Daily Archives: April 20, 2017

Sermon for April 15, 2017, Easter Vigil, From Night to Light (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Happy Easter!  How’s everybody feeling?  Filled with joy?  Energized?  Relieved?  Refreshed, Renewed?  Or maybe just a teeny bit tired – or potentially a little confused.  After all, you might be forgiven if you are experiencing a little bit of the sensory shock that sometimes causes Puxatawnee Phil to run back into his hole on Groundhog Day.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Easter -but it can be a bit of a culture shock after six weeks of Lent.  And for good reason.

Easter, according to the Book of Common Prayer, is about renewal- renewal of body and mind, renewal that should stir up our souls and our collective wills, renewal that should encourage us to more authentic worship and more powerful advocacy in our lives.  Renewal that makes us feel as if we are “dead to sin and alive to God.”

The Easter Vigil liturgy is one of the oldest liturgies in the Christian church, and attempts to capture that transition – from darkness to light, from death into life.  It was initially part of what was once called “The Great Week” of Easter, which celebrates both Christ’s death and resurrection dates back to at least the fourth century (and likely earlier).  Instead of having separate liturgies for the three holy days preceding Easter – what we call “the Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the ancient Christians instead celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in one long drawn-out festival.  It was the peace, freedom, and togetherness of Woodstock without the electric guitars, illegal substances, and sideburns.

The liturgy that we are taking part in this evening is designed to imitate that spirit of joy and unity, to recreate the sense of “Easter” as not one day or one worship service, but as a progression – from darkness to light – from waiting to fulfillment.  When we are finally given permission to say or sing or shout, “Alleluia,” we are celebrating nothing less than our own spiritual rebirth.

It’s like one of those beauty infomercials that promises a “whole new you” if you just buy this, eat that, or use what they tell you.  The protocol is always much harder than anticipated and the end result may not what you expected.  Who knew what you were getting yourself into?  Faith is a lot like that, but with much more significant repercussions.  You never know what will happen when you are remade in the spirit of God.

Mary Magdalene and her companion discovered this when they went to Jesus’s tomb.  They were anticipating the body of their beloved friend, but instead found a supernatural being so blindingly bright that it resembled lightning and whose appearance was quickly followed by that of Jesus himself.  It was not what they imagined.  But that’s what happens with makeovers.  Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would – maybe because you weren’t really ready for it.

Which is a surprise, given that we have been preparing for Easter for at least six weeks – and it sure seemed like long enough.  That’s what Lent is all about after all, getting ready for Easter – cleansing our hearts and preparing a place for Jesus to enter, performing dermabrasion of our souls.  We thought we were ready – but then again maybe we weren’t. Maybe we did too much planning, too much anticipating.  Maybe we didn’t leave room for ourselves to be surprised by joy.

Easter can be like that.  It is both everything we wanted and so much more than we expected.  It is too big, too bright, too intense.  That’s because we have failed to take into account what it means to have been saved by Jesus.  We have failed to understand that we have not just been saved by Jesus, but we have been saved as part of Jesus.  We have been fundamentally changed.  And we have been changed for a reason.  We have been changed so that we can change others, so that we can spread the Good News.  And for some of us, that’s not good news at all.  It’s just plain scary.  In fact, it’s a thing that, if we think about it, may make us want to turn around like little Phil and run right back into the darkness of Lent.

But it is the core of what Easter is, the reality of what it means to have faith: we have been raised with Christ so that we can do the work of Christ.  We cannot simply enjoy the bells and the music and the light of Easter’s dawn.  We have to carry that light to others.  Do not be afraid.  Go, tell our brothers and sisters what you have seen and heard: Jesus Christ is risen today, and we are reborn.  Alleluia.

Sermon for April 14, 2017, Good Friday, The Paradox of Christ (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Good Friday is where the rubber hits the road.  It’s where we separate the women from the girls – the boys from the men – the shallow-water sailors from the squids.  Because for those who believe that we have each been saved from ourselves by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, today is the hardest day of the year.

