And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.

Bearing Fruit

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree.  Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly.  Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground.  imagesUnfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels.  Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away.  This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them.  Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.

It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears.  We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways.  My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful.  I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating.  By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.

Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators.  His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.
Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators. His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.

Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me.  In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy.  In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son.  It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable.  Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral.  Fables, however, are very different from parables.  While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives.  Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave.  Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable?  He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”  Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers.  Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted.  “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking.  But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority?  Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance.  As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.

imgresThough Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange.  Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit.  And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again.  For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come.  Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.”  So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry.  Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders.  He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God.  This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders.  The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity.  Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear.  Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority.  And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.

Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual.  Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God.  And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair.  Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair.  Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love.  In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.

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.

Faux pas

I embarrassed myself the other day.

On Thursday, I had the honor and privilege of officiating at a parishioner’s funeral at the local veterans’ cemetery.  After the Committal ended, I stepped aside to allow representatives of the Navy to render the appropriate military honors.  It was a calm and beautiful day in West Texas, and the gathered congregation remained preternaturally quiet as they bore witness to the solemn ceremony.  Then, just as the sailors began the ceremonial folding of the American flag, my cell phone started to ring.

imagesUnder normal circumstances, I would have been able to turn it off by simply finding the appropriate button through my vestments (actually, under normal circumstances, I would have remembered to turn off my phone), but for whatever reason, I was unable to do so on this occasion.  The ring seemed to get louder and louder as I fruitlessly reached into my robes and groped for the offending device.  Finally, after inadvertently answering the phone, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pressed “end.”  Needless to say, since it was that sort of day, the person tried to call back immediately.  I was mortified and felt intensely regretful for the error.

To their eternal credit, the family of the deceased did not mention my failure to turn off my cell phone, nor did they comment on the fact that I had groped myself during the course of the funeral services.  In fact, no one mentioned it until I prompted another parishioner who was in attendance.  “I’m so embarrassed that my cell phone went off,” I told him, hopeful that he would be sympathetic.  He turned to me and somewhat incredulously asked, “Why are you embarrassed?  Because you’re human?”

There was profound wisdom and profound grace in this question.  Not only did this parishioner remind me that my call as a priest is not to be perfect, he also called to mind the reality that our humanity is not compromised even when we face the suffering of this world.  A cell phone ringing at a graveside can be a reminder that even in the face of death, we continue to be human beings.  An annoying distraction can become an acknowledgement that life continues even as we mourn those we have lost.  That cell phone ringing became a version of the proclamation we make at every funeral service in the Episcopal Church: “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

I pray that God will give us grace to see the faux pas in our lives not as mere distractions, but as reminders of the Resurrection life promised to each one of us through Jesus Christ.

Nostalgia

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway.  The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends.  I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies.  In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun.  At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might.  In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face.  I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew.  By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly.  During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball.  This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic.  It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.  The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know.  It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball).  It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed.  This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThis dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas.  We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism.  We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.”  This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved.  When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples.  It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel.  We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty.  But this is the very same day.  Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed.  They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do.  Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it.  In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door.  The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.

John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week.  Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.”  Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation.  The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one.  But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.”  This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world.  Jesus then sends his disciples.  The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world.  The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.

And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked.  Were they not listening?  Were they not paying attention?  The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all.  They were in the same place doing the same things.  No wonder Thomas doubted!  The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual.  They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever.  But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took.  Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.

We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent.  And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent.  We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music.  We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer.  We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted.  After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap.  Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God.  In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year.  And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something.  imagesEaster Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty!  The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day.  And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others.  Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance?  Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time?  Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene?  We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.

