Inclusion Is God’s Idea – May 6, 2018

May 6, 2018

We get a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a truly remarkable story in our Acts of the Apostles scripture lesson this (morning). It might seem like a quaint vignette about one of many events in the advancement of the gospel throughout the world. But many theologians call this event a second Pentecost.

In the first Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks, the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples as they were gathered in prayer and blew all about Jerusalem like a mighty wind, as the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit spoke the praise of God in a multitude of languages to Jews from all over the diaspara who were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. In this story the Holy Spirit descends on a gathering of unclean Gentiles (the vast majority of people in the world) welcoming them into the Kingdom of God. Peter is present and preaching at both Pentecost’s but it is the Holy Spirit who is the real event planner here.

All of Acts 10 tells the story of the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It isn’t until the last 5 verses in today’s reading that the Holy Spirit descends and Cornelius and his companions are baptized. In the Roman garrison of Caesarea, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who was a God fearer, a Gentile who believed in the God of Judaism (even if Judaism didn’t accept him), was at prayer. An angel speaks to Cornelius in a vision telling him his prayers have been answered and to send for Simon named Peter, a Jew in the city of Joppa about 38 miles down the Mediterranean coast. And so Cornelius sent some of his servants and one of his officer’s down the coast to find Simon Peter. A day later, as the travelers from Caesarea were about to arrive, Peter who was tired, hungry and waiting for lunch, fell asleep and had a dream. The same dream was repeated 3 times. Peter saw a huge net descending from heaven capturing all kinds of animals: reptiles, birds, shellfish, pigs… in other words, all kinds of unclean food. A voice from heaven told him to get up, kill and eat. A shocked and offended Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After the third time with the same dream, the group from Caesarea arrived at Peter’s doorstep and God told Peter to go with them.

When Peter arrived in Caesarea and entered the home of the Centurion, a home that he as a Jew was not permitted by Jewish law to enter, he went in and both he and Cornelius told of their remarkable visions. Peter began then to tell those uncircumcised Gentiles about the good news of Jesus. And that’s where we pick up the story today in the 44th verse of Acts 10. The Holy Spirit interrupted Peter mid-sermon; the power of God fell on those Gentiles and they miraculously started speaking God’s praises in Hebrew. An astounded Peter looked at the scene and asked his fellow Jews who have traveled with him from Joppa, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The Holy Spirit did something quite remarkable. Up to then, the Jesus movement had been kept within the bounds of Judaism. Jesus followers kept all the Jewish laws and customs and Gentiles were still regarded as outside the new Covenant. In Acts 10, we read how the Holy Spirit acted to include the Gentiles. Including Gentilse in the Christian community was a seismic change for the early Church. In many ways the rest of the Acts of the Apostles and all the letters of Paul highlight how difficult an adjustment the inclusion of the Gentiles really was for the Jesus movement. The Spirit of the living God was forcing the early Church “to come to grips with the limitations of their own ethnicity and cultural context in proclaiming a universal gospel.” (Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Lent/Easter, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993, pg. 151)

St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford has a wonderful catch phrase to highlight their mission: “Inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.”   I would like to highlight some moments in parishes I have served where I believe the Holy Spirit orchestrated a Christian community to open wider their sense of inclusion. One of the most powerful and best-loved stories of St. Peter’s, Eggertsville, a suburb of Buffalo, NY, where I first served as a Rector, involved the arrival one Sunday of the Talbot family. Vincent and Dorothy Talbot were the first black couple who had come to worship in this new post WW2 suburban church. It was in the early 1960’s. Vincent and his wife, Dorothy came up to the rail and knelt for Communion. A group of white congregants already at the altar rail stood up and went to the other side of the rail for Communion. Fr. Duncan, the Rector, calmly proceeded to give Communion to the Talbot’s and then passed by, refusing Communion to those who had moved to avoid close proximity to someone of a different race. Fr. Duncan has always been one of my heroes. Those bigots left the parish and the Talbot’s stayed. Vincent Talbot, a retired army officer, later became St. Peter’s first black Sr. Warden.

One hot and steamy Sunday morning in August, 2003, a week or two after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the election of Gene Robinson, a gay priest living with his partner, as Bishop of New Hampshire, two young women came for the first time to worship at St. Paul’s, Woodbury, CT, a church I served for 20 years as Rector. Pam, a slight young woman, was visibly tired, hot and very obviously 8 months pregnant with twins. Marianne, who was with her, I soon learned, was her partner. About 20 active families left St. Paul’s, because of the fall-out over the election of Bishop Robinson. They would not stay in a Church where homosexuality was accepted. Some of St. Paul’s few tither’s were among them. It was a severe loss and blow to our parish. Pam and Marianne and their twins, Matthew and Thayer, helped me and the people of St. Paul’s who remained, learn a new reality, that God was fully present and welcoming of people of more than one sexual orientation.

Four and a half years ago a Spanish speaking Episcopal congregation was looking for a new home, as the Anglo parish in which they worshipped had to close its doors. They asked if St. John’s could give them a home. I am glad to say that we welcomed Fr. Eddie and the people of Iglesia Betania. We have shared in worship together many times. Two weeks from today on Pentecost Sunday, we will worship together in English, Spanish, French and Creole, along with L’Eglise de L’Epiphanie, the Haitian congregation also worshipping at St. John’s for over 20 years. It is often difficult to fully understand each other. There are cultural differences that sometimes surprise us and language is often a barrier. However, we share the love of Christ and the traditions of the Episcopal Church. More than that, we share in community and fellowship together. The Holy Spirit has forced us to be more inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.

In Matthew 28 Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world and to proclaim the good news to every nation and culture. Ever since, the Jesus movement has struggled with translating the Gospel into different cultural contexts and languages. There has often been resistance. Does the good news of Jesus really apply to them just as it does to us? Sadly, the Jesus movement has splintered into thousands and thousands of different denominations, because we have such a hard time bridging all those differences. Often it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to overcome our human resistance to God’s inclusivity.

Some adults find it difficult to welcome children to worship together in the same space. Some people don’t want to have to hear a language in worship other than their own. We often think of our own cultural contexts and norms as essential parts of the good news. Over the decades dancing, movie going and card playing, long hair and short hair, beards and shaved faces, speaking in tongues, traditional hymns and Christian rock, drums and organs, head coverings and bare heads: are all a short list of some of the cultural contexts that have sometimes been banned and sometimes been the norm in Christian life and worship. The cultural context for living and expressing the Christian faith, is always shifting.

As St. Francis’ catch phrase states: “inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.” God is always breaking through our cultural limitations and prejudices to help us embrace more people with God’s love. Whom do you find it hard to embrace with God’s welcome as worthy to include in God’s love? Immigrants? Muslims? People of a different hue of skin or ethnicity or language or socio-economic background or politics or dress? I suspect that all of us, no matter how accepting, find some group of people more difficult than others to warm up to. How might the Holy Spirit be giving you a new vision to be more inclusive? How might the Holy Spirit be giving St. John’s a new vision to be more welcoming and reach out with a wider embrace? While it is not our catch phrase, I hope that it is also true of St. John’s that we are inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.

