Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Sunday, 24-B: The joy of seeing

Lectionary: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18 

En el nombre de Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (The Lord is risen, indeed!)

Isn’t it wonderful to have our Alleluias back? I loved it last Sunday when one leaked out of us a little early at our Eucharist.

It’s OK – in fact, it’s wonderful that an Alleluia is always right at the rim of our cup ready to spill out! 

We know that the Easter story begins in sorrow. Our walk through Holy Week has reminded us of this in body and spirit.

John’s gospel also begins the Easter story there – in sorrow. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, but the gospel writer doesn’t say why. She sees that the huge rock covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away and runs to fetch Peter and John ( presumably the writer of this gospel). By the excitement in her words, we hear Mary’s fear that someone may have stolen his body. They’ve lost him again.

John is the only gospel writer to ensure the presence of two men at the empty tomb in the Easter story. Men would be qualified as legal witnesses of the empty tomb. Mary’s proclamation would be easily dismissed as she was just a woman and therefore had no standing as a witness. John further affirms the cultural hierarchy by having Peter, who outranks John, go in to the tomb first.

John says the two men saw the wrappings that had been on Jesus’ body were now sitting on the floor. The wrapping that had been on his head was rolled up into a bundle in a place by itself. Why these details? Perhaps they were meant to prove that Jesus’ body had not been stolen. As one of our Bible-studiers said, “Who takes the time to unwrap a dead body you plan to steal?” Good point.

Seeing the empty tomb, John believed. He wasn’t just seeing with his eyes. He was perceiving in his heart and soul though he admits they didn’t understand it yet. There’s often a delay between knowledge in the spirit and understanding in the mind. So… the two men went home. We all have to process grief in our own way.

“How do we make sense of this?” one of our Bible studiers asked. As a priest, I celebrate whenever we get to this state of mind, because that’s then we can “see” God. 

When we surrender to the realization that we can’t make sense of the Triune God, of Jesus, and his resurrection from the dead, we have entered a rare and amazing experience of the divine mystery. Our minds will never be able to understand it, but we all can enter that experience and know God in a deep, intimate, unity of our spirits.

Unlike the two men, Mary went back to the empty tomb and wept, allowing herself to grieve, to experience the sadness and devastating emptiness Jesus’ death had left in her. She did this at great risk to herself. Being found a follower of Jesus could have led to her own death.

Imagine the courage it took for Mary to take so many risks. Going to the tomb in the first place, then traveling back to fetch the men - who were hiding away in fear. Then leading them to the empty tomb. Then, staying there alone after they left, openly weeping for Jesus.

But from the darkness of that devastating emptiness heaven kindled a great light. Through two spirit-messengers heaven asks Mary why she is weeping. She answers them unaware they are angels from heaven, but fully aware that her answer could get her executed. We can almost hear the echoes of Jesus’ teaching: for those who lose their lives for my sake will save it. (Mt 16:25)

Sure enough, Jesus himself appears to Mary, though she doesn’t recognize him until he says her name… echoes of Jesus' teaching: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. (Jn 10)

Upon hearing Jesus say her name, Mary knew… It wasn’t just what she was seeing with her eyes, but what she knew deep in her heart and soul. It was the unity of her spirit to Jesus. Mary Magdalene knew Jesus, loved him, and ran up to embrace him – a huge no-no in that culture.

Don’t hold on to me Jesus says, which sounds strange at first. Stranger still is that the Greek translates this as: do not connect one thing to another, do not kindle this fire because I have not yet ascended…

It’s less strange when we consider the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Scripture tells us that their relationship began when Jesus healed Mary from seven demons. Remembering that numbers in Scripture are symbolic, the number seven represents natural and divine completeness, perfection. Jesus made Mary spiritually perfect.

That was the start of their relationship. Now it comes full circle.

When Mary recognizes the resurrected Jesus, she “sees” him, with that deep, intimate seeing in unity of spirit, and she begins to connect the dots, and Jesus tells her to wait. Don’t connect those dots just yet. First, go tell your siblings in Christ, as our bishop so accurately says, that I am ascending to my Father (which, btw, is plural here and literally means father and mother). There is more to come. Be patient, trust me, and do as I say.

