Death is Real. But Life is Real-er.

I have a confession to make: I am afraid of the dark. I put on a brave face for my children, tucking them in, ushering them through the darkness between the car and the house, holding back the imagined ghosts and goblins that threaten them. But the truth is, when I’m alone in the dark, I freak out a little. When the house is empty, I avoid the basement, where shadows lurk even at mid-day. When I have somewhere to be at night, whether it’s the church parking lot or my own back yard, I am on high alert, checking back seats, walking quickly, looking behind me, and carrying my cell phone ready to dial. I’ve been mugged twice, both in broad daylight. Yet it is the dark that scares me.

Which is why I think Mary Magdalene must be a little crazy, or more likely desperate, when she goes, alone, while it was still dark, to the garden outside the city, to Jesus’ tomb. Jerusalem is probably a city that never really sleeps, but the darkness of this pre-electric world would still be pretty dark. And probably dangerous for a woman walking alone. But she is driven by something else on this night. On this night, the darkness within her is greater – the darkness of grief, of sorrow, of despair. Her beloved teacher, rabbi, friend, is gone. Brutally murdered in front of her, a victim of the cruelty of empire and occupation and fear. She probably doesn’t even notice the darkness that surrounds her as she comes to the tomb.

But what she finds there is enough to startle her, to shake her from her inner darkness. The stone is rolled back! The tomb is empty! She is awakened from her sleepwalking grief – where is Jesus’ body? – and she runs, back to the city, back to find Peter and the other disciple. And together they run, at a sprint it seems, and find the tomb empty. Not the kind of empty that it would be if grave-robbers had been there. Grave-robbers do not remove the wrappings and roll them up neatly. Something else is happening here. And the disciples believed, but did not understand. While it was still dark.

I think this is the hardest thing for us, we who come to the Christian story, the Christian faith 2000 years on. It is still dark. This week alone is evidence enough of that. As we mark one year since the Boston Marathon bombings, it was hard not to notice that this week is the most tragedy-filled week in American history. This week last year also brought the huge explosion in the town of West, Texas. Going all the way back, this week in 1775 Paul Revere made his famous ride. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre. In 1906, a huge earthquake struck San Francisco on April 18, killing more than 3000 and destroying the city. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank. On April 17, 1967, was the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. In 1983, the US Embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a bomber, killing 63. On April 19, 1993, the ATF stormed the compound of the Branch Davidians, resulting in 76 deaths. The Oklahoma City bombings happened 2 years later on the same date. Fifteen years ago today was Columbine. On April 16, 2007, a gunman killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. Four years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded. And I could go on. It is indeed still dark.

It was dark on that morning 2000 years ago. The People of Israel were occupied, put down by the Roman Empire, under the thumb of a foreign ruler who called himself god and demanded the allegiance and the homage of his subjects. Less than 50 years later, the Romans would destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews in an exile that lasted until 1945 and beyond. For the followers of this preacher from Galilee, things were darker than dark. Their teacher and friend, the one they had hoped would be king, messiah even, who would push out the Roman occupiers, who would establish David’s throne, who would bring God’s Kingdom, this rabbi and lord, was dead. Three-days, sword-pierced-his-side, wrapped-in-linens-and-spices dead. Hope was gone. There was nothing left to do but mourn.

We are, most of us, living in this kind of darkness. Whether it is the tragedy of the newspapers, or the difficulty of daily living, it is dark. We don’t have to go so far as history to know how dark it is. We live in the darkness of Holy Saturday, caught between the pain of tragedy and the uncertainty of what is next, breathing in hope and despair simultaneously, like a crazy conflicted oxygen molecule, hope and despair joined together, pulsing through our veins, exhausting us with its contradiction. This is where we live, in hospital rooms and AA meetings and courts of law; this is where we live, at kitchen tables, and coffee shops, and therapists’ offices; this is where we live, in heartbroken silence, and red-faced anger, and crushing loneliness. It is still so dark. So dark that we cannot see the one we are looking for standing in front of us.

Until he speaks our name. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” and she turned and recognized him! Rabbouni! A term of endearment for a beloved teacher. Rabbouni! And now she believes and understands. Believes and understands that darkness is not the winner. Darkness is not the final word. Darkness does not rule. No matter how dark it gets. When the darkness inside overwhelms the darkness outside, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that you cannot see your beloved standing right in front of you, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that the world seems lost and hopeless, still, it cannot win.

