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.





God’s Resounding Yes: A Sermon for Easter Day 2013

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2013, is built around the readings for Easter Day in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

I wonder when it happens…  when our response to the world around us becomes fixed… when the way we respond to the world around us begins to gel, to set, to harden…

I am sure that there are folks among us this morning who have studied this, who can tell us how the stress that our mothers endure affects us in the womb, how the birth experience shapes us, how the way that our early needs are met defines how we will trust, or not trust, the people and the world around us.  I know that all of these things impact our responses to the people and events in our lives.  I know that our outlook on the world is impacted and shaped by more variables than we can count and that we are all unique and wonderful individuals in or own right.

But this morning I am concerned with something that seems to be pretty universal, part of the human condition, something that we recognize in ourselves, that we know we would be better off without, and that is so hard to overcome that we will spend our entire lives struggling against it.

I believe that this tragedy begins when we are very young, during that awful period known to parents as the terrible twos.

Yup!  That’s when it happens.  The terrible twos… when we develop our obsession with the word “No!”

“No!”  it feels so powerful.  It startles the people around us, causes them to pause.  It even makes them a little uncomfortable.  And when we say it often enough we can cause quite a stir.  Everyone else seems to be saying it all of the time.  It seems like everywhere we go, every time we reach out to try something new, every time we experiment with the freedom we are beginning to feel, people are shouting it at us… “No!  Don’t touch that!  No! Don’t do that!  No! Don’t go there…”  This must be how the world works.  And if you are going to keep saying “no” to me then I am going to say “no” right back at ya!”

It happens so early.  We don’t yet have the resources or the sophistication to recognize what is happening to us.  And before we know it… It’s too late.  “No” becomes a habituated response.  It becomes familiar, predictable.  It is what we know…

So we are really ill prepared to defend ourselves from the “no” that surrounds us when our circle becomes larger and we fall under the influence and spell of the larger world.

“Can I join you?”

“No!  You don’t look like us!”


“Can I try this?”

“No!  You will just fail anyway!”


“Can I go there?”

“No!  You’ll just get into trouble!”


“Can I have some of that?”

“No!  There isn’t enough to go around, and you haven’t earned it yet!”


“But aren’t I important?”

“Are you kidding?  Who are you?  No!”


“Am I not then worth loving?”

“No!  Not until you measure up and give me what I want…  No!”

“No” rains down on us from people we trust, people we respect, even people we love.  So we don’t even recognize the fact that “No” is the tool that Madison Avenue uses to sell us their soap, “No you aren’t quite acceptable…  But if you buy what we are selling you will be just fine…”

We don’t recognize what is happening when “No” and the threat of “no” are what the powers that be use to keep us in line.  “No!  But you shouldn’t be complaining…  I am just protecting you from their bigger and even more oppressive ‘no.’  You should count your lucky stars that you only have to endure the ‘no’ that I am offering!”

Two thousand years ago, there was another word spoken.  It was spoken very quietly, by a young girl, who whispered the word in response to and unlikely and seemingly impossible request.

The word grew a little louder when, in a city that was lining up to be counted, cataloged and taxed by a foreign occupying power, a child was born in the lowest of all places.

This word grew in volume as an itinerate preacher began to wander the countryside, speaking primarily to those upon whom the world’s “no” had wreaked the greatest damage

It reached a crescendo as this word began to challenge the “no” in very public and threatening ways…

Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us, is God’s Word; God’s resounding “Yes” uttered, spoken into being, and proclaimed, in the face of the world’s “no.”

“Yes!  You can join us!  You don’t even need to ask.  Because you are already a part of us!”


“Yes!  You can try that!  And if it doesn’t work out…  we will find something else… together!


“Yes!  You can go there!  And I will go with you on your journey!”


“Yes!  You can have some of this!  There is way more than enough to go around!”


Yes!  You are important!  You are precious in my sight and there is no other like you!”


“Yes!  You are worth loving!  And I have loved you even before you were able to love me in return!”

Can you feel it?  It’s palpable!  God’s “Yes.”  Something like that could change the world!

It could… but the “no” doesn’t give up easily.  In fact, the “no” has such a deep hold on us that, as attractive as the “yes” may be… we find ourselves backing away, distrusting the very thing we long for, yet find so hard to imagine.

God whispers yes to a young girl named Mary.

God says yes in a lowly stable in Bethlehem.

God walks the dusty roads of Palestine saying yes, yes, yes!

But we turn away from the Word of God and cry “No!” as we nail him to a tree.

That “no” is still ringing in Mary’s ears as she approaches the tomb this morning.   It is screaming at the disciple Jesus loved and at Peter as they run to see what has happened.  That “no” is so loud and strong that Mary, weeping at the tomb after Peter and the other disciple have left, doesn’t recognize the voice, the Word, when it begins to speak to her again.

Then something incredible happens.  The Word, God’s “yes” calls to her by name…  Mary…  Yes!

It’s hard.  The “No” has not gone away, has not completely loosed its grip on us.  That voice is still ringing, screaming in our ears.  Sometimes the “no” even finds voice on our own lips.

It is our longing that brings us here: our longing for a different voice, and different word, a yes that might just change us and change the world; a yes that will proclaim that love is more powerful than death.

