Sermon for Easter Day, 2016

Many years ago, not long after I had started my first assignment as a priest, I attended a conference for clergy and lay leaders who were serving small congregations in rural communities. The presenter was one of these really provocative, socratic types, and if I’m honest, I probably perfected my inner eye roll through a lot of it. During of the of the sessions, he singled me out of the crowd and said “Mr. Loya, what do you think?” Caught off guard, I could only manage to mumble back a panicked “I don’t know,” to which he quickly replied, “I know you don’t know, but if you did know, what would you think?” It was a great move. He was trying to move my thinking forward by asking me to imagine I was certain about something I wasn’t. He was asking me to just try on certainty and see what happens.

That seems like a great way to approach Easter. Our gospel lesson this morning reminds us that the resurrection is not simply a historical fact we remember (although it is certainly that), it’s not just a doctrine that we are asked to believe, it’s a new reality we are invited to enter, it’s a new life we are invited to live, whether or not we are certain at all.

If you find all of this hard to believe, you’re in good, biblical company. Faith in the risen Jesus comes slowly to everyone in today’s lesson (and for that matter, most of the rest of the New Testament). The women who discover the empty tomb are first of all perplexed, and have to be jolted by some angelic figures who remind them what Jesus had said about all of this. When they run to tell the disciples they are dismissed with predictable sexism. And even when Peter goes to see the tomb himself, we’re told he’s amazed, but there’s no indication at that point he understood or believed.

So if you find all of this hard to believe, that’s probably because you’re actually paying attention. The joy and beauty with which we celebrate this day can mask just how crazy what we’re celebrating is. We’re here this morning saying that this guy Jesus, who was executed by the state for being a religious and political agitator, really died. He really died the same death we’ve all seen and we all fear. But then this guy was raised from the dead, he still lives, and is a sign for what awaits all of us, too. That’s not just improbable, that is gonzo crazy. If any of us claim to fully understand or perfectly believe that, we’re just not being honest.

But the question the empty tomb poses to us is: what would it be like if we did believe it? What if we really did believe that God’s life is stronger than our death? What if we really did believe that love is more powerful than hate? What if we really did believe that new life can come out of ruin? What if we really did believe that no one is too bad to be loved, no one is too far gone to be saved, nothing is too broken to be healed? What if we lived our lives to show that God’s love can roll away the stones of increasingly hateful divisions, that God’s justice can roll away the stones of exclusion and discrimination, that God’s compassion can roll away the stones of crushing poverty, that God’s peace can roll away the cycles of violence and terror and retribution that keep us all trapped in a nightmarish tomb of fear?

The empty tomb stands in front of us this morning, and says,“I know this is impossible to believe, but how would you live if you did believe it?”

Easter morning begins in darkness, bitter grief, and doubt. Jesus’ friends have had their world shattered, their friend unjustly executed, their hopes dashed. They come to the empty tomb with the same lump in their stomach that all of us know, and some of us can barely contain this morning. As we gather here in the shadow of more terrorist attacks, bitter political divisions, worries about our jobs, uncertainties about marriages, fears for our kids, caring for dying parents, feeling the pain of the person who isn’t sitting next to us this year, Easter doesn’t offer us a cheap and sentimental joy. Easter doesn’t ask us to pretend our lives aren’t what they are. Easter offers us the promise of new life that has gone straight through our deepest darkness and pain.

This day doesn’t just hold up some magic trick God did a long time ago, it doesn’t demand that you believe some religious doctrine. It offers you a new reality. It offers you a new life. Even if you don’t believe a word of it, this day invites you to enter into God’s new order, where hatred, and fear, and death don’t get to finish the story. God’s love finishes this story. God’s love finishes our story. All we have to do is step into it, and join our voices to heaven’s triumphant, joyful, defiant Alleluia. Amen.

 

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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

As most of you know, our sermons during Lent are following Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian, which reflects on the four basic practices of Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer. We’ve explored Baptism and Bible in recent weeks, and we continue today with the Eucharist.

When I was in seminary, there was a little Thai restaurant that was about a ninety second walk from the front door of my apartment, and I would get take out there about once a week, very often with my roommate and his wife-to-be. The night of the week varied. If it was a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday, we’d come back to my apartment and watch The Simpsons. If was a Wednesday, we’d watch the West Wing.