When Love Comes To Town – April 29, 2018

April 29, 2018

Back in 1988 Bono and his bandmates in U2 wrote a song in tribute to the great bluesman BB King and famously performed it with him on their album, Rattle and Hum.

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves
Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I've said

When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town (by U2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzWITVlEKfk)

John, the Elder, writing to a community of new Christians, whom he simply calls “God’s beloved,” writes to tell them what can happen, what needs to happen in their lives, when love comes to town. Love has come to town in the person of Jesus Christ. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way,” he tells them, “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

So the first thing that happened when love came to town is that they met Jesus. Of course, they didn’t meet him in person, they met Jesus in his story and they encountered the way that Jesus’ story had changed John the Elder and his companions. They learned how Jesus overcame death and hate by his atoning sacrifice. They heard how Jesus reached out to broken and needy people, touching and healing them. They heard how he healed those who were sick. They heard how he embraced the untouchables in society, how he ate with the hated tax collectors and sinners. They heard how through listening and deeply connecting to people who were lost – like the woman at the well, or the Gerasene demoniac, or Zacchaeus the tax collector - how Jesus brought healing and new life. They heard some of the amazing things Jesus said. They heard how he died and how God raised him from the dead and how he appeared to his disciples. They received with joy the good news of Jesus’ love for them and welcomed Jesus’ living presence through the power of God’s Spirit to live and dwell within them.

“God is love,” John told them. And Jesus is the living embodiment of God’s love. The way that we receive that love, the way that love of God can abide and live in us, is to let God’s love flow through us in loving others. We cannot see God. But when God’s love flows through us in loving others we see God in action.

Love can conquer broken hearts and broken lives. Love can transform a hardened and angry heart. Love can heal that which was broken. Love can help someone make a new beginning. But the one thing love cannot do, John tells them, is hate.

Our children are learning that lesson in the Dare to be Different curriculum based on the young adult novel by Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Meg Murray, the protagonist in that story and her little brother Charles Wallace, learn that darkness is growing throughout the universe. The darkness is evident in people’s cruelty, in bullying, in greed and hatred, and in categorizing and judging people according to race or wealth or appearances. “It” (a horrific and evil being) is the seemingly all powerful force behind the darkness. It captures Charles Wallace and imprisons their father. Meg has to fight It. But how? She first tries to hate It and all It represents. She hates the meanness and cruelty and all that the darkness does, with a righteous anger. And she’s absolutely right to do so. Everything that It represents and does is wrong. And yet Meg cannot overcome the power of darkness with hate. Only love, Mrs. Whatsit shows her, can conquer the power of It. For It does not understand love, does not have the capacity to love, minimizes the power of love and is ultimately overcome by love.

John the elder tells the beloved community that anyone who purports to love God but hates his brother or sister is a liar. Hatred of your brother or sister is incompatible with the love of God. What does that love that comes from God look like? Well, it looks a lot like the love that Jesus shared. So much of human love, before real love comes to town, sees love as an investment. We love that which has value to us. We love that which can bring a return on our investment. We love and invest in our children because they come from us, belong to us and we want them to do well in the world. We love someone romantically because he or she is attractive, is a prize. We love our own: representatives of our own party, of our own clan, of our own ethnicity, of our own family, or our own nation. “God’s love,” in contrast, “doesn’t seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved by God, but because we are loved that we have value.” (William Sloan Coffin, The Courage to Love, New York, Harper & Row, 1982, p. 11, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Claudia Highbow, Pastoral Perspective, 2008, Louisville, KY, Westminster, John Knox, p. 468) When we let God’s love work through us we don’t love another because of his or her intrinsic value to us, and not because of what he or she can give us, but because that person is made by God and loved by God. God’s love does not seek a reward or any recompense. God loves those who are worthless every bit as much as God loves someone you or I might deem worthwhile. Loving another with God’s love helps the person loved find their worth. We may never have seen God, but when we witness love like that we are looking into the face of God.

What can happen? What ought to happen in our lives when love comes to town? When love comes to town we, who are unworthy and lost, are found in God’s love for us. We are found in the love of Jesus who offered his very life for you and me and for all the millions of broken, hurting, lonely and lost souls on this planet. When love comes to town we take the miracle of our own redemption as a gift to be shared with others, a gift to be shared especially with those who need it most – those who are despised and broken and oppressed and hurting in this world. When love comes to town we realize that righteous anger at the growing darkness and hate so abundant in our world isn’t enough. We need to love those who God loves in spite of the hate, in spite of the darkness.

When love comes to town we learn that the sacrificial love of God is at the heart of every Christian virtue. We learn that the best we can do without love is but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Justice without love is mere legalism. Faith without love is ideology. Hope without love is self-centeredness. Forgiveness without love is self-abasement. Courage without love is recklessness. Generosity without love is extravagance. Care without love is mere duty. Fidelity without love is servitude. Every virtue is an expression of love. No virtue is really a virtue unless it is permeated, or informed, by love. (Fr. Richard P. McBrien, quoted in Homiletics magazine, May 6, 2012)

Every one of us has fallen far short of loving others as God in Jesus has loved us. As Bono and his bandmates in U2 put it, “maybe I was wrong to ever let you down, but I did what I did before love came to town. If we want to say, as I believe most of us do, that we love God, we need to learn to love more fully, more completely, more sacrificially our brothers and sisters.

Sightings of the Risen Lord in Stamford – April 15, 2018

April 15, 2018

The door was locked. The disciples were gathered inside that upper room. They were deeply unsettled, surprised, scared and yet hopeful about the news they were hearing from some in their own inner circle. Jesus was alive!? They could hardly believe it. After all, they’d seen him die. Now, 3 days later, the tomb was empty; that much they knew for certain. Peter now said that had seen him. A couple walking from Jerusalem to the little village of Emmaus met him on the road. He helped explain the scripture to them and they suddenly recognized him as he broke the bread. What could all this mean(?) they wondered. And then, suddenly, Jesus himself stood among them, right there at the table with them. They were shocked and terrified. Have you ever seen a ghost? Probably not, but the thought of seeing one is pretty scary isn’t it? Jesus had to show them he was real. He wasn’t a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He was flesh and blood. He showed them the nail holes in his hands and feet. And he asked for something to eat, eating a bit of fried fish and bread. A ghost couldn’t do that. The risen Lord was real; he was solid; he was alive.

That early Christian community experienced the reality of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in a number of ways. The resurrected Lord appeared bodily among them for some 40 days before he ascended. The chosen disciple band were eye witnesses. And then the early Christian community continued to experience Jesus’ embodied presence, whenever they gathered to break bread and drank wine in his memory. They experienced Jesus in their worship and the warmth and love of their community. They recognized him as their eyes were opened to understand the scriptures. When they served others, as they cared for those who were sick, clothed the naked, visited those who were in prison, it was as if they were visiting Jesus himself.   As they told stories and passed on the stories they had heard about all Jesus had done in Galilee, teaching, healing, proclaiming the good news, it was as if he were with them. Above all they experienced the power of his victory over death.

