Easter 4

Good Lord, another sheep reference.  “I preach another sheep sermon over my dead body,” a preacher might say, and then turn looking to do a solid four minutes on the Collect of the Day.  The preacher would then find that even the Collect of the Day is sheep reference.

Growing up at Trinity Red Bank, the one large stained-glass window we had was above the altar; it was, you guessed it, Christ the Good Shepherd in Tiffany glass, beautiful if not especially Trinitarian.  Our image of the Good Shepherd make a bit more sense, this being Christ Church and not Trinity Church.  I love how that image contrasts with the image of the Christ Child that dominates the window, the vulnerable and the strong, the stillness and the action, the Child worth everything and the Man who gave everything to prove our worth.

I guess sheep references aren’t going anywhere, given the hold the image of the Good Shepherd has on the Christian mind.   Our language reflects it: words like pastor, pastoral care, they aren’t going anywhere.

Jesus was fond of the image and He was able to stretch the metaphor in His teaching.  Today we hear about how the “sheep approach the protection of the sheepfold through the gate.  Those who climb in by other ways—over the rocks and brambles—are either robbers or predators.  The true shepherd enters and leaves first, calling their names; at the sound of his voice they follow.  This passage is called a “figure” by (John the Evangelist).  And when (Jesus’ disciples) seem not to grasp the figure fully, Jesus goes further, offering them what many have thought a somewhat disconnected second metaphor.  All of a sudden, he is no longer the shepherd. He is the gate itself.  But this shift is not a mixing of metaphors.  Like many devoted shepherds, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.

“I once heard a description of Middle Eastern sheep-herding practices that ties these two images together.  The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones, topped by barriers of briar. There is a small opening for the sheep to pass through.  Once they are all in, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing or no one can get through without going over his body first, without confronting or even killing him.

“This particular kind of shepherd literally makes himself into a barrier gate, a role that requires not only care but courage.  If any marauders or predators are to get to the sheep, they will only do so over the dead body of the shepherd.”1

“Over my dead body,” then, becomes less of a threat and more of an expectation.  Thieves and robbers are bound to come, to do their best to steal and to kill and to destroy, for the sheep are of infinite value.

We have a baptism today, another reminder of the infinite value of even one of Christ’s little sheep.  She is certainly vulnerable.  It may be to much to ask for stillness.  No one would ever question her worth.  At that font she will find water and the Holy Spirit.  She will be cleansed from sin, clothed in Christ, made one Body with Him and with us.

She will find there her Good Shepherd and her sheep-gate, metaphors not so much mixed as stacked.  Starting there, she will learn to hear the voice of our Shepherd, to follow Him into the green pastures and beside the still waters.  She will learn how Christ laid down His life that we may have life, and how He rose to life again, that we may have life everlasting.

We re-learn these things every time we do these things, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  So remember that you, beloved of God, are of infinite value, worth the life of God, and so is the person next to you, and the person who needs a little help at the Acme, and all the people God sees fit to put in our way every day.  The sheep, it seems, are worth protecting, over Christ’s dead body.  Who do you know who needs to hear that today?

1. John Kavanaugh, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/4EasterA050717/theword_embodied.html

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Easter 3

Over Lent, several of you enjoyed the series we did on Common Misconceptions, the stuff we get wrong that might actually effect our lives and our relationship with God and each other. We talked a lot about the spiritual mechanics of death; about how we don’t turn into angels and that Wendy Bradley poem that goes “God looked around His garden and saw an empty space” and how God doesn’t kill off our loved ones for His own benefit. A lot of what we get wrong, now and throughout the ages, comes from misreading the Bible, or reading it alone without our community, or just plain not knowing our Scripture well enough. I’m as guilty as anybody else, by the way, which is why I keep working on it.

