glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Finding Resurrection in the Easter Garden: A Sermon for Easter Day

In the name of our Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I want to begin by saying yet again that it really is a pleasure and a delight to see the church so full this morning—so full of people, so full of flowers, so full of fancy outfits, so full of abundant, vibrant, new life. You know what, it feels a lot like Easter in here. Just like it should.

Easter really is a wonderful day—devoted to the celebration of new life—and it’s especially wonderful and welcome this year, coming as it does after our long, seemingly endless winter. You know that unlike Christmas or the Fourth of July, Easter is not always on the same date, nor is it just that it falls on the first Sunday in April or whatever. The day is actually determined by a rather complicated computation, decided by a group of bishops all the way back in the year 325: it’s the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. And, it can’t fall before March 21 or after April 25. So this year, being April 24, Easter is just about as late as it possibly can be. And it is nice, for a change, to be able to celebrate it without winter coats or the fear of an inopportune “resurrection” blizzard, with long awaited flowers beginning to rise from the ground, and the promise of another beautiful spring not long off.

I remember three years ago, when I was still living in Canada, in Toronto, Easter fell just about as early as it can in March, and we still had lots and lots of snow on the ground. It was an endlessly long winter, not unlike this last one. I had accepted Emmanuel’s call to be your rector a few days before—the Tuesday of Holy Week, I think. But I wasn’t here yet. You and I both had to wait a while, for the school year to finish and for me to move back to the U.S., and in fact for the congregation to vote to accept me. So I was celebrating what I figured would be my last Easter in Canada. And what I remember most especially about it was that my parish up there—Christ Church Deer Park—had this especially unique tradition: planting “an Easter garden” outside on the church grounds on Holy Saturday, right after the Easter Vigil.

The idea of the Easter garden was that when people came on Easter morning, or just passed by (the church is on the busiest street in Canada), they would see this wild and unexpected burst of flowers and new life, that seemingly grew up over night. Sounds really nice, right? Only, remember, it was winter still and there was lots and lots of snow, so it wasn’t real flowers that we planted, but these crazy tall plastic flowers--tulips and daffodils and daisies--made out of plastic cups and plates, of all things. They were totally fanciful, all red, blue, purple, and yellow. And, here’s the really wacky part (as if the plastic flowers weren’t wacky enough), since there was no unfrozen ground to be found, we planted the flowers in the snow banks. So, you can picture it, there we were, children and adults all together, after the Easter Vigil running around on a cold, dark wintry night, planting plastic flowers in four or five foot snow drifts, and then, for good measure, writing Easter messages, and drawing Easter eggs and bunnies on the sidewalks in pastel colored chalk.

I’ll always remember that night, because when I went to the parking lot to plant some purple flowers in a particularly massive snow bank, I discovered that my car had been hit—the tail lights were all smashed and the rear bumper was just sort of hanging on for dear life. Luckily, the woman who hit it, a parishioner as it happens, was standing there, trying to figure out what to do. You know, there’s nothing like a smashed car to dampen your Easter mood—both hers and mine. Thankfully, I was able to drive it home, but I took the bus to church the next day, since I was afraid the car wouldn’t make it in one piece.

And I have to confess, I was in an especially bad mood that morning—here it was Easter Day, I had a smashed up car, and I was waiting outside in the dark and cold for the bus at 6:00 in the morning. Not very Eastery. But eventually the bus came, and as it approached the church, I looked out the window, and what did I see? Three and four foot high mounds of snow, sprouting bright red, blue, purple, and yellow flowers. It was a sight so silly, and also delightful. Ridiculous and hopeful. Most especially, it was a sign of new, joyful life right there on a cold wintry morning. Even in my grumpy, not very Easter-like mood, I couldn’t help but be cheered and uplifted. The resurrection hit me just when I least expected it.

And I think that’s often the way the resurrection hits us, just when we least expect it. Certainly that was true of those who first discovered the empty tomb—Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene. Of course, when Mary Magdalene went to the garden on that first Easter morning, she didn’t see plastic flowers sprouting up from snow banks, and she wasn’t lamenting a smashed car or having to wait for a bus. Her grief was far more real, far more painful, beyond words. The pain of Jesus’ death cut through her heart like the soldier’s spear that had pieced Jesus side. And now, it was made all the worse by his missing body. She cried, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Who would do such a horrible thing? Who would steal a body? It’s the kind of thing you might see investigated on 60 Minutes or Dateline NBC. But, of course, Jesus wasn’t really stolen. He was alive. He was transformed. He was right there, with her still.

