Archives for April 2010

He hears his master’s voice, 4 Easter (C) – 2010

April 25, 2010

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

It’s an old, familiar image, but a powerful one, that for nearly a century has illustrated what was once a new, amazing reality. The Radio Corporation of America, or “RCA,” created a lasting logo: the figure of a dog sitting before a Victrola record player, staring in wonder at the speaker. The caption told it all: “He hears his master’s voice.”

Obviously, this classic advertisement relied on the common knowledge of dogs and their relationship with owners. Whenever an owner calls a dog, the animal will begin to wag its tail and squirm and jump in eager anticipation of being petted or scratched or fed or taken outside.

Jesus used a similar reality in trying to explain to his disciples his love for them and his relationship with them. In today’s gospel reading we experienced a glimpse of Jesus reflecting on his ministry by using the imagery of a shepherd. He characterized who and what he was for them – and who he is for us.

To Jesus and the people of his day, tending sheep was a familiar activity that meant many things. The shepherd led the sheep to good pasturage, looked after the strays, exercised responsibility for protecting the sheep, served as midwife for the birthing of lambs, and paid special attention to the little lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. The shepherd knew each of his sheep and valued the life of every one. The shepherd was deeply devoted to his flock.

In referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus gives us a way to more fully appreciate his ministry. In our gospel today, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”

If we can see ourselves as sheep of a Godly flock, we can better understand our relationship to Jesus – a savior whom we can imagine as a good, caring, dependable shepherd.

Jesus was almost certainly playing on an image much more ancient than that of RCA’s Victrola. We recited it in our psalm today – a hymn of confidence offered by one who knew the great joy that “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Jesus cares for us as surely as did a good shepherd of his day. In the same ways, he leads us to all that truly sustains life at its deepest level. His example calls us into question when we stray from his way like lost sheep, and his gracious forgiveness saves us when we turn back to God. His love protects us and heals us. He serves as a midwife for our new spiritual births, and he leads us into transformations from the ways of the world to the way of God. He pays special attention to the poorest and most vulnerable, the least and lost among us.

Our task might be considered something like emulating the RCA dog. We do well by learning to recognize our master’s voice so we can hear his word and follow him. We hear the resonance of Jesus’ voice in worship, in the regular reading of scripture, and in our own private prayer time. We hear the resonance of his voice in the loving example of saintly Christians and in the cry of the weak – the poor and sick and needy of our world. All this enables us to identify the voice of Jesus when he calls to us.

One of the great dangers for us is in not recognizing Jesus in our lives, like sheep not hearing the voice of the shepherd. It is very easy for us to fail to discern his will because we can’t separate his voice from the many others clamoring for our attention. Such is the nature of this complex and difficult twenty-first century world, full of potential distractions. Everywhere we go, there are voices calling out – voices that say “buy this” or “do this” or “say this” or “go this direction” or “act this way” or “don’t tend to that need.” There are voices competing with one another, vying for our attention, seeking to gain control of our lives in big and little ways.

So, we Christians must keep our ears tuned to the voice of Jesus, our good shepherd, calling out in the midst of those other voices. Of course, the danger is that if we do not know how to recognize his voice, there is no way for us to walk through life under the protection of his love and care. The good news is that we can experience joy and happiness if we recognize the voice of Jesus as we make the journey through life.

When we act confidently in the presence and reassuring voice of Jesus, it becomes easier to follow the way of our Lord, easier to love our enemies, easier to offer forgiveness to one who has hurt us, easier to turn the other cheek, easier to bear witness to Jesus. It will be easier to follow Jesus at work, home, school, and at leisure because we will be acting confidently, reassured by the presence of the one whose voice we recognize.

The Jesus whose lordship we proclaim this day is truly our good shepherd whose presence is constantly with us, his flock. The challenge for each of us is to learn to listen for his voice, putting forward the time and effort to clearly recognize his voice when he calls to us.

As we continue our journey through this season of Easter, let us dedicate ourselves to the task of reading Jesus’ word in Holy Scripture, worshipping regularly, saying our daily prayers and devotions, and looking throughout our daily lives for his calling to act as servants of Christ, reaching out in love and care and concern for all his children. In this way, we who hear our master’s voice will heed it, and in doing so will witness to others the very values of God.
— 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 in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Earth Day: An Easter celebration, 3 Easter (C) – 2010

April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s scripture readings are replete with hopeful images and stories.

