Archives for March 2017

Seeing through Doubt, Easter 3(A) – April 30, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

The walk to Emmaus is a lovely story, filled with nostalgia and pathos, and graced with details. It has attracted great artists because only art can do it some justice. The evangelist Luke was an artist with words, and the painters who were inspired by him have only added to the beauty of the description. Instead of sermonizing on it, it’s better to relive the story.

It is early morning, on the first day of the week, after the dawn that was to change the world. Startling revelations have been shaking the disciples who are hiding in a certain home in Jerusalem. Women have been coming and going, some exclaiming that they have seen the Lord, others recounting the words of angels. Their eyes are so filled with light that those who see them almost shun them. John and Peter run to the tomb only to find it empty. All this was witnessed by the two people who start out on the walk to Emmaus and home.

It makes sense to think of them as husband and wife. One of them is named as Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but there is a reference to a woman disciple whose name was Maria Klopas, (in the Greek). Easy to miss a vowel in transcription. Several prominent writers/theologians—among them Bishop George Bell and Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in the nineteen-forties—believed that the second person was a woman: Mary Cleopas.

So let’s try to imagine the scene. The disciples, disheartened and depressed, had hidden in a home in Jerusalem, after the arrest and murder of their beloved teacher. Because the Zebedee family (James and John) were of a priestly lineage, it is possible that they had a family house in the city, in addition to their place in Galilee. So, we will assume that the women are looking after the mother of Jesus in that particular Jerusalem house, since Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, had entrusted her to his dear friend John. “This is now your mother,” he had told his friend.

Several younger women have gone in the dark to the tomb, to wash and anoint the body of the Beloved, only to find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene stays there but the rest run to tell the disciples and his mother. Confusion comes in and out of the house during the morning hours. Is it possible? Can we believe what these emotional women are telling us? If it is not true, can our hearts endure another hammer blow? A perfectly human reaction to extraordinary news from ordinary human folk.

Cleopas must have arrived at the house to escort his wife back home to Emmaus now that her task of mercy is done. Confused and heavy-hearted, they start on the trip downhill. Luke tells us that Emmaus was about sixty stadia (10-12 kilometers) from Jerusalem, and though the exact place has not been determined, we will take the writer at his word. It is a cool spring morning with birds singing and sheep moving nearby, but they are feeling sad with only occasional twinges of hope. Mary is telling her husband about the report of the other women, the wild hope that stirred in them, but also of the confusion that followed. Cleopas had talked to some of the men but they had not seen the Lord, so their depression had fallen upon him also. “None of them has seen him,” he repeats.

The sun is rising and they pause, put their bundles down, to drink a bit of water and rest. Afterward, as they bend down to pick up their belongings to continue the walk, someone else appears next to them, and they wonder why they had not heard or seen him before. He says to them, and there is amusement in his voice, “What have you been discussing? I saw you walking and talking earnestly.”

It’s their turn to be astounded. The greatest and saddest event of their lives had occurred in the last three days. How was it possible that there were people left in their world who didn’t know that they had lost the one they loved, the one who had made life worth living? When a beloved person dies, it is difficult to understand how the earth still spins and the sun still rises and life goes on. Their reaction is perfectly natural after such enormous grief. Cleopas asks the stranger: “Where have you been? Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in the past three days? The best of men, a great prophet, one who did nothing but good, was killed. We had hoped he was our liberator.” The stranger is quiet, listening. The wife jumps in. “But something else happened earlier this morning. Friends of ours went to his tomb and found it empty.” She hesitates, both excited and doubtful. “The women saw a vision of angels. And the angels told them—he’s alive.” Her voice moves from excitement to bewilderment.

The stranger doesn’t pause but keeps walking and they follow, mystified. And then they hear his sigh and his words: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow your hearts are to believe all that the prophets have told you!” Husband and wife look at each other in amazement, but they don’t respond. And now they listen as the stranger tells them stories from their long history and tradition, from the Exodus to the prophets to their own time. They hear the references to God’s anointed and, little by little, they understand that he is talking about their beloved friend and teacher, and now everything falls into place: Jesus’ words about himself as he taught them and as he healed so many illnesses; Jesus’ continued references to his Father; Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. They understand that all this, even Jesus’ death, had been God’s plan from the beginning, and now hope fills them that not all is lost. In fact, everything is gained.

