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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After the crowds

Holy Week Palm SundayA sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, March 25, 2018.  The scripture readings are Mark 11:1-11Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11, and Mark 15:1-39

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Unless you’ve been hibernating or so busy as to miss the news, you know that yesterday around the country, young people led “March for Our Lives” demonstrations.  Especially coming out of anger, frustration, and fear after the Valentine’s Day shootings in Parkland, Florida, young people have led the way to advocate for stricter gun control while calling out our politicians who seem paralyzed.

Like with other rallies and demonstrations, there were huge crowds.  Yesterday, people with energy, signs, purpose, and resolve.  Today:  many of those same public spaces that held yesterday’s demonstrations will be filled with joggers and sunbathers, strollers and shoppers.

Crowds move through today’s Gospel and through the events we recount in Holy Week—the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and eventual resurrection. And like in our world, the crowds come and go.

The very first part of the Gospel we heard this morning, the “Palm Gospel,” tells us about the crowds that surrounded Jesus as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem.  While the donkey can seem comical, to those who knew the prophecies, they understood the political and religious significance:  the messiah would do such a thing. For the people to yell, “Hosanna in the highest…Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” was for the people to engage in political action. And among the disciples, there seem to be several who were part of the radical Zealot party, those who advocated an overthrow of the Roman occupation. But all too soon, the crowd seems to disperse.

They gather again outside the temple court for the mock trial of Jesus, and now, it seems the crowd is just as easily swayed to another point of view. When giving the choice, they ask that Barabbas be freed.

As Jesus is led along the way of the cross, the crowd looks on, but gradually gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it seems like Jesus is mostly along on the cross.  Mark’s Gospel is the loneliest, in many ways.

Huge questions arise from today’s scriptures and hover over Holy Week.  If we are to follow Jesus, do we act for justice first, and pray later if there’s time?  Or, do we go deep in the temple, say our prayers and wait for God to move us into action?  Or, do we struggle to find a balance?

This Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion.  Monday and Tuesday remind us of other events that happen to Jesus in his final days.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, all have major themes to explore.  But there’s a little pause in the week, on Wednesday night, that can serve as a reminder, a reflection, almost, of our lives and the life of God in our midst.

On Wednesday, we offer a little service with a funny Latin name, called “Tenebrae.”  Some churches offer it on other nights, and the serve can differ.  It’s a sort of combined service of the readings from Morning and Evening Prayer, along with some other readings and a bit of drama, thrown in.

“Tenebrae” comes from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.”  Through the prayers, candles are gradually extinguished. The light decreases until the space is in total darkness. Then, by tradition, there’s a loud noise. The “strepitus,” or great noise, is a clang, a bash, a rumble that represents several things related to the crucifixion—the disciples running out of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tearing of the Temple curtain in Jerusalem, and the earthquake reported by Matthew.

After noise, there in the dark, there is only silence. The crowd has all gone home.  The silence can sound like failure. Desertion. Loneliness.

But after a time, a small light appears—usually a single, flickering flame of a candle. Sometimes it’s the last candle of those extinguished earlier and instead of being put out, it has simple been hidden behind the altar. This single, small light represents the light of Christ—the light that is dimmed, that is hidden, that seems to completely disappear on Good Friday.

I think about the silence and darkness of Tenebrae when I read Mark’s Passion, St. Mark’s version of the Crucifixion that we just heard.

You may recall that each of the Gospels offers a particular point of view—of Jesus, and certainly of the Crucifixion. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a lot more attention given to the political and theological aspects. Matthew presents the crucifixion and resurrection as one event, leaving no doubt that Jesus is the King of Kings. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a champion, totally in control, the “true light who shines in the darkness.” But in Mark’s Gospel, the version we heard today, it sounds like darkness has indeed overcome the light. Jesus is the victim.

