Friday, April 18, 2014

Stewards of the Story

[A Good Friday homily based on the Gospels of John, Steven Charleston, Jane Goodall and Debby Boone]


“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

These words of wisdom are words I have come to think of as the Gospel According to Jane Goodall. They have continued to echo in my head and in my heart since the moment I heard Dr. Goodall say them in the Rector’s Forum the week before last.

And they also resonate at a deep soul place with these words we have heard many times in this parish and from this pulpit – words from Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “In every moment something sacred is at stake.”

In this moment – Good Friday 2014 at All Saints Church in Pasadena – we stand once again at the foot of the cross. We stand with the women and the disciple who stood on that hill called Golgotha knowing that the end was near.

They knew that the life – the promise – the light that shone so brightly in the Jesus they knew as son, teacher, leader and friend was about to be extinguished.

All that would remain of the rabbi from Nazareth was a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. Only the women and the beloved disciple remained.

The Kingdom he proclaimed had not come. The powerful remained powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed – and where there had been hope there is only despair.

And yet, we call this day Good Friday.

And like all the generations of Christians who have stood where we stand on Good Fridays down through the ages, a “something sacred at stake is this moment” is our decision about what kind of difference we want to make as stewards of this Good Friday story we inherit.

Steven Charleston – bishop in the Episcopal Church and elder in the Choctaw nation – sums up both the power and privilege of being stewards of the story – the Gospel story and our own stories – as we claim our history and live into our future as people of God.

Tradition [he writes] is wisdom collected.
Wisdom is experience gathered.
Experience is life encountered.
We are all scholars of our own story
and of other stories we learn through love.
When we share what we know, what we value,
we spin a force of the Spirit
that reaches back to ancient campfires
and out to a tomorrow
we cannot yet imagine.

On this Good Friday, that Spirit reaches back to the ancient hill called Golgotha and links us to the pain and despair of those who stood at the cross not knowing what we know about the rest of the story.

Because, let’s be honest about it: we stand at the foot of the cross knowing the Easter lilies are lined up back there in the hallway and the Easter dress is home in the same closet where the Peeps and Cadbury eggs are hidden until the bunny comes.

We are stewards of the story that does not end at the cross but continues on to the empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus, the road to Emmaus and beyond.

Even on Good Friday we are Easter people – and yet today, in this moment – in this sacred moment – we stand at the foot of the cross and we look with the women and the disciple at the worst the world can do to the one who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another.

And if we struggle to make meaning out of the horror of it all, we are not alone.

It is, in fact, a struggle in which the church has been engaged from the very beginning.

The VERY beginning.

The Gospel of John tells us Jesus wasn't even dead yet and they were arguing about the meaning of the Good Friday story.

At the foot of the cross where he hung in agony, they argued about what the sign above his head should say. "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' said the chief priests – write 'This man said, I am King of the Jews" and Pilate replied "What I have written I have written."

It wasn't very long before others stepped in where Pilate and the chief priests had left off and began to "spin the story" to preserve the power of a developing institutional church rather than to empower the propagation of incarnational love. A vestige of that "spinning the story" can be found in the creeds we inherit … creeds that emerged from the early church councils having reduced Jesus' life and witness to a footnote: creeds that skip from "born of the Virgin Mary" to "suffered under Pontius Pilate" leaving an awful lot of walking in love as Christ loved us on the cutting room floor!

And we ended up with a story about Good Friday that went something like this:

God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.

A familiar Good Friday story. A Good Friday story many of us grew up with never knowing that it was not the only story.

And yet, for the first 1,000 years of the church’s life a different way of telling the story dominated Christian theology.

And that story goes like this:

When Jesus talked about his death he used this parable: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. For those first thousand years of the church’s life, Jesus’ death and resurrection were primarily about death, not about sin. Jesus died and then rose victorious from the grave.

The main story line (for the first 1000 of Christian faith) was not “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Jesus died to destroy the power of death.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection, humankind could live as if death were not. They could live healed from the fear of death.

There was no angry God; no atoning sacrifice. Instead there was the paradigmatic example of the One who loved us enough to become one of us not only to show us how to love one another but who loved us enough to die in order to rise again to heal us of our amnesia about the love of God so great that it transcends death.

