Archives for March 2014

Love, redemption and apostasy

Murder at an Episcopal seminary

“Runagates in Scarceness: A Holy Mystery.” O.C. Edwards, Jr. Eugene, Ore.: Resource Publications, 2013. 129 pp.

“Runagates in Scarceness: A Holy Mystery.” O.C. Edwards, Jr. Eugene, Ore.: Resource Publications, 2013. 129 pp.

“Runagates in Scarceness: A Holy Mystery” by O. C. Edwards, Jr., takes place during the Vietnam War at a small fictitious Episcopal seminary in New Charleston, Ind. Canon Roderick Bothwell, the protagonist, is the church history professor, and he introduces us to life at a seminary that is far from idyllic and peaceful.

After a seminarian is murdered, a likely suspect is arrested by the sheriff – a fellow student. Bothwell believes that the young man is innocent, and so, as in all good detective fiction, he sets out to find evidence that will exonerate him. As an intelligent, perceptive, trustworthy and pastoral figure, the canon makes an excellent investigator.

“Runagates” is a puzzling word for a title until one looks it up in the dictionary (this reviewer had to) or says it aloud; then comes the aha, as we make the connection to the more familiar “renegades.”

Bothwell first encounters this word while in chapel, reciting verse 6 of Psalm 68: “Letteth the runagates continue in scarceness.” He wonders how the forthcoming revision of the Book of Common Prayer will update the word, and then considers that renegades do not abound at Chase Clerical Training College:

“Nothing so exotic [as gangsters hiding out] had ever happened at Chase. He had long since lost his naiveté about seminarians and knew they had most of the weaknesses of non-seminarians, but usually these foibles did not manifest themselves so dramatically and publicly. Runagates were scarce at the Clergy Training College” (p. 3).

The origin of the word “renegade” is from the Spanish “renegado,” which means “apostate.” Though the theme of apostasy is one of the strands that Edwards weaves throughout his novel, it is by no means the strongest. The reader soon discerns that love and, finally, redemption, are at the heart of Edwards’ “Holy Mystery,” making this work worth the read.

“Runagates” has some frustrating flaws, though. At times, quite a bit of sermonizing takes place between the more educated characters, for example, when Bothwell discusses the war with a colleague and her husband.

And sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the characters’ voices; for the most part, they all speak very proper English. As Bothwell begins his investigation, however, his voice becomes more authentic, his character develops, and his motives emerge for helping to solve the murder.

Another flaw is that Bothwell encounters no significant roadblocks during his investigation; with one exception, everyone cooperates, answering questions without hesitation. Edwards sometimes relies too heavily on the clichés of mystery fiction.

That said, “Runagates” ends up being worth the read because of its themes of apostasy, redemption and love. By the end, the reader is hopeful for a second book featuring Canon Bothwell.

It is interesting to note that in the current Book of Common Prayer, verse 6 of Psalm 68 reads: “But the rebels will live in the dry places.” While not explicitly stated, this is what Edwards is trying show his readers; this is what happens when one turns away from God and community. And this redeems the book’s flaws.

 

(Christine Havens is a senior Master of Arts in Religion student at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, from the Diocese of Iowa.)

Eileen O’Brien

Eileen O’Brien is a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary and a Candidate for Holy Orders for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Read Eileen’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 5 Lent (A).

Bible Study: Easter Day (A)

April 20, 2014

David W. Peters, Seminary of the Southwest

“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28:5-6)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:1-6Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24Colossians 3:1-4John 20:1-18

Jeremiah 31:1-6

I often daydream of paradise. Sometimes paradise is a beach, sometimes it’s a cabin on top of a mountain, sometimes it’s an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York. My visions of paradise change constantly. In August, my imaginary paradise is cool. In the dead of winter, my imaginary paradise is balmy.

When the Jews who were exiled in Babylon daydreamed, they only dreamed of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the City of Zion embodied all their hopes and dreams. It was the center of their emotional life and their worship of God. These verses in Jeremiah are a daydream, a vision, of unity with God, with others, and with Jerusalem. When God restores the people to Jerusalem, there will be a party unlike any other. There will be singing, dancing, music and a grand procession up to the holy city where they will be with God. The people who were as good as dead will be resurrected once and for all.

