Pentecost 4

Tonight at 11:31pm, it will officially be summer.  That doesn’t mean that summer hasn’t already been officially declared by other means, of course.  My friend Scott, a firefighter buddy of mine from Monmouth Beach, always said that summer officially begins when the first New York or North Jersey person – Bennies, as we called them – when they first park illegally on a side street to walk to the beach.  The Preston and Steve Show on MMR always “officially” kicks off summer on the Friday before Memorial Day with an early morning party called Eggs with Peg at Keenan’s in North Wildwood; that’s where the Shoobies certainly congregated.  In Bordentown, at least amongst the first responders, we say that summer doesn’t officially begin until there’s a water rescue down at the beach, and since we had our first one on Tuesday night, it’s officially summer in Bordentown! (everyone was okay)

As you surely know, the confluence of the Delaware River and Crosswicks and Blacks Creeks makes for fast times at the Bordentown Beach.  Boaters utilizing smaller engines can find themselves revving out and somehow going backwards, and God help, for real, anyone out there in a bad storm or anyone who falls into the water.

It all reminds me of today’s Gospel reading, of course.  “On that day, when evening had come, (Jesus) said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.””  That day was the same day that Jesus had taught the multitudes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when He taught them in parables like the parable of the Mustard Seed that we heard last week.  The “other side” that Jesus was referring to was in an area called the region of the Gerasenes, and that’s where Jesus cast out the demons in the pigs, and then the pigs all ran off the cliff into the sea.

So it takes about two hours to cross the Sea of Galilee from where Jesus and the disciples were to the region of the Garasenes, but Jesus was understandably tired from teaching all day.  While He was asleep, a brutal squall kicked up, as they so often did, and everyone on the boat was terrified, except for the napping Lord.

Now, first-century Israelites, on a whole, did not much like the sea.  And if you have ever been on the water when it starts to get dark and the wind kicks up and you’re in a boat like the disciples had, you would learn not to like the sea much either.  Because at least some of the disciples were fisherman, most famously Peter, James, and John, we can expect the boat they were in that night to be typical of the fishing boats used at the time: 27-ish feet long, 7 to 8 feet wide, 4ish feet tall.  Some of these boats had up to 4 rowing stations and a single sail, and while perfectly it’s a perfectly seaworthy size and design, it’s not a particularly large boat. 

And still, some of the disciples were practiced sailors, and so this storm must have been something if it got them worried.  They woke up Jesus when they started to take on water, and what does Jesus say to them?  Nothing.  He speaks to the wind and to the sea: “he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!””

Holy moly.  “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”  Well, He through whom all things were made; He who has just a different relationship with the created world than we do.  He who walks on the stormy sea as if on a freshly mown field; He who naps in a hurricane.

The disciples were beginning to understand that they were in a boat with the Son of the Living God, and so it’s not wrong to wonder if, at that point, they were more afraid of Him than they were of the boat sinking in a storm. 

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them.  “Have you no faith?”  I’m guessing that the rest of the trip was a bit awkward.  But still, those questions hung in the air both for the disciples and now for us: Why are we afraid?  Have we no faith?

The changes and chances of this life can seem arbitrary and most of them are.  Like the disciples, there are storms both actual and metaphorical that change the course of our lives.  We have been, like the old curse say, living in interesting times.  Like the disciples wondering just how Jesus could be sleeping through a catastrophic storm, we can wonder what Jesus is up to while we weather a pandemic, societal upheaval, times in which our lives have profoundly changed. 

The good news is that just as Jesus was literally in the same boat as those disciples, the Lord is literally with us now.  He is with us in Word and Sacrament, with us by His Holy Spirit, with us in every neighbor who will receive the meal being prepared upstairs.  And though there will be times in which we are afraid, we can trust that our God is the God who calms the storm, who turns to us and says “Peace!  Be still!”  May that peace of the Lord, that calm, that stillness that only He can give, be always with you. 

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Pentecost 3

This past Tuesday I was having a lovely day until Doan found a spider the size of a tennis ball in the herb garden right outside.  Oh!  There it is!  Just kidding.  It could be anywhere.  Our friend Shan identified it as either a wolf spider – which I’m hoping for – or a type of wandering spider, which are, as the interweb told me, “highly defensive and venomous.”  My whole world has been disturbed, taken over, since Doan discovered this terrifying creature, even though it’s (technically) tiny.

