Friendship with Christ and the world after Pandemic: A Homily for Easter 6B

This past Monday evening, Corrie and I did something we hadn’t done in over fifteen months. We were invited over to friends for dinner. A week earlier, we had been the hosts for another couple, but that dinner took place on our screened-in back porch. So this was the first time, we sat down at a formal dinner table with friends.

It was a lovely occasion, of course but it was also deeply poignant. Over the years we have enjoyed many meals at that table, usually it would be crowded with 10 or 12 or 14 guests and the festivities would last for many hours. Memories of those happy times came to the surface throughout the evening. The meal was fantastic, the conversation diverting, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen face to face for many months was wonderful.

But over it all there was also a sense of loss—the missed opportunities for similar gatherings over the course of the pandemic, the sense that our friendship had been in some way suspended over that time, that we couldn’t really fully engage with each other, share the sorts of things friends share through good times and bad. And there was also something else, a wariness or discomfort as we experienced the strangeness of being in close quarters with other people for an extended period of time.

That wariness, or strangeness, that feeling of a gap in our lives or relationships, is something I’ve also sensed as I’ve begun to meet again with the people of Grace Church over the last few weeks. There’s an awkwardness as we try to reconnect and catch up and those conversations sometimes seem much more difficult simply because I have grown unaccustomed to being present with another person fully—not just as a disembodied voice on the phone or a face on a zoom call.

There are so many things that are going to be difficult as we begin to reconnect face-to-face, and I suspect one of the hardest will simply be the sensory and emotional overload of being together with people we care about and who care about us for the first time in many months.

Friendship—in pandemic as in ordinary times—friendship can be lifegiving and supportive. It can also be elusive. It’s a word that comes easily off our lips and in a world now shaped by social media, friendship can be a fleeting thing, as ephemeral as the posts we scroll through on our various timelines. 

So when we hear the words from today’s gospel reading with ears conditioned by life in pandemic, we may hear them rather differently than we would have three or six years ago. When we have felt the strain placed on all of our relationships by quarantine, fear, and everything else we have experienced, to hear Jesus say, “I know longer call you servant but friend” may come as something of a shock. Especially when it comes after a series of other statements about love—“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

 When we have struggled to maintain relationships without face-to-face contact, the sort of friendship, the sort of love that Jesus is talking about here is both deeply appealing and may seem to be quite beyond our capacity to feel or experience. We may consider laying down our life for a family member, a child; or we may regard as heroes those who sacrifice their lives in efforts to save the lives of others, but would we really consider laying down our lives for a “friend”? 

Here, of course, Jesus is not referring to a facebook friend, but a fellow member of the community that he himself gathers—a community abiding in his love. He, and the gospel writer after him, are envisioning a community abiding in love, just as Jesus abides in his Father’s love. We may imagine that such a love is focused inwardly, on building and deepening the relationships among the members of the community and building and deepening the relationships of individual members of the community with Christ—abiding in his love.

 But is not an inward-focused love. It is a love that emanates outward into the world: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” The love of Christ in which we abide and which abides in us opens us to a world desperate for that love.

  We are slowly, tentatively, as a society, as a congregation, and as individuals emerging from the isolation of pandemic. We are entering the world cautiously, timidly, many of us, experiencing the strangeness of returning to places and to activities that we were forced to abandon for many months. As we emerge, we have to confront the reality of the changed world.

 For us at Grace, there may no greater sign of that change than the departure of the homeless shelter at the beginning of the pandemic. Central to our identity and mission for some 35 years, at the heart of our role in the community, vanished suddenly and without fanfare. We have not had opportunity to mourn its departure or to celebrate the dedication of our congregation and so many volunteers over the years to helping some of the most vulnerable members of our community. We will need that opportunity, to mourn and to celebrate, before we can move on fully into the new work to which God is calling us.

There are other changes of course. As we plan for a return to public worship, we can expect to be confronted by many changes made necessary by the pandemic—continued social distancing, masks, no congregational singing. Though many are yearning to return to church, it may not seem to us like “church” at all. No doubt we will be frustrated and struggle with all of the changes.

 As we enter this changed world and as we enter our changed church, bringing our fears and uncertainties with us, Jesus’ words here should offer us comfort and encouragement. We abide in his love as he abides in the Father’s love. The love he has for us is not for our benefit alone but is meant for the world. Even as we rebuild and deepen our relationships with each other, Christ’s love calls us out into the world, and for us, that love calls us out into our neighborhood where we can see visibly how much that love is needed right now. 

The shelter may be gone from Grace, but as events this past week have demonstrated, whether and where our city can find a new location to welcome and care for men experiencing homelessness remains an open question. And even with the shelter’s departure from Grace, there will continue to be unhoused people living and present downtown. How will we as a neighborhood and church respond to those needs?

 More deeply, and reflecting on our experiences as we seek to return to some normalcy in our lives, how can our church support and sustain the building of life-giving relationships among our members and with our neighbors? What can we do to help create a new, vibrant, inclusive, downtown that truly welcomes everyone? 

 These are important questions that get at the heart of our future mission in our community. The final words of the gospel reading urge us to focus on our responsibilities as followers of Jesus even as we abide in his love: “

 And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” 

 We truly love one another only if we bear fruit that lasts. The decision to welcome the shelter was a decision that bore much fruit over the last three and a half decades. How will our love in this new season of Grace’s life bear fruit that lasts?

Chased by the Holy Spirit: A Sermon for Easter 5B, 2021

            
5 Easter 

May 2, 2021

            As many of you know, we have set Sunday June 6 as the tentative date for our return to public worship. We’ve got a lot to do before then much of it having to do with communicating to all of you about what our worship will be like, what to expect. Our return to public worship whether it comes a month from now or at some other point will be both a joyful celebration of return, and an apprehensive, strange experience because of the months we’ve been apart from each other, all that we have experienced over that time, and the accommodations will have to continue to make because of the pandemic.

