What is Truth?, Good Friday (C) – 2016

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

“What is truth?”

That famous question Pilate asks, stares us in the face every year on Good Friday. The fact that it seemingly is left unanswered remains a challenge to us. Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in verbally defining truth. He says that He IS the way, and the truth, and the life, and Jesus says that he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that those who belong to the truth listen to him, but he never gives a philosophical definition of the truth.

Jesus seems less interested in defining the truth and much more interested in showing us the truth. He’s interested in having us see the truth as a living thing, and to see ourselves as belonging to it, as being a part of it. But being human means we have multiple truth claims weighing on us. The truth of the world, the way it is, and the truth of God’s realm—the way God dreams the world to be, the way we believe it can be. Those multiple claims are at the crux of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” or maybe which truth do you mean?

But Jesus doesn’t respond in words to Pilate’s question. Instead he reveals the answer with his life, death, and resurrection. The Passion reveals a deep truth about the way the world is. Not the world that God created and pronounced good… but the world that we have created. The world we have made out of fear. Out of shame. Out of bitterness. Out of our desperate need to hide our own tender wounds. In our desperation and fear, we try to make it someone else’s fault; we cast blame and cry out for the blood of someone else, an innocent, over and over and over. The Passion reveals the worst in us. Reveals the truth of the hideous things we’re capable of when we’re afraid. When we’re ashamed.

Of course it also reveals an even deeper truth about who God is and how God responds to our shame and fear. The truth that Jesus shows with his life and ministry is a profound challenge to the world we have made. The truth that Jesus shows us is that no matter how benign and beneficial we might think our human systems and structures are; they are all fallen. We are all fallen. Our world is infected with injustice. Jesus demonstrated with his life, with his teachings, and with his death the truth about this infectious injustice, and the human cost that is always required for maintaining unjust structures of power. All through his life and his death he shows us God’s loud “NO” to the dominant systems of this world, and God’s louder “YES” to way of hope, peace, and justice.

These are truths that we can see with the help of the cross, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Pilate has a chance to see these truths as well. He is the local representative of the dominant system after all, and in this conversation with Jesus he has a chance to hear and see and be transformed, but Pilate can only see the world in terms of earthly kings, and he so turns away from the revelation of the Truth standing before him. Once the crowd reasserts their commitment to the status quo, loudly affirming that they have no king but Caesar, Pilate turns away and goes back to business as usual. And once Jesus is nailed to the cross the crowd, no longer interested in the spectacle, also turns away and goes back to business as usual.

All four of the Gospel accounts of these events have significant, subtle differences. In John’s version there are no earthquakes, no darkness covering the earth, no temple curtains being torn in two. In John, Jesus simply dies on a cross, and is put in a tomb. The empire doesn’t strike back so much as it just continues. People return to their lives of luxury or labor. The status quo remains the status quo – unabated and unchallenged.

How often do we catch a glimpse of this life-giving, world-altering truth and then go back to business as usual? How tempting is it for us to turn away? To not look at or accept this truth. The truth that we are capable of this horror… that the Passion takes place because of the world we have made, the world we are content to live in every day. We are constantly at risk of turning away – turning away from the cross of Christ, and turning away from all the crucified people of every generation – and returning to the status quo. It’s so very easy to close our eyes, to change the channel, turn the page, walk away telling ourselves that the reality, the truth, of the cross doesn’t really have anything to do with us. “What is truth?” But in hiding from or averting our eyes from that truth, we risk missing an opportunity for transformation that God is always holding out for us.

The first act in repentance, the first move toward redemption, the first stance of transformation is simply to not turn away. To not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino calls this “the primordial demand.” “To let ourselves be affected,” he writes, “to feel pain over lives cut short or endangered, to feel indignation over the injustice behind the tragedy, to feel shame over the way we have ruined this planet, that we have not undone the damage and are not planning to do so, all this is important,” he says, because it spurs us into helpful action. But even more importantly he says, “It roots us firmly in the truth and forces us to overcome the unreality in which we live.”[1] It roots us firmly in the Truth, the truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The truth that God’s dream is greater than the world’s nightmare. The truth that God’s “yes” is deeper and more profound than the empire’s “no.” It is when we face reality—when we face the truth—when we bear witness to the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all the crucified people around the world—that is when salvation and redemption begins.

It cannot be a coincidence that the first people who see Jesus on Sunday morning are the same ones who refuse to look away from his death on Friday; those who watch through the whole bloody execution, who accompany his body to the tomb, and who come again to prepare his lifeless corpse for burial; they are the ones who are the first to experience the truth of the resurrection. The truth of Jesus’ life. The truth of God’s “yes.”

What is truth? The cross reveals the truth. The truth of the pain and suffering that continues to exist in the world because of the inhuman demands of our unjust systems and structures. But also the truth that for those who are willing to join themselves to a community that continues to look on the cross and strives to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting, who are marginalized, who are still being sacrificed – crucified – every day, the cross also opens up the way of transformation and salvation. May we be given the strength to never turn away from the cross, and to live more fully into the truth, the way and the life as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.


