Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter 2008

Forty-some odd days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I solemnly invited you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. Our Lenten observance in now ended. Time has passed. Maybe quickly, maybe slowly, but it has passed. Lent has passed, and Easter is here.

Lent has passed.

Words like “pass” and “passing” and “passage” are rich with meaning, because they refer to things that we do all the time. They talk about movement, progress (or regress, as the case may be), growth (or decay, as the case may be), but in any case, change.

“Teacher, can I have a hall pass to go to the bathroom?”

“Psst! Kevin has cooties; pass in on.”

“Do you think you'll pass the test next week?”

“Hello? I'd like to book passage on your next Caribbean cruise.”

“Thank-you for offering, but I think I'll pass.”

“I was so excited I almost passed out!”

“Aunt Susie passed away last week.”

And then there are those events that we refer to as “rites of passage”, events which may not be terribly important in and of themselves, but which signify turning points, movement from one stage or state of life to another—first pair of shoes, first haircut, first day of school, that first party sometime during late elementary school when both boys and girls are invited, the first date, getting a driver's license, graduating from high school, the first full-time job, turning thirty, turning forty, retirement, and several others in between.

Each of these events is in some way bittersweet: they look forward to a somehow changed future; but the future is, by definition, unknown, and therefore threatening. Such moments also mean that you can't ever go back to the way things were. Once you're forty, you can't ever be thirty-nine again!

And so times like these, while promising, are also anxiety-producing. And this is precisely the reason that we tend to mark them, to celebrate them in some special way, formal or informal. By clothing these watershed moments in special rites and ceremonies, even if it's just putting on funny hats and singing silly songs, we intend to conduct that person safely through the threatening event, to provide him or her with safe ... passage from the known into the unknown.

This past Lent—this Lent that has now passed—has been a rite of passage for me. It was my first Lent as part of this worshipping community of St Anne’s. And many members of this congregation have experienced “passages” during the seven months I have been here. There have been new jobs, new homes, new relationships, new illnesses, new hopes and new fears. Some, indeed, have “passed on”, “passed away.” The peculiar relationship a parish priest enjoys with his flock brings with it the high privilege of being present and presiding at this most important “rite of passage”.

This particular passage certainly towers in significance over all the other watershed moments in our lives. Death is the ultimate movement into the unknown, the mother of all human anxiety, the source of all fear. We may ignore it, we may delay it, but we cannot, in the end, avoid or defeat it. Death catches up with all of us. But even though death is a universal constant of human experience, we still fear it, because it remains a mystery. It remains the great unknown. We read stories about near-death experiences, with tunnels and warm, inviting lights, and gently beckoning voices and faces. These are fascinating, and reassuring in their own way. But this is not the same as being stone cold dead, with the molecules in the brain that are the electro-chemical data banks of personhood, identity, and a lifetime of memories, disintegrated into chaos. You don't go flatline on an EEG for 36 hours and then come back to tell your story to the National Inquirer.

That is, unless your name is Jesus!

Here it is folks! Here's the scandalous good news: Jesus was lowered into the very jaws of death, and by suffering death, caused death to choke on itself, the way a snake will sometimes swallow its own tail and literally consume itself. Death has never been the same since, and neither has human life. Jesus has become our safe passage into and through the jaws of death.

During the era of wagon train migration into the American west, the most indispensable member of the group was the guide, the one who knew the territory, who had passed that way before, and come back to tell about it. The guide knew where and how to cross the rivers, where the navigational landmarks were, and how to stay out of the way of hostile Indians. He provided the wagon train with safe passage through the unknown of the frontier, until it reached its destination.

This is the same job that Moses, following the guiding hand of the Lord himself, performed for the company of Israel on their passage out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea and the dangers of the wilderness, and eventually to the destination of the Promised Land.
Jesus Christ is our safe passage through the Red Sea of life and the wilderness of death. He knows the territory. He's been there before, and, more importantly, come back to tell about it.

In the course of time, the events surrounding Israel's departure from Egypt were celebrated with a commemorative “rite of passage”—the Passover. Since the first Easter, Christians have interpreted this original Passover as the pre-figurement, the foreshadowing, of Jesus' passover —his safe passage—from death to life. And not only Jesus', but ours as well.

When we were touched by the waters of the baptismal font, we were united with him in his death, and united with him in his resurrection. His death became ours and our his. His life became ours and ours his. Death is swallowed up in victory. This is the simple but astonishing fact of Easter: Jesus went where we all have to go, but came back to provide us with safe passage through it.

Alleluia, Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia!

Christ is risen. Alleluia and Amen.

Good Friday

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

One of the clearest memories of my childhood is of an occasion when my father was trying to teach me to swim. I was not quite eight years old and we were at a public pool. My father stood about five feet from the edge of the pool, held his arms out and said, “Jump to me. I’ll catch you.” I was scared. The water was up to his chest, which meant that it was well over my head, and I couldn’t swim. But I trusted him, I jumped, and he caught me.

I also trusted my father in several less dramatic and less conscious ways. I trusted that I would always have food in my stomach, a secure roof over my head, clothes on my back, that I would always be loved, and whenever I got myself into a jam, that he would be there for me to help me, and to make things alright. Few things are as beautiful to us as the trust of a child. Few things are as beautiful to us as an infant asleep on its mother’s breast, completely serene, completely content, completely trusting. And because of this, few experiences are as gut-wrenching, few experiences cause us as much grief and anger, as the betrayal of a child’s trust. We are revolted by the crimes of child abuse and incest, not only because of the acts themselves, but because the trust that children naturally place in parents and relatives is tragically betrayed.

