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Sermon preached at the Easter Vigil, 19 April 2014

Rosebud Episcopal Mission (Western side)

Bishop Jones Building, Mission, S.D.

The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley

(Sung, from the Exultet)

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined, and man is reconciled to God.

This is the night, my friends, THE night, when death lost its sting, its hold, its final grip on us.

This is an incredible night, the night when God reached down from heaven and overcame all of the world’s struggles, all of the world’s resistance to God’s love, and brought God’s love back into the world.

We know all this.

Because we know this story.

We know the story of Jesus’ birth.

We know the story of Jesus’ life.

We know the story of Jesus’ death.

We know the story of Jesus’ resurrection.

For us, it is our theme in glory, that old, old story of Jesus and his love.

We know all this, and we take it for granted, and as a result, Easter becomes more a celebration of family and flowers and good food and for some, a four-day holiday in which to bask in the sunlight … without ever realizing the power, the surprise, the audacity of this night.

Face it: We are not, on this holy night, filled with despair, because for us, the ultimate story of love has already come to an end.

We are not Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, stumbling through the dark hours of the early morning, filled with grief and despair, on their way to the tomb so they could properly care for the one whom they thought would save the world.

For far too many of us, there is no shock for us, no awe.

Because for far too many of us, this is, alas, just another old story, one that we have heard all of our lives. It is, for too many of us, just like an old, favorite movie that we watch over and over again, knowing every line of the script, knowing who is hiding behind which doors, with all the suspense gone.

We know the end of the story, and so for far too many of us, this is just another night.

But let me assure you: This is NOT just another night.

This is the night, the night when earth and heaven are joined, and man is reconciled to God, and death is defeated, and love reigns triumphant!

Picture this:

Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ disciples – and yes, she was a disciple, despite the fact that she is not named as one in the male-dominated world of the days when our Lord and Savior walked the earth – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (and to be honest, we aren’t certain which other Mary) are on their way to the tomb.

It is dark.

It is probably cold (Jerusalem sits atop a small mountain, about 2,500 feet above sea level, the same elevation as the Rosebud, and we all know how chilly it can get here in the mornings).

They are grieving, these two women. The man they loved – not physically, I’m not pulling a Dan Brown here; no, they loved Jesus with all their souls because Jesus loved them for their souls – was dead.

They were there when he died. They witnessed that awful death.

They were there when he was taken down from the cross, his body broken.

They were there when he was laid in the tomb, hastily buried because it was the day of Preparation for the Feast of the Passover.

They were there when the stone was placed in front of the tomb, to keep anyone from stealing Jesus’ body in order to make the ridiculous claim that he was brought back from the dead.

And now they were on their way, to care for their Lord’s body properly, to make sure he was anointed with the right oils and incenses, to make sure he was wrapped properly in burial shrouds.

And suddenly …

Suddenly …

There was a great shaking of the earth!

And there was an angel – an angel of the Lord!

And that angel moved the stone from the entrance to the tomb!

And then he sat on it!

The guards posted at the tomb were so scared they shook and became like dead men (I’m guessing this means they fainted straight away).

But the women?

Did they faint?

No, they stood their ground.

Terrified they might have been, but they stood their ground nonetheless.

And the angel of the Lord said to them, “Do not be afraid.”

(Isn’t that soooo God-like? Isn’t that what God always has his angels say, because God knows that angels can be very frightening messengers?)

And then the angel of the Lord gives them the very best news of their lives, the news that shocks them, surprises them, has them in complete and total awe:

He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.

What?!?!

He’s not there?!?!

He really and truly has been raised?!?!

Our Lord, our leader, our teacher … is not here?!?!

With some fear and great joy, the women turn around to tell the other disciples, to carry to them the rest of the story: Go tell the others to go to Galilee, just like Jesus said.

And just as they have started running, who appears right in front of them?

Jesus!

The Risen Lord!

Right there! With them!!!

He, too, tells them: Do not be afraid. (I am telling you, if you ever get a message that begins, “Do not be afraid,” you know you’re in the presence of the Lord.)

And he tells them, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Can you imagine what that must have been like?

Can you imagine what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary felt like in that moment?

Sure, we knew what would happen. We’ve seen this movie a thousand times; we know the ending, and we are not surprised.

But those two women?

They had their socks knocked off!

They were filled with shock and awe and delight and hope and joy beyond words!

Because this wasn’t some old movie for them. This wasn’t some repeat.

This was good news … no, it was awesome news!

This was the Best. News. Ever!

Jesus had defeated death!

He was back!

He was risen!

And they Could. Not. Wait. To tell the story!

My friends … I know we’ve all been through this before. That’s there’s nothing new to this story, nothing to see here, move along, move along …

But the fact is, we should be surprised.

We should be filled with awe. And joy. And delight. And most of all, with hope.

Because this story? It is our story.