In today’s psalm, David exalts God who has lifted him “out of the depths,” healed him, and brought him “up from the grave.” God turns David’s “wailing into dancing.”

In the reading from Revelation, millions of angels sing in a “loud voice.” Imagine being there and hearing the preposterous thundering beauty of such a chorus, all singing praise to God’s lamb, Jesus. And then imagine the rest of creation, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea” joining the chorus!

Acts tells the story of Saul’s conversion – from one issuing “murderous threats” against the early Christians to one proclaiming the gospel throughout the known world. If Saul can be converted, it seems safe to say, anyone of us could be as well.

Finally, the Gospel of John paints a beautiful picture. It’s dawn. Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. Seven of the disciples had been fishing the previous night. It must’ve been a calm morning as the disciples heard this stranger call to them from 100 yards away. He tells them to drop their nets one more time on the other side of the boat, and for the first time that night their nets fill to overflowing. What’s even more hopeful than the great catch, of course, is that the murdered Jesus was alive, had been raised from the dead, and was there on the shore, roasting fish for them over an open fire.

It’s appropriate that our readings today contain such images and stories of hope. After all, we have just celebrated Easter – we’ve gone through Lent to the unlikeliest outcome imaginable: that we are, along with Christ, raised from the dead; that a conversion like Saul’s is possible for us as well; that we can be released from our own prisons and be made whole.

Following the celebration of Easter, Earth Day comes along. The timing, frankly, seems a little off. Those who proposed and celebrated the first Earth Day probably didn’t consult the Christian calendar. If they did, they may well have chosen to mark Earth Day during the season of Lent.

Why Lent? Well, because Lent is often characterized by words like reflection, sacrifice, repentance. Lent is the time set aside to acknowledge our limits. After all, the season begins with a smudged cross on our foreheads and the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are Earth and to Earth we shall return.

Earth Day needs to call us to a stance not unlike that of Lent: a day to reflect on how our own lives and our society’s economic practices impact God’s creation. A time to reflect on our own call in relationship to God’s creation, human and non-human.

So what is our call here? It’s perhaps the most foundational question to ask, for if we believe all of creation is simply here for our own use and abuse, then it doesn’t really matter how our own lives or our economy impacts God’s world.

So what is our role? Consider, for a moment, that it is to serve, not just other humans, but all of God’s created order.

In the second chapter of Genesis we read that we were put in the garden to “till and keep” or to “work it and take care of it.” If we take a look at the Hebrew word often translated as “till” or “work” or “cultivate,” we find the word abad. Abad is the Hebrew word for “serve.” It’s the same word that shows up in the profound words of Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will abad the Lord” – meaning we will “serve” the Lord.

It’s telling to note that, by and large, we humans don’t think of “serve,” as appears in that second chapter of Genesis, as the best descriptor of our role in relationship to God’s Earth. Rather, it’s safe to say that more of us think of “dominion,” as appears in first chapter of Genesis. That’s the more famous verse.

Let’s briefly consider dominion. This verse was written within a Hebrew culture, and within that culture kings were those who had dominion. As Calvin DeWitt points out in his book “EarthWise,” a good Hebrew king exercised dominion with “mercy, justice and compassion” on behalf of his constituents.

Furthermore, as Christians, we proclaim Christ as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Christ has dominion. But Jesus was always turning things on their heads – including what it means to be a king with dominion. One of the places we see that most clearly is in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus says, “For even I … came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Our role here on God’s good earth is to be servants of creation.

The litany of evidence suggesting our service is not going so well is indeed long.

Species, expressions of God’s abundance and creativity and love, are going extinct at a rate not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They are disappearing at 1,000 to 10,000 times the “background rate” or natural extinction rate. Human activity, particularly habitat distruction, is the cause of such extinctions.

In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or “MA” was released. Carried out over a four-year period, the report brought together nearly 1,400 experts from 95 countries. The assessment focuses on the benefits people obtain from ecosystems – such as food, water, pollination, and climate regulation. The bottom line of the MA findings is that “human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

While the debate in the United States goes on, it’s hard to look into the eyes of a Pacific Islander or Alaskan coastal native or Filipino farmer and say climate change is not real. Leaders of the Anglican Communion in the Philippines recently wrote the following in a letter to a justice network in the Diocese of Olympia:

“A year ago, our own Bishop of our Diocese of North Central Philippines, Rt. Rev. Joel A. Pachao, said in a meeting with some of our foreign partners, ‘We are doing all these environmental stewardship programs so that you can continue to drive your SUVs.’ It was an expression of anger … over the fact that it is us in the so-called ‘developing … countries’ who are suffering most from the effects of climate change which can be attributed to carbon … emissions, the bulk of which are from the western developed countries.”

