Monday, May 22, 2023

A Lesson in Delayed Gratification: Between the Ascension & Pentecost

'When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.'

--Acts 1: 6-14

At the intersection of 10th Avenue and 20th Street in New York City is the Church of the Guardian Angel. All along the edge of the roof are friezes narrating various scenes in the Bible.  When you reach the end of the Gospels you see the faces of the apostles looking upward, and then all you see at the top are a pair of feet dangling there.  It’s totally adorable! 

An icon of the Ascension, not unlike the frieze at Guardian Angel Church

In our reading for this week we hear the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which is a slightly different retelling of the end of the Gospel of Luke – the two texts being written by the same author. The moment depicted in this reading, and in that frieze on the edge of the roof of Guardian Angel Church, is the Ascension, the moment when Jesus left this earthly plain and returned to the presence of God, which as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, he was in before the world even existed (John 17: 5). The Feast of the Ascension always falls on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday. We often mark it at our Wednesday Healing Eucharist, as we did this week, but the Church also includes the story from Acts on the final Sunday of Eastertide so that those of us unable to make midweek worship services could still commemorate the solemnity of the feast.

This is a bit of a weird time if we think about it liturgically and theologically. The Ascension has happened but Pentecost hasn’t yet. We’re in a liminal time. The in-between time. Jesus’ earthly ministry has ended, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet moved the apostles to proclaim the Good News themselves because, frankly, they’re not ready to receive yet. We know that they will; after all, we wouldn’t be showing up to our churches on Sundays, nor would I be doing this blog, if the Holy Spirit hadn’t shown up on that day of Pentecost, but the wonderful thing about being a church rooted in liturgical tradition and the various seasons and observances of the ecclesiastical year, is that, despite knowing what’s coming next week, we are invited and encouraged to just sit with where we are now. Think back to Holy Week, to the invitation from each of the days of the Paschal Triduum to just sit and be present in the moment. Sure, we knew the Resurrection was coming, but to just be present and feel the feels of each day and value them for what they were – washing feet and stripping the altar, praying at the foot of the cross, sitting in the darkness moments before Easter’s dawn – that was some powerful stuff because those moments helped us remember that where we are now still holds as much value as where we will be. The truth is that we too often have our minds fixed on what is on the horizon, rather than the present moment. And this week is no different. During this liminal period – between the Ascension and Pentecost – what would it mean for us to ponder the apostles’ thoughts and feelings? And our own?

Picture the scene: the eleven standing with Jesus as he’s talking on the Mount of Olives, and then suddenly there he goes. And they’re just…standing there. Mouths gaped open. What now?! It takes two men in white – they always wear white, don’t they? – to tell them to stop standing there, watching Jesus’ feet go into the clouds, and go back into the city. Go back into the messiness, the political and religious volatility from which they’d hoped Jesus would save them. Can you imagine what that walk back into the city and that little apartment must’ve been like? “What was THAT?!” “Who were THEY?!” “So….is that it?!” “Anybody write that down?!” “What did he say again?!” A lot of confusion. A lot of fear. A lot of uncertainty about what was to come.  Who could blame them for just wanting to stay on that mount, staring up into heaven? C’mon, Jesus! Come on back. The world is scary and cruel. We can’t do it alone. 

The world isn’t THAT much different now from then. I see church signs and billboards crying out for Jesus to come back. Yet while this sentiment is understandable, it’s entirely spiritually immature. Jesus’ leaving was the necessary preliminary for all future progress in humanity’s spiritual life, so that – the apostles first, and then the rest of us – would stop holding on to Jesus’ physical, external presence, and find his presence and strength inside themselves. His Ascension, then, was the blessing that allowed them to receive the Spirit, painful though the separation might have been. 

And while we know that the Holy Spirit will come next Sunday – and with her the “Acts of the Apostles” can truly begin – this in-between time of waiting must have been hard. So, in it we actually have a divine lesson in delayed gratification. It’s one of the first lessons we learn as children – you can’t always get what you want when you want it. Do you remember what that was like? If not, do you remember watching your kids when they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it? I barely remember the time my grandparents took me to Disney World when I was five, but I’m told that I was asking if we were there yet before we were out of their hometown of Bristol, let alone the state of Virginia. They say patience is a virtue, but it has never been mine! Yet that is the gift God gave the apostles before the greater gift of the Spirit’s coming amongst them: the patience to wait, to listen, to feel the discomfort of the liminal time, and to just be, wherever they were, wherever we are. It is so very often in these moments God is most stirring, even if we don’t notice. 

The world is often in a hurry and wants everyone to be in a hurry. We do it with deadlines that are set for us or tasks that demand our efforts. We do it with the Jesus, too. Hurry up and get here already and fix this! But like the apostles, we are called to stop looking up into heaven, to return to our places of liminality, the places of stillness and quiet, and to wait patiently for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. 

