The Starting Line: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2014

 

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 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.

1510920_863175217031290_4861732632584423079_n28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christians have been exchanging that greeting for centuries upon centuries. It’s the Easter story in one line. It’s why we are here today. And Christians of all backgrounds today, Greek Orthodox to Presbyterian, Roman Catholic to Lutheran, are repeating it in church, and to one another.

I’m not sure if they said it on that first Easter or not, but I’m sure they said something like it. It was Sunday morning, and the sabbath was over. It was the first chance that Mary Magdalene and Mary were able to go to visit Christ’s tomb. Scripture tells us that there was an earthquake, and the women looked up to see an angel sitting on the stone that had been rolled away from the tomb.

The angel tells them, “don’t be afraid”. Which, when you think about it, is probably what they needed to hear most right then. Because it had been a painful few days, filled with fear. They and lost the one they loved, the one who had given them so much hope and meaning. And here they were, at his tomb, and they couldn’t even find him.

So they hear, “don’t be afraid…he isn’t here.” And at first they must have felt like this whole journey had taken one more bad turn.

The angel tells them to look inside the tomb. Look around. Jesus has been raised. He’s going to Galilee. Go! See him there.

Scripture tells us that the women ran from that place. They ran with both “fear and great joy”. They ran to tell the others. And it was only when they had started running, that Christ met them on the road. Again, he tells them “don’t be afraid”. Go, and spread the word.

Scripture tells us that when Jesus saw the women he said, “greetings!” I guess when you are the resurrected Christ you don’t need to use the whole “alleluia, I am risen line”. But that day, I’ll bet the disciples were saying some variation of what we are today: “He is risen”. “Jesus is risen.” “Jesus is back.” “Jesus is here.”

And I’ll bet that like Mary and Mary Magdalene they did a lot of running too. Running to tell each other. Running to find Jesus. Running to go and see the empty tomb for themselves. And through it all they ran with both the “fear and great joy” that Scripture tells us about. Because they just heard the best news in the world, and I’ll bet at some level it terrified them. What if it wasn’t true?

And, even scarier, what if it was? What now?

Sometimes in the church we tend to treat Easter as a finish line. It’s the end of Lent, when we can finally give up whatever Lenten spiritual practices we had. And I’m sure today lots of people will be returning to red meat or candy or coffee. It’s also the end of Holy Week, when churches everywhere have multiple mid-week services. And it even coincides with the end of a long and cold winter, when it looked like spring would never come.

Today with the sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers, with the weather warming up, with the sun out, with the long days of Lent over, it feels like new life is all around us. It feels like we have made it.
And it is. And we have.

But it would be a mistake to think of Easter as the finish line. Because as much as Good Friday was an end in some ways, Easter is just the beginning. And as much as we went deeper in Lent, it wasn’t just a seasonal thing. It was preparation for today and what comes next.

Today is the day where we start running.

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with running. I’ve never been very good at it, or very fast. But I’ve always admired people who run, particularly the ones who can run long distances. I can’t imagine running a marathon, and I can’t imagine covering 26.2 miles, but if someone chooses to do that, more power to them. It takes discipline and strength and endurance. It takes a commitment that is worthy of recognition.

This past week I went with Heidi to her home church for the one year anniversary service for the Boston Marathon bombing. Old South in Boston sits just feet away from the finish line of the Marathon, where the bombs went off a year ago. And at Old South it has been a year of recovery and a year of finding hope.

Heidi’s pastor, the Rev. Nancy Taylor, started the service by saying this: “The Christian life is like a marathon.”

And she’s right. The Christian life isn’t a sprint. It’s not something done quickly by going to church every Sunday morning, or even by observing Lent for forty days. Instead, the Christian life is a long journey, full of challenge, full of opportunities to quit. There are times when you wonder “is this worth it”?

There are times when you can’t remember why you signed up in the first place. And there are times when you doubt you can go on.

But there are also the times when you decide that as hard as it is, you will keep going. And somewhere out there on the course, filled with fear, but anticipating joy, you find Christ.

That day as Mary and Mary Magdalene ran, they knew something new had happened. That’s why they weren’t feeling just joy or fear, they were feeling both. And if you are here today, on Easter morning, standing at the starting line of another year, if you are serious about this whole Christian faith thing, you will likely feel the same. The joy of Easter morning, and just a little apprehension about what this means.

Because that Resurrection that happened two thousand years ago didn’t just change things for the disciples that day. It changed things for us. And every year we get this reminder of what happened, and what it means. And every year we choose to stand on this starting line once again, and to run.

Monday in Boston they are going to run the marathon again. When you think about it, that’s a show of hope. And if I was going to be running, I think that this year in particular I would be feeling both fear and joy in some intense ways.

The city has, of course, done a lot to commemorate this event, and to prepare for this run. But there’s one thing that happened that has touched me more than all the others. And the idea came out of Old South, that same church that was so touched by all of this a year ago.

