gift, grace & generosity

Homily for July 1, 2018

Every so often in church we get to play Indiana Jones, when some old scripture passage helps us unearth what the earliest Christians were going through. This morning we pick up one of those old texts, blow off the dust and see what story it tells.

What artifact do we see this morning in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? As you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness (If I didn’t know better I’d think Paul was buttering them up for something) – as you excel in all these things, so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. What do you think is happening here?

Paul is asking the Corinthian church for money! What we have just uncovered, nestled behind old baptismal fonts and musty prayer books is something seemingly more prosaic: we have just heard excerpts from the earliest stewardship pamphlet in the history of the Church. We want you to excel in this generous undertaking. But Paul’s message wasn’t prosaic at all: this was about responding to the grace of Jesus Christ with the gift of generosity. Indeed, he spoke of charis, a Greek word that means both generosity and grace.

But let’s not get too theological about this: Paul said this because he was raising money. In the mid to late 40’s there was a famine in Palestine, and Jerusalem was hit especially hard. The church was still anchored in Jerusalem, and the Christians there were struggling to get by, so they appealed to their brothers and sisters in the “gentile” churches – meaning places like Macedonia and Corinth – for financial support. This “Jerusalem Collection” was a part of Paul and Barnabas’ itinerant mission, so from its very beginning evangelism and generosity were closely tied together.

As a fundraiser, Paul was pretty good. Paul was speaking to a relatively wealthy church and believe me, he pulled out all the stops to get them to reach for their purses. It’s earlier in the chapter, but his comments about the church in Macedonia are especially, well, direct. Dear Church in Corinth, he was saying, Consider that the believers in Macedonia, who are a lot poorer than you, are generous despite their poverty, and didn’t just give to this campaign but even begged us to be a part of it!

Macedonia indeed had a tougher time of it. They knew poverty while the Corinthians knew wealth. Macedonia should have been wealthier because of their minerals and timber, yet the Romans extracted those resources and left them impoverished. The Macedonians met oppression with generosity, and in that they found spiritual freedom. Paul writes, “The Macedonians’ abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity…according to the means and beyond their means…begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry of the saints.”[i]

But there’s more to it, and it’s telling that an appeal like this actually became a part of scripture – a stewardship pamphlet became a part of scripture! Like all good fundraising, this was only partly about raising money: it was really about opening their eyes to the generosity of God, and inviting them to respond. Theologian David Ford tells us that “Coping with God’s generosity… is the central task of the Christian faith.” [ii]

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The word that Paul uses here – charis – teaches us something about the spiritual gift of generosity. You see, that’s the same word that he uses for grace. It’s the same word we use for gift – a charism is a spiritual gift; someone who is charismatic is filled with a spirited energy. Gift, grace, and today, generosity: we know the generosity of Jesus, and so our response is generosity of our own.  It’s the same word. It’s the same spirit. Grace, gift, and generosity are all part of the same spirit moving in and through us.

Coping with God’s generosity is the central task of the Christian faith.  When Paul asks the Corinthians to consider the needs of the saints, he invites them connect to their brothers and sisters through their money rather than let their money be something that separates them.

This is about far more than raising funds to help people out in a pinch: raising money, and giving money, is a part of becoming the body of Christ. Henri Nouwen reminded us that when we as Christians talk about money, we in fact enter a space made sacred by the very subject matter itself, where “those who need money and those who can give money meet on the common ground of God’s love.”[iii] Paul was inviting the Corinthians into this same place, where need and generosity could meet on the ground of God’s love.

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Even so, this was not ultimately about the church. This was about seeing the grace-filled relationship with Christ for what it is, and responding without reserve and without hesitation. Once we get past Paul’s rhetorical flourishes – “if Macedonia can do it, why can’t you?” and my favorite no-baloney line about it being a fine thing to want to contribute and feel good about wanting to contribute (he actually says that) but for it to count you actually have to do It– once we get past all that, we get to the heart of the matter: because Jesus loves us with his whole being, because Jesus made himself poor so that we might have abundant life, consider how blessed we are to be given opportunities to respond with gratitude and generosity.

Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you can share what you have. Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you have the chance to give to the needs of the saints, or to build the kingdom of God, or to join God in imagining what is possible.

Paul invites the Corinthians, after buttering them up for being excellent in all things, to a sacred space of generosity. His goal was not so much a donation as it was the wholeheartedness made possible by that gift. His goal was the awakened imagination and the new possibilities that happen when those with need and those with means could meet on the common ground of God’s love. Paul showed them something about grace that only generosity could teach.

Grace isn’t just another word for goodness or love or even selflessness. Grace, to Christians, “indicates that when done it will be God who does it.”[iv] Grace isn’t us at all: It’s God working in us and through us.

It’s God that prays in us. It’s God that does the Giving, when we let go our hardheartedness fall to the wayside and let God, through us, do something new in the world.

That it is not us, but God working in us, may be the greatest gift of all.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC

 

[i] 2 Corinthians 8:2-6

[ii] Ford, D. (2005). Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God. Grand Rapid: Baker Academic.

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J.M, A Spirituality of Fundraising. Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 2004. p.22.

[iv] The Interpreter’s Bible: 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 8. Peirce & Washabaugh, United States, 1953. P. 367.

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the greatest of all shrubs

homily for July 17, 2018

The Greatest of All Shrubs

The seed of God is in us.
Given an intelligent
And hardworking farmer,
It will thrive and grow up into God, whose seed
It is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature.
Pear seeds grow into
Pear trees, nut seeds
Into nut trees, and
God seeds into God.
Meister Eckhart[i]

Is there anything in this world so valuable as a seed? A seed is the first kernel of fruitfulness, it is the tiny speck of promise that, with an unknowable mix of toil and sunlight and water will result in nourishment for all of us. Each tiny seed carries within it the history of the soil it’s planted in, yet each is a unique expression of the world that God created. Did you eat today, or wear clothes, or for that matter take a deep breath? If you did – and I hope you did – you can thank a seed for that. But more than that, if you ate food of different flavors and textures, and were even able to notice and savor the differences, you can thank a seed for that, too.

Farmers know the value of a seed. Anyone who makes their living growing food knows that the price and quality of a seed have everything to do with their ability to make a living or even grow the crop in the first place. Gardeners know the value of a seed. Whether it’s something they plant or an interloping weed or scrubby growth that doesn’t belong, keeping a garden or a yard means daily engagement with where seeds have put down roots – and where they haven’t.

Scientists and universities and stewards of our environment know the value of a seed. In 2008 the Svalbard Seed Bank was established in Norway to preserve spare copies of seed from all over the world, to protect them in the event of regional or global crises. It’s essentially the back-up hard drive for regional seed banks all over the world.

Do you think, though, that the Svalbard Seed Bank has, hiding among almost a million seeds, a copy of the God seed? Probably not. God seeds don’t lend themselves to that kind of cataloging. But as Meister Eckhart tells us the seed of God is in us nonetheless.

Given an intelligent and hardworking farmer, Eckhart tells us, the seed of God in us will grow and thrive, and the fruit will be of the same substance as the seed itself. A pear seed results in pears, a wheat seed results in wheat, and the seed of God bears the Holy One.

Can you imagine a more valuable seed than the seed of God? Yet the sower isn’t building the kingdom of God: she is simply faithfully planting and watering seeds and letting them grow naturally. As Matthew Skinner writes, “It is the nature of God’s reign to grow and manifest itself.”[ii] We don’t have to force it. We don’t have to worry about hybrid seed blends or crop efficiency or even the basic economics of growing food (which is a sermon for another day). We simply honor that the seed is God, and show up each day to water and tend it.

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But sometimes – oftentimes, really – the seed of God has even less to do with us than that. That, of course, is why Jesus goes straight from a simple lesson about farming to a much more playful and disruptive parable about the mustard seed.

