The Cycle of Death and Resurrection: an intro to the seasons of Lent and Easter

This reflection is published in the Lent/Easter edition of Saint Andrew’s quarterly newsletter The Crossroads

 

“24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Seeds are amazing little things. Hard, dry, often looking very much like small stones. Very little about them suggests the potential that lies within. It takes a great deal of imagination and even faith to plant that grain of wheat in the ground where it will become rain soaked, soft, and eventually die. After all, we could take that same grain of wheat and eat it now or grind it along with others to make bread that will fees us today. It seems such a risk to cast that seed upon the ground not whether or not it will bear fruit. It is difficult to let go of the resources we hold in our hands in order to grow those resources for an unknown and uncertain future. But is that what Jesus is talking about in this passage from the Gospel according to John? Well… sort of…

Here in the twelfth chapter of John Jesus is talking about his own death. He tells his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:23-24). I am sure that the disciples were aghast at the thought of losing their friend, teacher, and guide. I am sure that their first response was to hold onto what they had, to cling to the security of a resource in hand. And to be honest, I am not sure that Jesus’ poetic and metaphoric rationale for his death was very comforting. It was going to take a great deal of faith to let go, to see him hung on a tree and buried in the ground, sealed in the cave.

Reading this passage in this way might make it seem contextually bound and of little import to us. Jesus is addressing his Disciple’s concerns in a way that doesn’t really apply to us who have never enjoyed his physical corporeal presence. But, and we should have heard this coming, Jesus doesn’t stop there…

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life… (John 12:25).

We already understood that Jesus isn’t really talking about seeds and now we come to understand that he isn’t just talking about himself. Jesus is inviting us to accompany him on a journey that, to his Disciples, was shrouded in mystery, metaphor and poetry, but which to us is all to clear. He is inviting us to join him on a journey to Calvary and the cross. If we cling to the life that we know, the resource in hand, we will lose it. But if we are willing to let go of that life we will experience a life beyond our imagining, a “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”).

But what does Jesus mean when he says that we need to hate our life? What does he mean when he uses the analogy of a grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die? Does Jesus mean that we need to join him on the cross, that our journey with him must find its conclusion on some literal Calvary surrounded by mocking soldiers and crowds?

We need to acknowledge that there have been, and continue to be, people who are faced with the terrible choice between renouncing their faith and losing their life. There are people today who are persecuted and murdered because they refuse to turn their back on the God who has created, redeemed and sustained them. That any of God’s children, no matter how they envision the God of all should be killed for their beliefs is surely an abomination in God’s eyes and something that we all need to renounce and struggle to end. Thanks be to God that for most, if not all of us here today, that is a choice we will never have to make. So have we reached another place where this passage is so contextually bound that it doesn’t have anything to say to us as we live out our lives as part of the religious majority in a country where our freedom to worship and practice our faith is guaranteed by our social contract? We already know that Jesus wasn’t really talking about seeds. And we have seen that he isn’t just referring to his own life and death. Perhaps we need to take another look at what he is referring to when he uses the word “life” in this context.

We believe “That the divine Son became human, so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs of God’s Kingdom” (BCP p. 850, The Catechism on “God the Son”). And we believe that “Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness” (BCP p. 851, The Catechism on “The New Covenant”). We don’t believe that God wants us to die in the sense that our life is ended. It is clear that we believe that what God wants for us is fullness of life, life lived in the light of God’s grace, light and love. So what is it that Jesus is asking us to hate?

 

Here it is helpful to make the distinction between “life” as a noun, our physical existence and presence in this world, and “life” as a verb, our particular way of being, of interacting with the people around us, with creation, and with God. Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our life (noun), he is telling us that we need to hate the verb that is our life lived in relationship with all that God is in the created order. So how do we make sense of this verb? What is Jesus talking about?