Even death on a cross.

In this Good Friday story Jesus saves, to be sure. But he doesn’t save us from an angry God. He saves us from our fear.

In penetrating the boundary between life and death Jesus assures us that the crossing over at the end of this earthly life is to something very real. With that assurance, Jesus saves us from the fear of death that is such an existential fear that it can paralyze us into trying to control the bits of life we can wrap our hands around rather than letting go to receive the abundance of life God would have us receive.

His resurrection tells us that we need not live our life in fear of that crossing over and sets us free. Jesus saves us from worrying so much about getting to heaven that we’re too paralyzed by fear to participate in bringing heaven to earth.

We are stewards of this story which is quite literally the truth that will set us free.

And that brings me to the Gospel According to Debby Boone.

As you know, Holy Week is a busy time at All Saints Church. We have 24 services between 7:30 a.m. Palm Sunday and 1:00 p.m. Easter Day – and even with a boatload of brilliant colleagues it is pedal to the church metal time and there is no time to waste.

So of course, faced with the looming writing deadline for this Good Friday sermon, I was on Facebook -- scrolling through pictures of kittens and puppies, pictures of what folks had for lunch, updates from clergy friends about how busy they were and past dozens of "must-see" videos.

But since I didn't have time to watch a video, I kept scrolling past the one with the picture of Debby Boone – of “you light up my life and daughter of Pat Boone fame” – and lots of comments like "must see" and "Brava." But I didn't have time to watch a video – even one that was only a minute sixteen seconds long.

I had a sermon to write and it wasn't going write itself!

And then I watched it anyway. I'm not sure what finally convinced me to click on it but I did. And what I heard an interview with Debby Boone about how she had come to change her mind about the story she had been raised with about gay and lesbian people and become a strong supporter of LGBT equality.

“I am one of the people who made the transition from an old way of thinking to a new one, and so for me it's not about good and bad people,” she said.

“It's about continuing to tell the truth -- and the truth will do the work."

Bam! And all of a sudden all of the reading I'd done and the notes I'd jotted down and the various bits and pieces of sermon prep process fell into place around the good news of the "Gospel According to Debby Boone:"

For me on this Good Friday that good news is that it really IS about continuing to tell the truth – and it is about trusting that the truth will do the work.

It is about weaving the tradition of wisdom collected from experience gathered in life encountered into the shared story of the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings – who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another – and whose love was stronger even than death.

And then it’s about being stewards of that story. It’s about deciding to make a difference by sharing that story with those in desperate need of the good news it has to offer.

And then – in my email inbox – appeared this case in point on a silver platter: in this comment on the Huffington Post

I have struggled my entire life with Good Friday. I have been stuck with a vocabulary of substitutionary atonement, even though I find that explanation of the Cross to be wrongheaded and terrible. I have worked to find new language to talk about the meaning that I feel in the story of Jesus' suffering and death. I will be thinking this week about truth doing its work, and "the gospel according to Debby Boone."

Thank you! Lou -- in the heart of Silicon Valley

For Lou and for so many others the stumbling block of Good Friday has nothing to do with the good news of God in Christ Jesus and everything to do with the disconnect between the stories Jesus told of a loving God calling the whole human family into relationship with God and with each other and the story the church was telling of an angry God demanding blood sacrifice as the price of relationship with him.

The Good News this Good Friday is we stand at the foot of the cross knowing that the way of the cross part of the journey – not the destination.

Without the cross, the resurrection couldn’t have happened. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

But because it did – because of the Good News of this Good Friday – we are freed to be fully alive by the power of the resurrection – healed, whole and liberated in this life and the next.

Liberated to tell the truth and to trust that the truth will do the work as we work together to turn the human race into the human family.

Liberated to decide what kind of difference we want to make as we put our faith into action in the world each and every day.

Liberated to live every moment as if something sacred is at stake.
Because it is.

