Archives for 2015

Joined by Jesus, Christmas 2 – 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Christmas season is a period in which the Church celebrates that God unites God’s self to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. At the very heart of Christmas is the birth of our divine Savior, Christ the Lord, who is the Word made flesh. As Christians, we believe that the Son of God took upon himself the fullness of our human nature and that at his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary he received a human body of flesh and bone, a human heart to love, and a human mind to reason, think, and will. Indeed, following the teachings of the Holy Scriptures Christians affirm that Jesus is like us in all things except for sin.

Theologians call the belief that God became flesh “the Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is one of the key points of the Church’s faith as expressed by the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate and was made man.” It is not a mystery in the sense of being any sort of secret. Rather, it is a mystery because its reality goes beyond our limited ability to understand it.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the flight into Egypt, illustrates some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus, in his humanity, identified himself with the faithful people of God in moments of both hardship and rejoicing.

First, Jesus identifies himself with the people of Israel. The passage from the second chapter of Matthew is chock-full of evocative words and names that are meant to make the reader remember the story of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Just as there is in the book of Genesis, here there is a Joseph who sees visions in his dreams and who leads the people to refuge in the land of Egypt. Like the story of the Exodus, here we find a Miriam, or Mary. There is even a Joshua, or Jesus, like we find in the book of Deuteronomy and in the story of the return to the Land of Promise as told in the book of Joshua. Even Herod’s wrath and seeking to kill the Holy Child echoes the pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Hebrew children. Such allusions to the story of the Old Testament are an intentional part of Matthew’s story about Jesus. By connecting Jesus to the story of the salvation of the covenant people, the Evangelist demonstrates how Jesus’ life and story are one with the life and the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that Jesus is one with God’s covenant people because he has lived their history and their experience in his own flesh. Thus, one might say that Jesus is not simply Jewish; Jesus is the authentic embodiment of Israel.

Second, Jesus identifies himself with the promise to bring all nations, including the traditional enemies of Israel, into God’s Kingdom. The story of the flight in Egypt is a healthy reminder that God’s interest is not limited only to Israel. National borders do not limit God’s sovereign power. God looks upon the whole world and upon every nation and people. As the creator of the entire human race, the Christian God offers mercy and grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. Matthew seems to revel in the irony that the newborn Messiah was rejected by the King Herod of Judah but welcomed by Gentiles in Egypt. One might consider just how deep Jesus’ identification with the children of Egypt was. He spoke their language. He played their games and shared their friendship as children across the world do. Once again Egypt, too, has become holy ground. This was, perhaps, a first step toward the long promised reconciliation of the Gentiles to the creator. This was announced by the Hebrew prophets and was fulfilled in the eschatological vision of people from every race, language, and nation singing around the heavenly throne.

Third, with the Flight into Egypt Jesus, who later teaches, “blessed are the poor,” identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized of this world. It must never be forgotten that the Holy Family were on the run, that they were fleeing their homeland as victims of political persecution. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived as refugees in Egypt. They, like Abraham, Jacob, and his sons before them and like so many people in the world today, were exiles from their home and migrants in a foreign land. Christ, therefore, knows firsthand the experiences of the outcast, the foreigner, and the immigrant. He knows the trials of the refugee seeking safety and protection from the wrath and cruelty of evildoers and tyrants.

This experience of the flight into Egypt explains the force of Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him because he has made himself one with the marginalized. He has been the exile, the migrant, and the refugee. Therefore, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the exiled are things Christians rightly do to honor our Lord. Christians must identify with the poor and the exiled because Christ himself was counted among their number. We must serve the needy among us because in doing so we serve Jesus Christ who loves all people. As the Apostle James wrote in the first century, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress.”

During the Christmas season it is also important to recall that Jesus identified himself with the joys of our celebrations. In Matthew’s telling of the flight into Egypt, Jesus does not only suffer the hardship of exile. He also experiences the joy of coming home. The joy of returning to one’s homeland is a regular theme in the message of the Hebrew prophets that can be seen from today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah: “He who scattered Israel will gather him…for the Lord has ransomed Jacob from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…and they shall never languish again.” This is a joyous celebration that God brings God’s children home. This experience of return further signals Jesus as the one who embodies the life of Israel. It suggests something of the great expectation that God will provide a definitive return to the life of justice and peace in his divine kingdom, as Matthew suggests by his citation of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

The return from exile in Egypt reminds us that Christ also understands the human need for celebration. We rejoice in God’s blessings. We rejoice in hopes fulfilled. The desires to sing and to dance, to laugh and to rejoice are not foreign to our Lord. After all, these expressions of joy and happiness are a powerful part of what it is to be human, to be fully human as Jesus Christ was and is. In the mystery of the incarnation, God shares this human joy in all its fullness.

