Archives for March 2016

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Today many churches will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, especially those parishes and congregations that have “Good Shepherd” in their titles. “The Good Shepherd” is a title that Jesus used for himself in a famous section of the Gospel of John in which he declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The passage is so meaningful for the Christian understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is that parts of it are appointed for this Sunday in all three years of the Church’s lectionary.

The background and implications of Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd make it particularly consequential. Throughout the Old Testament—but with special pointedness in the prophetic books—the kings and other rulers of Israel and Judah are called shepherds. This designation makes sense because kings and rulers were entrusted with looking out for the welfare of God’s people. They were responsible for defending them from attack, for administering justice, for taking care of the poor and needy, and for making provisions for the worship of the Lord.

As the Hebrew prophets make clear, however, the rulers of Israel and Judah failed on every count. They “fed themselves and not the flock,” and they had “scattered the sheep of the Lord’s flock”. They proclaimed the hope that the Lord would intervene on behalf of the people, God would be their true Shepherd. God spoke to Ezekiel promising:

“I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

Throughout the Psalms the Lord is presented as the Shepherd of Israel and the one who guides the people like a flock. The best-known example of the Bible’s shepherd-imagery for God is the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23. Many Christians know its words by heart:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.”

In rich symbolism, the psalm movingly depicts God as the true king of Israel and shepherd of God’s people. God gives them everything they need, and nothing is missing from God’s generous provisions. Sustenance, refreshment, beauty, and safety are all to be found among the Lord’s gifts for God’s people. The Lord’s strength defends them from their oppressors and saves them from dangers the way a shepherd protects their sheep from wolves, bears, and lions:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

God’s people rejoice, surrounded by the abundance of God’s love forever:

“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This understanding of God as the Shepherd of Israel forms the backdrop for Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.

Jesus begins what is known as the Good Shepherd discourse by describing the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd: God knows them by name, and they recognize God’s voice. The relationship is direct and personal. God is not some far-off deity who is uninterested in God’s people. God loves them and calls them by name.

Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus contrasts the Lord’s care for people with the failure of the Jewish leaders who came before him. He exposes them as false shepherds. Instead of caring for the flock of God they were thieves and robbers from whom the sheep needed protection. Jesus insists that the false shepherds only came “to kill, to rob, and to destroy” but that he came to save the sheep and to give them “abundant life”. Jesus teaches that as Israel’s true Shepherd, the long-awaited Messiah, he knows us, loves us, and provides for us with the same knowledge, love, and care that God, Israel’s Lord, offers to God’s people. He even promises us the gift of eternal life.

By laying claim to the role of the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself a position reserved for God alone as becomes evident from the section of the Gospel we hear in today’s readings. The crowd demands that Jesus answer them clearly whether or not he is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus further angers them by telling them that they really ought to have discovered that for themselves when they had heard him teaching and when he had done might signs before their eyes, but they had not listened or seen because they were not God’s sheep. He appears to rile them even more by pressing the question further. He declares, “The Father and I are one.” It was a remarkable statement, and it provoked a dramatic response—the crowd took stones in order to kill Jesus!

There appeared to be no two ways about it: Either Jesus was correct, and he was the Good Shepherd being opposed by some outsider sheep, or he was a blasphemer who deserved the harshest punishment. The crowd’s violent reaction further illustrates the importance of the question that faces every person: Who is this Jesus? Is he a blasphemer, or is he who he says he is? Is this Jesus the Christ? Is he the Good Shepherd?

In his book Mere Christianity, Anglican layman and theologian C.S. Lewis suggested that one might ask if perhaps Jesus was simply a lunatic, but that no one who listened to Jesus’ message about the care and the loving protection of God could seriously argue that Jesus was a madman. Therefore, instead of simply dismissing what Jesus says, we must take his claims seriously.

