PROPER 14, A
1 Kings 19:9-18
In both the Old and New Testament reading today, we are shown the results of fear, especially the way fear interferes with discipleship. Elijah ran away from his assignment, in spite of defeating Jezebel’s prophets and working amazing miracles. Why? Because Jezebel threatened his life. He takes refuge in a cave. Notice what God asks him twice, “What are you doing here?” Both times he gets an evasive answer. Then he kicks Elijah out of the cave and tells him where to go and what to do.
In a very different kind of story we see another instance of fear. Jesus has sent all 12 disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The wind comes up during the night and they’re still out in the middle of the lake in the early morning when they see Jesus coming toward them walking on the water.
The disciples were terrified. Jesus calls out to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter, the brave, bold, and brash asks if he can try it too, and Jesus says, “Come.”
So Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus. But then he notices how strong the wind is and becomes afraid. Then he begins to sink. Jesus takes his hand to rescue him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
This story makes a direct connection between fear and doubt. Peter became afraid and that created doubt. The opposite of fear and doubt is faith. His fear undermined his faith.
Marcus Borg, who was a Biblical scholar, wrote a book called Speaking Christian, in which he discussed the ways that the meanings of theological words have changed during the 20th Century. One of the key words he deals with is FAITH. The prior meaning of faith was more like TRUST or TRUST IN. The current unnderstanding is more like BELIEVE, as in holding a certain set of beliefs or dogma.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the statement of faith we use once in a while in place of the Creed uses “We trust” rather than “We believe.” Trust is more like confidence in, rather than a statement of existence.
Peter’s fear undermined his confidence in, his trust of Jesus. Without that trust, walking on the water became impossible. Trusting God is what enables us to overcome fear.
So the question this raises for me is this. Whom or what do I trust? I began life trusting my parents, which lasted until I was about four. In varying degrees I have trusted my best friend, my dog, my teachers, my husband in the succeeding years. For some time I trusted only myself. None of us proved reliable!
We all know people who put their trust in money or success. It’s easy to see that misplacement of trust as a kind of idolatry when we look at others. But what about ourselves? It took me a long time to see the search for knowledge as a similar idolatry.
As I’ve mentioned before, a central tenant of AA is asserting your belief, or your trust in, a higher power. Many people who have found this program effective say that this acceptance of a higher power is crucial to recovery. I would say that it is also crucial to our lives as disciples of Jesus.
This week take some time to ask yourselves:
- Whom or what do I trust now? Completely?
- How do I combat fear, especially unwarranted fear.
- How often do I scare myself by imagining bad things happening?
- Am I afraid of dying?
One of the things that this story of Peter trying to walk on the water suggests to me is that Jesus is calling us to put aside our fears and doubts, to get out of the boat, and to trust him to hang on to us.
In prior sermons on this lesson I’ve pointed out how the boat has some parallels with the church. Look at the ceiling in this church. What does it remind you of? What is this space called? The NAVE; same root as the word navy.
Like the original disciples we’re gathered here in the Nave, and that’s good, but it’s only the beginning. We also need to get out and take what we learn here out into the world around us.
As you go, remember that both Peter and Jesus return to the boat safely. Don’t be afraid! Trust that God will go with us when we dare to step out as his disciples. AMEN
PROPER 7, A, 6/25/17
John Dominic Crossan, probably the greatest living expert on the life and times of Jesus, has speculated that it’s quite possible that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, but even if not, he learned from John the importance of preparing his followers to carry on without their teacher. John did not do that, so when he was killed, his followers scattered and were not seen or heard from again. Last week and this week we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about the work they have been called to do, and warning them about what they will face when they do it.
The word disciple means “learner.” So Jesus takes every opportunity to be the teacher. Last week he even sent them out on their own to try to do what he has been doing. He tells them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons… See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He warns them of how badly they might be treated, beaten, dragged before the authorities, etc. But if they treat you badly in one place, just go on to the next.
In our reading today Jesus continues his teaching in the same vein. He warns that the authorities who accuse him of being the devil will treat them the same. He then encourages them by telling them not to be afraid – not once, but three times. The crux of the matter is that God will be with them, so there is nothing to fear.
Fear in this instance is the kind of fear you feel when the bully corners you in the school yard, or when you glance up as you cross the street and see a truck bearing down on you, or your boss has started criticizing you in front of others.
Do you remember another Biblical line? “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear in this statement is not the same. It is more a matter of awe, which leads to reverence, and to humility and to obedience. This sort of fear of God is what gives a person the courage to be fearless in this life.
Jesus takes the commandment of his Jewish faith literally: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul. This is the first and greatest commandment…”
We have to remember this when we come to the final passage of today’s lesson: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
I expect that most of us found this reading jarring. I suspect that was its intention, but also that it would make people stop and think. If we become disciples, if we become life-long learners, we are going to change and that creates conflict with the people who want everything to stay the same – or even return to some golden age of the past. It’s inevitable!
And if we are not afraid to put God first, to love God more than anyone or anything else, we will come into conflict with people who don’t. Those people may well be family members as well as authority figures.
On the other hand, I’m convinced that if I could succeed in always putting God first, it would make me a much better parent, child, sibling, etc. It would make me a better family member, a better community member, and a better citizen.
Notice that I can still love others, even all others, just not MORE than I love God. To love someone or something else more is a form of idolatry.
Have you ever had any contact with a family in which the children are in charge? When the parents make a decision, the children whine and fuss until they get their way. How pleasant is it to spend time with such a family? What kind of adults will these children become?
How about parents who love their children so much that they act as though their children can do no wrong? I’ve met a few and it’s quite bizarre, because what they see and what I have seen are almost opposite behaviors. They seem to think that protecting their children in this way is helpful, but it only leads to more bad behavior.
I have had several friends who have severed all ties with close family members, and I was truly shocked by their action, but on closer inspection, it became clear that they were taking such action to save themselves from abuse.
It takes a special kind of courage to go against the norms of your community, but it may be the right thing to do. As a young person I did not have this kind of courage; I was too dependent on my parents. And then going along to get along becomes a habit that’s hard to break.
If you recognize God as the one in control, rather than yourself, you gain the courage to do what needs to be done, and you will do it with love and compassion. You can love yourself and love others freely, without becoming a doormat. You can take a stand without hurting or hating those who disagree. Because the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. That is: all your neighbors. And what part of “all” don’t we understand?
As I’m sure many of you know, a central tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous is that the key to staying sober is to turn your life over to your “higher power,” however you understand that. The AA members I’ve known readily claim that that teaching was central to saving their lives.
And that is what Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples. You have to lose your life to find it. You have to trust in a higher power to have your back, which gives you the courage and freedom to be the best you can be in all of your relationships, whether to family, community, country or universe. It frees you to become a life-long learner because it frees you from fear, and guides you toward becoming: becoming more loving, more compassionate, less attached to the rules and regs that separate us, more open to new experiences and new people.
While following this way of Jesus we will certainly cause conflict within the existing structures of society around us. However, it will also give us the tools to help in the transformation of our society into a fairer, healthier, and happier place for everyone. AMEN
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.