Archives for April 2011

Let our Savior’s voice speak, Easter Day (A) – 2011

April 24, 2011

Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

So. How do you feel? In the words of the Easter Vigil, “now that our Lenten observance is ended,” are you greeting with great joy and enthusiasm the Paschal mystery, or are you rejoicing that Lent is over and things can return to normal?

Yes, we are happy that we can now rejoice and put to rest our particular Lenten discipline of this year, but that shouldn’t really be the primary reason for our joy, should it? The life of great joy and freedom and peace should be our “new normal,” should it not? We are, this day, celebrating the most remarkable notion that humans have ever imagined: the great God, Creator of the Universe, has moved in time to change the rules.

Death, as much as it is a part of the cycle of life that governs the created order, has now been nullified. Death has been conquered not simply for a show of power and might, but for a show of love.

As John 3:16 reminds us: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” That is truly amazing. Positively dumbfounding. Wildly joyful.

In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, this is the time that “.you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merry makers.”

This is the day that our joy is uncontainable; that we begin to celebrate the new life that is ours in a particularly exuberant and outgoing way, for this begins the great season of Easter.

But one might find it curious that today’s collect is worded as it is:

“O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten
Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection
delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die
daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of
his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.”

References to sin and death and reminders of our need to die daily to sin don’t seem to be congruent with the joy of today. But the collect does point us to the reality of our earthly life: yes, we are an Easter people, a forgiven people, a people loved beyond measure; but we are also people who still must live in a world that is full of temptation and is fraught with peril. We live as a people with a vision that goes beyond this world, but that vision does not take us out of the world. That vision compels us back, more deeply into the world in the midst of all of its sin and death, to proclaim with the psalmist: “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

In looking at John’s report of the events surrounding the Resurrection of our Lord, we see the details of the reality of Mary Magdalene’s reaction. We see her distress, even though this is exactly what the twelve were told would happen – and we have no reason to believe that she did not know as well. We are made privy to her distress and the bewildering grief that she experienced. Some might even sigh at her disbelief and apparent lack of comprehension of the miracle to which she is a witness, but we see her very human emotions and can, in very real ways, understand her grief. Can’t you imagine Mary stumbling through the garden, her tears making it difficult for her to see, anguished sobs wracking her body? She looks into the tomb, hears the angels’ question. Incidentally, these angels were apparently not there when Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” entered the tomb. In her distress, she frantically answers that the body of her Lord has been taken, and then she turns around. With eyes swollen and flooded with tears, she is asked the same question and gives a similar answer. But then she hears His Voice; the voice she did not recognize before; the voice she did not understand until it speaks her name, and then she is free of the grief and begins to feel, the great joy that we are to feel this day – and indeed our entire lives.

Mary’s reaction to the news and the process through which she goes in realizing what has taken place is very similar to our process as we deal with the realities of our lives. We’ve heard the message of the gospel, we participate in the life of the church, we have an inkling of the promises that are ours through our relationship with Jesus, and we often lose our bearings and begin to despair. Ever-present sins, disappointments, and tragedies blind our sight and ability to see clearly the joy that is always ours. We cannot see through our tears, as we stumble from place to place and even miss the wonder of visits from angels who ask us why we are crying. We sob and wonder what could have possibly happened. We meet our Lord, but often don’t hear His Voice. We hear His words, but do not comprehend their meaning. We miss the possibility that it just might be true that the One for whom we are seeking, is the one standing right in front of us.

When we are in the middle of Lent, we find it hard to imagine Easter. Likewise, while we might intellectually understand the concept of resurrection, we can’t quite believe it in the face of death and loss. Even though we intellectually understand the concept of forgiveness, we can’t quite believe it in the midst of our sin and the sin around us. Even though Jesus tells us that He will never leave us nor forsake us, we can’t quite grasp and hold on to Jesus’ presence when we feel alone. It’s hard to remember the light when everything seems so dark.

And yet, when we hear His voice, when we are able to hear Him calling our names, it is then that we realize the truth of His word; it is then that we can lay hold to the promised joy, unspeakable. Yes, we live in a world so filled with noise that we can barely hear ourselves think. But our Savior’s voice has the kind of quality that cuts through the cacophony. It is not loud or overbearing. It is persistent and sweet – patiently repeating our names in a wonderful repetition of love and peace. This world seems so filled with much that would seem to be bent on drawing us away from that sweet voice. We constantly have to be reminded to make the effort, day in and day out, to pay attention and strain to hear the voice of Jesus.