Download the sermon for Good Friday.

Written by The Reverend Richard Burden, PhD 

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.   

[1] Sobrino, John. Where Is God?: Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope. Orbis Books.

Shareholders and Partners with Jesus, Maundy Thursday (C) – 2016

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

You can’t help but to love Simon Peter. He’s a disciple who is transparent. Perhaps we are drawn to him, because like us he constantly makes mistakes and needs grace and forgiveness. Scripture tells us a lot about Simon Peter. He was known to be boisterous, he had an impulsive enthusiasm for his good intentions, and his posture waved back and forth between self-confidence and egotism.

Scripture tells us he was a master fisherman on the Lake of Galilee and one of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends and the first to recognize and verbally confess Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus had full access to Peter’s boat and house. It was on Peter’s boat that Jesus spoke to the crowds on the shore. It was Peter and his brothers who, after a fruitless night of fishing, listened to Jesus and cast their nets on the right side of the boat for their remarkable catch. Peter was often the spokes person for the disciples.

Peter was in Jesus’ inner circle, he accompanied Jesus when he went to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He was there to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration. And though his eyelids got heavy and he feel asleep at times, he watched as Jesus prayed for his cup to be removed. Peter was the one who walked on water and then he started to over think it and doubt…we all know what happened next.

And, though not in the version of the Bible we use, The Gospel according to Peter exists and scholars explicitly claim it to be the work of the Apostle Peter.

In spite of Peter’s many shortcomings, Jesus said to him “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

So it comes as no real surprise at all that Peter is the one who voices his uneasiness and disapproval towards what Jesus is doing in this gospel text. Just imagine Peter watching Jesus washing the feet of the other disciples and realizing his turn is coming up – he probably had flashbacks. He probably thought: ‘Oh, if I had enough faith to continue walking on that water… maybe I would be worthy for Him to wash my feet. Or maybe I should have shut up and listened more. Maybe that would have made me worthy for the Son of God, my Messiah to wash my feet. Maybe I should not have outed him and called him Messiah… I’m definitely not worthy. I am a sinner.’

If Simon Peter suffered from an anxiety disorder, this situation would have sent him into a full-blown anxiety attack. By the time Jesus gets to Peter, he has totally convinced himself of how unworthy he is. His natural response in his impulsive enthusiastic way is “No way am I letting you wash my feet… I should be washing yours, Jesus… You are the Lord… I am your servant…unworthy…let me wash yours…”

We get like that with Jesus too, don’t we?

We remind Jesus of our shortcomings, of the things we didn’t do, can’t do, or don’t do well. When in actuality Jesus wants to wash our feet. Jesus wants to make us shareholders and partners in His work. We convince ourselves that, because of our past, because of our failings, we are unworthy. We do not allow Christ to wash our feet. To say the same thing another way, we refuse to become shareholders and partners with Christ.

It’s important to note that generally it was the servants’ job to wash their master’s feet, not the other way around. But it’s just like Jesus; just like our Lord, it’s just in His nature to upset social norms, isn’t it?

The key to the symbolism of the foot washing lies in the conversation between Jesus and Peter. It is difficult to be certain whether, since he was often the spokesperson, Peter is voicing a concern of the group or if he is acting impulsively on his own. Maybe the other disciples thought that they deserved to have Jesus wash their feet.

Nevertheless, whatever the reason, Jesus’ gesture is definitely an invitation to be a shareholder in God’s work, the invitation to become partner. Jesus’ response to Peter is characteristic to who Jesus is. His response to Peter in light of his adamant objection to his feet being washed can possibly be the mantra by which we all live our lives. “You don’t understand now what I’m doing, but it will be clear enough to you later…” There is a lot of truth to Kierkegaard’s quote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Jesus goes on to say “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”

Foot washing is symbolic of humility, loving servant-hood and partnership. What Jesus was saying to Peter is that foot washing is so important that without it a disciple is not in partnership with Him. Without it you cannot share in the ministry of Jesus, you’re not part of what Jesus is doing. Matthew 12:30 states: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters.” Jesus is showing Peter by example as opposed to dictatorship that without humility and loving servant-hood, partnership is not possible.

And Jesus says the same to us today in 2016. As we go into Easter and beyond we are called to wash each other’s feet. By extending love through servant-hood we realize we are being shareholders and maintaining our partnership with Christ.

In having Jesus wash our feet, in washing each other’s feet…what we are saying is “yes” to God again. Yes, I want in on your ministry; your servant ministry; your ministry of love; your ministry of healing; your ministry of blessing. That’s what we do every Maundy Thursday, in the symbolic washing of each other’s feet. We are vowing that we are shareholders and partners with Christ by serving Christ and being served by Christ.