Many who first heard Jesus’ claims to be one with God demanded evidence, signs that would demonstrate the truth of what he said. They wanted proof. Jesus gave them an answer when declared, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord, and I have power to take it up again.” The proof that Jesus gives that he is the Good Shepherd is his loving self-sacrifice for the people of God and the power of his resurrection. Put another way, Good Friday and Easter Morning are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth is who he says he is.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we ought to celebrate God’s great love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ’s total gift of himself on our behalf. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep and took it up again, and it is he who has given us the abundance of eternal life. As Christians we receive this gift as we hear Jesus’ voice calling us each by name and as we trust him with our whole life in the knowledge that commended to the Savior’s keeping we shall never ripped away from God’s love. Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 4C.

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”.  

Jesus Will Meet Us, Easter 3 (C) – 2016

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

John’s Gospel ends with four appearances that the resurrected Jesus makes to different groups of disciples: four scenes of Christ revealed alive, four assurances that death could never contain the life that Jesus lived and lives. First, on Easter Day, we heard how Mary encountered Jesus in the garden outside the tomb, and mistook him for the gardener, before God’s light flooded in and she saw him revealed as her teacher. Last Sunday, we heard of two encounters with Jesus: late on Easter Day, Jesus appears to the disciples in the house where they had been staying — only Thomas is missing and does not believe. So Jesus returns again the following week, and this time Thomas is there, and sees with his own eyes, and confesses his belief. And Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These appearances take place in Jerusalem, in the days just after Jesus’ execution. The terror of the preceding week has dissipated, but Jesus’ disciples are still filled with fear, not quite sure how to go on. They don’t know what’s coming next. John does a masterful job showing that fear transforms into joy. First Mary stands outside the tomb, weeping because Jesus is dead. And in the next moment she stands there weeping because he is alive. This whole section, John chapter 20, is imbued with a heavenly light. Think about how your memories of deep despair and deep joy seem more intense: your wedding day, or the funeral of a loved one. The picture you keep in your mind is brighter, more colorful, more deeply ingrained.

But then life goes on, and many ordinary days follow. So it is with the fourth and final appearance that John records, in chapter 21. Some time has passed — John doesn’t say how much. But the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to their home in Galilee, back to the safety of the countryside and away from those terrible forces that Jesus confronted in the city: the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple, and of course the Roman governor and his soldiers.  Jesus’ loyal followers are home, but you get the sense that they don’t quite know what to do with themselves or what to make of those strange appearances that happened just after Jesus’ death.

Peter decides to go fishing, and several of the others decide to go out on the boat with him. They don’t have any luck, but the next morning, as they are coming back to shore, they find a man standing there who tells them to cast the net again, to the right side of the boat this time — and of course, the man is Jesus, and of course, they haul in so many fish that the net is nearly torn.  And Jesus invites them to sit down on the beach, around the fire he has made, to break bread with him once more: from the last supper to the first breakfast, if you will.

This is the last appearance of the risen Jesus that John records. But this is not Jesus’ last appearance. Look with the eyes of faith, and we begin to see Jesus in the oddest places: on the seashore, in the garden, on the street corner. Sometimes Jesus is hungry and cold and asking us for money. And other times he is inviting us to sit down for an unexpected meal. But always, always, Jesus is challenging us to live lives of kindness and compassion, of sharing and generosity, of justice-making and peace.  In a word, the abundant life that Jesus has brought us is a life of love: it comes from love and is intended to bring more love into the world.

The English language has a poverty of words for love. We have to modify love with other words if we want to try and be precise about what we’re talking about: we talk about “romantic” love, “familial” love, “brotherly” love, and so on. Greek does a better job of this, as we can see in the conversation that Jesus has with Peter after they finish breakfast.  Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers him, “Well Lord, of course, you know I love you.” But Jesus doesn’t seem satisfied with this answer, so he asks Peter again, and Peter again gives the same answer.  In fact, this exchange happens three times.

Now why would Jesus ask Peter this question three times? It turns out, in the original Greek, Jesus and Peter are using completely different words for love. What Jesus actually asks Peter is: do you agape me?  And Peter answers: yes Lord, you know that I philia you.

Agape and philia. Jesus wants agape: the kind of love that is life-transforming, wholly consuming, that means commitment beyond feelings. Agape is the self-giving love that sacrifices its own needs for the good of others. The kind of love that God has for us, in other words.  This is the love Jesus showed us on the cross, and Jesus is asking for this kind of love in return.