But look, time passes so quickly as they are listening to his words! They are almost at their village. They can see the walls of their home. The stranger offers his farewell and makes as if to continue but panic grips the couple. They don’t want him to go. The wife, practical and hospitable, says, “Look, sir, it will soon be night. Please, come and stay with us.” And the stranger does not refuse. In the manner of Middle Eastern people through the ages, they invite him to eat with them, and he agrees. There is a lamp burning on the table and a loaf of bread next to the water and wine. He reaches for the bread and, confronted by holiness, they watch as he prays, breaks the bread in two pieces and offers it to them. “Ah,” they cry out, “it is the Lord!” Recognition now fills them because of the familiar gesture of the Beloved, but now he is gone from their presence. His work is done but they are bereft. How is it that they had not recognized him all those hours he walked with them? They are ashamed. But that doesn’t last long. They have seen the Lord. They must share it with the others. Despite their tired legs, they return to Jerusalem.

They go to the same house where earlier they had left their fear-filled friends. But now they are all awake, rejoicing and sharing the good news with one another. “We have seen the Lord!” It becomes the most joyful refrain, whispered in amazement and then proclaimed in loud conviction. “We have seen the Lord!” Cleopas and his wife add to the chorus: “Yes, he was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

May he be known to us also in the breaking of the bread.

 

Katerina Whitley, a writer, biblical storyteller and retreat leader lives in Boone, NC. www.katerinawhitley.net

Download the sermon for Easter 3(A).

Bulletin Insert – April 9, 2017

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

“Let these branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our King, and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.”

Today is the first day of Holy Week and the last Sunday in Lent, known as Palm Sunday or the Sunday of the Passion. The day begins by marking Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Many churches participate in the Liturgy of the Palms, first offered in The Episcopal Church in the 1960 Book of Offices. In this liturgy, the celebrant blesses palms or other branches, and, following a reading from the Gospels, leads the congregation in procession into their church—often singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” or “Ride On! Ride On In Majesty!”

Episcopal Palm Sunday

The shrouded cross at Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Colorado Springs, in the Diocese of Colorado.

This liturgy evokes the early observances of Palm Sunday. According to Armentrout and Slocum’s An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (Church Publishing, 2000), by the year 381, the faithful would process from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, waving palm or olive branches. As they processed, they sang songs from Scripture – including the exultant antiphon of Psalm 118 sung at Christ’s entrance into the city: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

When the Palm Sunday service includes the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Palms is followed by the salutation and the collect of the day. Afterward, the tone of the service shifts noticeably. In contrast to the earlier song of joy, Psalm 31, appointed for today, cries, “For I have heard the whispering of the crowd; fear is all around; they put their heads together against me; they plot to take my life.” The Gospel reading is likewise sorrowful, recalling the events of Jesus’ Passion (that is, the events and suffering before and during his death). Still, we are reminded throughout the difficult days ahead that this is not the end of the story.

Episcopal Palm Sunday

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Maui, Diocese of Hawaii

Despite the Savior’s death on the cross, he promises to rise again. The Man of Sorrows remains the one at whose name, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [and] every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

Collect for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

This prayer is a contemporary version of the collect for “The Sonday next before Easter” in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. The day was not referred to as Palm Sunday in an official capacity until the 1928 Prayer Book added “Commonly called Palm Sunday” to the prayer’s title. The doxology at the end of the prayer was appended in the 1979 Prayer Book.

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 219).

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided
half page, double-sided

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Easter A – April 16, 2017

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

We, the faithful in Christ, gather this morning, not just with our friends and families, but also with Christians around the world and across time, joyfully proclaiming what is perhaps the most ancient creed in Christendom: Christ is risen! For the next fifty days, this great and powerful Easter proclamation will mark our liturgy, define our purpose, and affirm our most deeply held belief.

Of course, proclaiming that joyful phrase today amidst the beautiful flowers, the gorgeous music, and in the company of those we love comes easily for most, if not all of us. And yet, for as much as we enjoy the more festive aspects of Easter, the truth is that these things, by themselves, don’t tell the whole story.

Along with praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia,” the whole story of Easter also includes shouts of war and hate; of fear and pain; of confusion and misunderstanding. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, and in the shadow of war and violence that plague our streets and our planet, these emotions are viscerally familiar to all of us. And although we may lose sight of it here this morning, these emotions also filled the hearts of the faithful on that first Easter morning.

The Gospel of John sets the scene: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.” Then, John tells us, she ran to share the news with the others. And while John doesn’t tell us this part himself, when people get news, they don’t typically run unless it’s really good news or really bad news!

Mary, it seems fair to say, is distraught—shocked that the body of her beloved Lord isn’t in the tomb where he had been laid just three days ago. When she reaches the other disciples with the news, they take off running as well, reaching the tomb only to confirm what Mary had told them. They depart, their hopes dashed; their Easter alleluias muted.

