Category Archives: Sermons

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings (Using the John 14 reading)

I hope you’ve not skimped on the coffee this morning, because we’re going to jump into the deep end, that reading from the Revelation. That, in turn, will set us up to think about what the Church is for—not a bad question since we’re only two weeks out from celebrating Pentecost.

A few weeks back we noticed that Revelation likes images that shimmer, enigmatic images. John hears “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” but what John sees is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:5-6). So here, toward the end of the book, John hears “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” but what John sees is “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (21:9-10). This is something like what we encountered in Physics 101. Is light a particle or a wave? Yes, depending on what you’re trying to explain.

The new Jerusalem. No need for a temple, or a sun, for that matter: “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.… for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” Pull the camera back to include John’s Bible (our Old Testament) and it’s clear that this New Jerusalem is finally fulfilling the hopes for the original Jerusalem. Recall Isaiah:

2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (2:2-3)

Something beautiful is happening, and the nations want in on it.

Then there’s Ezequiel’s river flowing from God’s presence: “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” So healing is needed—still! The city has gates, the classic means of controlling access, but the gates are never shut. A bit later we’ll hear “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (22:17). Jerusalem is finally fulfilling its role, being the place where God’s glory is visible and healing is freely available.

I mentioned enigmatic images a bit ago, and in its final chapters the Revelation takes these to a different level in the form of two juxtaposed stories. In the one, a decisive battle in which evil is destroyed and the great white throne before which everything is sorted out. On the other hand, open-gated Jerusalem offering glory, joy, and healing to all who would enter. Well, which is it? What the Revelation may want to show us is that within the limits of human language and human understanding our clearest picture is this pair of starkly contrasting images.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. Recall how our story starts. Genesis gives us not one, but two creation stories. In one everything is good from the start, the humans play no active role, the seven days are as much liturgy as anything. In the other God works by trial and error, Adam plays an important role, and the good emerges at the end of the process: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” (2:23). To capture the reality of the beginning and ending of human history Scripture gives us pairs of stories.

What may be at stake in these pairs of stories is the challenge of doing justice to God’s sovereignty and human freedom. There’s a popular saying attributed to various folk (Augustine, Ignatius, etc.) “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Maybe, but it could be heard as a call to run ourselves ragged. I like what the Ignatian author Jim Manney does with it:

“I prefer to reverse it: ‘pray as if everything depends on you, and work as if everything depends on God.’ This means that prayer has to be urgent: God has to do something dramatic if everything depends on me. It also puts our work in the right perspective: if it depends on God, we can let it go. We can work hard but leave the outcome up to him. If God is in charge we can tolerate mixed results and endure failure.”[1]

OK, what of the Church? In John’s vision there’s the New Jerusalem, finally doing its job. Sounds pretty good. What happens until then? Let’s circle back to the angel’s words: “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” “The bride, the wife of the Lamb:” that sounds like the language used elsewhere in the New Testament for Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride. Or, to come at John’s vision from another angle, from 1st Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (3:16)?” Or, more extensively in Ephesians, “19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22).

Because God desires that all enter freely into joy, into God’s presence, God really needs a place where God can be at home, where God’s healing glory is visible, and that is the Church. That’s the dynamic in this morning’s psalm, God’s blessing here that ripples out to the corners of the earth. That’s at the core of today’s Gospel: “we will come to them and make our home with them.” This is why, by the way, the New Testament letters devote virtually no attention to evangelism and virtually all their attention to the elements in congregational life that make God’s healing glory easier or harder to see.

And this sweeping vision plays out in the decisions of specific women and men, folk like Lydia, that dealer in purple cloth from our first reading, folk like you and me.

We’re here, God knows, because we need to be here. And in the larger story that the Revelation brings into focus, we’re here because God needs places where God’s at home, where God’s healing glory can be visible in the common life of God’s people, whether gathered together or scattered through our communities during the week. A tall order, yes, which is why Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit on approach, the flaps extending, wheels down.


[1] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/work-as-if-everything-depends-on-god/ (accessed 5/16/2022).

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings (2nd reading extended to include Rev 21:7-8)

What a combination of texts!

Let’s start with the psalm, one of the psalms at the book’s climax dedicated to praise. Think about what we praise, what happens in us when we praise: a delicious meal, a wide receiver’s unbelievable catch, a pianist who nails a concerto, the beauty of a sunrise. These moments, completely spontaneous, take us out of ourselves, bring us joy. They’re usually accompanied by gratitude, gratitude that we were there to participate. It’d be surprising if there weren’t some physiological benefits as well. So, praise: we probably want to be doing it more often.

