I’m going to say something that would no doubt shock some of my church friends if they heard it, but I feel like Easter is over.
At my house, it was just the two of us this year. We didn’t dye eggs, we didn’t have much candy, we had no ham or lamb leftovers. So at home, we’re done, we’re finished, Easter is over.
But here in church, the season of Easter continues until Pentecost, until the end of May. And just in case I forgot about that, I got an email last week from Episcopal Church headquarters with the subject line “Easter joy continues.” Well, I opened it in great anticipation, but it did not turn out to be a spiritual greeting, it was just a reminder that I still have time to contribute to the church’s annual appeal. So we have all kinds of ways of celebrating the things that matter in church—in church, where it is still Easter.
And in fact we’re really just getting started in telling the Easter story. This morning’s Gospel was still about that very first day, the day of the Resurrection. It comes from the last chapter of Luke, Chapter 24, which really focuses on just that one day, as the disciples struggle to understand what is going on here.
If the Gospel were drama, you could think of the story that we heard this morning as a play in two short acts, both taking place on the same very simple set, the room where Jesus and his disciples gathered the night before Jesus died.
The first act takes place on the evening of the same day that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. And the second takes place exactly one week later, when Jesus returns and shows Thomas his wounds. It might seem like a very bare-bones story, but there’s a lot going on here.
And one question in particular stood out for me as I thought about it over the past week in this year of Our Lord 2021:
Why did the resurrected body of Jesus still bear the wounds of his crucifixion?
There’s a traditional Japanese art form called kintsugi which is used to repair broken pottery. The kintsugi master uses lacquer to reattach the pieces of a broken bowl or teacup, then pours gold to fill in the spaces.
The result is considered to be even more precious and beautiful than the unbroken original. But it will never be the same again. The outline of the pieces will always be visible. You’ll always be able to see that it was broken.
At Easter we celebrate the mending of the whole world, the repair of our own brokenness. This is the essence of our faith: That by his resurrection, Jesus has triumphed over evil forever. Life has conquered death. Our God is making all things new.
I believe this with all my heart. I do.
And yet when I think of our world as it is today, I also struggle to understand. It’s hard, sometimes, to believe that what we’re witnessing is God’s New Creation, because we live in a world which by all appearances is still broken. Each day’s headlines bring new evidence of that fact.
So maybe you could say we’re being mended kintsugi style. Our broken parts can still be seen, but they’re being patched together with gold so it is beautiful in its own way.
Our diocese had an online Bible study this Lent, led by Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales. “Who is Jesus to you?” is a question she asked over and over again as we worked our way through the Gospel readings for the season.
“Who do you say that I am?” That’s the same question Jesus once asked Peter, and Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” Of course he was right, but each one of us ought to be able to answer that question in our own words.
Of course he was a teacher, a friend. He was Mary’s son. He was a man who set an example through his own life of how to lead a life of principal.
Churchgoers might think of the formulas we use in church: Son of God, Redeemer. We say that he died “for us.”
But the Jesus we see tonight is a suffering man. A man condemned to a horrible death in an unjust trial because powerful men wanted him out of the way. And they were willing to sell their souls to accomplish that.
In every generation we have come to understand this story through the lens of our own times. It’s not that Jesus’ basic identity changes, but to live as people of faith we have to be able to say what Jesus means to us in our lives. In our world.
We have to keep asking ourselves that question: Who do you say Jesus is?
Jesus and his companions have been on the road for a while now. Most recently, they’ve been out in the wild hill country near Jerusalem, hiding from those religious authorities who are increasingly determined to have him killed.
We don’t know exactly where the people that are called Greeks in the story came from. The word Greeks here simply means that they aren’t Jews, but they’ve turned away from pagan religion to embrace Judaism. And they too have come to Jerusalem for the festival.
That is what it means to be a pilgrim, at least in the way we usually think of it. It means leaving home to travel to a holy place, seeking a spiritual experience.
I wonder: what would you say if someone were to ask you later today what church was about this morning? And let’s say it was someone who wasn’t a regular churchgoer, and you really wanted that person to understand what you find meaningful in this great story that we tell.
I’m guessing you wouldn’t start with that strange story in our first reading about the healing power of a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. That one sounds a little pagan to me, so that might be kind of awkward.
