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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Where do YOU find the Risen Christ?

Good morning, church! Happy Easter!

Look at all of you. You look amazing in your Easter best! Okay, a few of you look like you haven’t been here in awhile. Maybe a long while. Maybe some of you are here because you were  . . . umm . . . . “encouraged” . . . . to be here? You know who you are.

I am intrigued, once again, by the Gospel report of the resurrection. 

Did you notice how many women are mentioned? There’s Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene – whom many scholars believe was not a prostitute but, actually, the spouse of Jesus – and Salome and Joanna, and “other women”. 

They had come to the tomb, bringing spices to tend to the body, as was the religious practice and tradition at that time.

They were all startled to find an empty tomb. In Luke’s gospel, which we heard this morning, two men in dazzling white clothing appear before him and say to them, 

“Why do you look for the living among the dead. He is not here, but has risen.” 

In Mark’s gospel, the women gather at the empty tomb and encounter a “young man, dressed in a white robe”.

In John’s Gospel account, it is Mary Magdalene alone who finds the stone rolled away. She tells the other disciples and they come, look in and see the empty tomb and then they run back home. 

But, Mary stays by the empty tomb, weeping in her confusion and grief. She, too, sees two “angels” who ask her why she is weeping. 

When she turns, she sees Jesus but at first does not recognize him. It is only when he calls her by name that she realizes that it is the resurrected Jesus standing in her midst.

So, we have these different accounts of what happened on that day that we call “Easter”. I am most intrigued that, while the women were the ones to first see the empty tomb, it is only Mary Magdalene who actually sees the Risen Jesus. 

Yet, she does not recognize him at first.

I have always been intrigued by John’s report. 

How is it that she didn’t recognize him? This is the man she knew and loved for several years. She cooked for him and ate with him, laughed with him and cried with him. She washed his feet and listened to his stories and his teachings. She wiped his brow and dried his tears. 

She followed him as he walked the road to Calvary and sat at the foot of the cross with his mother and wept as she watched him die.

How could she not recognize him?

As I’ve thought about this particular scene and the various reports of that first day of Easter, I’ve come to an understanding something about Mary’s temporary amnesia. I understand it because I recognize it in myself. I see it all around me in the world.

The resurrected Jesus, whom we call the Christ, the one Anointed by God, is all around us in the world, often standing right in front of us. 

And yet we, like Mary, do not recognize him.

Part of it is cultural, of course. We Americans are very busy people. We have been carefully taught that very busy people are very important people. And, important people simply don’t have time to stop and notice things that are not significant to the busy, important work we have to do.

I’m struck by the fact that other cultures are not like this. There are many examples but I’ll give you two. 

In Hindu culture, when two people – even strangers – greet each other, they always bow. Why would two strangers bow to one another? One may be a scoundrel and the other a thief. That’s not what matters. What they are acknowledging in each other is that there is a divine spark in each one of us. When they bow, they bow in recognition of that divine spark.

How would our world change if we did that? If we looked for and honored the divine spark that is in each of us? Just imagine. 

In South Africa, when people greet each other, they say, “Sawubona" meaning "I see you" and the response "Ngikhona" means "I am here". 

As always when translating from one language to another, crucial subtleties are lost. Inherent in the Zulu greeting and its grateful response, is the sense that until you saw me, I didn't exist. By recognizing me, you brought me into existence.

Think about that for a minute. Let that sink in. Until you saw me, I didn’t exist. By recognizing me, you brought me into existence.

A Zulu folk saying clarifies this, "A person is a person because of other people".  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that this is the foundation for what South Africans call Ubuntu Theology. 

It is to say, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours." We belong in a bundle of life. South African Zulu people say, "A person is a person through other persons."

What if . . . what if . . . in this busy American life of ours, we took a few minutes to slow down, to dial back the pace of life just a bit from 11 on Life’s volume control to somewhere around 7-8? 

What if we lowered our speed limit from 65 mph on the highway of life to the residential rate of 25 mph? 

What if, when we pass someone on the street or in the supermarket or at the drug store or at the gas station, we took the time to smile and say, “Hello”? What might happen?

I can tell you one response. 

