Sunday, April 15, 2018

Resurrection [Easter 3B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 24:36b-48


I think Easter season is great.  Don’t you think it’s great?  There is so much joy and excitement in the church.  There are alleluias all over the liturgy.  The lessons are interesting – so full of wonder and amazement.  The new Paschal Candle is burning every week; it looks so good back there by the font.  And at my house, when the kids aren’t paying attention, there is still some Easter candy up for grabs.  It’s just a great season.  It feels good living in Eastertide.

I like everything about this season.  Well, I mean, there is one thing.  And I don’t want to seem like I am complaining; this is a great Church season.  But we are sort of forced to think about and talk about perhaps our strangest creedal doctrine an awful lot: resurrection. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am big fan of the resurrection.  But it is just not the easiest theological subject to discuss with one’s friends.  And frankly, the biblical accounts do not make it much easier.  They are marked mostly by confusion, fear, and doubt.  So really, I think it is fair to say: the biblical accounts feel like very honest reactions to a rather stunning event – an event that continues to challenge the world almost as much as it is saving the world.

Resurrection seems to pop up everywhere during the Easter season.  We find it in the Creed – both Apostles’ and Nicene.  It runs through the baptismal liturgies that we celebrate at the beginning and end of this season.   And though heaven is the much more popular after-life subject, our Christian doctrine would remind us that our hope is embodied.  And if we believe Paul’s epistles and the book of Revelation, our final destiny is life in a resurrected body and our final destination is not some spiritual, harp-filled Care Bear Kingdom in the clouds but a new Earth.  We are following in the footsteps of Jesus.  He gets resurrection and so do we.  It is such a strange idea that most Christians don’t even know that bodily resurrection is one of the primary theological assertions of our faith.

And it is all because of what happened on the first Easter Sunday.  But, you know, there were other ways to tell that story – ways that would have made much more sense in the ancient world and fit more comfortably in a modern religious landscape that seems more ready to embrace a disembodied spiritual journey than the idea of living forever in a body 2.0.  The gospel authors could have given us with a ghost story; that, after all, was the disciples’ first reaction.  In the ancient world there are plenty of stories about ghostly encounters.  Especially in the season of grief, following a death, it was not unusual for the living to have some experience of their dearly departed.  And not just in the ancient world: it is not unusual to hear these stories still today. 

Had the eleven, scared, grieving, hiding behind locked doors, had a shared encounter with the spirit of Jesus, I am sure that too would have been a powerful event in their lives.  Had the Spirit of Jesus sent them into the world with a mission, that encounter would have been compelling enough to get them to vacate the locked room and get to work.  There is a strong tradition in the Bible of God speaking to people through visions.  Why not to the disciples?  They could have told stories about the spirit of Jesus.  A message from the spirit of a dead holy man, a martyr, a miracle worker, could have laid the foundation for the movement.  Other religions traditions do not claim that their founder was resurrected.  Everybody dies; there is no shame in that.  They could have established the Church on a miraculous encounter with, a vision of, the spirit of Jesus.  But they didn’t.  They said resurrection.

Or…They knew this guy named Lazarus who was resuscitated – dead and then came back to life.  He was the same guy when he exited the tomb as he was upon entry – easily recognizable as the same man.  He was dead and then alive and then, eventually, he would again die.  But even though it was just death delayed, it was still a pretty big deal.

Because of Lazarus, the disciples knew that resuscitation was possible.  And that too would have been a great story – with at least some historical precedent.  They could have told stories about Jesus, their friend who was dead, being resuscitated, charging them with the earthly continuation of his work, and then riding off into the sunset to live a peaceful life far from the Roman Empire that killed him the first time.  That is still a compelling story.  They could have told that story.  But they didn’t.  They said resurrection.      

And resurrection had no precedent.  Visions had a track record.  Resuscitation: Jesus raised a few people from the dead in the Gospels.  Resurrection: it had never before happened – and, by the way, has not happened since.  Now, the basic idea was around.  Some pious first century Jews believed in the concept of resurrection.  But not like this.  No one expected one person to be resurrected out of sequence.  The resurrection of the body was thought to be a one-time event – all of the dead, together, at the end of time.  Most Jews in the first century believed that God watched after the souls of the dead and one day, the last day, would raise them to new life, in new bodies. That was resurrection.  And because that was how Jews, including the disciples, understood the doctrine of resurrection no one was expecting to see Jesus walking around alive and in a resurrected body.  That was simply not a possibility.  It was unheard of - until it happened.

