Archives for March 2013

The work of Easter, 3 Easter (C) – 2013

April 14, 2013

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

In today’s gospel story of breakfast on the beach, we enter further into the Easter season, and the work of Easter: working out what it means to have Resurrection set loose in the world, in the church, and in our lives.

One of the oddest experiences of Easter is that it can feel empty, after the graphic realities of Holy Week: bread broken, feet washed, thorns pressed into Jesus’ scalp, crosses raised, a body laid in a newly hewn grave. Easter, by contrast, is about an absence: the body is no longer in the tomb; and we are left to work out what that means.

Today’s story makes it clear that one of the functions of Resurrection life is restoration of relationship, and deep forgiveness.

Peter announces he’s going fishing, and several of the disciples decide to go along. In prior chapters in the gospel, Peter has denied Jesus and fled from the scene of his crucifixion. Though it’s clear that Peter loves Jesus without reservation, his fear has led him to distance himself from Jesus, and we are left to imagine his disappointment with himself, and his guilt and shame.

It seems that Peter has returned to what he knows; amid the confusion and grief in the aftermath of the crucifixion, he feels most like himself aboard a fishing boat, handling the heavy nets throughout the cold night. His efforts are fruitless, though; after a night of fishing, the group has caught exactly no fish. On top of his grief, and his sense of having failed Jesus, he is now confronted with failing at something he has done all his life.

But as the dawn breaks, the disciples see a man on the shore, and they see the smoke from a small fire. The stranger calls out to them and suggests something very odd: cast your nets on the other side of the boat, he shouts across the water. Surprisingly, the disciples comply – and suddenly the net is full to bursting with fish!

Suddenly Peter realizes that he has seen something like this before: on a hillside, with thousands of people, he watched Jesus break bread and fish until they were all fed. He remembers a wedding in Cana, when water was turned into wine of the highest quality. The beloved disciple shouts: “It is the Lord!” and Peter clambers toward the shore with his heart bursting with excitement.

In fact, it is Jesus, and he invites them to come have breakfast, as though this was just a normal morning after a night of fishing. The disciples shoot looks of amazement at each other across the fire and wonder if this is real.

This story provides a bookend to the Last Supper; this “First Breakfast” changes the trajectory for the disciples from grief and confusion to purpose and mission. Everything Jesus said to the disciples before his crucifixion – and in John’s gospel, he said a lot – is now coming to bear on the disciples, and their purpose.

But first, Jesus has some very specific business with Peter. It always bears repeating that Peter, in so many gospel stories, is a stand-in for us. His enthusiasm, awkwardness, lack of understanding, and enormous love for Jesus are just like our own. So when the gospel story focuses on Peter, it’s fair to say that we are also a part of the story.

Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, and sadly, his prediction comes true. Peter is accosted repeatedly by bystanders as he waits outside while Jesus is being interviewed, and each time, he denies knowing Jesus. He is absent at the crucifixion. He is among the disciples who meet behind locked doors out of fear. Now Jesus speaks to him directly: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks him three times, and three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Each time, Jesus says: then feed my sheep.

Peter is given the opportunity to undo his denial of Jesus with three affirmations of his love. Jesus tells him what to do with that love: feed the flock. Though the word “forgiveness” never appears in this story, it is nevertheless a critical theme. Peter, the impetuous, big-mouthed disciple, gave in to fear, and failed to acknowledge Jesus, failed to stick around for the bitter end. Now Peter is given the opportunity to face his risen Lord and begin again – in the words of Hymn 304, “forgiven, loved and free.”

And this story offers some of the deepest implications of Resurrection for us: we are forgiven. We are invited to start over. We are completely loved. And we have a job to do. This isn’t only Peter’s story; it’s our story, too. When fear holds us back, love calls us forward. When we feel trapped by the way things have always been, Jesus invites us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat – change our perspective, in light of the Resurrection.

So what does this mean for you? Are you held back from the abundant life Jesus promises by guilt, shame and fear? If you understood yourself to be completely forgiven, completely loved, and completely free, how would that change the choices you make about your work? Your money? Your relationships?

The light of resurrection, shining into us, invites us to look clearly at how we have made choices out of fear rather than love, and to move away from the fears that bind us.

