May God be merciful to us and bless us.
The opening words of our Psalm invoke God’s mercy and blessing. May God be merciful to us and bless us. In preparing to speak today, as I read the lectionary texts from Acts, Psalms, John, and Revelation, I found in them a commonality concerning both the target and the nature of God’s blessing. I’m not claiming some profound or original discovery, but over the next few moments I would like to share with you what I’ve learned.
We have likely all heard someone say, “I’ve been blessed. [or] God has blessed me.” And it’s possible at one time or another, each of us has said those words ourselves—and when we do, it’s often in relation to our perception of some sort of positive event or situation—a success, health, family, finances, employment. When we associate the source of a blessing so defined with a divine God, what we’re really saying or thinking is God has favored me and given me something good.
When we view God’s blessing as his favor, we begin to convince ourselves and behave as though we are in a competition to win that favor...as though God’s favor were finite, and if others are getting more, then I must be getting less. If it’s a competition, then there needs to be rules, so we get caught up defining the criteria by which we think God awards favor. We then begin to apply these rules and measures to ourselves and to others—especially to others—eventually mostly to others. We start thinking that those lacking God’s favor as we define it are cursed rather than blessed. And we allow our fighting over such rules to divide us. That doesn’t sound to me like the prayer of the psalmist in our lectionary this morning. Notice with me again from your bulletin insert the number of times the psalmist’s prayer for blessing targets all of humanity. “Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations…let all the peoples praise you…let the nations be glad…guide all the nations…let all the peoples praise you…may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of God.” God’s merciful blessing is meant to unite us, not divide us.
5 girls and a deacon walk into a biker bar. This may sound like the beginning to a bad joke, but no, it’s just youth group. This is one of the many events that I have experienced during my time at Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church. I have never been a very religious person, but during my time here, I have found a community.
Because of my age, the youth have become my community and the group with which I share some of my fondest memories. A lot of my favorite memories come from acolyting, like the time I was going to hit the bell and the mallet head flew off and almost hit Father Caleb. But the memories that stand out the most come from the great times I have had in youth group.
We had our weekly meetings that consisted of lots of different activities. Activities like Chopped. If you have ever seen the Food Network show Chopped, you know it is about cooking with difficult, random ingredients, so of course, that did not result in good food from groups of high schoolers, sorry to Deacon Chris and Jeff Dobrik who both got sick from the expired Ensure.
I’ve never really been very religious. When I was little, I thought church was a thing that kids were dragged to, and then it just became a habit. I still would not call myself outwardly religious, but over the years I have realized that the church provides my community. It was not really until a few weeks ago at Ridley Brown’s funeral that I realized how much of a community this church actually is for me. For those of you who do not know, I acolyted at Mr. Brown’s funeral because his family remembers my family - my mom, my aunt, my grandparents - and asked if someone from our family would acolyte. It was the fact that a family that I had never met before cared enough about my family that they wanted me to be part of the service. At the funeral I heard how much this church had meant to his family, and I realized how much I had taken what I have learned from this church for granted. This church has taught me so many things that I never realized until now.
This church has taught me patience, like when I was young and thought that the church service was the multiple hours long. I have learned compassion and acceptance for everyone no matter their background - something I am proud that Episcopal Church promotes and does well. Years of serving as an acolyte has taught me responsibility and to appreciate the ritual of the church service.
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Between our journey through Holy Week and today, we’ve gone from being ritual participants in the Passion of our Lord to what today’s Gospel labels as “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” On Maundy Thursday, we were there in the upper room at the Last Supper where Christ instituted the Eucharist. In the chapel of repose, we were there in the garden with the disciples struggling to stay awake and stay attentive with Christ for just one hour as his hour approached. On Good Friday, we were there at the foot of the cross as we gazed in contemplation upon the dead body of the Son of God. And at the Easter Vigil, we were there in the pitch black of the tomb, as the light of Christ returned from death, from hell itself, and gradually illuminated this whole space which might as well have been the world world, because it kind of was.
But now, a week later in the Easter season, the elephant in the room is that despite all of our profound liturgies, we were not, in fact, there. And we are not there now either. We are caught between an experience that we did not have and a belief that we do have nevertheless. We have not seen and yet we have come to believe. Or at least we try to believe or think we should believe or something. But then again, belief is a hazy business. Is it merely a code word for “thinking hard” or “certainty excused from evidence?” Indeed, it’s not difficult to hear Christ’s blessing on the rest of us as a kind of sympathetic consolation prize. “Aw, look at all these Christians: they didn’t even see anything and they believe anyway -- bless their hearts.”
