Saturday, July 20, 2024

Work. Rest. Pray.

I just came back from an iconography workshop. Every year, for almost the last thirty years, about two dozen people gather at a retreat house near Scranton, Pennsylvania, to learn a little more about this ancient form of religious art whose roots are in the eastern Orthodox churches. An icon expresses a religious truth artistically. The idea of an icon is that it is a window to heaven not because it is realistic but because it points beyond itself to God’s reality behind it. Many aspects of the icon are highly stylized from how Jesus and the saints are portrayed to how color, light and line are used. In some circles, the iconographer is said to “write” an icon—not paint or create one—because they are communicating something about the logos, Jesus.

So when an iconographer writes an icon, she or he is to be steeped in prayer. Every line, every stroke of the brush is to be a prayer—at least that’s the ideal. Certainly God can communicate through an icon reproduced by a printing press, but either way, if the person viewing an icon can allow it to be a window to the divine, a first step in their praying, then it certainly helps that the artist is also steeped in prayer.

This creates a tension: a tension between spirit and action. Between “doing” and “being.” There is a tension between doing it “right” and focusing on the prayer. Last week, I shared the room with people who have wonderful ‘hands’ and well-tuned ‘eyes.’ They work with a precision and clarity that I only dream about.  I really want to be like these people when I grow up! We all strive to be technically better iconographers. But when the conversation in the room begins to get too technical, when people are beginning to spend too much time “futzing” over getting one little line just so, when then tension rises because we aren’t “good enough”, I find that Father Peter, our teacher these last three decades, has this way of turning up the music—maybe a Taize chant or one by Orthodox monks or something that brings us back to the center.

The process I’ve learned over the years goes something like this:  Paint (or “Work”). Rest. Pray.

And since the workshop is also a retreat at set intervals, we’d stop painting and gather to pray. The music we listened to as we worked was also prayer. We were working hard, our goal was to master some skills around color and line and to come home with an icon…and our goal was also to pray and be open to the presence of God.

Work. Rest. Pray.

Jesus was doing that for his disciples. One definition of the Church that I like is that “we learn and do the work of Jesus.” In today’s Gospel, we hear how Jesus’ friends and apprentices did just that. They were sent out in pairs to heal the sick, proclaim Good News. They were learning from Jesus. Now they were doing the work of Jesus for the first time.

And… wow! They came back chattering about their experience: audiences hung on their every word; demons jumped out of possessed people at their command; sick people were made well. They were pumped, excited, and they wanted more! So what does Jesus do?

Does he give them a workshop on how to hone their skills?

Does he raise the quota of how many sick people are to be healed and how many people are to hear them preach?

Nope. Instead, he calls them to take some time alone to pray.

Now the work did not go away. People followed them wherever they went, because the need was that great! But Jesus insisted: Work. Rest. Pray.

It turns out that a healthy spiritual life – and an effective ministry and a vital congregation—consists of periods of activity and periods of rest. We need both in order to be healthy, whole, and—yes—happy Christians.

God calls us to do certain things: care for the sick, serve the poor, feed the hungry, speak truth to power and good news to the oppressed.

God also calls us to rest: to learn from God’s word, spend time in prayer, love God with our whole heart, mind, and strength. To be fed sacramentally.

A healthy, maturing Christian life is found in an oscillation, the balance between activity and rest.

And the fulcrum between that movement between activity and rest is faithfulness. God doesn’t want us to be busy just to be busy. God wants us to be faithful!

The reason Jesus calls us to pray is that God wants us to be faithful! And that means lining up everything we do, our sleeping and our waking, our work and our play, and all our relationships, around our attentiveness to God.

Have you ever seen or ridden on a see-saw? A see-saw is nothing more than a lever, with two weights on either end, in most cases two kids. And they go up and down, up and down. How high and how fast depends on how the two kids work together and how well balanced they are. But a see-saw, as with any lever, won’t work without a fulcrum. Otherwise, it’s just a board with two bored kids aboard.

In the Christian life, we leverage God’s grace, multiply God’s blessings, see how God’s love can really work in the world by our application of our effort (on the one hand) and the depth of our prayer (on the other). But the fulcrum, the thing that really makes the see-saw or any lever work, is our faithfulness.

The apostles were sent out in pairs not only to extend Jesus’ work, but to increase their faithfulness. What drew people to Jesus and his apostles was not the power of their miracles but the depth of their faithfulness; the hunger that the disciples met in the folks they encountered was a hunger for faithfulness.

The fulcrum, the balancing point, between our activity and our rest is our faithfulness.

Remember that old joke? The one that goes “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” It reminds us that we Christian leaders are tempted to think that the only happy Church is a busy Church, and that the only really valuable Christian is a busy Christian. It is not God who tempts us to think that God only really loves us when we are busy.

God loves us. That’s a given. And what God desires for us is not busy-ness but faithfulness.

Do you want to know the first sign that your spiritual life is out of balance? When just the thought of coming to church makes you feel tired. Or when the only reason you can justify setting aside a few hours on a Sunday morning is because you have a job.

When we cannot carve out a block of time to just be, to listen, to read scripture, to think, to pray, then we are too busy. When we cannot come into this space without taking time to pray or at least sit in silence but instead get caught up in whatever “to-do” list we carry around, then we are too busy, too distracted. In short, we are out of balance.

Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do. Why just last week, at that Iconography retreat, the cook got sick and couldn’t be there, so we all had to step up and pitch in. None of us starved and we all learned something from practical acts of service like washing the tables or cooking up main dishes on short notice. This is a lesson the monastic tradition teaches us: ora et labora which means “prayer and work.” Our work is prayer. And prayer is our work.

The Christian Life is filled with moments of activity and moments of rest. We need both. Ora et labora.

