Year C, Easter 3 April 10, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“But get up and enter the city. And you will be told what you are to do.”
Happy Easter everyone! I am back after a little post-Easter break. I hope you have all experienced the start of the Easter season as an opening, a release, a new day after the austerities of Lent and the rigors of Holy Week. The past couple of years we have been experimenting with our Lent unto Holy Week observances and we’ve been making things a bit more rigorous. I heard some good things from a few folks, and it is certainly working on me. Holy Week, if you really lean into it, it is quite an ordeal. There are nine or ten liturgies in the week, the Nightwatch, breaking up your sleep schedule. Everything looks different after missing a night’s sleep. A long Vigil into the night. Powerful stuff. Lenten fasts are there to give perspective, to jog us out of our regular life routines and become more mindful of our existence. It can really change your perspective. Then Holy Week comes and turns up the volume and everything but church stops. (Just ask the Choir or Altar guild or hospitality folks). Powerful stuff. Real religious experience.
When Ben lit that fire out in front of the parish at sundown on Holy Saturday, when the Light of Christ sprang to life… I had honest to goodness tears in my eyes. Real tears of joy. I felt it. It was not contrived: cultivated, yes; intentional, yes, but genuine, not acted, I didn’t have to fake it ‘til I made it, it really happened. Alleluia Christ is Risen! A real feast at then end of a long fast. And then Sunday morning, it was just great, so many people, our biggest Easter ever. Such fabulous music. The stuffed crosses were out and the Easter dresses. Calla lilies. Hail during the Easter Egg hunt. Oh beautiful day! I felt closer to God, much, much closer to God on Easter than I often do. I felt the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I felt the joy that arose from horror. The life that arose from death. Alleluia Christ is Risen! It is all right there, waiting for you. All it takes is showing up. Next year, do. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.
And now here we are, its the third Sunday of Easter. You still feeling it? You still feeling any Easter glow? It is hard to sustain that, the glow, the warmth, the wonder that comes with a glimpse of gifts of great price like resurrection. It is hard to sustain the practices that you have cultivated in a season of fasts or maybe on a retreat. You come back to regular life and it is hard to keep doing the things you did when things weren’t so regular. Jack Kornfield is a great Buddhist teacher. He wrote a book on this, about coming back to earth after deep religious experiences, in his case, long Vipassana meditation retreats. The title says it all, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. We all have laundry to do. Even the disciples.
This passage from St. John’s gospel is about this, right? The post-Easter glow and how it fades away so quickly. They had experienced so much. Jesus had opened their hearts and their minds. Had set them to very meaning work, healing and teaching, all sorts of camaraderie, challenges, and ordeals. Jesus gave them a chance to have lives with real, genuine purpose to them. Few things are more precious than that. They were helping, they were changing, they were saving the world and then… Good Friday happened. He, Jesus, their friend and leader was brutally tortured to death by the mightiest empire the world had ever seen and it all shattered. They were scattered, even Peter, the rock on whom the church would be built, even he denied Him at his hour of greatest need. Even His body was missing. Things fell apart.
Then, Mary saw something. Him, she claimed. Then, while hiding behind that locked door, He returned. And then again, and Thomas believes, “My Lord and my God.” Easter happened.
Fabulous! Monumental! Can you imagine a more fantastic end to such a horrible story? No, of course not. Risen from the dead, the sins of the world broken upon Him like a ship on a shoal. Everything changed! Can you imagine being there, being part of all of that? The fabric of the world changed in some mysterious way in those few days, everything was different, made new, saved! But what about those disciples? They see Him, speak with Him, hear Him, touch Him and where does that take them? To a rickety boat back in Galilee and not catching any fish. They were right back to where they started.
I know someone who stopped drinking for Lent. They knew they needed to stop, things were getting a bit frayed around the edges and the forward inertia of Lent was the ticket. 46 days of sobriety! Then Easter comes, and another week and then… Back to it. Someone else I know faced something similar, all those new dispensaries everywhere, and they are just not sure if they are going keep driving past like they did through Lent. And who has already stopped saying Compline? Or is back on Facebook? Or hasn’t gone to the gym since Good Friday? Who here is already just right back to where you started on Ash Wednesday?
