you were dead (lent 4, year b)

You were dead.

Great way to start a bible reading, huh?  I mean, this is what we all want to hear, isn’t it?  You were dead.  Not even mostly dead, which is different from all dead.  You. Were. Dead.  Now who says that Lent isn’t miserable?

You were dead.

The celebration of Easterthe Feast of the Resurrection — is the traditional day for baptizing adults, or really, for baptizing anyone.   At my parish, we have been focused on the people who are preparing for baptism, praying for them each week as they take part in a formation process of study, discussion, and prayer.  I know of six who will be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter, and I think there will be more.  We’ve spent a great deal of time talking about the sacrament of baptism, about its symbolism, about the liturgy that abounds in beautiful imagery.  And Paul really nails one part of those discussions:

YOU WERE DEAD.

Easter Vigil Baptism, by Marjie Kennedy
Easter Vigil Baptism, by Marjie Kennedy

When European explorers and colonists settled in America, they brought with them their faith and religious practices.  Northern Europe being much colder than the Holy Land and Mediterranean countries, baptism got changed — watered down, if you will.  (I’m sorry. That was a terrible pun.  Pray for me, a sinner.)  Instead of being fully immersed in a pool of water, and fully submerged three times, your baptism was a pouring or sprinkling with water.  The event was still a great celebration, a turning point in your life, but it lost some of its symbolism.

With each submersion, you would be held under the water so that when you were brought back up, you would take a huge gasp and gulp of air, breathing in the Holy Spirit as the disciples did when they encountered the risen Jesus.  With each submersion, you were ritually drowned: you were dead.

But there’s Good News!

You may have been dead, but something much more powerful is at work in you.  God is rich in mercy.  God loves us with great love.  God raises us up with Jesus.  God gives us immeasurable riches of loving-kindness.  God shows us grace.

Grace is the miracle of baptism.  Grace is what God gives us — grace is what God extravagantly pours out on us until it overflows — without us earning or deserving it.  We can’t earn grace.  And yet, God delights in us.  We certainly don’t deserve grace.  And yet, God raises us up.  John says it so wonderfully and powerfully in today’s gospel: God loved the world so much that he sent his only son — the beloved, in whom God is well pleased — so that anyone and everyone who believes will become a vessel for God’s overflowing grace.

You were dead.  And God has made you alive again.  Isn’t that wonderful news?

In the baptismal liturgy, we see water symbolize a number of things.  The Thanksgiving over Water is a beautiful prayer:

Veni, Creator Spiritus, by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP
Veni, Creator Spiritus, by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.

In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us, through his death and resurrection,
from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share in his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

We see the waters of chaos, with the Holy Spirit moving and brooding over them.  God the Holy Spirit broods like a mother, pregnant with everything that is, until God speaks (Fiat lux!) and calls Creation into being.  In this sense, water represents not only the chaos before God created order but also the amniotic fluid within the womb of a woman who is brooding, who is pregnant.  Water is a challenge for the children of Israel as they leave Egypt; they must cross the sea in order to leave behind their slavery and turn their faces toward God’s promises.  Jesus himself was submerged in the Jordan River by his cousin John, both showing us this new sacrament and taking all these symbols for water onto himself.

We are born through water.  We are cleansed by water.  Water gives us an obstacle to overcome.  Water is necessary for life, especially in Israel.  Water can be peaceful and calm, or it can be chaotic and violent and uncontrollable.  Water sustains and protects us when we are vulnerable.  Water kills us.  And water brings us back to life.

You were dead.

You were dead, and by God’s grace you have been saved.

You were dead, and God has made us alive together through the person of Jesus.

You were dead.  And now we can all sit together at the eternal feast.

Thanks be to God!

Advertisements

(good friday, year c)

Crucifixion Along the Walkway (9 of 10), by Clinton Steeds
Crucifixion Along the Walkway (9 of 10), by Clinton Steeds

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day we commemorate and honor the death of Jesus.  It is a worthwhile thing to do, to honor the death of a person, especially a person whose life means a great deal to us.  We need time to mourn, to close the book, to open up to a new life without that person in it.  This doesn’t have to be maudlin or unhealthy, but can be very healthy and appropriate.  There’s a reason we honor the crucifixion each year on Good Friday, and it’s not for all the blood and guts and agony and torture.

The lectionary readings for Good Friday include the Passion story from John’s gospel and the psalm we hear echoed in the last words of Jesus from Mark’s account.   We hear a startling song about God’s topsy-turvy kingdom from the prophet Isaiah, and we have two options from the letter to the Hebrews.

