Archives for April 2006

Taste and See, 3 Easter (B) – 2006

April 30, 2006

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

The mystery and miracle of Jesus’ resurrection is as fresh in our minds as it was for the apostles. Together we have witnessed the events that were both necessary and inevitable for the fulfillment of God’s redeeming love. As children of God our Creator, made in the image of God our Creator, we are filled with wonder and blessing at the awesome reality of our being. We know this to be true in our deepest parts, at the core of our being. And yet, we are challenged to live as children of God. We struggle with living up to the seemingly awesome task. Is it as complicated as we make it? What I mean is that everything we need to live like children of God is knit into our very fabric, even though it is not always evident to us or by our actions.

Peter, who once denied knowing Jesus, is witness to the healing power of the resurrection. His witness prevents those who had rejected Jesus from being able to imagine anything other than Christ’s life-giving, healing power in the resurrection. The evidence of his own transformation is clearly understood by his compassionate response to those who may have persecuted Jesus; Peter tells them that it could have only been done in ignorance. Who could know this better than he?

What we know about Peter is as incredibly convicting today as it must have been for the early Christians who knew Peter, especially the disciples. He walked with Jesus, one of his “chosen” apostles, and yet he was able to deny even knowing Jesus for fear that he might lose his own life. Yet, it was the fulfillment in Jesus resurrected that Peter truly believed.

Through the different accounts of the disciples realizing Jesus’ presence in the upper room – without Thomas, then with Thomas present, and then again on the road to Emmaus – we understand how they came to believe. Their witness to these events was written down so that we might believe in and witness to the incredible gift in Jesus – and in our own lives as God’s children – without the need to see for ourselves. The Gospel is the only evidence that we need. It provides a foundation for our faith. It holds the mystery of faith and prompts us to search out our understanding of God’s great creation.

What does it mean for us to live as children of God, knowing that we have been made in God’s image? The gift of our being does not always match up to the way we live, and we are not always willing to bear witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. What keeps us from sharing what we believe with everyone we meet? After all, aren’t they made from the same fabric in God’s image? Maybe we fit into the lukewarm category and are not convinced, let alone passionate enough to share what we believe. Maybe it is hard for us to look at our neighbor and allow ourselves to imagine that they are made from the same fabric, in the same image as our Creator.

We are living at a time when it is critical to live according to the two greatest commandments: to love our Creator God and to love one another. The Episcopal Church is entering a time of transition, which always includes some fear and anxiety. This transition will affect us all in our corporate relationships within the church and in the world. Make no mistake: treating each person as a brother and sister in Christ now will create the sacred space where the Holy Spirit’s presence can be seen and felt. In this way, we have an opportunity to experience the risen Christ standing among us and live as children of God.

The communion hymn “Taste and See” reminds us that coming to the table nourishes our bodies, minds, and spirits so we might be ready to live as children of God. We are drawn into close relationship with Jesus and each other when we share the bread and wine at the table. Engaging in the words of Scripture draws our attention to God our Creator and the incredible gift of Creation. Let us find passion for our faith so that we might share it with everyone we encounter in words and actions. And when we are uncertain, let us pray that we will recognize Jesus there at our side.

The Collect for today sums this up: “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.”

 

 — The Rev. Debbie Royals, Pascua Yaqui from Arizona, is a student at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in a concurrent M.Div/MA program. She leads the Four Winds congregation in Sacramento, California, and is active in Native American Ministry in the Episcopal Church, including involvement in the work of the Episcopal Council for Indigenous Ministry (ECIM).

My Lord and my God, 2 Easter (B) – 2006

April 23, 2006

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

This gospel in John is what is traditionally read every year on the first Sunday after Easter. For reasons that become less and less clear to me, we somewhat smugly refer to this as “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” Which is too bad.

It is too bad because such a designation reinforces a number of misunderstandings and wrong assumptions about the heart of the Christian faith – beginning with a decidedly negative connotation to the word “doubt.” We assume doubt to be bad or even the opposite of faith. We tend to think of Thomas as something less than a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Many, however, such as the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, view doubt not as the opposite of faith but as an element of faith itself. Or as Frederich Beuchner put it in his book Wishful Thinking, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Faith, as described in Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, 11:1, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” An example given in that epistle is Abraham taking off on a journey with no maps. Faith is not knowing where you are going, but going anyway.

