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Do You Feel Burdened?, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

 Do you feel burdened? The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says. Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life. Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. What differentiates the two? After all, Paul began religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to earn God’s favor by their works and demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos.

The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favor. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. This is not the fault of the law, but the predictable result of any religious person who has never grown beyond the petty and fearful tyranny of the ego. There are many Christians today who suffer from this unseen burden of functional works righteousness. We say we believe God loves us, but we feel safer hedging our bets by racking up good works.

And those good works are usually seen by others. That public do-gooding starts to earn us the approval and congratulations of others, and we get addicted to it. Before long we start to think we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to build the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”

What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the center of God’s will has turned into our becoming a burden to our faith community. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to actually receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community—“Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul tells us. This “labor and toil,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer. Going within in silence and stillness, engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful to daily spiritual practice—this is the labor and toil that over time, lifts our false internal burdens and makes us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation—the labor and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.

Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.

 The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

Let go into Jesus, Tuesday in Holy Week (A) – April 11, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36

Being there for one another in times of trouble is harder than it appears on the surface. We often define a friend as someone who will be there for us when we need them, but what does that really mean?

Our first instinct when something terrible is happening is to turn away, to run and escape, to get out before the terrible thing can suck us in as well. Car accident, caner diagnosis, job loss, lingering battle with grief—we shy away as if they were contagious.

If we make the decision that we’re not going to run away but instead stay with our friend who is suffering, our next instinct is to try and fix it, to say, “No, look, do this, change this, fix this and you’ll be fine.” It takes a very disciplined and patient sort of love to truly be there for someone in crisis without trying to fix it, an art that many of us sometimes despair of ever mastering.

It is exactly that sort of love that we can often look back and recognize in God’s response to our own dark moments. God doesn’t abandon us, but neither does God very often step in and fix us or our circumstances. God stands with us with the bravest and strongest love of all, the love that undergoes suffering with us rather than sparing us or Godself.

Holy Week is the test of whether we can summon that sort of love within ourselves for Jesus. The Greek visitors to Jerusalem for the Passover in our Gospel today say something that has the potential to convict us in our relationship with Jesus.

They come to Philip, one of the disciples, and say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We have to ask ourselves, is that statement true of us? Do we wish to see Jesus? Do we really wish to see him completely, in his fullness, in his moments of glory and his moments of pain?

Each of us will find one aspect or another of Jesus difficult to want to see. Some of us find ourselves drawn to Jesus most in his times of humanness and trial. We love him most when we see him summon his courage in his moments of human vulnerability. Others find themselves drawn to Jesus in his moments of glory and power. They love the heavenly Christ, the cosmic Word who undergirds creation and subdues the raging waters and scatters miracles from his fingertips. Jesus is all of these things. He is fully human and fully divine.

We see both sides of his nature in this very Gospel story. You can find which part of Jesus you relate to and which part seems foreign to you by how you react to his words in different parts of this text. When do you love Jesus more? When he says, “Now my soul is troubled”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the human side of Jesus. Or do you find yourself thrilling when he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the divine side of Jesus.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding yourself touched and moved to see Jesus as a man or Christ as God, one more than the other. But it is important for us to reach for understanding and encounter with the opposite side of Jesus, the part we don’t understand and identify with as much. And that is because we want the words of the Greeks in Jerusalem to be true of us. We want to be able to say, “We wish to see Jesus,” Jesus in his fullness, Jesus in his complexity, Jesus as all he came to us to be and do.

What can the parts of Jesus we neglect teach us about the parts of ourselves we neglect? Are we comfortable with our own power? Are we comfortable with our own weakness? Which do we run from when we see them in ourselves? Which do we run from when we see them in each other?

It is a lifelong quest of spiritual growth to step into our fears rather than running away from them, to step into what we perceive as darkness that should be hidden away and find it the very path to resurrection and new life. If we can learn to embrace the wholeness of Jesus, the parts of him that we understand and identify with, and the parts that seem mysterious and foreign, we are one step closer to embracing the sun and the shadow within ourselves and each other. We are one step closer to seeing that humility and glory each have their place and their value.

There is something about approaching this precipice with Jesus during Holy Week, entering these days with him that are literally a life and death situation, that should make us want to abandon all our complex plans for ourselves and our churches and our loved ones. As Jesus’ allies and earthly power are stripped away from him and he bears it with such grace—more than that, he uses the lessening of these extraneous things to drive him to the center of his purpose on Earth—it leads us to repent of our attempts to control people and events around us. It leads us to let ourselves be willingly stripped of the illusion of power and control. We long to be reduced to the simple and heartfelt and honest desire in the Gospel, “I wish to see Jesus.”