Every Sunday after the 7:30 AM Service, a group of us go over to the West End Diner for breakfast. As I enter the diner and when I leave, I always look people in the eye and say, “Hello” or “Good morning.” 

I don’t mumble it. I say it right out loud. “Hello!” I say, or “Good morning.”

A very few will return my look, even fewer will return my smile. Mostly they look down at their shoes. They might mumble “Good morning.” 

But, mostly, they just put their heads down and keep walking. Now, this is not a critique of the people of Milford. I can assure you that this is a common response whether I’m in Wilmington or Philadelphia or Boston or Seattle. 

Don’t even get me started on New York City. Well, Manhattan. The Upper West or East Sides are different.

I’ve often thought that my collar is a serious handicap. I mean, a woman? In a collar? What’s THAT about? What am I supposed to call her? Father? Mother? Sister? Oh, God, if I acknowledge her presence, she’s not going to start talking to me about JEEE-zus, is she?

I acknowledge the potential anomaly of my situation. A woman in a collar! Seriously! 

My own particular experiences aside, I want to acknowledge that at our baptism, we affirm our belief in the words of the Nicene Creed and are asked to take five vows. 

The fourth vow asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves?” 

The fifth vow asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” 

To both vows, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.”

On this Easter Day, I want you to carefully consider these two vows. Indeed, I’d like you to commit yourself to living your life in such a way that would make it clear that you are striving to be true to the vows that you took when you were baptized, and reaffirmed at your Confirmation.

Start by inwardly imagining yourself bowing to the divine spark that exists in the other person. Try looking strangers straight in the eye and saying “Hello!” or “Good morning!” 

Say it right out loud and like you mean it.

In fact, let’s practice that right now. I know you’re Episcopalian and a proud member of God’s frozen chosen, but I’d like you to turn to the person to the right and say, “Good morning.” Ready? 1, 2, 3 “Good morning.” Now, turn to the person to the left and say, “Good morning.”

Now, I want the left side of the church to face the right side, and the right side to face the left side. Now, find someone on the other side of the church, look them in the eye and say, "Happy Easter!"

Practice that a few times at church, then, at home in your neighborhood and then put it into action in every aspect of your life. 

After awhile, you might just be amazed to see what a difference living your baptismal vows can make. You might find that you become more of yourself when you understand that when you are acknowledged you are called into a deeper awareness of your own existence. 

Likewise, when you acknowledge others, you understand that your humanity is inextricable linked with theirs in a bundle of life.

How might the world change if we all started doing that? 

You may say that I’m a dreamer. But, John Lennon assures me that I’m not the only one.

Bishop Tutu is right, in that “a person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

I hope we are able to take a lesson this Easter from the women who gathered at the empty tomb. I hope we are able to learn that it is futile to look for the living among the dead – and that means leaving behind that which is not life-giving in our own lives.

My Easter Prayer is that we can all open our eyes and see the Christ in me and the Christ in you, and always work to call forth the very best in each other, even when that’s hard to do. 

Even when we are dazed and confused, or sad and grieving, or afraid and angry, or just don’t feel like it.  Imagine – just imagine – how the world might change if we all did that?

In the words of 19th Century Swiss philosopher and poet, Henri-Frederic Amiel, which I use each Sunday as my benediction: “Life is short and we don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this earthly pilgrimage with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to do kindness.”

Happy Easter! Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Now, go out and try to live your life as if you really believe that.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Baptismal Love Letter at the Great Vigil

A Baptismal Love Letter for R.C. L.

About 15 years ago, I started writing what I call Baptismal Love Letters. My intention is to reflect on the gospel of the day in such a way that it might provide some future guidance for the newly baptized, perhaps as preparation for Confirmation, or during one of the difficult times life inevitably presents us with when our faith is tested and we wonder why God has abandoned us or we feel our prayers are not being heard or simply why it is we call ourselves Christian.

So, this is a Baptismal Love Letter for R.C.L. Now, if, as I’m reading this letter, the rest of you should want to listen in, well, so much the better. If you nod off, just please, try not to snore.

Dear R.C.L.

I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you have chosen to be baptized. 

When we first talked about baptism, you told me that you wanted to be baptized so that you could receive communion. That’s a wonderful reason to want to be baptized!  I’m so excited for you that you will receive your first communion at the first Eucharist of Easter. 

