EASTER 4C, SUNDAY, MAY 12, 2019

Sam Love

Let us pray:

“Most gracious and gentle God, from the womb of your love your gave birth to all creation; and in your Son Jesus Christ you reveal a loving kindness that longs to gather up your children under the shadow of your wings.

Bless, we pray, all mothers, especially those who nurse and care for your children.

Give them patience and wisdom. Sustain them in gentleness and grace. Deepen the tenderness of their affections. Affirm them in the nobility of their calling.

May our children always find in the embrace of mothers an outward and visible sign of your never-failing love and care. And through the love of our mothers, may we all feel the warmth of your tender mercies and know the constancy of your unconditional love.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.”

Hallelujah, the Lord is risen!

Why then, do we find ourselves back at the temple?

We’ve been through the long work of soul-searching and casting off the works of darkness that is Lent. And we’ve trod the long and difficult path that leads from the garden to the upper room, to the glorious empty tomb. So, how is it that the lectionary organizers place us way back in the feast of Dedication, which is Hanukkah? Another miraculous appearance or even something from Season 2, I’d understand, but there seems to be a disconnect here. At least, those were my first thoughts as I looked at the readings for today.

Lent shows us where we’ve been, Easter shows us where we’re going. So, what’s with the prequel?

Then it came to me.

Traditionally, Mystagogia is a period in the church’s life, after Easter, for neophytes to be instructed in the mysteries of our faith. It is also a season of reflection for our more seasoned members. Rather than rush to get things back to “normal”, after all the Easter preparations and celebrations are over, it’s a time for us to look back and contemplate the meaning that Jesus’ resurrection has for our daily lives; To see what, as Pastor Suzi said last week, the “new normal” is, now that we have been reconciled to God.

To ensure that we’re truly on the right path—that we haven’t just put back on what was cast off during Lent—we are encouraged to (as we say) persevere in resisting evil, and when (not if) we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. So let’s look a little deeper into the good news we have before us this morning, to see what mystery or mysteries there are for us to contemplate.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus being challenged by a group of people (assumed to be Jewish leadership by most scholars) who seemingly could not or would not accept his identity. “Are you the Messiah? If so, tell us plainly, they insist—as if there was a microphone hidden somewhere, collecting all the evidence they would need to convict him. But Jesus turns the tables on them, figuratively this time. “I have told you plainly” he says, “and for those of you who believe actions speak louder than words, look at the works I’ve done; even they testify to who I am”.

So the problem, Jesus points out, isn’t that I haven’t “told you plainly”; the real issue here is that you’re unable or unwilling to accept what I’ve told you because you are not in right relationship with me. Jesus uses the metaphor of a shepherd and his flock to illustrate what a right relationship between God and the people of God looks like (Hint: It looks like living the 23rd Psalm). They don’t recognize the voice of this shepherd, because they’re not his flock.

We know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but are we part of His flock? Are we good sheep?

Sheep, in the today’s world, have traditionally gotten a bum rap. They’re seen as docile, not-too-bright creatures, without a lick of intestinal fortitude in them. On the other hand, spiritually speaking, they represent unity and peace. And their young ones (lambs) are the embodiment of purity and innocence.

Since Easter we have, through our Collect Prayers, been in a constant dialogue with our creator; beseeching the God who:

1.       Gave His only begotten son to deliver us from the power of our enemy, to grant us so to die daily to sin.

2.       Established a new covenant of reconciliation, so that we may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

3.       Made himself know (in Jesus), to open our eyes to see him.

4.       As the good shepherd, pursues the lost and lays down his life for his flock; enable us to hear his voice, know who calls us and follow where he leads.

We have been asking God to help us be good sheep; Jesus’ sheep.

Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and follow him.

"Two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the men remarked, "Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket," But the other man could not hear the sound. He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people.

The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.

He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watch intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the crowded city living.

He turned to his friend and said, "We hear what we listen for."

As good sheep, we learn to listen—even amid the noise and struggle of our daily walk—for the voice of our shepherd: who will lead, guide, direct, strengthen and protect us. And we follow him—from weddings and miracles, to betrayal and the cross, to resurrection and ascension—through our thoughts, words, deeds and our lives together as a community of faith. We follow him through the many wonderful ministries, here, that are our response to His call and that exemplify our belief in and commitment to our baptismal covenant.

Jesus knows his sheep, and his sheep know him who calls.

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”, says Psalm 139. “You know my coming in and going out. Even before a word is on my tongue, you O Lord know it completely”. Jesus knows who we really are—that sometimes we wander and on occasion get altogether lost, either because we get distracted by other shepherds or because we choose to be driven rather than lead—and yet loves us (Hallelujah) anyway.

On the other hand, “knowing” Jesus’ voice (at first glance) seems to imply some kind of cursory recognition. In Spanish, however, there are a couple of words used to describe or define “to know”; Saber and Conocer. “Saber” is more at being aware of or knowing about someone or something. But “conocer” leans more in the direction of having deep personal knowledge or experience of someone or something. “Saber”, we know by heart. “Conocer”, we know in our heart of hearts. And I think this is where our thoughts are being lead; From a group of people surrounding Jesus in a temple a long time ago, to a group of people gathered around Jesus in a church today.

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus said to Peter “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” And today Jesus is saying to us, “Do you love me? Be my sheep”.

Let us pray,

God of the green pastures and still waters, we come before you in this hour longing for the peace, healing and wholeness that only your spirit of grace can give. Help us in this season of introspection, to find the holes in our logic; the empty places in our hearts, and the gaps between our beliefs and our behavior; that we may be filled with your Love, embrace your mysteries, and follow where you alone lead.

Amen.