Our Gospel story today, commonly called “The Road to Emmaus” has caused a bunch of problems, all because of the beforementioned issues. Our heroes “were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus when the risen Jesus joined them, seemingly out of nowhere, opened their eyes to the Scriptures, and then revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread.”1

Where exactly is Emmaus? I love Biblical archeology, as it so often illuminates history in fulfilling ways. Also, “this question helps move our reflection still further as we explore the “correct” understanding of Scripture. Pilgrims to modern-day Israel are shocked to learn that as many as six sites are identified as “Emmaus.” Here are the four more popular ones.

(1) Latrun. The tradition of identifying this place as Luke’s Emmaus reaches back to the historian Eusebius (330). The Byzantine tradition never doubted this identification, but it seems to have been forgotten when a plague wiped the village out in 639.

(2) Abu Ghosh. This is the village on the Jaffa road where the ark of the covenant rested for twenty years (at the time of Samuel…The crusaders, our embarrassingly ignorant, Christian, warrior-ancestors in the faith, did not know about Latrun. So in typical crusader style, they measured 60 stadia from Jerusalem and identified the nearest village as Emmaus.

(3) Qubeiba. Between 1114 and 1164, the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre founded a village here to intensify the agriculture of the region from which they drew sustenance. As frequently happens in the Holy Land, later pilgrims assumed this place was related to the life of Christ, and since it was sixty stadia from Jerusalem, they identified it as Emmaus.

(4) “Most probable” Emmaus. After the Jewish War against Rome in 66-70 C.E., Vespasian assigned eight hundred discharged veterans to live in a place called “Emmaus,” located about thirty stadia, or four miles, from Jerusalem. Their encampment completely overshadowed the little town, and the site was given the name (until recently) Qoloniya. Abandoned in 1948, it was located near contemporary Motza. The round trip between Jerusalem and this place is sixty stadia, or about seven miles, half of this being a very plausible distance allowing the disciples to get up from table right after supping with Jesus and to return immediately to Jerusalem (Lk 24:33).”2

This brief archaeology and geography lesson suggests that we need to read the Bible carefully and with open hearts and minds; to, as the Collect says, “read, learn, and inwardly digest” our Scripture, lest we, on the road to our Emmauses, arrive at the wrong destination. That’s why, in the Prayers of the People, we pray that all Bishops and other ministers may “by their life and doctrine,” set forth God’s true and holy Word, lest I lead you to that wrong Emmaus.

“Jesus was able to “correct” the misunderstanding of his followers only because they were already familiar with the Scripture…”3 Jesus didn’t implant Scriptural knowledge, He opened to them Scriptural understanding.

It works the same way for us; knowing our Bible, reading, learning, and inwardly digesting that story, our story, is an integral part of how we know who we are and who God is, and if we ask Jesus to walk alongside us as we learn, He will open our hearts and minds to understand the great mysteries of God, the mysteries of life. Let’s walk that road to Emmaus together, shall we?

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

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Easter

Happy Easter, everybody! It’s a beautiful day, thank God, and you all look phenomenal in your Easter best. It seems we have something to be joyful about; something, or perhaps better, someone, to celebrate. The Sunday of the Resurrection reminds us once again that Jesus has indeed conquered death, that His resurrection is the hope of our immortal life with Him. Easter reminds us that Jesus didn’t do the wondrous things He did for His own sake, but for us.

Immortal life has been in the new, by the way. Despite all the other things going on the world, humans are still preoccupied with death. I read a Newsweek article that said that “Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.” It’s hard to believe, though, since the human quest for immortality is both ancient and littered with catastrophic failures. Around 200 B.C., the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, accidentally killed himself trying to live forever; he poisoned himself by eating supposedly mortality-preventing mercury pills.  Centuries later, the search for eternal life wasn’t much safer: In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died after blood transfusions from three healthy boys whose youth he believed he could absorb.”1

Obviously these guys don’t get it; and note that they’re all dudes, right? Ponce de Leon’s wife Leonora most likely just shook her head when he took off for the fountain of youth. Death is, whether we like it or not, part of human life. And we are here today because death is, somehow, part of the life of God as well.