But all Peter can offer is philia: I have affection for you, Lord. I like you, well enough. That’s what philia is — more like, than love.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter though. Perhaps he was just trying to be honest about the kind of love he was capable of giving Jesus in return.  Peter saw Jesus’ brutal execution with his own eyes, so he is well aware of what can result from too much agape love. Letting go of yourself for the good of the other is not an easy calling.

A remarkable and beautiful thing happens at the end of this exchange though: the first two times Jesus asks the question, he says, “Do you agape me?” And Peter answers, “Lord, I philia you.” But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the question and uses philia instead of agape, the same word for love that Peter had been using all along.

Peter is hurt, perhaps because he feels embarrassed by Jesus’ lowered expectations. But in reality, he has no need for embarrassment: the point is that Jesus loves us enough to meet us where we are. If all we can offer is philia, then Jesus will meet us there, and keep walking with us. Jesus knows that the agape love with which God holds together the universe is more than enough to go around: it can make up for our deficiencies in love. And as we walk with Jesus and our hearts grow more open, God’s agape love will come pouring in, until we are so full that it begins to flow through us and out into the world.  This is the abundant life that Jesus wants for us: will we follow him into it?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 3C.

Written by the Reverend Jason Cox

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

My Lord and My God, Easter 2 (C) – 2016

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

Doubt is a complicated matter. It can indicate a critical mind, one that asks questions, and never takes things at face value. The opposite is a gullible mind: one that is the delight of unscrupulous sales persons, dangerous politicians, and many televangelists.

There’s another type of doubt, one driven by deep emotion, an emotion stimulated by loss. It’s a form of despair, a despair that clings to loss and refuses to believe that there is any future other than one described by that which is lost. Life will never be the same again. Friends assure us that we will get over our loss of a job, an ambition, our loss of a relationship or the death of a dear one but we don’t want to hear it. We can’t believe it. Saint Thomas’s doubt is of this second type.

Instead of becoming the patron saint of those who never take things at face value, Thomas might well be the hero of people who are never on time. For some reason he missed the earliest encounters with the Risen Lord. About his statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  We will get to that in a moment.

Thomas first makes an entrance in Saint Johns Gospel shortly after Lazarus rises from the dead. He tells Jesus that all the disciples will go with him to die. Later, when Jesus tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas assumes that Jesus is talking about some geographical destination and says that he doesn’t know where Jesus is going or the way there.

He must have found a safe place to hide in his grief and despair after the crucifixion because he missed the first encounters in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, and in the first of the two encounters in the upper room.

We really don’t know enough about Thomas to assess his character, let alone to accuse him of being a habitual doubter. He’s Jewish. He’s a twin but we don’t know who his twin was. He’s devoted enough to Jesus to at least contemplate dying for him. He doesn’t want to be separated from his Lord. He wants to know where Jesus is going and how to get to him. And for all that, Thomas isn’t there for Jesus when he is arrested, tried, and put to death. He runs away.

After the crucifixion, as he hides in the city, he must be a bundle of fear, grief and guilt. There are few human emotions so devastating. To then discover that his friends, equally guilty, equally grieving, had been visited by Jesus and given authority to heal the very emotions with which he suffered was more than he could absorb or manage. Filled with shame he blurts out: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas won’t believe it for himself. He certainly won’t believe it from the mouths of his friends, who have been empowered to restore relationships: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas still hangs around, even though he is convinced that nothing can ever get better for him, that he deserves nothing better. The next week Jesus appears again, says Shalom, and immediately invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Like a dam bursting, Thomas’s fear, grief, shame, and hopelessness floods out and he collapses in adoration. “My Lord and my God”.

The writer of John’s Gospel, perhaps the Beloved Disciple perhaps not, concludes the story by telling us why he selected this one from among all the incidents he could have recounted. He writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

In one way or another we all stumble into life moments when we are seized by fear, remorse, grief, and loss. Our lack of belief that things can get better isn’t atheism or agnosticism, but rather a deeply personal conviction that we are the exception, the one left out. We may even believe that the Christian community is empowered reconcile, restore and forgive and that priests and bishops are chosen agents of reconciliation. There’s a much-neglected service of reconciliation in the prayer book. Yet we still exclude ourselves as if clinging to remorse rather than the life we deserve.

