Sunday, April 05, 2015

Love Bids Us Welcome — Easter Sermon

Good Morning, I Know It's Easter
As many of you know, I was ordained as a deacon back in August of 2013, and then I became a priest in June of last year. Esther, our six-year old, has been very interested in all of this stuff, and she has been very supportive. For example, yesterday, I was sharing with Rebekah some of my plans for today’s sermon. Esther was listening in, and she interrupted our conversation and said, “Daddy, I know how you can begin your sermon.” I was grateful because making a beginning is so often the hardest part. And so, let me begin my sermon today in the words of Esther:
“Good morning, I know it’s Easter.”

I know it’s Easter. But what does it mean to know it’s Easter. At its most basic level, Easter is all about the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is about how God literally raised Jesus from the dead, the same Jesus who, just days earlier, literally died a humiliating and torturous death, with a cry of abandonment on his lips. Why did he die? Why was he raised? These are strange things. So if we want to understand them, if we want to know what they have to do with us in our daily lives, then we need to take a few steps back to gain some perspective. We need to put them into context, because these strange events that have taken place these past three days, are not the whole story, but the climax of a much larger, grander Story.

The Story of God
So what is this Story? Well, it’s the story of a God and his creation. And as with all good stories, this one has conflict; it has a problem that needs to be resolved. And the problem is this: God loves his creation and wants to be a part of it. In particular, God loves us human beings, and longs to share our company, but whenever God gets close to us, we flee in fear. Whenever we hear God approaching, we run into our houses and lock the doors. We get into our beds and pull the covers up over our heads. And we stay there, waiting and hoping that God will pass us by.

Why? Because we don’t experience God’s presence as a blessing, only as a curse. You see, when we find ourselves in the presence of God, we become overwhelmed by shame. Consciously and unconsciously, we feel naked and exposed, vulnerable and weak; we feel dirty, unworthy of God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness. And so we hide ourselves from God for fear of judgment.
And, we don’t just act this way with God, we are like this with everyone we meet, to some degree or other. Shame causes us to question our identity and worth. And you know the voice of shame. It’s the one that is constantly whispers things like, “Who do you think you are?” “You’re never going to be good enough.” “Conceal it, don’t feel it. Don’t let it show” (Frozen). “Hide your face so that the world will never find you” (Phantom). Shame makes us feel vulnerable to ridicule, criticism, blame, and rejection. Shame teaches us to hide ourselves from one another others. Shame teaches us to construct a false identity, to project a false self, one that we hope will make us worthy of love and acceptance.
In all of this, the acorn hasn’t fallen too far from the family tree. For our experience of living from a place of shame is what Adam and Eve—our first parents—experienced. In fact, we inherited our deep sense of shame from them; it’s built into our spiritual dna. In the beginning, when God created Adam and Eve and brought them together, they were perfectly suited for one another. They complemented one another, and they were at ease with in their vulnerability. As Genesis describes it, “they were naked and unashamed.”

But that all fell apart when they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Something in the flesh of that forbidden fruit changed them. In an instant, they became acutely aware of their vulnerability and nakedness. Shame washed over them, to such a degree, that they no longer took comfort in one another’s company. At least, not without hiding themselves by covering their nakedness with some makeshift clothing.

When God arrived on the scene, things got worse. Apparently, fig leaves didn’t provide enough cover and protection for Adam and Eve. They were afraid and hid themselves because God’s presence was too much to bear. Why? Because God’s presence only triggered their deep sense of shame, inadequacy and unworthiness, and so they could no longer enjoy the presence of God in their lives. So there was nothing for God to do but to send them out of the garden. To be sure, life East of Eden was no picnic. It was difficult, but there was more kindness in allowing them to struggle in the world, than in allowing them to remain hidden in paradise, fearful and in great discomfort and pain. So God barred them from Eden and the Tree of Life… until there could be found a cure for what ailed them and all of their unborn children.

