Luke’s holy: resurrection account

The Gospel of Luke from the Bible is unique, as are all the four Gospels, in telling the story of the resurrection of Jesus. A few details stand out to describe Luke’s understanding of what constitutes — obviously — a holy moment.

When the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, among others — came to the garden to find the stone rolled away and an empty tomb, they were “perplexed” (Luke 24:4). In this moment of confusion, angelic beings in luminous clothes appear and stand before them. The women’s response? Do they fight? Do they high tail it out of there? Do they scream?

They fall to the ground, heads touching the earth. They are frightened, as any human likely would be. Yet, their response to an inexplicable, incredible, other-worldly event happening right before their eyes is to honour silence, stillness in a humble stance. It is from this moment of stillness that they then receive the good news — Jesus is alive!

Holy is not of our making. When holy happens, it is not something we manipulate, manufacture and create. Holy is something that we receive and to which we respond in humility.

The Gospeller Luke prepares the reader for this understanding of holy in the very first verse of his resurrection account (Luke 24:1). He brings notice to why the women came to the garden early in the morning, in the first place: “…they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” They came to fulfill their duty — the spices they brought were used to anoint the body in death. This was their common practice. Nothing extraordinary here. Just doing their job.

Luke implies that it is in fulfilling our regular commitments — to one another — in our daily lives which sets the stage for holy happening. We don’t need to climb mountains, or fly in space or make a million dollars in order to experience a holy moment. Just doing our job, whatever it is — faithfully — is the prelude for a holy encounter.

Something the angels say in verse 5 suggests another gift the women already have in their hearts — a holy hope. Not only are the women faithful by getting up early the day after much sorrow and grief (you’d think they deserve to sleep in!), they also — unbeknownst to them — have been harboring a secret hope. They really haven’t given up on Jesus. The angels ask, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?”

Are the angels just being coy in making the point that Jesus is alive? Or, are they affirming what the women, almost unconsciously to that point, seek, yearn for, expect from the Lord? Don’t the women deep down hope and desire to see Jesus again? Indeed, they are seeking the living Lord. They just happen to be in a graveyard in fulfilling their duty to anoint the body, when the angels appear. The angels, in other words, are saying to them: “Go on! Don’t spend too much time here. What, or whom, you look for is not in a cemetery. What, or whom, you desire is where life is found. Go!”

I sometimes wonder whether we Christians don’t underestimate the gift of faith already burrowing deep within our hearts. What we sometimes need, do we not, are people in our lives who will affirm that faith, not criticize it, lift it out of us, not squash it down, validate it, not dismiss it, accept it, not argue against it? The question is, among others, with whom do we surround ourselves in our daily lives — folks who help bring that gift out of us? Or, not?

As post-resurrection Christians remembering these days the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, we need to remember that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the end, whether or not we have the friends and community that support us on our faithful journeys, let us not forget the Holy Spirit in our lives. Whether you know it or not, whether you feel it or not, you got it!

I remember in high school, a chemistry teacher always responded to our naysaying by reminding us: “You have the technology!” Whenever we students would express doubt about our ability to perform an experiment successfully, or complete the seemingly impossible homework assignment, he would just say: “You have the technology!” A word of encouragement, of affirmation, that we are capable to accomplish what we need to do.

Being faithful to our calling — whether we clean streets or broker billion dollar contracts — is the key to approaching holy moments. Doing our job faithfully, whatever it is.

Also, Luke implies that relationships are key. The women don’t come alone. There are two angels, not one. Pay attention to with whom we spend time — I pray each of us finds people who accept and encourage our faithful journeys. Who bring the best out of us. For the holy happens in relationships — to share those moments of awe and celebrate moments of grace.

Believe it! Because it’s true: Jesus is alive. And his spirit of faith, hope and love lives within us! And in the world around us!

Happy Easter!

Almost there. God finishes.


Spring is coming. The snow is melting. But not fast enough. There’s so much!

I shovel and shovel breaking my back. Getting close to the goal. Can I keep up?

What happens in life when I keep on the path but am so close to giving up ….

God opens those doors and comes to me. God finishes the job, clearing the way. God makes it possible, every new day.