That’s because Jesus Himself did not avoid death. He died and then – and this is why we’re all here today – rose from the dead. As the rector of St. Thomas’ 5th Avenue put it, “But the Resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of a corpse – if it had been, Jesus would have had to die again. The Resurrection is the breaking into time and space of God’s immense power and love. Suddenly, in a world of broken promises, of violence and sin, there is hope – hope for something greater and far more fulfilling than…the cheap lure of immortality in this world. Immortality for the Christian is to be caught up into the love of God;” it is to know that to the faithful life changes, but never ends.2
Not that it always feels that way, and it certainly didn’t feel that way for Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” on that first Easter morn. St. Matthew tells us that the two Mary’s went to Jesus’ tomb before the Sun even rose that day; St. Mark says they went to anoint the Body of Jesus, but Matthew says they just went to see the tomb, to be close to the Lord. Mary Magdalene we all know; the “other Mary” wasn’t the Mother of Jesus but rather her sister-n-law, Mary wife of Clopas, and so Jesus’ aunt by marriage. The Marys went supposing they were visiting the dead; instead they meet first a mighty angel, and then the Almighty Himself. It’s like God was thinking: this whole Resurrection thing is too much, it’s more than a little bit frightening; let’s have an angel tell them what’s happening before they run into the guy who was dead a few minutes ago.

How did the Mary’s react? Fear, of course, and trembling. They did better than the supposedly tough soldiers who were guarding the tomb – they just passed out and fell on their faces. The Mary’ were fearful, but what else were they? Filled with great joy. They fell on their faces too, but to what? To worship the risen Lord.

The Marys probably didn’t know exactly what was going on, but they believed in God and they believed in Jesus. If they had any doubts about who Jesus was and is after His death, those doubts were answered by His resurrected life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. How have we reacted to the risen Lord? We have all somehow met Him – again, that’s why we’re all here – and we believe He is the Son of the Living God. But as John Wesley put it, It is one thing to believe that God is God, but that the moment of conversion comes when you sense that God is God pro nobis, God for us, God always reaching out for us.

And so the the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything, for us, if we follow Him. The Resurrection makes it possible for us to love in the midst of hate, to have hope in the midst of darkness, to be courageous in times of fear and uncertainty. In His death, Jesus has indeed destroyed death, and His rising to life again has won for us true immortality, everlasting life in Him.

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Laetare

I don’t watch a whole ton of television, but when I do, I’m most likely watching what are called procedurals, those crime or detective type shows, NCIS, Law & Order, Blue Bloods. Anyone who watches these shows knows that eyewitness testimony is of dubious use to detectives; worse still is the testimony of several eyewitnesses, given the fact that each person will see an event differently, different in relationship to where they were standing, their age, even their personalities. That’s because, in the words of that great Gorillaz song Clint Eastwood, “you don’t see with your eye;You perceive with your mind.”

You need to learn to see; your brain needs time – not a lot of time, mind you, but time – to learn how to unscramble the information it gets from your eyes and turn it into useful information. But if we need to learn to see on the physical level, we know very well that there are still other levels of seeing that require learning. You see what you’re trained to see. A doctor sees a patient and his or her condition differently than an engineer would. A fire inspector looks over a fire scene and can pick out details a lay person cannot.

We teach ourselves how to “see” truth as well, though that tends to be a longer process. Some of us, it seems, are born with spiritual sight, the ability to discern the presence of God where others cannot.

