Sunday, April 24, 2011

Naming Resurrection

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

A sermon for Easter Day, April 24, 2011. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43 ,Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 , Colossians 3:1-4 , and John 20:1-18 .

Sometimes when I’m with my in-laws, it gets confusing. It’s confusing not only because there’s usually a lot of food, and conversation is had among mouths full of good things. It’s not only confusing because everyone is talking at once. And not just because the languages spoken often become a hodgepodge of Tagalog, Ilonggo, English, or “Taglish.”

But there’s a particular word that comes up a lot, and every time I hear it, it makes me turn my head. The word is diyan (from nan diyan) and it means something like, “over there,” or “that one” and to me, it sounds just like my name. And so in that corner of the room there is a rapid-fire conversation, clickety-click, “John.” I turn my head, but they’re not talking to me. Then behind me, I hear another conversation, “John.” Again, it’s not me they mean. It’s finally gotten to the point that I just tune out anything that sounds like my name, so that several times someone has actually called me and I miss it, I’m hard of hearing!

In today’s Gospel, it’s only when Mary Magdalene hears her own name that she wakes up from the nightmare she’s been living. It’s only then that she realizes what has happened, that she realizes Jesus is speaking to her, and that she realizes that God has made a miracle.

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb expecting to encounter death. She goes to pay her respects, perhaps to say a prayer for her friend. But instead, she hears her name, and nothing is ever the same again.

Names are important. For religious Jews, the true name of God is so holy that it’s never spoken, and it’s only written in four-letter symbol. Muslims use the 99 names of God to focus their prayer and to model their hearts more closely on the attributes of God. As Christians, we have inherited the Third Commandment, not to take the Lord’s name in vain. But we also gained a new name in Holy Baptism.

When I say that we gain a new name at baptism, I don’t mean the saint’s name that some old priests insist on a child having. But I meant that at some deep level, when we are baptized, we take on the name of Christ. And the new name we get from God is stronger than any other name anyone could ever call us.

This about Mary Magdalene for a minute. Who knows what names she was known by: daughter, sister, neighbor. Scripture refers to Mary Magdalene as having been cured from “seven demons” but it was only the creative interpretation of subsequent theologians who connected Mary’s demons with sexual sin. Even though scripture says nothing to suggest Mary had been a prostitute, later preaching and art history gave her that name, and it has stuck.

Perhaps we know what it is to be given a name that doesn’t fit. We can change a name legally, but sometimes it’s harder to change the name others have given us. But no matter what we may be called by others, no matter what name may arise when we look in the mirror, God has a new name for us.

In the Bible, there are times when people encountered God and God changed their name right then. It happened to Abram, and Sarai, and it happened to Simon. It happens still. Sometimes God calls us into a new name and we struggle or resist. But other times we pick up its sound, even though we may not hear it entirely, but we turn toward God and we follow. God whispers our true name at the moment of our birth. Our true name is sung like a lullaby at our baptism. And whenever times are rough, or especially good, God speaks our name and we can sometimes hear it. And then, when our eyes close to this world, when we die, God speaks our name loud, clear, and strong. The Good Shepherd knows each by his or her own true name. We can follow because we know his voice.

Most of you know that our parish has had an especially complicated Holy Week as we have struggled to come to terms with the death last weekend of our organist and choir director, Jeff Workman. Jeff and I could never decide how his name should appear in print—he went back and forth, whether Jeff or Jeffrey. One day I asked him if, since he was such a “fancy church musician and all,” perhaps we should call him Geoffrey, with a “G.” We both laughed and he suggested that if we did, we would need to refer to him also as “Master of the Quire,” with a “Q.” I don’t know what name Jeff goes by in heaven, but I assume he and God have agreed on something, and whatever that name is, it must sound like music the beauty of which is beyond even Jeff’s own imagining.

We are called by name in this life and into the next.

How our name might sound came to me in a new way through a novel I read a couple of years ago. Andre Aciman’s, Call Me by Your Name is about a love affair, but even to describe it as such is to degrade and over-simplify. It is a book about life. It is about growing older. It is about the people who move in and out of our lives, who touch us and change us, even if they end up far, far away.

As two characters in the novel discover their love for one another, the story builds to a place where one character says to the other, “Call me by your name.”

