Archives for 2011

Is it true?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2011

December 25, 2011

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

And is it true? The choices of lessons for Christmas Day approach that question in two ways. St. Luke tells us the story, a story we’ve heard year by year. Because we are so familiar with the tale, its truth may not engage us anymore. Yes, it’s a beautiful story. A young girl gives birth to a baby in a cave used to house farm animals. The child is placed in a feeding trough. We don’t know whether Joseph was able to find a midwife to assist in the birth. We do know that they took shelter in the cave because there were “no vacancy” signs on the doors of all the inns, the motels of that day.

Bethlehem was full of visitors because a politician far away had decided on a census, a way to establish how many people there were in an area who could be taxed and what property and income they possessed. In this case, people were not counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the story runs a tale of oppression, of people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. The story has a familiar ring to it even today. Dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels if you will, but this is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

And is it true? It is certainly familiar. It rings true enough. Perhaps its telling again today may inspire us to show mercy and act kindly toward those in need. But the truth of this story lies deeper. It isn’t just a morality play, or a docudrama. So another choice for looking at the gospel today takes us deeper, much deeper. And that’s when things get complicated. We may, perhaps, accept the politics of the story, but can we get our heads around the theology of the story?

The word “theology” can be off-putting. We want a simple faith, even though we don’t like to be thought to be simple ourselves, and theology sounds complicated. Yet the first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel, Chapter One, is anything but simple. It teaches that the baby born in a cave among farm animals is God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.

And is it true? If we have much taste for a God, what we want and think we need is a powerful God. True, we want a god who is kind to us. God can be rough on those we don’t like, but must be compassionate to us. Yet Christmas Day reveals a vulnerable God, a helpless God, a baby God. It shows a God who needs parents and friends, who needs protection and care. What an extraordinary idea! This is a God who calls us to love him, even though he can’t do a thing for us except gurgle, smile, and even cry. Here’s a God who keeps us awake at night and yells for food.

Certainly any mother knows how wonderful it is to love and be loved by a baby. Even the hardest heart may be melted by the sight of a radiant mother and her baby. Christmas Day challenges us to see that sight, it calls us to allow our hearts to melt. We are called not to receive, but to give. We are called to give our hearts and love to God the Son, God the Baby, receiving nothing more, or less, than love’s reward. For love is a doing, a giving, a surrendering, a merging. It breaks down our walls of separation, our pride and bitterness, our self-assuredness and pretended autonomy. Christmas teaches us that before we receive from God we must first give ourselves to God unconditionally, come what may. And so God challenges us to see him as a baby, a dispossessed baby born in a cave and placed in a food trough.

John Betjeman, the English poet, wrote a poem called “Christmas.” Here is the last verse of that poem. Listen to it and take it to heart, and then give yourself to Jesus the Baby as he comes in Bread and Wine:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

— Father Tony is rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, and an examining chaplain to the bishop of Northern Indiana. 

Let us whisper it, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2011

December 24, 2011

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Part of the wonder of this night is the possibility of the meeting of worlds, the coming together of time. We sing, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Though we live so long after those events in Bethlehem, tonight we find ourselves at the manger. In our mind’s eye, we imagine the holy family in the stable, the mother tired, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the cold night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustle of straw. But most of all, we gaze in wonder at the baby, this long-expected child.

What would we say if we were there? What would we add to Mary’s contented sighing and Joseph’s protective, “There, there”? For, as with all babies, just his existence is a gift. And as with all babies, it’s not just their infancy, but their futures we imagine and dream of and long for. But with this baby, this little one named Jesus, we have seen his future. We have glimpsed what lies ahead for him and what it means for us. So, what do we say to him as we take our place by his manger tonight?