A few months ago Old South asked people who knit to knit scarves for the runners who would be coming to Boston. They wanted them in blue and yellow, the colors of the marathon. And they thought if they were lucky they’d get a few hundred, just enough that they could give one to all the marathoners who come to their annual Blessing of the Athletes service.

And so around Boston, and across the country, and even in other countries, knitters went to work. And you should never underestimate knitting circles, it seems, because when all was said and done over 7,000 scarves arrived. The post office had to start making special deliveries in the final days.

And this weekend, as the city prepares again for the Marathon, parishioners are going out into the streets, and they are finding athletes, and offering them a scarf and saying “let us wrap you in courage and strength”. At first many of the runners asked how much they had to pay for them, and then when they were told that they were free and that they had been knitted to give them ever support, they broke down in tears. They knew that someone had taken the time to send love and comfort and courage to them, and it blew them away.

That’s church, y’all. That’s a church finding a way to visibly show a city that Christ’s love is breaking into a place that had been so filled with pain and senseless violence. That’s a church standing, literally, at a finish line the had been torn apart and saying “what now”. And that’s finding your way back to the starting line and deciding to run again. That’s resurrection.

Resurrection happens all the time. We only have to have eyes to see it. But first, we need a willingness to run the race.

Today we are standing at the starting line again. We are preparing to run this race of witnessing to the resurrection for another year. We are going to have times when we run with ease. Times when the course gets tougher. And times when we have to lean on one another to make it up the hill. But, together, come fear or come joy or come both, we can get there.

So, take your marks.

Get set.

And go.

Alleluia! Christ is risen…

Marathons and Cab Rides: One Night in Boston

We have decided to go to church.

That’s how this all starts. It is the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and we have decided to go to church to remember.

We are going into Copley Square, on Boylston Street, to Old South Church. The church that sits on the finish line of the Marathon. The place we were married just a few months before bombs clouded it in smoke and ripped apart it’s marathon banners.

There is rarely parking there, and especially not this week, so we park the car and take the Green Line. We ride past Fenway Park and the hospitals where the wounded were treated.

We come up the stairs by the library and cross in front of the freshly painted finish line. We enter the church, draped with blue and yellow scarves knitted by people around the country who wanted to send a little love to the athletes who will run next Monday.

We find seats in the balcony, the one up against the Boylston Street side. And we watch as the sanctuary fills with friends of ours, with strangers, with runners, with members of the local mosque, with the curious.

We pray, and we sing, and we listen. We listen to a Christian pastor pray for victims of a shooting at a Jewish Community Center. We listen to a Unitarian pray for the Catholic dead. We listen to an Imam plead that we not discriminate against gays and lesbians. We listen to a Jewish cantor lead us through “alleluias”.

Nancy Taylor, the senior pastor, tells us that the Christian life is like a marathon. She is right, I think to myself. This isn’t a sprint. This isn’t easy. This isn’t short.

The children’s choir sings, and the adult choir joins in, and eventually the service ends with us all joining together: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

And it is beautiful.

And I would like to linger in that moment for a while. But this is when we learn about what is happening on the other side of the sanctuary wall.

There’s a “situation” happening on Boylston Street. We are asked to leave the church via the back alley. And I wonder if there are protesters outside, or cameras filming or something innocuous.

And then I check my phone and there are messages from friends asking what is happening outside. There are people on Twitter talking about a”suspicious device”. And they tell those of us who are on the upper balcony that we need to get down now and we need to “get away from that wall”. And that’s when we notice the police officers behind us, evacuating people quickly.

People are calm. No one seems panicked. A child near me says he is scared, but overall we are quiet. We evacuate out in jeans and suits, in hijab and BAA jackets. I can’t say I am scared. I figure it is either a stray backpack left carelessly behind or a sick joke. But I can’t lie and say the hairs on the back of my neck don’t stand up a little.

We walk out into the back alley and to Dartmouth Street. The police officer tells us the Copley T is down. So we walk back to Newbury, past police cars barricading streets, and finally back to the unguarded part of Boylston. We walk to the next T stop, and past the firehouse and the memorials to the two fallen firefighters who served there.

It’s raining hard by now and the wind is gusting. We are soaked by the time we get to the next T where they tell us the whole Green Line is down now. So we walk back down Boylston, and we try to hail a cab.

We walk back past the firehouse, back past blue lights, back past TV cameras. Every cab has a fare. So we keep walking. Up now to Hereford to Newbury. I try to hail more cabs. I try to get a Chinese food delivery car to pull over by mistake. Heidi laughs at me.

And then the detonation.

We don’t know in that second that it was a controlled detonation. We don’t know it was a backpack with a rice cooker and confetti left by some misguided performance artist.

I think “some people live with this everyday…the bombs…the fear…the uncertainty”. That’s my first thought

My second is “check your phone”. A text is there from my Dad, watching it unfold in Virginia: “Fire in the hole…controlled detonation”.

