Sunday, April 24, 2011

He is risen, indeed …

What a joy it is to be with you today and what a privilege it is to be among the company of so many good people of faith celebrating the greatest of all mysteries, the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ triumph over death itself; the Day of Resurrection!

In the many years that I had the privilege of presiding worship in a faith community such as what is gathered here today, Easter Sundays often prove to be difficult. And I don’t mean because church attendance would all of a sudden increase quite considerably and so there’s that possible challenge of winning back more souls to the fold, although I know that there’s a petty chance of them coming back to church. 

While that may be a part of the Easter Sunday scenario, the more challenging on those Easter Sunday worship services, including the one we’re celebrating now, had always been how to present the message of Easter to such a diverse group; diverse in the sense of being a conglomeration of people having different levels of understanding about the reality of the Paschal Mystery.

And what, you might ask, is difficult with that setting?

Well, within that diverse group, there’ll be those who would look at Easter from a purely cerebral point of view and would be preoccupied with some strenuous analytical exercises such as how can a man, having been dead for three days, come back to life. So while the Gospel is being proclaimed, some of them would begin asking questions, probing deeper on the theological implications but in the act, would miss out on what is being proclaimed.

There are also those who would look at Easter with some antiquated religious sentimentality and might begin to act with some element of smugness when they find among those present others who don’t fit in their self contrived picture of who should be at attendance.

There will also be those who are there only because it is the hype thing to do. A college girl coming home might say: “Hey. It’s Easter. It’s time to go to church! Which one? Let’s try the one we went to when we were back in Sunday School. They might still be hiding Easter Eggs. Oh, how I miss those years!”
Aware of this broad spectrum of interests from among those in attendance, what I find really challenging is how to create for them a renewed interest on this joyful celebration we call “Easter” and perhaps, generate enough interest so they can begin to reconsider taking a second look on their own faith journey that might have somehow faltered.

So having acknowledged these different aspects about how Easter could be viewed, let me offer one which I hope will turn out to be of some interest for such a diverse faith community that you are today.

In its very simple, elementary sense, Easter is about the rising from the dead of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. It means that his corpse which had ceased from actively functioning had been infused with all things necessary for its vital organs to  function as they used to and be considered as living once again; breathing and pulsating and getting real hungry for some real food,

It also means that this rising from the dead was a real and authentic fact of history, as avowed by those who were witnesses to it. It also means that Easter has nothing to do with bunnies and plastic eggs filled with chocolates, waiting to be found by young children who are often coached by their parents.

But then, Easter could also be seen from another perspective; one that endorses the shift from death to life as parallel to the shift from darkness to light, from loss to gain and from defeat to victory. Easter is about the rising from the dead; with death not just as the absence of life but also as a condition of darkness and hopelessness and as representative of a shattered dream or a vanishing grip from life and vitality or even from reality.
I often use as an illustration of Easter’s meaning that which lies behind the redeemed life of “someone” who has wandered into a different path in life while escaping the hard facts that “weigh” him down but has been rehabilitated and transformed to an even healthier state of being, mainly because he has not been abandoned by those who really care for him. That “someone” who has been in such a redeemed path has now realized that however horrible he had become to those who loved him, their love, however, did not falter in any way. His worst has not destroyed their love for him.
My friends in Christ, this is what Easter might look like for believers like us. Easter is about God's undefeated love for all His Creation. Because of the rising to life we call Easter, we now have been made aware that our worst cannot destroy the love of God revealed in His only begotten Son Jesus Christ.

This unmoved love for an imperfect world is what we constantly put to the test through our rebellion and our distancing from God and from the rest of God’s creation. Good Friday represents that rebellion against that gift of love. But while such utter disobedience might look so discouraging, the love of God for an undeserving world remains unperturbed.

There’s this phrase I love to cite in this regard. “For every Good Friday, there is always an Easter.” Good Friday was viewed by those who witnessed the crucifixion as the worst that could happen to their vision of being with Jesus when God’s Kingdom on earth is ushered in. It also signified the shattered dreams of the disciples and of those who decided to become followers of Jesus.

Good Friday, however, was not the end and it had no power to make even a dent on God’s unconditional love for His people. Yes, Good Friday may have represented the worst that humanity can do but Easter, on the other hand, points out the truth that even that worst thing can not destroy God's offering of love.

