He lives, Easter Vigil (B) – 2015

April 4, 2015

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8

Welcome friends. This is the night. This is the night we gather as God’s people to hear the stories that matter most to us, the stories that teach us who we are. What we believe. What we long for. What our hopes and dreams are. These stories teach us what our God is like.

Just for a moment, please close your eyes. Imagine that this Paschal candle is a campfire. We are God’s tribe, seeking light in the darkness, comfort in the wilderness. This is the night when we gather with God’s people from all over the world and tell once more the story of our deliverance. Are these stories Good News for you? What do they tell us about our tribe? What do they teach us about our God?

It started with a burning bush. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, he heard God’s voice. God spoke to him. God revealed his name to Moses on that day: God said that his name was “I am.” And in that encounter at the burning bush, God also revealed his character – God showed Moses, and us, what he cares about.

God said to Moses at the bush:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Our God hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed. And our God is the God of freedom.

Moses did as God asked that day. He journeyed back to Egypt, to Pharaoh’s palace where he and been brought up as an adopted prince of Egypt. Moses confronted Pharaoh as God instructed, saying to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”

Pharaoh said no when Moses and the Hebrew people cried for freedom; but God said yes.

Are we in bondage? Do we have eyes to see the powers of this world oppressing God’s people? If God’s people are suffering, take heart! Our God will lead us from slavery to freedom, from bondage to liberty. That is who our God is.

So God stretched out his hand to save the Israelites from Pharaoh. Even when things seemed desperate, when there was no way out, God made a way. Standing between the armies of Egypt and the sea, Moses stretched out his hand, and led the Hebrew children through on dry land. God led them through with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Our God will find a way when there is no way. Even when we are blind and can’t see a way forward, God brings us new hope, helps us see in a new way. Our God is the God of exiles, leading us home through the wilderness, guiding our way, day and night.

The people of Israel – our ancestors in faith – finally made it out of the wilderness, into the good land that God had promised. But the powers of this world did not stop trying to take away the freedom and abundance that God had given them. First Babylon. Then Syria. And finally, Rome.

Let’s hear the next part of the story. Jesus grew up under the oppression of Rome. He saw how Rome broke the backs of the poor – all those fishermen and laborers that were the focus of Jesus’ ministry. But Jesus brought these poor women and men Good News! God’s kingdom is at hand! In God’s kingdom, there will be enough bread for every day. No one will be hungry. God’s kingdom means justice for the poor.

We have journeyed with Jesus through Lent, watching him heal the sick and bring hope to the hopeless. And we have seen his turn toward Jerusalem through this Holy Week: how he entered the city on Palm Sunday, to cries of Hosanna. When Jesus entered the Holy City that week, he went to the Temple, where he overturned the tables of those who were buying and selling, confronting the people who were controlling access to God’s love and grace represented by the Temple.

As Jesus taught in Jerusalem that week before Passover, he kept confronting the authorities, challenging the way they made life hard for the poor. The religious authorities had a lock on God’s grace and forgiveness. And the religious authorities worked with the secular authorities to impose taxes that kept the poor people poor and lined the pockets of the comfortable. Jesus confronted both, challenging them with his vision of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all would have enough and peace would prevail.

Rome was always quick to put down any sign of rebellion. Roman justice was swift and brutal, and it usually kept the provinces, such as Jerusalem, in line. And so they put this zealot named Jesus to death. They didn’t like what he had to say, so they killed him, as they killed thousands of others, nailing him to a cross on the outskirts of the city, as a public example of what happens to those who cry for justice.

Just as Pharaoh said no to Moses’ call for freedom, Rome said no to Jesus’ call for justice.

But God said yes. Our God is the one who leads us from oppression to justice.

Now Rome thought it could silence Jesus by putting him to death. Killing Jesus would be their final solution.

But God would not let anything on earth silence the Good News. Not even death. So even though they killed Jesus, nailed him to a cross and tried to forget about him, now he lives. Tonight, he lives. This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

Our God is the God who leads us from death into life. Not even death can stop God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s abundance.

Because now, God’s kingdom has taken root in us. Now, Jesus lives in us.

Every time we reach out in love to help someone in need, Jesus rises victorious again. Every time we share the abundance God has given us, God’s kingdom grows. And it will grow and grow until it reaches the ends of the earth.

This night, and every night, and every day, Jesus lives. He lives now in us.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

The Greatest Show on Earth, Easter Vigil (A,B,C) – 2012

April 7, 2012

(Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Romans 6:3-11; Mark 16:1-8)

[NOTE: At least two of the Old Testament lessons are read, one of which is always the lesson from Exodus. Readers, please omit any paragraph, 9-19, that does not relate to a lesson read at your Vigil service.]

