Paul makes the grade

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Paul makes the grade

If you’re graduating this weekend, or anytime this spring, congratulations to you!  It’s likely felt like a long and hard journey, lots of work, lots of projects, lots of writing—and hopefully lots of joy in the process and in the material you’ve engaged.  If you’re a teacher or professor and your students are graduating, perhaps your grades are in, which may feel like even more work, so congratulations to you, too.  And if you’re not graduating, if you’re not turning in grades, I’m sure you can join me in a collective sigh of relief that we didn’t have these particular deadlines to make—while still giving thanks for our graduates and the work they’ve accomplished.

We place a lot of importance in academic achievement in our world—especially in towns like New Haven.  When I moved back to New Haven I joked with a friend that in New York people ask what you do—what your profession is.  Here in New Haven folks are more likely to ask what your work is—what you’re researching, what you’re studying, what you’re writing about.  I suspect Paul could have fit in well in New Haven.

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Entering the Door

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Entering the Door

The Rev’d Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
May 7, 2017


And Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning I would like to use our Gospel passage as a lens through which to read the rest of the Gospel of John, and in particular a few important passages before and after Jesus’s resurrection. 

The words translated “gate,” “sheepfold,” and “gatekeeper” in John 10 are more literally “door,” “courtyard of the sheep,” and “doorkeeper.” Being inside or outside the courtyard matters. You can only get in the courtyard through the door and you want to pass through the door and by the doorkeeper with the shepherd.

There is another passage in the Gospel of John where all these words and ideas appear close together. In John 18, at the trial of Jesus, it says

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who was the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. The woman who was the doorkeeper said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

In nearly complete reversal of the ideas laid out in our Gospel reading, Peter does not enter through the door into the courtyard with Jesus. He waits outside the door. Eventually someone other than Jesus, our good shepherd, brings him in another way. The doorkeeper asks Peter if he really is one of Jesus’s disciples, and, at least in that moment, he answers truthfully: I am not.

Peter was scared to enter through the door into the courtyard with Jesus. In fact, without Jesus’s resurrection power, he could not.

But I would like to read another passage through our Gospel reading. In John 20, Mary Magdalene is standing outside the tomb, weeping. When she eventually works up the courage to go inside, she hears Jesus is raised. She realizes she wasn’t standing outside the tomb in the garden, but outside the garden and still inside the tomb. She returns to the garden and sees Jesus but doesn’t know it. She thinks he is the gardener. She asks where Jesus has been taken. It is not until he calls her by name, “Mary,” that she recognizes Jesus.

“The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” He calls Mary by name, she recognizes his voice and her name, and he leads her from weeping to joy. Jesus comes that we may have life and have it abundantly, that we may come into the courtyard and find pasture. He calls you by name, “Beloved Child of God.” He leads us from the empty tomb into the garden of resurrection life, and he makes us lay down in the green pasture.

And I would like to read our Gospel passage in light of yet another story in the Gospel of John. Later in John chapter 20,

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 Jews, 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.

And then just a few verses later, the story continues:

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.”

The disciples have locked themselves inside the locked doors of the house. The locked doors are their fears and doubts. But despite the closed doors, Jesus enters their fears and offers them peace. “Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you.”

The epistle reading says, “By Christ’s wounds we are healed.” I believe that is true both spiritual and theologically, as well as psychologically and emotionally. The resurrected God appears to us with a wounded and scarred body. Something about seeing and touching the broken body of the resurrected Jesus heals our own wounds and fears and doubts. God doesn’t tell us why pain exists in the world, but God does show us that God is no stranger to pain, to injustice fueled by human fear.

Jesus enters into our lives through the locked doors of our fears, worries, pains, insecurities, and wounds. We hear his voice:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Jesus is the door. Jesus is also the shepherd. Jesus is also the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Jesus calls our name and brings us out of the tomb into the garden. Jesus breaks through the doors of our fears and give us his own peace.

The Lord spreads a table before us today, too. Jesus is the host and the sacrifice. He offers himself so that we may live. Come, see, and touch the wounded and broken body of Christ. And see that it is by his wounds that we are healed.

 

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Seeing hope, seeing Jesus

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Seeing hope, seeing Jesus

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)
April 30, 2017

Last week I was in an establishment where John Kerry was having dinner.  I played it very, very cool.  I didn’t stare.  I didn’t go over and say anything.  I didn’t snap a surreptitious picture for social media.  I just finished my dinner and left.  No big deal, right?  It’s New Haven.  There’s a former Secretary of State.  It happens all the time, right?

When I lived in Manhattan this sort of thing happened all the time.  Folks in my neighborhood would see a celebrity and play it very cool, not looking, not gawking, just going on about their business.  A colleague was constantly running into Alec Baldwin in a coffee shop, or seeing him pedaling on a Citibike.  I never had these sorts of encounters.  I learned Alec Baldwin takes a Citibike by seeing it online, probably in the New York Post, after he’d been given a ticket for cycling the wrong way on a one-way street. 

It’s really pretty easy for me to play it cool with celebrity sightings.  Mostly because I generally can’t recognize anyone in public!  Sure, I know when I see Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, but I’m sure I’ve missed him on the streets of New York dozens of times.  I’m just not expecting to see him. 

