Monday, April 29, 2013

By this, the world will come to know.

Easter 5C.  28 April 2013.

John 13.31-35


            It may seem strange to you, as it did to me, to see the Gospel lesson for today, especially if you attended our Maundy Thursday liturgy.  This is, after all, the Gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday in which Jesus gives the "new commandment"—sometimes called the "love commandment"—to his disciples.


            It does seem a little strange to have this lesson come up again so soon, and I wondered, cynically, if its appearance was to make sure that even those people who don't come to Maundy Thursday get the lesson.  I don't know.


            If I were the rector of a large parish, I might preach Maundy Thursday and then hand this Sunday off to an assistant cleric, and say, "I've already handled this one; why don't you give it a shot."  But I don't have that luxury.  I considered the other texts for preaching with the hopes of not having to deal with the text again so soon, but I've discovered that whenever I try to elude a text, it doesn't let me go. 


            I considered the possibility that it might be refreshing to address the meaning of it outside of Maundy Thursday, which is, to my mind, a liturgy that is suffused with foreboding and pathos.  Jesus is having his last meal, washing feet, and will soon be taken from the comforting embrace of the disciples.  It is a profound moment in the story of Jesus, and in the Church's life, and the love commandment, read in that context, seems laden with sentiment. 


            To take the text from that liturgical context and restore it to its narrative context in the Bible may reveal more of what Jesus is saying.  So consider the narrative context.  Jesus believes this to be the last supper with his disciples, which is also, fittingly, the Passover, or Seder meal.  Believing that his location had been betrayed, he knows that the time is rapidly approaching when he will be taken.  "They will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered."


            That analogy holds true to this day.  Whenever leadership changes, there is a reshuffling of roles and responsibilities.  When a parish priest leaves a church, there are people who leave, and people who come back.  People who stop doing things, and start doing other things. 


            But it is one thing when it happens because someone resigns, retires, or steps aside, and quite another when someone is killed—and killed for the very reasons why the group is together to begin with. 


            Jesus surely knows that when he is taken from them that it will be a very confusing and painful time.  And even after he is resurrected, he cannot be with them as he once was; he is returning to the Father.  So understood in this context the commandment to love is, perhaps, an attempt to help them navigate the future. 


            He might have said, "You won't have me anymore.  When you get together and have your little squabbles about who is greater than the other, or who is going to sit beside me in the coming kingdom…  When you are out doing what I did and preaching and healing, if indeed you go back to the mission field as I have directed you, it won't be like the old times.  It won't be like it was when I was here and you could ask your questions about how to deal with what." 


            "You are going to need each other in a way that you don't even realize right now.  So I'm leaving you this new commandment.    It's a commandment, but it's not really a commandment—as that is meant in the Bible.  It's new, but it's not really new.  It's been spoken of before in the context of the Exodus when God brought us out of Egypt and gave us this land.  It was moving over the waters at the beginning of time, when this earth was void and barren, and darkness over the earth.  And it is simply: Love.  God's pulse, God's own being, my being…


            "You need to love each other if you want to make it through the coming week, and the coming months and years, because it isn't pretty out there.  And you will likely be afraid."  (Long pause.)


            Fear is such an ugly subject.  I don't like even mentioning it.  Just a couple weeks ago I was talking with my local clergy buddies, and we were talking about the Boston Marathon bombing.  And the question in the room was whether or not we would be talking about it on Sunday. 

            My belief is that the pulpit should be a place of reflection, not reaction.  So I mention events in the prayers and announcements; I may dedicate the celebration of the Eucharist to the victims, but I don't run to the pulpit, as if I can redeem the tragedy with quick words. 


            There are sermons that need to be preached about tragedy—I have preached some of them—and I believe they are best heard at a respectful distance from the events.  When the trauma is recent and palpably moving in the air, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is also palpable, and doing something beautiful that extended words might spoil. 


            The silence we give—which is not unlike the silence of Good Friday—honors and respects the people most affected, and helps us, I think, pray for them a bit more deeply.  Part of the silence is also to allow the fear to dissipate.    


            Fear is something I don't speak easily about.  It can inspire all kinds of negative thoughts and actions.  People who are pushed to their limits, and feel themselves without recourse, are the most dangerous. 


            Before the Boston tragedy, the one most recently on our minds was the stabbing of fourteen people at Lone Star College by Dylan Quick, who told the police that he had been fantasizing about doing that since he was in elementary school.  I cannot imagine—I'm sure you cannot imagine—living with that kind of fantasy.


            And before that tragedy, there was Newtown, and before that, it was something else.   Fear.  It comes up when we see an act of evil and cannot understand how a person could want to do it.  It is absolutely chilling when it is something that someone has planned for years.  We cannot imagine the heart of darkness that nurtures those kinds of thoughts without somehow self-destructing.  Often when they have carried out the act, they do self-destruct.


            You can live in fear of so many things.  Fear of sickness, financial issues, loss of loved ones, loss of one's own life.  And there are varieties of fear within those fears.  The world can be an ugly, ugly place.  Violent, tragic, evil.  It has always been that way. 


            During the years of the Roman Empire, you will remember that Christians were severely persecuted—many put to death for sport in the Coliseum.  We Christians also persecuted and killed many followers of Islam during the Crusades.  At any given point in history someone has committed awful, evil acts of violence—in the name of God, or for no apparent reason, or for reasons of revenge.


            And before he left his disciples Jesus said, "You are going to have to go out there. You can't just stay huddled together in church.  You are going to have to go out there, as I did, and show the world how I and the Father intend the human life to be lived:  You must not hurt; you must heal.  You must not take the bread of others; you must feed them.  You may not say to yourself `Well, he's not my dad,' or `She's not my daughter' and just sort of write them off.  Everyone is your sister and brother now." 


