Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Easter Sunday Sermon, April 5, 2015: Surprised by Joy

My Parish in my hometown when I was a child used to gather up all the children before the service and they would stand outside the church door and they would shout, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!  About a dozen times before the service began.

I discovered as I visited Easter Services at Eastern Orothodox Churches that this is a custom of theirs.  They leave the church and march around the neighborhood singing, then stop at the door and shout many times, “Christos Anesti, Alethos Anesti” which is Greek, and “Christos voskres! Voistinu voskres”, Old Church Slovanic, which both mean of course, “ Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen indeed!

Today’s Celebration is characterized by unbridled Joy! 

Joy is delight!
Joy is wonder!
Joy is pregnant with possibility.

We don’t want to confuse joy with Pollyannaish optimism. I got a cup from McDonalds which had a line marked half full, half empty.  This is not joy.  That is making the best of a situation.  Joy is complete and full.

And Joy is also Not ignorance of hardship.  Easter Joy is only possible with the full knowledge of human suffering, fear and despair.  The path to Easter comes through the Cross.  One must pass through the dark and sinister valley of the shadow of death to arrive at Easter.  As Winston Churchill said, “When you find yourself going through, hell, keep going.”  Jesus embraces the least honorable aspects of humanity taking his faith and trust in God, taking his love, his compassion and his mercy there, and in so doing he conquers death.  He asks us not to avoid this suffering but to join him there so that we too can pass through with hiim.  And passing through we shout:.

Christ is Risen.  The Lord is Risen indeed.

I searched the attic of my mind for stories that celebrate this Easter truth and my mind returned again and again to that Easter Favorite, “The Grinch who stole Christmas”

You all know the story.  The Grinch could not abide joy.  He hated joy.  And he lived next to the town that was perhaps the most joyful in the universe, he lived next to Whoville, full of Whos.  He especially hated Christmas when they had all these rituals of unbridled joy.  So he decided he would sabotage it.  You know the story, he dresses up as Santa Claus, goes to town, on a sled, pulled by his miniscule little dog named Max, and he steals all the accoutrements of Christmas.  But what does he discover?  He discovers that the joy the Whos in Whoville had was not an external joy, that needed props.  The Whos in Whoville had discovered in their hearts joy and love.  And then the Grinch also realized that, his heart also longed for that joy!  His heart grew so large that the heart-o-meter broke trying to measure it.

Today our hearts grow large.  Today the joy of Mary Magdalene infects us.  Today the surprise and wonder of the beloved disciple and Peter penetrate our psyches.  Today the faith of two thousand years that goes forward in trust no matter how dark the sky, or bitter the winter, or deathly the plague becomes, that faith that the Divine’s power of love and compassion is exceedingly greater.  Death cannot overwhelm the sheer beauty and delight of Love.  Love prevails.

Many wonder, what was Christ’s rising from the dead like?  Did it really happen?  Could we call it a historic truth, or is it just a spiritual truth.  I am a pretty modern person, I’m good at science, and I value it, but I believe I am a bit of an outlier these days, in that I for one truly believe that Christ rose from the dead.  The stories are so full of excitement, and they are too messy in my mind to be pious fictions.  I believe they really encountered again the Jesus they knew and it changed them.

But also there is a ring of truth for me in the Easter Story.  Christ’s rising from the dead, love conquering death, forgiveness trumping judgment, these things resonate with a song very deep in my being, and I trust.  But even though I believe in the resurrection as history, that is NOT the most important thing about the Resurrection. 

I know too many people who say they believe in the resurrection but who do not live as though they did, and I know too many people who say they do not believe in the resurrection, and yet live as though they believe.  This causes me to believe that  getting it right about the resurrection is not the most important thing.  Being right is sometimes pretty much worthless.

The Resurrection asks us to embrace the more!  The resurrection asks us to explore beyond time and space.  It yells at us that the possibility for grace and goodness exceeds all our imagination.  Easter resurrection begs us to live life in the freedom to love!  It even asks us to love with abandon!  To live joyfully.

