St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Believing In Life, Believing in Christ

    April 17, 2022

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    Well, it appears the women were right, the women from our Gospel story. Jesus was not in the tomb that day. Love incarnate did not suffer death.

    Mary Magdalene is known to most Christians as the apostle to the apostles. She is the one person who is named in all four of our Gospels as the first to see the empty tomb. So she is the first apostle, being the first to know of the Risen Christ and therefore, the first to preach about it to the other apostles.

    In Luke’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene was joined by Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and all the other women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body that morning. Anointing the body for burial was women’s work which connects us to the scene of the last supper, where Jesus washed the feet of his friends, the washing of feet being an act of hospitality, done only by a servant or of the wife of a host. But never the host themselves.

    Jesus the Christ as love incarnate offering this example to us all. Loving service is how we teach. Loving service is how we heal. Loving service is how we change the world. Jesus said to them: If I am your teacher and your Lord, and I have washed your feet, then you must go and do likewise. This is your example.

    These aspects of the Gospel story are not trivial, but they illustrate the point that in Jesus, God is overturning the death-dealing ways of the world. In particular, the place of women in society at that time. Women had no rights, no power. They were not seen as people in their own right but as appendages to the men in their family.

    So here is Mary Magdalene and the other women, inside the tomb, perplexed by the lack of a body to anoint, and suddenly the men in dazzling white appear asking, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

    Indeed, why do we look for life in the things that are death-dealing?

    And the women remembered what Jesus had told them. So they run to tell all the others what they had experienced. But, as the scripture says, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

    Thankfully, the story did not end there… with the people who are named the apostles either not believing at all or going home, like Peter, and not telling anyone else. After today’s reading in Luke, Christ joins the disciples on the road to Emmaus and becomes known to them in the breaking of the bread. He showed them his hands and feet. He ate fish and told them to touch him so they would know he was not a ghost.

    But for today, we are faced with the question: Do we believe? Or do we think this is some idle tale?
    What is it that we believe about the Resurrection?
    Or perhaps, more aptly, what do we want to believe about the Resurrection?

    Interestingly, I think, this passage is more instructive than at first glance. Our inclination to believe in something is based solely on our biases and perceptions. In other words, our inclination to believe depends upon whether or not we already agree with the possibility or the likelihood of its existence. So, if we already have a bias against something, then believing in it is highly unlikely.

    The Gospel demonstrates this by the refusal of the male apostles to believe the women. Why would men believe the women? These women who were only supposed to do women’s work, who did not speak truth, but only in idle tales. Their bias prevented them from believing.

    Later, Jesus would have to appear to them so they would believe. Bias is perhaps the biggest thing that prevents us from seeing Christ. Yet, we hold onto our biases as if they are lifeblood.

    We look for the living among the dead.

    Yesterday, I happened upon a post from one of my beloved seminary professors, Jay Johnson. Who is, by the way, 100% responsible for me becoming a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But that’s a conversation for another day… Jay has returned to parish life after teaching in seminary for many years. He is the part time priest in charge of a small congregation in Sagatuck, MI, near where he was born.

    And in his post yesterday, he was talking about the nature community life. He said:
    “I have learned in fresh ways some perennial truths about life in community: resentment is far more contagious than joy, and the infection can linger for longer than our memory of when we were first exposed. Still more: bitterness takes no work at all (though it is exhausting) and gladness requires effort (even though it is thoroughly refreshing).”

    He goes on: “I reflected on how easily my petty grievances can harden my heart, parch my soul, and threaten to desiccate all that fertile soil, that interior field where I would much prefer to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and especially love.”

    “How easily my petty grievances can harden my heart…”

    This means, if I am holding on to a resentment about another person – a disappointment, a reason to avoid them, a slight, a hurt, a thing that they have done that they should have known NOT to do, or a thing that they have NOT done that they should have known to do…
    If I am holding on to a resentment about another person, how can I possibly believe anything but what I’ve already decided about them?

    How can I possibly believe that they are capable of something new? So, how can I possibly believe that they are love incarnate? That they are the Christ we seek to serve in all persons? How can I possibly believe that Christ is alive?

    Resentments are among the most death-dealing of all human behavior. They keep us imprisoned in the place where we feel hurt and they will never let us free. In their grip we refuse to see the other person as a new creation. And, more importantly, we refuse to see ourselves as a new creation. Yet… we hold onto them and milk them as if they are the most precious life-giving parts of our experience, refusing to let go of them.

    Why do you seek the living among the dead? Indeed.

    The Resurrection, you see, is this miracle, this sacred gift whereupon Christ breaks the bonds of death and hell, and rises victorious from the grave. Whereupon love incarnate becomes the way so that we are freed along with Christ from the bonds of death and hell.

    This story that we have been given is a gift. This hope that we have been given is a blessing.
    That this message of peace and liberation and love… is not dead.
    It can never die because we worship the God of life who is Love.
    This Love incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

    And Jesus, in his ministry and in his sacrifice, has taught us the way to walk in love – in compelling teachings, in bewildering parables, in compassionate healings, and most especially, in simple, powerful gestures of service. He demonstrated for us the path of love: To empty ourselves of the things we hold precious and dear and costly. So that we can become a new creation in service to the God of life who is Love. So that we can become Christ in and for the world.

    So, what if we were to bury these resentments, this death-dealing behavior? Because I think Jay is right – bitterness is one of the easiest things to do and resentments are one of the easiest things to spread. What if we found a way to let go of resentments? And what if we, instead, worked toward gladness? Toward joy? Gratitude and an awareness of abundance? To be willing to see what might be new?

    What might we believe then?

    Many years ago, I was in a terrible and painful state. I had just ended a very important relationship and I no longer really knew who I was. I was bitter and ashamed. And I was convinced that I was crazy, that there was something wrong with me.

    And in some book that my father gave me, I found this simple but profound exercise. It said, keep a journal. Every day, write down 5 things that you are grateful for. So I did that. Every night before I went to bed, I wrote down 5 things that I was grateful for. And slowly, things in my life started to shift. Well, really, I started to shift.

    I can’t describe exactly what happened. All I know, in retrospect, is that God was performing some kind of magic alchemy on me, in my soul. And all I did, was write down what I was grateful for.

    You see this is what Jay was talking about: working toward gladness. And I think this is what it means to be risen with Christ. To repent, return to God by giving up our death-dealing so that we can breathe again.

    I would never have articulated it that way at the time, having no connection to a religion then. But that exercise did start me on a truly spiritual path, one in which I could begin to understand how to surrender, to empty myself so that my own death-dealing ways could die. And I could live once again.

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!