Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day – September 14, 2019 – John 12:31-36a – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

The cross is everywhere. Signed on our foreheads, across our chests, and on our hands. Laid in our stonework, etched into our windows, and even baked right into our communion bread.

The cross is the Christian symbol, and for good reason: Jesus died on the cross. As an instrument of torture, the cross carries with it the baggage of violence, shame, and death, but God took this sign of torture and made it a sign of new life.

Imagine. An instrument of death becoming a symbol of new life. Like all good Christian theology, it’s paradoxical to the core.

Over the centuries some folks have, unfortunately, used the cross to inflict shame. Some who grew up attending rigid parochial schools or fire-and-brimstone churches are still scarred by the guilt they felt when they were told that they were responsible for hanging Jesus on it.

You and I know that the cross is not an emblem designed to manipulate our emotions. The cross is a tangible reminder of the intersection of human and divine life.

When we see God enfleshed on the cross, we witness God identifying with human suffering in an unparalleled way. Even Jesus, born of a woman, yet one with his father in heaven, did not escape the cold reality of death.

God, at one with our human nature, gets it. God gets that we suffer, and God shows us on the cross that he is with us when we do. Most importantly of all, God shows us that suffering and death do not ultimately get the last word. That belongs to resurrection.

On the cross we see the hard reckoning of human pain with the promise of new life in God who loves us beyond measure. Ironically, by dying, Jesus shows us just how powerful his life is. We are inheritors of that life—eternal life—in Christ.

We remember the cross today because of its sacred place in that eternal life. I’m not sure what happened to the real one, though its purported fragments abound. But that’s okay. The reality of its power does not depend on its archeological discovery.

The cross still marks the spot of Jesus’ death and ensures us of the promise of eternal life. On our bodies. On this altar. Built right into the side of this building. Baked right into this holy bread.

Rejoice friends, for wherever Jesus’ cross is, there God is at work, transforming death into life. Thank God it’s grafted on our hearts.

Knowing God

Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 – Acts 11:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Today’s collect has a great first line. “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life.” That phrase has stuck with me since we first read it together at Bible study on Tuesday. 

To know God is everlasting life. That packs a punch. 

It suggests that our relationship with God is not casual. God is not a mere acquaintance or a distant relative. True knowledge of God is not futile or easily acquired. Rather, true knowledge of God is the result of a life spent experiencing God, listening to God, and responding to God. 

Faithful Christians have been doing just that for centuries. In today’s lesson from Acts, the Apostle Peter recounts a vision by which he comes to deeper knowledge of God. 

Peter sees God’s great picnic blanket lowered to the earth carrying animals considered to be unclean. Nevertheless, the voice of God commands Peter to kill and eat. Peter politely refuses, but three times God assures him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  

After the vision, the Spirit leads Peter to the home of a prominent Gentile where he begins to preach. The Holy Spirit falls on all who are gathered there, just as it had on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. 

Through this vision and the subsequent events God reveals that his kingdom is available even for those outside of Judaism. 

It seems simple enough to us. Jesus came for everyone. Gentile, Jew, slave, free, black, white, gay, straight, woman, man, non-binary. (The list goes on.) But imagine a Jewish believer in Jesus’ time. It would have sounded preposterous that a Gentile could receive the word of God.

Jewish followers of Jesus were uniquely suited to receive the Good News of the Messiah. They were children of Israel, decedents of Abraham. Christ was the fulfillment of what had been foretold by their prophets in their Bible. 

Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, the idea that Gentiles could be included in a salvation they had not-so-long-expected didn’t make much sense. 

Gentiles did not live by the law. Their men were uncircumcised, they consumed forbidden food, and they didn’t perform ritual acts of washing before table fellowship. How could they all-of-the-sudden be a part of the in-group? 

At this point, it’s tempting to draw an unflattering analogy between these early Jewish followers of Jesus and Christians today who refuse to acknowledge that the love of God is for anyone but them. 

