A Letter to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

It has been nearly a week since you defied pundits and prognosticators and became the President-elect of the United States.

I should probably mention that I am one of the more than 61 million people who voted for your Democratic rival. This is probably not particularly surprising. After all, I am a millienial priest in a progressive mainline denomination who lives in the suburb of an east coast city. My support for Clinton, however, was about more than mere demographics. Like many people, I was attracted by her experience, intelligence, and toughness. I appreciated that she campaigned as a realist and had a sense of how profoundly difficult governing can be. Also, after 228 years, I thought it was high time we elected a woman to the highest office in the land.

If I’m honest, though, I was also voting against you. Frankly, you made me very nervous during your campaign. It wasn’t just your erratic behavior, your limited acquaintance with our Constitutional system, your casual relationship with the truth, or your lack of scruples that gave me pause. It was what you awakened in my fellow Americans. You played to our basest instincts and encouraged us to vote out of fear, resentment, and despair.

Nevertheless, I would like to give you a chance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am rooting for you. This has very little to do with you or the policies you have proposed, many of which I believe to be fundamentally inconsistent with this country’s ideals. It also has little to do with the people you are appointing to your administration. It has everything to do with the people who voted for you. I have lived in blue states, red states, and swing states. I have known, loved, and served with people who voted for you, people who voted for Clinton, people who voted for third party candidates, and people who stayed as far away from their polling places as possible on Election Day. I know that not one of these people is fundamentally evil. All of them love their mothers, want the best for the children, and, for the most part, are just trying to make sense of the daily struggles of this life. I hope that the people who supported you, people I know and love, did not do so in vain. I also hope that the people who did not support you, people I know and love, will not be marginalized by you or your administration. I stand with them, just as I stand with my brothers and sisters who pulled the lever for you.


In my post-election grief, I listened to the Broadway musical Hamilton a lot (I know, I’m a liberal cliche, but please bear with me). Feeling both bitter and a little snide, I assumed the song that would resonate with me most was the one that King George sings to the newly independent United States after the Battle of Yorktown:

What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead?

You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow! Do you have a clue what happens now?

Oceans rise. Empires fall. It’s much harder when it’s all your call

All alone, across the sea. When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.

I’ll admit that the cheekier part of me continues to find solace in the king’s biting sarcasm. In the wake of your election, however, the song I have found most meaningful is the one George Washington sings to Alexander Hamilton before he leads troops into battle:

History has its eyes on you.

History doesn’t care much about reality television stars. No one is going to be writing magisterial biographies of the Kardashians in a hundred years. History is also not terribly interested in whose names were on Manhattan skyscrapers. Even unsuccessful presidential candidates rarely merit more than a footnote in the history books (though, in fairness, yours would have been longer than most). History does, however, remember presidents. Moreover, history is pretty unsparing about them: presidents are either remembered as flawed statesmen of consequence, or their administrations are lamented as regrettable mistakes and cautionary tales.

You were noticeably more disciplined in the final weeks of the campaign. By the standards you established over the last eighteen months, your victory speech was astonishingly gracious. Moreover, in every interview you’ve given since your election, you have looked overwhelmed, even terrified. Perhaps you were just afraid you would lose. Perhaps you’ve realized how difficult this job will be. Or perhaps you’ve begun to comprehend that your presidency will be subject to the judgment of history. The presidency is a sacred trust. Though you managed to earn the trust of those who voted for you, you now have the trust of many, many more people. You must prove to the American people that you understand this and that you are worthy of our trust.

I want to congratulate you on your victory and wish you the best of luck. I will support you when I can and oppose you when I must. All the while, I will remain thoroughly committed to the glorious, frustrating American experiment in self-government. In the meantime, I will be praying for you, your family, your administration, and our country. More than anything else, I pray that you remember that history has its eyes on you.

Sincerely,

David

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Imagining the Future

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

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To listen to an interview with Fr. Greg, click here.

