separately. The other disciple, at that moment, John says, glimpsed something, and believed.
And then the strangest thing happened. They went home. John makes sure we know they get it, he saw and believed. Then, John says it plainly, “the disciples returned to their homes.” They went home. Back to their families. Back to their fishing nets and schoolwork and cubicles and carpools. John doesn’t tell us why – maybe life was hard enough, maybe they were tired of the way this Jesus was doing things, tired of hanging out with poor people, the sick, those the world leaves behind. Maybe, as much as they loved him, it was a relief it was over. It was time to go home.
And then it was Mary’s second time. Dear Mary, filled with hope, waited. Weeping, John says. She leans in, tears dripping off her chin, and two angels were there. They ask why she weeps, and she sputters back more frustration. They have taken him. He is gone. I don’t know where they took him. She didn’t have any idea who they were. It’s always their fault, anyway. Ask anybody. They led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; they shoved us headlong into another war. It is their fault that we were misunderstood, that communication got wacky, that a cousin chooses not to speak to us anymore.1 They say that hope is futile in these days. And she was about to believe it, as desperate as she was. Another man is standing there, someone else she doesn’t recognize, who asks her AGAIN why she weeps. Supposing him to be the gardener and, I would imagine, about to take a swing if anyone else asks her why she is crying, she pleads with him. If you have taken him, just tell me. Please. I will go get his broken body. I will bring him back. It was the bottom. I wonder if you’ve been there. Back against the wall as the bills pile up, the strain on the marriage mounts, as the cancer treatment takes its toll. I wonder if you’ve been there, silent, in the darkness…
But it is there, in that moment, when God shows up. God was there before, of course, she just didn’t realize it. Jesus calls to Mary, she calls back to him, and they embrace for what must have seemed like forever. And then he slowly clasps her hands, sending her back into the world. Go back to them, he says. Go and tell. Go to those disciples who have given up, who have gone back to their nets, who think things can’t get any better than they are. Go there, tell them, tell the world, sleeping in our Sunday School rooms this week, or sitting up with sick kids, or wondering if their work matters, or if their life matters. Tell them, he says, and Mary does. “I have seen the Lord,” she says. As friends hold friends as they grieve, as we give generously, as we seek to be a church that embodies that grace in the power of our worship, in the depth of the conversations we have about faith, in the ways we serve, over and over and over again, reaching beyond ourselves, seeking that Risen One who might be right in front of us. In a world quick to blame them, quick to be cynical, Easter points us again to the ground of our hope. Because Jesus Christ is alive, sin and evil and death, though real and terrifying, do not have ultimate power over us. And hope sprouts anew. And the rules are different. And He calls to us to be transformed.
“Easter,” she called. “Easter. Christmas. Easter.” Betty and Paul Ransford and I had been in touch with colleagues in Raleigh and beyond this week, trying to see how they were, how their communities were, what they needed in the wake of last Saturday’s tornadoes. One put us on to a teacher at Powell Elementary School. The neighborhood surrounding is up north, off Rock Quarry Road. You didn’t see much for awhile, then a few branches down, a handful of trees with tops twisted off. Then we hit it – a boys’ and girls’ club with people lined up at a truck for food. Same thing a few blocks down. The debris piles on the side of the road began to rise. And we turned into the neighborhood and practically all the tops of the trees, in what I would imagine was a lush, green, neighborhood, were shredded. The roads were mostly passable, limbs and sawdust, trunks sawed through, stacked everywhere, blue tarps covering holes in roofs. And then every third or fourth you would see it – tree trunk down on the corner, crushing an SUV in the driveway. Tree still sitting in the middle of the roof. Or a blue sticker on a window, telling you the city had condemned the house, that it was no longer fit for people to live in.
We checked in at the school, saw the supplies beginning to stack up, and started walking around, introduced ourselves to some folks, asking if anyone knew anything. Most just shrugged their shoulders. I just came on out with my chainsaw, figured I could help. These are just neighbors, friends pitching in. A girl pointed us to another man, who said – Sure, come on; we have to get these boxes out of this house, let’s form a line. He moved towards what we soon learned was his mother’s house. It had one of those blue stickers, a huge hole in the living room on the right, shredded insulation over the piano and the couch, a tree through the carport and part of the kitchen, crushing the van. The whole yard was piled with limbs, sections of trunks. He picked up boxes, handed them to me at the door, then his nephew, then a friend, then Betty, then his niece, then some firefighters, salvaging what belongings they could. Part of what he was going through were closets that held dishes and their holiday belongs. Plates would come out, a few small kitchen appliances. A crushed Christmas wreath would go in the trash. Clothes. A life. And, strangely, the holiday stuff kept coming. Easter, and a box with baskets filled with that green plastic grass, Easter, and a few stuffed bunnies. Christmas, and a little light-up tree. Halloween. Fourth of July. The whole year. And the amazing thing was how it was happening. The niece, laughing, telling her uncle to hurry it up. Joking with the firefighters. Hearing them tell of things they had done in that house. And how they would pack it up, get it fixed, and do it again. As they helped their grandmother, slowly down the stairs. And they were there, so courageous, joking with each other as their life went out the door, into a pod, or into the trash, determined to do it together. And I wondered why? How? And then I was given my answer. Easter, he yelled, as he handed me a box, and it would echo down the line. Me, the nephew, the niece, the friend, Betty, the neighbor. Easter. Easter. Easter.
