glory of god

glory of god

Monday, December 9, 2013

Prophets, Baptism, and Advent: A Sermon on Isaiah, John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

If you were playing close attention just now to our various scripture readings, you will have noticed that they sort of move in different directions and paint contrasting portraits of God’s planned future for our world. In the first, from the Prophet Isaiah, written about 800 years before Jesus was born, we hear a glorious image of the coming age, when the world will be transformed into a place of peace and hope—in which the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the lion will eat straw. It’s a grand vision of a world turned upside down, lead by none other than an innocent little child.  It is one of the most beloved and hopeful passages in scripture, often set to music and inspirational to Jewish and Christian communities alike.

But then, in our gospel reading, the mood shifts and we find something of a contrasting vision of the future: with the wild John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, crying out in the wilderness, calling his hearers a brood of vipers, and predicting the coming of one who will transform the world, not so much as an innocent 1970s-era flower child ushering in an age of peace and harmony, but with a winnowing fork and with fire.

Both, in their own ways, are emblematic and characteristic of this Advent season. The first vision, Isaiah’s, is undoubtedly more comfortable, happier, and easier to swallow and accept. But then, just as we are feeling all peaceful and Christmassy, lulled into Isaiah’s glorious future, John the Baptist reminds us, quite powerfully, that God’s kingdom will not come without struggle, without our prejudices being upset, without being called to account for our foolish, sinful, and even sometimes evil ways. God’s kingdom is coming, John reminds us, and life will never be the same.

It’s a coincidence, of course, but quite remarkable, that these readings are presented on this weekend when the world mourns the death of one of the greatest figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Naturally, I am referring to Nelson Mandela—South African activist and freedom fighter, prisoner, president, and prophet of democracy and racial reconciliation. Once considered a terrorist by his own country, and even by the United States government, he is now revered world-over for his work to free South Africa from the evils of racism and apartheid, remarkably free of revenge or retribution, but certainly with stark and searing honesty.

There’s no question that Nelson Mandela was a prophet for our time, much like Isaiah was in his, and John the Baptist in the first century, each offering a vision of a better society that is well within our grasp, but one that can only be accomplished through struggle, tears and sweat, and, unfortunately and all too often, blood. Thankfully, unlike John the Baptist who was killed in prison by the forces and powers of evil, Mandela lived to see freedom. And what’s more, he extended the gift of his own freedom to others. He once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.” He most certainly did that, every day of his life.

In the many responses to Mandela’s death by presidents, bishops, and world leaders, among the most moving, meaningful, and perhaps surprising is that of F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last Apartheid-era president, who freed Mandela from prison and was defeated by him in the first democratic election. De Klerk said quite eloquently: “South Africa has lost one of its founding fathers and one of its greatest sons. I believe that his example will live on and that it will continue to inspire all South Africans to achieve his vision of non-racialism, justice, human dignity, and equality for all. We shall miss you, but know that your spirit and example will always be there to guide us to the vision of a better and more just South Africa.” In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at overcoming racial separation and moving toward a new vision of life together.

Now, I’m sure that President Mandela would have been the first to acknowledge that his glorious and hopeful vision of a reconciled and just society, in South Africa and across our planet, is still very far from a reality, just as Isaiah’s vision seems as far off today as it was some 3,000 years ago when he prophesied that the wolf would live with the lamb. There is still so much more that we must do to make God’s paths straight—from defeating racial and gender discrimination, to alleviating crushing poverty and hunger, to ensuring that all people, of whatever background and means, have access to the healthcare and education they need, not only to survive, but to thrive, to live the kind of life that God intends and dreams for us all.

That was Nelson Mandela’s vision, but you know, it was not only his vision, it was John the Baptist’s vision, as well, and the vision of all the Hebrew prophets. And most especially and importantly, it is the vision and it is the life of the one the Baptizer says is coming soon, whom we await and prepare for this Advent season, who will baptize with fire and Spirit, and through that fire, and through that Spirit, through that baptism, empower us to transform the world.