It starts to become clear why it seems like Earth Day belongs in the season of Lent, marked by repentance and humility.

But isn’t there something missing here?

Yes, there is; and it’s the fact that Earth Day can also be a day of profound celebration. Think of all the beauty in the world: say, a newborn babe cradled in its mother’s arms; a glacier lily springing up from underneath spring snow; a basket of fresh collard greens; a walk in your favorite place; a fresh corn tortilla; your favorite bird song; you and your community taking care of the green space at the end of your block.

All of this beauty and goodness is a gift from God and God’s creation. The great ecologist E.O. Wilson believes we are all lovers of that creation; we are hardwired, he says, to love life. He calls this “biophilia.”

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently told an audience at Southwark Cathedral in London that people had allowed themselves to become “addicted to fantasies about prosperity and growth, dreams of wealth without risk and profit without cost.”

Those fantasies have disconnected us from our innate biophilia. Williams contends that those fantasies lead to a lifestyle where the human soul was “one of the foremost casualties of environmental degradation.” He went on to say:

“Many of the things which have moved us towards ecological disaster have been distortions of whom and what we are and their overall effect has been to isolate us from the reality we’re part of. Our response to this crisis needs to be, in the most basic sense, a reality check.”

So perhaps part of the really good news of Earth Day is that it offers the opportunity to heal our disconnection from that which we love so deeply. The distortions of who and what we are will begin to heal; we will reunite with that innate biophilia; no longer will we quiet the song of another species, or of a babe in arms. The angels and all the creatures surrounding the throne depicted in Revelations will be healed and proclaim praises in full voice.

May it be so. It may sound utopian, but it is something Jesus believed in so much that he was willing to die for it – for such will the Kingdom of God be like. Maybe Easter is, after all, an appropriate season for us to mark and celebrate Earth Day.

 

— Michael Schut served as the Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer of the Episcopal Church, following 11 years on the staff of Earth Ministry. His most recent book is “Money and Faith: The Search for Enough” (Morehouse Publishing, 2009). Michael speaks and leads workshops and retreats around the country, connecting faith, justice, sustainable economics, and care for all God’s creation.

Removing the locks on our hearts, 2 Easter (C) – 2010

April 11, 2010

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

Every night the same routine played out. It happened around the time the 11 o’clock news was on. As a child she usually slept right through it, but there were those occasions when she’d rouse from sleep, hearing the familiar gate of her father’s footsteps walking first to the kitchen door, then to the front door, then tramp downstairs to the basement. Dad would walk through the house and check the doors and secure the locks if need be.

It was a safe feeling to have – knowing that Dad was making everything safe and secure and that she and her family were out of harm’s way. Locked doors, secure doors, were comforting. The doors said, “If you just stay holed up here until daylight, then all will be well.” It was as if, in their silent and stalwart way, they were saying, “Everything is going to be okay, nothing can get through me, and I’m not going to let anything get to you.”

In short, locked doors assuaged fears, trepidations, anxieties, and uncertainties, and quelled the late-night wanderings of an active imagination.

Perhaps that is what the disciples felt on that Easter night so long ago. They were in the room behind the locked doors in fear of those who killed Jesus. They had walked alongside him for three years. They had been out in the public with him and engaged in his work and crusade. Then they who had spoken so confidently had, in the end when it mattered most, deserted him and the cause. They not only deserted him, some even denied they knew him.

Perhaps there was more than fear at work in the disciples. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty clear that there was more than fear at work. They were grappling not only with fear, but with scorn, ridicule, anxiety, a sense of failure and its ugly cousin, shame.

Maybe what the disciples were doing was not so much shutting out the world, but locking themselves in. Isn’t that the way it goes with our hearts?

What if we look at this gospel story as more than a resurrection account and story of eleven frightened men locked away in a remote room on some back alleyway of Jerusalem? What if it was a metaphor for our lives as Christians today and the fears we face? It is possible that St. John could have meant it as both as he wrote to a young struggling, persecuted church.

