Look for the Plumb Line

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Look for the Plumb Line

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018

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

Many of you know that I come from middle Georgia, from a town called Sandersville, a town known for agriculture for most of its history but, for the last century, known more for its deposits of a mineral called kaolin--a white clay, a china clay, used first for porcelains and pigments and now more often as an inert coater and filler, often in papers for high speed printing processes.  Your service leaflets this morning undoubtedly have a high content of kaolin in them.  That’s what makes the paper more opaque and more smooth so it prints relatively nicely.

Kaolin was a big part of my early childhood years, and for part of his life my father worked at a large locally owned mining firm in Sandersville where, among other things, he coordinated the construction activities of outside contractors across the firm’s middle Georgia operations. 

This sort of work involved coordinating between the architects, the engineers, the draftsmen, the estimators, and then the crew foremen to make sure that the slurry tank, or the box car loading platform, or the crude storage warehouse that had been ordered was actually being built properly--that the work that had been contracted was being carried out properly.

My father was not an engineer, though if you gave him a pencil and a piece of paper he could sketch out about anything that needed to be built, whether it was made of wood or steel or concrete.  He could figure it out, design it pretty accurately, and build it himself. 

So he had a bit of a dog in the fight when working with someone else’s blueprints.

You can imagine his delight when, one summer, he came home from the plant one day for lunch, telling a tale of a construction project he was supervising--a loading platform for box cars carrying kaolin.  The engineers had drafted a plan to build a loading platform, a ramp of sorts, for a front-end loader to drive on up and over the elevation of the box cars so that the front end loader could dump its bucket full of clay over into the box car.  Simple idea, really.  But the engineers had failed to take into account--and this is what vexed my father to no end--the wheels of the front end loader itself.  They were large, and the bucket itself wasn’t capable of extending very far out in front of them.  When the ramp was build, just to specification, and the first front end loader went up it, it stopped short of the edge of the box car.  The wheels couldn’t get out far enough to get the bucket over the edge.  The front end loader couldn’t deliver its cargo.  And the ramp had to be demolished, redesigned, and built again.

If only the engineers had taken into account all the variables! 

If only they’d dropped a plumb line from the front of the bucket down in front of the tires of the loader, they’d have known how many more feet they needed to give the ramp for it to achieve the purpose it was built for.

Do you know a plumb line?  It’s a weighted string, a string with a piece of metal, usually, at the end, held up at a point and held straight by gravity.  It shows a straight vertical line.  We use a level now--a glass bubble level when I was growing up but now often an electronic level--to make sure things are plumb, or level, or true.  But in the days when this church was built, and in the days of Amos to be sure, a carpenter would have used a plumb line.

(If you’ve lived in Saint Hilda’s House, you’ll wonder if the carpenters there had left their plumb lines at home, but that’s another matter entirely.)

The plumb line sets the standard.  It’s a point of reference.  If something is off, or wrong, the plumb line shows it.  If you want something to be right, look to the plumb line.

In today’s first lesson, the prophet Amos relates that God is holding up a plumb line for Israel.  Showing what the kingdom looks like.  And pointing out how God’s people have strayed from the divine truth--the plumb line.

Amos prophesied almost three thousand years ago, around 750 BC during the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel.  It was a time of great peace and unprecedented prosperity in Israel; people were making money left and right—the marketplace was humming, trading was good.  Life was great.  But Amos saw something else going on—he saw a neglect for the poor—for those at the margins of society.  He saw that the people who had something—the folks who had enough—were getting more—and the folks who were in need were getting even less.  As wealth grew in the kingdom, the gap between rich and poor stretched to a breaking point.  And so Amos called on people, in the name of God, to care for the poor.  And he called out their greediness--and their dishonest dealing.  Here’s a little of his indictment, which we don’t get in our reading today:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

saying, ‘When will the new moon be over

   so that we may sell grain;

and the sabbath,

   so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,

   and practise deceit with false balances,

buying the poor for silver

   and the needy for a pair of sandals,

   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’  (Amos 8.4-6)

It’s a stinging indictment—a call to repentance—a turning to God first before commerce—an observance of Sabbath.  A change to honest dealing, to fair trading, from cheating and stealing.  And a turning towards life—especially respect for the lives of the poor—more than the value of money, goods, or commodities. 

Does that sound like a voice we could use today?  What would Amos say to us today—to how we keep the Sabbath? How we find balance in our lives—how we put God—and time for God—first in everything?  What would Amos say to our world about how we do our deals—how we make our money—who wins and who loses—how we play the game?  And what would Amos say about the poor among us—folks who are working multiple jobs but still need to visit the Soup Kitchen because they can’t make enough to pay for rent and groceries?   What would Amos say about folks that can’t afford somewhere to live, whether because of poverty, or addiction, or disability, underemployment, or whatever thing that keeps them bound, take  to our streets or even shelters to find a place to lay their heads?  What would Amos say to us today?

Would he remind us of God’s plumb line? 

When I read this gospel lesson six years ago at another parish, as I was reading the story of John the Baptist’s beheading, a young man, dressed all in white, with a full scraggly beard and long hair and sandals, came down the center aisle; I remember thinking, “This guy should play Jesus in a television movie…”  He stopped halfway down the aisle as though he were going to enter a pew, but he did not--he just stood there-- and, just as I reached the ending of the gospel lesson, the part where John’s followers bury him, the  young man raised his arms and shouted, “I have seen John the Baptist!  And he lives!”

Ushers intervened, the sermon went on, and later, after I recovered from my initial astonishment, I grew curious about what the man would have said had I asked, “Where is John the Baptist?  And what does he have to say to us today?”

And that’s what Herod was afraid of.  He was afraid that John the Baptist, whom he had killed, was raised again, and would agitate, and proclaim God’s kingdom, just like Amos was doing. That he’d be called, along with all of God’s people, to repentance--to change. And he wanted to live according to his own terms.

Little did he know that it was Jesus of Nazareth, not Elijah or John the Baptist, but the very Son of God, who was proclaiming the kingdom--holding the plumb line--calling God’s people to a greater truth, a way of being in the world, of loving God and one another--that would change all of creation.

We have a plumb line in the revelation of the law to God’s people, in the revelation of God’s love to the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  We have a plumb line in the experience of the kingdom of God coming near.  We know what the kingdom looks like because Jesus shows us.

Lately it seems that our society has made an idol, a false plumb line, out of jurisprudence, out of the very laws we have made as a society.  We’ve heard voices from the political spectrum holding up following the law as the standard of how to live a common life together--rather than the standard of the kingdom of God, the mercy and love of God.  Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t need laws.  We do, and as a part of our social contract they’re important ways we organize our common life together.  But just by purportedly following the law, we as a society have separated children and families at our southern border as a result.  We’ve locked up a disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters--a disproportionate number of people of color.  We’ve just followed the law.

On the other hand, we also hear a drumbeat for prophetic speech and action in our church.  To be like Amos.  To be like John the Baptist.  To speak truth to power.  To individually and collectively speak out as a prophetic act.  And we know that communal action, community activism, does move policy, does get a conversation started in the national discourse, does have an impact.  Activism is a valuable part of our common lives together.

But I wonder if having a prophetic voice is enough.

But did you notice what Amos says, when Amaziah, the court prophet, upbraids him?  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”  (Amos 7.14)  Amos, with a wry retort, locates himself among the poor, not those in power.  Among the ordinary folk, not the professional prophets.  He is only a shepherd, he says, and to make a little money on the side, he tends the tiny figlike fruits of the middle eastern sycamore tree, which need to be pricked with a sharp stick to help them ripen.  Not a cash crop, but more like picking wild berries or fishing in the river to supplement your supper.

Amos is not the professional prophet that Amaziah is.  He just sees the truth and speaks it.  And calls the world to repent, to change, to live differently.

John is not a professional prophet—he’s Jesus’s strange cousin that happens to see that the kingdom of God has come near.  And he calls people to turn, to repent.

And God has called them both to tell the truth.  To show the plumb line.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  To point towards Jesus.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to tell the truth.  To repent.  To turn towards God with everything we have.  And to be the ones brave enough to say, this is the right thing to do. And then to do it. We are the ones to speak on behalf of the values of the kingdom of God--but also to live our lives as Christians according to the values of the kingdom of God.  We are the ones to live differently.  Even if we’re herdsmen and women and dressers of sycamore trees.

It is dangerous work to speak up and live for the good news of Jesus.  It is dangerous to live differently in the world around us.  John the Baptist loses his head and is laid in a tomb.  But we remember our Lord’s empty tomb. 

And we remember the words of Amos.  I am not a prophet, but a dresser of sycamore trees.

Amos, John, and ultimately Jesus are all calling us to repentance.

To live differently.  To change our lives. To live according to the vision of the kingdom of God.

All of our plumblines, our laws, our policies, our liturgies, our speech, can be measured against this one plumbline:  Does this show God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ?

All of our lives exist for one purpose: to share and to show the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Are our walls crooked?  Our windowsills sloped?  Does our ramp not meet up where it should?  Of course our world does not meet up to the plumb line.  The kingdom of God has come near but is not yet fully realized. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair. 

The good news of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is coming and is here.  We know what it looks like when Jesus comes near.  And Jesus is saving us.  Jesus is redeeming us.  Jesus is remaking us into the people that live in that new way, in that new life, that Jesus describes when he reads Isaiah:

 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free…  (Luke 4:18)

This week, this summer, this life, look at the plumb line.  And make sure that everything we do shows God’s love.

+   +   +

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Working for Peace

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Working for Peace

Mr Jack Karn
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2018

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

Good morning, it is a great joy and honor to be with you on this day.  My name is Jack Karn and I am the Site Director for the 3rd annual Jerusalem Peacebuilders Service-Learning Program being hosted here at Christ Church.  As the setting for my first sermon, I must say that I am excited, humbled, and a little, let’s be honest, scared. 

Between July 1-12, 16 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) between the ages of 15-16 are here learning about service and its multiple connections to peace.  They do this through volunteering at IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), visiting Yale University and meeting students engaged in public service, traveling to New York City to visit the UN and the US Mission to meet with diplomats, attending leadership and peacebuilding workshops, and developing speeches on these topics to take home and present to their communities as follow-up activities during the upcoming 2018-2019 school year.

These teens come from diverse backgrounds, both in terms of their religious and ethnic identities, as well as their hometowns and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For nearly two weeks during the program, they play together, they dialogue together, they learn together, and they grow together.  Positions are challenged, deep feelings are expressed, and good will is exchanged freely.

As a person who feels called to the ministry of peacemaking, my work with Jerusalem Peacebuilders fills me with that sense of total satisfaction that can only come from God.  Over my five years of working with JPB, I have facilitated nine summer programs and launched JPB’s in-school programming in the Holy Land.  In total, I have worked with over 300 young peacebuilders in these programs.   

What began as a cry out to God for a purpose to serve humanity, has now unfolded into a blossoming confidence and affirmation to participate in reconciliation and service, as opposed to only wish for it. In my mind, there is no doubt that God is guiding JPB and opening up the hearts and minds of those we serve to hear this prophetic message of mercy, justice, and love.

Today’s Gospel reading is about the Great Commission.  And that work of spreading God’s love, healing lives, and shaping the future, is alive and well among these young people and the mission of Jerusalem Peacebuilders.

The story reads that after being rejected by members of his hometown, Jesus’ moves to other nearby villages and continues teaching. He begins to send out his most faithful followers, the 12 disciples, to share in his mission. He gives them authority over unclean spirits and orders them to only take the most primitive of supplies, meaning that they must rely on the hospitality, charity, and kindness of those they meet along the way. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to distinguish between whom they meet, Jew or Gentile, but simply to go out into the surrounding area and trust in the generosity of strangers who will welcome them. Interestingly, he does not tell them to submit to those who reject them, but to “shake off the dust on their feet as a testimony against them.” This commission to serve all who will welcome the 12 disciples can be seen as an invitation for us to share God’s Justice, Mercy, and Love all across this Earth. That Justice, Mercy, and Love isn’t just for Christians, it’s for the whole world.  And it’s never easy sharing it.

For me, it hasn’t always been easy to share it.  While serving a year abroad in Jerusalem as a Missionary for the Episcopal Church, I would travel once a week to a refugee camp in the West Bank to teach in an impoverished, all-Girls, Muslim school.  Each time, I would cross a maze of traffic, military checkpoints, pollution and noise, and increased danger to reach the school.  I traveled lightly and always on foot, as I knew in my heart I needed to experience this place of great suffering from a place of near total vulnerability. With a little pocket money in my backpack, a small bottle of water, and the clothes on my back, I relied on my faith in God to get me to the school and back home to Jerusalem safely.  Once at the school, I again navigated a maze of corridors and hallways, where every woman wore a hijab and a conservative dress down to the ankles. When I made it to the classroom, I was met with regular power outages that caused some disruption to the educational environment. As the only young, white, American, male for miles, it was truly humbling and a bit unnerving.  At times, I didn’t think I could do it.

Two things kept me coming back: 1). The confidence that I was participating in Christ’s Mission of healing the world; and 2). That the joy and happiness I witnessed in my nine students week after week for coming and serving them though teaching peacebuilding.  For me, these intangible gifts have brought me far more satisfaction than any amount of money or success ever will.  For me, I knew that even though my impact was small, I was contributing to a positive change in educating these nine young girls to be peacebuilders in their community.  

The story never ends with me, but only grows longer with each year that JPB welcomes more and more brave young teens into our programs.  I remember a young participant from last summer named Adan, who shared her struggle with depression and self-confidence – an issue people face all across the world.  A faithful, and intelligent young woman, she told me how she had considered taking her own life to end the pain of it all.  Like all of us, she faces the overwhelming weight of a world filled with sorrow, misery, and violence. But something happened in Adan that changed her life. I am not exactly sure if it was a specific moment or a change overtime, but in a dialogue one beautiful afternoon in the forests of Vermont, Adan told her Jewish participants that she loved them no matter what happened. She told them that she would not let the divisions of this world stop her from loving them. She told them that she was committed to staying connected for the sake of a greater good.  

Like Adan, and myself, we are all commissioned, Jew or non-Jew, by Jesus, to go out into this world and share in the Good News that is God’s Love and Mercy. Christ sends out his disciples in pairs for a reason, that without being in relationship with someone else, our power to transform this world is greatly diminished.  Ultimately, we must rely upon our trust in God and in that of our fellow brothers and sisters to help us along our journey as healers and peacebuilders in a broken world.  We need each other for mutual generosity and sharing in the gifts of God.  And with this type of loving community and support, the work of making peace, healing lives, and shaping the future will only continue to grow. Amen.

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Miracles and the Power of God

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Miracles and the Power of God

The Rev'd Elaine Farmer
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Miracles. They’re troublesome things. Difficult to understand in our questioning world let alone accept. I don’t think understanding miracles is what faith is about but that doesn’t stop people getting uncomfortable with things that can’t be understood and explained. Modern minds, educated to observe and question and analyse, want to pick miracles apart. To sort out their component bits, work out cause and effect, pin down their glory in ways that make sense within our way of seeing things.

Our language gives us away. We call things ‘miraculous’ when they’re probably nothing of the sort. We say ‘miraculous’ when we should probably say ‘extraordinary’, or ‘coincidental’, or ‘wildly unexpected’, or just plain ‘impossible to believe’. A gravely ill person suddenly recovers and relieved families speak of miracles. An unexpected turn of events rescues someone’s life from disaster and they speak of miracles. Of course, all these things might be miracles. But we play too freely with ‘seeming knowledge’, wanting to make ‘familiar’ that which ought simply make us silent and deeply respectful.

At the same time, while miracles may be troublesome things, they are highly attractive. It’s impossible to ignore the pull of Jesus’ healing the blind and the crippled, stilling winds and storms, walking on water. Actions giving glimpses of how things were meant to be. The light of God’s will for the world, of how things are in the kingdom of God, flashes into our ordinary world, and just for that moment, the storms of chaos are stilled and nothing is impossible. But the moment passes and the ordinary rules once more: the blind do not see, the crippled limp on, and storms batter our lives as before.

