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April 20, 2014

Encounter


Sermon for Year A, The Great Festival of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap and The Rev. Patricia Johnson
April 20, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Encounter”
Audio


Rev. Torey Lightcap (TL): Happy Easter, Pat! Say, you know what that reading from John makes me think of? Do you recall when we went out to Colorado on a mission trip a few summers back, and we went through Colorado City, and there were those beautiful bronze statues of the Stations of the Cross? Remember how it ended? With that one huge statue of Jesus at the very top of the hill? He looked like he was just speeding out of the tomb. Pretty glorious, wasn’t it?


Rev. Patricia Johnson (PJ): I remember when I first saw that statute against the dark blue Colorado sky, and as we sat quietly on the bench nearby,
    I was deeply moved by the sheer power of this man Jesus
who was literally bursting up / bursting forth
   from that stone slab in the ground, his tomb….
       reaching with his arm extended above his head up to the sky.  
His clothing, his robe seemed to be swirling around him
   from the sheer force, the work, the struggle it was
        to break forth from the grave.  
It took me by surprise.  
I wasn’t expecting to have the reaction that I did - encounter really.  


Here in front of me was a stark visual image,
    an almost palpable experience of God
connecting our earth with all of creation in this one powerful act…
    and that ever since that moment nothing has been the same.


I must truthfully admit that the Resurrection has always been a puzzle to me.  
It isn’t something you can grasp with your rational mind.  
   And I have never been the kind of person to simply accept something
         without question.  Yet, there are divine moments -
like that day in front of that statute -
     that even though they can’t be explained rationally,
             hold a very deep truth that I know I must pay attention to.
How do we even begin to understand the resurrection?



TL: Well, I think you’ve already used the word “encounter,” haven’t you? I mean, I’m really starting to realize these days that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t something we get much understanding of, in our heads. It’s inherently non-rational. It’s more like an encounter. A bumping-into. Face-time. An encounter with Jesus -- resurrected -- which, if you like, is more of a relationship than it is some logical thing we have to figure out in our heads. If it were just a problem to be solved -- y'know, if it were only about understanding -- then it’d be a puzzle, wouldn’t it, and a very interesting one; but the longer I live the more I understand -- that’s not a lifetime’s worth of faith. That’s just sort of working the jigsaw puzzle until you get a clear enough picture that you feel like stopping. You figure out the resurrection in your head, and you effectively immunize yourself against its real power, which is pretty sad, but I guess that’s what we all tend to do.


What if instead of imaging that God was a jigsaw puzzle: What if we just agreed to think along the lines of encounter? I mean, how much of a life-transforming relationship can you have with a puzzle anyway?


Now, in this reading we just heard from the Gospel of John, it really does come down to an encounter. Peter and “the beloved disciple,” they just show up and look around. The Greek tells us Peter sees the situation -- just kind of observes it -- and the other disciple sees it and believes; and so all that’s good, it’s fine.



But it’s not until Mary, who’s so wrung out from everything, hears Jesus Calling Her Name that anything really gets going. She looks, then she perceives, then she runs to tell. She has an encounter that makes her the catalyst!


That’s the big moment. Mary comes face-to-face with Jesus, and then she finds herself carrying the whole story forward. It’s all on her shoulders. But she’s seen, and believed, and now she’s doing the work. She’s the first post-resurrection evangelist, and it’s all thanks to this encounter. This Facetime, this tête-à-tête.


So figuring out Jesus is a head thing. But encountering him is a life thing. It has to be lived. And then, as they say, it goes viral.


I wonder if any of this makes sense.



PJ: Yes, exactly!  Mary, in that moment,
  because of all she has been through, all she has seen and experienced,
was open to an encounter with Jesus,
      and she now realizes that this very important relationship in her life
has not ended.  
In her utter joy she shares what she now understands to be true.  
And it spreads like wildfire.


