In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A) – April 2, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

 These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. Today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.

So it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, and to listen to Jesus command, “Lazarus, come out”—and to wonder what all that means, and whether it matters.

We Christians have some very distinctive, and some very special, things to say about death—about both real, physical death and about the other deaths, the little deaths, the endings and changes and losses that we seem constantly to be experiencing. In fact, we say much the same thing about both types of death. What that is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.

The valley of dry bones Ezekiel is looking at and talking to is Israel. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. And there are a few folks left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren’t worth the effort to haul off. That was it. Israel was dead. Never in the history of mankind had, or has, a nation (or a faith) so defeated and so scattered ever been rebuilt. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, everybody knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death ruled supreme.

So with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead. Really dead. Graveyard dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Jesus could have helped if he’d arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.

So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Jesus looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend’s body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel, and of Jesus; and we see what they saw.

They first thing they saw was the reality, the force, the sheer power of death. Ezekiel was struck mute (a rare event!)—and ended up babbling about how dry the bones were. And Jesus was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. There is nothing lighthearted or glib here. Death is the final word creation has to say to us. It’s a really big deal.

At its worst, Christianity has tried to deny this, and has been ashamed of the tears of Jesus. At its worst, Christianity has said that our faith means that death isn’t all that important, that it really doesn’t matter, and that grief, the real life-shattering, gut-tearing grief that hurts so terribly, that this is somehow not fully Christian.

We’ve taught this to our shame, and we have been wrong. Death is very real and it’s very powerful, and if we don’t say this first, then we’re not telling the truth. The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain and fear in the face of death.

There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.

When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, and when Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, they didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life—they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or bunnies popping out of eggs. If Ezekiel had kept his mouth shut those bones would have stayed dry. If Jesus had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.

All of this is the first thing Ezekiel and Jesus saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that. And they saw something more.

What Ezekiel saw, and what Jesus saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel—and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move—the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.

So with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus come back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries—it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians see that the world does not see.

We see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.

At the same time, notice that these stories give us absolutely no information about the mystery of death itself. Nor do they promise that everything will be all right as we count such things.

Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century Oprah tour talking about tunnels and bright lights and four days worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.

What’s more, John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus’ life got quite a bit messier—less pleasant and more complicated—after this miracle. He really didn’t live happily ever after, not as we count such things.

And Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission, than Israel had wanted, and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.

The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself. And that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see. Alas, we can see no farther—we can see no more. But we can see that far. We want details, we want guarantees, and we want some power and some control in all of this. We want to know what it’s like. But we don’t get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not in the midst of the other deaths, the little deaths.

Instead, in the face of all the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first that death is stronger than we are and that we have no knowledge about and no power over death. And then we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all—Lord of life and of death.

So we must choose. Whatever deaths are before us, we must choose.

We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. And that choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death—death in whatever form—is a call to trust.

We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. James Liggett, who 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.

Download the sermon for Lent 5A.

Light! Lent 4(A) – March 26, 2017

[RCL] 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding – the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John’s gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: “I Am the light of the world.” John has already told us this “in the beginning.” And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, “I Am,” we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The voice from the bush replies, “I Am who I Am…you shall say…I Am sent me to you.”(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, “Light!” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean – who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he “no better and no worse than any other man”?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind – and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others – especially others who are not at all like ourselves.

The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness – he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.

Even Jesus’ own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents’ sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man’s sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away – they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to “see” -to see the Light of the World – The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him – give him a drink – so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, “There is something you can do for me.” The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God’s work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion?

Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time. Once Easter arrives, though, it is time to follow the examples of The Man Born Blind and the Samaritan Woman. We too can be people of the Light, of Jesus the Light of the World.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Kirk Kubicek, who was ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, and has served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, Kubicek spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s he was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center and helped lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, Kubicek serves as an interim and provides supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. He is a also a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. He plays guitar and writes music to supplement worship and preaching events. Some of these songs can be seen on youtube at www.www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com. Feel free to contact Kubicek at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 4(A).

Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A) – March 19, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

What follows is largely based on the teachings of esteemed New Testament scholar John Knox, who wrote extensively about the context of today’s Epistle.

Before examining the Romans passage, however, let us focus on the very familiar story in today’s Gospel – the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. How did we come to know this story since no newspaper, video recordings, or the like existed in the first century? A clue comes at the end of the passage: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Like these Samaritans, we know all we can know about the earthly Jesus because people like the disciples and the woman at the well told others about their face to face involvement with the one we call Christ. Those whom they told also told others who told others, and so on down the centuries until the story came to us. The passing of the Good News from one generation to another links us to the Jesus of history.

