In today’s parable, Jesus takes a folk tale known in his day and turns it into a narrative masterpiece. The story depicts someone who is, in the words of our Old Testament reading, “at ease in Zion.” He’s been privileged and complacent his whole life and Jesus shows us what that choice leads to. The rich man, whom legend names “Dives,” (that just means rich) tends to his own wants while ignoring the world beyond him – and especially his neighbor Lazarus, who is poor and sick. Now we’re not told that he did anything specific wrong, mind you – he might have been an upstanding citizen – Jesus just lets it be understood that Dives failed to let others into his heart.
Well, as we know, death comes to all. It comes to Lazarus first, and Jesus touchingly describes God sending angels who carried him right to the side of the great patriarch Abraham. And then he lets this blunt sentence drop by way of contrast: “The rich man also died and was buried.”
In case we don’t get the hint that Lazarus, though outcast, lived a life pleasing to God, whereas our comfortable homeowner did not, Jesus clarifies the story by placing Dives in what he calls Hades: that’s actually a word from Greek mythology, one of several terms the Bible uses as images of the state of the dead who have chosen against God. Dives in Hades can see Lazarus in paradise and cries out to Abraham, “have mercy on me.” He who used to ignore beggars has started begging himself -- because in God’s way, as Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s a total role reversal, but the amazing thing is that it hasn’t taught Dives anything. He hasn’t changed. Not only does Dives not apologize for ignoring Lazarus in life, he demonstrates that his main concern is still his own comfort – or in this case, the lack of it. And Lazarus, at Abraham’s side, still looks to Dives like an inferior, someone who could be called upon to run an errand.
In keeping with what Dives still thinks of as his stature, he addresses that call not to the former outcast Lazarus, but to the patriarch Abraham. “It’s hot down here, have Lazarus get me some water.” And when Abraham says that’s impossible, he replies, “Well, then send him over to my father’s house.” He remains centered in death just where he was in life -- on his own wants. Remember Abraham saying that a “great chasm that has been fixed between you and us”? That attitude is what fixed it. The great chasm between Lazarus and Dives in this tale isn’t one of physical distance – they could talk and see across it. What separates them irretrievably is spiritual distance, and that’s something people create for themselves every time they refuse to be open to love.
Even the message Dives wants to send his brothers expresses that refusal. He has realized that if his brothers continue as they are, they will surely end up where he is, in misery. But he doesn’t want to make sure they learn there is a place of eternal joy and comfort in God’s presence; he wants them to hear about torment so they can fear it. Dives has destroyed his own sensitivity to the joy of God, and can see only the isolation he’s made. Abraham points out that the brothers have already been given all the warning and promise they need to make the right choices. They have the Bible, a love letter from God through Moses and the prophets that is so rich and full you could spend twenty lifetimes plumbing its depths. But Dives essentially says, “Oh, who reads that old thing? I said, send Lazarus. If someone comes to them from the dead, that’ll be enough to convince them.”
And here is the brilliant climax to Jesus’ story. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,” says Abraham, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The not double, but TRIPLE meaning of this line is heart-stopping. Yes, it refers to the parable’s fictional character Lazarus. But there was also a real, human Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus actually had raised up from his grave. Many of those standing there listening to this story probably knew him personally. Had that been enough to convince them all? It had not.
And aside from Lazarus’ temporary resuscitation, there is a third meaning, the resurrection of Jesus himself on Easter day into an unending life. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s where he turns the spotlight off these Biblical characters and takes aim at us. Christ is risen. Someone has come to us from the dead. Is it enough for you?
The fact is that if someone really wants to say yes to themselves and no to God, nothing will be enough. When people choose over and over to live for themselves, they can’t help but deaden their spiritual perception, or in Bible terms, “harden their hearts.” God works 24 hours a day trying to break through to them. He puts himself out, goes to ridiculous lengths. Is it any wonder he laments in the book of Isaiah, “What more was there to do that I have not done?” He gives people the Word of God, and some call it fiction or oppressive. He gives us miracles, and some call them coincidence. He even gives us the resurrection we ask for, and some call it an old wives’ tale.
God loved Dives and reached out to him over and over until the moment he took his last breath, just as he does with every one of us. But the man just kept on choosing his own convenience, settling deeper and deeper into himself. The suffering of others was just part of the landscape, and letting himself become vulnerable to them, or to the awesome love of God, never made it onto his radar.
Yeah, it was a comfortable upstanding happy life, but it proclaimed over and over an unrepentant no to everything that is really important.
Dives walked that path, and he stayed on it his whole life, and he found himself still on it after death. Separated from poor Lazarus by a great gulf, just as he had always been, and only barely able to wake up to the fact that the gulf that separated him from his fellow man separated him from God too. You and I are all choosing every day whether to dig that gulf deeper, or bridge it. The chasm that Jesus pictures for us today doesn’t suddenly, arbitrarily appear after death as some kind of random heavenly punishment, or surprising out of left field reward. Of course salvation is about saying yes or no to Jesus, but that decision is worked out day by day as we say yes or no to many smaller things.
As we choose whether to splurge on that really great looking set of patio furniture Instagram showed us, or give that same amount to charity instead. Whether to kill an evening binge-watching another Netflix series, or spend it praying over the Gospel of John. Whether to go cheer at the kids’ football game, or down a couple vodka martinis alone. Whether to keep your Baptismal vows, or pragmatically live a whole different set of values.
Those are the little daily decisions that establish our path in life. Those are the choices that express the opening, or closing, of a heart. It isn’t like right after we die, out of nowhere, someone is going to say to us, “so, would you prefer column A angelic bliss, or column B lake of fire?” Who on earth would have trouble making up their mind if you put it that way?
No, the choice is the same all along, always has been, always will be: yes to Jesus’ life in us this time, or no. And we’re already making that choice over and over every day, until the moment when it turns out to have been made for good.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are all here this morning for a reason. Whether we got up, got dressed, and got here because Mom said so or because it’s just what you’ve always done on a Sunday morning or because you’re desperately searching for answers — whatever the reason we give ourselves, the truth of the matter is that God called you here today. God called you here today because he wants to meet you where you’re at — and then bring you close (to his heart).
If you’ve been at Emmanuel over the last several weeks, you’ll have heard about the shindig we threw this morning. Journey Through the Seasons, a celebration and exploration of the church year, came about because the entire leadership team of this parish — the staff and the vestry and the volunteers who are committed to worshiping Christ here and now and in the future — agreed that as post-pandemic pieces have come back together, it’s time to remind ourselves of who we really are — and to whom we really belong, even when we are scattered. Not only are we a church that has an entire service in Elizabethan English. Not only are we a church with a wonderful choir and chanted masses. We are a church governed and renewed by a story we tell again and again, day after day and year after year.
For many or most of us, that fact is strikingly different than anything we’ve encountered elsewhere. Where else do a group of people with varying passions and different incomes get together to rehearse and recite a single story? Yet that is exactly what we’re doing here today — and it’s what the church has done for as long as anyone can remember.
And that’s because we live in a time of expectation. When the first disciples began to die around the 2nd century A.D., the church realized that no one could predict when Christ would once again arrive on the scene. Truly, as Jesus said, his return would be like a late and long-awaited Bridegroom. There’s nothing for it but to wait and wait well.
This is not easy — because the tick of the clock, the push and pull of the seasons, the births and deaths that crowd all of our lives will inevitably turn our eyes from what is not visible to what is. We want to be all-in for Christ. We want to be ready whenever he comes, but the task is hard; and we are weak, and we are easily lead astray.
Thanks be to God, then, that every day dawns anew. With the rising of the sun, we remember the rising of the Son of Righteousness. With its setting, we remember that we are upheld by the one who never sleeps. God, in his mercy and his might, has taken time in his hands and made it holy.
And so it is that we can see the gifts God has given to humankind. Each moment, each second of the day, is a gift from God to us, a chance to lean more deeply into our relationship with him. Redemption was accomplished in one act, thousands of years ago; but because God has claimed time for his very own, that event has become our reality. It is something alive, something working, something that changes everything.
When we come to believe in the story of Jesus' dying and rising and ruling over everything — the cosmos, the universe — the ebb and flow of our lives, the periods of lightness and darkness, become signs of a deeper life, an eternal life. As this story sinks into our bones, as it becomes the story that explains all others, our spirits are made right and our hearts made clean — because we will have entered the very life of Christ. Our whole selves will be swept up into the drama that is God redeeming and remaking this world.
And what happens then but that we are remade into the image of Christ. What happens then but that we become the kind of people who reach out to the tax collectors and sinners of our age with the good news of a King who sacrificed everything he had in order to save the one who was lost.
This is the mystery of God that unfolds year after year, season after season. It is a journey we are all on together, as we follow Christ from birth through death and on into glory until one day we see him face-to-face. AMEN.
As some of you can attest, I have been preaching from this pulpit for a long time and I have saved copies of most of my sermons. In looking through those old sermons I could not find one that was for today’s propers! Perhaps this is because I was often away for Labor Day weekend but none the less these lessons require looking beyond the surface.
What harsh words we heard in this morning’s gospel! Hate father and mother, wife and children? Carry a cross, an instrument of painful death? Be ridiculed for not having enough building materials? Consider how many soldiers one has, prior to going into battle? Give up all our possessions in order to become Jesus’ disciple? Hate, cross, ridicule, war, choose becoming poor? None of these are desirable things and perhaps we shake our heads and move onto more agreeable passages.
Or we can stop, pause, and see these harsh words as means to catch our attention and consider what Jesus meant by them.
At this point in Luke’s telling of our savior’s life, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he will face the worst that a human being can have happen. He will be ridiculed, spat upon, beaten, abandoned by his closest friends, and put to a painful and shameful death. He knows this is coming and that it must happen. Jesus must die for resurrection to happen. And resurrection is the reason God sent him into the world. Jesus knows this, as he and this large crowd are walking to Jerusalem.
That crowd has seen Jesus perform healings and other miracles again and again. They have heard him speak and listened to his parables and stories. What he has done and said is all very appealing; they want to follow him. Large numbers of people walk with him at this point. But they do not know what will happen next. They do not understand what the cost of being his follower will entail.
Jesus tries to let them know the full story, especially what the next period of his life will involve. He wants them to see all the consequences of becoming His disciple. What he has to offer them is wonderful, but it also has challenges.
Discipleship requires total dedication and is not something to go into on a whim. It is a choice to be made after careful deliberation. It cannot be decided by going along with the crowd. So, Jesus does not lighten it up in today’s passage. He uses strong language to indicate what they may face and that there will be a cost in staying with him.
Jesus begins today’s passage by saying his disciples must put him first, above all else. While I am not a student of Hebrew myself, I have read that in Hebrew there are not words to express a greater or lesser love. The words translate into definite opposites. You either love someone or you hate them. Love/Hate are exact opposites. In saying that they must hate their wife and children, Jesus’ point is that if you choose to be his disciple that must be the first priority in your life. In some cases that may mean losing all your family, or in others it may mean a lessening of relationships that had been close. For many mother, father and so on, will make the same choice to be Jesus’ follower, but that is not a guarantee. He also points out that being his disciple may lead to their death and we know of many martyrs throughout the centuries for whom that was true. Of course, there are far more people for whom it was not the case. Nonetheless Jesus indicates it is a possibility. For the original hearers of this gospel, becoming his follower would be dangerous. Jesus was headed to his own death.
Next Jesus tells the crowd they must carry the cross and follow him. Much has been written about what it means to carry our cross. Study through the ages has made interpretation of this statement. In some eras this phrase has been misused to justify many bad things such as spousal abuse, racism and more. For the purposes of this sermon and its length I will summarize “carrying our cross and following Jesus” to mean we are to obey God even in our pain and loss.
When we face the tragedies and griefs that are a part of life, we do not abandon God; our God does not abandon us. Jesus is with us in our sufferings. He, who experienced the worst pain imaginable, both physical and emotional, understands suffering. Jesus empathy and love come to us most especially when we suffer.
Jesus talks about war and new buildings as occasions to prepare before deciding to go ahead with them. He uses these examples to caution those wanting to be his followers that it won’t be all miracles and high points. The reality is that resurrection comes after the crucifixion.
Jesus ends this reading by stating that to be a disciple we must give up all our possessions. He is not speaking of just things we own, though our need to acquire is certainly a part of this. Other things we need to give up may be our yearning for success, our prejudices, our jealousies, our busyness, and addictions, really anything that pulls us away from placing Jesus first in our lives. It is these things we must put away from us.
Becoming Jesus’ disciple is a process. We are human beings after all. We will try to prioritize him as first in our lives and we will fail. We will ask forgiveness and then try again. Jesus understands this about us. What he said to the crowds of long ago and what he says to us in today’s gospel passage is that embracing discipleship is tough. While the benefits are great, beyond great, there will be difficult times and difficult choices that come with being his follower.
Discipleship is more than being a responsible human being. At times we may have to give up our earthly loyalties and step out of our places of comfort to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This gospel gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on our own journey of discipleship and ask ourselves how we are doing in giving Jesus the highest priority.
We, living now, have the fortunate place of knowing resurrection and the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings to his disciples. The crowd following Jesus in the morning’s passage did not have that same advantage. With the passage of time, we also know that it is through God’s love we are offered the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and that it is through God’s love we are given the support of living out discipleship. This is our hope, and this is our limitless joy.
Today’s gospel reminds us that accepting Jesus’ call is a serious choice. We know the cost is worth it!
May God grant us peace in reading and understanding scripture.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The whole reading from Hebrews today is full of instructions, but when the Bible gives us instructions, they are always an expression of some divine truth that makes the instructions possible. And that line, that truth, is priceless: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
That’s not a platitude. It is the reality that makes the Christian way of life feasible. When we come to this altar, when we read the Bible, when we serve Christ in the poor, we are encountering the same living Jesus Christ who walked the roads of Galilee. His teaching has not changed. His power has not waned. His style, his M.O., the way he approaches people and life is just the same as it has always been. And his heart still beats with love and mercy for this world and always will.
We see this in lots of ways. If we take time to read the four Gospels straight through, something every Christian should do, we’ll find the Jesus they describe to be the same person we worship. If we hopped on a plane to meet fellow disciples from across the world, as our Bishop did this summer when he attended the Lambeth Conference with Anglicans from 165 nations, we would discover that whether they live in Angola, Albania, or Azerbaijan they are following the identical Son of God we follow.
Or if we could go back in time and consult the great saints like Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross, we’d discover there too: it’s the same Jesus. He’s still real. He’s still alive. Same truth, same power, same person, for everyone, everywhere, every when. Of course, we change. Our culture changes. Our perception of truth can be unreliable, wavering and fading in and out sometimes. The needs and questions and situations are in flux. But it’s still Jesus who’s standing with us, risen from the dead, alive forevermore, the same yesterday and today and forever. Without his living, consistent presence, Christianity falls apart.