Because the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it. This is the promise of Easter. This is the promise of the empty tomb. It is not a promise that darkness disappears. The world still turns, and the sun still sets, and darkness is still a part of life. Jesus still died. The cross still happened. The tomb is still part of the story. Jesus raised still had the marks on his hand; the wound in his side. Easter does not erase that, or eliminate it, or ignore it. Mary’s tears are still fresh on her face and very very real. But those tears are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. The tomb and the waiting and the despair are not the end of the story. Because the tomb. Was. Empty. As a friend posted on her Facebook page today, “Death is real. But life is real-er.” Because the beloved Rabbouni was standing in the garden. Because the risen Christ called her by name, and suddenly she could see clearly. Everything that had come before had a new light on it, because he called her by name, and opened her eyes to the light. To believe. To understand. Even while it was still dark, she could see her risen Lord. And darkness no longer had power over her.

In your baptism, Christ called you by name. Even while it was still dark. Whether you were baptized as a little infant, or as an adult, Christ called you by name. Even if you have not yet been baptized, this invitation is for you, and Christ is calling to you. Calling you by name. It doesn’t take away the darkness, it doesn’t mean that life will be easy or perfect or sin-free from now on. Instead what it means is that the light has named you as its own. That while it was still dark, the light has chosen to dwell in you. That your identity is not caught up in darkness, or despair, or grief. Your identity is not a Holy Saturday, darkness-of-the-tomb identity. You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. You joined with the Body of Christ, and while it is still dark, your identity is now the light, shining for others in their darkness. Pushing back at the darkness, reminding the world that darkness cannot win. Light has the final word. Love defeats despair. Life will not be held by the tomb. You are an Easter Person. We are an Easter People. Your identity is a Named and Claimed by the Light that shines in the Darkness. And your life is a Resurrection life. Death is real. But life is real-er. Thanks be to God!

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Of Ents and Easter Vigils

In the second book of The Lord of the Rings, there is a curious passage where two of the main characters, Merry and Pippin, encounter an Ent. The Ents are ancient beings, the tree-herders. They look like trees, but they can move around and they can talk. Many of them are so old that they remember when the oldest trees in the oldest forests were acorns and nuts. And because they are so old, they do not have to do much of anything quickly. To Treebeard, their Entish friend, Merry and Pippin appear quite “hasty.” When they first meet, Treebeard is shocked by how quickly Merry and Pippin share their own names:

Image“Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see, … I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate…For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, … It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

Now, J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, was a devout Christian, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis. Together, they both sought to convey the truths of their faith through their fantasy novels. So I wonder, had Tolkien been to many Easter Vigils in his life? Had he sat in the darkness and listened, as we have tonight, as the Body of Christ gathered, as we slowly, deliberately spoke our name, our real name. The name that tells the story of us. It is a lovely name, but it takes a very long time to say it because it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

And that is why we gather. Each week we gather to speak a little bit of our name, as a reminder of who we are. But on this night, the night when the meaning of that name came into a new and sharper focus, we take the time to speak our name more fully. There are in fact twelve Old Testament readings designated for the Easter Vigil, plus a variety of psalms and other scriptural passages to be sung. As we planned tonight’s service, we thought it might be best to dip our toes in gently. And to tell a slightly shorter version of our name. But it is our name, nonetheless.

ImageIt is our name, and it begins with creation. With God calling light out of darkness, with God drawing order out of chaos, with God creating each and every thing in the world, with God creating each and every one of us, and seeing it all, naming it as “good, very good.” That is the beginning of our name.

A little further along in our name is the story of God bringing the people of Israel out of slavery, and teaching them how to live together with God and with one another, in freedom. Exodus, release, and freedom. Dancing on the seashore, tambourines. That is a part of our name.Image

Our name includes the words of Isaiah, in which salvation is proclaimed for all:

Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters!
You who have no money,
come and eat your fill!

This is our name, the promise of abundance and plenty. It is who we are.

Our name is wisdom, the wisdom of God who calls us all to the paths of righteousness, who gives insight to even the most simple, to know God’s love and goodness.

ImageOur name is the story of dry bones. Maybe you recognize this part of your name more than others. The feeling that these bones could never bring forth life again, the feeling that everything that was fruitful and alive in you has long since withered up, and life feels like a journey through a desert place. And into that God speaks our name, your name, the name:

“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

Maybe you recognize this as your name, or maybe this is the part of your name that sounds most foreign to you. Yet either way, this is your name. Dry bones being breathed back into life.