We can also understand this reality in reverse time – in the sacramental connection we all have with the early church through the laying on of hands by bishops who confirmed or received us. Those bishops became bishops when their predecessor bishops laid hands upon their heads as did every bishop’s predecessor, all the way back to the time of the earliest Christian community.

So, we are linked to Jesus and the early church through word and sacrament carried across 2,000 years of actions. But there is more to this connection with Christ – more of a fundamentally personal nature, as St. Paul illustrates. We cannot know Jesus the way the disciples and woman at the well did. We can, however, know and experience the risen Christ as Paul experienced him. He never met Jesus in the flesh, yet he is the primary teacher of the fact that we can know Christ just as certainly as the disciples, but in a non-physical way. Knowing the risen Christ through the passed-down story of Jesus is most effective if we, too, come to know Christ as alive within us and among us.

Today’s portion of the Epistle helps us understand this – as Paul begins by stating, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace in this context means a lack of enmity or an absence of conflict – that is, peace is unity with God that we gain through “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace/unity with God that we experience in and from Christ is found in following Christ as Paul did and as must all who could not know the human Jesus.

This involves a restoring of the oneness that we, by virtue of our God-created nature, can have. It is a unity of God with us and us with all people, a unity of person and person, community and community – rightful relationships in God’s over-arching presence.

Of course, nothing is clearer than the fact that human beings consistently live out of peace, in conflict with God and one another. Though we turn from God again and again and sin against one another, still we have access to ultimate unity with God. Paul explained how this unity/peace comes about. Most importantly, he makes it clear that the process cannot be initiated by us – it begins only with God, with God loving us despite our unworthiness, despite our failure to love as God loves us, despite discord and conflict with other people. Despite all this, God forgives us and loves us unconditionally. Paul said it simply: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Enmity with God is cast aside by God’s forgiving action, which allows Christians to accept what God offers and live into what our Catechism defines as the “Mission of the Church” – which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

For Paul and the early church, the key to understanding God’s love and forgiveness was revealed by Jesus’ death on the cross. The proof of God’s love is Christ’s complete obedience to God despite the sinful acts that led to his death. Dying on the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. This self-less death overpowers us and leads us to accept God’s love and forgiveness. Believers see pure love in his death and cannot resist its compelling power to follow in his way. We realize that Jesus makes us the most precious of creatures, even worth dying for.

God initiates the peace and unity and asks only our trust in his love and repentance from rebelling against his love – asks only that we accept the love, turn from our sin, and reform our lives, as a result. We don’t deserve the love and forgiveness, we cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness, but accepting it, we are freed by such faith. God provides the love; we provide repentance and renewal, becoming unified with God and others.

Dr. Knox observes that Paul and other theologians have throughout the centuries struggled to explain how Christ’s death accomplished this peace and reconciliation. All attempts to do so, in fact, have proved unsuccessful or, at best, are incomplete. However, he asserts, what is much more important is that Paul and the early church knew, above all, that God’s decisive action in history lay in Jesus’ death on the cross – that this action was absolutely essential to understanding the reality of God, God’s forgiveness, and the possibility of new life through accepting God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus’ death forms the singular focus on what God was doing through his life, death, resurrection, and the birth of the church. From the earliest days, the cross came to stand for everything distinctively Christian. It symbolizes both human sin and God’s all-giving love. It symbolizes both human sinfulness and human freedom from spiritual death, reconciling us to God, reuniting us with God and one another.

We are inheritors of the primitive church’s experience of the new reality of Christ-still-alive and of new life in the Spirit that was viewed through the lens of the cross. And now in our day, we, too, can experience in the life of the church the new community of love, no less than did Paul and the first Christians.

What we call the body of Christ, a living, flesh-and-blood reality, enables us to know Christ as a personal experience and not just a handed-down story. We are the continuation of the early community of believers within which everything about Christ happened. In this “dynamic community created around a living and present Lord . . . love is revealed, the Spirit is given, and faith and hope are found.”

While it is in and through the church that the risen Christ is known, no body of Christian believers acts in the full image of the loving God, divided and conflicted as we are. And yet the church is our only link with the historic community that emerged from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only expression of Christ that we have, and even in its incompleteness, we, in our time, carry forward the new life of the Spirit of God.

We carry forward, too, the earliest expression of love based on Christ’s death in the communal meal that we call the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the church, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, have marked our central act of worship and given substance as a way to keep Christ alive in the midst of the worshipping community. We continue to gather at a common rail, drink from a shared cup, and commune in the deepest relationship of love with Christ and one another. This has always been for Christians THE occasion of re-calling Jesus to our presence and empowering us to unite with him and one another. Through the church and through this sacrament, we continue to express the reality that Christ was and is alive and will continue to be alive among his followers.

Dr. Knox summarizes it well. “We remember him whom we know. We know him whom we remember.” And so, we can join St. Paul in saying, “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Amen.

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The following books by John Knox (1900-1990) are especially significant in dealing with the themes approached in this sermon: Life in Christ Jesus: reflections on Romans 5-8; Chapters in a Life of Paul; Jesus: Lord and Christ; and The Church and the Reality of Christ.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus. Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines:Granite on Fire.

Download the sermon for Lent 3(A).

Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A) – March 12, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Gospel in a nutshell.”

Without a doubt, this is the most famous verse in the New Testament. And yet, as most preachers know all too well, the more popular a Biblical text is, the harder it is to preach! Such is the case here.

The popularity of John 3:16 has, in a sense, robbed it of its power. Far from the “heart of the Gospel,” it now seems like nothing more than Christianity’s catchphrase—the logo of the Christian brand.

John 3:16 pops up on tee shirts, on bumper stickers, on billboards, on Facebook, and (most annoying of all) on those little pamphlets that get wedged into the screen door on Saturday mornings! It’s the equivalent of the community choir singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas: much-appreciated, well-loved, but just a bit taxing to hear recited over and over and over again in exactly the same way time after time after time.

But there’s another, more dangerous side to John 3:16 that cannot be overlooked.

Regardless of what we make of this text’s familiarity, the truth of the matter is that John 3:16 has been used time and time again in Christian history to hurt, divide, and demean people. For some, the requirement that we “be born again” is code for “you have to look, sound, and act like us.”

The Gospel becomes a prooftext by which we determine if other people’s salvation is as certain as ours is. From this vantage point, the text loses its transformative power altogether and becomes a weapon to re-enforce a particular worldview.

As is the case with the whole of Scripture, when we read John 3:16 apart from its larger context, we run the risk of missing the point. John 3:16 isn’t a theological maxim in and of itself; rather, it is part of a much richer conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, says John’s Gospel, was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus’s loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment. But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

To put it another way, Nicodemus saw that Jesus was clearly mediating the presence of God, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of experience, too.

Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds everyone: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t a matter of praying a certain way or believing a certain way or following a certain set of liturgical customs; it’s about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!

On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest albeit naïve question that sounds funny to our 21st century ears: “How can an old man like me go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?”

Nicodemus makes what is perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture: confusing something meant as metaphor with something meant to be literally true.

Like all of us, Nicodemus had already been born once into both a physical and a spiritual context: He was born into a Pharisaic Jewish home, with all the customs and traditions of the day.

But this second birth that Jesus is talking about comes not from below—with all the physical and visceral mechanisms of childbirth—but from above.

So how do we do that?

More than saying the right prayers or professing the right statement of faith, being born from above is about a way of life. It’s about living so that those around you will see you and know about Jesus.

For Nicodemus, being born from above happened slowly. The Gospel of John tells us that he came to Jesus under the cover of nightfall. He wasn’t quite sure he believed just yet. He didn’t want anyone to recognize him.

Then, after he leaves Jesus, he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn’t happen with a bolt of lightning or sudden blindness; it doesn’t draw the same kind of attention that the Apostle Paul’s conversion does; and there’s no incredible dream that converts or upends Nicodemus’s life like the dreams of Saint Peter or Saint John the Divine.

But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.

Nicodemus’s rebirth happens over the course of a long journey, which began under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus. He was an uncertain, fly-by-night, wanna-be disciple.

And the truth is, with the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7, we never hear from Nicodemus again—that is, until the end of John’s Gospel. And it is here that Nicodemus’s birth from above is laid bare.

As Jesus hangs crucified, after all of the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution, there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, armed with myrrh and aloes and the other provisions for Jewish burial, ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of the crucified Lord to its grave.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus’ company after hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him began to turn. And then, little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born anew, finding his way through darkness and doubt, to the cross.