The implications of this story also resonate in our faith communities: Are we making choices about budget and mission based on our fear of failure? Our guilt for past failures? Or are we pointed forward, with the light of the Resurrection at our backs? If we are completely loved, completely forgiven and completely free, what does that imply about how we are to feed the flock?

We are called not only to proclaim God’s love, known to us in Jesus, but to act on it. That means setting aside fear, and the way fear binds us into small lives; and embracing love as the basis of every action we undertake.

God’s love, set loose in the world in the Resurrection, needs our hands and feet and hearts to make it concrete in our place and time. Like Peter, we’re invited to change our perspective, and cast our nets where the love of God is available for us and there’s plenty for everyone.

Jesus invites us: Come and have breakfast.

In the morning light of Resurrection, there is no room for guilt and fear. We are forgiven, loved, and free, and we have some sheep to feed.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Exchanging the Peace, 2 Easter (C) – 2013

April 7, 2013

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

We all yearn for peace and quiet, at least some of the time. We live in a noisy, intrusive world to the point when moments of silence may feel terrifying. Even when we are relaxing, there’s a good chance that the telephone will ring – a sales pitch for something we don’t need – or the doorbell ring, or the computer ping. Even if we decide to get away from everything, getting there can be stressful.

When we hear that Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection and said, “Peace be with you,” we wonder whether he was being sarcastic. The disciples are in the upper room, huddled for fear. Fear denotes an absence of peace. The disciples feared their new title, that of Apostle, feared their Mission to go out into the world and tell about Jesus, and feared the outside world that seemed ready to pounce and destroy them as it seemed to have done to Jesus.

At one level, Jesus saying, “Peace,” was utterly normal. Just as we say, “Hi,” or “Hey,” depending on our tribe, or “How are you?” – greetings that have become so habitual they are blurted out before we think. In Israel, then and now, the habitual greeting was “Shalom,” peace. It was expected. The response, “Peace be with you also,” was the polite reply.

Jesus says hello to his fearful, bemused friends, as he says hello to us, just as we share the Peace during the Eucharist each Sunday. Too often at the Eucharist we use that greeting to engage in hurried conversations that have nothing to do with peace at all! “Wanna join us for lunch after church?” “Have you seen what Marty is wearing?” “That sermon was a bore!” Meanwhile, the priest tries to shake as many hands as possible, hopes no one is offended if their hands aren’t shaken, and worries that this noisy interlude won’t destroy the rhythm of the liturgy.

Yet when we emulate Jesus as we exchange the Peace, we remember what he was saying to the disciples in the upper room.

What was he saying?

Jesus was saying that his presence is peace; a peace, as St Paul puts it, that is beyond our understanding, far more potent than an absence of noise, or a feeling of well being. Jesus says, “Peace,” and we are reminded how costly his gift of peace is, and how extraordinary its depth. Because Jesus has died, has risen, has ascended, we are offered a share in the results of those costly actions. Baptism reminds us that we have died with Jesus, have risen with him, have ascended with him, and now live in his company, in the company of the Church, fed by Word and Sacrament.

Secondly, the peace Jesus gives us means that nothing can separate us from the love of God, except our own unwillingness to accept the gift, live in the gift and share the gift.

Accepting a gift is a moment of self-emptying, of acceptance and gratitude. For a moment we are beholden, vulnerable, dependent as we receive that which we lack. Receiving a gift can strike our pride, can be uncomfortable.

Living in the gift demands an active gratitude. It also means that we value that which we have been given. We feel it necessary to show it off.

And that leads to sharing the gift. The gift of “the peace of God which passeth all understanding” is to be received as a trust to share with others. Thus when we exchange “the Peace” today, we say to those we greet, “Here is the most wonderful gift, the gift of accepting Jesus into our lives and sharing that communion with each other and out into the world.”

All the orders Jesus gave to the apostles are about that Peace: Go tell about me; go baptize; do this in remembrance; love one another.

In short, hearing and accepting Jesus’ “hello” forms us and renews us. It is that peace for which we yearn and which we are given. The apostles went into a hostile world. Many of them were martyred. But through it all they were upheld and sustained by the “Peace” Jesus gave them. Today he offers that same Peace to you.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

He is risen!, Easter Day (C) – 2013

March 31, 2013

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

He is risen! This is the proclamation for the day. This is the celebration that brings us here. This is the truth we know.