From Golgotha to Homs

This Holy Week our attention focuses on the story of Jesus’ Passion. For people of faith especially the suffering and violence to which Jesus eventually surrenders in death on a cross stirs the emotions and even brings tears during the liturgies of the week.

It is a moving story of sacrifice, love, betrayal and ultimate vindication and victory. It’s impact has literally changed the world and altered the course of history.

But if our humble observance this week stops at a reverent gazing upon the Cross of Christ, how then does our faith translate to today’s realities? Would Christ on the cross two thousand years ago not lead us to see Christ in the faces of those who suffer today?

Some Christians express concern today for the various ways people of faith strive to make religion relevant, popular, exciting and culturally palatable.

Then they need Good Friday. Because the cross keeps us grounded in the primary action of Christ. The cross stands at the center of the holy story. If any will question and scrutinize the actions of Christians, it will never be in helping the poor, standing with the marginalized, advocating for justice for those who suffer, all in the name of Jesus — as unpopular and undesirable as doing this might be.

This year the observance of Holy Week falls at a time when the crisis in Syria heightens and refugees stream over the borders into neighboring Jordan –Escaping violence, searching for safety and security, forced from their homeland. The escalating hundreds of thousands of refugees are alarming international aid organizations and local governments.

The Cross of Christ cannot but point us to look in this direction today. To the suffering, the dying. I was astounded to read earlier this week that tens of thousands of children die each day in poverty and from malnutrition — conditions often exacerbated in refugee camps.

Action among the living faithful must emerge out of a holy observance about God’s great acts in Christ. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son ….

The world yesterday. The world today. And the world tomorrow.

From Golgotha to Homs, with love.

To hear a first hand account and learn more about the growing crisis in Syria, the Christian Council of the Ottawa Area invites you to “Joining in Prayer for Syria” on Thursday April 11 beginning with welcome and refreshments at 7:15pm at the Arch Diocese Centre at 1247 Kilborn Place in Ottawa.

A presentation will be given by Huda Kandalaft of Homs, Syria, and now of Ottawa. She will speak about the struggles of Christians in Syria today.

Simplicity II – Holy Week

On Good Friday, we focus on the Cross — the central symbol of Christianity. And we reflect on the meaning of what God accomplished on that Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The cross we bring today, you will notice, is bear, along with the altar and other chancel appointments. Stripped bear. In order to appreciate what it all means, we need to be called in our hearts to a greater simplicity. Indeed, throughout the forty days of Lent, this has been the spiritual call – to simplicity.

This call to simplicity perhaps first makes sense to us in “giving something up for Lent” – chocolate, coffee, snacks, desserts, TV, etc. I can say I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – not that some of those peels are bad things in and of themselves. But that those things are not the most important nor helpful for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good to do from time to time: Simplify. Because when we do we begin to get at what’s essential in life.

And so, this holy week concludes a season of going where we don’t normally want to — call it downward mobility, or doing without, or looking at that part of our lives we keep hidden from others.

When Jesus was stripped of his dignity, his clothes, his honour and humiliated; when the king of kings submitted to torture and brutal death a criminal of the state, I can’t think of much else to do except approach the Cross with humble adoration. And bring the truth of our lives to the foot of the Cross as well.

Every time a sports team struggles through a losing streak, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify. When the chips are down, when we’re at ground zero, it’s back-to-basics time.

And while at first this may seem an unfortunate development, it’s actually important to return to those basics. In the couple of days leading up to the Superbowl — the biggest championship game on earth — the coaches for both of the best two teams in the league were advised to have their players review basic skills and focus on these.

Getting back-to-basics doesn’t just mean taking things away. On the contrary, when we focus on what is essential we may need to return to something that we’ve forgotten over the years, such as intentional prayer with God.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply, in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart.

The call to simplicity on Good Friday is then also a call to come to terms with our own mortality. Admittedly, this is not a popular way. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder many Christians care not to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on Easter morning.

But without Good Friday there can be no Easter. This Friday is “Good” because without the Cross stripped bear there would be no salvation. Winning teams are always committed to doing the basics, the fundamentals, of their game well.