What is your vision of paradise? Where are you? Who is with you?

If you could plan the perfect party (and money was no object), what would it look like?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

While I was in the Marine Corps, I participated in many road marches. A road march began around 4 a.m. and by the time the sun was up, we were still marching. Our rucksack grew heavier, and our feet began to blister and bleed. The longer the march, the more painful it became.

Psalm 118 also describes a road march, but the mood is completely different from the road marches I experienced in my youth. The march in Psalm 118 is a triumphant march of victory. A victory always comes after a struggle, never before it. A resurrection always comes after death. The singers of this psalm have looked into the abyss of death and are now entering the gate of the Lord. On Easter morning the stone that the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone. All we can do is sing Alleluia!

Have you ever experienced victory? What did it feel like?

How is Jesus’ resurrection a victory?

Colossians 3:1-4

You’ve probably heard the description, “so heavenly minded, he is of no earthly good.” I certainly hope I’m never described this way! I want to be of some earthly good, even if it’s just in a small way. C.S. Lewis picked this apart when he wrote in his “Mere Christianity”:

“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. … It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

If we have been resurrected with Christ (and we were), then we ought to be focused on heaven, our real home. The Easter message of Resurrection is first preached by our lives. We are the ones who have been raised with Christ, and our lives should bear witness to that event.

If you were to set your mind on the “things above” for one hour, how might that effect the way you watch the news or surf the Internet?

What are the “things above”? Have you ever met someone who was so heavenly minded that he or she was of immense earthly good?

John 20:1-18

My favorite detail in John 20 is the folding of the linen wrappings, especially the folding of the cloth that “had been on Jesus’ head.” The face cloth was rolled up in a place by itself. On that glorious morning of resurrection, before Jesus revealed himself to his followers, even before he left the tomb, he rolled up his face cloth. John tells us that his burial party, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, used about a hundred pounds of spices to embalm his body after he was taken down from the cross. When he was fully prepared for burial, they covered Jesus’ face with the face cloth. Perhaps they lingered, to look at his face one last time.

Every time I carefully fold the cloths at the altar, I think of this strange detail. Every time I see the altar guild setting the table before the service, I think of this strange detail. I cannot fully explain this detail of the face cloth any more than I can explain all the mysteries of the Resurrection. All I can do is admire an expertly rolled up cloth, lying in an empty tomb.

Name a feeling you feel on Easter morning. Is there a symbol of Easter that creates this feeling in you?

Why was this detail included in John’s account of the Resurrection? What does this detail mean to you?

Lesley Mazzotta

Lesley Mazzotta is the director of Spiritual Formation at both Christ Episcopal Church and Community Reformed Church in New York City, where she creates year-round, inter-denominational programming for children, youth and adults. Her greatest passion is engaging people in faithful conversations about 21st century challenges to facilitate creative learning, personal exploration and problem solving. To that end, she designs and leads workshops, retreats and trainings around the country and writes educational curriculum on a variety of important societal topics. She is graduating from General Theological Seminary in New York City with a certificate in spiritual direction in May 2014.

Read Lesley’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Palm Sunday (A).

Bible Study: Palm Sunday (A)

April 13, 2014

Lesley Mazzotta, General Theological Seminary

“And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:

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

Isaiah 50:4-9a 

Isaiah 50 is the third of four servant songs found in Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55). In this mysterious text, we meet a nameless prophet, looking for the meaning of suffering in his life. He is persecuted by his enemies: They strike his face, pull his beard, insult him and spit on him; yet despite the dire conditions, he puts complete faith in God.

He praises all that God does for him:

“The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher” (verse 4).

“The Lord GOD has opened my ear” (verse 5).

“The Lord GOD helps me” (verse 7).

“The Lord God who helps me” (verse 9).

God is in the midst of his struggle, which allows our prophet to walk through his pain and transform it, providing “the weary with a word” (verse 4 ) and a listening ear to those in need.

This is the true meaning of our Christian journey. We believe that God is always with us and intimately knows our pain, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, we, too, can transform our pain and serve others with faith and love, just as Jesus did until his final breath.

How do you see God in the midst of your life struggles?

How might our greatest challenge be transformed by God into an opportunity to care for others who are suffering in the world?

