Sunday, May 1, 2022

3 Easter & Baptism, 2022-C: New life in the body of Christ


Lectionary: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.

Blessed Eastertide to you all. As we continue to bask in the light of the new life given to us by Jesus at Easter, our joy is intensified by welcoming two new Christians, Patrick and Charles Carey, into the body of Christ.

The sacrament of Baptism is the foundation upon which we all stand as members of the body of Christ. In it we experience our release from the bondage of death and sin by sharing in the resurrection of Jesus. In our most helpless, powerless moments on earth, we the Baptized, find our hope and strength in Jesus our Savior.

In our Baptism, we are raised up into a new life of grace… a new life of grace. The blessings, mercy, and love of the Creator of the whole universe are now ours for the taking, and they come with the gifts of joy and wonder.

We now live a life where the lavish love of God will constantly amaze and thrill us – if we have eyes to see it. That’s why we prayed together in our Collect: “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work” in the world around us.

The world has always been a place where Saul lives. The Sauls of the world believe they know what’s best for everyone and use their earthly power, even violence, to enforce their understanding of how the world, and everyone in it, should be. They may mean well, though some in our world’s history, even some in our world today, surely don’t.

In the end, our Scriptures promise that the Sauls of the world are rendered powerless in the face of the love of God, and those whom they hurt or destroyed didn’t go unnoticed by God. They too, have been redeemed and reconciled into the love of God. As the psalmist says, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

We will die many deaths in our Christian journey – the death of our understanding of ourselves, the death of our understanding of God or Jesus or the Spirit; the death of our expectation about church, the death of our personal goals or plans in favor of God’s plan for us. Each death we face is difficult and leaves us feeling lost and afraid, but we go into each death willingly because Jesus led the way for us and promised us new life on the other side of it… a life of freedom, joy, and wonder in all God’s works.

Knowing we are forgiven, we are able to learn and grow from our mistakes, not be undone by them. Can you imagine how Peter felt when he heard that cock crow, and realized that he’d denied his beloved Jesus three times? In our gospel story, Jesus offers Peter three opportunities to profess his love and commitment again, not holding his sin against him, but letting Peter learn from it. And what did Peter learn? 

Peter learned that all of us are likely to fail to be faithful at some point, but that doesn’t mean we have become worthless or cast out of relationship. God in Christ still loves us, has a plan for us, and can use the humility we’ve learned to enable us to serve better.

Peter learned that God is always ready to reach out to us to reconcile us back into love. Jesus invited Peter to profess his love and commitment as many times as he had sinned. The invitation is ours too. It’s why we promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever (not if ever) we sin.

Peter learned that the new life promised to us is real and beyond anything we could ask or imagine. Peter, like Mary Magdalene, didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus at first. Whatever we think about God, God is more than that. Closing our eyes to or resisting the new thing God is placing before us and waiting for what we want or expect is not only useless, it’s unfaithful.

And finally, Peter learned that faithfully living in Christ doesn’t mean we will avoid the pain and violence of the world, but since Jesus went there first, we are assured of the grace of resurrection. All of us will experience being led where we don’t want to go at some point. It’s the ‘take up your cross and follow me’ aspect of our life of faith. But for us, the cross is now simply the gateway to new life. So we go - with confidence in the love of God that goes with us.

Living this life – the resurrection life of Jesus – takes a community. We can’t do this alone and we aren’t meant to. We’re meant to do this– all of it - the painful and the joyful, the disastrous and the miraculous, as the body of Christ in the world.

Today we are baptizing two persons into this body of Christ, committing to be there with them every step of the way on their journeys of faith, including the deaths they will face and the joys they will know. We pledge today to share it all with them.

More than that, we pledge to be their teachers, their prayer partners, and their encouragers. We promise to help them know what being a Baptized Christian in the Episcopal faith means (and what it doesn’t). We promise to help them discover their unique gifts and God’s purpose for them in the world. Then we promise to support them as they live into that purpose. 

We also renew our promise to continue to do the same for one another. It's a sacred bond we make and we do it as a family of faith. Amen.

