Proper 7 Year B

I thought I would upload my sermon from last week. Since I preached without a text, I’m not sure what I said. Here’s what I meant to say:

This is the first summer in many years that we’ve had so many thunderstorms. It seems like every day there are more warnings and more violent storms in the area. I know many people tend to be a little afraid of storms—there is always the possibility of tornadoes, after all. But for me, the greatest fear is that we will lose our power at home. I hate being stuck in hot weather without air conditioning.

Truth be told, I’ve always loved thunderstorms. Growing up on the flat land of the Midwest, we could watch the storms building and approaching for a long time, or we could watch as the storms went to our north or south and passed us by. Watching thunderclouds build in the distance is an awe-inspiring thing. Summer thunderstorms usually meant that we could run for cover and take a break from work while waiting for the rain to stop. There was that time, though, when we were caught unawares by a storm, as we were putting a metal roof on a barn. Not a wise place to be during a lightning storm.

The gospel story we heard today is one of the most familiar of all, Jesus calming the storm. It is familiar, and for many of us who have a more scientific cast of mind, it is deeply problematic. At the same time, it tugs at our deepest emotional level. Most of us can relate tales of being caught in a storm so strong and dangerous we were concerned for our safety. It may have been in a boat, or on an airplane, or perhaps like mine, on a wet, metal roof, in the middle of a lightning storm. The fears of the disciples are fears that we all have shared. And Jesus’ calming words, “Peace, be still” are the words of a savior who delivers his companions, and us, from great danger.

But there’s more to the story than that, much more. As Shelly Matthews reminded us in her sermon last week, Mark is the least wordy of the gospels, so it’s important to pay close attention when he does provide detail, and pay close attention to how he tells the story. The little things matter a great deal. One of the things that strikes me in Mark’s version of this story is how he depicts Jesus—sleeping on a cushion in the midst of a mighty storm. Mark presents us with an image of Jesus at ease, comfortable, resting, while all around him is struggle, noise, and tumult.

Also of interest is the little point that Mark doesn’t bring up the disciples’ fear until after Jesus calms the storm. Jesus asks the disciples after the coming of dead calm, “Why are you still afraid?” Mark’s telling of the story lets us ask the question: Was it the storm that caused their fear, or was it that Jesus brought the storm to an end? Which power is more frightening, more awesome, the power of a storm or the power of the one who can calm the storm?

There is something of a storm raging in today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, as well. It is a storm raging in King Saul. In the lectionary this summer, many of our old testament readings will come from the story of King David. Today’s lesson comes immediately after David killed Goliath and it includes several interesting elements. First is the relationship between David and Jonathan, who is Saul’s son and heir to the throne. The second is the beginning of the rivalry between Saul and David.

Now, it’s important to note that much of the story of the rise of David seems to derive from the court of David, or soon thereafter. As such, it seems to be concerned with legitimating David’s kingship. The details are too complex to go into here, but this episode plays a role in that story. David is shown to be a successful commander and popular with the people. Saul seems to become jealous, is beset by an evil spirit (from God) and raved within his house. He tried to kill David, but was unsuccessful, and as leaders often do with their closest rivals, he sent him away. There is much worthy of comment, but what I find fascinating is the connection with Jesus’ stilling the storm.

As I said, the story of David and Saul is complex on many levels. While everyone knows the story of David and Goliath, most people aren’t familiar with the earlier relationship between Saul and David. David was brought to court as a musician. Saul had already lost God’s favor, he was tormented by that evil spirit sent by God. As a remedy, the musician David was sent for, his playing would soothe Saul and force the spirit to leave. We imagine Saul stark, raving mad, whether from jealousy or from some mental illness. The Hebrew suggests an alternative explanation. The word translated here as “raved” is the same word that is translated as “prophesy” elsewhere, the difference being only that in this case, it is because of an evil spirit, not the spirit of God. But remember, this was written by supporters of the Davidic monarchy.

During the summer, the lectionary gives us options for the Old Testament readings. We can read the story of David, as we are doing this summer, or we could read another set of Old Testament texts, that are more prophetic in nature. The alternative today also has to do with a storm. This time it comes from Job, the famous passage where God replies to Job out of the whirlwind, asking him “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”
There are storms and there are storms. There are devastating weather events that cost lives and destroy homes and livelihoods, as we saw this week in the upstate. There are storms like those that troubled Saul, and there are even storms like the whirlwind that spoke to Job. Storms are significant religiously because they bring us up against our finitude—the limits of our power, knowledge and humanity in the face of uncontrollable nature.