Maundy Thursday @ASCpas



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Week | "To Show People Jesus"

Tuesday of Holy Week | Janine Schenone, All Saints Church in Pasadena

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” These are the words of the Greeks who have come to the Festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They have seen Jesus riding his colt toward Jerusalem, and they approach Philip. Then Philip tells Andrew, and then Philip and Andrew tell Jesus. And then Jesus addresses the crowd with his speech.

These Greeks who ask to see Jesus are on a pilgrimage of sorts. They’re travelling to the holy site of Jerusalem for Passover. In many cases, pilgrimages are to sites of martyrdom, and that is somewhat true in this case: they are visiting a site of impending martyrdom, as Jesus makes clear in his speech to them.

One of the most visited pilgrimage sites is Canterbury Cathedral, which became famous after the martyrdom there of Thomas Becket in 1170. People come from all over the world to see the cathedral, the place where Becket was murdered by King Henry’s knights. And then they go down into the crypt where his body lay. An artist has suspended a sculpture of a man’s form from the ceilings, and it looks as if it has been made from nails that have been soldered together. Pilgrims go down into that dimly lit crypt and look at the body raised into the air, and then they emerge again into a brightly lit nave with a ceiling several stories high.

Really, those pilgrims are coming to see Jesus. In fact, the mission statement of Canterbury Cathedral is four short words: “To show people Jesus.”

How exactly does one do that? How does one show people Jesus when we seem far removed? Whom do we approach to say, “We wish to see Jesus”?

I would like to say that we show people Jesus in acts of compassion and social justice, in acts of radical love and acceptance and forgiveness. But recently, I was speaking about discipleship to a group of teenagers preparing for Confirmation, and I spoke about the importance of this type of service. They challenged that idea. They argued that anyone can perform these acts, so these acts were not necessarily a sign of being a Christian disciple.

Now of course, I had not argued that there was anything exclusively Christian about these actions. Certainly, people of other faiths and people who practice no religion also perform acts of compassion and social justice and demonstrate the radical love of Jesus. They are being children of the light. Jesus doesn’t say that everyone must join and practice a particular religion.

So when I ask myself, “How do we as Christian disciples show people Jesus?,” I think about those teenagers’ objection. What is unique about following Jesus? It has to be more than radical love. It has to be more than wise teachings. It has to be more than a devout love of God.

What is unique about Jesus? The Cross and the Resurrection. Why do people go to sites of martyrdom, sites where someone’s life has been sacrificed in a Christlike way that inspires others to journey there? They go to see the Cross and the Resurrection.

In 2012, I went on a brief trip with some classmates to El Salvador to visit various churches and mission efforts there. And while we were there, we visited two sites of martyrdom: the Jesuit house at La Universidad Centroamericana where six priests and two women were slain, and the convent hospital chapel where Archbishop Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist. While we were in the brightly lit chapel with white tiles all around, a guide showed my group where Romero was shot, and where his body had fallen on the ground behind the altar.

I felt very drawn to that spot. Very drawn. I waited until my classmates and other visitors had left the chapel, and then I knelt behind the altar and placed my hand on the cold while marble where Romero fell, where the pool of blood had been. But I wanted to get even closer. And so I prostrated myself on the marble and laid my heart where his heart had been, where his blooding aorta had been.

I can’t explain why I did that. I have never done anything like that before. But I think I wanted to get closer to the place of martyrdom. I wanted to be one with it. I wanted to see Jesus.

There were resurrections as the result of these assassinations. The international community put great pressure upon the Salvadoran government to end the civil war and the persecution of the poor and of the Church. And the liberation theology of the martyred scholar priests caught fire and spread throughout the world. It led to a rebirth of the Salvadoran people, and to a worldwide acceptance of the same liberation theology that before had been considered suspect, too closely tied to Marxist ideology and Communism.

These things came about due to the Cross and the Resurrection. How appropriate that these things happened in a country called El Salvador—which means “the Savior” in Spanish.

“To show people Jesus” does not mean  merely to speak of Jesus in witnessing and proclamation or to do mighty acts of charity, healing, and inclusion that signal God’s providence. It’s something deeper and more mysterious. When people ask me where my Christian faith comes from, I could spout stories from the Gospels, all that I learned in my childhood years of religious instruction, the wonderful examples of Christian discipleship that my parents and others have provided.