And so today we get to choose. We know Easter doesn’t mean everyone we love will be healed, every problem magically solved. And because of that, maybe we’ll end up like those disciples, heading back to work and school this week as if everything is the same. But if we have the courage to linger, looking, something happens. As we gather this Saturday for the Community Workday. As we get some teams headed over to that neighborhood in Raleigh tomorrow – which Betty will tell you more about in a minute, as we make that phone call to a friend, as we reach out to someone we might need to listen to. We might be able to say with Mary, that we have seen Him on the loose in the world. That Christ is alive. That Easter is calling out in the midst of the devastation, and we have work to do.
But you gotta watch out. They say that things can’t change. That the dead stay dead. That there is no reason to hope. They say that. But what do WE say? What about us?
All praise be to God. Amen.
- This idea comes from Mark Ramsey’s sermon, “Conversion,” in the Easter 2011 edition of the Journal for Preachers, pages 33-37.
Today, this Palm/Passion Sunday, we conclude this series on the Beatitudes. We rejoice with the crowd who laid their cloaks on the road, who waved their palm branches and shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” But we know that this week, this Holy Week, moves towards a cross.
There is a celebration coming, which we will celebrate with choirs and brass next Sunday. But in between now and then, much will happen. Please make it a point to return Maundy Thursday evening, as a part of your own Holy Week preparation, as we journey through these days. Let us pray…
Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
My grandmother-in-law and I have a running joke about the passing of the peace. We do it sometimes here, when the worship leader says, the peace of Christ be with you, and you say, and also with you. We greet each other with those same words and, because we are Presbyterian, we get a little uncomfortable and quickly sit down. If anything, it ends up being a bit perfunctory. But listening to Nana talk, one would think it was an unconscionable disruption. Nana likes to come in, enjoy the music and the stained glass in her small congregation in northern Virginia and, frankly, not have to talk to people. And the passing of the peace drives her crazy, as she says, people leaping all over pews, joking and laughing, talking to each other, sharing germs, when they need to be sitting in their place. When she is in town, she asks – with a smile – “You aren’t going to pass the peace today, are you?”
But I think we underestimate how much we need it. Erik Kolbell, in the book that guides our study, writes: “Maybe it’s the promotion we didn’t get, or the illness we did, the child out past curfew or the cigarette pack we found in his coat pocket, the middle-aged regret over challenges we failed to take, people we refused to love, milestones we could never reach, slights we could never forgive.” 1 These yearnings within us, things done or left undone, leave us with a strange sense of dis-ease. And out of this deep-seated anxiety we, even in our strongest relationships, lash out the moment we feel threatened, strike back, regardless of another’s intent. Regardless of the collateral damage we inflict. And that is to say nothing about the violence rampant in our cities and our schools, the violent discourse that pervades our political system, the way countries like ours are so willing to undertake yet another war. And around here, with Don’s funeral on Friday – the third in a little less than a month. As tornadoes blow through. It all feels heavy after awhile.
And with everything we have going on; it’s easy to miss it. And to take the wrong approach. Sometimes we confuse peacemaking with avoiding conflict, with being afraid. But Jesus calls us to be active…doing, creating peace. “Peace does not mean leaving evildoers on the loose,” James Howell writes. “Peace is not passive, but aggressive, engaging in the far more arduous labor of making peace, of reconciling with the person who hates you, of sparing no effort to get inside the other’s skin and figuring out how to live together on this planet…of striving after shalom. Peacemaking requires people who work tirelessly for a just society that mirrors, however obliquely, the kingdom of God.” 2
And we must partake in it, as we learn, get active, advocate downtown, study about the Middle East. But that feels so far. Much of it is about our goals, our level of intentionality in ALL of our interactions. It begins on the ground, in simple acts of compassion. We are making peace when we honor the person across from us in the shelter line, when we bid on items for the Youth Auction so we can go to Mexico and work with our partners there, when we take care of little ones in the nursery with deep compassion. I know you all tend to be late signer-upers for things, but there is no reason, with all the people around here, that after today those signup sheets for the Community Workday aren’t full. That is making peace, one shovel, one rake, one paintbrush at a time. As we get to know someone different from us, as we take just a little more time to listen when we feel ourselves getting defensive. It’s hard, but Jesus doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the level of exertion. This making, this creating of peace, that is what children of God DO, he says. Yearn for it, pray for it, sacrifice for it.