But having glimpsed the possibility of God’s power, why wouldn’t we want miracles for ourselves? I’m sure we’ve all prayed for one at some stage but it just isn’t that easy. As often as not, prayers don’t seem to be answered and miracles seem in short supply. What’s worse—particularly for Episcopalians and Anglicans who like things to be tidy and orderly—is that there isn’t anything orderly or predictable about miracles. Nor is there any way of analysing and guaranteeing access to this extraordinary power of God. There’s no formula we can apply to make our virtue so obvious, or our particular causes so urgent, before God, that God will disturb the mysterious order of things to right the wrong in our lives or ease the enormity of our suffering in one flashing miracle.

In today’s gospel we hear of miracles in the ordinary course of human lives. A woman with debilitating medical problems who had bled for twelve long and painful years is made well. A little girl who is dead is brought to life again. Both were considered outcasts or unclean. Taboo. Yet Jesus didn’t spurn them. He ignored religious law that demanded he purify himself after the bleeding woman touched him. Instead, he went—carrying that ritual contamination—straight to a death bed, making himself, a holy man, doubly unclean. In the process, he gave healing where there was need, created outrage among the religiously virtuous, and provided the gossips some of the juiciest titbits they’d had to chatter about in years.

A bleeding woman and a dead girl. Why a miracle for them? We cannot claim to know the mind of God, so there are no definitive answers, only more questions. Why did the healing power of God cut right across the brokenness of their lives? Was it because of virtue, or innocence, or faith?

We get into dangerous territory here. One of the oldest truisms in Christianity is that if we pray hard enough all our prayers will be answered. It’s an attitude that, despite good intentions on the part of plenty of good Christians, has confused the issue and caused hurt and chaos in people’s lives. When answers to prayers are not apparent, or forthcoming, in the desired way, the corollary is trotted out: ‘Your faith isn’t strong enough, so God isn’t answering your prayers.’ Shame and guilt are thus heaped on suffering, and faith turned into a weapon to batter at the heart of God.

This is a long way from any kind of useful truth or understanding about miracles. Exhortations like—‘You must obey the will of God! Sacrifice yourself as Jesus sacrificed himself! Pray harder!’—these kinds of exhortations are less about faith in God than they are about coercing God. About who’s in charge of our lives, who’s in control—us or God? All of which is not faith but idolatry, the age-old business of worshiping gods of our making. Martin Luther called it justification by works. Which is simply thinking we can earn the favour of God through deeds, through how we pray, how we worship, the amount of money we give to charities or the church—how busy we are doing what we think is God’s business.

Which is all hopelessly misguided because miracles are just that: God’s business, not ours. When we forget that every moment of our lives is a gift from God we forget that it is not in our power to determine whence comes the breath of life and how the Spirit of God will work in our lives. When we forget that, we forget that it is God who works miracles, not us and not our faith. As one theologian puts it: ‘To concentrate on the strength of our own belief is to practise magic. To concentrate on the strength of God is to practise faith … This is the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands and believing they are in God’s. God, not faith, works miracles.’[1]

Did the bleeding woman and the dead girl—or her father whom Mark called Jairus—have faith? Only with the woman is faith mentioned at all. ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,’ Jesus said to her.[2] If she had faith it was silent, not paraded. She was cowed by years of suffering and rejection, but nevertheless approached Jesus, content to be unnoticed, concentrating only on the strength of God’s power in Jesus to heal her. It was that strength of belief for which Jesus commended her, and when he spoke she was healed.

As for the dead girl, and her father—there’s not a word about faith from Mark, nor from Matthew and Luke who both tell these stories. The girl was dead; we know nothing about her faith. The father, a synagogue leader, believed, we can imagine, on the basis of what he saw in Jesus, that he was encountering the power of God. This man, whose very position in society demanded he obey every religious law, nevertheless knelt publicly at the feet of this radical rabbi who was challenging everything he, Jairus, stood for. That action alone declared that an outsider could restore life to his daughter. It wasn’t faith that made him act, but belief in the strength of God’s power that he encountered in Jesus.

The key player in these stories is God. The power of God was there to be encountered in Jesus and the miracles here are the explosions of belief in these people. The woman could have huddled on the edge of the road, unable to risk more rejection, and watch Jesus pass by, condemning herself to permanent isolation. The synagogue leader could have valued his social and religious position more than his daughter and buried her surrounded by flute players and wailing mourners. But in these two stories, ordinary events moved ordinary people to belief in the strength of the power of God. They saw Jesus, God acted, and everything in their lives was changed. Permanently.

I imagine all of us will go on praying for miracles. And so we should. After all, we have an excellent precedent. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for a miracle. ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,’ he prayed.[3] If that was the miracle he wanted, he didn’t get it. The miracle was that he drank from the cup because he believed more in God’s power than in his own to decide God’s purposes for the world.

So let us go on praying for miracles. Remembering that all God asks from us is what the ancient scriptures called Hesed—steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty. Let us be steadfast in our love and trust the working of miracles in our lives to God’s power. After all, it’s our business to pray; it’s God’s business to work miracles. If in prayer we put out our hands to touch the fringe of Christ’s cloak, who knows what will happen? Miracles do happen and we might just catch a glimpse of the glory of God’s kingdom.

©  (The Rev’d) Elaine Farmer, 1 July 2018

 

 

 

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, p.139

[2]  Matthew 9:22

[3] Matthew 26:39

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How do we restrain Jesus?

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How do we restrain Jesus?

The Rev'd John P. Gedrick III
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

The Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright, publishes a weekly and often pithy reflection, and for his topic this past week, he chose the word “restrain” from this morning’s gospel.  His thoughts stuck with me, and I thought, this morning, we, too, might consider Bishop Wright’s question, How do we restrain Jesus in our own lives?  Restraint does pop right out at us, The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.  We know that he hasn’t, of course, or knowing what we know about Jesus, we’re, at least, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  This Jesus who offers us the freedom of release, the freedom of unrestrained love, the freedom of knowing that Here, gathered, are my mother and my brothers, and Jesus assures us, Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Thy will be done.  It is that for which we pray.  It is the assurance for which our heart longs.  Inspire us to know what is right, we pray, and guide us to act upon it.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  It is what we, our souls long for, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.  The psalmist reminds us in his great plea out of the depths that we long for God because God forgives.  There is forgiveness in heaven, and we pray for it, we hope for it on earth.  If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?  For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.  With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall save Israel for all their sins.  We wait or as Paul puts it, We do not lose heart because it is by God’s mercy that we are assured of our place in heaven.

A trouble, perhaps, the trouble is that the world, the earth and humankind upon it is not apt to forgive.  Often, it hates.  The enmity of old is powerful, and because of its power, we often succumb to it and do not choose to forgive.  Thus we pray, Forgive us our trespasses.  Help us not to give in, we might say.  Help us to persist in love.  Help us to wait.  Enmity, after all is a strong and powerful force, and we, very often tap into it and accuse, He has gone out of his mind.  We, very often, restrain, He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.  Jesus, thank God, catches us in our own game, loves us, and asks us to recognize what we’ve done.  With Jesus, you see, there is forgiveness; withered hands are restored; the lame take up their pallets and walk.  He knows his father’s will, the very spirit within him, and he’s trying to show us how it is to be done, how to resist the hate of the world, the devil, no less, here, on earth.  How can Satan cast out Satan, he asks?  Divided, anyone falls, he reminds, and for the record, he reminds us still further, I’ve bound him up. 

Just before this little lesson, Mark relates to us that Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him, as we have come this morning.  And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.  There is it. 

By proclaiming the good news, that there is forgiveness even when it is in short supply, even in the midst of hate, it is then that we cast out demons, and we weaken the power that enmity holds in the world.  The Holy Spirit within us, God’s grace within us, is the source for living without restraint, so let us not blaspheme against it.  Instead, let us tap into it, let us receive it in the host, let us tap into it, let us not lose heart, let us tap into it, let us wait for the Lord by forgiving others.  The way not to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is recognize what is within us and to wait.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us wait for the Lord in the knowledge of our own forgiveness. 

More than watchmen for the morning, let us hope in the Word made flesh.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us keep asking for the inspiration to know what is right.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us ask for guidance in acting upon it.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us never give in to the power that hate holds in the world.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us ask for forgiveness when we do.  More than watchmen for the morning, may we forgive others as we have been forgiven, for in forgiving, God’s will is done, and we find life unrestrained on earth as it is in heaven.

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Remember the Sabbath?

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Remember the Sabbath?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018

I wonder if you have heard or use the phrase “play clothes.”  Specifically I wonder if you use this phrase with your children, or if you’re a child, for yourself.  I wonder if you differentiate between “Sunday clothes” and “play clothes.” 

When I was a child, we had strict delineations between parts of our wardrobe; there were the clothes we might wear to school, and there were the clothes we wore to church--our “Sunday best.”  Always a jacket and tie, or a little suit, or something that just came out for Sundays or special events. 

And then, there was another designation for clothing:  play clothes.  For you see, after church on Sunday, we’d go visiting.  We’d often visit my great grandmother, who lived in the country.  And we’d leave right after church and go to her house, about half an hour away, for lunch.  But after lunch, we would change out of our “Sunday clothes” and into our “play clothes”--and the afternoon was ours.  In our play clothes we could run and play and get dirty and no one minded.

Woe be unto the child who got grass stains on her Sunday best--but in play clothes everything was forgivable.  Everything could wash out.

Sunday was always a time for church and family.  Shops were closed, many restaurants were closed, and we didn’t mow the lawn or do any sort of work except the kind involving hospitality--cooking meals, bringing people food, having friends over.  Maybe there was a pickup softball game in the backyard, but team sports didn’t practice on Sundays.  There were no soccer games to go to on Sunday; we just kicked a ball around in the backyard with our cousins.  

And if, when we were driving to my great grandmother’s house, we saw a road crew working, or a construction crew making repairs to a building or a bridge, it was unusual.  We wondered what had happened.  We were sorry they were working on a day off.  On the Sabbath.

Because that’s what Sunday was for us.  A day off.  A day to go to church, to see family, to see friends, to rest and relax. 

Jewish families and some Seventh Day Adventists might have Saturday for the Sabbath, but for us it was Sunday.  And thanks to the labor movement, both Saturday and Sunday were generally free days.  I was urged to finish my homework on Friday so that the weekend would be free for play, for church, and for visiting family.  We didn’t work on Sunday.

That’s rapidly changing in our society today.  The idea of being free from work, of being “off” work, of taking a break, is almost elusive.  I hear again and again from parents with children, from grandparents, about the constant and persistent stream of events that young people are scheduled for--soccer practice, soccer games, dance recitals, school plays, birthday parties--how can one person fit it all in?  And so Sundays have become taken up by all these events--practice, sporting events, school meetings.  One father I spoke to a few weeks ago lamented how hard it was to come to church with his family.  There was always something demanding their time.  Do we go to the soccer match or come to church?  Will Sarah be penalized for missing tennis practice because she comes to mass on Sunday morning?

I know many of you who work on Sundays--who leave this place to get just a few more hours in the office, to deal with a few more emails, to finish up that report that’s due on Monday morning.  The pace is unrelenting. 

When is there Sabbath rest?  When is there time to stop, to stop work, to stop being busy, to stop and just be.  If we take a break, won’t we fall behind as someone else gets ahead?  Won’t our children miss out on the extracurricular activities they need to get into college?  Won’t our families suffer if we don’t make every event we can?  And with this much going on, how can we even justify finding time to stop, to slow down, to come to mass?  And yet you have.  And here we are, together. 

In the gospel lesson today we hear that the Pharisees have criticized Jesus’s followers for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus replies that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath… “(Mark 2:27)  And as though to drive the point home, Jesus, in another incident, heals a man, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.  The religious Pharisees are enraged.  Jesus has broken the laws of the Sabbath. 

Now, it’s easy to make light of those laws as Christians.  As gentiles, we don’t have the same strict rabbinical rules around the Sabbath.  We can drive cars, go to parties, bake a cake, cook a meal.

I recently ordered a light switch cover to keep folks from turning off a light in a particular corner of the parish house that, because I live here and come in and out through that door late at night, I like to leave on.  It’s good to have a little bit of light in the darkness of winter, and so I ordered the light switch cover.  It arrived, $5 from Amazon, from a manufacturer in Brooklyn.  The packaging made it clear that this product could help keep you from accidentally turning off your light switch on the Sabbath! 

It’s a great light switch cover, just perfect, and it works just as advertised.  And though I’m not worried about the moral implications of turning on and off the lights in this particular corner of the building, I was reminded of the very clear rules around the Sabbath our Jewish sisters and brothers have.  The kinds of rules the Pharisees were concerned about.  If Jesus is a Jewish teacher, how’s he breaking the laws about the Sabbath?  Is it true that Jesus is saying that the rules don’t matter?  The Sabbath is made for man, not the other way around!  Don’t worry about those pesky rules.  Go ahead and turn that light switch off.

I once served at a Saturday evening wedding, as the officiant, where the maid of honor was Jewish.  It was summer, and the days were long.  The bride knew that her best friend, the maid of honor, was a religious Jewish woman; she could come to the wedding, a religious service; she wasn’t violating any of the Sabbath restrictions she observed in taking the subway, in walking down the aisle, in witnessing the wedding.  But at the end of the service, about seven thirty in the evening, as the bride and groom signed the wedding license, the maid of honor took me aside and said she needed to wait until sundown to sign the civil document, the marriage license, for her friend.  As dusk fell everyone packed up and left the church to go to the reception.  And the maid of honor and I waited.  We walked outside and looked up at the night sky.  And she watched.  She waited.  I called my friends to say I’d be late for dinner.  And she waited until she could see three stars -- not an easy task in light-filled Manhattan. When she saw the third star she came inside, we signed the marriage license, and she headed off to the reception.  Her Sabbath was over.

Her Sabbath wasn’t about rest, or fun, or relaxation.  It wasn’t about an escape from doing something, an escape from work.  Her Sabbath was even a little inconvenient, truth be told.  Her Sabbath was about none of those things.

Her Sabbath was about God.  Keeping God first, even in the midst of a fun social occasion.

She may have been the most religious person at the Christian wedding, because she knew her life, first and foremost, depended on God.    Her Sabbath was an act of prayer and praise.  And the time we spent waiting was itself a prayer.

In our secular world we may think of “time off” as rest, as relaxation and refreshment.  And that’s certainly good; there is no end to the psychological and physiological benefits of taking a break, of getting rest.  And I recognize that, as we enter this summer season, that we need breaks.  We need rest.  We need a time to recharge, to regroup--for our brains and bodies to process what’s been happening, and to prepare us for what’s next.

I hope you get some rest time this summer--some time to be with friends or family or just alone.  Some time to think.  Some time not to think!  To read a good book or catch up on correspondence or just stop what you’re doing, to be thankful for the here and now and not work for what’s coming next.

But I hope you get some Sabbath, too.  For what the maid of honor taught me, what the Pharisees are so worried about, what all those Sabbath laws are about, is that Sabbath is about time for God.  Sabbath is about stopping what we’re doing and giving God our time.  About realizing and naming and enacting that God is first, above all things.

The Pharisees were afraid--they couldn’t see how breaking Sabbath was about God; breaking God’s law, surely, was defying God.  But they didn’t realize that God God’s own incarnate Son was there, showing them the truth of the law, showing them what Sabbath can look like.

Sabbath involves stopping to feed the hungry--to heal the sick--because these things look like the love of God enacted.  “Imagine a world where love is the way,” Bishop Curry said to Megan and Harry--and to the world watching--at their wedding two weeks ago. 

Sabbath involves stopping to give time for ourselves to be fed, for ourselves to heal, to pay attention to our connectedness with God and God’s creation, with one another.  Sabbath involves putting God first -- which takes time.

