The Journey to Easter, Feb 25, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:22-30; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
There was a couple I met, a few years ago. They were a lovely couple—very generous, kind—they had very complimentary things to say about everyone and were always eager to help out and give of their time to anyone who needed help.
But I didn’t trust them.
Maybe some of you share my cynicism. When someone is overly nice, I’m suspicious.
My thinking is that if people are really happy, they are either completely faking it, or that they have never really had to deal with anything in their lives. I don’t have a lot of time for hypocrites—if people truly aren’t happy, why are they pretending to be? And I have even less patience for people who have just sailed through their entire lives without ever having to deal with the hardships that regular people do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life—I don’t need to give you the whole list of all the advantages I’ve had and the privileges afforded to me because of my skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
But I’ve also had some tough times. I’ve seen enough challenge in my life that my default disposition is not super over-the-top cheerful. I’m pretty sarcastic most of the time.
And I find that the people I most like to be around also tend to be pretty sarcastic too. They’ve also had some tough times and have, what I consider to be, a realistic outlook on the world—sure there are reasons to be happy, but there are also reasons to be pretty glum about the world.
And so I’ve ended up in the Anglican church. I speak only for myself here—I don’t mean to suggest that all of you gathered here today share my disposition—but I think many of you would understand the way I feel about some other churches out there…because we all have a choice of which church to attend. You are all here this morning, when there are other churches that you could go—churches that emphasize the happy and the upbeat—churches where everyday is rainbows and sunshine. All of the songs are happy and upbeat and everyone is always wearing a smile.
We have a term for those churches. We call them “happy/clappy” churches. And many of us, if I may be so bold, really do not like those churches.
“How can you be happy all the time?” “Aren’t you ever sad? Or depressed? Or lonely?”
I can’t help but think that true happiness comes from a perspective which includes sadness: if you have experienced and understood sadness, then your happiness, when it comes, is much more genuine. If you’ve never known any hardship, then your happiness is fragile—even if you don’t realize it.
And so, I prefer to be around people that have a firm grip on that sadness—a clear perspective on reality that includes darkness and depression and evil and disappointment. When people like that are happy, you’d better believe it’s for a good reason.
But these less-than-happy moments do not exist just to make the happy seem better by comparison. There is the old joke of the man hitting his head against a wall. “Why are you hitting your head against a wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
We do not, I hope, anyway, experience these times of hardship just so that when they stop everything seems better.
I hope that there is a reason that we endure when things get difficult—because sometimes (oftentimes) it leads to something better. We go through hardship to prepare us for what lies ahead.
Not everybody chooses to experience both extremes, of course. The people that I am so sceptical of—the people who are always deliriously happy—some of them (if not all of them) are refusing to acknowledge the sadness (because there are some very real reasons to be sad in this world). But at the same time, it is also possible to get caught up in that sadness—so caught up that we forget or neglect to experience happiness.
We all go through seasons in our lives: some that are good, and some that are bad. But sometimes it is during those seasons that seem bad—those that are the hardest to endure—that we grow the most. And often, we can’t see which way we were going until we get to the destination. When we arrive at the new season in our lives, we recognize that the hardship that went before it was the preparation we needed to go through.
The sliver won’t heal unless you endure the discomfort or removing that sliver first.
You can’t get to the oasis without going through the desert.
And, in the church, you can’t get to Easter without going through Lent.
And for Jesus, you can’t get to that empty tomb, to the resurrection, without first enduring the cross.
We can try, of course. We can struggle against the reality that we come face to face with—but there is going to be a period of discomfort before any meaningful change comes about.
I think many of us as individuals try to skip Lent (and I’m talking about Lent here figuratively—not just the church season)—not because we’re bad people, but because we don’t want to have to deal with the hardship. Many of us want to burn fat and build muscle without changing our diets or going to the gym (I’m sure that’s not just me…). We want to make new friends but don’t want to get outside of our comfort zone. And as a church, we want to grow and thrive, but we don’t want to do anything differently than we have before.
As a church, both as St Paul’s and also as the Anglican Church of Canada, we have some very hard questions to ask ourselves: how are we reaching out to our communities? How are we changing to be relevant to the new generations of unchurched (and ex-church)? What are we doing with our gifts and talents to build God’s kingdom here on earth?
At times I worry that we are completely delusional. We want to jump to Easter and skip Lent. We want to celebrate the feast, but skip the fast. We want the celebration, but not the hard work.
And Jesus’ answer to Peter is unequivocal. “No! Get behind me Satan!” “You can’t skip the hard stuff and jump right to the rewards at the end. This is something that needs to be endured first.”
Believe it or not, today I bring to you good news. And that good news is that yes, Easter is coming. There is light at the end of the tunnel. But we might not be ready for it yet. (And that’s the bad news). We might need to sit here for a while in the desert, contending with Satan, fasting and praying, struggling and working hard for a while before we start to see the oasis in the distance.
St Paul’s has some difficult decisions to make. There needs to be discussion and consultation. And this is about more than just who the next rector will be. This is about what is important to you as a community, what areas you would like to devote your resources and your energy to growing, and, just as important, which ministries you can no longer continue to sustain or support. This is not something that can be skipped, or glossed over. It will be challenging and uncomfortable, but just like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a necessary step to arrive at that next place, that God’s glory might more fully shine in God’s people.
I warned you that I can be a sceptical person and spend too long dwelling in the regions of sadness and frustration. But I want to encourage you all that Easter is coming! The period of Lent is about preparation—preparing ourselves (and, in the case of St Paul’s, preparing the church) for the wonderful celebration that is to come. And it is to be a wonderful celebration.
The promise has been made, to us, much as to Abraham. We are called to accept that promise and believe it—not because we know what the outcome will be like, but because we trust in God.
Abraham was far from a perfect person. But as we heard today, God chose him so that all the people of the earth might be blessed through him—and Abraham reacted with faith. He believed God.
With Abraham as our model, we share this prayer with him: “God, I don’t know why I’m here and I don’t understand what this is that I’m going through. I don’t know how this will lead to something better, but I trust in you, God, and believe that you have a plan for my life and will lead me to a better place.”
And before I finish, remember that couple that I mentioned at the beginning? The couple that I didn’t trust at first because they seemed too kind and too generous? After I got to know them better, I learned that they did know hardship—they had survived the death of children and divorce and suicide and betrayal… Once I learned all that about them, then I really began to appreciate them.
They are amazing—because they are so kind and generous and loving despite all of the hardships they faced. They made it through numerous challenges and came out the other side, continuing to trust in God. And that is what makes their happiness and their kindness and their love so much more incredible—it is rooted in a real-life experience of hardship. They are truly living as an Easter people—their joy is not put-on or faked, but genuine and deep.
May we all (myself included), come through our Lenten seasons and fully arrive in Easter, that we may experience the joy that God intends for our lives and be a loving witness, through our lives, to others, of what awaits them.