Sunday, April 28, 2019

Light at the End of a Tunnel

PROPERS:         2 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 5:27-32; JOHN 20:19-31

ONE SENTENCE:        The world was transformed by the proclamation of Jesus’                                    resurrection.         

            There is an indelible image in my mind.  It could be called a resurrection image.

            I have had the pleasure of traveling to Israel 12 times.  Out of all those trips, a few moments take my breath away. It happens every trip.

            Let me set the scene for you. Our tour bus is traveling through a tunnel – long and dark.  Everyone on our bus is tired – weary from the day’s visit to the Dead Sea, Masada, and Qumran.  The bus trip has taken us – in just under and hour – from the lowest point on the face of the earth, to the high country just to the west, in the Judean hills.

            We find ourselves traveling through the tunnel.  It is dark.  We are tired. And then it happens.

            First, we see a glimmer of light from the tunnel’s end.  It grows brighter and brighter.  And then, suddenly, the view erupts brilliantly. Off to the left of the bus is the ancient walled city of Jerusalem – symbolizing the hopes and fears of all the years.

            There, in the brilliant sunlight, within a one-mile square area, is the holiest site in all of Christianity, the holiest site in all of Judaism, and the third holiest site in all of Islam.  There, within eyesight, are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.  The most sacred plot of land in all the world.

            From darkness to light.  From the focused dimness of the long tunnel to the brilliance of the holy view.  All in a moment’s time.

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            That seems to me to be a spot-on image of the dramatic change of life that took place on that first Easter morning.  The darkness of the grave gave way to the brilliance of Sunday morning. The silence of the tomb gave birth to new life. “O, death, where is thy victory? O, grave, where is thy sting?”

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            We can all name moments in which we have had our eyes opened by stunning experiences or events.  My generation would identify JFK’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, the Challenger disaster, and the attacks of 9/11.  Earlier generations would connect with the attack on Pearl Harbor or perhaps VJ Day.

            Believe it or not, important as those days were, they pale in comparison to the arc of history of a particular period.  The Axial Age.

            In looking back, historians and philosophers have identified a key pivot point in history – the eighth century BC to the second century of the Christian era. It is from that era that much of the foundations of our world were built.

            It was during that time nations began forming from local centers of power. The Greeks and Romans arose as powers – as would the Byzantines later.  People began thinking cosmologically – wondering about the place of their world among God’s creation. Various philosophies came into being. Trade between regions spread culture and knowledge.

            Before that time, there was an emphasis on local gods – gods for particular places; gods of fertility.  New, broader understandings of the divine began to emerge.

            The world was becoming, at the same time, more complex and interconnected.

            It was into that era that Jesus came.  His life is barely noted in the secular historical records of that time. But what happened after his execution has enlivened that story and has lit the burning coal of hope in the lives of 100 generations.

            That first Easter morning – the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox – was, to the world to come, like coming out of the tunnel of history.  A brilliant light of hope was seen and embraced by a people that had dwelt in darkness for many centuries.

            The effect was gradual.  But as the lesson from the Book of Acts said today, those who had been touched by the life, death, and resurrection of the itinerant rabbi could not fail to tell that story.  And those who witnessed the new light – in the form of the Risen Jesus – began to spread the word. Thomas, who doubted, gave way to Paul, who went from persecuting the new faith to spreading the Good News to the known corners of the earth.

            It was a new world.  Death ruled no more.  The power of sin had been vanquished.

            We are residents of that new world.  We live enveloped in grace and hope. It was as if the world had come out of a long, dark tunnel.

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            On July 16, 1945, another era was born.  The world left another tunnel. The light which it created held potential for the end of the world.

            J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brains behind the Manhattan Project, watched in the New Mexico desert as his “gadget” exploded into a burst of light brighter than many suns.  He had helped birth the atomic age.  The first atomic bomb was a success.

            Yet Dr. Oppenheimer did not feel ecstatic.  He thought, “What have we created?” The words of the ancient Hindu book, the Bhagavad Gita arose in his mind: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

            His emotions at that moment were understandable.  The world had shifted on its axis because of the elemental powers which had been unleashed.  In all likelihood, the world would never be the same.

            But contrast the two scenes: The earth-shattering explosion of a small ball of plutonium, releasing the core energy of the universe; and the quiet of a vacant tomb, completely without a corpse, with carefully folded burial linens.

            All light is not equal. I ask you:  Where do you find your hope?  Which light illumines your path?

            For Christians, we have emerged from a tunnel into new life.  The darkness has given way to the brilliance of a new day. We see clearly.  The world has changed.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Fire to be Redeemed

TEXT:                 EXODUS 12:1-4, 11-14; JOHN 13:1-17, 31b-35

ONE SENTENCE:        The deliverance symbolized in this week is a gracious gift                                    and can be unwrapped by our receiving and sharing it.

            “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months,”God tells Moses and Aaron.  It is the eve of the first Passover – the beginning of the Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

            The beginning of months. Indeed, for all the meaning it has assumed, this is the week of weeks.  It is in this week that God’s movement collides with the brokenness of the world.

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            In the wee hours of Good Friday, March 28, 1997, a fire broke out in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Starkville, Mississippi.  The church building, beloved by more than 2,000 parishioners, burned to the ground on Good Friday. It lay in smoking ruins at the end of Holy Week.

            I was Rector at Church of the Resurrection there. We were shocked beyond words. More poignant symbolism could not be imagined.

            Until this week – the week of weeks. Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful cathedral located on the Seine River in Paris, met a similar fate.  Much of its historic edifice was consumed by flames that leapt scores of feet into the air.

            These fires, destroying houses of worship, are metaphorical.  That is, they point toward something else.  They symbolizesome aspect of life.

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            In this case – in this week of weeks– they point us toward thehuman condition at the time of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt and Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry.  

            Face it:  Our world is broken. The world was broken in Egypt for the Hebrews (and even though they didn’t notice, it was broken for the Egyptians, too).  The world was broken in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago – as the teeming crowd praised Jesus when he arrived, and then watched as the Romans crucified him.  And it is broken today.

            Human efforts to reach the height of existence – to reach dominance, power, and affluence – lies in a smoking heap.  Those aspirations are idolatry. And we flail about, seeking to find the next thing, whether that is technology, politics, economics, or something else.

            It is analogous – again, symbolic– to the Tower of Babel.  The higher we reach, the more we strain, the more we become splintered, divided.

            We should all be humbled.  Like the ashes of a great cathedral, we should acknowledge that we need help to rise anew.  The ways were not working for the Hebrews in Egypt.  They were not working in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. And we have ample evidence our ways are not working.

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            The Gospel reading from John is instructive. It is about aroad less traveled.The passage tells us that a willingness to serve one another is the way to follow Jesus.  That simple act of washing the disciples’ feet symbolizes all of Jesus’ teachings – loving one another, turning the other cheek, giving your cloak to another person, not returning evil for evil.

            There is a small portion of the Gospel which jumps out at me.  Hear the words again:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

            The simple fact of that passage is this: In order to show mercy, we must receive mercy.  In order to show love, we must receive love.  In order to give grace, we must receive grace.  In order to serve, we must be willing to be served.

            That gift – the fullness of God’s love – is what is being offered to you today. It is being offered here in the washing of feet, and in the body and blood of the Holy Eucharist.

            When we are so washed and so transformed – so touched by the gracious hand of God – we will be able to rise out of the ashes to new life in Jesus.