The Good Shepherd

Watanabe-Good-ShepherdA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:5-12Psalm 231 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18

Listen to the Gospel &  sermon HERE

There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests (certainly none around here), this priest loved to talk. While going through Israel, this priest like to tell his parish about what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.

The priest had particular information about sheep and shepherds. He told the people on the tour bus to be on the lookout for sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”

But as the tour bus rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep and a man who was walking behind them. He looked determined and seemed almost to be driving the sheep. The priest was outraged. Here he had been carefully explaining to his people what they should see, and here was something that just didn’t fit. He asked the bus driver to stop the bus, they all got out and he ran up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, and then we look out and we see you walking behind them. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “No, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd does always walk in front and leads the sheep. I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”

One moral of the story is to “Be careful who you follow.”

There’s a lot of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Sometimes it might not exactly resonate with us, most of us being urban people.  After all, when is the last time you identified with a sheep? (I don’t mean, “when have you identified as a black sheep”—that’s something else.)

As odd as the image of people as sheep might be for us, it would have been a familiar image for many of the people Jesus taught and talked with.  People who heard the prophets, and especially those who listened to Jesus preach all through Galilee knew that sheep tended to move along sometimes following a shepherd, but other times finding themselves having wandered off entirely. Sometimes the sheep would wander into danger and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was almost too late.

Jesus was not the only charismatic teacher and healer who could be followed. Biblical and historical scholars tell us that during the time of Jesus, there were many who claimed to be messiahs, who claimed to prophesy the future, who claimed to be magical, and even a few who claimed to heal. Who, then should we follow?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of one way that we can always tell. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I lay down my life for them and I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus is saying that if we stay close to him—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with other people of faith, by making sure we spend some time occasionally getting out of ourselves and helping others—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.

There are so many who would have us follow them—whether it’s a political leader, a boss, a colleague, or a neighbor. It might be advertiser, sports figures, or the leading voices in academics or the arts— there are many, many possibilities asking us to follow. But as Christians, we recall that we are named at baptism, and God whispers that name again and again, inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love.

Today’s epistle connects words with action as the writer of 1 John reminds us,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”

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Saved by Food

holy-trinity-icon-smA sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018. The scriptures are Acts 3:12-19Psalm 41 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48

Listen to the sermon HERE

How many times has food saved the day?

You’re at a business meeting or an interview and the tension in the air is so thick that it’s like a fog.  But then the food comes, and one of the dishes reminds someone of a restaurant she visited. It’s in your hometown and you’ve been there, and so you begin to talk in a new way.

Or, you’re seated at a wedding reception—you know you’ll be in your assigned seat for at least four hours—and you’ve just happened to have been placed between two people whose politics and religion could not be more different, and yet they’ve decided that this is the perfect time for one to convert the other—with you in-between.  But then a dish comes and reminds one person of the way his grandmother cooked.  And the other agrees, and the tone changes.

On a date, meeting the in-laws, settling a deal, or grieving the loss of a loved one—food often introduces some very mysterious, almost-mystical element into the mix.  Food has saved the day.  At least that day.

Food saves the day in our Gospel reading.  Sometimes we read scripture so formally that we forget the words reflect conversations and situations involving real people—people who got nervous, or got scared, or felt emboldened and confident, or felt self-conscious and unsure of themselves.  They are human.  And when Jesus is on earth, he interacts in very human ways.

Food does just that in today’s Gospel.

It is soon after the Resurrection.  The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus begins to try to reason with them, “Would a ghost have flesh and bones like I do?” But they still can’t quite take it all in. So there in the midst of the fear, the silence, the remorsefulness and regret, the weirdness and awkwardness of it all, Jesus asks for food.  They give him a piece of broiled fish and he eats it “in their presence,” right there with them, beside them, among them. With the conversation that comes around that shared fish, the disciples begin to see Jesus as their friend come back to life. They see him as the Son of God, come to share a message of love. They see him as the Messiah, who opens the way to eternal life with God. All of this—the opening of their eyes, their hearts, their minds, their future— is made possible over the sharing of a simple meal.

