Alleluia! He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
We are told that in the early morning darkness, the birds sing to find one another. That’s a beautiful image for this morning. Some of us have been waiting to pull out our Easter baskets and start looking for the hidden eggs. Some of us have been wandering around in the dark, hoping against hope for the dawn to come. And this morning, even while it’s still dark we are listening for the birds. One by one and two by two they sing. They raise their voices. Each one singing because that is her way, that is what she knows to do. Each one singing, each one listening. One by one and two by two, It is by singing they find their way back to one another.
This morning we will be singing some of my favorite hymns:
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah, Christ arose!
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green.
And prayers will be prayed: The silence breaks into morning. That One Star lights the world. The lily springs forth to life and not even Solomon…Let it begin with singing and never end! Oh, angels, quit your lamenting! Oh, pilgrims, upon your knees in tearful prayer, rise up, and take your hearts and run! We who were no people are named anew God’s people, for he who was no more is forevermore. (“And the Glory” by Ann Weems from Kneeling in Jerusalem)
Pilgrims, we have come to this Easter morning when light is greater than darkness, hope greater than despair, love lives again and is so much stronger than fear. Alleluia! He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
There is a silent scream that comes when all you have loved, all you’ve believed in, all you knew to be true and constant in life - when all is suddenly gone. Stripped away. There are no words. There is no meaning. There is no light.
This is what Holy Saturday is.
It was back in 1993 that this day became woven into the fabric of my faith. That year was my first Holy Week working with folks who were living and dying with HIV/AIDS. It was that spring when I first understood the depth and aching of this day. Since then I have come to love and appreciate and be grateful for it. I know that might sound funny, but it's true.
Holy Saturday is the day every year when hope was lost. Jesus had died. His friends and followers had witnessed it or heard of it. He had been betrayed, arrested, and crucified on a cross. How could they feel anything but desperation and deep grief? Holy Saturday is the day that when Love appeared to be lost and gone. This is the day when nothing makes sense at all.
I can only imagine those early believers. When the sun came up on the day after Jesus was crucified, how did they get out of bed? How did they eat? Could they speak? Could they sing? Could they pray? How in God’s name did they go on?
We know about those days, you and I. We have lived through those days when the rug has been pulled out from under us. Thinking about those early believers and how they somehow kept their faith is amazing. How did they do it? Everything that they thought would be true, was gone. All that Jesus had talked about seemed somehow to be tied to him, the person. And now he was gone. They had seen him die.
My prayers feel authentic on this day. Bare-bones words of fear and anger and hope and faith have a resting place in all that Holy Saturday represents. There’s no flowery, sugar-coated, Hollywood produced anything about these prayers. Jesus had been crucified. Teacher, Rabbi, healer, friend. Love had died. Holy Saturday-prayers reside in the very worst moments of our lives.
And somehow, somehow, they went on. And somehow, those early followers believed. And because they had the courage and grounding and love in them, they got out of bed the next day. And because of those women and men, steps have been left for us to follow when we are living our Holy Saturdays.
This is one of the few days on the Christian calendar that hasn’t yet been Hallmarked. The shelves at Target aren’t lined with things to buy. Instead this is a day to revisit, re-collect, rename, reclaim our faith. It’s not something that can be packaged and wrapped up with a bow. Our faith is what we cling to when everything is dark, when we run out of knowing. It is that seeing-in-the-dark faith that can lead us. It’s as true and as impossible as that.
This Holy Saturday is the day that teaches us that even when we are sure Love has died – we’re sure because we witnessed it ourselves – this is the day the holds us close. This is the day that sings to us in the dark. This is the day when we are given strength and hope enough to believe that the sun rose this morning and will again tomorrow.