That’s the starting point: You can’t have Easter without, first, Good Friday. We must not deny the suffering, dying Christ – nor our own. We must first accept it.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu, fighting prostate cancer, gave an interview a few years ago right before Easter. In it he spoke of the redemptive side of suffering, the good that can come out of embracing, owning and accepting your own pain and suffering. He said, “When you have a potentially terminal disease, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.”

Often we think of times of suffering in our lives as the “dark” times. We often associate darkness with suffering and death – and therefore bad. Christian writer Joyce Rupp admits that it is difficult to believe that darkness could be a source of growth and new life. She writes:

“Darkness to a child, as well as to many adults, can be a scary, fearsome place where wild creatures wait to pounce and prey. But, in actuality, some kinds of darkness are truly our friends. The world of our mother’s womb had no light: It is where we grew wonderfully and filled out our tiny limbs of life. Our earth would be quite lifeless, too, if we did not plant seeds deep within the lonely darkness of the soil so they could germinate and bring forth green shoots. I know, too,” she continues, “that we would soon die of an overheated planet if nightfall did not come to soothe the sun-filled land. Darkness is very essential for some aspects of growth and protection.” (p.3-4 The Star in My Heart).

When we come to terms with our own suffering by answering the call to simplicity, good things come out of it. Betty Ford, former first lady in the United States, talked openly about her cancer. She changed the culture of the time – which in the 1970s was very guarded, embarrassed, and hidden when it came to talk of breast cancer. As a woman, those secrets were at best whispered in the privacy of the home; as a woman you just didn’t talk openly about it.

But thanks be to God for Betty Ford – that she took the risk of vulnerability, for her not being ashamed or fearful. As a result, her public witness is estimated to have saved millions of women’s lives in subsequent decades – because now women could speak legitimately about their problem openly, own it, accept as their own – and therefore receive needed, life-saving medical attention.

So, finally, the call to simplicity means having an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful for simple things doesn’t begin by noticing other people’s suffering and then saying – “Well, I’m better off.” It doesn’t begin by comparing ourselves to others worse off. The kind of gratitude I speak of begins deep in the heart of our own suffering. Because we know – given what Jesus did for us on the Cross – we know that God won’t let our suffering be the end of us.

On this Good Friday, let us be thankful for the small mercies and the moments of grace that surround us and come to us, even in our suffering and death. Above all, let us give thanks to the Lord for his love for us, a love that led him to make that incomprehensible sacrifice, for us. Thanks be to God!

Ministry of Presence at the Table

The two go hand in hand: The order places the necessary structure around which I can rest in the holy moment. Without the structure the event takes on too much of a subjective feel which is self-serving more than, I believe, it is serving God. And worship is not about us. It is about God, first and foremost. We gather to praise God, not meet our needs to feel good.

So, I am thankful for the order. Nevertheless, there’s another side on the mountain top down which I can slide.

In a liturgical church, sometimes the rules of the ritual get in the way. In the way of being truly present, that is.

If you’re anything like me, you are easily distracted. I am often pulled away from being grounded in the moment by a compulsion towards following the ‘order’ of the ritual, more concerned by keeping order than by entering the profound meanings of the ritual.

Underlying this distraction is a hyper self-consciousness. A revved up performance mind-set can sometimes lead me astray from the beauty of the sacrament. And I rush through it. Self-consciousness is the evil twin of subjective, feel good, entertainment-style worship, is it not?

So how does the worship leader guide the gathering so as not to make it about the pastor or priest on the one hand; and, on the other, not be overly obsessive about the proper form this worship embodies? How can form follow function in worship and at the same time reflect an order that fits together and effectively conveys reverent meaning about the God we worship?

I have come to learn in my experience presiding over sacramental practices for over fifteen years that the priest embodies the Gospel by our leadership. Denying this profound truth can easily result in a mechanical, robotic style of sacramental leadership. That we, as pastors, are the vessel through which the Gospel message is conveyed by our every word and deed in worship leadership calls upon us to practice a mature self-awareness and humility in the presence of God. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is not only out there but also within us (Luke 17:20-21); Paul greeted the saints and addressed believers “in Christ” (Romans 6:11, 23, 8:2, 12:5, 15:17, 16:3, 9, 10; 1 Cor 1:4, 30 4:15, 15:18, 15:31, 16:24; 2 Cor 1:21, 2:14, 17, 5:17, 12:2, 19; Galatians 1:22, 3:26, 5:6; Ephesians 1:11, 2:10, 13; Philippians 2:1, 3:3, 4:7; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thess 2:14; 2 Thess 1:12; 1 Tim 1:14, 16; 2 Tim 3:12; Philemon 1:8, 23). We have the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.

