Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Hard Work of Erasing Boundaries

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Mark 7:24-37 (Proper 18B)

There’s a huge discomfort that arises in me when I hear Jesus call the unnamed Gentile woman a “dog.”  So let’s go through the story closely and see what we have to learn from this strange passage.

In chapter 7 up to this point, Jesus has been haggling with a group of Pharisees about what constitutes “clean” and “unclean.”  To our ears those categories don’t mean much—we tend to hear “washed” or “unwashed,” and ask, “What does that have to do with the life of faith?”  But in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, those categories had the connotation of “sinless” (clean) or “sinful” (unclean).  They were ways of understanding what the boundaries were in Jewish life.

Jesus resists these categories—these boundaries—and attempts to re-define them.  We heard him say last week, “It is not what goes into a person that makes her unclean, it is what comes out of the human heart.”

Now in this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer Mark will show us in two healing stories just what this erasure of boundaries means.

Jesus is wearied by his argument with the Pharisees and seeks to get out of town and get some rest.  He goes so far as to go into territory that is almost exclusively non-Jewish.  Tyre and Sidon were coastal towns northwest of Galilee in what we now call Lebanon, and there is evidence that there was open hostility to Jews in this region.  Jesus clearly wants to get away!

He has tried to get away before and it hasn’t worked, and it doesn’t work here either.  If he thought he was an unknown quantity in this foreign territory, he was wrong.

A woman seeks him out.  And not just any woman.  All kinds of boundaries get crossed here.  She is a woman seeking to talk to a man, someone unknown to him approaching him after barging into his residence.  The Greek word used implies she has some status.  She is a “lady,” probably well above Jesus’ peasant status.  Boundary two crossed.  She is a Gentile.  Boundary three crossed.  By any definition of Jewish law at the time, she is “unclean.”

She asks for healing for her daughter.  Jesus replies, “It is not right to take food from the children and throw it to dogs.”

Full stop.  Did he just say that?  Did he just compare that woman and her sick daughter to dogs?  For those of us who think of Jesus as perfect or as sinless, this is more than a little jarring.

The woman may have remained as a beggar at Jesus’ feet, but she rises up into her full self and resists.  “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the floor.”  And Jesus changes his mind, “Go, you will find your daughter well.”

What’s going on here?  My mentor Verna Dozier used to say that if you are unsure what a passage means, you should ask yourself, “Why did the early Christian community want to pass on this story?”  It’s an important question because each Gospel writer obviously picks and chooses which story to tell and how to tell them.  For instance, Matthew also tells this story (15:21-28) but tries to add some clarity.  Jesus is not alone with the woman in Matthew’s telling. His disciples are present. He also changes Jesus’ declaration at the end, from a very neutral and almost begrudging, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter” to a wildly positive, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The Gospel writer Luke decides not to even touch the story.  He doesn’t include it.

So why is this story here, especially if it seems to put Jesus in a bad light?  I think it is this.  The communities for which Mark and Matthew are writing are struggling with these boundary issues. Both are probably majority Jewish still and the inclusion of Gentiles is a divisive issue.  The old habit of dividing up the world into “clean” and “unclean” is hard to get over.  It was deeply ingrained in the Jewish soul.

Mark and Matthew want to show that even Jesus struggled with this.  It is a hard business this erasing boundaries.

And so it is, even for us who think we’ve got this inclusiveness thing down pretty well.  And compared to the church of the past we have come a mighty long way.

But our instincts—well, we can find them in a very different place.  It is easy to slip into the old saying that many people assume is in the Bible but it is not:  “Charity begins at home.”  Or, “Family comes first.”

But Jesus had to learn himself and we have to continue to learn that for his followers there are no hierarchies of need.  Of course, I must love and care for my family.  But also, of course, I must care for the stranger, or even the just plain strange.  And that is why this is so hard because in the Jesus movement there is only one family, which means the next stranger I meet is as much my sister or brother as is my sister or brother.  We should not pretend that does not cut across the grain, that it is in anyway easy.  Because it does cut across the grain and it is not easy.

