Monday, April 22, 2013

Light in the Darkness

The Rev. Amy Morehous
April 21, 2013
Easter 4, Year C
Church of the Ascension

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the crippled,
and I will strengthen the weak,
and the fat and the strong I will watch over;
I will feed them in justice.
----- Ezekiel 34:15 -16

“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”
― Madeleine L'Engle, A Ring of Endless Light

This has been a week of darkness and pain for many of us, if we've seen anything in the news. So much suffering. So much pain. I have seen so many pictures that I wish I could unsee. So many people's lives rearranged in an instant. Lives lost. Limbs lost. Homes flattened. Just when we thought the news couldn't get worse, it did.
Even though none of these events happened to us, personally, we still hurt, not only because we are compassionate, but also because we are reminded how much our lives can change in an instant. In the blink of eye, everything we thought we understood can change. We are reminded that we are vulnerable, we are fragile, and so is this world. In weeks like this, it's more obvious than ever that we are indeed on 'this fragile Earth, our island home.'
Today, we hurt for the people in Boston, and the people in West, Texas, and for all the suffering people in this world. And it's hard for us to know what to do with our confusion, and our hurt, and our anger. We are angry with the people who do harm intentionally - people who leave home planning to put others in harm's way. 
Into our anger and our hurt, we hear the words of our readings - Christ, the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23. Revelation. The resurrection of Dorcas in Acts. Words that offer balm to our weary souls after a week full of tragedy. In these words, we hear promises. "the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It's a lovely picture, an idyllic one, one many of us find comforting. It is most commonly read at burial services, because we who are mourning yearn so much for it to be true. One day, we proclaim that this will happen for all of God's children, those who have come through the great ordeal.
But what about what sustains us now? What about the very real tears we've seen this week? What about the grief we bear today, in this life? How do we live with things that are unlivable, how do we find hope in times of darkness? For that, we look to Christ.
The Paschal candle is that tall candle to the right of the altar. It represents the resurrection light of Christ here in our midst. It is first kindled every year at the Easter Vigil, when Jesus crosses into his resurrection life, when we go from darkness to glorious light, from death to life. That candle burns now, in Easter. It also burns steadily for every funeral. Visible light in the darkness of our grief. The light does not give us answers, it does not take our grief away, but it remains present with us, it reminds us that darkness does not win, that nothing, not even death, separates us from the love of Christ. We are an Easter people, and we are here to affirm that weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.
From this Paschal light, we light each baptismal candle, to symbolize the light of Christ shining into each of our renewed, baptismal lives. We give this light away freely to others, as a reminder to each new person in Christ that God is with them always, even in the darkest of nights.
Today, we look to that light. We look to the Shepherd, the one who knows us, who loves us, who even calls us by name. Just as Jesus called the little girl by name, and she is raised from the dead, as Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, Peter does the same, and restores Dorcas to new life. God calls each of our names, calls us to new lives in Christ. God calls to you, and you, and you. And God keeps calling, until we hear, even when things are darkest - especially when things are darkest.
So, how do we answer? How do we answer God's call in Christ? What on earth does God want us to do? God surely does not expect any of us to singlehandedly conquer evil? Part of our grief this week is our feeling of helplessness in the face of pain - we are so small, and evil can seem so large. In the face of that which overwhelms us, what do we have that is only ours to give?
We have love. God's love, working through us, is our most powerful gift. Just as evil and death could not defeat Christ, it also cannot defeat love. The love you have in your heart is not like anyone else's. When times are dark is when we need that love the most. Where was the Good Shepherd this week, when the news was so dark, and times were so tragic?
The Good Shepherd was present in the love of many shepherds. The people who turned and ran toward danger, and pain, so they might help someone else. The people who ran 26.2 miles, and then kept on running right to the hospital to donate blood - so many of them that the hospitals and the Red Cross had to turn people away.
Online, there were pages and pages of people in Boston offering space in their homes for people who were stranded. One person wrote, "I have a spare double bed, and a dog to love on you. It's yours if you need it."
Emergency responders from all over central Texas headed to West, Texas on a moment's notice to help with search and recovery. We saw people all week, ordinary people, who put themselves in harm's way before they even knew it was safe to do so, just on the chance they could help someone else who needed it.
Shepherds, all of them. Doing what they did with a fierce, self-sacrificial love that outshone all the darkness, that looked for no reward, but only sought to help. Light, in the darkness. In your own life, who has been the very light of Christ for you when you most needed it? There are plenty of people wandering in that darkness even now, today. If you are surrounded by darkness now, know that the light of Christ is present for you, always. Even when you cannot see it, know that it will seep through the cracks, to illuminate every dark place.
Perhaps you could be just the light someone else needs. It could be a family member, a friend, a person on your pew, it could be the very next stranger you meet.
Today and every day, the Good Shepherd calls our name, and reminds us that he is with us, always. The Shepherd calls you to answer in love, in a way that only you can. Christ calls on us to take that light out into the world, and shine the light of love into dark places. May God grant each of us the grace to hear that call, the boldness to answer, and the strength to follow wherever Christ may lead us. Now, and always.


