Loving Our Neighbor (even if it’s from across the street)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

I had a parishioner in a previous church who could often be extremely funny with her observations, but at the same time, she could be deeply theological.  More than once, when someone inside the church or outside the church was being difficult, Nancy would say, “I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor…. But sometimes I’ve just got to do it from across the street.”

When we hear scriptures like those we just heard, from Leviticus, “Be holy, for God is holy.” And then Jesus’s repetition of the other Leviticus scripture, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself,” we are probably tempted to just put such words over to the side:  I’d get to those one day, when I’m more accomplished at prayer.  I’ll be able to deal with that kind of faithfulness when there’s less to worry about. 

But Jesus wasn’t talking to the advanced religious of his day or ours:  and my parishioner Nancy had it more right than she might have imagined. Jesus is saying Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but “across the street” works just fine, and sometimes works even better.

Many of you probably know that the Greek New Testament uses at least four different words for what we call in English, simply, “Love.”  There is the unabashed erosof lovers, the storge love of family members, the sympathetic philiaof friends, and agapegiving itself away freely in ways that are sometimes harder to translate—into English or into action.  (the King James version translates agape love as charity).

The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner clarifies Jesus’s use of the word, “love.”  He writes,

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as well produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends. 

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn’t say, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” He said, “You brood of vipers! how can you speak good when you are evil!” (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.  

Frederick Buechner, – Originally published in Wishful Thinking

Jesus is saying here in shorthand what Leviticus is spelling out.  We’re not called to be holy like God meditating somewhere in a temple.  Holiness looks like certain things, and it looks like very practical, mundane things.

Judging rightly and fairly
Don’t show favoritism to people with money or importance
Don’t slander others, spreading gossip
Don’t profit by the blood of others
Don’t hate in your heart anyone of your kin or community
Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge,
But Do reprove a neighbor and love your neighbor as yourself.

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

Connection with God is one thing, and we work on that as best we can. We pray, we attend worship, we learn and try to grow spiritually. 

But we’re also called to connect with others, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Though there are countless ways that we might do this, and surely, you have your favorites, I think of three spiritual practices can help:

1.   Resist slander.  So often when I’m with one other person, it seems like the quickest way to deepen our relationship is to agree about the deficiencies or defects of a third person who is not present.  With social media, it’s even easier to forward or “like” some slanderous comment without giving much thought to its veracity.  This is slander. This is gossip.  And Jesus invites us to resist it, no matter how tempting.

2.   Imagine you neighbor’s pain.  I don’t mean to imagine your neighbor undergoing something painful and derive pleasure from that!—No, instead, I mean, to think for a moment about the neighbor’s challenges, heartaches, worries, and pains.   This is not meant to excuse the conduct of a problematic neighbor, but it moves us in compassion towards “loving” our neighbor as ourselves.

3.  Pray for the wellbeing of the other person.  Again, we don’t have to “feel” anything in particular to simply pray that God might bless our neighbor with whatever good God might intend. 

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”  Whether it’s “trespasses and trespassers,” “debt and debtors,” or just plain “sins and those who sin against us,” the prayer that Jesus taught reminds us that we’re connected.

Jesus asks us to take up our cross daily.  I don’t think this is usually as dramatic as we might imagine. Rather, it’s like our being the active part of the cross that not only connects to God but stretches outward, reaching out to love our neighbor—even if it’s through a computer screen, a telephone, or across the street.

Especially in these challenging days of living through a pandemic, of navigating elections and their aftermath, and of simply trying to get through another week, may Christ help us to follow in the way of the cross, maintaining our relationship with God but also building our love of neighbor.

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

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Dancing with Protest and Promise

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 7,2020. The scripture readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20.

You can watch the sermon HERE.

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about dancing. Not about going dancing or about taking some kind of online class. The dance I have in mind is slower. The moves are both simpler and more complicated. And it’s a dance that has already begun around us, and will likely continue for a long time.

I’m thinking of several dances at once, really, but the underlying one is the dance of God, the motion and movement of the Holy Trinity at work in our world to bring love, to make justice, to change hearts, and to create a new world.

Our first reading was from Genesis, as we heard part of the tale of creation. I imagine God’s making the world almost as a kind of dance of hands. God’s long, beautiful arms call forth, calm the chaos, push forms into place, stir up life, and bless it all.

The Gospel can be imagined as a kind of ballet in which Jesus is surrounded by his followers for final instructions. He’s lifted up and from that place he gives direction—”go out,” he says. “Wash, water, and renew with baptism. And go out knowing that the steps and turns and jumps and rolls that you’ll do, I have done before, and my spirit, my Christly choreography will animate you to the end of days.”

As I’ve watched so many protests and demonstrations this week, and been in several, I’ve noticed a dancing quality to them. The Vigil at Carl Schurz Park is quiet and slow. People sit down in silence, but then for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the length of time that the Minneapolis policeman held his knee on the neck of George Floyd) people raise an arm. Arms are raised in affirmation that Black Lives Matter, that racism must be faced and dealt with in our laws, our institutions, our families, and ourselves; and (I think) as a kind of dance-like affirmation of our bodies. We are here. We can move and be part of a movement for change.

