The Rev. Dr. Roger Bowen, of the Haiti Collaborative in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, preaches at the 10:30 a.m. service at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Bristol, VA.
On the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, former parishioner Br. Jim Woodrum delivered the following sermon to the members of Emmanuel. Br. Jim is a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is Spiritual. †
It’s all about relationships, who we know and the nature of our interactions. When I was in high school, for example, my family used a particular service station. When I pulled up to the pumps one of two brothers who worked there would come out when the bell dinged and speak to me as he starting the pump. He would clean the windshield and check under the hood, usually finishing up just as the pump clicked indicated the tank was full. Then he would skillfully top it off with enough additional gas to make the sale come to an even amount before saying thank you and “come back to see us.” I took all that for granted until I went away to college and started dating a city girl from Jacksonville, Florida. When she came home with me one weekend and I was showing her around, we stopped to get gas. When the tank was full, Mr. Roy said it was good to have me home and I thanked him and drove off. My girlfriend said, “Wait, you forgot to pay!” I just smiled and kept driving. I explained that they would send Daddy the bill.
It would be easy to feel nostalgic about all that and miss the point. Think about the relationships involved in this interaction. There was trust on the part of the adults involved. The owner of the service station trusted my parents to pay for the gas and my parents trusted him to keep accurate records of how much we owed him. I, on the other hand, took all this for granted. Send Daddy the bill. I was just showing off.
Paul said when we cry Abba (which is the familiar word in Aramaic for father, like daddy or maybe pop) it is a spiritual event. Crying Abba is quite different than flippantly saying Abba will take care of whatever we need. “Send Daddy the bill.”
Before I was old enough to drive a car, when I was still a very little boy, one of my earliest memories is playing in our family car. I was not supposed to be playing in the car but I got in and must have been pretending to drive. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is that apparently I had managed to take the car out of gear and it started rolling. Where I grew up is flat as a pancake. The car wasn’t going far or rolling fast but it scared me. What I remember was opening the door and trying to stop a 1955 Chevrolet with my bare foot like Fred Flintstone and, when I realized that wasn’t working, calling Daddy. I was crying Abba.
In both instances I invoked my father’s name. As a college freshman showing off for my girlfriend it was presumptive but as a child in danger it was an honest and urgent cry for one I loved, trusted and, though that wasn’t my first thought, feared.
“Presumptive prayer can be regarded as the seedbed for idolatry.” 1
When our prayers invoke the name of the One who creates, redeems and sustains us, that invocation is honest and urgent. Those prayers are occasions when we look deep within ourselves and humbly confess our utter dependency.
Isaiah’s prayer is such a prayer. In the year King Uzziah died the prophet tells us that he found himself in the presence of God. The description of the event is incredible. Uzziah died circa 742 BC coinciding with the end of a time of relative independence for Judah. Now the king is dead and the Assyrian Empire is a growing threat which will continue until 701 when Sennacherib invaded Jerusalem. This is significant because in a time of civil threat and political uncertainty, Isaiah sees God enthroned. He describes the presence of God as in the court of a monarch. His vision of God enthroned stands in stark contrast to the relative weakness of the most powerful mortal king.
It’s all about relationships, right? This vision of the One who is truly sovereign, the One we have come to know as Christ the King, the One who is and was and is to come, was the backdrop for Isaiah’s call to be a prophet. His prayer wasn’t a pedestrian list of nice things he wanted from God. It was a stunning moment of self-awareness characterized by unworthiness: Woe is me. We join the heavenly court singing Holy, Holy, Holy and occasionally fill the sanctuary around the Altar with holy smoke but how often do we cry out in distress and come before God with no more bravado than a frightened little child screaming to a parent for help?
We get it backwards. We try to learn about God before we experience the reality of God. We don’t learn to pray so much as we wait for the moment when we find ourselves in the present of God at a complete loss of words. In that moment when we can’t imagine what to say, the Spirit intercedes and we overhear our own voices saying with Christians through the centuries, Our Father in heaven, your name is holy! Really!
A friend of mine in Georgia put a picture of her son on Facebook last week. He is wearing what seems to be a choir costume, the sort of thing we put children in when we try to bring to mind Isaiah’s cherub choir. He has a big smile on his face. The performance for which he has been practicing is over. All those rehearsals he now realizes were for this. It is the first time the children’s voices have been their offering to a room filled with adults who are listening, really listening, to the children sing. Imagine how powerful that experience is for a five year old. He looks at his mother, both are beaming. “That was the real time,” said Micah after his first recital.