The Easter Story will not be complete without the account of the finding of an empty tomb. John’s gospel alludes to this when he describes what Mary Magdalene saw on the morning of the third day. The Resurrected Christ was not in the tomb any longer.

Easter means that whatever that tomb meant to keep, it failed in that regard. It didn’t do a good job. Easter means that whatever was held in captivity in that tomb has now been freed from its clutches.  Easter, indeed, is the passing from loss to gain and from defeat to victory.

Easter’s message then is that of hope; of rising above and beyond the grip of the talons of death. We find this message of hope able to propel us to a greater height; to life, if you may, and infuse on whatever we regard as dead in our being the breath of life that will transform us as a renewed creation.

In a short while we will baptize Aidan and thereafter, he will be counted among those who have passed from the virtual death of sin into the virtual life of the redeemed.  How appropriate that as we celebrate Easter being a shift from death to life, we administer to Aidan the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, propelling him into a new and different life. We have, by virtue of our baptism, joined with all of the baptized in their mission of spreading forth the message of hope; the same message which brings about reconciliation and unity.

May this Easter then become for all of you gathered here, an inspiration to revisit your respective faith journeys and for some, perhaps, move on from wherever you got stalled. And if, by chance, you need someone to be with you as you walk your faith journey, remember those who have not given up their love for you. They can become an engaged partner in your quest to freshen up the faith that, through the years, may have waivered and now in need of some spiritual nourishment.
Again, Happy Easter to y’all.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Will you carry it?

Faith communities throughout the world have just begun a week-long celebration called Holy Week. Most mainline religious denominations encourage their membership to participate in rituals and religious services intended to bring to remembrance the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

While that event took place in distant past, its consequence shaped history and the very world we live in. It was also responsible for the emergence of a distinct faith community that budded and bloomed and had been spawned throughout the world.

Most Christian congregations usher it in with what is known as Palm Sunday, where, with a little pageantry of waving palm leaves and a virtual procession, they call to remembrance Jesus’ Entry to Jerusalem, that time when he was showered with accolade and the words: “ ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

During the main service, they either listen to the reading of the Passion Narrative
or its dramatization and relive  the story of the Passion of Christ, his brutal suffering as impressed upon him by the Roman government at the instigation of the Jewish religious leadership of the time. By calling to remembrance the graphic account of his passion, this Sunday is also referred to as Passion Sunday.

While the story remains as a rendition of the passion, death and resurrection of the Son of God, it is also viewed as an expression of God’s unconditional love for His creation. To those who want to revisit that story, get a copy of the Holy Bible and read Matthew 26:14 – 27:54 or its parallels in the other gospels.

Having read, or as in our case here at church, heard the story, your mind must have been somewhere, perhaps in your world of imagination and wondered  how that day must have been; how the narrow streets were teeming with people and how the magnificent Temple at Jerusalem was heaving with activity. There was also that possibility of you wondering how the Garden at Gethsemane must have looked like and what attracted Jesus to it as his place for prayer.

On top of those scenes, there must have been also images of the personalities named in the story. As you switch between scenes and images of personalities, I suppose you found yourselves confronted by a daunting question like “Why did it have to happen to Jesus? How can an all-loving God allow His only begotten Son to suffer and die for the sake of a sinful creation?”

And there must have been other equally troubling questions that you dared not ask. And yet, today is that opportune time when all of us could get engaged in an additional probing of similar questions.

With a growing number of equally important, though conflicting, agenda affecting our ability to live up to our Christian expectations, some questions that might cross our mind could include: ‘What is this Passion Story telling me? Where do I see myself in the Passion Story or with which character in the story could I relate myself?” 

There are many possibilities. Perhaps, you saw yourself as among the chosen companions, the Twelve, who faithfully followed Jesus believing in the coming of the Kingdom of God but now are so confused by the turn of events. Or perhaps you saw yourself among those who were merely on the sidelines, just looking at how things were happening. I doubt that you identified yourself with Judas who betrayed a friend or even in Peter, who denied him three times? So who was it?

One of the characters in Matthew’s Passion Story who might be of interest to you is this individual named Simon of Cyrene.  As Cyrene was believed to have been in Africa, perhaps Simon was an African Jew and that would explain why he was there in Jerusalem that time.  