            "And the only way you are going to combat the fear that you will see in the hungry eyes of others is with the love that you have for each other." 


            So when we gather together in the bonds of affection, and share the bread and wine, and pray, the Holy Spirit—God's spirit—my spirit—is present, and fear and evil have no place. (Pause.)


             Last month, during Holy Week, actually just before the Maundy Thursday liturgy I enjoyed something I rarely get to do anymore, and that's to just sit in the back pew and pray, and wait for the church to gather.  I sometimes forget what that feels like.  You see people trickle in and find their place, and there is something about that.


            You see each other in the silent assembly and your mind may go to previous conversations, jokes and stories with each other.  Maybe a disagreement, or two, but that's the way life is.  But when I see people coming into church and finding their pew and kneeling down, it's just so beautiful to me. 


            Like each person is voting with their presence for "us."  We are saying, "I'd rather be here than anywhere else right now."  And here is not just here.  It's here with God.  Here with the God we believe is revealed in the human flesh of Jesus Christ: here in the context of a place that stands for peace and harmony, justice, redemption.  It really is a beautiful thing.


            And you may look around some Sunday and wonder where someone is whom you don't see.  And you know that life is life, and they'll be back.  They're on vacation; family are in town, whatever.   Then you have people who are loosely affiliated.  They are members and friends, and they come when they can, and it's always good to see them.  You have folks who are sick and at home or in the hospital, and a prayer is offered for them.  Do you see what I'm trying to say?


            Those little thoughts you have when you see someone and when you miss someone are all little signs of this new commandment.


            Life is hard.  The world can be a very scary place.  We have been sent by a loving God to a creation that God called good; and Christ redeemed with his own blood.  It is a world that can break your heart with people who can do unspeakable things.  It is the mission field. 


            We ourselves are not perfect; we have moments of sin.  We struggle to be the people God has called us to be; but when we gather together, it's not just an assembly of people—it's the re-presentation of what Jesus was talking about.  And it has become the way we stand against the evil and tragedy of the world.  We come together, and we break the bread, and we sing our song.  And by those actions we cast our vote for a more redeemed and beautiful world, which is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.


            There is a wonderful motivational poster I saw very recently.  It was for exercise, but it works for the Church to.  "Don't ever stop.  You never know who you are inspiring."


            You may not think it matters sometimes.  Little church among so many little churches.  Little me telling my little stories.  But, it really does matter.  Because "by this," said Jesus, "everyone will come to know…"




Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.


Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, April 22, 2013

The Valley of the Shadow

Easter 4C.  21 April 2013.[*]


Psalm 23


The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.



            Psalm 23 is probably—with the exception of the Lord's Prayer—the most well known piece of scripture in the Bible.  It is used at almost every funeral, and even if it isn't used, it's printed on the back of the boilerplate bulletins from the funeral homes. 


            I would guess that with very little prompting I could get you to say it all the way through.  It may be familiar to you in the way that wallpaper is familiar, or it may be familiar to you in that it comes to mind when you need a bit of comfort. 


            Several weeks ago Karin and I watched a suspenseful movie a few weeks ago, and I'm used to seeing things, but there was a violent scene that really shook me.  I laid awake in bed that night calling to mind as many thoughts and verses I could that would put me to sleep.  Psalm 23 came to mind. 


            I want to show you something about the Psalm that I never noticed before.  The language of address changes.  Look at the insert.  "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.  He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake."


            Did you notice the address?  The Lord…He.  Now look at verse four"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."  "You spread a table…"  "You have anointed my head with oil…"  Surely your goodness and mercy…"


            The Psalm begins with praise and recollection, almost objectively recounting what God does, but then it's as if the audience to whom the psalmist is singing fades away, and suddenly it becomes a very intimate prayer.  And the hinge between the two is the valley of the shadow of death.


            There are some very vivid images in this Psalm:  Green pastures, still waters, right pathways, a shepherd's rod and staff, the spread of a table, oil on the head, a cup running over, the house of the Lord.  And then there's the shadow of death.  It's the only negative image.


            And as negative images go, it's poetic and somewhat mysterious.  Valley we understand.  We live in a valley.  And shadows cast by a hill or mountain are common.  But to say the "shadow of death" is very sobering.  Valley of the shadow of death.  It describes a place of uncertainty and fear.


            The Bible often uses very literal symbolic language.  Mountain top is happy, closer to God.  Moses goes up Mt. Sinai.  Jesus goes up the Mount of Olives.  Jerusalem is built on a hill.  The valleys are places of uncertainty, low places, God is absent or unseen, people are unhappy. 


            It might be enough to say "Yea, though I walk through the valley."  But the Psalmist extends it, "of the shadow…of death."  And like a parable—at least for those of us who want to think it through—it teases the mind with possible meanings.


            Now, I know that I talk about this sort of stuff a lot.  In fact, sometimes I have wondered if you might just tell me at some point, "Alexander, can we just hear a nice little sermon on joy and grace and just leave the dark stuff out of it."  Believe me, I know. 


            There was a clergyman I know who did that.  He preached sermons that would charm the socks off a rooster.  Everything was just peace, joy and love, and the only problem was that he never actually spoke about the Bible.


            The other week, I was getting ready to come into the church office.  It was a glorious morning.  The sun was out, the weather was warm, and I walked out to the car.  I did not know this, but Maggie was out on the swing set.  I didn't see her, but as I was about to get into the car I heard, "Hi Daddy."  And she came over to the car.  She was wearing one of her unbearably cute outfits with a head band, and she stood there as I got into the car talking. 