Richard Gillard the New Zealand composer is known for penning the words to a hymn called “The Servant Song”. He gives language to the symbolism of the foot washing action we perform in his powerful words. These words ring true on this Maundy Thursday.

Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too. 

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
To let you be my servant too.


Download the sermon for Maundy Thursday.

Written by The Reverend Arlette Benoit

The Rev. Arlette Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. Rev. Benoit was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Rev. Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assists and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Rev. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Rev. Benoit now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Lent 5C. 

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

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

Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32

The Prodigal Son is a story familiar to all of us and movingly depicted in art, drama and dance. We like stories like this; ones with happy endings where people come to their senses and are restored to the family.

But that isn’t how it always happens, is it? We know of many estrangements between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. A mother recently phoned her ex husband whom she had divorced many years ago. She wanted to have his help to restore her relationship with her lost daughter; but, as her husband told her, “That ship has sailed.” Her daughter was no longer interested, and there was apparently nothing her mother could do to change that.

The parable emphasizes that God is not like that in how God loves us. God desires our return, which is one of the themes of Lent. We, like sheep, have gone astray.

Now, deep in Lent some of us begin to learn the cost. We are hungry for the bread of life; weary of the cheap and tawdry excesses that we choose because that is what we are taught is living by the world.

Today we are invited to holy living, a turning around, and a return to sanity; a restoration of our relationship with our creator and redeemer. Even though we took the cheap route and asked for grace in advance, even though we tried it all in our flagrant lives of spending and using the resources we should have husbanded and shared, there is a pull to return.

Perhaps you have decided Lent hasn’t worked out for you this year. There were too many distractions: projects at work, income taxes, wintery weather, stress, nothing offered at Church you were interested in – the list can be as long as you like. Maybe next year.

Or, maybe now? All it takes for the prodigal son is to turn around. Just one action changes everything. He has a speech rehearsed, but picture in your mind the father seeing his son from afar and running to meet him. Do you think he waited for the son’s speech? Of course not. He ran to him and embraced him. The time to talk came later. In one sequence from a ballet version of this story the son crawls up to his father, then the son climbs up onto him, and his father, who is wearing a voluptuous robe, embraces his son until he is completely enfolded in the robe. That is the vision that awaits us.

So, harmony restored and back in the fold, life for us can go on. But that is not why we have the story of the Prodigal Son today. The intention of this parable is more than just a restoration of relationships with a loving God.

The passage from Second Corinthians begins with the words:

“From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view… we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

This business of being reconciled isn’t about us as much as it is about what we are commissioned to do. We are to be ambassadors for Christ. Or, as we are instructed in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [we] may be.”

We cannot do this without our relationship with God and each other, and that restoration gives us the energy and guidance to do the work for which we were baptized. As is often said, “You may be the best Christian someone has ever met.” And then, like the father in the parable, we wait patiently, prayerfully, for the return of those to whom we are sent.

Lent is not just about each of our journeys and us. It is also about to whom we are sent and how we minister to the other, the stranger, the friend, the family member who see no need for a relationship with God or the community of faith. It is about having the strength to give a cup of cold water to the least and the lost. It is about sorrowing over what we have done to creation and finding ways to help restore it. It is about sewing seeds of hope in the midst of darkness and chaos.

So far Lent may have been nothing to you. But today determine it is the time for you to approach the holy table with repentance and faith that God meets you and will feed you with the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Savor this moment as a time when God is reaching out to you, hoping you will return. Let God’s arms enfold you, and feel the removal of all your sins. Then, having been fed the bread of life, walk out the door into God’s world prepared to be an ambassador for Christ. The Spirit will direct you to whom you are to go. Amen.

Download the sermon for Lent 4C.

Written by Ben E. Helmer

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


What Did They Do to Deserve That?, Lent 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8

What did they do to deserve that?

Jesus knew questions like this were on people’s minds when they came to tell him horrible news: Pilate – yes, the same Pontius Pilate who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus – slaughtered some Galilean Jews. Making Pilate’s appalling action even more offensive is that he did this terrible thing while they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem.

It’s Jesus who asks the questions on everyone’s minds: Is it because those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans that this happened to them? Did they do something to deserve such an awful death?

And it’s Jesus who gives the answer: No.

Or when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they stood in the wrong place at the time, is that because they were sinners? Jesus says no.

The question is this. Is God keeping track in some gold-leafed ledger who’s been naughty or nice and whether to respond with earthly punishments or rewards? The answer is no. Does God allow tyrants to kill people or tsunamis to drown people because they’ve done something to deserve it? No.

Another time some people ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither.” says Jesus, and he cures the man of his blindness. Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin.

Yet, it’s a persistent question. And it goes with a persistent assumption, that somehow what people get in life is what they deserve – that there must be a connection between the sorts of people they are and the bad or good things that come their way in life. We’ve heard people say, “I wonder what he did to deserve that?” or make pronouncements, “this plague/natural disaster/fill in the blank is God’s punishment for their sin.”