 (Invitation to the font)

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Day and Baptism, 2022-C: lovelovelovelovelove

 Lectionary: Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-1

¡Aleluia! Cristo ha resucitado! Alleluia! Christ is risen! (The people respond) The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! 

Happy Easter, everyone! 

Today we have the privilege of bringing another person into the community of love known to the world as Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, MO. The Baptism of Miriam Bruner-Wiltsie is an important event because by it we are made whole in a new way. By incorporating the one, the whole of us is made new.

It is also a big responsibility for us who are her family of faith. God has created Miriam for a purpose. She has been gifted for that purpose, and it is up to us, her community of love, to help her discover those gifts, nurture them, and then use them to further God’s kingdom of love here on earth.

This is no small thing, and it isn’t just about Miriam. The same is true for all of us. We all have a responsibility to discover, nurture, and employ our God-given gifts as partners with God in the co-creation and transformation of the world.

In our gospel story today, Mary Magdalene models that for us. Returning to the tomb where Jesus had been hastily buried before the Passover and finding the stone door of the tomb rolled away, Mary runs back to tell Peter and John. All three then head back to the tomb to see what had happened. The author tells us that Peter went in first, then John. Unable to understand, they simply returned to their homes… but Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb, weeping.

When she finally summons up the courage to look inside, Mary saw two angels – messengers of God – who asked her why she was weeping. Believing that those who killed Jesus must have stolen his body, Mary Magdalene replies, “I don’t know where Jesus is.”

As soon as she said that there he was, though in his resurrected state Mary couldn’t recognize him. Then Jesus spoke her name and her heart melted. “Rabboni!” she breathed.

If it had been me, I’d have run to Jesus and thrown my arms around him in a big hug. Back then, however, women and men who weren’t related didn’t do that.

But Jesus, who knows our hearts, knew Mary’s recognition of him was too small. The resurrection meant that everything, including their relationship, was different and they would all need time to understand how to live into this new reality.

Easter offers us the opportunity to reflect on our recognition of Jesus in our lives. Is it too small? Have we made room in our lives for the transforming reality of our relationship with the resurrected Jesus?

Duncan Gray, III, retired bishop of the Diocese of Mississippi, once said: "Change is doing something differently. Transformation is becoming something more. Transformation begins to take place when we offer ourselves, our souls, our bodies – our dreams, our visions, our plans – to Almighty God. And as we make our offering we say, not, ‘here are our plans, bless them;’ but, rather, ‘here are our lives, use them.’ And…it is in that offering … that [the] weak become strong, the proud become humble, and lives are transformed.”

Let’s go back for a minute to the first part of today’s gospel story where Peter and John witness the empty tomb. They didn’t see any angels and they didn’t see Jesus. They didn’t see, perceive, or understand anything, so they left. Mary stayed, and in the midst of her sadness, fear, and confusion Jesus showed up.

At the end of their encounter, Mary was transformed. She’d become something more – and she ran back to witness resurrection transformation to the others.

When we are drowning in sorrow, or fear, or confusion Jesus will show up. We just need to wait in the discomfort as Mary did.

Redemption is guaranteed for everyone, for as we read in Acts, God shows no partiality. It’s pretty clear that God didn’t pick Peter because he was so astute. Right? Yet look at Peter’s legacy. God created Peter, gifted him, and sent him to live out his purpose; and Peter did that – in all his imperfection.

God chooses each of us too. What is God’s purpose for our lives? The best answer I’ve heard to that question came from my daughter years ago when she was an undergraduate. She had been arguing with some of her childhood friends who were “Christians” about homosexuality. In their efforts to help her avoid eternal damnation as a lesbian, they kept throwing Bible verses at her.

Here was my daughter’s response, and I share it with you because I can’t make a better point on EasterDay than what she said: “All those words [in the Bible, she said] are different ways of illustrating one message: lovelovelovelovelove. God is love. Period. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to agree with it. You can try to collect all the rules you want, and I'm sure that's a comfort. It's just not the point. I will say it until I die: God is love.” ~Jessica Sherer

I will say it too until I die: God is love. I will also say that we don’t live our lives on earth trying to get to heaven, but as co-creators with God of heaven on earth.