This is where Easter ended: The disciples returned home—confused, saddened, and unsure of what would happen next. John tells us that they “as yet…did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

And who could blame them really? They had put so much trust in Jesus, only to have it squashed by powers and principalities. What were they to do now? Where would they go? Who would they believe in next?  These were the questions that raced through the disciples’ minds as they came to grips with their grief and disappointment.

But Mary wasn’t ready to let go just yet.

Mary stays behind, weeping while she examines the emptiness of the tomb, making sure that no detail or clue goes unseen or unexamined—desperately searching for some shred of evidence; grasping for even the faintest possibility.

Just then, she sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They ask her why she is weeping and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

We can hear the weight of grief in her voice. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all had similar moments to the one Mary is experiencing. Moments when we’ve found ourselves desperately searching for God, only to be met with emptiness and sadness. Have you ever come to church, yearning for the peace and comfort of the sacraments, only to find that God doesn’t seem to be there? Has your prayer life ever felt dry and fallow? Have you ever found yourself wondering whether church itself might be futile?

In moments like these, we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual mourning, wondering where Jesus has gone, and why he seems to have been taken away. St. John of the Cross called these moments the “Dark Night of the Soul”—when prayer, sacrament, and community no longer bring comfort, and the transcendence of God’s presence seems to have evaporated.[1]

There is a well-meaning tendency among many Christians—especially those who have never wrestled deeply with their faith—to liken these moments to a kind of spiritual weakness. “If you only prayed a little harder or believed a little deeper or trusted a little more, then everything would be okay,” they tell us. We needn’t look much further than the shelves of our local bookstore for a seemingly endless litany of books offering prescriptions that promise to fix our spiritual life.

But as the Trappist monk and priest Thomas Keating reminds us, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside of us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.”[2]

In other words, we can’t work our way into God’s good graces because God doesn’t deal in performance evaluations and goals and targets. God doesn’t show up on our time or in a manner of our choosing; and our relationship with God cannot be converted into a checklist or a “how to” guidebook.

This is the lesson that Mary learned on that first Easter, and it’s the one that God is still trying to teach us 2,000 years later. In the midst of her desperate search for clues about what might have happened to Jesus’ body, a man walks by and asks Mary why she is so distraught. And desperately hoping that he would know something she didn’t, she says, “If you know where he is—if you’ve taken him somewhere else—just tell me where and I will take him myself.” If you will just tell me what to do or where to go, I’ll do it! It’s as if she’s saying, “Give me a target! Give me a goal! What are the five simple steps that I need to accomplish?”

And that’s when it happens: Jesus calls her by name! “Mary!” And when she hears it, she is overcome! She cries out, “Rabbouni! Teacher!”

With these words, Mary experiences the very first Easter moment! She realizes that Christ’s difficult and at times unbelievable teachings are true—that what he promised at the Last Supper has come to pass!

Mary’s witness to the first Easter is about far more than beautiful worship and festive celebrations. Mary brings us face to face with the depths of our humanity. Her witness is a mosaic of the human experience—grief and joy; uncertainty and affirmation; depression and determination. This is the true witness of Easter!

Even in the depths of our despair and grief, when things just seem to keep piling up with no end in sight, and even when we just don’t know if we believe it anymore, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ has a way of showing up where we least expect him!

But if we’re not careful, we’ll close the book as if the story ends right here. Mary recognizes the Resurrected Lord and everyone lives happily ever after. But this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, if we keep reading, we realize that Easter isn’t a story at all! It’s a commissioning!

Once Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The moment that Mary leaves the garden, the Good News of Easter gets loose and begins to transform the world! Mary bears witness to the fact that, even in the face of death itself, God will have the last word!

Through her first Easter witness, Mary teaches us that grief and joy, uncertainty and affirmation, desperation and determination, are all inescapable parts of our humanity. She teaches us that our lives of faith aren’t about success or opportunities for advancement; rather, they are holy mysteries that will surprise, unsettle, and transform us. But most important of all, she teaches us that in the resurrection of our Lord Christ, we know that love, hope, and peace will ultimately prevail!

And so, in this Eastertide, may we proclaim that Christ is risen, not simply in church, but also in the world around us. May we proclaim it, not simply with our lips, but also with our hands and hearts. And as we live into the joy and promise of Easter, may we go forth into the world, looking for the Resurrected Christ in places we may not expect.

May we search for Christ amidst those who are cast down and rejected; among those who have nobody to care for them; and in the company of those who have never known the loving embrace of friendship. The world needs this now, perhaps more than ever before. But most of all, may we not simply proclaim the Good News, may we also believe it so that the whole world may see Christ in their midst and proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

Alleluia!

