Easter 3 letter

To my fellow pilgrims on the path of resurrection life

Last Sunday we had a wonderful opportunity to reflect on some of the values that make us a congregation within the Uniting Church of Australia:
~ the centrality of Christ, our Living Word, 
~ our inclusivity and radical hospitality, 
~ a strong sense of justice, 
~ shared authority and responsibility for ministry etc.

As people told stories about where they come from I was struck by the remarkable diversity of experiences gathered around our one little table, even though we had all once called ourselves “Methodists.” I was also surprised by the longing that arose within me for some of the songs, rituals, and people that had been a significant part of my faith journey – particularly in my youth. But, above all, I was deeply aware of the fact that the values that we were talking about sometimes represented who we are becoming (or striving to become) more than who we actually are.

When we speak of ourselves as a pilgrim people on the way to the promised end, we are acknowledging that we aren’t there yet: not in the eternal rest of heaven, and not even close to the fellowship of reconciliation that lives out God’s love for the common good of all God’s creation.

We confess that there are many in our midst who know that they belong, but there are still some who we hesitate to welcome unconditionally into the family of God.

We confess that there are people with whom we serve and worship who make our eyes roll and our nostrils flare and our blood boil and our ears close and our hearts harden.

We confess that for every issue that we are passionate about because we have experienced it first-hand or have a close friend or family member who has, there are a dozen causes that we don’t have the energy or the resources or even the desire to attend to.

We confess that we often mistake authority for power, seasons for traditions, gifts for possessions, domination for leadership, our plans for God’s will.

Yet we also confess that it is Christ alone who comes, addresses, and deals with us in and through the news of his completed work in such a way that 

~ the guilty are acquitted, 

~ life is given to the dead,

~ and new things are brought into being which, without him, could otherwise not exist.
(Paragraph 4, Basis of Union, paraphrased)

Just look at Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). This is probably the most remarkable story of transformation recorded in Scripture as a fervent, almost fanatical persecutor of the Christians fleeing Jerusalem to escape a painful death becomes a just-as-fervent preacher of the Gospel, missionary to the Gentiles, and teacher on what Jesus’s resurrection-life means for the early Church. And all because he encountered Jesus along the way!

As we receive in each week of Eastertide the deepening invitation to “Come to life,” may the light of Christ shine brightly on our way and open up new possibilities for us!

Yours in Christ
Yvonne

Easter letter

To my fellow pilgrims with whom I travel to the cross of Christ 

A few years ago I was preaching at an early morning service on the practice of prayer. I talked for a bit about the formal prayers which we learn in our childhood and the handy prayer acronyms that well-meaning Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have passed down through the generations to “beginner” Christians.

Then, I stepped out from behind the pulpit, walked right up to the front row and offered the unsophisticated thought that prayer is simply coming before God as we are – and being open to God doing the same. 

That was the first moment that I took my shoes off in front of a congregation. I’m still not sure how it happened exactly. I hadn’t planned to do so. I didn’t even register that I had done it until I spotted a colleague doubled over in laughter, trying to take photos of my feet. But that is my most natural state of being: barefoot, in the garden, like a child who is unafraid and unashamed to walk with her holy and loving and life-giving God.

Over the past seven weeks we have been walking the long and dusty road to Jerusalem. Like Jesus who had travelled that way many times before in both his childhood and his ministry, we revisit the familiar ground of our faith:
~ the palm-strewn streets of Jerusalem,
~ the pounded earthen floor of the upper room upon which Jesus knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, 
~ the green of the olive grove in which he prayed in such agony of spirit and received the kiss of betrayal,
~ the cold stone of Pilate’s court which resounded with the hateful cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
~ the torturous hill upon which he stumbled under the weight of the cross,
~ the dark and dreary road of grief and despair that the women walked as his lifeless body was taken from Calvary and laid in a borrowed tomb,
~ and, then, the rough path that flies by beneath our feet as we run breathlessly to see for ourselves the truth – that he’s not where he’s supposed to be! He is risen!!