Well, says Jesus, take it from me, that is not how it works. Sometimes we do suffer as a direct result of some wrong we have done, some bad decision, some action we’ve neglected to take and we suffer the consequences. Mistreat your body, and you will get hurt. Mistreat a friend, and you may damage your friendship. The negative consequences of our actions can be clear. But sometimes we’re confused, not when we can see how a mistake or bad action has led to suffering, but when we’ve been good, done right, tried hard, and still, nevertheless, we suffer.

As Christians, we really shouldn’t be so surprised when this happens. The idea that only good things happen to good people should have been put to rest when Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Christian faith is no magic protection against tragedy. The cross is our central symbol – the cross, where an innocent man died the death of a criminal. Nonetheless, Christians have long wondered why bad things happen to people, even good people. In his book The City of God, St. Augustine considered the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome, and he noted that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy.

So, no we can’t look at tragedy and assume that someone did something to deserve it.

“But,” Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What kind of a reply is that?

Jesus is not saying that questions are bad or that ‘why’ isn’t a vital human question. Jesus is saying, don’t be distracted by the wrong question. To Jesus, the ‘why’ isn’t important. God made us in love and gave us free will, freedom to choose how to respond, how to act. In freedom, humans have written symphonies and started wars. God made a dynamic world in which natural things change and evolve into beautiful new forms of life and into cancer cells.

A good question to ask, according to Jesus, isn’t: what did she do to deserve that suffering? The much more important question is: how is your relationship with God? Jesus says don’t be distracted by looking at what happened to someone else. Don’t spend your time wondering what must someone have done to deserve what they are going through. Instead, look at yourself – while you still have time.

Jesus refuses to get caught up in the question of whether or not someone else deserves to suffer, and instead asks another question: What in your life needs repenting, acknowledging, and turning around? What needs to be turned over to God? What needs to be forgiven?

Things will happen. And while the gift of earthly life is still ours, we need to ask ourselves, how is our relationship with God? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Are we relieving the suffering of others or just pointing our fingers at them and trying to connect the dots between their suffering and sin?

Our own repentance is the issue, because deserving isn’t. The scandal at the heart of our faith is that God already loves us; that God doesn’t need a ledger or tally sheet because we don’t do anything to deserve God’s love. We have no favor to earn, because God already sees us as God’s beloved ones. All we have to do is live and explore the amazing mystery of our acceptance. We can’t lose God’s favor and make bad things happen to us because we don’t earn God’s favor in the first place.

Life is short. Don’t be distracted by the wrong questions. And don’t be disappointed if Jesus asks you to love God more than you love answers. Because Jesus will do that. When people asked him questions he often responded not with an answer, but with a story. Like he did in the next part of the Gospel lesson.

A man planted a fig tree. The fig tree used up a lot of nutrients but didn’t produce any figs. “Why should I let this do-nothing fig tree use up good soil?” asked the man. “Cut it down.” But the gardener replies, “Let it be for one more year. I will do everything I can for it. If it bears fruit, great! If not, cut it down.”

The gardener in this story is not efficient, practical, or exercising his authority to do what’s most logical. He’s going to waste more nutrients, efforts, and space on a tree that doesn’t show any signs of producing figs.

Does the fig tree deserve it?

That’s not the question. It’s just a story about a fig tree and an extravagant gardener who should remind us of another gardener from way back in the beginning, who just couldn’t help it when he picked up some dirt. God just had to form it into a human and breathe life into it. God just had to make it into someone to love, someone who would be free to choose to love in return. Maybe we can hear this gardener at work in our own lives, saying, “Wait. Give me another year. I’ll do all that I can to nurture this tree.”

Download to the sermon for Lent 3C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. Amy Richter

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.


Loving Like a Mother Hen, Lent 2(C) – 2016

[RCL] Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

One moonlit night a Fox was prowling about a farmer’s chicken coop, and saw a Hen roosting high up beyond his reach. “Good news, good news!” he cried.

“Why, what is that?” said the Hen.

“King Lion has declared a universal truce. No beast may hurt a bird henceforth, but all shall dwell together in brotherly friendship.”

“Why, that is good news,” said the Hen; “and there I see someone coming, with whom we can share the good tidings.” And so saying she craned her neck forward and looked far off.

“What is it you see?” said the Fox.

“It is only my master’s Dog that is coming towards us. What, going so soon?” she continued, as the Fox began to turn away. “Will you not stop and congratulate the Dog on the reign of universal peace?”

“I would gladly do so,” said the Fox, “but I fear he may not have heard of King Lion’s decree.”

What do you think is the moral of Aesop’s fable? The answer: Cunning often outwits itself.