Think about that for a moment. What might it feel like to know someone so well, to love someone so deeply, to trust someone so thoroughly that you might call them not by their name, but by your own? Such a place would be an almost unbelievably intimate place, a place of excruciating vulnerability, a place of complete surrender, a place of absolute faith.

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls Mary by her own name, and her eyes are opened and she is able to see the resurrected Christ. She proclaims her faith, she names her love and gives her heart as she calls to him, “Rabboni!.” Master. Rabbi. Teacher.

In this exchange of names there is recognition and love and acceptance. Mary understands. She is given new strength to go and proclaim what she has seen. She goes with the joy of having been the first to recognize Jesus. Though Jesus calls Mary by her name, the level of trust and intimacy and love is similar to her having been called by his name.

Friends, this Easter, the good news is that we are called by his name. We are called to live into his name and to be his body in the world. It is a name that has power over death. It is a name that means love and joy and peace. It is a name that brings everlasting life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Comparative Advantage of God

A sermon for the Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea] , Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones] , Psalm 114, Romans 6:3-11, and Matthew 28:1-10 .

As I was growing up, my father would often get my brother and me to help with projects around the house. We did things in the yard. We might re-shingle part of a roof. We would even take up old linoleum and put down new flooring. But then, there were some jobs that my father had the good sense to see, were simply beyond our ability. “You can’t beat somebody at their own trade,” he would say. And so a plumber would be called. Or a roofer. Or an arborist.

What Dad was talking about is basically what economists would call “comparative advantage.”

The Economist Paul Samuelson explains comparative advantage by giving the example of someone living in a small town. This woman is both the best lawyer and the best secretary in town. Though she might be tempted to try to do both, and indeed, would do a fine job—the notion of comparative advantage suggests that it would be to the common good, and to her advantage, to hire someone else to be the secretary. That way, she could put all of her resources into her legal practice. Turned the other way around, let’s imagine the person hired as secretary also had some skills in drafting simply briefs and legal documents. Even though the secretary could do some of the legal work, it would be to the comparative advantage of both for the secretary to be the best secretary possible and let the lawyer be the lawyer. This is the idea of comparative advantage. It’s an economic principle in trade, but it also has some practical implications in relationships of all kinds. It even has implications in the relationship we have with God.

The resurrection is about many things, but among them, I think it shows in no uncertain terms the comparative advantage of God.

It comes down to this: There are just some things God is better at than we are.
And yet, too often, we persist in trying to “play God.”

We keep calendars, and make plans, and arrange our lives (and the lives of other people) in such as way as to imagine that we are in control. Until something reminds us that we are not.

Our parish community has been reminded of just how out-of-control we are this week, with the death of our friend Jeff Workman, last weekend. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have little patience with easy explanations of death or overly-pious observations about death--- though I know full well, these are things we tell ourselves in an effort to restore calm, to suggest that there is a pattern to life, to imagine not only that “life” in under control, but at some level, to imagine that we are still in control. But death reminds us that life is unpredictable, tomorrow is unknown. Jesus wept. And the tears of God are with us in our weeping, until that day when “God shall wipe away all tears.”

Remembering the comparative advantage of God is difficult for us, partly because God has blessed us, his children, with so many gifts and abilities. We can make things. We sometimes can get along with each other. We are capable of heroic rescue and the ability to show enormous compassion. But we are also capable of oil spills, and nuclear accidents, and environmental abuse, and murder, and bigotry, and all of the other things that sometimes cause people to lose a belief in anything beyond ourselves. And yet, the brokenness of humanity is not an argument against God. Rather, it’s a reminder of just how much we need God.

We can work at peace. We can work at medicine and even the extension of life. We can work at peace and justice and freedom for all people. But at some point in all of this, there is a place for us to be ourselves—broken, fallible, sinful, human-- and to allow God to be God.

It is God who brought the people of Israel out of bondage and into freedom.
It is God who put bone to bone in the valley, and showed people just what he can do.
It is God who visited the Virgin Mary and commingled divinity with humanity.
It is God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And it is God who intervenes in our world, who intercedes in our lives, who interrupts our plans and makes for miracles—the miracle of life (a life fully lived here and now) and of life everlasting (the life to which we all are called to live in continual praise and love and laughter.)