Let this day be one that is filled with the sound of Jesus’ voice. Let our Savior’s voice speak through the words of scripture. Let our Savior’s voice sing through the notes of the music. Let our Savior’s voice call to us gently and increase our joy with the knowledge that all things have been accomplished and we are saved by Jesus’ sacrifice and are able to trust in the reality of the resurrection.

So, friends, if any of you are feeling weary from their Lenten journeys, please be encouraged on this day. Let your weariness, confusion, and doubt fall away, and if only for the balance of this day, rejoice and let your joy be known to all whom you meet. And if any need encouragement in this endeavor, remember the words of the old hymn:

“He speaks, and the sound of His Voice,
Is so sweet, the birds hush their singing.
And the melody that He gives to me,
Within my heart is ringing.
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share, as we tarry there,
None other, has ever known.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

How blessed is this night, Easter Vigil (A) – 2011

April 23, 2011

Isaiah 55:1-11; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”

These are the words of the church, sung in the Exsultet with which the Easter Vigil begins. How blessed is this night.

This is the night when we tell again the great stories of our faith, ancient words with which people of faith recount the mighty acts of God, words that tell of the power of God, words through which God’s love for us has echoed throughout history – the ever-unfolding story of God seeking humans and reaching out to us in love.

This is the night when we hear the word of God, and God’s promise that God’s word is powerful and true. We hear this promise in the words from Isaiah:

“For as the rain and snow fall from the heavens, and return not again, but water the earth, Bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

In these words we hear God’s guarantee that the stories we tell tonight, the words of our scriptures and psalms and prayers are not just stories, not just idle words to share around the fire. Tonight we tell love stories, words of God’s love for us, about how God’s word will accomplish that for which God sent it.

We tell these stories, knowing that the greatest word God spoke in love was the Word, Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John the Evangelist, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Jesus was God’s greatest statement about love. Jesus used words to heal, not to dominate; to give hope, not to threaten. He used words to promise life and peace. He lived the words he spoke. So Jesus was a threat to Satan and the death-dealing forces of evil in the world. The evil one knew that he could not stop up people’s ears to the love song Jesus sang, so this Word made flesh must be silenced. And the cross would be the means of silencing the Word made flesh. Silenced. Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father and died – the Living Word silenced. Death had had the last word. And to ensure that death would have the last word, Pilate and the enemies of Jesus had posted guards at the tomb, just in case those who had followed Jesus might try to come steal his body and claim he had been raised as he said.

On this night, just as dawn was breaking, two women came to the tomb. We imagine the stillness of the night, just before daybreak. The quiet. The women expect no sound. They expect the silence of death. They had no words to say. Words are so hard in a time of death. What can we say? What comfort can we offer? Words cannot express the sadness we feel. The women come to the silent tomb.

But then, an earthquake – the world itself reverberates with the wounds of God’s other plans, God’s Good News shaking the foundations of the world. Our gospel reading tells us that the women found not silence, but an angel, whose appearance was like lightning, whose words must have rung out like thunder: “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” And then he gave the two Marys words to say, their own glad tidings to tell: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, He has been raised from the dead.”

They go, running with fear and joy. They go, running to tell, to share the news of the angel: he has been raised, as he said.

On the way, Jesus meets them. He speaks: Greetings. They come to him, take hold of his feet, and worship him.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Just as Isaiah said, “My word will not return to me empty; But it shall accomplish that which I have purposed, and succeed in that for which I sent it.” The Word of God could not be silenced. The risen Jesus, this enfleshed Word, stood before them, no apparition, no ghostly whisper, but real and true. The risen Word, Christ Jesus.

Then he said to them, “Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

And the women, the first apostles, the first ones sent with a message of the Good News – good news that could not be silenced, that could not be sealed in a tomb, drowned out in a torrent of hatred or evil – the women go and tell: Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.

That message has been told, from witness to witness, from generation to generation. Not some long ago, far-away tale, but the living Word, witnessed to as one in our midst. Witnessed to as one who speaks a word of victory to us, not empty words, but words of strength and power and might – words of love. One who gives us words for each other, words for the world: healing words, words of comfort and new life. A message that the promise of new life is not empty words, but already won, already accomplished. Words of the victory of love proclaimed in creation: tree bud, lily blossom, and birdsong; words sometime whispered, sometimes sung and shouted; words in the peal of resurrection bells, word in the sound of a baby’s cry at the baptismal font, words proclaimed to us, and given to us to proclaim. Go, tell: Jesus has been raised, as he said.

Death will not have the last word. The last word is love.