There are parallels between this fable and our Gospel story today. Herod is the Fox, Jesus is Hen, perhaps John the Baptist is the Dog, and King Lion is God, of course. Although the Fox lied to the Hen about King Lion’s decree of universal peace, we know a different story from God. The truth is that the kingdom of God is at hand and it is present in deep and surprising ways.

How often do we use the term ‘mother hen’ when we refer to a person who is especially nurturing to and protective of those they love? What an interesting metaphor Jesus uses in the Gospel reading – God trying to gather God’s children together just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. A hen is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a protective animal. We would sooner imagine a lion or a fierce bird of prey, something with fangs or talons. Yet, the lowly chicken is the image that Jesus chooses to demonstrate this relationship between God and us. God, the mother hen, calls us to the safety of the nest, underneath those downy wings, behind the heart that beats beneath her vulnerable breast. There is power in this image. Power tied to Abram’s covenant with God. Power tied with strength in vulnerability and with relationship.

Today, fear is our fuel: fear of those who are different, fear of death, fear of our own shortcomings, and fear that the things we value will be taken away from us. In response, we write contracts: contracts for services, contracts for jobs, prenuptial contracts, and, as wonderful and helpful as wills can be, they too, are contracts to make sure the people and things we value will be cared about in the way we want them to be when we are gone. Contracts are about legal protection within relationships. This is where they differ from a covenant, especially a covenant with God.

When Abram creates the covenant with God in our reading today, he is executing an ancient practice. A covenant, ratified in blood, is all encompassing. If you were to make a covenant with your best friend today, it would mean that everything that belonged to them also belonged to you and vice versa. If your best friend happened to have a mansion and a heap of creditors hounding them, guess what? You’ve got that, too. A contract would protect you from the bad, but a covenant guarantees that you are in relationship and if one goes down, you both go. On the flip side, that also means if one succeeds, so does the other.

God has established covenants with a variety of people and under a variety of circumstances: with Noah, the rainbow promising that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood; With Abram, through animal sacrifice, and later, as Abraham, through circumcision; With Mary, through the blood that came with birthing Jesus, and Jesus himself, who sets his face to Jerusalem so that his blood can become another tie that binds us.

Jesus knew his identity as a prophet and the Son of God. He tells the Pharisees, “Go and tell that fox [Herod] for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus knows the stakes of being what he is and yet, he follows God’s call to him. He sees the role of God as one of a mother hen gathering her brood under her protective wings, safe from the ravages of the foxes of life. In Luke’s time, that meant not just Jerusalem or Israel, but the Gentiles as well. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus encounters, we are often not willing to be gathered in with people that are not like us, instead taking our chances elsewhere. We think we are truly free, but instead are even more at risk and vulnerable to the sly seductions of the foxes among us.

If you are familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house then you know that most times the mother hen herds her chicks under her wings for protection and bares her breast so that the fox must kill her first before it can get to her chicks. It is the only defense she has. Later, there will be a flutter of feathers and motherless chicks running around but at least they are alive, though their mother may be dead. They are given the chance to live. This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us: our covenant with God means that everything of God’s is also ours, even Jesus, God’s own son.

The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God. We learn that faith grows through use. The more we encounter our vulnerable God, the more we understand the strength of our own vulnerability. We must choose to live this type of faith each day. When we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, it reminded us exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are called to something more than living for ourselves and satisfying our contracts. Our God is not the belly, as it says in Philippians. We are called to be the chicks that lead the way to our mother hen: our God.

In our baptism, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. We are charged with an imperative call to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the foxes of the world in the hope that our loved ones may live in the light of our vulnerability. Called to love like someone who is in covenant with God. A fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses. When we live this way, we will know the reign of universal peace described in this Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. May the peace of God and the God of peace be with you for evermore.


Download the sermon for Lent 2C.

Written by the Rev. Danae Ashley

The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the Associate Priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC.

Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016

[RCL] Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

It is the first Sunday in Lent and it seems as if Advent was just a few days ago. During Advent and Christmas we were confronted with the scandal of the incarnation: the wondrous and terrifying news that God entered our humanity in a specific place, at a designated time, in the form of a particular man – Jesus of Nazareth. We hardly had time to catch our breath when Epiphany arrived and we watched with wonder as the reality of Incarnation was acknowledged by the wise of this world, the magi, and by the unorthodox within the religious community, John of the wilderness, John the baptizer. We stood in awe as Jesus emerged from the waters of the river to hear the words that would set him apart while at the same time plunging him into the sufferings and joys of daily living: the words uttered at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

How can one hear these words and not feel frightened or ready to run away? The evangelists tell us that Jesus decides to withdraw for a while. He goes to the wilderness to think upon these words and their meaning, as they would affect the rest of his life. We know almost nothing of his previous years, but it is obvious at his baptism that he had spent them obeying and acting upon the will of God. Otherwise, those crucial words would not have been uttered: “with you I am well pleased.” So we come to the great temptations in the wilderness, the beginning of both his ministry and the start of the road that would lead to crucifixion. Matthew and Luke tell us that the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. Mark, who in his usual laconic manner uses only two verses to describe the experience, says: “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Now, we enter Lent with a strong awareness of the incarnation, of the full humanity of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are. The vivid metaphors of those days in the wilderness show that he was tempted in the most intense manner possible. “He emptied himself,” St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “taking the form of the slave.” Jesus responds to the most powerful temptations that can be aimed at a human being by taking the form of a slave.

