Easter 6

I really like hearing the lessons from the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season. Today we hear of Paul at the Areopagus, which I used to think was Paul visiting Snuffelupagus, the beloved elephantine character on Sesame Street. Snuffy’s first name is Aloysius, by the way, and has a little sister named Alice Snuffelupagus.

 

But again, Paul wasn’t on Sesame Street to visit Mr. Snuffelupagus, he was in Athens and happened to be invited to speak at (and to) the Areopagus. The Areopagus is a Greek hill named after Ares, the god of war, “and according to Greek mythology this hill was the place where Ares stood trial before the other gods for the murder Poseidon’s son Alirrothios. Rising some 377 feet above the land below and not far from the Acropolis and Agora (marketplace), the Areopagus served as the meeting place for the Areopagus Court, the highest court in Greece for civil, criminal and religious matters. Even under Roman rule in the time of the New Testament, (it) remained an important meeting place where philosophy, religion, and law were discussed.”1

 

So Paul ends up on the hill, in front of the court, to let the smartest group around in on what God had been doing. Paul said lots of great stuff, too much to go over everything now, but as my friend Fr. Steve Pankey pointed out, the most interesting thing to Anglicans must be this: “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’”

 

We quote that line from Paul often, it’s even in a collect that we use daily at Morning Prayer: “O heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray thee so to guide and govern us by thy Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget thee, but may remember that we are ever walking in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

 

As Fr. Pankey pointed out, ““In (whom) we live and move and have our being” is one of those Prayer Book phrases that is etched deep within (us)…It is a phrase that, if we really mean it, has a profound impact on the way we live our lives.

 

“It appears as a quotation in Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17. Paul seems to be quoting the “semi-mythical” 7th/6th century Greek philosopher, Epimenides, who was writing about the immortality of Zeus. As he does throughout this speech, Paul appropriates the mythology and philosophy of the highly spiritual city of Athens to share with them the Good News of Jesus Christ.”2

 

“In whom we live and move and have our being.” Because we have a God who is life itself, in whom we live and move and even have our being, we needn’t be afraid of using what we can to spread to the Gospel; to point out the best in everyone and everything that we find and then use that to point to the God that to way too many is unknown, and yet seeks to be known to all.

 

What happens when others are exposed to the saving knowledge and love of Jesus is up to the ‘acts of the Holy Spirit’, but we can remember that wherever we find ourselves, no matter who we meet, we, like Paul, can be ready to witness to that same risen Christ.

 

1http://www.gotquestions.org/Mars-Hill.html

2Fr. Steve Pankey, Live and Move and Have Our Being, Draughting Theology.

 

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Easter 5

It seems sometimes that the four Gospels are a record, of sorts, of the wondrous works of Jesus, and in a way, they are: Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, forgiving sins, feeding thousands with five loaves of bread, Jesus raising the dead.  Wondrous works of power by the Son of the living God.  Power never seen before and never seen again, power invested only in Jesus.  And yet, Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson we just heard from John that “he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do…”  That doesn’t make any sense, right?  A short questionnaire on how many people have walked on water will yield two yesses, Jesus and Peter (Peter would have to put an asterisk next to his ‘yes’).  The greatest chef in the world is still constrained to the amount of food put in front of him  or her.  And yet, greater works than mine, Jesus tells us; we will do greater works.

The famous preacher Tony Campolo wrote that he had such a hard time with this verse that as a boy, he went to see his pastor about it.  His pastor told him that we couldn’t do great works because we didn’t have enough faith.  Tony didn’t like that answer at all, because Jesus didn’t say anything about faith when He told us we would do such works.  Tony goes on to say “that the problem is this, that we are so impressed with the power of God that we fail to see that the miracles are not about his power but about his love.  What Jesus did he did not so much to demonstrate his power but to express his love.”1

What an interesting thought.  But now, as it always has been, we see more expressions of power than love, or maybe we just pay more attention to expressions of power.  The Seven Wonders of the World sprang to mind when I was thinking about power, and as it turns out, people have spent a lot of time thinking about the way mankind has exercised power over the natural world. There are Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a list that includes things like pyramids and other ridiculously lavish buildings.  The Seven Wonders of the Medieval World reads no different, but includes the Great Wall of China, which is either the best fence or the longest, skinniest castle ever made, depending on how you look at it.  There are, at quick count, seventeen more lists of Seven Wonders, and I am sure there are many more, and none of them, not one, includes a father patting his son on the back after a strikeout; I found no mentions of kidneys being transplanted into complete strangers, no neighbors bringing food to the widow next door, no mention of a soldier taking a bullet for the guy next to him.  Instead we get lists of buildings; our TV’s show the power to cast people off islands and stages, our magazines have lists of the most powerful people in Hollywood or D.C. or wherever.  It’s enough to make you wonder about humanity, until you discover yourself scarfing it all up, and then it’s enough to make you wonder about your own humanity.