And it is one worth telling, over and over again, to everyone who has ears to hear and hearts to listen.

Please, I beg of you:

Be shocked.

Because God has fulfilled God’s promise to us.

Be awed.

Because God did what had never been done before – defeated death.

Be filled with hope.

Because what God did for Jesus, God does for us.

Those two women? They got it. They got that this was good news.

And they told that story, far and wide.

And across the centuries, they are asking us to do the same.

We, the present-day disciples, are called to do this:

To go into the world … and tell the story …

That old, old story of Jesus’ love.

(Sung, from the Exultet)

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined, and man is reconciled to God.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!!

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Packed and not so ready to go

Thursday in Easter week:

Dear Beloved in Christ:

It is my last night in Haiti for two weeks, and even though I am packed and almost ready to go, there is a large part of me that wants to stay. Yes, I look forward to the amenities of the U.S., but it is hard to leave behind my friends here, my family here, my colleagues, and even the people on the street whom I do not know but see daily.

It’s been nearly three months since the earthquake. I do see some progress; I see buildings going up (some of which do not look safe in the least, to be honest). And yet, I still see more buildings that have yet to be taken down. Driving through Port au Prince several times this week, I’ve seen more and more government workers out — easily identifiable by their bright yellow T-shirts — removing rubble, clearing more streets, trying hard to improve life.

But those improvements are slow in coming. I don’t know that most of the world understands yet how complete this devastation is. One of the priests here told me just yesterday that every single one of his churches was destroyed in the earthquake. Every single one. He needs large tents — as do many of our other priests — in order to have a place in which to hold worship, so that the people don’t have to stand in the brutal sun or get drenched by the rains. We still have buildings that are pancaked, still have buildings that are atilt, still have to maneuver around rubble in the streets.

And we still have hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless. They live in tents, sometimes in camps, sometimes on their own property. A friend just sent me a text message telling me that the front porch of their house collapses this week after several more small but still deadly aftershocks. He and his wife still cannot live in their own home.

Walking the streets, you are overwhelmed by the smells — of food being cooked on the sidewalks, of unwashed bodies, of no sanitation. The tents are right on top of each other … people have a “living space” of approximately two square feet per person, if that. It is absolutely amazing that this many weeks later, people still have no place to live.

And then there is the rain. Last night, a sudden downpour flooded the capital. Literally. I was having dinner with some friends when the rains began. We joked about how it wouldn’t be so bad running across the street to get home, because at least then we could wash the dust off of us from our long day of travel. When the rains abated — somewhat — we headed for the door, and discovered a gushing river in what was our street. The water was filthy and running fast, so fast that I wondered if we would be able to keep our footing. I had my backpack with my computer in it, and didn’t want to attempt a three-foot jump onto a slippery step leading to my church and apartment. So I waded through the water, carefully trying to plant each foot. The Lord alone knows what was in that river of filth; all I can tell you is that within minutes of arriving home, my feet were on fire. I couldn’t wash them fast enough or even enough to rid myself of that feeling.

And I have the blessings of having an actual apartment, on the third floor, to which to retire. I have buckets of more-or-less clean water in which to bathe. The people on the streets? In the tents? They have nothing. Some in the tent city across from my church draw water from our reservoir every day … without that, I do not know what they would do.  On Easter night, a woman showed up at the gate at 9 p.m. There were 12 one-gallon jugs of water waiting for her. She took two jugs in each hand, and made three trips to where she is staying.

Such is life in Haiti.

And yet, at our Diocesan Synod this week — delayed 10 weeks by the earthquake — there was much joy as well. The parishes took up collections on Easter Sunday to begin the fund for the reconstruction of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Each priest presented that money at Synod, in a joy-filled service on Tuesday. For the offertory, the people of the parish of Bon Sauveur in Cange literally danced up the aisle with their offerings: fruits, grains, sugar cane, farming tools, live roosters, a live turkey (which might be what we ate the next day …), vegetables and more. It’s a traditional offering, complete with dance and song, and is a celebration of the fruits of our lives. It also gives new meaning to the liturgical saying, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Truly, the people of Haiti give back to the Lord on a daily basis, even when they don’t have much to give.

Which makes it harder to leave every single time. Because if they can and do give so much, if they are suffering so much, how can I simply come and go so much? But … that is the assignment Bishop Duracin has given me, and right now, it is the best use of my gifts. So, I pack up once again, cover up my belongings here with sheets to keep the dust off, and head out to the airport. In less than two weeks, I’ll be back, so it isn’t as though I am leaving my adopted country forever. I just have to keep one foot in America, one foot in Haiti, going back and forth, for a while to come.

