Apr 242011

Easter in the year of our risen Lord  2011.                            St. Paul’s Church

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and from our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen, Hallelujah. Amen, Hallelujah.

“Sir, have you taken his body away?”


“My Teacher??!!”

“Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended.”

What a conversation! What a moment of transformation from death to life, from despair to hope, from the darkness of Friday through the confusion of Saturday to the glory of Sunday.

We all have Friday moments – crucifixion moments — in our lives … You know your Friday moments (and I know mine). Jobs lost, friendships squandered, disasters damaging our lives, prejudices and bigotry, mistakes we’ve made that damage relationships with loved ones. You name it. Whatever it is, somebody here has done it to somebody else, or has had it done to them. And if you’re like me, you mostly don’t say much about those Friday moments. They’re private. We keep them in the dark and carefully tend them like so many mushrooms growing in the cellars of our souls.

So it was with Mary in our Gospel reading (John 20) this morning.

Let’s set the scene. It’s before dawn on the morning after the Sabbath on the highest of Jewish holy days. A couple of days earlier, the people in charge of the Temple and their Roman masters had conspired to execute Jesus. The conspirators had stirred up a bloodthirsty frenzy among the people in the street. Exploiting peoples’ fear was easy to do, especially when it’s fear of a Roman emperor and of God.  The enraged people had called out “crucify him.”  And so on that Friday Jesus had suffered on the cross, died in the sight of his friends and followers, and been buried.

The gospels don’t say much about the events of that Saturday. It was the Jewish Sabbath. Luke tells us “the disciples rested according to the commandment.”  I’ll bet. Some rest that must have been:  They were holed up someplace, in fear of the frenzied mob, for a night, followed by a day, followed by another night. I wonder how much sleep they got?

I wonder how many anxious thoughts circled around the cellars of their souls in those two dark nights?  Did the words “this can’t be happening …” and “if only…” pass through their minds over and over again?

The traditional words of our baptismal creed say that Jesus died, was buried, and descended into hell. Did the same thing happen to his disciples?  I believe it did, because I too have had those lost Saturdays. I have sometimes been mired in anger, pain, sadness and remorse for night after night. I daresay some of you have had similar experiences.

At any rate Mary Magdalene didn’t sleep very well (to put it mildly) that Saturday night. On Sunday morning she felt a restless call to DO something. Maybe she could care for the broken body of her lord and master? Maybe just keep watch? Who knows? Most of us have shared her experience of needing to DO something. And so, burdened by that need, Mary slipped out of the house and went to Jesus’s tomb.

And there, in the darkness before her dawn she came face to face with the surprise of her life – the surprise of our lives too. It turned out that while she was lying alone in the dark on her lost Saturday night with her regrets, and her memories of the Lord something changed.. The universe changed forever. She arrived at the tomb to find it burst open. She bent down and gazed into the tomb expecting to find death. But she found angels instead of a corpse. Death was not to be found there. While she was lying awake that night, death was swallowed up in victory. Hallelujah? HALLELUJAH! Amen.

But it wasn’t quite that easy for her. She sensed that something big had happened, but it was still dark. She was still pursuing her anxious need to do something. She was still looking for death. She asked a stranger standing there to tell her where the body was.

The stranger spoke her name – “Mary!”  She answered “Rabbouni?!” [inflect questioning, turning to surprise, turning to certainty]  While she was speaking that single word, the sun rose and shone into her darkness. In the moment she heard and recognized Jesus, she knew she would not find death that morning, but life. And when we hear her story, we know that we too will not find death, but life. Hallelujah? HALLELUJAH! Amen.

But it’s still not as easy as all that, neither for her or the rest of us. The Lord’s next words to her are mysterious and surprising …   “Don’t cling to me … Go and tell my sisters and brothers I am ascending.” he said.

What’s that all about? “Don’t cling to me?” Why did he say that?  In the past Jesus gave her great honor for clinging to him: for kneeling and wiping his feet with her hair. But no more. When he conquered death and burst open the tomb, everything changed. She has found him alive, but he doesn’t want her to hang on to him in her accustomed way. It’s a new heaven and a new earth. She knows she’s not going to find death, but she still needs to learn to live in God’s realm where death has no place. And so do you and I. It’s not easy.

A couple of cities up the river from here, in Lawrence, is a home for people living with AIDS. It’s called Corpus Christi House (that’s Latin for Body of Christ House). They’ve been up and running for almost two decades now. A recent letter from Bridget Shaheen, the director of Lazarus House, the organization that runs Corpus Christi House, reminded me how hard it was to get the house built when they started trying. Back in 1978, many people believed a hospice for AIDS victims was a tomb. The house’s neighbors were in a panic: they were sure if they bent down and gazed into such a place they would find death – their own death – gazing right back at them.  So those neighbors fought fiercely to prevent the Corpus Christi house from being built, and succeeded for five years.

Now, let’s be careful.  Most of those folks in that neighborhood were, and still are, faithful Christians. They’re celebrating Jesus’s empty tomb this morning just like we are.  Let’s not get drawn into the trap of thinking ourselves somehow morally superior to them. We’re not. We live in the same culture. We breathe the same air, we drink from the same river, we’re baptized in the same water. We’re neighbors. Let’s be humbly reminded by this example that it is not easy to live in God’s realm where death has no place. Even when we know better, we cling to our idea of life. We cling to what we know. Death doesn’t stop making us afraid even when it is swallowed up in victory.

Ms. Shaheen’s letter recalled what it was like for the years they worked to get the Corpus Christi house built. She makes it sound like a five-year-long lost Saturday. She wrote,

It was tragic when our first attempt at building a …  residence failed. For years we tried to continue the HIV/AIDS ministry by bringing patients to doctors visits, talking with them, or sometimes it was as simple as giving them a hug because so many hadn’t been touched by a bare hand in a very long time.


“As simple as giving them a hug!”


This invites us to hear Jesus’s resurrection words to Mary in a new way:  “Don’t hang on to me. Instead, go and tell the whole human family that I have conquered death once and for all time.”

And Mary went.  She went and gathered her friends together. Like her, they were bleary-eyed from their lonely and sleepless Saturday night. And she told them, just like she tells us through the Gospel, “I have seen the Lord!” Hallelujah?  HALLELUJAH! Amen.

As the sun rose and overcame the darkness of that lost Saturday night, those disciples joyfully hugged one another. They clung to one another, and lifted each other up. They did the two things that aren’t easy: they offered each other the love of  Christ, and they accepted the love of Christ from each other. The Corpus Christi house people did the same thing – living in a world where death has no place, they accepted love from strangers — sick strangers, no less —  who yearned to give it.

It’s not easy to live in the realm of God, the new heaven and new earth where death has no place.  It’s not easy, but it is simple.  Hold one another in love, allow yourself to be held in love, and always remind one another.

Christ is risen. Hallelujah. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah Hallelujah. Amen.

These words I say to you in the name of the risen Lord, and in memory of her.


 Sermon for Easter Day 2011  Posted by on Sun, 24-Apr-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Easter Day 2011
Apr 232011

What amazing symbols, rituals, prayers and scriptures have been woven together and passed down to us in this ancient liturgy of the Easter Vigil! The promises of God connect them all together and led us so beautifully to the font. There we called down the Holy Spirit to brood over the waters, as we welcomed Vivien into the household of the God. In that moment I think I caught sight of the mystical connective tissue that holds us together as the body of Christ – did you?

This Lent, some of us here at St. Paul’s had the opportunity to watch the movie, Romero, which tells the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who stood with the poor peasants of his country against a corrupt government that brutally repressed them. Toward the end, when it became clear that his life was in danger, Archbishop Romero said, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people”. Less than a week later he was gunned down at the altar in the midst of Eucharist. Those words of his have been rattling around inside of me all this week as we have journeyed with Jesus toward the cross. Those words spoken by Archbishop Romero, flowed directly from his experience of resurrected Christ who walked the road with him and the people of El Salvador. The truth is that no one can kill or put an end to the divine consciousness that came walking among us in Christ Jesus. Sometimes it is put down for a time, first by the cross, at other times by assassins’ bullets, mass repressions, or the apathy and self-centered indifference of a cynical and consumerist world, but inevitably it will grow up again. There is no rooting it out completely – it runs deeper than the foundations of the world. It moves like the wind and its path is not fully traceable by our human senses.

Each day it gains new ground in our world as more and more people tap into it. As Christians we witness this at the font, as we did this evening as dear little Vivien was baptized and a whole new chapter of life in the spirit opened up for her and her family. And this of course is not a one-time event, but just the marking of the beginning of the journey, and so all of us who share that covenant of baptism reaffirmed it right alongside of her tonight. Through these waters we have all died a death to sin and moved through the the door of the open tomb with Christ.

