10 April 2012

Easter ReRun

Odd experience of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter this year.  In some ways it didn't feel like the season at all while in other ways it was the most spiritually nourishing time I've had in years.

We observed Holy Week by attending a social justice themed Good Friday stations of the cross through New Orleans.  I cried through the whole thing.  When you find a group of really liberal Catholics you almost, stressing the ambiguity of almost, begin to think of being one.  It was fantastic.  Holy Saturday was spent with the kids while the missus peddled her wares at the Freret St. Festival.  The kids and I stopped by at the festival; we had a donut, ate some jambalaya (not with the donuts). Afterwards we headed to the library to stock up for the week and checkout #1's favorite movie of all time: The Sound of Music.  It was a great day.

Easter was a calculated day.  The missus and I talked it over and over, finally we decided on a bold move: we skipped Easter.  I reckoned that my next 25 to 30 Easters will be accounted for.  So we decided to celebrate in a once in a lifetime way, we went to the French Quarter.  We put on Easterish clothes (the ladies decorated their hats) and headed to Cafe DuMonde for beignets and coffee and to catch a parade. But while we were eating fried dough and powered sugar the parade came and went.  Oh well.  The kids climbed the trees in Jackson Square and I marveled at the wise wardrobe choice I made for eating beignets.  You see reader, if you have never eaten this delectable delights in the fine establishment, Cafe DuMonde empties a 60lb bag of powered sugar into a dispenser for your beignets every two hours.  After an order, despite your best attempts, you end up wearing a good portion of that 60lbs.  See the picture for my wise choice.  After the FQ we headed to a friend's house for supper, conversation, and wonderful NOLA weather.  It was a great day but I gotta tell you - I missed Easter, so much.

Since I didn't write a sermon this year I am posting my 2011 Easter message.  If you weren't here or have forgotten it already...enjoy.

So here we are just you and I trying to figure out this crazy day.  Maybe you are here under duress, forced to dress up in clothes you don’t like and urged to sing songs you’re not in the mood to sing, maybe you are here for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, with curious intimations, maybe you are here for the 75th time knowing for sure you have heard the old, old story in just about every manner and every which way but loose, or maybe, just maybe you are hoping to catch a glimpse of some good news, enough to help you make it through the day. 
                        Let us pray,
O God take our hands and work through them
                             our eyes and see through them
our minds and think through them
                        and take our hearts and set them on fire.  Amen.
            On the comfortable night of Christmas with the birth of Joseph’s and Mary’s babe we were given the promise of Immanuel, God is with us.  And for 33 odd years the promise rang true.  Then it all ended on Good Friday with the death of Jesus.  In a Nazi prison cell, awaiting his own execution, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered this poetic interpretation of the Christmas promise and Good Friday, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps.

            I find in Bonhoeffer’s words a strange comfort, especially on Easter morn, especially as we hear Jesus’ word of Greeting.  His greeting is not of this world, the world of power and politics, the world of greed and commerce, the world of war and hate, forced out of “that world” onto a cross and into the real world undetected, anonymous, subterranean; the real world of love, grace, peace, healing, and religious affections.  This morning let us set our hearts on the intimations in Jesus’ first words from the grave as the sign for how God re-initiated the relationship with the disciples, with creation and this morning with us. 

            For three years Jesus walked, talked, ate, slept, cajoled, loved, graced, healed, taught, lifted up, challenged, questioned and formed the men and women we call disciples.  For three years he shared out his heart, mind, body, and soul with them, sparing not one ounce of his love from them.  And then…and then on Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, the day of his execution, the day of his death they were nowhere to be found, seen or heard from.  And then…and then he appeared on Easter morn with his first word, Greetings!  Hello! 

            It is subtle yet remarkable new beginning but then this is Easter.

            In and out of the past 40 days of Lent we have been churning in the waters of sin, the waters of the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and, pride.  The list was designed as a teaching tool by the church fathers and mothers to educate believers about sin; to give concrete examples of how sin is not just harmful but lethal; how it destroys human life and human community.  The Seven Deadly Sins offer us a prism to refract how sin weaves, works, and slithers into our hearts and minds.  At first glance the list seems dangerous but not deadly; the sins seem too personal to cause societal harm.  And that is their paradoxical genius they are so personal they are societal.  We have committed all seven of them, as has our society.  We have witnessed lives and societies torn asunder by them.  We have been victims of the effects of these sins. We live in a society that perpetuates and enables these sins over, and over, and over again.  Sin is both a personal action that we commit and a condition that our world lives with.

            What we talk about when we talk about sin is idolatry – the conscious and unconscious decision to swap the Living God for a false god(s).  The swap is never plain and simple like declaring one day to your family and friends, I am now a follower of Thor.  Instead, the swap takes place slowly over time whereby the false gods of our day infiltrate their destructive and damaging ways.
            The Seven Deadly Sins, not generic sin, names the destructive patterns and methods of sin in our lives.  By naming the sin and describing the action of sin we are able to illuminate them and, hopefully, begin to lifelong process of loosening the bonds of sin on our souls.  The list provides us with a way to understand how sin, which Martin Luther, defined as a heart turned inward on itself.  The list also provides us for a way to understand the full effect of sin which Nathaniel Hawthorne described as the withering of the human soul.  And the list provides us a way to experience Easter.

            On Easter morn, one word, greeting encapsulated the way of God’s heart.  In that one word our internal compass began to point to true north. Sin’s goal is to turn our hearts and minds inward to focus only ourselves; sin does not seek to increase among creation the love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.  Jesus’ goal was to live a life with a heart turned outward to the world to increase the love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self among men and women …and God honored that life on Easter morn. 

After the Resurrection there was no room in Jesus’ heart for bitter anger or resentment directed to the disciples for their abandonment of him in his great hour of need, there was only room to start the relationship over in a new and deeper way, Greetings. 
For the most part we prefer to define one another according to sin rather than according to God’s grace.  But God will not let us get away with this type of understanding.  Jesus’ greeting to the disciples on Easter morn stands in our way. Despite the failings of the disciples, despite our failings God in Jesus Christ did not/does not give up on us.  Greetings!  This morning we are reminded that God does not give up on us. 

You may have heard G. K. Chesterton’s famous quip, It is not that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.  For the most part he is right, most of us simply cannot go through with the demands of Christianity then along comes someone who just doesn’t or doesn’t know about the difficulty and everything changes, instead of silence or bitterness there is a Greeting. 
            In recent years it seems every major leader of the Revolutionary period has been the subject of a major biography, just this past week Ron Chernow won the Pulitzer for his work on George Washington but there is another person of the same period who had the courage, the capacity, and conviction – Easter conviction who did far more for our nation than Washington, Adams or Jefferson.  His name was John Woolman born in 1720 near Mount Holly, NJ.  The way he sought to abolish America’s original sin of slavery illustrates a life of Greetings, a heart turned outward.  

            For the first 36 years of his life he lived a normal American Quaker existence.  In 1756 he left his burgeoning merchandise business, he felt it was pulling him away from following God’s “openings.” He began recording the motions of God’s opening in what is now the thin volume entitled, The Journal of John Woolman, second only to the Bible as the longest in print book in America.   

            In 1746 while visiting Quakers in North Carolina he came face-to-face with the evils of chattel slavery.  He knew he had to do something but what?  Society was not interested in abolition, slavery kept the plantations in the South prospering, the merchants in New York supplied, and the Yankee rum industry fermenting.  He could not turn for help from his brother and sister Quakers.  In 1730 they flatly squashed any and all debate of an anti-slavery campaign.  Fellow Quaker Benjamin Lay, an Englishman via Barbados had emigrated to America to take up the anti-slavery cause but instead of finding a welcome home among Quakers in 1730 they expelled him from the Society of the Yearly Meeting.  Woolman had to find his own way.

            He did what he did best, he traveled and he talked.  A few weeks each year he would travel up and down the East coast to visit with Quakers who owned slaves until his death in 1772.  He was persuasive,  not confrontational.  His effort was a household by household ordeal.  Some hearts were changed by his words, most were not.  His life was a life of Greetings – an incarnate means to increase the love of God, neighbor, and self.  Once God said hello to Woolman in the manner of an Easter Greeting, he knew that in this new world slavery had no place.  By 1787, without notice or fanfare, 15 years after his death, no American Quaker owned a slave, largely because of his quiet loving work and his enduring legacy. His life and his work are refractions of Easter, of Greetings, of a heart turned outward towards the world.

            The writer(s) of the book of Hebrews gave some instruction about how we are to live this life of Easter, they are not easy words, “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it is.”   Those words are an imperative for Easter living, live a life with the full commitment of increasing the love of God, neighbor and self with every individual you come in contact with, not just some but all. 

            On an August night in 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer attended a mass meeting at the Williams Chapel Church in Ruleville, MS to hear one of Martin Luther King’s right hand men, James Bevel.  Bevel delivered a short sermon based on the Sermon on the Mount that with a proclamation, the time had come for blacks in the Mississippi delta to organize to register to vote.  Fannie, a 44 year old woman, answered the call.   At the end of the month she and 17 other people boarded a bus and rode 30 miles to Indianola, so they could register.  After waiting all day the clerk rejected her attempt.  The 18 boarded the bus and started home.  Barely out of city limits the bus was pulled over and a citation was issued.  Everyone on the bus was scared to death until Fannie began singing, Have a Little Talk with Jesus, This Little Light of Mine, and Down by the Riverside.    

            From then she was known as the voice of the Sunflower County movement.  Despite losing her job, her house, her network of friends and security, despite having the room she slept in littered with shotgun blasts, she preserved as a foot solider for justice.  Then there was Freedom Summer in Greenwood, MS in1963.

            After a mass meeting Ms. Hamer and others were arrested as they traveled home.  The police took them to the county jail instead of the city jail. Three women were singled out for a beating.  Fannie was last.  The police got two African-American male prisoners whiskey drunk, ordered Fannie to lay face down, and instructed the men to beat her without mercy as they watched.  When the ordeal ceased Fannie’s back was so bruised and her body so disfigured, she could not lay down on her bed and she could not speak.  It would take her over a month to recuperate, she was left with permanent kidney and leg walking damage.  A decade later as a result of complications from her beating she would die from breast cancer . 

            Somehow she was able to compose and reinsert herself as a mother of the movement.  The following summer of ’64 at the Democratic National Convention Senator Humber Humphrey, who was campaigning for Vice President, would call her “that illiterate black woman.” The wounds on her body, the haunting memories in her mind, and the raining insults could not stop her Greetings to the world, she found the strength to turn her heart outwards.  She was living in a new world and no one could tell her otherwise.  She stated time and time again that civil rights had to be an inter-racial movement.  She stated time and time again that unless justice and freedom were extended to all then justice and freedom were useless principles.

            The Civil Rights Movement is full of tragic and triumphant stories, which for me, stand out more than others in Christian history because they are full of Easter stories: human flourishing and abundant life were so close, repentance & metanoia were so close they could kiss, racial reconciliation and non-violence, and peace were wedded, truth and transformation could not be untangled.

            If Easter is to be the day that transforms our lives, that reorients creation, and turns our hearts outwards to the world then it must be the day when we too feel the pull of God’s arm when God resurrected Jesus from the dead.  It must be a day that enlivens us to continue our work despite the lack of progress or relevance.  It must be the day that we hear with our ears and feel in our souls Jesus’ Greeting. 

            In closing, it was the Rev. A. J. Muste who everyday during the Vietnam war stood outside of the Whitehouse with a candle holding vigil until the war ceased.  One night in the pouring rain a reporter asked him what he thought he was accomplishing with his simple act of protest, did he really think he was going to change the world?  Muste responded, Oh I’m not doing this to change the world.  I’m doing this so the world doesn’t change me! 

            This morning brothers and sisters we are called to live our lives as Easter people, to say Greetings to the world over, and over, and over again so we can change the world and the world does not change us – regardless if anyone ever takes notice of our efforts and attempts to heal the world, to mend the brokenness of creation, to increase among men and women the love of God, the love of neighbor and the love of self. 

We are Easter people to whom God has extended his greeting, a hello which in a physical way states God’s grace is greater than all our sin.  Brothers and Sisters, allow God to turn your heart inside out, for we are Easter people and Alleluia is our song.  Amen & Amen.

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