Monthly Archives: April 2014

Why? Because of Love

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on Good Friday (4/18/14) at the 7pm liturgy.  You can listen to the sermon here.  

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every story whispers his name.

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every story whispers his name.

This past week in our Wednesday pre-school chapel service, I read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is something deeply profound and incredibly daunting about teaching crucifixion to a group of four year-olds. I knew they would have questions, and sure enough I was not wrong. “Why did God do that?” “Why did Jesus have to die?” How could I answer them? I still – and I think always will – wrestle and struggle with these questions. As I read the story, I came across the following words, “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” Why did Jesus have to die? Love. Not just any kind of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love. God loves us so much that he gives his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God.

It is easy to come to this day thinking that Jesus dies on the cross so we do not have to. That instead of punishing us, God punishes Jesus. But, it seems to me, to do that takes away the true meaning and power of the cross. Jesus died for me, so I do not need to worry. I can keep going on with my life as I always have because Jesus has paid the price for my sins. This misses the point. The cross, this day, the central plotline throughout the entirety of the New Testament is not about retribution. It is not about the models and standards of societies penal justice system. It is not about Jesus being tagged in to take the punishment we deserve. What is going on this day is all about restoration.

Think back to the Gospels we’ve heard throughout this season of Lent. They all portray a marginalized person – someone left out, someone broken and suffering – and how they are restored to wholeness, how sight is restored, how life itself is restored. A restorative approach to the cross, rather than a punitive one, recognizes and addresses our underlying brokenness; brokenness that so often leads to hurtful behavior. What happens when we look at the cross through the lens of our own brokenness and the ways we fall short instead of through the lens of capital punishment? What happens when we recognize that our brokenness and the brokenness of the world is reflected in Jesus’ brokenness on the cross? What happens when we choose to accept this radical gift of love, to allow it to break us open and heal us?

Jesus has not come only to forgive sin, but to liberate us from everything that could possibly separate us from God and life, whether that means crushing illness, dehumanizing poverty, or spirals of destructive behavior. When we understand the cross in this way we can no longer allow ourselves to ignore the cross for all but one day a year. Breaking free of punitive theology, allows us to in a healthy and helpful way contemplate the mysteries of the cross in our daily lives.

I recently came across a quote from a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:

Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.

Each and every day people through out the world face suffering and death – brutal torment and torture. It is the absolute worst side of humanity. But, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross says something to those in these most horrific situations. It shows that the Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer. More than that, he chose to suffer out of love for us all. No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness at the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us.   He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage and made whole once again. That we might live as God intends us to live. This is the most amazing kind of love there is. This is the most amazing gift we could ever receive – to have a Redeemer that loves us so much he will go to the cross and suffer for our restoration and redemption. How can we even begin to respond to this love?

This season of Lent, I have been reading from a book of meditations titled, “A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter Week.” This is a fabulous collection of works from people throughout the history of the Anglican tradition. But, one meditation, more than any other, has captured my heart and my imagination. Last Friday, I read a mediation on the cross from Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings by Thomas Traherne. In this meditation, Traherne wrestles with how to respond to this love that Jesus offers us on the cross.

Lord Jesus, what love shall I render to you, for your love to me, your eternal love! Oh what fervor, what ardor, what humiliation, what reverence, what joy, what adoration, what zeal, what thanksgiving! You are perfect in beauty, you are the king of eternal glory, you reign in the highest heavens and yet came down from heaven . . . And shall not I live for you? O my joy! O my sovereign friend! O my life and my all! I beseech you to let those trickling drops of blood that run down your flesh drop upon me. O let your love inflame me: love so deep and infinite . . . What shall I do for you?

What shall I do for you, O preserver of all: live, love, and admire; and learn to become such to you as you are to me . . . Why, Lord Jesus, do you love us, why are we your treasures? . . . Show me the reasons of your love that I may love all others too. O goodness ineffable! . . . O you who are most glorious in goodness, make me abundant in this goodness like yourself, that I may as deeply pity others’ misery, and as ardently thirst for their happiness as you do . . . Holy Jesus, I admire your love.

LoveWe are called to love as Jesus loves, to see the sufferings of the world and stand up against it. When we stand before the cross of the crucified Christ this day, we stand before the sufferings of all people. Jesus does not want us to wail for him, but for all of God’s children who have been cast down and broken

Who do we see when we look at the cross? Where is there suffering in our comunity, our nation, our world? Who have we put down in building ourselves up? Who have we crucified to preserve our power and privilege like the authorities crucified Jesus?

