Archives for February 2018

Bible Study, Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 

Isaiah 50:4-9a

As we begin Holy Week, this passage in Isaiah reminds us of God’s help in times of distress. This passage was likely written during the time of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BC—a time of great suffering and disorientation for the Israelites. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion would have been similarly devastating for the disciples. The Israelites experienced the destruction of their temple and physical exile to a foreign land; the disciples faced the death of their teacher and the fear and uncertainty of what the future might hold. This passage assures us that even in times of persecution and doubt, God is our help. Isaiah finds strength from God both in confronting his adversaries and in comforting those in need. We, too, can find sustenance from God this week and in our own moments of exile, pain, or uncertainty.

  • Isaiah writes, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (v. 50:4). How have you been comforted by the words of others? How has God helped you to speak words of comfort to those in need?

Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31 is a particularly visceral depiction of the author’s pain and suffering. The author’s entire body—his eye, throat, belly, and bones—are consumed by affliction. The Psalmist also conveys a deep sense of loneliness, abandonment, and self-loathing. He writes, “I am forgotten like a dead man,” and “I am as useless as a broken pot” (v. 31:12).

At times, we may find ourselves in a similar state to this psalmist. We may know what it is like to feel as though our bodies and minds are completely overtaken by sadness and fear. Yet the Psalmist does not lose sight of God’s goodness, even in the midst of his pain. He calls on God to save him by God’s “loving kindness.” He affirms his trust in God and asks for God to rescue him.

  • How do you find comfort and strength in times of sadness? What feelings—physical or emotional—does this Psalm bring up for you?

Philippians 2:5-11

Holy Week is an opportunity for us to confront the tension between Jesus’ humanity and his Lordship. In this passage, Paul reminds us that Jesus chose to journey alongside humanity. As part of that journey, he endured the worst of human suffering, even to the point of death. This week, we will imagine what it was like for Jesus and the disciples in his final days; some of us will reenact aspects of Jesus’ last acts on earth through foot washing, overnight vigils, and dramatic passion narratives. At the same time, we will anticipate the joy of Easter and the hope of the Resurrection that affirms our faith in Jesus, the Messiah.

Paul implores us to take on the “same mind” as Christ. We are asked to embrace humanity in its fullness and to appreciate the paradoxical proximity of humanity to God: the more we empty and humble ourselves, the closer we draw to experiencing the glory of God.

  • How do you relate to Jesus during Holy Week? Which parts of Jesus’ final days on earth capture your heart and imagination the most?

Mark 15:1-47

When we read the Passion in our services on Palm Sunday, we ask the congregation to identify with the “crowd” (v. 15:8). The congregation shouts, “Crucify him!” when Pilate offers to release Jesus. It makes sense that we would cast the congregation in this role—after all, it offers the congregation a speaking part and it gives us an opportunity to imagine that we might be responsible, in some way, for the brokenness of the world—but there are many other players in this narrative with whom we might identify. In the final verses of Mark’s passion narrative, we learn that the women who have followed and provided for Jesus throughout his ministry were watching his crucifixion from a distance. The scripture does not tell us about the whereabouts of the male disciples; they seem to be absent from the whole scene, but several women have stayed to watch Jesus die and to see what will become of his body.

  • Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the women who followed Jesus. Why do you think the women stayed after all the other disciples left? 

Anne Marie Witchger is a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. She received a B.A. in Religion from Earlham College, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and will complete a Master of Arts in Ministry from General Theological Seminary in 2018. Anne Marie currently works as the Outreach Coordinator and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. In her free time, Anne Marie loves to bake, write, ride her bike, and brew kombucha with her husband, Joshua.

Download the Bible study for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B).

Sacrifice, Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Palm Sunday


[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

How did this happen? How did Jesus’ life of peace end in such a violent death? We stand at the edge of this moment, looking on in horror and confusion — just as Jesus’ followers did on the day he was crucified. The violence we have seen is numbing: it robs us of the ability to think clearly. Like Peter in Pilate’s courtyard, we are afraid. And fear will always lead us astray. So it’s a difficult moment to try and puzzle out the meaning of what happened here.