I wonder whether “John” points us deeper in that direction, that “Way, Truth and Life”? Is there significance in the gap of a week between encounters, one that the first Christians would have grasped? Is this a seven-day gap between Lord’s Days? As we do, the Early Christians offered the Shalom, the Peace, before the Eucharist, during which Jesus comes among us and invites us to explore his wounds. As we touch him, he enters us and, by faith, we let loose everything that has obscured his presence. He offers new life when we couldn’t believe one possible, and we drop to our knees and murmur: “My Lord and my God”.

If legend is true, St. Thomas obtained new life and took the message of reconciliation and forgiveness as far as India. His tomb, venerated by Christians and non-Christians alike is the heart of the Mar Thoma, Lord Thomas, Church with whom we enjoy communion.

Download the sermon for Easter 2C.

Written by The Reverend Anthony Clavier

The Reverend Anthony Clavier is the Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, Illinois.

Practice Resurrection, Easter (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…things happen early in the morning. Mornings are mystical and sacred, the earth rises from its slumber to greet the coming day, but this morning did not feel mystical, this morning did not feel sacred. Mary Magdalene did not want to get out of bed but the orange glow in the east was spreading across the sky. The day’s doings were calling.

Sitting on her bed Mary said the customary prayer; “Blessed are you Lord God, Ruler of the Universe. I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” (Modeh Ani, traditional Jewish first prayer of the day.) But the words didn’t offer the usual comfort. This morning the words were just words.

The last few days seemed a blur. The Passover meal, with its prayers and rituals, family and friends gathered to recite the ancient story, seemed so long ago. Jesus’ strange words that night as he passed the bread, “Do this in remembrance of me”, now made eerie sense. She didn’t really think it would happen. But he was gone. They had come for him. Right there in the garden. The garden where they often went to pray, to talk with Jesus. The garden that held so many happy memories, so many stories. Then he was gone.

She had followed the next day, in disbelief with the other women, as he made the slow agonizing walk to his death. Mary had stood there numb and in shock as they drove the nails, as he breathed his last. She had comforted his mother. The words didn’t come. The words couldn’t come. All she could do was hold on to his mother. She followed to the garden as they laid him in the tomb. He was dead. It was finished.

But the burial rites needed to be done. Sabbath meant they couldn’t do the customary anointing. But today, early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, she had a job to do. Mary dressed as if in a dream. This was not happening. She made her way down the street to the waiting women. With a silent nod they joined in slow procession to the garden, to the tomb. How were they going to move the stone?

The stone had been rolled away! It was empty! How could this be? What have they done? They have taken him. One final insult from the people who had robbed her of her friend, her teacher, her Rabbouni. They must have taken his body to deny him the proper burial. The stone was rolled away.

With tears trailing after her, Mary ran to Simon Peter. “They have taken him!” is all she could get out. Then the flood of tears came. They have taken him. Looking into the empty tomb with the stone rolled away someone was sitting there. “Why are you weeping?” “Don’t you understand? They have taken him!” A voice from behind her: “Woman! Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” That voice. It sounded familiar, but it couldn’t be. “They have taken him! Do you know where?”

“Mary!”

“Rabbouni?!”

That voice. The familiar voice of the impossible. How can this be? This is not possible. “Destroy this temple and in three days it will be rebuilt,” echoed in her head. He’s alive! Jesus is risen! “Go Mary. Tell the others.” New tears as she ran to tell the good news. “I have seen the Lord! I have seen the Lord!”

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, things happen.

Early on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene expected to find death but instead she found new life. We have stood in Mary Magdalene’s shoes. We know only too well what it means to expect death but find new life. We know what it feels like to follow on Good Friday only to be confronted with Easter Sunday. We have stood there peering into the empty tomb with the stone rolled away experiencing the impossible. The thing is, we don’t go looking for resurrection – resurrection finds us.

