Monday, May 23, 2022

...Passing All Understanding


John 14:23-29

Easter 6 / Year C

Sixty-three times.  Seven at a school or college.  Four at backyard parties.  Five in places of worship.  Four at entertainment venues.  Three at a military base or installation.  Twelve at a workplace.  Another twelve at a store or mall.  The rest at various locations.  Sixty-three times, and this is just since November 2018.  Sixty-three mass shootings in our country, each one is listed in A Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting on a website hosted by Episcopal Bishops Against Gun Violence.  The list is staggering, sobering. 

One line of the litany reads:

Thirteen dead at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Give to the departed eternal rest.

Let light perpetual shine upon them.

It falls just after a shooting in Solon Township, Michigan and just before a shooting at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.  The latest addition – ten dead at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. 

It is truly difficult to make sense of things so senseless.  Some of these acts of violence are rooted in mental health issues, some in hatred, some in pure evil, and some in a combination of the three.  When Jesus says, “Not as the world gives do I give,” I feel a sense of relief because what the world gives is pretty overwhelming at times. 

“Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you.”  Writing on his blogsite In the Meantime, David Lose, a Lutheran pastor and former Seminary professor, notes this:

Too often… we think of peace as simply the cessation of conflict.  And clearly an end to violence is a good thing…  But I think the peace Jesus offers is more than the absence of something negative.  Indeed, I think it has its own presence and gravity. 

That Jesus gives us peace tells us it is a gift.  That he tells his followers not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid suggests we receive the gift of peace even when the world around us is doing everything it can to upset us.  Jesus’ peace helps us to feel settled when things are unsettled, to feel whole when life is fragmented, to feel contentment when discord is the norm.

I suspect most of us come to church hoping to find a sense of peace, to reconnect with Jesus’ gift to us.  Often we end the service with the blessing “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We don’t come here to assess the current status of the world, weigh the consequences, and make a rational, reasonable decision to be at peace.  God’s peace, as Lose says, has its own presence and gravity.  It finds us.  We do not find it.  And most of us find God’s peace often finds us when we are here in this place. 

As with any gift, the recipient must accept it.  Just because Jesus offers us his peace doesn’t mean we are going to take it.  We elect to take matters into our own hands; attempting to micromanage the world around us and fretting at our ineffectiveness.  The more you try to control things, the less at peace you will be.  This is why literally millions of people have found Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer to be life changing:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

When we let go and let God by accepting the peace offered by the Holy One an interesting thing begins to happen.  We find ourselves enabled to act in the world in a new way by, as Niebuhr says, taking the world as it is, not as we would have it be.  The goal of God’s peace is not to numb us to the reality of mass shootings, for example.  Rather it invites us to respond with courage and determination by bringing to bear the Gospel’s message of God’s love for all people.

I have known about the notion of Replacement Theory for some time, but came across it with more clarity by reading an op-ed a few weeks ago.  It came to the forefront last Sunday when a young man attempted to solidify his control of the world by killing those he deemed to weaken his hold.  For the past few weeks our readings from the Book of Acts have highlighted what the early Church could have viewed as Replacement Theory.  First the gospel spreads from Jesus’ initial followers to thousands and then to Gentiles and then (today) into Europe.  Each movement created conflict within the Church, which eventually was resolved as the faithful recognize this is the will and work of God.  They embrace the changes and challenges brought on by diversity as something God desires.

One of my favorite prayers in our prayer book is found on page 840:

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world.  Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

This prayer, and living into its vision, is one way I accept the peace Jesus offers to me and it is one way I am responding the sixty-three heinous acts, not just in my prayers, but also through my actions.  I invite you to allow the peace which passes all understanding to rule in your heart and to ponder what the presence of this peace might enable you to do.

Monday, May 16, 2022

A New Commandment


John 13:31-35

Easter 5 / Year C

Reflecting on the passage we just heard, Debie Thomas, a writer and Christian educator, asks “If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love?  What cherished hope or dream would you share?  What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?”  I suspect it is a question for which most of us do not have an answer and this is probably OK.  But based on this reading, clearly it is something Jesus pondered for some time. 

The lesson takes us back to Holy Week, to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus is sharing his last meal with his followers.  He has washed their feet.  He has shared bread and wine and identified it with his Body and Blood.  Judas has departed.  Jesus is only hours away from being arrested.  What does he want to say to those he has journeyed with and taught for the last three years?

