Archives for March 2014

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.

The waiting is the hardest part, 5 Lent (A) – 2014

April 6, 2014

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

Friends, we are almost there. We have been on this Lenten road since Ash Wednesday: about 28 of our 40 days. We are in the home stretch. As Tom Petty so wisely put it, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

Throughout this Lenten season we have been reading long stretches from the Gospel According to John. This gospel is usually set apart as being very distinct from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In many ways, the Gospel of John is not so much a biography of Jesus as it is a lyrical and theological meditation on Jesus Christ and his reconciling work.

There are several hallmarks of the Gospel of John. One is that the writer of John used a recurring motif in the way that Jesus spoke about who he was and what he was up to. The motif that is repeated is that Jesus and the Father are one, and whomever follows what Jesus says will also participate in this unity.

In this way, the Gospel of John reads much like how a Bach fugue sounds, it visits the same theme, over and over, upside and right-side, inside and out; always the same message: The Father and Jesus are one, and those who listen to Jesus are included in that close relationship. It’s a heady mix of pronouns and swirling associations, but the message is clear throughout John’s gospel: God has claimed us as his people through Jesus Christ. Period.

Another hallmark of John’s gospel is the fact that it contains no miracles. Miraculous things happen in the gospel, of course, but the writer does not call them miracles; instead, the word “signs” is used. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ signs are used to great narrative effect. Every time that Jesus gives a teaching, he then certifies the teaching with a sign. The signs take up the first half of the gospel of John, and today’s sign, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh and final sign.

Seven is, of course, a tremendously important number in the Bible – the number of holiness, the number of completeness. Not so technically, the eighth sign in John’s gospel is the Resurrection of Jesus. Eight, of course becomes a sacred number for Christians; eight being the eighth day of creation, whereby we are made new creations in Christ at baptism. This is why many baptismal fonts are octagonal. But here, today, we have the final and most perfect sign that Jesus performs: the resurrection of Lazarus.

Finally, a hallmark of the Gospel According to John is that he does not really use the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Those terms are used frequently in the other gospels, but for John, he is saying something different: The Kingdom of God is not so much established by Jesus, the Kingdom of God is Jesus.

Such is the content and context of the Gospel of John. So what can it mean then that we have this story of Jesus being asked to come heal his sick friend, and yet he delays going? Jesus even says that the sickness that Lazarus has does not lead to death. But it does.

Can you imagine the anxiety of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters? Here they have been traveling with, working with, and likely funding Jesus and his ministry. They have witnessed wonders beyond description. Now their brother Lazarus, who is a dear friend of Jesus, is ill. Let us pause for a moment and remember that in the first century, in Palestine, illness was quit serious, there were no antibiotics, and illness, more often than not, preceded death. This was serious, and they knew that Jesus had it within him to heal Lazarus. Can you imagine their supreme disappointment when Jesus says that he will wait to visit Lazarus? “Wait?!” the sisters may have shouted, “He will die!”

And Lazarus does die. It’s heartbreaking; he dies. We need to really get our hearts and minds around this fact. Mary and Martha are living in a pre-Resurrection world. Death is death, the absolute end of all things.

When Jesus does finally come to Lazarus, the sisters and the village are in full mourning. Martha greets Jesus when he comes, not with words of welcome but words of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One wonders what was going through her mind. Was she ready to stop following Jesus? Was she in that empty space in her spirit where grief besets us? Grief is grief, even for those who walk with Jesus. Why did Jesus not act? Where was he?

At this point, we are met with what is, in the King James Version, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” or as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “Jesus began to weep.”

It’s an important point. Weeping comes from deep empathy and grief. Twice in this passage we are told that Jesus is deeply moved, or disturbed in his spirit. Jesus is not some all-seeing, distant, stoic God. Our God is a feeling, empathizing God. Jesus acts out of this empathy, out of this “co-feeling,” which is the literal translation of “empathy.”