Resurrection was not in the disciples’ plans.  The Gospels make this very obvious.  This kind of resurrection, a solo resurrection in the midst of on-going time, was unbelievable – in that no one would ever believe it.  And if your goal is to convince people, your story should probably be at least somewhat believable.    

No one would believe it, neither would they expect it.  Which is why, for the second consecutive Sunday, our Gospel lesson finds the disciples locked in a room on the evening of Easter.  It is also why, when Jesus appears to them, they are “startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”  Even after Jesus shows them the scars, the only remnant of death that remained in this new body, Luke tells us they were still disbelieving.  Now it is true that Jesus did talk to them about his death and resurrection before the cross, but the disciples had no way to process that information because not only was resurrection unprecedented, theologically it meant something entirely different from what they experienced on Easter Sunday. 

And I think that is why the post-resurrection stories are all so odd.  The writers are trying to explain the unexplainable, trying to tell a story that even they know makes no rational sense. 

Think about the stories in the Gospels.  They are not the most convincing stories were one writing them to simply convince.  In Mark’s Gospel, the women come to the tomb to anoint the dead body and flee without saying anything to anyone because of fear; in John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene confuses the resurrected Jesus for a gardener, whom she is pretty sure stole the corpse; in the story that precedes today’s in Luke’s Gospel, two of Jesus’ followers meet Jesus on the road out of town, to Emmaus, and precede to explain to Jesus what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem; they finally recognize him at dinner and then when they do he disappears – something bodies, living or otherwise, don’t generally do.  And then we have today’s Gospel, in which Jesus appears out of nowhere, like a ghost might.  They are quickly disavowed of that ghost idea when their dead friend sits down at their dinner table and woofs down some fish.  It was a lot of process.  No one saw this coming.  And those who encountered the Risen Christ had no idea what to make of it or him.  And everyone, in every story, is confused and scared. 

Easter Sunday was the end of a dizzying week for Jesus’ followers.  They probably were feeling pretty good on Palm Sunday, when Jesus was welcomed into the city by joyous crowds.  But Thursday night he was arrested and on Friday he was crucified and buried.  And so obviously the joy is gone and it has been replaced by grief, shame, and disappointment.  As the disciples on the road to Emmaus said, “We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.”  Which is to say, he is now dead and so we were very, very wrong.  And then Sunday happens and Jesus is standing in front of them and then eating dinner with them.  And soon enough, days later, floating into the sky – not as a ghost but in a body that is new enough that some of his closest friends do not immediately recognize him.

There are not words to make sense of Easter, but they have to try.  And so amazingly, they begin to share their impossible stories.  The women who find the tomb empty, who flee the graveyard in terror, tell their stories.  And the disciples, whose doubt and shame and fear, confines them to a secret hideout, they tell their stories.  And the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the ones who walked with Jesus and failed to recognize him, tell their stories.  They tell impossible stories.  Stories that sounded foolish to the gentiles and sounded blasphemous to their fellow Jews. 

They had options after Easter.  They could have gone back to the lives they left, cut their losses and moved on – talked about the Jesus’ years at apostolic family reunions.  They could have told stories of spirits and visions – disembodied revelations.  They could have claimed to have witnessed another resuscitation.  All of those stories were to some degree more believable, more socially acceptable.

But they preached resurrection.  They believed in resurrection.  They staked their lives on resurrection.  And there is really no way to make sense of that…unless it is the Truth.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Don't Take My Word for It [Easter Sunday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 16:1-8

Don’t Take My Word for It

It is April Fool’s Day and it seems the joke is on us.  Because this can’t be it.  You mean to tell me, this is the ending of Mark’s Gospel, this is the ending of our Easter Sunday Gospel: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid?”  That’s it? 

This is the final word of the Good News on the Day of Resurrection and it is no word at all.  The women who were there, at the tomb, who found the stone rolled away and the grave empty, they did not want to talk about it.  They were the very first to witness the resurrection and they kept silent.  We are staking our eternal salvation on this event and the first people to know about it, decided not to say anything to anyone.  Jesus is alive!  Christ is Risen!  That is a pretty big deal.  But sure, let’s keep that on the down low.

