Day of Pentecost

Readings for this day – in case you are curious…

The story of Pentecost is already rich, but I want to add another bit of reading to the morning. This is part of a sonnet by Kenneth E. Boulding. Professor Boulding was not primarily a poet. He was a highly regarded economist and lecturer in economics. And he was also a highly convicted Quaker with a zeal for peace and justice – my kind of economist.

We know not how the day is to be born, whether in clouds of glory, tongues of flame, as once at Pentecost the Spirit came, or whether imperceptibly as dawn; But as the seed must grow into the tree, so life is love, and love the end must be.

The day of Pentecost is a day of excitement and of power – of the in-breaking of the spirit. God taking on the flesh of the disciples and using them to speak. Not just God with holy-spirit-coming-like-a-fire-doveus, God in us.

The events described are so startling that they can almost seem magical. A group of people suddenly start speaking languages that they have never spoken before. Witnesses attest that these aren’t new or unknown languages – they are the native languages of those gathered around; As though just by being in South Africa I could understand and speak Xlosa, or Zulu, or Afrikaans. That would be a miracle.

I’ve heard various attempts to try to rationalize what happened. These languages weren’t, after all, from the other side of the planet – they were from the same region and were routinely heard in Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples had subliminally learned these languages and then, through some type of hypnotic parlor trick, were coaxed into speaking them.

Almost nothing in that rationalization appeals to me – and I love to rationalize… But we might take a cue from the notion of a parlor trick, from modern day conjurors of parlor tricks. The key to understanding the work of illusionists, of magicians, is to not be distracted by the thing that demands your attention – by the waving hand or wand or whatever. The real action is someplace else. The skill of the magician is to distract us. This approach, of course, ruins the fun of the illusion, but does give clearer insight into what is going on.

So, I look again at this passage from Acts, but looking away from the Disciples and their wondrous ability to speak in tongues – the thing that seems to demand attention…

And what do I notice? The thing that jumps right out at me is that the crowd is not amazed by the ability of the disciples to speak in tongues. They are amazed at their

Keep Calm poster
Part of a fun series of posters – available from the web site KeepCalmAnd@posters.com

 

ability to understand. “How is it that we hear in our own native language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

I have always thought of Pentecost as a story about the miraculous ability to speak but those eye witnesses experienced it as a miraculous ability to hear.

So much of our Christian practice these days is about sharing, about spreading the good news. That is wonderful and good. But a great deal of our Christian practice needs to be about listening. What is God saying to us? How is God calling us? If I am to carry God’s good news into this broken and hurting world, I surely must spend a great deal of time listening to God. Otherwise I’m likely to carry my idea of God’s good news into the world – in other words, my news. And that is not God’s call to us.

As monks here at this monastery (and this is true of all monk’s in all monasteries) we spend a big part of each day in silence. We eat many meals in silence. We spend a large part of our prayer time in silence. We do this so that we can hear God.

Someone asked me once why God only speaks when we are silent. It’s not that God only speaks, it’s that we can only hear when we are silent. God speaks in a still voice – and uses few words. The silence is about our ability to listen. God is always speaking to us, always present with us. We, and I include myself at the head of the list, are often not ready to listen. Thankfully God is forgiving as well as persistent.

So, this miracle of Pentecost is that an entire crowd of people could hear God speaking to each of them in their own language.

We know this about God: God comes to us where we are. God reads our innermost thoughts and ideas. God knows our hearts. And God loves us, each and every one of us. It’s incomprehensible. We, as humans, can have a great deal of superficial love. We’re human, we do the best we can. But God’s love is never superficial. God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. And God loves us.

So here we are on this day of Pentecost. In the great cycle of the Church Year, this is the turning point. Jesus has been present in the flesh with the faithful – but now Jesus has Holy Spirit and Mary Magdalaascended, gone home as it were. And we’re still here. But we’re not alone or abandoned. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit – not just surrounded… Filled!

This is part of the symbolic meaning of our Eucharistic celebration. By partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, we become part of the body and blood of Jesus.

It starts with listening – just as on that first Pentecost all those years ago. As Kenneth Bouldling reminds us, we don’t know how the day is to be born. It’s not a story about the ability to communicate, it’s a story about the ability to listen. The more we think we know about what we’re listening for, the more likely we are to drown out that voice of God.

Are we prepared to be surprised by God speaking to us, through whatever means, in our own native language? It sounds simple enough, but I have to admit that I probably listen more for God to speak in some exulted “language of the temple.” And the miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks in the languages of our hearts.