 

Paul writes very powerfully about “life in the flesh.” He is talking about our physical corporeal body’s need to acquire, to own, to control; the tendency to see to our own needs first, and to place ourselves at the center of our universe to the detriment of our relationship with others and their needs and well-being. When Paul talks about “life in the flesh” he is talking about the “stuff” that makes up our corporeal body’s need to survive, to prevail, and to procreate. None of which, in and of itself is a bad thing until it comes at the expense of someone else or our relationship with them, with creation, or with God.

 

What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? What are the things that we need to let go of so that new life may spring forth from them? That is an easy question to answer if we are asking what “we” (plural) need to let go of. We are in the middle of a conversation about race and racism in Madison and Dane County. Those conversations will generate long lists of prejudices, misconceptions, practice, and policies that need to fall to the ground and die. We are struggling across this nation with issues of homelessness, hunger, and poverty, and again the list of things that need to fall to the ground and die is long and formidable. There is good reason that the confession we used in the seasons of Advent and Christmas asked God to forgive us for “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf” (Enriching Our Worship 1 p. 56). What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? The question gets a little harder to answer when we hear the word “we” as in each and every one of us, as individuals who long for a taste of that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”). It is a hard question but the lure of that new existence, fully knowing God and each other draws us into the fray, grappling with the question and with ourselves, in the sure and certain hope that God desires for us “life in all its fullness.”

 

Seeds falling to the ground, dying, and bringing forth new life in abundance… When Jesus used this metaphor with his Disciples he was talking about death and resurrection. He was talking about something that they, and we, know and experience in the world around us. The metaphor is apt and it is accurate. That “new fruit,” that “eternal life” in “all its fullness,” that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” requires a death. Our participation in that new life requires the death of ways of seeing, of ways of thinking, of ways of being that diminish, demean and alienate; that belittle, deny and oppress; that injure those around us and which corrupt and destroy the light and life that is within us. Our journey to that new life requires that we walk with Jesus on the path to Calvary and that we participate in the cycle of death and resurrection. It is with this destination in our minds and on our hearts that we enter the seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

 

From the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer (BCP p. 265).

I love these words but I wish that they said a little more. While this invitation does point to the “message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel” it feels a little limited in its scope. The invitation here is to the seasons of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter; to a season of self-examination and repentance, identifying the seeds within us that need to fall to the ground and die. It is an invitation to participate in the dramatic events of Holy Week, making ourselves vulnerable to the death that will make that new fruit, that abundant fullness of life lived in the joy of fully knowing God and each other. It is an invitation to step into the new light that will dawn on Easter Day and to live as if that life has come to fruition in each and every one of us and in the “we” that we proclaim at the beginning of the Nicene Creed.

Come, join the journey from Ash Wednesday, through the wilderness of Lent, pressing on through the chaos and pain that is Holy Week, and enter into the light of a new day, a new verb “life” eternal.

 

Peace,

Andy+

 

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Marching from Selma to Madison Wisconsin: A Sermon Honoring the Life and Ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 18, 2015,  is built around the lessons appointed for use on the Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr.  You can find those readings here.

Links to Dr. King’s writings quoted in the sermon are provided in the text of the sermon.

This morning we celebrate the life and ministry of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior  I hope that you will indulge me as I offer a short history lesson.

Born January 15th, 1929 The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which eliminated the unconstitutional barriers used to deny African Americans their right to vote across much of the South.

In the course of his career as a civil rights activist Dr. King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped to found and was first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led struggles against segregation in Albany Georgia and in Birmingham, Alabama and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech.

In 1965 Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, depicted in a movie that is showing in theaters today and which has been nominated for an academy award for best picture, that helped to secure passage of the voting rights act.

Killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis Tennessee on April 4th, 1968 Dr. King was the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and was posthumously awarded The Presidential Medal of Honor in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

It is no wonder that tomorrow, in this towns and across the nation, on a Federal Holiday established in his honor, Dr. King will be celebrated and honored in statehouses across the nation with speeches, stories, and song. Given the importance of his work it is no surprise that in all of those gatherings children will read their winning essays describing Dr. King’s influence and impact on their lives, adults will remember those painful and turbulent days and we will all give thanks for a life and work cut terribly short.

