They knew their Lord: A Homily for Easter Evening, 2020

The gospel reading is Luke 24:13-35

Could you imagine an Easter as strange as the one we’re experiencing this year? Empty churches, live-streamed worship, virtual choirs. All of the things we associate with this day—new clothes, Easter lilies, brass accompaniment, packed churches—all of those things seem remote memories, more the stuff of fantasy than of the reality we are experiencing. And those memories can be gut-wrenching. As I was looking through photos of Easter at Grace from over the last few years, I found myself grieving that we couldn’t be together as a congregation, that our normal services, the Great Vigil on Saturday night, the contagious joy and happiness of gathering on Easter Day, our voices joined in singing the great familiar hymns of the day, would not take place and that we would struggle to find other ways of observing the day—by joining live-streamed worship from the diocese, or the National Cathedral, or, well, any number of other places. But I’ll be honest with you, even those live-streamed services seemed less joyful and more a reminder of what we’re missing this year, than they are a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s fascinating that we are gathering virtually this evening for Evening Prayer, doing something I doubt any of us could have imagined doing two months ago, or let’s be honest, something that would be unimaginable under ordinary circumstances. It’s our custom to worship on Sunday morning, and on Easter, after that worship to celebrate with family and friends, and have no thoughts to gather for prayer or worship later in the day.

Maybe, just maybe, our gathering like this invites us to see deeper connections between our celebration of Easter this year and the first Easter. Many have observed that the first Easter wasn’t accompanied with brass choirs and large crowds, and joyous celebration. Easter began with women coming to the tomb, in fear and grief, to do what women did—care for the bodies of their dead loved ones.

 

That first Easter ended in much the same way. In John, we’re told that the disciples were gathered behind locked doors, because of fear. In the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, we hear of two disciples returning to Emmaus from Jerusalem at the end of the day. They were full of grief at Jesus’ death and disappointment that whatever they had hoped would occur when Jesus entered Jerusalem ended instead with Jesus’ death.

And here we are. Perhaps not behind locked doors but in lockdown. We are waiting, and wondering, and worried. Think of those two disciples on their way home, trying to make sense of what they had experienced in the past few days, and longer over the months that they had accompanied Jesus. They hadn’t heard the news of the empty tomb and the message that Christ was raised. So they were living in the same fear and uncertainty they had been living in since Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. They might have talking to each other about the things Jesus had done and said. They might have expressed how excited and hopeful they had been. Now, they were probably wondering how to pick up their lives after all that, whether they could return to normalcy, what normalcy even was.

As they made their journey at the end of that day, at the end of that eventful week, they came across a stranger who knew nothing of what they had been through, or what had happened. And so they told him the story, and in response he told them where they really had been and where the history of the world was going.

Kind wayfarers that they were, they invited the stranger to come to their home, to eat with them, relax, perhaps spend the night before continuing his journey. Suddenly as bread was blessed and broken, their eyes were opened and they saw their Lord.

Suddenly, the world changed.

Suddenly grief was joy, sadness hope.

In the breaking of the bread, they encountered the Risen Christ

Suddenly, he was gone, and they were going—back to where they had been. Back to Jerusalem, back to the other disciples, to tell them what had happened to them. In their telling, they were told, of the empty tomb, of Peter’s encounter with Christ, of the promise of faith, and victory over death.

The extravagance and noise of our Easter celebrations often distract us from seeing the silence and uncertainty of resurrection, of simple, profoundly personal encounters between disciples like Mary Magdalene or the two unnamed ones on the road to Emmaus. Disciples who weren’t quite sure what or who they were seeing’ disciples who came to know when they were named by Jesus, who called Mary by her name, and in that moment she knew her Lord.

Or disciples, who in the casual and common blessing and breaking of bread, suddenly knew their Lord who at table three days earlier had blessed, broken, and gave bread, saying, “This do in remembrance of me.”

This is a quiet, confusing, domestic Easter, shared with close friends and family around tables, or virtually via modern technology. But this Easter, our Lord comes to us as he came to Mary at the tomb and to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, intimately, lovingly, touching our lives and our hearts, giving us hope, strengthening our faith. When we see him, recognize him, open ourselves to that encounter with him, our lives change, and our world changes.

 

Christ comes to each of us, calling us by name, offering us sustenance, filling us with hope. The risen Christ has conquered death. His love breaks through all lockdowns and locked doors, binds up our wounds and heals our bodies and souls. May the power and love of the Risen Christ bring hope and healing to us and to the world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ’s suffering and ours: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2020

 

One of my rituals since I’ve come to Grace is to spend most of the morning on Good Friday in the empty nave of Grace Church. On this day, it is completely devoid of decoration. On Maundy Thursday, we strip the altar and the chancel bare—removing all of the paraments, candles, prayer books and hymnals. The Christus Rex that hangs from arch in the chancel is veiled in black. It’s a time for me to reflect on the day, to prepare for the drama and power of the Good Friday liturgy, to pray for myself, for our congregation and city, and for the world. It’s a time of silence, when I leave behind all of the tasks related to Holy Week worship for a few hours, set aside all of the stress and anxiety, and focus on the cross, on Christ’s great gift of love.

