Were not our hearts burning? A Sermon for Easter 3A, 2023

I’ve always been grateful that I’ve worked in occupations that didn’t require a lot of travel. While I enjoy seeing new places and revisiting places I’ve been or lived before, getting there, especially if it requires a plane ride, can be challenging. It’s not just the hassle; it’s being put in close proximity to strangers, who might want to engage me in conversation.

Why? Because inevitably, the question is posed: “What do you do?” Back when I was a college professor, I learned early on never to say “Religion Professor.” It only took one or two awkward conversations, usually in which my conversation partner expounded on some book they were reading, or wanting to debate the existence of God or talk about the spiritual quest they had been pursuing for the last thirty years, to make me answer “European history” in an attempt to quiet them.

It hasn’t gotten any easier since I’ve become a priest. It’s one of the reasons I don’t even carry books—it’s much harder for onlookers to detect what I’m reading when I’m using a kindle.

I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. You’re traveling, all you want is to be left alone with your thoughts or your reading, and your seatmate wants to engage tell you everything about themselves, or learn everything about you.

I’ll never forget the uber driver who was so intent on sharing his knowledge of Gnosticism with me that he got lost taking me to my destination in Cambridge Mass, and I had to give him instructions, even though it had been more than 25 years since I’d driven in the city.

One of the things I love about the gospel stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ is how they bring together moments of utter transcendence and awe with daily life and the mundane. In the story of Thomas which was read last week, we heard about the disciples gathered together, the appearance of Christ, and the disbelief of Thomas. We also heard his great confession: “My Lord and my God!” In another story from the gospel of John, the disciples encounter the risen Christ making breakfast for them after they’ve spent the night fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we have these two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and encountering a stranger as they go. A perfectly ordinary story with an extraordinary conclusion. A perfectly ordinary story, on the one hand, yet on the other, full of mystery and raising many questions.

Two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. That’s the first mystery: Why and Where? There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the location of Emmaus. There’s no clear village or town in the vicinity of Jerusalem that had that name in the first century—oh, if you visit the Holy Land now, they can show you where tradition says Emmaus was, the house where Cleopas lived, the church built on the site. But all of that comes much later. It’s almost as if these two disciples, one of them unnamed and unknown, the other Cleopas, only mentioned here, were on a journey to nowhere. 

And why were they traveling? Was Emmaus their home? Were they trying to escape Jerusalem? Are they fleeing the city? That’s perhaps a better guess. Although Luke isn’t quite so hard on the disciples as the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the disciples had every reason to be fearful—their leader had been arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. Their movement was in a shambles and they had every right to suspect that the Romans would be coming after them, too. So they may have been trying to get away from Jerusalem and return to obscurity. They may have been fleeing for their lives.

While we can only hypothesize about their fear and assume they were grieving as well, the text does tell us that they were in despair. They tell their unkown companion, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” After telling their story and expressing their dashed hopes, they listen as Jesus explains to them again how everything that happened conforms to Hebrew scripture. They are so taken with him that they urge him to join them for dinner. And it’s at dinner that their eyes are opened.

The gospel reads, “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” It’s a description that echoes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, and earlier, in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. At that moment, their eyes were opened, they recognized their Lord and Savior, and he vanished from their sight. Now everything made sense to them. The explanation of scripture Jesus had given them helped them make the connection—their encounter with the Risen Christ changed their fear into joy and their despair into happiness. Now they remembered, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

Whatever plans they had made earlier, whatever reasons they had for leaving Jerusalem to go to Emmaus, didn’t matter any more. They immediately raced back to Jerusalem to see the other disciples and tell them what happened, that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

What’s so wonderful about this story is its relationship to our lives as Christians. Like those two disciples, we all have histories, backgrounds with Jesus. Some of us have grown up in the church, heard bible stories since we were children, have never not been connected to the faith. Others of us have had different journeys, have little or no background in the church, have found ourselves drawn to Jesus, drawn to God. Still others have had a little of both, wandering in and out over the years, active in the church, then for whatever reason feeling profoundly alienated from it, or only disinterested. We read, discuss, explore on our own.

But too often, most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Even for many of us who are committed members of Grace, too often it seems like we’re just going through the motions, coming to church because that’s what we do, are active volunteers because, well, somebody has asked us, and we just can’t say no, or say it often enough. But our involvement doesn’t touch us at our deepest selves. Sometimes, all the things that are going on in the rest of our lives, struggles at work or in our closest relationships, worries about health or financial security, bog us down, dash our hopes, blind us to the presence of Christ, and our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, seem to be like discarded trash on the side of the road, as we wander.