Written by the Rev. Marshall A. Jolly, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published works include essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] See TJ Tetzlaff’s essay for Easter Day (Year C), entitled, “The Unlikely Evangelist” in Modern Metanoia 14 March 2016, http://modernmetanoia.org/2016/03/14/easter-day-c-the-unlikely-evangelist/

[2] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 38.

Download the sermon for Easter.

Bulletin Insert – April 2, 2017

The Good Friday Offering

Throughout Lent, and especially on Good Friday, Episcopal parishes and congregations are encouraged to contribute to the Good Friday Offering, an Episcopal tradition reaching back to 1922. In the aftermath of World War I, the Church sought to create new and enduring relationships with and among the Christians of the Middle East, beginning with the Department of Missions sending the Rev. William C. Emhardt to travel the region. From these initial efforts, which focused on a combination of relief work and the improvement of ecumenical and Anglican relations, the Good Friday Offering was created.

Good Friday Offering Episcopal Church

Old Town Jerusalem, courtesy of Elizabeth Boe, Global Partnerships, The Episcopal Church

The Synod of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East provides a recommendation to The Episcopal Church on how to distribute funds raised for the Good Friday Offering. These funds are used for a variety of humanitarian purposes, including an eye clinic, hospitals, scholarship aid for young people, empowerment programs for women, rehabilitation programs, and similar efforts.

Presiding Bishop Michael Bruce Curry urges all Episcopal congregations to contribute to the Offering. He writes,

“We walk the walk of Christ when we walk in solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East, who keep the faith in the very land Jesus called home. We walk the walk of Christ when we advocate for the voices of those who work fearlessly for peace in the midst of unremitting violence. We walk the walk of Christ when we support ministries of healing, education, pastoral care, and interfaith cooperation rooted in a deep desire for a future full of reconciliation and hope. The Good Friday Offering is our opportunity to add some of the substance of our lives to the substance of our prayers.”

To assist parishes in participating in the Good Friday Offering, free, downloadable materials are available at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/good-friday-offering-resources. Materials include Holy Week meditations from St. George’s College in Jerusalem, an educational series from the Diocese of Jerusalem, and a Frequently Asked Questions bulletin insert.

Collections for the Good Friday Offering are best combined in a single parish or diocesan check and sent by the end of the calendar year to: DFMS – Protestant Episcopal Church US; P.O. Box 958983; St. Louis, MO 63195-8983. Please be sure all checks are made out to The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, with “Good Friday Offering” added in the note field.

For more information, please contact The Episcopal Church’s Middle East Partnership officer, the Rev. Canon Robert Edmunds: redmunds@episcopalchurch.org.

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided
half page, double-sided

Bulletin Insert – March 26, 2017

Episcopal Church Scholarships

Did you know that The Episcopal Church offers educational scholarships to students? We do! Scholarship applications are now being accepted for the 2017-2018 academic year for students ranging from K-12 to continuing education.

Every year, numerous awards are distributed to students across the Church, including to ethnic communities, children of missionaries, bishops and clergy, and other groups, covering a wide range of eligibility. Last year, eighty-nine educational scholarships, totaling $302,684.95 were awarded to students in 51 Episcopal Church dioceses as well as 13 provinces of the Anglican Communion.

Episcopal Scholarships

The scholarships are derived from the annual income of designated trust funds established by generous donors’ bequests to The Episcopal Church—some dating back to the late 19th century. Many scholarships assist students enrolled in theological education and training.

All applicants are required to be members of The Episcopal Church, and they also must receive the endorsement of their bishop. Scholarships are offered through a variety of trust funds, and the amount of each scholarship varies according to the availability of its annual payout. The principal amount of each fund is always maintained, and the fund’s annual payout is determined by the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church upon recommendation of its Investment Committee.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to visit the scholarships webpage and discover information about each trust fund and its scholarship; applicants may then identify those funds that best fit their own profile. Awards will be granted in amounts up to $10,000. Submitted applications are reviewed by a scholarship committee composed of representatives from The Episcopal Church Executive Council, the church at large, the treasurer’s office and various other ministries of The Episcopal Church.

Online applications are required, and the deadline for submission is March 31.  Only complete applications will be considered. All materials, including the full list of available scholarships, can be found at www.episcopalchurch.org/scholarships. For additional information, please contact Ann Hercules, Associate for Grants and Scholarships, at ahercules@episcopalchurch.org.

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided

full page, double-sided

Doubt Strengthens Faith, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

One of the greatest blessings we encounter as Christians is the freedom to admit when we have doubts.  As faithful Christians, we should have the audacity to ask tough questions concerning our faith and traditions.

