Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday, 2018: The song of heaven

Lectionary: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Pilate said to them: Here is the man! Look, here is your king!

Behold him, beaten and bent… bloody where the nails have pierced his flesh. Behold him breathing his last, his head dropping to his chest, as his body goes lifeless.

Here is the man…Look, here is your king.

We try to look - to picture in our minds the events of that first Good Friday, but it's a surreal experience. It's like that movie trick where the world is buzzing around in fast motion in the background while the main character in the foreground is moving slowly, as if standing in a vortex of two realities of time.

As the world happens all around us, our reality this week also includes a slower, interior experience of the unfolding of our salvation story. Through the liturgies of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we live in eternal time, time not measured by clocks or calendars, even as we continue to live in the world's time.

We walk together slowly, liturgically, aware of our tendency to run quickly through the dark and difficult parts of Holy Week and head straight for Easter, and the relief and joyous victory that it brings. But on Good Friday, we go slowly, patiently, fully into the darkness of Jesus' crucifixion.

Today, we begin our mourning. The Innocent Lamb, has been executed. It is shocking and profoundly sad. As was foretold in Isaiah: "…there were many who were astonished at him so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance… By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?"

While doing some mission work in Romania some years ago, I visited a monastery in Suceaviţa, where I saw an ancient tapestry of Jesus' crucifixion. Above his body were four angels who were covering their faces in grief and crying. The face of one of the angels was twisted in an expression of absolute horror.

While part of me must have known this before, that day was the first time I let myself really know and experience the reality that heaven was also shocked and horrified by the world's execution of the Messiah.

Behold the man! Look here is your king!

God knows how hard it is for us to wait in the discomfort of our shock and deep sadness. It's a normal human response to want to escape discomfort. It helps us survive! But when our survival isn't at stake, when it is spiritual discomfort, we must learn to wait through it.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on this was from the rector of my home-church in Valdosta, GA. I was experiencing a spiritual crisis like I'd never known before. I was ready to come undone. I wanted to run away from God, from the Church, from everything. It was the darkest of nights for me.

My rector, Fr. Stan White, said to me, "I hear you Valori. God hears you. Be willing to wait in the discomfort. Trust. Remember, God has already acted to redeem."

I commend Fr. Stan's advice to you: be willing to wait in the discomfort. Trust, for God is already acting to redeem.

Practicing Good Friday drops us into a great mystery, which is this: by his death and resurrection Jesus has reconciled us to himself. Now we are the living locations of the unity of heaven and earth enfleshed in us. Each one of us.

Together then, our prayers are truly the song of heaven. When we pray, all the company of heaven is praying with us… in us… through us.

From shock and horror to joyful songs of praise. This is the movement of the prayer in Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted as he died on the cross. By speaking the first line of this prayer Jesus, the rabbi, was commending the entire prayer to us.

Whenever we feel forsaken we go to our family of faith, we place ourselves "in the midst of the congregation" and praise God committing once again to serve God and to make known "to a people yet unborn," that is, unaware, the Good News of our redemption in Jesus Christ.

So let us continue our Holy Week journey together, and in this midst of this gathered congregation, let's praise God and pray for the world for whom our Savior, Jesus Christ, gave his life, remembering that our prayer is the song of heaven.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday, 2018: Servant ministers for Christ

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: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

It is often said that Episcopalians take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. This is one of those nights it is imperative to go beyond a literal approach to Scripture to find the truth and redemptive love within, but for most of our Sunday School experience doesn't prepare us to do that.

Thankfully, our forebears in the faith, the Jewish people, created a ritual designed to do just that: the Passover seder meal, the origin of the Agape supper we shared tonight. The seder meal traces the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage to redemption but isn't just a story of what happened once. It's also a story of what happens now, eternally, because of who God is and how the world is - until that final day when all people and all creation are fully and completely reconciled to God.

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

Held in the Spring, the seder meal signals rebirth and renewal which is symbolized by the dipping of greens, usually parsley, into water that is salted to symbolize the tears of the people enslaved by the powers of the world. 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."