The gospel story reminds us of that. Whatever Mark intended with the story, it’s pretty clear that it is meant to demonstrate Jesus’ power to his disciples. It is one of the few of the miracles in Mark’s gospel that is done in front of the disciples alone. They are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ intervention, and they alone are witnesses to his power. And that’s the conundrum for us. What is their response to that show of force? From Jesus’ question to them, it would seem they were full of fear. From Jesus’ question to them, it would seem they still lacked faith. And from their question, which Mark leaves hanging, leaving us to answer, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” it is clear that they still do not know who Jesus is.

The setting of the story is important, too. It comes at the end of the day on which Jesus taught the people using parables. Indeed, for Mark, it is the only significant occasion on which Jesus told parables. The enigmas he presented his listeners then, the kingdom of God he was preaching by using the parables, are presented here in the story of the calming of the storm, in another way.

The disciples asked him to explain the parables, now they ask who he is. Mark doesn’t provide answers to them now, those answers will come much later in the gospel, in the cross and resurrection. But already we see elements of the answer. It isn’t so much that Jesus has power. That’s not particularly important for Mark. Rather, what is important is that his readers understand who Jesus is and what it means that he is the Messiah. Storms rage around us, and in us, but do we see Jesus Christ in their midst?

In the midst of their storm, the disciples came to Jesus, in a way rebuking him. Why are you sleeping as we are about to perish? They didn’t ask him for help. They didn’t ask him to save them; they asked him only to be aware that all of them, including him, were going down with the boat. Just as they didn’t understand the parables, they don’t understand their true plight. Neither do we.

In the midst of storms, whether they be weather events, or the troubles of contemporary existence, it can be difficult to recognize God, to see Jesus Christ at work in the world and in our lives. Like Saul, we may be overcome by emotion when things don’t go our way. Like the disciples, we may be looking for a way out of a difficult situation. And very often, the answers we receive to our requests and questions don’t seem adequate to the situation. It may be that we want Jesus to calm the troubled waters by saying, “Peace, be still.” But instead, we may hear God speaking to us out of the whirlwind as he spoke to Job.

Whatever the case, let us be mindful that God is there, with us, in the midst of it all. Let us be mindful, too, that like the disciples, we may not see or recognize God. But let us be open to God’s presence, open to God’s speech, and open to the possibility that God will still those storms all around us.

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The Easter Vigil

We love Easter! We love the opportunity to get dressed up, to come to a packed church and sing the Easter hymns, full of joy and celebration at the end of a long, dreary, and penitential Lent. We want to shout Alleluia and rejoice with all of our hearts and souls. We want to hear again the familiar story of the resurrection and the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. We want all that—but Mark doesn’t give it to us.

Instead of stories about the Risen Christ’s appearance to disciples, to Mary and Peter, Mark gives us only an empty tomb and those disturbing last words. Tonight’s gospel reading seems to leave us in the same uncertainty, with the same questions that we had on Good Friday. What is the meaning of the cross? Who is this Jesus Christ? What happened? What does it all mean? For Mark’s answers to those questions, we need to look not here, in the story of the resurrection, but go back to Good Friday and the cross.

In a way, however, our whole service to this point has been answering these questions, and answering them in ways consistent with Mark’s understanding of Jesus. The drama of the Great Vigil of Easter, like the lighting of the paschal candle from the new fire and the slow steady, brightening of the church symbolizes a central paradox of our faith.

Deacon Lee begin our service with the simple chanted phrase “The Light of Christ.” The paschal candle which we lit for the first time tonight, will burn at every service throughout the great fifty days of Easter, and in the coming year at every baptism and funeral. It will serve constantly as a reminder of our resurrection faith. It serves that way tonight.

But the flickering light of the candle is a powerful symbol that our resurrection faith, no matter how powerful, is still a fragile thing. It cannot, of itself, transform the darkness of this night into the bright light of day. That, I think, is part of the reason for Mark’s writing his gospel in the way he did. It’s not that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection; it’s that he thought the resurrection was not meant to make our faith, our Christian lives, easier. Quite the contrary.

Everything in his story is geared toward making it harder for us. He begins with an empty tomb. As I always ask people when we are talking about the resurrection, what is the obvious explanation for an empty tomb. If you were to read a story in tomorrow’s Greenville news about a grave down in Woodlawn Cemetery that was empty, no one would think a resurrection had occurred. No, everyone would suspect, we would all assume, that the body had been stolen. And we’ve had enough macabre stories in the Greenville News in the last few years to make that utterly believable.

So there’s an empty tomb, and a young man who tells a group of women that the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead. And they don’t tell anyone; they are full of fear. It’s a story that is meant to make us think nothing happened.

And here we are, a little band of people gathered together to celebrate in the midst of darkness the miracle of the resurrection. All around us in Greenville, is a perfectly ordinary Saturday night. Most people, even  most of St. James’ parishioners are going about their regular routine for a Saturday, perhaps dinner and a movie, perhaps a party, perhaps a quiet night at home. They are oblivious to what’s going on here. Most of them probably have no idea. Almost every time I tell someone about the Great Vigil, even cradle Episcopalians, or long time members of St. James, the overwhelming majority will say they’ve never heard of it. They have no idea what we are doing here tonight. Most of them have no idea we are even here.

That’s one of the things I love about the vigil. In spite of the fact that our church, most churches will be full tomorrow, in spite of the fact that most people in Greenville county label themselves Christian, for one night a year, this night, in many ways we are like the early Christians.

Certainly our worship tonight is very like the worship of the early Christians. Our liturgy tonight goes back to the first centuries of our faith. We are here to celebrate the resurrection of Christ in a way and in a world that wants to do things very differently.

Like the flickering of the paschal candle in a dark night, like the wavering voice of our deacon chanting, “The Light of Christ” our faith in the resurrection is a fragile thing. We look for evidence of the Risen Christ but everywhere we look, the certain proof of Christ’s rising eludes us. Christians look to the miraculous—the shroud of Turin, or the endless quest for the burial place of Jesus. Instead, we are left with faint traces. A story in Mark about an empty tomb, with no companion story of an appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples.

We look for certainty, but instead we find emptiness, the emptiness of the tomb. And we also hear the words of the young man. He is not here. He is risen and he is going before you to Galilee, you will see him there. The journey that the disciples began those months ago; the journey that seemed to culminate in Jerusalem, will continue on into the future. On that journey, Jesus’ disciples will encounter him, the Risen Christ.

Mark knows that Jesus was risen from the dead. Mark’s first readers were certain of that as well. All of them had encountered the risen Christ on their journeys. We are like those women searching for Jesus at the empty tomb, searching for the certainty of faith in some piece of evidence that will finally drive all of our doubt away. But just as the empty tomb fails to give us certainty, so too do the other stories of the resurrection. Do not look for the Risen Christ in the words of scripture. He is not there, he is risen, he has gone before us. Look for the Risen Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, in the body of Christ here assembled, in the faces of the people we encounter every day.

For Mark, the death on the cross was made meaningful, vindicated by the resurrection. Christ’s love for the world, his obedience to God, culminated in his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. To understand the cross is to understand the paradox of the empty tomb. What seems to everyone else a meaningless death, promises us life. Or as Paul put it, power made perfect in weakness.

It may be that the crowds tomorrow morning, the full churches and fancy clothes, the brass instruments and the Easter hymns, will succeed for a time in driving away doubt and uncertainty. I suspect that one reason so many people come to church on Easter is that they seek reassurance that no matter how bad things may be, no matter how much has changed, Easter with its crowds and joy will put all their fears and uncertainties to rest.

We know better, and Mark knew better. The Christian faith lives on in the midst of paradox, and doubt, and uncertainty. It proclaims its faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  We will leave tonight, going out into the streets of a city going about its ordinary routines on a Saturday night. Nothing will have changed. But yet, as the Paschal Candle burned in the darkness, so too do our hearts burn within us. They burn with the love of Christ that we encounter here, in word and sacrament. They burn with the knowledge and the hope that Christ is Risen. Thanks be to God!

