After Eight Days, Holy Name Day – January 1, 2019


[RCL]: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” – Luke 2:21

January 1, the Feast of the Holy Name, is a day when we encounter an interweaving of spiritual traditions: a mystical attachment to the importance of dreams, Jewish tradition and practice, the Christian emphasis on Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and themes of redemption and the power of God’s name. Not to mention the secular customs of New Year’s greeting and resolutions, a cleansing and a hopeful new start.

Let’s go back to Nazareth, to the scene of the Annunciation, where the angel reveals the name of the child Mary is to bear. “The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:30-32).

The name Jesus comes from the Greek transcription of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshuah – Joshua. It means, simply, God saves. A powerful name indeed.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph receives a visit from the angel of the Lord, in a passage sometimes called the Annunciation to Joseph. Joseph, learning that his young fiancée is pregnant, and being a kind man, has resolved not to expose her to public disgrace, but to “dismiss her quietly.” The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and reassures him, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Clearly, this child’s name, “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb,” is particularly important, for it names his mission on earth: to save God’s people.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is still the authorized version in common use in our Episcopal churches today, observes January 1 as the Feast of the Holy Name. Earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, up to and including the 1928 version, observed January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In the collect for the Holy Name, we pray to God who gave “the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.”  The collect for the Circumcision emphasizes circumcision as a sign of obedience to the law of God, in body and in spirit.

Circumcision of Jewish male babies originates in Genesis 17, as a physical sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God promises the faithful, elderly, and childless Abram that he will be fruitful, and the ancestor of nations. God’s covenant is to be with Abram’s offspring down through the generations, and as a sign of the covenant, all male children are to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. A naming occurs at the establishment of the covenant: Abram is re-named Abraham. Here is the passage from Genesis 17: 3-7:

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

Circumcision is a tradition that links the Jewish people to Abraham and Isaac. It is a sacred act that binds Jewish families to the multitude of generations who preceded them—and the generations to follow. The eighth day circumcision ceremony, called the bris or brit milah, is also a ceremony when the child is given the blessing of a name. Thus, on the occasion of today’s feast day, Jesus is doubly marked. He is circumcised as a sign of God’s faithfulness to God’s people and of his connection to Abraham and his Jewish ancestors. He is named with a name that expresses his nature as the savior sent from God to redeem God’s people.

The circumstances of Jesus’ bris were likely to be humble. It’s possible that Joseph performed the circumcision himself. Were they still in the stable or had the family moved to more comfortable accommodations? Wherever they were on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth on December 25, the contrast with the naming of a poor baby boy and the name Paul exalts in the letter to the Philippians is as stark as the contrast between the earthiness and physicality of circumcision, and the mystical, divine nature of Jesus’ name. On this day, we are reminded that Christ is fully human and fully divine. Paul’s theology is explicit. In human form, Christ was humble and obedient to the point of death.  At the same time, God

“gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Since the Holy Name stands as a complete summary of Christ’s nature and God’s mercy, it is particularly powerful as a focus for contemplative prayer. Devotion to the Holy Name began with the apostles and early disciples, as we have seen in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. By the Middle Ages, mystics such as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux encouraged adoration of the Holy Name. In the Eastern Church, the Jesus Prayer dates as far back as the fourth century C.E. It appears in the Orthodox Philokalia as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” The prayer is said repeatedly, sometimes with the aid of a prayer rope. The knotted prayer rope is similar to rosary beads, and the practice of saying the rosary is similarly contemplative in its repetition. Anglicans and Episcopalians may use the Holy Name or Jesus Prayer while praying with Anglican prayer beads. We say the Jesus Prayer during the Eucharist when we pray the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us,” and the Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”

The more you listen for the Holy Name, the more you notice it. Like this, from Psalm 33: 20-21:

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

We pray with the Holy Name in intercessory prayer: “In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.” All of these practices connect us with our wider Christian heritage, as Christ’s circumcision and naming on the eighth day connect us with our Jewish roots.

Let us pray:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation. Plant in our hearts the love of Jesus, truly God and truly human, and grant that we may praise and bless your Holy Name with our whole mind, heart, body, and spirit, that we may know your boundless compassion and mercy. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div, is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates and writes book reviews, essays, and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for Holy Name Day.

A Tent Among Us, Christmas 1 – December 30, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

In today’s Gospel, St. John uses a fascinating image that most of our Bible translations miss. Some of us are accustomed to hearing this majestic and abstract prologue to John’s mystical-leaning Gospel: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” But we aren’t so used to hearing this: “Jesus became flesh and pitched a tent among humanity.” The image of God dwelling among us is beautiful and a bit abstract, maybe even domesticated—but Jesus pitching a tent? Hmm…

This week, our small-town paper has been running a series of articles about the growing population of homeless people. The paper reports, “Word has gotten out beyond our kith and kin” about a local storefront ministry that serves hot breakfasts and lunches seven days a week, as well as a 90-day transitional housing program. Folk are coming here, pitching tents on vacant lots, and trying to get enough food and respect to survive another day. Predictably, town fathers and mothers, as well as non-profit donors, fear that we won’t have the resources to provide care for them. Right now, the idea of anyone pitching a tent in our town—except for scouts in the backyard—is viewed suspiciously.

