Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Easter Season.....The Celebration Continues

We had a good friend whose birthday was in February.  Each year she would celebrate her birthday the entire month of February, calling it "Birthday Month."  I always thought that was such a great idea.  Of course, she always brought a lot of fun to anything she did.  She was inventive and smart and thoughtful, always remembering the birthdays of others also and bringing special little gifts that were connected to them in some way.  She passed away at this time of year a few years back (actually 6-8 years but I am embarrassed to say that I cannot remember how many now--I just know that I continue to remember her life, and especially in the Easter Season, which is now.)

Easter is more than a day.  It is a season.  I know that many people do not observe Easter Season any more than they observe Christmas Season which begins on Christmas Day and concludes on January 6, which is called Epiphany.  To those of us who work in professions where we use the Christian Calendar in addition to the regular calendar, we note the special days and we think about them in relation to our lives.  Easter Day was April 20 this year and Easter Season began that day and will continue until Pentecost Day which is June 8 this year.  Each Sunday in Easter Season we read and hear stories from the Bible that have something to do with one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Last week we had the traditional Second Sunday of Easter text from John's Gospel where Jesus walked through a wall into a room where the disciples were hidden away in the evening of Easter Sunday.  We had read the text from Matthew on Easter Sunday about Jesus appearing to the women who came to the tomb.  Then, from John's perspective, we heard another part of the story, this time one about a resurrected Jesus who just popped into and out of people's lives as he would.  Not even locked doors could keep him out.  He would just walk through the wall and surprise folks and show his scars to them to prove it was really him.  He did it for the disciples and then for Thomas (who had been gone on an errand when he came around the first time) and all believed it was Jesus himself.

So, this week, the Third Sunday of Easter, we turn to Luke's side of the story, one in which mournful disciples decided to get out of the city (Jerusalem) and take out for Emmaus.  As they walked along, this stranger joined them on their walk, without them knowing it was Jesus.  Somehow he remained unknown to them as they walked and talked together and they chatted freely with him about all that had happened in Jerusalem when Jesus was murdered.  It was only when they invited him to have dinner with him and to stay the night (extending to him the usual Mediterranean hospitality of the era) when he was revealed to them.  Suddenly, just like in John's Gospel, he was gone, disappeared from sight.  They were so excited that they had met Jesus that they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, despite the late hour, to tell the others about Jesus' visit with them.

That is the Easter pattern.  Each week, a new side of the story from one of the Gospels either reveals a resurrection appearance of Jesus OR tells something about Jesus that reveals who he is to Christians (such as the Good Shepherd the next Sunday after this coming one) until finally we get to Ascension Sunday and we have to wave goodbye to Jesus as he goes back to God again.  Each Sunday is a teaching moment, one in which we think about why Easter is so important to us as Christians and to the Church as the institution that continues to promote Easter.

Easter was the first official celebration of the Church.  It began almost immediately after the Church formed and became active in the Roman Empire.  Easter Sunday became the model for each Sunday and regular Sundays were referred to as "Little Easters".  Each Sunday we meet throughout the year is one to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  Only those who had been baptized as Christians (and baptism only took place one time a year, on Easter Sunday) were allowed to be present for the entire worship service on a Sunday.  Those who had not been baptized were dismissed from worship when it was time to offer the sacrament of Holy Communion.  The non-baptized were sent away with a Holy Kiss (what we call Passing the Peace now) and they did not get to witness what happened in Holy Communion.  That was reserved for fully initiated members of the Christian Community.  So, anyone could visit a service of Christians but you had to take the final step of being baptized and pledge your allegiance to Christ and the Church in order to receive or even witness Holy Communion.

So, Easter was huge celebration in the Early Church and its celebration lasted throughout the year so that the Easter spirit would never be diminished.  Every Sunday was a Little Easter and every day was a celebration of life as persons would rise and greet the sun and breath in the new life God gave persons in order to live another day.

Perhaps that is not a bad way of our looking at life too.  When we awake from our grave of sleep and rinse the yukky feeling out of our mouths and throw water in our faces so we can see our surroundings, maybe we can think about it being a metaphor or coming back to life each day.  When we awaken ourselves and see the morning sun coming up in the east, perhaps it is a sign of new life to us also.  Perhaps we should follow the pattern of a good friend of mine who looks into the morning sun, brings his hands up above his head and takes in a big breath, and then lets it out to receive the breath of life once more to live that day.  Easter is always with us to bring us new life and to enable us to face the challenges that each new day may bring.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Waiting for Easter

Holy Week.  Tuesday.  No special name for it, just Tuesday.  Later this week we have Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday (your choice....I prefer the latter but the other one works too), then Good Friday (not good for Jesus, he always dies...but good for those who need salvation), then Holy Saturday which is a day of rest and contemplation, maybe even sadness if you went to Good Friday service and heard the story of the crucifixion of Jesus read again, and then the biggest day on the Christian calendar, yes even bigger than Christmas and older than Christmas as its celebration was one of the reasons why Christians chose to worship on Sundays rather than Saturdays----EASTER!!!!

