Archives for April 2007

Our shepherd leads us, 4 Easter (C) – 2007

April 29, 2007

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

The 23rd Psalm is one of the most well-known chapters in the Bible. Countless people have memorized it, usually in the King James Version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Many of us recall Sunday-school posters of this favorite psalm superimposed on beautiful painted pictures of Jesus on a grassy hillside, with a lamb over his shoulders, rescuing it from danger. Many children still get great comfort from the image of the kind and gentle Jesus who cares for all God’s creatures. This is the Jesus who will stay with a child through a dark night filled with terrors: alligators under the bed and monsters in the closet. This is the Jesus who stays with adults too, through nights of weeping, and loneliness, and worry, and despair.

And in those times of danger and grief, many people turn to the 23rd Psalm for comfort. At the bedside of people facing surgery or serious illness, reciting the psalm brings peace and hopefulness. At memorial services, it evokes the kind and loving presence of the God who promises an eternal dwelling place in the house of the Lord.

But then, there are the times when events in our lives or in our world throw our peace, our hopefulness, our comfort into doubt – times when the Jesus we remember from our childhood, smiling on that grassy hillside, seems almost irrelevant to the darkness of the world.

Perhaps some of us experienced one of those times recently, when a young man shot 32 other people and then himself on the campus of Virginia Tech University. How do we make sense of a world in which a young person can be so troubled, so destructive, and so unable to receive the help that others offered him? How do we make sense of a world in which such bright, innocent, promising young lives are tragically and suddenly lost? How do we begin to understand a world where people in America, Iraq, Darfur and a thousand other places die regularly and senselessly?

Perhaps the people crowding around Jesus in the Portico of Solomon were asking similar questions. At the Feast of the Dedication, the feast we now know as Hanukkah, the people remembered how the nation rededicated the temple after a great leader, Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Greek conquerors in 164 BC. The festival remembered the suffering of the Jewish people under the Greek Empire, and rejoiced at their great victory. Against this background, with Roman soldiers hovering and memories of thousands of crucified would-be rebels and other unjust suffering fresh in their minds, people asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” Would Jesus be the new hero who would drive out the Roman invader? Would the nation be free and independent once more?

The people crowding around Jesus want a clear and decisive answer. Instead, he is cryptic and evasive. The people want him to speak with authority about weapons and strategies; instead, he talks about sheep. To their demand that he assume the leadership for which they have been hoping, he answers with a claim of leadership so astounding that many of them pick up stones to kill him on the spot: he claims to be one with God the Father.

This is no gentle, clear-eyed Jesus on a green, rolling hillside; this is a fierce, uncompromising Jesus, a Jesus who refuses to meet any earthly expectations, a Jesus whose frame of reference is so far removed from that of the people around him that it is a wonder he escapes with his life. And indeed, John tells us that the next time Jesus dares to show his face in Jerusalem, the chief priests cook up a scheme to have him crucified.

How do we reconcile the gentle, kind shepherd Jesus, the one who would go anywhere and risk anything to save even the smallest lamb, with the Jesus who provoked his enemies to violence? And how does this Jesus have anything at all to do with the worries and dangers of our lives? How can our faith in Jesus help us through a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech? What can the gentle shepherd do to help?

The wonderful thing about Psalm 23 is just how realistic it is about the darkness of life. Perhaps the picture we get of the Good Shepherd from art and music and childhood memories is an image of pure light and pure sweetness. But the psalm itself knows darkness and fear. Like the writer of the psalm, many Christians have traveled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. They too have known the threat of the unknown. And yet many have also known the comfort of God’s presence, walking alongside them through that dark valley. Many people have felt the exquisite sweetness of Jesus’ love surrounding and enfolding them in the most difficult moments of their lives. Many have experienced transcendent holiness and light in the darkest of times.

People who spend much time with those who are ill or bereaved begin to know what kind of help brings true comfort. Comfort does not come from assurances that everything will be all right or from platitudes that try to explain why everything that happens is God’s will. Comfort comes from the simple presence of companions who are willing to sit alongside us in our darkest hours, to walk through the darkness with us, to help us make the darkness holy, and to rejoice with us when small glimmers of light finally begin to shine.

