Easter 6

It’s a big weekend at the parish, with lots going on.  On Friday we had the 4th grade come over to tour the churchyard, and now we’ve got the Flower Sale and the Street Fair and First Holy Communion, and lucky for us, it’s only approaching 100 degrees. 

As befits a day on which several of our young people will receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time, our Collect of the Day praises our God, who has prepared for those who love Him such good things as pass man’s understanding.  Last night I struggled, as usual, to explain the ins and outs of the practical and theological surrounding the Blessed Sacrament, because, well, how can one adequately explain what one cannot possibly understand?  Hey kids, a low-key miracle will happen tomorrow; so anyway, this is what a chalice looks like.

Miracles are tough to take in.  Take today’s episode from Acts.  Paul and Barnabas were on their evangelistic travels, and they entered the city of Lystra, pretty much in the middle of what is now Turkey.  Lystra was a center of learning and trade, a cosmopolitan city with huge temples to the gods but apparently no synagogue, though many Jews lived there.  Paul, along with Barnabas and others visited Lystra more than once and set up a church there.  Paul was relatively successful in Lystra, though the next day they did stone him and leave him for dead (he didn’t die, and he kept coming back).

Anyway, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas notice that a crippled man had noticed them, and that he was listening intently to the sermons and teaching of Paul.  And so Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!”  And he leaped and walked.

This miracle was met with joy if no small amount of confusion.  As one might predict in a city dominated by pagan temples, the people were convinced that Zeus and Hermes had come down to earth.  (As an aside, I knew a guy who had two pit bulls named Zeus and Hermes, which is pretty cool).  The priest of Zeus pulls out all the stops and a bull, because one can’t overestimate the importance of making a big deal about Zeus and Hermes.  That’s because Ovid, the Roman poet, related a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region.  They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality.  Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in.  The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants.  The couple’s shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests.  If that pagan priest had another bull handy, surely there would have been two bulls sacrificed that day.

But Paul managed to corral the crowd (see what I did there) and stop them from worshiping him and Barnabas, though just barely.  He proceeded to use the miracle itself and even the pagan surroundings to preach the true and living God, the God who granted the miracle to begin with.

Every Sacrament of the Church is a small miracle, each effecting what they signify for the glory of God and the good of His people.  In Baptism, the soul is washed clean and new life given; in Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is granted fully by the hands of a bishop; in Reconciliation, sins are wiped out, the sinner assured of forgiveness; Holy Unction heals the spirit and frees the body; Holy Matrimony makes one flesh out of two persons; Ordination effects ontological change – the deacon, priest, or bishop is endued with the grace of not being the same person he or she was before; and in the Eucharist, the miracle of miracles, Christ Himself is made present to us in His Body and Blood. 

Miracles, by their very nature, can be misunderstood, ill-perceived or not perceived at all, or, at times, taken almost for granted.  That’s the true purpose of this rite we go through each year; it’s not that I can somehow “admit” a baptized person to Holy Communion, but rather that in learning to perceive Jesus in the Sacrament, learning to perceive the miracle happening right in front of us, we can take part not in confusion or apathy, but in praise of our God who has prepared for those who love Him such good things as pass our understanding.

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Easter 5

Doan and I spend most of our TV time watching detective shows, and so we’ve become accustomed to the usual tropes employed by the writers.  Following the money is the obvious one, the who benefits strategy.  Another one is Cherchez la femme, or look for the woman, a phrase used often by Alexandre Dumas, first in his The Mohicans of Paris.  The general idea, at least back in 1854, was that in any criminal case, one can find the root cause of the crime by finding “the woman,” the femme fatale, the root of the crime.  Eventually cherhez la femme evolved into something else: the detectives were still looking for a woman, but because we’ve finally figured out that only women are smart enough to pull off and get away with whatever masterful crime has been committed.

St. Luke always knew that the women were really in charge.  In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, he wrote that Jesus was on the move with the twelve disciples,“and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”  I’m sure King Herod was just thrilled that his steward’s wife was off spending his money on Jesus, but again, Joanna seems to be the real power here.  We should note that it was these women, and not most of the men, who followed Christ to the Cross and, under the cover of darkness, went to His grave to prepare His Body.  Gutsy doesn’t cover it.