For what is Holy Week but Jesus letting go of all control of his life and his power? We know he could have swept away all resistance to his rule, saved himself from trial and execution without breaking a sweat. But he let go. He abandoned himself, not to hopelessness and death, but to hope and faith. He let go and believed that his love for us was worth sacrificing everything, and the love of his Father would call him back to life on the third day.

Can we approach these final days with Jesus that lead us to such a terrifying and painful place with the same faith that he displays? Can we really be there for him with the faithfulness that a true friend shows in time of crisis, the ability to be present through suffering without trying to fix it? Do we really want to see Jesus as he is in all his glory and all his pain?

The answers to those questions will be the answer to a deeper quandary, whether we’re ready to submit ourselves to death and resurrection, our full selves, the spectrum of our strength and weakness, to the cleansing and purifying fire of Calvary.

Can we let go of our plans, our defenses, our precious control, and go to the Cross with naked honesty, nothing hidden and nothing denied?

It becomes clear that we cannot force honesty or courage on ourselves. We cannot force ourselves to be faithful to Jesus or to ourselves or our friends.

We have to follow Jesus’ example and let go. Let go into what? Into the one whose every human cell and every divine power was filled with one compelling purpose, to love us. Let go into our beloved Jesus.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice, who serves as the Associate Rector at St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week (A).

 

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

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

All the Faithful Gathered to Worship God – All Saints, Year C

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

We have two ways of thinking about the saints, and it turns out that neither one of them is very helpful. We think of “Saints” with a capital “S”: St. Peter, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, the named heroes of the faith who made their mark in the world and left a legacy of holiness that outlasted their lifetimes. And then we think of “saints” with a lowercase “s,” and here we usually mean someone of heroically long-suffering patience or rigidly upright moral conduct. Either concept is intimidatingly inaccessible to us regular folks who routinely lock our keys in our cars and have been known to shout at the television during a particularly key 4th down of a football game.

We don’t feel like we can live like the people who bravely faced the lions in the coliseum and went down to glorious martyrdom, or even our “saintly” neighbor down the block who never misses Sunday worship (or an opportunity to remind you that she never misses Sunday worship). We don’t feel like we can live like these people, and if we are honest, we don’t really want to live like these people. Dying violently or living joylessly seem to be the two dominant models for sainthood in our society, and neither fulfills Jesus’ hope for us that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The other reason we place the concept of sainthood on an elevated moral pedestal is because that otherness absolves us of responsibility. Saints are so out of touch with what our real lives are like. What does Saint Anselm know about paying the mortgage on time? What does St. John of the Cross’s lofty poetry do for us when we get a flat tire or go through a divorce or are diagnosed with cancer? The saints don’t know what real life is like. And so we don’t have to listen to the prophetic messages that their lives speak, we think.

This is what we tell ourselves to keep us safely distant from sainthood. But the original use of the term saints, particularly by Paul, was meant to indicate all the faithful gathered to worship God. Today is not just about heroes of the faith, and it’s not even just about our own beloved departed who have gone before us. This is not “Some Saints Day.” This is “All Saints Day,” and as the hymn so many of us will sing today goes, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Did you ever think of the commitment you were making as you sang that cheerful little hymn each November? Our job today is to take away some of the haloed awe we place around saints and ask ourselves: “If we are all saints, what does that mean? If it doesn’t mean heroic glory or unhappy perfection, then what should we do? How should we live?”

The great saints of the church, the heroes of the faith who gave their lives for the gospel, were in fact folk just like us. We start there. And if we think about it, we really already know that. Poor St. Peter, God bless him, certainly put his foot in it more than once, up to the point of denying and abandoning Jesus. We can easily picture a 21st century St. Peter losing his temper and making rude gestures in traffic. If St. Teresa of Avila lived today, she might use the last scoop of coffee grounds in the break room and not replace the canister. If St. Bridget or St. Francis lived today, they might have embarrassing pictures on Facebook of their younger and wilder days.

We know that the saints were everyday human beings just like us, and we can be sure they made the same mistakes and had the same frailties. And yet something within them led them to do great things for the gospel, to live and sometimes die with incredible courage and boldness. How did they do that? If we are all saints, then we are all called to live as though our lives and our memories will still be important a thousand years from now. How can we live so that our legacy strengthens generations of the faithful to come after us?

What the saints had was an unshakeable commitment to follow Jesus, no matter where that took them. And we have an incredibly vivid portrait of where following Jesus takes us in our gospel lesson from Luke today. Consider the very first sentence we read: “Jesus looked up at his disciples.” What does that imply? In order for Jesus to look up at his disciples, he had to be at a level below them. So take your mental picture from old Sunday School illustrations of Jesus standing up on a rock above a crowd of people to preach to them, and stand it on its head. Jesus was down on the ground as he taught this most central of his messages. He was crouching or kneeling in the dirt as he healed someone prostrate with pain and illness.