The familiar formula — that Jesus died for our sins — raises more questions than it answers. First, exactly how is Jesus’ death connected with our forgiveness? Why does this terrible thing lead to that wonderful thing? And who is it that wants this sacrifice anyway?

Some are content to say that God does. But surely God cannot need such a sacrifice. Consider what the prophets have to say about the offerings and sacrifices made in the temple. In Isaiah, God says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings… I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” And in Hosea: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And on Ash Wednesday, we began Lent by reciting this line from Psalm 51: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus questioned the authority the temple claimed as the sole arbiter of God’s grace. Every time he broke one of the rules by healing on the Sabbath or eating with someone considered unclean, he was saying that God’s love embraces everyone. No one controls access to God’s grace. God’s love is bigger than you think it is.

But if God did not desire Jesus’ death in this way, then who did? Why did this happen?

To answer that question, we have to fill in some of the story that’s missing from the Palm Sunday liturgy. We began this morning by waving our palm branches in the air, celebrating Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples have come from the countryside, where his ministry began, to celebrate Passover in the ancient city. Jesus knew the crowds would be there — he wanted to bring his message to as many people as possible, and to confront the religious authorities in the temple head on.

Mark’s timeline for the whole week of Passover is surprisingly precise. Because of this, we can work out that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover. The Palm Sunday liturgy then skips over several days of that Passover week, and several chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and the next thing we know, it is Thursday evening. Jesus’ disciples are preparing the Passover meal, as Mark says, “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed.” But it’s what happens between Sunday and Thursday that helps explain why the authorities — both Jewish and Roman — were so keen to have Jesus killed.

Let’s fill in some of the missing pieces. First of all, Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry: although the crowds shouted Hosanna to greet him, it seems perfectly obvious that Jesus’ procession was anything but triumphant. He chose to ride into town on a young colt, the foal of a donkey. If this is hard for you to picture, imagine a large and friendly dog, about three feet tall at the shoulder. Jesus has no armor but the cloaks of peasants, and he is lauded with palm branches and leaves instead of golden eagles on spears carried in procession by Roman soldiers.

You see, it was Rome that really loved a procession. Rome excelled at using a military parade as a demonstration of its dominance, to keep its subjugated peasants in awe. And Jesus knew that Pilate, the Roman Governor, made a point of riding from his capital city on the Mediterranean coast every Passover, to make sure these crowds of peasants in Jerusalem stayed in line. Picture Pilate on a magnificent war horse and surrounded by a legion of Roman soldiers in red and gold armor, marching in lockstep as they enter the city gates.

Jesus’ little street parade, in contrast, with the donkey and the palm fronds, is an anti-imperial protest. He’s mocking the empty pomp of the empire, questioning the brutality with which Rome ruled the peasant class and kept Judea impoverished.

After taking on the empire, Jesus goes straight to the temple. The day after that peace demonstration, Jesus takes over the temple courtyard, the heart of the action during Passover week, and stages a teach-in. Remember Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers? Well, that’s what he did on the Monday before Passover. He tells thinly veiled parables about the religious leaders which cast them in a very bad light. This goes on for several days. By the time Wednesday has come around, Jesus denounces them openly: “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces… They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

They devour widows’ houses: that is Jesus’ accusation against the religious authorities. They think they control access to God’s grace by controlling the temple. The only way to get a little of that grace was to pay up: all those money changers were there to facilitate your purchase of the correct sacrificial animal, which, for the right price, the priests would offer to God on your behalf. The price was the same whether you were a poor widow or a rich merchant.

From the start of his ministry, Jesus’ central message has been, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” And that is a dangerous message, for it challenges both the secular and the religious authorities. If God is King over all, then Caesar is not. And in Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom, God’s love is not mediated by priests at the temple but is free and available to all. Is it any wonder that both the Jewish and the Roman leaders wanted Jesus dead?

Nailing him to a cross was supposed to be the final solution. Get rid of the rabble-rouser, silence him, and his message would die with him. Crucifixion was the world’s way of saying no to everything Jesus stood for.