Jesus told us this morning that the Kingdom of God is “like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

So the Kingdom of God is like something tiny that can all of sudden become something that takes over, looms large.  Could, perhaps, disturb the status quo.  Because there’s lots of ways to interpret a parable, there have been many ways that the Parable of the Mustard Seed has been interpreted.  The most common is having the mustard seed stand in for the Church, the Church Universal; she started small and in one particular place and then grew huge, huge enough for the birds – the peoples of the earth – to find rest in her.  That’s a fine interpretation, of course, but the Church and the Kingdom of God are not exactly the same thing, and so it’s beneficial to ask further questions of this parable.

And so as the great commentator Eleonore Stump asked, “why wouldn’t the kingdom of God always be the same size?  To see the answer, (we) have to recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t a peculiar kind of country.  God’s kingdom isn’t a place at all.  (Heaven is a place, certainly, but God’s kingdom is bigger than just heaven.  And so the kingdom of God is more like) a condition, the condition of God’s ruling as king.

“But, we might think, even so, God’s kingdom can’t shift sizes.  God’s rule is always the same size: it’s everywhere.  What is ruled by a king is governed by the will of the king.  BUT how much of God’s will does any Christian fulfill?  Everything is subject to the will of God the King, for sure, but not every Christian who counts as being in the kingdom of God fulfills God’s will completely now. 

“So this is the way in which God’s kingdom can change size.  When a Christian does what is against God’s will, to that extent the will of God is not fulfilled in her.  And so, to that same extent, the kingdom of God is small in her too.  On the other hand, the more a Christian fulfills God’s will in her life, the greater the kingdom of God in her is.

“This is one way we can understand Christ’s parable of the mustard seed, then.  When a Christian first opens himself up to receive God as Lord, the Lord rules very little of him.  And so the kingdom of God is like the littlest seed in the ground of his heart.  But if only he lets that seed grow in him, if only he doesn’t give up on himself as fruitless and despair of himself, then that littlest seed of God’s kingdom will grow and grow in him till it becomes like a great tree in him.  (Though we need to remember,) if you have even just a mustard seed’s worth of faith and obedience, you still have the kingdom of God within you.”[1]

What a wonderful gift it is to be a carrier and messenger of the Kingdom of God!  And yet what a responsibility.  We can tell that we are being good ambassadors of the Kingdom if by word and deed we provide “branches where the birds can make nests in the shade;” if by our actions and influence, people can find that in the Kingdom of God, there is rest for their souls and strength for their journeys.   

It can be easy to feel as we, the whole lot of us, are too tiny to make a difference in a Kingdom so large, but Jesus is telling us that in the economy of His Kingdom, what looks to us to be small and insignificant, can grow more than we could possibly imagine.  What will we allow to grow in and through us?


[1] https://liturgy.slu.edu/11OrdB061321/reflections_stump.html

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Pentecost 2

This past week, Doan and I went for lunch at Efes, a favorite little Turkish restaurant in Princeton.  Efes, by the way, is the Turkish way of saying Ephesus, as in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians; the Blessed Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last days with St. John at his house in Ephesus, which you can visit if you’re ever there.  In 262, the Goths destroyed Ephesus because that’s what Goths did, but parts of the city were rebuilt.  In 431, the Church held the third ecumenical council in Ephesus, and there they confirmed that Blessed Mary could rightly be referred to as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of God.  They made that decision in a church called the Church of Mary, so it was meet and right so to do.

So, back to Efes the restaurant.  We ended up sitting next to a rather joyless couple, and it was difficult not to overhear their conversation.  Between complaints, the woman ordered a hamburger, and I thought, “Blasphemy!  One orders lamb and falafel in a Turkish restaurant!”  A little while later, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” came on the radio, and the man remarked, upon hearing the song and seeing me bopping away in my seat, that he never liked Madonna.  Blasphemy!  Cyndi Lauper fans will not hear such blasphemy!  (And Madonna’s pretty great too)

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

That one line of Jesus’ from the Gospel according to Mark has caused a lot of heartburn over the years.  What is the unforgivable sin? has to be in the top ten most-asked questions of my priesthood, and this type of question isn’t even in the Episcopal wheelhouse.