This year, as I reflected on the readings for Palm Sunday, I found myself surprised at how very human the Passion story is.  This second reading from the letter to the Hebrews is about human-ness, too.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears,
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;
and having been made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Justified by Christ, by Lawrence OP
Justified by Christ, by Lawrence OP

In the person of Jesus, God has given us a wonderful gift.  Because Jesus was not only fully divine, but also fully human, we worship a savior who has experienced the world just as we have.  Jesus began his life as a helpless infant, just as we do, having to rely on others for his most basic needs.  He grew up with a mother and a father, and he went to synagogue and temple, and he studied the scriptures.  Jesus experienced death when his adopted father Joseph passed away.  Jesus had indigestion and toothaches; he scratched itches and picked his nose; he burped and spit up, he got bruises and scratches, and he even pooped.

How can we ever say that our God doesn’t understand us?  Our God became a human being for us!  We see in the gospels that Jesus had both friends and enemies.  How do you imagine it felt for him to go home to Nazareth after starting his ministry, to preach in the synagogue, and to have his townspeople — the folks he’s known for his entire life — try to toss him off a cliff?  It probably felt great to get the better of blind and hypocritical authorities, but I imagine that he wept inside at the same time, for their willful blindness.  Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends — not by Judas sleeping with his wife, or badmouthing Jesus so that Judas would get that big promotion instead, but to arrest and execution.  When we are hurt because a friend’s gossip has betrayed us, we cannot say that God doesn’t understand our pain and anger.  Who could possibly understand this better?

But this wonderful gift gets even better.  On that Friday so long ago, Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross.  With him was nailed all of his humanity: his indigestion and toothaches, his itches and boogers, his burps and bruises and scratches, the times he was rejected, the betrayals of other humans, the frustration at confronting blindness and ignorance over and over again.  And each year on Good Friday, we get to nail these things to the cross, too.  We get to nail up our own bellyaches and sore throats and aching joints, our anger and fear and frustration, our arguments and betrayals, our rotten bosses and cheating husbands and backtalking kids, our depression and anxiety and rage.  It all goes up there, to be destroyed with the human body of Jesus.

Roll Away the Stone, by freewine
Roll Away the Stone, by freewine

We’re pretty lucky to know the rest of the story, too.  We know that we’re looking forward to an amazing transformation.  We know that what gets nailed to the cross on Good Friday becomes something entirely new on Easter morning when the stone is rolled away.  But for now, we will live in Good Friday.  We will do honor to the death of our human savior, and we will do honor to all of those awful things that die with Jesus.  We will open our hands, letting go of those dark things that hold us down, releasing our anger and fear, frustration and anxiety.  And through Jesus, God will make those things perfect.

It is a good day.  It is a Good Friday.

Thanks be to God!

glorious mysteries #3: the resurrection

For Sunday, March 21, our third of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary is the Resurrection of Jesus.  Four translations can be found here, and the NRSV reads,

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and 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.

Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ, by Lawrence OP
Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ, by Lawrence OP

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’  When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Resurrection of the Lord, by Lawrence OP
Resurrection of the Lord, by Lawrence OP

This story is the great miracle of Easter.  Jesus had died publicly; he had been arrested, tried, flogged, marched to Golgotha, and crucified.  There was no doubt that he had died: the soldiers made sure of this before they took the empty body down from the cross.  The body had been laid quickly in a tomb, since there wasn’t enough time for a full preparation before sundown marked the beginning of the Sabbath.  But somehow, in some way we don’t (can’t?) understand, Jesus stood up again, walked around in a physical body, ate bread and fish, and taught his friends.  Thomas felt the wounds in the hands and the side of Jesus.  Jesus had died.  Jesus was alive again.

Can you imagine Mary‘s fear and anger, when she came to the tomb to begin preparing the body for its rest, and the body was missing?  And the confusion of all three of them, Mary and Peter and John, when they saw the wrappings on the floor, as though they had been discarded by a careless kid?  (“Jesus, pick up your clothes!  Were you born in a barn?”)

Angel at tomb, by Martin LaBar
Angel at tomb, by Martin LaBar

Then Mary encounters the two angels, and speaks her fear and confusion and bitterness.  Events of great power are taking place around her, and she doesn’t know what they mean (yet!), and nobody will explain them to her.  The body of the man who healed her has gone missing; she points this out to the men, and they run away!  Why do they run?  Are their fears renewed, that since the body of Jesus has gone missing, they will be similarly arrested and executed?  Or were they just not able to handle a weeping woman?  Yeah, I’d be a little bitter myself, in that situation.  But then she sees Jesus, even though she does not recognize him at first.  He speaks her name, and she recognizes him.  Her beloved teacher is right there, standing there and speaking to her!  This is amazing!  This is a miracle!