It’s been done before. 

“The Jews were too legalistic! They were so focused on their law that they couldn’t see that God was trying to do something bigger and better! Don’t be like them!” 

Let’s not fall into that trap. It would be hypocritical. By criticizing Peter for eating with Gentiles, Jewish followers of Jesus were not saying anything different than what we might say today. 

“How can Baptists be Christians? They only do communion twice a year, and when they do do it they use grape juice! It’s unconscionable! It’s not biblical! It’s simply not done!”

Have you ever noticed that no matter what denomination they belong to, Christians tend to find Jesus firmly aligned with their beliefs, as if they have the market cornered on Christianity. 

Christians get stuck in an either/or mentality. They see things as mutually exclusive. If you don’t have Eucharist every Sunday, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t only offer baptisms on major feasts, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t perform “last rites” immediately before death, then you’re doing it wrong. 

When we engage in that kind of exclusivity we miss the point. Just because we have chosen to follow Jesus in a particular way, doesn’t mean that all the other ways that people follow Jesus are wrong.

There are, of course, some ways of following Jesus that are wrong. If your idea of following Jesus involves speaking hate, or excluding people who are different from you, or taking it upon yourself to damn others to hell, then you are absolutely wrong. But just because some ways are wrong, doesn’t mean that every way but ours is wrong.

God did not send Peter a vision to tell him that Jewish food laws were irrelevant or that the old covenant was thereby invalid. God is simply telling Peter that knowledge of God is not limited to people who observe the food laws or practice circumcision. 

In the Episcopal Church we do certain things in certain ways for certain reasons. God is not calling us to abandon our rituals of common prayer. God is calling us to understand that God is not exclusively limited to them. 

That’s right, Gentiles can also experience God. And for that matter, Baptists can, too! God is bigger than the Church. One set of rules or guidelines simply cannot capture all knowledge of the divine. 

That’s okay, dear ones, because God continues to reveal himself to us, and each time he does he invites us into a deeper knowledge of him. 

It might be in the form of the Holy Spirit guiding the General Convention to affirm the ordination of women or the sacredness of same-sex relationships. 

It might be in the still, small voice that encourages our bishops to stand up against senseless gun violence and the laws that perpetuate it. 

It might be in any number of things. Maybe even in something that happens to you this week. 

Some say this is sacrilege. They say that everything we need to know was given to us in the Bible. The Bible may contain “all things necessary to salvation,” but that does not change the fact that God continues to help us interpret it.

I think some folks are scared that if we say that God still speaks to us that it will negate the things that God has already revealed. That’s simply not the case. 

The fact that God continually guides us into deeper knowledge of our sacred texts does not mean that the texts have reached their expiration date. It means that God’s help is required in order for us to continuing mining their depths. 

Deeper knowledge of God comes as a result of our participation in the life of God. Sure, there will be times along the way when we realize that we don’t know God completely. That’s a good thing. 

It keeps this faith thing interesting. 

It reminds us that God is God and we are not. 

It keeps us coming back again and again to meet God in prayer, scripture, liturgy, and sacrament. 

In other words, it keeps us in eternal life. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me! 

Easter Sunday 2019

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019 – Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Easter is a day on which we typically don’t pay much attention to our scripture readings. Like Christmas, we already know the story. We come wearing bright colors (and maybe dressed a bit nicer than usual) to sing glad hymns and shout “Alleluia!” My job is to remind you to never underestimate the power of scripture, no matter how familiar you may think it is. 

Each of today’s readings gives us a sense of the fullness of the eternal life into which we walk with the Risen Christ, this day and all the days of our lives. 

From the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter’s brief message of God’s peace in Jesus Christ. Peter tells us that we carry on as witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From 1 Corinthians we hear Paul working out one of the Church’s first theologies of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Paul tells us that just as we die daily in our sin, we are also continually raised by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into the life of Christ, who claims ultimate victory over sin and death.