We can’t even restrict our listening to spoken language – since God speaks to us in music, through flowers, through other creatures that share our lives, through all of creation. All these things speak to us of their creator… of God.

And so, we pray for open hearts and minds that will let us hear the voice, the music, the dance of God that is all around us.

 

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Holy Spirit Descending
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Sermon for Easter V

Here are the readings…

For much of Eastertide we hear stories of things that happened between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension – which really makes sense as we are between those two events… But the Gospel for today is more prominent in Holy Week, rather than in the events after Easter. It is the scripture that gives us the name Maundy Thursday. 

The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin of the anthem that was part of the liturgy in ancient times: Mandatum novum do vobisant_mandatum_novum which itself comes from this part of John’s Gospel. Mandatum, over time and with the gentle erosion of linguistic evolution, becomes “Maundy” and then attaches to a day – Maundy Thursday. 

And this is part of John’s Gospel that we heard this morning. The specific quote is “I give you a new commandment (mandatum novum do vobis), that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV) 

Here is another Mandatum novum: “Your priority from now on should be to love one another. Copy my love for you. If you love one another, people will recognize you as my followers.” (Good as New) 

A few striking things: 

This is not really a new commandment… It’s not the first time Jesus has talked about the importance of love. We recall when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength;” and the second part “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

This, in turn, is really a paraphrase of the ancient temple creed found in Deuteronomy. Shema yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. […] You Shema-P_1-72dpishall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  

God commands the faithful to take this command to heart, to teach it to the children, to recite it at home and when travelling, when you go to bed and when you arise… 

You’ll notice that Shema yisrael does not contain the second part: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus has slipped something in…  

We tend to understand this as two great commandments, one – love the Lord your God; and the second  Love your neighbor as yourself. but we really need to understand them as different expressions of one command. 

We cannot love God unless we love our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we love ourselves. We cannot love God, who we cannot see, unless we love ourselves and our neighbors who we can see. 

What is new in John’s Gospel is that Jesus has gone a step further from the ancient command. Jesus tells us that we are now called to love as God loves.  

We are not just called to worship and love God, but to act in a Godly way. If we want to follow Jesus, then this is what we must do. This is the new commandment. 

In case we have doubt about how big a deal this is, Jesus amplifies that everyone will know us by our love… This is our identity… our essence… God is love and so love is the thing that defines us as Godly. 

In the history of the Christian church we have not always been known by or for our love. We, as a tradition, as a people, as individuals… This phrase turns around in a fascinating way: If we do not love one another, then we are not followers of Jesus… not disciples… not Christians. 

There is an interesting nuance between “commandment” and “mandatum” or “mandate” – and it’s a nuance that pops up in English, not in the original languages.  

Command is a rather broad word – it refers to a system of control. Beyond that, it can require that we must do something, or that we must not do something. A command can demand or forbid.  

Mandate, in modern usage, has come to mean specifically something that we must do. Mandate is a positive word – much more specific than command which is neither positive nor negative. 

So, we have a mandate… not the memory of a mandate, or the re-enactment of a mandate, or a reflection on someone else’s mandate… We have a new mandate. We are to love one another as God loves us. 

Sometimes it seems that we struggle to make the Gospel and complex as we possibly can. We have ideas about what we can eat on which days, about how we should worship and pray, about how our society should be formed, about what kind of clothes we should wear, what kind of hymns to sing, what kind of politics to support…  

1200px-Peanut-Butter-Jelly-SandwichWithin our own Order we had, many years ago, a simmering spiritual debate about the nature of peanut butter… Is it a “butter” or is it a “jam” in it’s essence? The reason for the debate? The Order had the understanding that, during Lent, it was not good to have butter and jam on your breakfast toast. But if peanut butter was, in essence, a form of jam, then surely you could have peanut butter and jam… This was considered a spiritually important discussion. 

The Order of the Holy Cross is not the only religious institution to engage is this sort of religious hair splitting. In the middle ages, theologians seem to have spent a great deal of time debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  

Missing in such discussions is love. Where is the love? We can make all the clever arguments about faithful living through pins and peanut butter, but Jesus is so clear – the only way to live in faith with Jesus is to love. Everything else is, to be polite, fertilizer. 

One other question that comes to my mind is why is the Lectionary confronting us with this particular lesson today? Usually we hear about the new commandment on Maundy Thursday. Here in this season where we hear about the various encounters between the risen Jesus and the always struggling disciples why this? 