But, don't get in too big a hurry to bring out the ham and colored eggs because it is only plain, ordinary Tuesday today.  Tuesday gets no recognition in Holy Week.  The big three days--Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (even though Saturday is not a special one for celebration it is venerated as a day to watch and wait for the resurrection; some churches hold an Easter Vigil during the darkness of the night as they wait for the dawn's light to bring about the Easter celebration) are the main objects of Holy Week but Tuesday is just biding your time.

When I was a school teacher, the day before a holiday was one of the worst days to have to be in school.  No one wanted to be there--not the students, not the teachers, not even the principal.  You had to be there, though, because it was required by the state in order for the school to get credit and to receive state funding.  So, teachers were notorious about having "busy work" for the students to do or to show films most of the day or to allow a lot of breaks in the day for students to have a bit of fun before they left for the holiday.  I was one of those teachers who believed that you should keep the students busy or they would make you wish you had.  "Busy people are happy people," I would tell them if they complained about doing work that I assigned on that day.  "The other teachers aren't making us doing any work," some would chime in.  "I am not the other teachers," I would say.  So, they would begrudgingly work at doing what I had assigned until I finally released them into the wild to kick up their heels and frolic in holiday gladness.

That is what we want to do on Easter Day---kick up our heels and frolic!  That will feel good.  After our long, cold winter we want to experience the warmth of Easter Day in all its glory.  It is the sign that all is right with the world once more.  After the gloom and despair of the events of Holy Week in the life of Jesus, we want to feel happy and celebrate that our good friend Jesus beat out all those who put him to death.  He pulled the ultimate April Food joke on death by coming back to life.  So, we wear new clothes (to represent the new life that Christ gives us) and we dye eggs and buy lilies (also symbols of new life) and we prepare an Easter Feast to share with others.  That makes Easter Day all the more special.

But, as I said earlier, it is not Easter Day yet....it is only Tuesday, a day to reflect, contemplate, plan, and wait.  We can make the most of the time of our waiting, though.  Busy people are happy people...the wise teacher said.  Be busy, be happy, be about the business of spreading the news of God's grace in a world that needs to hear the good news.  Resurrection is a 365 day reality, even when we are waiting for it to reappear in our hearts through the Easter message we need to hear once more.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Remembering Special Days

When I was growing up, there were days when my mother would get very quiet and would not talk much, something that is very different than the way she usually relates to everyone.  When that would happen, sometimes she would tell us that it was the date when someone important to her had died in the past.  Sometimes the remembrance of those special days would bring her to tears.  Other times she would just be melancholy for a while and then snap out of it.  As I get older, I find myself doing the same thing--remembering a date when someone from my past died.

Today is the one year anniversary of the day when we buried my older brother.  He died on April 4 and his funeral was held on April 8.  My brother had a major stroke that sent him into unconsciousness on Good Friday last year and was kept alive by machines for a week until all who wanted to be there gathered in the hospital room and the machines were turned off and he died within a few short minutes.  It was easy to see his spirit leaving his body, thanks to the heart monitor that stayed attached and counted down the beats until there was the well known flat line that we often see on television programs and in the movies.  I left the room where the crowd continued to mourn and made my way alone from the hospital to my car and drove home alone and silently reflecting upon the life of my brother.

Today I pause to remember my brother and two uncles who also were buried on days with an 8 in them.  My Uncle Shorty, who was as close to me as my parents, was buried 26 years ago today.  I remember his passing because it actually hurt more than the death of my own father.  Uncle Shorty was the jolly, cheerful uncle who always had something funny to share and I always felt comfortable around him.  I was a pallbearer at his funeral and remember crying my way through the funeral without remembering a thing that was said or done in it.  Uncle Shorty's real name was Orville so he used Shorty throughout life.  He smoked cigars and gave us the boxes that his cigars came in to use for our school supplies, boxes made of real, stiff cardboard with a slight smell of tobacco still in them.  Uncle Shorty was short (as the nickname implies) and fat, never able to lose weight regardless of what methods he tried.  That may be part of the reason why he died younger than his other brothers, even though he was one of the younger brothers of the five.