My therapist and I talk about change most of the time. How humans change; or rather, how little human beings change. Truly, we are born how we are, and the vast majority of will die the same person we were born, albeit with a few dings and scratches, with a bit more knowledge, and maybe a grain or two of actual wisdom acquired along the way, but in essence, we are and will remain the very, very same person we came into this world as. Even the disciples, those closest to Jesus Christ Himself, first hand hearers of the Sermon on the Mount, witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection, within two weeks, they were back to who they started as, right back to the nets catching bupkis. If they didn’t seem to change a lick, what hope is there for us?
Well, just because we can’t really change very much, that doesn’t mean that things can’t be a whole lot different. Because really, we can’t change who and what we are, our genes, or experiences and memories, all we have done, had done to us, failed to do, all of it, no changes are possible there. Because what we really need to do, what God in Christ offers is not some remodel of our beings, but a full realization of who you actually are! A full realization of your true self, the part of you made in the image of God. It is right there, waiting to be freed. We don’t need to change, we need to be fully who we actually are, who we always have been, who God made us to be.
Take Paul. We meet him this morning still going by Saul “…breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” He was not a pleasant man. And here, he was behaving very, very badly, doing really awful things in the name of what he believed was right. On his was to do evil things, he traveled the road to Damascus and BAM! he was struck down, blinded by a heavenly light. Then he and his companions heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Talk about a come to Jesus moment; this is the prototype! Then he is told to go to the city and await instructions. He does.
Right there is the first indication that Saul cum Paul had not changed. God knocked him off his feet, blinded him, spoke to him audibly for others to hear… now if anything could change a person, this kind of experience is it, but it doesn’t. The first thing he does, without question, is follow orders. He unquestioningly followed the orders of the authority that he understood to be most important. His nature. Before this, it was the authority of the Temple that he followed, right? The orders of the Temple functionaries, the High Priest and such, he zealously followed their orders on account of the authority that they represented to him. And he did horrible things in their name, a real over-achiever. Like the Marine Corps, “ours is not to question why ours is just to do or die.” Precisely and fully following authority. It was his nature.
Now, that is a very troubling nature to have, particularly when the authority he consented to was so corrupt. But then Jesus grabs him by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t change him, doesn’t expect him to be a different person, but rather applies his true nature to a different path, a better path, the service of Christ and Christ’s church. (That is debatable in same circles but we’re giving St. Paul the benefit of the doubt today, its Easter). Saul changed into Paul, but it wasn’t his nature that changed, it was the orientation of that nature on the world that changed. He was still an arrogant, zealous, over-achieving kind of brutish figure, but he was all of those things for the Lord. (Again, we’re being forgiving today). Opening himself to God in Christ, he became more fully himself, not changed, not different, but more Paul.
What parts of your own nature are you not so thrilled with? Maybe you don’t move very much. Stillness is a big part of your being, but rather than being holy stillness, it more rather locks you to your couch. Face it, no matter how hard you try, you are probably not going to become some wildly active participant in the world. That’s totally fine. You weren’t made that way and God help us if we all were! But that does not let you off the hook. Being a still person is fine, it is a blessing; being chronically still in front of the TV, not so much. So focus your nature, don’t change it. Learn to meditate or pray contemplatively. Read deeply. Find quiet conversation partners and save the world that way. Be yourself, just better, more fully.
Those of us who move a bit to fast, sitting on that prayer cushion might seem laudable, but for us could be a recipe for disaster. Pray with your hands! Pray with your voice! Pray with your body in yoga or chi kung or marathon running or community organizing or raising children. Put the nature you have, the nature given to you by God to work building the Kingdom of God, the Promised Land right here, right now with the primary tool you have been given: your true self.
There is an old rabbinic story that I read once. It goes something like this: “When you come to the end of days, and you are held to account, the Holy One will not ask why were not more like Abraham, or why were you not more like Moses, the Holy One will ask, why were you not more like you?”
Eastertide is here. The peace that surpasses all understanding has once again be offered to us. May you see yourself in that peace, and become more fully who you are. AMEN