Well, some would say that if we could only hear one piece of scripture, this would be it. If we heard only one sermon, it should be on this passage of scripture. This is Jesus defining for us in clear terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From a liturgical drama standpoint, crucifixion and resurrection are the peak of the story, but from the humble follower of Jesus, this instruction is it. Jesus died and rose from the dead so that we could love one another as Jesus loves us.  

So, the question is not why this week… the question is why not every week? Every day? At every moment of our lives? 

And in fact, we do hear this at all times and in all places – for this is what Jesus always says to us. We have a mandate to love one another as we are loved by God. It is the only command we need to hear – for from it proceed all good ways of living. 

Sermon for Easter III

Today’s Readings…

Easter is now a few weeks behind us and this morning’s Gospel reading finds us, appropriately enough, with the disciples also just a few weeks after Easter. It’s an interesting section of John’s Gospel because it is the postlude, if you will. John’s Gospel has already concluded with resurrection stories of Jesus and the disciples. Some scholars believe that this entire section is an addition to the original Gospel… An add on… Who knows…?

This “second ending” for John provides and interesting parallel to the start for John. In John’s telling, Jesus is first recognized when he responds to a critical shortage of wine at a certain wedding in Cana by transforming water – and it’s not just wine that is provided,

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Disciples with nets full – can’t wait for breakfast…

its vast quantities of excellent wine. Jesus tries to keep a lid on it, but people’s eyes are opened, and at least a few see Jesus for who he is.

Now here in the aftermath of crucifixion and resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples, but they don’t know him – just as the wedding guests at Cana did not know Jesus. In previous resurrection encounters Jesus has been in Jerusalem. But here he is at the sea of Tiberias – also known as the sea of Galilee. Cana, as it happens, is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. This is about where it all began. What started with changing a shortage of wine into abundance now continues with changing a shortage of fish into an abundance.

I don’t think John is just engaging in clever point-of-unity story telling. For the story that he gives us is complex and unclear. Either it is a story of terrible backsliding on the part of the disciples, or a story of deep and powerful symbolism. My guess is that it is both.

The backsliding story is right there on the surface. Jesus has been crucified and has risen. But somehow the disciples have wandered back to their old lives as fisherman – and not too successful fishermen at that. It appears that they have given up and gone home. Jesus has commissioned the disciples to carry the Gospel, the good news, to the world, but here they are back at their nets on the sea of Galilee. They have gone in a circle. Nothing has changed.

The story of deep symbols sits on top of that. Jesus has sent the disciples out into the world – he has made them fish for people. But here they are in the dark of night not even able to fish for fish, let alone people. Jesus, the light, the bright Morningstar, comes with

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Sea of Galilee at dawn

the dawn and now the nets are nearly destroyed because there are too many fish. In their own darkness the disciples can do little. With the light of Christ, all things are possible.

As at Cana, it is the miracle of abundance that opens the disciple’s eyes and they recognize Jesus.

John adds a rather comical moment… When Peter realizes that it is Jesus and that he, Peter, is naked, he does two things… he puts on a garment and he jumps in the water. Peter just can’t wait to get to Jesus. He’s so enthusiastic he jumps in the water and rushes to shore, while the other folks are left to

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You can’t quite tell – but one of the disciples is naked… and Jesus is watching.

slowly bring in the heavily laden boat. Peter is impetuous.

When they all get to shore it’s time for breakfast – fresh fish and fresh bread. We know the story of “the Last Supper” that becomes the model for our Eucharist… but here in John’s Gospel, this is the last meal, not supper but breakfast. This is the last time the disciples eat with Jesus. This could have been chosen as the model for our Eucharist… except then we’d be having bread and fish. I have to say I’m glad we went with an earlier meal and settled on bread and wine.

To me there are two things we need to realize.

First – we live in a world of abundance. Too often we live in a mindset of poverty… that we don’t have enough… Not enough wine… not enough fish… The greed and avarice this breeds destroys our society and our souls. If I don’t have enough, then I can’t give to those in need because then I will have even less. I can’t help others until I have enough… except I never have enough.

The richest people on earth strive and struggle to get even more. And that leaves a great number of people without food, without safe drinking water, living in retched conditions, and suffering. We live in a world of plenty – something that has not been true in the past. We have enough food to feed everyone. We have enough resources to house and clothe everyone. But we live in a mindset of scarcity. This is not a faithful way to live the Gospel.