Luke also knew that this dynamic was present everywhere.  What we heard today from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles was the end of a long recounting of a missionary journey taken by Paul, Barnabas, and some fellow Christians.  They made their way from one Antioch in Syria to another in Pisidia.  “After the death of Alexander the Great, Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty, took control of Pisidia.  Seleucus founded nearly 60 cities and gave to 16 of them the name of his father Antiochos,” which is why there are so many Antiochs.[1]

Paul and Barnabas were doing rather well in Pisidian Antioch, until it went a little too well.  After a particularly well-received sermon, “almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God,” which could make any local preacher a little jealous. 

And so the local Jewish powers – and it should be noted that some of the local Jewish powers had converted, making things worse – “incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas.” 

Now, the rulers of the synagogue were upset for two reasons.  One was that Paul and Barnabas were preaching Jesus as the Son of God, though it does seem like they were, at first, willing to hear them out.  The second reason was, as stated, they were jealous of the crowds and likely not happy about those pesky Gentiles mixing in with the usuals.  The Gentiles were called, in a good way, “God-fearers,” those of non-Jewish descent who believed in God and followed many Jewish customs as a result.  They were, despite many of them being of high standing in their communities, still second-class citizens in the synagogue.  That is, until Paul and Barnabas came along claiming that in Christ, there is no distinction between persons.

The rulers of the synagogue knew what they had to do.  If I had this kind of “problem,” I’d go off and talk to Mrs. Trout and Mary Ellen and Kate and down the line, and that’s exactly what they did.  And so the missionaries were driven out of town, but even still, they were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

There are a couple lessons we can glean from this passage from Acts.  The obvious one is that women are always a couple steps ahead of men, from ages to ages, world without end.  Another is that Jesus, in His person and His message, is radical to the point where some people just aren’t going to like it, and perhaps not like you because of it, and yet you can still be “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”  The last is that Jesus, in His person and His message, is radical to the point where if we proclaim His Name, in word and deed and constancy and peace, almost the whole city might just gather together to hear the Word of God, to hear the message of His salvation for all who come to Him.   

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

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Easter 4

For the first time in my fourteen years of preaching, today’s gospel lesson reminded me of Oprah.  I’m not really in the demographic that thinks much about Oprah (outside of her popularizing what’s called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which has done more damage to modern Christianity than Calvin ever did), but I do admire her absolute belief that she herself is her product.  Anyone who puts herself on every cover of a magazine named after herself deserves…credit?  She did end that streak Breonna Taylor on the cover, a fitting, if sad, replacement.  I also can’t think of Oprah without thinking of Austin Powers introducing himself and Elizabeth Hurley as Richie Cunningham and his wife, Oprah.  The reason I thought of Oprah, though, was that 1997 episode that had her and Maya Angelou laying around in their pajamas discussing life lessons.  Oprah’s most important life lesson was “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Now, Oprah and Maya were talking about bad boyfriends, but they had a point.  When people show you who they are, you should believe them.  Dogs tend to be better at this than people, as demonstrated once again by today’s gospel lesson.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”  St. John doesn’t tell us that Jesus rolled His eyes and let out a long sigh, but that’s how I picture this scene. 

The problem was three-fold, as I can see it.  What we have here is 1) a lack of understanding, 2) a confusion of expectations, and 3) a lack of trust.

The first problem is not new and has never been altogether solved.  The people who gathered around Jesus – when John references “the Jews,” he usually means the religious authorities, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – thought that they had a good grasp on Scripture, the best understanding, really, among the people.  But as Jesus pointed out and lived out, that was just not the case.  Everything written in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms pointed to a Messiah that looked and acted in a certain way.  Just Isaiah describes the Christ as lacking obvious majesty, as being despised, rejected, held in low esteem.  He would be a man of suffering and pain, wounded and pierced, rejected of men. 