Another strain of the dance has taken place as thousands go over bridges and move from place to place with strength and purpose. At various times, usually with no words, but with signals picked up from body to body, people kneel, they take a knee—begun by football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously began to kneel during the national anthem to call attention to racism in the US.

In Newark, a demonstration ended with a street dance. Everyone began doing the “cupid shuffle,” and the police joined in. In Puerto Rico, demonstrators break into a bomba, and in New Zealand, the Haka celebrates Maori pride and culture.

Last Sunday, as protests were heating up in Santa Monica, California, a man named Jo’Artis Ratti walked right up to the police, announced he was there for peace, and started dancing. Ratti is one of the originators of the style of dance knowns as krump, an aggressive dance that began as an expression of black and brown rage in the face of Rodney King, police and gang violence, poverty, and drugs. As Ratti explained in a video by the Washington Post, “How else do we cry to the grotesque….I can’t just whimper over something like this…”

One of the most moving examples of protest dance in our time came out of Chile in the late 1970s and 80s. After a United States-backed coup in 1973, which overthrew the democratically-elected government, General Pinochet began his brutal regime, exiling, arresting, or killing all opposition. More than 3,000 people, mostly men, were simply “disappeared” or made to vanish by government forces. The women of Chile took the cueca, named the national dance by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1979, and refashioned it as the cueca sola, danced alone by one woman, in memory, in protest of the husband, father, or son who had been taken from her.

The musician Sting, wrote a song about this, calling it “Cueca Solo, They dance alone.”

Dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
Dancing with their husbands
They dance alone
They dance alone

But while they seemed to be dancing alone, they were dancing alone, together, and their dancing inspired a movement of women who began dancing louder and louder from Chile to Argentina to El Salvador, through Latin America and the world.

And so, we dance. Sometimes alone, sometimes together. There are many in our country who say, “but we’re tired of doing the same old dance, and nothing has changed, or very little has changed.” Why should we go on?

Because God dances with us.

Today is Trinity Sunday and it’s an especially good time for us to remember one image that has been used to describe the movement of the Holy Trinity. The early church spoke of God’s indwelling, with God’s mutual outpouring and movement into. The Trinity was understood as a dynamic: the God the Creator always pouring love and light and energy into the Christ, Christ always pouring himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit moving back into and around the Creator/Parent and Christ/Child. The word that theologians used to describe this continual activity of God is very close to the Greek work for dance, and so it became a popular way of speaking of the Trinity as a kind of dance of love.

The Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff argues for in increased focus on what he calls the “social trinity,” another way of describing our dancing God. Boff writes,

What does it mean to say God is in communion and therefore Trinity? . . . . It means one is in the presence of the other, different from the other but open in a radical mutuality. For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The result of mutual surrender and reciprocal community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself [Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, p. 3].

We may be bad dances. We may be shy. If we’re white and privileged, the old joke that we have no rhythm is probably a good one to keep in mind for humility’s sake, so we can listen and learn how to move, where the dance is leading, how God’s Holy Trinity is working through people and movements and systems for new life. No matter how awkward we might be, God extends a hand and invites us to join the dance, this eternal trinity of love and movement and new life, and to include more and more people in the dance.

That powerful song by Sting, offers hope that is nothing short of biblical. It sings:

One day we’ll dance on their graves [the graves of the oppressors]
One day we’ll sing our freedom
One day we’ll laugh in our joy
And we’ll dance.

May God help us to grow in humble strength and strong humility, that we might move in step with the Holy Trinity.

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Preaching Faith in a Fearful World

francis_assisi_sermon_birdsAn article for the May 3, 2020 edition of News from 316, the weekly notice from Holy Trinity.

“Fear not,” we read in scripture. Though it varies with the translation of the Bible, God or a messenger of God says to someone “fear not,” between 300 and 400 times! That’s a lot of encouragement coming from God, and yet, it would not have been necessary, had people not been afraid.  Throughout history, faithful people have been afraid of what was going on around them and what might happen next.  Even though popular religious culture often says confidently, “the opposite of fear is faith,” most of us know the reality that sometimes we can be full of both: lots of faith and lots of fear.

As the days go by, I’m slightly less afraid for my health and for the health of others, but my list of fears is long and real. I’m afraid of what will happen to our neighborhood and city in the coming months. I’m afraid for all the parishioners whose jobs or livelihoods are gone or threatened.  I’m afraid some of our parishioners who have moved away or developed new habits may not return. I’m afraid the loss of income through community groups and filming and the other odd things that help keep this old, expensive building running will dry up. On and on, I can go with my fears.

At the same time, I’ve never felt closer to the Risen Christ. I’m full of faith. We are followers of Jesus, who breathed life into the people he encountered while he was on the earth, and then rose from the dead in a way that breathes new life into us here and hereafter.  We have stories and prayers and songs that affirm our faith, and I’m glad that we can tell them through social media.  Yes, it’s devastating to face an empty church every Sunday, but whether there are people physically in our building or not does not change the life-giving story of our faith—which can be preached to a crowd, to a couple of people, or like St. Francis did—to creation itself!