And, I confess, I’m excited to have the privilege of providing that important sacramental moment for you at the Great Vigil of Easter.

Tonight, you – and we all – have heard the story of our salvation, from the chanting of the Exultet, a beautiful love song to the Light of Life, to the Creation Story and the story of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea. We then moved onto the Prophet Isaiah’s assurance that salvation is offered freely to all and heard the magnificent story from the Prophet Ezekiel and The Valley of the Dry Bones. 

The final reading we heard was from the Prophet Zephaniah’s call to “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” for “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

And now you are adding your story, the story of your life, to the salvation story. Yes, your story is important. 

When you spend some time reading the bible and discover some things about some of the characters in scripture, you’ll find that there is no story too humble, no origins too lowly, no sinner beyond redemption and grace, forgiveness and renewal of life.   

The love of God is unconditional.

Indeed, what you’ll find is that God seems to have a special preference for those who have struggled, those who have suffered, those who are far from perfect. 

God is constantly lifting up the lowly, raising up what has been cast down, making new what has grown old and bringing all things to their perfection.

And, that’s the other thing, the thing I want you to know. You don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God. Far from it. That’s because no one is perfect. 

Oh, we may look like it. Some of us wear nice clothes and live in lovely homes and drive good cars. Many of us smile and seem very happy and, in fact, many of us are all those things.

Here’s what we’re not: perfect. 

We are being perfected . . . we are being made, to borrow a phrase from the US Constitution, “more perfect”. Not perfect. No. God wants us to be something harder than perfect.

God wants us to be real.

The way to become real is by being made “more perfect”. And, “more perfect” is achieved by falling, sometimes, but more importantly, getting back up again, anyway. 

You remember the story of Pinocchio we talked about in preparation for your baptism, right? You’ll remember when the Blue Fairy cut the strings off Pinocchio she said, “Little puppet made of pine, arise the gift of life is thine.”

That’s sort of what your baptism is like. It sets you free from the strings that have bound you, but it doesn’t make you perfect. It sets your soul free to be who you are, to be more of the person God had in mind when your soul was called into being.

Pinocchio made a lot of mistakes, didn’t he? He didn’t listen to his conscience – Jiminy Cricket – and skipped school and made some bad choices with people who didn’t care about him and told lies that made his nose grow. 

Even so, he still had the chance to pick himself up and have another chance. In fact, he exceeded even his own expectations of himself by putting his own life in danger to save his father.

All Pinocchio ever wanted was to become a real little boy. That’s all God wants from us – to become authentic, real, to grow more fully into the person God created us to be.

So it is with your baptism. The prayer, the hope, is that, in the gift of spiritual freedom you are given, you will also receive the spiritual gift of grace to become a “more perfect” person which God made you to be.   

You will become more of a real human being.

And if – when – you make a bad choice, when you fall, please know that this community of faith, the people of Christ Church, Milford, will be here to help you get up, to help you dust yourself off, to find forgiveness and the assurance of God’s pardon and forgiveness and the absolution of your sins.

Congratulations and God Bless you as you begin to take these first few steps in your new life in Christ. 

Know that you are a precious child of God. 

Know that God loves you beyond your wildest imagination. 

Know that you were born because there is something in this world that God needs to have done that only you can do. 

Your baptism frees your soul to discover that unique calling, what the church calls your “vocation”.

Know that, as you set off on this wonderful new adventure we call Christianity, that you have a church family, here at Christ Church, who will love you unconditionally. 

This is your church home, and, as a wise someone once said, “home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

God loves you. God bless you. Welcome home. 


Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Camino of Foot Washing

 Maundy Thursday - April 18, 2019
Christ Church, Milford, DE

Last October, I walked The Camino. For those of you who don’t know, The Camino (Spanish for The Way), is an ancient pilgrimage known formally as The Camino de Compostella de Santiago.

Compostella is the name the Spanish call the Milky Way and Santiago is Spanish for St. James. So, it’s the Way that follows the stars in the Milky Way to Santiago, the place where the body of the Apostle, St. James, is buried.

The most ancient route of The Camino starts in France, and leads over the Pyrenees Mountains, and on to Santiago near the coast of Spain. There are over 240 different routes to Santiago, from the United Kingdom and Portugal.