GOOD FRIDAY, FRIDAY APRIL 19, 2019

Have you ever gone to visit someone or something and got the feeling that this was the last time? Have you ever been in such a thin space with God or with someone else that tears were the only language you needed to know? Have you even been betrayed—or been the betrayer—hurting someone you love in a harmful way? Friends, this is the scope of Holy Week. It is the final entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is the final meal he shares with his disciples. It is the time when his feet are anointed and his body prepared for its burial while still living. It is the time when friends Judas and Peter betray him and not only does it get him killed—it is a denial of the greatest of loves.

On this Good Friday, we see Simon of Cyrene help Jesus carry this cross to the hill where he will die. We see Jesus spat upon, pushed down, criminalized, tortured, and killed all in the name of the state all because he believed in a way of living called Love. However, Holy Week, and in particularly, Good Friday, is not only about gloom. While Jesus is hanging on the cross, we are told about the two men on either side of him; and despite not knowing them or having any real relationship with them--he promises them paradise—forgiving them for the things they’ve done knowing their time is also coming to an end. What I find most compelling about Good Friday, is that despite all the trauma Jesus has been through, and despite all the betrayal he has endured, he continues to practice what he believes even under the biggest cloud of doubt. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried, as the whips tore into his skin and people watched with glee.  

Beloveds, Holy Week is a week long journey into the life of our Christ. We are joined with him in his doubts, in his pain, and we come into touch with our own doubts and step even closer to our own pains as we walk this narrative and sit with Christ in his agony. Good Friday confronts us with the pains and evils of this world that challenged Christ and the system that killed him—and it gives us glimpses into the systems of this world today that cast shadows over entire bodies of people and still crucify them.

However--Holy Week also brings us to a place where--our pains have opportunity to meet God’s compassion; our disappointments are met with God’s steadfast love; and our hopes have yet another opportunity to live again. Holy Week asks us to consider those areas in our life that need resurrection. It asks us to think about those parts of our life where Christ is still on the cross—where there is pain or agony—resentment or bitterness—and it asks us to think about what it might it look like to let some of this pain die with Christ—even just some of it—so that we might experience some new kind of resurrection with our Lord on Easter Sunday.

Holy Week is not necessarily a time to forgive offenses that have caused us great harm as forgiveness is an incredible journey that is not at all easy and can take a very long time. However—Holy Week is a time that invites us to consider where it is that all the pains we know and suffer, intersect with the God of Love who came into human form and lived as one of us—was rejected, betrayed, tortured, and left to die. Holy Week invites us to sit in those thin spaces and keep vigil—in the same way God keeps vigil with us in the storms of this life—in the same way we keep vigil with Christ in his death. Holy Week asks us to prepare our hearts to go deep into this work. It invites us to break bread—to wash one another’s feet—to anoint our bodies for burial with Christ—and to bear witness yet again to the pains of this world that killed our Christ—and continue to this day taking the lives of holy innocents. Good Friday reminds us that while Christ died—love never gives up. Love remembers the repentant and welcomes them home. Love remembers the doubtful and embraces them with conviction. Love faces every fear, and fights every battle, and remains the greatest of hopes and all virtues. Good Friday reminds us that Love never fails—that even from the grave—we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. This my beloveds, is what we gather to proclaim even in our darkest of hours—and it is this song that has called us together for these last two thousand years.

For many years, I wondered what, if anything about Good Friday was Good. I wondered why something so tragic, so criminal, as the death of Christ was in any way good. Did God really want this all to happen? Does God really forsake us in this way today? Christ, from the cross, even doubted. It is only natural that we too feel this—and we see this played out in the story of Peter—who apart from these three instances remained a person with strong faith and conviction. We also must consider Judas—who despite his selling Jesus out—suffered a very weak moment. We are no different.

The Good News of Good Friday, my beloveds, is that we are again invited into the mystery of God’s love. The pains we bear in this life—are met by God’s love. The doubts we have in this life—are met by God’s love. The pain and suffering we experience in this life are not some evil sent to us from a God who leaves us hanging. We are instead met with Love—in our darkest moments of this life—in our darkest moments on the crosses we bear. Perfect love calls us home. Perfect love walks with us in our pain. Perfect love bears our every pain. This is the Good News of Good Friday. Love’s finest display—the cross that bears the sins of the world. It is uncomfortable to watch what happened. It is uncomfortable to see anybody we love suffer…and like the disciples who stood to observe this awful pain…we are reminded that the invitation of God is to love us and never leave us or forsake us. Beloveds, we kneel in the presence of Christ at this cross today, bearing our full selves—both the disciple and the betrayer. In these days, we are invited to sit with Christ’s body and pray—just as Christ sits with us even in our darkest hour—and waits with us for resurrection. This is an opportunity to participate in the life, death, and resurrection of our Christ—and it is the hope of our faith. Good Friday is Good News. Friends, we are an Easter people—we know that from the ashes Love will rise again—we see it every day—even when we doubt—even when we can’t see it for ourselves. If you’re going through hell—hold on. Love is not yet done.

EASTER 2C, SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 2019

Deacon Sue Nebel

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (People respond: The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.) It has been a full week since we first made that joyful proclamation. A week since we heard the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. The first hint that something remarkable had happened. A week since the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. Recognized by Mary Magdalene in the garden near the tomb. In the days since then, in churches with weekday celebrations of the Eucharist, people have heard the stories of more post-Resurrection appearances. Jesus appears to some followers on their way from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. He also appears to the disciples. Gradually the light of hope grows in the darkness of despair. The realization that the political powers of oppression, the powers of darkness, have been defeated. God has done something remarkable. God has raised Jesus from the dead into new life. In this morning’s Gospel, we hear the story of the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples. A week later, he appears again. Thomas, who had not been present with the other disciples when they encountered Jesus, needs to be convinced of this new reality. Struggling to believe the impossible, Thomas wants to see the marks of the wounds on Jesus’s body. Responding to Jesus’s invitation to touch him, Thomas bursts out: “My Lord and my God.” Recognition and belief. 