But what would the world look like if every expression of power was turned to an expression of love?  Wouldn’t that be a miracle?  “You see, Jesus did perform miracles and I believe he still does.  But there’s something even greater than miracles that God has called us to do.  He has called us to be instruments of his love to people who need to experience love.  And when we do those things, these acts of love are greater than the work that [Jesus] did when he walked on water.

As Campolo said, “But there’s even a deeper meaning to that verse than that.  Here it is: When Jesus was here in the flesh he was only able to look into the eyes of one person at a time; only able to express love personally to one person at a time.  But he has ascended to be with the Father and [has sent His Holy Spirit to come] into our lives and fill us and drive us to love.”2  Now Jesus looks into the eyes of countless people all the time, people in need of Christ’s love, people like you and me.

All week, as I have been contemplating power, all I could hear in my head was He-Man in the old cartoon; “I have the power!” he would yell, and then he would zap Cringer the cowardly cat so he could become the brave Battle-Cat.  Somewhere in North Korea right now, (Kim Jong Un or his sister) is trying to do the same thing.  But as our Lord Jesus shows us, power, real power, is shown in love; and love always shows itself in providing life for others.  Whether it be Jesus walking on water or someone on the front line putting themselves at risk or you reaching out to your neighbor, love is given, life is given, given in the Name of Jesus, and that’s greatest work of all.

1 Tony Campolo, Doing Greater Things, csec.org
2 Ibid.

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Easter 4

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, as it always is each year on the fourth Sunday of Easter. As Fr. Connor Haynes reminded his people on Thursday, on Good Shepherd Sunday “the appointed Gospel reading is taken from the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus speaks to his followers about himself:  “I am the door of the sheep . . . I am the good shepherd . . . my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

“The depiction of God as shepherd, caring for his people, is found throughout the Old Testament, including passages in the Psalms:  “Hear, O shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock” (Psalm 80) and, most well-known, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”  (Psalm 23).  This love of God, and this comforting image of God, finds its focus in Jesus, the Son of God, who leads his followers to new life and cares enough for them to die for them: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Especially during this time of pandemic, it is reassuring to think of the words of Psalm 23:  “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”1

 

It can be difficult in times of crisis to know who to listen to, to decide which shepherd’s voice we will hear and follow. Though we know that Jesus is THE Good Shepherd, all Christians are called to be, I don’t know, sub-shepherds to each other. Clergy are especially called to this role, and I like the image that some of my colleagues use, the image of the priest as a sheepdog, helping the Good Shepherd keep His flock safe. My friend from my Bells Labs days, Dan Connolly, he and his wife had a border collie, and it was always clear that that dog was the smartest being in whatever room he was in.

 

But again, it can be difficult to know who to listen to in times of crisis, and I’ve heard some interesting things from some sheepdogs who should know better. Some big and famous preachers have declared that Covid 19 is God’s judgement on the world for sin. Now, I know you already know this, but just to reassure you, IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. God does indeed judge our sins, but as we know from that cute children’s disaster story, Noah’s Ark, He promised not to wipe us all out ever again. On top of that, the thought that God would punish us by sending a plague that would overwhelmingly kill the most vulnerable among us is just plain disgusting.

 

So again, it’s difficult to know who to listen to, so how do we choose? While it’s likely that all of us will mess this up from time to time, there’s a couple easy ways to get on the right track. First, does what someone is saying square with what we already know from Scripture, from the Church Fathers, even from our own Book of Common Prayer? Is what is being said loving – love being defined as wanting the best for others? Can you imagine Jesus saying whatever was just said?

 

Those questions are a good starting point. They’re simple, but not necessarily easy, mainly because they assume that we’re all familiar with Scripture, the Church Fathers, the BCP, and down the line.

 

But the good news is that it’s not all up to us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because His sheep are His own; He loves us, He cares for us, and He guides us in the right way, if we let Him. The voice of the Good Shepherd is almost never the loudest, but if you listen for Him, His voice can always be heard through the noise.

 

  1.  The Rev. Connor Haynes, SSC
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Easter 3

Every week or so, we hear the story of someone who somehow didn’t know that the world was locked down in the Covid 19 crisis.  The first one I remember was the actor and Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, who stumbled out of a silent meditation desert retreat only to find a very different world than the one he left.  This week, a British couple who were sailing around the world returned to port, having no idea what was going on.

 

Enter this week’s Gospel lesson.  “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  Which rock, precisely, were you hiding under?