We are met with a great challenge to be present to ourselves, true to ourselves and willing to put all of ourselves on the line before God at the Table. Sacramental leadership calls us to be vulnerable to ourselves. Would this mean confessing our hidden most selves verbally to all the assembly prior to Communion? I’m not sure about that; but, essentially, this inner stance is crucial — to be willing to expose my truth to myself, before God and hopefully, at some point, to another human being.

This can be a frightening proposition and cause of great anxiety. For how often in our daily lives are we truly ‘present’ — present to ourselves, present to one another, even present to God who is omnipresent? One psychologist I heard said that well over 80% of our day is spent day-dreaming. In other words, most of our waking hours are spent continually distracted and ‘blind’ to seeing the reality right before us. Is this a coping mechanism for a deep hurt within us? Perhaps. Whatever the cause, our dis-ease with being truly present with another and from appreciating fully each and every moment of our lives suggests that the Eucharist is a profound gift for healing not only in the lives of all who participate in the Sacrament but to the priest as well.

For what is the Sacrament other than the true, real presence of Christ? It is the outer sign of an inner truth. It is the bread and wine and Word to convey Presence — the presence of God in all and through all.

Celebrating the Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday is a wonderful act of worship during a holy time in the life of the church. We follow Christ through his last days. We are present to those holy moments as Jesus shares a last, intimate, meal with his friends. He washes their feet as a sign of loving service and servant leadership.

I pray that, as priests and pastors, we can truly be present to each moment of worship as we bring ourselves to feet of Christ, and receive his loving grace and embrace.

Simplicity I – Holy Week

Lent is a call to simplicity. We are called in this season to simplify our lives. In the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, the first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor (in spirit)”.

On Maundy Thursday, the altar is stripped of all its vestments and vessels to remind us of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation at the hands of the soldiers upon his arrest. This ‘stripping away’ was a negative –

Indeed, don’t we look upon “poverty” as something bad? In our remembrance of Jesus’ passion haven’t we come to look with suspicion on anything in our lives of faith that smacks of this kind of ‘stripping away’ in our lives?

Because poverty means we are in a state of doing without something we feel we need. We may even equate a poverty of spirit with self-rejection, self-abasement, self-denial.

Therefore we have quite naturally focused our efforts on righting the wrong. We pursue social justice and serving the needs of the poor.

Yet, for me, something remains unattended, inadequate, in our doing more.

In this Lenten call to simplicity, am I not also called to ‘strip away’ all that which distracts me from being truly present? Will I truly pay attention to whatever circumstance of life in which I find myself – rich or poor? Am I not also called, alongside others – rich and poor – to return to an awareness and appreciation of what is essential?

I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – peels that represent inordinate desires, stuff and lifestyle choices that are really not that important, especially for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good from time to time simply to pay attention to what I normally do without thinking – my routines and regular decisions in life, my automatic emotional responses to certain situations, the stuff I purchase without thinking.

Can the way of poverty, then, also be a positive force? Especially, too, as we hear the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, declare that what he wants is a “poor church serving the needs of the poor.” Surely he doesn’t mean a poverty that is self-denigrating, self-rejecting – but rather a kind of poverty that strips away all that is really unnecessary and frankly only reflects our ego compulsions, our desires, our obsessive behavior.

And perhaps there isn’t a better time to reflect on the question of spiritual poverty than when things aren’t going all that well in life? When taking a step back and assessing where our lives are going is warranted. Maybe you find yourself in a particular bind, or facing a challenging situation with someone, a difficulty that has presented itself now. Before going on the attack and blaming others — even God — what may God be calling you to “let go of”?

Every time a sports team begins to lose games, over and over again, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify.

And, it’s also about getting back to basics in our prayer with God. I can’t think of a better way to acknowledge among very diverse Christians our bond of unity, than to affirm the role of prayer in our common practice of faith.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart. Modern day contemplatives say that the best way to prepare yourself for prayer is by small acts of kindness.