That means learning how to be present to be here now. It will means learning how not to get so focused on our “to do” lists that we lose touch with the part that needs to pray, to sit, to listen.

Make no mistake: I love a busy church! I love a congregation that’s involved! I love a congregation that makes a tangible difference in the community! I love a church that gives its very best—and not second best—to God!

And give our very best means choosing to be a faithful church not just a busy church!

The point of all the committees, all the giving, all the sign ups and all the activity, is so that we—and anyone in the community-- can come here and find the space to pray. And if “all” a person does is come into the community and “just” pray… “just” give themselves to God even for a few minutes… then you have done your work well!

What makes the Church different from a social club, a charitable organization, a non-profit, or even a business is not how busy we are, how slick or how entertaining, or how relevant we are. We can’t beat the culture on those terms anyway. And that’s okay because they cannot offer what people really hunger for.

What makes the Church the Church is how faithful we are. Our world is deeply hungry and the Church is uniquely positioned—divinely positioned—to meet spiritual hunger. People long for hope, meaning, companionship, direction, purpose and love—people are hungry for faithfulness.

And the fulcrum between activity and rest is faithfulness.

What I learn every year when I go to the iconography retreat is that we work hard, learn a skill, stretch ourselves—and we also stop and pray, and we listen for God, in order to cultivate what God really wants from us: faithfulness. And over the years I’ve discovered that when every paint stroke, every line drawn, is a prayer. And this is the beginning of learning how to be present to God in the here and now, in the fulcrum between activity and rest.

So remember: Work. Rest. Pray. Ora et labora.

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Scripture for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 21, 2024.

Website for Grace Church, Tampa Palms, Florida

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Feeding Jesus and Being Fed

You’ve got to love it! The Crucified, Dead, Buried, and now Risen-from-the-Dead Jesus shows up in front of his friends and followers and what does he do? 

Some great miracle? Nope!

Some great act of power? Nah!

He asks for something to eat. 

It’s as if he came in the door after a long day, plops himself in the recliner and says, “Whew! That crucifixion and resurrection is hard work! What’s for dinner?”

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke highlights the physicality of Jesus’ risen self. Jesus shows up in person. He shows the disciples the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. And—I love this—he asks them for something to eat. The Risen Jesus chides the disciples' disbelief. I am not a ghost, he tells them. This is Jesus…not a vision, nor a hallucination, but a real person with a real body. 

Today’s story parallels another story in this same chapter of Luke’s Gospel… Jesus’ encounter with Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. In both instances, the disciples recognize Jesus as the risen Lord when he ate with them. 

To some of us, maybe, the risen Jesus may be an idea, a story, a symbol, or a memory. But to Jesus’ friends and followers, it was a reunion, a face-to-face encounter, with the same Jesus whom they saw arrested, beaten, executed on the cross… and was demonstrably deader than a doornail! 

But no more!

In these two encounters, Jesus shows that what they are seeing is true by eating with them. Which makes sense, because before his arrest, torture, and execution, this is what Jesus did with them all the time as they went around Palestine teaching and healing. He ate with them. 

And even today, we see him in this most ordinary, tangible way. At the Last Supper and in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus gave us a way of recalling him to our presence and, by eating from his body, to become his body. 

Every day the Risen Jesus shows us that God redeems and makes holy every sphere of our existence: the physical, the rational, and the social elements of our existence are all addressed in Jesus’ resurrection.

The first thing that God redeems and makes holy is the physical world. Our baptism into the church and the promise of resurrection means that we are to value the physical world that God has placed us in and made us part of.

We are to care for the creation and care for our bodies and care for each other, even strangers and people we’ll never meet in person. We are to have environmental concerns and health concerns; the biological and physical sciences are part and parcel of our participation in God’s redemption. We are not to abandon the world we live in, but we are to improve it in whatever small ways we can. 

Another thing that God redeems in the resurrection is the way we know and see the world. Because we encounter the risen Jesus in sacramental living, in prayer, and in the changed lives we both encounter in others and experience ourselves, we discover that God works on every part of our knowing. Rational thinking and faithful being are not polar opposites, always at war, but different ways of knowing the fullness of the creation we live in and care for.

Finally, the physical, risen Jesus redeems our relationships. Christians do not abandon the social world we live in, but we are called to improve it whenever we can, working against evil and promoting justice. The fact that our bodies will be redeemed and raised emphasizes our need to be involved in the world in a positive way. We are not escapists, merely biding time until time ends, but we are involved, letting Christ live in us and grow in us until we are raised with him in glory and we see him as he is and we share in his eternal joy.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus eating another meal with his disciples. He made eating and drinking together the primary way of experiencing the Resurrection. He uses eating and drinking to teach us and draw us to him. He uses this most universal way people affirm and experience relationships in community. We eat with Jesus. We eat of Jesus. We eat his body, and we become his body. 

Maybe you remember my definition of what a disciple is? A disciple is “a friend and apprentice of Jesus, who learns and does the work of Jesus every day.” So you are all friends and apprentices of Jesus. And you are all learning and doing the work of Jesus.

But lots of people call themselves followers of Jesus... how do you know an actual disciple when you see one?

Well, as the old proverb (that most people get wrong, by the way!) reminds us: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating!"

Clergy and Eucharistic Ministers are the ones who distribute communion, giving bread and saying, “The Body of Christ.” And, if you think about it, we all distribute the Body of Christ in all kinds of ways. 

Imagine when you give a check to the church or a worthwhile charity, placing it in the treasurer’s hand and saying, “The Body of Christ, given for you.” 

Imagine delivering Meals on Wheels or giving a meal to a needy stranger in downtown Clearwater, saying “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” when you place the meal in the hands of that homebound senior. 

