To know what we don’t know

This is my sermon April 23, 2023, the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. The readings for this Sunday were Sirach 4:11-16, Psalm 34:1-14, Hebrews 5:7-14, and John 5:25-29.

We have in the reading from Hebrews a line I find really delightful, but then I have that sense of humor that, when I realize God seems to be saying, “ha, ha,” I laugh out loud.

“About this we have more than a word and it is hard to explain because you all have become slow in understanding.”

What a nice way of saying, “Hey fools, you don’t get it.” We have that line in the letter from Hebrews about our understanding, specifically our lack of understanding, which is followed by, “at this point in time you should know enough to teach all of this.”  And I realized that one of the reasons that I found that line so amusing is, and you’ve heard me say this before, that in my own life I’m now never surprised when I realize, “Oh, you’ve had that wrong for decades.”  I especially enjoy it when one of our kids will ask us a question and, before I can even respond, they give me the answer and I think, “Wow! You are the theologian in this conversation.”

We all have those times when we think we know and then assume that’s the end of it.  Sadly, I think that is how often we approach relationship with God and how we approach an understanding of God.  And I think that is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, that so often people who believe that they are good Christian people, do things in the name of God that are so incredibly hurtful to others of God’s beloved children.  It is about believing that what you know or think you know is the fullness of what is to be known.  You learn something and think that is it for all time.  I learned things in the Episcopal Church 55 years ago that we know, or think we know– perhaps believe is the better term – were likely to be wrong because we have been open to discerning, to inviting the Spirit into our lives.  A glaring example is that 55 years ago I could not be standing here, either as priest or lay preacher.  Fifty-five years ago, women could not serve on vestries.  Women couldn’t do those things because we just knew it wouldn’t be pleasing to God.

We all have these kinds of awakenings.  We have this beautiful reading from Sirach today that basically says, “open yourself to the Wisdom of the Divine.  The Wisdom of God will bring you to where you need to be, where you want to be, to where God desires you to be.”  It’s about always being in the conversation, always being open to the Wisdom, and that, I think, is one of the reasons the readings Dr. Gafney chose for the lectionary today, the Third Sunday of Easter, are such beautifully relevant readings for the Eastertide.  They are not what we’ve grown up with in the Episcopal Church but they are beautifully relevant, compelling even, because when we realize what we know, what we think we know, isn’t the end-all-and-be-all and maybe we’ve been wrong about it, we get the chance to wake up and have a new understanding.  We get the chance to wake up and have newness in our life with each other and newness in our life with God.  And if newness and life is not an Easter message, then we’ve all got this wrong.

This is about knowing that as much as you think you know about God and relationship with God, it pales in comparison to who God is, how God is, and what God would have you learn about yourself, about being in relationship with other people, and about being in relationship with God.  When we are doing this right, we know that we are changed, that our lives are transformed, and that is not because God is any different today than she was yesterday, but because we’ve woken up to a new understanding, we’ve woken up to something new.

That is perhaps the only reason to have hope for our world today because if we continue to think that the way that we’ve lived for the past couple years, for the past decade, for the past century, is the way God would have us live, we are dying.  We are killing ourselves and each other.  I trust God enough to believe in the eternal life with God, but how we live today is not the life God would have us live as we seek better understanding. 

In the reading from Hebrews we have this line about how we not getting it and then we have the line that we should already know it well enough that we should be able to teach someone else.  I’ll admit that line tripped me up.  I thought “Uh?  What is it I not getting?”  And then I realized if this is an ongoing life of new understanding and deeper understanding of who God is, how God is present in our lives, and how we’re supposed to live, then what we are supposed to be teaching is not what we know absolutely, certainly that God would have us do, today, tomorrow, and for all time.  What we’re supposed to be teaching is this way of opening our hearts and our minds and our lives to whatever it is God will show us next.  And what ever it is, God will teach us how to be more the people God created us to be, and how to live with each other in ways that bring us deeper into the heart of God and invite to participate in the realization of God’s dream for God’s people on God’s earth. 