Of course, this year is different. The church is empty as it always is on Good Friday morning, but it has been empty for over a month, and it will remain empty for some time to come. Our Good Friday liturgy is live-streamed from my home, unaccompanied by music.

Our observances of Holy Week this year are marked not by the usual rituals and gatherings, marked not by the great hymns of the Christian tradition. Instead, our worship takes place in atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and suffering. The loneliness of our isolation is deepened when we hear the voices of friends and loved ones over the phone or see them via zoom or facetime. We are made aware daily of the suffering in the world caused by COVID-19, and all the ways in which the virus exposes the inequities and dysfunction of our society and world.

In the midst of all of this, our anxiety and fear, our loneliness and isolation, we gather virtually to remember the events of this day that occurred almost two thousand years ago. We pause in the midst of our own struggles, pain, and helplessness to remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

His crucifixion, a bloody, horrific death, often called “execution by torture” because the way that crucifixion caused death-by asphyxiation, often a process that could take days, was reserved by Romans for the most notorious of criminals, revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and the like. It was public, meant as a warning to passers-by of the fate that awaited them if they challenged Rome’s power.

It’s a death that’s alien to us, even if we are familiar with its images. The sort of suffering it causes is known to us only through artistic images or Hollywood movies.

In spite of that, the crucifixion has often been interpreted as connecting Christ’s sufferings with our own, or with the suffering of humanity. One of the most powerful and most famous artistic representations of the crucifixion is that of the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece depicts Christ’s suffering in visual detail, his body riddled with sores, and bleeding. Painted for a hospital for victims of the plague, the sores on Christ’s body looked very much like the sores a plague victim might have, and so, by the patients could find solace and comfort from the suffering that Christ shared with them.

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps that is the only message that we need to hear. Perhaps that is the message of the cross, of Jesus’ suffering and death. That in the cross, we see Christ suffering, but that he is suffering not for himself alone but for us. In the cross, we see Christ suffering with us.

Whatever our pain, whether it is the loss of our jobs, worry about the immediate or more distant future. Whether it is our own illness, the illness or suffering of a friend or loved one, whom we cannot support or accompany right now; whether it’s the death of a loved one, or a friend’s grief at the death of their loved one. Whatever it may be, whatever suffering we might be experiencing right now, Jesus is here with us, suffering with us, taking our pain on as his own.

We are in a dark and difficult place right now, but Jesus is here with us. In the cross, he takes on our suffering; he has taken on the world’s suffering. His great love will carry us through. Even in the death and darkness of Good Friday, and in the silence of the tomb that marks Holy Saturday, Jesus’ love bears our pain and heals our suffering souls. May Jesus’ love break through our isolation, our fear, our pain, fill our hearts, and transform our lives.

 

 

He loved them to the end: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2020

 

It’s all so strange and disorienting, isn’t it? There’s a certain familiarity in the fact that most of us are confined to our homes or apartments, places we’ve lived for some time. We’re surrounded by familiar things, the various items that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes, photos, mementos, and the like. These are all things that tell us who we are and where we’ve been. They help to orient us in the world. The only strange thing is that we are around them all of the time now, or most of the time. And after several weeks of “shelter at home” even the unfamiliar has become familiar. We’ve grown accustomed to working or worshiping on-line. Many of us have overcome our fear of zoom or facebook live, and we are finding new ways to connect with each other.

Still, it doesn’t take much to remind us how strange this all is. Venturing outside, seeing people wearing masks, or noticing the lack of traffic at should be rush hour. The parking lots of stores are empty. I haven’t been inside a store in over 3 weeks. We’re making do with curbside pickup, or deliveries, or mail order.

For me, there’s another level of disorientation, as the grounding I get for my faith by worshiping through Holy Week is missing. I’m floundering a bit, spiritually, religiously. I miss the familiar rituals of Sunday and midweek Eucharist, and now I am experiencing a Holy Week far-removed from the ritual drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

But Holy Week it is even in these strange circumstances. Tonight is Maundy Thursday when we the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We remember, even though we cannot celebrate it ourselves, we cannot eat the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, and proclaim his death until he returns.

Similarly, as our gospel reading indicates, we remember Jesus’ great act of love and service when he got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. When everything is about social distancing, our ordinary squeamishness at the intimacy and strangeness of footwashing becomes even more unlikely, more offensive as we consider the implications of touching a stranger in that way.

Still here we are, gathered via the miracles of technology, to remember and worship on this Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it’s enough for us to think about what both of these acts symbolize and enact—Christ’s love for us and for the world.

This is such a poignant and powerful story, introduced with language that is at once eloquent and pregnant with meaning. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

            Think about it. Jesus knew what was going to happen—that he would be betrayed, arrested, crucified. Knowing where he had come from and where he was going. With that knowledge as background, the gospel writer continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Knowing what he knew, loving his own to the end, what did Jesus choose to do? He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.