Imagine visiting a person in prison, extending an encouraging word of love and adding, “The Body of Christ.” 

Imagine teaching the truths of God to a Church school class or in a Bible Study, or prayer group, and concluding by saying, “This is the Body of Christ, given for you.”

Imagine sharing the Word of God in Bible Study, in prayer, daily devotions, or as part of the Daughters of the King, as an act of sharing the Body of Christ.  

Imagine spreading the Good News to those who do not know the Lord, telling others about the joy you find in your faith, and declaring, “Share with me the Body of Christ.”

Imagine being the quiet listening presence to someone who is lonely or in pain, and as you pray with them, recall that we are, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “Now we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”

Jesus rose from the dead, not a ghost, but flesh and blood, in person– his personality, memory, relationships, compassion, and humor intact. Everything he knew is risen and made whole and new and holy. Saint Paul reminds us that when we were baptized, we were all baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. So as baptized people, we all share in his resurrection, and every day we show off the risen Jesus to everyone we meet. And God uses everything we are, and everything we have, and all our skills and talents and memory–all of us!-- for God’s purpose: to restore all people to unity with God, creation, and each other. 

So, people of St. John’s, Clearwater, my companion friends and apprentices of Jesus, as we gather around this Eucharistic table, as we dash over to the parish hall for delicious nums-nums, and before I turn in my keys and as you get ready for your next era of ministry in service, remember this: in everything you do as a community and as individuals, feed others in Jesus’ name. 

In so many great and simple ways, we reflect the words of St. Augustine, who wrote: 

You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken, and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of eternal love.

And may God go with you in all you do!

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for Easter 3-B, April 14, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida for April 14, 2024

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on April 14, 2024

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Six little words

I love word games. I also love clever haiku, and a good joke. So it won’t surprise you that like many of you, every day I go to the New York Times games app on my phone to play Wordle, Connections, and Spelling Bee. I do the Daily Mini-Crossword, and at least on Mondays and Saturdays, I tackle the NYT Crossword (although, even after all these years, I am still not tough enough for Sundays!).

Another thing I love is something I learned in a religious writer’s workshop a few years ago. It is the practice of writing little six-word stories or memoirs. There is a wonderful website put together by an online magazine called SMITH that collects these six-word memoirs. People both famous and ordinary have sent in these little six-word distillations of their lives, highlighting what is important or interesting about them. The best of the stories has been collected in books. The first was called “Not Quite What I Was Planning,” and another “It All Changed in an Instant.”

Some six-word stories are poignant: “I still make coffee for two,” wrote someone recovering from a breakup.

Some are clever. Comedian Stephen Colbert wrote “Well, I thought it was funny.”

Screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote: “Secret of life: marry an Italian.”

I bring this up, because for all the joy and fanfare of Easter, for all the complexity and mystery of our whole religious life together, and for all the billions of words we use to try and explain it, Christianity itself has a six-word autobiography, and it goes like this: “Jesus is risen from the dead.”

Think about it. There are 775,000 words, more or less, in the 66 books of the Bible, and not one of them makes sense without these six words. And there are roughly 2 billion Christians around the globe, and not one of us has a single thing to say without these six words.

All four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, and is the news she and her companions carried from the empty tomb to the upper room where the other disciples were in hiding. And while she reduced it to five when she proclaimed "We have seen the Lord!" The story is still the same: "Jesus is risen from the dead."

These are the words that have been passed from person to person, from community to community, every day since then – sometimes in secret, sometime in awe, in triumph, in darkness, in celebration, in song, liturgy, art, and theater. “Jesus is risen from the dead.”

These six words that have taken us from being a scattered, broken people who are lost to the largest, most diverse, religion in the world. It is these six words that have found countless individuals whose lives were nearly or already dead -- broken by pain and suffering, by grief and loneliness, by sin and darkness -- and given them new life.

These are the words that are whispered at bedsides and shouted from rooftops and shared at dinner tables and workplaces and in neighborhoods. These are the words that have been forbidden by governments both ancient and modern, and yet somehow they have still been spoken, still been shared.

“Jesus is risen from the dead.”

These are the words that the martyrs sang as they were being burned at the stake, attacked by persecutors, and heckled by cynics. These are the words that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr who opposed the Nazis, taught his students in the secret seminary that he founded.

These are the words that Oscar Romero was speaking as he was gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist in El Salvador. These are the words that Martin Luther King Jr. held fast to as he opposed the violent racism of our culture. These words inspired Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work in South Africa. These are the words that Mother Teresa hung on to even as she experienced her own crisis in faith while continuing her work with the poor.

“Jesus is risen from the dead.”

Are these words true? If they are not, Paul says to the Corinthians, then “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Of course, we hear all the time that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be proven, because nobody saw it; that it defies science; that it cannot be true, because people still suffer, they still die; that we cannot believe it, because it seems so utterly unbelievable. And all too often, whether for political gain or to make a quick buck, some have tried to reduce these six words to a mere slogan, chant, or meme.

But the truth and power of these six words knock down such malarkey just as easily as the stone was moved aside, as powerfully as God leading His people through the Red Sea, as wonderfully as the Spirit’s arrival on that first Pentecost.  “Jesus is risen from the dead.”

How many lives have been transformed, starting with Mary Magdalene and her companions, falling to the ground in utter shock, upon hearing these six words? How could we possibly count the ways that billions of hearts have been, in the words of John Wesley, “strangely warmed,” by hearing these six words?

What could we possibly use to measure the impact that these six words have had upon the world -- the ways in which forgiveness, joy, reconciliation, self-giving love and charity have wrought healing, miracles, and abundance on the face of this earth in the time since we have first heard these that Jesus is risen from the dead?