People are hungry. Physical hunger continues to be a reality all around the globe, and close to home, here in our city.  We do a little right here to help with that—the Saturday neighborhood supper, the Tuesday Senior Lunch, the hosting of Community Sustainable Agriculture, and other work (informal and organized) with food pantries and other programs.  Many of us do what we can to acknowledge hunger and try to do something to alleviate the problem.

But people are hungry and starving in other ways, as well.  Spiritual hunger also gnaws at people, sometimes to the extent that they settle for the spiritual equivalent of fast food— easy answers and fundamentalist thinking. The sophisticated in our culture hunger as well, but sometimes settle for a diet of cynicism, of busyness and compulsion, of reliance on other things to cover up the hunger pangs.

It would be overly simplistic for me to suggest that a simple faith in Jesus immediately fills the stomach—and simple faith in God does not necessarily fill the kind of hunger that results in despair, or violence, or suicide. But faith can feed.  Faith in the God who has raised Jesus from the dead can begin to give strength, to nourish, and to refresh. For many, such faith does feed, and it even enables us to offer the bread of heaven to others.

In today’s Gospel, the conversation around a broiled fish symbolizes the way that Jesus feeds us.

He feeds us intellectually. I know that many in this country and in Western Europe think that Christianity is anything but intellectual, but that is usually because of their own lack of knowledge about Christianity. Some of the greatest minds in history were led to ask penetrating questions and seek answers by their yearning for God. Yes, in some places, organized religion has stood in the way of this, but not everywhere, and not always. Jesus said,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22). Jesus feeds us intellectually, urging us to make connections between his teachings and our lives, between his commandments, and our own culture, between his relationships with people and the relationships we are called to make.

Jesus also feeds us socially. Through programs, through volunteer efforts, through agencies and missionaries of the church, we offer literal food to the hungry. But as those of you who volunteer with the meals through Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center or other agencies know, when you help to feed others, you also are fed. You are strengthened and nurtured. If you think of it, much of our community happens around food, whether it’s the breakfast at Midnight Express after the 8 AM service on Sundays, the coffee hour and receptions, the newcomers’ receptions, first Sunday potlucks after the 6 PM service, or casual social gatherings. We are changed a little bit over food, we’re more relaxed, we’re more ourselves. With other Christians, Christ especially appears in new ways in the breaking of bread.

And finally, we’re fed by Jesus Christ mysteriously and spiritually in the Communion of bread and wine, the sacrament of his body and blood. The Collect for the Day asks that God would open “the eyes of our faith,” and that’s what happens over time with Holy Communion. As we place ourselves before God, as we allow God to feed us with this little bit of bread and wine, our hearts grow more open to God’s presence, to God’s purpose, and to God’s love.

We have a wonderful reminder of “the eyes of our faith” being opened up through the mystery of food in the Holy Trinity icon, in our Memorial Chapel. As many of you recall, the icon refers to the appearance of three strangers who meet Abraham and Sarah in the 18thchapter of Genesis. God appears to Abraham in the form of three people—angels, they become in tradition. Abraham and Sarah entertain these angels—they make them sit down, and give them food. The three speak as one and they announce that Sarah will give birth to a child.

Our icon follows the famous one painted in the 15th century by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev. It shows the trinity of angels at table.  The original only shows the three, as if Abraham and Sarah have stepped out to the kitchen. Our icon includes them off to the sides.  By tradition, the angels represent God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The three are in conversation, as though enjoying each other’s company, completely at rest and at home. Sometimes in these paintings and icons, there’s something else in the picture.  There’s food on the table.  Food is the centerpiece without being the center, but it calms and focuses and allows God to be present in the midst of fear, in the midst of doubt, in the midst of confusion, and in the midst of hope.

The sharing of food can bring about all kinds of changes. It can open up conversation. It can bring back memories. Food can link us with our ancestors, even as taste buds pave the way to new friendships. It can bring healing. It can bring transformation.

The Holy Eucharist is food from heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ, given for us to share and become one—one people, one body with Christ, one creation with God the Almighty.

