April 7, 2015
For a printable pdf of this text, please click here.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
I am delighted to rouse you up with those words this morning. They are the essential Christian expression of faith and greeting, and they are how we talk to one another today. On another day we say “Good morning, how are you?” But on this Sunday morning we say “Christ is Risen,” and get the response “He is Risen Indeed!” It’s a gladful sound, a happy thing we do, and it means everything.
Will Campbell was until his own death two years ago a profoundly important preacher of civil rights and racial reconciliation in America for six decades, and a spiritual touchstone of mine. He lived with his wife Brenda on a farm at Mount Juliet, just outside Nashville, Tennessee, and some years ago someone who knew him well told me about their annual Easter tradition. Will would walk down to the barn and Brenda would remain up at the house. Then, each would grab the rope of the bells mounted on house and barn and begin vigorously swinging clappers against bells and shouting out to one another: Alleluia! clang! clang! Christ is Risen! clang! clang! clang! And then begin to ring out the names of everyone they knew who had died since the previous Easter. clang! clang! Christ is risen! clang! clang! Clarisse is risen! Charles is risen! clang! clang! Janice is risen! clang! clang! In a simple call and response they would shout out the names to each other, ringing them out with the bells, and thereby declare their conviction that no one of the people God had given them were gone from them for ever, for Christ is Risen! And if Christ is risen we need never again fear anything, for all is raised up and gathered unto God.
On Tuesday of this week we had all the ordained ministers of the diocese here to renew their vows, and in our prayers we read the necrology of all of the priests and deacons and lay leaders who have passed from among us in the last year, and just hearing their names again reminded us of how much they meant to us, and even though few among us knew all of them, everybody knew some, and even if you didn’t, trust me when I say that these people did not leave us without much regret on our part, and many tears. Now it’s Easter Day and today I wish I had a bell that I might ring it now and shout out that Christ is Risen, and because of that singular thing clang! clang! Bishop Don Taylor is also risen! clang! clang! Ray Guyette and Dorothy Jackson who together served this cathedral for over fifty years; clang! clang! Ray and Dorothy are risen! Risen indeed! clang! clang! clang! And John Walsted and Susanna Williams and Keith Johnson and Bob Dresser and all those priests we lost, some months ago and some in these very weeks; clang! clang! clang! All are risen; all are risen indeed! You too ring out the bell that hangs in your heart clang! clang! and name those you have loved and lost and say the thing we could only know from God, and that is that they are none of them lost to God, but raised up like Jesus to share in the very life of God himself.
This is what we have been taught and it is always at the center of our faith, but on Easter we have to say it, and we excuse the exuberance in one another, because this is a celebration — that two thousand years ago something utterly remarkable, but wondrous and mysterious and hard to explain, happened in a garden in Jerusalem when a stone was rolled away from an empty tomb and these words were uttered for the first time. Uttered then by godly messengers, angels — clang! clang! Christ is Risen! — and given first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples and finally to us as the expression of our most fervent hopes, of human joys and dreams we may barely comprehend or dare imagine, of a new word given by God by which all else may now be measured. A word of love and loss, and a word of life and death and life again, and a word by which we say before God the most important thing, that we have loved and been loved, and learn that everyone is gathered up in God and vested with eternal importance.
So we come. Filled with a sense of celebration, joy on every lip, our wonderful cathedral filled with the beauty and artistry of all these flowers — the brilliant, colorful marks of a Spring we have waited for through an exceptionally hard winter; the best music of which we are capable, the swell of organ and the harmony of voices, the most majestic and sublime compositions; the opening of the great bronze doors, a rare thing that may look easy but isn’t at all. Everything special that we know how to do we will do today. To clang! clang! the bells and proclaim the resurrection! And we go along and go along and then we come to our gospel reading. The story of the first Easter morning, as told by Mark, and the first witness of the women at the empty tomb.
It is eight brief verses. Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb on Sunday morning, bearing oil and spices for burial. They found the grave empty, but for a messenger who seems to have waited for them. He told them that Jesus was not there, for he had been raised. And then gave them one single instruction: to go tell the disciples. But the women fled in terror, and they told no one, because they were very, very frightened, and they did not go to the disciples but went into hiding. They were only asked to do one thing, and they just flat out didn’t do it. There is very little relief in Mark’s story of Easter, and it astonishes us with its rushing tumble of fear and disbelieving, and especially the harsh and unforgiving words with which he ends his gospel: “They were afraid.” It’s a hard story. Do I need to say this? The gospel itself feels something like an intrusion on our celebration. A bracing cup of cold water thrown into the face of our joy. If the Mary Magdalene of Mark’s telling fled from the tomb in terror and ran into this church right now looking for refuge, we would astonish her and she us. We would not understand her fright, and our festivity would be incomprehensible to her.