I hope that as we have travelled together, we have not found ourselves just going through the motions, listening to the same old story in the same old way, revisiting ground so familiar after 10- 20- 50 years that it fails to move us …

… but, that as we are given, again, this remarkable glimpse into who God is and how much God loves us, we are able to
     kick off the shoes that confine us, 
wash away the grime that has gathered,
             receive the assurance that we are forgiven,
escape from our own narrow expectations,
and walk, and dance, and run, and laugh, and dare, and dream
with the God who defeats death that we might come to life.

Over the next 50 days, as we move from Easter to Pentecost, may we come before God as we are and be open to God doing the same, knowing that such a holy encounter will not leave us unchanged.  

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne 

Come to life

An “all-in” service for Easter Sunday

So often we want to rush to the end of the story – to banish the darkness and celebrate the light and life of Christ shining radiantly beyond the confines of the empty tomb. This service is intended to make room for the sorrow of the women who went to tend to Jesus’ body to give way to the wonderful news that he is risen.

Lamenting in …

As little children we are often afraid of the dark and of the unseen things that might lurk there.

As adults, we are more comfortable with turning the lights out; more certain that in the morning the sun will rise and banish the nightmares away. Yet deep within us, many fears remain: fear of change, fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of anything terrible happening to the ones that we love, fear of being the one left behind – grief-stricken and alone …

… like the mother, the dear friend, the faithful disciples of Jesus who had stood as helpless witnesses to his suffering and death; who in the dismal light of early dawn and with great despair in their hearts travelled together to his tomb … . 

TiS 345 Were you there? (verses 1-5 only)

4/ 5 women walk into the church with  symbols which they place on a bare altar. 

  • One carries the Christ candle with five nails pressed into it in the shape of the cross. 
  • One carries a large stone to represent the cold, sealed tomb.
  • One carries a folded white table cloth to represent the folded grave clothes. 
  • One carries a perfume diffuser or incense stick to represent the spices that they brought for his body. 
  • The optional fifth brings a bright basket of eggs (two normal and two which have have had the insides blown out) to represent new life and be used in talking with the children – this symbol is not placed on the altar, but on the floor in front of it.  

As they lay their items on the altar, they pray:

1st: Lord, I weep with all who suffer,
                              with all who are persecuted,
  with all creatures who endure our cruelty.

2nd: Lord, I weep with those who are lonely,
                                 with those who have buried a beloved,
                                 with those for whom life is harder than death.

3rd: Lord, I weep with all who are oppressed,
                                 with all who are bound by their addiction,
                                 with all who are wrapped up in suspicion and hate.

4th: Lord, I weep where the land is burning,
                                 where war has erupted,
                                 where tempers run high.

5th: Lord, I weep with babies abandoned
in garbage bins and school bathrooms,
                              with children abused by the people they trust,
                              with young people bullied, and silenced, and shamed.

Together: Lord, I weep. I weep. I weep.                                                     
                                
 They join the congregation, sitting at the front of the church. 

Looking for life …

The transformation of the altar is enacted as the Gospel is read.

Luke 24:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 

The incense/diffuser is lit and placed to the side of the altar (on the rail, pulpit, a smaller table).

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

The stone is lifted and placed on the side of the altar, on the ground, opposite side to the basket.

While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 

The nails are pulled out from the candle and placed next to the stone. The candle is lit and placed on the side with the incense.

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The table cloth is unfolded and draped over the altar. The candle is returned to the centre.

Alleluia! This is the Gospel of Christ.
Praise to our Lord! Alleluia!

Prayer:

Living One,
no tomb can keep You,
no door is closed to You,
no life is shut off from You.

Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith,
out of death into life eternal.
Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.
Amen.

TiS 370 Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Opening up …

Children’s Address (or sermon starter)

As you look at our Easter table, do you notice anything strange about it? Something that maybe doesn’t really belong there? (As my basket is a giant yellow chick popping out of its shell, I’m sure that the kids will be quite quick to spot it).

Hmmmm … this looks a little out of place. Should we see what is in it? Invite the kids to take a peek – but don’t let them touch yet. Yes! Yes! It’s full of eggs! These must be Easter eggs!! Would you like to eat one? (Taking care to pick a heavy egg which obviously still has yolk inside it, offer it to one of the children who should recoil at the thought of eating a raw egg).