But then something happens. A chance encounter, a gracious word, a meaningful conversation, a sacred meal. Suddenly our eyes are opened, our hearts burn within us, and Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. We are transformed, and we rush to tell others.

This is a very rich, thought-provoking story. It operates on many levels, inviting us to reflect on our own experience as people of faith, and people seeking faith. It invites us to think about our Eucharistic feast as an encounter with the Risen Christ, and our worship with the liturgy of the word and table, as a self-contained, embodied experience of resurrection. It invites us to imagine our worship and our lives as transformational experiences.

But there’s more. What would have happened if those two disciples had not urged Jesus to stay with them? What would have happened if they had not invited him to dinner? Yes, it was a simple gesture of hospitality, an act of kindness. But it opened their eyes. It changed their lives.

Our worship, our common life, our own individual spiritual journeys are all opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. But they are opportunities not for us alone. When we invite others to join us, when we invite others into our lives, our stories, and into our worship, we invite them to encounter Jesus Christ. We are inviting them to experience resurrection. We are practicing resurrection. May all of our hearts burn within us, may we know Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in the fellowship of the table. Amen.

Empty Tomb and Resurrection: A sermon for Easter, 2023

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.”

During the lockdown, I began walking with some regularity in Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s not far from our home and in those months when we were especially concerned about social distancing, I joked that most people I encountered there would remain more than six feet away, safely buried underground. Over the years, I’ve watched as people spent time at the graves of their loved ones, grieving, or tending the plantings. I’ve noticed graves that were unattended, the dead who lay beneath them long forgotten. There are graves with many ritual objects on and around them. 

The reality is that for most twenty-first century Americans, whose lives may not be tied to particular places, cemeteries have lost the kind of meanings and associations they held in the past. 

We’ve lost most of the rituals and duties surrounding the deaths of loved ones. Few of us have touched the body of loved one, fewer still prepared a body for burial which was, up until a century and a half ago, something taken for granted, a crucial part of what it meant to care for a family member or loved one. 

We see that concern expressed, the roles played out in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. While it’s often assumed that such tasks were the responsibility of women, in the Gospel of John, it is two men who prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and together they buried Jesus in Joseph’s tomb.

So why did Mary Magdalene come to the tomb that morning? Knowing the other gospel accounts, we might not even think that was a question, for in all of them, we’re told the women brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. 

Consider it. Mary has come with Jesus to Jerusalem. We don’t know how long she had been following him, whether she had come with him from Galilee or met him along the way. She had heard him teach, amazing the crowds, filling her and the other disciples with hope. She had seen him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, even raise the dead. She had been part of that strange demonstration, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a procession full of royal symbolism.

And then, she had seen it all come crashing down. The betrayal by one their own, the arrest, and finally, the crucifixion. Everything she had hoped for, everything she had believed, crumbled to ashes and dust, her heart empty, overwhelmed by grief and despair.

I wonder whether she came by herself early that morning because she wanted to mourn in the silence and the dark. I wonder whether the feelings that overwhelmed her compelled her to seek solitude, time to be alone with her thoughts, to try to pick up the pieces of her life and figure out what she might do next. She had abandoned her own life, whatever it was, abandoned her family and friends, to follow Jesus, and now, here she was. Alone, with her dashed hopes, her shattered faith, and a meaningless future.

These are feelings we all know well. We have all been on a walk like Mary was that morning two millennia ago. Whether because of a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a lost job or career, or simply the heavy weight of the world’s violence and suffering, we’ve all been at that spot, a dead-end, where we can’t go back, and where there seems to be no way forward, a spot very much like a tomb or a cemetery.

But the tomb was empty, and in her confusion and worry, she ran to tell the others. Peter, and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, race to see for themselves, they look in, enter, and their curiosity fulfilled, go back home. But Mary stays behind. Instead of reassuring her, allaying her fears, answering her questions, the empty tomb only added to them, raised more questions. 

And then, in an instant, all those questions were answered. In an instant, Mary’s life changed; the world changed. The tomb was not the end of the story; her hopes were not dashed; her faith was not in vain. When Jesus called her by name, she knew her Lord.
         For us though, it may not be so simple. In the last two thousand years, in spite of Christians claiming through all the centuries that Christ has been raised from the dead, that he has conquered evil and the grave, things look very much the same. There is still hatred, and violence, and suffering. We still have doubts and uncertainty. We still mourn the loss of loved ones. We still know the anguish of the painful chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

But in the midst of our tears and grief, as we cast our eyes on the tomb, Jesus calls us, and if we turn to him, everything changes: sadness into joy, despair into hope, doubt into faith. The tomb is there, but it is empty. Christ is alive! There is no reason to linger there, for he is risen and goes before us.