Anyone who grew up in the church and attended Sunday School as a child will know this lovely parable about growing in faith and maturity, from something tiny to something grand. But look more carefully, and we see that Mark isn’t talking about faith. The “faith the size of a mustard seed” is from Matthew; Mark’s mustard seed is entirely about the Kingdom of God.

The mustard tree may be great for shade, but they tend to pop up in places we don’t expect, and sometimes in places where we don’t want them. The mustard tree is both a promise of God’s prolific hospitality, and a rejection of the ordered and contained furrows into which humankind presumes to plant the seed of God. The mustard tree is not something one plants; it is a scraggly volunteer that lands where the wind blows, puts down quick roots, and changes the landscape whether the farmer wants it to or not. The mustard tree doesn’t care about our agriculture any more than it cares about the rest of our culture. And that, too, is the Kingdom of God.

But is this seed as valuable as the rest? Does the mustard seed belong in the great seed bank, alongside the seed of the olive tree and chickpea and the grain of wheat? If there were farmers in the audience, they might have said no. But Jesus wasn’t teaching how to farm, he was teaching them how to be holy.

They’d have laughed at the very idea of planting a mustard seed in the ground. As my garden gets into the leggy season, I like to joke that Norway has the world’s greatest seed bank, but my yard is the world’s greatest weed bank. And that’s exactly how they would have regarded the mustard seed: teacher, is the kingdom just a plot of weeds? And then Jesus tells them what the fruit of this seed is: not the mighty and beautiful cedars of Lebanon, or the majestic oaks of righteousness, but the greatest of all shrubs. The kingdom of God is like unto the greatest of all shrubs.

It sounds absurd, and Jesus meant it that way. Jesus was telling us that kingdom values were not to be confused with the values of the world, whether the practical and necessary values that made agriculture possible, or the avaricious values that leverage cash crops into profound disparities of wealth and power. The first parable is a story of a crop that is harvested, but the mustard seed isn’t valuable for its economic output. The mustard seed is valuable for the hospitality and sanctuary that it offers, but also for its very ability to grow anywhere in the field. Whether we like it or not, God gets into everything, putting down roots on every hill and in every valley we can see.

That wild and untamed seed is in us as well. That may be hard to believe when our lives and our spirits seem to press daily against a world and culture that seek to tame our souls and to contain and define the wildness of God. How can we be the kind of soil in which the greatest of all seed can grow and bear fruit?

We know not how, yet the seed of God grows in us all the same. Our souls are a curious yet fertile landscape, ordered furrows mixed in with scraggly shade trees, sometimes places of sunlight and refreshment, and other times enduring drought and downpour on the same day. Yet this, too is the kingdom of God. The seed beneath the soil withstands all of it, and grows in us to become the fruit of holiness and grace.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/the-seed-of-god-by-meister-eckhart

[ii] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3676

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love made perfect

homily for April 29, 2018

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I once heard a story of old rabbis who were gathered around a table at night studying and arguing over scripture. They met regularly, not in an elaborate room in a synagogue but around a kitchen table, packed in together shoulder to shoulder as they wrestled with the finer points of what God was saying to them through the holy texts. One night in this midst of their session Rabbi Benjamin became overwhelmed by fatigue from the day and began to drift away: his head drooped onto his neighbor’s shoulder, and he began to snore softly.

Suddenly, the attention of the group shifted. Rather than contemplating the mysteries of Torah, they began to debate what to do about Rabbi Benjamin. True to the nature of the gathering, they began to argue the finer points of whether or not to let their friend sleep and catch his rest, or to gently rouse him so that he could rejoin their study.

Then one of the wiser ones among them said simply, Do not wake him. In fact, we should envy him, that he is able to abide in the word of God and in our fellowship, and that he can rest so completely. While the rest of them were struggling to understand the Torah, Rabbi Benjamin was simply abiding in it.

