Being Pentecostal

Keith Haring GraphicA sermon for the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21Psalm 104:25-35, 371 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23

Listen to the sermon HERE.

When I was in high school, there were two girls in our classes who always wore long skirts. Their hair was very long—it seemed like they never cut it, but either wore it tied back, or fastened in a bun of some kind. They never wore makeup, and everyone knew (or my friends, at least knew) that Lisa and Lori were from a Pentecostal family. For a while, I thought that these two girls and their families were what Pentecostal looked like. Until I became friends with Rachel.

Rachel’s father was a Pentecostal minister, but Rachel wore makeup, was a cheerleader at high school, and her whole family seemed like most other people, except that their church was a called a Church of God, and their belief was that one is baptized by water, but one is also baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that second baptism causes one to speak in tongues. Others are given the gift of interpreting tongues. And so, knowing Rachel and her family, who were very modern but also spoke in tongues—I thought they were what Pentecostals looked like.

That word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.

The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like my friends I mentioned in the beginning of this sermon.

But there are other spiritual gifts. In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture. There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.

As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but I have been witness to that gift being manifest through languages that others don’t understand. Instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish, like the Word of God we hear about in scripture “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly).

Being Pentecostal looks like a lot of us….
Trinity Cares
Volunteers in HTNC
Music program
People who pray for others…

On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. The spirit stirs and sings. The spirit crashes and calms. The spirit tears down what is old, or broken, or dead in order to make room for new life:for energy, hope, and resurrection. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us be faithful Pentecostals.

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Inviting the Spirit

Fiery Heart

A homily for Evensong on the Eve of Pentecost, June 3, 2017.  The readings are Exodus 19:1-8, 16-20 and 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Listen to the homily HERE.

The late comedian and actor Robin Williams was also an Episcopalian and during the height of the David Letterman show and the nightly listing of the “top ten things” for this or that, Robin Williams compiled a list he called, “The Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian.”  On his list, number 6 says simply “Pew aerobics.”  We sit, we stand, we kneel.

There is a lot of up and down.

To some extent our “pew aerobics” are intended to go along with our words and our intentions.  The Book of Common Prayer is very careful to suggest postures, not to control people in worship, but because of the idea that posture can promote or encourage particular feelings.

God’s people stand for joy, in full gratitude that God has blessed us to such an extent as to be born in the world as one of us, to become incarnate, and to honor the material world.

We sometimes kneel when we’re sorry—for ourselves or for others.  We kneel when we feel small and need to ask for care or guidance or direction.

And we sit to listen or to be in community.  Sometimes we sit when we’re worn out and don’t have the energy or physical ability to do anything else.

So there’s a lot of up and down to our posture, just as there’s a lot of up and down in our lives—times to celebrate and times to despair.

The up and down nature of things also pertains to God, as people have tried to get their minds around God.  Almost every religion somehow imagines the divinity as being “up” and the opposite of divinity as being “down.”

Our first reading from scripture includes this idea in a way that many of us have probably felt.  Moses meets God in the mountains.  High up, with a perspective that can see miles away, with the air a little thinner and cleaner.  High on a mountain, one can surely meet God.

The Church has just celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we have heard stories, prayed prayers, and sung music about Christ going “up.” And in fact, the anthem the choir sings in just a few minutes underscores this point.

And yet, even as the anthem quotes Psalm 47, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout,” the anthem continues by reminding us of other psalms, especially Psalm 24:, “Life up your heads, O gates, and let the King of Glory in.”

In the anthem, as in our worship, as in our lives, there’s a tension between locating God—that Higher Power, that Source of All Being, that “something” that is BEYOND, while at the same time, being somehow “WITHIN.”

In the Christian tradition, we hear Jesus say again and again in the Gospels, “Don’t look for the kingdom of God over there, or far away.  The Kingdom of God (God’s fullest presence) is already among you.  Look within yourself.  Look at your neighbor.

We gather on the Eve of Pentecost, that day in which the early followers of Jesus saw and felt God’s Spirit in a radically new way. Pentecost brings many messages and, in fact, we have a whole season of Sundays to reflect on what it means that the full Spirit of God lives among us and within us, but especially around the Day of Pentecost, I think it’s helpful to recall that the Spirit of God comes whenever called.

God’s Spirit may not show up exactly the way we imagine—we’ll hear tomorrow how those early followers of Jesus were blown away by the Spirit’s presence—it was nothing like what they were expecting.  But God comes when invited, when called, when invoked.

The Second reading from scripture that we heard comes from St. Peter who tries to remind his audience (and us) that we are God’s beloved.  God has created each one of us not as lifeless rocks to be thrown away or ignored, but as “living stones,” spiritual bodies—in God’s eyes capable, precious, and beautiful.