Recently, I heard a friend talk about pitching a tent in a very different context when she attended a Woodstock-like music festival called Bonnaroo. She recalled pitching her tent in a sea of thousands of other tents. One day, exhausted and exasperated by the constant stimulation, she went into her tent and had a miniature breakdown: she complained (loudly) that she was tired of the noise, the humidity, and the smiling strangers everywhere she looked. When her temper-tantrum ended, and she emerged from the tent, she realized with great embarrassment that all her “neighbors” had borne witness to her discontent.

The idea of God Almighty pitching a tent among us temper-tantrum prone, smelly, needy, and shame-filled human beings is quite shocking. This earthy image is such a contrast to the more central metaphor for Jesus at the beginning of John’s gospel, the logos, translated as the Word. Logos connotes order, rationality, an “operating system” designed by a masterful creator. But St. John doesn’t allow us to indulge our de-personalizing tendency when it comes to relating to God. Instead, he brings us back down to the gritty reality of the Incarnation by juxtaposing the logos with tent-camping among humankind.

In fact, I think many of us might recoil a bit at the idea of the Christ showing up in our backyard and asking us to pitch our tent right next to his.

Why might we be reluctant to go camping with Jesus?

First, I bet most of us wouldn’t want to be exposed; every conversation can be overheard, not to mention the snoring and that annoying zip-sound in the middle of the night when a fellow camper needs to relieve him or herself. Not to mention the shadows on the side of the tents revealing the silhouette of our actual lumpy, unruly flesh.

And secondly, tents are always a bit dirty, no matter how stringent you are about keeping your shoes outside.

Dirtiness and exposure. So much for putting on our Sunday best to meet Jesus! So much for the obsessive nature of reputation-management that consciously or unconsciously drives how we present ourselves on social media.

But you know, our aversion to tent-pitching God is about something more than our desire to “look good” for God. Our deeper fear is being known by Jesus, inside and out. Of, in a phrase, personal intimacy.

Intimacy is in trouble these days. A recent cover story for The Atlantic explored the steady delay and decline in intimate relationships (not just marriage) among younger people. We live in an age and culture where self-sufficiency and independence are upheld as attainable goals. If you lack a cup of sugar, don’t bother your neighbors, just run to Wal-Mart. Don’t know how to fix something? Pull up a video on YouTube on your private smartphone. And if that fails, just call a serviceman. Need a ride to the airport? Don’t ask a friend for a favor (who wants to be indebted?), just text Uber for quick service, requiring only your credit card and small-talk, not meaningful conversation.

Genuine intimacy means that we’ll be exposed, flabby flesh, anxious ruminations, perfectionist tendencies, short-tempers, and all. And more and more of us, in the United States anyway, say, “No, thank you. I’ll take care of myself.” And then, even when we can’t, many of us prefer to pay a professional to provide for our physical needs.

Later in the same verse, when St. John tells us that the Word, the logos, the Christ, Jesus, has come to pitch his tent among us, he says that we have seen Jesus’ glory—and it is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth. For most of us to even begin to entertain the idea of Jesus pitching a tent in our backyards, much less his Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, as Paul puts it in Galatians, we need the assurance of Christ’s grace—the assurance that God sees us through the lens of mercy and loving-kindness, unconditional love.

And that assurance of God’s grace, of God’s desire to be with us—no matter how much we want to avoid being exposed, being caught with metaphorical dirt under our nails, no matter how much we want to hide because of our shame, our guilt, or just the fact that we are imperfect, never measuring up to the person we’d like to be—that assurance is the greatest gift we can receive. It is the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of Emmanuel – God-with-us.

The invitation for us this Christmas is to accept the gift. And I’m not talking about some sort of formula where we “accept Jesus Christ into our hearts” and are, from thenceforth, “saved.” Accepting the gift of grace, of God-with-us, isn’t a one-time transaction. Rather, it is a lifelong process of growing more comfortable with intimacy, with showing up in the world, showing up for life, “Just as I am,” as the old hymn says. Accepting the gift of grace sometimes means letting go of the demands of the law, the cultural law, anyway, that suggests that dependence or interdependence is anathema to maturity. The law tells us we must always be engaging in some type of self-improvement project to be worthy of another’s affection. The law keeps us from intimacy with ourselves, our spouses, our families, and, of course, the Christ who wants to pitch a tent and come to know and love us as we are, rather than as we want, or even ought to be.

The Incarnation, Christmas, is about Jesus pitching his tent in the messiness of the human condition, coming to understand our struggle, our messiness, our finitude, our sin, our truth, and then redeeming it all by assuring us that we are worthy of being Jesus’ brother, or sister, of being adopted children of God. Emmanuel, God-with-us, full of grace and truth, so full, in fact, that we can’t help but receive that fullness, grace upon grace. God-with-us, so intimately, that in our quiet moments, when we tune down the law, the fear of intimacy, the running from our imperfections, we can hear Jesus’ spirit in our own hearts, crying out, “Abba!” And Abba saying to each of us, “This is my son, my daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.”

Amen.

