Easter Sunday 2018
April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday 2018

Passage: Acts 10:34-43

A curious thing happened on Friday morning. I was here in the church, getting ready for the services, when a tree sprayer showed up to start spraying the row of crabapple trees in the parking lot. “That’s weird,” I thought. “What’s he doing here?” You see, we didn’t request this service. For years and years Betty Hyde used to take it upon herself to order it and pay for it. But Betty died last summer, so what was he doing here?

So we asked. Turned out it was a standing order she’d placed years ago, and who thinks to tell a tree service that someone has died?

But this is what I found to be so striking: although Betty had been a member here for years, she was never actually baptized until just last Easter Sunday. At this service. She and her daughter, along with Grant Harris – a kid from our church – all got baptized together. And then, just a few months later, she was gone. But this year, on Good Friday, her legacy lived on.

And there’s something very “Eastery” about this: Betty died with Christ in her Easter baptism and Betty was raised with Christ in her Easter baptism – and now that she’s fully alive in Christ, resurrected with him – she’s still serving the church; our crabapples are protected from pestilence for another year!

So as I continued to dwell on it, it turned into something of prayer: God, may it be this way in your church – that in your resurrection and by your initiative – we remain protected from all pestilence – from sin and death and all the brokenness of this world.

After all, this is our Easter hope: God has taken the initiative through his Christ in redeeming us from all that is broken. God is the one who made us. God is the one who loves us. God in Christ is the one who – seeing us and understanding far better than we do what is wrong with us – says, Bless them! I’m going to take care of this mess.

In preparation for Easter this year, I chose to read a book by Gregory Boyle: Tattoos on the Heart[1]. It’s not your normal Easter meditation. Fr. Boyle is a Jesuit priest who lives and works with gang members in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and has started a ministry called “Homeboy Industries.” He tells the story, early on in his time there, when a former gang member, fresh out of prison, walks into office. He’s got a huge tattoo across his forehead that says, “F___ the world!” (But there’s no abbreviation involved.) And he tells Fr. Greg, “I’m having trouble finding a job.” And Fr. Greg says, “Hmm, let’s see if we can put our heads together and figure out why that might be.”

And that is what began, what would become over the years, the largest tattoo removal agency anywhere in the world. Through this ministry these young people are getting out of the gangs and finding a better, truer way to live. But sprawled all over their bodies, in the most visible places, are these warnings – these tattooed words and symbols – of the gangs they used to belong. They fled to the gangs for safety and community, but as it turns out, it was an unreciprocated loyalty. They were not safe. They were, in fact, being led to destruction and death. But through Homeboy Industries, the permanence of their tattoos is itself being exposed as a falsehood. They were but a temporary thing. For now there is hope for a new identity beyond the gangs.

And that is what Easter is doing for all of us. We each in our own way have fled to all manner of things to find safety and belonging, comfort and security. So many things have made us their false promises: alcohol, food, sex addictions of all sorts; working hard and playing hard in a frantic, unsustainable pace. And in some legitimate ways, these loyalties do provide meaning and comfort…for their time. And yet, all the while they’re killing us, filling our souls with regret and fear and shame. Then along comes the Christ of resurrection and says, Don’t you worry any longer. I have died your death, and I have risen, and you are risen with me. Let’s get rid of your tattoos now. They simply are true no longer.

One of the principal things Homeboy Industries provides is that they provide jobs for these young people who are fresh out the gangs or prison. They might have a lot of survival skills on the streets, but that doesn’t exactly make for a good résumé. Nobody wants to hire an ex gang-banger or a felon. And Fr. Greg has found, again and again, that the thing they want most is a job – a way to live a stable and respectable life. So Homebody Industries has become a massive employer – they’ve opened restaurants and a silk screen shop and a tortilla factory and any number of little businesses.

And again, this to me is exactly what Easter is all about. Whatever it is that shames us and calls us unlovable or undesirable – as too messed up to be of any use to anyone, or trustworthy in any worthwhile task – God says, Nonsense!  You are exactly what I had in mind when I made you. God believes in us far sooner than we believe in ourselves, and God is giving a job to do.

For having been raised with Christ, it’s not just a matter of being given a ticket to heaven when our day comes. Our day has already come. We are already forgiven. We are already restored, already beloved. So we can begin to live this life the way we were made to live it, joining with God in doing what God does, in loving who God loves, in forgiving who God forgives. We have been set free – resurrected! – and we have the dignity and the joy of living a life that matters, not only to us, but to our neighbors, and certainly to our God.

One of the fascinating and beautiful things that happens at these various workplaces is that guys who used to be in rival gangs, trained to kill each other, are now working together. And along the way they’re becoming friends. Fr. Greg sees it happen over and over again. It’s the norm in this new world to which they belong. You can’t demonize people you actually know. When we’re in real relationship one another, the human spirit simply cannot sustain that kind of false belief.

And again, this is Easter. God is erasing the enmity between us. We are being restored to be a community of people – no longer bound by the suspicions and fears of those who are different – but drawn instead into a new, restored humanity. That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for in our church. We don’t get to pick who else belongs to St. John’s. We don’t get to divide ourselves by political allegiance or how much money we have or don’t have or whether someone’s gender identity is the same as ours. The church is full of all kind of folks whose lives we will never fully understand. But it’s not our job to change anyone or fix anyone. It is our job, though, to work side-by-side doing the work of the Kingdom: worshiping our God and caring for one another with servant love. Along the way we’ll learn what it means to be the resurrected Body of Christ – where those who have been estranged or separated by the boundaries this world builds – are discovered to be kin with one another.

Fr. Greg tells another story about Cesar, a young man he’s known since he was just a little kid:

At three o’clock in the morning (he writes), the phone rings. It’s Cesar.  He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”  I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call. Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me. “I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.” Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I . . . been . . . your son?” “Oh, [heck], yeah,” I say. “Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.” Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then . . . I will be . . . your son. And you . . . will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?” “That’s right.” In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having.

And what is true of Cesar is true of each of us. You are a son worth having. You are a daughter worth having. It is God’s choice – no it’s more than that – it is God’s nature to love us. Each of us. As the best father or mother you could possibly dream, so is God for us. And then some. This is how it always has been and shall be evermore. The work of the spiritual life is simply this: to let go of our fear; to let go of our shame; and to settle into a truth which was established and secured long before we began to build our flimsy misconceptions about ourselves and about God.

Christ is risen and we are risen with Christ.

Every year we tell the story again. It’s not new information –same old story. But we tell it again and again. Christ is risen and I am risen with him. Christ is living and I am living with him. And the more we share this story, the more we practice this new narrative of our being, the more we discover it to be true of us, because we are living with a God of endless compassion.

Someone once said, “Just assume that the answer to every question is compassion” and you will find yourself very near to God.

Once the choir has sung their anthem we’ll move to the back of the church for Cailyn’s baptism. Her brother was baptized last Easter with Betty, and now she is choosing it for herself. She has a whole life ahead of her to discover just how compassionate her God is. We at St. John’s will have the honor, not only to watch her grow, but to be her family, living with her in such a way that the tattoo on heart will always say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

[1] Gregory Boyle, SJ, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion, Free Press, 2011