But it is our high calling, our exquisite purpose, the great and joyous gift we have to give to the world.  There are no outsiders.  There is no one who because of who they are or what they do forfeits their dignity, which is God-given not human-given.  And this is the best news there can be, even if at times it seems impossible.  And if you don’t think we need, and the world around us needs, this good news then you are not paying attention.

The church shows so many signs of becoming irrelevant and slowly dying.  But we need to reach deep down for some Holy Spirit, gospel strength because if we do not live the message that God has wiped out every boundary, every division marker, that disagreements do not make us enemies, and if it does we are in need of some good old-fashioned conversion to the ways of God.

So that story is there to challenge us—as Jesus himself was challenged—to drop all the boundaries and follow Jesus in learning to love our neighbors—every son or daughter of God—as ourselves.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Finding Strength in Weakness

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

           These words Paul received from Jesus must have had special significance for him. These are the only words of Jesus quoted by Paul that are unique to him.  The only other time he quotes Jesus is to repeat the words of the Last Supper.  So they call us to pay attention and wrestle with what Jesus means by them, and what they meant to Paul.

           First, let’s acknowledge the fact that at face value they are not particularly good news.  We’re not likely to put the phrase “power is made perfect in weakness” on the sign board outside, or worse, something like “weakness preached here.”

           Even the context of these words does not provide much softening of them.  Paul says he is afflicted by a mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” We have no idea what this “thorn” was, but tells us that he has repeatedly asked God to remove it from him.  Jesus’ answer does not sound all that pastoral.  Paul’s suffering, his weakness, will not be taken away.

           This exchange is part of a larger story which might help us understand just what is going on here.

           The Christians in Corinth seem to have always been in crisis—factions were rife in the community, some who had certain “spiritual gifts” lorded it over those who did not.  Even their celebration of the Eucharist was corrupted into something that was a witness to their own social hierarchy.

           Paul’s first letter to them tried to deal with all these issues. He talked about their oneness in Christ, their equality in Christ’s body, and the “excellent way” of love that should pull them together.

           It appears that his teaching and his pleas had little impact.  Perhaps they never had a chance to, because at some point some missionaries showed up in their community who claimed that Paul was not who he said he was.  Their evidence was that his message was not the power of the Gospel, and he did not back up his preaching with deeds of power—displays of miraculous gifts of the spirit and healings.  Paul, they said, is a weak man, who, as a weak man, could not possibly be the apostle he said he was.

           This reminds me of something that happened in my first parish, many years ago. When I began at St. George’s, it was a very small community of 40 or so people.  I had one teenager. He was a senior when I arrived, so I had not been there yet a year when he went off to college.  He had been in church most every Sunday since he was born, and was often my acolyte.

           He came home from college at Thanksgiving and asked to see me.  He was clearly troubled.  He said to me, “I spent my whole life in this church and no one ever told me about the power of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts he has to give us.”

           “What gifts would those be?” I asked.

           “Speaking in tongues and prophesying and working miracles of healing.  Ways that God’s power can work through us.  God wants us to have victory in our lives.”

           He was hooked, and I didn’t get anywhere with him.  “The power of God is primarily love,” I said, “and the strength we need for daily living.  It is not for the purpose of showing off how powerful or important we are.”

           That was 27 years ago when things called mega-churches were just coming into being, promising prosperity and social power, and, not surprisingly, the clear divisions between godly and ungodly people.

           And over the years they have attracted many of our own people and have seemed so successful that we have spent time and energy trying to figure out how we can be like them, and return ourselves to a day when membership in our churches was highly valued, a time when people listened to us, a time when we had social power.

           The rapid demise of mainstream Protestant churches is a kind of thorn in our flesh as a church.  We don’t know what to do about it.  We try things.  They work a little, but not enough.  We don’t know the answer.

           I don’t know the answer.  All I know is what Jesus told Paul, and tells me, and tells us.

My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.

           Now that is not a sexy message; it’s not about making anything “great” again; it’s not about returning us to a position of power.

           But it may be just what we need.

