Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we remember and celebrate and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We remember an empty tomb that gave hope to Jesus’ disciples, who were grieving his loss after having witnessed Jesus’ execution three days before. It is a story that gives hope to us today as well, as we grieve the profound troubles of our own world.
The New Testament actually gives us four different accounts of what happened on the third day. The resurrection story told in John’s gospel, which we have heard this morning, is the most complex and interesting of the Easter stories in the canonical gospels: it involves three disciples who each had a different experience.
John’s account of the third day begins with Mary coming to the tomb in the dark, only to discover the stone rolled away. Imagine Mary’s distress – already deeply bereaved by Jesus’ death, now discovering that the body of her teacher has disappeared. Startled, grief-stricken, probably frightened, Mary runs to secure the company and the assistance of two of the other disciples, Simon Peter and John. Unlike the gospel accounts in which the rest of the disciples don’t believe the women’s report of the empty tomb, John tells us that Peter and John respond quickly to Mary’s witness, and they hurry with her to the burial site.
What follows, in John’s text, is where the story gets interesting. When the men arrive John initially lingers outside while Simon Peter enters into the tomb itself. Peter observes the linen wrappings in which the body had been interred, but he doesn’t seem to react. Perhaps Simon Peter is troubled or bewildered, maybe just taking time to process what his eyes tell him. John then joins him, and observing the burial cloths, immediately believes. John tells us that up until this time the disciples had not understood the scriptures indicating that the Messiah must rise from the dead, but, by implication, they now are starting to get it.
John reports then, simply, that the disciples returned to their home. He doesn’t tell us what they made of their strange experience or what they intended to do with it. I suspect that they needed to talk with one another and probably with the others, to puzzle over the strange things they had observed.
But Mary was not ready to leave; we don’t know whether the other disciples even suggested that she do so. She stands weeping, and, taking up her courage, finally leans in to take her own look into the burial place. Mary sees a vision that the other disciples apparently had not – two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.
And then finally, the most surprising claim of all. Mary turns and sees a figure that she takes to be a gardener, though John tells us that it is, in fact, Jesus, himself. The figure speaks, asking who she is looking for, but she does not recognize his voice any more than she has known him by sight. Despite not recognizing him, Mary opens her heart to the stranger: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.
When Jesus speaks once more and calls her by name, Mary knows. She understands. She believes. Just as her world changed when Jesus was crucified three days before, Mary’s world is again, suddenly, different. John tells us that when she returned to the disciples, she told them: I have seen the Lord.
Why did the three disciples who visited the empty tomb that morning have such different experiences? Simon Peter saw linen cloths and returned home. John saw the same cloths and believed, but then also returned home. Mary saw angels, and then met Jesus.
Perceiving and understanding are separate processes, even though they often happen together. We see or hear something, and we identify what it is that we have seen or heard, and we figure out what it means. Two or more of us can witness the same evidence and see very different things.
And often, what we EXPECT to see determines how we interpret what we’ve seen; sometimes we’re not even capable of seeing what we don’t expect, what we are not open to seeing.
When Mary first saw and heard the risen Christ, she saw a gardener. There was something in her heart, however, that resonated with some familiar tone, some subtle nuance, when he spoke her name. There was something in her that allowed her to discover the unexpected – something that enabled her to know that Jesus had risen from the dead, that Christ was present with her. Something that changed everything.
Beginning with Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, the good news that Christ is alive transforms lives. The good news that Christ is alive makes things new. Just as some quiet readiness in Mary’s heart enabled her to perceive what the other disciples had not, it is within us whether we can perceive the risen Christ around us, whether we can open our hearts, whether our lives can be made new by that presence. We are surrounded by the marks of God’s power and promise – but it is in us whether we can see.
Two and a half years ago two parishes in Western Massachusetts were both faithfully following the gospel, but both were facing the challenges that confront all communities of faith in today’s shifting landscape of religious practice.
