Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 3

Easter 3, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

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

There are a few Sundays in the Church year when the best sermon following the Gospel is simply to point at the Altar, and sit down.  This is one of those Sundays.  “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  Point at the Altar.  Any questions?

But, at the risk of over explaining, let’s start with anesthesia.  As you know, doctors give you anesthesia to dull your sense of pain, so that they can introduce difficult things, like scalpels and shifting your organs around.  The anesthesia is what allows them to do what has to be done to—hopefully—make you better.  To heal you.  (This is relevant, I promise.)

And sometimes, for our own self-preservation, grief acts like an anesthetic.  The pain of deep loss is sometimes shut out by shutting down.  The process of mourning can make us oblivious to what is around us, in order that we might have time to be healed.

In today’s Gospel reading, two disciples are walking down the road, talking about the awful things that have happened in the past few days.  Their friend and beloved Rabbi has been brutally executed and buried in a tomb.  And they have heard rumors of his rising from the dead.  And they are terribly confused and heartbroken as they walk together on the road.

And, suddenly, a stranger appears to them, and starts walking with them.  (And this is where the anesthesia comes in.)  We are told that “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  The very person they are talking about, the resurrected Christ of God is suddenly walking with them, the one they were just talking about, and they do not know it is Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

They’ve been kept from seeing what is obvious to us.  They have been “put under,” in a sense, by grief, and they don’t recognize the person who is talking to them.  As they are walking together, the disciples are able to very clearly recite the expectations they had of Jesus.  It’s almost a credal statement when you look at it:

Cleopas says, “Jesus of Nazareth, was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. It is now the third day since these things took place.”

It’s a great opening for a creed, right?  But it’s missing the good parts.  It uses “hope” in a past tense: we had hoped.  And it proclaims the tomb empty, but that does nothing to make hope present tense.  They’re confused, and disappointed, and grieving, and—remember—under the anesthesia.  They are being prevented from seeing that it is Jesus they are telling all this to.  We, of course, know it’s Jesus.  But the “patients” do not.

And it seems kind of unfair that Jesus says to them “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  That’s like the doctor taunting you for not noticing that she is performing surgery on you.  Can the disciples be blamed for not knowing that it is Jesus when, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”?  It’s not their fault they don’t recognize him!

But a closer look reveals that Jesus is not taunting them for not recognizing him on the road.  No, what Jesus is talking about is their inability to connect the dots.  To close the deal.  They’ve got the setup perfectly, they have all the pieces, but they’re missing the main point.  When Cleopas rattles off that narrative creed thing, he stops at the grave, and that is why he uses “hoped” in the past tense, saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  All the clues are laid out in front of them, but their grief stops them from seeing the crucial connection.  In a sense, they don’t believe the resurrection because they didn’t expect the pain and suffering of the Messiah.

The disciples were under the impression that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he has suffered and died, rather than ridden into Jerusalem on a white stallion with an army of elves behind him.  These disciples, like many, figure that the Messiah cannot suffer and die and then still be the one in whom they had hoped.  And that is why Jesus asks them, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

And so now, under the anesthesia of not recognizing the resurrected Jesus, Jesus will do what needs to be done.  He begins with Moses and all the prophets, and shows them how the scriptures point to exactly what has happened.  Jesus can explain to them why he is the answer to their hopes.  Why he is the one to redeem Israel.  And, because they do not recognize him, they can take all this in, without the distraction of the resurrection.  Because of the anesthesia, right?

They’re catching on, but they still don’t see Jesus.  They can tell something is happening as he talks to them (they say that their hearts were burning within them), but the one talking is still a stranger in their eyes.  Still the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has happened these past few days.  And then they come to the place where the disciples are planning to stay the night, Jesus acts like he’s going to walk on.  They plead with him to stay the night and he says, okay.

So, they all go inside, and they sit down at a table together.  And now see if this part reminds you of anything . . .

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  You’ve heard that around, right?  As in, every Sunday morning, right?  At the table with friends, blessed the bread and broke and gave it to them.  Yes, that’s familiar, because we’ve heard it before.  But this part is different: 

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  Isn’t that the strangest thing?  It’s like as long as they just think he’s some stranger who hasn’t heard about what has happened, he is with them physically.  As soon as they recognize him to be Jesus, in the breaking of the bread, he disappears . . . .

Now granted, it sounds a little trippy and all, but it’s almost as if the bread becomes his body, isn’t it?  They can see Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  They recognize Jesus in the bread.

And when they get back to the other disciples, they tell what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  But there’s an interesting thing that is left unsaid in this whole story.