What word can we say? What can we say in response to God’s victory? Tonight, on this holy night, after a long Lenten fast, we say “Alleluia,” the cry of jubilation, of praise to the Lord, shouted out by the church down through the centuries, untranslated. A word that means only praise, only wonder and amazement and jubilation.

What word can we say? Tonight, on this holy night, we say the words of our baptismal promises. We recommit ourselves to the God who delivered us from sin and evil. We bring others to God in Christ Jesus through baptism. We speak simple words, words given to us as a gift from God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We remember that someone, sometime, spoke these words for us as the sign of the cross was traced on our foreheads. We remember that our names and Jesus’ name are together now: Christian. We remember that our names too are woven into the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation. Our names, along with Adam and Even, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Moses, Mary and Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, and John and countless others called and loved and redeemed by God.

As Isaiah said: “So shall my word by that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in that for which I sent it.”

On this night, God has had the last word, and the last word is love.

Alleluia!
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

What makes death oddly beautiful, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2011

April 22, 2011

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

Holy dying. There is a truth about the phrase “holy dying,” which seems to come from the title of Jeremy Taylor’s work, The Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying, written in the 1600s. The truth is this: dying is often holy – from time to time, when dying becomes beautiful, when it is astonishingly a part of life, when the person dying is unsure, but also unafraid, when the family does not hide from death.

When dying is holy, it is a bright light, the color spectrum fully present.

Sue Pilert’s death was holy. Sue had five daughters, and innumerable grandchildren. All were musical, playing various instruments well, even the youngest.

As Sue closed in on her last breath, Steve, her husband, and this wonderful and large family turned her living room into the bedroom. They placed the hospital bed in the middle of the ruby Karastan Oriental rug, and they kept vigil. As is the way with death, the space between each breath grew, Sue’s strength ebbing with each exhale, time becoming irrelevant.

Sue was a person of faith. She trusted, but not completely. Her trust was at times like that of Mother Theresa: unsure, unsteady, but she exercised her faith nonetheless – by prayer, and God for his part had poked and prodded and challenged her over the years. God hadn’t made it easy for Sue.

So although Sue trusted, she did not always believe – not the way we tend to think of belief, anyway. She died with questions unanswered, but in the person and beauty of God she still trusted. When all was said and done, she trusted.

As she was dying, Sue’s family kept vigil, like many churches do overnight between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – the vigil of the dying. Some would read to her, some would pray with her, some would hold her hand.

Steve, who didn’t know what he would do without her, kissed her gently. Steve, who didn’t understand her, didn’t get her faith, who was sometimes angry with Sue – Steve, who would be completely lost without her, kissed her gently.

And to a person, this family offered Sue music. Several of the children together played classical pieces, sang, or even played hymns. The piano, the flute, the guitar. They played music to ease Sue along.

All of this gift made for beautiful dying – but her dying was made holy by embrace.

Life embraced Sue as she died. The energy of life, and the Holy was invited into the moment. The respect for life was established firmly in the process of dying.

In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, the writer Zora Neale Hurston describes the death of a woman: “Just then, Death finished his prowling through the house on his padded feet and entered the room. He bowed to Mama in his way, and she made her manners and left us to act out our ceremonies over unimportant things.”

Death personified, death as a person, inviting, pulling, taking.

And so Sue died. After Sue died, her five daughters bathed her body themselves. They dressed her – they didn’t want strangers to do this. They put on the simple dress that most reflected her.

Death is intimate. It is the most intimate act, the most intimate time. It is intimate for the person dying, and for the family. Completely vulnerable, and embarrassingly honest. There is no falsehood in death. No props – not one’s fame nor success, one’s wealth nor superior intellect, none of this – strengthen one in death. None, that is, save faith. Perhaps faith is the only element that divides rich from poor in death – rich in spirit from poor in spirit. Besides faith, there is nothing to ease the transition from this life to the next.

And so it is: death renders its victim completely honest, absolutely vulnerable, and without protection.

A priest’s job is to perform ritual: baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Each of these three rituals is attended at some level by untruth, even lying. Priests marry people who intentionally hide drinking issues or cheating. They baptize babies whose parents promise to raise their children in faith – knowing they won’t. Priests conduct funerals in which the heroics of the deceased exceed truth.

But at the moment of death, at the sacrament of death, there is raw humanity. A person is rendered completely helpless, like a baby at birth, dependent on forces outside of herself. God, the process of dying, the universe – often for the first time in decades, the person and family are dependent upon forces outside of the self. That is what makes death oddly beautiful.