And at the heart of it, that is what our Christian faith can tell us. It tells us that our Lord and Savior, the great hero who liberates us, is not the God of light alone. Jesus is sovereign over the darkness too, because he too has been enfolded by darkness. Like us, he has grieved over the senseless waste and tragedy of life. Like us, he has agonized over those who suffer. As all of us will eventually, he has entered into the darkness of death. And with all of us, he promises to walk that road so that we do not have to walk it alone. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

The ultimate truth of our Christian faith, the truth we remember this Easter season and every Sunday as we celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection, is that our Shepherd leads us out of death into life. The Lord who was crucified and who rose again is the same Lord who promises to redeem the world, to relieve its suffering, to restore it to wholeness, to inaugurate a new creation. The risen Lord is the sign of the life that God promises to all of us: life transformed, life redeemed, life restored, life abundant, life joyous and eternal and blessed. God prepares a table for all of us: a table brimful with overflowing cups and overabundant blessings. And Jesus, our Great Shepherd, invites us to come and share with him at the table of blessing.

 

— The Rev. Susan B. Snook is an Episcopal priest and church planter. She is priest missioner at the Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Ariz. 

Changed forever, 3 Easter (C) – 2007

April 22, 2007

Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21: 1-19

Saul heard a voice from heaven. It was Jesus, whom he had been persecuting. It came suddenly, and a light from heaven flashed around him. The experience was so intense that Saul fell to the ground. The light was so strong that he was blinded. After his encounter with the light and the voice, Saul’s life was changed forever. Like Jacob after wrestling with an angel, even his name was changed. At his baptism, Saul regained his sight and took his new name. Saul the persecutor became Paul the advocate. Voices from heaven change everything.

John heard voices from heaven. In fact John journeyed into heaven and saw it all. How he survived such a startling vision is surprising. John stood among the four living creatures, the angels, the elders – there were myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands. John heard them singing praises. And then he hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” Who could stand such glory? Who could endure the sound of everything that exists singing in full voice?

John shared his vision with the church, and none of us have been the same since. Now we sing in liturgy many of the songs John told us about. Now we hope to be in that number that praises the Lamb for eternity. Voices from heaven change everything.

In today’s world, if we reported hearing voices from heaven we would be suspected of fanaticism or mental instability. We know that nowadays folks don’t hear voices from heaven.

But wait; maybe we do hear voices from heaven. Maybe we encounter voices and visions of heaven everyday and just don’t notice them. We religious people, because we are rooted in scriptures that tell miraculous stories, expect our words and visions from God to come in flashes of light and thundering sound. And because these supernatural things are not seen and experienced, we don’t expect them anymore.

But maybe these voices and visions are right in front of us.

In the gospel today, Peter and the apostles hear a voice from heaven. It is the resurrected Christ. This voice from heaven isn’t flashy or loud. The voice they hear tells them not to give up on catching fish. The voice they hear tells them, “Come and have breakfast.” What a scene: the risen Lord, the King of the Universe, the Alpha and the Omega, sitting on the beach making breakfast. Yes, it is miraculous that the apostles encounter their risen teacher. Yes, it is miraculous that they catch so many fish that they can’t hold them all. But in the midst of the miracles is simplicity. In the midst of these miracles is everyday life.

This is where Christ meets us now. He meets us in the movements of our life. We need to eat; we need to work. And the risen Christ is there among us. God chose to come among us, and even after the miracle of the resurrection, God chose to make us breakfast.

In the Collect for today we remember that the “blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread.” We prayed that God would “open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” Thus we prayed that God would open our eyes to what is right in front of us.

This is Incarnation: God appearing where we would never expect it. It starts with Advent in that encounter between Mary and Gabriel. It continues with the birth in the manger. Jesus Christ is part of everything we do. Our life is a miracle. Our life is a prayer.

The creation around us is also a prayer. We miss this all the time in our busy-ness and weariness. Look down to the ground and see grass and gravel: there’s God. Look up to the stars: there’s God. Look out among the people and buildings and trees: there’s God. Look at the person next to you: there’s God.

It isn’t that God is the gravel or grass, but the gravel and grass our infused with the creative love of God. It is that God in Christ was incarnate with creation in the form of a human being.

After the resurrection, Christ could have entered the cities and by-ways in glory and light. He could have really amazed the crowds and gotten more people to take seriously what the apostles were preaching. But he didn’t. He kept entering into everyday life. Everyday life is blessed.

From Christ’s birth to death, the Holy One is submitting to earthliness. Even at his Transfiguration, he stands in a glorious vision with Elijah and Moses and speaks of his impending crucifixion. The Alpha and Omega, who could “take over” the universe, always remains grounded.