So it is after we pray, really pray. That was real. Then, and only then, does it make sense to speak of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- I have been reading Worship as Theology by Don Saliers. This is a direct quote from that book, page 111. ↩
Jesus looked up and prayed, “I have made your name known.” †
When I was stationed at Camp Lejeune I had a good friend, a Baptist chaplain, who, when something happened that was particularly good would say, “Well, if you believed in God…” The suggestion was that it should be obvious this good thing was a gift from God in whom we do believe. On the other hand, someone actually wrote a book about the problem of and for clergy who do not believe in God. 1 It’s no wonder we can find so many blogs and Facebook postings fretting over the demise of Christianity, not to mention the plethora of books on creative ways to prevent it. The problem with all these is that it is not up to us. I’m not talking about any ‘ism or any narrowly defined and manageable religion. Rather, the community of faith for whom Jesus offered this prayer are those who hear and believe, who seek something beyond themselves and a language about which to speak of it, who want lives that are more than a geometric straight line segment from point birth to point death with limited length and no breadth.
Jesus looked up and prayed. It is important to remember this is a prayer. It is not Jesus’ instructions to the church. It is about what God was doing, is doing and will do. This is the day of the Lord, his time had come, which is to say that time collapsed in that moment. We sometimes say that time stood still but this was and is more than that. It is the confluence of memory, reality and hope in a sacramental moment. This prayer was in the context of the meal Jesus ate with his disciples, the so-called Last Supper (it was only the last supper before the resurrection). It is in the midst of a series of events that together tell us of the triumph of Christ—ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and return.
We overhear Jesus praying. He looked up and prayed. 2 His prayer was conversational, I and you. It is a conversation between Father and Son, language that suggests an intimacy that too often exceeds that in our families but which may be the best metaphor we have. Jesus, you remember from last week’s reading, called his disciples friends when his hour came. If we think of those rare and wonderful friendships that sustain and renew us, that last and grow, maybe that is an even better metaphor that a familial one. But, in either case, when Jesus said, “I have made your name known,” he was not speaking of an introduction (“May I present God? God this is Joe.”) Here when Jesus speaks of making God’s name known, he is clearly speaking of making God known, God’s character and fullness. Jesus has included his disciples in the intimate relationship that he has with the one he calls Father.
So, again, Jesus did not entrust the future of the Church to us but to God. We merely overhear the conversation. It has been suggested the church might consider as its starting point, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” 3 We overhear the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God. Our conversion comes from our listening in on their conversation and our sanctification comes when we are ultimately allowed to enter that conversation. John describes how God has given, sent, and loved Jesus. Now Jesus prays that we would be kept, sanctified, and unified (made one).
It is important to remember this prayer was overheard on the eve of the crucifixion. The world for John is the residence of the evil one. We are in the world to do ministry as was Jesus. The intimate and ultimate relationship into which we are invited is, like all relationships, likely to call for sacrifices. Ironically, the thing we need to sacrifice most urgently is the assumption that we can save ourselves, pride.
When we overhear this conversation between Jesus and the One he calls Father we are given a glimpse of the life with God that transcends our senses of limitation and expectation. When the Church is overcome by moroseness we have clearly forgotten the Providence of God.
There is another poll out saying that Christianity is declining. Something has changed but it is cultural, not theological. What has changed is the expectation that almost everyone will be in church—some church—every Sunday morning. That was always a cultural phenomenon rather than evidence of spirituality. Besides the cultural expectation, there wasn’t much else to do! The stores were closed on Sunday. So were the movie theaters. The good news is that if being here is culturally optional, the people who are in church are the ones looking for spiritual nourishment. That’s not a bad thing.
You’ve heard about the Carter family coming to Bristol almost a hundred years ago to record some of their music. Kathy and I were listening to one of their songs:
There’s a land beyond the river
That they call the sweet forever
And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree
One by one we’ll gain the portals
There to dwell with the immortals
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
Don’t you hear the bells now ringing
Don’t you hear the angels singing
‘Tis the glory hallelujah Jubilee
In that far off sweet forever,
Just beyond the shining river
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
We shall know no sin or sorrow
In that heaven of tomorrow
When our hearts shall sail beyond the silvery sea
We shall only know the blessing
Of our Father’s sweet caressing
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
Don’t you hear the bells now ringing
Don’t you hear the angels singing
‘Tis the glory hallelujah Jubilee
In that far off sweet forever
Just beyond the shining river
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
When our days shall know their number
When in death we sweetly slumber
When the King commands the spirit to be free
Nevermore with anguish laden
We shall reach that lovely Eden
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
When they ring the golden bells for you and me
This hymn describes poetically the collapse of time: “Don’t you hear the bells now ringing; Don’t you hear the angels singing; ‘Tis the glory hallelujah Jubilee; In that far off sweet forever.” It speaks of the intimacy of Jesus’ own prayer: “We shall only know the blessing of our Father’s sweet caressing.”
When they recorded that hymn they grasped something we have a difficult time appreciating. In a word it is hope. Their lives were hard. Their lives and the lives of their families depended on their ability to grow a crop and find work. Life was short and things like food, clothing and shelter were appreciated. They didn’t need to spend a night in a shelter to experience poverty. They would have laughed at the idea that we would use the word experience for one voluntary night in a shelter when they were thankful to have a shelter every night.
If you believe in God…my friend would say.