Depending on their responses say something like, So it’s not an Easter egg? It’s just a normal chicken egg!?! Well, if it’s just a normal chicken egg then there should be something inside it. 

Crack the egg open into a bowl. O yes, you’re quite right. That’s not an Easter egg at all. I wouldn’t want to eat that either – not unless it was scrambled, with a little bit of cheese and tomato sauce on top.

But did you know that are some old, old stories that tell us where that the first Easter eggs were actually chicken eggs to start with? 

My favourite is the story of Simon the Cyrene. Simon was a farmer. His wife had sent him into Jerusalem one day to sell his produce to all the city folk who were preparing for a special feast  that  evening.   Simon had eggs to sell, something that everyone would need for their Seder table.  But when he got to the marketplace, there were people everywhere, shouting and pushing and spitting. So Simon put his basket down and pushed his way to the front to see what was going on. There, on the road, surrounded by soldiers was a man struggling under the weight of a wooden cross. He looked weak, like he had been up all night and taken a really bad beating.

As Simon watched, the man fell to his knees with exhaustion. One of the soldiers kicked him in the side. Another yelled at him to stand up. Simon just couldn’t help himself. He rushed forward to help – and so the soldiers ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus all the way up a hill called Golgotha or Calvary. 

There Simon watched as the whole sky turned black and Jesus died, hanging on that cross between two criminals. His heart was sad, but as he turned back he suddenly remembered: he had left his basket of eggs behind! His wife was going to be soooo mad at him.  He rushed back to the marketplace, hoping, hoping, hoping – and yes! There they were! Right where he had left them!! Remarkably not a single egg was missing, but, even more remarkably, the eggs were no longer white but brightly coloured and glittering. What a surprise!

Not like these eggs. Break the second full egg into the bowl. When we break them, we know exactly what we’re going to get. And that can be a little bit boring, and very disappointing.

Maybe that’s what it was like for the women we read about in the Gospel story. They went to the tomb which had been sealed shut with a large stone – knowing that inside would be Jesus’ body. Where there’s a closed tomb or a covered grace, there’s always a dead body. That’s just the way it is.

Next, pick up one of the blown eggs without really drawing attention to it and break it in the same way as you did the others. It should crumble in your hand.

Wait a minute! That isn’t right! That shouldn’t happen!!

Repeat with the remaining egg. Note the children’s curiosity and exclamations.  

These eggs are empty. Just like the tomb was when the women got there. They expected to see a body. But that’s not what they found! Instead they met two angels who asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead.

And that’s what Easter is all about – surprises. The unexpected happening right in front of our eyes. An empty tomb, a living Lord, new possibilities.

The children can be engaged in an activity like decorating or hunting for these “signs of life” – edible ones this time. 

Old Testament Reading (if using): Isaiah 65:17-25

 “See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
    nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
    in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
    and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
    and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
    will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
    an infant who lives but a few days,
    or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
    will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
    will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
    they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
    or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
    so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
    the work of their hands.
They will not labour in vain,
    nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
    they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
    while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
    and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.

Meditation/Reflection: Coming to Life

My focus is on “coming to life” in response to the angel’s question: why do you look for the living among the dead? The Isaiah passage points to the nature of the resurrection life that Christ makes possible: healing, delight, health, security, fruitfulness, meaningful work, reconciliation etc. The second half of the service consists of symbolic rituals/responses enacting this new life.    

Let us pray (words by Tess Ward – adapted):

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

As we leave the old
and step out into the new this day,
bring new life to our fingers
that we might touch the signs of Your life among us
and have faith.

The elements for Holy Communion are brought to the table
during the singing of:

TiS 373 Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life in the sacred meal we eat
that we might know You
in the breaking of our daily bread.

The elements are blessed and communion is shared.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life
to the work of our hands this day
that we might trust
the abundance of Your gifts. 

Thank offerings are brought to the altar or collected by stewards.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life
when You interrupt our selfish dreamings
and name those that need Your love and care
as our sisters and brothers. 

The names of the sick and hurting are spoken.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life to our eyes
that we might see You beside us behind our closed doors
and set forth with hope and with wonder
to proclaim Your eternal life
and everlasting love for the whole wide world.

Closing hymn: TiS 380 Yours be the glory

Sending out …

Alleluia!
Go in joy and peace with the Living One
who leads us forward.

Alleluia!
In the name of Christ, we come to life!

Of this I am sure

*a reflection based on Ecclesiastes 12 and John 12:44-50*

I want you to think for a moment of something you’re sure of; something you know deep down inside to be absolutely infallible, 100% certain and true.

Perhaps you want to share it with your neighbour or your friend ….

If you don’t, or if you hesitated for a moment, I wonder why. Did you suddenly think that your sure thing was too silly? Or did panic and doubt flare up in you briefly the moment that I asked you to express it rather than just think it that it might not actually be 100% true? Were you worried that it might begin a debate or elicit an opinion contrary to your own?

Perhaps your sure thing was a scientific fact, like the earth is round or the grass is green. But while the world may look like a perfect circle from space, it is more accurately a bumpy sphere; and I don’t know about yours, but my grass is looking decidedly brown beneath the sun’s recent unrelenting heat.

Perhaps you’re certain that butter is bad for you, but these days the processed trans fats found in margarine are regarded as far worse and coconut oil is the in thing for the health conscious. And here’s three cheers to chocolate and caffeine now being linked to increased longevity but you’ve only really got until the next sponsored nutritional study to enjoy that “fact”.

Perhaps your conviction lies among more spiritual lines: in the wonderful assurance of God’s eternal love for you; yet, if you have ever questioned that unconditional love for a pimp; a paedophile; a person from a different race, religion or sexual orientation, then you’ve inadvertently opened yourself up to an uncomfortable little niggle of worry that perhaps there are limitations on God’s welcoming embrace – even for you.

As the season of Advent approaches, our lectionary readings offer a profound word to us in this post-modern era of shifting certainties, fake news, and relative truth; of – as the Quester puts it throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – the insubstantial, swirling smoke that clouds our vision of what is truly important and trustworthy.

It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke.
The Quester says that everything’s smoke.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:8 (The Message)

The fun, the freedom, the exuberance of our youth quickly fades beneath the burdens and worries of adult responsibility. Between bills to be paid, houses to be maintained, children to be raised, the best years seem to fly by until we’re left tired yet unable to sleep; up with the birds yet unable to hear clearly the sweet songs they’re singing; with an abundance of free time to do the things we’d once dreamed of doing, yet unable to come and go as we will as physical limitations and fear of the rapidly-changing world take over.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (The Message)

Yet the Quester, as he laments the meaninglessness of life, the futility of our toil, and the fickleness of pleasure so dramatically, does not want us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there’s even a point to getting ourselves out of bed tomorrow.

I remember quite clearly telling my husband in the early years of our marriage that I fully intended to take a handful of sleeping pills or fall elegantly off a rooftop just after my fiftieth birthday because I didn’t want to experience any of the frailties or the illnesses or the losses that I associated with old age at the time, and I didn’t think God would mind too much getting me back early. Now that I’m in my forties and have been touched by the dignity, the memory, the wisdom, the authentic love of those significantly older than myself, I’m all too eager to revise my position on the matter ….

… because life – lovely while it lasts – is too soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.

As he offers these words, the Quester longs to rouse us from our apathy so that we remember the remarkable gift of each new day and honour the One who has given it. He wants to shake us free of the smoke that has suffocated our passion, our vigour, our vision – those people, those “priorities,” those possessions that have actually just filled our lives with clutter and kept us from pursuing the precious and important. He wants to goad us to become people of substance in a world that has lost its way in its pursuit of power, prosperity and pleasure. He wants us to live well.

And of this I am sure: that Christ came into the world to make that good life, life real and eternal, possible for all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself:

I am Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.
~ John 12:46 (The Message)

“Won’t have to,” “should not,” “would not continue to,” “shall not remain …” different Bible versions put it in different ways: that through his love and sacrifice, Christ has enabled us to live differently; through his teaching and actions, Jesus has made possible an alternative way of being in relationship with God and with one another and with the world at large.

But ultimately – and this is another thing I’m sure of – the choice is ours: to live and work and love and play and pray in the light of God’s all-encompassing, liberating love; or to stick to the shadows with which we have been acquainted for so long that we don’t even see them; or even, happily hide within when we begin to speak or think or act in a way that we know falls far short of the measure of God’s love for us and for the Other that we may be judging, deceiving, manipulating, disrespecting, or betraying at the time.

We don’t have to stay any longer in the dark. We don’t have to chase the fleeting, insubstantial smoke of this world of which the Quester so passionately warns us. We don’t have to ….

Yet if we choose to be children of the Light, to honour and make the most of each short day, here’s a sure thing to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainties and distractions of life – the last and final word, the conclusion of the matter, as the Quester puts it:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13b (The Message)

Jesus says it too, right before his final Passover Feast:

I know that his command leads to eternal life.
~ John 12:50a (NIV)

Fearing God is not about being afraid; it’s not the dread of a sinner or a slave.

It’s the reverence that we have as children for a Father who has consistently and unconditionally demonstrated love for us.

It’s the certainty that our respected Teacher has our best interests at heart that gives us, as lifelong students, the courage to try and to obey.

It’s the wide-eyed wonder at how giving and forgiving our Gracious God has been that inspires us to be giving and forgiving ourselves.

It’s the awe that brings order to our day – replacing appointments in diaries or tasks on to-do lists with opportunities to encounter God’s grace.

It’s the sacrifice of  worship that we offer, unrushed by the work of the kingdom and unhindered by the lack of workers for the harvest, but flowing from the deep desire to connect and reconnect with the Spirit who sustains each breath.

It’s the very real wrestling with how hard it is to be people of substance when others get to do whatever they desire – without judging them or resenting them or pitying them.

***

In his concluding chapter, the Quester writes that:

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the One Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11 (The Message)

I pray that his wise words might prod us to live well, and that today, these three nails have been hammered home:

  1. That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
  2. That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
  3. That living in His light begins by honouring and enjoying the One who first breathed life into us and to whom our spirit will return.

Life is precious. But it is also fleeting. May we make the most of every moment all the way to our eternal rest and may the Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever, keep us standing sure-footed through the trials and temptations of life; and, as we walk in the certain love of God the Father, and the clear leading of his Holy Spirit, may others come to know through our words and deeds the assurance of Christ with them, always.

Amen.

Choose Life

One of the driving forces of human nature is competition. I simply have to watch my children squabbling over their test scores without any regard for their differences in grade or ability to see what an early age we start ingraining the need to outdo one another into our thoughts and motivations. Our language has even developed in such a way as to enable our comparisons: it’s not simply good enough to be wealthy but one can be wealthier than another and, if truly blessed, the wealthiest of us all.

Smart, smarter, smartest;
successful, more successful, most successful,
pretty, prettier, prettiest … these are the patterns that govern not only our speech, but our lives.

No wonder life is, for many of us, an unfulfilling, exhausting experience. No wonder the abundance and prosperity God promises us seems to be like a distant dream instead of a present experience. No wonder heaven becomes the goal that we set our eyes on longingly in an effort to escape the daily grind.

Our Scriptures (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37) this week invite us to examine the standards by which we are evaluating ourselves and others. What are the things that bring you joy and a deep sense of satisfaction? What are the gifts on offer to you in the relationships that you have? What are the gifts that you have to offer? What are the sins – the ingrained habits, the negative thoughts, the possessive desires – that hold you back and drain you? What are the judgements and grudges and expectations that limit your potential to give and receive love? How do you define happiness, success, prosperity, promise and have these definitions hurt or helped you?

God longs for us to know the fullness of life. We know that. Do we, however, long for the kind of life God promises – a life of community and harmony, of servanthood and sound morals? Or are we looking for the life in which we are the winner of every competition?