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Choosing Gratitude: A Practice of Resurrection

Mary Magdalene Discovering The Empty Tomb Herschel Pollard

Easter, 2017

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!  What a joy to greet one another with these words this week, after the long, dark days of Lent.  Welcome to Easter at St. James Parish — if it is your first time here, or your first time here in a long time, please know that you are most welcome!

I’m happy to report that this Lenten season seemed to go by a bit more quickly for me than in some past years.  Our 40 day journey together has been so rich:  kicked off by a rousing and delicious Fat Tuesday celebration, supported by a lively Lenten series about “The Power of Small Choices”, and all steeped in prayer, study and discernment.  Together we practiced how to see the world, and to read Holy Scripture, with new and different “lenses”, and imagined new ways of doing ministry in the coming year.  Like Jesus fasting in the desert, these faith experiences continue to feed us during Lent, Holy Week, and hopefully beyond.

A trip to the Holy Lands with our Bishop just before Lent –one that he himself recalled when he visited us just last Sunday– also filled my heart and mind with visceral images of Jesus’ life, mission and passion.  These lasting images truly made this Holy Week a “pilgrimage in place” for me as Bishop Greg suggested.   Those first-hand experiences opened my heart to feel the emotions of Holy Week more deeply than before.

The rosy light of sunset from atop Mount Tabor; the sharp scent of nard from the marketplace in Jerusalem; the soft weeping of women in the candlelit tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the taste of fresh pita bread slathered with olive oil; the feeling of ancient stones beneath my feet where Jesus walked with the cross:  all of these created a more authentic place within me to hold the fellowship, the hunger, the grief, the mystery and the love of our faith.

While I strongly believe that good scholarship is essential to developing a mature faith — and that our study and discussions about theology and Scripture inform that development — I also know that it is our personal experiences which truly motivate us along our journey and help us to deeply understand.  As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We may forget some details, but we remember feelings all of our lives:  our longings, our surprises, our hopes, and, perhaps especially, our sorrows.

Now, as a former Catholic, I know how to “do sorrow”.  I used to collect sorrow like shoes; it felt familiar, even cozy to me.  There was something safe about embracing my grief, as precious a possession as Golem’s ring — as though if I held it close, nothing could hurt me any worse ever again.  Perhaps that’s why the image of Mary Magdalene, weeping in the empty tomb, resonates so deeply.

Mary was holding on to her sorrow; she was so much in the habit of grief, that she could not quite see what was right before her eyes!  She imagined that the worst had happened, instead of the best.  “They have taken my Lord away!”, she cried.  Having been abused and oppressed all her life, she assumed that this was just another loss.  The empty tomb represented the emptiness in her life, rather than the openness of potential in her faith.  She needed a new way to see and experience joyfulness, and the angels helped her.  So, how about us, today?  This morning, as we behold the stone rolled away, the empty tomb . . . now what?  How do we live beyond the sorrow?  How do we fully embrace Easter?

As Christians, and Episcopalians, we might often find ourselves reminding people that the season of Eastertide is longer than just one day!  It lasts well beyond the bunnies and egg hunts; for seven Sundays, long after the last of the chocolates have been eaten, right up until the dove of Pentecost arrives on June 4th.  How will we continue to celebrate?  How will we — as individuals and as a Body of Christ — inhabit the life of our Risen Lord?  How will we go forward as new creatures, rather than simply return to “business as usual”?  Author, social worker and professor Dr. Brene Brown talks about how perhaps the most terrifying, difficult human emotion of all may be the experience of joy. In her books and interviews, Dr. Brown says:

“ . . . when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…in moments of joyfulness we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.”  In order to soften into joyfulness, Brene suggests the practice of gratitude, as a tangible act that keeps us from “dress-rehearsing tragedy”.  To practice gratitude during these times of pessimism and uncertainty is counter-cultural –to notice, to nurture, to live into what is good and loving and true is a kind of daily, moment-to-moment Resurrection, as we practice for the “real thing” to come, and God’s reign now.

So this is my prayer for the entire St. James community during this joyful season of Easter:  that we may practice GRATITUDE!  During these coming eight weeks, let’s take special time to notice the things, people, ministries and blessings for which we are grateful.  Like helpful “angels”, let us lift them up, and especially thank people for them.  It may feel vulnerable, and even awkward, both giving and receiving this gratitude, but it is a good practice.  Remember, after all, that the word “Eucharist” –the center of our worship practice–means thanksgiving!

Yes, things do go wrong sometimes, and there are always ways in which we can and will do better.  But there is no way to truly, completely prepare for and protect ourselves from the inevitability of difficulties.  What we can do, for now, is to practice gratitude, and thereby build our resilience and our capacity to experience Joy.  Alleluia!! In the name of our Risen Lord, AMEN!

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