We don’t know exactly what span of time forty days actually means because this number is so common in the writings of the times and so imbedded in the Hebrew stories. Obviously, it was a considerable span of fasting and of profound thinking and wrestling. The evangelist tells us that at the end of the fasting period he was “famished.” In that weakened state he is offered the temptation of using his exceptional powers for magic and for his own benefit. “Turn this stone into bread, come on. It’s easy for you. You are not like everybody else. You can use your remarkable powers to help yourself.”

A person who is starving will do anything to relieve the pangs of hunger. Those who have more than enough to eat find it very difficult to understand the urgency of this need. Starvation is overwhelming because it is life threatening. Jesus turns temptation on its head by using the scriptures he must have memorized during the years of his preparation for ministry. “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” What good does it do us to take care only of the body and to forget to feed on God’s words? The second part of the verse quoted is often neglected; it is important for us to remember that Jesus never neglected it.

How useful it is to be immersed in the words that sustained Jesus. How much would we be helped if we memorized enough of the Bible to sustain us in times of trouble and temptation? The pattern of his ministry emerges: in each instance he rejects the easy way, the magic, if you will, by feeding on the words of the holy scriptures that he understood so fully.

The second temptation is one that every politician today would fail miserably: the chance to be given authority and power in exchange for worshipping power, greed, human pride and arrogance. The culture of the developed world worships money and guns. It is a culture passionately adopted by those who long for similar power. Someone once suggested that the money spent on one airplane intended for war would educate every college student in America for years to come. If this isn’t idolatry, it’s hard to figure out what this temptation means. We see people selling their souls for power while children are shot, starved, made sick by contaminated water, or drowned in the seas while their families try to escape bombing and destruction. The list of offenses is unending but the answer that Jesus provides takes us back to the original commandment to worship the one God, the Creator. Imagine a world where the leaders prayed constantly, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Following the wilderness, Jesus would spend the rest of his short life turning aside from all temptations to put his self first. Even when someone calls him good he says, “No one is good but the Father.” At every instance of living he was connected to his father by prayer, and because of that he did not falter. People marvel at Jesus’ authority, but he knew that he acted on God’s authority.

The third temptation is even more intriguing because the Tempter, Satan, the Devil, whichever name you prefer for the power that opposes God, this tempter uses Scripture to accomplish his purpose. Listen to the pundits and the false prophets, to those who make money by taking advantage of the poor, listen to them and hear how they too use Scripture to accomplish their dark purposes. “Take a chance with your life,” the tempter says to Jesus. “No matter what chances you take, God is supposed to take care of you. You are a favorite of God’s, aren’t you?” There is in all of us a tendency to bargain with God and a great temptation to misuse scripture for our own purposes. Out of such misuse wars have arisen. Jesus is adamant on this: You shall not put your God to the test.

Both Matthew and Luke agree that when, finally, the terrible temptations were finished and the tempter left him alone he did so only for a while. “Until an opportune time,” Luke writes. Because of the incarnation, Jesus would be tempted again. There is that heart-breaking time when Peter tries to dissuade him from following the road that would lead to his death. After all, the tradition did not say anything about Messiah suffering and dying! But Jesus hears in Peter’s rebuke, the echo of Satan’s temptation: “I have the authority, I will give it to you.” Once again Jesus turns away from the temptation, and from his good friend, knowing that his own way of obedience to God would lead to his early death.

This is how the season of Lent begins, with the victory of Jesus over temptation. The knowledge that he belongs to God and to God alone keeps him from succumbing to any thought that he might rely on his own powers alone. The knowledge of Scriptures, of the words of the Lord, as Jesus describes them, becomes a shield to protect him from the meddling of the tempter. Jesus’ connection is never torn because, in prayer, he always turns to God. May it be so with us.

Download the sermon for Lent 1C.

Written by Katerina Whitley

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Katerina Katsarka emigrated at 16 years of age to the United States to study music and literature. After her English degree she spent years studying theology and teaching children of all ages. In the 1980s she edited Cross Current for the Diocese of East Carolina. In the nineties, she worked for the then Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief in New York as a church journalist. She wrote and created all the public relations material for the Fund and traveled to 26 countries to witness and report on the Fund’s grants. She free-lanced as essayist for two decades and then started writing books. She has six books in circulation, five biblically based books published by Morehouse and one, her cookbook, published by Globe-Pequot/Lyons Press. Her latest books, two novels, are waiting publication. She lives in Louisville and is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Contact Katerina: katsarkakk@gmail.com

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.