It is a little anti-climactic.  The Gospel tells us that terror and amazement seized them and so they said nothing to anyone.  That does not feel like Easter morning.  That is not how this is supposed to go.  We expect shouted Alleluias!  We expect brass blasts loud enough to wake the dead.  We expect to be assaulted by the overwhelming fragrance of incense mixed with the aroma of Easter lilies.  We expect colorful jelly beans to rain down from the sky.  We expect giant bunnies to prance through the fields with baskets of colored eggs.  There is nothing subtle about how we do Easter.  It is a day of celebration.  And we get from Mark’s Gospel, frightened silence.

And we get this bleak scene.  Now we know that in order for Jesus to rise from the dead, he must first be dead.  And for us, Jesus’ death is OK.  Because we know the Easter ending; we already know the tomb is empty.  But it is worth saying that the women in Mark’s Gospel do not know.  They do not know that this, this first Easter morning, is Easter morning.  For them it is just a terrible Sunday.  They are coming to attend to a corpse.  They expect to find a dead body, the dead body of their friend, in a cold tomb.  Their Easter morning begins in sorrow. 

They come to the tomb with anointing spices for the body.  But also they come to the tomb with a dilemma.  The tomb has been sealed with a large stone.  And apparently they could not convince any young, strapping men to accompany them.  This is telling because Mary, one of the women, is said to be the mother of a man named James.  Also Jesus had twelve disciples – all young working class men – and even though obviously no one is asking Judas to help, that still leaves eleven men who also choose not to show up at Jesus’ tomb.  It is first thing on Easter morning and save these three women, Jesus has been utterly abandoned.     

This is where our faith begins.  The Easter miracle that raised Jesus from the dead, that sent the Risen Christ out into the world, is why we are sitting here today.  This is the event that changed everything, that changed the world.  And if today’s Gospel tells us anything it is that things got off to a slow start.  Only three people show up to pay their respects and a total of zero people say anything to anyone about the fact that the tomb is empty and that, rumor has it, the Jesus who died on the cross is alive and on the move.  That is big news – big news that no one, according to Mark’s Gospel, is sharing. 

This movement, the Jesus movement, got off to a slow start.  And yet here you are.  You are here in your nice, new Easter clothes, with a few hundred of your closest friends, singing about an event that happened two-thousand years ago.  No one said anything to anyone and yet somehow you found out.  And when I said to you, “Alleluia. Christ is risen” you yelled back, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”  And so now I think that not only did you find out, but also this Easter miracle matters to you today. 

No one said anything to anyone and yet somehow you found out.  And not only did you acquire the information, something about that first Easter morning changed your life – even though you were not there and the three ladies who were there kept silent.  So how do we get from the silence of the garden to a packed church two-thousand years later?

The Easter story is a good story – an exciting twist ending to the story of Jesus.  I love a good story as much as anyone.  But a good 1st century story alone doesn’t inspire two-thousand years of Alleluias.  The world needs more than a once upon a time.  The world needs more than an ancient newscast from an empty tomb.  Easter is a great story, but I’m standing here, you’re sitting here, because it is so much more than a story.  Easter is not something to know about; Easter something you experience – in your heart, in your soul, in your bones.  Easter is the power of God at work in our world and in our lives:  sowing seeds of hope in the fields of despair, bringing new life to barren places, calming troubled hearts with peace, giving us the courage to believe that justice will roll down like waters, that good will triumph over evil, that love is stronger than even death. 

See I could tell you the Easter story and you could decide whether or not to believe the validity of what I say.  But those words will not change your life.  And the Risen Christ means to change your life.  Those three women at the end of Mark’s Gospel might have kept silent, but Jesus did not.  And so even though the final word of the Gospel is no word, that was not the final word.  Because God was at work and Jesus was alive and those who would be the first Christians experienced the Easter miracle in a way that was much more powerful than any sermon, any lecture, any story.  Once Easter happened, nothing would ever be the same.  Once Easter happened, it never stopped happening.

It is happening still today.  God is at work.  Jesus is alive.  But don’t just take my word for it.  I could tell you that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is still active in this world, but why take my word for it, when you can feel it deep down in your soul today.  I could tell you that you can find the presence of the Risen Christ in the Bread and Wine of the altar, but why take my word for it, when you can taste and see for yourself that the Lord is good.  I could tell you that there is a peace that passes all human understanding, but why take my word for it when Jesus is ready to calm your troubled heart.  I could tell you that nothing, nothing, can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, - it is a truth that I cling to when things get tough, a truth that gives me the strength to defiantly shout my Alleluias at the grave - but why take my word for it when God loves you with that same impossibly stubborn forever and ever love.  Easter is a life-changing experience, but don’t just take my word for it.   