It matters that we know this because each Sunday, when we bless and share our holy food of communion, we are lifting up the third of the four cups, just as Jesus did with his disciples at his last seder supper. The third cup is the cup Jesus claimed himself to be. To understand that, we need to know the meaning and cultural 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. 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 salvation. But that is impossible. Redemption is a gift we can't and don't have to earn.

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 isn't is the cultural context of this.

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 the second person of the Trinity, 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 promise: "I will take you for my people, and I will be your God."

Jewish theologian Tim Hegg says, "redemption does not immediately place [Israel] into the realm of eternal peace. She is redeemed… and given her freedom, but now she must make her way through the wilderness… before she reaches the Promised Land" where all people will worship God in truth and unity. "Redemption (he says) guarantees the final destination, but the journey is still necessary."

The Christian narrative begins in the story of our Jewish forbears. For us, however, 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 comes to its fulfillment at his Second Coming.

In the meantime, we do our part as partners with Christ in the continuing work of redemption. And what is our part?

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 before them and washing their feet.

I hope we all take this very seriously and hear the symbolic language of this Bible story of servant ministry. Jesus is mandating that we do now do as he did then: get on our knees (a posture of servitude), wrap a towel around our waist (the symbol of a servant) and humbly do the "dirty work" of tenderly caring for the most unappealing realities of the human condition, bringing refreshment and dignity to the lowest of the low.

To make this crystal clear, Jesus put this new approach into the form of a commandment - a mandate (the root of the word 'Maundy"): "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

So now we humble ourselves and do as Jesus did by ritually washing the feet of the people in our community, thereby re-committing ourselves to the servant ministry Christ mandated for us to carry outin our corner of God's world.

(Instructions for the foot washing)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday-B, 2018: Marching onto the "high road of peace"

The Liturgy of the Palms: John 12:12-16; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-39, [40-47]

Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

From "Hosanna" (which means Save us) to "Crucify him!" We spoke those words. Humanity, not God. It was our will, not God's, that Jesus be crucified.

God sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself, bridging us to the unity of the Trinity which is where we have life. God is the source of all life. God is the source of all love.

We separate ourselves from God, and therefore from life and from love, by inserting our will into God's plan. Save us, we cry. But 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, their beliefs, or their love: Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Senator Clamenta Pinckey and the others killed at Mother Emanual Church in Charleston, Isaac Amanios of San Bernadino, the four little girls from 16th St Church in Birmingham whose names are: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair, and their champion, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The list is long… so very long.

The other day I saw an article about a 22-year old African American man who was shot 20 times in his own back yard by police who thought he was armed. He was holding his cell phone. In his own back yard. Source:

This is undeniably our will. We choose, whether actively or passively, to continue to kill innocent children of God.

Yesterday people around the country, including our Bishop, participated in the March for our Lives. The marches, which happened in cities across the country, were sparked by high school children, survivors of the worst mass school shooting in American history, who said #NeverAgain: This is no longer acceptable.

One wouldn't think that needed to be said out loud. But it does, and it isn't new.

It was fifty-five years ago, when four of God's innocent daughters were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, At their euology, 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: "A Call to Conscience," 96

The low road of our inhumanity has been made clear to us, once again, by our children. 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 when people tried to kill him. Instead, he waited patiently, quietly, 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' calling for the release of a known criminal instead of Jesus.

All this while the palm fronds 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. Who could have predicted the events of Easter?

This is why we walk through Holy Week, year after year: to remember, 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? Why did you forsake him, God?

This cry of 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 about me. Save me from this pain, this cancer, the loss of my spouse/my child/ my parent…'

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.'

Save us. Hosanna!

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?

I suppose this is what family members of those killed by gun violence might be asking too… Why did you let my loved one die? Why didn't you stop the shooter? Why didn't you do a medical miracle? If you could have saved my loved one, why didn't you? Are we not worthy? What did they (or I) ever do to deserve this?'

Then we remember this passion story where God's own innocent son dies, and we remember that the story doesn't end there. God's redemption isn't about a single person or event in time. God's redemption is about all people for all time.

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 God's son God redeemed us through the crucifixion.

