Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2015

The blues moan in the gospel shout

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.

Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2015

Washed with holy love

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.

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2015

Good News in the ashes

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.

Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2014

God’s Passion, our passion

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

Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

Our mandate for this day: Love one another

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.

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014

What audience?

March 5, 2014

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

Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?

We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.

Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.

Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”

Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?

Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?

Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.

The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”

Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?

So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?

Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.

Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.

We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.

God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.


— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

‘It is finished’, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 29, 2013

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

“It is finished.”

Many said words like those that day. Pilate pushed himself up from the judgment bench and sighed, “Jesus is finished, another political troublemaker out of the way.”

The religious leaders looked at one another and said in hushed tones, “Jesus is finished. No more offense from him.”

The soldiers as they turned their backs and walked away: “Finished. It is over, our unpleasant but necessary work for the day.”

The crowds as they watched Jesus breathe his last and his head slump down, lifeless: “Finished. The spectacle is over.”

All comments on the moment, comments on the day, comments made by those with limited vision.

Not so with Jesus’ final word, tetelestai, which is Greek for “It is finished.” This is a word of cosmic import, a word of timeless importance, of universal significance. It is finished. Jesus’ last word. It’s just one word in the language of the Bible.

“It is finished” – his concluding declaration, his last word, the final punctuation on a sentence begun before the beginning. With this word of completion, finality – “finished” – we are reminded how all began: in John’s gospel:

“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 were made through him. 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. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”

And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “it is finished,” is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is, before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space, time, through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son: Jesus.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken, lived in love; spoken, sung, breathed, in words such as “And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” Words such as “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love, spoken in actions: touched and touching, taught and teaching, love reaching out, healing, embracing, lifting; calling “beloved” those called wrong, weak, small, outcast, other, sinner.

The Word incarnate spoke love in words, in deeds, spoke love in handing himself over, giving himself up, pouring himself out, until there is nothing left, nothing more needed, just one last breath, one last word. God’s sentence of love spoken across time, space, boundaries, on the cross – spoke its final syllables, in gasps, in an agonized whisper, in pain, yes, but with precision, point and power. This is no giving up, this is declaration: “It is finished.” Period.

Jesus’ word brings forth our words of prayer:

O Jesus, to you, now lifted up, with your arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, in your loving and giving until all is completed, to you in your finishing, we bring all our incompleteness, all our unfinishedness, all those things done and left undone: our fractional loving, our fragmentary living, our unrealized intentions, our unfulfilled potential, our unarticulated praise, our unprayed prayers, our underachieved service, our ungiven forgiveness, our conditional charity, our inadequate hope, our wanting faith, unfinished us, unfinished me. And you say, drawing each of us and our incompleteness all to you, “It is finished.” Period.


The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

The journey from head to heart, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 28, 2013

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

On September 11, 2001, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City to give a presentation to a group of clergy and spiritual directors at Trinity Church on Wall Street. What he hadn’t planned on was being an eyewitness to an epic act of terrorism on American soil. He reflected on his experiences that day in his book “Writing in the Dust: After September 11th.” He opens the book with a contrast between the religious language coopted by the terrorists to justify their horrific violence and the compassion of the secular language of those facing imminent death as they called their loved ones from cell phones in the Twin Towers and on airliners. Williams writes this about those last words:

“The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The nonreligious word are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious” (p. 3).

Holy Week, and especially this time of the Great Three Days known as the Triduum, marks the climatic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of a time fraught with religious drama it is ironic that John’s narrative tells us of Jesus doing something decidedly non-religious – washing his disciples’ feet. This act is not just ordinary and secular, it’s downright scandalous! In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would do such a thing. This is the work of servants, not revered teachers!

And if we are completely honest, like Peter, we are not very comfortable with the idea of our Lord washing our feet either. It’s just too much of a reversal of roles. Jesus, in this intimate act of care for his disciples, subverts the religiosity of his own day with a simple non-religious act of humble service and love.

It is easy for us to gloss over that Jesus was put to death by good, pious, religious people. The pious, religious Romans saw Jesus as a threat to the claim of Caesar himself being an incarnate god. The pious, religious Jews feared Jesus’ teachings and popularity would bring about the wrath of the military might of Rome and utterly destroy Judaism as the Babylonians had tried to do some 600 years before, which belies the sentiment uttered by the High Priest Caiaphas, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

At its best, religious practice is a means of encountering the living God. Through our liturgy, sacraments, corporate prayer, music and art, our religious praxis can elevate the soul and create a conduit of grace by which we can experience God’s presence with us, in us and through us. The danger lies in when we confuse the means with the ends. When religious systems and practices become the end goal, we will use them as a cheap substitute for God. They will denigrate into egocentric structures that we will then feel compelled to defend and protect at all costs.