Picture being a disciple standing around in a circle as Jesus gently and carefully lays hands on a pain-wracked man or woman, the entire laser focus of his love trained on this beloved child of God, ready to pour out his healing grace. And hands on the dirty, bad-smelling, sore-laden body of some hopeful soul, he looks up at his disciples and says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are excluded and reviled and persecuted. You are blessed, and you are beloved, and you are mine.”

Jesus speaks to us from the heart of frail, suffering, flawed humanity, because that is where he lives. He chooses to be with and in the pain of the world, and he calls us to follow him there. That was the special charism of the great saints. They weren’t spiritual athletes, accruing an ever-escalating number of holiness points. They knew that their own weaknesses combined with the desperate need of the world created the very conditions for God to work miracles, and they gave themselves to that process wholeheartedly.

That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? It seems like the saints would bring all their strength and intelligence to bear on the levers of power and wealth. But instead they entrusted their weak and wounded selves to the Jesus they found at the bottom of the world, at the bottom of the chasm within themselves, looking up at them and telling them they were blessed. And they heard him there. They followed him there. And through them, he changed the world.

Many of us hearing this gospel today are not literally poor and hungry. But those of us blessed with economic riches and societal privileges are often desperately poverty-stricken in other ways. We are starving for meaning in our lives. We weep silent inward tears of loneliness and depression. We hunger for community without realizing it. We thirst for our own lost integrity and hope in a world driven mad by greed and cynicism.

But we need not fear looking down into the depths of suffering, both inward and outward. Whether the abyss we run from is the hungry and oppressed around the world and in our neighborhoods, or the undiscovered darkness within our own hearts, when we look down into those places, we find Jesus looking up at us.

And where he is, we need never fear to go. That is what the great saints, the heroes of the faith, knew. They saw Jesus look up at them and call them blessed, and so they followed him down into the depths. And there, they found healing, and joy, and communion with God and with one another.

An individual who follows Jesus down to join with him in lifting the whole world up. That’s all a saint is. No glory, no perfection, not even any particular holiness. Just mustering the courage to say yes to his love, his love that reaches out to touch us in our poorest and most wounded places. Want to know if you’re a saint? See Jesus look up at you and say, “You are blessed.” Take that truth into your heart and know that today, All Saints’ Day, is for you.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice. Rice is the Associate Rector at St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for All Saints, Year C.

What Seat Do You Choose? Proper 17(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

So American monk Thomas Merton tells us something we may not really want to hear, but we can immediately connect his uncomfortable truth to Jesus’ teaching in our gospel today.

We find it easy to connect with Jesus as a healer, as our savior, as a teacher and even as a prophet. But Jesus as a countercultural revolutionary, someone who speaks against the way our society works? That’s harder to stomach, especially when we realize that he is preaching against behavior that we engage in regularly.

In ancient Israel’s society, who sat where at a dinner party conveyed status as clearly as who has the corner office, who gets the Employee of the Month parking space, or whose child has the most attendees at her birthday party. Our lives are full of subtle status signals and we use them to communicate who we are and how we want others to see us.

Our clothing, what car we drive (or whether we have a car to drive), what neighborhood we live in, where we socialize—it all sends a message about our worth and prestige, usually based on our economic power. We buy a rung on the ladder as often as we “earn” it.

These signals were conveyed in Jesus’ time by the seating at a meal. And the seating as arranged by the host was not just a signal but a tool. If you hosted a dinner and wanted an advantageous marriage match with a certain young man for your daughter, you could seat her father at a higher place at the table than he usually would have. If a competitor in business shorted you in a deal, you could seat him lower at the table to communicate your displeasure. Seating at the table was currency, and it was the stage on which political and social relationships were played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place on the spectrum of honor and shame.

A similar display in our society with similar messages might be the public encounter with a grocery clerk at the check-out counter. When you pay with food stamps, people draw many conclusions about you. And when you pay with an exclusive, members-only platinum credit card, people draw other conclusions about you. You are labeled and judged and placed within a strict hierarchy based on that public encounter. That is how these dinner seating charts worked in Jesus’ time.

One of the most interesting parts of this gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating system is bogus and I want you to chuck the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on the assumption that we will work and live within this system. Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus leaves the status system intact. That kind of seems like a let-down. You would think that he would get rid of it entirely. He seems to be promising us, “You’re not in the corner office now, but if you take the rattiest old cubicle purposely, one day you will be in the corner office.” At least that’s how we would interpret it. But what if there’s another way to think about it?

Let’s think for a moment about what it feels like to jockey for position as we do so often at work and socially and at church. The endless competition. The unspoken cues and subtle put-downs. The unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower rung. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? When we get caught up in these games of who’s getting promoted or who’s chairing the new church committee or who’s got a new car in the driveway—we are disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality.

Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” What if he’s referring to the soul-sucking exhaustion of the rat race? He’s telling us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to put ourselves above others, we will find ourselves with many shiny things and diplomas and titles, but cold and empty hearts. Exalting ourselves drives us to new lows of integrity and new poverty of happiness.

Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” What if the exaltation Jesus promises is not the corner office? What if it’s not the most Facebook likes? What if it’s not letters after our names or the senior warden’s role or a clergy collar around our neck? What if the exaltation Jesus promises is liberation from the whole status system?

If we decide we’re not going to play the game anymore, we start to make different choices. We stop searching for a leg up at work and look for a chance to lend a hand. We stop thinking we’re too important to set out chairs or wash dishes at church and instead show up early or stay late to do humble tasks. We keep our cars and our clothes and our phones an extra year, thinking of those around the world who make do with so much less than what we’re blessed with, no longer needing to display the latest and the flashiest.

Those choices begin as a spiritual discipline. It goes against our nature that drives us to seek comfort and status and power. But what begins as a discipline—choosing over and over to humble ourselves as Jesus asks us—starts to transform us. Suddenly, that craving to be the best, to have the most, to win at everything, starts to ebb and die away. This is the exaltation Jesus promises the humble. And if we keep working at it, small choice by small choice, the seed of peace that was planted by hard-earned discipline starts to flower.

“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When we are still trapped in the status system, we might assume that Jesus means that at the Great Dinner Table in the Sky, the humble will finally, finally get to have the choice seats at the head of the table. They’ll have an eternal corner office, a never outdated smartphone, and an infinity sign where their Facebook like number used to be. But that would not be heaven. It would be the same prison we lived in on earth.

We read in the Letter to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The only way out of the chains of the status system is to follow Jesus in his example of downward mobility. We must of course avoid the trap of ostentatiously taking on humble tasks and refusing honor loudly—that’s simply climbing a rung on the ladder of martyrdom and noble morality. It’s the same prison.

We can’t free ourselves from the status system. Jesus points that out by assuming that there will always be a table and there will always be fighting for higher positions at the table. Where we have a choice is where we choose to sit. And if we ask Jesus to be with us and help us to take the lower seat, help us to quit playing the game, help us to abandon the quest for success and money and power, he will exalt us to freedom from the need for status at all.

We won’t need to make a big show of it. We will know our true worth. We will know deep in our bones that our worth is not determined by where we sit, but by whom we are loved. And we are loved by Jesus. Amen.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.  

Download the sermon for Proper 17(C).

Gestures Made of Love, Lent 5(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8; Psalm 126

Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches. We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world. Someone has to make sure the budget balances.

This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.

We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas. And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behavior as individuals and communities.

But Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel. He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.

What makes Judas even more blameworthy – and even more of a warning to us – is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification. “We could have used that money to serve the poor!” He laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness. Have you ever seen this happen at church? Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places them in a position to score points on someone else. “I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.

Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing. In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action. That’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to take! All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the pledge campaign launched or the nave vacuumed or the food pantry stocked.

Or will they? Why does Jesus value Mary’s extravagant and loving but essentially useless gesture so much? Because the things that inspire us to greatness are often exactly that: useless gestures. Here’s an example of that phenomenon.

In June of 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich was a successful composer and the head of the Leningrad Conservatory’s piano department. He and millions of others were suddenly uprooted by the surprise bombardment of Leningrad by German forces, breaking the non-aggression pact Hitler had signed with Russia and beginning a siege that would last almost two and a half years. Although Shostakovich was evacuated, his heart remained with his besieged city, and he began writing what would become the defining work of his career. His massive Seventh Symphony began to take shape, music that told the story of war and sacrifice and heroism, inspired by and dedicated to Leningrad.

The siege wore on through the terrible winter of 1941. Once the starving residents had eaten all the dogs, cats, and rats in the city, they moved on to leather handbags and suitcases. By January 1942, they were subsisting on wallpaper paste and sawdust. Thousands of frozen, starved bodies littered the streets every day, and the survivors, barely clinging to life, soon no longer had the physical strength to clear the corpses away. The death toll climbed to 1.2 million.

In February, Shostakovich finished the symphony, and it premiered to worldwide acclaim in Moscow, London, and New York. But Shostakovich knew that the true premiere had not happened yet. The Leningrad Symphony, to truly come to life, had to be played in Leningrad.

The sheet music was smuggled into the city across German lines. Leningrad’s premiere orchestra, the Philharmonic, had been evacuated before the siege closed in, and the leftover Radiokom orchestra was all that remained. Of their ranks, 70 had frozen or starved to death in the siege, and only 20 were left alive. And yet, rehearsals began.

The musicians were utterly physically debilitated. They barely had the strength to lift their instruments, and rehearsals, limited to 15 minute intervals, were frequently punctuated by orchestra members fainting from hunger or cold. In fact, they never had the physical strength to play the entire symphony through at once until the actual performance.

In one incredible episode, a percussionist was reported dead, and the conductor, who needed him desperately for the symphony, went to the morgue to check. He saw movement in one stack of corpses, and it was his percussionist, still alive but too weak to protest being carted off with the dead. The conductor rescued him and he went on to play in the performance.

On August 9, 1942, the cobbled together starving orchestra in Leningrad performed the entire Symphony Number 7 for their audience of emaciated but defiant fellow citizens in an epic triumph of the human spirit. This was the exact date Hitler had boasted he would have a victory dinner in the Hotel Astoria to celebrate conquering Leningrad.

The symphony played by the starving orchestra – this is essentially a useless gesture. It did not shorten the siege or provide any food or help defeat the Nazi forces. In fact, three musicians in the orchestra died during the rehearsal period, their lives undoubtedly shortened by having exerted themselves physically to play.

But this useless gesture helped a city beaten down almost to death hold on long enough to be liberated. And we have to wonder if Mary’s useless gesture in our gospel story today functioned in the same way. This was Jesus’ farewell dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He knew he was going to his death, and he knew it would not be an easy death.

Mary would soon face the grief of losing her beloved teacher and friend to an unjust, violent execution. They both had ordeals before them that were on par with or even exceeded what the besieged citizens of Leningrad underwent.

All of us, while perhaps not driven to the extremes that Jesus, Mary, and the Leningraders were, have faced times in our lives where our bodies, minds, and spirits are pushed far beyond what we think we can endure. Sitting by the bedside of a loved one as she slowly succumbs to cancer. Bearing the pain of a spouse with dementia no longer recognizing us. The moment when we hear that our child has been in a terrible car accident. Battling through the pain of a chronic illness or debilitating injury that renders our own bodies deaf to our commands and consumed with pain. These moments when comfort and reason and relief seem like bizarre and foreign concepts happen to all of us. And what gets us through those moments? Is it the moral pontification of Judas, the building up of our virtuous self-image through studiously practical good works?

No. What helps us survive is the useless gesture, the impractical moment, the unfiltered communication of love and joy and hope that we remember with photographic clarity – the first time our baby smiled at us, the look on our spouse’s face when we exchanged our vows, the warm arms of a parent or grandparent around us as a child. These small moments of devotion between people who love each other – these useless gestures – they are what sustain our courage when the chips are down, and that is what we see between Jesus and Mary in the gospel.

Because even the great inspiring moments of life, like the Leningrad performance of the 7th Symphony, are made up of a thousand small actions. The moment that inspired a city to triumph over fascism was built by one violinist raising his violin to his shoulder and mentally begging his trembling fingers to find the notes, by one trumpeter fighting through the lightheadedness that swamped him every time he drew breath deep enough to play, by one percussionist beating out the rhythm that echoed his own heartbeat that everyone else thought was extinguished.

These are gestures made of love. They are the hearts and spirits of musicians giving the feeble strength of their bodies for their city. And as they gave themselves to create the music, in their minds they didn’t see a vast metropolis. They saw the faces of their children, their parents, their wives and husbands.

When Jesus surrendered himself to the authorities, he did not see the broad sweep of the cosmos he was about to die to save. He saw your face.

So ask yourself: have you made an impractical gesture of love today? Have you done something useless that has no other value than to give of yourself to another? Search for that chance to make that useless gesture of love, because somewhere down the road, it may save someone’s life.

Download the sermon for Lent 5C. 

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.  

They are resurrected in our hearts, All Saints’ Day, Year B – 2015

[RCL] Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 48; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

All Saints’ Day is one of the most underrated church holidays of the year. It is overshadowed by its more glamorous cousins, All Hallow’s Eve and Thanksgiving, similar to how Holy Saturday gets lost in Holy Week. But All Saints’ Day can bring us a unique blessing just as Holy Saturday does because they are days that are about how some of the darker parts of human experience can be washed in holiness when they are brought before God.

All Saints’ Day is so important because it is the one church holiday set aside during the year to tend to our grief. We experience grief on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but that grief is for the suffering and death of Christ and the grand theological ideas that accompany them. All Saints Day is for us, for remembering the people we loved, who were important to us, who made an impact on our lives and then died and left us behind.

Grief is one of life’s most powerful human experiences, and grief is often very lonely. Many of us have awakened on the morning after the death of a loved one and simply marveled at how the sun can rise another day and the Earth can continue to turn after our world has been abruptly destroyed. We are grateful for all the concern friends and colleagues show us, but find it so strange to realize that while they truly felt sorry for us during the time they were in conversation with us or the moment they kindly took to send us a card or email, this event that turned our world upside down really meant very little to them.

We’re not angry at them. Of course no one would love or care for or agonize over our departed loved one the way our own family would, but it is just so surreal to realize that after someone says something kind to us about it, that person will go right back to thinking about what to put on the dinner table or whether to go to the movies that weekend. It is a realization that all of us have at some time or another that our own personal battles and tragedies and defeats really matter very little in the big picture of the world.

