Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Day Sermon 2016: Easter Joy and Tears

Easter Joy and Tears

Have you heard about the latest, hottest thing sweeping the nation? It is the Helicopter Easter egg drop.  You can see signs around the Seacoast at traffic lights. The practice looks to have started by so-called mega churches in the South and then brought to New England. With thousands of members attending their services, the clergy realized they could never organize a traditional Easter egg hunt -- too labor intensive. So they came up with an idea to hire a helicopter and have 10K, 20K up to 100,000 plastic eggs filled with candy and other surprises dropped from 150 feet up in the air.  The more people that would come could lead to more people hearing the message of Easter.  Maybe. Today it is not just mega churches dropping eggs by the thousands: whole towns and communities are getting in on the act.

I came across one headline from Mississippi – just from this past week:  “Chaos at Easter Egg Drop.”  Seems like the organizers of the event under estimated the number of children they expected to show up and the amount of eggs that would be needed to be tossed out of helicopter. Just so you can visualize, the eggs do not drop right on top of the kids, but in a secure field near by.  And then the kids are told to start the hunt and they rush in.

The article (Sun Herald March 20, 2016) stated that “excited, bright-eyed children hoped to fill their baskets with plastic eggs containing treats or cards for larger prizes, such as bicycles. There were equally excited parents, including many who ignored repeated instructions to stay off the outfield and let children hunt by themselves.

Many children in the youngest age division, 2 to 4, found no eggs at all. Others walked off the field with overflowing baskets. In the next age division, some parents sneaked in older children to hunt eggs with much smaller children. Some children cried. Many parents left with loud complaints.

"It certainly wasn't our intention to make children cry or to make parents angry," said one organizer.  "It was chaos. A disgrace," said one angry parent. She said her children were trampled and didn't get any eggs.  "I'll never come back," she said to the reporter.  Yet, "There were no reports of injuries, but only injured feelings."

So you see kids: here at Christ Church – where we don’t have a helicopter Easter egg hunt -- we are sparing you from tears and heartache and potential injury this Easter.  To the parents and children present today I say: you’re welcome!  

We have our own joy this morning.  Today after all is The Day in the Christian year when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. When we can say in no uncertain terms that God has conquered death. There is life beyond the grave.  In Christ, there is a promise of eternal life that we get glimpses of here and now. Jesus Christ is alive in our world and in us, and that changed and changes everything.  

But even with all the joy and hope that Easter brings, like those children who left that Mississippi egg drop crying, we still can’t get away from tears.

From John’s telling:

John 20: 11-13 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

Why even mention crying and tears when this day is centered on new life in Christ?

In my experience, there is a fine line between joy and sorrow -- laughing and tears.  How many of you have ever laughed so hard that tears start rolling down your face?  Or gathering with family and friends to remember the passing of a loved one, telling stories of their life, mourning their life, the good, cherished times, when someone – almost always – recalls a lighter moment, an odd habit or off expression of the one being remembered, and the room breaks out in laughter. Laughter becomes the balm that heals and the gateway to living into an unknown future. 

Heaven knows: our world has a whole lot of things to weep and cry about. Our bishop reminds us in his Easter message that last year, “over 400 of our neighbors in New Hampshire died to drug overdoses.” Too many in a small state.  Globally, innocent lives are being lost by acts of terror from the heart of Europe to the most remote village in Africa – where in the out of the way forgotten corners of the globe there are no television crews and few candle light vigils.  There is a real fear in our globalized world that many are trying to grapple with and understand.  For us this fear of terror and our need to find a way to respond may be the spiritual challenge of our time.  

The miracle and joy of Easter has something to say to us about our world today – the rational and irrational fear that terror creates.   Jesus triumphed over the demons of darkness and death so that we would not make them our own. His resurrection shows us how not to draw back into ourselves or turn on one other and see the other with constant suspicion.  We must be safe, yet we also must not lose our soul or our core beliefs in the process – which is why we pray for our leaders who make these tough decisions on our behalf.  For it is in the other, the stranger, the outcast, the wounded, the child, the lost, the prisoner, the refugee and the poor that Jesus told us to look to find him. There are risks and there will be set backs if we follow a Christ who died on a cross before he was raised on the third day.  As they say: “it goes with the territory.”

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  Mary Magdalene, mentioned in all four gospels as a witness to the Resurrection, took a moment to cry for someone dear and close that she believed had been lost to her forever.

The empty tomb could have become a memorial. Candles could have been lit and more and more people could have gathered there. But it didn’t.  The risen Jesus saw Mary’s tears and sees ours.  And he says to her, through the tears:  “Do not hold on to me.”

I return often to the Native American proverb that states, “You can’t see the future with tears in your eyes.”

