Archives for 2006

Endings and Beginnings, Christmas 2 (A,B,C) – 2006

Endings and beginnings

December 31, 2006

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Our life is filled with endings and beginnings. Today is the last day of the calendar year. Yet we know in the church calendar that we began a new year on December 3, Advent Sunday. The federal budget year began on October 1, and many institutions have a fiscal year beginning on July 1. Sometimes endings and beginnings mark clear boundaries, and at other times they seem to blend. For example, when someone finishes a program we say they have graduated, yet the service is often called a commencement. When loved ones die we say they have entered larger life. Throughout our life we experience other endings that lead to the possibilities of new beginnings.

We might remember some of those experiences when recalling events in children’s lives. A child is named and handed over to the priest who, after baptizing her or him, gives that child back to godparents, symbolizing their important role in that child’s life. A new expanded family responds that they too will support that child in the days and years ahead. A child is dedicated to a life of service of God and God’s people. Endings and beginnings are telescoped in the short duration of childhood and soon new endings and new beginnings can bring expanding horizons to both the child and to all of us who journey with them. Yet our journeys are somehow inextricably connected to each other, if only in memory. In some special way what affects one affects the other.

In our lessons for today we get a glimpse of two little boys whose lives were undergoing a radical change and whose endings and new beginnings were to transform not only them but also the world around them. Both of them were fortunate. They experienced what many young girls and boys don’t; namely to be loved and treasured in those early years that is so crucial for a lifetime of health, wholeness, and the possibility of growing into responsible maturity. Both accompanied their parents in a religious journey to offer sacrifice and to remember how much God (Yahweh) was involved in their child’s life and in their own.

Samuel had been dedicated for service to God very early in life. Hannah, who had been barren, was able to become pregnant and offered her son, Samuel, to the priest, Eli, for service to God. He stayed in Shiloh and as it says in 1 Samuel 2:11 “served the Lord under the priest Eli.”

Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, accompanied his parents to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a special time of giving thanks to God for allowing their ancestors to flee from bondage in Egypt, to remember that God had been with them in time past, and to anticipate the coming of a new messenger. This messenger would announce that the new age had begun. The hope that God would send them someone to announce this new age was growing, especially in the 200 years before the birth of Christ. A cup was placed on a table (the cup of Elijah) in hopes that the messenger might appear, drink from the cup, and announce that the new age had indeed arrived. It was believed by many that Elijah, who at his death was assumed up into heaven by chariots of fire, would return as that messenger and announce the new age had begun. This cup and this sacred meal are also part of the Seder meals celebrated in our time at Passover. Little did anyone know that a young boy attending the Passover with his parents that day in Jerusalem would be that messenger.

So these two young boys, Samuel and Jesus, both seen as gifts from God, were indeed about ready to transform the world in their day and in ours.

At least Hannah knew where her son was. He was in Shiloh with the priest Eli. But Mary and Joseph, trusting that their son was with the familiar crowd who had gone into Jerusalem suddenly lost track of him. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was after a day’s journey that they realized he was not with the group. Perhaps you and I might have a hard time understanding the lag in time but obviously this was a trusted group of family and friends who were walking together.

Panicked, Mary and Joseph went back into Jerusalem to find him, and it took another couple of days to do so. When they did, Jesus was in the temple sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions. His depth of questioning and understanding apparently astonished the teachers.

When Mary and Joseph expressed their worry about his being lost, Jesus responded that it should have been obvious where he was, as it was his Father’s house. We might wonder what the scriptures are not telling us – for if any of us got an answer like that from one of our children after being missing for three days, we probably would be a little upset with him. The story did say that Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them but also said that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. Apparently in the midst of her worry and Jesus’ response to her worry, Mary sensed that something profound was going on here, so much so that she took it into her heart and pondered the meaning of it all.

The stage is set for the next chapters in Samuel’s and Jesus’ life and ministry. What can we make of all this, and how did what happened to them in their youth affect our lives? These lessons for today say two important things: (1) the signs of God’s activity are prevalent in children; and (2) children can be given opportunities to grow, question, and flourish in ways that will benefit them and us for a lifetime.