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 each other to have the courage to face the awful truths about our inhumanity to one another 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 our world are asking us to act now, to change our wills, and make the way of Jesus a reality in our world. 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 18, 2018

5 Lent B, 2018: Communion with God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As we prepare to bring our practice of a Holy Lent to a close, I offer you this prayer from Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest (d. 1955): "…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death."

Teillhard says, "when the painful comes…" because it will. Being a faithful believer doesn't exempt us from the painful experiences of life; it simply gives us the way to perceive them in the big picture of God's plan of redemption where everything is gift, including the painful. For as Tiellhard says, in those moments we are awakened to something so great that we can let go and surrender ourselves to God, who is communing with us, joining to us at the deepest level, "the very marrow of [our] substance," to lead us to new life. For a believer, death is always the gateway to new life.

This prayer speaks to what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. When Philip and Andrew told Jesus that some Gentiles wanted to see him, Jesus proclaimed that now his hour had come to be glorified, explaining what he meant by likening himself, that is his life, to a seed.

Jesus says this seed must die because unless it does, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, if it breaks open its protective cover, then the seed can reach into the soil that surrounds it, send out roots, grow, and bear fruit. Only if the seed dies, Jesus says, can it be transformed into its true identity and complete its divine purpose.

This is as true for our lives as it was for Jesus.' He was the first. We are the next.

As individuals, we have been participating in Lenten practices that help us identify and willingly break open the protective coverings we have within us. Then together, as a community of faith, our individual Lenten journeys become one story, each of us prepared by God to take our part in that larger story.

Jesus' story led him to the cross. Ours will too. We must, like Jesus, be willing to die to ourselves if we are to live in him. Jesus' story also led him to the grave, that dark place of emptiness, nothingness, where God continues to create beyond our sight and comprehension. Finally, Jesus' story led to the empty tomb, evidence that, in the big picture, God has been redeeming all along and we emerge the same but different - in a physical and spiritual communion with our Creator God.

This transformation, while it is an amazing gift to us, is not for us. It's for the world. Just as Jesus died and rose again for our sake, we die and rise again (metaphorically) for the sake of the world. The challenge for us is to switch our focus from saving ourselves and others - which has already been done for us by Jesus - to serving the world.

At the end of this Gospel, Jesus and Peter have that famous conversation where Jesus teaches Peter, and all of us, how we are to serve: Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" Peter responds three times, 'You know I love you.' And Jesus tells Peter, "Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep." That is our focus, that is how we are to serve.

When Jesus says things like this, I believe he's speaking metaphorically and literally. Feed those who hunger for friendship, for an encounter with God; but also, feed those who are hungry.

Who are the lambs, the little ones who need feeding in our world? Well, there are those children in Panama so generously served by our mission team this past week. I think of our own children across the US who recently protested their loss of peace in their own schools and ask us to act to make them safe again. I think of the people who live in constant terror that their families will be torn apart by deportation.

I also think of the number of children here in Jackson County who live with food insecurity; little ones whose only full meals may be the free breakfasts and lunches they get at school and who may not eat on the weekends.

A study done in 2015 states that 26% of children in Jackson County live in food insecure homes. Feed my lambs.

Overall, 6,370 people in Jackson County are food insecure. Feed my sheep.

When we tend these lambs and feed these sheep, we must be willing to enter their reality, which is when the painful comes, as Teillhard says. But we don't enter in hopelessness or with judgment or pity. We enter their lives as Jesus entered ours… bearing the love and mercy of God to all who hunger and thirst, being willing to lay down our lives (that is, our comfort, our convenience, yes, even our power) for their sakes.

In order to do that, Jesus says, we must cling to nothing. We cannot put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us. Neither can we prioritize ourselves over any of the other sheep in God's fold.

We must die to life as the world presents it and instead, go deeply into our hearts, "the marrow of our substance," where we will awaken to the eternal life that is already in us - because God is already there.

Please indulge me in another quick word study: Eternal life. Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God. Eternal life isn't something that happens after we die. "Eternal," after all, means having no beginning and no end.

Eternal life also isn't a heavenly reward for good behavior on earth. It's a way of living on earth. It's a way of being in the present moment of our lives - in communion with God.

This is what God was speaking through the prophet Jeremiah: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people… they shall all know me, [that is, intimately join together, become one with me] from the least of them to the greatest."