The incarnation of Christ therefore provides the Church with a powerful reason to celebrate. Not only is it that, “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us,” but by becoming of a human being Christ has united himself to the human race and made us members of his own family. Christ Jesus has joined the human family by virtue of his birth from the Virgin Mary, and we have joined the household of God by believing in his one and eternal Son.

Today the Church rejoices, as we hear from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, that: “We have been adopted by God the Father as children through Jesus Christ to the praise of his glorious grace and that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” We celebrate that we, too, have become sons and daughters of God, true brothers and sisters of Christ. We rejoice that God’s grace has been lavished upon on us and that the same love that fills Jesus’ heart has been poured into our own hearts to give us new life. We rejoice that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Savior. Therefore, let every heart celebrate God’s mercy and the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 2 C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch
The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Confusing the Sacred and the Profane, Christmas 1 – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

When much of the world might think of this time as a great chance to get sales and deals or to catch up on sleep after relatives have left and to gear up for the New Year, this is a very different time for the Church. For the Church, this is the beginning of a short and nonetheless highly important season, the season of Christmas. This season gives us a sense of the expanse of time between Jesus’ birth and some of the other important events that happened around it. More importantly, this season also gets us in touch with the fact that the incarnation was not something that occurred just in the moment of conception or in the moments of delivery. Rather, the incarnation was something that unfolded over a great amount of time, since the beginning. It is this connection to the beginning that John, whose “account” of the incarnation we read today, was referring to. So let us return to John’s words. With God’s help, we will find ourselves more deeply immersed in the great mystery of Jesus Christ and his presence on Earth.

Most people who have grown up in the Episcopal or many other Christian churches will have heard the phrase: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us,” quite a few times. Compared to the pageant-worthy accounts in Matthew and Luke this seems quite unexciting. It is certainly lacking great imagery on the surface. Nonetheless, it becomes more interesting with a closer review of what these words mean and how significant they are. Another way to translate the phrase that gives us a closer experience to that of the original listeners is to say, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent amidst us.” Taking into account how these words would have resonated with the present and past of the Jewish-Christian communities that gathered around these Gospel accounts will help us get a sense of how Jesus’ coming in turned ideas about what is sacred and what is mundane completely upside down.

So where does the ‘tent’ connection really come from? Linguistically and conceptually a ‘dwelling’ for the Jewish people was a tent. To dwell with was to pitch a tent. Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem and long before the Jews built their Temple, they were a moving people who lived in tents. As they moved they carried the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, with them and they believed God was present with the Ark. Some distance from where they pitched their own tents, they erected a super-tent, called the Tabernacle, for God. This tent had rooms, walls, incense, furniture, a garden and a clear barrier around the outside. When God’s cloud was on the tent no one was allowed in there. Otherwise, only certain men, the descendants of Aaron, were allowed in there at all. Even they could only enter after they offered a sacrifice for their own sins and took a special bath, or they could die. You see, by making God’s tent so different, so far away, and so exclusive they were making it pretty clear that their lives, their ordinary selves, where they lived and what they did were mundane, even profane. Only the exclusive people, places, and things were Holy and worthy of God.

With this in mind, we can see just how Christ turned this all upside down in his coming. While the Tabernacle was a super-tent with rooms and furniture, Christ “pitched his tent” in a stable or barn. The Tabernacle was apart from where others stayed, whereas Christ stayed in an overcrowded inn in the middle of town. One could easily argue that Christ incarnated a highly undesirable and unclean space, in the opposite space from the select area the tabernacle would have been. While only certain men, ritually cleaned, could enter God’s other tent, dirty shepherds and even animals got to share Jesus’ first intimate moments. The mundane and profane people and circumstances that were excluded from the Tabernacle were the exact people and circumstances included and recognized as Holy in the presence of Christ.

