Archives for 2007

Seeing Christmas, 1 Christmas – 2007

December 30, 2007

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7; John 1: 1-18

I once watched a television program on the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. It was said that he had the finest mind since Einstein. He had worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at the California Institute of Technology, and as a final project, had served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.

The TV program talked about Feynman’s friendship with an artist, and how the artist had taught Feynman about art and Feynman had taught the artist about physics. At one point in the program Feynman held up a flower. He commented that his artist-friend had said how wonderful it was that everyone could see its beauty, that no specialized knowledge was necessary to appreciate the wonder of the flower.

Feynman agreed that this was partially true, everyone could look at the flower and see it; but as a scientist, he was able to “see” much more of the flower than most of us. He could see the beauty of the cells working together to support life; the mystery of the flower’s color, locked in its cells, that attracted insects; which, in turn, would lead him to wonder about the insect’s perception of color. In short, Feynman “saw” much more in that flower in a few minutes that most of us would see in a lifetime of looking.

Christmas, too, is deserving of that same kind of looking.

We need to “see” Christmas in ways that move beyond the sentimental and saccharin. So often we see Christmas and the familiar Christmas story by looking at a Christmas card that has a neat and tidy picture of the nativity on it. We look at it the way we might look at the flowers at the market as we pass by to get to the produce.

The prologue to the Gospel of John invites us to look at the Incarnation as Richard Feynman looked at the flower. The Church, in its wisdom, chooses the prologue to John’s gospel both for Christmas and the Sunday following each year. We are invited to let the words roll over us, like waves of music. We love to hear them, even though we may not be too sure about what they mean. John’s words can be like wonderful music that is experienced before it is understood.

The passage from John is more than just the preface to the gospel; indeed, the remainder of the book is in a sense an elaboration on Verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

John has no nativity story, no animals in the barn, no shepherds and angels, but presents us instead with this hymn to Christ. This hymn is a love song, full of increasing light, celebrating the relationship between God and God’s only child and then extending that intimate relationship to embrace all humankind. These are powerful words that speak to us about the one who comes to us in power to make all things new for us – the exiles, the inhabitants of darkness.

Who is this Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us?

If we see only the baby lying in the manger, we see only part of the picture. As we did not celebrate Advent by pretending that Christ has not come, so we do not celebrate Christmas by pretending we don’t know what is going to happen to this child.

Christmas does not stand alone; it cannot be celebrated properly in isolation from the whole story of Jesus the Christ. To separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the harsh reality of the crucifixion is to engage in denial. The whole story reminds us that we must also see Jesus as the one who is not received. The very people who hoped, finally got the one for whom they hoped, and they did not recognize him and rejected him. When God came to us, it was as one who is weak and vulnerable, not just as the holy infant, but also as the adult hanging on the cross.

Yet Jesus, the weak, flesh-and-bone one, has real power. It is not the world’s power; it is not the power to make things right or prosperous. The power of Christ continues to be rejected by the world because it is the wrong kind of power. Jesus’ power is to let us be who we are created to be – children of God.

By embracing his weakness, our lives are transformed, and we are empowered. It is the one who is empty who makes full. It is the one who is poor who makes rich. It is the one who dies who gives life.

This Jesus, the rejected yet powerful one, comes full of grace and truth. The Evangelist here quotes a phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning loyalty and reliability. Because of the coming of Christ, we look at the world in a new way. God’s faithfulness contrasts with our daily experiences in the world and calls us to faithfulness also.

The coming of Jesus presents us with a choice. We can be transformed by the power of the gospel to be God’s people, walking in God’s vulnerable ways. Or we can reject him and continue business as usual. Business as usual means sitting in the darkness, shielding our eyes, and turning away from the life-giving light. The story around which we gather today is one of transforming hope for a new life. We are invited to cooperate with the divine initiative, to let the light enable us to see the path more clearly, to make a new beginning as God’s people. Where that happens, heaven and earth do sing, there is joy to the world, and the waste places do break forth together in singing.

The Church gives us not one day, but twelve, to celebrate the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Join me in taking that time. Don’t be overwhelmed or fatigued by the cultural trappings that have surrounded us since August.

Persevere in hope and joy; don’t abandon them like Christmas trees discarded on Christmas afternoon.