Just three weeks ago, Emmanuel announced that we had purchased past due medical debts throughout Central and Southern Illinois in order to forgive them. We worked, as you will have heard, with a charity called RIP Medical Debt to do this. It was founded by two former collection agency executives who had a change of heart, and decided to use their skills to abolish people’s financial burdens rather than add to them. RIP buys “portfolios” of medical debt from health care providers and from the secondary debt market, which allows them to write off thousands of people’s debts at once for pennies on the dollar.
With medical debt being one of the main causes of bankruptcies in America, we wanted to make in impact in this area. So in January our vestry decided to use part of the surplus from our Centennial wishlist campaign to work with RIP on forgiving medical debts locally, just to show a whole bunch of strangers unconditional forgiveness of the kind God has given us. Now, we had no idea how much we could do. RIP said, how about a countywide initiative? So we asked them to look at Champaign County for us. We thought the $15000 we had to work with might actually be enough to wipe out all the available past due medical bills here in our own county.
Good Friday resists interpretation, because there is something about the death of Christ that speaks for itself. It’s why we read the entire Passion narrative rather than the usual brief lesson that’s meant for commentary and reflection. Instead, today’s reading is for our total immersion. We are not spectators here; there is no where to stand “outside” the text, which is why we disperse the voices of the characters amongst ourselves. There is only this all-embracing narrative and our places within it. The pace of the plot is hurried. It reads like someone is trying to explain an emergency that’s come up while grabbing their things and getting out the door. An extended period of time in which to reflect on the situation, to understand what it all means, is precisely what we don’t have right now. All we have is a string of facts that together comprise an event. First there’s a garden across the Kidron Valley that Jesus and his disciples decide to go to and the next thing you know, there’s a tomb nearby, and they laid Jesus there.
Good Friday is what it is.
“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
What makes this night different from all the rest? Those of you who have attended Passover celebrations recognize this question which is traditionally asked by the youngest person in attendance. What makes this night different from all the rest?
The Triduum offers many answers to this question. Each night our liturgy contains some parts that are familiar and ordinary but many more that are unique to that once-a-year service. If this is your first Maundy Thursday I encourage you to let the entire experience wash over you. In other words don’t try to figure it all out at once—it will overwhelm you.
Actually, if this is your tenth or twentieth time that may still be good advice. Part of the beauty of liturgy and of scripture is that once in a while, occasionally, there may be something this particular time that you don’t remember having heard before. Even for the seasoned veteran of multiple Triduums there might be something that catches your attention, gives you food for thought, which leads to a new understanding.
There’s no experience more central to the Christian year than the one we begin today. The events we make present and live through together this week are the heart of the Christian way of seeing the world and of living in the world. Holy Week is the center of spiritual time, and it is the center of the story by which disciples of Jesus understand the world and our own lives.
We just read the entire passion story from the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel that Episcopalians are reading together Sunday by Sunday all year. On Good Friday, we will read the entire passion story from the Gospel of John. These events are so important that we tell them and tell them over and over. Jesus’ death on the Cross and his resurrection on the third day is mentioned in nearly every chapter of Paul’s letters. We never celebrate Eucharist without recounting that same story over the bread and the wine. It is on page after page of the Bible and page after page of the Prayer Book. Why? Why do we Christians center ourselves on the Cross like this?
Well, we might want to ask first, where else could our center be? I can think of two candidates, actually, that are proposed all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard people suggest that religion really boils down to principles, general ideas like “peace on earth” or “you should value diversity” or “there is always hope” or “God is everywhere.” All of those are good enough principles, and in fact, I agree with them. But they are not where Christianity grounds itself. They come later.
And I’m sure you’ve heard people suggest that religion really boils down to efforts to improve human behavior, either our own or somebody else’s. That our mission is to inspire people to be nicer, to be more accepting or more mindful, to fight racism and sexism, to help the poor. All of those are good things to do, and I support them, too. But they are not where Christianity grounds itself either. They too come later.
Christianity can’t be reduced to a set of principles or to a self-improvement or world-improvement program. As long as you try to approach it that way, you will never understand it. Christianity is grounded in the announcement of what God has accomplished in Christ on the Cross and in the empty tomb. It makes the claim not just that the events we live through again this week constitute the center of all history, but that in them God has offered liberation, forgiveness, and fullness of life absolutely free to anyone who is humble and honest enough to accept them.