When Jesus meets the disciples on the road, they are heartbroken and confused.  At no point in the story does it say the disciples became happy and understood.  At no point does the text say that Jesus made everyone live happily ever after.  It’s not as if the presence of Jesus replaces or ignores our sadness and pain. 

Jesus comes to meet them on their walk, in the midst of their blinding sorrow and pain.  And yet their hearts are burning within them as he opens the scriptures to them.  Meeting them where they are; not judging them in their blindness.  And in the breaking of the bread, they recognize the risen Lord who has been with them all along.

Jesus does not take away pain and sadness.  What Jesus does is introduce hope and comfort.  The promise of the resurrection brings hope.  The presence of Jesus, made known to us in the bread, brings comfort.  Can we have hope while still being sad?  Oh yes!  Can we experience comfort while still being in pain?  Most assuredly.  And in the bread and wine, the resurrected Christ is made known to us, no matter our present circumstances.

As we heard, the disciples were confused and grieving on their journey.  Maybe you have that today as well: some sadness, or worry, or bitterness that is the anesthesia, keeping you from hearing clearly the resurrection story.  For those disciples, breaking bread with Jesus opened their eyes to see that he was with them, had been completely present with them on their walk, and has indeed been raised from the dead.  You and I share their recognition of the Risen One, here today.

I would like you to listen to today’s Collect one more time:

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 2

Easter 2, 2017
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

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

Doubting Thomas.  That’s what we call him isn’t it?  In fact, we even use that term on other people when they don’t believe something.  Doubting Thomas, like Debbie Downer, or Nervous Nellie.  Except, in the case of Thomas, he was an actual person, whose name gets dragged through the mud and used to torment our friends and family.

And let me just start here:  The word “doubt” is nowhere in this Gospel text—at least in the original language.  What we have is the word for “without faith,” which is different from actively doubting.  You can’t have something by deciding to have it, you know?  Thomas does not doubt; Thomas lacks faith, or belief, or trust.  The disciples tell him this crazy story about Jesus appearing to them, and he does not—or cannot—believe it.  So we forever call him Doubting Thomas.  Totally not fair to Thomas!

And the second thing to point out is that the rest of the disciples had the same reaction to Mary Magdalene’s story just two verses before the part about Thomas.  She told them what Jesus had told her to do, go and tell the others that she had seen him alive.  And—I’m guessing here, but—the fact that they’re all hiding in a locked room for fear of the strangers outside suggests maybe they didn’t exactly take her words to heart.  And so until Jesus comes to visit them, the other disciples also do not believe.  It’s not just Thomas who lacks faith.

But the worst injustice of being forever branded Doubting Thomas is that Thomas is the first one to make a faith confession!  It is only Thomas who cries out, “My Lord and my God!”  We have a whole day dedicated to the Confession of Peter, because he calls Jesus the Son of God.  But look how much more dramatic and—in fact, faith-filled—Thomas’ confession is!  My Lord and my God.  Not a trace of doubt there.  Seems more fitting to call him Thomas the Enthusiastic, or maybe Fangirl Thomas.  He should be remembered for his faith, not his lack of it.

Which will necessarily bring us to ask how he got this faith.  But first we have to back up in the story to that initial visit from Jesus, when the other disciples were cowering in fear, afraid to open the door.  The text even says, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” which means they are afraid of their friends, their families, and even of themselves, since they are Jews living in Jerusalem, after all.  They are afraid, and worried, and unsettled, and anything but at peace.

Then Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of them.  And the first thing he says?  “Peace be with you.”  And, forgive me, but this is another case where we get the wrong word in the translation.  Because it’s not in the subjunctive . . . by which I mean, it’s not a wish, or a blessing, or a hope for the future.  It’s a present-tense proclamation: Peace is with you.  They are frightened, and Jesus says, peace is with you, and it’s true!  He’s totally right about that.  Peace is with them.  And, as we heard, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

And, it is important to note that Jesus meets them where they are and how they are.  There are no conditions, no need for supercharged faith or diligent prayer, or confidence that Jesus will show up.  They don’t need to get peaceful in order for Jesus to give them peace.  In fact, quite the opposite, right?  It is their lack of peace that prompts Jesus to put them at peace.  They have locked the door in fear, to prevent anyone from finding them, and Jesus appears in the midst of them and gives them exactly what they need at that moment: peace.

The point I want to make here is that when Jesus speaks things, they become present reality.  He says “peace is with you,” and it is.  He says “rise up and walk,” and someone does.  He says “your sins are forgiven,” and they are.  Jesus speaks things into existence.  And we could take a half-hour sidetrack here discussing his presence at the creation of the world, when everything that is was spoken into existence, but we will leave that for another day.  Suffice it to say, Jesus speaks things into being true.  We mustn’t get sidetracked because we’ve still got Thomas’ bad name to work on . . .

