TRINITY SUNDAY, YEAR A
Genesis 1:1 – 2:3
If a non-Christian friend asked you, “What is the Christian creation story?” what would you tell them? I’d bet that for most of us the answer would be the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent and sin. Isn’t a story with a villain or two much more interesting than one without?
Actually, there are two different and distinct creation stories in Genesis. The first story is the one we read today. It’s followed by the more familiar Adam and Eve story.
As you know, many hands created the Bible over a long period of time. Modern biblical scholars don’t attempt to identify individual authors, but they can identify several kinds of source material. They do this by looking at the Hebrew text for style, word usage, emphasis, and point of view.
Today’s creation story comes from the P source, the priestly writer, which means it was written sometime during the exile or the restoration of the kingdom – around 550 – 500 BC. The Adam and Eve story was written by the J source, the Yawist writer, at a much earlier date, during the tribal confederacy, between 1200 and 1020 BC. Because the Adam and Eve story has some similarities to the Babylonian creation myths, it’s fairly certain that it was based on a long-standing oral tradition.
The P story, which is written in elegant simplicity and may have been used in Temple liturgies, carries a whole lot of theology within it. Let’s look at just a few of the crucial points.
One key point is that God created all things, heaven earth, and all that dwell therein. He did not shape materials that were already at hand. He created them from nothing.
Second, the sequence of creation is different in the two accounts. Humans were the last thing created in this story.
Third, in this story God created male and female at the same time. Neither one is put in charge of the other. God blesses the male and female, who have obviously been created as sexual beings, because he also tells them to be fruitful and multiply. Therefore sexuality, per se, is not connected to sin and shame. (Wouldn’t that be a relief?)
I’m sure you noticed the constant refrain in this story – “and God saw that it was good.” The whole creation was good – stars and rocks, fish and spiders, moose and bear, men and women – even snakes are good. At the end of the 6th day “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”
So why haven’t we heard more about this creation story? In the early years of Christianity several prevalent philosophies, which were popular in the Mediterranean world, taught a view of the world that we now call dualisitic. This means that all existing things are divided into two opposing camps. Good and evil; black and white.
The material world is in one camp, the spiritual world is in the other. The material world was considered of no account, if not actually evil. The spiritual world was good. So the spiritual life consisted of attempts to leave the body and disconnect from other worldly things. In Manichaeism, there were even two gods, one good and one evil. The followers of Plato were more sophisticated but still dualistic in that they strove to leave the material behind in order to reach union with the One.
Centuries after the death of Jesus, St. Augustine formulated his interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, which became the doctrine of Original Sin, with which most of us are familiar. During his lifetime, a huge battle erupted between Augustine and Pelagius, both bishops of the church. To oversimplify the debate, Augustine believed human nature is corrupt because of Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius believed that sin is the result of our actions or choices, not our nature. Augustine won the battle, and his view has dominated the western church ever since.
I believe that this event was a pivotal moment when the subjugation of women became an integral part of the church. Remember how the Medieval church dealt with witches? They threw suspected witches in deep water. If the woman drowned, it proved that she was not a witch, but unfortunately she was still dead. If the woman did not drown, it proved she was a witch, so they pulled her out and burned her at the stake. Talk about a Catch-22! I doubt anyone could have lived through last year’s political events without noticing that the desire to subjugate women is still alive and well in our culture.
In 1983 Matthew Fox published a book called Original Blessing. He was a Catholic priest and theologian who got in very big trouble for his views. The church silenced him, meaning he could not preach or teach. He accepted this for a year, but when the church would not lift the order of silence, he became an Episcopalian.
In Original Blessing Fox points to today’s creation story and to the many threads and movements in church history that support a view different from Augustine’s. He calls the Augustinian view the fall/redemption model of theology. He calls his view the creation-centered model of theology.
Here’s how I ended my sermon on this lesson 18 years ago:
[quote]“So, we have two creation stories, centuries of theological debate, and we’re left wondering what it means to us. It’s downright frustrating that the Bible doesn’t just give us simple answers. So often it does just what it’s done with the creation stories – it lays one tradition down right next to a different one and asks you to somehow live with both.
My own take on it goes something like this: I acknowledge the reality of sin and evil and suffering in the world – who could doubt it? I believe that humans cause terrible harm and trouble by their actions and by their failure to act; sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it’s not.
But when I look out my window, or trail my hand in the cool waters of Rainy Lake, or catch my breath as the northern lights leap to the top of the sky, or watch an eagle wheeling above the river, or see a child at play, or when I stand here on Sunday morning looking at all your faces, I know God created it all – and indeed, it is very, very good.”
[Unquote] Now I want to add this: I have chosen to base my life and faith on this first story of creation and to reject the Adam and Eve story, or rather to reject the doctrine of original sin and the atonement theory of Jesus’ death that flows from it. They didn’t make sense to me when I was a young person and make even less sense to me now. I have another understanding of what the story of Adam and Eve means that does make sense to me, — but that’s a sermon for another day.