A Buddhist Monk I love very much, Thich Naht Hahn, who I quote very often here, exemplifies I think this freedom.  I love the prayer or mantra he suggests we pray in the morning.  He recommends we welcome the day saying, “Hello Morning.  Hello a brand new 24 hours to experience peace and joy.”  I find this outlook to contain an insight to the resurrection life.

C.S. Lewis wrote a biography of his conversion to theism and then to Christianity, entitled “Surprised by Joy”.  He wrote it before he ever met his wife, whose name was Joy.  In it he examines the moments in his life when something greater broke through, and he came to realize the best thing to call those moments is joy.  It created cracks in his understanding that allowed light to shine in.  There is in joy a quality which allows one to transcend the ordinary and experience the more. 

A key in his journey was he realized that his century had made an idol of the modern so much so that people had failed to realize the relevance of the past.  We deny ourselves treasures from our spiritual ancestry because we have come to believe we can progress ever forward to a better world.  Well I personally think that idea is pretty much shot now.  When I encounter the writings of the ancient world I often find incredible wisdom and insight that resonates with that song within me.  I think this is what C. S. Lewis meant.

Joy is something we celebrate as a people.  Jesus did not seek his own salvation, rather he sought the salvation of all.  He asks us to be a community supporting and enjoying one another.

Today we bring Gabriel to this community, to the experience of an ancient faith.  He will be baptized in water, that mysterious element in which we cannot live, and without which we cannot live.  He will pass from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to Joy, from a world bound by time and space to a world of love pointing ever towards more!

Baptism, Holy Communion, and indeed all the traditions of this day, including our new bells, remind us of the important differences between life focused on time and space and life focused on the the More of life.  Humanity has discovered ancient time tested ways to express the inexpressible.  We use symbols.  We use Light!  We use Water!  We use handshake.  We use bread and wine.  We talk about crossing thresholds, slavery to freedom, darkness to light, death to life.  We sing things rather than say them. We change our posture so that our bodies align with our souls.

But one of the most important ways we move into the the more of our lives is Joy.  Let go.  Celebrate.  Do not worry about worthiness!  God makes us worthy!  Do not worry if you have never done this before.  There was a time when you had never had chocolate, or kissed some new love, or cried at a story, or looked into a baby’s eyes. 

Do not feel it is irresponsible or that you might be mistaken.  We cannot live if we take no risks.

Let us Surrender to Love!  Let us Surrender to Forgiveness!  Let us Surrender to Compassion!  Above all, this day, Let us be surprised all over again, and surrender, like the Grinch did, to Sheer Joy.

Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Meditation for Easter Day: April 5, 2015: An Easter Egg Hunt

Inside the Golden Easter Egg

I opened up the Grand Prize Golden Easter Egg at the Hunt and it was empty.  Puzzled I opened the Second Prize Silver Egg and inside was a vial of water, a candle, a bell, and a copy of Plato’s Republic with the page of the “allegory of the cave” dog-eared.  If you smell one allegory there might be two.

You may remember he allegory of the cave.  People were sitting in a cave enjoying the shadows cast on the far side of the cave, intrigued and delighted.  But someone had the idea of turning around and when he did, he saw the light of the sun shining in through an opening to the outside.  The shadows in the cave were lovely, but they were only images of a greater reality.  The Allegory asserts that there is so much MORE to life for us to discover.  This must be why Plato’s Republic was in my egg.  

St. John, our patron at this church, writes that Jesus is the light of the world.   Each year at the Easter Vigil a new candle is lit to shine in the darkness.  This Sunday morning we bring this candle into our church and each of us lights a candle from its fire as a sign that we too carry God’s light into the world.  And so the candle in my egg makes sense.

We recollect on Easter Day that the Children of Israel passed safely through the deadly Red Sea on their path to freedom from slavery in Egypt.  Water is a powerful element.  From water crawled the first life on earth; in water, inside our mothers, our infant bodies formed, and through water came slaves to freedom.  This is why Baptism is a symbol of cleaning and also passage to new life.  It is immanently understandable that a vial of water is in my second prize egg.