Now I wonder, how often am I Peter or John?  How often do I miss what is right in front of me, the miracles that happen around me when I’m not paying attention?  How often does a Magdalene need to point out to me that something amazing and special is happening?  How often do I forget what is real and lasting, instead allowing myself to be ruled by my fear and confusion?

I’d really rather be Mary in this story, faithful and loving, the very first to see the risen savior.  I’d get to carry word back to those blind cowards, the ones huddled together in the upper room, just waiting for their executioners to arrive.  I’d be able to say, “Look what we missed, everybody!  He is alive!  I have seen him, and he wants to see you, too!”  What a joy that would be!

Sometimes, I do get to be Mary.  I’m probably not very good at it, though.  I confess that I’m probably pretty smug that I got to be the first; that’s something special that nobody could take away from me.  I’m sure I’m impatient when the others don’t believe me; not that I’d necessarily believe, were I in their shoes, but of course they should believe me without question!

 Tapestry of the communion of the saints, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by adamsofen
Tapestry of the communion of the saints, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by adamsofen

Even better, one day, I will get to be Jesus in this story.  Each of us will — that’s the Good News that Jesus gives us.  Death does not mean oblivion, and it does not mean eternal torment.  Instead, death is just a doorway we pass through, and on the other side of it stand Jesus and Mary and Peter and John, and all of those who have passed into God’s kingdom before us.  When we get there, Jesus won’t have to say don’t hold on to me; we will be welcomed into his arms, into his kingdom, into the eternal life of the communion of saints.

Thanks be to God!

new creation (lent 5, year c)

Almighty God,
you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
to love what you command and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

We will pray this lovely Collect in worship on Sunday, our last “normal” Sunday in Lent.  Together, we will ask God to help us to love the things God loves, to help us to want the things God wants for us.  We will ask God to help us to keep our hearts and minds focused on what is real and eternal, rather than what is fleeting and false.  And we will recognize that only God can truly bring order, peace, and joy to us… though, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably forget this as soon as you say Amen.

A New Creation, by jonty.fisher
A New Creation, by jonty.fisher

Our readings this week all talk about God’s new creation, the new work that God is planting and nourishing and nurturing within each of us and throughout the world.  The gospel lesson does this through story, and the epistle does this through exposition, the reading from Isaiah relates this through beautiful poetry, and the psalm gives us a response to this work of God in us.  And through these parts of our worship for Sunday, a plan emerges that we can follow, to help bring this new creation of God to life.  Here’s our handy-dandy, four-part New Creation Plan.

  1. First, we let go of the things of the past, the things that hold us back.
  2. Second, we look forward to see the changes ahead of us, to find the new thing that God is bringing about.
  3. Then we get up and start walking toward God’s new thing.
  4. And when this new creation finds us, we give thanksgiving and praise to God.
"Requiescat in pace, Ted's old couch" by Kilgub
"Requiescat in pace, Ted's old couch" by Kilgub

It is not easy to set aside the things of the past. We’re used to them. They’re comfortable.  How many of us have one really old, really ratty piece of furniture that we just can’t bring ourselves to throw out — or maybe, we just can’t bring our husbands to throw out 🙂 — because we’ve had it for so long, and it’s comfortable?  Or maybe an old shirt that has been worn and washed so many times that, even though it’s a little threadbare, this shirt has become the softest and most comfortable one that we own?  We hold onto these things, because they bring us comfort.  In the face of the swift and varied changes of the world, we cling to these objects, these remnants of our past.  The thing is, no t-shirt lasts forever, nor does any sofa or recliner.  Only the gifts of God are eternal: joy, peace, love.  We may find fleeting comfort from these things of the past, but true comfort, true peace, true joy only comes when we set our eyes and our hearts on God.

The Anointing at Bethany, by Loci B. Lenar (Copyright 2009)
The Anointing at Bethany, by Loci B. Lenar (Copyright 2009)

When Mary washes and anoints the feet of Jesus in our gospel for this week, Judas complains at the extravagant cost of the perfume she uses.  But Jesus chides Judas, knowing what lies behind this extravagant action… and what lies ahead in Jerusalem.  Swift changes are indeed coming to all of the disciples and friends of Jesus, but his dear friend Mary already has her heart fixed on God and on God’s promise.  Jesus knows this, just as he knows that none of his friends or disciples can understand this just yet.  He accepts the love of Mary, the love from God, as part of setting aside the things of his own past — his physical, human body — so that he can embrace the new creation in his future.

In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul begins by describing his former self, the things of his past as an upright Jew, a righteous Pharisee, a stalwart of the faith.  And once he has encountered Jesus, Paul regards these as rubbish.  This may sound a bit harsh: surely these are things Paul should celebrate, right?  But Paul is smart.  He knows that when we’re caught up in celebrating our past successes, we aren’t fixed on God, and we aren’t fixed on God’s promises for us.  No, we must put aside those honors and achievements, and for most of us, that means we have to discard them, treat them as rubbish, so that we can fully embrace the new creation that is gestating within us.