Today’s reading is the closing section of the letter to the Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but whoever it was is concluding the letter with some words of advice. All of them are things you could try to do in your own strength, although some of them I doubt anyone whose priority was to rely on their own strength would have much motivation for. But the author doesn’t expect the community to do these things in their own strength. He or she expects them to use a strength which comes from Jesus, and because of that is the same yesterday and today and forever.
So what’s the advice? First, Let mutual love continue. If your ability to love a fellow Christian is rooted in ways that you are humanly similar – educational or cultural or economic similarities, say – it will not extend across dissimilarities and disagreements. If your mutual love comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is within each of you living his life through you, that love is founded on something unchanging and much more important than any current differences of human opinion.
The passage also says: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. This is often a hard thing to do for a Christian community, especially when that community is already good at the mutual love part. It’s hard to remember that on Sunday part of your job, if you belong to Emmanuel, is deliberately not to talk to your best friends or get some church business done, but to look around and notice people you don’t already know, people Jesus has called here and needs you to how love and hospitality to. Talk to your friends the other 167 hours in the week. When you’re at Mass, show hospitality.
Where do we get the power to remember that we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers? From knowing that Christianity is about us and our friends and our church, but about the loving mission of Jesus for the world, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
The author of Hebrews continues: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Now if you believe in everybody earning their own way in life, you’re just not going to obey this, because you’ll think you earned something better and they deserve what they got. But if you believe in grace, if you have grasped how much you need mercy, you can have the empathy to say: “that could be me. Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever, was merciful to me, a sinner. He cares for all my fellow sinners too, and honors me by letting me share his love and empathy with them.”
And then the reading goes on to deal with two things that are uncomfortable to talk about. Things that most people who are not trying to live a spiritual life really would like those who are living a spiritual life to avoid mentioning: sex and money. In our dominant post-Enlightenment Western value system, those two issues are considered private, nobody else’s business. Scripture disagrees.
The passage says: Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. I know that verse is hard to hear for many people, just as much of what Jesus said in the Gospel reading last week was hard to hear. And if you don’t feel accountable to what God has revealed (which most Americans don’t, of course, and that is certainly their prerogative), this verse and the many similar passages throughout the Bible will not be of much interest to you. But if we value what God has revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures, at the very least we must take seriously that God’s call goes all the way down to what our American culture mistakenly thinks of as the most quote, private, unquote levels of your being. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, and there is nothing about you that’s none of his business.
And so the passage goes on with an equally uncomfortable topic we’d really prefer to keep private. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." Again, for people who are not trying to structure their lives by what God has revealed, this principle of being content with what you have won’t make sense. Because it flies in the face of what our culture believes about always trying to get a raise, and buy a a bigger flat screen TV, and all the TV shows about dream vacation rentals and high end real estate and celebrity chefs. We are constantly formed by everything but God to always want more…. even though we are already the richest nation that has ever existed and the poorest person in this room is wealthier than 90% of the globe.
But again, if you want to be a Gospel person – maybe you don’t, but if you do – the Gospel must be taken seriously as having something to say about how you use the financial resources God gives you. It did yesterday, it does today, and it will forever. Because Jesus, who embodies the Gospel, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
And then we get a beautiful reminder: as we live this life, a life that inspires us not to fear, not to focus on finding and expressing your own identify but on discovering the identity you have in Jesus, not to live by a secular post-Enlightenment vision but by a Biblical one, what does it produce? It produces people who can proclaim that verse near the end with integrity: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me? Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
And finally, our author encourages us to rely on models, people who are already wholehearted disciples, people who mentored us as Christians. She or he says ,“consider the outcome of their way of life.” In other words, bring to mind some person, any person, who really lives out of mutual love for their sisters and brothers in Christ, who exhibits steady hospitality and empathy for the undeserving, who lets God have the last word even on issues secular people consider private, and who radiates confidence in Jesus who is the same yesterday and today and forever – Imagine that person, and consider the outcome of that way of life.
Or, imagine a group of Christians who lived that way, and what the outcome would be. Imagine the outcome of that way of life. Imagine the outcome if a parish were so convinced the way Jesus showed us is the way to live, that they just did it -- showed hospitality and empathy and mutual love and accountability and generosity -- no matter what else was going on. Imagine that.
Or if you like, maybe you won’t have to imagine, because after all, it’s possible. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
This woman knew what it meant to suffer. For 18 years, she had been bowed down by a crippling spirit, her back broken under its weight. Long gone were the days when she could trade smiles with a friend or admire the color of the sky. Her world was upside down and full of pain; and she was alone in bearing it.
Until she encountered Christ.
Walking into the synagogue, she wouldn’t have seen him speaking. She wouldn’t have thought or even imagined anything unusual or special happening that day. But then a voice called her name, and she suddenly found herself the center of attention. A wandering rabbi named Jesus had seen her. He had called her to him, grasped her shoulders, and said, “Stand up. You are healed.”
And for the first time in almost two decades, the woman rose to her full height and looked this man in the eyes. And then she left, praising God.
I could almost stop the sermon there, this story speaks so well on its own. God is a God of healing and redemption, more devoted to restoring his beloved creatures to wholeness than to preserving his own life. The end. But I won’t stop there because I think there’s something about this brief tale that we might not realize at first. And that is simple. We are or have been or will be that crippled woman.
Each one of us knows that the world we live in can be hard and even cruel. Tragedy can strike even the healthiest of families. Debt can accumulate in even the most responsible of households. Anger can rule even the kindest of people. These things happen; and whether or not we have thought of it this way before, the grief or sorrow or worry that results from those kinds of situations can stay with us. Can stay on us. Before we know it, our spiritual and sometimes physical backs bend, and we are bowed down, our eyes glued on whatever problem is before us.
That spiritual posture is in just as much need of divine intervention as the woman in our Gospel text today — and that’s because God doesn’t want us to be fixated on the products and consequences of Sin and Death. He doesn’t want us obsessing over how we might pay the next bill or how we will ever be happy again without this person or that comfort. What God wants for us is freedom, freedom to look him in the eyes and see who he is: A good and merciful God who redeems our lives from the grave. Who satisfies us with good things. Who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness (Psalm 103).
The God we worship is a God of healing and redemption. He delights in raising fallen, sinful human beings out of the grave so that they — so that we — may live lives of peace and wholeness with him.
Imagine what it must have been like for that woman to walk home and see how the world around her had both changed and stayed the same: how the children had grown up and started their own families, how the night sky held the same, innumerable stars. Imagine the hope she felt for the first time in years. God had saved her. She was free. And though she couldn’t know what the next days would hold, something about the way that rabbi had looked in her eyes, something about the way his voice sounded gave her the feeling that everything would turn out alright in the end.
Everything will turn out alright in the end, even if the freedom we experience in the present life looks and feels different than the miracle we heard today. When we encounter Christ in this life, our burdens may not disappear. We may not suddenly stand tall, having shed every last trace of anxiety or worry. But Christ nevertheless sees us and speaks, reminding us again of the work that he has done and is still doing.
We are a people meant for freedom. For rest. For peace with God. Jesus ensured that this hope could become our reality. He put his shoulder under the cross, bent his back, so that we might be called friends and children of God. And in so doing, he has lifted us to the heights of the earth, so that we might see the future before us, and hope for it. And love it. And believe it is coming.
And in a different kind of way, that is a miracle. All those spiritual blessings will slowly but surely transform our lives. When we come together to hear and speak the words of Holy Scripture, to taste the Body and the Blood of Christ, to share our burdens and cares and victories with those around us, we are changed because those experiences are an encounter with Christ himself. He is here with us now, bringing joy to the sorrowful and healing to the broken. Though we may not see him, he calls us, saying: “Stand up. Be free, beloved child of God.” AMEN.
This has been quite a summer for weather. We’ve had an incredible heat wave or two, a few really severe thunderstorms, and lots of days where we all keep loading the weather app on our phones to figure out whether we can go to Sholem or Meadowbrook in the next few hours or not. We have access to all kinds of weather information these days. You can zoom the radar right in to your street, you can set text alerts, you can check hourly temperature predictions… All the data you could possibly want, just waiting for you to interpret them.
And it’s not just “the appearance of earth and sky,” as Jesus calls it today, that we can easily get input on interpreting. We also have access to all kinds of other sources which tell us what’s happening around us. Load Twitter, turn on cable TV, google it, and you can get all the signs of the times you can handle. If 1500 flights were cancelled last weekend, when should you get to the airport? If we may be looking at a recession, how much of an emergency fund should you keep on hand?
Nor is being able to interpret the data important only in public arenas. There is also the whole area of interpersonal data, what some have called “emotional intelligence.” Being able to interpret things on that level is a somewhat different skill. If an employee leaves a meeting early with no explanation, the boss has to interpret it. Is the worker challenging his authority and ought to be confronted? Does the staff member’s behavior fit in with a pattern of lack of investment in the mission, or unreliability? Or was there a genuine crisis?
And of course, there’s one more kind of interpretation, the whole area of figuring ourselves out. Interpreting things about our own psyches, what motivates us, why we make the same mistakes over and over. Even those who don't do that formally in therapy, usually do something similar from, say, reading self-help bestsellers or following Instagram influencers.
We’re interpreting all the time, whether it be hard data, or interpersonal behavior, or our own emotional lives. Being good at interpreting what’s going on in all three of those areas helps us make good choices -- about our values, our behavior, our vote. Still, in the ending section of today’s Gospel – which really is two little stories, one about division and the other about his rebuke of the crowds – I think Jesus is suggesting that the list we’ve made so far is one short. Jesus rebukes the crowds in our Gospel for not being able to interpret the unique moment of opportunity he offered, not being able to read the signs of what God was doing right in front of them. The missing ingredient, he suggests, is spiritual interpretation.
My first reaction, when I read about Jesus scolding the crowds here, is to wonder what he expected them to know? What indicators should they have been able to use to recognize what was happening around them on a spiritual level? And the question can be as validly asked of us. If you had to name signs you look for to help you figure out where God is in a situation, what is going on on a spiritual level, what would they be? I don’t mean to be flip, but what are the spiritual equivalents of the Dow Jones industrial average or Doppler radar?
As I pondered that question, I thought of one example from my own life. I’ve learned over the years that one fairly reliable indicator of how I am doing spiritually is how I react to Scripture. I pray the Daily Office regularly, both here in the chancel and wherever I happen to be when the hour for the Office comes up, and sometimes the Bible lessons seem relevant, worth slowing down for and ruminating on. Other days I blow through them like junk mail and can’t remember, half an hour later, what they even were.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the difference between those two experiences is mostly caused by me. Where I am, spiritually, strongly influences how meaningful I find the Bible. Now everyone has times of dryness in their spiritual life; those aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m just saying that being able to receive the Word of God as a real Word from God has a lot more to do with the shape my receiving abilities are in, than with the Word of God itself.
That’s one personal indicator in my life. Another is whether I react with impatience in a grocery store line or at a traffic light or with someone who calls the church for help with a power bill. If I feel myself getting negative about small things over which I have no control, that signals me that I am closing myself off to the influence of the Spirit. So that's one more indicator.
I wonder what some of yours are? How do you know when you are on track in your spiritual life? How do you know when you need to take time to rekindle your connection with God? How do you know when you've wandered too far from where, deep down, you really want to be? And there's one more question about spiritual indicators. Because of course the spiritual life is not merely a personal or private thing. All Christian life is corporate. So how do we gauge, for example, what is happening on a spiritual level with a congregation, without confusing that with other external indicators like “attendance is up or down,” or “more or fewer people have pledged this year”? This will be an important issue for you to deal with as you begin discerning your next steps after I retire. Where is Emmanuel spiritually? What does Emmanuel need? How do you know?
Now sometimes it's crashingly obvious what God is up to. One night at a leadership meeting at a parish I used to be rector of, we paused the meeting to pray that God would help us get in touch with the needs of people in our area, and just then a woman in need literally walked in the unlocked door and asked for our help. Doesn't take much skill to figure that one out. But some of the signs of God's action among us, his followers, require much more prayer, thought and discernment.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west,” Jesus told the crowd, “you immediately say it’s going to rain. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say there will be scorching heat. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Using the image of a weather forecast, Jesus reminds the crowds in our Gospel how important it is for them to grasp what’s going on in the unique moment of opportunity he offers, the signs of what God is doing right in front of them. And to us, his contemporary followers, he continues presenting opportunities and signs. Opportunities to hear from him, to rethink our priorities, to act in his name…. signs of his will, of his love, of what he needs me, and you, and your parish, to do.
How much difference will it make whether or not each of you pays attention to God, reads the signs of his involvement and direction, and takes action accordingly? Well, let's put it this way -- enough difference to change the forecast.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
One of the nice things about working at the church during the week is that something different is always happening! Often those coming to the door are interested in just a sack lunch or a bottle of water, or perhaps new socks. Other days there is some crisis looming and they seek prayer or other forms of help. One recent day a man came to offer his thanks to God for waking up that morning! It was a simple prayer and yet so filled with joy. He knew others who had not awakened, and he wanted to give thanks for another day of being alive to enjoy God’s creation.
I wonder, how many of us remember to cherish the gift of each day?
Sometimes I imagine we do but at other times we move quickly to the day’s responsibilities and forget the grace of each day. Following the daily office is one way to regularly help us mark the day through prayer. And, of course, as we approach the end of our lives on earth the importance of each day becomes more apparent.
The followers of Jesus that Luke wrote for in his gospel lived at a time when most thought Jesus’ return to earth was imminent. Today’s passage gives the message to that beloved group to be prepared for that coming, to live each day as though it could be their last.
Fast forwarding to time now, while we know that Christ will come again it does not seem quite as imminent. For most of us, we put that out of our mind, living our lives on earth as though time is endless.
This works until someone close to us has died or is seriously ill. For those entering hospice a single day is very precious. Some at that state of life may actually make a list of what they want to do in their time left on earth.
Those lists contain simple things like sit outside at dusk and wait for the lightening bugs to come; come to church on a Sunday; eat watermelon; sit in a hot tub; see some blooming yellow flowers; listen to particular pieces of classical music. Mostly these are pleasures done often in daily life, things we take for granted but for those making such a list these are things they would like to do one more time.
Often these lists are a recording of names. These are people they would like to see and talk with one more time. Perhaps there is unfinished business, people whom they have wronged or have wronged them. Perhaps they are people whose company they have enjoyed throughout life. Most often they are people whom they love, and they want them to know that in their own words. These lists can bring purpose and meaning to final days.
An Emmanuelite I knew some years ago kept a prayer book and a 24-hour votive candle near the bedside when they joined hospice. Each morning they would light the candle and say a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive another day. As the flame burned down into the night, it reminded them of the precious nature of that particular day.
