He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.

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Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

The world of Biblical studies is constantly changing.  New archaeological discoveries breed new realities.  New interpretive lenses bring new understanding.  Whether it is the Canonical approach, the Historical-Critical Method, the JEDP Documentary Hypothesis, or the Jesus Seminar, scholars need to publish or perish, and so Biblical studies journals are filled with papers.  Some aren’t worth the pixels on the screen, while others will stand the test of time.  One that continues to carry weight (pardon the pun), is The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, common called Strong’s Concordance, which was first published in 1890, but continues to find its home on the shelves of preachers to this day.  Strong’s is basically a list of every word that appears in the Bible; all 8,674 Hebrew and 5,624 Greek words contained therein. It is a helpful tool for anyone who would like work in the original languages of the Scriptures, but isn’t exactly a Greek or Hebrew scholar.

james_strong_theologian_-_brady-handy

That’s one Strong neck beard!

Strong’s Greek word number 1515 is Eirene, the Greek word for “peace,” which Jesus speaks over his disciples in the opening verse of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  One of the definitions of eirene, way down at the number five slot is “of Christianity, the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatsoever sort that is.”  How spectacular is that sentence?  Anyway, what struck me this morning is the reality of the disciples’ fear, and Jesus’ just as clear declaration of peace.

The disciples, despite having heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene that Jesus was raised from the dead, cannot find peace.  They are still very much stuck in fear, and are far from content with their earthly lot.  Whatsoever sort it is is still one of confusion, uncertainty, and the stark reality that the news of Jesus’ resurrection meant that the cross hairs of the Roman/Temple Alliance were aimed squarely at them.  Whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead, the fact that his body was missing from the tomb meant bad things for his closest companions.  They gathered in that upper room afraid for their lives, and Jesus entered the locked space, and said:

Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

It’ll take several more encounters with the risen Jesus and a pretty hefty dose of the Holy Spirit before the disciples are able to find that tranquil state in which dying for their faith in the risen Lord isn’t something to be feared.  But on this night, the first evening of the resurrection reality, Jesus invites them to begin the journey.  He invites us as well.  In the midst of whatsoever sort of earthly lot are in, Jesus offers us the eirene of God that passes all understanding.  He invites us to find in him the tranquil state of the soul.

Dead Calm

One of the things that I love about where we live is the ease of access to the water.  I’m not a beach guy, and there is plenty of white sand to go around near us, but my favorite place to be in on a boat on Fish River or Magnolia River or Perdido Creek as the afternoon turns to evening.  There is a moment, just before dusk, when the water, stirred up by boats and a summer breeze all day, suddenly becomes still and smooth as glass, or as the Gospel writers say, “dead calm.”

Photograph of Magnolia River by al.com

The first time I noticed it, there was actually very little calmness about it.  I was on an inner-tube being dragged behind a boat by a driver working hard to throw me off.  As I was being whipped to and fro right there at water level, I noticed just how flat the river had become, as if nothing, not even the wake of an outboard motor and the carelessness of a tuber could disturb it.  Despite everything happening around me and my death grip on the tube handles, I found myself filled with awe at the beauty of God’s creation.

The disciples in Sunday’s Gospel lesson are filled with awe for a different reason.  Having been filled with fear just a moment before, they are now in awe, or as Mark’s Greek says, “they feared a great fear.”  What I found interesting as I looked at Mark’s text, is that in Greek there is a specific word for the calming of the sea, galene, used only three times in the New Testament, once by each of the Synoptic authors to describe what it was like after Jesus calmed the storm – and coupled by Mark and Matthew with the word megas.  Mega Calm, or as the King James’ Version puts it, Dead Calm.

Despite appearances, a river or a lake is never actually calm, there is always activity happening, water moving here and there, not unlike life.  Even those who appear to be calm often have all sorts of things burbling just below the surface.  The gift of grace is peace, dead calm, even in the midst of upheaval.  That’s what Jesus rebukes the disciples about, they feared a great fear rather than finding peace in the one who created all things.  That’s why the only blessing prescribed in a Eucharistic service in our Church starts out with these words, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding…”  We need that peace, that dead calm, deep within us to combat the storms that threaten on the horizon.

A House Divided?

Before Abraham Lincoln and license plates throughout SEC country made it famous, Jesus said that a house divided against itself will not be able to stand.  He reiterates that point in the context of the Church that will grow out of his ministry in the High Priestly Prayer at the end of John’s Gospel, but this Sunday, we will hear it in the context of Mark’s third chapter, as Jesus is being denounced as “out of his mind” and “Beelzebul.”  As Episcopalians, we will hear this text two weeks out from the opening of the 78th General Convention, which is always a time of great contention and consternation, and on the heels of a report (albeit one with an obvious agenda behind it) that The Episcopal Church is set to rack up more than $42 million in legal fees on litigation against former members.

A house divided against itself, indeed.

And yet, as I begin to research and write my thesis for a Doctor of Ministry degree at Sewanee, I came upon a short book, written by the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington in 1891 called Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church.  In that text, he devotes a whole chapter to the argument, prevalent even in 1891 it seems, that The Episcopal Church was a house divided.  In Dr. Huntington’s day and age, the issue was the ongoing debates between the High, Low, and Broad Church parties, but you could easily bring the conversation forward 120 years and exchange it for debates over human sexuality or church structure or whatever.  He argues, rather convincingly, I think, that it is precisely because of the place of warring groups within The Episcopal Church that we are not divided, but rather models of what it means to be in relationship despite disagreement.

“It is because of its having gradually acquired, during a long history, this inclusive character, that the Episcopal Church is able without immodesty to volunteer its good offices in that effort to come to a better understanding which so many souls in all the communions are earnestly desirous of seeing set on foot.  Such overture would be impertinent indeed if this Church were really ‘a house divided against itself;’ – but is it that?  Come and see.” (Popular Misconceptions, p. 87)

$42 million on lawsuits to the contrary, the hallmark of Anglicanism has been our ability to carry on alongside those with whom we disagree.  One of the great gifts of our Church has, at least historically, been that despite some strong theological disagreements, we can all come to the altar and share in the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord.  As we enter the usual period of anxiety around General Convention, my prayer is that we remember that we need not be a house divided, but rather we are a Church built on the foundation of unity, even in disagreement, that our Savior prayed and ultimately died for.

Complete Joy

Last week, while Jesus was still talking to his disciples (as opposed to talk to them under the auspices of talking to God), he told them these words, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).  This week, Jesus is praying to his Father (with added commentary for his disciples) when he says, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13).  If last week’s promise seemed unimaginably hard to reach, this week’s is downright absurd.

I mean, come on!?!  The joy of Jesus made complete in us?  Clearly Jesus had never been a part of a church or had to pay a bill or gone to get his air conditioner looked at and walked away seven hours later with a brand-spanking-new car note (like I did yesterday).

I don’t find car buying to be a joyful event.

Joy is not a commodity much traded in these days, and even when we do find a way to be joyful even in difficult circumstances, that joy feels far from complete, fullfilled, or overflowing.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the key to understanding these two promises is knowing the one who made them.  On my own, I’ll never achieve joy.  Instead, I’ll chase after the hopeless pipe dreams of this world: fame, fortune, prestige and power; only to find myself frustrated at every turn.  If I place my trust in Jesus instead of this world, and follow the will of his Father, then soon I find that even when things aren’t going my way, there is peace and joy that abounds.  To paraphrase Psalm 23, even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, my cup overflows with grace and mercy.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding is the source of true joy – complete joy.  It is not something I can find on my own, but comes from trust in the one who guarantees it: God Almighty: Father,  Son, and Holy Spirit.

Comfort, Comfort ye my people

The Advent/Christmas season is always a tumultuous time.  There are seemingly never ending demands on our time.  There is the grief that comes as we remember those who are no longer with us.  There is the stress of buying the perfect gift and the right price on the right credit card for maximum point accumulation.  There is the December cold and flu season staring down each of us.  And there is, of course, the slow and steady plummet toward the darkest night on December 21st.  What was once a season of hope and joy, has, thanks to our 21st century appetites for consumption, become a season of anxiety and stress.

The readings for the season of Advent could be seen as adding to the problem, and God knows I’ve been critical of them over the years, but this particular year, on this particular day, I’m thankful for the inclusion of Isaiah 40 in the Propers for Advent 2, Year B.  Those opening words of God to the prophet, his command that Isaiah be about the work of comfort is working to ease my discomfort this morning.  I can sense God inviting me into his presence and the peace which surpasses all understanding.  Even the voice crying out in the wilderness is not a voice of judgement to me this year, but a voice of calm.  “Prepare the way of the Lord” in the context of Isaiah 40 is preparation to be enveloped in God’s loving embrace, an invitation to be loved by God whose very nature is love.

I’m thankful for this invitation this year.  And I’m thankful to my friend, John Talbert, for his beautiful take on one of only two Advent hymns I consider worth singing, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

When waiting breaks your heart

“How long, O Lord?”  That is the cry of the Psalmist and the Prophets.  “How long must we wait for your dream to become reality?” remains the cry for the faithful even today.  Since yesterday at about 8:26pm CST, I’ve been pondering this question of “How long?” and thinking, in light of the lessons for Advent 1, and the call to holy waiting, how I can faithful live in the meantime because living in the meantime can be heartbreaking.

Living in the meantime means living as a broken and sinful human being in a broken and sinful world.  It means paying the penalty for sin: my own and a myriad of systemic ones.  It means that sometimes a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  It means sometimes that a young white man, in a position of authority and carrying a gun for a living, makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man.  It means sometimes that a grand jury, bound by laws that aren’t perfect makes a decision that is devastating to a family and a community.  It means sometimes that a group of people so fed up with the way things are takes to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates whole families and communities.  It means watching as conservative bloggers say some crazy racist stuff that gets liked by a friend on Facebook.  It means watching as liberal bloggers say some crazy insensitive stuff that gets retweeted by a friend on Twitter.  Living in the meantime means having your heart broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred.

Living faithfully in the meantime means being a force for justice, hope, peace, and restoration.  It means putting a stop to the cycle of demonization, anger, violence, and vitriol that perpetuates the broken system.  Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, even the Church forgets this call.  Too often, the Social Media accounts of the clergy look like the same bubbling cauldrons that the 24 hour news cycle has taught us to worship.  Too often, Christians forget to be harbingers of peace in the midst of conflict.

How long, O Lord, how long?

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown.  My heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family.  My heart breaks for every African American person who lives in fear of the police, and my heart breaks for every police officer who lives in fear of every young black man they see.  My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the dream of God, that all should be united one to another and to God, has yet to be realized.  And so this morning, a few days ahead of the start of Advent, I will begin this year’s Advent Practice.   Following the suggestion of Bishop Matthew Wren from way back in 1662, I will pray the Collect for Advent 1 at least once each day.  I will pray through the waiting and through the heartbreak, trusting that through God’s grace, I can be a part of a Church that casts away the darkness of this broken and sinful world, and puts on the armor of light, of hope, of peace, and above all, the armor of love.  Won’t you join me?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Advent Prayer