Think of those feet, dusty, sweaty, from all those miles they walked. Think of all they had been through as his disciples followed and listened to him. Think of Jesus, touching, washing his disciples’ feet, as a few days earlier, Mary of Bethany had anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard and wiped them with her hair.

It’s something with which we are uncomfortable, even if we admit the potential power of the act; getting on our knees, washing the feet of a friend or a stranger. And for us, now, we can hardly imagine doing such a thing, with social distancing, instructions to wash our hands for twenty seconds, and masks covering our faces when we go outside.

But then, after it’s over; after Judas leaves the gathering of friends to betray Jesus, Jesus has more to say. A new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

In footwashing, in this intimate, offensive act, we see Christ’s love for us. In the foot washing, an act that transgresses so many boundaries, we see Christ’s love for us. We know that Jesus loves us. We see that love here, and on the cross, drawing us to him, drawing the world to him.

We see that love here, as Jesus stoops down, kneels down to act out that love. And as he does that, he provides us an example of how we are to love, by reaching out to others, by transgressing boundaries. He calls us to kneel before each other, and before the stranger, to wash their feet, to care for them, and love them.

Even now, as we rely on Christ’s love for us, as we yearn for Christ’s love across the chasm of isolation and social distancing, he calls us to reach out in love to others, he challenges us to love our neighbors, and strangers, the homeless and the hungry. As we receive the gift of Christ’s love, may we also offer that gift, our own love, to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and for: A Homily for Evening Prayer on Palm Sunday

The Gospel is Luke 19:41-48.

 

So many of us are weeping right now. We weep for lost jobs and income, for relationships that are strained because of social distancing and isolation. We weep for missing the usual rhythms of the spring—March Madness, high school and college seniors going through the rituals that lead to graduation. We weep for a world we sense we may have lost, for those who are suffering and have died. We weep because we cannot observe Holy Week in all the familiar and powerful ways and because the joy of Easter will be tempered by empty churches, no gatherings of friends and family.

Our gospel reading, from the gospel of Luke, is one of those vignettes from the last week of Jesus’ life that we rarely notice, or might not even know. It’s a story told only by Luke and it’s place immediately after the Triumphal Entry—or perhaps “Entry” is not the right word for it. Because in Luke’s telling, the scene we recall on Palm Sunday takes place outside the city, on the path down from the Mt of Olives. It’s after that that Jesus stops, looks over the city and begins to weep.

Jesus weeps for its coming destruction. We can imagine Luke, writing perhaps a generation after Jerusalem’s destruction, still mourning the temple’s destruction and the exile of many of the city’s inhabitants, we can imagine Luke wishing there had been some way to avoid that violence and tragedy, and having Jesus weep in advance for all of the carnage and loss.

We saw Jesus weeping in last week’s gospel as well—the story of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus wept at the death of his friend and as he experienced his own deep grief and the deep grief of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. Perhaps he was also weeping for what he might have done and didn’t. Had he come earlier, as Martha reminded him, Lazarus would likely not have died.

Holy Week is a powerful, emotionally wracking week in the lives of Christians who follow the daily rituals. There’s the high of the Palm Sunday procession followed immediately and abruptly, with the reading of the Passion Narrative. We enter into Jesus’ final days. We accompany him to the temple as he teaches and debates with other religious leaders. And finally we come to Maundy Thursday—the Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest, his trial and crucifixion, his death and burial.

Our church’s rituals help us enter into these events. We aren’t simply imitating them or remembering them, through our liturgy, we become participants in the great mystery of our faith, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events and those rituals will take on new, very likely different meaning this year, as we experience them not as a community gathered physically, but very often on our own, as individuals or as families. Perhaps many of us will not even take time to notice them, or to participate as we might in other years.

Perhaps for you, as I am sensing it will be for me, the emotional weight of being separated from the gathered body of Christ will be simply too great for me to attempt any pale imitation of the great liturgies of our church—especially the Great Vigil of Easter.

Like Jesus, and perhaps like many of you, I am weeping this week, weeping for Jerusalem, for the church, for the world. I am weeping for the world we have lost and the great suffering that is taking place. I am weeping because I will not be able to enter into the liturgies of Holy Week in the way I have done in previous years, that I will not be present with other Christians as we wash each others’ feet, remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, and celebrate his resurrection with the Lighting of the New Fire, the exsultet, and everything else that makes the Great Vigil of Easter the highpoint of the liturgical year.

I am weeping, but I am not alone, for Jesus weeps, too. He weeps for all of us, for our church, and for the world. He weeps for the dead and the dying, the lonely and the fearful, and for all those who are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others.

This is our Holy Week this year, this is the way of the cross we are walking. But even as we walk with heavy hearts and feet trembling with fear, we are walking this way with Jesus—and the cross is not the end of the story, nor is the tomb the final act. Christ is raised from the dead. His victory over death is a victory over all the forces of death and evil that we face. We may be alone, but he is with us, fighting for us, and through his death and resurrection, he has already claimed victory. Thanks be to God.