But we read that Mary didn’t recognize Jesus at first. She thought he was the gardener. Maybe she just couldn’t see well from the tears in her eyes, or perhaps from lack of sleep after the horrific events of the days before—replaying the image of Jesus nailed to the cross over and over again. It would be hard any of us to sleep after watching helplessly as that horror happens to someone you love so much. But then again, maybe, that wasn’t it. Maybe, it wasn’t because of her grief that she didn’t recognize Jesus. Maybe, I would even say probably, it’s because Jesus had changed. Maybe, probably, in his new, resurrected state he was beyond recognition, comprehension, and certainly beyond explanation.

Whatever the resurrection was, whatever God did to bring Jesus back to life, he was transformed that morning. In their various ways all four of the gospels tell us that the Jesus that Mary and the disciples encountered on that first Easter morning was somehow different from the Jesus they knew before Good Friday.

Now, the gospels really aren’t very good at describing this change. And I suspect that’s because whatever happened in the garden on that Easter morning is far beyond anything that can be put into words or images. It’s something that can be witnessed, experienced even, but not described. Certainly it’s not enough to simply say that Jesus just woke up on the third day. That would be hard to believe, of course—especially for those who were there on Good Friday and saw his life and soul torn from his body—but we could probably, sort of, understand it; we might even be able to describe it. But Easter is more than that. It’s more profound, more meaningful, more transformative than that. For 2,000 years people have been trying to make sense of it, and for 2,000 years we have always come up short.

Some of you know how much I like to talk about Star Wars, especially it seems on days like Christmas and Easter. I don’t want to disappoint you today, so I’ll add that what happened on that first Easter morning is beyond even what the best science fiction writers like George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry could dream up. It was more amazing than anything we might read about in Harry Potter novels, or see on TV on Dr. Who or Merlin. And that’s because it’s so fantastic, it’s so amazing, so transformative, that only God could dream it up. And certainly only God could make it happen. Because only God can take death and transform it into life. Only God can take grief and transform it into joy. Only God can take fear and transform it into hope.

And as transformative as Easter was for Jesus, as amazing to behold as it was Mary Magdalene and Peter and the other disciples, it can be just as amazing and just as transformative for us. If Jesus’ resurrection in that beautiful Easter garden 2000 years ago is to have any meaning for us now, if the light of that first Easter Day so long ago is to shine as brightly today as it did then, we have to live it, too. We have to be transformed by it. We have to know and believe and trust that new life, abundant life, resurrection life, is as much a possibility for us here, today, as it was for Jesus, and for Mary Magdalene, and for Peter so very long ago.

Easter teaches us to believe in things that seem impossible. It tells us that what we see is not all that there is. It holds before us the hope of new life, abundant life, spring life, where before all we could see was winter, fear, and death. Most especially, and most importantly, the transformation of Easter encourages us, in fact it compels us, to roll the stone away and step out of the tombs of our lives, so that we can embrace new possibilities. So that we can be filled with hope. So that we can live the resurrection.

And you know what? We can start living that fantastic, amazing, dazzlingly bright Easter life right now. We don’t have to wait for some future time. We don’t need soldiers or angels to roll the stones away for us. We can do it ourselves, today, right here, right now. We can step, run, or even leap, out of the tombs of our lives, and we can live: freely, fully, abundantly. We can even plant crazy plastic flowers in snow banks if we want to. Because that’s God’s hope for us. That’s God’s dream for us. That’s God’s promise for us. Jesus was raised, so that we, too, will be raised.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” May we, with Mary, with the disciples, also see the Lord alive, then, may we live the life of resurrection ourselves, today, tomorrow, and always.

Happy Easter, my friends. Happy Easter. Alleluia! Christ is risen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Friday, April 22, 2011

It is Finished: A Sermon on Good Friday

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

About 10 years ago, I took an unlikely job as the Youth Minister at Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton. I call it an “unlikely” job, because I had never really done anything in youth ministry before then and in fact I didn’t even like my own church’s youth ministry program when I was growing up. So the whole thing was really quite a stretch for me. But it was a good opportunity to develop some skills that were “dormant,” to say the least.

While much of my ministry there was exclusively youth related, I did have the occasional opportunity to branch out some, including preaching and serving at the altar. One of the opportunities to preach was at the town’s ecumenical Good Friday service—one of those infamous three-hour services focused on the “seven last words” of Jesus. Of course there are not really just seven words, but more like seven phrases, that the gospels tell us Jesus spoke from the cross. As much as I find our Anglican liturgy for Good Friday rich with meaning, I always liked that ecumenical service for the opportunity to hear the differing voices and perspectives of the various religious traditions in town.

For me, the most stirring of these last words have always been Jesus’ very last words: “It is finished.” I’ve often wondered, what did Jesus mean? Was he feeling complacent, or defeated? Did he mean that his life was finished? That his work was finished? Or something else?

As I’ve pondered these words this week, as I have thought about Jesus’ life and ministry, I think that what he must have meant is that he’s done what he can do. And that’s enough. The rest is up to God, and maybe even up to us. Jesus has loved as fully and freely as he could; he has taught what he could teach; he has healed those who were ill; he has opened his arms as wide as possible, even to the point of being nailed on the cross. He has done what he lived to do.

The question is, how will people respond? How will we respond?

Because, as we know, Jesus never forces anyone to believe in him. He never coerces us to accept his love. He doesn’t just heal people who have no desire for it. For good or ill, it is always up to us. It is up to us to say yes to Jesus’ love. It is up to us to accept the grace and the hope and the freedom he offers us. It is up to us to continue the work that Jesus devoted himself to—loving, healing, teaching, living for God.

You know, I can’t believe that Jesus lived the way he did—so openly, so passionately, so fully— that his life, his work, his very being would die up there, nailed to that cross 2,000 years ago. Instead, I believe that he knew that if his life were to have meaning, if everything that he lived for were to really take root and grow—it would have to be through his friends, through his disciples, through us. And so, it’s not enough for us to gaze up at him on the cross, his body broken, his life torn away—a horrific and jarring sight.

We are not meant to glory in Jesus’ death, nor even, I think, be appalled by it—though appalling it certainly is. We are meant to be transformed by it, taking up our own crosses each day and living in the way that Jesus lived. Loving in the way Jesus loved. Healing in the way Jesus healed. When he said from the cross, “It is finished,” he passed his ministry on to us. He had done everything he could do, as a man, and as the Son of God.

And he knew that we, together, his community, his kingdom, his body, could do even more. If only we are brave enough, if only we are daring enough to respond. Together, inspired by him, empowered by him, blessed by him, we, too, have the power to heal and teach and love, just as openly, just as fully, just as profoundly. When Jesus looked down from the cross on the world he loved, on the people he loved, he knew that he couldn’t do any more. But he also knew that his life couldn’t end there. He knew that it couldn’t and that it wouldn’t, because the seeds of his life, the seeds of new life, were planted in his friends, in us.

It is finished, Jesus said. And yet, through God, and through us, his work, his life, his love, live on and on and on.

Let us pray,

Lord Christ, who entered into your triumph by the hard and lonely way of the cross: May your courage and steadfast loyalty, your unswerving devotion to the Father’s will, inspire and strengthen us to tread firmly and with joy the road which love bids us take, even if it leads through suffering, misunderstanding, and darkness. We ask it for your sake, who for the joy that was set before you endured the cross, despising the shame, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2011

For Holy Week: A Reflection on Power

In his Palm Sunday sermon, the Vicar of Wakefield shared a poem by the Rev. Judith Mattison, a retired ELCA pastor in Minnesota, who for a semester in 1993 was Acting Chaplain at Gustavus Adolphus College, when the Vicar was an undergraduate student there. Pastor Mattison was previously pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, where he was baptized, as it happens. Her poem is a perfect reflection on Pilate's question to Jesus: "Are you the King of the Jews?," as well as on our attempts to control our lives.


We try to control life
with well-constructed plans
weather reports
and appeals to God
when all else fails.
Pilate thought he had power, too.
Pilate and we are wrong.
We have the only power
which God allows--
and freedom to respond,
but not to direct God,
the privilege of enjoying life
but not of numbering our days.
Pilate and the others--we--
crucified Jesus
a power play,
doomed to fail
so that we might live.


Walking the Way
Fortress Press 1986
(c) Judith Mattison

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Going to Bethany and Finding Resurrection

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Do you have a special place that you go to for peace and quiet? A place for refreshment and renewal? Maybe a room in your home or a park? Is there a place that has special meaning to you? Maybe even right here at Emmanuel.

For me, there are several special places, hallowed ground as it were. One is my college campus in Minnesota. The chapel there has a unique beauty and on the grounds there’s a fantastic view of Minnesota River Valley that can take your breath away. When I go back there I usually drag someone along, like my brother Josh, who often is not as taken with the view as I am, especially when it’s 20 below zero and the wind is whipping across the hill (since I’m usually only there in December), but nonetheless, to me it is very special. I’d even say that I feel God there.

Another favorite place for me is the Bethany Convent of the Sisters of St Anne in Arlington. The Sisters are Episcopalian nuns. You might not have known that we have Episcopal nuns, but we do. Here in Massachusetts there’s the Sisters of St Margaret who have active ministries in Boston, Duxbury, and in Haiti. And the Sisters of St. Anne. They have a quieter ministry. Today there’s just 5 of them at the house in Arlington—three from the Philippines, one born in New York, and one from the Bahamas, but in the past they have had ministries in downtown Boston and Cambridge, in England and in China, New Zealand, the Philippines, in New York and Chicago. The Sisters are just about the kindest, most thoughtful people you could meet.

I went there to the Bethany Convent in Arlington for Mass most Wednesday mornings when I was in seminary. It was a bit of an undertaking, since the service was first thing in the morning and one had to fight Cambridge traffic to get there. I didn’t have a car, so I was always dependent on a fellow student, usually my friend Patti, or sometimes, I even went with a professor—Lloyd Patterson—who would drive in from Belmont, pick me up at the seminary in Harvard Square, and then take us to the Convent. He had to be there by 7:30 to lead the service, so we set off from the seminary at 6:45 or so. It was always something of a crazy ride, because Lloyd had rather slow reflexes and sometimes drove awfully close to the cars in front of us. We did always made it in one piece, amazingly enough, but not without a scare or two. As harrowing as the ride was, though, once you step foot in the chapel, none of that mattered anymore because it was like stepping on sacred, holy ground. The convent chapel and the gardens feel like they are literally infused with a century of prayer, with a century of hospitality, with a century of love.

After Mass, whoever was there was invited to join the Sisters for breakfast in their refectory. The menu was always the same—coffee, juice, cereal, toast, and Sister Gloria's soft-boiled egg. I never had the egg—I don’t like them much—which disappointed the Sisters. I usually had cereal, and maybe toast with their delicious ginger preserves. If you are preparing to be a priest, it’s hard to imagine a more special way of beginning your day: a Eucharist in a gorgeous chapel, followed by breakfast with your favorite professor, a friend or two, and 5 to 7 of the most delightful nuns you could imagine.

One of my favorite memories of the Sisters was the time that they asked me to drive them out to Springfield for Patti’s ordination. I stayed overnight at the Convent—they were quite worried that I wouldn’t wake up on time, since I don’t tend to follow their rigorous monastic schedule, so they wanted me close by for good measure. They made sure I was comfortable for the night with a healthy supply of cookies. And then after breakfast we all piled into their large van and sped on toward the ordination. It’s quite the image, isn’t it? A 26 year old me driving a van full of nuns along the Mass Pike. The Sisters still talk about that day, and it makes me smile every time I think of it.

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten there to the Bethany Convent too much in the past few years. Arlington is kind of a pain to get to from Quincy, truth be told, and even a little bit from Wakefield. But it’s comforting, and even inspiring, to know that it’s there, that the Sisters are welcoming others, and sharing the love of God with all who come in their doors. Well, yesterday, I returned to this special place with the vestry for our Lenten retreat. There was another group there, so we didn’t have use of the chapel. But it was a fantastic sunny day and we were able to spend lots of time outside—writing letters to God, as it happens. I won’t share what I wrote, but what I will say is that I discovered as I sat out there on a hundred year old bench how the stresses of my life seemed to fall away as I breathed in the fresh spring air, and also how much I had missed this special place—the Bethany Convent.

As it happens, the Convent in Arlington is named after the village of Bethany, featured in this morning’s gospel. That Bethany, the original Bethany, was located just outside Jerusalem and was the home of other sisters—not nuns, so far as we know, but Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus. Like the Convent for me (and for many others), it would seem that the original Bethany was also a special place of respite, for Jesus. He went there for rest, refreshment, and renewal. To spend time with friends, where he wasn’t so much the amazing preacher, teacher, healer, savior of the world, but a friend, someone who was loved and cherished, just because.

In this morning’s gospel reading, however, we learn that Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend, has taken ill. Desperate for help, Lazarus’ sisters sent for Jesus in the hopes that he could arrive in time, to help somehow. But he didn’t make it. Not even close. According to the gospel account, Lazarus had been dead for four days by the time Jesus got around to getting there. It’s sort of a weird story, because on the one hand Jesus seems to know that Lazarus has died and so takes his sweet time getting to Bethany, to make a point. But then when he finally gets there, he’s upset by the whole thing. In fact, John writes that Jesus wept, he was so distraught over his friend’s death. We don’t usually think of Jesus getting all emotional like that--like us--but in this case anyway, he did. While we don’t know any of the details of their relationship, Jesus must have loved Lazarus very much.

And, it would seem, he was so overcome by his own emotion and that of his friends Martha and Mary, that he summoned up the power in himself to bring Lazarus back to life. It’s kind of a funny thing, since we don’t read that Jesus raised everyone who had ever died. He probably didn’t raise his grandparents or aunts and uncles or the friends he had known in his village. While there are other accounts of Jesus raising people in various places, he certainly didn’t do it willy-nilly. But somehow, it would seem, Jesus couldn’t stand the thought of life without his friend, and so he literally broke the rules of life and death, at least for a time, and he gave Lazarus a second chance.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Lazarus after that. We don’t know if he just resumed life as it had been or if he was changed somehow through this amazing experience. We don’t know if he lived in a different kind of way or altered his priorities. We don’t even know how long he lived in this round two of life. But presumably, it wasn’t forever. Presumably, he’s not still here somewhere—a 2,000 plus year old man, walking around. In all likelihood he died again. Maybe the next week or next year, or maybe 20 years later. But eventually.

So, the gift of new life to Lazarus was a temporary thing, if you think about it in terms of his physical body. And that’s what we usually think of as the miracle in this story. But, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that. Because if the story is just about a guy who was brought back to life 2,000 years ago and then died again, it doesn’t really have a lot of relevance for us now.

But what if the gift of new life was something deeper and more profound than just his physical body getting up and walking around again? What if this gospel story, if you dig deeply enough, is not so much about Lazarus, but instead about how we are all called to step outside the tombs we lock ourselves in. What if this story is really about how we are each given the opportunity to embrace life and live fully, freely and wholly, filled with the love and spirit of God, if only we dare? What if it’s about embracing the call to resurrection even now, even today, even in Lent?

I began by sharing some of my experience at the Bethany Convent—a decade ago when I was a student, and again just yesterday. And as I reflected on the gift of being there in the sunshine yesterday, surrounded by vestry members and the wonderful Sisters of St Anne, statues of Jesus, Mary, and Angels, holy sacred buildings, squirrels, birds and purple flowers, I realized how often I fail to go to Bethany—and by that I don’t mean just the Convent (though I should go there more often for my own spiritual well-being)—but to a place of refreshment and renewal where ever that might be—the place that helps me to grasp and hold onto the abundant, resurrection, new life that Jesus wants for me, and of course, that he wants for all of us.

It’s so easy, in our busy lives, to get distracted, to fill our days with stuff—some of it important, but a lot of it probably not so important—such that we don’t have any room or time left for the really meaningful aspects of life—like love, caring, openness, peace, God. And the sad thing is, when we do that, when we let our lives get cluttered with stuff, we find ourselves ending up a lot of the time like Lazarus, dead and locked away in his tomb.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, God doesn’t want it to be that way. God wants us to live, fully abundantly, openly—not only in the last day at the end of time, but today, and tomorrow, and always. God wants us to take time out, to go Bethany, where ever that may be, to the special places of our lives that give us peace, hope, and strength, so that we can live, so that we can be who we were meant to be from the first day of creation.

I thought I would close with a quotation by Sister Olga, one of our hosts at the vestry retreat yesterday. In a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Order of St Anne, she writes:

“In this twenty-first century world of shadows and fears, of hesitation to follow a dream, some things are luminously clear: a call from God, who knows each of us is whom he calls, and whose enthusiasm for what we are and what we can become is surely his greatest joy and hope.”

In our gospel reading Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

May we, too, believe and then live, so that we can become God’s greatest joy and hope.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell