Sermon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas

April 26, 2009

During Holy Week and Easter, Dick and I visited the Episcopal churches in Italy, which are part of the Convocation of Episcopal churches in Europe. St. James in Florence has a thriving presence, ministering to, and feeding, students who come from all parts of the globe to study in Florence for a semester. The congregation feeds several dozen poor Italian families each week as well, and they do it all in a way that invites Episcopalians and Anglicans and other interested Christians to come together and build a transformative community. St. James includes a growing number of Italians, who for now put up with worship mostly conducted in English because they are so drawn to our tradition and the living presence of Christ in that community. We hope that eventually worship will also be offered in Italian.

The Maundy Thursday liturgy was followed by a wonderful and simple meal – and then we began to read the psalm, and went back into church to strip the altar. On Good Friday I went to Rome to visit St. Paul’s within the Walls, and their refugee center, which provides space and a small meal to more than 200 Afghani refugees each weekday. They also serve a significant community of immigrant women from Central and South American who labor as domestics in Rome.

On Holy Saturday the congregation in Florence took a pilgrimage to a monastery in the countryside. We had a picnic and visited a group of tiny chapels, each with a scene from the life of Jesus, presented in terra cotta and fresco. The whole assemblage is laid out in the same orientation as the holy sites in Jerusalem, and for more than 500 years, it has provided a way for Christians who can’t go to Jerusalem to learn the stories, and worship. The scenes are vibrant and lively, and teach in unexpected ways, for the imagery is different from what you and I are accustomed to. We went back to Florence in the late afternoon to prepare for the Vigil, which was attended almost exclusively by Nigerians, gathered for the baptism of the youngest member of the community. Afterward we had sweets and sparkling beverages outside in the moonlight.

When we walked into the dining room of our hotel on Easter morning, there were brightly wrapped packages on each table – two feet high, covered in iridescent cellophane. We were invited to take one with us. One package had been opened and placed on the buffet – it contained a hollow chocolate egg, almost a foot high. The funny part was that the cellophane was decorated with pictures of Casper the friendly ghost. This was clearly a different cultural variation on the ancient Easter symbolism, but for those who know the story, it just might work better than bunny rabbits.

The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus’ response is to invite them to touch him, and then he asks for something to eat. There are at least some among us who would prefer chocolate to broiled fish – for me, it’s a tossup, depending on what kind of fish and what kind of chocolate. Always, however, when communities of resurrection gather, it is for food and fellowship,

But we continue to be haunted by the question of how to understand the presence of the risen one. Ghost? Eating with us? The whole state of Italy was in mourning while we were there, for the two hundred dead in Abruzzi, victims of an earthquake early in Holy Week, but also victims of graft and inadequate construction methods, signed off by corrupt inspectors. More than a thousand were injured, and some 10,000 people have lost their homes. Good Friday was a national day of mourning, with a mass funeral for the victims. The presence of God and the possibility of resurrection were lively topics in the minds of all Italians, struggling to find a promise of new life in the deadly aftermath of an earthquake.

How do we find the risen Jesus, the presence of God in the flesh, who will announce peace and then sit down and eat with us? This isn’t just an issue for professional theologians – it’s the bedrock of our faith. Do we understand Jesus as just a ghostly presence, only available to those few disciples in the days or weeks after the first Easter? Or are we willing to look for him today, among the dead and wounded, among those who will share stories and sit and eat together? Will we find the resurrected one in our midst when we sit with a friend who’s just received a terminal diagnosis, or a child who’s struggling in school?

Jesus goes on to teach those disciples – so that they apparently begin to understand more of scripture, rather than just the familiar parts or those they’re most fond of. He says, “yes, the savior is to suffer and rise on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins it to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, starting right here. You are witnesses to this.”

The consequence of the resurrection is repentance – which means a turning around or getting a new mind, a metanoia (more than just being sorry) – and the consequence of the resurrection is forgiveness of anything that separates us from God. Resurrection implies renewed and healed relationship. And Jesus says, “you are witnesses.” Being a witness isn’t a passive act; it doesn’t just mean you’ve watched what’s happened. It’s far stronger – it implies telling about what you’ve seen, in ways that will challenge and change your hearers. It is not the act of a bystander. That word for witness is martyr. Jesus is telling his companions that they are to go and tell the world of the possibility of the kind of peace he proclaimed, and that it is the result of what they’ve seen and experienced.

Peace of the deeply biblical kind, the kind the angel always proclaims, comes from healed and restored relationships. It comes from getting that new mind, and forgiveness. Jesus’ resurrection has made it possible in a radically new way.

How are we to share that work of being witnesses? Do we give evidence of the faith that is within us? Can others see a new mind in us, or the fruit of forgiveness?

In Italy, a piece of that fruit might look like a restored community that insists that buildings be constructed according to legal standards, where the whole community works to ensure that everyone has equal dignity, not just those who pay bribes. And it might look like a community that seeks to heal those who have taken those bribes and restore relationships with them. I do believe we would find the presence of the risen one in a redirected and restored community like that.

Where do you meet the risen one?

At dinner, over fish? In the presence of a newly baptized Nigerian-Italian toddler? Eating chocolate eggs with children filled with the joy of celebration?

Will you tell the story of your meeting? Will you be a witness?

I met the risen one just a few days ago. I sat in a hotel restaurant alone, waiting for my dinner. Suddenly someone came up behind me to say hello – a leader in this church, with whom I have not recently had a very fruitful relationship. I invited this person to join me, and the invitation was accepted. We had a very good time – as we shared stories of sorrow and hope in our own families, old suspicions began to fade away, perceived slights were forgiven, and together we delighted in signs of new life in a number of places around this church. I know the risen one was in our midst – and the fish was very tasty.

Will you be a witness?