glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Do not be afraid": A Sermon for Easter Day

In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

What a pleasure and delight it is to share this bright (if rather brisk) Easter morning with you. It is a pleasure to see the church looking so Eastery (thanks to our hard-working altar guild), to hear us sounding so Eastery (thanks to our talented and also hard-working choir). Most especially, it is a pleasure and delight to see this place so full and to see you, some parishioners I know well, some families visiting from a distance, and also to see those of you who may be here at Emmanuel for the very first time, or at least for your first Easter. Easter really is when we are at our best—though we’re pretty good the rest of the time, too.

I think maybe we have such a particular fondness for Easter here at Emmanuel because our very first service as a parish was on an Easter morning, all the way back in 1870—some 144 years ago. So, every Easter is our birthday or anniversary in a way. Now, I don’t think any of you here this morning have been coming to us quite that long, since 1870, but whether this is your 90th Easter at Emmanuel or your very first, I want you to know that you are very welcome here, and that we would be more than delighted to have you consider this parish your church home. I’m quite positive that those who are familiar with our community, whether longer term members or newer, would attest that this is a warm, welcoming and inclusive congregation. We are made of up people of every background and perspective, all united in our love of God and in our desire to share that love, that Easter, resurrection love, with each other and with the wider community.

You know, something I often find myself reflecting on, especially on days like Easter, days when we remember back to long ago stories and sacred traditions, is how much we, today, in the year 2014, are just like the people we read about in the Bible. Here we are, separated by thousands of years in different contexts, and yet our desires, inclinations, and thoughts are almost exactly the same. Sure, we have cars and the Internet and smart phones, but who we are deep down, who we are as human beings is exactly the same. Like Peter and Paul, like John and James, and Mary Magdalene and Mary Jesus’ mother, we have families and many of us have jobs (or have had, or will have). We worry about our future and our kids’ futures and we care for aging parents, some of us have wonderfully fulfilling personal relationships, while others of us too often feel alone and have what seem to be more than our fair share of struggles. Like people in ages past we also get sick and desire healing. We long for understanding, we long for hope, we long for a sign, some sign, that things will turn out right for us and for those dearest to us. Whether we use the words or not, we long for God.

I suspect that more than anything else, it was this longing, this deep inward longing for healing, and understanding, for hope and for God, that first drew people to Jesus, so long ago. Whatever Jesus looked like, whatever he sounded like, whatever his personality was like—there was something about him, some great spark or fire in his soul, perhaps—that had the power to draw people in. Just being with him, or being touched by him, made people, of any background, feel whole, accepted, alive, and real even. It must have been so extraordinary. And probably, it was not really like anything that we can even begin imagine now, so many years later.

And then, suddenly, in a flash, on that Friday, he was gone. Although we know that it happened  (all four gospels tell us so), that too is really beyond our imagining and our understanding. We know that most of those who had followed Jesus, those who had been touched and healed by him, those who had been taught and fed, fled and went into hiding during and after the crucifixion. Some, like Peter, even denied that they had known Jesus. Whatever healing, whether physical or spiritual, whatever new and abundant life he had given them was suddenly gone, overtaken by grief, and also by fear. Perhaps fear that they might be next. Or maybe even fear that everything they had come to believe so powerfully was really all just a big lie. Maybe Jesus wasn’t so close to God after all. Maybe it was all just wrong. So, what did they do? They locked themselves away. They wouldn’t even answer a knock on the door, they were so afraid.

Fear really is hard to overcome, isn’t it? It is so immobilizing. Whether the object of our fear is real or imaginary, whether it’s concern about a medical diagnosis, or a sudden 2:00 a.m. panic about work or bills, or even if it’s a monster under the bed or a ghost in the closet that we are afraid of, fear can often become so consuming that it is impossible to even move. Like Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday and the days following, at times like that, when we are afraid, locking ourselves away in a secret room may seem like the only reasonable and safe solution. But, of course, it doesn’t really help. Not really. In fact, it probably just makes it worse. Because then, we let our fear direct our lives. We allow it to have power over us, which is just what it wants.