We know now that it is safe. We walk up to Comm Ave. More cabs pass us. The rain beats harder. We stand there, one of us on each side of a corner, trying to get a taxi to stop. Finally one does.

Our driver asks where to. We say Newton Centre. He apologizes for not having much of a voice. We assure him it’s no problem.

And we drive. Down Comm Ave. Down Beacon. We trace parts of the Marathon in reverse. We are holding hands in the quiet. Daft Punk is playing on the radio and it all feels surreally normal.

Somewhere near Boston College I break the silence, saying I liked what the Imam had to say. Heidi agrees. I ask about his mosque and she tells me what she knows. The cab driver turns the music off. I realize he is listening. I wonder if he is assessing whether we are safe before he speaks.

“Can I ask you something,” he says, in his hoarse voice.

“Sure,” we say.

“Are you talking about Imam Webb?”

“Yes.”

“You liked him?”

“Yes, we thought he was very good tonight.”

He takes out his phone, shows us a picture. “Him?!”

“Yep…that’s him.”

He grows excited. “He is my Imam!”

For the rest of the drive he tells us about himself. He has been in Boston for two years. He goes to the mosque for Friday prayers. He is from Dubai. He came because he had throat cancer and the hospital here knew how to treat it.

“Boston saved my life,” he tells us.

We tell him about us, and about the interfaith service. We trade stories. He tells us his name. We tell him we will pray for his health.

When we finally reach Newton we say “peace, my brother”. And we wish him well.

The pastor was right. The Christian life, it is a marathon. But sometimes it’s also a cab ride across Boston on a rainy night on a day when memory and hope are so intertwined.

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Questioning Advent: Day Five – Creating Hope for Others

Copyright, Sotheby's

Copyright, Sotheby’s

My wife Heidi is a member of Old South Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Boston. If you don’t know Old South, you should check them out. They do amazing things in the city of Boston, including helping the city to heal after the Boston Marathon bombing happened, almost literally, right on their doorstep. Their ministry since 1669 has included everything from hosting planning meetings for the Boston Tea Party to being one of the first churches anywhere to reach out to people with AIDS in the very early days of the epidemic. I’m not sure I know of another congregation that has been so on the cutting edge of ministry so consistently for so long.

Last spring Old South had an important congregational decision to make. The congregation was the owner of two copies of the first book ever published in the British colonies, the Bay Psalm Book. Published in 1640, only eleven still exist, and only five are complete copies. Old South’s copies have been safely ensconced in the Boston Public Library across the street for some time now, but have remained dear to the hearts of the church. They are a beloved part of their history.

Which is why when the proposal came before the church to sell one copy, it was not an easy decision to make. Was selling one of these books tantamount to selling off their heritage? Were they making a short sighted decision that they would later regret? Were they being good stewards of what they had been given?

In this first week of Advent the church traditionally talks about hope. We talk about the hope that Christ brought to us when he was born in Bethlehem, and we talk about the hope which is to come. And, if we are really looking closely, we even talk about how we see evidence of that hope all around us. But what we sometimes forget is that as important as it is to look for hope, participating in that hope in bold ways is even more important.

Old South voted to sell their Bay Psalm Book. And last week, two days before Thanksgiving, it was auctioned off in New York City for $14.2 million dollars. $13.1 million of those dollars will come directly back to the church, which will use that money to continue to fund their ministries to the city of Boston and to the world. Because they sold the Bay Psalm Book, people will be fed and sheltered, a church that welcomes all will be strengthened, and a witness to the world of Christ’s hope will shine a little brighter.

That’s not to say that this was a decision that cost the church nothing. It is hard to let go of something that you cherish so greatly as this congregation cherished this part of their heritage. But in the end, they took seriously Christ’s call to us to “sell all you own and follow me”. And even as they let go…because they let go…they found hope. And that hope will be shared with others for years to come.

Question: Are you holding on to something in your life so tightly that you don’t have a free hand left to grasp hope?

Prayer: Holy God, you can use anything to create hope. Show us the places and things in our lives that we can use to create hope for others. And then, give us the will to use those things in new ways that we may find Christ’s hope for us, and for the world. Amen.

St. Patrick’s

So far my St. Patrick’s Day has consisted of wearing green, eating corned beef and cabbage, and listening to loud, drunken frat boys on the T in Boston swear loud enough to disturb the nice old lady across the aisle from me.

When my Irish ancestors came to this country they couldn’t get jobs, they were openly hated, and stereotypes about them were rampant. They were a legally oppressed minority group. And today people who aren’t even Irish celebrate by getting drunk and going to parades that keep the newer marginalized groups out?

That makes me wonder. One hundred years from now will drunk, straight, frat boys will be riding public transportation in Boston, drunk to hell, celebrating Stonewall and wearing purple? And who will be kept out of those parades?