Friday is Good, all on its own

For many years, I’ve loved a story told by theologian Tony Campolo.  It takes place in his church, during a revival where preachers from several local congregations were invited to speak.  While the goal was always to bring people closer to Jesus, secondarily, each preacher hoped to out preach the rest.  Tony remembers that he was on his game that particular morning, and when he sat down, he looked over at the preacher sitting next to him and whispered, “good luck.”  His counterpart simply responded, “Son, sit back.  The old man is going to do you in.”  For the next half hour, that preacher did him in with basically one line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

       For many years, I’ve loved this idea of “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” but after thirteen months of Lent, I’m beginning to understand that what makes this Friday Good really has nothing to do with what will happen on Sunday morning.  Instead, Good Friday, I believe, is good all on its own.  It would be good even if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead on Easter morning.  Holy Saturday and Easter Day are good on their own merit as well, but this Friday is Good because of what Jesus Christ did on that Friday two thousand some-odd years ago.  This Friday is Good because of the prophetic words Jesus spoke from the cross as he gave up his spirit.

       In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished.”  What Jesus came to earth to do wasn’t almost done through his death on the cross, but it was finished, accomplished, complete.  Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation was made complete through his entering fully into the suffering of humankind.  As we’ve heard several times during this Lenten Season, Christ was lifted up to glory, not upon a throne, but upon the Cross.  Through what theologians call Christus Victor, Jesus’ death is the moment of God’s victory over sin and death.  By way of an act of divine love, God entered fully into the bondage of death and turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, liberating all of humanity from the fear of death in order to live lives marked by the Way of Love.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that Christ took away the sting of death forever.

Alternatively, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 for his last words.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  These seem like words that are as far from good as one can imagine.  Jesus, whom we believe to be God, feeling forsaken by God is very, very, not good.  Yet, even these pain-wracked words of Jesus can be seen as good if we understand that part of what God came to do in the Incarnation was to fully enter into and redeem the human experience.  All of us, at some time in our lives, will feel separated from God.  Whether it is bound in grief, fear, or doubt, at some point, each of us knows the deep feeling of lostness when God feels far away.  In Jesus’ final act in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity temporarily relinquished godship in the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that God experienced and redeemed godforsakenness.

It is Friday, and Sunday is coming.  It’s Friday after thirteen months of deprivation, anxiety, and separation, and Sunday is coming.  Sunday will be Good, but this Friday doesn’t need Sunday in order to be Good all on its own.  Jesus Christ died that we might have life, that the sting of death might not have victory over us, that we might know that even God experienced what it means to feel separated from God’s unending love.  It is Friday, and it is Good.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  Amen.

One Year

Most people remember Wednesday, March 11, 2020 because it was the day that Rudy Gobert, star center of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. I remember it as the day, one year ago this morning, that Andy Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky, recommended that churches consider not holding services the following Sunday. At 11am, I met with our Christian Education Director to talk about whether or not we should hold our Wednesday Lenten program that evening. At 1pm, our Director of Music and I decided to suspend choir rehearsals. At 2pm, our audio/visual volunteer was in my office with a plan to live stream Sunday services.

March 11, 2020 was probably the most stressful day I’ve had at work. It was a day of hastily scheduled meetings, uncertainty, and difficult decisions, but it was also a day of great clarity. In the email I wrote to the congregation that day, time stamped at 3:07pm, I concluded with these words, “This will give us the time and space we need to make wise decisions for the health of our most vulnerable members while balancing our Christian call to be beacons of hope in our community.” The dual petitions for wise decisions and beacons of hope, has been my prayer, in one form or another, for a year now.

Of course, March 11, 2020 Steve had no idea what was coming. On March 16, we held our last in-person staff meeting. On the white board in the Conference Room, we drew up a calendar so that we could all visualize what was coming. I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram with this caption.

“Maybe the 90 day window was overkill…” We were so naive. That calendar is still there, untouched now for almost 365 days. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that on March 11, 2021, I’d spend five minutes frantically looking for SBC’s mask, trying to make sure she was on time to the eighth day of full capacity in-person school since March 16, 2020. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that we would still holding online only services and planning for a second pandemic Holy Week. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility of 520,000 dead Americans, an estimated 100,000,000 infected, and yet, 25% of adults in Kentucky, including myself, at least half vaccinated.