So, we have that first encounter with the disciples, on a Sunday, when they are gathered together behind locked doors.  The next Sunday, they are gathered together again, and Thomas is with them.  At some point during the week, or maybe at several points during the week, the disciples told Thomas about Jesus’ visiting them, that Jesus was in fact alive.  And Thomas says the words that give him his bad name: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, admittedly, this sounds closer to doubting than a lack of faith, right?  I mean, he’s pretty adamant here.  But what if we back off a bit, and consider that it’s not necessarily an act of defiance.  It could very easily be taken as Thomas just stating the disappointing facts: Unless I see him with my own eyes, I will not have faith.  We tend to read it as defiant stubbornness, but just for a moment, imagine it instead as sad resignation.  Think of a crestfallen Thomas bemoaning his own inability to believe without having the same experience as the other disciples.  “I’ll never be able to have faith unless Jesus comes to poor old Thomas,” followed by heavy sigh with slumped shoulders, like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh stories.  “It’ll never work.”

And then, guess what?  Well, you already know of course.  Jesus comes back this Sunday as well!  Here he is, suddenly appearing again and proclaiming again, “Peace is with you.”  And does he throw Thomas out for his lack of faith?  Does he turn his back to Thomas for not believing the incredible story about his appearance?  Of course not.  And, perhaps more importantly, he does not require anything of Thomas.  He doesn’t say, “I told you so;”  he doesn’t call him Doubting Thomas.  No, Jesus meets Thomas right where he is and says, “Do not doubt but believe.”  But that’s just our bad translation getting in the way again.  Because what Jesus says is, “Do not be faithless, but be faith-filled.”

And just like that, Jesus speaks the faithfulness of Thomas into existence, because the next thing we see is his profound confession of faith:  My Lord and my God!  Jesus tells Thomas that he is filled with faith, and he is.  Thomas does not set out to acquire this faith.  He does nothing apart from hear the words of Jesus, and he goes from being faithless to being faithful.  Jesus speaks, and it is so.  And not in a halfhearted way, either.  Thomas hears these words, and proclaims Jesus as his Lord and God.  Didn’t see that coming, right?

And then here is the best part of this story.  (You know, the part where it’s about us.)  Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Whoever Thomas might have thought Jesus meant by “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” it definitely includes all of us.  We have not seen the mark of the nails in his hands, and still here we are.  Blessed are we.  We did not lock the doors when we gathered on this Sunday, and yet we believe.  Blessed are we.

Jesus met the cowering disciples on a Sunday morning where they were: locked in a room, and fearing to proclaim their faith to the world outside.  Jesus met Thomas the unbeliever on a Sunday morning where he was: stuck in a trap of being unable to believe, and facing a life of isolation because of unbelief.  And in both cases, Jesus declared peace, brought courage and faith, and prepared them to turn the world upside down through their proclamation.

Which leads us back to right here, right now.  We too are gathered on a Sunday, just like the disciples and Thomas.  And we bring what we bring: our insecurities, our faithlessness, our uncertainty about the future.  Jesus does not demand that we meet some litmus test before he shows up.  He does not require our faithfulness or enthusiasm for him to show up.  No, Jesus is here because he has promised to be here.  In the breaking of the bread, in the community gathered.

The peace of the Lord is always with you.  You may not feel it, you may not believe it, you might even doubt it; but it is true, because Jesus speaks things into existence.  The peace of God changes people.  You and I are changed because Jesus gives us his peace and declares us to be faithful witnesses.  We are Easter people, because the Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!


Sunday, April 16, 2017

YEAR A 2017 feast of the resurrection

Easter 2017
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

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

The Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!

Exactly.  But what if I said, The Lord is risen, and you said, “So what?”  If we’re honest, we sometimes think that response, even though we don’t dare use our outside voice.  The Lord is risen . . . And? . . .

We don’t respond like that because we’re not supposed to make the priest feel uncomfortable, or make our neighbors look at us kind of sideways, or even admit that we don’t know the answer.

I know, when I was a teenager, that was my experience.  The Lutheran pastor would stand up there and yell “The Lord is risen!”  And all the people in their new suits and pretty dresses would gamely do their best to act just as excited and yell back the proper response (while secretly wondering if they remembered to turn on the oven before they left for church).  I could see it in their faraway gaze as they mouthed the words.  And I knew the look, because I had the same look, as I sat thinking about a basket of candy with my name on it.