There comes a time and a day when mourning for what seems to have been lost does little good for those who believe in a God of resurrection, new life and unconditional love.  The risen Jesus told Mary instead: “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

How then do we go from tears to letting go? From fear to trust? From pain to healing? From feeling trapped to being set free? From conflict to peace? From sadness to joy?  

Is there a something we could wear on our wrists to count our progress – sort of like a fitbit for our souls? 

The beloved late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey reminds us “the language in the New Testament is not of Jesus rising but of Jesus being raised by God. Jesus did not “achieve” resurrection. (pg. 103 To Believe is to Pray, James E. Griffiss, Editor). 

St. Paul wrote to early believers: 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Corinthians 15)

Each morning I get of bed soon after I open my eyes or my old dog Max starts stirring. I rise out of bed on my own.  I am not raised out of bed.

We live in an achievement and aspirational culture.  Many of us spend our days seeking to achieve something that always seems to change just about the time we acquire it.  The goalposts in life tend to move.

Yet when it comes to truly living into the promise of the Resurrection, it is not something we can achieve or acquire by praying more, reading more good books, trying harder, joining a church, going to church, even by living a better life.  This is one thing that we can’t make happen on our own.

The promise of God, to conquer death forever, to lift and raise us up, happens to us and for us. 

Today we wake up to proclaim and share the central message of our faith: that God brings new life to dead ends.  

It is not something we can purchase, or package, or download, crowd source, or bargain for and leverage something else to acquire.  

The Resurrection we celebrate today is mystery and Grace: a free gift from God who is hoping against hope that we are foolish and wise enough to believe and live into.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cuba: Obama and Hope for Change

Iconic Che Guevara mural in Cuba: Photo by Mark Pendleton 2015
My first trip to Cuba was in 1985. I have been hooked ever since. From 1986-1987 I spent one year as a seminarian in Matanzas, taking a train each Friday to Havana to help out at the cathedral. My son Will retraced some of my steps during his Y.A.S.C. year in 2013: he is currently engaged to his Cuba fiancĂ©e Naylet.  Needless to say: my family has been into Cuba for a long time. 

With President Obama's trip to the Cuba next week, it is worth pausing and seeing how far we have come to the brink of a new day in U.S.-Cuba relations. Yes, there are still many things to work through: human rights, fair elections, land claims, immigration, and who could forget: Guantanamo? The process of normalization, let alone reconciliation, begins anew. It needs to begin. 

One of the main themes of the Community of the Cross of Nails is "healing the wounds of history." We have many such wounds to heal between Cuba and the U.S. Those wounds will not heal overnight. Stories will need to shared. I hope and pray that life is changed for the average Cuba in the months and years ahead. I believe it is a good thing for Americans to travel freely to Cuba, and I hope for the day that Cubans can travel freely here -- and return home to help rebuild their island from decades of isolation and neglect.  

As Christ Church travels to Cuba April 2, and the Exeter Rotary Club follows on April 9, may we play a small part in making one-time enemies into friends. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Report on CCN Gathering in South Africa

President’s Report
International Rep’s meeting
Cape Town, South Africa
January 26-31, 2916
Visit to St. Cyprian's Girls School in Cape Town
A Prayer for Africa (used on many occasions during the week)

God bless Africa
Guard our children
Guide our leaders
And give us peace
For Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen

I traveled to South Africa in my role as President of the CCN-NA to attend a meeting of the International Representatives of the Community of the Cross of Nails. We gathered as representatives from the U.K., Germany, Eastern Europe, South Africa and the U.S. for our biennial meeting.  My wife Leslie joined me on the trip.

Petrina Pakoe was our gracious host in South Africa. Formerly with Hope Africa, a ministry of the Anglican Province, Petrina is now director of the Peninsula Feeding Association which feeds hungry school children on the Western Cape. My arrival was delayed one full day because of a mechanical problem in our British Airways 747 that caused us to put down in Abuja, Nigeria for 18 hours. By the time I arrived, the meeting’s agenda had already begun. The gathering is a chance to hear about the various events are going on throughout the network and to find common cause with the work and staff at Coventry cathedral.  We discussed fundraising, the Coventry Cathedral vision and strategy, and other areas of collaboration.

Throughout the week the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails in South Africa influenced our conversations and directed our time. When not meeting, we visited centers and met with CCN members. The group visited Protea Village and Good Shepherd church and learned of the their decades long struggle to reclaim the land that had been lost by the local colored population in 1950 when the Group Areas Act forcibly moved families to the Cape Flats. Jenny Wilson, a CCN Companion, spoke about the work of the CCN to help heal the wounds of history and fight wherever possible to advocate in court to help return the land to its rightful owners.