If God is love, then God wants the best for each of us, values each of us, and calls all of us to live in his Kingdom – in this life and the next. AMEN
7 EASTER, A
Baptism of Linnea Yount
Our celebration today is an especially joyous one because we will be baptizing Linnea Yount, our once, and hopefully our future liturgical dancer.
As you know, the regular practice of the Episcopal church has been to baptize babies, whose parents are essentially speaking for them, saying, “Yes” to God on their behalf. Today is special because we are baptizing a young person who has chosen to say “Yes” to God for herself.
I am convinced that every child born is a child of God, and today Linnea is acknowledging that relationship, in effect saying, “Yes, I am your child. I know that you love me as my parents love me. I accept the things Jesus taught us about how to live with one another and I want to be a part of the community that worships together each week.
Baptism is referred to as “the sacrament of new birth.” The symbolism of dying and rising to new life through baptism if probably clearer in those churches that do full immersion – where the person being baptized is fully dunked beneath the water and rises out of the water to new life – but the meaning is the same in our method. Listen to the prayer over the water:
“We thank you father for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
One of the lines from today’s Gospel reading that jumped out at me is John’s definition of eternal life – and that in turn connects back to our understanding of baptism. But first let me set the context for today’s reading.
In John’s Gospel, the last evening that Jesus spends with his disciples is different than in the other gospels. It clearly is not the feast of the Passover and there is no institution of the Eucharist. Instead, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and then delivers some lengthy teachings. These are called the Farewell discourses – because Jesus knows he will be going to his death very soon. He wants to reinforce for his disciples the most important lessons he has taught them during their time together.
Then, just before they leave to go to the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus offers a prayer. Our lesson today is the first half of that prayer.
Jesus prays to God the Father, but he does it aloud, because it is meant to be heard by the disciples, and also by us. So it is a prayer, but also the summation of his teaching to them. It’s his last chance to impress on them what is most important in his life and work.
He also claims that God has given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom God has given him.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – – –
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Here is John’s statement of the central purpose of Jesus’s coming to earth in human form: to make God known, and to make himself known, because to know one is to know the other. To know God is not just about the head knowledge of what God is like. It is also the gut knowledge that comes from the personal experience of God or God’s spirit in the world.
For example, we may have all learned in Sunday School that “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; we are weak but he is strong.”
And as adults we may have accepted that God is love, and that his love for us, his children, is unchanging. But to understand and incorporate into our whole being that God loves us no matter what we do, that God will love us to the end, that God will be present in our lives — that requires some sort of experience that makes God’s love and presence evident to us. It may come in a flash or through a lifetime of experiences, but it is different than just brain knowledge or a statement of faith. To know God is to trust, to have confidence in, to rest in, so that we are no longer afraid.
Jesus is claiming that eternal life is just this knowledge of God. Isn’t that strange? Or at least different from what we usually consider eternal life. The common understanding of eternal life is that when we die, it won’t be over for us. That our spirit or soul goes on in some other form. This teaching doesn’t deny that, but it claims that eternal life can begin now, in this life.
Nancy Ramsay commented on this text, saying, “Knowing God is an experience that draws believers into a new reality in which the new order that will be shaped eternally by God’s vision for love and justice and service can also be realized in relationships and communities now. Knowing God will be evident in our obedience to love, the singular commandment of this Gospel.” [Nancy J. Ramsay, Feasting on the Word]
Jesus presents us with a new God, not just a God of love, non-violence, and mercy, but also a God to all people, rather than a God only for the Hebrews.
No wonder Jesus prays for the people who already know this. There aren’t very many of them and they are surrounded by people who don’t get it, both Jews and Romans. When you think of this reality back then, it is surprisingly similar to the reality we face today. Love is not the dominant mark of our culture.
This prayer of Jesus reinforces the presence of the Kingdom of God in claiming that eternal life is available now. This is the life we rise to in baptism – that Linnea begins today. As we begin to see ourselves as intimately related to God, to Jesus, and to one another, we can begin to see the Kingdom here, to live in the Kingdom now, and to perhaps understand eternal life in new and wondrous ways.
Easter 5, A
One of my all time favorite times of any given day is bed time. Not my bedtime – although I will confess to an inordinate fondness for getting some sleep wherever and whenever I can. I mean the kids’ bedtime. When they are all ready, when the strains and stresses of the day are all done, when faces are washed, hair braided and teeth brushed, I lay down next to them for wind-down time. Sometimes they are tired and offer minimal conversation. Sometimes I learn the things that are most important, the things I would never learn any other way – the thoughts that creep into their minds when new input has stopped for the day.
Of late, not surprisingly, the topic on the mind, particularly of my eldest, has been the dance recital. “Mumma!” “Mumma, we need to have a plan.” “Really, a plan? What do you mean?”
The reply catalogs a litany of the events which must unfold stretching from the Friday 4:00 dress rehearsal requiring curls and make-up and sparklies but tights with holes are ok right through the Saturday and Sunday shows where holes in tights are strictly forbidden.
“Well, I mused, “that sounds pretty much like ‘the plan’.” I knew even as the words escaped my mouth that the answer would not prove satisfactory.
The poor child’s tension under her barely maintained patience was palpable – her heart remained troubled. But how, Mumma? Where are we going to get make-up done? How are we going to have time for curls? When are we going to eat? How are we going to know where to go? What about? How about?
Faced with stressful or overwhelming circumstances we try to break things down into digestible bits, the smaller questions that give us a foothold.
Our Gospel lesson is taken from the beginning of the Farewell Discourse in John, the long conversation Jesus had with his disciples between the Last Supper and the Garden at Gethsemane. From the perspective of finding the powerful Messiah that will rise up and deliver Israel from all her oppressors, things are not looking good. Faced with far more life altering circumstances than a dance recital, the disciples do exactly the same thing as my daughter – break it down, ask the smaller questions. Where are you going, Lord? How will we know the way? Can you show us the Father?
Hmmm, says Jesus. You’re not quite getting it. This is one of those things that is so elemental that you can’t break it down into smaller pieces. It’s not about showing you the father – I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. It’s not about showing you the way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
One commentator notes that this particular assurance from Jesus has become tantamount to a threat in some modern contexts. It’s offered up as an ultimatum demanding people “‘get with the program’ and ‘accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior’ in order to be saved. To interpret the verse this way is to rip it from its context and do violence to the spirit of Jesus’ words.
“This statement by Jesus is a promise, a word of comfort to his disciples. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. Jesus adds, ‘If you know me, you will know my Father also’ (14:7a). The conditional phrase in Greek is a condition of fact, meaning that the condition is understood to be true: “If you know me (and you do), you will know my father also.” So that there can be no misunderstanding, Jesus adds, “From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Working Preacher, Elisabeth Johnson). Notice, please, that He speaks in present tense; this is not a deal to be made for future salvation – this is real time; this is here and now; this is living the Kingdom today. As Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven because he said, ‘I am the way.’”
Jesus offers no formula, or chart or outline. Jesus offers…Jesus. A relationship, not a plan. Thomas Merton says, “We become ourselves when we find ourselves in Christ.” Jesus offers no timeline. The relationship is now and never-ending and all consuming. Belief is not a pre-requisite for obtaining God’s love or Jesus’s saving Grace – but rather a reality that emanates from that love, that grace, and permeates our lives.
My youngest brought me a Mother’s Day card at 6 this morning, along with some other goodies on a tray. The handmade card read, “Roses are red. Violots (sic) are blue. I don’t know why, but I love you”. That unconditional, unreasoned, un-bargained, unearned love of a daughter for her mother, a mother for her children, children and parents for one another provides a beautiful reflection of God’s love for all God’s children – you and me and all our friends and all our enemies. There is no why, no how, no when, no reason, no formula, no magic trick. There is, is.
A marvelous African American a’capella group called Sweet Honey in the Rock offers this:
I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don’t know how my father stood his ground
I don’t know how my people survived slavery
I do remember, that’s why I believe
I don’t know why the rivers overflow their banks
I don’t know why the snow falls and covers the ground
I don’t know why the hurricane sweeps through the land
Every now and then
Standing in a rainstorm, I believe
I don’t know why the angels woke me up this morning soon
I don’t know why the blood still runs through my veins
I don’t know how I rate to run another day
I am here still running, I believe.
My God calls to me in the morning dew
The power of the universe knows my name
Gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way
I raise my voice for justice, I believe.
Easter 2, A
A favorite Hasidic story tells of 3 youths. They hid themselves in a barn in order to smoke. Hasidim discovered them and wished to flog the offenders. One youth exclaimed: “I deserve no punishment, for I forgot that today is the Sabbath.” The 2nd opined that he also, deserved no punishment because “I forgot that smoking on the Sabbath is forbidden”. The third youth similarly spoke up, “I, too, forgot.” “What did you forget?” “I forgot to lock the barn door”. (Story from Kurtz, Earnest and Ketcham, Katherine; The Spirituality of Imperfection)
The disciples also hid away, huddled together, hoping to would live to the next hour, the next day, the next week – you can be sure they did not forget to lock the door. A strong dose of very unpleasant reality faced them outside that door. In what now must have seemed like a horrible lapse in judgement, they had followed a charismatic, radical bastion of truth and justice, convinced he was the messiah, the savior. They followed Him faithfully and publicly right up until they didn’t, until they scattered and ran. They saw their hopes of salvation savagely beaten, tortured and murdered. They knew that the forces which destroyed their hopes would happily destroy them as well.
Thomas was gone when Jesus came and stood among them with His words of peace and breath of the spirit. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And thus is born the story of Doubting Thomas. Except that the story really is not about doubt at all.
Other than lists of disciples, we hear very little about Thomas. He appears two other times in the Gospel of John: When Jesus takes it into his head to return to Jerusalem to the side of Lazarus, all the disciples know the folly of the idea. The journey means death. Having weighed the cost of his life against his fealty to Jesus, Thomas declares his intent: “Let us also go also, that we may die with him” (11:16). To Jesus’s claim in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you…. You know the way to the place where I am going,” Thomas replies simply and practically, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know then the way?” (14:5). Much like our young smoker, Thomas is practical, honest and realistic.
