The Botanical Garden and the True Vine

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The Atlanta Botanical Garden is full of life, wonder, and insight.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15:1-11

As creation slowly comes back to life for spring, and as often happens with Jesus, we are back to talking about things that grow, namely: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of my favorite features of my favorite city. The Garden is located in Midtown, next to Piedmont Park, the so-called “Central Park of the South.”  With the midtown Atlanta skyline close in your frame of vision, you can walk along the treetops on a high boardwalk, in an enclosed conservatory garden with several climates from around the world, or among various themed gardens.

One of my favorite such gardens is found in a relatively small corner: the “edible garden.” It isn’t because it’s a particularly tasty experience; the signs in this garden ask you to please not touch the foods, because everything that is harvested goes to the Atlanta food bank. But as you walk among the plants, you’ll see several different kinds of seasonal produce. Finally, towards the end of the walk, there is a wall dedicated to herbs. The herbs are planted directly into holes in the wall. They are watered by a system wherein recycled rainwater is sent down rivets and into the roots of the plants. In a little splash of decoration, water is also sent through rivets on the side that faces visitors, creating a beautiful piece of art that’s accompanied by the gentle sound of falling water.

Just past the wall, the archway that leads you out of the garden is this Henry Ward Beecher quote very appropriate for early spring in New England, especially this day: “Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”

The truth, as they say, will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.
There is one truth that I’m intent on living and sharing: despite what we think, God is not as petty as we are. There’s that saying, “You know that you have created God in your own image when that God hates all the same people you do.” Still true. See also: when that God is as petty as you are. When God expects something in return for everything given.

But this truth is first clouds, then rain. It’s not easy to believe.

This is because we live in a quid pro quo world. You must earn what you make. You must pay for what you consume. Even among friends, the quid pro quo system remains vaguely in place. Even when there is no expectation of repayment for a favor, we feel a tug to find something to say thank you, even if it’s just a card or a treat of some kind.

I think we assume at the core of our being that God is the same way. Oh sure, we all pay lip service to grace and salvation by faith alone. But press most Christians, even most Lutherans, and they’ll eventually start telling you what you have to do to really be part of God’s family.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system exactly: it makes good citizens out of all of us. If we feel like God is watching our every move and expecting good behavior, we behave better.

The problem, of course, is that we never behave perfectly, and that we can’t even all decide on exactly what good behavior even looks like. And this is how just about everyone who’s gotten hurt by the church gets hurt by the church.

Besides that obvious problem, focusing on how well we behave makes us not just into the proverbial Pharisees, but also into the prototype of the dumb disciple: we miss big things in Jesus’ teachings. This is how focused we are on earning things: Jesus is talking about all of us being part of a vine, and yet we often focus on how we can “abide” — as if any branch or bud growing outside chose its own plant or earned its right to grow there.

What if we were to read this the way I think it was intended: Jesus isn’t giving moral instruction, as he often isn’t in John. Jesus is describing the way things are when he says.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

You trying to earn your way into God’s favor is like the branches trying to earn their way onto the vine. They never could have and they don’t need to — the very notion is silly. They just grew there, and there they are.

Yes, Jesus says abide in me, and that is what we are called to do: stay. Abide. Be content. Branches still don’t earn their places.

Yes, Jesus talks about a cleansing. Then he says “you’ve already been cleansed,” as the disciples were by their ordeal, and as we all are by life and circumstances. 

“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”

I do think there is instruction to be found here. “Abide in me” is clearly a directive. I think he’s calling us to stick together.

You see, the last time I preached on this text was two cycles ago, in 2012, as a pastor in her first full year of ministry in my little United Methodist church in Alabama. Then as now, it was an election year: then the presidential, this year the midterms.

What I said then, in a politically different congregation in a different place, still seems relevant here, today:

“Living together is what we are called to do as the church. And that can be unfortunate at times, because sometimes our vast differences — in personality or nationality or opinion — tear us apart, and make us hurt one another.

“Jesus is calling us to stick together when he says ‘abide in me.’ And you see, you can’t abide in the vine without sometimes getting tangled in the other branches.

Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we can’t get anything done. Sometimes we cause pain to others, whether we mean to or not. But every now and then, every now and then, we manage to get things done. Every now and then, we can work together to do more than we could ever have done alone. By sticking together, we accomplish — and are — much more. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Yes. Still relevant.