For some, doubt is synonymous with having a lack of faith, but doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. They are the Ying and Yang, if you would, of the Christian life.

According to Paul Tillich, doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Rather than suppress our doubts, we should explore them and allow them to set us on a journey of discovery and a deepening of our beliefs and convictions. In our Gospel reading today, Thomas asked for proof, and we also want proof as well that our faith is not in vain.

Thomas often gets a bad rap for doubting the resurrection of Jesus; however, he was no more doubtful than the other disciples and apostles.

The other disciples didn’t believe that Jesus had risen until he appeared to them, so why should we expect Thomas to be any different?

In fact, we applaud Thomas for his insistence on wanting tangible proof. After all, Thomas was well aware that Jesus wasn’t the first messianic figure on the scene to be crucified by the Roman occupiers. Thomas showed great religious restraint and demonstrated the proper amount of rational doubt.  But when Jesus appeared to him, Thomas proclaimed without reservation, “My Lord, and my God.”

Doubt can be a wonderful tool that propels us into deeper learning, earnest soul searching, and spiritual revelation. Faith based on absolute certainty leads to fanaticism, but faith tempered with doubt is mature and stable.

Many believers struggle with their own doubts brought about by life’s unpredictability and tempestuous nature. We have very real struggles in our lives that generate an uncertainty about where God is to be found in all the turmoil.

Sometimes we look to spiritual giants, the superstars of Christianity, and feel inferior in our own personal walk in comparison. However, the greatest in the Kingdom sometimes deal with the greatest doubt.

Mother Teresa’s diary reveals a saintly person who struggled with a type of doubt that would crush the faint of heart. She wrote to her spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, in 1979, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

For the last nearly half-century of her life Mother Teresa felt no presence of God whatsoever — neither in her heart or in the Eucharist. That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta and— except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated.

Although perpetually cheery in public, Mother Teresa lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. She bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she was undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.  Nevertheless, she continued to love the least in God’s creation and dedicate her life to Christ to the very end.

Mother Teresa isn’t alone in her struggle with doubt. The Polish-born Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer states that doubt is part of all religion, that all the religious thinkers were doubters. The art critic Robert Hughes said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless, at peace while tempted, safe while still anxious, surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”

Despite Fr. Nouwen’s own struggle with doubt, he was able to mentor and encourage countless thousands through his writings, lectures, and sermons. One particular quote from a book of his has been a lifeboat for many who find themselves overcome with the waves of life’s stormy doubts: “Have the courage to trust that you will not fall into an abyss of nothingness, but into the embrace of a God whose love can heal all your wounds.”

Faith is a daily, ongoing exercise. It is a risk. Doubts arise. We struggle with God. And hopefully, faith grounded in the goodness of God triumphs — even when we do not have all the answers and life doesn’t make sense.

Will we believe in a God of love who wants to be near us and has our best interest at heart? Or will we believe in a God who plays games with us, and is ultimately cruel and uncaring? Will we believe in a God who stands beside us in our troubles, or one who is distant and difficult?

The author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is not void of doubt, but requires a daily commitment to developing our spiritual walk despite life’s uncertainties and sometimes cruelties.

Faith doesn’t take away our doubts, but is strengthened by them.  And faith doesn’t deliver us from our problems and heartaches, but gives us the strength to persevere through them and lead others as well as they navigate around the abyss of nothingness.

May his resurrection power be at work in our lives as we learn to allow our doubts to strengthen our faith.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Timothy G. Warren,  a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Fr. Warren is pastor of St. Francis (Independent Old Catholic Church), an emergent outreach ministry that serves at-risk teens and young adults in the High Desert Region of Southern California, and President/Executive Director LifeSkills Development, a nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults. Fr. Warren is also a member of the High Desert Interfaith Council.

Download the sermon for Easter 2(A).

Bulletin Insert – March 19, 2017

The Feast of the Annunciation

This coming Saturday, March 19th, marks the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation. This feast, dated nine months before the celebration of Christmas Day, commemorates the visitation of the Virgin Mary by the angel Gabriel. During the visit, recounted in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the angel greets Mary and announces that she will be the mother of Jesus. Mary assents in faith to God’s invitation.

Annunciation Episcopal Bulletin Insert

Fra Angelico, “The Annunciation,” 1433.