 

The crucifixion of Jesus was not a private affair.  Crucifixions themselves were spectacles and were meant to be; they were used not only to kill but to deter, to tamp down any hope of breaking the yoke of Roman rule.  It was a big deal when Jesus was crucified, to put it mildly: Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, the Christ, the savior of Israel.  Everybody knew Him, everybody had an opinion on Him, and so what visitor to Jerusalem did not know the things that had happened there in these days?

 

Cleopas and another disciple, knowing what had happened, decided to get out of town and go down to Emmaus, which was a bit of a party town.  We’re not exactly sure who Cleopas was: Luke mentions him, and he’s likely the same guy John calls Clopas.  The grandsons of St. Jude identified Cleopas as the brother of Joseph, and so he was, to the best of our knowledge, Jesus’ earthly uncle.

 

Cleopas and the other disciple had heard of the possibility of the Resurrection; they had heard the story from Mary Magdalene and the other women, but they also knew that John and Peter had run down to the tomb only to find, well, nothing but linens.

 

Cleopas and his friend are joined on the road by a stranger who seems to know nothing of what had happened, but who also seemed to be able to expertly interpret everything that had just happened.  They urge the man to hang out longer, have dinner, keep talking, and when the man was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

 

The story of the Road to Emmaus is what’s called a Resurrection Appearance, a proof that Jesus was indeed resurrected, very much alive, and that He was keeping Himself occupied by appearing to His people.  But this story is more than that, really.  As R.W.L. Moberly suggested, this story is about discernment, about how to recognize Jesus when He is right in front of us.

The obvious lesson is to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the Bread, in the Eucharist, to see Him clearly in His Body and Blood. The fact that it was at that moment that they recognized Him, when Jesus was practically acting out the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, that lesson is loud and clear.

 

The other lesson has to be that Cleopas and his friend did not recognize Jesus on the road because they were not looking for Jesus on the road.  They weren’t looking for Jesus at all.  But Jesus doesn’t leave them to their near-sightedness.  As James L. Resseguie says, “the impediments to spiritual formation – disappointment, foolishness, mirthless trudging, and slowness of heart – (were) abandoned on this journey, and the disciples’ eyes are opened to God’s working ways in this world.”[1]

 

In the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of sickness, loneliness, and death, we are all too subject to disappointment, foolishness, mirthless trudging, and slowness of heart.  That’s understandable: none of us are living under a rock – what is happening is inescapable.  The way out of that spiritual malaise is to look for Jesus, to look for Him in scripture and in your prayers, to look for Him wherever He wills to be found.  You will find Him; you will find Him in the sick and in the lonely, in those who grieve, and you will find Him in the service of those on the front lines who demonstrate the sacrificial love of God.  If you look for Jesus, you will find Him.  He’s been walking with you this whole time.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Emmaus_appearance

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Easter 2

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”  Saint John makes this rather definitive statement about where the disciples were, the state of the lock on the door, and why said lock was in the activated position.  But it seems a little strange.  Ten of the disciples plus Blessed Mary and probably many of the other women had locked themselves in a room because they thought that at any minute now, the chief priests and the elders would send their legions out to scour the city looking for them, looking for the ten disciples of a failed messiah.  Seems unlikely. The fact that the women had gone already to the tomb, which would be the most likely place to find any of them and the most exposed place, found the tomb empty, and then prompted Peter and John to run over to the tomb as well makes fear of the Jews even less likely.  Thomas wasn’t even there; he was either unafraid, which was probably the case, or he really needed a cup of coffee.  So why did fear lock them up in a room when resurrection was in the air?  Of whom or what were the disciples really afraid?

 

I think that the most likely scenario is that the disciples convinced themselves that they locked themselves in for fear of the Jews.  But what they were afraid of most, the underlying fear that really kept them inside, was the fear that what the women told them was true, that Jesus was really resurrected.  Think about it.  When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, everyone abandoned Him, at least all the men did save John.  Peter at least managed to drum up the courage to follow Jesus to His trial, but then he denied Jesus three times and ran away weeping.  Most of the people in that locked room had shown themselves to be cowards and betrayers when tested, so who is it they wouldn’t want to casually run into?  Whose wrath might they have been afraid of? Who wouldn’t they want to look in the eye?  Could it be…..Jesus?

 

Many disciples of Jesus find themselves once again behind locked doors, this time for fear of getting sick, or even better, for fear of getting someone else sick.  Not only do we have something to fear, but we have the time and opportunity to feel that fear.

 

We also have the time and opportunity to contemplate our spiritual lives, which can be pretty scary as well, if we’re honest.  Now, you’re watching this because you’re a disciple of Jesus, or you want to be a disciple or you’ve come to the realization that there must be something going on with Jesus that’s pretty great.  You’ve found some joy, some peace, some comfort in knowing that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, and so we know that life and love win, that Jesus has won for us a victory even over death itself.

