glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Resurrection, Star Wars, and Special Effects: A Sermon for Easter Morning

Those who are regular parishioners at Emmanuel Church, and those who visit us often for big festival days—like Easter and Christmas—know that I am a major Star Wars fan. They know because I talk about it lots. In fact, I think some parishioners even place bets on whether (or how often) I will mention Star Wars in my holiday sermons. I don’t do it every Sunday, just so you know, but holidays somehow bring out my youthful enthusiasm. So, if you made such a bet this year, you definitely won. And since the next movie—The Last Jedi—is coming out at Christmastime this year, you can place your bets early that I won’t be able to restrain myself, and will be talking about it again then. Almost certainly

Well, the reason I mention Star Wars this morning—beyond the fact that an exciting new trailer was released on Friday, along with some behind the scenes photos of the filming, including some of our beloved late Princess Leia—besides all that, is because this morning’s Easter gospel passage from St. Matthew sounds to me like it comes directly out of a George Lucas script, with dramatic special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic: a great earthquake; the appearance of an angel, as bright as lightning; guards shaking and becoming like dead men; and the women looking on in stunned awe and wonder.

It’s a scene that would fit in any contemporary sci fi movie. And yet, as reported in the gospel, it is a story nearly 2,000 years old. So, either the author, Matthew the evangelist, had a spectacular imagination—even without the aid of movie special effects—or he was describing in the only way he could the phenomenal experience at the tomb on Easter morning. Personally, I tend to think it was the latter. It wasn’t just his especially vivid imagination at work here. Resurrection wasn’t something that someone just made up a long time ago and described in dramatic fashion. Rather, instead, it was a new, powerful, and truly earth-shaking kind of reality that many, many friends of Jesus, like the women there at the tomb, experienced as really real, even if the whole story was unbelievable and even preposterous to others.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes as time passes we can get caught up or tripped up in the fantastic language and imagery of spectacle, and we wonder if it could possibly be true—in the same way that we easily dismiss a science fiction movie as thrilling to watch, but very far from the reality we know. For example, I’ve never seen any dazzling, lightning bright angels, any more than I’ve actually seen Darth Vader. And I definitely haven’t seen my loved ones come back to life, much as I miss them and want to have them here with me again. So, then this Easter magic, is it really real, or is it a fanciful dream, or is it maybe just an impossible wish?

Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus is not something that we can prove in an empirical or scientific way. The first Easter was much too long ago for that. And besides, you can’t really prove matters of faith anyway—because they are just that, matters of faith. What’s more, all four gospels describe the resurrection somewhat differently, if you set them side by side—Matthew’s version is by far the most dramatic, with the earthquake and angel appearing like lightning—but they each seek to put into words that are ultimately too small and limited an experience, a reality, that probably was and is beyond words or adequate explanation.

You may have noticed that this time of year there are always TV specials that seek to prove or disprove that something in the Bible happened. I even recently read an article in the British newspaper the Guardian which dealt with whether Jesus was even a real person—apparently 40% of the adult British population question whether Jesus really lived. Despite this skepticism, the overwhelming evidence is that Jesus was real—which is not news to any of us here this morning. Though, sometimes the finer details his life can be elusive.

In any case, while all of these investigations can most definitely be interesting, I think they tend to miss the greater point in the biblical narrative. They get so bogged down in whether and how something was possible that they fail to recognize that the whole purpose of such stories is to reflect upon the belief that God was and is active in the world, and in particular that God was and is active in the lives of ordinary people, in the lives of people just like us.

What we know, beyond the earthquake, the lightning bright angel, and the divine special effects, is that belief in the resurrection, belief in the life-changing and even world-changing miracle of Easter has encouraged, sustained, and propelled people of faith for 2000 years—from the women at the tomb early on the first Easter morning, all the way to us today. Comfort and encouragement, empowerment and liberation, hope and new life are all the hallmarks of this fantastic day.
What the miracle of Easter tells us is that the God we believe in is more powerful than death. The miracle of Easter tells us that the God we believe in can and will and does overcome evil with new and abundant life. The miracle of Easter tells us that there is nothing more powerful than the love and life of God—not the cross, not the mightiest empire on earth, not the power of sin, not our own wayward desires and failings. Nothing. What’s more, this mighty, powerful resurrection is not something that God did once for Jesus a long time ago, while the rest of us wait and wait and wait. If it were just that, it wouldn’t have much meaning at all.