But these things are not the source of my faith. They are human sources of wisdom, which, as you can see, Paul is not so enthusiastic about. We can read tomes and tomes of theology and still not be able to see Jesus, much less show him to others. Here is one of the major sets of works by the great theologian Thomas Aquinas: the Summa Theologica, or “Summary of Theology.” He attempted to answer every possible question about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humankind, and creation. And a few months before the end of his life, he stopped writing. He is reputed to have said on his deathbed, “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears as so much straw.” His writings did not show Jesus—not completely.

And here are the many volumes of Karl Barth’s major work, Church Dogmatics, which he also worked on until he died. And yet he, for all he wrote, admitted that human wisdom was incapable of knowing God directly. He believed that Jesus Christ was the one pinpoint of intersection between the vastness of God and God’s wisdom and the human mind and spirit. Through Jesus, we could know God.

When people ask me about my faith or what I think about Jesus and his divinity, they are asking me to show them Jesus. And so all I can do is to explain how Jesus—God—came to me, often in times of despair or loss or tragedy, but also in moments of peace and quiet and joy. I can describe the effect these visitations had upon me: how I felt companionship, love, comfort, and an assurance of God’s presence in my life. I felt resurrected. At other times, I have felt Jesus spurring me on, encouraging me to go where I thought I could not go.

In short, I have seen Jesus in the Cross and the Resurrection. All of the human knowledge that I have acquired has bolstered my faith, challenged it, and developed it. But none of that knowledge explains why I lay down on the marble at that chapel in El Salvador to be one with the memory of the spilled blood of Oscar Romero. None of that knowledge explains why I never miss Palm Sunday or Good Friday, as painful as I find the descriptions of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. And none of it can explain the spiritual high I feel on Easter Vigil and Easter morning. Or the excitement I feel at baptisms. Or the fellowship and peace I feel in the Eucharist, which is in part a memorial of the spilled blood of Jesus.

In all of these things, I have been shown Jesus. And it is the Church’s privilege in Holy Week, and throughout the year, to show other people Jesus.

The Gospel According to Debby Boone

My lastest Huffington Post offering -- wherein a procrastinating preacher hits homiletic pay dirt on Facebook. Seriously.

For parish clergy, Holy Week is full employment time. Here at All Saints Church in Pasadena we have 24 services between 7:30 a.m. Palm Sunday and 1:00 p.m. Easter Day -- and even with a boatload of brilliant colleagues it is a week-long plate very full of liturgy, pastoral care and preaching. It is pedal to the church metal time and there is no time to waste.

So of course, faced with the looming writing deadline for my Good Friday sermon, I was on Facebook -- scrolling through pictures of kittens and puppies, updates from clergy friends about how busy they were and past dozens of "must-see" videos.

But since I didn't have time to watch a video, I kept scrolling past the one entitled "You light up her life: Debby Boone on LGBT acceptance." It had a great picture of Debby Boone (who is married to my good friend and Los Angeles clergy colleague Gabri Ferrer) and lots of comments like "must see" and "brava." But I didn't have time to watch a video -- even one that was only a minute sixteen seconds long. I had a sermon to write and it wasn't going write itself!

Read the rest here.

Wednesday of Holy Week: Holy Week Hump Day

On this Wednesday in Holy Week the lesson appointed from the prophet Isaiah reads like this in the contemporary language translation “The Message:”
“God, has given me a well-taught tongue so I know how to encourage tired people.”
And what a timely message for this Wednesday in Holy Week – Holy Week Hump Day, we might arguably call it. For as we reach this mid-way point in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter I look around and I see an awful lot of tired people. And I’m not just talking about a garden variety “Oy, what a week I’ve had” tired … I’m talking about another kind of tiredness … of a deeper kind of weariness.

We don’t have to look further than the latest CNN bulletin on the polarization in American politics or the latest blog post on the infighting in the Anglican Communion for the most recent example of one part of the human family oppressing and marginalizing another part.