In 1994 the Rev. Richard H. Schmidt wrote a reflection in Episcopal Life magazine entitled, “Christmas: Let Me Hold You, Dear Little Jesus.” Inspired by his image of holding the infant Christ, here are some words for our hearts’ prayer on this Christmas Eve:

Little Jesus, let us hold you now. On this holy night, when you are a newborn baby, let us cradle you in our arms. Let us hold you and keep you warm. Now, while you are small and vulnerable, let us watch over you. We want to hold you now, because many times in time to come, you will hold us.

Rest well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny hands. For though you are the King of kings, you will touch no silk, you will carry no gold. You will grasp no earthly scepter, sign no imperial decrees. You will use your hands for far more precious works: touching a leper’s wound, wiping away a widow’s tear, blessing and breaking bread, and giving it to your friends. Your hands, now so perfect, so tender, so tiny, will someday be wounded for us.

Sleep well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny eyes. For someday you will look at the world and you will see the pain and loneliness and ache that humans bear. You will look at us and see us just as we are, with all our sins and loveliness both. You will look and see the Christ within each one of us, and you will try to teach us to see it too.

Hush now, sweet baby. Rest your tiny mouth. For someday from your mouth eternity will speak. Your tongue will summon the dead to life. Your words will define grace, pronounce blessings, teach, and paint pictures with words so we too might see our eternal God the way you know God to be. Your mouth will speak forgiveness to those who wrong you, will invite us to paradise to be with you forever, will send us forth in your name to all the world. Your words will echo down through centuries, bringing meaning and hope to our lives.

Rest now, tiny child. Rest your infant feet. For someday you will walk many miles to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives. Someday you will stride out in power across billowing waves in a storm-tossed sea. Someday your feet will be anointed with oil by a woman who prepares you for death, and your feet will bear the same nail prints as your hands. Rest your feet now, for someday millions will follow in your footsteps.

And sweet little baby, with your little heart, how much love you will show. Rest now. And let us hold you on this holy night, for someday, you will hold us. Someday we will feel lost and lonely. Someday we will wonder – is this all there is? What does it mean? What am I here for?

Then you will come to us. You will not be a helpless infant then. When you come to find us, you will come as our Wonderful Counselor, our deliverer. You will tell us that you searched for us. You will call us each by name. And when you find us, you will rejoice. You will invite us to your banqueting table and nourish us with your very self. You will remind us that we belong to you; we are yours.

Little baby, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will feel deep sadness and sorrow. Something will happen in our lifetimes that grieves us so deeply that we may wonder where you are. But you will come to us, then, not as a helpless baby, but as the Prince of Peace. You will remind us of the promises of God, of the strength of hope, of God’s deep loving kindness, God’s steadfast love. You will hold us close, and if we are quiet enough to hear, you will whisper to us that all will be well. All manner of things shall be well. You will tell us that you are here for us always, not just when we are empty enough to know we need you. You walk beside us, offering us your peace every day.

Sweet infant redeemer, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will grow old or sick, our bodies will fail, and it will be time for us to rest from this world. Then you will come to us, not as a vulnerable baby, but as Mighty God, Everlasting Father. You will welcome us into eternal light and life. You will welcome us to a heavenly feast prepared since the beginning of time, a home and a place for us.

You will do all of these things for us at great cost to yourself. You will teach us the meaning of giving, all that we have and are, on behalf of goodness and love, no matter the cost.

But that will be someday. Tonight we adore you as a baby. We welcome you as a helpless, vulnerable babe, as the Almighty God who became a child so we could become full mature human beings; who was wrapped in swaddling cloths so we could be unraveled from the snares of death; who came on earth so we could live beneath the stars; who had no place in the inn, so you could prepare for us mansions in heaven; who became poor, so we could become rich; in whose weakness is our strength. This is the night, the wondrous night when the creatures hold our creator. This is the night of grace, when the Lord of heaven and earth stoops down, reverses roles, and allows us – the finite – to serve the infinite God.

And so, little Jesus, on this one night, let us hold you.

And let us whisper now the thanks that will be yours for all the years to come. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for loving us. We love you too.


— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Christ who promises to be present, Pentecost 12, Proper 18 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s gospel lesson is part of Jesus’ teaching about our life together in community, how it is that we are to live and love within the Christian community, especially when things go wrong. And because we are talking about human beings living in community, we can be fairly sure that things will go wrong.

Our Biblical story is quite realistic when it comes to the ability of human beings to get along. Even two people living in paradise can’t seem to manage it very well. Not only do they sin against God, they also turn on one another, playing the blame game. Once they sin, a gap opens up, not only between Adam and Eve, but also between themselves and God. In their shame, the human beings try to hide themselves with fig leaves from the gaze of their Lord, symbolizing their distance from the God who used to walk with them and talk with them in the garden. The effect of sin makes it hard not only for human beings to look each other in the eye, but also for them to encounter God face to face. And sure enough, as the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God makes fewer and fewer face-to-face appearances. Moses gets to see God, but the after-effects of that face-to-face encounter are too much for the Hebrew people to bear. It just becomes too hard, too painful for humans with our failings and flaws to look on the face of God and live.

But that distance doesn’t keep God away. That’s one of the reasons God came among us, as a flesh-and-blood human, to be with people face to face. Imagine the healing power present in the moment when Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Peter, do you love me?” When he cupped in his hands the face of the woman caught in adultery and said, “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” When he healed the man born blind and the first thing the man saw was the face of Jesus looking at his own with eyes of love. When he appeared, face to face, with the women outside the tomb on that first Easter morning and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The face-to-face encounters of Christians with Christ were not to end when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. One of Christ’s gifts to us is the gift of community, where we meet our brothers and sisters heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and face to face. Christian community is that place, that way of being, where we know, and are known by, the Love at the center of the community: God, a life-giving, sacrificial, persistent love that calls us to reach beyond ourselves, to realize we are connected, woven together into one body, the family of God. Together, in Christian community we can share grief and joy, sorrow and victory, sadness and celebration. Christian community is a gift.

But it’s a gift we don’t fully accept. Living in community is hard. As that growing sector in our society, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks might put it, “Churches have too many people to deal with; we’d rather just be spiritual on our own.”

But Jesus taught that faith is not a private matter. Spirituality is not something we do individually. Our faith is not something we can go off and enjoy by ourselves all alone, sitting by a stream or walking in the woods. Those things and times of private devotion can feed our faith, but our life in Christ happens when we are gathered together, even just two or three together. That’s when Jesus said he would be with his disciples. Not when they are off alone and feeling holy.

Isn’t it easier sometimes to feel holy when there is no one else around? Life, as Christians, living together in a Christian community is not always easy. We are humans, after all, and while we may have God as our Ground and Guide, the Almighty never-ending source of love, for Whom nothing is impossible, we forget and fail and fall out of love with God and each other.

That’s why Jesus taught and Matthew wrote this eighteenth chapter of the gospel. It’s about how to deal with the fact that we fail. What ought we to do, what would Christ have us do, when someone in the community sins? When someone does something harmful to themselves, harmful to another, something that puts a distance between themselves and God, or between themselves and the community?

The first step is to go to them, face to face. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Jesus’ teaching here is first about reconciliation, restoration of a brother or sister to the community. It is not about pointing out sin for the sake of pointing out sin. It is not about making us feel better or proving a point. It is about regaining a brother or sister. It is about living together as one family.

In some families, the illusion of harmony is more important than anything else. In some families, confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. In some families, the way hurt is dealt with is to pretend nothing happened, sweep it under the rug. In some families, silence is golden. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, and if there’s a problem, keep it to yourself.

Jesus’ instruction for his family is very different. In the Christian household, when your brother sins, you go talk with him in private. And if that doesn’t work, step two is to keep going back, taking other people along the next time, and step three is go back again. Do everything in your power to get your sister back.

