Easter, Reflectionary

Don’t Let Go

I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the LORD. 
(Psalm 118:17)

Instead of the countdown of extra services and bulletins to be printed, we are living Holy Week in much the same condition as Jesus’ friends and followers. We don’t know what the coming days hold, and plans we made have been upended. Yet the stories we will explore and proclaim in the coming days have not changed. 

Consider the particularities of the telling in Matthew’s gospel. The guards in this version, posted by religious leaders who fear that Jesus’ body will be stolen, stand frozen in terror of an angel of the Lord who uses an earthquake to roll away the stone sealing the tomb. It is the second earthquake in the gospel, the first having opened the graves of the faithful in chapter 27. It feels almost too on-the-nose to read the gospel of Zombies and bodysnatchers when the news carries images of refrigerated morgue trucks parked outside urban hospitals. 

I am struck by the image of the women in Matthew 28:9. After a detailed speech from the angel, “with fear and great joy,” they hurry away to tell the disciples. The sudden appearance of Jesus is the culmination of the preceding suspense. “Greetings!” is the word the NRSV puts into his mouth, but the Greek chairete really means “Rejoice!” Perhaps it is understandable that they end up on the ground, holding his feet as they worship him. He is tangible, corporeal, claspable.

In contrast to the telling in John’s gospel, Jesus does not tell the women to unhand him. While they must let go in order to follow his instructions, I imagine them retelling the story to each other as they walked, looking at their hands with wonder. It must be true, because they held onto his feet. 

What a word for today! When my wife offers the benediction to her congregation, she often uses the one with the phrase, “Hold on to what is good,” and as she says it, she pulls the fingers of her upraised right hand in toward her palm. My hand involuntarily clasps every time I see her do it. In the midst of this pandemic, I confess I veer between fear for those I love, worry about my own high-risk health conditions, and anger over how response to medical recommendations divides us further along political lines.

At my house we try to counter these feelings by asking, again and again, “What’s good?” What is good in your life, your community, your congregation? How is care being shown; how are resources being shared; how are the people you serve showing love of neighbor? Recount these deeds, for they are the work we do in service of and thanksgiving to the God we love.

Hold on to what is good, my friends, as you tell the story of the first Easter, as you offer comfort to the grieving, hope to the anxious, and courage to the fearful. The words we need are right there. Rejoice! Do not be afraid. Hold on to what is good, and don’t let go.

Palm Sunday, Reflectionary

Open Now: a reflection on Palm Sunday worship

Before I went to seminary, I sang in a church choir around the time of a major renovation to the pipe organ. For many months, a piano sufficed to accompany both choral and congregational singing. At the service to dedicate the restored and improved organ, fifty singers lined up in the cloister near the sanctuary for the processional, an anthem composed by one of the choir members. I remember the beautiful setting and the challenge of singing a cappella and harmonizing in tune as we walked in pairs through two doorways and around a corner into the sanctuary.

Here is the text we sang:

Open now thy gates of beauty,
Zion, let me enter there,
where my soul in joyful duty
waits for him who answers prayer.
Oh, how blessed is this place,
filled with solace, light, and grace!

As a person who is always dubious about congregations that set too high a value on the physical plant, I must yet confess that I loved the physical space in which I sang with that choir. In memory, the space, when filled with people, is more than a building. It is an experience. My hippocampus holds particular memories of high holy days, the colors and fragrances and ambient human sights and sounds, the people singing, their hands waving palms or weaving them into crosses.

The church is not a building, but the times and places we have gathered form sense memories, “filled with solace, light, and grace.”

Friends, it’s okay to miss it all this week, and to name that we miss it. What might help would be to include as many voices as we can in worship leadership, whether that’s sharing the readings on a conference call, taking turns speaking on Zoom, or using whatever video capabilities we have to incorporate familiar faces for recorded or live-streamed worship. The experience of Palm Sunday is sensory, and while physical distancing may flatten the five senses to two, we have the opportunity to evoke the story while naming the ways touch and smell and even taste weave together with sight and hearing to bring our faith story to life. 

Like the choir members exerting themselves to stay on key while turning a corner, we will be doing two things at the same time. We will be allowing the faithful to grieve this temporary loss in the midst of predictions of devastating losses, and we will be laying the groundwork for a commemoration of Easter spent at the tomb rather than crowded into our flower-filled sanctuaries. The crowds declare our Savior. Jesus, the sovereign seated humbly on a donkey, is the cornerstone of our faith, for this season, and the next, and all that are to come. Our buildings may be closed, yet may we be open now. 

Lord, my God, I come before thee,
come thou also unto me;
where we find thee and adore thee,
there a heav’n on earth must be.
To my heart, O enter thou,
let it be thy temple now!

“Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty” – translator: Catherine Winkworth; author: Benjamin Schmolck – verses 1 and 2

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Lent 5A, Reflectionary

Bring Out Your Dead

As we try to adjust to having four people at home all the time, one of our strategies is rotating the choice of post-dinner activity, to bring ourselves together for something that counts as play. On Friday night, my 24-year-old daughter picked a movie she felt was essential to the cultural education of my 15-year-old stepson, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’m fairly sure the only time I watched it all the way through was at a campus screening in 1981, but I recognized the cultural touchstones. 

I vaguely remembered the plague scene, a cart being wheeled through the muddy streets of a village, while Eric Idle cries…

I’m sure it seemed hilarious in 1975, when an image like the one below would have been unthinkable, but I cringed to see it.

It’s Wednesday, and I have no idea how things will be this weekend, when pastors will do their best to share a good word with the people they serve. The lectionary for Sunday feels uncomfortably close to our situation. Lent is almost over, and we are approaching the top of the curve in Jesus’ story just as we are trying to flatten the curve in ours. We are living, most of us, one day at a time, even one hour at a time, waiting for the next news update, waiting for a million shoes to drop.

This week’s gospel lesson, John 11:1-45, is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament, because I love Martha and her family and their relationship with Jesus. He is intimately acquainted with them; the sisters feel free to be themselves with him, Martha jousting and Mary collapsing, both expressing their disappointment without reserve. We learn that their loss is his loss, too, even as he knows he will be bringing Lazarus back to the world of the living. 

We will be brought out of this eventually, but for now, we are in the tomb with Lazarus, waiting. Lives are being lost, along with many understandings about life we considered reliable in the First World in the 21st century. The close ties of all who live on this planet have never been illuminated so plainly. This week’s texts proclaim the hope of our faith: death is not the end. What will our lives proclaim to the world? I hope our testimony will be love and care, accompaniment of those who mourn, and space to weep for what we will lose and have lost already.

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