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Easter Sunday April 16, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
In 1938, the Cistercian Monastery of Our Lady was established in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in North Africa. This small group of French monks came to a largely Muslim country – not to evangelize, not to convert Muslims to the Christian faith, but rather to be a peaceful and healing presence among a people who had suffered under French colonial power. In time, the monastery grew and around it there arose a Muslim village and between these two – Muslims and Christians – a friendship blossomed. The monks established a small medical clinic with a monastic physician who served the village. The village farmers taught the monks to grow crops that would flourish in dry mountainous terrain and this shared labor became an agricultural cooperative in which monastic and Muslim farmlands become one, and from which villagers and monks shared equitably of the produce.
In 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France. Within thirty years, however, much had changed. A secular government feared the popularity of a political party led by devout Muslims, a party pushing for reforms that would benefit the large number of impoverished Algerians. Government leaders invalidated a national election that led to conflict between government troops and the armed wing of the reforming party. In the midst of this conflict, the monks were urged by their families and friends to leave Algeria for the safety of France. It’s Easter Sunday, Fr. Torvend. What are we doing in Algeria in 1996?
For months, the monks considered the urgent requests to leave – some eager to depart, others unsure, and still others wanting to stay. They experienced a degree of tension previously unknown and yet they kept their regular schedule of daily communal prayer and the celebration of the Mass, of cooking and doing the laundry for each other, of working with their neighbors in the field and offering medical care to those in need. They spoke with each other; they sang together; they spent hours in meditation, seeking the will of God. And then one evening an armed group of the anti-government party entered the monastery – a monastery in which no one would ever own a weapon – and demanded the monks feed and tend their wounded. The abbot told them that the monks could do this but that the monastery was a center of peace for all people regardless of religion or political party and would offer medical care to anyone who needed it: not just to them but also the government troops who had shot their comrades. For the moment, tension diminished and the soldiers left. If you have seen the film version of this true story, Of Gods and Men, then you know that the monks resolved to stay in the village – well aware that they, as Christians, were a minority, living in a country marked by the daily threat of death. Indeed, one evening, the anti-government soldiers returned to the monastery, rounded up the monks, and led them into the cold mountain range – never to be seen again, that is, until their bodies were found a few weeks later. Who killed them? We do not know. It could have been their captors or it could have been the government troops that attacked the insurgents, confusing monks for soldiers.
I wonder: when did the resurrection begin in the lives of these monks? For many Christians, the meaning of Easter is but one thing: that your death and mine will yield to eternal life, to immortality, to a vague “passing” into some otherworldly dimension. And thus, the resurrection has more to do with the dream of living forever than our lives, our living, in the world right now. But I wonder if this is so. What if the resurrection of Jesus from death were not only about an event in the future for you and me and but also, and more significantly, about a power available to you and me in the present? When did the resurrection begin for the monks of Our Lady of Atlas? Only at the moment of their deaths or long before they were led away from their monastic home? Was not the resurrection as palpable power and presence evident in their commitment to be friends with their Muslim neighbors, overturning centuries of mutual hostility? Was not the resurrection as a power for living evident in the equitable sharing of earth’s produce that – for both Muslim and Christian – are God’s good gifts to sustain human flourishing? Was not the resurrection as a power for living now evident in Christian and Muslim commitment to live in peace and equally evident in the monastic care for anyone, regardless of religion or political party, who was in need, who was wounded?
What is it that we celebrate with such festivity, joy, and solemnity this day: an event from the past that can, for some, signal only the promise of immortality in the future regardless of how we live our lives in the present? Or, is it just possible that we encounter on this most holy day the power to live a distinctive Christian life in the present: your life and mine marked by respect for the Muslim neighbor in our midst; your life and mine and, indeed, the life of our nation animated by the desire to abandon strategies of hostility and threat and pursue the challenging commitment to making peace; your life and mine marked by daily prayer as we ask for wisdom and courage in this uneasy and perilous time; your life and mine animated by a commitment to all those who yearn for the resurrection of their lives from poverty, from social prejudice, from injustice; your life and mine simply enlarged beyond the little ME to care for the OTHER – enlarged and nourished by the One who at this altar offers in wine cup and ordinary bread his extraordinary risen life.