Welcome to the circus! Yes, that’s what I said: welcome to the circus. Tonight this place of worship becomes the big top, the circus, the greatest show on earth.

For consider: What makes a circus? According to theologian and attorney William Stringfellow, the circus is a parable of God’s purpose, because in it “human beings are represented as freed from consignment to death.”

This freedom from consignment to death is represented at the circus in many suspenseful, delightful ways:

One person walks a wire fifty feet above the ground.
Another stands upside down on a forefinger.
Another juggles a dozen disparate balls simultaneously.
Another hangs in the air by the heels.
One upholds twelve in a human pyramid.
Another is shot from a cannon.

In each case, according to Stringfellow, the circus performer is presented as “emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, militant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death anymore.”

The circus performer is presented as someone who has moved out beyond the shadow of death. The ringmaster loudly heralds these events as what they are: DEATH-DEFYING! The power of death is exposed by the performer, and it is transcended. This is the fun, the joy of the circus.

The Old Testament readings we heard tonight function in the same way. They represent people as freed from consignment to death.

Let us consider briefly each of these passages in turn.

The first one, the story of creation, which opens the Bible, features a new universe replete with life, summoned out of nothing by the commands of God. This stunning array of living creatures constitute a wholesale defiance of death.

When the earth is covered by the waters of a flood, humans and animals enough for a new beginning, travel safely in Noah’s ark until dry ground becomes visible. Then God establishes a rainbow covenant with creation, promising not to flood the earth again and not to despair of human sin.

The Lord then alternately commands and forbids the sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father. The divine voice interrupts at the last moment, with the audience on the edge of their seats. Any justification for human sacrifice disappears. Isaac is not consigned to destruction; instead, the Lord provides.

In the Exodus story, the Lord leads his people out from the land of bondage and toward a new land of freedom. At the Red Sea an unexpected deliverance occurs, this time of an entire nation, a mass victory over the powers of death.

Lines from the Book of Isaiah promise abundant food and drink, and all for free! There will be no empty, bitter harvest, but the divine Word will bear fruit. The seed yields the desired crop in abundance, the hungry receive a generous welcome, yet again life prevails against death.

The Book of Baruch summons us to leave the abode of despair, to seek instead the place where wisdom dwells. God’s promise – and our hope – is that all who cling to wisdom will live. We walk toward wisdom’s light; thus we forsake death.

Persist in listening, my friends! Still the circus continues, one act after another. The show must go on, this defiance of death!

Lady Wisdom takes her stand in public places, where she calls on the simple-minded to learn prudence. She freely endows with wealth all who love her; she beckons everyone, even the senseless, to take their places at her feasting table. “Eat my bread, drink my wine,” she invites us. Lay aside immaturity, that you may not die, but live.

We hear of God’s people summoned home again from every place of exile. They will undergo radical surgery: in place of stone hearts they will receive hearts of vital, feeling flesh. On their ancestral lands they will live, truly live.

The prophet Ezekiel is brought by God’s Spirit to a valley full of dry bones, the whole house of Israel. Told to prophesy to the bones, he watches as bodies are reconstituted, reanimated, made alive and breathing once again. The Lord promises to open graves, bring his people home, and place them alive again upon their own soil.

Rejoicing with voice and movement, Zephaniah demands that Jerusalem shout, dance the divine victory, trust the promises of God. The Lord himself appears on the scene, chief carouser at the wedding banquet of life, who defies death by pure celebration.

These readings leave us overwhelmed. We experience wonder and delight. This wonder and delight is sublime. Through these passages, these instances where death is defied, we acquire a new way of seeing. Our eyes are opened.

And what is it we see? Truly, the greatest show on earth: God’s kingdom, God’s reign manifest among us. When we look wide-eyed, with this new vision, what we see is death dying among us that life may reign, life at its most abundant – and then some. Tonight’s circus is sublime, for when we gaze with the eyes of faith, we see not only divine promise, but its irresistible fulfillment.

John Dear, Christian pacifist and author, tells of a class of teenagers in a remote parish in New Mexico. He asked them about the kingdom of God presented in the gospels. One student impatiently responded, “The kingdom of God is life.”

So the circus is where death-defying deeds occur, where “humans are represented as freed from consignment to death.”

And the Easter Vigil is a circus, where through scripture readings we encounter death-defying deeds, a circus put on by the God of life, life simple, abundant, unending.