Which doesn’t necessarily always have to be expressed in great deeds of social action. The action can be a small, unselfish act by a young child. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like a little child you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Macrina Wiederkehr in the book, “A Tree Full of Angels” beautifully illustrates this truth and our need for simplicity, simple prayer, simple action; in short, child-likeness; She wrote:

“One special moment of beauty that stands out in my mind I experienced in a bus station …. I witnessed a little girl helping her brother get a drink at the water fountain. Attempting to lift him to the proper height turned out to be impossible. I was just at the point of giving them some assistance when quick as lightening she darted over to a shoe-shine man, pointed to a footstool he wasn’t using, dragged it to the water fountain, and very gently lifted up her thirsty brother. It all happened so fast and it was so simple, yet it turned out to be a moment of beauty that became a prayer for me. So much to be learned from such a little moment. Perhaps what touched me most [she concluded] was her readiness to seek out a way to take care of the need without waiting to be rescued. It was a moment of beauty: a small child with a single, simple heart.”

Lent culminates in this Holy Week as we hear the stories again of Jesus’ arrest, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder not even many Christians care to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on the joyous exuberance of Easter morning.

And yet, it is through the unpopular way of simplicity and this most simple reality of our mortal dependence on God that we can now know and experience the glory, love and eternal victory of God in Jesus. Without Good Friday there can be no Easter. May our Holy Week observance be a blessing for us in the simplicity of our prayer and being. May the difficult yet simple journey to the Cross and through the Cross open the way for us to eternal life, and make us aware of what is truly important. May the example of Jesus give us the courage to let go when we need to. And receive the forgiveness freely given.

For our health. For our well-being. For the sake of Jesus. And those in need.

Palms and Passion II

Like I said, maybe you might want to stay home on Palm/Passion Sunday.

But before you make alternate plans, hold on a minute. The reading from Philippians (2:5-11) appointed for this Sunday might help us deal with the liturgical and contextual disconnect of Palms and Passion. This ancient Christian hymn describes God’s work in Jesus – particularly Jesus’ self-emptying to take on human form and be of loving service to others.

If you look at the shape of the text itself, perhaps the most notable structural element is the space between verse 8 and 9. Yes, the space.

Your bibles most likely preserve the extra-line space between two, clearly visible sections of this poetry. The first part puts the onus on us, because it is introduced by the words: “Let the same mind be in you …” (v.5). We are encouraged to embody the gift of Christ’s presence, Christ’s mind, in us – the attitude of loving service to others.

In the context of what we do on Palm/Passion Sunday – this is the Palm part. Bear with me.

You see, the crowds heralded Jesus as the King who would save the people from Roman domination. The crowds believed in the kind of Messiah who would come and make their lives better, who would change their external circumstances for the better. And so when Jesus rode in majesty, riding on a donkey, the crowds understandably laid palm branches on the royal highway and cheered “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

The Palms part of the service represents our often meager attempts at worship, at service, at prayer and Christian faith. Well-intentioned, perhaps. But, in this sometimes zealous defending of the truth or passionate display of piety, we are still seeing into a mirror dimly, aren’t we? (1 Corinthians 13).

For all their misguided, imperfect, muddied expectations, beliefs and desires – this was the human response to Jesus. I believe we can relate: Because how often do we catch ourselves falling far short of the mark? How easily do we come to confession, bearing our misdeeds and failures? Don’t we, as the Christian family, need to confess our divisions, our fighting, our self-absorbed compulsions that lead us astray, distract us, and bring us to our knees? That’s why we need to ‘do’ Palm Sunday.

But we also need to ‘do’ Passion Sunday.

Because the Palms part alone is not the full story. Doing the Palms part alone means we haven’t truly ‘emptied’ ourselves, as we are called to let the mind of Christ be in us. How can we embody the “mind of Christ” by emptying ourselves of ourselves? Is this even possible?

That’s why the space between verse 8 and verse 9 is so important. Because however we decide to respond to this scripture, to Jesus, to our living faith either individually or communally – our response dies at verse 8. After that, God takes over.