            As she spoke, I thought next year, she'll be in kindergarten, and she won't be there anymore.  Treasure this.  She said, "Have a good morning."  I said, "Thank you, I will.  You have a good morning, too."  She smiled.  Blond hair, blue eyes, cute outfit.  I closed the door of the car.  And she wanted to say more.  I started the car, rolled down the window.  She said, "Tell people you meet that Christ is risen."  And I said, "I will do that, Maggie."  And I drove off thinking, I am a very blessed man.  And I also thought to myself the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12,


"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'; 2before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.


            And I thought to myself, "the valley of the shadow of death."  Why should I turn a happy moment with my daughter to these thoughts?  Why should the Psalmist insert that verse four into Psalm 23?


            It would be a happier Psalm without it.  If we could just remove the one and only verse that has something negative in it, we could just make this about green pastures, and the goodness of God, who is our shepherd.


            But the Bible does this.  The bright ray of the sun is observed the glory of the flower, but also in the shadow that is cast.  Light and darkness are inseparable from each other until such time as God brings death to death.  But until then, the life we have been given is a mixture of opposites, through which we are offered glimpses of redemption. 


            The intimacy—the faith—in this Psalm is achieved only after the valley of the shadow has been mentioned and encountered.  The experience of the valley allows the psalmist to convert his objective language into personal language.  The Lord is great, the Lord provides, it was in the valley that YOU were with me.


            And following the intimacy of that experience of God being present at the point of darkness, we were able to see that the table was spread, the oil anointed us, and the cup was running over.  Otherwise, the goodness and mercy is reduced to lines on a page, reported by someone else who has not really lived.


            They may not be visible to the naked eye, but everyone in this place—everyone in the world—has battle scars of one form or another.  I say that not to diminish the profound literal meaning of battle scars.  But life, as we all know, is a dangerous place, and the great unspoken topic is not death, really, but being wounded.  Because being wounded is to speak of so many things.  It is to speak of vulnerability and pain, rejection, frailty, limitations, failure. 


            And to walk through life is to walk occasionally in the valley of the shadow: a place of wounding, and a place of uncertainty.


            Those are the times we need God, perhaps, the most; and they are often times when it seems God is aloof or uncaring.  A rod and staff are not generally considered as effective tools of comfort as arms that hug.  The rod and staff touch the sheep only occasionally, and as needed to keep the sheep together, as the shepherd walks beside them.  That's not very much.  The analogy is actually very cold comfort, if you think it through.


            I know this from my own practice of pastoral ministry that to sit with someone in pain and uphold the belief that God is present is an awkward thing to do.  Life is much easier when the problem is solved with a screwdriver or a greeting card, but to uphold the presence of God in the midst of suffering is often a minority opinion. 


            The wounding is endured, and the pain is real.  And the dull ache that follows can be unforgettable.  God, where were you? 


            But think of this, when you get to the other side of the valley, or when you are led up the high mountain, you will know.  You will know.  You will see the table spread, and the cup running over.  You will know whose you are.  And that is actually more important than who you are.


            When I was in seminary, I had a professor who has just recently died, The Rev. Dr. Ed Kryder.  He was a prince among men.  He preached a sermon about wounds.  And he said something that has stuck with me, and that I want to share with you in the hopes that it will help you, as much it has helped me.  He said, "To be a Christian, is to place your own wounds into the wounds of Christ.  Because only Christ can heal them."


            May God give you the grace and courage to walk through the valley of the shadow.  On the other side, hopefully you will discover that it is more important to know whose you are, than who you are.






Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.



Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[*] This sermon was conceived and written approximately one week prior to the bombings of the Boston Marathon and the explosion of the chemical fertilizer plant in West, Texas.  The text here is unaltered, though in preaching, I may have interpolated a sentence or two specific to those events.   

Monday, April 15, 2013

How to encounter God

Easter 3C.  14 April 2013.

John 21.1-19


            When you and I come to church on Sunday, we each bring a certain set of wants and needs.  We might not consciously think about it; but there are boxes we check that determine our level of religious satiety—for lack of a better word.  For instance, when I am on vacation and I visit a church, I want to hear a good sermon, and that's pretty much it.  I am used to hearing my own voice and wrestling with the text on my own so much that I really look forward to hearing someone else, and I want to appreciate their genuine engagement with the text and real life.  That might be one of your boxes, too.


            There may be a box for music.  Wanting to hear an anthem from the choir, or top notch musicianship from whoever is playing the organ or the piano, or what have you.  There may be a box for reception of the Holy Communion, and if you don't receive the Eucharist, then the Sunday isn't complete.  That's often the case with Episcopalians, especially Episcopalians who have only known the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.


            Then, there might be other boxes.  Good coffee hour foods, and good coffee.  I know one parish where they also serve tea in teapots, and another parish where they have Evensong once a month with sherry at the reception. 


            There may be boxes for seeing and talking with certain people—and if those people aren't in church, it just doesn't feel like church.  So-and-so is always there—they will want to be with you, you with them.  And even if it's just a hello, or a wave, the box needs to be checked.


            Then, there might be any number of other things.  Some folks need to greet the clergy person and have a conversation each Sunday, and some folks just like to see that the clergy person is still there.  I have a priest-friend who is a former insurance man, and he told me one time that he ran the numbers.  He said most people interact with clergy less than thirty seconds a Sunday.  They just say hello, and maybe exchange one or two sentences and move on.  So that adds up to less than an hour a year. 


            So just taking personal interactions—and not counting seeing them in the liturgy or hearing them preach, or special visits in the home or hospital—a parish priest can spend ten years in a church and still interact cumulatively with most parishioners for only a couple of hours.  He said, that's why a priest can leave the church after ten years and many people will say, "She wasn't here for very long."


            But coming back to the needs and wants we have when we come to church; I think the biggest need and want we have, whether consciously or not, is to encounter God.  And for God to encounter us. 


            It likely happens over or through or within the "outward and visible" aspects of the Sacraments, and seeing the person we want to see, or the sermon, or the music, or whatever. 