It has been a long year. There has been so much to mourn, so much to worry about, and so many plans altered and scrapped. As one priest I know said recently, “we’ve all gotten PhDs in leadership this year.” And while it is still far from over, as I look back on the year that has past, I can’t help but find things to be thankful for. I’m thankful that, by and large, my family, friends, and flock have remained healthy. I’m thankful for partners in ministry who have prayed with and for me as we’ve made unpopular decisions and who have pivoted, sometimes as a moment’s notice. I’m thankful for Governor Beshear, Bishop White, and Superintendent Fields as they’ve modeled leadership that has balanced wise decision making and hope for a better tomorrow. Most of all, I’m thankful for a trampoline in our backyard.

It has been a long year. Give yourself space to grieve, space for gratitude, and space for rest. As I said on Sunday, normal can’t be our goal for post-pandemic life, but if we keep our prayers focused on wisdom and hope, what comes next can be a world that is more just, more loving, and more peaceful than the one we left behind.

Beware of false gods

       I am certain that somewhere this morning, some preacher will stand up before their congregation and say, “I must confess to you that I have failed to keep one of the Commandments.”  After a dramatic pause, long enough for members to mutter to themselves with shock and surprise, the preacher will continue, “I do not keep the Sabbath day,” and everyone will get a good chuckle.  In post-Industrial, 21st century America, it is easy to look at the Ten Commandments, see the admonition to keep the Sabbath, and roll our eyes.  Forgetting, for a moment, the reality that being able to order take-out, buy a widget, produce a car, and be in touch 24 hours a day, seven days a week is literally killing people by way of heart disease, cancer, and even COVID, it seems to me that the real sin of failing to honor the Sabbath day isn’t that it violates the fourth Commandment, but that it actually violates the number one, top of the line Commandment that God gave to Moses after rescuing the Hebrew People from Egypt, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

       We live in a world that is full of false gods constantly vying for our attention.  When we are young, it is the god of cool who tries to convince us to talk the right way, hang out with the right people, and wear the right clothes so that we will fit in.  The god of advertising would have us find happiness in the right car, shoes, or cell phone plan.  The god of 24-hour news brainwashes us to think only a certain way.  The god of right would have us break off all relationships with those with whom we disagree.  There are hundreds of gods in this world that would have us turn away from the One, True, God.

Perhaps the most insidious god of them all is the god of success.  If we can only get the right grades, go the right school, and focus on the right career, all our hopes will be fulfilled.  Of course, in order to succeed, we have to work, hard, constantly.  We work, and we work, and we work, until one day, we realize that Sabbath no longer exists, and that we have not only put our lives at risk by not taking the kind of rest that even the Lord God Almighty took at the Creation of all that is, but that we have replaced God entirely.

Of course, the devious nature of the gods of this world is nothing new.  There is a reason that the first Commandment that God gave to Moses some thirty-five hundred years ago was to have no other gods.  Human beings have been susceptible to the temptation to replace God since the very beginning.  It is why Adam and Eve ate that piece of forbidden fruit.  It is why Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish.  And it is why Jesus went bonkers in the Temple one Sunday afternoon.  It was the days leading up to the Passover Feast.  Pilgrims from all over were making their way to Jerusalem in order to remember God rescuing their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and to make their various offerings at the Temple.  Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, went as well.  What they saw upon their arrival in the Temple Court was the gods of this world running rampant in the house of the Lord God Almighty.

The sacrificial system had been established to give people a hands-on way to get right with God, but in time, many middlemen had entered the equation.  There were the cattle sellers, who, for a nice profit, would sell you the unblemished lamb you needed for your Passover sacrifice.  Of course, they had doves by the dozens should you need to be purified after childbirth, cleansed of a skin condition, or simply wanted to present a burnt offering to God.  Jesus, no doubt, saw the need for such businesses, as many pilgrims would have been unable to travel with their animal offerings in tow, but he also saw the god of the almighty shekel at work.  He saw the god of ritualistic religion taking the true intentions of the people and turning them into profit.  So, he tied up a whip of cords and began to chase the vendors, and the gods they represented, out of his Father’s Temple.

As they fled, Jesus turned his attention to the money changers, who were even worse.  The Temple Tax, which had to be paid by every Jewish person for the upkeep of the Temple, was paid in a very specific way.  In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome broke the Second Commandment.  In violation of the Commandment against idols was the graven image of the Emperor with an inscription that declared Caesar as divine and a high priest in the state religion.  This would obviously not do as payment for the Temple tax, and so the money changer took on an important role.  For a decent profit, they would take your Roman coins and give you the proper half shekel needed to pay the Temple Tax.  Here again, the god of the almighty shekel had teamed up with the false gods of ritual and government to bring distance between the People and the One, True, God.  In response, Jesus flipped their tables, sent change skittering all over, and ran them out.  Jesus has little patience for false gods in his Father’s house.

Today marks our fifty-second Sunday of Church at Home.  It has been a long, difficult year.  I miss seeing each of you so very much, and I look forward to preaching to more than a camera and Linda Mitchell someday soon.  But I also worry that this past year has introduced a new god seeking our attention – the god of normal.  I fear that we are all so desperate for normalcy, that we could lose sight of all that Almighty God has sought to teach us over these last 12 months.  Normal feels easy.  We can simply slide back into the old routines that we knew so well.  We’ll fall right back into the habits of the past, and this year long Sabbath that has been forced upon us will have been for naught.  On April 2nd, 2020, only about three weeks into the first pandemic shut-down, poet and social justice advocate Sonya Renee Taylor reflected on what was, even then, the already alluring siren song of the god of normal.  She wrote, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”[1]

The First Commandment might be the hardest one to keep.  The gods of this world are myriad.  Specifically, right now, the god of normal is seductive, but we must resist its temptation and instead listen for the will of the God of All Creation, the God of Love, as we discern what life looks like in months and years to come.  Lest Jesus enter into our lives and tie up a whip of cords, perhaps, in what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic, we should take time to root out the false gods who would vie for our attention and turn our focus toward the One, True God.  Thankfully, it is the Season of Lent, a time of preparation for new beginnings.  The tools we need are already at our disposal: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.   My friends, with so many false gods running around, I am certain we have all occasionally violated at least one of the Commandments, but with the help of Almighty God, we can find forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/?hl=en

Mindset

Peter is a pretty easy punching bag. Taking from the book “Lamb,” I once preached a sermon riffing on Peter’s name meaning “rock” and called him “dumb as a box of rocks Peter” throughout. That may have been too strong. He is certainly impetuous, but maybe not dumb. He’s quick to jump out of the boat, quick to answer Jesus’ questions, and in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, quick to tell Jesus he is wrong. It is pretty easy for the preacher to point to Peter and Jesus’ rebuke of him and say, “don’t be like Peter,” but the truth is, most of the time, most of us are right where Peter is.

His sin, you see, isn’t rebuking Jesus, but having his mind set on human things rather than divine things. I suspect most of us spend most of our time focused on the things of this world: money, power, success; rather than the things of God; justice, peace, and restoration. This seems particularly true the longer pandemic restrictions linger and more and more of us grow impatient. From our national leadership the focus on human things has trickled all the way down to the minimum wage worker. The mindset of our nation has been focused not on how to take care of one another, but how to keep the economy going so that money, power, and success can continue. Billionaires have made billions, but by making the powerless work to sell people the things they need and shorting the stock market to sell things they never owned. The most vulnerable have had to work, often without the necessary protections, in the name of the economy.

Our mindset is clearly set on human things. So, let’s stop short of laughing at Peter’s rebuke and wonder instead what Jesus might say to us in these (hopefully) waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. How might we change our mindset? How can we focus on divine things, even as we still have to pay bills, feed ourselves and our families.

On Careful Study

We live in an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture. The well-worn stories of Mother Becca’s flannel board don’t hold the same significance in the hearts and minds of those under 50 as they did in generations past. Passing references to Noah, Abraham, or Paul don’t ring in their ears the way to do for me, but of course, that’s because I took a vow to study the Bible on a regular basis. At best, 21st century America’s Biblical knowledge can be described by the image above – pithy statements that don’t actually say what they mean, but make us feel good as self-actualized capitalists.

This proves difficult when, on the 51st Sunday of COVID-tide, we hear the Genesis story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, Paul’s very socially-defined explanation of that Covenant from Romans, and Jesus’ brief sermon on discipleship from Mark. All three scripture passages require significant explanations of backstory and social context. Here, when so many of us are exhausted, with our last bit of imaginative energies focused on a second pandemic Holy Week, we’re asked by the Lectionary to do some careful study before we lead our congregations down the path of supercessionism or the danger of a highly individualized faith wherein me and my Jesus carry my cross, and your way of living out your faith will most likely make Jesus ashamed of you.

Perhaps I’m projecting or overreacting, but on this particular Monday, I’m praying for you, dear friends. As you consider what you might preach, or pray for your preacher, please remember how challenging this is, how seriously we should take this calling, and how utterly obnoxious the RCL can be sometimes.

I’m Not Ready for Lent

            I’m not ready for Lent to start again.  It just seems like Lent 2020 never really ended, and we’ve lived in a perpetual state of discipline and self-denial since March of last year.  Aside from a couple of Sundays in Lent, our routine of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, from February 25 and 26 of 2020, are the last normal thing we did as a congregation.  Just down the hall from me, on the bulletin board near Moore Hall, hangs a collage of photographs from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper.  Those pictures feel like a lifetime ago, maybe two.  Yet, here we are, almost a full year later, ready to start it all over again.  I’m just not ready for Lent.

            I’m particularly not ready for ashes on my forehead to remind me of my own mortality.  These ashes feel a lot more like ashes to ashes, dust to dust from the burial office than they do the remnants of some non-existent Palm Sunday celebration from last year.  With more than four hundred eighty-eight thousand Americans dead due to the Coronavirus, I don’t need the reminder.  This morning I woke up to text messages with an urgent prayer request for a young man with special needs who was being admitted to the hospital with COVID pneumonia.  I don’t need the reminder. Having buried or delayed burial for nearly a dozen of our people over the last year, I don’t need the reminder.  I am very keenly aware that death is all around thank you very much.

            There has been a gift in the never-ending Lent of 2020, however.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I have spent hours upon hours digging into the Book of Common Prayer, looking for ways to offer the worship of the Church to those who are staying safe at home.  It has been a gift to read the Prayer Book with a fresh set of eyes, to see where it invites innovation, where it welcomes experimentation, and what, when you distill it all down, is really important.  It happened again for me in thinking about this Ash Wednesday.  I kept getting fixated on this ashes to ashes idea, when it was pointed out to me that the prayer that Mother Becca will say over the ashes asks God that they might be a sign not only of our mortality, but also of penitence.

            Penitence, the act of feeling sorrow or regret for having done wrong.  These ashes are intended to remind us of our sinfulness as well.  To be honest, we probably don’t need that either.  In the last year, we’ve seen friendships and families torn apart by political discord.  We’ve heard our nation called to finally come to terms with its history of white supremacy.  We’ve watched as the world’s economy has been brought to its knees by rolling Coronavirus shut-downs due to our inability to simply do what is best for our neighbors.  We have seen, in stark terms, the wages of sin, and our need, both as individuals and as a collective, for repentance.

            In the Christian context, penitence doesn’t stop at feeling sorrow or regret.  In Christ, we are assured that our sins are forgiven.  We just heard that reaffirmed in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…” These ashes, then, are not just a sign of our mortality and penitence, but of God’s forgiveness as well.  They remind us that God hates nothing God has made.  In fact, God loves all of creation, even you and me.

            I may not be ready for Lent to come again, but I sure am eager to be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness.  Whether you can get here for ashes or not, whether you smudge some soot from the fireplace or ashes from your grill on your forehead, whether you look in the mirror for signs of last year’s ashen cross, my prayer is that this Ash Wednesday and all of Lent 2021, are a reminder to you of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love and an opportunity for you to offer that same forgiveness and love to your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, and friends.  Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made, and we shouldn’t either, give us a spirit of forgiveness and love this Lent, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

God in the Valley – Last Epiphany B

I forgot to post my sermon from Sunday. Better late than never.

When I was in high school, I was deeply involved with my local Young Life chapter.  Every Wednesday, I would cram into somebody’s basement with a hundred or more other high schoolers to sing praises to God and hear a Bible lesson.  Thursday nights, a small group of us spent the night at our Young Life leaders’ house so that we could wake up early on Friday morning for Bible study and monkey bread.  The highlight of the year was, of course, summer camp.  We’d pile into a fancy motor coach and make our way north to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we were guaranteed to have the best week of our lives.  There, on Saranac Lake, we’d spend a week immersed in experiences designed to bring us closer to God.  The music was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the Ski Nautique boats were perfect for water skiing and parasailing.  There is no mountain top experience like hanging by a parachute, three hundred feet in the air, being pulled around one of the most beautiful lakes in New York by a high-powered ski boat, captained by a college student who loves Jesus.

Mountain top experiences are amazing.  Of course, they are.  That’s why they’re called mountain top experiences.  They are the pinnacle of life experiences.  We just heard the story of the first Christian mountain top experience in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story.  A brief look through Scripture shows us several others: God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign after the ark came to rest atop a mountain.  Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai.  Elijah heard the still, small voice of God at the top of Mount Horeb.  The mountain top is often a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is seemingly nonexistent, and the presence of God can be felt.  It is natural for us to yearn for those profound experiences of God.  When they happen, we should rejoice in them, just as Peter did when he recognized Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.  We should rejoice because they are amazing and few and far between.  The mountain top is hard to come by.  That’s why religious leaders often work hard to cultivate them for us.  That the mountain top experience is pre-designed doesn’t mean it is disingenuous.  It seems clear that even Jesus pre-planned this particular event.  He took a select few of his most trusted disciples with him.  They climbed a literal mountain.  A spectacular event took place.  That it was manufactured, doesn’t mean the mountain top experience of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration or my week at Saranac Lake aren’t real, but it does go to show that the mountain top, while beneficial and worth pursuing, isn’t normal.  Life isn’t lived atop a mountain, but in the ups and downs of daily life, and if life has taught me anything, it is that God is just as present in the valleys as the mountain tops.

Before I went to seminary, I was a part-time youth minister at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Like the EYC here, we were a small, but committed group.  One summer, we joined with a large, international mission trip company, to spend a week in rural North Carolina rehabbing houses.  I was so excited for that trip.  Our partner company had slick resources, what appeared to be a decent theological foundation, and everything looked like it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  We were assigned to a house that needed significant soffit and fascia repair.  My crew was me and five ninth graders.  Our first job?  Build two ladders.  That’s right, we were given a bunch of two by fours and some nails to build the ladders we needed to reach the roof.  Our second job?  Climb up our homemade ladder with a Sawzall to cut out of the rotten fascia boards.  Me. And five ninth graders.  Each night, the evening program was filled with “scared straight” type stories meant to get our kids to believe in Jesus just so they wouldn’t go to hell.  Our van broke down mid-week and my air mattress was flat each morning.  We were about as deep in the valley as we could go, yet, on our last night there, my kids and I got to experience the love of God in a deeply moving way.  I honestly don’t remember what the last night’s program was about, but I remember how our kids were able to see God amidst the hardship of the week.  Despite the lack of resources and despite my grumpiness, we all knew in that moment that God loved us, and we were transformed forever in that knowing and being known.

My friend, Keith Talbert, pointed out to me that the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, while often used to highlight the mountain top, could just as easily teach us to look for God in the valleys.  In a season specifically set aside to look for the “aha moments” of God in our lives, the lessons for this Sunday shine the bright light of God both on the mountain top, in the story of the Transfiguration, and deep in the valley, in the story of Elijah and Elisha from Second Kings.  Elijah’s final journey begins at Gilgal.  I’ll spare you most of the details, but it should be noted that there are several different Gilgals mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  A Gilgal is a circle of rocks, built as a monument to a major event, and we have no idea which Gilgal marked the start of their journey.  It could be the Gilgal near the River Jordan, where the Israelites camped just before they crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land, but that doesn’t make much sense given that the next stop is Bethel.  More likely is one of the gilgals erected in the mountains north and west of Jerusalem.  The story of Elijah and Elisha could, quite possibly begin on the mountain top, but like it was for Peter, James, and John, they couldn’t stay there.

As Elijah made his slow and steady march toward the Jordan River valley and his death, Elisha, heir to his prophetic voice, travelled with him in grief.  They came down from Gilgal to Bethel, where a company of prophets tried to dissuade Elisha from continuing to journey into the valley.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Bethel, Elijah and Elisha continued down to Jericho, where another company of prophets tried to keep Elisha from following his mentor into the depths.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Jericho, God called Elijah to the Jordan River, and Elisha followed yet again.  Finally, Elijah struck the river, the waters parted, and Elijah and Elisha found themselves standing in a dried-up riverbed.  There, about as far from the mountain top as one can go, Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit that rested upon Elijah and the glory of Lord came as a chariot of fire and took Elijah up to heaven.  At one of the lowest points on earth, during one of the lowest points of his life, Elisha experienced a profound encounter with the living God.

I don’t know about you, but after all that we’ve been through in the last eleven months, I find myself drawn to the story of Elisha and Elijah in a dried-out riverbed this morning.  From where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of opportunities to walk uphill from here.  Even in the difficult times, however, we can rest assured that God is here.  God is present and ready to pour out grace and love in abundance on the mountain tops, in the valleys, and everywhere in between.  There are better days ahead, of this I am sure, but in the meantime, my prayer is that each of us will have the chance to experience the transfiguring love of God in the highs and lows of our everyday lives.  Amen.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Back in the early 1980s, the late Tom Petty wrote “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.”  While it is obviously a song about a woman, I’m guessing it wasn’t written about the prophet Anna, though it could have been.  Anna, Luke tells us, was waiting for the Messiah.  For nearly sixty years, Anna had lived in the Temple, praying, fasting, and waiting for God to fulfill the promise of a Messiah who would restore Israel and redeem the whole world.

After almost 11 months of waiting to see y’all in real life, I’m over it.  I can’t imagine doing this for another 700 months, 21,500 days, or 516,000 hours, give or take.  The waiting is the hardest part, but some things are worth waiting for.  For Anna, the wait was certainly worth it.  She was a prophet, not in the fortune teller sense.  Instead, for Anna, being a prophet meant she was in tune with God’s word.  Through her spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting, Anna had cultivated a deep relationship with God.  She had received the promise of a Savior, but didn’t know when it would come.  As she waited, I’m sure there were days of frustration.  I’m sure there were moments of desperation.  After 60 years of waiting, I’m certain that Anna had seen the depths of worry and sorrow, but then she saw him, and she knew.

How she knew that this forty-day old baby boy was the one for whom she had waited, I don’t know, but she knew, and she believed, and she praised God for the fulfillment of the promise of a child who would redeem the whole world.  As we wait for the full rollout of the vaccine, for life to slowly return to normal, I wonder how God might be calling us to deepen our relationship, to see the world through God’s eyes, and to work toward the Kingdom of God.

The waiting is the hardest part, but in the waiting, there is plenty of work to do.  I pray this day that God might give us all the spirit of Anna, that we might wait, patiently and with conviction, for the redemption of the world.  Amen.

Experiencing Jesus

       The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy.  Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes.  Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life.  Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment.  At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.  I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria.  Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units.  I got all kinds of experience.  Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh.  I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.

       As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person.  As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct.  She said what needed to be said.  I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?”  I learned to check my attitude that day.  Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us.  Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation.  I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly.  We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place.  I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us.  I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.  I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly.  Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love.  It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had.  As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.

       I think about that experience often.  How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus.  I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love.  In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh.  They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.

       A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near.  It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day.  Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.

       Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it.  Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength.  Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.

       In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.”  That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well.  We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus.  We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it.  You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus.  Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.

       This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves.  How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort.  In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort.  The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

       Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Notice your breath.  Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…

Think back over the course of this week.

Look around where you’ve been.

Listen again to the words you’ve heard.

Where did you see God?

Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?

Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?

In… and out… In… and out…

Amen.