This morning, we hear not only the story of Thomas’s affirmation of Jesus. We also get a glimpse of the impact of the Resurrection on the disciples. In the first reading from the Book of Acts, Peter and the disciples, now called apostles, have been brought before the authorities. Peter, who after the arrest of Jesus denied any connection to him, is now a voice of affirmation. With the others, he boldly affirms loyalty to God rather than any human authority. Emboldened and strengthened, Peter and the others are moving forward to continue the story of Jesus. They will spread the good news. They will tell the story of Jesus: his life and death, his deeds of healing and teaching. His message of a God that loves all of God’s children. Fully and completely, without regard to their status in society. A God that dreams of a world in which all are honored and respected, where all human life thrives.

Easter. Resurrection. Inside the walls of our churches, we celebrate and rejoice in new hope. Outside it is a very different story. This has been a difficult week. On a global level there were the bombings in Sri Lanka. As the day wore on, we learned the magnitude of the tragedy: 250+ people killed, many more injured. Christians targeted by religious extremists. Then yesterday, news of another shooting in a place of worship. This time a synagogue in San Diego. The target: Jews. Closer to home, the initials A.J. were etched on our hearts. We heard the news of a five year old missing in Crystal Lake. We waited anxiously, hoping for his safe return home. Then came the news we had been dreading: A.J. had been found. He was dead, murdered. The details of his short, difficult life emerged: abusive parents, drug usage, the failure of a system that is supposed to protect at risk children. Easter. Resurrection. Good news. How do we find good news in the face all of this? Where do we find hope?

Surrounded by all this bad news, I did what I often do. Like Native Americans and people in many cultures, I turned to the elders. My go-to sources for wisdom. I turned first to Steven Charleston. You may have heard his name. I have mentioned him before. Steven Charleston is the retired Bishop of Alaska and currently works with the Native American/Indigenous Peoples Ministries of the Episcopal Church. I subscribe to his posts on the Internet.  He said this about the bombings in Sri Lanka:

I will remember Sri Lanka. I am sure you will too. . .We have seen it before, but the bombing of places of worship still has the power to startle us because its cruelty is so calculating. It reminds us that our job as people of faith is far from over. In many ways, we have just begun. The task ahead is both dangerous and difficult, but we will not back down from the cause of peace between all people of all religions. We will never be bullied by religious terrorism. Why? Because we remember Sri Lanka.

Our job as people of faith is far from over. In many ways, we have just begun. That sounds like Thomas, ready to move forward into a new, unknown future. That sounds like Peter and the disciples. Refusing to back down. Ready to carry on the work that Jesus started. That sounds like Resurrection. 

After drawing from Steven Charleston’s wisdom, I turned to another of my go-to people: Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I discovered that he too had turned to an elder, a source of wisdom. For him it was Barbara Harris. Barbara Harris, an African American, was the first woman ordained and consecrated a bishop in The Episcopal Church. She has written a memoir titled Hallelujah, Anyhow! The title comes from an old Gospel hymn:

Hallelujah anyhow!
Never let your troubles get you down.
When your troubles come your way
Hold your hands up high and say
Hallelujah anyhow!

Michael Curry makes that phrase “Hallelujah anyhow!” the theme for his Easter message. He retells the story of Mary Magdalene. Standing at the foot of the Cross, faithful to the end. Hallelujah anyhow! Mary and the women going to the tomb in the early morning darkness. In the midst of grief and lost hope, going to perform a final act of love: preparing the body for burial. Hallelujah anyhow! Mary seeing Jesus in the garden, experiencing the impossible. Hallelujah anyhow!

As we moved through this past week, we began to hear more about Sri Lanka. Muslims opening their mosques to the Christian faith communities that had been attacked. Offering them space for their worship services. Hallelujah, anyhow! People bringing toys, stuffed animals, and messages of love to the memorial at A.J. Freund’s home. People gathering for a vigil, lighting candles in the darkness. An outpouring of generosity and love that A.J. did not experience in his short, sad life. Hallelujah anyhow! A community activist moving through the crowd. Handing out information sheets on how to report suspected abuse. She said: “I want this community to be a place where children are safe.” Hallelujah anyhow! 

Allelulia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. We begin our services throughout the Easter season, the Great Fifty Days of Easter, with those words. We end with an Easter Dismissal: Let us go forth in the name of the Risen Christ. Alleluia. Alleluia. We go out from this place into the world. A hurting world. A world in need of good news. In need of love. In need of hope. Let us go forth from this place, committed to our role as modern-day disciples of Jesus. Resolved to bring, in our words and actions, God’s love to those whom we meet. It will not always be easy. Jesus never promised anyone that. But do it we will. Hallelujah anyhow!

Second Sunday of Easter; Year C

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

EASTER DAY, APRIL 21, 2019

The Rev. Suzi Holding

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

In a staff meeting a few weeks ago, our deacon Sue looked out on the lawn (the actual lawn, not our astro turf courtyard) and remarked…”grass is the miracle plant….you look at in winter and it looks like it won’t ever come back…and then it does…and it seems greener than ever before!”

This is such a lovely and energizing time of year as we see the green shoots burst forth from the ground, bearing buds of different varieties and colors, watch assorted foliage beginning to unfurl, notice the greening of the trees as new leaves begin to sprout.

This time of year Creation conspires to remind us that new life abounds. This is the reassurance that spring brings.

Creation is resplendent with signs of resurrection…such is the cycle of nature, that death is transformed into new life…signs of new life spring up all around.

Having these images of new growth seem apropos when we think Easter…not just these signs of spring and cute little bunnies, but the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.

In John’s account we hear that it is early on the first day of the week, still dark. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. She had been with Jesus through it all and I imagine was in shock after the events of those past few days. If you have ever lost someone very dear, you know that those early days of grief are surreal.