The gospel story for today ends there, but we know that what is to come is beyond anyone’s imagining. Jesus has transformed death into resurrected life in him through his unbound, selfless love for us. Jesus’ love for us broke the final barrier of fear for us: death, and he broke it wide open. Standing in this new doorway of his making, the doorway to resurrection life in him, Jesus invites us to come to him. Then he sends us into the world to love one another as he loves us.

Love. It all comes down to that. God’s irrational, unfathomable love for us. Jesus’ patient, healing, and sacrificial love for us. The Spirit’s steadfast and ever-present love for us. It all comes down to love: the eternal love of God who dwells in us and we in Them.

Wherever we are on our own spiritual journeys into “seeing” Jesus as perfectly as Mary did, now is our time to love as Jesus loved us: with patient, healing, sacrificial love. Love that often seems irrational to the world’s eyes, especially when it butts up against self-serving power or revenge. Love that is steadfast even when attacked or rejected.

In her poem, “Messenger”, Mary Oliver says, “My work is loving the world… Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work… which is mostly rejoicing… telling them over and over, how it is that we live forever.” 

 Joyful Easter, everyone! May we remember the lavish love of God we have and have to give, and may we give it to others as lavishly as God has given it to us. Alleluia!

Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Great Vigil of Easter, 24-B: A revolution of love

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-3, 4a [The story of creation]; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God's people]; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

En el nombre de Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

I love the Great Vigil because I love the long, intentional walk through the story of our liberation and redemption. From Genesis to Matthew, we hear the unifying message of God’s liberating and redeeming love for us.

In Genesis 1, God spoke creation into being, bringing order and peace to the chaos waters and divine purpose to all that is created. Speaking uses breath, so it is literally by the breath of God that we are created and blessed and proclaimed not just good, but very good.

In Exodus 14, we have gotten ourselves lost and tossed back into chaos by evil – which is anything that divides us, overburdens or exploits the vulnerable, deceives or harms someone, and creates sadness, hopelessness, and despair. In this story, some among the created have formulated a lie that benefits them alone, infusing them with a false sense of privilege and enabling them to hoard gifts meant for them all. This evil purports that some are not worthy, a lie that completely ignores God’s pronouncement in Genesis that we are, indeed, very good.

The shock of this betrayal creates a rupture in our relationships with one another. It weighs us down and weakens us, starving us of the resources and dignity given to us by God. We cry out and God hears us, lifting us into Their presence where we find comfort and the strength to keep going.

In Isaiah 55, God acknowledges through the prophet that evil has a foothold among us on earth. It’s just too tempting to put ourselves first, and God and neighbor last. The lie that some have power and privilege over others persists, so God clarifies, reminding us that everything that exists is God’s to give, including mercy and reconciliation, and God gives freely to all, including those who have gotten lost in the lies.

The truth is that God is a mystery beyond our knowing, and every creative word carried on the breath of God will accomplish God’s purpose for it because God is always faithful to Their promises. Our only response can be to give thanks and trust.

Zephaniah affirms that God always keeps Their promises, so we can rejoice knowing that God can and will deal with the liars who dishonor and diminish us, and God is always redeeming, restoring us to abundance in Their love.

Our response to God’s covenant with us, is our covenant with God: Our Baptismal Covenant, in which we affirm our commitment to live with one another according to God’s plan of love. We promise to resist the evil that lies to us and hoards God’s gifts. We promise to proclaim by everything we say and do that God loves all God has created. And we promise to serve God by making every effort we can to bring about justice and peace while upholding and honoring the dignity of every human being.

When we fail to resist evil (which we will), or when we join with it for our own benefit, we promise to repent, to turn around and go in a new direction, to return to God, who will forgive us, dust us off, and send us back out to keep on serving.

God has made clear that everyone is within reach of Their saving grace. We have no right to act as if anyone or any group is outside of that reach. Equality is the way of God.

The systems of the world would disagree. They thrive on inequality. They use it to justify their hoarding – I deserve this, I earned it. You don’t deserve it, so even if you did earn it, you can’t have it. The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK in 1921 comes to mind along with the continued presence of racially restrictive covenants in the deeds of many homes here in St. Louis. This is an injustice we here at Emmanuel have been working to correct for the last two years.

In short, our Baptismal Covenant calls us to a revolution of love, that is, a transformation, a reformation of the inequalities of the world and restoration of the equality bestowed upon us by God. The beautiful thing about this revolution, the revolution of love inaugurated by Jesus’s resurrection, is that it is carried on the breath of God.