What’s more, I have a little bit of anxiety about recognizing people.  Maybe you do, too.  Have you ever run up behind someone and called her name, only to have her turn around—and it’s NOT your friend Jill from high school, but someone that just looks vaguely like her?  The humiliation is just too much.  So I just keep my mouth shut.  I’m not one for recognizing folks. 

I am pretty good about recognizing people from church, though.  But, and here the tables are turned, sometimes folks don’t recognize me out of my collar!  Whenever I’m in the Stop and Shop I’m pretty good at spotting parishioners—but sometimes I look different out of collar, out of context!  And that’s a pretty funny moment, too. 

So I’m a little sympathetic towards Cleopus and his friend from this morning’s gospel.  They don’t recognize Jesus at first as they walk along the road with him. 

On the same day Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb, Cleopus and his friend were walking along the road to Emmaus, a town about seven miles outside of Jerusalem, about three hours away.  And we don’t know for sure, but it seems safe to assume they might be walking from Jerusalem.  It’s likely they’d’ been in Jerusalem, because Cleopus’s mother was at the crucifixion—maybe he and his friend were too—and it’s likely they were coming from there because they knew of Jesus’s crucifixion and about the empty tomb.  Nevertheless, they don’t recognize the stranger that joins them on the road; they explain to him why they’re sad—about the events in Jerusalem, the crucifixion.  And the stranger starts to interpret these events to them.

So why is it that they don’t recognize him? 

Maybe they really don’t realize it’s him because they aren’t very sure what Jesus looks like.  Cleopus’s mother was there, but maybe he and his friend weren’t at the crucifixion.  Maybe they weren’t that close to Jesus and haven’t seen him very much.  Maybe it’s that he’s out of context—that they don’t expect to see him. 

Maybe it’s that they have bad eyesight.  Issues of recognizing people happen throughout scripture, and it’s worth noting that the ancient world didn’t have the same kind of corrective vision techniques we enjoy today.  I can’t recognize people more than thirty feet away without my glasses, but, if I have my glasses on, I’m likely to see you down the street.

Or maybe it’s that they just can’t see, don’t expect to see, what’s happened.  They’re overwhelmed by  their grief, in their expectation that death is the final word, that the world really is the way they expect it to be.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot find hope.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot recognize the movement of God around them in the world.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot see Jesus.

It’s hard to hold onto hope, isn’t it.  The world can tell us that hope is foolish, naive, irrational.  I’m reminded when I’m looking for hope of a story that Cope Moyers, Bill Moyers’ son, told.  Cope had been in the 1980’s or 1990’s a producer for CNN, a successful and hard-working media professional in his own right, just as his father had done.  But underneath the veneer of success and happiness, Cope had also developed a hidden life of drug addiction.  He’d disappear for days and even weeks at the time to sneak away to flop houses, dingy apartments, drug dens in Atlanta and New York to smoke crack, to get away from his life, to self-medicate whatever the pain was that was chasing him.  And each time his father would hire an investigator, find Cope, and go off and get him and take him to rehab.  This happened again and again and again until finally Cope was done.  And after years of expensive rehab, he finally was able to stay sober, and he dedicated his life to recovery work, serving as the development director for the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. 

I met Cope when he was sober, when he had just written his book Broken about his addiction and recovery experience.  He was at a speaking gig, talking about his story, talking about the book, talking about recovery, and it was a hard and personal story to tell in public.  During a question and answer session someone in the audience had a question for Cope.  With some emotion in his voice, the audience member rose and asked his question, “So how many times do you go to rehab?  I mean, if someone goes and gets clean and then starts using again, how many times do you keep going back?”  I imagined the pain of a family member whose life had been twisted by addiction, whose savings had been dried up, who was experiencing the pain of watching a loved one die in the grip of addictive behavior.  And Cope Moyers stood up, leaned into the microphone, and straightforwardly replied, “Oh, that’s easy.  You just keep going back as many times as it takes.  You keep going back until it works.”

There was no magic number after which it was too much.  There was no point after which there was no hope.  You just keep going back as many times as it takes.

Cope Moyers hadn’t given up.  And he was alive.  And lots of other folks surely are alive because of his story, his faith, his hope that things can be better.  That there is recovery.  That there is life.

Now there are plenty of reasons that this might seem like a glib reply.  There are limits to what families can do financially; there are limits to what our souls and bodies can bear—sometimes we have to set boundaries to protect ourselves from hurtful behavior.  There’s a limit physically to what the body can bear—witness the many deaths from overdoses even in our own city.  All of those are appropriate and true sorts of limitations, boundaries, that respect the reality of death.  But Cope didn’t get hung up on any of those limitations.  He didn’t need to, for Cope had seen death—but somehow he’d come to believe in life.

And that’s what God shows us in the resurrection of Jesus.  That the story is not yet finished.  That there is hope beyond our wildest imagining.  But we can miss it if we’re not looking for God. 

Cleopus and his friend by all rational standards aren’t wrong to assume that Jesus is dead.  But they have forgotten the thing that Jesus has revealed—that the God of Life, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,  is ultimately in control.  That God has swallowed up death.  That, in Jesus, there is hope.

And so it’s no wonder that, as he sits at table, takes the bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, that then they are able to see for the first time who he really is.  That they are filled with hope.  That they see Jesus. 