We come to this place today, carrying the weight of the world and our lives. There are the private disappointments, doubt, despair, the pain inflicted on us by a cruel word; fears for family, for the future. There is all that is going on in the world, war, injustice, a broken political system. There is, yes, pandemic, with a continuing toll both in lives lost and lives changed. But in the midst of that whirlwind of evil and suffering, in the still, center point, there is Christ, calling to us, calling us by name.

Easter changes everything and nothing. Tomorrow will come and with it, all of the problems that were here yesterday and the day before and last week. The scent of the lilies will dissipate; the memories of a full church and with choir and hymns and brass will slowly fade. Life will go on.

But Jesus calls us by our name and he goes out before us, beckoning us to follow him into the future, away from the empty tomb. He calls us into relationship with him. He calls us into new life and into hope. With Mary, may we turn away from the empty tomb and toward the one who calls us by name, who wipes away our tears and embraces us with his love.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Poetry for Holy Saturday: “Great and Holy Saturday” by Madeleine L’Engle

Death and damnation began with my body still my own,
began when I was ousted from my place,
and many creatures still were left unnamed.
Gone are some, now, extinct, and nameless,
as though they had never been.
In hell I feel their anxious breath, see their accusing eyes.
My guilt is heavier than was the weight of flesh.

I bear the waste of time spent in recriminations
(“You should not have…” “But you told me…” “Nay, it was you who…”).
And yet I knew my wife, and this was good.
But all good turned to guilt. Our first-born
killed his brother. Only Seth gave us no grief.
I grew old, and was afraid; afraid to die, even knowing
that death had come, and been endured, when we
were forced to leave our home, the one and only home a human man
has ever known. The rest is exile.
Death, when it came, was no more than a dim
continuation of the exile. I was hardly less a shadow
than I had been on earth, and centuries
passed no more slowly than a single day.

I was not prepared to be enfleshed again,
reconciled, if not contented, with my shadow self.
I had seen the birth of children with all its blood and pain
and had no wish ever to be born again.

The sound, when it came, was louder than thunder,
louder than the falling of a mountain,
louder than the tidal wave crashing down the city walls,
stone splitting, falling, smashing.
The light was brutal against my shaded eyes,
blinding me with brilliance. I was thousands 
of years unaccustomed to the glory.
Then came the wrench of bone where bone had long been dust.
The shocking rise of dry bones, the burning fleshing,
the surge of blood through artery and vein
was pain as I had never known that pain could be.
My anguished scream was silenced as my hand was held
in a grip of such authority I could not even try to pull away.
The crossed gates were trampled by his powerful feet
and I was wrenched through the chasm
as through the eye of the hurricane.
And then—O God—he crushed me
in his fierce embrace. Flesh entered flesh;
bone, bone. Thus did I die, at last.
Thus was I born. 
Two Adams became one.
And in the glory Adam was.
Nay, Adam is.

Love is its meaning: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2023

Calvary, Golgotha, the cross. Holy Week has been building toward this moment. The arc of salvation history has bended toward this day. The cross is the center point of history. For medieval Christians it was also the center point of the universe.

Though we know that the cross is not the center of the universe as pre-modern people may have imagined, the cross remains the center point of our religious world and our spiritual lives. And so we come to contemplate on this day, the events so long ago, we say familiar words and familiar prayers, we sing familiar hymns, and we ponder the mystery of a God who became human like us, and becoming human, took on human suffering and pain in all of its extremity. And we wonder, why?

The power of the story lies not only in the words on the page, or the words as read aloud, but in all the images that are evoked in our minds as we hear them. The cinematic adaptations we have seen again and again since our childhoods; the countless images of crucifixion upon which we have gazed, whether in reproductions in books, or in art museums or in churches like our own. Our hymns are also full of such imagery, powerful, emotional. And there are the ways all of these images reverberate across our culture: crosses worn on pendants, crosses on tattoos, crosses burned on lawns. 

The violence of John’s version of the passion jumps out from the page. There is the violence of language—mocking and scorning; the violence of humiliation, flogging and the crown of thorns. There is the violence of the crucifixion itself—execution by torture as it’s been called. The state violence of this form of capital punishment; displayed publicly for all to see and to understand as warning; the constant presence on the outskirts of cities throughout the Roman Empire of these instruments of execution on display and the bodies of victims as well. 