So she tends to the familiar rituals of grieving, intending to anoint his body with spices and oil. 

She saw the stone removed from in front of it and she ran back to the men to tell them and they in turn ran to see for themselves….they saw the same thing but did not understand the significance and went back to their homes.

Mary on the other hand stayed…as she had done at the cross…as she had done from the first moment she met Jesus and her life was forever changed… and now she stood weeping, just outside the tomb…she peaked her head inside… and saw two white angels who asked her….why are you weeping? And she answers that her Lord is gone.

She notices a man just outside the tomb who also asks her that same question…but also another one, Whom are you looking for?

This man, she supposed him to be the gardener… (Jesus inexplicably bound with creation, all living things).

Sometimes we see what we expect to see…a gardener in a garden…rather than see the unexpected, the risen Christ in our midst.

I have read this passage many times, preached on it several times, looked at countless depictions of art work of this particular encounter between Jesus and Mary, many of these works of art showing him with gardening hat and hoe or shovel. And I admit that I have found it a bit amusing that Mary did not recognize Jesus and mistook him for the gardener.

And yet for some reason, this season it has struck me in a profound way. Perhaps it is because gardening is on my mind. My daughter has become quite environmentally conscious and is telling me what pollinators I should plant. Perhaps it is because earth day is tomorrow and earth care is more critical now than ever.

When asked “Whom are you looking for?” Mary sees the gardener. John, the writer of this Gospel chooses his words and images carefully and what he says often has layers of meaning attached to it. They are complex and profound and nothing accidental. 

So it occurs to me that this image of Gardner is not random or trivial. This is not a case of mistaken identity.

John places Jesus’ tomb in a garden, and we are reminded of that first garden of creation, the Garden of Eden - On the 3rd day dry land, seas, plants and trees were created.

This garden of the tomb, a place of death, brought forth the first fruits of the resurrection, new life on the third day.

Mary Magdalene thought she met the gardener. She was right. Was it a mistake, or perhaps not a mistake at all. Maybe she saw what she needed to see. Jesus had certainly played a gardener role in her life. Not only was he her teacher, but he was so much more. This gardener knows her, warts and all. This gardener showed her what it meant to be loved, truly deeply loved, without condition, without judgement….and showed her how to love in return.

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope who helped spur the expansive spread of Christianity in the late sixth century, in his sermon on this passage said “Perhaps this woman was not as mistaken as she appeared to be when she believed that Jesus was a gardener. Was he not spiritually a gardener for her when he planted fruitful seeds of virtue on her heart by the force of his love?”

The man asked Mary “Whom are you looking for?” and she saw a gardener.

A gardener’s work is earthy and intimate. Gardeners have their hands in the humus, in the dirt.  Gardeners handle things with living hands… Tending, nurturing, caring, tilling, being attentive to good soil, sufficiently watering, planting seeds.

And isn’t Jesus always planting seeds, even when we don’t recognize them, even when they begin to sprout. He himself said a few days before “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12: 24). Even many of the parables, teaching stories he told were about planting, growing, pruning and watering…even fertilizing with manure (Luke 13: 6-9).

Jesus is the Gardener of our souls….by watering the seeds of faith within us.

His hands get dirty in the soil of our hearts.

We see Jesus as cultivating new life…cultivating resurrection life, resurrection hope, resurrection promise.  Cultivating us with care so we grow and flourish…

Nurturing, encouraging, fostering, enriching us.

I am guessing that Jesus has the most amazing green thumb and can make anything grow. He will nurture you to a fruitful state, he will fertilize to heal and strengthen you, and prune to thrive.

Jesus as gardener connects us with the created order…where we see God’s promise of renewal and also our call to be stewards of all God’s creation, all God’s living things.

Martin Luther, sixteenth century reformer, has said… “Our Lord has written the promise of Resurrection, not in books alone but in every green leaf in spring-time.”

A few years ago I took a class on the Church and Sustainability. A Korean student was in the class and as part of his final project he shared with us a video of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, an area created nearly sixty years ago, the land was ravaged by the war, nothing left. The video began with images of the devastation and barrenness of this once fertile land… an approximately two-mile wide swath of land bound on both sides by barbed wire, stretching across the 155-mile width of the Korean peninsula. Because the zone is off-limits to human development, it has become a vibrant ecosystem, a haven for protected and endangered animal and plant species, a habitat restored, renewed, regrown.

The images of this renewal were astounding…the message even more profound…from the many who had sacrificed their lives in war, a garden had blossomed, …a remnant of violent conflict became the symbol of a greener, more peaceful future.

In the unique event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our faith stands on the promise of Jesus’ triumphant victory over death…in all of its forms. The hymn, “Now the Green Blade Riseth” which we will sing in just a bit, says it all. The tune is perhaps better known as a Christmas carol but the words are all about Easter…

In the grave they laid him, Love whom hate had slain…(verse 2)

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain

He that for three days in the grave had lain,

Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green (verse 3)

That is the good news of Easter….new life, new hope,

That is the invitation of Jesus…our gardener….

Jesus as gardener is not Easter fluff, but is something real, the answer to the question “Whom are you looking for?” Consider…where you are meeting the risen Lord in your life? where you are seeing God's newness in your life? How you might continue to nurture that new growth?

As we hear news reports coming in about the violent attacks in Sri Lanka, including three churches where people were worshiping on Easter morning, we must proclaim that the resurrection is real…so many have witnessed it in their lives, God proclaims it in creation. Life inexplicably follows death; that is the Christian hope and promise.

May Christ the gardener nurture our faith and strengthen our hope, especially in times of new life, so we may see and live the Easter promise.

Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118: 14-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18

EASTER VIGIL, APRIL 20, 2019

The Rev. Suzi Holding

An Idle Tale

That’s what Jesus’ disciples thought when they heard what the women had to say when they returned from Jesus’ tomb…their story seemed to them an idle tale, nonsense, foolishness…and they did not believe a word of it.

Yes, this was just a silly story spun by the sorrow and wishful thinking of these grief stricken women.

Seriously, the stone rolled away from the tomb, no body inside, two men appearing in dazzling clothes, saying Jesus was raised from the dead…why the women didn’t even see Jesus… An idle tale indeed!

When I was 4 years old, I told my mother about a new friend I had. We had just moved to Dayton, Ohio and I was lonely. I told my mom that he was coming over for lunch so she fixed a couple of peanut butter sandwiches for us, and I sat down at our picnic table outside. After a while she came outside and saw that the sandwiches were gone.

She asked where my new friend was...I said he had just left…she asked his name, I said it was Casper the friendly ghost, as serious as anything. Well she gave me a look, rolled her eyes, and shook her head as if to say “what nonsense, what utter foolishness”…truly an idle tale.

I imagine that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the other women got a similar look when they told the other disciples what they had seen….the men didn’t believe them.

But these women knew that they were telling the truth, the living gospel truth.

When the two men in the dazzling clothes told them to remember what Jesus had said to them, while he was still in Galilee...that he must be handed over to sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again…

They remembered.

Of course they remembered. These were the same women who had traveled with him from Galilee, they had heard his teachings, witnessed the healings, they had been with him those last days in Jerusalem, they had seen him arrested by the soldiers, they had stood at the foot of that cross and watched him die, they had gone to the tomb and seen him buried and the stone rolled across the entrance to the tomb.

All those strange things he had said now made sense

Yes, they remembered….not in the way of nostalgia….but in the way of bringing the past into the present, the meaning of his past words and action made real. They remembered with power and deep insight, understanding his words now through the eyes of faith.

So why did this seem like an “idle tale” to the men? They had heard Jesus say the same things.

I wonder…Perhaps they had thought that Jesus’ language about his own dying and rising again might be a metaphor like all those parables he told.

They often did not fully understand what Jesus was saying.

They never thought, or even considered that what he was talking about was the battle being waged with the enemy, with death itself.

When Peter heard the women’s story, he didn’t believe them and I imagine thought them silly women. He had to see for himself.

So Peter got up and ran…ran to the tomb, stooped and looked inside and saw just the linen clothes…nothing else. He walked away…stunned, amazed, bewildered, wondering…and went home.

But there came a time when he wondered no more…..the idle tale became living truth for him, emboldening him, changing his life forever.

As the events of the next few days unfolded, the story was told again and again, no longer an idle tale, but a story of hope, a story of God’s saving grace and love.

This evening we have heard stories of hope, stories of God’s saving grace and love…some might say the Creation story is an idle tale, or the great flood is nonsense….or the dry bones coming to life is foolishness.

Yet these stories, and others, have been told time and again by God’s people as part of the amazing story of God’s love for God’s people.

For those of us baptized we are grafted into this story, and our story connects with each other and that connects to an even greater story….that story of God’s love for each of us.

Our stories connect with the stories of those early disciples, with martyrs and saints, past present and yet to come, and with redeemed sinners here, there and everywhere.

We are a people of story… our stories give us identity, a sense of who we are, and shape us into who we become. And this story is not an idle tale, but a story that has the power to transform our lives, just like it did for those early disciples, just as it has done for the faithful through the generations …. their lives have been transformed, they have been emboldened to live anew.

If the resurrection was truly just an idle tale, we wouldn’t be too interested in a baby born in a manger…

without the story of the resurrection, Jesus would have been just another innocent victim executed by Rome,

without the resurrection, bread and wine would simply be bread and wine,

without the resurrection we would be sleeping in every Sunday morning.

The story makes a difference…..for many this idle tale has become the story of life ….the story where we find courage, strength, justice, mercy and ultimately, foundationally Love...

the story that confirms death does not have the final word and assures us that there is something more beyond our earthly horizons….

In this Post modern post Christian secular world this may sound like an idle tale.

But for those of us who have experienced the risen Christ, we gather here because the story is not just an idle tale. We gather here because the resurrection of Jesus is what gives us life.

“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15: 57

Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24: 1-12

LENT 5C, SUNDAY, APRIL 7, 2019

The Rev. Suzi Holding

I remember that evening….spring was in the air…there were signs of new growth, new life everywhere. Flowers were beginning to push their green stems out of the ground, their buds just emerging. There was just a hint of a fresh, sweet fragrance in the air…the long gray winter was finally over.

We had just finished dinner. Jesus had once again regaled us with stories…what an amazing story teller he was. But his stories were not just fanciful imaginings…there was always some nugget of truth, something that caught your attention and you started to see things in a different way, your perceptions challenged and then changed…..

My brother Lazarus was with us….now there was a truth that some found hard to believe…just a few weeks earlier we thought we had lost him forever. I still have trouble believing what I saw…that he came out of that tomb, after being in it for four days…still wrapped in the grave cloths…I could not believe my eyes!

We had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus had taken ill…and I was so disappointed when he didn’t come immediately. Jesus was like family…Lazarus had been like a brother to him. Our own parents had died years before and we cherished that sense of extended family with him. He had stayed in our home, broke bread with us many times over the past three years. I thought  he would drop everything and come to be with us and with Lazarus. But he didn’t. I know it wasn’t safe for him to come. People in power and positions of influence were disturbed by things he was saying and how more and more people were gathering to hear him. Already some had tried to stone him at one of these gathering. His disciples told him not to come….

and then he came.  But it was too late. Lazarus was already dead. So many people had come to our house to mourn with us. When my sister Martha heard that Jesus was coming she ran out to greet him…I stayed back with our friends…that is until Martha came back telling me Jesus was asking for me…I rushed out, and everybody at the house followed me.  When I saw him I knelt at his feet….crying…and he asked where Lazarus had been laid... there were tears in his eyes…

When he saw the cave where Lazarus has been laid, he told some people to move the stone that was in front of it…Martha looked at him and said, it is really going to stink if you do that….he has been dead four days…he looked at her and said…Believe,…Trust me…

As they moved away the stone, Jesus looked up and prayed…Father…and then he looked at the cave, raise his voice and said “Lazarus come out!”……and he did!

I can still hardy believe it happened…Lazarus was alive again…and there he was, sitting with us that night having dinner… I reached over to pinch him just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it…he laughed at me. And rolled his eyes. Typical big brother!

When dinner was over, Martha was busy as usual cleaning up after the meal…there had been quite a few of us at dinner that evening so there was much to do.

I had taken my usual spot at Jesus feet, listening and hanging on his every word…and Martha gave me the side eye, as usual! Women were not supposed to be with the men when they were having their important after dinner conversations. Jesus didn’t mind though.

Those days things seemed so tense…having known Jesus and going around with him…the things he said and did.…he was making some people very nervous…even within our own cohort…Judas was not happy,  He grumbled and complained.  Judas was so tightly wound….like energy contained, ready to burst forth at any moment….like a bomb ready to explode… he had such a fervor for the resistance, a zeal, to get rid of the Roman Occupiers by any means possible, to call to account the religious authorities that collaborated with them….he was so impatient and agitated.

The men were talking about men things…and then conversation shifted. The disciples were worried. Hostility had been mounting since Jesus spoke Lazarus back to life. The intensity of the danger to him had increased. There were rumors that the authorities were plotting against him

The men were saying he shouldn’t go into nearby Jerusalem,…the leaders in the city were after him.

Judas and the others were trying to tell Jesus what to do….Jesus  was unwavering. His face was set…

and then I knew…he was well aware of what awaited him in Jerusalem and he was bound and determined to walk right into it. My heart began to break…because I knew he wasn’t coming back.

And I thought about that special oil in the alabaster jar that I kept in the other room…a very exceptional and expensive oil from the East, a dark golden oil…with healing properties…some people used it to anoint the dead. We had a goodly amount.

I got up and got it and sat once again by him.

I remember pouring the oil on his feet. I did not want to hold back. Jesus had taught us about God’s generosity, about God’s love and grace poured out lavishly on us, God’s beloved…and so I poured out that exceptional oil on those feet…those worn and calloused feet as I held them tenderly in my hand. 

And I looked up and saw he was looking at me…the way that only he could look at you…as if he knew you to the very core of your being… warts and all, and yet loved you fully, deeply, without restraint. I looked into those eyes of his…oh my they were the color of rich amber honey…

And I started to cry…my tears falling on those feet,…I used my hair to wipe them away…and it felt like time stood still…and the future and all that would happen to Jesus would be kept at bay.

Judas broke the moment…ranted…by saying “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denari and the money given to the poor?”  Well he was right …that oil would fetch a high price on the market…well over a year’s worth of wages….and yes, that money could be given to help the poor. For a moment I felt ashamed, that I had stupidly wasted that precious oil…Judas was good at saying things that could make you feel like you were never doing enough…that whatever you did, no matter how much you tried…it wasn’t enough.

There were those among us who were beginning to distrust Judas…he kept the common purse…and money seemed to be missing from it more and more…it was easy to suspect him.

And then Jesus told him to leave me alone….to just back off…Jesus knew what I had done and why…he knew what it cost me…not just the oil, but the aching in my heart, my grief and my tears.

The scent of that oil lingered in the house well after everyone had left for the evening…a wonderful earthy, musky fragrance, a wonderful reminder of love.

The following week is still a blur…the treachery and the betrayal, the way he was taken and executed…I am still in shock.

I remember the way he looked at me…the way he looked at all of us, even Judas….with such love…for it all to end in such horror is inconceivable….I will remember him by loving…as he loved us….fully, deeply, without restraint.

Some are saying that they have seen him…could it be???

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12: 1-8

LENT 2C, SUNDAY, MARCH 17, 2019

Pastor Frank C. Senn

Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Promise and expectation are not necessarily the same thing. What is promised is one thing. How that promise is imagined is something else. We’ve all experienced situations in which our expectations of what is promised are disappointed. This might happens when we’re going to a place we haven’t been to before. We pick out a resort in the Caribbean to get a break from Chicago’s winter. But there’s no guarantee that it will be as luxurious as advertised or that it won’t rain all week.  

Surely immigrants coming to this land of promise expect a better life than they left behind. Today on Saint Patrick’s Day we think of all the Irish who escape the potato famine to come to America, only to be greeted by a hostile reception. The American or “Know Nothing” political party was formed to push back on “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” which was associated with the Irish. Americans have been generally hostile to each wave of immigrants since the founding of the republic. Yet each group of immigrants has eventually found a place in American society.

One wonders if Abraham found life better in the land of Canaan than in Iraq (ancient Chaldea). Nowhere in the Bible is the discrepancy between promise and expectation truer than in the story of Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation with descendants and land. Yet here he is in today’s reading, aging and with no heir or land of his own. The Lord God reiterates his promises. Abraham will indeed have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and his own heir, not his steward. Moreover, the Lord authorizes the possession of the land of Canaan. It is ratified by a strange nocturnal vision of a sacrifice in which God as a blazing fire seals the covenant between his promises and Abraham’s faith, which is accounted to him as righteousness.

Abraham himself, of course, never possessed the land.  Neither did his immediate descendants.  It took generations before the children of Israel came out of Egypt and crossed the Jordan under Joshua to take possession of Canaan by a holy war that lasted several centuries.

Revising expectations of what is promised is something we do all through life. Experience teaches us to have a plan B as well as a plan A.  The people of Israel also had to revise their expectations of what God had promised.

God promised descendants and land to Abraham. The expectations of Israel became bound up with geography and political rule. Mt. Zion and the city of Jerusalem became not just David’s, but God’s capital on earth. Yet God allowed foreign kings and armies to overrun the land and take Israelites into captivity. After the Persian king Cyrus released the Jews from their Babylonian exile, those who returned to the land seldom regained sovereignty over it. Some Jews got used to living in the diaspora and returned to the land only as pilgrims.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus – the Son of the God of Abraham and the descendant of David on his human side – laments over Jerusalem as the place that kills God’s prophets. We don’t know what prophets Jesus was referring to. None of the Old Testament literary prophets were killed in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been referring to other prophets, or maybe even to later Christian martyrs like Stephen and James the Just. But Jesus is determined to go there.

He is advised by the Pharisees that King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him, as he got Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Jesus says he is not afraid of that fox. He will not be deterred in his mission by a crafty provincial politician. He will face the real powers-that-be in the place where prophets are killed by their own audience-turned-jury.

He expresses a disappointment that he has not been able to gather the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks. It’s the strongest feminine image Jesus uses of himself. But it’s not an image of strength. If there’s a contest between a fox and a hen, the hen loses. The most the hen can do is offer herself in the hope that if the fox gets her, the chicks under her wings will escape to safety. It’s really an image suggesting that Jesus is offering himself for the salvation of the people, if the people will accept the shield he provides and come under his wings.

Not surprisingly, the followers of that Son of God and son of David who was killed in Jerusalem lost interest in the earthly Jerusalem, or even in the land promised to the descendants of Abraham.  Expectations change.  We followers of Jesus look to a heavenly Jerusalem. We expect to go to heaven. 

But perhaps our expectations need to change again. The vision in Revelation is of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. It was Origen, the greatest biblical scholar and theologian of antiquity, who convinced Christians that the promise to Abraham had to be realized spiritually.  He thought he had St. Paul on his side, for the apostle wrote to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But this doesn’t say we’re going to heaven, any more than the citizens of Philippi were going to Rome. Philippi was a town of military retirees who were Roman citizens living there on their pensions. Paul uses this image to compare his Philippian congregation with those believers who are “enemies of the cross.” These “enemies” are not persecutors of the church but Christians who reject the idea that the life of faith entails suffering. They want a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross. Paul, who knows quite a bit about suffering doesn’t expect worldly glory with earthly triumphs. “We are citizens of heaven,” Paul tells them, just as the residents of Philippi are citizens of Rome. We expect Christ to come to us from heaven, just as the emperor might come from Rome to visit Philippi.

We Christians, who hold to the Old Testament also as our sacred scriptures, have come to see in the Bible a long epic story that goes through many twists and turns as God makes delivery on his promises. We have come to see Jesus in his person and work as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and to David. The faith of Abraham is passed on to all the nations of the earth through the apostolic mission of the church of Christ. As the descendant of David according to the flesh Christ has secured for the house of David an eternal throne in heaven.

Yet even on earth, Jesus could not escape the political ramifications of being an heir to the throne of David when there were already emperors and kings sitting on thrones that claimed the land David once ruled.  These ramifications dogged him his entire life.  His birth had threatened one King Herod.  In our Gospel today we see that his ministry was threatening another King Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee, who had his own political ambitions.

Luke wanted his readers to sense the underlying direction and purpose of events in history. He reminds them and us that the God of the covenant is at work in our midst, seeking to move human life toward the kingdom so eloquently proclaimed by Jesus and so thoroughly inaugurated by his life, death, and resurrection.  Even the recalcitrance of the holy city in rejecting the Messiah sent to them seems to have played into God's plans. 

Of what can we be certain if expectation does not always match promise? The antidote to uncertainty is to develop an awareness of the purpose of God in the course of human events. God is leading us toward his future, just as he led Abraham. It is from the perspective of that future, revealed with finality in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, that we can understand how God's purposes have been worked out in the things that have taken place (even if they are contrary to our expectations!).

Like Abraham and his descendants, like Paul and his Philippians, we must sort out how God is moving us toward his goal amid conflicts and in the face of well-intended or duplicitous adversaries. How is God keeping his promises?  In what ways do our expectations cloud our perception of what God intends by his promises? Sorting things out is one of the purposes of Lent.  And one of the things we have to sort out is our relationship to place.

The link between faith and place still lingers, and in the wake of the chilling murders of Muslims praying in their mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist the issue takes on new urgency. Faith and place have a way of getting mixed up, sometimes in deadly ways when some extremist concludes that you and your kind don’t belong here. 

Let us be clear that the God of Abraham is not a god of the place, like the other Middle Eastern deities.  This is the God of people: the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the God of Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, the God of Gideon and Deborah and Ruth, the God of Samuel, David, and Solomon, the God of Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, the God of Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the God of Mary and Joseph and the Father of our Lord Jesus the Christ.

In last week’s First Reading, the Israelites who took possession of the land promised to Abraham were given a confession of faith that began, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  The Christians to whom the Book of Hebrews was written were reminded, “We have here no abiding city.”  Christians have no holy city or holy land other than the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth in which God will dwell with all tribes and nations. As for the prophets God sends, are they not in harm’s way in whatever city they show up? Is not every city both a place of crucifixion and---incongruously---also a place of promise?

Jesus marched into Jerusalem and ended up on a cross. But the story doesn’t end there. The condemned city became a city of hope and a place of new beginnings for the mission of God. So can all cities be places of hope and new beginning, for the Messiah who fears not the foxes of this world still marches boldly into them whether they bless him or not.

The question for us, especially asked of us in Lent, is whether we will be in his parade and follow him all the way to his execution, to his grave, and beyond…to whatever our Lord has in store for his earthly followers. Amen.

LENT 1C, SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 2019

Deacon Sue Nebel

On Tuesday evening, like many of you I came to St. A’s for pancakes. I showed up right at 5:30 as things were getting started. I had my plate of pancakes (they were really good!) and some conversation but, sadly, I couldn’t stay long enough to watch the burning of the palms. I had to leave to fulfill one of my duties as a deacon: serving with Bishop Lee on a visit to a parish. Most of his visits are on Sundays, but occasionally he has one during the week. This time it was St. David’s in Glenview. It was a celebration. They had moved the Feast Day of their patron saint, David of Wales, to that night. But the main celebration, the central focus of the evening, was Confirmation. Five young adults affirming promises made at their baptism. Commitments made on their behalf when they were too young to speak for themselves. 

At the beginning of the Confirmation rite, after the five were formally presented to the bishop, he asked them two questions:

·         Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?

·         Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?

I am quite sure the five teenagers knew that those two questions were a condensed version, a summing up, of the six questions asked at the beginning of the rite of Holy Baptism. They had  completed a 10-week course of preparation for their Confirmation and the baptismal liturgy was a core part of that. Six questions, now two. Two questions. Two decisions. Two actions. Renunciation, turning away. Affirmation, turning toward. Two powers. Evil and God. In Baptism and in Confirmation, we choose Jesus, God.

In today’s Gospel lesson we encounter those two powers face to face in the figures of the devil and Jesus. As we journeyed through the season of Epiphany, we traced Jesus’s developing ministry. We started at the beginning with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Then we heard how Jesus could perform miracles. Turning water into wine at Cana. His ministries of healing and teaching. Ministries that drew people to him, often in large numbers. Today we go back to the beginning of the story. The events in today’s Gospel take place right after Jesus’s baptism, when he heads off into the wilderness for a period of forty days. The pattern of going off by himself for prayer and renewal is a familiar one in the story of Jesus’s ministry. This is different. Jesus is not alone. The devil is there in the wilderness with him, ready to test him.

There is a lot at stake for the devil here. He has undoubtedly heard of Jesus. Perhaps he was lurking around the edges of the crowd at his baptism. He heard the voice of God saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” God is up to something; God is doing something different. This Jesus, whom God calls Gods’ Son of God, could be a threat to the devil’s power. He wants to stop Jesus before he gets started on his mission. He wastes no time; he gets right to work. First, sensing that Jesus is in a weakened state after forty days of fasting, the devil says to him: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.  Jesus responds: “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Well, that didn’t work. So the devil, acting on his operating principle that all human beings want power, takes Jesus to a place where he can see the kingdoms of the world. He offers Jesus authority over all of them. The only condition is that Jesus must worship the devil. Jesus refuses, saying: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Well, if Jesus is going to respond to these temptations by quoting Hebrew Scripture, then let’s go the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place of the Jewish faith. There, high up on the pinnacle of the Temple, the devil says to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here . . .”  This time the devil uses Scripture himself, saying: “. . .for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up. . .”  Jesus comes right back at him with another passage from Scripture: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This is a remarkable encounter between Jesus and the devil. Three challenges. Three  responses.  The devil uses his best weapons. He goes after Jesus in his vulnerability due to physical weakness and then targets the human desire for power. Finally, he tests Jesus’s faith and trust in God. Each time the devil fails.  Jesus is unshaken. He holds firm. It is worth noting that Jesus responds each time, not with his own words but with words from Hebrew Scripture. He is at the very beginning of his ministry. He has not yet developed his own voice or his sense of authority as the Son of God. So he turns to Scripture. Words and teachings that have shaped him, teachings that are the foundation of his faith in God. It is worth noting too that each time Jesus responds in this way, the devil stops right there. He does not criticize. He does not try to engage Jesus in debate. Those words stop him cold. The devil knows that God is stronger, more powerful than he is. He isn’t going to get anywhere with this Jesus. There is no point in getting into arguments with him. His faith is steadfast. He is solidly grounded in God. The devil may be defeated here, but the struggle doesn’t end. He will keep trying to bring Jesus down. The final sentence of the Gospel passage sounds a warning: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” We know where the story of Jesus is headed: to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. To the Cross. Powerful political leaders and those with high social status will try to destroy Jesus and put an end to his mission by killing him. They will fail.

Jesus and the devil in the wilderness. This is more than a story about Jesus. This is our story, the pattern of our lives as Christians. In our baptism we turn away from evil and choose God. We make commitments and promises: to accept and affirm Jesus as our Lord, to follow him. We renew our promises every time we join together in repeating the Baptismal Covenant. We are resolved to keep those commitments. To live in closeness to God. To follow Jesus’s teachings. But we fail. The barrage of messages of the world around us, valuing power and possessions. The stress and pressures in our lives. Our own selfishness. They all draw us back, away from God. We feel cut off from God, wandering in our own wilderness. We acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness. We draw close to God again. Back and forth we go. Pulling away from God and then coming back. Again and again. The good news is God is always there, ready to welcome us.

In Lent, we pay special attention to this back and forth pattern and our desire to be close to God. We simplify our lives, stripping away things that distract us. We may take on a new spiritual discipline or participate in one of the formation offerings for this season. In church, we change the liturgy. We began this morning in silence and then joined together in the Litany of Repentance, reciting in detail the forces and actions that separate us from God. Then the Confession, brought forward from its usual place. We named ourselves as sinners. We owned up to our failure to keep the commandments Jesus gave us. We repented and asked for forgiveness. To be restored to God once again. To be restored once again to God. To reclaim our baptismal selves, our best selves. 

We have set out on our Lenten journey. May it be a holy one.

 First Sunday in Lent; Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2,9-16;

Romans:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13