We traveled on hour outside of Cape Town to the town of Paarl and Ascension Church to present a new cross of nails to the congregation after the previous cross had been stolen. The congregation’s work involves supporting the rights of farm workers in this wine producing regioun, many of whose livelihoods have been impacted by low wages and more recently the growing influx of foreign workers from southern and central Africa to compete for limited work. 

We spent a lovely day at the Volmoed Retreat and Conference Center, a CCN partner near Hermanus.  Volmoed was started in the early eighties as a place that would minister to people who felt shattered by their life's experience. Volmoed means full of courage and hope. We met with theologian the Rev. John de Gruche who offered a lively reflection of the state of reconciliation in South Africa – which he implied is a bit tattered due to many whites ignoring the Truth and Reconciliation -- and even found a way to include Donald Trump in his analysis.  EVERYONE we met wanted to know about Donald Trump!  John’s blog is certainly worth looking into:

On January 29 we visited two schools that are ICONS schools. In doing so, we got a glimpse of the education of the youth of the largely white and elite population of the country. The schools were lovely and the welcome we received was warm from staff and students of both Somerset West and St. Cyprian’s Girls School in Cape Town. There was an open and honest sense of anxiety and uncertainly among the white population that we had a chance to meet and engage. There were clear concerns about the economy and the political turmoil surrounding the current President Jacob Zuma. There was a great deal of chatter about the President’s four wives and the recent 25% devaluation of the South African Rand, causing real economic hardship for the people.

Our host Petrina gave us a tour of the Cape Flats, including the colored area of Manenberg and Reconciliation Anglican parish. We also visited the black township of Khayelitsha, where we visited the Fikelala Children’s Home. The dedicated staff care for abused and abandoned children, many of who are HIV+ and some of who were born with alcohol fetal syndrome.  We learned later that then NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg had visited the same home. 

On Saturday we gathered at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in the District Six area of Cape Town to meet with Christian and Muslim youth and to visit a local mosque. From the St. Mark’s website one can learn of the importance of this church:
Between 1969 and 1984, some forty thousand District Six residents were evicted by the Group Areas Act, and relocated in houses scattered all over the Cape Flats, their homes demolished. Faced with the prospect of their church being de-consecrated, the St Mark's congregation firmly rejected the Government's offer to rebuild the church, stone for stone - an exact replica - in Athlone, and returned the two million rand compensation cheque. At the same time they decided that, regardless of distance, "they would, as far as possible, continue as before."

From St. Mark’s we walked to the Al-Azhar Mosque and entered its worship space. The mosque is a reminder of the unique centuries old history of Muslims living peacefully and co-existing alongside Christians and Jews in the melting pot that is Cape Town. The young people we met with were all very impressive in the ways in which they have formed new and trusted friendships and are doing the hard work of reconciliation, which for some of them begins in their homes with understanding and healing from family histories and conflict.  From there we visited St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in downtown Cape Town, the site of many anti-apartheid protests, the ministry of Desmond Tutu, and courageous HIV-AIDS education and outreach through the years at the height of the epidemic. 

On Saturday evening we were hosted in the home of noted church and social activist Di Oliver, a long-serving member of the Black Sash, a human rights organization. Di  has received many honors for her role in advancing peace and justice in South Africa.  The gathering was a valuable glimpse into what I would call the witness and struggles of the white progressive minority who were once at the center of the anti-apartheid government activity and now see there roles shift and somewhat diminished in today’s South Africa. 

Our main service on Sunday was held at St. Saviour’s Church in Claremont.  The dean of Coventry preached and I was invited to read the gospel.  In attendance was the Rt. Rev. Garth Counsell, Bishop of Table Bay of the Cape Town archdiocese. 

On my last night in Cape Town, Leslie and I went to hear a talk from Fr. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest of international fame for his work as a liberation activist and a reconciler. Michael lost both hands and one eye in a mail bomb sent to him while he was living in Zimbabwe just months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. He is an amazing speaker and inspiring person who has claimed a new identity after his own personal tragedy. 

My general and lasting impressions of my visit was to see up close how South Africa is living through the days after Nelson Mandela.  Though the evils of apartheid are behind them, the residue and impact of that system of racial cleansing and social engineering are still very much in sight.  It is as if the people of South Africa reached their Promised Land after years of oppression, led by their Moses figure Mandela, only to find many new challenges in building a just society in the new land.

I continue to be moved and inspired about how individuals and communities gain strength through the iconic Coventry cross of nails. It continues to invite people to imagine a different kind of future.  It offers them a way to share their stories and voices with others around the world.  Forgiveness, in the end, is the only way forward. But it does not come quickly or cheaply.

The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton

Children's Home