God’s sacred gift of one day is something we often take for granted. These examples are ones from which we can profit. Life is a gift and not one of us knows exactly how many days we will be given. However, we do have the choice of how we will live each day—whether in joy and gratitude or in fear and desperation.
How might you live today or tomorrow if you knew that it might be your last? What would be on your “most important” to do list? It is an interesting exercise and can lead us to an appreciation of what God has given, bringing us to joy and gratitude versus fear and desperation.
Right now in our world, there is much to fear: the economy, global warming, Covid and other disease, poverty, hunger, random acts of gun violence, terrorism to name a few major fears. Perhaps some more minor ones might be how will I buy that next tank of gas or who will be the next rector here. The list goes on and we know it.
Into these fears and across centuries we hear the beginning of today’s gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We are reminded that God is the one in charge. Our fears that come with earthly living are not how we define our life. God will give us his kingdom that is never ending.
Today’s gospel passage gave that message to those early Christians just as we hear it today. Do not be afraid. The reading instructs them and us to be ready and watchful for Christ’s return. They were told as are we that we need not fear that event because we belong to God. And God always wants the best for us.
Jesus’ words to that early group were to reassure them as well as to challenge them to value the lasting things, the God things, in life. There is a great comforting promise in today’s gospel as well as the admonishment to keep ready.
Make no mistake, the message is there, vigilance is vital. There is no getting around the fact that we are called to live each day, each moment as though it could be our final chance.
So perhaps the exercise of thinking how we would use a final day is a good one.
But if that is personally difficult, then we might look at another phrase of the day’s gospel. What might treasure in heaven look like for us? How would we define heavenly treasure?
I am certain that it includes the love of those around us, but I am also sure it is more than that. Heavenly treasure is based on love and is filled with love but it is more.
Put another way, what do we want in life that is good; what is our godly passion? Is it justice, or faithfulness, or perhaps beauty or compassion? What heavenly treasures do we want to amass? After we have identified our “treasure in heaven” we must then structure our lives with actions to achieve them.
Thinking of how we would spend a last day or personally defining heavenly treasures gives us a clearer understanding of what has lasting value.
So often life’s challenges beat us down, and just making it through each day becomes our objective. This gospel gives us opportunity to remember the larger picture and to focus on what is most important. We are called through this gospel to remember what is eternal and lasting and to put that at the front of our thoughts and actions.
One of my favorite theologians, Evelyn Underhill has said, “The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come. This is largely because they have lost their sure hold on the eternal. It is the eternal which gives to each life meaning and direction and with meaning and direction gives steadiness.”
She goes on to say that focusing on the eternal does not allow us to escape from our problems or to avoid the difficulties of actual life. Rather remembering that our ultimate security is found in the eternal, brings an acceptance and a joy to life as it is.
So, as we engage the words of the scriptures today, may we find hope and joy in the promise they contain.
God invites us into his kingdom. He desires us to live each day knowing we belong to Him. His blessings are boundless.
Our loving God wants to provide good things for each of us; may we be ready to accept the life he offers
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The Christian church has a problem, a problem that has caused no end of consternation for the last two millennia.
We are members of the kingdom of God and citizens of heaven — but we still live on earth. We still live in a world that prizes passion and greed and anger and malice above everything we hold to be true. And while we know where we’re headed — while we know that eternal life with Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is awaiting us — that reality can sometimes or even all the time feel like a daydream compared to the nightly news.
This is not a new problem. And it’s actually one of the reasons St. Paul wrote the letter we heard from today. The church at Colossae was founded by Paul and had been faithful and generous and loving in all that they did. But now, the church faced an unsure and frightening future. Paul had been arrested. He awaited what was probably a terrible fate. The thought of a future without him — without his wisdom and foresight and guidance — made the world around the Colossian Christians to seem louder and larger and eventually the good news of the Gospel didn’t feel like enough.
And so the people in this congregation began to think about hedging their bets. They began to listen when whispers of other promises and easier options came their way. At the moment when Paul wrote this letter, the Christians at Colossae were on the verge of forgetting who they were and whose they were. They were on the verge of allowing their visible reality to re-define them.
Which is something we do, too. It really is the easiest thing in the world to let the nightly news or our personal problems or our worries or fears color our perspective. It’s easy to let these things even rule how we live our lives. And that’s because, naturally, what we feel and see and taste and touch are present to us in a way that is much more “real” than the unseen things we believe by faith.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae, he knew they were struggling — and he knew how to help them. Listen to what he wrote: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Paul wanted his spiritual children at Colossae — and by extension, us — to see the world through God’s eyes. He wants us to “have all the riches of assured understanding and . . . knowledge of . . . Christ” because in Christ is every treasure of wisdom and knowledge. But Paul knew that this “state of being,” this life ruled by the peace of Christ, would only be attainable if we hold fast to the story — to the Person — who gave us new life in the first place. He knew that this was only possible if we keep our hearts fixed on what is actually true.
Which is why Paul encourages us to seek the things that are above. Search diligently for all that looks like, sounds like, tastes like Christ. Strive after these things and aim for them. For in so doing, we will find the Truth. When we seek the things that are above, we will encounter Christ in his glory. We will be reminded again and again of who we are: A precious and beloved child of God.
And that reality will illuminate every moment and every aspect of our lives. No longer will we be bound by the race for prestige or the allure of wealth. No longer will we be trapped by what can really feel like the pointlessness of it all. No longer will we judge people on their political views or their social position or what have you — because we will see that Christ is all in all.
That is the hope Paul reminds us of this morning, a hope that truly can make our lives a beautiful and holy offering to God — even in the here and now.
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” AMEN.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus responds to this request in two ways: first he gives his disciples a model prayer, which we’ve come to call the Lord’s Prayer and which is included in virtually every Episcopal liturgy. And second, he makes sure the God they are praying to is the real God, the generous and benevolent one he calls Father, the God revealed in Scripture. We’ll touch on both those this morning.
Now, this parish is entering into a time in which prayer is going to be very important. Prayer is always important, of course, but in the life of any spiritual community there come these transitional seasons where having people praying versus not having people praying can make a mammoth difference. As we continue to process saying farewell to this phase of Emmanuel’s life, and to look out towards the horizon for what’s coming and who’s coming, it is very important that people be praying in the way Jesus taught us and to the God about whom Jesus taught us.
If you look through the Gospel today, you see all sorts of evidence of how God desires to do his people good in response to their prayers. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God has your best interests at heart and he cares about you and your life.
However, people so often try to be more spiritual than Jesus, and raise objections like “God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient. Why should I pray for God to send us a good interim rector? If it’s God’s will to send a good interim rector, he can do it without my asking him.” Ah, but the chances are that what God’s will is, is to send a good interim rector in answer to your prayers. This is how God works most commonly, he works with and through his people. He wants us to ask and seek and knock, because he has chosen to confer on us the dignity of getting to cooperate with him in making his Kingdom present in the world.
Of course he’s taking a great risk in doing that, but God is no stranger to risk. He took a risk in becoming a helpless babe in a manger, he takes a risk in becoming bread in the Eucharist. The baby could have been killed. The bread can be dropped in the mud and profaned. But he takes that risk because he wants to let us experience him, right where we are.
Exact same thing with prayer. The way God has designed the universe, stuff he really wants to get done will not happen if we don’t collaborate in it – by our actions, and just as importantly by our prayers. “Ask and you will receive.” If we offer God that channel of prayer to work through, if we ask, we will receive. If we don’t – well, that was the risk he took in inventing prayer in the first place.
So as I said, over the next months, Emmanuel is entering into a time in its life where prayer is going to be very important. There are things God wants for this congregation after I’m gone in November – and I have no idea what they are, of course, that’s up to him and you. But he will only be able to do it fully if Emmanuelites both work and pray. If you just work without having that constant background music of prayer, you’ll get a pale shadow of the good things God wanted to give you.
So I want to suggest some things you might do in prayer these next several weeks. I’m going to do this cautiously, because it’s not appropriate for a priest to influence the affairs of a congregation after they leave. So I’ll just say some generic ways you could put today’s Gospel into practice in this context.
One is to pray for Lisa Kocheril. We have an excellent Senior Warden and an excellent Junior Warden, but an interim period is a time when the Senior Warden in particular will have a lot of responsibility. You could pray that God would guide her, give her energy and wisdom, provide lots of parishioners for her to delegate work to, and sort of grease the wheels for all the connections she has to make with other leaders and with the diocese and so on.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for Lisa. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for our staff. That Mother Marisa and Deacon Chris and Mary Sievers and Fred Bahr and Nick Pothier and Tim Valentine will stay grounded and faith-filled, that they will have the resources to do anything extra they need to do to tide us over – but also the boundaries to say no to extra things people pressure them to do that they should not be doing. A search can be stressful for the current staff, and it will demand the best of them in a way no other phase of a church’s life does.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the Emmanuel staff. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for God to connect the parish with the right priest to serve in the interim period. That we will receive someone who has the seasoned executive capacity to guide a parish as complicated as Emmanuel through an in-between phase, who loves God and the Gospel, and who is equipped to work transparently and fruitfully with your lay and ordained leaders.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for God to send us the right interim priest. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
And one more: pray for the spiritual health of the parish as a whole. Person after person has commented that what they love about Emmanuel is the sense of holiness combined with openness that they can feel here. I certainly agree with that. But now that you’re aproaching a time which is going to be a little anxious, it’s going to be very easy to let that spiritual vitality sag and to close down and turn inward. The natural reaction to the unknown and to anxiety is sort of to tighten up, to be wary. God’s not into wariness. He can’t slip as much of his Holy Spirit through tightly clenched hands as he can through open ones. And he will build your trust in him if you ask.
So this is the time to ask: God, increase our trust in you. Help us to remember everything you’ve done for us. Help us not to try to take control. Make sure we always have living in your love as a higher priority than getting our ducks in a row.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the continued spiritual vitality of the parish. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Eventually, there will be other specific things to pray for: for the search committee, for the interviews, for the right new rector, and so on. But right now, in terms of interceding, it would be great for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for Lisa, for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for our staff, some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the right interim, and some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the parish to keep rooted in its deep spiritual life.
Don’t leave these needs to someone else. It’s not something “they” need to do, it’s something we all need to do. You choose one. Or God may have let something else specific pop into your mind during this sermon that needs to be covered in prayer. That’s his assignment to you, then, and by all means listen to him rather than to me.
So. Prayer is going to be very important for you over the next months. Jesus has assured us that God wants to give you good things in response to your prayers. And even better than that, he really wants to nourish and form you as you pray, too. You may think it’s an obligation, but you come away blessed. God knows that just praying, just being in his presence and loving him, will probably do you more good than any thing he may give you as an answer. His depths of generosity and mercy and life are always sufficient. All you have to do is ask.
And to make a right beginning of asking, let’s offer all these concerns and hopes together to our loving God in the words our Savior taught us, saying, Our Father….
I mentioned in the July Messenger that as I look across the months remaining until my retirement, I’ve naturally started reminiscing a little about my 28 years in ministry. I was thinking the other day about a Bible study I once led and one of its participants. I’ll call her Maggie. Maggie was a very simple person, and you always got the feeling life was coming at her pretty fast, but she liked to sit with us and listen, even when she didn’t really follow all the ideas.
In the method we used, the final question every week was “what is God calling you to do in response to what we have read?” Depending on the passage, people would say things like “buy canned goods to give to the food pantry” or “pray about forgiving the co-worker who hurt me.” But every week, as regular as clockwork, Maggie was the first to respond. She would inevitably furrow her brow in thought, and then, with a hint of nervousness, as if she might be wrong, week after week give the identical answer: “Help people?”
I had to smile, but over the years I came to treasure Maggie’s weekly reminder for us to help people. And when our Gospel today is the story of the Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers and the Samaritan who assumed all the burden of his care, I expect the majority of sermons we’ve heard on this passage have given essentially the Maggie Interpretation of what it means: Help people. A good answer. Or sometimes, a little more specifically, help people, even those who are different from us. Also a very good answer.
It strikes me, though, that even though that is part of what Jesus wants to say here, if it were all he wanted to say, the whole passage would probably be rather different. The lawyer approaches Jesus, Luke tells us, to test him. He knows that irreligious people, people who do not fully keep the law, even Gentiles, are flocking to Jesus. He has heard rumors that Jesus may have challenged some customs that are based on Scripture. So, he thinks, it’s time to see just how dangerous this teacher is.
And here is his test case question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s likely hoping for Jesus to say something that directly contradicts the Bible. But Jesus’ reply is, as usual, effortlessly dazzling. “You’re the lawyer, you tell me; what does the Bible say?” The lawyer can’t very well recite the entire Torah, so he reels off one of the commonly accepted Jewish summaries of it, one Jesus himself quotes elsewhere in the Gospels. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
“OK. Do that,” says Jesus, “and you will live." Just obey those two commandments fully, and God’s life, his own nature, will be yours. It’s a brilliant move, because it cuts right to the heart of what the problem was in Jesus’ day and still is in ours: reducing the shocking vision of radiant wholeness God generously offers us down to something more manageable, to some kind of finite, controllable duty we can be expected to adhere to.
For most people Jesus interacted with, their technique of reduction was to turn the vision God had given them into a list of detailed rules. If they followed all these rules diligently, they could see themselves as maintaining acceptability before God. Contemporary people sometimes do that kind of thing as well, but I think more of us now reduce God’s vision of wholeness down to a manageable size by heading in the opposite direction, shrinking it into highly generic platitudes on which nobody could ever evaluate you: be a good person, help people, be true to yourself. But the real vision God offers is so much better than any reductionist answer.
The summary Jesus draws out of the lawyer challenges both our generic platitudes, and his specific rule keeping, with a vision that is so deep and beautiful and uncompromising it takes your breath away. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Do that, says Jesus. Do that?! It sounds wonderful, but has anybody other than him ever done it even once? Does any of us love God authentically, with every fiber of our being, every minute of every day, bringing all our intellect and all our heart into that love? Does any of us meet the needs of our neighbor, every time, with every bit as much pleasure and foresight and care and thoroughness as we meet our own needs? One of us? Ever? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.
It’s an impossibly high standard, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is trying to show, by comparison, the ridiculousness of our cramped, boring little reductions of what God sets forth into something we can handle. Trying to show that that the only way we can fully live is to admit we alone can’t fully live, and to accept help from the outside, to accept God’s life as a gift that bridges that gap for us.