Today as we move in and through this holy day of Good Friday, we are reminded of many of the story's pieces. People who participated, people who witnessed, and Jesus who endured the crucifixion. People whose lives were forever changed. We are told on that history-changing day there were women who followed beside the procession and then stayed at the cross. That day these women witnessed violence and pain, degradation and anguish. Standing at the cross and bearing witness while Jesus was being crucified must have been unimaginable. It was only days before with him when everyone had been singing and there had been dancing in the streets. It must have been incomprehensible. I can only imagine their strength and courage, their pain and desperation. The strength they had to stand and watch, to weep and wait. I can only imagine how their hearts must have been breaking. What a horrible death. What a horrible time for them.
We don’t know who they were. We aren’t told their names. We don’t know how they knew Jesus. Luke’s gospel says that they had followed him from Galilee. As some point in time their lives had intersected with Jesus in a way that gave them the love to stay.
It is impossibly hard to stand with someone who is in pain. It’s tender, heartbreaking, gut wrenching. And somehow at the same time, it is one of the authentic ways of living love. Somehow, as unbelievably painful as it is, bearing witness feels like a privilege. The last place you want to be, the last place you would leave.
These unnamed women stayed through with him on the day Jesus was crucified. What an amazing act of presence to give to Jesus. This one who was Emmanuel, “God with us.” Standing there, they were for him, a physical reminder that he was not alone. They stayed through his dying and his death. They stayed until he was taken down from the cross. They stayed.
Watch one hour with me.
Stay just away by my side.
When my alleluia days,
turn into blues and grays
be my guide.
Stay a while.
Watch with me.
Years and years ago when I was in college, I learned this song. It’s always been a friend when it comes back round again. All those years ago I knew the immeasurable gift of someone standing with me, waiting with me as the storm was approaching. When we offer the gift of presence to an act great or horrific, we are offering our whole selves. Our hearts, minds, and bodies bear witness to what is happening. When there is absolutely nothing else we can do to change the outcome, we can stay.
This act of presence and resolution happens more often than we know. For survivors of the Holocaust, bearing witness was for many, their life work. For those who have recently witnessed separations of families at the border, bearing witness alerted all of us to this unthinkable act. Our Lenten journey has brought us to this place, to this moment. There are times when we have the opportunity to stand with someone when they are enduring perhaps the most painful moment of their lives. We can’t fix it. We can’t change the circumstances. All we can do is be with them in this time. May this gift of presence shown by those unnamed women centuries ago serve as a candle when we are with another going through the darkness.
Many of us have heard the story for as long as we can remember: "On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he gathered with his friends. And after supper… and after supper…after supper...
We’ve been told that Jesus was aware of the danger he was in when he entered Jerusalem on the colt that morning. Many say that he knew he was going to his death. Throughout my life I have believed and disbelieved about this week. Stories of faith are like that. I believe that he knew that his message of love and justice was upsetting and unsettling. I believe that he knew that his message had stirred up the leadership in both secular and sacred places. I believed that he was aware of the danger surrounding him.
Although I've never walked in those shoes, I have had experiences in my life when I felt something painful coming. Many of us have been in times of our lives when we have sensed that the other shoe was about to drop. Many of us have been in places where we felt that time would soon be different. We knew that things were soon to change. We knew that the life that we were so used to, would soon be turned on its head. I believe that this was in Jesus' his mind and on his heart during that supper. Whether he knew or not that he would that night be betrayed, I don’t know. What I believe is that it mattered deeply and I hope comforted him to gather that night with his friends.
After supper, we are told that Jesus turned to them and I can only imagine what he saw, how he felt. I imagine he saw love gathered round. He collected up what was left of the meal, and gave them this one last lesson. In the broken bread, in the poured out wine he promised them that he would be with them. In this ritual that they had done together for so long he asked them to remember him. This ritual that he taught them on that sacred night, is alive and practiced still. We do it to be reminded of Jesus’ presence in our lives. We do it to remember that we are all members of the same body. We do that to be renewed and restored. Because he told us.
Passion is a kind of waiting – waiting for what other people are going to do. Jesus went to Jerusalem to announce the good news to the people of that city. And Jesus knew that he was going to put a choice before them: Will you be my disciple, or will you be my executioner? There is no middle ground here. Jesus went to Jerusalem to put people in a situation where they had to say yes or no. That is the great drama of Jesus’ passion: he had to wait upon how people were going to respond. How would they come? To betray him or follow him? In a way, his agony is not simply the agony of approaching death. It is also the agony of having to wait. It is the agony of a God who depends on us for how God is going to live out the divine presence among us. It is the agony of the God who, in a very mysterious way, allows us to decide how God will be God. Here we glimpse the mystery of God’s incarnation. God became human so that we could act upon God and God could be the recipient of our responses.
(Henri Nouwen from “A Spirituality of Waiting,” Weavings, January 1987)
This is a brand, new way of glimpsing the Holy: God's depending on us. God's waiting on us. These images are very powerful. They help us begin to understand incarnation. It wasn't that long ago we sang, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." This Advent hymn that calls for the One who is with us to come. God with us. Here in Henri Nouwen‘s writings, we are invited to think about the idea of God's depending on us. God's waiting. Waiting with us. Waiting for us.
When I was in Sunday school I first learned that I was Jesus’s hands and feet in the world. My actions can bring about representations of God’s presence. My actions call to life God’s YES where there is brokenness, YES to loneliness, YES to reconciliations, YES to hope. We are called to be disciples of Jesus. The One who created and is creating still lives in and through the kindness we offer, the love we give to the world. Our words and work for justice and mercy and peace are ways God's lovingkindness is alive and active in the world.
It would be easy to start to get a big head about this whole idea. God's waiting on us. The truth is, though, it's probably the most humbling charge we will have in our lifetimes. For this to happen, we cannot be passive and complaining on the sidelines. For this to happen, we are to pick our plough and get out to the field.
Take o take me as I am. Summon out what I will be. Set your seal upon my heart and live in me. These words from John Bell ring true for this day. Are true for this hour. We are summoned, you and I to follow where love leads us. We are called, you and I to live in the world that God has called into being. We are asked, you and I to love and to serve. Not because we must, but because we may.
Weeks ago we began our Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Hours into days, days into weeks we have journeyed through this season that witnesses winter turn to spring. Along the way many of us have lost some things and found some things. For some of us these days have brought reflection with times of solace. For some these days have blended one into the next. As we enter into this Holy Week left us be mindful of what this journey has brought us and taught us. May we be mindful that we aren't yet done. Our journey continues in these coming into Jerusalem days.
There is a great temptation to enter into this Holy Week with a feeling of tediousness and to have the urge to rush through to Easter Sunday morning. This week offers more to us than that. It asks nothing of us, but instead it welcomes us in. Welcomes us into days that unfold in a slow-paced then too-frantically moving time where our faith story is told.
In church yesterday we were still holding our palms when the choir stood at the back of the church singing, "Were You there?" My spirit felt as though she had lost her breath. These days hold our story in conversation and song, in waiting and and weeping. This week holds a time of silence when it appears (for each of us, for all of us) that life has gone out of our faith and there is nothing left. This week holds a sunrise when hope comes alive and lives again in us.
There is a tendency to phone this week in. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt or the new shoes or new outfit already for Sunday morning. Our lives and these days are too complicated to phone anything in. Living in and through these day of refugees being shunned on almost every continent, of separations of families at our borders, of gun violence continuing to terrify us all, especially our children, of old folks being forgotten, of children being neglected, of politicians abusing power - in these days I know that I am desperate to hear again the stories of my faith. I, too can recite what we are told each year happened on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. But each year, this year there is something that can perhaps happen when we hear our faith-story. When we hear it again, as if for the first time: There is a Balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul. I'm not the same person I was last year or even when this Lenten journey began. We are living, transforming beings alive in this world that is ever-changing. We are wounded in new places, stronger in others. Not the same.
