“It was a real wake-up call.” In my years as a priest, countless people have spoken that sentence to me. Sometimes it was in reference to a personal health scare, or the unexpected death of a loved one. In 2008 it was people watching their retirement accounts tumble during the financial crisis; in 2001 it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Whatever it was, it made people see things differently – they started to read the Bible, or began exercising regularly, or started learning how to pray, or called their friends more frequently – and they all referred to it the same way: a real wake-up call.
The prophet Malachi, whose words from the very end of the Old Testament we read this morning, is an example of a person who is living after a real wake-up call. Broadly speaking, the whole spiritual history of the people Israel falls into two parts, before everything fell apart and after everything fell apart. The crisis came in 587 BC, when the country they had thought God gave them forever was conquered and plundered by an army from Babylon. The Temple they had seen as a permanent guarantee of God’s approval was razed to the ground, the routines and values they had taken as God’s eternal instructions were robbed from them, and they were carted away as prisoners, leaving the ruins of their beloved holy city to be re-colonized by foreigners.
Last Easter Sunday, NBC aired a staged concert version of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was broadcast live, and while John Legend wasn’t really up to the role of Jesus in my opinion, Brandon Victor Dixon was an amazing Judas. And you need a great Judas for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” since that musical is essentially told through the eyes of Judas -- although it depicts very memorably the encounter between Jesus and Pilate that’s recorded in the Gospel of John, and from which our Gospel reading today, as we observe Christ the King, comes.
The story of Jesus’ passion as written by the apostle John is an astonishing piece of literature, and so important that we hear it every Good Friday in full: two whole chapters of Scripture! And this encounter is a key part of the conflict. In this corner, Pilate, the Governor of Judea, the political appointee from south of Rome, lording it over a bunch of hick towns, representing the kingdom of this world. And in that one, Jesus, an ethnic minority, beaten bloody and under arrest, but nevertheless God incarnate, representing the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber’s presentation of this epic face-off in "Jesus Christ Superstar” is so memorable, as of course are those of other artistic presenters of John’s passion text like J.S. Bach.
We only get a small section of the confrontation today, but even these five verses show us worldly power – its delusions, its hypocrisy, its pathetic limitations, both in the person of a Gentile, Pilate, and by implication of the Jewish leaders who have handed Jesus over to him. And they make a deep contrast between that worldly power, and the effortlessly true power of Jesus the real king, to whom all authority and heaven on earth has been given, who came to testify to the truth, meeting us in the face of a man condemned to die.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Many of our most beloved stories from childhood share some common themes. There are often two worlds in the story: for instance, one that’s dull, mundane, and usually harsh; the other magical and full of life. The two worlds are then linked together by the protagonist who often starts out in the “real world” of drudgery, but through some fantastical happenstance, finds him or herself transported into the other realm. This other realm is usually where the protagonist finds true self-discovery at last -- his or her “destiny.”
Tonight at Evensong we’ll be reading nearly the whole beautiful chapter of Revelation 21. We heard a snippet of it as our second lesson this morning: And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes."
That’s where we’re going, at least if we know and take seriously the Christian account of the universe. We are going to a place where heaven and earth will be married, where the wounds of this age will be healed by the mercy of the next, where love for every human being will be at home in every human being, where we no longer dread what we’re going to see when we turn to the day’s news because we and the world will have been made whole by Jesus Christ. If we know and take seriously the Christian account, that’s where we’re going.
The past few weeks have taken us through what we’re calling the Cycle of Gratitude. But while that’s the title of this year’s stewardship theme, the main point of the Cycle of Gratitude is that it is ongoing and never ceasing. We happen to be taking the time to notice it more this month, but it’s not in fact confined to a single season. The point is to sustain our attention to what is always the case, that is, what we say every week at the Offertory: that all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
So far, we’ve meditated on this cycle as it pertains specifically to the people that we are grateful for in our lives, the things we take for granted, and even those hardships which we can now see as the source of growth. This week, the final week, we are turning to this parish to consider those things about Emmanuel itself, this particular space, this particular congregation, that cause us to give thanks to God for his good gifts. We’ve got purple slips this week, a color that represents the last color of paper available in the supply closet for me to chop up. And as with the previous weeks, I want you all to begin thinking through those things about Emmanuel Memorial which lift your hearts in thanksgiving. It could be something large-scale, such as our privilege to worship in a beautiful Gothic Revival sanctuary, a space that speaks to a lasting history inextricably tied to downtown Champaign. Maybe it’s our established liturgy that you know will always be here for you, even on those days when the most you can do is pray on auto-pilot. But it could also be that as you look around the room, what you see are the faces of a congregation without which you could not have made it through a hardship in your life.
Today is the third week in our focus on the Cycle of Gratitude at Emmanuel. If you came in through the Great Hall you may have noticed the chain that we are making is growing. It is hanging over the edge of the balcony and now has two colors of loops in it. The first week we used blue strips listing names of people for whom we are grateful. Then last week the salmon colored strips were for naming things we had taken for granted but now realize our thanks. In case you were not here, or did not have time to fill out those slips, there are extras on the tables in the Great Hall and you may still do those.
Today we will be doing an exercise that might require a bit more reflection. On the yellow strips in your pew write something that was difficult when it happened, but now for which you are grateful. Something that was difficult that now I am grateful for.
This morning fellow parishioner, Nancy Suchomski will speak to this topic, giving us her reflections on gratitude that comes over time and through reflection. Nancy.
Thank you, Nancy.
Remember, it is ok to write while I speak, so pick up one of the yellow papers and jot down your gratitude for something that was difficult but now upon reflection has brought you growth, or understanding or peace.
Perhaps your something was failing out of a certain university and then you chose a new major that brought a fulfilling career.
Perhaps your something was finding you no longer could do a hobby that brought you much joy but then you found a new interest that you had not had time for before.
Perhaps your something was the end of a particular relationship or even a divorce but now you have found a new person with whom you experience much joy, or perhaps decided being single is ok.
Perhaps it was a political candidate you supported who lost and now you have realized the importance of getting more involved in government.
Perhaps it was a stage of life when you were too busy to spend time with your own child and now are grateful for the chance of time with your grandchildren.
Perhaps your something is an illness that prevents you from doing all that you once did and now you are grateful for the time to reflect and pray.
Perhaps… use the yellow papers to write your own answer.
Today, I want to talk about what baptism demands of the Church, as we’ll soon be baptizing little Rylie into the Body of Christ. But I also want to talk about the Gospel passage appointed for today, as is our responsibility every Sunday as preachers governed by a lectionary. We don’t get to pick the readings -- clearly, considering today’s Gospel -- but it is nevertheless our job to receive it with humility and sincerity and preach the truth contained therein. What does the Spirit have to tell us in this Gospel, for this situation in which we find ourselves as this particular parish? That was one of the main questions asked by one of the lecturers at the conference I attended last weekend in Dallas and it’s stuck with me since. Today is the momentous occasion of a baptism, and while our Gospel may not initially appear to harmonize with it, we’re going to dive in anyway! God’s truth always coheres in Scripture, so here we go!
After our meeting on Monday, a few of Emmanuel’s vestry members were talking about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the movie about Mister Rogers. I don’t know how many of you got to see it when it was at the Art Theater; but it is so moving to spend 90 minutes with the straightforward goodness of this man. I was a regular viewer of Mister Rogers Neighborhood growing up, and I always felt like he was talking right to me. I had no idea that he chose and emphasized the word “neighbor” because of the unique way it’s used in the Bible, but I liked very much the idea that he proactively was seeking me out to be his neighbor. “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. Please won’t you be my neighbor.”
I even wrote Fred Rogers a fan letter, and he – or actually WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, I’m sure – mailed me back a postcard with his face and signature on it. Of course I was a little kid, and it went completely over my head that in addition to putting on a zippered cardigan and having a cute trolley, he was also dealing on a personal, compassionate child level with issues like racism and the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War. But I’m sure that the way Mister Rogers helped preschoolers feel valued and listened to in the middle of those tumultuous events had an effect on me without my knowing it. The movie goes behind the scenes: the low-budget studio, some outtakes, and interviews with the adults who worked with Fred Rogers talking about how this unassuming man just simply loved them for who they were, and how soaking up that compassionate individual attention still has effects in their lives.
After a brief summer break we are back into the gospel of Mark. Today’s passage occurs at the mid-point of this gospel. The first half of Mark contains the stories of Jesus using his marvelous gifts. He is a teacher and a healer and a worker of miracles. These are wonderful, amazing stories. This half of the book also describes the mounting tension between Jesus and the established religious leaders of the time. Then the second half of Mark is the story of the road to Jerusalem, Jesus’ passion and resurrection. In the first part Jesus is quite public with what he does and speaks to large crowds of people. In the second, Jesus speaks primarily to his closest followers to prepare them for the time when he will no longer be with them on this earth. Today’s reading is right in the middle of the two sections; it is the hinge or turning point that connects the two parts, finishing the focus of the first and moving ahead into the focus of the second.
Specifically there are three things going on in this particular passage. First is how Jesus is perceived by others, including the famous question answered by Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” The second is Jesus predicting his future passion and the third describes the life of a disciple as a paradox: those who want to save their life must lose it and those who lose their life for Jesus will find it.
I want to take a closer look at the reading commenting briefly on three perspectives of it. The first is as one of the original disciples might have experienced it. The second is as someone in the community for which Mark wrote the gospel might have heard it and the third is as we hear it today.
I got a number of questions last Sunday about the hangings and vestments we have up now. We use this set regularly in the fall here at Emmanuel, but it made me realize it’s been a couple of years since we talked about them and about the message they were created to embody, and in any parish a couple of years is a long time. So I thought I would tell the story again.
All this fabric art that adorns the space was given as a gift to Emmanuel and commissioned from the Sarum Group, the workshop of an artist from England named Jane Lemon. She came over and lived and prayed with us to learn who we were, and out of that came this set of vestments and hangings, which are meant to be an artistic statement of our vocation as a parish, a picture of Emmanuel’s unique call from God. She also made us a purple set for Lent, but I’ve never heard of another parish that has a set like this one, a piece of liturgical art that deliberately holds in front of us who we are meant to be and how to get there.
So let me unpack it a bit. Take a look at the altar – and if it’s too far for you to see well, there are postcard images of it in all the pews today as a gift to you. I’ll say more about that later, but for now let’s look at the art. As you can see, the life of God streams down from the tabernacle where we keep the Holy Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus among us. You notice the rays of Jesus’ power coming forth, glistening with bright life. Where do they land? They land on us, the people of Emmanuel, pictured as that field of wheat below. The art reminds us every time we look at it: For us, everything flows from Jesus and his presence; we have to start by drinking in that presence; to start anywhere else is to fail before we begin.
You also notice, though, that that divine life Jesus is pouring out to us has competition. The field is studded with red poppies, which Jane Lemon intended to be symbols of passivity and indifference. Christ is trying to share his love and power with all of us, but the field also has sleepy poppies who aren’t awake to it yet. Still, slowly, as Jane Lemon wrote in her artist’s statement, “The wheat overcomes the poppies.” Jesus gradually does his work.