One parish had a wonderful long history and many active ministries serving the surrounding community, but they were confronted by the daunting reality of a large, aging campus in a period of declining church income.
Another nearby parish was quite a bit smaller but no less faithful, with deep bonds between members and strong and committed leaders, but equally challenged by declining numbers.
The easier and apparently safer perspective for these parishes to take would have been for both to keep soldiering on as their parents and grandparents had, before them. But somehow, as the lay and ordained leaders of the parishes began a conversation together and then extended the conversation to include all of the members, the seed of a new vision took root - a vision of joining together to become one new parish.
Many of you were there – it happened with astonishing speed. In mid April of 2017 – on an unforgettable Sunday morning right after Easter - St James Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church became the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew.
In her sermon that morning Heather offered the analogy of a marriage in which the new partners would need to figure out how to merge the details of their lives – not only how to spend Christmas Day in their new life together, but where to put the coffeemaker and what brand of toilet paper to use.
Merger has involved discovery, joy, new energy and tremendous creativity. It has also required patience and generosity in the face of loss, as many have had to let go of dearly-cherished ways of doing things, as the new parish has walked into its new life.
Our story of new life is part of the larger story of new life discovered by Mary, John, Peter, and the other disciples. Just as something in them enabled them to meet the resurrected Christ in a gardener, and in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeshore, something in these two former parishes enabled them to perceive the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, inviting them into a bold risk of new life.
Trust in the God of whom Jesus spoke and who Jesus trusted compelled the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministries and to preach the Gospel to all lands. Trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ is our calling, as well.
Life after death. The drive of all beings toward wholeness, toward healing. Life renewing itself, through the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ.
Our opportunity – our privilege – is that we can make a difference in this world despite the death, destruction and divisions we see around us. We can open our eyes and ears and hearts to the moments of resurrection with which we are surrounded. We can move forward boldly because the love of God in Christ transforms things.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Confession: I get impatient with church buildings and campuses, which can so often become idols that distract us from following Christ. And yet, this past Monday, my heart leapt into my throat when I learned of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. At the time it was still unclear whether the church could be saved. News and social media outlets exploded as people shared their pictures and stories of Notre Dame, as they mourned the potential loss of such iconic art and history. One friend said when the church’s spire fell, they were immediately taken back to the moment they saw the towers fall on 9/11. A former CNN correspondent, Frida Ghitis, wrote: “The massive, majestic cathedral looked like it had been there forever, and would remain until the end of time. If only for a moment, Notre Dame ablaze reminded us that we all share this world; that human history means everyone’s past.”
It is easy to forget that we are all connected as one human family woven into God’s creation. It seems as though it takes tragedies, wars, plagues, and feelings of outer darkness to remind us that we are in this life together, that we share a common history, and that any suffering and pain in this life is a burden we are meant to carry together.
Good Friday is just such a day. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, beaten in prison, tried, and executed.
I’m not convinced it had to be that way or that it was by God’s design.
How easy it is for us, both then and now, to play the blame game:
Well, it was Judas, his own disciple who betrayed him…
...or, it was the Pharisees’ fault for being so resistant to change…
...it was really the temple police’ inability to stand up to their bosses…
...it was Annas, after all he sent Jesus to the high priest for further interrogation…
...no, it was Caiaphas; he is the one that suggested giving the Romans a scapegoat…
...well, really it was Peter, how could he have ever denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times…
...actually, at the end of the day, it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order…
...or it was the soldiers, after all, they are the ones that crucified Jesus…
...or it was the disciples who scattered in fear…
This list could go on, and on.
At the end of the day, there is no one person responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor, do I believe, that it was the plan of God to send his only beloved and precious child to the cross, as some final sacrifice that would allow the atonement practices of old to be fulfilled.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is known for saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” We also heard him say at the revival that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness.
It makes much more sense to me, that the cross is not some perfect plan of restitution, but rather the result of our shared human selfishness. Every single person that I mentioned who played a role on the way to the cross, at some moment in that journey choose themselves over love. Love was just too great a risk to bear.