The Gifts of the Spirit are ours for the asking.  God is ours for the asking. Perhaps we ask with words. Perhaps we ask with our bodies.  Perhaps we ask in silence.  Perhaps we ask with music.

At the end of our Evensong this afternoon, we’ll sing the wonderful old hymn, “Come down, O Love divine.”  The familiar tune is by Ralph Vaughan Williams but the words are by Richard Frederick Littledale, who was an Anglican priest who was deeply affected by the English Pre-Raphaelites.  He joined many in idealizing much of the medieval Church and piety and loved the words of the Bianca da Siena, a 14th century Italian mystic.  “Come down, O Love Divine,” invites God into our hearts, to comfort, to burn away whatever is extra or needs to go, and to warm our hearts so that a flame of love can burn within us.

Though the images of God’s being up or down might help us to think about our own place in creation, and gain a new perspective, may we always remember that God is neither up or down, in or out, but always and everywhere as close as our breath—if only we ask.

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

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Prayer Ascending

AscensionA sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, May 28, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, and John 17:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On Thursday, the Church celebrated Ascension Day, the day, 40 days after the Resurrection of Jesus, that is described by the Book of Acts.  Jesus, after talking with his disciples, is lifted up into a cloud. When he has vanished, two men in white robes stand there and say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11.

This phrase, “Why do you stand there looking for Jesus?” becomes a phrase throughout the liturgy for Ascension Day. In churches where the day is celebrated with a full solemn Mass, the music echoes this question. In our own liturgy, the first reading asks this question, and our worship asks it of us:  Where do we look for Jesus?

The Gospel we just heard comes from John, as Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for the life ahead, for life without him. Jesus knows that their faith will be tested. It will be hard to keep faith in his teachings when he is gone. And so Jesus leaves gives his disciples several tremendous gifts.

He gives the gift of his body and blood through the mysteries of the sacraments.

He gives his Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate especially next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost.

And Jesus gives his disciples, and all who follow in their way (including us) the gift of prayer.

It is this third gift, the gift of prayer, that I want to focus on today.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and friends whom he loves. He asks God to protect the disciples and for “those who will believe through the word.” Notice that he doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through his followers that the world can be changed—but he does ask God to protect us from evil, to keep an eye on us, to look out for us, to keep us close.

Jesus prays for us, and this means everything. It means that there is a constant link between us and God, even when we might feel like we haven’t really done our part, or when we feel like we might have messed up that link. That Jesus prays for us means that when we have a tough decision to make, it means we don’t make it alone—because he’s praying for us and with us. It means that even as we try to figure out what it means to be a person of faith and integrity in relationships, at work, in social settings… Jesus prays for us, and is pulling for us to figure it out, and make our way through.

Jesus prays for us and it’s his love that carries the weight of the prayer. It’s his love for us that keeps that prayer in the presence of the Father. When we add our love, then there’s even more in the conversation, and in the exchange of prayer—the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between—that we grow in relationship with the Holy Trinity.

Margaret Guenther was a wonder priest and spiritual director who died last year.  She had been a lay person in this parish and then was ordained from here.  She taught at General Seminary and was a great friend to many.  In one of her books, she writes about prayer as a conversation:

A good conversation is like a dance. The partners are aware of each other, attuned to each other, sensitive to nuances in tempo and rhythm. A good conversation with a friend—in contrast to idle chitchat with an acquaintance—allows space for pauses. There is no need to fill every minute, for there is comfort in the intimacy of shared silence. A good conversation is generous: each partner brings the gift of willing attentiveness. [And] listening is an important and as dynamic as speaking” (The Practice of Prayer, p. 20).

Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves. But sometimes our prayers life becomes a little stagnant. We get into habits and miss some of the conversation God might be trying to have with us. One way to try praying more, or differently, is to adjust the kind of prayers we make. ACTS is often used as an acronym for remembers some of the types of prayer.

A stands for adoration. Adoration can happen with words or with in silence. We can adore with posture, as we kneel or lie prostrate, or simply open our hands to God. Adoration of God is like sitting in the sun and simply feeling the warmth, allowing the light to reflect on us and in us. Adoration helps us move out of ourselves and more into God.

C stands for confession. And confession is not a repeated rehearsal ad infinitum of things done and left undone. Confession speaks the truth and then lets go, confident that God has heard our prayer and is already working on us in forgiveness. If you confess and can’t let go—that’s a good time to see a priest or a spiritual advisor and perhaps try the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confession, (as can be found in our Prayer Book beginning on page 446.)

T stands for thanksgiving. God doesn’t need thank you notes. But God blesses even further our recognition that we are gifted, that life is a gift, that friends and family are gifts, that all the stuff we fill our lives with are gifts loaned to us. Prayers of thanksgiving are said, sung, lived out, and spread around (as we show thanksgiving by helping others who are less fortunate.)