Dean Karnazas is an endurance runner. A few years ago, the guy ran 300 miles – straight. No sleep between. He also decided to run 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. When asked about it all, Karnazas said this: “A great run definitely involves suffering. I think any adventure athlete will tell you that there’s honesty in suffering. … There’s magic in misery. I talk to God out there.”

Closer to death by running to death, one experiences the failure of the body, after all, and the nearness of it all to God. Instead of relying on his strength at this point, the athlete becomes vulnerable, and honest – honest, or at least as much as one can be.

Consider the scene of Jesus’ arrest, and his early morning trial before Annas and Caiphas, the high priest, and the former high priest. Peter had warmed himself and then run off in despair. Jesus is now before Pilate, and the scene seems ethereal and monochromatic.

Black and white, observed through some blue lens – surreal, and perhaps that is the curse of unholy death – there is no truth in the moment, no honesty. Death is present with hooded robe and sickle, and completely devoid of hope or life.

There is chaos in this scene. No one seems in charge, people are lying, and the scene is tainted with evil – evil men yielding to evil impulses. And the scene is monochromatic.

In this story, of Jesus before Pilate, Pilate utters what at first appears to be an innocuous, throw-away line: “Truth, what is truth?” For indeed, there is no truth here, in this scene, at this moment.

But later, by the time Jesus carries us as the cross to Golgotha, the scene becomes honest – raw honesty supplants monochromatic chaos – for Jesus is dying, and his death is holy.

At first, evil as death appears to be winning, its trump card played. There is instantly order; chaos does not reign, for Jesus’ life has not been taken from him, he has given it voluntarily. Jesus has given himself away, spent himself by choice.

Jesus as Christ, and God on the Cross, and in that moment of death there is complete vulnerability by God – naked, bloody, exhausted, complete truth.

Complete truth – for here at the intimate cross is a man in whom there is no falsehood, and God exists completely. And even in this scene, one intuits somehow that life itself emanates from death, and is the reason for the cross. Life you can access.

Which is the irony: God becomes completely vulnerable to evil and death. Truth has been placed on trial, convicted, and sentenced; but truth cannot be killed, can never be killed, and life radiates from the scene and moment of death. Not just because you know Easter is two days away, but because a new reality emerges from the horrific and violent scene. That new reality is this: death is a portal, not an end. The cross is a doorway, and not a wall. Not something of which to be afraid, but an object of embrace.

Life and love and grace and goodness have triumphed behind the cross, and in all locations of the cross – at Auschwitz, Sudan, San Quentin; but not just in the obvious locations, in the little places, too – your places, the location of despair and agony in the soul itself. Through these windows and doorways you find life.

Acknowledging this, death becomes holy.

There can be holiness in dying; not for the beauty of the death itself – it is never for the beauty of death, for death itself is not beautiful, nor to be glorified – but for the emergent life, the bud, the seedling rising.

And so it is – the cross of Christ becomes your cross. And God in this Christ has not abandoned you – or anyone – to the cross.

We have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

God takes our offering and does something wonderful, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2011

April 21, 2011

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

This is a day focused on liturgy: very basic and profound liturgical actions are recalled and acted out. Any liturgy has at its heart a sacrificial action. We offer something, and God takes that offering and does something wonderful with it, something we cannot do for ourselves.

In the Exodus reading for today, the focus is on the first Passover, a deliverance from the tenth plague – a horrible plague that killed the first-born males in every household, except those who lived where the blood of a lamb had been spread upon the lintels of the household door. That was followed by the actual deliverance of the people from bondage in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. This sacred text is read at every Passover feast in a liturgical setting as a profound reminder of a how a liberating and loving God delivers us from bondage, and even death itself.

The reading from Corinthians sets forth the form of the Eucharist, and reminds us all that bread and wine, offered along with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” as it says in the Holy Eucharist, Rite One, are taken by God, made holy and received by us as the body and blood of Christ, a liturgical born-again experience that transforms us over and over into more of what God desires us to be.

The gospel reading from John focuses on another ancient liturgical rite, that of foot washing. Awkward for some, even distasteful, this solemn act included in the Maundy Thursday liturgy causes us to bow the knees of our hearts. As we slowly and solemnly wash one another’s feet, one cannot help but feel the sense of humility accompanied by the ancient tradition – a humility that is not intended to shame, but to assure us that God loves us so much that the Son of God stoops to wash our feet, turning all our concepts of higher and lower, above and below, inequality and equity, into a new reality of love and affection. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

There is something about this sacred day that sets it apart – something deeply transforming. We’re not merely remembering the night before Jesus died, we are actually living it through liturgy. The flash of insight as we are connected with the Passover of our Jewish sisters and brothers, the solemn washing of the feet, the taking of the bread and the cup, these experiences leave us with a depth of meaning that goes beyond words, as all good liturgy does. The readings and liturgy work in harmony to bring us to that last night. Then, as the altar is stripped and prepared for Good Friday, we transition from the most intimate liturgical moment to the absence of God. What can we do but leave silently and go to our homes?

