Sunday, April 11, 2010

Different kinds of faith

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29 , Revelation 1:4-8, and John 20:19-31.

One of the great joys of being at All Souls is that I get to see the garden almost every day of the week. I get to watch the changes as the seasons unfold.

Especially at this time of the year, some flowers seem to grow stronger and more vibrant. Some weaken and bend. Some become more fragrant and change in a really beautiful way. Some look tough, because they’re supported by others. Some look weak, but really they’re among the more resilient. Some die altogether, and they’re been removed. But others grow older and expand and become somehow much more mysteriously beautiful.

The flowers are a little bit like faith. Faith is not of one kind. Faith responds differently over time. The Gospels make that very clear, that there are different kinds of faith, different types of faith and different levels of faith.

We could pick up Saint Paul’s meditation on spiritual gifts when he says, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” and we could add, “And there are varieties of faith, but the same God behind them.”

Some people’s faith depends upon signs. Others believe in Jesus without a sign. Some need miracles. Others don’t. Some have faith that is weak, some strong. Some have shallow faith, some have deep faith. These different kinds of faith can be seen especially when we look at the various reactions to the resurrection. On this second Sunday of Easter, as we continue to reflect on the resurrection and its meaning, we can learn something from the different ways those early disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Mary Magdalene had faith that took her to the tomb and she saw the risen Lord through her tears.

The two disciples were walking to Emmaus. Their faith led them to extend hospitality to a stranger, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

Some of the disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith led them back to work, and they saw the risen Lord in the midst of their work, and when they reached land, he made them breakfast.

Later the disciples seemed to lose faith, and fear took over. They were in a room with locked doors, but even through their fear, the saw the risen Lord.

In the Reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the fiery faith of Peter before the religious leaders of the day. His faith is so strong enough to break him out of prison and send him right back into the Temple to preach the news of Jesus resurrection.

In the Second reading, from Revelation, there’s the confident and clever faith of John the Divine, whose faith gave strength to the churches who were struggling, and whose faith still gives us hope in the one who is Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

And then there is Thomas.

Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really. Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, Thomas nonetheless has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. But it is a place they know. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” But Jesus affirms that by knowing him, they know his destination since as Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire.

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus.

What appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weight the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination. In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.

Some may have faith like Mary Magdalene, or the two on the road to Emmaus, or the other disciples, but some may struggle. May we all know that there is a place for us in the garden, but especially may those who doubt, remember Thomas. Thomas eventually was brought into the presence of the Risen Christ who took his hand, brought it to his side, and said, “Look, believe and live.”

Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. Christ is risen for those who fear. He is risen for those who doubt. He is risen for us all. Alleluia.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Day

Noli me tangere, Fra Angelico, c. 1425-1430.

A sermon for Easter Day, April 4, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 , and John 20:1-18 .

Last Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons (the animated television program on Fox) had Homer visiting the Holy Land. Once there, he fell into what is called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” and in his case, began to believe that he was the Messiah. I first heard the Jerusalem Syndrome some years ago, just before I visited Israel. A colleague of mine sent me an article about the strange condition with a note on it saying, “I hope this doesn’t happen to you.” The syndrome is one in which a otherwise normally acting and thinking individual leaves his or her home, travels to Jerusalem, and once there, has a kind of break or shift, in which one actually believes that one is someone else—almost always a famous Biblical character. One believes that one is Mary Magadalene, and so roams the streets of modern day Jerusalem, in character. Or one believes that one is Saint Paul, or the Virgin Mary, or… which ever Biblical character your brain suddenly adopts. I’m happy to report that in 1997, I did not fall into Jerusalem Syndrome (though I did hear a voice in the Church of the Nativity … but that’s another story for another sermon).

As odd as Jerusalem Syndrome sounds, there’s one aspect that seems especially true to human nature. Notice that whenever someone undergoes this brief psychotic shift, whether the person is Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, the person always identifies with some famous person from biblical or religious history. It reminds me a little of Shirley MacLaine’s experience with past lives. Ms. McLaine, in past lives, has been “a Japanese geisha, a Moorish girl summoned to cure a fellow countryman of impotence, a suicide in Atlantis, a Toulouse-Lautrec model, an orphan raised by elephants and the seducer of Charlemagne who was subsequently reborn as Swedish prime minister Olof Palme.”