That’s the price we pay for being in relationship with other humans: humans, no matter the time or place or politics, are imperfect, messy, sometimes selfish, sometimes petty. When we are in relationship with one another, even in the unlikely event that we treat each other flawlessly with mutual respect, at the end, we all die.

There is no relationship without pain.

Still, of course, we pursue love of all kinds, knowing that it will eventually hurt us. Because relationships with other people are where we learn, where we become our best selves, live our best lives, and bear the most fruit.

“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.” 

This is true in life as in, more specifically, church. We do not choose to be a part of the vine. We don’t earn our place here. Jesus isn’t describing how you should be, but how you are: you are part of the vine. Because you feel and keep feeling compelled to show up at church and not somewhere else — you do not have to worry about being worthy to be part of the vine. You already are a part of us, growing alongside all of us. You are part of this community, whether you come only occasionally or all the time, you are part of us, and we are blessed and changed by your presence among us.

We would not be the same vine, growing here in South Hadley, without you.

No, God is not as petty as we are. We really don’t have to prove anything or earn anything. We just are: part of the vine, loved, part of a worldwide family. That’s the kind of truth that we build community around: being fed, bearing fruit.

Every time we gather, we gather at the table, sharing love, sharing harvest, sharing food, sharing words of hope. That’s the kind of truth that gives us hope: that no matter how dark the clouds or how heavy the rain, in here, there is always, always, harvest and food. Amen.

Why Jesus Followers Travel in Packs

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Scenes from The Jungle Book (2016). 

Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24:36b-48

I watched the new Jungle Book movie recently. In addition to being stunned by the visual effects — having a movie where animals’ mouths move that isn’t cheesy clearly means that we live in the future —  it was also interesting to revisit a story that I loved so much as a child. There were several aspects that I did not remember from the 1967 animated film, including the wolf code. The wolf code is often repeated by the wolves in liturgical form, ingraining it into their identities:

“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it will prosper, but the wolf that shall break will die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” 

Unlike most of the other characters in the story, the wolves are dependent on one another. Individual wolves appear in the story as themselves, but they always connect back to the pack.

It’s not exactly true in practice, but at least in my experience, there are two ways to read almost any story, including The Jungle Book and those in the Bible: be overly spiritual and individualistic about it, or read it communally, with a lens of humanity, realizing that if we believe that anything resembling this story actually happened, the people involved experienced it much the way that we experience our own lives, with an equal amount of surprise and awe and irritation and other real emotions that real people have.

That this is a story from a people to a people, and in the case of today’s Gospel reading, from the pack of the disciples to (at least for today) our pack here in the Christian church in 2018.

If you overly spiritualize it and think about what it means to you and your individual belief, it’s rather boring. Yes, Jesus eats in this passage so that each of us knows and believes for sure that the disciples didn’t just see a ghost, but Jesus, alive. And you know he’s alive because he’s got a body that still bears his fatal wounds, except that he’s alive, and we know he’s alive because he needs food. Ghosts don’t eat, and according to popular culture, zombies only eat brains. I guess. Moving on.

So if you’re concerned with individual belief, that’s the heavy theology you can do with that passage, and it’s important.

But there’s also much more there on a much more relatable and human level that has much more to say about us together. Individual belief is important, but so is our communal life: “for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Some background on resurrection accounts in Luke: after the crucifixion, where Jesus dies and is real dead, the women go to the tomb on Sunday morning to find Jesus’ body not there, but some angels tell them they he’s been raised. They freak out, like you would when a dead body simply disappears, and run to the male disciples and tell them about it, and Luke says, and I quote, “it seemed to them like nonsense.” Peter, however, runs to the tomb and finds it empty, and walks away wondering what had happened. 

Then it happens to two of the male disciples on the Road to Emmaus — Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him. They think he’s just some guy asking them about everything that’s happened to them. They tell him, “Man, you must be the only one in all of Jerusalem that hasn’t heard this story.” They invite this random guy to their house for dinner.

But when they’re at the dinner table, and Jesus breaks the bread, they immediately recognize him. I like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one, and it was there, when he was with his people at the table eating and drinking, that they finally said, I assume, something like: “Oh my God — it’s you!” 

This is where we arrive at today’s Gospel passage. They’re all standing around talking, probably arguing, about this, when Jesus is all of a sudden among them, saying “Peace be with you.”