The question is why such a bad day is called “Good Friday.” The standard answer is that Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe.  But “Good” Friday is actually known by seemingly more appropriate names in other parts of the world, including Sorrowful or Suffering Friday, Long Friday, Holy Friday, Black Friday, Great Friday and Silent Friday. Actually, the word “Friday” never appears in the Bible. The only day called by a given name in scripture is the seventh day, which is called “the Sabbath.”  Thus, the term “Good Friday,” is a relatively late invention. Historians tell us that early Christians initially commemorated Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in one festival, called the “Pascha” (which is Greek for “Passover”). They do not suggest that Jesus’ passion took place within a specific time frame – with Jesus sharing a meal with his friends on Thursday, being arrested sometime Thursday night, tortured, tried, and crucified on Friday, and rising on Sunday morning. But we follow a specific sequence during one “holy” week so that we can experience the passion of our Lord as an escalating, emotional journey, and give ourselves a chance to symbolically walk with Jesus as he blazes the trail to our salvation.

It’s a very hard walk.  We would not be human if we were able to sit and listen to the story of Jesus’s arrest, torture, humiliation and crucifixion without feeling distressed, if not downright sick.  And, unlike other services, Good Friday is almost unrelenting.  It seems to be all about suffering.  Even our Hebrew scripture graphically describes one who suffers on God’s behalf as “despised…rejected, stricken, struck down, afflicted, oppressed” – as “cut off, crushed, and anguished.”  Imaging ourselves enduring – or participating in – such abuse is extremely difficult.  So, why do it?  Does our Christian faith require us to be masochists?

The reading we just heard from the letter to the Hebrews suggests otherwise.  Because in it we, like the earliest Christians, are given a reason for enduring the painful journey that is Good Friday.  “We do not,” the writer says, “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 …[Like us] Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…[Like us] he learned…through what he suffered.” By his suffering, Jesus developed a deep connection with our human nature and Good Friday is our opportunity to explore that connection and use it to develop a closer relationship him.  This is the least we can do for the one who chose to fully experience a human life simply so that he can walk with us in ours.

Good Friday provides us with a second opportunity as well – the opportunity to consider what it means to truly trust in God the way Jesus did.  On Palm Sunday we read the passion according to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus wondered aloud if God had deserted him, but the Jesus of John’s gospel is different.  The Jesus in this gospel is a man who is assured and even at ease with his fate, a Jesus who verbally spars with Pontius Pilate without fear, who fully accepts the cup that he is to drink, and who fulfills the scriptures even as he dies.  It is a Jesus who fully trusts in the Lord – and paves the way for us to do the same.

We are asked to do this with joy.  That is perhaps the hardest lesson of Good Friday- not only to accept that it is through the blood of Jesus and the curtain of his flesh that we can approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” but also that we must do it with gratitude – that we must face the horror of his death and then thank God for it.  That is the great paradox of our faith, as well as the key to surviving this Sorrowful, Suffering, Long, Holy, Black, Great, and Silent day; without death there is no resurrection, and without death there is no eternal life.  Trust in God.  Easter is coming. AMEN.

Sermon for April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday, Making an Example (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

Foot washing.  Embarrassing, unusual and, for most of the faithful, blessedly optional.”[1]  A fact for which my husband Gary is eternally grateful.  He is not fond of Maundy Thursday.  It’s different.  It’s kind of weird and, perhaps worst of all, it’s just so casual.  Maundy Thursday is in many ways an introvert’s nightmare.

There are, of course, different ways to approach it.  The Episcopal Church I attended as a child generally had the entire service in the sanctuary.  When it was your turn to go and get your feet washed, you had to take off your shoes and socks and put your feet on the icy marble of the floor in order to receive a cursory splash, pat, and rub from a cold-handed priest.  In recent years, however, Episcopal Churches have developed versions of the service that include sharing an authentic Jewish Seder Passover meal and/or having parishioners wash one another’s feet.  (I’m pretty sure the extroverts were involved in the planning of that one).  But no matter how you do it, there’s no way around the fact that Maundy Thursday is a much more intimate experience than your average Sunday morning worship service.  And that makes some people uncomfortable.

It certainly makes a lot of priests – who are mostly introverts themselves – pretty uncomfortable – and I don’t think it’s because most of them are unwilling to practice humility.  After all, our example is the son of God, who strips down, and kneels at the feet of the pack of homeless, rebellious social outcasts that he hangs around with to wash their dirty feet.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect priests to set the example by washing the feet of all who ask, kneeling before any and all, humbling themselves in imitation of Christ. After all, if Jesus was willing to humble himself in this way, surely we must be too!