All of which brings us to our final Beatitude: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This one feels tough to identify with, conjuring up images of early disciples chased around the Roman Coliseum for sport. We aren’t Christians in China, or Iraq. Here in the southeastern US, we rarely get funny looks for praying out at lunch. Some people still listen, for better or for worse, to what preachers say. But Kolbell again helps us hone in. Up to this point, he writes, Jesus has extolled the value of the blessed life. Now…it is time he discloses the cost.” 3Any real work of making peace, of speaking for those who have no voice, of seeking to effect real reconciliation between families or governments, comes at a tremendous price. That is the direction all of these Beatitudes move – so that this one can in some ways feel like a summing up. They all contain a remarkable promise, but not without cost. We don’t suffer persecution like many throughout the world, and for that we give thanks, but we still live too easily, too comfortably, when we are called into a certain amount of conflict with the world. If we are doing it right, I think, our neighbors might think us a bit strange, making all this time for church, honoring faith in our homes. For being prayerful about what you do with your money and your stuff. Who digs down deeper for the Easter offering? Who gives things away, after all? Who is unscrupulously honest at work, transparent in relationships, not going along with the way things are always done if they run counter to the One who truly understood, in ways we never will, what persecution feels like…
Because that is where this week moves. Today we will wave palms, receive new members, and rejoice. But before worship is over we will tighten down, will focus in, on the week to come. On this One who, this week, embodied this final Beatitude on the cross. He is our model, of course, reminding us that you, that we will pay for seeking His way, with your comfort, with your life, if you truly seek to make peace, seek this radical encounter with Christ’s kingdom that is the Beatitudes. We will pray together this week, and gather around a holy table, almost in darkness, as we remember his anguish and despair. And then next Sunday morning we will KNOW, once again, that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
On a brisk Thursday evening back in March, I headed east on Main to the Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, up the hill, into the dim narthex. The sanctuary was a little smaller than this one, all brown with wood, a small pedestal at the end of the center aisle, elevating the speaker about a foot above the floor. As the hymn ended, a woman walked up to the mic. She was the moderator, one of the leaders of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Her daughter, 6 months pregnant at the time, had been kidnapped and beaten to death about a decade prior. It had taken her a long time, she said, but she came because she wanted to be a part of something different. And so they worshipped, as they do every year about that time, to grieve and remember the murder victims in Durham the year prior.4 In 2010 twenty-nine people in the city of Durham were murdered. And after she spoke they read the names: Crystal Lynn Baker. Vincent Lee Webb. Martin Martinez. Charlene King, a bell tolling after each one. Daniel Evans. Manuel Lopez Mata. Kareem Fowler. And this mother stood, and other parents around her came forward. If you had a family member murdered in previous years, you came up to the microphone, too. My son, was shot on the porch of our house. My uncle, shot in a robbery. My daughter, my sister. I miss her so much. And this one mother issued her proclamation. She said that we must not let fear surround us in our neighborhoods, she said. We must not let those who want us to be afraid win. We must seek justice, she said, so that no other parents have to feel what I feel. So that no other parents have to feel the pain that I feel. And the whole way home, through downtown, back up by Forest Hills and Rockwood, back to the edge of Hope Valley, all I could hear was Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Here in a moment, we will pass the peace again. This time I want it to be more than a simple greeting. I want you to mean it, willing, praying the peace of God get into the person across from you, into their doubts and fears, the things you love and might not love as much about them, the things they love and don’t love as much about themselves. Extend that peace to them, to everyone around you, to your kids who don’t want to get in the car, to the person who cuts you off in traffic, to the coworker who never finishes the project on time. To the person you really need to listen to. And leave here to make peace. And let it echo, far past here, out into our neighborhoods filled with overwork and economic anxiety, to those in our very city who live in fear in being shot on their steps, yet refuse to be silent. Maybe it will echo from Raleigh and Washington, to Libya and Afghanistan, that we might take heart, because Christ, the peacemaker, the blessed persecuted One, has come among us.
There will be failures on the journey. A cross filled with death. But on the other side….boy, on the other side. Christ’s kingdom made plain, for us to be a part of, for all the world to see. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 112.
- James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 78.
- Kolbell, 123.
- The 19th Annual Vigil Against Violence, on March 3, 2011, was sponsored by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Parents of Murdered Children, and Durham Congregations in Action.