Wednesday, April 27, 2011

He is not here!

It was a year and a week ago that my family and I came up to Petaluma for dinner and an interview with the vestry of St. John’s that would lead to my being called here as Priest and Pastor.  But that wasn’t my first visit to this church.  We had made an earlier trip in February, “under the radar” as they say.  We came on a Saturday morning and John Mills was here doing some work in the yard, and agreed to let us look inside the building.  I liked what I saw, of course, but the thing I liked best was that stained-glass window above the altar.
So I’ve been living with that image for over a year now, but this our first Easter together, so recently I’ve been pondering it more than ever.  I’ve been wondering about who designed it, and the family of Dr. J. S. Shepherd who decided it would be a fitting memorial to him.  It makes me think about all the men and women who have gazed at it prayerfully over the last 120 years, and what it meant to them.  But on this Easter morning what I’m thinking about is how it presents us a dazzling image of the resurrection without showing us Jesus.
This window shows us Easter as the angel first announced it to the women at the tomb just before dawn on the first day of the week.  “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here.”  “He is not here—he has risen.”  Where there was the great immovable fact of death, suddenly there is an empty space.  “Come and see the place where he lay.” They come to a grave, to mourn for a dead man, but he is not here.  Instead of the desolation of what is known for certain, there is a vibrant emptiness, pregnant with possibility.
It is extraordinary to me that in the 1890s, the people of this church had the guts to leave that space open, to stay close to that first word.  For 70 years there was no figure of Jesus at that end of the church, the focal point of their worship.  Then around 1960, the figure of Christ the King, ruling from the cross, was mounted on the wooden panel below the window.  More recently we’ve put some icons of the glorified Christ on the ledges on either side of the sanctuary.  It is as if the pressure of the world’s skepticism and disbelief threatened to get the better of us.  And so, to defend of the truth of the resurrection, we had to fill the open space of the angel’s proclamation.  But the radical germ of the Easter Gospel is the empty tomb—only this can contain the vastness of who Christ is now.
We keep trying to put Jesus back into his tomb.  We have our ideas worked out about who he was, and what he stood for.   We classify him by comparing him to dead people from long ago, or we put him in a class by himself and leave him there.  We know what we think of the people who believe in him, and the people who don’t.  But all these interpretations are just different ways of locking him away, putting him back into the tomb, so we don’t have to deal with the really alive person that he is.  “He is not here,” says the angel, looking us straight in the eye, and we’re convicted, because we thought he was there, right where we put him.
But even without any pictorial representation of Jesus, this space is an icon of his resurrection.  The word of the Angel in the stained glass window is not just about Jesus.  It is a message for those women.  It changes the sorrow and pining that brought them to his tomb that morning to awe and joy.  That message, and the sight of the empty tomb, is now theirs to take to the world—“the tomb is empty, he has risen.” 
The Marys are our reminder that before there was a New Testament, before there was a gospel, before there was even a church, there was a rumor.  The life of the risen Christ is active in us when we testify to it, telling what we have learned to others.  You may cringe to hear these words—after all, Christians have been trumpeting the “Good News” for so loud, so long, that nobody hardly hears it anymore.  But the power of the resurrection is still effective when it passes like a secret from one person to another in the language of their own experience.
The truth of this secret is also plainly revealed to us in the altar.  It stands in the center of that empty space, beckoning us to come and see for ourselves the invisible Christ, who is our God.   There we touch him with our hands and taste him with our mouths.  There he nourishes us with the living food of the Spirit of God that is also in us. 
We are a community of the Easter dawn, re-created every week, re-constituted every time we gather to give thanks for his death and resurrection.  We are never exactly the same people we were the time before, so his risen life in us is always taking a new shape, a new direction and a new meaning, as the circumstances of our lives change.  We take him into us and away with us, and where we go, he goes. 
When we turn away from the table, and walk down from the empty space where we commune with the divine Christ, behold, we see his human form.   The angel says, “He is not here—he has risen.  Go and tell his disciples that he is raised from the dead.  And behold, he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him.”  First we see each other.  Then we see the font, where all of us were baptized into his body and ordained for his ministry.
And above that (our ancestors at St. John’s thought of everything) we see three windows, three images of Jesus living in relation to others—receiving the love of his mother, receiving and blessing children, and receiving a person in need.  Finally, we see out through the windows to Galilee--in this case, Petaluma--to the place we came from and are going back to.  He is not here, if you think that this is the only place, or even the best place, to find him.  He is alive and he is out there—that is where you’ll meet him. 
He’s over at the police station, and the Art Center.  He’s standing on the corner at the 7-11, and lining up for a meal at the Petaluma Kitchen.  He’s at the G & G and the Post Office and Corona Creek.  He’s over at St. Vincent’s and at B’nai Israel.  He’s alive and he’s doing stuff.  He’s giving people patience with their children, and devotion to their spouses.  He’s helping that single mom get her GED.  He’s trying to get more businesses in town and more jobs, and he’s working to preserve our small-town character.  Wherever people are alive with hope for a world that works for everyone, wherever they are making sacrifices for the people and the things they love, wherever they are grateful to be alive and want to share the joy of living, there he is.  He won’t stop, doesn’t give up, and he can’t die.  Because he’s not here.  But we are.

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About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.