In the baptismal service we pray that the baptized person might have an inquiring and discerning mind, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. These are gifts that ultimately both Samuel and Jesus possessed, but they began possessing them when they were very young. So on this last Sunday in the calendar year and the first Sunday after Christmas when we still hear the wailing of a new born babe in a manger as well as his changing voice throughout his life, on this day we are invited to consider again how important children and child-rearing are.

Samuel and Jesus, in his full humanity, were both able to see what others did not, in part, because of their connection with others who cared about them at a very early age. What we know about child development is that the time before the age of 6 is critical in forming a person’s identity, an identity that will be able to carry them, healthily, into later years of life.

There is a wonderful photograph of a granddad taking a picture of his granddaughter. The picture shows the shadow on a sidewalk of the granddad taking the picture of his granddaughter who had just turned over a rock to seek a bug that had gone under it. The discovery of the bug was a pearl of great price. The particularity of the search was, and is, a reminder of treasures in life being unearthed in minute forms or in hidden places. God is not only available to us in obvious ways but also in the still, small voice; the quiet wisdom from the lips of a friend or stranger; the example of courage and faithfulness of the frail and infirm; in a drop of wine and a small morsel of bread; and in the gaze of a child making a new discovery.

Children not only need to be welcomed to our church, but we need them in our church. We need their inquisitiveness, energy, restlessness, forthrightness, sense of awe and wonder, playfulness and laughter. We need children amongst us not only because they are significant and important and have wonderful abilities to show God’s love, but also because they can help unlock the child that is still in us, the children that Jesus, as an older man, welcomed into his midst and into the new kingdom that was evolving around him.

We gather around Holy Table to remember, to be reminded, and to be surprised. Like Samuel gathering with Eli or Jesus with his parents, family, and friends in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, we gather to remember the stories of our tradition. As we remember them, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are, who is the “we” that we yearn to be, and the work that lies ahead. And all along the way surprises come to us, often in people and circumstances we would least expect. And in this rhythm of life, this rhythm of remembering, being reminded, and being surprised we can realize that it is never too late to dig wells of future memories for another person. For Samuel and Jesus, their early years of observation were of great value to them in their ministries. We obviously can’t help people recoup their early years but we can do something. To help dig wells of future memories for others helps them remember that they are – and have been – treasured by another human being and by God. It reminds them that they have gifts and an identity as a child of God that can never be taken away from them, as well as an ability to dance with life so that they can, like the writer C.S. Lewis, be surprised by joy. When this happens, that person and us are never the same again.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year, looking back at what was, looking forward to what might be, and invited to look around and within to see what we might do and be in the here and now.

We gather around stories from our tradition and expressions of prayer and song. We gather to exchange peace, which can be an entry way, a foyer, to digging wells for future memories. When we exchange peace we realize three things: (1) we don’t gather here alone; (2) the Eucharist or other worship service is not just about any of us individually or what we can get out of it, but rather what God can do through the worship and through us for God’s work of reconciliation and love; and (3) we realize that the greatest gift we can give one another and the stranger about to come into our midst is to offer the peace of God.

These were gifts given to Samuel and to Jesus of Nazareth. These were gifts they gave the world, and the world has never been the same since. We are called to do the same. May it be so on this special day of the year and in the year to follow. Shalom.

 

— Bud Holland is coordinator of the Office for Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, which is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership and ministry development. He has previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions.

The Word became flesh and dwelt with us, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2006

December 25, 2006

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14

We are all used to party political agendas. We’ve just survived an election season and although there’s two years to go before the next general election, the television networks daily parade possible candidates before us and we hear their plans to transform America. We can count on their plans being expensive. To get them enacted takes a great deal of powerful persuasion. The more power and influence a politician can recruit, the better the chance of success.

Even then, transforming a nation, and more so transforming a world, isn’t easy. Some of us remember the ’60s. We were sure that the Civil Rights Movement would liberate African Americans, women and minorities. Much wonderful work was done. Yet drive through the inner cities today and one soon sees what was not done. It’s almost as if legislators, secular and religious, get their enthusiasms, struggle to get them enacted and then forget about them and go on to something more exciting. It’s easy to become cynical.