A number of comics that appear in the newspaper around Easter time can be expected to touch on themes of Holy Week and Easter. A “Wizard of Id” strip from 2001 was cleverly on target. The squatty little king comes upon a church with a sign out front proclaiming “Good Friday.” He says to the priest: “Lemme get this straight … God comes to earth as one of us … and we kill him?”

The priest says, “That’s right.”

The king says, “Your Lord is dead! … There’s a big earthquake, and the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom!”

“Right again,” says the priest.

The king: “What the heck is so good about that?”

Whereupon the priest says, with his hands clasped in front of him and a big smile on his face: “His curtain call.”

It is the curtain call we’ve come here to celebrate today. Think about all the Christian-themed movies and plays. This weekend alone a number will air on TV, and Charlton Heston will part the Red Sea as he does every year, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. Many films will depict Jesus’ short ministry and walk us through the drama of his last week, what we call “Holy Week,” from Palm Sunday’s entry into Jerusalem until Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb.

That is the drama, the main body of the play. The curtain call of his resurrection from the dead is so much more, though we need to be reminded that the New Testament offers no account of the act of the resurrection of Jesus. We have, instead, reports only of the empty tomb, and in the weeks to come, the weeks of Easter season, we will hear the stories of encounters with the risen Christ. But we have no stories, no account, no evidence, if you will, of the actual resurrection event.

What we have is an empty tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea claimed Jesus’ lifeless body and laid it in his own tomb, the one he had reserved for himself. The women saw this done, and then in keeping with Jewish law, left for the duration of the Sabbath, for the law prohibited any work on the Sabbath day.

And this is where today’s story begins.

The Sabbath has ended. It is the first day of the week, at first light. And the women come to the tomb with the spices they have prepared for the body. The great stone that had covered the mouth of the tomb has been rolled away, and when the women go inside, they find that the body is not there! Two men in dazzling array – heavenly messengers –ask, “Why do you seek him? He is not here! He is risen!”

The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples and all the others. And that’s where today’s gospel reading ends, though it’s not the end of the story, and not even the end of this part of the story. Because when the women told their news to the apostles, what they had seen and learned inside that tomb, that empty tomb, the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one version.

There is a difference between standing in the tomb, as the women had done, and standing outside. The view is different. The perspective is different. One sees different things. One sees things differently.

The women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – are named as being among the company that early morning. They had followed Jesus from his trial before Pilate to his crucifixion on Calvary. They had stayed with him at the cross and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus had said to his followers that they must pick up their crosses to follow him, and certainly these women had endured the cross while the men ran away and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. The women stayed at the cross, and later entered the tomb to follow him. Their view – their perspective – was an Easter faith. They had walked the path to Calvary and so had eyes to see the heavenly messengers where they expected to see their Lord, and ears to hear them ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”

And they believed.

The men were frightened. They ran away from the cross; Peter denied knowing Jesus. When the women came to tell them the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, the men didn’t believe them! And when Peter – ever-impulsive Peter – got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself, did he go inside? No. According to the story we have received, he stayed outside, stooping to look in.

Much fun might be had with the gender differences in this story, and how later faith traditions developed understandings along gender lines that so disparaged the first to believe and exalted the authority of those who did not. This is a ripe field for exploration. But while there may be a point the gospel writers wished to make about such matters, that is not the point of this homily.

The point for today is: There is a big difference between standing inside the tomb in the place of the resurrected Lord, and standing outside the tomb, stooping to look in. One is the place of an Easter faith, a conviction of things known, though not seen.

The other place is stuck in the events of Good Friday, and can believe the horror, the fear, the death, but hasn’t quite made it to those things even more difficult to believe: the loving goodness of God, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, hope.

The difference between standing inside the tomb and standing outside looking in is the difference not of men and women, but of Easter resurrection triumphant over Good Friday death.

It is the triumph of a courage to believe over a skepticism that isn’t quite sure. It is the triumph of celebration and wondrous news over disappointment and despair.

It is the faith of Easter, which knows the agony of Good Friday, and knows that is not the end of the drama. There will be a curtain call.

When we stand in the place where Peter stood, stooping low to look into the tomb with our own doubt and our disbelief intact, what will we see? We will see a dark cavern, shadows and dust, an empty tomb.

