I…We believe

a sermon, based on John 20.19-31, that I planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017. However, as happens on occasion, another word was given to me, I pray and I trust by the Spirit, to share with the folk. As it was extemporaneous, I have no text of this word to post.

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In our Book of Common Prayer, among many prayers, there is one bidding that God grant a wise heart, sound mind, and righteous will.[1] This supplication, for me, expresses a common human longing for right perceiving, thinking, and acting that is the heart of the quest for truth. Truth in which we can believe. Truth on which we can stake our lives.

Who among us in our life’s pursuits, in our pursuit of life doesn’t seek to know what’s true? And who can know what’s true without knowing how it will be found? And who can know that it has been found without frequently, perhaps constantly entertaining, risking doubt?

Thomas is my ideal human being, indeed, my ideal of being human. For Thomas was a faithful doubter. Faithful in asking questions.[2] Faithful in refusing to accept the testimony of others of a “truth” outside of his experience. Faithful in his soundness of mind in knowing what would constitute proof, therefore, truth for him: “Unless I see…unless I touch”, in other words, unless I experience, then “I will not believe.”[3]

Thomas, his way of perceiving, thinking, and acting, highlights what I consider to be one of life’s inherent tensions; that simultaneous, internal counter-pull between our desire and need as individuals to think and feel, discern and learn for ourselves and, in all of our relationships and in every realm of our existence, personal or professional, to share common beliefs and concerns.

Concerning the latter, Thomas also exhibits an ideal humanity. For Thomas was faithful in more than his doubting. He wasn’t a contrarian. He didn’t doubt simply to prove he had a point of view, but rather to find truth. Thomas could have dismissed his fellow disciples’ testimony, “We have seen the Lord” as a collective sympathetic hallucination stirred by their loss and longing. He could have denied it all and continued on his path of singular, solitary grieving.

But no. A week later, Thomas rejoined his fellow disciples, choosing to put their testimony to the test. Daring to see if there was a truth with a larger “t” than his reality. Daring to see if there was a truth more than individual, but also relational. Verily, daring to question his doubt.

Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

In his daring, Thomas saw for himself what he desired, what he needed to see. In seeing, he believed. In believing, he staked his life on it. According to one legend, Thomas proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ as far eastward as India; there being martyred at the point of a spear.

I treasure our individual pursuit and discernment of truth; enabling, empowering each of us to say, “I believe!” Yet, speaking specifically as Christians in community, it is equally important, I daresay necessary that we always pursue and discern the truth of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we, staking our lives on it unto the point of our dying, can say, “We believe!”

 

Illustration: Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnotes:

[1] The full text of the prayer For those who Influence Public Opinion (The Book of Common Prayer, page 827): Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[2] See John 14.1-6a (my emphasis), where, as I read it, Thomas dared to ask aloud the question that resounded in the hearts of all the disciples: (Jesus said) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

[3] John 20.25

the greatest power

a sermon, based on Matthew 28.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection, April 16, 2017

Easter is about power. The greatest power in this world and the next. Power, to quote my namesake apostle, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[1] Power in the words of the song, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”[2] Power over death. The power of love.

I behold this power in this morning’s gospel, perhaps paradoxically, not in God, who, save for “an angel of the Lord”, is absent. Nor in that angelic messenger who descends “like lightening with clothing white as snow.” Nor even in the risen Jesus who suddenly appears with words of comfort.

Where do I see it?

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.”

There is power!

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Mary and Mary loved Jesus to the end. They believed in him and his impossible dream of the coming kingdom of God. They didn’t run away like the other disciples, the men. They stood by Jesus throughout his agonizing final hours. They hoped, fought against that unbeatable foe, death. They watched him die. They bore with savagely broken hearts their unbearable sorrow. Theirs was a love that endured all things.

Then, loving Jesus beyond the end, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. The entrance sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers with little sympathy, verily, hostility for them. Theirs was a love that runs where the brave dare not go. Love that never leaves. Love that ever lives. Love that never dies. Love that raises the dead! For in their living love, Mary and Mary were the first to hear the Easter message, “He is risen!” and the first to see the risen Jesus.

Today, I pray we see that Mary and Mary could see Jesus because they, in their bearing-believing-hoping-enduring-all-things-love, mirrored and matched, embraced and embodied the love of a God who risks everything, even life itself, for our sake.

Today, I pray we, trusting that God’s love is already embodied in us by virtue of our creation –  whoever we are from wherever we come with whatever we believe – will see in the risen Jesus who we are by virtue of his salvation and, thus, that we are to be as he is, living incarnations of unconditional and universal love and justice in this world.

When we see, believe, know that, then not only can we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” but also we are risen, indeed! Alleluia!