And S stands for supplication, asking outright (including prayers for others and prayers for ourselves.) Madonna (the rock star, not the Mother of God) once said something that has a lot of truth for one’s prayer life. She said, “Most people never get what they want in life—because they never ask for it.” In prayer, we ask God for what we want—even if we don’t know for sure whether it’s a part of God’s will. God will work out the details, but God can only work with us when we’re able to be honest.

Jesus prays for us and with us, giving us courage to ask for what we want and enact prayerfully what God wants.

That question from the two angels in the Book of Acts still hangs in the room, but I think we can answer it. “Why do we stand here looking for Jesus?” “Well, we don’t,” we might respond. We continue to enjoy his presence and power—through the sacraments, with the Holy Spirit, and in the continued experience of prayer—the prayers we pray, and the prayers that are prayed for us and in us. Thanks be to God for the gift and conversation of prayer.

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

 

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God with Skin On

Large group of people in the cross shape.
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017. The lectionary readings are Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:7-181 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s scriptures remind me of an old preacher’s story about a little girl who can’t get to sleep. She knocks on the door of her parents’ room and says, “I can’t sleep.” One parent gets up, goes with the little girl child back to her room, gets her back into bed, and tries to offer reassurance and comfort. The parent says, “You know that we love you, right?” “Yes,” nods the child. “And you know that God loves you, right?” “Yes,” again, says the little girl.  “And you know that God will be right here with you, watching over you all night long. You know that, too, don’t you?” The little girl says yes, and smiles as the parent kisses her good night and turns out the light.

A few minutes later, there’s a knock on the parents’ door. “Yes?” they ask.  The little girl explains, “I know God is with me all night long. But can I still sleep with you? Right now, I need God with skin on.”

“God with skin on” is the God I worship and serve, the God we celebrate and praise in this place, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam, the God of David and Bathsheba, the God of Mary and Joseph who became incarnate—who was made flesh—in order to live and walk and love and die and rise again for us. Ours is a God with skin on.

In our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul interacts with some sophisticated people. He’s in Athens and has come to the Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill). It was a great place of meeting in Athens. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another. And while Paul respects his audience, and takes seriously their various beliefs, he nonetheless articulates his own view. Even more powerfully, he spells out his belief borne out of his own experience.

Paul says, “As I went through your city, saw an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” “Well, I’m here to tell you,” says Paul, that “what you worship as unknown, I can proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth. God doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands, and is not served by human hands. God doesn’t need anything, but rather, it is God who has given to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Paul goes on to quote a saying that seems to have been known by everyone in Athens, “For we too are his offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, there’s a connection we’re born with, we’re created in God’s image. We are flesh and blood, of divine design, consecrated, made holy, made new by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and made new every day that we awaken with faith in him.

Jesus is God with skin on. And faith in Jesus Christ is an embodied faith. Faith is dead if it just exists in prayers that are said, or sung, or imagined. Faith only lives when it is embodied, when it is enacted. Though we don’t work our way into heaven, or gets God’s attention or blessing by working especially hard or holy; as St. James says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

“God with skin on” is a way of explaining what the church means by “incarnation.”  It’s faith becoming flesh, but also faith becoming material, becoming real—whatever that might look like in our own lives.  We read in scripture that “Faith without works, is dead.”  But often, I think many (and many of us, perhaps) work with faith every day, but we don’t always notice it, or make much of it.

Too often, we tend to separate in our minds the things we do and think and say when we’re at church, from the things we do and say and think during the week at work. But if your body shows up for work, you are taking Christ there. If your heart is in the office, then a sanctified and redeemed soul is also at your desk.

Dorothy Sayers put it well when she complained that work and religion had, too much, become separate departments in life.

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter [she complained] is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church, by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? [Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (London: Methuen, 1947), 58-59, quoted in Armand Larive, After Sunday: A Theology of Work (New York: Continuum, 2004), 64.]

If you work for the city or in the legal profession, let justice and the vision of God be a part of your work. If you teach, let the compassion and humor of Jesus be in your words and teaching. If you drive, then do so with purpose and clarity. If you write or edit, then do it with honesty and integrity. If you deal with people in any way, try to see them as fellow sisters and brothers made in the image of God. If you volunteer, then offer your service in gratitude for all God has done for you.

Whether we make tables, or decision; whether we cook up a meal, or cook up a business deal, we are the Body of Christ moving and shaping the world. We—as we move, and pray, and struggle, and heal, and fall, and are raised up again—we are called to be “God with skin on.”

