Life After Breath, Easter Vigil (A) – April 15, 2017

(Service readings referenced: Genesis 1:2 & 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:1-14)

 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable unto thee. O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

Now I want you all to close your eyes, go ahead, close them for just a moment. Now take a deep breath. Take it in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel it deep within. One more, and this time mean it. Okay, you can open your eyes.

Breath. What an amazing gift. Breathing seems so simple sometimes. In fact, most of the time, we do it without even a conscious thought. I mean, how many times throughout the day do you stop and think. Wow, I am breathing. This is amazing! Probably not very often.

Many of us though, have had moments in our lives where we did realize we were breathing and it was a glorious moment. Like the time you ran a marathon and though you might not make it. Or the day that your breath was heaving and fast and seemed so hard to grasp as you gave birth to your first child. Or the day you watched a loved one take their last breath. Those breaths we remember, but so many go unnoticed. Breathing is so easy, that most of us can do it in our sleep.

Let’s take one more for good measure, shall we?

Who taught you how to breathe? Well that’s sort of a silly question. No one taught you how to breathe, you just breathe. It’s simply innate, a function of our physical body. We know how to breathe simply by breathing.

Breathing is a scientific process by which we take in oxygen, our diaphragm flattens, our abdomen is engaged, the oxygen flows into our blood and through our body, just in time for us to breathe out and let go of carbon dioxide. Scientifically explained, but where did it come from? Where did we get our breath?

Earlier in the service we heard the creation story from the book of Genesis, and in this account from Chapter one, we hear that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

This should sound very familiar to those of you who have attended a worship service using the prayers from Enriching Our Worship because in that service we celebrate the Holy Eucharist with a prayer that reads, “From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon and stars, Earth, winds and waters, and every living thing.”

Now, in the second creation story, the one found in Genesis, chapter 2, it says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Now, all of this time, we have been talking about our breath as a simple systematic, scientific, physical function, but here is where the Bible throws us through a loop.

As you know, the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew.

The original Hebrew word here for breath, ruach (pronounced Roo-ak) also means spirit and it also means life and wind.

Where we would often distinguish these words, the Bible uses them interchangeably.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe this would be a good time to take another deep breath.

In the Hebrew Scriptures; breath, spirit, life, and wind are the same word. Ruach.

In our reading from Ezekiel, we hear God say that God will give that same breath, that same ruach, to the dry bones and cause them to live.

The dry bones in the valley do not have life in them at first. They are dead, they have no breath and no spirit. But God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and in doing this “the breath (the ruach) will come into them and they will live.” In this way, the body is a shell, a clay vessel, which God fills with breath, with life, with spirit.

Now, before I leave you in the Old Testament, I want to show you how the words breath and spirit are linked in the same way in the New Testament.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, we are reminded of the story of Christ’s passion and death, and in this narrative, we learn about the breath of Jesus. In Luke’s account, Jesus says, “‘Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”

The words Spirit and breathed in this verse from Luke, chapter 23, both words, spirit and breath, come from the same Greek word, pneuma. So, we could translate this verse, “‘Father, into your hands, I commend my breath.’ Having said this, he gave up his Spirit.” In this moment, Jesus dies.  The concept of breath and spirit and life are all linked in the Greek word pneuma, just as they were in the Hebrew word ruach.

If we stopped there, at the crucifixion, the story would be over. There is no more breath. There is no more life. There is no more spirit.

But the story does not end there. We do not sit in the power of darkness forever, because we are an Easter people.

In the midst of darkness, light breaks forth and we are given a new Spirit, a Holy Spirit, a new life, a new breath, that speaks goodness and love to the world. We turn on our lights and ring our bells and cry out Alleluia!

We use our breath to preach forgiveness and mercy, kindness and compassion, joy and peace. We use our new breath to give new life to the world.

By the new life and new Spirit that we are given in Baptism we take up the call to “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”

In this Easter season, we sing Alleluia with the sure and certain hope that Christ is risen.

In this Easter season, we rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this Easter season, we go forth to live a life inspired by Christ Jesus who rose from the dead, and who showed us that there is life after death, for there is life after breath.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Melanie Slane, who currently serves as Assistant Priest at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, Missouri. She and her husband Chris, also an Assistant Priest at Emmanuel, live in St. Louis with their two year old son, Constantine, and their two month old son, Aristotle. Slane is a 2013 graduate of The Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where she earned a Master in Divinity. Before moving to St. Louis, she served as Assistant Rector at The Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. Slane also gained experience in asset based community development while serving as a missionary in the Philippines from 2009-2010, where she worked with a group of native women to start a small business in organic jam-making. Her ministry has also taken her to the Turkey, The Navajo Nation, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Israel, and Palestine. She is a graduate of The University of Missouri, with a Bachelors of Science in Business Management; she is a native of St. Louis, Missouri.

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Now what?, Easter Vigil (A) – 2014

April 19, 2014

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

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

OK. Now what? This is the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does “resurrection” mean? If I were to ask you to define it, how would you?

Humorist David Sedaris ran into this dilemma while living in France and attending a language class with other immigrants. In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” he writes:

“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’ ‘He make the good things and on Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.’”

Part of the problem was a lack of vocabulary, Sedaris noted. Words like “cross” and “resurrection” were not available to them, and the nuances of theology in the face of limited vocabulary were frustrating. And so Sedaris writes:

“Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”

Part of what makes resurrection so hard to talk about is that it is an experience that transcends all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t come out of tombs. Do they?

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection do not document the actual moment when it happened. We don’t have an eyewitness account of Jesus sitting up, removing the burial shroud, stretching, taking a look around, pushing the stone away and walking out. Even in Matthew’s account, where the angel rolls the stone away, Jesus’ body is already gone! All the gospels tell us is that the women come and find an empty tomb.

We cannot really know exactly what happened. Resurrection is not the revivification of a corpse – it is not the zombie apocalypse. It is an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer.

What we can say is that the early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Paul, who went from persecuting the Christians around him to being a champion for Christ, is just one example. Those who experience resurrected life are swept up by this profound and loving experience so much so that their whole world turns upside down in a way that brings life rather than death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the men at the tomb, “He is not here.” The same question is true for us: “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” We, by our nature, have a hole in our soul. This hole is a longing and desire for the transcendent God who lifts us out of our finite mortal bodily existence – this tomb, if you will, that we live in – and brings us into a greater life of love and light. We ache for this with every fiber of our being. But as humans, we try desperately to fill the hole in our soul by seeking holy transcendence in many ways that are nothing more than lies and dead ends. It is false transcendence that seeks the living among the dead.

We seek the living among the dead in our frantic rush to wealth and material comfort – the lure of consumerism. “How much money is enough?” someone once asked billionaire John D. Rockefeller. “Just a little bit more,” he replied, with a smile.

That “just a little bit more” is the bane of our lives. We keep imagining – if our income is rising – that the next plateau of income will be the place where we’re truly happy, but no sooner do we achieve it than we’re looking upward to the next rung on the ladder.

Conversely, if our income is going down, we’re often driven to despair, imagining all sorts of dire consequences – when the reality is, most of us have as much as we truly need to live, and then some. We falsely believe our possessions or our economic security will transcend and lift us out of our mortality, but it is a lie, a dead end.

Another place where we seek false transcendence is in the addictive pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, drugs, obsessive sexuality – even the more socially acceptable addictions of overeating or obsessive dieting – all of these ultimately lead away from communion with God and condemn us to death. Psychologist Gerald May has written extensively on addictive behaviors from the standpoint of religious faith and spirituality. In his book “Addiction and Grace,” he writes: “Addiction is the most powerful psychic enemy of humanity’s desire for God.”

Seeking transcendence through the addictive pursuit of pleasure robs us of our humanity and our spiritual freedom. It is the vain attempt to substitute pleasure for joy. It is a parasite attaching itself to our native desire for inner, spiritual fulfillment – for experience of the real transcendent communion with God – and if there’s no intervention, in the end it will destroy us. Why do we seek the living among the dead?

But there is another way: “He is not here, he is risen.” Christ’s experience of resurrection is not just his own; it is ours too, for resurrection is an invitation to new life. But the difficult and painful thing is, resurrection begins with death. To know it, you must die.

To know resurrection before your physical death, something in you has to die and likely what needs to die is how you have been seeking the living among the dead. Maybe it’s the death of the false security of your career that crashes down around you in a downsizing. Maybe it’s the loss of your physical health that you had hoped would go on forever. Maybe it’s the realization that your addiction has destroyed your humanity and robbed you of life. Maybe it’s the death of a dream or someone you hold dear. To know resurrection, you have to experience this death and deal with the loneliness of failure and grief, the humiliation of defeat, the soul-shattering reality of all you cannot control. You have to let go of any illusion that life as you once knew it is possible. And this isn’t something we want or wish for anyone, because the initial cost is so high.

But on the other side of death, Christ is there with an invitation and a promise: There is a path to a new and different life. On this side of death, the promise of a different life is no consolation. It’s too frightening and certainly not worth the crossing over of suffering to attain. But once you’re there facing death and there is no turning back, resurrection makes living possible again by forging a path of life given by God who is the author of Life itself.

There are a few things you need to remember about resurrection. First, it is an invitation. Resurrection cannot be forced upon you. Christ bids you come, but you must make the choice to say “Yes!” to his invitation. Resurrection will require you to do something. What that is, no one else can tell you, as it will be as unique as you are. But listen for that invitation, and dare to say “yes,” and you will begin the journey to a new life.

Second, resurrection begins tentatively and with great ambiguity. We experience it as disorienting and confusing – just as the women at the tomb experienced it. We don’t really know what to make of it because life has changed so dramatically that we aren’t sure about anything. We may not even want the resurrected life initially because we don’t know how to live it yet and this new life can feel a little intimidating. That’s OK; trust it anyway.

Finally, resurrection is incremental – it is a process, not an event. It takes time! Life returns one breath at a time, and it does not erase the wounds of our past – it lives alongside them. The resurrected Christ still bore the nail marks, and so will you, whatever your particular nail marks are. Resurrection invites you to release death instead of holding onto it. We may never feel ready for resurrection, but the living Christ is not content to be locked in the tombs of our misery.

Christ is alive, and he is inviting you to a resurrected life. Language will always fail to capture what this means; the experience of resurrection is so much more than mere words. But the experience is what makes joy, life, serenity and peace possible in an anxious and uncertain world.

The risen Christ is with us – always. And if you are experiencing death and feel you are in the darkness of the tomb right now, Jesus promises that there will be life on the other side for you and for all of us.

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

How blessed is this night, Easter Vigil (A) – 2011

April 23, 2011

Isaiah 55:1-11; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”

These are the words of the church, sung in the Exsultet with which the Easter Vigil begins. How blessed is this night.

This is the night when we tell again the great stories of our faith, ancient words with which people of faith recount the mighty acts of God, words that tell of the power of God, words through which God’s love for us has echoed throughout history – the ever-unfolding story of God seeking humans and reaching out to us in love.

This is the night when we hear the word of God, and God’s promise that God’s word is powerful and true. We hear this promise in the words from Isaiah:

“For as the rain and snow fall from the heavens, and return not again, but water the earth, Bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

In these words we hear God’s guarantee that the stories we tell tonight, the words of our scriptures and psalms and prayers are not just stories, not just idle words to share around the fire. Tonight we tell love stories, words of God’s love for us, about how God’s word will accomplish that for which God sent it.

We tell these stories, knowing that the greatest word God spoke in love was the Word, Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John the Evangelist, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Jesus was God’s greatest statement about love. Jesus used words to heal, not to dominate; to give hope, not to threaten. He used words to promise life and peace. He lived the words he spoke. So Jesus was a threat to Satan and the death-dealing forces of evil in the world. The evil one knew that he could not stop up people’s ears to the love song Jesus sang, so this Word made flesh must be silenced. And the cross would be the means of silencing the Word made flesh. Silenced. Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father and died – the Living Word silenced. Death had had the last word. And to ensure that death would have the last word, Pilate and the enemies of Jesus had posted guards at the tomb, just in case those who had followed Jesus might try to come steal his body and claim he had been raised as he said.

On this night, just as dawn was breaking, two women came to the tomb. We imagine the stillness of the night, just before daybreak. The quiet. The women expect no sound. They expect the silence of death. They had no words to say. Words are so hard in a time of death. What can we say? What comfort can we offer? Words cannot express the sadness we feel. The women come to the silent tomb.

But then, an earthquake – the world itself reverberates with the wounds of God’s other plans, God’s Good News shaking the foundations of the world. Our gospel reading tells us that the women found not silence, but an angel, whose appearance was like lightning, whose words must have rung out like thunder: “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.” And then he gave the two Marys words to say, their own glad tidings to tell: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, He has been raised from the dead.”

They go, running with fear and joy. They go, running to tell, to share the news of the angel: he has been raised, as he said.

On the way, Jesus meets them. He speaks: Greetings. They come to him, take hold of his feet, and worship him.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Just as Isaiah said, “My word will not return to me empty; But it shall accomplish that which I have purposed, and succeed in that for which I sent it.” The Word of God could not be silenced. The risen Jesus, this enfleshed Word, stood before them, no apparition, no ghostly whisper, but real and true. The risen Word, Christ Jesus.

Then he said to them, “Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

And the women, the first apostles, the first ones sent with a message of the Good News – good news that could not be silenced, that could not be sealed in a tomb, drowned out in a torrent of hatred or evil – the women go and tell: Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.

That message has been told, from witness to witness, from generation to generation. Not some long ago, far-away tale, but the living Word, witnessed to as one in our midst. Witnessed to as one who speaks a word of victory to us, not empty words, but words of strength and power and might – words of love. One who gives us words for each other, words for the world: healing words, words of comfort and new life. A message that the promise of new life is not empty words, but already won, already accomplished. Words of the victory of love proclaimed in creation: tree bud, lily blossom, and birdsong; words sometime whispered, sometimes sung and shouted; words in the peal of resurrection bells, word in the sound of a baby’s cry at the baptismal font, words proclaimed to us, and given to us to proclaim. Go, tell: Jesus has been raised, as he said.

Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.

What word can we say? What can we say in response to God’s victory? Tonight, on this holy night, after a long Lenten fast, we say “Alleluia,” the cry of jubilation, of praise to the Lord, shouted out by the church down through the centuries, untranslated. A word that means only praise, only wonder and amazement and jubilation.

What word can we say? Tonight, on this holy night, we say the words of our baptismal promises. We recommit ourselves to the God who delivered us from sin and evil. We bring others to God in Christ Jesus through baptism. We speak simple words, words given to us as a gift from God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We remember that someone, sometime, spoke these words for us as the sign of the cross was traced on our foreheads. We remember that our names and Jesus’ name are together now: Christian. We remember that our names too are woven into the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation. Our names, along with Adam and Even, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Moses, Mary and Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, and John and countless others called and loved and redeemed by God.

As Isaiah said: “So shall my word by that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in that for which I sent it.”

On this night, God has had the last word, and the last word is love.

Alleluia!
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.