The great preacher & commentator Fred Craddock points out that the verbs themselves show that all the action is “done to” Jesus. Jesus is betrayed and let down by his friends, the disciples. Jesus is arrested and taken away. His friends and disciples desert him. Jesus is taken to the high priest. He is interrogated, spit upon, and beaten. Jesus is bound and led away further. When Pilate tries to cut a deal with the religious leaders and release a prisoner, Jesus is passed over for Barabbas, the murderer. Jesus is handed over to others, and he is beaten again. He is made to carry his cross. He is brought to Golgotha. He is crucified. Darkness came over the whole land. Darkness seemed to overtake the whole world and it feels like no one is around—not even God.

Mark’s version of the Crucifixion is not an easy one to hear, but it’s real. It’s true. And some of us know a bit of what that darkness is like.

The shootings at schools seem to continue, and when suburban kids are the targets, there are rallies and demonstrations.  Every day and night, our cities and neighborhoods hear gunfire, and young people die quietly, out of the news, and far from the crowds of cameras and politicians.  In our own lives and among our families and friends, there is sickness, illness, death, and uncertainty.  For some, it is a dear friend and neighbor who was a young mother and wife. For another, a husband and friend who had persevered through transplants and therapies. Another mother, wife, and friend. Church leaders. A brother, a sister, a child…

Darkness is real. The shadows touch our lives with sickness and disease, with addiction, and mental illness. Where is God when we can’t see him or feel him or in any way apprehend him?

Again, I go back to that liturgy of Tenebrae for a reminder. One essential part of Tenebrae is the reading we heard today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often sung as the antiphon, “Christus factus est.” The words are prayed even in the darkness. The words are prayed especially in the darkness because they emerge from the shadows:

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.

There is something in that mystery, something in that movement of humility, self-offering, of suffering-with, that gives pierces the darkness, as though a knife were put through a black shroud, flooding the place with light. God doesn’t let the light go out even though we might not see it, just like at night the sun is still shining—it’s just on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite versions of the Tenebrae service follows the normal pattern of readings, music, and decreasing light. The candles are extinguished one by one. And as the lights go out, there’s a sadness that falls over the space. It is unspecific and large. It seems to include all of our pain, all of our heartache, all of our questioning. But then, as one become uncomfortable in this deep darkness, and one tries to adjust one’s eyes, there’s the faintest hint of light. One wonders if it’s in the imagination. But then it seems to be moving and approaching from behind. Gradually, slowly, silently… from way in the very back of the church, a little child comes, carrying a single candle. As the child moves through the space shadows dance all over the place, no longer threatening but animated with hope, with joy, with expectation.

The light shines in the darkness.  The light that shines, never went out. It just changed. It just seemed to go away. But here it is, faint but full; small but strong; vulnerable, yet eternal.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to seek the light. We are invited to slow down, to set aside the calendar, and our “to do” list. For a few days, we might even put on hold our endless list of “shoulds.” Whether we spend time in this church, another church, or somewhere else, Holy Week invites us to notice the dark places in our lives, the shades and shadows and allow God to be there with us.

Even if we can’t feel the warmth of the light, even if we can’t get a glimpse of it yet, the faith of the Church assures us that “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-5)

Whether we’re against the crowd, with the crowd, or feel like the crowd has forgotten us or left us behind, God is with us. Christ leads us in the way of prayer and action, as we follow his love—through the cross, into the tomb, and into the eternal love of God.

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

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The Discipline of Service

HelpingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 31:31-34Psalm 51:1-13Hebrews 5:5-10, and John 12:20-33

[This week’s sermon did not record because of technical difficulties.]

Not long ago I was in a church that had a sign over the door, just as one is leaving the worship space. The sign said simply, “Worship is over, the service begins.” While I might argue that worship is never quite “over,” and that worship and service are linked, I do like that reminder that what we do “in here” leads to what we do “out there.” The prayers, the music, the scriptures, the fellowship—all of it prepares us to be the Body of Christ in the world.

In our Gospel, Jesus puts it clearly: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” Jesus promises. There is blessing, but also tells us that it’s going to get rough along the way. He goes on to say, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he explains a simple rule of nature, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus is talking about his own sacrifice, the sacrifice for us that makes for our salvation. But he’s also talking about the little sacrifices, the perhaps even-minute sacrifices we can make, we are called to make, on behalf of one another.

