Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Vigil

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14: 15-15:1; Isaiah 54-5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“The guards were shaken with fear…
and became like dead men.”

We humans spend a lot of time
trying to domesticate God,
trying to put God on a leash,
trying to bring God to heel
and train him not to make messes in the house.
We labor to contain God within the role
of a therapeutic remedy for our anxieties,
or a metaphysical principle for our pondering,
or a divine sanction for our political agenda,
whether of the right or of the left.
We entomb God in a manageable hour on Sunday
and place guards on him
to make sure that he doesn’t get out.
These guards bear many names:
we call them
“what is reasonable,”
“what is practical,”
“what is realistic,”
“what is traditional,”
“what is up-to-date and enlightened.”

But on this most holy of nights
these guards are shaken with fear
and become like dead men.
This night confronts us
with the God who cannot be contained
in our Sunday morning hour,
the God who refuses to be domesticated,
the God who is wild and free
and will not be harnessed to any of our agendas,
or brought to heel by what we consider
reasonable or practical.

This wild God takes my agenda and tears it to shreds:
commands Abraham to sacrifice his son,
destroys the army of the Egyptians in the sea,
pours out his fury on his chosen people,
scattering them among the nations.

This wild God freely acts in ways
beyond my capacity to imagine or hope:
takes chaos and makes a world,
takes slaves and makes them free,
takes death and makes it life.

The God of this night draws us into his wildness:
taking our flesh to enliven it
and embracing our death to defeat it,
becoming himself the sacrificed son
whose offering reconciles us to God,
drowning us in the waters of baptism
to raise us up to life again.
On this night of nights,
God has broken out of
the one-hour, Sunday-morning tomb
in which we have sought to enclose him,
and, frankly, he has made a mess of our house.

We may think that we want a God who respects our agendas,
who acts in predicable and reasonable ways,
who obeys the guards whom we have posted,
but such a God could never be the God of Easter,
the God of life and freedom.
Such a God could only remain
trapped within the tomb of our expectations—
expectations that are so narrow,
so paltry,
so tailored to our idea of who we are
and how the world must be
and how a proper God should behave.
But the wild God of Easter rocks the earth
and breaks open the tomb.
The guards we have posted,
shaken with fear,
become like dead men,
and it becomes possible to imagine the world anew,
to hope for things that our agenda had excluded,
to ask questions that we had not dared ask before.

It is this wild, free, untamed God
who has broken into the lives
of our catechumen and our candidates,
perhaps unasked and unexpected,
making a mess of things in ways
that they may just now be beginning to suspect.
During our RCIA retreat at the beginning of Lent,
several of them commented on how much
Jesus’ words to his apostles in John’s Gospel—
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”—
resonated with their experience,
their sense of surprise that they, of all people,
should have been chosen by God,
should find themselves here, tonight,
teetering on the edge of something as crazy
as living life as a Catholic Christian,
that heritage of saints who are forgiven sinners,
that vast and unruly collection of characters,
that ancient family made ever new
by children born of water, oil, bread, and wine.

For us gathered here tonight,
our catechumen and candidates
are an icon of what can happen
if we let God off the leash,
if we let the fears
and excuses
and rationalizations
that we place as guards
at the entrance of the tomb
faint away before the wildness of the risen Christ.
They show us the power of the Spirit of Jesus,
that blows where it will
and blows away our therapeutic
and metaphysical
and political agendas.
For us, too, the Spirit of the one
who raised Christ from the dead
has sent forth tremors
that have shaken with fear
the guards we have placed on our lives,
setting us free to live for God,
no longer slaves to sin and death.
For Christ is risen from the dead—
unleashed, wild, and free—
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb
bestowing new life.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lent 5

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Throughout the Sundays of Lent
we have listened in on conversations
that people have had with and about Jesus,
transformative conversations
that have opened eyes to the truth
of the good news that Jesus brings,
the truth of forgiveness and healing:
the disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration
witnessing his glory,
the woman at the well confronted
with the reality of her life,
the man born blind encountering
the light of the world.

But what of Lazarus, four-days-dead in the tomb?
What of the one with whom no conversation is possible,
cut off from the living by the veil of death?
Death would seem to be the final defeat of conversation,
putting us beyond the hope of transformation.
We may, for a while, continue a mental conversation,
an imagined dialogue,
with our loved ones who have died.
But do they ever say something that truly surprises us?
Do they ever change their mind in response to what we say?
Is there ever anything new
in our imagined conversations with the dead,
or do we simply hear the echo resounding in the halls of memory?
The truth is, death brings our conversations to an end.
Four days is a long time, his sister warns;
the body is likely to stink—
as if to drive home the finality of what has happened,
the impossibility of conversation.
The woman at the well and the man born blind
can be engaged in a conversation of conversion,
but for poor, dead Lazarus
there can be no transformative conversation with Jesus.

But Jesus does not come to converse with Lazarus
but to command him: “Lazarus, come out!”
His voice resounding at the entry to the tomb
is the Word that, in the beginning,
called all creation into being out of nothing,
the Word that is life and the light for the human race,
the Word that is with God and that is God.
This same Word now calls Lazarus forth
from the nothingness of death into the light of life.
Only this divine Word of command
can banish death, restore life,
and begin anew the conversation that death has cut short.
The truly great miracle here is not simply
that Lazarus is restored to life,
but rather that his dead ears can hear the voice of Jesus
calling him back into live-giving conversation
with the source of all life.

But this story of how the commanding voice of Jesus
can pierce the deafness of death,
and draw us back over the boundary of life,
is not simply a story of his victory over physical death.
For there is a spiritual death that is no less real,
that is no less destructive of our capacity
for engagement with God.
We can find ourselves entombed within the story of our life,
hemmed in by the choices we have made,
choices that have turned us from the God of life
and made us deaf to God’s voice,
choices that make us as unable to hear
as one who is dead and closed in a tomb.
The Church’s traditional term for this is “mortal sin”—
the sin that makes us dead to the life of grace God offers us.
This is best understood not as a really, really, really big sin—
the spiritual equivalent of a capital crime—
but rather as any action that takes us
out of the life-giving conversation with God,
that makes the ear of our heart dead to the voice of God.

Our readings this Lent have shown us
the transformative power
of entering into conversation with Jesus.
But our Gospel today shows us even more.
It shows us the power of Jesus,
the Word who brings light and life,
to call us back into communion with God
when sin and death have broken off the conversation.
The good news of today’s Gospel
is not simply that we have a hope beyond this life
(though that surely is good news),
nor simply that God can raise the dead to life
(though that surely is good news),
but that here, now, on this day,
when we feel cut off from God,
when we feel trapped by the choices we have made
and unable to move from where we are,
as Lazarus was to move from his tomb,
when we feel that God’s voice cannot reach us
because we are held bound in a kind of spiritual death,
when we feel that we cannot even utter a word of prayer
to ask God to give us life again,
the voice of Jesus,
the Word that in the beginning
commanded light and life,
can still call us forth from death.
No choice you have made,
no path you have taken,
no situation in which you are entombed
can silence the commanding voice of Jesus
calling you back into conversation with him,
no sin,
no sorrow,
no deafness or death
can keep that voice
from resounding in your ears.
Come out,
come out
from all that holds you bound,
Let the Spirit of the one.
who raised Jesus from the dead
dwell in you
and give you life.