           As a priest over the years I have had plenty of people come to me feeling as if they were called to be a deacon or a priest in the church.  They inevitably want to impress me with their prayer life, with their leadership in the church, with their passion for the gospel.  And I have wanted to hear about those things.

           But I also want to know how they have suffered.  I want to know about their weakness and how they live with it.  I ask these things because I believe the answer to those questions to be more important than to hear about their strengths.

           Why?  So I know they have a chance to be able to relate to the rest of us, how to help us find God’s grace in the midst of both short-term and long-term adversity, how to know the power of God in our weakness.

           Will that pack the pews?  Maybe, maybe not.  As I said, it’s not a very sexy message and we are competing with churches who offer the exact opposite.

           I only know my own experience, the thorns I carry in my flesh, about which I do not want to boast.  I bring them with me every Sunday. I do not try to leave them at home.  I bring them here and find over and over again that God’s grace—God’s love for me that I have not earned or deserved—is sufficient.

           And it has been consistently true that my weaknesses, drenched in the love of God, are what have made me a good priest, if I dare say that about myself at all.

           It may not be how we want the world to work, but it is how the world—God’s world—works.  The grace of God—that Paul says elsewhere God has lavished on us—is sufficient and any power and true strength we have is made perfect in our weaknesses, because it is in those weaknesses that we experience the depth of that grace and God’s love for us.

           And that is Good News in our real life, the life we are bid to bring to this altar week by week.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Feeling the "Empty Base Syndrome"

Nephews Derick and Marcus as Teammates, 2016
Our youngest nephew Marcus, and exchange student nephew Sergio, and their ten teammates played the last baseball game of their season this afternoon.  It was a regional game that could have put them in the final four of the state tournament, but they lost 5-1.  They remain, however, the Section V Class D champs, a status not achieved by our little hometown, Avoca, in twelve years.  I hope they can let go of the memory of today’s defeat and hold on to their amazing season.

For Marcus and Sergio, as well as their two teammates Evan and Austin, this is also their last game of high school baseball.  And for my family, who take their high school sports very seriously, well, we are experiencing something like “empty base” syndrome.  We have cheered a generation through soccer, track, basketball, cheerleading, softball and baseball since their earliest youth soccer and t-ball days, something like 25 years’ worth of games.

We have seen it all.  We have shaken our heads at games when nothing went right.  We have gloried when teams came together and triumphed.  We have cringed at injuries, shared disappointments, and thrilled together when we beat a rival.  We have watched mistakes that are worthy of any bloopers show on television, and we have seen a kid reach inside for more than he or she or we thought was there.  Along the way we also have let more than a few referees and umpires know when they were not performing up to par.

I sit here this evening feeling broken-hearted on the one hand and grateful and proud on the other.  I am sure my parents and siblings do also, and, most of all, I hope our nephews do, feel both as well.

In the end, the importance of these games over the years has not so much been about the competition as it has been the life lived and learned:  What it means to pull together as a team, a community, of different abilities and personalities, ask the best of one another, and live through both trials and celebrations together.  How luck and chance are a part of life, but so is working hard anyway.  Why the love of a family and a community are so important in our lives.  How sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we are never worth more or less because of it.

Competition is a part of life. Life would be dull without it. But living life is ultimately not a competition.  It is about faith and hope and love, the things that draw us together not drive us apart.

I have loved being an uncle through all of this, and the last three years when I could be at almost every game has been a gift and a privilege.  I am also proud to be a son and a brother along the way, watching the faithfulness of my parents to their grandchildren, and watching my amazing sisters and brother and their spouses raise little boys and little girls to be young women and men.  I am sure you do not get told enough what a great job all of you have done.