Now, all that said, if you are anything like me, even if you resonate with the prophet’s and the Baptizer’s call to justice and peace, you might find yourself a little uncomfortable with the razor-sharp edge that we find in today’s gospel reading and its implications, especially the emphasis on Christ clearing his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the granary, and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. In the past, when I heard that, I always assumed that John the Baptist was saying that Jesus will separate the good people from the bad people, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, just as elsewhere we read about him separating the sheep from the goats.

And, that may be what the gospel writer had in mind. After all, Matthew the Evangelist did have a preoccupation with casting people into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But upon deeper reflection, and inspired by the life and example of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I wonder if it could mean something else. I wonder if maybe, rather than bad people, the chaff that Jesus will destroy is everything that hurts and diminishes human life—racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, hunger, illness, and more. By separating us from these evils that so drag us down and limit us, we are then able to live free, and whole, and alive. In fact, maybe that is exactly the kind of life Jesus came and is coming to baptize us into, a life set free from diminishment, separation, and exclusion.

Because when you think about it, that’s actually what baptism is all about. In fact, that’s what being Christian is all about: being set free from the powers of sin and evil and death. And then, once we are free, in baptism we are empowered, our hearts and souls are literally and truly set on fire, so that we can live in the same way that Jesus himself lived, so that we can accomplish the same things that he accomplished, so that we can extend the work of transformation that he began some 2,000 years ago when he preached and taught and healed, and that has continued to inspire people of faith and conscience ever since. That’s what being the Body of Christ is all about. Not simply believing that Jesus said and did some really amazing things long ago, but believing and trusting and knowing that we can do them, too, because we are united to him. Because his life is our life. Because his power is our power. Because his passion is our passion.

And in a few moments, it is into that life of freedom and power and passion that we will baptize Lauren. As we baptize her, we will ask God’s Holy Spirit to come down to bless and strengthen her, to fill her heart and soul, and unite her to Christ, and to set her heart and soul on fire. And as we do that, the rest of us will also have the opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises, as well, to be reinvigorated and re-empowered to live in that same kind of way—forgiving and being forgiven, seeking and serving Christ in all people, and striving always for justice and peace in the world. 

What an amazing and extraordinary faith we have been given, what an amazing and extraordinary life we have been given, what an amazing and extraordinary opportunity and responsibility we have been given in Christ, who came into the world 2,000 years ago and who lives in us all now, empowering us to bring the prophet’s vision of a renewed and restored world to life. Whether we find ourselves fighting against oppression and for reconciliation on a large stage, with life and death consequences like Nelson Mandela, or in far more modest ways here in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in schools, in the church, in our places of work—the call, the responsibility, and the opportunity this Advent and always is exactly the same: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

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

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Icke jag, utan Gud i mig": A sermon on new covenants, fresh starts, and God in us.

In our first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah we heard:

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

As I begin my sermon this morning, I have to confess that I am a little nervous, apprehensive even. With the exception of Margaret Moore’s funeral a few weeks ago, I haven’t preached in quite a while. And after three months away, my heart and mind are so full, there’s so much that I want to share—and today’s readings, well, they don’t exactly lend themselves to romantic stories about trips to far away lands like Sweden, Finland, or Denmark—much as I would love to talk about my time there. So maybe I’ll save those stories for a later time—this Wednesday evening at our adult education, perhaps, or maybe every coffee hour until Christmas!

It’s possible, too, that you are nervous or apprehensive, as well. I remember that before I was ordained, but was active in several ministries at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain, at first I found it strange, weird even, when the rector returned from her sabbatical. In fact, I was nervous about her returning, even though I liked her and had missed her a lot, because things had changed, for me, for the parish, in our lives and in the way we did things. It took a while to reconnect, to re-familiarize ourselves with each other, because, of course, even in a short elapse of time people change and we establish new patterns of life. Things will never be exactly the same as they were “before”—we have all grown and evolved and had new insights into ourselves, into the church, into our life together. But, of course, that’s exactly what sabbaticals are for—for me and for you—to grow, to change, to evolve, to come to new perspectives and new conclusions about what it means to be the church, the community of disciples, friends gathered by Jesus.