If every knee will bend at the name of Jesus, if every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is because God highly exalted Jesus and gave him that name that is above every name. Human volition – our action, our choice, our striving – ends at verse 9. The most important word in this text is, “Therefore”. Because now, God takes over.

We cannot do what Christ did in the Passion. We cannot atone for our sins, ourselves. We cannot by our good works save ourselves. We cannot by our even valiant efforts make ourselves right with God by what we believe and by what we do.

I know so much of our Christian culture orients itself about imitating Jesus – What Would Jesus Do? All well and good. But the Passion reminds us that it was Jesus, and only Jesus, who walked that path to the Cross for us. The Passion puts in perspective who is the author of our faith, who makes things right in our lives, who creates in us a clean spirit, who lives in us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The space between verses 8 and 9 is the equivalent of the grave in which Jesus lay, dead as dead could be – perfectly obedient to death – with no pulse, no thought, no will (p.175, Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 2). A famous preacher, Fred Craddock, says: “The grave of Christ was a cave, not a tunnel”; that is, Christ acted for us knowing that his human life had to completely stop.

That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death without first claiming any return, no eye upon a reward (p. 42, Philippians – Interpretation Series). Otherwise, it wouldn’t be death, would it? Our human thoughts and beliefs and wishes all have to die. So it was for Jesus’ humanity. Love for others, to the point of death.

I read the Processional Gospel from Luke this year. What immediately follows this text we didn’t read. The form of the Lukan text implies that Jesus went immediately from the triumphal entry on the donkey to the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, where he weeps over a people so misguided and delusional. But unlike a natural human reaction which would dismiss and discard with disdain, Jesus weeps out of love and great desire to gather everyone under protective wings as a mother hen her chicks. (Luke 19:41-44)

Jesus reconciles Palms and Passion in his love for sinners. That’s us. Despite our sin, Jesus sees in us a beauty and a reflection of God’s goodness worth dying for. Worth going to the Cross for.

That is why on Palm/Passion Sunday, in the end, we do not focus on what we believe about Jesus. We focus on what he did. And what we can do because of what he did.

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!

Palms & Passion

I don’t think there is a more conflicted day in the church calendar than “Palm Sunday”; or is it “Passion Sunday”? Or … both?

I recently heard someone complain about this liturgical challenge: How do we structure the order of worship? This disconnect extends also to the substance of the story itself –Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

From the point of view of the adoring crowd, hypocrisy seeps all over this so-called ‘triumphal’ entry of Jesus on a donkey. How can we wave palm branches and sing “Hosanna!” to the Lord out one side of our mouths when we know all too well that in just a few short days we’ll be shouting “Crucify Him!” out the other side.

Maybe you might want to stay home on Palm/Passion Sunday.

Traditionally, Palm Sunday has been the designation for the Sunday before Easter.

Jesus was heralded as the King who would save the people from Roman domination. The crowds expected the kind of Messiah who would come and make their lives better, who would change their external circumstances for the better. And so he rode in majesty, riding on a donkey. Understandably, the crowds laid palm branches on the royal highway – and the crowds cheered “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

But liturgists and scholars in recent years have challenged the church to insert the title “Passion” to describe this Sunday. “Passion” – not so much how we normally understand the word to describe an intense, positive feeling towards someone or some thing. But “Passion” to describe what Mel Gibson did in his famous movie, “The Passion of the Christ”; that is, the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus. The “Passion” includes all those stories from the Gospel leading Jesus to the Cross.

And Palm Sunday is only the first day of Holy Week; the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is only the first event of several in the story. It is important to at least attempt a reconciliation of Palms AND Passion in our approach to the beginning of Holy Week. For the two are inseparable. They belong together.

Yet somehow we live in a culture of thinking that is “dualist”; in other words, we tend to solve our problems by going the route of “this or that”, “either/or”, “all or nothing”, “black or white” kind of thinking.

But is that real? Palms and Passion challenges us in our thinking: What about Israelis and Palestinians co-existing, living together on the same piece of land? What about different people belonging to the same community? What if rural values could impact positively urban realities, and vice versa? What about people with opposite opinions on a controversial subject remaining members of the same church?