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:26-38, New Revised Standard Version)

Collect for the Annunciation

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 240)

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided

full page, double-sided

Life After Breath, Easter Vigil (A) – April 15, 2017

(Service readings referenced: Genesis 1:2 & 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:1-14)

 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable unto thee. O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

Now I want you all to close your eyes, go ahead, close them for just a moment. Now take a deep breath. Take it in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel it deep within. One more, and this time mean it. Okay, you can open your eyes.

Breath. What an amazing gift. Breathing seems so simple sometimes. In fact, most of the time, we do it without even a conscious thought. I mean, how many times throughout the day do you stop and think. Wow, I am breathing. This is amazing! Probably not very often.

Many of us though, have had moments in our lives where we did realize we were breathing and it was a glorious moment. Like the time you ran a marathon and though you might not make it. Or the day that your breath was heaving and fast and seemed so hard to grasp as you gave birth to your first child. Or the day you watched a loved one take their last breath. Those breaths we remember, but so many go unnoticed. Breathing is so easy, that most of us can do it in our sleep.

Let’s take one more for good measure, shall we?

Who taught you how to breathe? Well that’s sort of a silly question. No one taught you how to breathe, you just breathe. It’s simply innate, a function of our physical body. We know how to breathe simply by breathing.

Breathing is a scientific process by which we take in oxygen, our diaphragm flattens, our abdomen is engaged, the oxygen flows into our blood and through our body, just in time for us to breathe out and let go of carbon dioxide. Scientifically explained, but where did it come from? Where did we get our breath?

Earlier in the service we heard the creation story from the book of Genesis, and in this account from Chapter one, we hear that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

This should sound very familiar to those of you who have attended a worship service using the prayers from Enriching Our Worship because in that service we celebrate the Holy Eucharist with a prayer that reads, “From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon and stars, Earth, winds and waters, and every living thing.”

Now, in the second creation story, the one found in Genesis, chapter 2, it says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Now, all of this time, we have been talking about our breath as a simple systematic, scientific, physical function, but here is where the Bible throws us through a loop.

As you know, the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew.

The original Hebrew word here for breath, ruach (pronounced Roo-ak) also means spirit and it also means life and wind.

Where we would often distinguish these words, the Bible uses them interchangeably.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe this would be a good time to take another deep breath.

In the Hebrew Scriptures; breath, spirit, life, and wind are the same word. Ruach.

In our reading from Ezekiel, we hear God say that God will give that same breath, that same ruach, to the dry bones and cause them to live.

The dry bones in the valley do not have life in them at first. They are dead, they have no breath and no spirit. But God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and in doing this “the breath (the ruach) will come into them and they will live.” In this way, the body is a shell, a clay vessel, which God fills with breath, with life, with spirit.

Now, before I leave you in the Old Testament, I want to show you how the words breath and spirit are linked in the same way in the New Testament.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, we are reminded of the story of Christ’s passion and death, and in this narrative, we learn about the breath of Jesus. In Luke’s account, Jesus says, “‘Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”

The words Spirit and breathed in this verse from Luke, chapter 23, both words, spirit and breath, come from the same Greek word, pneuma. So, we could translate this verse, “‘Father, into your hands, I commend my breath.’ Having said this, he gave up his Spirit.” In this moment, Jesus dies.  The concept of breath and spirit and life are all linked in the Greek word pneuma, just as they were in the Hebrew word ruach.

If we stopped there, at the crucifixion, the story would be over. There is no more breath. There is no more life. There is no more spirit.

But the story does not end there. We do not sit in the power of darkness forever, because we are an Easter people.

In the midst of darkness, light breaks forth and we are given a new Spirit, a Holy Spirit, a new life, a new breath, that speaks goodness and love to the world. We turn on our lights and ring our bells and cry out Alleluia!

We use our breath to preach forgiveness and mercy, kindness and compassion, joy and peace. We use our new breath to give new life to the world.

By the new life and new Spirit that we are given in Baptism we take up the call to “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”

In this Easter season, we sing Alleluia with the sure and certain hope that Christ is risen.

In this Easter season, we rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this Easter season, we go forth to live a life inspired by Christ Jesus who rose from the dead, and who showed us that there is life after death, for there is life after breath.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Melanie Slane, who currently serves as Assistant Priest at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, Missouri. She and her husband Chris, also an Assistant Priest at Emmanuel, live in St. Louis with their two year old son, Constantine, and their two month old son, Aristotle. Slane is a 2013 graduate of The Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where she earned a Master in Divinity. Before moving to St. Louis, she served as Assistant Rector at The Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. Slane also gained experience in asset based community development while serving as a missionary in the Philippines from 2009-2010, where she worked with a group of native women to start a small business in organic jam-making. Her ministry has also taken her to the Turkey, The Navajo Nation, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Israel, and Palestine. She is a graduate of The University of Missouri, with a Bachelors of Science in Business Management; she is a native of St. Louis, Missouri.