We have our own weekly study of the Gospel here on Thursday mornings, so I want to say to those who gather around that table: don’t get any ideas. We brew the coffee strong, and if you start to nod off, we aren’t about to let you get off that easy. Perhaps, though, Rabbi Benjamin really did have the right idea: when we’re faithful to God’s invitation when we gather to study, to pray, to discern, to plan, to serve, or to worship, we might do well to occasionally forget about our purposes and goals and simply abide with one another.

When Jesus invited his disciples to abide in him he gave them the image of the vine and the branches. I am the vine, he said, and you are the branches. In all that we do and all that we are, Christ’s presence in us gives us life. How easily we forget, in a world that so treasures individualism, that a branch disconnected from the vine will whither and die. How quickly we forget that God created us not just to live but to bear fruit, and that we only do that when our living connection to the vine – to Jesus – can nourish and inspire us.

Christ is in us, and we are in Christ; our brothers and sisters are branches of the same vine, and loving them perfectly – which is what we aspire to do (more about that in a moment) – is how we bear fruit.

To abide is to dwell in the presence of our beloved with attention and affection.  If that seems overly simplistic and quaint, consider that we live in a world that seems to value affection for oneself and one’s own tribe over all others. Consider that today’s marketplace is called an “attention economy” that, ironically, cultivates a profound in-attention. To abide is to live a different life entirely. It is a return to our own holiness; to abide in Jesus is to be fully alive.

When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus as Martha hurried around them she did so with attention and affection. Yet so too does Rabbi Benjamin, even while he’s asleep. To rest in God is an act of faith! To offer gratitude is an act of attention and affection; to play and to laugh may be the very highest form of abiding. That’s the beauty of sabbath, when we put down the intensity of life and simply rest in the presence of God.

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Jesus is describing a community of Christian love, a fellowship not just of friends with mutual affection but of his Body in the world. Following Jesus means staying connected to him, indeed staying as close to the vine as we can. We do that when we break bread in Eucharist, when we’re diligent in prayer, when we serve and study and sing together, and above all when we love one another.

The vine is such a perfect metaphor because it calls to mind rows and rows of disordered, tangled branches that couldn’t possibly be what a holy community looks like, but that seems to be exactly what Jesus is describing. There’s no hierarchy here…no branches that are especially saintly or troublesome, just a bunch of branches that are either connected to Jesus, or are drying up on the ground. A vineyard is a great investment of time and effort, and it takes a whole lot of work to bring fruit out of that tangled web, but through pruning and cultivation, the vine grower (God) is able to bring from it the finest of wines.

This new community is grounded in love, but not quite love in the same sense that we often use the word. You see, we really have an impoverished view of love because we only have one word for it, and for us it can mean anything from strong opinion to romantic affection, from “I love my children,” to “I love this new app I downloaded.” We seem to have domesticated love itself.

God’s wild and generative love can be approached in many ways, but it can’t be fully known and certainly won’t be captured in simple sentiment. The new testament uses not one but many words to describe love: love of fellow disciples (agape), loving all others equally as ourselves (caritas, or charity), self-emptying love (kenosis): the early Christians knew that it took a small lexicon to approach the great mystery of God’s love, and even then they could only know it partially.

What they knew, though, was that this mystical love came to full expression in their love for one another. We read in 1st John, Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God. This community saw themselves as filled with the highest form of love, of agape. This is a love that recognizes in one another something infinitely holy and precious, and that through it they could see and honor the presence of Christ in one another. It was the very love that made them the Body of Christ.

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God’s love is made perfect when we love one another, and perfect love casts out all fear. I can’t help but notice that the word “hate” isn’t in this passage: only fear. Fear competes with love for our attention; when we let fear have its way with us, our affections become distorted, and our attention becomes warped around things that lead us away from God, that lead us to live life as branches unto ourselves. Fear severs our connection to God, and when it does, bearing fruit becomes an utter impossibility.