Jesus’ resurrection is about God loving us so much that God is willing to go to any length to find us in all the wrong places. Because like Mary, we go looking for God in the familiar, in the places we expect to find God. But in Jesus’ resurrection God finds us when we are down and out, when we are at the end of our rope, when all hope seems lost. God rolls back the stones that bind and confine us. God stands waiting with a familiar voice to call us to new life. Call us to “Go and tell.”

Resurrection has no meaning, no purpose, no place unless like Mary Magdalene we go and tell it! Resurrection has no meaning if we cannot share the Good News of Easter to a world living in Good Friday! Resurrection has no meaning unless we are willing to live as Easter people.

Go and tell of your life transformed by the one who healed the sick and cured the lame.

Go and tell of the one who blessed the broken and welcomed the outcast.

Go and tell that “Do this in remembrance of me” is real.

Go and tell that God has work for us to do in our neighborhoods and street corners.

Go and tell that God was there, God is here and God will be there!

Go and tell that God find us and loves us into redemption through Christ Jesus our Lord.

In truth resurrection isn’t an event it is an experience. We are called to go and tell not only with our lips but also with our lives. Go and tell of the resurrection power of God’s love and hope.

Wendell Berry in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” puts it like this:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

We need to practice being witnesses to resurrection in a world clinging to Good Friday!

This Easter, may you open your whole self — heart, soul, mind, and strength — to God’s inspiring call to new life and renewed love. May you feel God luring you, prompting you, goading you, cajoling you, calling you and encouraging you — each day and in each new present moment — to practice resurrection. “We have seen the Lord!” Alleluia! Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter C.

Written by The Reverend Deon K. Johnson

The Rev. Deon Johnson has served as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton MI for the last nine years. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

 

What is Truth?, Good Friday (C) – 2016

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

“What is truth?”

That famous question Pilate asks, stares us in the face every year on Good Friday. The fact that it seemingly is left unanswered remains a challenge to us. Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in verbally defining truth. He says that He IS the way, and the truth, and the life, and Jesus says that he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that those who belong to the truth listen to him, but he never gives a philosophical definition of the truth.

Jesus seems less interested in defining the truth and much more interested in showing us the truth. He’s interested in having us see the truth as a living thing, and to see ourselves as belonging to it, as being a part of it. But being human means we have multiple truth claims weighing on us. The truth of the world, the way it is, and the truth of God’s realm—the way God dreams the world to be, the way we believe it can be. Those multiple claims are at the crux of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” or maybe which truth do you mean?

But Jesus doesn’t respond in words to Pilate’s question. Instead he reveals the answer with his life, death, and resurrection. The Passion reveals a deep truth about the way the world is. Not the world that God created and pronounced good… but the world that we have created. The world we have made out of fear. Out of shame. Out of bitterness. Out of our desperate need to hide our own tender wounds. In our desperation and fear, we try to make it someone else’s fault; we cast blame and cry out for the blood of someone else, an innocent, over and over and over. The Passion reveals the worst in us. Reveals the truth of the hideous things we’re capable of when we’re afraid. When we’re ashamed.

Of course it also reveals an even deeper truth about who God is and how God responds to our shame and fear. The truth that Jesus shows with his life and ministry is a profound challenge to the world we have made. The truth that Jesus shows us is that no matter how benign and beneficial we might think our human systems and structures are; they are all fallen. We are all fallen. Our world is infected with injustice. Jesus demonstrated with his life, with his teachings, and with his death the truth about this infectious injustice, and the human cost that is always required for maintaining unjust structures of power. All through his life and his death he shows us God’s loud “NO” to the dominant systems of this world, and God’s louder “YES” to way of hope, peace, and justice.

These are truths that we can see with the help of the cross, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Pilate has a chance to see these truths as well. He is the local representative of the dominant system after all, and in this conversation with Jesus he has a chance to hear and see and be transformed, but Pilate can only see the world in terms of earthly kings, and he so turns away from the revelation of the Truth standing before him. Once the crowd reasserts their commitment to the status quo, loudly affirming that they have no king but Caesar, Pilate turns away and goes back to business as usual. And once Jesus is nailed to the cross the crowd, no longer interested in the spectacle, also turns away and goes back to business as usual.