Our name is the story of three men in a fiery furnace. Yes, I’m afraid that your name includes the words Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, even if you can’t pronounce them. But their story is your story, the story of salvation from the fiery furnace. Maybe not literally, but in one way or another, is there something in your life that would devour you like a fire? Maybe it is the lure of consumerism; the mania of addiction; the threat of pain and death; the need for reconciliation; the drive to fix yourself and guilt or shame because you cannot seem to fix yourself, no matter how many self-help books you read. The furnace awaits, and it is as much a part of our name as all the rest.Image

Because the culmination of our name, the focal point, the central syllable of our name, is to be found on that first Easter night, nearly 2000 years ago. On that night, this night, God overcame death and the grave, so that when Mary Magdalene came looking for the body of Jesus early the next morning, all she found was an empty tomb. This is the story that is your name. The story of the God who loves the world by becoming a part of the world, by becoming human and living and loving and dying just as you live and love and will die. This is the story that is your name. The story of the God who loves the world so much that God will carry all of the brokenness, all of the dry bones and the fiery furnaces of our lives, up onto the cross, so that all of those things die with God.

This is the story that is your name. The story of the God who refuses to let death have the last word, who redeems everything, even death and the grave, to produce new life, to draw forth reconciliation, to show us the meaning of resurrection.

Your name can be summed up in that one word, if you must sum it up. Resurrection. New life coming forth out of death. Resurrection. And that is what we celebrate and name each week when we gather, remembering our baptisms, receiving our Lord in the bread and the wine. That is the abbreviated version of our name: Resurrection.

But this night we gather to speak that name more fully. Even still, we cannot tell the fullness of it.

Indeed, to tell the fullness of our name would take longer than any of us has in a lifetime. Because the fullness of our name begins with God’s creation, and continues to unfold each day. As Treebeard says, his name is growing all the time, and so is ours. Our name continues to grow each day, as people around the world live out their lives of faith in large and small ways.

As people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu stand up for justice in the name of God, our name grows.

As mothers and fathers continue to love and provide for their children in the face of war and poverty and threat of violence, our name grows.

As friends and lovers put their faith in God, and move forward together in reconciliation, even when forgiveness feels like a distant dream, our name grows.

Our name, your name, the name that is yours by virtue of your baptism, is the name that fills all of creation, from the first breath of God over the waters, to the new thing that God has done in Christ Jesus, from the cross to the grave to the empty tomb, from the moment that you were born to the moment that you die, and beyond that into all of eternity, our name, your name, is the story of God.

A Verb is a Word, It’s an Action Word

Holden is studying the parts of speech in school this week. So yesterday morning, as we 10001228_698958963483917_1031007258_owere getting breakfast ready, he asked me, “what’s it called again?” “What’s what called, honey?” I asked. “The kind of word that you have to use your body?” he replied. “A verb. It’s called a verb.”

The kind of word that you have to use your body. It’s a verb.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the stuff that Jesus says is verb stuff. Our way of practicing our faith these days is so very brain-oriented. We put so much emphasis on what we believe, on orthodoxy, which means “right opinion” or “right belief.” We have this expectation that someone who is a Christian will think like a Christian – they will have the proper answers to a set of doctrines, they will know the dogma, they will be able to recite the creeds and know what they mean and be able to agree to them, or at least a significant percentage of them. And if you can give your intellectual assent to all of these things, then you are a Christian. But this is not really verb-faith. Not the kind of faith that you have to use your body.

And I’m not sure this is what Jesus has in mind. Certainly not according to this passage. This is the beginning of the Last Supper, which will last for another 4 chapters after this before they take an after-dinner stroll across the Kidron Valley to a garden where Jesus will be arrested. Jesus knows this is the Last Supper and that he will be arrested soon and that this is the last day of his life, and so he is giving his farewell speech. It is really his last will and testament, as he lays out for his followers exactly what it is he expects of them. And the thing is, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about orthodoxy. He doesn’t give them a list of things to believe, a litmus test of creeds and confessions. Instead, Jesus’ last will and testament is loaded with verbs. The kind of word that you have to use your body.

And the main verb found in these chapters is love. Not how we usually talk about love. We usually mean love a lot like we mean believe. It’s a thing we do with our brain and our heart. It’s emotional, sentimental stuff. In fact, I think most of us tend to mean something that we can’t control when we talk about love. We fall in love, and it’s not a decision we make. Falling is never a decision word. Falling happens by accident, against our will, when gravity acts on us and we don’t get a choice and we fall. That’s what love is like, at least in our common cultural usage. Our attraction to another person is like gravity and it acts on us against our will and we fall in love, and it’s a rush of emotion and sentiment.