But love made perfect casts out fear.  Look at our world, look inside ourselves, and we can find great fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of failure…all these are powerful and real but they do not have the final word, for God has given to us the gift of love, and with it the capacity to cast out all fear. The vinegrower is not finished; resurrection means that God even walks through the valley of dry branches and says to us, Mortal, can these twigs live?  Fear turns us into kindling, good only for fuel, but perfect love breathes life back into our cells, and restores us to fruitfulness.

 

Do you remember where in Gospel Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches?  It was the night of the last supper, after the feet had been washed and the meal shared. Like the old rabbis, they too were gathered around a table as the night was growing darker outside the window. Judas had already left, and Jesus knew what was coming. There was plenty of reason to be afraid.

Yet his message was one of life and love. Live in me, stay close to me, and let me live in you. In me you will bear fruit. In me you will cast out all fear. In me you will find life.

 

Homily for April 29, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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settlers and sheep

homily for April 22, 2018

I’ve made an annual trip to Ohio just about every year of my life, and have usually driven through the mountains of West Virginia to get there.  As I read the 23rd psalm just a week after returning from this annual pilgrimage I realized that those mountain passes (and calling it “a mountain pass” makes it sound far more exotic than Interstate 77) are, minus the highways and the cars, the picture that comes to mind when I think of the valley that God guides us through.

I don’t mean that West Virginia is an especially dangerous or deadly place. Rather, it helps me to see the valley in the psalm not as a place permanence or finality, but as something that we pass through.  And that means that we’re moving: we are a people on the move! Our lives are lived in motion.  The frightening places are there, to be sure, but they are a part of a path rather than a static reality, and that path leads us to our home in God.

The 23rd psalm tells a story of a people in motion. The first people who followed Yahweh would have gotten this, because they were often nomadic. Perhaps, though, this psalm simply honors the deep truth that life really is a journey, and that without a guide we will fatigue, get disoriented, go hungry, or perhaps worst of all, give up on the journey itself and just settle down at the first sign of safety.

The psalm is a poem that speaks of a flock on the move: He leads me beside still waters…he guides me along right pathways…though I walk through the valley, you are with me…surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Whether or not we are aware of the presence of the shepherd, we are undeniably moving.

We easily forget, of course, that we’re moving, and that tends to be when we get into trouble. If we have our world arranged perfectly around us, then what need do we have for a shepherd? What need to we have for a guide? But when we remember that we are on this lifelong path – and so often it takes a spell in the valley of shadows to make us realize it – then suddenly we realize that we are deeply in need of God. We fashion ourselves settlers, but we are really sheep, and we need a shepherd to guard and guide us.

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Of course, God is the shepherd, and once we let go of our need to map out and direct the journey itself a different pattern of life emerges. We begin to discern a kind of godly rhythm that’s found in in every stanza: in the green pastures and in the dark valleys and in the lavish meals in the presence of God. We see here a cycle of life, of revival, of risk, and of return.

The path begins as one of revival. We start out on this great adventure and we naturally grow weary, so God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God revives our souls and refreshes our spirits.  We hunger for this; we need it. This is where we are fed, inspired, renewed, filled with a spirit to live boldly and love courageously, and renewed when the heaviness of the world begins to press our feet into the mud.

When we are on this journey with God, we will find springs of living water that give us the strength to begin again. If we pitch tents in familiar places there and then decide to just hunker down, we may be comfortable for a while, but we won’t reach those places of revival. Simply put, the springs are there for us, but they won’t come to us. We’ve got to move on out to get there, and we follow the Good Shepherd to find those springs.

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Revival’s great of course, but no journey is without risk.  When we head out, we have no assurance that the road will be perfectly safe. We have no assurance that we’ll return to the place we leave, or even that that that place will be the same when we come back. We are going to pass through some valleys. They will be dangerous places. We will feel lonely and lost. We might just lose our very lives. The journey of life is filled with risk.

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that he is the good shepherd. His friends would have known well the 23rd psalm, but here Jesus is saying not only that he is a loving guide; he is revealing himself as the Lord of love, the very one who moves with them through the valley, the very one who sets a sumptuous table in the presence of their most lethal enemies. And what’s more: Jesus doesn’t just guide. He lays down his life for the sheep.