I remember having an inkling of that kind of fear back on September 11, 2001. I had just started working for Episcopal City Mission at the diocesan offices in Boston. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, most of the staff went up to Bishop Shaw’s office to watch the news, as he had the only TV. After the horror of it all became clear, there was a Eucharist and prayer service in the cathedral, led by Bishop Barbara Harris, and then the bishops closed the offices at about noon. I lived in Jamaica Plain and the only to get home was on the subway. I remember thinking that we probably were safer at the cathedral than on public transportation, but of course I had to go. That ride home was the quietest, eeriest and most surreal I ever remember. Once I got to my apartment, I felt a lot like Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday. I just wanted to lock the door and never go outside again.

Similar feelings were rekindled the week of the Marathon bombing a year ago, especially, for me, on that surreal Friday, when Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown were all in lockdown. Do you remember how every TV station was endlessly just showing live shots of tanks and SWAT teams going from door to door to door, knocking and searching, knocking and searching. I live in Quincy, not in the lockdown area, but close to it, and I, too, was hesitant, apprehensive, about being outside. I did go out some, for lunch and a walk. It was actually a beautiful spring day, as I recall, but the only sounds outside I remember hearing were birds chirping and police sirens echoing through the air.

Fear—whether justified or imaginary—can be, and often is immobilizing. It is so consuming, and limiting, and un-empowering. Fear prevents us from believing, from seeing, from hoping and working and striving for something better. In fact, fear is contrary to everything that Jesus taught and did and lived, each and every day of his life and ministry. It is contrary to the life—the abundant life—he so desires for us.

Which, as it happens, is exactly why we have Easter and the resurrection. More than anything, what the resurrection does, what Easter does, is cast out fear. Or maybe, it’s better to say that the resurrection gives us the courage we need so that we can cast out our own fear, so that we can overcome it. The resurrection is God’s reminder to us, God’s promise really, that no matter what may happen in life, no matter what broken or messed up situation we may find ourselves in, whether of our own making, or something beyond our control, it is not so broken and it is not so messed up that God can’t somehow find a way to redeem it and bring new possibilities into being. Sometimes it may take a while—it won’t always be just three short days, and it won’t always be the way we first envision—but eventually, somehow, new life will spring up: new life, new hope, and a new way. The stories we’ve been hearing lately about the Marathon bombing victims, a year later, are testament to that fact—some who lost legs are dancing, others are getting married or expecting children. Easter promises us that God can take any broken, messed up, rotten situation, and make it new. Not unaffected by the past, not as if it didn’t happen, but renewed and filled with fresh possibilities.

As it happens, that’s what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary discovered on the first Easter morning, along with the empty tomb. Undoubtedly, when they set out early that day their grief was overwhelming, and probably their fear, too. They likely wondered and worried about what was coming next; probably they were fearful about what would become of them without Jesus; they may even have wondered if they could have or should have done or said something differently along the way. Who knows, maybe if they had, Jesus would still be alive, still with them, still teaching and healing, still loving and still being loved.

Of course, as it turns out, as we know, Jesus was still alive, or least, he was alive again, however it happened, beyond their and our explanation and imagining. And do you remember what were his very first words to women when he met them on the road, after greeting them? He said: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Just like the angels at the empty tomb, just like the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in their fields, and just like the Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would bear God’s Son. These words, God’s words, spoken to them, spoken to us, spoken for 2000 years, are always the same: “Do not be afraid.”

The resurrection is God’s way, God’s miraculous, mind-boggling, rule-twisting, world upside-down-turning way, of giving us the strength and courage that we need to overcome our fears, to unlock our doors, and to roll away the stones, so that we can step out of our tombs and away from our fears, so that we can walk confidently into the bright sunlight of Easter morning, able once again to live, fully, and freely, and abundantly.