As we leave our places of worship, the words of Jesus remain in our hearts: “Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What we have just done is act out the boundaries of that new commandment – boundaries that expand rather than restrict our vision: perhaps we have washed the feet of someone with whom we have had a disagreement, or a person who is an ex-con trying to work out a new life after prison; perhaps we have sat and watched an older person wash the feet of a teenager. These are only glimpses of what that love looks like. The living out of this loving one another as I have loved you comes through a community of believers that sets aside its own agenda to help others, that allows its buildings to be used by people who need a safe place to meet, a community that practices radical hospitality to strangers, aliens, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and those who have no helper.

Maundy Thursday gives us liberation, freedom, and grace to become a new community, not one centered merely on liturgy that remembers, but one centered on liturgy that leads us to act. If we see Christ crucified and risen from the dead, then our lives are transformed forever. If we believe Christ offers himself on the cross as the ultimate act of love, then we can see ourselves as called to act on behalf of others.

So, renewed by this profound night of liturgy, and transformed by Jesus’ taking upon himself the passion of his love for us, there is nothing to do but leave behind the things that bind us: fear of the unknown, distrust of those unlike ourselves, wariness of others who will come to us, and our own feelings of inadequacy. When we are called by the new commandment, we are given the liberation from those fears and the strength to respond. Whatever we do because of this day will transform someone’s life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love one another takes us one step closer to the redemption of the world. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and broken.

 

— Ben Helmer will be celebrating Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter with his congregation in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

Crucify him!, Palm Sunday (A) – 2011

April 17, 2011

Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The crackle of dried palms crunch under the feet of the crowd. The sound is but a faint crackle lost in the din of angry voices. The meaning of the sound is lost on the mob now shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him! CRUCIFY HIM!”

That crackle of dried palm branches covered by the shouts of an angry mob is the sound of a world turned upside down. The King of Creation and Judge of All Humankind put on trial before Rome’s puppet King Herod and their governor in Palestine, Pilate.

We can’t know that any of the people are the same. One crowd could have greeted Jesus as a King when he entered Jerusalem and another crowd could have shouted for Pilate to put him to death. But in centuries of Christian preaching and teaching, the two crowds are seen as one; not because of solid historic data, but because of instinct forged in the fires of life experience.

More than once in history crowds have been known to turn even more quickly and to just such violent effect. The mob wants you as King, and then they want you dead. In the meantime, all you have to do is not live up to expectations. Jesus came to Jerusalem, yerushalayim [NOTE TO READER: PRONOUNCED “yeh-roo-shah-LIE-eem”] in Hebrew. Literally it means “foundation of peace,” and Jesus arrived on a donkey as the King of Peace. There were hosannas that day, but the crowd didn’t want peace. They wanted violence. Years of oppression at the hands of Rome in general and Pilate and Herod in particular had taken their toll.

Yes, Rome brought work, water projects, road projects, and Herod’s endless building projects. And with all this came the pax Romana, the peace of Rome. But for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that fateful Passover, the peace was peace for Romans, not peace for Jews. The back-breaking tax burden contributed to the nagging feeling that the arrangement between Rome and Jews was nearing a flash point. This deal left them free to practice their faith, but there were signs of strain.

Pilate had given a small show of force by placing Roman standards, or military ensignia, within his palace so that they could be seen within the Jewish Temple. The Jewish leadership saw this as placing idols in sight of their holiest of holies. This was an affront to their faith. Jews revolted. Pilate had them put to death. More Jews rose to take their place until even Pilate had to stop killing. A governor can only put so many people to death and still govern. Pilate relented and an uneasy peace returned.

It was into this uneasy peace that Jesus rode on a donkey as the crowd shouted Hosannas and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” So much for the peace.

Whatever else we want to say about Jesus, he was put to death as a threat to Roman rule and the Jewish King Herod’s control. Jesus’ teaching turned the world upside down and this threat to the way things work could not be tolerated by those in power.

The specific accusation in our gospel reading is that Jesus was the, “King of the Jews.” Could he be a king in place of Herod in Jerusalem and the Emperor in Rome? Not possible.