I love that this lesson falls the week of the March for Science on Washington (and all its satellite marches). St. Thomas is not the patron saint of science, that honor belongs to St. Albert, but he good be. I have priest friend who marched in full clerical gear – collar and cross carrying the sign bearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s works, “Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” The contrast between religion and science leads many to consider their relationship inimical one to another. In reality they represent different aspects of the search for Truth with a capital T, a search Thomas embodies.
Confronted by the reality of Jesus standing before him, stretching out his mangled hands, offering his wounds for inspection, murmuring words of peace, Thomas’s doubts disappear. Thomas hasn’t given up asking questions, his realism remains intact – reality has changed.
He has given us new birth into a living hope, says first Peter.
Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean. Convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean serves nineteen years in prison, over which time (as Hugo describes) his soul withers. Even after his release he cannot obtain work or food or shelter due to his past. Hopeless and exhausted, he arrives at the house of a bishop. The bishop not only does not shun him, but treats him as a guest. Valjean cannot comprehend the reality of the kindness offered. He steals the silver plates from the bishop’s cupboard and flees. He is captured and brought by the police to face the victim of his thievery. The police and Jean Valjean are equally surprised by his victim’s reaction to his return: “I’m glad to see you,” the bishop says. “But I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery?” “Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression no human tongue could describe.”
The police depart. The bishop hands Valjean the candlesticks, holding him just a moment longer before sending him freely on his way with this blessing: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts…and I give it to God.” Thus Jean Valjean is born anew…
(Thanks to David Lose, Day1, for the concept of Thomas the Realist, and the illustration of Les Miserables)
He has given us new birth into a living hope.
Most days, we do not face flogging at the hands of the Hasidim, crucifixion at the hands of the 1st century Palestine authorities, starvation or physical imprisonment. Still the realities of the world weigh heavily. Jean Valjean still faced persecution and discrimination. Thomas’s life was no less in danger.
It is the second Sunday of Easter today. Not the second Sunday after Easter – like the seasons which follow Pentecost and Epiphany. Easter does not end when the Cadbury cream eggs go on sale. We are Easter people and Easter is our new reality. He has given us birth into a living hope. Christ stands among us bidding us to come out from behind our doors locked against fear, barn doors of distrust, our prison walls of apathy and continue the transformation in the world that he has wrought by His life, His death, His resurrection.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen
Easter Sunday, A
Acts 10: 34-43
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia
Christ is Risen! This is our highest truth. It’s the central message of Easter, the highest of all our high Holy days. It is this truth catechumens struggle to understand as they prepare for baptism; this truth we journey towards through the long, dark nights of Lent.
Author Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
Whether or not it makes us odd, it is an odd truth we follow. What else might one expect from a truth that stems primarily from what didn’t happen? “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree”. What happened next was what didn’t happen. The laws of physics… didn’t happen. The basic precepts of biology and ecology… didn’t happen. The ordinary, everyday realities that just happen…. didn’t happen.
The women went to the tomb to prepare the body of their dear friend and teacher for burial – to give Him the last gift they could offer. They found they could not give Him their gift. If they had been able to offer that gift; if they had found Jesus lying in his tomb as they had every reason to expect He would be, we would not be gathered together to celebrate this mysterious truth: Christ is Risen.
Not only is Easter the truth of what didn’t happen, but, as one preacher writes, “we have four separate [and different] accounts of what didn’t happen that day. … the gospel of Matthew… tells us that there was an earthquake and an angel descending to sit on top of the stone. In the gospel of John, the angel is inside the tomb. The gospel of Luke has two angels, while the earliest versions of Mark speak of the women coming home and not telling anyone anything. Yet one thing is clear: there is no way to tell the big story contained in of all these stories, without knowing that something didn’t happen.” (The Reverend Renée Marie Rico, private communication, Midrash)
One preacher tells the story of a pastor who was invited to a baptism in a near-by prison. In line with proper procedure, on arrival at the prison, the pastor was searched, ID’d, interrogated, and monitored. Finally allowed to go to the prison chapel, he encountered a small room which held a few rows of chairs and a platform at the front. The pulpit and piano had been pushed to the side against the wall to accommodate a large wooden box. Blue plastic sheeting lined the box holding in gallons and gallons of cold water.
A small group gathered around the makeshift baptistery to begin the ceremony. The convert stepped into the water. The prison chaplain held the convert’s hands and began to lower him into the water. At the very moment the chaplain began to say, “I baptize thee. . .”, the visiting pastor had a realization that took his breath away. The box was a coffin: a standard, prison-issue, pine-box coffin. The man was being baptized in a casket, he was going into and coming up out of the grave. (story adapted from Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Two Bubbas and a Bible)
Death does not not happen because of Easter. We are baptized into Christ’s life and baptized into His death. The prisoner did not emerge from his baptism and walk out the prison door. He served another 20 years. He served those 20 years a changed man, newly alive.
Death and hate and injustice do not not happen because of Easter. Bombs still fall. The earth is still damaged. Loved ones still die or suffer. What doesn’t happen, is that death and hate and injustice and suffering do not get the last word.