For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

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

Our story, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2007

December 25, 2007

Isaiah 62:6-12Psalm 97Titus 3:4-7Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

On Christmas morning couple of years ago, I was walking down Eleventh Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, to prepare for the eleven-o’clock service at my former church. There, at the curb, was someone’s Christmas tree, laid out for the trash truck. Now, can you imagine this? It was 9:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, and one of the neighbors – who, thankfully, will remain anonymous – had already taken down the decorations, the lights, the glass balls; removed the screws that attached the trunk to the stand; and carried their symbol of the Christmas celebration to the curb for the Department of Sanitation to remove along with yesterday’s junk mail.

Nine-thirty in the morning on Christmas Day.

It makes sense, you see, in our culture. It makes sense that a Christmas season that starts, at latest, in September and builds into a consumer frenzy in November should come to a crashing climax on Christmas Eve. We mailed our cards, bought our presents, and given our parties. We’ve sung the carols, enjoyed the meals, shared the gifts. Now, let’s relax. Let’s put away all this stuff, clean up all the mess, and enjoy that welcome sense of relief. It’s time to move on. Good grief, New Year’s Eve is barely a week away!

Yet, that is not what we celebrate liturgically. This is not the first time this winter that the church has proclaimed a countercultural message. Remember, during Advent, we were told to keep awake, to be still and know that God is God, to prepare in solemnity for the coming of Christ. That alone made us Christians feel a bit Scrooge-like, didn’t it?

And now – when our culture says Christmas is over – we are reveling in twelve days of it. And we’re only at day one.

We, in the church, are telling a different story from the one told by our culture. I’m told that some towns, in an attempt to thwart laws that prevent municipally sponsored manger scenes, have erected a kind of stable out of wood, in which they’ve placed a manger filled with hay, and laid the statue of a babe in it. Just to be sure you don’t think this could be the Son of God, they show Santa Claus kneeling in homage.

That’s our cultural norm, I’m afraid: Jolly old St. Nicholas, who comes to give good children gifts – and bad ones lumps of coal. And jolly old Fifth Avenue, that sells the best gifts money can buy.

Our culture’s idea of Christmas is all about spending, buying, getting more and more stuff. It’s about rewards and punishments, based on worthiness. It’s almost demonic.

Yet, our Christian story is not about gifts – although it may well include gifts, as tokens of our love.

Our story is about the redemption of the world.

Our story is about singing praises to our heavenly God, who created us out of dust.

Our story is about this God who became human, one of us.

Our story is about a God who frees all those who trust from Satan’s power and might.

And our story is not over, not complete, not fulfilled. That’s true at the level of the Christmas story, which began with the Annunciation. Don’t tell the retailers, or else next year they’ll set out Christmas decorations on March 25!

The Christmas story has slogged through morning sickness, and hormonal changes, and nine months of pregnancy – pretty ordinary stuff, hardly festive. Then, one day, the story bursts forth into joy. That’s Christmas: out of quiet, humble, simple beginnings comes an event that will rock the world.

And Mary and Joseph don’t seem to get it. Mary’s probably decided by now that the encounter with the angel months ago was some kind of hallucination. Here she is, with her working-poor husband in a stable, giving birth among the animals. Then shepherds appear, praising God. That’s a lovely thing, I imagine her saying. Aren’t the people friendly here in Bethlehem? And still, she doesn’t seem to grasp just who she holds in her arms, who suckles at her breast.

Then to complete this chapter, twelve days later, wise ones from the East appear, bringing gifts of unimaginable splendor. Great monarchs, in rich robes, traveling many miles in large entourages.

And Mary, who just days before, was bartering with a local tradesman, exchanging some wild onions she picked for some goat milk – Mary now has a chest of gold, some precious ointment, and some expensive incense.

This marks the end of the chapter, not the birth of the infant savior. And the church commemorates this event on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

On Epiphany Eve, you see, Mary and Joseph received gifts they could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Heavenly and divine gifts, to be sure. Gifts you and I each have received, as well. Gifts we could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Gifts of grace, of redemption, of love.

The gifts themselves had a monetary value in their culture, of course – but that’s not the point. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh – these gifts served primarily to point to the significance of another gift they had already received: the gift of God’s grace and redemption and love in the birth of Jesus.

So today and for twelve days hence, we revel in the chapter called “Christmas.” And we do so knowing that the birth of Jesus was the highlight of the story – but not the end of it.

Like so many stories, we really will not grasp the meaning of it until it is completely over. We focus on the beautiful image of a tiny babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. We reveled in that evocative image so much that we missed the point: “born on earth to save us, him the father gave us.”

And so the Church gives us, not one, but twelve days as a kind of “second chance” on Christmas.

Twelve days, to see behind the sense of obligation the underlying love that each gift given represents.

Twelve days, to realize how much we are loved by God.

Twelve days, to appreciate how little we deserve that love.

Twelve days, to comprehend that we have done nothing to earn that love.

Twelve days, to believe that God loves us unconditionally.

Twelve days, to revel in this good news of great joy.

Twelve days, to understand what it is to worship Emmanuel, God with us.

Twelve days, to feast on the joy of our redemption.

Twelve days, to spread the word, as tidings of comfort and joy.

Twelve days, to sing, with one accord, our praises to our heavenly Lord.

Twelve days, to let the flames of love lead us to the joys of heaven.

Twelve days, to comprehend how much we, each of us, are capable of giving and receiving the one gift that endures: love.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey.

Ready or Not, Advent 4(A) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just around the corner. Ready or not, it’s just about time for the Christmas story, told by carol, by pageant, by Sunday school children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. And when we say “the Christmas story,” we usually mean Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know, the one with the shepherds kneeling at the manger, sheep illuminated by all the heavenly host. The spotlight shines on Mary and the baby. Joseph is there too, of course. Although Joseph usually doesn’t get any speaking lines, unless he gets to ask for room at the inn, or to inquire “please, isn’t there somewhere my very pregnant wife can lay down?” But that’s a story for Christmas Eve.

Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we also hear the Christmas story, but it’s the one told in Matthew’s gospel. Here, in Matthew, we hear the Christmas story from the point of view of the father. Well, er, not the “father” exactly.

Joseph is decidedly not the father of Jesus. And when Joseph hears that the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and he’s not the father, he assumes what any normal person would: Mary has been unfaithful. And Joseph, being a righteous man, plans to dissolve in form the engagement commitment that apparently has already been dissolved in fact.

But Joseph soon learns that the disruption of his plans for a nice simple home life with his bride and his dreams of becoming a father are not actually the stuff of soap opera drama. His question of “Who’s the father?” is actually part of a much larger, divine drama in which he will play a pivotal role – but not the role of father, exactly.

How fitting that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is about the father who isn’t one. You see, Matthew’s got this thing about fathers. Matthew has very strong opinions about how people who follow the Son of God should regard earthly fathers and the Heavenly One.

It’s in Matthew 29 that Jesus instructs his disciples, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” Starting with Jesus, whose Father really is the one in heaven, Matthew gives those who want to follow Jesus plenty to think about in terms of reorienting our earthly relationships, including those between children and earthly fathers.

Jesus teaches his followers to orient their allegiance toward God, and all other loyalties need to fall into their rightful places in light of our relationship with God. That means privileges usually given to fathers in Jesus’ day, such as treating children as property in many ways, and authority granted to fathers, such as making decisions binding on all members of the household, were to be removed. This means a radical redefinition of family, which Jesus himself exemplifies.

In Matthew 12, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, and he replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You’ll notice that in Jesus’ family configuration, there are only brothers and sisters and mothers, and these are whoever does the will of the only Father, the one in heaven. Earthly fathers become brothers, giving up their earthly privileges over others, and, like those who had less power than they in Jesus’ day, they too find their meaning and purpose in the will of the one Father in heaven.

As if to emphasize this reconfiguration of family, especially of fathers, Matthew’s gospel shows us a few earthly fathers. And it’s not a pretty sight. There are some real bad dads, starting with Herod the Great. This earthly dad had some of his own children murdered in order to protect his position as king. And when he hears that some visiting magi have identified a Galilean peasant’s son as a potential rival, he orders the slaughter of the children of an entire village.

One of Herod’s surviving sons, called Herod Antipas, is another bad earthly father. When he sees his step-daughter dance, he makes an oath that she can have anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Children need appropriate boundaries, as any child psychologist will tell you, and Herod just can’t say no. When his darling child asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he can’t bring himself to disappoint her. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks, “Who among you,” asks Jesus, “if your child asks for bread, would give a stone?” Well, Herod, bad father that he is, will give his child, not food and protection, but serves up a gruesome and tragic dish instead.

But even when Matthew isn’t showing us truly horrible earthly fathers, he still pushes us on what our relationship to one another should be, even to our earthly fathers. For example, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow him. They do, and they leave their earthly father standing alone in his boat.

We get a hint at what Jesus means about becoming a new family with one heavenly Father by watching these two throughout Matthew’s gospel. When they’re acting like followers of Jesus, that is, as true sons of Jesus’ Father, they’re called “brothers”: “James and his brother John,” or “the two brothers.” But, when they’re acting like they’ve never heard of Jesus, for example, when they’re trying to get the best seats in the kingdom, or falling asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, they’re called “Sons of Zebedee.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to break our familiar patterns, and that even now we may put the desires and demands of blood relatives ahead of our loyalty to our one heavenly Father and his son, our brother, and his family.

When Matthew shows earthly parents who are doing right by their children, they are bringing them to Jesus, they are asking for their children to be healed, they are letting Jesus bless them. When parents care for their children by putting them in Jesus’ care, they are acting as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven. When any one of us cares for the least, the lost, the vulnerable, the weak, the little ones in our midst, we are acting as sons and daughters of our one Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus.

It’s at the beginning of this story that the spotlight shines on Joseph, who shows the baby Jesus the kind of care that is in line with what the child’s Father, and ours, desires. Joseph shows the kind of care that all of us are to show to those who are most vulnerable in society. Joseph follows the command of God. Joseph risks his own sense of what looks proper to the neighbors. Joseph aligns himself with someone others would call unrighteous. Joseph acts decisively when the child’s safety is at risk. Joseph is willing to act in such a way that Jesus will grow up knowing that his first allegiance is to God, and that means his family will be bigger, broader, and, yes, stranger than any family Joseph could provide. Joseph is no earthly father to be sure, but shows us precisely the sort of love our heavenly Father wants us all to show.

May we, like Joseph our brother, know and show the love of our Father in heaven, this Christmas and always.

Written by the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. E-mail: arichter@ang-md.org.

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.

Today we are invited to swim against the tide. Let us consider that invitation., Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2007

February 21, 2007

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today we are invited to swim against the tide. Let us consider that invitation. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A man was recalling his grandmother’s recipe collection. Some, he remembered, were in well-used cookbooks, and some were on index cards.

But he recalled the oldest recipes in her vast collection were printed on fragile, yellowed paper, fragments from mysterious sources. These recipes were in German, her native language. Moreover, they were printed in small Gothic type, a style still in use when his grandmother was a bride. Because he knew no German, confused one Gothic letter with another, and did not want to touch paper that might crumble, these oldest recipes remained incomprehensible to him.

Bringing up recipes – and by implication food – may seem inappropriate here on Ash Wednesday, which is the fast day in the Episcopal Church. But remembering that grandmother’s oldest recipes may be helpful. For many people find the traditional disciplines of Lent as incomprehensible, as unapproachable, as her grandson once found those crumbling clippings.

Consider today’s gospel. Jesus takes for granted three practices central to Jewish devotion: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He does not doubt that his disciples will continue to keep these practices. His only concern is that they pray and fast and give alms in the right spirit: not to impress people, but to deepen their relationship with God.

But prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not behaviors we take for granted today. Traditional Jewish practices that became traditional Christian practices, they are not exactly forms of behavior encouraged by the dominant culture in our time and place. To engage in these practices is to swim against the tide. And so the words about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we hear in this Ash Wednesday service may be as puzzling and impenetrable as German recipes in Gothic type once were to that grandson.

Yet translation remains a possibility. Prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving need not be quaint, obsolete customs confined to the pages of the Prayer Book and the Bible. They can reappear in a contemporary lifestyle, one that calls into question the status quo, that refuses easy answers, that exchanges contemporary craziness for deep-down, delicious sanity. This is a lifestyle that gets us right with God, with creation, with other people, and even with ourselves.

Ask people how they’re doing, and so often the answer includes the word “busy.” People take their own busy-ness and other people’s for granted – almost. There’s a strain in how people say the word, as though they want you to tell them they really don’t have to be so insistently busy. They want to be absolved of their busy-ness by something less drastic than cardiac arrest.

Then down the road Jesus comes talking about prayer. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat.

Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message. If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then pray. Leave some empty space for God. Give up rushing.

Have you ever been in an affluent residential neighborhood in an urban area, with splendid houses whose prices go well into the millions? Ever notice how many of these houses had bars on the windows? Bars on the windows put the homes of the extremely wealthy in the same category with jails and insane asylums. Are these people imprisoned by what they have? Is it driving them crazy? Yet a million-dollar mansion is not necessary for us to need to face the question: Do we have stuff or does our stuff have us? Are we stuffing our houses, our bodies, our lives to the point of no return?

Then down the road Jesus comes talking about fasting. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat.

Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message: If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then fast. Don’t exist as simply a consumer. Unclutter your life.

Author Richard Hart tells the story of a Russian woman whose son was court-martialed and executed shortly before the start of World War 2. The grieving mother searched out the soldier who had fired the shot that killed her son, only to discover that he was critically ill and near death. The mother nursed him back to life – and then adopted him.

So often we experience the world as full of strangers. We do not look for the connection between them and us. The humanity common to them and us goes unrecognized. Their problems have nothing to do with our problems, or so we say.

Then down the road Jesus comes talking about almsgiving. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat – even a Russian mother who adopted the man who killed her son.

Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message. If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then give alms. Not just a few coins, but the love in your heart. Always look for the connection between you and that other person. Treat no one as a stranger.

Don’t leave the message of Lent dead on the page like a recipe in an unknown language in a strange typeface on crumbling paper. It’s a hungry world out there, waiting for the word to become flesh, the recipe to become food yet again.

Live your life as a translation that’s unmistakable: give up rushing; unclutter your life; treat no one as a stranger.

Do these things, make them your lifestyle, and you’ll find yourself walking to the rhythm of Jesus and the saints.

In the name of the One who, though we are dust, invites us to sparkle with eternal light: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

The season of light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2007

January 6, 2007

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light. In fact the Greek church, in the language of the people, has called this season, Ta Phota: “the lights.”

In the Eastern church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. This liturgical season resides also in symbolism, something people in the east seem to understand much more easily than we in the West. The presence of water in Epiphany is as meaningful as that of light, perhaps reminding us that this was the preferred time for baptism in the early church. On Epiphany Day in every port city in Greece, the Orthodox bishop throws a cross into the waters of the sea and brave young men jump into the cold January Aegean to retrieve it. In offices and homes, round loaves of Epiphany bread are broken and shared. Light, bread, the cross, and water. The magi are hardly mentioned.

In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos (which is the singular of magi) was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king, as we heard in the Psalm for today, was expected to have qualities of the magos – there was a mystical association with the supernatural in the Jewish tradition. As it says in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

So when we tie all these symbols together, we enter into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away, or literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder, yes, even the good magic of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling that first thrill that ran through our little bodies when the story first entered our consciousness? The Eastern kings, dressed in many-colored robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them, leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem—these remain in our consciousness.

One wonders if the story came down to Matthew from someone who remembered it from the palace, who passed it on from parent to child. Maybe it was someone who recalled the bloodshed in that palatial, miserable household – how Herod, who had not wanted to leave his throne to anyone, was shocked with fear when he considered that an heir other than his sons would inherit it. How the Jewish chief priests and scribes trembled before Herod’s wrath when asked for the prophecy of the birthplace of Messiah. How frightened Herod was that the town mentioned by the prophet Micah was Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem and how he ordered his servants into a conspiracy of false hospitality. The story must have been told again and again until it reached Matthew years later, and it was such a marvelous story that Matthew could not resist it. It was a blessed choice for millions of readers and listeners through the centuries.

After months of traveling through the desert, the magi arrive first at the palace in Jerusalem – they were expecting to find a king, after all, so the first place they think of is the palace – and thus give the shock of his life to Herod who, cunningly, sends them on to find this child. When they reach Bethlehem, do they feel disappointment to enter a humble household? Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy.

They see the child with his mother. She is holding him on her lap as they kneel and bend to touch their foreheads to the ground. What is Mary thinking when she sees the gifts they offer? Does she feel a premonition when she smells the myrrh, an herb used for burial? Later in her life, will she stand at the foot of the terrible cross remembering that beautiful visit and the premonition of his death?

We can only guess. We only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the far east and the near east came together. But the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something else that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century. The rich and the poor mingle in harmony in this story. The rich don’t withhold from the poor; they offer not only necessities, but luxury and beauty. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim – peace on earth, good will toward all people, mercy to the poor – the acknowledgment of the full humanity of the poor, of women, and of children (which was an alien concept in the ancient world). The rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.

May that image stay with us to give balance to our thinking, to our lives.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.