In our reading from the letter to the Romans we hear Paul struggling to put this awesome reality into words. Sometimes I like to take the connective and descriptive words out of Paul’s writing so that the heart of what he is saying pops. I did that this week with this lesson from Romans and got this Resurrection text message back:

All of us: baptized, buried with him
As Christ was raised, we walk – newness of life
United in death – united in resurrection
Our old self: crucified
Body of sin: destroyed,
Whoever died: freed no, longer enslaved
Christ: never die again!
Death: no dominion
Death to sin: once for all
Life: to God
Yourselves: dead to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ we die to an old, fearful, broken, time-bound consciousness. Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ we arise into a new consciousness – the lifeblood of God’s realm, which flows through Christ Jesus to us. No wonder the women left the tomb that morning in both fear and joy. That mixture of emotions is appropriate to this major shift in consciousness!

This new life of resurrection is risky, unknown, seemingly too good to be true. Because it is such a departure from the time bound consciousness of the world, it is unpredictable. It may even be dangerous because it is disdained by many who are still living under a temporal consciousness. The life story of Oscar Romero and many other valiant seekers after peace, and justice have shown this to be true.

But once we have a taste of resurrection power – once we have had it wash over us – there is a piece of us that will always thirst for it. The mark of it on our soul can never be erased, and with proper tending we grow in the strength and grace of it. Finally in the end the perfect love of God in Christ will cast out all fear, and only joy and praise with remain.

May it be so for Vivien and for each of us as we receive bread for the journey here tonight, and then go forth into the world through the portal of resurrection that Christ has opened for us. Amen+

 Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011  Posted by on Sat, 23-Apr-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011
Apr 102011

At our last reflection on the parish’s early history, I spoke of the Rev. Matthias Plant, who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel and later St. Paul’s Church until his death in 1753, a total of thirty-one years. He played a very large role in firmly establishing this church in the sparsely populated, and sometimes hostile, colonial territory that was Newbury. If we search for his voice from those times, we can find it in his journal and the surviving letters he sent back to the Society in London describing the state of the church and his activates as pastor.

In a letter dated October 25, 1727 he writes to the secretary of the Society, “Sir, I have returned you Answers to several particulars relating to the affairs of my church.”  He then goes on to methodically list the history of the building of the church, the number of “hearers” who frequent the Church (about 100 in total) and “Their condition of Fortunes” which he says is “like unto our ordinary Farmers who rent [for] £30 or £40 per annum. They commonly add some Trade to their farming.” and “In matter of Religion, [they are] Dissenters…I think there are about 6 families of Quakers in the Town.”

But it is later in the letter that a different voice comes through – “Negroe Slaves, one of them is desirous of Baptism, but denied by her Master, a woman of wonderful sense & prudent in matter of equal knowledge in Religion with most of her sex, far exceeding any of her own nation that ever yet I heard of.”

The words are hard on our ears: Negro, slaves, the comparison with those of her sex and nation, nothing said across those gender and racial divides. But the extraordinary thing is Rev. Plant grew to know this unnamed woman enough to know she had wonderful sense, meaning she was intelligent, and prudent, meaning she was wise. And he knew she was desirous of baptism which for an African in bondage meant a striving to personhood and a step away from being merely someone’s property. And he wrote to London in his report to note she was denied such a step by her master.

Now slavery was an accepted part of life from the very earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, slavery was legally established in Massachusetts before any of the other thirteen colonies and lasted longest here than any other colony, including the southern states. The merchant princes who founded St. Paul’s on this land all held slaves and the church benefited as a result from their labors. Unlike the large farming plantations of the South, most households owned only one or two slaves who served the family and lived in close proximity; there never being enough in number to build a separate dwelling.

Rev. Plant himself owned slaves imported from the West Indies after being “seasoned” by the punishing work of the cane fields of the Caribbean Islands. This was the language and practice of the times. He noted in his journal dated June 22nd 1735, “I wrote to Mr. Salmon of Barbadoes to send me a negroe.” In 1751 he wrote his will granting his “Negroe girl Luce (Lucy)” who was baptized and married in Queen Anne’s Chapel to his wife Lydia upon his death and he offered freedom and seventeen acres of land to Lucy on her death “if the said widow Plant shall declare that Luce hath in all fidelity, both in word and deed behaved herself very respectfully as an honest and faithful servant…”

It is hard to put ourselves in Rev. Plant’s place and time on this issue. For us in our times there can be no apology for the brutality of slavery, only atonement. I think of Rev. Plant as a progressive but imperfect man, much as the church at that time was progressive in its desire to accept African slaves and African-Americans into the rites of baptism and marriage but imperfect in its tolerance and support of the daily abuses of human enslavement.

In the passage above where Rev. Plant’s expresses his knowledge and favorable recognition of the mind and personal qualities of an unnamed black female slave, I think lie some seeds of St. Paul’s formation as a church, imperfect to be sure but eventually a place where those who frequently find themselves outside the tight bonds of convention, like gay and lesbian folks, people of varying races and backgrounds, and the hungry looking for a meal and company, could eventually find a spiritual home not needing the permission of a master or others.

Bronson de Stadler

 History Minute #5 – Slavery in the Early Church  Posted by on Sun, 10-Apr-11 History Comments Off on History Minute #5 – Slavery in the Early Church
Apr 102011

The question that both our first reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14, The Valley of the Dry Bones)  and Gospel  (John Chapter 11, The Raising of Lazarus) reading pose is “Is there anything in the world that is so dead that God cannot breathe life into it?” The back story to our first lesson is that the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, having been taken there forcibly in 586 B.C. E. after witnessing the destruction of their holy ground, the temple in Jerusalem. The prophet gives voice to the universal experience of exiled people – the feeling of being utterly cut off and as a people the feeling of being a nonentity- of being no people at all. The image of dry bones dramatically captures the people’s experience for the powerlessness of exile. All they could do was lay there and have their identity bleached out of them by the whims of their captors.

Have you ever felt like that? Dead and cut off completely? I know I have. Many things can bring it on – loss of a job, a parent, a partner or spouse. Maybe a child grows up and moves away. Or it can be more mundane – you are an artist with no inspiration, or a writer whose words have stopped flowing. Or maybe you are in a relationship that once was filled with joy and synchronicity and now feels hollow – only a shell of what it once was. Or something else in life has shifted so that the way you once understood yourself and your life just doesn’t fit anymore. And you feel parched, sun bleached, maybe even at the lowest points, dead.

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

“Is there anything in the world that is so dead that God cannot breathe life into it?” No. Not according to this lesson – and not according to the Gospel either. Not that the return to life is necessarily easy – can you imagine what it feels like to come back to life after being bleached in the sun on the valley floor, or after being in the tomb 4 days? Maybe you can. If you can, you know that when that divine breath takes hold of you and calls you out again, you know that it has nothing to do with any strength that you’ve mustered – you know that something deep down and divine has raised you up and you flow with it and see where it takes you.

I wonder what Lazarus had to confront after he walked out of his tomb. You remember from last week’s Gospel that the man born blind who received his sight from Jesus became a bit of a social freak, continually questioned and prodded by those who did not approve of Jesus. What must Lazarus have had to endure? Here is how Bishop Mary Glasspool imagines it:

“Lazarus, what was it like being dead? How did it feel? Are you glad to be back? Will you be the keynote speaker at our upcoming conference on ‘Death and Dying’? And then, you know, it wasn’t for good! He’d have to die all over again at some point Mary and Martha and the rest of his friends and family would have to grieve all over again too.”

Many people who have had near death experiences – some who have actually clinically died on the operating table and been resuscitated after a number of minutes – many of them report that they are imbued thereafter with a sense of the impermanence of all things, that beautifully frees them to live much more fully in each moment. That is interesting to me, because what they have been given often is a vision of life beyond this one, but rather than live in a sort of trance fixated on that promised life to come, they enter more fully into the one that has been restored to them here and now.

Jesus told Martha, “I am resurrection and I am life.” Commenting on that statement in an article in an article in this week’s Christian Century Magazine, Karoline Lewis writes:

“Notice, Jesus explains what the raising of Lazarus means even before he raises him. Is it because this sign would be so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted, even by us? When we think about the raising of Lazarus, do we place our focus on “I am the resurrection” alone and forget that Jesus also says, “I am life.”? Do we too quickly jump to the security of eternal life, imagining our future residence in heaven rather than the provision of life in the present?…

That Lazarus is raised to life is his secure promise that Jesus will prepare and abiding place for him, but it is also the reality of new life with Jesus now.”

(The Christian Century Magazine, April 5, 2011, p. 22)

The same is true for us, for these words He spoke to Martha have been passed down to us also. Here Jesus is not pointing to the future. Rather he is incarnating eternity in the present. He is showing us that the power of resurrection is not something to understand about eternal life to come, but is something to experience here and now in our relationship with him. Resurrection is an ever present power waiting for us to live into it now – ready to turn our experience of exile into the experience of homecoming – our experience of dying chapters and understandings of our life into the experience of transformation and metamorphosis.

So, as Bishop Mary Glasspool puts it, “the real question is not, ‘Is there life after death?’ The question becomes ‘Is there life before death?’ Can we feel his presence in this moment? Do we feel the divine breath of spirit enlivening us? Can we hear Jesus weeping for us?