I could relate to Simon of Cyrene in that I could easily picture myself in him as he was mingling with the crowd, basking on the sights and sounds on the narrow streets of Jerusalem, perhaps admiring the magnificent Temple.

I also could picture myself in him as he must have wondered why he was chosen to bear Jesus’ cross. I would also have asked: "Why does it have to be me? Why not any of those people? I share in his bitterness, in his resentment. “Why me, Lord, Why did this have to happen to me? I'm here for the Passover and this could be my last. Why ruin it? I don't deserve this!!”  

Those must have been some of Simon’s thoughts as he helped Jesus moved on with the procession on to Golgotha. Little did he know that this very act will go down in history as an exemplary act, worthy of all emulation.

Thoughts of resentment are not unique to Simon or the Psalmist. We heard them uttered again on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In my assumed affinity with Simon, I could relate to such resentment as when my agenda in life don't turn out as I’ve hoped for; when I get so overwhelmed with emotions when similar events put me in the lowest ebbs of my life. Then I scream within me: “Why me? Why now? I don't deserve this! Why have you forsaken me?”

This Holy Week, this Palm Sunday, this Sunday of the Passion might be a good opportunity for us to look inside us and revisit those moments when our frustrations have enveloped us and pushed us to resentment. Let us walk with Simon and listen to the murmurings of our hearts that as we continue our holy journey in Lent we may learn to pick up Jesus’ cross, our own crosses, with the great assurance that we have not been forsaken at all.

The great Paschal Mystery will proclaim this truth come Eastertide. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

“Dem bones can live and even dance…”

Being on the threshold of Holy Week when Christian faith communities celebrate more intently the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, I find the appointed Lectionary Readings for this Fifth Sunday in Lent to be a nice kind of a lead-in especially as they speak of the theme of death and life. Departing from the usual source for my text for reflections (Gospel Reading), I invite you to focus on the Old Testament Reading taken from Ezekiel 37:1-14.
In there, we read of Ezekiel’s encounter with death as alluded to by his vision of a valley full of dry bones. By their being dry, there’s plenty to suggest that death, in this case, must have taken place way too long in the past.  Also, the very image of dry bones could only mean that there was no ambiguity about death as the absence of life. For Ezekiel, the sight in front of him established the seriousness of this reality: they were dead; long dead, if you may.

It’s not surprising then that when asked by God “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied "O Lord GOD, you know." perhaps, even throwing his hands up in the air. It could have sounded as a response colored by desperation.  Perhaps it was Ezekiel’s polite way of saying “No way, Yahweh” but then, it could also mean “Yes, Lord God, they can still live! But you know when and how!”

We are then told that Ezekiel was ordered to prophesy to those dry bones that the Lord God will cause breath to enter them, and that they shall live. God wanted Ezekiel to know that those dry bones can live as He will lay sinews on them and will cause flesh to come upon them, and cover them with skin, and put breath in them, and they shall know that Yahweh is the Lord."

And it came to pass. Suddenly there was a rattling noise, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. Ezekiel looked, and, indeed, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no life. Then the Lord God told Ezekiel to prophesy once more and bid ‘Breath’ to come from the four winds, and breathe upon those slain, that they may live. When Ezekiel did as God has commanded, breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Very much alive!

What an incredible story; enough to inspire someone to write the famous Dem Bones song. Remember that song “Dem Bones”? “The toe bone connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone and the ankle bone connected to the leg bone…”

More seriously though, Ezekiel’s vision was not just limited to a showdown of God having figured out what bone gets connected to what bone, rather, it was a stark visual expression of death, not only as the absence of life but also being the absence of hope. “Dem dry bones” were demonstrative of a people’s desperation and hopelessness; of a people’s sense of their abject abandonment by no less than their God. To have a sense of their sense of hopelessness, we need to remember the historical timeline of these people. In 597 BCE, the Jews of old were exiled, including Ezekiel, during the famous Babylonian Captivity. As a people, they were on their lowest ebb; having been uprooted from their homeland and were in exile in a foreign land. Their sense of hopelessness is echoed in the words: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried; remembering Zion”. Psalm137. 1

During their time in exile, their connection to their cherished past was severed, thereby losing any sense of purpose. It brought about a bleak picture of any possible future. As a people, they were uprooted from everything they had: their land; their community; their culture; their Temple at Jerusalem, their way of life, all those were all gone. They were as dead as “dem dry bones.”