And when they realize who it is that accompanies them, their whole world is changed.  They run the seven miles back to Jerusalem to be with the apostles, to tell them what they’d seen, what they’d experienced, how Jesus was alilve and had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

How many times do you go back to rehab, the man asked Cope Moyers.  How many times do we go back?  How many times do we come forward to receive Jesus’s own self-offering, bread taken, blessed, broken, and given?  His own body given for us?  His own love poured out, shared with and for us?

Every time.  Every time.  For when we look for Jesus, when we really see him, our whole world view is changed.  We can’t help but be filled with hope, for the God of Love has shown us that death is no thing.  We can’t help be filled with hope, for Jesus is walking beside us.  We can’t help running to tell this good news—that the Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to us!

Where are you in need of hope today?  Where are you longing for the presence of Christ?  When you come to the altar, receive the very body of Christ, broken for you.  Receive his presence.  Know that he is here.   He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

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Doubting Thomas? Faithful Thomas!

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Doubting Thomas? Faithful Thomas!

Last week the worst thing imaginable happened.  Any death is a loss, any death is sad, but my friend Joshua, he was so young.  Only thirty three.  Executed.  Well, murdered, really.  Maybe you heard of him—the carpenter’s son, the teacher and preacher that had been going about Galilee for the past few years, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near…  He drew such crowds—he had such a presence about him, a spirit, a charism, that people began to wonder if he might be the anointed one, the Messiah, the one spoken about by the prophets, who would restore our nation to wholeness and throw off the yoke of oppression.

Apparently the attention he gathered was too great; the Romans, afraid of rebellion, suspected him of treason, and the Temple authorities accused him of blasphemy.  Despite the danger, we followed him to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover.  And, just as we feared, after dinner on Thursday night he was taken into custody, betrayed by our friend Judas, and, after a trumped-up trial, executed—hung—crucified—for all to see.

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What are you looking for?

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What are you looking for?

We have walked this Holy Week through the steps of Jesus.  We have walked the way of the cross.  As Father Matthew put it in last week’s newsletter, we weren’t “going through the motions,” but we have played “a part in the divine drama of salvation.”  We had our feet washed as the disciples did.  We dined with Jesus in that upper room—but this time, we received his very body and blood in the sacrament.  We sat with him in the garden.  But then Friday we came to the foot of the cross and grieved there at his death, even as we rejoiced in his presence, the salvation he has wrought by his own self offering.

And today we have come here, to this holy place, to this celebration of Easter, of the Resurrection.  And, as I asked you on Christmas Eve, I want to ask again:  What have you come here to see?  What has brought you here?  What are you looking for? 

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Sermon for the Easter Vigil

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Sermon for the Easter Vigil

Christos anesti! Christus surrexit! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Easter is about God overturning and exceeding human expectations.

I grew up a poor pastor’s kid, living in a small, old rental house in a rural town 40 miles north of Dallas. My dad started a company to make some extra money and, after a few years, his company had him traveling overseas for long stretches of time. To my childhood memory, he would be gone for three or four months at a time. One trip took him to Australia and every time he called home he would tell us he was bringing home a very special gift for us. We waited for what felt like weeks and months for dad to come home, but also for that special gift. When he finally returned, after the hugs and kisses, we said, “Where’s the special gift?” He grinned with pride, went to his bag, and pulled out a handcrafted, beautifully painted, aboriginal boomerang.

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Sermon for Good Friday

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Sermon for Good Friday

“Be not far from me for trouble is near and there is none to help.” (Ps 22:11)

How can I preach to you on a day when there are no words to be spoken?  How can anyone speak of hope on a day where it looks to be crushed? How can we even think to bring to words any Good News on this day where the flame of love seems to have been snuffed out?

Job brings to words even this kind of silence demanded at suffering. As his friends try to offer vain words of comfort, he responds: “Look at me and shut up.” (Job 21:5). So we must look at the man on the cross, and we must shut our mouths.  But only for so long.

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Gird yourselves with the towel of Christ

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Gird yourselves with the towel of Christ

Two years ago from this year's Easter Day, on the 16th of April, I was ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons. At my ordination, I was blessed to have Fr Tony Lewis serve as the preacher -- some of you may know Fr Lewis as a friend of this parish and professor emeritus of my Southern home and training ground, Virginia Seminary.

In preparation for my anniversary as a Deacon, I read through his sermon manuscript. And once again, I was moved by his words and insight as scholar and priest.

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Where our palms point us

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Where our palms point us

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the year 132 of the Common Era, sixty-two years after the destruction of the Jewish Temple, a successful revolt briefly freed the people of Israel from Roman occupancy. This newly gained freedom marked a victory for all those who from the time of Jesus had tried to bring to a halt Roman rule in Jerusalem.

As an act of liberty and triumph over the empire, the newly freed people commissioned the minting of new coinage. Removing all references to the Roman Empire, these new coins replaced the face of Caesar with images of palm trees and branches. Accompanied with the phrase“ For the Freedom of Israel.”

The palms that adorned these newly minted coins were not merely the particular design choice of a coin marker. No, these palm images represented the Jewish fight for freedom. For first and second century Jews and Jewish-Christians, palms symbolized the fight for liberation. A true political symbol, palms represented the struggle and hope of a people. The very struggle and hope of one day achieving freedom from earthly foes and for the reign of God to be made manifest with the coming of the anointed one, the messiah.