I think those women at the tomb just weren’t quite ready.  They had collected some facts; they heard a story from a mysterious, impeccably dressed young man.  But the empty tomb and an implausible story were not enough.  Those things got the mind puzzling but they did touch their hearts.  So they go and Mark just leaves us hanging.  But there has got to be more to it.  See we are here; we know the word got out.  Someone told someone something.  I can believe the women were silent – at first.  That makes sense.  It was hardly a typical day.  So it makes sense that they left the tomb in silence.  But then I think they encountered Jesus, risen indeed, on the road, on the way home.  And I think it was that, their experience of the Risen Christ, that opened their mouths, transformed their lives, and changed the world.

That was the first Easter.  But that was only the beginning.  That Easter is still happening.  The same God that raised Jesus from the dead, who loves us with a love that is stronger than death, is still at work in the world today; the same Risen Christ is alive today and is still encountering people on the road, is still transforming lives.  But don’t take my word for it, when you can experience it for yourself.   

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday: Dark

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Good Friday

Good Friday: Dark

I’ve only been buried alive once.  Now, the guide called it spelunking, but I know better.  The first thing you notice down there is the darkness. I had never before, and have never since, experienced that kind of darkness.  It was so thick I could feel the weight of it on my skin.  I felt like the air down there must be turning my lungs black.  It was as if the outside world no longer existed, like before God spoke “Let there be light.”  Under the earth, in that abyss, there was a complete absence of light.  It was so dark you almost forget what light is.

Something else that I remember from the caves was the moment it occurred to me that this was all very real.  It was not an amusement park.  There were no neatly marked paths or guiding lights, no exit doors for the faint of heart.  It was just me and my head lamp in a vast unmarked, unmapped subterranean maze.  Getting lost or injured or falling off a cliff were real possibilities.  It was the untamed underground.  And for the life of me, I could not remember why I had agreed to this.

And that was before the most terrifying moment of all.  Nothing sticks in my memory quite like the moment I almost got stuck.  I remember what must be the world’s smallest tunnel squeezing more claustrophobia out of my body than I knew possible.  It started out as your standard small tunnel, nothing too alarming.  But as we proceeded further and farther in, the opening became smaller and smaller.  I felt like Alice eating cake in Wonderland – as if my body was growing to fill the space.  Part of me wanted to exit the entrance but the space was far too tight for me to turn around.  There was only one way through – at least I hoped there was a way through.  The opening became so tight that, and I remember this moment vividly, I had to lay on my belly, find a way to maneuver my arms from their more natural position at my sides to stretched out in front of me because my shoulders were too wide to fit through the hole.  I was like a Superman who could not fly, a snake slithering on my belly.  And then I had to use only my toes to propel my body and my fingers to scrape and claw me forward – inch by excruciating inch through the gap – all the while quietly panicking over the possibility that I might never make it out of there.

Today we’re going down.  Good Friday plunges us into the darkness like no other day.  No exit doors for the faint of heart.  Just the Cross of Christ and the blood on our hands.  No matter how bright the sun shines outside today, it is dark in here.  The darkness of this day is so thick it sticks in your throat.  You can feel your soul start to buckle under the weight.  It is so dark you almost forget what light is.

Good Friday is as dark as the inside of the tomb before the stone was rolled away.  It is the Cross and Mary’s desperate tears and the disciples losing hope and the frenzied mob and the death of God and grave that cradles the body of Christ: all of the world’s pain and sorrow captured in that moment Jesus breathes his last.

And I wonder: how does anything ever happen after the Cross?  It is almost impossible to imagine the sun still rising on Holy Saturday.  The day and its events seem impossibly cosmic – as if every corner of the universe must have felt the impact.  And still it feels shockingly intimate, as if we’ve always known it.

Good Friday happened but also it is still happening.  It was not an isolated event.  We see Good Friday in every act of violence, in every tear that falls from a grieving parent’s eye, every time someone rages against goodness, every time someone takes advantage of love.  We live in a world that spins under the shadow of the cross.

And we know that.  That is why we lend our voices to the crowd, join their calls of “Crucify him!”: the same human impulse to kill God, to destroy something beautiful lurks in the darkest corners of our hearts.  And once a year, on this day, we just have to let it out, have to expel the poison.  Good Friday forces us to be honest about that, about our broken stuff inside.