All four of the Gospel accounts of these events have significant, subtle differences. In John’s version there are no earthquakes, no darkness covering the earth, no temple curtains being torn in two. In John, Jesus simply dies on a cross, and is put in a tomb. The empire doesn’t strike back so much as it just continues. People return to their lives of luxury or labor. The status quo remains the status quo – unabated and unchallenged.

How often do we catch a glimpse of this life-giving, world-altering truth and then go back to business as usual? How tempting is it for us to turn away? To not look at or accept this truth. The truth that we are capable of this horror… that the Passion takes place because of the world we have made, the world we are content to live in every day. We are constantly at risk of turning away – turning away from the cross of Christ, and turning away from all the crucified people of every generation – and returning to the status quo. It’s so very easy to close our eyes, to change the channel, turn the page, walk away telling ourselves that the reality, the truth, of the cross doesn’t really have anything to do with us. “What is truth?” But in hiding from or averting our eyes from that truth, we risk missing an opportunity for transformation that God is always holding out for us.

The first act in repentance, the first move toward redemption, the first stance of transformation is simply to not turn away. To not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino calls this “the primordial demand.” “To let ourselves be affected,” he writes, “to feel pain over lives cut short or endangered, to feel indignation over the injustice behind the tragedy, to feel shame over the way we have ruined this planet, that we have not undone the damage and are not planning to do so, all this is important,” he says, because it spurs us into helpful action. But even more importantly he says, “It roots us firmly in the truth and forces us to overcome the unreality in which we live.”[1] It roots us firmly in the Truth, the truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The truth that God’s dream is greater than the world’s nightmare. The truth that God’s “yes” is deeper and more profound than the empire’s “no.” It is when we face reality—when we face the truth—when we bear witness to the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all the crucified people around the world—that is when salvation and redemption begins.

It cannot be a coincidence that the first people who see Jesus on Sunday morning are the same ones who refuse to look away from his death on Friday; those who watch through the whole bloody execution, who accompany his body to the tomb, and who come again to prepare his lifeless corpse for burial; they are the ones who are the first to experience the truth of the resurrection. The truth of Jesus’ life. The truth of God’s “yes.”

What is truth? The cross reveals the truth. The truth of the pain and suffering that continues to exist in the world because of the inhuman demands of our unjust systems and structures. But also the truth that for those who are willing to join themselves to a community that continues to look on the cross and strives to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting, who are marginalized, who are still being sacrificed – crucified – every day, the cross also opens up the way of transformation and salvation. May we be given the strength to never turn away from the cross, and to live more fully into the truth, the way and the life as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Good Friday.

Written by The Reverend Richard Burden, PhD 

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.   


[1] Sobrino, John. Where Is God?: Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope. Orbis Books.

Shareholders and Partners with Jesus, Maundy Thursday (C) – 2016

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

You can’t help but to love Simon Peter. He’s a disciple who is transparent. Perhaps we are drawn to him, because like us he constantly makes mistakes and needs grace and forgiveness. Scripture tells us a lot about Simon Peter. He was known to be boisterous, he had an impulsive enthusiasm for his good intentions, and his posture waved back and forth between self-confidence and egotism.

Scripture tells us he was a master fisherman on the Lake of Galilee and one of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends and the first to recognize and verbally confess Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus had full access to Peter’s boat and house. It was on Peter’s boat that Jesus spoke to the crowds on the shore. It was Peter and his brothers who, after a fruitless night of fishing, listened to Jesus and cast their nets on the right side of the boat for their remarkable catch. Peter was often the spokes person for the disciples.

Peter was in Jesus’ inner circle, he accompanied Jesus when he went to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He was there to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration. And though his eyelids got heavy and he feel asleep at times, he watched as Jesus prayed for his cup to be removed. Peter was the one who walked on water and then he started to over think it and doubt…we all know what happened next.

And, though not in the version of the Bible we use, The Gospel according to Peter exists and scholars explicitly claim it to be the work of the Apostle Peter.

