Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

If You Had Been Here

Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”

Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there? Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”

Three Lines of Salt

Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17

threelinesofsaltEvery year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.

And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.

Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.

The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.

And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.

Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.

I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)

I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.

One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.

That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.

When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

*Derrick’s name is changed for this sermon.

The Recipe for Doubt

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31

recipefordoubtBoth my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”

And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.

Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.

We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.

Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.

Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.

And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.

So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”

We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.

But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.

Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”

When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

Three Little Deaths

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45

Over the last six weeks, our Gospel lessons have been tracking Jesus’ movement. We began in the Roman garrison town of Ceasarea Philippi, then to Galilee, then south to Judea, and now we find ourselves on the road towards Jerusalem. In each of these places, Jesus performed wonders that restored people to health and wholeness. He also sparred with his opponents over various issues, and he taught his disciples many things. But one thing he taught them just didn’t sink in, and so he teaches it to them over and over again – three times to be exact – he teaches that he is walking to his death.

In Caeserea Philippi, after Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned, killed, and after three days rise again. Peter just can’t handle this information, so he tells Jesus off. As they pass through Galilee, Jesus tells them a second time he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. They don’t understand what he is saying, and they lapse into an argument about which of them is the greatest. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem. The time is near at hand. So Jesus tries one more time to prepare them for what is coming.

The problem is – we skipped those verses this week. For over a month, we’ve read every verse of chapters 9 and 10* of the Gospel according to Mark, and now suddenly we skip three verses. Apparently, the framers of our lectionary don’t think we need to hear all three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I disagree. So here’s the third one, which is sandwiched between last week’s Gospel reading and the one I just read.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

(Quick aside – They’re afraid because Jesus was relatively safe in the boondocks of Galilee, but his fame has spread south to Jerusalem, where he has few friends. Apart from his seemingly clueless disciples, no one thinks he’s coming home from this trip.)

The skipped verses continue: “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ ”

Of the three predictions, this last one is the longest and most explicit. It’s the only one that mentions his mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. In fact, all three predictions are different, but they all share one common phrase: he will be killed, and after three days he will rise again.

Even after this third most strident attempt, the notion that their Lord could ever suffer such an ignominious fate still doesn’t sink in. And once again, the disciples lapse into an argument about places of prominence when Jesus enters into glory. You can see that their current outlook is untroubled by such a mundane thing as reality. They are stubbornly unwilling to engage Jesus on such a weighty topic as life and death.

Or should I say death and life. This small distinction, this tiny flipping of two words, makes all the difference. The disciples put their fingers in their ears the moment Jesus starts talking about dying in Jerusalem, and so they miss the most important part. They miss that life comes after death. They miss the rising again.

And we miss it too. We miss the resurrection because we tend to place it in chronological order after our own physical deaths. This makes sense because the death of our bodies terrifies us, and so hoping in the resurrection gives us some comfort. Let me be clear, this chronological thinking about the resurrection is not wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. The whole picture is drawn on the canvas of eternity. If we believe we are given the gift of eternal life in the power of the resurrection, then we already have it – even now, here, this day, long before our physical deaths. Eternity, after all, has no start date.

But this eternal life, this resurrection life, does have one kind of beginning: the day we awaken to this beautiful reality, the day we decide to participate in God’s mission of renewal, the day we choose to live. This awakening doesn’t happen just once, God knows, but again and again – because, like the disciples, we are clueless and stubbornly unwilling some of the time. How does this awakening happen? Remember, we’re not talking life and death here. We’re talking death and life. Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death. Let me say that again: Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death.

Here’s what I mean. Notice that each time Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, he follows his disciples’ lack of understanding with a call for them and us to let little gangrenous pieces of ourselves die. After the first prediction, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – in other words, let your own will die. Too often, we let the selfish or petty or abusive or apathetic or ruthless pieces of ourselves take the wheel. We lapse into these death-dealing behaviors when we are scared, which is why Jesus tells us so many times not to be afraid. Let your will die a little death, he says, so mine can come alive in you.