Yet those folks are not alone. Each of us at different times, has chosen ourselves over the greater well being of others. We have played it safe, we’ve taken the path of least resistance, we’ve done what we needed to do to survive. Yet those actions have also caused harm to those around us. Anytime we are selfish, there is a cost. Jesus of Nazareth’s execution was not any one person’s fault. It was the result of our shared human family choosing selfishness one too many times.
On this day, we remember the way of the cross. We remember an arrest, beating, trial, and execution of an innocent man who simply wanted us to choose love instead of selfishness. It is a tall ask, and it is our calling to wake up tomorrow morning and do everything in our power to choose to live a life of love day in and day out. So that we may share the light bearing, life changing, love and hope of God into our world and that we might draw upon that love as our human family faces tragedies, wars, plagues and feelings of outer darkness. Instead of letting those things overwhelm us, fear and shame us into complacency and inaction, we are being asked to choose the way of love.
As we prepare for tomorrow, about what it means to choose the way of love, let us remember what the great poet and priest, John O’Donohue wrote about resurrection:
“When the cross hits your life, a loneliness, a blindness and a darkness come all around you. Darkness and lostness are the worst parts of suffering. The wonder of the Resurrection is that this darkness was opened out and at the heart of the darkness a secret light was discovered. Each one of us who has come here hasn’t come to this place out of curiosity but we have come because we know the need that is in our lives and we know the frailty that is in our hearts and minds. We are strangers in the world. In our journey through life anything can befall us. It seems to be very difficult for us as humans to learn how to love, to learn how to let the fear and the resentment and the blindness fall away from us and to come into the special joy and peace and freedom of love. No matter how assured or competent we may feel, there is none of us who has not large territories of fear in our hearts, fear of sharing ourselves, of opening ourselves, of entering life. That is why we [will] come to an ancient holy place like this, before the dawn, to let the new tender light of the resurrection touch our helpless fear and transfigure it and open it into courage.”*
Let us come together tomorrow to find that secret light hidden in tonight's darkness. Amen.
*John O'Donohue from his Easter Homily at Corcomroe Abbey 1992. Included in "Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O'Donohue in Conversation with John Quinn".
Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, Faith Community Nurse and Lay Preacher
Tonight we hear the moving story of Jesus’ and the disciples’ last meeting and meal. It is the story of ordinary actions, washing the dust off and sharing food, ordinary actions done with extraordinary love. That night the disciples gathered with Jesus, rumors about Jesus’ arrest were in the air. Jesus, of course knew what was about to happen and, I think, perhaps the disciples did too. I expect they ate quickly and quietly, and on this most holy night, Jesus chose this everyday action of washing to teach us a most important lesson, a lesson about love. Jesus knew that Peter was about to deny him and that Judas had already conspired to betray him. In spite of this, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his friends and enemies alike; a gesture of Love, the ordinary kind, given freely to everyone.
Such an ordinary action, foot washing, on this extraordinary night. Jesus teaches us about love in ordinary ways; a drink of water and a conversation by the well with a Samaritan woman, or a meal at Martha and Mary’s home. We know he breaks all the rules of the society of his day, but I think that on Holy Thursday Jesus also wanted to teach us that love, given through ordinary actions, with awareness and mindfulness, can be the most powerful love of all, the kind that passes all understanding. Ordinary expressions of love: the casserole you bring to a grieving neighbor, the therapy dog who visits nursing home patients, the prayer shawl or comforting quilt. Tonight we receive from our neighbors at Saints James and Andrew, a gesture, an ordinary action, given with love, love that is freely given, love that is not earned, and love that is not necessarily deserved.
It’s risky, isn’t it, this love freely given. Risky because the more we open to love, the more we risk betrayal or loss or pain. We risk security and stability when we open to love. But it’s a beautiful and worthy risk, because without it we are stuck, stuck not moving forward, stuck without growth, without opening to the possibilities of the future.