And that has been our Lenten purpose: to open ourselves to deeper communion with God. In order to do that, we had to choose to walk into the wilderness where the wild beasts of our fear and self-centeredness threaten us, and surrender, as Tiellhard said, into the hands of the great, unknown forces that formed us.

On this last Sunday in Lent, when look at the seed God has planted in us, we awaken to the realization that that seed is God. It's a scary thing when we think about it. Even Jesus admitted that his soul was troubled as he sought to do this.

Then Jesus showed us how to respond when the painful comes: This is why I'm here, Jesus said. I came to do this. Then he surrendered himself into the hands of the great force that formed him saying: "Father" (which translates as "nourisher, protector, upholder") glorify your name.

It's why we're here too. We glorify God by our lives, just as Jesus glorified God by his life.

As we journey through this last week of Lent I pray that we continue to go deeply into our hearts to take that last step we may have been avoiding finally breaking ourselves completely open, allowing God to penetrate to our very marrow.

Let us pray: God of love, we know you bring life out of every form of death. Hold us close in your embrace that your love may comfort us as we admit the painful. Breathe your Spirit into us as we let the next death happen in us. Feed us with yourself, your body and your blood, as we live into the new life you are forming in us. For we love you, we trust you, and we surrender ourselves to full communion with you. Glorify your name, Holy nourisher, protector, and upholder. Glorify it in us, in this time, and in this place, where you have planted us. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

4 Lent B, 2018: Look up and live

Lectionary: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nombre Del Dios: Padre, Hij, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

The 4th Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, also known as Mothering or Refreshment Sunday. In the tradition of Mothering Sunday, we pause to give thanks for our mother church, for Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and for the motherliness of God – hence the pink vestments. (Note: We’ll talk more about this during the Anglo-fact.)

‘Laetare’ means ‘rejoice” and it is a reminder to us that, even as we dig deep within ourselves and confront our growth edges, our weaknesses, and our self-protective barriers, we are always on a trajectory of joy.

Joy, complete joy, is one of Jesus’ goals for us. He says so twice a bit later in John’s gospel: “ I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete…(Jn 15.11); and “Ask and you shall receive, so that your joy may be complete. 16.24)

It is also a tradition on Refreshment Sunday to take a break from our Lenten disciplines after a month of faithfully observing them. We do this to remind ourselves that we aren’t “doing Lent.” God is doing Lent in us by our invitation.

This also helps us to remember that we are sinners saved by grace. We can’t earn our salvation by our own efforts no matter how faithfully we behave. The fact of our salvation has nothing to do with us or what we do; it has everything to do with the grace of an inexplicably loving God.

Today’s story from the book of Numbers makes that abundantly clear. You’ll remember the people were whining at Moses and at God as they wandered in the wilderness: ‘Why have you brought us out here - to die? The food stinks, what little there is of it. And there isn’t enough water either. Wah, wah, wah.’

Then suddenly their camp is full of snakes. Recognizing their own petulance, the people figure God must have sent the snakes as punishment, so they apologize - kind of: ‘We were wrong to whine like we did. Help us, Lord. Take the snakes away please. We’ll be good.’

Real snakes live in the wilderness and if people enter their home and tromp through their nesting areas, they’ll attack. It’s what snakes do.

But this is a story about spiritual snakes, that is, the spiritual issues snakes represent. Spiritual snakes are found in our spiritual wildernesses, the places we willingly enter during Lent, for example.

Snakes, who regularly shed their skins, traditionally represent rebirth and transformation. When snakes shed their skins, it’s to allow for new growth. The old skin won’t be shed, however, until the new skin - the new identity - underneath is complete.

As the people of Israel wandered through the wilderness, their old identity was sloughing off as their new identity was being formed. It was an uncomfortable process and they complained along the way. It’s what children in pain do, isn’t it? They whine at their parent when they are uncomfortable - make this stop! I don’t like it!

God hears their whining and responds - not with anger but with a compassionate solution. God tells Moses to take their fear, in the form of a bronze snake, and mount it to a pole, so that it can be lifted up for the people to see. Whenever the change of identity they are undergoing gets painful or feels too much like death, have them look up at this symbol of God’s promise and they will live.