But it’s not just that.  We know Good Friday not only from the perspective of the crowd.  We also know Good Friday because we are the Body of Christ; we are baptized into those wounds.  We know this day because life in this world means that we are forced to bear impossible pain and death.  You will be betrayed in this life.  You will be abandoned.  You will be misunderstood.  Your goodness will be trampled and your love mocked.  You will see things you can never un-see and feel things that won’t go away.  You will open your arms and your heart and be left entirely exposed.  You will be wounded and you will show scars.

Today is dark.  But it will not be the last dark day of your life.  Today we grieve.  But you will grieve again.  Today you will be shocked by the immense violence that can live in the human heart.  But this will not be the last time you are shocked by violence.  Jesus is unique.  But I am sorry to say that what happened to him on Good Friday is not.

Today we journey into the darkness.  We face the darkness in our hearts and the darkness in the world.  And for today we will live with that darkness.  It is consuming; it is oppressive; and it is real.  But it is not our destiny.  Just because the cave is dark does not mean there is no light, only that sometimes the light cannot be seen. 

After a few hours in the cave, exploring the deep darkness, I found a way out.  The sun was still out and now seemed impossibly bright.  This is our Christian hope: just beyond the darkness of Good Friday – of every Good Friday – the sun is still shining – and it is even brighter than we remember.  We don’t get stuck down there; God does not leave us in the darkness.  Even when we cannot see the light, God is preparing the sun rise.                


Sunday, March 11, 2018

What are you looking for? [Lent 4B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Lent 4B
John 3:14-21
What are you looking for?
What are you looking for? These are the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John.  Andrew, the one who will become his first disciple, is following him on the banks of the river like an awkward fan seeking an autograph and Jesus turns and rather abruptly says to him, “What are you looking for?”

It is a question Jesus never stops asking, a question that passes eternally from his lips to our burning hearts: what are you looking for?  And it is a question that becomes especially poignant during this season of Lent, this season that exists in the shadow of the cross.  And as looming shadows often do, sooner or later, this shadow too draws our eyes to its source.  And as the days of Lent shorten, our gaze moves from the shadow on the ground to the cross, and then from the rugged wood of the cross to the ragged body of the one who is lifted up on that cross.   

I find it interesting that this is the language Jesus uses and that this is the comparison he chooses: the serpent in the wilderness from the story in the book of Numbers.  A snake on a stick held high above a nation riddled with pain and misery.  The bronze serpent was held up as the solution to the people’s problem.  As they do for much of the book of Numbers, the people complain against God and against Moses – and then the snakes come.  The same people who miraculously escaped the chariots of Egypt, who survived on manna in the wilderness and water from the rock, are now dying in the desert of snakebites. 

In their pain and misery they cried out to God for salvation.  And the solution, the salvation, God gave them was a bronze serpent.  What was placed before their glossy, tear-plagued eyes was their most immediate fear on a stick: haunting salvation.  They did not touch the snake.  They did not lick a healing potion off of its metallic body.  The serpent was not rubbed on the wound or waved over the punctures like a magic wand.  It was simply lifted up – the bronze serpent on the pole – and they looked at it; they saw it.  And they were saved.

That is the example Jesus uses in today’s Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  And this is not the last time in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to his crucifixion in such terms.  Later in the Gospel, in the twelfth chapter, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

It is almost as if being up high and lifted up was the only way Jesus could catch our attention, so distracted are we by all the busy-ness on the ground.  Amidst all of the many distractions, all of the many flashing lights and screens fighting for our eyes, it is the chilling shadow of a crucifix that finally has the power to draw our eyes to the only thing that can save us from the distractions.  Somehow in a picture of death, we find new life.

It is not necessarily the picture of Jesus we want.  Every crucifix, a Good Friday moment frozen in time.  A reminder that we most often prefer to forget.  The cross places before our eyes the weight of our guilt, the terrible role we play in the passion drama.  And it confronts us with our own mortality, the fate we share with the One hanging on the cross.  It is not the picture of Jesus we want, and yet, it has the power to hold our gaze.  Somehow, though his mouth is silenced by an absence of breath, the Jesus on the Cross, the Jesus lifted up, still begs the same question, still pierces our hearts with his eternally inquiry: What are you looking for?