If the person does not listen over and over again, then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. If the person won’t let go of the sin, of what’s causing the harm, of what’s endangering the person or the community, then we are to recognize that one of our members has left the family. We are to notice and lament that our brother or sister is missing from the table. There is distance between us and we should best admit it, rather than pretend not to notice or let that person fester in our midst like an untended wound.

Hard teaching, right? Straight forward enough, but hard to act on, right? Often we prefer a love that is out of focus, filmed in soft light and hazy, not the holy love that takes action and risk and is willing to confront, in love, a brother or sister in Christ. And to confront someone, even in love, is scary.

John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century theologian, realized the risk involved when he used today’s text when members of his parish were gossiping, complaining about one another behind each other’s backs. He said of this first step of going privately to speak directly to someone, to confront him about his behavior, “Do not avoid it so as to ‘shun the cross.’”

Shun the Cross! That’s how hard it might feel to go speak directly, rather than taking the easy way out, using some of our more usual ways of dealing with conflict. You know those ways: Pretend it didn’t happen, try to just let it go. Meanwhile, be awkward around the person. A second strategy is the cold shoulder, avoidance. Don’t say anything to the person, but cross the street to avoid having to meet them. There’s a third strategy, called “revenge.” Never talk about what really happened, but make sure everyone knows somehow that person X is not to be trusted. Don’t talk directly with the person, but let your hurt and anger seep into everything you do and say, poison the air around you, and put more and more distance between you and the person who did wrong.

Distance. That’s the key word here, isn’t it? Community is about togetherness, realizing that we are all connected. Heaven is that place where nothing can come between us and God, between us and God’s love for us. Hell is about distance. In a sermon about today’s gospel reading, the writer Randy Hyde recalls that C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines hell as a vast gray city. It’s a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle, empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and then fought with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving streets of empty houses behind them. That is how hell got so large, Lewis says. It’s empty at the center and lived in only at the distant fringes because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to wrongs done against one another.

We’re back to that word: “confrontation.” It sounds scary, but it really means bringing people face to face, front to front, to talk and hear about what is going on between them. And this is just what Jesus recommends. It seems to be not only the best way to stop the spread of hell, but also the best way of following Christ. Jesus says our relationships with each other are worth it. And he should know. He went to the cross, to take on our sins, to wrestle them away from us, rather than say they don’t matter. He was willing to die and even come back so that we might be reconciled, so that we can come together face to face. So the least we can do is go, sit face to face, talk, listen, go back some more, bring more faces, more ears, let the person know they are so precious, we’re not letting them go easily.

What about when people refuse to acknowledge their sins, change their ways, come back into the house? What if their continued presence in the family would be harmful? Well, then, says Jesus, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Yes, they should be treated as those who are on the outs, those who are outside the family. And here’s the twist: those are the very people Jesus made a special focus of his ministry. He reached out to them with the message that they could turn away from sin, they could come home. Indeed, Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

There is risk in meeting each other face to face. We might prefer to hide behind fig leaves or whatever is close at hand, rather than take the risks Jesus did. But the story of Jesus and his teaching shows us there is power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall, when we fail, when we stumble or hurt. God, who knows every one of us, our weaknesses, our faults and failings, longs to draw us close to God and one another. Someday, maybe, we will even know the joy of seeing God face to face, without fear or shame. In the meantime, we can turn face to face with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and meet Christ who promises to be present when we meet face to face in his name.

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Written by the Rev. Drs. Amy Richter and Joseph S. Pagano

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano are a husband-and-wife team who serve as rector and associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2011

June 24, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Much has been made in the popular press in recent years of so-called “helicopter parents.”

Never heard of them?

Well, they, of course, have nothing to do with flying machines. The term refers instead to parents who seem to “hover” over their children constantly, making many of life’s decisions for them – sometimes giving them no room to make their own mistakes or, for that matter, to soar on their own to heights which the parents themselves might never have dreamed possible.

