I realized a couple of days ago that one way to say what I do is to tell people I’m an itinerant preacher. That’s powerful work, in some ways. Yesterday, I was invited to be the guest celebrant at St. Andrew’s, Tuskegee. It wasn’t just that even in Colombia, I heard of Tuskegee when I was growing up. It is that I am allowed to cross so many different boundaries in my wanderings. I think the most wonderful moment of the day came when one of the parishioners at St. Andrew’s said, “Reverend Rosa, I hope you know you have a new church home with us.” That I should be so warmly received and have the invitation extended means the world to me. This summer, I will get to go back a few more times to a parish that can no longer afford a full-time rector and is making due with supply priests for now.
A sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tuskegee, AL
This year, I am acutely aware of just how close we are to the events of Holy Week and Easter. In the past few years, PTSD—Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder—has become a common word in our vocabulary. One of its symptoms is recurrent flashbacks—over and over and over again, the mind replays a particularly traumatic and horrible event. When I read this passage from John, I imagine that at least some of the men and women gathered behind locked doors had those flashbacks, couldn’t shake from their minds the image of their friend, their rabbi, their Savior, hanging lifeless and broken, on the cross.
Today, television serves as our collective mind, and this week, we have been caught in that PTSD kind of flashback. Over and over and over again, we have watched the haunting video of the events that took place in North Charleston. For some of us, that video was a harsh confrontation of our endless capacity for insulation, indifference and brutality. For others, it was the experience of being at the foot of the cross in heartbreaking powerlessness. I imagine that if Mary could sit with Mrs. Scott today, she would say, “I know. I know.” Sometimes the cross is so horribly close to us…
Today’s Gospel brought the events of those days in Jerusalem very close to us in another way. I work with one of the national organizations of the Episcopal Church, helping to launch a new leadership development program. My work has taken me to many churches around the country and I can tell you that what I see in our church today is not unlike what was happening that evening when a group of broken people sat locked in grief and fear.
Some statistics I see suggest that as many as half of the congregations in our church are at significant risk of closing in the next 10-15 years because they are no longer financially viable. Many, many have already closed or have had to slash their budgets and their ministries to the bone to make ends meet. There is a great deal of sorrow, an enormous amount of loss, a deep temptation to give into the worst impulses that tell us it is enough to simply survive through the next day. We know something of that “hunkered down” mentality of Jesus’ friends in the days after his crucifixion.
And then there is this: look at how Jesus has to go about showing his friends, and not just Thomas, that he is truly with them in that room: he shows them his wounds. That’s what we see very easily about ourselves isn’t it? In the past 20 years, the Episcopal Church has had some enormous fights that have left us with torn and jagged edges, with wounds that bleed, with holes in our side and in our hands. We talk about them a whole lot but is that who we really are?
If I know one thing at all about Jesus, it is that his wounds were not what defined him either before or after the cross. He was and is so, so much more than any of that. And if we say that we are the Body of Christ in the world, then we have to believe and we have to live into the certainty that we are infinitely more than the wounds and the brokenness that are so easy to see. Just a few minutes ago, at the beginning of today’s service I proclaimed, “Alleluia, the Lord is risen” and you replied “He is risen indeed, Alleluia”. What we claim and proclaim is this: that we are people of the resurrection. Plain and simple, that is the heart of our witness and our life.
So what do we learn about resurrection from today’s passage?
First, resurrection does not mean a return to the way things were before. There was no denial of the cross—those wounds were a stark confrontation of that truth. In the same way, the work we have to do as a church is not about trying to find a way to go back to how things used to be even if it means having a “church lite” version of the past, where we cut costs to the bone to do a small slice, usually a self-serving small slice, of what we used to do, hoping that’s what it means to be people of the resurrection. No. Our work today is to recognize what is dying and allow ourselves to be led to a new way of being the Church.
Resurrection does not deny the wounds, the horror of the cross. But neither does it mean that the cross has the last word. We have hurt and been hurt a lot in these past years, as a church, as a nation, in so many different ways. And that hurt, disappointment, those wounds, are not the last word. There is more to us than that.
Finally, to be a people of the resurrection is to proclaim that it is possible to find peace without certainty, without clarity, without comfort. Remember, in this glimpse of the post-resurrected Christ, we see him come in where there a group of people are literally fearful for their life after losing everything that had given them meaning. He comes into that and says, “Peace be with you”. Christ comes into our own fear and loss too, offering us peace as well. But if we have peace it is because we have accepted His peace. If there is clarity, it is the clarity that comes from having our tears wash away our blindness to all the big and small ways humankind is still in the business of crucifixion and the God of infinite Love is still in the business of taking all that we have destroyed and crushed, and lifting it up to new life and new possibility. And if there is comfort, it is the comfort we find when we gather at the table, to receive the very same bread, the very same wine, the disciples were offered, gifts that are given to give away. The blessings we have are blessings that call us to be blessing as well.
So what does any of these mean to you here at St. Andrew’s, Tuskegee?
It means that the challenges you are facing, now that you have had to let go of having a full-time rector, now that you are finding your way with a supply priest coming to be with you now and then, those challenges are part of a moment of deep and important change not just for you but for the whole church because so many others are in the same situation. This is your moment to claim fully, to proclaim with boldness and courage, that you are people of the resurrection. You have the opportunity to find a new way to be church for these times.
You are located literally, across the street, from a university. You are surrounded by young people, incredibly beautiful young people, who are getting their start on life in a harsh world. We all know that especially for young Black men, the cross is too close. The young people at Tuskegee need you. They need people who have endured, who have persevered, who have overcome, to walk beside them.
This morning, when I arrived, Miss Velma was waiting to greet me and invite me to a lunch in the parish hall after the service. Mr. J.T. was waiting for me with a bag of gifts. Those gestures of kindness tell me you are a community of grace and hospitality and I bet a lot of other things. You have a unique set of gifts that are far greater than this building, or even your Sunday morning worship service. Do you know what those gifts are? How will you offer them to a world so desperately in need of kindness, hospitality and grace?
It is a privilege and joy to come be with you today and you will remain in my prayers as I ask you to keep me in your prayers. May we all be people of the resurrection. May we all allow the peace of Christ to transcend our fears and our blindness to all the new life that is being offered right here, right now. May we live with courage and boldness and generosity because as we have just said, Alelluia, the Lord is Risen. May we live in the resurrection because we are part of the living Body of Christ. I end these thoughts drawing from the book that gives us so much of our shared identity, the Book of Common Prayer, as it helps us pray for the church:
Oh God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Girl, you are one awesome itinerant preacher!
Wow. Awesome sermon. So grateful for your work, especially with church leadership.