That’s not how we like to picture our heroes, and so the second problem, the confusion of expectations.  If the Messiah, the Christ, was to come to set Israel free from oppression, then He would be, or would become, a warrior prince.  He would gather His followers into a great army and set the world on fire.  He would look a lot more like Thor, son of Odin, than Jesus, Son of God. 

And when you mix a lack of understanding with a confusion of expectations, you almost automatically distrust the person standing right in front of you.  We do it all the time, and we even do it with the Person in question today.  We forget that when people show you who they are, we should believe them.

When we look for Jesus, it’s good to remember to avoid the traps we see today.  When we look for Him in Scripture, it’s best to read closely and carefully, but with the humility necessary to know that we don’t know what we don’t know.  Listen to God about what you’re reading rather than telling God what you think He should have said.

When we set expectations about how Christ will look and sound, it’s good to remember not to craft Him into our own image.  There’s been some renewed hubbub about paintings of Jesus as a white hippie, but that’s not what I’m talking about; every race and nation has art depicting Jesus in their own way.  The danger is in thinking that you think a certain way about anything from abortion to war to the best version of Pepsi because Jesus, obviously, thinks that way.  Remember that it could turn out that Jesus prefers Crystal Pepsi.

Jesus has shown us who He is.  The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, telling us to not only look for, but to hope for and expect this certain person.  He revealed who He is by word and deed; He even told people that hey, if you don’t believe what I say, believe the miracle I just did right in front of you.  I promise that if you keep looking, looking with the best of your understanding, with hope and expectation and trust, you’ll find that He has been right here all along.

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Easter 3

The days following the Resurrection of Our Lord were strange and wonderful days.  There was a lot of hurry up and wait.  A lot of seemingly vague plans that somehow worked out, things like “you’ll see Jesus in Galillee.”  Well, where and when?  The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus appeared to the Apostles both together and apparently alone, in the case of James, and to entire groups of disciples, and Paul carefully mentions that most of those disciples were still alive and willing to bear witness.  Jesus taught and enlightened and commissioned and even ate with His followers, and while surely there was a plan behind all this, to us His schedule looks put together a little willy-nilly.  You just couldn’t ever be sure of what was happening. 

It must have been rough to have been Peter in the early days following the Resurrection, what with having abandoned His Lord and Master not long before and wondering when Jesus was going to pop in again.  And so like so many others before and since, his response to the series of stupefying events and the subsequent busy thoughts in his head was to say, “You know what?  I’m going fishing.” 

That sounded good to some of the others, and so off they went.  In a callback to the miraculous catch of fish in Luke’s Gospel, they hadn’t caught anything worth keeping until the Lord tells them to just caste the net over there instead.  They hauled in 153 three fish, and the world has since attempted to divine some sort of symbolism around that number.  No less than Augustine thought this was a symbolic number arrived at by the fact that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit.  10+7=17, and if you add the integers from 1 to 17 (1+2+3+4 . . .) you arrive at precisely 153.  So there you have it: 153 fish = a symbol of both Law and Gospel.  When the Rosary had only three sets of mysteries, before the Luminous set was added, if you prayed the whole Rosary, you would say 153 Hail Mary’s.  All this symbolism, all this effort in discerning the meaning behind some fish.

We have a tendency to try to do that, right?  To want to find meaning, hidden meaning, in the story; we try to decode the writings of Bible.  But all of this comes from our inability to accept something simple as what it is.  Doan has always teased me for my Jersey sayings, I say “It is what it is” more often than I should.  But in this case, this story is what it is: Jesus with His disciples, having breakfast mixed with a little encouragement, just checking in.  It wouldn’t be the last time Jesus showed up, but it was significant enough for John to write it down so that all people everywhere for all time will know about that breakfast.

But isn’t this how it always works with Jesus?  How often do we find the Jesus waits for us to be ready for Him?  Or if He wants to communicate something to us, that He can only tell us when we are at our best?  Or is it the other way around, that Jesus shows up when we least expect Him, when we are plodding along, in the ordinary or mundane?