The bell also makes sense.  Easter is the time we put away the solemnity and self-reflection we began for Lent.  In Easter we abandon our souls to sheer joy.  We shout the festive cry “Alleluia” which means “Praise God”, and we repeat it over and over again with relish.  This Sunday we take up again the Angelic hymn, “Glory to God in the Highest” and to add to the joy we ring bells.  Lots of bells.  Loudly.  This year we also ring again our carillon after many years repaired from a lightning strike.  Yes the bell makes sense.

But these symbols were in the Second Prize Egg.  Why was the First prize egg empty?  It was empty because the tomb was empty.  Death has lost its sting.  Hell gives up its prisoners.  Jesus rises from the dead.  Alleluia!  Death has no dominion over him!  God has raised him as he promised!  Mary Magdalene announced it to the disciples!  Shout and sing, ring out your joy!  Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Let me wish you all a happy and blessed Easter.  With love ~ Father John+ 

Meditation for Good Friday: April 3, 2015: The Shy turned Black

The Sky Turned Black

The death of Christ on the Cross is a liturgy of despair. Because the disciples believed he was the one to save Israel seeing him defeated, brutally executed, and shamefully exposed assaulted their faith. The very ungodly forces they wished to exit the Holy Land are victorious and seemingly permanent.
The different people respond in different ways. Some are filled with overwhelming grief and despair. Heart-broken, they flee and keep a distance. Some are afraid for their very lives because of guilt by association. They even deny knowing him. Others, motivated by affection for Jesus, show courage and stand by him, yet their faith is deflated. They stood in solidarity, but they stood defeated, dejected.

This episode is more than the death of a religious leader. It is actually the trial of religious faith at all. It asks the question whether it is reasonable or fool-hardy for a person to maintain faith when the power of human evil and wickedness prevail over and over again. Does it make sense to open ourselves to divine power when goodness is so easily overcome? Does it make sense to see love as the most powerful force in the universe? Does indeed the sky not turn black as pervasive human cruelty and indifference batter down the advocates of non-violence and compassion? What we see on the cross uncovers a greater truth. We see humanity rejecting the healing of our ills, humanity rejecting the way of love and compassion. On the cross is nothing less than humanity killing God.

The sky turns black. God dies, exiting our lives, leaving us hopeless and inconsolable. This is what is happening on a spiritual level for the disciples, and this is what happens for us as we re-live these events: the Death of God.

Yet just as the barren ground of winter can spring to life in flower, events will transpire to declare a truth which is far from self-evident. God’s strength is perfected in weakness, as St. Paul said. The cross is not the location of the defeat of God, it is the victory of Love. A man chose to give up his life for love, for compassion, for us. Even though he was afraid and gave into despair at the end, in his actions and in his living he never betrayed love. This is true power.

God is surprise. Did the vast emptiness that pre-existed our universe expect to be filled with stars and light and wonders? Did that plane out west ever expect a trickle of water to sculpt out the Grand Canyon? Did our forebears ever picture us their children here pondering the meaning of our lives? God is surprise. The disciples could not anticipate the joy that would fill their souls on the third day. Brothers and Sisters, this is not God’s death; this is God’s victory because God accompanies us through our darkest fears to bring us into love and joy, into new life, on a higher plane. This is indeed Good Friday.

Meditation for March 29, 2015: Drama

Oooooh the Draaaah-maaaah !!!!!

I love my friend Irwin (not his real name), however it took me a while to enjoy his company.  Irwin is dramatic.  Someone has always wronged him, or something fabulous is always happening to him, so that if you get him going, you will need to spend a while, maybe reschedule some stuff.

The drama used to annoy me.  I would feel a prisoner.  It became hard to feign interest. It was too much emotion, too often.  Eventually I learned this is just who Irwin is, and I appreciate him, and I can experience it without being drawn in, and without being overwhelmed by the desire to escape.  I learned to let Irwin be Irwin, hear the drama, be his friend, but not let his drama become my drama.  It takes all sorts to make a world. 

My friend may be an extreme, but the reality is drama is an important part of our life.  I may have a calmer life than Irwin, but it has its share of upheaval, injustice, and delight.  There are events that move me deeply with sadness, with joy, with confusion, with a whole myriad of emotions.  This is life, and I have spent decades trying to unravel the meaning and significance of some of it.  Drama demands attention, propels us to reflection. 

