Giving away that which is passing away

       Since 1999, the late Hugo Chavez and his disciples in the Fifth Republic Movement have been in power in Venezuela.  Their policies of cultural and political hegemony have exacerbated an already delicate situation in the South American country such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than six million Venezuelans have left their home country because of a lack of reliable food, water, and electricity and the constant threat of violence.  The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the third-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind the worn-torn countries of Syria and Ukraine.  Refugees from Venezuela are often left with only the clothes on their backs as they escape violence, oppression, and degradation.  The vast majority of them have settled in Latin and North America.  More than 50% have landed in Peru, and close to a quarter are here in the United States trying to navigate the convoluted and expensive asylum process.[1]

       Adding insult to injury, earlier this week, 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers – men, women, and a dozen elementary aged children – were put on airplanes with no indication as to where they were going.  Vulnerable, confused, and afraid, they were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a mostly rural, island community about three hours south of Boston.  Stuck in the middle of an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats, these 48 human beings were nothing more than pawns for politicians as they argue the merits of their own version of immigration reform.  Faced with 48 new residents who arrived unannounced and without much more than a backpack’s worth of belongings, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had a choice to make on Wednesday afternoon.  They could throw up their hands and say, “not our problem.”  They could call on immigration officers to come handle it.  Or, as they did, they could welcome the stranger in their midst, loving their Venezuelan neighbors as themselves.

       According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times[2], at about 5 pm, less than two hours after the flights had landed, the Dukes County Sherriff addressed the asylum seekers.  “We’re going to take care of you,” he said through a translator, “Get all your personal belongings together and then we’ll move… The most important thing is we get you food and shelter and water.”  Their first stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where they were given food, water, and temporary shelter.  Ninety minutes later, school buses rolled out from the high school to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown where they spent two nights.[3]  Edgartown Pizza provided dinner.  Mocha Motts brought coffee.  Local lawyers supplied legal aid, while dentists and doctors offered medical care.  When faced with a people being used as “unrighteous mammon” for political gain, the people of Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard showed compassion, grace, and love, and they proved themselves faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The 150 members of St. Andrew’s were, one might argue, faithful with the little they have while ministering to human beings that others considered to be unrighteous.

       Our Gospel lesson for this morning is probably the most difficult parable Jesus ever told.  In most parables, we can easily figure out the allegorical relationships.  In the parable of the lost sheep, we realize pretty quickly that God is the shepherd and human beings are the sheep, but here, it’s not quite so simple.  God being a greedy master who violated the Torah and charged exorbitant interest on his loans doesn’t quite work.  Jesus as the unrighteous servant who cheated his boss to save his own tail isn’t quite right either.  It’s not real obvious what exactly Jesus wants us to glean from this parable as it is read in isolation this morning.  When we find its place in the larger story, however, things begin to come into focus.  The parable of the shrewd manager comes on the heels of three parables about lost things.  We heard two of them last Sunday.  The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The lectionary skipped over the parable of the prodigal or lost son, and now here we are with this strange story about debt relief.

       I can’t help but wonder if Jesus ended up telling this story because of the bad pun about the Pharisees that Mother Becca told us she grew up learning – “that’s not fair, you see.”  I wonder if the reaction to the three lost stories was the same as the reaction of the elder son to his prodigal brother’s return and his dad throwing a party in response, “it’s just not fair!”  “All this rejoicing at those who were lost, who because of their own bad choices failed and became lost, it just isn’t fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about Narcan saving the lives of those who have overdosed on fentanyl, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who are having a portion of their student loan interest forgiven, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who left everything they knew to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela and ended up in Texas searching for a better life, “it’s not fair.”  Jesus is clear in this crazy parable, life in the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a life in which God has written off the debt of sin that all of us carry.  None of us deserve the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, and that is precisely the point.

       Our response to the illogical and unfair grace of God is what Jesus seems to be getting at in this parable.  We can choose to think that none of this is fair, to hoard grace for ourselves, and to ignore the needs of those around us, but that won’t take us very far in the ridiculous economy of God.  It might make us feel better in this highly individualized, 21st century America, but it won’t carry much weight in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our other choice, the one I think Jesus would have us choose considering this parable, is to realize that none of this is fair and to give away as much grace and mercy as we possibly can – to take every last thing entrusted to our care and to share it with our neighbors, strangers and friends alike.

       It isn’t hard for me to imagine how Christ Church might respond to a situation like the one St. Andrew’s Edgartown found itself in on Wednesday night.  Whether it is Room in the Inn, Churches United HELP Ministry, Wednesday Community Lunch, or hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there’s a lot of stuff we do around here about which some would say “it’s not fair,” but using the resources we have for the betterment of our neighbors is exactly what this congregation has shown itself to be about.  We are, and will continue to be, faithful with what we have been given so that we might be entrusted by God to be faithful with even more.  That we have so much isn’t fair. It is only right that how we use this massive physical plant and our abundant and historical finances should be wildly unfair to the glory of God.  Giving away those things that will pass away is the only way to cling tightly to that which shall endure, eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  Amen.


[1] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit

[2] https://www.mvtimes.com/2022/09/14/migrant-workers-land-vineyard-via-texas/

[3] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/09/16/episcopal-church-on-marthas-vineyard-takes-in-migrants-flown-in-by-surprise/

True Religion

Every year, at about this time, I feel compelled to preach the same sermon I’ve been preaching for fifteen years.  This prayer we pray on Proper 17 always manages to get stuck in my craw.  It is unlike anything else in our Book of Common Prayer.  Specifically, it is the petition that God of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things might increase in us “true religion.”  Every year, I wonder to myself, what exactly does that mean?  What are we praying for?

The word, religion, appears only eight times in the Prayer Book.  Two of those times are in the Rite I and Rite II versions of our Collect for today.  How is it that a word that gets so little airtime in our one-thousand-page statement of faith, can be a central request in a prayer we pray on an annual basis?  What does it mean to ask God for an increase of “true religion”?

       These questions are increasingly important, I believe, in a world that is becoming more and more secular.  According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey on Religion, for the first time since their survey work began, more Americans said that religion had somewhat, little, or no importance in their lives than those who said religion was very important.[1]  Increasingly, religion, specifically Christian religion, carries all kinds of negative connotations.  In March, The Episcopal Church published a study that showed while most Christians see themselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful, a majority of non-religious Americans see us as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  A plurality of those in other religious traditions felt the same.[2]

       It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Christians, no matter their denomination, are failing to shine a positive light on our religion.  In 1549, when Thomas Cranmer was editing this Collect for inclusion in the first Book of Common Prayer, he had similar feelings about the religion of Roman Catholicism.  Rather than translating the original prayer, “increase in us religion,” he added in the word “true” to differentiate what he thought he and the other Reformers were creating from all that had come before.  True religion, as opposed to the impure religion of Rome, was what Cranmer hoped for the Church he would leave behind, but nearly 500 years later, it would seem we still have a long way to go.

       As we seek after true religion, the first question we have to ask is what exactly is religion?  In the year 750, when this Collect was first written, religion connoted “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; …”[3]  The lived experience of love.  Devotion.  Trust.  A way of life.  These are terms that defined religion, or what Thomas Cranmer might call “true religion” in its earliest form.  Nearly thirteen hundred years after this prayer was first written, religion has come to mean something entirely and, I believe, quite unhelpfully different.

       The first definition when you Google religion is “the belief in a worship of a superhuman controlling power,” which bears little resemblance to “lived experience of love, devotion, and trust.”  The late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, comparative religion scholar at McGill and Harvard universities, argued that religion underwent a significant change of meaning following the Reformation.  Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God.  Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” [4]

Unfortunately, the modern understanding of religion is nowhere close to the meaning of religion that the original authors of this prayer had in mind.  If we are going to take our Collect for this week seriously, then how do we begin to reclaim some of that olde time true religion?  Conveniently, our lectionary helps us with the passage from Hebrews.  As the author of Hebrews brought this sermon series to an end, their goal was to leave the congregation with some practical and pastoral advice for living out this life of faith – that is how to be religious – and it all depends on love.  “Let mutual love continue,” the preacher writes, exhorting the congregation to care for one another as if they were members of the same family: showing philadelphia, love like a sibling, to each other by sharing resources, cooperating with each other, and showing compassion and ongoing commitment to our siblings in Christ Jesus.  True religion doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, however, nor does our call to love only include those with whom we share a community of faith. The preacher goes on to admonish the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  That word, translated as hospitality is philonexia or “love of stranger,” and it was a foundational tenant in the religion that developed following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The preacher goes on to describe true religion as that which cares for those in prison and those who are being tortured for their faith.  True religion means maintaining a faithful commitment to one’s spouse if they have one.  True religion means not letting the love of money replace the love of God, love of neighbor, love of sibling, or love of stranger that is our true calling in Christ.  The sermon wraps with these words, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

This morning, our annual ministry fair is happening out in Surface Hall.  Through those doors, you’ll have the chance to hear about much of the good that is being done in the name of Jesus inside and outside of these walls.  Christ Church does a pretty good job of living into the true religion of Hebrews 13, but the hard truth is that none of the programs we do will matter to God if we do not have love underneath it all.  What is most important, at least as far as the preacher of Hebrews and the preacher of this sermon are concerned, is that the motivation for everything we do is love.  The Diocese of Ohio has taken on a slogan that I think sums this true religion thing up quite well.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the world.”  Increase in us true religion, O God, and teach us to love you, love our neighbors, love the stranger, and change the world.  Amen.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/pf_12-14-21_npors_0_4/

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/jesus-in-america/

[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

[4] Ibid.

Jesus came to bring fire

       Just after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, near the Thames in London’s Old City.  As was the model in early Modern Europe, neighbors worked to put out the fire while they waited for parish constables to coordinate the firefighting effort.  After about an hour, constables arrived and determined that neighboring houses needed to be demolished to provide a fire break as the Old City was infamous for overcrowded, timber-built tenement houses that crept closer and closer to one another, making a rapidly spreading fire a constant and realistic fear.  As you might imagine, the people who lived in the houses ordered to be demolished weren’t too keen on the idea.  As they protested, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London was summoned to settle the dispute.  An inept and inexperienced politician, Bloodworth couldn’t make the necessary decisions, and fueled by wind, wood, and the occasional gunpowder stockpile, the fire spread, and spread, and spread.  By the time it was finally controlled on the morning of Wednesday, September 5th, the fire had destroyed some thirteen thousand homes, 86 parish churches, dozens of civic buildings, and the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.

       Fire is an interesting thing.  One could argue that humanity’s ability to control fire is the greatest achievement of all time.  By controlling fire, we developed the ability to cook food.  This led to great advancements in life expectancy as food borne illnesses no longer threatened human beings in the same way it had for all of human history.  By controlling fire, we were able to make light at night, forever changing how the world worked.  By controlling fire, we were able to smelt ore and create stronger tools.  By controlling fire, the internal combustion engine was created, making travel around the world possible.  Of course, uncontrolled fire is still one of the most dangerous things on the planet.  In 2019, there were approximately 1.3 million fires in the US, killing more than thirty-seven hundred people, injuring another sixteen thousand, and causing nearly fifteen billion dollars in damage.  Even controlled fire has its dangers.  Controlled fire used to light tobacco kills roughly seven million people around the globe every year.  The controlled use of uncontrolled fire by way of guns, bombs, and other weapons accounts for an unimaginably staggering level of loss as well.

When we think of fire, we tend to think of its destructive power first and foremost, which sets this morning’s Gospel lesson off on the wrong foot.  Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  What are we supposed to do with that, Jesus?  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of this passage isn’t particularly easy to deal with, but with all the negative attributes of fire, thinking of Jesus as one who came to bring destruction is a real challenge.  With Mother Becca’s sermon image of the Leon Cathedral in mind, I couldn’t help but read this Gospel passage and immediately think of the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Great London Fire of 1666, even as it also brought to mind the apartment fire a friend of ours had nearly 20 years ago that caused her great anxiety and grief for years after.

Despite our fixation on fire’s destructive qualities, the reality is that, just like in life, fire in the Bible carries with it both good and bad connotations.  The prophet Micah compares God’s grace to a refiner’s fire, used to burn off impurities and bring forth a more perfect finished product.  In Genesis, God gets Moses’ attention by appearing to him as a bush that is burning but not consumed.  All throughout the Old Testament, fire is used to offer sacrifices to God.  There are a lot of good uses of fire in Scripture.  It is also true that fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah for their abominable lack of hospitality to the stranger.  In his letter, James compares the evil power of the tongue to a fire set by hell itself.  It would seem that in the bible, fire isn’t seen as inherently good or bad, but rather it depends on how it is used.  So, when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” it could mean that he has come to bring judgment and destruction, or perhaps it means that he has come to bring purification and renewal.

How we see the fire Jesus came to bring is all a matter of perspective.  When we hold on too tightly to our own self-interests, our own wealth, and our own security, the fire that Jesus brings will seem destructive as it separates us from the idols that have replaced God in our lives.  These things are hard to give up, and the loss of them, while in the long run good for us, is a very painful process.  On the other hand, when we are seeking after the Kingdom of Heaven, actively searching for ways to develop a close relationship with God, the fire that Jesus brings can be seen as a gift, as it clears away that which holds us back, and helps us grow more fully into who God created us to be.  This is the good news in an otherwise difficult passage.  Jesus came to bring fire that will renew, refine, and restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, if we are able to let go of all that needs to be burned away in the process.

In the aftermath of the Great London Fire, Sir Christopher Wren showed himself to be one of the greatest architects in English history.  Wren, who had been working to renovate St. Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the Great Fire, was responsible for rebuilding 52 of the 86 churches destroyed in the fire, as well as the redesign St. Paul’s.  The old, 11th century Gothic building now destroyed, Wren designed a brand-new, Baroque style cathedral that to this day, holds one of the tallest and most magnificent dome structures in the world.  The great edifice, built of Portland Limestone, was consecrated only 31 years and 3 months after the Great Fire, an enormous undertaking for the time.  Legend has it that early in the construction process, Wren was wandering around the site on Ludgate Hill talking to the craftsman on site.  He found three stone masons working on a scaffold, and called up to the first and asked, “What are you doing?”  The first mason responded, “I’m a stone mason. I’m working hard laying stone to feed my family.”  To the second, Wren asked, “And you, what are you doing?”  “I’m a builder, I’m building a wall,” he replied.  Finally, Wren asked the third mason, “What about you, what are you doing?”  “Me?” the man answered, “I’m blessed to be doing the great work of building a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God.”

       What are you building?  Is your life’s work a series of blocks, stacked upon each other, in the name of your own self-interests?  The fire that Jesus came to bring will burn all that self-centered stuff away.  There will be no joy in it.  There will be nothing left to look upon with pride.  If, however, you are working to build a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God, then the fire will be used in productive ways, helping to build the Kingdom in and through you.  Jesus came to bring fire.  Whether it is controlled and beneficial or uncontrolled and destructive, well, that all depends on us.  Amen.

Martha/Mary Both/And

       Every occupation has its own set of terminology.  For some, like the military, it is a whole host of acronyms.  ACC isn’t a college athletics conference with a bad tv contract, but Air Combat Command.  For others, it is a series of abbreviations.  In the printing industry, a sig isn’t short for something you smoke on a 15 minute break, but rather a signature, the basic unit of binding.  Still others have to understand measurements that the average person doesn’t.  I may have spent two years working for a heavy construction company, but I still have no idea how much a yard of dirt is.  Even in ministry, we have lots of terms that are rarely used elsewhere.  Two of my favorites are Greek words that we have incorporated into English.  One is a hapax legomenon, which is a word that appears only once in the original language of the Bible.  The other, adiaphora, means “things indifferent” and is used to describe the parts of theology that we can disagree on without impacting the core of Christianity.  That Jesus is the Son of God is vital.  Whether or not we have candles on the altar is adiaphora.

Part of going to seminary was learning a wide variety of these words and phrases.  Most of ministry thereafter is breaking the habit of using them.  For those of us who went to Episcopal seminaries, there are several words and phrases that, while very popular in the classroom, we thankfully rarely use in real life ministry.  “Let me push back on that,” was a popular retort that if used in a clergy meeting today, would likely get you an audible eyeroll from the group.  The worst offender must be “It’s not really an either/or, it’s more of a both/and.”  I could feel my blood pressure rise when I heard someone say that in class.  To this day, it makes my shoulders hurt just to think about it.

And yet, here this morning, I’m going to suggest that the key to understanding the story of Martha and Mary is to embrace the both/and.  So often, this well-known story gets boiled down to a competition between two sisters with Mary as the winner.  I mean, Jesus said “Mary has chosen the better part,” clearly, she wins, but what if it wasn’t a competition.  What if we stopped pitting women against each other to keep them from standing up against the injustices of sexism in the church and admitted that neither Mary nor Martha actually did anything wrong in this story.  Or, maybe, they were both actually wrong, and that is precisely the point.  Jesus didn’t come to condemn either Mary or Martha, but to save both Martha and Mary, and you and me.

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus and his disciples arriving in a village where they were welcomed by a woman named Martha.  Context clues tell us that this Martha and her sister, Mary, are the siblings of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead in John’s Gospel.  In this story, however, there is no mention of Lazarus.  Curiously enough, there is no mention of any man by name.  The home Jesus and his disciples enter doesn’t belong to Lazarus or to Martha’s husband, but to Martha.  This would have been highly uncommon in the first century.  It assumes that Martha is a widow and a woman of means.  As was her cultural obligation, Martha sets to work offering hospitality to her guests.  She would have drawn water so that they could wash their feet.  Next, she’d bring wine to drink while the bread began to bake.  In the kitchen, maybe she was whipping up some hummus or pitting olives as she tried to hear the lesson Jesus was sharing in the living room where her sister, Mary, was just sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha’s frustration grew and grew, until Luke tells us she became completely distracted by her anger at her sister.  What started out with good intentions of welcoming guests had become a burden that hampered relationship.

Mary, for her part, was violating all kinds of social norms.  Women, not just the woman of the house, would have been expected to help prepare the food and serve the men.  Only once all the work of hospitality was complete would they join the men.  Mary didn’t do any of that.  Instead, Luke tells us she sat at the feet of Jesus.  To use a phrase my mother taught me, Mary had her head so far up in the clouds, she was no earthly good.  It’s no wonder that Martha got frustrated.  Things were supposed to work a certain way, and Mary wasn’t living up to her part of the deal.  So, Martha went to Jesus and protested both her sister and her teacher.  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Jesus could see beyond the surface and knew that what Martha was feeling wasn’t simply distraction, but in fact, a storm was raging inside her soul.  “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said in what I imagine to be a soothing and compassionate tone, “you are worried and stirred up by many things.”  Jesus could see that Martha’s work of hospitality had become an obligation and a burden.  He knew what she really needed was for task not to simply be work, but a ministry in response to the love of God.  She needed to rest and recharge at the feet of Jesus.  In saying that Mary had chosen “the better part,” Jesus isn’t prioritizing study over work.  Instead, Jesus is inviting Martha into a both/and way of thinking.

We are all called to welcome guests and serve the coffee, just as we are all called to rest in God’s love and learn from Word of God.  Nearly five years ago, the Vestry of Christ Church spent a weekend at All Saint’s Camp discerning our mission.  The culmination of that weekend was the mission statement that you hear at least every Sunday, and probably see more often than that.  It’s time for another round of discernment, but I still think there is a lot for us to glean from these carefully chosen words.  Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to: worship God with joy and wonder; learn and grow together; and radiate God’s love to all.  Our mission is, at the very least, a both/and statement.  We take seriously the work of Mary as we find ways to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn how we are to live out this life of faith, and then, as a natural outlet of that learning, we follow the example of Martha and radiate God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  Learn and serve.  These are not competitors in some zero-sum game of faith.  They are dance partners in this journey that help nurture and sustain us for the work to which we are called.  Learn and serve.  Mary and Martha.  Both/And.  Amen.

It’s not the Kingdom of God, It’s the How

       I inherited the job of Chair of the Diocese of Kentucky’s General Convention deputation when Dean Matt had to step away due to the birth of his second child.  Until this role, I’d never met a gathering I didn’t want to be the chair of, but I’m here to tell you, I’d gladly give this one away.  Tracking down flight details, managing hotel reservations and per diem checks, and coordinating Zoom meetings across time zones is like herding cats.  By far, the most challenging part has been planning our deputation dinner.  As a natural introvert, I’m way better at planning dinner for one, than dinner for ten.  I’m making it happen though.

I grew up with a sister who has been a vegetarian since she was ten, and gluten allergies are all over my family, so one question I know to always ask is whether anyone has any dietary needs.  In our deputation, we’ve got a vegan, a vegetarian, a non-dairy non-egg non-fried food person, and one individual who prefers “non-mammalian meat.”  I was recounting this juggling act with a friend of mine who is a nationally renowned speaker on the intersection of food and faith.  We talked about how, in addition to the unique set of intestinal cards each of us is dealt in life, we all have to make our own ethical decisions on what kinds of foods we will eat.  Some avoid red meat because of concerns of water usage.  Some won’t eat eggs because of the conditions in which the chickens live.  Some will only eat locally sourced meats because they know the farmers and how the animals are treated.  “It’s not the cow,” she said to me, “it’s the how.”  Which is one of the most amazing sentences I’ve ever heard.

“It’s not the cow, it’s the how” works so well because of its meter and rhyme, but there are other iterations of it that, while they aren’t nearly as catchy, certainly could have merit.  I’d like to suggest one that is pertinent to our Gospel lesson this morning, “It’s not the Kingdom of God, It’s the how.” If I insert some Greek that I mispronounce, I can even make it rhyme.  “It’s not the basselia tou theou, it’s the how.”  While not nearly as fluid, it works as Jesus commissions the 70 to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near.”  Last Sunday, we began a summer-long walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  As Luke nine came to an end, the author tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  For the next 18 Sundays, we will hear stories from portions of that journey.  This morning, we hear of the prep work that went into the trip.  Jesus sent 70 of his closest disciples ahead of him to determine which cities and towns might be receptive to his message.

To test a community’s receptivity, Jesus gives the disciples a simple trick, “First say, ‘Peace to this house!’  If anyone shares in peace, it will rest on them, but if not, it will return to you.”  In the places where peace is shared, Jesus tells them to stay, eat, drink heal the sick, and proclaim “The Kingdom of God has come near.”  If peace is not shared, and the disciples are not welcomed in a place, Jesus tells them to go out into the street and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you.”  It is worth pausing here for a moment because most of us probably don’t think of this as the “wipe the dust off your feet” passage, but rather the “shake the dust off your feet” one.

I dug into the Greek a bit this week, and the word translated here as “wipe off in protest” is long and I can’t pronounce it, but its meaning is somehow even more in your face: to smear, scrape away, or wipe off.  Think of it less like dust and more like wet red clay or fresh cow manure that clings to the bottom of your shoe.  To wipe this away requires something more than a simple swipe of the foot on the ground.  To get this all off your feet you’ll need to use considerable effort as scrub it in the grass, along a boot scraper, and maybe even get some help from a nearby hose.  It is an aggressive act.  One meant to make sure everybody knows that the disciples are rejecting every part of their community’s lack of welcome.  And yet, once they have scraped the ick off the bottom of their sandals, Jesus says, “tell them too, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’”  It is interesting to me that the same message is given to those who wish to receive it and those who don’t.  The arrival of the Kingdom of God is not dependent on whether it is received into the community, but it’s impact most certainly is.  It’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how.

It seems to me that it is human nature to be reticent to welcome in the Kingdom of God.  The presence of God’s kingdom is like one of those old school makeup mirrors some folks have in their bathrooms.  It both shines a bright light upon and magnifies all our imperfections, such that we would much prefer to cover them up than face their reality.  The Kingdom of God shines its light on our sinfulness, and sin doesn’t go down without a fight.  It is no wonder, then, that so many communities along the way from Galilee to Jerusalem were hesitant to share in the peace of God.  It is no wonder that so many communities of faith in our world today feel the same way.  We like benefits that come with following Jesus, but not the costs.  We like the grace, not the conviction.

It is going to be a long summer as we journey with Jesus to the Jerusalem.  We’ll hear all sorts of stories of him being welcomed and him being rejected.  We’ll be invited to consider for ourselves where we are willing to invite Christ to change us, and where we’d rather he not step into the muck of our lives, lest he have to scrape it off his sandal.  Sure, we all like to think we’d welcome the Kingdom of God in theory, but it’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how, and how requires a willingness for us to be challenged and changed.  Challenged to be open to God’s call to leave our sins behind.  Changed into people who are more compassionate, more loving, and more grace filled.  These changes don’t happen overnight.  They are minute by minute, incremental changes that we prayed for in our collect for today, that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we might be more and more devoted to God’s will with our whole heart, so that we might be more and more united to one another in pure affection.  If it’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how, then, dear friends, how is the Kingdom of God at work in your life today?  Amen.

Baptized and Set Free

       This week, on the calendar of saints in The Episcopal Church, we remembered St. Alban.  Alban is the first British Christian that we know by name.  While we do not know when Alban was born or even when we died, we know the story of how he died quite well.  It is believed that Alban was a Roman soldier stationed about 20 miles northeast of London.  A persecution of Christians broke out across the Roman Empire sometime during the early to mid-third century, making its way from the Continent to the British Islands.  One day, a Christian priest found himself at the door of a Roman Solider named Alban, desperate for safe lodging.  No one knows why Alban welcomed the priest into his house, but this priest made an impact on Alban.  After several days of watching the priest pray and give thanks, Alban was moved by his faith and became a Christian.

       Eventually, word that the priest was holed up at Alban’s home made its way to the prince in the area and a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest him.  Quickly, Alban hid the priest, took the priest’s clothing, and presented himself instead.  Alban was taken before a judge who was standing at an altar making sacrifices to pagan gods.  The judge turned around and asked Alban, “What is your family and race?”  Alban replied, “How does my family concern you?  If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”  “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge, “Tell me at once.”  “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”

       The judge was enraged by Alban’s confident faith and, having figured out that he wasn’t the priest they had been looking for, sentenced him to the full torture and execution that the priest would have received.  He was scourged and, when he still wouldn’t renounce his faith, sent to be beheaded.  According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban was led to his death by several executioners.  They came to the river Ver, which was too fast flowing to cross on foot, and the bridge was clogged up and made impassable by a mob of townspeople.  Alban, wishing to “do his Christian duty” and be martyred, raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, so that they could cross over on dry land.  The first executioner was so astonished by this miracle, that he threw down his sword and asked to be executed instead of or alongside Alban.  While the other executioners figured out what to do next, Alban went 500 paces up a gentle hill, covered in thousands of beautiful wildflowers, and awaited his fate.  He became thirsty and asked God to provide him a drink, which caused a spring to erupt from beneath his feet, and after he drank, he was beheaded alongside his first executioner.  In less than a week, Alban went from a pledged persecutor of the Christian faith to the first Christian martyr in Britain.  It is clear from Bede’s recounting of Alban’s story that he had fully been set free in Christ, and feared nothing, not even death, for the cause of Jesus Christ.

       I tell you this story, not because I think any one of us are going to be called to martyrdom anytime soon, but because I think it is the epitome of what Saint Paul was writing about in our lesson from Galatians this morning.  We who follow Jesus have been set free, not so that we could fall back into bondage to fear and sin and death, but so that we might use that freedom in Christ as an empowering force to work for the betterment of our world in the pursuit of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  This morning, we will welcome into that freedom little Zara Veletanlic through her baptism into Christ’s Body, the Church.  In so doing, on behalf of this congregation and the Church universal, I will pray that she experiences the fullness of her freedom in Jesus with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage of Saint Alban to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

       It is important for us not just to pray this prayer on behalf of Zara, but to remember that this is a prayer for all baptized Christians.  While in sermons on baptismal Sundays, I often focus on the Baptismal Covenant as our calling to ministry, with this lesson from Galatians in our lectionary for today, with Alban on my mind, and with the growing sense of fear in our nation around gun violence, inequitable access to healthcare, and the threat of the loss of basic civil rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, I’m convinced that this prayer for the courage of Alban is more important than ever.  In baptism, we have been set free in Christ Jesus to love our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us.  This means following the example of Blessed Alban in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, no matter the cost.  It means speaking out on behalf of those who are forced back into the yoke of slavery to fear because of who they have been made to be in the image of God.  It means, as Mother Becca reminds us in the blessing she so often uses, that we make no peace with oppression – in our community, our state, our nation, or in the wider world.

       How do you do that in a world so defined by fear and self-preservation?  Jump with me, if you will, to the end of the Galatians lesson for this morning.  After Zara is baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will anoint her with oil, and declare, on behalf of God, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  In so doing, we believe that Zara receives the Holy Spirit who will lead her as an advocate and guide for the rest of her days.  That same Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is exemplified in the life every disciple by producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Simply put, when we are living into the post-baptismal prayer, living into the freedom that comes from Christ, the fruit of the Spirit are present in our lives.  When those fruit are not, it is most likely that we have fallen back into the yoke of slavery to sin, fear, or corruption.  What fear has you in bondage, holding you back from loving your neighbor as yourself?  What is keeping you from embracing the courage of Saint Alban to follow Jesus no matter the cost?  In baptism, we have all been set free in Christ.  Be careful, dear friends, not to fall back into slavery to fear, but be led by the Spirit into hope, joy, and love.  Amen.

Strapping into the Trinity

Several years ago, Cassie and I joined her family on a vacation to Cocoa Beach, Florida.  At the time, her dad was considering buying and building an aerobatic biplane kit from a company that happened to be located twenty minutes south of our condo.  So, one morning Doug and I made the trip south to see the factory and take a tour.  It was a really cool couple of hours.  The owner of the factory took us around to learn all ABOUT the aircraft.  We saw the first ever prototype, and the CNC Machine that cut out the thousands upon thousands of struts, ribs, and connecting pieces that make up the kit.  We saw planes in various stages of construction and learned all ABOUT what made that aerobatic biplane special.  We learned ABOUT the engine that is made for a plane three or four times as heavy.  We learned ABOUT the wings, which unlike a regular plane wing that is curved only on the top to provide lift, is curved on both top and bottom so that the plane doesn’t care whether you are flying it right-side up or upside down.  I left that two-hour tour knowing a whole lot ABOUT this biplane.

The next day, we headed to the airport where their professional test pilot was going to give my father-in-law a test flight in their trainer.  I watched them from the ground, and after he was done, Doug told me all ABOUT the aileron rolls, barrel rolls, flips, and tricks they had done.  And then, something very unexpected happened, the pilot asked if I might like to go up.  I thought for about 2 milliseconds and said “yes.”  As he helped me put the five-point harness on, the test pilot said something to me that I will never forget, “if anything goes wrong, this is your ripcord, pull it.”  I quickly realized that it didn’t matter how much I knew ABOUT this particular aircraft because I was going to get to know it, intimately.

And boy howdy did I get to know that airplane.  We spun and flipped and spiraled so much that morning that it scrambled my equilibrium for a couple of years.

There is a tendency on Trinity Sunday to do a lot of talking ABOUT the doctrine and dogma of the Trinity.  Sermons ABOUT how the various points of doctrine were ironed out to make the Nicene Creed will be prevalent.  Various ways of thinking ABOUT our Triune God will be explored, and heresies will abound.  God will be described as water: ice, liquid, and steam; God as star: light, heat, and radiation; God as modes: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  There is, without a doubt, a whole lot of talk going on this morning helping people know more ABOUT the Triune God that we, as Christians, profess to follow, and that is a good thing, but all the many ways we can concoct to talk ABOUT God will leave us feeling a little empty.  Quite frankly, we could talk ABOUT, write ABOUT, and read ABOUT God for the rest of our days and still not cover all that there is to cover.  More importantly, even if we could know everything there is to know ABOUT God, it still pales in comparison to knowing God.  And so, I believe that Trinity Sunday is celebrated each year, not to help us come to know and understand more ABOUT God, but instead, to call us into a deeper relationship with the Triune God who meets us and makes themself known to us, as Father, the one who creates, as Son, the one who redeems, and as Holy Spirit, the one who guides, protects, and sanctifies.  So, the question this morning is not, how much do you know ABOUT God, but simply do you know God?

I think this is what Jesus is getting at with his disciples in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  We’re back in the upper room on the night before Jesus died.  He has already had dinner with them – broken bread and shared the cup.  He has already washed their feet.  Judas has already left the room, and Jesus has already given them the new commandment, that they love one another.  At this point in Jesus’ long farewell to his disciples, he has told them everything ABOUT what is coming next, but, he says, there is more, and you can’t bear it yet.  At some point, it becomes impossible to continue to learn more ABOUT something, and you just have to experience it.  For the disciples, the next 72 hours are going to be a whirlwind of heartache, fear, confusion, and hope, and no matter how many times Jesus describes for them his death and resurrection, until they see it for themselves, or, for Thomas, until he touches Jesus’ wounds and puts his hand in his side, they just won’t be able to comprehend it.

Some two-thousand years later, we’re on the other side of the disciple’s conundrum.  They hadn’t experienced death and resurrection yet, so they couldn’t bear it.  We’re so far removed from Jesus’ time and place, that we can barely bear it ourselves, and so, we rely on the Holy Spirit, whom we met in great detail last week on the Day of Pentecost, to lead us into all truth.  It is through the guiding of the Spirit that we can experience the things about God which we simply cannot learn through sermons, Bible studies, and theology books.  It is through the Spirit of truth that we come to know the love of God, rather than ABOUT the love of God.  It is also through the Spirit of truth that we are able to share, not just ABOUT the love of God, but to help others experience the abundant love of God in a world that desperately needs it.

I spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning with Bishop White and Canon Coultas as we toured the tornado’s path and met with community leaders.  I’ve talked with them dozens of times since December 11th, but until they were able to see it firsthand, they only knew ABOUT the devastation, now they have experienced it.  They were also able to experience in real-life terms, the amazing work being done by Habitat for Humanity, HOTEL INC, city leadership, the Long Term Recovery Group, and Christ Episcopal Church to help build hope on our community.  In those ten hours we spent together, they saw the love of God as it has been lived out over and over again in our community since the storm.  As they got ready to leave, they shared with me just how much they appreciate seeing God at work here, knowing that it is our faith in the Triune God of love that sustains us for this long and difficult work.

On Trinity Sunday, we are invited to strap into the aerobatic biplane that is the life of faith, to trust that the parachute will catch us should we need it, and to follow the Spirit out into the world to help others experience the love, grace, and mercy of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and to know, experience, and share the wonderful works of God.  Amen.

The Scandal of Particularity

       I graduated from seminary fifteen years ago last month, which is really hard to believe.  Some days, it feels like a month ago; others, it feels like fifty years.  The hard truth of being fifteen years out of seminary is that I don’t really remember much of what I learned.  Between two kids, two jobs, the BP oil spill, a two-year pandemic, and the December 11th tornadoes, I’m lucky to know my name most days.  Still, there are a few things that have remained stuck in the cobwebs of my mind.  One of them came floating back to the forefront of my thoughts this week as I prayed through the Acts lesson preparing to preach.  It is called the Scandal of Particularity.  This is the notion of the absurdity that God would choose to enter humanity as a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time, among a particular culture.  That the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as a Jewish male, in first century Palestine, born to working class parents from a backwater town is, in many ways, a scandalous idea as it puts so many limitations on the God of the universe that it is nearly impossible to believe.

       Yet, we do believe it.  We believe it because Jesus claimed it.  Even when pressed by Philip to just show us the Father, Jesus says, with all the confidence of God in flesh, that if you have seen him, this shaggy bearded, rough handed, occasionally grumpy, wandering rabbi, you have seen the Father.  That’s all well and good, but the further you get, in both space and time, from Jesus and his disciples, the harder it is to wrap your head around this very particular person actually being God incarnate.  That’s why, forty days after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, his disciples pressed him even further.  “Lord, now that you have been raised from the dead, now that you’ve made your resurrected body known to many who already believed in you, now that you’ve escaped time and space only to return to it again, is now the time when you will finally restore the kingdom to Israel and set everything right?”  The disciples want to know, definitively, when all this particularity is going to go universal.  When will the heavens open and God’s reign finally be known upon the whole earth?

       What happens next, however, is more of the same.  The heavens are opened, but instead of God coming down to earth to fix everything humanity had messed up, Jesus is lifted up and seated at God’s right hand.  Like it was on Good Friday, the disciples are once again left alone to figure out how what they learned from Jesus is going to change the world.  Jesus had told them to wait, that someone else was coming who would empower them to take the Good News and share it beyond the particularity of Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and, ultimately, the ends of the earth.  For ten days they waited, they gathered in prayer, and they wondered, “what next?”  In the meantime, the city of Jerusalem began to swell with tourists.  Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of the Jewish faithful came to celebrate the Pentecost Festival, an annual remembrance of the giving of the Law to Moses by the offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God at the Temple.

       The very ethnically Jewish city teemed with people from all kinds of different cultures.  Since the exile by the Assyrians in 733 BCE and exacerbated by the Babylonian exile in 597 and Roman occupation in 63 BCE, the Jewish diaspora had led to Hebrews living all over the known world.  They had intermarried, learned different languages, and settled into new cultures, even as they remained faithful to the Jewish traditions and festivals.  So it was that on the Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover, faithful Jewish Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontins, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs were all in the holy city of Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and caused the Good News of God in Christ to move beyond its original, particular audience, to be heard by the whole world.

       The Spirit arrived with wind and flame, filling the house in which the disciples were holed up, and alighting on each of them, filling them to overflowing with the Holy Spirit: Advocate and Guide.   They began to speak, each in a language foreign to them, and tell the Good News.  What’s so awesome about this story is that even as the Church grew from 120 to thousands in a few hours, God’s affinity for the particularity of humanity never went away.  God didn’t make it such that everyone miraculously learned to understand Hebrew in order to join the Way of Jesus, but rather, God made the disciples each to speak the particular language of those gathered in the city to offer sacrifices.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles spoke across lines that have divided humanity forever: language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and politics, while never asking anyone to give up who they were as human beings to follow Jesus.

       That’s not to say that following Jesus won’t change us.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way.  Following Jesus will require sacrifices as we listen for the Spirit’s guiding, seek to love our neighbors, and grow in compassion.  Following Jesus will not cause us to give up who we are as human beings, however.  Straight or gay.  Trans or cis gender.  Black, white, Hispanic, Arab, or Asian.  UK, UofL, or meet and right Bama fan.  The particularities of who you are in the fullness of being made in the image of God is welcome into the Body of Christ on Pentecost Day.  What’s more, God doesn’t just welcome each of us into the fold but goes so far as to invite us in the particular language and idioms with which we are most comfortable.  The Body of Christ truly is open to all flesh.

       As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and enter the long season to follow, I invite you to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you?  Amidst the particularities of your own life, where is the Spirit inviting you to change and grow?  Whom is the Spirit asking you to know and to love?  What is the new thing that God is up to in your life and in the life of this particular community of faith called Christ Episcopal Church?  Listen carefully and hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.  Amen.

The Good Shepherd

I’d like to begin this morning with a short meditation exercise.  It is not something I do very often, so I hope you’ll indulge me a little.

Find a comfortable posture.

Make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor.

Close your eyes.

Become aware of your breath.

As you breathe in, feel your lungs expand.

As you breathe out, notice your chest easing down.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Now, bring to your mind’s eye, if you can, Jesus.

Allow him to stand before you.

Gaze upon his appearance.

There’s no need to say anything.

Just sit in the presence of Jesus.

Now, allow Jesus to leave.

On to his next encounter.

Grateful for the time you spent together.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Amen.

I wonder what Jesus looked like to you.  Was he a carpenter, complete with rough hands, and sawdust in his beard?  Was he on the lakeshore, cooking up a fish breakfast for his friends?  Was he standing in a natural amphitheater, offering a word of hope to the crowd?  If you pictured Jesus as a pink bear with hearts on his stomach, you are a child of the 80s and have conflated Jesus with love-a-lot bear from the Care Bears, and I think that’s probably ok. I think our primary image of Jesus says a lot about the kind of faith we have.  Jesus as a carpenter infers a very incarnational faith, one focused on the humanity of Jesus and what he came to teach us about how life in the Kingdom is to be lived.  Jesus the chef is the Jesus of compassion who cares deeply for his friends and shows us what it means to love our neighbors.  Jesus the teacher is probably a favorite among Mainline Christians, he is the one who came to earth to bring about change and to teach us how to be reunited with God.

The image of Jesus that has spoken to me of late is the same Jesus I preached about back in 2018, which is the image right up above me, Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Over the years and thanks to our lectionary cycle, it seems as though the image of God and/or Jesus as a loving shepherd seems to show up exactly when I need it.  Just a little over nine years ago, our nation was being held on the edge of our collective seats in the aftermath of the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing.  For four days, we eagerly awaited as law enforcement sought the suspects.  We watched the video of that backpack casually being set down time and time again.  We were all on edge.  I remember opening the same lessons we have for this week and being so very grateful for the Good Shepherd to arrive on my computer screen.  I needed Jesus to pick me up and carry me, for I knew I didn’t have the strength to find green pastures on my own.

My attention then, as now, was drawn especially to the 23rd Psalm.  Some of us prayed this psalm together just a couple of days ago as we stood with our friend Carroll and mourned as he buried his son, Hal.  Psalm 23 is closely associated with death, especially in the very familiar King James translation.  Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that it is actually a song of praise.  Listen to it with fresh ears from a different translation, the Contemporary English Version.

You, Lord, are my shepherd.
    I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields
    of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,
and you lead me
    along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
and your shepherd’s rod
    makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast,
    while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup
    until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
    each day of my life,
and I will live forever
    in your house, Lord.

“You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.”  Our God is a God of abundance.  God’s blessings are poured out upon us as both sunshine and rain.  The gifts of God include the very breath of life, the miracle of birth, the joy of relationship, and the hope of the resurrection.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who lays down their own life for all sheep.

“You let me rest in fields of green grass.  You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.”  Here’s the crux of Jesus’ message in our Gospel lesson today.  As followers of the Good Shepherd, we hear his voice and follow him to eternal life, or what our Catechism calls, “enjoyment of God.”  Of course, we need not wait until the great by and by to enjoy eternal life.  The Psalmist, Jesus, and two-thousand years of Christian tradition are clear that eternal life happens when we allow God to refresh, restore, and renew our lives today.

“You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.  I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.  You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.”  There is, perhaps, no stronger a statement of faith in all of Scripture than this famous section of Psalm 23.  There is no inherent promise that evil will not befall us.  Accidents will happen.  Bad people will do bad things.  Illness knows no prejudice.  Thanks to a complicated tax code, death is the only true certainty in life.  However, amid all the challenges that life can bring, God is right there with us. Abiding. Comforting. Sympathizing. God is there. This is a helpful reminder today as the last two years have left us all somewhere in the dark valley.  God is there.  God is here.

“You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch.  You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.  Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house.”  Psalm 23 ends with the Psalmist bringing us back to pondering the overwhelming abundance of God.  A feast has been laid out before us, and the invitation is open to all.  After more than a year without sharing the Eucharist, I know that I will never take the opportunity to join in God’s feast for granted. As we approach the altar and receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, it is helpful to offer thanks for the eternal promises of God’s goodness.

Psalm 23 is one of those amazing gifts that transcend time.  Like the Lord’s Prayer or the Golden Rule, we know it by heart because it is forever etched in our souls.  When times get tough, as they seem to so often, it is helpful to have things we can easily fall back on.  So today, I’m thankful for Good Shepherd Sunday, for the comfortable image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb, for the promise of the heavenly banquet, and the assurance of eternal life starting right now.  Surely, God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  Amen.

Believe like Mary

       One of the greatest gifts of serving a congregation with multiple clergy is that I don’t have to preach both of the big sermons every year.  Becca and I have the luxury of alternating Christmas and Easter, which gives us a couple of years between tackling the well-worn stories that we all know and love.  Still, every time my name does come up to preach one of the two biggies, I stress about it.  Big time.  I want to say something new, something brilliant, something that brings you all back next week.  Of course, it isn’t all about me, and after 2,000 years of sermons on the Incarnation and Resurrection, there isn’t much left that hasn’t already been said.  So it was, with great joy, that I read through my go-to sermon prep resources and found something I had never seen before.

       It was in a commentary published by Alicia Myers, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School.  Published in April of 2020, I had far too many things on my plate to read any commentaries that Easter, and so I’m two years late to this party.[1]  In her post over at Working Preacher, Professor Myers rehashes the various experiences of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved each had.

       Mary was the first to arrive.  Having violated the Sabbath laws by walking such a great distance before sunrise on Sunday morning, Mary found the stone rolled away and immediately assumed that someone had stolen the body of her friend and Rabbi.  John doesn’t say that she even took a second to look inside.  Instead, Mary did what any sensible human being would do, she took off running for help.  She went to find the two people who were closest to Jesus – Simon Peter and the aptly described, Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.  Breathless, she told them what she assumed to be true, “Someone has taken the Lord.”  Just as Mary had done, they started running.

       Some scholars believe that the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved was John simply because the Gospel that bears his name has him winning the race back to the tomb.  Whoever he is, upon reaching the tomb, he looked in and saw the burial clothes empty. Quickly,  the more impetuous Simon Peter flew through the opening in the rock and stood, shocked, by what he saw.  Crumpled up linens in one corner, the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ face nicely folded up in another, and not a sign of Jesus anywhere to be found.  The other Disciple finally entered, saw the same scene, and John says, “he believed.”

For as long as I’ve been hearing John’s Easter story, I have assumed this meant that in that moment, this Disciple suddenly remembered everything that Jesus had told them.  How, on at least three different occasions, Jesus had told them that he would die and rise again.  How, on that mountain where Jesus was transfigured, Elijah and Moses talked with him about the plan of salvation.  How Jesus had promised to go and prepare a place for them so that he might take them to his Father’s many mansions.  I have always thought that finally, in that empty tomb, everything made sense, and the disciple believed that Jesus was the Messiah, who died and rose again.

Here comes Professor Myers, who points out what actually happens next, a portion of the text that I apparently never hear.  John says, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.”  *Mind Blown* They didn’t get it.  What the Disciple believed wasn’t that Jesus had risen from the dead.  No, he didn’t understand that yet.  Instead, he believed what Mary believed, that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, and totally unsure of what to do next, he just went home.  To sulk.  To mourn.  To worry.  To pray.

This response makes a ton of sense, of course.  Dead people don’t come back to life.  Dead people stay dead, and so, when they are famous, or infamous, as the case may be, and their body disappears, the first assumption probably isn’t, *snaps fingers* Resurrection.  The first thought is, logically, “Well, that stinks.  Somebody stole his body.  Let’s go home and figure out what to do next.”  For the first time ever, I finally see what is really happening in this story, and I’m flabbergasted.  Maybe you are too.

One person does stick around, however.  Mary is too shaken to just go home.  Stuck between grief and anger, Mary stands at the entrance of the tomb and does the other logical thing, she weeps.  As she wept, she took her first look inside the tomb and saw, not the crumpled up grave clothes, but two angels, who asked her why she’s crying.  “Someone took my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she replies, still fully convinced that her dead Rabbi is still dead.  She turns around, sees a man she assumes to be the gardener, and answers his question in a similar fashion, “If you took him, please tell me where he is.”

It isn’t until she hears her name, “Mary,” that Mary Magdalene has the epiphany that I’ve always assumed that other Disciple had.  In an instant, she realizes the miracle that has happened.  Her friend, her Rabbi, her Lord has been raised from the dead.  Mary no longer believes that his body has been stolen.  She now believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  Before she knows it, Mary is being commissioned as the Apostle to the Apostles, sent to proclaim the Good News for all the world, “I have seen the Lord.”

If it were left to Simon Peter and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, we might not be here this morning.  It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they would have seen the empty tomb, believed that Jesus was gone, and headed back to Capernaum and a lifetime of fishing in the Sea of Galilee.  Something kept Mary at that tomb early Sunday morning.  Maybe she was paralyzed by grief, or maybe it was the Holy Spirit that kept her close so that she might see and come to believe.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we are here this morning to share in the celebration that comes from believing in the unbelievable miracle that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we have the privilege of taking our turn in building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. May you be blessed with the faith of Mary Magdalene this Easter Day, and believe, deep in your bones, that love always wins, that hope conquers fear, and that joy comes in the morning.  Amen.  Alleluia.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11