Whether this is a recent phenomenon or has always been a part of the parental and societal impulse to protect children we can leave to the experts to decide. Far too many parents are blamed – or take responsibility upon themselves – for developments in their children’s lives that are more or less out of their control anyway, no matter how much they hover. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is not an exact science and probably never will be. In every generation, there are sure to be a lot of parents who quite understandably want their children to be like those of Garrison Keillor’s mythic Lake Wobegone – “above average, every last one of them.”

In our gospel text today, the people of the “the entire hill country of Judea” ponder the birth and naming of the child John – hovering closely over him and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “What then will this child become?” they ask in amazement mixed perhaps with some confusion. It is a question of course that parents and family members have asked for millennia at the birth of every child, whether in ancient Judea or contemporary New Jersey or Nebraska. For the birth of any child is a reaffirmation of life itself and its mystery. No one can hold a small child and not wonder – perhaps sometimes even fear for – what the future has in store.

There may not have been helicopters in the ancient Holy Land but, it seems, parents and relatives do not much change over time either. It is perhaps reassuring to learn from scripture that a child’s birth could stir an entire community and get them thinking and involved. Sometimes, it does indeed take a village – or an “entire hill country” – to raise a child. And Zechariah’s words are a profound declaration of one parent’s faith as he, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” begins to speak in prophecy to his own son. “You, my child,” he says tenderly and perhaps even with a parent’s pride, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

“What then will this child become?” This is the answer. This is what John will become. As we know well from our Christian perspective, he will become the last of the great prophets, the one to baptize our Lord and prepare his way.

But in some larger sense, the infant John – and every child – is already a “prophet of the Most High” because every child is paradoxically an image of the loving Father who sent to us not only John, but his very own Son Jesus, whose ministry John will grow to affirm. After all, “the child is father to the man,” as the poet Wordsworth reminded us. The Father knows well that only a child is truly capable of calling us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love. John did not need to grow to manhood to prepare the Lord’s way. And the Lord did not need to hover. The child himself prepares the Lord’s way; and it is from John, and every child, that we must learn.

Yet sadly, it is exactly the child that our world today too often forgets. We read with horror of the abuse of children in our own country and elsewhere. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine and war in faraway lands, situations from which not even the most obsessive helicopter parent could rescue them. On the other hand, in some quarters of our contemporary consumer society, children seem to have become little more than nonessential commodities – neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers – perhaps at best parental status symbols and fashion accessories.

All children are in themselves signs of the abundance and bounty of a loving God. Zechariah knew this instinctively. It is a lesson that each generation of children teaches us anew. That is, if we are willing to understand. Our gospel text today ends ominously enough with John “in the wilderness,” surely not a place Zechariah – much less any self-respecting helicopter parent – could ever have wished his child to be. There was to be no Ivy League for John, no high-paying job in software development or finance. But what John learned in the wasteland, he proclaimed at the Jordan. And it is the most valuable lesson of all. It is the very thing Zechariah foresaw at John’s birth: that the Lord “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

And it is a lesson learned from the child.


— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary,

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.

What to do about Lent? , Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2011

March 9, 2011

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Ever since the bottom fell out of the sackcloth and ashes business, we’ve not known what to do about Lent. “What do I give up?” seems to be the primary question, an inversion of Jesus’ call for us to give. Lent isn’t a time to slim or to save money by not buying chocolate or going out to dine. Too easily our resolutions begin to look like holy variations on New Year’s resolutions, and we know how long they last!

Part of the problem is that we individualize Lent. We begin with me. Because we begin with me, the whole thing slides into another form of personal spirituality, perhaps somewhat ruined by our sly hints to others about just what it is we are sacrificing.

Sacrifice in Christianity, as with our Jewish ancestors, means the offering of life. Its culmination is Jesus’ offering for us on Calvary. The central way we commemorate this is in our offering of the Eucharist, a corporate offering “together” of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. In baptism, each of us is joined to those who “in Christ” offer the sacrifice, the life-offering of the Savior. We make this offering through Jesus for the world, in all its reality: for the homeless, refugees, those starving to death, those terrified by war and civil war, and even the rich living hopeless lives of denial and indulgence. In short, we get involved with the reality of life as it is.