I remember back in the late 70’s and 80’s the issue of the unpardonable sin was big amongst the Jesus Movement people, not just because they hadn’t checked what the Church Father’s had said about it, but because of their emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Had they, or someone they knew, committed the unpardonable sin, blaspheming the Holy Spirit?

First, it’s helpful to know what blasphemy is.  Blasphemy is the act of cursing God, or of assuming to yourself the rights or attributes of God.  Claiming to be God, or the more usual claim of being the second coming of Jesus, is blasphemy.  The Ku Klux Klan burning a cross is blasphemy, as it takes Christ’s means of granting us eternal life and turns it into an instrument of intimidation and terror, a symbol of death itself.

Jesus was accused of blasphemy because He said He was God; we would come to find out that He was not a blasphemer but rather God Himself.  For us, blaspheming the Holy Spirit would amount to a rejection of our baptism, but not just a rejection, but a constant, continual, purposeful, and mindful rejection of our baptism.  It would mean shutting off our conscience, not listening for or to God in any way, and rejecting Christ in all things, and willfully teaching and leading others to do the same.  It’s actually kind of hard to do that, if not almost impossible, for the baptized.  

So it seems that we need not be concerned much about committing the unforgivable sin, but rather with the little ways we blaspheme daily.  The times we call light darkness and darkness light; the times our consciences are telling us one thing and yet we do another; the times we take what rightfully belongs to God and use them for our own purposes; the times we make ourselves God. 

The best way to do that is not so much to worry constantly about falling into sin, but to consistently strive to be involved with the good, always remembering that it is not for us to work our way up to heaven, but rather simply to live into our baptism, accepting the Holy Spirit when He calls.

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Trinity Sunday

A blessed Trinity Sunday to you all.  Trinity Sunday is an especially popular feast in the Anglican world, so much so that, at least until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we used to count the Sundays in Ordinary Time from Trinity Sunday; unfortunately, this was switched to Pentecost since the ’79 book.  This popularity stems from the fact that Thomas Becket was consecrated the Archbishop of Canterbury on the 3rd of June, 1162, Trinity Sunday.  Becket, of course, set himself against the will of his old friend King Henry II, who eventually wondered out loud, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  Don’t get any ideas from Henry.

The origins of Trinity Sunday go back much farther and involve quite a cast of characters.  We have to go all the way back “to the Arian heresy of the fourth century.  Arius, a Catholic priest, believed that Jesus Christ was a created being rather than God.  In denying the divinity of Christ, Arius denied that there are three Persons in God.  Arius’ chief opponent, Athanasius, upheld the orthodox doctrine that there are three Persons in one God, and the orthodox view prevailed at the Council of Nicaea, from which we get the Nicene Creed… The Council of Nicaea also gives us a wonderful example of how a real bishop deals with a heretic: Confronted with Arius’ blasphemous views, Saint Nicholas of Myra—the man best known today as Santa Claus—marched across the council floor and (punched) Arius across the face.”[1]  Don’t get any ideas from Saint Nicholas either.

Anyway, Trinity Sunday is the only feast day in which we celebrate a doctrine, a reality, rather than a person or event.  “The Trinity is one of the most fascinating – and controversial – Christian teachings.  The Trinity is described as a “mystery.”  By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.”[2]

The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (which can be found on pages 867 through 876 in your red Book of Common Prayer) defines the Trinity like this: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.  And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

Now, common wisdom is that if someone like me (just smart enough to be dangerous) discusses the Trinity for longer than a few minutes, I’ll have slipped into heresy, which means that I won’t go much further on the Trinity than I already have.  What we need to remember, I think, is that wrapped up in the Trinity is the Gospel, which is why today’s Gospel reading ended with what has been called the Gospel in One Sentence: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

If you’ll bear with me flagrantly dumbing this down, Jesus is saying “Look, God loves you so much that He sent Me.”  Here I am, God the Son; I’ve given up my heavenly throne and pitched my tent with you; I became like you so that you could become like me.

