Saturday, March 26, 2016


Our Gospel lesson tells a story about dawn,
the dawning of faith and hope.
It is about the disciples’ gradually coming to believe
that Christ is alive.

God sometimes acts all at once.
The trumpet blows, the earth shakes, the stone is rolled away.
But it takes us awhile to notice what has happened.
We get used to seeing things a certain way.
It takes awhile for our spiritual eyes to adjust.
The world may turn upside down,
            but it takes us awhile to notice.

We know the hour they nailed Jesus to the cross.
It was nine in the morning.
We know the hour he died.
It was three in the afternoon.
Death is easy to see.
We know about death.
We can pin it down, write the time and the cause  
on a coroner’s certificate.

But Resurrection is too big for us.
No one saw it happen.
We have no idea what it looked like.
We don’t know what time it happened.
I like to imagine it was in that deepest darkness
            just before the first pre-dawn light
– the time when people see not the slightest hint of light
            but the birds can sense it and begin to sing.
I like to imagine it was then, but we do not know.

All we know is that it was before sunrise.
We know that because Mary Magdalene
            made her way through the darkness,
            arrived still in darkness and found the tomb empty.

How did she know it was empty there in the dark?
She found the stone rolled away,
            then she must have gone into the dark burial cave
            and felt around for the corpse.
I imagine her heart was pounding there in the dark sepulcher
and she was shocked to find no body-- only earthen walls.

“So she ran,” the Scripture says. “She ran.”
She had come to find the cause of her grief,
            but instead she had encountered something
                        mysterious and frightening.
“So she ran” -- ran into the city,
            ran as fast as her legs would carry her
                        to Peter and John.
Panting, breathless, she blurted out
            --not the facts but her interpretation.
She said “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”

Who had taken him? She didn’t know.
Where had they taken him? She didn’t know.
Why had they taken him? She didn’t know.

But, knowing nothing, she assumed whatever had happened
            was bad, another insult, another degradation.
That was the way she was used to seeing things.

Peter and John raced to the tomb,
with the exhausted Mary Magdalene
            trailing along behind them.
By now it was early morning,
            so they could see a bit in the tomb,
            but they still had to go inside to be sure.
They found the linens that had held the body.
They found them neatly folded and set aside.

How did that happen?
What did it mean?
The Bible doesn’t say what Peter thought.
It says the other disciple “believed”
            but it doesn’t say what he believed.
In fact the same verse says that neither of them
            yet understood that Jesus was to rise from the dead.

Whatever they thought, they did not go rejoicing.
They just left, each to his own home.
But Mary Magdalene, still grief stricken,
            now frightened and confused,
            stayed at the tomb weeping.

After awhile she did something odd.
It was human but odd.
She stooped down to look back into the tomb
expecting it to be empty,
            and this time it was not empty.
This time she saw something.
She saw two angels sitting where the body had been.
Now here is my question.
When did these angels arrive in the tomb?
I may be wrong. I am mostly guessing.
But I assume they are the ones who folded the death linens.
I just can’t see the Resurrected Lord of Heaven and Earth,
            having just broken open the gates of hell,
            conquered death, and shaken the foundations of the universe,
            stopping to make his own bed.

The angels must have done that.
They must have done it before the disciples started poking around
            in the sepulcher.
So where were they when Mary first felt her way
into the dark cavern of death?
Where were they when Peter and John
            discovered the folded linens?

Had they gone out to run an errand?
Had they returned to heaven and then come back?
Or – and this is what I imagine
-- had they been there all the time?
Was it just that the disciples were so immersed in tragedy
            that they couldn’t see the angels
            who were there to comfort and reassure them?

The angels didn’t get a chance to comfort Mary Magdalene.
If they had been given a chance, we know from the other Gospels
            that they would have announced the Resurrection to her.
But Mary didn’t wait around for that.
She was too afraid.
She scrambled back out of the cave
before the angels could say a word.

Getting people to listen to good news is hard.
We are used to tragedy,
            so we have hard time hearing good news.
Mary was running away from the good news angels,
            when she saw Jesus there waiting to meet her.
But she didn’t recognize him.
She thought he was the gardener.
Instead of greeting her Lord,
            she thought she was meeting the very wrongdoer
            who had desecrated the grave and hidden the Body.

Notice how she acts,
            groveling before his authority.
She acts like someone whose car isn’t where they think they left it,
            assumes she has parked in the wrong place,
                        and it has been towed.