The Book of Psalms, the Psalter, thinks that even if we’re half awake praise naturally focuses on the Creator. In fact, for the Psalter the basic contrast isn’t praising vs. silent but praising vs. dead. “The heavens declare the glory of God, / and the firmament shows his handiwork,” and the Psalter encourages us to join the chorus, gives us words to join the chorus.

Our Morning Prayer usually begins with Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing to the Lord; / let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” All hell may be breaking loose, Murphy’s Law may be strutting its stuff, but we still have the choice of how to respond, and in our tradition that’s with this psalm, even when a good part of our energy is going into keeping a firm grip on that Rock.

You see, the placement of Psalm 95 in Morning Prayer isn’t just about liturgy, but about we start our days in this unpredictable and dangerous world. When I first open my iPhone in the morning, do I go first to the Psalter or the New York Times? (I’m preaching to myself here.)

Psalms like Psalm 95 or today’s psalm have a further effect: they calibrate the rest of our responses. Let these psalms sink in, and the breathless calls to applaud the rich and famous or to fear the powerful lose some of their force. When I turn to the news my blood pressure meds have less work to do. Over time our praise of the Creator molds us into particular people with particular responses.

Now in Psalm 148, after all that praise of the Creator there’s a gear shift in the last verse: “He has raised up strength for his people / and praise for all his loyal servants, / the children of Israel, a people who are near him.” The Creator is also the Protagonist in our history, paying special attention to Israel. And for the Jews praying this and similar psalms, the temptation was virtually irresistible to emphasize the contrast between us and them. Of course, initiatives like the forced Hellenization that sparked the Maccabean revolt a couple centuries before Jesus didn’t help matters!

Which brings us to the reading from Acts. Peter has ignored that us/them contrast and the “circumcised believers” want to know why. So Peter tells the story, which includes both Jesus’ words and the Spirit’s sovereign action: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” It turns out that that line in the psalm “the children of Israel, a people who are near him” isn’t the last word. And that’s a hard one for Peter’s audience to swallow, and the issue appears later in Acts as well as in Paul’s letters. Praising the Creator and Protagonist in our history means—well, should mean—acknowledging God’s freedom to introduce the new. Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into an implicit contract: we keep praising; You keep doing things we like. You may remember the uproar when Bob Dylan went electric. Anyhow, the new…

“See, I am making all things new.” We can draw a straight line from Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and earth that we heard on Easter Sunday to John’s vision.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (65:21-22)

Our world will not be trapped in futility and oppression indefinitely. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” That’s worth celebrating, and that celebration is one of the dimensions of every Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (That’s one of the short answers to “Why do you go there on Sunday mornings:” there’s a new world coming and we’re celebrating!)

What of the last two verses? John’s visions use that word ‘conquer’ more than the rest of the New Testament books combined. The context is one of persecution, so at one point we hear “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). Pulling the camera back to include the rest of the New Testament, I suppose that the more general point is that courage—one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues—is necessary to live humanly. Our choices matter, not because God is keeping score, but because our choices mold us, mold our capacity to respond to this God. This God, not generic deity, but the God who has no use for “Rank has its privileges,” the God who welcomes the prodigal son, the God who welcomes the gentiles and the other riff raff, the God who apparently still doesn’t understand that you’re either predator or prey. Do I really want to spend all eternity with this God?

There’s a scene toward the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle (the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia) that tries to capture this:

“But as they came right up to Aslan—Lewis’ Christ figure—one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression on their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred… And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared… But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of these were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right” (Chapter 14).

Our choices matter, and may require some courage. This is probably one of the reasons for Jesus’ “new commandment” in our Gospel reading “that you love one another.” We need each other’s love, whether we’re choosing wisely or foolishly.

Let’s circle back to the psalm. Praise too is a choice, one of those choices that molds us into folk more receptive to God’s presence and God’s choices—or not. With Spring finally arriving with all that is new and green, it’s not a bad time to clear our throats and renew our praise.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings

Today’s combination of collect and lessons invites us to contemplate Jesus the Good Shepherd. The collect: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people…”; Psalm 23, the classic statement of this theme; Revelation’s promise that the Lamb will be the shepherd of this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude; Jesus’ words of promise in the Gospel regarding the security of his sheep. Our first reading looks like the one exception; that’s OK; we’ll come back to it.

“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people—we prayed—Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” There are multiple biblical themes in that prayer; let me notice four of them.

First, Jesus “calls us each by name.” While we properly use “we” a lot (“We believe in one God…” “We confess…” “Our Father…”), the individual relationship with Jesus is equally important. Each of us is different, and so while we have much in common, we’re also irreducibly distinct. So Jesus’ relationship with each one of us will be different. Toward the beginning of Revelation we encounter this promise: “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17 RSV). So the ways in which I’m different are not things to be suppressed or ignored—even if some of them may result in behaviors for which repentance is needed—but part of the “I” that Jesus loves and would transform.

