Sermon: Easter Sunday – “Listen”

The Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516) by Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 1528)

Mark Twain wrote, “No sinner is ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.”  Today we’re here to put that theory to the test.  No.  Not really.  If I hit the twenty-minute mark, you can tell me to shut up and sit down, but this is the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley cup and the Master’s Golf Tournament of sermons all rolled into one.  It’s the one I’m supposed to knock out at the park and wow everybody with.  No pressure.  None whatsoever.  

In fretting over that, I’ve also thought about all the pessimism and skepticism in the world today and wondered how a few words of mine could make a difference. What can I say to you that will change anything?  Not just that, but in order to be heard above the clamor of everything else, I’m going to need something to grab your attention.  What could it be?  

Well, if I just wanted to get a lot of attention, then I could stand up here and tell you that as a priest and as a church we really don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  That would get some attention.  That would even get my bishop’s attention!  The Facebook post would go off the charts and I’d probably even get a few “love letters” from people threatening to send me to meet Jesus.  Yes.  I could say that Jesus never rose from the dead and everyone would be up in arms, but if I say, “Jesus rose from the dead,” no one really gets excited.  There are no angry posts on Facebook, the Bishop is not called, we can all go back home to our lives, and nothing and no one is actually changed.  So the question is this: what would it take for this message—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the resurrection to eternal life—what would it take for this message to actually change your life?  Today’s Gospel reading helps us in the right direction.  

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. The stone was rolled away, so she runs and tells Peter and John who then get into a foot race to the tomb (John wins).  They look inside and see that the tomb is empty and the cloth that Jesus had been wrapped in was set to one side.  They saw all this, but they didn’t know what it meant, so what did they do?  Our Gospel reading tells us, “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”  They were probably confused more so than they ever had been. They were probably wondering who stole the body.  They were also wondering how they could continue after the death of Jesus and wondering where do we go now?  He’s dead.  He’s gone.  We’re here and everybody either hates us or thinks we’re freaks.  The best thing we can do is just to go home.  Go back to what we’re doing before we even knew the tomb was empty or even before we ever met him.  For the most part that’s you and I.  We hear this message, we know it intellectually, we read it every year.  I would wager that most everyone is very well aware of this basic Christian message: “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”  It’s a very simple proclamation but so many hear it and then they just go back home.  The message hasn’t changed their lives, but then we have the second part of our Gospel reading today.

Mary Magdalene has experienced the exact same thing as the disciples.  She had witnessed the miracles and the teachings.  She had been there for the trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the burial, but the one difference between the disciples and Mary is that on that morning, Mary heard Jesus call her name.  She had a very real and personal encounter with the Risen Lord.  And now everyone says, “Oh, Father John, you’re just preaching like an evangelical minister this morning!  Going to tell me I need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Yes, you do.  It’s true.  But if that’s all I tell you then you’re just gonna go back home, not changed, so what is it you need to hear in order to believe this message of the Gospel so that you don’t just go back home unchanged? 

If I was one of those really great passionate charismatic orators I might be able to tell you a story, give you an example, share my testimony about how God has changed my life or the life of so many others.  I might even for a minute or for a day or season convince you to follow Jesus, but after doing this for almost twenty years I know that there isn’t anything I can preach that will ultimately turn a person’s heart.  That was true even for Jesus.  Judas heard every one of Jesus’ sermons and those sermons didn’t do him a lick of good.  So what we do here on days like today is provide opportunities for souls to encounter God in hope that those souls won’t simply go home, but will instead stop and listen for God to speak their name just as he did with Mary.

When you decided to come to church this morning this is not what you were expecting to hear. You were probably expecting to hear Jesus Christ is risen today.  Hallelujah.  You would hear it then maybe go out to brunch, an Easter egg hunt, take a nap, but in the end, you would just go home.  Would your life be changed?  Would you stop everything to follow Jesus?  I don’t know.  But today, I don’t believe I can convince you, so instead of trying, I’m going to ask you to do something.  I know, the preacher asking us to do something probably wants us to give money.  Give Jesus $100 today and make a downpayment on that heavenly mansion.  No.  It’s nothing like that.  Instead, I’m just asking that you go home and listen.  Close yourself off in your room and sit quietly by yourself and say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And then, listen.  Listen for the voice of God.  At first, you’ll probably think you’re crazy, but then somewhere in that silence, you will hear God speak your name and you will know that on the third day Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that all who call on his name will be saved to eternal life.  You will know and you will be changed eternally.