The world says no to Jesus — but God says yes. This is the good news that Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It’s the first attempt at explaining what happened on Good Friday. The world rejects Jesus’ message and tries to silence him in death — but God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life. The horror and violence we inflict on an innocent man shows the depth of human evil and the ultimate defeat of human power, by revealing the moral bankruptcy of human beings left to our own devices. But God’s love as revealed in Jesus is life itself: Love that can never be silenced, never be killed. Love that will restore our lost humanity.

Out of this terrible violence, God has made an opening between heaven and earth. At the very end of the Passion narrative, at the moment of Jesus’ death, Mark tells us that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This is the veil in the temple that separated the people from the power and love of God — the veil that contained God’s presence, and behind which only the high priest was allowed to go.

This veil was torn asunder, and God’s love is no longer contained in a temple. Jesus’ redeeming work was to confront those who tried to keep God locked up. Jesus’ life and teaching have shown us a new way. The scandal of the cross is that now, God’s love can go anywhere and reach anyone. Even those who are different from us. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t believe. God’s love now permeates the whole universe and continually pulls us from death into life, with each breath we take, from the beginning of time until the end.

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector 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 (part of Episcopal Service Corps), 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.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday (B).

Download our compilation of sermons for Holy Week

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Monday in Holy Week

Tuesday in Holy Week

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

This Voice Has Come for Your Sake, Not for Mine, Lent 5 – March 18, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Lent

[RCL]: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Some foreigners, outsiders, show up for the festival. They say, “We wish to see Jesus.” Philip runs to Andrew and presumably says something along the lines of, “Hey, there are all these foreigners who want to see Jesus! What should we do?”

Andrew obviously has no answers. Who wants foreigners around at a time like this?! So, they run off to Jesus to tell him the foreigners are at the gates looking for him. Jesus says, in effect, if you want to see me, really, really see me, then stick around. You’ll have to deal with my death at the hands of Rome to really, really see me. Are they ready for that? Are you ready for that? To which we might add, are we ready for that?

Then obviously there was some noise. Some thought it was thunder, so it must have been loud. Some thought it looked as if Jesus was talking to someone, but there was no one there. Must be angels, some surmise. It was that voice from heaven. The same voice he heard at his baptism that said, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” The same voice from the cloud on the mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus that said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Are we listening yet?

Now when Jesus says, “Father, glorify thy name,” the voice returns and says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Or was it thunder? Is he talking to angels? Has he simply lost it and started talking to himself? Should we even think of letting the foreigners see him like this?

While everyone is trying to figure out what is happening, Jesus announces, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” Which I would take to mean: for our sake, not his.

This voice that keeps coming around is for us, not for Jesus, which makes perfect sense. He knows the voice. The voice knows him. He has always heard the voice. He comes to get us to listen to the voice.

Surely, we must wonder why we do not hear the voice like Jesus does more often? Or at all! Would it surprise us to learn that to this very day, 90% of the peoples of the world regularly hear such voices? That modern Westerners are the minority, the anomaly, as those people who do not regularly access this kind of communication with God and spirits? The question is quite naturally, why not us? And most people say we are too busy to be listening, or think we are too sophisticated to hear voices, or think you have to be crazy or mentally ill to hear such voices. Someone has suggested that maybe it is because we are too grown up. Someone else has pointed out that most other cultures do not make such a big thing out of growing up. And isn’t it Jesus, after all, who says we are to come to the kingdom like children?

And couldn’t it be that we don’t want to hear anything about having to watch him die, watch him be executed, the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment? Dress it up as being like a grain of wheat, call it what you may, but that is what it is: state-sanctioned public execution. In all the debate on capital punishment, how often are we asked to reflect upon what it might mean that the One who calls us into a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment?

All we know is that he says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.”

This voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you. I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” We are left feeling that for God’s name to be glorified, we need to be listening to God’s voice and learn how to become part of the glorifying process.