What is supposed to look like salvation and healing, somehow, like the serpent on the pole, reflects back at us the very things we fear – as if to remind us of the divine cost of the gift of grace and the willingness of God to share our suffering.  I am reminded of Frank Horne’s haunting poem, On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church. He writes:

It is fitting that you be here,
Little brown boys
With Christ-like eyes
And curling hair.

Look you on yonder crucifix
Where He hangs nailed and pierced
With head hung low
And eyes all blind with blood that drips
From a thorny crown…
Look you well,
You shall know this thing.

Judas’ kiss shall burn your cheek
And you will be denied
By your Peter –

And Gethsemane…
You shall know full well…

You, too, will suffer under Pontius Pilate
And feel the rugged cut of rough-hewn cross
upon your surging shoulder –

They will spit in your face
And laugh…
They will nail you up twixt thieves
And gamble for your garments.

And in this you will exceed God
For on this earth
You shall know Hell –

O little brown boys
With Christ-like eyes
And curling hair,
It is fitting that you be here.[1]

What are you looking for?  Because on this cross what you will find is your most immediate fear reflected back at you through the eyes of God.  Mothers will see the death of a child.  The timid will see the cost of great courage.  The innocent victims will see that not even God can escape the fury of the oppressor.  Mortals will see that death comes for even the best of us. 

This cross, holding tightly to its crucified Savior, it does have a way of drawing people to itself.  It does have a way of holding our gaze.  Maybe it is healing.  Maybe it is freedom from fear.  Maybe it is salvation.  Maybe it is redemption of the pain and misery that plagues this world.  Maybe it is a sign of hope in the broken body of God.  What are you looking for?

The cross stands so high over history that it is impossible to ignore.  It stands lifted up before a cosmos desperate to grasp the full meaning of an object at once as simple and crude as two pieces of splintered wood and yet infinitely meaningful.  The cross, this symbol of death, that God looks at and sees a symbol of life.  Somehow the snake is also the healing.  Somehow the cross is also the salvation. 

Deep in the divine mystery, this cross that seems so final, as if nothing could ever happen in the universe after the death of God, is where we see hope and healing and salvation.  Just when it seems that the story is over, the last word is nailed down, God turns the page.  And our eyes lifted once to see the cross, see the light of a new day breaking through the clouds.

[1] 3000 Years of Black Poetry, 212-3.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What About Fear? [Lent 1B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Genesis 9:8-17

What About Fear?

I know it doesnt seem like it, but this part of the Noah story is about what is left when fear is no longer in the picture.

You should know, I am not a seafaring man.  I knew the fields and hills of Ohio as a boy.  On those rare occasions, when I would gaze over the vastness of Lake Erie or even rarer still, the impossible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean those bodies of water seemed to me strangers.  But not kindly strangers, not friends one has just not yet met, but mysterious strangers, foreboding strangers.  I suspected danger was lurking just below the surface.

I am still suspicious of water that has not yet been domesticated.  I am very fond of the water that comes from a tap, that courses through the copper pipes of my house.  But I prefer to keep the water that fills lakes, rivers and oceans at an arm's length.  There is simply too much unknown in there.  Under the surface are creepy creatures that I cannot see, that I am pretty sure want to touch me, even bite me.  There are currents that are trying to pull me under, as if that body of water was hungry enough to swallow me whole.  I am not interested in that.  Am I afraid?  Maybe.  I prefer to say I am sensible. 

But if am afraid of the water, I am in good company.  The ancient Israelites were too.  They were a desert people.  They wandered in the emptiness of rock and sand for generations.  They led their flocks from sparse pasture to sparse pasture.  When they settled down, they built their Temple in the rocky hills of Jerusalem.  They were not a seafaring people.

In fact, as far as they could tell, the sea was simply chaos with a shore.  The sea was the realm of monsters and terrors.  It consumed ships and ate sailors alive.  To a desert people the sea was a stranger a mysterious stranger teeming with danger. 

And this fear surfaces in their sacred stories.  God's command of the waters is proof of God's might and power.  Only God was able to tame their most worthy adversary and the existential fear it inspired.  God split the water of the Red Sea.  God brought water from a rock in the desert.  God gave the prophets the authority to control the rain, to shut up the heavens and open them back up.  That Jesus was able to tame the angry sea was enough to cause the disciples to start asking some pretty dangerous theological questions.