No, what happened on that first Easter morning was really just the beginning. It was the opening chapter, or maybe the first scene, in a powerful, dynamic, living story—a living story that God continues to write and direct, sometimes without so many special effects, but in real human lives, in lives just like ours. Jesus’ resurrection was just the beginning of a new age of life and love, of liberation and empowerment. But, like the women at the tomb, it is up to us to share the good news of this resurrection. It is up to us to witness to its power and earth-shaking truth. It is even up to us to make resurrection real.

We do that, we make resurrection real, by rising ourselves. By rising from the stone-cold tombs that we create and too often call home. We make resurrection real by living—fully, abundantly, and freely. We make resurrection real by giving ourselves over to God’s love: a love so great that it was willing to die for us, even as we, like Jesus, share God’s love in full measure. We make resurrection real by being, by truly being, the living and breathing Body of Christ in a world that desperately needs us, in a world that desperately needs the life-shaking, world-shaking, liberating, empowering hope of resurrection faith now more than ever. We make resurrection real by knowing and testifying to the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God—no government, no cross, no illness, no poverty, no evil, no death. Nothing.

That’s what resurrection meant 2000 years ago, on that first Easter morning, and it’s what it means even still, even now, even today. The special effects—earthquakes and dazzling, lightning bright angels—are dramatic, a nice touch to make us sit up and take notice. But they are not the real thing. The real thing is life. New life. Abundant life. Liberated life. The real thing is your life. It’s my life. It’s Jesus’ life. Life lived in and with God.

Be that life today. Make Easter real today. Make resurrection real.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Let’s join them as they run and shout, with our lives, Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Remembering St. Patrick

Focus on Faith
Published in the Wakefield Daily Item
March 15, 2017

If you had met my grandfather and were to ask him about his ethnic or cultural background, he would have told you that he was Irish, and that his ancestors came from County Cork. What always seemed funny to me, though, is that our last name sounds more English than Irish. After undertaking online genealogical research I discovered that, indeed, our ancestral background is more complicated than Grandpa was aware (or likely would have admitted).

His first ancestors came to the American colonies from England in the late 17th century, landing in Boston and then settling in Connecticut. The Irish ancestors came much later, in the 19th century. A subsequent DNA test confirmed these discoveries, suggesting that Grandpa was likely 65% Irish and 35% English. He died in 1986, so I am saved the difficult task of sharing these shocking discoveries with him. From his current vantage point it likely doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Later this week, on March 17, people of many heritages and backgrounds will be observing St. Patrick’s Day. For one day, we are all a little Irish—whatever facts our family trees or DNA tests may reveal. For some, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to party—to wear green, drink a Guinness or Irish whisky, eat a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, and maybe attend a parade. Sometimes the celebrations of Irish pride can get a little raucous, though all in good fun.

Unfortunately, St. Patrick himself is often left behind in the burst of green exuberance. He was a fascinating figure, the impact of whose life we are still feeling today. Ironically, St. Patrick was not, himself, Irish. He was born on the northwest coast of Britain about the year 390. His grandfather had been a Christian priest and his father was a deacon and an official in the Roman imperial government of Britain. At about the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish slave-raiders and brought to Ireland, where he was forced into service as a shepherd. Later he wrote that he deepened in his relationship with God during his enslavement.

After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped. He took an arduous journey by foot to the Irish coast, where he found a ship that took him back to Britain. Once there, he devoted himself to the study of Christianity. Eventually he was ordained as a priest and bishop. A powerful vision led him to return to Ireland, around the year 431—this time as a missionary, rather than as a slave. His new life in Ireland was not easy. His teaching and presence were not always well received. He was a foreigner, without the protection of local kings and chieftains. He spent time in prison and at one point feared execution. In his autobiography he writes that he was criticized by his contemporaries for his lack of learning.

Even so, Patrick’s message of Christian hope led to the conversion of many. Legend suggests that he used local symbols to explain the Christian faith—like the three-leaved shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He made his appeal to local kings and through them to their tribes, leading thousands to be baptized. Patrick ordained priests and had churches erected over sites held as sacred by the old pagan religion. Crosses were carved on old druidic pillars. He rededicated sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian saints. Tradition holds that Patrick died on March 17, 461. Although never canonized by a pope, he was venerated as a saint by the Irish people and local Christian communities soon after his death.

What we know of Patrick’s actual life is far more inspiring than the exuberant parties on his feast day would lead us to believe. He is a saint for the Irish people, of course. But, in reality, he can be admired by people of diverse backgrounds—immigrants in desperate search of better lives in new lands, those whose strong faith sustains them through trials and tribulations, people seeking release from captivity and enslavement of many kinds, and anyone in search of meaning and hope. Patrick’s life and story can be guide and inspiration to us all as we journey through life and draw closer to God, whatever our ethnic or religious background.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day—to Grandpa Howie, to you, and all who are or who feel Irish this week. May Patrick’s life inspire you in your own search for meaning, hope, and new life. May he lead you to welcome the stranger with open hearts and open arms. May his life of faith spark your own faith. Most of all, may God bless you. Sláinte!

 © The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Politics, Prophecy, and Fishing for People: A Sermon Following an Inauguration

So, it may—or it may not—surprise you to know that sometimes, some weeks, I have a hard time figuring out what I should say in my sermons. Sometimes it’s because the readings appointed for the day are rather obscure or obtuse, other times because my life was just too full to focus that week, or sometimes it’s because of world events. This is one of those times. Like many, I am struggling to make sense of the news and changes of past week and what they will mean for us—as Americans, as Christians, and as citizens of the world. For much of the last week (and really since November 9), I tried to keep my head down— focusing on other things, like the church budget, making sure we have candidates in place for our own parish elections, and a rather exuberant and expensive burst online shopping. Retail therapy it’s called.

But, of course, at some point I have to start following the news again. It will probably not come as too much of a surprise to most of you to hear that when it comes to electoral politics, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Although it doesn’t exactly show up on the DNA test, it is definitely one of the genes I inherited from my parents. When I was growing up in Minnesota we even had an autographed photograph of Hubert Humphrey our state’s great hero—inscribed to my father.

Of course, I know that here in our congregation are people of every political persuasion. Some, likely, are excited and hopeful about the new administration in Washington, some are uncertain, and others are filled with anxiety and probably fear and even dread. And yet somehow, in some mysterious God-filled way, we are one community, one family, and one Body in Christ. That fact is one of the greatest joys in my life—in all of our diversity of belief and background, each week we come together in love, to be nourished and strengthened by God’s word, by God’s sacraments, and by the people God has placed in our lives—even people with whom we may disagree. It is not an exaggeration to say that my heart grows in love each time I see you—Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents, liberals and conservatives. I am a better, more generous, and more thoughtful person because I know you, because I love you, because you fill my heart—when we agree, when we disagree, and always. 

And so, my hope, at this critical time in our national life, is that we will find a way to be an example for others, a beacon of hope even, for how people can live together and love together through their disagreement. Not because we shy away from discussing important issues, but because we know that what unites us is real, true, and lasting love. Love that is a gift from God. Love that transforms us, from the inside out. And love that sometimes calls us to speak out and speak up, to confront what we see as a deviation from God’s dream and plan for God’s beloved people.

Some 2,700 years ago the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

It was and still is a powerful message of hope, and it reminds us that people of faith have always looked to the power of God to transform lives and transform the world, in accordance with the principles of justice, peace, and truth. When Isaiah wrote, in the 8th century BC, foreign armies, the Assyrians—from modern day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—were encroaching on the Kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah lived. He interpreted this as God’s judgment for their lack of faithfulness and commitment to the principles of justice and righteousness. He was particularly critical of princes and judges who neglect to defend and support the poor and oppressed.

