Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter Day, Year B, Sunday April 12, 2009

Acts 10:34-43; Psa 118:14-17,22-24; Col 3:1-4; Mark 16:1-8

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

“He has been raised; he is not here.”

Have you experienced a miracle lately? There are the little miracles every day, if we take a moment to notice them: a new flower, a baby’s smile, a red bird on a gray branch. Then there are the bigger miracles: of healing, recovery of something lost, a lasting friendship. Then there are the miracles that really knock our socks off, and that are even frightening in their unexpected power.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning expected to fulfill a gentle and loving act of anointing of the body of Jesus. They expected to mourn together. Above all, they expected his body to be there, in the tomb. Instead they saw the empty tomb, and heard the words: “Do not be alarmed.” That’s probably the biggest understatement in the whole Bible! These women are the first witnesses to the greatest miracle of all time and the angel says – “Do not be alarmed”. The women are absolutely terrified!

Then the angel says, “He has been raised; he is not here.” How could they possibly understand what that meant? Only gradually, as the community of followers experienced the risen Christ, did they begin to have some idea. So, how can we today know and understand that Christ, who has been raised from the tomb, is still a living presence among us?

At the site of the World Trade Center during the clean-up after September 11th, the workers found two structural beams joined at a right angle. The ends of these beams were severed in the shape of a huge, perfect cross. In the months following 9/11 this cross was set high above the site, so that it could be seen from anywhere in “the pit” and by passersby on the street.

Miracles can be astonishing, even frightening, and even – well – miraculous. I’m usually not too impressed by images of a saint or of the cross that happen in nature or by seeming coincidence, but somehow the WTC cross to me was very different. The WTC site is holy ground, where many people died. I believe that that cross was a miracle and a sign of the immediate and intimate presence of the living God in the very center of suffering and tragedy.

In the weeks immediately following 9/11 there was another miracle: a tangible and obvious shift in the energy of New York City. Strangers were talking to each other, crying together, helping each other. As I walked down the street in my religious habit, I was stopped every few steps to pray or talk or cry with someone. The crime rate in the city plummeted. The risen Christ was with us all: healing, encouraging, consoling. Out of that enormous tragedy came many miracles of compassion.

On that first Easter morning, the disciples thought they had experienced the greatest tragedy of their lives. They were deeply grieving, and also ashamed that they had run away and deserted Jesus. They were desolate to loose their beloved teacher and friend, especially to such a sudden and shocking and disgraceful death. Under normal circumstances, the death of Jesus would have been the end of his teaching, the end of his little band of followers, truly the end of the story.

Instead there was the miracle of the resurrection, which led to a second miracle: Jesus’ followers were transformed by grace and by their experience of the risen Christ into true disciples and missionaries. As the Good News of Easter became alive in them, they went out into the world, to proclaim that Christ had risen and that death and sin had been defeated by the goodness and grace of God! That inspired little band became the Church, and all who saw them were amazed and intrigued by their love and caring for each other and their faithful dedication to Christ.

Today, right here, right now, we are the heirs of this miracle. Today, we also can be transformed by the miracle of Christ in our midst, in our community of faith. Through this gift of grace, we are empowered, just as the disciples were, to step outside of the cycle of fear and despair into a new way of living and into a new way of being in relationship with one another and with God.

If you are visiting here for the first time or returning today to church after time away, you are welcome here. We invite you to join us and be part of our witness to the living Christ among us. We invite you to join us in our resurrection hope for new life in him. Everyone one of us has the light of Christ, dwelling with us. This light is with us, always, to guide us and to empower each one of us to believe in the miracle of his resurrection.

Nonetheless, we still live in a deeply troubled world. We hear more than we want in the news: of economic decline, suffering, conflict. Then there are also the troubles that we all carry in our own lives. In the midst of all this, we can still hear the proclamation that Jesus does not rest in the tomb, but that “he has been raised” so that there will be a beacon of hope in the very place of suffering and despair. What better place to put our trust than in the hands of the One who has given his life for us?