Holy Week and all it portends may be dark and scary. But it is not nearly as frightening as the prospect that for others to see Jesus, we might need to be part of the glorifying process. In Sunday School, we rarely hear anything about this voice and its being for us. Seminaries typically do not offer a lot of training on how to listen for this voice Jesus says is for us.

The creeds do not appear to discuss it. The catechism does not seem to discuss it. Yet, there it is. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Seems as if we’d best get listening to hear what this voice says; nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake, he goes on to say.

The problem is that those of us who, like the foreigners, want to see Jesus are the very people to whom others come expecting to see Jesus. In us. In what we say and what we do. In his book By Grace Transformed, the late Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., discusses just how it is that others “hear the voice” and come to see Jesus. Gordon puts it this way:

“Every single one of us is significant to somebody else. The people to whom we are significant will catch this thing from us if they know that we are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely devoted and loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ. But the trouble is that in those moments we think of as off moments, others decide whether or not we are truly committed. The times a person says, ‘I must talk to you,’ or when we are weeding the garden. Or, working in an office. Grading a road. Nailing on a molding or painting a room. Cooking a meal. Speaking to a child. These are the times and places where the other person decides who we really are. There can be no ‘off moments’ for Christians if our faith and its vitality are to be contagious.”

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian year. We must all make time to come and serve him, follow him, be with him wherever he may be. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter are all times we need to come and be with him. “Follow me,” he says.

And we need to listen for the Voice. The Voice that is for our sake, not for his. The Voice speaks to us so that we might know how beloved we are. So that we might know how well pleased God is with us. Once we hear this voice and believe it, others will see Jesus, in all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 5 (B).

Bulletin Insert – March 25, 2018

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!”

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.

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).

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Bulletin Insert – March 18, 2018

The Good Friday Offering

“Christian Presence”

Most of us are not concerned about Christians being present where we live. Most of us take it for granted that Christians have been and will continue to be a part of the fabric of our neighborhoods. This is not the case in what we often call the “Holy Land”. We have seen the results of enormous pressure brought upon Christians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere to leave their homes under the onslaught of fundamentalism. Tens of thousands have become refugees. Political realities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza have limited access to education, health care and opportunities which have prompted some families to re-locate. Numbers are very politically charged, but it is safe to say that something far less than 10% of the population in the region are made up of indigenous Christians.

The importance of Christians living and working in the region is essential to a civil society. Christians provide a vital bridge between Muslims and Jews through organizations like the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, meeting in Jerusalem, which brings together leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths for discussion on topics of common concern.

Education, health programs and pastoral care are the essential tools which are used throughout the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East which bring people together and provide examples of day to day cooperation and efforts to build a shared future to benefit all. Teachers and students; doctors, nurses and patients; clergy immersed in an inter-faith context all bear witness to the love of Christ in their relationships throughout the region.

The Good Friday Offering is a response from throughout the Episcopal Church in support of Christians in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Our church-wide effort to provide meaningful support for these “living stones” of the faith we share in Jesus Christ gives them hope for a future where perhaps, by God’s grace, we will no longer have to be concerned about the ongoing presence of Christians throughout the region where our Lord lived, died and rose again.

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Bulletin Insert – February 25, 2018

Invitation to the Good Friday Offering

Presiding Bishop Curry wrote in the annual Good Friday letter to all bishops and congregations asking them to consider providing assistance for the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

Information, including bulletin covers and bulletin inserts on the Good Friday Offering, is available at episcopalchurch.org/good-friday-offering.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I greet you in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I am writing to you in preparation for Holy Week and the focus of that week on our Lord’s sacrificial offering of love on the cross.

The Good Friday Offering is one way we in the Episcopal Church help to support the ongoing ministry of love and compassion carried out by our Anglican sisters and brothers throughout the Province of Jerusalem and Middle East.

Whether funding an eye clinic in Aden or women’s programs, schools and medical services in the West Bank, the Good Friday Offering is making a difference in the lives of so many. I believe our partnership with those who keep the faith of Jesus alive in the region where our Lord walked and began his movement is a significant aspect of our work as part of the church catholic.