But resurrected understanding doesn’t end there.  
It is not a once-for-all experience.  
      Just take a look at our reading from Acts this morning.  
Here is Peter, part of the early community of Jesus-believers -
     the next generations of people who grappled with
what it meant to follow a resurrected Christ -
  and something completely beyond his rational understanding happens to him.  


Here is what was going on.  
The Jews who believed in Jesus were being persecuted and fleeing Jerusalem.  Peter traveled a great distance to a Palestinian city, Caesarea.
   But note:   this is a city under absolute Roman control - the persecutors.  


On his way, Peter has a vision where a sheet is lowered down from heaven
     and God has a message for him.  
Later it dawns on Peter that the vision might have something to do with
     current tension between Jews and Gentiles.  


When he gets to the City he meets a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  
But instead of being a ruthless Roman official,
     it turns out that Cornelius is a devout God-fearer.  
So Peter decides he needs to share the good news of Jesus Christ with him.  


So in the reading from Acts today what we hear is actually Peter’s sermon,
     and he starts out:  I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  


While this is how we tend to hear it today, I don’t think that when Peter says
      “I truly understand” he is talking about something he figured out rationally
     or it was some doctrine he wants to impart to others.  
The kind of understanding Peter has experienced is a radical,
       game changing encounter with Christ.  
I picture Peter shaking his head incredulously,
    knowing that everything he had studied and believed to be true,
         all his “right beliefs” that he held close are now shown to be incomplete.  
He had not completely understood.  
It was through that vision that he once again encountered the resurrected Christ and now he sees things differently.  
So he is proclaiming The Good News for sure!...
       Jews and Gentiles - and all of God’s creation are accepted by Christ.


TL: That’s a big turnaround! “God shows no partiality but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” That’s huge. And like you say, it’s way beyond his capacity to understand in his head, or with logic, and our capacity, too. If we could say what Jesus is doing in the resurrection -- with us and for us -- I wonder, what would we even say? Because honestly so much of this is beyond our ability to wrap our minds around or to use words to describe. Maybe it’s like --


Remember last year, how a lot of us read that book by Anthony Robinson, Changing the Conversation? There’s a magnificent story in there. Do you mind if I read it to you real quick? He says,


Will Willimon tells the story of a youth pastor who was planning a Bible study on Mark’s story of the baptism of Jesus. Typical of Mark’s terse and powerful style, he reports that, when Jesus came up out of the water, “He saw the heavens torn apart” (the Greek word is schizomei, literally “torn apart”). The youth group members were responding to the Bible study the way youth group members often do, with indifference bordering on sullenness. So the pastor, eager to provide some sort of response, said: “This is amazing, truly! Look at this: Mark says the heavens have been torn apart. Do you know what that means? That means that now we all have direct access to God. There’s nothing between us and God! Isn’t that wonderful?”


“No, that’s not what it means,” said a young man, shifting in his seat.
The pastor was nonplussed.
“What,” he said to the young man, “you know Greek?”


“Yeah,” said the kid. “Schizomei, torn apart. It means that now God can get at us. It means that now no one is safe.


Is that something of what it is to experience and encounter Jesus every day, as he constantly comes to us, resurrected and disguised as our lives? Is that something of what it is: that "God can get at us"? Is it living with God, who loves us so much that nothing in our lives is to be considered safe or off-limits? (Hebrews says, "It is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of the living God.") Because honestly, at the very bottom of everything, that’s what I know I actually want my life to be; I want to live somehow only within the reality of God and a resurrected Christ; I want to say goodbye to all the jigsaw puzzles and just live a grounded, beautiful, giving, resurrected life; and not just bye-and-bye, but also, importantly, here and now. But I don't know if I'm up for that; can I really hand it all over to the resurrected Jesus? Honestly, that seems pretty scary.


PJ: Two days ago I posted on my Facebook page,
“On this Good Friday I’m thinking about all the tombs
       I fall back into far too easily."
I guess we all have tombs.  
They are made up of things like past negative experiences,
    or our fears, or the things we feel we have done horribly wrong,
        moments when we betrayed someone or we ourselves were betrayed, losses..
any number of life events that can seem like dark places.  
And sometimes it can be pretty easy, comfortable even,
     to let ourselves spend time there in those tombs.   