And so we stop what we’re doing.  We pray.  We come to church.  We spend time with one another, putting off for another day the things that have been left undone--not merely to rest--but to be reminded again of our connection with God.  To put God first.

When I am trying to make a decision about what to do, about how to spend my time, I often ask myself a question my mother used to ask me:  In ten years, in 20 years, will I remember the decision I’m making now?  Will the outcome matter in a decade or more?  And often that helps me re-align what I’m doing.  Spending the time with God will matter in a decade, in a lifetime, forever.  Whether I’ve finished the report or made it to the cookout or soccer match--maybe that’ll matter for a year or two, but not for a lifetime.

And that’s what my parents were modeling for us when we were growing up.  Leaving church and changing into our “play clothes” wasn’t about rest or leisure or relaxation.  It was about relationship.   Relationship with God, and with one another.  About connecting.  About taking time to be fed, to heal.  About keeping God first. 

In this world where there are so many things that demand our attention, so many places to be, so many things we have to do to keep up, so many things that call out to us--as we enter this summer season when resting and relaxing is raised up culturally to a high standard--I invite us to think about Sabbath.  About what it means, and how we do it.

It’s not merely about rest; it’s about connecting with God.  About responding to God’s love and abundance.

And I invite us to measure everything we do--all the decisions we make about our time--through the lens of Sabbath. 

How does this keep God first?

How am I feeding and healing, being fed, being healed.  How is this use of my time praising God? 

Let us look for God in our lives, in our work, in our rest, in the world around us.  For he is already there, calling out to us in love.

Comment

Remember to Keep the Feast

Comment

Remember to Keep the Feast

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Corpus Christi
May 31, 2018

Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.

In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul reminds them of the tradition he himself has inherited. The very tradition that was passed down to him, which he has taught them about Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.

Saint Paul writes:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Richard Hays, former Dean and professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, writes, “[when Saint Paul speaks of what he has received] “he does not mean that he learned about the Lord’s Supper in some unmediated experience of revelation but that he received it “from the Lord” in the sense that it was Jesus himself who originated the tradition of sharing the bread and cup as a sign of his death and of the new covenant… Even though there were no written Gospels in [Saint] Paul’s time, the telling of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection stood at the center of Christian proclamation from the beginning.”[1] In other words, to speak of Jesus; his love, his care for the poor and disenfranchised, and for those of need of healing and mercy, is to speak about his death and resurrection.

Saint Paul is not giving the Corinthians new information about the Lord’s Supper; rather, he is recalling to mind the story that he told them about the foundational redemptive event, a story that they themselves repeat - or should repeat - every time they gather at table.[2].

Before the Church, its rituals and order were hashed out, let alone solidified in any one shape, the Church gathered to break bread as Jesus taught his disciples on the night of his capture. This simple act of taking, breaking, and receiving bread and sharing the cup is at the heart of the Christian faith.

As simple as this act might seem, Christians in Corinth were having some difficulties.

What we would find in Corinth is a Christian church divided by wealth, class, and status. Christians with great financial would offer a great banquet to remember our Lord’s Last Supper. As was the costume, then and now, all were invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper, however, all were not allowed to participate. While rich homeowners would generously offer a meal in remembrance of our Lord’s Last Supper and share with their friends, they would offer nothing to the rest of the gathered body. And these were, of course, the poor, the widow, and slaves, some who were not even invited inside. It’s as if at Mass we decided to only commune those we knew or simply liked, those who were of a certain social class or economic background or a select skin tone.

There was something amiss in Corinth, most concerning, the Lord’s Supper was being corrupted. “The problem was not that the Christians at Corinth were failing to say the right words but that their enactment of the word is deficient: their self-serving actions obscure the meaning of the supper so thoroughly that it no longer points to Christ’s death and [resurrection]”[3] Rather, than pointing to God’s love, his care for the poor and disenfranchised, it was poiting to our human sin and greed. Preventing them from receiving the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, which are, as described in our Prayer Book, the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.

When Saint Paul retells the story it is to spotlight the death of Jesus as the central meaning of the supper. What Saint Paul’s reminds the Church in Corinth, what Saint Paul reminds the Church in New Haven, are the words of Jesus. That our Supper, our Holy Eucharist, in Jesus’ Last Supper.

In his commentary, Professor Hays points out that one of “the most striking features of [Saint] Paul’s recounting of the tradition is the emphasis he places on memory: The church is twice instructed to “do this in remembrance of me.” This act of remembrance links the Lord’s Supper with the Passover. The Passover is to be “a day of remembrance for you,” a day in which Israel recalls God’s deliverance others people from bondage. In the same way, the Lord’s supper is to be an occasion for the people of God to remember God‘s action of deliverance through the death of Jesus.”[4]

This is why when we celebrate the Eucharist in this place, the priest proclaims “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” What we are doing in this place is offering Christ’s Passover, following his own instruction. And in following in Jesus’ command we are participating in his life, and he is present here with us in the substance of bread and wine. What more can we say to this great truth than, “Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

 


[1] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 197.

[2] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 198.

[3] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 200.

[4] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 198-199.

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In Adoration

Comment

In Adoration

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Trinity Sunday
May 27, 2018

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

Today, the Church Catholic celebrates through its prayer, worship, and praise the nature of God. The divine Trinity of persons is lifted up, in a special way creating for us a heighten awareness of God’s full reality. Today, above all days, we celebrate the fullness of God.

And like all Feasts of the Church, this Feast calls us to focus our attention on a divine truth that’s always been with us and will always be true.

Just as God shares in our humanity in the Incarnation we celebrate on Christmas Day, and just as God is raised from dead forever on Easter, today, we remember God, the Most Holy Trinity, this day and always.

Like many of the Church’s Feasts, this day invites us to center ourselves in the divine mystery of God. Focusing us to dwell in God’s nature, God’s reality, first and foremost through our worship experience in this place.

After all, all the Feasts of the Church invite us to praise God for his mighty works and at the same to find ourselves in the midst of what we’ve come to celebrate. In other words, this Feast, this day, Trinity Sunday, is as much about God as it is about us.

We come to understand the Trinity most fully, and most intimately, primarily through our worship and praise of God through prayer, litanies, and glorious hymns and anthems. Our grasping of the Most Holy Trinity is attained through our acts of devotion. Through art and hymns, the Church comes closer to grasp God’s divine nature.

If you had the chance to read this week’s Epistle, you received a quick refresher on some of the images and explanations for the Trinity. Fr Stephen pointed us to one image in particular, Andrei Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity.

Borrowing imagery and symbolism from the Book of Genesis, Rublev writes for us a divine image of the three persons of Trinity seating around a table. All three persons are distinct, and at the same time seem drawn to each other in a deep and intimate way. The persons of the Trinity, as Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, are in divine Union with each other. And this divine union we see a glimpse of our own destiny, we too shall come to divine Union with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as they are in Union with each other we shall be in Union with God.

Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity, like any depiction, manages to capture the truth of this wonderful mystery without being able to encompass all of it.

And this is a good thing. After all, there is no human image, theology, or summa that is able to capture the full nature of God. Rather, all of it, all the art and theology, affirms for us what God has already revealed to us. Pointing us to the fullness of God which we will all encounter on the last day.

Our art, our theology, and our prayers acts as our yes to God. It is our affirmation that We believe in one God. As if we were the Blessed Mother, Mary most holy, when we speak of the Most Holy Trinity, when we utter the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are saying “yes” to God and proclaiming who God is, who God has always been, and who God will always be.

At Mass, our opening acclamation: Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, captures at least two powerful points. It affirms God’s divine nature and calls us back to our Baptism. You and I, and all the baptized, and the soon to be baptized, are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are are baptized in the name of God, bringing us one step closer to Union with God. Not in the form of a great singularity or as a fusion with God but as the Trinity itself, we enter into utter intimate harmony with God.

If you’re anything like me, you have an interest in religious art. Guessing that you’re here, where we’re surrounded by religious art, I think it’s a safe bet to make that you enjoy religious art, even if just a bit. One of the most powerful pieces of relgious art of 19th century is arguably Jean-François Millet’s renowned painting “The Angelus.”

If you’re not familiar with this painting, I commend that you search for images of “The Angelus.” You will find thousands of images online, as well as thousands of websites to purchase printed copies. It’s really that popular.

The painting depicts two farmers bowing in a field over a basket of potatoes to say a prayer, the Angelus, that together with the ringing of the bell from the church on the horizon marks the end of a day's work.

“The Angelus” both the painting and the prayer itself, capture for us God’s divine action in the Incarnation and in the faithfulness of the Blessed Mother.

If I were to follow in the vein of the French artist, and attempt to capture the reality of the Most Holy Trinity, well… I would paint a picture of all of you.

I would paint a picture of you from the altar looking towards the tabernacle as we offer to God our sacrifices and gifts of bread and wine. I would paint the reflection I see of you every time I lift chalice at mass. I would paint our participation in the Trinity through our prayer and worship of God. I would paint Teddy's Baptism, in which he is baptized in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… I would paint our choir singing of Te Deum as clouds of incense fill this sacred space.

And yet my depiction, like your own depictions of the Most Holy Trinity, only point us to the true and full nature of God. A reality we might not be able to fully understand or comprehend but one that we are able to adore and worship. A reality that makes us sing:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts:
Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.

Amen.

Comment

Come, Holy Spirit

Comment

Come, Holy Spirit

Mr Zachary Fletcher
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
May 20, 2018

"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."  Please be seated.

It’s hard for me to think of a place more annoying than airport security.  With each passing year, at least in America, my experiences in airport security seem to get more and more anxious.  I’m so afraid of getting in the wrong line, or upsetting one of the TSA officers.  And those creepy body-scanning machines...  Anyway, it seems that based on my experience, airport security is forever doomed to be a miserable place that puts me, and everyone else, on edge.

So whenever I have a pleasant or interesting interaction with someone in airport security, it’s all the more memorable.  I have one such memory from several years ago.  I had just been in Bermuda for Spring Break.  Now as you might imagine, Bermudian airport security is much more laid-back than anything we have in the States.  The lines were so short, and the officer inspecting my backpack was super nice.  I was studying Greek back then, and the officer came across my Greek textbook.  He says, “Ah, I see you’re studying Greek!”  I say, “Oh yes, that’s me!”  So he says, “You know, I’ve been trying to teach myself Hebrew.”  He leans in, as if to tell a secret: “When God created the world, he was speaking Hebrew.”

I don’t remember how I responded to that.  I probably just smiled and nodded, but I was laughing inside.  I thought, what does that even mean?  God speaking Hebrew?  Seriously?  God doesn’t speak anything!

But I’ve been reflecting on what that Bermudian officer said, about God speaking Hebrew.  And guess what?  I’ve come around.  I think he’s right.  What do I mean by this?

Our religion descends from Judaism.  The Hebrew Bible, which we believe contains God’s promises to his people as revealed in his relationship with Israel, is almost totally Hebrew.  In that context, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom we call God the Father, is understood as the universal Creator, but the narrative of his activities in the world takes place in a particular language, Hebrew.  So in that sense, yes, God did create the world in Hebrew, because that story is a Hebrew story.

And if God the Father speaks Hebrew, then what about Jesus?

While Jesus may have known Hebrew for liturgical purposes, and maybe some Greek, his native language was Aramaic.  This means that the Christian message, from its earliest beginnings, was originally happening among people like Jesus who lived in a world of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, a very particular context.

So if God the Father speaks Hebrew, and if Jesus speaks Aramaic, then what does the Holy Spirit speak?

Maybe I’m jumping the gun a little bit.  I probably shouldn’t talk about the Trinity too much, since Trinity Sunday is next week.  I’m not assigned to preach Trinity Sunday.  And yet, this question is immediately relevant to what we’re celebrating today.  What language does the Holy Spirit speak?

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  We’ve already gotten a little demonstration of the answer to that question, during our reading from Acts.  You probably noticed, it was different from how we usually read lessons at Christ Church.  And that’s what we learn on Pentecost: we might say, the Holy Spirit speaks every language.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit, the moment when the message of God in Jesus – once understood as particularly Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – began to be heard more widely, more universally, among people, Jews and non-Jews, who spoke all kinds of languages.  It’s the Holy Spirit, newly given to the world at Pentecost, which would help the disciples tell people about Jesus and build the Church in every language under the sun.

This is miraculous work.  Notice what the crowd says when they see the disciples speaking other languages: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”  In other words, despite the particular Jewish identity of these disciples, their stories of “God’s deeds of power” are heard by all present, regardless of national origin, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s no coincidence that this is happening on Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή, the Greek term for the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, occurring on the fiftieth day after Passover.  It’s no coincidence that God’s definitive gift of the Holy Spirit is predicted by the Jewish prophet Joel.  This is part of the Pentecost miracle.  It’s only through God’s particular revelation to the Jews that the story of Jesus makes any sense.  On Pentecost, we come to recognize that story as universal, through our own very particular languages and cultures.

This is the mystery of Pentecost, which extends all the way to today.  We may not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek – as we just witnessed during the reading from Acts, we speak a number of other languages.  And yet we have still received the good news of Jesus Christ.  The message of Jesus has been passed to us, two thousand years later, in a totally different cultural context from the one we read about in Acts.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  So however you understand this bizarre scene as reported in Acts – the “rush of a violent wind”; the “divided tongues, as of fire… resting on” the disciples – make no mistake that we are participating right now in the miraculous reality of Pentecost.  We, the Church, would not be here without Pentecost.  As members of Christ’s Body in baptism, our fellowship transcends not just linguistic barriers, but also time and space as we know it.  Just as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to build the first churches, that same Spirit is working today, calling the people of God together, in all their languages, into the One Church of Christ.

And what is the purpose of this unity, brought about by the Holy Spirit?  As we read in the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit empowers the Church to show a world enslaved to sin the true way back to God.  Of course, that true way is… Jesus.  Jesus says, “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about judgment: […] because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  The ruler he’s talking about is the Devil.  Our culture worships the Devil in so many ways.  The news cycle, with its endless stream of violence and hatred – and it’s not getting any better – reminds me of how we, as individuals and as a culture, are addicted to sin.  As we’ve seen once again this week, we’re addicted, and thus enslaved, to a false logic that values “freedom” over the dignity of other human lives.  It’s not just about guns; it’s about so much more than guns.  Without the Holy Spirit, who condemns the Devil and all his works, and who shows by contrast what holiness looks like, we remain totally lost, unable to understand the gravity of our individual and corporate sin.  If we are open to receiving it, the Holy Spirit exposes the poverty of our own, chronically misconceived human judgment, and corrects it with God’s eternally perfect wisdom.  And that’s the best, most liberating thing that could happen to us.

This is why we need the Holy Spirit.  And no matter what language we speak, we must listen for the Spirit’s wisdom, as Christians living in such a time as this.  So, let us pray with the Church today, on this Pentecost Sunday, with Christian hope that our prayer will be answered: Come, Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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The Rule of Love

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The Rule of Love

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 6, 2018

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’

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

            For most of my early childhood my mother ran a daycare out of our home. She usually watched over ten or so children, of whom I was the youngest and most feared. Though some struggle to believe it now, I was a very wild child who struggled with behavioral issues. I was full of energy and had a very active imagination that often spilled over into troublesome behavior. I was scolded many times for pestering and chasing much older children around our expansive backyard. When the time came for me to begin preschool my mother was certain I would be the problem child of the class. She warned my teacher to prepare a special section of time-out reserved just for me. After a few weeks of school my teacher came to my mother and expressed her deep confusion. ‘I’m not sure what you were talking about,’ she told my mother. ‘Patrick is the most well-behaved member of the class. He is an angel.’ My mother was baffled. At home I was still the wild and disorderly child that I had always been, but at school I was on my best behavior. It turns out that I love rules and can thrive in a clearly structured environment.