It comes from those who yearn for political leaders who offer hope rather than hype. It comes from those who desire church leaders more committed to the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim than to the Institutional Church they are determined to maintain. And it comes from those who wonder if we can ever become the human family we were created to be. Where, oh where, is there a “word to sustain the weary” in all of this?

And I’m remembering a reflection I wrote a few years ago on the gospel story of Jesus tossing the moneychangers out of the Temple in a fit of righteous indignation.

I wrote then: If we’re not righteously indignant we’re not paying attention.

As we follow the life and example of Jesus may we be given the courage to challenge the civil boundaries that keep us from being a nation where liberty and justice for all really means all. And as we follow Jesus this week in the way of the cross may we also be given the grace to take up the cross of righteous indignation and take ON those religious authorities who presume to say who qualifies and who doesn’t to be gathered into God’s loving embrace.

That post engendered this comment from someone named Jesse:

I used to be 'righteously indignant' but now I'm just tired. Some days I just want to lay it all down and stop. But here’s what keeps me going. One of the reasons I joined TEC was the sense of welcome I 'perceived'. I have to tell you I wasn't thrilled that the local Episcopal priest was a woman but when I met her and we talked and I told her my story, that woman gave me the energy to go on fighting the fight to be a Christian.

The priest who gave Jesse the energy he needed to go on being a Christian – even though he wasn’t thrilled she was a woman -- knew what it was to strengthen the weary … to encourage the tired. And even through cyberspace we can reach out and encourage each other – especially on those days when we, like Jesse, want to lay down whatever burden we’re carrying and just stop.

And I am reminded that I learned in seminary that the preacher has a two-fold job description: to comfort the afflicted -- and to afflict the comfortable.

So today, on this Holy Week Hump Day, I want to suggest that it isn’t just a job description for those who preach from a pulpit but for those who live out the Gospel in hundreds of different ways in our daily lives and work.

Yes, if we’re going to follow Jesus we WILL be … we SHOULD be righteously indignant about any number of things. And that indignation will lead us to afflicting the comfortable in their power and privilege – to challenging those who wage war and who perpetuate bigotry: whether it’s lighting a candle at a peace vigil or signing a letter on the lawn it IS work we have been called to do on behalf of the Gospel.

But on the other side of that coin is our call to comfort the afflicted – and today I want to call us to remember not to neglect that half of our “job description.”

God doesn’t promise we won’t be weary. But God promises to be with us in the weariness. And God promises to send prophets like Isaiah and pastors like Jesse’s with words to sustain us when we’re weary – to encourage us when we’re tired. And so, like the prophet who is called to both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, let us commit ourselves – each and every one of us – to not only receive those words of encouragement when we need them but to offer them to those who yearn for them: wherever and whenever we can. Amen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday of Holy Week: We Wish to See Jesus

Time flies when you’re having Lent.
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The season that began what seems like “just yesterday” with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday has brought us already to this Tuesday in Holy Week – to the time author Nora Gallagher writes of as "the hinge between Lent and Easter ... between the guilt and shame, the inertia and fear that bind us to the past and leave us in despair and the love that lures us toward hope."

"The love that lures us toward hope." I love that line: for it speaks to me of the love of God so great that it triumphs over death ... a love that continues to "lure us toward hope" these 20 centuries after the death of the One who came to show us how to "walk in love, as Christ loved us". Was it that love -- that hope -- that lured those we read about in today's Gospel of John? The "Greeks" who approached Philip in Jerusalem with the plea, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus"?

A brief historical “contextual” note: when John says "some Greeks", he doesn't mean folks who hang out in Athens and are related to Zorba. To the 1st century hearers of the Gospel "Greeks" meant "non-Jews" - foreigners - Gentiles. No wonder Philip had to go check with Andrew first ... did you notice that in the text? "They came to Philip -- who went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus." As one of the commentaries I consulted noted: "... evidently being dubious how they might be received." No automatic welcome for these guys: these Greeks who wanted to see Jesus.

But see him they do. Crossing all sorts of boundaries -- breaking a whole list of deeply ingrained cultural rules -- Jesus teaches them the same way he has been teaching his disciples all along. Did he think about the words of the prophet Isaiah appointed for today? “It is not enough for you to do my bidding, to restore the tribes of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Maybe. John doesn’t tell us what Jesus thought, but he does tell us what Jesus said: "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also ... Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Then John, the gospel writer adds, "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."