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Comforter

'Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know him, because she abides with you, and she will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”'

--John 14: 15-21

A couple of years ago, not long after my cancer diagnosis, my dear Aunt Meredith sent us in the mail a down comforter. But this was no ordinary down comforter, no, this was the comforter that belonged to my grandmother, my Mimi. I remembered this comforter as the one my sister enveloped herself in when she came down with chicken pox, and the fluffiest, most comfortable blanket there ever could be. It has provided warmth and contentment to so many in our family, including my Mimi in her final days, and Aunt Mere thought we should have it, that we might be comforted by it, too. And we were, and then some! We took to calling it the Poof, and boy howdy, did it make a difference. There were magical healing powers in that comforter, Kristen said. Somehow, whoever was wrapped in it – me, Kristen, Casey even – felt better, more secure. We felt held, by the love of our ancestors, and by God. The Poof is the platonic ideal of “comforter.”

My Mimi's Poof, providing comfort to Casey and me during my cancer and transplant recovery.

Alright, well, down comforter, anyway. Jesus promises his apostles in our reading from the 14th chapter of John this week, that once he has gone away, God will provide for them a comforter. Not a blanket, obviously, but one who will give healing, security, maybe even a fluffy, poof-like feeling to those who receive. The word Jesus uses is Parachlete, which our New Revised Standard Version translates as Advocate. But this is a word that doesn’t really have a direct English counterpart, so various translations over time have called it something different: the New International Version says Counselor; the Common English Bible says Helper; the Message says Friend; and the tried and true King James Version translates Parahclete as Comforter. Many of you may be more familiar with that word, especially if you attended an Episcopal church prior to 1976 and did Morning Prayer most Sundays and said or sang the Te Deum. You may remember the line in that ancient prayer about “the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.” This is the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of the Living God, the Spirit of Love. The Third Person of the Trinity. Whatever word we use.

This is the promise Jesus makes to his apostles in the hours before his death, that even after he is gone they will not be left orphaned. In those days disciples of a rabbi or any other teacher were often called orphans whenever their teacher died, since they were left without any guidance or tutelage. Jesus promises that this will not be the case for those who follow him. The Parachlete – the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit – will come and lead them and guide them and show them how to love as Jesus has loved, how to boldly proclaim God’s goodness and mercy to a broken and hurting world the way Jesus did, how to have hope when all hope seems lost. 

The Parachlete will, indeed come on the Day of Pentecost, and set those same apostles’ hearts on fire to go into the world, to push through their fear. How can they do this? Because of love. Because, as Jesus says, not only will those who love him keep his commandments, but he will love them too. He will keep loving them, even after he’s gone, through the Parachlete, who will comfort them and advocate for them and be the voice of God speaking to and through them. This is how the world will know Jesus is still alive. This is how we still know Jesus is alive, through the power of love that is poured out in the actions of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. 

The world doesn't know Jesus through proselytizing. Those who have no use for the Bible will not know Jesus through quotes from Scripture because, what’s the point? Saint Paul understood this, as is illustrated from this week's reading from the Acts of the Apostles in which we see what happened when the Spirit led him to preach to the people of Athens:

'Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”'

--Acts 17: 22-31

Paul doesn't try to convince the Athenians that they’ve been wrong all this time and that he has all the answers. He doesn’t quote the Scriptures to prove his point because they don’t care.  He doesn’t take an anti-intellectual stance and decry philosophy as the devil’s favorite subject. He acknowledges right out of the gate that they are a religious people; in fact, religion was so much a part of Greek daily life that it was something they took for granted.  He relates to them and commends them for their sense of devotion. Greeks were deeply religious, but not exactly spiritual. The gods didn’t really care about humanity, so why care about them? Still, they have an altar even to a so-called “unknown god.” What they call unknown, Paul says, has actually been made known. Such a god loves all created things – Paul even quotes the poet Aratus of Soli who coined the phrase “we are all his children” in his work entitled Phenomena. This is the one whom Paul proclaims, without ever even using Jesus’ name. He’s not concerned with winning an argument but by simply letting people know the truth that he knows, which is that we are all united one to another in this God, through the Parachlete, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of the Living God that fell afresh on the world and became, what Paul Tillich called, the Ground of All Being.

This is the scandal of the Parachlete’s presence in the world because she cuts through the jargon of the dominant doctrines and disciples of the day, both civil and theological. She calls to us to get out of the world’s way of thinking – which is usually binary and absolute – and into God’s way of thinking – which is ever-moving like the wind and grounded in love. Even among Christians it is hard sometimes to pay attention to what the Parachlete is doing. How can the Spirit help fix the problem of attendance not being what it once was or figuring out where money is gonna come from for roof repair? And what about the people on the other side of the street, preaching something different from us, what would the Spirit REALLY have us do about them because we gotta respond and do SOMETHING, right? Does the Spirit want us to be more spiritual or more religious?  Thinkers or doers? Does any of this sound like it comes from a place of love? Do any of these attitudes meet people where they are and open us up to receive and listen to the Spirit?  Maybe the next time we are faced with those fears we can pause and invoke the Parachlete and acknowledge that presence, that Spirit of God; after all, there’s nowhere we can hide from her. When we acknowledge that her we are less reactive, less defensive, and more mindful, more kind. Our Eucharistic Prayer D calls the Holy Spirit “Christ’s own first gift for those who believe.” We dare not squander such a gift.