In Matthew’s account of the Passion, Pilate is particularly reluctant to put Jesus to death. Perhaps this is because of his wife’s dream. Or having already put quite a few Jews to death, he learned along the way that it is best not to incite the crowds during a festival. With Jerusalem’s population swelled by all who came to the capital for the Passover, this is no time to get an angry mob going.

Pilate offers a choice. Following his custom of letting one prisoner go free, he asks whether that man should be Jesus, who is called the Messiah, or Jesus Barabbas. The choice in the Aramaic of the time is quite stark. “Barabbas” is not a name but something like a nom de guerre, a revolutiony’s nickname. It means “Son of a Father.” The dramatic irony is that we are to see the crowd choose Barabbas, the “son of a father,” instead of Jesus, the “son of the father,” our father in heaven.

When given this choice, the mob shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate abdicates to mob rule, hoping that the anger of the mob will spew out over Jesus. Pilate literally washes his hands of the matter, hoping the mob will leave him and his palace in peace.

This is where the gospel accounts of Jesus differ from most of human history and literature up until this time. Jesus’ story was not the first story of redemptive violence. It was, however, the first time the story played out like this. Usually, it was the people who knew what was best. The one outsider, the one who wanted change, was put to death and order was restored. The crowd was right. The one agitating for change was wrong. Violence against the one person restored order, and peace returned.

Yet the idea of killing Jesus to bring peace is clearly found here in Matthew. The equation is: unanimity plus one. We all agree with one another, except this guy preaching that we should love everyone – sinners and outcasts alike. So the formula was simple: remove the one, and unanimity returns. The status quo is preserved.

In the gospels, we read of an innocent victim. And even though the whole world on that day seemed to be set against him, the one man, Jesus, was still right. It was possible for everyone – every person against him, every follower of him, everyone – to be wrong and for Jesus to be right.

It’s still true. So often, Christianity is judged by the ways Christians act. It is hard to separate Christ from Christians. Yet, we may all act wrongly, and the truth of Jesus still remains true.

This is part of the way the world was getting turned upside down in Jesus’ life and ministry. You could no longer count on common sense. For sense has never been something we humans held in common. You could no longer count on “what everyone knows.” You could not count on what “they” said. If Jesus was and is God made man, then it was possible for the one suffering at the hands of the many to be right.

There would have been voices on the edge of the crowd. People who wanted to speak and remained silent. There would have been voices of reason in the angry mob – voices silenced by the shouting crowd, by fear. Their silence equaled consent. Remaining silent in the face of injustice is a way of standing with the unjust. Many in the mob that Good Friday did just that.

As the sky darkened that noon when Jesus hung on the cross, there would have been those who felt foolish to have ever proclaimed Jesus as a King. Some had waved palm branches and shouted at the tops of their lungs, who would now wish they had remained silent. From the joy of that Sunday entrance, to the darkness of the Friday we call “Good,” the crowd went from praise to derision. When Jesus failed to vent their anger at Rome, the violence turned against the son of David.

By three o’clock, the darkness of that day is complete, and Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is time for the crowd to go home. The dry palm branches crackle under their feet as the mob shuffles home, vented of their anger. The promise of hosannas now crushed into dust.

The earth shook, and few heard the words of the centurion as Jesus died, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” The only voice of hope to be heard until Jesus own feet stepped on the dust of those palm branches three days later, proving that love could conquer even the anger of the crowd and the sting of death.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia.

Spirituality as a commodity , 5 Lent (A) – 2011

April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

We talk a lot about God and Jesus, but rarely do we take much time to talk about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost. And yet, an entire industry has evolved in our culture to market something called “spirituality,” as if it is a commodity we can purchase, or that there is some body of knowledge about the spirit that can be somehow learned and appropriated. As a friend of mine once said, “You cannot fit the Spirit into a flow chart!”

Watch the snow fall. Each flake born upon the wind. Each flake dances through the air, taking no straight lines, to land just where the wind means to place it. Then remember the words Jesus spoke about the Spirit a few weeks ago when talking with Nicodemus. The spirit is like the wind. We cannot see it, only the effect it has on things like trees and leaves and hats and umbrellas. We know not where it comes from, says Jesus, and we know not where it is going.

So it is, says Jesus, with the spirit.

This Spirit dimension of God is by its very nature at least somewhat unpredictable. Makes one wonder why we desire so much “spirituality.” We tend to want to know where we are going before we agree to go anywhere.