When Greg Boyle was appointed as the pastor of the Dolores Mission in the late 1980s, he recognized that it would be a challenging call. The Mission is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at the time was the epicenter of more gang activity than anywhere else in the world. Fr. Boyle understood that much of his ministry would be devoted to addressing the proliferation of gang violence in his community.  At the beginning of his time at the Mission, Boyle attempted to make peace through diplomacy. He was Henry Kissinger on a ten speed bicycle, shuttling between the various gangs and negotiating terms. Boyle would draw up treaties that stipulated rules about things like shooting into each other’s houses. The various parties would sign, and hostilities would cease for a time. Though these truces initially felt like victories, Fr. Greg gradually realized that they were ultimately hollow. Negotiation and diplomacy assume that there is conflict: that the parties involved have opposing goals and that there is the potential for a mutually agreeable solution. But Fr. Greg soon recognized that while there is lots of violence among gangs, there is no conflict. Boyle realized that gang violence stems, not from conflict, but from “a lethal absence of hope,” from the reality that the kids in his community “can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

We see a similar absence of hope among the disciples in today’s reading from John’s gospel. John tells us that it is evening, that the darkness is approaching. The bright sunlight of Easter morning has dissipated, the triumph and joy have faded into memory, and the disciples are now waiting with apprehension in the gathering darkness. Indeed, John explicitly tells us that the former companions of Jesus have gathered in the uncertain twilight of that locked room because they are afraid: afraid of those who executed Jesus, yes, but also afraid of confronting the harsh reality of their own faithlessness. The disciples abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour and are now paralyzed by guilt. Having lost their Lord and Teacher, they are uncertain about what they are to do next; indeed, they are uncertain about who they are now or what they will become. The disciples are stuck in that room because they are unable to imagine a future for themselves.

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the disciples in that locked room. Perhaps he is scrounging for food, perhaps he is plotting the disciples’ escape from Jerusalem, or perhaps he just can’t bear to be in the same room with those who remind him so viscerally of the one he abandoned. Apart from Peter, Thomas was the disciple whose renunciation of Jesus was the most thorough. Remember that when Jesus announced he was going to visit the tomb of Lazarus in spite of the potential danger, Thomas alone courageously affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha, and he claimed that he would remain with Jesus until the very end. And yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas fled from the authorities, stayed away from the one he claimed he would die for, and left Jesus to walk the way of the cross alone. Perhaps Thomas stayed away from the disciples because because he couldn’t stand the sight of those who reminded him so poignantly of his infidelity. Perhaps Thomas left that locked room because he simply could not imagine a future for himself when he had failed so completely.

This perspective would have given powerful and predictable shape to Thomas’ reaction when he returned to that locked room. Thomas would have been wallowing in the pain of his guilt when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Hope? Hope is for people who can imagine a future. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.

Immediately after Thomas demands to see the wounds of the crucified Lord, John sets a nearly identical scene. I say “nearly identical” because John tells us that this gathering takes place eight days later. Eight is the number of new creation: the signal that we are transcending the normal rhythm of the calendar, the promise that a new day is dawning, the implicit proclamation that the world has been given a new future. By setting this scene on the eighth day John indicates that the disciples are about to experience God in an entirely new way. thomassunday1ebayIndeed, when Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples breathing words of peace and renewal, Thomas recognizes the reality of the new creation when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas understood a fundamental truth: that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s very being. It is an affirmation of God’s deathless love, a pledge that all our past unfaithfulness has been forgiven, that our lives have been and will be renewed, and that our future has been redeemed. Notice that our participation in the renewal of creation is not about accomplishing particular tasks; it is about abiding in peace. When Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he does not commission the disciples to do anything. Rather, he invites the disciples into a place of love, a place where they can hope for a future that they could not previously imagine.

Jose is a young man from Fr. Greg’s parish who has been a gang member, a drug addict, and a prison inmate. When Jose was six, his mother said to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself. You’re such a burden to me.” Jose’s mother beat him, to the point that he wore three T-shirts at a time in order to protect himself and hide the wounds his mother inflicted. Jose was ashamed of his wounds well into adulthood and he resisted every attempt well-meaning people made to help him. But when he met Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who was not ashamed of him and who didn’t prescribe a program to get him off the streets. In Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who loved him regardless of where he had been or what his mother had done to him. He began to turn his life around. Gradually, Jose realized that by recognizing his own wounds, he could help the wounded. For Jose, love made his wounds a source of redemption. For Jose, love allowed him to hope for the first time. For Jose, love empowered him to imagine the future.

 

Campfires, Bells, and Living the Resurrection Life

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest for the Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014.