There’s a practice that’s pretty common that I should employ more: after any gathering or event or time of service, to ask where you found Jesus in what just went on.  I’ve learned to be careful doing this with groups of clergy, because they always seem to try to give the most profound answers rather than the obvious ones.  We can do this more as a people, but it can be even more valuable to try on your own.  You might find that God permeates more of your life than you’re aware of, and I’ve found that looking for Jesus in the ordinary transports me to those 40 days after the Resurrection, when you just didn’t know if Jesus was going to be walking through walls or walking with you in to the Acme.

I think that’s why I love this little story about a barbecue on the beach so much.  Jesus could have been doing anything in the world, but instead He was waiting for his disciples on the beach, performing gentle miracles, comforting and prodding His disciples, taking the ordinary and mundane and turning it toward God.  This is the Lord we know and love, who knows and loves us, who shows us that there is no such thing as an ordinary day when you’re His disciple.

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Easter 2

Well, here we are on Low Sunday, the most misunderstood name of the Church year.  I was even told in seminary that this Sunday is called Low Sunday because of the expected low attendance, at least compared to Easter, which, while no one expects Christmas and Easter-like attendance every week, is not the reason for the name.  Low Sunday is Low Sunday because kind, thoughtful clergy and choirmasters give the choir some time off after the hectic schedule of Holy Week and Easter, and the liturgy often lacks the accoutrements of high Masses, and so therefore the services are low as opposed to high. 

Low Sunday is also called Quasimodo Sunday, of course after the famous Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Oh wait, it’s the other way around.  Quasimodo was named after the day he was found, Quasimodo Sunday, which is named after the first words of the Introit for the day, Quasi modo géniti infántes, or like newborn babies, taken from the First Letter of Peter, in which he writes “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him, King David wrote in what is now the 34th Psalm.  That’s all Thomas wanted, to see and know and be sure of the things that he wanted to believe.  Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter I talk about how Thomas gets a bad rap, but it’s fairly clear, I think, that Thomas didn’t doubt God so much as he doubted his friends and perhaps himself.  They had abandoned Jesus at the worst moment of His life, scattered in the fear that what was happening to Jesus would also happen to them.  They had locked themselves in a rented second story room, with only Thomas on record as having left for any length of time.  I’d doubt those people, and myself, in those circumstances. 

But the Lord, as we see, wants us to see Him and keeps coming back when we miss Him.  “Reach forth thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side,” Jesus says, “and be not faithless, but believing.”  Thomas got the proof he was looking for, but he didn’t really need it.  Without touching His hands, he believed, without thrusting his hand into His side, he answered “My Lord and my God!”  As a side note, we echo Thomas’ reply at every Mass, though quietly.  At what’s called the Words of Institution (For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread…), the bread and wine are held, breathed on, and consecrated as the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and then we have the threefold action of genuflection, elevation, genuflection.  That elevation is called the major elevation, and the reason the Host and Chalice are elevated at that point is not, as is usually taught, the action of offering it to the Father – that comes at the end of the prayer at what is called the minor elevation.  The major elevation is to prove to the people, most of whom can’t see what’s on the altar, that the elements of bread and wine are actually on the altar, that the priest is truly doing what he says he’s doing.  And at each major elevation, as everyone can first lay eyes on the Body and Blood, the traditional response is to cross yourself and say quietly those words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Those are bold words, and Thomas was a bold guy.  Tradition has Thomas in Syria and then in India by the year AD46, where he converted King Gondophares, who stamped coins with Thomas’ image.  Thomas is claimed by the Persians, the Chinese and Japanese, even the Mesoamericans of Central and South America.  In a strange twist of circumstance, Thomas is said to be the only witness of the Assumption of Blessed Mary, and the other apostles didn’t believe him until he produced her girdle that fell from heaven.  Bold doubt turned to bold belief; Thomas indeed not faithless but believing.