Is it true? Listen to the stories.

C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

This is the story of our lives, the story of the life of the world, the story of life itself. It is the story of how life is stronger than death, how God’s love for us is stronger than death. It is, in the end, the only story that there is.

And so, in Easter, we hear these six words again: “Jesus is risen from the dead.”

How will these words change your story?

Where in the essence of who you are do you hear the call to new life -- to come out of the tomb you’ve been sealed in, the tomb of fear or the tomb of hopelessness or the tomb of dreams that have been lost or delayed? Where are you looking for the living among the dead? How will you receive this news that has been handed from life to life, from heart to heart, from age to age, that is now handed again to you?

And how will these words change the world? What does our story still have to say to a world gripped by terror, a culture that is forgetting how to even listen or talk civilly, a culture at odds, a people in pain? How will we be sure that they will hear our story of hope?

Every day we write our story again, and we say that it is no less true today than it was on the first day; it is no less miraculous today than it was on the first day -- no less shocking, no less joyful, no less important, no less life-changing and meaningful. Run and tell the others what you’ve seen and heard: “Jesus is risen from the dead.” Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida for March 31, 2024

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on March 31, 2024

Rescuing us

Holy Saturday, April 3, 2010, 

Revised March 30, 2024

If you have ever experienced your faith as being absent, today is your day. 

If you have ever experienced deep emptiness from your soul to your bones, today is your day. 

If you have ever known loss that cannot be filled, today is your day.

If you've ever looked around at the world and see war, violence, greed and corruption, and wonder if things can't get any worse, then this day is for you.

If you have ever discovered, as C.S. Lewis did, that grief feels very much like fear, then this is your day. 

If you have ever gone through the motions because you don't know what else to do, this is your day.

Holy Saturday is a day very easy to jump over. Today is a gorgeous spring day. People are out planting flowers and going to the store to buy for Easter dinner. Easter dresses are being tried on and egg hunts in the parks are happening as we speak. 

The world is busy and alive, and here we are in a darkened church before a bare cross and it feels empty. 

This is the kind of emptiness that any who has grieved the death of a loved one knows. It is like going through the motions at work, and confronting that first thanksgiving or Christmas or birthday knowing that the one we love is dead. 

I will bet that the followers of Jesus had the most somber, depressing Passover meal on record. But if they are at all like a lot of people I know, they will have done it. They will have read the words, and eaten the bitter herbs and the lamb, because...because what else could they do? Even if it was by rote, it was something. Something to anchor. Something to hold on to when there was nothing else. 

Holy Saturday is a day of absence, emptiness and numbness. If you have ever felt this way, this day is for you. 

The thing about Holy Saturday that is special is that it is the last day of the Old Creation. It's just that we don't know that yet. Just as we won't know that we have passed through the darkest moments of our grief until we suddenly find ourselves feeling again. We won't know until we look backwards. 

And here is the dreadful and true part of Holy Saturday. There is nothing we can do about it. All we can do is what I've said: slog through, go through the motions. We steer into the wave and hope that our boat is not swamped as the wave crashes over our heads. But the feast also tells us that as we wait, as we slog through our fear and emptiness, Easter is coming. 

The disciples hiding and fearing for their lives in the locked upper room did not know that yet. We never know it when we are in it. But Easter is coming. 

Our creeds and tradition say this is the time when Christ descended into hell and went among the dead. 

So, what Jesus was doing on Holy Saturday? Was he, like John's Brown body, "a-moldering in the grave," as the old civil war song goes? Was he walking around the tomb waiting for the angels to come and roll away the stone, folding up his burial cloth before stepping out?

My favorite answer is visual. There is an old icon known as "The Harrowing of Hell" that answers the question of just what Jesus was up to on that otherwise ignored middle day? it shows Jesus entering into hell, into the place of the dead, and he is standing on the lids of the graves of Adam and Eve, the first humans, literally representing all of humanity, and is lifting them out of their coffins to bring them with him back to heaven. In some versions of the icon you see broken chains, locks, handcuff, and tools lying about with a person (the devil perhaps? Maybe death itself?) lying bound and gagged below. 

When I see this icon, I am reminded again of what Holy Saturday shows us:  that even in the emptiness, Christ is there. If we go down to Sheol, and walk among the dead, Christ is there. There is no place where we can go to escape God's love. 

But we don't know that now. We will know that tomorrow. In the meantime, this day is for you.

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Here are the Lessons for Holy Saturday, March 30, 2024

Friday, March 29, 2024

Strange Normalcy

Doesn’t it seem strange to you how normal everything is today?

I mean, here we are at what it is arguably one of the most holy days of the Christian year… especially when teamed up with Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday for what we traditionally call the “Triduum” or “The Great Three Days”… and yet nothing is different.

If I wanted to, I could have stopped at the bank, the post office, and the grocery store on the way to or home from church. Maybe you will too, buying last-minute groceries or stuff for the (grand-) kids Easter baskets.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not here to rail against the unpiety of the culture or some such righteous nonsense. My point is not to shame people who have lives to live and very little time to get stuff done. God forbid! As you’ve heard me mention before, I certainly remember growing up in New England in the last days of the old Blue Laws where the state enforced the closing of business on certain religious holidays. But this is not an exercise in nostalgia, either. It’s just an observation. And one that I think is worth noting.

Because, as much as some might say, this is not new. The world has been going about it’s business while God has been doing God’s work right before our eyes since time immemorial.