The Vision of God
And so God had a dream, a vision of a renewed creation and a restored humanity, where his presence would be a blessing instead of a curse. We get a glimpse of this dream in the penultimate chapter of the final book of the Bible. In Revelation, John is given a preview of the New Creation. He writes,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:1–5).  
There are two things I want you to notice. First, notice that the movement is from heaven to earth, not from earth to heaven. You see, God’s ultimate vision for human beings is not a disembodied existence in heaven, but a renewed bodily existence in a renewed creation. Those who have died are in heaven now, but that is only a temporary state of affairs. In the end, when death is destroyed and all of creation restored, those who have been united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected so that they might enjoy a material, bodily existence as God our Creator originally intended. This is what God has in store for us; and this is what we get a glimpse of in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus isn’t simply back from the dead, he is the first fruits of the general resurrection. He is the beginning of the New Creation. This is why the early church came to refer to Sunday, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, as the Eighth Day, for it was the first day of the New Creation.

The second thing to notice from Revelation is that God plans to make his home in creation. God is planning to move in with us. This reveals two things. First, it reveals just how much God loves us and wants to be to us. Second, it reveals that by that future date, God has clearly healed humanity of its tyranny to shame. In the New Creation, God’s presence has become a blessing once again. But how does God make all of this happen? How does God make his dream come true?

The Incarnation of God
God had to get close enough to heal us, but he had to disguise himself lest he frighten us away. So God stripped off his garment of glory and came to us clothed in the cloak of human weakness. The Word became flesh and dwelt us; a preview of things to come.

As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus took our shame onto himself and into the very heart of God where it can be healed. In his life, Jesus bore the cross of our shame, all of our shame—our shame for the wrong that we have done and our shame for the wrong that has been done to us; our shame for good that we have not done and our shame for the good that has not been done to us, you know, the shame we experience when, in this world, we have not been loved unconditionally, when we have made to feel unworthy of love and acceptance. In his suffering and death, our shame is nailed to the cross with Jesus and taken to the grave. Then, in his resurrection, our humanity is healed and our shame is transformed into glory, and we know live in the hope of the resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection and our own. All of this has been done for us by God, our beloved Father, who dearly loves us. And all of this is made available to us when we put our trust in Jesus, when we rest in his mercy and grace. Our guilt and shame has been taken away, and in the words of Paul, we have not been left naked, but we have been further clothed, clothed with Christ (2 Cor 5:1–4; Gal 3:27).

The Gift of God
This is what it means to know that it’s Easter. To know Easter is to know that we are dearly loved by God, that we are valued and treasured. To know Easter is to know that we have been completely forgiven and made worthy of love and acceptance. To know Easter is to know that we have been set free from shame, and therefore we are free to begin to live wholehearted lives as the beloved children of God.

All of this Easter stuff has been given to us, but how hard it is for us to accept such a gift. How hard it is to accept any gift when we feel unworthy, let alone this extravagant gift from God. God has taken away our shame, but we can still hear its fading voice reverberating in the echo chamber of our souls, trying to get us to hide ourselves from God and one another.

But we need not give into shame anymore, we need only listen to the voice of Love. It takes faith, but faith is nothing more than “the courage to accept our acceptance” (Paul Tillich), and God helps us with that. Faith is the secret of living wholehearted lives, for the resources of faith in Christ help us learn to live from a place of God’s love and acceptance rather than from a place of shame. Faith teaches us to trust the voice of Love.

The Voice of Love
I would like to end with one of my favorite poems. It’s by George Herbert, and it has been included as an insert in your bulletins. This poem, which is about four hundred years old, captures the drama of how the voice of shame tries to compete with the voice of Love. Love invites us to a feast, but our deep sense of unworthiness gets in the way. We do everything in our power to make ourselves worthy of God’s love, yet God graciously challenges every one of our attempts. In the end, Love wears us down until there is nothing left for us to do, but give in and enjoy the blessing of God’s presence, which is all that God really wants from us.
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,     
      Guilty of dust and sin.    
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack      
      From my first entrance in,         
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
      If I lack’d anything.        

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’   
     Love said, ‘You shall be he.’        
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,      
      I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 
      ‘Who made the eyes but I?’        

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame          
      Go where it doth deserve.’         
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
      ‘My dear, then I will serve.’        
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’         

      So I did sit and eat.          

May we do the same!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, April 5th, a.d. 2015
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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