Death is an image they could relate themselves to. They were merely dry, lifeless bones parched by their sins of pride and infidelity. Despite the seriousness of their having been cut off from their relationship from God, they were not well disposed to accept any sense of personal responsibility for their plight. Their blame-game was not only against God but also against the ones known as prophets who mediated God’s will and purpose in their midst.  Ezekiel, however, repeatedly reminded them of their responsibility for their sufferings due to their sinful ways. And rather than leave his people without hope, Ezekiel directed them to look to God as the “Source of their Well-being” and from whom new life and new possibilities could come forth.

This is where we find Ezekiel 37:12 so significant as when Ezekiel was told by God to tell Israel God’s words: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”  

This is the promise that God assured His people: they will rise from the dead; they will not remain in exile, they need not remain amidst “death”.  “Dem dry bones” had “flesh” once more and by God’s Holy Breath, by the Spirit of God, life came upon them once more.  They passed from darkness to light; they moved from “death to life” and restored back to their rightful place in God’s plan of salvation. Death, therefore, is not the end of everything and while it may seem so unnatural, death, as represented by those dry bones, is vanquished by the breath of God and life begins anew. There is indeed more to death than its being just the end of life as we know it to be.

As we continue our Lenten journey, perhaps, we can relate to this vision of Ezekiel. While we are very much alive with our bodily functions continuing to function as normal as they could be, we could also be likened as “dem dry bones”.  Some of us may be living a life of hopelessness – with no one to trust. Others may be in a relationship that could be likened to spending a life in “death row” just waiting for the day to come! Life could be one as though you have been entombed in a life of misgivings and distrust. Your daily living may appear to be one like that of an orphaned child; no one to look after you. Indeed, we’ve all been through some pretty dispiriting times - the smell of death hung pretty strongly for others. But we never stayed as such, did we? By the grace of God, we pulled through. We didn't know how but we had a sense of the Spirit returning; of flesh beginning to re-grow on the bones and we were filled with vitality and excitement. Our relationship with our inner circle, our community and with God was restored once more.

Just as Ezekiel was called upon by God to prophesy and be a participant in God’s restoration to life of a dead people, so are we being called upon by our baptismal covenant, to “prophesy” and be engaged in calling the Spirit of Reconciliation to dwell among those who may be still entombed in their graves of hopelessness. Remember that nothing is so dead that it is beyond the life-giving reach of the Spirit of God. Wherever the Spirit breathes, there is life. No relationship is too scarred or no community is too broken that the Spirit can not breathe and new life blossom.  

We are a people of hope. “Dem bones” could, indeed, still live and maybe, even dance!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

“Being in a condition of darkness …”

Lately, the global picture had not all been that rosy. With the aid of technology, things that happen in other parts of the globe seem to be happening right in your own backyard. We had been made aware of the occurrence of quite a tall order of natural disasters, political unrests and social chaos! There had been earthquakes; volcanic eruptions; tsunamis; flooding, cold and blistering winters! 

As far as political unrests, well, the media had been giving us updates on the peace and order in many countries and the derivative social chaos they have imposed on people. And the list could go on and on; enough for those affected to wonder when they will end or for others, whether the world is about to end! For most of those who had been seriously impacted by these adversities, their lives seemed to have plunged into a state of disarray; into a condition of darkness, in fact, quite literal in most cases.

Against this backdrop, a fitting question that could be asked is this. "Being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?" The appropriate response, of course, is “Light”. Under no circumstances would you opt not to want light! Of course, being in that adverse condition when you could neither foresee nor avoid danger, that which you would most desire is a full restoration of sight that light can provide. We typically would want to be brought from darkness to light. Of course!

In what is referred to as the Prologue, the first chapter of John’s Gospel approaches the mystery of Incarnation in a different way. It does not have the Nativity scenes we thoroughly enjoy when reading Matthew and Luke. John seems to talk “Greek” especially to those who are uninitiated in the world of the abstract.  John talks of the coming of the Son of God as that of the Word becoming flesh who dwelt among us. It also talks about the Incarnate Word as the Light whose purpose is to enlighten the very world he was sent to but a world that “knew him not."

The gospel lesson for this 4th Sunday in Lent invites faith communities to explore the theme of light; it being a very potent imagery of Jesus Christ! The following are the highlights of this story, found in John 9:1-41.