When I was a kid, my home parish, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford, CT, would take part in a public stations of the cross with the other churches in the downtown of Connecticut’s capital city. It was the 1960’s, and influenced by the civil rights movement and the peace movement, the churches would do the fourteen stations of the cross around what was then a bustling commercial, business, and governmental downtown, stopping at the Federal Courthouse, the main offices of big banks and the headquarters of insurance companies, the city jail and police department, the juvenile hall, and so on. You get the idea. And even then, as we processed with our cross and led by clergy in vestments, and reading scriptures and saying prayers, people would bustle past us, buses would stop and go, horns would honk… the world was going on about it’s business.

One of my favorite American artists, Allan Rohan Crite, the late 20th century African-American artist from Boston, who was an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, and he not only created the covers for my parish’s weekly bulletins, he drew the passion a lot. And he typically located it, as with all his Biblical scenes, in the middle of the city, in downtowns, neighborhoods, and tenements. One of his renderings of the stations has stayed with him since adolescence. It showed Jesus carrying his cross through a modern busy city of the 1940’s, people rushing past to and fro, hardly aware of the African American man carrying a cross, scarred and barely dressed, wearing a crown of thorns.

And that is not far from the truth. Because in the busy world of downtown Jerusalem, ruled by the Roman Empire, crucifixions were a dime a dozen. They executed their condemned on the roads into the walled city to attract attention, but they were as part of background every bit as much as billboards are today. We see them, sort of… but few stand out, and mostly they just block the view.

No, the crucifixion of Jesus was just the business of the day. Except to his followers, friends, and family… and certainly Jesus…! It was nothing special.

But not for God

It is precisely in the midst of the everyday… the everyday business, the everyday boredom, the everyday cynicism, the everyday cruelty.. of human life that God placed Jesus and in the midst of such sin that we are so used to that we hardly even notice, where God stakes a redemptive claim. Here is where it ends. Here is where love conquers hate. Here is where it ceases to divide us from God, each other, and ourselves. Here is where death ends even on a cross planted on a busy thoroughfare where traffic buzzed past.

This is where God does redeeming work: The Passion happens in a busy city going about it’s business.

The sign of that victory will come on the third day.

But right now… life goes on. God redeeming love happens, but no one notices. Not yet, anyway.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Revisiting Judas

We call today "spy Wednesday" because today is the day we hear about Jesus' betrayal and arrest. 

Well, I don't know about you but to me, Judas poses a problem. I mean, how do you explain the fact that one of Jesus’ most trusted associates betrays him to his enemies? There are several theories.

There’s the Snidely Whiplash theory. John’s Gospel, which we hear today, tells us that he is a thief, embezzler, and an all around rotten guy.

Then there is what you might call the Anakin Skywalker theory of Judas. You know, he went over to the dark side. Today’s Gospel also says that Judas let the devil into him or at least that the devil took over.

If you got your Christian formation from Jesus Christ Superstar, then you’ve heard the Cosmic Dupe theory: that Judas was cruelly used by a manipulative God and thrown aside for some larger purpose.

There was a snippet of a Gnostic gospel that caused some years back that said Judas’ betrayal was all part of God’s Big Plan. Jesus spiritual self needed to break out of the flesh so he would be set free to become his "true spiritual self" and this required death on a cross. Judas, in this scenario, did Jesus a favor!

Maybe Judas’ aims were political. Judas had to arrange for Jesus the Messiah had confront the Roman occupiers and their corrupt local toadies. Then the people would rise up in revolt or else God would be stirred to action and send angelic armies in some apocalyptic final clash. So he needed Jesus to be arrested to get the ball rolling.

Or maybe Jesus and Judas were really in cahoots and it backfired.

Isn't this fun? We love to psychologize Judas! 

Well, be careful! Because I suspect that your favorite theory of Judas might be one of those clues as to how you see God and a window into how your particular spiritual life works, but that’s for you to take up with your spiritual director.

You see my problem with Snidely Whiplash, Anikan Skywalker, and all those other theories is that it takes the heat off; which, frankly, is a relief. If Judas was merely a dupe, a thief or a conniver then I am free of responsibility and have nothing to learn. And we certainly don’t get close to the real tragedy that is Judas Iscariot, the trusted advisor who betrayed His Lord and Master.

Here’s my theory.

I think Judas betrayed Jesus because he was too religious: that Judas wanted Jesus to be the Messiah that Judas wanted more than he wanted to follow the Messiah that Jesus really was.

What if Judas betrayed Jesus because he loved Jesus too much? Not the kind of the kind of love that allows us to be changed, but the kind of love that wants to control the outcome. What if Judas betrayed Jesus—out of disappointment or a need to control, pick one—because he could not let go of his need to make God into our image?

This is a dangerous thought. I don’t know about you but this thought frightens me down to my socks. Because, if I am honest, I am always tempted to domesticate Jesus into blessing my own biases, prejudices and proclivities, but more than that turning God Incarnate into a house idol that I can control. Which in some ways is more comforting than following a Christ who not only dies to close the chasm of sin, but who, in meeting me at the point of my greatest need, confronts and challenges me to grow and change.

I think the scriptural evidence lines up on the side of Judas being too religious.

Both John’s Gospel and Luke’s agree that Judas was offended when a woman—Mary of Bethany and/or a woman off the street—washed Jesus’ feet either with perfume or tears in full view of a room full of men. He is portrayed in both Gospels as standing apart from the group sneering.

The real clue is his response to the crucifixion. However Judas died, either by hanging or throwing himself off a wall, his response was to choose suicide rather than accept forgiveness. In realizing and regretting his mistake, he went to his spiritual default zone—shame. And instead of turning that shame into reflection and repentance, he took that shame and made into regret and retribution—which, if the bad guy is you, means self-destruction.

Look, Peter also betrayed Jesus. Not for money or some high ideal, but to save his own skin. He went away weeping and hid until it was all over. And yet, he was able to make some different choices with his shame and guilt—with his weakness and pride. He stayed in community…he hung out with the other followers while Judas went off on his own letting his money burn a hole in his heart. Peter was open to possibility, which is why he would later run to an empty tomb when Mary Magdalene appeared with her wild story of rolled away stones and Jesus-who-she-thought-at-first-was-the-gardener. And he was able to both embrace the risen Christ and later hear his forgiving words when Jesus gave him a second chance to confess his love.

Peter had, for all his foibles, reactivity, and his need to please, a fundamentally light hand on his spiritual tiller. Firm enough to stay focused on God, light enough to change when he needed to.

Both Peter and Judas had their OMG moment, when they said “Oh, my God, what have I done?” But it never occurred to Judas to seek forgiveness. And it apparently never dawned on him that repentance might involve something other than suicide. To do that would have required another kind of death: a death to the need to hang on the faux-Messiah that Judas made and turn to the real Christ who was there all along. Judas was so religious that he could not imagine what it was like to be forgiven.

This is yet another example of how being too religious can get in the way of faith.

And at the same time this is another example of how being too self-contained, too wrapped in our own stuff—be they grand ideas, mixing up patriotism with religiosity, inflated ego needs, or whatever emotional baggage we carry—can get in the way of allowing ourselves to grow and be changed by God who is constantly engaging us right where we need God the most.

Dare I mention our tendency to put our hand over hearts and say sincerely, "surely not me Lord!" just as the disciples did in the Upper Room? Or our history of using Judas' behavior as an excuse to blame all Jews for Jesus' execution, which in addition to being racist and stupid (and, over two millennia, tragically destructive!), distracts us from the entire point of the what is actually happening in Holy Week and Easter?

I have a hunch that even Judas’ super-religiosity to the point of death, the faith that blessed all his deeply held biases right up until the rope went twang, was not enough to overpower the cross. 
I have faith that the glorification that the cross became is bigger than even death. And certainly bigger than the rotten choices, stubborn opinions, and everyday idolatry that you and I commit every single day.

If the empty tomb that we are journeying towards this week tells us anything it is that the Jesus who really died and really rose from death also really welcomes us home even after our stubborn refusal to listen to Jesus the first (or hundredth) time.

Remember that the Gospel also tell us that when Jesus was in the Upper Room that final time, he also washed Judas' feet, and presumably shared the Passover meal with Jesus which included, for Christians, the institution of the Lord's Supper. John's Gospel makes it clear that Jesus knew what Judas was up to, or at least capable of, and ministered to him anyway. This ought to temper our response to the whole story and cause us to repent from our history of interpreting it.

Why did Judas betray Jesus? In the end only God and Judas knows. Whatever the reason, it stirs up in us all the ways that we participate in betraying, denying Jesus and generally being mad at God for not living up to our expectations.

The good news is that none of our everyday betrayals, denials, disappointments, and machinations is bigger than the cross. And when we have our own OMG moment, we will find the Risen Christ right there, ready to forgive us, change us and lead us to be the people God made us to be.

(Updated from 2013 and reposted)

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Looking for Blame

 Palm Sunday: Sunday of the Passion, 2024

We are always looking for someone to blame. When things go wrong we need someone to blame. These days we have turned this into a kind of ritual. 

Today we need to blame someone…anyone! The investment bankers! The politicians! The business journalists! Celebrities, sports stars, or royalty from another country. Sooner or later, someone must take the blame! 

When that person is found, apologies must be made. Standing in front of microphones and klieg lights, broadcast over television or the internet, some contrite person will say "Mistakes were made." And, “If anyone has been injured or offended by words or actions, then I am truly sorry.” 

Sometimes the person being blamed with throw others under the bus with her or him, so as to perhaps feel less responsible.

Then the punishment begins. It might not be by jury trial or hearing; it may be through the media. Rehabilitation may or may not come. But you can be sure of one thing: when the next crisis comes along, blame must be placed.

As I said, it is a ritual. And it’s as old as the hills, only today it’s mediated through a variety of media, but we didn’t invent it. We might even take part thanks to social media, but it’s not new!

The odd thing about this ritual is that it never satisfies! We never feel better… not really. And we aren’t better people because of it. But is a ritual we follow nonetheless, even when we know deep in our hearts that it doesn’t work.

We are in another election season, and for the next eight months—as much as we might try to avoid it—attention will be paid to the horse race and reallybig conclusions will drawn from very small inferences. 

A few years ago, I remember seeing a YouTube a video of an excerpt from a German film that depicted Adolf Hitler’s last hours in the bunker underneath Berlin as the capital fell to the Russian army. The clip shows him raving and moving from rage to self-pity, over to self-loathing and then demanding the death of the people he blamed for the failure of his own choices. A frightening performance. Except that on this YouTube video, some satirist changed the English sub-titles to make it appear that his ranting was because he lost everything in his investments and in real estate in that year’s most recent economic downturn.

The satirist was making a point: we often blame everyone else for both the choices we make and for the things we cannot control. This is actually not very new. It goes all the way back to Jonah. When something goes wrong, someone must be at fault. Someone must atone.  

To be sure, there are times when people do things that deserve punishment. And there are times when we must hold people accountable for their actions. But sometimes the search for accountability stops being a search for truth and instead becomes a search for a Jonah or a scapegoat: someone on whom we can place all our troubles and who will take it far away from us.

When we scapegoat someone else, what we are doing is changing the subject. We are hoping that people will look more at the other person's failings than our own. We are hoping that our focus on the chosen victim will take our minds off other causes, other pain, other failings. Both institutional and personal. It tends to work because none of us can stand up to the fact that all of us are sinful, frail, limited, and self-serving. God made us one way, and we are another way and it far short of what God would have for us. But if we can make someone else take the rap, then maybe no one will notice.

Here is the ironic thing about Jesus’ condemnation and execution. The people made him into just that kind of scapegoat…and he willingly entered into it.

The thing is that what the people wanted to blame Jesus for and what Jesus was taking on were two entirely different things. People laid on Jesus the symptom. Jesus is addressing the source.

Jesus enters the city on the back of a small, not-quite-full-grown horse. Other Gospels say a donkey…whatever the case, it was not a mighty steed.  He was greeted by throngs of ordinary people as a king, a deliverer. They called him “messiah” but for them this “messiah” would be the one to throw off Roman rule and end religious and class corruption and so restore Israel to greatness. 

Jesus became for many a national figure on whom the national and economic hopes of an oppressed and struggling people rested. And when he failed to deliver…when his confrontation with the powers of both Jerusalem and Rome met with resistance, arrest, and failure…they dropped him like a hot potato! He became the one they blamed for all their troubles. 

The Gospel of Mark goes to great lengths to describe the unfairness of the trial before Pilate:   Mark says that the statements against Jesus did not agree with each other (14:56b); he says that some gave this false testimony against Jesus (14:57b) and but even the false testimony was inconsistent (14:59). Compared to the other Gospels, Mark emphasizes Jesus' silence by telling us "He gave no answer" (14:61), while only Mark has Jesus answer the question, "You, are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?" with "I am" (14:61-62). 

He is spit upon, heckled and beaten all the way to Golgotha, where is executed by slow torture in full view public. The entire process is meant to reinforce Roman power over the people… and to draw the people they ruled into taking part. 

But Mark also describes something else: he tells us the most about Barabbas, which means ironically enough "son of God." It is Mark’s Gospel that tells us that was Barabbas both a murderer and part of the local rebellion against Roman rule. As part of the local intafada, Barabbas fit the bill much more closely than Jesus.  

So in a stunning twist of popular approval the crowd was willing to free and forgive Barabbas, but unwilling to let Jesus go because he apparently failed the people’s misplaced expectations.

So why would Jesus willingly enter into this game? If he knew that people expected him to be a liberator when he was in fact preaching peace, faithfulness and repentance, then why didn’t he go the other way? Why would Jesus choose to go into a place where the cards would be so stacked against him? 

Because what we blamed him for had nothing to do with what he was doing. The people killed Jesus because they wanted to blame Jesus and so avoid responsibility and continue to ignore the consequences of their sin.  People killed Jesus for expediency. People sent him down the road to the cross so that others would live another day politically.

But Jesus chose this route because while we still live in our sin and denial, God is busy reconciling the world to Godself. 

Try as we might, we cannot fully appreciate what Jesus did and who Jesus is without the cross. 

Jesus always refers to himself as a “human being,” as “the son of man.” There are only a few times in the whole Gospel of Mark that the phrase “Son of God” appears.  In the very beginning of the Gospel, once or twice when a demon blurts it out too soon, and then after he is crucified. When he has died on the cross, a centurion watching all this exclaims “"Truly this man was God's Son!" Mark’s Gospel shows us that the only way to really know Jesus is to know him crucified.

We’d love to avert our eyes, hold our breath as we drive around the cross. But to avoid or minimize the cross is to minimize the power of human sin. To minimize the cross is to take away the urgency with which God desires humanity and all creation to be healed and reconciled to God and to each other. To dodge the cross as something gruesome and distasteful (and it is!) is to dodge the weight and power of human sin.

Jesus goes the way of the cross because he is taking on the full weight of human sin. No scapegoats. No easy outs. No apologies in front of microphones or tearful admissions of failure. No phony mea culpas. Jesus, the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity in one person undiluted, will not skirt sin but walk straight into its full force and power. As he entered Jerusalem, he was about to was buried under a wave of the sum of human self-serving, responsibility dodging, scapegoating sin.

One summer when I was a young child, I learned to sail. I spent a whole summer learning the language and ritual of the sailboat. Eventually, it came time for me to pilot my own little catboat out in the open ocean.. well, a piece of Penobscot Bay, but it seemed pretty big to this 9 year old! 

So while I had been taught this, I almost forgot it: The first time I saw a big wave coming my way, I wanted to turn the boat and get away! But my teacher reminded me, to navigate a big wave, turn your boat into it! It will seem scary at first. You will ride high, and it may seem like the wave will win, but it won’t. To do anything else is let the sea swamp, if not capsize, your boat.

Jesus is doing something sort of like this but much more so. We try to avoid the consequences of our sin and bad choices and our complicity with evil all the time. But when we try to skirt the wave, we inevitably get swamped. Jesus will instead face it and head right into it. He will turn into the wave. 

The thing is, Jesus will die. Facing the full force of sin will result in his death.  But here is what no one expected: By turning into the wave of sin and evil, and experiencing its full force, not only will Jesus die, but sin and all the separates us from God and each other and creation will also die on that cross right along with him. So until Jesus faces and turns into the full force of sin, we will never know life. 

That is why we must also walk the way of the cross. Because instead of looking for someone to blame God in Christ walks with us to dark places we dare not go so that we can know life. He will show us the depth of love God has for us and fullness of our rescue from the power of sin, evil and death. But to know that, we also must go to the cross. We might want to dodge the bullet and go straight to Easter, or somehow avoid the hard truth of who and how we really are. But to know the truth, we have to go there: that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

This week, come with us. Come and take part as we together walk the way of the cross. On Thursday, we will see Jesus serve his disciples one last time and then in agony face the depth, the darkness and power of human sin, he will break bread and share wine with him to tell us how his body will be broken and his blood poured out. He will also wash their feet to remind us that the fullness of God is here and serves… us! On Friday, we will go with him to the cross, where the power of sin will take him to his death.  And on Easter Eve, we will sit in silence and ponder the dark moments where it seems as if God is absent but is actually healing us in the very places where death dwells. We’ll wait in darkness and discover on Easter the dazzling new light that when Christ is raised from the dead, sin, darkness, and evil are defeated once and for all. 

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Bulletin for Worship for Palm Sunday: Sunday of the Passion March 24, 2024 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Here are the Scripture Lessons for Palm Sunday: Sunday of the Passion March 24, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida for March 24, 2024

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on March 24, 2024

Friday, March 15, 2024

We wish to see Jesus!

If you ever have the chance to go on retreat and don’t mind the travel, I like to go to the Holy Cross Monastery in Hyde Park, NY, which overlooks the Hudson River about an hour and a half north of New York City. In their chapel hangs a huge icon. It’s a crucifix modeled on the icon known as the San Damiano Cross. The San Damiano Cross is the one St. Francis was praying before when he had a vision from God to rebuild the Church. The original cross presently hangs in Santa Chiarra (St. Clare) Church in Assisi, Italy. All Franciscans cherish his cross as the symbol of their mission from God. 

When Francis had his vision, he was praying in a church that was quite literally falling down into a heap of rubble. He started to rebuild the church building brick by brick, but in the middle of the project he realized that what Jesus was calling him to do was not to restore a building but to rebuild all of God’s church…all of us…not just a structure!

When I contemplate that icon, I became aware of what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.  Today’s story from John starts out when some Greeks come looking for Jesus. These were religious and curious Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism but turned aside from conversion by the requirement for circumcision. They’ve heard about Jesus and his message and so come to Philip and then to Andrew, asking about him.

Remember Philip and Andrew? They were the ones who saw Jesus and followed him and took the news to their brothers, Nathaniel and Simon Peter.  Now John’s Gospel tells us that some people from outside Judaism are looking to see Jesus just as Philip and Andrew had once searched for him themselves.

It is only when these two people from outside of Judaism come calling that Jesus says out loud that his time has arrived: the time for him to be glorified. 

Well and good, except that Jesus’ idea of “glory” and ours are radically different! When we think of glory, we think of fame and fortune.  We think of power, influence and our name up in lights. Not Jesus. He is thinking of the cross.

For Jesus, glory means embracing the cross, the epitome of suffering. As the Gospel says:

“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. … Now 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. … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Jesus is not for a small group of insiders. Jesus is for everyone. And for that, the Gospel tells us, Jesus is glorified on the cross.

It will be on the cross where God will destroy the division between God and humanity. It will be on the cross where God renews creation.  We tend to think of the cross as a failure and a futility that God miraculously turns into something new with the resurrection. Don’t worry, we are in good company—the apostles thought that, too! It’s all over popular culture! But the cross is not a defeat, it is the  completion of what Jesus came to do, and it is the place where he is glorified.

When Andrew took Peter to see Jesus and when Philip brought Nathaniel to see Jesus, they saw him face to face. The Greeks wanted to see Jesus, but they will see him on and through the cross.  And that is where most of us will see Jesus… on and through the cross.

Today, those coming to seek Jesus have one more place to look. And that is to us.

Phillips Brooks, author of the Christmas carol “O little town of Bethlehem,” was Bishop of Massachusetts and instrumental in building the magnificent Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. One feature of Brooks’ design is visible only to those who preach in Trinity church. Brooks had these words carved on the inside of Trinity’s pulpit: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Episcopal priest, the Rev. Dr. Barry Vaughn writes:

Phillips Brooks knew that everyone who steps into a pulpit and presumes to preach the gospel needs to think about those words, because the great temptation of preaching is to give our hearers something other than Jesus….

But it is not only preachers who do this. All around us are people who want to see Jesus. Do they see him in us? Do they see the Servant-Lord who washed the feet of his friends? Do they see the prophet who cleansed the Temple? Do they see the healer who made the blind to see? If we are to let people see Jesus in us, then we must go ourselves and sit at his feet, let him heal us, feed upon his body broken for us, and above all stand at the cross and wonder as the Word that spoke out of the void lapses into silence and death.

As we approach the end of Lent: with Passion Sunday, Holy Week and the Great Three Days coming up, we are at once like those Greeks looking for Jesus who came to Philip and Andrew, and we are like Philip and Andrew who show Jesus to others.

 We want to see Jesus. We are not alone. Many people seek Jesus. They could be at work, or in a faraway place or they could be as close as home.  And we, the baptized, are the ones who show off Jesus. We show in our faithfulness, in our attitude towards others, and in our care for those in need that Jesus reigns, and he reigns from the cross.

When Francis went into that broken-down, dark neglected church and prayed before this icon of Jesus crucified, he had a vision of Jesus looking at him and saying, “rebuild my Church.” Francis started with the building-- with the Chapel of St. Damiano. He used his own money and his own bare hands to repair it.  That was a good place to start. Definitely good practice. But it was not enough.

He realized that the Church that Jesus sent him to rebuild was the people of God: people who needed a space and a method to pray, people who need purpose and hope. People who follow Jesus need a mission. The heart of Francis’ call was to show people the very same thing he had been shown. He showed them Jesus. The savior who walked and lived among us is glorified on the cross, where we see God’s love is so great that not even death can stop it.

All the time people come to us and ask of us “we would see Jesus.”  Maybe not in those words, but in their need, their hope, and their curiosity. And in everything we do, as a parish family and in our daily lives, we are called to show them Jesus. And every time we show them Jesus, we are rebuilding his church.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on March 17, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on March 17, 2024