May God continue to change us through food. May Jesus continue to feed us physically, communally, and spiritually.  And may our eyes, hearts and hands be opened, so that we might receive the good God would give us and, in turn, share what we have with a hungry world.

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

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Faithful doubt

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“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Rembrandt, 1634.

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:32-35, Acts 4:32-351 John 1:1-2:2John 20:19-31.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Though the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of New York is up on 110th Street and Amsterdam, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; I’ve met a few people who were mistaken and thought our cathedral was in midtown, diagonal to, and a couple of blocks north from St. Patrick’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral.  They mean St. Thomas Church, of course.

St. Thomas, at 53rd and Fifth, is a massive building in French High Gothic style. (If you want to go to England for a subway fare rather than a airplane fare, it’s a great place to go for Choral Evensong some afternoon.) When you go in, the first thing you see is an enormous reredos over the High Altar. It’s made up of a multitude of saints, and just over the altar is a carving of St. Thomas and Jesus, St. Thomas (as one architectural explanation puts it), “kneeling before Christ, his doubt gone.”

As beautiful as that church is, and as faithful as its many ministries are, I wonder if the building itself doesn’t in some ways apologize for St. Thomas a little too quickly? For me, anyway, the great power of St. Thomas’s witness, is that he doubts, and the story of his doubt has been handed down through the ages.

We hear about Thomas in several places in the Bible. Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really. Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, Thomas nonetheless has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. But it is a place they know. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” But Jesus affirms that by knowing him, they know his destination since as Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas is with the disciples when they are fishing and Jesus appears to them. This occurs in chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, a part of the Gospel that many biblical scholars think was added on to the original Gospel. The chronology is confusing and it’s unclear whether fishing expedition and the Easter fish-fry happened before or after the story we have in today’s Gospel.

Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire.

A more recent poet & priest, (Thomas Troeger) has put it this way:

 

These things did Thomas hold for real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.
His brittle certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs—what appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus then offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination.

In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

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 be near us.

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Seeing Resurrection through Tears

mary-magdalene-noli-giottoA sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 10:34-431 Corinthians 15:1-11Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, and John 20:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of my favorite people in Christian history is a fifteenth-century woman named Margery Kempe. Margery had visions of God’s love. She struggled with sin and challenge, but she kept praying. She knew her scriptures and would often preach in the streets and talk about God.  But more than anything else, Margery would cry.

She had the gift of tears, and boy, did she share her gift. She cried on her way to Rome and to Santiago de Compostela. She cried as she visited all the important religious sites of England, and she shared her tears with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Lincoln, and the holy woman Julian of Norwich.

Margery not only cried for herself, but she also cried for others.  She cried for the sins and the pains of the world.  Margery joins those from the whole Christian Tradition whose bond with Christ is so deep, so pure, so real; that their expression of love, of penitence, of compassion… comes out not in words, but through tears.  This is called, appropriately enough, the “gift of tears.”  And what a gift!

Especially in our own day, to be able to cry in the face of pain or sin or frustration and connect that pain to the pain of God is a rare gift.  Our culture still hides pain and holds back tears. Many still lift up Jackie Kennedy’s reserved grief as a model.  We make fun of politicians who cry—remember Speaker Boehner?  When a reporter cries during an interview or a story, we question their objectivity. We tell children, and friends, and ourselves—“don’t cry,” or “there’s no need to cry.”

But tears are a part of life. They’re with us at the very beginning, and they’re often 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 it’s only by looking through her tears, that she begins to see. 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 who turns out to be Jesus. He asks her the same question and through her tears, she recognizes him.

Tears sometimes 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 (7th century) wrote: “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.”  So tears can be a form of prayer.  And sometimes it’s the most appropriate form of prayer.

When there is yet another school shooting. Tears are called for.  When another young black person is shot—in the back, in his grandparent’s yard—tears are where we should start.  Where whole countries and regions spiral downward in war and hopelessness, tears are in order.  And when the majority of our own country sees a rising stock as the only measure of success—(telling the poor, refugees, immigrants, the elderly, and the sick that you’ve got to take care of yourself)– a person of Christian faith, at some point, needs to simply stop and cry.