Where are our voices from heaven? Where are our visions of glory? They are right in front of us. They are in creation. On this day as the secular calendar commemorates Earth Day, we raise our voices to thank God for creation. We remember that seeing a stream, a forest, a tiny garden in our back yard deserves a certain reverence. God’s creation deserves our love and respect.

God speaks to us now through earthly elements. In Christ, God chose bread, wine, and water to ground us in divine love. In water we are baptized and brought back to life and given back our inner sight. And like Paul, after we are given back our spiritual vision and washed in that water, we are given something to eat. God in Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread. In the Holy Eucharist we enter into the divine mysteries where somehow Christ is really present.

Water, wine and bread are the essence of human life. God is really present to us in the essence of human life.

God in Christ is feeding us. What could be more earthly than being hungry and being fed? Christ is feeding us.

In our gospel reading today, Christ puts Peter to the test. He asks him three times if he loves him, and each time he instructs Peter to take care of the people: feed them and tend to them. The third time Christ asks the question, Peter is hurt. But Peter had denied Christ three times. He needs to make amends for that denial. Christ is rooting Peter in the Christian mission: feed and tend to the people. It’s about the people. It’s about feeding and caring for souls, and it’s all right in front of us.

In the first chapter of Acts, as Christ is ascending into Heaven, two men in white robes appear and say to those gathered, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, “Don’t stand here gazing up forever. Go on your way and proclaim the gospel.” This is exactly where we can get caught: gazing up to heaven, waiting for a miracle. Life itself is a miracle. Everyday stuff is the prayer. It all goes together, and it is all a light from heaven.

When we come to realize this, then we will be changed forever. When we take time to recognize the beauty of the earth, the blessedness of those around us, then we will be changed forever.

 

— The Rev. Paul D. Allick hails from the plains of Montana and North Dakota. He graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1996, and for the past decade has experienced a wide variety of ministries in the Diocese of Minnesota, serving in Native American, African American, and suburban parishes, as well as campus ministry.

Mistaken identity, 2 Easter (C) – 2007

April 15, 2007

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Well, here we are again on Thomas Sunday. Good old doubting Thomas. Thomas could be the patron saint of modern people. Thomas was reported to have been a twin, and it’s possible he was an identical twin – as such, he would have known all about mistaken identity. He would have known how easy it is to be wrong about something, even when we see it with our own eyes. He couldn’t take the disciples’ word about having seen Jesus alive; he needed proof; he needed to be sure.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That would be us. We didn’t make it to the empty tomb, didn’t see the angels, didn’t hear Jesus call us by name in the garden. We weren’t in the upper room with the other disciples when they got to see Jesus. When we hear the gospel stories, we sometimes identify with the characters in them. Are we like Peter, overcome by fears when things get tough? Could we be strong like the women, who stayed with Jesus despite the cost? Maybe. But most of all, we’re like Thomas. We have doubts. We want proof.

Most of us long for accuracy in the stories about Jesus so that we can feel that we have that proof – all the witnesses are in agreement, so this is exactly what happened. Some of us create that neat and tidy bundle in our heads, but many of us only manage to produce a package that looks like it was wrapped by an inexperienced buffoon, a package that definitely would not stand up to the rigors of the postal service. Yet we long for that neat and tidy package that will build our faith, help us believe when we’re in a crisis, and keep us going over the long haul of discipleship.

What we get from the gospel accounts are stories filled with conflicting accounts. Some people see only the empty tomb, some see an angel or two angels, some see Jesus, some talk with Jesus, some only recognize Jesus when he breaks the bread. Everyone seems to have been caught off guard by the resurrection. The disciples don’t seem to be able to capture their experience with any accuracy. They always seem surprised by Jesus’ appearances. They seem to struggle to deal with how resurrection works. Yet Jesus comes to them in their fear, their confusion, and their doubts and greets them with “Peace be with you.” He even makes a return visit the next week so that Thomas can experience the resurrection first hand.

It is important for us to remember that Jesus does not come to the disciples in a blaze of glory, surrounded by angels or accompanied by trumpet flourishes. Rather he comes quietly; he seems to surprise the disciples. And he comes with his wounds – the wounded savior coming to his wounded disciples. He is not all neat and tidy, but still bears the marks of his suffering, the marks of his humanity. Even his resurrected body still shows the signs of his dwelling among us. As humans, we struggle to hide our woundedness as a sign of weakness, yet the risen Christ still bears his woundedness and comes to meet us and bring us his peace. His resurrection gives us hope that we will be healed and made whole.