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling Death by death
and to those in the grave
bestowing Life. (Paschal troparion)

When we live as ourselves and allow God to be God, the full power of God is freed to reform and renew and raise us up into the fullness of Easter faith.

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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Blessing of Now

Jesus Washing His Disciples' Feet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 21, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17 , 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35 .

The Reading from Exodus describes a meal eaten on the run. Moses puts it bluntly, “Eat it with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it hurriedly.” Moses rushes the people through their meal because God is busy rushing through Egypt and making a way for the people to go forward, a way of freedom and new life.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they knew the tradition from Exodus, but I think Jesus chose this place and this time not to have a hurried meal. Instead, I think he chose this time and place in order to slow down. Biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus knew exactly what the next few days would bring, or whether he just sensed things were leading in a certain direction. But whatever the case, in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, worry, fear, perhaps some doubt—Jesus chose this supper as a chance to be with his friends and to savor ever minute. To taste the bread. To chew the olives. To smell the wine. To pray with eyes open wide.

Jesus speaks with them very gently. He talks about what might be ahead. When they become anxious, he offers calm. He shows them faith. He tries to prepare them spiritually, and as a symbol of servant hood and of cleaning away the old to make room for the new, Jesus washes their feet.

Simon Peter is uncomfortable with the idea. Probably for different reasons than we might be, but the reluctance, the vulnerability, the hesitation to yield to another, to allow another to touch, and wash, and offer— some of us might be in the same place as Simon Peter, and we might be uncomfortable.

And yet, just like Jesus tries to show Simon Peter that service involves not only giving, not only “doing unto;” but it also involves receiving, and allowing other to do, so Jesus offers us a way of service that makes for communion.

This act of washing feet not only recalls the service Jesus showed his disciples, but it also reminds us of where we are. We’re not back in First Century Palestine. We’re here, in Washington, DC. We don’t (all of us) have stylized, beautiful feet like in paintings or frescoes, we have what we have. And we have one another.

If you look around, you’ll see a sight that will never be repeated again: Each of these people, sitting where he or she is sitting, looking the way they do. This particular configuration of people, in this space, with the light just as it is—will never happen exactly like this again. Water, bread, wine, bodies, emotions…. they are all rare and endangered—endangered by the worries of tomorrow, by the regrets of yesterday, by the distractions of today,

And so, God invites us to be present in this evening. To be present now.

It’s not easy to be present. I remember a time when I was ANYWHERE but in the present. I was in seminary and it was one of the most unfocused and worrisome times of my life. It was Holy Week and I was confused. I was confused about the future, confused about the way my life was going, confused about my sexuality, my friendships, my understanding of God, my vocation… you name it, and it confused me and worried me. I was living with regrets from the past, and yet I was afraid to look ahead, feeling paralyzed by fears of the future. And then in church we sang a hymn.

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;

Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;

Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now. (The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

God is here NOW.

Just as Jesus used the Upper Room as a time to be with his friends, so this night provides us an opportunity to be present. A lot has gone before us. The days ahead will bring their challenges, but we are here, in this place. And God is here, in this place, now.

Believing in Jesus

Mary anoints the feet of Jesus by Frank Wesley

From the All Souls Weekly for April 24, 2011.

On Monday of Holy Week we read John 12:1-11. We heard how Jesus visited Lazarus, Mary, and Martha soon after he had resuscitated Lazarus from the dead. It was during this visit that Mary took some expensive perfume and began to anoint the feet of Jesus. Judas, who very soon would betray Jesus, looked on and criticized Mary for her lavish gesture, suggesting that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus answers him by suggesting that Judas is missing the point. The thing that matters most is not the perfume. The thing that matters is not even the act of Mary’s anointing.

Instead, the crucial thing is that Mary believes in Jesus. She believes that he has healed her brother and brought him back to life, and she believes that somehow Jesus is the key to ongoing life, to life at its richest, to life with God. The religious rulers were right to worry about this “belief in Jesus,” because such belief did, can, and always will change the world.

Belief in Jesus and his life-giving body (both the Body we receive in Holy Communion, and the Body we form with other believers) has sustained us this week at All Souls.