            This love and reverence for rules has followed me throughout my life, especially in my faith journey. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition in which prayer was almost always extemporaneous. When I came to the Anglican tradition, I discovered the Book of Common Prayer and its rich cycles of daily, weekly, and yearly prayer that are governed by an at times elaborate system of rules. I was at home. I poured myself into this way of being and praying and found it to be so life-giving. The structure and rubrics of the Prayer Book became second nature. It all felt very good and I had a sense of deep connection with God.

I carried this love with me to seminary, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were some major distortions at the heart of this system. One morning in Berkeley’s St. Luke’s Chapel a student officiant leading us in morning prayer offered the opening versicle ‘Lord open our lips,’ and we good seminarians responded with gusto ‘And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ We continued with the ‘Glory be’ and moved toward the invitatory psalm. Those of you acquainted with the rhythm of Morning Prayer may know that this psalm is often bookended by an antiphon, a short sentence that varies with the seasons of the liturgical year. In Easter, for example, we say, ‘Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.’ That morning as we continued our prayers the officiant offered an antiphon that was not ‘allowed’ for the season of the church year in which we found ourselves. ‘How could they!’ I thought. They used the wrong antiphon!! I was so distracted I missed the entirety of the invitatory psalm, and was then reminded again (!) of this travesty when the same ‘incorrect’ antiphon was offered again.

I was so consumed with the ways in which I thought this minor breach of the rubrics hindered our common prayer that I completely missed the psalms, the lessons, canticle, and homily. By the end of the liturgy I had calmed down a bit, but my fervor was reignited when, after the service, I grabbed a cup of coffee and had a conversation with my colleague who had served as officiant. In hindsight I want to believe I was trying to control myself, but in truth I know I was just waiting for the opportunity to let this person know of this great antiphon tragedy. A comment was finally made about the morning’s service, and I was ready to pounce. ‘You used the wrong antiphon,’ I said with a gleeful smugness. My colleague gave a bit of a shoulder shrug and that was that. I was indignant. Another colleague joined in and asked what I meant. I rigorously defended my position, confident that I was in the right. She listened closely to me and then asked, ‘But why does that matter to you so much? We still prayed, and God was worshiped.’ I sputtered and struggled to get something out about the importance of following rules, of communal prayer, and of saying the same words, as my level of anger rose. Unsatisfied with my answer, she asked again. I was by then incredibly frustrated and decided to excuse myself from the conversation. I knew I was right and they were wrong, and someone this felt so important to me. The antiphon, Patrick! This is of critical importance!! The Prayer Book says so clearly! I went home and continued to reflect on what had transpired. My arrogance quickly turned to embarrassment. I began to see that I had actually been the one who hindered our common prayer. My desire to follow the rules had prevented me from actually praying and connecting with God. My reverence for rules had become idolatry.

            We live in a world filled with rules, and necessarily so I should add. Without the structures of government that establish and enforce the diverse laws that enable our society to function, we would sink into a world of anarchy. Rules are not inherently bad things. We benefit from shared understandings that one is required to drive on a certain side of the road and to observe certain traffic laws. We benefit from having laws that identify unacceptable behavior and punish those who offend. Rules and commandments are, of course, not restricted to the secular and political world. As Christians we believe God has given us certain commandments to follow, and we hear about them in today’s readings. First, let us consider the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which gives an important example of how the early Christian community grappled with these commandments.

            This reading describes one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of the early church, though unfortunately for us we only heard a small portion of this story that spans the entire tenth chapter of Acts. The chapter begins with a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort who lived in Caesarea (10:1), a city far to the north of Jerusalem that served as the headquarters of the Roman governor. Cornelius is immediately identified as the ‘other’ and an outsider from this early Christian group centered among Jews in Jerusalem. Despite this identification, Cornelius is also described as a ‘devout man who feared God with his whole household’ and who ‘prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). The story tells us Cornelius had a vision in which an angel of God came to him and instructed him to send men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. Cornelius dutifully follows instructions, and then the author of Acts shifts the perspective to Peter. While praying outside on a roof, Peter has a vision in which heaven opens and a large sheet comes down containing all forms of four-footed creatures. Peter hears a voice instructing him to, ‘Kill and eat’ (10:13). Being a good pious Jew, Peter exclaims, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean’ (10:14). The voice comes a second time, this time telling Peter, ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (10:15).

            Peter wakes from this trance and is quite puzzled by what this vision could mean. At that very moment, the men sent by Cornelius come seeking Peter. The Spirit comes and tells Peter to follow them. The next day they travel to Caesarea and upon their arrival they find many assembled in the house of Cornelius. Peter reminds this group of the strangeness of this situation: ‘you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean’ (10:28). Peter then begins to speak to them and tell them about Jesus, ‘how he went about doing good and healing’ (10:38), about his death on the cross, his rising from the dead on the third day, and how he had charged his followers with proclaiming this message.

            Today’s reading picks up at the end of this speech. As Peter is giving it, the Holy Spirit comes upon all the Gentiles gathered there. The circumcised believers who came with Peter are ‘astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles’ (10:45). Even the Gentiles. Can’t you imagine what they were thinking? ‘Those people aren’t like us; they are outsiders; they don’t belong. The rules tell us they are to be avoided and excluded. We shouldn’t have even come here in the first place. It is not lawful for us to associate with them.’ They were astounded. How could the Holy Spirit come upon these Gentiles? It seems Peter, too, continued to be surprised by what was unfolding. He asks, ‘can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (10:47). The answer is, of course, no, and I think Peter knew that. Nothing can stop the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where it chooses and cannot be contained.

            This story can be thought of as a Gentile Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is lavishly given to those thought to be outside the inner circle, and in the process boundaries are torn down, rules are broken, and diverse peoples are united. Such is the way of the Holy Spirit. Lest we think this experience is one known only by the early church, I remind us of the many ways in which the institution of the Church throughout its history has developed systems and rules that create boundaries and draw lines, marking those who are in and those who are out. For too long people have been excluded because of their gender, because of the gender of the one they love, because of skin color, place of origin, language spoken, the list goes on. For too long the institution lived by these rules and found great safety in them. But as the reading from Acts reminds us, nothing can contain that mighty power of the Holy Spirit. I thank God that the Holy Spirit has come and shaken up our church in recent times to consider these questions, to consider how our rules might actually be serving to exclude or oppress those whom God is seeking out.

            But how are we to know it is the Holy Spirit moving among us? How are we to truly discern whether the Holy Spirit is pushing us to new life or if it is something else motivating us, either societal or political pressure. The answer, it seems, is found in today’s gospel, where Jesus too is talking about commandments and rules. One commandment in particular, however, is highlighted as the greatest. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ This is the same commandment from the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, the one we hear every Maundy Thursday when Jesus gives his disciples this ‘new commandment’ after the footwashing. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you,’ he tells us. Though it might be easy to believe that love is always a warm and comfortable thing, Jesus reminds us of the pain and sacrifice that love sometimes requires. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13). And of course he would soon demonstrate that great love to his friends by giving himself up to death on the cross. And that, my friends, is the image of perfect love. Love isn’t always easy, but it is always the way that leads to life and to joy. Jesus said, ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11).

            This commandment of love is a means by which we can measure all our other rules. This is one that can never lead us astray. We will know we are following in the way of Jesus and we will know we are being guided by the Holy Spirit when we abide in that radical, reckless, sacrificial, life-giving way of love. Friends, abide in that love, and you will not go astray. Abide in that love as Jesus abides with the Father, and you will know joy.

            I still love rules and like to follow them. I still think it’s important to follow the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and yes, I still think it’s important to use the correct antiphon. But I now understand that all of these things must be taken as guides that help us to follow Jesus’ ultimate

commandment, to love another and abide in God’s love. I pray that we might be open to the surprising ways in which the Holy Spirit is moving among us, disrupting, breaking down boundaries, but always leading us into that fullness of God’s love. May you rest this day in that abiding love and experience the complete joy that comes only through our triune God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Get into the chariot

Comment

Get into the chariot

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018

My grandfather had a habit of picking up people on the side of the road that needed rides.  Well, to be more accurate, there was one person he’d pick up and drive around town--an older man who collected and sold cans for a living.  He’d see him standing on the side of the street, pull over, and the man, with his cans, would hop in for a ride to who knows where--another part of town?  To his home--or where he stayed?  I never knew anything about this stranger, and frankly it made me a little uncomfortable. After all, as children we were taught never to get in the car with a  stranger!  Strangers with candy, or puppies, or kittens--don’t talk to them, and don’t get in the car with them.  That’s probably still good advice.  But my young mind wasn’t really able to realize that, while I didn’t know the man with the cans--I still don’t know his name--my grandfather did know him.  He wasn’t a stranger to him.  And he was glad to give him a ride when he could.

Don’t get in the car with strangers.  Sound advice.

And so I wonder what Philip is thinking when he gets in the chariot with this Ethiopian court official.  If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t do it, Philip!  Don’t get in the car!” 

It’s such a strange scene.  It must have been strange for Philip. And, come to think of it, it must have been strange for the Ethiopian man to invite Philip into his chariot!  It’s a strange scene all around. 

To understand how we’ve gotten to this strange scene, let’s remember that in the weeks after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples, the earliest followers of Jesus, were experiencing a liminal time--a time of waiting--probably a time of fear, even of what might happen to them.  After all, their spiritual leader, the person they had believed was the messiah, had been executed--and they had seen him again after his death--resurrected. They’d talked with him, eaten with him, and then he had left--ascended into heaven--with mysterious words about always being with them--about sending his Spirit among them.  Words sending them out to tell the story of what he had taught them about God’s love.

Indeed, just as he said, fifty days after his resurrection, during the Festival of Weeks--the celebration of the wheat harvest, the celebration of the giving of the Law--right there in Jerusalem, a huge thing had happened.  As the city was filled with people coming to celebrate the festival, the crowds were seized by a spirit moving like the rush of a mighty wind-- a wave of excitement, of energy, moving through the whole town--and Peter’s preaching helped three thousand people come to believe the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection--and begin to understand what that meant for them.  That they had hope, a new life in God, a new life in Jesus, the Messiah.

More and more people were coming to know Jesus than had ever met him in his lifetime--all through the witness of these disciples, sharing the good news of Jesus with townspeople, with friends, with family--even with visitors to the city.  People were even living differently; they were living in community, sharing their goods and wealth, providing for one another, and especially for those in greatest need.  The Jesus movement, the Way, was taking on so much traction that the disciples called on seven people to serve the widows--the needy--among them.  And Stephen and Philip along with five others had hands laid on them, received the Holy Spirit, and went out to serve.

Stephen’s preaching of the good news about Jesus was so enlivening that some people who heard it were converted. And others were afraid.  Afraid of what it might mean for the way that they worshipped--the change that it might mean in their understanding of their relationship with God.

And so Stephen was stoned and killed by an angry mob.

That stoning is the turning point in Acts, this chronicle of the earliest days of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We hear that the Church in Jerusalem is persecuted after Stephen’s stoning.  And so Philip goes out--led by the Holy Spirit, he leaves Jerusalem--perhaps he’s afraid, perhaps he’s seeking a safer place to be--but the Holy Spirit must have other ideas, because Philip has been sent to this wilderness road, a dangerous place, to be sure.

He’s gone from Jerusalem, which had become dangerous for followers of Jesus, to Samaria, where a good number of Samaritans received healing, and hope, and the good news of Jesus as the Messiah.  After this successful time in Samaria, the Spirit sends Philip south, along a wilderness road to Gaza.  And he goes.

Along that road he meets the Ethiopian--a powerful government official, the treasurer of the kingdom, in charge of all its wealth, second only to the Candace, the queen, herself.  Her kingdom would have been in what is now the southern part of Egypt and the Sudan, but she--or rulers like her--had conquered widely.  The treasurer was a representative of a powerful foreign government--but he was far from home.  He had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of weeks, the harvest festival, and he was returning.  This man was what scripture refers to as a “godfearer,” someone who is not Jewish, not a member of the tribes of Abraham, but was interested in God.  He was curious, seeking.  Reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Trying to learn more. 

But he was on the outside.

Eunuchs were often chosen in antiquity and even into the late 19th and early 20th Century as servants to powerful rulers; they could not procreate, obviously, and so could be trusted not to disturb the royal line--and because of their outsider status in terms of gender, reproductive abilities, and the like, they were wedded to the royal household as the one place they could gain status and power.  Indeed, this treasurer, valued as he was by his queen, could never have been admitted to a synagogue (Deuteronomy 23). 

And so he must have been very curious, very persistent, very faithful indeed, to have come such a long way, and to be reading this scroll, probably in a language that was not his native one, as he travelled along the road.

Philip, drawing near, heard what he was reading, and called out--and the treasurer called him into his chariot to explain what he was reading.

Upon understanding that the Jesus Philip spoke of was the Messiah foretold in the prophecies, the treasurer asked to be baptized--“Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) And Philip baptizes him on the spot--and he goes away rejoicing.

We’ve been reading Acts together as a parish at the Sunday forum--just as the Christians of the first few centuries of the Church would have done, just as they do today--rehearsing, re-hearing, re-membering the stories of the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ--and how the world was changed--how the world is and can be changed today by hearing those stories--by learning that good news, that Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah.  That Jesus is the change agent. That Jesus is Lord.

And one of the questions we’ve been asking is what those stories have to say to us today.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the Jewish deacon and evangelist and the seeking treasurer of the Candace’s kingdom, has a number of things to tell us today.

The most obvious--and one of the most exciting things about the story--is the shift in focus, the ever-broadening, ever widening circle of awareness of the messianic truth of Jesus.  We can think of this awareness as ever-growing ripples, like ripples in a pond, spreading out with the energy of the Holy Spirit:  from the first disciples gathered around Jesus, to the thousands in Jerusalem at Pentecost, the number of people who learn about Jesus is growing.  But the kinds of people that learn about Jesus, that come to follow him, are growing as well.  Remember that Philip goes to the Samaritans--people who claim the Torah but who have an acrimonious relationship with the Jewish people.  Even the Samaritans are claiming Jesus as messiah--receiving the good news!  Peter and John go to check to be sure what they’ve heard is right, and sure enough, the Samaritans believe--and when Peter and John lay hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit.  God’s Spirit is moving--even among people who are not part of the community the disciples come from.  The circle is widening.

And the circle is drawn even wider with the Ethiopian, isn’t it.  He is a man from far away, even from the ends of the earth, some ancient writers would say.  He is most definitely not Jewish--he can’t even enter the Temple.  His skin is possibly different from Philip’s, and his gender is, well, indeterminate by modern standards.  He is a eunuch--out of the bounds of normalcy.  He is other.

And yet he is seeking God.  “Here is water!  What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”  And he is baptized, and he receives the Holy Spirit.  God is present with this foreigner, this man with different skin, with a different genderedness.  He is part of the new community, the ekklesia, the Church which is Christ’s body.  And it only took baptism, it only took the Holy Spirit, to help everyone else--including the Ethiopian treasurer--to recognize it.

Now, let’s not pretend that this was an easy revelation for the disciples.  James and Peter and Paul and Barnabas and all the disciples gather to hash out how it is that observant Jewish folks, descendants of Abraham, and gentiles, people with no tie to this shared common heritage or even to the law, can all follow Jesus.  In some ways the whole history of Christianity, the history of the Church itself, hangs on this meeting--this Jerusalem council--and perhaps our failure to be united as the Body of Christ hangs on our failure to really believe that God is for everyone!  Perhaps we’ve failed to live into the truth of the Jerusalem council! 

But even in the midst of our brokenness, I want to hold up that, while we have a long way to go, we are at least talking about, at least being attentive to, the issues that the Ethiopian eunuch presents.

We are at least talking about issues of race, of genderedness, of orientation and expression, trying to work towards a more just society, a more just church--trying to look more like the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit spreads across the entire world, even to the ends of the earth--trying to think more comprehensively about the Church than just a club of folks like ourselves, however we define that.

In some ways it’s easier for us to talk about the Ethiopian’s foreignness, his queerness, his other-ness, and embrace him. It’s great that Philip got up in that chariot! It’s great that Philip baptized him!  That’s good news!

