A sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019. The scripture readings are Acts 10:34-43 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 , and John 20:1-18.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
There’s a new movie out that imagines the life of Mary Magdalene. It imagines her family, her decision to follow Jesus, and her faithfulness to him and his mission. At one point, Mary Magdalene is talking with Mary the mother of Jesus. Jesus’s mother looks at Mary Magdalene and asks directly, “You love my son, don’t you? You must prepare yourself like me.” Mary Magdalene asks, “For what?” And the older Mary explains, “to lose him.”
Jesus himself taught that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Living with Resurrection Faith means that we live prepared, prepared to lose the things we love, the people we love, and prepared to lose ourselves. Because, like the Prayer of St. Francis puts it so beautifully,
It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
If we hold on too tightly, with clenched fists, we can’t receive anything from God. We won’t see opportunities. We won’t hear new sounds or songs. We won’t learn or grow.
I was able to see this kind of faithful preparation for death,–even while already giving new life–a few weeks ago when I was in England.
In addition to spending time with our link parish in London, we went to Oxford for a couple of days to walk, gawk at the architecture and history, and see the places where so many of the best BBC murder mysteries are filmed. And, I went to have tea with two Anglican nuns.
Some of you may not know that there are Anglican monks and nuns, and that the Episcopal Church in this country has monks and nuns—but we do. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII disbanded all monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, and disposed of their assets. And the few surviving monastics fled to other parts of Europe. But in 1845, the renewed community of nuns was formed. In 1852 Mother Harriet Monsell began the Clewer House of Mercy, especially working with women in need. At it’s peak, the Community of St. John Baptist had some 300 sisters, and in 1874 a few came to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to form the American branch of the Community. (Today, the Community of St. John Baptist in this country is based in Mendham, NJ, and I serve as their Community Pastor, sort of like a chaplain, who visits and is on call, when needed.) It’s the English community, from 300 sisters down to 4, that I met Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen.
The sisters know that the English order is dying and that with their deaths, there will be no more Community of St. John Baptist in England. They could obsess over this, cling to tradition, respond to societal change with anger and judgment, or deny their reality. Instead, the are clear-eyed and faithful. First, they sold their massive convent near Windsor. They mourned its loss. They mourned its history, its love, and its mission. But they also gained a lot of money from the sale of the property. And with prayer, with new partners, and with the money they gained for the sale, new life has come. It looks different, but it’s faithful to the founding vision of Mother Harriet, which is to convey the love of Jesus Christ to the world, especially to women in need.
The four sisters, with a trust that helps guide funding initiatives, help support the One23 project in Bristol, England. The sisters helped them purchase a house that offers programs and presence to women vulnerable to street sex-work, helping them to break free and build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction.
With support from a Church of England bishop, the sisters have funded a huge campaign that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking, of modern slavery in England. Named for the town of that first monastic community, the Clewer initiative, it helps dioceses and individuals detect modern slavery in their communities and helps provide victim support and care. One creative feature is a mobile phone app that allows one to detect a problem situation and report it to local authorities.
When the sisters sold their massive convent, they needed a place to live, so they deepened a relationship with Ripon Theological College at Cuddesdon, just outside Oxford. There, they built a new multi-use building, with a convent on the top floor, and also endowed a new, beautiful, architecturally-praised chapel for the college. The two sisters living at Cuddesdon are both priests in the Church of England, and they are going strong, preaching, offering spiritual direction and guidance, leading retreats, and living out their vows.
Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen know they will die and that much they love will die. But they also know the new life through Christ that is possible, when we let go, and give God some room for Resurrection.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
May we have the courage to die with Christ, so that with new strength, joy, purpose, and faith, we may rise again with him.
Alleluia. Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!