At Baptism we always ask the candidates questions about turning to Christ, and one of them is “do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” Much of the time, let’s be 100% honest, many of us would have to answer that question, “Well, sort of.” We put some of our trust in his grace, and other parts of it in what we can do, or the principles and values we stand by, or the family or economic class or ethnic group we come from. We put some of our trust in his love, and others in the kinds of love and esteem that get given to us via our skills, our in-group, or our behavior.
But that’s not what God calls us to. God calls us to a life where we do not look elsewhere to justify our existence, but where we put our whole trust in the grace and love that are given freely through the work of Christ on the Cross.
So one of the reasons we tell this story over and over is that it’s so very hard for human beings to do that. We fail, over and over, at surrendering everything to God. Or we do it, but immediately grab some parts of life back to manage ourselves. So we need to hear it over and over again: the work of Christ in his Cross and Resurrection has already accomplished all that needs to be accomplished for us to be liberated, forgiven people, going about life with a kind of fullness that’s not available anywhere else. And the work of Christ in the Cross and Resurrection hasn’t accomplished that just for you, or for me, or for churchgoers. It’s accomplished that for all creation.
Do you put your whole trust there? Even if you fail regularly at putting your whole trust there, because we all do, is that where you intend to put your whole trust? Is that where your trust returns, when you come to your senses and realize you’ve started looking to something other than Jesus to make you enough? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love, or are you hedging your bets?
Principles are fine. Improving human behavior is fine. But the events of this week, the experiences we will re-invoke and walk through together, through the amazing power of the liturgy, have changed human history. They’re going to change the whole cosmos. And if you step in and put all your weight onto them, your whole trust, they will change your life. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
Here we are on the last bit of Lent—how did it get to be Lent V already? Palm Sunday is next week. In fact our palms arrived this past Friday! From this perspective it seems like the season has gone by quickly though maybe that is because collectively we have done much to bring God’s love to the front of our minds. I hope it has been a productive Lent for you and if you don’t think so just yet, we do have one more week.
One of the community actions we have taken through the season has been to read passages from the Gospel of John each day. Following the pattern of the daily lectionary we are currently beginning the ninth chapter of John. Though we won’t finish the gospel before Easter it is a discipline that we can continue. When we began this Lenten journey Mother Beth talked about this particular gospel in comparison to the other three. From these comparisons I was reminded of something I learned a long time ago in counseling classes. That is, there is a difference in relating what has happened and how those actions affect us. The goal of a good counselor is to go deeper than the action. John’s gospel does this; it goes deeper.
The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often like news reports, relating the facts of what occurred. Mark in particular loved to tell one thing after another. “This happened and then immediately this next thing happened.” Of course each of these gospel writers has a slant on Jesus’ story by when they wrote and the audience for whom they wrote. We get a lot of our familiar Bible stories from these three gospels. John, though, is different. From its beginning John is trying to connect the news of Jesus life to its meaning. John writes in a more personal way and asks a more personal response. Using my analogy you might say that John is the op-ed writer while the other three give a more front page straight forward story.
This parable of Jesus that we have just heard is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in all of scripture. It touches us on so many different levels, and is like a bottomless well from which we can draw an endless supply of living water to slake our spiritual thirst. Every time I come to it, I find something new. This time around, my attention was arrested by a detail that is casually passed over as Jesus tells the story in Luke’s gospel. The younger of two sons asks his father for a premature distribution of his share of the father’s estate; in other words, he wants his inheritance while Dad is still 98.6 and vertical, rather than room temperature and pushing up daisies. This is really an outlandish and incredibly selfish request. Not only is it offensive on a mere personal level—talk about breaking a parent’s heart—but it was also a considerable financial imposition. Imagine what it would take for you to come up with half of your net worth in cash. He probably had to sell some livestock and some precious metals and some real estate on terms that were not particularly advantageous.
I bring this up because, later on, when the “prodigal son” returns home penniless and disgraced, we are in awe of the father’s love that welcomes him back without any recriminations or awkward questions. For the son, that homecoming was a wonderful experience of forgiveness and grace. But for the father, it came at a cost. It cost him on both ends of the transaction—first when he liquidated his assets in an untimely manner, and then again when he threw a welcome-home party for his younger son that jeopardized his relationship with his faithful older son.
And, of course, since the obvious point of the parable is that we should transfer our regard for how the loving father treats his flaky son to how our loving God treats us flaky children, it’s also easy for us to overlook the cost factor. It’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation—our redemption, our reconciliation, both “vertically” with God and “horizontally” with our fellow human beings—it’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation doesn’t really cost God anything, that it’s just a matter of God shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Oh, well, people will be people. You gotta love ‘em, though, so I’ll just overlook their screw-ups and wink at their infidelities.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazi regime toward the end of World War II, coined the phrase “cheap grace.” Cheap grace doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s often alive and well in our imaginations. We see passages of scripture like “Return to the Lord, for he is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and the image that pops into our mind is not so much God the Father as God the Grandfather, who thinks we’re cute even when we’re naughty, and who pats us on the head and tells us to try a little harder to be nice as he slips us a piece of candy on the sly.
We continue to have a healthy appetite for “cheap grace,” I think, because we have a generally distorted conception of love. We confuse who we are with what we do, so we think that if someone loves us, they are obligated to approve of everything about us, to overlook our faults, and never confront or challenge our opinions or our behavior. No embarrassing questions about just how we managed to squander our inheritance in, as the King James Version puts it, “riotous living.” No parental advice on how to avoid repeating the disaster that we have brought on ourselves. No judgment, no consequences; just support, encouragement, and acceptance. That’s what love is, right?
Our taste for cheap grace is also nourished by a distorted notion of forgiveness. “It’s OK, think nothing of it.” “Not a problem—no big deal.” …as if the most serious thing we ever have to forgive is somebody accidentally stepping on our toe. Reinhold Niebuhr, an eminent Protestant theologian from the last century, described the theology of cheap grace as presenting us with "a God without wrath [who] brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” No wonder the cross has turned into a talisman, a fashion accessory. You’ve probably heard the story about the shopper who inquired at a department store jewelry counter, “Do you have any crosses?” The sales clerk responded with enthusiasm, “Oh, yes, we have several. Some are earrings, some are pins, and some come on necklaces. Most of them are plain, but some of them have a little man on them.” A little man. Indeed.
Let’s take an honest look at the sacred scriptures, particularly those appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. What do we see? We see the second of St Paul’s two letters to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and reminds us, that “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin…”. Now this is certainly a strange phrase. It refers, of course, to Jesus, who “knew no sin”—in other words, he was himself sinless; his being and his doing were at all times completely oriented toward the will of his Father. God took his own sinless son and “made him to be sin.” What does this mean? It means that Jesus was a sort of black hole for all of human sin, indeed for universal evil itself. Jesus absorbed into himself every act of genocide and mass murder, every act of tyranny and torture, every hate crime, every act of enslavement and human trafficking, every act of sexual predation, the sum total of social injustice and exploitation of the poor and marginalized, every misuse of our God-given desires and appetites, every act of infidelity and betrayal, every evasion of lawful and just taxation, every white lie, every disregarded traffic signal and every plagiarized term paper. Jesus took all of this into himself, and carried it to the cross. For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin.
This quality of proactive generosity in God’s love is evident in the Prodigal Son parable: Notice how, when the son returns home to see if his father will take him on as a hired hand, he doesn’t have to pound on the door and beg the butler to fetch his father. No, the father sees him from a distance, and runs out to meet him with open arms. The father hasn’t forgotten; he’s been watching and waiting the whole time. My brothers and sisters, God’s grace and forgiveness doesn’t cost us a dime, but it is far from free. Jesus has paid the price, God has paid the price, for our salvation, for our redemption, for our reconciliation.
We’re all familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death. The details are etched into our imaginations. We are—most of us— acutely aware of the details of the agony that Jesus endured on our behalf. The verbal humiliation, the brutal scourging, the cynical crowning with thorns, all before carrying a heavy cross several hundred yards and up a hill while a crowd continues to taunt him, and then being nailed to the cross and lifted up to die. And die he did. There’s nothing cheap about grace. It is enormously costly. We’re way too impoverished to pay the price, so Jesus pays it for us.
To those of us who have experienced the costly grace of God, the cross can never be a mere talisman or fashion accessory. It is a symbol that we venerate and embrace and love, because it stands before us as the sign of the length to which God was willing to go…to save me, to save you, to save anyone who comes to him in faith. The astounding truth of God’s love is that, if you were the only person in the entire world, Jesus would still have died for you. The one who knew no sin became sin for our sake, “…so that in him we might become,” not sin, but “the righteousness of God.” We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, our life, and resurrection. Amen.