The altar is our banquet table, 4 Lent (C) – 2013

March 10, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One year at the start of Lent, a sweet-natured seminarian with a wickedly funny approach to theology decided to give up his vegetarianism for the duration.

Part of his motivation was his absurd sense of humor and his great gift to be able to laugh at himself. But he also wanted to tweak his fellow seminarians about this whole Lenten discipline thing. During Lent, we always give up something we think is somehow bad for us anyway – alcohol, chocolate, dessert in general.

Food and drink ranks high on the Lenten give-up list.

It was a real struggle for this seminarian to, as he put it, become a carnivore again. Changing his diet that drastically, even for 40 days, made him newly aware of what he was eating, and made him consider why.

He knew that food matters and so do we. We know this as human beings and as spiritual beings. We must eat to live and we must kill to eat, even if we’re vegetarian. Those simple facts make eating a mysterious act of commitment to ourselves, to the world and to each other. We’re communing with the world.

We know how important food is to relationships. The bond of friendship is never truly cemented until we eat together. When someone dies, or is sick, one of our first instincts is to make some food and take it to the family. It’s as if, unconsciously, in the midst of illness and death, we acknowledge that we are still alive.

Think of all the times when it seemed your world was falling apart and you could barely find a reason to get up in the morning. A friend came by with a casserole and said: “You really need to eat something.” Translation: “You really need to go on living despite this loss that makes living seem impossible.”

As a people who gather around this table every week, we understand the symbolic power of sharing a meal together. Many of us who did not grow up Episcopalian joke that we came into this denomination because Episcopalians really know how to eat, and perhaps they’re not talking just about the coffee hour and the spaghetti supper.

In this morning’s readings, we hear of a people who celebrate their passing over into a new land and a family that celebrates the return of one of their members. They all celebrate with food.

The Israelites no longer need manna now that they’ve crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land where food is abundant.

The Prodigal Son arrives home destitute and hungry, and his father celebrates by serving everyone the sweet meat of the fatted calf.

Yet, these images are not all so sweet. Frankly, the first one might leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

The Israelites celebrate the end of their wilderness years with a feast. Granted, it’s only parched grain, but it must have seemed nice to not to have to worry if the manna would in fact show up every morning and the quail every night.

What about the Canaanites, though, whose crops the Israelites take for their celebration? The Israelites are invaders camped outside of Jericho. Soon they will lay waste to the Canaanite city, in the name of their God. They will kill every human being except Rahab and her friends who spy for them. They will kill every animal. They will drag off all the gold, silver, iron and bronze, declare that it all belongs to their God and deposit it in their treasury.

This story is part of our heritage as Christians. Yet, what if those are the not Canaanites, but instead are Oglala Sioux or Cherokee?

The story from Joshua might sound different if we recall what the people who came to this Promised Land did to the American Indians. There has been much thievery and death committed in the name of God and of religion.

At the very least, the implications of this story might make us wonder during this time of self-examination called Lent. They might make us wonder about of our own sense of entitlement. Do I expect that I will get certain things because of who I am, what I do for a living or what God I call my own?

There may be the same sense of entitlement lurking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Not all of the experts agree about whether the son really had a conversion experience out there with the pigs, or felt at least a little bit of regret and thus turned toward home. Some say the boy sounds a bit calculating:

“Let’s see, I am starving, but my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. I am slopping these unclean pigs, which, as a good Jewish boy, I would never own, much less eat. No one will feed me.

“I know – I’ll go home to my father and say whatever I have to, to get him to take me back. Then I can at least have the bread he’s giving to the hired hands. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Is he the least bit worried about his reception? After all, he’d declared his father dead so that he could have his inheritance early. Did he think he was entitled to even more from his father?

No matter the son’s motivation, there was his father ready to feast in joy and to feed him. No strings attached. No gotcha. No asking, “Now, have you learned your lesson?” We could call it unfair, as did the older brother. Or we could call it forgiveness and unconditional love, as did the father.

He gets “forgiveness with music and dancing,” as one preacher puts it. Forgiveness can seem so somber and fraught with seriousness, perhaps because of the circumstances that created the need for forgiveness.

Forgiving does not come easily to most of us. We have to learn about it. Often, we feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Yet, when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, we can think of all sorts of reasons why this is precisely the ultimate fair thing to do.

Perhaps forgiveness, whether given or received, is not about fairness. Perhaps it is about love, and perhaps it is a gift of generosity purchased with the knowledge that each one of us is a mixture of good and evil, capable of great love and great mistakes.

Forgiveness is a gift that we give and receive because of God’s promise of unconditional love – the love that welcomes us back home each time we have wandered away.