Mary’s tears are a crucial detail, I think.  Because it is only through her tears, that Mary begins to see Jesus. 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.

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. Because even for what becomes the butterfly, it moves from crawling to flying, and thers’s a messy, death-like process. If you opened a cocoon, you’d find a gooey mess. 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).

Tears can seem foolish—especially the tears of all the “fools for Christ,” like Mary Magdalene, like St. Francis, like Margery Kempe, like others…. But especially on this April Fool’s Easter, let us give thanks for the gift of tears.

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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Holy Trinity to Reopen Swimming Pool

PoolWhen St. Christopher’s House (the first building of The Church of the Holy Trinity) opened in 1897, the New York Herald described classrooms, a gymnasium, and in the basement, a “plunge bath,” that worked as “part swimming pool and part communal bath.” We are very excited to say that recent plumbing work in the mission house has uncovered the original Holy Trinity pool, and we hope to reopen the pool by summer of 2019.

The NY Aquatic Landmarks Preservation Commission is excited and has offered a grant, since the vault was done by the Guastavino family, who also created the church’s cloister ceilings.  The Anglican Swimming Society (known as A.S.S.) is thrilled. The big A.S.S. hope is that the pool might be used for diocesan baptisms and the bishop’s office is very interested. (Also, a diocesan liturgist expressed delight at reintroducing the historic bishop’s bathing suit, the lavandi raritate sectam—though an additional top piece would be added for use by female bishops.)

Most exciting is that new technology in water filtration allows us to restore the pool to its original use—both for bathing and for recreation.  Current HTNC programs will be moved to the upstairs gymnasium, but a nice bath will be possible beforehand. Health Advocates for Older Adults will lose their basement program space but will soon be able to offer water aerobics.  Floating Mahjong boards have also been ordered.

Membership to the pool will be free for pledging members of Holy Trinity and neighbors may join at the levels of Noah ($100, rainy days only), Moses ($200 for a quick getaway), Rahab ($300 for singles nights), or John the Baptist (a $500 clothing-optional level that is still under review by the Vestry).  For more information on the Holy Trinity pool, please contact the April Fool’s Office on the seventeenth floor of the mission house, just beyond the rooftop cannabis garden.

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An Unfinished Story

ResurrectionA sermon for the Easter Vigil, with the first celebration of the Resurrection. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.

Listen to the sermon HERE

Whenever I work on a sermon or whenever I write something, I tend to start at the end.  In other words, I usually have a point to make, an ending in mind, a destination I want to reach; and so the writing is really just filling in, along the way to the place I want to end up.  The problem with this is that I sometimes miss all the possibilities along the way.  Because I already know where I want to go, my perspective is limited, and my vision narrower.

But I don’t only do this in my writing.  Maybe some of you are like me, that often, when we see someone approaching, we already have in our mind an “ending place”—a certain assumption or expectation about how the person might sound, what they might think, where they might come from.

We can do this in other parts of our lives—where we live as though we know the ending of the story—the course of a date or interview or meeting, the result of a special occasion, the journey through an illness or another kind of challenge.   Again, like in writing, the problem with expecting or anticipating a particular ending is that we might miss other options, other possibilities, other courses or experiences.

Our Gospel tonight represents one ending of the Gospel of Mark.  You probably know that the Holy Scriptures come down to us from various sources.  There are numerous versions of most books of the Bible and scholars still try to determine which are earliest and which came later.  Sometimes versions of the same book of the Bible differ, and that’s part of what’s going on with the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  Some early sources end with what we heard tonight, at Chapter 16, verse 8.

Jesus has been crucified and his body has been buried in the tomb.  But the next day, Mary Magdalene and some of the other women take spices to anoint the body and make final preparations.  But the stone entrance to the tomb has been rolled away.  They encounter a young man (Mark doesn’t say he’s an angel) and the young man tells them “He has been raised; he is not here.”  And the young man tells the women to go and tell the other disciples this good news.

But in this ending of Mark, the women leave, terrified. And they say nothing, because they are afraid.

This is a bleak ending, a sad ending.  In some ways, it suits the rest of the Gospel of Mark, which is spare and short. There’s no mention of John or Mary being right there at the cross, and we’re told that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women are looking on, but from a distance.

But other early versions of the Gospel of Mark add a longer ending, which is printed in most Bibles.  This longer ending does not leave the women paralyzed by fear.  Instead, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, then to two other disciples, and finally to all eleven disciples. Mark’s longer version ends Jesus commissioning the disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  And finally, Jesus is taken from them, ascending to God.

Scholars and theologians wonder about these different endings and what Mark might have meant, what early Christian communities might have meant, and certainly, what God might be meaning by giving us these scriptures to wrestle with. At Holy Trinity, we’ve explored these questions this Lent, as we’ve studied a book on the Gospel of Mark by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Williams suggests that the Gospel of Mark leaves off the way it does because it’s FOR US to finish the story.  The ending has not been written, because we are a part of it.  As Williams writes

What Jesus did and does has no end, and certainly not in the pages of a book, because the work he does he is doing in every new reader, and there will always be new readers….[I]t’s for us to decide whether we become part of the that process of spreading the word of the resurrection that the women at first are too frightened to. The work of Jesus in the reader the “end” of the Gospel.  (Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, p. 72)

And that only ends, when we see God face to face and hear how God REALLY wants to end the story.

We might feel like we’re living in stories that have already been written, that have particular endings, and are restricted to specific characters and plot lines—but one aspect of the Good News of Easter is that the story isn’t finished. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a misnomer, because with faith—with you and me—who knows? Maybe the story is just getting to the good part!

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

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Good Friday

Holy Trintiy CrucifixA sermon for Good Friday, March 30, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The strangeness of this day is captured in the way we name it: Good Friday. Some suggest that this may have originally been “God’s Friday,” later shortened simply to Good Friday. Theologians suggest that it is good, in that it is because of this day, that salvation is accomplished for us.

Good Friday reminds us of how Easter is possible. It represents the darkness before the light, the depth of emptiness before God returns with love. It represents time in hell. But especially in John’s Gospel, we also see the triumph of the cross—even on Good Friday.

The cross has often been used as a triumphant image. From the very beginning the cross was used a symbol of strength to keep weak people in their place. The cross on which the Romans nailed a criminal was meant to be a triumph over crime, but also a triumph over disorder, a victory over anyone who might challenge the Roman rule.

One of the most famous crosses is the one that appeared in the sky for Constantine, just before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge in 312. The symbol of the Chi-Rho, forming a cross and representing the first two initials of Christ appeared in a vision. That vision assured Constantine that he would have victory over his opponents. Constantine instructed his soldiers to put the symbol of the cross on their battle standards, and they marched forward. It was victory, and Christianity was soon legalized.

There are many places in the history of our faith where the cross has been used as a symbol of victory over other people, over people I disagree with, or people I dislike, or people who are my enemies, or people who I decide are evil. But to use the cross in such a way, to imagine the cross as a weapon over other people is to misunderstand completely the language of Holy Scripture, the teachings of Jesus and the very power of the cross.

On Palm Sunday, we heard the epistle Reading from Philippians proclaim that God has exalted Christ. Christ is exalted, his is lifted up, but it is an exaltation won through obedience, through humility, through service, through hardship, through sacrifice, through love. God himself, in the form of Jesus, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

Jesus is exalted when he heals a blind person. He is exalted when offers food to a hungry person. He is exalted when he kneels to wash the feet of his friends.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel Jesus assures us that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. The cross is a victory, but it’s a victory over all that might possibly keep people from Christ. The cross is a victory over death, a victory over disease, a victory over ignorance, a victory over evil.

It is on the cross that God’s heart breaks. But through that heartbreak, the power of love is unleashed in the world in completely new way, a way that wipes away sin, that dries up tears, that raises the dead to immortal life.

Through the cross,
the soul of Christ sanctifies us,
the body of Christ saves us,
the blood of Christ makes us drunk with life,
the water from the side of Christ washes us.

As we give thanks for the love of the cross, may we know the exaltation of those who offer themselves in the service of others. May we use the cross, and be used by the cross, to draw others to Christ, to his love and to his life everlasting.

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

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Going Low

Holy Week Maundy ThursdayA short sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018.  The scripture readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention that Michelle Obama gave a rousing speech that included a section where she talked about some of the things she and President Obama tried to teach their daughters. In a famous line, she said that, “we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

In many ways that motto became the slogan for many during the presidential campaign and since. I have often thought of it, when I was tempted to respond to something I saw on Facebook or something I read or heard in the news.

While I have complete respect for Michelle Obama, I’ve been thinking lately about some possible limits in what might be thought of as “going high.”

The problem with “going high” is that one can end up seeming aloof, distant, or indifferent. Even the language of “going high” or “taking the higher ground” implies the obvious—that the person I’m having trouble with is lower, or inferior, or “less than.” And so, without doing or saying anything, I have created more distance between me and the other person, not less.

Now, of course, “going high” is often the best tactic—in public relations, with email, when someone slights us on the street or in a line at a store. But when it comes to relationships we value—family, friends, colleagues with whom we actually WANT a better relationship or need a better relationship, then “going high” just doesn’t accomplish much. It becomes a version of the question, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?”

This is what Jesus is modeling at the Last Supper, as he kneels to wash the feet of his disciples. Not only does Jesus wash the feet of Simon Peter, who resists, but then gives way. But evidently, Jesus also washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, since (as John tells the story) Judas only leaves the Upper Room after the footwashing and meal.

Perhaps in the spirit of Maundy Thursday, we might try some time—just as an experiment, perhaps—“going low,” instead of going high. By “going low,” I mean that we do something to serve the other person, we move towards the other person, we do something to try to understand their point of view, their belief, their hopes and their fears. The action for us to move outside ourselves might entail going high, going low, going right, or going left. But if we go with the heart of Jesus, we are not alone, we need not be afraid, and we will be following the New Commandment of our Savior and Friend, that we try to love one another as he loves us.

May the Spirit continue teach us to serve, as we try to follow Jesus.

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Embracing foolishness

Juggler of Our LadyA sermon for Tuesday of Holy Week.  The Epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Listen to a version of the sermon HERE.

I really wish that tonight’s Epistle, from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, because Easter Day this year is on April Fool’s Day.  Later in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he spells it out:  We are fools for the sake of Christ (1 Cor. 4:10), but Paul is leading up to this in tonight’s passage:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Many of us are familiar with the idea of a court jester, someone who might seem, at first, to entertain the king or queen, but who was also able to communicate deep truth to the monarch.  Good kings or queens would look to their jester, or “fool” not only for foolishness, but also for wisdom.  But others have taken their inspiration from the scriptures and have played the fool for Christ, but also played the fool for the Church.

An early fool was Simeon, who in the 4th century lived for 37 years on a little platform on top of a high pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria.) Others came after him, playing the part of the fool and sometimes taking his name.

In the 6th century, another Simeon went into the desert to understand God more deeply and when he came back into town, he came, dragging a dead animal behind him. He would go to church and throw nuts at the priests while they were leading services.  And most outrageous of all, Simeon would stand out side the church on Good Friday (when most were fasting) eating sausages!  He did all he could to poke fun at people who took themselves too seriously, the sort of Pharisees of his day.  Another Russian fool lived during the time of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but it was said the only person Ivan feared, was the fool named Basil the Blessed.  It’s this Basil that the famous cathedral in Red Square.  Basil sometimes walked around wearing nothing but a beard.  He stole from dishonest merchants and threw rocks at the house of rich people who ignored the poor.

There’s a legend from the middle ages of a juggler who wondered what he could give for God, and so one day he stood in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and juggled for her.  He juggled, and danced, and stood on his head—to amuse Mary and her son Jesus. St. Francis sometimes portrayed this jongleur de Dieu, or jester/juggler for God; and it’s a part of responding to God in faith that we need to remember.

Inspired by a topsy-turvy God, the Blessed Virgin Mary sings of a world that only a holy fool can see or imagine, a world in which

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
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.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy …
(Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer version)

Especially in times such as ours, when the king (or the president) needs a good jester to poke fun and speak truth, we can be inspired by the tradition of the Holy Fool.

When we read scripture, we see over and over again how people though Jesus was foolish, a little off in his head, or perhaps took the “God-thing” a little too seriously.  We even have stories about how his family thought he’d gotten out of control and tried to bring him home.  Peter tries to tame Jesus from time to time, and some suggest Judas lost all patience with Jesus’s foolish way of wisdom, and betrayed him precisely for that reason.

There is a tradition of what is called the Risus paschalis or Easter laugh.   The 4th century preacher, John Chrysostom preached an Easter sermon in which he described the crucifixion as a Godly joke on the devil, allowing the devil to think he had won by killing Jesus, only to laugh at him as Jesus is raised from the dead.

Jesus mus have seemed to be speaking in a riddle when he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  What foolishness (to some.) But hope, promise, and truth to those who believe.

Not only this April 1, but on every day of faith, may we be filled with the gift of holy laughter, that we would sustained by the foolishness of Christ to enter one day into the eternal laughter of God.

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Our Place in Bethany

Mary_Anoints_Jesus,_Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib
A short reflection for Monday of Holy Week, March 26, 2018.  The Gospel is John 12:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Gospel for Monday in Holy Week can stir up strong emotions.  But the genius of the way St. John tells the story invites us almost to take sides, to notice which character with whom we might most identify.

There’s Lazarus, who has just been raised from the dead. He probably just wanted a nice, quiet meal with his friends and family, and how nice that Jesus could stop by on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover.  And now, Mary had to get all dramatic and Judas had to say something, and then Jesus got serious all of a sudden and the whole mood changed.

There’s Mary, who (we know from other stories) is inclined to listen to Jesus and hear what he’s really saying in a way that most people miss.  She’s the mystic in the bunch, and something deep down told her that this might be the last time she would see Jesus.  The expensive oil might seem extravagant, but something about Jesus, about this night, about the movement of God in and around these lives—it just seemed right, and so she followed her passion.

You might identify with Martha, Mary’s sister.  Martha gets things done: keeps the house going, get the food, puts it on the table, cleans up—she’s that person.  Sometimes Mary gets on her nerves, but she also sort of wishes she could sometimes slow down like Mary, sit still, and really hear what Jesus is saying.  But whenever she tries, something else pops into her head—Is Jesus staying the night?  If so, where’s he sleeping? Should she tell the disciples that she doesn’t trust Judas, or mind her own business?  And then, she’s always worried about Lazarus.  They almost lost him recently and he hasn’t yet gained full strength.

Judas is the outsider.  His nickname, “Iscariot” means “from the city,” or “Judas, the city-boy.”  This is how the other disciples—all from Galilee—though of him. And so, he’d gotten used to his role.  He would guard the money and make sure it lasted. He would make sure it wasn’t wasted, because Jesus kept making pronouncements and promises that this ministry simply couldn’t afford.  Someone needed to keep an eye on things.

In the midst of all of this, Jesus makes it clear that whatever else they might be concerned with, Mary is closest to the truth—they won’t always have Jesus, or at least, he suggests that the bond with him (which is to say, the bond with God) is the most important thing.  Everything else can and should be adjusted so that our love for God.

And so, on this Monday of Holy Week, it might be interesting for us to think about which of the characters in tonight’s Gospel we most identify with, and then pray that God would help us move more closely to Jesus.

If you’re like Lazarus, maybe understand that Jesus as the priority is more important than a stress-free evening.
If you’re like Mary, follow your passion, but see if you can bring others along, too.
If you’re like Martha, pray that God would take away the stress and worry and show you how to pray and move closer.

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