Second – Jesus is always with us. Perhaps the disciples got discouraged and went back to what they knew before Jesus – back to their lives as fisherman. But Jesus has not abandoned them. Their faith may be weak, but Jesus is faithful. And Jesus arrives to strengthen the disciples.

Now, some two thousand years later, we still live by faith. And we are still aware that Jesus refreshes our faith in various ways. At times we face doubts, questions, perhaps a sense of uselessness or even failure in this endeavor to follow Jesus. That is OK. Turning away from Jesus just gives us an opportunity to turn back to Jesus – and we know from the Gospels that Jesus always and joyfully welcomes us back.

This morning’s reading goes a little further. We have this conversation between Jesus and Peter – who was so excited to see Jesus that he rushed to shore. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than these – and the meaning of the question is a bit unclear. Does Peter love Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus? Or does Peter love Jesus more than he loves his fellow disciples? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Love me yes or noPeter insists that he loves Jesus and Jesus has a simple response: Feed my lambs. We get three versions of the question and each time Peter insists that he loves Jesus. Remember at the time of the crucifixion that Peter has denied even knowing Jesus three times…

Some folks want to hear Jesus command to feed or tend the sheep as a way of putting Peter in charge – Jesus, the good shepherd, is passing on that duty to Peter, with the other disciples (and by extension the formative church) being the flock. And if your goal is to assume authority it’s a good understanding. But John’s gospel is not really concerned with developing church leadership.

In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus has been clear that our love of God will be visible in our actions. We will be known by our love. Jesus has just demonstrated his love of the disciples in an abundance of fish and bread for breakfast. Jesus has told the disciples that they are to love others as he has loved them.

We’re not meant to simply wait and watch for Jesus to show up. There is a quote attributed to Saint Francis; “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” The only thing we know for sure is that Francis didn’t say this… but it’s still a good guide. Our lives, our actions, our deeds must show the Gospel. If they don’t, then are words are pointless.

Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, defend those who are defenseless, care for the sick and comfort those who are sorrowful. By doing these things we live the Gospel of God’s love

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Grieving at a grave site

and, in so doing, we share that Gospel with those around us.

The disciples left their old lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. But here at the end of John’s Gospel we find the disciples back at their nets. I think this is exactly where they are supposed to be. It’s not exotic and it’s not heroic. But God’s Kingdom is built daily by simple, faithful acts. Their faithful lives as fishermen is what God desires… an ordinary faith.

So, we, the successors of these various disciples, are called to attend to daily, mundane things, but in a way that witnesses to God’s abundant love and grace. In this way the world is transformed.

Easter Sermon

Alleluia – the Lord is risen!

Here are the readings for the curious…

Jesus lives! This is an occasion of great joy, but we must be sober for just a bit. We must remind ourselves that Jesus lives despite our best efforts.

We were, after all, in the crowd shouting “crucify” just a few days ago. We might console ourselves that we were just actors reading a part – but that lets us off the hook too easily.angry-mob There is no escaping the fact that Jesus died at human hands – hands like ours. And if we examine ourselves in the clear light of Easter morning, we will find that we still fail to recognize Jesus… still deny Jesus… still crucify Jesus. Jesus is still dying at our hands.

If we work at it hard enough, we can take the Alleluia right back out of this Easter celebration! I’m not proposing that we do that…

The truth is that when it comes to killing Jesus, there is another inescapable fact – we have failed. It’s just that simple. We failed. Human hands did their best. Jesus was crucified to the very best of our ability and was good and stone-cold dead – three days in the tomb. Yet the Lord is risen indeed! Could there be any sweeter failure?

So here we are on Easter Sunday – a happy bunch of failures…

But Jesus hasn’t risen just to show off… It would seem that Jesus is not finished. Jesus has more to say.

In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus isn’t just demonstrating the power of God – the invincibility of God. There is a subtle but extremely important lesson. Jesus is telling us something about the persistence of God in our lives – our personal and private lives…

Let’s look how Mary of Magdala finds Jesus. She has come to the tomb and found it open. This means something is wrong. She raises the alarm. Others come to her aid and mary at tombinvestigate the scene. We have a small crowd on hand. But this isn’t when Jesus greets Mary – when there is an audience. He waits until she is once again by herself – weeping. Jesus comes to her, to each of us, in our private moments of despair. Or perhaps this is when we are vulnerable enough to be aware of Jesus’ presence.