Download the sermon for Easter Vigil (A).

Bible Study, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

It is fitting that Peter’s Pentecost speech comes to us on the Second Sunday of Easter. While Peter’s audience had just experienced the exhilaration of the Spirit’s outpouring, the church today is recovering from Easter Sunday. Peter’s speech provides the rhetorical jolt needed on this “Low Sunday” that lacks the lilies, crowds, and glorious hymns from the previous week. These words are the first of thirty some speeches in the Book of Acts and, indeed, the first of the innumerable attempts by Christian leaders to explain the faith. Our task is to hear this inaugural attempt at Christian witness both as “good news” and as “new news”. Attention to Peter’s delivery recalls some of the precariousness of the moment: Peter’s refutation of the charge of drunkenness against the apostles (omitted from the lectionary) reveals an uneasiness early in his sermon. This is then steadied by Peter’s usage of Old Testament scripture, which places his effort on more familiar—and more eloquent—footing. This portion of the sermon ends on a powerful note, though, as Peter reminds the audience that “all of us are witnesses” (2.32) to Christ’s resurrection. The “all” refers to both the disciples on the Pentecost stage with him as well as those celebrating 2000 years later, trying to hear the words afresh.

  • What parts of Peter’s speech “cut to the heart” (2.37) of the modern reader?
  • How does the Church maintain the quality of its proclamation throughout the highs and lows of the calendar year?

Psalm 16

In the Acts reading above, Peter/Luke uses Psalm 16 to advance a Christological argument. Given that it is the only portion of the Old Testament in the lectionary, it might be fruitful to consider the verses outside that setting. The Psalm describes an intimate relationship with the Creator, as first and second person pronouns abound throughout and metaphoric imagery implies a tactile closeness. In addition, unlike the many psalms that are in response to particular suffering or trouble, Psalm 16 portrays a relationship of sustained trust. Such an interaction bestows certain blessings on the faithful—blessings that are both material and spiritual in nature. Interestingly, the word “trust” itself is never mentioned—ironically appropriate given the speaker’s understanding of God’s presence as one whereby “my heart teaches me, night after night” (16.7).

  • What are some examples of a “goodly heritage” that God has bestowed in your life?
  • Would you describe your prayer/ devotional life as comparable to verse 7, or more contingent and variegated?

1 Peter 1:3-9

The Epistle reading offers a different understanding of faith from Psalm 16 as the epistle author connects faith with persecution and suffering. At the time of its writing, 1st Peter would have provided comfort to Christians whose families have disowned them because of their new identity. To our modern ears, however, it provides a measure of discomfort about the costs associated with a life in Christ. We are wise to think deeply about the nature of suffering and the power dynamics associated with “various trials.” Beyond that, for both sets of readers, the reading communicates that knowledge of Christ indeed does not equate, necessarily, to either earthly happiness or pain. Rather, the end result of faith in Christ, is to “love him” and the “salvation of your souls.” (1.8-9)

  • In the comfortable settings of Western Christianity, how should the “genuineness of faith” be appropriately “tested by fire”?

 John 20:19-31

The story of “doubting Thomas”, unique to John, renders yet another understanding of faith. It does so in a courtroom-like drama, familiar to the Gospel, where notions of witness and testimony are examined in a taut narrative. Attention to Thomas’ declaration in 20-28 and his strong convictions earlier in the Gospel are responsible for this, along with perhaps the humble realization that we all would likewise require tactile evidence for faith. Thomas would, in fact, make a rather poor witness in today’s courtroom. When Jesus tells him to put his finger in his side, Thomas has the opportunity to become the star witness for all sorts of subsequent theological and historical questions. But, due to the immediate and exclamatory nature of his answer, one doubts that he indeed followed through on Jesus’ directive. Rather, he declares a verdict similar to the one from 1st Peter: by seeing Jesus, Thomas believed in and loved him.

  • When you hear/ read good news, what is your reaction?
  • What prevents us from seeing God in the world around us?

Charles Cowherd is a Middler at Virginia Theological Seminary. A postulant in the Diocese of Virginia, he lives in Alexandria, VA with his wife Michelle – a mental health therapist.

Download the Bible Study for Easter 2(A).

Let Your Idols Fall, Good Friday (A) – April 14, 2017

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

This is really not a day for words. When we grieve, all words are too much.

It is much better for us to take in the facts about how Jesus was treated: the injustice, the spiritual blindness, the narrow thinking, the positioning for power. It is better that we just sit with that grief and blackness, make a space inside of ourselves for the death of Jesus; and just abide in it.