As she explained in a interview a few years ago,“We’re all playing parts,” she insists. “You're acting as a journalist, doing your best, and I'm trying to impress you. That’s what we do throughout our lives, and you’re empowered when you come to terms with it. What’s imagination, what’s real? I don’t know. If you're playing a role, you can rewrite it any way you want.” [Full interview with Andrew Duncan, can be found at Radio Times, Created 8/8/2000 Updated 25/8/2003 Page Address: ]

Though she may be right that it does feel like we’re simply “playing parts” from time to time—some better actors than others--- it seems to me that the very essence of Christian faith, the freedom we celebrate especially on this day, is the freedom NOT to play a part, but rather, the freedom to be ourselves. It is the peculiar, individual, sometimes not-too-interesting, sometimes more-fascinating-than-any-role-ever-written SELF that Christ touches, baptizes, sanctifies, and raises to new life. He raises us up on the final day, from death to life, but he also raises us up continually in this life, to life lived more abundantly.

Humanity is made holy on the cross. Rather than transform himself into some Greek or Roman god who might summon all the natural forces of the universe and wow the people with special effects, Jesus dies on the cross. But along with the body of Jesus, the power of sin dies on the cross. The power of evil over us, dies on the cross. The power of death, dies on the cross. As St. Paul puts it, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And that enemy meets its end on the cross of Christ.

In life, Jesus touched people as themselves, calling each one to the “better self.” The tax collector was accepted and told to deal honestly with people. The Roman soldier had his place and was told to be honorable. The woman at the well continued her work, but with new integrity and purpose after encountering Jesus. The Syrophoenecian woman would still be seen by some as a foreigner, but she found new identity and strength in being touched by Jesus. Each of the disciples—the famous ones whose names we know, and the ones whose names we don’t know--- each disciples is accepted for who she or he is, and through a relationship with Jesus Christ (through rebirth in God) each one is touched, changed, and raised up.

Today’s first scripture reading is from the Acts of the Apostles. In it, Peter has learned from a vision God gave him. That vision (which you can read about earlier in Acts 10) opens Peter and the followers of Jesus to a fuller vision of God’s Kingdom, accepting accepting non-Jews into the way of Jesus, and putting into place a pattern of acceptance and openness Church (when it is being faithful to Christ) continues in our own context. As Eugene Peterson’s translation of the scriptures puts it in contemporary language, “It's God's own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you're from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he's doing it everywhere, among everyone.” [The Message, Acts 34-38]

As one Anglican Benedictine has put explains, the great freedom of religious life is the freedom not always to have to stand out and be different. The vow of stability helps one remember that one need not spend so much energy always trying to differentiate oneself, to strive to be better than, or more than, but to remember that God has created each person as “enough.”
Even when he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus is seen in common, human ways. In today’s Gospel he is first encountered not in glowing white, not as a superhero, not as something or someone from another space and time, but rather, he is mistaken for the gardener. In another appearance, he fits in with the fisherman. Along the road to Emmaus he appears as a companion, and as a friend. Near the very end of the Gospel of John, some of the disciples are fishing, and Jesus is appears on the beach. There, he seems almost like a short-order cook, asking everyone how they’d like their fish cooked. (That’s a Jesus I really love, and I bet you anything he knows his way around all the “diners, drive-ins and dives” of the world better than Food Network’s own Guy Fieri!)

This earthiness is echoed in our other readings for this Easter morning.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ reminds us that the “glory of God is a human fully alive” (Irenaeus of Lyons). Christ rises again in each of us, as our bodies move with the love of God in our world. A tenth century mystic, who began as a politician, eventually moved from being a senator to being a monk, and has been known as Symeon the New Theologian (to distinguish him from an earlier Symeon). Symeon’s poetry underscores the personal aspect of encountering God, the personal ways in which God activates and animates us. He writes

We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? -- Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

With apologies to Homer Simpson, we really have no need for the Jerusalem Syndrome to take us over and turn us into other people. We’re fine just who we are. It’s we-as-we-are that Christ comes to meet, to make holy, and raise to new life.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter Vigil

The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem

A sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, April 3, 2010. The Gospel reading is Luke 24:1-12.

Between the draught of last spring and summer, and the blizzards of this winter, several of us thought we would lose one of the little dogwood trees just outside the tower door of the church. Last summer, we nursed them along, pulling hoses and pouring pitchers of water whenever Mother Nature seemed to be otherwise occupied. It seems like they’re going to make it.