And the disciples LOSE. IT. Luke puts it mildly: “they were startled and frightened.” That sounds decent and in good order. Like they jumped a bit. I imagine something a lot more dramatic, like Thomas jumping a clean two feet off the ground because a formerly dead Jesus is RIGHT NEXT TO HIM, Peter running into the next room, and four out of eleven disciples immediately spilling their wine and five more wetting their tunics.

I imagine that Jesus thinks the greatest loss in the recounting of the Gospel stories is the loss of humor. I cannot imagine a world in which the Son of God does not have a wicked sense of humor. You’re talking about the inventor of platypus faces here.

Luke recounts Jesus’ words as “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I imagine Jesus saying something more like “Why you jump? I told you I’d be back. Did I stutter?”

A few years ago, I became obsessed with a ridiculous joke choral anthem called “Christ Cometh to My House and He Eateth All My Food.”

Well, after Christ shows them his wounds, he’s interested in mealtime again. No one says, “Lord, didn’t you just eat with the Emmaus guys,” because you don’t shame revenants for their appetites. We just assume that coming back from the dead is hard work.

Then he spends the rest of this little episode eating with them all together and talking to them about everything that had happened. He gathers the pack and appears to them all at once to explain everything.

I think that one of Jesus’ most important messages is that we are to be one body, in relationship with one another. A pack. Here to hold each other up and feed one another and welcome new people in as they want to join us. To celebrate and mourn together. To dedicate our lives to one another and this place for as long as God has put us here together.

While individual spirituality is important, I believe that God calls people to travel in packs. None of us gets to be more special than another; Jesus reveals himself to us.

Last weekend, I was here for Bruce’s funeral, as we all came together with Bruce’s family and made something happen that could not have happened without all of us: we managed a ton of people in this space, organized them, and fed them all. We worked — hard — to be hospitable, to honor Bruce, and to hold each other up as we mourned together.

Then, in the afternoon, I went to symphony hall in Springfield to see our member Dan’s Lego Master Builder presentation. Dan had the kids build bridges with Lego, instructing them carefully to cover the seams. Then, each of the bridges was tested as Dan suspended each bridge between two towers and put hand weights on each bridge. One bridge, I believe, held 50 pounds, while Chris, Dan’s son and also a Master Builder who was seated behind us, told us that the record was well into the 200s.

I felt like I was seeing two sides of the same lesson. Our bridge had been tested that morning as we held together, covering one another’s seams to form a strong bond, supporting one another as we said goodbye to a beloved brother in Christ, honored him, and supported his family and friends. And that support, among many other things, is what Church is for.

The world is a scary place, with strikes on Syria and investigations galore and the chaos on the news and in our own lives making us crazy. But then, the world has been a scary place for a long time, and traveling in packs makes things easier and less scary.

Like it was for the disciples who first saw the resurrected Christ, church is for questioning together and being startled together, for being uncertain and scared together, for laughing together and crying together, for eating together and opening the Scriptures together. And may we always come to the table together with joy, recognizing Christ in the breaking of the bread.

We are given to one another for love and support and growth — and of course, as Bruce himself would tell us all — a good meal.

May we continue to be nourishment and strength for one another.

“As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Amen.

Teaching, and Other Jesus-y Skills

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In the Emory sacristy before Tuesday Eucharist, circa 2009. (That’s Barbara to the left, directing people.) 

Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

Early in our educations, our teachers taught us best by their presence.

They are always there, guiding us, there to help with everything from algebra to dissecting a frog to learning to read music and speak publicly and even, in some cases, how to survive in the wilderness. Our own congregation, if you didn’t know, is made up of a surprisingly large percentage of teachers.

When we get older and need less constant guidance, teachers change tactics a bit — they become less ever-present. They know when to leave and let us handle things on our own. Teachers of all levels employ the tactic of a teachable absence, but by the time I was in graduate school for theology, the absence of an authority figure could be downright alarming at times.

The congregations I serve, including you all, owe a debt of thanks to a few teachers of mine, and Barbara Day Miller is among them.

Barbara was one of the most memorable teachers I had in seminary, and she had teachable absence down to an art. She was a tiny but intimidating Midwestern lady with impeccable style and a sensible haircut. From Barbara, I learned to navigate a hymnal, set up a sacred space, do the cat-herding of worship planning and organization, and how to drape a cross with cloth just the right way. Barbara was a good teacher for higher education, in large part, because she knew when not to intervene when there was a problem. She knew how to let the students handle it rather than always appealing to authority. It was good preparation, she said, to when we are the authority, namely, the pastor or chaplain in charge of a place.

