The Wideness of God’s Love

Peter vision

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019.  The scriptures are Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, and John 13:31-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, a former colleague of mine from Washington, DC was consecrated Bishop of Colorado. Kym Lucas (with respect, the newly Right Reverend Kimberly D. Lucas) is remarkable for a number of reasons: preaching, pastoral care, prophetic witness, spirituality—all that stuff is there. But Kym is a woman. She is an African American woman. She is a cancer survivor. And she is married to a white man and together, they have four beautiful children.

For many, many reasons (none having to do with her spiritual, administrative, pastoral, and theological qualifications), the Church, through history, would have (and in many places still does) denied her full participation in ministry. All along, and today, people pull out of Holy Scripture sentences or perspectives that meant one thing in their time-and-place, but (given the ongoing revelation of God, the ongoing power of the Resurrection, and the deep work of the Holy Spirit), these sentences and words, here and there in scripture, do not and cannot mean the same things today.

Women ordained? There’s scripture that denies it.
Married people ordained? One can create a theology based on scripture.
People of mixed race getting married? Have you read the Exodus?
A person with a medical condition being chosen as a religious leader? Check Leviticus.
A dark-skinned person being a leader?

Again, one can find a text somewhere and use it to justify just about anything you might be afraid of, or suspicious or, or even something that for whatever reason you are uncomfortable with or simply dislike.

In Washington, DC, at the Museum of the Bible, there’s an exhibition through September 1 or what is called the “Slave Bible.” Originally published in London in 1807, it was edited and printed for missionaries on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. Missionaries going to British colonies used the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read and introduce them to the Christian faith. But unlike other missionary Bibles, the Slave Bible only had parts of the Bible in it. It left out the Exodus story, that might inspire and help slaves dream of a future and hear God’s love for them, and it contained just about every reference to hierarchy, order, and servanthood you could imagine.

I don’t know where Bishop Lucas is preaching today, but I bet she has a few things to say about today’s first scripture, from the Acts of the Apostles. You can bet, for sure, that the “Slave bible” did not include today’s story about Peter’s vision. And I wonder how many people in churches today have never read or heard this scripture.

In this morning’s scripture, God’s love turns out to look very different from what Peter had expected. Peter was devout and religious. He had studied and learned his scriptures. He said his prayers and understood Jesus as the long-promised Messiah—all of which was within the Judaism of his day.

Everyone knew that the Messiah was for the Jews only. When Peter returns from missionary activity to Jerusalem, the Jewish faithful there criticize Peter because they’ve heard that he’s taking the message about Jesus beyond Judaism and reaching out to Gentiles—which is to say, everyone else. The uncircumcised. The uneducated. Those people of other heritage, or mixed blood, of all kinds of unspeakable practices.
But Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals– four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them.” But this was like serving steak to a vegetarian—even more so, perhaps, because there were traditions and customs and years of observing these dietary laws as a good and faithful Jew.

There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good. The very next thing that happens is that this new insight of Peter is put to the test as he encounters Cornelius.

Cornelius is not only a Gentile, a non-Jew. But Cornelius was also a soldier, an agent of the Roman state, one who might follow orders to burn and sack a Jewish village whenever it was the whim of the emperor. But God had been working on Cornelius just like God worked on Peter through the vision.

Peter and Cornelius talk. Cornelius is converted. And then, Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

The vision of Peter invites us to think about our own perspective. Who is included in God’s love? God’s mercy? God’s forgiveness?

Cradle Episcopalians.
Uneducated.
Those who speak different languages.
Those who have different sexual or expressions.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” point to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.

We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up chairs and a bowls, and we washed feet. During the foot washing, the choir sang anthems and the antiphon repeated throughout comes from the thirteenth chapter of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”
At Holy Trinity, we try to do what Jesus talks about in scripture. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. Another washes that person’s feet. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet. The harder part is allowing another to serve me, to wash my feet. But that completes the circle of love Jesus is pointing to.

This “new commandment” is not a commandment like a law, a law we must do, or there will be a penalty. It’s more like a rule that, practiced over time, shows its worth. The commandment to love through service is like a “best practice,” something that brings success emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

God surprised Peter and those early followers of Jesus by showing just how wide God’s love is. Jesus surprised his friends and disciples by showing just how radical God’s love is.

May the Spirit enable us to be part of the Jesus movement of witness to love and service, love that takes us into eternal life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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With Dorcas in mind

dorcasA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019, also the secular celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.  The scripture readings are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30

Listen to the sermon HERE.

It works out nicely that on this Sunday, observed as Mother’s Day by many, the scriptures give us a picture of someone who seems to have been a wonderful mother of faith. We don’t know if she had children of her own, but she certainly had spiritual daughters, sons, and an enormous family to follow.  The reading from Acts talks about Tabitha, whose Greek name was Dorcas.  The Acts of the Apostles gives us a picture of how the early church was growing, with energy and faith in the resurrection, with Mary and the other disciples spreading the word, and with local, everyday people putting their faith in Jesus and changing the world right where they lived.