There are a lot of different ways for us to serve. Many of you volunteer. You sing in the choir, usher, read, serve on vestry or other committees, help with HTNC, and do all kinds of things in other areas. And that’s just within the church. Others of you serve the community, your buildings, schools, and neighborhoods. Some serve our country.

We use that term, “service” very freely, but I think we sometimes underestimate its power. Just this week I was talking with a parishioner about the great little book, The Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978). In it, the Quaker author Richard Foster talks about the spiritual disciplines we have either practiced or heard of: such things as give the season of Lent its substance sometimes: disciplines like fasting, prayer, meditation, and confession. But Foster also talks about service as a spiritual discipline.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of service in that way. I think of discipline as something to be developed, to be practiced, something that we can get better at, and grow into. But this is exactly the way Foster frames “service,” and then he goes on to name particular kinds of service.

One kind, he calls “hidden service.” It’s the kind of service toward another person in which the other person is the only other one who knows of the service—except for God, that is. If you’re someone who gives what Foster calls “hidden service,” he says that, over time, there will grow within you a quality that others will begin to sense, a quality of a deeper love, a new compassion, almost a slight aura. People will notice that you are different.

Richard Foster tells a great story about this kind of service. He remembers that he was in the final, most hectic week of finishing his doctoral dissertation. The phone rang, and it was a friend who needed a ride in order to run some errand. Foster didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see how he might possible spare the time. But reluctantly, he agreed (inwardly worrying about the precious time he was losing by helping this friend.) The friend needed a ride to several places, it turned out, and so, while the friend was in the grocery store, Foster waited in the car, pulling out a book that he had brought along.

It turned out that the book he had was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, “Life Together.” Foster opened the book to where he had stopped reading before, and he read these words, “The . . . service one should perform for another in a Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. [And] One who worries about the loss of time . . . is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”  In other words, service in small ways matters.

Foster suggests our trying other forms of service, trying them on as disciplines. Some might sound surprising. He mentions the service of “guarding the reputation of others.” This is what some have called simply “charity.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “speak evil of no one.” It’s what the 9th Commandment means by “not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” What a service that would be, if we could hold our tongues more often, if we could truly guard the reputation of others.

Another is the service of being served, of being gracious, of living out thanks. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter objected. He couldn’t understand it, but Jesus invited them to be served, so that they could pass that gift on to others.

There’s the service of common courtesy. The service of hospitality. The service of listening. And finally, there’s the service illustrated by Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel: the service of sharing the Word of Life, the love of Christ with others.

Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” If we offer ourselves to one another in ordinary, mundane, and everyday ways—as well as in the more public ways, much fruit comes of it.

We can talk about service in the context of religion. That word, “religion,” comes from the Latin word, religare, which means “to tie, or to bind” If we are religious at all, we are tied to God, bound to God; but also tied to one another, bound together, connected. “Anyone who serves me, God will honor,” Jesus says. We become connected to God through service. Being a servant of someone means that there is a bond, we are tied to that person in some way. Being a servant of Christ means being tied to him.

As we continue to grow into a religious community, a community in which we share ties that bind in love, I pray that we (all of us) might deepen our own sense of service. Service to Holy Trinity, service to Yorkville, the Upper East Side, the city, and the world; service to one another, and through it all—service to God.

In the words of the prayer sometimes used after Communion, may God grant us “strength and courage to love and serve . . . with gladness and singleness of heart.