And even in the midst of all this devastation, there are good things to see. Walking down the streets, I see so many of my friends, and I know that strangers continue to be astounded at the joy of each meeting. This is Haiti — here we greet each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek. We laugh, we joke, we arrange to get together, we make sure that we know where each of us is, and what we are doing, we try to help each other. My street artist friends are delighted to know that the paintings I buy from them are to be sold in the U.S., and that their work in turn will fund the rebuilding of this nation. My vendor friends keep cold drinks hidden away for me, knowing that as I walk by, I will ask for my too-sweet-but-filling Tampico orange drinks. The children on the street play games with me — thumb warfare sometimes, other times just the word games we play about asking for money. The security guards at hotels nearby all greet me, and the waiters at restaurants (where I usually only go with visitors) all stop to greet me as well.

The other day, standing on my balcony, I realized for the first time that the big tree growing over the wall is an avocado tree! I had been watching a bee pollinate the blossoms, and suddenly saw … avocados! Turns out, it belongs to the hotel across the street, for it is actually growing in their parking lot. But the branches that cross over that wall? The fruit of those branches is ours! At first, I found just four tiny avocados — which still have a long way to go in their growing. Avocados here are between 8 and 10 inches long, and at least four inches around, and are so very delicious. Then I realized that there were all these buds on the tree branches. THEN, a few hours later, I came out to examine the tree again, and found five more teeny-tiny new avocados bursting forth. Finally, I looked up — remember, I’m on the third floor, so the branches are at eye level — and saw hundreds of buds! Oh, my gosh, I said to my friends, we’re going to have to open a market! We’ll be rich!!!! Thank God for that bee that drew my attention to the riches of God’s grace, literally right before my eyes.

There is another tree growing in our courtyard which bears what I think is breadfruit. I’m actually not certain what the fruit is, only that is is good to eat, and better to be turned into juice. I haven’t done the latter yet, but have partaken of that blessing as well. This tree literally grows through the steps leading to the parish hall on the second floor behind the church. I didn’t realize that it, too, is a fruit tree. I will eat more of this fruit when I return.

This morning, I saw hundreds of children lining up to enter schools, which reopened this week. Not all of the schools are ready to reopen, but some have, and to see the children in their varied uniforms — every school child wears a uniform here — brings joy to all of us, for it is a sign that some normalcy is returning, and that education will continue, even if it has to happen under tents or in some cases, under the trees.

And just a little while ago, there was yet another street party right outside my door. Granted, the music is just a tad loud for me — anything that makes your heart thump is too loud for me. But it was joyful music, and brought joy to the thousands living in Place St. Pierre, even if only for a few moments.

Earlier this week, I drove from Port au Prince to Cange and then back. My triumph: I drive like a Haitian now, one hand on the steering wheel, one on the stick shift, one finger on the horn, ready to use it, at all times. Several times, I told my passengers to close their eyes — it’s easier for them. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but trust me, it is. To drive in Haiti is to be really bold — or to be crazy. We have three basic rules of the road: One, all other drivers are crazy. Two, lock your doors. Three, see Rule Number One. Oh, and it IS necessary to have a good horn. Weak horns on cars bring derision from all around. Good horns earn accolades. My car, which Bishop is driving right now (his was crushed when his house collapsed in the quake, and his new one is not yet here), has a decent horn. The rental car’s horn: Excellent. Not as good as the horn in a friend’s car — that’s a monster horn. But still, it was very good. And I am proud to have driven up-country. It leaves me with a feeling of panache.

There are two things that are hard for people to believe about Haiti: The first is that this devastation was, is and will continue to be, beyond description. The second is that in the midst of it, there is still joy.

Such is life in Haiti.

Blessings and peace in this Eastertide,

Lauren

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Dear Beloved in Christ:

Easter in Haiti

Easter services here were incredibly powerful today. To be able to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” in a place that is still filled with death almost defies description.

Hearing the angel proclaim “He is not here” in Luke’s Gospel brought tears to my eyes, for there are so many — perhaps as many as 300,000 — who are not here with us now. At the English service, I read Bishop Duracin’s Easter message to the congregation. (In Haiti, the Bishop is the preacher in all of our parishes.) In his message, Bishop spoke of how we remember “a relative, a friend, one who was close to us, all of whom, in most cases, were denied funeral ceremonies where we could say goodbye with human dignity. Thus,” he wrote, “crossing the desert has been and still is long and extremely difficult.” Although I had read the message in advance, I still found myself almost unable to continue. I know I was not the only one thinking of friends and family, and seeing again the awful devastation which still remains with us, or the bodies that are still being found.

But Bishop Duracin also told us: “The devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, does not stop us from singing in joy and gladness, ‘Alleluia, He is risen.’ … We can no longer continue to look for Jesus among the dead, we can no longer remain in tears because of our dead, because, if during their earthly life, they knew love, their place is in the Kingdom with the Lord to reign with Him in His eternal glory.”