As we, as the Body of Christ, seek to follow in his example in this way it is important that we realize that it isn’t about making the Holy less Holy or less valued. Rather, it’s about recognizing the holiness in the everyday and drawing that forth. We are in a world where the lines between the ordinary and the special, the profane and the sacred are heavily drawn. If we as the church are to truly be people of the incarnation, we must at the very least challenge these distinctions and at best remove them altogether. We must do so out of our deep faith and understanding that all creation is suitable, inhabitable and thus somehow inhabited by God. How do we do this?

We can approach this work in a number of ways. The places we worship and other sacred spaces offer great opportunities for this. Through prayer we make these spaces Holy and bring forth their inherent spiritual beauty. By inviting and encouraging other kinds of meetings, fellowship gatherings, mutual support functions, and even parties with dancing, we can begin to unlock and reveal just how wonderful and sacred it is to be able to share these moments with others. By doing so in our places of worship we then change the way we regard these activities wherever they may occur.

We can also accomplish this through changing the ways that we approach and consider the routine things in our lives. From the time we spend brushing our teeth to our daily carpool and other regular appointments, we can bring forth the divine aspects of time by bringing more intentionality and paying attention to the ways that God’s presence manifests. So much of this comes down to being more intentional and practicing gratitude in all that we do. In doing so, we’ll find that in a sense of holiness will pervade our lives more deeply. We’ll find ourselves more able to recognize the ways that God is incarnating within our lives.

That leads to the most central part of this work, prayer. For it is in prayer and reflection that we enable ourselves to notice God birthing around us. And so let us all take the time, through this Christmas Season and beyond if possible, to consider all that we do notice as we remind ourselves of God’s Holy Presence everywhere. In doing so, we’ll help these Holy moments last well beyond the day or even the liturgical season of Christmas. In doing so, we’ll make them part of our entire lives and beyond. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1C.

Written by The Reverend Edwin Johnson

Wrecking Church, Christmas Eve – 2015

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

The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his six-year-old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but also the child who was born to wreck everything.

It may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas and even disquieting in an age where terrorism dominates the news cycle. But we dare not forget the scandal of both the cradle and the cross and be lulled by the culture’s attempts to sentimentalize Christmas. We all do it and to be honest, it even happens in the church.

Think for a moment about how our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare we even say … nice. Consider the opening of the beloved carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Lovely words from Phillips Brooks but if we think about the tumultuous history of the Middle East, imaging Bethlehem as peaceful more expresses a longing than an historical reality. And what about Away In A Manger telling us, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? Any nurse or doctor would call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation attempts immediately. Seriously, these images may just be conspiring to sentimentalize the scandal of Christmas.

What about those emotional expectations of the holidays? You know, those happy family get-togethers that often don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle. Of course, there’s the cultural pressure to over consume. Whether it’s going overboard with buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over-eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Between sentimentality, emotional burdens, and unrealistic cultural expectations, perhaps we need this child of God to wreck what we’ve made of Christmas.

The reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that, the one who came to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it.

He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism, so that we might be able to love God and others and to receive that love in return. He came to wreck our fear of death, so that we might be able to live more fully and freely in this life. He came to wreck the political systems which choose who is in and who is out, so that all of God’s children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes; we just call them political parties, ethnic groups, or faith traditions now. He came to break down our economy of values to build a different one based on valuing the eternal rather than things that pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family, which includes all people, not just the ones like us. Yes, he came to wreck every structure we try to build which puts us first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve. And he calls us to follow in his path.

This is no small thing. For 2000 plus years, people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine. To mark a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst regardless of our fears or of the conflict we may be experiencing. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season so that he might plant the grace of God in your heart and you may come to know Christ’s love. 

Download the sermon for Christmas Eve C.

Written by The Reverend Anjel Scarborough
The Reverend Anjel Scarborough is the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD. She is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

People of the Incarnation, Christmas Day – 2015

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

 Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted! Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name! (Psalm 97)

Christmas Day in our churches has a different kind of light than Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is all stars and brightness, angels and adoration and Glory to God in the Highest! Christmas Day is quieter. In the December morning light, we’re left with the holy family after the angels and shepherds have departed. We’re left with Mary, to treasure all that has occurred and ponder in our hearts. Everything has changed. Quite literally, the incarnation of Jesus Christ has changed everything.