Those of you who know me well have learned that I find in the game of baseball a veritable treasury of metaphors for life itself. Way back in 1919 the Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant, and were heavily favored to win the World Series as well. But they lost the World Series. Subsequently it was revealed that they lost on purpose, in order to keep an agreement some of the players had made with professional gamblers. It was fixed, and it became known as the “Black Sox” scandal. Several team members were eventually indicted and brought to trial. One afternoon when the day’s trial proceedings were over, one of the stars of the team, “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” was met on the courthouse steps by a group of young boys. These were boys for whom he had been a hero, boys who had placed their trust in him as an example of something they could aspire to. There were tears streaming down their faces as they pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, say it ain’t so.”

But, of course, it was so. Their trust had been betrayed.

All of us have been on both ends of that transaction; we have all had our trust betrayed, and we have all betrayed trust that has been placed in us. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know very little about what might be called the “psychology” of Jesus. Several different theories have been advanced over the years, but whatever conclusion we come to, we’ve got to remember that it has been the faith of the Church for two thousand years that he was really a man, in every way human as we are, yet without sin. He wasn’t just God in disguise, pretending to be human. All week long, we’ve been reading the twenty-second Psalm, the first verse of which Jesus quoted in his cry from the cross as recorded by Matthew and Mark. When the human being Jesus of Nazareth spoke these words from the cross, it was because that’s precisely how he felt: forsaken, abandoned, his trust betrayed. He had in every way been faithful to his Father’s will. He had in every way been faithful to his mission. Indeed, as those who stood at the foot of the cross mocked him, “He trusted in God, that God would deliver him. Let God rescue him, if he delights in him!” But now he’s abandoned, and betrayed. “Jesus, old friend, you’ve been had! You’ve done everything right—you’ve gone by the game plan. And where has it gotten you? Your hands and your feet have been nailed to a piece of wood. Your life’s blood is oozing out of you, drop by individual drop. You’re not long for this world, Jesus—and Daddy isn’t going to come and make it all better, is he?”

Say it ain’t so . . . say it ain’t so.

We’ve all had our crosses to bear this year, even this Lent. Some of you have faced serious illness, in your life or in the life of someone close to you. Some of you have lost loved ones to death. Maybe it’s not been a good year financially for you, and you wonder how you’re going to make ends meet, and worry about how you’re going to fulfill the hopes and aspirations that you have for yourself and for your family. Perhaps you’ve struggled with depression, and just wonder how you’re going to get through the routine tasks of the day that lies ahead of you. Some of you have been betrayed by someone you love. Some of you are in turmoil over a relationship that has gone sour. Maybe you are paralyzed by fear and by a sense of the purposelessness of your own life.

My friends, it is here, in our woundedness, that we get close to the heart of the mystery of the cross. It’s true, as Christians we have 20-20 hindsight—we know about Easter—we know about Reusrrection. And, From whatever information the gospel evangelists give us, Jesus did too. But at that moment on the cross, he was forsaken, he was abandoned, he wasn’t faking it. And in order to transcend his suffering at that moment, Jesus had to give up hope! I’d like to read to you a paragraph from a meditation by the late James Griffiss, who was a theologian and seminary professor:

How easy it is for us to be deceived about hope. What we want to believe is that God will work out everything for our good in the end. The way may be difficult; things may get bad at times, but in the end all will be well. And sometimes, indeed, it does happen that way, and we are deceived all the more. We even try to do it with Jesus himself. We interpret his death according to our own understanding and our own idols: God made it alright for him, so he will make it alright for us. And so we avoid the cross and what it says, for it is not too difficult to turn the cross into that which puts God to the test. “I am your son, your chosen one, surely you are not going to abandon me now.” We can imagine that Jesus might have said that, might perhaps have thought it, because we have said it so many times ourselves. ... The cross frees us from that temptation, and it is our only hope. ... The cross frees us from the sin of testing, because Jesus died there; it is the end. Nothing is left, nothing on which he or we can depend except the cross, and the cross offers us nothing, not even itself. It offers only the God who led Jesus there and who leads us there to be crucified with him.

These are hard words! If I understand what Father Griffiss is saying, it’s that before we can even think about attaining our heart’s desire, we must first give it up. Our job is simply to abdicate—to abdicate control over anything and everything that ... well, just anything and everything. Like Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a wilderness altar, we must abandon our impulse to control or possess anything, even ourselves. Before we can be delivered from the suffering we face, we must abandon the right to find our own way out. Our only hope is to give up hope.

For me, the most beautiful image of this kind of abandonment is found in the first moments of a human being’s life outside the womb. A baby emerges From the security it has known for nine months, where it has been nourished, and given food and oxygen through the umbilical cord connection with its mother. And then, right when that child sees the light of day for the first time, the cord is snapped. And there’s an instant between the time that source of life is cut off, and the child draws its first breath, where life itself hangs in the balance.

I believe that, as baptized christians, we are called to live in that moment—hanging in the balance—where we give up the hope, give up the security of everything we have ever known, and face God’s unknown future, silent before the mystery, ready to be taught how to breathe. Our trust in God is well-placed—don’t think I’m telling you otherwise—but it has to be a mature trust, one born of suffering, free of any conditions or qualifications. It won’t do to tell God we trust him, so long as he will promise to do this or that. Our trust must be simple and unconditional.