Maundy Thursday

He Loved them to the end
April 9, 2009
St. James

Foot washing is not a longstanding tradition at St. James. I understand there was a time when Maundy Thursday services often included it, but that hadn’t been the case in recent years. Last year we re-introduced the tradition, and we are continuing it this year, and I suppose in future years as well.
I suspect that for many people, the very notion of washing someone else’s feet is offensive. It seems to shatter some basic barrier of decorum, good manners, or personal space. Some few of us, have perhaps had to take care of other people in such intimate ways—our children, of course, but also loved ones who are no longer able to take care of themselves. Usually though, people who earn their livings taking care of others’ physical needs, health care workers, or even day care workers are looked down, certainly in our society they receive less pay than people in other jobs.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the great Triduum that culminates with the Easter Vigil. We are participating again in the ritual commemoration of the last days of Jesus’ life beginning with the last supper he had with his disciples. Tonight we remember the events of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. The synoptic gospels tell the story of the institution of the Eucharist. In tonight’s reading from the Gospel of John, we hear of a very different event.
The beginning of chapter 13 of John’s gospel marks a significant shift in tone and message. In the first half of the gospel, Jesus comes into conflict again and again with his opponents. As that conflict increases, his words of judgment against his opponents and the unbelieving world become more and more harsh. Now however, the scene shifts and from this point on, except for his confrontation with the high priests and Pilate, Jesus will speak only with his disciples, and he will leave words of judgment behind.
Instead, the theme that takes center stage from here on out is love. The chapter begins with that remarkable comment by the gospel writer, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The Eucharistic Prayer we’ve been using this Lent quotes that verse before beginning the institution narrative. What’s remarkable about it is that it tells the reader something new, and something the gospel writer perhaps didn’t think was obvious—that Jesus loved his disciples. What comes next in the gospel of John, John’s version of the Last Supper, and indeed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in a way explain what the gospel writer meant by saying “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The culmination, the completion, fulfillment, even perfection of Christ’s love is shown for John in the events that unfold in the following chapters.

We will have more to say about the rest in the coming days, but now I want to focus our attention on that odd, offensive act of foot washing. Yes, it’s offensive. It offends our sense of propriety and our sense of personal space. It challenges taboos. But the gospel writer seems to have anticipated our discomfort with it, for he writes the disciples’ discomfort into the story. Peter’s problem with Jesus’ actions was that they seemed to subvert the teacher student, master-disciple relationship. Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, and presumably the other disciples were no more perceptive.
Although we don’t call foot washing a sacrament, it is one. It is a sacrament of service, a sacrament of love. In the gospel of John, it serves to tell us something about the relationship between Jesus and his disciples; it is the way by which Jesus begins to demonstrate his love for those around him. By putting himself in the place of service, by kneeling, yes by abasing himself, Jesus was acting out servanthood. He was showing in this way the same love that would lead him finally to the cross.

The foot washing was not just a sacrament of Christ’s love for his friends. John means for it to be a sacrament of the love Jesus’ followers have for one another. Why do I call it a sacrament? If you are a cradle Episcopalian of a certain age, you may probably still be able to recite the words of the catechism: They are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. In this instance the gesture of washing feet is a sign of Christ’s love for us, and our love for one another.

We know that rituals are important things. As members of a liturgical tradition, we believe strongly that what we do in worship, not simply what we say or sing, but what our bodies do, all of that matters in worship. Whether we kneel or stand, genuflect, or bow, the very way we do things in worship is very important. That’s why there is so often intense conflict when we change things. The cry “but we’ve always done it that way” is not simply the cry of a hidebound traditionalist, although sometimes of course, it is. Very often it comes from a worthwhile concern that we may not be simply changing what we do, but ultimately we may change what we believe.

Foot washing then means a great deal, whether or not we participate in it. To see people, clergy, kneeling in front of other people, transgressing the customary boundaries of personal intimacy, and washing the feet of one another, speaks loudly.

Our gospel reading began with a reference to Jesus’ love for “his own.” It closes with another reference to love. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them what it means: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Of course it is probably the case that foot washing will never be observed among us as universally as the great sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, but it is vitally important that we internalize its meaning. Sacramental actions, rituals are among the ways that we move beyond saying something and begin to live it.

To love one another as Christ loved us and to serve one another bind us together as Jesus’ disciples. It is easy to pay lip service to both love and service—or outreach. We do that easily and readily at St. James. More difficult is to show, to demonstrate, to act out that love. Being here this evening, participating in the ritual itself, or watching as others do, challenges us to think of ways of making our love incarnate in the world. Somewhat later in John’s gospel, when Jesus again tells his disciples to love one another, he goes further, saying “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The vision of love put forward in these chapters culminates tomorrow, on Good Friday. This evening, let us ponder and seek to embody, Christ’s commandment to love one another.

Tenebrae

On Wednesday evening, after a year’s hiatus, we again celebrated Tenebrae at St. James. It is a service derived from traditional services of matins and lauds during the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday), and was set for Wednesday in Holy Week in order to keep the focus from Thursday to Saturday on the central services of those days.

As such, it seems somewhat incongruous. The primary action of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles, so that at the end, there is only a single candle burning, the Christ candle. The service ends with a loud noise, signifying thunder or earthquake. Tenebrae seems to point towards the death and burial of Jesus, even though in the ritual time of the week, those events lie in the future.

While some of the service seems problematic, the psalms and readings are a powerful reminder of human suffering. Psalm 74 with its graphic description of the destruction of the temple, and the readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, bring to mind the suffering of the exiles in the sixth century BCE. The destruction of the Temple, and the Exile were indeed traumatic events that became an occasion for deep reflection on God and on faith in God.

When early Christians sought to interpret their own experience of suffering, it was natural that they would turn to their primary liturgical text—the Psalter, and reinterpret the Psalms to fit their own experience. Perhaps the most profound example of that is Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the Psalm that is chanted during the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday, and again during the Good Friday liturgy.

Tenebrae is scary. It is psychologically disturbing, and occasionally seems manipulative. But chanting those Psalms and hearing the readings is also an opportunity to confront one’s deepest fears and deepest pain, and connect it with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

If you’ve never attended a Tenebrae service, there are online versions. Here’s one from the BBC.

The Great Litany

Yesterday, our services began with The Great Litany. It has been the custom at St. James, and is the custom in many Episcopal Churches to use The Great Litany on the First Sunday of Lent. It is the first piece of the liturgy translated and published in English, prepared by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1544 for use in all English churches at a time when England was at war with France and Scotland. He drew on Medieval litanies as well as on Luther’s litany from 1529 and a Greek Orthodox version. Litanies of this sort were commonly used during public processions from the earliest centuries of Christianity.

The language and the sentiments expressed in it may sometimes seem archaic or alien to us, but the Great Litany with its several sections is more than a catalog of our sins and supplications. It expresses our profound dependence on God for all that we are and reminds us that in the end, everything in our lives and the world lies in the providence of God.

It’s not without its humorous moments, however. The rubrics (instructions) in the Book of Common Prayer tell us that the Great Litany “may be said or sung, kneeling, standing, or in procession.” Whatever the case, when we come to the request that “… it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand, to comfort and help the weak-hearted, and to raise up those who fall,”  we are often praying for ourselves.

If you didn’t get enough of it yesterday, there are a number of online versions available, including this one, which comes from St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Falmouth, MA.

Repentance and Forgiveness

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are typically times of self-reflection and self-discipline. We are reminded on Ash Wednesday that “we are dust and to dust we will return.” In the Litany of Penitence that we say on Ash Wednesday, and in the Great Litany that we will say on the First Sunday of Lent, we confess many sins and say to God that we know we are sinful creatures.

It is easy to regard Lent as depressing or to think that it makes us dwell on our sins and shortcomings. There certainly is truth in that. But as I was reading the lessons at our early service yesterday, and as we recited the Psalm, I noticed a theme I had never noticed before. In the reading from Joel, the prophet says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

In the Psalm from yesterday, the Psalmist writes that “He forgives all your sins … He redeems your life from the grave.” Most beautifully, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.”

Lent should be a time when we reflect on our sins and strive for amendment of life, but we should not lose sight of the equally important fact–that God is a loving and merciful God. Through our clear-eyed reflection on our sins, and on who we are, we can experience that love and forgiveness more deeply.

Collar encounters, updated

I think I’ve written about what it’s like to wear a clerical collar around town. Veteran priests have warned me that a collar could cause difficulty in certain situations. I’m sure it does, but I’ve yet to experience that. Instead, wearing a collar has opened doors and led to fascinating conversations. Early this summer, for example, I was in the Home Depot buying something on my way home from the church and an employee came up to me and asked me to pray for him. We spent a few minutes talking about the things that were troubling him, and then, right there in the parking lot, we prayed.

Last night, we went to a restaurant downtown after the service. I was starved, so I didn’t take the time to change clothes. We had a lovely meal and a great time. Our server treated us like royalty and we chatted about the wine, pork belly, and all sorts of things. Eventually the conversation turned to church. I identified myself as an Episcopal priest and our server shared with us his story. As a teen he was an active member of a small parish in our diocese and he spoke with great emotion and affection for that experience. That church was open and loving, and the rector’s door was always open to a teenager who was trying to figure things out. Most memorable of all was the youth group’s outing to an AC/DC concert. He’s not a member of an Episcopal church now. Of course I invited him to our services. Perhaps we will see him one day.

We came away from that encounter curiously reassured about what we do in the church. Oh, I know, all of the church growth gurus and consultants would label this man “unchurched” but from what he shared of his life last night, he’s pretty together. I’m guessing when he’s ready to look for a church he will look first at an Episcopal parish. My prayer is that when he does, he will find one as open and loving as the one he holds in his memory. In the meantime if he approaches all of his tables with the grace and sensitivity that he did ours last night, he is already a witness to the love of Christ.