The Lord is risen . . . and this changes things how exactly?  How could that possibly matter after our six weeks of fish fries and no chocolate?  What difference does that make after we’ve heard the detailed description of a gruesome and unfair execution?  Jesus died an awful death, and his rising again doesn’t change that, does it?  He still watched everyone desert—if not betray—him; he still suffered a horrible and lonely death; he still died right when he was just getting started.  With such a horrible finish to his life on earth, why is it important that he is risen?  So what?

I know some of you are wondering if the Search Committee made a terrible mistake in recommending me as your rector, so I’ll cut to the chase:

There’s a strong temptation during Lent and Holy Week to get all obsessive about the death of Jesus.  To squeeze some meaning out of the tragic injustice of it.  And, we certainly can go that way.  Many people do, in fact.  We can follow the lead of prominent theologians over the centuries and talk about a debt that had to be paid, a debt that could only be satisfied by the perfect and only child of God.  And if the death of Jesus is the solution to the problem, well . . . then his death solved everything, right?  That makes Good Friday the pinnacle.  The transaction was accomplished.

And if that’s true, we are right to focus on his death, in all its horrific agony.  To go over every gory awful detail, just like Mel Gibson wants us to do.  If the death is the thing, then there’s really no point in our even being here in church this morning, is there?  And, if the death of Jesus is what really matters, then when I say, He is risen, you should say, So what?

But somewhere here today, somehow we know the resurrection is what counts right?  I mean, if we really believed it was all about the Crucifixion, then our churches would have been packed out on Friday, and vaguely empty today.  People seem to know the resurrection is what counts, even if they don’t know why it counts.

We get a hint in today’s reading from Colossians:   “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”  We are attached to Jesus in baptism.  Where he goes, we go.  He goes into the tomb, and we also go into the tomb.  It’s obvious that we cannot escape death.  It is a definite consequence of being born: each of us will die.  And, as Christians, we are attached to Jesus: he dies, and we die.

Therefore, if the death of Jesus is what matters, when we die, that’s the end of the story, right?  What kind of lame ending is that, huh?  God becomes incarnate, walks among us, and the story ends with, “And then God died, and so will you.”

But.  BUT . . . if we are hidden with Christ in God, if we really go where Jesus goes, then that changes everything.  Because that means, if Jesus is risen, then we also will rise.  Because he lives, we shall live.  Because he lives, those who have gone before will live.  Because he lives, everything changes!  Since the Lord is risen, you will rise as well.

This makes the resurrection of Jesus the most important thing in all creation.  Because he lives, we shall live.  And sometimes, that’s not even the most important part.  Because some of us have recently lost important people in our lives.  Lost loved ones, and partners, and family.  For some of us, we need more than just a vague reassurance that Jesus is risen.  Easter morning can be so painful for those who grieve, hearing someone say “The Lord is risen” brings the response, “He’d better be risen.  He’d better be.”

Clinging to that promise on our own just doesn’t cut it at crucial times in our lives.  Sometimes what we really need is to hear the assurance from others.  For all of us there have been and will be Easter mornings when we can’t cheerfully yell back the expected “He is risen indeed!” as loudly as the priest demands, because the grief is too much.  In those times we need to hear the confidence in the voice of those around us.  In those times we need to hear that word “indeed” as a testimony that it’s not just some person in a robe up front saying what he or she is supposed to say.

When I say, “The Lord is risen,” your response of “The Lord is risen indeed” affirms my wacky claim.  It tells those next to you that you believe it too.  It tells the downtrodden that everything is different.  And it bears witness to the community outside those doors that we believe in hope where others see darkness.  And that we’re willing to proclaim it with God’s help as we live out our lives.

We use the word, "indeed," to announce our agreement . . . because the Prayer Book says so.  But in a different setting, we might say, "The Lord is risen, And how!"  Or, "The Lord is risen, Aw yeah!"  Or even, "The Lord is risen, Cheers!"

“The Lord is risen, indeed” is the sound of you all preaching . . . to me, to the person next to you, to a world that needs to hear this good news.  In that response, with the word “indeed,” you are proclaiming the most important message the world has ever heard.  You are saying that you not only believe it, but that you are willing to tell others.  In your proclamation, the world hears something new: Jesus has overcome death and the grave, and this, changes, everything.

Because now there are people who live with confidence that death is not the end of the story.  Now there are people who carry good news out into the streets, into the workplaces, into the homes of our friends and family.

We gather together to share in this Easter Eucharist, and we go out into the world to proclaim together: The Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!


Friday, April 14, 2017

YEAR A 2017 good friday

Good Friday, 2017
Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16–25
John 18:1-19, 42

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

We Episcopalians do not tend to be an emotional lot.  But we do tend to be an earthy lot.  Or, better yet, an incarnational lot.  We use physical things, like ashes, and water, and smoke, and fire.  We bless things for common use, like books, and vehicles, and buildings.  We are attached to this world, with all its joy and pain, laughter and tears, birth and death.  That is to say, we tend to embrace life in this world, and take it as it comes to us.

