Sunday, April 20, 2014

Old Tombs, New Life

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There are some things that only God can do. 
Jon Bruno is the Bishop of Los Angeles.* Before becoming Bishop Jon served an inner city parish in gang territory. Sitting in those pews among the maids and the mechanics and the janitors and the waitresses were members of rival gangs. 
You could describe some of these young men and women as former gang members. They had undergone a remarkable transformation of heart, soul, and mind. They hadn’t just quit an organization. They were new people. Compassion, respect, and vulnerability had displaced violence, contempt, and intimidation as the defining core of their lives.


Edward Burne-Jones' "The Morning of the Resurrection"
But they hadn’t gotten there all at once. And they certainly hadn’t gotten there on their own. There are some things that only God can do.
Most of the gang members in that parish were just that. Gang members: murderers, thieves, drug dealers. 
Don’t get the idea that these intimidating young men and women had rushed to church because they had seen the light and amended their ways. Against their better judgment they slipped into the back pews, eyeing everybody with suspicion. Their hearts raced when they recognized members of other gangs. They may have exchanged blows and gunfire with some of them.
Gangs do not offer an exit strategy. Well, that’s not entirely true. The tomb is a gang’s exit strategy. You get killed and you’re out. You try to get out and they kill you. In other words, you’re already in the tomb. You’re just waiting for it to be official.
And so gang members stumbled, staggered, and wandered into Bishop Jon’s parish because they had the faint hope that the tomb was not the last word. That maybe, just maybe, God offers a way out of the tomb and into some new life that they didn’t yet understand. 
As it turns out, God does get people out of their tombs. That’s what we celebrate Easter morning. 
God gets us out of the tomb when our heart beats its last and our lungs draw their last breath. God raises us from the dead. Not as a disembodied spirit but as a new creation of mind, body, and spirit. 
We will one day live in his perpetual presence decked in what Paul calls a spiritual body. A body that eats and drinks and laughs and sings without suffering pain or sorrow or decay or death ever again.
God does that. God’s love does that. And God’s love is at work in our lives right now breaking open our temporary tombs and infusing us with new life that, one day, we will know in its fullness.


Rembrandt's "The Resurrection of Christ"
That’s exactly what one of those gang members named Books discovered for himself.
Books had been attending the parish for several months. (That’s not his real name, and to protect identities I won’t use any real names below.) Gradually he had started genuinely participating in the life of the parish and seeking guidance from the rector. Light was getting in around the stone at the opening of his tomb.
Cruiser belonged to a rival gang. He had been coming for a while, too. But one day he stopped coming. As you might imagine, plenty of gang members tried the church thing for a while only to drift away. But that’s not what you would have expected of Cruiser. 
Bishop Jon noticed that Books was troubled, so he invited him into his office to talk. There, Books broke down and admitted that he had killed Cruiser. He had made Cruiser kneel in front of him and shot him in the back of the head.
“We’re going to see Alice,” Jon said. Alice was Cruiser’s mother.
So Jon walked Books to Alice’s tiny walkup apartment.
“Alice,” said Jon, “Books has something he has to tell you.”
Books looked down at his feet, looked at Jon, looked at Alice. Then he said in a small, thick voice, “I killed Cruiser. I made him get down on his knees in front of me and I shot him. I shot him in the back of the head.”
Rocked with grief, Alice couldn’t say anything for a while. When she finally spoke, this is what she said.
“There has been too much killing. Too many families losing their babies. Fr. Jon, you’re not taking this boy to the police. Books, from now on you’re going to be my boy. I’m going to take care of you. And I’m going to be your mama. You’re going to take care of me.”
And that is just what happened. From that day forward, Alice took Books in and cared for him as her own son. And Books became the helpful, loving, grateful son who watched out for and supported his mother as she aged.
There are some things that only God can do.


Jacek Malczewski's "Resurrection"
In John’s account of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene teaches us about one of the common themes of our spiritual journey.
There are things that only God could have done. And yet, sometimes we can’t see those things as God at work. 
Maybe our pain or our shame is too great to believe that God could be reaching out to us so intimately. Maybe we’re too cynical about life or too realistic to give God a second thought. Maybe we’ve given up on ourselves so we just figure that God’s given up on us, too.
When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on the third day, she saw the stone rolled away from its opening. 
A broken heart blurred her vision. She could see only what “they” had done. They had rolled back the stone. They had taken Jesus’ body. 
Jesus’ body was gone, and now she was left to waste away in her own tomb. A tomb built from the ashes of shattered dreams and filled with the stale air of bitter grief. Jesus was dead. The life she knew with him at its center was dead. She was dead. And the dead stay dead.
And then the risen Jesus says her name. “Mary.”
When Jesus speaks, he’s doing more than getting her attention. He’s waking her up. From the dead. Jesus speaks Mary into new life like he spoke Lazarus out of his tomb.
“Mary.”
Jesus speaks the word of new creation. New Mary. In the beginning God had said, “Let there be light.” And now God in Christ says, “Let there be Mary!” The old life with Jesus walking the byways of Galilee has given rise to the new life in the risen Christ.
That’s why Jesus tells Mary, “Don’t cling to me.”
He’s saying, “I’m giving you a new life in me. Let go of the old life. This new life will take some getting used to. You’ll spend all of eternity growing into it. We’ll do it together.”
There are some things that only God can do.
Most of us find ourselves in a tomb from time to time. 
Maybe you’re on a roll right now and figure that you’re done with tombs once and for all. 
It could be that you’ve never really been in a grave of your own, but that’s likely because you’re so young that your only major concern is that Dad hasn’t realized that you need a fresh diaper.
There are all sorts of tombs. Addiction. Physical illness. Chronic pain. Depression. Rocky marriage. Struggling children. Declining parents. Financial distress. Loneliness. 
Maybe you hate your body, hate your nose, hate your job. Maybe you’re so exhausted from hiding your flaws or your stupid missteps or the cruel and selfish things you've done that your soul is imploding.
Something’s got to give.
Mostly, we look to change this or that thing about our circumstances and figure that these external changes will take care of everything. A new job or a new look or a new boyfriend will get you out of this tomb and you’ll live happily ever after.
After trying to fix our life by rearranging our circumstances once or twice or a couple of thousand times, we start to get the sneaking suspicion that it's a losing strategy. Changing our circumstances just sets us up for a new and improved tomb next time around.
Changes in my circumstances won’t really help until something, until someone, changes me. Changes me into a person whose circumstances, no matter how dire, can never entomb me.
There is no self-help program, set of spiritual disciplines, exercise routine, cosmetic surgery, or diet regimen that will get you there. You’re looking to be a New Creation. You’re looking for resurrection. And that’s what Jesus gives us.
There are some things that only God can do.



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*Bishop Bruno shared this story in a meditation at the Spring meeting of the House of Bishops in 2013. Any inaccuracies in this story or missing details are due to my faulty recollection. I give thanks for +Jon for his faith and his remarkable ministry.

This sermon was preached on Easter Day at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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