After the second prediction, Jesus puts a little child among his quarreling disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome the lowest of the low – in other words, let your own presumption of privilege die. Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in death-dealing hierarchies – caste systems built around money or race or any number of ways we can differentiate ourselves from others. Let your presumption of privilege die a little death, says Jesus, so my compassion for all life can come alive in you.

And today, after the third prediction, Jesus silences the disciples anger toward James and John when he says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Serve each other – in other words, let your own complacency die. Too often, we expect life to be easy. We like to coast along, untroubled by the death-dealing evils of world around us. And to be honest, life is easy when we ignore everything that makes it hard. Jesus invites us to awaken to the power of servanthood so we can help others awaken to the power of the resurrection in their own lives. Let your complacency die a little death, says Jesus, so my mission of healing and reconciliation can come alive in you.

Three times Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Three times he encourages us to let parts of ourselves die little deaths in order that we might awaken again and again to the beautiful reality of resurrection life here and now. As we live into this reality, as we participate in resurrection life, remember this: our faith is not a matter of life and death. Jesus turned everything around, so our faith is really a matter of death and life.


*I lied a tiny bit. We also skipped verse 10:1.

Stigmata

Sermon for Sunday, April 19, 2015 || Easter 3B || Luke 24:36b-48

StigmataStigma is not a happy word. If you use it in a sentence, more than likely the word “stigma” will be linked to something that people view as disgraceful or humiliating, whether that view is warranted or not. A couple of us recently read a book called The Rich and the Rest of Us by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who spoke of the need to lift the stigma associated with the word “poverty” if we are ever going to muster the societal will to lift those on the margins. In years past, society has stigmatized attributes of people who exhibit less capacity than most, using words like “retarded” and “crippled” to describe those with mental and physical challenges. Suffice to say that members of every minority group – no matter the difference used to justify labeling them as “those people” – have been stigmatized in one way or another. Stigmas lead to segregation and prejudicial behavior and animosity. “Stigma” is not a happy word.

And so we need to begin this sermon by acknowledging once again the countercultural irony of the Christian faith. Both last week and this week, our Gospel writers John and Luke have narrated the scene of the Risen Jesus meeting his disciples and their companions for the first time. In both narratives Jesus shows them the wounds he suffered during his crucifixion: the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, the mark of the spear in his side. And in both narratives, his wounds lead them to recognize him and rejoice (though Luke reminds us that disbelief and wonder temper their joy). Christian tradition has given a name to those wounds: the “Stigmata,” which is just the plural form of the word “stigma.”

Here, stigma is a happy word. Or at least Jesus turns it into one. The act of being crucified was thought of as the most awful and degrading form of humiliation in addition to being a horrible way to die. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul quotes a verse of scripture: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (3:13). Talk about a stigma! And yet by virtue of his resurrection, Jesus turned the cross from an instrument of torture, domination and death into a symbol of redemption, selflessness, and new life. If Jesus hadn’t redefined the cross, I doubt you would wear crosses around your necks or I would have one tattooed on my back.

Jesus’ life and ministry were all about redefining what people thought was acceptable. He took the prejudices fueling certain stigmas head on and gutted them. He touched those society had stigmatized as worthless or unclean: people with leprosy, blindness, and paralysis. He ate with poor people. He befriended tax collectors vilified for being in cahoots with the Romans. He conversed with foreign women. Jesus left every town he visited having laid waste to the stigmas that separated people from one another, having done his best to show people the healing grace that reconciliation brings.

Jesus spent his life demonstrating that the stigmas, which separated people from the larger society, would never separate those same people from him. His own physical Stigmata, made by nails driven through his wrists and ankles, are a further sign that Christ was willing to go to any lengths to suffer with and for those who are humiliated, marginalized, and disgraced. But here we need to make sure we don’t get stuck on Good Friday. If we forget about or try to explain away his resurrection, then the story ends the day the nail holes were made.

That’s why Luke makes a big deal about Jesus eating a piece of broiled fish. He really was there! And the marks of the wounds – the marks of his compassion, his suffering with and for everybody – remain even in his resurrected body. But right here we can sink into a theological morass if we don’t think hard about what the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet really mean. Here’s the problem. If we say that his Stigmata are only the marks of a humiliating death full of suffering and pain, then we are also saying that such humiliation and suffering leave their mark in the new life of the resurrection, that a legacy of disgrace can sully a new life of complete grace. Thankfully, we don’t need to go there because Jesus’ lifetime of reversing stigmas works on his own Stigmata, as well. Indeed, the fact that his resurrected self still bears the marks of his wounds gives us clues as to what our own resurrected life looks like.

On Friday, Jesus’ Stigmata are marks of failure. His blood drips from the nails, which keep his sagging body affixed to the humiliating cross. But on Sunday, those same wounds are marks of triumph. The nails are gone, but the blood remains, the blood of the Lamb that washes us clean. In the life of the Resurrection no failure is great enough on our part to swallow the enormity of the victory Christ invites us to share.

This triumph redefines his wounds so that they are so much more than simply the marks of his suffering. They are also the marks of his obedience and our redemption. And they are the marks by which his friends recognize him. In other words, he calls his friends back into relationship and back into belief by showing them these marks. Thus the life of the resurrection is one in which our relationship with Christ becomes perfect and complete. But we can begin to live this new life now, even though we are incapable of perfection or completion because, as we just said, our failures do not sully the ultimate triumph.

The Risen Christ is alive in us, propelling us toward culmination with God in the life of the resurrection. Therefore, we too are capable of demonstrating Jesus’ Stigmata. I don’t think we will actually bleed from our hands and feet as St. Francis of Assisi did, but the marks don’t need to be visible to be real. By virtue of our baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. This mark includes the promise to walk Jesus’ path as best we can. Jesus’ life and ministry reversed and gutted so many stigmas, so many flimsy reasons for separation. Jesus’ death and resurrection reversed and gutted the stigma of death with the promise of new life.

As we walk in Christ’s footsteps, hear him calling to you to continue his work. Do all in your power to reverse and gut the stigmas that continue to make people feel less than they are. Take a hard look at yourself and see what prejudices you hold. Ask where they come from. Ask who taught them to you. Ask if they are the kind of prejudices that Jesus would have blown right through. Chances are they will be. Because Jesus’ never met a stigmatized person he didn’t touch or talk to or embrace.

We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world. I pray that when people look at you and me, they will see the mark of Christ on us.

The dogwood flower (pictured above) has traditionally been used as an image of Christ’s wounds, as the red tips of the petals evoke the Stigmata.

Whom are You Looking For?

Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2015 || Easter Sunday, Year B; John 20:1-18


2015easterdayGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.

But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run about two months before my third birthday and ended just before I turned thirteen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”

In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is – he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him – she had lost him – and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks.

Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?

The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.

Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met where locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”

Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.

Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”

Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And here the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”

Art: Detail from “Mary Magdalene in Meditation” by Le Nain Brothers

We Rise with Christ

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year A || April 20, 2014 || Matthew 28:1-11

Easter2014Good morning and welcome to St. Mark’s church on this beautiful Easter Sunday. As I see some unfamiliar faces out there, please allow me to do a quick introduction. My name is Adam Thomas, and my wife Leah and I moved to Mystic three months ago today so that I could become the rector of this wonderful church. In that short space of time, I have been overwhelmed by the welcome we received from this parish, and I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this community. If this holiday of Easter brought you across our threshold for the first time today, I invite you to return again on a day of less fanfare, to join us, and to enhance our community with your presence.

On Good Friday two days ago, I didn’t finish my homily. Instead, I left those present with a cliffhanger. We were standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and beloved friend. The powers of death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination were careening towards Golgotha, were bearing down on us, were about to crush us. Jesus had just said, “It is finished.” Jesus had just breathed his last.