It will take time to share these stories, to learn from each other, and to settle into different patterns and new ways of being together, and we shouldn’t rush that process or cut it off, assuming that things can or should go back to exactly the way they were before. For example, there might be new ministries that you’ve taken on over the past three months that you don’t want to let go of, that have become important to you as you answer Jesus’ call to discipleship. Then again, there might be things you’ve had to do over the past few months that you now know you never want to do again. It’s all part of growing and changing and being alive.

In fact, several important changes have taken place over the last three months—most significantly, probably, our beloved sexton Gus died very unexpectedly in September, as did Margaret Moore, and Wallie Cook’s daughter Debbie; many of our older youth moved away and started college; the Altar Guild elected new leaders; we have a transition plan in place for a new coffee hour coordinator; there’s a beautifully refreshed bathroom (thanks to Janet Regan); we’ve started an exciting new Sunday children’s education program and a new approach to our Wednesday evening programs, and more. 

All of these point to the fact that this place, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, is a not only a building, but a community, a living, breathing, body—the Body of Christ. And like the ancient Israelites described in our Old Testament reading, I believe that God is taking this opportunity to write a new covenant in our hearts, offering us new ways to live and be together, deeper ways, more whole ways, more real and more alive ways.

This doesn’t replace the old covenant, it doesn’t negate who we have been, or erase our wonderful history—recent or long term—but really it means we are given an opportunity to build on our past, to be thankful for it and to learn from it, while opening us to move in new directions—ever more closely bound to God and each other—and perhaps leaving behind what didn’t work before, whether that’s old programs or more personally old hurts and or maybe grudges. And, you know, as it happens, that’s exactly what the prophet Jeremiah is writing about in his context as well.

Jeremiah’s not saying that God has thrown out his promises with his beloved, the chosen people (as some Christians have interpreted this passage), but instead it’s just the opposite: God has deepened those promises. The law, which is meant to convey God’s love, is no longer written on tablets of stone, but instead on hearts of flesh. And that’s just as true for us as well. God’s law, God’s love, is written on ours hearts, and that law, that love, binds us to God and to each other, giving us always another chance, another opportunity, another day, to live and grow and thrive in faith and spirit and community, as we say here at Emmanuel.

I know I said at the outset this morning that I wasn’t going to share stories of my sabbatical travels. But I can’t resist sharing just one (for now). Among my favorite places in Sweden is the city of Uppsala, about an hour’s drive north of Stockholm. Today it’s the fourth largest city in Sweden, which doesn’t make it very big by US standards, but back 1,000 years ago in the Viking days Uppsala was a capital of Sweden, and when the country was Christianized the city was established as the center of the church’s life, as well as its educational epicenter. As a result, Sweden’s largest and most important cathedral is there (in fact it’s the largest in all of Scandinavia), as is Scandinavia’s oldest and largest university.

And in that grand Uppsala Cathedral, in addition to the high ceilings and massive expanse of the main church, you find several little chapels along the sidewalls—some dedicated to kings, including a large one to Sweden’s first Protestant king Gustav Vasa, some to saints, and one is dedicated to peace, a concept very important to Swedes who are known for their commitment to neutrality and conflict resolution. There’s a beautiful large tapestry on the wall of the peace chapel, I think it was formerly an altar frontal, featuring a large red, orange, and gold sunburst, with a cross in the center, and figures that look like the outlines of people above and below. The people above the sunburst are sewn in gold and below they are darker red and orange. Above the tapestry is a large stained glass window, and below, on the ancient stone floor, you find a tile carved with a simple sentence: “Icke jag, utan Gud i mig.” That’s old fashioned Swedish (kind of like Rite I language) that means “Not I, without God in me.” Also carved in the tile are the name and birth and death dates of the Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjöld, who you may recall, was the General Secretary of the United Nations who worked tirelessly for peace around the world, until he was killed in an airplane crash in Africa in 1961 during the Congo crisis. After the crash President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”