Though he probably did not say it quite in this way, St. Francis is often credited with having said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Especially in these days of staying at home, social distancing, and uncertainty, it’s important to remember that we are ALL entrusted with preaching the “Gospel” (meaning, the Good News about Jesus). The way and life of Jesus Christ leads us through fear, with faith, no matter what.

Each of us lives out a sermon. Whatever we do—whether praying for others, reaching out through letters, emails, or calls, or (for those who are able to do so safely) running errands and checking on others, our sermons are shared.  May Christ continue to fill us with faith, even when we’re afraid, so that all our sermons might be heard in a frightened world.

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The Strong Peace of Christ

Jesus_BasilicaA sermon offered at Easter Day Evensong, April 12, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 114, Isaiah 51:9-11, and John 20:19-23.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Many of you know the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral for the Diocese of Washington. It’s a beautiful building. But there’s also another remarkable church building in Washington. Though it’s not the Roman Catholic cathedral, it is a basilica: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It’s the largest Roman Catholic religious building in the country, and in addition to having a great gift shop and bookstore), it has breath-taking mosaics. The one that towers over the main altar in the central apse is called “Christ in Majesty.” Some have referred to it as “scary Jesus,” or “Superhero Jesus,” but I like it.

I like that image of Jesus because it is so counter to the fragile, gentle, youthful Jesuses so often shown to us. You know the type: Jesus with a lamb on his shoulder, the old-fashioned Jesus who’s almost blond and blue-eyed; or the newer icons of Jesus that show him as a kind of androgynous person of color, an image of the cosmic good. The kind of Jesus who is always meek and mild, who wouldn’t hurt a flea, doesn’t have much to say to a world that needs his power to stir things us, to turn things upside down, and to bring about a new creation.

Jesus IS all about peace, but his is a strong, forceful, full peace. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he says, “Peace be with you.” But it’s no wimpy peace. It’s the power of life over death.

Today’s Gospel anticipates next Sunday’s Gospel, but this doubling portion of peace is not a bad thing. The power of Christ’s peace is worth our time (I think) because so often, in our day the peace of Christ is portrayed as a weak thing, a watered-down gentleness, a depressed quiescence or some vaguely religious feeling of calm. Too often we pass the peace with air-kisses and limp handshakes, as though we might catch something.

But when Jesus bursts into the locked room, a room locked down by fear as much as by bolted doors, Jesus offers the full power of his peace. It is a peace that has burst forth from the grave, a peace that has been to hell and back, a peace that has laughed in the face of death.

We have seen evidence of this peace already through the season of Lent.

When Jesus was tempted in the desert, it was his peace that enabled him to face down the devil, to keep centered, to remain connected to God, to survive—and eventually to be fed by angels.

It is the peace of Christ that eases us through the narrow door. The peace of Christ sustains us in the face of calamity, helps us to repent when we have done wrong, and reminds us that like that poor, little fig tree in Luke—we are given a second chance.

Sometimes it is the peace of Christ that slaps us in the face and turns us around, and like the prodigal, we are led back into the loving embrace of God, God the parent-beyond-allparents.
The Jesus of the Resurrection is the one who went into the hell of the tomb, wrestled with the devil and death itself, and came out again, alive and renewed and powerful enough to carry us into eternal life, too. This is no wimpy Jesus. It is a peace that opens our eyes and causes our hearts to burn within us.

The peace of Christ makes the powerful nervous; and in response, builders reject the best stone, leaders reject the voice of wisdom, and rulers don’t know a true king when they see one coming, even if he is riding on a donkey.

But this peace of Christ—this strong, fierce, loving, vital peace rises up from the deepest heart of God and from the beginning of beginnings. Following Isaiah’s imagery (from the first reading this afternoon) we can say that it was God’s peace that stirred up and sang out in that first Passover, God’s peace that dried up the sea and made a way for salvation. It was God’s peace that wreaked havoc on the enemy and moved the chosen toward freedom.

The peace of Christ is no neutral thing. It is not benign or harmless. It is like fire, like the fire of Pentecost. Because it has to do with truth, it can kill. But it can also raise from the dead, enliven to strength beyond imagination, and breathe into us all life everlasting.

In our day there is sometimes the encouragement “to work” for peace or to “make peace” as though peace were something that you and I might accomplish, ourselves.

But I understand the peace of God to be more unruly, more unpredictable and less within my own control. If left to ourselves, what first appears as peace, before too long is usually uncovered to be one person’s agenda, the mess of one’s manipulation of the other. Egos are exposed and the peace is broken. But the peace of God is different.

Our former presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori used to speak about God’s shalom. In one sermon she explained some of what she means by this shalom:

[Shalom, she said] is “that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, … a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given… where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another… where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God. Shalom [offers] … that vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the small child playing over the den of the adder, where the specter of death no longer holds sway.”

This is no wimpy peace. This is no peace that we might “make.” It is not achieved by us, with or without armies, through government or structures of any kind. Rather, it is a peace that comes from God and that becomes possible when God rises within us.

This Easter, may we receive the peace of Christ– this strong, strange and surprising peace. May we know its power and its love, and may it rise so fully within us that we can offer the peace of Christ to a fearful and waiting world.