UnknownA few months ago, the curate at Heavenly Rest and I took about a dozen youth to a ranch for a weekend of fun and spiritual formation. In spite of my initial apprehensions about the experience, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my ministry at Heavenly Rest. We had some incredibly powerful conversations and uncovered some extraordinary spiritual insights that would have been advanced even for a group of mature adults. But my favorite moment of the weekend took place on Saturday night. We were all worn out from a long day: we had discussed Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, hiked through the mud (I only just cleaned off my boots), and participated in a pretty emotional healing service. I assumed that our charges would want to turn in early and watch a movie, but instead we gathered around a fire that had been built a few hours before. After stoking it back to life, we began to tell stories. In this age when kids are supposedly more interested in their smartphones than anything else, a group of teenagers sat in rapt attention as we exchanged stories about ghosts and goblins. For the most part, these were the campfire stories that you and I grew up with; they followed a very particular formula that we adapted to the circumstances. All of them ended with a twist or a jump scare or a “But he had been dead the whole time!” No matter how frightening, in other words, we expected that final scare. We knew what was going to happen next. We knew how these stories were going to end.

Tonight, we too gathered in darkness around a fire and we too told each other familiar stories. In some ways, these stories are similar to those that we told around the campfire. They are so familiar to us that we anticipate what happens next; we know how they are going to end. And yet, at the same time, we must recognize how radical these stories really are. As our prayer book puts it, these stories are “the record of God’s saving deeds in history”; they are part of the larger story of how God “saved his people in ages past.” While we know how these stories end, in other words, they do not end they way they are supposed to end. These stories run contrary to the way the world works. Life is not supposed to come from nothing. Oppressed people are not supposed to be released from slavery. The poor are not supposed to feast at the same banquet as the rich. All of these stories point to a God who will not accept the status quo, a God who refuses to be complicit in oppression, a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, a God who shows us what the world can be.

No story embodies the unexpected nature of God’s love better than the story of the empty tomb. Over the past week, we have heard the familiar story. Jesus, a rabbi and healer, enters Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. While he’s there, he raises eyebrows by disrupting the Temple economy. The Roman occupiers and religious leaders agree that he is a dangerous rabble rouser and decide to execute him. After he is betrayed by a disciple and abandoned by his friends, Jesus is handed over to die a criminal’s death. Taken down from the cross, he is placed in a nearby borrowed tomb so that his remaining disciples can go home to observe the Sabbath. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ devoted disciples, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arrive at the tomb to finish what was left undone, to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. But when they arrive, they are told, “He is not here, for he has been raised.” After the long saga of Jesus’ passion and death, the women who come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus are told that he is no longer there.

Even if the story ended there, even if Jesus never appeared to his disciples, it would represent a shocking turn of events. According to the way the world works, those who challenge the authorities are punished, the oppressed are rarely vindicated, and those who are abandoned by their friends die alone. This all happened to Jesus. And yet, according to the way the world works, the dead are supposed to stay dead. Those who have been executed are supposed to remain in their graves. The world is supposed to forget those who died the deaths of criminals. The empty tomb disrupts this conventional wisdom. The empty tomb forces the disciples to embrace the possibility of Resurrection. The empty tomb challenges the status quo and points toward a God who interrupts this world with a love that raises the dead to life. It’s no wonder Matthew tells us there was an earthquake when the women arrived at the tomb; he could not imagine it any other way. Just as earthquakes take us by surprise and throw us off balance, the Resurrection shocks us out of our complacency and forces us to look at the world in a new way.

In many ways, the Resurrection is the most challenging aspect of the Christian faith. On one level, this is related to whether we are able to believe extraordinary things. Let’s be honest: the Resurrection is difficult to believe. As far as we know, people do not come back from the dead. The conventional wisdom that crucified Jesus remains to this day. The dead stay dead; that’s the way the world works. But remember that this is also how the world worked for the disciples. People did not come back from the dead with regularity during the first century. The likelihood of the Resurrection was just as small then as it is today. A few verses after what we heard this evening, Matthew even tells us that some of the disciples continued to doubt, that they were simply incapable of embracing the possibility of Jesus’ Resurrection. But in spite of all of this, that early morning two thousand years ago caused the disciples of Jesus to change the way they looked at the world. The empty tomb caused them to reshape the way they understood their relationship with God and with one another.

It is at this, much deeper level that the Resurrection truly challenges us. Trusting the Resurrection is not just about believing that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Trusting the Resurrection is about believing that Resurrection and renewal possible in our life and the life of the world. Too often, we are plagued by the notion that we are hamstrung by fate or destiny, that our lot in life is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Too often, we are convinced that reconciliation between adversaries is impossible, that old hatreds never die. Too often, we affirm that the powers of this world have already won, that we are mere pawns in a game that is beyond our control. Yet the Resurrection calls us to recognize that our lives are filled with possibility. The Resurrection calls us to recognize that the only thing required for reconciliation is relationship. The Resurrection calls us to affirm to the principalities of this world that their power is fleeting and that true victory belongs to God. In the words of that hymn we heard at the beginning of this service, we are called to recognize that the Resurrection puts wickedness to flight, casts out pride and hatred, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. Trusting in the Resurrection means turning away from despair and living our lives with hope.

imagesIn the kitchen of the house where I grew up, there are bells hanging from the window locks. For 364 days of the year, these bells remain in their places, gathering dust and occasionally prompting the odd question from a curious visitor. But on Holy Saturday at about 4:00 in the afternoon, my father, my brother, my grandmother, and I gather up these bells and carry them into the living room. There, my father cues up an old record of the choir of Saint Stanislaus (his childhood church) singing Polish liturgical songs. We listen as the choir sings about Jesus’ temptation, passion, and death. Then, just after an old priest warbles a sentence about the Resurrection, we start ringing those bells as loudly as we can as the choir sings the Polish version of “Jesus Christ is risen today.” As you can imagine, it makes a terrific noise, one that generally impels my mother to go outside. The ringing overwhelms any conversation; it even drowns out the voices of the choir on that old record. The ringing of those bells interrupts our day, casts out all other distractions, and makes us completely present to the reality of the empty tomb. In so many ways, this is exactly how we are meant to understand the Resurrection. Just as those bells interrupt our day, the empty tomb interrupts the status quo and forces us to look at the world in a new way. Just as those bells cast out all other distractions, the Resurrection casts out despair and insists that we live our lives with hope. Just as those bells momentarily make us live completely in the present, the Resurrection requires us to shape our lives in light of the empty tomb. Ultimately, the Resurrection reminds us that we are part of God’s story, the story of a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, the story of a God who shows us what the world can be.

Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.

Routine

During the Second World War, an English priest was given the unpleasant task of telling a widow that her son had been killed in action.  She had already lost her husband during the Battle of Britain; the priest knew that this newest piece of information would be completely devastating.  He knocked on the widow’s door and held his breath as he waited for her to answer.  As she answered the door, she saw the priest’s clerical collar and knew that the news would not be good.  Tenuously, the priest said, “Madam, it grieves me to inform you that your son has been killed.”  The widow’s response was surprising: “Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?”  As the pair sat at the woman’s kitchen table, munching on biscuits and sipping Earl Grey, the priest observed quizzically, “Madam, you seem to be coping with this loss remarkably well.  I certainly would not have felt able to invite someone over for tea if I had received the news you just received.”  The widow mused, “I always have a cup of tea at this time.  I’m told that when one faces devastating loss, one should strive to keep one’s routine.  It’s the only way I can move forward.”

icon_epitaphios_thrinos_lamentToday is Holy Saturday, the day that we remember the uncertainty that followed Jesus’ death.  It is the day that we remember the grief of those closest to Jesus: the sorrow of his mother, the dejection of his friends, and the uncertainty of his disciples.  In the liturgy for the day, we say the words of Psalm 130: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.”  Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and waiting.  Yet it is also a day of routine.  It’s striking that in the accounts of Jesus’ burial, a primary concern of those who mourned Jesus was to ensure they observed the Jewish burial customs, that they did the same thing that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years.  Even more striking is how careful they are to observe the Sabbath, to take the day of rest appointed by Jewish law, to do the same thing they have done week in and week out for their entire lives.  In the face of their grief, in the face of their uncertainty, in the face of the fact that their world had crashed down around them, those who mourned Jesus fell back on their routine, because that was the only way they could move forward.

There is a wisdom to routines.  In the face of uncertainty and pain, routines can be an enormous comfort.  Even as our world crashes down around us, we can cling to our routines and they can sustain us as we carefully move forward.  But even as we return to our routines, we must always be willing to be surprised, to be jolted from complacency by a truth that transcends even the grief and uncertainty of this day.  In the meantime, we are called to return to our routine, to gather in hope, and to wait for the Lord.

Finished

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Good Friday.

imgresOne summer while I was in college, I worked in a group home for kids with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and other special needs.  Most of the kids were high-functioning teenagers who had a difficult time adapting to mainstream academic and social settings; the group home was a place where they could be themselves.  While the work was enormously rewarding, it was also exhausting.  Not only were we responsible for all of the normal aspects of raising a teenager: cooking their meals, driving them to school, and making sure they did their homework; we also had to deal with some of the challenges unique to these young people: giving them their medications, supervising their hygiene, and dealing with the occasional catastrophic meltdown.  Every day had the potential to be physically and emotionally draining.  I remember that at the end of my first day, after all of the residents had finally gone to sleep, the woman I was working with, a veteran of the organization who was simultaneously maternal and tough as nails, handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Enjoy this.”  “Enjoy what?” I asked.  “The quiet,” she replied.  As I savored the bitter institutional coffee, a wave of relief spread over me as I realized that we were finished for the day.  The meds had been distributed, the residents were asleep, and everyone was safe.  We had done everything we had to do and my coworker invited me to acknowledge that accomplishment.  To this day, the taste of institutional coffee reminds me of that sense of accomplishment, the joy and relief I felt when I realized that for at least the next eight hours, all was right with the world, that for at least one night, the work before me was finished.

The gospel according to John tells us that the final word of Jesus from the cross reflects this sense of accomplishment.  Just before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus says, “It is finished.”  This actually translates a single word in Greek: “tetelestai,” meaning “it has been accomplished,” “the end has come,” or to put it another way, “my work here is done.”  In John’s gospel, we do not hear the agonized cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that we hear Matthew and Mark, nor do we hear the deeply comforting affirmation of “Into your hands I commend my spirit” that we hear in Luke.  Instead, the final word of Jesus in John’s gospel is ambiguous and a little unsettling.  What exactly has he accomplished?  There is a finality to “tetelestai,” a sense that everything is taken care of, that there is no more to be done, that everything that needs to be finished has been finished.  “Tetelestai” implies that there are no loose ends, that all is right with the world.

And yet, even as Jesus uttered this final word of accomplishment, very little was right with the world.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, struggling under his own weight, chaos swirled around him.  Though those closest to him had promised to stay by his side no matter what happened, his disciples had abandoned, denied, and betrayed him.  Though as the Messiah he represented the hopes and dreams of a subjugated and enslaved people, he had been executed as a rabble rouser by a cruel and powerful dictatorship.  Though he had affirmed that he was the incarnation of the almighty God, he died a criminal’s death, completely impotent and helpless.  As chaos swirled around him, it seems that there could not have been a less appropriate time for Jesus to affirm that everything had been accomplished.  The world was falling apart around him, questions were left unanswered, and his ministry seems to have been in vain.  Describing his work as “finished” seems to be a cruel joke worthy of the soldiers who mocked him.

urlJust before Jesus gives up his spirit, John’s gospel tells us that he addressed his mother and the beloved disciple, who were gathered at the foot of the cross.  As they stood in their grief, gazing at the gasping body of Jesus, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”  To the disciple whom he loved, he said, “Behold your mother.”  John goes on to tell us that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home from that day forward.  Though this is a powerful message of love, an example of Jesus taking care of those he is leaving behind, there is more to it than that.  Scholars, for instance, have wondered why Jesus calls his mother “Woman,” which is not something that any of us would have been allowed to call our mothers as we were growing up.  While some have argued that “Woman” was actually a term of respect in first-century Palestine, I’m more inclined to agree with those who suggest that Jesus uses this word to recall the creation of woman.  By calling his mother “Woman,” Jesus is bringing us back to Genesis, back to the Garden of Eden, back to the first days of creation when Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God and men and women were estranged from one another.  This is the reason that so many important events in John’s gospel, including the arrest and burial of Jesus, take place in a garden.  John wants us to remember that first garden, to return to the first moments of creation so that we can understand that God is bringing about a new creation through Jesus Christ.  The words of Jesus to his mother and the beloved disciple are words of love and affection, but they are also words of restoration.  By bringing these two people together, Jesus heals division, restores human relationships, and repairs what was torn asunder by our disobedience to the commandment of God.  By restoring the relationship between his mother and the beloved disciple, Jesus Christ restores all human relationships and inaugurates a new creation, a creation that is no longer subject to disobedience and death, but has been renewed by the self-giving love of God.  This is what Jesus accomplishes on the cross.  Jesus says, “It is finished” because he has completed this work of restoration; he has finished the work of recreating the world in the image of God’s redeeming love.  Even as the chaos swirls around him, there is a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation through the Christ who reaches out to us in love from the hard wood of the cross.

In a few moments, we will pray for a world that is in chaos.  We will pray for a world of geopolitical saber rattling, where countries threaten each other with nuclear weapons and refuse to engage in diplomacy.  We will pray for a world of political intractability, where politicians seem unable to communicate or find common ground.  We will pray for a world of suffering and affliction, where people are hungry, homeless, and oppressed through no fault of their own.  We will pray for a world where hundreds of millions of people do not have access to clean water, where tyrants massacre their people, and where children are killed in their classrooms.  In the face of these overwhelming challenges, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair, to conclude that there is nothing that we can do to alleviate such suffering.  We might be tempted to pretend that we do not care and turn away from those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  But if the gospel that is proclaimed from the cross is true, then every act of kindness and generosity is a proclamation of God’s new creation.  Every person we feed, every child we comfort, every donation we make becomes a symbol of God’s great love revealed to us on the cross.  Not only that, every effort we make to reach out and participate in God’s work of restoration is an opportunity for the whole world “to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”  Jesus may have finished his work of restoration on the cross, but we are invited to share in that mission.  Even as the chaos swirls around us, we are invited to recognize and affirm that there is always a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, and a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation though Jesus Christ working through us as we reach out in love to this world that needs it so desperately.

Shadows

When I was growing up, the television network Nickelodeon had a Saturday evening line-up for pre-teens and teens called “SNICK.”  Though most of Nickelodeon’s programming included cartoons and game shows that involved many gallons of green slime, SNICK featured slightly more sophisticated fare, including a sitcom featuring an omniscient narrator called Clarissa Explains It All, a quasi soap opera about a girl who could turn into a puddle of silver goo called The Secret World of Alex Mack, and a Saturday Night Live style sketch show called All That.  I was a devotee of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night lineup, which was surprisingly high quality; many SNICK veterans have gone on to success in movies and on other television programs, including Saturday Night Live.

titleOne show in the Saturday night lineup that I refused to watch, however, was a program called Are You Afraid of the Dark?  As far as I can tell (I never actually watched a whole episode), Are You Afraid of the Dark? featured a group of teenagers who called themselves “The Midnight Society” (even though the show was on at 9:30) and met in a secret location every week.  Gathered around a campfire, one member of the group would tell a scary story, which would be depicted by actors for the television audience.  Most of the stories were adaptations of fairy tales or urban legends and probably weren’t all that scary, but the very idea of the show terrified me.  I couldn’t understand why any group of sane people would get together and try to frighten one another.  The show’s title asked whether I was afraid of the dark; my answer was an unequivocal “yes.”  I was afraid of the dark and everything that could potentially happen in the dark.

One of the services traditionally associated with the Wednesday in Holy Week is Tenebrae, which comes from the Latin word for “shadows.”  It’s one of the more unusual services of the Church, and features readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the letter to the Hebrews, and a treatise on the Psalms written by Saint Augustine.  The most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only one candle remains.  As we prepare our hearts for the final days of Holy Week, the church is gradually shrouded in darkness and shadow.  This process is symbolic of the gathering darkness, the fact that forces are beginning to conspire to put Jesus to death.  Tenebrae seems to say that if ever there was a time to be afraid of the dark, it would be now.  And yet, even at the end of the service, when the entire church is covered in darkness and we are anticipating Jesus’ betrayal and death, a single candle burns.  I’m always amazed how much light that single candle casts; it illuminates the faces of those who have gathered to face the darkness and steels their resolve.  That single candle reminds us that even when we feel that all hope is lost, even as Jesus gasps for life on the cross, there is hope.  That single candle reminds us that even when our world seems to be crashing down around us, the faintest glimmer of hope can give us courage and sustain us.  Even in the despairing final days of Holy Week, there is a whisper that reminds us we can hope for new life and transformation.