Some of the best memories of my life are sitting on that beat up, second-hand couch, in a tiny apartment in a sketchy neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut eating take out and watching TV with Drew and April. That ritual was a key part of shaping a really important friendship in my life. The person I am today, how I connect to other people, the ways that I strive to create a Christian community as a pastor here, was formed in large part by the ways I was connected to Drew and April.

My life today is unimaginably different from my life between 1999 and 2002. In some ways, 1999 Craig wouldn’t recognize 2016 Craig. But every time I eat Thai food, it’s like all of the time and distance that has come to separate us from that little living room in New Haven collapses, and I’m right back there with them, reconnecting with a love that has formed and sustained me. And, it’s like that reality is being brought forward into my life as it is now, so that who I once was is brought to bear on the circumstances and challenges I now face. Eating take out from a dive Thai restaurant is, to this day, an enormously healing and nourishing ritual for me.

The Eucharist, this thing we do here every week, works exactly like that. It’s the way we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, it’s a way we remember his death and resurrection until he comes again, but more than just recalling past events, but it makes us part of that story, and it brings that story into our lives here and now.

One of the best parts of this chapter in Williams’ book for me is when he writes: “When reading the gospels you sometimes get the impression that if anywhere in ancient Galilee you heard a loud noise and a lot of laughter and talking and singing, you could be reasonably sure that Jesus of Nazareth was somewhere nearby.”[1] Jesus was always in the business of gathering people together to be welcomed and loved.

And here’s the thing: Jesus hasn’t stopped gathering people together to be welcomed and loved. That’s what Jesus is doing with us here this morning. This is the meal that makes all of us, a diverse and varied group of people with largely sepearte lives, into a family; not just with one another, but with all those who have followed Jesus at all times and in all places. Most importantly, the Eucharist makes this the place where we know that we are welcome and loved.

Think for a minute about why you would invite someone to your home for dinner. You do it because you like them, you enjoy being around them, you want to get to know them better and to spend time with them. You do it because you hope it can be a relationship that continues, that will become the kind of sustaining friendship and connection that we all want and need. That’s exactly why God invites us, all of us, to this table. God invites us here because God likes us, wants to spend time with us, get to know us better, and have a relationship that sustains us with love. Just like eating Thai food re-connects me with a friendship that is central to who I am, coming to the Eucharist re-connects us with who we most basically are as baptized people: loved and welcomed by God.

But, if God wants to spend time with you, if God loves and welcomes you, he also wants to spend time with the person sitting next to you, or on the other side of the church, even the person you don’t like or don’t agree with. God wants to spend time with and welcome the people in our workplaces and schools, the person who is sleeping out on the street, the person who is in the nursing home, or in prison, everyone.

That means we don’t receive God’s love and welcome at this table just to have a warm and fuzzy pat on the back, we are welcomed and loved so that we can welcome and love others. Both our epistle and gospel lessons to day drive this point home. In our reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds us that “All this is from God, who reconciled us to hiself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. . .” God loves and welcomes and forgives us so that we can love and welcome and receive one another and the whole world. Our gospel lesson is Jesus’ story of a father who welcomes back a wayward child with open arms and an extravagant feast. That’s how God loves us. That’s how we’re called to love each other and the world around us.

Welcoming and loving is our most basic business as the church. We receive it so that we can give it. In a world where we increasingly segregate ourselves off inoto our own political and ideological camps, where the fear of terrorism in this country has incubated a disturbing intolerance of anyone who looks or talks or believes differently, the world needs Jesus’ message of welcome and inclusion and love as much as it ever has. It starts with this. It starts with us. You can start just by coming to coffee hour today and talking to someone you don’t know. You can do that in the smallest ways wherever you are in your daily life. That’s how it begins. Let the welcome you receive here, the food that you eat at this table, be the fuel for you to offer that same love and welcome to everyone you meet. Let us take the feast we receive in here into our lives out there, so that when the world hears laughter and singing and joy, they can be certain that we followers of Jesus are somewhere nearby. Amen.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Christian. William B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids: 2014. Pg. 41.