Easter worship this morning at First Presbyterian in Asheville was pretty spectacular. The music, the liturgy, the message and the visual pageantry combined to create an inspiring celebration of God’s love for all of us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it was my second Easter Sunday worship…last Wednesday was the first.
The Haywood Street Congregation meets every Wednesday right after lunch. Starting at about 10:30 all kinds of people start showing up in the fellowship hall to talk and visit and get in line with the other 300 or so people who know from experience that the meal will be exceptional. By all kinds of people I mean men, women, children, young, old, white, black, Latino, gay, straight, poor, middle class, wealthy, homeless, barely housed, nicely housed, multiple houses, addicts, recovering addicts, “respectable” people, “scary” people, happy, sad, desperate, bored, ordinary and extraordinary people. After visiting and eating we have church upstairs in the sanctuary. And since we wouldn’t meet again until after Easter Sunday, we celebrated Easter Sunday on Wednesday.
Not very long after we settle into our pews and Rev. Brian Combs, the pastor, is leading us through the Easter liturgy, angry shouts start pouring through the open stained glass windows. “You f****** SOB! I am going to f*** you up, so f****** bad…” And on it goes, louder and closer as the entire congregation sits frozen in fear and embarrassment. I am sitting on the outside aisle, barely resisting the urge to shut the windows, to shut out the anger and pain. Several folks jump up, including Rev. Shannon Spencer, and go outside to help. As the shouting outside continues, Brian says, “You know this kind of thing happens at Haywood Street. Life here can be pretty raw.” Now the outside voices are getting calmer. “The guy you hear out there is John. John has had a hard week. He was denied housing. John struggles with alcoholism and mental illness. And that’s OK.” Now we hear police sirens getting closer. Brian tosses his bulletin to the floor. “What we planned in the bulletin is no longer what’s most important. Let’s talk about how to be a Christian with what just happened.” So people share about feeling afraid and helpless and guilty and responsible and hopeful. And outside we hear a policeman using his policeman’s voice to assess the situation. Brian and others offer prayers. Shannon and the others who went outside to help return to their seats. It seems the disruption has ended. But then Easter really starts to happen.
John, the central player in the disruption, comes to the sanctuary doors. He hesitates. Brian says, “Hi John. Welcome. It’s good to see you here. Come on in.” John shuffles down the isle, head down. He’s embarrassed and unsure. Brian steps up to John and gives him a big, longer-than-usual bear hug. Unanticipated gasps and yelps escape from the throats of observers. Eyes fill with tears. John takes a seat up front. The Easter service continues with more spectacular liturgy: a thorough discussion of the gospel text, Smokey’s baptism with gallons of water showered on all, special music, and the Lord’s Supper. We walk out into the bright sunshine, soggy, spent and smiling…having witnessed resurrection.
I do not like the bloody and ghastly theology of substitutionary atonement…that God, the grim judge, sacrifices his son as a cosmic payment for our sins. One day the church will repent of this very poor and (ironically) violent theology. Jesus saves me when I see him, living a loving and compassionate life, and then being tortured and murdered by the civil and religious authorities. When I see such innocence and love suffering…whether it is Jesus long ago or Jesus today in the suffering of innocents everywhere…it breaks my heart. It creates a new possibility. Within that brokenness are the seeds of my salvation and the possibility that Jesus’ love and compassion will be expressed in my life. Resurrection.
Easter is an occasion for great celebration. May we experience it early and often.