            So much has changed. I’ve talked with you before about the eerie sense one gets being downtown—the empty sidewalks, the empty storefronts—the massive construction projects in the middle of the emptiness. And for us, perhaps the biggest change is the empty space in the basement of our west wing—the shelter having left on March 30 of last year. None of us has been around Grace enough to really process what the shelter’s departure means for our mission and identity.

            In conversations over the last few weeks, I’ve talked with people about the future of the downtown, and Grace’s role in that future. You may have seen Dean Mosiman’s fine article in the State Journal about all that has changed downtown over the last fourteen months, and downtown leaders’ hopes for the future. There was no mention of the role churches might play in that future but I was surprised while reading an article on a secular site about rebuilding urban community after the pandemic, that the author specifically mentioned the importance of congregations in creating a new, more equitable, more humane urban communities.

            Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most powerful stories in that book, perhaps in all of scripture. Full of drama and unexpected details, the questions in the text raise more questions for us twenty-first century Christians as we think about the road the Spirit is leading us on as we move from the exile of virtual worship and digital community toward the new realities of gathering for worship and walking into the future.

            Acts is the second volume of Luke’s two-volume work that begins with the Gospel. The two works are linked thematically and organizationally. One of those overarching themes is geography. Luke constructs his gospel as a movement of Jesus toward Jerusalem, where he is crucified and raised from the dead, and ascends to heaven. Acts begins with the disciples still in Jerusalem, gathering in the same upper room where the Last Supper had taken place, where they had encountered the Risen Christ, and where they would receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. 

Immediately before his ascension, Jesus had told them that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before this episode, we read that as persecution forced the disciples to scatter from Jerusalem, Philipp had gone to Samaria where he preached and converted many. Now, the Spirit drives him further away, to the road to Gaza where he sees the Ethopian eunuch riding in a chariot. The spirit keeps moving Philipp further, telling him to run after the chariot. Willie James Jennings, in his brilliant commentary on Acts, says, “The Holy Spirit was chasing the Ethiopian eunuch.”

            Then the remarkable story unfolds further. A series of questions follows. First, Philip asks if the eunuch understands what he is reading. In response comes another question, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And a relationship is born, between disciple and reader, centered on the text of scripture. He reads from Isaiah 53 and asks for clarification. Philip preaches to him, a sermon for one, telling him the story of Jesus. At the end, the eunuch asks the final question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

            We don’t get how strange this all is. The eunuch is completely other. African, Black, not a Jew, though he likely was what Acts calls “god-fearers” people who were attracted to the monotheism and high ethical standards of Judaism. He was also a eunuch—barred by Mosaic law from serving at the altar. He was a gentile. This is the first time in Acts that the disciples had to confront what would become one of the central questions for that book and for early Christianity—what would be the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in this new community created by Christ?

            Philip didn’t have to think twice. In this story full of miracles and surprises, as they travel down a desert road, they come upon some water, the eunuch asks his question and Philip quickly baptizes him.  Just as quickly, the Spirit snatches up Philip, the eunuch saw him no more, and he went on his way rejoicing.

            This is a story about evangelism. It is also a story about transformative conversations taking place in difficult spaces and across great difference. It is a story about the spirit leading and the spirit snatching away, a story about faith, and reading, and baptism.

            The book of Acts is about the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and about the creative chaos of the Holy Spirit. For us in this time, this story and the story of book of Acts may seem particularly strange, perhaps even irrelevant. Who of us have been making journeys to distant places? I’ve joked that the furthest I’ve traveled since March of 2020 was to Watertown, where Corrie got her vaccines. We’ve been largely confined to our homes, limited in travel and in encounters with strangers. 

            And as members of a church that has been in the same location for over 160, and whose stone walls are the very symbol of stability and permanence, the idea that the Spirit might be snatching us up and out into new encounters seems a bit far-fetched. But as I’ve been saying, and as the articles I referred to at the beginning of this sermon make clear, when we return to in-person worship next month, we will be worshiping in a very different place than where we worshiped a couple of years ago. The landscape has changed dramatically; our own identity and mission has changed with the departure of the shelter. 

            Where is the Spirit chasing us? Who will we meet along the way? These are burning questions for us as we seek to follow Jesus along the wilderness road. Can we make relationships across difference; can we gather around scripture to read it together and discern God’s call to us? Will we have the courage to step out into the unknown to meet with people, like Philip, even run after them as they make their way, to invite them into relationship with God? Can we imagine the strange new places and people toward which the Spirit is leading us, and the strange new people we might become through those encounters and relationships? And finally, can we envision the joy that we might feel, the rejoicing we might do, at the end? 

            The Spirit is leading us down a new road into the future. May it be a road along which we encounter the Holy Spirit, a road on which we invite those we meet to join us in this great adventure of faith.

On siting a new purpose-built men’s shelter

I wrote this letter to the Mayor and Alders in advance of Tuesday’s common council meeting:

April 28, 2021

Dear Mayor and Alders:

For over 35 years, from 1985 through March 2020, Grace Episcopal Church opened its doors to some of Madison’s most vulnerable residents, hosting the Men’s Drop-In Shelter. For more than 11 of those years, I have served as Grace’s Rector (Senior Pastor). In countless meetings and encounters, I have received praise and gratitude from Madison residents and political leaders for our commitment to people experiencing homelessness. I have also had many uncomfortable encounters and been subjected to criticism from downtown business owners and residents who blame the shelter for attracting undesirable people, causing crime, driving down property values, and forcing downtown residents to move away. My response to them usually focused on reminding them that like others, people experiencing homelessness enjoy being downtown because of all that it has to offer, including a wide range of human services beyond the shelter. I also encouraged them to recognize that people experiencing homelessness are members of our community who deserve every opportunity to flourish.

