Love one another, 6 Easter (B) – 2015

May 10, 2015

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

The 15th chapter of John’s gospel is filled with love. These few verses appointed for today form the first part of the three dimensions of a Christian’s life, and all three are centered in love. It’s a remarkable section in a profound and moving chapter. The word “love,” both as noun and verb, is repeated nine times in only eight verses. There is no way one can escape the theme of this chapter.

Something both beautiful and heartbreaking unfolds here. Christ lays his heart bare to his friends and disciples. “I have chosen you,” he tells them, “you didn’t choose me,” and he repeats, “I have loved you.”

But he makes it clear that this relationship is not just two-sided. The source of all this love is God the Father. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” These are powerful words, and when one truly hears them, they can force the soul to kneel before her maker.

And then Jesus uses that enduring metaphor: abide in my love. Stay, remain within it, live in my love. The verb, meno in Greek, “abide” in English, has a continuing connotation. This is not a short-lived experience; this is for life. “Abide in my love.”

Such a powerful state of being does not happen in isolation, or simply as an act of the will. It is very closely related with a requirement that Jesus makes into a condition for love. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”

And here’s the rub. Without keeping God’s commandments, we cannot have love and we cannot remain in this love. Keeping God’s commandments presupposes obedience, and this is something our culture rejects. Obedience is not what Americans admire. Obedience is for the weak, not the strong. Knowing how we react to obedience, Jesus keeps referring to himself. His life was one of total obedience to the Father. And no one who knows the story can ever call Jesus weak.

Jesus obeyed. He kept in constant connection with his father through prayer, through loving communion. Even when he was abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, he remained in obedience to the will of the Father. The cup was not taken away; it was drunk to the bitter dregs. And still he obeyed, because he knew that, despite everything, the Father loved him.

What is the commandment that we must obey in order to abide in the love of Christ? Jesus now directs us from himself and through himself to others: to love one another. All the ritual and sacrifices of animals and strict adherence to the minutia of the Law are as nothing; what matters is how we treat one another. The writer of the First Epistle of John testifies to this also: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” It is circular.

Obedience to God’s commandments bears fruit. The first fruit of abiding in love is that we have joy. The joy of knowing we are loved by God in Christ – not some easily earned emotion, but a state of being. Joy comes from the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

“And I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” Jesus tells his disciples. A few year later, Paul will list the fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. These are the conclusions of a man who had suffered immeasurably because of his love for Christ. And yet because he knew that he was one with Christ, abiding in his love, the fruits that resulted are these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Such attributes are not earned, they are not taught; they spring from abiding in Christ’s love – otherwise, a man who had suffered so unjustly would have been filled with bitterness. But Paul was not.

The verses we are studying today, focused as they are on love and obedience to God’s commandments are not meant only for the disciples, for those who were Jesus’ friends. They are meant for us also. We have not been left out in the cold. The great Epiphany came to Peter during his visit to the gentiles of Caesarea, in the house of Cornelius. After Peter preached a sermon on the meaning of the Good News, the Holy Spirit visited all those who were present, not just the Jews but also the gentiles. They were astounded, the writer tells us, that the Holy Spirit descended on them also.

And Peter had the good sense to realize that the love of Christ is for all. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” he asked himself. Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, has matured tremendously and has learned to obey. In this instance, in the house of Cornelius, he obeyed the Holy Spirit, understood about the all-embracing love of Christ, and he, in turn, embraced the others, the gentiles. The early Christians were known for loving one another. We are called to do the same.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

Christian love, 5 Easter (B) – 2015

May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The word on the street is that love is easy. We just do it. We talk about chemistry, and indeed, the scientists tell us that chemistry has something to do with physical attraction. However, we know that love goes further than physical attraction. We love our parents and our children. We love our friends. There’s a whole neglected tradition of love between friends that has nothing to do with physical attraction. If we think about it, physical attraction does not necessarily have anything to do with love.

Tomorrow is the feast of Monnica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo, the great scholar, writer, preacher. We know from Augustine’s autobiography what a pivotal role she played in his path to Christianity. Augustine must have driven his mother to distraction as he went off on tangents, had a liaison with a woman out of wedlock who bore him a son, and then, just as he set off for North Africa to begin his career as a bishop, she died. The love she had for her son was a suffering love. And therein lies our problem. Love for us is all bound up with bliss and happiness. The very idea that love includes suffering seems repugnant. Surely if suffering intrudes on love, something is wrong. Embracing suffering seems deviant: a form of masochism. Yes, love may bring us suffering, but that means, we think, that something tragic has occurred.

To our minds, loving and liking are allies. We don’t tend to like someone whose behavior offends us, or at least if that person persists in doing things that annoy us. In short, love, we think, has something to do with affinity.

Many parishes pride themselves on being very loving. When the parish is in search, it assures prospective rectors that everyone loves everyone. Just try being someone who has braved coming through those red doors, found a vacant pew, tried to negotiate the liturgy and then found his or her way to coffee hour. The visitor then sees love in action. Groups of people form impenetrable circles. Each group is made up of people long accepted in the circle, bound by an affinity made up of shared backgrounds, longevity, perhaps political beliefs and shared interests. Even if the visitor manages to gain entrance, the subjects discussed involve an element of shared experience foreign to the visitor. Love turns out to mean an easy acceptance of people we know well.

In today’s lessons we meet an uncomfortably different form of love. The lesson from Acts recounts a meeting between Philip, the Jewish convert, a deacon, with the non-Jewish Ethiopian court official. Immediately, the two men are divided by race, religion and social class. Yet Philip is instructed “by the Spirit” to approach the Ethiopian. The Eunuch is reading Isaiah, one of the passages the new Christians identified as prophecy about Jesus:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Philip has the difficult task of explaining that the crucifixion, where Jesus was killed like an animal sacrifice, was the most sublime offering of love. How on earth was he going to do that?

To begin with, Philip has to remember that the love he has for God, is a love that acknowledges that God loves him so much that his own follies, mistakes, unkindnesses and cruelty don’t stop God piercing through into the depth of who Philip really is. Philip knows that, as the writer of the First Epistle John will write later, loving God and being loved by God demands that we love others. Philip also knows that the only hope he has to get through the barrier of differentness is to claim what happened to him when he was baptized. In baptism he was grafted into Jesus, the true vine. Jesus’ love alone enables Philip to love the Ethiopian enough to share what he has come to know, what has enabled him to become a disciple. And now that loving discipleship is going to bear fruit as he leads the Ethiopian to a pool and there to be baptized, adopted, grafted, welcomed into the Kingdom. The Queen of Ethiopia’s servant is to become the servant of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We were once given that priceless gift when those who loved us brought us to baptism. Did they also know that we were being invited into living suffering, costly love? Do we accept that we are being drawn toward the sacrifice of true love? In our natural selves, we run from relationships that turn into hurt for us. We may even physically recoil from such pain, the opposite of physical attraction. That is why we hold our hands out today for Bread and Wine, for Christ Himself. He alone can give us the strength to overcome that which separates us from that person who needs to be baptized, or needs to revisit his or her baptism, that person whose lifestyle, habits, opinions are so different from our own offends us, make us want to walk away. Believe it or not, by being Christians we accept that our vocation in life is to bear fruit – the fruit of love – and to make disciples.

As we read in today’s epistle:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Wool and mutton, 4 Easter (B) – 2015

April 26, 2015

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and there are always sheep everywhere you look. This year they’re especially thick – we hear two of the most familiar and cherished portions of scripture – the 23rd Psalm and the section from John’s gospel where Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.”

Over the centuries, this image of Jesus as the good shepherd and his followers as sheep has been, for whatever reasons, terribly appealing. The amount of stained glass, painting, music and poetry that it has inspired is truly staggering, and the number of sermons, articles, hymns, retreats and meditations devoted to it is doubtless vast beyond measure. So, it’s with great trepidation that any preacher wanders into this particular pasture and tackles these particular critters. You need to watch where you step.

Still, in all the words read and heard on the subject of the Good Shepherd and his sheep, there is one thing about all this that no ones talks about. It has to do with the simple question of “Why in the world do shepherds have sheep in the first place?”

Ever thought about that?

Shepherds probably keep sheep for pretty much the same reasons that ranchers keep cows, farmers keep cotton, and the Colonel keeps chickens.

Being a shepherd and taking care of sheep, and being a sheep and having a shepherd, are, sooner or later, going to have something to do with wool and with mutton. There’s just no avoiding it. And this little reality never shows up in the stained-glass windows or in the cutesy paraphrases of the 23rd Psalm on chintzy greeting cards. But keep these two things in mind: wool and mutton.

In a sense, this is rather encouraging. After all, one of the problems with this shepherd-and-sheep business – as popular as it is – is that sheep have a reputation as being passive, stupid, unimaginative, docile and dull. So if we are the sheep of our Lord’s pasture, does that then mean we are supposed to be like sheep: just hanging around, occasionally getting lost, not doing much, looking cute and being taken care of because there is absolutely no way we could survive for 15 minutes on our own? Is the whole point of the story that we aren’t worth very much, and that we aren’t very capable?

No. Remember, shepherds don’t generally keep sheep as pets – they aren’t all that much fun to have around. Instead, there are reasons for the whole enterprise, and expectations for all concerned. The sheep are useful, they are important, indeed they are necessary. If the sheep don’t produce, the shepherd is flat out of business. Which brings us back to wool and mutton. This is the piece of the Good Shepherd business that is about us; it’s about our part of what’s going on with this familiar and comfortable talk about green pastures and still waters. The Lord expects things of us, and if we don’t come through, well, there are no contingency plans.

We have to be careful here, and keep things straight. The point is not that there’s some fine print on Jesus’ promise to be the Good Shepherd, or that he’s only a good shepherd for the most useful of the sheep. Jesus isn’t going to leave us to the wolves or turn us into dog food – or whatever it is you do with worthless sheep – if we don’t produce. The Lord cares for us and has blessed us. He has laid down his life for us. That sacrifice, that love, that continued care, these are simply gifts. They are given without condition and without exception. We don’t try to do stuff in the hope that God will be nicer to us or love us more. There is no “more.”

Nonetheless, there are expectations – there is the business of wool and mutton. The care that the Lord offers us is intended to lead to something, something real and substantial.

We are to produce, to give back, from who we are – from what we can do, from what our situation in life is, from our various skills, abilities, resources and gifts.

We don’t grow wool, that’s not of our nature. But it is of our nature to worship and to serve; to reach out and to share; to study and to pray; to increase in holiness and to tell the truth; to seek for justice and to be willing to sacrifice. It is of our nature to choose to grow, in a disciplined and steady way, into the fullness of the stature of the person of Christ – and to do this in community, and with integrity. This is expected of us. Now, this isn’t about church work – Sunday morning and committee stuff – although that can be part of it. Instead, this is about the work of the church, which is much larger and a whole lot more interesting.

And that costs, it can cost a lot. Once more, remember the wool and the mutton.

At the same time, don’t forget that this also means that each and every one of the sheep has purpose and value and worth, and that each is important. Each and every one of us can contribute, and is called to contribute, in one way or another, to the mission of the church. You can’t be too young or too old or too new or too sick or too ordinary or too uneducated, or too ornery, or too busy, or too anything to avoid the reality of wool and mutton.

We are needed; and without us, without any single one of us, the mission and work of the Lord and his church are impoverished. We matter, and things are expected of us. We aren’t pets, kept for our owner’s amusement. We are valuable assets.

One of the many truths of the biblical story that our culture is eager to forget is that there is no such thing as being chosen for privilege. We are not chosen, picked out, protected by our Good Shepherd for the sake of our own comfort, convenience, personal needs or ease of life. Nobody in the Bible is chosen for this sort of stuff. Instead, God’s care and protection are always given that we might be better equipped for service. It always means that something special, something more, is expected.To be sure, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he pays the price, and protects us and cares for us. That’s the way it is. But there is more to it than this. We are valuable, and important; and we have an essential role to play in all of this. There is the business of wool, and of mutton.

 

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

Jesus is hungry, 3 Easter (B) – 2015

April 19, 2015

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So there is Jesus standing among his closest friends, the disciples. That is meant to represent us. He says, “Shalom!” Loosely translated, that comes across as, “Peace be with you.” This is unfortunately an inadequate attempt to put shalom into English.

Shalom means much more than “peace.” Or “peace” means much more than what we think it means. Since shalom means to convey that all is well with the world, all is just, all is fair, all is the way God means it to be, it ultimately means something more like, “What are you doing to make the world look more like God’s world than Caesar’s world?” With “Caesar” standing in for whatever the principalities and powers look like in a given era – empires, rulers, governments, multi-national corporations, markets, organized religion and the like.

Appropriately the disciples are startled – the dead one is on the loose. And terrified – because, holy moly, here he is! And he still has shalom on his mind. Always has, always will, always does.

Jesus then asks the disciples, “Why are you frightened?”

Could it be because the last time we saw you, you were dead, hanging on a Roman cross, soldiers all around, angry people all around, and, well, as far as we knew, dead is dead?

Well, he seems to say, that is true enough. Here, look at the wounds – see my hands, see my feet.

So, upon examining his hands and feet, hands and feet that have had nails – spikes, really – driven through them, the disciples, we, are filled with joy tinged with disbelief. They still think it may be a ghost. But nevertheless, joy.

Then the real Jesus steps forward. “Have you anything to eat?” Didn’t he always say you have to come to God’s Kingdom like a child? And how many times a day do children look at their parents and say, “What’s to eat?”

Apparently, as it is in real life, so it is in the resurrection of the dead: We need something to eat, something to sustain us, something to nourish us. So does Jesus. He wants us to feed him.

So how are we to respond to his simple yet direct request? The disciples offer some broiled fish. There is evidence that in the early church, as it was with the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000, there likely were bread-and-fish Eucharists. There are even illustrations of such on the walls of early catacombs. There are still places in Europe, I have been told, where the “Eucharist” is still a foot-washing ritual devoid of bread and wine as the fourth evangelist, John, depicts “the Last Supper.” That is, things are not always as they seem.

Jesus is hungry. He wants something to eat. They give him fish. He eats the fish. But perhaps we need to pay attention to what happens next. He “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” – that is what was referred to as The Law and the Prophets: Hebrew Scripture.

This suggests that perhaps his hunger is not for fish, not for bread, not for wine. Jesus is still hungry post-resurrection. He was hungry before the resurrection as well. We would do well to consider the source of his hunger before we are so quick to offer him something to satisfy his hunger. An in-depth understanding of Torah and the Prophets is to be the starting place.

Jesus was vexed with his contemporary religionists. He felt that the application of Torah, application of the Law and the Prophets, had gone off in direction not of God’s liking. Instead of bringing God’s people, all people, together, the administration, the understanding, of God’s 638 rules, beginning with the First Ten, was being used to separate people more than bring them together.

This vexation made Jesus hungry – hungry for freedom, shalom and justice for all people – not some people, not most people, not lots of people. All people.

Had he not made it clear that the hungry were to be fed? The naked clothed? The prisoner visited? The sick made well? The stranger, the resident alien as the Bible calls them, welcomed? The thirsty given something to assuage their thirst? Had he not self-identified with all these people, including lepers, women, orphans, children, servants, gentiles and Jews?

In a church that is increasingly consumed with power struggles within and without; a church looking for the next great Public Relations scheme to attract people; a church consumed with creating dividing lines between correct and incorrect “belief”; a church consumed with parking within the lines, a church consumed with chastising nuns who are devoting “too much time” to issues of social justice; a church that in 1215 under Pope Innocent III decreed that all Jews should wear a yellow patch of cloth sewn to their coats; a church consumed with just about anything but Shalom. Is it too difficult to see that Jesus, who promises to be present in the bread and the wine, Jesus who promises that he is the stranger, he is the prisoner, he is the leper, he is the beggar on the street, he is the prostitute, sinner, the woman who is bleeding to death, the mother or father begging for their child’s life, and a tax collector; a Jesus who endlessly teaches about our relationship to the land, the earth, in countless agricultural stories, parables and analogies; a Jesus who challenges every sovereign temporal and religious power – is it too difficult to see that having been raised from being three days dead and gone and now returned and back with us for all eternity, that this Jesus whom we are to proclaim in all that we do and all that we say wants something more than a piece of broiled fish when he asks, “Have you anything to eat?”

“Repentance,” says Jesus, “and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed…to all nations, all persons, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Are we really witnesses to these things? These things Jesus is hungry for? Jesus, says Luke, is hungry. The Risen Lord, blessed be his Name, is hungry! What in the world are we prepared to offer him? What in the world are we willing to give to him? How shall our witness satisfy his hunger?

Is it possible that his “Shalom” is not a greeting at all? Is it rather a request? An order? Is he asking for Shalom? Are we prepared to give him this Shalom he speaks of and died for? Or, are we still satisfied to just offer him a piece of broiled fish? Jesus is hungry. He wants us to be hungry too. How we respond will determine if His hunger is satisfied. We know what it will take. We have these Great Fifty days of Easter to begin!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

What does it take to believe?, 2 Easter (B) – 2015

April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Last Sunday, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we proclaimed with joy and wonder: “He is risen!”

That was the theme for the day, that was the truth renewed and declared. The stone is rolled away! The Lord is alive!

And what we have is an empty tomb.

The women came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared for the body. Seeing heavenly messengers, they believed and ran to tell the men.

But when the women told their news to the disciples – what they had seen and learned at the tomb, that empty tomb – the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one gospel.

And so when we read the story of what happened next, when Jesus came into the house and stood among his disciples, we have to wonder what was going through their minds. After all, these were the same disciples who had refused to believe the women until they could see with their own eyes. And even running to the tomb to see what he could find, Peter did not go in: He stayed outside, seeing only the emptiness.

And then, as we read in the Gospel of John today:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them. … Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

They got it! They finally believed!

But not all. No, just as there were disbelievers at the tomb, there is a disbeliever in their midst in today’s story: Thomas. No sooner does one believe than another does not, and these back-and-forth tales persist throughout the Christian story.

“But Thomas … one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas was the holdout. There is no record of the other disciples’ response to this, but they could hardly claim the moral high ground. Looking back in John’s story only a few sentences, we read that Jesus showed them his hands and his side. It was only then that the disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

What is it about proof? Why do these disciples – the ones who were closest to Jesus, who walked with him, ate at table with him, listened to the wisdom of his preaching – require something more in order to believe? And how much is enough to tip the scale?

“Tip the scale”: That’s the image to hold in mind as we think about this.

Have you ever watched one of the many dog shows on television, a dog show that has tricks and trials? Sometimes dogs will have to run an obstacle course, and one of the obstacles will be a teeter totter sort of thing, where the dog will run up one side, and carefully balancing, carefully stepping past the middle point, will tip the board down on the other side. At this point, the dogs often seem not to walk, not even to run off the board, but to jump off, in their excitement.

Faith is much like that teeter totter. It’s a balancing act of running up one side of consideration to the tipping point, and having reached that dangerous ground, that area where you can stay safely balanced on your comfortable side, or you can even stand in the middle if you’re very, very careful – and then jumping, with all you’ve got, to the other side, where you might find the downside of the plank, or you might find only thin air.

This is a useful application of the expression “leap of faith,” because that’s exactly what it is. Most often, what we find when we get to that fulcrum, that tipping point, of faith, is only spiritual “thin air” on the other side. It’s much safer, we think, to stay on the uphill side where we have solid wood under our feet. It’s more uncertain, scarier even, to have to scramble to keep our footing and balance just like those dogs on the obstacle course, before deciding to jump!

The threshold of the empty tomb of Easter morning is a fulcrum, a tipping point, a place of decision. Imagine two people on a teeter totter, facing each other. What is in between them, in the middle, is the threshold of that tomb. The door. The entry or exit. What does each one see? A way in? A way out?

In his collection of essays “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis wrote:

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose that you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

Such is faith.

What is necessary for us to believe? We can all practice religion: That’s what we’re doing now, in acting out worship and remembering Christ in the Eucharist. That is the stuff of identifying ourselves as Episcopalian or Methodist or Baptist or any of a myriad of Christian labels and distinctions.

All of us who call ourselves Christian are not necessarily converted to faith. Tongue in cheek, we might claim that there is complete agreement in this church and every other church about whether to have wine or grape juice for communion, whether to have candles on the altar, or whether to have an altar at all. But those are the things of religion. And yet, so often those are the things that divide us, that get in the way of Christian believing and Christian community. But Jesus was not concerned so much with matters of religion as he was with matters of faith.

Think back on the stories of Jesus, his ministry, his interactions with people. Do you remember the stories of the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for eating food that was unwashed, for healing on the Sabbath, for sharing a meal and associating with those who were considered the less desirable people of society? And what was his response in every single case? Those are trappings, those are not the things that are important. Those are not the things of the Kingdom of God.

In the season of Easter, we tell stories not of religion, but of faith and believing. Of standing at the entrance to the tomb, and deciding whether to go in. Of being closed in the house with the disciples and greeting our Lord. Of the women, the only ones who believed without question or denial. Of Peter and the other disciples. Of Thomas, called “Doubting Thomas,” because he demanded to see and touch. Of Paul and Annanias.

May each of us this Easter season come to know the Risen Christ in a new way. May the event of Easter be a unifying experience, to bring together the Body of Christ, instead of breaking it again on the cross. May we celebrate our differences that will be honored in the gathering of Pentecost and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit at the end of this season. May we remember that it is Jesus Christ who unites us as Lord and Savior, so that we cling to our faith more firmly than we do to our religion.

And may we think about something in this Easter season: How will we put ourselves into the story?

What does it take for you to believe?

You stand at the entrance to the tomb. You have heard the testimony of the women. You know what the disciples know.

What is your story of faith? What is your response to the Easter news?

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Today is the day, Easter Day (B) – 2015

April 5, 2015

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Can you image that celebrating Easter might bring danger for most of us? The danger comes from our knowing in advance the outcome of the drama – that Jesus rose again. Knowing what is going to be said and sung this morning, we are in danger of not being shocked by this unimaginably joyous, unprecedented event.

If we are not careful, Easter can become just another one of those stories with a feel-good, happy ending. If we are not careful, we will cease to be slack-jawed. If we are not careful, the hair on the back of our necks will not stand up when we hear the almost unbelievable Good News.

This is so, because familiarity can bred, if not contempt, then at least a ho-hum, of-course-he-rose-on-the-third-day kind of attitude. If we succumb to this familiar thinking, Jesus’ death on the cross is hardly a life-changing gift, but rather a short pause in a celebration lined only with bunnies and baskets, colored eggs and family dinners.

Obviously, in the depth of our faith, we cannot afford to become so complacent. It is important that we understand Easter profoundly and appreciate its ultimate value; important that we remember that it follows and gives meaning to the weight of Good Friday and the pain that black day bears. The sadness and darkness of Good Friday discloses several things that should never be glossed over – lest Easter lose its goose-bump-producing, almost too-good-to-be-true character.

The women disciples were among the very few who stayed with Jesus until the end, waiting with him until he died. They knew he was dead, that it was no illusion. For them as well as for all his followers, Jesus’ crucifixion and death seemed at first a crushing, disillusioning end, without hope or redemption. For them, all was lost, all was dark. Despite the promises they wanted to cling to, it appeared that Jesus and his cause had been defeated. After all, he had suffered the humiliating shame and the discrediting reality of death by crucifixion. Maybe his opponents were right; his death showed him to be just a deluded messianic pretender.

Despite this apparent reality, the women stayed with him throughout this tragedy. The women stayed with him even after his death. Despite their despair, they went to his tomb early that morning. Yet what these broken-hearted, still-faithful women found when they arrived was that the body of Jesus was not there. So they became the first to experience the frightening, awesome discovery that sometime during the night he had risen.

At first, however, they did not know what to make of his absent body. Terror and amazement seized them, and they fled the tomb. These women became the first believers for whom it was not enough just to know that the tomb was empty. Because for all who are discerning, the empty tomb does not prove the meaning of the Resurrection. The women’s experience shows us what else is necessary.

It was facing Jesus’ death and continuing to stay true to him afterward that allowed them to discover the Resurrection. They found that he was alive to them in a way they could never have imagined, in a way that could never end. They discovered that what the world put to death, God raised high. This is the meaning of Easter: God’s love triumphs over every barrier.

Easter means that no power on earth can destroy the reality that is Christ.

The angel gave the women the clue that unlocks for every Christian the power of the Resurrection. The angel instructed them to tell all the other disciples that Christ was raised and had gone before them into Galilee. The angel told them that they should quit looking for Jesus in death, but rather, find him alive in a new way, in the life of the world. If they could do so, they would discover the meaning of the Resurrection. They would discover that even despite our lack of commitment to God, God remains committed to us – in a loving, unconditional, no-strings-attached kind way – despite how much or little we might deserve that love. They will discover that God makes them the most precious beings in creation – people who are worth dying for.

Easter is coming face to face with a Jesus who has not just reversed the power death, but has completely triumphed over it.

Today is the day in our faith to proclaim this fabulous news. The Good News of the Resurrection is that Christ is a light that overcomes all the darkness that life can entail. That light overcomes the darkness we experienced in Holy Week when we passed through vivid reminders of our human frailty and sin, reminders of how easy it is for us to be gobbled up by the power of the enemies of God.

Now – today – we can declare that things are different.

Now we know we have the love and light of Christ going before us and living within us. Now we can see the way and dare to bring that love and light to the darker parts of our world.

Today our Prayer Book allows us to begin saying, as a response to the dismissal, “Thanks be to God – Alleluia, Alleluia.” Now we can express, once again, the joy of these empowering words. Now we go forth from this service back into our workaday world in a renewed and transformed way. We can go forth with confidence and courage because we know that as Christ went before the disciples into Galilee, he also goes before us into all the world.

Christ leads the way for us, ever going before us, raising us with him from the depths – from sickness and pain and even death, from disappointment and sin and despair and grief. Christ ever goes before us as our light in the darkness, allowing us to reflect his light into the world.

Today we move with the women at the tomb into a renewed life, ready to face everything with joy, and filled with God’s love, proclaiming and showing that Christ is risen, indeed. Today we shout, “Alleluia !! Alleluia !!”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

He lives, Easter Vigil (B) – 2015

April 4, 2015

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8

Welcome friends. This is the night. This is the night we gather as God’s people to hear the stories that matter most to us, the stories that teach us who we are. What we believe. What we long for. What our hopes and dreams are. These stories teach us what our God is like.

Just for a moment, please close your eyes. Imagine that this Paschal candle is a campfire. We are God’s tribe, seeking light in the darkness, comfort in the wilderness. This is the night when we gather with God’s people from all over the world and tell once more the story of our deliverance. Are these stories Good News for you? What do they tell us about our tribe? What do they teach us about our God?

It started with a burning bush. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, he heard God’s voice. God spoke to him. God revealed his name to Moses on that day: God said that his name was “I am.” And in that encounter at the burning bush, God also revealed his character – God showed Moses, and us, what he cares about.

God said to Moses at the bush:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Our God hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed. And our God is the God of freedom.

Moses did as God asked that day. He journeyed back to Egypt, to Pharaoh’s palace where he and been brought up as an adopted prince of Egypt. Moses confronted Pharaoh as God instructed, saying to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”

Pharaoh said no when Moses and the Hebrew people cried for freedom; but God said yes.

Are we in bondage? Do we have eyes to see the powers of this world oppressing God’s people? If God’s people are suffering, take heart! Our God will lead us from slavery to freedom, from bondage to liberty. That is who our God is.

So God stretched out his hand to save the Israelites from Pharaoh. Even when things seemed desperate, when there was no way out, God made a way. Standing between the armies of Egypt and the sea, Moses stretched out his hand, and led the Hebrew children through on dry land. God led them through with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Our God will find a way when there is no way. Even when we are blind and can’t see a way forward, God brings us new hope, helps us see in a new way. Our God is the God of exiles, leading us home through the wilderness, guiding our way, day and night.

The people of Israel – our ancestors in faith – finally made it out of the wilderness, into the good land that God had promised. But the powers of this world did not stop trying to take away the freedom and abundance that God had given them. First Babylon. Then Syria. And finally, Rome.

Let’s hear the next part of the story. Jesus grew up under the oppression of Rome. He saw how Rome broke the backs of the poor – all those fishermen and laborers that were the focus of Jesus’ ministry. But Jesus brought these poor women and men Good News! God’s kingdom is at hand! In God’s kingdom, there will be enough bread for every day. No one will be hungry. God’s kingdom means justice for the poor.

We have journeyed with Jesus through Lent, watching him heal the sick and bring hope to the hopeless. And we have seen his turn toward Jerusalem through this Holy Week: how he entered the city on Palm Sunday, to cries of Hosanna. When Jesus entered the Holy City that week, he went to the Temple, where he overturned the tables of those who were buying and selling, confronting the people who were controlling access to God’s love and grace represented by the Temple.

As Jesus taught in Jerusalem that week before Passover, he kept confronting the authorities, challenging the way they made life hard for the poor. The religious authorities had a lock on God’s grace and forgiveness. And the religious authorities worked with the secular authorities to impose taxes that kept the poor people poor and lined the pockets of the comfortable. Jesus confronted both, challenging them with his vision of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all would have enough and peace would prevail.

Rome was always quick to put down any sign of rebellion. Roman justice was swift and brutal, and it usually kept the provinces, such as Jerusalem, in line. And so they put this zealot named Jesus to death. They didn’t like what he had to say, so they killed him, as they killed thousands of others, nailing him to a cross on the outskirts of the city, as a public example of what happens to those who cry for justice.

Just as Pharaoh said no to Moses’ call for freedom, Rome said no to Jesus’ call for justice.

But God said yes. Our God is the one who leads us from oppression to justice.

Now Rome thought it could silence Jesus by putting him to death. Killing Jesus would be their final solution.

But God would not let anything on earth silence the Good News. Not even death. So even though they killed Jesus, nailed him to a cross and tried to forget about him, now he lives. Tonight, he lives. This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

Our God is the God who leads us from death into life. Not even death can stop God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s abundance.

Because now, God’s kingdom has taken root in us. Now, Jesus lives in us.

Every time we reach out in love to help someone in need, Jesus rises victorious again. Every time we share the abundance God has given us, God’s kingdom grows. And it will grow and grow until it reaches the ends of the earth.

This night, and every night, and every day, Jesus lives. He lives now in us.

 

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

Jesus didn’t say, ‘Beam me up’, 7 Easter (A) – 2014

June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

We are all familiar with depictions of people coming and going. Many will recall in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” how Glinda, the good witch, descends upon Dorothy and the Munchkins in a bubble, and after delivering a message and explaining the mystery of the ruby slippers, departs in the same way. And no one who has watched even one “Star Trek” episode can have missed Captain Kirk or his crew being beamed up by a transporter beam.

So, that is just like the Ascension, right?

Wrong. The Ascension of Jesus is not a device to get him back into heaven from whence he came. The Ascension is an account of how Jesus, having finished his work on earth, blazes a trail over which we one day shall travel, a trail to eternal life that continues our relationship with the risen Jesus and God, our creator and redeemer.

While other religions have their divine ascension narratives, with other worthy ones ascending with them, Jesus departs alone, leaving his disciples behind, staring into empty space, as a cloud takes him out of their sight.

And why does that matter?

Because our work is not done on earth. We learn more about that work from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – and us – in the gospel reading for today: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”

This farewell prayer is said, not just for the small band of family and followers, but also for each of us. The good news here is that Jesus prays openly for us, for our protection and our unity so that we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

Jesus also tells us, shortly before his Ascension, what eternal life means for us: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Ascension makes Jesus accessible to all people, not just his disciples in a particular historic moment. He prays for all people, and all may call upon him. There is no limit to accessing him, no request too small.

Recently a woman called her church office in distress because her husband had just received a bad diagnosis. She did not know what to do. As she talked with her pastor, her voice became calmer and she began to voice her fear about what might happen. Then she said, “Will the church pray for us?”

“Of course,” her pastor replied, “and I am praying for you both right now.”

“I know,” she said. “I can feel it.”

The risen and ascended Lord entered into her time of need with a calming presence through her plea for help and her pastor’s prayer. That is how a relationship with Jesus is supposed to work: immediately accessible, even when we cannot say the words because of our grief or distress.

People are constantly learning how the living Lord works on their behalf. Jesus’ Ascension paves the way for this work, and we are the beneficiaries of it.

In the Easter season, we are continually drawn to stories about Jesus’ pastoral care for us. He walks to Emmaus with the troubled disciples who had hoped he would redeem Israel, and then helps them see his risen life and the power it holds for them as they begin to share the Good News with others. He cooks breakfast for his friends on the shore of the lake, and they know through this simple act of hospitality how deeply he cares for them, and we know how deeply he cares for all of us.

When was the last time you asked God for something? When was the last time you knelt in a church or in your living room and asked Jesus for a specific need? When was the last time you prayed for yourself or a friend to be healed?

For whom will you pray today? For whom will you offer prayer this week? These prayers are dialogues with Jesus, and he wants us to speak to him. He wants to give us good things, the things we deeply desire and need to lead lives of hope. That is what he does for the disciples in today’s gospel reading, and that is what he will do for you.

Conversion and transformation are the steps the risen one takes with us. Few people have the dramatic experience recorded by the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, but many have moments when life and their place in it begin to come together. That is the conversion experience, when the pieces of the puzzle of life begin to fit together. The conversion leads to transformation, a new life centered in the risen, ascended Lord. It is no longer all about you or me.

Many of us have a favorite person whom we admire for their ability to go through a crisis or meet difficult challenges head on. One young man works for the Veteran’s Administration and sees vets from many different wars. He says the ones who teach him the most are the ones who can articulate their faith, the conviction that God loves them and cares for them, even with lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses. “They are,” he says, “the people who have found peace in the midst of strife. They know Jesus and see him as their friend.”

Jesus does not come and go on a transporter beam. His presence abides in the church and in a personal and unique relationship with each of us. That is what we celebrate in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Today, whether you are joyful about something or sad and grieving over what might have been, remember you are connected to the risen Christ, through the community of faith and directly with him. Pray for specific things you need. Ask for the things he wants to give you, and always remember it is his risen and ascended life that makes him accessible. He wants to walk with you. Will you take his hand?

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He resides in nearby Holiday Island.

Why do you stand looking into heaven?, Ascension Day (A) – 2014

May 29, 2014

Acts 1:1-11Psalm 47 or Psalm 93Ephesians 1:15-23Luke 24:44-53

“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” ask two men dressed in white robes to the disciples staring up into space.

Indeed, why do we stand looking into heaven? And where should we be looking?

Whenever a comet flies by, whenever there is a total or partial eclipse, people in record number are out looking into heaven. Combined with a resurgence of UFO mania, the popularity of “The X-Files,” the Star Wars movies, photos from the space probe Galileo giving us hints of something like frozen chunks of water in space, breathtaking photos from the Hubble telescope viewing the very origins of the universe, people are looking into heaven more and more.

Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix must have been expressing the hopes of millions as they sang, “There must be some way out of here.”

“Here” seems to be an increasingly difficult, hard and lonesome place to be.

Out there must be some other place, any other place, better than this, we think on our bad days.

So it must have seemed to the disciples. Their leader and savior had just taken off, seemingly skyward. The military and political authorities seemed stronger and more dangerous than ever.

As Jesus leaves them, they are pleading with him to restore the Kingdom to Israel.

“It’s not for you to knowwwww … but the Spirit will come to you …”

And then he is gone. And like us, they are standing there looking up, searching the sky, wishing to see a sign that the time would be now. Or soon. Or at least certain to come.

Like Daniel or John the Revelator, they wished to see a dream or a vision. Like us, they would like to know what the plan is.

And like everyone, they would like an end to the loneliness.

To lose someone close is just plain difficult to bear. We all know what that feels like. It seems as if life cannot possibly go on. At least not at all like it had before they left us.

Yet, here, with Jesus, a promise is made.

The promise is: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. I send the promise of my father upon you until you are clothed with power from on high. Stay where you are. Stay in the city. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

“Stay where you are. It will come to you. God will come to you. God’s Kingdom will come to you.” This is not the message we want to hear.

We are people who are used to being on the move. We go where we wish, hope and desire. We are urged to go for all the gusto we can get. We are schooled that all you have to do is want it and work for it, and it shall be yours.