The Jewish writer Elie Weisel tells the story of an event that took place in a Nazi concentration camp. The authorities decided to publicly execute two inmates, one an old man and one a teenage boy. In front of the entire camp population, these two prisoners were hanged. The old man died quickly and, so it seemed, relatively painlessly. The boy, however, stuggled, and took a long while to die. As he hung there, writhing at the end of a rope, someone cried out in anguish, “God, where are you?!” He might just as well have said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in a moment of insight and illumination, another prisoner responded, pointing at the slowly dying form of the boy, and said, “There he is, there is God, hanging on that rope.”

Our God is, for our sake, a suffering God, a crucified God. That’s why we have crucifixes, so that in our suffering, we can see our crucified God, abandoned with us and for us. On this Good Friday I invite you, in the name of the church, to bring your woundedness, your betrayal and your betray-ing, and, with Jesus, give up hope. Come to the cross, be abandoned and forsaken with him, and him with you, that you may live.

Almighty God, whose most dear son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walkingn in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace, through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday 2008

Some twelve years ago, Brenda and I bought a house in Stockton, California, where we were living at the time. It was a grand old home, built in 1916, but it was definitely what you would call a “fixer upper.” It suffered from poor taste, compounded by years of neglect. But we looked at it, and we both liked it, and over the loud protests of our real estate agent, who thought we were nuts, we bought it. We had great plans. We worked like pack mules for about three months, and most of those plans were indeed turned into reality. We ripped out carpets and counters and refinished floors and laid ceramic tile and repainted walls and ceilings and repaired windows, and undertook several other smaller projects. We turned a dump into something livable.

But after we ran out of steam, and pretty much out of money as well, quite a bit yet remained undone. Quite a bit. And, to be honest with you, most of what still needed to be done, we just lived with, until we eventually sold the place and moved up the street five years later.

And so it seems to me that our not-quite fixed up old house is an apt sign of so much else in my life and in yours. We all have our inventory of “unfinished business.” We have unfinished business with things and we have unfinished business with people. We have loose ends in our responsibilities and loose ends in our relationships.

A few minutes ago, our Deacon read, from the thirteenth chapter of St John’s gospel, the scriptural warrant for what we’ll be doing immediately at the conclusion of this homily: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of the world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That last phrase says so much more than its brevity suggests. Jesus loved “his own” to the end. Jesus loves us to the end. This is the pivotal sentence in John’s narrative of our Lord’s Passion, the hinge on which he makes the transition from the tumultuous events of that last week in Jerusalem, to the actual arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. The words “to the end” therefore refer to everything that follows, culminating in his death. Jesus followed through on his plans. He brought them to completion. He attended to the details. He didn’t leave any unfinished business. In his submission to death on the cross, Jesus loved us “to the end.”

But, we might ask, to what “end” did Jesus love us? The word “end” is a rich word. It has more than one connotation, more than one shade of meaning. If Brenda and I were to have actually completed the unfinished projects in that home we bought twelve years ago, it would have represented the conclusion of our plans, and would have been the cause for some celebration. We could have said that we had reached the end of our project. But even in that case, achieving our goal would not have been, so to speak, an “end in itself.” Rather, the completion of our task list would have served a greater “end,” the end of heightening the beauty and utility and harmony of our home—and, thereby, the beauty, utility, and harmony of our lives. Similarly, if we take care of the unfinished business in our relationships and responsibilities, it is not merely to have them “done,” but is directed toward the end that lives be enhanced, wounds healed, wrongs righted, obligations fulfilled, justice served, and love manifested.

So what, once again, is the end to which Jesus loved us fully when he suffered and died for us? This is a profound question, and the clues which point us to an answer are contained
in the very actions which characterize the liturgy of the Church on Maundy Thursday. That strange word “maundy” comes from the Latin mandare, from which we get “mandate” and “command.” There are two mandates, two commands, from our Lord, which we fulfill tonight, and they are both ordered to the end that we, Jesus’s disciples, take on his character, that we become like him, that we are so formed in his spirit that we don’t have to stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”, we just do it.

The first of these commands, these mandates that serve an “end,” is concerned that we be formed in an attitude of servanthood and humility. The ordained leaders of this community,
standing in the place of Jesus, will wash the feet of a representative group of individuals who stand in the place the twelve apostles whose feet Jesus washed. This re-enactment is a lesson to all of us. It requires humility from all of us. Deacon Marion and I will be humbled, because we will be on our knees in front of those whose feet we are washing. Those whose feet are being washed will be humbled, because we’re not used to having our shoes off in church. To those of us raised in western culture, at least, being barefoot is a sign of unsophistication and vulnerability. And those who simply sit and watch—and, one hopes, pray as well—those who are just ordinary members of the congregation are formed in humility by the mere fact that they are … just ordinary members of the congregation. How difficult it is, very often, to content ourselves with being ordinary, with not standing out from the crowd. But finding contentment in whatever state we find ourselves is a critical threshold in our progress toward humility. Thus, we all serve one another in this liturgy of footwashing—those who wash the feet, those whose feet are washed, and those who prayerfully observe the ceremony.