They matter very little 364 days a year in 99.9% of the places on this Earth. But our grief does matter on this day, in this place. On All Saints’ Day, in God’s Holy Church, the losses that we have borne over the years come front and center and are named for all to hear, on holy ground. On All Saints Day, our grief is no longer lonely and isolating, but we gather in this sanctuary and let our grief bind us together in a new and powerful way.

All Saints’ Day is an important ministry to us in our losses because it helps us reenter that place of mourning in a rhythm, year after year after year each November. As the green and life of the summer die and go to their winter rest around us, so we bring up the pain of loss on purpose in this rhythm, year after year. And each year that we revisit the loss, the pain softens and loses a little sharpness, begins to go to its own winter rest. Every time we name our loved ones among the saints, we honor not only their lives but our own long battle with memories both painful and joyful.

And it is so important to honor their memories. Most of our departed loved ones had a funeral to commemorate them. But the funeral happens right after the loss and often our emotions are completely chaotic, not to mention the practical circumstances we are trying to manage. If you have lost someone close to you, either due to sudden accident or long illness, you probably remember the days in the immediate aftermath as a haze of confusion. There are hundreds of details to attend to—notifying friends, organizing a service, pulling together money for a casket and burial plot, thinking about wills and estates, the volatility of family brought together in a pressure cooker of emotion. Frankly it is often not a time to treasure the memory of the departed. Many grieving families float through the funeral in a sort of disconnected shock.

This is where All Saints’ Day comes to our aid once again. There is no chaos, there are no arrangements to be made, no being singled out to sit at the front of the church in a black suit or dress, no finding directions to the cemetery. We are all in this together, and the ones we are remembering are long settled in their resting places. It’s the chance to be private about our grief, taking out our memories in the quiet of our hearts and turning them over one by one, taking our time to remember and reflect. But we all enter that sheltered and quiet heartspace of our own at the same time, in the same place. As you bring up the faces of your dearest departed before your mind’s eye, cherishing the chance to do so peacefully and uninterrupted, your neighbor is doing the same. We enter the valley of the shadow of death together, and walk through it in solidarity with one another.

There is someone else who is in solidarity with us in our grief, and that is Jesus. In our gospel today, we see him in the exact situation we have faced in our own lives—the inevitable but painful death of a loved one. Lazarus had been sick, they all knew there was a possibility he might die. But even Jesus can’t quite believe it at first. He doesn’t want to believe it, and asks if he’s been buried, hoping maybe the message has gotten twisted along the way and Lazarus is still just sick. “He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus sees so much pain in his lifetime, and he bears it so bravely. He sees the suffering of his people crushed under the imperial rule of Rome, and he doesn’t cry. He sees five thousand hungry and poor on a hillside needing him to feed them, and he doesn’t cry. He sees people tormented by demons, bleeding or paralyzed or diseased for years, and he doesn’t cry. He continues his ministry and cares for them.

But here, at last, he breaks, and for the simple, everyday loss of a simple, everyday beloved friend. Nothing grand or dramatic. One of his best friends gets sick and dies, and Jesus weeps. And so perhaps on this day of letting our heartaches step out into the open on holy ground, we can be in solidarity with Jesus as much as he is with us. He always bears the burden for us. Maybe today we can say, “Jesus, we understand how you feel. We’re sorry you lost your friend. We love you. Come be with us for a while and we’ll all be in this together.”

Jesus brought his friend back, just as on the final day we will all be brought back to life by him to live with him and in him. And how did Jesus raise Lazarus up to new life? How did he bring him back from the dead? By calling his name. “Lazarus, come out!” Today, we’re doing the same thing. We’re calling out the names of the ones we loved who have passed on, and they answer. They are resurrected in our hearts, brought to life in this time and place. Whether on one side of the border between life and death or the other, we all want to be with our loved ones. As the communion of saints joins spirits across the divide today, we may realize that we are being called by name today as well, named and loved by the ones who have gone before us.

Download the Sermon for All Saints, Year B.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

A covenant worth our lives, 2 Lent (B) – 2015

March 1, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

We human beings love our rules. The security that comes from knowing how things should be done comforts us in our chaotic world. God understands this about us, and so God comes to us in terms of covenant. In our lesson from Genesis, God provides a clear agreement that Abraham can refer to and rely on to know that God will come through on God’s promises. God willingly limits Godself out of love, knowing that making this clear and concrete covenant, promising to be our God forever and make our descendants fruitful, will bring us comfort and security.