God is saving us and sometimes we are part of that mission. Too often we are just in the way. God is redeeming all creation and sometimes we are part of God’s mission. Let’s be certain we are of the way, not in the way; that we are overhearing the sacred conversation rather our own voices; that we’re not just talking to ourselves about ourselves.
- Caught in the Pulpit by Linda Lascola. You can hear her interviewed at http://religionforlife.podomatic.com/. ↩
- Imagine Jesus praying in the orans position which is standing with arms out as the presiding priest does at the Altar. ↩
- In preparation for this sermon I used The New Interpreters Bible commentary and reflections on John 17. ↩
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children. †
A group of us were discussing today’s lessons and decided that I should preach on sin and keep it light. Essentially that means that I should say I’m against it and sit down. I googled “jokes about sin” and found a lot of them. An old priest, for example, was very sick and thought he might die so he sent for two long time parishioners. When they arrived at his bedside, he weakly held out a hand for each to take. So they sat on either side of the priest’s bed through the night. The next morning he started regaining his strength, the crisis had passed. He thanked them and said they could go. The men told everyone how honored they were that their priest wanted them at his bedside but when someone asked the convalesced priest why he chose those two particular parishioners, he said that he wanted to die as our Lord had, between two thieves.
The problem with jokes about sin is their punch lines are particularly pungent, a bit caustic and sarcastic. Like this one: a couple went to a church one Sunday and were not made to feel welcome. When they left after the service they ran into Jesus outside. When they told our Lord they were not welcome in the church he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m not welcome there either.”
I’ve been thinking about John the Apostle and Evangelist a lot lately. He was a great influence on the early Church, at least parts of it, and I believe his message is perfectly timed for the Church in our time. The letter attributed to John says, “See what love the One Jesus calls Father has for us! We are called the God’s sons and daughters, God’s children!”
I am convinced the biggest failure of professionally trained priests in the past fifty years is that we have failed summarily to teach the importance of baptism. We’ve done a great job recovering the Eucharist as the principal weekly event in the life of a congregation but without a good baptismal theology, we can never fully appreciate Communion. They are two sides of the same coin. When we share the bread and wine, heaven comes down and we are nourished spiritually by the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. When we were baptized, heaven’s waters broke and we were born from on high, born again, spiritually.
So once the author of this letter had reminded the congregation hearing it that they were the sons and daughters of God, he brought up sin. “Little children”, he wrote, “let no one deceive you. No one who abides in him sins. When you do what is right, you are righteous.”
When you started dating or when you left home for college or the military, did your parents tell you to remember who you are? Mine did. The message was that if we remember who we are, we would not act like someone else. We would not be easily led astray. It’s the same with our spiritual family. If we remember who we are by virtue of our baptisms, our behavior will reflect high moral standards. Virtue grows out of identity which is formed sacramentally. We are formed by the outward and visible signed of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We are in the world but not of it.
When we travel to foreign countries, we are in their world, their culture, but we take our identity with us. When I was in Japan with the military, for example, the people there were generous and gracious but different. They spoke a different language and wrote with different characters so our ability to communicate was limited. They ate things that don’t appeal to me and they ate their strange food sitting on pillows rather than chairs. When we can back to the base the signs were in English and tables had chairs and the food we were served was familiar.
That’s how it is for Christians. We go out there. We have to. But we are only genuinely at home in here. We speak a different language—a language of grace. The food we crave is spiritual. Our identity is being formed here, not out there.
So back to sin. We are against it. We understand sin in terms of relationships—the baptismal covenant. We strive to do the right thing based on who we are, the children of God. We leave whatever separates us from the love of God out there. Whether in here or out there, whether in the church or in the world, we are never alone. With our sisters and brothers, we know God’s great love for us and that nothing can separate us from that love. So we strive not to sin because we are only true to ourselves when we walk humble with our Lord and with our spiritual siblings (whom God also loves!).
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. †
Christians use the Bible as a weapon in culture wars and search its contents for ammunition to use in our fights among ourselves. For example, there was serious discussion among serious people about whether the Bible should be translated into the vernacular. Anglicans argued against translating the Bible into English saying that uneducated people lack the critical skills to discern biblical truth and they used the Bible to make their point. Guess what scripture was used to argue against translating the scriptures into English? Remember the sign that was placed above our Lord’s head on the cross? It said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Remember that it was written in three languages, Greek (the language of the people), Hebrew (the language of the Jews), and Latin (the language of the Empire). So the argument was made that the Bible should only be published in those three biblical languages—Greek, Hebrew and Latin.
I mention that only as a benign illustration of how the Bible can be used to make all sorts of points. On the other hand, the fact that scriptures are so readily available in the language we use means that we have a responsibility to read it both in the larger sense of a narrative of God’s mighty works in human history (which is why I preach so often from Old Testament lessons) and in the more narrow sense of realizing that every word in the Bible was chosen for a reason. Sometimes there are words or phrases that we might not notice because they seem insignificant or even parenthetical but which are there for a reason and are profoundly important.