This spiritual lesson was brought up by Jesus in today’s Gospel from John. It’s actually part of the conversation Jesus was having with Nicodemus about being reborn in the Spirit. You may remember that it was very hard for Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, to understand, so if it’s hard for us too, that’s OK.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (this word also translates as ‘exalted’), that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus took our greatest fear - death - to that cross, and we who look at it and trust in God’s promise, will live.

I need to pause a minute to acknowledge the “football passage” here… John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And I want to ask you a favor: whenever this comes up, whenever you quote Jn 3:16, please add verse 17 to complete Jesus’ thought: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The reason I ask this is because we need to remember that the action here is God’s. The actor is God in Christ - not us. It isn’t about our behavior, but our trust, which is what belief is: a “self-surrendering fellowship and unswerving confidence.” (Source: Greek lexicon)

As Mona Lisa Vito said in “My Cousin Vinny,” “…but wait, there’s more!” Jesus continues this explanation with one of the most mind-blowing phrases in Scripture: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world…”

God’s judgement is to dispel our darkness with the light of life - who is Jesus the Christ. God’s judgement is transforming love.

It is the character and nature of God to respond to our sins, our weakness, our whining with a compassionate solution. Look up at what has been exalted. Look up and live.

What is our typical stance when we pray? When someone says, “Let us pray” what does our body do? We look down and close our eyes.

Watch a child receive communion. They run up, hold their hands up, and look up at the priest with joy and expectation as they take the food of life into their hands. Now compare that with how so many of us were taught to behave at the communion rail. (Note: the preacher demonstrates the posture)

There are times when entering an interior space of private prayer is perfectly appropriate, but as we complete our Lenten journey our Scripture offers us an opportunity to discover something new - a new posture for prayer - look up! Look up and see the face of God loving us.
Look up and live.

Before we leave this phrase, I want to finish it and discuss the meaning of the second half. Jesus said, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Two words need clarifying here: love and evil. The word “love” here translates more accurately as “prefer”… people preferred the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were “evil.”

“Evil” means something that causes sorrow or pain, something that makes it harder, makes someone work harder. Compare that to Jesus’ words: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus is teaching that people preferred the darkness where their deeds could be hidden from others and from themselves. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with the truth about themselves so they avoid it.

In order to avoid the truth about themselves, people would avoid Jesus, who is the light and the truth. That’s why the first half of that sentence is so mind-blowing: THIS is the judgment, not punishment of sins, but forgiveness through the light who has come into the world…

Like the serpent on a stick lifted up by Moses, like the body of Christ lifted up on the cross, God always has and always will provide a compassionate response to our sin. All we need to do is look up and live.

And so , as our psalmist says, we give thanks to the Lord who is good, whose mercy endures forever. We go into the world and proclaim the goodness of God who hears our cries and responds with love even when we are fools, rebellious, and afflicted because of our sins.

This is evangelism: sharing that Good News. So much of what the modern church calls evangelism is anything but that. It’s hate-filled, judgmental, and exclusionary. It isn’t good at all. It’s evil - causing sorrow, pain, and making it harder for people to live as one in the love of God.

The Good News always leads to joy. We may be uncomfortable along the way, but we now know what to do when that happens: look up and live with confidence in the power of God’s love to transform us and any circumstance we face in the world or in our spiritual wilderness.

We are on a trajectory of joy; and the driving force of our trajectory is God’s love. So let us rejoice together on this 4th Sunday in Lent for the love of God in Christ in whom we are continually reborn and transformed.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

3 Lent B, 2018: The path of love

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Note: Having trouble with my usual audio player. Meantime, you can hear the sermon by clicking HERE to listen to an mp3 audio file.

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Here we are at the mid-point of Lent. During this third week in Lent the sacrifices we have chosen to make start to ache a little and the prayer disciplines we have added in may begin to feel like a chore. This is the week we are tempted to relent and just wait it out until Easter.

So, how’s it going for you? Are you loving it? Are you tolerating it? Are you just ready for it to be over?

On this third Sunday in Lent our readings point us to the law and how we are to live in relationship to the law, which was given to us by God to guide us on our journey into spiritual maturity.