Dorcas seems to have been such a woman. She was “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” but news reaches Peter that Dorcas has died.  When he reaches her village, he meets all the women around her, weeping, sharing memories, mourning, and, as scripture says, “showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  Peter heals Dorcas and she is raised up, presumably, to live an even longer life of good works, acts of charity, and making clothing for those who need it.

The name of Dorcas continues in the Christian Church, with Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian ministries named after her.  Especially in the 1800s, the Dorcas Society begun in England established various chapters in the United States.  An especially strong one was the African Dorcas Society, founded in 1828 in New York.  Women who were members of the society pooled their resources and made clothes for poor children to be able to attend school, especially those attended the African Free School.

Dorcas is an example of someone whose faith inspired those around her and lived on long after her earthly life.  She’s an example of someone who does what today’s Collect of the Day suggests:  that we hear the voice of Christ, that we hear in it our own name, and that we have the faith and strength to follow where he leads.

Whether we actually hear something we think may be the voice of Christ, or simply choose to listen for that voice—the voice of God’s love towards us, the music of God’s peace, the sound of the Spirit’s strengthening—faith involves our trying hear and developing our ability to tune out all the noise and static, so that we can really listen.  Some may hear it clearly. Others may hear it only partially, or trust that others hear it.  But our being here, in this place, is an act of our obedience to God, recalling that the word “obedience” comes from the Latin, ob-audire… to listen, to hear.

But do we also listen for our own name in the sound of God? To “hear our own name” means to begin to discern our own path for being faithful.  Sometimes we can do that alone. We sense God’s invitation to use a part of ourselves, to develop a talent, and to share it with others.  But often, we’re slow to hear God alone, and we need other people. That’s where the whole community of faith comes in, as we help one another discern God’s gifts.  It happens when someone says to you, “I notice you’re good with kids. Would you consider helping teach Sunday school or volunteer for a special children’s event?”  Or, “I notice you have ideas about the church, may I nominate you to stand for vestry or serve in some other capacity?”  On and on, goes the encouragement, the listening, and the discernment.

The third part of our Collect of the Day involves following where Christ leads.  The Good Shepherd and lamb imagery breaks down when we think about this third part.  God has given us a great deal more freedom and willpower than a lamb has.  We can choose to follow the way of God in Christ, as we hear it ourselves, and as it’s amplified in Christian community, or we can choose to go some other way. Often we can choose an in-between.  We sense where God wants us to go, but we don’t feel strong enough, faithful enough, or ready enough.  Maybe we stop still, in fear.  Or maybe we veer off to the right or left.

We do something similar to what we think God is calling us to do, but with less heart, with less faith; we do something more within our own capabilities, with less spiritual challenge, or something we don’t have to necessarily fall into the arms of God for.

The somewhat scary word, “vocation” can sometimes be used in a kind of all or nothing way.  But I think a person can have several vocations, if one is open to God’s Spirit.  Frederick Buechner has defines vocation as “the work God calls you to do.”  He explains,

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  (Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95).

When I think of an openness to God’s calling and vocation, I think of my college friend, who I’ll call Laura.  Laura majored in business and did well, graduated, and quickly began working for a large bank.  She did well and was fairly happy, though worked long hours.  When she met her husband, who also worked in banking, she began to be open to a change. She prayed a lot about this, asked people at church, and continued to listen for God’s prompting. Laura became pregnant, which filled her mind/body/spirit with new life.  But through her pregnancy, an idea began to grow.  Once her son was born, the idea seemed to be encouraged from every direction.  Laura wanted to be a nurse or a midwife, somehow to assist other women in bringing children into the world.  She went back to college to take a few science classes, enrolled in nurses training, and after a few years, began working in a hospital on the newborn wing.  Her early vocation was as a banker. Her midlife vocation is as a nurse.  Who knows what her later life’s vocation might be?

The Church itself is sometimes understood as Mother Church—because it gives birth to faith, to new vocations, and to new life.

On this and every day, may God “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.”

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A Second Chance for Peter (and for Us)

PeterFishingA sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019.  The scripture readings are Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and John 21:1-19

Listen to the sermon HERE

When someone tells you a “fish tale,” it usually means they’re telling you a story that either didn’t happen, or a story that they have embellished or stretched.  But today’s Gospel is a “fish tale,” of sorts.  But it’s a “fish tale” not because it’s untrue, but because it’s almost too good to be true.  In this fish tale, St. Peter gets a second chance.  And this means that we, too, are given second, third, fourth, and infinitesimal chances in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus appears in the work of the disciples:  he appears first as a wise fisherman with advice for where to put the net in, and second he appears almost as a “short order Savior,” Jesus at the Galilee grill, cooking a meal for his friends and in so doing, shares with them the fullness of God’s bounty.