The cross stands firm in the very midst of sin and death and fear, and overturns all evil through the power of Christ’s self-giving love. The cross of Christ denies the power of death. The cross of Christ asserts God’s intimate presence with us always. The cross of Christ promises us of the joy of salvation. Christ gave himself over to death for the sake of love, and as Christ was raised from the dead, so we also are dead to sin. We are invited to live in his redeeming love so that we may “walk in newness of life”.

We need not despair and we need not be afraid of anything we face in this earthly life. The power of the risen Christ working in us, among us, and through us can transform us to become a community of hope that is more faithful, more caring, more loving than we could possibly imagine. We may even find that we are alarmed and astonished by grace, and that is truly a miracle.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Vigil, Year B, Sunday April 12, 2009

Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

All people of the earth, everywhere and in every age, have asked the questions, who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Why have we succeeded (when all goes well) and why have we failed (when things are going not so well)? All peoples, throughout history, have attempted to answer these questions by telling their stories: of how they were created, of how they grew and struggled and loved and sinned, and of how they have searched for God.

At the Easter Vigil, we have the opportunity to hear the whole sweep of our sacred story. We hear of the creation, of falling away from God and from each other, of searching for God, and even more importantly – of God’s faithful and persistent efforts to draw us home. And in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew we hear of Jesus and of the empty tomb on the first day of the week and at the beginning of the new creation.

In hearing our whole sacred story, we get the big picture, as if we were flying at 30,000 feet, looking down on all nations and peoples and all history. We could, each one of us, read these lessons alone. But by reading them together, we affirm that this is OUR story. Across time and space and many differences, we can still feel that there is an unbreakable web connecting each of us to God and to each other and to peoples of ages past, present, and yet to come. We are all intimately part of this story as Christ is intimately a part of us.

I have heard that when the first international teams of astronauts circled the earth in a space ship, on the first day in space they were eager to point out their own countries to each other. On the second day in space, they pointed out to each other the region or continent each of them came from. Then, on the third day, there was a dramatic shift and they saw no boundaries, but only one spectacular and beautiful planet, with rivers and mountains and deserts and forests and plains and oceans.

We are one in our common heritage and in our life in Christ. As we listen to these readings and let the words wash over us, and as the expanse of our spiritual story is laid out before us, we may come to realize how much we need our shared story and how much we need each other, and how much we need to recognize and welcome Jesus among us, our crucified and risen Lord. We need those who share our heritage and common story of faith.

We also need those who share a wider common story, of our faith journey in Christ. We even need the stranger and foreigner and the one who is so different from us, and who is still our neighbor. We all need each other as fellow travelers and listeners to God’s revelation. In a world of darkness and division and suffering, we do need to see the neighbor in all faithful people, and to see in them the light of Christ.

St. Paul wrote in the letter to Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection”. To know Christ is the life-long work of every Christian. Matthew’s Gospel tells us where we will not find him: “He is not here” in the empty tomb. He does not stay in the place of death. He is alive with God, drawing us out of death and darkness, despair and fear, and he is with us always. He is the One who chose to die in innocence. He turned away from fear, and tells us also “do not be afraid”. And so we are called to “make disciples of all nations” and to extend the invitation to all peoples to know of God’s reconciling and faithful love.

When we ask the eternal questions: who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What is our purpose? – answers flow through faith in the risen Christ to define our common identity, purpose, and destination in God.

Jesus’ resurrection draws us also into life without fear and without the darkness of death. Jesus offers us the possibility of life without end in the embrace of a loving God. The power of Christ’s resurrection gives us this promise: I am with you always; I love you always; I sustain you always. Do not be afraid, but trust and hope and rejoice.

Imagine the power of God to transform fear and death and separation, into love and hope and joy. Because he died to sin, we are alive to God in Christ Jesus. This is God’s gift to us in the risen Christ.