And here we are, hundreds years after the death of Jesus and the end of Jewish Wars, holding on to our green palm blades, remembering Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem and recounting his abandonment, betrayal, capture, and death on a Roman cross.

While we may not grasp our palms as a sign of political revolution, like those who fought after the destruction of the temple. We do hold our palms as a sign that something extraordinary has taken place here on earth and in heaven. And our palms do point us to a revolution, however, it is not merely a political or earthly revolution but a cosmic and world altering event in creation.

Our palms point us to a revolution that begins with the “yes” of a teenage girl, Mary, most Holy, as she proclaimed to blessed Elizabeth -- “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Our palms point us to a revolution where the first shall be last, the last shall be first. Our palms points us to a revolution where humanity is not afraid to face the demons and ailments found in our society and the world. Our palms point us to a revolution that threatens structures rooted in death and sin. Our palms point us to a revolution that is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

And today on Palm Sunday our palms point us to the Passion. Our gospel passages and the liturgies of Holy Week direct us to Calvary and to the bliss that lies behind the cross. We our first directed to our Lord’s Last Supper and his institution of the holy mysteries in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

And on that very day, using the words of blessed Bishop Frank Weston, we are commanded to “Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. [To] Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

We will remember our Lord’s abandonment, betrayal, capture, and death. And we will be invited to venerate the holy wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. And finally, we will proclaim Christ’s victory over death in the peak hours of the night as we await the rising of the sun.

However, first, we like Jesus, will have to walk into a place of turmoil. As Matthew’s gospel indicates, as Jesus was preparing to enter into Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. Jesus walks into Jerusalem knowing very well the evil and violence that can penetrate our cities and towns.

Yet, Jesus does not run away from the turmoil. And so during Holy Week we are invited to walk into the turmoil of Jerusalem. We are invited to remember, even experience, the passion of our Lord. And simultaneously we are invited to walk into the turmoil of our own lives, our homes, and our own cities and towns, knowing full well that Jesus will always be present pouring out himself for us and for the world, over and over again. Just as he gave himself up for his disciples and for all creation 2,000 years ago, Jesus continues to pour out himself for the life of the world -- here in New Haven, and on all the altars of the world, and in every alley and street corner where death lingers.

For being found in human form, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Amen.

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From dry bones to new life

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From dry bones to new life

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2, 2017

When I was a freshman in college, my choir took a trip to France.  We toured and sang mostly in and around Paris, Normandy, and Brittany.  It was a great time away, a great time for music making, and a great time for seeing places I’d only read about and seen in books before.  I particularly remember one striking scene—and I wish I could remember where it is—but all I can remember is the snapshot visual, the image planted in my mind, of a chapel just outside a medieval parish church, a tiny place, maybe a chantry of sorts, with a few seats and a small altar—dark and closed in and still, with walls of thick plaster, once white, stained by centuries of candle soot and incense, dirt from the nearby fields, and the oily grime of human hands and bodies that had brushed along the wall.  What struck me about the place most, though, was that, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that the altar itself and the wall behind it was made entirely of human bones—skulls laid in a pattern interlaced with what must have been thigh bones or other quite large bones, all stacked and plastered together—hundreds upon hundreds of human remains stacked there in the little chapel turned ossuary, a visual history of the lives that had passed before, the souls that had inhabited that place—that had gone on but were yet gathered still around the altar, the place where the body of Christ gathered together in worship to remember the dead—and to be the living. 

My immediate thought as a young person encountering these stacks of dry bones was, “Wow, this is really creepy.”  I wasn’t used to seeing that much death around me.  But as my eyes grew acclimated to the darkness and I began to discern familiar shapes, like the altar, I realized that this chapel, this altar, this assembly of dry bones, was actually a place of great hope.  The mass would have been said for centuries in that place, with those thousands of bodies gathered round—the souls of the faithful departed gathered round with all the angels and saints, along with the living—infants and older folks, priests and people—all to celebrate the presence of Christ that transcends time and place, that conquers death and gives us life.  Those bones weren’t symbols of death. They were markers of hope. They pointed towards resurrection.

Sometimes I think of that altar when I remember the strange story we hear today in Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones.  God shows Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dry bones and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”  The Lord says, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (Ezekiel 31:1-4). That line has been immortalized in the song by James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamund Johnson even for folks who don’t know the Ezekiel passage.  Those dry bones that hear the word of the LORD are knit back together, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the hip bone and so on—and clothed with sinews and flesh and skin, and breath is breathed into them as at the first of creation, and they stand, living bodies, enfleshed and alive, there before God and the prophet.  This image of revivification, this re-enfleshment, is a vision of hope for the exiles in Babylon:  this is Ezekiel laying out his mandate from God to give hope to his exiled people.  “’Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD:  I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 37.12) [1] 

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we acknowledge in the collect that only God can “bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners.”  Part of our Lenten practice is self-examination; an acknowledgement of our sinfulness—maybe even an accounting of our sins—and a pledge of amendment of life; of repentance; of change.  Some of us will make a Lenten confession.  Some of us will work to make changes in our lives.  And some of us may despair; we may look on the dry bones of our lives and think, What a mess. There’s no way my life can be different.  There’s no hope for change, for anything different.  I’m trapped here by this thing that’s wrong—this thing that I’ve done—this circumstance of my life.