It was in the afternoon of Palm Sunday that some of us learned of the death of our friend Jeff Workman, our organist and director of music. After we waited for his family to be notified, we began to share the sad news with the vestry, the choir, and the extended parish community. Hearing that a young-looking man in his fifties had died of a heart attack did little to comfort or help make sense of the situation.

When someone dies, I do not care to hear theological justifications or pious clich├ęs. I don’t care if God needs another angel and I don’t think there is always a “reason for everything.” Life is richer and more complex than that. Life (and death) is more mysterious.

But what I do know is that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Faith in him brought Lazarus out of the cave. Faith in Jesus helped the criminal of the cross to see paradise. Such faith will carry us through any difficulty, any trial, and any heartache. Belief in Jesus will carry us from Good Friday to Easter, from tears to laughter, and from death to life.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Out of the cave

The Raising of Lazarus, Duccio, 1308-11. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 10, 2011. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11 , John 11:1-45 .

Some of you have visited the Roman catacombs, those underground caverns and passageways beneath the city of Rome, where many of the first Christians are buried. Those first believers would gather there to remember their beloved dead, and they would celebrate an early form of Communion, remembering the meal Christ celebrated with his disciples and breaking bread with one another. Some of these catacombs are decorated, and there are at least 40 images showing the Raising of Lazarus. Many from the 2nd century, these images usually show just two people. They show Jesus doing the raising, and they show Lazarus being raised-- Lazarus in his grave-clothes, all bandaged up, looking like a mummy. But by the 4th century, the picture changes.

The depiction changes as icons of the Raising of Lazarus still show Jesus and Lazarus, but they also begin to include Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters. Also, there are the disciples, the crowd, the curious and nosey, and eventually the picture evolves to the point that usually one of the people is holding his nose. This illustrates that point that Lazarus has been dead for four days . . . and smells like it. Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus does. Jesus then says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And so the people step forward. They do so as Sylvia Plath imagines it from Lazarus’ point of view,

The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies
These are my hands
My knees. (“Lady Lazarus”)

The story of Lazarus comes at the end of Lent to prepare us for Holy Week. It has drama. It has compelling characters. And it begins to show us how Jesus can lead us from death into new life.

In the Orthodox tradition, the story of the raising of Lazarus gets extra special treatment. The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday—the focus of the day is on this sign of the power of Jesus, of life over death, of love over despair. For the Orthodox, the week leading up to Lazarus Saturday is spent as a sort of sustained meditation upon this story.

On Monday, Jesus hears that his friend is sick.
On Tuesday, it is heard that Lazarus is very sick and is dying.
On Wednesday, Lazarus is dead and is buried.
On Thursday, it is heard that for two days, Lazarus has been dead.
On Friday, there is expectation, for tomorrow Lazarus will be raised.

And so, throughout the liturgies of the week, Christians are invited to participate in the story, to live with it for a bit, to see where the story intersects with their own lives.

And if we think about it, there probably are intersections.

Sometimes when we hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, we can hear it like those earliest pictures portrayed it—as something that happened between two people, between Lazarus and Jesus, between one human being and his or her understanding of God. And maybe that is the way it makes sense to you. Perhaps religion is a very private thing for you, a well-kept secret between you and God. For some, the Raising of Lazarus can be explained away. It can be “psychologized” and over-spiritualized by suggesting that Lazarus was simply very ill, had a vision of Jesus coming to him, was healed, and then told the story of his healing in such a way that it was written down and repeated.

But for me, anyway, I think the Gospel, and life itself, suggests a more literal and a more crowded picture. It’s more in keeping with those icons that show Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and crowds of people surrounding them. Rough around the edges, disorganized, and sometimes smelly—this is where God meets us. It’s precisely in these places where we get lost in a cave, God approaches and calls us out. We’re pulled into new life by the people God has sent to us.

The cave can look very different for each of us. Sometimes it’s dark and desolate. We feel like we have no hope. It can be in a crowded room, in a well-appointed home, in what looks to the outside world as a “happy family.” But inside (and inside ourselves) we feel lost. It’s as though a part of us were dead, or were dying.