Is it an Advocate that you need right now? A Counselor? A Helper? A Friend? A Comforter? The Parachelete, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, is all of these and so much more. She is the presence of God that reminds us that we are not alone. She is the voice of God that encourages us to move forward when we think we can’t. She gives us hope when the world seems hopeless. She is the ground on which we stand when we dare to love and the wind that blows and tickles our ear when we dare to be curious. She doesn’t have magical powers, like my Mimi’s Poof. But her presence with us is evidence alone that we are all God’s children, as Aratus said first and Paul echoed. Because she is in the world, we are invited to ask each day, each moment, what is the Spirit up to? How am I, how are we, being called to love more deeply, to see the living Christ more clearly? Parachelete of the living God, fall afresh on us. 

Monday, May 8, 2023

An Honest Misunderstanding

'Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”'

--John 14: 1-14

Twelfth century mosaic of the apostles Thomas (left) and Phillip.

A long time ago I heard someone describe prayer as a time when we can be totally honest with God. That made sense to me. So I’d find myself throughout the day just talking out loud to God, being honest with whatever was going on in my life. “To be honest, God, I really want this job… …To be To be honest, God, I really need to pass this test honest, God, I can’t understand why you let me get into this mess.” All that seemed fine, so long as God didn’t talk back. Because whenever I applied that kind of total honesty to actual interactions with other people…it didn’t go well. “I’m just being honest,” wasn’t a viable excuse for times when my bluntness came off as arrogance or frustration.

How often have you had that happen to you? When have you come at someone with a genuine, honest desire, only for it to be rebuked, or at the very least not heard the way that you wanted? 

This is why I can relate to the apostles, and especially this week to Thomas and Phillip. These two speak to Jesus from a place of total honesty. We find Jesus today giving his last great teaching to the apostles, what we call the Farewell Discourse. He has just washed their feet, Judas has left the group abruptly, and Jesus is just a couple hours away from being arrested in Gethsemane. He’s trying to impart one final lesson to this group, and while he’s in the middle of making his point, Thomas and Phillip let their frustrations show. 

Paraphrasing here: "You say we know the way, Jesus, but we don’t. We have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. You talk about seeing the Father, well, if we have met the one you call Father, then tell us where and when? We don’t know what you’re talking about!" Hey, they’re just being honest. 

Let me ask y’all something. If someone hit you up with that kind of blunt honesty, how do you think you’d react? Parents, what if your kids did that – or maybe they have! Teachers, what if a student blurted out in frustration that they didn’t know what you were talking about? How do you think you’d respond if you were in that influential, authoritative position? Maybe you would respond with a lot of patience and reassurance. Or maybe not! Maybe you’d hit those frustrations with some of your own. I’ve been there…on both sides.

Yet once again Jesus does not respond from a place of ego, a place of frustration and fed-upness – although, if we’re honest, who would blame him after all the times the apostles miss the mark and don’t understand where he’s coming from. Still, Jesus accepts their misunderstanding. He doesn’t judge them for what they know or don’t know. He meets them in a manner that the world can’t. He does it for them, and he still does it for us, and he gives us an example that we can follow. 

Jesus does not lean on our understanding, but rather he invites us to lean on his. It isn’t our trust that will save us in the end, but his trust, not our ability to have faith, but his own faithfulness in us – great is thy faithfulness, remember? Even in the times when we just don’t get it, even when we are so frustrated and come at Jesus with our own brutal, blunt honesty, even when anyone else in his position would knock us down a peg or say, “Who do you think you are?!” he holds it all. That’s how big Jesus is. Big enough to take all of our questions, all of our frustrations, all of the subtle frailties of our human nature that over time would wear someone else down. That is some good news right there! It’s what sustained the community of John’s Gospel in days of confusion and fear, and even for us now it is a balm in the moments when we don’t know what to do, where to go, who to be, or how to understand and trust Jesus. 

We are not abandoned to figure things out on our own. We have a friend and Savior who is committed to walking with us, loving us, and even dealing with our most brutally honest moments until the day when all manner of things are made well and revealed to us. In the gap between doubt and faith, confusion and trust, stands Jesus, believing in us as long as it takes for us to believe in him. 

Thomas Merton once said in a prayer to God, “I don’t know what I’m doing or where I'm going, but I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.” The apostles didn’t understand where Jesus was going or how to follow him – and if they, who traveled and lived with him each day for roughly three years couldn’t figure it out, what chance do we have? But that’s the point. We get glimpses, fragments on this side of the Kingdom. Even Saint Paul understood this when he said that we see through a glass dimly right now. And rather than grow frustrated, we can lean into the moments of not knowing. We can be brutally honest with Jesus, yes, and also accept that Jesus’ response might not be in any manner what we were looking for. We don’t have to live with the fear of not knowing. Because Jesus is the Way, even when we don’t know what the way ahead looks like. Jesus is the Truth, even when we don’t know what is true or not anymore. And Jesus is the life, even when we don’t know what real, authentic life means. Our small bucket of faith may not be able to hold much, as Kayla McClurg of the Church of the Savior wrote, but Jesus can take even that and make the impossible a reality.