Maybe you are like me in watching the trees especially closely this spring—watching them to see if they are really going to pull through. Is a particular misshapen and storm-damaged tree just taking a while to recover from winter shock, or is it dead? For a tree that lost much of itself through storms or pruning, is there some chance of late recovery? With a few straggly trees along the Woodley Place side of the church, the city helped make that decision. They cut down one dying tree and removed another one that seemed beyond repair. And then, a small miracle—the city planted three new trees, staked them up, fertilized them, mulched them, and gave them some municipal equivalent of a blessing.

It’s a tricky business trying to decide whether a tree is dead, and then needs to be removed or replaced, or room cleared for something new to grow. It can be a painful thing. It can change the way things look, the way things feel, even the way we feel, if the tree has become something we’re used to seeing and having near and enjoying. As difficult as it can be to let a tree die and move on, it’s (of course) even more difficult to acknowledge death in such a way that makes room for new life.

But that’s just what happens in this Easter Gospel. Some of the women, Mary Magdalene, another Mary, Joanna, and some of the others, come to the tomb where Jesus has been buried. They find the stone rolled away. They had imagined finding things differently. They had thought they would find the dead body of Jesus.

They had pictured it all differently, and so what they saw was like trying to recover from a storm. Are their eyes playing tricks on them? Is this death, or is it not? Or is this a strange kind of death, different from what they had supposed. The angels who stand there break the silence asking, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

But we can understand why the women are there. They are at that odd place between naming death, and being aware of some new kind of life. Sometimes we call this shock. Sometimes it’s denial. Sometimes this awkward time is simply covered up with business or compulsion or fantasy. But the women on that Easter morning, and the other disciples too, for the new few days, (perhaps the next 50 days of Eastertide, perhaps the next two thousand years) will continue to try to understand what it means in God’s creation for some things to die so that others may find new life.

Sometimes ideas need to die. They need to fall away, or be revised, or be drastically changed. Sometimes projects—though they may be loved, even a little bit worshipped—projects need to be dropped. Sometimes attitudes need serious adjustment. They need to die. Sometimes particular jobs, or skill sets, or tasks need to wind down to their logical resting place. Sometimes (though less often than our society supposes) relationships come to an end. Or, perhaps relationships need to be re-negotiated, in order to gain new life and growth.

I have a friend named Al Johnson, who is the rector of St. Michael’s Church in Barrington, Illinois. Al has a somewhat corny, but wonderfully perceptive and faithful way of talking about the most significant relationship in his life. He explains that he’s been married to the same women three times. Three times, but with no divorce. They have an amazing relationship, and now, as Al looks at retiring, I bet he’s soon going to be saying that he’s been married FOUR times to the same women, because as he changes his patterns and habits and values, it’s only natural that some aspects of their (third) marriage will die, so that aspects of their fourth marriage can begin.

We’ve seen death in New Orleans, and we’ve seen death in Haiti. But we’re also seeing signs of new life. In parts of Washington, DC, there has been too much death, but in some places, there are also signs of new life.

What about YOUR life? If you were to be totally honest, if you were to see God face-to-face this holy night, what is it in your own life that really needs to be understood as staying in the cave, that place where history is frozen, where life is stagnant, that place of non-growth?

And at the same time, where might you hear the holy angels of God suggesting you look for new life?

Why do we look the living among the dead? Why indeed?

Faith in Jesus Christ is not so much about accepting historical precepts, or affirming traditional beliefs. Instead, Christian faith that is dynamic and alive and growing is about risking day-to-day contact with the living Christ, who might just lead us into anything!

The risen Christ changed the lives of his family, his friends, and his disciples, and he changes lives still.

May we be filled with the Resurrected Life of Christ and charged with the energy to choose light over darkness, faith over despair, and life over death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday

The Crucifixion, workshop of Bonaventura Berlinghieri (ca. 1228-1274)

A brief homily for Good Friday, April 2, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25 , and John 18:1-19:42 .

Some of you are familiar with Evelyn Underhill who was an English writer on mysticism and the spiritual life, who died in 1941. More than being just a writer, she was also a practitioner, a person of deep prayer, and you feel the depth of her prayer through her writing.

