Month: April 2017

The breaking of the bread

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

I wrote this sermon three years ago, for a church in Westchester County, New York.

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

Of course, after I wrote this sermon, more things happened. My colleagues and I left the institution where I was librarian and I found that I was called to preach the Gospel and minister in parishes from a new perspective, one that is fulfilling to me in ways I had never expected. While I regret the pain that some have suffered, I have no regrets about any of the turnings of my life.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

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May grace and peace be yours in abundance

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is the second Sunday of Easter, and every year the Gospel lesson is the story of Thomas, the Apostle. I love Thomas, and I love to preach about how he is a model of faith for us. But the Good News also comes from our lesson from the First Letter of Peter, and that’s what I’ll talk about today.

The resurrection of Christ defines who we are—it is not just another miraculous event or fun story. Christianity is inconceivable without the life that Jesus lived, and his life is not real or believable apart from his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is a great and incomprehensible mystery that God, the creator of all life and of everything that is, lives among us as one of us. But there would be nothing real about his human life if he skipped over the things that all human beings go through: ultimately death, of course; but also the human interactions of love and indifference, of fear and faithfulness, of insincerity, cowardice, betrayal.

It is only in the context of that real, authentic life that God does a new thing: not magic, or coming up with a happy ending at the end of a sad play or movie. The resurrection is founded in the reality of the world. Jesus’ life incorporates all of the human struggle and experience—the good, the evil, the joy, the very human screw-ups that might come from good intentions of overwhelmed people or bad intentions that are covered up by insincerity and self-delusion. When all of that culminates in the crucifixion, and death seems to be the final reality, God does something new. The resurrection denies none of that. The resurrection is in real life. The resurrection is new and abundant life, spilling out all over—it is the life we see in Jesus all along, his courage, his love, his joy, his compassion. It is God’s love incorporated in every corner of this world.

And so in our reading from the first Epistle of Peter it says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” We are born into a living hope. A living hope is not a dead hope or wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is something like, “If I just win the jackpot on the Powerball, then my problems will be solved.” That kind of wish is not hope; it’s just a desire to escape present reality. Every once in a while, most of us wish that way, but a dollar and a dream is not hope, and probably winning the lottery wouldn’t actually solve the problems that we think it will. A dead hope, you might call nostalgia, looks for restoration of something from the past, maybe a time remembered as hopeful. But hope is not the restoration of some feelings or circumstances that are gone—looking to the past for hope, that’s what I would call dead hope as compared to living hope.

Living hope is the life of Christ going forward. Our present and our future reality are in the living, resurrected Christ. And hope is of the real world—this passage continues: “In this you rejoice, even if now you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” There has never been a time when Christians have not participated in the difficulties of the real world. And at all those same times we rejoice because we are incorporated in that real life of Christ—the resurrection that incorporates all reality.

At St. James, we live in that real hope, founded in the compassion we learn from Christ: older people doing ministry; younger and special needs people receiving encouragement and being treated with dignity. The hope is neither that things will stay the same or that something will happen to make things easy, but that the compassion of Christ will continue and grow in this people and this place.

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni”

A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Supposing him to be the gardener she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

On Easter Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that death is defeated; even the humiliation and agony of his execution on a cross is overcome—Life has overcome Death.  That’s why we’re here—because life has overcome death.  Of an Easter Sunday morning, many come hoping for solid simple assurance. We all like to imagine a day when we think life was simpler, everybody believed in the Bible, and it was no challenge to believe in the Resurrection.  Others stay away, because all of that seems too simple, too glib, and the complex problems of life aren’t just fixed with easy answers, at least not now, not in this modern world where it’s more difficult to believe anything.

I believe the Bible.  So let’s pay close attention to the Gospel lesson for today.  Outside that tomb in a garden near Calvary, it might well have been a beautiful spring morning—it was certainly in the spring.  But it did not start out with hope and Easter eggs and getting all dressed up for a joyful feast.

Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ disciple and friend, was going out, after the Sabbath had ended, perhaps to mourn, perhaps to finish tending to the body of her friend. A wealthy disciple had Jesus’ body placed in a tomb which was sealed shut with a large stone.  Mary saw something disturbing—the stone had been removed from the opening—she ran to get the guys, they look in—the body is gone but the wrappings from the body have been left behind—Peter and the other man leave, one happy and the other confused—and Mary remains behind crying.  There’s someone else in the tomb—two of them [the word “angel” means messenger in Greek, and our standard image of the angels with wings didn’t really emerge until the Middle Ages, or even the Renaissance]—and what do they say? They say, “Woman, why are you crying?”

Really, this is just too much.

Life could not be more chaotic, if you had to change the baby three times, break up two fights between the kids and poke the teenager yet again to get him out the door on Sunday morning.

And then there’s another man standing there, probably the gardener who takes care of this place—he says it too, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

“If you have taken him away, tell me where you put him!” This is not the only time in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection that a disciple looks right at Jesus and does not recognize him. In the Gospel of Luke, on the road to Emmaus, two of his disciples walked with him for miles before they recognized him when he broke the bread. And in the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ final appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus talks with the disciples for quite a while and gives them fishing advice before Peter recognizes him and puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. Recognizing Jesus was not so simple, and plain and self-evident, even for Jesus’ closest friends two thousand years ago.

And Jesus spoke her name: “Mariam.”  “Rabbouni” she said to her teacher.  He was no longer dead, but alive, and sending her to share this life, this Gospel with the others.

Now, note—recognizing Jesus did not make everything simple or smooth.  Not everyone took Mary’s word for it, or respected her, yet with that one word—“Mariam”—everything changed.  Jesus is alive, and death no longer has power over him or over Mary—he called her by name.

Christ rose from the dead.  The final reality and meaning is not death, destruction and dissolution, but life.  And the meaning of that life, that final reality, is the love that is the life of God, the creator who has entered into his creation, who intimately knows our real life, even to the point of dying with us and for us.  Even if it feels like despair—as Mary of Magdala appears early in this lesson to be despairing—that despair has no reality, for Jesus is as near to us as he was to her.  He is our hope, no matter how we feel or what we might think. He is our hope because he lives.  He is OUR hope because he has called us by name.

We have travelled through the season of Lent—that season is the time when from very early on, the church prepared new candidates for baptism.  This year, we walk the way with those candidates, called Catechumens, through the lessons. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; Nicodemus, coming by night and learning that he must be born from above—that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but that it might be saved through him; the Samaritan woman at the well, who received living water; the man born blind who received his sight; the two sisters who had lost their brother, Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead.  In each of these lessons we learn more about dying to self and being raised to life in Christ in baptism. In baptism, Christians receive their name.

Jesus calls us each by name. Sometimes we don’t hear, sometimes we don’t recognize it. But Christ is here, for us and with us and in us.  The ultimate meaning of this world, despite what any might do, is life that dwells in God’s love. Fear and hate, as real and compelling as they might seem at times, have no permanent power. Even for Mary Magdalen, the death of Jesus felt like the triumph of violence, but in the end God stands it on its head: it is Jesus, not the manager of that garden who speaks to her.  It is the love of God in Christ that triumphs.

In our service at Easter, we invite you all, at the time we usually say the Nicene Creed, to join with all of us in reaffirming your baptismal vows.  We travel with Jesus, we die with him, and he calls us each by name.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia.

For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first

A homily at the Easter Vigil, April 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Traditionally, catechumens were those who were preparing for baptism. In the ancient church that preparation was long and serious and the period before Easter, which we call Lent, was the last part of that. The lessons of the traditional lectionary, which were our Gospels for this Lent, were the focus of that preparation for the catechumens. This year at St. James, we have been walking the path along with the catechumens, preparing to re-affirm our own baptisms at Easter.

John Chrysostom was the Bishop of Constantinople in the late 300s and early 400s. That word, Chrysostom, was not his name—it means “Golden Mouth,” because everyone knew him for his eloquence. I will read his homily, which is read at all Eastern Orthodox Churches at the end of Matins for Easter, the traditional time for baptisms in the early church. It is an invitation to us all:

If anyone be devout and a lover of God, enjoy this beautiful and radiant Feast of Feasts!

If anyone is a wise servant, rejoice and enter into the joy of the Lord.

If anyone has been wearied in fasting, now receive your recompense.

If anyone has labored from the first hour, today receive your just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, have no misgivings; for you shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, do not fear on account of your delay. For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to the one who comes at the eleventh hour, just as to the one who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work, and praises the intention.

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen and Life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

It is finished

A sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“It is finished.”

What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words—Jesus has been through a lot. So have we—all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution—and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point.

One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity. Other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible. In both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and from ours.

At the other extreme, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair, or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans,” or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”

The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.

And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem—as he comes to us in the Central Valley of California—to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier, or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.

Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.

After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved, and blessed. Even this ugly death, he blessed and embraced. For three days, it could not be known that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus’ friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.

His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all-loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation.

But the resurrection … that’s the story for after sundown tomorrow.

In remembrance

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table”

It was a solemn feast, of deep religious and national significance when Jesus gathered his apostles with him that evening.  He says to them, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His prayer for his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” was a prayer of the Kingdom of God. God’s direct rule of God’s people, the dropping of human manipulations and oppressions, the welcoming joy of life with God without the death and downward pressure of human sinfulness: that is the Kingdom of God.

This was Jesus’ last meal, certainly his last meal with his apostles. I have no doubt that he knew it, and all the others in the room were expecting it as well.  The Kingdom of God is hard for human rulers to take—and not just kings. Jesus had brought freedom and healing to people in ways that inconvenienced all sorts of people who profited or gained status by demeaning or hurting others. It was uncomfortable for them when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy, mendacity, greed or cruelty by speaking simple truths or telling stories with a humorous or ironic take on life.  This had reached a point when everyone could see that something was about to give, and Jesus entered Jerusalem in a mock triumphal procession—on a donkey, instead of the horse that a conquering king would ride.

The wine, the cup of blessing, the cup of the celebration of God’s Kingdom, “take this and divide it among yourselves.” Anticipating the Kingdom.

The bread, simple sustenance or bread of affliction. Perhaps the bread that the Israelites baked in such a hurry that they could not let it rise, because they were fleeing the Egyptians. But Jesus wasn’t going to flee the Romans. “My body” “For you” “Do this in remembrance of me.” In memory, we re-member, re-assemble the love of Jesus for us. We are one body in Him, because his love is re-membered in us.

And the final cup, the Gospel says it is the same as the bread—“Poured out for you as the covenant in my blood.” We are remembered by God in the remembrance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Of course, no sooner had he said this than they began to act like every other church assembly or other human assembly since then. “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  The text doesn’t say whether Jesus did a “face-palm.” It might not have been a current gesture back then, but nobody would blame him if he did.

“Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Clearly, Jesus saying it hasn’t made it magically true among Christians of any age. But he is clearly meaning the same thing as in the Gospel of John where he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” as he interprets his washing of the disciples’ feet. The word “Maundy” refers to the Latin word for commandment, and there is only one commandment for Christians, that we love. That love is not so much a nice feeling as an attitude of our will to actively seek the best for another. In other words, we are commanded to serve God’s people as the love of Christ.

The institution of the Holy Eucharist is founded in this commandment of love. We remember that it is God who first loved us in Jesus Christ, we remember that we are bound together in his love, we remember that he is among us as our servant, and we become that love of God by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in this bread and wine which he gives us.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

After reading the Passion

A homily for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

The experience of the reading of our Gospel lessons today is enough, it takes no preaching to understand. The crucifixion is a great evil. It is a human evil, the people who said Hosanna to the Son of David were the same ones who said, “Let him be crucified.” We read the Passion story today, in a traditional manner, with three readers: a narrator, Jesus, and a reader for all the speakers. When I read for all those speakers, a part of each of them also reflects a part of myself. Each one avoiding pain or difficult consequences for themselves, and the result was the crucifixion of Jesus.

This week we dwell with that—we live that last week of Jesus’ life along with him and all his other disciples. In that we come to know and appreciate the overwhelming love of God in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.