Mary and Martha must have felt trapped, as though their lives had hit a dead end.  Their brother Lazarus was dead.  They didn’t see any hope for anything different.  We can sense the grief, the fear, perhaps even the anger in Martha’s voice as she goes out to meet Jesus—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  (John 11.21)  In the verses that follow these, we learn of Mary’s grief, of her tears, her despair, as she kneels and weeps at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, ever the practical one, even points out to Jesus that the body has been dead for enough days that it should be decomposing.  “Lord, there is a stench…” our translation reads.  The Authorized version proclaims, “Lord … he stinketh.”  (11.39)

Martha, your brother will rise again, Jesus has told her.  I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, Lord, Martha says.

But Jesus continues, in those words we heard at the beginning of the liturgy, and again in the gospel reading:  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (11.25-26)  And we learn that this is not some future promise, but an assurance of how the world can be, here and now.  Not hopelessness, but life, here and now.

And Jesus, the resurrection and the life, stands at the grave of his friend Lazarus and calls, “Lazarus, come out!”  (11.43)  Lazarus comes forth in his wrappings from the tomb, and Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (11.44)  Unbind him.  Let him go.  The Greek text is Lusate aphete upageinlusate from luo, to release or unbind—aphete from aphiemi—to send away, to allow, to permit—and finally, upagein from upago, to depart.  Release, unbind, go on your way.  This middle word—aphete—is really quite striking.  Here with Lazarus it describes a freeing from graveclothes—a sending away from death and into life, a loosening of all that binds him and a return to freedom, to relationship, to life itself. 

When Jesus’s disciples ask him how to pray, he teaches them, using the prayer that we have come to call the Lord’s prayer.  In the Eucharist we will say together those words, praying together  that God would“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  (Matt 6.12)  Forgive. It’s the same word as the word in our passage from John—aphiemi.    Allow, permit, send forth from, free from, forgive.  Lazarus is unbound from his graveclothes, unbound from death.  Jesus teaches us to ask to be forgiven—unbound from the things that hold us back from relationship with God—from loving relationship with one another.  Jesus frees us.  Jesus forgives us.  Jesus invites us into wholeness and reconciliation. 

Aphete.  We, too, are forgiven, freed.  We are sent away from the graveclothes, the the brokenness that binds us, the things that separate us from God and one another—the fear, the anger, the anxiety, the greed —all washed away in the waters of baptism, all unbound in Christ’s call to us.  We are freed, forgiven, and sent forth—re-made, renewed, restored in Christ—shown how to love by God’s own self-revealing love, Jesus, the messiah, the Christ—and sent out of the grave of sin into the fullness of life in Christ.

 “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Do you believe this, Martha?  Jesus asks.  Do you believe this, brothers and sisters?

For when we believe, we are loosed from the graveclothes of sin and brokenness; and we can hold fast to that promise of release, of sending, of forgiveness.  We can hold fast to the promise of the resurrection, because Jesus who revealed God God’s own self to us, who died on the cross, who was buried in the tomb, has also risen, and abides with us through the gift of his Holy Spirit. 

Because of God’s love, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are changed—we are loosed and sent forth—we are forgiven, healed, and reconciled with God.

Those bones are dry and dead, scattered about on the dusty earth, and they are knit back together by the Word of the Lord, enfleshed, restored, full of life.  Lazarus is wrapped  in the graveclothes of death, but  Jesus calls out, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is unbound and sent forth into life, a loosening of all that binds him and a return to freedom, to relationship, to life itself.

We, brothers and sisters, are unbound and let go—released from our sins, forgiven, restored, renewed.  Our graveclothes are stripped away so that we can see honestly the brokenness of the world, of ourselves, the painful separation within the heart of God—and, then, by God’s grace, new life is breathed into our bones and sinews and flesh—remade, reoriented, towards God’s purposes, God’s truth, God’s love.

This week of Lent and the Holy Week that follows, I invite you to look for the bones around us: stacked up like that ossuary, the bodies of Christ—the body of Christ around the altar—or even like the valley of the dry bones, just waiting for God’s healing breath.  And rather than finding despair in that valley, I invite you to call out to God.  To allow his healing breath to strip away any illusion or falseness—and to unbind you and set you free, send you out, renewed, remade, and restored, into the light of Easter wholeness—into the light of his Love.

[1] Portions of this homily were adapted from a sermon preached at Grace Church in New York on April 6, 2014.

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Learning to See

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Learning to See

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Lent: Laetare (Year A)
March 26, 2017

I have a confession to make.  When I’m tired, when I just want to unwind, relax, and not think very hard, I like to watch comedies.  Just plain, slapstick, easy joking, non-thinking comedies.  A professor at the divinity school once told my class that we should have something light to read—a vampire novel or something—between theological tomes.  Well, comedies are my vampire novel.  And one of my favorite comic actors is Ben Stiller.  