“Not I, without God in me.” This sentence is taken from Hammarskjöld’s diary, found among his papers and published after he died, translated into English as Markings. In the diary he doesn’t reflect on his extraordinary career as a diplomat and peacemaker, but instead on largely on his spiritual life and his sense of himself as a person in whom God lives and works. In many ways Hammarskjöld was a mystic, profoundly aware of his own smallness and finitude, but also of the deep interconnectedness of life in communion with the divine, which I think is what compelled him into his work as a peacemaker. On the page following “Not I, without God in me” he continued: “To be, in faith, both humble and proud: that is, to live, to know that in God I am nothing, but that God is in me.” 

What a profound statement of faith that is, I believe: a faith that believes that without and in comparison with God we humans are so small, nothing really, but then again, we know that we are never without God, and we are never separated from God, because God’s law, God’s love, God’s life, is written on our hearts and in our hearts. Elsewhere in his diary Hammarskjöld calls this “God’s marriage to the soul,” a marriage in which God is one with us, and God is wholly in us. And I think this marriage to the soul is precisely the same thing as the “new covenant” that Jeremiah writes about so beautifully. The covenant of love. The covenant that frees us from bondage, sin, death, pain, and whatever it is that may hold us back, and allows us to live—fully, freely, and wholly now and into the future.

And, you know, as I think about our life together here at Emmanuel and as Emmanuel, our new covenant, the fresh start that we begin today, in this new post-sabbatical time, I think that this idea from Dag Hammarskjöld can be tremendously helpful: “Not I, without God in me.”  And perhaps even “Not I, without God in us,” all of us, together, a blessed community, freed to let go of sins, and hurts, and unfulfilled expectations, whatever it was that may have held us back in the past, just as Jeremiah urged the ancient Israelites to do thousands of years ago, so that we can have a fresh start, to live and grow and thrive, in God’s grace, in God’s love, in God’s promise, together, God with us and in us.

I thought I’d close this morning with a poem and prayer composed by Hammarskjöld, which can both inspire and challenge us as we begin this new chapter together, this next season of ministry, and embrace the new covenant that Jeremiah tells us God is writing on our hearts. He prays:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art—
Also within us,
May all see Thee—in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee all power and goodness.

Just as this was Dag Hammarskjöld’s prayer and hope, it can be ours as well.  “Icke jag, utan Gud i mig.” Not I, without God in me. Or maybe “Icke jag, utan Gud i oss.” Not I, without God in us. The new covenant, God’s law, God’s love, written forever on our hearts.

It’s good to be back.

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

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On Terror, Hope, and Resurrection: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday morning, when we gathered here for worship, none of us could have imagined the week that would unfold before us.  Do you remember what you were thinking about then, last Sunday?  School vacation week maybe, or watching the Boston Marathon?  Finishing up your taxes, possibly a Monday off from work, maybe a spring clean-up of your yard, or even a trip somewhere? Taxes were certainly on my mind—I knew I owed some, but wasn’t sure how much and dreaded finding out for certain—plus I had a lot of concern that my second box of completed thesis copies, which I copied and sent the day before, would make it to Toronto without incident, unlike the first box that got waylaid along the way. (It did make it, by the way, on Wednesday as scheduled).  I was also thinking about meetings to come and pastoral concerns and who knows what else.  

Well, the two homemade bombs at the Marathon changed all that—for most of us in a less profound way, mainly—but for others far more permanently, as they lost people they love and as some were injured unbelievably.  Since Monday afternoon we’ve all been on an uninvited and unwelcome roller-coaster of emotion: shock and fear, then a degree of resolve, inspiration and hope, and then more shock, more fear, more anxiety, and finally, Friday night, some sense of relief. 

My mother called me on Saturday morning, saying that I must feel good that it’s all over.  And I do.  Or at least I feel relief that the two suspects can’t hurt anyone else.  But of course, it’s really not all over.  There’s so much that we don’t know and don’t understand yet, if ever.  Unfortunately, it may be quite some time before our many questions are answered, the most important of which is simply: “Why”?  Why would anyone want to disrupt something as joyful and innocuous as the Boston Marathon?  Why would anyone want to indiscriminately hurt and kill people he or she didn’t even know?  Why here?  Why now?  Just, why?