Frederick Buechner, the preacher and writer, reminds us that, “Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth, but our bodies and our earth themselves.” [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a seeker’s ABC (NY: Harper & Row, 1972) 43]

Jesus said to his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live….They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me… and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Christ reveals himself to us and through us to the world.  Graced by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may we show the risen Christ to one another and to the world. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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Christ our Dwelling Place

 

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, Woman of Faith and Secretary of Labor (1933-1945)

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14,2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel includes a passage that often gives a word of hope and assurance, especially in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. It’s a roadmap for living, a roadmap for THIS life.  As such, it’s a roadmap that involves a choice, a place, and what might be called a “posse.”

“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sometimes sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We can choose whether to have troubled hearts, or untroubled hearts. This suggests that we’re not always spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he lets God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr.

Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.

Jesus talks about a place for us. Like Tony sings to Maria in West Side Story, like Virginia Woolf longed for in her essay, like Carrie Underwood sings today,—there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.

When Jesus says “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in Florida. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.

When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a posse.

We might think of a “posse” as a bunch of people brought together in a Western to go and catch the bad guys, or might know “posse’ as more of a street term.  In fact, The Urban Dictionary defines posse as “your crew, your homies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.” In Medieval Latin, the posse comitatus meant literally, the “power of the county.” And this is how it came to refer to a common law idea of a group of people who were given authority to catch criminals.

But those early apostles were also called together as a posse.  They were given authority by the Holy Spirit. Every time the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how they might get there, what do they should do about this or that— each time, Jesus answers with relationship.

He says: You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another.

Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have their posse—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. In other words, “we’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world.”

On this day that’s celebrated as Mothers’ Day in our country, I think of someone who understood today’s Gospel and followed the Way, the Truth, and the Light in a complicated world.  Yesterday, in the Episcopal Church, we commemorated a woman named Frances Perkins.  Perkins was a New Yorker, educated at Mt. Holyoke and Columbia, and especially when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened in 1911, killing 145 workers, Frances Perkins was especially compelled to advocate for workers.  Her passion caught the attention of the newly President Franklin Roosevelt, who asked her to consider being her Secretary of Labor.

Frances had a choice to make.  Should she stay in NY and do what she could?  Should she devote more time to her husband and her daughter (both of whom, today, would probably be diagnosed with manic depression)?  Or should she go forward.

As she moved to Washington, France Perkins found a church home at St. James Church, Capitol Hill.  There, she would attend Morning Prayer and have coffee with the rector afterwards.  It is said that many of her ideas were prayed over and then talked about in the rectory—ideas like a minimum wage for workers, a legal age to keep children out of the workplace, the program that would become Social Security, and other programs that changed the lives of many.

And finally, as lonely as it must have been to be the first woman cabinet member in Washington, Frances Perkins knew she was surrounded by other people of faith—praying for her, praying with her.

Trouble, difficulty, and challenge all come our way.  That’s a part of life, even when we have faith.  But we always have a choice on how to respond.  We have place that is a presence.  And we have a posse.

W.H. Auden says it so beautifully when he writes in the chorus of his Christmas Oratorio

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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

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The Gate that’s Always Open

garden gateA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” May 7, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25, and John 10:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This Sunday is often nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of the images that come from today’s Gospel. Images of shepherd and sheep run throughout the scripture readings.

The first reading we heard this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks about the diet of those early sheep, if we are allowed to refer to those first followers of Jesus as “sheep.” They fed on a steady stream of teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the ritual breaking of bread, recalling how Christ broke bread with his disciples. Those first Christians didn’t keep the good stuff for themselves, either. They went to the temple, they shared their food with one another and those who came their way, earning goodwill among all. So, it’s no wonder that “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The second reading also echoes the theme as it equates the life lived before Christ as being one of “going astray like sheep.” Before understanding the depth of God’s love—before seeing Christ as God-with-us—Peter says we were like sheep. We were busy darting this way and that, going toward anything that looked like food or fun, losing our way, not really caring, and not even noticing when sometimes we simply fell off a cliff, in pursuit of something that caught our eye. But now, Peter says, now we have returned to the shepherd, we’ve come home to ever-forgiving, ever-renewing love. We’ve come back to the shepherd, to the guardian of our souls.

It is Good Shepherd Sunday. But if we look closely at our gospel, the part that identifies Jesus with the shepherd doesn’t appear in the section we read. It’s in John 10:11 that Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the section of the Gospel for today, Jesus talks more about how one reaches the shepherd, the sheepfold, the place of welcome and refuge, the place of safety. And the way one reaches this place is through a gate.

In today’s Gospel, Christ speaks of himself as the gate. “I am the gate for the sheep … I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The gate is the way, the opening. The gate involves a choice—one can either go through it and see where it leads, or one can try to get more information about what it opens to. Or one can simply stand back, decide not to even try to enter. Standing back perhaps afraid or feeling unworthy, like the invitation hasn’t yet arrives.