Maybe you’re like Thomas and utterly confused by what Jesus is doing in your life. Or like Phillip and demanding answers from Jesus to help you figure things out. Maybe all you have is the honest desires of a tired and worn out heart. The good news, the Gospel, is that Jesus will meet you, with whatever you’re holding, and you can give it all to him, and by doing so, you will find your way, your truth, and your life. 

Monday, April 17, 2023

Doubting Thomas and Authentic Faith of 'Show, Don't Tell'

'When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.'

--John 20: 19-31

Back in my acting days my directors would always say, “don’t tell me, show me.” What does that mean? Telling is about relaying information, it’s cerebral.  Showing, on the other hand, is experiential.  It says something without having to use words.  Telling instead of showing is seen in the artistic world as being, well, kinda lazy. The Russian playwright Anton Chekov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, but show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The disciples who were met by the resurrected Jesus on Easter morning were so moved by the experience that they had to tell the only one not there that day about it. And that, of course, was Thomas. I’m sure they were very detailed in their explanation, painting a perfect mental picture, but Thomas doesn’t believe them.  Perhaps because he’s had his heart broken once and he doesn’t want to get his hopes up and have them dashed again. Thomas isn’t about telling, he wants to be shown.  So, the next week Jesus arrives in the same manner and shows Thomas the nail and spear marks on his body, prompting Thomas to give that beautiful exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus appears to Thomas.

Jesus was a show-er.  Before his crucifixion Jesus showed people the love and mercy of God, he didn’t just tell them about it.  And after his resurrection, he doesn’t just rely on the disciples to tell Thomas that he has been raised, but he comes to Thomas and shows him that he’s alive.  

But, preacher, I hear you saying, doesn’t Jesus chastise Thomas for him only believing upon seeing Jesus? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”? We call him Doubting Thomas for a reason. To that I say, good job paying attention to the text! And also, I’m afraid that we’ve done a disservice over time, both to “Doubting” Thomas and to the text itself when we’ve used this line by Jesus as a kind of endorsement for what we might call blind faith – believing whole heartedly in something without any evidence to back it up. 

First of all, if you know anything about the communities that produced the four canonical Gospels, you will understand that the community of this Gospel, John, the Fourth Gospel, definitely bore a grudge against other Christian communities. You see, communities of faith grew up around the apostles and their stories about Jesus, which were all different, hence the reason why we not only have four canonical Gospels, but many, many others, including: the Gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Thomas. All of these communities had different ways of telling the Jesus story, and the community of the Fourth Gospel, reported to have been based around eye-witness accounts from the apostle John that were passed on, saw their story as the most authoritative, and so in the Fourth Gospel you see not-so-favorable depictions of these other apostles: Peter loses the race to the tomb, Mary Magdalene’s testimony isn’t believed, and Thomas is chastised for his unbelief. So it’s not so much Jesus being upset at Thomas as it is John’s Gospel community getting a dig in at Thomas’ Gospel community. Denominational rivalries have existed as long as there have been followers of Jesus, sadly. All this has happened before, and it will happen again!

Furthermore, when Jesus gives that famous benediction – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. – it is less about Thomas specifically and more about the community who received the Fourth Gospel. Remember that none of those people knew Jesus or met him – either in his original or resurrected form. To pronounce a blessing on those who have not seen him and yet still believed his message is to lend support and encouragement to not only this Gospel community, but also every single person thereafter who would come to believe the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth without ever actually having met him. 

This, of course, includes us today. And is there anyone of us right now who doesn’t have doubts at times? Of course not! I wouldn’t be a priest now had my priest growing up not encouraged my own questions and created space for me to explore my doubts and curiosities. She encouraged me to be more like Thomas, to make my faith experiential, not just cerebral. For anyone to interpret this Gospel today – a story we hear every single year on the second Sunday of Easter - as a knock on Thomas and on anyone who doubts or has questions about Jesus, the resurrection, God, or whatever misses the point, not only of what the community of the Fourth Gospel was up to but also what Jesus himself models about faith: that it is to be shown, not just told, experiential, not just cerebral. It is to be questioned and wondered about and even, at times, doubted, for in and through the questions, wonders, and doubts, lies true faith. Blessed Theresa of Calcutta – Mother Theresa – came under fire after her death when journals were discovered in which she admitted that she had doubts and even questioned the existence of God while caring for poor and dying children in her city. Would anyone challenge the authenticity of her faith? Not likely. To doubt isn’t blasphemous, it is the path to authentic faith. To doubt and wonder is to be curious, and to be curious is to be childlike, and do we remember what Jesus said about being childlike and inheriting the Kingdom of God? 