Psalm 31:9-16 

This psalm, like our Isaiah passage, is a prayer of one who suffers from rejection in the world, but chooses to fully trust in God. It reminds me of a homeless man I once met in New York City. He had a dirty face, ragged clothes, a bloodied arm and one missing leg. Despite these ailments, he was kneeling at the street corner, holding an open Bible and praying.

I imagine that this man prayed something similar to Psalm 31, crying out for God’s mercy. He was “consumed with sorrow” (verse 9), weak “because of affliction” (verse 10) and “useless as a broken pot” (verse 12). People rushed by him, “forgotten like a dead man, out of mind” (verse 13). I walked by, too, but before I did, I noticed his face. It was lifted toward the sky, glowing with God’s light.

This is the beginning of Holy week, when Jesus cries out to us in the deepest sorrow and pain imaginable. As Christians, we always find the courage to walk with him. How can we do the same for all people, even a forgotten child of God who, like Jesus, still finds the faith to pray?

Have you ever felt your “life is wasted with grief”(verse 10). How did your faith sustain you at this time?

Discuss people who cry out in our society. What do they need? How can we better serve them with God’s loving-kindness?

Philippians 2:5-11 

St. Paul begins this section of his letter to the Philippians with a clear command: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” At a time when the Roman Empire bred a culture concerned with wealth, power and status, Paul is inviting us to turn away from societal influence and focus on Jesus’ humble teachings and ways.

Serve others. Love your enemies. Do not store up treasures on Earth. Do not judge. Give to please God, not to be seen. Turn the other cheek. Do not exalt yourself. Feed the hungry. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Clothe the naked. Do not worry about your life. Be merciful. Have complete faith in God.

Paul goes on to remind us that the one who dies on Good Friday is not a false prophet who lost his life in vain. Jesus is the exalted son of God, and “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (verses 10-11). The way to true wealth, power and status is to empty ourselves of our worldly ways and follow Jesus, forever worthy of honor, obedience and praise.

Discuss the influence of today’s society and how it affects your ability to follow Jesus.

How do you honor, obey and praise Jesus Christ, the Lord?

Matthew 26:14- 27:66

When we read through this lengthy section of Matthew’s gospel, we see many examples of the worst of humanity: betrayal, corruption, denial, fear, anger, distress, jealousy, abuse, cruelty, anguish, neglect, taunting, confusion, temptation, despair. In the midst of it all is Jesus, our suffering yet humble and obedient servant.

Jesus knows what is going to happen. He knows he will be betrayed. He knows he will endure great pain. Yet he does not do what seems natural to us. He does not run, hide or lie to save himself. Even as he begs God to “let this cup pass” by him, he still trusts enough to pray for God’s will and continue to fulfill his purpose on earth.

Astonishingly, in these unbearable circumstances, Jesus’ actions are full of grace and love. He shares a Passover meal with Judas, his betrayer. He teaches the lesson of the sword to his captors. He shows peace when condemned by authorities. He stays silent when taunted on the cross. Jesus goes through everything and anything to show God’s mercy and forgiveness, in the darkest day to the most misguided people. Could we ever do the same?

What do you say to God in your most anguished prayers?

How can Jesus’ actions be an inspiration for us as we walk through the dark days of our lives?

Bible Study: 5 Lent (A)

April 6, 2014

Eileen O’Brien, Virginia Theological Seminary

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:33-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 130Romans 8:6-11John 11:1-45

Ezekiel 37:1-14

This is the third of four vision narratives in Ezekiel introduced by the phrase “the hand of the Lord came upon me” (37:1 NRSV). As in our psalm today, location matters. This vision takes place within the context of the exile, and we are offered the image of the prophet led by the spirit into the deepest part of a valley, which is full of desiccated bones. One might imagine walking around a battlefield full of fallen soldiers, as we hear of Ezekiel being led by the spirit to and fro and all around this valley. Is this what exile is like: chaos and hopelessness? Here, even struggle and crying out has ceased. One can imagine the deep silence of the valley.