That could have been the end. “It is finished,” might have been the final words of one ready to take his curtain call, to take his bow, to exit stage left. But if that were the case, we wouldn’t be here today. Today, we celebrate the resolution of the cliffhanger. Today, we witness Jesus Christ rise from the grave and leave entombed the powers that seek to separate us from God. Today, we turn away from those powers and embrace the truth that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

We wait in suspense three days for the resolution of the cliffhanger. And in that time removed from the foot of the cross, we realize that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant, “It is accomplished.” It is completed. My work is fulfilled. He laid the trap for the powers that seek to separate us from God. He offered himself up as bait. And they took it. On this side of Easter, we look back on the dark events of Good Friday and see the full scope of the plan that Jesus only hinted at to his friends before his arrest.

On the cross, he lured those powers of separation in. He absorbed all our darkness and despair, our fear and shame, our desire to dominate, even the power of death itself. As he suffocated to death on the cross, they appeared to be winning. But it was all a setup. Their power died with him. And he left their wasted shells in the tomb when he rose triumphant.

Yet we still see the powers of separation active in our world today. They still seek to pull creation apart, to pull us apart. And so we might be left to wonder if Christ’s resurrection actually accomplished anything at all. We might be tempted to ask what good it did. These are fair questions to ask, and God knows we struggle with them. But in the midst of the struggle, God constantly calls us to look more carefully for God’s presence in all situations, to engage the suffering of this world on a deeper level, to see into the truth of things.

And when we do this, hope stirs in us. We see that while the forces Jesus lured to the cross still exist, their ultimate power is no more. They have lost. They just don’t know it yet. We live in a reality in which Christ is risen. The truth of the risen-ness of Christ permeates existence. Everyone and everything that can be redeemed, that belongs to God’s original intention for creation, rises with Christ. Everything else stays in the tomb.

In today’s Gospel reading, when the angel beckons the women to see the place where Jesus lay, I wonder what they see? A burial shroud in the corner, perhaps. But mostly just emptiness. Indeed, after the resurrection, the tomb was the burial place for emptiness. For nothingness. This emptiness, this nothingness is the eventual outcome of all those things Jesus lured to the cross. What the women don’t see is death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination all crowding for space, invisible in the emptiness of the tomb. There is no room for those things in a reality built on Christ’s risen-ness. Those things are being forced out of reality, forced to stay in the tomb where they belong.

So what does belong in a reality built on Christ’s risen-ness? All we need do is look at the opposites of the things left in the tomb.

Instead of death, we have life. We rise with Christ when we choose life-affirming paths, when we share our gifts and resources so that other may have life, and when we act sustainably so that all creation can enjoy the fullness of life.

Instead of darkness, we have light. We rise with Christ when we walk in the light, when our choices reflect values that prioritize strengthening relationships, and when we encourage others to shine with their own light.

Instead of despair, we have hope. We rise with Christ when we believe that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive, when we dare to dream of all the wonders we can do when we partner with God, and when we offer a grief-stricken friend a shoulder to cry on.

Instead of fear, we have trust. We rise with Christ when we surrender daily to God our fruitless desire to control the future, when we make choices relying on our faith, and when we ourselves practice trustworthiness and the keeping of promises.

Instead of shame, we have grace. We rise with Christ when we let go everything that keeps us from embracing God’s love, when we discover how graceful we are when we dance in concert with God’s movement, and when we look upon others and see the beautiful beings that God sees.

And instead of domination, we have freedom. We rise with Christ when we allow God to free us from everything that enslaves us, when we stop bowing down to modern-day material idols, and when we stop dominating others to ensure our own freedom.

Every time we choose life and light and hope and trust and grace and freedom, we resonate with the reality of Christ’s risen-ness. We leave the things Jesus lured to the cross where they belong – in the emptiness of the tomb. We become little pockets of Easter, outposts of the resurrection, beacons of true reality based on today’s proclamation: Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

*Art: Detail from “Harbingers of the Resurrection” by Nikolai Ge (1867)

The Language of Embrace

Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-44

goingtobethanyThe prayers have all been prayed. The farewells to the deceased have all been said. The dirt has been cast on the shining, glossy coffin. The low murmur of voices mingles with the whisper of the wind through the long, cemetery grass. The new widow rises from the velvet-covered folding chair, the triangle of the blue field and white stars of the American flag peeking out from under her arm. A line of black-clad people forms, and they begin to file past her. You watch her receive with grace each well-meant, but well-worn sentiment. You join the line, and soon it’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come.