The second command which we observe tonight, as we encounter it in the first epistle to the Corinthians, is that to take bread and wine, and set them apart through prayer, and then consume them. On that night in the upper room, after he had given them a lesson in humility by washing their feet, and as they were sharing what may have been a Passover Seder, or may have been another sort of Jewish ritual meal, Jesus took the elements of that meal and re-invigorated them with a new level of meaning. This is what we call the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy. In the Incarnation, God humbled himself to the point of sharing our human nature, but he did so with a particular end in mind, and that is that we should thereby share in his divinity, that we should become, as St Peter tells us in his second epistle, “partakers in the divine nature.” Even before he had completed his plans, before he had yet loved them “to the end,” Jesus connected those friends and followers who were with him then to the power which would be unleashed in the 48 to 72 hours that followed—the cosmic and redemptive power which would manifest itself in darkened skies at midday, and an earthquake, and the rending of the temple veil, the rolling away of a stone in front of a tomb.

Two thousand years later, you and I are still connected to the source of that power. When we take and bless and break and give the elements of the Eucharist, we are sharing in the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, as surely as a rapid transit train receives power from the third rail to which it is connected.

My friends, this liturgy, this “work” in which we are engaged, will not have a definite conclusion. We will simply finish when we’re finished, and then adjourn for another few hours before we return tomorrow night to continue the Triduum. But although there is no certain conclusion, there is a definite end to what we do here tonight. Our work will serve this end, our work will be accomplished, to the extent that we follow through on it, that we see to the details, that we do not leave any unfinished business before the altar of God, that we give ourselves to our work—heart, mind, and body. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Palm Sunday 2008

St Matthew's Passion

Philippians 2:6-11

It feels almost presumptuous to say anything after reading St Matthew's Passion in the manner which is the church's custom on this day. Nonetheless, in order that the word of God not be obscure to anyone, in order that this too familiar but still overpowering story of one man's suffering and death be revealed clearly and compellingly as gospel, as good news, let me cut right to the chase. What's the point?! What in heaven's name is gained by such a gruesome sequence of events as Jesus experienced? And, if anything is to be gained, could it not have been gotten by some other means, some more elegant and less costly way?

Neither of these questions is particularly easy to answer, but the first one is less difficult than the second. What is gained by Jesus’ suffering and death? I can think of no more concise and poetic answer to this question than that found in the words of the prayer by which we will offer to God the bread and wine of this Eucharist: Holy and gracious father, in your infinite love you made us for yourself . . . Now, there's a thought—God, our “holy and gracious father”, made us...for himself; what better reason for living could we ask for?

...and when we had fallen into sin . . . Who among us has not fallen into sin?

...and become subject to evil and death . . . Again, who among us is not subject to evil and death?, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and father of all.

There's what's in it for us: we're reconciled to God. Somehow, the fact that Jesus“stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [his Father's] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” means that the gulf which separates us from God as a result of human sin—our own sins, the sins of our ancestors, the sins of our friends and neighbors and enemies—the gulf of sin is bridged. Our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. There is purpose, meaning and direction for our lives.

We are given a map by which to navigate the forbidding terrain of human experience in a way that leads not to despair, but to hope, not to alienation, but to unity, not to sadness, but to joy.

What is gained by Jesus’ suffering and death?


But, we may still ask, could this not have been accomplished in some other way? Quite honestly, I don't know if it could have been accomplished in some other way. God has not yet shared his mind with me on that question! I only know that he chose to do it in the way he did, by sending his “only and eternal son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us.”

To share our human nature, to live and die as one of us.

We don't know whether God could have saved us in some other way. But these words from the liturgy give us a clue as to how the way God does save us works. It's really a pretty elementary principle, easily grasped by human intuition. But I'll illustrate it with science fiction! One of the more popular of the seven Star Trek movies has the crew of the Enterprise has—for a very good reason which I won't go into here—travelling back in time 300 years, to the late twentieth century. As is usually the case, Captain Kirk meets a woman, and they're mutually attracted. The inevitable moment comes for him to beam back up to his ship and return to his own century. She wants to come with him, and he says, “No, you belong in your own time, jumping ahead 300 years would stress you out too much”, and all that. Naturally, since he's Captain Kirk, he gets his way, and calls up to his ship, “One to beam up”. But just at the moment when the transporter beam locks on to him, she throws herself around him, and the beam, unable to distinguish between them, transports them both up to the ship. Since they were, at that moment, bound up with each other, their experience was one and the same. What happened to him also happened to her.

This is the way God saves us in Jesus. He binds us up with him, so that his experience and ours become one and the same. What happens to him also happens to us. Christ died—when we die, we die with him. Christ rose from the dead, restored to new and glorious life—we will rise from the dead, restored to new and glorious life. That's the gospel in a nutshell. It's about that simple.

But—stepping back to Captain Kirk and his lady friend for a moment—if Kirk had not been where he was when he was, that is, if he had not completely entered her time and her space, there would have been no transporter beam to carry her anywhere! Before she could share his experience, he first had to share hers. It works the same way with Jesus and us. In order for us to be able to share his experience, he first had to share ours, to fully enter and inhabit our time and our space. In theology, we call this entry into our time and our space —our human experience—Incarnation. We usually associate the celebration of the incarnation with Christmas —”...and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” But Jesus assuming our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in an important sense, only begins the incarnation. If Jesus had been snatched back up to the right hand of the father without ever suffering death, his incarnation would have been of no effect. It would have been to no avail for our salvation, because he would not have fully identified with our experience. We have to suffer and die.

There's no getting around it. A Jesus who doesn't suffer and die with us cannot save us. We cannot share his experience unless he first shares ours, and to share human experience includes suffering and dying.

So, there you have it. Straight, unadorned, without the sugar coating. This is gruesome stuff we celebrate this week. But it's our only hope. Amen.