And then when the photos and the identity of the suspects were revealed, we might have wondered, too, and we might wonder still, why young men like those we presume did these horrible acts—with their futures ahead of them—would want to throw their own lives away for seemingly no reason, along with those they hurt and killed.  A few moments of attention is all they got out of all of this, and even that wasn’t so glamorous.  Certainly they didn’t become heroes of anything or anyone.  The younger brother, especially, seems to have really had a lot to live for: a graduate of the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, with a college scholarship, recently made a U.S. citizen, lots of friends, great sense of humor, even a nice disposition.  But the older brother, too, about whom the deeper concern is centered, had some good things in his life, too—extraordinary talent as a boxer, also talent as a musician, a family that loved him, even it seems, a wife and a two-year old baby.  Why throw all of that away for nothing good?

Surely these brothers didn’t think they could just return to their normal lives on Tuesday morning, without notice, as if nothing had happened.  And the presence of several bombs and explosive devices in their apartment would suggest that they didn’t really expect to, either.  Or at least one of them didn’t.  Maybe over time we’ll get answers, at least partial, to some of these questions that still hang over us.  Though, we’ll probably never really, totally, know.  And we’ll never totally be the same as we were on Monday morning, either. 

But in the meantime, we go on with our lives, because we have to.  Not the same.  Not untouched.  Not unchanged.  But still moving along, moving ahead.  I thought about that on Thursday morning—before the extraordinary dramatic events of Friday—when I was in downtown Boston following an early budget meeting at the cathedral.  Usually after these things I just head home on the subway—diocesan budget meetings are exhausting, especially when they start at 8 a.m.  But Thursday was an especially beautiful day and I didn’t really have to be anywhere in particular for a while.  So, I walked leisurely through the Boston Common and then down Charles Street on Beacon Hill—one of my favorite streets in the city.  It was so gorgeous that bright spring morning.  In fact, it seemed even more gorgeous than ever.  Flowers were starting to bloom, birds were chirping, I paid special attention to the unique majesty of Beacon Hill’s architecture.  It all was like a special gift from God.  Like I was in the most beautiful city in the world, or if not the world, then certainly the United States.  I’m not sure Boston is quite as beautiful as Stockholm, but it’s close.

In fact, I was so inspired by the day that I had decided to spend a bucket load of money at a Scandinavian antique shop I had stepped into the week before, to buy something I wanted but really didn’t need, to heck with my shrinking checking account, and thankful to be alive and able to enjoy life in this gorgeous city and determined not to let terrorism stop me from doing what I wanted.  As it happens, though, the antique shop was fortuitously closed.  So, instead of spending a small fortune that morning, I enjoyed a much less expensive coffee and almond croissant at the café next door—that seemed like an economical tradeoff.  And while I sat there, sipping my coffee, with a pretty tulip in a bid vase on the table, and looking out the window onto the bustle of Charles Street, I thought to myself, no bomb and no terrorist is strong enough to take any of that away from me, from us.  

Of course, that all was before the later drama of Thursday and Friday: President Obama’s visit and the inspiring Interfaith service, then the FBI’s release of the pictures of the suspects, followed just a few hours later by the murder of the MIT police officer, the carjacking, chase, horrible shootout in Watertown, and then the lockdown, manhunt, and finally capture.  I admit that some of that the joy, inspiration, and resolve I felt on Thursday morning on Charles Street was tempered again by a degree of anxiety and fear as I watched what was going on in Watertown, and I wasn’t even in the lockdown area.  Those of you up here in and around Wakefield were even further away from the nexus, but I imagine there was a good degree of anxiety here, too.  How could there not be?  I can’t begin to imagine what the people of Watertown must have been feeling through it all: hearing the gun fights, explosions, and opening their homes to SWAT Teams, to say nothing of the man who found the younger suspect in his boat.  The very thought of that discovery makes me absolutely ill. 