If you like Ben Stiller, maybe you’ve seen the film “Zoolander,” a lighthearted mashup of a spoof on the fashion world and a spy thriller.   The title character, Eric Zoolander, is a fashion model who has made a career out of various signature “looks,” or facial expressions.  “Blue Steel” is his newest “look,” but the joke is that all of his looks are exactly the same.  Zoolander, with his runway couture and studied expressions, moves through life easily, without much thought for anything but his good looks, until he is wrapped up in an incident of international intrigue, a la “The Manchurian Candidate,” and a rival model has to save him from assassinating a visiting dignitary.  One of the funny lines in the movie is also a prescient one; Zoolander says, “I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”

By the end of the film Derek Zoolander is inching only slightly closer to figuring out what’s more to life.  But maybe you, like Derek, have a feeling that being really, really, ridiculously good looking is actually quite a useful thing.

I remember reading almost two decades ago, during George W. Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency, an article in the New Yorker on polling and research into how people pick their candidates.  The details are lost on me at this point, but the gist of it was that a staggeringly low percentage of voters pick candidates based on issues.  A much higher percentage of folks pick candidates based on how they look.  “He looks honest.”  “She looks evil.”  “I just have a good feeling that he would be the kind of President I want in office.” These are the sorts of feelings-based responses we might hear in an election.  And online dating apps are largely dependent on visual appeal alone.  Tinder, one dating app, asks users to view photographs of potential dates—and to swipe right if the person is, well, interesting to date, or left if the user isn’t interested—all based only on visual appeal.  Here’s a photo—swipe right, swipe left.  In sixty years, children will be asking their grandparents, “Grandpa, how’d you meet Grandma?”  And the response will come, “Well, dear, I swiped right.”

Samuel is responding to visual cues—to appearance—in the first reading we hear today.  Just for context, let’s remember that Samuel has already anointed Saul as Israel’s king, and that didn’t go so well. Saul has disobeyed God, and God has told Samuel to name another king.  And so Samuel goes under the cover of making a sacrifice to Bethlehem to see Jesse, whose son God says is the one to name king. 

And what happens next is like a soap opera. It’s like Tinder for the 8th C BC.  There Jesse’s sons are, coming to the sacrifice, and Samuel is looking to see who the contender is.  Who will date Israel.  First comes Eliab, and he’s so tall and really really really ridiculously goodlooking, and Samuel swipes right!  “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD,” Samuel says.  (1 Sam 6)  And God just rolls God’s eyes and says, Samuel, it’s not about how he looks!  “For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”  (7b)  I love that line.  That’s what Derek Zoolander is looking for—the meaning to life that’s more than just outward appearance, that’s more than just how things look on the outside.  And God’s given this great lesson to Samuel, and so poor Eliab is rejected—let’s don’t feel too bad for him, after all, he is ridiculously good looking, he’ll be fine.  But he’s not the next king. 

And so the parade continues.  And Samuel swipes left.  And left again. And again.  And again.  Nope, the LORD hasn’t chosen this one.  All the way through all seven of Jesse’s sons.  But wait!  It turns out there’s an eighth son, the youngest, and he’s out in the fields with the sheep.  And so they send for him.  And here comes David.  And we know that it’s David who will be chosen, because, after all, he’s the last son.  There are no more.  But still, we’re waiting there on the edge of our seats, and here he comes, and what is it that we hear next?  Remember, mortals look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.  And Samuel looks on David’s heart and discerns he will be a great king, right?  No.  Nope.  That’s not it at all.  Samuel looks at David and thinks, Wow.  He’s really really really ridiculously goodlooking. “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” (12a)  And God rolls God’s eyes and says, Yes, Samuel.  This is he.  Get on with it and anoint him. And Samuel does it.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Samuel; maybe I am expecting too much. He sees as mortals see.  And somehow, mostly, the will of God gets done.  But Samuel sees just like David, just like you and I, just like the world.  He sees what’s on the outside.  That echoing pronouncement, God’s reminder of how God sees the heart, not the outside, is followed by that howling tear in the text pronouncing David even better looking than Eliab.  How can we get free of our sight?  How can we learn to see differently?

It’s happening again in the gospel lesson.  No one but the man born blind from birth seems to be able to see clearly.  The blind man really cannot see physical faces.  He can’t see anything visually, he can’t process light shining on his retina and traveling through his optic nerve to the brain. That’s not how he sees.  But he’s the ONLY character in the story who really sees, who really understands, who really comprehends, what’s going on. 

Look again at the structure of the gospel story.  We have the character of the man born blind.  Jesus’s disciples think that his blindness is related to sin—that the man himself has sinned, or that his parents have sinned.  It’s a common thought in the ancient world and maybe even ours—conventional wisdom, if you will—that the difference, the affliction, as those around him see it—is related to some act, some sin, on the part of the person or his parents.  But Jesus sees differently—Jesus sees clearly—he knows that the man’s difference is not a punishment or a consequence of sin—it’s just the way he was born.  And he gives sight to the blind man to reveal God’s work, to show God’s creating power.

And the man comes back, no longer blind.  But his neighbors no longer recognize him.  “’Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’  He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”  (John 9.9) How frustrating it is for this man, to return to his community, to the people whom he has known for his entire life—the people that have known him—and they don’t recognize him any longer.  He’s no longer an outsider, marginalized by what they see as his disability.  He’s the same person.  But they still won’t listen to him.  He’s still marginalized.  “I am he!” he cries.  No, it’s not the same man.  It’s just someone like him, they say.  They can’t see him.

All they’ve been able to see is what they perceive as his disability.  They’ve seen him as a blind man, as a beggar.  They’ve failed to really see him as a person.  And when these details are changed, they can’t even recognize him as the same person.

And so they bring him to the Pharisees, the scholars of the law.  And (in the portion of the gospel we don’t read today) instead of seeing the miraculous nature of his healing, the Pharisees become concerned about the manner of the healing—that it was done on the Sabbath.  The man born blind can see more clearly than they; he makes the argument that, while the Pharisees think Jesus is sinning by healing him on the Sabbath, that the miracle of his sight is enough to demonstrate that Jesus is revealing the works of God—that Jesus is acting within God’s will, expressing God’s desire.  “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing,” the man says.  (33)  And the Pharisees, in their spiritual blindness, drive him out.  They cannot see the man for who he is.  They cannot see him as Jesus sees him.  They cannot see the very work of God in their midst.

Seeing is a real problem for us—for our culture, our society.  What are the things we can see clearly?  What are the things we value?  Too often it’s the outward appearance, the trappings of wealth, the systems we’ve grown used to, the economic values of the market—over and above the value of people, the love of God, the flourishing of all.

As I’ve mentioned before a group of us are reading Archbishop Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace as part of our Lenten practice.  The book is a reflection on what we value—on aligning our own values with those of the kingdom of God.  One of the phrases the Archbishop uses is about seeing:  “What we see we value.”  What the world teaches us to look at, how we learn to understand what we see, creates value for us.  And what the Archbishop is suggesting is that we learn to see differently.  That we learn to look at the things Jesus loves.  That we learn to value what Jesus values.

We’re not very good at seeing.  Samuel can’t seem to see past the outward appearance of Jesse’s sons.  Many of the people of Bethlehem can’t seem to recognize the man born blind after he’s been healed.  The Pharisees can’t see the great gift that is Jesus’s healing—they fail to recognize the presence of God—because it doesn’t LOOK to them like what they’re expecting.  It doesn’t fit the rules as they understand them.  They don’t recognize God working in and amongst their community, their faith, themselves.

Part of the Christian project is learning to see.  Learning to see God’s hand at work in the world, to see God’s presence in our lives, to give thanks, to rejoice.  And part of the project is learning to see differently.  To see God’s presence in the lives of those around us—even in unexpected places.  We value what we see.  It’s a powerful counter narrative—to love the things that God loves, rather than the outward appearance, the values that the world embraces. 

The man born blind has the greater sight.  When Jesus goes back—remember, he’s not seen Jesus—Jesus put the mud on his eyes and sent him to wash it off…  When the man is driven out, and Jesus goes back to find him, he asks, “‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.” (9.35-38)

Out of this experience of Jesus’s great love, his transforming power—the transforming power of God—the man comes to know Jesus—to know and believe even before he has seen him.  Can we do the same?  Can we, in the presence of Christ made known in this sacrament at the altar, come to know and experience Jesus, to discern the presence of Christ moving in our lives, in the world around us, in the lives of others whom we meet?  I invite you this week as part of your Lenten practice to look for Jesus.  In the people you meet.  In the most unlikely places.  To look for God showing up and moving in the world around us.  And then to tell that story—that counter narrative.  Let’s learn to see differently—and show that great love we’ve seen to the whole world.

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Seeing Differently

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Seeing Differently

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
March 12, 2017

I wonder how you’re doing on your Lenten journey.  How your fast is coming, or the thing that you decided to take on instead of giving up something—how’s that going?  Several friends this week have mentioned to me that they’ve just not done as well as they’d hoped.  That the plan to give up wine at dinner was over by Thursday.  That the intention to hit the gym each morning was, well, not happening each morning.  That chocolate seemed just too irresistible to keep from having just one little bite.

I don’t want to make light of Lenten fasts.  They are important ways that the Church keeps a holy Lent—that we keep turning our attention towards God.  Fasting—or even taking on a new discipline—can help us become more aware of how we’re relating to the world, to God, to one another; it can help us repent—change—be the people God has created us to be.  And that’s a good thing.  If your Lenten fast is going well, keep it up. 

But a Lenten fast can also be used as a way for us to try and grab control of our own salvation.  If I can just get this fasting thing down right, God will be pleased with me, and I’ll be a better person, a better Christian.  I’ll finally get it right!   Have you ever had any of those feelings?

Today in our gospel reading we hear the story of Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee, a scholar of the law.  He comes to Jesus secretly, under cover of night even, to talk with him.  Is Nicodemus testing Jesus?  Investigating him?  Is he flattering him when he says, “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.” (John 3.2b)  Or is he truly interested in learning what Jesus is there to teach?  It seems as though he’s being earnest, because he makes a fundamental mistake—he misunderstands what Jesus is telling him.

Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3.3)  What I grew up hearing, though, and what is probably what you remember hearing, is a bit different.  The Authorized version renders Jesus’s response to Nicodemus like this: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3.3) 

There it is, that phrase “born again.” 

When I hear that phrase used in our popular understanding of Christianity, I think of “born again Christians.”  Folks who have had a life-changing encounter with the living God.  People that can point to a mountaintop experience, often an emotional encounter, something like Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus where he was struck down by the blinding light of God’s presence—where he was changed.  Something maybe like John Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate, when he felt his heart strangely warmed.  A particular moment that folks can point to and say, there it is.  On this date I encountered the living God.  I was born again.  I became a Christian.

In divinity school I was in a class with a broad range of students from Catholic and evangelical traditions.  A guest lecturer, a Roman Catholic nun, was telling us about her experiences in the base communities in Latin America and her work there with liberation theology.   As she was telling us her story, as she invited questions, a young woman, a classmate, raised her hand and asked, “But Sister, when did you become a Christian?  When were you born again?”

The nun smiled and replied, very seriously, “Well, I suppose I’ve always been a Christian.  I was born to Christian parents.  I was baptized as an infant.  I have always been part of the Church, the body of Christ.”

It was as though they were speaking two different languages—the two languages of the Church, catholic and reformed, two different traditions, talking about the same thing.  The young woman wanted to know when the nun had found Jesus; but the nun had never lost Jesus!  She’d always walked with him.

This idea of being born again can be used to draw lines, to exclude, to determine who’s a good Christian, who’s really Christian, and who’s just culturally identifying, walking alongside, talking the talk.  Who’s in and who’s out.  Who’s saved, and who’s not.

If the idea of being “born again” seems strange to you, take heart, for it seems strange to Nicodemus as well, and trying to understand what Jesus means, he presses the question.  How can anyone be born a second time?  Nicodemus recognizes the linguistic turn in Jesus’s speech; the Greek word anothen can be translated as again, from the beginning, or, in the sense that the NRSV uses, from above, from on high, from heaven.[1]  The sense that Jesus is trying to impart, and that Jesus clarifies, is that Nicodemus must be reborn from God.  That Nicodemus must re-orient his world view towards the kingdom of God.  He must learn to see differently, to be born of water and the spirit.

This Lent a group of us are reading Archbishop Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).  The book is about how we distinguish between the kingdom of God, the values of Jesus, and the priorities and organization of the world—mammon.  In short, who is it that we look to rule the world—is it money, economic systems, the flow of goods and services?  Or is the love of Jesus the first organizing principle?  Is it the love of God, revealed in Christ, that rules our lives, and the way we behave in the world?

The first thing that the Archbishop says is that we must learn to see differently.  That we value what it is we see, so we must begin to see the world differently—through the eyes of Jesus.  He gives as an example Lazarus.  Mary and Martha are busy hosting parties; they are productive.  But we don’t know anything about Lazarus—what is his worth?  What can he produce?  Taking a page from Jean Varnier’s L’Arche communities, communities where people with and without disabilities live side by side in community and companionship, Welby wonders if perhaps Lazarus was different in some way—whether he had a disability—and if that might account for why we don’t hear much of his story in the gospels—why we don’t hear about his value to the community he inhabits.  But he has value to Jesus, who sees differently.  And whatever Lazarus’s story, Jesus raises him from the dead.  Jesus sees him, wants to be in relationship with him, and brings him back from death into life, community, and relationship. 

Welby invites us to see differently—to see as Jesus sees.  To take the risk on valuing even what the world doesn’t value.  To believe that there is more than the world offers.  To believe that, in truth, God so desires to be with us that he sends his own son to save the whole world.  “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.” (3.16-17)

Welby invites us to see differently. To see through the eyes of Jesus.  Jesus invites Nicodemus to see differently.  Not to be born for a second time, which Nicodemus realizes is physically impossible, but to die to sin and self, just as we do in our baptism, and to rise to new life—to live as God teaches us to live—in the hope of new life, complete love, abundance, and joy.  Nicodemus, you must be born from above, Jesus tells him.  You must be born by water and the spirit.  You must see the world differently—through the eyes of God’s great love.

John Wesley knew that way of seeing.  Not just intellectually.  He had a moment when he felt it, in his very being, there at Aldersgate, when his heart was strangely warmed.  While in a bible study hearing Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Wesley writes that “while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[2]

It was that realization for Wesley that warmed his heart:  that “…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 3.16-17) 

That’s what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to see.  His new life, his being born from above, is to see with those eyes that see differently—that see that the greatest gift, the greatest thing of value, is God’s own love.  That God has given God’s very self to secure that relationship.  To draw us to him. 

And when we realize the value that we have to God, when we realize how God values us, we can begin to value the world around us differently.  To love one another as he loves us.

That’s the work we’re called to do this Lent.  Our fasting, our prayer, our study of scripture—our taking on and our giving up—all of these things we do so that we cansee more clearly.  So that we can see the world through God’s eyes.  So that we can see one another through Jesus’s eyes of mercy and love.  So that we can see ourselves as loved and redeemed.

That’s what it is to be born from above.  To see the world differently.  My friends in Christ, I pray that, this Lent, we may be born of water and the spirit—born from above.  That we may see differently.  I pray for us a holy Lent.

 

 

 

[1] Jerome Neyrey, SJ, in notes for vv 3-5 in the gospel of John, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha, 4th ed, Michael Coogan, ed.  Oxford:  OUP 2010, p NT 1886.

[2] Entry for May 25, Journal of John Wesley, ed. Percy Livingstone Parker.  Chicago:  Moody, 1951.  Online at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.i.html (accessed 3/11/17).

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