Let us pray:
For Your mercies’ sake, O Lord our God,
tell us what You are to us.
Say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
So speak that we may hear, O Lord;
our hearts are listening;
open our hearts that we may hear You,
and say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
After hearing this word,
may we come in haste to take hold of you.
Amen.

Sermon: Great Vigil of Easter – “This is the Night”

The Sacrifice of Isaac (mid-1750s) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727 – 1804)

In her book, When God is Silent, author and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to clergy about preaching.  At one point she addresses how we should go about preaching on some of the more difficult passages, such as the one we read: the sacrifice of Isaac.  Barbara says, that the Bible is full “of such raw and powerful stories.  Maybe we should preach more of them and where they are obscure, troubling, or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way.  Who are we, after all, to defend God?… The discord—like the silence—is God’s problem, not ours.  When we try to solve it, we are no longer being courteous.” (p.115-116)

When it comes to her advice and that passage of scripture of Abraham and Isaac, very few have taken Barbara’s advice.  They launch into long explanations of how this is only a myth and not an actual event or attempt to break down Abraham’s thought process or the psychology of Isaac or anything else so as to avoid or distract us from what the story tells us.  I’m guilty of all of the above because when taken at face value, all that remains is God telling Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  Abraham did not argue or weep or bargain.  He was obedient.  In the end, because of his obedience, Isaac was saved.  In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul summarizes what took place and how it was viewed, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son.”

We can finagle, whitewash, and analyze the incident all we want to make it easier to swallow, but the Scripture itself is clear: God tested Abraham by asking him to deliver his son up as a burnt offering so that God could determine whether or not Abraham was faithful.  

I do not believe that there is a parent in the room who would even consider it.  In fact, I believe that every single one of us—parent or not—would fail that test.  We would unapologetically tell God, likely in some rather colorful language, “No!  What you ask is impossible.”  If that were the end of it, we would all be lost, but Jesus refuses to lose us.  

Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  

Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”  

Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”  

Jesus says, “It is finished.”

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.” 

In order to prove our faith, we will never be called upon to sacrifice anyone or anything, for this is the night that the sacrifice that was made once and for all restores us to God. 

Alleluia.  Christ is Risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Article: 365 Days of Easter

treeBorn a Jew, Billy Crystal may not have the best insights into the Christian faith, then again, he may have it pretty well worked out. With regards to Easter, in his book Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys, he writes, “Two thousand years ago Jesus is crucified, three days later he walks out of a cave and they celebrate with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps and beautifully decorated eggs. I guess these were things Jesus loved as a child.” Leading up to Easter, a quick glance around the stores will only confirm his conclusion, but perhaps there is a bit more to it.

When we think of Easter, we often consider it to be that one glorious Sunday of celebrating the Lord’s resurrection. Yet for many, Easter is a season – Eastertide – lasting 50 days. If they had been around, Jesus very well may have enjoyed a chocolate bunny and Peeps, but what he “loved” as a child and as an adult, were the people of God. What did he hope to accomplish through this love? Redemption and adoption. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5). No. Easter is not simply about sugary confections. Easter is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord, the conquering of death, and the receiving of our full inheritance as sons and daughters of God. So is this great gift something we should only celebrate for day? For only the fifty days of Easter? What would our lives look like, what would the church be like, how would our world change if we lived into the resurrection not just for one day or 50 days, but 51 days? 150 days? 250? What would happen if we lived into the resurrection of Our Lord 365 days a year?

Jesus declares, “I am resurrection” (John 11:25). This is not an event held in suspension to be celebrated for a few hours on a specified day. Instead, it is an event that should permeate everyday and every aspect of our lives. Yet, like so many opportunities in our lives, daily living the resurrected life requires choice and intentionality. Daily living the resurrected life requires us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus without hesitating or questioning where He might be leading. It requires us to boldly say with Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Finally, daily living the resurrected life requires us to love. In Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Brennan Manning states, “For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” What is the “radical demand of the Christian faith”: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). That command is not for the faint of heart! It takes great courage to truly love, because to truly love means to risk everything.

Make the decision. Be bold. Say, “Yes,” to the risenness of Jesus. Not just for a few hours or a day, a week or even a year, but every day. Every day, live the resurrected life God has blessed you with.