This is the good news of God in Christ Jesus: that God the Father sent God the Son to do what we could never do, to do the work of redeeming the world, the work of reconciling the broken and divided human race with the God who is perfect in substance and unity.  The Father and the Son sent God the Holy Spirit to fill us with power and truth, to continue the Son’s work through us and within us.

We are about to celebrate the baptism of a woman who has come to know God as He has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus; in obedience to Him, we will bring into His fellowship she who has come to Him in faith, and she will be baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, so that at the last she may see our trinitarian God in His one and eternal glory.  We may not be able to fully grasp, to fully understand the nature of God, but we are about to see, clearly and plainly, what He has done and continues to do for us.And so again, a blessed Trinity Sunday to you all.


[1] https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-trinity-sunday-542485

[2] https://prayerist.com/trinitysunday.html

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Pentecost

So Wednesday was our friend Melvin’s surprise Zoom birthday party, which was a lot of fun.  If you’re a regular part of the HomeFront crew or have worked on Thanksgiving and Easter dinners, you’ve likely met Melvin, who’s just a lovely man.  The Zoom party was, well, zooming past me most of the time: Melvin is from Guatemala and has friends from all over, and not only were they all talking at once, but in several different languages.  I confess to having no idea what was going on for most of the call.

“And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”  Melvin’s Zoom birthday was essentially the opposite of that, for me at least.

Pentecost is a tricky feast because there’s so much going on here and it’s all so vivid.  Churches can be tempted to try to re-present the miracles with doves on kites or with reading the Gospel in as many languages as possible; our own Fr. Ryan is down in Florence today with his tabletop tornado of fire – I’ve already got 9 and 1 dialed on my phone.

Pentecost can be tricky to take in, so it’s good to set the stage for what happened.  Let’s begin with the Last Supper.  The disciples are beginning to take in what Jesus has been saying for a while, that He must suffer and die.  They then watch this happen, or rather the grand majority of them don’t watch it happen – they take off, they deny Him, they scatter in fear.  Even when news of Jesus’ resurrection reached them, their collective response is to lock themselves in the upper room out of, again, fear.

On Easter night Jesus, resurrected and in His glorious body, appears to them first in that upper room and then, during the next forty days, appears to them and to many other of the disciples, eating with them, teaching them, opening their minds to understand the Scriptures and all that has happened to them.  Their fear subsides: they still meet altogether in that upper room but the doors are no longer locked.  Death, as they now knew, was conquered: as Jesus lives, so shall they. 

Then, as Fr. Andrew Mead said in his Pentecost sermon last year, “at the Ascension, Jesus visibly removes himself from their midst.”  They continued to gather together in that upper room, the Apostles (now including Matthias) and Mary and about 120 others, because Jesus had just told them to stay in Jerusalem, stick together, and wait for the “promise of the Father.”

Jesus had gone away, ascended to heaven, but He had told them that “it was good for them, because he would send them Another.  Another what?  Another who?  An Advocate, a Comforter, a Counselor, a Strengthener –the very Breath of God.  “You shall receive Power,” Jesus had told them.  The word for power, dunamis, is the root of dynamite, dynamo, dynamic.” And so on “the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after His resurrection at nine o’clock in the morning, the Power came, God the Spirit showed up, the Breath, the rushing mighty wind descended, with tongues of fire on their heads.  They bundled down the stairs into the street.

As Fr. Mead pointed out “It is crucial to remember that everything except one thing is the same.  The place is the same place where they locked the doors in fear, the city is the same, with the same authorities – Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas, Herod –whose earthly power made them (scatter and hide, made them lock the doors behind them).  Same people, same place.  The difference: The Power.  There is Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, standing up for Jesus in front of everybody, convicting them, inviting them, winning them for Jesus Christ of Nazareth–the Church… beginning to turn the world upside down.  Not just Peter, all of them, betting their lives on…Jesus.”[1]

That same Holy Spirit, that same rushing wind, that same Power, that same fire is in you.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit whispers in our ears and sometimes He makes us shout with joy; sometimes He inspires us to speak out and sometimes to sit down and shut up.  What will the Holy Spirit to do through you today?  Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with celestial fire.