Into this silence comes a voice that tells Ezekiel not to proclaim something convoluted like his first vision, but to call out to these dry bones to hear the word of the Lord and live. Ezekiel summons the dry bones, representative of the desolation of his people, to life, and they are reformed into living beings. In fact, we have here a new creation that reverses the process of decay and parallels the narrative in Genesis 2 about the creation of Adam.

It should come as no surprise that Christian interpretation of this passage has often associated it with bodily resurrection. However, we might also invite God’s spirit to lead us into the lifeless valleys of our own lives or the lives of our communities, trusting that God is at work recreating and renewing. How might God’s word be calling us to new life as we approach the end of this season of Lent?

Psalm 130

This psalm provides rich content for reflection on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, and its simple structure might serve as a helpful guide for a Bible study or as sermon. Designated as “a song of ascents,” by its superscription, this psalm takes us on an ascending journey. The psalm may be read in four movements, which lead us from the depths to a proclamation of hope and trust in the Lord. One might think of these four movements as stops for reflection along the way on a hike up to the top of a mountain, or indeed, on the pilgrimage from the valley up to the temple mount, the highest point in Jerusalem.

We begin our journey at the base of the mountain, crying out to the Lord from the depths. By beginning in the depths, we have the opportunity to name our own pain and the pain of the world. Note, though, that the psalmist spends little time describing his or her situation and more time invoking the Lord in these first two verses. This invocation in itself is an expression of trust and relationship with the God who hears. What is the cry from the depth of your own heart?

What might be getting in the way of crying out to the God who hears? The second movement of the psalm addresses this question provoked by the first movement. The psalmist is clearly aware that there are things that get in the way of a fullness of relationship with God. Like Paul in Romans 1-3, he is aware that the answer to his question, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?” is nobody. We have all fallen short. And yet, the psalmist has confidence that forgiveness continues to hold God’s people in relationship with God.

The third movement involves something bound to make us uncomfortable: waiting. The image of “those who watch for the morning,” repeated by the psalmist, suggests the restless character of this waiting. But all of the language about restless waiting in verses 5-6 make the hope in verse 5b stand out all the more. God has already spoken, and “in his word” the psalmist hopes. As Christians, we believe that God has already spoken decisively in Christ, and part of our call is to wait in hope for God’s kingdom when all will be reconciled to God. Perhaps today, we should ask: What is the quality of our waiting? Are we restless for the coming kingdom? Or have we placed our hope in something other than God’s promise in Christ?

The final movement of the psalm reaches out of the psalmist self and proclaims to all of Israel the “steadfast love” of the Lord and God’s “great power to redeem.” There is something ecstatic about this proclamation; this is the cry from the heights. How difficult it is to get to the place from which we can openly proclaim God’s steadfast love and hope to all people!

How often are you able to make it to the part of the spiritual journey that calls you out from yourself to share God’s love and your hope in God’s word with others?

Romans 8:6-11

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9).

Here, Paul proclaims good news to us and to the congregation at Rome. Those who have been joined to Christ are a new creation. Even though we live embodied lives, we are even now “in the Spirit,” and, therefore, free to love and serve God. But Paul also acknowledges that there is still a battle going on. He formulates it as an opposition between flesh and spirit and calls upon his listeners to choose the side of life – to set their minds upon the Spirit.

What does Paul’s call to set our minds upon the Spirit mean for us during this season of Lent? Have we taken time to really engage in the struggle to reshape our lives so that they might be more reflective of Christ’s self-giving love? How is your Lenten practice leading to fuller life for you and for others?

John 11:1-45

John’s dramatic “sign” story of Lazarus speaks volumes about the one who brings about the sign and the responses of those who witness these events. Within John’s narrative, this text occurs at a turning point. It is the last of seven narrated “signs” within John’s gospel, and it marks a shift from the narration of Jesus’ public ministry to the John’s lengthy Passion narrative with its long discourses. Thus, it is particularly appropriate that we hear it today, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, as we prepare to enter into the events of the Passion of Our Lord.

So, what does this story say about the one who performs the sign? While it is easy to read John’s gospel and get a sense of a Jesus who seems to be in complete control, walking about five feet above the ground, and talking on a wholly different level than many of his interlocutors (Nicodemus, for example), this narrative offers a picture of Jesus in which his humanity is fully on display in his grief over his friend. In the midst of the grief, Jesus’ conversations with Martha and Mary reveal his identity more fully. In the midst of his vulnerability and grief, Jesus is revealed as the one who can say, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Similarly, it will be in the midst of human vulnerability and death on the cross, that Jesus’ glory will be revealed. This is classic John: Divine glory is revealed most fully in the fullness and perfection of Christ’s humanity and the vulnerability of the outpouring of self-sacrificial love.

What does this story say to you about the identity of Christ?

The bystanders invite us to “see how he loved him” (11:36). In this narrative, we have a remarkable picture of Jesus’ loving relationship with the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus at Bethany. We see a sign of God’s desire that all humanity might be unbound from the shroud of death and have an abundance of life. We also get a glimpse of a love that will be fully revealed on the cross. In the Passion of Our Lord, we will be invited to see how he loves us (cf. John 3:16).

How is Christ’s love shown throughout this passage? As a bystander in this scene, how will you respond to this sign?

Already and not yet, Easter Day (A) – 2014

April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Grace and peace to you this Easter morning when Christ the morning star is risen indeed.

Christ is risen, come back to us, but is not yet here. Already and not yet.

How can that be? Already and not yet? We proclaim Christ crucified and risen. We proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This morning we proclaim the end of one story and the beginning of another, and the years roll on. How many Easters have you been here? Every year it is the same – the same joyous shout, “I have seen the Lord. Christ is risen!”

And yet, each year we know the story is not finished. Our alleluias get drowned out by other shouts, shouts of war or hate, of fear, of pain or confusion. People still lose their jobs. Relationships, be they between parents and children, or between spouses or friends, relationships still founder and break. People still die. We still get anxious. We still worry. Our hearts still get sick, whether from physical ailments or from the burdens of the world. Dictators still rise and fall, and new ones rise up to take their place. Wars and violence still stalk us.

Yet every year by that ancient formula of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, Easter arrives, we come and we stand here, and we joyously proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Every year we declare our intention to go on living despite the reality around us because of the greater reality of this day. We go on living and loving, learning and yearning, and Christ is right beside us because of this day.

And Christ will come again. It’s that mysterious feeling of already and not yet. The poet Mary Oliver knows what this cycle is about. Here’s a portion of her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

“Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

Think of Mary Magdalene there in the garden. Three days ago her beloved friend and teacher was torn from her life by a violent mob. She stood on Calvary and watched her teacher die a hideous and shameful death. She had loved him in great measure because of the way he’d loved her. She had held tight to this seemingly mortal man and then she had to let him go. The only saving grace, it seemed, was that his death didn’t take very long. He was probably weak from the beating he had received the night before.

Then there was the desolation of the time after they had rolled that stone in front of the entrance to the borrowed tomb. The finality of that thud was still echoing in her mind as she came to the garden that morning.

Even after she finds the tomb empty and even as she confesses her confusion to the angels, her grief blinds her. Even as Jesus appears, her grief blinds her, and she can’t recognize him. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she understands that he’s done what he promised.

He had planted in her a once-fiery hope, the hope that she could change, the hope that here in this small community around her, she was not an outcast. When she went to the garden that morning, that fiery hope was a small dying ember, but at the sound of him saying her name, what had been smoldering burst back into flame.

What joy in that moment! How it banished forever the sound of that thudding stone!

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Life seemed to have suddenly returned to normal in that moment. But it had not, for the next thing Jesus says to her tells her everything had changed. “Do not hold on to me,” he says. In effect: I cannot stay here with you, but I will still be with you.

If she’d looked more closely at him, she might have seen that he had changed. He bore the marks of his ordeal on his body. We know he showed Thomas the nail marks on his hands and feet. We know that Thomas could put his hand in the jagged wound in Christ’s side.

Life is different now. Her teacher had come back, but he bears the physical memory of his treatment at the hands of his beloved creatures. He bears the memory of all that his creatures are capable of, and still he has returned and will soon promise to always be here, although his presence will not be the same flesh-and-blood presence as the sight of him that early morning in the garden.

Life is different now. Christ cannot erase the past. Christ cannot erase pain and suffering because to do that would be to erase us, his creatures. We often cause much of the pain and suffering around us. My friends, this is true and we can’t sugar-coat it. As an Episcopal priest once put it, “We may be Easter people, but we are not the darned Easter Bunny.”

Life is different now. The world seems to be destabilizing before our eyes. We wonder about the future.

Life is different now, but still we must love what is mortal. When we do that, we imitate God.

And we must be Easter people. Another poet, Jack Gilbert, wrote in 2005 what he called “A Brief for the Defense” in which he declared, in part:

“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

And when it comes time to let it go, we must let it go, trusting that the resurrection is on-going. We must search with each other for the post-resurrection Jesus, the Christ, and serve him in whomever we meet. We must listen for him to call our name and then we must do the work he has given us to do – all the while proclaiming our Easter reality:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Now what?, Easter Vigil (A) – 2014

April 19, 2014

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

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

OK. Now what? This is the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does “resurrection” mean? If I were to ask you to define it, how would you?

Humorist David Sedaris ran into this dilemma while living in France and attending a language class with other immigrants. In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” he writes:

“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’ ‘He make the good things and on Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.’”

Part of the problem was a lack of vocabulary, Sedaris noted. Words like “cross” and “resurrection” were not available to them, and the nuances of theology in the face of limited vocabulary were frustrating. And so Sedaris writes:

“Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”

Part of what makes resurrection so hard to talk about is that it is an experience that transcends all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t come out of tombs. Do they?

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection do not document the actual moment when it happened. We don’t have an eyewitness account of Jesus sitting up, removing the burial shroud, stretching, taking a look around, pushing the stone away and walking out. Even in Matthew’s account, where the angel rolls the stone away, Jesus’ body is already gone! All the gospels tell us is that the women come and find an empty tomb.

We cannot really know exactly what happened. Resurrection is not the revivification of a corpse – it is not the zombie apocalypse. It is an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer.

What we can say is that the early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Paul, who went from persecuting the Christians around him to being a champion for Christ, is just one example. Those who experience resurrected life are swept up by this profound and loving experience so much so that their whole world turns upside down in a way that brings life rather than death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the men at the tomb, “He is not here.” The same question is true for us: “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” We, by our nature, have a hole in our soul. This hole is a longing and desire for the transcendent God who lifts us out of our finite mortal bodily existence – this tomb, if you will, that we live in – and brings us into a greater life of love and light. We ache for this with every fiber of our being. But as humans, we try desperately to fill the hole in our soul by seeking holy transcendence in many ways that are nothing more than lies and dead ends. It is false transcendence that seeks the living among the dead.

We seek the living among the dead in our frantic rush to wealth and material comfort – the lure of consumerism. “How much money is enough?” someone once asked billionaire John D. Rockefeller. “Just a little bit more,” he replied, with a smile.

That “just a little bit more” is the bane of our lives. We keep imagining – if our income is rising – that the next plateau of income will be the place where we’re truly happy, but no sooner do we achieve it than we’re looking upward to the next rung on the ladder.

Conversely, if our income is going down, we’re often driven to despair, imagining all sorts of dire consequences – when the reality is, most of us have as much as we truly need to live, and then some. We falsely believe our possessions or our economic security will transcend and lift us out of our mortality, but it is a lie, a dead end.

Another place where we seek false transcendence is in the addictive pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, drugs, obsessive sexuality – even the more socially acceptable addictions of overeating or obsessive dieting – all of these ultimately lead away from communion with God and condemn us to death. Psychologist Gerald May has written extensively on addictive behaviors from the standpoint of religious faith and spirituality. In his book “Addiction and Grace,” he writes: “Addiction is the most powerful psychic enemy of humanity’s desire for God.”

Seeking transcendence through the addictive pursuit of pleasure robs us of our humanity and our spiritual freedom. It is the vain attempt to substitute pleasure for joy. It is a parasite attaching itself to our native desire for inner, spiritual fulfillment – for experience of the real transcendent communion with God – and if there’s no intervention, in the end it will destroy us. Why do we seek the living among the dead?

But there is another way: “He is not here, he is risen.” Christ’s experience of resurrection is not just his own; it is ours too, for resurrection is an invitation to new life. But the difficult and painful thing is, resurrection begins with death. To know it, you must die.