 

The flip side to that, as the disciples locked in that room knew, is that Jesus being resurrected from the dead changes everything.  You can’t half-follow a guy who was raised from the dead, never to die again.  You can’t expect that the life-changing love of God in Christ Jesus won’t change your life.  I think we all know this, and so we all, at one time or another, take a quick look to see if Jesus is around, and then slowly and quietly shut and lock the door.

 

The good news, as our Gospel tells us this morning, is that Jesus pays no heed to our locked doors.  Jesus keeps coming to us, knocking on our doors or maybe just blowing right through them, bringing with Him the life and love and comfort and joy and complete lack of fear that comes from His resurrection.

 

We’re living now behind locked doors, in a life-changing time.  But soon enough, we will open our doors again, and it will be up to us how our lives have changed.

 

 

 

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Easter

Happy Easter, everybody.  Usually when I say that everybody says “Happy Easter” back to me, and then I go on to talk about how good everyone looks and how packed the church is and how we’re going to flower a cross and search for eggs in the churchyard.

 

Of course it’s different this year.  Jimmy Kimmel said that “Easter doesn’t feel at all exciting this year, probably because I’ve spent the last three weeks driving around looking for eggs already.”

 

Stephen Colbert said that this Easter was going to be a strange one; that “instead of celebrating in church, we’ll be celebrating in sweatpants – or in no pants.  Depends on your denomination.”  That reminds me of a saying attributed to Bishop Belshaw, that “Grey flannel is the official cloth of the Episcopal Church.”

 

So it’s just Doan and me in the church this Easter (everybody say hi to Doan – Hi Doan!), and so it doesn’t feel much like Easter.  Despite the beautiful weather, the world feels darker, like we’ve been in the darkness for a while.

 

That’s how St. John begins his telling of the resurrections story.  “While it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, and she immediately knew there was a problem.  The stone had been rolled away.  There was no way for Mary Magdalene to know that something good had happened – she could only assume, as we would if we found a disturbed grave in the churchyard – that Jesus tomb had been desecrated, His rest disturbed.

 

The Magdalene ran off, told the disciples what she had seen, and Peter and John run off to the tomb.  Unlike Mary, they essentially jump into the grave, finding it empty.  John tells us that upon entering the tomb, “he saw and believed.”  We something think that means that John believed that Jesus had risen from the dead; but what he really believed was Mary and her report concerning the tomb.

 

Peter and John left the scene, they left Mary Magdalene crumpled there, crying.  John tells us that as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain.  We would expect the angels to say what they always say to humans: “Do not be afraid.”  But they don’t.  Perhaps they knew that Mary Magdalene was, in her grief, beyond the capacity to fear anything, even them.  Instead, they say, “Why are you weeping?”  She answers that her Lord, or what was left of Him, was missing.

 

The angels gave no answer; they knew that their Lord and ours was close at hand.  “Why are you weeping.”

 

She wept for the reason we all weep: Because death is close at hand.  Because everything we thought we knew about how the world works must be questioned.  We weep because of the darkness.

 

But then, even the midst of our weeping, a light shines in the darkness.  A new fire is kindled in the depths of a dark church, and we are reminded that Easter, even Easter, happened in the dark.  The true Light, the Light that illumines all of creation, could not be snuffed out, could not be defeated, even by death.  The darkness could not then overcome the Light of Christ, nor can it now.

 

I do wish we could all be together this morning.  I wish that the kids were gathering to search for eggs in the churchyard instead of their parents searching for what’s left of the eggs at the Aldi.  I know all too well that we are in a season of darkness.  But I also know that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.  May the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you, and may the Light of Christ shine in your hearts.

 

Happy Easter, everybody.

 

 

 

 

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Good Friday

We have come to Good Friday, and so we have come to the Cross of Christ.

 

W.H. Auden, the great poet, once wrote that “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”

 

But it is only by the Cross that we can know who God is.  Christ on the Cross is the best vision of God we can get until we see Him face to face, the Cross is what God wants to tell us about Himself.  Humble in His power, sacrificial in His love, desiring not our death but our life, enough to die Himself in our stead.

 

The Cross is the Cross, then, not because of its brutality, not because of its shame, certainly not because of its strangeness, but rather the Cross is the Cross because and only because the Son of the Living God used that instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.  The Cross is the Cross because without it, we would have no concept, no knowledge of who God is, and that might be the only thing sadder than the Cross.

 

We have come to Good Friday. I pray that when we behold the Cross and the Christ who hanged upon it, we may come to know more fully our Savior and our God.

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