In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words used for Spirit mean breath or wind: ruach and pneuma. This wind or breath of God is there at the very beginning of Genesis, at the beginning of creation. Nothing has life apart from this breath, this Holy Wind. We hear it rustling around a pile of dry bones in Ezekiel, bringing a people who were out of energy and inspiration – literally “to breath in” – while in exile, slowly but deliberately stirring them back to life.

And the life of the early church is depicted in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles as being a people who are blown on by the wind and sent to wherever God needs them to do whatever God needs them to do. It is always surprising and new.

So it is with this story of Lazarus. He has been dead for four whole days. In the tomb, wrapped up, dead and gone. While he is sick, his sisters Martha and Mary call for Jesus to come. It is surprising that Jesus, who we are told loves Lazarus and his sisters, does not hurry right over there. The Spirit of God has other plans, unlikely plans, plans that seemingly make no sense.

We desperately want things to make sense. We want to understand the Spirit so life makes sense. But Spirit is not concerned with making sense. Spirit is seemingly concerned with making new life – and making life new.

Surely no one expected Jesus to arrive after Lazarus had died. Surely no one expected him to stand outside the tomb and weep. Surely no one expected him to ask God for help. Surely no one expected him to call into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And surely no one expected the dead man to come out. Just as no one expected the man blind from birth to see. Just as no one expected Jesus to talk with a Samaritan woman, or to hear news of a coming anointed one from such a woman.

And least of all do we expect Martha, the practical sister, the one who sets and clears tables while Mary sits at the master’s feet, to be the one, the first one in John’s gospel to proclaim, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

That should be Mary’s line. And we are also surprised to hear that it is Thomas, the one who throughout the history of the church is to be called “doubting,” who was the one disciple that, after they all acknowledge that to return anywhere near Jerusalem was to risk being stoned to death, suddenly proclaimed, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” How surprising that the doubting one turns out to be the courageous and believing one.

None of it seems to make sense. None of it seems to hold together. So it is with the life of the Spirit. You cannot fit the Spirit into a flow chart.

The practice of yoga is also concerned with spirit and breath. Yoga recognizes that we breathe in the spirit of life and calls us to be attentive to our breathing at all times in all places in all circumstances. Tich Naht Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist says, “We can be extremely happy just sitting and breathing in and out. We don’t have to do or achieve anything. We enjoy the miracle of simply being here.”

Jesus says Spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s life-giving spirit, is necessary to go with him that we might die with him. That we might die to our preconceived notions of the Spirit-filled life. That we might die to predictability and be open to newness and surprise. That we might even die to our preconceived notions of Jesus and be open to the surprising new things he says and does.

It seems that, like Lazarus, we tend to want to keep our precious ideas about Jesus entombed as if somehow they will last forever. When we all do this, the life of the church and the life of the Spirit wither and die. The Spirit calls us to roll away the stones from our tombs, unbind him, and let Jesus go. Only when we roll away the stones, unbind him, and let him go, can we be free. Free to follow him wherever he leads.

So we come here week after week to take breathing lessons. We resist change and newness and surprises, but we know deep down inside that we need this breath, this wind, this spirit of God to breathe on us and to breathe through us. We know somewhere inside that we are imago Dei, created in God’s image, and we are meant to be blown upon by the wind like the snow, and sent to places and people we do not yet know.

That is why it is so important that we come back here week after week after week: so that we can inspire – “breathe in” – the Holy Spirit, so that we can share the Spirit, so that we can take breathing lessons, so that we can share the love of God, the breath of God, and the Spirit of God with one another and then with the whole world.

Spirit is an invitation to a life of surprise, a life of new things, a life of new ways of doing things, a life of new ways of knowing God, a life of new ways of seeing others, a life of new ways of being with others and ourselves. Spirit seeks to bring us closer to God, closer to others, and closer to ourselves. It is a way of letting go and letting God.

“Make Us as the Snow,” by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek

The snow falls
As if it knows where it is landing,
As if it has direction, purpose,
As if it has been sent

Then blows the wind
Redirecting each flake
Re-routing each crystal
So that suddenly
Without prior notice
Each lands
Just there
And nowhere else

So it is he says
With spirit
For you
For me
For us

And yet
We feel so sure
So certain
So determined

We continue to kid ourselves
Into thinking
That we know
Where we are going

Come, Holy Ghost,
Our souls inspire
Make us as the snow

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland.

Be joyful, 4 Lent (A) – 2011

April 3, 2011

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 

In many cultures of the world, the first day of April is kept as April Fools’ Day, a day for shenanigans, generalized tomfoolery, and practical jokes played on unsuspecting family members, friends, and co-workers. Most of us have been at one time or another the butt of someone’s silly pranks on this day, perhaps even as recently as this past Friday, and we have probably taken it in stride – even giving as good as we got – all in good fun.