We gather on this Easter Day to be transformed by the power of the truth that God is love. We also get to welcome another Christian into that love. Welcoming Miriam as a sibling in the body of Christ, we commit to be the community of love that forms her so that she is empowered and supported as she fulfills the purpose for which she was created. 

 (Invitation of Miriam’s family, friends, and their children to the Baptismal font)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Great Vigil of Easter, 2022-C: Believe and live

 Lectionary: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Ezekiel 37:1-14;Zephaniah 3:14-20; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

¡Aleluia! Cristo ha resucitado! Alleluia! Christ is risen! 
 (The people respond) The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! 

 I love the smell of spring. The whole world smells so good – have you noticed? And even the weeds here in STL are beautiful! Those little purple violets! On one of my recent neighborhood walks, I was looking up at the progress of the newly growing leaves. Have you ever noticed that as the new life forms on the trees there is no evidence of the leaves from last year? The trees are the same trees but the life on them is completely new.

It made me think of the new life we are entering into this Easter. As a Christian community, we have been waiting through the season of Lent, waiting while God cultivated new life in us. Tonight, we open our eyes and see what God has been doing in us. And like the women who went to the tomb, what we see may surprise us. It might even (and hopefully will) transform us completely.

In the gospel story from Luke, the women went to the tomb to finish the preparation of Jesus’ body his rushed burial had prevented before the Passover. When they arrived at the tomb they saw that the stone had been rolled away and the body of their beloved Rabbi, their Messiah, was gone.

Suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes were in the tomb with them. Dazzling clothes, in biblical language, indicate transcendence – the presence of heaven on earth. These two men from heaven ask the women, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

You can almost hear their thoughts… Well duh… because Jesus is dead - we saw him die on the cross. We began the preparation of his body for burial and are here now to complete it. The two men from heaven then remind the women: Remember how he told you, while he was still with you, that he must be …crucified, and on the third day rise again?

Yes! They did remember! Jesus was dead, but now he’s risen… just as he promised! Suddenly it all made sense… and the women believed the unbelievable!

In an instant, everything they knew, everything they thought was possible, was suddenly expanded, and they were transformed by it. These women were the first to experience the truth of the resurrection. They were the first ones to know and live what St. Paul called newness of life. 

The first thing the women did was run back to tell the men - who didn’t believe them. But it’s hard to blame them. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead defies all earthly explanation. The scarier part, I think, is if everything Jesus said has come true, then what about the rest of his promises? What about the promise that sin and death would no longer have power over us?

What does that mean? We still sin, and we still die.

Years ago, when I was trying to get out of my abusive first marriage, a wise person said to me: No one has any power over you that you don’t give them.

The same is true of sin and death... they have no power over us that we don’t give them. As long as we live, we will sin. That’s why in our Baptismal vows, we promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever we sin. Baptism doesn’t free us from sinning. It frees us from the power sin has over us, which is convincing us that we are un-forgivable.

Tonight we celebrate the life-giving truth that forgiveness is always available to us. All we have to do is return to God. All we have to do is look upon the face that died for us on the cross, and see that the face of Love looking back is smiling, glad for our return, reaching out to us with hands that have holes in them. All we have to do is open our hands and reach for him, open our hearts and let him in.

We have been forgiven – all of us. And we have been set free – free to love as we have been loved, free to forgive, as we have been forgiven.

This is the truth we celebrate. This is the freedom we claim.

And now we are the ones who witness to this truth that defies explanation and we do that by living as if we know it’s true, trusting that we can forgive someone else and live a new life. We witness this truth when we proclaim it by our lives. As St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have once said, “Preach the gospel always… when necessary use words.”

We witness this truth we know when we live our lives in such a way that the love of God in Christ is made known to the world through us. If, as St. Paul said, Christ died once for ALL, then who can we hate? …who can we exclude? 

(This is not a rhetorical question) The answer is: no one!

We witness this truth we know when we live like we are beloved, and so is everyone else.