Jesus, while on his way to a certain place, had occasion to meet a visually challenged man who had that impediment since birth. Soon thereafter, a question was asked of Jesus with the intent of trying to ascertain whose fault it was that this blind man had this unfortunate handicap. Under a theological mindset that regards physical abnormality as a derivative of sin, Jesus’ disciples wanted to find out whose sins caused it. And because he was blind from birth could it then be his parents’ fault rather than his?

True to his teaching skill, Jesus used this very occasion to teach his disciples that it was neither the blind man's parents nor his own nor anyone else's fault. His blindness was not the resultant effect of someone’s sins. It was however something that could be used to teach a greater truth. Jesus declared himself as the light of the world and it was to be his purpose to shed light on those who are in darkness.

Blindness, being a serious condition of darkness, has to be rid of and it was but logical for Jesus to cure the man of his handicap. With mud and saliva as the raw matter, a miracle then took place and a radical one, indeed. The blind man was brought from darkness to light; from blindness to sight and ultimately from darkness of non-belief to the insight of full discipleship.

This story was used by John to teach his community about God's gift: the gift of sight, a special kind of sight that frees people from their darkness of sin. It was a gift of restoration!

It is in this regard that this story becomes our story too. In many respects we fit in the shoes of that blind man. While we may have a perfect 20/20 vision, spiritually, however, we may find ourselves in a "condition of darkness". Like the blind man in his condition of darkness, we too are in a similar darkened condition in the way we live out our “Christian-ness” as when we just drift in life without any sense of direction at all; as when we drive on the freeway and just drive with no destination in mind. We are in a "condition of darkness" when we stumble and bump into the pitfalls of sin and find ourselves drifting farther from our God.

The good thing about it is that there comes a rock-bottom in all of these. The "conversion moment” comes  and unfolds before our very eyes and we yearn once more of that condition when we could actually foresee and avoid danger and therefore safely live out our discipleship guided by the "light of the world".  

Being in that condition, what else could we desire but light? And yet the sad reality is that not everyone wants to be brought from darkness to see the light by which God's people work. And that’s the puzzling thing.  It just doesn’t compute! They simply refuse to undergo that form of metamorphosis.

The church teaches us that sin brings us farther away from God. We have been consistently reminded, as we do on this season of Lent, that we need to abandon those acts which may sever our relationship with God and the Church, the Body of Christ. Conversely, we are also reminded that we should intentionally bring ourselves back closer to Him. To be reconciled with God is what repentance and forgiveness do to us.

This, however, is easily said than done. Why? It's because sin is almost always presented in some glittering wrapping materials characterized by ease, comfort and convenience. This makes sin likeable; this makes sin palatable to our senses; it makes sin desirable and consequently, it makes it very difficult to willfully desire that we be brought from darkness back to light. What needs to happen, however, is to break away from that sinful condition which, as I’ve pointed out, becomes more preferable at times.

I assume you might have heard this classic illustration about how painful it could get for someone to be suddenly brought into the light. It’s the thing that triggers those who had been accustomed to their dark room to yell at you when you turn the lights on. They experience a sudden discomfort and the quickest way to resolve it is to tell you to turn the lights off. In other words, it might appear that it may have seemed better for them to remain in darkness and stay comfortable.  If we juxtapose this experience with the ones in Christian living, this means that there’ll be utter discomfort for those who would be willing to be brought from darkness to light.

And the beauty about this possible pain is that we have the option to have it or not. We are given the choice to either remain in a "condition of darkness" or to reach out for the “light" which is what we ought to desire most thus ending our groping in the dark.

We need not remain in the darkness of our choosing. The "light of the world" is before us, willing to transform our condition of darkness into a state of brightness. All we need to do is to reach out for it. It means that even if you got plunged into this phase in your life in the darkness of your own making that you don’t have to be bound by its shackles. Instead, you can be set free from it, and begin to live a restored life in a sighted world. This, however, has to be done of your own free will and accord!

Should we muster all the courage to commence the shift, make no mistake about it that there’ll always be that hard climb. The transition will be difficult since as you could have gotten used to the darkness of sin and favored the “condition of darkness" for its glittering wrap; its ease and cheap comfort and convenience. I know we are bidden otherwise. We are invited to come into the Light and get used to the warm glow of God's love.

So, being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?