Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Our Three Holy Days

As we get into Holy Week, I thought I would share a presentation I made on the Triduum, and our Three Holy Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil (Saturday after Sundown).  These three services move me more than I can say, with Easter Vigil being my favorite service of the year.  Much of this I have to say thank you to the Rev. Abbott Bailey of my home parish of St. Andrew's here in Richmond.  Enjoy and Holy Week blessings!


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Little Did They Know, Little Do We: a sermon

Year B Palm Sunday
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond

Second Reading Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Little did they know.  No one realized what this week would bring.  Except maybe one.

After waiting for the fullness of time, he rode into Jerusalem, God's Holy City, and the crowds were eager for the show, or perhaps the showdown.   The popular preacher was coming to town.

He knew the reaction that would probably happen.  He even sent his people ahead.  The preparations had to be just so.  He could not walk in.  Promised kings don't walk.  Kings ride.

But no magnificent stallion was obtained.  A humble colt of a donkey that had never been ridden was borrowed for this king's entry.  He was sending just as poignant and political a statement  as a mighty stallion, and the symbolism would not have been missed.  The prophecy of Zechariah some 500 years before that day Christ rode into Jerusalem...

Zechariah 9:9
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
  triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
  on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

A king of peace he was declaring himself to be, so on a donkey he rode in that day.  

On the bumpy road, he had cloaks thrown across the colt's back, no saddle for this ride.  Ahead garments were strewn across his path and branches hurriedly cut from the surrounding fields lined the way.  And then the people began their shouts...

"Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Hosanna!"  More than a shout of praise or exclamation, it was a plea.  "Save us!  Save us!  Save us!"  With such words, they declared him, “Savior!  Savior!  Savior!”  "Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!  Save us!  Save us!  Save us!" they cried.

He heard their shouts, called out in ignorance.  How could they know?   He would save them, of course.  Not from the Romans as they wanted or expected, but from a far greater enemy.  Themselves.

It says that he took in the Temple, seeing all that there was to see.  And then he headed to where he was staying for the week.  And so that week began for Jesus.  Do we even know?  Do we even realize?  What does God have in store for us this Holy Week?

Where do you hear the cries for help?  Where do you see people in need of saving?  We do not have to look far.  Maybe even the mirror.

Most days in our Eucharistic Prayer we proclaim:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest.

“Hosanna in the highest!”  We acknowledge our inability to save ourselves.  We acknowledge the one who can.  Often Hosanna is expressed as an exclamation or praise.  But it is because Hosanna comes from the Hebrew words for “Save” and “Now.”  And there is only one who can; Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

We say these words.  God of power, God of might.  Everything is full of your glory.  And we are full of our need.

Jesus, humble, precious Jesus, guides us and directs us, especially this week.  This week as we meander up and through the Temple, on to the Upper Room, to the stillness of a Garden by night, to the course and crass illegal trial at Caiaphus’ house, by way of a Palace, along the city streets carrying our cross, on up to Calvary and then down to the Garden Tomb. On all this path, Christ is with us.  He leads our way.  
And here I am going to stop and put in a plug.  This week we are having special services.  The Tenebrae Service on Wednesday night is a special reflective service preparing for the next three days.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday are the central and pivotal days of our faith.  The events of these three days are re-enacted here EVERY SUNDAY MORNING.  In fact, I will make you a guarantee, come to the entire Triduum Sacrum, the three Sacred Day services and it will change your life.  This is no small promise.  These services are at the very heart of our faith.  And the guarantee, if you are not completely satisfied, I personally will refund double your admission price.  [I can say that will full faith because there is no admission price.]

All joking aside, a question remains.  Why should you come?  To better enable what Paul spoke of in today’s Philippians passage:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

This one they praised and worshiped.  This one they begged to save them, some of these same voices that cried, “Hosanna!” would in just few short days scream, “Crucify!  Crucify!  Crucify!”  

We come to remember.

We come to honor.  

We come to pray.

And because of Jesus’ humility and love of us, Paul reminds us also why I urge you to be here:

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Do we even know?  Do we even realize?  What does God have in store for us this Holy Week?  One knows.  And he wants nothing more this week than for you to draw closer to him.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Sermon: "Of Snakes, and Other Symbols of Death"

Year B Lent 4
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond
“Of Snakes, and Other Symbols of Death”

Imagine the scene.  A leader of the Jewish faith, someone who has just witnessed Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple comes slinking in.  He comes at night.  Can he not sleep?  Is it he wants no one to see him?  What brings him to Jesus we do not know, but we do know he is wanting something.  His slithering in at night makes a strong point. It is hard to trust things coming in from the Darkness.  Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that night, and God can still speak to us today, even at night.

Today we speak of snakes, other symbols of death.

A nice, light topic for an emerging spring day.

I have always found this an interesting Sunday in the Lectionary, taking an obscure passage from the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Numbers because of the nod it gets in the Christian Scriptures.  The passage tells of a time when the grumbling Hebrews forgot the multiple miracles of their redemption from slavery in Egypt, and happened upon a den of vipers or some other slithering serpents.  People began to die from the wounds inflicted.  Moses, despite being down a few less grumblers (And what leader want some of that?), Moses did the pastor-ly thing, and prayed for his people.  A word of the Lord came to him, saying: "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."  So Moses made a bronze snake, and people looked to it and lived.

This symbol of death became a deliverance from death.  Something dark, and feared, and despised, becomes not a symbol of hope but hope incarnate.  Look to the stylized snake and be delivered from the poison of the snake.

While it may seem superstitious and hokey to us nowadays that understand medicine and poison, but if I found myself bitten in a desert I have to admit I would look.  Our cynicism is much easier when we are not the ones bitten.

Is the cross of Christ any different?  That is the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus.  Our Gospel reading contains the most quoted verse in our society, John 3:16, but it is encapsulated in a story fascinating and sad.  Nicodemus starts exploring rebirth, and his literal understanding is holding him back. 

John 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Nicodemus is given a metaphor he can understand.  “Remember that snake of Moses who delivered the people?  The Son of Man,” a self-referential euphemism of Jesus’,” must be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  So if you get bitten by a snake, if you look to the snake and believe, you will live. 

So Jesus is telling Nicodemus, when the Son of Man is lifted up, those who look to him and believe will also live.  How was Jesus lifted up?  He was not yet.  That was to come.  But we know.  We have our own “bronze snakes.”  How many can you see from where you are right now?

I am wearing one, and maybe you are, too.  We paraded in behind one this morning.  We will face one when we say the creed in a bit.  The cross is our bronze snake.  Just as deadly, this symbol of death has become for us a symbol of life here and now, as well as there and then.  It has come to mean so much to so many.

The cross is our scandal and our salvation.  It reminds us of the sting of death we deserve according to our biting of the forbidden fruit, for which we were promised that we would surely die.  It is our salvation in that if we look to it and believe, we are promised eternal life.  Promises and heartache, and the one that binds it together, Jesus.

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And I cannot quote that verse without the next that goes with it.

17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:16 can so easily come to divide.  There are those that are in and those that are out.  But John 3:17 from Jesus’ own mouth shows that all are welcome and wanted.

I grew up in a very protestant upbringing.  Our crosses were plain and simple.  They were vague reminders of what took place on that Good Friday.  They were not bloody and visceral.  They were sanitized and I became desensitized.  I did not think of what these pieces of wood mean.  Perhaps I had forgotten or never truly learned that this symbol of death became a deliverance from death.  Something dark, and feared, and despised, was a not just symbol of hope but hope incarnate.

I still remember when this changed for me.

Like Nicodemus’ nocturnal questioning, night-time was when my revelation came.  I still see it clearly, though it was a dream 20 years ago.

For the dream to make sense I have to set it up a bit.  I was in seminary, and Stephanie and I were poor as dirt.  We used to look after the children here in Ginter Park at Ginter Park Baptist for the Wednesday night programming so we could eat a meal for free and get paid, too.  June Dorsey always looked out for us.  This was one of our many part-time jobs.

Another one of my many part time jobs I strung together to make ends meet was at the Warner Bros. store at Regency Mall.  It was like the Disney Store, but more snarky like Bugs Bunny.  With all the WB properties, they had more than cartoons to hawk.  At the back of our store’s wall, we had a big video screen.  It was about 10 feet tall and about 15 wide.  It ran videos all day long.  It was about an hour and half long, so it was not too bad during the shifts.  And it would change every two months or so. 

During the normal routine of the store, one of the jobs was to be a greeter at the front of the store.  It was friendly and helped with loss prevention.  I was often assigned up front because, as one of my managers put it, “You sound like you actually like people.”  This was true, and I was glad she thought so. 

Seminary’s struggles were no fun, and I knew the toll it was taking on Stephanie and our finances.  One day, the manager asked would I consider applying for one of the manager jobs that were coming open.  It had insurance, a full-time salary, and it was now.

Soon after the offer I had this dream.  I was working the front of the store greeting, and it was during the holiday rush.  People were crowding in the store.  There were several oohs and aahs as people came into the festive store.  Several, pointing at the video wall said very clearly, “Look at that!  Wow!”  I remember thinking in the dream, “They’ve never seen a TV before?  Sheesh!”  But people kept pouring in, many exclaiming and pointing to the wall.

Finally in the dream, I turned around.  And there, in the store, there was no video wall.  People were streaming in and pointing, not at a TV, but to Jesus on the cross.  People were standing around in awe, with Jesus bruised and bloodied.  They were astounded.  They were amazed.  They could not look away.  In my dream I remember saying, “What have I done?  I’ve sold out.”  And in a full body jerk, I jumped up, wide awake, calling out.  The power of the cross reached across time and into my dream reminding me of the who, and the why, and the how of my being in seminary.

The thought of jumping ship and leaving seminary behind was no longer a temptation.  The power of the cross had reached across time and space and jolted me back to what I was to be about and who I was to be.  My struggles were minor in comparison to this Son of Man, high and lifted up.  I looked on this vision of death, believed, and was saved.

I was hesitant to share this, and it is not something I share quickly.  That dream changed my life.  It was so personal and so real, I have been a different person since then.  But in my weakness and frailty, I point to the power and wisdom that saved me.  As Paul put it in today’s reading from Ephesians 2:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

That dream was a gift to me, and I thank God for it.  In the dark, in my questioning, I was given something that reminded me who I felt called to be and what I felt called to do.  I am a sinner saved by Grace.  I look to the cross, believe, and am saved.  Nothing more, but nothing less.  Thanks be to God.

Whatever we do, and whoever we are, Christ’s cross can be lifted up.  And people will be drawn to it.  The sermon you preach with your lives will speak much more loudly than I can here today. 

Just like Jesus told Nicodemus on that night so long ago: 

21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Let us all come out of the Darkness and into the Light.  How?  If you ever wonder how beloved you are to God, look to the cross, believe, and be saved.  Amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Saying No: a sermon

Year B Lent 2 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“Saying No”

There is a stage in our development that has been slapped with the name the Terrible Twos.  This baby with whom we have bonded so closely has now started saying a word, a word that they have heard several thousand times in their first year of life.  They have learned that this word holds power.  This word has authority.  They spit it out.  Often repeatedly like machine gun fire.  The word is NO.  “No.  No, no, no, no, no!”

Does this child do this to annoy us?  To drive us crazy?  No.  They do it because they can.  They have learned that they have a voice, both literal and psychological.  They use said voice, exercising their autonomy and independence.  They say No, because they are their own creature.  As much as it pains us at times and drives us crazy, a toddler screaming no is at its core a good thing.  And as an aside, please remember this parents, and even more, please remember this when you are stuck in line behind a poor parent with a child expressing his or her autonomy at a store.  This is fun for none of us.

Today we are talking about saying No, and this is a hard topic for me.  I am that type of person who likes to say yes.

I like to help people, and I like to be of service.

I have been hard pressed in recent days to emphasize my NO, however.  In fact, I need to often make saying no a spiritual discipline.

I was at an event recently, and I had someone ask if I could take on a leadership role.  I said no.  The person making the request smiled, laughed, and emphasized the need for me to do the role.  I said no.  The person got serious, and emphasized how I needed to do this.  I smiled back, no matter how I felt inside, and was very clear this time.  “I will not be doing this.  Thank you for asking.”

With a click of her tongue, the person looked at me like I had smacked her.  “HARSH!”

“No,” I responded, “honest!”

When we say yes to something, we say no to something else.  When we say yes to chocolate, we say no to vanilla.  When we say yes to going to the movies, we say no to going to store.  We cannot be all things to all people.  We cannot clone ourselves, nor can we be like Hermione in the Harry Potter series and be in two places at once.

Likewise, when we say yes to God, something has to give.  It is not that God wants us to live miserable existences, but we must make decisions.  Just like God does not want us to be miserable, neither does God wish us to be burnt out and of little good to anyone.  “Come unto me,” Jesus said, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Even Jesus explained it to us this way: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  

But I am not here today to discuss poverty, unless we talk about poverty of Spirit.

Most often we hear another word of Jesus from the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

It has always struck me when I have read the contemporary translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message.  He translates the “Blessed are the poor in spirit” this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

When we let go of ourselves, or maybe our selfishness, our orientation on ourselves, we can allow our nature to be more in tune with God and God’s rule.  If we say Yes to God, there is not a space to say Yes to ourselves as well.  We choose the one over the other.

When the woman approached me about taking on another leadership role, I had to say no because I have said Yes to being a husband and a dad.  I had to say no because I had said Yes to being a priest and teacher.  In fact, as I get to know myself more and am more comfortable in my skin it becomes more and more intuitive to that which I can say Yes.

Ana Hernandez yesterday put it this way, “That really does not sound fun to me is a good reason to say no to something.”  As I grow in my self-awareness and live more fully into the call of God in my life, I can get more and more attuned to what is part of God’s call and what I need to say Yes to for God’s sake, and what will not be fun and apart from God’s desires.

Today we are presented with stories of people who said yes, and we can see the impact that it had on their lives.

Abram and Sarai wanted a child.  They were desperate for a child, but in their advanced age they had given up hope decades before.  When the visiting angels told Sarai she would have a child she actually laughed, but that is in the chapter after today’s reading.

When God promises Abram a son, he asks much of him.  Change your name, and much more besides.  The lectionary, by cutting some verses, emphasizes the name change.  But for Abram to say yes to this new way of seeing himself and being, he had to say no to the way things had been.  For Sarai to think about the possibility of being a mother, she had to rethink everything.  Everything.

Having one’s first child when she can get the Senior discount probably changes things even more.

God was calling on both of them to rethink who they were in him.  Abram means “Noble father” and he is being called to see himself anew.  He is to change his perspective to be “Father of nations.”  Sarai, “Princess,” becomes Sarah, “Mother of many.”  After so long, this was a call to a real leap of faith for the two of them.  They had to let go of their doubts, and claim their new identities.  They had to let go of their plans and scheming, and not focus on Ishmael as an alternative for them.  Even more difficult.

Saying Yes to God, and saying No to ourselves is not an easy thing at first.  Like that toddler saying No, we say it to exercise our autonomy and independence.  When we say Yes to God, however, we are letting go of those things we hold so dear, especially in this country, so much.

Abram and Sarai, cum Abraham and Sarah, said No to their old ways and their old way of seeing themselves.  They said Yes to who God was calling them to be.

In our Gospel reading, we see another story of saying No.  

Mark 8:31-33
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Peter here is doing what he thinks he should do.  He loves Jesus.  He wants Jesus to be successful and all that God would have him be.  He is even respectful.  He does not call Jesus out in front of the others, he takes him aside.  He rebukes Jesus, but in a way to show the depth of both his concern and care.  Peter, I believe, is saying Yes to all his hopes in who Jesus is.  And also, think about it, would you want to get on board a sinking ship?  If Jesus is about to be rejected and killed, would you want any part of that?  Peter did not.  He was saying Yes to who he felt Jesus was.

Thank goodness, however, that Jesus said No to Peter.  Jesus knew who he was.  Jesus was secure in his calling.  Jesus was confident in what God wanted him to do.  He had spelled out what he understood his calling as well as what the foretelling of Scripture said about the Messiah.  When Peter rebuked him, Jesus rejected the rebuke.  ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’  Jesus saw what Peter was doing, and why.  To us this sounds so harsh.  But, no, Jesus was being honest.

The Hebrew word Satan in our minds conjures up red horns and a pitchfork and evil.  The word means Adversary.  The Opposition.  And in a technical sense, that is exactly what Peter was doing.  He was being being the Adversary to Jesus.  He was encouraging him to forget and leave behind all this suffering servant stuff.  Jesus was secure in himself and in God, and said No.

He calls us to be the same.  Later in our Gospel reading, he calls us to say No, No to ourselves and Yes to God.

Mark 8:34-37
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

As we follow Christ, we have to learn to say No, so that we can say Yes.  May God bless our following.  Amen.