“I have a new commandment for you,” he tells them (the word Maundy is derived from the Latin word for commandment).  How weighty will it be?  Will it become the 11th Commandment?  Will it be added to the summery of the Law – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself?  Will it be merely ceremonial; perhaps a new way to say grace before a meal?

The command is this: In the manner in which Jesus has loved us, we are to love one another.  It is simple enough for a child to remember, but it is incredibly difficult to put into practice, isn’t it.  It is aspirational by nature, something you aim for but don’t always achieve.  Had Jesus commanded us not to eat chocolate it would be difficult, but measurable.  Either you snuck a piece of candy or you didn’t.  But this is different.  It requires us to discern how Jesus would act in any given situation and then to act in this way ourselves. 

In a recent interview, Marjorie Taylor Greene, congresswoman from Georgia, asserted Satan is controlling the church because Christian groups are providing aid to undocumented immigrants.  “Yes, we are supposed to love one another,” she said, “but their definition of what love one another means, it means destroying our laws.”  So, if we are going to love as Jesus loves us, we must decide which Jesus values more – human compassion or good citizenship.  We are not always going to agree on the answer. 

A month ago I loaned my lawnmower to Kevin, one of the people who comes to my front door and asks for money.  This is maybe the fourth time he has asked to borrow it because someone has offered to pay him to cut their grass.  The other times he brought the mower back within an hour or so.  Not this time.  I have seen him twice around town since then and confronted him both times.  Each time he told me he would go get my mower and bring it back right away.  He followed through neither time.  On Friday I gave up and bought a new mower.

I wonder what it looks like for me to love Kevin the way Jesus loves me.  Should I hold him accountable and file a police report?  Should I forgive him and tell him to keep the mower (assuming he didn’t sell it or wreck it)?  Would loving as Jesus loves me require me to lend my new mower to Kevin should he ask to borrow it?  Should I pat myself on the back for loaning it to him in the first place and tell myself I have already done what Jesus asks me to do?  Again, the answers are not easy because Jesus’ command is more aspirational than achievable.

Surely Jesus said a lot and did a lot to help us determine what his love looks like.  The parable of the Good Samaritan who crosses cultural boundaries and defies accepted norms to assist a stranger in need has something to say about churches offering aid to undocumented immigrants.  Jesus told his followers if someone takes your coat, offer him your shirt; a teaching I would rather not ponder too much when it comes to my mower.

Just after Jesus issues his new commandment he provides an important qualifier.  We are to love each other in such a way that all people will know we are his disciples.  This means, compared to a typical person, something should look and feel different about how we treat other people.  People should look at us and how we act and be able to say, “There is a Godly man.  There is a Godly woman.”

Earlier this year I was tasked with writing a courtesy resolution for Sam Webster who was stepping down from the position of Diocesan Chancellor after years of service.  I talked with a colleague to get some background information and she said, “If Sam said it, you knew it was right.  If Sam did it, you knew it was ethical.”  She could just as easily have said Sam went about his work as a lawyer in a way everyone knew he was a follower of Jesus. 

It is not about wearing a Jesus t-shirt or ball cap.  It has everything with how you conduct yourself and how you treat other people.  If a person cannot look at you and your actions and know you are one of Jesus’ followers, then you are not keeping his command to love as he loves.  It like the old joke about the state trooper who pulls over an angry, aggressive driver.  “Based on all the Jesus bumper stickers on your car,” the trooper says to the driver, “I assumed the car was stolen.”

So this morning we hear the final words Jesus shares with his followers.  This alone should get our attention.  It is a ‘Whatever you do, don’t sell the farm’ moment.  This is the thing which matters most to Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Shepherd's Voice


John 10:22-30

Easter 4 / Year C

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

I was a half-miler in high school; two laps around the track running about as fast as you can for about two minutes.  I have a very clear memory from the first big invitational relay meet I ran in.  It featured teams from dozens of schools, so the competition was steep.  I was the lead runner for our four-man relay team and I wanted to get us off to a good start.  Going down the back stretch of the second lap I was in the lead, but running out of gas.  Runners talk about ‘hitting the wall’ where one of two things happens.  Either your body forces you to take your foot of the accelerator or you discover a newfound source of energy and break through the wall, feeling like you have been shot out of a canon. 

Now there were a lot of people at the meet and most of them were in the stands across the field from where I was.  Up until then I had not noticed them, but all of the sudden, completely out of the blue, I heard my youth minister’s voice yell out, “Come on Keith.  You can do it!”  Well, hearing his voice and words of encouragement helped me to break through the wall of physical exhaustion and finish strong on my leg of the race.

There are a lot of voices out there trying to tell us a lot of different things about the world and about ourselves; some more helpful than others.  We each have internal voices competing for our attention: You aren’t good enough.  Take a break, you deserve it.  I should do something thoughtful for a friend who is down in the dumps.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.  How can we ever know when the voice we are hearing is God’s voice?

I attended two different clergy meetings this past week.  On Monday it was a group of Suffolk clergy.  On Tuesday, our bishop called together diocesan clergy for a day retreat at Chanco.  Monday’s conversation turned dark and discouraging very quickly as participants focused on all the challenges facing the churches we serve: low attendance, lack of resources, dwindling membership, conflict, apathy, a feeling of being lost, a feeling of being helpless.  By the end of the meeting I was ready to climb into bed and pull the covers up over my head.  The voices of that conversation nearly did me in.

Our diocesan meeting the next day had a very different tone.  People were optimistic, energized, aware of opportunities, eager to launch new initiatives.  There was a lot of laughter in the room throughout the day, which is a good indication of health and well-being, isn’t it!

How do you know if it is God’s voice speaking to you?  Well, one thing is sure, God’s voice always contributes something positive and hopeful.  The devil’s work is always as an accuser: you are too old, too small, too stupid, too fat, too poor, too unskilled, too whatever.  The devil’s work is to tear into and to tear apart.  God is about the work of binding wounds, bringing together, and building up.

“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”  How do you know it is God’s voice?  Because it is the voice calling you to green pastures.  It is the voice leading you to still waters.  It is the voice in the midst of the deep valley saying, “Stay close to me.  I know the way through here.”  You know it is God’s voice because when other voices urge you to collapse at a wall of despair, God’s voice gives you the spiritual and emotional energy to break through it.

God’s shepherdly voice always points the way for us to follow, but this doesn’t mean it is always comforting.  I think often of the image of the shepherd’s crook.  The crozier every bishop carries as a symbol of office is modeled on it and it features prominently in the design of our Good Shepherd stained glass window.  A shepherd’s crook is long (to extend one’s reach) and has two ends: one pointed and the other with a hook.  A shepherd uses the pointed end to prod a sheep in the rear to make it go in a direction it is resisting.  He uses the hook to pull the sheep back from going someplace it shouldn’t; literally yanking a sheep out of harm’s way.  Now, most of the time a shepherd’s verbal commands suffice, but every now and then the crook is brought to bear.

As you listen for God’s voice recognize sometimes it will call you to do things you are hesitant to do.  Maybe you are afraid or unsure of yourself or just in the mood to laze around.  Sometimes God’s voice includes the words ‘go’ or ‘do’ or ‘act’ or ‘right now.’  Sometimes the words function like the hook as a warning: ‘careful,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ ‘repent.’

On this Mother’s Day, I hope you have some wonderful memories of when and how God spoke to you through the words of your mother: words of encouragement, words of healing, words of correction when necessary, words of affirmation and praise, words of unshakable and unfathomable love. 

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

Monday, May 2, 2022

Memories of the Past


John 21:1-19

Easter 3 / Year C

Christianity stands alone among the world’s major religions for the way in which its sacred texts honestly portray the flaws of its major characters.  It begins with Adam, who manages to mess up paradise.  Then there is Cain, who murders his brother.  Joseph dreams of being superior to his siblings and they, in turn, sell him off to a passing caravan.  Moses commits manslaughter.  Aaron rallies the people to make a golden idol.  David enters into an adulterous relationship with a neighbor and then arrangers to have her husband killed in battle.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  And this is just the Old Testament. 

Today’s readings highlight the foibles of two of the most prominent figures in the New Testament: Peter and Paul.   Three times Jesus inquires of Peter, “Do you love me?” – a not so subtle reminder of the three times the Apostle denies knowing Jesus.  And after eight chapters focusing on the life of the early Church, the Book of Acts finally gets around to introducing us to its lead character – Saul of Tarsus.  And how do we meet him?  By finding out he participates in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and by vigorously persecuting those who are known to be a part of “The Way” of Jesus.

And it is not as if these flaws are incidental to each Apostle’s character.  The Scriptures present them unvarnished in order that readers will know their heroes, warts and all.  Following Peter through the gospels is something akin to riding a rollercoaster.  There are some highs and a lot of lows: stepping out of the boat and sinking, refuting Jesus’ teaching about how he must die (to which Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan”), lashing out in violence as Jesus is arrested, and the three denials.  Paul, for his part, refers often in his writings and in his testimony to his past life as a persecutor of the faith.

Why do you think the bible presents its leading figures in such an honest and unflattering manner by constantly bringing up the past?  And what does it mean for us as we (like them) seek to be faithful followers of Christ?

They say anxiety has to do with fear of the future; fretting about all the things you can’t imagine or control.  Depression, on the other hand, is rooted in the past.  It is dwelling on (maybe even obsessing about) mistakes and what ifs; what we rue and what we regret.  And the more you live with this, the more you begin to think of yourself as the mistake you made.  You become a prisoner of your past.

An opposite approach is equally possible.  It involves a recasting of the past in a way which is not faithful to what actually happened.  The other day I read a rather interesting (but dense) review of a book by David Rieff titled In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memories and Its Ironies.  He argues over time cultural memories of triumphs and defeats, things we got right and things we got wrong, pains we inflicted and pains we endured, “inevitably fade into caricature or cliché as time passes.”  I’ll spare you the details of his thinking.  Interestingly, as our country struggles with how to make sense of and tell the stories of our past, Rieff believes our failure to remember “what really happened” is both inevitable and positive. 

In Peter and Paul we find two people who neither are prisoners of their past mistakes nor have succumbed to the temptation of rewriting the histories of what they have done wrong.  They remind us no one is perfect, which is neither a controversial nor enlightening insight in and of itself.  But they add to it none of is defined by our actions. 

You may tell a lie, but this does not make you a liar in God’s eyes.  You may rob a bank, but God does not see you as a bank robber.  You may have an addiction, but God does not see you as being an addict.  Our actions don’t define us because God already has told us who we are.  We are beloved children of the Holy One, dear and precious beyond imagining to the One who created us.  It is a self-definition we embrace at every baptism.  It means… God sees you as a beloved child who told a lie, as a beloved child who robbed a bank, or as a beloved child who suffers from an addiction.  Nothing you do ever will change the beloved part of who you are.  Nothing.

Peter denies Jesus three times, but he is still beloved.  Jesus redeems him and commissions him for leadership in the church.  Paul murders and persecutes God’s faithful followers, but he is still beloved.  Jesus appears to him and calls him to a new and more noble purpose.  Each is an example of what Oscar Wilde once quipped: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future!”  By owning up to their faults, Peter and Paul point us toward God’s grace.  Each reminds us if Jesus can use them, given all they did wrong, than Jesus can use us too!  We do not just have a past.  We have a present and we have a future.

How do you live in the present with the memories and consequences of your past?  Well, Peter and Paul tell us we do so not by moving forward either by punishing ourselves or be excusing ourselves, but by living into God’s unfailing love for us, by building the foundation of our lives on God’s unfathomable grace, and by embracing the fact we are God’s beloved child.


Monday, April 25, 2022

Permission to Doubt


John 20:19-31

Easter 2 / Year C

Today is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas Sunday” because the Lectionary always assigns the reading we just heard to be read on the Sunday after Easter.  It serves to remind us the claims of Christianity are not at all easy to affirm.  Faith, one person noted, is belief without proof – not an easy thing for the modern mind to do… or for Thomas.

Many Christians act as if a prohibition against doubting is one of the 10 Commandments.  Nothing will make a person feel worse about his or her faith faster than the presence of doubts.  And doubts seem to come in one of two forms: Either a person doubts God will come through on a promise or assurance (like protection or guidance or healing) or a person cannot subscribe to one or more central tenets of the Christian faith – our core beliefs.  Let me say a brief word about each.

More than one person, while in the midst of tremendous personal suffering, has confessed to me about struggling with what they consider to be the “sin” of doubt: “I know I should trust in God, but it is so hard right now.”  My response:

It is very easy to confuse doubt with being disheartened.  It is very difficult to look up when everything around you is looking so down.  Believe me, God gets it.  When so much else is weighing you down, there is no need to heap more guilt on yourself.  Tell God you are discouraged and ask for help.  It is not always obvious how God will respond or who God will send to you to help see you through, but it will happen.  All you need to do is be on the lookout.

The second kind of doubt is more intellectual than emotional and has to do with the teachings of the faith.  Here, the opposite of doubt is not faith, but certainty… and if you have ever known anyone who is certain about everything they believe, you know this is not necessarily a desirable trait.  Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the last century, held doubt is an element of faith – the questioning which is absolutely necessary to our response to God if our faith is going to be anything more than an idol of our own creation.

Those of you who join me on-line for services of Morning Prayer know we recite the Apostles’ Creed pretty much every single day.  Developed in the early 5th century in Gaul, it consists of twelve statements of the faith, grouped together in a Trinitarian structure: “I believe in God”… “I believe in Jesus Christ”… “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  A tradition emerged crediting each of the twelve Apostles with adding one line to this creed.  The other day I got to thinking it would be an interesting exercise for some adult group to take each of the statements separately and arrange them in order of “believability” – the easiest to affirm to the most difficult.

At the top of my list would be:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

I believe in the communion of saints.

I believe in the holy catholic Church.

Most problematic for me:

I believe in the resurrection of the body

He will come again to judge the living and the dead

Another day and another time, I can say more about this, but for now let me simply convey I am happy to be a part of the faith while embracing certain questions about what it teaches.

In this sense I see myself in Thomas.  He manages to spend an entire week with a roomful of people who are rock-solid in their belief the Risen Lord has appeared to them while he himself cannot possibly fathom how such a thing can be possible.  Thomas represents doubt dwelling in the midst of faith. 

A part of me wishes this story could be read on Easter Sunday.  So many people attend that service who may not be here again until Christmas.  I am sure more than one of them has significant questions/doubts about this whole Christianity thing.  Drawing on Thomas’ experience, to them I would say this is exactly where you need to bring your doubts and hang out.  Don’t stay away until you have it all figured out.  Don’t stay away until it all makes sense.  Don’t stay away until there is a scientific explanation for the Virgin birth and the bodily Ascension into heaven. 

Thomas reminds us not only are doubters welcome in the church, in many ways we are necessary.  We don’t deny the faith.  Rather, we push it to new places and new insights and new understandings.  There is no evidence any of Thomas’ colleagues thought a physical inspection of Christ’s wounds mattered.  But to Tomas it did.  And countless many, given the evidence he (in his doubts) gathered, have come to believe.  Your doubts are not doors to padlock and keep out of sight, but avenues to explore, knowing faith always finds a place of serenity.  Why else would Jesus repeatedly greet his friends by saying, “Peace [not certainty] be with you?”

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Myrrh-Bearers


Luke 24:1-12

Easter Sunday / Year C

They are known as the “Myrrh-Bearers” and many Eastern Orthodox Churches will celebrate them next Sunday.  They are the women who carry burial ointments to Jesus’ tomb in the pre-dawn hours after the Passover Sabbath.  These women play a pivotal, if unheralded role throughout Jesus’ ministry; travelling with him and supporting him financially [see Luke 8:3] during his long periods away from the carpenter’s shop.  They accompany Jesus throughout the agonizing ordeal as he bears his cross to Golgotha.  They watch in silence as he suffers and dies.  They follow Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to a nearby burial garden where Jesus’ body is entombed.  They watch the men tend to the corpse; wrapping it in a linen shroud saturated with 100 pounds of burial spices (five times the typical amount).  They witness a stone rolled to seal the tomb’s entrance.  No doubt they stay as long as twilight lets them dare, lest they break the Passover law of being away from home after sundown.

Surely during the Passover they are heart-broken.  It is likely no elaborate meal is served because they were preoccupied throughout the time normally reserved for its preparation.  They and their families go without on this holy day.  They wait.  They wait for the sun to go down and the Passover to end and for the first hint of dawn providing some measure of light sufficient for them to make their way back to Jesus’ tomb with more burial spices. 

I don’t have the words to begin to describe the devotion these women hold for Jesus.  Tradition has it there are eight Myrrh-Bearers, although the gospels do not agree on who or how many (most likely a reflection of the four authors’ indifference to the significant role each woman plays in Jesus’ life and ministry).  Here are the people who are a part of this hallowed group:

· Mary, the mother of Jesus (who is also referred to in the Eastern Church as ‘the Theotokos,” which is Greek for ‘God-bearer.”)

· Mary of Magdala (a Galilean who either was a prostitute or possessed by demons – or both – before Jesus meets her.  She becomes one of his ‘closest’ followers – how close is a matter of speculation.  The gospel writers seem to agree she either is the first person to encounter the Risen Christ or is with a group of other women who share the experience).

· Now, this is where things get confusing because there is yet another Mary, who is identified as “the wife of Cleopas.”  This Mary may be the sister of Jesus’ mother (making her his aunt).  Or, she could be the wife of Zebedee, making her the mother of James and John, two of Jesus’ most prominent followers.  In this case, her name is also referred to in the gospels as “Salome.”  With this possibility, she may be the sister of the Virgin Mary or Cleopas may have been the brother of Jesus’ father, Joseph, making him Jesus’ uncle and again this Mary his aunt.  To make this even more confusing, this Mary is also referred to as the wife of ‘Alphaeus’, who is said to be the father of James, Jesus’ brother, who one day becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  This scenario means this Mary and the Virgin Mary are one in the same.  Yet another Mary is identified as “the mother of James and Joses”, common names at the time which do not help to distinguish one Mary from another.  Somewhere in all of this are two additional women who go to the tomb.

· Joanna is the wife of Chuza, a highly placed steward in King Herod’s palace.  While this is more straight-forward than the multiple Mary possibilities, it begs the question how such a well-to-do person in society comes to be one of Jesus’ devoted followers.

· Susanna, about whom all we know is Jesus healed her of an unidentified infirmity and she possessed the financial means to be a supporter his ministry.

· Mary and Martha, the sisters from Bethany whose brother Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead.

As some configuration of all these women (possibly accompanied by others not named) makes their way to Jesus’ tomb they wonder how they will move the stone.  Matthew reports a Roman guard has been assigned to safeguard the site.  No doubt the women know nothing about this added obstacle, but it too will be a challenge they will have to overcome.  Even though Jesus taught his closest followers often and openly he would be crucified and rise from the dead after three days, there is absolutely no indication any of these women expect to find anything other than the dead body.  Their sole focus is to mask the stench of death and decay with the oils and spices they carry.

It strikes me many of us share significant traits in common with the Myrrh-Bearers as they make their way to the garden.  Like them, we are deeply devoted.  We sacrifice much (often without giving it a second thought) in response to God’s love made known to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ.  We carry a deep sense of obligation to shepherd the values and practices of the past into the present and beyond.  We have a sense the things in which we have placed our hopes are spiraling out of control and there is little or nothing we can do about it other than to give it a proper burial.  This is what Easter looks and feels like in the pre-dawn twilight of that morning so long ago: duty, mingled with despair.

As somber as the procession to the garden must be, we who have the advantage of time and history cannot help but chuckle at these bearers of myrrh because we know there cannot be anything more unnecessary at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning than oodles and oodles of burial ointments.  Soon enough they will learn what we are blessed to know from their witness: Alleluia, Christ is risen!  Our sense of obligation, of duty, of responsibility to all that matters to God in this world is infused with Easter joy – a personal awareness Jesus is risen from the dead and a conviction the power of gloom and death has been banished. 

We find ourselves in a moment much like the Myrrh-Bearers’ trodding to the tomb.  You know the litany as well as I: a global pandemic, a world super-power attempting to annihilate one of its neighbors, the shortage of basic consumer goods and the potential for runaway inflation, deep and on-going cultural differences ripping apart the fabric of our society…  Ponder it just for a moment and you might conclude the only sane thing to do is grab some myrrh and try to cover the stench. 

But, just as it was on that morning so long ago, don’t be surprised if you arrive at the tomb, find the stone rolled away, the body gone, and an angel or two telling your God is not done with us yet.  So leave your myrrh at home and come here to celebrate.  We are witnesses of God’s ability to call forth joy and to make all things new. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Maundy Thursday & Good Friday Sermons


Maundy Thursday

As you go home after tonight’s service, if you happen to pass by a fast-food restaurant (especially Chick-fil-a), check out the line of cars in the drive-thru.  It will be long and littered with SUV’s – a sure sign many American families are not gathering around a dinner table this evening for a meal.  I read recently fast-food establishments are transforming their in-person dining facilities.  Many are cutting down dramatically the size of their seating areas in favor of expanding curbside and drive-thru capacity.  What does this tell you about the current status of the American dinner experience?  I noted – with some amusement – KFC is a part of this trend.  My two reactions to this news were these: 1) I don’t eat ‘food’ from KFC, and 2) if I did, I certainly wouldn’t sit in their lobby to do it!

At the center of tonight’s service is a meal; a meal which has been given a memorable moniker – “the Last Supper” – and has been depicted by artists thousands of times over, perhaps most famously by da Vinci.  The customs and practices around meals will tell you a lot about the culture of time.  Just as the drive-thru reveals much about our day, meals in Jesus’ day expressed the social, symbolic, and spiritual values of its time. 

Think about the meals mentioned in the gospels and the stories Jesus tells centered around the sharing of food.  They are (or should be) expressions of hospitality, affirmations of kinship, friendship, and status, and settings for peaceful interactions.  Meals fell into one of three categories: ordinary, festive, and sacred and all three were understood to be spiritual occasions.  Ordinary meals might include bread, grains, olives and olive oil, and bean stews, as well various fruits, cheeses, and fish.  Festive and sacred meals added different kinds of meat to the menu.     

Meals were served indoors or in places shaded from the sun.  Typically, food was served on a low table or on mat or simply in bowls passed around among the diners.  Those eating either knelt on the floor or sat cross-legged.  Reclining by resting your head close to the chest of the person next to you was a common practice at festive and sacred meals, leading to the expression ‘bosom buddies.’  Tables with chairs, as we think of them, were reserved for royalty and the well-to-do.

Because bread was an indispensable staple at most meals it became synonymous with the meal itself.  We still hold on to the expression “breaking bread” because bread was torn off from the loaf by hand, not cut. 

Most food was passed among guests and eaten by hand directly from the dish, bowl or plate on which was served.  This led to some elaborate pre-meal practices around personal hygiene, which included washing of hands and feet as well as the use of perfume or oil.  Over time, what once served as a practical consideration (cleaning up before eating) evolved into religious obligation concerned with ritual purity.  It was customary to recite short prayers at the beginning of a meal and longer prayers of thanksgiving after the conclusion.

Various specific directions set forth etiquette for Hebrew meals; all practical, some humorous:

·    You should not talk with food in your mouth, for it can prove dangerous should it go down the windpipe.  Even saying “bless you” to person who has sneezed should be avoided.  However, if you push the food to the side of his mouth, there is no concern about talking.

·    When you distribute pieces of bread to those eating with you, you should not throw the bread to the recipient nor hand it to him directly.  Rather, it should be placed before the person on a plate or in a bowl.

·    It is improper to eat or drink while standing.

·    It is not proper to wipe your plate clean while eating so that nothing is left on it.  Some food, even a small amount, should remain.  

·    It is also improper to lick your fingers.

·    If you are a guest in a home, do not demand food to eat, rather, wait until food is offered.

·    If two people are eating together from the same plate (say, sharing olives from a common bowl) and one person stops eating in order to drink or to do another minor act, the other person needs to stop eating from the bowl and wait until his friend is ready to resume.  If, however, three people are eating from the same plate or bowl and one person interrupts his eating, it is not necessary for the other two to pause.

All of these cultural expectations serve to highlight a distinctive aspect of the first Passover meal described in tonight’s reading from the Book of Exodus:

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

It is the modern day equivalent of having your child in her soccer uniform and cleats as you hit the drive thru on the way to practice.  The Passover is anything but a leisurely meal typical of the culture at the time.  It is eating on the run.  It stands out because it is the exception, not the rule.  In our time, dining is the exception.  Rushing is the norm.

The early Church soon discovered when they gathered for a communal meal – observing all the norms and customs of the day, but also remembering the last meal they shared with Jesus – the Risen Lord became known to them.  Early on, there was a physical presence.  After the Ascension, the presence was spiritual.  We experience this in our day when we gather in this place around its table and do what we do in remembrance of Christ. 

We also experience it in our homes and with our friends as we sit down for a meal where we have time truly to be present to one another.  At occasions like these, which are becoming rare in our society, God’s Spirit moves in and through the gathering in ways that refresh and restore us while bonding and binding us to one another in love. 

I miss our Agape Meal tonight because of the way it brings together the sacred and the social.  It starts with the preparation – food and decoration – continues through the meal, and lingers even into the clean-up.  It has a powerful way of connecting us to one another and of connecting us to the One who is our Host.  God willing, next year we will gather at table in the Parish Hall once again and dine with one another.  Tonight we give thanks for the opportunity to gather in this sacred meal and moment at the Lord’s Table.

Good Friday

Jesus said, “Woman, behold thy son.”

The Greek philosopher Herodotus is remembered for noting the major difference between times of peace and times of war is during peace children bury their parents and during war parents bury their children.  Whatever the political climate is, every parent carries a secret fear someday he or she will lose a child.  Without question, the most grief-filled memorial services are those where a parent has to bury a child, no matter if the child is two or thirty-two. 

What must be going through the mind of Mary, the holy mother, as she watches her son die on the Cross?

As a young girl, perhaps no older than fourteen, she is visited by an angel whose puzzling message proclaims she will conceive through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son.  We find the angel’s words in Luke 1:32:

“He will be great,

and will be called the Son of the Most High;

   and the Lord God will give to him

   the throne of his father David,

and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever;

   and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The fear-filled little girl responds, “Let it be to me according to your word.” 

Surely this is one of the memories flooding Mary’s mind as she watches her flesh and blood hang on the tree.

In the months following the angel’s visit, Mary must have endured great shame being pregnant and unwed.  Yet she is still able to make this proclamation to her cousin Elizabeth:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

   for He has regarded

   the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold,

henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

   for He has done great things for me

   and holy is his Name…”

Does Mary remember these words as she grieves at Calvary?  Surely she does not perceive herself as blessed among all people on that terrible Friday afternoon.

Think of all the unusual events associated with the birth of Jesus.  Luke records on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds come to the manger telling a story of angelic visions and choruses.  Matthew records the visit of Magi who follow a star to the place where the child can be found.  Luke also records the declarations of Simeon and Anna at Jesus’ dedication in the Temple eight days after his birth.  While these events leave others confused, the Scriptures tells us Mary ponders them while keeping them in her heart. 

Imagine how great her hopes and expectations for her son must have been.  How many days must she have held her child to her breast dreaming of what he might become?   How many nights must she have put him to sleep with a prayer entrusting him into God’s care?  How many times does she catch a glimmer of the Divine growing in her boy and how often does she wonder what glorious things God will do through him, as she has been promised? 

Can anyone at the foot of the Cross be more dissolutioned?  Can anyone be more confused?  Can anyone be more grieved than Mary?

In the midst of great physical and emotional agony Jesus is aware of his mother and her anguish.  Scholars are somewhat puzzled by his words to her, “Woman, behold thy son” and to the disciple, “Behold, thy mother.”  Mary has several other children by Joseph who are capable of caring for her.  In fact, one son – James – becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem, so it is not clear to experts why Jesus has to entrust her to one outside the family.  But this much we do know, the disciple takes the mother of our Lord into his care from this moment on. 

From this I deduce even in the throes of his suffering Jesus has compassion for us and for our needs.  He is ever-concerned for us as evidenced by his concern for his mother.  Given this, how much more is he able to care for us now in his glory?

I also believe family lines are redrawn not as a way to deal with loss and grief, but as a foreshadowing of what life in the resurrection will be like.  In a few short days Jesus will rise from the dead and appear to his followers in triumph.  When this happens realities such as biological relations will seem trivial in light of the bonds created among believers who experience the resurrection.

Just as those who wait at the foot of the Cross are bound together by their common experience, we are united in this place at this time because we come to observe Good Friday together.  Come Sunday we will be related by more than the fact we gather together in the same place.  We will be brothers and sisters in Christ based on the power of the resurrection in our lives.  For followers of Christ there is no stronger tie than the faith uniting us in Christ.  We rejoice together.  We weep together.  Let no one make a charge against one of the elect for we are family in Christ.  As it was at the foot of the Cross between Mary and the disciple, let it be for us.