I and members of Grace knew the importance of the shelter we housed. We were also aware of its limitations. Over the last years, it had become clear to us that our facilities were inadequate to the needs placed on us by our commitment to our guests. We began internal conversations about how best we might move the larger community to work toward a new purpose-built men’s shelter. In conversations with downtown stakeholders, homeless service providers, and advocates, we discerned the monumental task ahead of us. We met with city and county staff, Alders and County Supervisors, the former mayor and the County Executive. In each of those conversations, we were given the same advice: Unless we set a deadline (i.e., essentially evict the shelter), local government would take no action. Such a step was inconceivable to us. Not only would it be a public relations disaster; we also regarded it as a sin against the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor.

At an impasse, we contracted with Susan Schmitz to help us determine whether there was sufficient interest in energy in the wider community to work toward a new shelter. By November 2019, she was able to convene about twenty people representing homeless service providers and advocates, downtown stakeholders, elected officials, and city and county staff to begin working toward this goal. I expected that it would take 5-10 years and that finding a suitable location would be much more difficult than raising the money to purchase a property, design and build a facility, and fund operations. Then the pandemic arrived. With little fanfare the shelter left Grace on March 30, 2020, leaving us with an empty basement. I knew that shelter operations would never return to Grace in any likeness to its previous form. Our spaces were woefully inadequate, not up to current building codes, and potentially dangerous to the health and safety of guests. The responsibility for finding a new permanent location was now the responsibility of local government.

I don’t know whether the Zeier Rd. location is the best site for a new shelter. I don’t know whether other sites are still being considered or would be better suited for the purpose. I do know that any site will arouse steep opposition from neighbors who fear for property values, quality of life, and personal safety. 

I also know that in the 35 years that we have hosted the men’s shelter, we have continued to offer a full range of programming and worship with no major disruption or detrimental impact. Of course, staff and volunteers were often uncomfortable to see or pass through the line of men waiting at intake. On cold winter Sundays especially before the Beacon opened, we would often have shelter guests wander into our services in search of a warm space to hang out. I would instruct our ushers to leave them be and only ask them to leave if their snoring became a nuisance. The first Monday evening of each month, we welcomed shelter guests and others from the community into our parish hall for a sit-down meal with live music. Long after finishing their meals, you could see some men lingering to listen to the music, often with volunteers (teenagers, twenty-somethings, even women in their 70s) sitting next to them, sharing the joy of live performance and a bit of common humanity.

Certainly, we would find abandoned belongings, trash, and other items on our property. But the urine on our stone walls is as likely the product of college students wandering home at bar-time as it is from a homeless man who can’t find a public restroom. The occasional intoxicated person sleeping it off on our steps or the individual experiencing a mental health crisis may not have been a shelter guest the night before or indeed ever. I doubt the number of such incidents was greater at Grace than at any other downtown property. Unfortunately, no corner of our city or nation can be completely safe from all threats.

Living, working, worshiping in close proximity to a homeless shelter presents challenges but those challenges should be shared by the whole community, not just by a few neighbors. As a city and a county it is our responsibility to provide a welcome environment for all who live here, whether their residence is a homeless shelter or a luxury condo. If the purchase of the Zeier Rd property is approved or if another site is chosen, I pledge to do what I can to help the shelter’s immediate community welcome their new neighbors.

Sincerely,

The Rev’d Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser

Beloved Community in a world of violence: A Sermon for Easter 3B, 2021

            
Easter 3

April 18, 2021

            The news is horrific; driving us to depths of despair, anguish, outrage and anger. We feel impotent as we watch the spiral of violence continue. The senseless killings by police officers of unarmed civilians: Daunte Wright in the Twin Cities, a 13-year old boy Adam Toledo in Chicago, high school student Anthony J. Johnson, Jr in Knoxville. All this while the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd unfolds in Minneapolis.

            But there’s more. It’s not just police officers. It’s also ordinary people, usually white men, of course, killing innocent bystanders or coworkers, or family members. Mass shootings every day, it seems. Just in the couple of weeks, in Indianapolis and Rock Hill, SC. We woke this morning to news of a shooting at a bar in Kenosha—3 dead, 2 wounded. The Gun Violence Archive has identified 148 such mass shootings so far in 2021. There are no words. I have no words. 

This culture of death, this lust for violence is not new. But in this season of Easter 2021. It is a time when we Christians remember the death of Christ in another culture of violence, that of the Roman empire. More importantly, it is also a time when we celebrate his victory over death and violence through his resurrection. His resurrection strikes at the heart of the culture of violence that rules our world, the evil that threatens our existence as humans. 

Still, with the news of the world swirling around us, our faith in resurrection, in new creation, our hope for a new world being called into existence through Christ’s resurrection; well, all of that can seem fanciful, hollow, meaningless. What is appropriate joy in resurrection in the face of the violence that vulnerable communities, vulnerable people are experiencing daily in our society? I’ve often heard bishops or that category of people now called “thought leaders”—apparently we have them in the church, too—I’ve often heard such folk proclaim that we are “Easter people.” Well, what on earth or in heaven does it mean to be “Easter people” when all around us people are suffering and dying?

As I’ve been pondering these things over the last couple of weeks, my attention has been drawn to the Epistle of I John which we’ve been reading in the Sunday morning lectionary but also, coincidentally, in the daily office lectionary. There are three letters of John in the New Testament and scholars associate them closely with the Gospel of John, although it’s unlikely that they were written by the same person. We do hypothesize that they are products of the same community because so much of the language and imagery used in the letters reflects language and imagery in the gospels. They also reflect many of the same concerns as the gospel.