[1] Fr. Andrew C. Mead, May 31, 2020: https://2bbadbfe-9c33-4d21-8b7c-81666d5b944f.filesusr.com/ugd/c50bf9_268042af7ee249f4819c6e905261f900.pdf

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The Sunday after the Ascension

So does anyone want to guess how many times Matthias is mentioned in the Bible outside of the passage we just heard from Acts?  Once, twice, twenty-two times?  The answer is zero, zilch, nada.  And yet Matthias is still one of the twelve Apostles, part of the most important group of people ever, so surely there’s much to learn from Matthias and what he was a part of.  

So who was Matthias, exactly?  Well, we know who he wasn’t: he wasn’t Matthew, though it’s easy to confuse their names and people have confused them over the years.  He wasn’t Nathanael or Zaccheus, though some scholars have proposed just that.   

We know that he was the replacement for Judas, and that he met the requirements Peter established for replacing Judas: he’d followed Jesus since his baptism by John the Baptist, and he witnessed Jesus’ ascension to heaven.  We also know that Matthias was the only Apostle who wasn’t appointed by Jesus Himself, though we can assume that Jesus had some influence in the choice via the Spirit. 

Matthias was chosen by the casting of lots, which seems a bit odd on the face of it.  Let’s roll the dice to see if Barsabbas or Matthias will be an APOSTLE.  What they probably actual did was write their names on rocks, put those rocks in a pot, and shake that pot until one of the rocks fell out.  Closer to the way BINGO balls fall out of that turning cage.  Of course, the Apostles weren’t actually gambling with the future of the group: they prayed for God to reveal His choice between two candidates who had already been revealed to them in prayer.    

The lot that fell on Matthias was a heavy one for sure.  Like all the Apostles, Matthias was sent out to evangelize, to plant churches, to preach the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  But Matthias was sent into an especially interesting place, Aethiopia, a land in what is now Georgia (the country, not the state), where he was charged with converting the “barbarians and meat-eaters.”  “Meat-eaters” was the nice way of saying cannibals, who reportedly would blind and drug their prey, then wait thirty days before killing and eating them.  I’ll be using this information when any of my clergy friends complain about their placements.  

Similar to Matthias’ ministry, the nature of his death varies.  “Some traditions claim he was stoned at the end of his ministry to cannibals in Aethiopia.  Another that he was stoned (to death) in Jerusalem and then beheaded.  Hippolytus of Rome records that he died in Jerusalem of old age.”  There are St. Matthias gravesites in three countries.[1] 

There’s a few things to be learned from the story of Matthias, on top of being the new guy means that you get to go minister to cannibals.  One is that there’s no evidence that Matthias had asked to be considered for Apostolic ministry.  There’s no evidence that the Apostles asked Matthias if he wanted to be considered, or if Matthias was even in the room when he was chosen.  God called; the Apostles prayed and discerned; Matthias answered.   

Secondly, there’s no mention of Matthias being a theological wiz, a great speaker, or even particularly smart.  For all we know, he was all of those things, but there’s no mention of having any resume at all outside of having had a relationship with Jesus.  There’s an old saying, God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.   

Thirdly, Matthias did only get that one mention in the Bible despite being an Apostle; despite having followed Jesus for three years and witnessing the miracles, the teachings, even Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, we only really know his name.  So much of the work we do for the Lord and for His glory goes on without much fanfare.  No one much notices when the work is being done, when the prayers are being said behind closed doors, when we are friends in Christ to each other and those in need, but what is visible is the fruit of that work: mouths fed, bodies clothed, the sick and the lonely visited, God’s house cared for and adorned with flowers and voices raised in praise, hearts turned toward the Lord. 

The same Lord who knew the heart of Matthias and called him to be an Apostle, knows our hearts as well, and equips us for our several callings.  We might not be sent into a land of barbarians and meat-eaters, and our names might not be written in any earthly book, but in being in the company of the faithful, by going where the Lord sends us, we can walk with Matthias on the way that leads to eternal life.  