We are called to put our brokenness, shame, failings, and sin, at the foot of the cross and leave them there. This day we are reminded of our call to accept the radical gift of love that Christ has offered us. But, we are also called to share that radical gift of love with the world. It only takes one look at the newspaper to realized that this world of ours needs a lot of love. This world of ours needs the restorative, redeeming cross that we stand before this night.

May we go forth from this place reminded of the radical gift of love God in Christ offers to us. May we allow it to restore our brokenness to wholeness and strength. May it empower us to go out to do the same for the rest of the world.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

 

AMEN.

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John 19:34

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on April 18, 2014 during the Three Holy Hours liturgy for Good Friday.  You can listen to the sermon here

GFIconThe thing I love most about reading, hearing, and studying Holy Scripture is the way that new insights are revealed each and every time I engage a passage. Even when I think I know the story inside and out something new still comes forth. However, I did not anticipate this happening with today’s Gospel passage. This is a Gospel that I, like I suspect many of you, know well. We hear this every year on Good Friday, I love listening to sung versions of it, and in the past several weeks I have regularly been rehearsing chanting this Gospel for our liturgy this evening. But here is the great thing about the Holy Spirit and Scripture, yesterday morning as I sat in prayer with this lesson, something new jumped out at me.

Remember it is the day of Preparation, and the Jews did not want bodies left on the crosses for this Sabbath of great solemnity. So the soldiers begin to break the bones of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Then they get to Jesus, they see he is already dead, and they decide to do something different. Here is what struck me; chapter 19 verse 34 says, “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” At once blood and water came out.

In all the time I’ve spent with this passage in my life, I do not think I have ever given this verse a second look. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid this verse any attention whatsoever. Now maybe that is because I do not really understand the first thing about biology or anatomy; or because I am not a fan of blood and gore, but for whatever reason this time was different.

Blood and water are simple and ordinary things – yet they are so important. These two things literally make life. It should not be surprising then, that these two things are central symbols in our life of faith.

Thomas H. Troeger, Homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School, wrote about this connection in his book “Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction: The Visionary Role of Preachers in a Fragmented World” Listen to what Troeger has to say:

 Years ago someone gave me a medical article that attempted to account for the flow of blood and water from the crucified Jesus on a purely physiological basis. As reasonable scientific speculation it might have been well founded, but as a piece of theology it was bankrupt. It depended upon a literalism that abrogates the imaginative accuracy of John’s community and the liberated slaves. The true cross is the tree that grows among the community of the suffering.

Connecting blood and water, the symbols of communion and baptism, with the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of theological construction that bonded John’s community to one another and to Christ . . . John’s community did not travel back to Jerusalem. They made their pilgrimage to the cross where they lived. They made their pilgrimage every time they broke bread and poured the wine, every time they welcomed a new disciple with the ritual sign of water in the name of God. Theirs was not an archaeological theology of the cross, an attempt to return to the originating event. Through their worship they fed on a living theology of the true cross.

Being struck by this verse gives the opportunity to shift our view of the cross; to shift our view from death and suffering to life and wholeness. Troeger illuminates the connection of our sacramental life with that of the cross. With this understanding, every time we participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, every time we baptize a new Christian we are bound to the cross. When we participate in these Sacraments we must know that we can only participate because of the cross.

Last night we remembered the Last Supper – a holy and sacred meal consisting of ordinary things turned extraordinary. It is when we are told that the blood of Christ pours out over the world as a sign of the relationship between God and us. When we participate in the Blessed Sacrament we allow Christ to penetrate our very being in a way unlike any other.

Tomorrow night and Sunday morning, new Christians will be baptized. They will be washed and made clean with water. In those waters they will die to an old way of life, they will die with Christ of the cross – and be raised into a new life, a life illumined by the glories of Christ’s resurrection. A resurrection that is only possible because of the cross.

We have the opportunity this day to stand in front of the cross, in front of the crucified Christ. We have the opportunity to stand and face the ways we have fallen short, the ways we are broken. We must stand beneath the cross and allowed ourselves to be washed clean by the blood and water that flows out of Christ, to be made new, to leave behind all that holds us in bondage – all that holds us in sin and death.

But we must not, we cannot, stop there. We must not allow the grace of God and the glories of the cross to end with us. In Troeger’s book, he quotes a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:

Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.

As we stand at the foot of the cross of the crucified Christ, we also stand below the cross of so many – too many – persecuted and oppressed peoples. Our call in Baptism, our call in receiving the Blessed Sacrament of Bread and Wine; our call in being washed by Christ’s blood and water which flow forth from him is to not be caught up in the historical nature of these events, but to recognize how they still are working in our lives today – how the true cross is in our midst. We must allow the cross and our lives to join together so that the meaning of each is continuously expanded by the other. We must ask: Where is blood and water flowing in our community? Where is the cross now? Who is praying, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” We must act to answer those questions, to stand with those who know nothing other than brokenness and death, to bring all people to the saving embrace of God so they know that the Savior and Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer.

Blood and water are powerful things. They empowered John the Evangelist’s community in the face of violence at the hands of the Roman Empire; they empower millions of people suffering in the world to know they are not alone; they empower the Church to stand up to the corrupt powers of this world and say No to all that breaks down the people of God. They empower each one of us to know that we cannot fully celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Savior without the Cross. This is not a day we can gloss over to more quickly get to the wonderful celebration of Easter morning. This is a day we must allow ourselves to sit with regularly. It is a place we must allow ourselves to dwell. If you are anything like me, we need more time to face our own brokenness and allow the loving embrace of God to make us whole again.

May we come before the cross this day and every day. May the blood and water of Christ pour out over us – make us clean and new, nourish and strengthen us. And may we take seriously our call to glory in the cross of Christ, to confront our own shortcomings and brokenness, to bring its restorative and healing power forth from Good Friday to the rest of our lives.

AMEN.              

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A Sermon for Lent 5

Sermon preached at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence RI on Sunday April 6, 2014 (Lent 5, Year A).  You can listen to the sermon here.  

This week, my twitter feed has been flooded with commentary of the Afghan presidential elections. But one tweet more than any other stood out to me. “Afghan presidential vote extended by an hour because of heavy turnout.” I sat staring at my computer screen for a few moments thinking, “Hours extended due to heavy voter turnout?” This made no sense to me. A people who have known so much war, violence, and poverty have shown up to vote even in the face of terror. It made we wonder what is inside them – what moves in them – to give them this courage. Does the same thing move inside me? Inside you? Is there something inside us that allows us to stand up in the bleakest of situations, in the face of adversity, and attempt to change the world?

ImageThis morning we have heard one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all Scripture: Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. This vision reminds every generation that God not only gives life but also restores life even in the bleakest of situations. We are reminded that death will not have the last word, even when all signs of life have been taken away.

The key word of this passage is the Hebrew word ruach meaning, “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit.” The prophet prophesies just as God commands and the bones come back together, sinews and flesh come upon them. But there is no life in them. They need the breath of God – they need ruach. It is this life-giving breath that makes these bones live once more. But, this breath does so much more than bring these bones back to life. This is the same wind that moved over the waters in creation; it is the same breath God breathes into the first human beings; it is the spirit that comes upon each one of us when we are baptized; and it is the same life-giving force that moves in Lazarus.

When Jesus calls out to in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Breath is restored to Lazarus and he lives once more. He who has been dead for four days gets up and walks out of his tomb. But, just as was true with the man blind from birth last week, there is far more going on than the miraculous nature of this episode.

In many ways the miracle itself is not the focal point, but rather this restorative act serves as a sign of something far greater than one moment in time. The revelatory nature of this act tells us something about the power and glory of God. The raising of Lazarus signifies that God’s eschatological promises – God’s promises for the end of time – are here and now, already being realized amid, and despite, the ordinariness of the course of life, which includes illnesses, deaths, and burials just like those of Lazarus.

This chapter from John’s Gospel opens with Jesus letting those around him – and us – know something important is going to happen. “This illness” meaning Lazarus’ illness, “does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be gloried through it.” It is important to keep in mind that “glory” and “glorification” for John have to do with oneness with God. It has to do with Jesus being lifted up on the cross, being lifted up from death to life, of being made one with God. This oneness is central to the Gospel message, to the Christian life, to all that God has in store for us and for the world.

Life as we know it is a balancing of the tensions between life and death. In this season of Lent – in this Gospel passage – this tension between the hope of resurrection and the finality of death is palpable. It is far too easy to see the world as a valley of dry bones both literally and metaphorically. In the midst of war, violence, and death – of news stories of shootings and tragic accidents it is easy to lose hope, to be dried out, to think all is lost. At times it seems as if the world around us is stacking the deck towards death – towards an old way of understanding the world.

In the midst of all this we yearn for resurrection and the unbinding that releases us to dream beyond the boundaries and experience life anew. To dream beyond the boundaries is to imagine a world in which wholeness, well-being, health, and prosperity are normative expressions of human existence and to partner with the God of life in making that dream a reality. It is to see the world as God sees, to take our place in the life giving work of God, to be open and receptive to the breath, the wind, the spirit of God.

In this new life we have a role to play. We cannot be passive observes and just wait for God to do all the work. In Ezekiel’s vision, it is the mortal who follows the command of God and prophesies to the bones. It is the prophet whose actions usher in the will of God. In the Gospel our charge comes in the penultimate sentence, “Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Jesus calls on the community to participate in Lazarus being raised from the dead. In this Jesus brings the reality of resurrection to the present.

In this respect, resurrection confronts us as an urgent call, impelling us to consider the possibility that those whom our world deems dead – no matter if that be socially, physically, spiritually, or emotionally – might live into a new reality; that life is still possible for them. We pray that all those oppressed and held in bondage will be filled with the spirit of God and come out! Each and every one of us can participate in this new reality. We have the power to unbind, to release persons and communities from the clutches of death. Resurrected woman, men, and children today require caring communities that are willing to nurture and strengthen them until they are able to walk alone; they need to be unbound, to have the graveclothes of self-doubt, social isolation, marginalization, and oppression removed. We can help them tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss, and grief, so that unbound people might walk in dignity and become creative agents in the world. The breath of God moves in all people – the restorative, resuscitating, renewing, and resurrecting spirit of God is present in the least, lost, and left out of the world. Our call as Christians is to unbind them and set them free so that they can be restored and live without fear.

The bones Ezekiel prophesied to represent the whole house of Israel. They have gone through devastating loss. Their temple has been destroyed, there has been tragic violence against them and their leaders, and they have been removed from their land. Everything they knew has been taken away from them – they are in despair and all seems hopeless. This is the same witness that our world needs today. Ezekiel’s vision is for these people who need to be unbound. It is for those people who pay the physical and spiritual toll of poverty, natural disasters, and genocide.

We are called to prophecy to the dryness of the world. We are called to unbind those who are held captive to oppressive forces. When God asks, “Can these bones live?” This is what God is asking. This is what God wants us to do.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a glimpse of how we are to do this. He makes clear that we are to set our minds on the Spirit, we are to allow the Spirit to dwell in us. We hear this morning that, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We are to set our minds on the Spirit. Throughout Romans, the most comprehensive statement of Paul’s theology is that the Christian mind must become the initial, and transformative, locus of renewal. When we set our minds on the Spirit, we set our minds on life and renewal. We allow the spirit of God to dwell in us – that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead, breathe life into the dry bones, and brought Lazarus back from death.

This makes accessible to us a force beyond ourselves. It gives us the power to stare sin, decay, and death squarely in the face – to proclaim that death will not have the final word. We are given the wisdom to discern how God is calling us; how God is equipping us to serve the present age as agents of God’s transformative work in the world.   To live life in the Spirit – to set our minds on the spirit – refers to how we conduct ourselves. It is manifested in how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors and for our planet. It is through this spirit that we participate in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

In an historic election Afghan people showed what happens when people are unbound. They know the destructive nature of evil and death, but they have been able to stand up and be counted. The breath of God is moving in our midst and making all things new. Death is being transformed to life, despair is turning into hope. Today we find ourselves quickly approaching the end of this Lenten season. The three holiest days of our life as Christians are within sight.

This Lenten season, may we look at the dryness in our souls. Where do we need the birth of God to bestow upon us life-giving strength? Where do we need to proclaim God’s saving love and grace in the world? Where is there unbinding that we need to attend to? Who can we walk with and participate in their restoration to health, wholeness, and oneness with God? When God says to us, “Mortal can these bones live?” let us stand together and proclaim, “Yes, Lord, they most certainly can.”

AMEN.

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