From the Gospel according to John we hear an account of this very morning involving Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. 

I commend to you each of these readings (and the psalm!) for further study. However, this morning I want to focus on this rich gospel account.

It reads to me almost like a game of human pingpong. Back and forth, back and forth. To and from the tomb. Stay with me here…

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. Startled that the stone has been rolled away, she runs away from it. She tells Peter and John, who decide they need to see it for themselves, so they run back toward the tomb. 

They find the tomb empty, as Mary said they would. They see the linen grave clothes lying inside, but there is no body. Then they go, you guessed it, away from the tomb, back to their homes. 

Somewhere in the course of these events (the scripture isn’t clear) Mary makes her way back to the tomb as well. 

All three of these characters have different reactions to what they observe at the tomb. The gospel tells as that, after seeing the grave clothes, John believed Jesus had been raised. That’s remarkable, really. He had no gospel account to clue him in. It was all unfolding right there before his very eyes. 

We’re not quite sure about Peter. Maybe he gets it. Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps he has some more thinking to do.

Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t get it at all, which is totally understandable. Thinking his body has been carried away, she remains at the tomb to cry and lament the fact that she has lost Jesus, her Lord, for a second time. 

At this point, some of us might be tempted to identify with one of these biblical characters. You know, the sort of thing we do with Mary and Martha when we hear the story of Jesus visiting their home in Bethany. We tend to ask ourselves questions like, which personality is analogous to mine? 

There’s a danger in that, I think. It limits your perspective on the story. In fact, I think we can identify with all three of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel. 

We are all John. We are all Peter. We are all Mary Magdalene. 

We are John when we see something, and believe it. We are John when all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. “Oh, I get it now.” We are John when we arrive on Easter morning without one shadow of a doubt that Jesus is risen. 

We are Peter when we are unsure. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to sort this stuff out. I am reminded of a young girl, maybe about four years old, who went to church with her grandmother one Easter morning. Her grandmother explained to her the Easter story, including Jesus’ death on Good Friday. “Then, on Sunday morning,” the grandmother said, “he came back to life!” The little girl glanced up with a look of pure innocence, and said, “Yeah right!”

Finally, we are Mary when our grief overcomes our ability to make sense of eternal life. When someone we love dies, grief often overcomes our senses. We don’t have the ability to perceive what’s right in front of us, even if that something is the presence of God. 

Friends, we are all in different places on our Christian journey at different times, and that’s okay. Even on Easter. Whether you run toward the empty tomb with an open mind, or run away from it in disbelief. Whether you need to take a break and come back later, or if you just need a little more time outside to cry. The good news is, the Risen One is always by your side.

Although you may not always perceive him, he is there waiting to call your name—even when you least expect it—and to give you the confidence you need to run from the tomb one final time proclaiming the living God. 

Imagining eternal life

Sunday after All Saints’ Day – November 4, 2018 – Song of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

“Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” So says today’s collect. 

At Tuesday’s Bible study Geraldine asked, “Don’t you just love the word “ineffable?’”

Ineffable. Too great to be expressed in human words. More than magnificent. Surpassing sublime. Ineffable. 

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is. Ineffable. 

This portion of the collect is the petition and the reason–what we ask for and why we ask for it. It’s the meat of the thing: give us grace to follow the example of your saints already in glory, so that we may come to know that glory, too. That ineffable glory. That glory beyond description. That glory which we know not now, but which we hope for with with every fiber of our being. 

The feast of All Saints’ reminds us that this time of year is not about hiding from the reality of death, it is about embracing the hope of enteral life and the ineffable joy that awaits us all.  

Today we remember those whom the Church has set apart as particularly shining examples of life in Christ–our Saints. Apostles: Peter, James, John, and Bartholomew. Martyrs: Stephen, Paul, and Cyprian. Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. They offered their lives as a sacrifice to show us what Godly living looks like, some even unto the point of death. As we sang, “These, like priests, have watched and waited, offering up to Christ their will, soul and body consecrated, day and night they serve him still.” 

All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, is traditionally the day set aside to remember all of the faithful departed: each and every Christian who has gone to glory. Often, we conflate the two days. We tend to remember everyone who has gone before us, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, on All Saints’.  Although that’s not technically the traditional intention, it’s not all bad. I’m certainly not trying to put parameters on who you remember today. After all, there is no hierarchy in heaven. 

The enteral life we celebrate on November 1st is the same eternal life we celebrate on November 2nd. Today, the Sunday after both of these important days, we gather to rejoice in the life of ineffable joy for which we all hope.

At least, I hope we hope for it. 

Sometimes, though, I think we are embarrassed of our Christian hope. Sometimes we make up excuses and invent distractions so that we can avoid hoping. This time of year, when we are reminded of death and dying, we tend play dress up instead of actually dealing with those hard realities. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine to inject good humor into our lives–to pass out candy, put on a costume, or wear a mask. But we must be careful that whatever mask we wear–whether it’s Frankenstein or Richard Nixon–is not an attempt to disguise our mortality.

Our hope is often fragile, and never concrete, so sometimes we have to use our imagination to describe what it is we hope for. The authors of today’s scripture lessons are prime examples of this. 

The Song of Solomon says, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” “…Their departure was thought to be disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” 

The prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament option we did not read today, imagines this peace. He writes that on his mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

I’ve heard people say that their number one vision of heaven is a banquet table. That makes sense, especially for Episcopalians who constantly gather at the table of the Lord, consuming bread and (not-so-well-aged) wine. 

Some of our best memories occur around the dinner table. Sunday afternoon with the whole family, or another weeknight, just you and a your spouse. Your guard is down, your mouth full of flavor, and your heart warm within you. That’s heaven alright. 

The author of the book of Revelation has a different vision for ineffable joy. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . and I heard a loud voice . . . saying . . . See, I am making all things new.” 

We know from history that the author of this book was living under Roman persecution. Perhaps his imagination was the only hope he had left. He knew there was a better life coming, so he tried to imagine what that would be like. This city will pass away, but the city of the Lord with come like a bride adorned for her husband. That’s heaven.

These are attempts to imagine ineffable joy.

Our tradition is filled with such imaginings, as well. In our sequence hymn today the saints in light are compared to stars who stand before God’s throne wearing crowns of gold. Is that what heaven will be like? Will we wear robes of purest whiteness, as the poet says? Or will heaven brighten like a golden evening where Saints like warriors finally find peace and rest? 

Well, we don’t know exactly, do we? It is beyond description. So, we use our imaginations. We imagine that which we cannot adequately describe but nonetheless know by promise.

This promise is perhaps best known to us through the covenant of our baptism. In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. This is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to doing Christ’s work in the world.

Our baptism is our initiation into a life of Christ, a life in which we are buried with Christ in his death, so that we can rise with him in eternal life. That eternal life is not conditional friends. Our baptism tells us that we have already entered into it. Eternal life begins at the font, not the grave. Even though we are not at rest, we are already participants in the life of Christ. So, let’s take a cue from our saints and act like it. 

What if people in our society used as much imagination envisioning the kingdom of God as they do planning their halloween costumes? 

And what if instead of denying death, we imagined eternal life? 

And what if our hope stretched beyond mortality? 

What if we imagined the glorious company prophets, apostles, and martyrs that awaits us?

What if our dreams were of saints and souls dwelling in “mystic sweet communion?”

What if what we know to be certain in this life, didn’t constrain our expectations of what is possible with God? 

What if our lives were infused with that kind of hope? 

What if we consider ineffable joy, an inevitable reality. 

What if? What if we did all those thing?

Well, then, I guess they’d call us Christians. Yes, they’d call us Christians.