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

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A Tale of Three Temples

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-27-_-_Expulsion_of_the_Money-changers_from_the_TempleA sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018.  The scripture readings are Exodus 20:1-17Psalm 191 Corinthians 1:18-25, and John 2:13-22

Listen to the sermon HERE

Those of you who know a little history about our church know that we are sitting in what is really the third Church of the Holy Trinity.  The first parish was founded in 1864 at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue (where air rights are currently selling for zillions of millions… but never mind). The parish grew and so, a new building was built on the same spot in 1873—a huge building that supposedly could seat 2,300 congregants. Because its tile and brick patterns were so colorful, it was nicknamed “the church of the holy oil cloth” by one critic. Over time, leadership changed, demographics shifted, and the parish declined.  When Holy Trinity asked the Diocese if it could move northward a few blocks, they were told that there were already enough churches in that area—so Holy Trinity would need to look farther north.  In conversations with St. James’ Church, a plan eventually developed whereby Holy Trinity’s property would be sold to help pay the debt of St. James, the two would combine, but a new mission with a church would be established in Yorkville.  Thus, with the gift and vision of Serena Rhinelander, our current building was built (St. Christopher’s Mission House in 1897 and the larger church in 1899.)

I’m reminded of our “three churches” by our Gospel today, in which there appear three churches, or rather—three temples.

The first temple we hear about this morning is the physical temple, the one that was standing in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of religion, culture, what NT Wright has described as the “heartbeat of Jerusalem.” The temple was the place where God and people met. There the veil was thin between heaven and earth. It was the place of pilgrimage and procession, of incense and intrigue, it is in the area of this temple that Jesus enters and causes a disruption. The Gospel of John places this cleansing of the temple early in the Gospel, setting the tone for all that follows. John has the disciples recall Jesus’ prophecy: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

This brings us to the second temple in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the temple of his body. He speaks of himself as a temple, because it is in him that God meets humanity, in Jesus that God is known and loved and worshipped, through Jesus that God makes possible sacrifice, intercession, forgiveness and life eternal. Paul extends this image to include us as well when he asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Jesus is the prototype for this new understanding of temple. His cleansing of the temple, the physical action of overturning the tables of the moneychangers and trying to restore purity and sanctity to the physical temple foreshadows his work on the cross.

Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus restores, purifies and makes holy. And, he is, indeed, raised up on the third day.

There is the temple that is made of stone. There is the temple of the body. But there is a third temple in today’s Gospel. It is the temple of the imagination and perhaps it is just as strong as the one made of stone.

Before the actual temple was built by Solomon, there was a dream and a desire to locate God, to have a place that was special to God, a place set aside and made not only holy, but especially holy. And so after years of waiting and praying, God allowed Solomon to build. Years later when the people of Israel were taken off to Babylonia, they remembered their temple and they wept. They remembered the songs that were sung, the worship, the glory. And this became an enormous inspiration and encouragement. By the time of Jesus, the temple was the center of a well-developed system of power and money and status and commerce.

The temple had become many things for many people. For some it was source of income—certainly the taxes sustained a lot of people. For some, to be associated with the temple meant prestige and protection. For the Romans, the temple pacified the people to a certain extent—it kept them at worship and out of trouble. As long as they couldn’t see beyond the incense, they would be blind to injustice. But to the vast majority of people, those faithful and unfaithful who simply tried to get through life–the temple must have represented a mystery—a place where prayers and sacrifices might be offered. Or perhaps they weren’t offered– you really never knew if the priest offered your sacrifice or not, did you? And who was to say whether God would listen?

This third temple, this temple of the imagination, had grown into much more than a physical place for meeting God—part symbol, part magic– for many it had replaced God. It was in the way of God. It was in-stead of God. Which brings all this talk of temples home to us.

This morning’s Gospel points to many different directions. It could easily serve as a fruitful Gospel for all of the Sundays in Lent. The cleansing of the temple points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the events we re-tell in Holy Week. The Gospel, set against the backdrop of the other readings, points us to the complicated relationship between law and grace, between what God expects of us and how we live our lives.

But for me on this day, the Gospel invites me to think about the temples in my life. Are there things that have become for me like temples, things that get in the way of God’s presence? Are there temples of my own making that need to be cleansed or knocked down?—are there thoughts or opinions or ideas that God would overturn this season? Have I inherited temples from others—have I learned from the church in some way particular habits or attitudes that need to be cleansed or thrown out? Or are there things—pretty things, nice things, comfortable things, things I may have worked hard for, things I saved up for and finally bought, making them mine, mine, mine—are there things that God might be trying to overturn in my world this season?