Each of the evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — tells the story of Jesus in his own way, and each tells it differently. Not different in the essential proclamation, but different in emphasis and narrative flow and in the details. Mark’s version was the earliest, maybe by a long shot. The original version. The director’s cut. Matthew and Luke clearly had copies of Mark’s gospel on their desks when they wrote their own accounts, because they both quote him extensively, but then add a whole lot to it. And what they add, the details that enrich their telling, provide the brilliance of the story they have to tell. In contrast, the beauty of Mark’s telling is in its starkness, and in what he does not say.
When Jesus hung on the cross, Luke tells us that Jesus forgave his persecutors right through his suffering. He also describes Jesus’ disputation with the good thief and the bad thief. John records Jesus’ tender goodbye to his mother and his best friend. I love all of that. But the only words that Mark puts in Jesus’ lips are his terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and then a loud cry of despair or heartbreak or rage as he passed over into death.
In the same way, in the Easter morning telling, Matthew tells of the terror of the women just as Mark does, but mingles that fear with joy. Luke records that mind-bending riddle posed by the angels, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And in John we find that most wonderful and beautiful of stories of love and grief, in the meeting of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden. These were brilliant storytellers, and the stories they tell are stories we love and must have. But for Mark, it is all only about terror and astonishment, running and hiding.
I remember years ago reading the New York Times coverage of the hostage taking at the school in Beslan in Chechnya, and there were various accounts of those events by different reporters all over the front page. But one of them to my eyes was different. All journalistic detachment was stripped out of it, all objectivity. It was a long narrative torrent of words and images, rushing pell mell and tripping over itself, pouring out in the most passionate and horrified language the terrible things the reporter had seen and could not forget, ending even with a description of the soles the feet on a person being carried on a stretcher, as of, he said, “someone who had been running and running and running.” I thought, this is the most astonishing piece of journalism I have ever read. I have never forgotten it. I can’t forget it. I felt that I was reading an immediate, first person account, less of the events themselves, than of what witnessing those events meant to the reporter himself, and what seeing those things cost him. That is how I read Mark’s telling of crucifixion and Easter morning. There is no relief. No place to rest your eyes. He forces us to look first at suffering and death and then at terror, and in between the simple unadorned statement of Christ’s resurrection, and he tells it as one who saw these things, who came away with blood on his hands, who lived through the violence, the horror, and all of the fear and astonishment at an incomprehensible message. He has the urgency of one who wrote his gospel at Golgotha, and finished it in the garden, and tells us what he saw, and the terrible and wonderful things he cannot forget.
Only Mark wasn’t there. He wasn’t born until after all of these events had passed. Mark was a convert to an already established Christian community, and everything he knew or ever learned about Jesus he learned from others. And this is what fascinates me in reading him. When Mark sat with pen in hand to tell this story he was already a man filled with the same Easter joy that we readily understand. He was a churchman, and already a person of resurrection faith. He never had to hear the messenger’s words in the hour of his greatest fear, but was one who had come to these things already with understanding and explanation and reflection. Mark would have had to go to the witnesses and ask them, “What exactly did you see? What were you thinking? How did it hit you when you first saw it?” To get the raw experience.
Yet this is his story to tell and how he tells it, and I think that Mark gives no quarter, and won’t, because he will not, and will not allow us, to hear resurrection as any kind of conventional happy ending and never take for granted anything in this story except the love of God which is not a sentimental love, but one which endures not above and behind and around the horrors of human cruelty but right through the thick of it.
Which is why Mark’s story of the women at the tomb, and of doubt and sorrow and unbelieving as the first Easter response, is for me most helpful. Because the leaps of faith that get us from the empty tomb to a fully formed religion, and from the first stirrings of understanding or at least wondering to a full blown theology of Christian salvation, and from the sorrows which beat us down at graveside to the clang! clang! clanging! of the bell of Easter joy are many and they ask much of us, so that even as we come to this day ready to make our Easter acclamation and greet one another with the assurance of that Rising, I am just as certain that we every one of us still bring along our doubts and fears and questions and wondering, and all the thoughts of loved ones gone before us, and we still wonder where they are now, and we still ask if we will see them again, and we bring the certainty of our own dying and all that that knowledge means for us, so that behind our joy remain nagging questions of sin and dying and cruelty and mortality which actually I think Mary Magdalene would understand. That if she could apprehend our doubts and losses and fears she might say: “Yes, exactly, that is what I meant all the time. That was why we ran.”
The claims of Easter are extraordinary, against which the lived experience of love and loss is a powerful teacher. So along with our expressions of joy today, and our words of assurance, we also haul right into the church all of that other as well, and I am convinced that Mark is telling us to hang on to all that, and to learn how to hold two conflicting or opposing thoughts in our mind at the same time: our absolute conviction in what God has done, and all the joy of it, and the stark reality of human living and dying. The high stakes. That we might, through eyes that look upon God with every hope, but through eyes that like the women at the tomb have seen too much and hearts that have felt too deeply, still rise above ourselves and confess: even so, I believe. Not despite the impossibility of it, but because of it. And make the even greater alleluia.
