April 24, 2011
Scripture: John 18:1-18
The Easter Nudge
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
Of all the places that Clare could have been last Easter Sunday, she found herself in Heathrow Airport. She was returning with some friends from two week’s vacation in Turkey. From Constantinople and Istanbul to Ephesus, Clare had been enmeshed in history and rich culture as she traveled through the country of Turkey. It had been the trip of a lifetime; she told me when she had returned home. But what she hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it would be to spend Holy Week in a predominately Muslim country – not because the people there were Muslim, not at all, but because she, personally, felt disconnected from the signs and symbols and stories of her faith.
This was the first Holy Week that Clare hadn’t joined her three-generation Polish American family in Connecticut to prepare Swienconka (Sh-veen-soon-kah). Good Friday would have be spent, from dawn until dusk, preparing hardboiled eggs, symbolizing life and resurrection, butter lamb, symbolizing Christ, babka (bob-kuh), a bread-like cake, symbolic of Jesus, ham, symbolic of joy and abundance, homemade horseradish, symbolic of the bitter sacrifice of Christ, salt, representing purification, kielbasa, cheese, and they would carefully place these items that they have created in a basket woven with boxwood and lined with crisp white, lace napkins. On Holy Saturday Clare’s family would join other Polish Americans in bringing these beautifully adorned baskets to church. Families place their swienconka that they have prepared on a long table in the center of the sanctuary and the priest presides over this table of sustenance and abundance and he blesses it and then with a small canister, he sprinkles holy water on each basket. Families return home on Holy Saturday with their Swienconka and it remains untouched until after Mass on Easter morning, when they come together around the table to celebrate the presence of the living Christ in their hearts and homes and lives.
As she sat in a café at Heathrow Airport waiting for her connecting flight, Clare thought of the Swienconka that her family had prepared back at home, she imagined the priest setting his hands over the basket and the blessed, sacred waters falling upon it. Then, an amazing thing happened, she told me as tears welled up in her eyes, she overheard the couple a few tables over from her speaking to one another in Polish. She got up and went over to the couple and said hello to them in Polish. They talked for a bit and exchanged an Easter greeting. That’s all it took, an ocean away from her roots and she felt connected to the resurrection spirit that Easter day.
The first Passion of the Christ in Ixtapalapa, Mexico was in 1843, in the midst of a cholera outbreak. The story goes that after the reenactment of the Passion in the streets of the impoverished city, cholera deaths began to decline and within a few months the epidemic had ended. Whether fact or fiction, the Easter tradition of acting out Jesus’ final days on earth in this area of Mexico City has continued ever since. Each year in Ixtapalapa, or what’s commonly referred to as a “barrio muy popular”, which is really a euphemism for a poor and unsafe neighborhood, hundreds of people come together to reenact the Sermon on the Mount, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the feeding of the five thousand, and the last supper.
For this week, the people of Ixtapalapa set aside and step outside of their normal lives as students, laborers, or housewives and they come together to offer God their love and enthusiasm and to stand within the hope.
Leticia Vizcaino, who holds a day job as a manager in a restaurant, played Mary in this year’s Passion procession in Ixtapalapa. In character, Leticia kneels at the foot of the cross on a hill overlooking Mexico City and she cries out with tears streaming down her face. Leticia prays that her role as Mary will, “show the people how Mary is suffering right now over the difficulties of her community.”
I imagine that as she made her way to the tomb on that first Easter morning, before the sun had risen, Mary Magdalene must have been very angry for what they had done to Jesus. She must have been very afraid for her own life. So, when she arrived at the tomb and discovered the stone rolled away it is no wonder that she ran as fast as she could, in the opposite direction to go get the others. She went to get help from Simon Peter and the other beloved disciple, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” and the three of them quickly ran back to the tomb and indeed Jesus’ body was not there. Peter and the other disciple turned around and they went back home, but Mary, she stayed. She stood, weeping outside of the open, empty tomb. In utter grief and despair and it was in that moment that Jesus came to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
“Sir,” she said, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”
And with the simple whisper of her name, “Mary”, Jesus told her everything she needed to know in order to understand. “Fear not...for I have called you by name, (Mary) you are mine” (Isa 43:1-2).
Mary understands and Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me. Go to my brothers and sisters and share with them what you have experienced, this news of resurrection.”
It is easy to get stuck in our own heads, trapped in our own minds when thinking about the resurrection. We have a tendency to try to intellectualize the resurrection as an actual event. In what ways can we quantify or qualify the events of that first Easter morning?
Yet, the scene on resurrection morning between Jesus and Mary at the tomb is deeply emotional and personal; it is not intellectual, but experiential and visceral. Mary weeps and waits in the emptiness of his grave until Jesus calls her by her name, “Mary.” And then, she understands and she goes, to be with the others.
There is a certain enchantment about Easter that nudges us here to this particular place on on this particular day. Easter nudges us toward a deeper relationship with God, one in which we are searched and known intimately, our deepest hopes, fears, losses, dreams exposed and nudging us onward, to a new hope, to a new faith; there is something about Easter that nudges us toward one another, to be with family and in community. As we experience Jesus whispering our name, we are nudged toward hope that transcends intellectualism and reason.
On that first Easter morning, Mary crossed a border she didn’t even realize she was crossing. She crossed over from the world that nailed her Lord to a tree, a world in which hope was a constant danger, where peace had little chance, where the rich got richer, where physical and material strength always won out, where oppression was the norm to a world of life and hope.
Easter nudges us onward into such a world. Easter nudges us toward visceral, physical signs of hope and life and community. Easter nudges us toward lilies in memory of those who have received eternal peace with God, grace upon grace, and in celebration of those who are with us to share in this life here and now.
What do you expect from an Easter world? In your relationships, your family, your neighborhood, your nation, your world? Beyond the intellectualism of this day, how does the resurrection rest upon your heart? How does it draw you out toward others? Where will there be unforeseen joy and good news in your life?
The resurrected Christ is an experience, and we are experiencing it together right here, right now, this morning. The resurrected Christ comes to us through the senses. In Easter lilies; in baskets of eggs and kielbasa; in parades of people in first century costumes marching on through the streets of a barrio muy popular, in the simple utterance of our name, Easter nudges us onward to a new hope.
April 10, 2011
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Romans 8:6-11
Setting Our Minds on the Spirit
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
16 year old Gabby François – wrapped her hair in a silk scarf that morning because she didn’t want to wake her parents by the noise of the shower, she quietly grabbed the set of keys on the kitchen counter, she gently opened the front door of her parents’ apartment and slipped out unnoticed, she walked down the narrow hallway of the apartment building and out into the street in the middle of the Bronx. She got on the subway and rode it into Harlem.
That same morning, in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn, Rhonda Rodriguez ate cereal with her great grandmother, the woman who raises her and she set out alone, with her book bag on her back, from the apartment building where she lives, a building that is set aside for kids being raised by grandparents. She made her way to the subway, got on and rode it into Harlem.
They had come, along with hundreds of other New York City teenagers, to sing gospel. They hoped to be selected to participate in the free, semester long program, Gospel for Teens.
At the beginning of each Gospel for Teens class, Vy Higgensen, the founder and director of the program, has them shake every part of their body and she does this so that they will let it all go – all of the baggage they carry around with them, problems with their mom and their dad, peer pressure, violence, loss – they physically shake their bodies until they have left everything outside of this space where they will come to learn the history of gospel music and to sing the songs that their ancestors sang while they were bound together by chains picking cotton until their hands bled:
When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old, Pharoh
Let my people go!
Gabby and Rhonda shook all they could, they shook their whole bodies, their hands and their heads, their legs and their feet. And, when they were done, they were asked to stand up and to say their names and where they come from loudly and with confidence. When it was her turn, Gabby stood and, disinterested, with her eyes cast on the floor, she muttered her name, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York.”
When it was her turn, Rhonda stood and softly spoke, with tears in her eyes, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.” They were ashamed.
But they sang. They had come to sing gospel, the good and promising news in prose and verse, in rhyme and rhythm. For weeks and months they joined their voices together and they sang gospel.
At the end of the final performance of the semester, Vy asks all of the teens to scream their name, loudly so that everyone can hear, in succession, one after the other, on the stage. She waits, in anticipation for Gabby’s turn, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York,” then down the line, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.”
Perhaps in the most captivating image in all Scripture, God’s hand comes upon Ezekiel, scooping him up and setting him in the middle of a valley of lifeless, hopeless, disconnected, dry human bones. In this vision that Ezekiel has, God leads him all around the valley of darkness and shadows and death. And in the midst of the valley, as Ezekiel was walking along, God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel responds, “O Lord God, You know.”
Then God says to Ezekiel, prophesy to these bones. Tell them that God will cause breath to enter them and they will live.
Breath, Ruach, the Hebrew word for breath, wind, spirit, ruach. If you’re able, raise your voices and say it with me, ruach. It rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it. Ruach. A rich, beautiful word, a word of transformation, a word of transcendence. A word that embodies its meaning. Ruach.
So Ezekiel speaks to the dead bones as God has commanded him and the bones begin to bind together, with sinew and flesh, but they’re not yet living, so God tells Ezekiel to do it again, speak to the bones and command the breath, the ruach, to enter these vessels. Ezekiel does as God has commanded him and the bodies suddenly what was lifeless becomes life-giving. What was hope-less becomes hope-ful in the joining of the Spirit with the body.
The Apostle Paul sums up the happenings in the valley of dry bones when he writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on ruach, the Spirit, is life and peace.”
Paul is often misinterpreted as preaching the Spirit in opposition to the flesh, or the spiritual versus the material, or our need to put aside our bodies and concentrate solely on our inner life of faith. Yet, Paul knows that the Christian life is an embodied, material life and he does not say that the material is bad, for as the story goes, “God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
Paul shares Ezekiel’s vision of the symbiotic relationship between our flesh and ruach, the Spirit. Setting our mind on the spirit is a way of conducting bodily life, it is manifested in how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors. Setting our mind on the spirit happens when we allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, inhabit us, animate us. Setting our mind on the Spirit is the only way to discipleship.
I imagine that as God asks Ezekiel of the bones that represented the whole house of Israel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking our church community on this holy day when we – and me I – enter into covenanted ministry together with one another and we God, God is asking us, “Mortals, can these bones live?”
God is asking us, if we, First Congregational Church of Braintree, will allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, to inhabit us, to animate us. God is asking us how will we transform our community? What will our vision be?
When the Spirit of God dwells in us, our corporeal lives, in all their concreteness and messiness, become expressions and instruments of life and peace. So it is when Gabby sings gospel and Rhonda screams her name.
After the semester was over for Gabby, she wrote Vy an email explaining why she had been so quiet and disconnected during class. She wrote that she was storing up all of her pain so that she could sing it out. And, she thanked her.
How will we transform our community?