Lent’s forty days prepare us for the Cross and the Resurrection, and no good intentions about giving up something gets us to that “Green Hill far away.” True, once our goal for Lent is established, fasting and abstinence is a way to keep us on track, but the goal comes first. The goal is simple but profound. It begins with our parish church. How does our community of the faithful intend to spend Lent together? What extra acts of worship or study will be added to the calendar? In what ways will the parish reach out to the world? We begin there. These extras on the calendar are not for the holy few. They determine how each of us may spend Lent, and guide us to choose individual acts of love that fit into that wider program.

At the same time, we remember that what we do doesn’t earn us God’s love. The question rather is how may I, and we, as a parish, become worthy of Christ’s death and passion? How do we deserve His conquering death for us and giving us eternal life?

On the one hand, we can’t earn and can never deserve God’s love for us in Christ. But we can open ourselves to the gift and seek to rid ourselves of those things that get in the way of God’s redeeming grace. We used to call these impediments the Seven Deadly Sins. Obviously gluttony was among them. Those old sins – do look them up or Google them – were neat ways of reminding us just how “self” gets in the way of service. Now, of course, you may feel you do pretty well in avoiding these failings and fallings. But just ask your partner, your children, your parents, or your best friends. With a little nudging they will come up with examples of bad temper, feeling sorry for yourself, being envious, or angry.

The point isn’t that we dwell on these things, but that we offer them daily to God in our devotions, certain that God forgives and strengthens us.

The gospel today reminds us that the smudge of ashes on our foreheads may either be a boast, or it may be a sign to us and to others that this Lent will be about more than giving up chocolate; it will be a time when God’s redeeming work transforms each of us and our parishes.

So may it be.


— Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

Your light has come, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2011

January 6, 2011

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

A man was walking through the mall. He came to an escalator and decided to go up a floor. As he approached, he noticed a warning sign: “Dogs must be carried on escalator.” The man grew anxious, desperate even, as he looked around, asking himself, “Where am I going to find a dog?”

The star in the sky, the Epiphany of Christ, is the appearance to all the world, to all of creation, of the Light of extraordinary kindness. God had been here, all along, ubiquitous, yet invisible.

The darkness hid God, occluded, and enshrouded the Divine. You couldn’t see God or heaven. Now you can see both. God as light pierced the darkness, as the North Star pierces the night, directing magi, and anyone else interested or paying attention.

Light is the epiphany, but so is the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the water turning into wine. And God still seeps, blood-red, into the veins of people who welcome Spirit.

God in Epiphany is here, working wildly in this world, for you and for me. As Isaiah claims: “Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Why, then, do you still live in darkness?

To celebrate God’s epiphany, priests throughout the church will lead congregations this Sunday in a renewal of baptismal vows. These vows are based upon the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The expression of faith in God, simultaneously as three and one.

The problem with this expression of faith is that people find it arcane. People find it to be ancient, holding little relevance to contemporary faith. Are we stuck in the past?

In his novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky tells a story of two criminals.

The first criminal is a depressed but intelligent young man, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov believes all morality is man-made, that right and wrong are bourgeois and do not apply to superior people like himself. To prove his theory, Raskolnikov murders a destitute old woman. Such murder is not a moral issue, he reasons, because the woman is worthless. Guilt nevertheless overwhelms him – enormous guilt, guilt his rational mind cannot resolve.

Sonya is the second “criminal.” She needed money to support her starving little family, especially her younger stepbrother and sister. To feed them, she sold her body; she became a prostitute. Sonya seems almost naïve. She believes innocently in God, and her most prized possession is a Bible. “God will save us all,” she claims.

Sonya and Raskolnikov meet. He is both enthralled with, and angered at her. He is enthralled because of her naïveté, and he is angered because of her faith. In one scene, he insists that she read Scripture to him. But reading Scripture is, to her, an act of intimacy. His insistence becomes a violation, an unwarranted intrusion. She does it anyway, and picks the story of Lazarus.