The “no” will never silence the yearning.  And this morning, as we stand weeping at the tomb… we hear it again.  That still small voice, whispering to us… calling us by name… and saying, “Yes!”

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Remember Who You Are. Remember Whose You Are: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter

This is an icon depicting Saint Andrew.  It was reproduced for us by a local icon writer and I have a box full of them in my office.

I keep a supply of these on hand because every spring, when members of our congregation graduate from High School and prepare to go off to college, we acknowledge their accomplishments, congratulate them and their parents for the work that they have done, and send them out into the world, to new adventures and experiences, with our blessings and our prayers, and we give them one of these icons.

I don’t know how many of you have been in that place, of sending someone you love off into the world, but as someone who has a son leaving for college this year, I know that I want to send him off with something more than blessings and prayers…

I want to send him off with some very clear instruction to help him navigate the path that lies before him and to keep him out of trouble!

So this year, the words that I always write on the back of these icons when we give them to our graduating seniors seem especially poignant to me and I know that my hands will be shaking when I write them on the icon that Suzanne and I will hand to Jacob this year.

Remember “who” you are.

Remember “whose” you are.”

Remember who you are…  When we send Jacob out into the world we will want him to remember all of the things that we have taught him.  We want him to remember the things that we have learned together, through trial and error, and through common experience.  We want him to remember us and the times that we have laughed, cried, and loved together.  Remember who you are…  We want him to remember the things that have shaped and formed his identity as a part of our family and as a part of the community that defines our common life.

Remember whose you are…  We will want him to remember that he is loved beyond measure.  That no matter how far from home he travels we are still bound to one another by our common history, by our common origin, and by a love which can never be stretched beyond the breaking point.  Remember whose you are…  Remember that you are ours, you are mine.  And always remember that we, that I am yours.

So that’s pretty close, pretty personal isn’t it?  And it is one thing for me to be writing those words, words that carry all of that subtext and meaning, to my own son.  It is another thing for me to be writing them to other people’s kids…   Interesting isn’t it?  That for as long as I have been writing those love notes on the backs of those icons… no one has ever complained.

I, and at this moment I am going to dare to say “we,” write those love notes on the backs of these icons and give them to our children because we hope that these words will become icons in and of themselves.  We hope that they will open a window on a fundamental truth that has the power to help us all navigate our way through life and to keep us in communion with one another and with God.

That truth is that:  We are called to remember…  who we are, and whose we are…  And we are called to remember together, in conversation as families, as communities of faith and hope,  and as the people of God.

We are called to remember together, in conversation…

We have these conversations spontaneously during special moments, at marker events in our lives; we have these conversations when the family has gathered for a holiday, for a birth, a wedding or a funeral.  We have these conversations around the dinner table, sharing a meal, telling stories around the fireplace or around campfires in the dark.

In these moments the stories seem to well up with in us, flowing naturally, coming from a place deep within, from our core sense of what is important and what we love.

In these moments the stories seem remarkably “present,” real, and true.  In these special moments the stories cease to be about people and places, moments and events in our past.  They become the story of who we are here and now.  In a wonderful and powerful way they tell our history, and at the same time define our present, and shape our hopes for the future.  The stories, even if they are about people who came long before us, become our story, our reality, our truth.

We shared a marvelous example of the power of story just this past week.  On Maundy Thursday we gathered for the twelfth time as a parish to experience our spiritual heritage and roots by participating in a Seder meal.  During the course of that powerful ritual we heard the story of the Exodus, the Passover, and the flight from Egypt.  We remembered God’s deliverance of the people at the Red Sea, his giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and the giving of the Temple as a place where God’s presence would reside in the world.

We rehearsed and gave thanks for a people’s history, their combined experience and shared heritage, and then we prayed this blessing:

In every generation each one ought to regard himself as though he had personally come out of Egypt, as it is written:  “And on that day you will explain to your children, “This is what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”  (Exodus 13:8)  It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, praised be He, redeemed from slavery, but us also did He redeem.  Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, extol, bless, exalt and adore Him who did all of these wonders for our ancestors and for ourselves.  He has brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festive day, from darkness to a great light, and from bondage to redemption.  Let us then sing before Him a new song.

Regard yourself as though you had personally come out of Egypt.  It was not only our ancestors, but us also…

Remember who you are.  Remember whose you are…  Remembering is integral to our identity, to who we are, and it is an essential part of whose we are.

Every Sunday we gather in his place and we read from our sacred scripture, from our history, from our story.  And every Sunday we claim those stories as our own.  We remember or perhaps more precisely, we recollect them.  They are not stories about people long ago and far, far away.  They are stories about us; about our hopes and dreams; about our successes and failures, about our faithfulness and our infidelities.  And they are above all stories about our relationship, our walk, with the God who continually creates, redeems, and sustains us, who loves us beyond all measure, who never ceases to call us into covenant, and who is faithful even when we are not.  They are stories that are both humbling and uplifting.  Stories that tell the truth about who we are and that give us hope because of whose we are.

This is the night, when our Lenten observance is ended, when we gather around the font, the water of baptism that binds us and makes us the church and we reaffirm our commitment to Christ, to the church, and to one another as we tell our story and remember who we are and whose we are.

And so we sing…

It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you, the invisible, almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people.

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,  and rose victorious from the grave.

How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.

How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.

Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning–he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen            (The Exultet BCP p. 286-287).