But even on Friday, as our doors were locked and we watched SWAT teams and armored trucks roar through city streets, streets we know and have visited, where friends and family live, we found ourselves struggling against fear and paralysis and struggling toward life.  I was heartened, in particular, by emails, text messages, phone calls, and Facebook posts from friends and family all over the country and the world, checking up on me, to see if I were okay.  I suspect that you had similar experiences of friends and family reaching out in love and concern.  I had wonderful, thoughtful messages from people I hadn’t heard from in a very long time.  Even in a time of stress, anxiety, and fear we find the hope of new life, abundant life, Easter life breaking through and breaking in.

Because, of course, that’s what Easter is all about.  It’s about hope that breaks into fear, joy that overcomes sadness, and life that is stronger and more powerful than death.  And that, surely, is what we have experienced here in Boston this week—hope, joy, and new life.  It doesn’t make the marks of the crucifixion go away—they never will totally go away—especially for those who lost limbs, or much worse, beloved family members and friends whose lives were torn away.  But even they, too, who were most affected by the bombings and the horrible aftermath will smile again—not because the suspects have been apprehended, that’s only a small part of it, as the families of the victims have said so eloquently and painfully—but because they have to, because we all have to, we all have to smile again, because God is always taking that which is dead and broken and transforming it into something new, something hopeful, something alive.  Because God is always taking us and transforming us.  Because God is always taking every day turning it into Easter.

You know, just as the people of Watertown, Boston, and Cambridge were in their locked homes this past Friday, on the very first Easter morning some 2,000 years ago, after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples, too, were locked away, afraid that the authorities would come after them.  They feared any knock on the door.  They feared that they would be next.  The world as they knew it seemed to be crumbling around them, turning to madness.  Of course they were even more isolated, since they didn’t have TV, Internet, Facebook or Twitter to keep them updated on what was happening outside.  But even so, into their fear, into their locked rooms and into their locked hearts, the resurrected Christ appeared.  He said to them “Peace be with you.” He said, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  And he said, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I love you.  I’ll be with you.  I’ll hold you.  I’ll care for you.  And I will raise you up.  I will give you eternal life, and you will never perish.  No one will snatch you from my hand.  And I will wipe every tear from your eyes." And as he breaks into our locked rooms, and into our locked hearts, and into our locked lives, he says the same to us: Peace, Love, Care, Life.  Thanks be to God. 

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

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What transformed doubt into faith and fear into joy?: A sermon for Easter Day

It’s wonderful to see you all here on this beautiful spring morning, when we celebrate and receive the love and promise of God: a love that was longed for throughout human history, from the moment of creation, and is so powerful that even the cruelty of the cross could not defeat it.  It’s encouraging to see the church so full, to have everyone dressed in their Easter finest, to be surrounded by beautiful flowers and wonderful music. It helps, too, after this long winter season that spring finally seems to be on its way, as evidenced by the brave purple crocuses bursting into new life on the church grounds.  They started springing up here at Emmanuel earlier this week, anticipating our Easter celebrations by just a few days and reminding us that new life, resurrected life is coming, slowly but surely.

And, you know, it’s wonderful to remember that it’s not only Emmanuel, inside and outside, that’s so full of life and vibrancy this morning, but churches all over the world.  Because today, people in countless languages and cultures, from any number of denominational backgrounds, are gathering with those they care for most, in the communities they care for most, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s dazzling promise of new life, with music and flowers, with Alleluias and Easter eggs, with jellybeans and chocolate bunnies, and the real Easter bunny, and all sorts of joyful exuberance.  By the way, our kids here this morning, and their parents, can look forward to some of that exuberance a little later with the Easter egg hunt outside, just don’t stomp on the pretty little crocuses.  They’ve worked hard and waited a long time to come to life.  It’s their Easter, too.