In the public square Dr. King stands tall among the great men of this nation.   In the public square… But why is it that we are talking about him here in church? Why is it that we are suspending our regularly scheduled program and readings to remember and honor him as we celebrate the Eucharist, The Great Thanksgiving, here today?

In answer to that question I would like to invite Dr. King to speak. This is an excerpt from his sermon   “Loving Your Enemies.”

“The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.”

That sermon was delivered November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Compare those words to something that we heard just a few minutes ago…

“Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”   (Luke 6:27-29, 6:35-36)

Here in the season of Epiphany we focus our attention on God’s presence in the world made manifest, tangible, real so that we might experience the light, grace and love that is ours for the claiming. The scriptures assigned for the season of Epiphany focus on God’s ability to affect and change the world and our lives through the work and teaching of Jesus Christ. What a lovely coincidence that Dr. King was born during this season so that we might remember him as an example of God’s grace, light and love, and ability to transform our lives and the world!

Why do we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming this morning to hear and remember Dr. King’s voice? Because Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work manifested God’s light, love, and grave to the world for all of us to see. Because Dr. King’s voice has earned a place here with us, within these walls, among the people who seek to walk as a child of the light.

Listen again:

“We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force. There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Then, and only then, can you matriculate into the university of eternal life. That same voice cries out in terms lifted to cosmic proportions: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations that failed to follow this command. We must follow nonviolence and love.”

(“Give Us the Ballot” Address (1957) Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (Call to Conscience) Washington, D.C.)

Tomorrow Dr. King’s voice will be taken up all across this nation. People will work to carry on his legacy, forwarding the cause to which he gave, and for which he lost his life. There is no doubt that his image will appear on the evening news, in newspapers and on magazine covers.   On one of those covers Dr. King’s voice will ring out loud and clear.

This from the Washington Post:

“The New Yorker on Friday afternoon released a look at the cover of its next issue. Barry Blitt’s drawing, which will adorn newsstands and coffee tables next week, evokes the famous photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

On this cover, King’s arms are linked with those of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being placed in a police chokehold, and Wenjian Liu, the New York City police officer gunned down with Rafael Ramos as they sat in their squad car last month. They are joined on the cover by Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, who were shot and killed in Florida and Missouri, respectively.”

In the last few months our nation has been wracked with pain, drawn back into a conversation that many of us would like to believe was concluded by Dr. King’s work some fifty years ago. The similarities between the circumstances and the events that have spawned our current angst and the struggle in which Dr. King was engaged are to striking to be ignored.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a civil rights activist and a deacon in the Baptist church. On February 18, 1965, he was beaten and shot by Alabama State Troopers while participating in a peaceful voting rights march. Jackson was unarmed; he died several days later in the hospital. A Grand Jury declined to indict the Trooper who killed him.

Listen to the words Dr. King spoke in his eulogy of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

“So in his death Jimmy Jackson says to us that we must be concerned not merely about WHO murdered him, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers. His death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American ream a reality.”

WHO murdered Eric Garner, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos? WHO murdered Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? We know WHO used the chokehold. We know WHO pulled the trigger. We know which ethnic group each of them belonged to.   We know how old they are and where they grew up. We know their history and their mental health status. We know which of them were police officers and which of them were not. And we have spent hours and hours, page upon page expounding on the guilt of the WHO in each of these cases.

But Dr. King’s voice has earned a place here with us, with the people who want to walk as children of the light, and he calls to us, imploring us to be concerned

“about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Here is what we know about that system:

In Dane County the unemployment rate for white citizens of this country is 4.8%.  The national unemployment rate for African Americans is 18%.  And in Dane County the unemployment rate for African Americans is 25.2%, five times that of their white neighbors!