Where we get into trouble is in thinking that our ideas about rules and regulations should govern God. Once we understand that God will always be faithful to us and care for us, we start to think we know better than God who God should be and how God should act. Consider Peter’s action in our gospel story today. At first, his boldness is shocking – how did he have the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him? But when we examine our hearts, we might realize that we, too, have sometimes wanted to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

Peter acts this way because he doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. How often have we felt that way ourselves? How often have we wanted to explain the realities of a harsh world to a Jesus who seems naïve and unrealistic in his expectations of us? What do you mean, sell everything we have and give it to the poor to follow you, Jesus? How can you expect us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? It’s simply not realistic to “give to everyone who asks of you.”

The truth is that our human instinct is to remake Christ in our own image, rather than letting ourselves be transformed into Christ’s image. We want to dictate the terms of the covenant, but Jesus makes it clear that that impulse is from the darkness within us, and he will name it and call us out on it. Just a few short verses ago, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Peter got it right! He knew the truth about Jesus and was not afraid to proclaim it. And yet barely a moment later, he has made such a mistake that Jesus is saying that Satan is acting through him.

What we can learn from this is the truth that even after – perhaps especially after – our mountaintop experiences of revelation, we still have so very much to learn. Even as we gain more and more knowledge of Jesus and enter deeper and deeper into relationship with him, the mystery of his full nature grows at the same pace. Just because we know him doesn’t mean we get to tell him what to do, a lesson that Peter learned in this moment and that we will learn over and over again.

This gospel lesson is full of truths that are hard to hear. Peter’s expectations are dashed by what Jesus says. He and the other disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power – it was very natural for them to assume that Jesus would bring about the fullness of God’s covenant promises by overthrowing Rome and restoring the throne of Israel. Now Jesus tells them that he knows he will be defeated, arrested and killed – and he fully intends to let it happen.

This is a bitter, painful discovery for Peter and the others. It feels like a betrayal. “Jesus, you have the power of almighty God at your disposal. Rather than rescuing us from oppression, you’re going to give in and give up and let the Romans win again?”

This “gospel” Good News is the worst news imaginable.

What Peter doesn’t understand in this moment is that rather than betraying God’s covenant with Israel, Jesus is simultaneously fulfilling it and rewriting it. The original covenant promise to Abraham in our lesson from Genesis was for many fruitful descendants, all of whom would be loved and protected by God. It was a covenant promising a future of life. Jesus is inviting us to a covenant of life also – but it is by following a very different path than we would expect. Jesus promises life to us if we have the courage to face death. Jesus promises that if we give our lives wholeheartedly to him and thereby to serving our neighbors, we will have rich and abundant life flowing through us, welling up to eternal life.

It is an enticing invitation – but a scary one. To know that Jesus is entering death willingly and expects us to do the same would give anyone pause. And while we know that one day we will all confront literal, physical death, there are many other deaths awaiting us. We will face the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable ideas about what God is calling us to do and be, perhaps the death of our financial security and the death of our ambition and slavery to success. The covenant to which we are invited has very high stakes, and the urge to take Jesus aside and rebuke him as Peter did starts to make more and more sense.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? It seems as farfetched to imagine ourselves brave enough to follow Jesus into death, to lose our lives to save them, as he says, as it did for Abraham and Sarah to have children in their old age. This covenant to which we are invited, this covenant that takes this strange and frightening path of cross-carrying and death, is only possible under one condition. We cannot make it on hard work or determination or power or strength.

Our lesson from Romans tells us what we need to enter into this covenant:

“It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed. … Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.’ … He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead. … No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Faith is the only bridge through death on the cross to the new life of resurrection with Jesus. But it is not a fairytale faith that closes its eyes and hopes for the best, blindly wishing for a happy ending. It is a faith that takes stock of the very real cost of discipleship to which Jesus calls us, the price up to and including our very lives, and deems it a worthy gift to the Christ who withheld nothing from us.

Some of us, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, may pay that cost of discipleship with their literal, physical lives. But most of us will not go out in a blaze of martyred glory. Most of us will carry the cross one small step at a time, one spiritual discipline at a time, one act of generosity or sacrifice or love at a time.

However we carry the cross, the giving of our lives willingly to follow Jesus will manifest in one perhaps unexpected cost: the risk of being changed. When Abram and Sarai committed to God’s covenant with them, they were changed at such a fundamental level that they could no longer be known by their former names. The man and woman who were God’s covenant partners had to be known as Abraham and Sarah, names that echoed their former selves but were profoundly transformed, just like their lives and their souls.

This is the risk we take when we sign on to Jesus’ covenant of life, the journey with and through the cross and its transforming power, the road through death to resurrection. We will emerge on the other side with the building blocks of our souls familiar to us, but the temple of grace into which they have been built strange and new and glorious. We can finally let go of our urge to rebuke Jesus, to remake him to be like we think he should be, like ourselves, because we know through faith that he will remake us to be like him.