Take, for example, the words of Jesus when he appeared to the apostles in the upper room. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit and he told them that if they forgave sins, the sins are forgiven and if they retain the sins of anyone, they are retained on earth and in heaven.
A working definition of Church would be the recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We traditionally celebrate the birthday of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday using the story as Luke tells it but John’s gospel says that Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit in the upper room. Then, immediately after breathing on them (think about the fact that Jesus, who had died, was now breathing and you start to understand the nature of the resurrection) Jesus told them they have the authority to forgive sins or retain sins. He didn’t say they could do miracles—at least not in the way we usually think of miracles. He said they could forgive sins. That can be miraculous in our lives—forgiving. The Church has too often thought of this passage of scripture as giving the Church the power to forgive sins but it isn’t about power. Forgiveness isn’t something we do as much as something we discover. It isn’t about my having something I can hold over you. It is about my coming to realize that we share a common shame with Adam and Eve who hid from God when they realized they were naked. So when someone comes to me as his or her priest to confess and receive forgiveness, I do so in the name of the Church and ask the penitent to “pray for me, a sinner.”
I had a friend once who was a recovering alcoholic. He was in his eighties and those of us who knew him cherished him as a spiritual friend and mentor. His wife was killed crossing a street. She was hit by a drunk driver. My friend went to the jail where the man who had killed his wife was incarcerated, not to confront him or condemn him, but to offer to be his sponsor in AA.
Forgiveness is our job as Christians. If we were to hire someone to be a Christian his or her job description would be one word, “Forgive,” and the only qualification for the job would be, “Forgiven.” We are a community who forgives as we have been forgiven.
So why is it so hard? Why do we beat each other up so when we feel we have been wronged? Why do we hold grudges and pass resolutions and quote scripture and write canons and make demands?
I think one clue to that lies in the lesson from Acts: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
We don’t do that. We give a portion—some give incredibly generous portions—but we don’t give us private ownership of possession. We have a word for political systems that don’t allow private ownership, communism—Godless communists. But let’s not to miss the point. Church is important. Religion is important. The reason Christianity is losing popularity in this country and in Europe and why it is growing with intensity in developing nations is because it is important. The reason forgiveness is so difficult within the congregation of believers is because some of us take this very seriously. So when we disappoint one another, when we wrong each other and let each other down, when we need to forgive each other, it is hard and it’s even harder when our investment, whether spiritual, emotional or financial, is significant and sacrificial.
We get that. The Prayer Book assumes that. The presiding priest asks the congregation’s forgiveness every time he or she approaches the Altar. That’s what’s happening when I say, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” I can’t proceed with the prayers at the Altar unless the congregation responds, “And also with you.” That means we are forgiven. We are at peace. You exchange the peace of God with each other. Then, when we’ve made our peace, we can offer our gifts of bread and wine and we can receive the gift of God, the body of Christ and the cup of salvation.
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
As forgiven and forgiving people, let us hear the word of God and live fully and never lose the joy of our salvation.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” †
Did you notice a couple of weeks ago the Best of Bristol list was published? Did you notice the big winners included the best churches? Did you notice Emmanuel didn’t make the list? I admit that I looked and that I was just a little disappointed. The Best of Bristol list was presented in categories: Food, Automotive, Shopping, Financial, etc. Know which category the best churches were in? Entertainment.
I preached five sermons last week. The reviews were mixed. One thing is certain. The shortest one was the most popular!
We did the hard work of Lent and Holy Week. We looked at the cross and challenged ourselves again to find the words to express why Christians love and venerate it. Now our task shifts to the resurrection and it may be even harder. How do we find the words to describe what happened that first Easter Sunday?
Well, we don’t. None of the evangelists do. Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts and John all tell their stories but neither of them tells what happened that Saturday night when Jesus rose from the dead. Their stories are of discovering the tomb is empty and encountering the risen Christ.
I spoke last Wednesday in the chapel of how John used character development. He introduces us to Jesus and the people with whom Jesus interacted. The gospel is character driven more than plot driven. John introduces us to Nicodemus, a member of the religious establishment who struggled with things spiritual. “You must be born from on high—born again—if you want to enter the kingdom.” John introduces us to a woman who came to the village well in the heat of the day to draw water. He asked for a drink from her ladle. She was a Samaritan, a woman, and was apparently living with man who was not her husband. Her witness resulted in the entire village coming to Jesus. There was a man who for thirty eight years had waited by the pool by the Sheep Gate hoping to be cured and depending on handouts from passers-by. Jesus healed him but was condemned for doing so on the Sabbath. John introduced us to a woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus as an object lesson. He talked to her. Then there was a man who was born blind and when Jesus was asked whose sin had caused the man’s blindness, Jesus again refused to see the man as an object for discussion but cured him. The Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead showing that even the dead are beloved in the Kingdom of God. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, washes his feet with expensive ointment and dries them with her hair and, later in the Upper Room, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. All the while Jesus talks with these characters of water and light and bread, of abundance and things spiritual, of the Comforter who would come to us when Jesus returned to the One he calls Father.