We must abide with Good Friday, not because it leads quickly to the empty tomb, but because Jesus did die. It is better that we not fill it with too many words and instead marvel at this death and consider our part in it.

In this lengthy Passion narrative from the gospel of John we are not spared any detail. There is a great deal here but the scene when Pilate asks the chief priests if he shall crucify their king is very interesting. The priests answer, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Here we see that the powers-that-be have no compunction with violating their very identities to get what they want. Two things are happening here and both have to do with idolatry.

The first thing that is happening is that the priests are telling the Empire, manifest in Pilate, that their only king is the emperor. This is in direct violation of God’s explicit dislike of kings. Hundreds of years prior to this scene the people of Israel had asked God for kings so that they can be like the other people in the region.

God warned them then that kings would take their sons for soldiers, tax them to death, and all the other things that come with human kings. God’s desire was that he would be their king; that is what would have distinguished them from the other people in the region. But when the people persisted God allowed kings to rise among the Israelites, provided they carried God’s anointing.

God, it seems, is in the habit of taking a bad situation and improvising some good out of it. But today, in this passage from John, these priests are denying God’s choice for a king and they are putting their faith in the Roman Emperor so that they can make the political alliance necessary for the assassination of their enemy Jesus.

Along with this political posturing is the fact that since the chief priests have allied themselves with the Emperor for their peace and security, they have replaced God with the Emperor. This is idolatry. Idolatry is when a created thing is put in place of the uncreated source of life and love. Idolatry is when we find our security, power, identity in anything other than God. The priests have committed the sin of idolatry.

Idolatry is the most pervasive and insidious of sins. If Good Friday teaches us anything it is that our notions of what God is and can do need to be cast down like the idols they are.

In the life of the spirit the casting down of personal idols usually follows a pattern. The first idol that needs casting down is the idol of things: thinking that the things that surround you make you a worthy person. You are not your things, our things do not give us worth. Only God gives us worth. That’s why God is worshipped and things are not.

The next idol that needs casting down is the ego. You are not that great. You are also not all that bad either. Self-deprecation, too, is an activity of the ego. The ego: not the healthy bit that makes you a person, but the ego that manipulates people, things, and facts for your own purposes. This idol must come down.

In the life of the spirit these idols have been well within the bounds of good advice and general spirituality.

The next idols that need destruction are within the particular purview of the Abrahamic faiths, and, I think, are especially Christian.

The first of these idols is the idolatry of faith. The idolatry of faith is when we begin to use the story and beliefs of God to judge and separate others. This is when we carve in stone the stories of our tradition as reality to such a level that we lose sight that they are a chronicle of people’s encounters with the God of love and turn the activity of faith into the judgement seat of faith, separating those who are in and those who are out. The idolatry of faith is broken by true faith, which is trust, trust the stories and traditions about God, they are not God themselves, but instead urge us into truth faith, pointing to God.

The next idol does not have a hold on everyone, but it is still a powerful idol.

This is the idol of doubt. This idol tells us that only doubt and suspicion of the stories of God can bring us closer to the true God. It is an idol that says, “If you would simply think like I think about God, then you will perceive the truth.” None of us possess the full knowledge of the unknowable God, and some beliefs should be doubted, but when doubt becomes the enemy of faith instead of its steward, then it has become an idol.

The final idol that needs to come down is the hardest one of all, but it is the one that Good Friday most explicitly addresses: the idolatry of God. The idolatry of God means that we have set ideas of exactly what God is and can do. If I were to use an everyday word for the idolatry of God I suppose it would be expectation: high expectations, low expectations, horrible expectations, impossible expectations, immature expectations.

When we destroy the idol of God we truly live by faith; living fully, as one moment unfolds from the last, trusting that God is with us in love, come what may.

In Good Friday we see our image of God literally killed. Good Friday, with the death of Jesus is an enactment of the death of all idols, including, most explicitly the idol of God.

God does not die. Messiahs do not die. Yet, Jesus does die, and in the death of Jesus the final idol is destroyed and in this death we are released from all idols and left with the present moment in Christ, redeemed and free.

This freedom is jarring, and it is appropriate that we commemorate the death of idols as we do today. Grieve for the loss of your idols.

Abide in stillness over the death of your graspings for anything other than God. Let your idols fall at the foot of the cross and sit awhile in death and grief, and wait.

Wait, because God has a surprise in store.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron, who serves as the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. Bowron holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.

Download the sermon for Good Friday (A).

 

Sermons for the remainder of Holy Week can be found here:

 

Great Vigil of Easter