The text conveys other violence, the virulent anti-Judaism that is woven throughout John’s gospel, but especially here where the gospel writer does everything in his power to divert attention and blame away from Rome and onto the Jewish community. So violent, so anti-Jewish, in fact, that many scholars and theologians advocate abandoning John’s passion gospel on this day. The history of anti-semitism and its resurgence in recent years; its presence in contemporary political and cultural discourse leads me to consider alternatives for future years.

Even if we can ignore or set aside the text’s anti-Judaism, the other violence of the text continues to work on us. We may internalize it, transforming it to guilt and shame, or project it onto a vengeful God who demands blood sacrifice. 

But there are other ways of reading this story, other themes that we might emphasize:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son…

Or the verse we heard in last’s night gospel reading: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” 

Ponder that statement. “He loved them to the end.” It is the same word that lies behind Jesus’ last words on the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” It has been completed. Was that the end to which he loved them, to that final point, to his death? It is the end to which he loves us and the world, a love which brought him to this point, a love that reaches out to us and to the world from his arms outstretched on the cross. 

For all the violence and hatred in the text, there is also, and above all, love. In Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The cross is about suffering, yes, but we should never lose sight of what stands behind that suffering, God’s love for us, Christ’s love for us. It is love that brought Christ to us in the incarnation, love that he showed his disciples and those to whom he ministered, and love he shows most profoundly on the cross. 

The violence may repel us. The bloody depictions throughout Christian history may make us avert our gaze, to turn away, to turn inward, but even if we do, we should not let that violence and suffering obscure God’s love.

I’m reminded of the great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, who lived in turbulent times, including the Black Plague, who herself suffered illness unto death, and on her deathbed had a vision of the crucified Christ on which she reflected for some thirty years. The vision and her interpretations were replete with graphic descriptions of Christ’s body on the cross. She writes:

And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years and after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”

         Love was his meaning. Love is the meaning of the cross. My prayer for us all today is that we experience that meaning in all of its profundity and power, that love suffuses us, fills us, and draws us closer to Christ. May love be our meaning.

Emptying and the Cross: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year A, 2023

Palm Sunday 2023:

April 2, 2023

What a difference a few days make! What a difference a few minutes make!

We have gone from joy to sadness, from excitement to mourning, from celebration to despair. In the gospel’s timing, it’s a few days. For us, it’s a few minutes. Earlier, we shouted and sang Hosanna!; then, we shouted, “Crucify him!”

The emotional whiplash in those two cries reflects the liturgical compression of this day—Palm or Passion Sunday. We join with the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and minutes later join with the mob calling for Christ’s execution and then stand by watching as he suffers and dies. 

The emotions of this day will linger through the week as we reenact Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday, we will remember the last supper he had with his disciples and in imitation of his own actions, and in obedience to his command, we will wash each others’ feet in act of service and love. Then, on Good Friday we will hear another passion gospel, that of John, and recall the brutality of the crucifixion and human complicity in that act. We will linger at the foot of the cross in silence, meditating on Christ’s love and our sin.

There are years when Holy Week comes at me like loaded dump track barreling down the highway, making me stop, overwhelming me with its power and confronting me with my mortality and humanity. But this year seems different. The crescendo of news—war, indictments, elections, natural disasters threaten to drown out and distract from the liturgical solemnity in which we are participating.

And yet there’s something else. Another school shooting this week reminds us of the horrors in our midst, the deep rot in our society and culture. And the politicians who wash their hands and say there’s nothing that can be done remind me more than a little of Pilate who washed his hands in the face of the frenzied mob. 

Our impulse might be to try drive all of that out of our minds, at least for today, or perhaps even for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to regard all of the world’s ills and suffering to be distractions from what really matters, from our focus on the events of this week. As understandable as such an impulse might be, I think it’s a temptation that we should avoid. As we recall what happened two thousand years ago, what is inscribed in our sacred texts and reenacted in our liturgies, the crucifixion of Christ, his confrontation with the forces of evil in the world, are not matters to be kept apart from our struggles, our lives, and our world, but are deeply embedded in them, and help us to make sense of them.

To help us regain our footing in the midst of the tumult of our lives, the tumult of our world, the tumult of the passion narrative, the words of St. Paul we heard from his letter to the Philippians is a good place to begin. Scholars call it the “Christ hymn.” It has been much debated over the centuries as we wonder whether it was something Paul wrote or whether he borrowed and adapted it from early Christian worship, 

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited, 

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness. 

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death– 
even death on a cross.

It speaks of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.

We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.

Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.

But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil. 

Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by attacks on LGBT people, by the resurgence of anti-semitism. We are fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, 

The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression. 

The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail.