Easter Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Apr. 28,2019

Lessons:

Acts 10:34-43

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Luke 24:1-12

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

We live in the time after the resurrection. And given that, here is the question with which we are confronted. Given the staggering mystery of the empty tomb, what should we do? How should we live? What does resurrection mean?

These questions are as old as the Christian movement.

We can imagine the apostles asking this question. After encountering resurrection, after living the strange, wonderful miracle that was the resurrected Jesus for fifty days, after being part of this holy party that waited on the far side of the cross, they say:

What now? What does everything that just happened mean?

Well, part of the answer to that question is recorded in the Book of Acts, a book that we might call What the Apostles Did Next or, maybe, How They Made Sense of the Resurrection. Part of it is recorded in a collection of letters, some of which are bound into the Bible. Part of it is recorded in ancient church documents: beautiful, searching texts like the one that we call the Didache, that tell us what it was like be part of the young church.

And part of the answer is recorded in this very service and in the three days that came before it.

The first Christians knew that the resurrection had changed everything. Now, they didn’t understand the resurrection, any more than you or I can understand the resurrection. To stand before the empty tomb is have an encounter that bends the very rules of life, of reality. But they knew that it made everything different. Resurrection (and forgive me if this is a flippant analogy, I don’t mean it to be), is like a twist ending in a story or in a movie. When you encounter it you want to go back and read everything or watch everything again to see the clues that you missed before, to see what they might mean in light of what you now know.

Jesus’ life and his death are different when you understand that resurrection is coming. Creation itself is different when you understand that resurrection is coming.

And so, over the three days that end Lent plus this, the anniversary of the day of the resurrection, the day of Easter, they crafted a series of practices and symbols that told the story of, well, everything. It was as though they wanted to cram absolutely all that there was and all that there ever has been and maybe all that there ever will be into church.

Maundy Thursday, where we remember and embody Jesus washing the feet of his friends and establishing the Eucharist, the holy meal that we will share together in a few minutes. Good Friday, where we journey with Jesus to the cross and watch helplessly and hopelessly as he suffers and the life bleeds out of him. The Easter Vigil, where we tell one story after another after another from scripture (way back when, that service lasted all night long, so that the worshippers would have literally journeyed from darkness and into light, so that the Vigil and today’s service would’ve been the same thing). And then today, where we hold this celebration, where declare that God has broken the very bonds of death.

The Vigil – the old beginning of this service – begins with the very first reading that there is in scripture, with the part of the Bible that says in the beginning.

One of the big questions that the first Christians wrestled with back then and that those of us who do our imperfect best to follow Jesus are wrestling with still goes something like this: When God became human and lived with us and told us stories and healed us and then died and then proved to bigger than death, did God do that because we humanity was terrible, because we had made so many, selfish mistakes, because we had spectacularly screwed up the world, because we were such awful sinners?

Or was there another reason?

The first possibility is maybe the one that we are the most familiar with. This is the possibility that God, like a disappointed Dad getting up from the TV to deal with the yelling in the living room, God had to come to earth because we were kind of awful. In that reading, the first two humans introduced this thing called original sin into the world. (“Original sin,” by the way, is a phrase that appears exactly nowhere in scripture.) Ever since the first humans ate from the wrong tree and original sin got introduced, humanity has gotten worse and worse, running up a bigger and bigger tab of sinful debt with God, until the debt was so bad that humanity no longer had the capacity to pay it.

And because the debt had to be paid, because someone had to die, and die horribly, for all of our sinning, God sent God’s only son to suffer and suffer and suffer and finally die on our behalf.

And that’s an okay understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I guess.

With the lone problem that it makes God into a psychopath.

Why in the world would God require that his only son be tortured to death? And if God did require that, why in the world would we worship that God? Wouldn’t we have a moral duty to refuse to worship such a God?

Thanks be to God, we’re not stuck with that explanation. Because for someone like the wonderful Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, the Incarnation was not an in-flight correction but, rather, was God’s plan from the very beginning. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God digs out God’s paintbrush and chisel and creates this world of wonder and beauty. God says that it is good. Some theologians reckon that we should not speak of Original Sin but of Original Blessing.

And God decides that God will neither watch what God had created passively from a distance, and nor will God operate reality like a puppeteer pulling on the strings of a marionette. Rather, God will participate in reality, with all of the grief and the joy that comes of being alive.

God will walk the earth.