In spite of Peter’s many shortcomings, Jesus said to him “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

So it comes as no real surprise at all that Peter is the one who voices his uneasiness and disapproval towards what Jesus is doing in this gospel text. Just imagine Peter watching Jesus washing the feet of the other disciples and realizing his turn is coming up – he probably had flashbacks. He probably thought: ‘Oh, if I had enough faith to continue walking on that water… maybe I would be worthy for Him to wash my feet. Or maybe I should have shut up and listened more. Maybe that would have made me worthy for the Son of God, my Messiah to wash my feet. Maybe I should not have outed him and called him Messiah… I’m definitely not worthy. I am a sinner.’

If Simon Peter suffered from an anxiety disorder, this situation would have sent him into a full-blown anxiety attack. By the time Jesus gets to Peter, he has totally convinced himself of how unworthy he is. His natural response in his impulsive enthusiastic way is “No way am I letting you wash my feet… I should be washing yours, Jesus… You are the Lord… I am your servant…unworthy…let me wash yours…”

We get like that with Jesus too, don’t we?

We remind Jesus of our shortcomings, of the things we didn’t do, can’t do, or don’t do well. When in actuality Jesus wants to wash our feet. Jesus wants to make us shareholders and partners in His work. We convince ourselves that, because of our past, because of our failings, we are unworthy. We do not allow Christ to wash our feet. To say the same thing another way, we refuse to become shareholders and partners with Christ.

It’s important to note that generally it was the servants’ job to wash their master’s feet, not the other way around. But it’s just like Jesus; just like our Lord, it’s just in His nature to upset social norms, isn’t it?

The key to the symbolism of the foot washing lies in the conversation between Jesus and Peter. It is difficult to be certain whether, since he was often the spokesperson, Peter is voicing a concern of the group or if he is acting impulsively on his own. Maybe the other disciples thought that they deserved to have Jesus wash their feet.

Nevertheless, whatever the reason, Jesus’ gesture is definitely an invitation to be a shareholder in God’s work, the invitation to become partner. Jesus’ response to Peter is characteristic to who Jesus is. His response to Peter in light of his adamant objection to his feet being washed can possibly be the mantra by which we all live our lives. “You don’t understand now what I’m doing, but it will be clear enough to you later…” There is a lot of truth to Kierkegaard’s quote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Jesus goes on to say “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”

Foot washing is symbolic of humility, loving servant-hood and partnership. What Jesus was saying to Peter is that foot washing is so important that without it a disciple is not in partnership with Him. Without it you cannot share in the ministry of Jesus, you’re not part of what Jesus is doing. Matthew 12:30 states: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters.” Jesus is showing Peter by example as opposed to dictatorship that without humility and loving servant-hood, partnership is not possible.

And Jesus says the same to us today in 2016. As we go into Easter and beyond we are called to wash each other’s feet. By extending love through servant-hood we realize we are being shareholders and maintaining our partnership with Christ.

In having Jesus wash our feet, in washing each other’s feet…what we are saying is “yes” to God again. Yes, I want in on your ministry; your servant ministry; your ministry of love; your ministry of healing; your ministry of blessing. That’s what we do every Maundy Thursday, in the symbolic washing of each other’s feet. We are vowing that we are shareholders and partners with Christ by serving Christ and being served by Christ.

Richard Gillard the New Zealand composer is known for penning the words to a hymn called “The Servant Song”. He gives language to the symbolism of the foot washing action we perform in his powerful words. These words ring true on this Maundy Thursday.

Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too. 

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
To let you be my servant too.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Maundy Thursday.

Written by The Reverend Arlette Benoit

The Rev. Arlette Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. Rev. Benoit was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Rev. Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assists and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Rev. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Rev. Benoit now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.

 

Walk the Way of the Cross, Palm Sunday (C) -2016

[RCL] Psalm 31:9-16 Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or 23:1-49

In many Christian communities, today’s worship begins with a procession around the church grounds and perhaps the neighborhood as well – an appealing way to witness to the faith this Sunday before Easter, to be sure. The event may even garner coverage on the evening news or in the local paper. Still, no matter how sincere, procession, pageantry, and palm waving are in their way undemanding gestures, especially when nearly everyone at church is engaged in them. But there is of course no long-term commitment involved in such street theater. Just ask the people of Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday is all about involvement and commitment – and the difference between the two. Those who followed Jesus on the final leg of his journey into Jerusalem singing his praises were surely involved and caught up in the excitement of the moment. They were clearly aware of Jesus and his ministry. They no doubt liked him and the Gospel message of peace and reconciliation. And, they probably thought to themselves that here at last was a great prophet – one whom God had raised up – and one with a bright future in the faith-based power politics of the day.