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed,” Jesus told Thomas, and that would include us, if we limit the idea of ‘seen’ to just beholding the Lord as the Apostles did that day.  And so yes, we are blessed in believing in our Lord without gazing at His Body, slain yet alive, but I also contend that we have seen, we have seen our Lord.  We have seen Him in our neighbor and in the stranger, the poor and the oppressed; we have seen Him when a good work is done in His Name and in prayer and the Gospel and in so many other ways.  And in His Body and Blood, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.  Blessed are you, then, who trust in Him.

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Good Friday

“Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city…”

The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, right outside the Old City walls, on a rocky hill just a few yards from a path leading to a major city gate.  It was a perfect place to perform such business; the faithful inside the walls wouldn’t make to much noise about the city being desecrated by the Romans, but the slaves, insurgents, thieves, and other riffraff could still be publicly shamed, hanged naked on an instrument of shameful death.

That hill near the city is called, in the Hebrew, Golgotha, meaning skull.  The Gospels were written in common Greek, so the Evangelists called it Kranion, which sounds, of course, like cranium, the part of the skull that encases the brain.  In Latin, it is rendered Calvariae, which is why the English-speaking world calls the place Calvary. 

There are different theories on how the place got its name.  Most say it’s because it’s a domed hill that looks like the top of a bald head.  Origen of Alexandria, the prolific early Christian writer, claimed that buried beneath the hill is the skull of Adam – yes, that Adam – and there’s a chapel in the side of the hill dedicated to him.  But many, and this is reflected in a tremendous amount of art, think it’s called the place of the skull because of the scattered skulls of those who were crucified, in grim succession, on that hill, that hill instilled with shame.

As Fleming Rutledge pointed out, there are two kinds of shame: the shame put on a person from others, and the shame we experience when we are ashamed of something we have done.  The first is a public embarrassment that crushes the spirit and usually creates nothing but resentment.  The second is a shame that “instructs and edifies,”[1] that can bring about true repentance and amendment of life.

Jesus, though He had been sorely tempted, never sinned, never fell short, and so had nothing to be ashamed of.  But shame was thrust upon Him nonetheless.  For our sake, He was stripped, mocked, spit upon, scourged and torn, paraded out of the city and nailed to a cross, declared not fit to draw breath.  He did this of His own accord, willingly, taking on the shame better reserved for us, so that at the last, we might be able to stand before the throne of God unashamed.

Easter shall come, and joy will come on that morning, but today we stand on that hill, gazing upon what we have done and what was done for us. 

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, page 107.

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Happy Easter, everybody!  Joy cometh in the morning, promises the Lord.  We have walked the way of the Cross and our weeping endured for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.   

Our joy in the Resurrection of the Lord is shown in so many ways: the flowers, of course, the unveiled beauty of our crosses and shrines, the children scrambling for eggs (pun intended).  Easter is an occasion of many traditions, of course, some as old as Christianity itself.  One is aforementioned eggs of many colors, but most traditionally red, and the other is that first proclamation of Easter, “Christ is risen,” and believe it or not, they are tied closely together.  As the tradition holds, Mary Magdalene, who we just heard about, was granted an audience by the emperor Tiberius in Rome.  Coming before the throne, the Magdalene presented Tiberius with an egg, a sign of joy, and boldly greeted him with the words, “Christ is risen.”  Tiberius was not impressed, saying something to affect that Jesus had no more risen from the dead than the egg in her hand was red.  The egg turned red.  The Lord is risen indeed. 

One of the things I find fascinating about Easter is that though the fact of the Risen Lord is comforting, there is actually nothing particularly comfortable about the story itself.  Just look at the words Luke used to describe the experience had by Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary on that first Easter morning.  Tomb.  Perplexed.  Dazzled.  Frightened.  Bowed.  Dead. 

It’s not the stuff of lullabies and bedtime stories, and yet we tend to see Easter in pastels and gauzy light.  We have a tendency towards this kind of thing, right?  How many of you at some point have either decorated or seen a kid’s room decorated with a Noah’s Ark theme?  Nothing like the worst mass casualty event in human history to make you feel cozy.  