But God provides much more than breakfast.  God gives more than the stuff of just another good fish-tale for the disciples to hand on to the church.  Especially if we look at Simon Peter, we see the extravagance of God’s provision. God provides—again, and again, and again.

Remember Simon Peter on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?    Remember that the disciples were gathered in the upper room for the Passover meal.  Just before the meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet.  It was Simon Peter who said to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  And Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Peter begins to catch on, so says excitedly, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Later that night, after Jesus is arrested from the Garden of Gethsemane, Simon Peter is by the fire, getting warm.  Someone asks, “Aren’t you one of them?  Aren’t you one of the followers of Jesus?” And Peter shakes his head.  Again, and another time, Peter denies, rejects, disowns, plays it safe to cover himself, and to pretend there never was this claim of Jesus on his heart.

In the resurrection account the women go to the tomb and see that Jesus is no longer there and they tell Peter.  It seems then, for a second, Peter believes.  (And yet, some biblical scholars suggest that this mention of Simon is misplaced and that today’s reading shows the first appearance of Jesus to Simon Peter.)

In any case, immediately after his denial of Jesus, we don’t really know what Simon Peter did.  We don’t know where he went, who he was with.  Did he go into town, find a pub, settle in and try to forget it all?  Did he ask questions of his friends and try to piece things together?  Did he pray?

We don’t know, but what we see from the scriptures is that before long, Peter simply went fishing.

The St. Peter who is full of faith, carved in marble, and in important places all over Rome and elsewhere is a St. Peter to whom I have a hard time relating.  But the Peter in the scriptures—this Simon Peter, who’s faith one minute allows him to walk on water to meet Jesus, but the next minute makes him fall in-this Peter, I can relate to.

In the Gospel, I imagine that Peter has had a long week.  There’s a lot on his mind, and so he just needs to get away, to run away.  Fishing provides a way and provides the additional cover of appearing like going back to work.  Getting back to normal.  Let God sort out the things of God, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Except that the fish aren’t biting.  It’s as though creation itself refuses to cooperate with Peter’s will.  Creation—the water, the fish, the wind—are saying, “No, Peter, you need to sort some things out first.”

A new day begins to break, the sun is just about to come up and the disciples make out a form standing on the beach.  “Throw the net in on the other side,” the person says, but speaks with a kind of knowing authority that commands attention.  The disciples throw the net in, and suddenly they feel the weight of so many fish they can barely haul in the catch.  John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.”  And when Simon Peter hears this, he gets himself together, jumps into the water, and swims to the shore to see for himself what seems too good to be true, too fantastic, too forgiving, too much of God’s grace.  And yet, there is Jesus.

It’s like a second baptism for Peter.  The old is washed away.  The new is come.  Buried with Christ in his death, Peter is lifted up to share in the resurrection of Christ.  Peter becomes like a little child again, with a light heart, and a ready faith.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.  And the disciples hear echoes of “take, eat, this is my body.”  The meal is shared, new life is shared, tasted and savored.  The meal provides for the kind of intimacy and honesty in which Jesus can pull Simon Peter aside.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says.  Then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,”  Peter says.  And then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this time, Peter is sad because Jesus keeps asking and seems to doubt and seems to know how shaky and unreliable Peter’s heart really is, so he says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.  And follow me.”

Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  This fixes, it un-does, and it recapitulates the three denials of Peter.  The Church enacts this doing and un-doing of three-ness during Holy Week as on Good Friday, in some places, the Holy Cross is brought into the church from the back and the cross is presented at three places with the words, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”  Three times the cross is show and the proclamation made.  And then at the Easter Vigil, the cross is replaced with the Paschal Candle, and again in those same three places new life is proclaimed, “The light of Christ, thanks be to God.”

Whether in patterns of three, or four, or a hundred, or once—God provides occasions in our lives, like he did with Simon Peter, so that we might have a second chance.   I once saw a sign in a chaplain’s office that said, “O God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am…. again.”

And here we are…. again.  Tom Long, an old preaching professor of mine, likes to say that faith is not so much an experience or a feeling or an emotion.  It’s not simply some kind of vague awareness of something greater than ourselves. Rather, faith is a skill.  It’s a skill to be taught and developed and practiced.  Faith is something to be done in the world.  And the world awaits our doing.

Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”  In other words, “care for one another, show love to one another, especially the stranger and the misfit, search out for the lonely and forgotten, the poor and the sick, and follow me.”

Like Peter, God gives us second chances.  For the one who has become so engrossed in work as to forget the gifts of family, God provides a second chance.  For the one who walks by the person in need, God provides a second chance.  For the one who has to have the final word, never buckling under to another, God provides a second chance.  To the ones whose relationship is more mundane than magic, God provides.  For the one who is angry, or disappointed, or who is stuck in shame, who’s obsessed with regret, the one who has lost faith in a world of abuse, violence, bombs and bloodshed…. God provides a second chance… and a third… and fourth….and more than we can count.