The revolution of love is not like revolutions of the world which sound like bombs and lies and threats. Neither is it guilt or morality-driven coercion like so many of the so-called Christian churches practice today. This revolution, the revolution of love, is one of a quiet, steady turning of the way of the world toward the way of God.

I was talking to a priest-friend last week about Tracy Chapman, the talented musician who made a big splash at the Oscars singing her 1988 hit song, “Fast Car”, with country music singer Luke Combs. Watching them, for me, was a dazzling moment of equality-making, a whispered revolution. There was a queer black woman singing her mega-hit with a straight white man on a stage viewed by millions. 

This priest-friend told me that Tracy Chapman’s song, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”, which she wrote at age 16, was inspired by her experience at her Episcopal High School. So, I looked that up. You can find just about anything on YouTube. (It's linked HERE and is found at 4.06)

So here’s the story: raised in Cleveland, OH, Tracy was awarded a scholarship to an Episcopal boarding school in Danbury, CT as part of a program called, “A Better Chance.” She said the people at the school “didn’t have a sense of where the scholarship students like [her] came from”; neither did they “have much interest.” She said they thought “that people who didn’t have money or were working class, their lives weren’t significant and they somehow couldn’t make a change.” This made her mad, she said, and inspired the song.

If you’ve never heard “Talkin’ About a Revolution” it starts with these words: “Don’t you know they’re talking about a revolution? It sounds like a whisper…”

Listening to this song 35 years after I first heard it gave me the chills. I understand this whisper so differently now. However she meant it, I heard it as the breath of God speaking creatively still, setting us on the path of justice, dignity and equality for all.

This path doesn’t destroy those who chose the lie or who fell into it by habit of the generations before them. It transforms them through repentance, by turning around and returning to God.  It’s a revolution, a turning.

This is described so beautifully in our gospel from Matthew, where Mary Magdalene and the other Mary , who represent lives the world would find insignificant, go to Jesus’ tomb. The earth shakes as the spirit-messenger from heaven comes among them. The guards, who represent protectors of the earthly status quo, shake too, and become like dead men.

This brought to my mind a rescue dog we once had, Deni, who decided at 6 months old that she was going to live outside. Try as we might, we couldn’t get her to come inside, even on the coldest, snowiest nights in Michigan. Deni was a sweet dog. She loved us and all of our indoor cats and dogs, one of whom, Ollie, was a real brat. Ollie didn’t mind being aggressive to get his way. Deni tolerated Ollie - until she didn’t. Then she’d simply smack him down with her paw. She never bit him or hurt him. She just stopped him, and he didn’t move – like he was dead.

That’s how I see these guards. God smacked them down and they didn’t move - like they were dead.

Then the angel tells the women not to be afraid, affirms that Jesus is not in the tomb because he is risen, and sends them to go tell the rest of Jesus’ disciples. He will go ahead of you, the angel says, and you will see him there. And they do! But this isn’t just seeing Jesus with their eyes. It’s perceiving him in their hearts and souls. It’s knowing him intimately, deeply, in unity of spirit.

Then Jesus sends them on again to tell the men who were hiding in fear that they too will “see” him. And we know they do! We know this because we have their testimony in the Scripture stories we will read in the coming weeks.

As Bishop Deon said in his Easter Message: the disciples came to the tomb “expecting death, but they found that resurrection was the word that got whispered into our world.” A revolution of love that sounds like a whisper.

We will see Jesus too. We will perceive him in our hearts and souls. We will know him intimately, deeply, in unity of Spirit because that is the gift he gave us at Easter.

On this most holy day, we celebrate that Jesus has transformed death into new life – resurrection life in him. As Jesus sent Mary and Mary then, Jesus sends us now to tell everyone that they too can “see” Jesus because they matter. We all matter. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

Good Friday, 2024-B: Wait and trust

Lectionary: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

I admit it - these are hard Scriptures to read. A few years ago, when the pandemic suddenly shut our churches down, we had to scramble to get our Holy Week services pre-recorded so our congregations could experience the Holy Week journey to Easter.

I had just begun serving as the Interim Rector at Calvary Church in Columbia, and we hadn’t figured out the technology yet, so we kept having to start over. Dcn Janet ended up reading the Good Friday passion gospel three times before the recording was successful. Each time she read it, I could see her drooping a little bit more. As we started that third attempt, Dcn Janet said to me, “I hope we get it this time. I’m not sure I can read it again.”