Uncle Shorty and Uncle Charlie (who was buried just a few months ago on the 8th of a month) and my brother Danny are all still alive because I remember so much about them.  The great Christian scholar Frederick Buechner once said, "When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are.  It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us.  It means that if we meet again, you will know me.  It means that after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.  For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost."  (Listening to Your Life).

April 8 will always be a special day for me and my family because it was on this day we said our final goodbye to my older brother, Danny.  The goodbyes may be over, but the hellos of remembrance will last forever, as long as we remember who he is.  Danny and I were close at one time in life and that is the part of remembering him that I like to remember.  Nothing else really matters because love is at the center of remembering the fondness and the connection that we once shared.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bringing the Dead Back to Life

Okay, so I have been watching ABC's new program, "Resurrection" for the past four weeks of its run and so far I am hooked.  The little 8 year old boy who drowned in the river has returned.  The sinister Caleb whose ashes had been dumped in the river has returned.  The woman who was the fiance of the preacher who ran her car into the river and drowned has returned and there were hints last week that more dead people would soon come back to Arcadia, Missouri.  My only beef with the program is that there are as many minutes of commercials as there are of content leaving the viewer hung every five minutes by some new mystery but that has little to do with the program itself just the commercialization of television.  So, now we are left to wonder, "Is this program turning into a zombie program OR will there be more to it, such as why this mysterious return to life of persons who fell into the river or whose ashes were scattered in it?  Is there much more to the mystery or will it "jump the shark" (as they say about programs that wear out their welcome and need to disappear) and fade into oblivion?

You would think that everyone would rejoice when a dead person returns and resumes life where it left off many decades ago but there are people who distrust these recycled folk and wonder why they are back.  Some do not want them around.  Some shun them as they do the little boy--each time he shows up somewhere, everyone makes a mass exodus, hurting his feelings and making him feel unloved.  Even his father has to wrestle with his feelings about his son who died 32 years ago and is now back still at 8 years old while the dad has aged to be in his 60s.  The man dealt with his grief long ago and now has to question everything that has happened in the past and the order of the way the world should work.  After all, when someone has died, shouldn't they just stay dead?  Isn't that the way the world works?  People live, people die....end of sentence.

Maybe that is what is in the minds of those religious folk in John 11 that we will examine this next Sunday.  The well known and loved Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, has died and everyone from near and far has come to Bethany to mourn his passing.  They are yelling and crying and falling on the ground in grief, just the way that the order of things worked in the Middle East of their day.  Professional mourners have come to be sure that Lazarus has the biggest send off people of the area have ever seen.  Mary and Martha are beside themselves and have sent for Jesus, their dear friend and teacher, to come to be with them to comfort them.  Regardless of his busy schedule, they expected him to drop what he was doing and come to them immediately but instead he delayed, first one day and then another and then another and finally he showed up four days after Lazarus died.  The scene Jesus encountered was filled with such pathos that it made me begin to cry.  He felt the pain of these mourners and especially his good friends whom he loved.

All the religious people there to mourn knew the way the world worked.  Lazarus lived and then he died.  That was the end of the story.  People die....that is the hard, cold fact of life they knew existed.  Jesus, though, did not follow the rules.  He had to go stir things up and turn the order of life upside down.  When faced with what seemed to be the way things work, Jesus had to go about showing everyone that it was not necessarily so.

"Lazarus, come out!!!," Jesus shouted at the dead man inside the tomb, who by this time had begun to make the air smell with the stench of death that everyone could notice.  Everyone gathered there must have held their breath and wondered if the teacher had not gone a bit loony as he commanded a dead man to rise but their eyes were opened in amazement when the stirring began and they had to unbind Lazarus from the bands of cloth that held him tight like a mummy.  He breathed the fresh air again and came out to be reunited with his sisters, much to the joy of some and the terror of others.  Some immediately believed in Jesus as the healer and resurrection of the dead but other did not like this change in the order of things.  They were perfectly comfortable with the way life worked and did not want Jesus messing with things, even if it was to reunite sisters with their dead brother.

What do you do with Jesus when he interferes in the way the world works?  "So from that day on they planned to put him to death." (John 11:53)  Anyone who goes against the natural order of things should be silenced, killed, put out of commission so that they will not repeat their acts of treason again.  "It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," spoke the high priest Caiaphas.  Jesus had to die, plain and simple.

Bringing the dead back to life would seem to be something that everyone would welcome, even today, but when it goes against the natural order of things that are present in society some do not want it even if it pleases others.  What other things in life today threaten some because of their very existence?  What signs of new life do some want to stifle because it makes them feel so uncomfortable?  How do some cope with change when they really want things to be the way they have always been?

We will examine these and other questions this Sunday during our 9:30 a.m. service.  Come join us as we worship together.