On the wider stage, we look at the world as it is. We see wars, civil disturbances, bigotry, tribalism, disease, and starvation. Nothing seems to change. Countries promise aid and then don’t give it. We can look at the most frightful things on television while eating dinner. It’s easy to become cynical.

“Wait a minute” you say. “This is Christmas.”

So it is. The great gospel lesson from St. John echoes in our ears. It has just been read to us. We may not understand the profundity of its theology, but in these mysterious words, “In the beginning was the Word,” we reflect on the extraordinary truth about Jesus. To the Greeks of his time, or some of them, the idea of the Word was a philosophical theory. Scholars suggested that there was a source of eternal truth and this source they termed The Logos: “The Word.” There was nothing personal about the idea. It was assumed that only an educated elite would be able to contemplate truth.

The idea of an eternal Word tells us two things. The first is that there’s a truth, an eternal truth to which we have access. The second idea is that this truth is communicated to us by God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” St. John here says something extraordinary. The eternal truth of God, God communicating to us, is not a philosophical ideal for scholars, but a Person for us all. Jesus is the Truth, Jesus is God communicating. Jesus embodies God’s agenda for the Church and for the world.

“The Word became Flesh.” God entered into a human body. A young unmarried woman became God’s Tent, God’s Temple, God’s presence. In the Old Testament we read about the Tabernacle or tent in which the presence of God dwelt. Later Solomon builds the Temple in which, in the Holy of Holies, God’s Presence was to be found in a special manner. But now, through teenager Mary, God became human in obscurity and weakness, in a stable, surrounded by farm animals and filth. God became vulnerable and powerless.

It is easy for us to look at the crèche and see glory. In reality the crèche is an extraordinary symbol of God’s identity with those who have nothing. The Holy Family, tired, homeless, Mary in labor, stumble into an abandoned, dirty cave. The floor is covered with animal droppings; the manger with old food. It’s one of those cold Middle Eastern nights. Perhaps Joseph takes off his coat and puts it in the manger. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

God intends an end to all wars, bigotry, famine, and disease. God has started the process. True, God uses politicians and the powerful, often without their knowing it. But God uses you and me, for as God became human in Mary’s womb, so God the Son, the babe in the manger, enters our humanity, changes us and sends us to change the nation and the world. That is what Baptism is all about. The transforming future is God at work in frail, powerless human beings who risk death, even the Cross in order to be reborn into hope.

We are those human beings. We become agents of God’s purpose as we do as God wants us to do. We tell the gospel story to others. We love one another. We work to transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who know not God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas Day, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child in your flesh and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, W. Va.

By the very power of God, The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2006

August 6, 2006

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the Transfiguration. Six months from now we will hear this same lesson on the last Sunday of Epiphany, just as six month’s ago we heard the parallel story from the Gospel of Mark. The transfiguration event is retold every year on the Sunday before Lent. We use it today because this year August 6 falls on a Sunday – and August 6 is the time honored Feast of the Transfiguration.

August 6, 2006 reminds us that sixty-one years ago flyers of the U.S. Army Air Corps dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan – a profoundly dramatic event that forever changed the world. This cataclysm released such energy that a blue sky was transfigured into a blinding white light of an intensity never before witnessed.

To some, it seemed that hell itself had intersected with the earth that day. Fifty to seventy thousand people were instantly killed and countless other maimed and fatally injured.

For more than six decades we have lived with the reality that humans have the capacity to destroy every lifeform God so lovingly created.

This is an extreme, dramatic example of how we on earth can treat on another, how fearful we can become when we are threatened, how easily we can forget why we were created, despite what God desires and longs for us to become. It illustrates how easy it is for us to pervert the energies God has created.

Though the bombing of Hiroshima has been repeated only once, its memory keeps vividly alive the threat brought by the existence of such weapons. For a season we might forget, but its sobering reality is never far from home. Our world is now embroiled in the fear and frustration and agony attached to the intentions of Korea and Iran to develop the capability of employing nuclear weaponry.

Maybe there is nothing new about this. Maybe this is just one more example of a history-long tendency to misuse technology. Still, on this sixth day of August, 2006, the existence in our world of enough nuclear weapons to kill all humans many times over makes us wonder whether scientific development has reached a point whereby we can literally negate God’s purposes.

