Saturday, April 07, 2007

Icons of New Life

Easter Vigil – Year C
Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Matthew 28:1-10
Saturday, April 7, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Jonathan, a 12-year old Mexican boy, sat perched on the arm of the couch, next to the front door, as 70 college students and their chaplains filed in and out of his family home. We were there as part of an “immersion” experience designed to give us a taste of what life is like for farmworkers attempting to eek out an existence in Oxnard, just up the coast about half way between here and Santa Barbara. Jonathan’s house is a small, two-bedroom shack, which serves as home to his parents and his three siblings, ranging in age from 6 to 20. On this beautiful Saturday morning in March, Jonathan was the only member of the family around. His parents were at work in the strawberry fields, and I don’t know where his siblings were.

The place had fallen into disrepair, obviously due to neglect by the landlord. I walked through the small, living room, which had a couch on one wall and a twin bed on the opposite wall. The room was dark and dingy. The kitchen was also small, but pretty well-lit and spotlessly clean. The only real bedroom was, like the living room, dark and dingy, barely large enough to hold a full-sized bed and a dresser. The other bedroom, if you could call it that, was really little more than a wide hallway between the main bedroom and the bathroom. This space was barely large enough for a full-sized bed. As I walked through, I was shocked to think that six people lived in these cramped quarters, a space a little more than half the size of my one-bedroom apartment, a space smaller than our Upper Lounge. I was appalled that this family should have to pay $1,000 a month to live in such an inhospitable place. I was saddened that this little boy had to grow up in such depressing surroundings. And I was embarrassed that I was a voyeur, peeping into the unfortunate circumstances of this family.

Farmworker families living in such conditions do not generally allow “outsiders” in to see their homes. There is always the risk that some well-meaning person will report the deplorable conditions to the City or County authorities. If this happens, the authorities will investigate and then go after the landlord, requiring them to perform needed repairs to bring the place up to code, or in the worst of conditions, have the place condemned. In either case, the residents will be evicted and forced to find a new place to live. The only reason Jonathan’s family welcomed us into their home was because in less than two months, they will be leaving this place to move into a brand new home being constructed for them by Habitat for Humanity. This family will be given the opportunity for new life.

Before going to see Jonathan’s home, our group visited Villa Cesar Chavez in Oxnard. There are two parts to Villa Cesar Chavez. The first is a beautiful, 52-unit apartment complex, providing brand new housing for farmworkers. And the second is six single-family houses being constructed by Habitat for Humanity. One of those houses will be Jonathan’s new home. In fact, that’s where we first met Jonathan. He spends almost all of his spare time at Villa Cesar Chavez, hoping to help out with the work on his new house. Part of the requirements for families receiving a new home is that they put in a minimum of 500 hours of “sweat equity” – work on the construction of their home. The Habitat supervisor introduced us to Jonathan and told us that Habitat rules prohibit children under the age of 16 from working on Habitat projects. But Jonathan is so eager to help that they find little things for him to do around the construction site, just so he can be a part of the process of building his new home. And when there is nothing to do around his own house, he helps out where he can with the other five houses being built at Villa Cesar Chavez. He doesn’t do this because he has to. His age technically exempts him from doing any work. He does it because he wants to. He does it out of joy for the new life that he and his family will have in this place. And he helps out on other houses because he wants others to know the joy of having a new life, too. In his simple actions, in his own small way, Jonathan is co-creator of new life, and giver of joy.

For me, Jonathan is a contemporary, living icon of what this day, this celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord, is all about. Last weekend, as we prepared to greet Our Lord making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!,” as Our Lord prepared to travel the road to his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and ultimately to this point, to his resurrection, as Our Lord journeyed the painful path to misery and death that would lead to an equally joyous new life, I witnessed first hand a young boy and his family, traveling a journey that would lead them from their own personal path of misery to joyous new life. But this journey is not just that of Our Lord. It is not just that of Jonathan and his family. It is a journey for all of us – a journey that God has invited us to take – a journey whose invitation was issued from that very moment when God uttered the words, “Let there be light!”