She’s apologizing for Jesus’ body having been left
            in the rich man’s tomb,
            so she’s offering to take it away
                        so it won’t be bother to them.
Then he calls her name. “Mary,” he said.
Maybe she remembered his words,
            “The good shepherd knows his sheep
and calls them by name”?
Maybe that is what opened her eyes.

Or maybe it was that she had been so lost in her misery
            that she had forgotten her true self.
Somehow, when Jesus called her name,
called her back to herself,
            she recognized him.
She listened to him,
            and she did what he told her to do.
She went to the other disciples and said,
            “I have seen the Lord.”

So here’s what I wonder.
How many angels are in my presence each day,
            in my car as I drive, in my office, maybe even at church?
How many angels do I ignore each day
            because my eyes only recognize ordinary things.
How many angels are whispering good news to me,
            but I am not listening?

And how many times each day
            do I meet Jesus but don’t recognize him?
Oh I have seen him a few times – usually in other people.
I have seen him in an old monk at a monastery.
I have seen him in a homeless hitch hiker.
I have seen him in a criminal in jail.

But how many times have I missed him?
I suspect my batting average isn’t even 1%.

How often do I grovel like Mary before authority
            or rebel against authority
                        because I see authority everywhere?
But the person in front of me isn’t trying to dominate me.
He is really Jesus, my sacred friend.

Well maybe that is alright.
Maybe it doesn’t help to criticize myself
            for all the blessings I overlook and fail to enjoy.
Maybe if I see only one out of every 10,000 angels
who offer me hope,
and maybe if I recognize Jesus only once in my life,
            that is enough.

It may be enough if it reminds me to watch out
for grace and blessing wherever I look.
Then maybe when I see the moon’s reflection
            coming toward me over your Sacred Lake,
            I will think that may be the light of Christ.
To encounter Jesus even once, or just to believe
that someone like Mary Magdalene may have met him,
            is enough to keep us alert to grace
            instead of assuming that there is only misery.

And it is enough to entrust us with a message,         
            the message that there is hope, there is mercy,
                        that sins may yet be forgiven,
                        that the wounds in our souls may yet be healed,
                        that broken love may yet be reconciled,
                        and all that is beautiful, good, and just
                        will someday be restored in God’s Kingdom.
God give us the grace to share this good news          

            with our brothers and sisters who need it so much.

Friday, March 25, 2016


We Christians used to have a better breed of adversary
         than we do today.
We’d be better at understanding and expressing our faith
         If we were playing in a tougher league.
But our current class of atheists substitute sarcasm and contempt
         for thinking.
They don’t even understand us well enough
         to disagree intelligently.
I barely recognize the religion they are attacking.

But the father of 20th Century atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche,
         understood our faith – all too well perhaps.
He got it better than most of us do.
And he attacked us at our most vulnerable point – the Cross.
He was appalled by the Cross.
He is not alone.
Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis In The Life of God, writes:
         “The crucifix is a violently obscene icon.”

Nietzsche agreed.
At the age of 44, he wrote The Anti-Christ,
         a powerful critique of Christianity.
Of the story we have heard today, he said:

         God on the cross – are the horrible secret thoughts
         behind this symbol not understood yet? All that suffers,
         all that is nailed to the cross, is divine. All of us are nailed
         to the cross, consequently we are divine. . . . Christianity
         has been the greatest misfortune of mankind so far.

He far preferred the Greek gods like Apollo and Dionysius.
If they are what God is, then brilliance and passion are godlike.
But if Jesus on the Cross is God,
         then suffering – your suffering and mine -- is godlike.
Do we want a religion that worships suffering?
Most people are looking for something quite different.

When I was in my early 30s,
         freshly returned to the Church,
         I went on a parish retreat at a beautiful Idaho lake.
One man there with our congregation was successful building contractor.
His wife was a good Episcopalian but he wasn’t buying it.
I remember his words as if it were yesterday.
“Where is the religion for kings?” he asked.
That was what he wanted – a winner’s religion that would validate
         his success the way the market and society did.
Two years later he was bankrupt.
I don’t know what kind of religion he was looking for then.

But Nietzsche was looking for the same kind of religion,
         a faith for winners.
In The Anti-Christ, he wrote:

         What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling
of power in a man, the will to power, power itself.
         What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.
         What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing . . .
         The weak and the failures shall perish . . .
and they shall be given every possible assistance.
         What is more harmful than any vice?
                  Active pity for all the failures . . . .: Christianity.

The father of 20th Century atheism admired strength
and felt only contempt for vulnerability –
                  or so he said.
But the most passionate expressions of hatred
         are sometimes a masque to conceal a secret love.
Could it be that the atheist, Nietzsche,
         did protest too much?