Second, following where Jesus leads assumes a fundamental asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves. Perhaps we’re not tempted to think that Jesus should follow where we lead, but in this egalitarian culture it is tempting to assume that we’re in a position to evaluate the job Jesus is doing—as though as in the Olympics the sheep might hold up numbers at the end of the day. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-10 RSV). So we should expect not to understand some of the things God does, or allows to happen, or asks of us. Child of this egalitarian culture, I like this no better than you do. But I hope we can also recognize the wisdom of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight that any God we could understand would not be worth worshipping.

Third, knowing Jesus’ voice and following where he leads isn’t automatic. Some days it’s easy; some days it’s the last thing we want to do. So we pray “Grant…”, that is, we need God’s help, help which comes through some combination of the Holy Spirit, means of grace like the Holy Eucharist and Holy Scripture, the habits that Holy Spirit is nurturing within us, and the encouragement of other Christians.

Fourth, “follow where he leads” reminds us that Jesus is moving, and that if we’re going to stay with Jesus, we need to be moving too. Think about the ending of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20 RSV) He’s with us always all right, always out in front, us always playing catch-up.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd: it’s a powerful image—but Jesus isn’t done with it. Remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter that we heard last week:

—Simon son of John, do you love me?
—Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.
—Feed my sheep.

The Good Shepherd delegates some of that shepherding work to Peter, and, by extension, to all His followers. After what I said about the asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves, Jesus obviously doesn’t delegate everything to Peter, and church leaders can overreach. But he does delegate, and that’s what we watched in the first reading in Acts.

Sandwiched between Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (which we heard last week) and Peter’s preaching to the gentiles at Cornelius’ house (part of which we heard on Easter Sunday), we’re told of Peter healing Aeneas’ paralysis in Lydda, and raising Tabitha from the dead in Joppa. The way the stories are told—sometimes even their vocabulary—recall Jesus’ miracles. Peter is doing some serious shepherding.

But there’s more. Luke tells us that Tabitha “was full of good works and acts of charity.” Later, when Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.” She’s been doing some serious shepherding as well. And then there are the two disciples who go from Joppa to Lydda to get Peter.

What Holy Scripture has given us in this brief story is a picture of a thick web of relationships through which pretty much everyone shepherds and is shepherded in turn: Peter, Tabitha/Dorcas, the widows, the messengers.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On the one hand the image promises an intimate individual relationship with Jesus. If we stop there we may regard other Christians as irrelevant or potential distractions. But with Jesus saying intimately to each one of us: “Tom, N, N, do you love me?… Feed my sheep,” “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” becomes the charter for a thick web of relationships in which all shepherd and are shepherded, in which Jesus’ love comes to me through others and to others through me. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 RSV).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Do we believe this? We show our belief as this image propels us on both an inward and outward journey: intimacy with this Jesus who knows me by name, practical actions—like Dorcas’ tunics and other garments—for Jesus’ sheep. Amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings (Expanded to include Rev 5:1-10)

What a combination of readings! Let’s start with the psalm.

Psalm 30 is a typical song of thanksgiving, recounting the crisis, the psalmist’s prayer, and the Lord’s deliverance. Together with many other texts, it celebrates the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness, celebrates the Lord taking pleasure not in our sickness and distress, but in our health and shalom. So, like the psalmist, in synch with the whole Bible, we pray for the sick and those in distress. May their story—may our story—end as the psalmist’s does: “Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; / O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

But what to do with v.10 (“What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? / will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”)? For the psalmist that’s a rhetorical question. But after Holy Week, after Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes more complicated—gloriously more complicated.

The thing is, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. That’s dramatically captured in John’s vision in our second reading. As the vision begins, the issue is a scroll, and who’s worthy to open it. John’s vision is full of open-ended symbols, and that scroll is one of them. We might gloss it—in pencil, not in pen—as “How the whole story ends” or “What the whole story means.” And just when it looks like no one is worthy to open it, to answer that question—and how many loud voices we hear today pretending to answer that question—”See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s what John hears. But when he looks: “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Well, which is it, Lion or Lamb? And John’s answer—throughout the book—is “yes.” That makes Revelation one of the more challenging books to read, because yes, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything.

And then John gives us the text of the song he hears: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” The focus is on the Lion/Lamb. The focus is equally on what the Lion/Lamb has won: “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” Every language—even English. Every people—even the Badgers. So if we pull out the binoculars, we’re in John’s vision.

We can use John’s vision as a door into our other readings.

Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” If it’s only the Lion in play we might expect an impressive thunderbolt. Well, there is a bright light—accompanied by a question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Lion/Lamb is forming that “kingdom and priests serving our God,” and Saul has just been drafted. And his form of service mirrors—largely—the Lamb’s as we learn from the Lord’s words to Ananias later in the text (“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”).

“How much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Paul does suffer at the hands of the Synagogue and the Empire, but this sort of suffering is contingent, dependent on local circumstances. More fundamentally, Paul suffers because—as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it—“Obedient faith is itself, in its very nature, a form of suffering. This is because faithful obedience always demands letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others. And such letting go hurts in small matters as well as large” (Interpreting Paul p.285). And Paul practices such obedience.

John’s Gospel started with a poetic prologue (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) and ends with a sort of epilogue that ties up some of the Gospel’s loose ends, like the respective roles of Peter and the “Beloved Disciple.” We may recognize the fishing story; Luke puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. You “have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,” and here we watch Jesus doing that by serving them, making them breakfast. Jesus is, after all, the model for the faithful obedience Johnson described. But it’s not simply a matter of obedience. Hard as it might be to imagine, Jesus enjoys spending time with these folk—with us.

The miraculous catch: as in Luke, it looks like a foreshadowing of what they’ll be about, serving God by fishing for people.

Then, for Peter, the thrice repeated question and commission. Peter had denied Jesus publicly; Jesus gives him the opportunity to confess him publicly. There’s no way reliving this wasn’t painful for Jesus, but it’s what Peter needs, so on Jesus goes. It’s Peter’s rehabilitation, Peter’s re-inclusion into this “kingdom and priests serving our God.” And the expression of Peter’s love? “Feed my sheep.”

Parenthetically, this scene with Peter makes me wonder about Judas. How much difference was there between Peter and Judas? As the Gospels tell the story, I wonder if the most important difference wasn’t that Judas’ suicide closed off other possible endings. Too easy to forget that we aren’t the ones worthy to open the scroll—even of our own lives. We may strive to make faithful decisions, but there’s no encouragement in Scripture to assume we know how things will or should play out.

Having said that, in Peter’s case there is a preview in the final verses: “’Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)”

As I said earlier, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. The psalmist assumed no profit in my blood, if I go down to the Pit. After Holy Week, with the Lion/Lamb opening the scroll, even our deaths can serve God, can glorify God. So at Burial the liturgical color is white and we confess “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

But, returning to the Gospel, the last word in this scene isn’t the preview, but the simple command “Follow me.” The Lion of the tribe of Judah, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered: that’s the One Peter follows, the one we follow. The bad news, if you like, is that suffering, “letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others” is integral to that following. The good news is that with the Lord assuming human flesh, the joy and glory celebrated in the psalm aren’t for later, but for now. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The Second Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings

Today’s Gospel reading narrates three different scenes; let’s take them one by one.

In the first, Easter evening (vv.19-23), Jesus appears to the disciples. (In this Gospel he had previously appeared only to Mary Magdalene.) It’s this Gospel’s version of both Matthew’s Great Commission and Luke’s Day of Pentecost, with a replay of the Garden of Eden! As in Genesis 2, “he breathed on them;” Creation 2.0 starts here. He sends them out—as he himself was sent—with the authority to forgive sins. It rather looks like Jesus has completed the hand-off and has no reason to show up again.

The second scene covers the following week (vv.24-25): an entire week in which almost all the disciples are rejoicing and Thomas, who wasn’t present when Jesus appeared, is demanding some evidence. Thomas, channeling Eeyore, and the others channeling Tigger. Those would have been some interesting conversations (arguments?).

The third scene, the following Sunday (vv.26-31). Two extraordinary elements to notice: Jesus shows up again, and Thomas is present. Let’s take the second one first. After a full week of “Jesus is risen!” vs. “Where’s the evidence?” Thomas is still present. We Christians divide over so many issues, and whether Jesus is alive or dead sounds like it’s on the serious end of the scale. Looks like Jesus’ “Receive the Holy Spirit” had some effect! And notice how much might have been lost had they divided: would Thomas have encountered the risen Christ? Would the other disciples have heard Thomas’ decisive confession that gave them—and us—these crucial words: “My Lord and my God!”? But there they are, together.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall to have overheard that week’s conversations. Judging by Paul’s letters I’d guess something like the following was going on. The ten disciples were in a position of strength: they were the clear majority, and they’d seen Jesus. Thomas was in the obviously weak position. But the ten use their strength for Thomas. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it re 2 Corinthians “’Life for others’ demands not overt displays of power (“OK, Thomas, shape up or ship out!”) but the willingness to be exposed and vulnerable, ‘foolish’ and ‘sinful’ and ‘weak’ in the eyes of others” (Interpreting Paul p.155). Or, as Jesus had put it “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).

Jesus—yes, that other extraordinary element—Jesus shows up, apparently specifically for Thomas. I wonder about that. “I will not believe” Thomas had said, and ‘believe’ is a word—an action—that’s really important particularly in this Gospel. So it’s lights out for Thomas? Is it Jesus’ love that’s at work here (“does [the shepherd] not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”)? Is it the disciples’ tenacity, enacting—in a loose sense— “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”? A combination of both? In any case, Jesus shows up.

At the end of the conversation with Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Well, how does one come to believe? The text offers, I think, two complementary answers. The first is in the following verses: “But these are written [in this book] so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s a reason our Gospel book is encased in gold and receives special honor: God uses it to awaken and nourish our faith.

Let me digress briefly here. While God has many ways of speaking to us (that would be another sermon!), in the cumulative experience of the people of God Scripture is central. And it’s never been more accessible: various apps for our smartphones let us read the Daily Office without having to flip any pages (like the Daily Office from Mission St. Clare) or listen to texts (like WordProject). We take in information from sources of such varied reliability during the day; what space do we allocate to Scripture in that mix? But, you say, these days the Scripture might as well be in Cantonese. Well, that’s not a new problem; corner a priest to explore ways to work around it.

The second answer to how we come to believe is in the whole story we’ve heard: guided by the Holy Spirit, the community has used this authority to forgive sins in a way that’s live-giving, so that Thomas is still around when Jesus shows up. This authority: we know that it can be used destructively, used in ways that has anyone with half a brain looking for the nearest exit. Here the text has shown us how it’s used well. Our choices make it easier or harder for those around us to believe. God wants us, I think, to pay attention to that.

Back on Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I doubt that the disciples could have guessed where that would need to kick in. A week of “Jesus is risen!” vs. “Where’s the evidence?” But after that week they were still together, and together encountered the risen Christ. May we go and do likewise.

Easter Day: A Sermon

Readings [Isaiah, Acts, Luke]

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

How do we celebrate Easter? That’s the question that brought the preacher up short looking at today’s lessons. Let’s wonder together.

That we need new heavens and a new earth is painfully obvious, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine being simply the latest reminder. “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” In my years working for World Vision I was constantly reminded how simple this vision is, and how difficult to attain for so many of the world’s people. Build houses, plant vineyards—and then some guy from the capital drives up with a piece of paper that says it’s all his, not yours. So simple, but attaining it, nothing less than “new heavens and a new earth.”

How do we get from here to there? That’s the question to which Easter is the answer.

The same stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

How do we celebrate Easter? We acknowledge how badly we need new heavens and a new earth.

How do we get from here to there? Consider the second reading from Acts.

Here’s Peter the Jew in the home of Cornelius the Roman centurion, something like a Ukrainian in the home of a Russian Captain. It took a heavenly vision to get Peter there, but that’s for another sermon. What’s astonishing is what doesn’t happen: Peter doesn’t unload on Cornelius, Peter and his friends don’t try to slip various interesting toxins into Cornelius’ kitchen. He describes Jesus’ activity: “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” When he gets to Good Friday, he passes on the opportunity to talk about Pilate, the Roman hospitality, the Roman cross and nails. “But God raised him on the third day… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” From the context it’s clear that forgiveness of sins includes forgiving others’ sins. If the story is about the conversion of Cornelius, it’s first about the conversion of Peter. Breaking the cycles of violence, recrimination, payback: looks like that’s core to getting from here to there.

How do we celebrate Easter? After the Acts reading there’s some logic in standing next to Peter and renewing our commitment to our continual conversion.

What about our Gospel reading? The thing about Good Friday is that that’s the world we know. That’s what happens to good people: Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., too many civilians in the Ukraine. Not easy to believe that that world can be cracked open. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The apostles. Being slow on the uptake is apostolic. I find that encouraging.

How can we believe that God can crack this familiar world open? The text points us in two directions: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Remember! We’re really good at forgetting, forgetting what Jesus said, what Jesus did. Remember: God’s cracking this familiar world open: that’s not been a short-term project, that’s why the Bible is a big book. Second, “Peter got up and ran to the tomb…” He gets up, doesn’t assume he already has all the information he needs. The older I get the easier it is to assume that I have all the information I need. I don’t.

How do we celebrate Easter? We might try listening to the women more often, and, with them, various other voices regularly ignored.

How do we celebrate Easter? Not—with all due respect to Madison Avenue—by cueing up “Happy days are here again.” There are still too many people driven from their homes and vineyards, still too many thriving oppressors, and at least some of us thinking some days of the week that payback still sounds like a really good idea. Jesus’ resurrection “an idle tale”? That would be so much simpler.

So, in the name of the Church, simpler is overrated. Christ is risen. Those cracks in our world: that’s how the light gets in. Let’s see together where that risen Christ would lead us.

Good Friday: A Sermon

Readings

One of things I treasure about our tradition is that on our High Holy Days our liturgies pretty much preach themselves. They carry us; we can relax into them.

With some exceptions, and today I’ll use the sermon slot to focus on one of them. Toward the end of the service there’s the Veneration of the Cross. What do we do with that?

There may be, I suppose, parishes in which everyone comes forward, and there the pastoral advice would be to resist group pressure. Don’t worry about what they’ll think of you if you don’t come forward. I’m told that’s not the problem here.

So what do we do with it? There are many possible answers. Here are a few; perhaps they’ll spark better ones.

Some of us are carrying burdens, some out of faithfulness, some because of the cards dealt. We might come to the cross for company. Jesus is no stranger to heavy burdens. As the Lord put it in Isaiah, “even to your old age I am he, / even when you turn gray I will carry you. / I have made, and I will bear; / I will carry and will save.”

Some of us: the language of 1928/Rite I comes too easily (“there is no health in us…miserable offenders;” “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table”). We might come to the cross to hear—as clearly as Jesus can say it—you are worth it. Jesus: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”

Some of us carry some anger at God’s choices that seem to bring on apparently unnecessary suffering for God or us. We might come to the cross to remind God that we’re still here, that the anger is still here, even if we have no idea how the conversation can productively go forward. From Isaiah again: “Come now, let us argue it out, / says the Lord.”

Some of us: there are no words to adequately express the gratitude we sometimes feel. We might come to the cross to say—with our body—thank you. We come up every week to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood; this time to say thank you. Jesus, the New Temple: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, / and his courts with praise.”

Some of us: well, as the years have gone by we’re more puzzled than we used to be, and not obviously in a good way. There’s something good here—that’s why we’re here—but bringing it into focus… We might come to the cross to say something like “Jesus, I’m not sure why you’re there, what it’s all about. But I’m here.” From Luke’s Passion narrative that we heard last Sunday: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

As I said, many possible answers. There’s no obligation, but perhaps the Veneration can be a means of expressing something important in your heart.

Maundy Thursday: A Sermon

Readings (With the 1 Corinthians reading extended to this)

Getting Israel out of Egypt is half the battle; the other half is getting Egypt out of Israel. The Maundy Thursday readings, with their Passover setting, invite us to contemplate that.

Getting Israel out of Egypt: The first reading tells of the institution of the Passover, a feast the Jews have celebrated every year since that night in Egypt.

Each family was to select an unblemished lamb, the Passover lamb, and to kill it at twilight. Some of the blood went on the doorposts and the lintel of the house and the lamb was eaten, with the family prepared to leave at any moment. That very night God would pass through the land, and Pharaoh would finally let the people go.

Until Jesus’ arrival, no other night was of such importance in the world’s history, for it was one of the defining actions of the true God, announcing that God desires not the obedience of slaves, but rather of free sons and daughters. In our country, African American slaves heard in this story God’s passion for their own freedom.

And every year since the Exodus the Jews have continued to celebrate the Passover to remember their liberation and —often— to reaffirm their confidence in God’s power to free them again from new oppressors.

As the Gospels tell us, Jesus. the night before his death, celebrated the Passover with his disciples and reinterpreted its meaning. The meal had used bread and wine to celebrate the liberation from Egypt; Jesus reinterpreted the bread and wine in terms of his coming self-offering: this is my body; this is my blood.

Every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist, when we say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” we are remembering this definitive reinterpretation. And to say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” reminds us of how deeply God desires our liberty, and what God was willing to pay to achieve it. God desires that we be free from both our exterior and interior oppressors, free—in the language of our Gospel reading—to love.

Getting Egypt, that is, getting the enslaving seeking and maintenance of status, out of Israel turns out to be at least as hard. It’s the focus of our New Testament readings. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper even that night the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. So Jesus tries to get at it by washing the disciples’ feet. It horrifies Peter, not so much (I think) that Jesus is washing his feet, as that Peter has already figured out where Jesus is going to take this: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Our Prayer Book encourages—but does not demand—a reenactment of the foot washing. These days it’s problematic; we’re not doing it tonight; perhaps you’ll do it next year. But the reenactment is less important than its point: a love that is oriented not by my comfort level or preferences, but by the needs of my brother or sister. Love oriented by my comfort level or preferences: that lets Egypt in through the back door. Love oriented by the needs of my brother or sister: that’s the liberty for which Moses struggled and Jesus died.

This business of washing each other’s feet—metaphorically speaking—shows up in that paragraph from Paul’s letter from which our reading was taken. The Lectionary assigns vv.23-26, in which Paul recounts Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. But why recount it? For that we need the surrounding context. In those days—also at Corinth—we often celebrated the Eucharist as part of a dinner. But what happened, what scandalized Paul, was that each family ate and drank from their own basket. The rich, baskets to go from one of the upscale restaurants; the poor, whatever they could find at a local food pantry. Egypt has not only entered through the back door; Egypt is running the place! So Paul recounts the institution to remind them that the Eucharist is about a New Covenant, a life given for others, so that celebrating the Eucharist selfishly and as though it’s “business as usual” badly misses the point.

Notice how Paul unpacks this. “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Notice: “the body” isn’t the Eucharistic bread; it’s the living Body of Christ composed of the brothers and sisters gathered around a common table but not —alas— around a common basket. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner…” “In an unworthy manner” is not about whether I’ve properly confessed before Mass, or whether I have the right sacramental theology, but about whether I’m showing love to my Christian brothers and sisters.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Washing each others’ feet, celebrating the Eucharist in a way that takes Jesus’ Body seriously: two first Century examples of where Jesus’ new commandment needs to kick in, given to us to get us wondering where that new commandment needs to kick in here and now.

Getting Israel out of Egypt: that’s God’s “yes” to our freedom, celebrated in the Passover and transposed—put on steroids—for all people in Jesus’ death as celebrated in the Holy Eucharist. Getting Egypt out of Israel, living freely: that turns out to be an ongoing project. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” May some of Jesus’ passion for our freedom rub off on us.

Domingo de Pasión: Domingo de Ramos: Un Sermón

Habrá varias oportunidades de contemplar los eventos de Semana Santa en la semana entrante. Buena cosa, porque hay mucho de contemplar.

Hoy me llaman la atención dos elementos. Primero, los gritos del pueblo:

¡Que muera este hombre! Déjanos libre a Barrabás.

¡Crucifícalo, crucifícalo!

Como nos enseña la liturgia, es nuestro grito. Basta con la mentira “¡Es el grito de los judíos!” Es el grito del pueblo de Dios. Y esto es importante en nuestro contexto tan polarizado, donde es tan fácil suponer que la maldad habita entre ellos. Nosotros los justos, ellos…

Y—entre paréntesis—Jesús anticipa este error:

Señor, yo estoy dispuesto a ir contigo a la cárcel y a la muerte.

Te digo, Pedro, que hoy antes de que cante el gallo habrás negado tres veces que me conoces.

Por la gracia del Señor nuestras historias no terminan aquí. Sin embargo, creo que es bien importante recordar este “Crucifícalo,” reconocer nuestra solidaridad hasta con nuestros enemigos.

Segundo, este “Padre, perdónalos, porque no saben lo que hacen.” La consecuencia, la integridad de Jesús es francamente temible. Antes, en una situación más calma: “Perdónanos nuestros pecados, porque también nosotros perdonamos a todos los que nos han hecho mal.” Y aquí está. Pero, ¡ojo! No dice “Les perdono yo a Ustedes¨ sino “Padre, perdónalos. ¨ Quizá en este momento no es capaz de perdonar, pero hace lo que puede: ¨Padre, perdónalos. ¨

Tenemos enemigos. A veces nos no es posible perdonar. ¿Quizá podemos orar por ellos? Me ayuda mucho el rezo en nuestro LOC:

Oh Dios y Padre de todos, cuyo Hijo nos mandó amar a nuestros enemigos: Guíanos a nosotros y a ellos del prejuicio a la verdad; líbranos del odio, la crueldad y la venganza; y, a tu debido tiempo, capacítanos para llegar reconciliados a tu presencia; por Jesucristo nuestro Señor. Amén.

Cómo dije, hay tanto que contemplar esta semana. En el centro, Jesucristo, quien, en las palabras de la Gran Plegaria “Extendió sus brazos sobre la cruz y se ofreció en obediencia a tu voluntad, un sacrificio perfecto por todo el mundo.” Y precisamente este Jesús estando en el centro me impulsa ver parte de mi carácter (“Crucifícalo”), y parte de mi vocación como su seguidor (“Perdónanos nuestros pecados, porque también nosotros perdonamos a todos los que nos han hecho mal.”). Y cuando no puedo perdonar, por lo menos puedo—debo—orar.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent: A Sermon

Readings

What a table today’s readings set! Let’s notice, briefly, a couple of the entrees before moving to Jesus’ parable.

Toward the end of Revelation John hears this from the throne: “See, I am making all things new” (21:5). All things new: not a bad heading for our readings from Joshua and 2nd Corinthians. Joshua: the transition from the wilderness to the promised land, with the celebration of Passover making a fitting bookend with the first Passover on the night of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. 2nd Corinthians: “everything has become new!”

‘New’ has mostly positive connotations in our culture. Ironically, the opposite is true for ‘change’. “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?” “CHANGE???” We like ‘new’, we dislike ‘change’, and that makes most areas of our life more complicated than necessary. Minimally, it might help to recognize that the change to which God invites us in Lent is in service of achieving the new.

Repentance. Our psalm highlights its importance. When we set the psalm next to Jesus’ parable two things become, I think, evident. First, first while repentance is necessary, the decisive element is God’s/the Father’s character. All the repentance we could muster wouldn’t do any good unless our Father were disposed to run to it. That repentance is necessary, consider what would have happened had the younger son gone to the distant country, made a killing, and swaggered back: “Dad, this place is really a dump; let me help you out.” That would have required a different response from the father.

Second, our prejudices can make it really hard for us to recognize who needs to repent. That, ironically, is baked into the traditional title for the parable, “The Prodigal Son,” for even a cursory reading reveals that it’s the older son who needs to repent. But no: put them in a line-up and we predictably point to the younger son as the one needing repentance. And this despite Luke’s stage-setting: “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.” Anyhow, if we’re looking for an opportunity midst the solemnity of Lent to take ourselves less seriously, here’s an opportunity.

Jesus’ parable. This morning I’m hearing the parable in the company of Ken Bailey and George Caird. Ken Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes helps me hear the parable more clearly. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” In that culture, hard to think of more insulting words, for property is divided after the owner’s death, so that the son’s request says, essentially, you’re of more value to me dead than alive. And later in the parable: “his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran…” Middle Eastern fathers don’t run. In a pinch one might walk sedately, but, more appropriately, remain unmoved as the lower-status party approaches. How this father humbles himself, and doesn’t seem to mind a bit!

The father in the parable is one of Jesus’ clearest pictures of our heavenly Father. And it’s worth noticing that Jesus here is simply echoing his Scripture’s (our Old Testament’s) pictures. Some of us have been reading Isaiah in these weeks; here are two quick excerpts from the divine speeches:

You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities. (Isa. 43:24)

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isa. 46:3-4)

As today’s psalm ends:

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

And what is it to be “righteous” or “true of heart” if not to be increasingly recognizing and reflecting God’s character? I’ve snuck a couple ideas into that question: here they are; see what you think of them. First, “increasingly recognizing and reflecting:” “righteous” and “true of heart” don’t do well standing still. They involve growth, newness, even the c-word (‘change’). Second, “righteous” and “true of heart” are relational, depending on our relationship with the Lord. Without that relationship, strange things can happen. Which brings us to the older brother.

We naturally feel some sympathy for the older brother. After the division of the property in a sense it’s his fattened calf that’s being served. And yet, oddly enough, the figure the older brother most closely resembles is the accuser, the satan. That demands, I think, a bit of a digression.

We first meet the Adversary (‘satan’ is simply a transcription of that Hebrew word) at the beginning of Job. It’s a good guess that he’s patterned after the agent provocateur in the Persian court whose role was to sniff out disloyalty before it became dangerous. He plays a similar role in one of Zechariah’s visions: “Then he showed me the high priest Joshua [dressed, we learn, in filthy cloths] standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him” (3:1). He’s all about justice. Here’s George Caird in his New Testament Theology:

Yet even at this early stage of his history we can see where his one-sided emphasis on justice is to lead him. In both stories he is found arguing against God, whose holiness he is so anxious to defend. It cannot be said of him that he does not will the death of sinners, or that he is hoping that they would turn from their wickedness and live. He is a rigorous legalist, a prosecuting attorney, who must have a conviction, and who is satisfied only with a capital sentence. If the evidence does not give him a good case, he is prepared to manufacture new evidence by provoking Job into mortal sin.

And like the Adversary the older brother wants justice, and this single-minded focus turns him against the father.

What if Caird’s description governed our use of words like ‘diabolical’ or ‘satanic’—the single-minded pursuit of justice without compassion?

We imagine the Adversary encouraging people to do bad things, and that’s true enough. The Bible’s portrayals might encourage us to imagine him spending as much time saying things like “If you did that you can’t be worth much!” or “That person/that group doesn’t deserve compassion,” that is, channeling the older brother.

I wonder if the Bible doesn’t talk about the Adversary also to help us bring God’s character into focus. Justice is important to God, but not at the expense of compassion. The psalmist is counting on that! Gustavo Gutiérrez gets it right: “The world of retribution—and not of temporal retribution only—is not where God dwells; at most God visits it.” And one important reason that the Bible repeatedly says “Fear not” and “Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord” is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not this Adversary.

We Christians use the word ‘God’ a lot. But what images accompany that word? Today’s parable invites us to let Jesus’ image of God sink deep into our imaginations.