As the people of God in THIS place, let us give thanks for our several temples—or churches—the first two, and the one we’re in today—but let us be mindful of the need to cleanse, renew, tear down, and rise again, as we follow our Lord and Friend Jesus, who died and rose again, showing us the way forward.

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

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Strength in the Wilderness

jesus and the devil iconA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Genesis 9:8-17Psalm 25:1-91 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In today’s Gospel, we see St. Mark’s brevity at work:  Jesus is baptized and then goes into the wilderness.  There he is tempted by Satan, he’s with the “wild beasts,” and he’s helped by angels.  Then he seems to have been strengthened and renewed, so he goes into Galilee, even though he knows John has just been arrested.

In this Gospel, we’re not told what exactly what Jesus is tempted by, though in Matthew and Luke, we’re told that Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, to jump off the height of a pinnacle, and to accept the kingdoms of the world (which seem to be Satan’s to give.)

Every First Sunday in Lent we read one of the Gospel’s version of the temptation of Jesus.  I think the Church wants us to remember and hold on to the fact that Jesus, himself, was tempted, so that whenever we are tempted, we can take some heart that he has been there.  We can pray to Christ to strengthen us, to help us navigate the wild beasts, speak truth to the devil, and receive the help of holy angels.

Whatever the temptations were for Jesus, I think they were probably uniquely suited to him—that’s the way the devil works, by exploiting our weak spots, taking advantage when we’re tired, and exaggerating things when we’re feeling down or challenged.

The Church has sometimes use the language of “virtues” and “sins” as a means of gauging how we’re doing in the spiritual life.  If one could notice one’s behavior, then the devil would have less a chance of slipping in-between, of catching us off guard.

The classic virtues have been thought of as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Their counterparts, the classic seven sins, are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

It’s the last two that I’ve been wrestling with this week, and the devil has almost gotten me.

When we heard on Wednesday that another shooting had happened—again in a school—and this time with at least 17 people dead—the devil jumped in the middle of that story for me.  Sloth entered in—also called “accidie”—it’s a kind of spiritual boredom, a paralysis, a helplessness that forgets about faith. The sin of sloth makes me want to do what most of our politicians do: say a quick, obligatory prayer, and then try my best to forget.  But that doesn’t work, does it?  Gun violence is not going to be solved with one simple answer, as much as I (or you) might want it to be.

That’s where the sin of “wrath” comes in.  When I’m not in a place of sloth, I’m in a place of anger—blaming everyone who voted for politicians who take gun money, writing off whole groups of people as beyond my patience and God’s mercy— that’s wrath, and it’s of the devil, not of God. Ephesians 4 says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”  That’s the faithful place—to be angry, but to place that anger where it belongs and use it to work, pray, advocate, reason, implore, and convince. Wrath (anger out of control and out of bounds) is the sin.

Jesus was “tempted in the wilderness, was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” It could be that all of those things happened at the same time, which suggests that the times we live in—while we’re tempted to play dirty, divide, attack, and fall into other sins—if we’re open, God may send angels, or his messengers, to help.

Just as God put the rainbow in the sky to promise to Noah and his family that God would always be faithful to the covenant with God’s people—God has promised us the love of Christ and the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The Season of Lent invites us to practice age-old, time-testing spiritual disciplines in order to return to God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and even God’s presence.  In God’s presence, we’ll find answers, we’ll find direction, and we’ll find community.

We can feel like we’re in the wilderness and the wild beasts are certainly present.  But leaning into virtues like diligence, fortitude, kindness, and humility, we may just recognize the angels among us and with their help, see more of God’s kingdom among us.