But it also shows a certain distance or development from the gospel. The anti-Judaism that is at the heart of the gospel of John is not so evident in the 1st letter of John. Instead, other concerns take center stage, particularly concerns for false teaching. Leaving those concerns aside, one can detect at the heart of the letter a desire to connect the life of the community with the love that the author sees at the heart of the relationship between God and Christ. We see that to some degree in today’s reading: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” 

But that theme comes out even more strongly in verses we will hear over the next two weeks. From 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or from John 4, the reading for the 5th Sunday after Easter: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” 

Or a few verses later: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them”

Well, you get the picture by now. A community of love brought into being by God’s love, sharing God’s love with one another and through that love knowing God and abiding in God. 

It’s language like this that gives rise to images like the Beloved Community, a term so often used by our Presiding Bishop to call us into deeper relationship with each other and with God in Christ. What beloved community looks like depends on the circumstances of each congregation in their particular contexts. For us at Grace it may look very different than it does for our fellow parishes in Madison or across the diocese of Milwaukee. 

It’s not just about the congregation, however. It’s also about each of us individually. How do we embrace God’s love; entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ; growing more deeply in the knowledge and love of Christ, committing ourselves to follow him? 

It’s clear that our city, our nation needs beloved communities making God’s love incarnate in the world; sharing God’s love with the world. It’s also clear that it will not be easy. The forces of evil and empire are arrayed against it. There’s an image that was widely circulated on Twitter yesterday. A church in Brooklyn Center, MN, where Daunte Wright was killed, had been offering sanctuary to those injured by the police in the protests there. In response, the police surrounded the church, standing three or four deep to ensure that no one could seek help or safety there.

Stephanie Spellers, who is the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, recently published a book, The Church Cracked-Open. Written in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the nation-wide protests that erupted, Spellers reflects on the disruption to traditional institutions, especially the church, as membership has declined. Coupled with the disruption caused by the pandemic and the long-overdue reckoning with racism and white supremacy, she uses the image of a “cracked-open church” to describe the new possibilities emerging in this moment. Being cracked-open means that as the old structures decline and collapse, there is room for new possibilities, for creativity and imagination as we seek to embody God’s love in the world.

As the old dies and falls away, God’s love beckons to us, inviting us into a future that imagines a world remade as beloved community. We see that happening even here in Madison. This week, the outreach committee heard from Laura Ford-Harris, who is leading the new Boys and Girls Club space on Capitol Square. Their presence here is a sign that as we rebuild the downtown after the pandemic and the protests, we can imagine and bring into being a neighborhood where all are truly welcome.

As we listen to First John’s invitation to us to become beloved community, to love each other and the world as God loves us, may we abide in that love, share that love, and above all may we learn to live that love in our relationships with others, with our neighbors. May the love we share create beloved community, at Grace, in our neighborhood, and in the world.

He is not here, he is risen: A Sermon for Easter, 2021

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

The traditional Easter acclamation rings hollow in empty churches today. Whatever joy we may feel on this Easter is tempered by the reality of our celebration. Instead of a church packed to the rafters, with most of us dressed in Easter finery; instead of brass, choir, and the voices of hundreds singing “Hail thee, festival day” and “Christ the Lord is risen today” we have soloists, recordings, livestreamed worship. Most of us are sitting at home, on our couches or at a kitchen table dressed in comfortable clothes or even, perhaps pajamas, with a cup of coffee instead of a hymnal in our hands. 

Yet all around us are also signs of new life and reasons for hope. As the pace of vaccinations continues to increase, we can glimpse and begin to plan for life after pandemic, and lockdowns, and isolation. Spring seems to be on its way. The bulbs in our garden are beginning to show flowers, and there’s clump of daffodils blooming in the courtyard garden here at the church. We are also beginning to make plans to return to public worship in the near future.

Still, the waiting continues and many of us remain anxious about the present and the future, even as we chafe at the continued restrictions and limits on our activities. It’s a difficult time, an in-between time, a time of waiting. 

The gospel of Mark was written in just such a time of waiting and anxiety; written for a community struggling to find a way forward in uncertain times, in the midst of violence, and as the old faith that had brought them into being as followers of Jesus was running up against new realities and new challenges.

The challenges facing Mark’s community are symbolized by the gospel’s ending, here, at the empty tomb. Mark leaves us hanging with the sentence: “And the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” 

Now, this is no way to end a gospel, no way to tell the story of Easter and of resurrection. If you go to your bible and look up Mark 16, you will see that in most English bibles the Gospel of Mark doesn’t in fact end with v. 8, but has 8 additional verses, often set off in brackets or with asterisks. For while the earliest and most reliable manuscripts end with verse 8 and the women’s silence and fear, very quickly editors and copyists sought to provide a more suitable ending to the gospel, one that included appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples.

But imagine those women as they came to the tomb. Mark tells us that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, that they had walked with him and the other, the male disciples, learning from, watching him as he healed the sick and cast out demons. Mark says that they had ministered to him along the way. They had heard him proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. They had been among the small group that had staged what we call “the triumphal entry into Jerusalem” casting their coats and tree branches on the road as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, a clear allusion to the Davidic monarchy.

They had watched as he turned over the moneychangers temples and silenced his opponents with clever debating tactics. And then, had they been there at the last supper? Mark doesn’t tell us, but they were at the crucifixion, watching from afar. 

All their hopes were dashed; their grief at the execution of their beloved teacher and friend overwhelming. And like Jesus, they were probably alone. The male disciples, easily distinguished by their Galileean accents were laying low, probably trying to figure out how to escape the city and Roman troops without notice. 