Today’s gospel, however, reminds us of a deeper reality – that God insists always on having the last word. The dazzling, blinding white light cast on the mountain declares that God insists on transfiguring hell into heaven. God will not let the hell of Hiroshima that we speak of be the last word. God will not let the selfishness and inhumanity of nuclear annihilation win out.

The power of God can transfigure the events of August 6, 1945 into a level of restraint in the way nations settle differences. Wearied and bewildered world leaders in our small global community are fully awakened by powers bigger than all of them and the people they represent. The power of humanity to destroy and dehumanize one another is ever before them.

People of faith know that lying beside the power to destroy is the power of God – a force that will rise in human consciousness, intersecting our human ways, and unleashing the dazzling white power of love that can transfigure us.

As we remember August 6, 1945, always the image of the mushroom-shaped cloud comes to consciousness. But Christians who remember that August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration know, too, that another cloud overshadows the mushroom-shaped one. It is the cloud of the mountain from which the voice of God reminds us that Jesus is God’s chosen one to whom we must listen.

By the very power of God, we can be changed into the likeness of Christ – restored to unity with God and one another, united in God’s love. By the transforming, transfiguring power of God, humanity can turn its back on the intersection of blazing white hell on earth that we know as Hiroshima. By the power of God, in all its dazzling whiteness of love, we can face a future of heaven on earth, listening to God’s chosen one and following him into the way of life.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Seminary of the Southwest, 2005) and current member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, lives in semi-retirement with his wife Toni in Bastrop, Texas, a small town near Austin. 

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.

Remember, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2006

March 1, 2006

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The season of Lent begins with one word: Remember. “Remember,” says priest or minister as a cross of ash and dust is traced on our brows, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a sober beginning to the serious business of Lenten prayer and penitence. As we reflect on those things that have defined our lives for good or evil and made us who we are, we also remember that we share a common fate and end. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is the way the burial liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer puts it. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Our time together is short, and our journey has an end. The ashes of this day bear an uncanny resemblance to what will be left of us all a thousand years from now. They bring us together as nothing else can. A NASA scientist participating earlier this year in the recovery of the Stardust space probe describes it this way, “All the atoms on earth and in our bodies were in stardust before the solar system formed.” And, he might have added, to stardust they shall return.

On Ash Wednesday, we are brought back down to earth that we might become heirs of the promised kingdom of heaven. Our Lenten season of repentance originates in the dust and fragments of what we have done and of those things we have left undone. The withered remnants of once green palm branches, burned on Shrove Tuesday and reduced to the ash of today’s solemn Ash Wednesday ritual, bring to mind the setbacks and regrets of the year gone by; those things we might wish to forget but somehow cannot because they have been seared into our memory. The dust of our failings and sin reminds us of our common heritage. Across nave and chancel our shared human fate is on display for all to see.

Remembering what has come before is not a bad way to start anything important. We recall the milestones of our lives – the births, baptisms, weddings, and graduations. They provide stability and strength in a world grown ephemeral and uncertain. But most of us also remember our own vulnerability and deficiencies and our shame at how we have wounded others. We recollect these things not because we can alter what has been but because in the act of remembering and repenting we are transformed and made new. Like sparrows bathing in dry sand, we are paradoxically cleansed and renewed in the dust of our Ash Wednesday remembrance.

All that we do as the people of God is in some measure a recollection of what God has done for us. The Jews, our spiritual ancestors, still celebrate Passover. They commemorate events thousands of years ago when God led Moses and the people of Israel from burning bush and through scorching desert sands into the freedom of the Promised Land. To this day, the Jews begin the feast of Passover with a recitation of the great events of their history and redemption. They dare not forget who they are nor where they came from.

As Christians, remembering takes us back to our roots in the cross. That is where we come from. At our baptism, priest or minister anointed us with oil in the sign of the cross, and we were “marked as Christ’s own for ever.” In our daily prayers we cross ourselves in the name of the Trinity. And as we approach the altar table on Sunday morning to receive the communion elements, the celebrant reminds us to “take them in remembrance that Christ died for you.”