I have faith that my friend is my friend. I cannot prove that friendship. And when I experience that friendship I have no need to prove it. And were I to try and prove it through some sort of testing, the friendship would go bad and become no friendship at all. So it is with God in Christ.

I have faith that a certain piece of music is beautiful, but I cannot begin to prove its beauty. I experience it as beautiful, but cannot necessarily demonstrate its beauty. So it is with God in Christ.

So we have the disciples, minus Thomas the Twin, who have an experience of the Risen Lord. We should note, however, that they do not say they believe Jesus has risen. They do not say they have faith in the risen Lord. They only say, “We have seen the Lord.”

They have experienced Jesus again after the crucifixion.

Thomas wants to have a similar experience. We could say that whatever doubt Thomas may have harbored, moved him to want to share in their experience. And in all honesty, at the end of the day, we are here because we want to share in their experience as well.

What is interesting, is what Thomas says when he does share the experience: “My Lord and my God!”

This stands as an early, if not the earliest creedal statement, alongside Martha’s, “I believe that you are the Anointed One who is coming into the world.”

I suggest creedal because the very first word of both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds is the word credo. This Latin word is commonly translated as “I believe.” And because we are modern people, we tend to understand belief in its post-enlightenment, post-scientific sense as assent to statements that are verifiable and true. This has the effect of making Christian faith a matter of the head, implying that the important thing is to believe the right set of claims.

Credo, however, in its Latin roots, means literally, “I give my heart to.” Which has the sense of saying, “I commit my loyalty to,” “I commit my allegiance to,” “this is how I see the world in my heart.”

In the world of the Bible, and in the world of Jesus and Thomas, the heart represents a deeper place of the self, a deeper dimension of belief than thinking, willing, and feeling; deeper than our intellect, emotions and volition. The heart is deeper than the head and any ideas we might have. In fact, prior to the seventeenth century, the word “believe” did not mean believing a set of statements or propositions.

The object of believing expressed in the creeds was not statements, but a person. That person is God, Son, and Holy Spirit. So when Thomas and John the evangelist speak of belief, it is credo; it is giving one’s heart to Jesus as God.

That is, to believe means to love. What we believe is what we “belove.” Faith is about “beloving” God in Christ. It is about being in relationship with God.

So when Jesus says the great commandment is to Love God and Love your neighbor, he is talking about relationships. He concludes, “Upon these two relationships hang all the law and the prophets.” The law and the prophets are the first two parts of the Hebrew Bible, the whole Bible of Jesus. So he says all of scripture depends on these two relationships: loving God and loving your neighbor. Or we are to love God and that which God loves – which is all creation and everything and everyone therein.

When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” I believe it is his way of saying, “I give my heart to God and all that God loves.” This is the heart of the Christian faith, which is itself a way of the heart. This is why we might do well to call this Credo Sunday instead of Doubting Thomas Sunday: Credo, a day to give our hearts to God and all that God loves.

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

I Have Seen the Lord!, Easter Day (B) – 2006

April 16, 2006

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 24:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2. 14-24; I Cor. 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

I Have Seen the Lord!

The Light has burst through the darkness. The long night is over. The poet John Masefield cries with us,

Oh glory of the lighted mind.
How dead I’d been, how dumb, how blind!

We have walked in sorrow since Thursday night. We were lost. Now light breaks forth and joy visits our minds. We are no longer lost. We blink at the Light, but we are suspicious of sudden joy. After so much sadness, after the loss of hope, joy is a surprise beyond imagining. We blink again, not believing the evidence of our eyes, thinking, We must be dreaming.

Imagine for a moment what it is to be a child again. You look around for your parents and fear grips you. You start crying and someone asks: Why are you weeping?

You answer:
I am weeping because I have lost my mother and my father. I have lost my anchor. I have lost everything that held me firm on the earth.  But there is your mother stretching out her hand to take yours as she says, Come with me, my child  You are safe now.  And then you hear your father saying, Do not be afraid.

This is what this sudden joy after so much sorrow feels like. Still we are not persuaded.

We had accepted the end. Now our eyes tell us that it was not the end, something else was happening. Is somebody interfering with our reality? We hear the cry, Don’t give me any false hopes! and recognize our own voice crying.

As we contemplate resurrection, different voices and answers come at us from all directions. They usually begin like this: “The scholars tell us …” for the current trend is to offer explanation and analysis. The skeptics agree: No one can return from death; no one has returned from death. What you see is a vision. The longing of the heart is so great that the mind sees what it wants to see. On and on come the explanations. “The scholars tell us …”

But here comes Mary of Magdala. Let us listen to her words on the resurrection; she was an eyewitness after all. We imagine her answers:

“This is what I too thought at first. That he was the gardener. That he was a vision. That my wounded, orphaned heart was making my eyes see what the heart longed for. But then I remembered that I had given up all hope. My tears were enough testament that I had accepted his death. My grief was as real as that dead body I had watched Joseph wrap in the clean linen. I had seen him being laid in the tomb. This, this is not what I expected. So don’t tell me it was a vision. Still, when I saw the empty tomb, everything inside me asked: Is it possible? Can it be possible?

“In the early morning stillness, a familiar, beloved voice calls my name and all doubts vanish. He knows my name as he knows me. I know his voice. I know that only he calls my name in this manner – with agapē, with knowledge, with assurance, as if calling me back from death, recalling me to life as he had done long ago when he dispelled the demons. ‘Mary!’ I turn to look at him and I cry out, ‘Rabbouni!’ Beloved teacher – as I used to do. I know who he is. This is not a vision, this is my beloved teacher and friend. My savior.”

And we who have also been called by name believe her. We may not know him as well as Mary knew him, but we are known by him. For the moment we respond exactly the way she did. We don’t want to lose him again because that will plunge us into darkness. And now that we have seen the light, we don’t want to be left in the dark, ever again. We join the psalmist as he asserts:

I shall not die but I shall live.
He will swallow up death forever.

It is the most hopeful thought. We prostrate ourselves before him and grasp at his robe, at his feet, to keep him near us. Do we hear him chuckle? “Don’t hold on to me now. When I go to my Father, I will be available to all of you.”

Mary understands immediately. She trusts him after death as she did before his death. She runs to the other disciples. “I have seen the Lord.”

A wonderfully simple statement. “I have seen the Lord.” She doesn’t describe him, she doesn’t defend her sight of him, she doesn’t analyze her feelings. “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me.”

Ah, if we could only learn to do the same. Peter did learn it. When he preached to a diverse group assembled by Cornelius, the heart of his message was this: “We are witnesses. . . [he appeared] to us who were chosen by God as witnesses and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Maybe he was remembering Mary’s words to him on that first Easter morning: “I have seen the Lord.”

Paul also heard the same words and repeated them in his own way, crying out: “Have I not seen the Lord?” and then, after reciting a litany of appearances, he affirms: “Last of all, he appeared also to me.”

What about us? This morning we have listened again to the resurrection story. We have sung glorious affirmations of the Day of Resurrection. We will partake of Holy Communion and will affirm our faith. Let us pray the longing of our hearts. Let us ask to feel, to know the Presence. So we too can say with Mary, “I have seen the Lord.” Amen.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women (Morehouse, 1998) and Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 2001).

We wait. We anticipate, Easter Vigil (B) – 2006

April 15, 2006

Romans 6:3-11; John:19:38-42

Last night we became intensely aware of darkness, surrounded by the night of grief that is almost insulted by light. As Edwin Arlington Robinson writes in “Credo” from his book of poems, Children of the Night:

No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night …

The Beloved is dead. There is such a finality in these words. In that first century, to people used to suffering and early death, acceptance of death came quickly. Custom declared that burial must follow immediately. The fate of condemned criminals, especially of those who died in the most shameful manner of all – crucifixion – was a burial without honor. But this one, this Beloved, who had had so many followers in his brief public life must not be left dishonored. Yet, where are his friends? Only the women disciples stand from afar, watching. They possess neither the power nor the connections that would allow for proper burial of their beloved rabbi.

Ah, look, here comes a friend! During the months of Jesus’ popularity this man, Joseph of Arimathea, had listened to him and admired him, considering himself a follower but not daring to be open about his devotion. There is one last gift he can offer to the young rabbi who died so unjustly, and Joseph offers it: a new, prepared tomb. He uses all his connections and his prestige to demand the body from Pilate. Together with another secret disciple, Nicodemus, who is horrified by the injustice of the court proceedings and of the violent death of an innocent man, Joseph sees that Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb.

They crucified my Lord,
They laid him in a tomb.

We, centuries later, hear the simple lament of the old spiritual. It echoes the cry of the women who loved him, who are watching from afar. They laid him in a tomb.

And now comes the night of waiting, but it does not have within it the joy of anticipation. This is the end. They keep the vigil because they loved him, and this is what women have done through the ages – they wait near the body of the loved one. Let us join them.

The great vigil has begun. The women, and the men, Joseph and Nicodemus, do not yet know the end of the story; we do. They are they actors in the great drama; we are the audience. They wait; we anticipate. Again, from the poem “Credo”:

For through it all – above, beyond it all –
I know the far-sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the Light.

We feel the coming glory of the Light. In our waiting, our anticipation, we hear words of stories past, we remember covenants made by a merciful God, we recite ancient psalms, and all these make the long vigil bearable:

Incline your ear, and come to me,
Listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you
an everlasting covenant …

We find comfort in these words from Isaiah, even though death’s finality stares us in the face. We falter. What is it all for? we wonder. Isaiah’s words come back to us again:

… my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways,
says the Lord.

Is it possible that we have totally misunderstood death? The Great Vigil is the time for such questions. There is so much that we left unsaid, so much love we had wanted to show the beloved who is now dead. Is there truly a possibility for second chances? Is anything ever reversed? As it is written in Ezekiel:

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

We wait. We anticipate. We tell each other the age-old stories once again. We cling to the promises and to God’s covenant of love and redemption. Friends, the darkness is not forever. Look, the dawn is breaking. A faint, faint light shows us the horizon.

Let us then go to visit the body of the Beloved. Let us make ready to anoint him for proper burial. Come.

 — Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004).

These are details, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 14, 2006

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

And now the sorrowful fellowship of Thursday evening turns into terror with the arrest of their beloved teacher; it is the longest night of their lives. But when Friday dawns, instead of light dispelling darkness, as is the nature of things, it is darkness that falls on them all. Everything that was good seems to end forever and forever. Life as they had known it has ended.

“My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from
helping me, from the
words of my groaning?”

The desperate psalm is echoed by the two chapters we heard read from John’s gospel; they are all the more devastating because of their starkness and simplicity. There is a kind of macabre game being played out by Pilate, who represents the alien occupying force and by the Jewish religious authorities, who represent the government. And the Logos of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, is the pawn in this deadly game. The mind can’t take it in. This is why the most fitting and moving depiction of this terrible day is not as effective in words as it is in music and paintings. The senses must absorb the tragedy when words fail us.

A mournful bell tolls in the mind. Those who were born in other countries, or who have visited the lands where theater is more important than sermons, remember the tolling of the bells throughout “Great Friday,” as “Good Friday” is called in the Eastern church. Slowly, mournfully the bells toll while people walk around and go about their business. When night comes, the Epitaphios will pass through the village streets to end in the village square. This is the bier of the dead Christ, festooned with flowers as a casket is, with priests and laity following behind. Everyone holds a candle. The senses are allowed to take in the experience and then turn it into meaning. It is necessary for the participants, because the awareness of sorrow and the reenactment of mourning will make the resurrection at midnight, on Saturday, all the more palpable.

Protestants and even Episcopalians who are more focused on the solemn quiet of reading the story, of listening to it and then meditating in silence and in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, find such theater incongruous at times, reminiscent of pagan rituals. It is, however, worth noting and understanding that the various branches within Christianity remember this day and this night in a way that touches the hearts of their people in the particular way that makes sense to them – some do it with words, others with images, smells, and sounds that bless or even assault the senses. What this reveals to us is that the drama needs to be remembered, not for the sake of the one who died on that Friday outside Jerusalem, but for our sake. Memory and ritual have value, they provide catharsis and offer healing.

In St. John’s story, despite the simplicity of the telling, the lack of adjectives, or any kind of embellishment, it is the details that capture our attention and make us hold our breath.

– A maid is tending a gate and two of Jesus’ friends need to enter the courtyard. One friend is known to the high priest, the other is not; so the one who is able pulls strings to get Peter inside the gate.
– A woman looks at Peter and asks a question that he answers with a lie.
– A fire is lit and cold men, who think they bear no guilt because they are simply following orders, are warming themselves. Again a question is asked and denied.
– A policeman strikes the Son of God.
– A disciple who loves him denies knowing him for the third time.
– Somewhere in the yard, a rooster crows.

These are details that on reading may be missed but that in knowing cut us through the heart.

These details are followed by one of the most ironic sentences in all history: “They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”  Did even one of them wonder what it is that really defiles us – coming in contact with those we consider pagans, the obvious sinners, or the murderous desires of our hearts? Did any of them remember the words of Jesus on what it is that defiles us? The writer doesn’t tell us. But for them, the participants, it is enough that they could pretend their hands were clean so that they could eat their sacred meal.

Later they are going to argue about another detail – the inscription put on the cross, the one that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” No, no, they argue, write that “he said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’” But what is written, is written. It remains as it was written, throughout eternity.

The writer of the gospel continues with the details that give such authenticity to the story – the next one deals with something as ordinary as a tunic. To us who buy clothes so easily these days, off the rack, without a thought of how a garment was put together, this is remarkable. In those days every piece of cloth had to be woven by hand. Jesus’ tunic was seamless. It had been woven in one piece from the top with openings for the head and arms. Someone who loved him must have woven that necessary piece of clothing. And the soldiers noticed it and tossed the dice for it. A mundane detail, poignant only for the woman who wove that tunic for the one she loved.

But it is the last detail that breaks the heart of everyone born of a woman. Jesus did not forget his mother. Right before breath left his body he asked his dearest friend to look after the heart-broken woman who had given him birth.

And finally the great cry of “It is finished!”  For those who heard it that day it was the end of hope, the end of everything that was good. As we all know when a loved one dies, anything reminding us of ordinary life after that death seems like an insult. This is the end. It is impossible that the sun will rise again. For those who had lived with him, who had heard his words, who had seen his signs, this was the end. For those of us who know the continuation of the story, the words have a different meaning. Tomorrow light will break forth once again. Yes, but for this hour, we honor the darkness.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004) and Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 2001).

They will remember, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 13, 2006

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Together with the sense of the Holy, the experience of Maundy Thursday affords us the most profound awareness of the role of change in our lives as well as the meaning of remembrance. Both are interwoven with the events of the saddest day of the church year. The arrest, stealthy court proceedings and torture of the Son of God in the middle of the night follow the heart-breaking hours of the Last Supper; the gathering of friends for a farewell meal is infused with sorrow because they know it will bring the end to a time of intense friendship and teaching, consistent fellowship and praxis. Certainly, the central character knows that this is the end of the teacher-student, master-follower communal living of the past three years; the others, seeing his sorrow at the imminent parting, must suspect it, even though they don’t acknowledge it.

Jesus has been their friend but also their master – in the manner people of that time knew well: a friendship that was based on a complementary, not a symmetrical relationship; they knew they were not the equal of their remarkable rabbi. Theirs was a daily fellowship that demanded loyalty and obedience from them because it was based on love abundantly given by the master to the disciples. The twelve, and the rest of the followers of Jesus, had heard him speak words of Truth and Justice to them and to the crowds; they had seen him heal the sick time and time again; they had felt power emanating from him; three of them had seen him glorified in a mystical mountain epiphany, but now, suddenly, they are seeing him in the role of the servant. It is not a comfortable experience for them. He dons a towel and starts washing their feet. This was much different from the ritual washing we see in some churches on Maundy Thursday. Theirs were dirty feet indeed. They had walked many miles, they had been bare or in sandals, on unpaved terrain, on dusty roads that had hardened their soles and imbedded the dirt for all time in the cracks.

The courteous thing for a host to do was to wash the feet of the guests – or, more likely, to have a servant perform this act of ritual honor and necessity. Jesus is their host but now also their servant. He doesn’t ask one of them to do the washing; he does it himself. The disciples must be stunned, but only Peter protests. Peter thinks he knows his place and wants Jesus to know his own place also. But Jesus is not playing by the rules. He never has; Peter ought to have remembered, but he doesn’t. Peter is frightened. Everything is changing and he doesn’t like change. Later, in the night, he will be so terrified of his master’s different role that he will deny his dearest friend. But right now he shows his usual blustery independence: “I will not allow you to wash my feet.” Jesus, who is being very tender to all of them throughout the meal, puts Peter quickly in the new place he has in mind for him – that of the obedient, strong follower who knows how to be a servant also. “You better let me do it, Peter, or you will not be with me – you will have no share with me.” In other words: Learn to accept and understand the change, Peter. From now on our relationship is different; I am showing you something profound, much more than just the act of kneeling before you to wash your feet. I am showing you that the share I want you to have in me will make you become like me.

It is this change in their relationship to their friend and master that the disciples will remember later, and in the remembrance they will find meaning and understanding. Enough to change the world.

They have been followers and friends, they have been students and companions to the man who called these fishermen by the seashore promising them that he would make them “fishers of human beings.” In those heady days when Jesus attracted the thousands with his signs of the Kingdom and with words of authority, they basked in the popularity of their master and felt some of his power rub off on them. They were filled with pride. They were the chosen. But tonight, on this unforgettable Thursday night, their roles are changing drastically, and they are afraid. The change comes with sorrow, but also with great tenderness, and with an example of servanthood. “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end.” Is there a more loving sentence in all of literature? It is this deep love, this agapē that is preparing them for the change.

They are warned that when his arrest and death come, they too will be in danger and be despised. Jesus himself knows that soon he will enter into the most agonizing hours of humiliation and abandonment. But first, he must give hope and strength to his friends. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. He is pouring this love out to them by giving them his new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

The hours pass. The agony of the garden follows, then the humiliation of the court procedures, the torture of his body, the danger that sends most of his friends scurrying away. The disciples forget his words, forget the years of joy in the concern of saving themselves. Peter denies him. They are facing the end of hope.

Later, they will remember: they will recall this last meal together, his tenderness, the washing of their feet . One imagines that throughout the remainder of their lives, every time they enter a home to have their feet washed, they will remember this night and their Lord kneeling in front of their feet and the memory will be nearly unbearable. Above all, they will remember that he loved them and that he went willingly to the cross because of his great love for them and for the truth of his Father.

They will remember and they will understand the meaning of his words and of his acts. And they will share this remembrance with the rest of us. This is why we are gathered here tonight: in partaking of this meal, we too will remember.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women (Morehouse, 1998), Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 1998), and Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004).

Were you there?, Palm Sunday (B) – 2006

April 9, 2006

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-47

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some day St. Paul’s beautiful, prophetic words to the Christian community in Philippi will be fulfilled. Some day – but not yet.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem in the days surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Barely a week earlier, on this day known as Palm Sunday, he had been welcomed into the city, ushered in with great fanfare. Jesus may have been riding on a humble donkey, but the crowds greeted him as their king. They walked with him. They threw palm branches in his path. They shouted their approval. At last they would have a leader to occupy the throne of Israel who would be a powerful voice in dealing with other tribes and nations. This man of God with his healing powers and his promise of equality and justice for all people was an answer to prayer.

But that was not why Jesus had come. That was not his mission, and as the crowds began to realize this, the cheering stopped. First came disappointment; then came intense anger. As smoothly as the celebratory Palm Sunday hymn, “All glory, laud and honor” segues into that other Palm Sunday hymn with the ominous words, “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die,” that is how seamlessly the atmosphere changed. A palm-carpeted passageway leading to a royal throne, became instead a desolate path to a cross.

The journey that begins today is not a long one in terms of distance. Calvary, the place of crucifixion, stands just outside Jerusalem. But every moment of this week will widen the gap between acceptance and rejection. Each succeeding day will leave Jesus with fewer supporters and make their voices less audible amid the growing clamor of the opposition. By week’s end, the leaders who see Jesus as a threat to their power and who want to be rid of him will have their way, and Jesus’ allies will be frightened into silence.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem that week for Jesus’ followers. Imagine the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and being labeled an enemy of Rome – with ominous consequences. Imagine the growing tension in the city,
as those opposed to Jesus firmed up their plans. Imagine the rampant gossip that simply added fuel to the tinderbox situation.

It probably would be comforting to think that in spite of all this, if modern Christians – today’s churchgoers, for example – had been there in Jerusalem, they would have been among the brave souls who continued to support Jesus openly. Surely, they would have spoken up in his defense. Surely, they would have encouraged the others to be brave and stand with him.

From the vantage point of today, that sounds quite reasonable. But it is not realistic, given that they would have been functioning without the benefit of hindsight – without the Resurrection, without the Apostles’ teaching, without the Gospels. At that point in Jerusalem, confusion and fear were the order of the day.

On the night before he died, just after the supper they had shared, Jesus and the Disciples sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus told them they would all desert him. Then he cited the prophet Zechariah, who said, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Sure enough, as the night wore on, especially after Jesus was arrested, his followers did fall away.

Plenty of people witnessed Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and they had a host of reasons for participating, or at least for allowing it to happen. All were in some sense accomplices, because of things they either did, or failed to do: sins of commission or sins of omission. These were real people with homes, families, and jobs. They had personal concerns and ambitions. They had their own political and religious beliefs. Some are known by name, although most are unnamed.

Consider those described in Mark’s Gospel as “the crowd.” Artists painting the crucifixion have traditionally shown a diverse collection of people scattered around the landscape. Many were there simply to watch a happening, the same way curious drivers today cause traffic jams on one side of a highway, as they strain to glimpse an accident being cleared away on the other side. Many of the bystanders probably had no strong feelings one way or the other about what was taking place. They may not even have known who was being crucified. The Gospel says the chief priests stirred up the crowd to call for Jesus’ death, and the release of a murderer named Barabbas.

Those chief priests, along with the scribes and the elders – the ruling party – had a vested interest in what was taking place. Seeing Jesus arrested and put to death had long been their goal, so they made sure that once he was in custody, a death sentence would follow – even if it had to be based on false testimony.

Then there were the soldiers. One could say they were just following orders. They mocked Jesus. They spat on him. They beat him. They nailed him to the cross. It was the soldiers who had brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the governor, for questioning.

Pontius Pilate wielded a lot of authority, but he lacked courage. Even after admitting to the crowd that he did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, he still went along with their demand for Jesus’ death.

And what about the Disciples? Most were in hiding, fearing for their own lives. Peter had assured Jesus that even if everyone else fled, he would remain by his side. But in the face of armed soldiers and jeering crowds, Peter could not maintain his resolve, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. .

There were, however, men and women whose courage did not fail them. It took courage for John, known as the Beloved Disciple, to be so visible that Jesus could speak to him from the cross. It took courage for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women who had followed him during his ministry, to be present and openly supportive at the cross. It took courage for Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and respected official, to go to Pontius Pilate at dusk and get permission to take Jesus down from the cross and bury him.

The people gathered that day in Jerusalem looked on with different perspectives and a variety of motivations. One thing they did share was a limited field of vision. For them, Jesus’ crucifixion marked an ending, with no possibility of anything beyond. His life that had held so much promise was over, and their hopes for the future died with him. And yet, not many hours later, some of the women would discover the empty tomb, and the story would be changed forever.

From commonplace to extraordinary; from narrow boundaries to limitless horizons; from utter despair to endless hope – everything turned upside down, because God was present at the cross. God was on the cross and all around it, and God’s presence transforms the crucifixion from a finite event in time to an event transcending time. All those negative forces and emotions that led to Jesus’ death came together on that cross where they were transformed and reflected back to the people as love, because that is what God does.

The drama of Palm Sunday involves Christians in a journey they have to take, uncomfortable though it may be. Christians have to arrive at the cross in order to get beyond it. Christians have to see themselves among the bystanders in order to understand their participation with them. Christians have to see how God transforms the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of eternal life.

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not yet, but some day.

— The Rev. Jane Rockman is rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. She also served as curate at The Church of the Ascension in New York City. A graduate of Smith College, she holds a Master’s Degree in History from New York University and an M. Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a journalist, she had a variety of articles published on urban issues.

We must follow him, 5 Lent (B) – 2006

April 2, 2006

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Today we continue to draw closer to the week of the Passion of Jesus. Our scripture lessons focus on the passion he experiences as he moves toward the trial before Pontius Pilate, the cross, and the Resurrection.

We talk a great deal about compassion. Jesus was the most compassionate person God ever put on the face of this earth. Jesus set the example of the grace of God in ministry through his compassionate love for all peoples. Compassion is the sorrow one feels for the suffering of another.

But what is passion? The first thing Webster’s dictionary says about passion is “the suffering and death of Christ.” It is a passive condition, as opposed to action. It is an emotion of the mind. Sometimes we become so passionate about a situation in our lives that it brings us to a level of intensity that can run the gamut from ardent love to great anger. Passion can be good or bad!

There seems to be a great paradox in Jesus’ response to the Gentiles who came and asked to see Jesus. After Andrew and Phillip went to Jesus and told him these folks from Galilee wanted to see him, Jesus responded, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Who ever serves me, the Father will honor.” We are never told that Jesus personally talked with those who were seeking him.

Jesus was reflecting on the passion he would face in the immediate future. Jesus’ plea in the Garden of Gethsemane was, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” We need to be reminded that on three previous occasions in John’s gospel there is reference to Jesus’ hour. At Cana, Jesus said to his Mother, “My hour has not yet come.” Later in Jerusalem, “They tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.” Finally, in the temple, “No one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.” Here, Jesus cries out, “My soul is troubled, Father, save me from this hour.” He answers himself with a resounding, “No! It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

The turning point for Jesus was the raising of Lazurus. This was why the Greeks were coming to see Jesus. Yet the raising of Lazurus hardened the Pharisees. This is the moment when the words from Isaiah shout out to the world, “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.”

Jesus knows what lies ahead. It is his passion. He must do what his Father has called him to do: He is to be slain, but at the hour of the cross he will be lifted up, he will be exalted, he will be glorified, he will give himself for the life of the world. It will be the moment when all of God’s children will be gathered together to receive salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s beloved Son.

Jesus’ obedience to the Father is the glorification of God. God’s response through the angel, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” is judgement on the world, for Christ’s death means the overthrow of Satan. This passion of Jesus – to be obedient, to serve, to do the will of his Father – was the driving force in his life. Jesus knew that before victory must come defeat. He knew that glory brought with it isolation and shame. He knew that before the throne there would be the cup. He knew that before the light of Easter morn, there must be the darkness of a desolate Friday noon. He knew that before his ascension into heaven there must be a descent into hell.

Remember, on Palm Sunday when the people shout “Hosanna,” he will already be in agony, knowing what lies ahead. Remember, on the side of the Mount of Olives, Jesus wept, no doubt from his agony. All of these emotions are wrapped up in the passion he carried for each of us. He died to lift those burdens.

So what are we to do? We must follow him. Sacrifice explains Jesus’ life. God will honor the person who imitates Christ by having the passion to serve others, just as he has the passion to meet your needs and mine. We must experience the service ministry to which each of us is called. My ministry may differ from yours. That’s as it should be. We each have been gifted with special ministries. It would be sad if all of us were the same. God made each of us unique for many reasons. Among those reasons is the ability to meet the needs of relationships, of healing, and understanding. We must develop a passion to use our gifts as an extension of Jesus’ ministry.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus first asks to be delivered from the necessity of dying, but immediately submits his will to God. Jesus’ sacrifice is deepened by the readiness with which he submitted to it. Jesus’ final answer in his crisis of the spirit is when he prays that his Father glorify his name. Jesus wholeheartedly accepts his Father’s will: no if, ands, or buts! The reality is that there is no other way but the way of the cross!

The final paradox is when Jesus tells the crowd – in a very positive way – that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all to himself. The death of Christ is part of the glorious realization of God’s plan. It is part of the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross drawing all humans to himself. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ universal salvation for the sins of the world.

The Gentiles wanted only to see this man Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus has drawn people from all parts of the world to see and believe in him.

There is the story of the little boy who wanted so much to be like his grandfather that he knelt down at the side of his bed before going to sleep and prayed, “God make me like Poppa so I can be kind to everybody.”

In childlike faith, we need the passion of Jesus that will guide us to experience God’s love in Christ more fully, to be drawn to Christ, and to serve and follow him through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is in the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we will know the passion of Jesus’ love.

— Harry Denman is a lay communicant of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He has been an active Episcopalian for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Emma, live in an independent retirement community.