But I want to point out one thing that I’m not sure we are are as comfortable with--that I’m not sure we are as attentive towards.  I told you earlier about how uncomfortable I was with that stranger I didn’t know getting into my grandfather’s car. 

But that’s exactly what happens in this story. 

The Ethiopian, the treasurer, the powerful government functionary, invites the wandering Philip, walking down the road, into his chariot.

He takes a chance.

It’s the outsider, from our perspective, the one from the ends of the earth, that invites Philip in.

That’s worth some reflection.  Who is inviting us in?  Who is longing to hear the good news of Jesus?  Who is longing for healing?  Who is longing for hope?

Maybe it’s folks close to us.  Family, friends, neighbors.  Or maybe it’s someone from the ends of the earth that we least expect.  In a moment we least expect.  Somewhere along a byway, a wilderness road, where we never expected ourselves to be.

Are we listening like Philip?  Are we looking around?  Are we hearing the world cry out--even in places we might not expect?

The Ethiopian invites Philip in. Let’s listen for that.

But let’s also ask the question--are we willing to respond?  It’s probably very uncomfortable for Philip to approach the Ethiopian and ask, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”  Probably as uncomfortable as the Ethiopian asking Philip to get in the chariot with him.  It requires breaking down a barrier of separation--of politeness, of caution, of individualism--you name it--whatever it is that separates us.  Maybe even breaking down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding.  But Philip has heard him reading--and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he asks the question.  “Do you understand what you’re reading?”  And then he tells the story of Jesus.

Friends, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We received the Holy Spirit at our baptism.  We received the Holy Spirit when we were confirmed, when hands were laid on by someone who had hands laid on by someone and someone else, going back, that had hands laid on by the disciples who knew and walked with Jesus.  God’s Holy Spirit is filling, is empowering you, to go out from Jerusalem and tell the good news of healing, of hope, of salvation, of everlasting life--the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.

Just to tell your story.  Your story of how you’ve been saved by Jesus. 

And that’s enough.

The powerful treasurer ran off rejoicing.  I’ll bet he went back and told the queen, all his employees, maybe even the whole kingdom.  We don’t know.

And we don’t know what will happen when we tell our stories either.  But we can trust the Holy Spirit--that the Holy Spirit is moving, that God is faithful.  And that something exciting is happening.

Will we take the chance?  Will we listen?  Will we climb into the chariot, break through boundaries, and share the story of Jesus?

Here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?  What indeed.  Remember your baptism.  Remember you are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  And let’s go out and share the Spirit of God with the world.

Comment

Our Good Shepherd

Comment

Our Good Shepherd

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018

As a current New Haven resident, and as a former suburbanite of New York, Washington D.C., and Houston, I have to admit to you that I know very little about sheep. I can tell you where to get the best lamb vindaloo in town but after that my extended knowledge on sheep comes to an end.

Throughout the years, I’ve come to value the Fourth Sunday, sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, as the one Sunday a year I learn a new random fact about sheep and shepherds.

Unfortunately, I have not done much research on sheep or shepherds nor have I read James Rebank’s highly acclaimed 2016 book, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. I’m sorry I come bearing no major herding advice or shepherding knowledge.

Having said all of that, there is one “sheep fact” I would like for us to consider when reading today’s Gospel passage.

A flock of sheep, like any other herd of animals, is made up of similar and yet distinct individuals gathered together for a common purpose. While there might be a shared bloodline among some in the flock not all come from one family. While they might look alike, sound and smell the same, this doesn’t guarantee that they’re actually related.

So when we hear Jesus refer to himself as the Good Shepherd, he is referring to himself as the guide, protector, and overseer of a flock. The shepherd of a flock that doesn’t share a singular bloodline or even a common background. The sheep of a flock have not chosen to be together but have circumstantially ended up as members of one flock, under one shepherd. 

And here we gathered in this space like a flock -- individuals made up people from different bloodlines and families, from various backgrounds, with stories to share gathered by our own individual, and shared, desire to be under the care of the one shepherd, Jesus Christ. The one who knows us and the one we know.

You and I have most likely ended up in this place for a host of circumstances. And maybe those circumstances have changed for you throughout the years. Maybe we brought you here, is different from what’s kept you here. Yet we are here for one reason -- to praise and adore our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who knows us and the one we know. The one who has been our aid and support. The one who comforts us. The one who seeks to be in relationship with us. The one who has laid down his life for us.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The death and resurrection of Jesus is our shepherd’s ultimate act of care and love for us his sheep in which God in Christ reveals to the world his desire that all might be one. That all the nations, and all of creation, may become one flock under the one shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. Through the resurrection, the cross is no longer sign of death and pain. The wood of the cross becomes the wood of our shepherd’s staff, through his cross our Lord seeks to guide us and leads us to the realization that we are to be one flock, one body. That we are meant to be his Body, the Church Catholic, united by the cross and joining in the resurrected life -- a life that gives us the strength to push against the darkness and evil of this world.

Even as our Lord and his Body, the Church, seeks to create one flock, we know all too well of the disunity that exists in the Body of Christ. We know that there are those who are not part of the flock, those are not active members part of the Body of Christ, either by personal decision or circumstance. And we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that there are those who are not part of the flock because of others in the flock. Because of an individual’s, or group of individuals, personal desire for control and power. Sometimes this lust for control and power, human sin, can run so deep that it’s willing to alienate and hurt those who once belonged to the fold of Christ. Making those who have been pushed aside by some in the flock want nothing to do with the Church, the Body of Christ, and at worst they won’t nothing to do with God.

Even with our Lord’s intention that we may be one flock under the one shepherd, Jesus Christ, sin finds a way to distort our Lord’s desire for us.

But our Lord knows this about us, he knows of our capacity to create divisions and sin. But thanks be to God that in due time, in God’s time, all will be one. Not by our doing but by Christ’s doing. Not through our actions and voice but through the actions and voice of Christ himself. Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

It is not through our voice that Jesus will save, has saved, those who are not part of the fold. It is through his voice, the voice that shouted “It is finished” on the cross that the world is saved, it is through his voice that we can become one flock under the one shepherd.

Christ promises that he will bring those outside fold into unity, that they will listen to his voice. He does not promise that they will be part of the flock but he promises that he will speak to them and that they will listen.

This is our great shepherd. The one who seeks not only those in the flock but all of humanity. This is our God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Don't Worry

Comment

Don't Worry

Mr Zachary Fletcher
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday of Easter
April 15, 2018

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  (Luke 24:36b)

I’m not the first person to appreciate the theological insights that come from Tinder. It’s not so much the app itself – in fact, I should say, I no longer have Tinder.  What I mean is, sometimes the experiences one has as a result of being on Tinder can be theologically enlightening. Let me explain.

Several years ago, I was on a Tinder date in L.A.  The date began at Starbucks, and after a little while, my date wanted us to drive up in his Toyota Prius to one of his favorite scenic locations, a mountain with a great view of the skyline.  Now L.A. is known for its horrible traffic, so I was thankful he was the one driving.  At a certain intersection, we roll a bit too far forward of the white line.  So my date decides, in a split second, to start backing up – without looking behind him. Within a few seconds, I feel a jolt. The Starbucks latte I’m holding splashes all over the window to my right.  In that moment, I realize: we’ve just hit the vehicle behind us.

Oh no, I say to myself.  This is a Tinder date gone awry.  We know we have to pull over and interact with the person behind us whose vehicle we just hit.  We may have to call the police.

So we pull over, dreading what’s likely to come next.  The vehicle we hit is an imposing-looking Ford F-150.  Its driver gets out, and starts walking towards us.  He looks like he means business.  I’m expecting anger, perhaps even some slurs.  We roll down the window.

I will never forget what happened next.

The man stands there smiling at us, with not a hint of anger.  As if reporting a miracle, he says, “There’s no damage!  Don’t worry!”  Beaming, he hands each of us a business card.  “You’re welcome to come anytime!”, he says.  It’s a business card for his church.  And with that, the man heads back to his massive truck, gets in, and drives away.

I had been expecting the worst.  But this Christian man, in his Ford F-150, who had every right to be angry with me and my date, caught us off guard with this act of forgiveness.

“Don’t worry!”, he said.

In today’s Bible readings, we see this same kind of unexpected, undeserved forgiveness.  We first see it from Peter, though it may not be immediately obvious.  Of course this passage from Acts is notorious.  It’s easy to notice only Peter’s words of condemnation: “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life…”  These are harsh words, perhaps not entirely appropriate because chances are, these people Peter is talking to – the ones who just witnessed a crippled man be healed in the name of Jesus – probably had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, strictly speaking.  They’re simply onlookers.

But if we remember that Peter is himself a Jew, addressing a crowd of his fellow Israelites, and if we remember that Peter himself denied Jesus three times, we can see that Peter’s condemnation comes back to include himself as well, not to mention us.  That’s why we read the Passion story on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  We rehearse this story to remind ourselves of our collective, human culpability for Jesus’ death.

And yet, this actually isn’t what Peter is focusing on here.  Rather, he says, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus…”  Peter is saying, Yes, Jesus died in this horrible way, but don’t worry! – God has taken this horrible death, and for no good reason except for his own goodness, “raised [Jesus] from the dead.” This is how God shows us his forgiveness, a forgiveness we never expected to receive.

Not only is God’s response to human brutality totally undeserved and unbelievable, but even more shockingly, Peter notes it was predicted all along, in the Hebrew Bible.  Peter says, through Jesus’s resurrection, “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.”  Yes, this horrible thing happened, but guess what – don’t worry, because God still came through in the end, simply because He said He would.

So when Peter says, “Repent, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” it’s not condemnation, but rather an invitation to simply accept God’s free offer of forgiveness, shown by his Son’s resurrection.

Peter’s proclamation of God’s forgiveness points to what Jesus is doing in the Gospel reading from Luke.  Now, since his disciples had basically abandoned him, Jesus had no good reason to appear to them again – except to show them that no matter what, he would not abandon them. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he means, “Don’t worry.”  He’s already forgiven them for their unbelief, when he uses a piece of fish to prove to them he’s actually there.  And he doesn’t stop there – Jesus, like Peter in Acts, explains it was all part of the plan. Despite humanity’s sinfulness, God destroyed sin once and for all.  “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”  In other words, don’t worry.

Easter is a season of forgiveness.  It reminds us not just of what Jesus has done for us, but of what we as Christians are called to do for others.  Like Jesus’ disciples, we are empowered to extend forgiveness, not just to those that deserve it, but to everyone.  Because Jesus empowers us to forgive, that means we’re invited to forgive even when we don’t feel like it.  Even if our kindness is reduced by our natural human limits, the truth is, God’s kindness has no limits.

Perhaps this coming week, you’ll choose to forgive someone for something.  It could be anything, big or small.  Maybe you’ll be sitting at an intersection, and someone will carelessly back into you – and after seeing your vehicle is undamaged, you’ll invite them to Christ Church. In any case, your act of forgiveness will be pointing them to the One who has already forgiven us, the One who continually tells us, “Don’t worry.”

Amen.

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The Mourning of Thomas

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The Mourning of Thomas

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday of Easter
April 8, 2018

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

In describing Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, the author of Saint John’s Gospel paints a vivid scene. It was evening, and it was the first day of the week. The doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. And there, in a dark locked room, Jesus appears to his disciples. In a room filled with fear and anxiety, Jesus makes his resurrection known to his disciples. In the midst of loneliness, darkness, and deep intimacy, our risen Lord reveals himself and brings forth peace to his disciples.

Imagine how the disciples must of felt at that very moment?

So far, the disciples have only witnessed our Lord’s capture, trial and violent death on the cross. Left scared and in fear of the authorities, the disciples have locked themselves in a dark room. In the middle of this dark period: filled with fear and loneliness, Jesus appears to them. Sharing with them one simple thing, his peace. Standing there, Jesus utters the words “Peace be with you.”

Jesus does not explain his resurrection. He does not tell his disciples what he’s been through. He does not give them a long speech or commandment. He simply offers them his peace. Amidst there fear and darkness our risen Lord simply offers his disciples peace.

See, the resurrection is not something Jesus can simply explain. It is not something we can simply explain. Rather, the resurrection is something we can only experience.

In a 2016 Guardian article, Fr Giles Fraser beautifully captures this challenging truth as he writes,

“The resurrection is not an argument...the resurrection is the name we give to the multiple ways we push back against the darkness.”

The resurrection of Christ does not seek to proof anything as much as it seeks to invite us towards something. The resurrection affirms what God in Christ has already done.

The resurrection invites us to accept that in Christ there is eternal life. It reminds us that even death is not the end. The darkness of death will not have the last word. The darkness of our lives: our pain and suffering, will not have the last word. Resurrection pushes against the darkness of this world. Resurrection is God’s invitation for us to walk as children of the light in the midst of the chaos of life. This was the invitation for the disciples, and this is our invitation as followers of Jesus.

In reading today’s Gospel, we should remember that Jesus’ resurrection has already taken place, prior to his appearance to the disciples. While the women shared the news of the empty tomb, the disciples, the men, did not believe that the resurrection had taken place. Unlike the women who showed up to the tomb with their oils and spices seeking to take care of the body of our Lord, the disciples were in hiding. Up to this point, the disciples did not believe in the resurrection because they had no experienced it, but now was the time for the disciples to experience the resurrection themselves.

And we’re told that “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” Which begs to ask:

“Where was Thomas?”

“Why was Thomas not in the room with the disciples?”

The answers to these questions are known to God alone but what we do know is that the disciples from Peter to John to Thomas, were all in mourning at the lost of their friend and Lord. So, while today’s Gospel  is often attributed as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” we might just maybe change our perspective - even if just for this sermon. From understanding this passage as the story of “Doubting Thomas” to the story of “Mourning Thomas.”

See, it’s no accident that our risen Lord appears to his disciples in midst of deep loneliness, darkness, and fear. Our Lord’s resurrection is not simply a sign of God’s greatness and power over death, but an invitation to a life in Christ which proclaims that we too shall overcome the great evils of this world.

The resurrection of Jesus does not take place instead of death, but it takes place in the middle of death itself. In the hope and joy of Easter, we cannot forget that death has to happen in order for resurrection to take place.

The disciples were not hoping for resurrection. I’m sure this was not all on their mind, rather they were simply mourning: crying, shouting, and wailing at the lost of their best friend. While we know that Thomas was not with the other disciples, we can assume that he like the other disciples must of been in great pain and fear. We cannot deny that like all the followers of Jesus: the disciples, the women, and all those whom Jesus touched and healed, he too was deeply mourning the lost of his Lord.

While the disciples were in a state of mourning, Jesus appears to them. And Thomas, who was not there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, could not believe what they were telling him.

Do you blame him?

Imagine that you had lost a loved one: the love of your life, a spouse or partner, a family member or a best friend, and in the middle of your mourning, your friends told you that they’ve come back from the dead.

Do you think your response would be any different from that of Thomas?

Don’t you think you too would have said something similar to Thomas?  Who says “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."

Thomas’ answer is not necessarily the answer of someone who lacks faith, but the answer of someone who is wrapped up in their own pain and trauma.

It is the answer of someone who cannot fathom anything beyond death. It is the answer of someone who has not experienced the resurrection, so he cannot see anything beyond the moments of mourning, suffering, and pain.

During this Eastertide, God invites us to experience Christ’s resurrection in our own lives?

Might there be a relationship in your life  that’s in need of peace, the peace that Christ offers his disciples? A relationship in need of reconciliation?

Might there be a dark and even a locked place in your heart and mind that’s in need of the presence of Christ?

Might you like Thomas, be in need of experiencing the risen Christ?

Thanks be to God, that Jesus asks Thomas to physically experience the resurrection. Thanks be to God, that Jesus invites us to experience the resurrection week after week in the Holy Sacrament of the Mass. Thanks be to God, that Jesus invites us  to be resurrected with him in the darkest and loneliest moments of our lives. Thanks be to God, for Jesus who is our Lord and our God. Thanks be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Go and Tell It!  He is Risen!