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains, in Waynesville, NC. She has degrees from Davidson College, University of Edinburgh and Episcopal Divinity School. In this phase of life, most of her discretionary time is lovingly devoured by small children. Her two primary spiritual disciplines are child-rearing and sermon-writing, and she is regularly humbled by both.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1.

Beyond Words, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Words fail.

Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Feel the wind rising off the canyon walls. See the light dappling in the crevices of the great chasm. Then try to describe this in words. For those who have stood there for themselves, your experience will bring back their own. But tell of feelings felt so deeply on the edge of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been outside the confines of the cornfields of Iowa and words alone will fall flat.

A mother holds her newborn baby, seeing for the first time the child that has been growing in her womb. Those perfect hands touch her own. She counts and recounts the ten tiny toes—flesh of her flesh. We only have the power to evoke the faintest shadow of the vast ocean of emotions felt by the Virgin Mary as she held Jesus. Yes, words are powerful and can be life-changing, but some moments in life are beyond the power of language to contain.

One can craft tasty sentences that amuse, arouse, or anger. Yet language falls short of the breadth of human experience. Wittgenstein studied language deeply as an important philosopher of the last century and he found that words are not up to a task so simple as describing the aroma of a cup of coffee. He noted that if we can’t describe a cup of coffee, how much more difficult is it to portray God with words.

Yet portraying God with words is the task of scripture. Inspired by God, the Bible’s authors gave us moving passages of great depth of meaning, knowing that God is still beyond words. With soaring language, John’s Gospel begins with a poetic passage placing Jesus in eternal context:

“In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas Day, John takes us back to the beginning: the “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. He reminds us that the story of Jesus started before the world began, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation as chaos swirled into order. There before the story of humanity was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God creating the world.

John uses poetry to point to the triune God beyond all language. In doing so, John uses words laden with meaning. He calls Jesus the “Logos,” a word from Greek philosophy, which meant much more than the basic unit of a sentence. Logos is the idea or concept behind the words of language. The Logos is the eternal pattern, the perfect ideal the word tries to express. So, the word “square” means a shape equal on all sides. Even if we can never draw a perfect square, the word square still refers to that perfection. Jesus is that perfect Word, that Logos.

John also tells us that this perfect Word dwelled among us using a word that literally means “pitched a tent in our midst.” For Jews, this would naturally bring to mind the idea of the tent where God’s glory dwelt with Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. This was the same glory of God that dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poetic words, “God pitched his tent among us,” say that in the same way that the very glory of God present to the Hebrews in the Exodus and the Jews of the first century in the Temple is present in Jesus. In dwelling among us, however, Jesus is out among the people, rather than contained within the Temple.

In this poetic way, John pointed to so much more than he said. For the Temple was the nexus—the meeting place—of God and humanity on earth. Jesus becomes that place of connection between God and humanity. In Jesus, the glory of God became visible on earth.

This prologue then sets us up for all that follows. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and he accepts her, showing her the loving care others did not, we see the heart of God lived out on earth. Again and again, in John’s Gospel, we see signs that point to Jesus being God among us. In his life, as well as in his teaching, Jesus reveals more about God than we could learn otherwise.

I could go on showing these connections, but John’s Gospel does it so well in two verses. In verse 18, which is just beyond our reading for today, John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Then at the end of chapter 20, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

While all the words in the world could not contain the Word made human in Jesus, the words John chose are written so that we might believe and have life. John knew God’s own glory had pitched his tent among us in a stable in Bethlehem. Then God gave the Holy Spirit as a first gift to those who come to believe. The Jesus who was the Word made flesh would always be present with those who heard John’s Gospel. This is why Christians have always emphasized reading scripture, as the words convey God’s own heart.

In sharing The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered this church patterns which have nourished Christians for centuries. Captured in the words Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest, are practices proven to move one over time toward a life more like Jesus. Learn is reflecting on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. There are many ways to live into this practice and each makes the eternal Word Jesus more present through the words of the Bible.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired John’s Gospel inspires you as you read and reflect on scripture. It is that inspiration for the reader as well as the author that makes the Bible more than words on a page.

The God whose presence dwelt in fullness in Jesus of Nazareth is also fully present in your heart and here in our worship in both Word and Sacrament. Jesus was present in our readings and as we come forward to receive the Eucharist, our triune God present in creation is here with you.

If you have never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my words would fail to convey that experience. You may never be that mother first laying eyes on the child that has been forming inside her, so my words could fail to explain the depth of feeling. Words fail to convey the presence of God in your life, but God’s presence is every bit as real, and even more vital, than all those experiences in your life that are beyond words.

While words can and will fail, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, never fails. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (III).

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, Christmas Day (II) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Why are we here today?

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition. We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Day is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter.

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren. We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church today.

But there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not.

Think about the people who were at the first Christmas. Mary was there because she literally had no other choice. Biology took over at that point and she was obviously present at the birth of her child. Joseph was there because he loved his fiancée and wanted to do right by her and take care of her. The sheep and camels were there because their stable had been invaded by this couple who could find no room at the inn. And the shepherds were there probably out of curiosity, to find out if their vision of the angelic host was real or just a result of being oxygen deprived in the thin air way up on the hillsides with their sheep.