But something more must be said about tonight’s performance. This is a strange circus indeed, for the Easter Vigil is a circus with no audience. There are only performers.

Everyone is invited to step into the center ring and take a turn at the defiance of death. We are invited into a playfulness that turns the world upside down.

Jesus is already there, making light of the disgrace that comes from the cross. He defies death and leaves behind an empty tomb, which shocks both friend and foe. Jesus addresses the stands, inviting us, one and all, out of death’s dark shadow, out of its deep valley, and into the glare of the circus spotlight.

The death-defying deeds we perform are spectacular, ordinary decisions on behalf of faith and hope and love. These deeds done in obedience to our covenant of baptism are threatening, not simply because they involve risk, but because our performance of them empowered by the Holy Spirit threatens with resurrection every moment in which we exist, whatever the place and circumstance and relationship where we find ourselves.

The tomb is empty. The angel speaks the message. The women run, their hearts pounding. They were accustomed to a world where death is in control. But they have instantly overdosed on a new and exhilarating freedom. Jesus is alive; he goes ahead into Galilee. The final cosmic joke is this: Death has died.

Have you ever wanted to run away and join the circus? By faith you have done so already.

Easter means that the circus comes true, in our lives and every life, now and forever.

To be a Christian means coming under the big top and entering the center ring.

A Christian ridicules death by living a life of delightful defiance. Let us laugh in the face of death, for Easter is a feast of defiance, the hope of the circus parable made real forever.

Enter the cage with lions and tigers. Dance along the high wire. Climb into the cannon. The show is life, the circus master is Jesus alive again, and the show must go on!

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

Let him Easter in us, Easter Vigil (B) – 2009

April 11, 2009

(RCL) 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]
Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]
Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]
Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]
Zephaniah 3:12-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

At the Eucharist: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a wonderful poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” where he uses the phrase “Let him Easter in us.” In this phrase, he uses the noun Easter as a verb. Hopkins writes, “Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”

It is a splendid phrase. It is a beautiful prayer really, “Let him Easter in us.” In fact, I think this is a great way to look at the real truth, the transforming reality of Easter. Let Easter get into us. Let Easter come and live where we live. Let Easter permeate our souls. Let him Easter in us, and be a dayspring to the dimness of us. Isn’t that really what we all desire most? Not Easter as a noun, about a long-ago event. But, rather, Easter as a verb, as something that transforms our present lives, as something that gives us new life now, as something that gives us hope and meaning and courage. Isn’t that what every human heart longs for? Let him Easter in us!

Philips Brooks, a nineteenth-century Episcopal bishop and author, once said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.”

The good news of Easter is that there is the possibility of new life now. The power of the resurrection is not something that simply awaits us after death, but something that comes to us now, that comes to us always, that proclaims the good news that new life is possible here, now, today.

It does seem like in so many ways, people are longing for an experience of Easter in their lives. A widow whose husband died at a much too early age. A man who is struggling with a new career at midlife and fears his ability to cope with new challenges. A colleague who fell into a deep, clinical depression and struggles to live through the day with meager energy. In so many ways, so many people are longing for new life, for God to Easter in us, and be a dayspring to the dimness of us.

One could say that the women who arrived at the tomb early on that first Easter morning also needed to experience Easter as a verb. Look at how the Gospel of Mark tells it. The women came to the tomb thinking that the story had ended, that it was all over between them and Jesus. They had gone to attend to the dead body of Jesus, to anoint him, to wrap him up, and to give him a proper burial, and we may suppose to mourn the loss of their Lord.

What they get when they arrive is a breathtaking announcement that God has raised Christ from the dead and that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him. What they get is Easter as a noun, and we have no reason to believe that they doubted that God had, in fact, raised Christ from the dead. It’s just that the reality of the event was so overwhelming that they were dumbfounded. As Mark says, “they went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” They experienced Easter as a noun, but they had not yet experienced Easter as a verb because they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Our other gospels and tradition tell us that the women eventually did experience Easter as a verb, because they did eventually go and tell the other disciples that Christ had been raised from the dead. He Eastered in them and they were transformed from a group of terrified people, who were frightened and fearful, to apostles, to people who boldly went forth from the tomb and proclaimed the good news that because Christ is risen life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, and God’s peace is more powerful than human violence.

Let him Easter in us, and be a dayspring to the dimness of us. Easter is a verb. It is something that happens to us. Easter is true when it lives where we live and permeates our souls.

A few years ago, John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright engaged in a public dialogue on the meaning of the resurrection. They expressed some sharp differences of opinion, but, rather surprisingly, they both agreed that the real meaning of the early Christian witness to the resurrection was about the transformation of our lives and our world right now.