St. Theresa of Calcutta, whose own doubts led to a deeper, more meaningful faith.

In a manner of speaking, Thomas is very much a model disciple for all of us because he would rather have an experience than simply believe something blindly.  Faith should not just be informational but lived out, it is to be shown.  Jesus showed himself to Thomas in order that Thomas may go and show his faith to others—which history says he did among people as far east as modern-day India, Mother Theresa’s backyard. Coincidence?  

One of my favorite tv shows is the 1960s British spy drama The Prisoner, which has an oft repeated line “Questions are a burden to others and answers a prison for one’s mind.” Fortunately, that ain’t how Jesus works. Because Thomas’ example reminds us that it is in questioning that we go deeper in our relationship with God and achieve greater spiritual, mental, and emotional maturity.  Our wondering, our doubting leads us to a place where merely telling is not enough.  

Truthfully, if we are to go out into the world and make disciples, as Jesus instructs us to do, simply telling will not do it; in fact, it often pushes people away. People want to be invited into an experience of the resurrected Jesus, they want to be shown the power of his love and mercy.  Lex orandi, lex cretendi, goes the old saying – ‘The law of prayer shapes the law of belief.’ How we pray – with action in our lives not just words – shows the world what we believe. Jesus showed himself to Thomas, can we not do the same?  For his example we give thanks, and blessed Thomas, pray for us.  

To Hell and Back: What Isn't Possible Now?!

The Harrowing of Hell.

Every year in the Before Time – pre-COVID – I would make a joke on Easter Sunday about how nice it was to see everyone I hadn’t seen since Christmas or last Easter. But seeing as I had COVID at Christmas and wasn’t even back from my medical leave last Easter, that joke kind of lost its punch this year, so on Easter Sunday I was simply happy to see everyone that I saw.

I said these words to my parish on that Resurrection Sunday, but it applies to us all, I believe. Because we made it, y’all. We actually made it. We made it through Holy Week and celebrating a full schedule for the first time in four years. We made it through Lent and those insanely long Gospel readings from John and the pangs of our fasts. We made it through outbreaks, starts and stops and restarts to our common life together. We made it through pandemic and plague. We made it through the sadness of loss and the empty spaces in our hearts where once those we loved took up residence. We made it. To be sure, brothers and sisters, this has been a Feast of the Resurrection in more ways that one. Alleluia! 

As I said at the Great Vigil, everything is different now because of what Jesus did. Each year we gather to not only remember that fact but to ponder what it means for our own lives right now. Christ is alive. IS. Present tense. No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, as the hymn says. This isn’t some memorial, some day to remember an event that once took place, no, this is a lived experience, a present reality for right here and now. Death is conquered, we are free, and Christ has won the victory. 

Anything is possible now. Anything. Because Jesus has done that which no one else could’ve done, and no, I’m not talking about being dead and getting back up because just a few weeks ago he raised his friend Lazarus, who was dead even longer than he was! No, what Jesus has done is that he has gone to hell and come back out the other side. That might not be a pleasant thing to ponder, Jesus going to hell. But we do believe it. Every time we reaffirm our baptismal promises or recite the Apostles Creed we declare that he has descended to the dead – or to borrow the older language of Rite I and the Prayer Books of years gone by, he descended into hell. And let me tell you, if Jesus can go to hell and come back out the other side, then what in the world is there that cannot be done, huh?! What is it that is impossible now that Jesus has gone to hell, grabbed Adam and Eve by the hands, pulled them up out of their graves, told everyone there, “Come on y’all, you’re free now!” and locked the doors of hell from the inside?! The fact that you are all still standing after everything we’ve been through is a testament to how amazing our God is, how there is nothing that is impossible because the God we know and love and worship and adore is the God who in Jesus took the instrument of shameful death, embraced it, made friends with it, and transformed it into an instrument for life. 

There has perhaps never been a better Easter sermon preached than the one Saint John Chrrysostom – the Golden-Tongued one – preached around the year 400. He knew way back then what it meant for Jesus to do what no one else could ever do. "Hell", he said, "was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar for it is destroyed, it is annihilated, it is now made captive. Hell took a body and discovered God. It took earth and encountered heaven. It took what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see. Christ is risen, and life is liberated!" Good luck to any preacher ever topping that!

Saint John Crysostom

And life being liberated means that everything has been liberated, everything has been redeemed. Everything. No Gnostics around here, nu huh! The entire created order – humanity, animals, plants, dirt, sky, sea, all of it – is redeemed in the Resurrection of Jesus; after all, he is the one through whom ALL things are made, and thus ALL things are redeemed and find their perfection. In the Resurrection we are given a renewed calling to live in harmony, not just with one another but all of creation. In the Resurrection is the hope of creation itself, that we can once more know who we are and whose we are and live in right relationship with one another, with our planet, and with God, just as we did in the Garden. In the Resurrection we need not seek power, prestige, and possession to fill that God-shaped void in our being because God has not only come to us but we have been raised to God – we who are the very Body of Christ are raised with Christ’s own earthly Body to the fullness of resurrection glory. 