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

 

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God’s Beloved

TransfigurationA sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 11, 2018. The scripture readings are 2 Kings 2:1-12Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6Mark 9:2-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I guess there are some people who are fine with arriving at a movie theater just in time for the movie, but I like to get there early.  I like it because I want to see the trailers, the previews of other movies coming out soon.  I like to see what stories are going to be told, how they might make me think or respond, or even how one of the upcoming movies might change me.

This Sunday, this day in which we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus, is a kind of preview.  The scriptures and prayers provide a kind of trailer for the full feature that will be the Season of Lent and Holy Week.  Today is a preview of coming attractions.

The preview begins with our Old Testament reading, as Elijah passes off the role of chief prophet to Elisha.  Elisha, the sort of prophet-in-training, seems to suspect something is about to happen, and so he’s hesitant to let the older prophet out of his sight.  The older one, Elijah, tries to move on ahead, but Elisha refuses to leave him.  Finally, Elijah makes it clear that it’s time for him to REALLY move ahead, to die to this world and to join God.  Elisha doesn’t like this—he’s not only going to lose his teacher and friend, but this also means that the full weight of the prophetic ministry is going to fall on Elisha.  But he keeps quiet and watches.

After asking Elijah for courage and strength and whatever else Elijah can impart to him (characterized as “a double share of your spirit”), Elijah suggests that if Elisha is able to watch all that is about to happen, if he’s able to take it all in, if he’s about to stand firm, and absorb God’s majesty in front of him, then that double spirit of Elijah will be his.  And that’s just what happens.

This movement of Elijah away from Elisha, the inclusion of the spirit that remains, and all of this within the work of God— this is a preview of just what is going to happen between Jesus and his disciples.  Through the days ahead, we’ll see how Jesus keeps moving in front of his disciples, almost as though he’s trying to get away from them.  But what’s really happening is that Jesus is following the call of God, and sometimes he’s just ahead of his friends.  They have to keep catching up, until the time that Jesus has to go part of the way alone.

If this really were a movie preview in a theater, as we approach the Gospel, the music would grow more suspenseful and probably use all of the latest technology to rumble and thunder to great effect.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.  There on the mountain, light settles on Jesus in such a way that he seems to be especially illumined.  The light is not so much from above, or behind, or from below, but just everywhere.  He’s brighter from within somehow.  And then, along with him appear Elijah and Moses.

Elijah represents the great tradition of the prophets, and his presence anoints Jesus as his successor.  Moses, who received the Ten Commandments from God and helped the people of Israel understand the commandments as blessings, and write their message on their hearts—Moses represents the Law of God.  With Moses, Jesus inherits the full weight of the Law and the Commandments, but does just what Moses was trying to get the children of Israel to do—to write the law in their hearts, not just to quote the law of God, as our Prayer Book says, to “show forth [God’s] praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.”

This Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain will reverberate through the whole season of Lent for us.  The power of prophecy will go with Jesus as he speaks the truth to the Devil in the wilderness, as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, as he cuts through the duplicity of Judas, his betrayer.  The love and power of the law is embodied by Jesus as he lives out the laws of God, dealing fairly with people, caring for the poor, and sacrificing his own personal needs, wants, and desires for the sake of the others, of the community, of the whole world.

At the transfiguration, Peter’s response previews a common response of others in the days that lead up to the crucifixion in Jerusalem.  Why rush things?  Why not do some equivalent of building booths, of sitting down and staying a while.  Why not be content with things as they are?  But Jesus will not be held.

He will not be held by Peter on the mount of Transfiguration.  He’ll not be held by sin in the attempt of the religious leaders to bind him in a mock trial and crucifixion.  Jesus won’t be held by the death of the grave.  Even after the Resurrection, Jesus will not be held down by the needs or expectations of Mary Magdalene, the early believers, or even the church in our day.

Though many aspects of what we will encounter are already encountered in today’s readings, perhaps the most important has to do with words the disciples hear and we overhear in the Gospel.  It happens when a cloud overshadows them.  A voice comes out of the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

Those words are powerful enough, but I almost imagine God adding to that, “no matter what.”  “This is my son, Jesus.  Listen to him, no matter what.”  Whether the disciples heard God say something like this, or whether they picked it up through faith, it seems like the disciples did hear something in God’s message that brought encouragement and strength.  And we’re invited to do the same.

Listen to Jesus, no matter what.  Listen to him on days like the Transfiguration.  When we’re overwhelmed by the presence of God, or by the presence of something larger than ourselves.  We feel the weight of our ancestors upon us, and the people closest to us don’t understand.  Listen to Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll journey with Jesus through the desert, through the towns, toward Jerusalem, the cross of Good Friday, and the rising of Easter Sunday.  Through it all, we’re encouraged to listen to Jesus.

When in the wilderness, surrounded by temptation and doubt, listen to Jesus who put the devil in his place and moved on in faithfulness to God.

When we’re feeling weighed down by crosses of our day, listen to him who carried his cross and triumphed over it.

When we’re facing dishonesty and corruption, listen to him who called out the moneychangers and overturned their tables.

When it seems like everything around us is about death and decay, listen to him who was raised from the dead and brings new life to us.

Listen to him.  Pray to him.  Follow him.

Today’s readings and prayers do work a little like a preview to a movie, except for a major difference—this movie is not only about Jesus.  It’s about you and me.  It’s about our life.  In the stories, traditions, and sacraments of this coming season, our lives can take on new meaning and purpose as we hear God say to us:  You are my beloved.  Follow, trust, and believe.

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

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Healed Through Prayer, Touch, and Love

healingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, and Mark 1:29-39.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday was a somewhat obscure date on the church calendar—unless you might happen to be a singer, an actor, or someone else who relies on their voice.  February 3 is the day for commemorating St. Blase, a fourth century bishop and physician in Sebastea, a part of present day Turkey.  As a doctor, Blase was known to have a particular gift of healing when it came to objects stuck in the throat, such as a chicken bone fish bone.  And so, on his day, throats are sometimes blessed, often with a special contraption made of two candles.  An opera singer used to always come to the church I served on St. Blase’s Day, and she affirms that in all her years of singing, she has never missed a performance due to a sore throat!

When we think about healing, we’re moving into complicated territory.  So many things come together when one feels healing—medicine, general condition of the body, the state of the soul, the community, the general condition of one’s surroundings, one’s emotional condition (whether one is worried, or anxious, or free of such burdens).  And then there is God—God stepping into our world in some way, making a miracle, and doing the unexpected, unearned, unmerited, unpredictable thing.

We pray for healing all the time—on Sundays and especially at our Wednesday night Eucharist.  On Wednesdays, we also invite people to come forward and ask for prayers of healing for themselves or for others.  The minister prayers with the person, lays hands on their shoulder or head, and anoints the forehead with holy oil. When we offer such prayers for healing– whether it’s a layperson or someone who is ordained, whether we anoint with oil, or offer the simplest prayers possible– what are doing is BEING the church at its most basic, most fundamental, and most essential.

What we do does not replace a medical doctor.  It doesn’t make up for eating a balanced diet, getting some exercise and generally trying to live a good life.  We do not deal in superstition and we don’t offer magic.  What we offer is sacramental—a blessed combination of prayer and touch and love.  This is what the church of Jesus Christ offers when it offers healing:  it offers prayer, touch and love.

In today’s Gospel, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is healed by Jesus.  He takes her by the hand, lifts her up and the fever leaves her.  Later that same day, people bring to Jesus those who are sick and those who have demons. The sick and the possessed were not allowed in the synagogue or the temple.   These were people who had run out of options.  They didn’t have anywhere else to turn, and so they turned to Jesus.  And he healed them.  Jesus then continues to heal throughout Galilee, in the towns and in the synagogues.  Praying, touching and loving.

Jesus healed people from sickness and from demons.  But he also healed them from and with their surroundings.  He healed public reaction to those who were feared because they were sick, feared because they were different, feared because society had labeled them “unclean.”  I wonder if we ever need that kind of healing, when we encounter another who is sick?  How do we respond to the sick?  What do we say to someone who is newly diagnosed?  What do we say when someone’s treatments are not going well?

So often, if we’re not careful, unconsciously we can begin to pull back, and to move away ever so slightly.  We might justify our distance by saying that we don’t want to say anything stupid, or we think our friend might just need a little space.

But the way of healing (for Jesus and for us) is to move forward.

Jesus always moves toward people—into their neighborhoods, into their homes, into their lives with prayer, touch and love.

Prayer is the first part, and it may seem like the easy part, but it’s the foundation, and we’ll lose our nerve to go any further if we are grounded in prayer.  When I pray for someone to get better or to be healed, I try really hard to be honest with God.  I know that part about “praying that God’s will would be done above all,” but I’m honest when I pray for someone and I ask God to make the person better, to take away the sickness, to make the person strong again.  One way I pray for another’s healing is simply to picture the person in the fullness of health—vibrant, happy, at ease.  That image of the person becomes my prayer as I hold that image in my mind for a minute or two and then imagine the person being that healthy and happy person in the presence of God.

We offer prayer as a part of healing, but we also offer touch.  The touch part of healing has to do with proximity.  Mindful that we live in a complicated age, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we smother one another in hugs and holds.  Touch can be as exclusive as it can be inclusive.  But there are many, many ways of showing physical presence while allowing for personal space.  Closeness has as much to do with an open posture, with eye contact, with fewer words and with more deeply hearing ears.

We pray, we touch, and with the two, if we’re about healing, then we offer love.  Love can be accepting and warm and soothing.  And sometimes it just needs to be present in calm, quiet ways.  But sometimes love is louder and tougher and more direct.  Soft love for an addict is called enabling.   Love always, always, always has to do with the truth.

But healing almost always leaves us with questions.  A few years ago, there was a wonderful movie called “Leap of Faith” that beautifully presents some of the questions around healing.  It starred Steve Martin as a traveling faith healer named Jonas Nightingale.  Jonas and his crew roll from town to town, almost like a travelling circus. With cameras that watch the crowd, with recording devices and old tricks, they manufacture and manipulate situations that appear to be acts of spontaneous healing, and then they count the money while it rolls in.  For the most part, the act gives people a good show.  Jonas and his crew are careful to keep the real sick people at the back of the room, so that only the ones they’ve planted will appear to be healed and things won’t get messy.

The act goes well enough until the group is traveling between towns and gets stuck in Rustwater, Kansas.  The town is aptly named because it’s undergoing a draught.  Crops are failing. People are on hard times.  And so the people are eager for miracles and attend the revival offered by Jonas.

But then, just as the faith-healer’s assistant is beginning to question her own involvement in the operation, a teenager who was hurt in a car accident and can’t walk without crutches and braces comes forward in the revival and asks to be healed.  Jonas ignores him and ends the show.  But the crowd is chanting, “one more, one more.”  Reluctantly, and fearfully, Jonas goes back out and tries his theatrical best to invoke some kind of power around the teenager named Boyd.  Boyd struggles to make his way toward a crucifix that is hanging, and as the movie music builds and the congregation gasps and Jonas himself isn’t sure what will happen next, Boyd’s one crutch falls away and he’s still standing.  Eventually, the other falls away and he’s able to walk a bit.  Jonas doesn’t know what to do with this.  His character doesn’t immediately believe, but he knows that his own bluff has been called.  Later, as he gets a ride out of town, a thunderstorm hits, with rain falling and blessing and answering the prayers of all the faithful.

While the story is fictitious and is embellished with all that Hollywood can throw in, it raises some good questions.  How are healing and prayer connected?  Does one’s moral character affect healing in any way?  Does the faith of the individual matter as much as the faith of the community?

These are questions we live out as we continue to pray, to touch and accept holy touch, to love and to be loved.  Jesus cast out demons and healed people with prayer and touch and love.

With the help of St. Blase and all the saints, may we be healed through Jesus the Great Physician, and may we offer this healing to the world.

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

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