When the risen Lord came to the disciples in the upper room, he brought them his peace, he breathed his spirit on them and commissioned them to live and preach his message of love, forgiveness, and peace.

In the creation story, God molded Adam out of the clay and breathed life into him. In the upper room, Jesus breathes the restoring life of God into the disciples, making them new people and, through them, offering new life to the world. The very fact that we are here this morning, continuing to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, is testimony to the power of the Spirit present in the disciples and in the church throughout the ages.

This story isn’t a vignette frozen in time in that upper room in Jerusalem; it is gospel, good news that transcends time and place. Whenever we practice forgiveness, whenever we overcome the power of death in its many forms – hatred, violence, indifference – the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers, and resurrection life is expressed again in this time and place. We can’t “prove” the resurrection, but we can be fingers pointing to it whenever we are signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished, but is enfleshed in us and in every Christian community.

Jesus’ appearance to Thomas reminds us that doubts do not disqualify us from discipleship. Jesus says to Thomas and to us, “Do not doubt, but believe.” The theologian Paul Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; rather it is an element of faith. Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and writer, puts it more basic terms. He says that if we don’t have any doubts, we’re either kidding ourselves or asleep. He characterizes doubts as “the ants in the pants” of faith – they keep it awake and moving! Doubts do not disqualify us from discipleship.

At the very beginning of the Gospel of John, the author proclaims that, through Jesus, God has brought life and light to the world. In the death of Jesus on the cross, it appeared that the powers of darkness were stronger than the power of light, that darkness had overcome the light. Through the resurrection, we are shown that the light still shines. Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work, to spread his light throughout the world. Their future changed through Christ’s gift of the Spirit. In our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and made Christ’s own forever. We, too, have a new future because of Christ’s resurrection. We, too, have been commissioned to spread the light of Christ.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, a contemporary theologian, asks us to think about the resurrection through the metaphor of the sun. She says, “We cannot look directly at the sun, for the brightness would blind us – our eyes are not suited to that strength of light. Yet the sun, which we cannot see directly, illumines all else, and in its light we make our way in the world.” She goes on to say that the resurrection “illumines the entire landscape of the New Testament: the resurrection is the confirmation of that which Jesus revealed in his life and death and it is the catalyst that transforms the disciples, releasing the power that led to the foundation of the church.”

On this April morning, when the world outside our doors has put away the baskets and the bunnies of Easter and moved on, we continue to be challenged to live as though the resurrection really does illumine our lives. We are challenged to reach out and embrace the future in faith, believing that the light of the resurrection will enable us to make our way in the world. We are challenged to seek peace and reconciliation, knowing it is the work of Christ and the Church. And most of all, we are challenged to remember that while we may look at ourselves and see only doubting Thomases, God looks at us and sees the best: God sees beloved children, faithful friends, spirit-filled partners in the ongoing work of creation.

 

— The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, Calif.

Believing in order to see, Easter Day (C) – 2007

April 8, 2007

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

Easter moves around a lot from year to year. Unlike Christmas, which always falls on December 25, no matter the day of the week or the number of shopping days since Thanksgiving, Easter can fall on most any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. There is, in fact, an entire section of the Book of Common Prayer devoted to finding the date of Easter Sunday in any given year. Read it some evening if you are having a difficult time falling asleep.

Before you drift off, you will learn about golden numbers and Sunday letters, astronomical and ecclesiastical equinoxes, and the phases of the moon – all of which are critical in determining when exactly it is that we celebrate the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. In fact, the dating of Easter was one of the earliest controversies to face the early English Church and incipient Anglican community long before the time of Henry VIII. Sadly, it has not been the last. But that is another story.

Time has always been important to Christians for the simple reason that our redemption takes place in time. Unlike the gods and heroes of mythology, Christ lived among us in time and history. He was born. He grew up. He preached the kingdom, and he died. It is recorded there in scripture for all to read. It is part of salvation history.

And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, on a certain first day of the week – specifically at early dawn – Christ’s empty tomb was discovered, and the proclamation of his Resurrection began as the women made their way back to the eleven and told them what they had seen and heard. That proclamation continues to this day.