If that’s right, then the cross isn’t something that God wanted or needed. Rather, it was something that we in our fearfulness and our anger and our violence did to God. Jesus, as Marcus Borg would put it, did not die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world. But here’s the amazing thing: God figured out how to turn even the cross, even the worst that humanity could come up with into something wonderful and something freeing. And even more than that – and this is a part of the story so beautiful that it puts you on your knees – God accepted that very worst thing that we could do. And God kept on loving us anyway.

There are lots of stories where the hero comes back from the dead at the end. Go see a Marvel movie. So that part of the story is maybe not so different. But there is a part of the Gospel that is entirely different. Because what does the hero say when they crawl out of the rubble?

The villain is going to pay.

That is what we would expect from Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus refuses to return our violence or our hatred to us. The resurrection is all about shared meals, shared possibility, shared loved.

We are people who live after the resurrection. And we have this ancient question: What now? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have seen the staggering goodness of God? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have participated in resurrection?

 

The Great Vigil of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Great Vigil of Easter image

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation] 
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood] 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea] 
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones] 
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people] 

 

 

Maundy Thursday by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Maundy Thursday image

Lessons:

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Psalm 116:1, 10-17


What’s the deal with Judas Iscariot? I’ve been thinking a lot about Judas this week.
He’s a major player in the Holy Week drama, but we usually hear little about him, except to condemn him for his selling out Jesus to the Jewish and Roman authorities.

And we know little about why he did that. The gospels can’t agree on his motive:
Mark says nothing about motive, Matthew says he did it for money, and John’s gospel
says he was induced by Satan.

Over time there’s been speculation that he might have been sympathetic to the
Jewish radicals who wanted to attack Rome with violence and was therefore frustrated when Jesus didn’t choose that path. But we just don’t know. Nor do we know why afterwards, he apparently regretted what he had done.

But here’s another question: If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, as
John’s gospel suggests, why didn’t he try to stop him, or why didn’t he try to find a
different place to hide? John says it’s because it was all part of God’s plan but
that doesn’t really explain much.

Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: I believe that in creating humans in God’s image,
God has given us the great gift of freedom of choice, of being able to know what the
right path is, and being free to choose it or not. It’s the freedom that Adam and Eve
exercise in the Garden, and it’s the same freedom that all the actors in the Holy Week
drama have.

It is a measure of God’s love and respect for us that God invites us to follow God,
tries to show us the way but does not force us to follow. God wants our actions to be
freely chosen, based on our conscience. In allowing Judas to do what he does, Jesus
respects the human dignity even of someone who he knows means him harm.

The last days of Jesus are a swirl of different people making different choices in
response to him: the crowd in Jerusalem, which acclaims him on Sunday and cries for
his execution on Friday; his disciples, who abandon him and later realize that all is not
lost; his women followers, who are faithful throughout; the Jewish leaders, divided over
how best to deal with him; and Pilate, who releases one condemned prisoner and
executes another.

We might see Jesus as strangely passive in this drama, in allowing people to act
against him, but we might also see him as according everyone the chance to choose
their own path, and trusting that God will see it right in the end.

The human heart is mysterious: In Holy Week we observe faith and fear, hope and
despair, hatred and love, life and death, and we know that these all part of our lives, too.

Jesus is not the master manipulator, forcing others to do his will. He is teacher and
model, inviting people to follow his path of love and sacrificial service to others.

Every year in Holy Week we have the opportunity to respond anew to that invitation to choose faith over fear, hope over despair, love over hate, and new life over death.

Amen

The Great Vigil of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

At The Liturgy of the Word

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]

Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

At The Eucharist

Romans 6:3-11
Psalm 114
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Yesterday morning, a song from my early adulthood abruptly resurfaced in my head. I don’t understand what is happening when memory works this way, when one of our neural bookkeepers makes the decision to open an old and dusty file cabinet deep in a corner of the brain. But I do know that yesterday my synapses made a connection and I began to hear R.E.M.’s 1992 hit Everybody Hurts.

Everybody Hurts is an unusual song within the R.E.M. canon, both because of the lyrics are pretty straightforward and because they are entirely intelligible – R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, made poor diction and enigmatic ideas into an art form. But on this song Stipe sings simply and directly and clearly:

Everybody hurts.

Take comfort in your friends.

Everybody hurts.

You’re not alone.

Maybe this song showed up in my head because, a quarter of a century after its release, it occurred to me yesterday that it is a song for the Triduum. It is a song for this service that extends over three days, this service that ends today with the discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation:

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

This service is all about pain and about friendship and about not being alone. We proclaim these hard and beautiful realities through the use of symbols: dew or no occasions in the church year are as heavily laden with symbol as these three days.

All of these symbols are, in some way, about touch.