But something else happened. It doesn’t appear to have caused Jesus to raise Lazarus, but it is certainly a part of the story, and we ought not to ignore it. You see, all this talk of miraculous raisings and Jesus’ empathy has overshadowed an important point of this story: Mary and Martha begged Jesus to heal their brother, and they are let down by him. When Lazarus does in fact die, they mourn and appear to be even angry with Jesus for not acting. And it is right there in that hard, desolate place of loss and grief that Jesus speaks life. “Lazarus, come out!” Even here, we see that death having the last word is not in God’s plan.

Certainly each of us has had those moments of wondering where God was in a time of trial or loss. “Why did God let her die?” “Where was God when I needed him?” All of us have wondered at God’s apparent departure. But sometimes, in that area of wondering, Jesus shows up, even after the death and loss. And his arrival is prompted by our raw grief.

The truth of the matter is that being as close as we are to our own experiences, we lack the proper perspective to see God in the midst of things, even in loss. To be sure, we may not recognize God’s empathic presence with us, but we can trust, somehow, that he is present.

But it is the waiting for Jesus that is the lesson from Mary and Martha today. Even though all hope is lost – Lazarus has died – they still wait; for what, they do not know. And it is in the midst of this waiting that God moves. It is in waiting past the point of hope that God sometimes moves.

Be patient with God. His understanding of the timing of things is different from yours. Even when all is lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time.

Here, near the end of Lent, is as good a time as any to be reminded that God moves in God’s time. Maybe, since we all lack it, God will grant us the grace to be patient with him, and allow him to surprise us with life and resurrection.

Happy waiting.

 

— Josh Bowron is the senior assistant to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, N.C. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and their three wild and woolly children.

Washing in the life-giving water, 4 Lent (A) – 2014

 March 30, 2014

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

Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.

The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, the Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, the Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.

The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another school shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.

And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.

And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.

This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?

When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.

When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.

When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.

Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.

And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.

Suffering plagues our communities, too. Natural disasters, mass shootings and national tragedies – none of us is immune.

Of course, there are those who will attempt to lull us into believing that faith not only brings an end to suffering and blindness, but that it also makes our hurts and pains disappear. But the hard truth is that this simply isn’t so. After all, even after the blind man received his sight, he was faced with the rejection of his friends and family. Suffering is painful. Grief is awful – even horrifying at times. But it is an inescapable part of our humanity.

And the powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.

And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. (Diocese of Lexington). He earned a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Marshall also serves on the steering committee of Reading Camp, an international non-profit ministry based in the Diocese of Lexington that provides non-traditional summertime learning opportunities to elementary school-aged children who are below grade level in reading.

The big surprise, 3 Lent (A) – 2014

March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

The story we just heard about Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar is a story full of surprises.

The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. The barriers to it are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.

The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. To make a long story short, the Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.

There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.

Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.

It is a surprise, therefore, that this conversation ever happens. But the conversation itself contains more than one surprise.

It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant.

Jesus and the woman meet beside an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a faucet in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.

It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. These details remain unclear to us, but apparently she has had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death, or divorce, or desertion? Were they truly marriages, or something else? Why is her current husband not truly her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. Yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbors.

The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.

And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Where is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer depend on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.

The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says he is that messiah. Jesus thus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: She is a Samaritan, a woman and an exile among her own kind. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.

The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well. It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.

There in Sychar, she tells the people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the Messiah?”

Soon a crowd follows her out to the well. This crowd is so large that Jesus compares it to a field ready to be harvested. These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus.

It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness. After all, she is a reject among her own people, a woman with no name, no social standing. Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission. It’s a surprise that people heed her. Yet they do, for there is something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness.

Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one.

True, she may be a woman of questionable character, or at least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life.

True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete.

Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows.

Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself.

And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to him.

If Jesus has spoken to us, accepted us, led us to see ourselves differently, then we can bear witness to others, even as she did.

We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t need to know all there is to know. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God.

Whether becoming the center of attention is what we want or what we fear, that is not the issue, that is not the purpose.

We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus, who stands close behind us.

Then soon enough they will forget about our witness, and say, along with those people from Sychar, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).