This is the week that forms us. These are the days that teach us of faith and hope and love. In the most raw and painful ways, we hear it. In the most affirming and reconciling ways, we sing it. In ways that hold us in time and in place. Just because you have lived through 10 or 20 or 30 or even 90 years of Holy Weeks, our deepest truth is found in our living it. Yesterday marked the jubilant welcome into Jerusalem when Jesus was hailed as King. Thursday will bring another chapter. As will Friday. As will Saturday. And when we live into Sunday we have the chance to see a sunrise, as if for the very first time.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near
Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,
saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that
has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?'
just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had
told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying
the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing
their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks
on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole
multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds
of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name
of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees
in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered,
"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
When hope comes riding up, will we know it? Will we see it? Will we celebrate it with songs and dancing and true jubilation?
Somehow those folks knew. Somehow they sensed and saw and jumped into the parade. Maybe they’d heard stories of this Jesus. Maybe they’d witnessed him healing the sick or talking with outcasts. Somehow one person saw it, and then another and another until a parade formed and everyone found themselves in it. Jesus had come. Hope had arrived.
Now generations later on this Palm Sunday we, too yearn for the hope that came riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt. We, too long to be reminded of the promise of something new coming to life in our midst. It is reassurance. It is renewal. It is restoration that we call out for as we wait and watch.
How will we know when hope comes? Is it the hope similar to the feeling of -
the sun rising after a long, dark night?
planting seeds in the ground?
opening day of baseball?
the first day of school?
when a child is born?
Centuries ago hope was seen riding into Jerusalem on a colt. As he rode in that joyous procession, Jesus represented so many different things to so many. Some saw him as the One who would overthrow the Roman authorities and restore power to the oppressed. Others saw him as the One who had shared stories of healing and justice. Still others saw an outsider who just might be the One to stir things up a bit. But the stones…well, somehow the story goes that the joy seen bursting from that mid-day parade was so energetic that even the stones shouted out for joy!
Years ago I was given a prayer practice that I use when I am afraid.
It feels like 100 years ago now; I was given this prayer that has become a life-gift. I was making a pastoral visit before one of our older members went for surgery. He and his wife were anxious, even I could feel it when I got to hospital early in the morning. For what seemed like a long time in the pre-op room, he led us in small talk. I had gotten up in the wee hours to be with them beforehand, and I was wondering if I was just there to listen to some of his storytelling (which wasn’t a bad thing). After the nurse had been standing with us for a couple of minutes, his wife declared, “Come on, we might as well let her pray.”
And there it was.
I remember looking into their eyes, both of them. They were active and vital church members. I’d known them to go above and beyond in leadership positions, both of them retired clergy themselves. When there was suddenly quiet in the room and the only thing heard was our breathing, I felt time stand still. I was aware of our collective vulnerability and mortality. It’s not an easy thing to have surgery. I felt all three of us (and maybe even the patiently waiting nurse) were grateful that the small talk had run dry. “Come on, we might as well let her pray.”
My memory is that I said something like this to him: “Well now, they’ve taken your watch, your shoes, your glasses, they’ve even taken your pants. But you know they haven’t taken everything. You’ve still got your important parts.” I took his right hand and asked him to open his hand with his palm up. I told him that I believed that God was there in the center, in the palm of his hand. God had always been right there in the center, his whole life. And then I asked him to think of five people who loved him unconditionally. I told him that each of those loved ones were represented by the fingers. Then I told him to open and close his hand as he was being wheeled into surgery and think about those people that he knew loved him. I said that that every time he closed his hand and held on, he would know that those five people were holding on to him. “And every time you close your hand, you know that God is in the center holding on tighter than anybody else.”
He looked at me and nodded, and I knew that in that moment I had received the highest of affirmations. Then he kissed his wife, turned to the nurse and said, “OK, let’s go.”
This holding on prayer has been a strong and grace-filled companion for many years now. I’ve had a couple surgeries and know firsthand (pardon the pun) that it has brought me comfort and strength as I've been wheeled down a long hallway. It is for me, a physical knowing of God’s presence. Always with me, every time I hold on.
Listen to the word that God has spoken;
listen to the One who is close at hand;
listen to the voice that began creation;
listen even if you don't understand.