In Dane County the Median Income for whites is $63,673

Nationally the median income for African Americans is $33,233.  In the state of Wisconsin the median income for African Americans is $24,399.  And in Dane County it is $20,664, less than one third that of their white neighbors.

In Dane County 8.7% of our white citizens live below the poverty line.  While 54% of our African American neighbors live in poverty.  54%!  That is 1.5 times greater than the national statistics!  That means that in Dane County African Americans are 5 -6 times more likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors.

What do we know about the “system that produced the murders”?  We know that it is out of balance, unfair, and dysfunctional.

What do we know about the way of life and the philosophy that have produced the murders?

We know that across the country for every 1 white youth arrested 2.1 African American youth are arrested by the police.In the state of Wisconsin the statistics are 3.4 to 1.

In Dane County the arrest ration of black to white youth is 6.1 to 1!

In Dane County African American youth are arrested at a rate of 102/thousand while their white neighbors are arrested at a rate of 5.8/thousand.  That makes the detention ratio of African American to White youth 15.3 to 1!

Black Youths in Dane County make up 10% of the population age 12 – 17.  They make up 64% of the detention population for that age range.

In Dane County adult African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 15 times higher than whites in this county.

In Dane County Black people make up 4.8 % of the population aged 18-54.  They make up 44% of the detention population for that age demographic!

(Stats taken from The Race to Equity Report)

There is a strong temptation to look at these statistics and focus our attention on the WHO, to criticize and condemn the police whom we trust to protect our streets and defend our rights.   I need to tell you that when Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot while sitting inside their patrol car in New York City Pastor Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Covenant Church called for a prayer gathering so that together we could pray for reconciliation. There were several of us from Saint Andrew’s in attendance that day and everyone there as pleased that Madison Police Chief Mike Koval was there too. Chief Koval is pulling officers off the line to institute additional training so that the kind of tragedies that have occurred elsewhere in this country do not happen here. But focusing on the WHO is a mistake. Once again we must listen to Dr. King’s voice and recognize that the policing statistics for Dane County speak more to who we are as a society than we are comfortable admitting.

The actions of the police today, much as they were in Birmingham and Selma serve to hold up a mirror to our own fears, prejudices, and complacency. These statistics represent a philosophy, a world view which either hasn’t moved much or has reverted to the repugnant attitudes and prejudices of the 1950s and 60s.

Today, tomorrow, all week, here in the season of Epiphany Dr. King’s manifestation of the teachings of Jesus Christ call upon us to listen, to take stock, and to

“work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American Dream a reality.”

We have made a start in this place; partnering with Dr. Alex Gee, Fountain of Life Covenant Church, and the Nehemiah Project we have given $5,500 to help support the BROTHER Program, working to provide African American boys with positive role models and mentoring, to work with their families to break the chain of violence, oppression and despair that surrounds them in this place.

It is now time to take the next step. We are working to address the immediate need; to address the acute symptoms of the illness witch infects our nation. We need to turn our attention to the root of the evil which has caused these wounds

“…the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

In the season of Epiphany and Lent we will be working to engage in conversations about our own place in this system; about the privilege that we take for granted, the suffering that happens all around us to which we are blind or indifferent. We will be working to acquire the tools and the understanding that will allow is to move the systems and shift the philosophy of the people who can intervene at a systemic level to move us closer to the realization of the American Dream for all of our people.

I ask you to be courageous, to respond to the call, to be willing to enter into difficult and challenging conversations with our brothers and sisters in the African American Community, to hear their stories, to embrace their reality, and to work to put an end to this stain on our nation.

Manifestations of God to the world, epiphanies, are meant to point to a reality beyond the details o the events themselves. And they are meant to cal us to change, to live lives that reflect the reality of God among us, Emmanuel. We are the church, the Body of Christ in the world. We cannot sit idly by as our brothers and sisters are dying.

I leave you this morning with a portion of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the criticism of Birmingham’s white clergy who were urging him to be quiet and to stand down.

Dr. King tells us that…

“…the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Heaven forbid!

Amen.