We regard and navigate the gates of faith in various ways. Sometimes we see a gate ahead, but it’s so overgrown with other things that it won’t really open. The gate needs to be cleaned off in order to work. Maybe vines and weeds have gotten in the way. Maybe the hinges are shot or the latch is tricky. To enter the gate of Christ, sometimes our image of Christ has been overgrown with old ideas, with bad theology, with the wounds of personal experience. All kinds of things can obscure who Christ wants to be for us, and so Christ as gate to heaven, gate to God, is not easily opened.

At other times, we might sense the gate ahead, but try our own way instead. We might try to cut through the brush all alone, or scale the wall, or get around through some other method. We do this with the gate that is Christ, as well.

I have great respect for other religions and other paths of spirituality, but there is a unique opening Christ provides. God-in-human-form is not at the heart of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. Those and other ways can be road maps, but as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, there is something rare and individual about seeking God through Jesus Christ.

The gate that is Christ is not a wide-open, always easily entered thoroughfare. It can be narrow, as he says when he tells the disciples, ““Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14).

In baptism, we open the gate that is Christ together and help the baby, or child, or adult step through. That movement of repentance and falling into the arms of God, and in so doing, moving through the gate of Christ—that movement sets a pattern that stays in us all our life. We simply recall that way, that movement, and let God pull us through—again and again and again.

We can sometimes get confused that WE are the gate by imagining that the work of salvation is ours to accomplish—ours to build the church, ours to accomplish justice, ours to create love. And while we are the Body of Christ in the world (his arms, his legs, his mouth and his heart), it is through the love of God, the power of God that we’re able to accomplish anything. And so we remember that Christ is the gate, and no ourselves.

And finally, the gate that is Christ can seem too difficult at times. It can look too heavy to move, too complicated to operate, too much of a different time or era. But if we walk up closer, if we team up with others and accept their help, the gate begins to open. We do this by praying with others and learning from them. We do this by studying with others. We do this by working and serving with others. The gate can appear to be too challenging in some way, but if we walk up close, if we step through, we find it to be easy.
Though of you who have studied Jerusalem or visited there may know that the Old City is a city of gates.

Eleven in all, today seven of these great gates and entrances are still open. One of the most famous is the so-called Golden Gate, sometimes referred to in scripture as the Beautiful Gate. This one is in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount just across from the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives.  Tradition says that after Jesus had visited Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, he used the Golden Gate. It was this gate through which Jesus must have entered the city on Palm Sunday and the one through which he probably left the city to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the Golden Gate that Jesus passed through forty days after the Resurrection and near the site from which we left this earth in the vision of the Ascension.

In the book of Zechariah, the prophet tells that the messiah will come through the Mount of Olives, through the Golden Gate. So it was partly to put a stop such hopes that in the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent,   sealed up the Golden Gate. And it stays sealed today.

The closed-up, sealed Golden Gate of Jerusalem is a powerful symbol of what our faith should NOT be. We don’t gather in a museum, as beautiful and historic as our churches may be. We don’t muse over archeology and find our meaning there. We don’t live in hopes for a messiah or even in the stories of where Jesus may have walked (or may not have.)

Instead, we’re called to engage a living Christ, to move through a living gate that changes, that opens in different ways, that calls and compels us to new faith each day.

May the risen Christ continue to make himself known to us, to open himself to us, and lead us to new faithfulness.

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

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Waking Up

Wallace waking upA sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:14a,36-41Psalm 116:1-3, 10-171 Peter 1:17-23, and Luke 24:13-35

Listen to the 6 PM version of the homily HERE.

What does it take to wake you up?

An alarm clock? A strong cup of coffee? An elbow in the rib?

Most days, it only takes a wet nose and a “plop” as our 2-year-old dog jumps on the bed next to me around 4:30 in the morning.  I pet her, push her slightly down, and it’s as good as pressing the “snooze” button on the alarm clock.  We’re good for another 30 minutes.  But at 5, we’re up and off to the park.

Some wake up to a rooster crow, and others wake up to the sound of a trash truck.

For the cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit, it takes a little more than any of that. There’s an alarm that triggers a tea kettle, which makes steam which activates a giant hand that pokes the underside of the bed. Then there’s the smell of cheese—a good Stilton or “Stinky Bishop,” usually—and then a spring-loaded bed, a slide, a chute that lands them into their clothes, with a cup of coffee made just like they like it.

We wake up, of course, not only in the morning, but all kinds of things can jolt us awake. Someone swerving into our lane on the road. A change in what we thought was to be our employment for the rest of our life. A child, a niece or nephew, or a grandchild. An unexpected test result from the doctor. And then, the other extreme, after worry and fear, we receive clean results from the doctor, and life is different from before.

We awaken in different ways and at different times.

In today’s first lesson, Peter follows in the footsteps of John the Baptist, trying to wake people up spiritually. His method is a bit blunt, a little like trying to wake up someone by throwing cold water on them. Peter says, “This Jesus, whom you allowed to be put to death—this is the Messiah.” “There’s a lot to answer for, so repent, get your lives in order, get right with God, be baptized and make a new start.”

Peter’s wake-up call seems effective, as the Acts of Apostles reports some three thousand persons were baptized and welcomed into the faith.

In some ways, the whole Easter Story is about the different ways in which people wake up to new faith, and wake up to new life.

One of the criminals who dies alongside Jesus wakes up the reality of the life that is possible. He doesn’t have to die alone. He doesn’t have to re-live his past over and over again. There’s another way, and so he asks for it. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

There’s Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb that first Easter morning. She has awakened early from sleep, but after she finds the empty tomb, comes into contact with the gardener-who-is-really-God, Mary wakes up to the reality that Jesus is risen from the dead.

Last Sunday we heard how Thomas is trapped in the nightmare of his worries and fears and disbelieving. He struggles to accept what the others seem so easily to believe. Thomas wants proof, and then when proof stands right in front of him, Thomas, too, finally wakes up.

In the Gospel from Luke, the wake-up call is gentler, but no less dramatic. It’s later on Easter Day and Cleopas and one of the other disciples—perhaps Luke—are on their way home from Jerusalem. A stranger joins them, and the stranger seems to know all about what’s happened in Jerusalem, and he’s able to put it all into the context of scripture and prophecy.

The disciples and their guest go home. They continue the conversation, and almost casually, they share a meal. And then they notice a pattern. Just like in the Upper Room, just like that Passover Meal, just like the bread and cup they shared the night of Jesus’ arrest… Jesus “took the bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” And their eyes are opened. They recognize him. They wake up.

They wake up to love: the love of God that would not leave them without comfort. The love of God that would befriend, that would die in the place of, that would extend mercy and compassion and forgiveness even from the cross.

They awaken to peace: peace that transcends any and all understanding; peace that is no wimpy peace—this is a peace that has defeated death, that has won victory over violence and put evil in the grave, slammed down the lid and danced on it.

They wake up to the possibility of forgiveness: forgiveness that is beyond imagination, beyond human doing, but by God, through Christ, propelled by the Holy Spirit forgiveness then moves through each of us as we extend it to one another. Forgiveness is never deserved, never earned, never timely, but is always a grace given.

Life wakes us up, but unlike little children who sometimes wake up cranky and disoriented, we can choose how we respond when something wakes us up.

When a notorious criminal or terrorist is stopped, we are naturally relieved at some level, but we can choose how we wake up to that news—do we celebrate with savagery or do we allow God to awaken some deeper meaning for our lives?

As people around our country awaken to flood waters and devastation from storms, do we choose to remain sleepy and ignore their reality, or do we think with wakeful creativity and compassion how we might help?

The 13th century Sufi and mystic Rumi has a wonderful poem that strikes the spirit of an Emmaus awakening. He writes

The early breeze before dawn
is the keeper of secrets.
Don’t go back to sleep!
It is time for prayer, it is time to ask for
what you really need.
Don’t go back to sleep!
The door of the One who created the world
is always open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

–Translation by Azima Melita Kolin and Maryam Mafi, “Rumi: Hidden Music” HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2001.

As followers of Jesus Christ we have been awakened to the possibility of new life.

There is a whole world to wake up to.

God invites us to wakeful watchfulness, so that we might help wake up the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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The Desire for God

ThomasA sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:14a,22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and John 20:19-31.

People sometimes get frustrated with the Episcopal Church and the fact that our tradition offers a lot of room for interpretation.  Especially confused (and sometimes angered) are those coming from other traditions, in which doctrines and beliefs are more clearly defined. I think of some of the standard questions such as:

Do Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion?  Well–, many do, some don’t, and most probably don’t worry themselves too much about it.

At what age should children be baptized or begin receiving Communion?  It varies.

How many Sacraments are there, anyway?  Seven or just two?  Well, as our Catechism (way in the back of the Book of Common Prayer) puts it, there are “Two great sacraments” (Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist) and there are other “sacramental rites” which include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.  “Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are” (p. 860).

I know this kind of language drives some people crazy.  I also know that it makes our job a lot harder if we’re trying to explain our faith or our tradition.  But I’m grateful for the breadth and generosity of our tradition.  It means there’s room for me.  There’s room for you.  There’s room for just about everybody because God understands we come to faith differently.  God made us that way.

Some people’s faith depends upon signs. Others believe in Jesus without a sign. Some need miracles. Others don’t. Some have faith that is weak, some strong. Some have shallow faith, some have deep faith. These different kinds of faith can be seen especially when we look at the various reactions to the resurrection.

On this second Sunday of Easter, as we continue to reflect on the resurrection and its meaning, we can notice where we are on the spectrum of faith and doubt, and we can be encouraged by the different ways the first followers of Jesus came to believe.

Think of those first witnesses and how they responded to Jesus:

Mary Magdalene had faith that took her to the tomb and she saw the risen Lord through her tears.

The two disciples were walking to Emmaus talked to a stranger.  Their faith led them to extend hospitality, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

Some of the other disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith led them back to work, and they saw the risen Lord in the midst of their work, and when they reached land, he made them breakfast.

Later, as we hear in today’s Gospel, when some of the disciples seemed to lose faith, they hid out in a locked room and tried to sort things out. But even there—or perhaps especially there in the midst of their fear and worry—the Risen Lord appeared to them, too.

For Thomas the Apostle, it wasn’t enough to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. These stories all sounded like wishing thinking, or people letting their emotions and hopes get the best of them. Thomas needed more.

And while we tend to describe Thomas as having a lack of faith—for Thomas, this simply IS his way of faith. It is a way that takes nothing for granted.  It’s a way that is willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward. In fact, it’s really Thomas’s DESIRE for faith that moves him forward.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body still bearing the wounds. The story doesn’t tell us if Thomas actually touches the wounds. There is room for our imagination. Artists through the ages interpret this scene differently.  Some show Thomas actually poking his finger in the side of Jesus.  Others show a distance between Thomas and Jesus.  But that distance is important to remember.  It’s the same kind of distance as the one shown between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  It doesn’t represent separation.  It represents movement toward the other.

What crosses the distance is desire, what bridges the gap, is God’s desire for us, and our desire for God.

Too often, I think we hide our desire—to desire shows vulnerability, need, and the admission that we’re not complete within ourselves.  It’s easier for us (individuals and churches) to show a veneer—doctrines, rules, regulations, barriers, and hurdles.  This is why so many people have made a distinction between what they perceive as “religion” (the rules and doctrines that confine and judge) as opposed to “spirituality” (an openness to creativity and curiosity about God.) At our best, the Episcopal way (especially) encourages both a religious practice and a spirituality that grows and changes over time.

Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that points to the space between us and God, the space in which we grow and move towards God.  His prayer asks,

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Like with Mary Magdalene, like with Thomas, our desire is enough.

The Luke version of the Passion contains a scene that should always be at the heart of  Christianity.  One of the criminals who is being crucified with Jesus asks him from the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

It really is just that simple.  Christ is risen for us all and reveals himself to all who look for him, who hope for him, who desire him.

Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. He is risen for the dishonest and lazy, the broken and beyond repair.  Christ is risen for those who are afraid, and he is risen for those who doubt.  The Lord is risen for us all. Alleluia.

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

 

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Christ Rising

tangereA sermon for Easter Day, April 16, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On Easter morning, Mary goes to the tomb, looking for Jesus. She finds him there, though she doesn’t recognize him at the beginning. She looks through her tears and sees the risen Lord. The other disciples scatter, returning to families or work.  But they, too find the Risen Christ, as he greets them on the beach and in a locked room.  Thomas stands out for finally seeing and accepting the Risen Christ, but Thomas has to look honestly through his doubt, and then he sees.  After the crucifixion, some return to their families, others go back to fishing, but after a time they come together in a locked room, and there they see Jesus. Thomas looks through his doubt and sees Jesus.

The Risen Christ meets us, but we might see him in very different places.  Where do you look for him? In scripture? In music? In friends or family? In tradition? In prayer? In political action or process? In medicine or art?  Where to you encounter Christ?

A friend who is a minister in Maryland, told a story about a woman who went looking for Christ deep within her own grief. Actually, I don’t know that she was even looking for Christ.  She was looking for her husband, for some healing or hope around his death.  And perhaps, she was also looking for herself, wondering who she was, now that he had died.

My former colleague, Terry, had served a parish for a few years in Ohio.  And that part of Ohio was known for its long, cold, and wet winters.

Elizabeth was a long-time parishioner of his church.  She and James had gotten married young, but the start of their marriage was rough.  James suffered from PTSD from fighting in Vietnam, and it almost broke up their marriage.  But they got help, and grew in their love for each other and their love of God.  After about eighteen good years together, James came down with a sudden illness, and died.

It was too soon.  Too much was unfinished.  He was too young, and Elizabeth was devastated. He had died too young, and she was completely unprepared for life without him.

During the whole first year of James’s death, Elizabeth could not bring herself to visit the cemetery.  She just couldn’t, even though she could walk to it, in their small town.  It was the sort of town where everyone knew everyone, but no one knew how to help Elizabeth in her grief.

But finally, near the first year’s anniversary, Elizabeth came to her pastor, my friend Terry, and asked him if he would meet her at the cemetery on that anniversary morning, at 7:30. Terry agreed, but worried that it would be a pretty bleak visit.  March was wet and cold, and the cemetery would be muddy.  Nothing would be growing or blooming, and he worried the whole depressing scene would just be too much for her.  But he agreed.

The night before the day they met at the cemetery, it had snowed.  Because of the rain over the season, some of the graves had sunken in, so the snow made an impression and marked the graves.  Elizabeth arrived a little early, so she walked up the muddy road and got to the place where her husband was buried. She remembered the funeral.  She remembered her husband, and as she looked across the lonely landscape—trees without leaves, dirt and mud everywhere, and the sunken graves— she started to cry. She cried and cried, as though the finality and reality of her husband’s death was finally setting in.  As she cried, she almost didn’t hear the backhoe, the tractor which belonged to her neighbor, George Smith, the cemetery caretaker.  When she heard it, she was embarrassed to be caught in her grief and tears, so she didn’t even look up.

But she felt an arm around her.  He said, “Why are you crying?” Elizabeth just nodded out toward the graves, and then cried some more. He said to her then, “To me, the snow looks like the white cloths those first women saw when they went to see Jesus. The ground that’s sunken on top of the graves looks that way because none of them is there. They are risen. Go home, Elizabeth, and live!”

She felt his arm withdraw and heard the tractor make its way down the hill.

The cemetery looked different to her. She was no longer afraid. The sun was warming her and she felt better.

When her pastor Terry arrived, Elizabeth met him at the gate of the cemetery, and she looked ten years younger. “Come on,” she said, “I’ll buy you breakfast.” Over coffee, Elizabeth explained to Terry what had happened, how she had gotten so upset, had frozen in her grief, and how George had come at just the right time and said just the right thing.

Terry listened, looked at Elizabeth, and said simply, “That’s fine, Elizabeth.  But George Smith is at his daughter’s house in Columbus this week.”

Christ is risen.  Christ rises still.  Wherever there is pain or need or suffering, Christ still rises. In the midst of joy, and promise, and work well done, Christ still rises. In the midst of work, or play, or challenge, or relationships—good ones, bad ones, ones on the mend—Christ rises.

With Easter hearts that burn within us, let us see and know the Risen Christ, and let us be renewed to be his friends and disciples.

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

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Bearing the Name of Christ

Baptism IconA sermon for the Paschal Vigil, Easter Eve, April 15, 2017.  The lectionary texts for the Eucharist are Romans 6:3-11 and Matthew 28:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

For one of the years while I was in seminary I worked at a little church in South Philadelphia. The church had been formed from two congregations, one Presbyterian and one Episcopalian. Perhaps because of the church’s mixed identity, it was especially open to newcomers and to different kinds of people. In the early 1980’s the church worked very closely with Cambodian and Laotian refugees, many of whom joined the church. Every Sunday morning, in addition to the small congregation that was diverse to start with, there were also five to ten young adults with Down Syndrome and other challenges, who came in a van from a nearby group home. All of them worshipping together. All of them looking for God’s movement in their life and in the world.

One of the most interesting things about this odd little church in South Philadelphia was their baptismal rite—the prayers they used whenever they baptized.  They had carefully blended words from the Episcopal Prayer Book and from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, but they had added something else. So as to remind themselves of their unity in Christ, to remind themselves and the world, that nation of origin didn’t matter, skin color didn’t matter, mental ability, facility with language, physical condition—none of these things were important at the font of Baptism—to remind themselves of this enormous truth, each person received a new name at Baptism.

If I were baptized there, they would say to me, “John Christian, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Susan Christian, I baptize you. José Christian, and so on. In the baptismal liturgy each person was given the name of Christ to follow their own.

Through baptism, we die and rise again in Jesus Christ. We die to sin—to it’s power to overwhelm us, to depress us, to feel like we’ll never be a good person, to feel like we’re unworthy of God. We die to evil—to its temptations, to its subtleties, to its suggestiveness. We die to pride—to always having to have our way, to never listening to the other person, to believing that we are better than others.

And we are born anew. We are born into a Christian community where we are always welcome, always accepted, always able to come home. We are born into a way that builds up, that encourages, that that holds us in the community of faith even we feel like we might have just about fallen out.

Throughout the scriptures we’re told about people who are changed with they come into contact with God. Moses never thought he could lead people. Sarah never thought she could have a child. Paul never thought he would stop persecuting Christians, much less become a great Christian preacher and teacher, himself. And this is connected to Resurrection, as Paul reminds us in tonight’s Epistle,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

The movement of Holy Week allows us to reflect on the events that led up to the crucifixion of Jesus. At the Easter Vigil we reaffirm our baptismal vows. And today we continue to affirm that power of the cross to transform our lives, to lift us up from death and darkness, and to bring us into the light. We give thanks that Christ’s name is engraved on our hearts.

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