Nonsense

We have arrived at the day for which we have been preparing for the last 40 days.  It is Easter Day, the day of Resurrection, the day when we remember and celebrate the fact that the women went to the tomb and found it empty.  And yet, despite the season of preparation, despite our disciplined efforts to make room for God in our lives, despite the fact that we have been looking forward to this celebration for weeks, we may still feel unready.  We may still feel unprepared for this celebration, because the Resurrection challenges our assumptions and transforms the way we look at the world.  Even as we celebrate the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead, we may have lingering doubts.  After all, people do not rise from the dead in our experience.  In spite of all our preparation, we may feel unready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

We are not the first people to have these doubts.  Luke’s gospel tells us that the women went to tomb early in the morning, only to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus gone.  After two men in dazzling clothes asked why they were looking for the living among the dead, the women rushed to tell the apostles, who dismissed it as “an idle tale.”  This word that Luke uses can also be translated as “foolishness” or “nonsense.”  For the apostles (and probably for the women who went to the tomb), the idea that someone could rise from the dead was ludicrous.  First-century Jews knew just as well as twenty-first century skeptics that people do not rise from the dead, that death is the end of the story, that talk of resurrection is nonsense.  The apostles had the same doubts that many of us have.  The tomb may had been empty, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ followers were ready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

emptytombNevertheless, even as the apostles dismissed the women’s story as nonsense, one of the apostles ran to the tomb to see if it was true.  I can only imagine what Peter’s inner monologue was like as he rushed to the place where Jesus had been buried: “This is so stupid.  Those women must have been seeing things.  Maybe the gardener was messing with their heads.  Anyway, there’s no way that Jesus’ body is gone.  There’s no way that he rose from the dead.  Things like that just don’t happen.”  Peter was among those who confidently dismissed the very idea of resurrection, and yet as he approached the tomb, doubts may have crept into his mind.  What if the tomb was empty?  What if he really had risen from the dead?  Luke’s gospel provides a wonderful detail: as Peter arrives at the tomb, he has to stoop to look inside.  As he approached the tomb, he had to slow down and pause at its entrance.  He had to take a deep breath and stoop to peer into the gloom, terrified of what he would (or wouldn’t) find.

Even in the midst of our doubts, even in the midst of our confident belief that the very idea of resurrection is nonsense, Easter challenges us to take a deep breath and stoop to peer inside the empty tomb.  We may look to satisfy our morbid curiosity, we may look to prove our skeptical neighbors wrong, we may look because we are desperately in need of God’s promise of new and abundant life.  Whatever our motivation, Easter challenges us to look for new life even in those places that have known only death and despair.  We may have our doubts, but Easter challenges us to look past our doubts and embrace the possibility of resurrection, the possibility of transformation, the possibility that this life can be renewed by the power of God who loves us.  When we stoop to peer inside the empty tomb and embrace the possibility of resurrection, we can proclaim to this world that God’s love and faithfulness have the power to transform a world that his enslaved to death and despair.  When we embrace the possibility of resurrection, we are given the opportunity to live resurrection lives of love and service to others.  Resurrection is more than an empty tomb; it is a promise that the world can be transformed, that the evil powers of this world are no match for the love of God, and that we have the ability to make this world a better place.  Even if we are afraid of what we will find when we peer inside the empty tomb, we are called to proclaim the resurrection by working for the transformation of the world.

Growth

577690_10100870531399900_972034920_nI’m feeling a little wistful.  Our kitten, Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) turns one today.  Before we got Abby, I was not the kind of person who observed cat birthdays; though my wife and I have had a very sweet cat named Winnie for as long as we’ve been married, she was never my cat.  It has always been very clear that Winnie’s primary loyalty was to my wife and that I was just along for the ride.  But when we got a five week old kitten last year, I quickly took on the role of primary caretaker.  I bathed Abby before she learned how to groom herself, I combed the fleas out of her fur, and I applied ointment to her injured eye.  In the process, I became hopelessly enamored with this tiny creature who depended on me entirely.

For those of you who have lived with a kitten, you know that the first several months can be difficult. In their first months, kittens are still learning how to socialize and have energy to burn.  So while Winnie always spent the night nestled between us and didn’t wake up until breakfast, Abby would spend her nights jumping on top of us, pestering her adoptive sister, and making it virtually impossible to sleep.  As we lounged on the couch in the evenings, she would pounce on our heads and feet with her improbably sharp claws.  Most worrisome were the terrifying cat fights between Winnie and Abby, which we were so intense that we sometimes feared the result would be death or dismemberment.  Though there were times that we questioned the wisdom of bringing another cat into the house, we persevered, mostly because I couldn’t help but love the little feline terrorist.

The number of her toys has grown too.
The number of her toys has grown too.

As we observe her first birthday, however, I’m very aware of how much Abby has grown.  I no longer have to bathe her, because she’s been grooming herself for months.  Her eye healed long ago, and she hasn’t had fleas for a long time.  Moreover, life has become much more placid.  Abby sleeps through most of the night, she is more interested in cuddling with us than attacking our feet, and it seems that she and Winnie have reached a state of detente.  The past year has been a time of amazing growth for Abby and for me.  And while I am grateful for everything we experienced during Abby’s kittenhood, I am also profoundly aware that I wouldn’t want to go through it again with her.  On her birthday, I am anxious to see what the next year will bring, but I wouldn’t want her second year to be anything like her first year.

As we approach the end of Lent and prepare for the emotion and drama of Holy Week, it is a good time for us to consider how we’ve grown during this season of penitence and renewal.  Have we discovered new ways of connecting with God?  Have we experienced worship in a new way?  Have we developed new perspectives on the impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on our lives?  In other words, have we grown?  It is important for us to do this discernment so that Lent next year will not be the same as it was this year.  Lent is meant to be an opportunity to for us do new things, to gain new perspectives, to grow in our experience of God’s deep love for us.  By discerning how far we’ve come during Lent this year, we can continue the process of renewal and growth, not only during Lent, but every day of our lives.  By engaging in this process of discernment, we can continue to increase our awareness of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Near the Cross

As I mentioned last week, the Heavenly Rest community has spent the season of Lent exploring the Passion of our Lord from a variety of different perspectives.  We studied the Passion narrative from John’s gospel, examined artistic renderings of the events surrounding the Passion, learned about the history of the Passion Chorale, and experienced the Stations of the Cross.  In other words, we engaged with the story of our Lord’s death intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  Tonight, we will gather for a culminating worship service that will bring all of these elements together as we meditate near the cross.

agnus deiMeditating on the Passion has always been an important component of the Church’s observance of Lent.  This is not surprising; the season is intended to prepare us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Passion and Death.  And throughout the history of the Church, Christians have developed a variety of ways to help people walk the way of the cross with Jesus.   Liturgies like the Stations of the Cross give worshipers an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus’ final hours might have felt.  Traditions like reading an account of the Passion in the weeks before Easter allow us to hear the story once again.  Composers have adapted this tradition by setting the Passion to music; some of the greatest works in music history tell the story of Jesus’ road to Calvary (tonight our choir will sing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion).  And artists have created extraordinary works of art that either depict the events of the Passion or attempt to capture the themes of tragedy, suffering, and triumph implicit in the story.  There are countless ways for Christians to meditate on the death of Jesus.

This evening’s service at Heavenly Rest draws on several of these resources and is designed to allow participants to offer themselves completely to the experience of our Lord’s Passion.  The readings, music, and art were selected to provide worshipers a view into Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  It is important for us to remember, however, that we are not meant to meditate on the Passion just to think about how painful it must have been.  We are not engaging in a perverse kind of voyeurism where we listen and watch as another human being is tortured to death.  Rather, the reason we meditate on the Passion is so that we can consider how the experience might transform us.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can consider how our lives have been changed and can be changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can be equipped to make this gospel of transformation known to the world.  Above all, we meditate on the Passion in order to remember that God has invited all of us into a new life of abundant love that he makes known to us as we stand near the cross.

Steps

Note: Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation and my father, preached on yesterday’s lectionary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan yesterday.  Below is the sermon he offered to that congregation.

urlTwo years ago I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery.  In other words, I had both knees done at once. While it was a pretty rugged surgery and a very challenging recovery and rehab period, I was fully prepared for this ordeal physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. I planned for this elective surgery well in advance and all my business and personal affairs were in order. I was in good physical shape, spiritually grounded and had done extensive on-line research on all aspects of the procedure. I even arranged for appropriate pastoral care for both me and my family during the various stages of the process.  All I had to do was trust my surgeons, therapists and caregivers and put all my energies into getting, better, stronger, and back to normal. I became the poster child for bilateral knee replacement patients as my recovery was quick, successful and complete. I was fully confident that my knees were fixed for at least a twenty or thirty year period.

Seven weeks ago, I began to have flu-like symptoms, including swelling and discomfort which turned out to be a rare and unanticipated infection in my left replacement knee joint. Consequently, I needed immediate surgical and medical intervention.  While they didn’t have to replace the entire prosthesis, the surgeons did have to open up the knee, clean it out and replace some of the parts. More significantly, they put me on heavy duty, self-administered IV antibiotics via a PIC line inserted in my arm which resulted in very severe and annoying side effects. This type of complication, by the way, only occurs in less than 1% of knee replacement patients two years after the fact.  So much for odds.

Unlike my first knee surgery, this one was not planned. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual preparedness of two years ago was utterly and totally absent. I had no time to plan anything and had no control whatsoever. In fact, rather than the experience of a deep spiritual journey and time set aside for reflection and discernment which characterized the last surgery, this  time I very soon felt hopeless, frustrated , angry and, for a while, totally disconnected from God. I even railed against God with a few choice words.  This was truly a wilderness time for me – in a sense, a ready-made Lenten journey that I did not want to take. It was forced upon me totally against my will.

In this morning’s psalm, we proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us and therefore we rejoice. We are also reminded that those who sow in tears and go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. While the message of the psalm is clearly meant to be comforting, I think it is often unrealistic especially in times of tragedy, illness, loss or total devastation. Do you really think that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are finding comfort in these words, even three months after the fact? Six weeks ago, my mouth was not filled with laughter nor my tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents an alternative approach and point of view, at least for me. In the passage we read today, Paul begins with identifying those valuable things in his life that give him status among the people of Israel so much so that he has reason to be “confident in the flesh.” After all, at the time he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, Paul had lived a good life and had all the credentials he needed for fame, fortune and influence. He was at the top of his game and recognized that fact even at this point in his ministry.  And yet, Paul goes on to say that whatever inheritance he shared with God’s chosen people, his social, religious and political status, he now comes to regard as loss, not gain, because of Christ. He even refers to all this as rubbish. Paul states that any righteousness that may be associated with him comes not from his status or the law but because of his faith in Christ, in other words, righteousness from God based on faith.

For Paul, nothing is more important to him than sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even says that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is incredibly powerful stuff, and in essence, the very core of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this easier said than done? How can I, as a Christian, participate in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ when I even have difficulty feeling some connection to God as I did during my recent illness?

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Like me and you, even Paul hasn’t quite figured it out – at least not yet. He acknowledges that he has not already obtained or reached this goal of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, but presses on to make it his own – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. For me, these words of Paul are much more realistic than the seemingly comforting words of the psalm. Paul is basically acknowledging that we live in a world where bad things happen and people are oppressed and suffer needlessly, all of which often results in pervasive feelings of alienation, isolation and separation from God. In other words, we live in a world that has not yet been fully transformed by God’s ultimate plan of salvation. But still we are called to press on. We are called to strive toward the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That’s all that matters. That’s all that really counts. It’s really okay if we have not yet reached this ultimate goal.

The good news for me is that I am recovering from this medical ordeal and have completed the arduous and necessary regimen of antibiotics and other medications. The better news is that my feelings of frustration and abandonment are gone and my Lenten wilderness experience has morphed into something more anticipatory and hopeful. I guess I took Paul’s advice, whether I knew it or not, and forgot what lay behind and attempted to strain forward to what lies ahead.  For deep down inside, I ultimately realized that nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even infections, rashes, nausea, fever, chills or PIC lines.  I realize and appreciate that despite this setback, I am healthy, I am strong and, with some PT and exercise, I will be able to walk normally again and, hopefully, avoid any further complications in the future. God was indeed with me on this entire journey and will continue to be with me no matter what lies ahead.

urlWhich brings me to today’s Gospel from John. On first blush, this passage can be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of conspicuous consumption and even excess. Here we have Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume that was obviously worth a small fortune. We also have that famous quote from Jesus – “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me”. Clearly, that is not the point of the story. What is significant in this passage is that the perfume bought by Mary, pure nard, was to be kept for the day of Jesus’ burial, a necessary and important element in ancient Jewish funeral rituals. But Mary was not saving the perfume for Jesus’ burial, which at that point was about a week away. She was using it now. Perhaps, rather than being extravagant, Mary’s simple but poignant act of anointing his feet while he was still alive was a powerful symbol of  her active and ongoing participation in the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all, why waste expensive burial perfume on someone who is going to rise from the dead? You might as well use it now when everyone can appreciate its value and enjoy the fragrance wafting throughout the house. I think that Mary of Bethany from 2000 years ago is giving those of us gathered here today in Pontiac, Michigan an elsewhere some clues on what it means to be in relationship with the person called Jesus.

How do we as Christians in our own time and place actively, relevantly, practically yet completely participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal and challenge posed by Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi? Maybe the answer is simple – one small step at a time. Let’s go back to my knee replacement rehabilitation metaphor. Physical therapy is a process of small and often simple movements, stretches and exercises that with repetition, discipline and time ultimately result in the ability to walk again. I suggest that Christian discipleship is similar. Through simple acts of prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, outreach, empathy, sympathy and love, we, both individually and as a community, ultimately come to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As we approach the end of Lent and begin the powerful drama and pageantry of Holy Week, may we continue our journeys of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – again – one step at a time.

Waste

I don't know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.
I don’t know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.

One of the consistent refrains we hear during elections is that our government is too big and inefficient.  Though Democrats and Republicans disagree about the nature of the inefficiency (Republicans talk about paring down the size of government; Democrats tend to talk about making government more nimble), complaints about government waste come from both ends of the political spectrum.  A favorite example of inefficiency and waste has to do with one of our government’s inexplicable redundancies: when salmon are in freshwater, they are regulated by the Department of the Interior; when they are in saltwater, they are regulated by the Commerce Department.  Our President joked in a State of the Union address that “it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”  This concern with waste and inefficiency is emblematic of a broader human impulse: we like to make sure that we don’t waste the resources we have, that we use them effectively and appropriately.

It is for this reason that we might find today’s gospel reading offensive, as it tells the story of someone who is praised for her wastefulness.  In the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of his friend Lazarus just after raising him from the dead.  While he and his disciples are sitting in the house, Lazarus’ sister Mary pours a bottle of expensive burial perfume mixed with nard (a burial spice) on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.  Judas, who eventually betrays Jesus (John never tires of telling us this) is indignant and claims that they could have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.  Jesus responds by telling Judas, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s important for us to notice that this story takes place immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  It is in the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation that Mary’s sister Martha approaches Jesus and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ tells her that Lazarus will rise again, to which Martha says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day,” as if to imply, “that’s not much comfort now.”  In response, Jesus proclaims, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”  Resurrection, in other words, is not the product of a distant future; it is an undeniably present reality.

These words of Jesus are still hanging in the air when he and his disciples gather with the recently resuscitated Lazarus and his siblings.  John makes sure we know that this is the context by reminding us that Lazarus was the one whom Jesus raised from the dead (as if we had forgotten from the previous chapter).  When Mary pours burial perfume over Jesus’ feet, she may well have been thinking of his theophanic proclamation that he is the Resurrection.  Perhaps she realized that the nard she had been keeping for his burial was unnecessary, because the grave would not be able to hold Jesus.  And so she pours out the superfluous perfume, filling the house with a worshipful testament to Jesus’ identity as the Resurrection who destroys the power of death.

I think that it is in this context that we are meant to hear the statement of Jesus that concludes this passage.  It’s easy to read it as narcissistic: “You always the poor with you, but you don’t always have me!”  We might be tempted to imagine that Jesus is saying, “Pay attention to me!  I’m the important one!”  If we read this in the context of Resurrection, however, the statement is far from narcissistic: “You always have the poor with you.”  In other words, you always have to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves; you always need to give to the poor from your abundance because this has implications in the Resurrection.  The things we do in this life matter, the things we transform in this life will be transformed in the Resurrection.  We can’t assume that those who are poor deserve their lot in life, we can’t agree with Hobbes that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” for most people, because we affirm our faith in the Resurrection, our faith in life that continues and brings transformation to the world.  During Lent, we are called to affirm our faith in the Resurrection, to give to the poor, and love with wasteful abandon, just as our God loves us.