But when we seek our Lord in that tomb and we stand with him in the darkness, what then will we see? Those same heavenly messengers in dazzling array? Probably not. But we will see the emptiness. And we will know its reason. It is an emptiness not of doubt, despair, disbelief, but an emptiness that signals something new, renewed, a triumph over the impossible, a hope and promise greater than our imagining. And when we look past the darkness of the tomb to the world outside, we will see light – dazzling light, blinding light, a shimmering curtain of light. The curtain call of Easter.

The light of Christ.

He is risen!

Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses, and making anything chocolate.

No idle tale, Easter Vigil (C) – 2013

March 30, 2013

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

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

Every few years or so, it seems, a high-ranking ecclesiastic or cleric somewhere in the Christian world gets into hot water for appearing to deny the reality of the Resurrection. The hapless theologian’s name is in the papers and all over the blogosphere, and devout members of the church everywhere are scandalized. There is even talk of excommunication.

Usually the prelate’s statement or assertion, when examined more closely, turns out to be nothing as definitive as an outright denial of Jesus’ physical resurrection, but rather a vague – some might even say muddled – expression of uncertainty about its exact meaning and significance in the modern world.

Of course, if we review carefully the various scriptural texts dealing with the Resurrection of our Lord, we find plenty of precedent for ecclesial muddle and confusion surrounding its actual meaning. According to this evening’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, for instance, the remaining eleven Apostles – the first bishops, as many believe – upon hearing the news of the empty tomb reject the women’s testimony out of hand as “an idle tale” and pay no further attention to it. They simply cannot believe their ears.

Peter, of course, at least bestirs himself to visit the tomb and see for himself if the report is true – that the tomb is indeed empty – just as the women have reported. But beyond “stooping and looking in,” he seems immobilized and unable to act. Rather than breaking out into Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” and proclaiming loudly and joyously the Good News of the Risen Lord, he instead heads straight “home, amazed at what had happened” – as Luke puts it – which seems to be a polite way of saying Peter went home not knowing quite what to make of it all.

Some apostle – or bishop – he turned out to be.

The befuddlement does not end there, of course. If we look further into the various gospel accounts of the empty tomb, we find that Mary herself, according to the Gospel of John, at first does not recognize the Lord at all, even supposing him to be the local gardener. And in the account of the story from the Gospel of Mark, the band of women first head home themselves and sit on the news of the empty tomb, telling absolutely no one of their experience, “for they were afraid.”

So for something we now proudly proclaim as being at the very heart and hub of our faith, the Good News of the Resurrection does not get off to a very auspicious start. It is perhaps reassuring – or unsettling, depending on your point of view – to know that things have not changed that much among us Christians even some 2,000 years on. We still do not know quite what to make of the Resurrection. It is still a sign of contradiction, a mystery in the most genuine sense. Perhaps we should actually find it encouraging that Jesus’ resurrection can still be such a hot topic today.

Yet if the Resurrection itself remains a sign of contradiction and a mystery for Christians and seekers alike, it also happens to be the only hope there is for our fallen and sometimes all too callous world. The sad truth is that for far too many people today, believers and non-believers alike, it is still as if the rock had not yet been rolled aside from Christ’s tomb. They do not share in our Easter faith and joy this night. Their way is blocked still by sin, doubt and death; and their vigil goes on.

It is to such as these that we now proclaim our firm conviction that Christ has indeed been raised. It is perhaps not what we, left to our own wits and devices, might have expected or anticipated. It does not make sense, as the world understands sense and meaning. And it might, in fact, still seem “an idle tale” to some.

But it is so.

For us Christians, life and significance can paradoxically be found only in the chasm of an empty and abandoned tomb. The place of death has become for us and for our world the gateway of life itself. And just as our everyday living is in some deeper sense a mystery and sharing in all life, so is the Resurrection for us a sharing in the very life of God.

Perhaps better put, it is God sharing through his Son in our life, infusing our humble world with divinity, and transforming us as Christ was himself transformed.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, as Paul tells us in our second reading this day from his Letter to the Romans, “We are no longer … enslaved to sin.” Perplexed or not, whether we realize it or not, the granite has been rolled aside for us just as surely as it was for the women at Jesus’ tomb. Unfettered by sin, we now are free, as Paul describes it, to “walk in newness of life,” perhaps with baby steps at first, but with an ever stronger stride.