My senior year of theology school, I worked closely with Barbara. She was the assistant dean of the chapel, and I was one of two sacristans my senior year. “Sacristan,” if you’ve never heard the term before, is a title used in fancier churches and chapels because “grand poobah of altar care” is too long to fit on a nametag. The job, at least at Candler School of Theology, is essentially altar care plus. Since there is no regular pastor to direct things and the dean of the chapel needn’t concern herself with the detail management of individual Christian worship services, that job fell to the sacristan.

With the intensity of Bill Belichick, I would command the white board before services, directing people in albs as if they were wearing shoulder pads, telling whom to go where and when, complete with diagrams. I brought the athletic style and enthusiasm, but I did not introduce the whiteboard; it was part of the job.

It was also my job to make sure everyone looked right in their albs and vestments. This is where I learned the delicacy of when and how to tell someone they’re wearing something wrong. In short, we usually did not correct seasoned bishops unless their vestments were somehow a tripping or other safety hazard. It was our job, however, to teach fellow students about proper liturgical serving attire — the kind that is simple and understated and neat.

Once, I ran into the chapel after class and towards the sacristy for a particularly important and well-attended service. It was usually a quick turnaround between the 10:45 letout time of class and the 11AM start time of worship, so we all had to hurry. So it was a surprise when my friend Adam caught me en route.

“Take a deep breath before you go in there,” he said with an east Tennessee accent and a hearty chuckle.

“Oh God. What is it?”

“I just… Steve, who just got ordained, is wearing a fancy presider’s garment and refuses to wear an alb. He looks like a drunken pope. Barbara will have our skins if we let him go out there like that.”

I should add that Steve was a member of a denomination that has less to say about who can wear what and when than our own, so he was used to wearing what he wanted when he wanted. Also, his name isn’t Steve. I’ve changed names to protect the flashy.

I really wanted to appeal to authority.
“Where’s Barbara?” I said urgently.

Adam responded, “She’s made herself scarce. Guess you’re handling this one.”
After a very awkward conversation with Steve, some pleading, some charming, and a lot of friendly smiling, I convinced him to wear what the other servers were wearing. I might’ve bribed him with a beer. I don’t remember. As the servers came out of one door of the sacristy and into the worship space, I walked out of the other.

Barbara looked at the servers as she sat down beside the choir and gave me a satisfied midwestern half smile.

During this second Sunday of Easter, when the resurrected Christ, the ultimate authority, shows up in the flesh among his disciples for the first time, we usually focus on Thomas. But having preached on Thomas a few times now, I found myself more drawn to a part of the text that often distracts people: namely, that first appearance of Jesus, before Thomas shows up.

Jesus comes crashing (floating? We don’t know) through the doors that the disciples had locked because they were afraid that the powers that be who had Jesus crucified were going to try to rid the land of Jesus followers entirely.

The disciples were confused. They didn’t know what the authorities were thinking or what they should do. They had had a life changing experience, and then a crisis, and then — radio silence. Jesus was dead.

Sure, Mary had told them that she had seen him alive outside the tomb, but you know how women are.

So they’re freaking out behind that locked door, essentially leaderless.

And Jesus comes straight through the door with a “peace be with you,” which I can only assume is the ancient near eastern equivalent of “‘Sup?”

He shows them the wounds on his body to prove that it’s really him. Then he breathes the Holy Spirit on them — The Gospel of John’s very own version of Pentecost — and he sends them out into the world with this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v. 23).

Now, to many scholars and many pastors and maybe many of you, this seems like some gnostic, possibly clericalist BS. As if the apostles and by extension the clergy could choose to forgive or not forgive sins; as if we are in the place of God. Some traditions have interpreted it this way.

But taken in the context of the entire Gospel of John, it begins to look a little different. Jesus spends the whole Gospel setting people free: this is the Gospel where the Bread of Life feeds us forever and Living Water keeps us from ever thirsting again. This is the Gospel where Christ comes that we may have life, and life abundant. This is the Gospel where no one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends.

And when Jesus met with them at the Last Supper, he gives them one instruction: Love one another as I have loved you. He washes their feet and says only one thing: do for others as I have done for you.

Jesus was the enfleshed love of God on earth. The Gospel of John says that Christ came so that the world might be saved through him. Christ in John is in the business of setting people free: from hunger, from thirst, from loneliness and lovelessness. And as the resurrected Jesus prepares to return to God, he’s clear that he is passing on that mission to the Church.