Yes, he’s talking about the resurrection. But I see, in the gospel of John, a sense that this laying-down-of-one’s-life is simply a part of living our lives in God, of being on a journey of love and transformation. Transformation sounds great, but it doesn’t happen unless some calcified version of ourselves burns off, unless some part of our life that we think we can’t live without, dies. Yes, it’s painful; death always is.  But death and rebirth are essential for growing closer to God.

This speaks of a continual process of death and rebirth. When we are willing to risk a little bit, to embark on a journey with an uncertain end, yes, we will encounter danger, yes, pieces of us will die off, but with each trial something new is born. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, our baptism being the most profound of all but one that sets a pattern for our whole lives in God.

Each time we start to lose the perspective of a people on the move, we are wise to remember not only the living waters of baptism, but also baptism’s call to a lifelong journey. When we start to see ourselves as settlers rather than sheep, the spirit tugs at us to keep moving. Each time we get to a new place, a new normal, we start to get comfortable. We want to put down those roots again, like Peter hoping to put up dwelling places on Mount Tabor.  But when we feel our spirits settling, that is often a sign that another stage of death and rebirth is coming.

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Yet the greatest gift of this journey is found in the destination. We are renewed at the living springs, but the path leads beyond them. We go through dark valleys, but the path leads beyond that, too. The path takes us to our home in God.

It is a path of revival, risk and return. Now, I want to caution us against thinking only of a clear, linear path. That we will start out with a draft of cold water, grit out teeth through the dangerous paths and eventually cross the finish line, hopefully in one piece.

Following the good shepherd means something different. It means that this is not a path so much as a rhythm of faithful living that allows us not just to live, but to grow in God. When we are open to the spirit, at any moment we might experience revival.  When we trust God, at any moment we could follow God into places of great risk and transformation. When we abide in God, any moment can be a moment of return. Some moments we might feel lost and feel none of those, but in some moments, we can feel all three together.

Surely your goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In our day it takes a real leap of the imagination to see ourselves as sheep rather that settlers, but poetry of the 23rd psalm envisions exactly that. We know from it that God is the shepherd of souls, that we are each guided and loved intimately, in times of loneliness and in times of abundance. But we see too that life in God is dynamic, that it’s a great adventure, that it’s a life on the move shaped around a rhythm of revival, risk and return.

The shepherd leads us to living water, and we are refreshed. Following the shepherd means risking our very lives, of dying and rebirth, and perhaps even laying down our lives for others. The Good Shepherd leads us, finally, to return, to return to the embrace of our creator, to a lavish table and a holy rest in the loving heart of God.

 

Homily for April 23, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

1 John 3:16-24, Psalm 23 and John 10: 11-18

 

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Easter 2018: Gateway to the Kingdom of God

Homily for Easter Sunday

 

Like all children, mine go through phases where something so captures their imagination that they want to learn and read everything they can about it. My daughter’s current curiosity is Ancient Egypt, and more specifically, mummies.

We’ve now read together of mummies not just from Egypt but from all over the world, from Europe to South America, and even mummies in the bible…did you realize that both Jacob and Joseph were mummified in Egypt before being carried home?

What fascinates me is how much this burial practice was as much an expression of class as it was of belief. I don’t mean that a golden sarcophagus was a classier way to go, though by most measures that’s surely the case. No, I mean that generally speaking, only royal people got the royal treatment, and that if we’re finding your preserved remains today…while there’s a slim chance it’s because you were lucky enough to fall into a bog…most likely it’s because you were a person of some status. Perhaps you were noble; perhaps you were a patriarch like Jacob and Joseph, or perhaps you were just plain loaded.

As we peer into the empty tomb, let’s remember that that social reality was as true in 1st Century Jerusalem as it was in Ancient Egypt. Rock-Cut tombs were expensive, and mostly just for the upper classes. Tombs like these were signs of great wealth and status; they would have been family assets, as valuable perhaps as an estate would be to us today. A tomb wasn’t just a burial place: it was a family legacy.