In his poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right,” the great German-born Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.[1]

In the midst of this Lenten journey, may we allow our doubts and questions to dig into our certainty. May we be broken open by a love that evades even our wildest imagining until, at last, we come to the foot of the cross.

Amen.

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

[1] Yehuda Amichai, “The Place Where We Are Right” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited & translated from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (University of California Press, 1996).

Download the sermon for Lent 2(A).

Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A) – March 5, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

 As Lent means Spring in Old English it for sure favors the later Lent timeline of this year; it is always strange when the season begins during the heart of winter.

For well over a millennium Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Communities would fast in various ways, abstaining from food or certain kinds of food, abstaining from various kinds of recreation and utterances. People would dress differently, engage differently and find many other ways to make their lives more austere. All of this resulted in a fast that aided in spiritual preparation and also made the great Feast of Easter so much more exciting.

While Lenten practice is often less vigorous than it was centuries ago the spirit of this fast remains, this is a time when many churches forgo cake at coffee hour, where some do not have coffee hour at all and many individuals take time to abstain from treats, to abstain from social media, to abstain from television or from other kinds of entertainment, to abstain from anything that can feel like a guilty pleasure.

This is not limited to the Christian community either, the movie 40 days and 40 nights and other pieces of pop culture capture people engaging in Lenten fasts who are not Christian and throughout social media it’s easy to see just how many are hopping on the fasting bandwagon. It’s great. It is an example of our Christian tradition enriching lives well beyond our churches and yet, if this is the only depth to which people and communities of faith engage with it, there is a major opportunity lost.

The first lesson for today features an invitation to abstinence. Adam and is given very clear instructions not to eat of the fruit of good and evil. All is well until the Devil tempts them and they eat of the fruit and suffer the consequences. While frolicking in paradise, presumably enjoying immortality, enjoying the felt physical presence of God and getting to eat from an abundance of delicious fruits may not seem like a fast, it really was.

In the midst of abundance the sense that there was something that was not for them was too difficult for them to bear. The rule around the tree of good and evil was an opportunity for Adam and Eve to deny their desire so that they could remain in right relationship with God. When they didn’t, they suffered the consequences. This lesson makes sense on the first Sunday of Lent as we are reminded of just how blessed we are and how discipline in some things can increase our joy in all things and keep us closer to God. Adam and Eve offer a cautionary tale for us as temptation creeps in.

The Gospel passage for today affirms this message and adds to it in important ways. Jesus, coined the ‘second Adam’ in years to come by the Apostle Paul, is lead by the Spirit into a time of extreme fasting and temptation. While Adam and Eve had to avoid one delicious fruit in the midst of paradise, Jesus braved an austere wilderness and consumed nothing. It is here that Jesus is offered three distinct temptations. In the first, Jesus is tempted to assuage his hunger by using his power to turn the stones into bread. The mere mention of bread was probably difficult for him to handle given how hungry he was. Jesus says no, citing that it is not by bread alone that one lives, but by the word of God.

In the second temptation Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple and invited to throw himself down in order that the angels may save him. Now this might seem like an easier one to resist at first until it is taken into account just how isolated Jesus must have felt from everyone and especially his heavenly company after an eternity with them. Just how wonderful it would have felt to experience their embrace and a reminder of his place in the midst of this difficult time for him. Jesus again says no, refusing to put God to the test.

Finally, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world, which are offered to him in exchange for worship. Jesus, on the precipice of embarking on his ministry and building his movement could have much more easily taught and influenced the world from this place but instead said no again, affirming the need to worship God and only God.

Unlike Adam, Jesus resists temptation, passes the test, and goes onto live a ministry that changed the world and brings life to many. The message, in contrast to Adam, is clear: spiritual discipline is good, so is abstinence, may Lent be a time to practice both and be right with God.

That is true, and yet, if we pay closer attention we can learn so much more about how we might live a Holy Lent and for what reasons.

Looking again at the first temptation we see Jesus deny a desire of the flesh, but for what reason? Jesus does this to strengthen his focus on God. While avoiding cookies might be good for physical health it is not the path to everyone strengthening their focus on God. As we consider what we might give up let us think about what may actually give us the opportunity to focus more on God. Perhaps the offering is time in prayer.