The 10 commandments given to Moses are the gateway to a new path, It’s like stepping across the threshold into a labyrinth walk. These “laws” delineate the path set before us. When we stray off the path, we lose our place in the journey. We are not kicked off the path, we just have to step back on, anywhere, and start walking again within the defined path that leads to the place of union with God.

When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers he was demonstrating how far off the path they, the institutional church, had strayed. The average person had to go into the temple precincts and exchange their Roman money for Jewish money – the only form of money accepted by the vendors.

The vendors were selling animals to be sacrificed in the worship service. Most of the pure, that is, unblemished sacrificial animals were too expensive for regular folk, but the religious institution had established that unless worshippers offered a blemish free animal for sacrifice they couldn’t participate in worship and their prayers would go unheard by God.

This institutional exploitation of the poor and their cruel exclusion from communal worship was so far off the path that Jesus fairly exploded at them. His lesson, in all its dramatic fervor, showed us that Christ consciousness takes us beyond obedience to the letter of the law – or the 671 laws that came out of the Ten Commandments - to fulfillment of the law of love which forgives, restores, and reconciles all the world to God.

My guess is, shortly after this moment in Jesus’ story, and no doubt after his crucifixion, the money changes and animal sellers were back to business as usual and the regular folk had to choose between financial hardship (or ruin) and displeasing or being ignored by God.

Things aren’t so different for us today, and even our beloved institution has money changer practices encoded as “canon.” That’s because we haven’t arrived yet. We’re still on the path toward union with God. This is also why our Lenten practices are so important. God isn’t finished with us yet.

If anyone illustrates this point by his life, it’s St. David, our beloved patron saint. In addition to having a reputation for being a gentle man, who was utterly devoted to God, God’s people, and God’s beautiful creation, David was also described as a strict disciplinarian who insisted that his monks work very hard for their own needs but also to supply the needs of others.

It’s said that some of St. David’s monks once tried to poison him to end their relentless, tiring schedule of work and prayer, but their efforts failed. Whether this legend is true or not, I don’t know; but what it tells us (that’s’ what legends do) what it tells us is that spiritual discipline, and living out our baptismal vows is serious business and can feel arduous at times, especially in a world where leisure seems like the treasured reward – and people who don’t work for it seem to have the most of it!

But we have a different goal. Our goal isn’t to live an easy life, or to live a leisurely life. Our goal is to live faithful life. That may look life foolishness to someone who is not on this path of love with us, but we’re in good company.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta and the sisters of the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, spent their lives and all of their resources serving the most despised, wretchedly poor and outcast in India. The sisters successfully dispelled the darkness of those they served, enabling them to die knowing they were treasured by God and by the sisters.

So faithful was their approach that they became an icon to the world of loving service. This tiny woman, and her tiny band of sisters in Christ, worked some powerful love into the world.

Their story illustrates for us that when we let the strength of divinity perfect, that is complete, our humanity, we are transformed and we become instruments of transformation for the world.

Duncan Gray, III, retired bishop of the Diocese of Mississippi, once called his flock to move from change to transformation, saying: "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.

Our Lenten practices are meant to lead us to do things differently so that we can become something new. By them we make room in our hearts and lives for transformation.

As we enter our third week in Lent, I pray we continue to wait through the discomfort of these forty days, offering ourselves - our souls and bodies, our dreams, and our plans – to our loving God. May we persevere in our spiritual disciplines, making room for God to “do Lent” in us.

Note: the congregation is invited to read the Collect of the Day: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Do the little things ('Gwnewch y pethau bychain')

I have truly enjoyed learning about St. David of Wales as we prepare to celebrate his feast day this Sunday. I knew a little bit before, having researched him when I was choosing the name for my first son, David. I liked what I read about St. David and chose him, and the qualities he possessed, as the patron saint for my son. How synchronistic that I find myself serving with a church for whom he is also the patron!

Here’s what I liked about St. David when I chose him as patron saint for my son: according to many sources, St. David was a gentle man who lived a simple, frugal life. Celtic spirituality was in his blood and he was deeply concerned about the care of creation, even keeping bees at some of the monasteries he opened. It is reported that David was a strict disciplinarian who required that the brothers worked hard to grow enough food to feed themselves and the poor in the neighborhoods surrounding them.

I recently read that St. David’s last words were offered in a sermon he preached days before he died. He concluded that sermon with this advice to his followers: “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about…”

“Do the little things.” This brings two other saints immediately to mind who also preached this message: St. Thérèse de Liseaux, a.k.a. Thérèse of the Little Flower, who said, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love” and Mother Teresa of Calcutta who said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

I can see St. David’s influence and support in the life of our church. Saint David’s in the Valley, Cullowhee, manifests a real concern for creation in the big things, e.g., how the new parish hall was built, and in the small things, like having bins for recycling and ceramic cups for wine and juice instead of paper or plastic. St. David’s, Cullowhee also bravely sticks to its faith and creed – ahead of the curve, I might add, in its intentional inclusivity of all people and its strong commitment to inclusive language in worship.

In my Parish Tour conversations I continually hear about small acts of kindness being done as part of the fabric of life here, with great love and without complaint or need for accolade. As one parishioner said, ”The relationships here are reliable. These people are here for me if I need them.” Imagine if every church lived that simple truth!

This is such a strong foundation to stand upon on as we respond to the love of God who invites us into a new season, a season which will include connecting the great love here at St. David’s to the neighbors surrounding us. As we go forward, we will remember the support we have among the communion of saints and be joyful, remember our faith and creed, missing no opportunity to do the little things we are called to do with great love.

'Gwnewch y pethau bychain.' See y’all Sunday for our patronal feast celebration!

By the forgiveness of our sins

As Episcopalians we live deeply into the mystery of God who is Trinity in Unity. Our faith allows us to rest in the truth of it, even though we can’t think our way into understanding it.

This is also one of the two dogmas of our denomination: that God is Trinity in Unity. The other dogma is that Jesus, who is the Christ, is the second person of that Trinity in Unity, is the savior of the world. Everything else, as we often say, is up for discussion.

We believe that Jesus Christ, reconciled us back to God by the forgiveness of our sins. We acknowledge “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” each Sunday when we pray the Nicene Creed together (BCP, 358). After praying a corporate confession the priest prays a blessing of absolution over us “for the forgiveness of our sins.” (BCP, 361) We hear, say, and pray about forgiveness of sins so often - but what do we make of this statement?

So many people hear this as referring to our behavior. We did/do a bad thing and God forgives it. The truth is, it’s so much more than that.

Think about the creation story in Genesis. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (1:31) All that God creates, including us, is good. That’s where we begin. The Garden of Eden is an illustration of what perfect harmony and communion with God looks like. Enter humans, with our gifts of intellect, visioning, and community as embodied in Adam (Hebrew for “human”) and Eve (Hebrew for “first”), and also our weaknesses of hubris, short-sightedness, and self-centeredness.

The story of the fall of Adam and Eve from grace into sin illustrates why our salvation is about forgiveness of our sins. Sin disrupts the perfect harmony and communion created from the beginning – the “dream of God” as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls it. By the way, ++Michael is using a term coined by Verna Dozier who wrote a book by that title.

In his book, The Shaking of the Foundations, theologian Paul Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, right relationship with God, one another, and creation.

When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love, even though we are thoroughly unworthy of that love. Suddenly, “a light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted…accepted by that which is greater than you…’ After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe better than before, but everything is transformed.” Repentance, therefore, opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, reconciled. Repentance empowers us through the grace of God’s acceptance."

Jesus speaks plainly to us about this when he says, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish” (Lk 13:3) and he goes on to explain what he means in the parable of the fig tree. In this parable, the lord of the vineyard sees a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit, judges it as useless, and cuts it down. In Jesus’ re-telling of this popular near-Eastern story, however, the owner of the garden shows mercy, giving the tree one more chance. In order to live the tree and the tree’s community (the gardener) must change how they’re doing things… which is the point in this parable: repent, change how you and your community are living together, or you will die… not because God will punish you, but because the way you are living is not life-giving… it leads to death.

Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can always choose to repent, to change the way we’re doing things. We can choose to live.