Easter Vigil – An Entish Name

In the book The Two Towers, the second book of The Lord of the Rings, there is a curious passage. In it, two of the main characters, Merry and Pippin, encounter a strange being – an Ent. The Ents are ancient beings, the tree-herders. They look like trees, even looking like different varieties and species of 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. Throughout their time with this Ent, whom they call Treebeard, Merry and Pippin are told over and over again how “hasty” they are. Treebeard explains this to them when they first meet, and are exchanging names. Treebeard is shocked by how quickly Merry and Pippin share their own names:

“Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see,” said Treebeard. “I am honoured by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once…I’ll call you Merry and Pippin, if you please – nice names. For 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, in the Old Entish as you might say. 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, as a reminder that we are the Body of Christ.

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, since this is a first Easter Vigil for many of us. We decided to tell a slightly shorter version of our name. But it is our name, nonetheless.

It 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.

Our name includes 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. That is a part of our name.

Our name is told in the story 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.

Our 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 fixation 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.

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.

Good Friday – the Cross at the heart

Tonight we stand at the heart of our faith, in the middle of the three holiest days of the holiest week of the year.

And what we find here, is a cross.

What we find here is the cross that has become the symbol of every Christian in the world. When you see a cross, no matter what the context, you immediately associate it with Christians. It has been used well, as by the Red Cross, it has been used very very badly, as when it has been burned in the front yards of the South. But always when you see it, whether you are Christian or not, the cross draws your thoughts in some way to this moment – to this point in history – when Jesus, who was thought to be the Messiah, the one who 1/3 of the people of the world today believe to have been God incarnate, God become human – Jesus hung dead on a cross.

It is a strange symbol. An unlikely symbol. It is especially unlikely as a symbol of power in the world, though it has been made powerful by its association with powerful institutions of the church. But it is not really a symbol of power.

         It is a symbol of death.

                  The symbol of the death of God.

And we can’t really think about the cross without thinking about what put God there. To talk about Jesus on the cross, we have to talk about how it could be that the light of God came into the darkness of the world, and the world did not know him. And not knowing him, the world rejected him, and turned against him, and betrayed him, and denied him, and shouted “crucify him!”

There are ways to get around this, there are ways to rationalize it and to blame others for it, and to say, well, they didn’t get it, they didn’t know him, the Romans or the Jews or Judas or Peter. We can point to them and wonder how it might be that they didn’t get it when the light of the world was standing right in front of them, when Jesus told them over and over again, “I am.”

         I am the light of the world;

         I am the bread of life;

         I am the resurrection and the life.

Judas heard all of this, Judas knew him and walked with him and learned from him, and had his feet washed by him, and still, Judas goes to the Romans and betrays him. Finally, they come looking for him in the garden, and he comes out and asks them, “Whom are you looking for?” and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies with two simple words, the words that are the name of God,

                  “I AM.”

And the force of those words, the revelation of God standing before them, is enough to knock over an entire detachment, 500 Roman soldiers knocked to the ground by two simple words.

How could they doubt? How could they not know?

Standing as we do 2000 years later, we look back at the cross and think, they didn’t get it.

And then there’s Peter, who does believe,

who even proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, and still, when it comes to it, Peter would say, nope, not me, I’m not his disciple.

We might want to point the finger at all of these people, and think that we would be different, that we would embrace God if God put on flesh and walked up to us. But Peter names us all. When he utters his denial, what he actually says is, “I am not.”

If Jesus is the great I AM, then we all the rest of us are, especially on this day, named, along with Peter and Judas and the twelve and the priests and the scribes and the Romans and everyone else in all of the world through all of space and time, we are named as “I am not.”

I am not God.

I am not.

And every attempt of mine to be God leads me right here to this place. Standing before the cross.

And I try. I try to be God. I try to be God for myself. I want to stand alone, to be self-sufficient. I want to prove to myself and to everyone else that I am all I need.

That’s the ideal in our society isn’t it? Up by the bootstraps, the self-made person, the Marlboro Man riding out on the range? As if any of us could live like that, as if any of us could survive without one another, without community, without God.

Right here, at this cross, is where all of that ends.

Right here, at the foot of the cross, we hit rock bottom, and I am forced to realize that I am not.

I am not God, and everything that I do to act like God, every time that I try to place myself above others, every time that I try to control my life or the lives of others, it only leads to death, to destruction, to the crushing of my illusions of power. I am not.

I am not God.

And I need God.

But still I deny God. I deny God when I ignore the needs of my neighbors. I deny God when I look to my own needs first. I deny God when I fail to serve

at the feet of the poor and the imprisoned and the oppressed. I deny God when I reinforce the powers of corrupt and unjust economic and political systems.

I deny God when I convince myself that I can save myself by turning in on myself and focusing on my own morality while ignoring the morality of the world to which I belong. I deny God when I convince myself that I can change the hearts and minds of the people around me and somehow force them to believe as I do, as if my belief were the only belief that mattered.

I am not God.

And in spite of my denial when I stand at the foot of the cross, the only thing I know is that I do need God.

And that is why, though it is the most unlikely of symbols, though it represents the most tragic moment, the moment when humanity failed at its utmost, the moment when we crucified and put to death the One who gave us life, still it is our beloved symbol. Because it is the reminder of the very thing that I most need to remember each day. I am not.

         But God is.

God is the one who loved the world, and God loved the world in this way: God gave God’s Son to the world, to be the light shining in our darkness, to be the One who comes to us in the midst of our denials and our betrayals and our struggles for power and for control and our striving just to get through this day and into tomorrow, to be the One that we need because we cannot be that one ourselves. And this is the symbol of just how far God is willing to go to be with us, to know us, to love us, and Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, that is, having loved you, and having loved me, he loved us to the end.

Even to death.

         Even to death on a cross.


Maundy Thursday – A Mundane Sacrament


I read a story the other day that moved me to tears.

The story was written by a woman named Carol, who recounted the day when she was 15 years old, when her pastor confessed to the congregation during the morning’s sermon that he had had an affair. Carol’s mom was on the phone, talking to everyone in the congregation, sorting out the details and various accounts. Carol reports that she could feel the tension in the house, everything was on edge. Finally, her mom hung up the phone and stood thinking for a moment. Then she grabbed a wash basin, and a stack of towels, and taking Carol with her, she got in the car. There was a congregational meeting going on, with the pastor and the lay leadership, to talk about the question of “what next.” But Carol’s mother did not drive to the church. She drove to the parsonage. Where Margaret, the pastor’s wife, was sitting. Alone. And her mother went into the kitchen, filled the basin with water, and washed Margaret’s feet. In Carol’s words,

“Throughout the entire ritual, we don’t talk, but we know what’s being said. I even understand the depth of it, at my young age. Margaret is about to face some of the worst public betrayal, as people began to pick apart the indiscretions of her husband… In the midst of the painful exposure, Margaret would sort out what she was going to do about her marriage. While hearing more details than she ever wanted to, she would have to evaluate everything in her life—her friends, the lies, her reputation, her pride, her children, and her financial situation… Mom wanted Margaret to know one thing in the midst of it. Margaret would be cherished, even to the end of her toes… My faith was formed that evening, not by the bitter betrayals, but in the love of the women.”

Mark Hanson, presiding Bishop of the ELCA, our national church body, has come to be known as a serial foot-washer. He has used the ritual of foot-washing in several public services of repentance. He once washed the feet of residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, when he was invited there to be the first white speaker at their Community College Commencement ceremony. In 2008, he washed the feet of two HIV-positive women at an ecumenical conference in Mexico City. When the Lutheran World Federation formally apologized to the Anabaptist and Mennonite churches of the world for their persecution in the centuries after the Reformation, he was presented with a pine-wood foot-washing basin, a symbol in the Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition of reconciliation and repentance.

I am always caught off-guard by the power of the ritual of foot-washing. I have had my feet washed. I have washed the feet of others. Last week, I washed the feet of each of my children, as they were getting ready for bed. It wasn’t a ritual moment, not a rite fraught with meaning or symbol. But it was powerful nevertheless. It was a moment when I was taking care of them, in the most basic way that I could, and showing them each that they are important to me.

That they matter, as Carol wrote, right down to the end of their toes.

In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord took water. He filled a basin with it, he tied a towel around his waist, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel. He washed the feet of the Beloved Disciple, whose name we never learn. He washed the feet of his other followers, probably including Mary and Martha and Lazarus, just raised from the dead. He washed the feet of the man who would deny him three times as he was being brought to trial. He washed the feet of the man who would betray him to death. And then he commanded them to love one another as he had loved them.

Why is foot-washing not a sacrament? I’ve wondered that often over the past few years. We Lutherans have inherited only 2 sacraments from our Catholic roots, the rite of baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. We kept those two because they were the only ones that the Reformers felt had a Scriptural basis. The other 5 sacraments recognized by the Catholic church remain important as “sacramental” but not officially sacraments.

But why not foot-washing? It fits the criteria – it has a physical element and is a means of grace (the stories I told at the beginning, and countless others, are evidence of that). It has a scriptural basis. Heck, Jesus even told us to do it! But for some reason, it didn’t make the cut.

There are a lot of possible reasons that I’ve heard why foot-washing isn’t one of our formal sacraments – it’s too mundane. But if eating isn’t mundane, then nothing is, and one of our sacraments is a ritual meal. it makes you too vulnerable. But in baptism you actually are called on to die so that you can be born anew. And marriage is a sacrament in some traditions – if that doesn’t make you vulnerable, I don’t know what does.

Maybe it’s mundane, maybe it’s vulnerability, maybe it’s just the ick-factor. I don’t know what kept it out of the list of official sacraments. Whatever it is, I’m grateful. If it were an official sacrament, we would find ourselves embroiled in wars and bickering and rules about who can and cannot give or receive a basin full of water. Bishop Hanson would not be able to be so flagrant with his scrubbing. And Carol’s mother would not have felt free to share that act of kindness and reconciliation. I would not feel so free to see the moment of grace that is washing my children’s feet.

And what a shame that would be. Because I have seen more grace through moments of foot-care than I can say.

The woman at the hospital who rubbed her 90-year old mother’s feet as her mother died.

The nurse who bathes a patient’s feet when nothing else can be bathed.

The father who warms the shivering feet of his wife as she holds their newborn.

These are the moments of grace, the moments when the Kingdom is breaking in, just as surely into our daily lives as it did at that moment when Jesus washed the feet of Judas, just before he walked out into the night; just as surely as the Kingdom broke in when Jesus washed the feet of Peter over the noise of his protests – no! Lord, you will never wash my feet!

These are moments of grace, God’s freely given, undeserved grace. Tomorrow we will remember just how far God is willing to go to break into this world, to share that grace with us. Tomorrow we will stand before the cross, in all its horror and scandal and glory. Tonight, we receive the simplest and most profound of gifts. God’s grace breaking into our everyday lives. God loving us and cherishing us right down to the ends of our toes.