[1] https://overviewbible.com/matthias-the-apostle/ 

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Easter 6

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…”

I have to admit that Jesus calling the disciples, and by extension, us, His friends, has always made me a little uneasy.  I’m sure part of this uneasiness is how the word friend has been used by the Church in liturgy and song.  I’d probably have to bribe Stephen to play What a Friend We Have in Jesus, even if it is a protestant classic.  Another thing you’ll never hear me use is Eucharistic Prayer 1 in a resource called Enriching Our Worship, partly because the Words of Institution include the line “when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his friends,” as if the Last Supper was just a bunch of guys hanging out at a Taco Bell. 

I was thinking of all this while mowing the churchyard, and I realized that I was mowing in the Quaker section, around some of the oldest graves in Bordentown.  I like the Quakers, or the Society of Friends, as they call themselves, even if I don’t agree with much of what they believe.  I mean, who hates Quakers except slaveowners and Puritans?  And if it wasn’t for Thomas Farnsworth, who’s to say we’d even be here right now?  I admire them, today especially, for explicitly calling Jesus, and each other, friend.

I guess I have to get over myself, because as today’s Gospel lesson infers, “For Jesus, friendship is the ultimate relationship with God and one another.”[1] 

So what does this friendship look like?  “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” Jesus says, and the commandment is “to love one another.”  That sounds kinda sweet, except that “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” 

As Gail O’Day, who teaches at the Candler School of Theology pointed out, this idea of friendship was not exactly new.  350 years before Jesus said these words, Aristotle wrote

“But it is also true the virtuous man’s conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf…. And this is doubtless the case with those who give their lives for others; thus they choose great nobility for themselves.”

Not being new doesn’t mean that the ancient Greeks or anybody else lived up to this definition of friendship any more than we do.  The willingness to lay down your life for a friend is a difficult thing even to wrap your head around, but while Aristotle gave us a philosophical ideal, Jesus gave us His example.  “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus said, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord.”  Jesus, in His life and in His death, is the ultimate friend.

So again, what does it look like, for us, to be friends with Jesus?  “If we take Jesus’ commandment to love seriously, and if we long to be called “friend” by Jesus, then the Christian vocation is to give love freely and generously without counting the cost and without wondering and worrying about who is on the receiving end of our limitless love.”[2]

If that sounds like a massive risk, that’s because it is.  That kind of love, that kind of friendship, leaves us vulnerable, open to betrayals both active and passive; that kind of love demands that we do other radical, Jesus-type things like pray for our enemies, embrace the other, forgive the unforgivable, step forward to receive the kiss of the Judas in our lives.

Maybe – definitely – this is the source of my uneasiness about Jesus calling us friends: that to be a true friend of Jesus means that we have to be true friends with everyone, knowing very well what could be asked of us.  Thankfully, Jesus calls us friends despite our weakness, and it is by His power that we can be His friend in return.


[1] Gail R. O’Day: file:///C:/Users/jmtuc/Downloads/FriendshipArticleODay.pdf

[2] Ibid.

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Easter 5

I’ve always been fascinated with the story we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles.  There’s so much going on: an angel directing Philip around, government officials in big chariots, spontaneous baptisms, teleportation, for lack of a better term.  St. Luke fits all that into fourteen verses, and so there’s a lot to look into here.

First, who are these people?  If we rewind a few chapters, we meet Philip, known as Philip the Evangelist so to not confuse him with Philip the Apostle.  So “in the sixth chapter of Acts, we read that the Apostles commissioned seven men in the congregation at Jerusalem to supervise the church’s ministry to the needs of its widows and other poor (the first deacons).  Two of these have gained lasting fame.  One was Stephen, who became the Church’s first martyr. The other was Philip.

“After the death of Stephen, there was a general persecution of the Church at Jerusalem, and many Christians fled to escape it.  Philip fled to Samaria, where he preached the Gospel to the Samaritans, a group who had split off from the Jewish people about six centuries earlier, had intermarried with other peoples, and were considered outsiders by most Jews.  They received the message with eagerness, and soon Peter and John came to Samaria to bless the new converts.”[1]  Philip was in on the action early on.