In small ways, the structure of our Liturgy is intended to remove temporary, fleeting emotion from our worship.  The collection of the offering is intentionally separated from the sermon; the prayers are read from a text, rather than extemporized; the readings are assigned; the Creeds are ancient.  We do not shape worship; we are shaped by it.  We stick to the books, and the calendar, and the lectionary, and the sacred vessels.  We do not change them; rather, we trust that over a lifetime, they will change us.  And they do.  Oh how they do!

Every year, we hear this reading, this Passion of our Lord.  Some years it strikes us as something we’ve heard many, many times.  And other years, we hear it as the most powerful story ever told in all of human history.  There is nothing a priest can add to this story on this night without facing some risk of minimizing its power for others.  The agonizing and empty death of Jesus means many things to many people, and year to year, we might disagree on what it all means.

But I trust that we agree on this: Jesus died for each of us.  For all of us.  For everyone who has ever lived, and everyone who is yet to be born.  And as our Church Year takes us through the cycle of birth and death and resurrection, year in and year out, we are slowly being molded into a people who, with God’s help, can proclaim hope in the midst of death, life in the midst of isolation, and salvation in the midst of everything.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

YEAR A 2017 maundy thursday

Year A, 2017
Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

When I was a child, I was confused by this day, and I think most children have this experience at some point:

Why would the Thursday before Easter be called “Monday Thursday?”  Was it just that Jesus so radically altered everything that even the days of the week got mixed up before Easter?  And let’s not even get started with “Good” Friday being the day he died.

But as I got older, of course, I came to find out that I had it all wrong.  It’s not Monday Thursday; it’s Maundy Thursday.  And after learning this, children smack their heads and say, “silly me.”  And then all the parents in the room get nervous, because they know that the next question is: So, why is it called Maundy Thursday?  And the answer is . . .

Well it turns out the answer is something you learn at seminary, or maybe just Latin class.  The name has its roots in the Latin word, mandatum, which means commandment.  (You can see the connection in words like mandatory.)  So, Commandment Thursday.  Got it.  And what is the commandment we observe this Thursday?  Is the commandment that we wash one another’s feet?  No, it is not.  Is the commandment that we humble ourselves by having our own feet washed?  No, it is not.  That foot-washing Jesus does is just a way to demonstrate the commandment.

The way Jesus demonstrates the commandment to his disciples.  And the commandment is a new one, according to Jesus.  We just heard it in the gospel text:
Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Maundy Thursday is the day we specifically take note of Jesus’ commandment to love one another.  He even tells us the good that will come out of doing so: Everyone will know that we are his disciples if we have love for one another.

And the main thing I want us to notice this evening is this:
Since Jesus knows what is about to happen to him, every action becomes meaningful.  If Jesus knows the awful terrible death he is facing in a matter of hours . . . well, to use a modern term, his “bucket list” is very short indeed.  Jesus only has hours until he is taken away from his disciples to be mocked, beaten, and murdered on a cross.  This is the time to do something that he has always wanted to do.  This is his chance to say and do the things he has always wanted to say and do . . . to work through his bucket list.

And the bucket list of Jesus includes using an actual bucket.  He gets down on his hands and knees with a pail and shows his disciples what he wants them to do, wants us to do.  The bucket list of Jesus includes showing service with a cloth and water.  Clearly, it is important to Jesus that we get the message he is preaching, by word and deed, in washing his disciples’ feet.

At many churches tonight there will be a foot washing, in order to follow the example of Jesus.  However, St. Timothy’s does not have a history of doing that together, and I have no intention of imposing it on you, for this simple reason:

Washing someone’s feet today does not carry the same significance for us that it did for Jesus and his disciples.  What they all saw as a useful act of humble service, we might experience as an embarrassing time of walking barefoot in church.  What they saw as helpful and necessary, we may see as awkward and confusing symbolism.  It doesn’t translate well from then to now because we don’t walk down dusty streets in our sandals, and we don’t see washing someone’s feet as an act of hospitality.

In 2017, we do not typically show our love for one another in washing each others’ feet.  But we do show our love in how we treat one another.  In how we serve one another.  In how we talk to one another.  I ask you to put aside the image of the actual bucket of the task and focus on the act of service that it implies.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Let each of us commit this night to strive to follow this “new commandment” of Jesus.  As Jesus loves us, and has given his life for us, may God continue to give us the strength to truly love one another, that the world may know that we are his disciples.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

YEAR A palm sunday

Palm Sunday, 2017
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 27:11-54
Psalm 31:9-16

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

Palm Sunday is always so difficult to grab hold of.  It’s like two different events happened at the same time, in the same service, and in the worst possible order.  We’re used to stories starting off sad, but turning out alright in the end.  Just last week, for instance.  Lazarus was dead, but Jesus raised him back to life.  And the dry bones, a symbol of the sad state of God’s people, are joined back together and begin to dance around.  What seems doomed gets redeemed.  That’s how stories are supposed to go.

But every year, when it comes around, Palm Sunday takes this flow from bad to good and stands it on its head.  And I find it jarring every year, even though I know it’s coming.  We start off the service remembering the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  It’s like a big victory parade, with people laying their coats on the ground, waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  People ask, “Who is this person being honored?”  And the crowd responds, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  Everything is going great, right?

There are some clues that everything is not going great, actually.  First of all, look at what Jesus is riding on.  Not a chariot, not a camel, not even walking on his feet.  No, Jesus is riding on what is probably the least glamorous animal imaginable:  a donkey.  A jackass.  Just imagine for a moment if the team that won the Super Bowl each year had a parade where they rode donkeys.  Picture General Patton addressing the troops from a donkey.  And this is a case where the distance of time doesn’t change anything.  A donkey meant then what a donkey means now.  Jesus is not riding in to overthrow the Romans.  He is riding into humiliation.  In fact, he is riding to his death.

And there is an irony in the people’s excitement and cheering.  They are acting like their savior has come to town—which he has.  They are cheering as though salvation is at hand—which it is.  To the crowd, they are finally going to be on the winning side.  And—though that is all true, in hindsight—this story is not going where they expect, to say the least.  They want a conqueror who will throw off their earthly oppression.  But that isn’t what they’re going to get.  This is not a conquering hero.  (Their first clue might have been the donkey.)  And that was how we started together this morning:  Cheering on the one who has come to save, expecting to finally have someone in our corner.

And then, seemingly out of left field, we get this Gospel reading.  As though we have compressed Holy Week into one half hour, and now we can move on to Easter.  We kind of don’t know what to do with this service, do we?  It feels disjointed, or schizophrenic.  The pieces don’t seem to go together.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of Palm Sunday as something like the overture in a musical.  We’re getting a glimpse into how the first act is going to go, on Thursday and Friday of this week.  (Spoiler alert:  Things really get turned on their head when Act 2 starts next Sunday!)  And for that reason, missing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is sort of like showing up for a play during intermission, and only experiencing Act 2.  Or, like picking out just the marshmallows when eating a bowl of Lucky Charms.  You really have to see the entire play.

But here’s the thing I want to say, and it’s about the two crowds today.  We have the ones who praise, and the ones who condemn.  And, deep down, we all just want to be in the praising group.  Someone else is yelling “Crucify him!” right?  I mean, we’re the ones holding the palm branches, so we can’t possibly be in that second group.  Right?

The truth is, you and I are both.  We each have a place in both these groups, and we cannot hide behind our palm branches.  One minute we clamor for an autograph; the next minute we might condemn to death. 

This is what happens when human beings gather as a crowd.  Some kind of mob mentality takes over.  And a group that gets caught up in excitement so easily turns into a crowd that becomes violent.  We gather to praise, and somewhere we also hunger to kill.

The guest of honor can so quickly turn into the sacrificial victim it seems.  Jesus is lifted up when we start, and hung on a cross 10 minutes later.  A crowd of admirers becomes a crowd of killers in the blink of an eye.  It’s the crowd, right?  One person wouldn’t act like this.  Not normally.

But that suggests that living in isolation is the solution.  It is not.  It is important that we see that the problem is not the crowd.  A crowd is dangerous because it consists of a lot of us.  The problem is me; the problem is you.  And that problem is simply magnified when we gather into groups.  “But this is madness!” you say.  Yes, you’re right.  When the story is about us, it is madness.  For whatever reason, a crowd of us can turn frightfully bad.

In cases of criminal violence or robbery, one of the victims’ main concerns is usually that the crime might have been personal.  That they were singled out for some particular vendetta, or that there was something about the victim that caused the crime.  Learning that the majority of crimes are random is often a relief to the victims of those crimes.  It is not about you.  You did not cause this to happen to you.  Sometimes the best news you can get is, this is not about you.  And in a way, that’s been the good news of Lent this year. 

But enough about you and me.  Let’s talk about church.  What does the Church think of you and me?  Well, all too often, people will want to make the story about you, not Jesus . . . And that is bound to end badly, as we just saw.   In making the story about us, many religious leaders head down this same path.  They make it about you.  Your money.  Your family.  Your ability to change, straighten up, and fly right.  The pressure is on you to make things better.  And, sometimes people do, and sometimes people don’t.  But either way, if the story is about you and me, we are in trouble.  If it’s about us and our capacity to believe, we’re in trouble.  If it’s about us and our ability to behave, we’re in trouble.  When our own story is about us, it ends in death . . . even crucifixion.

Sure, this is our story, in the sense that we wave the palms and then listen to the cry to crucify.  But this story is not about just you and me.  This story is first and foremost about Jesus.  We might praise; we might condemn to death; or, like today, we might do both.  Who knows?  It’s not so important that we join God’s story; what matters is that Jesus joins our story.  Jesus breaks into our world with his story.

And the story of Jesus we know.  The story of Jesus redeems.  The story about us ends in death.  But Jesus’ story ends in the promise of resurrection.  Maybe our story only makes sense when it can be read alongside the story of Jesus.  Our version ends in death, and Jesus’ story is life.  We need the Jesus story.  We need the story that ends the way stories are supposed to end.  In life.  In redemption.  In forgiveness.

Simply put: We need for our story to be about Jesus.  Because we need for God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Left to our own devices, we will end up in death like Lazarus, and violence as with the crowd, and condemnation as before Pilate.  Even if we start off by singing All Glory Laud and Honor, it ends the same way—’Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.

But even though it is our story, our story is also now Jesus’ story.  Because, in baptism, we are united into the death of Christ.  And that means that we are also united in the resurrection of Christ.  And that means, our story is about Jesus.  It’s one long story that needs both parts to have the right ending.  It begins with us, but it ends with Jesus.  And in clinging to how this story ends, we find life and peace and forgiveness.

And as we gather at this altar today, may God give us the faith to put our trust in Jesus, the one who turns our tragic stories into something hopeful, joyful, and filled with the hope of redemption.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

YEAR A 2017 lent 5

Year A, 2017
Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

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

Today’s Gospel reading of the raising of Lazarus has always been one of my favorite stories from the Bible.  I have a life-long history with this story.  When I was a little boy, I was captivated by the image of the mummy Lazarus, emerging from the tomb like some character in a Lon Chaney feature.  Shuffling along with his arms extended, like only a mummy can shuffle. 

And later, as a young man preparing for confirmation, I had to memorize a bible verse; I was drawn to the section of this story for my memorization, John 11:35.  “Jesus wept.”  Shortest verse in the Bible.  Now my pastor, being a wiser man than I, suggested that if I couldn’t think of something more challenging than those two words to memorize, he would assign me something more meaty.

In college, when I was first studying Greek, I found (as all students of Greek find) that the sample verb used in every Greek textbook is luw, which means loosen.  It’s the word Jesus uses when he tells the people to unbind Lazarus.  And after that, I gravitated to another part of this story, in 1994 when my youngest brother died after a lengthy battle with AIDS, when Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  I clung to that verse for a long time, because . . . well, it’s obvious why.

As days stretched into months and into years after my brother John’s death, I took this as a personal promise to carry in my heart.  Your brother will rise again.  I could make it through one day after another by reminding myself of those words.

But it’s more complicated, really, because that promise in today’s gospel comes in response to something Martha says to Jesus.  Martha runs out and says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I cannot help but hear a tone of accusation in that statement.  A thinly veiled judgment about Jesus’ presence . . . or lack of it.

At the memorial service for my brother, the priest began his sermon by saying he was going to deal with these words, these stinging words from Martha.  The accusation “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And my brother had died.  So, I waited anxiously for the preacher to explain that text.  I wanted to hear how he would help me understand the thought that I myself carried into the church that morning. 

But, you know, he never did.  I don’t remember what his sermon was about.  But I remember what it was not about: the sermon was not about whether having Jesus there meant my brother wouldn’t have died.  And I spent years, silently wondering about this: if Jesus had been there, would my brother have died?  And, the obvious more important question was this: since my brother did die, does that mean that Jesus was not there?

There’s a problem here, for me, and it does not get solved easily because—when it comes down to it—I think Martha was wrong.  If Jesus had been there, her brother still would have died, just as my brother still died.  The presence of Jesus does not prevent death.

But, this is also the reason none of us runs into a 2,000 year old man named Lazarus.  The obvious truth is, even though Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb, Lazarus still eventually died . . . again.  The presence of Jesus does not prevent people from dying.  Even though Jesus is on his way . . . people still will die.  Jesus is coming . . . and people still die.

Like Martha, we can run out to meet Jesus, barely controlling our anger in the midst of our grief, and through clenched teeth say, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!”  But that could also be asking, “Lord, why weren’t you here with me when my brother died?”
And after Martha throws this in the face of Jesus, he says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 

In response, Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Some people call this sentence the beginning of Martha’s Confession.  But you know what?  I don’t think so.  No, I don’t think Martha is proclaiming her faith.  I think Martha is ANGRY.  I think she is fuming and Jesus gives her this patronizing line.  “Your brother will rise again.”  I think Martha’s going “yeah, yeah, my brother will rise, in that resurrection, on the LAST day.”  Not a confession.  On the contrary, an eye-rolling parroting back of some dogma that is not helpful at the present moment. 

I think Martha heard enough children’s sermons to know that the answer is always “Jesus,” . . . even when you’re talking to Jesus!  So, sure her brother will rise on the last day.  But, this promise of “resurrection some day” is little comfort to those who are grieving today.  When someone we love has been torn from our lives, this detached, someday, promise is not helping today.  And well-meaning people say something like this:  gone to a better place, another rose for God’s garden, another angel in God’s choir, a resurrection on the last day.  The last day, which is not THIS day!

But what does Jesus say to Martha?  When she says “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Jesus says, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE!”  And he could have added, “and I am standing here TODAY!  Right here, right now.”

Now that means one of two things: either that day was the resurrection and the last day, or it means that wherever Jesus is, there is the resurrection.  Perhaps that’s a bit confusing.  But rather than clarify, let’s bump it up a notch and go to Paul . . .
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. . . . But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. . . . if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” 

We are each bound to die.  We are all bound to death.  Paul tells us that since Christ is in us, God frees us from that bondage.  The Spirit is life and peace.  But this still doesn’t really help us here and now.  That still suggests that after we are dead, there is some life, but not so much right here, right now.

So, what about that familiar lesson from Ezekiel?  What about these dry bones?  They’re bones.  They’re dry.  They’re in a valley.  They have been there a long time. 

As we heard, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’.”  The dry bones cannot heal themselves.  Apart from God, they can do nothing.  And the prophet can’t help either.  All the prophet can do is announce God’s word.  But in hearing God’s word, the bones come to life.  GOD says to these bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act."

That sounds a lot like what we heard from Paul.  When Paul says, If we put our faith in the flesh . . . well, I guess bones don’t even have that going for them . . .  Paul says, God’s spirit will be within us, and we shall live.  So, does this image, the Valley of the Dry Bones, help us today?  Does it feel present to you?  Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.  But maybe in these bones we can see the connection between life and the hand of God become just a little clearer.

Without the breath of God, the dry bones in the valley remain just that: dry bones in the valley.  They are not going anywhere, and no one is expecting them to suddenly come together and start eating and drinking.  In a similar way, left to his own devices, Lazarus ended up in pretty much the same state as the dry bones.  He was not going anywhere, and nobody expected him to come out and start eating and drinking.

And what about you and me, right here, right now?  What about those of us who are still living out our days?  Well, eventually, we are all going to end up in some valley, or cave, and eventually become dry bones ourselves.  Dead, and helpless, like Lazarus and the dry bones.

So that’s a little morbid, and it still doesn’t get us to today, does it?  That still suggests that some day some where some how things will be better.  And things will get worse before they get better.  Or, it takes us back to Martha’s so-called confession: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day: which is not this day.  But remember Jesus’ response as he is standing with Martha?  “I AM the resurrection and the life.”  I Am.  Right here.  Right now.  For the dead, and for the living.

And this is hinted at in that tiny little verse I offered to memorize for confirmation.  “Jesus began to weep.”  Why does Jesus cry at the tomb of his friend?  Can he not see what he will do 8 verses later by raising Lazarus from the dead?  Doesn’t Jesus trust his own promise?  Sometimes the answer is so obvious that we miss it.  Jesus weeps because he is sad.  He is human.  He is present in that moment, in that place.  In this moment.  This place.

As Paul says, you have the Spirit of God within you.  Against overwhelming odds, God raises us to new life, starting with our baptism, and culminating in that final resurrection, yet to come.  And, in between, we come to this Altar each week to gather in the presence of God and one another, to be raised again to new life.  Some weeks we bound through the door filled with energy and hope.  And other days, we practically crawl into the room, bound by the struggles of life.  And in those times, like Lazarus and the day bones, nobody expects us to get it together, let alone to start eating and drinking. 

And then we hear the words: Broken for you.  Shed for you.  And somehow, being filled with the breath of God, and being fed by the bread of life, the Spirit of God knits us back together, and opens our hands, and we start eating and drinking once more.  Jesus says, I AM the resurrection and the life.  Here.  Today.  For you, for me, for us.  May we all come to trust that Jesus—the Resurrection and the life—is with us this day, bringing new life to each of us, every day.