Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”

Easter: Reset on Life

Much of this reflection is adapted from the Rev. Pam Driesell’s excellent sermon, “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans” (Easter A, April 24, 2011) found at day1.org. Thank you!

Easter is fun. And like Christmas, we say that these holidays are for the children.

Anticipation brightens our mood. Lilies and new clothes and family visits and Easter dinner preparations consume our attention.

But there’s a reason for the fun. So, I sympathize with the Mother who tried with very little success to convey to her four-year old daughter the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:

“Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?”

“I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, love. But, remember, Easter isn’t about the bunny. It’s about Jesus.”

“But will they be purple?”

“Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn’t the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”

“Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?”

“Sweat heart, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”

“Mommy ….”

“Yes, dear?”

“Will he bring me tootsie rolls, too?”

For a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are just way more interesting than JESUS, and they are enough to make Easter fun. And fun is, for a four-year old, enough!

But my guess is that, unless you are four, you are also looking for something beyond candy-coated cliches added to the assortment of jellybeans we consume, purple or otherwise. We want to know something of what poor Mommy was trying to convey to her daughter.

Because Mom knows that her daughter won’t always be four, and sooner-AND-later all of us will encounter those changes in life that challenge us and often bring us to our knees. Life happens: In addition to all the joys and satisfaction and blessings of life, we encounter the dark night of heart-wrenching grief, devastating disappointment or smothering guilt. And when we do, we will need MORE than bunnies and jelly beans.

The story from the bible we read every year during Easter is the single most important reason we ever get together. It is the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the hope to which we cling and the promise upon which we stand. It is the very essence of the Christian faith. It is much more than cliche.

Easter is about life. And what is more, Easter is about putting meaning in our lives once again. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is about new life, and starting over. Easter is about being given the permission to press the reset button on life. And this is a great and valuable gift.

How valuable?

Scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body. The chemical and mineral composition of the human body breaks down as follows: 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous, and less than 1% of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, iron and iodine; oh, and there are trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum and arsenic.

If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth about a dollar (Canadian). Now, our skin, I read, is our most valuable physical asset; it’s worth about $4. So, added all up, we’re worth just over $5!

But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let’s all be quiet and still together for a moment.

What do you feel? You feel your pulse. You feel the mystery of biological life beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals. And that mystery is worth much, much more.

Easter is about the power and meaning of life — the power and meaning and purpose that makes $5 worth of elements, priceless. The gift of life, and its meaning for each of us, individually, is priceless.

The Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, used the image of a sword to describe the gift given to him as a mark of graduation. After all, he was graduating from a magical order and the sword would befit such an accomplishment.

At the last moment, alas!, it was snatched from him, and he was ordered to go on the road. “Somewhere on this journey,” he conceded, “I will find my sword.” Because he felt strongly that he deserved such as prize, he was determined. However, all along the sometimes tiresome, sometimes dangerous and ever-adventurous journey, the sword proved elusive. He couldn’t find it.

He arrived at his destination disappointed and dejected. He thought himself a failure. And then, in a moment of inspiration, the doors were flung open and the purpose of his pilgrimage came to light: The very reason he was called upon this journey was to make him ask the question: “What am I going to us my sword for?” He realized in this moment of epiphany that a sword is pointless unless you have asked, and answered, that question.

That point of destination was no ending, but only a new beginning. He knew he had to return home to discover the meaning and purpose of his prize — to know how he would use this very special gift. (Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, p.188)

As followers of Christ, we have been given the gift of resurrection. Jesus is alive, today. That is what we celebrate: Not only the joy of that first Easter morning over two thousand years ago. But to reflect and get ready for a re-start in our lives today, wherever we are.

Easter addresses that human longing to start over, but this time with renewed vigour for life. Saint Augustine called the restart a longing for God, the restlessness that only finds rest in God. Paul Tillich called it the ground or the power of being itself. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith that quells anxiety. Easter is the Christian answer to the desire to live life ever abundantly, as Jesus willed for us (John 10:10).

This is not an easy accomplishment.

Mary came to the tomb thinking that death was the end for Jesus. She goes in the dark, presumably to prepare Jesus’ $5 worth of minerals and chemicals for burial. She is resigned to the finality of the journey — death. She is grieving. At first she does not even recognize new life when it is in front of her. But when the Risen Christ speaks her name (John 20:16) she knows.