We witness the unbelievable truth of our salvation when we let go of whatever separates us from the love of God and the love of neighbors, when we forgive as we have been forgiven, and when we make choices that are life-giving for us, and for those we serve in Jesus’ name.

We witness the truth that defies explanation - the truth of the empty tomb - when we persevere in times when our faith is tried and we are tired, when we strive for justice and peace in real and sacrificial ways, when we respect the dignity of all people – especially those the world loves to hate… even when the world hates us for doing so.

As we celebrate our new life in Christ, a life of freedom and peace a life of joyful abundance we sing out our song of praise, proclaiming the truth of our salvation: 

 Alleluia! Christ is risen! 
(The people respond) The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Maundy Thursday, 2022- C: The third cup

 Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35 

En el nombre de Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

On this holy night, we remember the ritual, the Passover seder meal, that our forebears in the faith, the Jewish people, created. This ritual meal, which bears witness to the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage to redemption, isn't just a story of what happened once. It's also a story of what is happening now, eternally, because of who God is and how the world is - until that final time when all people and all creation are fully and completely reconciled to God.

A good deal of the focus at a Jewish seder supper is on the children who are asked: "What makes this night different from all other nights?" The question is meant to spark the children’s curiosity and encourage them to ask questions. This, combined with participation in ritual, is how Jewish children are taught about their faith and their identity as children of God.

Held in the Spring, the seder supper signals rebirth and renewal, and the story unfolds in four parts marked by four cups of wine consumed during the meal. Each of the cups represents how God has acted to save and is taken from the book of Exodus (6:6-7). These four acts are: "I will bring out, "I will deliver," "I will redeem," and "I will take."

This matters to us because each Sunday when we share Holy Communion, we are lifting up the third of the four cups, which Jesus claimed himself to be at his last Passover. To understand this let’s look at the meaning and context of the four cups.

The first cup is the cup of SANCTIFICATION. God says: "I will bring you out." To sanctify is to set someone or something apart as holy. This is where the people of God learn that they are "chosen" by God. God will bring them out from their slavery so that they can serve God, not a human master.

The second cup is the cup of DELIVERANCE. God says: "I will deliver." We cannot save ourselves or anyone else. Only God can save. Freedom from whatever or whoever holds us bound on earth is always a gift from God.The temptation most of us face is spending time and energy trying to do the right thing or to live the right way, in order to earn our salvation. But that is impossible. Redemption is a gift from God. We can't and don't have to earn it.

The third cup is the cup of REDEMPTION. God says, "I will redeem." It is this cup that Jesus takes, blesses, and gives to his friends saying, "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood…" as often as you drink it, do this to remember me.

That is familiar to us. What may not be is the cultural context of it. In the Jewish tradition, the word redemption also means "avenger of blood" and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom.

The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family. Sound familiar?

At dinner with his friends, Jesus claims himself to be the third cup. It is his blood, that is, his life that will be given for the redemption of all by the forgiveness of sin. Because he is fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid.

The fourth cup is the cup of HOPE. God says, "I will take." The Jewish people understood this to be the cup of Elijah, for whom an empty seat is kept at the seder table. When Elijah returns and takes his place in that seat, it will signal the coming of the Messiah, the complete fulfillment of God's promises to them.

While our narrative as Christians begins in the story of our Jewish forbears, for us the fourth cup, our hope, has been fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ. Therefore, we journey now in the already-but-not-yet time: the new age inaugurated by Jesus which is fulfilled at his Second Coming – a concept we will delve into more deeply at another time.

In the meantime, on this night we reclaim our part as partners with Christ in the continuing work of the redemption of the whole world to God. As Jesus said, "I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." The Messiah of God humbly served his community by getting on his knees and washing their feet. Now it’s our turn.

Washing feet is and always has been a difficult and humbling experience on both sides of the basin as Peter so aptly illustrates for us. But Jesus’ warning to Peter, and therefore to us, is clear: you must humble yourself and receive this gift I give, or you will not be able to give it to others in my name.