It’s ongoing – more than just a day-by-day – it’s a minute-by-minute decision to be open to the Spirit moving in us, to be constantly inviting the Wisdom of God to be a part of who are in our decisions, in our behaviors, and in our thinking.  The hope, the incredible hope we can have that this new life in Christ is ours, is right there.  We don’t create the new life in Christ.  We don’t make it happen.  We choose to walk with Christ as we follow God’s Spirit.  It’s all about God’s invitation to the new life and our willingness to say, “Thank you, and I’m happy to be along on this incredible ride.”

It’s Easter each and every day when we make that kind of choice.  Amen.

Easter 2023: To see and be seen

This is my sermon from Easter Day. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Easter was Isaiah 49:1-13, Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19, Hebrews 11:1-2, 23-24, 28-39, and Matthew 28:1-10.

In my family, we have one of those quirky habits that is both annoying and endearing.  My father, my brother, and a couple of uncles and cousins sometimes will respond to “Good to see you,” with “It’s good to be seen.”  Though I don’t see them often since I moved to New Jersey so haven’t heard this in years, it popped into my head when I first read today’s Gospel and then on Tuesday at the clergy Renewal of Vows service when I heard Bishop Hughes preach about people wanting to see Jesus.  Though my family members respond this way to tease, there is some truth, or perhaps there is an expression of desire, in what they say. There is something really life-affirming about seeing and being seen.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, people traveled sometimes considerable distances, across terrain that was not necessarily easy to travel, to see Jesus. It took a real commitment to get from one place to another. Yet people did this because they wanted to see Jesus. They wanted to be in his presence.  When they were seen by Jesus, they were seen for the fullness of who they were. 

I can imagine that at least some of them felt the way I imagine I would feel if I were to meet Jesus –  both really grateful and excited, and also a little bit wary and concerned, because Jesus saw the fullness of who they were.  Jesus saw all of their best traits, their strengths, and their gifts. Jesus also saw all of those things that they might want to keep hidden, from him,  from their family and friends, perhaps even from themselves.

Jesus saw it all. And, yet, Jesus saw beyond their human frailties, beyond their afflictions, beyond their brokenness.  What was more important to Jesus was the image of God in them. And when Jesus saw that, and they were present with him, they were brought to wholeness.

To see and be seen by Jesus meant healing and redemption.  And it didn’t matter how big or small the need, how relatively benign or malignant the sin.  From providing wine to all the guests at a wedding in Cana, to forgiving those who betrayed and denied him,  as well as those who sent him to the Cross, Jesus saw what was needed and offered grace, that gift which is freely given and undeserved.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, go to the tomb to see Jesus.  Their need to see Jesus transcends his death, which they have witnessed.  So they go.

The emotion in this story is almost palpable.  As read it, I can feel my stomach kind of in knots, as I imagine I would feel if I went to the tomb to see Jesus. I imagine the fluttering of my heart thinking about what I would do if I saw him, and then looking behind me in great surprise as the messenger of God comes down in this flashy white and says, “He’s not here.” I can imagine all of it from a place of needing to see Jesus.

These women who have followed and supported Jesus in his ministry know first-hand what it means to see and be seen by him.  They understand Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope in a way that may be hard for us over two millennia later to comprehend. 

And yet that does not stop us from seeking to see and be seen by Jesus.  Even though our relationship with him is as post-Resurrection Easter people, their need resonates deep within our souls.

We come together as a community of faith to hear the biblical stories, because they’re our stories.

We come together to receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist to be closer to Jesus, to acknowledge our need for redemption and healing, to be part of the communion of saints,  members of the household of God. 

And then we go into the world to share the Good News of God’s love for all people, in ways that are similar to those who journeyed with Jesus in Palestine and shared in his earthly ministry. 

We do this with the sometimes discomforting knowledge that we are seen by Jesus even before we see him, even when we don’t.

There is something incredibly and beautifully humbling about being seen and known so completely, perhaps in ways that we cannot see or know ourselves, to know that God come to live as one of us and then allowed us to take him to the Cross to die as one of us so that we might be saved healed of our brokenness and saved from our sinfulness.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus greets Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, after they leave the tomb to go in search of him. His greeting to them is “Shalom, “which in Hebrew means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. It is blessing as well as greeting.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses all that he knows that they need, and that we need today.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses the reason for his life, his death, and his resurrection.