And so we try to control the uncontrollable.  The preacher Fleming Rutledge, in her book The Undoing of Death, wrote about a Wall Street Journal article she read about the maker of personalized caskets that have pictures or monograms or symbols on them.  The maker said that such personal symbols “tend to give…the feeling of having control over a situation that might otherwise be uncontrollable.”[1] 

That might otherwise be uncontrollable.  What a fabulous phrase.  Death as something that might be otherwise uncontrollable.  With all due respect to taxes (you all did get your taxes done, right?), death is the one thing that is not only certain but also can’t be skirted or manipulated.  All we can do on this side of death is care for those who have gone before.  

And so, in the first dim light of that day, Mary, Joanna, and Mary made their way to the tomb of what they must have thought was their failed Messiah.  The men were, typically, of little use, and so they had come to take control of a situation that had been clearly out of control for several days.  What they found there had them perplexed, dazzled, frightened, and bowed, uncontrollable.   

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” 

I’ve always wondered how the angels said those words.  We tend to think of angels as being outright magisterial – REMEMBER HOW HE TOLD YOU – but perhaps not. Maybe it was like, “Why are you here?  Don’t you guys remember…?   More likely it was a bit more caring, more comforting.  “Beloved, if you remember what He told you, you would know that only He can control the otherwise uncontrollable.” 

By the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that last uncontrollable power has been defeated.  Christ is risen, granting freedom from the sins and the fears that enslave us.  Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and bestowing life to those in the grave.  Christ is risen, and He bestows upon us His victory.  And so with the Magdalene and in concert with all the Saints, we proclaim Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia! 

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, page 282. 

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Palm Sunday

The Oscars were two Sundays ago, and like most people, I didn’t watch it, but something happened that I can’t seem to stop hearing about.  Clips of the Slap Heard Around the World were quickly everywhere, and as I watched it for the tenth time in four minutes, I thought to myself, If only Patrick Swayze was still alive, he could have gone all Dalton from Road House and protected Chris Rock.  And so, as it works, I ended up watching that one clip from Road House where Swayze’s philosophical bouncer is getting nine staples in his side without a local analgesic, proclaiming that “Pain don’t hurt.”

Of course, pain does hurt, which is why we spend so much time finding ways to avoid it.  And given that this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the most painful week in the life of God and creation, perhaps we should talk about it.

The service for Palm Sunday is a bit of a mash up.  It used to be that the Passion of Our Lord was read on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, hence the traditional name for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday.  The Roman Church combined the days in 1955 and we followed their lead, and as much as it distresses me to say it, it kinda works.  We get a bit of a cheat sheet of Holy Week: triumph first, then despair, the Passion ending before the great reveal, leaving us with a cliffhanger.

Palm Sunday leaves us in pain.  It lifts us up with a Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord, and then exposes our guilt and shame.  Perhaps most importantly, Palm Sunday shows us that we are not alone in our pain.  That our God is not some untouchable old man in the sky or a misty blob hiding from us behind the moon, but an active participant in our lives.

As my friend Fr. Bret Hays pointed out, there’s a line toward the end of the Passion that we can sometimes skip over in our heads: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

The curtain in the Temple served as a screen, a barrier, between the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies, a small area where the Ark of the Covenant had been kept, where the presence of God was made most manifest.  The curtain was enormous: somewhere between 45 and 60 feet high and 30 feet or so wide; the historian Josephus said it was 4 inches thick.  This was not something that could be torn with human hands.  And yet, at the moment Jesus cried out to His Father with His last breath, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.

As Fr. Bret reminded me, a common interpretation, one that I’ve heard over and over, is that the tearing of the curtain eliminated the barrier between us and God, made God accessible; that the tearing of the curtain was really a symbol of what Jesus had accomplished on the Cross, the uniting of God and man.  This is all well and good, except that the Jewish people never thought that God was inaccessible – if anything, if we bother to read the Old Testament, God almost uncomfortably present, in everything from making sacrifice with Abraham to burning bushes to practically hanging out with Daniel and his friends.