The Lenten journey is symbolic of our journey of life: It isn’t always easy to trod the path that Jesus made to the Cross — the Cross of personal self-reflection, the Cross of confessing our sins and our ultimate dependence on God, the Cross which symbolizes a profound letting go of all that inhibits life in us and in the world. It isn’t always easy to look at the suffering and dying Jesus in our midst.

Maybe you can relate to Mary? (Or the disciples who when they first hear the news from Mary, “they don’t believe” — Luke 24:11). Maybe on this Easter 2014 you are resigned to the futility of life and the awful pain of death, the finality of death: perhaps the death of a beloved friend or family member, perhaps the death that pervades our culture, tragic deaths that come as a result of war, terrorism, violence, natural disasters the world over; perhaps the death of a business, friendship, even the church.

Maybe even one or more of these things has convinced you that not much makes sense in this life and although you are breathing, your heart is beating, but it is also breaking. There’s been so much sorrow and loss in your life that you showed up here today not looking for life but expecting to find more of the same … Easter bunnies and jelly beans … some candy-coated cliches that do not touch the real questions of your life or bring comfort to your deep grief.

As Jesus called Mary’s name, so the Risen Christ calls each one of us by our name. We are called by name to stand up and receive the gift of his new life. We are called by name to stand up, and press the reset button on our lives. We are called, each of us by name, to stand up and embrace the deep meaning of what this gift of new life means to us: to live abundantly in Christ whose life breathes and lives in us, now. And, then, we are called to share that new life in the world.

The living Jesus is always one step ahead of us, beckoning us to the future. The angel in the tomb instructs Mary to go ahead to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:7). And when Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples behind locked doors, he instructs them to share the news that Jesus will meet with all the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:10). New life in Christ is forward-looking; Jesus awaits us in God’s good future. There is hope in the possibilities of God’s future for us.

And that, my friends, is better news than bunnies and jellybeans. It is the reason for all our alleluias!

So, let us in this Eastertide, press the re-set button on life. The life of Jesus is our precious gift. A journey may come to an end, in a sense. The journey of Lent is behind us; it is done, for now. The darkness has cleared.

But it is the dawn of the day. A new journey begins.

It is time to begin, again.

Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

God’s laugh at Easter

In his 1962 literary classic, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Ray Bradbury writes about a carnival that comes to a small town. The novel describes the evil, carnival magicians who inflict the townsfolk with demonstrations of supernatural events that confirm the main characters’ worst fears: Their very lives are in danger. The dark fantasy climaxes with a confrontation between the Wicked Witch and Charles Halloway, the town’s librarian.

She finds him in the library among the book stacks and begins her evil design to kill him by stopping his heart. He is terrified, locked in the hypnotic power of her dark presence. Charles can only watch, transfixed, as she weaves the air with her scorpion fingers, slowing his heart, beat by beat …

He feels his heart squeeze. Nearing the moment of no return when darkness engulfs his vision, Charles last notices her spindly fingers tickling the air. And he giggles —

A giggle which then turns into a deep, rolling, belly laugh. He can only laugh at her performance.

The witch stops short. She renews her efforts with vigor, waving her hands all over the place. But her power is suddenly thwarted. Laughter turns the tide of evil. And the carnival leaves the town. Laughter, in the face of evil, saves the day.

Easter is God’s last laugh at the devil. When all seems lost and Jesus lies in the tomb, apparently defeated by the evil of humanity …. The morning sunlight bursts on the scene, the stone is rolled away, and the grave is found empty! Ha! Jesus is not dead. He is alive! Hallelujah! Ha! Happy Easter!

It is tradition at Easter time to tell jokes. Because laughter reflects the character of this season of joyous celebration. Here’s a joke about golfing – a true story, actually:

Four retired vets, even with the limitations of ageing, regularly golfed together. All of them, though, especially Jerry, had the reputation of cheating a bit to gain an advantage against his very competitive group of friends.

One time when the foursome was out on a warm Spring day, Jerry hit his ball from the fairway and made an awful mis-hit. His ball flew into the bush off to the right of the fairway. The ball was so far into the bush that when he finally found it his comrades could not see him from the fairway. All they could hear was the “swish-swish-swish-swish” from swinging his club at what must have been a terrible spot.

Finally after about seven “swishes” the ball popped out on the fairway. When he emerged from the bush one of his comrades asked, “So, how many strokes, Jerry?” And Jerry, thinking quickly, replied, “One.”

“One!” they all said together, “We heard you take at least seven swings!” Jerry immediately replied, “Darn snake and I got him too!”