We must remember, though, that Jesus took his scars with him when he got up. Resurrection, after all, does not erase trauma, but it does transform and transfigure trauma. Even the Christus Rex, our parish's symbol of Jesus’ triumph over death that hangs on the wall behind the altar, bears the wounds in his hands and feet. Easter Sunday does mark the beginning of something different because of the Resurrection, yet that doesn’t mean we no longer bear whatever scars we have born through whatever fiery hells we have encountered. For Christ to be raised with his wounds, though, means that even our pain, our failings, our scars are redeemed, given new meaning and hope. We can wear them proudly now, no longer afraid of them, but grateful even for where they brought us.  Every broken road has led us to this happy morning. Because Jesus has literally loved the hell out of every single one of us! 

He IS risen. Indeed. So if he IS risen, and we with him, then where do we go from here? He told Mary – who blessedly had eyes to see and recognize him in spite of her own scars – that he was going to Galilee, to the region just north of Jerusalem where he did most of his earthly ministry. There, he said, you will see me. So where is Galilee? It’s everywhere that you find the children of God longing for and meeting the resurrected Jesus: 

It is the hospital room where the person lies in pain, longing for a shot of love from anyone who would visit. 

It is the prison where the one who sits in sorrow and remorse over his crime wishes to just know that God has not utterly forsaken him. 

It is the drag show where those told they were accursed and sinful find belonging and meaning through art and expressions of God’s fabulous love.

 It is the steps of the government building where the parents who buried their child have the courage to call for legislation that might prevent another family from suffering the same fate. 

It is anywhere that the cry for justice, for peace, for love, for mercy, for healing, can be heard. Those are the places, where Jesus was found in his earthly ministry, and those are the places, resurrected people of God, to which we are called this day. Those are the places where we will not only see Jesus even still, but may be Jesus to others. You’ve heard it said that you might be the only Bible anyone ever reads? Well, you might be the only Jesus anyone ever meets. So go love the hell out of ‘em, just like Jesus! 

Resurrection is real, y’all. I’m living proof of that! So are you! What will you do with this wild, precious, resurrected life of yours? 

Monday, March 27, 2023

Jesus Wept...So Should We

This week those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary heard once the story of the raising of Lazarus, the action in the Gospel of John that led the religious authorities to have Jesus arrested. The passage was 45 verses long (!), so I'm not copying the whole thing here. If you'd like to read it in full, go to The Lectionary Page

Included in this story, of course, is the shortest sentence in the whole Bible, "Jesus wept" (John 11: 35).  Of course, the Episcopal Church reads the New Revised Standard Version, which translates it as "Jesus began to weep." The poetry of Scripture is often lost in the NRSV. I personally prefer  “Jesus wept.” 

Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell

This is on the short list of most important sentences in all of Holy Scripture. Because it invites us to consider: what does it mean to follow a Savior who weeps? In the Hebrew Bible God walks in the garden, God laughs, God rants and raves, God even changes God’s mind. But God never cries, not even after the Great Flood or when people are held in bondage. The very idea of a mighty, omnipotent, God crying was simply unthinkable. And while the Jesus presented in the Gospel of John is often presented as being totally in control, which is in-keeping with the Gospel’s overall theme that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but God, here in chapter 11, verse 35 we see the rawest, most human version of Jesus in all of the Fourth Gospel. Here at the grave of his friend, Jesus, the Christ, the living embodiment of God, cries.  And not just a single tear down the side of his cheek like a sentimental moment in a Hallmark movie, no, the Greek word embrimasthai literally translates to “he snorted like a donkey,” and already knowing that Jesus was distressed and upset we can confirm that, yes Jesus ugly cried. And if you know, you know. 

This short sentence, one single word in Greek, buried in the longest Gospel reading we do all year – outside of Holy Week – has some major ramifications for us, even now. Especially now. In a culture that tells us – tells men, in particular – that we have to be strong, that we have to keep it together, that we can’t show emotions, can’t show any weakness, can’t shed a tear, this moment of Jesus weeping – ugly crying - over the loss of Lazarus is so powerful. It flies in the face of every convention that we have been taught. Every ounce of pride that we have is made irrelevant in this moment. Jesus has undone what we thought to be true about grief, about death, about life, and about how it’s all connected.

Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with the so-called Five Stages of Grief – to be honest, there are plenty more, but these exist less as an absolute and more as a model, a guide: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance. And all five are on display in this story:  Denial – Jesus himself says Lazarus sickness doesn’t lead to death; Anger – Jesus is greatly disturbed, and again, the Greek text suggests it’s full-on angry, maybe over Lazarus dying, or maybe the people’s unbelief; Bargaining – Mary and Martha both say that if Jesus had been there their brother wouldn’t have died; Sadness – obviously, Jesus began to weep; and Acceptance – Mary and Martha bear witness to their brother’s resurrection and are therefore able to recognize Jesus in his own resurrection when all hope seems lost. The Five Stages are not meant to be linear, mind you, they are often experienced in a not-so-organized fashion, but because we see them play out right here, because Jesus himself experiences them, we can lean into our own grief in the moments when it takes hold. We can, instead of fighting against it, burying it, or pretending it isn’t real, acknowledge our grief and remember this story, remember that God too has wept, has experienced heartbreaking grief, and in that lies the good news of God in the one called Emmanuel – that God is, in fact, with us, in all of our emotions, all of the actions that make us human. 

The text invites us to befriend our own grief – whatever it may be – but it also reminds us that grief is not all there is. Sometimes our pain can become so great, and all around us are trying to tell us to buck up and get over it and not be so sad, putting us on the defensive and leaning even more into our pain – often accompanied by cries of “You don’t understand what I’ve been through!” While may be true, and our pain deserves to be acknowledged - and no one has the right to tell us when we should “move on” or “be better" -  remaining in the stuckness of our denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness will keep us from getting to the place of acceptance and seeing that there’s life on the other side of the pain.

Fortunately, the good news of Jesus is that those stuck places are often exactly where he shows up. Wilda Gafney, writes in A Women’s Lectionary, that life in Jesus happens here, among the brokenness, failings, and limitations of the physical world. Plato had taught that the physical world was evil, a mere shadow of a greater, more ideal and eternal realm. Christianity picked up on the idea, first among the Gnostics and later among the Puritans, and we still see it today whenever churches preach that everything that is of the physical world is an enemy. Even death. And so we are taught to rage against the world, rage against the dying of the light – thank you, Dylan Thomas – rage against that which is broken, failed, or limited. What can fit that description better than death itself, right? 

Yet it is in this place, amongst the broken, failed, limited enemy of death that Jesus cries, “Come out!” Lazarus has been dead for four whole days, which is significant because it not only hammers home that this isn’t one of those stories, like Jairus’ daughter, where the person may or may not actually be dead, but if it is meant to invoke the old theory that the soul lingers around a body up to two days after physical death, then saying he’s been dead four days means he ain’t coming back. All hope is lost. For Mary, Martha, and the people standing there grieving. Maybe, even, on some level, Jesus feels that hopelessness, but through it he cries to his friend, “Come out!” Death itself hears the cry, and Lazarus returns.  Death is now the enemy that we can learn to love, thanks to Jesus.

Thanks to the model Jesus gives us, of befriending our grief and even embracing the enemy of death, we can hear his voice when he calls to us to “Come out!” Just like Lazarus Jesus cries out to us to come out from the darkness, to come out from the shame, from the place of judgment, from the sin that holds us captive. Would, as Robb McCoy once wrote, the whole Church heed these words. Come out! Come out from our stuckness! Come out from our pain, from our desire to scapegoat and blame, come out from our need for approval, come out from our comfort zones and desperation to hang onto nostalgia, rooted in the fear that death will consume us if we dare change. Come out of the graves we have dug for ourselves and come into the light, the light of life, the light of hope, the light of love, the light of Christ. This is the very light we all received in the form of that candle lit from the Paschal flame when we were baptized. It is the light that is already in ourselves and each other, if we have eyes to see, if we have ears to hear – and listen to – the voice of Jesus. Then, even when all hope seems lost, we can recognize him.

Once and for all, the story of Lazarus helps us remember that Resurrection doesn’t just happen to Jesus, or on the “last day,” but it is a daily reality, one that lays claim on us right here, right now. Jesus wept. We weep. Jesus cries for us to come out. And our grief is redeemed. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

The Risky Business of God

'The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.'

--Genesis 12: 1-4a

'There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“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.

“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.”

--John 3: 1-17

Is there a word you would used to describe what being in a relationship with God is like? My word would be  'risky'.  Maybe not what you were expecting, huh?  Perhaps that’s because we tend to think that being in relationship with God means that everything will be easy, that we won’t have problems anymore. But that’s not what we see play out in the stories of Scripture, is it?  Instead, we see stories of men and women who courageously—some might even say, foolishly—follow an unpredictable and at times reckless God into a relationship and on a journey that literally transforms their lives.  That sounds pretty risky to me, especially in the cases of two people we meet in our Scriptures this week—Abram and Nicodemus.

Let’s start with Abram.  This story in Genesis chapter 12 is the first time we meet Abram, whose name means ‘exalted ancestor.’  We find him living in a land called Ur, which is inhabited by the Chaldeans, with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot.  Abram’s father Terrah has just died, and it’s at this point that God speaks to Abram and tells him to take his wife and nephew and set out for the land of Canaan, and from there, God promises, Abram’s name will be great, and from him all the peoples of earth will be blessed.  Without any mention of trepidation on his part, Abram goes, listens to God and sets out for this new home. Eventually God will give him a new name—Abraham—which means ‘ancestor of multitudes’—and he will, to this day, be regarded as the father of the world’s three great religions associated with his God:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

An Eastern Orthodox icon of Abraham

Contrast the story of Abram, then, with that of Nicodemus in our reading from the Gospel of John.  Nicodemus – whose name means “ruler, or conqueror, of the people” - is a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, and he has seen and heard of the signs that Jesus has performed—including turning water to wine, feeding thousands, and even his antics turning over tables in the Temple.  Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus, and under the cover of darkness goes to meet him.  He is stunned by some of the things Jesus says—such as the ever-complicated line “You must be born from above.”  He wants to understand, but there is an apprehension there, something that holds him back.  His position as a Pharisee is a comfortable one, no risk involved at all.  But these things Jesus is talking about?  This oneness with God of which he speaks?  All of this talk about Spirit and inner transformation?  This is complex, scary stuff, and clearly more than a little risky, as Nicodemus will never again speak with Jesus after this nighttime encounter.  

In Nicodemus we see perhaps what Abram may have looked like prior to God calling him; that is, a person whose comprehension of God’s initiative in his life is rather simplistic, meaning he can’t see past his own experiences up to this moment to understand how God could do something new in him.  In the Genesis reading God invites Abram to embark on an adventure of trust, while Jesus invites Nicodemus to be open to the rush of God’s holy and life-giving Spirit in such a manner that his very being will be reborn.  Whereas Abram accepts the risk, Nicodemus does not.  It’s just too fearful.  

Nicodemus and Jesus by Alexander Andreyevich

During the early days of the Protestant Reformation there was a group in Germany called the Nicodemites, who were Christians that sympathized with the reformers, but who were unwilling to publicly identify with them for fear of the ramifications they faced from the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  Such a position of complacency, or clinging to the status quo, rarely leads to growth.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it in his commentary on Abram’s story in Genesis:  “to stay in safety is to remain barren, but to leave in risk is to have hope.”  The catalyst for leaving this state of complacency, for having hope despite the the risk, is faith.  

We’re not talking about mere amazement at miracles or rational conclusions drawn from irrefutable evidence.  There’s no risk involved in that.  No, the kind of faith that drove Abram to leave his home, and the kind of faith that Jesus invites Nicodemus to consider, is an openness to the uncontrollable wind of God, an embracing of the mysterious newness of God.  This does not come from an external force—the word Jesus uses is flesh, that is, the material world.  This is Spirit territory we’re in—or Holy Ghost territory.  We do not control it.  We do not initiate it.  God does.  Our journey of transformation begins with faith, a willingness to be transformed.  Our faith begins with God, who has already placed faith in each of us from the moment we were spoken into existence.  This was the promise made to our great ancestor, and to us, and brothers and sisters we need always to remember that the promise-maker is also the promise-keeper!  When we remember that, remember that God’s faith in us has never wavered and that God’s promise of loving us through our brokenness has always and will always be kept, then we can start moving.  Even a little.  We can start to be more than we ever thought we could.

Abram’s migration that begins in today’s Genesis reading is a model for the movement of any person from despair to hope, from oldness to newness, from death to life.  It’s a model for Lent. Abram’s journey leads to transformation—he literally gets a new name—and so does every other journey that begins in faith.  Even if Abraham doesn’t get to live in the land God promised to him. The same is true for Nicodemus.  No, he will never again speak with Jesus, but his journey leads him to defend Jesus to the other religious authorities in Chapter 7 and when all is said and done, he will be there at the foot of the cross.  The one who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness will be standing in the Palestinian sun on a Friday afternoon, when he will bear witness to Jesus being lifted up on the cross and then prepare his body for burial.  At long last he is able to take a risk for this faith of his.

So much about this season of Lent is risky.  On Ash Wednesday we were invited to recall our sins, our wretchedness, which always runs the risk of us sinking into pits of self-deprecation and despair.  Last week we reconsidered the story of the Fall, of that original sin of Adam and Eve, and how we ourselves have been caught in the same cycle of shame and judgment arising from our temptations for possessions, prestige, and power.  It’s risky to do the kind of hard self-examination that Lent expects of us, and truth be told, it would be easier to stay in the dark, to not budge from our places of comfort.  Do we really want to be exposed by the light, especially the Light of the world?  Surely, the condemnation will be too great.  But condemnation is not the judgment of God but the judgment we bring on ourselves when we forget our belovedness and hide our brokenness from God and one another, like Adam and Eve and their fig leaf clothes.  We remember John 3: 16 all the time, but let’s not forget John 3: 17:  “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 journey beyond condemnation and toward true belief in the salvific power of God is the journey of Lent, a journey that begins with the faith God has already placed in us.  It’s a journey not unlike Abram or Nicodemus, yet it is one that is unique to each of us.  It’s not easy—I suspect Jesus uses the term “being born from above” to remind us that a lot of time and energy and pain and even risk go into a birth, so why should faith be any different?  This season let us take the time to ponder the choice that is before us, the same choice that Abram and Nicodemus faced:  do we remain comfortable or do we risk everything for the sake of following such a loving, liberating, and life-giving God?