As Archbishop Williams writes:

“We’d better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes, it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality. … It can be a way of teaching ourselves not to see the particular human agony in front of us; or worse, of teaching ourselves not to see ourselves, our violence, our actual guilt as opposed to our abstract ‘religious’ sinfulness. Our religious talking, seeing, knowing, needs a kind of cleansing” (p. 5).

Religion runs the great risk of becoming a mask we wear as we attempt to hide from a true encounter with Christ and with one another. It becomes a ruse by which we avoid the intimacy of conversion.

If we are completely honest, conversion is terrifying. It requires us to do things we’d rather not do. Conversion requires the death of our own small egocentric self. It demands we release our stranglehold on our need to control, to acquire, to exert power over others, to exploit for our own gain and thus do violence to ourselves and others. Conversion calls us into stripping away our need to be important, relevant, educated, popular and powerful. Conversion requires us to face our own guilt, sin and brokenness honestly and without rationalization. Conversion entails handing over, in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” utterly and completely to the God who is able to love us more completely than we can even love ourselves. And this is terrifying precisely because of the intimacy and honesty conversion exacts from us. Conversion strikes to our very core – to our heart.

It has often been said that the longest journey any of us take in our spiritual life is the approximately 12 inches from the head to the heart. In our industrialized western culture, we have a tendency to live in our heads. Being rational and pragmatic is of high value in our capitalistic, utilitarian world. When we spend all of our time in our heads, our faith is reduced to a set of intellectual assents about God with which we can either agree or disagree. If we stay in this “head faith,” we will find ourselves frustrated by the paradoxes of the scriptures and our traditions. We will grow weary of a prayer life that appears to be nothing more than talking to air and waiting in silence for what seems like no answer at all. We will continue to hide behind religious practices out of habit or guilt, or perhaps even walk away from the whole thing in a bout of cynicism and reject God as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

If, however, we pay attention to the humility and hiddenness of God in Christ, the Spirit is able to guide us into a journey of conversion. We will be led to seek Christ in new ways: not merely in our religious practices, but in the faces of each other and in the ordinary and often messy stuff of relationships. When this happens, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to make space for those we otherwise would have overlooked – the last, the lost, the little, the least and the lifeless. This is why Jesus came to be with us, among us and for us. When we put our trust in Christ he will lead us on the journey from the head to the heart and back again – over and over and over again.

Jesus invites us into this intimate conversion journey just as he invited the 12 that night and, like Peter, we will likely experience an initial resistance to this invitation to intimacy and conversion.

The journey is only about 12 inches. Will you come along?


— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at

‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’, Palm Sunday (C) – 2013

March 24, 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms (RCL): Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s gospel do we find this statement of Jesus from the cross. It is a truly remarkable statement. In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative thing he ever said. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross are a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Now, we may suppose, to pray in a time of great pain and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about Christ’s prayer on the cross is that he does not pray for himself. He does not ask for his own deliverance. He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, his chosen one.” But that is not what he prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first words that Jesus utters upon the cross are a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are his enemies. Not himself. Not even his family and friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayers. And it almost goes without saying, it is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross. With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the soldiers who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And with these words, with this prayer, everything changes. These may be the most revolutionary and transformative words ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Christ takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With these words, with this prayer, Christ shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. In these first words from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violent world. In this prayer from the cross, Christ takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Christ, and in the prayer of Christ for the transformation of the whole world.

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth, as Daniel Migliore puts it in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.” In this prayer, in these words spoken from the cross, Christ opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation and peace.

The first words Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

How long will it take until this weary world of ours wakes up and realizes it?


— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

Love generously, give abundantly, 5 Lent (C) – 2013

March 17, 2013

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

The United States Office of Government Ethics maintains pages and pages of rules related to gift-giving among federal employees. “An employee may never give a gift to the employee’s official superior,” is one such rule. On annual holidays and birthdays, however, an employee is allowed to give his or her superior a gift, so long as it does not have a cash market value of more than $10. Gifts received from outside the office are even more complicated, with anything valued at over $20 deemed unacceptable.

We can imagine that holidays in Executive Branch offices are a little hard to navigate, and probably not a whole lot of fun.

The reasoning behind these types of rules is good, of course. Expensive gifts to one’s boss could be seen as bribes, and the same goes for outside parties trying to influence the interests of government employees. It is an ethics issue, and an important one. But suspicion surrounding generous gifts does not begin and end in bureaucratic offices, and it’s not always for good cause. We seem to suffer from a common cultural wariness where extravagance is concerned. Whether we distrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel somehow at a loss by our own inability to reciprocate, lavishness and generosity can make us uncomfortable.