I think I’d probably go with the safe choice, which is said to be the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world.” That’s the one that you see on t-shirts. You see John 3:16 on signs in the end zone at football games. For some reason. I really don’t get the connection with football, but be that as it may.
BibleGateway, which is a website and an app, confirmed that once again in the year 2020, “God so loved the world” – when we so needed that love – was the most popular Bible verse again. And love itself is the most popular keyword search.
Well, I don’t have any pictures to go with this week’s sermon.
I changed my virtual background last time, from a picture of the altar in church to an image of the desert where Jesus went to face his personal demons.
Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the animals and the money changers he found there. It’s a scene that’s been painted by a lot of artists; El Greco is perhaps the most famous of those. But today, instead of looking at someone else’s picture, I’d like us to paint our own picture, each one of us, our own mental image of this scene.
I’ve been reading a novel by a writer named David Bradley and I came across a line yesterday that said, “If you cannot imagine, you will never know the truth.” And I think that’s true. So let’s imagine this scene in the temple. What do you see in your mind, in your own mental image, when you picture this scene?
It’s right before Passover and people are going up to Jerusalem to get ready to celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The animals in this scene would be offered in sacrifice as a ritual of purification, to get ready for that celebration. So although they’re quite different from our customs, maybe you could say these preparations were a little bit like Lent for us, our time of preparation for Easter.
Well, first of all, I’m going to tell you that I’m not actually sitting in front of the altar at the Church of the Ascension this morning. Some of you have probably figured that out. Through the miracle of Zoom, you see me sitting in front of a picture of your church, but I’m really still at home in New Hope. And I’m going to change my background just while we talk about Jesus in the desert so we can see exactly what the desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan River looks like.
This is where Jesus went in today’s gospel. So what do you think of when you hear the word desert, when you hear that Jesus went out to the desert? You might think of rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon, but this desert actually is not like that. It’s not a sweeping landscape of dunes. It’s not sandy, it’s actually rocky and hilly.
There are wild animals here, as the gospel mentions, but there also are flowing streams down at the bottom of those canyons. And sometimes there are flowers. So there are unexpected blessings, even in the desert. Jesus was in this desert for 40 days after his baptism and before he began his ministry in Galilee. It was a place where he could get away from the distractions of daily living and focus. And that’s exactly what Lent should be for us. It’s a time to take a good look at who we really are, to look at who we really want to be.
I do believe that all social transformation has to begin with the conversion of our own hearts. Sometimes it’s called metanoia, turning away from one way of living–turning away from what is killing our souls–and turning toward what is lifegiving. And racism is killing us. It hurts all of us, though I want to be very clear that it doesn’ t hurt all in the same way or to the same degree.
A week or so ago I was on a Zoom gathering with a group of white people who were sharing recollections of their earliest awareness of race. Some were taught that race is something polite people don’t mention. Others were brought up in blatantly racist environments. I remember my own grandmother as an outspoken racist, but my parents taught me that the words she used and the attitudes she expressed were wrong.
Someone mentioned this quote in Meeting for Worship a week ago. I looked it up and it’s stayed with me ever since. I was supposed to be on pilgrimage in Assisi right after Easter, going on from there to travel in northern Italy. We would have flown home from Milan at the end of last week. Of course the pandemic destroyed all those carefully laid plans. I haven’t heard much about Assisi in the news but Bergamo and Milan, two places we were planning to visit, were shut down and have suffered terribly. My heart has been with the people of those places in a special way.
They say, though, that pilgrimage begins not with your first physical step but rather with the intention to go, and so indeed I am on pilgrimage now, if not the one I had in mind. It’s turning out to be an unexpected and rather unwelcome journey, and yet it has included some good moments. I hesitate to celebrate those moments, gifts of time with myself and my family, while others have lost and are losing so much. And yet I must, because this is the way my feet have walked, the path my footprints have made. Whether or not I chose it, this is my life. One lesson we’ve all been learning – again – is that we’re not in control even of our own lives.
The truth is, I have lost so much. I hesitate to mention that, too, when others have lost so much more. But I’ve lost the freedom to move freely in life. I’ve lost time in my life, months and perhaps years that won’t come again. I’ve lost the freedom to be and do what I want in that time. I may yet lose my health, my life. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that, but those other losses I do grieve. I know only that this pilgrimage is taking me where I didn’t want to go, and I don’t know where it will lead before it’s over. By walking the path is made.