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Go and Tell It! He is Risen!

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Easter Day
April 1, 2018

What are the memories you have of Easter?  The sights, sounds, smells, associations you have with this feast, this holiday?  I remember Easter lilies on the cross at church, their sweet smell filling the whole space, new Easter clothes, and of course Easter baskets, chocolate bunnies, and always egg hunts.  On Easter afternoon after church my parents would hide the plastic eggs stuffed with jellybeans and chocolate pieces in our yard--in clumps of flowers, forks of tree branches, behind stones, anywhere a small child could reach--and we’d find most of the eggs and gorge ourselves on candy before dinner.  There were always a few eggs left behind that the dog would find later in the week, but most of them we found ourselves--sometimes with a little help.  I always have good memories--good associations--with Easter.  And I hope you do, too.

The women in the gospel reading we hear today, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, wouldn’t have had any such associations.  They were going to a tomb to anoint the body of their beloved teacher and friend, their spiritual leader, someone whom they believed was the Messiah--but surely he couldn’t be, for just days after his entry into the city of Jerusalem, he’d been captured, tried, tortured, and executed by the Roman government.   They would have gone with mournful hearts, carrying oil and aromatics to treat the body early that morning to counteract the decay in the heat of the day.  In their grief they’d not even thought about how they’d get to Jesus’s body, how they’d roll the heavy stone away that had been put there to secure the tomb.  And, when they arrived, they were astounded to discover that the stone had already been rolled away--and that there was a young man, all in white, sitting at the side of the tomb, telling them that Jesus had been raised. 

They were so astounded, so afraid, that they fled, they ran off, and scripture tells us that they said nothing to anyone about what they had seen.

Now of course the strangeness of this statement, the last one in our gospel reading, is that of course the women DID tell someone. The young man, the angel, whatever he is, told them to go and tell the others¸specifically mentioning Peter.  The young man told them to go to Galilee and that there they would see Jesus again. 

Now, we hear in John’s gospel about Jesus’s appearances in a locked room to his disciples; from Luke we hear how he appears to two men on the road to Emmaus, and about Jesus’s sharing a meal with his disciples; in Matthew we hear how Jesus meets his disciples--and then from the mountain in Galilee commissioned and sent them out to teach and baptize. 

These are the sorts of memories that they would make over the next few hours, the next few days.   Memories they would tell and retell and tell again, that they’d write down, that would become the gospel narratives we read tonight. 

And all of them, all four gospels, begin with that one event--Mary Magdalene who is present at the tomb, who sees the empty tomb.  And while Mark’s gospel tells us that she and Mary the mother of James and Salome were afraid, that they fled in terror, even--that they were so afraid that they told no one--we know from the gospel accounts that this isn’t the end of the story.

Maybe they were terrified!  But they told the story.  They passed on the reality of the event, the vision, the experience of finding the tomb empty.  And they made memory, made meaning, of the event, a memory, a re-membering, an anamnesis in Greek, that we re-member today.

In the 4th century a wealthy woman named Egeria, probably a nun, probably from Spain, made a series of pilgrimages to the near East, to the Holy Land, and specifically to Jerusalem.  Egeria wrote about the Holy Week and Easter celebrations in Jerusalem that she saw.  During Holy Week particularly, the Christians in the city would move from station to station--a vigil on the Mount of Olives on Thursday, a procession just before dawn through the gate of Jerusalem to the place of the cross, veneration of the cross and then Eucharist there.  But every Sunday, in fact, almost every day, there would be prayers at the empty tomb.  And offerings, the Eucharist, the mass, there at the empty tomb.  Over and over again, wherever their processions and prayers and vigils might take them, the Christians returned to the empty tomb.  The Anastasis, Egeria called it-- the word for resurrection.  They kept returning to the place of the resurrection--to the resurrection itself.

For them this memory making, this response to memory, was rooted in a physical place.  And over and over again they returned to resurrection.

I wonder if the women at the tomb returned.  Luke and John seem to indicate that they did.  That they went back to the tomb and looked there.  More precisely that the men went to look, because what the women were saying was incredulous. 

Maybe they returned for strength, to remember, to remind themselves, to live again, in the hope of that moment of the empty tomb, the hope of resurrection.  Maybe they returned just because they couldn’t really believe it was true--that Jesus had really risen.  Scripture is full of those stories of Jesus’s disciples that couldn’t really believe it.  Thomas is the most obvious, who asks to touch our Lord’s wounds before he can really believe Jesus is alive, is risen.  But others of Jesus’s followers couldn’t believe that he was risen, either.  The men on the road to Emmaus don’t even recognize him until, in this action that prefigures the Eucharist, Jesus takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them.  Some of the disciples run to the tomb to look for themselves to see that it’s empty, because they can’t believe what the women have said they’ve seen.  And we hear in Matthew of the officials who won’t believe that Jesus is risen; they pay off some soldiers to say that Jesus’s followers stole his body from the tomb--a bit of first century fake news, obfuscation. 

The truth of the claim “He is risen!” was not immediately obvious to the disciples, and certainly not to the world around them.  And so they kept going back.  They kept telling the story.  They kept going back to the resurrection.

And that’s the central thing, isn’t it?  That’s the story. 

Love itself, the very creating life force that gives birth to all things, came to be a part of creation.  God in the flesh came to share our life, to show God’s love.  And the world killed him.  Love comes and is killed because the world couldn’t believe it.

But love is stronger than death.  Christ rises victorious--and invites us into new life. 

But the world cannot yet believe that it’s true. 

And so we go back.  Again and again to the empty tomb.  To the resurrection.  The Anastasis. 

We go back to the story, to the event, to the reality of the thing itself, to touch, taste, hear, smell, re-member what it is that we know in our bones, that we have come to know in our hearts--that God is alive and moving and desires to be with us--and desires us to be with God.  That Christ is alive.  That he is not dead.  He is risen.  He lives and moves in the world.  In our lives.

And so we go back, again and again, to the memory of the empty tomb.  To the place.

But the only reason we can go back--the only reason we know where to go, what happened--is that the women told us about it.

They may have been afraid.  They may even have run in fear.  But they didn’t stay silent.  They told us.

Think back to the place of resurrection for you.  Where is your anastasis?  Where have you seen the resurrected Jesus?  Where have you seen new life--in your own life?  In the world around you?

Maybe it’s in a loving relationship.  Maybe it’s in a sense of meaning in the work you do.  Maybe it’s in a great gift you’ve received, a mercy extended, a reconciliation or restoration.  Whatever it is, that’s one place of resurrection--one place you have seen the love of God poured out for you, drawing you nearer into the sacred heart of God.

Maybe you can’t see resurrection today, not just yet.  Maybe the stone is still rolled up against the tomb, and just for today it seems too heavy to move.  Then where are you longing to see resurrection?  When the stone is rolled away, what will you see?   What is the thing you’re crying out for, longing for, the place you need new life?  Can you imagine that stone rolling back, and Christ himself standing there with outstretched arms, embracing you, drawing you in close to a place of new life, of love, of healing?

Wherever you are today--if you’re feeling the glow of resurrection light, or if you’re dwelling in the dark shadow of the tomb, longing for resurrection, remember what we know.  Go back to the anastasis, to the tomb. 

He is not here.  He is risen. 

Go back to the tomb.  Again and again.

Listen for the voices of the women who have run from the tomb, and believe what they’re saying.

And then go and see it again for yourself.

Take strength and courage from them, from one another, so that, as you leave the empty tomb, you, like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, can go and tell the world.

Sure, they were afraid, but they told the story.  And we know they did because now we know it.

What will you tell?  And to whom will you tell it?

Love has conquered death!  Christ has risen!

The world is waiting to hear.

Return to the place of resurrection.   Be raised with Christ.  And go with fear and trembling and tell it.

In the name of the risen Lord Jesus, AMEN.

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Be Not Afraid

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Be Not Afraid

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Great Vigil of Easter
March 31, 2018

How do you feel about being in the dark?  Were you a child that wanted a light on at night? Are you an adult that keeps a night light?  I leave a few lights on every night when I go to bed--I couldn’t even tell you why, maybe to show that someone lives here on campus--maybe in case I need to get up at night that I can quickly see where I’m going, orient myself, keep from tripping or falling.  We keep security lights burning around the border of campus, street lights on the streets of New Haven that help us feel safer about where we are, more secure about where we’re going.  I even leave a light on for the dog at night if I’m going out after dark so she’s never alone in the dark.  Darkness often seems to be a thing to be avoided--something at least unsettling if not menacing.  And with beeswax or electrons we can fight it back, illuminate the world around us.

Tonight we gathered in the dark and lit a fire, that primal element, that basic chemical reaction, that fast oxidation of combustible substances, that gives us light, and heat, and a sense of security.  That drives out the darkness. 

And even though it was just a small fire that we lit, it was enough to light the paschal candle, the candle that will burn through Easter from which all our candles will be lit, the central candle that lit our own lights, that lit the candles on the altar, that shone across our faces so we could see one another, that soft warm glow that we carried from the garden around the street and into the nave.

There in the darkness we heard again the story of God’s saving works in history.  Our creation and preservation; the deliverance of God’s people from bondage in Egypt; the knitting together even of old dry bones to create something new; the calling together of God’s people.  And together, as the people of God, we remembered our baptisms--our plunging into the dark cool waters of death and our resurrection, out of the empty tomb, with Christ into the light of new life.

And now we have proclaimed the resurrection of Christ with alleluias and acclamations.  And we may feel secure, triumphant, assured in the theological and historical knowledge of our Christian tradition.  Of course Christ is risen.  It’s Easter! As sure as the Easter bunny and chocolate eggs, Christ is risen!  Cadbury crème eggs indeed, Alleluia!

In that Easter darkness tonight I confess I felt anticipation, joy, excitement--not the fear or anxiety I might feel any other time in the dark--those times when I might leave a light on.

But that’s not what the earliest followers of Jesus were feeling.  That’s not what Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome felt early that morning as they were rising to go to Jesus’s grave, to anoint him with oils and aromatics as part of the burial tradition.  I wonder if they’d even slept, so fearful for their own safety, so distraught over the loss of their friend and teacher, the one whom they loved. 

We hear it in the gospel passage we read tonight; when they reach the tomb and find the stone rolled away, they must have been surprised; when they look inside the tomb and see a young man, a youth, dressed in white sitting at the side of the tomb, they are positively alarmed.  He speaks.  He tells them Jesus is risen.  And they flee, alarmed, amazed, shocked, afraid.

Fear is palpable through the ending of the gospel of Mark.  If you’ve been reading Mark with us as a parish this Lent, you’ll remember that a couple of chapters back, as Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, a mob comes to take him by force for trial. 

As he is taken, his followers flee--and, as Mark says, “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14.51-52). 

It’s a bizarre detail in Mark, and it’s hard to say exactly who the boy is.  Is he Mark himself?  Is this John the beloved disciple who makes cameos in other gospels, or James the Less, brother of Jesus, or another figure entirely?  Is his appearance a holdover from an earlier story, corrupted in transmission before being written down in the story that is Mark?  Or is he just a random person who shows up in a burial shroud? Is he merely a metaphor for death? I’m convinced he’s an actual person, and I’m convinced we absolutely don’t know who he is.  He’s interesting as an oddity--a thing we can speculate about, a baroque detail that grabs our imaginations.  But at the end of the day, the only thing we can say about the boy that runs away is that he’s frightened.

And maybe that’s why this detail is there.  To remind us that Jesus’s friends, his disciples, his followers are afraid.  Very afraid.  And with good cause.  They’ve just seen their friend and spiritual leader dragged off by a mob.  They will seem him crucified. They’ll see him put in the grave.  And, when these brave and faithful women show up two days later to anoint his body, they’ll be afraid--afraid that the tomb is open.  Afraid of the young man inside.  Afraid, amazed, astounded at what they hear--that he is risen.

The young man runs away in the dark.  The women quake in fear in the early light of dawn.  They are afraid.

Tonight, there in the dark, we were not afraid.  Because we know what the empty tomb means.  Because we saw the light of Christ spreading across the garden, across the church from candle to candle, across our faces.  Because we know that Christ is risen.  That Christ lives.  That Christ has conquered death.  That we have nothing more to fear.

Last autumn in Charlottesville hundreds of alt-right protesters including neo Nazis marched with torches around the Grounds of the University of Virginia, and the photos were frightening.  But the photos that remind me of the light tonight, of the light of our procession, of the light spreading across your faces in this church, the light that shines in the darkness, were not those torches of the protesters, but the candles of the counterprotesters mere nights later--the thousands of men and women, young people, that showed up to lend their presence in a crowd ten times greater to advocate for peace, for love, for inclusion of all people.[1]  Their light reflected in part the light of Christ for the world, the love of God.  That light began to drown out fear and despair.  To give us hope.

That light, the light we bear tonight, begins to question the very nature of the dark for me.

Perhaps darkness is not fear at all, not  a place to avoid, to drive out, or to be afraid.  Perhaps darkness is the place where everything stops, where our illusions fall away, where hatred and falsehoods fall shattered to the earth--and where only the truth of God’s love can remain, there burning in that place where all else has been stripped and burned away.  Slowly and softly at first, and then gathering its light, until it shines through all of creation.

Hundreds of times in scripture Jesus tells his disciples, Jesus tells us, “Be not afraid.”  That there is nothing to fear.  Perhaps the darkness is not fearful at all but just our response to realizing that the lies that sin and death tell us are wrong.  Perhaps darkness is that holding space, the place before the dawn, where light begins to shine to show us a new way.  Perhaps darkness is not full of fear but of hope, of new possibility.  Perhaps we have been waiting in darkness, waiting for Jesus to show us the way by the light of his countenance, in which we are made whole. (Ps 80)

In our gospel reading tonight from Mark we see again a young man there at the empty tomb.  Is he the same figure as before? Is he a literary construction, a metaphor for resurrection, for new life?  Is he the same actual particular person that’s made his way first to the tomb?  Who knows!  But what we do know is that this young man, this youth, is not afraid at all.  And he tells the women who have faithfully come there looking for Jesus that he is risen.  “Do not be alarmed!  …He has been raised; he is not here.”  (16.6)  He shares his hope, he shares the resurrection with them.  He shares with them the good news that Jesus has conquered death. 

The good news that he’s passing on, the good news that Mary and Mary the mother of James and Salome will go on to share with the world, is that Christ has conquered death.  That there is nothing to fear.  That everything they thought they knew about fear and death is a lie.  That there is hope.  Be not afraid.

The Church has a hymn, a chant, that encompasses this revelation of this new reality in Jesus.  Much like Fr Carlos’s story of the mad curate that ran about the church, waving the cross, shouting over and over again, Victory!  Victory!  Victory!  So has Holy Mother Church sung through the ages the shout “Christus vincit!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperat!”  Christ is victorious!  Christ reigns!  Christ commands!

Friends, if you have any doubt, look to the empty tomb.  He has been raised; he is not there.  He is here in our lives.  He is here in the sacraments.  He is here with God.  And he has conquered all.

Do not be afraid.  Do not believe the lies that the world tells us about fear, about darkness, about despair.  Live in hope.  For Christ is risen.  For. Christ reigns. 

Christus vincit!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperat!

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

 


 

[1] Hawes Spencer and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Photos of Peaceful Charlottesville Vigil:  ‘Our Home, Not Their Home.’”  The New York Times, August 17, 2017.  (Accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/us/charlottesville-vigil-candlelight.html 3/31/2018.)

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Victory, Victory Victory!

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Victory, Victory Victory!

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Good Friday
March 30, 2018

Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.

At his questioning by the high priest, Jesus answers “I spake openly to the world… and in secret I have said nothing.” Before Pilate, when asked if he is a king, Jesus replies “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.”

In his trials by Caiaphaus and Pilate, Jesus affirms the work given to him by God the Father. The work he has been on through his ministry in Judea. In secret he has said nothing and he has not hid his actions from anyone. Jesus has sought the poor, the sick, the rich, and the powerful. Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus has openly taught and performed great signs among all people.

And through his life, Jesus has bore witness unto the truth, which in his own words, was the purpose of his birth.

And in bearing witness to the truth, Jesus has bore witness to both the truth of God the Father and the truth of this world. In our sight, these two truths seem to be opposing forces.

It’s as if in shining a mirror unto the truth of God and the truth of this world, we see two distinct reflections.

The image reflected of God the Father was restoration and wholeness with the world, and the image reflected of this world was sin and death.

On this day, two thousand years ago, these opposing images came to a clash. And the world that God longed to have and the world as it was met on the cross.

The faithfulness, obedience, and selfless love of God was hung by a world corrupted by anger, fear, and injustice. The truth of sin and death seem to have won over the truth of God. By all standards of power and rule, the officials and the crowd had won. Jesus had been killed. His disciples had fled. Our Blessed Mother, the Beloved Disciple, and the faithful women were in tears as they held our Lord’s lifeless body. All pointed, once again, that sin and death had the last word.

What the world saw was the death of Jesus -- the death of a teacher, the death of a friend, the death of a son. But “the Lord does not see as mortals see.”

On this day, two thousand years ago, what the world viewed with its eyes was a man hanging on a cross. What the world viewed was an act of injustice take place as innocent man was put to death. What the world viewed was the end of a movement that had managed to touch the hearts and minds of all kinds of people. What the world viewed was the end.

But the Lord does not see as mortals see.

What hung on the cross was not death but salvation. The truth of God, the truth that Jesus came to bear witness, did not compete against sin and death as co-equals. Rather, on the cross, God exposed sin and death for what they really are, human disfigurements. Humanity’s capacity for sin and its many embodiments: abuse, violence, hatred, envy, indifference to human life and suffering, and all others, is not what we’re meant to be or what we’re meant to become.

On the cross, Jesus reflects to the world a broken image of itself. He shows us what we are capable of doing to ourselves and others. He does this not to judge us, or even to condemn us, but as if he were a doctor, he does this to diagnose us.

Remember that the Lord does not see as mortals see. What God sees in the world is a people in need of a remedy. And that remedy is the cross, the cross becomes the medicine for the world. The cross which captures our human capacity for sin and death becomes our very life source. The cross is capable of holding up for us our sins and our redemption. After all, we have a God who not only forgives our sins but forgets - as the author of Hebrews writes, The Holy Spirit testifies, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Through the cross, the death of Jesus becomes the world’s greatest sacrifice. Unlike the sacrifices of old in which the high priest had to take part in a yearly sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin, Jesus, our great high priest, who is both priest and sacrifice, has made, as the prayer book says, “By his oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the world.”

In his sacrifice, the cross becomes a symbol of life. No longer is it an implement of suffering and death. God transforms this once violent image into our salvation. God is not only capable of shining a mirror on our sins and the sins of the world but responds with the cross to be our cure.

As we prepare to venerate the cross, remember that through the cross, God has not only shown us what sin and death can do but what God is capable to do. Where there is sin and death, there is love and life. God has shown us how deep is his love and how powerful is his might. And as if death and sin were nothing more than a smudge on our face, as a mother God has made us clean and giving us the victory.

In Anglo Catholic folklore, there’s a story of a curate serving in stately English parish. A somewhat eccentric and young priest, the curate seemed to have gone mad on Good Friday, as he processed around the Church with a crucifix in hand, shouting, “Victory, victory, victory!”

As you approach the cross, and kneel in veneration, pour out your heart to the Lord. Whatever may be heavy on your soul and burdensome bring it to the cross.

And as you kneel, touch, and kiss the cross, and remember those words shouted in that English parish -- “Victory, victory, victory!”

On this day above all days, God is good all the time. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Come, Sit and Eat

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Come, Sit and Eat

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Maundy Thursday
March 29, 2018

Tonight we have come to Maundy Thursday, the first of the three great days of preparation for Easter—the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—moving into the Great Vigil, Easter itself.  What a strange word, Maundy.  Someone asked me last week, “What does Maundy mean, anyway?”  It’s a good question—after all, it’s a word you’re likely to hear only today!  One generally accepted explanation is that Maundy is a English corruption of the Latin word “mandatum” which appears in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible, in John 13:34-35:  “I give you a new commandment, [a mandatum novum], that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This passage comes immediately after the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as an example, he tells them, of how to serve one another.

The Economist this week has another explanation—that the baskets used for almsgiving were called by an old English word maunde.[1]  That’s possible, too, I suppose—after all, monarchs in England have for centuries observed this day with both footwashing, as Elizabeth I did, and almsgiving, as Elizabeth II has done today at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.[2]    

So Maundy Thursday is associated with almsgiving and with footwashing—but it is also from its very earliest days associated with the Eucharist—the institution of the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass—as our readings from Corinthians and from the gospel of Luke recall in our minds—that moment at which Jesus takes bread at table, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19)

Tonight is the night in which we will celebrate our Lord’s gift of the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Eucharist—and we’ll celebrate that sacrament, as he taught us to do, in just a few moments.  But first, since it’s Maundy Thursday, we’ll also wash feet.

Now, people have different reactions to this.  I’ll bet you just had a particular internal emotional reaction yourself, even, when I mentioned washing feet.  

Perhaps your response was a warm, pleasant one—something about how nice it is to serve and be served—a positive association with doing something that Jesus did with his disciples.

Or maybe your reaction was more along the lines of, “There is no way I am leaving my pew and taking off my shoes for some stranger to wash my feet.  Yuk.  Gross.”

Regardless of how you feel about footwashing, and believe me, folks have feelings about it—the practice is ancient and has gained a revival in the liturgical renewal movement of which our 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a part.  We first see the rite in the early and medieval church, often as practiced as a reversal of authority—kings would wash the feet of their subjects; abbots would wash the feet of monks.  Queen Elizabeth I washed the feet of the poor at Westminster.  And now Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, nondenominational Christians, and even Presbyterians and Baptists have gotten on board with this practice, this acting out of the thing that Jesus does with his disciples in the gospel of John. 

It’s easy to see why the rite is so popular:  from Jesus’s own explanation, it’s an act designed to show us the importance of service; one way to read the gospel and the rite is that loving one another as Christ loves us is about serving one another. 

And we like service, right?  That’s a good thing!  It’s something we can do.  We can measure the work, we can observe the impact.  We can know that we are making a difference in the world.  I am fully supportive of service.  Let’s volunteer to serve a meal at the Soup Kitchen or at Chapel on the Green.  As the motto of Saint Hilda’s House says, let’s go “through the gates into the city,” serving those whom we meet.  There’s nothing better for building community and working for the kingdom of God, right?

We can get our minds around that.  We can see how it makes sense to wash another’s feet—literally as well as metaphorically. 

But what about the flipside?  What about having our own feet washed?  What about being served?  As I’ve asked people about having their feet washed this week, and believe me, I’ve asked a lot of folks, I have heard funny reactions such as “Oh, guess I’d better get a pedicure!” to “I’d better remember to wear my good socks!” to feigned responses of horror:  “Nobody’s going to touch my feet!” 

Now, when we’re talking about the play-acting that is foot washing in the liturgy, that’s fine; we can make all the jokes we want about how uncomfortable it is to have our feet washed—because it is, right?  It’s just strange!  Who do we let touch our feet?  Maybe doctors or pedicurists—that’s pretty safe—they have chemicals and soaps and gloves and things to make the procedure sanitary and distanced—or maybe people that we really love, that we really trust.  Our spouses, perhaps our parents if we’re younger.  But that’s about it.  Feet are a no-go zone.  That’s really intimate.  Really uncomfortable.

It wouldn’t have been so unusual in the near Eastern culture of Jesus’s time to have your feet washed; there was no sidewalk, no pavement, and feet got dusty.  Today in some near Eastern countries Muslims wash their feet at the door of the mosque before offering prayers.  And Jesus’s disciples would have expected their feet to be washed when they came in for dinner—to be washed by a servant, a professional, someone whose job it was to wash dirty feet.  But this footwashing was uncomfortable for them.  Peter even refuses at first Jesus’s invitation!  He says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”

Part of what made it so uncomfortable for these disciples was this reversal—that it was Jesus who was washing their feet.  Suddenly the footwashing wasn’t about a clinical, professional act—not like a pedicure or even a cleaning up before dinner—but their spiritual leader, their friend, the one they had come to understand as Messiah, was washing their feet.  Shouldn’t they be serving him?  And yet, there they were, their tired, dirty, inelegant, vulnerable, exposed feet.  Held in their Lord’s hands.  Washed and dried with his towel.  Cleaned and refreshed. 

This same Jesus that takes his disciples’ feet in his hands, tenderly washing them, is the same Jesus that we hear, in the gospel lesson from Luke, as he takes the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them with these words:  “This is my body, which is given for you.”  (Luke 22.19a)  This is my body.  Take and eat.  What if we were sitting at that very table?  How intimate, vulnerable, uncomfortable would those words make us feel?  When we hear those words every week, they can become rote.  Sure, this is my body.  Got it.  We understand what that means theologically, spiritually.  But what if you heard that at Easter dinner:  Hey Carol, pass the dinner rolls.  Here, have some.  This is my body!  If Uncle Bob says that, you’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable, right?  What is he talking about?  What does this mean?  What’s wrong with Bob?!

This is comparing apples and oranges, right? Jesus’s words are not the same as Uncle Bob’s carrying on at dinner.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be shocked by Jesus’s words.  Surely the disciples were shocked.  Just like the footwashing, this offering of his own body—in the meal that becomes the Eucharist, on the Cross, in his Resurrection—this offering of Jesus’s own body is real.  It is intimate.  It is vulnerable.  We are vulnerable, exposed to Jesus.

We are so separated from one another in our modern lives that it’s easy to feel disconnected.  Or to distrust connectivity, closeness.  A few months ago I had a conversation with a man who articulated something that I think is in the back of many of our minds.  He said, you know, I think I’m a pretty good person.   I don’t lie or cheat or steal.  I’m nice to people.  But I’m worried I’m not doing enough.  I mean, why would Jesus love me, particularly?  What have I done to deserve that?  Don’t I need to do something for God?  Keep up my end of the bargain?

Our rational, skeptical selves can really be taken aback—be made uncomfortable, even—by this Jesus figure who, against all convention, stoops to wash our feet—to take them in his hands—breaking boundaries and even comfort zones—by this Jesus, who offers us his own body and blood—by this Jesus, who offers himself on the cross.  This Jesus is real. He has a body, he sweats, he bleeds, he moans.  He holds the disciples’ feet tenderly, washes them, dries them with a towel.  He breaks bread and gives it to them.  This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.

Maundy Thursday is weird.  It is uncomfortable.  It is shocking.  It is intimate, and we feel vulnerable.  And that shocking intimacy is something of the point.  Jesus gets close to us—to our own imperfect bodies, our own imperfect souls, and offers us his perfect body, his perfect self.  And we can’t do anything to hold up our end of the bargain.  We can’t deserve it.  All we can do is receive his gift.  All we can do is say thank you.  All we can do is live, knowing that he has chosen us.  That he gives himself to us.  That he draws us in love to him.

Sometimes it helps me to hear things said different ways.  Sometimes poetry helps me understand an idea a little better.  Sometimes the poetry of the footwashing, as uncomfortable and weird as it is, helps me to understand that the Eucharist is even more intimate.  That Jesus wants to serve you and me.  That Jesus wants to love you and me.   Lord, how can I serve you?!  I want to ask.  And Jesus seems to answer, There’s plenty of time for you to serve others as I have served you.  But tonight, at this supper, sit back, have your feet washed, and receive my self offering.  My own body and blood.

This poem from George Herbert tells it better than I can.  Maybe it can help you prepare to hear Our Lord’s words, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.” 

A poem, from George Herbert:

 

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,              

      Guilty of dust and sin.             

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack   

      From my first entrance in,     

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning         5

      If I lack'd anything.   

 

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'             

     Love said, 'You shall be he.'   

'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, 

      I cannot look on Thee.'              10

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,             

      'Who made the eyes but I?'  

 

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame          

      Go where it doth deserve.'  

'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'      15

      'My dear, then I will serve.'  

'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'        

      So I did sit and eat.[3]

Come and have your feet washed.  Come to the altar and receive the gift of Christ’s presence in the Holy Communion, the sacrament of his Body and Blood.  Come.  Sit, and eat.

 


[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/04/johnson-word-origins?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/theweirdnessofholyweek (accessed 4/2/15)

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43581080 (accessed 3/29/18)

[3] George Herbert, “Love bade me welcome,” drawn from The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900, ed Arthur Quiller Couch, 1919, as published online at http://www.bartleby.com/101/286.html (accessed 4/2/15)

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From Glory to Passion

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From Glory to Passion

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Palm Sunday
March 25, 2018

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

In our first reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus arrives to Jerusalem for the first time and he is greeted with people spreading their cloaks on the road and spreading leafy branches.

Shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Truly a grand entrance for someone’s first visit.

So far in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jerusalem is only mentioned as the place where some of the curious have been attracted and from where hostile scribes have questioned Jesus. Yes, Jerusalem was at the center of the Jewish political and religious identity, but up to this point in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jerusalem has not played a pivotal role in the life and ministry of Jesus.

But this will quickly change. Almost immediately after Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem, the centrality and importance of Jerusalem in the life of Jesus becomes a focal point. And while Jerusalem might have played a passive role up to this point, Jesus knows to well the shift that’s about to take place.

While on the road to Jerusalem, just a few verses prior the account of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, we’re  told that Jesus took the Twelve aside and said to them “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, the Son of Man will be handed over to chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

Jerusalem which has served as the epicenter of Jewish life, will now serve as the final destination of “The Way,” that is the way of the Cross, the path Jesus has been on since his baptism in the Jordan River. See, in Saint Mark’s Gospel, there are no nativity stories or infancy narratives, there is not much detail or commentary on the actions of Jesus or extended thoughts or explanations from Saint Mark. Rather, all that takes place is to point us to the cross.

While the cross and resurrection is the ultimate destination, there seems to be a sudden and rapid change of events in Saint Mark’s Gospel. This quick change may be disorientating and even a bit daunting. After all, in what seems like a matter of moments the crowds go from shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “ Crucify him!”

In today’s liturgy, we personally experience this sudden change of events. We begun today’s liturgy recalling Jesus’ glorious entrance into Jerusalem, and not much long after, we turn our attention to his capture, trial, passion, and murder.

The rapid shift in today’s liturgy from Jesus’ glorious entrance into Jerusalem to his passion reminds us of how quickly things turn in Jesus’ own life. First proclaimed as the blessed one and then as the king of Jews, Jesus does not rebel against the forces that seek to destroy him put exposes their corruption and malice. As Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians states, Jesus “became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

Jesus sought not to prove himself to officials but to put on stage human sin and death, and the evil grip they have on humanity. And just as immediately as our attention shifts from a glorious entrance into Jerusalem, to our Lord’s passion and death, it will shift to the third day. Through his resurrection, Jesus defeats the very things that seek to consume us, inviting us to follow not only in the way of the cross but in the way of the resurrection.

Here we are, beginning this journey, waving our palms. And just like those crowds, one moment shouting hosanna and in the next crucify him. In the week to come, we will continue to walk in the way of Jesus by enacting our Lord’s footwashing and the ancient Christian practice of venerating the wood of the cross. And ultimately experiencing the empty tomb.

And why do we do this? Why are we here waving palms and continuing to participate in the rituals of Holy Week?

The reason why we do this is to put ourselves in the midst of our Lord’s passion. Not merely as bystanders or observers but as participants in the passion. It is to help us experience the passion alongside Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds. It is to help us understand, as much as we possibly can, the deep love and faithfulness God has for us.

Finally is to make us experience not only our Lord’s suffering but his triumph which is to become our own victory. His passion becomes our passion, his resurrection becomes our resurrection.

So let us prepare ourselves for the journey ahead of us. Let us be present here in this place, seeking to come to full unity with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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We Wish to See Jesus

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We Wish to See Jesus

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018

 

‘They came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”’

 

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

Last month I had the opportunity to take a weekend course at the Divinity School with the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms, an organization based in Nashville that helps women in recovery from trafficking, prostitution, drug addiction, and homelessness. Becca started this residential community, called Magdalene, in 1997 with a simple vision. She wanted to create a place where women who wanted to get off of the streets could live together for two years at no cost and begin to heal. There would no external authority figure in the house to govern the lives of the women. Much like a monastic community, the women developed their own rule of life that governed the way they lived together. The community was grounded on the belief that ‘Love Heals,’ and this simple mantra has guided the work of Thistle Farms for over 20 years. It is Becca’s deep conviction, born out of her own journey from abuse to healing, that no matter the depths of brokenness or the pain we have suffered, love has the power to heals us, because love is the most powerful force for change in the world.

A few years after establishing the first community, Becca realized that the women of Thistle Farms were still incredibly poor and needed some way to earn an income. She strongly believed that in order for the women to truly have agency and freedom they needed economic independence. A new idea was quickly born. Becca founded a social enterprise in which the women of Thistle Farms became producing all-natural candles and body products.

This enterprise has expanded rapidly and now brings in millions of dollars of revenue each year. As Becca writes, ‘there is poetic justice in producing healing and nourishing products for the body, all crafted by women whose bodies have endured years of abuse.’[1]

The story of Thistle Farms is an inspiring one. After learning from and with Becca through the weekend I left feeling really good and energized for ministry. I share the story of Thistle Farms with you, though, not simply because it is a nice and inspirational story, though I do hope you will consider reading more about the work and ministry of this place and the products the women of Thistle Farm produce. I share this story with you because it is a testament to the power of the gospel, and it illustrates what Jesus is trying to teach us today.

Today’s gospel passage moves us deep into the heart of John’s gospel. Narratively it comes just before the story of the Last Supper and the footwashing. In the sections immediately preceding it, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, then Mary lovingly and extravagantly washed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and her hair. Jesus then entered the holy city of Jerusalem in great triumph with acclamations of ‘Hosanna’ from the crowd. These events all took place in anticipation of the Passover feast, which is the ‘festival’ that is mentioned. Today’s passage begins by noting that among those who had come to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. Presumably they had traveled a considerable distance, and we have no indication as to how they had come to know about this extraordinary person called Jesus. The passage tells us that they first come not to Jesus but to Philip and then request to see Jesus. Philip, in turn, goes not to Jesus but to Andrew. Only then do the two disciples go to Jesus, and though the two disciples tell Him about their arrival, the text never mentions a direct encounter between the Greeks and Jesus. They fade into the background, and instead Jesus uses this moment to openly announce the events that are to come.

He tells Philip and Andrew, ‘the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ This word ‘glorify’ appears several times in today’s passage, and the concept of ‘glory’ is an important one both in the gospel of John and in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word is kavod, which is used to describe the majestic and awe-inspiring power of God. In the book of Exodus, God’s glory is described as a devouring fire on the top of Mount Sinai. At the end of the book, the tabernacle, the moveable place of worship that the Israelites used during their time in the desert, is completed and God’s kavod fills the tabernacle. The same term is used again in the book of Ezekiel when, toward the end of the book, the prophet sees a vision of the glory of God returning to the temple. It comes with the sound of mighty waters, and this glory makes the earth shine with radiance (Ezekiel 43:2). In the Hebrew Bible, God’s glory was something that would have almost demanded reverence. It was something to which one would have bowed down in awe and wonder.

Jesus takes this notion of glory, this idea of God’s awe-inspiring majesty, and turns it completely on its head. He begins to illustrate what he means by ‘glory’ and ‘glorify’ by using an agricultural image. He tells the disciples, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ We can easily see how this image points to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Like the grain of wheat, Jesus will die and be placed into the earth, in a tomb, and sealed away. From his death, though, will come abundant life. But Jesus does not use this image to describe only himself and his own death. It is also the way we as his followers must travel.

Jesus continues to instruct his disciples saying, ‘whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ Jesus’ path leads to death, and so too must the path of those of us who seek to follow him. To be clear, I’m not talking about physical death here, though we know that one day we will all face the death of our mortal bodies. No, I’m talking about the type of death that comes with the Christian life, the dying to self, to sin, to the ways of the world. The Christian life is not an easy one. If we truly live it out and follow Jesus we will suffer loss. We cannot ignore this reality. Yet though the way of Jesus is challenging, we also know it to be the way of life. The great promise of the gospel is that life emerges from death. And Jesus shows us how to follow this path with courage. He tells his disciples, ‘my soul is troubled,’ and what should I say- “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ Jesus knows what lies ahead. He knows what he must do, and moves forward with total trust in the Father.

At the end of today’s passage Jesus proclaims, ‘now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The gospel writer adds, ‘he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ This is what Jesus means when he says he will be glorified. Stripped of his clothing, beaten, spat upon, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and lifted up for all to see and mock, Jesus will be glorified. And the whole world will see the glory of God, not as described in the Hebrew Bible but in the form of one who emptied himself completely and was obedient unto a humiliating death on a cross. And we who see this glory will fall down before him in awe and reverence.

In older calendars of the Church, this Fifth Sunday in Lent marked the beginning of Passiontide, a tradition we still observe here at Christ Church. Our attention and focus now turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the events of Holy Week, and ultimately to the cross. As we continue our journey with our Lord toward Golgotha, we are invited to consider what needs to die in our own lives. Jesus reminds us of the core paradox of discipleship: ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Friends, what in your life needs to die this season? What sins cling to you and separate you from God? Whatever they may be, take them and bring them to the cross of Christ, and be assured of the promise that those things that fall into the earth and die will bring forth much fruit. That is the message of the gospel. We see it in our own lives, and we can see it in the ministries of places like Thistle Farms. We see it in the lives of women like Regina, who was one of the first women to join the Magdalene community. Like so many of the women who come through Thistle Farms, she had suffered severe trauma in her childhood and had been stuck in a life of addiction, prostitution, and trafficking. One night soon after Regina had joined the Magdalene community, Becca tells how she stopped by the home to check on Regina and found her dancing all by herself. She was dancing from sheer joy. It was an embodied prayer of profound gratitude to God, for she who had once been ensnared by the worldly powers of death and destruction, addiction and exploitation, was now experiencing new life. Now twenty-one years later, Regina is an employee of Thistle Farms and has helped over 200 hundred women get off the streets.[2]

Friends, as we move through this Passiontide toward the cross, may we, like the Greeks at the Passover festival, seek Jesus. If we make that our prayer we are assured that we will indeed behold our Lord in his glory, not as radiant light or fire on the mountain but as one lifted high upon the cross drawing all the world to himself. We will glory in his cross. We will come and adore. And we will see Jesus.

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


 

[1] The Rev. Becca Stevens, Love Heals (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 2.

[2] Stevens, Love Heals, 61-62.

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Lift High the Cross

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Lift High the Cross

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018

I grew up for the first six years of my life in a house in the country that backed up on a pine thicket.  The trees there were longleaf pine, probably at the time only about 10 years old--not towering trees, but tall enough to a small boy of four or five.  Throughout the year and especially in the fall these trees drop some of their needles, layering on the floor of the forest a bed of pinestraw that builds over time.  My dog at the time liked to roam through the thicket, chasing rabbits and squirrels, and I’d follow him across the soft, quiet pine straw floor of the thicket.

  During the heat of the day the pine trees were cooling, filtering the light of the sun onto the forest floor, but by dusk they provided cover of darkness for forest creatures to come out, and the thicket came alive with the sound of crickets, cicadas, and frogs from the nearby pond.  Dusk and dark were the times that, even as the thicket found its night-time voice, that another sound appeared, as well.  I didn’t like to walk into the thicket at night, for fear of stepping on the small brown hognosed snakes that lived there, silently slithering across the pine needle bed, hunting for food, for, when they were disturbed, they’d puff up a bit and hiss.  We called them spreading adders.  They were harmless, not aggressive, not poisonous, but that hiss was enough to strike fear in the heart of a small child.  And while as an adult I’m sure it was the wind in the pine trees that made its own sound, as a child I was sure there was a chorus of spreading adders out in the forest, singing a song, warning me to stay away, quietly hissing through the night.

And that’s how my discomfort with snakes was born.

Maybe you like snakes, but I don’t.  And so this story of Moses and the serpents is an uncomfortable one for me! 

You remember the story:  the Israelites have been freed from bondage in Egypt but are in sojourn in the wilderness, wandering for forty years (that is to say, a long time) until they enter the land promised them.  And they’ve grown weary--impatient, the story tells us, and they’re complaining.  “Why’d you bring us up here to die?  There is no food, there is no water, the food is terrible.”  (Num 21.5)  And it gets worse.  There’s no food, the food is terrible--and also there are snakes.  Poisonous serpents, our translation says; firey serpents, the Authorized translation says.  And they bite--and people die. 

And when the people acknowledge their sin in speaking against God--in this complaining, this being caught up in the bad so much that they miss the good--they pray to God to remove the snakes.  And so God tells Moses to make a staff with a bronze snake on it--and when the Israelites are bitten, they can look upon the staff with the snake--and live.

Now, there are lots of questions that come up for me in this story.  What are the snakes about?  When I was a child I was pretty sure these snakes were the spreading adders in the pine thicket!  But the language isn’t so clear about them.  One of the Hebrew words used is generally translated as serpent or snake--the same word used about the serpent in the garden of Eden, the wily one that convinces Adam and Eve that they can be like God.  Another word used is seraphim, which gets translated fiery serpent, or poisonous snake.  It’s the same word as the seraphim in Isaiah that touch the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips, blotting out his sin, as scripture says, and Isaiah replies to God’s call, “Here I am, send me.”  (Is 6.1-9) 

Are these seraphim, these snakes, literally desert vipers that bite and kill?  Are they seraphic messengers from God, as Isaiah’s visitors were, calling God’s people back to right relationship with God?  Are they a holdover from an ancient Babylonian god, a signpost on the road to monotheism for the people of Israel? 

Whatever the serpents are, when one of them is lifted up, the people that look upon it, even though they are bitten, do not die.  And what is that miracle about? Is this some sort of ancient medicine, that gazing upon the agent of the poison somehow renders it ineffective?  One might reasonably wonder if the serpent and staff that Moses raises up is connected somehow to our modern day medical symbols, the staff and serpent in the Yale School of Medicine crest, for example.  (That symbol is actually the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, whose temple feasts we heard about in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians just a few Sundays ago.)[1] 

I can’t offer an explanation about exactly what the snakes are, or why the bronze snake on a pole makes their bite less deadly.  But this instance was so important for the people of Israel in their journey that the staff with the snake on it was apparently kept and, when the temple at Jerusalem was built centuries later, the staff was raised in the temple, only to be destroyed along with the hill altars and sacred poles in King Hezekiah’s reformations three centuries later.

The problem, the sin, of the people of Israel was not that they were complaining.  It wasn’t even the snakes, though they were a whole other problem all to themselves!  The problem was that they had forgotten God’s mercy.  Here they had just been freed from bondage to Pharaoh--set free from slavery--and they were complaining about the food they had in the wilderness!  They’re complaining so much that they’re exaggerating. “We have no food, and the food we have is terrible!” they say. They have lost sight of the main thing.  They’ve lost sight of God’s mercy.

Perhaps the image of the serpent on the pole helped them remember God’s mercy--that they were spared from slavery, that they were spared from death.  Whatever it was, or however it worked, that ultimately was the message--that, through God’s mercy, God’s people were saved.

And isn’t that the message we hear today?

Today, Laetare Sunday, when the introit invites us to rejoice, we begin to make a turn--in the lectionary readings and in our hearts--from a self-examination of our sins, a focus on those things which  separate us from God and creation, and towards the joy of God’s saving works.  We turn our gaze to the marvelous mercy of God, the ways in which God reaches out to us, even when we try to separate ourselves from God, drawing us back to God’s own self.

The gospel of John proclaims 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.” (Jn 3.16)  That the entire point of Jesus, God’s son, coming into the world was to draw the world, us, all of creation, closer to God--back into relationship.  That the world, through Him, might be saved. (Jn 3.17) 

That God wants to be with us so much that God comes among us, even amongst our sinfulness, our willfulness, our neglect--our disregard for God; that God comes amongst us even as we complain and moan about how bad our lives are and forget for the moment how very good God is; even in the midst of our blindness, God comes in the person of Jesus Christ, to live and die, to be among us, all for the sole purpose of drawing us closer to God.

The Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent on the staff, we look upon the crucified body of our Lord, raised on the cross, raised as a standard, showing whom we follow, whom we believe in.  This is a God of mercy, a God of love, who comes among us, empties himself, and triumphs over death.  And we rejoice indeed at this great love--this love that has first loved us--that invites us to love one another, in God’s name.

We know that love.  We know that sacrifice.  We know that triumph over death.  We celebrate it each week, here, as we walk under and through the roodscreen, as we receive the Body of Christ in the Sacrament, and as we bear that love out into the streets of New Haven and beyond.

There’s something about lifting up that banner--about lifting up that cross--that’s important.  It’s only when the Israelites gaze upon the bronze serpent that they are healed.  It’s when Jesus is lifted up that the world is given life.  And next week in the gospel reading we’ll hear a reprise of Jesus’s insistence that he must be lifted up:  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn 12.32). 

That’s the verse on the reverse of the rood screen here--on the back of the beam that holds the cross, just there where we enter the choir each week to go up to the altar to receive communion.  When you receive communion today and rise from the rail, you can turn around and see it there, carved into the wood.

And when you turn around and look, you’ll notice something else, something that Father Bob Fix, who served as a seminarian here at Christ Church in the early 80’s, has pointed out.  When we enter under the cross, under the rood beam, we can see the figure of Jesus suspended, crucified.  When we kneel at the altar rail, we receive the Body of Christ in the sacrament.  And when we turn around from the rail, after we’ve received the Body of Christ, the rood itself--the cross--is empty.  And it’s so.  The back side of that cross is completely plain; there’s no corpus, no body on it.

Fr Ficks points out that, in our communions, the Body of Christ is now present in us.  Through the gift of the Incarnation, God has come among us.  Christ, through the grace bestowed in the Sacraments, now inhabits us.  And we go back out into the nave, back out into the streets of New Haven, back out into our daily lives, carrying Christ with us.  Bearing him forth.  Carrying that banner, that staff, that cross, lifted up, out into the world.

When  you find something so good, don’t you want to tell people about it?  I can’t tell you the number of folks who want to tell me about their fitness regimen, or a new restaurant they’ve found, a book they’ve read or movie they’ve watched, a trip they’ve taken--something that’s caught their imaginations for just a second.  Something worthy of their attention, something they think is worth sharing.

We have received the greatest love imaginable; God has come among us.  Christ has given his life in love and service to all of creation.  And the good news is that he has triumphed over death--and that he invites us into that new, everlasting life.  That’s good news.  How can we NOT share it?

Now, let’s be clear, I’m not telling you that we should go out and argue with folks, convince them to follow Jesus, coerce them even.  The work of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.  All I am suggesting is that we are called to lift the standard, to lift up Jesus.  To claim Him in our lives, in our work, in our very being.  “I volunteer at the Soup Kitchen because it’s what Jesus teaches.”  “I believe this because of my Christian faith.”  “I chose this line of work because it’s a way that I can share the love that God has shared with me, that I meet in Jesus.”

Whatever word or phrase we put on it, lift high the cross of Christ in our work, in our lives, each and every day.  Share Jesus’s love with the world, because he has first loved us.  Let us this Lent turn our eyes to the cross.  Let us show people Jesus.


 

[1] See “Going Vegetarian for Jesus,” a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany at christchurchnh.org/sermons, and Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

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