But the women came to the tomb, as women have done for millennia; to grieve, and to once again, minister to their loved one, to prepare his body for burial. It was probably a mourning ritual they had done before for other loved ones, but likely none was done with the grief and despair that accompanied them this morning.

And then, an empty tomb, a man clothed in white telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that they were tell the others and go meet him in Galilee. 

Why wouldn’t they be afraid? The tomb had been robbed of their loved one’s body; they received a strange, incomprehensible message, they were to take the risky journey out of their hiding place in the city and go back to Galilee. 

Mark leaves us hanging with this grief and fear. He leaves us frustrated, unsatisfied. Why did he tell the story this way, why doesn’t he end it on a high note with all of the blockbuster special effects we’ve come to expect?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question, to go back and read through the gospel again, full of mystery and ambiguity, to wonder and imagine what he might want his readers to know about “The good news of Jesus Christ, son of God”—a gospel that begins with certainty and ends here, in fear, terror, amazement, silence.

We are like those women, peering into an empty tomb. We are looking back, in fear, despair, disappointment, and anger. More than a year of disrupted lives, suffering, isolation. Two Easters now observed, I won’t say “celebrated” with live-streamed worship. More than a year since many of you have tasted the body of Christ in the sacrament; a year away from friends, family, the body of Christ gathered in community.

Our yearnings are clear, we can feel them in the marrow of our bones. If not to go back to the way things were in 2019 but an intense desire to return to this place, to public worship, to singing, and fellowship.

You are peering into an empty church as those women peered into an empty tomb. The same message resounds: “He is not here, he is risen!” 

We are being called not to return to the past, but to make our way into the future, to meet Christ, not at the empty tomb or in the empty church, but out there, in Galilee, in the streets and neighborhoods of our city, in the world. We are called to imagine a new church, a new community, inspired by the risen Christ helping to heal and rebuild our city and the lives of our neighbors. 

We are called to meet the risen Christ who is going before us into the future. There we will see him, for he is risen. There we will encounter the risen Christ in the new life and new world that is emerging through his resurrection.

That Christ is risen gives us hope. That Christ is risen reminds us that the powers of evil, Satan and his forces, do not have the last word, will not vanquish. That Christ is risen shows us the possibility and reality of new life, of new creation, of God’s reign breaking into our lives and into our world, making all things new, remaking us, in God’s image.

That Christ is risen  gives us strength and courage to imagine a new world emerging, new community where God’s justice reigns, where prisoners are released, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, where the barriers that divide us crumble. 

That Christ is risen gives us hope and courage to build a new community, to rebuild our neighborhood justly and equitably. We see signs of that already in the recent announcement that the boys and girls club will be our neighbors on Capitol Square, a symbol that this neighborhood belongs to our whole city, not just the few.

May we have the courage and hope to heed the call to go out and meet the Risen Christ where he is; and in our encounters with him, may our hearts burn with love and hope as we are healed and as we work toward the healing of our city and world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

A Poem for Holy Saturday: “Sepulchre” by George Herbert

Sepulchre, by George Herbert

Oh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

He loves us to the end: A homily for Good Friday, 2021

            
Good Friday

April 2, 2021

            A second Good Friday, a second Holy Week observed in strange and unsettling circumstances. The numbers are staggering, more than 550,000 lives lost in the US. The losses we have all experienced, isolation, jobs, routines, what used to be ordinary and common-place—a gathering with friends, a meal in a restaurant, seem strange indeed. The familiar rituals have become unfamiliar, the usual observances suspended because of pandemic and restrictions on public worship. We struggle to connect our current lives and world with the religious lives we have known in the past. We struggle to connect the suffering we are experiencing, and the suffering in the world around us, with the familiar, dramatic story of Jesus’ arrest and execution.

But there are resonances if we pay attention. As we worship today, the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd, is taking place less than a half-day’s drive away. This week we have heard the testimony of bystanders who watched, bore witness, and shared the last minutes of George Floyd’s life. The Tuesday night group that read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree may see those resonances and make those connections between the crucifixion of Jesus, the widespread practice of lynching, and the death of Floyd and so many other African-Americans at the hands of police officers who too often face no consequences for their actions.

There are other resonances, too, that echo through the centuries. In the vitriolic Anti-Judaism of the Gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus’ death, and in fact, of so many other episodes in the gospel, we see the roots of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that forced Jews into hiding during Holy Week in fear of the violence that Christians might visit upon them. We see the roots to of the Holocaust, and of the revived anti-semitism in 21st century America.

And the crowd, stirred up into a frenzy by politicians and religious leaders seeking to use them for their own purposes, well, we have seen the seductive power of crowds and of mass violence. Or the desire to find a scapegoat for our own troubles and suffering, and lashing out at Asian-Americans, or succumbing to conspiracy theories.

The hatred, violence, fear, and anxiety we experience in the world find parallels in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and even if we want, for a day at least, to put all those other things out of our minds in order to focus on the profound and powerful death of Jesus, we bring with us those events, our context and world, our suffering and our deepest fears, into our spiritual lives, into our encounters with the cross of Christ.

There’s a tendency in Christian devotion to focus on Christ’s suffering, the pain, the blood he shed. We see that tendency in the high culture of medieval and renaissance art. We see and hear it in the hymns that are being sung today—O sacred head sore wounded, and the Pange lingua. We hear it in the revivalist and gospel songs of 19th and 20th century American evangelicalism. For some of us the focus on Jesus’ suffering, his pain, the blood seems morbid and overdone. It may lead us to want to avert our eyes, turn away, even ignore the events of Good Friday.