We began on Thursday with Jesus sharing a festive, final meal with his friends. Here is touch found in the washing of one another’s feet, in the embodiment of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as he loves and serves us. Sometimes folks will complain that the foot washing is goofy or awkward or even icky. To which I can only reply: Yes. Yes, you’re right. It is goofy and awkward and icky. To wash one another’s feet, to touch and be touched in such a fashion, is to engage in act of deep mutual vulnerability.

And if the tender intensity of the foot washing is not enough, here is the removal of the sacrament to the high altar, to the garden, and the stripping and the washing of the altar. On Maundy Thursday, I have the privilege of touching the altar on your behalf. And this year I was startled as I did so, I was startled to find myself transported as I first washed and then dried the altar. As I touched the wood of the table, I abruptly found myself touching my father-in-law’s coffin, my hand upon its wood as it rested in the church at his funeral.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, all of us rested our hands upon wood, this time the hard wood of the cross. Somehow, this simple action of devotion holds all of the loneliness and all of the love and all of the pain and all of the longing that there is. Everything is there in the cross. The wood is rough and filled with the story of life and death.

And then there is today. A walk or a journey is an ancient part of this service: scholars tell us that the first days of the church, the Easter Vigil made multiple stops, each stop taking the worshipper ever nearer to Jerusalem. Tonight, we began around the fire, touched by its warmth. And then we walked, our feet in touching the holiness of the earth, our feet in communion with the ground. Like the cross, this walk is somehow also everything. It is the journey through the Red Sea and into freedom. It is the journey from life into death or death into life.

In not so long, we will touch one last symbol, one last sacrament, the Eucharist. While this symbol is more familiar to us than the washing of feet – we engage in it every Sunday – in many ways it is just as goofy and awkward and icky as the washing of feet. We come to the altar with this amazingly childlike gesture, palms open before us:

Feed me.

What could be more vulnerable, more filled with longing, than that?

What could be more wondrous than the promise that, in bread and in wine, we touch Jesus, and Jesus touches us?

One of the difficult privileges of my work is sitting with people in loss and in grief. And what I’ve come to understand is that everyone, everyone is carrying big hurt. We sometimes imagine that we are alone in our woundedness. But what I have come to know is that, when we create a safe space with one or more other people, a space in which we can hear and tell the truth, we learn that woundedness is universal and shared.

Everyone has a story of suffering to tell: the story of the marriage ravaged by addiction or infidelity, ravaged by promises abandoned; the story of the diagnosis, of the news that the doctor has run out of treatments; the story of cruel words that, even though it is sticks and stones that may break our bones, have unmistakably hurt us; the story of the unexpected and heartbreaking phone call;; the story of the loss of the job and, with it, the loss not just of income but of identity.

The Triduum, these three holy days, embodies the promise that we do not suffer by ourselves. There is a community that loves us and cares for us that is with us always. There is a God who loves and cares for us who is with us always.

We reach out in our lostsness and searching. And we touch – we are touched – by love.

Everybody hurts.

You are not alone.

 

Maundy Thursday by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

 

 

May the Holy Spirit guide us ever further into the wisdom and love revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Dear friends in Christ, tonight we find ourselves, once again, on the familiar and well-marked path of Jesus’ final days on his journey to the cross and resurrection. As grateful followers in the Way of Christ we hope to glean some new kernel of insight to renew and sustain us on our own journey to the God who has called each of us from beyond time to this time and place.

In the sacred days of this Holy Week we have already marked the passage of Jesus and the disciples on Palm Sunday into the crucible of Jerusalem under Roman rule and Jewish intrigue. Monday echoed with the uproar and clatter of the money-changers tables overturning in the Temple. Wednesday Jesus was anointed in Bethany and Judas agreed to betray him to those “looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him…” And so with these and a multitude of other memories and hopes and fears swirling around in their heads the disciples gathered with their Lord and Teacher for what Jesus knew would be their Last Supper together on this night.

In that respect, John’s Gospel account initially presents a familiar narrative. But have you noticed that in agreement with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Paul’s epistle refers to the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, “on the night before Jesus suffered” while John’s gospel makes no mention of the event at all?

This shift in the narratives focus cannot be an accident or unintentional omission. John’s gospel was the last of the gospels to be composed and the Eucharist had already been received as a fundamental tradition of the church. Neither does it imply a departure from or a rejection of that tradition. It does imply, however, that the author of John’s gospel was careful to record, and perhaps recover another event of that last meal together- namely the washing of the disciples feet- that he evidently considered as essential and fundamental to the authentic life of the church as the Bread and Wine came to be. One wonders what the church might be today if the foot washing were received not only as an example of humble service rendered to each other but as a sacrament- “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”- by which we receive a blessing for what is done in Christ’s name with each other.

Fred Craddock, a wonderful man and influential preacher has commented that John did not accentuate the Passover meal because for him Jesus was the Passover, the paschal lamb of God whose blood was shed once and for all and by whom the Holy Spirit might “Passover” the sins of “his own who were in the world” to lead them out of slavery to sin and death  and into the freedom of eternal life in the spirit.

For John only what we learn from Jesus through the Cross and the Resurrection can exceed what Jesus taught as he “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and wipe them with the towel.”

There is something so simple, so direct, and so intimate about these gestures that we cannot be too surprised when a certain amount of discomfort arises when and if we are ever exposed to such an event. This is especially true if we lack familiarity or understanding of the intended purpose. It is more than a symbol or a sign. It is a relationship-and there are so many physical, emotional and psychological elements intertwined that one only moves into it with great care and sensitivity.

Let us explore then some of these elements that reveal themselves within the broad framework of Jesus’ life and work as they pertain to his example for us.

First, I should think is the basic fact of our need for human touch. As embodied souls we are free to fulfill that need for good or for ill in any manner that we choose but we see in the life of Jesus that the higher calling is for the touch that heals. In a culture that severely limited contact between the pure and impure Jesus touched everyone and everyone whom Jesus touched was healed.  As Henri Nouwen has expressed it “touch…speaks the wordless words of love…in friendship, touch often gives more life than words. A friend’s hand stroking our back, a friends arm resting on our shoulder, a friend’s fingers wiping away tears-these bring true consolation. These moments of touch are truly sacred. They restore, they reconcile, they reassure, they forgive, they heal. ..When we are touched with free, non-possessive love, it is God’s incarnate love that touches us and God’s power that heals us.”

One might think that as witnesses of so many healings the disciples would have welcomed Jesus’ touch for themselves, and perhaps some of them did, but not all.  The problem is that to receive what Jesus is offering we have to make room for it somehow…to set aside or look through or beyond our expectations…the ones that we may have learned from experience or been told to expect…that touch is dangerous, invasive, sexual, aggressive, or inappropriate…all of which can be true but none of which apply to the touch that Jesus offered. No doubt some of the disciples thought it was inappropriate for Jesus to wash their feet. It would have made sense to them to wash his feet as a sign of respect both as the host of the meal and as their Teacher but this wasn’t about social convention or spiritual rank. So what was it about?

The obvious answer is that it is about hospitality that a host would offer to his guests who had traveled some distance on dusty roads, most commonly on foot, as a sign of welcome, comfort and respect. This service would ordinarily be rendered by a servant or a slave…which is the role that Jesus appeared to be assuming to the disciple’s great shock and consternation.

One can only imagine what a slave may have been thinking under compulsion as he or she washed the feet of their master and the privileged guests but we know Jesus had something else in mind …something grander, deeper, freer. Peter may have felt that it was beneath Christ’s dignity to be seen as a slave but what Peter couldn’t understand was that Jesus was free in every circumstance to offer himself in a love which Peter could not yet receive because Peter was still enslaved to his own way of thinking and feeling and acting, still bound by the norms and conditions of his society and experience.

So, at best the obvious answer is only a partial answer. As everyone can attest for themselves any service rendered with even the purist intention can quickly deteriorate into pride or manipulation or resentment if it is not rooted in a deep humility and gratitude for what is also received in the giving. As C.S. Lewis once famously said “humility results not so much from thinking less of ourselves but of thinking of ourselves less.”  It is a fine point and everything turns on it.

In a wonderful reflection on the life and person of Jesus, the Rev. James Martin speaks of the foot-washing as “an invitation to equality” and a recognition of the inherent God-given dignity of every human being. He quotes the New Testament scholar Sandra Schneider’s perception of Peter’s resistance as requiring of him “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind which he was not prepared to undergo.”

Schneider believes “that in John’s Gospel the Foot Washing is more about the mutual service of friendship” than about “humble service”. “The message is not so much that the master has become the slave, but that all are on the same level. After Jesus has washed the disciple’s feet, he challenges them to do the same for each other and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; no one is above or below in any way.” As Jesus foretold-the day came when Peter understood and so, perhaps, shall we.

However you choose to participate tonight I hope you will have an eye and an ear for whatever circumstances that may arise in your life that call you to cross the threshold of discomfort  to love and serve each other as Jesus loved and served us for that is how the disciples of Jesus are known.

The Great Vigil of Easter by The Rev. Stephen Whitney-Wise

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation] 
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood] 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea] 
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones] 

Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people] 

At The Eucharist:

Romans 6:3-11 
Luke 24:1-12

Good Friday by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42
Psalm 22

 

Jerusalem – in the 1st century – a city built on a hill looking out over the Jordan Desert with a distant view of the Dead Sea.  A fabulous location.  Thousands of pilgrims flocking to the city for religious reasons and to honor the role of the temple in the religious life of the Jewish people.  It was Passover and the remembrances of the escape from slavery in Egypt.

The city was run by two factions.  The religious authorities that maintained the temple and the sacrificial systems and the Roman authorities that had conquered the area over 70 years before and held a tight and brutal grip on the people.

Who was in charge?  Obviously, the military power of Rome.

Immediately outside the city gates was a rock quarry that had been used recently to dig deep into the earth to cut stones for the building of the temple under the leadership of Herod and to add to the walls that surrounded the city.  The quarry had been used up and was no longer in use.  It had been turned into a recreational site for the people of Jerusalem.  On one side of the park was a rock hill that grew from the bottom of the quarry to about 50 or 60 feet high.  It was a portion of the quarry that had large cracks in it and had not been available to cut up and use for building stones.  Thus, as the quarry was dug deeper the stone hill grew higher.  It became known as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the place where crucifixions were carried out regularly by the Romans who maintained a brutal occupation of the people.

This site was discovered in about the Year 325 when Helena, the mother of Constantine came to the region to discover the Holy sites.  Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire and Pilgrims were beginning to go to Jerusalem.  The site of Golgotha was underneath a pagan temple.  The memories of the Christians in the 4th Century pointed out the site and the pagan temple was destroyed and the excavation led to the discovery of Golgotha.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 335, is on the site today in the old city of Jerusalem.

In the 1st Century, crucifixions were for public entertainment.  Crowds would gather and enjoy watching the condemned criminals placed on wood planks and then raised up on the rock hill.  They would eventually die of asphyxiation, heat, and torture.  The crowds loved it.  It was public entertainment and gambling would take place as to how long a person could live.  Death penalty still remains a public entertainment for many countries including our own.

Jesus was among those being crucified.  A common criminal according to Jewish law and the Romans had gone along with the religious authorities in order to get rid of a troublesome upstart who had disrupted the people, disrupted the money changers in the temple and although he appeared to be innocent of any crime, he was seen to be a danger to society with his outspokenness.

Crucify him, crucify him – the cries still ringing in the ears of those who watched him be led to the cross.

What happened at this point in time holds a significance that can never be dismissed.  Over the years, the followers of Jesus came to understand that they had been visited in the flesh by the very person of God incarnate in the life, death and resurrection  of the man Jesus.

In fact, Jesus took on the role of giving himself up to death in order to open the doors of each person to know their own humanity.  To hold on to the meaning of life and death as the ultimate gift of the one who has loved us into existence, created all of us for the purposes of the God of Creation.

It was as if the voice of God was in our midst in the person of Jesus and not recognized.

I look at the sky at night and wonder about the vastness of the universe.  The vastness and the silence of that which lies beyond us as we live on our island home.  It is beyond my imagination and can only begin to wonder at the imagination of the God who has created all that we know and do not know.

And this same creator came to our island home in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Unbelievable.

And it is unbelievable for so many.

Some of you are old enough to remember the series of moon shots that put our astronauts on the moon.  I was here at Grace Memorial on a Christmas Eve in 1968 when an Apollo Mission was to circle the moon without landing.  It had to go around the dark side of the moon and was out of communication for some time.  We all waited breathlessly for its reappearance.  And then we heard a crackling voice, “Hello Houston”.  We can see you—our tiny, distant, teeming, planet filled with people.  A voice in the vastness of space coming to us and coming back to us.  To me, it was symbolic of God’s reaching out from the vastness of the universe to open for us the way of life, the light of the world, the meaning of our individual and God given freedom to chose life or death, good or evil.

Jesus died to give us so much.

To be encircled by his arms that are outstretched on the cross.  Outstretched to include all of suffering humanity in its embrace.

His words:  Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.

Forgiveness at the time of death.

Out of the vastness of the universe – the silence of the universe.

The word became flesh and was crucified.

And the word continues in the flesh of each of us gathered.  To know our significance in a world more willing to crucify than to embrace the love of God.  We all face into that love and offer it to others.  To bring light out of darkness.  Life out of death.