Now that we’ve set aside the things of the past — or have prayed to God, asking for God’s help to leave these things by the wayside — so we move on to Step Two in our New Creation Plan.  We look ahead, trying to discern this new thing that God is bringing about.  The beautiful poetry from the prophet Isaiah can help us see what this looks like.  God promises to us

A wadi in the Sinai desert, by Lars Ploughman
A wadi in the Sinai desert, by Lars Ploughman
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

This new creation God is bringing about, it is not a small thing.  Rather, God promises us complete reversals.  God promises to take the wilderness within us and build a path through it; God takes the desert places within us and makes a river to flow through them.  And all parts of Creation — even the wild jackals — give honor and praise to God.  This is huge!  This is exciting!  This is wonderful!  These promises are made to us by the very same God who can take a dead body and bring it back to life and health; the opening of our gospel story reminds us that the host for this meal is Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  And we know what is coming for Jesus, the change from a living, but mortal, body of a man into an eternal, resurrected body.  On Ash Wednesday, we heard the words Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return; we were reminded that we are a wilderness, we are a desert.  But on Easter, God’s new creation springs forth, bringing water to our dryness and life to our deadness.

What an amazing promise God makes us!  How do we not run forward to embrace this, as the father in the parable of the prodigal son does?  Well, that’s Step Three in our four-part New Creation Plan.  One of the most wonderful things about God is that God never forces anything on us.  God yearns for us to love God, to be in relationship with God, to want these things.  But God never forces this; no, God invites us, and then lets us choose how we will respond.  We can accept the invitation, or we can turn it down, or we can set it aside to look at later because everything is just so busy right now.  So it is not enough for us to merely see and marvel at God’s amazing promise.  The promise is just the invitation.  Now we have to RSVP and then show up.

The tough part is, this isn’t just a tupperware party.  It’s not something we show up to for an hour or two, and then return to our previously scheduled lives intact and unchanged.  Paul tells us that he hasn’t gotten all the way to the new creation yet, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Paul has seen God’s promise, has cast away his past, and is now straining forward to what lies ahead.

Make a joyful noise, by allspice1
Make a joyful noise, by allspice1

The last part of our four-step New Creation Plan may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.  God gifts us a great gift in this new creation.  What did our mommies and daddies teach us?  When someone gives us something, we say thank you.  And that’s Step Four.  Sunday’s psalm gives us some words for this.  God’s new creation is a dream come true; it brings us laughter and joy.  Once we sowed with tears, and now we reap with songs of joy.

I’ll bet this all sounds too good to be true, huh?  And we all know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  So what’s the catch?  Well, there’s no catch… except a little one.  There are no strings tied to God’s grace; grace can’t be earned or bought or bargained for.  The new creation God promises us, this is a gift; it is grace.  So the only little catch is this: the four-part New Creation Plan never ends.  God is always promising us a new thing.  No matter how long we follow God, there will be places of desert and wilderness withing us, waiting for God’s living water to spring up.  Only in resurrection and reunion with God do all of our dark places finally see the light.

But even this little catch is good news.  God’s grace never runs out!  God never stops giving us gifts!  Isn’t that wonderful?  I know it fills my mouth with laughter, and my tongue with shouts of joy.  Thanks be to God for bringing God’s new creation to us, every day!  Thanks be to God for inviting us into this new creation, for inviting us onto the path where we can be focused on the things that are real and eternal!  Thanks be to God for showing us, in the life of Jesus and all those he touched, that we too can experience God’s new creation!  Let us pray.

CREATOR OF HEAVEN & EARTH, by Fergal OP
CREATOR OF HEAVEN & EARTH, by Fergal OP

Almighty God,
you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
to love what you command and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen! Thanks be to God!

Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! (Easter)

Alleluia!  The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So begins our celebration of Easter, the most important Feast of the church year.  This is a day of great celebration, with many flowers decorating the church, with festive white and gold hangings and vestments, with joyous songs and Alleluias (and Hallelujahs).  Easter is our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, a miracle that is mysterious and beyond understanding, but that is the foundation of our faith as Christians.  Many years ago, those who wished to be baptized would spend the season of Lent in learning and preparation, and on Easter, they would be baptized into the Church.  Without Easter, the Christian church would not now exist — which, I know, may be considered a mixed blessing — though we mark the birth of the Church at the Pentecost.  So what is this all about?