Still, the story we heard just now, a story that many of us know so very well, not only through the words of the gospel writers but through the centuries of Christian reflection and devotion on it—the art, the hymns, the popular cultural appropriations, and even the movies, is a story that is gripping, powerful, and disturbing. As we hear it read again, as we contemplate its imagery, listen to the hymns, images powerful, painful, emotional pass fleetingly through our minds, perhaps catching our attention for a moment, more likely vanishing to be replaced by other images, visual or verbal.

While our minds and hearts, like our tradition, may focus on the manner and extent of Christ’s suffering on the cross, it’s surprising that the gospel writers themselves pass over the crucifixion with relatively little attention. It’s almost as if the crucifixion takes place in the background. The focus seems to be on the responses of the crowd and the executioners. Of Jesus’ suffering, only his thirst is mentioned in the gospels, and immediately after that, his death.

All our focus on Jesus’ suffering, which is often intended to increase our feelings of guilt, shame, and need for repentance, can distract us from other aspects of the cross, the way the gospel writers tell the story, the way they want us to understand what is happening and why. 

Which brings us back today to other themes from John’s gospel, powerful images and words that are often obscured when we focus too much on Jesus’ suffering and on human responsibility for his suffering and death. 

For the gospel of John, the cross isn’t ultimately about Jesus’ suffering but about his glorification; the cross isn’t a focus of our own guilt and shame, but a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. But more than that, the cross is a symbol, indeed the very fact of God’s love. 

For God so loved the world, the Gospel writer says, that God gave his only son. 

And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself, Jesus says, in reference to his crucifixion, being lifted high on the cross.

And then, as we read last night at our Maundy Thursday service, “Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

He loved them to the end. His love for us, for the human race, for the world, brought him into confrontation and conflict with the powers of the world, the religious establishment and the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. His love brought him here, to trial before Pilate in a kangaroo court where the verdict was foreordained by the interests of empire. His love for us, for the world brought him here, to this place of execution.

It’s a love that is incomprehensible, unimaginable, that offers us and the world the possibility to hope for a different kind of world, where power, greed, oppression, and self-interest hold no sway but where love invites us to imagine we ourselves giving our lives for others: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As we contemplate Christ’s love for us, expressed in his crucifixion, may we open our hearts to receive and to be embraced by that love. And may that love inspire us, move us to share that love, to express Christ’s self-giving love in the world around us. May it give us hope that our world might be redeemed and transformed by Christ’s love, breaking down the barriers that divide us, bring justice to those who are oppressed, hope to those living in fear and anxiety. May we be Christ’s love, binding up wounds, mending the broken-hearted. In this world where so many are overcome by suffering, oppression, fear and despair, may Christ’s love shed abroad by us show us the way from cross to resurrection, from despair to hope, from death to new life, into beloved community, and a world created anew. 

We would see Jesus: A Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2021

            
5 Lent—March 21, 2021

Where are you spiritually today? Are you, like so many others, in a place of darkness and despair—the pandemic continuing, a return to life as we knew it a year ago apparently as far away as ever? Is your despair or hopelessness related to news this week, the continued suffering on our borders as people seek a better life? Or are you, as so many of us are, devastated by the senseless and racist killing of Asian-American women in Atlanta suburbs, a heinous crime perpetrated by yet another good white boy who “just had a bad day.” Are you wondering about the future of our country, our neighborhood, our congregation?

Or are you in a very different place? It’s spring after all, and in spite of the snow we had earlier this week, it feels and looks a bit like spring today. We are emerging from the pandemic, perhaps you’ve been vaccinated and are eager to reconnect face to face, with no masks intervening, with family and friends you’ve not seen in person in months or over a year.

We’re in something of a holding pattern. We know that it’s likely the pandemic will lose its grips as more people get vaccinated and we approach herd immunity. It’s likely that everything we’ve put on hold for over a year, whether it’s school, or a vacation, or a meal inside at a favorite restaurant, is not too far away. We even expect that one Sunday, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to gather for public worship here in Grace Church. 

It may be, in fact, that there’s so much going on in our lives and in the world around us, so much to worry and wonder about, jobs, school, our personal, family, community’s, nation’s future, that little time is left for us to think about or focus on our own spiritual growth or that of our families. We may even be catching this service at a free moment in our lives a day or two from now, when there is a moment of unexpected or unplanned peace and quiet in our lives. In the unfamiliar world we are negotiating right now, the sure foundations of faith in God and a relationship with Jesus may seem more elusive than ever.

Still there’s that longing in us, the desire to connect with something deeper, a yearning for God that may be often unexpressed or even unnoticed but still beckons to us, even as we feel guilt that we aren’t able to make the time, find the energy, or, as I talked about it in my sermon on the first Sunday in Lent, to observe a “Holy Lent.”

To us, to the world we live in, to the spiritual chaos some of us may be experiencing, today’s gospel reading speaks with comfort and hope. 

The disparate way we encounter the Gospel of John in the Sunday eucharistic lectionary prevents us from comprehending its overall structure and discerning its deeper themes. We read from John each year during Lent, often during the season after Epiphany, on the Sundays of Easter, and this year, Mark’s year, we will hear a series of readings from John 6—the discourse on the Bread of Life. Our reading today comes from chapter 12 which is a transitional chapter. So far in the gospel, we have been introduced to Jesus’ public ministry of healing and conflict with the religious elite of Palestinian Judaism. He also has a series of encounters with individuals like Nicodemus to which we alluded last week, and the Samaritan woman. Beginning with chapter 13, there’s a very different focus. The scenes are first of the last supper and then of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and finally, of course, his resurrection and appearances to the disciples.