We face fears, anxieties, trepidations, uncertainties, and even shame on a daily basis. We slam home the bolts of the locks on our hearts, and we realize that by locking the world out, we are really shutting ourselves in. We become a prisoner of our own sins, shame, and self-perceptions. Like the disciples, we try to hide from our shame and disappointment in ourselves by locking the doors to our hearts and not letting anyone in.

This is particularly true if we’ve been hurt before. Each hurt is followed by another lock, another barricade on the door to our hearts. But we put up a good front. Let’s just say that the door is magnificent on the outside but impenetrable.

The Easter story is the culmination of Good News. In the midst of the disciples’ fear, anxiety, and shame, Jesus comes and stands among them. He restores them with the gifts of his peace and the Holy Spirit and charges them to carry on his ministry, his mission of reconciliation.

“To forgive,” in Greek, also means “to set free.” It means to release from bondage and captivity. When Jesus stands among the disciples in a room with a locked door and announces, “Peace be with you,” he is saying not only are “You are forgiven,” but also “You are free.”

At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us – even behind closed doors. According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked doors to find us. He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness. Then he says, “Peace be with you.” You are forgiven, peace is restored to your troubled soul, and you are free.

We receive the same charge given to the disciples. We are to be about the ministry of reconciliation. We are to be about the ministry of unlocking the doors to people’s hearts so that they too can experience the freedom and healing of God’s love in Christ. We are called to set people free by pouring out on them the same forgiveness we have received. We are to be Christ’s disciples in the world; forgiven, restored, reconciled, and freed from sin and death.

We accept into our hearts once more today the risen Christ, and in doing so, we realize that fear is changed to faith, anxiety to peace, shame to restoration, and the locks on our hearts have all been removed and we are free.

 

— The Rev. Scott Baker is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Virg.

Resurrection needs to be practiced, Easter Day (C) – 2010

April 4, 2010

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

In a recent essay, Nora Gallagher talks about practicing resurrection. It is a splendid phrase, “practicing resurrection.” She wonders whether we spend too much time in the church discussing whether we believe in the resurrection or do not believe in the resurrection. By doing this, she thinks, we may miss the point. She writes:

“When I think about the resurrection now, I not only wonder about what happened to Jesus. I ponder what happened to his disciples. Something happened to them, too. They went into hiding after the crucifixion, but after the resurrection appearances, they walked back out into the world. They became braver and stronger; they visited strangers, and healed the sick. It was not just what they saw when they saw Jesus, or how they saw it, but what was set free in them. … What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone, but also about what those appearances point to, what they ask? It’s finally what we do with them that matters; make them into superstitions or use them as stepping stones to new life. Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

“Practicing resurrection.” It is a splendid phrase. It is splendid truth. It is our Easter truth.

It does seem like in so many ways, people are longing for the practice of resurrection in their lives. A widow whose husband died at a much too early age. A man who is struggling with a new career at midlife and fears his ability to cope with new challenges. A colleague who falls into a deep, clinical depression and struggles to live through the day with meager energy. In so many ways, so many people are longing for new life, for the practice of resurrection.

I suppose one could say that the women who arrived at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning really needed to practice resurrection. Think about it. They had gone to the tomb on that morning to attend to Jesus’ body. This was to be the last, loving service they could do for their Lord. They had witnessed Jesus’ death. They knew that there was no time for a proper burial. So they came with spices to complete the burial rites. Their beloved Lord was dead. They could at least perform this one last act of love for him.

And yet their hearts must have been heavy. Their life with Jesus was over. The one whose call had been irresistible, the one whose service was like no other service they had ever known, now lay lifeless in a tomb. And there must have been fear mixed in with their grief. Not just the fear of death. But the fear that all their hopes and dreams had died along with Jesus, that they too lay lifeless in the grave. This is what happens to love in the world. They had known perfect love in Jesus, and the world had killed him. The world can be a cruel and fearsome place.

But something amazing happened when the reached the tomb. When they arrived at the tomb, they entered into the place of their deepest and darkest fears. They entered the very place of death. And yet, what did they find when they entered this place of fear and death? Nothing. No thing. No body. Nothing.