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

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Sacred Tears

mary-magdalene-noli-giottoA sermon offered on Easter Day, April 12, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18

Watch the sermon HERE.

I’ve always envied the sort of person who cries easily. You know the type—when they’re sad, they cry. When they’re frustrated, sometimes they cry. When they’re angry—the tears flow freely.

I’m not like that. My tears are a little unpredictable. I’m told it’s because I keep a lot of things inside, and so emotions like sadness and frustration and anger—surface when they can’t stay hidden any longer. For example, when a beloved parishioner dies, I can often show up in all the appropriate ways, visit with the family and friends, lead a funeral, and not shed a tear. But then, a day or two later, watching an insurance commercial on television, I’ll dissolve in tears. It’s not the actors on tv who getting to me, but for whatever reason, I sometimes have a delayed reaction when it comes to tears.

I’ve been like that around the Covid-19 coronavirus. I read about the virus making people sick in China and about huge numbers of people dying. And they it began to move through Europe. I paid close attention and prayed, but I don’t think I cried. As people in our area began getting sick, and then acquaintances and friends of friends began dying, I’ve prayed harder, and thought deeply. But then, on about the 3rd or 4th night of the 7pm NYC “thank you for healthcare workers,” it hit me. I was walking the dog, and had forgotten about the time, and all of a sudden, I was swept up in the cheers, and the applause and the horns. And my own tears came full force.

Maybe we all carry certain societal and cultural baggage about crying in public, about “keeping it together,” and about keeping a stiff upper lip. But tears are a part of life. They’re with us at the very beginning; they’re with us at the very end. Tears are in our mothers’ eyes when we’re born and tears are in the eyes of those who love us, when we die.

And this morning, we have tears in our Easter Story. They are the tears of Mary Magdalene. And perhaps there are even a few tears of our own.

Mary comes to the tomb early on Easter morning and she finds the great stone over the entrance has been moved away. She runs and tells Simon Peter and John. They then look into the tomb and find the linen cloths, but see no body. The disciples leave the tomb and go back their homes.

But Mary stays outside the tomb, weeping. She weeps as she looks into the tomb, but notice that it’s only by looking through her tears, that she begins to see. First, she sees what looks like two angels. “Why are you weeping,” they ask. She turns around and sees who she thinks is the gardener, but it’s Jesus. He asks her the same question and again, through her tears, she recognizes him.

Tears can express loss, regret, sorrow, and especially sorrow for sins. Tears show that we’re connected, we’re aware, and we—to some extent, at least—acknowledge we are a part of things, when they go rightly, and when they go wrongly.

St. John Climacus, was a 7th century monk who wrote about tears. He said, “God in His love for [us] gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to [us] this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . . but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”

Because we have not wept….

John calls tears a “second baptism.” On this Sunday when the Church often baptizes and makes new Christians, when we often reaffirms baptismal vows, it’s helpful to hear (this year) that image of tears as a kind of second baptism. As such, tears are a help to our spiritual life. They are a help to our prayers.

When the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, to weaken the already weak, and to bring down many of the strong, tears are in order. When so many people are losing jobs and workplaces, tears are called for. When we see the freezer trucks outside hospitals, the makeshift medical centers in a park and a tennis center, and read of new burials on Hart Island, tears are perhaps the only faithful response.

But tears can lead the way of prayer. Mary Magdalene’s tears are a crucial detail, I think. Because it is only through her tears, that Mary begins to see Jesus. And through her tears she begins to see the possibilities for new life.

The tears are necessary. They are cathartic, they are helpful. Tears testify that something powerful is happening, sometimes something beautiful, sometimes something horrible, but it is some- thing. It exists. It has meaning and purpose and we are changed because of it.

Mary stands at the tomb weeping—for how long, we don’t know. Perhaps, like Psalm 30, her “Weeping had spent the night….” She probably knew the psalm (42) that speaks of tears being one’s only food, day and night. She might have known Psalm 56 that affirms, “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle,” that God notices tears.
And yet, Mary’s tears move her. They take her to a new place. Her weeping makes a way as she realizes that Jesus is alive and that he has risen.

Mary’s tears remind us that Easter is not just about lilies, and bunnies, and butterflies. But before the butterfly, there’s a caterpillar. What eventually becomes the butterfly, has to crawl before it can fly. And in the cocoon, there’s a messy, death-like process. The caterpillar almost has to completely decompose before it can begin to develop into a butterfly. But new life comes.

Before a new project can be started, an old one has to die in some way. Before a new habit or discipline can begin, an old one usually has to die out. Before following a new dream, an old one has to recede. Good Friday’s FINISH makes possible a new chapter in our spiritual, or social, or emotional life, the old has to be let go.

In the Revelation to John, God promises a day when, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).

Let us give thanks that Christ’s death and resurrection means for us that no matter how hard things may seem (or how blessed), how far away God (or how close), no matter how many tears—God makes a way into new life, risen with Christ.

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

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Good Friday: Never Alone

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon offered at Evensong on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 22Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and John 18:1-19:4.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Good Friday can feel like a lonely day: the spare, quiet church, the prayers of penitence, psalms of lament, and mournful music. It all can contribute to a sense of aloneness, of individuality, and isolation. The focus of the day is Jesus dying on the cross.

But as most of you know, what happens on the cross is described somewhat differently, depending on which Gospel one reads.

In Matthew’s Gospel, which we heard on Palm Sunday, Jesus cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus is mostly alone, surrounded by strangers and criminals.

In a similar way, Mark’s Gospel also includes this cry of abandonment—this cry of frustration, of loneliness, of fear, even.  Last Sunday, we admitted that many of us sometimes feel the loss of Mark and Matthew and wonder about God’s presence.

But here is where a little bit of biblical literacy can be a helpful thing.  Just as each Gospel has a particular point of view, it’s important to learn what we can from each one and especially when we identify strongly with one perspective, it can be helpful to notice another point of view.

Maybe it’s for this reason that while the appointed Gospel for Palm Sunday changes each year, Good Friday every year draws from John.  And in John’s Gospel, no sense of abandonment. Jesus is not alone. God is there. Fully, richly, completely.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains it this way:

To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, [but] the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father…. (The Crucified God, p. 243).

And so, in John’s Gospel, Jesus dies on the cross, but he is not alone. There is the company of the Father, and the presence of the Spirit. But this community extends into our world, there at the foot of the cross, where Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God stands watching (and weeping.)

Fridays during Lent (while we still could), we walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross, and we sang of the Virgin Mary’s presence.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is there, along with her sister. Other Mary’s are there: the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. The Beloved Disciple is there.  Even though the Beloved is not named, tradition points to John, and if, in fact the Beloved Disciple is the author of this Gospel, his anonymity might be explained by humility.

From the cross, Jesus speaks to Mary and the Beloved Disciple. “Woman, here is your son.” And then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” As I wrote in my reflection on the Twelfth Station, a Canadian priest suggest that by giving Mary to the disciple and the disciple to Mary, Jesus is forming a bond, a new relationship, between the CHURCH and the TEACHING OF THE APOSTLES (which is to say, the tradition of the church that we have inherited and continue to live out).

The Canadian priest, Tim Perry writes, “On the one hand, all people who would receive the salvation Jesus brings (symbolized by the mother of Jesus) must come under the care of those who knew Jesus best, the apostles (symbolized by the Beloved Disciple)…. [But on the other hand]”… the apostles’ teachings are cared for, preserved, protected, and indeed understood nowhere other than the Church.” (Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary, p. 91-92).  Both need each other.

In other words, Mary can represent the Church at its best—showing up, serving, doing, praying, loving, abiding in the love and life of Jesus. John, the Beloved Disciple, represents the apostolic tradition in which we all play a role—learning, teaching, meditating on the way of Christ, deepening our lives and the life of the Church through spiritual disciplines. Mary and John need each other.

Perry suggest that reading Mary as symbolic of the Church and the Beloved Disciple as symbolic of the apostles can serve both as a warning and a promise for us.

As a warning, it reminds us that it’s not all about me. It’s not about “me and Jesus.” As some of us find in this current place of isolation, the scariest neighborhood to be in is up in our own head.  And the Church risks losing its soul when it drifts too far from the teaching and wisdom of the apostles. Both happen in our day just as much as they have happened in history.

But there is also great promise in this relationship of Mary with the Beloved. The cross does not leave us alone. We are never forsaken.  We have been grafted into the church through baptism and we have been entrusted into the care of the apostles. When we hear the scriptures, when we receive the sacraments, when we walk and talk together in faith, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ.

At the Fourteenth Station of the Cross, as Jesus is laid in the tomb, we affirm, “You will not abandon me to the grave: Nor let your Holy One see corruption.” And then we sing, with Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple, and all the Company of Heaven,

Jesus, may thy Cross defend me,
And thy saving death befriend me,
Cherished by thy deathless grace.

When to dust my dust returneth,
Grant a soul that to thee yearneth
In thy Paradise a place. Amen. (Stabat Mater, Jacopone da Todi, 13th c.)

The love and presence of the Holy Trinity means that no matter how we might feel, no matter what the presenting evidence might suggest, WE ARE NEVER ALONE.  With God’s abiding and loving presence, may we be kept safe until we, too, are brought to new life in the Resurrection.

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


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Maundy Thursday: Making our Communion

jesus-washing-peter-s-feet-1876A sermon offered at Evening Prayer on Maundy Thursday. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-17, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Watch the sermon HERE.

Usually, there are two great themes to Maundy Thursday. The first has to do with service.  As the name of the day comes from the Latin, Mandatum, meaning command.  It refers to Jesus’s words to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Some of you have heard me rant in the past about the kind of liturgy that involves only a priest or bishop washing the feet of twelve people, to represent the twelve disciples.  Notice Jesus’s words:  he doesn’t say, get some religious leaders to imitate me so that everyone can sit back and admire the humility of the leader.  Jesus says, “you should love one another, just as I have loved you.” It’s for that reason that when we have a regular Maundy Thursday service, we invite people to wash one another’s feet and for many, it’s one of the most moving experiences of the year. Others, no doubt, are grateful that this year, we’re not able to offer that service with the option of foot-washing.

The second theme of Maundy Thursday has to do with Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  And this year, even though we don’t celebrate the Eucharist tonight, in some ways, this year, we may be closer to Jesus and his disciples than ever.

Think about the context for the Last Supper. The disciples are away from home, away from families, some of them away from spouses and other loved ones.  Work has been disrupted for them—perhaps through their own choosing, as they left what they were doing and followed Jesus, but their feelings of dislocation and confusion must have been somewhat similar to what many are feeling today. Like today, for the disciples, there was fear in the room—they had heard rumors of a pending arrest of Jesus, and they must have wondered what might happen to them. Is God still in charge of this story?

Because our worship service tonight includes neither the washing of feet or the sharing of the Holy Eucharist, perhaps the Spirit is encouraging us to notice the heart of what Jesus says.  Love one another, just as I have loved you.

Some traditional Christians will check in with each other after major religious days.  Sometimes they ask, “Did you make your Communion?”, meaning, did you go to church, did you receive the Body of Christ?

But especially this year, perhaps we can really think about that phrase.  “Making our Communion” might mean giving someone a telephone call, or sending an email. The healthy and able-bodied might “make communion” with God and another human being by running an errand—shopping for someone, or helping with a minor repair, or taking someone through a slow, process of how to work a smart phone or computer program.

The mandatum, that New Commandment, that Jesus gives his disciples and us goes way beyond washing someone else’s feet or receiving the Holy Eucharist—it means that we actually notice one another, that we help one another, that we look out for one another, that we pray for one another.

Though we’re all missing people and church services and routines … may the Holy Spirit use this time to deepen us in our love of Christ and one another and to show us new ways of carrying out Jesus’s commandment to love one another.


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Palm Sunday: Christ’s Obedience & Ours

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-26-_-_Entry_into_Jerusalem2A sermon offered at Vespers on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020. The church is closed for public worship during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the service (and sermon) take place in that context. The scriptures are Matthew 21:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11.

Watch the sermon HERE.

We just heard the Epistle appointed for the main service on Palm Sunday, from chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  Several verses of that chapter are often put together in a musical piece that, like a lot of liturgical music, often is known from its Latin name:  Christus factus est.

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

In the traditional worship service for Maundy Thursday, these words were sung just before the reading of the Gospel. Later, the music was moved to be used on Palm Sunday, to be sung just before the Passion, the telling of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.  In monastic practice, this little hymn, Christus factus est, would be repeated on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, moving towards Holy Saturday.

I’ve been in churches where this hymn would find its way through the various liturgies of Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday, but continuing until Holy Saturday.  It would be like a mantra, like a musical prayer that would almost condense the entirely of Holy Week in its simple phrasing

Christ became obedient unto do, even death on the Cross,
But God exalted him, and named him above all names.

The movement of what goes low in order to be made high is a kind of physics of spirituality, I think.

The Virgin Mary knew then, when she sang her Magnificat, and we’ll sing her words several nights later this week:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

God’s work of holy reversals is often forgotten by the busy, secular, nonreligious world, but especially at times like these, look who’s being lifted up.  Look at who we see (clearly) as our heroes:  nurses, health aides, drivers, delivery persons; doctors, scientists, epidemiologists… Those who spend their lives making themselves big and showy—politicians and the usual movers and shakers—look comical, sad, and largely irrelevant.

This afternoon, I passed by my favorite diner, Midnight Express.  It’s closed, except for takeout, of course.  But just as I walked by, I was excited to see a familiar water opening the door.  He held a bag, and looked out expectantly, “California omelet?”  And a young woman said, “Yes, that’s me.  Thank you,” she said.  And then she kept going, “Thank you SO much.  I really appreciate it. Please thank the people in the kitchen and whoever else is in there. We’re all so grateful that you’re working and I hope you stay safe. Thank you.”

She meant every word of that.  She wasn’t just being nice. You could see the gratitude in her, and the waiter, I think, really appreciated it.

In the midst of the chaos, and sadness, the sickness and death of our world in these days, there is nonetheless a bit of holy reversal going on. Now, it’s our task to keep this from being sentimental and to fight with and stand for all those who currently are so invaluable, so they get adequate pay, healthcare, and all the things they need.  God wants us to help with the word of reversal and resurrection.

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

The French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil imagined the cross of Christ as a balance, a kind of lever.  “Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.”  We lower what we want to lift, she points out.  And so, to lower oneself, raises not only the other person, but can raise the whole other side of the equation.  (Gravity and Grace, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987 (1952), p. 84.)

Holy Week invites us to walk closely with Christ.  Obedience, we remember has to do with listening to God and following.  Ob (toward) -audire (listening).  We can practice obedience and service—by staying at home and being careful.  By checking on others just to say hi and hear their voice.  Some are serving, being obedient, by making masks, and sharing them. And let’s not underestimate the service, the obedience, the faithfulness of praying for one another. Praying for those we know, and for those we don’t know. Praying for the sick and suffering, praying for the healthy and thriving.  Pray. Pray. Pray.

Even as we move through the emotions and stories of Holy Week, we should never forget that the Resurrection has happened. Easter is a fact, and we live strengthened by the Resurrection, even as we allow the Resurrected Christ to pull us through the difficult days, into days of new light and life.

May God help us to be obedient to the way of love, so that we too may live into that name above all names, Jesus Christ our Savior.


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Palm Sunday: Waiting and Watching

Holy Week Palm SundayA sermon offered in the service of Morning Prayer on April 5, 2020. The scriptures are Matthew 21:1-11Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11, and Matthew 27:11-54.

You can watch the sermon HERE.

Last Monday, in the little video I did, I mentioned the St. Francis Cross, the cross from the Church of San Damiano in Assisi. It’s the cross from which St. Francis received a deeper calling to “go and repair the Church.” If you know that cross, or if you should look it up, you’ll see that it’s filled with people.  Mary and John are there.  Various disciples are there.  Other followers and friends of Jesus.  It’s a crowded cross and one that seems to invite us to find our place alongside Jesus, alongside others who suffer, or who await new hope or new life of any kind.

Well, that crowded, people-filled San Damiano cross is very different from the cross we encounter in St. Matthew’s Passion, the version of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion that we have just read, and some of you have read at home.  Like St. Mark’s version of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew’s account shows us a Jesus who is centered on doing God’s will, but then, from the cross, Jesus is honest enough to wonder if God has left him.  Luke’s Jesus forgives from the cross.  John’s Jesus is still very much in charge from the cross. But Mark and Matthew give us a bleaker, lonelier version, with Jesus quoting Psalm 22, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, I think, to remind us of the humanity of Christ, to remind us that even Jesus wondered at God’s distance.  I think the Gospel writers keep those anguished words because they wanted us to be able to connect with Jesus for deeply.  Life sometimes feels like God is might be “otherwise engaged.” Maybe we think God has others to attend do, or others’ concerns are more important than our own, or that God is somehow limited in being able to respond. We can feel this way because of our own difficulties or just the state of our world.

During the Covid coronavirus pandemic, there’s a prayer that’s been making the rounds in social media and elsewhere. The prayer includes petitions such as

May we who are merely inconvenienced remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those
who must choose between preserving their health and making their rent.

I get the intention of the prayer, which I think is aiming for humility and gratitude for the blessings many of us enjoy.  But there’s a real danger to prayers that almost imply a spectrum of suffering than can be seen and understood from the outside.

I mean, I don’t really know the extent to which my neighbor may be suffering.  I don’t know exactly how you may be doing.  How many of us carry illness, suffering, and sometimes almost unbearable pain on the inside, and yet, someone looking at us on the outside sees a well-adjusted, put-together, faithful person?  I’m not crazy about that prayer I mentioned because it can move us away from remembering that God’s loving presence comes to ANY AND ALLwho are suffering, no matter the degree or circumstance of that suffering.

Someone listening to this service may be fighting the coronavirus. Certainly, there are those listening to this service who have lost loved ones, or know people who are struggling.  Others wrestle with more familiar demons of loneliness, depression, addiction, or anxiety. Many— too many, today know the kind of loneliness expressed by Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Why have you left me?  Why don’t you show up?  Why . . . ?

The complete answer will only be known on the other side of this life, but I think the answer has to do with this:  The story isn’t over yet.

A while back there was a campaign to try to help young people who were victims and close to giving up.  It was meant to give them encouragement to live another day, grab hold of a little hope and reminded them, simply: “It gets better.”

And at the risk of sounding simplistic, that’s a part of the message from the cross.  What I’m feeling today is not going to last.  My economic situation, my physical condition, my emotional condition—all are going to change.  We may not see the light for all the clouds.  The combined losses of work, health, security, friendships, community…. all might make us wonder.  Our hearts and heads may be so filled with news or information or internal noise that we don’t hear the word of encouragement or kindness when it comes.  And we may not believe that God is concerned or even cares.    But the power of the cross of Christ is to remind us that God does care.  God cares more than we can possibly imagine.

Jesus on the cross is not a random victim pulled from a crowd.  He is God.  God who has come for us.  God who was born for us.  God who is like us and for us—this is God who becomes a victim.  But God nails that status of “victim” to the cross, and there, victimhood dies.  God shows the power of love to re-shape, to re-new, to re-invigorate, and to re-birth.

Palm Sunday does not end on a high note.  It appears to end in defeat, in loneliness, and in death.  But that’s not where it really ends.  And that’s not where life ends for us, either—this day or any day.

It’s tempting to race through any kind of painful time.  It’s tempting to fill the lonely places with something, anything, anyone.  But if we’re able to pause, even in the painful places, something else entirely can happen.  The poet Christopher Morley has written that “April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.”  And it does feel that way some times.  But the virus pandemic has put a red light in the middle of all our “goes.” Holy Week also invites us to stop.

Holy Week invites us to pause by the Cross (whether it is the cross we endure, or the cross carried by someone else, the cross of Christ, or a mixture) and to ponder what it means that God chose death on a cross to unleash the power of resurrection.  What word of hope is there for those who suffer today?  What word of hope might there be for us.

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 this Holy Week bring the blessing of God’s deep and abiding presence.  And in that presence, may we find the hope of eternal life.

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



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Raised to New Life

A sermon offered on March 29, 2020, the first Sunday with the church closed due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. The scriptures are
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130,Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45.

You can watch the sermon HERE.

Every once in a while, after Sunday worship, as our volunteer tour guides are taking people through the church, if it’s the beginning of the tour, I interrupt.  If people are new to our building, they tend to stare at the stained glass.  The southern side of the chancel shows characters from the Hebrew Scriptures and the northern side shows New Testament figures. In the apse, the rounded part around the altar, there are scenes from the life of Jesus. But there’s a mystery, or what can appear to be a mystery.

This church had existed in other locations as Holy Trinity before this building was built.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of notes from the conversations between the building’s benefactor and builder, Serena Rhinelander, and the designer of the stained glass, Henry Holiday. And so, we don’t know if the content of the windows was Serena’s idea, or Holiday’s.  But one would think, walking into a church named Holy Trinity, there would be a prominent, if not huge, image of the Trinity.  Perhaps something traditional like an aged figure with a beard, a younger Jesus on the Cross, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit hovering nearby.  Or perhaps just a window of the three-sided trefoil, such as appears elsewhere in our architecture. Or the three figures from Genesis, the angels who greet Abraham and Sarah and prefigure the Trinity.  But no.

Central to the church, in a place of highest prominence, above the main altar, are two scenes from the life of Jesus. The window at the bottom is of the healing of the blind man, perhaps the story from last week’s Gospel.  And above it, in what might be the place of highest honor, is the depiction of the raising of Lazarus.  At one side are Mary and Martha, at the other, a standing Lazarus, and in the middle, Jesus full of life, perhaps already full of eternal life.

This window, and the Gospel that inspires it, remind us of a central aspect of our faith.  The resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate at Easter is huge—but at the risk of blasphemy, is it so incredibly that God’s own child could be raised from the dead?

But this window of Lazarus says that just like Jesus befriended Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Jesus befriends me.  Just like Jesus wept over his friend Lazarus, he would weep over my pain and death.  And just like Jesus brought Lazarus up out of the cave into life again, Christ can do the same for me and you.

Imagine what this window must have said to the immigrants and the working poor who lived in this neighborhood when the church was built.  It’s not a high and lofty, theological musing on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Instead, it’s a depiction that God the creator, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ is a God of life and resurrection.

But it’s not always easy to remember this, much less life with full faith.

Martha, in today’s Gospel, gives voice to what a lot of us might ask.  “Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened.”  As though asking that greatest of all questions: where is God when bad things happen?  Where is God when a deadly virus goes out of control? Where is God when healthcare workers and providers, themselves, get sick?  Where is God, to allow corrupt (or worse) leaders to thrive?  Where is God in addiction, or sickness, or loneliness, or death?

Jesus doesn’t answer Martha directly. But what he says hints at what is to come: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus then looks into Martha’s eyes and asks, “Do you believe this?”

Do we believe it?  Marth answers a little like I might—“Yes, Jesus, I believe that in the end, you bring all things to completion and renewal. All things come to live again.  Like Teilhard de Chardin, my believe in resurrection involves the entirely of creation—every plant, every animal, every person, redeemed and brought to new and complete life in the love of God.

But on a Monday morning? I’m not so sure. For the hungry and the refugees around the world—I’m not so sure.  For those living alone or afraid…. The resurrection is needed now, not some time in the future.

But faith says that the Resurrection begins now.  With faith in Christ, we will be brought out of the cave of death, and also, out of any cave we encounter.

Those who know me, know that I love St. Francis.  The stories about his life, and his own words, show me a wild and wonderful God who surprises and disappoints, but who never leaves us alone and who always brings to new life.

During the early days of Francis’s deeper conversion to Christ, Francis often went to little caves and quiet places to pray. In one cave, in particular, Francis went to a very deep and dark place within himself. But he kept his faith and God met him there.  Something happened. Something changed.  Something took hold in Francis in a new way.

G. K. Chesterton describes it, writing

The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude toward the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them.  He looked at the world as differently from other[s] . . .  as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.

When the world is upside down, what better way to see it clearly, than by walking on one’s hands?

Perhaps this time of pause, distance, and isolation can be for us something like a cave.  Not a cave of barrenness and death, not a black hole of non-existence… a cave of resting and renewal, a place where God is already with us, but also a place from which God will bring us out of and into a new existence.

The church will be different, and with faith, renewed. Our relationships will be different, and with faith, they might be renewed. Our families, even our understanding of work and play and rest—all of which might be renewed.

We will lose things. We have already lost things—jobs, familiar places, routines.  Some have lost loved ones.  And there will no doubt be more loss along the way.  But the story doesn’t end in the cave.  OUR story never ends in the cave.

We might come out walking on our hands. We might come out unrecognizable to some.  But with Christ, we will come out into a new life of promise, of hope, and of joy.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, by raising Lazarus from the dead you showed that you came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Free from the grasp of death those who await your life-giving presence and deliver us all from any cave of darkness or fear. Amen.

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