So what we have before us today is the end, perhaps the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. It occurs just after Jesus’ triumphal entry, in the runup to the Passover, which is the festival mentioned in the beginning of today’s gospel. Some Greeks come to Jesus’ disciples Philip and Andrew, and ask “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is one of those details from John that I find endlessly fascinating. Philip and Andrew both appear in chapter 1, as disciples called by Jesus. Their names are both Greek in origin, as well. While Jesus told Andrew when Andrew asked him where he was staying, “Come and see,” now it is others, Greeks, who want to see Jesus.

Just as in chapter 3 and the encounter with Nicodemus, it’s not quite clear from this text that the Greeks actually do see Jesus or are present for Jesus’ words. Now there’s a great deal that could be said about Jesus’ statements here, a great deal about what they tell us about the gospel’s overarching themes and how it relates to the other three gospels, but I don’t have time for any of that. Instead, I would like to focus the rest of our time on a single verse: “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” 

This is the heart of John’s gospel, the heart of Jesus’ ministry and person. In the cross, we see Jesus, in the cross, on the cross, Jesus draws us and the whole world to himself. In the cross, on the cross, we see God’s love for us.

Did the Greeks see Jesus? In the gospel of John, “seeing” is a prelude to faith, at most, it is an inadequate, partial faith. It is a first step, an entrance and first exposure to the abundant life that is offered through relationship with and in Jesus Christ.

I see myself, I see us and hear us in the Greeks’ plea, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Separated from each other and from the body of Christ, encountering one another only virtually, seeing, experiencing Christ through the mediation of technology with all of its noise and frustration, we would see Jesus. We long to see Jesus. We struggle to make sense of the devastation of the pandemic, the deaths of 530,000 Americans. We struggle to make sense of the deep divisions in our nation and community, the violence that erupts from and deepens those divisions. We struggle to make sense of the pain experienced by people of color, by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the deep racism that pervades our society. The heart of our nation is breaking; the heart of American Christianity is breaking.

We would see Jesus. Jesus, lifted high on the cross, the victim of imperial violence and oppression, the victor over hate and oppression. We would see Jesus, but our eyes are blinded by tears, and by our own insensitivity to our participation in the oppressive and violent systems in which we live and from which we profit.

We would see Jesus but our own blindness and self-interest clouds our vision. Nonetheless, Jesus, lifted high on the cross, draws all people to himself. His outstretched arms beckon to us, invite us in, welcome us

May we see Jesus and may his love heal our hearts and our vision, that we can see our fellow human beings with love, lament and repent our sins, and create the beloved community to which we are called and in which all can flourish.

God loves the Cosmos: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2021

            

For God so loved the world…

A familiar verse, etched in many of our memories since childhood, John 3:16 etched on jewelry, on billboards, on signs held up at sporting events. One of those ubiquitous Christian symbols that can be off-putting and life-giving, a marker of identity and difference, life and death, judgment and welcome. A verse deployed to threaten and cajole, to convert, and yes, to offer salvation. 

I wonder sometimes what the effect had been if the verses hadn’t been divided in the way they were. That is to say, instead of ending where it does with “may have eternal life” but had included the next sentence: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Instead of condemnation and judgment, the offer of salvation and life.

But we have what we have and the weight of tradition, of centuries of Christian devotion and evangelism, leave us little room to think differently or imaginatively about this verse. But let me try.

First off, context. One of the challenges of our tradition of dividing scripture into verses as well as chapters (they’re a fairly late development, only becoming universal in the seventeenth century), is that it is easy to extract a single sentence, or phrase, or verse, from its literary context and use it as a mantra or to prove a doctrinal point. John 3:16 is part of a larger literary unit, and even our gospel reading which encompasses 14-21, is pulled out of a larger narrative, that of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

It’s one of those encounters in the Gospel of John that is jam-packed with theological significance. Carefully constructed, rich with symbolism,  the encounter uses images of light and darkness to highlight some of the key themes of the gospel. Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee, a leader of the “Jews.” He comes to Jesus by night, calls him “Rabbi” (teacher or master) and asks about the source of his authority. 

In fact, it’s not at all clear when the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus ends, whether we are to assume that Nicodemus is still present, or even if Jesus himself is speaking these verses from 14-21. In fact, it may be, I interpret this not as Jesus himself speaking, but as the gospel writer trying to say some important things about who Jesus is, why God sent him, and what relationship with Jesus means for his followers.

I want to highlight a couple of themes here. First of all “lifted up.” Having heard the story of Moses, the Israelites, and the serpent in the wilderness, hearing the gospel, we are in on the reference made here to Moses and the Serpent, and are inclined to think of “lifted up” in those terms, a serpent of bronze erected on a pole so the Israelites could look at it, and Jesus, crucified for all to see.

But lifted up means more than that in the Gospel of John, or more accurately, “lifted up” includes in it ascension as well as crucifixion—a single act of God, encapsulated in another favorite Johannine word “glorification.” We can see an allusion to “lifted up” as ascension as well as crucifixion in v. 13, which immediately precedes our gospel reading: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” I’ll have more to say about all this next week when we look at another significant section of John’s gospel, John 12.

For now, I would like to turn our attention to another word—“world” or in Greek, “Cosmos” universe. Its occurrence here will catch the attention of a careful reader of John because it takes us back to John 1, In the beginning was the word. A few verses into that hymnic prologue, we read, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Throughout John’s gospel, “world” or “cosmos” is understood negatively, even if, as in chapter 1, the world was created by God. The world stands in opposition to Jesus Christ in John’s gospel, yet here we see that “God so loved the world.”

Now two things. First of all, “the world” the “cosmos”—not just human beings. We might think about God loving the world in much more inclusive, expansive terms than we typically do. For those of us who care about the environment, worry about climate change, the fact that God loves the world challenges us to rethink our own understanding of the world in which we live and our relationship to it. 