“St. Paul, in describing our condition on earth, tells us that here, in this life, we see only as “through a mirror, reflecting dimly” but that, after death, we will see (God) “face to face.” Clearly in describing our present condition here on earth he is highlighting a certain blindness, an embryonic darkness, an inability to actually see things as they really are. It is significant to note too that he says this in a context within which he is pointing out that, already now in this life, faith, hope, and charity help lift that blindness.”1

It’s clear from today’s Gospel story that the disciples were not looking through a lens of faith, hope, or charity, though they were really just responding to our blind beggar in the manner in which they were raised. The disciples of Jesus see the man, kind-of, but they don’t engage him as much as they use him as a set-up for a theological debate. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the strangeness of asking if a man born blind had caused his own blindness by way of sinning in the womb; Jesus dismisses the common notion that a physical ailment must be caused by sin – not that physical ailments couldn’t be caused by sin, just must – and then He reveals what God has intended for this man, that the work of God, of God making all things new, would find its way to this particular blind man.

Jesus heals the man born blind – if He didn’t, we wouldn’t have this story – not only opening the man’s eyes but training his mind to see clearly the world around him. The eyes of the man’s spirit were also opened, opened and made ready to see the Truth standing before him, the Light of the World in the flesh.

Most of us, including me, walk around most of the time in a state of spiritual blindness. That’s not our fault, exactly, it’s more like a pre-existing condition. That doesn’t mean it’s any way to live. Spiritual blindness gets in the way of our capacity to see the world as God sees it. It’s leads us, like the disciples in today’s passage, to assume that if a neighbor is in the midst of trouble, it must somehow be their fault. Spiritual blindness causes us to divert our eyes and hearts from those in need, and it also keeps us from participating in the joy of others.

We’re rounding a corner in our Lenten season and heading toward the Cross of Christ. If Lent is our spiritual spring training, Jesus reminds us today to work on opening our eyes and hearts, because real life, the life found in the light of Christ, is right there in front of us, if only we have eyes to see it.

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Lent 3

So, you may have noticed that it snowed this past Tuesday. My plans, like all of yours, were altered greatly, but I did get the opportunity to talk with some people I don’t always get to. I spoke with Fr. Kenn Katona, who was married in this parish a little over a year ago. He lives in Phoenix, where it’s about 90 degrees right now, and so a friend of his from the east visited him lately. His friend rented a 2017 Dodge Challenger for his visit…V8, rear wheel drive, quite the sports car. They took a drive around Casa Grande farm country, out in the dry wilderness, and they decided to take a road neither had traveled before. First it was a gravel road, and a little later it turned into a dirt road. About half an hour in, they were in their Challenger, totally lost, off-roading through creek beds. Eventually they decided that perhaps this was a bad idea, and that maybe they should turn around. And being two city boys, neither of them guessed that turning around a rear wheel drive sports car in a creek bed was a bad idea, and they got stuck.

So there we are in the middle of the desert, calling towing companies to see who would come to their rescue. Someone finally agreed to go get them after saying “It’ll cost you”. Three and a half hours and almost 500 dollars later, they were rescued. To paraphrase Springsteen, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, they took a wrong turn and they just kept going.*

For obvious reasons, Fr. Kenn’s story reminded me of today’s Gospel lesson. We have the story of a woman who, in the dry Samaritan wilderness, took a wrong turn somewhere in life and just kept going.

So “Jesus has sent his disciples off for food, and he is sitting at a well when she comes to draw water. There is every reason why he shouldn’t talk to her at all.

“First, she is a woman. It is only the disciples’ awe of Jesus that keeps them from asking him what he thought he was doing when they return and find him talking to her, without even a chaperone by her.

“Secondly, she is a Samaritan. As she herself points out to him, Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. Samaritans are self-made outcasts, from the Jewish point of view; and self-respecting Jews stay away from them.

“And, thirdly, this Samaritan has the sort of history that makes women pariahs even in their home communities. Jesus knows her status, and he lets her see that he does. She has had five husbands (after the first three, maybe it’s her?) and she is currently living with a man to whom she is not married. Even by the lax standards of our own day, this sort of history would make people look askance at her. In her village, she is undoubtedly a shamed person.”1

Shamed enough that she ventured out to the well, the only source of water in town, without friends or familial help, in the heat of the day, so very alone. Outside of that sure prize of a boyfriend, she likely lives most of her life in an effort not to engage, lest she be shamed all the more. I do not envy her lot in life.