That’s the context in which Jesus says this thing about forgiving sins. I’m giving you a big job, and if you fail, you fail — but Christ was already set the world free. Your job, Church, is to tell people that they are set free, to show them love and to help them feel it.

You have the power to forgive, to set people free. If you do not, they will likely continue to carry their guilt.

Too often, the Church has retained sin. It has continued to make people carry around guilt and shame rather than setting them free. Too often, the church has looked to the Bible as the ultimate authority for retaining their sin. Like me in the sacristy, we want a higher authority that gets us out of doing the unpleasant thing, like — asking someone to change vestments or in this case, a far more unpleasant thing: welcoming and forgiving.

But Jesus, like any good teacher, doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. We learn to love by practicing love. Christ isn’t around in the flesh to answer every question and render every judgement. We have simply been left with one instruction: love one another as I have loved you. Forgive sin, and people will feel God’s forgiveness. Set people free from their guilt and shame, and they will be free.

Of course, we’re not perfect. From the very beginning, Church people — at least, the guys —- hid in a locked room out of fear. We want Jesus or someone to show up and be the authority, the adult in the room. We screw this up all the time. It’s also worth noting that forgiveness isn’t simple and sometimes isn’t humanly possible. Life is complicated.

The good news, though, is while Jesus doesn’t show up with easy answers, Jesus does show up through our locked doors and our fear, in bread and in wine and water and words and in each other. He shows up not to solve our problems for us, but to offer us peace and to remind us of our mission: love one another as I have loved you. Be Christ to the world.

So let us become together what we eat together: the body of Christ, given for love of the whole world.

Yesterday, we worshiped God and celebrated the life of one of our own: Bruce. Over the years, he was in the business of helping to set people free: in the Civil Rights movement and other activism, in individual pastoral care, and every Sunday in worship. While I often found it comforting to have another pastor in the congregation, Bruce usually thought of himself as another loving congregant. He did here what he had always done: he showed people Jesus. As we said yesterday, he was a city on a hill that could not be hidden.

I and a lot of people met Jesus through Bruce. And you, yesterday, surrounded Bruce’s family with all the love that he had, moving chairs and tables, moving people, cleaning, working.

So let’s continue to carry on that legacy: carrying God’s love into the world, taking the guilt off of others, and setting them free. And let us come to the table like we do every Sunday, to eat what we become: the body of Christ, given for the world. Amen.

Who Needs Resurrection?

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We do!
Part of Our Savior’s 2018 Easter Vigil crowd.

First Sunday of Easter
Mark 16:1-8

“So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Well, clearly word got out somehow, as my clergy friend remarked this week.

These women have been through it. They’ve watched their beloved teacher die, and while the male disciples are hiding in a locked room out of fear that they will be the next to be crucified, these women venture out to care for Jesus’ body. Sometimes it’s not the “holiest ones” who get it best, like the disciples — it’s the ones you wouldn’t expect. It’s the ones that have been through it.

The band the Hold Steady has a song that keeps getting quoted at these Easter Sunday things these days. Select lyrics:

“Her parents named her Hallelujah, the kids all called her Holly.
If she scared you then she’s sorry…
The priest just kinda laughed, the deacon caught a draft
[When] she crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels when she said,
Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor put it another way: “When life is pretty good and church is pleasant enough, who needs resurrection?”

Nah, the people who need resurrection are the ones who’ve been though it. Which to varying degrees includes all of you, in some way, from the littlest one to the oldest. We’ve all got fears and hurts and pains. We’ve all been through it.

The biggest point of Easter is the one that nobody needs to spend a lot of time on: death and pain and fear are real. Financial trouble and mental illness and physical illness and marital problems and job loss and existential crises every time you flip on the news are real. You’ve been through some stuff, and so have I.

So let’s talk about how resurrection really feels.

I myself shouldn’t still be a church person for any number of reasons, most of them having to do with me. I probably shouldn’t be talking to you right now as the preacher on Easter Sunday — statistically, I mean. This is true for a lot of reasons, most of which you can tell just by looking at me. People like me aren’t allowed to preach in most Christian traditions, and even more people like me leave the church in droves every year.

But somehow I’m still here, and I’ve been through it, so let me tell you how resurrection really feels. And let me tell you why I’m still here and why I believe not just in this story, but in this place that is formed by this story.