What we see in the tearing of the curtain was not symbolic of anything.  It was God rending His clothing.  God mourning what was happening to His Son.  We don’t rend our garments much anymore, though you see it movies every once in a while.  But the Jews did and do; in fact, it seems to be an almost universal trait amongst ancient peoples. 

And so, in the rending of the curtain, in the rending of God’s clothing, as it were, we see that God, in His way, suffers; and in the Incarnation, Passion, and death of His Son, He knows not only grief and anguish, but the worst physical pain life has to offer.

As Fr. Bret put it, “This is important because our lives are more often like Holy Week than Easter day.”  But the lessons of this day give us two reasons for comfort and hope: one is that no matter what we face, Easter will come. The other is that we have a God who knows us, who has been one of us, and who walks with us every step of the way.  Blessed is that King who comes in the Name of the Lord.

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Lent 5

When I was a younger man, I knew some guys who were, well, criminals.  Hometown guys, so and so’s cousin or older brother.  They were petty criminals, really, and the one thing that unites them all in my memory is that they always got caught, no matter what they did, and they got caught because they were stupid.  They would do things like steal a six pack of beer from the corner store and then drink it on their friend’s front porch across the street from the corner store.  Or they would obtain large amounts of illegal substances and then get pulled over for rolling through a stop sign.  You can only do one stupid thing at a time.  These guys always remind me of the quote from the West Wing, when the FBI agent says to the President Bartlet, “In thirteen years with the Bureau, I’ve discovered that there’s no amount of money, manpower, or knowledge that can equal the person you’re looking for being stupid.”  And Bartlet replies, “Some of the stupidest criminals in the world are working right here in America.  I’ve always been very proud of that.”

We are not dealing with master criminals in today’s Gospel lesson.  What we just heard is the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen.  Because no one uses the word husbandmen anymore, it’s now called the Parable of the Bad Tenants.  That said, the tenants were husbandmen, tillers of the soil, tenant farmers.  According to 19th Century Scottish minister William Arnot, who looked exactly what you’d think a 19th Century Scottish minister would look like, the setup we just heard about was common at the time and is still common around the world.  The landowner would enter into an agreement with a collective of farmers, who would work the land for their common benefit, and pay the rent in kind, with a fixed amount of the produce.  The people hearing this parable from the mouth of Jesus would have had no trouble getting the setup. 

And that was part of the problem.  To set the scene, this parable was told in the Temple, directly to the chief priests and scribes (surrounded by all the people Jesus had been preaching to), on what was likely the Monday of what we would call Holy Week.  Jesus had just entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the people ecstatic, laying their garments and palm branches at the donkey’s feet, “Blessed is he who cometh in the Name of the Lord!” 

Despite knowing full well that the religious authorities wanted to kill Him, Jesus went straight to the Temple and drove out the merchants and money changers, because, well, why not, at that point.  They were already seeking to destroy Him.   

And seek they did.  They spied on Him.  They sent legal experts to try to soften Him up, flatter Him, and ask Him questions to trip Him up, to make Him implicate Himself in the sight of the people.  None of it worked.   

And so Jesus told them the parable we just heard, which is not difficult to interpret.  The landowner is representing God, the slaves represent the prophets, the son represents Jesus, and the husbandmen represent the chief priests and their minions.   

Needless to say, the parable was not popular among the chief priests and their minions.  Jesus, to their faces, called them blind to the ways of God, deaf to God’s voice, and, not for nothing, cold-blooded murderers.  Worst of all, He called them stupid.  Some of the stupidest criminals in the world were working right there in the Temple, and Jesus was not proud.  

Luckily, we are not so wicked or so stupid.  Or are we?  How practiced are we in hearing the voice of God, in heading the words of the prophets?  How good are we at perceiving Jesus’ presence among us, at receiving Him in peace?  Do we give to God what is God’s, or do we kill the messengers and assume we now run the show? 

By the way, Jesus did not speak this parable against you, but against me.  Against the “Very Reverend” J. Matthew Tucker, who should know better but who still manages to screw it up, whose eyes stray from the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Who, if I fell into a long line of stupid religious criminals, would stray from proclaiming Christ crucified.  