When she gets to the well, who’s there but Jesus, who she might have assumed had taken a wrong turn Himself. Their conversation is long and full of meaning, but you just heard it and you’ve heard it before; the main thrust of it is that yes, this woman is a mess, but Jesus engages her anyway. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care that she’s a mess; it’s that Jesus cares about her despite her mess.

How does Jesus engage this Samaritan woman? He could have preached to her that her sins are forgiven, or he could offer her some other kind of pastoral help. But he doesn’t, does he? No, he asks her to help him. He opens conversation with her by asking her to give him a drink. And then look at how the story ends: she brings belief in Jesus to her village, and the villagers come to Jesus because of her.

So how much of a mess are you right now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that each of us is a mess in our own way, but just like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus engages each of us. Jesus offers us living water, He offers us Himself, and sends us, despite our messiness, to bring his love into the world.

*From a sermon given by the Rev. Kenneth Katona, Lent 2, 2017

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Lent 2

When I was in my 20’s and a bit of a night owl, I’d be driving home at 1am and I would get pulled over all the time; I asked my brother-in-law, a policeman at the time, what that was all about, and he told me a statistic, perhaps extra-canonical, that after 11:47pm, over half the drivers on the road were over the legal limit, and so if you were like me and driving an old baby-blue Cadillac at 1 in the morning, you had a good chance of being stopped. Then there’s an old adage passed amongst police and first responders that “Nothing good happens at 3 in the morning.” Nighttime has always puzzled mankind, the darkness full of dangers both real and perceived. John of the Cross, after all, didn’t write about the long bright daytime of the soul. And yet, our Gospel story today is set in a dark Jerusalem night.

“John doesn’t tell us why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. The most popular explanation is that he was afraid to be seen with Jesus, or even seeking him out. He could have been afraid of being associated with a controversial figure who challenged the religious elite, of which he was a member, and did not accept their authority, intellectual or otherwise. He could have been ashamed, as a Teacher of Israel, to be seen consulting with an itinerant preacher with none of his credentials.

“But on the following two occasions when John mentions Nicodemus, he offers his support of Jesus in very public ways. The second time he appears, he offers legal support by insisting to his colleagues that Jesus was entitled to a trial. The third and final time, he offers physical support, in broad daylight, helping to carry Jesus’s body from the cross to the tomb, and anointing him with an astonishing quantity of myrrh.

“So perhaps fear of being seen is an inadequate explanation of the timing of Nicodemus’s journey. He may have suffered from insomnia. He may have been kept awake by anxiety about leading the next day’s religious services. (It happens.) Or he may have been working late. Jewish scholars were known to study scripture literally day and night. Perhaps he had hit upon a passage that hit a little too close to home with an implication that Jesus was truly the long-awaited Messiah.

“Incidentally, no one ever seems to ask what Jesus was doing up at this hour. If Nicodemus had to wake him, John doesn’t mention it, and other passages suggest that someone outside a house would have made quite a commotion trying to wake a sleeping inhabitant. Insomnia seems unlikely. Jesus could have been studying scripture too, or praying, or waiting with foreknowledge of Nicodemus’s arrival. Or John could be making a subtle reference to Jesus’s divinity by portraying him as a metaphorical light in the literal darkness.

“The dialogue is classic and beautiful, but also frustrating, because Nicodemus cannot free himself from literalism. He is unable or unwilling to key into Jesus’s spiritual revelations, and his failure to understand or at least accept makes his responses absurdly obtuse to our ears. Appropriately for the situation, Jesus speaks of spiritual rebirth. The Greek word that our translation renders as “born from above” can also be translated “born again,” or my preference, “born anew.” The last translation fits better with Nicodemus’s response and the rest of the dialogue.