I hope you will participate in this effort. Information is available at episcopalchurch.org/good-friday-offering which offers bulletin covers, bulletin inserts, and other helpful information. Any questions about this program may be directed to the Rev. Canon Robert Edmunds, our Middle East Partnership Officer. He can be reached at redmunds@episcopalchurch.org.

Thank you for considering this important witness to the love of Jesus across our Church and in the Holy Land. May God bless you and keep you always. I remain

Your brother in Christ,

The Most Rev. Michael Curry
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

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Bulletin Insert – March 11, 2018

The Feast of St. Patrick

Each year the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast Day of Saint Patrick, fifth-century bishop and missionary of Ireland, on March 17, the day of his death in 461.

Holy Women, Holy Men (Church Publishing, 2010) relates that Patrick was born on the northwest coast of Britain in about 390. His grandfather had been a Christian priest, and his father was a deacon in the early Christian church. When Patrick was a teenager, he was captured by a band of Irish slavers and was forcibly taken to Ireland to serve as a shepherd. When Patrick was in his early 20s, he escaped and returned to Britain, where he was educated as a Christian. After taking holy orders as both presbyter and bishop, he had a vision, calling him to return to Ireland.

Sometime around the year 431, when Patrick returned to Ireland, he began converting Irish pagans into Christians by appealing to the local kings, and through them to their tribes. Patrick built Christian churches over sacred pagan sites, carved crosses on old druidic pillars, and protected sacred wells and springs with Christian saints.

Saint Patrick is generally credited with being the first bishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, is celebrated as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday. In popular culture, this feast day is often a celebration of Ireland itself.

Collect for Saint Patrick

Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Bible Study, Lent 5 (B) – March 18, 2018

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, leading up to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC and the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon. In the face of this impending destruction, he nevertheless foresaw a restored life for the people, one in which they would be even closer to God than before. God promised to maintain a covenantal relationship with the people, just as he had after the Exodus—but instead of a law written on stone tablets, God would write the law of the new covenant on their hearts. Later Christian interpreters would see themselves as the recipients of this “new covenant” or, in one Latin translation, Novum Testamentum, from which we get the term “New Testament.”

  • Have you ever felt comforted by a promise during a difficult time?
  • What would it look like for God to write his law on your heart? Has your Lenten practice helped you move toward this vision?

Psalm 51:1-13

The Church has long recognized Psalm 51 as a central psalm of penitence and contrition; it is a major part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, where its penitential tone sets the stage for Lent. The editors of the Psalms described it as “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” linking its general themes of sin and repentance to a specific instance of sin. The words of the psalm, when lifted out of the context of this story, can apply to almost any human life. The psalm’s great power comes from the potential each person has to find herself or himself in it.

  • We frequently confess our sins against God and our neighbor, but the psalm claims that, “Against you only have I sinned” (v. 4). In what sense are sins against neighbors sins against God?
  • The psalm builds toward a prayer for a “clean heart” and a “right spirit,” for the joy and sustenance of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever felt refreshed or renewed by confessing where you’ve gone wrong?

Hebrews 5:5-10

The curious figure of Melchizedek appears twice in the Old Testament. Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” is called the “King of Salem” (that is, Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in Genesis 14, where he offers bread and wine and blesses Abram. Psalm 110 addresses the king in a royal psalm, saying, as Hebrews quotes here, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In ancient Judaism, priests regularly offered sacrifices of many kinds in the Temple, which was the main form of worship. The high priest played the key role of cleansing the Temple of impurity on the annual Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In this passage, Hebrews combines these and other images from Scripture to describe Jesus: Son of God, righteous king, high priest, suffering servant, obedient follower.

  • What are some of the images that help you understand Jesus? Righteous King? Royal priest? Shepherd? Brother? How do these different names change the way you see him?

John 12:20-33

This “passion prediction” is one of the instances in the gospels in which Jesus says something suggesting the way he will die, and what effect his death will have. This passage is only about halfway through the gospel, continuing a series of sayings beginning in the earliest chapters of John, in which Jesus proclaims the saving power of his coming death. After hearing that “some Greeks” have come to see him, Jesus promises that he will “draw all people” to himself. “Greeks” here likely means “people who are not Jews,” as it does elsewhere in the New Testament, rather than people from what we would now call Greece. The idea that Greeks are coming to Jesus is therefore a physical embodiment of his relationship with “all people.”