And the fact that they were in Bethlehem was not on purpose either. Mary and Joseph would probably have wanted to have the baby at home in Nazareth where they had friends and family to help them. They were only in Bethlehem because they had to go there for the census ordered by the emperor. Perhaps it was an equally strange mix of seemingly meaningless circumstances that brought you here today.

The old Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles, calls all of us to this moment. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We hope to feel joyful and triumphant on Christmas. Mary likely felt joyful and triumphant after just going through labor with no family or friends to help her and successfully delivering a healthy baby boy.

But it’s okay if you’re not feeling joyful and triumphant. O come, all ye faithful, bored and irritated. O come, all ye faithful, exhausted and worried. O come, all ye faithful, cynical and angry. O come, all ye faithful, heartbroken and grieving.

Simply come, all ye faithful, no matter what you’re feeling.

No doubt Joseph and the shepherds had mixed feelings as they entered the stable. But once they gazed on the face of the Christ Child, the Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, everything changed. Whatever reason had brought them to this moment no longer mattered, and all of their complex, self-directed emotions faded to simple awe. When they saw him, their hearts cried out to do only one thing: fall to their knees and adore him.

What does it mean to adore someone?

It’s a term that we use lightly all the time to express admiration and love for someone: “Oh, I just adore her, she’s wonderful.”

The term “adore” is actually used very sparingly in the Bible. There are a variety of words used in relationship to worship: praise, glorify, rejoice. But adoration only happens in circumstances when people feel their smallness and imperfection in the face of the greatness and perfection of God. But rather than the people feeling bad about how small and imperfect they are, they are instead completely taken outside of themselves and enraptured and lost in the love and wonder of God.

Most of us probably do an okay amount of praising God, and we sure do a whole lot of petitioning God, asking God to fulfill our wishes and plans. But how often do we adore God? How often do we let go of our own agendas completely because we can’t help it, because we are so overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God streaming over and through us? Maybe not often enough.

There’s something in us that resists adoration. With praise and petition and even rejoicing and glorifying, we’re still in control. We’re generating action toward God based on our evaluation of God’s goodness and what we want to get out of it.

But to adore God is something else. Adoration means we are brought to our knees by the grace we’re experiencing, and it’s no longer about us. For once, we have forgotten our needs and our wants, and simply bask in how very good God is.

But if we find it hard to adore God in God’s majesty and greatness, it seems even less likely that we will want to go to our knees in a dusty, dirty stable for a newborn baby in a manger. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a helpless baby. What has a baby done to impress me? What can a baby do to answer my prayers?

But even as we’re thinking these thoughts, we suddenly do stumble to our knees. God could have come to earth in any giant, majestic, theatrical way God wanted to. God could have shown up with lights painted across the sky and trumpets and fireworks and earthquakes. But God came as a child. God sent God’s beloved and only son as the most vulnerable and fragile creature imaginable: a human baby.

And that is what strikes us dumb and finally, finally takes our focus off ourselves and our needs. The raw power and depth of love that God must have for us to send Jesus to us this way when something terrible could so easily have happened is humbling. Think about how astronomically high the rate of infant mortality was in those days. Cold, exposure, infection, injury—a thousand things could have gone wrong in the first hours, not to mention the days and weeks and months to come, days and weeks and months in which Jesus had nothing to protect him, no modern medicine, no safe shelter, nothing but love.

The courage of that love, to come to earth as a fragile human baby and risk it all for us in this obscure and humble place—suddenly there is nothing we want to do more than go to our knees at the manger and adore him. The fragile courage of this small child awakens a similar fragile courage within us, to kneel down and open ourselves completely to this love, to let go, to adore.

Jesus had no protection from the many dangers that could harm him as a human baby, and he has no protection from the coldness of our cynicism and indifference. But the love and promise that he radiates emit a light brighter than the star shining overhead, a light that can melt the cold shield of ice we have wrapped around our hearts to protect ourselves from the intensity of pain and joy that comes with loving.

So we the faithful have come as we were called. Joyful and triumphant, bored and irritated, cynical and angry, exhausted and worried, or grieving and heartbroken, we have come.

Maybe we expected to drift off into daydreams during church, or ask God for something special in our stockings, or simply relax and have a good time with friends and family, and all of those things are fine to do. Maybe we came here worrying that we would have to hide the fact that we are afraid that we are the only ones that sometimes can neither see nor feel the magic of Christmas.

But as we approach the manger and see that God has had the courage to risk it all for us, out of the sheer depth and passion of God’s love for us, let us answer that courage with a courage of our own. Let us answer with the courage to let go of our agendas and our needs, kneeling at the manger and gazing into the face of love, fragile in form but stronger than steel in intent.

O come, all ye faithful. O come, let us adore him. 

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (II).

St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon, Great Vigil of Easter – March 31, 2018


Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; if any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one he gives, and upon another he bestows. He accepts the works as he greets the endeavor. The deed he honors and the intention he commends. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of his goodness! Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when he descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Download St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon.