TL: Hostage to the past.


PJ: But then I think again of that statue
   of the resurrected Christ on that Colorado hillside.  
As you said, it can be kind of scary to let our guard down enough
     to be open to an encounter with the power of the living God….
with his arm stretched out high and his robes wildly swirling around his feet
from the shear force of goodness and light.
Heaven’s….who knows where God will take us once we step out of those tombs?!


TL: We don't know. We can't. How could we?


I just know that I want to choose life rather than death. I want to live in the present rather than chained down to the past. I want to be free to go where I'm needed. I want to live my one crazy life -- this incredible gift -- and I want to live it well, and that's all I want for anyone.


That's why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so apparent to us. It is the singular act of love by God, whose joy is to see all of humanity fully alive, fully present, and totally restored to a life in the Spirit. You don't need a lot to be able to do that; really, you don't need anything; you just have to learn the story and live the story and teach the story.


PJ:  And that gives us pretty good marching orders on this glorious Easter Sunday!  Learn the story, live the story, and teach the story.  
Every single one of us.  
Encounter God’s story / our story in God
    so that all we want to do is rush out these doors
and share that Good News with others.


TL: That’s good enough for me. Happy Easter, Pat.


PJ: Happy Easter, Torey.


TL/PJ: Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

April 19, 2014

Easter Vigil Shakedown


Sermon for Year A, The Great Vigil of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 19, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Shakedown”


Here is a little of Matthew from just before this reading.
Keep in mind, Jesus has died on the cross
 And his body has been taken down and placed in the tomb. So:
“The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate
 And said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor [Jesus] said while he was still alive,
   “After three days I will rise again.”
 Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day;
   Otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people,
   “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’
 Pilate said to them, ‘[Take] a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you [know how].’
 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”


Then we get this:
“And suddenly there was a great earthquake;
 For an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”


“The guards shook and became like dead men”‽ What, for real‽ These guys?
These men were like the Navy SEALs of their day.
They’d seen every strange thing life could throw at them.
They were trained and paid to stand strong in the face of any circumstance, and fight, fight hard --
 Die if necessary, and if they had been stationed in Jerusalem, you can bet they’d earned their salt,
   Probably seen and even spilled quite a bit of blood already
     Just trying to keep order in the place, ... or done worse, maybe a lot worse, with their power ...
Yet they were men first, soldiers second; they were humans, after all;
 And their humanity betrayed their need to stand tough.
So there is no deception on the part of disciples, stealing away bodies in the night;
 There is only the self-deception of the guard;
     There is only the self-deception of Pilate.
There is only our own self-deception:
 That we can ever really see it all,
 Know it all,
   Experience everything;
     There is only the deception that our armor -- whatever it is -- is tough enough to keep God out
       Or that our weapons will keep the angel from singing its news;
       Will keep Jesus in the tomb, will keep God out of our lives.


Peter Drucker was a famous management consultant.
He liked to ask two provocative questions, and he asked them together, at the same time:
 What business are you in? And How’s business?
Tonight we get a little glimpse of the business God is in.
God is in the Reaching Out business, the Transforming business,
 The Redeeming-What-Was-Lost business,
 The Making-Life-Out-Of-Death business,
   The business of Forgiveness,
     The business of Loving You, Loving Us, No Matter What.
Tonight we also got a glimpse of the answer to the second question:
 “How’s business?” Business is great!


I mean, ...
Do we really think our feeble little shields and swords and our world-weary postures
 Can keep the God of All Creation from extending complete forgiveness and love?
Do we really possess the hubris as to believe that the reality of Jesus’ bursting from the tomb
 Isn’t going to change things for ever? Indeed, they are changed already.
Will we, like the soliders who witnessed the lightninglike angel firsthand,
 Allow ourselves to be shaken?