The lections for Easter worship offer several options, including two

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus
Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus

different accounts of the Resurrection.  The account in Mark’s gospel is more spare, less detailed.  The account in John’s gospel speaks with John’s poetic voice, with more details and more drama.  These appear to be two completely different stories, but they tell one very important truth: Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus did not remain in the tomb.  Of course, there is another detail that is very dear to my heart: it was women who first discovered this.  It wasn’t John, the beloved disciple, or Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Church was founded.  It was Mary Magdalene, healed by Jesus of a multitude of demons, and some accounts include Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome.

I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that these women must have felt.  First, as they approach the tomb, they remember the large stone that sealed the entrance, and they doubt that they will be strong enough to roll it away.  And then, they arrive at the tomb and find the great stone is already moved.  What does this mean?  Did the Romans or the chief priests take the body of their beloved Jesus to hide it?  Did some thief come, and steal their lord away?  What happened here?

In John’s account, Mary Magdalene runs back to the men to tell them that the stone is moved.  In Mark’s account the women proceed straight into the tomb, and the first words the angel inside speaks to them are, “Don’t be afraid.”  (Of course, these are the first words that every angel appearing in the bible speaks to a human.)  It’s no wonder they are afraid!  This is beyond understanding, beyond comprehension — especially when one is already filled with loss and grief and anguish, and maybe even doubt.  But then, the truth of the miracle is revealed.

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here!

Two years ago, on Easter Sunday, I wrote in this blog that I could not understand why Jesus would ever want to come back.  I mean, it’s not that he got treated particularly well while he was here, so why would he want to return?  It doesn’t make any sense!

Well, it might not make any sense to us, but it makes perfect sense to God.  After all, what kind of sense does it make to us that God would love every single one of us — love us perfectly, extravagantly, profligately, scandalously — when we know that we’re really not all that lovely or lovable?  And sometimes we might think, okay, so God can love me, but does it make sense for God to love people like Saddam Hussein or Genghis Khan or Vlad Ţepeş every bit as much as God loves Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu and Mohandas Gandhi?  Those first three — they’re terrible people!  They’re monsters, destroyers of God’s children!  And those last three, they’re people of great love and peace, truly God’s children!  How on earth does this make sense?  Of course, I just answered that question.  It doesn’t make any sense at all on earth.  But to God, it makes perfect sense.

The resurrection of Jesus is a great gift, and the fundamental truth of it is simple:

GOD. LOVES. YOU.

That’s it.  That’s the message of Easter.  Love.  It’s so simple, but of course, simple things are rarely easy.  Love is hard work for us, because we aren’t God.  We can have a hard time loving people, like Hussein and Khan and Dracula,

The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo
The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo

even like the noisy kids next door and the husband or wife and that weird guy who’s always outside the grocery store smelling not-quite-right.  Some of the final words of Jesus to his closest friends, on the night of the Last Supper, were love one another, just as I have loved you.  Jesus commands us to love, tells us that we will be recognized as his followers by the love we show.  And we must show that love.  Love is a verb.  It is an action, a choice, a behavior.  You cannot say you love someone, if you ignore them or hurt them or refuse to help them.  Love is all about the actions.  You don’t love that smelly guy at the grocery store, if you make Tsch! noises at him, or refuse to look at him.  You don’t love the noisy neighbors if you yell at them or glare at them from your driveway.  Love does the very basic physical actions that Jesus entreats us to do: love feeds the hungry, love gives drink to the thirsty, love tends to the sick, love is present for the lonely, love makes sure that the naked are clothed, and love makes room for the homeless.

God’s love has shown itself in a very basic and physical way, too.  God’s love came physically into this world as a baby human.  God came to us as a naked, hungry, thirsty boy, helpless to provide these things for Godself.  God as an infant was even homeless for a time, when Nazareth was not a safe place for God’s human family.  God as Jesus experienced all of those needs: hunger, thirst, illness, loneliness, nakedness, homelessness.  Jesus experienced anger, frustration, fear.  Heck, Jesus even experienced flatulence, sneezes, itches, bumps, and bruises.  This is what it means when we say Jesus was fully human, while being fully divine.  Jesus knows what we humans need, knows in a personal, intimate way.  So when Jesus tells us to love each other, Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole
Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole

Jesus also knows our brokenness, our failures to hit the mark, our separation from God and from each other.  Before Jesus, if a Jewish person wanted to show repentance for sin and be restored to God’s favor, a sacrifice would be made.  Jesus chose to become the last sacrifice; he allowed himself to be killed in order to restore all of us to God’s favor.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, every one of our sins was nailed to the cross with him.  We may not realize — in this world — that we are loved so perfectly, that we have already been forgiven, that this act of Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other.  That’s because we’re flawed, broken.  We’re not perfect.  All we can do is try.  We can try to love one another, just as Jesus loved us.  We can try to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.  We can make our own sacrifices, giving time to act out our love, giving money to further God’s work in this world, giving gifts, both tangible and not.