So: clang! clang! clang! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.
March 31, 2015
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There are too many who were among us last year whom we see no longer. During our last Eastertide we bid farewell to Bishop Don Taylor, and over the months that followed we have been again and again at our altars to commend before God some who had been our true companions on the way. As summer came upon us, John Walsted and Susanna Williams followed Bishop Taylor close behind. In autumn we lost Joan LaLiberte and Allen Newman. At midwinter Dale Baker, Richard Markham and John Dyson Cannon, and just in these last weeks Keith Johnson and Bob Dresser. We also lost one of the first deacons in this diocese, Vivian Seipp, as well as some very long-time lay staff members of this cathedral whose passing rocked the stone foundations of this great edifice. None of them passed without much sorrow on our part. Again and again I have seen you come together in churches across this diocese, and I know what their passing has cost us. Naturally I try in all things to be tough and Clint-Eastwood-like, but God saw fit to give me a way-too-emotional, easily-breakable heart, and I confess that there have been seasons over these last twelve months when I have been overcome by loss. And I have seen that sadness reflected back in your eyes too.
One evening when Keith Johnson was hospitalized I had gone to see him, to pray with him and have communion together, and when I took my oil stock out of my pocket I happened to look more closely at it than I normally do, and saw that almost all of the silver plating has long ago been worn away, and it is mostly just the base metal now. I hold it now, and think of the thousands of times I have unscrewed the top of it and stuck my thumb into the oil, and drawn my thumb across the forehead of someone in my care. Every week I am in one or more of your sacristies. And I see the communion kits lined up on the counter. And I sit in your office to sign confirmation certificates, and there on the desk is your pyx and your stock, your traveling prayer book and your stole. Sometimes these things are coming undone and held together with electrical tape. The lining is coming out of your stole. Well used. And I like to think about you out in the country where God has put you, among the people God has given you. No one sees, but still you go. To sit with the sick and lay hands on the dying, to mourn with those who mourn, to lay the host on the tongues of people too weak to sit up.
In one parish I served as a priest, I had never fewer than forty-five homebound and shut-in parishioners, and about once a month I would gird my loins and strike out to go see them all. I could do about eight communion visits a day if I didn’t stop for lunch. At the end of one such day I stopped in to see Sammie Edgerly. Sammie was 100 years old, fully blind and mostly deaf, an 85 pound tough cookie of an old lady who grew up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont when that was still hard, primitive country. She was my ninth call of the day, and I had been in and out of nursing homes since morning and I was weary, and all I wanted to do was go home. But we visited for a bit, and then got ourselves organized for communion. She lay in her bed in the nursing home and I sat in a chair by her side. The service went along and went along, but then eventually while I was bent way over, shouting the Lord’s Prayer into her ear, I happened to look up at her face. And she was gazing up, wonder all over her face, and the most shining brightness in her sightless eyes. And I thought, O Andy, never take this stuff for granted. Never forget that you have in your hands the sacred mysteries of our redemption. Food for hungry souls. Water for the thirsty.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. This is what we ask of God, but it is also what God asks of us — really, demands of us — who have been called, and who have accepted the call to this ministry. Do these things. Make all things well.
I think that a lot of the time it is hard for us to see or know what good we do, or even if we are making any difference at all. Tending and blessing. Soothing and shielding. But God knows. God invests our ministries with a coherence that maybe sometimes only he can see, and God knows how this work blesses us, but also how much it costs. What does it mean to care genuinely? How do we measure the love of God? And how is that love of God mediated through us as pastors?
Let me take a stab at that. Last week I sent a letter to the diocese on the subject of alcohol and the church. I wanted to talk to you about immediate resources that we can offer to anyone struggling right now with addiction or alcoholism, and to let you know about conversations we will have later this spring. But in the letter I said something that has sparked interest for some people, and it makes me realize that I want to say a bit more about that today. I said that “pastoral care is all about the health that happens when accountability and compassion are held in tension.” That pastoral care must be compassionate was obvious to folks. But the reference to accountability in the context of pastoral care caught some by surprise. Particularly, I think, that I equated accountability and compassion as equal measures of what makes up good pastoring.
So I want to talk about the difference between Consolation and Comforting. These words have become in our language virtually synonymous, so I will probably make too much of this. But the root of the word Consolation also gives us the word Solace, while the root of the word Comfort gives us Fortitude and Strength. And if I follow that out it seems to me that Consolation is a passive, reactive word, describing a response to things which have happened. Pain and loss and grief. Someone has been harmed, so we give solace. In contrast, Comforting seen in this light is an active word that suggests the strengthening of a foundation on which to stand, the building of unbreachable walls to withstand the storms that will come.
The Bible tells us that the old man Simeon at the temple was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” And he got it. He shot one glance onto the baby Jesus and said, “OK, I see that everything is going to be all right; now I can die.” He received Consolation for his worried mind. God pitied him in his affliction.
But at the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that where he was going they could not come, but that he would send them a Comforter. Who would teach them everything. Who would lead them into the truth. So they could be apostles.
Simeon received Consolation for his woes. The disciples received Comfort for the work and the lives expected of them. Of course, Simeon died in peace, and the apostles on crosses, but this is the difference that I see between Consolation and Comfort. The first calms you down and the second ramps you up. The first is indeed all about compassion, but the second is all about accountability to the Truth of God.
Of course, most of the time Comforting must begin with Consoling. Our first entry as pastors is usually into the hour of crisis, and in parishes that is most often people who are sick, people who are dying, people who are bereaved, marriages in trouble, children in trouble. And if we cannot or will not bring solace to those whose lives are careening off the rails, then we have no business being there. Often all that is needed is solace. But plenty of time there are also truths that need to be said and that people need to hear in order to be well — sometimes hard truths. And if as pastors all we have to give is Consolation, we may betray the person we hope to help, and betray the good gifts the church actually has to offer to someone who is lost and wandering, someone adrift and spinning into cascading crises.
Now I want to say something. We Console, but that is not why we were ordained. It was not simply to give solace that we went through years of discernment and study and preparation and formation. The ministry of Consolation requires no special calling; no vows to make or to renew. Every human being with a heart and the capacity for sympathy and empathy has an obligation to Console those in distress, and every parish must be about raising up a community of just such caring people. Rather, we were ordained to diaconate and priesthood that we might be students and bearers of the Truth of God and the Gospel of Jesus and be honest proclaimers of that Truth. But also that we might be teachers of how that Truth may be lived out and revealed in the actual lives of people — the ramifications of the Father’s word and of Jesus’ love and of the Spirit’s power for the way people make choices and decide what to do and not do. This is Comfort. It is the Cure of Souls, the making of strength and health and maturity and responsibility that allows genuine love to happen. This is Pastoral Care. It is where accountability to Truth, and compassion for broken spirits, are held in tension.
A dozen years ago or so I was at a conference somewhere else, and I met a priest from another diocese in a galaxy far away. I said that I was the Canon for Pastoral Care in New York, so he told me that he had a difficult pastoral situation in his parish right at the moment. It seems that a man in his church, who held a position of parish leadership, had over some months embezzled many tens of thousands of dollars from the church accounts, and had left them in critical financial straits. I said that that was awful, and asked how they were doing at getting the money back. I asked if they were working with the district attorney. And he said, “Oh no, I didn’t press charges! I thought that if we prosecuted it would prevent me from being pastorally available to him.” And what I said was, “OK, fine.” But what I thought was, “Of course, no one should ever again give a dime to your church.”
But his real failing was to the man himself. By understanding pastoral care only as Consolation, by which he meant to be gentle and unchallenging, the priest became the single greatest impediment to his getting well. The man knew he was a thief. He knew he had done wrong. And he had a right to expect that the church would acknowledge what he already knew and hold him accountable to the vows of his baptism and the teachings of his God. What he needed was not someone to hold his hand, but to name his sin, to call him to his better self, to rekindle within him the ember of holiness, to help him see the price he must pay for the things he had done, and then like a good shepherd, to lead him on the hard road of reconciliation and amendment of life. He didn’t know how to come home on his own, and he needed a Comforter, to make him strong and brave and faithful, that he might be helped to the health that happens when accountability to Truth and compassion for brokenness are held in tension.
In recent months I have been to several funerals out of state. And at one of them I was startled by the editing that had been done to the prayer of commendation. “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,” we prayed, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a beloved child of your own redeeming.” And I thought, “Well. The word is Sinner. A Sinner of your own redeeming.” And I wondered that we might now think it impolite to say sinner. And I thought, if there is no sinner, then there is no redemption. And what solace then for the bereaved? I saw: the failure to Comfort robs us of Consolation.
What does it mean to care genuinely? How do we measure the love of God? And how is that love of God mediated through us as pastors? Perhaps in that tension where Comfort is wedded to Consolation. Truth to solace. When accountability meets compassion. Where we speak truth to weakness. There is health.
This strange life we have accepted has covered us in blessing, and cost us everything. Now we will renew the promises we made at our ordination, and say Yes to our vocation once again. Never forget that this is supposed to be hard. The loneliness is built into the calling. But it is truth, and the possibilities born of truth are the best thing in the world. Amen.