Today’s reading from John’s gospel tells a story of extravagant giving – giving that made Judas just as uncomfortable as it might make us. Jesus is in the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for the very last time. He stops to spend the evening with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead not long before. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ good friends, are there as well, making dinner, catching up and sharing in fellowship.

We don’t know a whole lot about the conversations that went on around Lazarus’ dinner table that night, but by the time that our story unfolds – the story of the uncomfortable, generous giving – it seems that almost everyone is on the same page. Almost everyone knows what is going to happen next for Jesus, and probably for Lazarus, too.

When Lazarus came back to life and tumbled from his tomb, the word about Jesus spread even farther than it already had. This was Jesus’ most incredible miracle yet – the defeat of death itself – and it caused many people to believe in him. As more began to believe, however, others began to fear. Before Lazarus could even change out of his burial clothes, the Pharisees had begun their plot to have Jesus killed, sure that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy everything that they held dear. The very act of giving life to Lazarus was the catalyst that led Jesus toward death.

Gathered around the dinner table, Lazarus’ family seems to know what is coming. They are about to lose their dear friend. They may even know that Lazarus’ new life is at stake. Having been raised from the dead, he is as much a risk to the status quo as the man who raised him. The time is short and the grief is plentiful as they break bread together in Bethany.

Scarcity and abundance are the twin themes of Lent. In this season we have walked through the wilderness, challenging our reliance on the comfortable and known, replacing old habits with new disciplines. We travel the road toward Jerusalem, week after week, ever mindful of the suffering we will find there. It is a slow, plodding course, and one that we know well. Soon we will stand at the foot of the cross and watch as our Lord breathes his last. Viewed from only one direction, this is a very dark season. And yet, we are always mindful of how the story ends. We walk through the shadow of the Lenten valley knowing that while Jesus’ time on earth is scarce, God’s grace is abundant. Even as we struggle in the wilderness, God is at work making rivers in the desert. Easter is just around every corner.

In today’s gospel, we are treated to two different ways of being in the world; two examples of how one might confront scarcity. This is an old book, but here we learn that people are people throughout time and in all places. The Pharisees – and eventually, the Roman authorities – feel their stronghold threatened, and in the face of loss they choose to tighten their grip. By plotting to kill Jesus, they hope to stop their sense of helplessness in its very tracks by asserting what control they can.

Mary, on the other hand, has a different approach. We don’t know exactly what she is feeling when she slips from the table and kneels at Jesus’ feet with a pound of expensive perfumed oil. However, her silence seems to say something on its own. In gratitude for her brother’s life, in grief for her friend’s life, in total fear for the future, words fail Mary. So, instead of speaking, she lavishes her Lord with an absurdly abundant gift: perfume that would cost as much as a year’s total wages. This is a profuse gesture – sensuous and rich and effusive. John tells us that the whole room filled with fragrance as Mary anointed Jesus. We can imagine the cringing gestures as some disciples – including Judas Iscariot – look away from this woman, lost for words, absorbed in her task, who uses her own hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is all just too much.

In this little story, we see that there are at least two ways of dealing with scarcity: we can seek to control what we can, or we can give all we’ve got.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the dinner at Bethany is when Judas finally speaks up. He thinks that Mary is being wasteful, that the money that she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. Thank God for John’s little parenthetical reference, where he lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse, otherwise we would find ourselves precariously close to nodding our heads in agreement. “Yeah,” we might think. “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We can find a much more righteous way to use this kind of wealth.” It is not Judas’ criticism that makes this moment uncomfortable for us, but how easily we find ourselves agreeing with history’s greatest turncoat.

Many of us have probably been here before. We have found ourselves uncomfortable in the face of generosity, and criticized it in order to limit its power. We’ve also probably stood alongside Mary. We have allowed ourselves to give to our heart’s content – to lavish our love on someone or something else – only to have our motive mocked or suspiciously picked apart. When this happens once, we rarely want to risk it happening again.

Sometimes our culture – and perhaps our human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, and of course, in many ways this is wise. But our God is not a God of cost-benefit analyses. No, our God calls us to love without counting the cost. It would be a brave new Lenten discipline to engage the final days of this season as Mary would: to love generously, just because; to meet our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives, and embrace it. Knowing what we know about how the story ends and about how God will make rivers in the desert, wouldn’t we rather stand with Mary in the perfumed room than with the Pharisees in their powerful chambers?


— The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Omaha, Neb. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.