“The cross” says theologian Stanley Hauerwas (Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony) “is not a sign of the church’s quiet, suffering submission to the powers-that-be, but rather the church’s revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers. The cross is not a symbol for general human suffering and oppression. Rather, the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”
In his book, “New Mercies I See,” Stan Purdum tells this story: Lucille Brennan lived a hard life. She found faith in Christ in her mid-fifties, attended a local Lutheran church, and turned her life around. Partly in repentance for her previous poor parenting to her own illegitimate son, Lucille became a foster parent. Over time, she came to be considered one of the best foster parents in the system and was entrusted with their sadder cases. She was entrusted with Jimmy.
In his birth home little Jimmy, five months old, had been beaten unmercifully whenever he cried. This emotionally damaged the infant so severely that he learned not to cry even when he was hungry or wet or cold. Lucille decided that Jimmy needed to be held…a lot. For weeks Lucille lived her life using one arm, constantly cradling Jimmy in the other. Jimmy remained silent.
Lucille fed Jimmy on a set schedule since he would not cry to tell her he was hungry. She made a point of getting up in the middle of the night to check on him. Sometimes he was asleep. Sometimes he just lay in his crib alone, awake, and quiet. At those times, Lucille picked him up and rocked him until he drifted back to sleep.
Lucille took Jimmy to church with her, of course. Over time the congregation learned the sad story of this baby, too afraid to cry. On the fifth Sunday after Jimmy had been placed in Lucille’s home, the pastor was making great inroads into his sermon when he heard something and stopped talking. He heard a little cry. People turned to look. They saw Lucille holding Jimmy. She had big smile on her face and tears pouring unchecked down her cheeks. In spite of the tears, the crying sound wasn’t coming from her, but from the bundle she held in her arms.
Eileen, who sat next to Lucille, stared as the little boy took a deep breath, and started crying louder. Finally, Eileen couldn’t contain herself. In a most un-Lutheran sort of way she burst out, “Praise the Lord.” The entire congregation broke into enthusiastic applause (and amens?) – probably the first time in history worshipers applauded a child crying in church. (Adapted from Rev. James Eaton’s retelling of this story, Easter Sermon 2017, personal communication, Midrash)
Little Jimmy lived anew that day. So did Lucille. And the pastor, and Eileen, and all the congregation. So do we each time, every time we step out of what is dead in our lives, and live into the golden light of life and love in Christ – every time we hear Christ in the cries of the suffering – every time we open our eyes to Christ alive in the world around us, within us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Maudy Thursday, A
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I have a friend who is, to put it mildly, less enamored of things spiritual and things religious than I am. He sat himself down in my chair the other day with a dilemma. His sister hosts an Easter festival of epic proportion every year, complete with dyed eggs and Easter bunnies and peeps and baskets and Easter egg hunts and joyful pastel clad children. Following his own predilection to avoid high holy days whenever possible, my friend had always avoided visiting his sister over this particular celebration. For whatever reason, he opted to participate in the soiree if not the sentiment of the season this year. He planned to arrive at his sister’s house during Holy Week and did not relish the idea of appearing ignorant or poorly informed. Thus the dilemma. Easter, he understood, if not at a visceral level, at least in theory. While Good Friday may be the most difficult day of Holy Week to accept, it is perhaps the day that is easiest to understand. Maundy Thursday, he indicated, was the problem. “I know what a Thursday is. What the heck is a Maundy?”
What is Maundy Thursday, really? It marks the beginning of the holiest time in Christianity, the Triduum, literally, “the three days” – referring to the three days stretching from the last supper through Jesus’s betrayal and death. “The Orthodox describe tonight’s portion of this great liturgy as consisting of four parts: the sacred Washing, the Mystical Supper, the transcendent Prayer, and the Betrayal itself. It begins with intimacy and ends with the betrayal of that same intimacy. Through this liturgy we embody the great beauty, vulnerability and tragedy of Christ’s great act and commandment of love.” (Rev. Anjel Scarborough, Sermons That Work)
The word itself, “Maundy” derives from the Latin “mandatum”, from which we also derive the English word “mandate”. “Mandatum novum do vobis” – A new commandment I give you…
Jesus…is running out of time. Simply running out of time. You know how things are when you are running up against a deadline? First necessary act as the deadline looms is panic, of course, but after the panic… Leonard Bernstein once wrote, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” After the panic and before the deadline, focus becomes very sharp. Things that distract from the goal fade into fuzziness and all energy is focused exclusively on the objective. So it was with Jesus.
He’s running out of time, and knows it. He has spent the last week calling attention upon himself in a manner most unwelcome to the powers-that-be. He raised Lazarus from the dead, which seems nice enough on the surface, but threatens the rank and order of things. He paraded into town in a parody of Roman power. He turned over the money changers’ tables, chasing them away with whips – sending a message no one in power wanted to hear in a not so diplomatic sort of way. He went to the temple, the seat of Jewish power, and tortured its politically powerful denizens with truths they resented, but could not help but recognize. One does not do these things and live long.
Jesus knows He will die, die violently, and die soon. Too late for parables. Too late for sermons. Too late even for miracles. Now is all He has left. All energy pours into the only things that matter. Jean Vanier wrote, “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” Its the ordinary things Jesus offers in those last precious, intimate moments.
He breaks bread and shares wine. He washes away the dust of the world. He gives a gift of wisdom/of love “Mandatum novum do vobis”.
The appointed hour has come. We have escaped the whirlwind of our lives to gather in God’s house together. We are weary. Weary of the dreariness of winer, the discipline of Lent, the tumult of life, the deeply saddening news of anger and violence and normalized hate.
It is tempting in our weariness to rush through to Easter, to bask in the golden light and joy of the resurrection, to anesthetize ourselves with bunnies and baskets and chocolate. If we do that, if we eschew the vulnerability of this night, we become outsiders looking in at Easter. Jesus invited the disciples, invites us into the most intimate of relationships with him. In fact, He demanded that intimacy from those that would follow him, “or you will have no share with me”.
In the quiet of the waning evening we gather to share the things truly important. We come together to minister and be ministered to, to break bread together and share a common cup in remembrance of Him, to allow the dust of the world to be washed from our careworn crevices, to kneel at another’s feet and wash away their sorrows. To love one another. To be loved. Jesus would have us taste, live, digest, celebrate and propagate His love, God’s love, in every dirty little crevice and fold and callous of our lives. As William Brosend at Sewanee wrote, “The saving work of Christ, is not just about the cross. It is about the birth and the baptism, the teaching and the healing, the body and the blood, the basin and the towel, the life, the death”, the love.
Year A, 2017
Welcome to Schizophrenia Sunday! We begin with a joyful celebration of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem for Passover on Sunday, marked by singing and palms. Ten minutes later we hear the Gospel story of his death as it occurred 5 days later. Wow, what a rapid transition from joy to sorrow.
Now if you attend the Holy Week services, you will hear about the last supper on Maundy Thursday and hear some portion of the passion story again on Good Friday. But what happened to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday?
The church has excluded much of what Jesus did during that time from Holy Week, although parts of it appear in other places in the lectionary. I think this is a disservice because these events are critical to understanding the death of Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel, which we are hearing this year, these are some of the things that happened in the early part of Holy Week:
- Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple (remember that this was a function that the temple authorities authorized and probably made money from)
- Jesus heals people in the Temple and elsewhere
- Jesus repeatedly confronts the authorities and repeatedly outsmarts them. The high priest and his minions want to grab him but are afraid to do so because the crowds are with him
- They send the scribes, the Herodians, the Pharisees, to question and/or trick Jesus into blasphemy. He outwits them every time. And he tells them parables that suggest rather clearly that they are not doing their jobs well at all
- Jesus tells them, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.”
- Jesus rants: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites . . .Woe to you blind guides! This goes on for many verses!
- In other words Jesus is bearding the lion in his own den. He is confronting the powers that be and telling the truth to them.
I hope you will read this account in Matthew this week. It’s quite wonderful, and amazing, and possibly puzzling. Start at Mattthew 12:21. When you are done, ask yourself these two questions:
- Is it true that religion has nothing to do with politics?
- Why did Jesus die?
- What part of the Jesus story is most important to you and your life in faith – Jesus’s life or his death?
Lent 5, A
It was a tough labor. The mother worked hard, really hard – even before time to push she seemed exhausted. The time finally came. She pushed and she pushed, and eventually it became clear part of why things were so very difficult. Most babies enter this world facing down. It’s simply the easiest fit. This youngster, for whatever reason, came into this world sunny side up, looking right up into my eyes as she began the extraordinary experience of breathing air. I can still see her wide-eyed, brand-new, baby face vividly, although she’s probably taller than me now. I remember those bright, clear eyes gazing into my own even before we brought the rest of her body out into the light.
I wonder what they think, sometimes. I have a good sense of the range of emotion of the parents and grandparents waiting for them. But what of those brand new arrivals, blinking in the light, newly encountering “wet” as an unpleasant cold sort of thing after a lifetime surrounded by warm, soothing, protective water.
I wonder what Lazarus thought. If Google images are to be believed then during his brief interlude with death, Lazarus laid in a low stone cave with a truncated entryway that forced a person to bend nearly double to egress. His tomb would be difficult to exit gracefully, even for a nimble, healthy person wearing comfortable clothes. Wearing a death shroud and shaking off the stiffening, stinkifying effects of death could not have improved his agility any. Awkward. Just terribly awkward.
The Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City traditionally begins with the bishop standing outside the door, rapping on the front door. The door swings dramatically open in answer to his call and a glorious Easter processional is set in motion. One particular Easter Sunday the bishop stood outside, prepared with his staff and his bulletin and the text of his sermon and his Easter vestments, mic on. Anticipating the rapping at the door and the Bishop’s traditional triumphant Easter announcement “Christ is risen!”, the congregants instead heard over the prematurely live mic the struggling bishop’s less traditional opinion, “This is awkward.” Resurrection is awkward. “Life coming into death at any time, anywhere, is awkward.” (The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens. Whenever Jesus Shows Up, Day1)
It’s awkward. The timing. Birth. Life. Death. This is the way it works. This is the way we understand the world. And so we ask the questions – reasonable questions – what happens when I die, when my loved one dies, why weren’t you there when he was dying, Lord?
Easter holds answers to some of those questions, but this is Lent and those are not the questions for today. Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, it is true, but still we are on the road to Jerusalem, to the cross. Lazarus is alive, but he will die again, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He is alive today, not because Jesus offers eternal life, but so that we might learn to live today, now.
Canadian theologian Jean Vanier writes,
Jesus wants us to rise up and to become fully alive. He calls us out of the tomb we carry within us, just as God called Ezekiel to raise up from the dead all those people of Israel who were lying in the tomb of despair: “Thus says the Lord God,“I am going to open your tombs and raise you up from your tombs, O my people…. I will put my spirit in you and you shall live.” -Ezekiel 37:12,14. This is what Jesus wants for each one of us today. To each of us he says: “Take away the stone!” … This resurrection is a process that begins every morning, every night, every day. We are called on a journey of resurrection, to do the work of God, to bring love into our families, our communities and the world.
Each and every day we are called to death – death of self-serving self-interest, death of greed, death of expediency, death of apathetic inaction. Each and every day we are called to recognize the living breath of God blowing through us, around, within us. Each and every day Jesus weeps with us in our sorrows, loves us. Each and every day we are called upon to unbind the shrouds of self-doubt, social isolation, systemic prejudice, fear, grief, oppression from our fellow travelers on this resurrection road. (concept from Miles, Veronice; Feasting on the Word). Each and every day we are born again. Open your eyes. Roll away the stone. Feel the breath of God. Live again…and again. Amen.
Lent 4, A
Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who came in some consternation to talk to her pastor. She wanted to discuss the sin of pride.“Pastor …” she confided, “every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” Pastor … looked at her and said, “No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.” (story from Delmer Chilton)
We know so much.
The young Miss knew she was the fairest in the congregation.
Prior to 1920, lawmakers knew that women did not have the intellectual capacity to vote responsibly
Slavers knew dark-skinned people represented an inferior species.
Galileo’s contemporaries knew the sun revolved around the earth.
The Greeks and Romans knew that opening a vein and letting out the “bad blood” offered a chance for cure from almost anything.
The Pharisees knew Jesus could not have healed the man blind from birth.
When we know something, really know it – we become completely, willfully blind to all other possibilities. We will rearrange the world and all reality to fit.
I once heard a story about a man who was convinced that he was dead. No amount of argument by his friends would convince him otherwise. Finally, a trusted friend said to him, “Hal, you know that dead people don’t bleed.”
Hal conceded that this was true. Dead people do not bleed.
“So prick your finger and you will find out that you are alive,” said his friend.
Hal pricked his finger with a needle and it bled. He looked in amazement at his bleeding finger for the longest time and then exclaimed, “Whadda you know! Dead people DO bleed.” (Beth Johnston, Avon United, Midrash, personal communication)
I’m not always a huge fan of miracle stories. They seem to lend themselves to an extraordinary array of theological gymnastics. We live in an age of science, of explanations. We must, with these stories, decide if there was some scientific explanation of which 1st Century Israel could not possibly be aware, or, they happened the way the bible says, but life just doesn’t work that way any more, or it’s all some big metaphor for something or another (depending on the story); a message for the ages, a parable of sorts.
This story, however, is one of my all-time favorite miracle stories. I love that in the face of life-changing, world-shifting, mind-blowing miracle the man born blind (we never learn his name), the man born blind eschews opinions and speculation on the nature of his experience. He instead practically and patiently teaches the acknowledged paragons of knowledge and virtue what it means to know. “I don’t know where he is”. “I don’t know if he is a sinner.” “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
“A preacher can talk and talk about this story, but it is not a story about talking. It is a story about time: before and after, then and now, years ago and today, always and then suddenly.” (Anna Carter Florence, Preaching on the Word) The narrative gives us permission, almost commands us rather, to challenge our own assumptions, question what we “know”, open ourselves to the Holy, to the Truth with a capital T.
The pharisees know Jesus as a sure sinner – He did not follow the rules as they understood them.
Some evangelical preachers know God punished Haiti for its religious choices with a horrible earthquake, and the US for its liberal choices with the events of 9/11.
Many Christians know their sure path to paradise, and which of their neighbors travels it with them
We know…what do we know?
“If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ opined Saint Augustine. Sixteen centuries later, theologian Peter Rollins rephrases, “God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’” (paraphrased from Jeffrey S. Spencer)
Barbara Brown Taylor preached, “…wonder, not suspicion, is the beginning of worship, and seeing is believing only if we are willing to believe.” She continues… “There is a warning here, we must have a willingness to examine even our most cherished and deeply held ideas and suppositions. A willingness to engage in self examination is one of the key qualities of the Lenten season”. Traveling through the certainty of always into the unknown abyss of suddenly, we are invited to live differently, love differently, understand differently, awaken to the light that is Christ.
Yahuda Amichai, internationally recognized Israeli poet wrote this poem entitled, “The Place Where We Are Right”
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Today’s is not a a story of what, when where, or most particularly how. Today marks a story about before and after, then and now, years ago and today. Jesus does not teach what happened today. He teaches what is, knocks a chink in our armor of self protective mantra ‘I know, I see’ for the light to come in, for the seeds of new growth to whisper awake into the wind of the world just changed, “Lord, I believe.”
Lent 2, Year A
John 3: 1-17
Today’s lesson from John describes a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who slips in to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. As is usual with John we get very few details of the surroundings. His focus always seems to be on the words of Jesus.
This story comes early in Jesus’s ministry, not long after the wedding at Cana, when according to John’s telling, Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem for the Passover feast for the first time. The story of Nicodemus is only told in this Gospel and it makes sense that Jesus was in Jerusalem since Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
Do you feel some sympathy for Nicodemus? I do. He has to sneak around to see Jesus because of his status as a Phariseee. He seems woefully confused by what Jesus says to him. And in the end he is berated for not understanding. Jesus uses such metaphorical language, that it’s not always obvious what he means. It sounds good, but the meaning may remain elusive.
Let’s look at what he says to Nicodemus:
No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.
No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.
What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
Now, I want each of you to think of sometime when you have witnessed a death. It might have been someone near and dear to you; it could be a bird who flew into your window; it might be a fish you caught or a deer you shot.
Could you describe for me the difference between one second before the death and one second after? How is the person or animal different? Can science explain what happens at the moment of death? Yes, but incompletely, don’t you think?
We know a great deal these days about babies. Do we know enough to explain the miracle of life? We know that the baby inherits hair color, body type, blood type, eye color, aptitudes and many other physical/mental characteristics from its parents. But where does life come from? What accounts for the animating spirit that makes that baby live? Have you ever held a new baby and not been struck with awe?
It is in these real experiences with life and death that I can find meaning in Jesus’s words to Nicodemus. When we are born we are given the gift of life. This is a gift that comes from above, from God. This is the gift of spirit.
To be born again is to become aware of that gift. Our bodies are flesh born of flesh. Our spirits are born of God. We are born of water in baptism and born of Spirit in that moment or over those years that we come to recognize and reverence the spirit within us and to recognize our connection through that spirit with all other living things.
Jesus also said:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Wind is often associated with Spirit. Remember the wind of Pentecost? And the Hebrew word Ruach means breath or wind or spirit. In olden times it was assumed that the soul left the body riding on the last breath exhaled.
We can only speculate about where the animating spirit comes from or where it goes after we die. As Christians we probably believe it comes from God when we’re born and returns to God when we die. It’s not something anyone can be sure about. Still, it would be hard to go through life without noticing the differences between life and death.
At the risk of being tedious, I think Jesus is talking about mindfulness and self-consciousness. But it’s easy to see why Nicodemus was unsure what he meant. Still Jesus is talking about things that are in the experience of everyone who lives this life. He is amazed that a Pharisee doesn’t grasp what he’s talking about.
I’d like to share with you one contemporry person’s attempt to find words for their understanding of spirit. Scott Russell Sanders is one of the finest essayists of our generation. He grew up a Methodist in southern Indiana. This is from an essay called The Force of Spirit.
“Until I was twenty or so I embraced that faith, hoping for heaven, then I gradually surrendered it under the assault of science, and in dismay over witnessing so much evil carried out in Christ’s name. I no longer believe that Jesus can do our dying for us; we must do that for ourselves, one by one. Yet I’ve not given up believing in the power that reportedly sent him to redeem us, the Creator who laid the foundations of the world.
No name is large enough to hold this power, but of all the inadequate names, the one that comes to me now is spirit. I know the risks of using such a churchy word. Believers may find me blasphemous for speaking of the wind that blows through all things without tracing the breath to God. Non believers may find me superstitious for invoking any force beyond gravity, electromagnetism, and the binding energy of atoms. But I must run those risks, for I cannot understand the world, cannot understand my life, without appealing to the force of spirit. If what I feel for my wife or her father and mother is only a by-product of hormones, then what I feel for swift rivers or slow turtles, for the shivering call of a screech owl or the green thrust of bloodroot breaking ground, is equally foolish. If we and the creatures who share the earth with us are only bundles of quarks in motion, however intricate or clever the shapes, then our affection for one another, our concern for other species, our devotion to wildness, our longing for union with the Creation are all mere delusions.
I can’t prove it, but I believe we’re more than accidental bundles of quarks, more than matter in motion. Our fellowship with other creatures is real, our union with the Creation is already achieved, because we all rise and fall on a single breath. You and I and the black-footed ferret, the earth, the sun, and the far-flung galaxies are dust motes whirling in the same great wind. Whether we call that magnificent energy Spirit or Tao, Creator or God, Allah or Atman or some other holy name, or no name at all, makes little difference so long as we honor it. Wherever it flows – in person or place, in animal or plant or the whole of nature—we feel the pressure of the sacred, and that alone deserves our devotion.”
Jesus wants us to recognize the spirit that animates us, to reverence it, and to feed it with spiritual food. Those who do will see the Kingdom of God, they will help create the Kingdom of God right here and now – in this life and on this earth, making it a better place for everyone. AMEN