It is no wonder then that over centuries the Church has been so precise and meticulous about the timing of such an important feast. But as arcane as the computation is for establishing Easter Day, it is only part of the story. For not only is Easter a special time, it is quite literally special time. It is time out of time, time like no other.

The Resurrection is something completely unique and unprecedented. Here is how New Testament scholar Holt Graham explains the Easter event:

“We do not understand it and indeed cannot. … It never happened before, and it has never happened again. What we have learned from ordinary existence is no help when we come up against the absolutely unique happening. It is in the full and literal sense a mystery. It occurred beyond the boundary line of our existence.”

The Resurrection in other words, while a part of our salvation history, nevertheless occurs beyond our experience and senses. Other scholars explain the Resurrection as the “bursting forth” into time – into history – of eternity itself. It is as if all eternity were concentrated into this moment when Christ overcomes death and the grave, and the infinite sweeps away the temporal. Yet if the Resurrection is unique in our experience, it is essential to our existence as Christians.

No one saw the Resurrection. No one knows just when it happened or how. There was no car chase. No congressional hearing. No film at eleven. No leads. No body. The tomb is open and empty, abandoned except by a couple of ethereal, angelic figures and a few devoted, if somewhat disconsolate, women. For something at the very heart of our faith, this remains pretty slim pickings. Where was CNN? Where was Fox News or, if you prefer, Jim Lehrer? An embedded reporter or two would have been nice.

But of course we don’t get any of it. There is quite literally nothing to this story. An empty tomb. Our great Christian symbol of life and hope is found in something missing, something not there, a displacement. “The Case of the Missing Body,” as mystery writer Agatha Christie might have called it. It is indeed a mystery, but unlike anything Agatha Christie ever imagined.

For this empty tomb is full of meaning. From this empty tomb, hewn in rock, we as Christians draw forth all of our faith and hope for this world and for the kingdom to come. At this empty tomb we find the Christ of eternity alive in the here and now. From this chasm, a symbol of death and defeat, comes forth victory and life itself. Christ’s tomb is the earthen fissure through which God’s love pours out upon our parched world of sin and death.

We do not know how this is so. But then there are a lot of things we do not know. How life began in some ocean lagoon billions of years ago, for instance. Or even how our parents fell in love. Just as our lives today are in some real sense mysteries we shall never fathom, so is the Resurrection for us a sharing in the mystery of God’s own life. Or perhaps more to the point, it is a sharing by God in our lives.

Time is on our side. Our life and our world mean something. They are not random events, and we are not lost among the dust and debris of history, footnotes in a book of no meaning or consequence. In this single event, the Resurrection, everything is changed for all time. We live now in Christ forever. In Baptism, we have been raised with him, and death no longer has a grip on us. We seek now, as Paul says, “the things that are above, where Christ is.”

As Christians, we do not see and then believe. We believe in order to see. And what we see in the Resurrection is our lives transformed. “Let the whole world see and know,” we pray in one of the final liturgies of Holy Week, “that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” Christ’s Resurrection is finally the most real thing there is or ever was or ever will be.

The Lord is risen indeed.

Amen. Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, Calif. 

The liturgy of the Great Easter Vigil, Easter Vigil (C) – 2007

April 7, 2007

Liturgy of the Word: Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]; Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]; Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]; Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]; Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]; Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

Eucharist: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

The origins of this great feast are at least from the third century AD. We know that Christians even then, amidst persecution and secrecy, celebrated the mighty acts of salvation history and baptized new converts to the faith who had been catechumens for two years or more. The candidates for Holy Baptism were kept fasting for several days, and they were not told the exact sequence of events that would take place. Early in the morning of Easter, after cockcrow, they were brought into a garden – usually someone’s back garden – and baptized in a spring of running water, robed in white and then presented to the community. What an awesome event that must have been!

The modern Vigil focuses on four major events: the Lighting of the New Fire, the readings from the Hebrew Scripture, the Baptism (or renewal of vows), and the Holy Eucharist. At the completion of the Vigil, a participant will have participated in all the might acts of salvation history. It’s hard not to shout, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”

The Vigil is the keystone of the liturgy for the rest of the year. Other Eucharists are repeatable parts of the Vigil.