We are told that they were perplexed when they did not find the body, which is understandable because they thought their story with Jesus was over and his dead body was the final period. But the angel reminded them that this is not the end of the story. He said:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

They needed to be reminded of resurrection. “Remember how he told you.” But then they needed to practice resurrection. They needed to go and tell all this to all the rest of the disciples. They got the good news that Christ is risen from the dead, and now they needed to change from people who perform rites for the dead to apostles who bear witness to the living Lord. They needed to practice resurrection. They needed to change from people who are fearful and frightened to people who boldly proclaim that God’s life is stronger than any death, that God’s love is stronger than any hate, that God’s peace is more powerful than human violence.

So they practiced on the men. They told all they had seen and heard to the eleven and all the rest. And it must be said, they were a little slow on the uptake. The words of the women seem to them an idle tale. But they needed to practice resurrection too. And they eventually got it, and, together with those first women, they became a courageous group of apostles who changed the world.

The good news of Easter is that Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead. This belief, this truth, this resurrection, changes everything. Cruelty is not the last word. Sin and evil are not the ultimate powers of the universe. Death does not get the final laugh. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Forgiveness and love and life are the final realities of the world. Jesus Christ is risen today. The power of God is stronger than any tomb. Jesus Christ has risen.

The good news of Easter is not only that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and lives now, but also that the power of the resurrection can transform our lives now as well. New life is possible, now, here, today. But for that to happen, we need not only to be reminded of resurrection, but also to practice resurrection.

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

In Jim Wallis’ book, “God’s Politics,” he tells a powerful story about practicing resurrection. He tells a story that took place in South Africa when, to all outward appearances, apartheid still had a strangle-hold on power and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Wallis was at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of St. George’s where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding, when a group of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the service. Wallis writes:

“Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders. … They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days. … After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power … but reminded them that he served a higher power than their political authority. Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African Apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and an enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began dancing. We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces who not knowing what else to do, backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

Ten years later, Wallis attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president. Wallis spoke to Archbishop Tutu and asked him if he remembered that earlier day when they had danced out of the Cathedral onto the streets, and Tutu said that, indeed, he did remember. Wallis reflects that apartheid did not die on the day Mandela was released or inaugurated, but that it died the day of the celebration in the church, when they danced for freedom in the streets of South Africa.

Practice Resurrection! Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

Is it possible to practice resurrection in our own cities and streets? Can we, like those first women who came to the tomb, practice resurrection in our own lives?

The promise of Easter is that we can. We don’t need to go about looking for the dead among the living, and we don’t need to go about living like the dead among the living. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. He is alive. Because he is the first fruits, we can be assured that a similar future awaits us. We need to be reminded of the truth of the resurrection over and over again. But we also need to practice resurrection. The truth of Easter is that the promise of new life doesn’t just await us in the future, but that we are able to live new lives, here and now, by the power of the resurrection.

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

The story of our salvation, Easter Vigil (C) – 2010

April 3, 2010

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

“Alleluia, the Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

That is enough. What else do we need to know on this most glorious of all days? What else do we need to shout? Nothing! Nothing at all.

Our 40 days of Lent are over. We have prepared ourselves with prayer and fasting. We have prayed for all those who will be baptized. We might even feel freed from 40 days of self-denial. Already, for some of us, our mouths tingle with the expectation of that first taste of chocolate Easter egg. So, preacher, sit down, let’s get on with the celebration. Alleluia, the Lord is Risen!

But wait. We are human after all. We are not like the angels who hover around God’s throne singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord.” The pure ecstasy that comes from an absolute understanding of what Jesus’ resurrection means doesn’t belong to us mortal beings just yet. It’s much too easy for us to get caught up in the sights and sounds of Easter that the world throws at us: bunnies, Easter bonnets, purple and pink plastic grass for our baskets. The lure of a Halloween-like stash of candy makes us forget what the symbol of the Easter egg even means.

So, yes, let us shout Alleluia, but then let us remember how we began this service in deep, expectant silence. The Paschal candle – the Light of Christ – pierced the darkness proving that life is stronger than death. What did you see with your own small candle lit from Christ’s light? We’re amazed that as the community gathers, individual tiny lights blend to cast a stronger glow. We can begin to imagine the early dawn bathing the stone that will soon roll away, impotent against the power of resurrection.

And then, we hear the story of our salvation. This is the night when we need to hear those familiar Bible stories in a new way. The Word of God comforts and encourages, challenges and teaches. In Genesis, all creation explodes in beauty and variety. The sun and moon, creatures of every kind, man and woman made in the image and likeness of God – wonderful and beautiful images and our ears hear that God saw that it all was good.

Lent comes to mind as the arc floats for 40 days and 40 nights on a sea of God’s anger at humankind’s inability to love one another and care for creation. It’s a frightening image until God makes a covenant between God’s self and all flesh. “See,” God says, “I have set my bow in the sky as a sign of the covenant.” But that bow is not a rainbow. The Hebrew word qeshet (“Keh-shet”) means the bow of a bow and arrow. God lays down a weapon of destruction, never to take it up again. God expects us to do the same. Isn’t it interesting that human artists have depicted this image with a colorful but ungraspable symbol and not the tangible challenge of an image that calls us to a strong, but often difficult level of love. This is why we need to hear these stories tonight. There is always more to learn and absorb.

Abraham proves his faithfulness, dry bones rise from the dessert floor and live again, God’s people are invited to sit down and eat and drink all they need. Tonight we surround ourselves with stories and images that remind us where we’ve come from. We see how we belong to the whole family of God. Abraham, Moses, Sarah, Miriam, Paul, Blessed Mary, and Mary Magdalene: they are our kin and we are their children. God’s bow is still placed in the sky. We are called to be peacemakers, to faithfulness and compassion and love.

Our 40 days of Lent prepare us to shout “Alleluia, the Lord is risen!” and we are risen with him. Twentieth-century poet Leonard Feeney gives us a wonderful image of this shared resurrection:

In crocus fashion, sunlight-wise,
The body of Our Lord
Slipped through the stone-bound sepulchre,
Streamed through the soldier’s sword. …
With bones ablaze and flesh aflash
And hair set flying free,
So shall I come to you, loved ones,
So shall you come to me.

May each of us leave here with bones ablaze and flesh aflash and hair set flying free, renewed and empowered with the Word of God, nourished with Christ’s Body and Blood, to keep this story alive and to bring about the Kingdom of peace.

Amen.

 

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

Waiting with the women at the tomb, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 2, 2010

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

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Good Friday comes every year with its unique burden of grief. We know the story, we have heard it, felt it, wept over it. But every year it comes to us with renewed regret and sorrow, even though, for the Christian, the outcome of the story does not remain in tragedy but emerges in triumph. Yet the pain of it never diminishes. When we hear the words of John, so simple and so utterly heartbreaking, we allow our hearts to be wounded anew.

What strikes the listener and participant in this drama is the injustice of it all – the actions that bring the prophecy of Isaiah to its startling reality: the one who lived in total obedience to God is being made an object of scorn. The one who loved so thoroughly and so completely is being left alone, spat upon, and rejected – a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Despite all the affliction and suffering Jesus, willingly, without resistance, “poured out himself to death”; he who was without sin “was numbered with transgressors,” as it says in Isaiah, “bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

We know that all this came to pass. Sometimes we watch, and like many passersby on the Via Dolorosa, feel only curiosity: in a violent world like ours, meeting death without responding in revenge is so odd that we cannot comprehend it. At other times we feel the terrible injustice of that Friday and are angry. But anger is not allowed: Jesus tells the angry Peter, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Something else is happening here, as alien to our world as it was to the Roman and Hebrew authorities in the first century. We still don’t comprehend this kind of total obedience to the divine will. We don’t understand what he is telling Pilate any more than that unfortunate procurator understood him.

Pilate is trying to buy time. Filled with fear of what the emperor would say if he made another serious mistake with the Jews (for Pilate had a history of bad mistakes with the religiosity of the Jews), he is trying to find a way out of this dilemma so he will not be demoted by Tiberius once again. Fascinated by this silent prisoner who has the bearing of a king because of his innate peace and authority, Pilate asks him, “Are you a king?” Jesus had spent his short years of ministry proclaiming a new kingdom, something so removed from Pilate’s understanding of power that Jesus does not really answer that question; he knows that Pilate will not understand. But he gives to Pilate, and to all of us, something much more important to think about:

“I came to testify to the truth,” he declares, and adds something so utterly surprising that if Pilate and all the people around that drama had listened, they might have died in hope, when their time came. Jesus adds, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Can you imagine what it means to belong to the truth? It implies a state of being. Truth is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete reality. The only way for us to understand truth, as used by Jesus here, is to grasp that Truth is God. It is in the nature of God, it emanates from God, we can belong to it. When we belong to Truth, we belong to God, and we are able to hear Jesus’ voice.