 

Illustration: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the women peering into the tomb, which is empty save for the presence of “an angel of the Lord” clad in white, who tells them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here,  for he has been raised”, bidding that they, “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28.5, 6). (Although Matthew mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, Tissot depicts three women. I believe his biblical reference is Matthew 27.56, speaking of the women who had followed Jesus and witnessed his death: Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.) Also, the soldiers Pontius Pilate had dispatched to keep watch at the tomb (see Matthew 27.62-66) are depicted having reacted to the appearance of the angel, as Matthew recounts, For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (28.4).

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.7

[2] From The Impossible Dream from The Man from La Mancha; words by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh (1972)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 40 and final, Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

On Holy Saturday: O Jesus, on this day, dead, Your Body lay in the tomb.[1] I pray You, by Your Spirit, fortify my faith, granting unto me peace with my death, whene’er and howe’er it is to come; and, as God, Your God, my God, raised You from the dead, also give unto me the sureness of trust of my rising to Life with You in Your eternal Presence of Love. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

Footnote:

[1] See John 19.38-42: Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus…asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

a Good Friday faith

a sermon, based on John 18.1-19.37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Good Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus, according to John the evangelist, was not a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, even miracle worker. Jesus was the divine logos, the divine word. The creative, animating power of the universe. The cosmic intelligent designer incarnate. Jesus was the human enfleshment of all that is holy; all that is greater, other than everything else. Jesus was God’s son, verily, God.[1]

Words fail us, as they failed John, in attempting to articulate this mystery (not a riddle to resolve by reason, but a reality beyond the reach of fullest comprehension) of a God who creates, who is life and who dies a death that we, this Good Friday, gather to contemplate.

Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

I wonder. As Jesus was God’s Son (if he was only a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, or miracle worker, I wouldn’t wonder!), why did he have to die?

Why didn’t legions of angels come and rescue him? Satan, during the wilderness temptations, posed the possibility; suggesting to Jesus that God’s angels wouldn’t allow any harm to come to him, thereby proving he was God’s Son.[2] Jesus refused to put God to the test.[3]

So, if not that, why didn’t Jesus supernaturally, triumphantly dislodge the nails in his hands and feet and come down from the cross; astounding the soldiers, electrifying the crowds, gladdening the hearts of his mother and disciples? If Jesus, with a cosmic flourish, had leapt from the cross that would have been a story worth remembering and retelling, rivaling the church’s two millennia-old proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection!

Imagine! What if that had happened? What if, in response to the contemptuous catcalls of the crowd (“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. Let him come down from the cross, so we may see and believe”[4]), he had come down? There would be no ambiguity or uncertainty, no doubt about his identity. Therefore, no need for faith.

Ah, that’s precisely the point. The need, our need for faith.

Jesus’ death was an act of faith. His faith in God expressed, enfleshed in his life and ministry of seeking the outcast and oppressed, siding with the least and last as first in the heart of God. His faith that inevitably led him into conflict with secular and religious authorities, whose insatiable political appetites for the mutual appeasement of quid pro quo and the maintenance of the status quo could not tolerate Jesus’ radically revolutionary message. His faith that compelled him to follow the course of his chosen destiny all the way to the end: Death. No half steps, back steps, or side steps. No cheap, even spectacular theatrics like coming down from the cross. No. Death. Only death.

On this Good Friday, as we contemplate Jesus’ death, let us read his story as our own. As Jesus needed faith, so do we. There is much in life beyond our control. We need faith. There is much around life’s proverbial corner, in the next day, hour, moment that we don’t, can’t see. We need faith. There is much about ourselves we don’t, can’t know. We, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “look into a mirror dimly.”[5] We cannot always, perhaps ever be sure of who it is we see. We need faith in something, Someone greater than we.

Still, we do know that we are creatures with a consciousness of our mortality. Like Jesus, our lives, our journeys to Jerusalem, include a Golgotha – that moment of our dying. Thus, though we gather this day to reflect on the death of Jesus, let us contemplate our own. For our awareness of the inevitability of death means that dying always is present in our living. As such, what difference can, does that make in how we live?

If our consciousness of our dying can be more than an occasional haunting reflection, more than a sudden, unbidden and unwanted flash of recognition, more than a momentary reminder that life in this world is an inherently terminal reality…

If our awareness that each passing moment brings us nearer to our dying is a sign of our acceptance that we share in the universal experience of all humankind…

Then perhaps we can live with greater, more faithful purpose. Like Jesus. Less selfishly and more selflessly. Less for ourselves and more for others. Then we can reach our life’s end like Jesus, saying, “It is finished.”[6]

If that is so, then I believe that our “Fridays”, our dying days, will be good.