To know resurrection before your physical death, something in you has to die and likely what needs to die is how you have been seeking the living among the dead. Maybe it’s the death of the false security of your career that crashes down around you in a downsizing. Maybe it’s the loss of your physical health that you had hoped would go on forever. Maybe it’s the realization that your addiction has destroyed your humanity and robbed you of life. Maybe it’s the death of a dream or someone you hold dear. To know resurrection, you have to experience this death and deal with the loneliness of failure and grief, the humiliation of defeat, the soul-shattering reality of all you cannot control. You have to let go of any illusion that life as you once knew it is possible. And this isn’t something we want or wish for anyone, because the initial cost is so high.

But on the other side of death, Christ is there with an invitation and a promise: There is a path to a new and different life. On this side of death, the promise of a different life is no consolation. It’s too frightening and certainly not worth the crossing over of suffering to attain. But once you’re there facing death and there is no turning back, resurrection makes living possible again by forging a path of life given by God who is the author of Life itself.

There are a few things you need to remember about resurrection. First, it is an invitation. Resurrection cannot be forced upon you. Christ bids you come, but you must make the choice to say “Yes!” to his invitation. Resurrection will require you to do something. What that is, no one else can tell you, as it will be as unique as you are. But listen for that invitation, and dare to say “yes,” and you will begin the journey to a new life.

Second, resurrection begins tentatively and with great ambiguity. We experience it as disorienting and confusing – just as the women at the tomb experienced it. We don’t really know what to make of it because life has changed so dramatically that we aren’t sure about anything. We may not even want the resurrected life initially because we don’t know how to live it yet and this new life can feel a little intimidating. That’s OK; trust it anyway.

Finally, resurrection is incremental – it is a process, not an event. It takes time! Life returns one breath at a time, and it does not erase the wounds of our past – it lives alongside them. The resurrected Christ still bore the nail marks, and so will you, whatever your particular nail marks are. Resurrection invites you to release death instead of holding onto it. We may never feel ready for resurrection, but the living Christ is not content to be locked in the tombs of our misery.

Christ is alive, and he is inviting you to a resurrected life. Language will always fail to capture what this means; the experience of resurrection is so much more than mere words. But the experience is what makes joy, life, serenity and peace possible in an anxious and uncertain world.

The risen Christ is with us – always. And if you are experiencing death and feel you are in the darkness of the tomb right now, Jesus promises that there will be life on the other side for you and for all of us.

— 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.

Our mandate for this day: Love one another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 17, 2014

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

The ancient designation of this day, this night, is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.

So, what is our mandate on this day? To love one another.

The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist, what some call Holy Communion, to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. Numerous congregations will have a ceremonial washing of feet.

But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.

This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. Indeed, it has all the elements of a modern crime drama of the worst kind.

In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. Many details are missing from this story. Who prepared the meal? What else did they have to eat? Was anyone else in attendance? These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal of bread and wine during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”

When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.

But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember, and we need to tell if we are to be honest, and if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.

When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” what do we do next?

We break the bread.

Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5,000 chronicled in John’s gospel. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptics, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ate the Passover meal, ate the bread. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Passover sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Jesus was present in the actual bread. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the ritual blood that would redeem the people before God.

Jesus was the Passover sacrifice.

And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, and we break that bread, it is much more than simply breaking bread that we may share it out among the gathered community. It is breaking Jesus all over again, that he may be the ritual sacrifice for us.

We break the bread. We break the Body. We break his body, as we have broken our promises, our commitments, our relationships, our community. All. Over. Again.

This is a pivotal point of the Eucharist, a pivotal point of our Maundy Thursday story, when Jesus is taken whole and consecrated to God, and then broken on the altar of our sins.

In the record of the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal, much as we commemorate in our Eucharist.

In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the Eucharist. So that when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbor, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbors.

John’s relation of the story of this day, this night, has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship.

John’s message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.

“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. As we break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example given us in the Gospel of John, to take care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord.

 

— 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.

Walk through Holy Week with Jesus, Palm Sunday (A) – 2014

April 13, 2014

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

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment. To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be. This is the point of no return for Jesus. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous. Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves. The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified. The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is. While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation. Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment our souls are torn in two. At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.