What a wonderfully comforting statement this is. Not just for us who have heard the good news, who have believed in God as revealed in Jesus, but also for the whole world – for all who seek the truth, as our Book of Common Prayer says. Once again on this Good Friday we feel the universal embrace of God’s love, we hear the universal call to all whom God has created. He who poured out himself to death for us assures us on this night that all who belong to the Truth hear his voice. Instead of separating us Jesus, in his death, brings us together.

May we wait for resurrection in the same spirit of love. After weeping bitterly with Peter for all that is past, let us wait with the women at the tomb, ready to serve the one who poured out himself for us.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003).

A new order, not just a humble act , Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 1, 2010

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

“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”

Have you ever heard a verse of scripture as if for the first time? Have you ever noticed a connection that, in many hearings in the past, you had ignored? Did you now hear the stunning juxtaposition contained in this one sentence?

If someone were telling you a story about a person who had been given all power by God – for this is what “all things into his hands” means – if you were introduced to such a person who came directly from God and was about to return to God, would you expect him to put on a towel, an apron?

Think about it. Imagine this scene. You would naturally expect such a person to put on a crown or assume the stance of power; this is what the world has taught us to expect. Why then did the evangelist make the first part dependant on and connected to the second? The second part of the sentence derives from the first: it means that the one person with control of “all things” willingly performs the humblest act of a servant. The connection between the two ought to stun us into silence and awe.

With this one scene vivid before us we tonight leave an insane world behind in order to enter into sanity – utter sanity and peace in the midst of the saddest story in the cosmos. The Lord and Teacher, as he admits that he is, takes on the role of the servant inside an ordinary upper room while the forces of evil are going mad outside; men who are drunk with their own power and cleverness are plotting to kill him, as he quietly takes off his robe, puts on a towel, and kneels before his students and friends. This is a situation that only God would have dreamed up. But Jesus says that by this act he is teaching us to dream in the same manner. Even though the servant cannot rise higher than the master, as the people believed in a world that kept everyone in his and her place, the master here becomes the servant.

Peter is scandalized. “You will never wash my feet,” he tells Jesus. And if the writer of that day possessed this particular technology, he would have italicized the word “my.” “Not my feet, Lord.”

But Jesus reprimands him. He is really saying to Peter:

“Forget the old ways of thinking and doing, Peter. Forget the structures that keep the poor, poor, and the slaves in a permanent underclass from which they cannot escape. Forget what you have been taught, and do as I do. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Many of us go through the motions of washing each other’s feet on this sacred Maundy Thursday but forget to remember and to emphasize that this is a new order, not just a humble act. All the passages we read tonight speak of a drastic change to the status quo. Think for a moment about that world of the first century. Rome controlled her subjects with an iron hand. Compassion, love, and non-violence had no place in such a world. Slaves were not considered human beings; the emperor had unquestioned power; the father in the household, the pater familias, could dictate the life or death of his own children; women were not citizens; and humility was not a virtue but a weakness to be despised. In Israel, an occupied land, the higher clergy, Annas and Caiaphas in this instance, controlled the people by collaborating with the Roman powers. Caiaphas admits it when he says during these secret machinations against Jesus, “It is better that one man should die for the people.” That meant that he knew how to appease Rome.

Into this world comes the Son of God, and by donning a towel and kneeling before his friends to wash their feet, he declares that in God’s eyes everything is different from what Rome and the clergy declare as the order of things. Power is relinquished willingly because love is stronger than power. What a revolutionary concept! It was unthinkable in that first century; it is scandalous even in our time, except for those who truly understand the good news of God in Christ.

Robert Browning wrote a poem about a fictitious Arabic doctor, who visited Israel some years after the resurrection. This physician comes across Lazarus and hears his own story of being brought back from the dead. He realizes that Lazarus’ way of seeing the world is totally different from that of other people. The physician relates this encounter to his friend Abib when he returns home. He tries hard to remain skeptical, but he keeps returning to what Lazarus revealed to him. He tells his friend, “If this indeed happened, think of the implications.” Listen to the last verse of this poem by Robert Browning, “An Epistle”:

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too –
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other Biblically based books.