That’s what Jesus is trying to help the lawyer see with his “Do this and you will live” answer, but it doesn’t work; it’s not enough yet to put him off his self-justification project. The man thinks, still, that there must be some way to reduce this glorious vision down to an ordinary rule he himself can manage without God’s help from the outside. So he decides to debate the nature of the obligation conferred by the term “neighbor.” “Who precisely counts?” And in response, Jesus tells one of the most famous stories in the Bible. I would love to know what story he would have told if the lawyer had asked about a way of reducing the other half of the commandment, the loving God part, to something manageable. I’m sure that story would have been equally great. But what we have is this neighbor story, and, again assuming that you’ve heard many sermons pointing out that the story recommends helping people, which it does, I’m not going to focus on that.
If Jesus wanted only to convey that we should help the less fortunate, especially those different from us, the Samaritan would have been the one who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and the Jew would have come along and helped him. The Jew is the obvious person for a Jewish lawyer to identify with and emulate, if emulation is the main point; a hated Samaritan is the obvious less fortunate stock-character outcast whom a well-meaning, religious Jew should help. But that’s not the setup. In Jesus’ setup, the Jew, the fortunate one who has the law, who normally would be the helper, is the guy in the gutter, penniless, useless, unable to do anything to improve his situation. The only way he can live is to accept help from outside. That’s how Jesus wants the lawyer to see himself: he’s not the noblesse oblige privileged person looking for someone he can help, but someone who desperately needs a loving neighbor to save him.
So Jesus paints his picture: the Samaritan comes near to this impotent wounded human; with deep compassion he reaches out to lift him up. The Samaritan puts him on the donkey he himself was riding and leads him down the Jerusalem road; he gives him shelter and stays with him through the night, paying for everything out of his own pocket since, however self-sufficient the man thought he was and whatever status he thought he had, there’s no way now to avoid admitting that he has no way to buy his own life back. In an astonishing act of grace the Samaritan even leaves an extra pile of money, and promises to return and keep on paying and paying and paying, no matter how deep the depths of this man’s inadequacy turn out to be, until he is fully whole.
You rarely hear this now, but is it really any wonder that for centuries, the standard interpretation of this parable was that the Samaritan is meant to be Jesus himself? That’s what the church fathers thought it meant. When God in the flesh came to save us, he journeyed down our road and found us lying in the ditch, weak and broken and unable to go on -- trying so hard to hide that embarrassing fact from ourselves and everyone else, trying so hard to create a reductionist scheme that we can agree to pretend is all there is to wholeness, so we can escape the shattering beauty of God’s true wholeness.
Jesus gave everything for us, laying out riches superabundantly above what could ever be needed, paying a debt we could never pay ourselves so that we could live. Live now, and live forever. Is it any wonder. Is it any wonder he tells the story that way? Is it any wonder he first makes sure to root it in a command so sweepingly perfect that it leaves us flat, knowing full well we can never fulfill it? He doesn’t just want the lawyer to follow different rules or more rules or fewer rules. He wants him to see that shattering beauty and say “Jesus, help me.”
Christian neighboring works far better when “Jesus, help me” comes before “Help people.” Yes. Of course we’re supposed to help people. But to help people in Christ, we first have to let Christ help us. That’s what gives us the humility, and the open hearts, and the recognition of our own weakness, that can keep us from noblesse oblige. Only when we can admit that we too live by unconditional mercy, will we be truly free to extend mercy without conditions to others. When that has happened for us, that rescue, that free grace, then we are truly able, as Jesus finally gets around to saying, in the very last verse of the story, to go and do likewise.
Anyone who has ever had a roommate, anyone who has ever had a sibling, anyone who has ever been through middle school knows that it’s hard work living with people. It’s hard work interacting with people.
And sometimes it feels frankly impossible. Maybe now more than ever.
But just before we decide that this is the way it will be forever; just before we throw up our hands because political discourse is dead; just before we find ourselves shunning or shaming the Other, our Lord calls us to pause — and to remember. Remember the kingdom to which we belong. Remember the God who rules over all others. Remember that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, despite its rising and falling, perseveres on to paradise – just as it has done since the very beginning.
Amidst the chaos of conquered Israel, as the foreign armies tore through Jerusalem, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a future where weeping would end and the wealth of the nations would bedeck the holy city. And the city herself — Jerusalem would flourish. No longer would the barks of jackals or the whisper of wind echo in her empty streets, but Jerusalem would be as alive and as fruitful and as generous as a nursing mother in a loving home.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,” the Prophet says. “All you who love her, rejoice with her in joy. . . . For thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.’”
At the time of Isaiah’s writing, the people of Israel had lived in Babylon for nearly 50 years. They had heard with grief and terror of the atrocities committed in their beloved home. They had weathered the distrust and dislike of a people who couldn’t understand why “those Jews” refused to bow before Emperor and idol alike. The lives of the Jewish refugees were marked by confusion, anger, sorrow, even despair. But through it all, undeterred by what had brought Israel to this point, the Lord continued to speak. He continued to form and reform the lives of his people according to his Word. For thus says the LORD: “‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’”
That was the hope the Jewish people had for the future, that God would bring them home and bless them and would be present with them in ways they had yet to experience. That was their hope; it is our reality.
We who are gathered here today taste the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem because we are members of the Bride of Christ. In this gathering and in the voices of the countless others who sing praises to Almighty God, we find comfort, true and honest and unending comfort — for this is the place where life comes from death, love springs from hatred, and unity arises from division. This is the place where the hand of the LORD is known to his servants: Jesus Christ, our King, our Savior, and our Friend.
To the world outside our doors, we are a community that shouldn’t be possible. We come from many places. We bear unique burdens. We look and sound and act differently than each other. Yet we are one, united by love of Christ and brought together by a God who delights in the individual beauty of his individual children as we all grow to look more and more like him.
“We shall see and our hearts shall rejoice; our bones shall flourish like the grass,” when we seek the heavenly city where the LORD has promised to be found.
We live in a world beset by problems and plagued by evil. We live in a world where some days do feel like we are exiles in a foreign land. And yet, despite the voices of doubt and derision, despite the sheer volume of hate we witness on a day-to-day basis, we don’t need to despair – because this world is not our ultimate reality. Nor is it our ultimate hope.
We have been crucified with Christ and so we see our world for what it is: a people and a place in desperate need of the unending, un-qualifying, undying love of a resurrected savior. A love that we possess. For we worship a God who has not and will never despise his creation, who is always ready to meet us in the humble gifts of Bread and Wine.
This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, holds true and shines light on every aspect of our lives. May we all today, tomorrow, and every day in the future remember that we are children of God, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, blessed, comforted, and guided by the one we call Love. AMEN.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today we hear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written sometime in the middle of the first century. At that time the early Christian movement was still tied to Judaism, though many of the new converts were Gentiles. Paul’s travels to spread the gospel meant that most of those he evangelized were not Jews. One of the early conflicts within the developing church had to do with how to handle these Gentile believers. Would they be required to follow Jewish law or not? In this letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his view of the controversy, which was formed by knowing the Gentiles among whom he preached. Paul does not do this in a theoretical way but rather in answer for actual people, actual places, and actual situations. As his missionary work continued, he became even stronger in his views supporting that Gentile Christians do not need to follow Jewish law and customs. Paul firmly believed that this is not a condition for their belief in the risen Lord. And as we know that is the position that eventually won out.
Last week we heard the much-quoted verse from Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the core of Paul’s belief, all are one. In today’s passage Paul’s strong remarks are a reminder that in the arguments regarding Jewish law, Jesus’ basic commandment had gotten overlooked. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As children of God, this is the crucial part of our identity. Through Jesus Christ we are members in community with one another. And that community is formed and based on love, God’s love for us and our reflection of that same love to others. In this passage Paul uses the word “flesh” as a shorthand for self-centered living and he gives a list of the results of that. He also names the opposite of the flesh and lists the results of God-centered living, a life of loving service for the benefit of others.
In theory it seems simple, but of course in living it out, it is not always that way. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, can sometimes be difficult. People with whom we do not agree, …are still our neighbor. People whom we do not necessarily like, …are still our neighbor. People who do not focus on the same priorities as we do,… are still our neighbor. Our neighbors are children of God, as are we, and we are to love them.
Whenever we are in community with other people, there will occasionally be conflict. It is how that conflict is discussed and resolved that matters. Putting our love of others ahead of the argument we fervently we believe in, takes practice! And at its best, the church can be a laboratory for learning and practicing love and mercy as Jesus intended.
In pre-Covid times most of us were a part of several communities. And this was good. It gave us socialization, a place to have fun, people with whom to share ideas and more. Perhaps these were with members of our physical neighborhoods, or people with whom we worked or attended school, or others in our extended family or those we met in a favorite coffee shop. And perhaps we found community here at Emmanuel as a part of the choir or a particular congregation, the 8 o-clockers, or a common age group, pub theology and so on.
During the shutdown some may have formed new communities through zoom or by taking walks masked and six feet apart in the neighborhood, but for many this was a time of loss of community connections. And now as we are learning how to make our way being with other people again, it can be a time of more intentional community formation. In fact, Emmanuel has made forming Christian community as one of its common themes as we reorganize some ministries.
I wonder today, what makes a church a community, a Christian community, that can be different from other groups?
One thing is a common faith. We say the creed together each time we worship. We profess to believe in Christ is risen and Christ will come again. Even if we do not all believe exactly the same way, at the basic level we believe in our Lord Jesus.
Another thing that sets us apart is common worship. The services here have a recognizable pattern and while the lessons and hymns change daily the structure is the same. Common faith, common worship. I suppose we might combine those two and say one characteristic that sets us apart is the book of common prayer that we share.
Another is Common scripture that we hear and read.
Through these, faith, worship, prayer, and scripture, we have common experiences that are grounded in Christ’s love. This is our foundation.
And yet, we can share these things and still have room to grow as a Christian community, a place where love and mercy are practiced and allowed to deepen.
A step forward in this is learning to use our words about our faith and speaking about what God has done for us. While this may seem awkward at first, it becomes easier with doing it and talking with a smaller number of people, one or two perhaps. If you are involved with Common Table there will be a chance to practice this in a very approachable and easy way this week.
The same is true of the sacred spaces ministry or inter-generational formation, one of the Bible study groups, doing a Meals on Wheels delivery with someone you want to know better, or to get involved with volunteering for the DREAAM program to name a few of the opportunities found here.
This is how we build Christian community by being a safe place to express God’s love for us, as well as our love of God, in both word and action. Christ is at the center of the community and for that to be so, we must acknowledge His presence in our lives. This is what makes Christian community different from the other secular communities in which we live. We can talk about our favorite baseball team in any community (and we do). We can talk about our experience of Christ’s love and mercy in any community, but it is easier to learn how we do this in a group where Christ is the center.
Some of the things we can do consciously to help to foster Christian community are the same as with any other community, but some are not.
The first thing step is to come together regularly. For relationships to grow being together frequently is important, at least at first. If too much time elapses between being in the same place, we have to start over, and this can keep us from forming those common bonds. Getting to know our neighbor is an important part of loving our neighbor.
Being able to express our own experience, the truth as you know it, comes next. Trust can only be built by taking that step of speaking about what is meaningful to you. Take it in small steps! In several of the groups that have met over the last year listening to a passage of scripture together and then saying the word or phrase that stands out to each person has been an easy way to begin. Letting others know us is another important part of loving our neighbor.
Perhaps most importantly we need to allow God to lead us in the process of forming community. Praying specifically about how we might be more involved or perhaps how we might get to know another Emmanuelite is an intentional way to begin. As time goes on, you will find your unique place in the group and learn to know others special gifts. The awkwardness will disappear with practice. And we will be able to see how despite surface differences we do meet Paul’s statement that in Christ, all are one.
With the support of the community, we can then spread out that love, our reflection of God’s love, to others who may or may not be a Christian. I have seen this happen here at Emmanuel many, many times in the past. I look forward to us widening our vision of loving our neighbors through strengthening these community bonds in the months ahead.
While our current day issues and conflicts are not the same as in Paul’s time, the principles and foundation that he speaks are the same.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today’s Gospel is just cinematic: the howling hulk of a man who lives in the cemetery like someone’s worst nightmare, the Legion of demons, the herd of pigs rushing to their death, the local citizenry showing up to find this guy who used to wander around the tombs half naked ranting to himself, who has been the bogey man for their whole generation, sitting calm, clothed, rational and chatting politely -- and then finally the absolutely hilarious request the locals make of Jesus, “Could you just go away? Could you leave our town?” And Jesus gets in the boat and sails off into the sunset. (It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…)
But what I want us to look at in particular is the last couple sentences of the reading. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
He wants to just hang around Jesus, but instead Jesus immediately sends him out to take an action. But notice that it’s an action that is fairly small, fairly local, and fairly easy. Not: go begin a lecture series on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not go raise enough money to found a nonprofit counseling service for other troubled outcasts. Not go become chairman of the board of the regional association of synagogues. No. What Jesus asks him is this: In the place where you already are, take this one simple action step. Say what happened to you. Do this one thing, straight out of your own life experience. Anybody can do that. And when the man set free from the legion of demons does it, when he takes a simple step of faith in the place he already is with the people he already knows, God backs him up. God works through him to spread life to others.
That’s what so many of the laypeople at Emmanuel are doing. And I am not exaggerating or being pious when I say that. God sometimes works dramatically in ways that seem like striking interventions. I’ve seen it. But very, very often God works incognito, through small actions, ordinary daily steps people take. I think he prefers that strategy for several reasons, but one of them is that it makes the formative and encouraging experience of having God work through you accessible at absolutely any time to absolutely anybody.
You don’t have to have a license, you don’t have to be theologically literate, you don’t have to be over 18. You don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the Bible. You don’t have to have a title. All you have to do is take some step, right where you are, for the sake of your faith in Jesus Christ. And I should have said: you don’t even need to think you have all that solid a faith in Jesus Christ! Just take the step. And then as you take the step for Jesus’ sake, you discover something under your feet that feels just a little more solid than you remember things feeling before.
You may not initially give that feeling a spiritual name. If you volunteer to be an Emmanuel driver for Meals on Wheels in July, or to help support kindergarteners this summer through our partner DREAAM, you may call what you feel a sense of helping the needy, say. If you decide to give being a greeter for Mass a try, you may call it building community. If you set up a recurring financial pledge via your Breeze account, you may call it the glow of generosity. If you choose one day a week to start coming to 5:15 pm Evening Prayer, you may call it the peacefulness of taking a pause. There’s nothing wrong with those names. They’re true as far as they go. But there’s more to it, because along with all of that, the Holy Spirit is also using your act of offering to strengthen your spirit. As long as you aren’t merely offering a sacrifice on the altar of guilt or duty, as long as there is the tiniest flicker of intentionality towards the living God, you have an incognito collaborator called the Holy Spirit. A quiet inner coach who delights in even your first glimmers of desire to belong more fully to God.