In those few sentences is the essence of the Gospel -- the Good News Jesus came to give the world and the world couldn't hear: Follow me ... do as I do ... I have come to show you the way to live in love and community with God and each other.

NOW the Kingdom of God is in your midst ... and it is for ALL people.

Yes, he said all this to indicate the kind of death he was to die; for the inevitability of the crucifixion must have hung heavy in his heart these last days. But if we settle for John's explanation at face value, we miss the power of this text for us today. I believe Jesus said all this to the Greeks who sought him out in Jerusalem -- lured by love and hope -- not ONLY to indicate the kind of death he was to die, but to indicate the kind of life we are to live.

"When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself." And how will he do that? I'm jumping ahead in the story a bit, but come Pentecost we will hear again of the coming of the Holy Spirit ... the birth of the Church called to be the Body of Christ in the world ... called to take up the ministry of Jesus on earth.

So if the church is indeed the Body of Christ here on earth, how good a job are we doing with those who come to us as they did to Philip saying, "Please, we want to see Jesus?" Let me tell you about my friend ... a woman I've known since the 7th grade who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children. After many years without a faith community, she wrote me that she started going back to church. "Only it's not exactly church," she said. "It's at a church but I don't go on Sunday yet ... I go Wednesday night and meet with other women. We pray and sing and support each other. And they read from the Bible, but it's so wonderful ... they don't beat you up with Jesus, so it hardly feels like church."

"They don't beat you up with Jesus" -- what an indictment! Yet in the church she grew up in Jesus -- the Jesus who yearns to draw all people to himself -- became for her a stumbling block, a barrier to faith rather than a lure toward hope. My friend never knew that there was a choice between the Jesus of Judgment and the Christ of Faith and so I pray that this community she's found will be a gateway for her -- that she can finally "see Jesus" - just as those Greeks in Jerusalem did: can see for herself that "draw all people" means her, too!

Thankfully, All Saints Church has a long history of offering a voice of hope to those who come saying "Please, we want to see Jesus" – who come looking for a place to encounter the Lord of Love rather than the Letter of the Law. It is a history with deep roots in our Anglican heritage – for the Episcopal Church is a product of the glorious 16th century experiment intended to end the bloody feud between Catholics and Protestants in England during the reformation – an experiment that resulted in a church where orthopraxis (common practice) was valued over orthodoxy (common belief).

The significance of that experiment, my Church History text tells me is that “it was able to hold the vast majority of the people together, despite being a compromise few would have chosen." And there you have it: Anglican Traditionalism.
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It seems to me that as 21st century Anglicans facing the very real challenges in front of us we would be well served to dig more deeply into our 16th Century roots ... to claim with enthusiasm the heritage that has historically given us the ability to live with disagreement ... to honor the tension of diversity and focus on the things that bind us together rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by the things that threaten to divide us.

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world," said Ghandi. When we do that, then we truly follow the Lord who told us not only what kind of death he was to die but what kind of life we are to live.

And if I have "an agenda" – and I do -- it is an agenda as old as Isaiah and Andrew, of Jesus and the Gentiles. It is the agenda of a Lord whose love lures us toward hope – of the one who yearns to draw all people to himself – of the Jesus who took time, in the last days before his crucifixion, to reach out to those Greeks who came to him -- not sure if they'd be welcome. It is the Gospel Agenda and it is begging to be fulfilled – and we are the Body of Christ who have been charged with fulfilling it in our generation.

And so, in this Holy Week, I pray that God will give us grace to commit ourselves to being "… the change we wish to see in the world" – to persevering in the proclamation of God's Good News to all people -- in spite of the setbacks and the obstacles; of the challenges and the costs -- as we journey with Jesus and claim his "agenda" as our own. Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday of Holy Week: A Practice of Presence

Monday in Holy Week Homily preached by Nathaniel Katz | All Saints Church, Pasadena 12:10 p.m. service

For me, today, the day after Palm Sunday, is spiritually the most challenging day of the Christian calendar. It's hard to know just how to approach this day. We have just come off the emotional and spiritual roller coaster that is Palm Sunday – palms waving in our hands, smiles on our faces, voices joined in singing joyous hymns. 