Let me try to avoid conviction for at least today.  What Jesus did for us on the Cross is almost beyond words; it must be experienced.  This coming Holy Week, walk with Him into Jerusalem, through her streets and into the Upper Room.  Let your feet be washed…wait with Him in the Garden.  Stand at the foot of the Cross, despising the shame.  Prepare your hearts for the joy of His Resurrection.   

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The readings for this week reminded me, believe it or not, of one my favorite movies, Lethal Weapon 2, so I rewatched a good portion of it while riding my exercise bike.  Quick review: it’s not as good I thought it was in 1989. 

Joss Ackland, who was in perhaps every and all British movies and TV shows for 50 years, plays the despicable Arjan Rudd, the corrupt and contemptible South African diplomat and antagonist to Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs.  Every time Aryan Rudd commits a crime, everything from running stolen krugerrands to shooting police officers, he defies the efforts to arrest him by presenting his credentials and declaring “Diplomatic immunity.”  That declaration is not even the worst plot hole in the movie.

Being a career diplomat, an ambassador, say, seems like an unforgiving job, even if you aren’t really running an international crime syndicate.  While I’d very much enjoy the dinners and the travel and the pomp, I’m not sure I’d be very good at that “diplomacy” thing that the position demands. 

And yet, I’ve been called to be an ambassador.  And so have you.  “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

Uh-oh.  As my friend Fr. Bret Hays wrote, “When Saint Paul was spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the eastern Mediterranean region of the Roman Empire, he took on all the work of diplomacy with none of the perks….Saint Paul lost everything.  He became first a pariah, then a prisoner, and ultimately a victim.  Being an ambassador for Christ does not confer diplomatic immunity.”

St. Paul, known in his early life as Saul, had everything going for him.  He came from good stock in a good place: his father was a Pharisee, his family lived in Tarsus, a large city renowned for its university.  He was a craftsman by trade, definitely a tentmaker and likely skilled in leatherwork.  While he was still fairly young, he was sent to Jerusalem to receive his education at the school of Gamaliel, one of the most noted teachers of Jewish law in history.  Gamaliel shows up in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter and some other Apostles were brought before the council, charged with blasphemy for preaching Jesus.  The council was on its way to killing them all, but Gamaliel said, “keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.  You might even be found opposing God!”  A wise man, indeed.

Of all the things that Paul had going for him, being a Roman citizen was likely the thing that aided him the most.  Many of the privileges of citizenship were relatively minor, at least to his story, things like the right to vote and own property, but Roman citizens could not be tortured or whipped, nor could they receive the death penalty, unless they were guilty of treason.[1]  This right got Paul out of serious trouble more than once.

Paul famously took part in the persecution of Christians before Christ Himself showed up and converted him.  This was, to say the least, uncomfortable for both Paul and the Christians who knew enough to fear him.  But Paul had truly converted and become an ambassador of Christ.

We all, whether we’ve thought about it like this or not, are ambassadors of Jesus.  The daily duties of a diplomat of the Kingdom of God include prayer and service, listening for the voice of God, being Christian in and to the world.  Our state dinners look less like a White House reception and more like a HomeFront Sunday morning.  The most important people we meet will likely be hungry and thirsty, the under-clothed stranger, the sick, the prisoner, the displaced, those struggling to be free.  Like St. Paul experienced, our diplomatic service might cause us to be, at some time, any of those things.  The diplomatic immunity we are granted won’t be fully received during our earthly lives.

Our Lord, the God who created all things, wants nothing more than for us to be reconciled to Him, in a relationship with Him, and He wants that for all people, not just us nice church people.  By some stretch of the imagination, He makes His appeal through us.  But if you’ve ever seen someone come alive in a new or renewed relationship with Christ, then you know that we’re part of the best diplomatic corps the world has ever known.[2]

[1] https://www.biblestudy.org/apostlepaul/was-paul-a-roman-citizen.html

[2] Ideas, and whole phrases, have been fearlessly stolen from Fr. Bret Hays.

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