I hope we all take this very seriously. Jesus is mandating that we do now as he did then: humble ourselves, which is what the posture of kneeling represents, wrap the symbol of a servant around our waist, and do the "dirty work" of tenderly caring for the most unappealing realities of the human condition (which for some people includes feet!), bringing refreshment, dignity, and tender loving care to the lowest of the low.

One of the besetting sins of modern Christian culture is that many of us will tenderly and even sacrificially give to those in need, but we have a lot of trouble receiving the same from someone else. There’s a little Peter in all of us. As Jesus said, “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

It's our turn now to do them. I, therefore, invite you to come forward and have your foot washed, and further still, to stay and wash the foot of the person after you in line – whoever that is. By this humble action God is glorified and we witness the truth that we love one another in the holy name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Palm Sunday, 2022-C: Our sin, God's redemption

Lectionary: The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

At our Bible study this week I mentioned how today’s readings create a kind of spiritual whiplash, jerking us from "Hosanna" (which means ‘Save us’) to "Crucify him!" Why would the church choose to do that? It’s all about our sin and God’s redemption.

To begin with, it’s important to note that we spoke those words - humanity, not God Jesus knew he was going to die and did so voluntarily for our sake, but it was our will, not God's, that Jesus was tortured and crucified.

God sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself, bridging us to the unity of the Trinity which is where we have life. We, in our sinfulness, continually separate ourselves from God, and therefore from life and from love, inserting our will into God's plan.

Save us, we cry. But wait - this one scares us, so kill him. That is our will. Crucify him.

So we did. We killed him. We killed God's son on a cross that day and so many other children of God since then. People who scare us because of their color, who they love or what sexuality they claim: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, the four little girls killed at the 16th St Church in Birmingham, AL: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair, and their champion, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 49 people killed at the gay bar in Orlando, Nizah Morris, Selena Reyes-Hernandez, and Brayla Stone, murdered for being transgender. The list is long… so very long.

These are undeniably our collective sins. We choose, whether actively or passively, to continue to kill innocent children of God. One would think that by now, for example, we wouldn’t need to march against school shootings or pass anti-lynching laws, but sadly we do, and this isn’t new for us.

In 1963, at the euology of the four innocents killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Dr. King said this: "they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these… [children]… may well serve as a redemptive force… [leading us] from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood…" 
Source: King, Martin Luther, "A Call to Conscience," 96

The low road of our inhumanity has been made clear to us, over and over again, and it is what we witness in today’s passion gospel. 

So, what is our will now? What path will we take from here?

My hope is that we will follow the way of Jesus who didn't use supernatural power, fight back, or even argue at his trial and crucifixion. Instead, he waited patiently, humbly, faithfully... even as everything went wrong. Even as his own religious community betrayed him, leveling false charges against him. Even as his followers shifted from 'Save us' to 'Crucify him.'

All this while the palm fronds celebrating his arrival in Jerusalem were still fresh on the ground.

Jesus showed us how all things, even death on a cross, could and would be redeemed by God, in ways we couldn't possibly imagine. I mean, who could have imagined Easter?

This is why, year after year, we walk slowly, deliberately, and humbly through the fullness of Holy Week:
to experience as a faith community the real pain of sin and the failure of our human wills – to experience it not only with our heads and our thoughts but with our bodies and souls… by processing with palms, shouting "Hosanna," then speaking those words "Crucify him" out loud and feeling them echo as vibrations in our mouths and our guts.

It's why we listen to the passion story, tensing up at those critical moments - like when Jesus cries out to God, "why have you forsaken me?" and our inner voice whispers, ‘Why, God? Why did you forsake him?’

This cry of abandonment by Jesus is something most of us experience at some point in our lives, and it sounds something like this: 'God, you can do all things. Fix this! This is wrong. They are wrong. Save me (or them) from this pain, this terror, this loss …'

It makes me wonder what happened in Mary's heart as she watched her innocent son get murdered. Could she even utter a prayer as she watched Jesus take his last breath? Did she feel forsaken?

In this passion story, we see all too clearly what the low road of our inhumanity looks like and how it leads to death. We also see Jesus living through the very human, and very familiar experience of wanting God to 'fix it.' Could God have intervened and stopped the crucifixion?