That’s a covenant promise worth our very lives.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

The power to bind or loose, 13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A) – 2014

September 7, 2014

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40); Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover over all disagreements with niceness. Jesus in his teaching in our gospel lesson today seems to proceed on the baseline assumption that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion.

As we all know, honesty and compassion are all too rarely the watchwords of our church conflicts. Many times anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or openly hostile entrenched positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church permanently. The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ hemorrhaging members and vitality. There must be another way.

Jesus provides us another way in our gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. We are to take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.

If that conversation does not yield fruit, we create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.

Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Hooray!

But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can then apply to our fellow church members?

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s showboating pride and self-satisfaction versus the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector would then be to realize that beneath the outer façade of combativeness, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realize that we ourselves might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?

Zaccheus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and filthy rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. How then can we treat a fellow church member crosswise with us like Jesus treats Zaccheus? We can invite this member to share her gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zaccheus. And most importantly, we can share table fellowship together, in the parish hall, at the altar, in one another’s homes.

That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.

What about gentiles? If we are to treat church members with whom we disagree as gentiles, how does Jesus teach us by example to behave toward them?

One of Jesus’ most famous encounters with a gentile was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. Her clever and persistent response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften and gentle and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.

We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but over a distance. For the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or our neighbors to leave the church, this story proves that healing can occur over distance, a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is, like Jesus, recognizing the faith of the gentile. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and the faith of those from who we are estranged. It might be a path to healing we never expected.

And so we see that this gospel lesson, in fact, does not give us license to get rid of people we don’t like, to ostracize troublemakers and let silence and distance be the arbiters of church conflict. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.

All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast this question of the theology of sexuality or that knock-down drag-out over the carpet color in the nave. We have the power to bind and to loose.

With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.

Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Walk through Holy Week with Jesus, Palm Sunday (A) – 2014

April 13, 2014

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment. To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be. This is the point of no return for Jesus. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous. Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves. The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified. The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is. While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation. Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment our souls are torn in two. At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

New life stirring in an old stump, 2 Advent (A) – 2013

December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.

Most people view this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.

Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

Now, in the season of Advent, is when we see the little tiny shoot begin to sprout. It is so fragile! One wrong move and it could die. Too much water, too little water, the wrong amount of sunlight or wind, even a tiny bug could come along and destroy it, and it is totally defenseless.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch growing out of stump is going to last long against any enemies. But that is also part of reorienting our mindset during Advent. The angel says to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” That is what lies behind the courage to let Jesus be born as a helpless baby, the little shoot out of the stump that could be cut down at any moment: The knowledge that we have entered a new era of peace. God’s kingdom has arrived. Isaiah paints a picture of what that kingdom is like in our lesson today: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Peace and wholeness, the Kingdom of God, have arrived. We are in a safe place. It is safe to be vulnerable, to reach out, to stretch out and grow. The interesting thing about branches on trees is that they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward, fragile but brave.

What are the edges of your life that need your attention to really start growing? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? We must internalize the message of the angels of peace, we must hear and respond to the command “Be not afraid” in order to let that new growth within ourselves have half a fighting chance.

It feels strange to be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches when we’ve just now really settled down into winter. But that is an important sign as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves and our neighbors in the cold, forgotten, frosty and inhospitable places as well.

And the storms that we experience are important also to our new growth. Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger. Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your life? That they might be as pivotal to your growth as the good days of sunshine?

Because John the Baptist does descend like a furious storm in our gospel today. He arrives with locusts and vipers and axes and fire. How does his warlike message of the wrath to come square with the promised peace of the wolf lying down with the lamb?

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Take a step back and consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” He is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up in our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year, and it is time to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What does that mean? All the old condemnations of ourselves and others are to be chopped down and thrown away, making room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is not preaching a message of condemnation, but rather one of liberation, of freedom from the thick, choking overgrowth of sin that has trapped us in misery and hopelessness.

And for all the ferocious strength of his message, which we must take seriously to heart, what action does John the Baptist take? From what act does he take his name? Baptizing. Even as he pours down the fire of his words, he also pours out the gentle stream of water on the heads of the inquirers and seekers at the River Jordan, blessing them with the cleansing stream that foretells the Living Water. He waters the potential of the believers, that a new shoot of life might have the chance to blossom and grow.

So too is the season of Advent our own opportunity to test the edge of the waters of Jordan, gathering our courage to let the Holy Spirit of baptism – with the fierce fire that burns away the brambles of sin and the gentle water that nurtures the fragile growth of new life – once again cleanse our souls as we prepare for the Christ child.

In the season of Advent, the season of expectation and possibility, the spirit of the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow up, a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

We can make ourselves that dwelling place, made glorious and new by Christ’s presence. Let us dedicate ourselves to hosting the coming Christ within us, and we will find ourselves manifesting grace in completely new ways that we never expected, newborn shoots of life growing up to bear good fruit.

Let’s be like Jesus, and branch out.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.