Now we come to the resurrection. The people who come to the open tomb, as you would expect from John, are described true to their characters. Mary Magdalene was the first one there. She had come to tend to the body but fond someone had, she thought, taken it. The runs to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. Peter rushed into the tomb. The beloved disciple did not enter the tomb. He looked in and believed. Then they left and went to their homes leaving Mary alone to be the first to see Jesus after the resurrection. She thought he was the gardener. Mary tried desperately to figure out a rational explanation for why Jesus’ body was gone. It wasn’t until she heard his voice, not until he said her name that Mary believed. He is risen.
The point of the gospel is to introduce us to these characters and to ask us what we will do with this Jesus.
The point is that we are witnesses to the resurrection. Not protagonists, advocates, champions, or apologists, certainly not propagandists. Witnesses. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, we come to the open tomb. Some of us believe, like the disciple Jesus loved, quickly and naturally. Some of us are aptly impressed, like Peter, but remain unchanged. And there are those who like Mary Magdalene are task driven until finally we hear him say our name. However we come to the faith, we are witnesses.
One of my favorite authors is the late Reynolds Price. He wrote prolifically. As much as I admire his writing, I am a fan more because of his own story. I find him as interesting as the characters he created in his books. He didn’t go to church even though he was raised in the South when going to church was the norm. He saw the resist as the culture changed its attitude toward racial segregation so he opted out. That’s what young people do. But he never lost his faith. He convinced me that it is possible to be a Christian without the Church if you define the church organizationally. When Reynolds Price was stricken with a horrible, life threatening disease, he was cured. He had a vision in which Jesus told him he was forgiven and Price said, “Yes, but am I going to be healed?” Jesus answered, “yes, that, too.” When asked what Jesus looked like, Price answered, “Just like his pictures!”
We are called to be witnesses to the resurrection.
Good Christian people disagree about all sorts of things. This congregation includes people with all sorts of ideas and convictions and opinions. Our search for common ground is futile. It’s a waste of time. Remember when the husband and parents of a patient disagreed about discontinuing treatment and it became a national story? At the time I was the President of our state hospice and palliative care organization so I was asked to comment on the case for a church publication. I don’t remember what I said but I remember the conversation I had with my mother. She totally disagreed with my position. My own mother who gave me not only have my DNA but inspired my values and my faith, disagreed with me about what was right in that particular situation. This illustrates two things. First, good, Christian people can disagree about what is right or best in a particular situation and, second, my mother can on occasion be wrong.
We are not going to find common ground on which to stand because the ground beneath our feet is stained with the blood of the innocent. We are not going to agree because we are sinners.
We are called to be witnesses. We are called into a new baptismal covenant community defined by the love of God. We are called to be the body of Christ, broken and given to a spiritually hungry world. If we respond to whatever divides us with the light of Christ whatever divides us can stay harmlessly hidden in the dark shadows, out of sight and out of the way.
…he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. †
As Episcopalians we are people of the incarnation. On Christmas Eve we celebrate God-with-us with processions and candles and joyous music and evergreens. And we should because incarnation is at the heart of Anglican theology.
As Christians we are people of the Resurrection. We celebrate God’s victory over death with processions and candles and joyous music and a feast on Easter Sunday—and every Sunday. And we should because every Sunday is Easter.
But as disciples we are people of the cross. We don’t exactly celebrate Good Friday. Honestly, we don’t even get why we call it good. The procession is somber. The candles have been extinguished and removed. If there is music on Good Friday it is somber.
It is a great mystery, the cross. We hate suffering and death and we do not understand why the one we are called to love more than anyone else—more than our mothers and fathers, more than our sons and daughters, more than our wives and husbands—why Jesus, whose birth we so joyously celebrated, had to suffer and die such a horrible death.
There is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer that petitions God to grant that all stewards of God’s mysteries may impart to God’s faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of God’s grace. After the sermon tonight we will pray that God would “look favorably on God’s whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.”
We are the stewards of the mystery of the cross.
The night before I graduated from seminary, a group of us gathered for farewell party. We all knew what parishes we were going to be assigned after graduation. At that party, one of my classmates challenged the rest of us to deal with a certain passage from Paul in our first sermons after graduation. “When I came to you it was not with lofty words and wisdom but preaching Christ and him crucified.”
I knew immediately that was what I had to do but it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had just spent three years studying theology after graduating from college—all so that I could learn lofty words. As for wisdom, I was still young enough to believe I had the answers. But the cross—Jesus crucified—there are not enough lofty words in the dictionary or enough collective wisdom in all the universities in the world to explain away that mystery. Why did the creative Word of God that spoke into being all that is and called it good—that Word that became flesh and dwelt among us—have to die such a hideous, torturous death?