But it all began in the beginning.  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep waters, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  It all starts with this wrestling match: God versus the Waters.  In the creation stories found at the beginning of the book of Genesis, God's most significant challenge is to tame the chaotic waters.  And so we read that God created a dome in the sky something like a force field to protect the creation from the chaos; the dry land formed the earthly boundaries.  In creation God tamed the water that terrifying water.  That is how the people knew God was powerful; God wrestled what they most feared into submission. 

With the waters under God's control, life could emerge and thrive on the earth.  But it was always there, that dangerous water threatening to destroy them, threatening to drown them.  Chaos barely under control in that ancient worldview it was hanging over their heads, lurking at their shores, rumbling beneath their feet.  In the desert not enough water would eventually lead to famine, would cause them to pull up the tent stakes and journey on; but too much water too quickly would mean a flood instant devastation and death.

And we know that is exactly what happens.  In the Noah story, God releases the chaos.  Biblical scholar Tony Cartledge points out that, God does not say 'I will make it rain' but 'I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth...' The word translated 'flood' is...a technical term for the waters of chaos, not a simple flood.  The Bible says that the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.  Cartledge continues: Water comes up as well as down, and the very order of the universe is threatened, like creation in reverse.  In Genesis 1, God separated the chaos waters from the dry land. During the flood, that part of creation was reversed and chaos again imperiled the earth.[1]  

This was the nightmare scenario.  This was the worst case: the sea coming to find them.  Their deepest primal fear realized.  That is what the Flood story is the story of their fear come to life.  And that is why today's passage is so important.  They need to know this will never happen again in the future, that God will always protect them from the threat of chaos, from existential destruction.

Today we begin this Lenten season in the aftermath of the Flood, after God again tames the waters.  And while the passage, in English, repeatedly uses the word covenant, this is not a covenant.  It is a promise.  You see, a covenant is an agreement between two parties.  When we renew our baptismal covenant with God, God promises to love and keep us forever.  And we make vows too.  We promise to live lives worthy of God's love.  We of course continue to fail to live up to our end of the deal.  But God, in God's inexhaustible mercy, continues to renew the covenant with us.

But this is not that.  This is one-sided.  And a one-sided covenant is a promise.  God promises Noah, and his descendants, and every living creature: never again.  Never again will chaos reign.  Never again will the water overcome them.  Never again will their worst fear be realized.  God is strong enough.  They can trust God; they can look into the future with hope, not fear.  And to seal the promise, God hangs a bow up in the clouds as a reminder not for us, but so that God will always remember the promise.

We all have fears.  Israel's greatest fear was the chaotic depths, the waters.  It represented to them the thing they could not control, could not tame, could not overcome.  In their minds, water posed a threat to their very existence.

We all have fears.  I am afraid; I am afraid for my children.  This week, in our nation, there was yet another mass shooting, another mass shooting of children, another school shooting.  This is the fear that haunts me: that, at any time, my children could be taken from me in a chaotic flood of bullets.  My children are in kindergarten and pre-school and they run through drills so that they are ready in the event someone comes to their school to kill them.  Thats where we are; this is the reality with which are children are living; this is their normal.  And Im also afraid that our country is so broken and divided, so partisan, that this plague will only grow worse.  Im afraid of that.  To try to keep from losing my mind, I try to assure myself that it wont happen to me and my family.  But there are grieving parents all across this nation who probably thought the same thing until it happened, until they lost their child on what was a normal day until it became the worst day of their lives.  

This is what my wife and I talk about.  We talk about it every time it happens.  And so pretty often.  And we talk about how we feel desperate and helpless and sad and afraid.  This is the existential threat of our time.  The fear: it is so big; it feels overwhelming, paralyzing, like it might devour the future.  It can cause one to sink into despair, to lose hope.  The fear is so invasive; it chips away at our ability to trust in God, to believe in love, to find the beauty in the world.  And it so stubborn.  We spend our lives locked in a staring contest with fear.  And in the face of fear, we have two choices: allow the fear to devour us, to plant seeds of hatred and violence in our hearts until we rot from the inside out or we can hand it over to someone or something strong enough to handle it. 

This season of Lent is a time of self-examination, repentance, and prayer.  Many of you are probably planning to make a change, to give something up.  What about fear?  Just because there are things in this world that are scary doesnt mean we have to be afraid. 