These are hard Scriptures to read.

Pilate said to the gathered crowd: 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. 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 we journey together through Holy Week we are standing in the vortex of two realities of time: chronos time, measured by clocks and calendars, and chairos time, sometimes called “deep time.” This is time outside of time, the time appointed by God for God’s purpose. As the world happens all around us, our Holy Week includes this “deep time” not only for us, but also for all who came before us, and all who will come after us.

We walk together slowly and liturgically through the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday aware of our tendency to want to run quickly through the hard parts and head straight for the relief and joy that Easter brings.

But instead, we choose to allow ourselves to be shocked and saddened by the unjust and horrible execution of the Innocent Lamb of God. We join ourselves to the throng whom Isaiah said “were astonished at him so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance” and we let that break our hearts again.

At our Christian Formation last Sunday led by Mandi, I was reminded of an experience I had while doing some mission work in Romania. I visited a monastery in Suceaviţa, where I saw an ancient tapestry of Jesus' crucifixion. Above his body were four angels who were crying and covering their faces which were contorted in grief and absolute horror. (Photo: close-up portion of the Passion Crucifixion by Giotto, Scrovengi Chapel, Padua)

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 our execution of the Messiah.

These are hard Scriptures to read.

God knows how hard it is for us to wait in the discomfort of our shock and sadness and frustration over injustice. It's normal to want to escape from it, to turn it all off and stop listening. But we also know where this story is ultimately going, so we know that we must learn to wait through this difficult moment and trust the promises of our faith.

Some of you have heard me tell this story before, so please indulge me the repeat. (It probably won’t be the last time I tell it either!) 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. It was the darkest of nights for me spiritually. I was ready to run away from God, from the Church, from everything.

My rector, Fr. Stan White (may he rest in peace), 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."

On this Good Friday, I commend Fr. Stan's advice to you: be willing to wait in the discomfort. Trust, for God has already acted to redeem, all things, always.

This is what Jesus demonstrates for us from the cross. As he was dying, Jesus quoted from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

As a rabbi, Jesus was employing a common rabbinical technique, saying the first verse of the Psalm he wanted his followers to remember in its fullness. Even as his body was dying, Jesus was connecting his followers to the promises of their faith: the liberating love of God who knows their suffering and is already acting to redeem.

I offer to you tonight this meditation I wrote some years ago on Psalm 22, reflecting on my own experience oƒ misery: 

Where are you, God? I feel so alone. Why have you abandoned me? Do you even hear me? 

My ancestors have trusted you for generations. Scripture tells me of your redeeming love for others. Where are you, God, for me?

It’s me, isn’t it? I’m not worthy. They scorn me, despise me, laugh at me, and lie about me. They obviously know that I’m not worthy of love, of friendship, of justice.

But then again, God, you brought me to this life, and you’ve kept me safe upon your breast so far. Stay close to me, God! I’m so afraid.

They’re like snarling beasts coming to tear me apart. They’re drooling for my destruction.

I’m twisted; melting into a puddle of nothingness. I’ve cried so much by now that I’m all dried up. I’m dying and I feel like you’ve left me alone at my dusty grave.

But I’m innocent! They’re the evil ones and they surround me like packs of dogs. They taunt me and gamble my value away like it’s some game. They torture me and it’s working; I’m fading into nothing.

Where are you, God?! Come and help me, please! Save me. Save my tired, wretched body. Save my weary soul.

Do I matter at all to you? … because you matter to me. You are the only strength I have left; the only hope there is for me.

I can’t help but praise you even now, God, because I know you. So, I praise you in the presence of your people gathered for worship.

Praise God, all you people, I call out! Because God does not hate or despise anyone, and God hears our cries. We will be satisfied, justified, and we will live in eternal love because God is servant of ALL.

Everyone, everywhere, and for all time will hear these words and know that God is God - and I choose to serve Her.

Hear me when I say it is to God alone the whole earth bows in worship, remembering and respecting our Creator who formed us in the power of Her love.

I know this absolutely, and my children and their children will know it too, because I will make this known to them and they will make it known to our lineage yet unborn. 

That is my purpose. That is my promise.

On this Good Friday we, as a congregation and as individual members of it, step willingly and fully into this chairos moment trusting that God is present with us through whatever forms of death we may be facing right now and is already leading us into new life, transformed life, eternal life in Christ our Savior.