You recall Lazarus – Jesus’ friend. Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. At the tomb, Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth!” As Sonya reads the story to Raskolnikov, her voice rises in crescendo, until finally she proclaims her own resurrection faith: “… and they believed on Him.”

They believed, and with that, Dostoevsky writes, “The candle-end had long been flickering out in its crooked holder, dimly illuminating in this beggarly little room the murderer and the harlot, who had so strangely come together to read the Eternal Book.”

And don’t we strangely come together, every week to read the Eternal Book? Complicit in some perverse way, through our own crimes and darkness, we are desperate souls in contradictory need of faith.

Raskolnikov finds the Eternal Book unbelievable, and dry. And too often, so do we. We listen to the Eternal Book as though its essence, its life-giving spirit, has escaped like air from a balloon. All that remains is limp rubber, and perhaps a string.

But as Sonya said, “They BELIEVED!” And we so desperately want to believe. We need to believe that there is some truth that extends beyond ourselves, hidden behind darkness – but we are also so deeply afraid.

We long to be noticed by God, deeply noticed, yet so afraid that God will actually notice us. We desire God, yet we hide from God. We are at once Sonya and Raskolnikov; we own a faith we cannot give ourselves over to.

The Epiphany is not about preparing yourself to receive light. It is not about arcane words in the Creeds. Rather, the Epiphany is about the light of Christ dispelling the night in which we find ourselves.

The darkness is dispelled not because we are worthy, but because God chooses for some unknown reason to reach through time and space and into this dark world to save us. To love us. To give himself completely to us. Despite your resignation to darkness, your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Creeds – Apostles’ and Nicene – were never about the factuality of the words. You and I are not perfect, and we cannot claim perfect faith. We just don’t believe perfectly. We believe, and yet we can’t quite believe. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.”

Rather, the creeds give you a place to stand, they express your posture of faith, your intent.

The Latin word credo does not mean only “I believe,” but also “I give myself over to.” We give ourselves over to God as Father or progenitor, not because we can conceive mentally of God as source, but because we so desperately need God to be our source. We give ourselves over to Jesus Christ because we so desperately need God to be Savior. We give ourselves over to Holy Spirit because we so desperately need the breath of life.

The story about the man and the escalator – it did not matter that he rode the escalator without a dog, but it did matter that he carry any dog he might have.

It does not matter whether you believe literally in God as Father, or Mother, or Creator – but it does matter that you give yourself over to that God. Your posture is your faith; your faith is the act of donating yourself. It is not, and never was, your mental ascent.

Raskolnikov thought of faith as bourgeois; but he was wrong. Faith is life-giving. People in our progressive world think of faith as bourgeois; but they are wrong. Faith is life-affirming.

The God you fear most is waiting in love and open arms for you. That is the Epiphany. And his appearing has become your appearing.

And so, believe, Believer, in God, the Creator Almighty. For as it says in Isaiah, “your light has come.”


— 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.

Where is the child?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2011

January 2, 2011

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 or Luke 2:41-52 or Matthew 2:1-12

The only goal for the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, bodies, and worldly goods. The trek of the wise men as a spiritual journey is captured well by T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Weaving images from the gospel reading with Eliot’s poem serves as a guide for own journeys. T.S. Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi” in 1927. That same year, Eliot the intellectual who had vigorously studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy at Harvard University, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. This poem chronicles Eliot’s own journey to conversion.

In 1927, T.S. Eliot was also working on a book on the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes and had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perse’s poem “Anabase.” Eliot freely borrows from both a sermon by Andrewes and the French poem “Anabase” in crafting “The Journey of the Magi.”