I walked 167 km (103 miles), from San Sebastian in the Basque region near France, all along the Northern Route, following the Atlantic Ocean with breathtaking views of the ocean, walking some of the beaches, then headed south through farm land and eucalyptus forests to Santiago.

As you can imagine, 167 km does not always wear well on a person’s feet, even though I took great care in terms of the boots and socks I wore and the pre-treatment I provided for my feet. 

Even so, there was one point in time when I felt a tingly-burning sensation in my left foot and began to worry that I might be developing a blister.

So, I came upon a farmhouse with a lovely stonewall in front. I took off my gear and sat down, taking off my shoes and socks. I had been walking for a few hours. It was a surprisingly hot day and my feet were a bit red and swollen and sweaty. I’ll spare you the descriptive of the odor.

And yes, there on the side of my big toe was a reddened area – ripe for the formation of a blister. I started to rummage in my backpack for some moleskin when a woman came out of the farmhouse. 

“Buen Camino” she said – the standard greeting in Spain, wishing the person a, “Good Camino”. She had a large glass of water which she kindly offered and then, she in her broken English and me in my broken Spanish, began talking about my foot.

She wanted a closer look. I demurred. I really didn’t want her anywhere near my sweaty, smelly foot. Just then, another woman approached. 

A German woman who spoke no English but some Spanish. The woman from the farmhouse spoke some English and some German. Which was lovely if not a bit confusing but I really didn’t want either one near my feet.

Before I knew it, the German woman pulled out her backpack and pulled out some moleskin and some ointment. She then grabbed my foot, firmly, and inspected it carefully. I didn’t even have an opportunity to offer an honest protest. She poked here and pressed there.

Then, she stood up straight and pronounced her verdict. “Iss gud. Iss – um – Oh-kay, ya?” The Spanish woman looked at me and translated, “Bueno, si?”

I didn’t even have a chance to get out the giggle that was dancing in my throat when the German woman reached out her hand like a surgeon and the Spanish woman slapped the glass of water in her hand with great efficiency, which was suddenly being poured on my foot. It was cold and I let out a yelp.

That didn’t stop her from vigorously rubbing my foot dry with a towel she had hanging from the side of her backpack. Then, she applied the moleskin to the reddened area, inspecting it carefully after its application. 

Then, she put out her hand. I wasn’t sure what she wanted. The Spanish woman knew immediately and came ‘round to my shoe and pulled out my sock. 

I was horrified! I mean, my smelly sock was in her hand. It made no difference to her. She put it on my foot and then picked up my shoe and put it on my foot.

“Yah, das gud” she proclaimed. “Bueno! Bueno!” said the Spanish woman who turned on her heels and went and got two glasses of water, one for the German woman and one for me. 

We chatted a bit longer – German to Spanish to English – in what now seems like a hilarious comedy of conversation, and then the German woman took off and the Spanish woman went back into her house.

I had never before met those two women but I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever forget them. Their kindness. Their compassion. Their willingness to tend to my physical needs, even if that meant seeing me while not at my worst, certainly not at my best.

It was a moment of humility in the midst of a fairly prideful time of feeling independent. See how strong and capable I am? I can walk The Camino. By myself. And, into the midst of that came the very humbling message that, no, I was not alone. 

And, no I was not independent. God, I am convinced, sent those two women as messengers of the mutual interdependence of being human. 

We humans are mutually interdependent. The sooner we learn that, the better.

Somewhere in the midst of that mix up of German and English and Spanish, the message of my vulnerability came loud and clear. It was humbling. 

And, it fed and watered my soul in a way that awakened me to the fact that I didn’t even know how hungry and thirsty I had been.

Jesus said:  
"Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
And then, Jesus said, 
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 
We observe and celebrate this new commandment tonight, as we wash each other’s feet and feed each other communion. It is uncomfortable. It is humbling. 

Iss gud, ya? Bueno, si? It is good. 
May it awaken you to the hunger in your soul and nourish you for the work of servant ministry.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Proclaim and Show

Photo Credit: Susan Forsburg 

"Say what you mean and live life to mirror what you say -- proclaim and show." 
Bishop Kevin Brown, Delaware

That was the main thrust of the message the bishop gave to the clergy during the Annual Chrism Mass wherein deacons, priests and deacons are invited to renew their ordination vows.