In the second one Jesus denied the opportunity to be reminded just how much he mattered. Jesus was in the midst of horrible isolation and often times, isolation can lead people to manipulation of those around them in order to feel reminded of their connection and importance in community. How often do we find ways to test and manipulate those we love to fill the need for connection and mattering?  To put it another way, what are the things that we do when we aren’t feeling appreciated, or connected, or valued? It would be good to consider these things and consider how we can embrace community and seek connection in healthier ways.

Finally, Jesus denied personal power so he could continue to embrace power with God. While power with God does not offer the same pride benefit and certainly made Jesus’ life and ministry more difficult it ultimately saved our world. In this we come to understand how embracing power with, as opposed to power over, can ultimately enrich our lives and ministries.

And so, given all this, our call is to live a Holy Lent, beyond fasting and abstinence, to embracing the truths that will set ourselves and our churches free to live out the fullness of God’s mission.

May we all seek to find the abstinences that will strengthen our focus on God and find ways to meet the hunger needs of others.

May we all seek community this Lent and give of our time to give community to those who are particularly isolated.

Finally, let us all consider how we might empower each other and have power and influence together in order to create positive outcomes for the world.

It is this kind of Lent that will truly live into the Spirit of Spring; regardless of what the weather might be doing. It is this kind of Lent that will take us towards an Easter Season full of resurrection and new life. May all the church, with God’s help, engage in Lent this way.

Amen. 

Written by The Rev. Edwin Johnson, a self-described “smiling, dancing, fitness-obsessed Jesus-Freak who is taken by the way that God continues to manifest in the world.” Johnson serves as the Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, MA. In addition to a fulfilling ministry and family life Johnson also teaches and performs latin dance and trains for competitive weightlifting.

Download the sermon for Lent 1(A)

The blues moan in the gospel shout, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 3, 2015

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

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.

Well, today we see what that really means. Today, we kneel to venerate the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. And we recognize that we are completely incapable of following his commandment and carrying the wooden weight of the burden he took on for our sake.

In many ways, realizing that has been our entire Lenten project.

The ash crosses we marked ourselves with 40 long days ago were our white flags of surrender. Our cries of “uncle.” Our declaration that we can’t. That we know, deep down, exactly what God expects of us: to act with justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To take up our cross and to lay down our lives for our friends.

But we can’t. For we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. And we know that if we were fully living into our baptismal commitments, we would be up there – tortured, bleeding, hanging from a tree. Because the world does not exactly reward those who act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

And so we don’t. We do what’s comfortable. We do what’s safe. We do what’s nice. We love our comfortable, safe, nice lives, and do not want to lose them – even for Christ’s sake.

Recently, a group of teens were being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in their Sunday-school class, and when they got to the section on Proper Liturgies for Special Days, one of them asked, “Why do we call it Good Friday?”

It is such a predictable question that it’s easy for us to try to answer it without thinking, without listening to what is really being asked. This particular teenager wasn’t just asking why we call it “Good Friday” when it is the day that Jesus died. He was asking why – if we call it Good Friday, if it is Good News that Jesus died for us on the cross – our worship, then, is so solemn, so somber, so filled with genuflections and prostrations. If, as we proclaim, it is a “Good Friday,” why do we not shout joyfully and sing as the Israelites did at the shore of the Red Sea? Why do we not praise God with the trumpet, and lyre, and harp? Why, today of all days, are all our songs of glory in a minor key?

The answer lies in this truth: Today is a day for gratitude, but it is also a day of sorrow.

While we glory in Christ’s cross, we also mourn the fact that our sin made his sacrifice necessary. And we sorely grieve that, as the prophet Isaiah says in our reading today:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. … For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Christ’s death is the means of our salvation. And it is right to give God our thanks and praise, for by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.

But we also mourn that an innocent man had to suffer and die because of our actions. And we mourn that the innocent continue to suffer, because we are unwilling and incapable of making the sacrifices to our comfortable, safe, nice lives to ease their suffering.

The great preacher Otis Moss, III, once said, “They could not distinguish between the gospel shout and the blues moan.” He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament, from the third chapter of the Book of Ezra, about those returning from exile who laid the foundation for the new Temple:

“And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

The Rev. Moss uses this text to declare to us that we have a blues-note gospel – a gospel of great joy at the mighty power of our saving God, written in a minor key. A gospel in which our great joy at God’s power and mercy is often indistinguishable from our mourning at the need for that power and mercy; at our inability to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – still less, as much as God loves them.