Whether this is the second chance or the two-thousandth chance, accept the grace that God would grant, receive the forgiveness, embrace the welcome, and throw your life into the life of Christ again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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The Faithful Way of Doubt

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasA sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019.  The scripture readings are Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Revelation 1:4-8, and John 20:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE

Sometimes I hear people—both religious and non-religious—who will explain something they’ve done or left undone and end it by saying, “after all, I’m no Mother Teresa.” Of course, I know what they mean—they mean they’re not perfect, they’re no saint, or perhaps they are referring to Mother Teresa’s way of serving the poorest of the poor and that sort of service seems very far from this person’s life…

But if we were to look at the life of Mother Teresa, especially at some of her letters and journals that were published a few years ago, we might come away feeling like we’re more like Mother Teresa than we thought.

Though St. Thomas, appearing in today’s Gospel, is often thought of as the “Patron Saint for Doubters,” Mother Teresa might be elbowing him out of that position.

In 1979, just a few weeks before she would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa wrote a spiritual companion,

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.

At another time, she wrote,

Lord, my God, you have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved,” she wrote in one missive. “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart. (Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta)

Whether we sometimes doubt or know and love people who do, we can learn from those who have gone before us and have been honest about their doubts.

On that first Easter morning, as Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that the tomb is empty and Jesus has risen, it’s not just Thomas that disbelieves her. But Thomas is not alone is his doubting immediately after the Resurrection, and he’s certainly not alone in scripture or in history, with his doubt.

When Moses was called by God, Moses had his doubts. Abraham and Sarah laugh when the angels tell them that they’re going to have a son in old age, and their doubts become a part of their son, Isaac’s very name, since the name Isaac means “laughter.” Jonah doubts. Jeremiah doubts.

Perhaps most surprising, if we look closely, it even seems as though Jesus sometimes doubts. He doubts his mission: as he first imagines he is sent only to save the Jews, it takes a Samaritan woman to widen his perspective. Jesus doubts his disciples as he predicts that Peter will quickly lose heart will deny having anything to do with Jesus. In the garden, Jesus wonders if God is there, and on the cross, Jesus again wonders if God has forgotten.

I mention all of these people of tremendous faith that we encounter in scripture, and (at the risk of heresy) I mention Jesus, as well, because I don’t think St. Thomas is alone in doubting. And I think we miss a lot of what God would have us see, if we pretend that doubt is an abnormal or subnormal place to be. Sometimes we are filled with faith. Sometimes we doubt. God is still God.

And so, where does that leave us, when we doubt? Well, I suppose we could ignore doubt. We could focus only on faith, pretend doubt is an anomaly to be ignored or denied, but I don’t think that’s very helpful.

When we’re in doubt, we can do a lot of things, but I can think of at least three ways in which God might actually use doubt to bring us closer to himself.

First, we can “live the question.” Research, read, study, question. Paul Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith. In fact, his book The Dynamics of Faith he writes

In those who rest on their unshakable faith, pharisaism, and fanaticism are the unmistakable symptoms of doubt which has been repressed. Doubt is overcome not by repression but by courage. Courage does not deny that there is doubt, but it takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its own finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern. Courage does not need the safety of an unquestionable conviction. … Even if the confession that Jesus is the Christ is expressed in a strong and positive way, the fact that it is a confession implies courage and risk.” (Chp. 6, Sect. 1)

Tillich uses the wonderful word, “courage,” which includes in it the French word for heart, “Coeur.” To have courage is to allow the heart to lead us—through doubt, through fear, and eventually, through faith.

It was Rainer Maria Rilke who advised the young poet, “Love the questions themselves. Live the questions now.” But that’s advice we all would do well to remember.

Second, we can ask for help. Share doubts with another, we’ll not only find that we’re not as isolated as we think, but chances are that the person has also had doubts and can understand our questions.

And finally, we can do what saints and sinners of every age have done: we can give the doubt to God. Teresa of Avila, the famously prayed for some 18 years feeling as though her prayers were not really being heard, and were accomplishing very little. But she persisted, and is one of those very few saints who is said to have found union with God in prayer.

And so, when we’re doubting, we can learn something. We can lean on someone. We can love God.

We are given “doubting Thomas” as a brother in doubt and faith, a fellow disciple who paved a rough way for us to faith. St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.

It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Making room for Resurrection

El_Salvador_(El_Greco)A sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019.  The scripture readings are Acts 10:34-43 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24,  1 Corinthians 15:19-26 , and John 20:1-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a new movie out that imagines the life of Mary Magdalene. It imagines her family, her decision to follow Jesus, and her faithfulness to him and his mission. At one point, Mary Magdalene is talking with Mary the mother of Jesus. Jesus’s mother looks at Mary Magdalene and asks directly, “You love my son, don’t you? You must prepare yourself like me.” Mary Magdalene asks, “For what?” And the older Mary explains, “to lose him.”

Jesus himself taught that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Living with Resurrection Faith means that we live prepared, prepared to lose the things we love, the people we love, and prepared to lose ourselves. Because, like the Prayer of St. Francis puts it so beautifully,

It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

If we hold on too tightly, with clenched fists, we can’t receive anything from God. We won’t see opportunities. We won’t hear new sounds or songs. We won’t learn or grow.

I was able to see this kind of faithful preparation for death,–even while already giving new life–a few weeks ago when I was in England.

In addition to spending time with our link parish in London, we went to Oxford for a couple of days to walk, gawk at the architecture and history, and see the places where so many of the best BBC murder mysteries are filmed. And, I went to have tea with two Anglican nuns.

Some of you may not know that there are Anglican monks and nuns, and that the Episcopal Church in this country has monks and nuns—but we do. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII disbanded all monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, and disposed of their assets. And the few surviving monastics fled to other parts of Europe. But in 1845, the renewed community of nuns was formed. In 1852 Mother Harriet Monsell began the Clewer House of Mercy, especially working with women in need. At it’s peak, the Community of St. John Baptist had some 300 sisters, and in 1874 a few came to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to form the American branch of the Community. (Today, the Community of St. John Baptist in this country is based in Mendham, NJ, and I serve as their Community Pastor, sort of like a chaplain, who visits and is on call, when needed.) It’s the English community, from 300 sisters down to 4, that I met Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen.

The sisters know that the English order is dying and that with their deaths, there will be no more Community of St. John Baptist in England. They could obsess over this, cling to tradition, respond to societal change with anger and judgment, or deny their reality. Instead, the are clear-eyed and faithful.  First, they sold their massive convent near Windsor.  They mourned its loss. They mourned its history, its love, and its mission. But they also gained a lot of money from the sale of the property. And with prayer, with new partners, and with the money they gained for the sale, new life has come. It looks different, but it’s faithful to the founding vision of Mother Harriet, which is to convey the love of Jesus Christ to the world, especially to women in need.

The four sisters, with a trust that helps guide funding initiatives, help support the One23 project in Bristol, England.  The sisters helped them purchase a house that offers programs and presence to women vulnerable to street sex-work, helping them to break free and build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction.

With support from a Church of England bishop, the sisters have funded a huge campaign that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking, of modern slavery in England. Named for the town of that first monastic community, the Clewer initiative,  it helps dioceses and individuals detect modern slavery in their communities and helps provide victim support and care. One creative feature is a mobile phone app that allows one to detect a problem situation and report it to local authorities.

When the sisters sold their massive convent, they needed a place to live, so they deepened a relationship with Ripon Theological College at Cuddesdon, just outside Oxford. There, they built a new multi-use building, with a convent on the top floor, and also endowed a new, beautiful, architecturally-praised chapel for the college. The two sisters living at Cuddesdon are both priests in the Church of England, and they are going strong, preaching, offering spiritual direction and guidance, leading retreats, and living out their vows.

Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen know they will die and that much they love will die. But they also know the new life through Christ that is possible, when we let go, and give God some room for Resurrection.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

May we have the courage to die with Christ, so that with new strength, joy, purpose, and faith, we may rise again with him.

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

 

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Witnessing

apostorum-apostola
A sermon for Easter Eve, April 20, 2019.  The scripture readings used for the Easter Vigil include Luke 24:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In 2016, Pope Francis made an effort to get the story straight about Mary Magdalene. It was one of his predecessors, Pope Gregory (in the 6th century) who perpetuated the unfounded myth that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute who was healed from her former way of life. But Pope Francis, reading the Bible closely, reclaimed an earlier observation that Mary was the very first witness to the Resurrection. Luke’s Gospel says that Mary and the other women found the empty tomb, heard about the Resurrection from the two angels, and then “told this to the apostles.” John’s Gospel, which the Church hears tomorrow, fills in other details—that Mary found the stone removed and ran to tell Peter. Together, they see an empty tomb. Peter goes home, while Mary stands weeping outside the tomb. It’s then, in John’s Gospel, that Jesus appears to Mary and specifically tells her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Pope Francis used an old term the church has used for centuries to proclaim Mary Magdalene, Apostolorum apostola, the Apostle of the Apostles.

Mary tells the others what she has seen. She bears witness. In the language of some Christians, Mary testifies to God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s power to resurrect Jesus. Through his Resurrection we have hope, we have faith, and we the way to eternal life. But all of this would have been left in the tomb, had Mary not spoken. Had she not spoken up.

Mary bore the cost of speaking up. We don’t know the specifics of how the other male disciples regarded her, but if history is any indication, we can guess that they ignored her. Or more truthfully, they stole her voice, made it their own, and pushed her to the side.

The saints and martyrs told their truth, and some were persecuted, and some were put to death for their faith. And this continues. According to the Open Doors Organization, every month, around the world, an average of 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons, 105 Churches and Christian buildings are burned or attacked, and 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.

While we enjoy enormous religious freedom where we live, we face risks when we speak of our faith- on the subway, in the workplace, or in social settings. People may think we’re fanatics. They may think we’re simple-minded or unsophisticated.

Some lament the lack of children and young people in churches, the demise of Sunday schools and robust programs. But the trite truth is that Christian faith is caught, and not so much taught. Unless children experience and see faith in their parents, they’re not going to be in church or school for formation.

St. Francis is credited with saying something along the lines of “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words.” We know that we don’t always and everywhere have to use words. But we do need to live out our faith. We need to witness. We need to testify, or faith will be as dormant as the tomb.

May the faith and ferocity of Mary Magdalene inspire us when we’re anxious, shame us when we’re lazy, and motivate us to join her and the other witnesses to change the world for love’s sake.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Looking through death

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon for Good Friday, April 19, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, and John 18:1-19:42

Listen to the sermon HERE

I saw a friend last week who said that he would be spending this week in Rome. Where should they go to church? Well, I’ve only been to Rome once, so I gave him a list of my favorites but told him he do best by asking the concierge at the hotel which church would not be too crowded, what might be close, etc. And then I remembered something. I emailed by buddy later and told him, “Not for Sunday, for some other time, be sure and visit the Capuchin Church of Santa Maria della Concezione.

The church itself is interesting. But what really sets Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception apart is its basement, its crypt.

This crypt is decorated. On walls, monuments, altars, over doors, there are elaborate designs. There are crosses and shapes. Texture, tone, and contrast. In one place the Franciscan coat of arms has been fashioned. In another, there the shapes of flowers.

And it’s all made of bones. Human bones, bones of former Capuchin friars.

It seems that in 1631, a Cardinal who was also a Capuchin friar, ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed and transferred from another friary to this crypt. For whatever reason and with whatever motivation, a few of the friars decided to get creative. The bones of their brother friars were arranged along the walls. As prayers were said in the crypt chapels, one would contemplate life and death, one’s own life and one’s own death.

Before long, the friars began to bury their own dead here, as well as the bodies of poor Romans, who couldn’t afford another burial place. Between 1500 and 1870, some 4,000 bodies found their eternal rest at the Church of St. Mary. Today, there’s a great museum at the church that explains (to the extent it can be explained) the crypt and guides one through a few hundred years of Capuchin history. If you go to Rome, you’ve got to visit.

People sometimes respond to death in different ways. Your approach may seem very strange to me. But the way I think of death may seem odd to you.

We approach our death differently and we approach the death of Jesus Christ differently, as we hear in the Passion according to St. John.

Poor Simon Peter often gets criticized by the Church for (first) his enthusiasm and (second) his denial. Peter’s zeal pulls a sword in the garden and slices off the ear of a soldier—the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him.

In the events leading up to the death of Jesus, Pontius Pilate sees what’s happening and is afraid. He’s afraid because he wonders if perhaps there really is something special about Jesus. And yet, Pilate is also afraid because of the messy political situation he has found himself in. The death of Jesus is a complication for him. It’s a troubling and difficult item on the agenda. It has to be dealt with so that things can move on; so that he can move on.

The religious leaders view the death of Jesus as necessary for the purity and holiness of what they understand religion to be. He is a danger to “orthodoxy,” or right belief.

The soldiers see the death of Jesus as business as usual. Underpaid and poor themselves, the soldiers look for what they can get out of it, and divide his clothes.

Mary Magdalene, other women and friends are there, and they are like faithful mothers and spouses and friends who understand and experience death as simply a part of life. Practical things much be taken care of: prayers said, loved ones comforted, grieving people fed and taken care of. They are like the mothers and grandmothers and friends we see too often on the news whenever there is a shooting of young person—they are so used to the violence, they simply get out the clothes, cook the casserole, and go to church.

And then, there is Mary the mother of Jesus and John, the disciple who was Jesus’s best friend. They somehow approach the cross with an openness and vulnerability that allows them to help each other. They form a new community, a community in which we follow.

And so, what about us? How do we approach the Cross of Christ?

There may be hesitation, as we wonder what to do or say or think.
There may be doubt as we can’t quite believe what we’re hearing or seeing.
There may be relief, relief that we’re embarrassed about, but relief just the same that the ordeal is over. The long Way of the Cross, the trail of tears, has ended. It’s horrible, but it’s over.

And there may be confusion. What does this all mean? What will tomorrow be like? How do we live beyond this?

Good Friday can be a difficult day because we not only confront the death of Jesus Christ, but in drawing close to the cross, we also confront the issue of death itself: the death of loved ones and our own death.

But the major message of this day is that death is not what it appears to be—not the death of Christ, and not our own!

Evelyn Underhill writes about how first appearances can be deceiving. She talks about how a friend might suggest you check out a particular church—it has beautiful stained glass windows, for instance. And so, you approach this church, but from the outside, all you can see are windows that look pretty much alike—they’re all sort of dull and dark, thick, and grubby.  But then, as she describes it,

Then we open the door and go inside—leave the outer world, enter the inner world—and the universal light floods through the windows and bathes us in their colour and beauty and significance, shows us things of which we had never dreamed, a loveliness that lies beyond the fringe of speech.” (Light of Christ, p. 36-37)

She goes on to say that this is a little like our understanding of God. We cannot understand God from the outside, but understanding comes when we enter in.

In order to understand the cross of Christ and his death for us, we need to enter in. The cross is not as it first appears. The tomb will not be as it first appears. Death is not as it first appears. But on Good Friday, through prayer, through our pain, through hope, and through tears, we enter in. We go with him into the tomb, together and in hope.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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God in the Now

Holy Week Maundy ThursdayA sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019.  The scripture readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 , Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, I wandered into Eli’s Market on Third Avenue, looking for Easter candy.  As I passed the prepared foods section, I stopped.  There, in front of me, perfectly wrapped and ready for purchase, was a take-out Seder meal.  Complete with hard-boiled egg, shank bone, horseradish, haroset, and a parsley bouquet, it’s just what one needs to observe a simple Seder meal and begin Passover. As most of you know, the Seder includes symbolic foods that help to remember God’s saving the people of Israel, then, now, and always; the same story pointed to in our Exodus reading.  I love the image of that take-out Seder meal in the market because it’s a good example of how Moses explains it should be.

In Exodus, Moses puts it bluntly, “Eat [the meal] with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it hurriedly.” Moses rushes the people through their meal because God is busy rushing through Egypt and making a way for the people to go forward, a way of freedom and new life.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they knew the tradition from Exodus, but I think Jesus chose this place and this time not to have a hurried meal. Instead, I think he chose this time and place in order to slow down. Biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus knew exactly what the next few days would bring, or whether he just sensed things were leading in a certain direction. But whatever the case, in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, worry, fear, perhaps some doubt—Jesus chose this supper as a chance to be with his friends and to savor ever minute. To taste the bread. To chew the olives. To smell the wine. To pray with eyes open wide.

Jesus speaks with them very gently. He talks about what might be ahead. When they become anxious, he offers calm. He shows them faith. He tries to prepare them spiritually, and as a symbol of servant hood and of cleaning away the old to make room for the new, Jesus washes their feet.

Simon Peter is uncomfortable with the idea. Probably for different reasons than we might be, but the reluctance, the vulnerability, the hesitation to yield to another, to allow another to touch, and wash, and offer— some of us might be in the same place as Simon Peter, and we might be uncomfortable.

And yet, just like Jesus tries to show Simon Peter that service involves not only giving, not only “doing unto;” but it also involves receiving, and allowing other to do, so Jesus offers us a way of service that makes for communion.

This act of washing feet not only recalls the service Jesus showed his disciples, but it also reminds us of where we are. We’re not back in First Century Palestine. We’re here, in New York. We don’t (all of us) have stylized, beautiful feet like in paintings or frescoes, we have what we have. And we have one another.

If you look around, you’ll see a sight that will never be repeated again: Each of these people, sitting where he or she is sitting, looking the way they do. This particular configuration of people, in this space, with the light just as it is—will never happen exactly like this again. Water, bread, wine, bodies, emotions…. they are all rare and endangered—endangered by the worries of tomorrow, by the regrets of yesterday, by the distractions of today ….

And so, God invites us to be present in this evening. To be present now.

For many, this season of Lent has been especially challenging for keeping any kind of focus.  The political and cultural questions of our day keep us anxious and on the defensive for what used to be normal, basic values.  Tax season has brought new worries and challenges for many, especially in our area and our parish.  Health concerns confront us, random violence in the city disturbs us, and few of us work in jobs that feel steady or secure. And then, on Monday, we watch as Notre Dame burns—reminding many of us of other occasions of fire and chaos:  9/11, the fire in November 2011 at our own cathedral—and reminding us all of the impermanence of buildings, of people, of life.

Among the many lessons Jesus models in the Upper Room is the practice of presence.  He is fully present—not worried about the past; not worried about the future, but in the now.  In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains, ““Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.” (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment).

We have a song in our hymnal that sums up this ministry of prayerful presence, hymn simply called, “Now.”  It sings,

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;

Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;

Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

Just as Jesus used the Upper Room as a time to be with his friends, so this night provides us an opportunity to be present. A lot has gone before us. The days ahead will bring their challenges, but we are here, in this place. And God is here, in this place, now.

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In place of palms

Entry to Jerusalem detail (2)A brief sermon for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019.  The scripture readings are Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This year we read the Palm Gospel and the Passion from Saint Luke. But if you were listening carefully, you’ll notice that there was no mention of palms. In Luke’s version of the entry into Jerusalem, the people throw their coats and extra garments on the road. Matthew and Mark say the people spread garments and leafy branches on the road and it is John who specifies that they were palm branches.

Like the people of that holiday so long ago in Jerusalem, we wave our branches in excitement and we wave them in remembrance. We wave them in praise of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. But an early church father suggests we might do even more.

Andrew of Crete was an eighth century monk who is known especially for his hymns and sermons. He says a radical thing.  He says

It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, with the whole Christ “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”—so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.

At all of our services today, when we read the Passion, the words of Jesus are not read by me, by a special reader, or by someone with a baritone voice.  Instead, the words of Jesus, the part of Jesus is played by all the people.  All of us.  When we enter into the scriptures deeply, we are bound to identify with different characters and storylines, depending on where we are in our own journey.  We might identify with those who betrayed Jesus, or those who let him down. We may identify with those who simply stayed at a distance.
But the point of the Incarnation, which makes possible the Resurrection, is that God came to be like us so that we could become more like God.  And so, we are invited to follow Christ as closely as possible.

“It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet.”

What Andrew of Crete is suggesting, I think, is that we do what we can to allow Christ to be ahead of us and to lead us forward. Andrew is suggesting that by lowering ourselves, Christ is raised within us– to grow in us, to allow his words to take shape and form in our lives, and to allow his work of life, death and resurrection to wash over us, overtake us, and even to overwhelm us.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to slow down, to set aside the calendar and the “to do” list. We can put on hold the endless list of “shoulds.” Instead, we are invited to worship. We are asked to watch, to wait, to pray, to adore, that we might claim the power of our baptism, that we have died with Christ, and that through him, we are raised to new life.

May we spread our lives before Christ that he may be raised in us and that we might be raised into the glory of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Christ our Friend

Mary-Martha-LazarusA sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The scriptures today invite us to get ready, to heighten all of our senses if we can, to listen, look, taste, see, feel… “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord.  And God asks Isaiah (and us), “Do you not perceive it? Can you sense the new thing?”

The section we hear from Isaiah today comes from a larger section that promises good things to the people of Israel.  And yet, this word of encouragement from God through Isaiah comes while the Israel is still far from home.  They are still captive in Babylon and only have the hope of returning home.  Isaiah says, “Hang on. It’s going to get better.” “I will make a way.”  I will bring water to the thirsty and food to the hungry.  I will lead you out of this, into a better place.

The Psalm sings of just that, of God’s deliverance.  This is a pilgrimage psalm.  People would gather together to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem and they would sing psalms like this one on the way to celebrate the Passover, just like the kind of procession we’ll re-enact next Sunday, the palms that lead the way forward for Jesus.

The Gospel take us right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.

John’s version of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus is the one we read today. Here, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of her friend and teacher, probably as a gesture of warmth and hospitality.  Jesus names it as anointing for death.  Jesus knows what’s ahead.  Judas shows up to criticize, to misunderstand and to miss the significance of Jesus’ presence.  Judas’s point of view is taken up soon after this scene as the religious leaders get together and decide that because of the raising of Lazarus, something has to be done to stop Jesus.  He’s getting too popular. The people are losing their minds over him.

Today’s Gospel sets the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week.  Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus.  This is just after Lazarus has died, and Jesus has raised him from death.  But this is just a hint of what’s coming. Lazarus has been resuscitated, given a new lease on life, but he will presumably die again, later.  This “raising” has to do with Lazarus and is a sign.  But it begins to reveal the power of God in Christ, the power that will be fully let loose on Easter with the resurrection not only from death, but with a victory of sin and death for ever.

Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty.  The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life.  But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern open and available to us.

In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ.  That he is a Jew, doesn’t matter.  That he is learned, doesn’t matter.  That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter.  His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. That’s all rubbish, Paul says.  The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”  Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch or befriend.  And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not even in scripture.  Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us.  In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36).  Sometimes that might be a stranger, but other times it might be that we meet Christ is a person very close to us as we serve them, or as we allow them to serve us.

Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar.  In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another.  In the sharing of a meal, we become a family.  In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the other people, in Holy Communion, and through prayer, Jesus Christ befriends us.

Any friendship takes time to develop. It involves talking and listening.  With a real friend, we can be ourselves—no pretenses, just comfort.  A friend can challenge us and change us.  A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour.

Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space.  That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge.  But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing.  Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available.  Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.

This side of heaven, we don’t have the easy friendship with Jesus that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had.  But Christ does invite us to the same kind of intimacy.  We don’t have oil to offer in anointing, but we have other gifts, other qualities, other ways of being present, being still, listening and learning from Jesus our Friend.

As we remember the stories that take us along with Jesus to Jerusalem, may the Holy Spirit quicken within us a sense of Christ our Fried—alongside and within.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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