In the encounter of the angels and the shepherds, we’ve witnessed a coming together of heaven and earth, joining Joseph and Mary to witness a miracle. This miracle is more than an encounter between human and divine, such as Mary experienced in the Annunciation or the shepherds experienced in the appearance of the angel. In the infant Jesus, the boundaries between heaven and earth have dissolved. By Christ’s incarnation – his life as a human being among other human beings – the divine crossed into the human realm.

Over and over again in the gospels, in the witness of the life and words of Jesus Christ, we encounter this intersection of human and divine, until his death and resurrection when the man Jesus crosses into the divine realm. Birth and death are threshold events for us as mortal beings, crossing between earthly and eternal life. But in Jesus, it’s not a question of crossing back and forth. It’s a question of being both at once, a unity of the human and the divine for all eternity. A very big idea: eternity. Yet made concrete in a newborn child. This is the miracle that we ponder with Mary on this Christmas Day.

We might ponder the reason for the miracle. Why? What is the purpose of this miracle of incarnation?

Prophets and theologians have pondered this for millennia. In today’s readings, both Isaiah and Paul speak of salvation. Isaiah proclaims, “See, your salvation comes.” Paul writes in the letter to Titus, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.”

What is salvation exactly? Salvation can be defined as deliverance from sin and sin’s consequences. For the ancient Hebrews, salvation was deliverance from exile in Egypt, and later from Babylon into the Promised Land. For Christians through the millennia, salvation has been embodied in Jesus Christ who brought the kingdom of God to earth and who will ultimately, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and God’s kingdom will have no end.”

Anglican theologians have pondered the incarnation too, of course. For William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, the incarnation was significant because God left heaven and entered the course of human history to be an example for human life. Temple’s social ethics and his entire worldview follow from this theological understanding of the incarnation. Temple believed and expected that because of the incarnation, social transformation is both needed and possible. That it is the church’s right and duty to call for social change and that the church must play a role in public life. The incarnation impacts our lives. Because of the incarnation we are called to build the kingdom of God on earth. We are called to love and serve those in need. Salvation here and now – salvation in history – is achieved by faith and our actions. The church has a role to play in attaining salvation. Temple wrote, “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens acting in their civic capacity, the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

Twentieth-century Anglican laywoman and mystic Evelyn Underhill was also deeply committed to the theology of the incarnation. She writes about “continuing incarnation,” offering our lives as a means for achieving the kingdom, God’s work on earth, by weaving together our inner and outer lives through prayer and action.

So, what then are the implications of the incarnation for the mission of the church here and now? Let us ponder with Mary on the morning of Christ’s birth. The incarnate Christ was both God and human. As we human beings seek to become united with God through prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, let us also seek to become united with our fellow human beings through community and action in community. Salvation is achieved through faith and our actions. We are called to remember the poor and the oppressed, the weak, the weary, the prisoners, the homeless, and the displaced.

We can’t all do everything, but at least each one of us can do something about one particular agony in the world. We can take one step outside of the circle of the familiar towards knowledge and reconciliation with the unfamiliar. We can love God in Christ Jesus by loving our neighbors, crossing the street and meeting a stranger. Even better, you can take the hand of someone in your church community and cross the street together. And then join in community and offer openhearted hospitality to a stranger’s community.

As individuals and as the Church – the body of Christ – we are called to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth. The apostle Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah tells us that all God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called to pray, to faithfully reflect on our responsibility to God and our neighbor, and to act for justice and reconciliation. We are called to participate in Christ’s rescuing mission in the world. Let us commit to being people of the incarnation. Let us go forth into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart, looking for the opportunity to do the work of God on earth. As we leave church on this Christmas morning, let us accept the invitation to ponder a step toward bringing the kingdom of God to earth. What one particular agony in your world, community, neighborhood, or family can you do something about today?

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may be travelers like Joseph and Mary, searching for a place for God to rest in love. Grant that we may be messengers like the angel of the Lord, bringing good news of great joy to all the people. Grant that we may be worshippers like the heavenly host, praising God and saying glory to God in the highest heaven. Grant that we may be believers like the shepherds, hastening to witness a miracle. Grant that we may be contemplative as Mary, pondering the meaning of the incarnation in our hearts. Grant that we may have the temerity to risk offering our lives as a means to do God’s work on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

The blues moan in the gospel shout, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 3, 2015

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

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.

Well, today we see what that really means. Today, we kneel to venerate the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. And we recognize that we are completely incapable of following his commandment and carrying the wooden weight of the burden he took on for our sake.

