This is a happy occasion, and I pray this day of resurrection finds you feeling renewed, restored, brimming with new life, and made whole.
It’s been a long rainy Lent –the season has put us through our paces.
Ash Wednesday seems like a very long time ago now. Some of you might remember Ash Wednesday, when we were here imposing ashes on our foreheads. I gave a sermon in which I encouraged you to get ambitious about your Lenten discipline. I said, try giving up something that’s so important to you that you are likely to fail at giving it up. Because Lent, really, is all about failure.
A few years ago I visited a relative of mine who had been diagnosed with emphysema. She said the doctors were really pressuring her to quit smoking. But she said, the thing is, she just loved smoking so much. Sure, she’d tried quitting many times; but you know, that first cigarette in the morning with her coffee just tasted so good; and once she’s had her first one, well, that was it, she’d be smoking through the day.
I asked her if she had tried the nicotine gum – yep, tried that, didn’t work; the patches? yep, tried ‘em; then I said, Well, have you tried praying about it?
And she looked kind of uncomfortable and said, “Nope, can’t say that I have.” I asked, “Why is that?” and she said, “Well, I guess ‘cuz it might just work!”
Last week someone asked me, Well, how is it that Jesus’ death on the cross redeems my suffering? How does that work, exactly?
I’ve been chewing on that question all week; and to answer it well would take a lot more time than we have this morning. But one thing I can say is, we know how it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work if you really don’t want it to work.
It turns out that if you want to change, it really helps if you’re actually willing to change.
God can’t do that for you.
And it turns out that God has a hard time answering prayers if you’re not actually praying.
I wonder: is there a prayer that, like my relative, you are afraid to pray – because you’re afraid it might actually work?
For a lot of us, I think, we have such a prayer. Maybe you’re not even sure what that prayer is – you just know it’s there, waiting for you to notice it. Maybe as soon as I asked that question, it sprang to mind for you. Maybe, right at this moment, you are telling yourself that actually this whole topic is not such a good one, let’s change the subject, forget it, move on. Maybe there’s something in you that wants to pretend this whole thing isn’t happening.
Well, may I suggest you take a moment and just pay attention to that?
Maybe that prayer is the scariest thing in the world to you. If that’s true, what I need to tell you is that God is like an artist who works in the medium of joy. If your prayer is of God, there is great joy – surprising joy, unimaginable joy, complete joy – waiting for you on the other side of that prayer. In fact, it’s that joy that is calling to you now, asking you to pay attention.
All of us live with a divided self. None of us lives in complete harmony with God. What makes us Christians is not whether or not we succeed at living out that prayer; what makes us Christians is that on a regular basis we pay attention to how God is stirring within us, calling us to new life; every Sunday, and hopefully every day, we come home to ourselves; we commit ourselves to this difficult practice of repentance.
This Lent I took my own advice – I tried giving up something that I love a little too much - and during the entire season of Lent I felt like that guy in the cartoon, with the little devil on one shoulder, tempting him into folly, and that little angel on the other.
Except the truth is that the little voice of the angel – that’s not some cute little cartoony version of me with a halo around my head. That voice is actually Christ within me; who occupies my entire frame; who forms the complete man; the man I was created to be; the One who is me as I am in God’s eyes. The truth is that if we actually give those two beings a chance to compete, there is no competition – God wins, every time.
Which is, of course, what we’re afraid of. Which is, of course, why we don’t pray.
And so it typically takes some kind of crisis to bring us to the point at which we are ready to pray that prayer. Because until we get to that point, we will resist, we will dissemble, we will avoid God, we will skip church, we will do everything we can to keep God at bay lest the Holy Spirit actually wiggle Her way through the chinks in our armor and give us the means to actually turn to God with our complete selves; the courage to live lives of wholeness, divided no more.
The ancient wisdom of the church is that that courage is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, if we’re too afraid to pray the prayer that we really need to pray, it really helps just to pray for the courage… to pray.
There’s a wonderful Greek word for all of this moment: metanoia. It has to do with this moment that my Greek dictionary calls “turning to God in pious sorrow.” For alcoholics and other addicts, it’s that moment when we have finally reached bottom; when we have given up trying to keep God at bay; when we are ready to admit that we have failed at the task of living our lives on our own terms; that we are helpless over our addiction, and then we turn to God for help.
But you don’t need to be an addict to know about this. In fact, this concept was invented by people who really had almost no idea what addiction even was.
But what they did know about was failure.
People like Peter. He thought he was strong enough and brave enough that nothing would get him to deny Jesus – nothing, except a girl, sitting around a campfire warming her hands, who innocently asks him, “Aren’t you also one of his disciples?”
We hear the cock crow; we see the blood drain from Peter’s face; his eyes go wide; it looks as though he is about to throw up; and he gets up quickly and runs away.
I imagine the others around the fire watching him run away, and the girl asking, “What’s with him?”
What’s with him is that he’s terrified of death. He’s in a panic for fear of pain and imprisonment and torture and death. Well, who wouldn’t be?
And during those three long days, while Jesus lay dead in the tomb, Peter is the most miserable of men. He is a coward; a failure; a completely humiliated disaster of a man. If he hadn’t been so afraid of death he probably would have killed himself along with Judas.
Peter has reached bottom. The absolute bottom.
And then, early on the morning of that third day, he wakes up; he opens his eyes to a quiet, cool morning; the dew on the ground is rising; for a moment, in his sleepy state, he has forgotten all that has happened, all the sadness and failure of his life is held at bay; and then he hears the women’s voices, their shouts of joy, he gets up and sees them running, a mad look on their faces: they have seen the Lord! He is risen! He is risen!
What does this mean? How can it be?
And then it’s all confusion; the women are pouring out their story to anyone who will listen; and now Peter is running, running to the empty tomb, and it seems as if he’s being carried by a spirit not his own, he’s running faster than he ever thought he could run; and now here is the tomb; here is his burial shroud, cast aside; and then: there He is.
It turns out that everything Peter thought was true - about God, about Jesus, about death, about failure – everything he thought was true turned out to be wrong. There is newness of life. There is forgiveness of sins – complete and total forgiveness even for him, in all his weakness and cowardice. In the light of that risen Christ, radiant, nothing matters but love. Nothing exists but love. Through this love all things come into being. In the sea of this love all of us are swimming. In this love death does not exist!
Peter comes to see, fully, what we can only glimpse on this day: that a life dedicated to love will live forever; and everything he was ever afraid of is nothing – nothing! – in the face of that all-powerful, ever joyful, unstoppable love.
And that's what gives us the courage to stand up and proclaim, Alleluia! Praise God! For He is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!