Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

Laughter

It was following the resurrection and disciples were still scattered about Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. John finds Peter and runs up to him. Excitedly he says, “Peter, Peter! I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Peter takes hold of John and calms him down. “Take it easy, John. What is it? What’s the good news?” John says, “The good news is Christ is risen.” Peter says, “That’s great! But, what’s the bad news?”

John, looking around, says, “He’s really steamed about last Friday.” 

I don’t know about you, but I could use a good laugh.  There are few things better than those times when something takes you by surprise and strikes you just as the funniest thing and it is hard to stop laughing.  Last week I was in a cleaning and laundry-doing frenzy and kind of in a crummy mood.  I was bustling around the house up and down the stairs and working hard.  After many loads I had finally caught up on all of our laundry – including washing several throw rugs.  I put the last rug that had just come out of the dryer onto the floor on Chad’s side of the bed and was folding some clothes when Chad came into the bedroom in his stocking feet and walked over and stood on that rug while he was talking to me.  Suddenly he stopped talking and paused – “Did you just take this out of the dryer?” he asked hopefully…and I burst out laughing because I knew what he was worried about.  The week before we had just had to get rid of a different rug we used to have in that spot that for one reason or another one of the cats decided to pee on repeatedly.  Even as he stood there talking to me, Sam, the cat who was the likely suspect in the earlier peeing incidents was sitting on the floor next to the rug looking up at Chad.  I knew Chad had felt the warm rug under his feet, looked down and saw Sammy sitting there and had a sinking feeling.  I still laugh thinking about it…the tone of his voice, Sammy and her perfect timing, and just the humor in that moment.  It’s true, isn’t it, that if we just open our eyes there are so many things around us that can make us laugh.  People do silly things left and right – intentionally and unintentionally.   

But what place does laughter have in church?  Is it proper, is it appropriate to do something so frivolous, so fun, so whimsical as to spend time considering the importance of laughter as we gather here to consider our spiritual journey? 

Actually, it used to be a tradition.  Early orthodox churches used to gather on the Monday or sometimes the following Sunday after Easter to tell stories, jokes and anecdotes.  This time right after Easter was set aside to celebrate the joke that God has pulled on Satan – that we can rejoice and be glad because God has had victory through Jesus.  To this day in Slavic regions Christians gather the day after Easter for folk dancing and feasting in the church yard.  It is known as Bright Monday or White Monday or Risus Paschalis, God’s Joke, the Easter Laugh. 

This day is not listed on the list of approved feast days of the major liturgical denominations, and while there is no mention of it in the “Revised Common Lectionary”, I think it sounds like a wonderful tradition.  To remember that we are Easter people – and that is something in which we can rejoice!  To remember that laughter is a gift from God and that there is strength and great hope to be found in knowing how to keep looking for the humor in things.   

Do you think that Jesus laughed?  Well, we don’t have any verse that says “Jesus laughed,” but Jesus was a joyful person, continually urging his followers to be joyful. In John 15:11 he explains to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” In the book of Ecclesiastes it tells us that there is a time to weep AND a time to laugh! And we know Jesus loved a good party. He performed his first miracle so that a wedding party could continue. In Luke 15, every parable ends with a party. His famous story of the prodigal son ends with a party, and the older son who would not attend the party is portrayed as the one with the problem. In fact, the picky people around Jesus criticized him for being a glutton and having such a good time (Luke 7:34).  His standard greeting to his disciples and others was often to say “Rejoice”!  Does that sound like a somber savior to you? I feel sad when I realize how often people see the church as being such a serious place.  Certainly, there are serious things we talk about – like sin and death…but aren’t we much more about joy than sorrow?  It seems to me that even though we have our share of funerals here, I much more often hear the sounds of laughter echoing down the halls than the sounds of weeping.   When we meet Thomas in the Gospel today, he’s not ready to rejoice as the other disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus again face to face.  He can’t believe the words that the others tell him – that they have seen the Lord.  He can’t bear to celebrate quite yet.  He can’t bring himself to believe such good news – yet.  He needs to see Jesus face to face and touch his hands and his side before he is ready to join in their jubilation.  He was so caught up in the sadness of what had happened that he couldn’t imagine that a time of rejoicing was now here! I wonder if we do the same sometimes in our own way?  When something happens that is difficult, or horrible, or just hard, we can get so used to being in a place of sorrow that we begin to forget – or even want to ignore – all the reasons there still are to be happy.  Certainly we don’t want to rush through our grief…but it is okay to be surprised by joy, too. 

When my Grandma Hetland died, I remember the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary.  I was fourteen and in addition to me and my mom and my brother, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before.  I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma – her house was as much home as my own house was and her death was the first time I experienced such a loss.  At that age and with my lack of experience with grief, I seriously doubted I’d ever be happy again.  Plus, I was angry that all these cousins and aunts and uncles were hanging around – they all lived far away and I didn’t know any of them.  I didn’t consider them to be my family and I bristled at the idea that they were just as closely related to MY grandma as I was.    So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited.  The room was completely silent.  Every now and then there was a sniffle.  I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness.  I wanted to just leave and go sit at Grandma’s kitchen table and have her be there, too, and we’d eat spice cake just like we did a few days before.   In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode.  Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh.  Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course,  trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter.  Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner.  The laugh had to get out.  I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle.  Then it was Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us when he came in to pray for us in our sorrow.   The thing I loved the most about that moment looking back, though, was as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed.  In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed.   And I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy.  To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together.  It felt like such a blessing and a release to let go of the tears for a moment and see chuckles and smirks, chortles and smiles – a family, though we really weren’t much of one most of the time, brought together that day for a single sad reason, but truly united only in that one random burst of mirth. You can’t tell me that moment wasn’t holy. 

The letter to the Philippians says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I will say, rejoice!”  Brothers and sisters, as we make our way through the challenges and changes of this life, may we be willing to be surprised by joy.  Let’s not be like Thomas – so hesitant to believe in the good news, so hesitant to celebrate.  God has the victory.  This is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.