I was present at the death of a man in her early thirties, about the same age as Jesus when Jesus died. This young died in a darkened hospital room on Good Friday. He had been in the prime of his life—the picture of health. Then because of something I cannot understand or begin to explain, he suffered a rapidly debilitating disease and died on that Good Friday. Outside, the east Texas noonday sun was shining brightly on spring flowers but someone had closed the blinds in his hospital room. He, like Jesus, died in the darkness even though it was the middle of the day.
I stood in a corner of the room trying to be present without being in the way. This tall, dark haired, bearded young man looked very much like our familiar Caucasian images of Jesus. When he died, his mother, whose name was Virginia, whose namesake was the Virgin mother of God, looked up at his father and, through her grief, said to him, “I did not raise him for this.”
“I did not raise him for this.”
Immediately I was struck by her words and the incredible set of coincidences. Virginia, like the Blessed Virgin Mary—the blessed Virgin—watched as her son died in the darken noonday of Good Friday. I wondered if St. Mary had looked up to the One her son called Father and, through her grief, declared to heaven, “I did not raise him for this!”
But she did.
God was as silent that day as the poor father was in that Texas hospital room.
The incarnation is beautiful theology—that’s why we love Christmas so much—and the Resurrection is our defining theology—without the resurrection there simply is nothing to proclaim—but the cross is the only theology that can save us.
Jesus had to die because of our sin. The second Person of the Trinity, present at creation, the Word that separated light from dark and called it good; separated dry land from ocean and called it good; spoke into being the trees and flowers and vegetables and called them good; spoke into being the birds and fish and mammals and called them good; and, finally, from the dust of the earth, formed us in God’s own image and called us good—this creative Good Word came to us—Emanuel—God with us.
The thing is we are sinners. God sees the good in us but we keep fighting. One of the sons of Adam and Eve killed his brother and humanity has been a bloody mess ever since. So the cross had to be. Whenever we encounter something good, we try to control it, contain it, and master it. If we write something good, we copyright it. It we invent something good, we patent it. When we heard the Good News—Jesus’ description of life in the Kingdom of God—we moved immediately to institutionalize it, to codify it, to canonize it, to nail it down. We crucified it.
The cross had to be because of our sin. So what is good about Good Friday?
It is good that we are free to a life of the cross—discipleship—because of the incarnation and the resurrection. We are all Christmas and Easter Christians. We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus but, unlike him, the life we are called to lose is a life not worth living. It is a life of poverty no matter what our net worth may be. It is a life of slavery no matter how many people serve us. It is a life of captivity no matter how free we are to travel far from home.
What is good about Good Friday?
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head and died, that is exactly what he meant. It is finished. All that we need for salvation is done. We are free to be people of the incarnation. We are free to be people of the resurrection. We are free because he has taken on our sinfulness and died and lived to tell it.
Did you ever wonder why only a priest or deacon reads the Gospel lesson in Eucharist? It is because it is more than a reading. It is a proclamation. The sermon is a continuation of that proclamation, always following the Gospel lesson and usually followed by a creed. All three—the lesson, the sermon and the creed—are part of the proclamation.
Today it is tempting—with good reason—to forego the sermon. Let the proclaimed Gospel of the cross stand alone. I will be brief this morning but I do have something to say. We need to look at the cross. We need to take a good, long look at it. Every Sunday we follow the cross into the church and the cross is always before us on the retable. But today we face the cross with special intentionality.
There is a story my first bishop told of some young men who lived in France years before. It was a nice spring day and these young friends had gotten a bottle or two of wine and went outside the village to a nice spot to drink and cut up. When the wine was gone, they decided they wanted more. Being a little inebriated they came up with a plan. They would draw straws and the looser had to go into the village and get more wine. But that wasn’t enough. They decided he would also have to go to the little parish church, find the priest, make his confession, do his penance and then return with the wine. They laughed when the youngest of the boys drew the short straw (as it was probably intended).
Being a good sport, he went to the village church, found the priest, and made his confession. The priest was wise and spiritually savvy. And he remembered what it was like to be young and silly, innocent still but flirting with debauchery. So he told the boy his sins were forgiven and his penance was to go into the church, to look up at the cross which bore the body of Christ. He told the penitent to look at the face of Jesus suffering on the cross and say, “I know what you did for me and I don’t care.” (Actually, when the bishop told the story, he used more emphatic language than “I don’t care.”)
Like so much in the prayer book, the pastoral office known as the Reconciliation of a Penitent has never been introduced to many Episcopalians. It is too easily dismissed with the argument that you don’t need a priest to forgive you. That isn’t true. We do need a priest to forgive us. That was at the heart of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We must forgive each other, be each other’s priests. Those of us who are ordained to the priesthood have been set aside by the Church to speak for the Congregation, for all Christians, when we pronounce absolution. The pastoral rite is there because some of us carry terrible burdens and need an absolutely safe place to lay that burden down and hear the words of Christ when he said, “Come to me all who are burdened and I will give you rest.” The last line in the penitential rite is the priest asking the penitent to “pray for me, a sinner.”
Back to the story, the young man, still a good sport, did what the priest had told him to do. He went into the church, walked down the aisle of the church focused on the cross and the face of Jesus. When he got close he said, “I know what you did for me and I don’t care.” At least he started to say that. He found he couldn’t. He stumbled over the words. He managed to say that he knew what Christ did for him but he just couldn’t bring himself to say that he didn’t care. Because he did care.
My bishop said that this story was told in a French cathedral and when the bishop finished telling the story he said, “That drunken young boy who looked at the cross of Jesus was me.”
Anything that trivializes the cross of Christ is sin and must be confessed lest its burden destroys us and robs us of the joy of our salvation.
Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Bristol
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Joe told you last week that he chose to talk about Spinoza in spite of my advise not to. While that apparently turned out to be a good decision, what bothered me most was not that I was wrong, but that he pointed out our disagreement from the pulpit where I could not refute him. “I am here and she is there,” he said. Well, honey. Back at cha!
Today’s readings are about judgment and grace. It is not uncommon to thing of judgment and grace as two separate actions of God. In the old testament, God is often seen as wrathful and quick to judge God’s people though God always turns and grants grace and redemption, immediately. Or, as in today’s reading from Numbers, a remedy to the malady. We in turn can be very quick to judge each other, and ourselves but not so quick with grace, or our part, forgiveness. We are slow to forgive and slow to accept God’s grace and slow to enter into reconciliation. We try to go it alone and forget that Grace is God’s gift to us, not our creation, not ours to own, only ours to receive. As the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians put it, “. . . by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
The trick is in the reception of this gift. What we need to do better is in receiving this as a community of believers, not as a group of individuals.
Do you remember as a child taking a flashlight into a pitch dark night when all you could see was within a tiny circle around you as you walked? Maybe you did this on a camping trip, or at a summer camp. Do you remember such an experience? Maybe not.
Unlike Nicodemus, many of us have never really experienced true darkness. There is light pollution in our world. We are never really in the pitch black dark – so the metaphor is lost on us. The opportunity to truly experience our need for light through an experience of complete deprivation of it is also lost on us.
But if you do remember a time when you have experienced true pitch black darkness, then you may be able to imagine the experience of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was an educated, religious, and popular man who sought Jesus in the night and seems to have left that encounter scratching his head in confusion as he returned to the night in more darkness than when he arrived. Nicodemus doesn’t show up again in the Gospel narrative until he helps anoint the dead body of our Lord at the crucifixion. We do not know if he stuck around for the resurrection and ascension. But we did. We stuck around and still believe in and follow this resurrected Lord. And we understand that the death of Jesus cannot be separated from the re-suscitated and ascended Lord.
Biblical Scholars emphasize that Nicodemus came at night. Perhaps this was just because he was a busy man during the day, but scholars believe that John told the story this way because either Nicodemus was hiding for fear of being associated with Jesus and/or the darkness of night was once again the main metaphor of St. John’s version of the gospel. Nicodemus was worried about his reputation. Jesus is the Word become flesh, the light in the darkness of our world. What happens when these two meet? What happens to us when we encounter them in this story?
The challenge for us, and the likely reason this story is told during Lent, is to examine our own souls for the part of us that loves the darkness and holds on to our need for order and control. The challenge for us is to let go of our need for enlightenment and knowledge and follow instead the mystery of a Lord who seems to flip everything upside down and sometimes leaves us feeling confused. The challenge for us is to let go of the flashlight and learn to rely on the light of Christ when we go out into the darkness of the world.
I attended a training workshop once on self care for helping professionals in which the instructor did a lot of participatory activities. You know the kind of thing, where whoever is in charge has your attention and somewhat of a commitment from you at least in that you showed and then this leader says something like, “O.K. everybody, let’s form a circle, take off our shoes and get a partner”. I usually head for a bathroom break when I hear that sort of thing. I’ve been battered too many times in the past with required participation in humiliating things like the Hokey Pokey. Plus, I’m an introvert, believe it or not. I don’t enjoy participatory embarrassment. Further more, this workshop was full of colleagues, psychologists and seminary professors whom I admire and consider mentors. I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself in front of that particular gathering.
The leader of this workshop was a psychologist. She asked us to take a yellow piece of unlined legal paper, turn it sideways and write three things on it that we do, or don’t do, that work against us. The people we care for are hurting and we take that hurt onto ourselves and do things like overeat or veg out on the sofa all weekend when we could be exercising, having fun, getting rest, all those self care things. “Just write down three things and then we’ll share”, she said.
I wrote down one thing. I wrote: “I resist participating in dumb experiential exercises”, and I stood up to go take a bathroom break. I was out of there.
For some reason all this reminds me of traffic. Maybe I am reminded of my fantasy of jumping in a fast car and leaving town when I get into an uncomfortable place. Maybe I’m thinking about traffic a lot lately because I’m commuting to Roanoke and visiting Georgia so I drive a lot. But I want to tell you about one of my favorite books.
In his book titled Traffic, engineer Tom Vanderbilt says a lot of fascinating things about how drivers of automobiles interact. In fact his subtitle is “Why We Drive The Way We Do and What It Says About Us”. In this gem of a little book Vanderbilt points out interesting facts like the reason gridlock happens is due to tailgaters and rubber neckers more than sheer volume, and the addition of lanes does not help but only brings more traffic to a road. He points out that we do not have enough money to build new roads and conversely that many roads are actually underused. He explains that part of the problem of aggressive driving is that we are encapsulated in our cars, for good reasons of safety, but we don’t have any communication with each other, save the occasional rude gesture.
Vanderbilt goes on to say that psychologists have determined that when we get behind the wheel we, all of us, without exception, experience an unconscious sense of identifying with the vehicle so that we think of ourselves as becoming as large as the vehicle we drive and we become aggressive and defensive, everybody. It’s like a Jeckle and Hyde thing, nice decent God fearing people change when they become motorists.
Road rage began to make more sense to me when I read this. None of us are immune to it. Vanderbilt also says that the motorist returns to a normal nice person when they park and become a pedestrian again. I’m not so sure.
I was excited to find this book that gives very factual information from the academics of engineering and psychology about something I have pondered for a long time. I have long wondered about the way we treat each other, in the church, and how that is reflected in the way we drive, or walk for that matter. I have found that I am critical of the church and have come to fear that we, those who have answered the call to love one another as Jesus loves us, we participate in road rage and then act the same way toward each other at church, only maybe less intensely, or less directly. Maybe not.
One priest told me that he refuses to buy into the frustration of driving in traffic and when he encounters someone offering him a rude gesture, he smiles and offers them in return the sign of the cross and a blessing. I love this idea so much that I have come up with a way all Episcopalians can participate in this stance against road rage. I’ve designed a bumper sticker that I plan to sell at Annual Council. It is a simple white sticker with an Episcopal shield and says simply “ . . . and also with you”.
Well, I don’t really have such lack of faith in the body of believers to think we rage against one another, but I do worry about the challenges we face in our hopes to remain one body, in spite of our differences.
I haven’t told you the rest of the story about my experience in that workshop. I made a decision that day that has changed me. I decided to stay in community and it was a good decision. When I wrote my sarcastic comment, that I “resist participating in dumb experiential exercises” I got up to leave, but I stopped and looked around at a room full of folks who were not leaving. All those prestigious priests, pastors, therapists and teachers were staying. And they were doing what this odd ball instructor was asking. Each of them was writing three sins on a piece of paper.
So I sat back down, I flipped my piece of paper over and I wrote three things I do that work against me. And I thought about other sins of action, and sins of omission, that I was not so willing to publicly admit.
Then she asked us to gather in a large carpeted area of the room empty of furniture. She asked us to walk around randomly and encounter each other one at a time. She said we must do this in silence, simply hold your piece of paper stating three sins where all could read it, encounter another doing the same, read each other’s papers silently, then nod to each other to offer respect. That nod felt more like a blessing. The experience was powerful. Each piece of paper I read was much more honest than mine. “I overeat”. “I drink too much wine”. “I ignore my children”. “I spend too much time on the computer”. “I overspend, under sleep, overeat, worry, and yes, rage”. Without mentioning the church, or even religion in general, this exercise created a simple way toward penance and reconciliation.
Can you imagine us doing this exercise with each other? Can you imagine doing it with your co-workers, your family, a room full of strangers?
What I found was that with the rule of silence no one was judge and all were sinners, repentant sinners. We were also equally accepting, acknowledging each other’s sins and blessing each other with a silent but respectful nod.
After this exercise we felt closer to each other, gentler, more understanding. There was an air of peace in the room, and more laughter and hugging, more trust. And I for one didn’t want to rage at the guy who cut me off in traffic on the way home. I found myself instead wondering if he might be in some sort of trouble, and I found myself praying for him instead.
In our day we have become lost in the darkness of radical individualism. We tend to think like competitive individuals who think we’ve got it all figured out and don’t need community. We get too comfortable in our insular little vehicles and care too little about who else is on the road. We find ourselves confused and scratching our heads as we wander in the darkness. We tend to become too reliant on our little flashlights and forget the true Light in the darkness of the world – Jesus.
“. . . by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So how do we receive this gift? The answer is in the difference between going it alone and joining community. It is in the difference between rage and forgiveness. It is in the difference between believing and faith.
To believe that Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But such simplicity does not honor the larger story John is telling. This is a story about an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness. This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us (John 3:19–20). To believe this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than believing that “God So loved the world” and other cross-stitch-able slogans, it requires trusting in a savior who is the Light. To trust in Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story, and in each moment. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394
So, when frustrated in our commutes, we would do better to remember that faith in our insular little car is a far cry from faith in the salvation of the crucified and resurrected Lord. When tempted to cling to our rigid individualism, we would do better to work on repentance and reconciliation. And rather than clinging to the dim light of a battery operated flashlight, even when facing the pitch black of night, especially when facing the pitch black of night, we would do better to trust in and follow the Light of the World.