Actually a coach isn’t a bad metaphor. I sometimes tell people that the Christian life is a little bit like going to the gym: you can’t hang around the building, watching someone else do Downward Dog or a set of tricep dips, and expect to get stronger. Christianity is not a spectator sport. As they say in the 12 step groups, the program works if you work it. That’s why Christian communities are always touting opportunities for people to get involved: we want you to work this life so it will work for you.
See, the man who had the legion was hoping to hang around and watch Jesus some more. But Jesus says no, go to your town, and tell what God has done for you. He might have argued back, “But I’m barely getting started. Can’t the apostles do it? Can’t the vestry do it? I don’t have enough faith.” And I think Jesus would have replied, “Of course you don’t. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to do something.” Taking one small local step of furthering the life of the kingdom is how you have faith. It is the exercise by which faith grows stronger.
I don’t mean to make it sound this morning as if a ministry at Emmanuel is the only place someone from Emmanuel can or should exercise their faith. You can just as well do that in your neighborhood or in your workplace, and I hope you are! Learning how to see yourself as an ambassador for Christ in more public venues is, I think, a very important lesson for nearly every member of nearly every institutional church today. So those are great places to serve God.
But this is your spiritual home. We’re all here because, in at least some way, however we’d frame it, we think Jesus wants us to be here and wants us to serve and know him better through the life of this parish. So we’re all standing with each other, at least I hope we are, in that quest. We’re all on each other’s sides, at least I hope we are, in wanting this to be a safe and encouraging place for absolutely anybody, any age, any background, any tenure at the church, any level of prior knowledge, to try out some small step that’s going to help them grow in spiritual maturity.
And here’s how the story often goes; I’ve heard this story over and over. So you take that step, and it’s easier than you thought, and then you find yourself strong enough to do a little more, and then you’re looking forward to the next time, and then one day you find yourself looking back on the past year and realizing that you’ve changed a little, that there’s more to you somehow. And then later maybe something bad happens, something that’s really hard, and you find yourself wondering where you’d be inside if you’d never gotten involved at Emmanuel. And then after you’ve been through all that, you discover you’ve got this stuff, this empathy, this groundedness, these things to say to people who need help. Where did that come from? And then eventually, people take time to express gratitude. They tell you how much it means to them that you got involved, that they wouldn’t be where they were if it weren’t for you: You!
And through every one of their words, God is also speaking, saying: Thank you. I’m proud of you. We built this together, you and I. You thought you were just driving groceries to a family every few months, you thought you were just handing our bulletins, you thought you were just cleaning the silver and setting up the altar, you thought you were just taking 5 minutes to read a few sentences from the lectern. You weren’t. You were helping me, Father Son and Holy Spirit, change someone’s life. I’m proud of you. Thank you.
And that, friends, is an experience not to be missed.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peace be with you. God’s peace. Peace. Peace of the Lord.
We say it — we share it every Sunday; but what does God’s peace really mean? What does it look like, sound like, taste like, feel like? Are these words we say to one another just wishful thinking? Or is God’s peace something else entirely?
I begin there on this Trinity Sunday because we worship a God who is peace at his very core. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who nevertheless reside in perfect harmony with one another, resting in the beauty and holiness of their shared being, always one and always three. It’s a doctrine that at once “bewilders the intellect and comforts the soul.”
And I think that’s because we live in a world where true peace, definitive peace, doesn't seem to exist. Even in the closest of families or among the best of friends, friction arises because someone left socks on the floor or had a sudden, unexplained change in political opinion. We all want peace, we all want there to be perfect understanding and perfect communion, but the world in which we live says that is impossible. There is simply too much hate, too much violence, too much selfishness for anyone to truly rest.
But according to St Paul in our epistle passage today, that’s not the case at all. “Therefore,” he writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have peace with God. We have peace with God now. This is not just wishful thinking, not just something we’ll enjoy one day. It’s ours. It is in our midst now.
To understand the magnitude of Paul’s assertion, to actually believe and to feel that this peace we’re given is a now-thing and not just a later-thing, we have to back up a little bit. See, the word “therefore” means that we’re stepping into the middle of an argument. Paul has spent the first part of his letter to the Roman church explaining that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. To put it simply: Apart from Christ, we are all God’s enemies. No matter our personal piety, our appearance, or our power, we are all unrighteous, permanently out-of-sync with the one who made us. And that affects everything else. If we were to flip back to the first chapters of Genesis, or even if we were just to reflect on history for a few moments, we would find that the vertical fracture between humankind and God leads to ruptures in every other relationship we have. Humankind is a messy, broken, sometimes well-intentioned but more often cruel race. In a world apart from God, we do not have peace; and yet, thanks be to God, his faithfulness infinitely exceeds our faithlessness, and his generosity, his willingness to share the goodness and joy and peace and love that is his knows no bounds.
And so it is that God in his mercy sent his only Son, so that we might be reconciled with the one who made us. We have peace with God because he decided that no matter our mistakes, no matter our rebelliousness, he would free us from slavery to sin and bring us home. And so God himself acted. Jesus emptied himself, living and dying as one of us, so that the rift between us and our Creator might be healed – and more. His work, the grace that Christ extends, is a gift that reveals new treasures with every passing day because it is the gift of God’s own self to us. As we celebrated last Sunday, we live and move and breathe in the company of the Holy Spirit. He is with us every day and every moment, speaking the words of the Father and the Son, guiding us in the way of all truth.
Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are swept up into the life of the creator God and are made citizens of a realm ruled by the One who is perfect peace and love and justice and mercy, Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are made one people, where every tribe and every nation comes together to worship the Lamb.
This is a reality that is fixed on an unshakeable cornerstone, a reality that shines brightly despite the pernicious and persistent evil in this world. And that’s because it’s peace that doesn’t end when we snap at our friends or family. It’s peace that doesn’t rely on political correctness or adhering to an unspoken social contract. It’s peace that is God’s, that comes from his very nature. When we say, “The Peace of the Lord be Always With You,” we confess that that peace is present now. In our midst. We confess that we are a community bound by love of the Triune God that somehow manifests that peace — the peace of the world to come — in the world that is. And we see that happening when people of every class and color break bread together. We see that when the rich and the poor, the young and the old, confess that Christ is our center, that he reigns, and that we are citizens of his kingdom.
We worship a God who has adopted us as his children, that we might share in the life and peace that constantly makes room for more. And so I say again, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” AMEN.
The feast of Pentecost is a great day to have a nine o’clock service. As you will have seen in your Messenger, we will be going back to 8 and 10:15 Masses in August, but right now, Pentecost is a great day to have a 9:00 service. We actually know the time that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, because it was preserved for us in the text of our first lesson today. The disciples are proclaiming the power of God so loudly and so enthusiastically, speaking in multiple languages at the same time, that a crowd begins to gather and someone suggests that they’re obviously all just drunk. Peter, rebutting the accusation, argues that nobody gets drunk at nine o clock in the morning.
So because Peter made that point, we know what time Pentecost happened, and here we are, at nine o’clock, a couple of thousand years later, wearing our red and singing our hymns and celebrating that the Spirit is still poured out, on you and on me, and that as Peter explains by quoting the Old Testament, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
People often focus on the miracle of speaking that happened that first Pentecost at 9AM. The book of Acts tells us, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” So there’s a miracle of speaking, which seems here to be of speaking several known human languages, although that word “other languages” is also used later in the New Testament to describe the Spirit inspiring people to speak unknown languages in prayer and praise to God.
But in this case, the miracle of speaking seems to be known languages, which commentators usually theorize symbolizes the way that the Gospel will spread, thanks to the power of the Spirit, through all cultures and all nations. It’s for everyone, not just for us. God’s disciples need to be able to speak every language so that every person can hear the Gospel.
So there’s a miracle of speaking. But if you read a little farther, it seems to imply that at Pentecost there is also a miracle of hearing. The crowd is listening to the disciples proclaiming what God has done, and the book of Acts depicts them as saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (And then there’s that long list of countries we get every Pentecost:) “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.”
The disciples are speaking a lot of languages, but whether or not the disciples are actually speaking in every single one that happens to be spoken in that big crowd, the people are hearing in their own languages. (Except, perhaps, the ones who think the disciples are just drunk, whom the text says “sneered”; they apparently are so closed to the work of the Spirit that they don’t hear the Gospel, they don’t hear joy. They just hear chaos.) But for many of the crowd, the message of God’s power and love is coming across so that they can understand it in the language that is the most natural and intuitive to them; they don’t have to translate, because the Spirit is translating for them. A miracle of speaking, and a miracle of hearing.
Now there are many things the Holy Spirit does in us and through us – it’s quite a fascinating study to go through the Bible and try to pick out sort of the job description of the Holy Spirit. But Spirit-empowered speaking and Spirit-empowered listening are the two I want to talk about a little today.
As most of you know, I hope, we are reworking the ministry of small group meals in homes that we call Common Table. When Fr. Caleb began Common Table, it was only for our 20s-30s, and at a pilot event this spring we expanded it so that it was part of Emmanuel’s efforts at intergenerational ministry, something for all ages. The first round of the new version of Common Table meals will take place this summer. If you sign up to take part, you’ll be invited once in June, once in July, and once in August into the home or yard of an Emmanuelite host, along with maybe 7-11 other Emmanuel members. It’s a true potluck, so we’ll all bring a dish of any kind to share. Everyone will enjoy conversation and social time, and along the way your host will make sure everyone gets to respond to a few accessible discussion prompts designed to help us have a relaxed exchange about things that are important to us as Christians and Episcopalians. If you came to the pilot this spring, you saw how that worked. Each evening will conclude with Compline.
So what does this Common Table ministry have to do with inviting the Holy Spirit to be part of our speaking and part of our listening? A great deal. One of the main ways the Spirit works is through groups of Christians; through using several of us as a team. While you can experience the Spirit individually, a central way we see the Spirit working throughout the New Testament is by empowering and deploying a collection of believers. We each have different gifts and different personalities, and God uses those as he expresses himself through us together. Even some of the New Testament people that we think of, because of our modern American biases, as working individually actually didn’t. Paul traveled with a team, and what we think of as his letters are frequently signed not just by him, but by the whole team. 1st Corinthians is signed Paul and Sosthenes. 1st Thessalonians is from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
So if we want to experience what God has for us in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we need to experience gathering in groups of Christians who are together specifically as groups of Christians. You could hypothetically experience the Holy Spirit working through both of you when you run into someone who goes to this church at Prairie Gardens or a high school graduation, but it could also be just the same as running into anybody. The intentionality of making time to be together as Christians, open to the Holy Spirit, speaking and listening as Christians, is extremely important.
This is an area we’ve been growing in somewhat at Emmanuel this year, thanks to the way our Sacred Spaces group and our Intergenerational Formation Group and the Revive lay leadership program have engaged their work. And I think people taking part in any of those are seeing that the nervousness they may have had was unnecessary, and that actually it’s rewarding and enjoyable to speak and listen to one another as Christians. That the Spirit does move among us when we gather as Christians in order to grow as Christians.
So we want to build on these successes, and Common Table is one of the ways. We want to offer the Spirit more places to work among Emmanuelites, as we gather to get to know one another better, to enjoy fellowship over food, to speak in simple and accessible ways about things that are important to us as followers of Jesus Christ, and to listen as others speak. The first meal will take place at 5pm on Sunday, June 26th and there is a signup sheet for the summer round of Common Table in your bulletin today. You can just fill it in and leave it in the Offertory bowl here by the pulpit. There’s also an online signup via Breeze that went out in the Mini Messenger. Either way will work, but we do want to know how big the pool of participants is soon, so we can tell our hosts when we need them.
Of course signing up doesn’t obligate you to come to all three meals, but it does ensure that you can take advantage of this chance to get to know your fellow Emmanuelites better, to build relationships based on Christian belonging, and to enjoy some great food – we have a lot of terrific cooks here! Join us this summer at Common Table, speak and listen to words about our Lord, and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Driving up to one of my grandchildren’s school this past week I saw the flag at half-mast and the reality of evil in the world became very personal again. I am certain that many of us felt the same. Regardless of our political views on how to counteract gun violence, I think we can agree that evil is real. People’s unnecessary pain is real.
Today is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. And I, for one, am grateful we are still in this season for a bit longer. The paschal candle remains in the front of the church, lit at every service over the past 7 weeks to remind us the Risen Lord Jesus is with us every day of our lives. It is a time of deliberate celebration. Jesus promised our sorrow would turn to joy. We need this reminder of true joy, true life all the time, but especially this week. The contrast with the world and its events is dramatic; it is no wonder we seek to be together as the church community on a regular basis. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is real. We remember and celebrate this today. Evil does not win. Jesus the Christ has triumphed and does triumph still. Thanks be to God each and every day for this.
Easter is real. If you hear nothing else today keep those words close. Our risen Lord is with us always.
But don’t think I will sit down now, not yet. I want to say a few things about two of today’s lessons.
First, the gospel. Although we are hearing it on the last Sunday of Easter, the event described occurred on the last night before Jesus’ crucifixion. As Mother Beth explained in a recent sermon most of the private conversations the risen Christ had with his disciples during the 50 days following his resurrection was not recorded.
Instead, the gospels on these last few weeks have been Jesus’ conversation with those closest to him on the night before he died. Taken together these passages were intentional to prepare those disciples for what would happen the next day and for their future.
This was an intimate time Jesus spent with his closest friends. They had gathered for a special meal and peaceful moments together. Jesus spoke openly with them. He assured them of his deep love and gratitude for them. He let them know his confidence in them, that they will be able to carry out the work he has given them. On that night, this small group shared bread and wine and conversation and simply enjoyed being together. Then as the private time for assurance and explanation ended, Jesus prayed for his disciples. Today’s gospel is the end of that prayer.
At the heart of the entire prayer is Jesus’s love for his companions. He recognized and acknowledged the gift God gave him in these friends. The prayer contains the certainty of God the Father’s love for them also. The prayer is both an expression of Jesus’ gratitude for these companions, as well as a look to the future for what those dearest to him will need in order to continue the work that He has begun.
Looking at the entire 17th chapter of John, Jesus specifically prays for the disciple’s protection, protection from the evil one, protection from all that can harm their souls. While he had protected them while he has been physically with them, in this prayer, Jesus turns the disciple’s safety over to His father.
Jesus prays for the disciple’s unity. He prays that those he is leaving behind become one with each other and one with him and His father. The Trinity is echoed in this portion of the prayer. Jesus knows his strength comes from his bond with His Father and with the Holy Spirit. Wherever Jesus has been, the will of God has been present and carried out. Jesus seeks for his followers to have this same bond of unity that is between him and his Father.
“ As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”, Jesus says.
Jesus also prays for his disciples to become sanctified, or “set apart” to do His work. His joy will be complete when they are the ones doing the will of the Father to spread His kingdom throughout the world.
Protection, unity, sanctification are all specific requests of God that Jesus, in his deep love for his disciples, prays in the first part of the17th chapter of John. The passage read this morning then expands Jesus’ prayer beyond that small group of original disciples to include all who will be his disciples throughout time. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that all may be one.” It is a powerful prayer, a lasting show of Jesus’ love for his followers across time. That means today it is Jesus’ prayer for us.
During Eastertide as a part of the Sunday lectionary there is a passage from the book of Acts. This is so we can learn how the early disciples accepted Jesus’ charge to continue in his work, spreading his message in the early times after Jesus’ ascension as we became the church.
Today’s story begins with a slave girl who earned a great deal of money for her owners telling others’ fortunes. She followed and pestered Paul and Silas for many days saying that basically they are the same as she—slaves of an owner. (Their owner being God.) However, Paul and Silas were not the same as the girl. They had chosen to follow Jesus and chosen to accept his call of continuing his work of spreading the gospel. They were not slaves as was she, having been bought against her will and used for the owners economic gain. Rather than argue with her about her choice of words, Paul, ever an interesting man, Paul, in his annoyance, asks in the name of Jesus for the spirit to come out from her. Perhaps impetuous, Paul who is tired of her bothering them ends it. This lead to trouble for Paul and Silas as her owners lost their source of income from her.
Eventually these two disciples are beaten, locked and shackled in a deep prison.
Remember Jesus prayed for protection, unity, and sanctification for his disciples. This particular story points out an example of how God answered that prayer. God sent an earthquake that shook the prison open and released the disciples from their chains. The circumstances of their release then became an evangelism opportunity as the gospel is shared with the jailer and he and his family become believers in Christ. God protected Silas and Paul. He and they were unified in love, and they were able to carry out their Christ-given purpose, of making new disciples. Jesus prayer was answered.
Some two thousand years ago Jesus prayed for his disciples. Today we are assured in this gospel that prayer carries on to us in current times. How humbling and yet strengthening this is. We are invited into the relationship that Jesus and his father have; we are invited to be one with them. It is our time now to hear this prayer. We make our choice to accept his love and then are made one with Jesus and His father. We are protected and set apart to carry on Jesus work in the world.
Oh, yes, we have a part to fulfill in this relationship. We have a large responsibility to God to share His love with the world around us. We are not just on the receiving end of God’s love. Neither are we slaves of God, but rather willing servants. It is our time now. Acknowledging the evil in the world is not enough. We must each do our part to bring God’s healing message of love to those nearby.
I am encouraged to see how our local communities are working on multiple levels to address the prevention of gun violence. Emmanuel is involved in a some of these too. There is much to be done and much help needed. Take some time to learn about these initiatives and pray about how you might work to share God’s love with all. And remember Jesus’ prayer today is for us. Easter is real.
May there be no more half-masts for the death of children; Jesus continue to pray for us.
At a time of great trial, when many of the apostles had been killed or exiled, when the persecution of Christians was rampant, when the future looked bleak, St. John had a vision. Alone on the Island of Patmos, John opened his eyes one day and saw the end of history unfolding before him. Angels and demons, saints and sinners fought a final battle, in which the Crucified Lamb emerged victorious. And then the heavenly Jerusalem — a perfect city with jeweled walls and pearly gates, where there is only light and never darkness — descends from on high and the Lord declares, “It is done.”
And then we have to imagine that John woke up. He woke up to the damp cold of his prison cell on an island hundreds of miles from everyone that he loved.
And we have to wonder, How does that help? How does a vision of a heavenly Jerusalem help now when bad circumstances don’t change? What does it matter that one day Heaven will come to earth when countless people are suffering and dying today?
Critics as diverse as that one guy we all knew in high school to someone like Karl Marx would say it doesn’t help. To them, Christian hope is just an anesthetic, a trick the powerful use to subjugate the weak. The hope of a heavenly Jerusalem, of a God who holds the whole world and all of history in his hand is foolishness. A refusal to grapple with reality.
And yet the church has been saying since its very beginning that, actually, the hope of heaven is what allows us to see reality for what it truly is.
With the words of Christ still ringing in his ears, John knew that though he did not and likely would not experience paradise before his death or Christ’s return, God was always bending the course of history in that direction. No matter what emperor arose, no matter what dragons the church might encounter, God had said, It is done. And John knew that. He had seen it, heard it, felt it in his bones. It was true — from the outside, his future looked bleak. There were days when even he felt like it was hopeless. Still, John knew that his life was simply one chapter in a larger story that ends in victory. And no one could take that away from him.
From the church’s earliest existence, Christians have had to wrestle with the undeniable fact that sin and death are terribly powerful, even in defeat. Plagues, wars, mass shootings — sometimes it appears as though the victory hasn’t been won.
But it has — and we know it has — because the crucified Lamb sits on the throne, and he has declared it to be so. “I am the beginning and the end,” he says. “I died and behold I live forever more.” That is the story in which we live. It is a story of good coming from evil and life coming from death. It is a story of a gracious God showing boundless mercy to a creation that never seems to learn its lesson. It is a story of Love conquering hate and bringing enemies together not simply as friends but as brothers and sisters of Christ.
Despite what the world believes, despite the evidence that would everyday seem to pile up against the eternal victory of God, the heavenly city stands true. And we know this not only because of the Revelation of John passed down to us through the centuries. We know God’s victory is sure because we taste it. We drink it. We proclaim its reality every week when we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Today, in this church, in our hearts, imperfect as we are and imperfect as this place is, God dwells with his people and we with him. And while night still falls and wars still rage, we carry in our bodies the light of that city, the waters of that city, showing the world a vision of what is possible when those made in God’s image reclaim it.
When John woke up from his dream, he was still imprisoned and exiled. His circumstances were the same — but he was different.
And so are we. For today in the words of holy Scripture, we have encountered the risen Lord, who tells us of the future that awaits those who overcome. That is not a false hope but is rather the warp and weft of a story bigger than all of us, a story that wraps us in the fine robes and precious jewels that belong to the children of God. Our hope in heaven, in a world where there will be no more tears or pain, in a world that is ruled by a God whose fullest revelation of himself is the cross. That is what enables us to live even in the darkest of times.
“Then one of the . . . [angels] said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. . . . and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light and they will reign forever and ever.” AMEN.
One of the lines in our Gospel reading, spoken by Jesus, is a well known Bible quotation, and that is "Love one another." The full line Jesus says, of course, is "love one another as I have loved you," which is a pretty high standard. People have a tendency to quote the line "Love one another" as if it refers to how all human beings ought to treat all other human beings. And I have nothing against that basic idea: the world would be a much better place if everyone could love everyone else. However, history shows that that usually isn't so simple. And Christians explain why that isn't so simple by means of a doctrine called "sin," which maybe we'll talk about in more detail another day.
But it’s important to read the Bible in context, and in context, the direction to "love one another as I have loved you" is given specifically by Jesus to his inner group of disciples. You might remember that after Jesus was raised from the dead he spent a period of time, 50 days to be exact, teaching his disciples in private before he ascended into heaven. Of course, we can't recreate exactly that experience. We can use the number 50 to set how many days we will observe the Easter season, which we do. But we can't quote any of the teaching the Risen Christ gave his disciples during these 50 days, because nobody wrote any of it down. Or if they did, it must not have been God’s will for us to have it in our Bible, because it was not preserved.
So our lectionary, our schedule of readings, can't use any of that intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' ascension. But it can use the intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' crucifixion, because that was preserved. That gives you a little background as to why we have the kind of Gospel readings we do in this season -- to duplicate that sense of close-knit, heartfelt teaching within the community of disciples.
Do you see, though, why especially given that context, we can’t quote "love one another" as if it were a generic slogan? Christians are asked to be loving towards all kinds of people, but this verse is not about that. "Love one another as I have loved you" is a statement spoken to a committed group of disciples as part of their final training by Jesus in how to be the church, what the standards within the Christian community are to be. "Love one another as I have loved you." And that line is only one statement about what ought to define the inner workings of a Christian community. In fact, there are many more teachings in exactly that form -- Verb + One Another -- in the New Testament. Each of them also addresses the inner workings of any circle of believers, and calls us to show forth the presence of the Spirit specifically in how we deal with each other. We’ve talked at Emmanuel this year about Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging, and these verses give a picture of Christian belonging which helps us see that by the power of God, a church can be a very different thing than a club or an office or a family reunion.
We’re going to look quickly at eight of those "one anothers." And as I do, think over how well they characterize us Christians, us Episcopalians, or us Emmanuelites. How well these commands from the Bible are being lived out in our own communities.
1. We've already cited the first one, which is Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)—Jesus’ kind of love is unselfish and sacrificial. What would the church look like if each one was willing to sacrifice their own preferences so that others could grow closer to God?
2. Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)—Another direction spoken by Christ himself. I'm sure most of you have heard stories in the press, or maybe a little closer than that, about churches that were at war with their clergy or with their Bishop or with other parts of their denomination. If you haven’t, just open Twitter. Think of the damage those battles do to the credibility of Christianity. How would church life change if Christians made a conscious choice to live in internal peace -- not a phony niceness, but the costly unity that comes from speaking the truth while prioritizing Jesus over getting your own way?
3. Honor one another (Romans 12:10)—Christ honored even the most lowly people. Who here at Emmanuel needs to feel honored and valued, needs someone to say "I'm proud of you?" Often churches are good at honoring the most visible people, people who have power in some way, but in the eyes of Jesus everybody counts. Look around the room and ask yourself: Whom can you take a moment to honor before you leave today?
4. Accept one another (Romans 15:7)—It’s not the role of Christians to change other people; that's in God’s job description. I'm not saying that we condone any and all actions, but that we accept each person as a beloved child of God first and foremost. Do you think that this attitude is something people associate with followers of Jesus? Or do they expect us to be judgmental?
5. Carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)—This means willingly and humbly walking beside others when they’re hurting or struggling. We have some wonderful examples of people doing this for each other at Emmanuel, especially if they were already friends outside the church. But how can the list of members whose burdens get noticed grow longer? Who is there in this congregation whose load you could help to bear? Or let me turn it around -- have you chosen to disobey this verse and carry a burden by yourself because in the world, your problem is something embarrassing, rather than let some fellow believers shoulder it with you in a community that plays by different rules than the world?
6. Be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2)— There are probably other followers of Jesus in this world, maybe in this room who, in worldly terms, drive you nuts. Rub you the wrong way. In Christ, there are resources so that our relationship with those people can look different than it would if we were not believers in the same Lord. You may never find all your fellow disciples to your taste, but you can display patience with them if you seek it from Christ.
7. Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)—Harboring a grudge creates stressed and unbalanced relationships, and according to Jesus, it also blocks the action of the Spirit. If you are nursing hostility against another follower of Christ, could you imagine letting go of ego and pride to forgive them – not to excuse them, but to forgive them -- for the sake of strengthening the church and your own relationship with God?
And finally 8. Serve one another (1 Peter 4:10)—According to the New Testament, every Christian is given at least one spiritual gift. While it is very fun and fulfilling to put a spiritual gift to work, they aren't given for selfish use. How would our church change if every single person in this building started actively using their gifts for God and to meet some of the very significant needs Emmanuel’s ministries have right now? For one thing, we’d be back to two services immediately, I’ll tell you that much.
There are more "one anothers," but eight are enough for now. As we've asked these questions and looked at these verses, you may have thought, "Hey, you know, we're doing pretty well." Or you may have said, "Gosh, we do some of those things, but it's more based on human friendships than on our common faith in Christ. How can we open up more?" You may have muttered, "The lousy institutional church, never ever lives up to what Jesus wants." Or you may have said to yourself, "This community is on the way to that kind of life, and I want to see us get there."
Love one another, Be at peace with one another, Honor one another, Accept one another, Carry one another’s burdens, Be patient with one another, Forgive one another, Serve one another. Whatever your reaction to the list, this is what a community life that flows from Christ looks like. Now, the actual life of any Christian community, including this one, probably never flows 100% from Christ -- back to that doctrine of sin again. But his life and his power are available to help us live out those "one anothers" -- to behave within this community according to what Scripture says. And if we first open ourselves to receive that life and power, and if we next use that life and power, and if then by that life and power we start to live out those "one anothers" in our own Christian belonging here at Emmanuel, the prediction Jesus made at the end of today's Gospel will come true. "By this everyone will know that we are his disciples."
“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads.”
These words are from our collect for the day, and they echo what is stated in the Gospel from John. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the scriptures point to the attributes of Jesus as our Good Shepherd.
Jesus leads and follows us. He keeps us safe from behind and before. Remember the shepherd’s staff, one end to pull us out of danger and one end to prod us into where we need to go. Jesus provides for us. He revives us when we are worn out and guides us with goodness and mercy. He desires the best for us. He comforts us when we are sad and lonely. He wipes away our tears. He is with us in all times and in all things. In his presence we will not be hungry nor thirsty nor unprotected. And then, through his resurrection, Jesus gives us the ultimate gift of eternal life. These are strong characteristics of one who loves us deeply. This is how we know that He is the Good Shepherd of us all.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She knew what was ahead of her which is a sad part of the disease. What she was most concerned about was that she would forget my name. While this was how she expressed it she was also concerned that eventually she would forget everyone’s name whom she loved. And even, perhaps, she would get to the point when she would no longer remember her own. Names were very important to her. She saw them as encompassing all that there was to be known by another. A name summed up your individuality, your personhood and what made you different from all others. She desired to be able to call each loved one by their name and her great fear was that she could not.
As is true of those with memory loss, we had this same conversation many times. Each time I was able to reassure her, I would not forget her name and whenever she could not recall mine, I would quietly remind her. Near the end, of her life what she was most afraid of was Jesus would forget her name. Alzheimer’s is an awful disease. Her fear was real and yet, the assurance we hear today is that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, does not ever forget our name. And, more importantly we are promised that He is with us in every circumstance of life.
Today we are in the middle of the Easter season, the time when we walk with the risen Lord. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. These are not empty words but true promises that we know especially during this season. Over the past few weeks, we have heard about occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples. Jesus walked and talked with his followers in his risen body. He made himself known in various ways through breaking bread, through eating with them, through showing them his wounds. Jesus calmed their fears each time with his voice and by calling them by name. He knew what each person needed to believe in him and he provided that for them. Each of these gospels we have heard stressed his great love for all his followers, both those who were in his physical presence and those who have believed and worked for God’s kingdom throughout time. Jesus voice and Jesus’ presence bring comfort.
Then we come to today’s lessons, and they seemingly do not fit the pattern of the past few weeks. Instead of hearing about events of the resurrected Christ, today’s gospel event took place just before the crucifixion. As Jesus walked in the temple those around him questioned him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Tell us plainly. Those words may be our words at some point or points in our lives. Show us. Give us a sign, we say in our desperation. Let us know the truth. Now, probably the question put to Jesus in this passage was not a genuine desire to know but rather another attempt to trick him. For the most part those asking the question were not sincere in wanting an answer. They believed Jesus to be a troublemaker and a threat to their power and authority. They hoped his answer would give them the evidence to prosecute him and get rid of him once and for all. But we who hear the words today understand their question, at least in part, Jesus, tell me plainly. Are you the Messiah?
What answer would you and I want? What signs would we need? Perhaps a sign would be the answer to our prayer that our children, our loved ones are kept safe. Or perhaps a sign would be a complete recovery for a particular person’s illness; or maybe the sign we seek is that nothing bad will ever happen to us and those we love. We are often worn out with what is going on in this world, the almost daily news brings stories of nearby disaster. We read of violence in our cities, of rising rates of disease, poverty and war. What sign would work for us here and now?
Jesus’ answer to those original questioners is the same answer he gives us now. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life. This answer is not about an extraneous sign or work. Rather it is about relationship, our relationship with Jesus, and Jesus’ relationship with us. He loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for us. Today’s gospel reminds us of what the resurrection is all about. It is about the depth of God’s love, God’s love for us. We hear his voice; he knows us by name, and we follow him because of that relationship. Our proof comes from Jesus knowing us, loving us and being present with us in all things. He is our good shepherd. Regardless of what is going on in the outside world, Jesus will not abandon us nor forget us.
Our proof is our relationship with him. The love God has for us through Jesus cannot necessarily prevent our being hurt or having bad things happen to us, but Jesus will be with us in all. He knows us. He knows our name. He knows our fears and joys. And He knows our need of him. Our shepherd is with us. More than this, though and most importantly Jesus gives us eternal life. There is no greater comfort. There can be no way to state it any more plainly. Jesus is the Christ; he is our Messiah. He invites us into his presence. We do not ever have to be alone. The proof we seek is in our relationship with Him.
We are also reminded today that every relationship has at least two participants. The shepherd calls and the sheep follow. In this morning’s collect we pray that we may follow where Jesus leads. As have disciples throughout time, we have a responsibility to this relationship. Belonging to our loving and protecting shepherd means that we will follow him. We will return his love through our worship of him as we do here this morning. We will return his love by following his example of loving others and by sharing the good news of His story with them.
Today’s lessons are an Easter message. Jesus calls us by name. He cares for us; he guides us and supports us. He gives us eternal life.
Let us pray,
O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today’s story of the conversion of Saul has been incredibly influential in Christianity. Saul is so thoroughly turned around that he gets renamed Paul. He who was once a main enemy of Jesus becomes a main representative of Jesus. He who once wanted to wipe every disciple of Christ from the earth ends up writing over half of the New Testament to help others understand how to be disciples of Christ.
So it’s no wonder this story has been incredibly influential. And on top of that, it’s a great story –
Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
They lead him into Damascus blind and incapacitated, and God sends over an apprentice of Jesus named Ananias – one of the guys he’d been coming to Damascus to arrest. Ananias lays hands on him and not only is Paul suddenly able to see again, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, infused with divine power and life. They do a baptism right there in the house, and the rest is history.
No wonder this story has been so influential. There are hymns, movies, paintings, feast days, songs, t-shirts, all based on the Damascus road conversion of St. Paul. And I love Paul. I absolutely love him. The Spirit used him to put on paper – parchment, really – some of the most beautiful and deepest and most liberating truths that have ever been written.
But sometimes I wonder if Christian readers look to this influential story of his conversion and let the wrong part of it influence us. We pick out an aspect that is actually less important, and we ignore the part that is more important. What I mean here is this: you will sometimes hear people use this story as a model for how people “should” make a commitment to Christ. You will hear people say that unless you have had a Damascus Road experience, unless you can point to a time that, like Paul, you were dramatically turned from not having faith to having it, your commitment to Christ doesn’t “count.” But this is generalizing from the wrong part of the story. People commit to Christ in all kinds of ways.
Deacon Chris talked about this last week in her sermon on Thomas. Some people have been in an atmosphere of living faith all their lives, and can’t remember a time when they didn’t know Christ. They never had a sudden bright light strike them blind on the road to Damascus. They may tell you their faith journey is like the light in a room just gradually, gently getting brighter as if someone was turning up a dimmer switch.
Some find that their following Jesus is always a struggle. Questions and wrestling and doubt are simply a part of their relationship with God. If they ever do have a sudden bright light, things often look murky again a few days later. The connection to Jesus is there, but it’s not a simple before and after picture; it’s more like the light from a Tiffany lamp, refracted and multi-colored.
Those are different ways that a commitment to Christ looks. And there are probably others. One isn’t more right or wrong than another. They are just different. So we get in trouble if we try to generalize from one part of Paul’s conversion, the part you might call God’s technique. How God brought Paul specifically into new life in Christ. God isn’t going to use that same technique with everybody – he’s too smart, and too subtle for that.
So if we can’t generalize from God’s technique, the how, then maybe we should try generalizing from the what. What happens as we are converted? No matter how we turn to Christ -- whether it’s dark to light, or gradually like a dimmer switch, or back and forth with lots of colors and questions – what changes for us as we do?
Well, I’d suggest that one major thing that changes is perspective. As we follow Christ, whatever the technique God uses in our lives, we experience a change in our perspective on things. We see this very dramatically illustrated in Paul’s story: he comes into the story believing Jesus is evil, and the image for how off that perspective is, is that he actually becomes blind. He cannot see things as they are. He cannot see truth. And then as his sight returns his eyes are opened on the actual reality of the world. That is a shift in perspective.
Before you come to know Christ, you assess the world and set goals based on what seems good to you, you take advice from other people about what should be treated as most important, you think about how things affect you and your family and your country. And that’s automatically going to distort the way you view life, because life isn’t about you.
So with knowing Christ comes a shift, whether gradual or dramatic, into a more accurate, God-centered perspective. And you begin asking, in every situation you face: What has God said about this? What does God think is important? What does God say is good? Rather than trying to guess, you have a reference point which finally allows you to see life more clearly. So perspective always changes as a person is converted.
Another thing that changes, again whether gradually or dramatically, is your sense of purpose. When you think about that, it’s obvious. God created you, he designed you, and so he knows what you’re here for. If you don’t know what God has revealed, all you can do is speculate, guess. But as you turn to Christ, you get reliable information about your purpose. Paul had guessed that his purpose was to safeguard the religion he was brought up in and prevent anyone from changing it. Well, God had a really, really, different purpose in mind for him, and when Paul found out the truth, his life was transformed. So will ours be, as we learn and live out what we’re actually here for.
So you get a true perspective on life, and you get knowledge of your purpose: what is important, and what you are here for. Another thing that comes as we turn to Christ is community. Paul cannot get out of his dilemma alone. He has to receive help from another follower of Jesus. He has to be vulnerable and real and willing to connect with people who are not like him.
One of the biggest needs of our contemporary world is community. We are becoming a more and more fragmented, isolated nation: the family is breaking down, social institutions are breaking down, and people are starving for meaningful, in-person connections with others. There is an epidemic of loneliness, because we need to belong. Turning to Christ gives you that belonging, not in the sense of signing up with an organization, but of being adopted into a household. They say blood is thicker than water, but Christ’s divine life inside us is thicker than both. So as you turn to Christ, you discover what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. And there are many more discoveries, but these are enough for this morning. Perspective, purpose, and community.
Now you may have had a dramatic conversion like Paul, you may have been walking with Jesus since you were a tiny child, you may be locked in a perpetual arm wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. Or you may be trying to decide what you think of all this. But as you turn to Christ, you will discover like Paul did what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. In Christ you truly can find perspective, purpose, and community. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. Amen.
Today we continue in our Easter celebration and as we will throughout this season, we hear the stories of Jesus’ followers who were witnesses to his resurrection. We read this particular Gospel each year on the second Sunday of Easter, perhaps you remember it because of that. In part, this story has an important place in the resurrection stories because it speaks directly to us, the current disciples of Christ. Thomas’ story of how he came to belief in the resurrected Christ belongs to the generations of believers who came after those original witnesses.
The story begins. Jesus has come to stand with the frightened disciples shut into a room and locked away from those who might harm them. He calms them by speaking to them; then he shows them his hands and his side and reminds them of their purpose. They are to go out into the world to take his message of love and forgiveness to all. They will be his voice, his hands, his feet.
Later, Thomas, who was not with the others, did not believe what they told him, that they had seen the resurrected Lord. He said to them, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” These are strong words from one who was a practical man.
Now Jesus was then and still is a good teacher. We have numerous examples of his teaching. He used parables; he talked about God directly; he demonstrated his message in ways that formed a lasting picture of what he wanted to convey; he gave short assignments and discussed the results.
His teaching methods were varied, sometimes simple and sometimes complex, always involving his disciples in the learning process. When faced with Thomas’ doubts in this morning’s gospel Jesus did not give up on him and think that Thomas just did not get it. Rather Jesus patiently gave the lesson to Thomas in a personal way.
Jesus came a second time to that same room with the gathered disciples, only this time Thomas was present. Jesus then offers Thomas exactly what he said he needed in order to believe. Of course, Thomas did not need the physical proof he thought he needed. It was enough that he saw Jesus and heard his voice. His response was immediate: “My Lord and my God”.
Jesus knew what Thomas needed in order to believe in him and he offered it to him.
In thinking about Thomas this morning, I wonder, “How did you and I come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord?” How were we able to say “My Lord and my God” with Thomas?
What has the teacher, Jesus, provided to you, for you to come to belief?
Each person’s answer is different. It is personal.
I once knew someone who had worked it out mathematically why there was a God. It made perfect sense to her, all the formulas pointing to the existence of God. Now, I must admit when I see pictures of fractals and the beauty of them, I know that this is not a random event. But in this case, I had trouble following the logic. Yet, these formulas worked for her. I am sure that the good teacher, Jesus, knew that for her it was the way to belief. Perhaps some of you here this morning may have come to belief through mathematics or some other scientific knowledge.
Others I have known came to belief by asking philosophical questions of another person they admired and then listened intently to that person’s explanation why it is that they believe.
For many, it is a process coming to belief; it takes time. And there are others, more like Thomas, who knew the exact moment that they believed, at 9:13 on May the first, they will say. Some may have heard Jesus speak to them in a moment of crisis perhaps with that same word, peace, that Jesus gave to his original disciples.
How have you come to believe? I am sure that you had teachers and mentors along the way for you to be here this morning.
In the words of a favorite collect, maybe you were one who lived and moved and had your being surrounded by God from earliest life. This was my experience. I was rocked to sleep by a loving grandmother who sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in her deep alto voice. I learned Bible stories from my babysitter each day. Of course, she taught all the usual ones, but she left nothing of the scary ones out either: Shadrach, Meschak, and Abendigo the three young believers locked up in the fire and Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac. She made me love all the thrilling stories of God’s presence in all times and all experiences we may face. Without question I went to church every Sunday. My grandfather sat next to me often with his arms around me and fed me wintergreen lifesavers to keep me quiet. I knew church to be a place of being loved. In the summers I would go to Bible school for weeks at a time, moving from one denomination to another. I was one who lived and moved and had my being surrounded by God. And for this I am very grateful. This was my beginning and my foundation. I can honestly say I do not remember a time when I was not a believer.
I look forward to hearing your story!
Of course, like all long-term relationships there are times that our belief will be stronger, without a doubt, and then there will be lower times of questioning, concerns, and longings. We are human beings, after all.
Thomas had traveled with Jesus. He had learned from him and believed in him. But then the crucifixion happened, and he was at the lowest of low. Thomas’ story in this morning’s gospel is a story of longing, not of doubt. What he had been told by others, Thomas wanted to experience for himself. Thomas thought he needed concrete proof of the risen Lord but then the appearance of Jesus transformed him completely. He no longer needed to touch the wounds when in the presence of Christ. While before his idea of faith and belief was an intellectual agreement of observable facts, in a moment, it became a personal trust in a living God.
What Thomas had been told by others he wanted to experience himself. What we have been told by others about Christ we eventually want to know for ourselves. When we have questions and concerns it is a sign of our desire to go beyond secondhand knowledge of Christ to come to know Jesus himself. We, too, want to touch and be touched by Him, perhaps to hear his voice, or perhaps to see his hand in what is happening in our lives. Like Thomas there is a time for our acceptance of what we have been told.
Being a believer is not a matter of accepting data. None of us believe simply because we have been given the right set of facts. Being a believer is a mature act of faith, a gift offered by Jesus himself.
Jesus is a master teacher. He will use a variety of ways and experiences to bring to us into his life. He reaches out to each one of us. He invites us to real life and then it is our decision to join with those over the past two thousand years and accept what he offers.
How have you come to believe? Today on this second Sunday of Easter give thanks for your own journey and give thanks for those who have witnessed Christ’s love to you. For this Easter gospel is ours.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. An “idle tale.” When the women give the apostles the news of the resurrection of Jesus, that’s what the Bible says the apostles thought of it. Actually, “idle tale” is a fairly polite translation of the Greek word Luke uses. You might better say nonsense. What the apostles meant was that the women were out of their minds and their story was ridiculous on the face of it.
That is, probably, the most sensible response to the proclamation we make this Easter morning, and that those women made the first Easter morning. The claim that Jesus was killed by state-sponsored torture and then raised to new life in his body on the third day, to any normal person, sounds like nonsense.
It’s well, I think, to start on this Easter morning by recognizing that. We all know that dead bodies do not rise. But, say Mary and Joanna and Mary Magdalene today, Jesus has risen. He has been brought by God through death into a whole new kind of embodied life that he’s going to spread to everyone and everything. That’s the message, and fantastically improbable as it is, soon the apostles will have been convinced, the risen Christ will have shown himself to over 500 people at one time, the malicious skeptic Paul will have had his mind changed and begun spreading the very claim he once fought to destroy: that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that after his execution and burial the life of the world to come invaded this world through the very molecules of his body, raising him from the dead and changing what is possible forever.
This news was not an idle tale, but it’s so hard to believe that generations of people have sought ways to turn it into one. To reduce what happened into something that is simpler and easier, more in line with what we’d prefer to think. You’ve all seen examples of that. I’d guess some of you here are in that camp yourselves, looking for some “out” which will let you enjoy the festivity and tradition of Easter Sunday without having to take a position on whether the resurrection of Jesus itself is an idle tale, or a revolutionary act of God.
I’m not going to go through all the ways people can try to make Easter easier for themselves, but I will namecheck a couple. Here’s the first: We could make sweeping assumptions about how gullible people used to be and how much smarter we are now. This is obviously falsified by the Biblical texts themselves which describe how flummoxed, panicked, and skeptical everybody was, but nevertheless, you will hear the idea bandied about that somehow men and women who lived in the first century were so childlike and naïve that they just hadn’t figured out, the poor dears, that dead people stay dead 100% of the time. And of course we know better. Well, that is absolutely absurd. First century people knew what death is, probably based on far more direct experience than most of us have. The Gospels make clear that just as we would, the women and men of the New Testament find the idea of resurrection intrinsically unbelievable.
Another way: we could theorize that the apostles agreed to spread the story that Jesus had been raised as a way of trying to continue his movement and retain their power. (Not that they had any power, if you actually read the texts, but we all like to blame things on power these days.) One does have to wonder, though, how long this scheme would have endured under torture and threats of capital punishment; I mean, really? Nobody says, “Please don’t kill me, we were just making it up,” ever? Not one person?
It doesn’t stand up once you think it through, but even more, anyone who has studied second temple Judaism knows that inventing a resurrection would not have fit their mentality anyway. Historians have documented several other Jewish messianic movements during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Those movements routinely ended with the violent death of the proposed Messiah, and the adherents routinely did one of two things: they gave up and got on with their lives, or they chose a new leader. The concept of one person being resurrected now, rather than at the end of time, was inconceivable to Jews of that era. That’s a whole other sermon, but no 1st century messianic movement ever thought to claim that anybody rose from the dead – except one.
I’m only going to mention one more example of ways people try to make Easter easier. This may be the most popular. We could take this narrative and abstract it as much from its details as possible, pulling it further and further out of its Jewish and historical context until it becomes a generic, inspiring platitude nobody would really bother to challenge. There’s always hope. Or a little less generic, Jesus lives on in our memories, like every other dead person. Or again, Jesus did die, but then he went to heaven.
Any downgrading of what happened at the tomb like that would have made things so easy for the apostles, just like it does for people today. It’s almost surprising they refused to do it. If the facts of the matter had left them free to respond, ‘please understand, when we say “resurrection”, that’s a metaphor. What we really mean is that Jesus is still with us spiritually and his message will live on,’ nobody would have thrown them in prison or called them a menace to society.
The empire wouldn’t have been bothered a bit by that kind of abstraction, nor does it really offend our contemporary mentality either. You have a sense that some spiritual something is with you inspiring you, and that your soul will live on? No problem. If that works for you, awesome. Go ahead, call it Jesus! Call it whatever you like, as long as you keep it to yourself. As long as it’s interior and private and doesn’t require of you any action that challenges anything about the systems of the Roman empire -- or of course, of the American one, either.
A claim that in the risen flesh of Jesus Christ a whole new world has begun, though? Well, that’s going to be trouble. But in the words of the late John Lewis, it’s good trouble. In fact, it’s just the trouble we need. One million people have been taken from us by Covid. Champaign has seen 36 shootings so far this year. The world is watching war crimes, and not for the first time. We’re getting offered second boosters here, while just 15% of the African continent is fully vaccinated. Kids are still bullied. Women are still harassed. I could go on. How, in the face of that, can we settle for soothing ourselves with private spirituality and soft-focus inspiration?
On Good Friday, the African-American Biblical scholar Esau McCaulley wrote in the New York Times: “If a Black body can be hanged from a tree and burned, never to be restored again, what kind of victory is the survival of a soul? …. Either give me a bodily resurrection or God must step aside. He is of no use to us.”
See, you lose so much when you try to redefine Easter to make it easier. Because Christ is risen, mainstream Christianity is entitled to teach that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: full of justice and love, freed from oppression and mourning. It can give a plausible account of how that transformation began in the flesh of Jesus Christ on Easter morning, saying that he is the prototype, the down payment, or in Biblical terms the “first fruits” of the risen life with which God will flood all creation.
God feeds us with that life in the sacraments. God sends us into the world to make good trouble as we share that life with others. But it has to have begun in the resurrection first. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen in mine or yours, or in the carbon-dioxide choked earth, or in the cynical halls of power, or in the redlined neighborhoods, or in all the bodies who have been bombed, machine-gunned, unjustly incarcerated, assaulted, dehumanized. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen anywhere. But.
Esau McCaulley already knows it. Mary and Joanna and Mary Madgalene knew it. Generations of Christians have known it. St. Paul knew it and wrote it in today’s epistle: in fact Christ has been raised from the dead and we can count on it. We can count on God to bring his new world to fulfillment. We can count on resurrection to take us through to the end. We can count on justice to be done and every tear to be wiped away, because Christ is risen. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, says Paul, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…. [and finally will come] the end, when Christ hands over the universe to God the Father. That is not an idle tale. Amen. Alleluia.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Today begins the Triduum, a time of remembering, honoring, and walking with Jesus on the road to his death. This day, Maundy Thursday, we hear the words and see the actions of Jesus on his last night with his closest and dearest friends. What Jesus did on that long ago night helped those original disciples, and the generations of disciples to come, to know him and his message of deep love.
Holy Week offers us many once-a-year images. All that we do this week is in remembrance of Jesus. There were the palms we carried on Palm Sunday as we walked through the alley and into the church. There will be the stripping of the altar tonight, removing everything that makes this building a church. Late tonight and Friday morning some will sit in the garden watching and waiting with Jesus. Tomorrow we will sing the reproaches as we venerate the cross and then on Saturday, we will light the new fire and bring the light into the worship space. We will be sprinkled with holy water and ring the bells to accompany the great proclamation of Easter and more. And probably even if this is your twentieth holy week you will still see or hear something you had not noticed in the past. Each action, each sight, each smell, each sound is intended to involve us with all our senses and to imprint on our bodies what happened that first holy week and Easter. Just as it was for Jesus’ disciples, so much happens in such a short period of time, it can be overwhelming. Actually, it is supposed to be overwhelming! We can process later; for now, we experience.
It is fitting that tonight’s actions begin with the Passover celebration. As one of my Jewish-born friends, who became a Christian as an adult, describes it, Passover is like the Easter Vigil and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. It has the rite of scripture and prayer as well as the joy of being with extended family and friends, using special dishes, eating special foods that only are served once a year at Passover.
Jesus wanted to spend his last night with his friends in celebration of God’s leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom. The plagues that were to convince Pharoah to let God’s people go are named with a special remembrance of the 10th plague, the death of all first-borns. The Hebrews were to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would know to leave those households intact. God’s people were protected by the blood of a lamb. This Exodus brought redemption and liberation for the Hebrews from the Egyptians. The Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples on that last night set the stage for the events ahead. What Jesus would do over those next few days brought freedom from sin and darkness and death for all. He is that lamb whose blood will mark his followers as God’s own people and protect them forever. So it is meaningful that Jesus actions tonight begin with the Passover.
For three years Jesus had used his time with his disciples readying them for these next few days and what would happen to him and what God would accomplish through him. Ever since he called his disciples, he had fed them, taught them, and set an example for them. At first what we see happening this day may seem the same. Jesus does teach them; he does feed them, and he does set an example for them. Yet there is more in his actions. Today Jesus is also equipping these disciples for their life ahead. Jesus has been their master, their teacher, their leader. They have been his students, his followers, and his aides. Today Jesus shows them that their relationship is about to change.
Through being with him daily he has taught them love, love for each other and love for God. This group of ordinary people had at some level come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the one sent by God. They had experienced his love overflowing in so many ways. Theirs was a deep relationship. They knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. He knew their human characteristics with all the pluses and the minuses and his love for them included and accepted their human qualities. Jesus knew that these friends would be the ones to carry out his ministry. He depended on them. On this night so long ago, Jesus gives them what will sustain, nourish and help them to be able to do just that.
Near the end of the Passover observance, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In English remembrance; in Greek anamnesis. The Greek word means a little bit more than the English translation. Let me explain using an example from Laurence Stookey’s book on the Eucharist. If you were asked to remember an event in your life, let’s say your high school graduation you could probably come up with some thoughts. You might mentally picture the building, remembering that you had a party afterwards, and with a bit of time, perhaps who had come to see you walk across the stage. But if you “remember” in the way of the ancient Hebrews you would put on a cap and gown, play a version of Pomp and Circumstance on you- tube while you walked in a very dignified manner across the room. You would have invited many of your friends and relatives and had a party following. This is what is meant by the word anamnesis. It is bringing to life again what you are remembering. And this is precisely what we do in these days of Holy Week. Carrying the palms, shouting the words, “crucify him” lighting our candles, ringing our bells, it is our actions in addition to our thoughts that connect us to the truth of what Jesus did for us.
And it is more than Holy Week where this type of remembrance happens. Jesus knew our human frailty too, and how much we need his continuing presence to be able to carry out His work on earth. This remembrance, this anamnesis, is what we participate in at each and every Eucharist. The priest takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us. The very same actions that our Lord did at that last supper with his friends. We do this now following Jesus’ instruction, “do this in remembrance of me”. The actions of the Eucharist are not just something done once many years ago and on only that particular night. Rather those actions connect the past, the present and the future. Jesus gives himself for us in the bread and the wine. They are his real presence, his body and his blood given for us. This ritual meal lets us know that God does not forget us, nor do we forget God. He is with us in all. He gives us his strength to bear what we have to bear and do what He calls us to do.
We are under the blood of Christ now, and marked and protected and guided by his holy body and blood. Jesus, the living Christ, is among us still, giving himself to us. And we receive him giving ourselves to him in witness to his great love.
We do this, with our actions, we do this in remembrance of him.
The actions of the Triduum continue—don’t miss this once a year experience! Amen.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, God himself — wholly innocent Love incarnate — was brutally murdered. And for what reason?
We could fill in the blank with any number of answers: Christ died because humankind wanted to kill him. Christ died because Sin was too powerful for us to escape on our own. Christ died because God required some kind of satisfaction for the rebellion and hatred shown him by his creation. All correct answers as far as theology goes.
But what I want to focus on tonight is the reason underlying them all. Jesus took up his cross because he wanted to. Jesus took up his cross because God so loved the world that he chose to die for it.
Which is an idea almost too big for us to grasp. If we were to imagine ourselves in the most extreme circumstances, we might just approach something resembling that love. We might think of the parents who have died for their children. Or of the men and women who have died for their country. Or the saying, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.
But Jesus — Jesus laid down his life for his enemies. Jesus picked up his cross so that even those who cried “Crucify him” might be saved.
Why would he do this? Why would he who knew infinite power and perfect contentment count it all as nothing so that he might in every respect be tested as we are?
“To redeem a servant, the Father did not spare his Son.” Nor did the Son spare himself. He shouldered our burdens and carried our iniquities. He drank the cup that the Father had given him, all so that he might bring us before God, not as slaves or exiles but as brothers and sisters of the King.
In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Who could believe the story we’re telling? The love of God is so extravagant, so prodigal, so ill-advised according to even the smallest amount of common sense that the life and death of Jesus will always be something of a mystery to us, a tale of bloodshed and tears that continues to teach and to touch and to heal those who hear it.
And so we call today “good.” We call today “good” — though centuries and societies have passed since Christ’s crucifixion — because Jesus’ love has not and will never change. As it was then, so it is now: Jesus loves us so deeply, so tenderly that he would die a thousand deaths if that was what it took to save a single one of us.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
In the Cross of Christ we are given the incontrovertible proof of God’s commitment to all of creation: God so loved the world that he died for us — not because we were good enough to merit saving but simply because God’s love won’t rest until everything and everyone is reunited with him. Jesus chose to pour his life out on the altar of our salvation, knowing that no stain, no sin, no separation could withstand the power of his blood. This is the God we worship. A God who loves those he has made so profoundly that he would lay down his life to lift up ours.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, the altar is bare and our voices are hushed. But even in the darkness, light shines. Look on our Savior. See the blood from his wounds. Listen as he draws his last breath. His arms are stretched wide to embrace us all. He loves us. He loves us. He loves us. AMEN.
Why is this cross beautiful? When we look at the Emmanuel rood screen, we are looking at death and suffering, after all. This sculpture enshrines agony, mockery, abandonment -- all the things human beings normally want to turn our eyes away from. Why is this cross beautiful?
Today we begin the solemn 6-day journey through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that has been the centerpiece of Christian community life since the 3rd or 4th century. The Bible texts the Church feeds us with today orient us as we go through Holy Week, and in particular as we experience the three great evenings of the Triduum, one liturgy extended over three nights.
Other minor services and devotions are available between now and Saturday night, but above all what the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church asks of her members is to participate in the Triduum: Maundy Thursday at 7pm, Good Friday at 7pm, and the Great Vigil and first Mass of Easter, Saturday at 8:30pm. There is nothing else like this: as I’ve said many times, the Triduum is the Church’s strongest medicine, but it only works if you take it as directed.
So on Palm Sunday as we enter this priceless experience, the Church orients us with Scripture, helping us know where to stand and what to understand. We hear the voice of Jesus addressing us prophetically in Isaiah, recounting his heroic act of trust in God: I gave my back to those who struck me, he says, I did not hide my face from insult, because God who vindicates me is near.
We hear the voice of the first century church in Philippians, an early hymn celebrating how Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto the point of death, even death on a cross, and that therefore God highly exalted him, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. These readings help us stand in a place where we can experience the shame, in light of the glory. We can feel the agony, made even more poignant in light of how astonishingly God used it for good.
And today we stand, and hear, and speak in the voices of all those who participated in the Passion, experiencing the truth of what Jesus went though, experiencing the truth of how we prefer to make God suffer rather than sacrifice our own illusions of power or our own illusions of security. How we’d rather kill him than let him love us.
This is our place to stand: this is where the Church will keep on putting us this week, if we have the integrity and the courage to show up for it. We stand inside the experience of Holy Week, living it night by night, shaped by the meaning Scripture tells us it has.
We don’t just think or debate or watch this: we live it, we stand inside of it, and we let Scripture interpret it for us, because we could never, ever figure Holy Week out for ourselves. It’s too vast and too powerful for that. We have to physically experience these three nights of liturgical action, and we have to let Scripture be our guide, or we’ll never even get close. So let’s hear it once more:
Though Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Why is this Cross beautiful? That’s why. It’s beautiful because Holy Week is not a set of ideas or a topic of discussion, not an act of regrettable violence or a political process, not an historical curiosity or a religious ideology. This Cross is beautiful because through Holy Week God made the ugly beautiful. This Cross is a work of art because Holy Week is a work of art.
Because Holy Week is what Scripture says it is: God himself, entering into the world at its ugliest, and taking all the world’s ugliness into his own body in order to redeem it. Holy Week is the experience of how God can make beauty out of any suffering, even the most obscene or outrageous, even the act of God’s own creatures killing him, even the suffering you and I carry in our bodies and our minds and our hearts right now, if we show up for it. Whatever you are carrying, put it all in this process over the next six days. Don’t be afraid. God knows what he’s doing. Just show up. God knew how to make this Cross beautiful, and he knows how to make all your crosses beautiful too.
Thanks be to God for all he will do here between now and Saturday night.