And so, on Good Friday, even as we kneel in awe before the King of the Universe, hanging on a cross for our sake, we also kneel in the sure and certain knowledge that we are not following in his footsteps on the Via Dolorosa. That we are not even denying him as we warm our hands by the fire. We are in the crowd, calling for his crucifixion.

And so our gospel shout that today is a “good” day – the best of all days – is indistinguishable from the blues moan that today is a day that is needed. A day that will still be needed, even as our praise at the empty tomb resolves the minor chords into major ones.

Good Friday reminds us that we have a blues-note gospel. That Christ’s death and resurrection may have saved us from sin and death, but we still sin and we still die. As we kneel at the foot of the cross, mourning our sin and the evil that we witness around us, we are forced to reckon with these facts – facts we would much rather forget.

As Easter dawn approaches and we ratchet up our gospel shouts and prepare to say that word we use during worship that has been buried for the last 40 days, we must not forget that our gospel shout contains those blues moans, those minor keys.

As the Rev. Moss reminds us, the blues moan is indistinguishable from the gospel shout.

Because while we mourn the necessity of Christ’s one oblation of himself once offered, we give thanks that it is a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And that in him, God has delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before him.

And as our gospel shouts echo through the empty tomb, may we remember the profound and never-failing mercy of God, the mercy that holds fast even when we do not – that holds fast precisely because we will not – and be thankful.

 

The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware is parochial associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Washed with holy love, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 2, 2015

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The disciples are gathered in the upper room for supper. Passover was beginning soon, and there was much work to be done. The air was tense – the disciples had heard rumors about the authorities coming to arrest Jesus. They knew that any disruption during the Passover feast would not be tolerated. And so they ate: quietly, quickly and unaware that this would be the last time they broke bread with Jesus, their beloved leader.

Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was about to happen. He had always known. And somewhere deep down in their bones, the disciples knew it, too. Whenever the unfiltered and uncompromising truth was spoken to power, power won. That much they learned from the prophets.

And yet, Jesus cut through the tension and anxiety that filled the air by quietly pushing back from the table, removing his outer robe, fastening a towel around his waist and bending down to wash the disciples’ feet.

This unexpected and scandalous act defied social convention and placed the disciples in a precarious position. Not only was Jesus breaking with custom by washing the feet of those subordinate to him, the very act of foot washing is a theological sign of a far more important underlying truth. By allowing their feet to be washed, the disciples were accepting what they did not deserve and what they had not earned: the love of Jesus. Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus persists: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

This is the place we find ourselves on this Maundy Thursday: caught between a culture that promises that good things come to those who work for it, and a Christ whose love is so freely given – unearned and undeserved – that we can’t help but raise a fuss.

We say things like, “But just look at all of the mistakes I’ve made and the people I’ve hurt!” as Peter whispers in our hearts, “You will never wash my feet.”

Or we raise our fists and proclaim, “God can’t love me because I don’t know if I love God.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

Or we retreat into our shame and lament, “God can’t love me because I don’t deserve it.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

The great Anglican preacher and theologian John Wesley was right when he said, “There is nothing more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”

And yet, this grace that Jesus gives comes with a mandate; or, recalling our Anglican heritage, a maundy: Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, knowing full well what would happen to him later that same night. And we hear these words as we embark into the darkness of the Paschal Triduum, the holy journey through Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.

The disciples were given Jesus’ mandate to love one another as Jesus loves them just hours before one of their own would double cross Jesus and hand him over to his accusers.

But that’s the risk of love – especially holy love.

Holy love is given freely to saint and sinner alike; to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to share that love with the world, and to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to reject and dishonor it.

And the freedom with which this love is given is at once its greatest blessing and its greatest curse, because the more we open our hearts to give and receive this love, the more vulnerable we are to betrayal – a crucifixion all its own.

In his poem, “Lachrimae Amantis,” the great English poet Geoffrey Hill writes in part

“What is there in my heart that you should sue so fiercely for its love? What kind of care brings you as though a stranger to my door through the long night and the icy dew seeking the heart that will not harbor you?”

Tonight, as Jesus’ love is poured out as warm water cleansing and soothing tired and worn skin; as bread and wine is made holy food and drink, we come to receive what we have not earned and what we do not deserve.

And if we will allow it, we may find our hearts broken open by a love that is stronger than our fickleness, stronger than our fear, and stronger even than the finality of death.

And through the darkness, we will hear the Savior’s voice, full of life and promise: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Good News in the ashes, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2015

February 18, 2015

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here in both numbers and intensity quite unusual for a weekday. It’s more than just habit or duty – somehow more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on this special Wednesday has power.

