Sunday, April 19, 2015

Resurrection & Reality

The Business of Eternal Life

Part I-Beginning with Reality

Clergy often take a break after Easter. And so my wife and I went to see our son Joshua who recently moved to Charlotte, to see my brother and his wife and their daughter, and to see friends at St Mark's Church, in Saint Albans WV. We covered quite a bit of territory. 

While we were at St Mark's we met up with Chris and his beloved and their daughter. What a joy that was. As a parish priest, I had been through some good times and bad times with Chris. But then one day I reminded him that his name "Christopher" means, literally, "Christ Carrier". I am so proud of what Chris is doing with his life. He has chosen the way that leads to life.

Chris had told me of two friends who OD's on heroin on Easter day, leaving three children motherless and fatherless. They were good people. They were friends but they made some bad choices. And then they died. Their bad choices led to the way that leads to death.

This is precisely what I had preached on Easter Day. The Early Church taught that there are only two ways; the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death.

This is reality.

When we speak of Eternal Life and Resurrection, which I plan to do in the weeks to come, let us always begin with Reality. This is the only place for spirituality to begin. In the REAL.

Reality. The present world clouds any hope we have of seeing eternal life or resurrection.  We live in a world filled with warfare and terror, inequality and injustice, religious fundamentalism and extremism which justifies violence in the name of God. We live in a world that is so secularized that we ourselves have our doubts of the Easter proclamation. We find ourselves often sympathizing with Thomas. “Not till I see it with my own eyes, not till I touch it with my own hands, will I believe it.”

We live between two realities; there is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. The Way that Leads to Life is the Easter Reality and the Way that Leads to Death is the given reality of the world we are born into. This is why the Church teaches that we must undergo a Baptism to a second birth so that we can die to sin and rise again to newness of life.

This is such an urgently vital teaching. It is a matter of life and death, and particularly of the many millions of us whose lives are so vulnerable.

How can we even begin to talk about eternal life and the resurrection of Jesus in such a world? 

Lets try Easter on as a Reality too! Peter claims to have been a witness to it as do the other disciples in today's first lesson. 

In today’s Gospel, we have an account of Jesus’ resurrection. He begins with these words; “Peace be with you”. A startling beginning! In the reality of the disciples’ experience there had been so much turmoil; from the jarring moments when Jesus entered the Temple precincts to overturn the tables of the money changers, to his trial and crucifixion; and then to the reports that the women brought to his rising again and then this: his first resurrection appearance! In the midst of all this overwhelming intensity of inner wonder and amazement, Jesus comes and stands in their very midst and says to them “Peace be with you!” Shhh, Peace, be still and know that I am God, as the Psalmist puts it. ~Psalm 46:10.

This is the second Reality. There is the Reality you and I live with every day. Then, there is the Easter Reality. I wondered how I would approach the Easter reality since the reality we live with every day is so much at dissonance with who Jesus is for us and for the sake of the world we live in. The Gospel’s mandate is that we proclaim forgiveness of sins to all nations beginning with Jerusalem. And I wondered, how well are we doing with that job?

Therefore I am preparing a series of reflections on the Reality of the world we live in as well as the Reality of the Resurrection of Jesus. I will be sharing these reflections with you in the coming weeks.

But let me begin with the simplicity of my own experience of resurrection and eternal of life.

What is Eternal Life?

For me, it is a life focused on the care and love of the I-Thou relationship within and among us all.

What I mean by that is precisely this; when I pray I become aware of the Other within me. The "Thou" within my heart. It is what the 12 Step programs call the “Higher Power”. It is what I call God. 

When I pray I become aware of a Peace that is within me, I become aware of the fact that I am not alone but that there are many with me who also pray near and far away.

But more immediately, I become aware of the I-Thou relationship within me. And then of course by extrapolation that I-Thou relationship is not only within me but also among us all. 

Eternal Life then for me is a focus on the care and love of the I-Thou within and the I-Thou among us all.

It is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is an indicator of Eternal Life and Resurrection. 

The Love of God, the I-Thou within and the love of all our neighbors, and the love of the I-Thou among us all.

We are, in this way connected to the All in All and forever by reaching out our hands and hearts to one another in  every small and significant way we can find or discover. 

This is the All in All forever.