I've participated in this service in five dioceses over the years and they are, for the most part, not as inspirational as intended. Most often, the bishop preaches, which, more often than not, is met with mixed reviews from clergy, depending on the spiritual state of the individual clergy person and their perception of the spiritual status of the bishop. 

I heard Bishop Keven's message as both inspirational and heartfelt - enough to spark the imagination and creativity of this Dinosaur Priest.

So, I made the following modest "What If" proposal: What if we did what you say. What if this liturgy was about all of us "proclaiming and showing" what it means to be an ordained servant minister of the Church?

What if, instead of repeating the words we said when we were ordained, we summarized our ordination vows (that's what the bishop did, actually). And then, what if did something to "show" what we had just "proclaimed"?

What if we washed each other's feet?

I'm serious. What if we did that? Those of you who are purists will immediately say, "But . . . but . . . you CAN'T wash feet on TUESDAY in Holy Week!! That's for THURSDAY."

Look, I'm not saying to have the Maundy Thursday service - although the 'disruptive' nature of that appeals to my sense of the kind of disruption Jesus caused over and over again to the religious proscriptions and expectations of his day and time.

I'm saying let's wash each other's feet as a way of "showing" the vows of servant ministry we just "proclaimed".

Bishop Kevin seemed genuinely intrigued by my question and proposal. He gave it serious thought for more than the usuall few passing seconds. I felt heard, in the very best sense of that word.

It doesn't really matter, you know, if we do it or not. It's really more important that the preacher (the bishop) knows that he waas listened to and heard and that I, in turn, was listened to and heard. It's that seeds were planted for creative use of the teachings of Jesus.

I think that brings as much delight to God as do the fruits of those seeds.

So, in good ancient Rabbinical tradition, I'm making a modern adaptation and asking this question of the social media "mind hive"

Laity, deacons, priests, and bishops: How do you read? What do you think about clergy putting into action the vows that they have reaffirmed?

Oh, and P.S. Here are some "Words of Comfort" for Holy Week:

"Clergy and church workers, here's our yearly reminder: Jesus will rise from the dead even if you forget to print out the right hymns, even if there are typos in the bulletins, even if the lilies arrive wilted, even if the whole choir gets food poisoning. Nothing will keep the stone from being rolled away. You are loved." Nadia Bolz Weber

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Golden Bees of Holy Week

The Sunday of Passion: Palm Sunday
Christ Church, Milford, DE
April 14, 2019 

The story of the Passion of Jesus takes us deep into the middle of the middle of what it means to be human. I want us all to take a deep breath because we’re going in deeper – to the middle of the middle of you and the middle of the middle of me. That is the journey of Holy Week.

The only way to get to the middle of that mystery is to follow the path of poetry and metaphor and simile. So, stay with me now. I need you to pay attention. This isn’t going to be an easy ride.

As I consider the significance of this day – Palm Sunday – and the beginning of what we Christians call Holy Week, I have been visited by the continued buzzing of piece of a poem called “Last Night As I Was Sleeping” by the great Spanish poet, AntonioMachado.

There are fou stanzas but it is the second stanza that continues to visit me:

Last night, as I was sleeping.
I dreamt - marvelous error!
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And that the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures

If you listen closely – if you dare – you will hear them. There, in the far distance. – a low hum is beginning  deep in your soul.  The hum will grow steadily into the sound of a buzz, which will grow fuller and deeper and louder as the week continues.

Holy Week begins the gathering of the Golden Bees of Heaven.

The Golden Bees of Heaven need you. They need your regret and your grief, the memory of which causes your heart to ache again in the places where it has been broken. They need the sense of loss and anger which have left a sour taste on the back of your palate.   

The Golden Bees of Heaven are especially fond of betrayal and disappointment, but, oh my, how they love the rich, deep, bitter darkness of depression. 

All of these human failures are pollen to the Bees. 

They will buzz all ‘round the story of Holy Week, and wait and watch as the story of the Passion of Jesus draws out the pollen of regret, grief, anger, betrayal, disappointment and depression from the depths of your own heart and soul. 

They will take them – all of these human failures – to their very bodies and carry them to the Queen of Heaven where She will make of them a gift to be wept over and blessed with Her tears.

Then the Bees will return them to us and begin to make of these, our old failures and regrets, brilliant white combs of wax, which will provide the framework for us to find our own salvation.

I know. I understand. This is not what you were taught as a child. God, we were very carefully taught, is the Great Master Puppeteer, and we are Pinocchio with Geppetto-as-God-our-Father, controlling all the strings of our lives.

God is supposed to remember the sacrifices you made – the chocolate or wine you gave up for Lent. If you sacrificed enough and prayed really hard, He – God – was supposed to bring you that brand new bike or those spiffy new shoes or get you on the team or help you pass the test for your driver’s license which would open the door to unspeakable freedoms. 

Later, that same Geppetto-Father-God, you thought, would get you that job. Or, save your marriage. Or, heal your child.  And when He – God – didn’t do these things, you would shrug your shoulders and figure you weren’t good enough or deserving enough.   

That Santa Claus must have whispered something in God's ear which made it to God's Big Book of Failure. And your shoulders slumped and your heart was heavy and you feared asking for anything else. Of God. Or yourself. Or life.

Or, perhaps you repeated the cheery mantra that “When a door closes, God opens a window,” and you would try to get on with a life of magical thinking, hoping against hope to find a Genie-In-a-Bottle of sorts who would help you find the right mystical incantation to unlock the Gates of The Treasures of Heaven as your own.

Or, maybe you would get angry and blame something or someone – sometimes, even God – and never really trust God enough to let yourself really be vulnerable and pray. Ever. Again.

Some of us grow up and come to be spiritually and emotionally mature enough to understand that life holds an abundance of sophisticated irony and paradox and absurdity. That all of these, our human failures, are God’s repeated attempts to offer us the sweet honey of grace and mercy and the opportunity for a new, transformed life.

Ernest Hemmingway once wrote: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards, many are strong in the weak places.”   Some of us don’t – won’t, can't – understand that. 

Yet God is persistent, battering down our hearts with three-fisted Love in the form of mystery and incarnation and spirit – all of which are especially present to us in the midst of the Passion of Jesus in Holy Week.

Antonio Machado’s poem ends with this stanza:

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

We are more able to find God inside our hearts when we get a glimpse of the failures and fragility of our human lives. When we do that - when we are able to look at the absurdity and paradox and irony of life - we awake from our waking dream and discover our marvelous error.

Something is set in motion. The whole field shifts and sets loose some strange mystery which we can neither comprehend nor control. That is the work of Holy Week – to awaken us to the failures of the human enterprise which, paradoxically begin to create the framework for us to find our way to salvation, and open the floodgates of the waters of new life which we taste again as if for the first time.

We are born again and “that which was old is being made new and that which has been cast down is being raised up and everything is being brought to its perfection in Christ Jesus.”

It is Palm Sunday. The Bees of Holy Week are beginning to gather. If you listen – if you dare – you can hear the hum of their buzzing. 

They are here to gather to their bodies our human failures – the pollen of regret, grief, anger, betrayal, disappointment and depression from the depths of our own hearts and souls. 

We will walk with Jesus this week, as the story of his Passion unfolds. We will follow Jesus to the middle of the very middle of our very souls where all of our secrets are kept. 

The Bees of Holy Week will take all our human failures, if you surrender to them and don’t mind if they sting a time or two, and make of them the sweet honey of Easter Resurrection. 

We know the story. We know how it ends. 

The Bees of Holy Week are gathering. 

Let them come.   


Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook

A Sermon for Lent V - April 7, 2019

Christ Church, Milford

As we prepare ourselves for Holy week beginning with the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday next week, I want to state something you may or may not have considered but it is nonetheless important to know: The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook.

The Bible should, most definitely, be taken seriously - but not literally. The Bible tells us that a snake spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden, but we know that only the snake in Harry Potter talks.  The Bible also calls Jesus the door but he wasn't hinged and made of wood. 

Some of the Bible is allegory, some is parabale, and much of it is poetry, but language is insufficient to contain the truth or descrbe the deep mystery that it God.  

Language can only point to truth; poetry can only hint at the fullness of God.  

During Holy Week we are going to be reading directly from scripture in church, each of us taking parts, so much so that you might think that, if we simply follow the rules set forth in parts of scripture, we’ll live ‘happily ever after’.

Happily ever after is what happens in fairly tales. And, ‘ever after’ does not mean ‘the after life’ but the life you live after a particular event – usually a woman finding her Prince Charming.

If you’ve been paying attention over the years, you might have discovered that Scripture is not a fairy tale, Jesus is not Prince Charming and the ‘ever after’ we are promised is about what happens after our life on this earth, in a place where we will exceed the bounds of human happiness and know, instead, the unspeakable joy resurrection.

In our Epistle reading, Paul seems to be boasting that he is as good a Jew as any, and perhaps even better. Not only was he circumcised on the eighth day as prescribed by the law; not only was he named after the only king of his tribe of Benjamin; not only was he as observant as any Pharisee; but he went as far as persecuting the church, which he once saw as a threat to true Judaism. 

Oh, that it were as simple as that: a handy-dandy check off list of do's and don't which come with God’s official stamp of approval, which will insure our entrance into heaven!  

Well, think again. Even Paul says he counts all those things as “rubbish”. 

Life is so much more complex than that. Life hands us dilemmas and mystery, puzzling paradox and deep, painful irony. God wants us to use the intelligence we are given to make good choices – not that we will always do, necessarily, what is right, but always to err on the side of that which is good.

You may have also discovered that I am an veritable font of useless information about the church in general and the Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church in particular which will neither get me a seat on the cross town bus nor a seat in heaven. It will, however – at least I hope – keep us entertained until Jesus comes back.

So, let me repeat: The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. And, that guidance will often lead you to break a few rules, when necessary to keep the New Commandment Jesus gives us.

But, I’m getting out ahead of my skiis. This morning’s gospel lesson lays the foundation for the unfolding of the Story of The Passion.

In this pericope from John’s gospel, not only has Mary of Bethany broken lots of societal rules, she has done so in honor of Jesus, who has broken lots of rules from the scripture of his day and time.

The gospel scene is in the home of Lazarus, in Bethany, a town on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. We are invited into the midst of a dinner which celebrates the return of Lazarus from the dead. 

It is six days to the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem

You may remember that Jesus raised Lazarus after he had been dead three days. Technically, that’s not what got Jesus in trouble. It may have earned him the ire and resentment of the Pharisees but it was the rule that he broke which scholars say was the last straw.
And what was that rule which Jesus broke which set the stage for his persecution and death? It is this:
Jesus had performed a miracle on the Sabbath.
The Levitical Rule is that nothing gets done on the Sabbath. Nothing. Not no thing, not by no body, not no how, not no where.

Not only had Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath, he had performed such an extraordinary miracle, a prodigal, extravagent, lavishly wasteful miracle of healing that it had earned him a measure of notoriety and fame. Actually, he had previously healed seven people on the Sabbath. 

But, this! This was an extraordinary event. Jesus had raised his good friend, Lazarus, from the dead. I mean everybody heard about it! Everyone was talking about it! And, there they were, Lazarus and Mary and Martha and all the disciples, all celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus with a festive dinner.

Clearly, something had to be done. This was the last straw.

And then, there is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. In celebrating her brother’s return from the dead, she does a most extravagant thing. She breaks open a full pound jar of expensive perfume, made of pure nard, an aromatic amber-colored essential oil, derived from a flowering plant of Spikenard, a member of the valerian plant family, which she had probably obtained from an Egyptian trader and stored in alabaster case to preserve its fragrance.

And then, she does something which breaks all the societal rules of polite company: She bathes the feet of Jesus in the nard and then wipes them with her hair. 

There’s an awful lot going on here, beyond the cultural norms of the day. 

Yes, it was the practice, in ancient Israel, to offer a basin of water for guests to wash their feet, especially before a meal. It was considered an act of hospitality.

But, there is high symbolism in the foot, which, in antiquity, symbolized aspects of the soul. And, in antiquity – and, even today – a woman’s hair is a symbol of her sexuality. It’s why, traditionally, nuns were required to cut - sometimes even shave - their hair. 

It’s also why, in every movie from the 40s and 50s, when you see a woman take the pins from (or untie the bow from) her hair, you know something sensual is happening. And, if you hear an oboe playing sultry music in the background, you know in the next scene two people are going to be in bed and one of them is going to be smoking a cigarette.

Mary has broken more than a few societal rules and norms and Judas, for one, is deeply offended. Oh, sure, he complains about the cost of the nard – which, in today’s currency would be about $50 or an entire year’s wages for a man in antiquity – which could be used to feed the poor. But, Judas is really deeply offended about the sensuality of this public display.

Jesus rebukes Judas. He knows what Mary is doing, even if she doesn’t. She is anointing him in preparation for his death, which will happen just a few days from now, about two miles from where they are sitting. 

It will be Judas who betrays Jesus. Judas, who is concerned about breaking the rules, will betray the best parts of his relationship with Jesus – the generosity, the compassion, the kindness, the devotion of Jesus who risks his life by breaking the rules to save his friend.

Oh, the irony and the paradox of a such a bitter pill to swallow. Judas will keep the rules and betray Jesus. Jesus will sacrifice his life for breaking the rules to save the world.

Let me repeat:  The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. And, that guidance will often lead you to break a few rules, when necessary, to keep the New Commandment Jesus gives us to love one another as He and God love us.

I’ll finish with a story. It was in the late-80s and I was a newly ordained transitional deacon, about 3 months from being ordained a priest. I was working in Boston, and the first wave of the AIDS epidemic had begun to wash over the city, carrying away some of its brightest and best.

One of them was a young man named Jimmy Mac. He was 28 years old and a very popular DJ at a local radio station. He was gay. And, he had AIDS. 

We worked a great deal together, Jimmy Mac and I, providing education to anyone who would listen to us – and, in those days, not too many places wanted to listen to us. 

Funeral homes were declining to accept the bodies of those who had died of AIDS. Some churches – yes, even some Episcopal churches – were refusing to hold funeral services for people with AIDS. In the midst of an epidemic, people were afraid. Very afraid.

Jimmy Mac and I were steadfast in our belief that education was the cure to the second epidemic associated with AIDS. He called it “Afr-AIDS” – fear of AIDS – and we were determined to educate people to the facts as we knew them about AIDS transmission and prevention.

A few days before he died, I went to see Jimmy Mac in his room at Mass General Hospital. In those days, we had to “suit up” – light green paper gowns with matching paper hair and shoe coverings, a paper mask over our mouths and plastic gloves covering our hands.

I must have looked a sight but I almost gasped at the skeleton of Jimmy Mac which I found in his hospital bed. Always a gentleman, Jimmy Mac broke the tension by saying, “Oh, darling, look at you. They’ll see you on the news. You’re gloves don’t match your shoes!”

We talked for a bit and then, realizing that our time was short, Jimmy Mac got right to the point. “Listen carefully to me, darling. I have something to ask,” he said. “It’s been days since I’ve seen a human face without a mask. I can’t remember the last time anyone touched me without wearing those damn plastic gloves. I’m dying. I know I am. Will you take off your mask so I can see your face? Will you take off your gloves so I can feel your hand in mine? Please? Before I leave this earth, will you do that for me, my darling?”

And, even though I knew the rules of the hospital, even though I knew the consequences for breaking those rules, I remembered the rules of my faith. So, I took off my mask. And, I took off my gloves. And, because Joe Biden ain't got nothing on me, I climbed right into that hospital bed with Jimmy Mac and held his wasting body next to mine and stroked his hair with my fingers and softly kissed his face.

I was able to do that because I know that the Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. 

Sometimes, in order to keep the great commandment of Jesus, you have to live the irony of breaking a few rules. In order to see new life, you have to live the paradox and let the old stuff die.

I hope you will remember that as we prepare for Holy Week and for the long walk we will take with Jesus from Bethany to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives, and from there to Jerusalem, to the courts of Pilate and Herod and onto the cross at Golgatha.

Sometimes, you have to break a few rules to discover that ‘happily ever after’ is a crock. And, sometimes, you learn that the unspeakable joy of resurrection is absolutely worth the sacrifice. 

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to discover one of the great ironies of life and the paradox at the center of Holy Week: You have to reach down – way, way down – in order to touch the stars.