Jesus’ disciples did as Jesus asked them to do in this morning’s Gospel, to be his witnesses. In the Acts of the Apostles lesson Peter, James and John had just brought Jesus’ healing grace to a cripple. Then, as we heard, Peter shared with the crowd who gathered to see the cripple who had begged by the gate now walking, the powerful story of Jesus, crucified and now risen.

The reason we have the good news of Jesus today is because that early church experienced the reality of their risen Lord in concrete ways. We are the inheritors of that early Christian community. We continue to be witnesses of the living, risen Lord today.

We, as Christians continue to experience our risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is embodied (made flesh) in the love we share. He is embodied in the mouths we feed, the bodies we clothe, the people we visit, and in the lives of the people we serve. He is present to us in scripture and in prayer and in mediation and in ministry. We receive him in bread and wine. If we are faithful we invite him to live in our hearts. Those traditional practices are how we continue to know the flesh and blood concrete and nearness of Jesus our risen Lord.

Our Bishop has asked us to go further. Bishop Douglas has challenged the Episcopal Church in Connecticut to go outside our parish walls to discover Jesus’ living reality also in the world. In this day and age of “post-Christiandom” he challenges us to look in our neighborhood and discover where God is present and active. It’s not enough any longer in what is increasingly a “post-Christian” world to sit in our parish churches and wait for people to come to us. For increasingly, people are not coming to us. We are living in a post-Christian age. We need to go out into the world and meet people where they are. We need to be the church not only at 628 Main Street but also on Broad Street and on Bedford, and on Tressor and Henry Streets and Greenwich and Darien and Norwalk and beyond. God’s living presence is active in our world, our neighborhood and our Church.

There are two parts to a bishop’s visit. One is for the Bishop to preside at a worship service, which Bishop Ian did at our 275th Anniversary celebration on November 6 of last year. The other part is that he meets with the Vestry (the Church leadership). We’ve scheduled that meeting for May 1. Our assignment before that meeting is to go out and walk our neighborhood, however we define it, and note “where God has moved into the neighborhood to make what is broken whole.” Today some of our Vestry members will be taking that walk in the downtown area of Stamford. Yesterday some others of us walked around Stamford’s rapidly growing, changing and gentrifying South End. I had the privilege of walking with Anne Mavor Bear, who thankfully has a better sense of direction than I do.

Our walk took us from Canal Street to Pacific Street and some of the shoreline and neighborhoods in between. We witnessed the intersection of old, often dilapidated, neighborhoods and upscale expensive new high-rise apartment buildings as well as businesses and office buildings.   It is interesting to put on a different set of glasses as it were, a different lens to view the neighborhood, than how I normally see it. “How has God moved into this neighborhood to make the broken whole?”  

Anne and I noted some interesting things. So many old and decrepit buildings: warehouses, abandoned shops and factories have been torn down and a whole new community is rising in its place. It’s exciting to see what has happened and all the building that is still taking place in this part of Stamford. For those finding new homes and community and opportunity it is undoubtedly a kind of healing of that which was broken. But to those whose neighborhoods are being disrupted, who are being priced out of their homes, it is far from healing. Anne pointed out to me Serendipity Labs on Canal Street, a building where individuals can rent office space in an open office setting, so that there can be “serendipitous” connections and interactions. Next we noticed Woodlawn Cemetery, an old and beautiful green space in the midst of a vibrant city. In the midst of a graveyard we are reminded of our hope in Christ beyond the grave. The quiet and peace of that setting can bring healing and wholeness. One of the people we met and talked with is the owner of a new spa. This amazingly fit looking young woman athlete was a former professional weight lifter. She was excited to show us the special infrared heated spa rooms where one can be rejuvenated and experience physical healing through a variety of treatments. We passed Inspirica, which is provides housing and hope to many in breaking the cycle of homelessness. We saw where other vital community services are housed. We saw parks and children playing. We saw places of worship.  

The ways in which God is moving into the neighborhood to make the broken whole are ways that we as Christians can see God embodied, God incarnated, God’s love made a flesh and blood reality in the world.

Jesus challenged his disciples in today’s Gospel to be witnesses to his flesh and blood reality, the reality of his dying for us and rising from the grave to lead us into new life. We see those same disciples sharing that witness in the Acts of the Apostles. How can we be witnesses to Christ’s victory over death in a post-Christian age, an age that no longer props up and supports the Church, but largely ignores it? How can we be witnesses to his reality in the midst of our community where, if we open our eyes to see, God’s love is in many ways active and making the broken whole?

Jesus is not a ghost. He is not spiritual only, but flesh and blood, alive. He is real. He is substantive. Jesus’ love, a love that conquers death and gives life to those who are entombed, needs to be incarnated, embodied, made flesh and blood reality. How can we as a parish and as individuals find that resurrection power not only within these walls, but also outside of these walls in our neighborhood? How can we share Jesus’ resurrection power with people in our neighborhood? How can we share in some of the ways that God is already bringing healing in the neighborhood and how can we invite people in the neighborhood to discover ways that God is bringing healing and life within these walls, in our worship, in our community and in the love of Christ we share?

I wish I had the answers to all these questions, but that’s a journey we need to continue on. For Jesus calls us, as those disciples in the locked upper room, to be his witnesses.

Easter Sunday and April Fools Day – April 1, 2018

April 1, 2018

Happy Easter and April Fool’s Day! The last time Easter and April Fool’s Day coincided was back in 1956 and it won’t happen again for another 19 years. When I looked at the calendar and realized that April Fools Day, fell on Easter Sunday I realized that my choice of the Gospel lesson for this day had to be from the Gospel of Mark. There are four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection but only three years in the liturgical cycle of readings, so there’s a choice on Easter each year between the Gospel predominantly featured that year (Mark in this, year “B”) and the Easter story from the Gospel of John. The Easter account in John is well written, full of interesting detail, intensely personal and tells the Easter story much as we expect to hear it. There are interesting details about Peter and John and of Mary Magdeline, who is the first disciple of Jesus to actually encounter the risen Lord. The Easter account in the Gospel of Mark by contrast is sketchy at best, full of darkness and confusion, and particularly frustrating for the way it concludes: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) Although several different endings have been tacked on to Mark over the centuries, scholars agree that the original Gospel ended there in Mark 16:8. Is that any way to end a Gospel? The Greek is even worse than the English translation for the actual last word that ends the Gospel is a preposition, “Gar,” meaning “for.”

Now I may sound disparaging about the Gospel of Mark, but really Mark is my favorite of the four Gospels. From the very first chapter of Mark there is a constant sense of surprise and mystery about Jesus. Mark lays it out clearly in the first sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” But then no one in the Gospel story itself seems to have any idea what that first sentence means. The crowds are amazed. The disciples are amazed. Jesus does all sorts of wonderful and amazing things. But none of them gets it. Every time Jesus heals someone or casts out a demon or speaks with authority, they stand with their mouths open wondering “who is this guy?” Only the demons, who recognize in fear and trembling that Jesus is the Holy One of God, understand. But Jesus silences them and casts them out. So, in the first half of the Gospel of Mark, the predominant theme is what scholars call “the Messianic secret.” The reader knows who Jesus is, but no one in the narrative seems to grasp it. Then, right smack dab in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples point blank who they think he is. Well, some say he’s like a prophet of old and some say he’s the new emergence of Elijah and some say he’s John the Baptist come back to life. Finally it’s Peter who proclaims in Chapter 8:29 that Jesus is the Messiah. But the next minute Jesus calls Peter “the Devil,” because Peter doesn’t want to even hear Jesus talk about suffering and dying.

And so for the next 4 chapters in Mark Jesus teaches them about the meaning of discipleship, that the true way to follow Jesus is through serving others. They never seem to understand. Then we come to Jesus’ crucifixion. All the people we would expect to stand by Jesus abandon him. One of his chosen 12 betrays him. The other disciples flee. Peter, who had promised that he would never abandon or deny Jesus, denies three times even knowing him. The only one who speaks with faith at Jesus’ crucifixion is an outsider, a Roman Centurion who, on witnessing Jesus’ death, proclaims “Truly this man was God’s son.” (Mark 15:39)

Which brings us to the Easter narrative we just heard. It’s dawn and the faithful women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry have come to the tomb to anoint his body. Their biggest worry is who will help them roll away the heavy stone that seals the tomb. But when they arrive the stone is already rolled away. They enter the tomb and find an angelic visitor telling them that Jesus is not there, but is going ahead of them to Galilee. And then these faithful women flee in terror. Is that any way to end a Gospel? Doesn’t it sound more like an April Fool’s joke than the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God? Why do the women flee in terror instead of sharing the good news with Jesus’ disciples as the Angel asked them to do? It appears that they would have been more comfortable caring for Jesus’ dead body than hearing the disconcerting news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Gospel of Mark is truly the right Gospel for April Fool’s Day.

What is going on here? Why are the women, as the angel in the tomb asked them, seeking the living among the dead? Why is everyone in Mark’s narrative afraid? Why does no one expect, as Jesus had repeatedly told them, that he would die and then rise from the dead? Why are they not dancing with joy at this good news? What is Mark trying to tell us?

Perhaps we’re so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as crucified and risen that his resurrection from the dead is no longer shocking or surprising to us? But can you imagine visiting a friends grave – a friend you saw die – only to find the tombstone knocked over and an open, empty casket with a bright heavenly messenger telling you your friend was not there, but that he or she had risen from the dead? You might be pretty scared too. What might your friend’s resurrection mean? What might it change for you?

The angel tells the women, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” What do you think Jesus was going ahead to Galilee to show and tell them?   Well, there are two places, one in Matthew and one in John, where the disciples meet the risen Lord in Galilee. In John 21 the risen Lord appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee while the disciples are out fishing. Jesus makes a charcoal fire, helps cook some of their fish and tells Peter 3 times that if he loves Jesus his job is to feed his sheep. And in Matthew 28 Jesus commissions his disciples to go into all the world and encourage all races and cultures to be followers of Jesus.

All the way through the Gospel of Mark Jesus’ followers misunderstand him. He keeps turning their world and their expectations upside down. They want to be important leaders and Jesus tells them that the one who makes himself least of all and the servant of all is the truly great one in God’s Kingdom. They want heavenly rewards; Jesus shows them the life of self-sacrificial love. They want glory; Jesus explains that “anyone who wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) Maybe what Jesus wants his chosen followers to go to Galilee and discover is their true calling as his disciples. Maybe his resurrection is an opportunity for his followers not to triumph and glory in Jesus’ victory so much as to emulate his death, by giving up their own self-importance, taking up their cross, dying with Jesus in order that they might rise with him to a life of service and self-sacrificial love.

What about us? Is there any possibility we might misunderstand Jesus and his mission? Might we ever be tempted like the 12 to run away when things get difficult? Do his modern day followers ever twist his message about love and acceptance into one of exclusion and judgment? Are we ever tempted to skip the carrying of our cross, dying to self and service of others and wanting to go straight to blessings? Are we ever so self-satisfied that we find Christ more in platitudes than in the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the poor and needy ones he calls us to serve? Might Jesus’ challenge to the expected order of this world, his turning everything expected – even death – upside down, be terrifying? Then the angel’s message is to us. He goes ahead of you to Galilee, to the places where your life and struggles are lived. There you will meet him. There as you die with him you will rise with him to the new and resurrected life of joy and hope and love and service.

The Apostle Paul, who tradition says was an associate of Mark, wrote in 1st Corinth 1:18 that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” He went on to say in verse 23-25 “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” So, maybe April Fool’s Day isn’t such a bad day to combine with Easter. Maybe Easter makes Jesus’ followers look like April fools to the world when we proclaim a dead and risen Lord and follow him not in a life of grandeur but in a life of service.

On Easter Sunday we may not be looking for the foolishness of the cross, but that’s what Jesus went ahead of his disciples to show them. As Paul wrote to the Philippians,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not count equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The foolishness of Christ may not be exactly the message of Easter lilies, springtime and joy that we all came to Church this Sunday to find. But it is – as Mark shares with us this Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day – the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Holy Week as Reenactment – March 25, 2018

March 25, 2018

Every Eucharist is a participation in Jesus’ passion, a mini-Holy Week and Easter. We remember and reenact Jesus’ Last Supper. We recall his death for us on a cross. We give thanks for the power of God at work in Jesus that overturned death and the grave. We give thanks that we too are invited into his resurrection life. Above all in Communion we remember Jesus. We literally re----member (re-connect) him. He comes together and is really present in the memory, in the community of the faithful who form his Body in the world and received in bits of bread and sips of wine.

Holy Week is a deeper, slower, more deliberate, more participatory re-membrance of Jesus’ passion and death.

All of Holy Week is a participatory drama. Today we walked with Jesus’ and his disciples, joining them in his joyful entrance into Jerusalem, waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna!” We then reviewed all the events of this Holy Week in the chanting of the Passion Gospel, the dramatic reading of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial, torture, crucifixion, death and burial.  

I invite you into that deeper, slower, more deliberate and more participatory drama this Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday we remember and re-enact parts of Jesus’ Last Supper. Maundy Thursday was when Jesus and his disciples gathered to remember the Passover, when God passed over the Israelites and inflicted the last and most deadly plague on Egypt and finally set his people free from their bondage. Some years we focus more on the foot washing. This year we will focus on the Passover as we gather in the dining room at 6:30 pm to share in the Seder Supper.

Every Maundy Thursday closes with the stripping of the altar. It is our physical participation in Jesus’ arrest. Jesus would no longer be with his disciples in the same way. They would no longer be able to sit in his presence, no longer have long discussions with him, no longer watch as someone trimmed his beard or cut his hair. That was taken away from him. On Maundy Thursday we take Jesus’ presence out of our sanctuary, strip his altar of all the ways we are reminded that he is with us. We take the reserved sacrament and put it in the chapel – a chapel of repose. In larger parishes people often keep vigil in that chapel throughout the night, just as Jesus asked his disciples to stay with him, to watch and pray.

On Good Friday we remember the cross upon which our Lord was nailed, on which he hung in agony and died. At the Good Friday Prayer Book liturgy Friday evening we bring up a wooden cross, set it before us and invite people to come forward to touch it, to lean upon it, to kneel before it, to feel it’s hardness, to receive its power to heal, to restore and to forgive.

At the noon contemporary stations of the cross we will take the cross of Christ out into our city, thus proclaiming that Jesus’ passion and death touches not just us but all aspects of our world. This is the moment of atonement – Jesus’ at-one-ment – with all human pain and brokenness. We reflect on that this year in our contemporary stations touching on the horror of gun violence and school shootings, on the hurt and pain caused by domestic abuse and sexual misconduct, on opioid addiction, on immigration and homelessness.

At the end of the 7 pm Good Friday service, after those who want have received Holy Communion from the reserve sacrament, any consecrated bread and wine is consumed and the presence lamp extinguished. And so we remember Jesus’ body lying in death in the tomb, no longer present, no longer alive.

Saturday evening at the Easter Vigil we come to the realization of the battle between God and the powers of death. We start the service in darkness and light a new light. From the one single light many candles are lit and shine in the darkness. We tell of God’s mighty acts in the past – how God created the earth and the heavens, how God set his people free, how God promised to bring the dry bones of his peoples shattered hopes together, how he will establish a new covenant, how he will establish a new heaven and a new earth. This is the point where those who have been preparing through Lent are baptized and all of us are offered the chance to renew our baptismal covenant. Then in joyful fanfare, with the ringing of bells we celebrate anew the amazing good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

And that brings us to Easter Sunday – a day of joy. We fill the air with the fragrance of flowers. We wear our best and put out our Easter finery. For Christ has triumphed over death and we are renewed.

I invite you to participate in Holy Week. For only as we participate in the events of the triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday can we come to the fullness of Easter joy. We remember Jesus’ passion every Eucharist, but in Holy Week we have a deeper, slower, more deliberate, more participatory re-membrance of Jesus’ passion and death. I encourage you to participate in at least a couple of these powerful worship services of reenactment. They will help bring you to the fullness of Easter joy.

Snake on a Stick, Jesus on the Cross – March 11, 2018

March 11, 2018

A group of rowdy boys were walking down the street when they went past a Church. They noticed people going into the confessional. “Hah, what a bunch of losers, confessing their so-called sins,” one of them joked. “I bet we could say something that would really make the old priest have a heart attack.” They made up a list of the most outrageous sins they could think of that they might confess to the priest and shock him out of his gourd. “Oh yeah,” said one of the boys to the ringleader who came up with the idea, “I bet you $10 you don’t have the guts to do it.” “I’ll take that bet,” the boy said, took the list of sins and waited in line to go to confession. When he came out he came back to his friends he demanded his $10. “Did you do your penance?” the boy who bet the $10 asked. “I don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo,” the boy who had just come from confession said. “What did he tell you to do?” another boy asked. He just said to go kneel before the crucifix and say ten times, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” “Then no $10: no penance, no confession.” So the boy reluctantly went back into the church to do his penance. “No big deal,” he said to himself as he knelt before the crucifix. He looked up at the nails in his hands and feet, took in the crown of thorns and started to mumble, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He thought about the agony it must have been for Jesus to die like that and mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He noticed the look of love as the Jesus on the crucifix seemed to be looking directly at him and he mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” After waiting what seemed an eternity his friends finally came into the church looking for him and found him sobbing at the altar rail. This is the story of the conversion to faith of a man who later become the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, who died in 2007. (Recalled version of the story from an article years ago in ‘The Anglican Digest’, and http://frpaulhomilies.blogspot.com/2010/03/you-did-that-for-me.html)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” Jesus told Nicodemus in today’s Gospel lesson from the Gospel of John. It’s a strange reference, but luckily we have the Old Testament passage that Jesus is referring to as our Old Testament lesson for today. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, forced to take the long way around Edom and yet again the people grumbled. They complained about the food, the manna God gave them. They complained about the water. They complained that their feet hurt. They complained about Moses. They even complained about God. So God sent poisonous snakes among them. The people pleaded with Moses that they had sinned and asked him to pray to God to take away those snakes. God told Moses to do a very strange thing, to make a bronze replica of a poisonous snake and set it on a stick. Everyone who was bitten by a snake could gaze upon it and live.

It is a strange story and a strange symbol isn’t it? Why should gazing at a snake on a stick bring healing? But think on this. The snake represented God’s punishment for their rebellion. Gazing at the snake on a stick would remind them both of their rebellion and of God’s mercy. Look at the cross on which Jesus hung and bled in agony. It is a horrible symbol of capital punishment and cruel death. Why should such a gruesome sight be something for Christians to cherish as a sign of our faith?

I think we are too sentimental about the cross of Christ. We no longer see it as an instrument of torture and death. Retired Connecticut Suffragan Bishop Jim Curry always wears a strange large metal cross. If you look at it closely you realize that it was made from a couple welded pieces of a machine gun or assault rifle. The people of Mozambique were asked to turn in their weapons after the long and bloody civil war of the 1980’s and 90’s. Those instruments of killing were then turned into works of art by some of the nation’s artists. It’s hard to feel sentimental about an assault rifle. Rather, one is reminded of acts of war, killing and atrocity. More locally one is reminded of the killing fields of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The cross of Jesus is just such an offensive symbol of death and suffering.

What do we see when we see an image of Jesus on the cross? It is a symbol of death. It is a symbol of God in Jesus taking our brokenness, our suffering, our sins and bearing them. Jesus embraces our deaths, our tears, our suffering, our sins. He was lifted high upon that instrument of torture that we might gaze at it. And as Moses lifted the serpent on a stick so that the Israelites who were bitten by poisonous snakes might gaze on it and remember their rebellion and God’s mercy and be healed, so we gazing on the cross of Christ, might likewise be saved.

Everyone remembers the famous words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” but they forget the words of John 3:14-15 that precede it about the Son of Man being lifted up like a serpent on a stick. John 3:16 – those words that evangelicals are eager to remind us of at every football game and sporting event where cameras will be focused – states God’s mercy. “God so loved the world…” And don’t get me wrong, God’s mercy is a wonderful thing! It’s a great passage that we should be reminded of. The great Reformation theologian Martin Luther called this passage “the Gospel in a nutshell.” I thank God for his mercy. I thank God that he sent his Son into the world because he loves us. It is all good news, the best of news. And yet one doesn’t need to gaze for long at an image of a crucifix with a man dying in agony hanging from two cross pieces of wood, to see more than just mercy. Like the young man doing his penance before a crucifix one is confronted with the tremendous cost of God’s mercy. “All this you did for me…”

When I look at the cross and crucifix I see a tremendous battle going on. Jesus is doing battle with death by submitting to death. Jesus is doing battle with the forces of death – with the power of death that lead to the slaughter of innocents in school massacres. He is doing battle with the power of death that lead to cruelty and destruction. He is doing battle with the power of death that pits my well being and privilege over against another’s equality and safety and well being (the power of death that leads to categorizing people’s value based on race or sex or any other category). He is doing battle with the powers of death that hold people in captivity through addiction. He is doing battle with the powers of death in the lie that promises happiness in the accumulation of things rather than in giving one’s self away.

And from appearances alone, it looks like death gets the upper hand. Jesus dies, cruelly. His critics appear to have silenced him. The authorities appear to have prevailed. One would expect Jesus’ movement to die, his followers to flee and disband. Once again the powerful and arrogant have prevailed. But God did not let death have the last word. Through embracing our death, our pain, our enslavement to the powers of death, God in Christ overturned the very power of death. Through him death, as C.S. Lewis succinctly put it, started working backwards. The great 5th century Church Father, John Chrysostom is credited with these words in an Easter sermon.

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? (http://anglicansonline.org/special/Easter/chrysostom_easter.html)

When the Son of Man – Jesus our Lord – was lifted high upon the cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, we are meant to see God’s mercy and healing love. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake on a stick saw their own rebellion, when we gaze upon the cross we see our own enslavement to sin and death. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake saw God’s judgment on them, we who gaze upon the cross see God’s judgment on the power of death. As the snake-bit Hebrews were healed when they gazed on that bronze snake, when we look at the cross of Jesus and believe, we are saved from the power of death.

As we move now deeper into Lent leading in two weeks to Holy Week, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, let us for our penance look upon the cross and ask ourselves, all this Jesus did for me and I ? How are you moved by the cross of Christ? How is Jesus calling you to respond? How is Jesus freeing you to live in his victory over those powers of death? How is Jesus inviting you to invest with him in the ongoing battle against the powers of death? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

A New Identity In Faith – February 25, 2018

February 25, 2018

What do you give a centenarian (someone who is 100 years old) for their birthday? How about a new name, a new beginning in life and a new baby? If I ever make it to 100 please don’t celebrate my birthday that way! When Abram was 99 years old that’s what God promised him when he turned 100.

                  Everyone gets a new name and a new identity in today’s scripture passages. Abram – exalted father or ancestor – becomes Abraham, which is a Hebrew play on words making him the exalted father of many nations. Sarai will give birth to the promised heir and so she also receives a new name: Sarai becomes Sarah. The meaning of the name change in Hebrew is unclear, but she takes on a new identity. Even God gets a new name. The Lord has appeared to Abram before, but this time he appears to Abram and says “I am God Almighty,” El Shaddai, God of the mountain or God on high.

                  In today’s Gospel of Mark we too are offered a new identity, but it comes with a cost. Only those who are willing to lose their life, who take up their cross and follow, can hope to find a new life in Christ.

My favorite part of the whole Abraham narrative is left out of today’s Old Testament reading. As the story continues in verses 17-19:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!And God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Isaac means laughter. God visits Abraham again in the next chapter and again promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. This time it is Sarah who overhears the conversation and laughs. The heir, on who God’s promise and Abraham’s faith rests is names “Laughter.”

                  The renowned Christian author Frederick Buechner in a short article on faith asked,

Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half-believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going. (Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 25)

In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that it was Abraham’s faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness. What was most important for God was that Abraham believed and trusted in this crazy promise that he and Sarah would have a son, from whom God would make a mighty nation. This promise took them far away from their homeland in modern day Iraq to wander all their days in search both of a promised land and a promised child. They may have laughed, but they kept trusting this crazy promise. This, Paul emphasized, not Abraham’s obedience to a law that wouldn’t come into existence for hundreds of years, but his trust in a promise, is what was reckoned to him as righteousness. So, we are children of Abraham, not by virtue of having been born as his descendants, but through emulating a faith like his.

In essence Paul is telling the Romans and us, that we should trust the same crazy promise. In an odd way what Paul tells us bears resemblance to the conversation between the White Queen and Alice in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The Queen had just told Alice that she was 101 years, 5 months and a day old.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Paul is inviting us to have faith in impossible things. And isn’t that what the Christian faith is about? Isn’t faith in impossible things, what taking on a new identity in Christ is all about?

                  We’re not only invited to believe in God who we cannot see, hear or touch directly with any of our senses, we’re also invited to believe that the almighty God empties himself of all divinity and is born as a tiny baby, thus revealing himself through that human life in a way we can both understand and relate to. We’re invited to believe furthermore that God’s power and strength are revealed in this human being – in Jesus – not in his victories or in his huge following or even in his miracles, but rather in his sacrificing everything and dying for us upon a cross – the shameful death of a common criminal. (Believing such an impossible thing proved too difficult for Peter in today’s Gospel story. But Jesus told Peter, the crowds and us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” [Mk 8:34-35])

We’re invited to believe that in Jesus’ death that God defeated death. We’re invited to believe that death could not hold Jesus and that God raised him from the dead. In this world where death still seems to rule we are invited to believe that we too will triumph over death and share in Christ’s resurrection victory. We’re invited to believe in that resurrection power not only for some day, pie in the sky by and by, but is even power for living right here, right now.

                  We are invited to follow Jesus’ claim that greatness comes not through what we accumulate or our power over others, but in emptying ourselves of our possessions and our pretensions and serving others.  

                  We are invited to eat a little bit of bread and drink a tiny sip of wine and by doing so to receive the living presence of Jesus’ body and blood. We’re invited to believe further that receiving this sacrament connects us in communion with Christ and one another and with Christians everywhere, both the living and the dead.

                  We are invited to belong to a Church, which as we proclaim in the creed, is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, but at the same time we see is fractured, divided and often at odds with Christians of differing viewpoints and practices.

                  Is there any use trying? Can we, as Alice laughingly asks the White Queen, believe impossible things? Well, consider where belief in these impossible things lead us.

  • Isn’t God, who is beyond the realm of human touch or sight or hearing, a far better ideal to believe in than all the possessions and strength and pleasures and power this material world has to offer?
  • Isn’t the good news of God’s improbable victory over death through Jesus’ death on a cross and God raising him from the dead, the best news you have ever heard?
  • Do we not find strength and spiritual sustenance in believing that this bread and wine bring us into literal Communion with Christ?
  • When we do follow Jesus by offering ourselves in love and service in acts of charity both large and small, don’t we share Christ’s love and living presence with them?
  • Isn’t Christ’s ideal of the Church that is truly one in love worth living for, even though we fall so ridiculously short of it?

The Apostle Paul insisted that it is our faith in such impossible things, not our achievements, not our obedience or proper adherence to the liturgy, not the elegance of our prayers nor the perfection of our singing, that brings us to blessedness. It is not what we do at all. For blessedness does not depend on our own efforts; it is a gift from God. Our blessedness is out of our control; it is a free and undeserved gift. Paul invites us to trust in that gift – which is Paul’s definition of faith.

Like father Abraham and mother Sarah, that is the promise we pursue through all the challenges and strange twists this life has to offer us. And as we hang on to that promise of blessedness revealed in Christ, we are Abraham and Sarah’s children. We are closely related to their long hoped for son, named laughter.

This year Ash Wednesday – when we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return – fell on Valentine’s Day. And Easter, for Christians the day of God’s great victory in Christ, falls on April Fool’s Day. Is it possible to find God’s love in humility and repentance and to find our greatest triumph in something the world finds foolish?

Doesn’t it sometimes make you want to fall on your face and laugh? We Christians believe in impossible things. And if it is all true, as I believe it is, wouldn’t that be the greatest joke of all?

The Dazzling Light of Christ – February 11, 2018

February 11, 2018

We have been following the light throughout this season of Epiphany. We joined with Magi – the wise men from the East – following the light of a distant star that took them to a humble manger. That star brought them to the place of the Incarnation, the eternal Word of God the Father made flesh, that light which is the light of every person, the light that shines in the darkness, that light which the darkness can never overcome. (John 1:1-5) We followed the light to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry starting with his baptism and call to ministry. We followed the light in Jesus’ ministry – his calling disciples to follow him, his healing, his powerful teaching, his proclamation of the good news. And today we follow the light to Jesus’ transfiguration. We have the privilege of glimpsing with Peter, James and John, Jesus as he really is. Jesus on high in glory: dazzling! Shining with a heavenly light that is brighter than we can bear.

It kind of reminds me of the time in 2009-2010 that our beautiful Tiffany window of the Transfiguration was taken out for cleaning, re-leading and repairs. The first thing we did was get rid of the Plexiglas behind it that had become hideously opaque and replace it with clear glass. With clear glass and the stained glass out on bright cloudless days the 8 am congregation was forced to sit in the chapel because the sunlight shining directly through that East facing window was just too bright to look at in the main sanctuary. On bright sunny morning it is a joy and a wonder to see how the cleaned and restored Tiffany portrayal of Jesus shines gloriously, dazzlingly bright up there on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. It must be something like how Peter, James and John glimpsed it.           

There is one more glimpse of that light we are called to follow on this last Sunday in this Epiphany season and that is the light of God within us, that shines, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in our hearts.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

Paul tells us that this light of God should be evident and visible to all, but unfortunately it is veiled (hidden from view) because the god of this world has blinded the eyes of people to it. How sad that is, for Paul tells us that it is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4b) How sad that light is obscured.

Paul’s right. That’s my experience as well. We, as people in the world, are all too often blind to the light of Christ shining within peoples’ hearts. There’s like a veil covering it so we all too rarely glimpse that light. How often do I fail to see the light of Christ in others? I fail to see Christ’s light shining in their love, in their good works, in their concern for others, in their faithfulness and in their humility. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person in need who, in helping I would be helping Christ himself. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person I should be praying for. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person Christ is calling me to love. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in my brothers and sisters in Christ with whom Jesus calls me to live in community as his people, his Church.

Just as bad all too often I fail to see the light of Christ shining in my heart. I forget that Jesus lives, that he is present within me. I fail to act in accordance with that holiness and love that lives within me. All too often I deny the goodness and love that dwells within me and speak despairingly of myself, the very person God the Father has called “his beloved child.” All too often I obscure that light and act out of darkness instead of light. I act in anger or frustration or impatience. I act selfishly instead of generously.

I don’t believe that I’m alone in doing this. For most people I know in the church and outside of it that light is veiled. Most people I know act all too often as if that sacred light shining in our hearts wasn’t there. As if that holy life within them didn’t matter.

In a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually written by Marianne Williamson in a Christian self-help book entitled A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles, we read that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3, Pg. 190-191).

We often deny or obscure that light of Christ within us. Maybe as Marianne Williamson reflects we are afraid of that light, afraid of living within the compassion, joy and hope that light reveals, afraid of living large, afraid to let our light shine?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about his and his companion’s ministry. “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves (or servants) for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:5b) Maybe it is the failure to put ourselves in that perspective as servants, when we put ourselves and all our desires first that the light of Christ is obscured within us. Maybe the proper way to lift the veil and let that light shine is to put ourselves on our knees as slaves, as servants, to others.

The interesting thing to me in the story of the Transfiguration is that, even though for the first time the veil lifted from their understanding, and Peter, James and John really see Jesus as he is – the Son of the living God – they can’t take it in. The light of Christ is too dazzlingly bright. They don’t know what to do. They don’t understand. They don’t know what to say. Here, Jesus has just appeared to them in all his glory and Peter babbles about making memorial plaques for Moses, Elijah and Jesus to honor the event. The living God has to speak from the cloud telling them to shut-up and listen to Jesus. Jesus tells them to say nothing about this to anyone, until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Well, they didn’t understand that either.

As we come to the conclusion of Epiphany, this season of following the light, we also are going to be told to be quiet, to learn, to reflect, to be still, to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. We are told this in order that we might learn and practice new spiritual disciplines, so we can come to Jesus’ passion and death in Holy Week and comprehend with new joy the gift of his death and resurrection at Easter. Ash Wednesday is that cloud overshadowing us, telling us to hush up; to listen and learn from Jesus.

Like Peter, James and John we have followed the light of Christ this Epiphany season. With them we get a glimpse of that dazzling light in the face of Jesus Christ upon the mountain peak. That same dazzling light of God’s glory shines in your heart. Jesus lives and shines in you. Only, it’s more that we can take in. It’s more love that we trust ourselves to handle. We are afraid to really be servants of that light in ourselves and others. Therefore, like the disciples we need to learn the way of the cross in order that Christ’s light might shine more brightly in us.

I invite you beginning with Ash Wednesday this week to continue to follow that light we have pursued this whole Epiphany season. Take on the disciplines of Lent, follow in the way of the cross in order that the veil might be lifted and the glory of Christ’s love might shine dazzlingly bright within you. Amen.

God Strengthens Us To…Soar In The Spirit, Endure The Trial and Be Sustained For The Long Journey – February 4, 2018

February 4, 2018

Would you like a spiritual guide on how to soar triumphantly, how to endure as you move forward in life’s challenges and how to be sustained for the long journey ahead? We find it today in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. The prophet starts with a word-picture of God’s vastness and might.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in… (Is. 40:21-22)

Remember who God is! Remember what you’ve learned about God. God is Lord of all. From the heavens the inhabitants of earth are no more significant than tiny grasshoppers. All the heavens are no more than a temporary tent for the infinite and almighty God.

            Now you have to realize something about the situation of the Hebrew people at the time these words were proclaimed. Their world was shattered when the King of Babylon overran Jerusalem and exiled all the people to slavery in Babylon. 70 years, almost 2 generations, they had lived in exile looking always to their homeland. The balance of world power had suddenly shifted. Persia was becoming the dominant new power and was sweeping over the former Babylonian empire. The Hebrew people were but puny pawns in a vast conflict of empires.          

But listen to what God has to say about these powerful tyrants and emperors…Who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (Is. 40:23-24) 

God is greater than the most terrifying and powerful ruler before whom the Israelites trembled and on whom their fate seemed to depend. The great rulers might think they are in control but God is ultimately in charge. In God’s eternity they are no more significant than chaff – than dust in the wind.

What are some of the powers before whom we quiver and quake today? If you were brought to this country at a young age without the benefit of citizenship, educated and thoroughly acculturated as an American, you might tremble at the very real possibility of being deported to a supposed homeland that you never knew and a language you barely speak, a place your family fled from in fear for their lives. You may tremble because forces beyond your control are determining your future fate. You may tremble at what is happening to your beloved nation and the proliferation of fear and cruelty, intolerance and injustice in this nation and the world.

The Rev. Michael Coffey has a wonderful little poem reflecting on this passage called The Grasshopper:

What a relief and what a cause

of humility right down to my exoskeleton.

The shaping of the earth

and the timing of the rains

the rising of the sun

and the spreading of the stars on the sky fabric

the making and crowning of kings

and the dethroning of prideful powers

does not depend on me

a grasshopper in the field of the world.

But the world does depend on me

to hop and nibble on the grass

and stop and take notice with my compound eyes

of the sun, the sky, the muscle and immodesty of kings

and with my mandibles in full song

let praise and protest rise up above me.

We may not only feel like a tiny grasshopper powerless against vast forces. Sometimes it is a relief to realize that many things are beyond our control. But each of us can observe, find our voice and speak. As dreadful as the powers of this world can often be, God is vaster still. The God, who brings princes to naught, who makes the rulers of the earth as nothing, is our God.          

“To whom will you compare me?” God asks, 

or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Is. 40:25-26)

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to look up at the sky and the heavens. We put telescopes on high mountains and send satellites, such as the Hubble to peer into outer space. We see the vastness of galaxies, the mysteries of black holes, novas and supernovas. The universe is so vast we can scarcely comprehend it. And yet it is ordered by discernable laws and properties.

Look through the most powerful electronic microscope. We can see molecules and DNA particles. But cannot even see the infinitely small – atoms, nor the quarks and electrons, the nucleus and the protons that make up the atom.  

Who ordered and put together the tiniest pieces – the building blocks of creation? What power is behind the laws of physics? Who is the creator and sustainer of the infinite universe? Who was present before the big bang banged? Is God not the powerful, the almighty source behind all of creation?

God accused Israel of whining. The whined that God had forgotten them; that God didn’t care: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?” (Is. 40:27) Do you ever find yourself whining? I hurt. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I’m failing. It’s too hard. I’m afraid. I’m mad. I’m so tired of all this political partisanship. I hate what is happening in my country. I’m afraid for the future of the world. The Bible is full of whiners. Probably more than half the Psalms are of people whining about something to God. Here the Hebrews are whining. But it’s O.K. The Bible gives ample justification for stating your complaint.

So, what’s your whine? What do you complain to God about? That God doesn’t fix things and make them better? That the bad guys not only get away with it, they seem to prosper in the bargain? That for an infinite, almighty, eternal God who wills for a perfect world, a glorious Kingdom to come – He sure is taking the slow road to getting there? 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Is. 40:28) 

The answer to Israel’s whining is that God is as omnipotent as ever. God hasn’t grown weak! God is still God. And God’s ways, God’s will, God’s yearning, is beyond our comprehension.

We learn a great deal about God’s will – God’s yearning – for the world in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh. Jesus shows us what God is like. What does Jesus show us about God in today’s Gospel lesson? Look how many people Jesus touches and heals – Simon’s mother in law, all the sick from the city of Capernium – hundreds of them – gathered outside the door. Jesus heals them. He doesn’t turn anyone away. I learn from this that God yearns for us to be whole and well. God yearns to proclaim the good news to everybody.

God’s yearning – God’s will to reconcile all things to God’s self – does not mean that God will fix everything that is broken. God’s usual way of addressing the brokenness of the world is not to change the conditions of the world, but rather to strengthen and help His people. We, God’s people – proclaiming God’s Word, serving those in need and doing what God calls us to do – are very often the instrument of God’s action in the world.

The final and marvelous point where all this passage is leading to is that God strengthens His people.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40:29-31)

Those who wait upon the Lord draw on God’s strength. Even the energy of the young will eventually fail. Even Jesus needed to go out before dawn and pray to renew his strength. Do you think we need to do anything less?

Three remarkable things are promised here for God’s people. 1) They will be able to soar on eagle’s wings. 2) They will be able to run and not grow weary. And 3), they will walk and not grow faint.

The eagle is a magnificent bird. An eagle doesn’t fly like lesser birds, flapping its wings. It soars! It rides the wind currents. Can you believe it? God means for us to soar! And here we are so often grounded with a fear of heights! The unseen air or wind that the eagle rides upon is the same word as Spirit. God intends for us to be eagles with wings to soar on the unseen power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Next God promises that those who wait upon the Lord and renew their strength shall run and not be weary. As a long distance runner I know something abut that. You gain endurance in running through discipline, through working at it, through running a little farther, or pushing yourself to run faster. You not only need to put in the miles and preparation you also have to hydrate and feed your body by drinking enough fluids and taking in enough carbohydrates to fuel your run. That builds your endurance to run and run and not grow weary.

Those who wait for the Lord… that’s the key phrase here. It is in renewing our strength in God through spiritual disciplines and nourishment (daily prayer, weekly worship, regularly receiving Holy Communion, study of God’s Word, fellowship with other Christians), and other such spiritual disciplines that helps us build the endurance to run and not grow weary. That’s how Jesus did it. We saw him in our Gospel lesson this morning, going off by himself to pray. As we wait for the Lord He will build the strength to endure the trials and struggles, the challenges that come our way. We are enabled through Him to run the race with endurance.

Last it is promised that we shall walk and not grow faint. It seems like a downward progression doesn’t it? From soaring to running to walking? But really it’s just the opposite. We are given eagles’ wings to experience joy and worship and wonder, to soar on the unseen currents of the Spirit. But even more importantly as we wait for the Lord to renew our strength we are given endurance to face trials, life’s crises and challenges. And most important of all He renews our strength for the long haul, to continue forward daily in our pilgrimage, to walk and not faint.  

Jesus soared on the wings of eagles as he healed everyone who was sick in Capernaum. He ran with endurance as he taught and confronted the powers of his day and showed his followers how to live. At the end he was only able to walk to Golgatha with the help of Simon of Cyrene, who helped to carry his cross. Waiting on the Lord also means that we cannot go it alone. We need the help of others.

Isaiah 40 gives us marvelous words of faith and trust in God. It’s a wonderful passage to turn to in times of trouble. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not understood from the beginning of the world? Our God is infinite and all-powerful. He loves us. He has chosen us to be His own. He yearns for the best for us. And as we wait upon Him he renews our strength inviting us to soar like eagles, to run like the Kenyans, and walk as pilgrims into His Promised Land. Amen.