Bishop Wright puts it this way:

“Those of you who are going to preach on Easter Sunday, please note that the resurrection stories in the Gospels do not say Jesus is raised, therefore we’re going to heaven or therefore we’re going to be raised. They say Jesus is raised, therefore, God’s new creation has begun and we’ve got a job to do.”

Crossan says that the resurrection means:

“God’s Great Clean-Up of a world grown old in evil and impurity, injustice and violence has already begun … and we are called to participate in it. The end of the world is not what we are talking about. We’re talking about cosmic transformation of this world.”

Now, when two New Testament scholars with as widely divergent as views as Wright and Crossan agree on something, we should take notice. The great Easter truth is not that we are simply to live newly after death, but that we are to be new, here and now, by the power of the resurrection.

Easter is something that happens in us. Easter is a verb. The good news of Easter is not simply that God has raised Christ from the dead. The good news of Easter is also about the possibility and the promise that new life is available to each one of us here and now. God has raised Christ from the dead and we can claim this new life and make it our own.

Right now, at this moment, we can let go of past hurts and grudges, and start over. Right here, right now, we can overcome our fear and fixation on death and trust in the Lord of life and love. Right here, right now, wherever we are, we can claim new life in our families, in our jobs, in our relationships, in our churches, in this broken but beautiful world. We can be new “here and now by the power of the resurrection.”

God’s “Great Clean Up of the world” has begun, and we can joyfully participate. We can let Easter get into us; let Easter come and live where we live; let Easter permeate our souls. We can let him Easter in us, and be a dayspring to the dimness of us.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

We wait. We anticipate, Easter Vigil (B) – 2006

April 15, 2006

Romans 6:3-11; John:19:38-42

Last night we became intensely aware of darkness, surrounded by the night of grief that is almost insulted by light. As Edwin Arlington Robinson writes in “Credo” from his book of poems, Children of the Night:

No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night …

The Beloved is dead. There is such a finality in these words. In that first century, to people used to suffering and early death, acceptance of death came quickly. Custom declared that burial must follow immediately. The fate of condemned criminals, especially of those who died in the most shameful manner of all – crucifixion – was a burial without honor. But this one, this Beloved, who had had so many followers in his brief public life must not be left dishonored. Yet, where are his friends? Only the women disciples stand from afar, watching. They possess neither the power nor the connections that would allow for proper burial of their beloved rabbi.

Ah, look, here comes a friend! During the months of Jesus’ popularity this man, Joseph of Arimathea, had listened to him and admired him, considering himself a follower but not daring to be open about his devotion. There is one last gift he can offer to the young rabbi who died so unjustly, and Joseph offers it: a new, prepared tomb. He uses all his connections and his prestige to demand the body from Pilate. Together with another secret disciple, Nicodemus, who is horrified by the injustice of the court proceedings and of the violent death of an innocent man, Joseph sees that Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb.

They crucified my Lord,
They laid him in a tomb.

We, centuries later, hear the simple lament of the old spiritual. It echoes the cry of the women who loved him, who are watching from afar. They laid him in a tomb.

And now comes the night of waiting, but it does not have within it the joy of anticipation. This is the end. They keep the vigil because they loved him, and this is what women have done through the ages – they wait near the body of the loved one. Let us join them.

The great vigil has begun. The women, and the men, Joseph and Nicodemus, do not yet know the end of the story; we do. They are they actors in the great drama; we are the audience. They wait; we anticipate. Again, from the poem “Credo”:

For through it all – above, beyond it all –
I know the far-sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the Light.

We feel the coming glory of the Light. In our waiting, our anticipation, we hear words of stories past, we remember covenants made by a merciful God, we recite ancient psalms, and all these make the long vigil bearable:

Incline your ear, and come to me,
Listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you
an everlasting covenant …

We find comfort in these words from Isaiah, even though death’s finality stares us in the face. We falter. What is it all for? we wonder. Isaiah’s words come back to us again:

… my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways,
says the Lord.

Is it possible that we have totally misunderstood death? The Great Vigil is the time for such questions. There is so much that we left unsaid, so much love we had wanted to show the beloved who is now dead. Is there truly a possibility for second chances? Is anything ever reversed? As it is written in Ezekiel:

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

We wait. We anticipate. We tell each other the age-old stories once again. We cling to the promises and to God’s covenant of love and redemption. Friends, the darkness is not forever. Look, the dawn is breaking. A faint, faint light shows us the horizon.

Let us then go to visit the body of the Beloved. Let us make ready to anoint him for proper burial. Come.

 — Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004).