Jesus lived this promise. He opened his table to everyone. The Pharisees and scribes sneered about how Jesus welcomed sinners and dined with outcasts. And now, Jesus has become for us the bread of life, as the collect for today says.

The altar is our banquet table. It’s where God welcomes us home no matter how many times we have squandered the inheritance that Jesus left us – the inheritance of equality, unconditional love and forgiveness.

Welcome home!

Let’s eat!


— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Crooked little heart, 3 Lent (C) – 2013

March 3, 2013

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

In the movie “The American President,” Annette Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Her job is to convince the White House to advocate for higher automobile emission standards.

During her first trip to the White House, she meets with A.J. MacInerney, the President’s Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen. During their meeting, Sydney Ellen Wade becomes frustrated, turns to a colleague, and tells the colleague plainly, “The White House won’t let us leave until AJ delivers the bad news.”

Her colleague is aghast at her brashness, but AJ answers, “I’m afraid she’s right,” whereupon he tells them that the President won’t support the high emission standards they want. And worse, that the President expects them to support his position.

The bad news. The uncomfortable truth. Most of us don’t like bad news or uncomfortable truth. It makes us, well, uncomfortable.

Rather, most of us want to hear what we want to hear. What some people call “words that tickle the ears.”

Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or believe only opinions and reports that confirm what we already believe to be true, not words that challenge us. We like people to agree with us.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor wanted everyone to tell him how stylish and exquisite his new clothes were. But he was naked! Nobody would tell him the uncomfortable truth, except for one little girl. “He’s not wearing any clothes!” She exclaimed.

This is Lent, the Christian season of Uncomfortable Truth, and your nakedness is being discussed openly.

Even discussing why bad things happen to good people – such as towers falling and killing innocents – Jesus oh-so-uncomfortably tells us, “Repent, or you will likewise perish.” Not the ever-popular “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

“Repent!” Jesus tells us. “You have sinned. You have done things you shouldn’t have, and you have failed to act when you should have.” Jesus spoke raw, uncomfortable truths. Our problem is that Jesus still speaks the Uncomfortable Truth, only we can’t hear him.

One reason we can’t hear Jesus is this: the word “sin” has lost its edge, its meaning. It carries too much religious baggage. For some, the word “sin” conjures up images of Catholic confessionals in which teenagers are forced to admit precisely how bad they are. For others, the word conjures up evangelical images of God angrily hoisting helpless people as marshmallows over open flames. Because of its baggage, the word has lost its razor-sharp ability to challenge us.


Did you hear the story of the little girl in the confessional? She confessed to the Catholic priest, “Father, I have sinned. I cannot stop looking at myself every time I pass the mirror, and I keep telling myself how beautiful I am.” To which the priest replied, “My dear, I have good news; yours is not a sin; it’s only a mistake.”

To reconstruct the term “sin,” consider its existence in two forms: as big S and little s.

Big-S “Sin” is the state of the world. The fact that the world cannot, despite the best and heroic efforts of so many people – from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., to you in this room – cannot seem to right itself. The world is shrouded in darkness. War continues. Brutal killing continues. Abuse and manipulation continue. Hunger and homelessness continue. Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea.

Little-s “sin” represents the actions, the things you, as an individual, do and the things you fail to do. Like cheating on your spouse or on your taxes. Kicking your dog or lying to your friend.

Most of us don’t like to admit the sin in our lives – big-S or little-s – so we try to hide. Adam and Eve certainly denied their sinful plight, metaphorically, which is what it means when the story says they hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We try to hide the shame of our own nakedness.

One way we hide the shame is by changing the language, using softer words. Which is a variation on confirmation bias, if you think about it. “I tried my best,” we might say. Or “On balance, I’ve lived a good life.” Or “I’m a pretty decent person.”

Euphemisms are inadequate fig leaves; you can’t hide nakedness from God any more than Hans Christian Andersen’s king could hide his nakedness from the people.

God sends Jesus along, who in his very public words, slaps us rudely across the face with the stark reminder that we are naked. That we require forgiveness. Restoration.

Because sin is not what you think. Sin is not sin because of the action itself. Sin is sin because of the result. In his essay “What Is Sin?” from his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes:

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”

You get that? Nothing is left because of the centrifugal force of sin. What he means is this: Envy is sin because it pushes others away; haughtiness is sin because it sets you apart from others.

Buechner points out that even religion itself – and for that matter, “unreligion” – becomes dark when it expands the gap between you and those who do not share your views. Lent isn’t about sin and repentance because God cares about the silly little things you do – your little-s sins.

Lent is about sin because God cares about you.

God cares about your isolation, cares about a world of increasing isolation. Redemption restores relationship.

Jesus immediately proclaimed Good News, because in restoration there is hope that you do not have to be alone.

Lent presents Uncomfortable Truth – but only if you are paying attention – so that you might become truly free on Easter. Repent, therefore, and receive the very Good News.


— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.