On Easter, the tables have been turned. God did not “cheat” death; like breaking the rules of a game. Instead, God overcame death; there’s now a new game in town. Now, bad news is dwarfed by new life. It’s called: Resurrection. Life triumphs over death. Death and life did hang in the balance in the torturous, grievous days leading to this morning. But now, there is no question of who is victorious. The life of God in Jesus triumphs over death.

What does the new life – the resurrection – of Jesus mean for you? That’s a very good question that I hope you will reflect on in this season. One thing it means for me is, now I can believe in what without the resurrection of Jesus would at first seem impossible.

Just like when Charles Halloway laughed at the witch in the Ray Bradbury novel: After Charles shared his discovery with others in the town, they were able to believe something that didn’t seem remotely possible before. They were able to believe that they could expel the evil carnival from their town. Which they did. With the gift of laughter.

For many years athletes believed it was impossible for humans to run a 4-minute mile. In track events around the world, top milers ran a mile in just over 4 minutes.

Then, a British runner named Roger Bannister decided to determine what changes he could make in his running style and strategy to break the 4-minute barrier. He believed it was possible to run faster and put many months of effort into changing his running pattern to reach his goal. In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. His belief that he could succeed contributed to a changed outcome in his life.

What’s even more remarkable, I think, is once Bannister broke the record, the best milers from around the world also began to run the mile in under 4 minutes. But, unlike Bannister, these runners did not substantially change their running patterns and strategies. What had changed were their thoughts; they now believed it was possible to run this fast – and their behavior followed their thinking.

Of course, just knowing it’s possible to run fast does not mean everyone can do it. Thinking is not the same as doing. So how does the Easter story encourage our faith? How does the Easter story encourage our belief in a risen Lord, in a God that is not dead, but alive? How does believing in the risen Lord translate into life lived fully?

What did Jesus first do after he was raised from the dead? Remember, Jesus spent 33 years limited by his human form. Even though he was fully divine, he chose for that amount of time to give up his place in the divine realm, take human form, become a servant, and die a human death (Philippians 2).

What do you think Jesus would want to do when back in his divine form? From a human perspective, you’d think the divine part of Jesus would be thrilled to be finally freed from the burdensome, messy, violent, cruel, painful trappings of his humanity, right?

You’d think the resurrected Jesus would want nothing more to do with the human world. You’d think he’d just want to get outa there and shoot away into the divine realm, where he would be reunited with his Father, right?

But the Gospels are all clear on this: We read that Jesus – in his divine form – appeared to Mary and some other disciples on that first Easter day, right after he is resurrected from the dead. The Gospel stories we read over the next several weeks are about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples — the famous walk to Emmaus, breakfast by the sea, meeting the doubting Thomas. When Jesus first emerged from the dark tomb, the Bible doesn’t say he spent time with the heavenly beings, united with his Father God. But his human friends, on earth!

Now, let’s for a moment consider why on earth Jesus would do this – that is, meet with his earthly friends right away? He obviously wanted to connect with them — to assure them, encourage them, empower them, love them. He was, after all, their friend — forever.

Incredible! Not only did Jesus express an incredible love to us in his death; he also, in his divinity, shows unbelievable love – to reach out to us, today – AFTER his resurrection.

What is the nature of the divine Jesus, the risen Lord, we worship today? He comes to us. He is with us – Emmanuel. As the Psalmist so wonderfully expresses – there is no place on earth we can go now that he is not there! (Psalm 139). Anywhere, everywhere we go, Jesus is there, too.

What the Easter story so profoundly teaches us is that Jesus Christ has not given up on us. He remains committed to us even after his resurrection. Just as he went first to his disciples after being raised from the dead and showed to them his faithfulness, so too Jesus continues to come to us, to show us his faithfulness. He is, as one scholar described, “the hound of heaven” – he will never give up on us.

The living Jesus will keep on waiting for us to answer his gentle, loving knock on the door of our hearts. He waits for us to respond in faith, in believing. He continues to come to us in love and mercy, waiting for us to respond in faith and believe in things we cannot yet see. And the more we believe something is possible, the more likely we are to attempt it, and maybe even realize it.

What if it is possible? Easter invites us to believe in something that is beyond the present circumstance. Easter invites us to believe in someone that is beyond rational explanation and sensate knowing. Easter awakens in each one of us the God-given gifts of faith, hope, and love. Just like laughter does; it opens our hearts.

So, laugh a little today. And imagine what could happen if we all believed in these impossible possibilities!