Fear causes us to lock up our hearts and makes us want to hide away from the world and all the bad things that happen out there.  When fear takes over trust fades and hope withers and love grows cold.  And when that happens the future feels bleak and everyone everywhere starts to look like an enemy, a threat.  God wants better for us, a better world, a better future; God wants on earth as it is in Heaven.  That will not happen until we learn to love better than we fear.  Trust and hope and love are risky in this dangerous world but they are the only path into a better tomorrow. 

What the Noah story, especially the piece of it we heard today shows us, is that God is rooting for our future.  In the story, God hangs a bow in the sky.  We tend to think of this as a rainbow, a weather event and that is true enough.  But the text does not say rainbow; it says bow as in bow and arrow.  God transforms a symbol of violence into a sign of hope.  That is why we dont need to fear the terrors that await us in the future.  Because while God is here with us today, the God of the promise is also there, in every moment beyond this present one, calling us to walk boldly into that place where fear thrives.  God is strong enough to carry our most haunting fears so that we can keep moving ahead.    

And when we give our fears to God, when we trust God with our fears, the bad things dont go away, but our hearts open and our love is set free in this scary world, this world that desperately needs to be confronted by the power of love a love that is stronger than violence, stronger than hatred, stronger than division, stronger than fear, stronger even than death.  Rather than allow fear to take us out of this world, we can transform this world through the power of love.  Because God is with us.   

Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, Father, I am very thirsty. He said a prayer and said to me, Drink some of the sea water. The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on. Then the old man said, God is here, God is everywhere.[2]

In the chaos of the sea.  In the suffocating depths of our fear.  In the darkness of the darkest night.  In the big scary future.  Ever calling us to plunge into the dangerous future armed with only trust, hope, and love.  God is here, God is everywhere.  And God is strong strong enough to handle even our greatest fears.

[1]   Tony W. Cartledge, Sessions with Genesis, 30.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Ashes [Ash Wednesday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Ash Wednesday
Psalm 103:8-14

Love and Ashes

It has been well-covered that Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 14th, often better-known as Valentine’s Day.  For many of us this is the first time we have had to decide between ashes or a romantic dinner out.  But this is not the first time this strange juxtaposition has occurred.  The last time the two holidays fell on the same date was 1945.  That was a long time ago – though I do now realize some of you out there probably actually do remember the last time. 

In many ways Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are strange bedfellows.  Certainly a married priest, like myself, is forced to sheepishly admit that the only date my wife will get today is the Noon liturgy and the only gift will be ashes.  (And so I am not scolded after the service, we did celebrate Valentine’s Day on Monday.) But I think it goes without saying that the two call to mind different details.  Valentine’s Day brings to mind chocolates and romantic dinners and thoughts of passion and heart-shaped decorations and love.  But then Ash Wednesday brings to mind the fact that you gave up chocolate for Lent and you are fasting and all you can think about is death and penitence and the only decoration is the black cross on your forehead and then also love again. Perhaps surprisingly, but every bit as much as Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday is about love.

It is what the two days have in common.  I suppose it is fair to say that love is expressed differently during this liturgy than it is perhaps on your average Valentine’s Day, but both days celebrate love.  In fact, one cannot truly understand Ash Wednesday, certainly not properly understand Ash Wednesday, without understanding that Ash Wednesday is first and foremost about love.

It is our Psalm today that begins, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  You see, it is easy to see this day, and the entire season of Lent, as a dark and difficult time one is forced to endure until finally Easter restores the happiness to our lives, a dour season in which self-flagellation is encouraged.  And it true that on this day and in this season we are called to remember our mortality; we are called to lives of repentance; we are called to gives ourselves to deep, prayerful reflection and intentional, sometimes difficult and painful, self-examination.  There is a gravity associated with this season that we should feel in our souls.

But the discipline that defines this season, that the Church encourages, is not the price we pay for God’s approval.  Our Lenten offerings are not intended to sedate an angry, wrathful God.  If you showed up here today to earn God’s love, or if you swore off of chocolate or social media for Lent to earn God’s love, or if you made a pledge to say an extra prayer for each of the next forty days to earn God’s love, you are wasting your time.  God already loves you.     

And that is why we do this.  That is what gives us the strength to bear these signs of our mortality.  That is what gives us the courage to lay bare our weaknesses and faults.  That is what allows us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Because the first word is always: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  It always begins there.  It starts with love. 

When you look in the mirror today and you see those black ashes on your face and you are reminded that you are flawed, sinful, and dying, remember this also: God loves you…ashes and all.