What would it mean to part with our legacy for Jesus’ sake? Now, I’m not even to Easter Sunday yet…I’m still thinking a few days before, when a respected member of the council had been so moved by Jesus that he gave up his own legacy to show his love.  This is from the Gospel of Mark: Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. He was willing to follow his heart no matter the consequences. He was willing to part with his status and even his legacy simply to provide Jesus’ body with a resting place.  This was self-giving purely for love’s sake.

Joseph’s love made him bold. That’s a word straight from scripture:  Joseph boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He boldly went to Pilate, knowing what could happen to him, knowing what he was most certainly giving up, all for the sake of one thing: love. To show devotion to Jesus, whom he loved deeply, even in death.

Joseph was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. The curious thing is, when we are capable of that kind of love, capable of that kind of boldness, and drawn to that kind of devotion, in a way the Kingdom of God is already here.

Would he have been so bold if all this was just one big lost cause?  No, for you see even on Good Friday, Jesus had declared victory. Even Jesus’ death was a fulfillment of God’s promise. Even dressing his body for the grave was a sacrament of the coming Kingdom.

In a way, Joseph didn’t have to wait any longer.  When he died on the cross, Jesus cried out It is finished, meaning, “It is completed; it is accomplished, it is fulfilled![i]” And Kallistos Ware tells us that the thing fulfilled is:

The work of suffering love, the victory of love over hatred…At his agony and at his crucifixion the forces of darkness assail him with all their violence, but they cannot turn his compassion into hatred; they cannot prevent his love from continuing to be itself. His love is tested to the furthest point, but it is not overwhelmed.[ii]

So in a way, the tomb was a gateway to the Kingdom of God the minute they laid Jesus body in it. In a way, the stone didn’t matter because the victory had already been won…but the victory of Good Friday was still hidden.

But two days later, the hidden victory was revealed. On Friday, love defeated hatred; on Sunday, love overwhelmed death. In Christ’s resurrection, we see that there is truly nothing that will separate us from God. Not powers or principalities. Not hatred or fear. Not even death itself, for even in Death we find the healing power of God’s love.

The tomb had become a gateway to the Kingdom of God, but this morning the gateway leads out, from the dark night of death into a bright and hopeful morning. The incredible thing of this tomb – this mark of worldly status given up in a gift of love and sacrifice – isn’t just that it has become a gateway to the eternal, it’s that the tomb is a gateway to the kingdom of God no matter which way we enter it.

All of us go down to the grave, yet even there we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. That is entrance to the kingdom of God. We will be resurrected with Jesus, and so we know that death and sin and hatred no longer hold a claim on us. That, too, is the eternal kingdom. And if we can open our heart as Joseph did, if we can see what he saw, even in utter defeat, then we have already begun in this life to pass through the gates and enter the kingdom of holiness and grace.

Without knowing it, Joseph had begun to imagine what might be possible in God’s kingdom. The other person in this story with that kind of vision, of course, is Mary Magdalene.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple see the linens (carefully rolled up, for reasons we’ll never know) and run away joyfully, but Mary looks in and sees something they don’t: she sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’ body had been.

Mary saw something that the others didn’t. Her heart saw something of what Joseph of Arimathea had seen. Mary was gifted with a spiritual vision that the others didn’t have quite yet. She moved among the angels. She stood still in a holy place, and offered the sacrifice of tears. And though the others ran off in a hurry, it was Mary who took the first true steps into the new kingdom of God. For it was Mary who first saw the Lord.

Mary, like Joseph, had been waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean they were without grief when Jesus died. Yet in their sadness they were fearless and even hopeful, so they could to see what no one else could: that the gateway had been crossed. That the tomb was a vessel for something new entirely. That Jesus was risen, and the victory was won.

The Lord is risen indeed, and we too have seen him. And rising up from the grave, we too make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

Homily for Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

[i] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1979. P. 81

[ii] ibid

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