This Sunday is a day of drama.  The fickle crowd welcomes Jesus because they think he will expel the Romans from Judea.  However, when they learn he is non-violent, they themselves cry out for his brutal execution at the hands of the very Romans they despise.  Then imagine a few days later women say Jesus’ body is gone and he is raised from the dead.  This is drama.  This series of events is so pregnant with significance that we have been reenacting it, pondering it, talking about it, for almost two thousand years. 

We may not like the extremes in emotion, but the dramatic events of our lives point to the depth of our being.  They propel us to find meaning in our losses, our loves, our wonders.  This is why symbol, myth, legend, story and yes, drama, assist to explore that meaning.  Drama is an important tool in exposing our souls, and discovering our depth. ~Father John

Meditation from March 22, 2015: Finding Treasure in the Snow

Finding Treasure in the Snow

 It was a mess around the church because the snow melting had revealed all the trash that had been buried by successive storms and flurries.  It was both horribly ugly and delightfully surprising at the same time, and my playful imagination went to work.  I knew there was a metaphor buried in this fact and I was determined to dig it out!

One of the things I realized is that my week is like that pile of snow with things buried in it.  I go through the week accumulating moments of joy, pain, excitement, wonder, discovery, the list goes on.  But during the week the daily occupations and obligations of my week are like the snow covering it all up.  The important thing is, it is all still buried there.

It dawned on me that prayer and meditation is the time to let the snow of our busy-ness melt and to sort through the objects buried in it.  Unlike the mess around the church, in the snow of our week there are also treasures as well as trash.  The day my temper was short because I had a bad encounter with my friend, trash.  The glimpse of the Palisades that overwhelmed with joy for a few seconds as I turned on Lamartine Avenue, treasure, the tear I shed as a television program reminded me of a beautiful and yet unrequited love in my teen years, both treasure and trash at the same time.   

In our meditation the richness of our lives is freed from the busy-ness and we are able to say thank you to the Divine, or Sorry, or sometimes both as is needed.  We can connect to the deeper significance of the events that are around us.  The trash we throw away, the treasures we find ways to give to others in a way that will help them and increase our connection. 

My hope is that each week, our worship, our reflections, our rituals with their strange rhythms and frequent repetitions might be one resource in remembering and celebrating our life.  We do not want it to remain buried in the snow forever.    ~Father John

Meditation For Sunday, March 15: Trust More than knowledge

Trust more than Knowledge

My dad was standing in the deep end of the pool holding out his hands inviting me to jump.  I loved playing in the shallow end.  But my father wanted me to jump into the deep end.  I knew viscerally deep water was dangerous.  I also knew my father took care of me.  Now, however, I had to hold these two facts in competition, to either jump or not.

People think knowledge is the most important thing in life, but wisdom is actually about relationships, about imperfect knowledge.  It is about trust, faith, belief.  I knew deep water was dangerous, but the relationship with my dad, after some reluctance, said it was okay to jump.  I did not know it would turn out okay, but I decided to trust the relationship.

Today’s gospel says God so loved the world he gave his son, that all who believe in him will not perish. Many have misread this text.  They think it means that if we believe some fact about Jesus we get a reward.  The text does not mean that.  It says believe in HIM, not in some FACT about him.  It is about relationship, not fact.  Everlasting life is not a reward to those who believe the right things are true.  Everlasting life is a gift received when entering a trusting relationship with the mystery lying behind life, and all that is, whom Jesus calls Father.

To believe in Jesus is to trust him.  He gives us counsel, we try it out.  He sets an example, we imiatate it.  He tells us the strength we need will be provided, we launch out courageously.   As we trust our frienship more, he gives us life more abundantly.   

Moses and early church theologians tell us God is beyond our knowledge: God is  mystery.  If we desire to explore the mysterious leadings and longings of our hearts, we must leave the safety of the shallow end, of knowledge alone.  We can embrace Jesus and the gift of life, trusting in hope that our hearts’ longings will be satisfied.  We jump in the deep end believing that loving arms will catch us, and show us wonders heretofore unimagined.   ~Father John