Monday, April 1, 2013

And Jesus Called Her By Name, Year C March 31, 2013
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. We believe that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus between 3 and 6 am on Easter morning. According to John, “it was still dark.” Darkness and light are central metaphors of John’s Gospel. For example, Jesus said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12). Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramathea who had first come to meet Jesus in secret at night, then later came to Pilate in the light to request Jesus’ body after his crucifixion (John 10:38-42). Yet here it is that faithful Mary Magdalene came to the tomb in the dark of the night. We can only imagine the profound desolation Mary felt as she made her way out of the dark city to the garden tomb. At that time, the place where Jesus was buried was outside the walls of Jerusalem. What must she have been thinking? What must she have been feeling? John doesn’t tell us that, only that Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb while it was still dark.
II. Together, we have just experienced Holy Week. We have seen the altar stripped and all the Christian symbols taken from the chancel. We have frequently been in darkness this week – in our Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Vigil services. And I must say that occasionally this particular week in East Tennessee has seemed especially dark to me. There have been cloudy days, abundant rain, and nippy temperatures. The sun often has been obscured by clouds.
This Holy Week has been somewhat dark for me for another reason. I want to share a personal experience this morning. Recently, I have had symptoms of a disease that is similar to one that runs in my family, the disease from which my sister ultimately died more than twenty years ago. I had hoped my symptoms would subside, but they did not. So, just days before Holy Week, I began my medical odyssey to determine what was wrong. With the guidance of an extraordinary and compassionate physician, diagnostic procedures were ordered that would provide us with significant clarification. Many of you have been through this kind of process. And you know that the fear we often feel in such situations can intensify as we begin to address a problem. Before I go any further, I believe some reassurance is in order. Diagnostic procedures have not confirmed my worst fears. The results indicate, that basically I’m a healthy guy who is going to be living for a good long time.
But here is the part that I want to share with you. While alone in a small room, waiting for a significant procedure, I was hooked up to a blood pressure monitor and saw that the numbers on the monitor were climbing steadily, along with my anxiety. I began to pray the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus, Son of the Loving God, have mercy upon me.” This is an ancient breath prayer, said multiple times, breathing in and out as we pray. While I was praying, in my mind’s eye I saw Jesus. And I heard Jesus say to me: “Do not be afraid; I am here with you, Howard. Whatever happens, we will go through it together.” When I glanced over at the monitor, my blood pressure readings had dropped significantly.
III. Why have I shared this experience with you this morning? I hesitated to share it. But for days, God has encouraged me to include this in today’s sermon. This is how I understand why God might have been nudging me to do so. The Easter Story of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dark place of the cross to the place of an empty tomb and the light of new life is not and has never been a story about Jesus alone. Let me repeat that: The Easter Story of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dark place of the cross to the place of an empty tomb and the light of new life is not and has never been a story about Jesus alone. Nor has it been a story only about Mary Magdalene, John, and Peter and the others who knew Jesus and mourned his death. Yes, it became their story, but it is our story as well. Mary Magdalene went into a dark place. John’s Gospel tells us that she went there alone, and that there, she met the Risen Jesus. It wasn’t clear to her at first that she was going to encounter anything more than a dead body. Even after Peter and John came and saw that the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene continued to weep . . . until she encountered Jesus.
At first she didn’t recognize him. In fact, she thought him to be the gardener and asked if he had taken Jesus’ body away. Then, “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” He called her by name, and the light of the Easter encounter shattered the darkness. “She [Mary] turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabonni’ (which means Teacher.)” In the Cambridge Bible Commentary, A.M. Hunter writes: “It [this] is the greatest recognition scene in history – epitomized in the word, Rabboni, an Aramaic word [that is] a stronger form than rabbi and means ‘My Lord.’ Since in Jewish literature, it [Rabboni] is a title generally reserved for the Divine Lord, we may have here a confession of faith comparable to the coming one by Thomas” (1975, p. 186). We can comprehend that Mary’s recognition of Jesus’ identity and his Resurrection all took place as she heard him call her name. Think about it, how many of us can vividly remember and would recognize how our mother and father called our name. Or how many of us have been able to differentiate the cry or the voice of our own child from among the voices of others? And Jesus called her name: “Mary.”
IV. The Currency of the Easter Story. I know that there may be some here this morning who doubt the veracity of the Easter story. If it were only a story about a one time historical event occurring approximately 2000 years ago, I would be hard pressed to “scientifically prove” to you the accuracy of John’s account. What I can tell you, however, is that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection is true. How do I know this? Through my faith and repeated experience that Jesus Christ is constantly taking me – and you -- from dark places into the light. The Resurrection is not a one-time event. It occurs over and over again in our lives as Christian believers. Sometimes we would like to have the movement from darkness into light occur more quickly, and frankly, often we don’t want to be in the dark places at all. I understand that! As human beings, we would like to control all aspects of our lives, but we all know that that is not possible. Therefore, the very best resource we have when in the dark places, such as the dark place of fear I experienced this past week, is the ongoing presence of the living Resurrected Jesus Christ.
V. Conclusion. But do know this. Coming to faith is a process. It may involve faith-generating events, but faith, just like trust, develops over time. Fr. James McPolin writes: “The religious experience in this [the 20th chapter of John] is the ‘coming’ of the risen Christ to his disciples . . . and the disciples respond in faith – they ‘believe.’ . . . But this faith is not a sudden, once and for all response, for it is the gift of the risen Jesus and it grows through the experience of his absence, through fear and doubt” (pp. 252-253). Today, this is our Easter gift to one another – to know and to proclaim that in the undulating patterns of light and darkness in our lives, the risen Lord Jesus Christ is fully present. I encourage us all to listen in those places for the voice of Christ, to hear him as he calls our names, and to know that nothing –“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in [the Risen] Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38).
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
(Response): The Lord is Risen Indeed. Alleluia.