Just four months after writing The Anti-Christ,
Nietzsche was in Turin, Italy.
He was not visiting the Shroud of Turin.
He did not intend to see the face of Christ.
He was there to eat gelato and enjoy his favorite small city.
But one day Nietzsche was walking along a Turin street
when a draft horse collapsed from exhaustion.
The owner began flogging the horse ruthlessly.
Nietzsche, whose writings abhorred all morality but most of all compassion,
betrayed himself.
He rushed to the fallen horse and threw himself across its body
         to take the flogging in its place.
Sobbing, he held the fallen horse and from that moment never regained
         his full sanity.

Nietzsche spent the remainder of his short life in an insane asylum.
Was he truly mad? Had he discovered a forbidden truth? Maybe both.
While in the asylum he wrote his last lucid letter.
He signed it “The Crucified.”

Our image of God expresses what we most admire,
         what we affirm, what we value above all else.
A god like Apollo with the perfect hair, face, and body,
         exuding wisdom and power, that makes sense.
Apollo could land a leading role on a soap opera
         while getting tenure at an Ivy League university on the side.
Who wouldn’t worship that?

But Jesus on the Cross?
What are we worshiping there?
The Gospel stories don’t help us answer that question.
They just tell the story and leave it to us to sort out.
The would-be atheist Nietzsche explained it as well as anyone.
         “All that suffers, all that is nailed to the cross is divine.
          All of us are nailed to the cross. . . “

A lot of religion tries to escape from a basic truth.
Life hurts.
Next to Christianity, I most admire Buddhism for teaching:
         The First Noble Truth is suffering.

We can think all the pretty positive thoughts ever dreamed up
We can eat right, work out daily, read the self-help books,
and practice all the habits of highly effective people.
But we are still left with what Anglican poet and theologian,
         Samuel Taylor Coleridge called,
         “the tears in the nature of things.”

There is a Buddhist story of a woman whose only child died.
Disconsolate, she went to a holy man on a distant mountain
         begging him to revive her son and end her sorrow.
He said he would do it -- on one condition.
She must bring him a handful of salt
         from a house in her village that had never known grief.
She went from door to door – every door in her village –
         but could not find a single house that had not known grief.
So she returned to the holy man and said, “I understand.”
There are “tears in the nature of things.”

Many people have tried to explain why it’s that way.
I even wrote a book on it and some of you were kind enough to read it.
But God didn’t explain it away.
God didn’t explain why we deserve it or how it’s really for our own good.
Instead God did the most amazing and inexplicable thing:
         He joined us in it.
He saw us on the cross and got on it with us.

Brothers and sisters, there is a balm in Gilead.
There is an end to suffering and a birth of joy.
But not here. Not yet.
Jesus said, “While you are in the world, you will have troubles.”
I am sorry to tell you, it is true.

When God in Christ Jesus went to the cross,
         he did not end our suffering.
But he decisively changed the meaning of it.
He made our suffering a place to meet God,
         and a place to meet each other,
         like the Buddhist woman meeting her neighbors,
like Nietzsche holding the fallen horse.

When we venerate the cross tonight, whose cross is it?
Jesus’ cross? Your cross? My cross? Our neighbor’s cross?
The Syrian refugee’s cross?
Brothers and sisters, it’s the same cross.
There’s only one cross.

Jesus turned our suffering into something that will not destroy us.
Instead it is the basis of our compassion for one another.
We do not suffer alone but together with God and each other.
That’s what the word “compassion” means – to suffer with another.

We live in a world that worships success.
We have little use for the old religion of self-denial.
We practice disciplines of self-coddling.
The chaplain of a national Episcopal group this year
         actually wrote a Lenten letter urging us
         to go to a spa and relax in sensual delight for our Lenten discipline.
Our society averts its eyes from the poor, addicted,
         handicapped, and even those wounded in our wars.
A lot of so-called Christians are preaching a prosperity gospel:
         “Get your religion right,” they say, “and God will make you rich.”
It’s the religion for kings, the faith of winners.

But that isn’t Jesus’ religion.
The cross isn’t about that.
The cross is about “the tears in the nature of things.”

And eventually, if we cannot escape the thought of God
on the cross in Christ Jesus,
we’ll wind up asking,
“Must Jesus bear the cross alone
and all the world go free?
No there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.”

And if we cannot forget the story we have heard tonight,
         sooner or later,
         we’ll find ourselves like Nietzsche,
         overcome with compassion for a someone,
         ready to weep with them,
         ready to shield them with our own bodies
         out of godly mercy and vulnerable love.