Sermon: Easter Sunday RCL A – “See and Understand”

photo-14Old Blind Broussard and his Seeing Eye dog were sitting on the dock behind Pierre’s Oyster Bar and Bait Shop when Thibideaux pulled up.

“Hey Broussard, I ain’t seen ya in a while. Where ya been?” Thibideaux asked as he tied off his boat.

“Thibideaux my friend, I ain’t seen you in a while either. I’ve been on an adventure!” Broussard replied.

“What kind of adventure can a blind man go on?” Thibideaux asked.

“Well, I went bungee jumping,” Broussard replied.

“Bungee jumping? For true? How was dat?” Thibideaux asked.

“It was lotsa fun, but I can’t go no more,” Broussard said as he patted his dog on the head.

“Why’s dat? Did ya hurt yer self?”

“No nothin like dat,” Broussard said, “It just scared the hell outta my dog!”

Scripture tells us that Jesus and his disciples “came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man – I don’t think it was Broussard – and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

So often in Holy Scripture, blindness is used as a physical infirmity that is pointing to a spiritual infirmity. In the passage, Jesus was demonstrating that the people understood a bit about who he was, but not fully. I don’t know that it is necessarily a compliment to be compared to trees walking around, but it shows that we can on occasion be a bit thick.

In the resurrection account from John’s Gospel that we read this morning, we also have an apparent case of spiritual blindness. Peter and John have their foot race to the empty tomb. Not finding Jesus, but only his grave clothes, they leave. Following close behind is Mary Magdalene. She is standing there alone, staring into the empty tomb and crying. She sees two angels sitting at the head and foot of where Jesus had been lying, when suddenly she hears a voice behind her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She turned, but did not recognize Jesus, she thought he was the gardener. So turning and peering once again into the empty tomb she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” At which point Jesus speaks her name – “Mary!” – and then, in the speaking of her name, she knows her Teacher. She knows Jesus.

What was it though that prevented her from recognizing him right away, after all, she had been with him for quite some time? Two reasons are obvious and both point to her seemingly physical blindness and her certain spiritual blindness.

The first reason was that she was crying. Through her tears she could not see. Like the blind man that saw only trees, demonstrating those who only partially understand, Mary had only partially understood the things that Jesus had been saying before his crucifixion: “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” “I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” “After three days I will rise again.” She had heard these words of Jesus, but she did not understand.

The second reason for not recognizing Jesus was the simple fact that she was not looking at him. Where was she looking? Except for a quick glance over her shoulder, she was looking into the grave. She was looking into death.

It was only when Jesus called her by name – “Mary!” – that she was able to come out of the darkness of her blindness and the scales were shed from her eyes that she was able to see clearly. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” In that instant the full Light of Christ came pouring into Mary’s soul and she truly saw – understood – all that Jesus had spoken of Himself.

Mary Magdalene is not the only one who experiences spiritual blindness. We too often suffer from this unfortunate malady and for the same reasons as Mary. First, we cannot see clearly, we fail to understand, because we try and look at the world through our own tears. We see the pain and suffering of others and of ourselves and we think, “This is it. This is as good as it gets.” But like Mary, we also forget the teachings of Jesus, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” “Behold, I make all things new.”

Second, our spiritual blindness is also caused by the fact that we aren’t looking at Jesus. We are also staring into the grave. We are looking into our past and what has been. We consider our lives and we believe that all is lost. We will never be “good enough” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We see our own death and fail to recognize that the empty tomb that we are staring into has nothing to do with death! That tomb, the tomb of Jesus, is all about life – eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!

The Lord our God knew you before the world was even created. From that day forward – like Mary – He has been calling out to you. Calling you by name. Calling you out of the darkness, out of your own blindness, and into the light. Why are you still crying? Why are you still staring into the tomb? The prophet Isaiah declares:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.”

Allow that glory, that light, to shine upon and in you. Hear your name being called and be free of your blindness so that you too can walk in the full light of Christ. Once you are filled with His presence, once you see and understand, then allow that glory to shine through you to others. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, writes, “light up all the ways of the earth with the fire of Christ that you carry in your heart.” Let the light of Christ free you from your blindness, then allow that same light to shine through you so that others may see and give glory to your Father in Heaven.

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