Resurrection

God will hold us all in his Love

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…

Thus begins the First Epistle of John, written to the church in the region of the world that is now Turkey at around the same time that our Gospels were written. “We declare what was from the beginning…” What beginning does that refer to? It might refer to the organization of that particular church—as in, “here’s what we agreed upon at the start…;” it might mean what it does in the Gospel of John, “the Word was with God in the beginning, and without the Word, there was not anything made that was made…;” or the beginning could refer to the beginning of our new life, the resurrection of Christ: “what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … the Word of Life.”

This sentence means all of these things. This week we have entered into Easter, the season of the resurrection of Christ. We can place that event at a moment in time—“we have seen with our eyes, we have looked at and touched with our hands…”—Jesus alive and with us; death defeated. But that resurrection, life conquering death, is implicit there at the beginning, before creation, the God that created the light is in his essence love, and that is the essence of life.

The reading from the Gospel today is the one that is read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room with the disciples, the room that was locked because of their fear. Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Thus, no longer are they to be locked up in their fear—they are to live the life that Jesus lives, sent by the Father. Sent why, for what? “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

There is another sentence that follows, and it contains a serious mistranslation, so serious that it should be explained. One of my teachers, an extraordinary biblical scholar and teacher of spirituality named Sandra Schneiders, gave a detailed lecture on this when I was in seminary. This Greek word, krateo, means “grasp,” “hold on to.” In my big Greek dictionary there is a long entry about krateo and hundreds of examples of its use follow. At the very end of the entry for krateo appears a different definition, that is, “retain,” but it gives only a single example: “retain their sins,” and it’s from this verse that we read today.

So my teacher did further research, and this is the only use of that sense of the word krateo in all of Greek literature. She was pretty skeptical, devoted Catholic nun that she is. Somehow those in authority in the church thought that it was a good idea that if they could forgive sins, they should also be able to keep sins from being forgiven. After all, that gives a lot of power to us priests, and you know that’s what we need, a little more power. But the sentence that Jesus said actually makes sense without making up new meanings for words. Jesus said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you hold fast to anyone, they are held fast (in the custody of God).”

Immediately following is the example of Thomas. Thomas was not there. And Thomas knew that his friends could be sentimental crackpots sometimes. He listens to their story, complete with showing Jesus’ hands and his side and he says, “Yeah. Right.” “I won’t believe until I see his hands and his side, and touch him.” I have always loved Thomas. None of this “go along to get along” for him. His belief had to be real, he wasn’t there to kid around about stuff that people fantasized or hallucinated about. And the disciples disagreed, and they held Thomas fast. In the love of God, Thomas was held with them, he remained with them in the room. And a whole week later Jesus appeared. “Put your finger here and see my hands.”

The resurrection is not about what the disciples thought and felt; it is not about what we think and feel. The resurrection is

(Photo by Frank H. Conlon)

Jesus coming to his people for the sake of his love of the world. It is his welcome and love. His presence here for us, and for all of his people. He stretches out his arms on the cross to embrace the entire world, and to hold them fast. He gives the Holy Spirit to his community to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and to hold his people tight in his love.  In January the people of Calvary met together and shared what is vitally important in our experience together here. The words that consistently came out from all the groups, from you, were “Welcome” and “Acceptance”—that this is a place where we have known that, that being accepted as we are and welcomed as part of the community is something that we have experienced. In other words, this is a community that holds one another fast, accepts and welcomes people, not because of affinity or agreement about things, but because that’s who we are—that’s who God is calling us to be.

The reading from the epistle today ends: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The whole world. God calls us to bring his forgiveness, his peace that drives out fear, to the entire world. Embrace all those who love you, and those who don’t. We start here, and then we are sent. In the openness of Christ, bring his love out into our world.

God will hold us all in his love.

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I shall not die, but Live and Declare the Works of the Lord

A sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.

Today is the day of the Resurrection. We celebrate that God has raised Jesus, the Lord of Life, from the dead.  In Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated, and it is established that the real truth and essence of this world is life—life eternal and life present.

We live in a world where many focus on death. Some even believe that death is the real and final reality, while others use the threat or fear of death to gain power and use it over others. The Gospel is not happy talk or wishful thinking. Our observance of Holy Week, in preparation for this day of the Resurrection, bears witness to the reality and power of death and its servants—violence and fear. The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate assertion of the arrogance of death in this world, and of how people join themselves to it. As Christians we take death very seriously.

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” The three women had prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body, because the circumstances of his death had made it impossible to do so before the Sabbath. They were doing what they could to honor him and cope with his devastating death. But the body is not there, but rather a young man, dressed in a white robe, an unusual form of dress, which elsewhere in the New Testament is how the martyrs and the newly baptized are dressed, and he says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The God of life has raised him from the dead, the powers of death have no hold of him. Have courage, you will see him and he will lead you into life.

St. Paul said it to the church in Rome in the epistle we read today: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus always lived in the fullness of life, never fearing the forces of death. We are often fearful. Even at the end of the Gospel of Mark, the women fled in terror and spoke to no one, because they were afraid. But our loving and indulgent God, looks at them with mercy—No. Don’t be afraid, go where Jesus calls you, to Galilee, perhaps, and live life with him, don’t be enslaved by the forces of death.

“The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” It takes courage to live life rather than being seduced and intimidated by the forces of death. It is seductive to think that we can protect ourselves or our families by being armed, or behind gates, or to somehow compile enough wealth so that we don’t have to deal with other people—especially THOSE other people. The forces of death use fear to push people apart, increase anger and anxiety. The forces of death tell us never to be vulnerable or to trust…people follow that counsel, and life is impoverished, and our country is torn apart.  The hope of abundant life for everyone in our world is traded in for impoverished pursuit of plentiful wealth for me and mine—bought by servitude to those who seek and hold power who represent the powers of death.

It may be that some will dismiss this—“How could we change? We can’t afford to do anything but go along and get along. We have to keep ourselves safe.” Jesus could not afford anything and did not keep himself safe, yet he is the one who is alive. I have lived a while in the grown-up world, and I have seen plenty of fear, and plenty of people accommodating to power, and seeking to ingratiate themselves to the powerful.  I’ve seen institutions collapse through pursuing the fantasy that the rich and powerful will save them rather than having the courage to pursue their life-giving mission.

The Resurrection is confusing and hard to understand. It has always been so: the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances tell us that the people who saw Jesus often didn’t recognize him, or were fearful or confused. So it is not a problem of being “modern” that makes the resurrection a challenge, it is a problem of fear and being confused by the power of death around us. If we are fearful, we are in good company, but we are called to leave aside the noise of the powers of death and turn to reality, the reality of life in God.

The resurrection of Christ is the only hard-headed, real-world reality that there is. For the truth underlying our universe, if there is any truth or meaning worth having—the truth is that life is what endures, life is what has meaning. The God who raised Jesus, did so in the midst of tough economic, social, and political circumstances.  Jesus did not ignore those circumstances, but confronted them, well aware of what would happen. He was the only one on any side who was realistic about that. He chose to affirm life, and death did what it could, it did what it does—death ended Jesus’ earthly life—yet God raised Jesus from the dead. That is far more realistic than self-pity or fearfulness. Jesus met the disciples in Galilee, where he preached the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, fed the hungry, cast out demons and the forces of death. The Christians proclaimed that. Paul, whose writings are the earliest of the New Testament said it thus:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never, die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Christ is risen, the God of Life has raised him and blessed us as he has from the beginning. Our praises join with the praises of Israel; let us conclude in prayer in the words of our psalm of Israel:

The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.

There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous.

The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!

The right hand of the Lord is exalted!

The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!”

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.

I give thanks to you, for you answered me and have become my salvation.

The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

On this day the Lord has acted;

We will rejoice and be glad in it.

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.

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!

Jesus Wept

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus, as we heard in our Gospel lesson today, is rich, long and complex. But it also contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Or as our translation struggles to render the Greek verb tense more accurately into English: “Jesus began to weep.”  This story is filled with grief, and Jesus himself grieves. In all the other healings in the New Testament, we see Jesus encouraging faith and hope; we don’t see him being affected by doubt or fear or loss.

The previous paragraph in this story tells how Martha responds to Jesus. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And she responds: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So we have the Son of God, coming into the world and participating in Martha’s and Mary’s grief: Jesus wept.  Jesus experienced his own human pain, in Jesus, God honors our own pain, our own loss, our own grief.

Like so many who grieve, Mary looked back at the event, and said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Is that true? It certainly expresses the intensity of Mary’s loss. And especially at intense times, people like to out-theologize God, to change the outcomes of creation and time for what they believe will be to their own benefit. Jesus had not been there and Lazarus had died. He felt the intensity of Mary’s loss, and, in his compassion, Jesus wept.

It is easy for us to presume what God or Jesus—or our own mother or father—would have, could have, or should have done—and then things would have been easier, the world would have been different, Lazarus would have died at a different time, and Mary and Martha would have grieved without Jesus. But Jesus did not explain anything to Mary.  He asked, “Where have you laid him?” He loved Mary. He loved Lazarus. And he wept. And he called Lazarus out of the grave: “Unbind him, let him go.”  And the Gospel says, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

And what did they believe? I remind you again that this story contains the confession of Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Or, as Jesus said it, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” He is the one coming into the world to give life—in him, God feels every pain, every desire and every loss. There is nothing insignificant or trivial in any loss that is grieved.

This story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus is framed in the Gospel of John by a significant and related story. Jesus went away from Jerusalem to the northeast, to the area where John had previously been baptizing. But he also left Jerusalem because there was danger—Jesus had nearly been stoned or arrested on a number of occasions. And the disciples were well aware that Jesus could be in mortal danger if he returned , as the first part of our story shows.

Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town on the very edge of Jerusalem, in the midst of this danger. Jesus decided to go and his disciples followed him. Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, some of those who witnessed it went and informed some of Jesus’ opponents who arranged for a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  In their fear of the Romans and of the people, the high priests decided that Jesus should die. Thus, Jesus’ return to bring to bring Lazarus to life was pretty much the direct cause of his own death. He came into the world, and into Bethany to face death for the sake of compassion for his sisters and brothers. Jesus courage is the embodiment of God’s generosity and compassion.

This Lent we have been walking the path of the Catechumens in their preparation for baptism. We have heard the traditional lessons for this preparation on these five Sundays. In the first, with the temptations of Jesus, we learn to focus on God alone, on Scripture and God’s love, not on our own comfort, popularity, possessions or power. In the second, we learn with Nicodemus that we must be born from above, abandoning our preconceptions and embarking on the long trek of transformation. With the Samaritan woman at the well, we receive Living Water and learn that we are known by God. On the fourth Sunday, the blind receive their sight and a beggar speaks the truth that he sees. We learn to see the transforming light of God in the works of Jesus, and in belief to give up our own blindness. And finally today, we see Jesus restoring the dead to life, and we learn with Martha and Mary to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one coming into this world as the Resurrection and the Life. In absorbing these things, and taking them into their hearts the catechumens are prepared for baptism. In our baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Next week, we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday. It is that painful and glorious journey with Jesus through the last week of his life, through his death on the cross and into the joy of his Resurrection on Easter.

I invite all of you to join us in our Holy Week services which culminate in the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows and the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning.

This prayer is the Collect for that Monday in Holy Week. Let us pray:

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, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.