A large part of that power probably lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. Much else that we say in here we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.

From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.

Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.

Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.

And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating.

We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and on this day we are reminded of this, and brought closer to this.

From dust, to dust.

To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death. This Good News is the conviction that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.

So, part of the Good News is that we have been made from dust. The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.

Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, and to look and to move in a new direction.

If you’re in Chicago and you’re driving to New York, going west, then you just won’t ever get there – no matter how many times you pull over to the side of the road, stop the car, get out and apologize. To “repent” is to turn around.

And today’s call to us to repent doesn’t center on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.

At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it is not something to which we can pay lip service – or forehead service – and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We don’t think ourselves into a new state of being. We live and we act ourselves into it.

Both Holy Scripture and the accumulated spiritual insight of our tradition tell us that the classical and ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving are powerful helps as we hear and move toward obeying God’s call to return. They are universally recognized ways of keeping our journey moving in the right direction.

Jesus commands these three, and he goes the extra step of insisting not only that we practice them, but also that we do so privately – indeed, secretly. By the way, Jesus is being quite straightforward here, quite literal. God simply ignores the actions of those who deliberately attract attention to their religious deeds.

That’s why we’re counseled to wash our faces and to go about in quiet obedience. In that way our reward – our growth into Christ and his growth in us – will be something quite safe from rust, and moths, and thieves – and the admiration of others.

So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, return to the Lord – in joyful obedience. For he who created us is calling us to him. To this end, we are given the special gift of Lent – a time to allow us to hear that call with some real depth, and to respond.

 

— 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.

God’s Passion, our passion, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 18, 2014

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

Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story – what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles – one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John, Jesus is Light – and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith, we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today’s world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy at the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know something about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil – specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Even more so, John and his community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

This month, on April 4, we celebrated the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the church we observe the date of the martyr’s death, not his birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination – segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters, Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century’s most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr’s book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” It has been observed that individuals rarely act immorally or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group – however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the “herd mentality” that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history.

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, “goodness” or “godliness” can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which, that year, was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of “rubberneckers” always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences may be for those who dare to act out of goodness and godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day, that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill in her book “The School of Charity”:

 “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.”

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the Last Supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he”; Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit?

It is that “giving up” that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means “spirit,” “breath” and “wind.” All three are understood to come from God. God’s breath is our breath, God’s spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit: the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to evil. To stand our ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or to simply walk away and say we will not participate.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, to how much goodness and godliness even one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John’s, it is that final moment, when Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit – that moment when God’s Passion becomes our Passion.

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is, will we accept his spirit?

Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His Spirit. The world needs your spirit. The church needs your spirit. You can accept His Spirit, which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.

The World needs you. The church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another.

Our choice must be to accept that spirit of goodness and godliness, the spirit of God’s divine charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When we do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good – a very good story. This is why we call it Good Friday!

 

— 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.

Our mandate for this day: Love one another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 17, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The ancient designation of this day, this night, is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.

So, what is our mandate on this day? To love one another.

The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist, what some call Holy Communion, to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. Numerous congregations will have a ceremonial washing of feet.

But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.

This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. Indeed, it has all the elements of a modern crime drama of the worst kind.

In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. Many details are missing from this story. Who prepared the meal? What else did they have to eat? Was anyone else in attendance? These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal of bread and wine during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”

When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.

But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember, and we need to tell if we are to be honest, and if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.

When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” what do we do next?

We break the bread.

Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5,000 chronicled in John’s gospel. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptics, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ate the Passover meal, ate the bread. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Passover sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Jesus was present in the actual bread. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the ritual blood that would redeem the people before God.

Jesus was the Passover sacrifice.

And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, and we break that bread, it is much more than simply breaking bread that we may share it out among the gathered community. It is breaking Jesus all over again, that he may be the ritual sacrifice for us.

We break the bread. We break the Body. We break his body, as we have broken our promises, our commitments, our relationships, our community. All. Over. Again.

This is a pivotal point of the Eucharist, a pivotal point of our Maundy Thursday story, when Jesus is taken whole and consecrated to God, and then broken on the altar of our sins.

In the record of the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal, much as we commemorate in our Eucharist.

In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the Eucharist. So that when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbor, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbors.

John’s relation of the story of this day, this night, has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship.

John’s message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.

“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. As we break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example given us in the Gospel of John, to take care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord.

 

— 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.