“Maybe I was being too hard on Nicodemus. Jesus asks a great deal of him. He asks nothing less than that he become a different person. That is the inevitable result of being born anew. If you went to anyone for counsel and they told you you needed to become a completely different person, while criticizing your intelligence and competence, how would you react? Probably not as well as Nicodemus.”1

That kind of teaching, that command, might drive us to a dark night of the soul. At the very least, being told that we must be born again, made new, will make us take stock of who we are now, which is not always fun. Perhaps we, like Nicodemus, will attempt to meet Jesus first at night, when some of our flaws are hidden by the darkness. Perhaps it’s only after meeting Him there that we, like Nicodemus, can follow Him in the light.

As the community of the baptized, of those born again in baptism, we have met Jesus, we have gone down into the dark waters with Him, and been raised to new life, a life lived in the light of Christ. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times of darkness, times of struggle, times when it feels that no hope can be found; but if Nicodemus could tell us anything today, it’s that Jesus can be found even at night.

1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon given on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2014

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Lent 1

One night about a year ago, Doan and I were at the house of some friends when one of them, we’ll call him “Ed”, said that we should come back soon and have some ham. I found that oddly funny, but it turns out that there was some sort of deal on ham at ShopRite and Ed had bought his family an actual truckload of ham, and he was itching to dip into his surplus. He was, as he put it, “ham rich”, and he wanted to spread the wealth among the ham hungry.

“In the Gospel Reading, Jesus is hungry, and Satan tempts him. “Turn these stones into bread,” he says to Jesus. And Jesus rebuffs the temptation by saying to Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God.”

“Imagine a host asking one of his guests, “Would you like some ham?” How perplexed the host would be if his guest answered, “Man does not live by ham alone!” The question was not whether the guest would like to eat ham and nothing but ham. The question was just whether he would like some ham now. Why not say, “Sure! Thanks!”?

“So why doesn’t Jesus do the miracle? And why does he reject Satan’s urging  by pointing out that man does not live by bread alone? Of course, we don’t live just on bread! But bread is one of the things by which human beings live. In another place Jesus himself explains that no good father will give his son a stone if his son asks for bread. Here is Jesus hungry and having only stones. Why shouldn’t he have bread instead?

“When a guest says to the host who is offering him ham, “Man does not live by ham alone!” he might be using these words to communicate to his host the thought, completely perplexing in the circumstances, that human beings live on other stuff besides ham.

“But, of course, there is another interpretation. The guest might also be telling his host, graciously, that he is full. There are other things to eat besides ham, and a person who has no ham doesn’t need to be hungry, because he has eaten an abundance of those other things. (like, say, pork roll)

“And that is what Jesus is telling Satan, isn’t it? Anyone who has the word of God does not lack what human beings need to live. “No thanks,” Jesus is telling Satan: “I’m full.”1

How often do we get to say that? Nah, I’m good, I’ve got everything I need. We might well have all of the material things we need: more food than we can eat, the magic of indoor plumbing, a couple of bucks in our pockets. But how many of us have what we need, what we crave, spiritually? There is an obvious spiritual crisis in this world, radically evident in how people spend their time and money. The promise of spiritual fulfillment is so often sold to those who seek it, sold in the form of self-help books, yoga classes, whatever Sting is up to now, anything to “live your best life now.”

You can probably guess what I’m going to say next: we can’t buy spiritual fulfillment. We can’t satisfy our needs by following 7 basic life rules or even by setting apart time for God every day. It just doesn’t work that way. It might not hurt, mind you, but it won’t fill you up. It’s not for sale, and sheer effort isn’t enough.

That’s because spiritual satisfaction is only found in the desert, so to speak. It’s found when we finally acknowledge our total dependence on God; in admitting that our souls cannot be fixed, only saved; in finding that the only sustenance worth having is every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

It’s then that we find that Jesus, who is the Word of God, gives to us all we need to live; to not be just ham rich, but heirs to the riches of the Kingdom of God.

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