And Marcus and Sergio, keep bringing to life that intensity I witnessed so often, the drive to do your best, and help one another thrive.  But leave room for the disappointments and mistakes.  They will always come.  Laugh at yourself once and awhile, and above all keep that goofy side you both have.  Life is a party to be celebrated more than it is a game to be won.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

April 4, 1968

              I am six-years-old, almost seven, and I am in the first grade.  It is April 4, 1968, and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at 6 pm in Memphis, Tennessee.  I have a stray memory that I have always associated with this day.  I am watching television and the announcement comes on that Dr. King has been killed.  My Uncle Jimmy, my mother’s youngest brother, who is eighteen, is watching us kids.  In addition to myself is my 3-year-old sister and my 8-months-old sister.  My parents are probably out bowling, which, in those days, was almost always why they were out and we had a sitter.  I hear my Uncle Jimmy say, “They got him.”

              I do not trust this memory entirely, and I have never asked my Uncle about it because I don’t want to embarrass him.  He is a good guy and I cannot now imagine him saying such a thing, but I also don’t know what emotion was attached to those three words.  Was it just a statement of fact?  Was it bewilderment?  Was it excitement?  I don’t know.

              But I do know I was living in a racist environment.  Of that I have no doubt at all.

              My husband John was raised in North Florida, in a rural area much like the one in which I was raised in Upstate New York.  This is true beyond census numbers.  Comparing notes on growing up, we are surprised at the cultural similarities of our hometowns, and attitudes about race are at the top of the list.  Northerners like to think of themselves as more enlightened than Southerners.  We did, after all, win the Civil War.  But whatever we were fighting for, it was not the equality of black and white, or if it was, it didn’t take.  Any progress made over the hundred years since is infinitesimal.

              In my hometown in Western New York, of around 2,000 people, I remember two black families.  One lived in the village, and one lived halfway up one of the hills outside of town.  The latter may have been more than one family.  Where they lived was called “the nigger camp” by those who did not live there.  This “camp” was for permanent residents.  In the Autumn migrant workers, mostly from Florida, would come to pick potatoes.  They lived in several camps on various farms in the town.  Their children came to our school for the six or so weeks they were at work, although they had a separate classroom in the basement and I have no memories of seeing them.

              When people were being polite they called the black folk among us “darkies,” or “colored fellas.”  My great-grandmother Pearl’s house was on a street that those who lived at the permanent camp walked down if they walked into the village to one of the stores.  In reviewing the events of any given day, she would note how many “darkies” had passed by.  She was still doing this the years I lived with her during and immediately after my time as an undergraduate.

              My mother frequently comments on the smell of black people.  “I don’t care what anyone says, they smell.” I have heard this dozens of times.  It is often provoked just by seeing a black person on the street.  My father often uses the words, “jungle bunny.”  More than anything else this slur bothers me as a kid.  Why?  I’m not certain. I suspect it was so obviously demeaning.

              Today, April 4, 2018, 50 years later, I want to remember these things.  My parents don’t say those things anymore, and my journey has included being the rector of a majority African-American parish.  I voted for our first African-American President and rejoiced in his victories.  But I do not dare forget my history; it is still there in me, enough times surfacing in tiny, almost instinctual impulses, that I must remain vigilant.

              Issues of race still plague America. They still plague the communities in which I know live and have lived.  They still plague the church to which I belong.  We have come so far, but the inequality is still stunning, and so-called “white” America, including myself, just cannot get it.  We want desperately to believe in a society of equal opportunity, and the desperation placates us, makes us blind, deaf, and dumb.  We cannot see our own privilege, despite the fact that we are awash in it, like some kind of eerie reverse baptism, awash in the original sin of our society, underneath the veneer of good will still festering, bubbling up more times than we care to know, and often even when we do see it, we are quick to self-absolve.

              Today I am glad I am not living in 1968, but, fifty years later, I cannot allow myself to think we live that far away from it.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Living Truth Crucified & Risen

Sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  The Passion according to John

Jesus says to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And Pilate replies, “What is truth?”

That question rings down through the ages.  It has never stopped being relevant.  It never will.  It is a question we deal with every day, although most often we do not even realize that is what we are doing.

It is not a bad question that Pilate asks, even if he asks it cynically as one in power who can do with the truth whatever he wants to.

What is truth?

“The truth” is a big deal in John’s Gospel.  It first appears in the very first chapter: The Word made flesh is “full of grace and truth.”