I end with the wise words of Bishop Mary Glasspool:

“At this moment Jesus weeps outside our tombs of frustration, misdirection, and suffering. He weeps over our dry bones of death, prejudice, and exile. And he calls us forth, knitting our bones together with his flesh and Spirit. He calls us forth. He is the resurrection and the life.”

In his name and for his sake. Amen+

 April 10, 2011 Lent 5A  Posted by on Sun, 10-Apr-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on April 10, 2011 Lent 5A
Apr 022011

At our last reflection on the parish’s early history, I spoke of the Rev. Matthias Plant, who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel from 1722 and St. Paul’s Church from 1751 until his death in 1753, a total of thirty-one years; and of the ten years of acrimonious conflict between him and the vestry, resolved in his ultimate appointment as rector here in 1750. Well, we are not quite done with the Rev. Plant.

In the letters, journal and account books he fastidiously kept since arriving from Great Britain were written the daily activities and events of the parish, and of his own life. Commentary is written in a clear, precise and well-spoken style that reflected the busy life of an educated person. Aside from recording the seemingly endless deaths of infants and women who died in child birth, baptisms, marriages, funerals, local events, the cost of almost anything, and the regular conflicts within the parish and between various Christian groups in the area, Rev. Plant showed an interest in the natural world shared by other learned men of his generation.

From 1727 to 1741 he carefully recorded the occurrence of nearly two hundred large and small earthquakes in Newbury, including what came to be known as the “Great Earthquake of 1727”, estimated to be 5.6 magnitude. It toppled chimneys and split building in Boston, and caused the great Puritan preacher Cotton Mather to invoke the Revelation of John in his sermons to tell all that the voice of God had emerged from the bowels of the earth to warn sinners of their sorry state. Rev. Plant’s response was more tempered, as we might expect from an Anglican. He appointed a day of fasting and prayer, and recorded the following:

“October 29, 1727, being the Lord’s-Day, about forty minutes past ten the same evening, there came a great rumbling noise; but before the noise was heard, or shock perceived, our bricks upon the hearth rose up about three quarters of a foot; and seemed to fall down and loll the other way, which was in half a minute attended with the noise or burst. The tops of our chimneys, stone fences were thrown down; and in some places (in the lower grounds, about three miles from my house) the earth opened and threw out some hundred loads of earth of a different color from that near the surface, something darker than your white marl in England…. It continued roaring, bursting and shocking our houses all that night. Though the first was much the loudest and most terrible, yet eight more that came that night were loud, and roared like a cannon at a distance. It continued roaring and bursting twelve times in a day and night, until Thursday in the said week, and then was not so frequent; but upon Friday in the evening, and about midnight, and about break of day upon Saturday, three very loud roarings; we had the roaring noise upon Saturday, Sunday, Monday, about ten in the morning, although much abated in the noise.”

These observations were captured in a series of letters to the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft, the Secretary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in London, his sponsoring missionary organization. In 1742 these letters were formed into an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, called Philosophical Transactions. The journal remainsin publication and is the world’s first science journal. Some theologians believe these earthquakes fueled the first Great Awakening in America, a religious revival of evangelicalism that swept through the Colonies and British Isles, and whose preachers, like the Anglican ordained George Whitefield, buried in the Old South Church here in Newburyport, appealed to churchgoers hearts and emotions through fervid, heartfelt, and some said theatrical, preaching to bring sinners to religious conversion, establishing a strong religious evangelical tradition that has flourished to our day.

These historical facts and recollections, interesting thought they are, seem far away from us now until we remember the way overpowering events can intrude into our own lives without any warning or the lives of others such as the people of Japan, just as they did in Rev. Plant’s time. Think of the red Tabernacle light that hangs from the wall in our sanctuary above the aumbry, the small recessed cupboard where Anglicans traditionally store consecrated wine and wavers. The light is a gift from the Bishop family in memory of their three and half year old son Joseph who died in a tragic, freakish accident involving a falling fireplace stone late at night on a Sunday in June 1992 during a California earthquake; or, think of the St. Paul’s church members who traveled to villages in El Salvador last year on their mission trip and experienced earth tremors, an unsettlingly common event in that part of the world; and, of course, we only have to remember the young faces of the youth from Haiti at the Les Petites Chanteurs Haitiens concert held here to raise money for their crumbled homes and destroyed land.

Matthias Plant speaks with us from long ago about overpowering, and often tragic, events as we continue our struggle for understanding through faith.


 History Minute #4 – Earthquakes in Newbury  Posted by on Sat, 2-Apr-11 History Comments Off on History Minute #4 – Earthquakes in Newbury