The cross of ash on our forehead today conforms us to the image of the crucified One, the Word Made Flesh, through whom in the expression of the Creed, “all things were made.” We come from the Father, the Creator of the dust and sinew of which we are formed. And through Christ we return to the Father, giving back our mortal and fallen nature sanctified and renewed in the death of him “who knew no sin,” as Paul explains today in our second reading. In Christ, we ourselves “become the righteousness of God.”

Our Lenten journey begun today will draw to a close on Good Friday in the full meaning of the cross. Our contemporary world, like that of Jesus’ day, is distinguished by violence at home and war and terror abroad. How can one find hope at the crossroads of such suffering and anguish? Perhaps it comes only in knowing that the contradiction of the cross is in reality the paradox of life. In the cross, the order of the universe is transformed, and evil and pain are overcome. We remember that life and its meaning are not found in length of days, but in how we live our lives.

“Put oil on your head,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel account from Matthew, “and wash your face.” Put away your gloom. His words bring to mind the water and chrism of baptism and the life won for us through his death. It is almost as if he, along with our neighbors and co-workers, has seen us leaving church today with our smudge of ash. He counsels us not to “look dismal” or smug, as some might who practice their piety before others and seek only praise and a reward for their efforts. Penitence is neither a sign of despair nor a badge of merit. It is an evocation of hope and regeneration and a way of life.

Our Lenten renunciation is in reality a celebration of the kingdom so close at hand. Our spiritual sacrifices and acts of penitence are not ends in themselves but an assurance of God’s love at work within us. To give ourselves away as Christ gave himself for us is to embrace redemption and life. “Now is the acceptable time,” Paul tells us. Our Lenten journey has begun. It takes us to Calvary but it does not end in death. From the ashes of our sin and shame, God will raise us up to new life in the resurrection of his Son.

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, El Cajon, California, in the Diocese of San Diego.

Belonging to Jesus, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2006

January 1, 2006

(RCL) Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

The celebration of New Year’s Day tends to be a feast of exhaustion, particularly if one stayed up to see the new year in. After the Reformation in Scotland, the old church feasts were abolished. As is often the case, if people are deprived of things to which they are deeply attached, they find other ways to celebrate, and so the old celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision was transformed into a secular day of feasting and sport.

While Anglicans retained the old feast day, we tended not to keep it. The mention of circumcision sounded a bit embarrassing; perhaps made us blush. Now we call New Year’s Day the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. St. Luke records in the verses immediately before the ones chosen for today that when the child of Mary and Joseph was taken to be circumcised, he was given the name Jesus. Certainly to the first-century Jew in Palestine there was nothing earth-shaking about the name. Many male children were given the name Joshua/Jesus, which means “God with us.” Today in Latino culture, Jesus is a fairly common name to give to a baby.

Yet the collect for today states that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.” The old canons required that we bow our heads at the name of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today, two old people, Ana and Simeon, rejoiced to see the young child. Simeon exclaims that “these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.”

What’s in a name? In our quest for authenticity we often discount the symbolic. We fear that the symbol may be emptied of reality, become something we just say or do without meaning what we say or do. We set a dreadfully high standard. Yet the truth is that saying and doing things, even by rote, may be reminders to us of the meaning they explore and symbolize. Telling our spouse that we love him or her may be an automatic response, but at times we live into its deepest meaning. Even though we may use “Jesus” as an expletive, the meaning of who Jesus is may and often does communicate itself anew by our mindless utterance. There is power in a name and in a symbol.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is “The Savior.” And that means that we belong to Jesus. It does not mean that he belongs to us. That’s an important point to understand. It is so easy for us to decide who Jesus should love or save and who he should not. However, he told us that such matters are none of our business. And that is that.

We were named and signed in our baptisms.  In baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, and made members of the priestly body, the Body of Christ. We too are here to be God for others. In other words, people have a right to demand that God is seen in us, as individuals, as members of a church and of the Church. And as God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ, we are called to be Christ-like, or Christians. In the midst of church struggles, divisions, and fights, “God help us,” we exclaim. And that is the point. God helps us, seeks us, finds us, and particularly at the family table we face today, the Name of Jesus, the Word, conjoins with Bread and Wine and transforms us into newness of life.

 

— The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.