  • How has Jesus drawn you to himself? Has his death on the cross been an important part of that attraction? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean in the 21st century that Jesus will draw “all people” to himself? Do you have a part to play in that process?

Greg Johnston is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School and a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He has served the Church in urban parishes, campus ministry, and community organizing, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He currently lives in New Haven with his wife Alice Kenney, and he spends most of his free time running, cooking, or reading mystery novels.

Download the Bible study for Lent 5 (B).

Bulletin Insert – March 4, 2018

The Presiding Bishop’s Lent 3 Devotional

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry joined the leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in preparing Lenten Devotions for the season. The full set of devotions, “Set Free by Truth,” can be found and printed at bit.ly/lentendevotional.

“But we proclaim Christ crucified”

Some things just don’t make much sense. Water doesn’t become wine, bread and fish do not suddenly multiply, the lame do not jump up and walk. And most certainly, dead people stay dead, especially those who experience the horrific death of crucifixion!

And yet, where Jesus is involved, all kinds of things that don’t make much sense…happen.

In those earliest years of the Jesus Movement, his followers didn’t wear crosses around their necks or hang them in the homes in which they worshipped. They had other symbols, certainly, but not crosses. Crucifixion was not a historical curiosity, but a still present reality, and an agonizing and shameful one at that. To be crucified was to be executed as a common criminal. Worse, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, cursed was one who hung on a tree, on the wood of a cross.

So to speak of “Christ crucified” didn’t make sense to many. It was a stumbling block, something foolish or offensive. But Paul said otherwise. Yes, Jesus could have avoided the cross, found some other way around it. But instead he faced the worst the world could throw at him, and then broke through death itself, and left an empty cross behind as witness to his astonishing victory.

Some things don’t make much sense. The cross is one of them. But it stands now and forever as our rallying cry that God—not injustice, not suffering, not even death—has the final, victorious word.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
The Episcopal Church

Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”

Prayer for Mission, The Book of Common Prayer 1979

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Snakes, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

Episcopal Lent Sermon

[RCL]: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107: 1-2, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

If you are uncomfortable around snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.

If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. And now snakes. Why? Because they complained against the God who was delivering them.

So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.

Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the electric utility and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we whine at the water company. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a varied menu.

Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?

Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.

So, we come to the Gospel reading from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This passage is so well known that it is often coded on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.

And that may be the problem. This text taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Recently the parents of a young child who died of influenza were agonizing over why their Christian belief didn’t save their child. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.

The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.

So, Lent is not just a time for us to get closer to Jesus and hope for the best. Lent is a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to swim upstream against all of the world’s downstream current of things that pleasure us and delight us, but never satisfy.

Deep Lent, as some call this time, is when we struggle with the darkness, and may not always find answers to why it is so pervasive. We cannot answer why evil seems so prevalent because we can’t readily see it in our own choices. So, asking to be part of the light will reveal what is hidden in our darkness, and most of us would prefer not to see. That is why self-examination and confession are rare and avoided by most of us. But we have strayed like lost sheep, we have followed too much the desires of our own hearts, to the point where, left on our own, we are truly lost.

So, make today a turning point, an embracing of John 3:16 for your future. If you say this passage every day this week and ask God how to embrace it, you will find a way. You will find it as you receive the bread and the cup. You will find it as you reach out to another human being who is also lost and lonely. You will find a way to move more into the light. You will have different questions to ask, ones for which there are answers.

The only reason Jesus could go to the cross was because he dared to walk into the darkness. We have to do the same if we are going to follow him the rest of the Lenten journey. That means leaving a lot of things behind, including the world’s wisdom for how to live in the darkness by making everything pleasant for ourselves.

Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John so wonderfully writes: “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”

As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.”

Pray those words, and then make room for God to lift them up in your life. Amen.

The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for Lent 4 (B).