One modern pilgrim recalls attending the Great Vigil at Ely Cathedral in England in the 1960s. The company drove across the flat English countryside in the late evening, arriving at the dark cathedral. They were ushered into the nave by flashlight and the liturgy began with nothing but the light of the new fire, then the lighting of the Paschal Candle. Finally, at the shout “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” the lights were turned on. An organ fanfare began the Gloria in Excelsis, and the interior of the Cathedral was ablaze with light and filled with people. There was no doubt, said the pilgrim, that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.

This liturgy is intended to give the people of God a sense of unbridled joy. It is designed to move us from the wilderness of Lent to the cross and then to the empty tomb. It is written to bring people together, remove barriers and create a new focus of unity among believers. It is the church at its best, liturgically and communally. It truly is the passover from death to life. When we renew our baptismal vows, we are struck by the way our new life is cast: fellowship and prayer, resisting of evil, proclaiming the Good News, respecting the dignity of every person, these all are part of our new life in the risen Christ.

In these times when we are beset by war, global instability, threats of terror, changing communities and migrating populations, when there seems to be no solid earth on which we can stand, this liturgy reminds us that our true home is with the risen Jesus, our paradise is in what is to come, and our redemption has been accomplished.

Now let us go forth and live it.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

 

— Ben Helmer is an interim priest in the Diocese of West Missouri. He will be celebrating the Great Vigil with the Episcopal community of Christ Church, St. Joseph, Mo. 

Standing beneath the cross, the mother, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 6, 2007

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

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

Jesus hangs on the cross. Crowds of people stand around watching the spectacle – some watching in horror, others with indifference, still others with a sense of triumph. “That annoying and dangerous prophet is in the last throes of death, thank God,” they may be thinking. There had been cries of “Crucify!” and “Give us Barabbas!” There was the disgraceful set-up of a trial – lies, sarcasm, physical and emotional abuse, and a question, “What is truth?”

Connected to Jesus all the time by the strong bonds of love and finally standing beneath the cross is the mother. It must have been an absolutely sickening sight. Human beings nailed or tied to cross-beams like animal carcasses. Blood, gore, sweat, the bodies twitching in agony – life being torn out of bodies that shouldn’t have been dying. Jesus and the two thieves weren’t sick. Jesus at least we know was still young. Human beings were deliberately ripping life out of other human beings, and for what? The other two are called “thieves.” They must have stolen something – we don’t know what. But Jesus? Jesus was only a troublemaker. Jesus dared to challenge God’s people about their lack of faith – their carelessness about living Torah. Jesus cared about the poor. He healed the sick, preached, taught, ate with the marginalized, forgave sinners. Does that deserve this kind of death? Did the thieves deserve death? Who ever deserves to have life deliberately taken away?

Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John stands with her. Can you imagine what these two are thinking? Can you imagine the crushing pain of a mother watching her son die? Die – not because he had done anything wrong, die because he loved so much. That’s the puzzlement of this whole scene. Jesus loved everyone. He paid attention even to people who tried to trick him with their unanswerable questions – or so they thought. He took them on every time, but never in a cruel or imperious way. He was always to the point, but thoughtful and kind, even when challenging. He was a teacher who had one basic lesson: love. So, for this he’s on the cross and his mother stands and watches him die.

This is a terribly quiet day. It’s embarrassing to hear the crowd yell, “Crucify him!” It wouldn’t be if this were just a story in history. It’s embarrassing because today brings us face to face with our own sin, and we might wonder how we still crucify other human beings. Once again, we don’t seem to have learned the lesson Jesus worked so hard to teach. The embarrassment makes us want to blame someone else. “The Jews killed Jesus, or maybe the Romans, but certainly not me.” But saying that creates another problem. People who have bought into that thinking have reacted throughout history with things like the Inquisition, the Crusades, Nazism, and intolerance of many different types.

And so we’re quiet. Our liturgy has a sense of stillness, and yet there is movement. On Holy Thursday, we moved from the upper room, where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet before sharing the bread and wine, into the garden. Today we retell the story of the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus. We venerate the cross in word, action, and hymn. We see the mother stand beneath the cross and picture her receiving his dead body into her arms. No mother should have to see her child die. We want to turn our eyes away, but we can’t. If we don’t look at the cross and understand that Jesus is dead, his life taken cruelly and yet given freely out of love, if we don’t see ourselves in the heart of his mother willing to be there with him even if it’s dangerous, then we might not really understand the true power of the resurrection.

God gives all so that we might begin – just begin – to understand unconditional love. Once we understand, we realize we’re asked to do the same in many different and varied ways, some easier than others – some, like this death on a cross, a total gift of self for others.

“Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

We are in the hearts of both mother and disciple. We’re given to each other by God to care for each other, to give support and love without reserve, to be willing to give our lives.

We leave this place in silence. We’ve heard our story once again. We’ve looked at the cross and imagined what it means to us. And now we wait.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

What we have before us are ‘death table’ words, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 5, 2007

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

Reading deathbed quotations can provide information and amusement, bewilderment, and boredom. Seldom, though, do famous last words produce meaning and inspiration.

Such is not the case with Jesus, however. Commonly, Good Friday sermons reflect on Christ’s last words from the cross. But his truer deathbed quotations come in the lessons for today’s worship.

Okay. What we have before us are “death table” words, but they are the famous last words of our faith and of all creation – words that provide meaning and inspiration, words that give us hope and life, in the deepest sense.

Jesus used his last moments with his inner core of followers to profound effect. He knew he was about to die. He knew they would have trouble going on without him. So he knew he had to leave them with words that would sustain them.

We heard the first of his famous last words in the Epistle reading. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

By following these instructions after he was gone, the disciples could keep Jesus among them – by recollecting, by recalling him to their presence. Through a special act, using common food, he taught them to become what he was, and to perpetuate him within themselves. As they ate what he called his body and his blood, his life itself, they became the love that Jesus was and is. Those who would accept his mission and live into his vision would become the Body of Christ in the world he was leaving behind.

Eat the Body of Christ. Drink the blood of the holy one whose self-sacrifice made you the most special and valuable beings in creation, by making us all worth dying for. Be ever connected with him. Be ever aware of God’s presence with you and God’s love for you. Do not be afraid to risk living, really living, as the reality of Jesus that is in you gives you courage and strength and comfort in the midst of this often troublesome world of ours. In this spiritual food we gain spiritual and emotional energy to sustain us on our way.

Take the body of Christ. Become the Body of Christ. Become love in unity with all others through the love of Jesus. We are united at the Lord’s Table, are we not? At least at the moment of receiving the sacraments alongside our fellow Christians, we are one. We are united with one another in all our intentions and with all our focus as we recall Jesus among us. We are at total peace with one another and all of humanity in this special, holy moment.

Sometimes it may be only for that moment, as we perhaps stray into negative or judgmental thoughts, noticing something or someone even as we return to our pew. Nevertheless, the action stands for us as the benchmark for what we can become. The loving, peaceful unity of the Lord’s Table can become reality in our day-to-day lives. Theses famous last words of Jesus can transform us. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The other famous last words of Jesus come to us from St. John’s version of the Last Supper. He gives us a more specific understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ. As the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, fills us up, it overflows from us onto others in the form of loving actions.

Jesus got down on the ground before the disciples and washed their dusty feet as a way to lead them into actions of love for others. To be the Body of Christ, he says, reach out with your resources to serve others as I am serving you. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”

These famous last words in this startling exemplary action tell us what to do as his followers. Remember this, he tell us. Remember me in front of you, serving you, and do the same for others.

On the eve of his death, Jesus did not focus on his need but on the needs of others. The one who was the leader – the focus of all attention, the master – became like a slave to those who by all logic should have served him. In taking the towel and basin to himself, Jesus turned the realities of the world upside down and shook them out so the values of God could pour out on us. He transformed the traditional understanding of power and laid priority on values that rest only in God.

In the light of the events of the night before Jesus died, could his closest followers have failed to remember his teachings about caring for the least among us? After he was gone, must they not have connected his washing their feet with his continual reminders about loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – about denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses in following him?

Did Jesus’ famous last words provide meaning and inspiration – giving hope and life, in the deepest sense? The answer bears itself out day by day as we, his followers, remember – as we recall him to presence and face the challenge of becoming the very Body of Christ, loving others as Jesus loved us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

A time of confusion, suffering, and betrayal, Palm Sunday (C) – 2007

April 1, 2007

Isaiah 50:3-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

After hearing a presentation as profound as the Passion Narrative, mere words seem almost like an intrusion. Our reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday turns us from the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city Jerusalem, and calls us to face the grim reality of Holy Week ahead.

Easter is there, beckoning, at the end of this week’s mystical journey. But until then, the church enters into a time of confusion, a place of suffering, and a context of betrayal, fear, and pain. Were we on an airplane journey, our flight crew would caution us to fasten our seat belts, as turbulence – not just some “bumpy air,” but real turbulence – surely lies ahead.