The first five lines of the poem are lifted, with slight poetic alterations, from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, preached for King James on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes used as his text for the sermon Matthew 2:1-2, the first two verses of today’s gospel. In that sermon, Andrewes said the Magi readily undertook “a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey” to follow the star to the Christ child. Then looking out on the royal court that formed his congregation, Andrewes said that people of his own day were so complacent in their faith that they would not likely travel to the manger if they were as close by as the shepherds, much less as far away as the Magi.

Andrewes went on to speak of his mid-seventeenth-century fellows, saying that they make great haste to other things, but not to worship God. If Christmas were to involve a long journey begun in December, Andrewes said, “Best get us a new Christmas in September; we are not like to come to Christ at this feast.” For Andrewes the travel, the journey, the seeking, amounted to nothing in themselves. The only motivation of the Magi was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, their bodies, and their worldly goods. Andrewes said our goal should be the same.

This sermon of 1622 apparently had quite an impact on the scholar and poet Eliot, who read it more than 300 years later as he was nearing a critical point of decision. Eliot was letting loose of his preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts and coming to see that the goal of his own life could be to seek and worship God.

The word “satisfactory,” which ends the second stanza of “The Journey of the Magi,” brings to mind today the idea of something barely up to snuff or “just good enough.” However, for Eliot, the word more likely rang of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which describe Jesus’ death on the cross as the “satisfaction” of our sins. Jesus’ death was “satisfactory” in that it satisfied any payment we were to make to God for our sins. So far from being just good enough, “finding the place,” meant satisfaction for sins.

In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, the imagery tells of the perils of the voyage. Undertaking their journey in “just the worst time of the year,” the Magi push the sore-footed camels along only to find themselves lying down in melting snow and thinking of their summer palaces as sleep escapes them. Excuses were ample for turning back, yet the Magi redouble their efforts, traveling through the night, napping briefly, and moving on.

This part of the poem shows how a spiritual seeker encounters many obstacles to a true journey of faith. The way is not easy, and all along there are inducements to give up the trip altogether. Faith will not come easily, and reaching conversion happens when we are willing to let those voices that proclaim it all to be folly to recede to the background as we press onward.

Enlightenment and conversion come in the second section of the poem. The section opens at dawn. Leaving behind the cold, we are brought into a place flowing with living water, which beats back the darkness. At evening, the close of this conversion experience, the Magi find the place, and in it, satisfaction.

In the third section we discover that all that preceded it happened long before. The birth the wise men went to see turned into something like death, their own death. The conversion experience was a death to their old life and they are no longer at ease among the old ways of being. The once familiar ways of home are now, for the Magi, an alien people clutching their gods. The wise man now gladly looks to another death, or rebirth.

Like the Magi, Eliot recognizes that his own conversion experience was not a one-time event. Other conversions would need to take place. More than one conversion is needed if we are ready to worship God with our souls, our bodies, and our worldly goods, as Lancelot Andrewes said we should. We can find ourselves converted in soul, but still following the old ways with our bodies or with our possessions. A new change will take another sort of conversion. Not a repeating of the initial conversion experience, but a journey to a deeper knowledge of God.

The end of the poem is a new beginning. The traveler back home once again wants to seek more. He should be glad of another death, which is itself new birth. The faith journey continues. One key to where all of this leads us is Eliot’s enigmatic line from the third stanza, “but set down, This set down.” Eliot is quoted here again from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, which provided the first five lines of the poem. Andrewes said, “Set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do.”

Andrewes went on to say that there is a place to find Christ and it is not just anywhere. For Andrewes points out that Jesus said some will come and deceive you, saying of the Messiah, “Here he is,” and “There he is.” We must do what the wise men did that Herod did not do, we must seek. If like Herod we sit still, we will never find the Christ.

Our gospel reading today said that the wise men asked Herod, “Where is the child … for we observed his star … and have come to pay him homage.” They were seekers with a clear purpose. To take your own spiritual journey to another level, seek God in the places where he is found, through scripture, prayer, and worship. The journey is a long, the ways deep, and the weather hard, but in the end you will find it was, you may say, satisfactory.


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