In one place (The Light of Christ), she talks about how first appearances can be deceiving. She talks about how a friend might suggest you check out a particular church—it has beautiful stained glass windows, for instance. And so, you approach this church, but from the outside, all you can see are windows that look pretty much alike—they’re all sort of dull and dark, thick, and grubby. But then, as she describes it, “Then we open the door and go inside—leave the outer world, enter the inner world—and the universal light floods through the windows and bathes us in their colour and beauty and significance, shows us things of which we had never dreamed, a loveliness that lies beyond the fringe of speech.” She goes on to say that this is a little like our understanding of God. We cannot understand God from the outside, but understanding comes when we enter in.

All Souls is a perfect place to begin to understand some of the mysteries of Good Friday. We are that kind of church from the outside—our windows look sort of ugly and uninteresting, until we come in, and then there’s a whole other world going on.

This day is like that. From the outside, it appears to be named incorrectly. After all, what is “good” about an innocent man, a prophet, and healer and teacher, being killed for no reason other than the fear and anxiety of the religious rulers of his day? But from the inside, from the standpoint of faith, we begin to understand that Jesus has given himself on the cross. What may appear on the outside as failure, will be turned into triumph.

The Good Friday perspective is one that can help us through the dark times. Especially when we only see darkness, when we don’t feel God’s presence, when our soul cries out “Why have you forsaken me?” a Good Friday perspective can remind us that if we go through, if we go deeply into, if we allow God to go with us, then we will move from outside, in and things will look different.

With eyes to see clearly, with faith to perceive the true nature of things, a Ninth century writer was able to sing praise on this day. Theodore of Studios wrote:

How splendid the cross of Christ! It bring life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree had destroyed us [in the Garden of Eden], a tree now brought us life.

May God give us the faith of Good Friday, faith to see beyond appearances, faith even to enter into death, so that we may be brought to life again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Dawn at the Tidal Basin, April 1, 2010

A sermon for Maundy Thursday. The lectionary readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, and Psalm 116:1, 10-17.

I remember well a particular baptism. We had made our procession. The family of the child to be baptized were all gathered around the font. The children of the church watched closely. We raised a pitcher of water up high and began to let it flow into the font. Whooooooshhhh. And in the split second of silence after the pouring of the water, the brother of the child being baptized looked up and said loudly, “Wow.”

Wow, indeed. Wow, at the miracle and mystery of water. Wow, that ordinary water can be made holy.

Perhaps we have had our fill of water over the last few months—both the frozen kind of water and the raining kind. This morning I watched the sun come up at the Tidal Basin, and I noticed in many places evidence of where the water had overflowed. Water overflows in nature. But water also overflows in church.

At baptism, the water overflows. The baby, child, adult gets wet, but in some ways the moisture never leaves. We reaffirm our baptismal vows, we make the sign of the cross with Holy Water, we receive the sprinkling on certain occasions—all of which remind us that we never really dry off. The water stays on us and in us.

But also in tonight’s ritual, in the washing of feet, water overflows. And this overflowing of water represents love overflowing. The love of God overflows into the life of Christ. The love of Christ overflows into the lives of his followers and friends. And through the mystery of the Holy Spirit, that same love can flow through us into a dry and parched world.

Our tradition at All Souls on Maundy Thursday is that the priest washes the feet of twelve parishioners. This is meant to symbolize Jesus washing his disciples feet. But it should also be understood as a kind of enacted sermon illustration, one for you to imagine yourself in the story. And Christ lives in each one of us, and the call to show love to others in simple, tangible ways does not belong to priests, but to all of us. Though you may not be washing the feet of another, I hope you will be open to how God might be calling you to extend the love of Christ through the world.

Jesus calls it a new commandment and certainly it makes “love of neighbor” more explicit than the first commandments, but what is really new about the commandment to love one another is how we “incarnate” that commandment. What can be new has to do with the multitude of ways that Christ’s love can be shown in our world.

After the washing of feet, we continue with prayers and Holy Communion. After Communion, we process with the Blessed Sacrament to the Mary Chapel, where the Sacrament remains overnight. By allowing the Body of Christ to remain in the Mary Chapel overnight, we recall how, soon after washing his disciples’ feet and sharing the Passover Meal, Jesus and his disciples went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.

May the overflowing water of Christ’s love wash us, renew us, and keep us faithful. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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