The first reading we heard in this Easter Vigil was the story of the creation of all that is – the very beginnings of our history as God’s own, when God first created light, formed the sky, formed the Earth to be our home. When God created vegetation of all kinds, and living creatures to populate the skies and the earth and the waters. And then God created us, saying “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And God saw that all of creation, including humankind, was very good. By creating us in the image and likeness of God, we are made to be partners, co-creators with God in the on-going creation of our world. We are invited to walk with God in this process of co-creation, as God and we work to make a better world for all God’s beloved creations, of which we are an integral part. Just as Jonathan is invited to be a co-creator in making a better world for himself, his family, and for others.

As our remembrance of salvation history progressed, we then heard the story of the Exodus, in which God called the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, calling them and leading them through Moses to a new land where they could live into the fullness of their calling as the beloved children of God, God’s chosen people. We are invited on that journey, as we struggle to free ourselves from that which enslaves us, to enter a new life in a new and better land which God offers to us, which God invites us to enter. Just as Jonathan was invited to leave the slavery that binds him and his family to a life of drudgery, invited to enter a new life, in a new home that God, through the labors and co-creation of God’s children, has provided.

And then we heard the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones, in which Israel is withered and lifeless following a season of exile. The Spirit of God comes upon the lifeless remnant of God’s chosen ones and restores them to wholeness and life. With the words, “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” God calls the chosen, the beloved of God to new life, free from the bonds of their oppressors. God invites them to new life in their own land, in their own home, newly restored to them following years of separation, years of lifeless and withered existence in a strange land not their own. Just as Jonathan and his family have been living a lifeless, withered existence at the hands of others, but are now invited to new life in a home that will be their own.

Throughout salvation history, throughout our history as the beloved of God, created – lovingly formed – in the image and likeness of God, we have been continually invited to new life. And tonight, we celebrate the most generous invitation of all – the invitation that demonstrates just how much God really does want us to enter into new life. In our creation, we were given life in physical form, mortal, subject to the ravages of sin and death. In the Exodus, we were given a life of freedom, yet only for a short time, still being subject so sin and physical death. And likewise, in being reconstituted following Exile, we were given physical life in our ancient homeland, yet again, only for a short time, still subject to sin and death. But tonight, God has issued a new invitation unlike any previously offered. For tonight, God offers us a new life beyond anything we could possibly imagine – a new life that will not last a mere human lifetime, but one which will last for eternity. God offers us new life free from the ravages of sin and death.

Tonight we witness the resurrection of Our Lord. This is no small feat. For in his own death, Christ has conquered death. In his death, Christ has battled and defeated the ravages of sin. No, this is certainly no small feat. This is the greatest event in the history of humanity. And we are witnesses to this unprecedented event. We stand at the tomb with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. We cautiously look into the tomb with them and find it empty. Our Lord, the one who was gently and lovingly laid in that tomb on Good Friday is not there. And then we see him, standing there before us, and we know that all that he foretold was true, that it has indeed come to pass. He is Risen, indeed.

In his rising, in his resurrection, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, issues an invitation to us to follow him – to enter into new life with him – a new life in which he has forged the way. Not the new life of the creation, not the new life of the Exodus, not the new life following the Exile, but a new and different way of life – a new life in him and in God, a new life free from sin and death, a new life that will last forever. He extends his hand to us, inviting us to die to self, to die to our old way of life and walk with him into this new way of life. As Paul reminds us, as he exhorts us, “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

For Christians, we enter into this new life through baptism – the rite whereby we die to sin and to self, where we are buried in the waters of baptism, as Christ was buried in the tomb. And as Christ emerged from the tomb, resurrected, born into new life, so too, we emerge from the water, born into a new life in Christ, freed from the bonds of sin and death. In baptism, we are joined in Christ’s resurrection and fully receive its benefits. In a few moments, we will witness such a rebirth, as Amber Elizabeth Havel is baptized into new life in Christ, and into a new life in this community, this family of faith. And we who have been baptized will renew our baptismal vows, reaffirming our own desire for new and eternal life with God through Christ.

The Resurrection is not a one-time event. It is not the last word in salvation history. Rather, the Resurrection is the first word in the ongoing creation of the new life that is embodied in and through us, this community, the Body of Christ. We relive it every Easter Vigil. We relive it every time a new member of God’s family is added to the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. And, with God’s help, we relive it every moment of our lives, as we strive to live into God’s invitation to be fully alive to God in Christ Jesus. And as we live into that invitation, we are also called to be icons to others about what it means to live the new life of the Resurrection. Jesus is the first such icon. But so is Jonathan, and so is Amber – icons of what it means to be co-creators of new life and givers of joy.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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