Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter Time

Easter was a lot of fun. We dyed eggs for the first time with the kids this year. Becca liked taking the eggs out, Lincoln liked stirring the colored water.

The Bryants sent these cute bunny ears that the kids thought were fun!
Cutest Easter Bunny ever!

Here is Linc in his clothes Grandma Sue got.

Both Grandmas got the kind of dresses that Becca won't scream in when I put them on. They have to be knit and feel like a shirt! Next time will feature Grandma Joyce's cute dress she got Becca and cute easter clothes she got Linc! Thanks Grandmas!! You know my kids so well!

After Church, they had a nice big Easter egg hunt for the kids! I think Jhanna had 70 eggs for them to find!

Linc still has time to check himself out in the window while finding his eggs.

They had lots of good help from the congregation and found them all!
Easter was fun and the kids are still eating away at their candy!

Before sharing below the text of Seth's Easter sermon, I just want to give a shout out to my sister Anne as it is her Birthday today!! Happy Birthday Sis!! Love you!

Seth Bryant
Easter Sermon, 2009

Who Needs Jesus?

At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, His victory over death and sin. Death is a scary thing; sin even more so. Some have said that love is the common theme woven throughout all religions; and perhaps they’re right; but the common impetus, I think, is fear. As humans, we have fearfully wondered what the point is to life and to existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? This is a fearful sort of question, because it is completely out of our control, involving the potential of our very existence being absolutely arbitrary, virtue relative, and our souls doomed for annihilation upon death.

Here, in this fearful wondering, is the commonality for all religions, for all religions have sought to explain why our lives and actions matter, and matter ultimately. And from that desire, many cosmologies, teleologies, and moralities have been conceived to answer the big questions; and a good number of those answers revolve around love or harmony or peace in one way or another. But love is not basic; love is the answer that assuages the fear, the fear being basic. And so we return to our Jesus, the answer to our fears of death and unworthiness, arbitrariness and annihilation.

The question that we all have to answer, if not this morning then on some morning, is regarding the relevance of Jesus: is He relevant here and now in the 21st Century, in our lives today and tomorrow. I hate to tell you this story, on this day of all days, and in this place of all places, but I think that it’s worth considering. Recently, an award-winning short film appeared in film festivals all over the world that is, for many, the answer to why we don’t need Jesus. This dark comedy, not surprisingly written and filmed by Canadians, is billed as “A nostalgic voyage [which] takes a darker turn, exploring the naiveté of mankind through the eyes of a young boy.” Only 50 seconds long (without its credits), it attempts, and surprisingly succeeds, in making Freud’s argument delightfully entertaining—that is, why Christianity, and really all of religion, is delusion. Shot with a shaky 8mm camera, it has the following narration:
When I was younger, I used to catch frogs from the pond near my house. One day I realized that frogs must need their own version of Jesus.
So I gathered lots of them around, picked one out, and crucified it to a tree, whilst the others looked on.
I thought I could make a frog Jesus.
I thought it had to be done for the good of their race.
Now before you leave your seats, either as newly disgusted or newly disenchanted Christians, please consider that “Frog Jesus” leaves us with several very good questions. Why did Jesus have to die for us anyway?
Paul, in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 15, informs us that
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
…thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
What Paul is telling us is that God exists, there is a reason to life, and that there is life after death; but, because nothing unclean can enter into God’s presence, and because of the cosmic stain of sin which you are unable to resolve yourselves, you need Christ. Through Christ’s death, the corrupt elements of our bodies and of our souls can be perfected and death can be overcome. This is the traditional answer as to why we need Jesus, in order to overcome death and sin and live with God. This is what we celebrate on this day.

The most basic mission of Community of Christ is that “we proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love, and peace.” And from our Basic Beliefs, we read: “We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Word made flesh, the Savior of the world, fully human and fully divine. Through Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, God reconciles the world and breaks down the walls that divide. Christ is our peace.”

Where the “Frog Jesus” crowd is lost is the need for salvation, and the gap between Jesus’ death and our salvation. How exactly does this reconciliation take place, and why does it need to take place in the first place? It is the cosmic stain of sin, of our actions somehow making us unworthy to enter into God’s presence, that is troubling for some, because they just can’t see it. For some, teachings on sin are like the ad campaign that just informed you of some grave problem that you didn’t know you had until this very moment, and informs you of the miraculous solution if you’re only willing to pay.

I suggest that the issue is the cosmic nature that is usually applied to sin, that can’t be seen or understood except through faith. Of all things, sin does not require faith: it should be apparent. Gilbert K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy (which is a favorite of my father-in-law), states that "certain new theologians" deny the existence of sin,
which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some ..., in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannnot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. (17, emphasis mine)
On the topic of sin, the Basic Beliefs of Community of Christ state:
God created us to be agents of love and goodness. Yet we misuse our agency individually and collectively. We take the gifts of creation and of self and turn them against God’s purposes with tragic results. Sin is the universal condition of separation and alienation from God and one another. We are in need of divine grace that alone reconciles us with God and one another.
Look around and see the suffering in the world, caused by humans who made poor choices, who did not consider the worth of all persons. This state of alienation is sin, evident through suffering and misery.
It takes faith to remember the humanity of our Savior, that God lived among us, as a human. Traditionally thought of as the (adopted) son of a carpenter, biblical scholars now believe the Joseph was a craftsman, someone who worked with his hands. Construction in that day was not of wood, but stone. It is likely that Jesus was a mason’s apprentice, not a carpenter. Joseph and Jesus, as laborers who didn’t own land, and who lived in a town of no real importance, they were among the very lowest rungs of society, always searching for the next job, traveling to the home of someone with more money and higher social status. Jesus not only lived in a day when a few Jews used Roman power to profit at the expense of all other Jews, but he was a victim of it. Not surprisingly, his message was one of social justice that turned the Jewish world on its head. He proclaimed that the truly powerful were not the rich Roman rulers or Jewish benefactors, but the weak and unlearned: “blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Blessed are the hated, reviled, unclean, unworthy, poor who are at the margins of society, for of these shall God build his kingdom on the earth.

Like all prophets before Him, Jesus was calling on Israel to repent and return to God’s covenant, honor the worth of all persons or image of God within us. Today, in the church, we have a high priest that is also the prophet; but more often, priests and prophets did not mix. The priest drew authority from an institution, and was charged by that institution to keep the boat stable; the prophet’s authority, however, was in his ability to rock the boat, to challenge the system. The combination of the two is the strength and weakness of the Restoration. In Section 156, where priesthood restrictions based on gender are lifted, we most clearly have a prophet speaking, and prophets are volatile and often hated.

Fortunately for Jesus, he was popular enough that the chief priests and religious rulers felt that they couldn’t challenge him publicly without starting a riot. Had he played his role as they wanted Him to, perhaps He would have been safe. But Jesus, the radical Christ, was not willing to simply irritate, or play the role of gadfly. He overturned tables in the Temple; called the Pharisees and Sadducees—the rulers who benefited from the status quo of Roman power and Jewish subjugation—a generation of vipers. He pronounced that He was the Son of God, the Messiah who would free the Jews. Those in power knew that they must do something, and do it when the people were not around.

If you are wanted by the authorities, then it is probably not best to go to the capital city where they are headquartered, but this is exactly what Jesus did. And if you have to go into the capital city, then perhaps you should do so quietly, but Jesus rode into the holy city on the back of a donkey, with the people cheering him and placing palm fronds before his parade—which sort of triumphal entry, for the Jews, was reserved for their liberating king and Messiah. Surely his life was in danger when He gathered for Passover in the Upper Room. He must have known this as He modified the celebratory Jewish meal in preparation for His coming death and resurrection, giving us what we call today the Communion or Lord’s Supper. Where Passover celebrated the Exodus of the Jews from Egyptian captivity, Communion for Christians celebrates our freedom from death and sin through Christ.

The authorities were furious with his entry into their holy city. In this most dangerous time, Christ asked his disciples to stay up and watch as he prayed. He was a wanted man, but they succumbed to sleep and let down their guard. Christ, as he prayed alone in Gethsemane, which is fittingly translated as “oil press,” must have understood what was coming, as “he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).

On this night, when his crowds of followers were asleep at home, and his close disciples asleep on watch, under this veil of darkness, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, approached with the authorities. It was dark, and so to betray Him, Judas kissed Jesus, as was the tradition for disciples to kiss their masters. He was telling those with the swords, “Here is my master.” Hauled away, Jesus was illegally tried, convicted, and sentenced to death all in the space of a day. Upon the cross his battered body hung lifeless. And in the tomb it laid for three days, until on this Easter Sunday morning, so very long ago, He was resurrected, overcoming sin and death.
Allow me to quote again from our Basic Beliefs, this time regarding Salvation and Eternal Life, which two activities scripture tells us are “[God’s] work and [God’s] glory, to bring to pass the immortality, and eternal life of man” (D&C 22:23b).

The gospel is the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ: forgiveness of sin, and healing from separation, brokenness, and the power of violence and death. This healing is for individuals, human societies, and all of creation.
Resurrection and Eternal Life
Christ is risen! Thus we believe that God is God of life, not of death. By faith we share in eternal life even now. In Christ, God’s love finally will overcome all that demeans and degrades the creation, even death itself. Easter also gives us hope that the tragic suffering and death of victims, throughout history, is not the last word.

As a church, we have come to think less of Celestial kingdoms and pie in the sky, and consider that the peaceable kingdom of God is here, that the eternities are also now. This impels us to demand justice here and now, for creation is ongoing, sin is inexcusable alienation that causes suffering, and salvation is not just a metaphysical event, but involves feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and restoring and repairing the brokenness of humanity. Among our brokenness, is death itself, which God alone heals.

Perhaps we can appreciate the idea of a Christ, and the idea of Jesus separately: that Jesus was a great moral teacher, or one who represented something much bigger than he really was. But this breaks down at the resurrection. Either it is Jesus and Christ, and we are but Christian humanists, or we embrace Jesus the Christ. Either life ultimately ends beyond this, God being a projection of our best selves, or God is working through Christ to restore holiness to creation, including immortality and eternal life. Once you have experienced the very real and personal nature of Christ’s healing, I think it impossible to think of our Easter hope and celebration as just a happy and helpful story. I am a witness of the actuality and divinity of the resurrection, that Christ lives; and I would like to share a testimony of this with you.

This story begins in New Bern, North Carolina. New Bern was settled in 1710 by Swiss and German immigrants. For a brief time, it served as the colonial capital at Tryon Palace, and was known as the “Athens of the South.” I served as a missionary there in 2001, our apartment in historic downtown New Bern being just around the corner from Bradham’s Drug Company—the birthplace of Pepsi in 1898.

Not far from our home was the Cedar Grove Cemetery, final resting place, in a common crypt, of the Confederate soldiers lost in the Battle of New Bern. Union General Burnsides and his 13K troops, as well as naval forces which bombarded the city from its own port on the Pamlico Sound, overpowered the 4,500 Confederate forces stationed within the city. From 1862 onward, Union forces occupied New Bern for the rest of the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression as some there still call it.

Returning to the cemetery which contains the large monument and crypt for the fallen Confederate soldiers, this graveyard is filled with large, very ornate, above ground burial chambers. Paths crisscross in and out among these neo-Romanesque tombs. Once marble, their lichen-encrusted stone is now stained dark green, almost black. Reminiscent of the ideal location of a good mystery or ghost story, very little light makes it through the canopy of massive oaks, limbs draped with Spanish moss almost to the ground.

My missionary companion and I rode our bikes past the cemetery almost everyday, following its stone fence on our way to serve at the nearby soup kitchen. Like the crumbling, opulent graves, imposing and once majestic Southern Victorian homes with sagging roofs, broken windows, peeling paint, and “condemned” signs could be found on either side of the cemetery. Inside these once grand dwellings—formerly home to the rich, elite, cultured, and proud Southerners—homeless persons and crack dealers congregated, sold, and slept. The cemetery and the homes seemed to be haunted by both the living and the dead.

Spending our time in this forgotten space, so tragically beautiful and simultaneously horrible, it troubled me that our work at the soup kitchen, in many ways, only took care of immediate needs, while perpetuating the blight and human misery all around. For two hours, we would serve food, the line of broken beings, shells of humanity, shuffling past. My heart was softened, however, when children from the nearby women’s shelter would hold out their trays, waiting for the food that we had prepared, needing that one meal, and needing it right then. They had big eyes, scared eyes; for their years, eyes that had seen too much, and bodies and minds and souls that had received too little.

And so it happened that my very new, very green companion and I—in this hell of a place, a hell of lost and forgotten and unknown potentials—came across a women, in her late forties, pulling two suitcases down the road that ran alongside the graveyard. We were on our way to spend the day tracting, or knocking on doors, and weren’t in any particular hurry, and so I asked if we could help her move her luggage somewhere.

We soon learned that she and her boyfriend were traveling through New Bern in his truck the night before when an argument ensued, and he had kicked her out with nothing but her suitcases. She had no home, no money, no food, nowhere to go. Engraved and cut into her face were the lines from living a very hard life.

In the early hours of the morning, the police had directed her to the women’s shelter, but left her to walk all the way across town, dragging her luggage to get there. But, when she arrived at the shelter, she was turned away for want of space. We had crossed paths just after she had been turned away. The shelter had suggested that she go to the Greyhound station, which was where she was headed when we met her, but she had no idea of where she was going or how she would pay for a ticket to get to somewhere.

My initial response was to tell her that the soup kitchen would be open in a few hours for lunch. It struck me, however, that if this was all the help that she received, she likely would become just another face in that long line of homeless shuffling past, eyes yellow and gray and dull from living on the streets. Having studied the scriptures that morning, like all mornings as part of our discipline as missionaries, I saw, in my mind, the scriptures that I had been reading come to life. In a very real way, I saw a scene of our Savior, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, the hope of the hopeless and help of the helpless. In this moment of inspiration, I realized that I had no business to claim to be a Christian, let alone a member of the priesthood, if I couldn’t offer the same sort of salvation to this woman that Christ would offer.

I knew all too well after preaching on the streets in the roughest parts of North Carolina that many homeless persons, those in that soup kitchen line we served week after week, didn’t want help, or thought themselves to be beyond help. Pessimism had sunk in, and I even agreed most of the time, and gave into their despair: they had been where and who they were for too long to change. But here, before us, was a woman who had just arrived at the threshold of hell, and who was doing everything she could to get out of that situation, but was helpless to save herself.

I asked if she had family we could call. Her accent become noticeably more Southern, she said, “My Daddy lives in Deep Run, but he hasn’t spoke to me in 20 years.” Deep Run being a tiny town less than an hour away, it seemed like the best solution if only we could reconcile past hurts. I asked her why there was bad blood; the reply: “drugs.” She then confessed to 30 years of drug use that started casually and had finally gotten her to where she was today, homeless and destitute on the streets. I asked her, “When was the last time?” Her hands beginning to shake, she told us that after being turned away from the women’s shelter, she used her last bit of money to buy from a dealer. Have occurred just before we found her, she hadn’t had time to use.

My green companion, who grew up in a very sheltered Mormon environment, was deathly quiet and visibly shaking. I turned to her and said, “We can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Are you willing to commit, right now, to turning your life around?” She sat down on the granite stone curb outside of the graveyard, feet in the gutter, and began to weep. As she wept, I told her about Jesus, feeling fire roll through my bones as I witnessed to His healing and love. Christ was there.

After a very long time, she stopped crying, and told us that she’d do whatever was required to make a new start. I asked her for the drugs, which she handed over. By now my companion’s eyes were huge. I then wrote down her information and her father’s name, told her to stay put, and we raced home on our bikes, throwing the drugs away in a city garbage can once we were out of sight. Once back at our apartment, while my companion made her a sandwich, I made three phone calls.

To my surprise, she was still there when we arrived. When people have nowhere to go but up, sometimes they flee, unable to believe that this time—after all the other failed attempts—they can actually change. As she ate the sandwich, the cab that I had called pulled up. We loaded her suitcases and our bikes in the back, and took a trip to the regional hospital, where she was admitted into the adult mental health facility to be treated for substance abuse. Fortunately, the director was willing to accept her, without cost, on my word as her pastor that she was ready to change, and that she had no way of paying. I didn’t bother telling him that I was a pastor of a congregation of one, or that my one parishioner was a recent convert as of that morning.

After seeing her checked into the treatment program, we were about to leave when she asked if we were going to be there when she was released. I told her that I didn’t know, that missionaries are transferred frequently and without notice. But, I reassured her that I had located and spoken with her father, and that he had agreed to take her home when she was ready. She was stunned, and asked how. And so I told her how I called information, and asked to be connected; once he was on the line, I told him that his little girl needed him, and his heart softened.

That evening, after riding our bikes home from the hospital, the Zone Leader called to check up on the events of the day. This he did every evening, being particularly interested in our stats, or how many discussions we had taught potential converts over the course of the day. I told him how we had planned on tracting all day, and then related what had actually taken place. Sounding annoyed, he responded, “Well, I hope tomorrow you can get back to teaching discussions and focus on the work of the Lord.”

I was transferred a week later, and did not find out how the rehab and reunion with her father went, but wondered what had happened and prayed often for her. Nine months later, after having become the Zone Leader who had to make those nightly statistic calls, the elders in Washington, NC, reported that they had tracted into a most unusual women. Unlike most people, she invited them right in, explaining how a Mormon missionary had helped her turn her life over to Jesus. They had expected to hear about how a missionary had baptized her, but her story contained no discussions, no baptism, no membership in the church. They were even further surprised when she gave them my name. In what was one of the happiest moments of my mission, they gave me the rest of the story: she now had a roof over her head, had a job, and had reconciled with her family in Deep Run, and was living free of drugs. A fragile salvation at only nine months out, and still dealing with the effects of living alienated from her true potential, God, and her family for so long, life was not perfect, nor was she transformed overnight, but through a great deal of hard work and faith, she was experiencing salvation from the very real effects of sin. She was honoring the worth of her personhood, honoring the image of God within, that each of us image to the world.

The elders who tracted into her were concerned, because she said that I helped her find Christ, but had no desire to be baptized a Mormon, having been baptized earlier in Deep Run, and then taking part in a Protestant congregation in Washington. I told them not to worry; that she was saved (showing just how apostate I had become by the end of my mission, even suggesting that salvation could be found outside of my church, the one and only true and living church on the face of the whole earth). I repeat: she wasn’t baptized, wasn’t confirmed, wasn’t present in my church’s pews—but that day that she put her burdens and trust and faith in Christ, the Kingdom of God increased by one; that day, the salvation of Christ lifted a broken soul from the death and hell of addiction and abuse, and gave her new life and new wings.

The Christ that died on the cross showed us the futility of violence, of hatred, of bigotry—and the unpardonable sin of wasted life and potential. “Do your worst,” He said; “have the highest ecclesiastical and most powerful political officials consent to my death; flex as much human muscle as humanly possible, and I will show you the weakness of the weak arm of the flesh when my corruption puts on incorruption, and this Temple rises again.” No “Frog Jesus” scapegoat that is being unfairly judged, Christ is the anti-scapegoat that rises to judge us with the perfect vision of God: and this judgment bar is not some future cosmic event, but here and now, to see how we treat ourselves, others, creation, and the gift of God. He wants to know if you need Him; but more importantly, He wants you to go forth from these walls and find those who need Him now!

I close with another statement from our Basic Beliefs, this time on Judgment:
The living God whom we serve is a God of justice and mercy. God cares about how we treat our neighbors and enemies and how we make use of creation’s gifts. It matters supremely to God how we welcome the poor, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, and the rejected. We affirm in Scripture’s light that Jesus Christ is advocate and judge of the living and the dead.
It matters supremely because He was the mistreated, the poor, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, the rejected. He knows our suffering, and knows how to relieve it. His message and grace heals us here from the visible effects of sin, and in the future in ways that we cannot fully appreciate but which are no less real. God be thanked for the matchless gift of the Son, who lives, and who wants each of us to truly live up to our potentials. We need not fear death nor sin, for our hope this day is real and perceptible. This I testify in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Anne said...

I'm glad the kids had a fun easter! We missed you guys at the annual easter egg hunt! Thanks for the shout out, Jenn! Love ya, Anne

Polly said...

Hi Seth,

Tom Kimball sent you over to me at the Arthur H. Clark book exhibit at MHA in Springfield. I gave you my card and hoped you would contact me about your Deseret Alphabet work. Hope this reaches you! Polly Aird