Ordinary actions make up most of life. Excellence is wonderful, isn’t it, and who doesn’t want to pursue it, who doesn’t want to change the world? But life is really made up of one ordinary action after another, get out of bed, make your bed, show up on time and prepared for school or work, say thank you, help a neighbor, cook, clean, do it again. Washing the dishes might not just be a mindless task, maybe, if we are fully awake and aware, we can find God there too.
The ancient Celts understood something about this. Esther de Waal, in her book, “Every Earthly Blessing” describes it as an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane and earthy. It is the sense that God informs daily life and transforms it, so that any action can become the time and place for an encounter with God. She says that “nothing is too common to be exalted, and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common”. The Celts everyday actions were infused with images of the way God interacts with his people. For a blessing on your journey “May the road rise to meet you, St Patrick’s beautiful litany: “Christ be with you, before you, behind you, when you sit down, when you arise. “A blessing was spoken as the fire was laid and as the children went out the door. A new- born infant would be commended to the Trinity by her Mother. She would be handed across the hearth fire three times and then carried sun-wise three times around the fire with the help of the neighbors who had assisted at the birth. Three drops of water would be placed on her forehead and then the prayer spoken: “And I beseech the Holy Three to bathe this child and to preserve it to Themselves. All the people in this house are raising their voices with the watching-women giving witness that the child has been committed to the Holy Trinity.” This was called the “Mother’s Baptism” , it preceded the formal “clerical” baptism when the child was received into the church.
Washing is a very ordinary activity. When I think of the number of times my hands are in the dishwater each day, the number of baby parts I’ve washed and noses wiped. A cool cloth on a feverish brow is very ordinary, but when I look down on the beautiful faces of my kids and grandkids, and when I am awake and fully present in the moment, I feel indescribable love and the presence of Holy Spirit.
When I was a much younger, new nurse, I cared for an elderly women who passed away (not unexpectantly), on my shift. Her sister was constantly by her side in the last days of her life. After the patient died, I gave her sister some time to be alone and when I returned to the room she asked “when will you be giving her her last office?” She offered to step out of the room to give me privacy. It took me a minute to make the connection; from church I remembered the Office of Compline from the Daily Offices. I realized that she was referring to what we in nursing school and hospital policy called “post mortem care”. Last Office refers to the care given to the body after death. We do specific things (including washing), some according to policy, for health, safety and legal requirements, some focused on respecting the person’s religious and cultural beliefs. In ancient Egypt and Rome this washing was delegated to professionals, but otherwise, it was traditionally performed by family, friends and neighbors. In the modern Western world it’s most often a nursing procedure. The word office comes from the Latin, meaning service or duty. In the Muslim faith the body after death should face east (toward Mecca) and care after death should be given by someone of the same gender. Buddhist families may wish to wash and prepare the body. In the Hindu culture, daily bathing is required until cremation can occur, and the body is not to be left alone. I had studied these cultural practices in nursing school, but there was something about the way my patient’s sister asked me that made it sound so important, so exquisite, like I would be giving her a gift, my final gift. This washing was preparation, (like preparing the altar for worship or setting the table for the Eucharist.) Not with the words of a priest, but a simple washing by her ordinary nurse. Ordinary earthly actions, extraordinary love and meaning. I was washing my patient, and holding on to the hope of God to call her home. I helped our Hospice Nurse wash my Dad after he died, I hope it was a gift to him, I know it was a gift to me.