But that doesn’t seem to fit with what Jesus means when he talks about love. When Jesus talks about love, it’s a verb, not a noun. The kind of word that you have to use your body. The entire second half of the Gospel of John is introduced with these words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The Greek word there, the word that means “end,” is telos. It’s the same word that Jesus utters from the cross when he says, “It is finished.” It is telosed. Having loved them, he loved them to the cross. This is what love looks like when it is a verb, a body-word.

It starts with a footwashing. A simple, humble act. This is the only place in Scripture that records this act, and yet it is one of the best known images of Jesus. Bent over, performing the work of a slave. It is a scandalous image of God, and Peter’s reaction proves it. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Remember, this is the guy who just rode into town in triumph a few days ago. A king! And here he is bent over, dressed only in a towel, washing the feet of those he has called servants and disciples. This is love as a verb.

And this is the kind of love that Jesus commands. Love in action, not in sentiment. In this everyone will know that you are Jesus’ disciples, that you love one another. He does not say, you will notice, that you are to like one another. It’s not about sentiment. Love. He spends a lot of the Last Supper explaining and showing what he means by love. In chapter 15, he will say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love as a verb.

Of course, we Lutherans get a little leery in this territory. We are not given to talking about works. We do not want to get it into our heads that our works, the things we do, our verbs, will win us our salvation. With good reason. If we begin to think that we can prove ourselves disciples by the amount of verb-love we show, then we are on a slippery slope, because someone will always outrank us. Someone will always out-love us. And we will be left wondering if we’ve done enough, proved ourselves enough, loved enough. Then we’re back with Peter, begging Jesus to wash our hands and head, too, not just our feet. Prove how saved I am, Jesus!

The mistake that we make, over and over again, is in believing that this kind of love is something that can well up from inside ourselves. Believing that, if I get my head around it, if I can only get my beliefs and opinions right, then I can prove myself with my actions; I can push myself off the cliff and fall into the kind of love that Jesus is talking about. But that always starts and ends with me. My thinking; my beliefs; my opinions; my sentiment; my actions.

The love that Jesus is talking about starts and ends with him. With God in Christ. There is no sentiment here, there is only the cross. The place where God is most fully revealed to us as the ultimate revelation of love. The place where Jesus lays down his life for his friends. In Sunday’s reading Jesus said, “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” That is the gravity well that we are being drawn into. We are waiting for sentimental, emotional love, waiting to be drawn in by the attraction of our neighbor, so that we can feel like serving them, feel like welcoming them, feel like loving them.

Well, we are falling in love, but what we are being drawn into is the gravity well of the cross, the love that is not about sentiment, the love that is radical hospitality, laying down his life for ours, drawing us into and surrounding us with the kind of love that sets itself aside and welcomes us exactly as we are. The deeper well that nourishes us and enables us to set aside our ideas of “right” belief and “right opinion” and even “right” actions, and every other measure of whether we’re getting it right after all, and simply equips us to love. It equips us to love without fear; it equips us to love without worrying about whether we are loving enough, or loving rightly; it equips us to love, not in order to win our way to glory, but as a response to the cross; it equips us to love one another, to the end. To love, because he first loved us.

Can’t Go Over It

We had another great conversation on Monday night, as part of our Lenten adult ed series on Jewish and Christian practices. This week we were talking about grief. It’s a hard subject, but it’s something that affects us all. Our subject this week was specifically the mourning that happens after a death. The Jewish tradition has very explicit rules about how this mourning is done. For one thing, it is done in community. For the first week after a death, the mourners are required to stay at home, but they are also required to say certain prayers that must be said in community. So the community comes to them, and spends the week with them. The mourners then have a month of grieving where they are slowly coming back out into the daily business of the world, slowly reengaging with their regular routines. But for the next year, they are recognized as mourners, and they say a regular prayer, called the Mourner’s Kaddish, every day, and when they go to synagogue the community acknowledges their grief as a part of the worship service. Grieving is recognized as a long and drawn-out process in the Jewish tradition.

Not that the Christian tradition does not acknowledge grief. There are things that we do quite well in our tradition. For example, All Saints’ Day is a lovely recognition of those who have gone before us. But culturally, it seems that we in the modern West are forgetting how to mourn, or even how to grieve. To the point where a 40-year old man I served in Minnesota came to me after receiving a terminal diagnosis, and asked me, “what should I expect to feel?” He didn’t know how to grieve, and he wanted a template, a step-by-step guide to his own grief. It seems bizarre in a way, yet at the same time it’s not so surprising. As a culture, we avoid grief. We avoid uncomfortable things, especially uncomfortable emotions. Our own and those of others.

There were several stories told by the people gathered Monday night that just underscored this. There were the grieving widows who were told that they weren’t grieving right. As if there were a right way and a wrong way that could be prescribed. There was the woman who said that people expected her to be done grieving after a year, but there are days when her grief is still fresh all over again. There was the story of a friend who was blindsided by a sudden divorce, and was already expecting to get back to normal just a month later as if nothing had happened. Grief is hard stuff, messy stuff, painful stuff. And we, in general, would rather avoid hard, messy, painful stuff.

But life is hard and messy and painful. And we can’t go over it, and we can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

Like Holy Week. It would be so nice to go from Palm Sunday glory to Easter glory, without having to face the pathos and pain of Maundy Thursday, the brutality and barrenness of Good Friday, the emptiness and uncertainty of Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is so lovely! Jesus riding into Jerusalem in victory, surrounded by the crowds. This story in the Book of John is the only one of the Gospels to mention the palm branches, but palm branches were a universal sign

of victory and triumph in the ancient world. Like waving flags today. And Jesus is riding on a donkey, which was the motorcade limo of the day, not a symbol of humility but of royalty. Kings didn’t ride horses or chariots except in battle. When they went from around with their entourage, they rode donkeys. And the people are shouting “Hosanna! Save us!” This is their king in all but name. They are ready to crown him and place him on the throne. This is a victory parade on a day of glory.

But Jesus understands that the kind of glory the crowds are after is not the kind of glory that God is after. These people are looking for a worldly king. They want to see Jesus. They want to see the king, the worldly power that will overthrow the Romans, that will reestablish the earthly kingdom of David with Jerusalem as its capital. And in response, Jesus tells them a parable about a grain that dies in order to bear fruit.  In order to truly see Jesus, in order to understand true glory, the glory of God, the victory of life and love, there is going to have to be death and pain. We can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

We want a king. We want a God who will bring us vindication, who will lead us into prosperity, who will let us feel comfortable and satisfied with ourselves, who will punish others while patting us on the back. It’s just the way we are, human nature, perhaps? We want to dwell on the victories and the celebrations, we want to go from Palm Sunday to Easter without passing through Holy Week, we want to get resurrection without having to die first. But the thing is, we are all of us already in Holy Week. So many of us are already living there, bound by betrayal and brokenness, captive to grief and sorrow and pain and death. So many of us, so many of our neighbors, so many of our loved ones, maybe the person right next to you, maybe the friend who came with you today, maybe you yourself, are caught by the cycles of recrimination, of guilt, of vindication; are suffering because of what you have done, or are caught by the desire to see others suffer for what they have done; are grieving for a transition or a loss, of a job or a relationship or a loved one, and you can’t see how life can go on without that person or that living or that way of being. We are all of us, in some way, dying. Some of us are dying as our hearts break, or as our minds struggle, or as our souls wander; all of us are dying as our bodies move from dust to dust, in the cycle of life that rules us all. The journey from here is certain. We can try to ignore it, we can try to skip Holy Week, we can try to pretend that the betrayal of Maundy Thursday has nothing to do with us, that the death and pain of Good Friday bears no resemblance to our lives, that the loneliness and fear of Holy Saturday have never touched our lives. We can try to dwell in the glory of Palm Sunday. We can try to skip ahead to Easter. But that is not the way life works. We can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

And Jesus says, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Because Jesus is prepared to walk through it. With us. Jesus is going ahead of us into the betrayal and pain and loneliness; into the fickleness of the crowds and the violence and indignity of death and the hollow despair of the tomb; so that when we find ourselves there, we are not alone. When our culture tells us to get over it; when our inner voice tells us to snap out of it; when we are weighed down by grief and can’t figure out how to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps; we know. We know that this is exactly where we find God. Where God chooses to be. Where God reveals God’s self most fully. In the Great Three Days of Holy Week. In the one who is betrayed and so becomes betrayal; in the one who is killed and so carries death for us; in the one who is mourned and so accompanies us in our grief. We can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; we can’t go around it. We have to go through it. But carrying us through it, God in Christ carries us all the way through, and up from Holy Week again to Easter, to new life, to resurrection. And it is God who does this. It is not us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps; getting over it; snapping out of it. It is God doing the work, drawing all people to God’s self; drawing all of us through the waters of baptism, through the death and pain of Holy Week, and into the promise that we all receive here at this table. The promise of new life. The promise of Easter.