It is a greeting and a blessing that expresses the fullness of God’s love for them and for us,and embodies that grace that is freely given and undeserved.

It is a greeting and a blessing that tells us that the Easter promise is being fulfilled.

Amen!  Alleluia!

Triduum 2023, Day 3: Holy Saturday

This is my sermon from Holy Saturday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Holy Saturday was Job 14:1-14, Psalm 31, Philippians 2:1-8, and Matthew 27:57-66.

This is what I think is the bleakest day in the whole liturgical year.  I venture to say the original Holy Saturday may well be the bleakest day in all of history.  I do believe, as you know, that as liturgical people, people who go with the rhythm of seasons, that even though this is the day before the most glorious day in the calendar and we are all tied up in preparations for tomorrow, it is so important for us to sit and notice where we are on this Holy Saturday.

As I was doing some of that thinking about the rhythm of this week and what today means, it occurred to me that my years as a chaplain, specifically as a hospice chaplain, taught me a lot, and that I knew, but one of the things I learned from that time is that for a great number of people, perhaps the majority of the people with whom I worked, the hardest day was not the day a loved one died.  The hardest day was after you slept and you woke up realizing that life as you knew it was forever changed.  This was the day you needed to start living your life without a person who was important to you, whether you loved and were loved well and joyfully, or whether it was a challenging and fraught relationship.  This was the day you woke up and had to live the changed life.

When I think about Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimithea (and others depending upon the Gospel you read) who go to bed on the Good Friday and wake up the next morning and this man for whom they risked their safety, this man about whom it has become crystal clear that his message of hope and salvation and love and inclusion and all of things Jesus was and stood for was dangerous, exceedingly dangerous.  It was as dangerous as being an insurrectionist and murder, as was Barrabas, who was supposed to hang on a cross but doesn’t, who was freed just before Jesus went to the cross.  They have devoted part of their lives at least, the fullness of their lives I would guess, to be pretty public about their belief in Jesus, who he is, and what his life and his ministry means to the world, or at least their little corner of the world.

Wow!  What a day today must have been.  He’s gone.  You’ve lost this person that you’ve loved.  Your mentor.  Your rabbi.  Your friend.  You’ve lost the person you believed was the Messiah, the one who was going come and bring to fulfillment the promises and covenants with God.  And you have to live this day also knowing that it was dangerous to be Jesus and by extension it is dangerous to live your life as a follower of Jesus, and yet they do.

We have the benefit of these many years of knowing that this statement that Jesus made that he was going to rise again on the third day was more than just bravado, was more than just a way of saying, “You think you can kill me.  You think you can quash these dreams.  You think that this rebellion and this revolution can be stopped, but I’m going to tell you that’s not true.”  We know it was more than that.  We know that this tomb they were envisioning, that perhaps they were visiting on this day, would be empty.  But they didn’t know it.  They had to plan for what life would be like without him.  And given their devotion to him, I imagine that they were having to think about living without him as they tried to their best to live their lives as he would have them to live.

And that’s what I think is to important for us on this Holy Saturday.  For us to envision our life as followers of Jesus, the one whom we believe, we believe in, and, hopefully, have all had at least some little experience of face-to-face.  But the reality is that we are not the people with whom he roamed the Judean and Galilean countryside.  We are not the people with whom he shared an actual meal.  We are not the people who got to sit at his feet, anointing them.  We are not the man who said, “Hey, I just bought a new tomb.  Let’s use it for this man.”  We are not the women who went to prepare the oils and the spices for his burial. 

But that doesn’t make our heart’s desire to be followers of Jesus any different or for us to think about, on this day in particular, what that looks like.  What does it look like for us as we walk from the cross to the tomb and then away from the tomb?  The questions his friends would have had on that first Holy Saturday – that day when they woke up and knew without a shadow of a doubt that life was forever changed because they had lost somebody they loved, the person they committed to follow – those questions are part of our story. And those are questions each of us should be taking a look at, praying with, ruminating on, and figuring out does it look like without the man, beside us, the flesh and blood man.  What does it mean to love Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to live our lives as an expression of the phenomenally good news that that is?  Amen.

Triduum 2023, Day 2: Good Friday

This is my sermon from Good Friday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Good Friday was Judges 11:29-40, Psalm 22, Hebrews 12:1-4, Luke 22:14-23:16, 18-56.

Several years ago, shortly before Holy Week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Nick Hughes, a photojournalist who directed and co-produced 100 Days, a feature film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  There was immense sorrow in Hughes’ story and also a touch of hopefulness about a future in which such things as genocide will cease to be.  Perhaps because we were about to enter into Holy Week, this interview touched my heart in a way few others have done.

Hughes talked about how UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and others who were there on the ground witnessing the horror did little or nothing to help the people. He said “All of them betrayed the Rwandan people.” He talked about how, when push came to shove, these people put themselves and even their dogs first and left the Rwandan people – people with whom they had been living and working – to be slaughtered.  It clearly was a story of immense fear in the face of political power and authority willing to sacrifice innocent people to make a point – their point. He talked honestly, with the still raw emotions he carried evident, about his part in doing nothing or little to help the people. 

What he did do was his job, which was to capture what was happening on film.  His job as a journalist was not to interfere or change history, even a history as horrific as genocide. 

He struggled to see how what he did as he attempted to bring to the world the reality of what was happening to millions of people made any difference at all.  He agonized over what he didn’t do, which would have been to step outside his job to try to intervene. He conceded there is some hope if, and I quote, “there’s some belief that Rwandans are human beings amongst an international audience.”

In that interview, Nick Hughes was struggling to forgive himself and to believe he is worthy of forgiveness.  He acknowledged he could not go back and change what happened.  He said, “There is no redemption.  You can’t go back.  Those people are dead, and it will happen again.”

I was struck by how his story of genocide resonated with the Passion of Christ.  As we hear the Passion story and put it in the context of what we know about people then and people now, it seems some things have not changed all that much. 

We continue to struggle with how to do what is good, what is right in the face of evil and political power. 

We continue to put our own plans or needs first, even when faced with almost unimaginable crisis, even when others are literally dying.

We continue to act or, in some cases, not act in ways that ensure the status quo, from which we benefit, is not overturned.

We let our comfort and our fear inform and shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that are contrary to the Gospel.

And we continue to wrestle with what that means for us as a people.

In today’s Gospel, Judas and Peter – the one who betrayed Jesus and the one who denied him – don’t sound all that different from the UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and journalists Hughes talked about.   Afraid of what it would mean to them and how it would change their lives if they spoke up for what is right, one betrayed the one person who could truly make a difference, and the other denied even knowing him.

And then there’s Pilate. He clearly did not agree with what was happening but kind of threw his hands up in the air as if helpless, rather than stand up to the crowds.

And then there are the crowds. It hardly seems possible that no one felt or thought what was happening to Jesus was wrong, and yet we see that kind of behavior all the time in this country. How many acts of violence against our black and brown-skinned siblings, our LGBTQ+ siblings, or our children sitting in schools must we witness before we do what is necessary to stop the violence, to save a life?

Even Joseph of Arimathea, who stepped in to care for Jesus after the crucifixion, sounds a little bit like Hughes and the others who told the story after millions had been slaughtered.  Well-intentioned, perhaps, but in no way did their witness make a difference to the men, women, and children who lost their lives.  And yet, the willingness to do these things is not insignificant.  It says something profound about how we see ourselves, perhaps who we hope we could be all the time.

Nick Hughes said there is no redemption in the story of the Rwandan genocide.  What has been done is done; period, end of story.  And that is where the stories of the genocide and the Passion move in such different directions.  That’s the difference between how we see and respond to things and how God is and does.

With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there is no “period, end of story.” It’s a story that continues for all time. The hope we hold is that we will be able to experience the promise of the love of God, who would willingly sacrifice himself upon the cross so that we might experience that love and God’s presence in our lives in new ways.  It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are able to better understand the immense love of God for each and every one of us. It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are forgiven and redeemed.

So today we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. We sit in the sorrow, the emptiness, the bleakness. In the starkness of the prayers and the depth of the silences, we are mindful, perhaps painfully so, of the choice Jesus made to let himself be crucified.  In this we see our worst selves.  This can be hard to bear, yet sit with it we must if we are to fully experience Easter and the opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us, worthy of a love beyond our capacity to fully imagine.    

In the gift of this striking contrast is the hope that we might all make the choices that would enliven, empower, and embolden us to be people who would actively work to prevent harm from coming to any of God’s people at any time, in any place, for any reason. 

And in this gift is the hope that we will all come to know ourselves deserving of forgiveness and redemption.  Amen.

Triduum 2023 Day 1: Maundy Thursday

This is my sermon from Maundy Thursday, We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Maundy Thursday was Exodus 15:11-21, Psalm 136:1-16, Hebrews 11:23-28, and Matthew 26:17-56.

Maundy Thursday is one of those heartbreakingly hopeful days. We have Jesus’ betrayal by one of his friends. We have Peter saying, “Oh, yeah. I’ll stay awake. I won’t deny you.” And we know that doesn’t happen to be true. And we have all the others, the other ten disciples, who are there, and Jesus is saying, “My friends, this is such a hard night. Would you please just be with me? Stay awake with me in my torment.” Even those who knew Jesus best, who loved him, who had given up so much to be with him in a time in which, clearly, it was dangerous to be with Jesus, even those who had made that kind of commitment, couldn’t stay true to it when “the rubber hit the road.” Their own needs, their own brokenness, their own fatigue, all of their own stuff overpowered what it was that they wanted, what they needed, what they knew they had with Jesus.

I think about that because it’s such a great allegory about what it means to be a disciple in 2023. It’s really easy to say, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I love my church community. I love God’s people.” And for each of us there’s that point at which something about who we are and what we need prevents us from going that one step closer, that one step deeper into the heart of God, because that’s just who we are. We are not perfect people. We are not perfect disciples. As faithful as we are, it is always an ongoing journey, it’s a work in progress, if you will. I think that actually is more than just okay because it is when we choose to continue to be the work in progress, each time we make that choice we’re choosing to follow Jesus, we’re choosing to be faithful.

But it’s still sad. I’m sure it’s the same for some of you: I keep wishing I could wake up one day and be the perfect follower of Christ, and have all the stuff I have to pray that God forgives me for to go “Poof,” to be gone, because my heart’s desire is to be the perfect follower of Christ. But, alas, humanly made, it is what it is. That’s the heartbreaking part of it.

The hopeful part of it for me, as told in this story from Matthew, is the breaking of the bread. Maundy Thursday is the day we in the church believe Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist. This is the day that Sacrament – which is one of two we have in the Episcopal Church, the other being Baptism – this Sacrament that reminds us that we are a part of Jesus and Jesus is a part of us in a way we can’t fully understand because it is a holy mystery of what it is that we are actually doing when we say prayers over bread and over wine, when we come together and a priest says, “The Body of Christ, the bread of salvation” or similar words. It’s something we can’t understand, yet we know to be true.

As we move through the Triduum, the days between now and Easter morning, let’s us be mindful that there is something truly holy about paying attention to the rhythms of this week, paying attention to the fact that on Maundy Thursday Jesus gave us two incredible gifts: one being the Eucharist, the Table fellowship with Jesus; the other being the footwashing, when Jesus kneels at the feet of his friends and tends to their bodies. We have these two gifts of grace, which we get at the same time as our human brokenness is flashing like neon lights. The cock crows three times and just as Jesus said, Peter betrays him. Jesus says, “One of you is going to betray me,” and Judas says, “It isn’t going to be me,” and then, lo and behold, in comes the betrayer and it’s Judas.

The great hope – it’s the hope we carry through Good Friday and Holy Saturday and into Easter – is that this promise that God has given us to be with us always, to redeem us from our sin, to transform our lives so we become more the disciples of Christ that we would want to be, that promise is right there with us, even as we’re doing some pretty awful things. That doesn’t give us a bye on the pretty awful things, but it does remind us that God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. God loves us because God is perfect. And that is one of the things that is said in this Gospel, “No what I want but what you do.” All of this is, as much as we might want it, is possible for us because God is who God is and God does what God does. These three days remind us of that in a that reminds us of that in a way no others in our history have or ever will. Amen.