And this is the miracle of the Resurrection.  Yes, Jesus died on that cross, taking on himself the weight of all of the sin of all of the people that ever have been, that are now, and that ever will be.  But God’s love story doesn’t end there.  The story doesn’t end because somehow, marvelously and miraculously, Jesus did not stay dead.  He entered into a new kind of life, a life that included a physical body but that was filled with God’s light and presence.  And the promise of this new life of Jesus is that every one of us will be given the opportunity to enter into this same kind of new life.  We don’t know for sure how or when this will happen, but we know why.  Because

GOD!  LOVES!  US!

Amen.  Alleluia!

Friday Five: Waiting and Praying

This week, Sally gives us a Friday Five based on the Ascension story that I had the privilege of reading in church last night, and that we’ll hear again Sunday morning. Here are the questions for this week:

1. How do you pray best, alone or with others?
2. Do you enjoy the discipline of waiting, is it a time of anticipation or anxiety?
3. Is there a time when you have waited upon God for a specific promise?
4. Do you prefer stillness or action?
5. If ( and this is slightly tongue in cheek) you were promised one gift spiritual or otherwise what would you choose to recieve?

And my answers are as follows:

  1. Yes.
  2. Yes.
  3. Yes.
  4. Yes.
  5. The ability to say no?

Hee hee! Seriously, though – pray best? What on earth does that mean? Is any kind of prayer better than any other? I guess there can be dishonest prayer, mouthing words like “I praise you glorious God for your majesty and glory” when what you’re thinking and feeling is, “God, you’re such a bastard for turning my life inside-out, and I wish you’d leave me the hell alone.” So while the more honest and authentic prayer isn’t exactly pretty, I gues it would be the better prayer. I think some of the most heartfelt prayers are the one-word “arrow prayers,” like Oh God! or Please! or Help! And I think some of the prayers most beloved by God are ones like God, I’m having trouble forgiving this person, and I know I can’t do it on my own; will you help me?

We could say that some kinds of prayer are better than others because of how they make us feel. But then, is the purpose of prayer to make me feel good? Or is it something more than that? Is it our obligation to stretch ourselves in prayer, so that we continue to try out the kinds of prayer that are hard for us or that are a little bit uncomfortable or that don’t always make us feel good? I have found real meaning in centering prayer, but the actual exercise of centering prayer is almost zen-like, an emptying, ignoring even those good feelings that we find in prayer.

What I will say about praying with others, particularly in liturgical corporate worship, is that sometimes the prayers of the others carry me along when I’m not able to pray those prayers. On the days that I have trouble believing in the Resurrection, when we come to the Creed in worship, the faith of my brothers and sisters carries me. And maybe someone else there is struggling with the virgin birth, or the doctrine of the Trinity, or something else where my faith and prayers can carry them. That’s just an example, but I know it to be true. And sometimes, even the words in the Book of Common Prayer carry me through when I might not otherwise know what to say. When I’m at a loss for how to pray, having the words for Morning Prayer or Compline there is a great gift. I know that Christians can be criticized for going through the motions on Sunday and then failing to live out what we’ve heard and said and done in worship, and there is some truth to this. There is also grace present when we just show up for worship (or even our own private devotions) and go through the motions when we don’t particularly want to. Sometimes, these are the moments when God breaks through the barriers and really touches us, because we have made that sacrifice of time and energy and presence. So I find that those times I least feel like praying or worshipping – these are the times when I need to just show up. Just say the words. And grace will happen.

I’m not particularly fond of waiting. I’m a J type, and I like things decided, planned, and then carried out. Waiting is hard for me. But over the last several years, I’ve grown more comfortable with the grey areas, with living into the mystery, into the waiting. I’m gaining a new appreciation for those in-between times, and I try to honour them as they deserve to be honoured. As far as anticipation v. anxiety – I think that depends entirely on what I’m waiting for. If it’s the results of a medical test, then it’s likely to be anxiety. If it’s counting the days until my fiancé and I next get to be with each other, then it’s more anticipation. Either way, there is something special in that time of waiting, in the time between not-knowing and knowing, between not-having and having. It is sacred ground, and it deserves to be treated that way.

Waited on God for a specific promise? Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t know really what that means. Maybe it’s my J-ness, but I don’t tend to wait on God. Yes, I will engage in listening. Yes, I can wait for things to be fulfilled, but usually I have a part to play in the fulfillment of things, and that is not usually simply waiting and being. Sometimes it is – pregnancy comes to mind. But more often, there is time for waiting and being, and there is time for helping God bring God’s promise to life.

So that flows neatly into my next answer: stillness or action? Yes. 🙂 I can find stillness hard sometimes, which usually means that is when I most need it. Sometimes stillness is what is needed, and sometimes action is what is needed. Sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference, so I have to pay attention to the indicators around me, to where the Holy Spirit is whispering to me (or trying to hit me with that blasted clue-by-four again).

And that one gift… I’ve already been developing the ability to say no. I said that above mostly for the funnies – and because I know that most of us have to struggle with that one. I’m not sure what gift to ask for. Patience is always helpful. I’d also like the gift of about 100 fewer pounds, and as many of those as possible off of the boobs, please. The gift of not having to worry about my joints or pain any more. The gift of being able to clearly see the path ahead, no matter what is going on in my life. The gift of being able to hear and identify God’s voice instantly, like those ANNOYING people in the Old Testament, rather than having to sift it out and put it together from all the background noise. The gift of having my fiancé here with me, rather than 700 miles away in Canada – well, there’s that damned waiting again! 🙂

I guess that’s more than one, huh? I appear to be rather demanding, and probably high-maintenance. Oh well!

Happy Friday to you all – I can’t wait to read the other responses to this. Peace and blessings to you, in this in-between time between the Ascension and the Pentecost!

Lectionary Musings: a farewell

I wasn’t sure this week whether I would write on the lections for the Feast of the Ascension or on the ones for Easter VII, but I finally settled on Sunday’s readings.  After all, I’m writing these each week looking forward to Sunday.  And there have been some weeks when I’ve read and reflected on the lections for a midweek feast, but life continues to be crazy.  So since I don’t have to preach tomorrow night, I’m not doing all that preparation.  I am, however, privileged to be reading the first lesson, which is the Ascension story from Acts, so I’ve printed it out and formatted it how I want to see it on the lectern tomorrow night.  And, because the authors of the RCL knew that most Christians aren’t going to get to church on a Thursday to celebrate the Ascension, they’ve given us the real gist of that story in Sunday’s first lection anyway.

So this Sunday’s readings have quite an interesting shape and flow to them.  We begin with the Ascension story.  Jesus had returned to his closest friends and spent forty days with them, being with them, teaching them, loving them… until it is time for him to go.  Again.  And though he has tried to prepare them for this, and has told them that he is sending a comforter to them, and that he is coming back at any minute – I don’t know how much of this the apostles would remember in that moment.  They see Jesus ascending to the heavens, and the glory and majesty of God all around… and then I’m sure reality sinks back in with its numbing terror.  He’s goneHe was our only hope, our saviour, and now he’s gone again.  What on earth are we going to DO? But there are helpful angels there to say, um, guys? Want to stop scratching your heads and get back to work? So they do.  (I know I’m not the only one who thinks there was probably some grumbling and kvetching on the way back to Jerusalem.  And not a few “why me?” and maybe even “wtf, God?” prayers going up.)

Next, the psalm is full of majesty and glory and triumph, praising God, singing to God, telling the story of all the wonderful things God has done to help us.  And then… the letter from 1 Peter.  Sigh.  I can’t be the only one who is tired of this letter by now, with its emphasis on suffering and humility and ordeals.  I want my Easter to be joyful, dammit, and these epistles have really been bringing me down!  And, well, maybe that’s a good thing.  Because the hard truth is, we don’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday first.  There can’t be a resurrection without being a death.  And the Holy Spirit doesn’t come until after Jesus has ascended to Heaven.  As the bumper sticker says, sh*t happens.  I used to have a really hard time with a God who is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and yet who allows sh*t to happen so much.  But the thing is, sh*t, well, just happens.  But God is there, with the love and the wisdom and the power to help us redeem the sh*t, to turn it into fertilizer and to make something beautiful and wonderful and worthwhile out of it.  And we may not think that the beautiful and wonderful and worthwhile thing was worth the price, but we aren’t able to take the long view… yet.  So, dagnabbit, these readings from 1 Peter are necessary and important; they are here to remind us of the cross.  The cross may be empty now, but there was once a man hanging on it, suffering for us.  And that sh*t that happened has most certainly been redeemed by God!

So the shape of these readings has been the sense of grief and loneliness, followed by renewed purpose, in the story from Acts.  Then we get triumph and majesty and awe in the psalm, but are reminded in the epistle that we do still have work to do, and that it may sometimes suck.  It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, and then, we get to the gospel.  This week’s gospel is from the farewell discourses in John, which may be my favourite section of the bible.  In the gospel of John, most of these four chapters take place at the Last Supper, when Jesus is delivering his final teachings to his closest friends, and then prays over and for them.  This gospel reading – it is a love story for us.  We have watched Jesus ascend to heaven with the apostles, and then joined them in devotion to prayer once the angels kick us in the pants and remind us to get back to work.  We have thanked and praised God in a joyful psalm, and then we’ve been reminded, as the Man in Black said in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who tells you different is selling something.”  But then, we are given this wonderful love story, reflected in Jesus’ prayer for us all.

As wonderful as this love story is, though, it also gives us an action plan for our own lives as Christians, as followers of the risen – and ascended – Jesus.  In the prayer, Jesus says, I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.  And what was this work?  Jesus says that he has made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  Jesus continues with a beautiful picture of stewardship, acknowledging that everything he had in this world came from God and belongs to God, and then praying for God’s love and protection for us in the world.  And he concludes with a very powerful statement, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus prays for us all to be one, as Jesus and the Creator are one.

So there’s our action plan:

  1. Make God’s name known to those whom God has given us.
  2. Be faithful and loving stewards of those whom God has given us.
  3. Pray and work for unity, for us all to be one, as the persons of the Trinity are one.

Simple, right?  It’s a nice, pat, three-part plan.  We like plans, right?  So let’s go do it!

What’s that?  You have questions?  It’s simple, but it’s not easy?  Well, yeah, there is that.

I mean, who are those whom God has given us?  I have an uneasy feeling that God’s answer is already in front of us, in the response to a very famous parable.  But we don’t have to adopt every last human being on the planet.  We can start in a simpler place.  Look around you.  That’s right – right now.  Are you at work?  Your co-workers, your officemates – God has given them to you.  Are you at home?  Your family, your husband or wife, your mother and father, your sisters and brothers, your children – God has given them to you, just as God has given you to them.  Are you, heaven forbid, reading this on your iPhone during the sermon at church?  Well, the folks around you in the pews have been given to you by God, too.  Start with the people you know, and make sure they know God’s name.

The beauty of that first action in our three-part plan from Jesus is that it doesn’t mean you have to be terribly pushy.  Yes, the Great Commission directs us to go out and make Christians, but sometimes, the best evangelists are the quiet ones who live a godly life and serve as an example of joy and peace and hope and love to the people who know them.  St. Francis famously (if apocryphally) said, preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.  So we can make God’s name known to those around us without using words all the time.

To be faithful and loving stewards of those around us, we must realize that they don’t belong to us.  I know this sounds obvious.  Of course my husband doesn’t belong to me – he is his own person! But we still use that language – my husband, my daughter, my employees, my parishioners, my cousin, my sister – when the truth and reality of the matter are that these people all belong to God.  But by the same token, God has entrusted them to us, has given us the responsibility to care for them, to love them, to be sure that they are fed and housed and clothed.  We are not completely without resources in this effort, of course, because while my daughter has been given to me by God, I have also been given to her by God.  And while you – yes, you there, reading this post at 2am in your footie pajamas – have been given to me by God, I have also been given to you by God, even though you’ve never met me and don’t even know my real name.

Of course, from your dark corner of the house at 2am, in your footie pajamas, you’re probably wondering how on earth you’re supposed to take care of me, who is writing this at 7pm in my work clothes as I watch my little bird flip around her window perch to play with her toy.  Sometimes, all we can do is pray.  Sometimes we can offer words or hugs or virtual shoulders to cry on.  Sometimes a “You GO, girl!” is all we have.  But I’ll bet that there are people physically present in your life to whom you can offer more, and to whom you probably already do.

The third action in Jesus’ three-part plan is the hardest, I think.  Pray for us all to be one, as the Trinity is one.  I mean, do any of us really understand how the Trinity is one?  At least, without the benefit of some really good medicinals?  Can any of us really understand this?  And then, how do we extend that form of oneness from this(ese) divine entity(ies) to flawed, mortal humans?  What exactly are we praying for here?  Can we ever be one, here on earth?  Must we wait to join God in God’s kingdom to achieve this unity?

We can also get caught up in unity vs. conformity, which are two entirely different things.  We can be united, while still being different.  God created us to be unique images of Godself for a reason – together, we are like a giant, cosmic disco ball, each of us our own mirrored facet that reflects just a tiny part of God’s glory.  Together, in the disco ball that is the communion of saints, we are one; but when you look more closely, each of us is different, special, unique.

So.  Jesus is gone.  (Again.)  The Holy Spirit isn’t here yet, but the angels have reminded us that we have a job to do.  We know that God is good, that sometimes sh*t happens, and that Jesus loves us and wants us to be one with each other and with him.  So let’s get to work.  Devote ourselves to prayers, as the apostles did, and then make God’s name known, care for those God has given us, and work to bring about God’s kingdom – when we all will be one.