Secondly, we would do well to translate this phrase a little differently. Instead of, “For God so loved the world”—it has a slightly different emphasis: “This is how God loves the world.” To put it another way: we see the extent and nature of God’s love for the world in that God sent God’s only son so that all who believed in him would have eternal life.

The significance is this. Instead of putting the emphasis on human response: believing, and the effects of that response, eternal life, it might be better to emphasize the extent and nature of God’s love. God loves the world so much that God sent God’s only son….

Judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.

We experience sin and brokenness, in ourselves and in the world around us. Sometimes that sin so burdens us that we can see nothing else, or know nothing else. 

But God loves the world, God loves us. God offers us, in relationship with Jesus Christ, a different way, a different possibility for living. Sometimes, that is hard to know and to experience. Look up to the cross, look to Christ, lifted up, and see God’s love, not God’s punishment, see and experience healing and hope. See the possibility and promise of new life in him!

Preaching Christ Crucified: A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2021

This past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and beginning to plan for our Holy Week and Easter services. We had a. productive meeting of interested people on Wednesday that generated lots of creative ideas as we imagined together how we might adapt our worship to the realities of social distancing and live-streaming. On Friday, I had a conversation with clergy friends from other denominations who were also asking those same questions and developing solutions based on their own worship styles and traditions. 

As part of that planning, I took a look at the lectionary for the coming weeks. It’s surprising to me that after all these years of preaching, I still need to remind myself of where the lectionary is going. Oh, I know the big ones of course, and some of the ways the lectionary parcels out gospel texts in some parts of the year. For example, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Gospel of John makes an appearance in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what those texts are from year to year.

Today, and for the remainder of the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, we are in John’s gospel. Today’s reading is not an obvious one for Lent. It’s John’s version of the cleansing of the temple, and in this context it is as confusing as it is problematic. Confusing, because we will hear or refer to Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple in a few weeks, which in that gospel occurs in Holy Week, immediately following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. 

It’s an important event in either case and it’s one that’s easily and often misinterpreted. We can see some of that already here in John’s version, where the complex diversity of first-century Palestinian Judaism is reduced to a single entity “the Jews” as will happen throughout the gospel, and especially in John’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. The temple was a political as well as religious institution, one of the central nodes in how Roman imperial power was distributed locally. 

Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called, retained the focus on the temple and on temple sacrifice. Pious Jews were obligated to visit the temple for major festivals and to offer certain sacrifices. That’s why the animals were there. It was much easier to purchase sheep or cattle there than to bring them from home. And the moneychangers were there because the temple had special currency, that didn’t bear the image of the emperor, so one would have to exchange for that currency before purchasing or making financial offerings.

Jesus’ actions here are often deployed in contemporary debates about the appropriate role of Christians in the public sphere. They are cited when Christians protest in the streets or make symbolic actions against institutions that are perceived to be oppressive. They are often even used to defend violent actions taken in the name of Christ.

Instead of trying to explicate the complexities of this story and of Jesus’ interactions with the temple establishment (remember, according to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent much of his time in the last week of his life teaching and debating in the temple), I would like to shift our focus elsewhere. 

One way of thinking about our lectionary readings this Lent is to see them as an exploration of the meaning of the cross, both in the New Testament and for us as 21stcentury followers of Jesus. Last week, we heard Jesus saying “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” In the next two weeks, we will hear two key passages from John’s gospel where the meaning of the cross takes central stage. On Palm Sunday, as we read Mark’s version of the passion narrative, we will confront his austere, enigmatic interpretation of the cross, with its themes of abandonment, weakness, and despair. Today, in the reading from I Corinthians, we hear elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross’s meaning, and his words speak powerfully to us and may help us reflect on the cleansing of the temple as well.

In his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in an effort to defend his ministry against detractors and to articulate clearly and forcefully his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ, the cross, and Christian community against opponents who seem to be trying to undermine everything for which he has worked.

He sounds his central theme in the verses from the beginning of I Corinthians we heard: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul here is alluding to a central paradox of the Christian faith, the paradox of the cross. In this horrific death by torture, a vivid demonstration of Roman power and ruthlessness, we see Jesus crushed and killed. There could be no starker display of his human weakness. Yet for Paul, on the cross we see the power and wisdom of God. 

Elsewhere, in II Corinthians when Paul is talking about his own personal physical weakness and infirmity, he says that in response to his prayer, Christ said to him, “power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the cross is a demonstration of Christ’s power, of God’s power. Yet, that power, an allusion to the vindication of Christ through the resurrection, that power never erases the fact of the cross. The cross still stands, Jesus’ suffering remains. 

It’s a message that’s often overlooked and ignored by Christian triumphalism. We internalize and spiritualize the cross to rid it of its revolutionary message. We ignore the pain and suffering of the cross to focus on the joy of resurrection. When Christianity becomes enmeshed in power politics, in empire, nationalism, and white supremacy, the symbol of the cross often becomes a weapon wielded against the weak, the stranger and the alien, unbelievers, adherents of other religions.

One of our great challenges as Christians in this historical moment is to preach Christ crucified, folly and stumbling block, or literally, scandal. Our challenge is to see and to proclaim the cross as power made perfect in weakness, not to wield it as a weapon against others. In this day, when much of Christianity seems to have become another means by which people assert their own individual rights in a zero-sum game that results in the infringement of the rights of others, preaching Christ crucified, taking up our crosses, is a truly revolutionary message and way of being in the world. The Tuesday night group reading Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree are discovering a new way of thinking about the cross as it is shaped by the African American experience in the United States. I hope all of us in this season of Lent will meditate on Christ crucified and reflect on how the cross might reshape our lives in Christ’s image.