Earlier, I used a few lines from a Sylvia Plath poem, and I did so almost disingenuously. I managed to find three or four lines in the poem that are funny and in my context could almost sound light, but I did the poem and the poet a disservice, really, by lightening it up. Plath’s poem is “beyond Good Friday.” It’s filled with dark and deathly images as she recalls her own suicide attempts, frames her own experience using images from the Holocaust, and describes much more the pain and misery and confusion of death, without revealing so much as a crack in which light might break in. For her, there seemed to be no light and it would only be a year after writing this poem that Plath accomplish her goal and end her life.

God calls often, “Lazarus, Come out.” “John, come out.” Whoever you may be, whatever your name is, even if you’ve forgotten what your name sounds like on God’s lips, Come out! However dark the cave may seem, come out.

And then, God sends angels to help unbind us. Often they are disguised in the oddest ways. Sometimes God sends a stranger, or someone incredibly annoying, or a doctor, or a specialist, or a friend who calls, or a neighbor who invites us out to walk or for coffee. Maybe it’s a televangelist or an infomercial or the side of a bus or an ad on the Metro—God works in mysterious ways to call us into life.

But at some point, it’s our job to stand up. Lazarus could have gotten cozy in the cave. Who knows, he might have found it a nice escape from being bossed around by two sisters, from having to work, from having to deal with the day-to-day. He could have dreaded the attention that it would cause, if he were to walk into the light. But instead, Lazarus listened to the voice of God, he moved out, and he allowed others to unbind him.

One of my favorite books has always been Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. In it, Will Barrett decides he has had enough of life. There’s no one to look after any more. He’s basically alone. He’s bored and tired and doesn’t really see any point to it all. And so he decides to put God to the test. Barrett goes into a cave to wait God out. If God exists, Barrett think, then God can save him. If not, he will die. And so he sits. And he waits.

But just as he’s settling into the cave, he begins to feel something in his mouth. It’s a pain and it increases. A toothache takes hold, one that becomes blindingly painful. It becomes so bad that Barrett eventually climbs out of the cave. Stumbling along in the woods, he meets a young woman, Allie, who is schizophrenic. In her own way, she is recovering, and together, they help each other out of the their “caves.” They help unbind one another. They lead one another into new life.

The Raising of Lazarus gives us a foreshadowing that we, too will be raised at the last day.

But it makes another, and perhaps even more important point: Even in the cave, Jesus is with us. Even in the dark, God calls and sends help to unbind us, to free us, and to bring us again into the light.

The words from a 6th century hymn invite us to come into the open, to move toward Bethany where Lazarus was raised, and to move toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be raised

It sings the invitation:

Let us depart the mere material world, which is always in a state of flux, and hasten to meet Christ the Savior in Bethany. Let us then dine with Him and with this friend Lazarus and the apostles so that we may, by their prayers, be delivered from our past sins. If we cleanse every stain from our hearts, we shall see perfectly his divine resurrection, which he offered to us when he took away the tears of Mary and Martha. (St. Romanos the Melodist, 6th c.)

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

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Seeing Clearly

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011. The lectionary readings are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14 , and John 9:1-41 .

Many of you are familiar with St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century woman who was part mystic, part nun and part religious reformer, but she was also a real person with real feelings and emotions. She rode all over Spain in a horse and wagon, founding convents and confronting local authorities, and did it all with a bad back that gave her almost constant pain. She said her prayers, but her prayers were honest. At one point tired, feeling defeated and stuck in the mud, she is reported to have shaken her fist at heaven and said simply, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

Sometimes it’s lonely being a Christian. The life of faith can feel that way sometimes. We wonder why it’s so hard. We wonder why things don’t come easier. We might even wonder what the use of believing in God is, since we (as well as others) suffer, are met with challenge, and face illness and death. Other Christians do dumb things and sometimes we’re asked to explain or defend them: non-Christians love to bring up the crusades, or problems in the Roman Catholic Church, or the crazy preacher in Florida who can do nothing better with his time than burn the holy books of other religions. And while we are responsible only for what WE know, and what WE see, we wonder, “Why can’t every Sunday be Rose Sunday, ‘Laetare,’ filled with rejoicing and life and joy?” Why can’t life be filled with roses?

But we know that every Sunday is not Rose Sunday, and some days seem more to be filled with weeds than blossoms. But we’re not alone in getting cut by thorns as we reach for roses. We’re not alone, in the history of faith, with our struggles. Lovers of God have dealt with this from early on.

The church that first heard Saint John’s Gospel knew something about pain and rejection. John warns them, “They will persecute you,” (15:20). “They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God,” John says. (16:2)

In today’s Gospel we hear about a man who is healed. It’s similar to another story in John’s Gospel in which another man is also healed, and he is told to take up his pallet and walk. In both stories, the healed person gets into trouble. Neither person was initially asking for help. They weren’t asking for healing. They certainly weren’t asking to be put on the radar of the religious authorities and be made the center of attention for their scrutiny. But that’s what happens and they’re left to try to explain the mystery of God’s ways.

I use the term, “religious authorities” with some intention, so maybe I’ll say a word about this. Sometimes people say the Gospel of John is anti-Semitic because, over and over again it talks about “the Jews.” “The Jews” did not believe that the man born blind had received his sight. People fear “the Jews,” and it’s “the Jews” who are putting people out of the synagogue. But when the Gospel of John says “the Jews” he doesn’t mean the whole people, or even the whole religious people. He means the Jewish authorities, the religious leaders, leaders who (in his day and in many other times become self-obsessed and lose a sense of belonging to God). The Jewish people, many of whom followed Jesus, had very little to say in the matter.

In today’s Gospel and in many other places, the religious authorities miss the point of what’s going on right before their eyes. They become caught up with when the healing is done, how it is done, who sinned and who is paying for that sin… They are blind to what God is doing and blind to how God is healing. It’s the seeing, who are blind.

But the “blind man,” sees. And our scriptures today invite us to see.

In the first lesson the prophet Samuel goes in search of a new king. The sons of Jesse are paraded in front of him, but none of them measures up, though each might initially look like a potential king. But it’s the one who’s out keeping the sheep, David, who is called. Samuel stops, looks and prays. And Samuel sees.

The Gospel about the man born blind is read on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, as we move with Jesus into Jerusalem. With Jesus, we attempt to sort out the various voices and appearances, the things that clutter up our vision and get in the way. And with the blind man who receives his sight, we are invited to stop, look, pray and see.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day can’t see because of several things blocking their sight.
They don’t think it’s possible to see healing from Jesus.
They don’t expect to see anything new.
They have firm ideas about what they might see, and so they’re not able to see anything different.

Some years ago, I was visiting Jerusalem with a group from my seminary. On one morning, we had some time by ourselves, and so I went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the intention of simply hanging out for a while. I thought I could maybe find a quiet place somewhere in that holy space and simply absorb some of the spirit. I found a seat in an empty chapel and began praying. At one point, I opened my eyes and realized a couple of older, Orthodox nuns were had come in and were sitting near me. Then a few more people came in. And then I began to hear a tremendous racket. A verger was leading a procession right into this chapel—the verger had a great big pole and was smacking it on the floor as this long procession of monks and priests and other important-looking people walked right into the chapel where I was—where I was now trapped. I couldn’t go out the door I had come in, since there was a parade of people coming in. And yet I couldn’t see any other exit. There I sat, this tall guy wearing a bright red shirt and khakis, in the midst of this sea of black clothing, incense and worship in another language.

And yet, I felt invisible. It was as thought no one even saw me. My presence there was so odd, so unexpected, so unreal as compared with what they ordinarily encountered in that space, that there was an aspect of invisibility to me. I leaned over to a woman near me and asked her, “Excuse me, how might I get out?” She ignored me. Then I asked louder, and it was as though I had broken some kind of spell. She looked at me with a look of absolute horror, but seemed to understand my question, and pointed to a the iconostasis, the screen covered with icons, and I so I got up and headed that way, saw a door and made my escape.

I wonder how often that happens in other ways in my life? How often am I blinded to what might be right before me because I don’t expect something new, or don’t quite recognize something that has changed, or perhaps don’t slow down long enough in what I’m doing to notice what is before me?

The religious leaders missed the work of God right before their eyes. But with eyes of faith, the blind man regained his sight, and many who followed Jesus had their eyes opened to the possibilities and promises of God.