But, all of these good and hopeful things don’t mean that Easter, in its own way, isn’t sometimes a difficult celebration to grasp and understand, since at its center is a story, a miracle, that requires us to believe in something that science and nature tell us is impossible—that one who was dead is now alive.  In fact, one of the online commentaries I was reading this week in preparation for this morning was titled rather bluntly, “If it’s not hard to believe, you’re probably not paying attention.”  Because the story of Easter is hard to believe.

That’s why the resurrection is a matter for faith and not science.  No one can prove the resurrection by science or logic or any other means.  And no one can explain how exactly it happened.  Even the Bible doesn’t try to explain it.  If you notice, it tells us stories of the resurrection, of how people heard the angels’ message and encountered the risen Christ, often when they least expected to see him.  But the Bible never explains how it happened, or what exactly happened—the stone is already rolled away and the tomb empty by the time the women arrive early on Sunday morning.  In fact, the gospels present the resurrection as something that’s very hard to understand—maybe even the hardest thing in the world to understand.  And yet, it’s the centerpiece of our faith.

One of the aspects of the various gospel accounts of Easter that I really appreciate is the fact that in every case the people who come to the tomb are surprised, perplexed, and don’t know what to believe.  You’ll notice that when they encounter the empty tomb and hear the angels’ say that they should not seek the living among the dead, they never immediately shout out joyfully “Alleluia!” or “Praise the Lord” or “Christ is Risen,” as we have done so exuberantly this morning.  No, instead they’re afraid, perplexed, shaken to the core.  They don’t know what to believe.  In fact, they can’t believe. 

Our Bible translation this morning says that the disciples thought the women were engaging in “idle tales” when they came and shared the news of the empty tomb and the resurrection. That sounds a bit like they women were gossiping maybe, but the original Greek could also be translated to mean that they thought the women were delirious or crazy. I suspect that when it actually happened in history the men really did think the women were off their rockers, delirious, or nutty.  I kind of like that, actually.  Not that the men thought the women were nuts, that’s a too little stereotypical and sexist (a reminder that the gospel was written by a man), but I like that the gospel stories of that first Easter Day are so honest, so human.  They might even be the most honest parts of the Bible, filled with doubts and fears and anxieties of so many kinds.  So, if you’re having trouble with this resurrection business, with these seemingly fanciful, idle tales, take heart and know that those who knew Jesus in person felt the very same way.

So then, what changed?  What transformed doubt into faith and fear into joy? 

Well, we can’t know for certain.  But here’s what I think.  I think that when the disciples—both the 12 apostles that we know the most about, like Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the rest, and the others, including the women in today’s gospel, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the rest—when they joined Jesus in his ministry of teaching and healing and touching and loving, they were yearning for something, anything, they were willing to try something, anything, to give meaning and purpose to their lives.  Life was so hard for them, extraordinarily hard, and they felt so beaten down by it, that they were willing to break any and every rule and assumption and convention to live in a different way, in a deeper way, in a Jesus way, in a way that was connected to God and each other. 

And Jesus, in his life and ministry, helped them to make that connection.  In fact, they believed that he was that connection—the bridge—between God and human life.  That’s why they followed him. That’s why they left everything and risked everything and endured everything, to be with him, to learn from him, to love him and to be loved by him, to find something really real and truly true in their lives.  And then when Jesus was crucified they thought that the bridge between God and themselves was broken, torn down, destroyed.  And their resulting grief was so profound, so searing, so shattering, that they forgot what Jesus had told them about the new life, the abundant life, the resurrection life that was to come.  They forgot it, or maybe they remembered it put they it aside as a fanciful dream, nonsense, and focused instead on what they knew to be really real and truly true: pain, loss, and death.

But eventually, not right away, but eventually, and amazingly, as they heard the angels’ message of good news, as they saw the empty tomb, as they searched their hearts and souls, they came to the realization, the belief, the conviction, that the only really real thing in life, or at least the most real thing in life, must be something that most people find unreal, just as Jesus himself had taught, showed, and lived, each and every day.  They realized, as Jesus had taught, that life is stronger than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always, always conquers evil.  And through that belief, and remembering Jesus’ teaching and the witness of Jesus’ life, they were able to believe in the resurrection as well.  In fact, they had to believe in the resurrection.  They had no choice but to believe, and no choice but to trust, and no choice but to know, that Christ is risen.  He has to be, because there’s no other option.