It seems somehow appropriate that at least one day a year should serve to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, many people in today’s busy world assume the duties and responsibilities of work and family life with a grim determination that seems to leave little room for humor or amusement. What better remedy than a day that dares to poke fun at our self-importance and pretensions?

Oddly, no one is quite sure of the origin of April Fools’ Day – called All Fools’ Day in some places – although theories abound. In the English-speaking world, the day and its inanities are attested at least as far back as Chaucer’s time in the fourteenth century. But similar customs are found throughout the world. April Fools’ Day has not yet made it into the calendar of the church year, though – bearing in mind the current “whole state of Christ’s Church and the world” – its time may be coming. It is not for nothing that Paul unabashedly calls us “fools for Christ.”

In fact, rank foolishness in religious matters goes back at least as far as Hebrew times.

Consider our reading today from First Samuel, a work that, among other things, recounts the history of kingship in ancient Israel. The Lord sends the prophet Samuel in search of a new king – even though Saul is still very much alive and on the throne. Samuel must surely have thought the Lord was joking, pulling a fast one on him. Perhaps he even checked his calendar to assure himself that it was not the first of April. “How can I go?” he asks with trepidation. “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” Alas, as it turns out, the Lord is not joking. And, off Samuel goes on his implausible search for a new king.

The story and its improbability – call it foolishness if you like – does not end there. Intent on his mission from the Lord, Samuel gets up close and personal with all of Jesse’s fine sons, each in turn passing before his inspection. Any one of them might have made an excellent king for the Lord’s people. Any one of them, that is, except for the youngest, David, whom their father does not even bother to bring before Samuel’s gaze. Too young, Jesse must have thought, too inexperienced and unschooled in the ways of the world, too much dirt under his fingernails. Yet, foolish and silly as it may seem, it is precisely David who is to be king. “Rise and anoint him,” says the Lord without cracking a smile, “This is the one.” No fooling.

It seems our human judgment is all too often imprudently blind to the wisdom of the Lord masquerading at times as human folly. Perhaps we all need to become more mindful of the Lord’s “foolish” ways if we ourselves want to be truly wise.

That seems to be the lesson of today’s gospel account – the story of the man born blind and his healing. But his healing and the return of his sight is not the only wonder in the story. More astonishing still is the inability of the blind man’s neighbors and the Pharisees to recognize the hand of the Lord at work in their very midst. Like a first-century version of Dr. House and his team of medical specialists, they attempt again and again to diagnose the undiagnosable. They go over every possibility and contingency. They visit family and neighbors. They consider each detail of the blind man’s history, symptoms, and healing. Perhaps he was not really blind to begin with, they speculate. Perhaps on the other hand he was “born entirely in sins.” Maybe the return of his sight had something to do with the mud in his eyes or the waters of Siloam in which he bathed. Or maybe not.

But what they refuse to see is the obvious: the plain truth of the Lord’s gracious goodness at work in the lives of his people – specifically in the life of this blind man who asks nothing of Jesus but is nevertheless gratuitously, one might even say foolishly, given his sight simply “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” No questions asked. No demands made. No hidden agenda. Then as now, it seems the Lord loves to astonish us with his “silly” and profligate ways.

The tragedies and trials of today’s world are, of course, not funny. No one would suggest otherwise. Yet even in the midst of great human hardship, the Lord never stops smiling upon us with the “goodness and mercy” of which our Psalm today speaks. Whether manifest in the unlikely flowering of democracy in ancient lands or in the small and unexpected miracles of heroism and rescue found in the midst of immense natural disasters, the Lord’s benevolence and love remain as strong and certain as ever.

In some circles, the Fourth Sunday in Lent – today – is known as Laetare Sunday, a Latin liturgical term that means, “Be joyful.” We might find it odd that, in the middle of our Lenten rigor, we should be encouraged to somehow rejoice. Yet the lesson is clear. For Christians, there is always time and reason to be glad. And to smile.

The Lord has not lost his sense of the miraculous in human life. He has not lost his sense of humor. Neither should we. So lighten up a little already. “Sleeper, awake!” thunders the author of Ephesians in our second reading today, no doubt jolting his hearers – and us – from mirthless complacency and indolence. “Rise from the dead,” he demands, “and Christ will shine on you.” And that, my friends, is no joke.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is, as of April first, the newly appointed chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Mission, in Budapest, Hungary.