Will we be shaken? We will!
The resurrection of Jesus whom we call Christ is an invitation to be shaken to the core.
To be taken way past our ability to neatly explain how everything happens.
To be shaken past speaking.
This is fields beyond words and fields beyond fields beyond human comprehension.
All we can ever do is dot the edges of it with our limited understanding.
We need get out of our heads, at least for one night, and stop thinking we have all the answers.
We need a good dose of the nonrational -- that After Death Comes Life -- no, really!
That the impossible is in fact possible.
That Jesus’ resurrection is the redemption of you and me and us and this whole creation.
Now there’s a shakedown in the best sense.


You may remember that there is even such a thing as a branch of Christians
 Called Shakers; and another called Quakers.
Folks who allowed, as the Spirit of God rested upon them, to be moved beyond words, to act,
 And to come into the world so fully as to say,
   What matters in the eyes of God is to live as simply as possible
     So that we can concentrate upon our spiritual abundance.


They shook, and they quaked; they got beyond themselves;
 They saw with clear eyes the lightninglike angel for themselves
 Declaring an empty tomb and a path to Galilee to meet up with the resurrected Jesus.
It was 1837, the beginning of the Era of Manifestations
 During our country’s Second Great Awakening.
Revivals and Camp Meetings spread over the face of our expanding continent.
F.W. Evans was an enthusiastic biographer of the Shakers. He was shaken himself! He wrote,
 “The wonderful and almost incredible openings of light and truth
   Pertaining to this and the external spiritual world,
     And which address themselves almost exclusively to the external man,
     By sensuous facts and physical demonstrations,
       And which, in former times and other ages, were suppressed and condemned,
       As the effect of unlawful communings with the powers of darkness,
       Are now being received with joy and gladness by thousands of person,
       As proof of a telegraphic communication established between the two worlds;
         And no more to be disputed or doubted
       Than is the existence of that marvelous submarine telegraphic cable
       That connects the Eastern and Western continents.”
He saw an irresistible thread running to heaven, and claimed to have taken hold of it for himself,
 To listen in.


One hundred thirty-six years later, in 1973, they made the Shakertown Pledge:
“In responsibility, joy, and celebration, I make the following declarations:
  1. I declare myself a world citizen.
  2. I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life.
  3. I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world's poor.
  4. I commit myself to join with others in the reshaping of institutions in order to bring about a more just global society in which all people have full access to the needed resources for their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.
  5. I commit myself to occupational accountability, and so doing I will seek to avoid the creation of products which cause harm to others.
  6. I affirm the gift of my body and commit myself to its proper nourishment and physical wellbeing.
  7. I commit myself to examine continually my relations with others and to attempt to relate honestly, morally, and lovingly to those around me.
  8. I commit myself to personal renewal through prayer, meditation, and study.
  9. I commit myself to responsible participation in a community of faith.”


This tells me that they did in fact allow themselves to be nonrational, to be shaken down;
 That they did in fact take hold of the irresistible thread connecting heaven and earth;
   That they did in fact listen in to that thread, and take action from what they heard, maturely,
     And they did not exempt themselves from the world’s problems.
They left their armor and their pretension at the site of the empty tomb,
 As useless to them as the sepulcher was to the risen Christ,
   And they ran on ahead to Galilee to meet up with Jesus.
Because the message of the angel was still true, the angel was still proclaiming it,
 And it had shattered all their expectations and their self-ordered lives.
God was in the midst of them, kindling them, central to them,
   Stirring them up in the Spirit. So as it was, and as it was, it is now.


Now -- out of fear and respect and love for each of you, and for us -- let me ask you:
 As a Christian, as a follower of Jesus,
   What business are you in? ...
     And How’s business?


Are you shaken yet?
The angel of the Lord is upon us, administering the balm of reconciliation with God in Christ,
 And proclaiming the incomprehensible truth
   That in Jesus, All is Forgiven and We Are Loved, and the grave is empty.
We don’t have to understand that, because the truth is,
 No matter how much we try, We can’t. We’ll never get that in our heads.
We just have to live it. That’s all.


Now, “to the only wise God our Saviour,

 Be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”