 

Illustration: Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

Footnotes:

[1] See John 1.1-5, 10-14, 16-18: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

[2] Matthew 4.6; Luke 4.9-11

[3] Matthew 4.7; Luke 4.12

[4] Mark 15.31-32

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 19.30

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 39, Good Friday, April 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Good Friday: O Jesus, through Your life and ministry, especially with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the least and the last, all whom You claimed as first in the sight of Your Abba, Father, You confronted and convicted the status quo of power and privilege held in the hands of the few and lorded over the many.

For this, You, Love and Justice incarnate, by fear and hatred were condemned and crucified.

For this, You, Who welcomed all, were deceived by one of Your own with a betraying kiss from bitter lips, despised by those into whose hands You were led, denied and deserted by Your followers and, as You, from the Cross of Your suffering and dying, dared to cry out, by God.[1]

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

As the prophesied sword of anguish pierced the soul of the watching, weeping Blessed Mary, Your mother,[2] by the power of Your Spirit, erect and establish Your cross at the heart of my living, that I, dying to my selfish-self, never abandon You in the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the last and the least, the still constantly crucified of this world. Amen.

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

 

Illustrations:

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34: And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Amidst his sorrow, sensing his abandonment by God, I take great heart that Jesus did not abandon, forsake, or otherwise forswear God. For Jesus, relying on scripture (Psalm 22.1; my emphasis), cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His abiding address to God as “my” I interpret as his bounden belief in and continued call upon the One in whom he placed his ultimate trust.

[2] See Luke 2.25-35 (especially verses 34-35, my emphasis): There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

discerning the Body

a sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of the tradition bestowed by Jesus that the Christian church, ever since, has understood as instituting the Eucharist.

On this Maundy Thursday, I bid that we focus on why Paul wrote as he did.

Looking at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately preceding words,[1] we see that his reference to the received tradition is an admonition to the Corinthians who had forgotten the table hospitality of the common agape or love feast. The Christians of Corinth, during their weekly gatherings for Eucharist, also would partake of a common meal (consider it an ancient potluck supper!), the food and drink brought by the various members. However, the practice, thus, the problem arose when folk ate and drank all of their provisions, leaving nothing to share with late arrivers, often slaves, servants, or laborers, in other words, the poor, who, thus, would be deprived of anything to eat.

Paul’s point about tradition, therefore, isn’t about Eucharistic etiquette. He isn’t instructing us to use the words, “This is my body…This cup is the new covenant in my blood”, over the bread and the wine (though we do!) or that we must use bread and wine (though we do!). And Paul’s point isn’t about Eucharistic theology. He isn’t theorizing about why we do Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus (though we do!). Paul’s point is about love and justice or rather its lack. He challenges the Corinthians’ indifference to the unconditional and universal care for all within the life of the community.

Looking again at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately succeeding words (words that the lectionary framers must have considered too harsh to be read in the polite company of the Christian community gathered for Eucharist!), we see the seriousness, the severity of his challenge to the Corinthians and to us: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”[2]

One meaning of “discerning the body” is to see that the Eucharistic bread is the body, the real presence of Jesus through which he provides us with a physical means for our spiritual consumption of his very nature. Yet I believe that Paul wants us to see the holy presence, the sacred body of Jesus not only in the bread, but also in the gathered community, which is the body of Christ.[3]

Look around you. Behold the body of Jesus in us. Behold the body of Jesus is us.

Therefore, this Maundy Thursday and every time we gather, three things I pray…

That we see Jesus in us

That we see in the bread and wine spiritual food that we partake to strengthen our souls and spirits to love one another…

That, in that strength, we leave this place to seek, to see, and to love Jesus in every person we meet.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See 1 Corinthians 11.17-22

[2] 1 Corinthians 11.29 (italics added)

[3] See 1 Corinthians 12.27: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 38, Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

On Maundy[1] Thursday: O Jesus, on this day, recalling Your words, “My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink,”[2] I reverence Your institution of Your Supper, the Sacrament of the sacrifice of Your Body and Blood. As I partake of Your precious gift of Your Self, by Your Spirit, renew in me Your promise that “Those who eat My flesh and drink My Blood abide in Me, and I in them.”[3] Amen.

 

Illustration: The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] This day in Holy Week, in some Christian locales and practices, is called Holy Thursday. The word “maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum; the first word of the phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13.34); that statement by which Jesus explained the significance of washing the feet of his disciples. “Maundy”, also drawn from the Latin mandare, meaning “to command”, references Jesus institution or establishment of the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22.19; 1 Corinthians 11.24, 25).

[2] John 6.55

[3] John 6.56