But Jesus says: “Stay where you are. Abide. Stop looking up. It will come to you right where you are. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

Does it help us to know that the concept of the Messiah and the Messianic Age or Kingdom was thought by Jesus and his contemporaries to take place right here – not somewhere else, not out there, not up in the sky, not some other time, not some future time, but now?

The Messianic Kingdom will come to us; to those of us who stay here in the city; to those of us who are joyful; to those of us who bless God; to those of us who know and love Jesus, his Kingdom is here and now.

We are not called to look for the Kingdom, to search the heavens for signs of its arrival, but to step into it here and now with all that we are, all that we have, all that we say and all that we do.

To those of us who stay here joyfully blessing God, it will come. Those who participate in this life with an attitude of Thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Paul: Appealing or appalling?, 6 Easter (A) – 2014

May 25, 2014

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Many Christians have mixed feelings about the apostle Paul. Paul can be challenging to deal with; some New Testament writings attributed to him express negative views of women and other minorities, and his tone can be pugnacious and argumentative. But if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, we have to come to terms with Paul. For one thing, even though the gospels appear before Paul’s letters in the New Testament, Paul’s writings came first. It is indisputable that Paul is our first Christian witness.

To borrow a phrase from biblical scholar Marcus Borg, sometimes Paul is appealing, and sometimes he’s appalling. Whether Paul is appealing or appalling can depend on which Paul you mean: Biblical scholars recognize that not all the letters in the New Testament that bear Paul’s name were actually written by him. These scholars distinguish between Paul’s genuine letters and the so-called pseudonymous letters attributed to Paul. First and Second Timothy and Titus bear Paul’s name but were not written by him, and they contain most of the sexist things Paul supposedly said. In fact, in Paul’s genuine letters, he argues for a radical equality of all believers, male and female, based on our adoption into the body of Christ through baptism. For example, in the letter to the Galatians Paul writes that, in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is a good example of the appealing Paul.

We also see the appealing side of Paul in our reading from the book of Acts today. In this reading, we encounter Paul preaching to the elite of Athens on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, the center of Athenian government. Notice how Paul tailors his message to connect with the Athenians in a way that they can hear the Good News he is trying to share. He is preaching to an entirely pagan audience, so he doesn’t rely on his usual references to the Law of Moses or the Old Testament prophets – what do these people know about Moses? Instead, Paul quotes a couple of Athenian poet philosophers. Paul compliments how religious the Athenians are, with their many idols, noting how this indicates the natural desire within everyone to seek after God, hoping to find meaning in the world.

Paul is concerned, however, that all these idols will prevent the Athenians from making a connection to the Living God he is telling them about. Our culture is no less littered with idols than Athens was in the first century, and I wonder what Paul would make of 21st century America, if he came to preach to us? Our idols are less literal than the statues Paul found in Athens, but they serve the same purpose. They are markers of our search for meaning, but all of them, in some way or other, fall short of this goal. An idol, by its very nature, stands in the place of God, occupying a place of ultimate concern in our hearts and preventing us from connecting with the true and living God. What is the ultimate concern in your life? Many of us spend our time worried about money, or appearance, or power, and we allow these worries to become idols, taking up all the space in our hearts and not giving God any room to live inside us.

Paul says to the Athenians that they are looking for God in the wrong places. God is not contained in little golden statues, or indeed in anything that springs from the “art and imagination of mortals.” Paul would say the same thing to us. God is not to be found in anxious worries about money and appearance and power.

Where should we look for God then? Paul tells the Athenians that the Unknown God they have been searching for is within them. This unknown God is the source and supporter of all, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” God is radically present to each and every one of us, and we find God in the communities and relationships we build with others, each person a bearer of the image of God.

Most of all, God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Paul’s final testimony to the Athenians about his embodied vision of God is to tell them about Jesus. God has given us “assurance” of God’s embodied presence among us “by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” Not just spiritually – Paul’s claim is that God restored Jesus’ earthly body.

This was a sticking point for the Athenians, as it is for us. Greek philosophy held that the physical body was inferior, impure – all of Greek philosophy pointed in the direction of escaping this dirty physical existence into a world of pure spirit. It was absurd to imagine a God who entered into human flesh, to live and die as one of us. It’s not surprising that many of the Athenians listening to Paul’s message scoffed; they simply couldn’t imagine a God like this, a God who would succumb to the dirt and sweat and suffering of this life, just so we could know him better.

And yet, this is the God Jesus reveals to us: a God willing to walk with us even when the road gets rough. A God yearning to be with us in the simple, ordinary things of life, in bread broken and wine poured. A God embodied in community that spills forth into the world in abundance and love.

If you are looking for God today, look at one another. God’s image is revealed in every face you see here today, and everyone you encounter outside of these doors. Like Paul, we are called to go into the world and share God’s Good News with everyone we encounter – and in language they can understand. Just as Paul adjusted his message so the Athenians could encounter God, we are called to talk about God’s love in today’s vernacular so that everyone can hear it.

In the gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. Jesus says that this Spirit will abide with us and live inside us. If we open our hearts and invite God’s Spirit in, no idols we make will be able to withstand the truth of God’s love. We think money will make us happy, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that happiness cannot be bought. We think that power and control are important, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that kindness and love are more important by far. And it is God’s Spirit living in us that inspires us to go into the world and share God’s love as widely as possible – even if it seems the world cannot or will not receive this message. The world may not know God’s Spirit of truth and love yet. But it will, if we allow God’s truth and love to live in us, and speak through us.

 

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