Chrism Mass

I was honored to have been invited by the Bishop of Northern Indiana to deliver the homily for the annual Mass of Chrism, held in the Cathedral Church of St James in South Bend last Saturday. The Chrism Mass is the occasion when the clergy of a diocese gather to renew their ordination vows with the Bishop, and at which the Bishop consecrates oils to be used in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Ministry of Healing.

Luke 4:16-21

Isaiah 61:1-8

Revelation 1:4-8

Well … it is a singular honor and privilege to have been invited to share the Word of God with you here in this place and on this occasion. As I look around at you, I am acutely aware that everyone made a substantial sacrifice in order to be here. It’s Saturday morning—a time when errands get done, and the house gets whipped into shape after being allowed to slowly surrender to chaos during the week. For clergy—and Altar Guild members!—it’s the day before Palm Sunday, the day before Holy Week begins. There is not a soul in this room who would not have had several worthwhile things to do with the time that is now being devoted to the Mass of Chrism.

We lead such busy lives. I won’t even argue with you about whether they’re over-busy; it doesn’t matter—we’re busy. We’re busy doing good and worthwhile things. We’re busy in our secular lives and we’re busy in our ecclesial lives—our lives in and with the Church. We’re busy in the Church and, together, we’re busy as the Church. As the Church, we do a great deal, and, for the most part, it is good—very good. We engage in corporate worship—on Sundays and holy days, and, many of us, on ordinary weekdays. We say our private prayers—sometimes fervently, sometimes perfunctorily, but we say them. We engage in evangelism—sometimes intelligently and enthusiastically, sometimes stupidly and timidly, but we do it. We participate in service to society—feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting those who mourn, advocating for social structures that more closely reflect the justice of God. We study—we teach and we learn: We study the Bible, we study theology, we study the history and tradition of the Church. We come together and form Christian community: We share coffee and cookies in the parish hall after Mass on Sunday, we show up for small group Bible study and sharing opportunities, and through it all, we hope that we are learning to model a viable alternative society, and alternative to the broken world in which we live. And we intercede for that world; we lift up before God the woundedness and fear, the jealousy and envy, the suspicion and hatred that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and draw us from the love of God. And in our prayers, we often—more and more within the Christian community these days, I would say—in our prayers we often ask for healing. In the confidence that we serve the God of life and health, and in the conviction that there are those among us whom the Spirit has specially gifted with the ministry of healing, and in faith that when God says he acts through the sacraments, he indeed acts through the sacraments, we offer our prayers for healing, and we watch it happen, and it changes our lives.

These are all things we do as the Church. Sometimes we do them well and sometimes we do them poorly, but they are all on our radar screen to one degree or another. And much of what we do, when we indulge ourselves a moment or two to reflect—much of what we do in fact seems to echo the ministry of the One in whose name we are gathered today, and by whose title—that is, Christ—we dare to call ourselves as we claim to be “Christians.” But it very often seems to us as if we are an aggregation of hamsters each spinning his or her own little wheel, and from that perspective, it can be discouraging, because it always seems like we should be spinning the wheel faster because not enough is getting done. We lack the long view, we don’t see how the pieces all fit together, and we are easily discouraged as we busily—more and more busily all the time—as we busily spin our hamster wheels.

So my first bit of good news for you this morning is to tell you that today’s scripture readings have the potential—the potential, at least—to make us feel a whole lot better about the individual jobs we’re doing spinning our wheels, because they filter everything through one very helpful lens. From the Revelation to St John the Divine: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…”. A kingdom of priests. A priestly people. It is our identity as a priestly people—a “kingdom of priests”—that makes everything we do as the Church coherent. The psychologists use the German expression gestalt to talk about a single unifying insight that, without necessarily even using very many words, helps simplify a very complicated situation and make it more accessible to our minds and imaginations. As we continue to spin our individual hamster wheels, not able to see how all the wheels relate to one another, the knowledge that we are a kingdom of priests, a priestly people, gives us hope that we are not “spinning” in vain.

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

The priestly character of the Church takes its shape—we might say that it’s “under the cover” of—the priestly character of the Church takes its shape from the one High Priest, the one who is a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”—that is, Jesus. Jesus is the archetype—the model, the template, the pattern—for all priesthood. Indeed, strictly speaking, Jesus is the only real priest; any exercise of Christian priesthood “borrows” from Jesus, who is its rightful “owner”

In Jesus’ ministry in the Nazareth synagogue as recorded for us in St Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus’ priestly ministry expressed, as it were, in a capsulated form. Think of it like a “zipped” computer file—you know, after you download some software from the internet, you have to “unzip” the file before you can actually install it on your hard drive. The incident in the Nazareth synagogue tells us what we need to know about the priesthood of the Christ, and, in turn, about the priesthood of the Church, the collective priesthood of the people of God.

In the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue, and which we also read in this liturgy, the prophet—and, we are to understand, Jesus as well—Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit, anointed for the specific task of preaching good news: Preaching the good news that poverty does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is abundance. Jesus preaches the good news that captivity does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is liberty. Jesus preaches the good news that darkness does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is light. Jesus preaches the good news that oppression does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is joy.

As a priestly people, we stand in the gap between poverty and abundance, between captivity and freedom, between darkness and light, between oppression and joy. A priest is a mediator, a go-between. A priest mediates between those conflicting forces. And just as there is only one priest, so there is only one mediator—Christ Jesus. But Jesus has shared his ministry with us, and we stand in the world as his representatives. We stand in the world bringing Christ to the world and bringing the world to Christ. “Christ for the world we sing; Christ to the world we bring.” And as the priestly people of God, bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ, we derive our vocation, our calling, from the Lord’s charge to Isaiah. The Lord told the prophet, “You shall be called the priests of the LORD, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.” Isaiah, and Israel through him, was given a priestly vocation by the Lord. And as heirs of the promise, we as the Church have inherited that same vocation, that same calling.