Could God have turned the hearts of the crowds, or Pilate, or the religious authorities… and turned this injustice to right? Of course. So, if God could have stopped it, why didn't God?

Then we remember this passion story where God's own innocent son dies, and we remember that the story doesn't end there. God didn't intervene to save Jesus from unjust execution because God's plan was and is to redeem the whole world from the power of sin and death.

Since it was the will of the people to kill Jesus by crucifixion – their choice - God redeemed us all – once for all - through that crucifixion. Love was not killed. Love triumphs over every evil – even death on a cross.

Whose will is it now that God's children are being killed at school? Or in church? Or in wars around the globe? Or through poverty that starves the life out of them? Or through unrestricted access to automatic weapons of war used at home in peacetime?

It's our will and it's time to change it and follow the way of Jesus onto the high road of peace.

This is why we come to church. We need the strength of our faith community as we face the awful truths about our collective inhumanity - by what we have done or by what we left undone, uncorrected, or unchanged in our world.

We need each other so that once we face those awful truths we don't fall into despair, but instead, march onto the high road of peace, working together with God who is eternally wringing good out of evil.

The children of God in Ukraine and around the world are asking us to act now, to change our wills, and make the way of Jesus a reality, and the only way I know to do that is to humble ourselves - like Jesus did; submit our wills to God - like Jesus did, and trust absolutely - like Jesus did - in the redeeming love of God.  Amen.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

4 Lent, 2022-C: God is always present

Lectionary: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday as I mentioned at the start of our worship. In the English tradition, today is also known as "Mothering Sunday” when people return to worship at the church where they were baptized as a kind of check-in on their spiritual journey which began at baptism. The goal today is to remember that as our Lenten journey changes us, the disciplines we practice are meant to lead us to joy, to rejoice, which is what “laetare” means. 

As the joke goes: If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that life can change on a dime and we have to continually rethink, redirect, and repent, that is, turn around and go another way. The good news is that God is always present showing us how to go just as God did for the Israelites in their exile.

As a people traditionally tied to the land, this wandering people had no laws to govern them, no traditions to sustain them. They had to figure it out as they went along – kind of like we are now.

The generation who began the journey into exile was now dead and gone and a new generation was arriving at their God-given destination. Honoring their forebears, the Israelites began re-instituting the traditions that proclaimed their identity and belief; but they did this as a new generation in a new place, with a new understanding. Again, this sounds like us right now.

Their time in the desert had revealed only part of the big picture of the will of God for them. The rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say) is found in the words of Jesus in today’s gospel from Luke.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Rabbi Jesus tells a wild story, filled with things that would make his listeners cringe. For example, a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance would be akin to a death wish; the image of a Jewish man, even a desperate one, wishing he could eat the slop of swine would be horror upon horror for a kosher people; and no self-respecting, elder Jewish man would ever run to greet his son. (Source)

I think there are a few reactions Jesus counted on from his listeners (then and now). For example, it was the son’s own choice that led him to his desperate situation. He was selfish, disrespectful, and disobedient. He made his bed… as some would say. He has only himself to blame.

And what about the older brother? He’s been good and faithful all along and hasn’t asked for any reward. But now his father kills the fatted calf for his low-life brother, and he’s understandably upset.

Looking at this parable from a “human point of view” these reactions make sense, which is why the parable works. We who are followers of Christ, however, must no longer look at things that way. We are a new generation, in a new place, with a new understanding.

Like the father in this parable, God does not count our trespasses against us. We’re good with that, of course, when it’s our own sin that needs forgiving, but we’re often less happy about it when it’s someone else’s sin. Then we, like the older brother in the parable, feel justified in our resentment. Some even feel justified in being violent toward “sinners” they particularly hate.

I once heard Brother Curtis Almquist from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, say: “If you don’t have mercy for someone, you don’t know enough about them.” God does know and God never fails to seek the lost and bring them home for a joyous welcome.