Listen even if you don’t understand.
Have you had any “ah ha”’s during these past Lenten days? Have you had moments when time seemed to slow down or maybe even stop -just for a second? Have you seen something so incredibly beautiful that everything else seemed to fall away – if just for a second? Have you heard something in a song or a conversation or during a sacred-get-together that touched your spirit? Have you?
This Lenten time has brought quite a few for me and I am so grateful. I’ve heard both the boys sing with their hearts wide-open. I’ve sung wide-open a couple of times myself and that was oh, so fine. There have been walks with Linda when we didn’t talk much and said everything. I’ve had connections with family and friends that have reminded me of my visions and roots – both. This has been a good and holy, healing Lent for me in many ways.
Perhaps one of the most amazing moments has been singing of this song (above) on Sunday mornings at NDPC. We sing it before the scripture readings that lead into the Children’s time. There hasn’t been a Sunday yet when I haven’t cried. Maybe I cry because it's haunting and beautiful. Maybe I cry because my heart rests in the invitation and the knowing of me so well: “listen even if you don’t understand.”
Permission. Understanding. Promise. Listen even if you don’t understand. These words recognize that things don’t always fit. Pain companions us our whole lives. Always has, always will. Life is messy and complicated and dead ends appear just at seemingly the worst possible times. All these things are true. How easy it would be to curl up in the tightest ball possible and pull the blankets over my head. But/and this song invites possibility, hope. It recognizes and comforts. It speaks of strength and wisdom, of history and future.
Listening speaks to relationship. It speaks to connections. Listening speaks to being with someone in intimate and affirming ways. The song doesn’t offer “advice” or “fix” or “lecture” or even “reconciliation.” It just says “Listen.” Perhaps the most precious present for another when there is really nothing else you can give and still, it means everything.
Even though it's a natural and even expected response when you see a title like "Giving Up," don’t rush to conclusions. I’m not giving up. My hunch and my hope is that you are not giving up either. Instead let’s think of what the flip side of that coin could be. The other side of giving up. Letting go. Extending grace. Maybe this giving up is something for us to consider.
There are internal and external ways of being intentional about giving up, and letting go as we journey on through this Lenten season. There are things we do that are outward and visible signs. There are things that happen inside, not ready to be seen yet, or possibly not to be seen at all. Both what is seen and what happens on the inside are our ways of living into these coming-into-Jerusalem days.
Internally giving up. There is still time to give up things that are happening internally that pull us off the path. Practices and patterns that bruise our relationship with God and neighbor. Ruts of thinking where we continue to find ourselves. Name them and claim them. Wander around beside and through them. And then, consider – giving them up. For instance, I am embarrassed to say that in my head I (truly) believe that I know what someone who wears a MAGA hat is thinking. I see a perfect stranger in that red hat and believe that I know what s/he is feeling and hoping for. I am so weary of that belief. This practice-of-judging/knowing has grown far too cumbersome and heavy for me to carry. GIVE IT UP. Internal dances that are continually and purposelessly happening in my head – I want, I need to let go of, to give up.
Externally giving up. There are so many habits that I have honed throughout my life that truly are no longer serving me. Getting there first. Driving in Atlanta has made me a little nutty, I confess. The idea of someone cutting in line, after I have waited in that very same line for two lights, sends me over a cliff. NO! NO! NO! Not gonna happen. And to what end? Really, what is the purpose of not letting another in? Being right? Being righteous? Getting someplace one light earlier? GIVE IT UP.
Perhaps these are too personal, too trivial. I hope that somewhere between the lines there is a place for all of us to consider this practice. Giving up in these winter-into-spring days when we are asked to turn and return to the One who is continually turning towards us. This One who turns toward all of us, those who wear read hats and those who don’t; those who wait through 3 or 4 red lights on their way to work and those who choose to find a gap in the line. All of us.
Turning and returning is our work to do. Giving up along the way just might make the journey a little lighter. It just might allow us to focus on what matters more and what matters most. Truth is, we could all use a little grace.