Then we have the Ethiopian eunuch.  The first thing we need to consider is that this man, who’s name was Simeon Bachos, was what was referred to as a “God-fearer,” essentially a Gentile who followed the precepts of Judaism, who had a relationship with God.  Secondly, he was probably not even from Ethiopia.  For one thing, Ethiopian was a blanket term that the ancient Greeks used for black Africans, and for another, he was a treasury official for Candace, or rather the Candace.  “Candace” was the name given in Greco-Roman historiography to all the female rulers or consorts of the Kingdom of Kush (now part of Sudan).[2]

According to St. Ireneaus, Simeon Bachos was “sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this (God) had already made (His) appearance in human flesh, and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him.” In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition he was referred to as Bachos and is known as an Ethiopian Jew with the name Simeon also called the Black.”[3]

As fascinating as these guys are, the real star of this show is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit moves Philip to the road to Gaza; He tells Philip to go up and join the chariot; He directs the words of Philip as Philip explains how the prophet Isaiah was prophesying about Jesus; and then finally, the Spirit “catches up” Philip, who is found 35 miles away in a town called Azotus. 

The Holy Spirit is the star of the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, really – I’ve heard that before St. Irenaeus (there he is, popping up again) gave the book that name in the late 2nd Century, it was sometimes referred to as the Acts of the Holy Spirit. 

I wish we still called it the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because, well, the Holy Spirit still acts.  The Spirit is still the driving force, the One who whispers in our ear, who opens our hearts and minds to understand the things of God, who leads us to all such good works as the Lord has prepared for us to walk in.  That title would remind us that as fascinating as Philip and Simeon and the Candace were, they were no different from us; that, if we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we too can take part in marvelous things, the Acts of the Faithful of Bordentown. 


[1] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/264.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_eunuch

[3] Ibid.

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Easter 4

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is one of the odd times in the lectionary cycle that we hear the same gospel lesson every yest, Jesus telling us that He is the Good Shepherd, and so you may hear this Sunday referred to by its unofficial name, Good Shepherd Sunday. 

For a time I enjoyed trying to come up with some kind of sheep joke each year, but eventually the only sheep jokes left are the kind of sheep jokes that get a preacher kicked out of his pulpit.  I did look up some sheep facts, though.  Did you know that there are approximately 5.2 million head of sheep in the United States?  That didn’t really seem like a lot of sheep, and it isn’t: Australia has over 72 million sheep, and China has over 161 million.

Back in ancient Israel, where the people would have understood Jesus innately when He talked about being the Good Shepherd, sheep were a big deal.  The Hebrew tribes had always been sheep herders, to the point that pointing out how many sheep one had was a sign of their general wealth.  The Bible tells us that Job had 14,000 sheep, so he was pretty rich.  When King Solomon dedicated the Temple, they sacrificed one hundred and twenty thousand sheep, so we get the picture that there were a staggering number of sheep living and grazing and doing sheep things in a relatively small area of land.

Any mention of the Good Shepherd inevitably conjures the image of a lost sheep, that one little lamb that manages to wander off into a ravine or precariously close to the edge of a cliff.  This too would have been an easy reference for Jesus’ listeners, because they would know that sheep are remarkably good at wandering off, and once they do, they’re totally helpless.  Sheep, you see, have little sense of direction or place, so they must be corralled, herded back together, or they would inevitably be picked off by any one of their hungry natural enemies. 

If that sounds vaguely familiar even to us, that’s because we, humans, have the same problem.  2700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah compared man’s waywardness to that of sheep: “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6).

With actual sheep, “the relationship between the (them) and their shepherd is based on familiarity. Sheep recognize their shepherd and will not follow a stranger.  At the end of the day, shepherds lead their sheep from pastures to a common gated area called a sheepfold.  There, one shepherd protects all of the sheep until the next day when each shepherd returns to lead his own sheep to pasture.  As shepherds move among the sheep, the sheep follow only their shepherd.”[1]

Again, same with us, really; the difference is that we get to pick our shepherd.  We get to choose whose voice we will listen to, whose calls we will heed. 

I wonder what my life would be like if I listened a little better for our Good Shepherd’s voice, listened for Him in prayer and study and in the voices of the faithful, the voices of those who could teach me and of those who count on me to amplify the Good Shepherd’s voice.  I know in my heart that my life would be better, more grounded; more opportunities to be of service would present themselves. 

I also know that I would become more like Jesus, we all would, if we listen for Him together.  What would happen if we all became more like Jesus, more like the One who cares so much for us that He would lay down His very life for ours.  If all of us were a bit more like Jesus, what would that look like for the hungry, the homeless, and the helpless?  Or for the mistreated, the victimized, the suffering, and the rejected?  Or just for us in this room, this city, this world?

Unlike the billion or so actual sheep in the world, we get to choose our shepherd.  Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise within thy house for ever.


[1] https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/liturgical-year/sunday-connection/fourth-sunday-of-easter-cycle-a-sunday-connection/

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Easter 3

Obeying the urge during this Coronatide felt by many, Doan and I have been purging the rectory of things we never use and things that would serve others better.  We haven’t had a DVD player in years, and so why do we still have all my old DVDs?  In stacking them up to give away, I saw my old copy of City Slickers.  Billy Crystal is an unhappy Manhattan yuppie on the verge of turning 40, and he’s roped into joining his two friends on a cattle drive in the southwest led by Curly, Jack Palance, in all his rough and gruff glory.  

Billy Crystal didn’t want any of this to begin with, but after meeting Curly he’s legitimately frightened.  In one of the best scenes, Crystal is trying to talk his friends out of the trip.  His friend Ed says, 

“This guy, Curly, is a true cowboy. One of the last real men. He’s untamed, a mustang. It’ll do us good to be in his world for a while.”   

(All the while Curly is approaching them from behind Mitch) 

Crystal says “Do us good?  Didn’t you guys see?  The man was hanging the hired help!  And, did you notice his eyes?  He has crazy eyes.  He’s a lunatic!  We are going into the wilderness being led by a lunatic!” 

At that point Crystal notices everyone’s terrified faces looking behind him, and Crystal says, “He’s behind me, isn’t he?” 

“As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them.”  He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”  Luke records that the Apostles were “were startled and frightened,” and why wouldn’t they be?  Would you not be afraid of the man you saw brutally murdered on Friday standing before you on Sunday night? 

There was another reason to be afraid.  They had, as a group, performed about as badly as they could have in the preceding three days.  One of them, dead already, had betrayed Jesus into the hands of His killers.  They all had abandoned Him, took off to save their own skins.  John at least snuck up with the women to watch his friend die.  Peter, remember, three times denied even knowing Jesus, finally cursing and swearing up and down that he had nothing to do with Him.  Jesus died the worst death imaginable, all but alone, and the best His followers could do afterward was huddle for fear in an upstairs room. 

Then the news of the unimaginable.  Jesus had talked about rising on the third day, but what did that mean?  How to make sense of what the Magdalene was saying?  And then Cleopas and his friend arrived, telling their story of talking to Jesus on the road to Emmaus, finally recognizing Him in the breaking of the bread.  

It was this story that was being told, by the way, when Luke referenced “As they were saying this.”  So as they were coming to grips with the unimaginable joy that would be the Resurrection, some of them, at least, were coming to grips with facing a resurrected Christ despite their unimaginable shame. 

He’s right behind me, isn’t He?  Yes He was.  “”Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts?  See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  Jesus surely knew they were troubled, afraid, and confused.  So He literally ate with them, a sign of peace if there ever was one.  He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, to understand the things of God that we have so much trouble understanding, and then He told them “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.” 

Repentance and forgiveness of sins.  If anyone needed to be forgiven for directly, personally sinning against Jesus, it was the majority of the group in that upper room, and not only did Jesus forgive them, He sent them to proclaim that forgiveness is not only possible, but on constant offer.  We too are to be witnesses of these things, witnesses to the unimaginable joy that is the risen Lord; witnesses to that Lord who is not just behind us, but as St. Patrick wrote,  

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

 

Whatever you’ve done, whatever your shame, even if you’ve denied Jesus three times and cursed Him up and down, He is behind you, lifting you up, proclaiming you forgiven, proclaiming you His.   

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