His message, and that of the Gospel, reminded us that we have much to celebrate here even in the midst of death, because “God is a God of life, a life that flows from his love for humanity, a love that is embodied in his Son Jesus Christ.”

I drew strength from that message, and from the celebration of the Eucharist, my first Easter Eucharist in this country. At the fraction, I found myself so caught up in the joy of the moment that I repeated the Easter acclamation, a slip of the tongue that brought smiles to all of us. By the end of the service, the joy of the Resurrection was so powerful that I repeated that acclamation again, with great gusto, and with equal gusto, the congregation replied, nearly shouting, “The Lord is risen indeed! ALLELUIA!”

Yes, we are surrounded by death in Haiti. But we are also surrounded by new life, by the new creation that God proclaims. Which is why, especially here, we are proclaiming “Alleluia!” with all our beings.

Bishop Duracin and all of Haiti bids all of you, “Joyeuses Paques!” Happy Easter!

Your servant in Christ,

Lauren

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Urgent times, with more blessings

Dear Beloved in Christ:

My first full day in Haiti started with my first phone call at 6:30 a.m., from Bishop Duracin. Since so many of us lack electricity, our days end a bit earlier and start MUCH earlier, with the sun’s rising. There is so much to do we simply cannot wait for regular business hours. It is now well past dark, and the day is not yet done. Through the kindness of my friends at the hotel across the street, I was able to charge my iPhone, so it is possible to get more news out.

The good news: We were able to get some things done today, through a series of meetings. I met some structural engineers on the plane on Sunday (was that only yesterday?). Today they called and said they wanted to work with the Episcopal Church. Once I told them, on the plane, of the work we do in Haiti, of our 254 schools, of our clinics and hospitals, of our trade schools and community college, of St Vincent’s, of our churches that are also community centers, of our working of miracles here, they decided to partner with us. Thanks be to God that by the grace of God, a bunch of strangers met at 37,000 feet and talked together. How this new partnership will develop only God knows, but that is good enough for me.

We had no luck getting Bishop Duracin’s visa or his daughter’s, but we continue to work on that. Many are striving to make that happen, and we pray it will happen soon, so that Bishop can come to the U.S. to see his wife and to attend the House of Bishops meeting later this month. Your prayers are asked for this.

At the airport today, waiting to pick up The Rev. John Talbird of East Tennessee, who is the head of the Board for Hopital St. Croix in Leogane, I met a Turkish policeman who is with MINUSTAH, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti. He has been here since October, and brought his wife and now 8-month-old son with him. They all survived the quake, but he was able to send his wife and son home. Their home was damaged and he is now living in a tent near the U.S. Embassy. His devotion to his work here, his obvious care for the people of Haiti, his willingness to sacrifice a year of his life to live in a foreign land to help others in need, even his willingness to think about how to REALLY help the Haitians – “they need factories, they need jobs, then they can help themselves” – struck a deep chord in me. We truly are all related to each other, and when we work to help each other, at a cost to ourselves, we are building up the Kingdom of God.

I also met my porter from yesterday, who stood watch with me while I waited for my ride. “007” – that is his license number – got me inside the gate so that I could more closely watch for my friend, John. He remebered me from yesterday, and wanted to make sure I was cared for today.

At the same time, I met a woman who lost several of her children in the quake, now has nothing, and wants help with her remaining children, to feed, clothe them, give them shelter and send them to school. These are the times I repeat my cry to the Lord: I need more money! I dearly wish to help all I meet, and I try to do so, but the need here is so great. We all will have to sacrifice to help those in need.

But mixed in with the anguish is more joy, one person at a time. Today I found yet another friend on the street, the woman who sells me my fruit drinks every day. I don’t always need or even want them, but this is how she makes her living. She calls me “friend,” and I call her “friend,” and now we have found each other again, and I can only rejoice at this discovery. As yesterday, we laughed and hugged and stunned others on the street who do not know me and are amazed to see such joy between us. But always, even when they don’t know me, they rejoice as well, because they understand what it means to be reunited.

I cannot believe how blessed I am to find so many I feared lost to be found. I shall continue to look and rejoice, even as I know that I will not find everyone.

And we will continue to do our work, hoping that we can, each day, do a little more to help the people of Haiti, to rebuild this place bit by bit, to recover our dead and bury them with prayers and dignity, to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, cure the sick, make the lame (oh, Lord, we have ao many more of those now!) leap for joy, to give sight to the blind and speech to the mute and hearing to the deaf. These are still urgent times and the workload is enormous and there are so many decisions to make (are we making the right decisions at the right time?). But the people are people of faith, and they know that God is with them. They are doing their part, as God does God’s.

In addition to asking your prayers for the people of Haiti, I ask them as well for the people of Chile and of all those affected by the earthquake there on Saturday. More urgency, more need. My prayer is tha we can and will respond to all who need our help.

Blessings and peace,

Lauren

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