We shall leave this church tonight, however tired or sleepy, nevertheless “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” knowing that, for us, the dawn has surely already come. For we “live with him” who has been raised immortal from the sleep of death. No boulder or stone can ever block our way again. But as we, like Peter perhaps, return home tonight from the empty tomb, amazed at what has happened, we shall arise soon enough to proclaim loudly and boldly – for the whole world to hear – an end to sin and death.

For Christ is risen. And we no longer look for “the living among the dead.”

Yes: The Lord is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

‘It is finished’, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 29, 2013

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

“It is finished.”

Many said words like those that day. Pilate pushed himself up from the judgment bench and sighed, “Jesus is finished, another political troublemaker out of the way.”

The religious leaders looked at one another and said in hushed tones, “Jesus is finished. No more offense from him.”

The soldiers as they turned their backs and walked away: “Finished. It is over, our unpleasant but necessary work for the day.”

The crowds as they watched Jesus breathe his last and his head slump down, lifeless: “Finished. The spectacle is over.”

All comments on the moment, comments on the day, comments made by those with limited vision.

Not so with Jesus’ final word, tetelestai, which is Greek for “It is finished.” This is a word of cosmic import, a word of timeless importance, of universal significance. It is finished. Jesus’ last word. It’s just one word in the language of the Bible.

“It is finished” – his concluding declaration, his last word, the final punctuation on a sentence begun before the beginning. With this word of completion, finality – “finished” – we are reminded how all began: in John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”

And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “it is finished,” is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is, before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space, time, through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son: Jesus.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken, lived in love; spoken, sung, breathed, in words such as “And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” Words such as “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love, spoken in actions: touched and touching, taught and teaching, love reaching out, healing, embracing, lifting; calling “beloved” those called wrong, weak, small, outcast, other, sinner.

The Word incarnate spoke love in words, in deeds, spoke love in handing himself over, giving himself up, pouring himself out, until there is nothing left, nothing more needed, just one last breath, one last word. God’s sentence of love spoken across time, space, boundaries, on the cross – spoke its final syllables, in gasps, in an agonized whisper, in pain, yes, but with precision, point and power. This is no giving up, this is declaration: “It is finished.” Period.

Jesus’ word brings forth our words of prayer:

O Jesus, to you, now lifted up, with your arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, in your loving and giving until all is completed, to you in your finishing, we bring all our incompleteness, all our unfinishedness, all those things done and left undone: our fractional loving, our fragmentary living, our unrealized intentions, our unfulfilled potential, our unarticulated praise, our unprayed prayers, our underachieved service, our ungiven forgiveness, our conditional charity, our inadequate hope, our wanting faith, unfinished us, unfinished me. And you say, drawing each of us and our incompleteness all to you, “It is finished.” Period.

 

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

The journey from head to heart, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 28, 2013

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

On September 11, 2001, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City to give a presentation to a group of clergy and spiritual directors at Trinity Church on Wall Street. What he hadn’t planned on was being an eyewitness to an epic act of terrorism on American soil. He reflected on his experiences that day in his book “Writing in the Dust: After September 11th.” He opens the book with a contrast between the religious language coopted by the terrorists to justify their horrific violence and the compassion of the secular language of those facing imminent death as they called their loved ones from cell phones in the Twin Towers and on airliners. Williams writes this about those last words:

“The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The nonreligious word are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious” (p. 3).

Holy Week, and especially this time of the Great Three Days known as the Triduum, marks the climatic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of a time fraught with religious drama it is ironic that John’s narrative tells us of Jesus doing something decidedly non-religious – washing his disciples’ feet. This act is not just ordinary and secular, it’s downright scandalous! In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would do such a thing. This is the work of servants, not revered teachers!

And if we are completely honest, like Peter, we are not very comfortable with the idea of our Lord washing our feet either. It’s just too much of a reversal of roles. Jesus, in this intimate act of care for his disciples, subverts the religiosity of his own day with a simple non-religious act of humble service and love.