Even though every day doesn’t contain roses, and even though the healing of our own ailments may come more slowly than we might hope, the loving power of Christ is to heal and to help, and he offers us his love this day.

May the love of Jesus Christ open our eyes to the depths of God’s love and the ways in which we might be a part of God’s healing in the world.

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


Saturday, April 02, 2011

Celebrating the Life of Regina Dading

The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the Brow of the Lord

A sermon for the celebration of the life of Regina Dading on April 2, 2011. The scripture readings are Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 14:1-6.

There’s a picture in the back of the church of Regina and a pigeon has landed on her hand. For a long time, that was all I knew of Regina Dading. That picture was on the cover of the All Souls Parish Profile, the kind of “resume of the church” that was used to look for a new priest after Father John David left in 2005. And so, some time early in 2007 I downloaded the parish profile from your website and I entered the search process. Whenever I looked at the profile to remind myself of some aspect of All Souls, or before I wrote anything for the search committee, or prepared to meet with people from the committee or the vestry, I would take out that parish profile, and would see, first of all, the picture of that lady with the pigeon.

I decided that she must be a character. First of all, she must be the sort of character a pigeon would like—and I don’t think pigeons like everyone. But second, I realized that she must also be the kind of person who has a good enough sense of humor that she would not only allow the church to put her picture on the cover of the parish profile, but that she also just might get a huge kick out of it. I’ve only recently learned that the picture was taken in Italy, when Regina and some of the people from church took a tour. So that’s an Italian pigeon, which explains why it would have such good taste as to pick out Regina for a friend.

Because of her picture on the cover of the parish profile, Regina, for me, was the “face of All Souls.” She, and the other pictures and the text, were all I had to go on—but as I’ve learned over time, I don’t think the search committee could have found a better picture to personify the history, the humor, the tenacity, the quirkiness, and the deep devotion and love for God that are so much of the spirit of this place.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” The Father’s House is a place Jesus has prepared for us, so when we get there, it will seem familiar in all the important ways. The Father’s House is no doubt a bit brighter now that Regina is there. And it’s probably a little bit louder, with the combined giggles of Regina and Helen Anderson, and so many of the people they loved in this place who have now gone to a place of even deeper fellowship, better food (even better beer), and a place where, as scripture says, God shelters them with his presence. “[Where] they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:15-16)

Though Regina is in another place, much of her spirit continues to guide and teach us, to inspire us to be our best, and to remind us that there is no separation between the Holy Table of God (the Altar) and the holy tables of fellowship in the undercroft, or in our homes, or anywhere we might break bread with another person and share the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I don’t know what Regina thought about the Stations of the Cross that were installed at All Souls a few years ago. But there’s one station, in particular, that makes me think of Regina. It’s the Sixth Station.

Traditionally, the Sixth Station over there is the one where we remember the moment that a woman wiped the face of Jesus. Tradition has given her the name Veronica. But it’s not that someone was actually named Veronica. The name comes from “vera icon,” meaning “true image.”
And so Veronica is an icon of what it looks like to love God. In some ways, the fact that she is a woman who simply showed up and did what was needed at the right time, a woman whose name is not known by many—Veronica symbolizes so many women who have kept the faith over the centuries. Certainly in this parish, during the leanest times, it was the women who kept things going. They kept the doors open, the silver polished, and the stomachs full. They kept the stomachs full not just of church members, but of anyone who would stop by, or anyone in need. Though the Church remembers Veronica at the Sixth Station as wiping the brow of the Lord Jesus on his way to Calvary, tradition does not say what Veronica did next. But I think that if she were anything like the “church women” I know, she probably went home to put food on the table, knowing that people would soon be hungry and need to do something with their grief. Since it’s hard to know what to do with grief, with anxiety, with fear… it’s as good as anything to share a meal with friends. In such a meal we find strength. We find hope. We find God.

As we share Holy Communion, we can do so in the faith and knowledge that Regina is with us celebrating, laughing, and loving. As we continue to share a meal in the undercroft afterwards, again her spirit will be very much a part of what we do. And finally, even as we leave the church later today, her love and her witness to God’s love go with us and help us to find our way today and in the days ahead.

Thanks be to God for Regina, for her laughter and for her love.

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


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