I’m sure each of us has been in this position. Some of us have also been on the other side of it. Sometimes words tumble out before we have a chance to catch them, to measure them, to reflect on how they will be heard. Other times, we have no words, and we trust that the fervent squeeze of the hand or an embrace will communicate what we want to say. Most times, the language of embrace is more potent and effective than the language of words.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus and Martha converse near the grave of her brother Lazarus. They’ve both lost someone: Martha, a brother; Jesus, a friend. Indeed, the Gospel doesn’t describe too many individuals specifically as ones Jesus loved, but Lazarus is among the honored few.

Martha speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We could interpret Martha’s first words as an accusation or as a statement of faith. More than likely, they are (as is so often the case) a combination of the two. Since her sister Mary echoes these same words a few verses later, we can assume Martha and Mary had spoken them to each other in the four days since Lazarus died. “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus would still be alive,” they might have whispered to each other. And then I imagine, “Why didn’t he come?” And then, “I heard he’s on his way,” followed shortly by, “What took him so long!”

In any case, Martha says these words to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Such a statement had probably reached the status of well-worn platitude in that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ statement in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

But here’s where Jesus changes the rules of the standard funereal conversation. He stretches out his hand, places it on Martha’s cheek, gently raises her head so their eyes meet. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he says. And for those few words his voice rings like a well-struck bell, and the truth of them resounds deep within Martha’s soul. I AM the resurrection and the life.

You may recall last week, we discussed how frequently Jesus employs this sentence structure in the Gospel According to John. When he states I AM, he reaches back to the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush. Moses asks God for God’s name, and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus echoes these words in the Gospel, he reveals a piece of his own divine identity.

“I AM the resurrection.” By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death occurs. But death is not final. Yes, life ends. But new life – life in some superlative form – emerges because of the power of the promise of Christ’s resurrection. I do not know what this new life looks. I cannot describe it to you. But because Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection,” I believe he will be there, continuing to call us into full and complete relationship with him. Only then, in the power of the resurrection, we will truly be able to reciprocate and join him in that full and complete relationship.

Martha understands the truth of the promise of this relationship. Notice how she answers Jesus’ next question. He asks: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Here Martha replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in the world.” By saying she believes in him, Martha affirms her relationship with Jesus. And Jesus, unwilling to let such a relationship ever end, offers her the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.

So the promise of resurrection, which Jesus builds into his very identity, is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And that sounds like a pretty good definition of heaven. In their conversation near the grave of Lazarus, Martha and Jesus reaffirm their desire to be together. Their words are a verbal embrace that points to the eternal embrace promised by the power of the resurrection.

And so we return to the windswept cemetery, to the widow holding the crisply folded American flag, to the receiving line filing past. It’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come. And you remember Jesus’ conversation with Martha. You remember Jesus’ promise to remain in life-giving relationships with all who desire them. You remember his resurrection proclaims this triumphant promise.

And you realize that Christ is already calling you into such a life-giving relationship. You don’t have to wait for your own death for such a relationship to begin. You can practice it everyday in your interactions with other people as you speak words of life and grace and blessing to them, as you discover the presence of Christ in them, as you seek to deepen your relationships with them.

You open your mouth to speak to the widow, but no words come. And so you resort to the language of embrace to communicate this desire to demonstrate how important your relationship with the widow is to you. You put your arms around her, and now your mouth is by her ear. Now something prompts you to speak. “I love you,” you whisper. That’s all you need say, if you say anything at all.

*Art: Detail from “Maria, sister of Lazarus,meets Jesus who is going to their house” by Nickolai Ge, 1864.