But even though, together, we form a priestly people, we don’t just all exercise all elements of that ministry at the same time and in the same way. We work in a manifold variety of specific ways. So, in a way, I’m sending us back to our personal hamster wheels, but now with a much clearer vision, I hope!

Some among us just pray—and, I don’t need to tell you, these are probably the most important ministers we have! Some of us mix it up with the world, “speaking truth to power” about things that concern the heart of God. Some learn voraciously and teach relentlessly, forming our minds with the mind of Christ, and helping others form their minds the same way. Some give encouragement, or tangible help, in all sorts of ways. Some “perfect the praises of God’s people” through art and music. Some model the servant leadership of Jesus in an iconic way—these we call deacons. Some model the pastoral ministry—the shepherding ministry—of Jesus in an iconic way—we call some of them bishops, and the ones who cannot reproduce themselves (!), we call presbyters, or priests. Some have the gift and calling to pray specifically for healing, and that gift will get exercised here today!

As the clergy renew their vows, and as we bless the oils used in the manufacture of new Christians and the manifestation of God’s desire for healing in all circumstances, we bear witness to one another of our collective priestly character—we are the “anointed ones.” We are privileged to share the ministry of the Anointed One—the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. May his name be praised now and through ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A: Lent V (9 March 2008)

John 11:1-44

When I was growing up, there was a great interest among church people in what is called in academic circles “Christian apologetics.” Christian apologetics is the art and science of convincing skeptical non-believers that Christian faith is plausible and intelligible. It's a way of answering the various objections, the “hard questions”, that lead some to suppose that the only way to be a Christian is to check your brain at the door of the church and completely turn your back on rationality and common sense. A Christian apologist seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.

I wonder, however, whether, in our own time, the apologetic task is altogether different. There is a body of concrete evidence to suggest that the cry of the non-believer today is not so much “show me that it's true!” as “show me that it's relevant!”. Show me that it means anything. Show me that whether or not I am a believing, practicing Christian actually makes a tangible difference—to me or to anyone else. To many of us—and I say “us” because I suspect that many church memebers, as well as most of the unchurched, fall into this category—to many of us, Christian faith is a sort of ethereal “pie in the sky bye and bye”, you know . . . “eternal life”. If I live right and say an occasional prayer, I'll go to heaven ... when I die.

When I die.

This is just too far removed from the world of our ordinary experience to be of much interest or concern. Jesus offers me eternal life. That will be nice, I'm sure, when I need it. But in the meantime, I've got to make the house payment, drive the kids to piano lessons and soccer practice, get ready for an important meeting, close another sale, and lose twenty pounds. Talk to me when I've done all that and maybe I'll sign up for eternal life. Right now, I haven't got the time.

This is not a difficult move to make. People you and I know—maybe sometimes we ourselves—make it every day. We don't look on Christianity with scorn, as a falsehood, but with benign apathy, as an irrelevancy. We understand the promise of eternal life to be not yet applicable, because we understand eternal life itself to be essentially the continuation, the exension, of spiritual life even after the event of physical death. When we die, we'll need eternal life; before then, we don't.

So if Christian faith is about eternal life, and we don't yet need eternal life, then Christian faith is, understandably, of marginal interest. It's like the spare tire in my trunk. I'm glad to know that it's there if I have a flat, and a couple of times a year, maybe around Christmas and Easter, I may get sentimental about the joys of tire irons and lug nuts, but it really isn't in the forefront of my consciousness during my daily routine of driving around town.

Eternal life.

This is one case when it pays to look deeper than the face value meaning of the words themselves. When Jesus speaks of eternal like, he's talking about something much more profound, much richer in meaning, than the mere continuation of existence after the death of the body. And what Jesus did in response to the death of a friend of his named Lazarus, in the village of Bethany, stands as a beacon, a sign, of the richness and the profundity with which Jesus uses the term “eternal life”.

As John the Evangelist tells the story, this incident takes place just before Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem to be tried and crucified. (So it's appropriate that we're observing it liturgically the week before Palm Sunday.) It represents the climax to this point of his mission which will be completed only on the cross, the mission of confronting and defeating the evil powers of this universe which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, the evil powers of this universe which blind us to who we really are by filling our lives with suffering and pain, the evil powers of this universe which cause us to think so little of ourselves that we look for affirmation in all the wrong places and engage in a thousand forms of self-destructive behavior, the evil powers of this universe which rob us of any sense of meaning and purpose for our lives by constantly drawing us away from the love of God.

This mission began in the desert, where Jesus wrestled with the tempter, who invited him to take matters into his own hands rather than obey the will of his Father. It continued in his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, in which he revealed that the only route to peace with God and victory over these evil powers is not through our own efforts at moral perfection, but through new birth and transformation from within. It continued still in his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, where he proclaimed that God's grace, God's favorable disposition towards us, is like living water, all around us, ready to renew our spirits, wash away that which doesn't belong, and sustain our lives in the face of the evil powers which we confront. Jesus’ mission continued still in his gift of sight to the man born blind, a gift which demonstrated his desire and ability to illuminate our lives, to enable us to see what we need to see in the clear light of day, and remove us from vulnerability to the forces of darkness.

And now, at last, Jesus confronts the ultimate expression of the power of evil—death itself. In a way, it's a warm-up round, an exhibition match, between Jesus and death, for desipte Jesus’ victory on this occasion, they will meet again, and death will have Jesus himself in its jaws. As Jesus enters the outskirts of the village of Bethany, he is met by Lazarus’ sister Martha. “Jesus . . . if you'd only been here . . . my brother would not have died!”

This is an emotionally-charged situation! Lazarus was Jesus’ friend. Martha and her sister Mary were Jesus’ friends. There's a good chance that Jesus habitually lodged with them whenever he visited the Jerusalem area. Martha is grieving and Jesus is deeply moved by her sorrow, and he says, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” It would be only natural for Jesus to comfort Martha with some words of reassurance, and this is exactly how Martha hears Jesus’ statement, “your brother will rise again.” He was comforting her with the hope that was then common among many pious Jews that on the coming “day of the Lord” the dead would be raised and the community of israel would be made whole, as in Ezekiel's vision of the Lord re-assembling the dry bones and re-clothing them with living, breathing flesh. “Thank-you, Jesus,” she might have said, “that's an inspiring thought. I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. It's very sweet of you to remind me of that.” But was Martha really comforted? Did the idea of a general resurrection of the dead on some distant day of the Lord fill the gaping hole in her heart left by the death of her brother?

Who can say? But, for what it's worth, it appears that Jesus didn't think so. His response says, in effect, “Martha, you've missed my point. I am the resurrection and I am the life.” Notice the present tense here. Jesus does not say, “I will be the resurrection and I will be the life.” I am resurrection, I am life. Jesus then proceeds to call Lazarus, alive and well, graveclothes and all, out from the tomb which his decomposing body had inhabited for four days. That death-defying act is a sign to us—a blazing, unmistakably visible sign—that eternal life is not only “then and there”, but also “here and now”. Eternal life is a reality that is available to us presently, an experience that is relevant to our lives as we live them minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day.

The eternal life which Jesus offers us supplies meaning for our lives in a time when it is very easy to believe that life is meaningless. It tells us that we are unique creatures made in the very image of God, and meant to enjoy a relationship with him. Eternal life gives us a sense of direction in a time when there seems to be an absence of trustworthy compasses, gyroscopes, and direction-finders. Eternal life rescues us from the fatalistic observation that life is simply “nasty, brutish, and short” by putting all our suffering—from the irritation of a moment, to the deep pain of a lifetime—in the redeeming context of God's ubiquitous grace. Eternal life supplies us with purpose, in a time when it is all too easy to assume that our lives have no purpose: our purpose is to be torches—torches by which the light of Christ proclaims to a world besieged by darkness that morning indeed will come. Eternal life assures us that our faith in Christ, and our practice of Christian religion, is as relevant to our lives as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the blood that flows through our veins. In particular, it assures us that it is good that we are here today, doing what we're doing, remembering and celebrating in word and sacrament the awe-ful mystery that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life to those who dwell in the tomb, whether that tomb holds a corpse with a heart that no longer beats and lungs that no longer breathe, or a corpse that lives and breathes but is devoid of meaning, purpose, and hope. Eternal life assures us that when we come together next week for more “church”—and more intense “church”—than any self-respecting Episcopalian is comfortable with, we will be re-connecting with and drawing sustenance from the bracingly, refreshingly, and presently relevant gospel of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A: Lent IV (2 March 2008)

John 9:1-38

I Samuel 16:1-13

Not so much lately, but in times past, and for several years running, one of the social outreach ministries of the Martins household has been to serve as a home for pregnant, unwed cats. One of the more conspicuous characteristics of newborn kittens is that they don’t open their eyes for the first couple of weeks of their lives. They are, speaking functionally, born blind. They join together in a pathetic whining mass of fur constantly scrambling to find that special spot on the mama cat’s body from whence they receive nourishment and comfort.

You might think my description is unduly callous. You might want to say, “But they’re so cuuuuute!” Yes, they’re cute. But seeing them as a pathetic whining mass a fur is an important consciousness raiser. It alerts the thoughtful observer to the sobering reality that cats are not the only ones who are born blind. Our eyeballs and our optic nerves are, with a few exceptions, fully functional, but we are blind to those things that really matter. We are blind to that which is of ultimate consequence. We are blind to the meaning of life.

In Christian theology, the source of the blindness has a technical name: it’s called “original sin.” Original sin is a congenital distortion of human nature that drives us to choose short-term gratification over our long-term best interests. It corrupts our powers of rational thought, it invades our emotions like a metastasizing cancer, and it compromises our moral judgment. In short, because of sin, we can’t trust ourselves to see reality accurately. Our vision is distorted. We’re blind.

So when Jesus and his disciples notice a man whom John’s gospel never names but only describes as “blind from birth,” the disciples are partially on-track when they ask Jesus, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he should be born blind?” They correctly intuit that sin is somehow connected to tragedies like blindness, but their question is naive. They see the man’s blindness, but they are—yes—blind to their own! Sin—the power of sin, not particular acts of human behavior, but the force of universal sin itself—is the root of all sorts of blindness: moral and spiritual as well as physical. After Jesus heals the man of his physical blindness, the blindness of just about everyone else in the story is revealed with more and more clarity.

The disciples who ask Jesus the naive question about the cause of the man’s blindness have a fuzzy vision of what Jesus’ ministry is about. The townspeople among whom the man grew up, who saw him every day, are suddenly not quite sure they recognize him. The Jewish authorities are so consumed by the details and technicalities of the law that they are blind to the presence of the law-giver himself in their midst. And the man’s own parents are so blinded by their fear of those same authorities that they fail to see the significance of what Jesus had done, not only for their son, but for them. They all saw what Jesus had done—either the act itself or its results—but they were looking for the meaning of that event in all the wrong places.

They’re not alone.

Looking for meaning, looking for significance, in all the wrong places is an activity that is alive and well in these early years of the Third Millennium. Many in our society try to find meaning for their lives in drugs, or violence, or sex, or material acquisitiveness. It’s relatively easy, and more than a little bit tempting, for us proper, law-abiding, church-going citizens to feel a little bit superior toward those poor souls. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like one of them.” But, alas, it is not only recognized vices that can serve as idols, as spiritual cataracts that blind us to the meaning of God’s movement in our lives. Good and wholesome things are equally efficient at this evil and destructive task. Devotion to work, for example, is a good thing, but it can blind us spiritually. The quest for good health is a worthwhile effort, but an obsession with the health of the body can blind us to disease in the soul. Loyalty to family, community service, and civic responsibility are all wholesome activities, and they can fool us into thinking they are sources of ultimate meaning, reservoirs of deep spiritual satisfaction.

They are not. And if we think they are, we are blind. Just as blind as a litter of kittens howling in a box on the floor of a bedroom closet. Just as blind as the man in John’s gospel. But it is precisely in our identification with than man that we find our salvation. Jesus’ act of healing was far greater than the restoration of his physical eyesight. Before the end of this long story, the man’s spiritual sight had also been restored, and he recognized and acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and worshipped at his feet. Christ lit up his life in every way, and that light enabled the man to see the fullness of truth.

The good news on this mid-Lent Sunday is that that same light is also available to us. It has already been given to us. We already possess it, and when we use it, it is capable of making a startling difference in our lives. Our Old Testament reading today tells the story of the time the prophet Samuel was commanded to find and anoint the next king of Israel. He was led to the household of Jesse, who gathered together the seven oldest of his eight sons. By appearance and disposition, any and all of them seemed like likely candidates. But with his God-given sight, Samuel knew than none of them were the one God had chosen. He had to insist that Jesse call in from the field his youngest son, who wasn’t even yet full grown. By the standards of ordinary human sight, he was the least qualified of all the candidates. But when Samuel saw David, his spiritual sight, illuminated by God, told him immediately that this was the one, and David was anointed king. Jesse and David’s brothers must have been stupefied. But they could not see what Samuel could see.

Many years ago, when I lived in Oregon, I accompanied a friend into a remote mountain area one day to hunt for mushrooms. Now if you put a mushroom in front of me, I’ll recognize it as a mushroom. But if you march me out into the woods, I may, with my normal eyesight, not see many of the mushrooms that are there to be seen. And if I do see one, I sure wouldn’t be able to tell you whether it’s the edible kind or the poisonous kind, let alone what variety it is and how it will behave when you cook it. But my friend not only saw many more mushrooms than I could see; he was able to immediately tell what sort each one was and assess its quality and potential usefulness. He had two things that enabled him to be such a successful mushroom hunter. He had knowledge and he had experience. Now, suppose that, before heading for the hills, my friend had given me a gift, a gift of a field guide to varieties of mushrooms growing in the Oregon coast range. I then might also have claimed as much knowledge as he had. But merely having that gift, that resource of knowledge would not have effectively opened my eyes to the wonderful world of mushrooms! Only by using it, by practicing, by acquiring a fund of experience, could I hope to equal my friend’s mushroom-hunting ability. It’s a simple equation: gift + experience = ability.

Gift + experience = ability.

As the sacramental sign of his healing ministry, Jesus daubed the blind man’s eyes with mud made from the dust of the ground and his own saliva. He then told the man to go wash in a particular pool. The church has always seen in this action a pre-figurement of the sacrament of baptism, with its anointing with oil and dipping in water. If you have been baptized, you have the gift of spiritual sight! It’s in your possession. One of the early euphemisms for baptism was “illumination”, and those who had been baptized were called the “enlightened ones.” The church, by definition, is the community of the baptized, the community of the enlightened ones.

We have the gift of sight, but before we can use it effectively, we must build up that fund of experience. And it’s no great mystery how the necessary experience is acquired. We gain it by being faithful in attendance at the Eucharist, Sunday by Sunday, holy day by holy day. We gain experience by saying our prayers, day in and day out, whether we’re particularly in the mood or not. We gain experience by studying the word of God and the teaching of his church. We gain experience by participating in the community of the church and opening our lives to one another. None of this is complex or erudite or elitist. It’s available to everyone here.

When we who are the enlightened ones begin to practice these fundamental spiritual disciplines, we begin to see things much differently. In fact, we really can’t see at all until we do so. The gift of sight that we received in baptism, combined with the experience of practicing Christian spiritual discipline over time, enables us to see and focus our attention on that which is truly important. The man who had his sight restored learned that knowing and worshiping the divine son of God was the highest end to which he could employ his gift of sight.

You and I are in a position to profit from his example. We have the gift. We have the means of acquiring the necessary experience. That is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to know God intimately. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to learn to yield more fully to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful formula for anyone who desires to know the will of God for his or her own life. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to grow in holiness and righteousness. It is a powerful formula for anyone who wants to be a better steward of all the resources with which he or she has been blessed by God. Open our eyes, lord; we want to see Jesus. Amen.