In the chapter that follows today’s passage, he writes this: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you make the orphan your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? For all this his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still…” It’s a heavy warning, a reminder of how we are called to live and how we are called not to live.  

But, even as he wrote that, Isaiah was confident that God’s chosen—the poor, the oppressed, and those who pursue justice and righteousness—would survive and thrive, restored to abundant life in Zion, the holy city. It may take time, but he believed that restoration would come. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” He believed it had to, because he believed in God, he believed in a God of justice and righteousness. This belief was his faith, his hope, and his life.  

700 years later, Matthew, the author of the gospel, drew inspiration from Isaiah’s words. In fact, he quoted them exactly, as we heard this morning. When Matthew wrote, it wasn’t the Assyrians who were the great threat, but in the Roman armies, which had flattened Jerusalem. Over 350,000 people were killed in the siege.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed the siege, described the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in this way: “As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command… everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.”

It seems very long ago now, nearly 2000 years, but we shouldn’t forget that the gospels were written in the shadow of that horror, which upended and destroyed everything that sacred. People of faith, scattered across the middle east, wondered where they would find hope amid true carnage and oppression under the crushing power of the Roman Empire. Matthew’s answer was in Jesus Christ—a different kind of messiah, who came to power not by commanding armies or with the machinery of war, but instead by inspiring fishermen and carpenters, tax collectors and even prostitutes. It was, Matthew believed, through Jesus and his disciples—as they fished for people, as they broke down barriers, and as they cared for the poor, the sick and disabled—that Isaiah’s vision would come to life.

In other words, Matthew believed that Isaiah’s vision would come to life through a movement—a grass roots movement of ordinary and not especially perfect people, people a lot like us, who were transformed from the inside out by their encounter with the living God, whether that encounter was with Jesus in the flesh by the Galilean Sea as it was for Peter and Andrew, James and John, or for those who came later, sacramentally and spiritually through the Body of Christ, the community that Jesus established as his on-going presence and life in the world. Matthew, so long ago, even in the wake of Rome’s wreckage, believed that this Jesus movement had the power to transform the world.

And you know what, so do I. Some of that transformation may come through the political process, as we vote for candidates who match our values, and then, whether our side wins or loses, as we lobby those who are elected to represent us to stand up for the values of justice and peace. That is important work in a democracy like ours—our elected officials need to hear from us, they need to know that we care about the life-changing decisions that they are called to make. That’s why yesterday’s Women’s Marches, in Washington, here in Boston, and all over the world are so significant, inspiring ordinary people like us to work for what they believe in.  

But even more, the true transformation that we hope for comes in our daily lives and interactions, as we live like Christ lived, as we break down barriers, as we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, as we combat oppression and discrimination whenever and however we encounter it. And most especially and importantly, that transformation will come as we intentionally work to expand our hearts, making room for those whose world views may be different from ours. It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes it’s really hard. But it is who we are called to be, and how we are called to live—as Christians, as followers of Christ, and as fishers of people.

Friday, Inauguration Day, a cable channel called “Decades” was replaying past presidential Inaugural addresses—from Eisenhower to Obama. Late at night I saw a few of them. They were fascinating. Surprisingly, I was really impressed with the first Nixon inauguration speech. It was really good, even inspirational. Given his later history and the fact that he beat my family’s hero, Hubert Humphrey, I wasn’t expecting that at all. My dad is not looking down on me very happily at the moment—look out for stay bolts of lightning today. Of course, the one that really stands out is Kennedy’s. Whether we were alive yet or not—I was still 12 years away—we all remember his iconic lines: “the Torch is passed to a new generation of Americans,” and “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It inspired a generation into service.

Less well remembered were his closing sentences. He said: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

President Kennedy was absolutely correct. God’s work is our own. It is up to us, with God’s help and with God’s blessing, to transform the world, to transform hearts, to bring justice and end oppression, to break down barriers and to fish for people, so that Isaiah’s ancient dream finally and truly becomes reality, through us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” 

Together, as the Body of Christ, as the Jesus movement, as fishers of people, we can make it so.

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

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD