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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Easter Us, O God


A Sermon Preached via Facebook Live Broadcast
Lent II B - February 28, 2021

There’s a commercial on TV for a credit card which features the actor Kevin Hart. He’s at the end of his driveway, at his mailbox, having just received a letter outlining the benefits of this particular credit card. He starts yelling the news to his neighbors. When he yells at Neil, his next-door neighbor, Neil says, “Buddy, I’m right here. Why are you yelling?” Kevin responds, “Because that’s what I do.”


It always makes me think of my family. We were a big, loud Portuguese family. My grandmother had 20 pregnancies and 22 children (yes, two sets of twins), with 15 of them living to adulthood. Nine were alive at the time of her death. We lived in the second floor apartment of my grandparents' tenement house and there was constant traffic, constant chatter and, of course, lots of food. And, someone was always yelling.


We were sort of a cross between the family of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Italian family of Moonstruck. The unofficial motto of Mediterranean families seems to be, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry – and always having to yell.”


That carried over into my grandmother’s prayer life. I’m sure some of you have heard me say this before, but in my grandmother’s house, there were little shrines and altars everywhere. There was a prayer corner for the BVM, and one for St. Jude, another for St. Joseph and yet another for St. Gerard, the patron saint of families. Those were the big, important shrines. Lots of votive candles, large and small.


A very large statue of The Infant of Prague was featured on the top of her bedroom bureau, all in ruffles and frills, and he was surrounded by smaller statues of lesser saints – like St. Lucy and St. Dymphna and St. Theresa of the Little Flower, to name just a few.


Under each statue or the votive candle in front of the statues was a slip of paper on which she wrote her prayer petition. When any particular saint didn’t come through and answer her prayer, she would blow out the light and turn the statue to face the wall as she yelled – yelled, in no uncertain terms, yelled – “And you gonna stay there until you answer my prayer.”


And, she meant it. Face to the wall. Candle unlit. Time out. In the dark. No joke.


This weeks lessons from scripture brought back this flood of memories. Please note that in the first lesson, when God appears to Abram, the man “fell on his face” – not an easy thing to do but especially so when one is reportedly ninety-nine years old.


Even the Psalmist sings, “To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *all who go down to the dust fall before him.”


But, notice, please, the way Peter responds to Jesus after he preaches “quite openly” about the suffering he must endure and “be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Peter, scripture says, took Jesus aside “and began to rebuke him”.


Rebuke. As in “express sharp disapproval or criticism (of someone) because of their behavior or actions”. Rebuke. Just as my relatives did all the time. Just as my grandmother did when one of her saints didn’t answer her prayers.

It’s enough to make me think that Peter must be one of my ancient relatives.

I cannot tell you how much comfort this gospel brings me today. Now, I know that this is only the second Sunday in Lent but, if I’m honest, I feel like this whole entire last year has been one long season of Lent. Furthermore, this has not been the fast that I – or you – have chosen but one that has been chosen for me – for all of us.


Over half a million souls have left this earth this year due to COVID. That is more than all of the casualties of WWI, WWII, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.


We are coming up on the first anniversary of The Great Pandemic Lockdown. Most of us have not been back into our beloved church sanctuaries for an entire year. Many of us have not seen our children or grandchildren. Some of us have lost loved ones and are carrying around our grief until we can grieve together in church and over a graveside. Many of us have not enjoyed the simple pleasure of dining in our favorite restaurants or have enjoyed eating popcorn in a movie theater.


Here in Sussex County, Delaware, we had been enjoying a steady decline in both positivity and hospitalization rates, but indications are that both are beginning to rise again.  Here in Sussex County, the positivity rate last Monday was 5.1% (up from 4.9% the week before), with 174 new cases last week. Hospitalizations were 18.9% (down from 21% the week before). Restaurants are still the highest venue for infections, with religious services coming in at second place followed by gyms, beaches and other tourist attractions.

The good news is that we now have the availability of a third vaccine, one that does not need special refrigeration or a second injection. Production of all of the approved vaccines is increasing and distribution, scheduling appointments and providing injections are becoming more efficient – at least here in Sussex County, DE.


We’re not out of the woods but we’re on the path.


Even so, I need to confess that I am exhausted. Emotionally and spiritually exhausted. It came over me slowly, like waves on the shore, each one getting larger and stronger.


I was looking ahead in my calendar to the rest of Lent and I realized that Lent IV – also known as Laetere or Refreshment or Mothering Sunday – would come and go, yet again, without making my grandmother’s Simnal (Bolos do Riso) Cake. So would Lazarus Sunday – the fifth Sunday in Lent – without Lazarakia Bread.


I was holding it together fairly well until I found myself trying to figure out how to assemble yet another meaningful Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter via social media. Suddenly, I found that the liturgical calendar looked very blurry; it was then I realized that tears were filling my eyes.


I began to feel a gathering of energy in my soul that proves that I am of my grandmother’s kith and kin. I felt a sharp rebuke of God coming on. I felt my fist roll into a ball as I raised and shook it toward the heavens as I yelled, “Enough, already! Are you not paying attention here? Do you know your people are suffering? Okay, of course you do. So, can’t you make things go just a little faster? A little easier? Do we really have to mute our joyous celebration of Easter outside our sacred and beloved sanctuaries? Again? Seriously?! Can you cut us some slack here? ”

Almost immediately after I had finished my Great Rebuke of God, I felt awash in relief and gratitude. I knew I was standing on holy ground – on a place where Peter and Jesus once stood.


It’s important to remember that Jesus had just, a red-hot NY minute before, asked Peter in vs. 29, “Who do you say I am,” and Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” We are now in vs. 31 when Jesus began teaching them about his suffering and death. Peter knew to whom he was speaking.


And yet, Peter still rebuked Jesus. And, Jesus rebuked him right back.


In the stories of my people, this is how people who love each other talk to each other. They raise their voice. They yell. If you are rebuked, well, you rebuke right back. Even when you pray.


My point in all this – and I do have one – is that if you are feeling spiritually or emotionally exhausted, or if you are feeling confused and feeling weary and overwhelmed in this season, know that you are not alone. We have been keeping company with fear and anxiety and grief and worry about what lies ahead for some time now.


If the ground beneath you keeps giving way and resurrection seems less than certain and you feel a sharp rebuke coming on, it’s perfectly okay to raise your fist and take it to God. It’s ever so much better than snapping at your loved ones or slamming a door or burning the carrots. It’s easy, in these times, to let passive aggressive behavior take the reigns of your life.


Every year on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to observe a holy Lent. This year, two weeks in, I encourage you to bring your authentic self into Lenten observations. Your grief, gratefulness, sorrow, relief, anger, frustration, hopefulness, and all that is your response to this time are invited to observe Lent with you.

The practices of Lent found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 265) require facing the truths of this challenging time. While this is hard spiritual work, it is also freeing spiritual work. God loves us as we are and will not leave us stranded in wilderness of grief or anxiety.


Just know that what you hear in response may be exactly what Jesus said when he rebuked Peter right back. Remember what Jesus said? He told Peter to set his mind not on human things but on heavenly things. Heavenly things. Things we could not have previously considered possible. Resurrection into new ways of being a new people and a new church.


There is a great *Ash Wednesday poem by Walter Brueggemann, in which he asks God to “take our Wednesdays and Easter us”. Brueggemann uses Easter as a verb. “Easter us.” God, I think, takes our Lenten sadness and anxiety and “Easters” us to joy and energy and courage and freedom.


The hard truth is that we can only get to Easter after Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. And that takes honesty and authenticity and truth. So it may well be that our Lenten yells of rebuke are merely practice sessions for our shouts of joy when we celebrate Easter resurrection.

And, when God hears our yells and says, “I’m right here, why are you yelling?” We can answer, “Because this is what I do.” And the laughter we will share with God will be enough to “Easter” us to new possibilities, new energy and courage and freedom. For we will know we are loved – just as we are – beyond the earthly boundaries of our wildest imagination.   




*Marked by Ashes

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)


Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.

This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.


This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.


We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.


On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.

   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.

Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.


We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.



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