This place — these people, you — give me hope. This is the kind of place where you come after a really awful day and find people you aren’t related to who genuinely care about you. This is the kind of place where we accompany each other, in life and in death. This Holy Week, as many of you know, we lost one of our own here. His name was Bruce, and we loved him and love him still. He was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather and a retired pastor who had served and told and believed in this story of resurrection for well over fifty years. This week, I watched and helped as this community gathered around his family in the middle of Holy Week, brought them meals, helped plan his funeral service, and even constructed a casket by hand, so that even in death, Bruce was surrounded by the love and care of his church.

And that wasn’t all we did this week. We also planned and executed three Holy Week services, and stayed late into the night last night cleaning up.

That tells me that this isn’t just the kind of place where you celebrate Easter because this is the day the calendar told us to do it. This is the kind of place where you actually believe this stuff, and it’s in your bones in such a way that you can’t help but have your life changed by it. We’re missing a common story these days. We don’t live in the same realities as our neighbors. We don’t all have the same take on whether every part of the whole thing factually happened – ok – but that Christ is risen indeed is a thing that is TRUE because SOMETHING happened here. Word got out about SOMETHING.

And yes, you can be cynical about it. Most of us can be. I’ve been around some people who never doubt, but I find at least usually that I’m most comfortable with people who have at least considered the possibility that maybe Jesus’ followers just made the whole thing up.

But watching you all and being in community with you all makes me realize that, maybe even in spite of ourselves, we really do believe this stuff. That our view on unknowable facts like whether this or that happened can shift and change but what we know is that this stuff is TRUE.

So we cycle through it, year after year, living this true story over and over and over together.

And then weird things start to happen. Republicans and Democrats start to hold each other’s kids. People who would otherwise not care to share space with one another start to do life together, and it isn’t all kum ba yah, but it’s happening. And maybe – just maybe, society starts to mend, even if only in one corner of our tiny fellowship hall in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This is the kind of place where you can have your Christianity and be exactly who God created you to be because that is how church should be. This is the kind of place that can tell you how resurrection really feels because we’ve been through it, and we know you have too.

This is the kind of place where you find yourself doing something sort of silly and fun on the way to telling some ancient first century story but when you all do it together from the oldest to the youngest, it really starts to take on some real meaning and suddenly, despite what you’re facing down in life, you find yourself having actual hope.
So you came to hear and celebrate the story. Whether you came out of habit because you always come here or because you didn’t have anywhere else to go or for whatever reason, you came to hear the story. So if you’ve been through it, if you know how resurrection really feels, this is your chance to help me tell the story.

And so, adults, children, youth, everybody — this is where you come in. This is the only way I know to fully tell this story, and I need your help.

St. John Chrysostom lived in about the 300s and was considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church. His Easter homily is still a feature in churches around the world as a tradition arose around it: stomping out death. And so, before we go to the table for the actual Easter mass, you are invited into the ancient tradition of stomping out death. In the early church, after the long Lenten fast and the observation of Holy Week and the Great Three Days, it was a tradition to read St. John’s Easter homily at the Easter celebration and for the whole congregation to stomp their feet at every mention of the word “death,” symbolizing how death has been defeated and put under our feet. How those who have been through it — which is everybody — are vindicated through resurrection.

I’ll be preaching John’s short and rousing Easter homily in celebration, and then I will sit down. You, for your part, are welcome to listen, enjoy, and stamp your feet in victory whenever you hear the word “death.” If you’ve been through it or if you’re going through it, may you find hope in the joyful thunder of this place.
So let’s try it: “death.” Good.

Here we go.

“Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary from fasting? Let them now receive their due!

If any have been working from the first hour [observing Lent], let them receive their reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them with gratitude join in the feast! Those who arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed. Those who have tarried until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate; but let them come too. And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to those who toiled from the beginning. To one and all the Lord gives generously…. The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day!
You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread!
The calf is a fat one — let us feast like royalty!
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith.
Enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness!
Let no one grieve being powerless, for God’s universal reign has been revealed.

Let no one lament their constant failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished death when he descended into it.
The Lord put death in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Death, were sent into chaos when he encountered you below.” Death was in chaos having been eclipsed. Death was in chaos having been mocked. Death was in chaos having been destroyed. Death was in chaos having been abolished. Death was in turmoil having been made captive. Death grasped a corpse, and met God.

Death seized earth, and encountered heaven.

Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and death is cast down! …Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty! For Christ, having risen, is only the firstborn of those who have fallen asleep.
To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!”