In this dark and difficult time, we will do what we Christians always do in our liturgy: we will commemorate historical occurrences and celebrate divine revelation. And we do so, not so that we can suffer as Christ did, but because we participate in a gradual unfolding of a single divine act. The world has been redeemed – once and for all – and each and every one of us has already been saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.

And this entire saving mystery is before our eyes each day. Our liturgy, our commemorations, our enactment of Holy Week serve to manifest but one part of that great mystery more concretely. We celebrate Holy Week as we observed all of Lent – not as if we had never been redeemed, but as having the stamp of the cross upon us, seeking to be better conformed to the death of Christ, so that the resurrection may be more and more clearly shown through us.

The redemptive love of God reaches its height in the sacrifice of the cross, and the church issues forth in glory from the resurrection that follows. But the church does not die again this Good Friday, nor rise again this Easter. Rather, the church remembers these ancient events, and through this remembering participates more fully in the plan of salvation.

The mystery of the church’s year is a whole, of one piece. The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is one event. And the path of humankind from sin to salvation is one continuous action.

And so, let us set our face on Jerusalem, that heavenly city where Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Let us fasten our spiritual seat belts in preparation for the rough ride of the coming week. And let us look ahead in certain hope and joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of all Scripture, the coming of the reign of God, the return of Christ in glorious majesty.

And until that time, we have a mission and ministry: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To assist us in that most daunting task, the church provides this yearly remembrance so that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.

In this, Holy Week is a mysterious paradox. Begun today in triumph, with people waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” as Jesus enters Jerusalem, it has already shifted into that dark time of suffering and death.

The great omnipotent God who created the universe, who has existed since before time, and will continue to exist after everything we hold dear has come to ruin, who sees all and knows all, who became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ: this same God is now hanging nailed to a cross in the mid-day heat.

The God who caused floods, who spoke through earthquakes, wind, and fire: this same God now chooses to submit to agony of the most extreme severity.

The God who led the people of Israel out of captivity, stayed with them as they wandered in the desert, and guided them to the promised land: this same God now gives himself up to death.

It may seem odd at first that an all-powerful God would choose to go through such an ordeal, that the highest power of all would choose not to act, not to rescue, not to save.

Yet for us as Christians, this is no contradiction. For Easter is immanent, already on the horizon. We know that just a week from today we will be singing out in joy again.

For those first-century Palestinians, however, the outcome was far less certain. They had no idea that the tomb would be empty on Easter morn. No, they would have cried with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For us, this is a powerful reminder that miracles happen in God’s time, not ours.

So often, we become like those ancient Israelites, taunting God to demonstrate mighty power at our command. They said it this way: “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

For most of us, the words usually sound something like this: “If you really are God, take away the cancer now,” or “If you love me, God, lift this burden from me,” or “You who are so powerful, why won’t you just give me a little help?”

Worse yet, we become like those chief priests, scribes, and elders. They said, “Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

Our bargaining typically sounds like this: “If you will just heal this disease, I will believe in you,” or “Deliver me from this horrific situation, and I will be ever faithful,” or “Just let me have this one thing, and I will show my thanks by making a generous donation to your church, O God.”

But God rarely responds with a quick fix for our problems. And God does not make bargains with us. God’s saving help does come to us when we really need it – but not necessarily when we think we need it. Miracles do happen, but in God’s time, not ours.

Sometimes, we need to experience the depth of our iniquity before we can appreciate the joy of our many blessings. In the Twelve Step movement, they speak of needing to “hit bottom” before recovery is possible. In our Christian vocabulary, we affirm that we need to suffer death before resurrection can occur.

This is part of the pilgrim journey for us this Holy Week. Like Jesus, we give ourselves up to death, so that we, too, can be resurrected. We die to sin, to selfish ways, to all that has held us captive. We let go of our need to control, of our anger and our envy, of our intemperate love of power, status, and wealth.

And we give in to the love that will not let us go, to the power that will indeed come to our aid when we truly need it, and to the sure and certain hope that God is already doing more for us than we can ask or imagine.

So let us once again muster the courage to look into the face of death this Holy Week. For us, darkness has now come over the whole land, and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. And the only way out is to trust in God alone, saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates is associate rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City and a Ph.D. candidate in liturgical studies at Drew University.