By denying “both/and” possibilities, and pretending life can be packaged neatly into separate boxes, are we like the seeds that fell on shallow soil, which immediately spring up – but when the sun rises, are scorched? (Matt 13:5-6)

Biblically, Palms and Passion are inseparable. Immediately following Luke’s version of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps when the last echo of Hosanna fades from the hillside (19:41-44). Indeed the trajectory in all the Gospels goes from celebration to discouragement, desertion and despair.

Does this liturgy then call us, allow us, give us permission to reconcile seeming opposites? Can we in the practice of our faith truly live, be real and honest? Can we learn to pray when times are tough? Can we find hope in the midst of despair? Jesus was able to hold these seemingly opposite realities; he received the adoration of the crowds and then was able to grieve for their soon treachery — and still love the people of Jerusalem; as he hung on the cross he prayed: “Father, forgive them …” (Luke 23:34). The Gospel shows us that Jesus holds the contradictions of our lives in the unity of his heart and his love for us all.

Psalm 31 is a prayer. Psalm 31 reconnects Palms and Passion; first by letting us hear the Psalmist’s deepening despair, confessing his own misery; the Psalmist gives us permission to search within; to explore the interiority of suffering, and to find hope.

The section of the Psalm we read begins with a request: “Be gracious to me, O God” (v.9). And is the prayer answered? Maybe the more accurate way of asking is – How is the prayer answered?

I was recently reading a little bit about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa some decades ago now. Apartheid was the racist policy of the government of South Africa that sought to keep separate whites and blacks. Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 after spending three decades inprisoned for his stance against apartheid. How was he able to emerge from such a long time imprisoned to present such a hopeful, trusting vision of the future?

In his book on forgiveness, Desmond Tutu describes Mandela’s attitude the night he came to stay with the archbishop in Capetown after being set free. He says, “I found a man regal in dignity, bubbling over with magnanimity and a desire to dedicate himself to the reconciliation of those whom apartheid had alienated from one another. Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, not spewing words of hatred and revenge. Instead, he amazed us all by his heroic embodiment of forgiveness” (from No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday, New York, New York, 1999, p.39).

Is the Psalmist’s prayer answered? How does God answer his request for grace? Well, the answer doesn’t seem to be changing the psalmist’s outward circumstances; life may still bring a betraying kiss, a lonely Gethsemane, a cross, 27 years in a seemingly endless South African prison. Being Christian doesn’t immune us from hardship. Doing good is not a prerequisite for having a perfect, successful life.

Yet, the Lord answers prayer with a gift – the gift of trust. The psalmist confesses, (31:14-15) “I trust in you, O Lord; I say ‘you are my God’ My times are in your hands.”

The Psalmist is confessing a new reality that has broken in upon his suffering: I trust in God. To be able to assert amidst hardship – You are my rock, my fortress, my salvation, and echo the words of Jesus amidst his suffering – Into your hands I commend my spirit.

So, do we have the capacity to celebrate and give thanks amidst our pain and suffering? Are we able to express a profound trust in God when all seems hopeless? Is it okay to be honest about the sometimes vast contradictions of our lives, individually and in community? Can seeming opposites coexist in the same room? Can forgiveness be expressed and received in a culture of retribution, revenge and tit-for-tat?

In the love of Christ who embraced his Palms AND Passion, who reconciled all opposites, divisions, within us, and who died for ALL people – the answer to all these questions is a confident ‘Yes!’

And what happens when we dare follow this path of embracing both the Palms and Passion, not only this coming week, but as a guide for our whole lives? The Promise is clear: You know it. Nelson Mandela eventually experienced it, on earth as a foretaste of the feast to come. But if you’re not sure, you have to stick around for a week to find out …..

But here’s a hint: The Passion is not the end of the story.

Invitation to a Holy Place

If we had interpreted Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you but you do not always me” (John 12:8), to mean we should not concern ourselves with social justice and serving the needs of the poor, we fall for the gnostic trap:

Gnosticism in the early centuries was a belief system that, basically, separated the material realm from the spiritual realm. And, in the gnostic worldview deemed heretical by the early church, this material realm is essentially bad and worthless.

But if we look at the broader context of this text, we can gain a richer and deeper understanding of what is going on here. Especially as this text invites us to experience the senses of sight and smell: “The house was filled with fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). This story is very much rooted in the material reality of nard, perfume, feet, friends, the poor, homes, impending suffering and meals.