In many ways, realizing that has been our entire Lenten project.

The ash crosses we marked ourselves with 40 long days ago were our white flags of surrender. Our cries of “uncle.” Our declaration that we can’t. That we know, deep down, exactly what God expects of us: to act with justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To take up our cross and to lay down our lives for our friends.

But we can’t. For we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. And we know that if we were fully living into our baptismal commitments, we would be up there – tortured, bleeding, hanging from a tree. Because the world does not exactly reward those who act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

And so we don’t. We do what’s comfortable. We do what’s safe. We do what’s nice. We love our comfortable, safe, nice lives, and do not want to lose them – even for Christ’s sake.

Recently, a group of teens were being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in their Sunday-school class, and when they got to the section on Proper Liturgies for Special Days, one of them asked, “Why do we call it Good Friday?”

It is such a predictable question that it’s easy for us to try to answer it without thinking, without listening to what is really being asked. This particular teenager wasn’t just asking why we call it “Good Friday” when it is the day that Jesus died. He was asking why – if we call it Good Friday, if it is Good News that Jesus died for us on the cross – our worship, then, is so solemn, so somber, so filled with genuflections and prostrations. If, as we proclaim, it is a “Good Friday,” why do we not shout joyfully and sing as the Israelites did at the shore of the Red Sea? Why do we not praise God with the trumpet, and lyre, and harp? Why, today of all days, are all our songs of glory in a minor key?

The answer lies in this truth: Today is a day for gratitude, but it is also a day of sorrow.

While we glory in Christ’s cross, we also mourn the fact that our sin made his sacrifice necessary. And we sorely grieve that, as the prophet Isaiah says in our reading today:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. … For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Christ’s death is the means of our salvation. And it is right to give God our thanks and praise, for by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.

But we also mourn that an innocent man had to suffer and die because of our actions. And we mourn that the innocent continue to suffer, because we are unwilling and incapable of making the sacrifices to our comfortable, safe, nice lives to ease their suffering.

The great preacher Otis Moss, III, once said, “They could not distinguish between the gospel shout and the blues moan.” He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament, from the third chapter of the Book of Ezra, about those returning from exile who laid the foundation for the new Temple:

“And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

The Rev. Moss uses this text to declare to us that we have a blues-note gospel – a gospel of great joy at the mighty power of our saving God, written in a minor key. A gospel in which our great joy at God’s power and mercy is often indistinguishable from our mourning at the need for that power and mercy; at our inability to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – still less, as much as God loves them.

And so, on Good Friday, even as we kneel in awe before the King of the Universe, hanging on a cross for our sake, we also kneel in the sure and certain knowledge that we are not following in his footsteps on the Via Dolorosa. That we are not even denying him as we warm our hands by the fire. We are in the crowd, calling for his crucifixion.

And so our gospel shout that today is a “good” day – the best of all days – is indistinguishable from the blues moan that today is a day that is needed. A day that will still be needed, even as our praise at the empty tomb resolves the minor chords into major ones.

Good Friday reminds us that we have a blues-note gospel. That Christ’s death and resurrection may have saved us from sin and death, but we still sin and we still die. As we kneel at the foot of the cross, mourning our sin and the evil that we witness around us, we are forced to reckon with these facts – facts we would much rather forget.

As Easter dawn approaches and we ratchet up our gospel shouts and prepare to say that word we use during worship that has been buried for the last 40 days, we must not forget that our gospel shout contains those blues moans, those minor keys.

As the Rev. Moss reminds us, the blues moan is indistinguishable from the gospel shout.

Because while we mourn the necessity of Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered, we give thanks that it is a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And that in him, God has delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before him.

And as our gospel shouts echo through the empty tomb, may we remember the profound and never-failing mercy of God, the mercy that holds fast even when we do not – that holds fast precisely because we will not – and be thankful.


The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware is parochial associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Washed with holy love, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 2, 2015

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

The disciples are gathered in the upper room for supper. Passover was beginning soon, and there was much work to be done. The air was tense – the disciples had heard rumors about the authorities coming to arrest Jesus. They knew that any disruption during the Passover feast would not be tolerated. And so they ate: quietly, quickly and unaware that this would be the last time they broke bread with Jesus, their beloved leader.

Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was about to happen. He had always known. And somewhere deep down in their bones, the disciples knew it, too. Whenever the unfiltered and uncompromising truth was spoken to power, power won. That much they learned from the prophets.

And yet, Jesus cut through the tension and anxiety that filled the air by quietly pushing back from the table, removing his outer robe, fastening a towel around his waist and bending down to wash the disciples’ feet.

This unexpected and scandalous act defied social convention and placed the disciples in a precarious position. Not only was Jesus breaking with custom by washing the feet of those subordinate to him, the very act of foot washing is a theological sign of a far more important underlying truth. By allowing their feet to be washed, the disciples were accepting what they did not deserve and what they had not earned: the love of Jesus. Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus persists: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

This is the place we find ourselves on this Maundy Thursday: caught between a culture that promises that good things come to those who work for it, and a Christ whose love is so freely given – unearned and undeserved – that we can’t help but raise a fuss.

We say things like, “But just look at all of the mistakes I’ve made and the people I’ve hurt!” as Peter whispers in our hearts, “You will never wash my feet.”

Or we raise our fists and proclaim, “God can’t love me because I don’t know if I love God.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

Or we retreat into our shame and lament, “God can’t love me because I don’t deserve it.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

The great Anglican preacher and theologian John Wesley was right when he said, “There is nothing more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”

And yet, this grace that Jesus gives comes with a mandate; or, recalling our Anglican heritage, a maundy: Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, knowing full well what would happen to him later that same night. And we hear these words as we embark into the darkness of the Paschal Triduum, the holy journey through Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.

The disciples were given Jesus’ mandate to love one another as Jesus loves them just hours before one of their own would double cross Jesus and hand him over to his accusers.

But that’s the risk of love – especially holy love.

Holy love is given freely to saint and sinner alike; to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to share that love with the world, and to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to reject and dishonor it.

And the freedom with which this love is given is at once its greatest blessing and its greatest curse, because the more we open our hearts to give and receive this love, the more vulnerable we are to betrayal – a crucifixion all its own.

In his poem, “Lachrimae Amantis,” the great English poet Geoffrey Hill writes in part

“What is there in my heart that you should sue so fiercely for its love? What kind of care brings you as though a stranger to my door through the long night and the icy dew seeking the heart that will not harbor you?”

Tonight, as Jesus’ love is poured out as warm water cleansing and soothing tired and worn skin; as bread and wine is made holy food and drink, we come to receive what we have not earned and what we do not deserve.

And if we will allow it, we may find our hearts broken open by a love that is stronger than our fickleness, stronger than our fear, and stronger even than the finality of death.

And through the darkness, we will hear the Savior’s voice, full of life and promise: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Good News in the ashes, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2015

February 18, 2015

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

There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here in both numbers and intensity quite unusual for a weekday. It’s more than just habit or duty – somehow more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on this special Wednesday has power.

A large part of that power probably lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. Much else that we say in here we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.

From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.

Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.

Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.

And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating.

We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and on this day we are reminded of this, and brought closer to this.

From dust, to dust.

To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death. This Good News is the conviction that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.

So, part of the Good News is that we have been made from dust. The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.

Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, and to look and to move in a new direction.

If you’re in Chicago and you’re driving to New York, going west, then you just won’t ever get there – no matter how many times you pull over to the side of the road, stop the car, get out and apologize. To “repent” is to turn around.

And today’s call to us to repent doesn’t center on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.

At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it is not something to which we can pay lip service – or forehead service – and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We don’t think ourselves into a new state of being. We live and we act ourselves into it.

Both Holy Scripture and the accumulated spiritual insight of our tradition tell us that the classical and ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving are powerful helps as we hear and move toward obeying God’s call to return. They are universally recognized ways of keeping our journey moving in the right direction.

Jesus commands these three, and he goes the extra step of insisting not only that we practice them, but also that we do so privately – indeed, secretly. By the way, Jesus is being quite straightforward here, quite literal. God simply ignores the actions of those who deliberately attract attention to their religious deeds.

That’s why we’re counseled to wash our faces and to go about in quiet obedience. In that way our reward – our growth into Christ and his growth in us – will be something quite safe from rust, and moths, and thieves – and the admiration of others.

So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, return to the Lord – in joyful obedience. For he who created us is calling us to him. To this end, we are given the special gift of Lent – a time to allow us to hear that call with some real depth, and to respond.


— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.