And, to prove their interest and involvement, they lent Jesus their presence and their voices this special day. According to the Gospel of Luke – as we heard moments ago at the Blessing of Palms – one of them presumably even lent him a colt to ride on as he came down into the Holy City “from the Mount of Olives.” Echoing the words of the heavenly host at Jesus’ birth, they all proclaimed, “Glory in the highest heaven,” and spread their cloaks before him. They were involved.

But like all of us here today they likely also had their responsibilities and preoccupations. What might have been a fun outing one day, welcoming the latest prophet into town led quickly enough to the duties and errands of the next day and beyond. After all, there were mouths to feed and bills to pay. There was work to be done. By the time Good Friday had rolled around, no one was left to lay down branches or cloaks for Jesus, much less chant hosanna before him. All, including his disciples, had abandoned him. Jesus was on his own. Our own joyous hosannas this day are themselves soon enough muffled by the flat and sober recitation of the Passion narrative of Luke and the story of Jesus betrayal and death. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” turns with a start to, “Crucify, crucify him.” It is easy to be involved even today. Commitment alas is still something else entirely. Just ask Jesus.

From some of the earliest stories of Genesis to the later writings of the prophets, God on the other hand is always found to be firmly committed to God’s people, Israel. In our first reading from the Hebrew scriptures for instance, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “It is the Lord God who helps me. “Isaiah knows instinctively that God is always more ready to show mercy and lend assistance than we are to accept it. No matter the faults of the people – no matter how much they become sidetracked and preoccupied with mundane or even trivial concerns – the Lord’s Covenant, God’s commitment, remains unwavering. And, when the Psalmist laments, “I am in trouble,” and “forgotten like a dead man,” they can still console themself by turning to the Divine. “You are my God,” they declare without equivocation. “My times are in your hand.” Indeed, as we ourselves know, it is sometimes when we feel the most forsaken and abandoned that the Lord is closest of all. The emptiness of our hearts at such moments makes room finally for the presence of the One who will tolerate no competition from our myriad diversions and distractions.

Nor of course does Our Lord waver in commitment to us – and to all humankind. That is the message of Jesus’ Passion and death. Like the people of ancient Israel, we may be fickle or even erratic in our life of faith but Jesus never once fails us or lets us down. As Paul explains it in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians, Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” There can be no greater commitment than that.

So, Palm Sunday takes us on a liturgical and emotional roller-coaster ride like no other day of the church year. The involvement of the crowds at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem challenges us once again to reflect on the commitment that led Jesus to give his life for our redemption. Amid the many “changes and chances of this mortal life” this or any week we dare not forget the Cross.

It would be easy enough for any of us to come to church on Palm Sunday, to “let sweet hosannas ring,” to gather a palm frond or two, head home, and not return until Easter Day. What a fine religion we have, we might be tempted to think: Palm branches and hosannas one Sunday, Easter lilies and alleluias the next. But if we did not pay attention to the Passion Gospel and the story of Jesus’ death we would have missed an essential piece – perhaps the essential piece. We would have missed the commitment and covenant that the whole story is about. We would have missed Good Friday.

Jesus enters the Holy City of Jerusalem on a colt provided for the purpose by a stranger. Like the throngs surrounding him that happy day, perhaps he too was caught up and engaged in the moment and the spectacle. But days later, as we know only too well, he leaves the City for the last time not on a colt, much less a royal sedan, but on foot and carrying a cross, given over to the enormous task of winning our redemption one painful step at a time.

No matter where our life journey and its twists and turns may take us, as followers of Christ our voyage of faith leads most assuredly through Jerusalem and on to Calvary with our Lord. Like good pilgrims the world over and like Jesus himself, we too must walk the way of the cross. There is no other route home. For, only at the cross does our Lord at last turn our feeble involvement into the commitment and Covenant of Calvary and the assurance of our salvation.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus

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