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Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

The Passion According to John, Good Friday – March 30, 2018

Good Friday Episcopal Sermon

[RCL]: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Today we have heard some of the most beautiful, painful, heart-wrenching passages of scripture, juxtaposed with one of the holiest, most beautiful, painful, heart-wrenching moments of the Christian story. Jesus, our beloved healer, lover of souls, champion of the poor, weak, and oppressed, the man who washed the feet of his friends, has been betrayed by one of those same friends. He has been misunderstood and accused by the leaders of his own people. He has heard the shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” when the crowd had the chance to set him free. Maybe some of those people had been among the crowds listening to Jesus preach, and been changed by the encounter. Even Peter denies that he knows him. Three times! How complicated and interwoven are those who love him and those who condemn him!

The suffering servant passage from Isaiah, which we heard today, describes a humble, indigenous servant who was both astonishing and rejected by those around him and “by a perversion of justice… taken away.” This sounds to us Christians like the tragedy of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death. For some Christians, this passage is understood as an explicit prophecy of Christ’s suffering and death. For them, Isaiah 53 is an important proof-text that Christianity was predicted by the Hebrew prophet centuries before Jesus’ birth.

But how was the suffering servant understood by the Jews of Jesus’ time, indeed by Jesus himself? Rabbinic interpretation, acknowledged by the early church father Origen, identifies the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53 as a personification of the nation of Israel, which had repeatedly suffered at the hands of Gentile oppressors.

According to the rabbinic interpretation, the speakers of the Isaiah passage are the startled kings of the surrounding nations: “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” These kings, in the messianic age in which the passage is set, humbly admit that a righteous people has suffered at their hands. At last, the Jewish people will be rewarded for their faith, and they will return from exile.

At the time when Jesus lived, Judaism was a diverse religion. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were influential factions with differing beliefs and practices. Other first-century Jewish factions included the Essenes, the Zealots, the Jews of the Diaspora who were influenced by Greek and Roman culture, Herodians, Hasideans, followers of John the Baptist, and those Jews who followed Jesus and believed he was the Messiah and Son of God.

Belief in salvation by a messiah at the end time was an acceptable concept among Jews. It would be possible to affirm belief in Jesus as savior and still be part of the first-century Jewish community; this community would not have rejected belief in a messiah, but did not necessarily believe in this particular messiah. Thus, the family from Bethany—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, as described in John 11—could comfortably live within the Jewish community and still profess faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

Biblical scholars suggest that the Johannine community—the community for which John the Evangelist wrote—consisted of Jews whose belief in Jesus involved a relatively low Christology. The writer of the Gospel according to John, however, advocates a higher Christology. We have seen that belief in Jesus as Messiah did not necessarily require separation from the surrounding Jewish community; the problem is one of identity. The core of the Jewish identity was adherence to the law, circumcision, and observation of the Sabbath and certain festivals. Messianism would be only a tangential aspect of identity. For the Johannine writer, the core of community identity lay in professing Jesus as Christ and Son of God. This amounted to a rejection of the community’s Jewish roots and led to a collision course with the Jewish authorities; claiming that Jesus was God’s equal was going too far.

Hostility was inevitable as the Jesus-believing Jews came to see their movement as one distinct from Jewish identity. The split between high and low Christology is explicit in John 19, verse 7: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’” This emphasis on a separate identity, this separation into Us and Them, is disturbing, ugly, and dangerous to most ears today. In John, the bad guys, the Christ-killers, are the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish police, the Jewish crowd. The Jews. The Romans and Pontius Pilate are explicitly exonerated. The blame falls squarely on the Jews, who seem to have enlisted the Romans’ help to avoid killing the man themselves, which would have been both illegal and caused ritual uncleanliness at the beginning of Passover.

We know that there are historical and theological reasons for John’s language about the Jews. We know that John wrote at a time when the Jewish followers of Jesus were carving out an identity separate from their parent Jewish community. Yet we cannot erase the centuries of ugly persecution of our Jewish neighbors that have resulted from the Us and Them separation created by John’s text.

And so, we are left with the beauty, pain, and polemic of John’s Gospel. This is Good Friday. For a moment, politics and history fall away, and we are left with the poetry of the Passion according to John. We stand at the foot of the cross. Peter and the disciples are confused and terrified. The three Marys are heartbroken. One of the most human and moving moments in the Passion is the passage where Jesus gives his mother into the care of the Beloved Disciple. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus overcome their doubts and fears enough to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body. We have reached the time and place when the body is in the tomb. A time of darkness. A time when death seems to have triumphed. A time when it is difficult to have faith.

John tells us that Jesus knew all that was going to happen to him. The hearers of the tale in John’s community knew. We know what is going to happen. This story is headed towards hope, death overcome, the certainty of the Resurrection. Yet over and over again, our hearts break for the disciples, for Jesus’ mother, for all who loved him.

On the night before he died, in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus spoke of how his followers are to live when he is gone. We are to live in faith that we will see him again. We are to learn from and be comforted by the Holy Spirit. We are to love one another as he has loved us. We are to live in unity with God and with one another.

Let us pray: Gracious God, may we love each other as Christ loved us. May we gather in community, in our times of grief and despair as in times of gladness. May we turn toward the day when weeping and mourning will turn to joy, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div., is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She sings with Threshold Singers, a group that sings at hospice bedside. She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates and writes essays and literary reference articles.

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Maundy Thursday

Great Vigil of Easter

To the End, Maundy Thursday – March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday Sermon

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

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus’ time is running short.

We are not strangers to the idea of a person’s last days of life.

Because we know that we will all die, we often find ways to think about both our own last days and the last days of those we love. We make movies about it—both funny movies and heart-wrenching ones. Sometimes, we sit at the bedsides of our loved ones as they slip away slowly. Other times, we are called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. But last days—and death—always find us eventually. That is why we understand the importance of a person’s last days on earth, and that is why Maundy Thursday can hit us in such interesting ways.

Because you see, we live in a world filled with death. We have all lost loved ones. Often, the memories that stick out most in our minds are things that happened right before the person died, whether they were taken from us suddenly or slowly. Sure, we also remember things besides their last days: we remember eating together, laughing together, intimate conversations, and things like that. We also remember, perhaps most clearly, things that happened right before they died.

Now Jesus, knowing that he is about to die, gathers his closest friends for a meal. These are some of the last memories his disciples will have of him before the crucifixion. Though they will remember other things about Jesus—traveling, laughing, and talking with him—they will remember these moments, perhaps, most strongly. What he says and does here will echo for them throughout their lives as they begin to build the Church we know today.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus’ time is running short.

Yes, he will be resurrected, but Holy Week calls us to imagine ourselves in the places of the disciples, imagining for once that we do not know the ending. If death is not a reality, after all, Easter is no miracle, and Jesus is about to be put to death. Jesus’ time is running short.

What would you do if you knew that you were about to die?

What memories would you want to create, for yourself and your loved ones?

What would you do if you had not weeks or months, but mere hours before your death?

“Because he loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

It’s likely that most of us would try to be like Jesus in his last days before he was crucified. In our last week of life, most of us would be most concerned not with our “bucket lists,” but with our loved ones.

What would you do for those you love?

What would you want them to know, and how would you communicate those things?

Jesus’ time is running short, and the Gospel passage from John tells the story of his last night with them before he dies. It’s interesting to see how the Son of God chooses to spend his last hours before his death with those that he loves. What does he do? He shares a meal with them, he gives them some last instructions, and he gets up from the dinner table, lays aside his outer robe, and washes his disciples’ feet.

Jesus does exactly what many of us would do if we knew that we were spending our last few hours with our loved ones before our death. We would tell them things, yes. We might share a meal with them, like Jesus did. Perhaps above anything, we would touch them one last time.

We often forget how important our bodies are in our experience as human beings. We talk a lot about body and soul as if they are completely separate things in the world. When we consider our own loved ones, however, it’s likely that their personalities are hardly separate in our minds from their faces, the way they walk, the hand gestures they use so frequently, the way that they hug us, or even the way they smell.

In the last few hours before his death, Jesus spends his time eating and drinking with his disciples and washing their feet, impressing into their minds and their bodies the memory of him in an act of love.

Contrary to the typical Sunday school understanding of this story, the foot washing is not primarily about service. That’s part of it, but it’s only part of a much bigger picture. This becomes clear if you read the passages around this text. “He loved them to the end.” “Love another as I have loved you.” The foot washing is about Jesus’ love and his willingness to show that love, even if it means the vulnerability of washing his disciples’ dirty feet. Even if it means an arrest and a trial before Pilate. Even if it means death by execution on a Roman cross. The foot washing is the acting out of the Great Commandment that we hear today: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Though caring for a sick loved one or making dinner for a friend may be an act of service, we most commonly describe such acts as acts of love. So it is with the foot washing.

We can only imagine what the disciples felt. Humbled? Shocked? Awkward?

Peter speaks up: “Are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet.”

We hear Peter’s objection, and it sounds a lot like most of ours would have been. He knows who Jesus is, and there’s no way that the Word of God made flesh is going to wash his feet.

Jesus doesn’t argue. He asks nothing of Peter or the other disciples but that they place themselves fully into his hands and trust that he knows what he’s doing. He tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter has no idea what Jesus is doing, but Jesus isn’t interested in telling Peter why he’s washing his feet. He’s just asking for Peter to trust him, to be vulnerable.

This is not just how foot washing works. This is often how God works, too.

We don’t always know what God is doing. God only asks us to trust, to be vulnerable, to believe that God loves us fiercely, and to receive God’s love—mind, heart, soul, and body.

What moments will the people in our lives remember when we are gone? What moments will we remember of those who die before us? Truly, we are all imperfect, and we can all sometimes be hard to live with, yet constantly, we are blessed to see, laugh with, touch, and embrace people who love us. Maybe you experience this with your significant other, maybe with your kids and grandkids, maybe with your friends or other loved ones or with your church family. Cherish these moments—it is God’s grace given through people. It is sacramental, and it is holy.

That is what we will remember of each other when we no longer walk the earth together. That is what we will have to cherish until we see one another again on the other side, when we share this feast with Christ in his kingdom with all the saints. We love one another, though imperfectly, because Christ first loved us.

Yes, time is running short for Jesus tonight. But we live in a world full of death.

Time is running short for all of us.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

As time runs short for Jesus, may we experience the story as if for the first time, forgetting that we know the ending. Because this isn’t just the story of Jesus. This is the story of our Savior, the Word of God made flesh for us. This is our story; it is the story who tells us who we are, and why we are to love one another.