“Don’t hold on to me” Jesus warns Mary. Is this a safety warning? And if so, who’s safety are we worried about? Could Jesus be injured by Mary’s touch – or could Mary be injured by the raw power of Jesus?

Or is it something else. Is this a more profound warning. Could Jesus be warning Mary not to hold on to what has been, to what has passed? Perhaps, in a way, Jesus is saying don’t hold on to who I was – because I am.

This is a very powerful message for all of us who worship and seek to follow a living great-i-am.gifGod. We can’t hold on too tightly to what we have known, to our experience, to our traditions – and at the same time we can’t let go. Living relationships are complicated, messy, and wonderful. I think Jesus is calling Mary to be in a living relationship, rather than to live in her memories… calling not just Mary of Magdala, but each of us to a living relationship.

Jesus is not terribly concerned with comforting Mary. He might have said: “Why do you weep, Mary, for I am alive again and the nightmare is over. Everything will be all right.” But he doesn’t give her many comfortable words. Instead he gives her a job to do. “Go and tell the others I am ascending.”

Now the others are already having a hard time keeping up with the plot. They have probably only just barely begun to comprehend that Jesus is dead. Now they are learning that he is not dead, but alive. And to this confusing mess Mary is told to add that he is ascending… I’m not sure this piece of information is going to clear things up.

But look at what Mary of Magdala does. She goes to the others and says, “I have seen the

CR Altar
Altar at Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield UK. This marvelous piece of art is open at the back, to create and empty tomb.

Lord.” This is the first thing out of her mouth. This is not what Jesus has told her to say. This comes from her own heart. I’m not at all sure I understand what Jesus means when he says I am ascending, but I do know what Mary means when she says I have seen the Lord.

I, too, have seen the Lord!

Jesus dies. Jesus rises. Jesus lives and comes to us in very personal ways. And we are given this example of Mary of Magdala. Jesus comes to her in her grief, her despair, her sorrow, and asks her to do something. Jesus calls her to witness. And she does this in her own way – I have seen the Lord.

So how does Jesus find us on this joyful Easter morn?

Perhaps tired – to the point of exhaustion… We’ve been keeping vigil for a very long time… And that on top of the seemingly endless activity of Holy Week.

Perhaps sad and guilty. We’ve had time to call to mind the ways we have failed to follow Jesus and the ways that we still, to this day, continue to deny and crucify Jesus in our hearts and in our lives.

Perhaps fearful. The events of Holy Week have forced us to think about death. We know that Jesus faced death and that we too will face death; our own, or even more painfully, the death of someone we love and do not want to live without.

Perhaps joyful. We know that our redeemer lives and that our sins are forgiven. That we are beloved children of God and heirs of God’s Kingdom.

It is in this mix of emotion that Jesus comes to us, asking us why we weep. Telling us not to be afraid. Warning us not to try to hold on too tightly to what we have known. To be witnesses of the love of the Jesus.

This is our baptismal covenant – we die to the old and are born again to new life in Jesus the Christ. It is, I think, not something that happens once and for all, but happens a little more each day.

Regularly we push Jesus out of our lives – maybe just for a moment, maybe for a long time. In big and little ways, we crucify Jesus. Just as regularly Jesus rises and comes back to us.

This is the durable, patient persistence of God. We can do our absolute worst – and at times we do… Yet when it comes to killing Jesus we will always fail. At times we may even be blessed to say, as Mary of Magdala says, that we have seen the Lord. Alleluia!

 

Geographical Reflection in Holy Week

Our religious traditions share a common grounding in the natural world. But I can only speak firsthand of the grounding Christian tradition receives from nature. Each year the grand cycle of nature unfolds with its season of birth, fullness, harvest, and death. The Christian calendar follows a similar rhythm with Advent/Christmas, Lent, Easter/Eastertide, and Season after Pentecost (the long “green” season).

Over the centuries these liturgical seasons have developed strong relationships with the seasons of nature.

Advent and Christmas, coming as they do when the days are growing shorter, have a strong resonance with light. It certainly helps that Isaiah gave us the image of a people walking in darkness so that Matthew could refine this into an image for the coming of Jesus – making us the people in darkness who receive the light of Christ. It is a powerful juxtaposition that as the natural world is increasingly dark, Jesus is the light that is not diminished.

Easter, too, takes much from its seasonal setting. The notion of death and resurrection resonate massively with the agricultural image of a seed dying and going into the ground, only to spring up with new life.