Except there are some problems with that interpretation.  First of all, most Christian churches have progressed in their understanding of “ministry” enough to know that priests are no better, no more dignified, and no more worthy of being held in high esteem than any other child of God.  I’m sure that for many people in the hierarchical church of my youth, it was probably a kick to have your bossy, snooty, and holier-than-thou rector down on his knees coping with your athlete’s foot, but if we learned anything about the Christian church in the 20th century, it’s that a once-yearly ritual of having your priest kneel on the floor does not demonstrate his or her humility.  A priest is not made humble by being forced to his or her knees as part of an annual liturgical “show.” A priest is made humble by recognizing the blessing that has been afforded her by being given the opportunity to lead a community of committed, faithful, Christians.  In other words, you teach me humility every day.

I am humbled by the people who prepared the dinner we are eating.  I am humbled by those who got out the dish pans and towels.  I am humbled by those who will stand in the dark trying not to bang into things as we strip the altar.  I am humbled by those who prepared tonight’s bulletin and who are helping with the music.  I am humbled by this church family – a family that imitates Christ to the best of their ability all the time, not just once a year.  What teaches us humility is appreciating one another’s gifts.  And I think that’s what Maundy Thursday is about – not humiliating ourselves before God – not even about sharing the Eucharist together.  You will notice that John’s gospel story about the Last Supper does not contain the mandate – the Maundy – to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus.  Instead, it contains another even more important command: to love one another.  By this – not by whether you take communion, not by whether you attend church -but by loving one another everyone will know that you are Christian.

Jesus practiced what he preached.  Knowing that he would soon be suffering from betrayal, denial, unspeakable pain and eventual death, Jesus did what any one of us would do: he spent time with those he loved, eating, drinking, resting, and talking with his friends – his family.  The example he set for us may have been one of humility, but it was also one of love, of the willingness to do anything you can to comfort and care for those you love – and those you don’t.  Because, lest we forget, the gospel writer tells us that Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him, was also present at that dinner. Judas was part of the family.

There is hatred in our world.  There is division.  It is our job to show and sow love.  It will probably involve humbling ourselves to do it.  But it will definitely involve making ourselves vulnerable – both by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for, to have our feet washed.  Yes, it is kind of strange and pretty uncomfortable, but isn’t that what it means to be family?  Isn’t that what it means to love?

[1]William F. Brosend, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 272.

Sermon for April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday, Why not God? (preached at Grace Epsicopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

I have file folders filled with sermon ideas.  The largest of these is, by far, a folder labeled, “The Changing Church.”  Because the church has changed – not just the Episcopal Church, but the Christian faith itself.  Some people believe that we don’t actually have a lot of choice about it, because the church as we know it is shrinking.  In 2015 a Pew Research study on Religion in America suggested that worship attendance across all formalized religions was declining, with greater declines shown among our youngest adults.  For many religious leaders, then, the new mandate is “change or die.”

Of course, it’s not completely clear how we should do this.  There are definitely lots of suggestions though.  Among some of the ones you can find in my changing church folder are the “faith, hops, and love” trend, which includes the story of a new United Church of Christ plant in Chicago which recently launched its “Balm of Gilead” Session IPA, “a craft brew made especially for the church and created right in the neighborhood.”[1] Instead of opening with a big worship service, Gilead Church started with social events, including a garlic-planting party.  According to their cool, young pastor, “We want to be church for and with people who’ve been turned out, turned off, or just left cold by church.”[2]  Other U.S. churches, including Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, have added physical fitness to their roster of programs.  This is not an isolated trend.  “The American Council on Exercise named faith-based fitness one of the top trends of 2016.”[3]

Other innovators think it’s as simple as a shift in church music, suggesting that what we sing “in here” is not what is inspiring people “out there.”  Christian music, they tell us, is now part of the mainstream.  You can find it on You Tube – Kanye West’s 2016 appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” Chance the Rapper’s performance at the Grammys – not to mention Beyoncé’s costume parade of feminine images of divinity, including a golden, halo like crown that looked suspiciously like icons of the Virgin Mary.

But for many regular church-goers, these ideas are simply horrifying.  There is a reason for the old joke about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a lightbulb (None – Episcopalians don’t change)!  For those of us who were raised in the church and for whom the church has been a major support throughout our lives, the regularity of our liturgy is a consistent balm for our souls.  As a military spouse who spent 25 years moving around the country for my husband’s career, one of the first things I always did upon arriving in a new town was to look for the red, white, and blue sign saying, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

But the Episcopal Church did not always welcome everyone.  Far from being focused on the needs of the poor and oppressed as mandated by Jesus, we repeatedly concentrated on protecting the secular power that is part of belonging to a large and influential denomination. Rather than standing against slavery or for civil rights, the Episcopal Church in the United States has almost always sided with the status quo.  We were so confident in our “righteousness,” – our “rightness” -that we thought that when the psalmist exulted that “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed,” he meant us.

We know better now.  We, like Peter, “truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  In other words, it’s not about what you say you believe, it’s how you act on your beliefs that matters.

Maybe that’s why some people don’t come to church anymore – because they don’t think Christians are practicing what they preach.  Perhaps they sense that we are sometimes more concerned with things in our earthly lives than “things that are above.”  This passage from Colossians has been much abused, often being interpreted to mean that we are to concentrate on the spiritual instead of the physical – leading some denominations to discount “earthly” matters like poverty and global warning.  But that is not what the letter writer is saying – and it is not what the Episcopal Church believes.  “Seek[ing] the things that are above…does not mean world-denying asceticism,”[4] but rather working toward a better world- seeking to bring God’s peaceful dominion to the here and now.

The evidence in my “changing church” folder suggests that this is a goal that many people are seeking, even if they don’t know it.  Recent surveys of individuals who identify themselves as having no religious identity – the so-called “nones,” indicate that they actually believe in many of the things that the Christian church teaches, including helping those in need and advocating for those on the margins of society.  I subscribe to a blog called, “The Daily OM,” which sends out emails focused on well-being.  It is decidedly not religious, but in recent months, I have read posts about “finding your calling,” dealing with pain, acknowledging your brokenness, seeking out loving community, and creating ceremonies and rituals that enhance your sense of identity.  How very strange, that this wisdom aimed at non-religious spiritual seekers is based on practices that religions have been doing for thousands of years –things we do right here at Grace, all the time.

So what happened?  How did the popular understanding of Christianity get so far off track?  I would suggest that the actions of some Christians have led people to perceive Christianity as being more about “preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity [than] tackling human needs.”[5]  But that is not who we are.  That is not what this community of faith is about.  This is an Easter church, a resurrection church. We believe in a God that cared enough about a flawed, selfish humanity to die for it.  We believe in a God of sacrifice and thoughtfulness and love.  We believe in a faith that strives for “a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion”[6]and in working to repent and correct the errors of the past church in the name of our inclusive God.  That is who we worship.  That is why we worship.  The reasons we worship haven’t changed; they are the same reasons the women at the tomb had for loving Jesus even in death.

Christianity, then, hasn’t changed.  Christianity is simply the way of Jesus, demonstrated by his life, death, and resurrection.  And it is still a good way.  It is still our way.  That’s not what needs to change.  What needs to change is the willingness of those of us who are already part of this church community to make that way known – to spread the message of the risen Christ, just as the disciples did.  Our task is to drown out the voices of those who have hijacked the word “Christian” for their own purposes and to witness to the true belief of those who follow Jesus.  And for those who don’t often attend church, give it a try – or another try, as the case may be.  Love, community, service; these are Christian values.  These are the Lord.  Go then, and do as Mary Magdalene did: Tell your brothers and sisters, “I have seen the Lord”- and the Lord is good.

Jesus lives – and so shall his church.  Alleluia. AMEN.

[1]Connie Larkman, (April 7, 2017), “Chicago new church start attracts national attention before first worship service,” http://www.ucc.org/news_chicago_new_church_start_attracts_national_attention_before_first_worship_service_04072017.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Kelsey Dallas, (October 24, 2016), “Faith and fitness: Why a workout has become a reason to go to church,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865665352/Faith-and-fitness-Why-a-workout-has-become-a-reason-to-go-to-church.html.

[4]Martha Moore-Keish, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Easter Day), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 368.

 

[5]Nicholas Kristof, (Sept. 3, 2016), “What religion would Jesus belong to”? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/opinion/sunday/what-religion-would-jesus-belong-to.html.

[6]Ibid.