We are who we are because he loved his own who were in the world, and he loved us — fiercely — to the end. Amen.

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy.  In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

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Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

At the End of This Week, Wednesday in Holy Week – March 28, 2018

Wednesday Episcopal Sermon

[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 70; Hebrews 12:1-3; John 13:21-32

Suffering is not something we do well, generally speaking. Suffering is not something we seek out, not something we cultivate, not something we practice so we can do it even better.

No, suffering is something we avoid—or try to avoid—as best we can.

And, when you come right down to it, suffering is not something we experience that much or that deeply in our privileged lives in twenty-first-century America.

O, there are exceptions, to be sure. But for most of us, what we consider “suffering” are things like being stuck in a traffic jam, or having to wait a long time for food to be served to us in a restaurant, or not finding a free locker at the gym—things that the world’s poor and underprivileged would find very curious indeed.

Their idea of suffering could be more like this: being stuck in an unending cycle of poverty and oppression, having to wait a long time for any food at all, or not finding a day free from back-breaking labor.

Now, that’s suffering.

So, how very strange would it be to deliberately, intentionally, and willfully submit ourselves to suffering?

How very odd to admit that one of our closest friends or associates will betray us—and not just allow that to happen, but actually encourage it?

And how very outlandish to say—once that betrayal has been put in action, when that suffering inevitably lies ahead—how very outlandish to say, “Now I have been glorified, and God has been glorified in me.”

And yet this is exactly what Jesus does and says, as told to us in this passage from the Gospel according to John.

The sequence goes something like this:

“One of you will betray me,” Jesus says.

Then “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Followed by, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

First, it seems odd that Jesus seems to welcome the betrayal.

Yet elsewhere he is quoted as saying, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed,” (Mt. 17:22) and “the Son of Man is going as it has been determined” (Lk. 22:22).

Perhaps he simply accepts as inevitable that he will indeed suffer. He’s not exactly enamored of the idea, but he knows in his heart that he cannot avoid his fate.

Then he seems to want to have it over with quickly—a feeling with which any of us could resonate.

If there’s going to be pain, at least make it short. If we must endure agony, don’t let it be for a long time. If there are hard times ahead, please let them be brief.

Then comes the most surprising statement of all, the one about his being glorified, and God being glorified in him.

And, in a way, that’s exactly where we stand on this Wednesday in Holy Week.

We are in the lull between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—with palms before him and death ahead of him.

The betrayal is inevitable; in the narrative, it happens tomorrow.

And then the agony in Gethsemane, the trial, the condemnation before Pilate, the carrying of the cross, a crown of thorns, the nailing to the cross, and the crucifixion itself—those three hours of torment in the midday sun.

The suffering will be severe—but brief. The whole cycle begins tomorrow night, and it ends on Friday afternoon.

And then there’s the glory, something we must yet wait for, something we nevertheless seek, something we hope will happen again—and happen anew—this Easter morning.

Is there a message for us in all this?—something more than a lecture in history or a narration of past events?

Well, if suffering is inevitable for the God-made-human we call Jesus, perhaps too it is inevitable for us.

That’s not exactly good news, but it is truth-telling. And our suffering is likely to pale compared with his. Perhaps there’s a word of comfort in that.

And, like Jesus, we hope that our suffering will be brief. With him, we say, “Let’s just get this over with!”

Because after that suffering, at the end of that time of trial, when the dark clouds clear: then the glory of God is revealed.

We are here in the middle of Holy Week, in the tension of a kind of metaphor for life itself:

Amidst the struggle, facing the pain, between the beginning and the end—and awaiting not just the yearly commemoration of the first Easter, but also the final event in the divine plan, something yet to come.

And so, we prepare to move ourselves away from the ashes, that we may be able to greet the Easter dawn.

We move away from sin, and into the new life promised for each of us.

We move away from suffering and betrayal, and into an eternal life of ineffable joys.

We move away even from our old selves, and into a new existence that is more and more in the image of God.

This is our journey—not simply commemorating past events, as miraculous as they were.

But anticipating miracles yet to come.

And appropriating that past into our present, making it come alive for us, as it came alive for Jesus—as a foretaste of the final moment when we are reunited with those who have gone before.

For we know that, even as the horrors of Good Friday lie ahead, we will once again say, “Welcome, Happy Easter” at the end of this week, because we are in the midst of the week when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.

This week that restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.

This week that casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

At the end of this week we get a glimpse of the day of the general resurrection, when we, with all those who are of the mystical body, will be set on God’s right hand, and hear that most joyful voice: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The Rev. Barrie Bates has served Anglican and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past 20+ years. He holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies, and memberships in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Other than ordained ministry, his interests include opera, fine dining, and boating.

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Great Vigil of Easter

Let Go into Jesus, Tuesday in Holy Week – March 27, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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Lament, Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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

After the sermon ends in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it is customary for the minister to invite us, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.” The Church invites us to self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. Many of us recall what we have “given up” in Lents past: chocolate, wine, social media, even meat. Or maybe we remember gathering for soup and bread suppers in the fellowship hall. Or trying to decide whether we keep the ashes on our forehead all day or wipe them off.

Most of us have associations with Lent, and often they focus on ourselves. After all, the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent includes two references to the self: self-examination and self-denial. This focus on the self makes sense to some degree; there is truth in the slogan that “the only person you can change is…yourself.

But I wonder if this Lent, we might expand the focus of our Lenten discipline – nudging beyond the boundary of self, or even our church communities, toward the wider world, toward society. None of us exists in a vacuum apart from societal influences, and societies are collections of selves. If we change ourselves, we change society. And the reverse is also true: if society changes, we are changed, too.

While this understanding of porous boundaries between self and society is not especially apparent in the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent, it is evident elsewhere. The ancient baptismal liturgy is a good example; in it, we renounce evil on three different “levels,” if you will: the cosmic level, by renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”; the social level, by renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and, of course, the personal level, the level of the self, by renouncing “all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.”

Lent provides a concentrated period of time—40 days—to do all we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to “get right with God.” God can do some pretty amazing things with us in 40 days’ time. And this year, one marked by excessive political rancor and a torrent of natural disasters, you are invited to expand the focus beyond the self with the traditional practices of praying, fasting, and giving alms, as presented in Matthew’s Gospel, toward a practice suggested by the prophet Joel: communal lament.

Joel writes, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” Try to imagine this in your mind’s eye: instead of a somber procession with the priest following the cross expressionless, she is weeping and wailing as she goes down the center aisle! Most of us would probably want to run for the hills, or at least get her a tissue so she could get it together. Crying in public is something that most of us try to avoid…we don’t want to be accused of getting overly emotional.

But Joel encourages weeping priests – priests who can cry out, mourn, lament over the tragedy playing out in society. In the first chapter of Joel alone, either God or Joel, speaking on God’s behalf, prescribes or describes lament, mourning, crying out, or groaning no fewer than seven times. Even the animals and the soil are mourning and crying out!

Why all of this lamentation, this mourning, this crying?

Well, we don’t know exactly what prompted Joel’s prophecy. We do know it was a time of tremendous crisis: the land, literally the soil, the foundation supporting all life, was being destroyed either by locusts or a foreign army. Joel sounds the air raid siren: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble” (Joel 2:1a).

Perhaps lament is the first step toward repentance, at least on the social level. And maybe the weeping priest models for all of us how to lament. We lament as we approach the holiest place in our lives: the altar.

The place where we remember Christ’s death, proclaim his resurrection, and wait for his coming again.

The place where we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection to new life.

The place where we receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where there will be crying no more, and nothing, personally or socially or cosmically, to weep about.

Of course, lament is not something we do easily in our culture. In fact, it is almost anathema to us. One of our favorite ways to avoid lament is to play the blame game. Recently an editorial cartoon came out, poking fun at both the political left and right. It showed a man complaining about President Obama and a woman complaining about President Trump, and at the bottom their complaints were identical: “And because of him the nation is divided.” Instead of looking at the growing partisan divide and feeling the pain of it, we often prefer to blame “the other side” for it and stoke our anger.

Another popular way to avoid lament is to deny that there is any pain. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think about ways we deny our pain – substance abuse comes to mind first. And not just street drugs or the opioid crisis, but the significant increase in alcohol consumption we see across the board and especially among women, minorities, seniors, those with less formal education, and lower incomes. Instead of feeling the pain and offering a lament to God, many of us choose, consciously or not, to become numb.

But what happens to us and for us when we lament, instead of denying our pain or blaming something or someone for it? And what, might we imagine, happens to God?

When we lament, we recognize the limits of our ability to control the world around us. We are at our wit’s end, as the Psalmist put it, and out of desperation cry out to a power greater than ourselves; we cry out to the Lord. We allow ourselves to feel the pain of social problems and injustices that result from systems that are too complicated, too entrenched, too big, for any one of us to fix. We air our complaints, we tell the truth of our suffering, we question God’s love, we confess our despair, we cry our tears. And we beg. We beg, and we plead for God to intervene, to act, to have mercy on us, to help us “turn and be healed” as the Prophet Isaiah has put it.

And for God’s part? Well, the testimony of Scripture shows us that God has responded in many and various ways to lamentations. In the Book of Lamentations, God is silent. More often, however, God’s response is one in which both judgment and salvation seem to happen simultaneously. And sometimes, God intervenes and saves us in ways we hope for. That’s what happens in the prophecy of Joel. In the midst of the great social crisis, the people lament, not about their personal sins, but about what has happened to their society.

Together they fast. They pray. They beg. They return to God.

And they discover, again, in their own time and place that God is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,” a God who is eager to leave a blessing behind.

So today, we hear the Church’s invitation to observe a holy Lent – to pray, to fast, to read God’s Word. Let’s remember Joel’s invitation to us to lament. To cry aloud, to mourn, to weep, to feel and express the pain of the world. What is that pain for you, in your place? Is it violence? The political divide? Addiction? Is it generational poverty that we can’t seem to legislate our way beyond? What does your community lament? And how might your community cry out together to God about it?

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning…Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…?” (Joel 2:12, 14). 

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina as Rector of Grace Church in Waynesville.

Download the sermon for Ash Wednesday.