So, we can happily reflect on “the bleak mid-winter” into which Jesus comes. And we can also happily reflect on “the green blade” rising as part of our Easter observance. There is room for lots of poetic license. Would Bethlehem be likely to have “snow on snow” in December (accepting that Jesus was born in December…)? It’s possible, but not likely. And the image of a green blade poking up from its apparent death experience would surely happen, but not particularly around the time of Easter or Passover in Israel.

The natural seasons that so inform our experience of Christian tradition are European,

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The Altar in our chapel set for Palm Sunday – or as we seem to have it “Sage Sunday”.

not Mediterranean. Still they are ancient – frequently bringing into use symbols more ancient than Christianity. All Saints and its prelude, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) now sit squarely on top of the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. The great symbol of Advent, the Advent Wreath, is not sourced in Christian tradition, but in ancient pagan symbology. The now-universal “Christmas Tree” does not have any scriptural warrant at all. Christian tradition quite comfortably welcomes a vast array of other traditions – and why not? The Magi were welcomed at Jesus’ birth.

This is on my mind because we are in the end of Lent and about to keep Easter. No less a figure than the Venerable Bede tells us that the very name “Easter” is derived from an ancient goddess, “Eostre”. She, in turn, is associated with springtime and fertility. People other than Bede might argue that “Ishtar” is the goddess who gives her name to Easter… And others argue that in German and English-speaking tradition, it is not an ancient goddess, but rather the direction of the rising sun, the east, which gives the day its name. Whatever the reason, symbols of spring, of fertility, have become deeply attached to Easter. The chocolate Easter Bunnies are there because the highly prolific rabbit is a symbol of fertility. Easter Eggs can symbolize Jesus rising from the tomb, if you like, but the obvious fertility symbol of eggs has been associated with this time of year for most of eternity.

Normally this sort of chaotic amalgam of ancient symbols co-opted by Christian Tradition flows past without much obvious impact. Our holidays are made richer, but are not defined by it.

But here I am in South Africa, which is clearly not in the northern hemisphere. It is globeheavily influenced by European colonization (for better and worse), but it is in a region with opposite seasons. The US is clearly not Europe either, but in terms of seasons it is nearly identical. So for the first time in my life I am experiencing various Christian events in the “wrong” season.

Here we are almost at Easter and we will sing many of the same familiar hymns with various references to “new life” and such, but we are heading into Autumn. Green sprouts are not pushing their heads up through the earth. We are more in a season of harvest than of planting. Advent is similarly backward. The days are long and getting longer. We hear about the people sitting in darkness, but the experience is just the opposite.

For me, because I am accustomed to the subtle reinforcement of the natural seasons to the liturgical seasons, this standing of things on their heads is wonderful. Things I could easily take for granted suddenly take on meaning.

But at the same time, for folks who are deeply accustomed to the Southern Hemisphere, I have a sense that there is a loss. The symbolic language developed in Western Europe is lovely, but what symbolic language might South Africa have developed if the European

peeps
Marshmallow Peeps and Chocolate! Covers all the bases…

symbols had not filled all the space? Is there a voice like Christina Rosetti waiting to be heard? Is there a different view of the little town of Bethlehem that we might glimpse? Is there an approach to Easter without chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps?

Christian tradition at its best, in my opinion, is quite inclusive. The church, as it pushed its way into northern Europe, simply incorporated the best of the celebrations it found. All Hallows and Halloween can live quite happily together. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday are a marvelous compliment. The Feast of the Resurrection and a celebration of fertility belong together – since they are both about new life.

So, to all my friends in the northern hemisphere – a happy Easter and eat a peep for me.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a wonderful and triumphant day. Jesus receives a hero’s welcome in Jerusalem. A royal carpet of palms rolls out before him and he gets to ride rather than walk. In Jerusalem 2000 years ago, life didn’t get much better than this.

And in fact, for Jesus and the disciples, life quickly gets much worse. We know that the triumph of today quickly gives way to betrayal, abandonment, and execution – a horrible and humiliating execution.

But we also know the story doesn’t end there. For as great as today’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem may be, the real victory comes next Sunday. The Resurrection.

When you look for meaning, perspective is usually a good thing. Putting things in perspective – in context – is often the only way to make sense of them. But I think for us, for the next several days, it may be very powerful to understand events by taking them back out of context.

What if we didn’t know about Easter – yet? What if, like the followers of Jesus, we experienced the events of this week with no clear knowledge of what comes next?