That’s why, as we consider this parable of the Prodigal Son, it helps to remember that we don’t know what led the lost brother to ask for his inheritance. We don’t know how he came to disrespect himself so much that he would live a life of such self-destruction. We don’t know how he came to believe that he wasn’t worthy.

Everyone has a story that plays out within the silence of their hearts. God knows our stories, our interior battles; and has mercy on us.

The invitation during Lent is to return and claim God’s love and mercy, just as the Prodigal son did when he ‘came to himself’ and returned home where he once knew love. Upon seeing his father, the Prodigal son utters the words of repentance: “…I made a mistake…” and in response there is rejoicing! Laetare.

Once we realize the unfathomable love of God for us, then we truly are a new creation, as St. Paul says. We begin to see with the eyes of God and we notice that everyone else is beloved too. We respond with the heart of God, which breaks over anyone’s suffering - no matter how it came about – and rejoices whenever someone returns to themselves… and returns to love.

A final word about the older brother in the parable, who represents us: the church. Like him, we try to live faithfully, and we’re tempted to be judgmental and resentful about those who seem to ‘get away with’ breaking our laws and traditions, but did you hear the father’s response to the older brother? Hearing this as the voice of God, the reply was: “Beloved one, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

What if we, the church, truly believed that? What if we lived in the abundance this represents? What if we honored the truth that everything – everything – is a gift from God who says, “all that is mine is yours.”

God gives freely to us and asks us to do the same. A cycle of abundant life is generated by this relationship. The opposite of this is found in our world where hoarding, or “damming up the river “as I call it, stifles life and leads to a sense of scarcity.

Growing up I knew a man who rose quickly through the ranks of corporate business and every year he and his family had more money, more things, more, more, more. The son of poor immigrants, he was living the American Dream, but it was never enough because the goalpost kept moving for him. Someone was always richer, more powerful, more influential. There was always something else he wanted that he couldn’t have – and he began to hoard. One tiny example: when he retired, this man had hundreds of neckties. Hundreds! Why neckties? They symbolize rank, status, and power (among other things) in the corporate world.

Rather than being grateful for the many gifts he’d been given, including his success in business, this man was fixated on what he didn’t have, what he couldn’t have, and it ate away at his soul and ruined many of his relationships. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but from what I hear, he remains lost in his universe of scarcity.

I wish I’d known and could have shared with him the wisdom of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, so I’ll share it with you instead. In their book, “A Native Way of Giving,” Forrest S. Cush and Michael Carney tell us that for many native people “the only purpose for wealth is to give it away… A life-giving cycle is created [they say] as gratitude leads to generosity, promoting a sense of abundance that generates more gratitude, making it self-perpetuating.” (p. 10)

Giving wealth away… the needs of the community taking priority over the wants of the individual. It’s as counter-cultural today as it was in Jesus’ time. The good news in the parable of the Prodigal Son is: 1) it’s never too late to return to right relationship with God and one another, and 2) God’s gifts to us are always more than enough but God’s greatest gift is God’s own self always with us.

I close with a poem from our bishop, +Deon Johnson, about this. It’s called, “A note of God’s presence” 

I was there when you were called less than, 
Whispering you are enough. 
I was there when you watered your face with tears,
Warming your heart with strength.
I was there when you heard the impossible news,
Holding you close for the path ahead.
I was there when your heart broke,
Healing the wounds and holding the scars.
I was there when grief almost overwhelmed you,
Igniting the light of hope.
I was there when the unbelievably good news came,
Shielding you from the ugliness and fear.
I am the One in whom you live, and move, and have your being.
I was there. I am here. I will be there. Always. 

(Poem and photo by The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, March 21, 2022) 

Now that is a reason to rejoice. Laetare!

Sunday, March 13, 2022

2 Lent, Awakening from a world-induced sleep

Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35 

I begin with a story about one of my sweet dogs, Ollie, now departed. Ollie was a mixed breed dog, and it wasn’t a good mix. We loved loving Ollie, but he had quirks which sometimes made loving him a bit…
challenging at times. Ollie got in trouble a lot because he often was not a good dog. When he got in trouble, he was put in time out which meant he had to go to his crate for a period of time and wait to be let out.

Over time, when Ollie did a bad thing, he just went ahead and put himself in time out. We’d come home, watch Ollie walk himself into his crate, then look around to see what he’d done. As time went on, Ollie would put himself in time out and walk right out again. He knew we’d forgive him, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in the crate. He just went through the motions.

I tell you this story because that’s how so many of us treat Lent, but we aren’t meant to go through the motions of a penitential time-out, emerge knowing we’re forgiven, then go about our lives as usual. When we practice Lent, we are responding to God’s invitation to us with an invitation of our own. We are inviting God to change us.

The word “Lent” means spring and the season of Lent is a short, finite bit of time we set aside to allow new life to be formed in us. Our traditional Lenten practices of prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving represent our invitation to God to not only plant the seeds of new life in us but also to change the very nature of the soil, that is ourselves – our souls and bodies, which will receive the seeds of this new life.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for our discussion of what Lent is and isn’t. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this: we go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world cause the soil of our souls to slowly but steadily become hard and cracked like a dried-up river bed in a drought. At our invitation, the hands of the Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the hardened dryness.

The Almighty kneads our soul-soil, crushing the hardened bits of anger, judgment, hatred of self or other, that have formed in us. Then those great hands of Love trickle in water from the well-spring of life, Jesus the Christ, kneading and kneading until that life-giving water has softened every hard, dry spot in us.

This nourishing divine massage transforms our dryness into rich soil. Into this soil, the Creator places the seeds of new life for us, sweeps the surface of the soil smooth, sprinkles on a bit more life-giving water, and asks us to wait while the seeds within us take root and grow. 

This is Lent.

In our reading from Genesis, the dryness of our souls is depicted as a famine that forces Abram to leave his homeland, his identity, his security – and go to a new place to which God will lead him. The Scripture says he is afraid.

So, God comes to Abram in a vision and says those famous words of divine comfort, “do not be afraid.” Then God promises to protect Abram and lead him and his descendants to a new, abundant life. The key to this story is how Abram responded: leaving behind his identity, his land, and his life, and walking into the unknown trusting completely in God and God’s promise to him.

When we practice Lent, we enter a period of self-examination that brings to our awareness how and where we’ve become dry and hardened. This is the terrifying darkness Abram experienced - the realizations that we have such darkness within, and that we can’t save ourselves; because only God can save.

We always have the option to refuse God’s grace. This is what Jesus is lamenting in the gospel reading from Luke when he cries: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

When we choose to refuse God’s grace, however, we own the consequences. As Jesus warns the Pharisees, “…your house is left to you” or, in other words, ‘Have it your way. Walk on in the darkness. It leads only to death.’

When we offer our invitation to God, the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving offer deeply meaningful as well as tried and true ways for us to practice a holy Lent. Taking extra time to pray during Lent, we become aware of the voice of our Creator who gently calls us to awaken from our world-induced sleep. In prayer, we see the face of Love looking back at us, inviting us to leave behind our old identity, our old life, and walk into an unknown future trusting completely in God’s love, guidance, and promise of abundant life.

When we fast during Lent, we are actually and symbolically emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. When our stomach is empty, it cries out to us to fill it. 

Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we can eat, and so we can choose not to eat (if that is medically safe for us) so that we can experience an embodied emptiness in solidarity with those who truly hunger. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if that requires a bit of a sacrifice on our part.

When we give alms during Lent, we are consenting to enter into a new relationship with the poor. Within each of us is the capacity to judge, blame, and avoid those who are needy or suffering. This protects our own comfort and relieves us of the responsibility to answer their cry for help. During Lent, we make time and find real ways to draw near to those in need and welcome their story into our awareness and them into our lives. I think of the refugees we are welcoming into a new life here in Webster Groves, and the people of Ukraine whose need is presently so great.

So let’s not approach Lent like my dog, Ollie, going through the motions of a Lenten time-out. Let’s go deeply, faithfully, fully into the darkness of our inner hardness of heart and invite God to work the miracle of greening our souls so that we can run toward the new, abundant life God is preparing for us. Amen.