That’s what this resurrection Easter feast is about. Easter, the resurrection, isn’t only something nice that God did for Jesus, long ago. It is for you, and for us all: whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, whatever our mistakes, whatever our hopes and whatever our fears. Easter promises us all a new day. And it promises us a new chance for a new kind of life, a resurrected kind of life. That life, that resurrected, fear-free life, is God’s Easter gift to you, on this beautiful spring morning, and always.

Just as he greeted the women long ago with these words, so also does the resurrected Jesus greet each of us with the same words and with the same Easter message: “Do not be afraid.”

Alleluia. Christ is Risen. Happy Easter.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Focus on Faith: A Reflection for Passover and Holy Week

Over the course of this week, Jewish and Christian people of faith will be observing some of our most sacred traditions. For Jews, it is the time of Passover (Pesach), commemorating God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt under the Pharaohs. Passover is a weeklong observance (this year from the evening of Monday, April 14 to sundown on Tuesday, April 22). It includes the ritual cleansing of the home, reading of the story of the Exodus, singing, games, and a special dinner with family and friends called a “Seder,” usually held on the first two nights of the holiday.

The Seder meal is both solemn and celebratory, recalling the Israelites’ bondage and strife, as well as their deliverance into freedom under Moses. Not being Jewish myself, I had always assumed (based primarily on my childhood viewing the Ten Commandments with Charleton Heston) that the Passover observances were somber. I learned otherwise when I was invited to a Seder at the home of some Jewish friends when I lived in Canada. There are serious elements, but for the most part it is a joyful celebration, in thanksgiving for God’s goodness. In fact, my hostess told me that she wouldn’t have done her job until I was so stuffed that they would have to roll me out in a wheel barrel. It was just about necessary.

Christians are in the midst of Holy Week. It begins with the remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the celebration of Easter. In between these two high points are plenty of lows, including the recalling of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, his betrayal, arrest, and finally his crucifixion under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. It is believed by Christians that these events occurred during the week of Passover and that Jesus (who was Jewish) was in Jerusalem to observe the holiday.

There are multiple theories and doctrines that attempt to explain why Jesus was crucified (executed as a criminal, in fact), what his death meant nearly 2000 years ago, and what it continues to mean today. In the Roman Empire crucifixion, being the most painful and humiliating punishment conceivable, was reserved for treasonous enemies of the state. So, it likely was a result of claims made (by Jesus, by his followers, or by his enemies) that he was the King of the Jews and the Son of God. In the Roman Empire, only Caesar would have been afforded such lofty titles. Whatever the reasons, we should never lose sight of the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish themselves, even if his teachings challenged the religious standards of his day. The gospels’ attempts to paint the Jewish populace as the “bad guys” in the story of Jesus’ death likely reflect a later prejudice among minority Christians. It is a perspective that has haunted Western civilization ever since and needs to be confronted. It was the Empire that killed Jesus, evidenced by the fact that he was crucified as an enemy of the state.

Most importantly, Christians believe that on the Sunday after his death Jesus rose again. We don’t know and can’t explain how, beyond believing that God is always more powerful than we can imagine. This is what we celebrate on Easter. It is the faith that has sustained Christians for 2000 years. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters believe that God was powerful and faithful enough to free the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, Christians believe that the powers of evil and death were not strong enough to hold or defeat Jesus. For Christians, the resurrection is God’s promise and demonstration to all people that sin, evil, despair and even death cannot and will not have the final word in human life.

So it is that Jewish and Christian individuals, families, and faith communities across the world are simultaneously remembering and celebrating the great promises and actions of God this week. They are promises of hope. They are promises of liberation. They are promises of life—new and abundant life. The Wakefield Interfaith Clergy Association invites you to join one of our faith communities this week and experience that abundant new life for yourself.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.