And the same is true for us.  If we try to understand the resurrection or explain it or submit it to the proofs of science and logic we’ll always be left disappointed.  There is no explanation; there is no proof.  And I suspect there never will be.  But on the other hand, if we search our hearts and souls we might just discover that the Easter story, and the promise of resurrection are actually quite easy to believe, not because of science or logic, but simply because we trust in the promises of God.  Because like the disciples who followed Jesus some 2,000 years ago we, too, believe that life is stronger death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always, always conquers evil. 

And if we believe those things, well, then, a belief in the resurrection, a belief in Easter, a belief in new and abundant life, is not so hard to come to and grasp to after all.  In fact, if we believe those things—that life is strong than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always conquers evil—then we must believe in the promise of resurrection as well—not only as a great, miraculous thing that happened to Jesus some 2,000 years ago, but as something that God does among us all, each and every day, as we live in God’s love and as we live in God’s hope. 

That resurrected life, that Easter life holds us and sustains us, when life is hard and when it’s pretty good, too. It gives us courage to lay aside the struggles of the past look to tomorrow with hope and confidence. And it reminds us, as does this wonderful spring morning, with its beautiful flowers bursting into life, that what we see is not all that there is.  And that promise, that reality, each year and always, every Easter, leads us to shout with great joy,

Alleluia! Christ is Risen.  Happy Easter.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Focus on Faith: On Presidents, Immigration, & the American Dream

The following was written for the Focus on Faith column in the Wakefield Daily Item.  

Earlier this month, as I was visiting my family in Minneapolis for our Christmas celebrations, my mother and I took a side trip to St. Paul to undertake some research at the Minnesota Historical Society Library.  Included in its archives are old church records, immigration and citizenship records, birth and death records, 150 years of newspapers, and more.  Our mission was to find information on my great-grandparents who emigrated from Sweden around 1890. 

While we didn’t find everything we were hoping for, especially details on where in Sweden my great-grandmother was born, we did find church and state records on their marriage in a Swedish Episcopal Church in Minneapolis 1899 and their U.S. citizenship applications.  The latter documents, especially, are dramatic.  In them, my great-grandparents stated their desire to become naturalized United States citizens and therefore renounced their allegiance to the King of Sweden and Norway (as the two Scandinavian kingdoms were joined at that time). 

Seeing those documents, with my great-grandparents’ signatures, made me wonder if the decision to come to this new nation was difficult for them, if they ever thought of their previous homes with longing, or if they embraced with joy all of the challenges and the opportunities that life in America presented.  I suspect they lived with a combination of these varied emotions, but over time settled well into the new realities of life here, seeking to make a better life for themselves and their children than they knew in their far away homeland.

I was thinking about my immigrant great-grandparents earlier this week while I was watching President Obama’s inauguration.  I was thinking of how our nation has evolved since 1890 and how the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the promise of a land in which all people are created equal, that drew my ancestors across the ocean to this place is still burning in the hearts of American citizens and immigrants alike today.  I also thought of how hard-fought the realization of that dream and promise has been for many and how the struggle is on-going for others.  Whatever our political persuasions, the inauguration of President Obama and the vision he articulated for an America that includes all of God’s people who call this nation home is one that I believe should draw us together. 

In a particularly eloquent moment in his inaugural address the president reminded us of the struggle to realize opportunity and equality in our nation, invoking the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  President Obama said: "Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.  We the people today declare that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal--is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

We may, and probably will, differ on the best way to create the unity and freedom that lies at the heart of the American dream, but goal of one people and one nation—made of different origins, faiths, genders, ages, sexual orientations, races, and even political persuasions—can,
I believe, help us transcend the disagreements that have been so fractious in recent decades and guide us to look toward an American future shining brightly with promise and hope.  As a Christian and priest, I would add that it is the future that God hopes for us and will enable us to bring to fulfillment, together, if we rely upon him for help.       

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell