It’s fixin’ to be a week – a sermon

Sermon begins at 28:30

 


On Thursday, Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I joined many of our sisters and brothers in ordained ministry at All Saint’s for the annual service commonly called the Chrism Mass, in which we renew our ordination vows and receive the specially blessed oil used at baptisms.  Kellie has a real job, so she had to drive herself back and forth from Leitchfield, but Becca and I rode together and enjoyed a couple of hours to touch base on life and our collective ministry here at Christ Episcopal Church.  One of the topics of our conversation was how the lives of associates and rectors are similar and different.  There are certain freedoms that are unique to each position, and there are certain limitations that come with each title as well.  That conversation got me thinking about how my life has changed in the two-plus years that I’ve been your rector.

One thing that quickly came to mind is how often I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s been a week,” since leaving Alabama.  Sometimes, on only mildly crazy weeks, I’ll say it on Thursday.  Sometimes, like the week before Holy Week, it is quite possible to hear me say, “It’s been a week” at our Monday afternoon staff meeting. It’s a feeling I think we can all understand.  Whether you are a first-grade student, a tenth-grade teacher, lawyer, nurse, mechanic, priest, or full-time volunteer, some weeks just feel full – as if you’ll never stop running from one thing to the next.  Sometimes, the only way to describe what you’ve experienced is “It’s been a week.”

It’s been a week since we began the liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday fifteen minutes ago.  As we started this service, we recreated liturgically the experience of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.  Over on the west side of the city, Pilate entered riding a war horse, surrounded by chariots and heavily armed soldiers, hearing shouts of “Hail Caesar, the son of god, the king of kings, and the source of peace”  Meanwhile, Jesus entered through the eastern gate, riding a donkey as a rag-tag group of disciples pulled palm branches out of the trees, laid their cloaks on the ground, and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In that story, we heard clues that this is going to be a week; especially when Luke mentions that some Pharisees had come to see what all the commotion was about.  When the Pharisees realized that Jesus’ disciples were putting him on par with Caesar, and calling him the Son of God, they got really, really nervous.  “Tell them to hush,” they begged of Jesus.  “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out,” Jesus replied.  As they say in Lower Alabama, “It’s fixin’ to be a week.”

During the course of the next five days, Jesus went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers.  He called out the injustice of the Temple system that was built on the backs of the faithful poor.  He answered repeated attempts to challenge his authority.  He taught lessons and told parables that directly contradicted with what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were trying to accomplish.  He lifted up the lowly widow and her two copper coins, while calling into question the large gifts given by those for whom it was less than a drop in the bucket.  As each day unfolded, the tension between Jesus and the powers-that-be grew, until finally, they conspired with Judas, one of the twelve, to betray him.  With all kinds of false accusations, they attempted to convince Pilate that Jesus needed to be killed, and when the crowd just wouldn’t relent, they finally succeeded in having Jesus put to death on a cross as a disgraced revolutionary.

It’s been a week.  Or, rather, we know it is about to be a week.  A full week.  A difficult week.  A Holy Week.  Every day this week, you will have the opportunity to walk the way of the cross with Jesus and one another.  It begins at noon, Monday through Thursday, where we will hear from different preachers in different contexts of how the pressure-filled relationship between Jesus and the powers-that-be bubbled and boiled, until it finally came to a head.  On Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus once again offer us the new mandate of the Kingdom of God, that we love one another.  Through the washing of feet, an act of profoundly humble service, we will re-enact the symbol of the self-sacrificial love that Jesus offered to his disciples, while we also remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of our devotion.  Overnight, members of the congregation will keep watch, like Peter at the charcoal fire, as we wait for Friday, when we will remember the deepest act of love anyone can offer – the laying down of one’s life for a friend.

As the lessons for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday show us, it’ll be a week – a long and challenging week, and yet, it is a week that we ought not skip through just to get to the joy of Easter.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no Resurrection without the challenges of Holy Week.  And so, we pray that in walking the way of the sorrow, we might find it to be the way of life; that through walking with Jesus toward the cross, we might also share in the resurrection life.  It’ll be a week, dear friends, but I can’t wait to walk it with you.  Amen.

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We are They – a sermon

My Palm Sunday sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


They are powerful and influential people.  They maintain that power and influence even though nobody really knows who they are.  They say it is going to rain, and so we throw an umbrella in the car.  They say that eggs are bad for us, so we quit eating them.  Two years later, they say that eggs are good for us, and so we start buying them again.  More recently, they’ve had the most exciting news yet, they now say that a glass of red wine is as good for our hearts as an hour at the gym.  They aren’t always right, and yet, whoever they might be, when they speak, people listen.

Jesus knew this reality all too well, for they had accused him of all sorts of things.  They said he was a blasphemer, placing himself on par with the Lord God.  They claimed that he was leading an insurrection against Rome.  They told Pilate that he alleged to be the King of the Jews.  When Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him, they fought back.  They cried out for Jesus to be crucified while Barabbas, a murder, was set free.  They dragged him through the streets of Jerusalem.  They cheered as he was nailed to a cross.  They derided him as he hung there and died.  Yet in the midst of all of that, even as he was suffering through extreme pain and suffocating agony, Jesus still had compassion on them.  “Father forgive them,” Jesus said surveying the angry mob that was gathered around him, “For they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, and as the story of Jesus’ crucifixion played out, they wielded every bit of power and influence they could, but Jesus had mercy upon them.  As this Holy Week unfolds before us, it would be easy to condemn them for what they did.  The Gospel stories were written in a time when the struggle between the Jewish community and the fledgling church were bitter and raw, and because of that they are full of anti-Semitic rhetoric meant to make sure that we know what they did. The hard truth is that from time to time, all of us are a part of them.  We are they, even though we really don’t want to be.

They dehumanized Jesus by turning him into a laughing stock.  They blindfolded him, beat him, and laughed as they asked, “Prophesy! Who struck you?”  They cloaked him in a purple robe and crowned him with a crown of thorns, mocking him and shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They stripped him naked and hanged him high on a cross for all the world to see.  The ridiculed him, asking where his Father was to save him; scoffing at how he had saved many others, but he couldn’t manage to save himself.

As much as we’d like to believe we wouldn’t have taken part in that sort of dehumanizing behavior, we continue to do so in ways that are both intentional and unintentional.  Every time we look with disdain upon the mother using a WIC check to buy milk for her children, we are they.  Every time we clutch our purse a little tighter when a black man walks by, we are they.  Every time we feel that twinge of anxiety when an Arab looking couple gets on our airplane, we are they.  Every time we share a politically incendiary, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anti-Muslim thought on Facebook, by email, or even over drinks with friends, we are they.  Every time we fail to see Christ in the other, we are they.  Yet even as we engage in these dehumanizing activities, Jesus looks at the angry mob around him and has compassion on us saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, but the love of God is stronger still.  The compassion of Jesus from the cross is more powerful and more influential than any angry mob, any dehumanizing behavior, and group of they or we.  As we walk the Way of the Cross this week, I pray that you might take the time to meditate on two truths.  First, because we are they who mock, ridicule, and dehumanize the Son of God, we are in desperate need of a savior.  And second, through his compassionate word of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus is precisely that savior that we so desperately need.  By taking the time to contemplate these realities, the Way of the Cross can become for each of us the way of life and peace.  We are they: powerful and full of influence; but the compassion of God is stronger, the forgiveness of God is stronger, the love of God is stronger than the worst parts of us.  Amen.

Finding Sabbath

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The spices sit waiting

“On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

The final line in the longer version of Luke’s Passion Gospel might not be the most important one, but it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Luke’s Passion is a story of nonstop action from the time Jesus sat down at dinner with his disciples until Joseph laid Jesus’ body in the tomb and the women set out to prepare spices.  There is frantic dialogue, character development, anxiety to the point of sweating blood, fear, anger, tears, and unspeakable violence in this story.  And then it stops.

The disciples are off hiding somewhere.  The spices sit waiting.  Joseph wonders how the Council will respond to his actions.  The women rested, according to the commandment.  As the busyness of Holy Week looms large, the word I’m hearing loud and clear this day is to not forget the importance of following God’s commandment and resting on the Sabbath.

There are sermons to write, bulletins to print, decisions to be made, logistics to logic, but God says that all that can wait for a moment while we all sit and rest in God’s loving embrace.  The next 10 days are a marathon, not a sprint, and if my super-star runner of a wife has taught me anything in her training, the key to a successful long run is teaching yourself to start slow.  Negative splits are the best assurance of a good finish.  So that’s what I plan to do.  Tomorrow will be Sabbath: a quiet, rainy day of rest and reflection before the insanity of 15 services in 9 days begins.  I pray you’ll find some Sabbath time too, dear reader.  God knows, we’ll all be better off if we do.

The Ethos of Jesus

christ-on-the-mount-of-olivesblog

If you’re stuck with only images of White Jesus on the Mount of Olives, at least go for one where he appears to be 8 years old.

Luke’s Passion is chock full of tiny details that in the course of reading the entire thing are bound to get passed over.  One that I’ve noticed this time around is Luke’s casual mention that Jesus’ trip to the Mount of Olives was “his custom.”  The Greek word that gets translated as custom is ethos, which has come into the English language as a transliteration and in this context, it means something that is part of the character of Jesus.  Going to the mountain, presumably to pray, is just part of who Jesus is.

That seems like an interesting turn of phrase to me.  It is the only time in Luke’s 10 uses of the word that it applies to Jesus.  In fact, it is the only time the word is ascribed to a single person.  Every other time it gets used by Luke, it applies to the religious customs of a people: either the Jews or the Greeks.  Here, however, on the night before Jesus dies, we get an insight into the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his Father.  A spotlight gets shone upon the ethos of Jesus as a man of prayer who went out of his way to find a quiet place to spend time in conversation with his Father.

As an American Christian, I can relatively reasonably assume that I won’t face death as a result of my faith in Jesus Christ.  As such, there’s not a whole lot I can learn from the example of Jesus’ willingness to suffer death on the cross.  This moment of deep devotion, however, is an opportunity for me to learn something about the life of faith.  Jesus knew what was fixin’ to happen.  He’d been orchestrating it, moment by moment, since Sunday afternoon.  Death at the hands of Rome was mere hours away, and Jesus’ response was to go to the mountain to pray, as was his custom; his ethos.

In those moments when it feels like life is crashing down upon me, it is easy to forget to turn to God in prayer.  When the adrenaline starts pumping and my mind is racing at a million miles an hour, I can get so caught up in the details, that I forget to invite God to be present.  Even when I, like Jesus, would contest what appears to be God’s plan, I forget to engage in a conversation with him, and instead set off on doing my own thing.  On his darkest night, Jesus still turned to his Father in prayer.  Would that I might have the faith to remember to do the same thing.

A Season of Hosannah

With the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came a restoration of a few original language words.  A quick perusal of the 1928 Book, shows that, in comparison, the 1979 version is mildly obsessed with the word “alleluia” (which means “praise God”).  Take, for example, the Invitatory in Morning Prayer:

1928 Book of Common Prayer
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

1979 Book of Common Prayer
Lord open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Except in  Lent, add Alleluia.

When the word “alleluia” didn’t appear with regularity in our Common Prayer, there wasn’t much need to expressly eliminate it in the penitential season of Lent.  These days, however, it appears with regularity in the Daily Office and in the only Fraction Anthem prescribed in Rite II.  As such, congregations have begun to make more and more display of the elimination of the word “alleluia” during Lent.  In my on parish, our Shrove Tuesday event includes decorating alleluia confetti which get “buried” under the altar until the three-fold proclamation of Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.  Alleluia, indeed.

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All of that to mention that Palm Sunday often begs the question, “Why can we say ‘hosanna’ in Lent?”  This question always warms my heart because it means that people are paying attention to the liturgy, and noticing how it is different week to week and season by season.  It is a good and fair question, since the prevailing understanding of “hosanna” has it being somewhat analogous to “alleluia,”a word of praise.  While it is used in a similar fashion to alleluia, hosanna’s root meaning gives it a different connotation: one that is perfectly suited for Lent, and one that makes it a word we might want to hold onto through November 8th.

Hosanna’s etymology is from two Hebrew words that mean “save us, we pray!”  This phrase is found in Psalm 118, a portion of which is assigned for the Liturgy of the Palms, and is associated with the Festival of the Booths, a harvest festival during which the stalks of 4 grains are waved and God’s praise is sung in thanksgiving for a bountiful crop.  The festival itself shows this deep double meaning of praise and need.  It is only by God’s provision of rain, sun, and seasonable weather that the harvest can be plenteous, and so praise is given when once again, God has heard our prayer of hosanna, “save us, we pray!”

As the season of Lent draws to a close, another contentious election season is in full swing.  I plan to keep “hosanna,” a word of hope, promise, and praise, on my lips and close to my heart in the coming months as a reminder of the joy that comes in accepting God’s promise to save the world through his Son.

Entering into Passiontide

I am something of an anomaly in the Episcopal Church: a low-church liturgy wonk.  In fact, it is from my deep appreciation for the liturgy as it has been inherited and reformatted into the Book of Common Prayer (1979), that I draw my lower-than-most understanding of the Sacraments and sacramental acts.  It is from my interpretation of Thomas Cranmer’s evangelical zeal, that I find the space to experiment liturgically in the hopes of meeting the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  As usual, however, I’ve digressed.  As a liturgy wonk, I fell like I have a pretty good handle on most of the slang that get used by my brothers and sisters who are more fond of liturgical haberdashery than I, but yesterday, my high-church trained, but growing lower everyday Rector dropped a word that if I had ever heard before, I’d not paid much attention to: Passiontide, which makes up the last two weeks of Lent.2015-04-03 17.54.16-1

Passiontide rose to glory in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was the first Book to have the carry the title, beginning on Lent 5, even though the Passion Gospel was not read until Palm Sunday.  (To be fair, the appointed lesson, John 8:46-59 does tend to highlightthe passion of Jesus, which ultimately led to his Passion.) By the time of the 1979 revision, the term had fallen out of favor, even with the Roman Catholics, and it no longer appears in our text, but for preachers, the reality is that this penultimate week of Lent is our Passion Week.  By the time Monday in Holy Week rolls around, there won’t be much time to meditate on the suffering of our Lord, and come the middle of the week, if you’re anything like me, and I know most of you aren’t, you’ll have to skip ahead and write an Easter sermon full of Alleluias before Jesus has even washed his disciples feet.

As we prepare to read and preach on the Passion of our Lord according to Luke, it might be helpful to live into Passiontide.  Take some time to meditate on the narrative.  Maybe walk the stations.  Spend this week immersed in the Passion of Jesus, as you prepare to share the Good News of God’s self-giving love for all flesh.  As you do so, if you are in the Episcopal Church, you’ll note that choice must be made.  Will you read the Passion beginning with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14-23:56) or will you choose the shorter version, which skips both the Garden and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:1-49)? This low-church liturgy wonk will be doing neither, choosing to use the rubric on page 888 and lengthening the shorter option to include both the Garden scene and Jesus’ burial (Luke 22:39-23:56).  Whatever option you choose, I pray that as you get a head start on walking the way of the cross this Passiontide, it might be for you the very way of life and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.