In chapter eight, the religious leaders are obsessing about Jesus’ messing with their well-worn traditions.  Jesus tells them, in essence, you would not know the truth if it was full in front of your eyes.  Which it is, and he says, and if you would see it, “you will know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

In chapter 11, amidst the story of the raising of Lazarus Jesus goes so far as to say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Then in chapter 14, another character enters the picture, the “Spirit of Truth,” who will not only keep us in the truth after Jesus has left us, she will continue to lead us into truth.

So, I ask again, what is truth?

For followers of Jesus, the truth is a living thing, not a static one.  It is Jesus himself who is the truth, Jesus crucified and risen from the dead, who has gifted us all with his Spirit, who continues to lead us into the truth.

This means the truth is not a definition.  It is not the set words of a creed or some particular piece of Scripture, or the pronouncement of the church or of any one person or collection of persons. The truth is not something we have found, it is something we seek, and it is always, always, always, something we seek together.  And ultimately, we do not find the truth, it finds us.

How would I know this truth if I met it walking down the street?  How do I know I am seeking the truth?  How do I know when the truth finds me?

Three things the Gospel of John gives us.

First of all, the truth always come paired with grace. There should be no such thing as an ungracious truth.  That does not mean that the truth cannot challenge us, but in challenging us it never seeks to take away our dignity.

Second of all, the truth makes us free.  The truth does not bind us or seek in any way to enslave us.  Again, this does not mean that the truth cannot challenge us, but in challenging us it never seeks to take away our ability to make choices.

Third of all, the truth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and so, like the Holy Spirit, it always leads us into a greater community of love.  The truth may challenge us, but it will never tear us apart or inject hate into our relationships in any way.

The truth can be recognized by these things which are its companions:  grace and freedom and love.

And all these things we see in Jesus.  We see them in who he is, but more importantly we see them in what he does:  offer his life, to share in our suffering and death, absorbing all the suffering and sin of the world in his body, and enacting our redemption in his defeat of death.

Jesus does the truth and we know it by grace that is generous, freedom that is hospitable and love that is sacrificial.

           We do not live in easy times for the truth.* Let this Good Friday remind us of how we seek the truth among us and how we live that truth to the glory of God and the dignity of all God’s people.

*I was tempted to go on (and on) about how this is so, but I thought it was best to set it on the table and let it be.  But I would have said at least this:  We have the spectacle of a political leader who frequently says things that he knows very well are not the truth and religious leaders who make excuses for him and sometimes continue the lie for him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Easter Day Year B Readings & Commentaries

This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow! My love, the crucified, has sprung to life this morrow. If Christ that once was slain, ne'er burst his three day prison, our faith had been in vain. But now is Christ arisen!

1st Reading:  Isaiah 25:6-9
Most people in the ancient Near East would have eaten sparingly and with little dietary variation. A great and lavish feast was an obvious symbol of God’s restoration of shalom on earth, a symbol that carries into the New Testament.  This vision is also important because of its inclusion of “all nations.” Israel and its rival neighbors will live in peace.  It is such a joyous and monumental vision, that even death is overcome.

25:6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.


1st Reading:  Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
This short passage is part of a long story (Acts 10:1—11:18) about how the Gentiles came to be understood as having the same relationship with Jesus as his fellow Jews. The apostle Peter and the gentile Cornelius have both had visions causing them to seek each other out. When Peter meets Cornelius in the latter’s own house (a line observant Jews were not to cross), he experiences the Pentecostal Spirit at work among them just as he and his fellow disciples had experienced it. This leads to the following declaration. It is a testimony to the power of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.

10:34 Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:  38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Psalm 118 is a song of thanksgiving rooted in Israel’s worship of a faithful God. It has long been associated with Holy Week and Easter because the first part of the psalm acknowledges distress, and the second half pivots to gratitude for deliverance. The stone which the builder’s rejected has become the chief cornerstone is used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in Acts) to describe what God has done in Jesus Christ.

1  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
           his mercy endures for ever.
2  Let Israel now proclaim, *
           “His mercy endures for ever.”
14  The Lord is my strength and my song, *
           and he has become my salvation.
15  There is a sound of exultation and victory *
           in the tents of the righteous:
16  “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! *
           the right hand of the Lord is exalted!
           the right hand of the Lord has triumphed!”
17  I shall not die, but live, *
           and declare the works of the Lord.
18  The Lord has punished me sorely, *
           but he did not hand me over to death.
19  Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
           I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20  “This is the gate of the Lord; *
           he who is righteous may enter.”
21  I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
           and have become my salvation.
22  The same stone which the builders rejected *
           has become the chief cornerstone.
23  This is the Lord’s doing, *
           and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24  On this day the Lord has acted; *
           we will rejoice and be glad in it.

2nd Reading:  Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
See above


2nd Reading:  1 Corinthians 15:1-11
In these verses, Paul rehearses the tradition of the resurrection that has been handed down to him. It includes, in verses 3b-5, the beginnings of a Christian creed. Paul also cites historical evidence of which he is aware: the appearance to Peter (Cephas), to the twelve, to a large number of believers (a story that has been lost), and then to Paul himself on the road to Damascus. He doesn’t know the tradition of women being the first witnesses or chooses to ignore it.

15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 16:1-8
Mark’s account of the resurrection is, like his Gospel, short. It does, however, pack in many details. The women who come to the tomb are the same as those mentioned in the previous chapter as having witnessed Jesus’ death. The young man in the tomb neatly summarizes what the Gospel is as Mark understands it.  Jesus is the forever crucified and risen One.  The women are sent forth (as apostles?).  They are ecstatic (a better translation than “amazement” and filled with “awe” (a reasonable alternative translation to “afraid.”).  Most scholars believe Mark originally ended his Gospel here.

16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


Gospel Reading:  John 20:1-18
The Gospel-writer John’s witness to the empty tomb and the initial experiences of the risen Jesus centers on Mary Magdalene, who, on account of this story in particular, is sometimes known as “the Apostle of the Resurrection.” Mary is the first to tell the other disciples, who themselves come to the tomb, but do not remain. Mary, in her grief, does not leave and so has the first encounter with the risen Jesus. Why she does not recognize him is a matter of much speculation, as well as Jesus’ admonition to her not to hold on to him. Whatever the meaning, Mary again becomes the first witness, “I have seen the Lord.”

20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission.  All rights reserved.  The Psalm translation is from The Book of Common Prayer.  Commentaries are copyright © 2018, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY  14843, All rights reserved.  Permission is granted to copy for congregational use, including the copyright statement.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love is the Goal

Homily on Ash Wednesday at St. Thomas' Church, Bath.

           Lent begins with these words [from the Collect of the Day]:  “You hate nothing you have made.”

           Why not say, “You love everything you have made”?

           I think it is because love is something we must always grow into.  That God hates nothing he has made is a bottom-line belief.  It is a starting point.

           Love is the goal, and love is the journey toward the goal.  Lent is a time to renew ourselves in this journey.  Anything we do during this season—be it giving something up or taking something on—must serve this purpose:  to deepen our experience of the love of God for us.

           Today we begin this journey by reminding ourselves of the obstacles in the road.  It all sounds very negative, but we are simply acknowledging the realities of our journey.

           In the words of the Collect, we “acknowledge our wretchedness.”  That sounds harsh, perhaps unnecessarily so.  I like to think of it simply as our capacity to mess things up.

           And we are also asked to stare our own death in the face:  to dust we shall return.  This is not a pleasant thing to do, but we cannot deny it.  It is a reality of this journey of ours.

           The wonder of life with God is that although both of these things are true—our capacity to mess up and the inevitability of our death—it is the love of God that we can put our trust in, and seek to live ever more deeply into it.

           It is not easy. There is so much going on around us and within us to distract us from living in this love, and even from believing it could be possible.  If it were easy we would not need this season.

           Remember the song, “Searching for love in all the wrong places”?  This is our task from now to Easter, to search for love in all the right places, so that when Easter comes, we may celebrate the resurrection, grounded a little more deeply in the amazement—the wonder—that we are loved in spite of everything.