We are encouraged by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to practice “The Way of Love”, trying to turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest, all practices for a Jesus -centered life. These rules of life, all modeled by Jesus, just like this generous act of foot washing, can be given with love, so that we truly can bless everyone we meet, even beyond our circle and comfort, risking loss, hoping for joy, infusing the ordinary actions of life, like washing, with extraordinary love, love freely given to the beloved community of God. Amen.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
It’s six days before the Passover, and you are on your way to Jerusalem. You stop a mile or so outside the city, in the village of Bethany, so you might have dinner at your friend Lazarus’ house. His sister Martha, known for her hospitality, has prepared a beautiful meal. One of Lazarus’ friends, Jesus of Nazareth and his inner circle of followers, are also at the table. As you break bread together, Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, retrieves a jar of what looks to be costly perfume and sits down at Jesus’ feet. She begins to anoint his feet with perfume, and then wiped them dry with her hair. It seems a profoundly intimate thing to do; it was almost as if she was anointing his body for burial. Then things grew even more uncomfortable when another guest, Judas Iscariot, challenged Jesus as to why he was allowing Mary to waste such an expensive jar of perfume on him, when they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and helped the poor. You consider stepping out for some fresh air while these folks sort out their business, when Jesus says something that stops you in your tracks. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
What ends a dinner party faster than discussions of religion and politics? Death. Just as none of the guests at Lazarus’ table wanted to keep talking after Jesus spoke of his nearing death, our culture avoids looking at our own mortality head on. Instead we are inundated with messages from social media, news, medical professionals, and friends that tells us the things we must do to maintain our youth. And since it feels good to feel young, we buy in, often hook, line, and sinker. Yet, that is not what our faith asks of us.
Have you noticed that starting with Ash Wednesday, the readings in Lent have been focused on our mortality?
This theme continues today and all the way through Holy Week. We are being asked to consider our own mortality, to grapple with what it means to live well and to die well.
I hope that every week we leave here with a renewed sense of how we are called to live as followers of Christ. There is a reason you hear us end so many worships with, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us...” There is no time to waste. God is inviting us to live well now, as there are no guarantees of tomorrows. We have this day. We have right now. How will we live a life of love? Yet as important as living well, is planning well for our death.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on p.445 is a little known instruction that asks parish priests to talk to their community about planning well for death. It reads as follows: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”
According to the Diocese of California, 50% of Americans die without a valid will, and allow the state courts to distribute their assets however the state thinks best. They also note that spring is a common time to write wills because of upcoming summer travels. I think it also makes sense that we would think about making wills, planning our burial services, our healthcare wishes, and any legacy gifts in the lead up to Holy Week. As we grapple with Jesus’ looming death, might we consider our own mortality.
A will or trust is a testament of our faith and values. Our will is one final chance to tell the people we leave behind what matters to us. It is a chance to ensure our children and loved ones are well cared for. It is a chance to give back to our faith community with a legacy gift. Alice Kells’ legacy gift allowed for the renovation of the lower level to include a three story lift, making our entire parish hall building accessible. Whitney Robbins’ legacy gift allowed for funds to sponsor our mission to the community, particularly Whitney’s Pantry. The John Whiteman and Richardson Trust made a legacy gift that subsidizes nearly 10% of our annual budget each year.
In my first year serving former St. James, we were celebrating our bicentennial. Our Stewardship Chair at the time, Dennis O’Rourke, asked that all of us become legacy givers, before we then ask the congregation to consider doing the same. On the church’s end, this meant we would fill out the legacy giving form. On Jason’s and my end, it meant we had to create a will. We met with Kate Downes, an estate planning attorney in Shelburne Falls. We made decisions about who would have guardianship of our children should something happen to us, we made decisions around our healthcare, we named our legacy gifts and our beneficiaries. It had been a task nagging at us since our eldest was born, and it was a relief to have this work done. In addition to estate planning, we made healthcare decisions, and used the church’s form to plan our burial services. Seven years later, Jason and I are now 39 and 35. We do not own a house, but we do have other small assets, and more importantly, we have children that need to be well cared for. My point is, you can neither be too old or too young to do this work. It is a gift for those you leave behind, and it is a testimony of your faith. It is a way for you to take seriously our call to live life well now, and plan for a holy death.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to do this planning.
My friends, remember that life is short, and we must live well now, and plan well for those we will leave behind. While this life may come to an end, eternal life in Christ will be the next chapter.
At the end of the burial service we say a prayer that holds the tension of living and dying well, together:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499).
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