We cannot spiritualize this text away to mean something other-worldly, heavenly, eternal — basically disconnected from ordinary life. We cannot walk away from encountering this text only saying, “It’s all about sweet Jesus in heavenly glory and I can’t wait to get there!” Because the stuff of earth also matters dearly to our Lord.

To understand a difficult text it is often best to take a step back and see the big picture, what we call literary context. What are some of the contextual points?

First, the Gospel writer places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem where he will meet with treachery, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagant gift of expensive perfume on the basis of his anointing for burial (v.7). Set in the broader context of Jesus’ passion, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says, “you do not always have me” in verse 8. Because, literally, the time is coming when his friends will no longer see him in human form on earth.

But there is more.

Jesus begins this journey to the cross by coming home. Bethany, in some respect, was the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, whom Jesus “loved” (11:5). These are Jesus’ dearest friends. We say home is where the heart is, where we encounter family and friends. Home is a place where we feel safe to be who we are and know that we will be accepted by our loved ones no matter what. Understandably Jesus begins a difficult journey by first touching base in this holy place for him. This text begins with friends gathering around table for a meal.

A holy place, as I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks, is an event, experience or physical place where we have met God and God has met with us. It is, to some degree, a place of comfort, stability and grounding — where we feel revitalized and energized. We want to go there. From this holy place we are able then to re-engage the world refreshed with renewed vigor and commitment.

Holy places are defined by transformative relationships. Even when we are alone, so to speak, in that secret place of our hearts or sanctuary, God is with us. And we are called from that place forward.

The holy place for Jesus is not simply escapism to a Caribbean beach or any other dreamy landscape where we are protected from any discomfort. Our true holy places are not about withdrawal or drugged immunity from challenge and conflict. Otherwise those holy places just keep us addictively stuck; they do not serve to grow us as people of faith.

It gets muddy in those holy places. Judas complains. And the reader knows what he is doing with the common purse: he is a thief, up to no good. We also know that he will betray Jesus in a few days. This is part and parcel of the holy place experience. Holy places in the presence God do not buffer or sanitize us from harsh reality. They keep us on our toes. And they ultimately pull us out of ourselves and challenge us.

Lest we shy away from going to our holy place, be encouraged by the implied promise of this text: From this holy place of Jesus’ emerges a great, extravagant, gracious and valuable gift. And this gift, this treasure, is not discarded and dismissed as wasteful. The gift of Mary out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, the gift about which Judas bitterly complains as ‘wasteful’, this gift is received and accepted by Jesus.

Everything in our lives is valuable to Jesus. Jesus values and deems important those very material concerns of our lives, and the lives of those in need — the poor. When I pray to Jesus for help often the answer may not be what I want. But the affirmations that often come are in the form of material reality. In other words, voices don’t boom from heaven. Lightening doesn’t strike in the moment of prayer. Supernatural responses don’t come so much as does a phone call from the accountant, a letter in the mail, the words of a friend, the seemingly unconnected event — all shed a clear light on the matter of prayer.

Perhaps, if anything, I am called during Lent and by this text to pay attention to the daily, ordinary, earthly matters of my life. Therein Jesus is present, active, and values each ordinary decision I make. Because it’s important to him.

But it’s not just about my material needs. Mary makes a supreme material sacrifice, likely foreshadowing Jesus’ even greater sacrifice of love.

You have the poor with you always. Serve the poor. By focusing on serving others we let go of those distractions and obsessions of life that keep us trapped. You heard the advice given by the new pontiff, Francis, who advised his Argentinian church members not to spend money on attending his installation in Rome but rather to give that money to the poor.

But know this: In that good work, pay attention to the presence of Jesus who is always with us and guiding us and supporting us. We do live in the shadow of the cross. But we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. We may be surprised, in all our work for good.

So here is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus — at the Table, in extravagant acts of compassion and generosity, in moments of worship in those holy places. (p.145, H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word). Because Jesus will not abandon us.

So, come! Come, eat with us. Come, share this time with us. Commune together with God and with one another. Come, join together with the people of God in holy places defined by relationships of love, to serve those in need and celebrate the great treasure we have and that we offer to the world.