            The encounter with God is the driving force behind coming to church, unless we come just out of habit, or to please someone else.  And I want to be quick to say that there is—of course—nothing wrong with that.  It's a laudable motivation—in fact, the most laudable—to wish to sit and the feet of Christ, or as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer so beautifully put it, to "approach the throne of the heavenly grace."


            Every devout person of every background and every religion would like to encounter God more.  Even clergy who spend most days of the week engaged in the things of God still have a deep yearning for an authentic and heart-level knowing that we are cherished by God.  And with that, we want to know if there is some special sign or message for us. 


            So often it feels, regardless of your own personal levels of devotion, that we are looking for God in a dark room.  Occasionally a shadow is cast, or a flicker of light is seen from the corner, but most of the time it is sighing into the darkness in prayer.  "God where are you?"  "What do you want me to do about XY and Z?"  "Lord, I've been praying for so-and-so for months, and I don't know what more to say.  Help!"


            Every once in awhile we can feel like Peter may have felt, reclining by the charcoal fire after the Resurrection with Jesus.  It's a nice day.  Beautiful morning, and the birds are chirping again after a hard winter.  There are the daffodils again.  You can just sit back with your coffee and chat with the Lord. 


            There is a kind of intimacy—if I can use that word.  A confidence.  A safe space in which to say just about anything to the Lord, and know that the prayers are not bouncing back.  The light in the room is on, and there is God. 


            And the Lord says, "Do you love me?"  And we say—like Peter—"Yes, Lord; of course.  You know I do.  Surely you didn't need to ask me that.  I've been staring into the darkness for a long time now, and I've been coming to church and praying, and it's been tough.  You know that I've stayed faithful and that I love you." 


            And the Lord says—like he said to Peter—"Feed my lambs." 


            And that's not the answer we're looking for.  Jesus is taking a question of affection and loyalty, and making into a conditional statement.  If you tried this with your spouse, you'd probably get a little argument on your hands, "Honey, do you love me."  "Yes, you know I do."  "Empty the dishwasher." 


            How do you take that?  I think wives might be able to get away with it; but men, take my advice, don't try this at home. 


            "Do you love me?"  It's not a question Jesus asks out of neediness or jealousy.  He's not fishing for compliments.  He's not the manipulative spouse—he knows that Peter loves him.


            "Simon son of John, do you love me?"  "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."  And Jesus said, "Tend my sheep."  Again with the question, and again with the sheep. 


            Peter could just as easily have said, "Lord, you simply don't understand what it is like to have you back.  You were taken from us, and we were scared.  I said things I didn't believe.  I denied you, just as you said, but you've got to cut me some slack here.  You have come back to life after three miserable days.  We didn't suffer as you did, but it was hard for us, too.  And now that you are back, can we just sit here for a minute and just be?


            I feel for him; I really do.  You and I do not know what it was like to live so close to Jesus and watch him be put to death as it happened.  No artist's depiction, no movie, or sermon could possibly touch having lived it—without knowledge of the resurrection to come.        You've got to cut Peter some slack.  He just wants to be with Jesus, like all of us do.  To sit at the throne of the heavenly grace for just a few minutes and breathe.


            And a third time, the question comes.  "Simon, son of John, do you love me."  And you can almost see Peter "draw his breath in pain" to say, "Lord, you know everything.  You know I love you."  And Jesus says again, "Feed my sheep."


            "Peter, when you are young you can do it.  Right now, you've got your whole life ahead of you—and you've got the Gospel to preach.  One day you will be old, and you won't be able to go where you want.  You will have to reach out your hands and others will take you where they want you to go.  Do it now, Peter.  Feed my sheep."


            "My sheep are hungry.  You remember what it's like to be hungry, Peter.  You remember what it was like before you met me and learned what I have taught you.  It's like being trapped in a ceaseless round of days with nothing to do but work and play and eat and sleep." 


            "If you let this mission die, eventually you are going to look around for something more to your life and someone is going to put a cup of wine in your hands and say, `Forget it, Man, drink a little wine, watch the girls dance, maybe go up to the Temple once in awhile.  Jesus was great, but you know…so what?  That was then, this is now.'"


            "They'll put a cup of wine in your hands and say, `Drink some wine and move on with your life and you will forget that a cup of wine is not just a cup of wine, and the bread is not just bread when you remember me." 


            Peter wants an encounter with God.  Of course he does.  We all do.  And painful as it is to hear him say it, the response of Jesus is to shift our desperately searching eyes to the other people out there who do not know what we know.  The people who don't know that bread isn't just bread, and wine isn't just wine. 


            Or, perhaps, to those who don't have any bread or wine to begin with.  I love our liturgy in the Episcopal Church like I can't even begin to tell you; but sometimes I'm pretty convinced that what Jesus was actually trying to get us to do is share food.  Because, sharing food is not just sharing food.


            In first century Palestine, as in today—but even more so, eating together was a sign of acceptance.  When you eat with someone it means you want them to live—to be nourished to live—and to live in peace with you. 


            I shared this story with many of you at the Lenten study, but I remember when Peter was only about a year old, and part of his dinner one evening was bow-tie pasta, because he could pick it up easily.  And I'll never forget watching him eat piece by piece, and smile.  And I leaned into him at one point, and he picked up a piece of pasta and put it my mouth.  And it was as if I heard the words, "The Body of Christ."


            There is something about a little boy who has no way of getting food on his own giving me his food.  There is something about the Church—this church with our own limited resources, our own financial and membership limitations—trying to pick up a little piece of what God has given us, and trying to place it in the mouths of hungry people in the Name of Jesus. 


            It's something we want to do because Jesus did it, but also because it changes lives: ours and other people's.  It changes lives to have a deeper awareness and recognition of the humanity of others. 


            And when the bread is broken between people who do not really know each other—but come to know each other—Jesus is there—there in the bread that is broken and wine being poured.  It's an encounter with God that naturally extends outward. 


            "Do you love me," asks Jesus. 

            "Yes, Lord.  You know I do."

            "Well…if you want to encounter me, and be encountered by me: feed my sheep." 




Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Freely you have received; freely give.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Little boys come home when they're hungry

Easter 2C.  7 April 2013.

John 20.19-31


            I have a clergy friend who is either soon to retire or retired.  We're not that close, but he's a really sweet guy, and I like him a lot.  He's been serving as a clergyman in his denomination for a very long time.  His retirement will be well deserved.  I would imagine that he has lost track of how many weddings he has solemnized—how many funerals, baptisms.  I'm sure he has no idea how many times he has visited the hospital, but the number would likely surprise even him.


            We were talking some time ago, and I mentioned my envy at his retirement.  I absolutely love being youngish and active—and I'm not wishing my life away—but I'm surrounded by retired people.  My parents are retired.  I get a little envious sometimes of the ability you all have to take your bat and ball and go home.  If you don't like it, you don't go; or if you want to go somewhere, you go.  My life is regimented by children and Sundays, and office hours, and occasional meetings, and truly free time is a very precious commodity, so I was a little jealous when my friend was talking about retirement.


            But he said something that stuck in my head, and bothers me a little.  It was the kind of comment that was said half kidding, but you know how those comments are.  Half kidding may actually be a smaller percentage.  It may be more like five percent kidding, depending on the day and whether you got a good night's sleep.  But he said that when he retired, he might just stop going to church.  I don't remember how he put it exactly, but that's the gist of it.


            Now, again, I can understand this, and so can you.  Forty five or so years of church.  And we don't just go to church on Sundays—it's our life.  You may think about the Church—what?, a couple minutes here and there during the week?  Maybe for those of you who are more active an hour or so, not counting your private devotional life. 


            But there are very few waking moments of the day that a clergy person isn't somehow thinking about, praying about, or doing something for, the church.  The vocation is essentially an endless loop of responsibilities that are always important.  Pastoral care, visitation, administrative matters, and always Sunday with a sermon to be prepared.  No matter how good the last one was, you've got another Sunday coming.  You can't just get up and say to the people of God, "Last week I preached a good one.  You all should still be chewing on it, so, if you have any questions, I will entertain them at this time."


            The Church is a constant responsibility for a clergy person of any denomination, so I can understand—and I'm sure you can, too—that any man or woman of God might just want to retire, and have it be like the average person who doesn't return to their place of business.


            But just seems wrong, doesn't it?  I mean, it's not just a job.  We make lifelong vows when we're ordained, and beyond that, though we step aside from official roles, we've been living and talking about an all consuming vision, that we believe is the vision of God.  It touches on life, death, and everything in between.  You don't retire from life.  Even Pope Benedict XVI, when he gave notice that he was retiring, he assured the Roman Catholic Church that he would continue to uphold them with his prayers and support.  He would step out of his role, but he wasn't leaving


            You can't turn your back on the Christian life once you've spent your lifetime giving money, and time, and energy to it.  You might take a couple Sundays off here and there, but you'd never truly turn your back on the community after all of that.


            I do know of plenty of people who have been able to turn their backs on the church.  They weren't ordained, but they were faithful for awhile and just sort of..left.  You know, it's possible to do it without even looking like your leaving. 


            The standard method for sliding out of a church is fairly simple.  You stop giving first.  That's obvious.  And then if you come every Sunday, come every other Sunday for awhile.  And then move that to once a month, while you extricate yourself from various groups and responsibilities.  And then you drop to once every other month. 


            But if you don't want to alarm anyone, you can just do it while you continue to come.  You just stop believing.  After all, you know all that stuff about Jesus really is pretty far-fetched, when you think about it.  I mean, sure it was good for us when we were kids, but you know…  Once you get a job and have a mortgage and read the newspaper, and cut the grass…  I mean, come on…


            You can almost hear it in Thomas's voice when he hears that the disciples have seen Jesus, risen from the dead.  "He was here, Thomas."  And Thomas says, "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…well…you can forget it."


            Thomas rejects a lot more than just a theological concept or historical event, he is turning his back on the testimony of his peers.  He is leaving—what was about to become—the Church. 


            And that, after several years of being one of the inside men.  In fact, he was ordained.  Jesus laid hands on Thomas.  He was an Apostle; and he was saying, "I don't believe this."


            And the pain of this part of the story, which is left to our imagination, is what the week was like; because Jesus comes back and shows himself to Thomas, but the week in between—so casually mentioned in John's gospel—must have been very difficult for Thomas personally, and for the community of the other ten.  I say ten, because Judas Iscariot had hanged himself, and Thomas is sitting in the corner. 


            Ten Apostles had seen the Lord:  Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon.


            What was it like that week?  I don't think Thomas became hostile or rude to the others.  I would imagine that he shared in the meals and conversation.  But it would have been different.  There had been visual evidence of Jesus alive by people he regarded as his brothers, and he wants to believe, but it just seems so…  


            And you've got to cut him some slack here.  Jesus did not just die in a hospital bed from some internal illness.  His body had been whipped and tortured.  The idea that that body could have come back to life, and then been able to walk, and not be grotesquely disfigured and bloody is still, when you think about it…


            Thomas is not really sitting in the corner, here.  He wants to believe.  He's scared. He doesn't know what to think.  The others are, what?  A mess.  They saw what they saw, and it's impossible, but it happened.  They saw the crucifixion AND the risen Lord.  How they put it together in their minds is anyone's guess. 


            I can see Thomas, in that week, sort of drifting away from the community and drifting back.  You know what it's like when the bonds that hold you together are strong enough to keep you, but you just need a break.  


            We all do, from time to time.  Husbands and wives love each other dearly, but you need to run to the store sometimes.  Take a long walk, or something.  It's like that with Church.  You need to miss a Sunday.  Getting away will sweeten the return. 


            But then there's that distance a little beyond there…  You know when you're a kid and you ride your bike on the roads close to home, but then there's that road that runs a little farther, and something in you tells you that it's too far.  It's not a real boundary, but it's just a little too far.  And one day when you're about nine or ten years old, you keep going.


            It's exhilarating at first.  You're free.  You've "slipped the surly bonds of earth [to] dance the skies on laughter silvered wings" as John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wrote.  And for awhile there's a sweet feeling in your stomach like eating cotton candy, or when the prettiest girl in school smiles at you at just the right moment. 


            "Wheeled and soared and swung.  Hovering there in the sunlit silence, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.  Sunward I've climbed to chase the tumbling mirth, of sun split clouds, and done a hundred things you have not dreamed off.  Up, up, the long, delirious, burning blue, where never lark or even eagle flew."[1] 


            And it feels so good to be free of all that stuff.  Free from responsibility.  Free from meetings.  Free from washing the dishes and the laundry and everything.  It's so great to be away from it all that you begin to wonder why you didn't do this long ago. 


            And depending on the wind and the weather, this can be good for a few hours or even a few days.  Get out there and forget it all.  But eventually, the joy of freedom begins to fade.  If you know your way home, it's not a problem.


            I remember when I was a little boy, I went down to the park.  Not far from home, but not visible from the street where we lived.  I thought my mother knew, and she didn't.  And I played and played, and it was wonderful.  My mother was worried, and I didn't know.  And at a certain point, I got hungry, so I came home.  My mother saw me and said, "Where were you?"  She wasn't mad.  I said, "I was down at the park, but I got hungry."  She said, "Little boys come home when they're hungry."  She was right.


            Sometimes you drift away, and sometimes you want to run away, but eventually you get hungry.  And it's not just for food.  It's for a whole lot more than that.


            I drifted away from God many years ago.  Or maybe I ran away.  I don't remember.  I didn't actively stop loving God, but I just didn't…you know…care.  I came to church, but I tuned it out for the most part.  It was just one of those seasons.  The sermons didn't touch me, the music was just the same old thing, and it was…nothing.


            Bridgewater is close to Massanetta Springs, east of Harrisonburg.  It's the Presbyterian camp and conference center, and they used to have a week of preaching out there—a Bible Conference.  It might still be going on to this day, I don't know.  But they have this great big, outdoor pavilion for loads of people to come and worship and listen to really big name preachers.  We weren't Presbyterian, but my mother wanted to go listen, and I went along.  I wasn't really interested.  God was in his heaven, and I was enjoying my freedom from caring about him, and the Church, and everything else. 


            We arrived and got out of the car, and from the distance between the parking lot and the pavilion, I heard a sound.  It was the sound of people singing a hymn.  Now, there is a difference between being in a congregation when the hymn begins, and overhearing a hymn as it is being sung. 


            To overhear a hymn being sung, especially when it's being sung by a couple hundred people who have made an effort to come out to hear someone preach—not just a Sunday sermon…  Well, it's quite simply one of the most beautiful sounds.  When you are in the congregation, you don't hear it, because you're one of the voices.  But when the hymn is overheard, especially from a distance, it's absolutely stunningly beautiful. 


            And if it catches you just right, the Holy Spirit can bypass all your apathy, and draw you in.  And a feeling—even better than the feeling of cotton candy and the pretty girl smiling at you—can happen in just a few beats of that hymn.   And all I could think about was getting up that hill and singing it with them.  Because.  Christ is risen; and little boys come home when they're hungry. 


            Just ask Thomas.     







Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] From the poem by Magee, High Flight.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sermons from the Paschal Triduum |


Maundy Thursday.  28 March 2013.


            Holy Thursday—the Thursday in Holy Week—has long been called Maundy Thursday.  Maundy is a corruption of the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the word mandate, or commandment.  It is the day we commemorate several aspects of the story of Christ that all occur on this day, including, what Jesus calls "a new commandment," the commandment to love one another.


            This commandment could be easily lifted from the context in which Jesus gives it, and any number of sermons could be preached about the commandment itself.  Like many of Christ's simpler sentences, the profundity is revealed in reflection.  It is very simple to say "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another," but the wording suggests that it won't be easy. 


            If the Bible recorded this as Jesus saying, "Love one another," well, fine.  That's nice.  We'll be happy to think fondly of those words, and trot them out when we feel we need to, but because the Bible records Jesus saying, "I give you a..commandment" we are led to understand that we won't naturally wish to do this.  At times, in fact, we will want to stay home and pull up the covers and pretend that the church and the people inside of it do not exist. 


            I remember in seminary when the Vice Dean was instructing us on community life, he said that we would be so used to seeing each other all the time—at chapel, at meals, in classes—that the time will come when we would rather fall on our swords than look at each other.  And he was right.


            There are times when we need our space.  Times when we do not want to be around other people.  Everyone has their own need for space and privacy, to be unobserved.  Perhaps you feel like you have too much time to yourself, or perhaps you feel over exposed.  It doesn't take too much in either direction to make you want the opposite of what you have.


            Jesus is hinting around the edges of the darker side of being with other people and particularly being around other Christians.  "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."  He really drives it home with that sentence.  Just as I have loved… 


            I can't imagine that, can you?  I can't imagine how we are meant to live that out, but he said it.  It's right there.  Where he is going; we cannot come.  So, because we must carry the vision and the mission of the Gospel forward spiritually with Christ, but physically apart from him…the only way we're going to get through is to love each other has he has loved us. 


            These words come at the end of Jesus showing us what his kind of love looks like.  He has gathered the disciples at the Passover meal.  He has washed their feet.  It was the role of the house slave to come around with the basin to wash the feet of the guests, and Jesus—who is the host—serves as a slave.  That Sacrament is celebrated.  "As I have washed your feet, you also must wash each others' feet."


            Along with these movements, there is an undertone of foreboding as John's Gospel confronts us with the fact that Judas is about to betray him.  Jesus goes about his actions of love, even in the presence of his betrayer, which adds even more depth to his actions.


            Our lesson does not include the Last Supper, because the lectionary wants to focus our attention on the foot washing.  In the Prayer Book lectionary, and in most previous lectionaries, the focus has been on the meal, and the institution of what would become the Holy Eucharist.  That too, is very much a part of this evening—as the Collect of the Day reminds us.


            All of these events, the foot washing, the Last Supper, the presence at the table of Judas, and the new commandment, all them comprise and culminate in the Upper Room.  All of them bring the life and story of Jesus to a very sensuous moment.  It is night.  And this is the last night Jesus will be with the disciples.  Jesus says to them, "Little children, I am with you only a little longer."


            We look back this evening, as the Church has for 2000 years, with a very heavy heart, and nostalgic imagination.  We don't know what it was really like then, but we suffuse our mind's eye with wistful, longing tears.  Wishing it didn't have to end this way; and yet, so very grateful that it did.  So very grateful that there was a kind of party. 


            Not the silly sort of party that trivializes the bonds that people share, like so many little get togethers.  Most parties are kind of like that.  The office party or the alumni gathering—jokes about good-old-so-and-so—pretending that we'll all be here like this forever.  And we could take it or leave it.  So what.  We've got other friends. 


            This is different.  This is not like those parties.  This party somehow picks up every loose strand from the healings, and visitations, the exorcisms, the feeding, the teaching, everything…just brings it all together in the foot washing, the meal, and the commandment to love each other just as we have experienced it.


            It's the kind of party that hugs everyone closer than they really know, and says—somewhere in it—that whatever happens next, it's going to be all right.  Ultimately, it's going to be all right. 


            I think the disciples who loved Jesus then, and would soon be running scared into the night, would look at us here and now and be surprised at how well we understand this moment.  The pathos, the love, the strange sense of quietude and awe that this man we all love so, so much, was willing to go down this path…


            I like to believe that God casts a holy silence over these three days.  A kind of spiritual anointing on us when we gather to remember.  A depth of understanding that is granted to us by the Holy Spirit to taste and touch and know…


            In a few moments, we will celebrate the sacred mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood, and then, after we give thanks, we'll sing a hymn, just as the disciples did before they left the upper room.  After that, I will strip the Altar, which symbolizes the departure of Christ, as he leaves the upper room and makes his way to dark Gethsemane. 


            Finally, I will read the story of Jesus in the Garden, and you and I will go home in silence.  Please don't talk to each other tonight.  You can talk some other time.  Tonight, just let God be the one to speak.


            But as we enter this sacred space of time, I invite you to open your heart as widely as you can to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Let your heart be broken by the love that God pours out on those who remember.


            This was all done for love.  Every bit of it.  The foot washing, the meal, the agony and bloody sweat, the trial, the beating, the crucifixion.  It all happened because we needed God to know what it is like to face our greatest fear.  He meets our death, so that we may meet his life. 


            It is a mystery.  We do not know all that it means, but something in our hearts knows that had to happen, because God so loved the world…



Good Friday 2013.[1] 


            Today we come to the Cross.  The Cross is the climax of Jesus' ministry.  Suspended between earth and heaven we see the man who is God.  As our hearts are broken to this moment in Jesus' life, our minds wrestle with how to describe its meaning. 


            Did it have to come to this?  Yes.  Well, why?  And as soon as you give an answer, the other question pops up: But is that all of it?  Can you really form a coherent, complete answer for why it happened or all that it means?  I don't think so.


            I think any explanation of the Cross is incomplete in the same way that any description of who someone is is incomplete, because when we speak of the Cross we are speaking of who Jesus is.  As it reads in Isaiah, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised…"  Those words were written many, many years before Jesus would walk the earth, but their accuracy is chilling.  "A man of suffering and acquainted with grief." 


            Well, what would you prefer?  Would you prefer "a man of jokes and stories and unable to keep a straight face?"  A jester.  Everyone loves the loveable rogue.  They say, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone."  I'm not so sure.  Not today.


            I would never have wanted to see Jesus go to the Cross, but he had to—it's who he is.  He could not be the Savior without knowing the extent of human suffering and humiliation.  And there is something endlessly compelling about his willingness to go there, even when we never would have wanted it, or asked him to.


            You and I needed him to be crucified.  We did not know that.  We still don't really know that, or understand it fully.  It is a mystery.  Something within us knows that it was right.  We can form words to describe theologically what is going on, but again, it cannot be fully expressed.


            At the Trial and Whipping and Cross we see God bow his head to human misery and allow it to touch him, and even kill him.  He offers his life; he succumbs to death.  And throughout the entire ordeal there hangs a silence.  A silence where the sadness of human life--the pathos of our distance from God--flows in and out of our souls. 


            This is the silence that surrounds all of our deepest prayers, and even eclipses them from time to time. 


            I know of a man who was a seminary professor.  His wife died, and he ceased to be able to pray.  He came to chapel each morning for Morning Prayer.  Stand. Sit. Kneel.  But no Prayer Book or Hymnal in his hands.  He kept coming, but he couldn't pray.  After that time had elapsed, he said that that was the time when the community was praying for him.  Not praying for him, although I'm sure they were, but praying for him.


            And the silence of his soul during those months of emptiness—surely his soul was silently staring up at the Cross.  And that silence eclipsed his prayers.  Who can pray when you are stretched between heaven and hell?  --Between that which you believe and that which you fear.  (Long pause.)


            You and I have not come here today from perfect lives.  We have seen crucifixions.  Some were obvious and some weren't.  Did anyone notice when you were crucified by your closest friend?  She or he smiled and said what he said, and laughed, and we bled and died. 


            Did anyone notice when the opportunity that sat out there on the horizon for weeks on end disappeared in the casual comment of someone down the hall.  "Oh, that won't be happening, didn't you hear?"  "No," you responded, with a brave face.  You even managed a smile.  But you were bleeding, and dying.  And surrounding it all was silence.


            "It hurts too much."  "It shouldn't hurt…this is silly."  But you open your mouth and try to say something to God or to someone else, and…silence.  "I don't want to talk about it." 


            We rush to fill silences.  Few people go home at the end of the day and have a bite to eat and not fill the silence with something.  Silence can be very comforting if we have been overburdened with noise.  A crazy day, children crying, music blaring, car horns, the song that gets stuck in our head.  So nice to close the door and hear nothing. 


            But then there's the silence of Good Friday:  heavy, mystical, ragged, wasted.  Time doesn't slow down or stop.  In fact, it relentlessly pushes us forward, seemingly unaware of how much we need to rest and breathe—to dry our eyes and refocus them.


            Good Friday.  This is not the end of the story, of course.  But today, for us, it must be.


            It is time for him to say goodbye.  Time to go.  He straightens the kitchen table.  Puts the dishes in the washer.  Turns off the light.  One last look around, and he closes the door.  And though we are left behind in the house, it is empty.  Without him, not even the sound of our breath can be heard.  We are dust, returning to dust.  He is God, turning to oblivion. 


            Death.  Hell.  Gone.


            And silence.




Click here to listen.


Easter 2013.  31 March 2013.


John 20.1-18


            We have come at last to Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection.  The Church throughout the world celebrates Christ's triumph over sin and death, and proclaims that he is Lord of all.  This is the Apostolic Faith, the Gospel—the Good News, the Paschal mystery. 


            It can be summed up very simply that even though humanity in our sinfulness put the Son of the Living God to death, God raised him from the dead, showing us the ultimate forgiveness for our ultimate sin, and bestowing upon us a new life of grace with a promise that we, too, when we die will be raised from the dead. 


            It is a mystery, in the sense that its fullest meaning has never been plumbed; its ramifications for what humanity means to God are without limit.  Put simply, the God who embraced us fully in becoming one of us, has forgiven and redeemed us fully in the resurrection—and the affection God offers us in those saving acts knows no end, and will never fade away.


            The version of the story of the Resurrection that is preferred by the lectionary is the version found in John's Gospel, which is rather surprising.  Unlike the synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—all of which tell a much more dramatic story of earthquakes and thunderbolts.  John's account is much more quiet and much more relational.


            Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, while it is still dark.  In John's Gospel, everything is understood symbolically.  It is dark because it is early in the morning, but it is dark also because the Resurrection has yet to be revealed.  She comes in her grief, and discovers that the stone that had been placed at the door of the tomb to keep people from stealing Jesus' body had been rolled away.  She assumes the worst.  She stands at the door of the tomb weeping.


            She bends over to look into the tomb to see what Peter and John had seen: the linen wrappings.  But with them she sees two angels sitting where Jesus' body had been.  They said, "Woman why are you weeping?"  She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 


            When she had said this, she turned around.  This is the first time she turned.  She sees Jesus before her, but does not recognize him.  Jesus asks her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"  Whom are you looking for?" 


            Mary supposes that he is the gardener.  And he is the gardener.  The gardener of a new Eden.  A new heaven and a new earth, a re-creation of God's own love.


            She says, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him."  Jesus says her name.  "Mary." 


            Do you remember in John's Gospel, chapter 10, where Jesus says, 11"`I am the good shepherd. The sheep follow. because they know [my] voice. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me, 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me…I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again."


            John 10:3 reads, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out."  Jesus has just called Mary by name, and is about to lead her out.  Out of the world she supposed she knew.  Out of the culture of violence and death that she knew.  Out of her sins, and out of the sins of the whole world.  Out of death into life.


            "Mary."  He calls her by name.  And she…turns.  Remember she turned once before and didn't see him.  Now, she turns again, and she recognizes him.  "Teacher!"


            The text suggests a sudden lunge forward, wanting to see him closer, wanting to touch him and know that this impossibility is true.  And Jesus informs her that the relationship has now changed.  He tells her not to handle him, because he is ascending to the Father.  His glorification is not yet complete, until he ascends, but there is still good news to share.  He says, "Go and tell them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"


            The relationship is clear.  My Father is your Father.  My God is your God.  There is no division between us.  It is finished.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. 


            God had been faithful to his son, and to us who have been given the power to be his children.  What becomes old, becomes new.  What becomes sick, becomes healed.  In a world that understood that what goes up must come down; Christ shows us that what goes down must also go up.


            From your own life—a life punctuated at times by loss and frustration, failure and sin—you can watch this mystery unfold.  The seed is planted in the earth, seeming to die, and "lo, the green blade rises."  Day turns into night; and night relentlessly yields to day.  Every movement in the creation God sets before us tells the sacred story, but we needed to see it in our own flesh—that even the human being laid in the earth, completely mangled beyond recognition, completely humiliated, can stand again.  And know us by name.


            From this point on, no death that can hold us.  No tragedy, no sickness, no humiliation, no sin, no suffering can ultimately rob us from the clutches of God.  The same arms of love that found Jesus dead in the tomb have lifted us from the waters of Baptism, and we are alive.  Let heaven and nature sing:  Christ is risen! 







Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[1] Adapted from Good Friday, 2 April 2010.