Thanks be to God! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday, Year B, Friday April 10, 2009

Isaiah 52:13--53:12; Psa 22:1-11; Hebrews 10:1-25; John (18:1-40),19:1-37

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the early centuries of the church, many Christians went to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, especially during Holy Week, to walk and pray along the path that Jesus walked during the last hours of his earthly life. Over the centuries it became the custom to recreate the experience of pilgrimage by having “Stations of the Cross” and to read the passion narratives in church services. A little service of prayers and readings was developed for those who wanted to walk the Stations of the Cross, either individually or with a group.

In our church, we have 14 crosses which represent each of 14 key events in the Stations of the Cross, from the trial of Jesus before Pilate to his crucifixion, death, and burial. Following this service we will be walking the Stations of the Cross, as if we were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and I invite you to stay and participate with us.

In some churches, in addition to the crosses, there are also paintings that depict each of these events. A few years ago I was asked to paint little icons for a chapel to represent each of the 14 Stations. It was a project that took me many months, and I finally sent reproductions of my (not quite completed) work to the person who had requested them. I still have the originals, and still have not quite finished them.

I’m having the most difficulty with the icon for Station 11, where Jesus is nailed to the cross and crucified between the two bandits. My first attempt showed the three crosses from a great distance, perhaps the view that distant passersby would have seen. Next I tried a close-up of one of his hands with a nail. I wasn’t satisfied with either view, and then realized that I was either running too far away or coming up too close. I couldn’t bring myself to paint someone nailing him to the cross. It is just too terrible.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” It would be so much easier to go directly from the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday to the glory and joy of Easter. But it seems that God led Jesus and also is leading first us into the shadow of death.

“Were you there…?” the old song asks. Very few were, and even now it is hard for us also. We can try to go there together and to stay there at the cross, as a community, supporting each other as we go. We can try to go deeper into the story by reading the roles of the characters, and listening to the narrative, and shouting with the crowd: “Crucify him!”

Both for those who were there and for the disciples who fled and hid and denied that they knew him, it was the darkest possible moment. We can only imagine what Jesus was feeling. In the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus say that God has forsaken him. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus say “It is finished”.

Perhaps both are true to what happened. By emptying himself completely into human death and suffering, Jesus felt completely abandoned by his companions and even by God, in the depths of his human suffering. In his divinity, perhaps he knew that all was finished, completed, accomplished. All the work of creation was leading up to this moment, when the very fabric of the temple was torn open, and when earth and heaven were joined as Jesus made a complete and perfect self-offering so that we might learn of God’s devotion and compassion for us.

Many years ago I was visiting patients in a Roman Catholic hospital. Each room had a crucifix on the wall facing the bed, with the body of Jesus on it. We chaplains were instructed to visit all of the newly admitted patients, and one of the questions we were to ask was whether they wanted the crucifix, or a plain cross, or no cross at all. One day I was visiting a new patient who was in a great deal of pain, and it was very difficult for him to find a comfortable position. We talked about his situation, and then I asked him about the crucifix. He looked at it for a long time, and then said, “Please leave it there.” And after he thought a while longer, he pointed to the crucifix and he said, “He knows. He knows what I’m going through.”

Jesus was born, and walked among us, and he knew the whole range of human suffering. In his death on the cross he shows the complete devotion and compassion of God for our human condition. In giving himself voluntarily to a shameful and painful death, he knows our grief and carries our sorrows.

“Were you there?” Today’s Gospel narrative takes us there, right to the foot of the cross. In a few moments, we will be kneeling at the cross, literally, with the Canterbury cross here in the sanctuary. We can, for a few minutes, be there with Jesus, in the mystery of his suffering and death. While we read the appointed anthems, we can imagine the cross as a holy receptacle to which we can bring all our prayers, confessions, thanksgivings, and adoration. We can bring whatever makes our hearts heavy and whatever makes us grateful. We can bring absolutely anything to the cross. In the infinity of God’s grace, all that we bring in sincere prayer is acceptable and will be received and held in gentle compassion, in God’s infinite love.

So, as we pray for ourselves, our parish, and for the state of our world, at the foot of the cross, and as we receive the reserved sacrament of his Body and Blood, let us remember the loving gift of Christ, this gift of his life for our salvation.