Well to start with, today would seem like a much bigger deal. Jesus, this man we love and worship and follow, is finally being treated with some respect! Thank God! Praise the Lord! People are starting to get it. Jesus is Messiah. Our Jesus, our beloved friend, up there riding high with a crowd cheering him on. Not in some off the path little town, but in Jerusalem. In the city of the temple – the center of our world. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Jesus is triumphant and we have lived to see the day.

But within days our great happiness begins to fall apart and by Friday our joy is gone – forever! This great high point of today’s triumph gives way to total, complete, utter defeat, despair. Our friend, our Lord, our Savior dies. Dies on the cross. In agony. In disgrace. On Good Friday two millennia ago, that’s what the disciples knew.

If all we know is what the first disciples knew, on Friday it would seem like our lives as Christians had come to an end. Then we would have to face very hard realities.

And that is what I want to suggest today… That we take time this week in our prayer, our

Luss
From Stations of the Cross as Luss Parish Church, Scotland.

 meditation, our worship and even our daydreaming to explore what it might be like if we didn’t know about Easter just yet.

What are our dreams as followers of Christ? What kind of tender intimacy do we share with Jesus – like in the garden or at the last supper? What happens when Jesus dies on the cross? What dreams and desires of ours die with him? Where does it hurt? What would we lose that we could not bear to lose?

If Jesus died this Friday and did not rise again, what would that mean to us.

When things start to come to mind, we need to examine them. Are they dreams of working with Jesus to build the Kingdom of God here on earth? Are they our own dreams that we would like Jesus to share with us?

I have to confess when I began examining how I might answer some of those questions… when I began to think of what I would lose: Among the first things that came to mind for me… No Bach B Minor Mass. No Faure Requiem. No Rachmaninov Vespers. Lovers of choral music will be nodding in agreement – others will just be shaking their heads wondering what these things have to do with Christ’s death. That is exactly the point.

We tend to fill our churches and our religion with things of inspiring beauty, things that inspire us. But are they there because Jesus demands that they be there – or just because we like them. Death has a way of clarifying our thinking.

We can use Holy Week to truly examine and test our faith – to let go at least a little of some of the things with which we clutter up our faith – and to focus on the essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We can do so with the great advantage the first disciples didn’t have – because we do know about Easter.

Sermon for the start of Lent

Readings for Lent 1 

It’s a bit startling that Lent has started. It seems like so little time has passed since Christmas. And in fact, it’s just over two months since we were joyfully watching Advent give way to Christmas. In the life of Jesus, these events were decades apart, but we experience them compressed together. Which tends to blur them – at least for me.

Lent, in our Christian tradition, has had several purposes. It is a time when we are meant to prepare ourselves for Easter. It is a time when we are meant to repent, to consider our own sinfulness and to find ways to return to God’s ways. It is a time for alms giving – though really, when are we not called to charity? And, in the early days of the church, it was a time when people preparing for baptism were to undergo preparation and instruction.

If the Church, as we know it, still practiced adult baptism, that last item would be critical. But we have largely moved, as of the middle ages, to infant Baptism. And the only thing I want to say about that is that I think much was lost in that move.

The repenting part of Lent is very much front and center in the Church’s current approach to Lent. In the service for Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent, we are invited to use Lent as a period of self-examination and repentance, and the suggested tools are prayer, fasting, and self-denial, as well as reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. This prepares us for Easter.

But what, exactly, are we preparing for and how do these tools help? These are the questions that call for attention, but there is something else to look at first.

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Baptism of Jesus

Lent, as I mentioned, was the time when the early church prepared folks for Baptism, and those baptisms took place as part of the Easter celebration. It is still common to have a renewal of Baptismal Vows as part of the Easter Vigil. That is why we read the story of Jesus’ baptism to usher us into Lent.

Or we almost read the story… In this morning’s reading we pick up just after Luke has told us about the baptism. And so, this is the aftermath of the baptism. It’s a really turbulent moment even if Luke is fairly calm about it: Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for a 40-day stay where he faces a period of deprivation and temptation from the Devil.

That number 40 is worth a little unpacking. Some scholars suggest that 40 was a number casually used to mean “a lot” – 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years. It’s a way of saying a long time. It doesn’t mean someone literally marked off 40 days on a calendar. But there are other symbolic meanings of the number to consider.

These days we generally think of the length of a pregnancy as 39 weeks. In Jesus time, and throughout Hebrew scripture, the length of a pregnancy was thought to be 40 weeks. So that number 40, while meaning a long time in general, also referred to the period of gestation… the time it took to give birth. 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years… all share that birth symbolism.

In some way this 40-day period is notifying us that a birth is taking place. We could say that Jesus is conceived anew in baptism and then born again after 40 days in the womb of the wilderness.

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Jesus faces temptation as interpreted by William Hole in 1905

It’s not a scientific or medical process. And, as is the case with symbolic stories, it is certainly not the only explanation for what is going on in this Gospel passage. But for our own time of Lent, I think it is a good image.

On Ash Wednesday we entered our own 40-day period of time in the wilderness. On Easter Sunday we are meant to burst forth from that womb as Jesus burst forth from the tomb. We are never meant to be observers of liturgy, we are always meant to be participants. We don’t watch Jesus rise. We rise with Jesus.

But that is getting ahead of the story… we have to go through Lent… Through gestation.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “save us from the time of trial”, or in an earlier English translation that is still pretty universal: “lead us not into temptation.” It’s odd, when you think about it, to ask God not to lead us astray – into temptation. Isn’t following God, almost by definition, about not being led astray? But look at what Luke tells us. Jesus is lead into the wilderness BY the Holy Spirit – one of the persons of the Trinity. That is to say by God.

The forms of temptation that Jesus faces are curious. Jesus is first tempted with food – and after all he has been fasting for a long time… he must be starved. It is a temptation

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Ewan McGreggor as Jesus in Last Days in the Desert

based entirely upon bodily needs.

Second, Jesus is tempted with great power. The Devil says worship me and I will give you power over all the kingdoms of the earth. I find it very disturbing that, apparently, the Devil has power over these kingdoms, these governments, and can use it for devilish purposes. We know the Devil lies, but Jesus does not contradict Satan. Instead Jesus refuses the offer – which seems to imply it was real, that Jesus might just as easily have accepted the offer.

This power the Devil offers is power, I would have assumed, Jesus already has. Jesus, like the Spirit, is a person of the Trinity – that is to say God. What the Devil seems to be saying is that the Devil, rather than God, has power over the governments of the earth. Part of Lent is meant to be spent in contemplation… and this is something I will need to contemplate.

The final temptation is for Jesus, more or less, to show off. He can hurl himself from the tallest point in Jerusalem and God will keep him safe. Jesus spends much of his early ministry trying to keep his full identity secret. But here, just as Jesus is beginning his

Willam DeFoe Jesus
Willem DaFoe in Last Temptation of Christ

ministry, the Devil is telling him to reveal it all.

It would be quick and easy, but it is not God’s will. It would short circuit all of Jesus ministry. Jesus calls us to love each other and to do justice. But the Devil is tempting Jesus to blow past all the hard work of teaching and leading, and simply to manifest his divinity now. This would command us to Jesus rather than attracting us.

But to me, the most important thing about the various temptations is that they come right after baptism. They are a consequence of baptism. It is tempting to believe that once we are baptized, God is in control and we will be free of temptation. But that is not what the Gospel tells us. We will face temptation as a consequence of baptism. In the parlance of contemporary computer folks, temptation is a feature, not a bug, of baptism.

John Wesley
John Wesley from his graduation yearbook…

John Wesley observed that temptation is always part of an adult Christian life – we can’t make choices for good if we are not aware of the other choices, the bad choices. Temptation is not just a fact of life, it is a hopeful sign. We don’t have to fall prey to it. We can choose to follow Jesus. But we make the choice of our free will, not because we lack alternatives.

So, the tools of Lent – self-denial, fasting, prayer, meditation, reading…

St Benedict in his rule offers some good advice. Before a brother takes on some type of self-denial, he must have permission. Our inclination, in the fervor of religious enthusiasm, is to engage in heroic actions. But this isn’t what Jesus asks. The point in asking permission is, if I have dreamed up some super-human activity, the Prior can and should say no. Because the point of self-denial is to turn toward God. Heroic denial is all about self.

The purpose of denial is to free us. A little less of something frees for a little more of something else. I will watch less TV (or for me, a little less YouTube) so that I can read more… I will eat less so that I can pray more… And in all these things I will do them in a modest way, not a heroic way.

Jesus, in his 40-day ordeal, could have behaved in a wild and heroic way. But that is not his choice. He calmly persists in faithful love of God, Devil notwithstanding.

That is our guide for Lent – to pursue a deeper, more prayerful, more loving relationship with God and with all of God’s creation.