It is easy for us to gloss over that Jesus was put to death by good, pious, religious people. The pious, religious Romans saw Jesus as a threat to the claim of Caesar himself being an incarnate god. The pious, religious Jews feared Jesus’ teachings and popularity would bring about the wrath of the military might of Rome and utterly destroy Judaism as the Babylonians had tried to do some 600 years before, which belies the sentiment uttered by the High Priest Caiaphas, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

At its best, religious practice is a means of encountering the living God. Through our liturgy, sacraments, corporate prayer, music and art, our religious praxis can elevate the soul and create a conduit of grace by which we can experience God’s presence with us, in us and through us. The danger lies in when we confuse the means with the ends. When religious systems and practices become the end goal, we will use them as a cheap substitute for God. They will denigrate into egocentric structures that we will then feel compelled to defend and protect at all costs.

As Archbishop Williams writes:

“We’d better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes, it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality. … It can be a way of teaching ourselves not to see the particular human agony in front of us; or worse, of teaching ourselves not to see ourselves, our violence, our actual guilt as opposed to our abstract ‘religious’ sinfulness. Our religious talking, seeing, knowing, needs a kind of cleansing” (p. 5).

Religion runs the great risk of becoming a mask we wear as we attempt to hide from a true encounter with Christ and with one another. It becomes a ruse by which we avoid the intimacy of conversion.

If we are completely honest, conversion is terrifying. It requires us to do things we’d rather not do. Conversion requires the death of our own small egocentric self. It demands we release our stranglehold on our need to control, to acquire, to exert power over others, to exploit for our own gain and thus do violence to ourselves and others. Conversion calls us into stripping away our need to be important, relevant, educated, popular and powerful. Conversion requires us to face our own guilt, sin and brokenness honestly and without rationalization. Conversion entails handing over, in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” utterly and completely to the God who is able to love us more completely than we can even love ourselves. And this is terrifying precisely because of the intimacy and honesty conversion exacts from us. Conversion strikes to our very core – to our heart.

It has often been said that the longest journey any of us take in our spiritual life is the approximately 12 inches from the head to the heart. In our industrialized western culture, we have a tendency to live in our heads. Being rational and pragmatic is of high value in our capitalistic, utilitarian world. When we spend all of our time in our heads, our faith is reduced to a set of intellectual assents about God with which we can either agree or disagree. If we stay in this “head faith,” we will find ourselves frustrated by the paradoxes of the scriptures and our traditions. We will grow weary of a prayer life that appears to be nothing more than talking to air and waiting in silence for what seems like no answer at all. We will continue to hide behind religious practices out of habit or guilt, or perhaps even walk away from the whole thing in a bout of cynicism and reject God as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

If, however, we pay attention to the humility and hiddenness of God in Christ, the Spirit is able to guide us into a journey of conversion. We will be led to seek Christ in new ways: not merely in our religious practices, but in the faces of each other and in the ordinary and often messy stuff of relationships. When this happens, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to make space for those we otherwise would have overlooked – the last, the lost, the little, the least and the lifeless. This is why Jesus came to be with us, among us and for us. When we put our trust in Christ he will lead us on the journey from the head to the heart and back again – over and over and over again.

Jesus invites us into this intimate conversion journey just as he invited the 12 that night and, like Peter, we will likely experience an initial resistance to this invitation to intimacy and conversion.

The journey is only about 12 inches. Will you come along?

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’, Palm Sunday (C) – 2013

March 24, 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms (RCL): Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s gospel do we find this statement of Jesus from the cross. It is a truly remarkable statement. In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative thing he ever said. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross are a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Now, we may suppose, to pray in a time of great pain and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about Christ’s prayer on the cross is that he does not pray for himself. He does not ask for his own deliverance. He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, his chosen one.” But that is not what he prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first words that Jesus utters upon the cross are a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are his enemies. Not himself. Not even his family and friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayers. And it almost goes without saying, it is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross. With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the soldiers who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And with these words, with this prayer, everything changes. These may be the most revolutionary and transformative words ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Christ takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With these words, with this prayer, Christ shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. In these first words from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violent world. In this prayer from the cross, Christ takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Christ, and in the prayer of Christ for the transformation of the whole world.

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth, as Daniel Migliore puts it in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.” In this prayer, in these words spoken from the cross, Christ opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation and peace.

The first words Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

How long will it take until this weary world of ours wakes up and realizes it?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.