That is God’s promise. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Lent 5-B, 2024: Intimate communion with God

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

En el nombre de Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Our Collect today is a great comfort to me. The world around us often seems unruly and I don’t think I’m alone in wondering, at times, if anyone can bring order to our chaos.

Then I remember that God can – and God will – over and over again, as often as we need it because God is with us. That’s the promise: God is with us. Emmanuel. God is present with us in the midst of the swift and varied changes that happen in our world.

In today’s gospel, the Roman occupiers are a continual threat to everyone: believers (the Jews) and unbelievers (the Gentiles) alike. Seeking the presence of God, which they witness among their Jewish friends, the Gentiles make a profound request. Our Scripture says they want “to see” Jesus, but the word means “to know, to understand.” We want to know Jesus, they declare.

How do we come to know Jesus? We’ve had some lively discussions about this in our recently concluded Episcopal 101 class called, “Be An Episcopalian About It.” Most of us have come from other traditions to the Episcopal Church and found here something real, a church that encourages us to seek to know Jesus beginning right where we are and proceeding in prayerful freedom, with companionship; a church where encountering God truly happens. That must have been similar to what the Gentiles experienced: a people among whom they could encounter the grace of God.

When Philip and Andrew told Jesus that some unbelievers wanted to know him, Jesus recognized this as the inauguration of his hour, literally, the time of his blossoming. He explained this to his listeners by likening himself to a seed. This seed must die now, Jesus says, otherwise, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit.

Jesus is the seed. We are the fruit.

As this beautiful season of Lent comes to a close, I offer you this prayer from Pierre Teilhard 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."

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

Jesus' life 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. In order to do that, Jesus says, we must cling to nothing earthly. We cannot put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us.

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

I want to clarify: eternal life isn't something that happens after we die. "Eternal," after all, means having no beginning and no end. Neither is it a heavenly prize for good earthly behavior. Eternal life is living our lives in communion with God - in this life and the next. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “… they will ALL know me intimately, from the least of them to the greatest...”

Even in this intimate communion with God, we may find our souls troubled as Jesus did, but once again, he shows us how to go when that happens. We trust God’s presence despite our troubled souls and set out on the path God has set before us. We may not all hear a voice like thunder affirming us, but our faith assures us that God is truly present with us.

The next part of this gospel is the most exciting, amazing part to me – and most of the time we skip right over it. Jesus declares that NOW is the judgment of this world. Despite what we so often hear taught in the modern church, judgment isn’t something that happens at the end of anything – our lives or the world. It has already happened. Jesus says so right here.

Remembering that judgment is literally the separation of things, and that we are given free will to choose, we continually choose whether or not to align ourselves and our lives with God in Christ or with the world. The choice is always ours to make.

What happens next isn’t a blessing or curse from God, but the consequences of our own choice. Do we choose to desire the ways and rewards of the world or the ways and rewards of God? As we prayed in our Collect, “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise.”

And what does God command? That we love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

When we choose to live in intimate communion with God, we find true joy. Bp. Deon Johnson wrote a prayer this week that I want to share with you now because it describes true joy so beautifully: 

As Jesus said, judgment has already begun and it continues every time we make our choice. In this gospel story, when Jesus proclaims his purpose and destiny, he offers us hope. Now, he says, the world’s way of power and authority will be rejected, defeated, cast out. In its place will be the salvation of God: and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself. All people.

John says this was indicating the kind of death Jesus would die, and it was, but it was so much more than that! If death is the gateway to new life, then this statement is Jesus’ promise that he is establishing the path of salvation, and it will be perfected, that is, accomplished by his own imminent death and resurrection from the dead. This would have been nearly impossible for Jesus’ disciples and followers to comprehend until the events he is speaking about took place, but we have the advantage of knowing how it all played out.

We know that Jesus' life story also led him to the grave, that dark place of emptiness, nothingness, where God continues to create beyond our sight and comprehension. We know that his life story led to the empty tomb, evidence that, in the big picture, God has been redeeming all along and we emerge from every form of death the same but different.

Our Lenten purpose has been to open ourselves to deeper communion with God; to allow God unhindered access to the very marrow of our substance; to be willing to die to something that hinders us so that God can grow new life in us.

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 again in us, Holy One, our nourisher, protector, and upholder. Amen.