But very quickly, the tone changes as we read the Passion account and confront the sadness and horror that comes after Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. When we departed this place, it was in silence.

There is a profound silence - a liturgical silence...a spiritual silence - in Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. For four out of the 7 days of Holy Week, have a fairly clear sense for what we're meant to do. We have special services we attend. We know what to expect in those sacred spaces. 

These three days that come between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday we're left to fend for ourselves. Even the Book of Common Prayer - that one stop shop for all our Episcopal spiritual needs, isn't quite sure how to handle this day. The collect of the day appointed for this Monday in Holy Week is the same one to be read each and every Friday throughout the entire year. 

Of all the times to be silent...On a day when we can find ourselves so full of nervous energy from the anticipated tragedy, and nowhere to place that energy. We find ourselves desperately in need of a purpose, if not a distraction.

There is one person who knows what to do - Mary. Mary recognizes what the others in our Gospel reading do not - that time with Jesus is short. There is no time to be wasted in his presence. She recognizes what Jesus' presence means - that the God of creation has become present among us - so that we may be known to God and God may be known to us - not just intellectually, not just theologically, but personally, intimately.

There is no price tag that can be placed on that presence - a point that Jesus makes quite clear not just to Judas, but to all those assembled, and to us sitting here 2000 years later. 

During Holy Week, it can seem like there is a price to be exacted - for our sins, for our frailty, for our complicity in the denial and betrayal of Jesus. It can feel as if we're meant to figure out what that price is - guilt, sacrifice, penance.

What we learn in the Gospel today is what God truly wants of us in our lives - and especially during these next three days...God wants our presence, our love, and our affection. 

Mary's act is one of absolutely intimate affection. She lavishes Jesus with oil worth nearly an entire year's wages. But then she gives entirely of herself. She gives of her own body, using her hair to wipe Jesus' feet. Jesus is pleased with her affection. But more specifically, he is pleased by her intention. 

Mary has discovered God's deep desire for her through Jesus. And in this fleeting moment, Mary has found a way to express her understanding of God's desire for her, a desire expressed through Jesus.

Mary was blessed with insight...insight that no one else in that moment possessed - not even the disciples who had traveled with him...not even her brother Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. Poor Lazarus, he just made it back to the land of the living and they're already plotting to get him back in the grave. 

Here, today, on this Monday of Holy Week, we benefit from Mary's insight, passed down to us by our ancestors in faith in this scripture we read. Mary teaches us that this week is not about punishment, but presence.

In these three days, we meet Jesus in his last days with us here on earth. We must remember that when we enter Holy Week, the events of the past become for us our very present reality. These are our precious few moments to meet Jesus in our lives with desire and affection before he takes his earthly leave. 

This is our time to be fully present to the God who came to us - the God who came out of desire for each one of us in the form of a helpless infant. This is our opportunity to embrace the Christ-child who has grown into our messiah – and to embrace him with all the affection we can muster - holding our God close in a loving embrace, as if it was our last.

There is one more lesson that Mary teaches us today. She teaches us that we are meant to use all our senses in our encounter with God's presence. These days are not just to be lived in our head. They are meant to be an encounter. That encounter with God's loving presence can and should be heard, touched, tasted, smelled...
It is a lesson we hear in the last verse of the great hymn for this week "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life my all. - Isaac Watts

We are meant to make use of all that we have – both within and without – in our affectionate encounter with God in our lives, and most especially meant to do so in these coming days.

So, I invite you into a practice of presence over these next three days - be present to God within you, be present to the God you encounter in the world. Be generous in lavishing affection upon Jesus wherever you find him - in your friends, in your co-workers, within yourself. Channel the affectionate intention of your ancient sister Mary. In doing so, we may find ourselves in this Holy Week truly transformed through the events to come rather than beaten down by them. 

That is God's ultimate desire for us - to be transformed beyond all our worldly expectations. That is why God bridged the ultimate gap by coming to us as Emmanuel - God with us