This is how I begin to think of Eternal Life. It is alive within us now as we dare to Love. Love God, Love our neighbors, and love ourselves as God loves us. 

But the problem is that I still find myself living in the first Reality, where warfare, terror, disease, inequality, and oppression still exist and exist with a vengeance. 

And I find myself quite vulnerable in this Reality. That vulnerability makes me doubt the Easter Reality to tell you the truth. I know what Jesus says of all the conflict, violence and vulnerability we experience as a matter of daily truth. How can I love my enemy? How can I turn the cheek when he or she so violently strikes me on the first. Even more urgently how can I stand by when we face Genocide among Armenians, the Holocaust of the Jews, starvation among the millions of our brothers and sisters near and far away, or a thousand other indignities inflicted upon humankind by the agency of Evil. 

How can I stand by and watch Greed go hog wild, or the planet we live on be put to death by our own self indulgent appetites? How can I stand by and watch those I love die to the inevitability of one disease after another. And how can I stand by and live with my own vulnerability knowing where that ultimately goes to?

So we begin with the first Reality. It is there. It will not go away.

But there is Easter. There is the way that leads to Life just as there is the way that leads to death. This is serious business. Easter is a matter of urgency. The survival of humanity depends on it as does the survival of the planet as does the survival of young people or older people caught up in the snare of violence, despair, drugs, disease and depression.

Reality is with us but there is not just the first reality.

We have Easter too. We have the Resurrection of Jesus and Eternal Life. We are known down through history as the Easter people because we know this; Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

And now may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.

Fr Paul

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Alleluia, Christ is Risen

The Great Vigil of Easter 2015

Finally! There is the faintest glimmer of hope. We gather in the chill of the night and warm ourselves around the fire. We remember what he tried to tell us time and again but we would not listen. We simply could not understand it. So, counting hope against hope we light a candle and process into our gathering place and instead of cursing the evil in the darkness, we light all our candles. At least we’ve learned that much. We gather around this marvelous flame. We sing the ancient song of our Passover. 

Then we read of our deliverance at the Red Sea, the valley of dry bones, and of our calling to be God’s people. 

We remember how he raised Lazarus from the dead and his many miracles and his healings which were all daily occurrences for him; those with mental and physical ailments. How we wish we could heal those who are sick now and suffer so. For when we had our hopes up the faintest bit, we must now admit just how real suffering and death are even on this side of the resurrection.

Still, we set the Table as he taught us to do. We remember him but not as if he lived and died a long time ago. But we remember him now as the one who died and then rose again. Well, lets face it there are those who are not quite convinced on that point. That’s why we have Thomas the Doubter who famously said: “Not until I see it with my own eyes, touch it with my own hands, not until then will I believe.”

The Surprise of Faith, let me tell you, you are in for a wondrous and mighty surprise not just if you doubt, but even for those of you who believe! Such a Surprise that will fill your hearts with indescribable joy! A joy that will change your life! Right here, right now!

This is because Jesus brought us into eternal life beginning with our Baptism. All he asks of us is to die to sin and to rise to newness of eternal life both in this life and in the life to come. So lets not wait ‘till we’re dead. Lets get at it right now. For the time to do eternal life is here in our midst

This is the essential Teaching or Didache of the Church. The first document we have after the New Testament writings is a brief “catechism” if you will of teachings used for new converts to the faith including and especially directed to our young people. This document is called the Didache, a word which shares the same word as “didactic” or “teaching”.

All this is because in those days the world these kids grew up in was an especially dangerous one. Therefore all converts and members of the church were required to be mindful, to understand, and to master the essential teachings of the Didache; The Teachings of the Church.

Those essential teachings begin with this extraordinary statement;

There are only two ways to live; the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death. 

You can see that choice all around you if you but open your eyes to what is going on around you.

There is the way of violence, hatred, warfare, oppression and bigotry. Good heavens there is abundant dosage of that all around us. And much of it supposedly in the “name of God”. But we know such things lead to the destruction and death of God’s creatures. We are called to renounce them.

Instead we are called to peace with justice, love, compassion and an open heart that leads to life.

There is the way of fear, anxiety, and depression. That sure sounds like current events to me. But such a life leads to darkness and despair. That approach doesn’t make much sense to me and besides it will shorten you life, will it not?

But there is also courage, joy, good humor, gracious affection and good cheer. Such an internal reorientation leads to much, much more life, a life that leads to an eternal life like Jesus lived.

There is, of course self centeredness. One the other hand there is a life that we can live in concern and care for others. The former will destroy the latter builds up.

Need we point out the difference between greed and its antithesis generosity? Seldom have we seen such a stark reminder of the difference than we see in our own present historic context.

There is the matter of self indulgence and self discipline. Life will teach you that lesson sooner or later. Let’s keep one another in eternal life. 

All we have to do is read the papers or watch the news to see what destroys human life near and far away. Sin, by the way, is the only doctrine in our catechism we have abundant proof for. Everything else we believe in we have to take on faith. Ah but not sin…look around you. Its everywhere! It is no wonder so many take to the way of sin.

But still ultimately, it only leads to death and God is pretty consistent on this point; “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” ~Ezekiel 33:11

Back now to the “remembrance of  him”. Back to that surprise and that joy! That Greek word “anamnesis” means to remember not as if we were recalling some ancient sadness or tragedy; the word means to remember as if we were bringing that ancient moment into the living present, as if we were invoking the presence of Christ as this very Table, which is exactly what we do in the Eucharist.

This remembrance is as real and as joyous as today right here among your friends and your family.  We have this joy, this now, this eternity right here for all of us to see. 

For Christ is alive in this glad Easter tide. We have seen him with our own eyes.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

And now may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.

Fr Paul

Friday, April 03, 2015

How can this be "Good" Friday?

Good Friday at 7pm

It is Good Friday the day Jesus died for us and for our sins.

I don’t have to tell you what death looks like. You have seen it with your own eyes all too often. When we look at the cross and its suffering we know that we have done the same a hundred times with our loved ones and our friends.

This week on PBS almost as it it came timed perfectly, we had the opportunity to watch the most recent KenBurns masterpiece; “Cancer: the Emperor of all maladies.” More than once, if you were like me, we fought back the tears as the relentless and conniving cancer cells found their way around so many promising clinical efforts to treat the disease. 

And so we fix our eyes tonight on Jesus. Seeing him upon the cross once again is a reminder of just how ugly sin can be, particularly when it joins with death in its consummation.

The experience reminds me of the finality of coming to a brick wall, or the frozen icy grave of winter’s long and relentless grip. 

Oh God!

That is all we have left at that moment; God!

A wise nun once taught me a lesson I shall not soon forget about Good Friday. Begin, she said, by making a list in your heart of the ten most important things in your life. Don’t think you have to come up with all ten right now but the list might contain your spouse, your children each by name, your career, your faith, friends, God, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit, hobbies, travel, savings and investments, your mind, your memory and your intelligence. Everyone’s list will contain specifics that are peculiar to your own personhood.

Now, imagine that it is the last ten days of your life and you have to give up one item on your list of ten most important things each day. 

You come to the last day and you must now give up that one last and most precious thing. This is where Good Friday becomes very, very Good indeed. That is because even if you may have forgotten to put Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit on your list; God cannot forget to put you on that list.

As life slips away the Great Mystery of Good Friday is that we fall into the hands of God.

I received a phone call one day from a doctor whose family was gathering at a local hospital in Euclid, Ohio where I was serving at the time. They were members of the Church of Mar Thoma, a church that shares full communion with the Episcopal Church. 

When I arrived at the bedside of the dying woman she gave me a look of recognition as to why we were all so lovingly gathered together. I said the prayers prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer “At the Time of Death”. I anointed her with oil, I gave her communion. And then we awaited the final moment. During the vigil we sang the songs she taught her children when they were young; “Jesus love me, this I know.” We recited the Psalms she loved; “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear though the earth be moved and thought the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea”. And on and on it went until her last moments came, and she gave up her spirit and she breathed her last. 

At that moment the eldest daughter looked up as if heaven were contained within that room and exclaimed; “Look, there goes Momee into heaven!” There was a paroxysm of grief and the family embraced one another and I said the final commendation. There were tears of gratitude for the love and care that was in that room and throughout the life of that family.

But more than that we all found our faith again even in that darkest moment.

Good Friday is very Good indeed.
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again

And now may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen