Monday, April 12, 2010

Second Sunday of Easter

April 13, 2010
St Alban’s Episcopal Church
John 20:19-31
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH

Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples in a room – without opening a locked door. He has fatal wounds, yet is vitally alive and peaceful. He shares his peace with them, sends them out into the world, and then blows a holy breath of heaven on them all, baptizing them into a new creation.

He breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ and God’s breath of life and truth abides in them, as he had promised them it would. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” Then John tells us that “by this he meant the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, for Jesus was not yet glorified.”

What happens in this locked room, when the risen Christ appears to his confused and frightened friends is the beginning of a new creation. It is God’s own breath that Christ blows over his friends. It is the stream of living water, the fountain of all life. Jesus is now glorified. But not everyone who sees him understands what they have seen.

In Genesis we hear that when God formed the first human from the dust of the earth, God’s breath brought the human to life. Ezekiel told the dry bones, “Dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh, I am going to make breath enter you and you will live!” And God tells Ezekiel to say to the breath itself, “Come from the four winds, breath; breathe on these dead, so that they come to life!”

The disciples gathered in the locked room are not at all clear what this breath of life is. They are frightened. They are isolated. They are full of doubt. Jesus suddenly appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” And after he shows them his wounded hands and pierced side they glow with joy. It is really Jesus. The joy of Easter morning is breathtaking and mysterious and full of hope. But that is not the full story. In fact, in the Gospel of John, if it weren’t for Thomas expressing his doubts in such a bold way, we wouldn’t hear the truth of the resurrection. We have much to thank Thomas for.

When I was 17 the faith of my childhood died. I’m sure this happened over a period of time, but as I remember it, I suddenly realized during the recitation of the Creed that I didn’t believe anymore.

I stood outside of myself for a moment and watched my body recite the Creed like a wind-up doll. I looked around me and everyone looked like they possessed something that I suddenly didn’t have any more. The wave of doubt pounding over me didn’t appear to be touching them.

They went on with the liturgy like everything was normal. But inside of me everything felt changed and unfamiliar. I was now outside the group. This used to be my group. I prayed that the feeling would go away, and yet I understood at a gut level that something mature was waking up inside of me.

The next week it happened again. This time I stopped saying the Creed. And nothing happened to me. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt honest and adult. But I felt frightened and completely without familiar landmarks. I felt very alone. The reality of doubt filled me head to toe. And it never occurred to me to share my angst with anyone.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I didn’t know that doubt is the beginning of mature faith. I didn’t know that there were others who had experienced exactly what was happening to me. In my teenage hubris I believed I had to walk this path alone because I felt so alone. So I left the church.

It is painful to sit, week after week, in the midst of people who believe in something that you don’t understand. Many people experience the isolation of doubt that Thomas did, but very few are brave enough to ask the hard questions.

Lack of understanding and the fear it instills causes many of Jesus’ own disciples to abandon him. His friends anxiously whisper about him. What is it this man teaches? What do the healings mean? No one dares put words to what they instinctively know is true for fear of what people will think. But, what is it exactly that they are afraid of?

John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities have the power to exclude the faithful from their place of worship for saying out loud what they believe to be true – because what they believe confronts and questions the Jewish faith of their fathers and mothers.

At the time John’s Gospel is being written the people who boldly pray in the name of Jesus – who are courageous enough to say who they believe Jesus is – are thrown out of the synagogue and shunned.

In the year 70, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities make an historic decision. They excommunicate all the Christians from the synagogues, forcing them to choose between Judaism or following ‘the way’ of their Jewish leader Jesus.

When John writes that the disciples locked the doors because “they were afraid of the Jews” he is naming the fear that has consumed the community since Jesus was condemned to die. The band of early Christians are being shunned, excommunicated and put to death because what they believe threatens the faith of their own religious family. It is a family feud over how to interpret the truth.

What horrifies the Jewish leaders is what the confused and frightened disciples finally started saying about Jesus. And it is Thomas who said it first.

The doors are locked for fear of the Jews and Jesus suddenly appears among them. He says twice, ‘Peace be with you’, and he shows them his wounds. The disciples don’t understand what they have seen. They tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord. They have yet to comprehend what seeing him means.

Thomas is no fool. He thinks they have seen an apparition – a ghost. He doubts because he is human and is trying to be calm and logical. They must all be crazy with grief. He wants to see for himself and actually touch his teacher before he will allow himself to believe he is alive.

Eight days later, or one week from Easter morning, which is today, Jesus appears in the locked room again. This time Thomas is there. Jesus again says, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then, in an intimate moment, he looks directly at Thomas and says, "Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

Thomas answers him with the supreme Christological pronouncement of John’s Gospel, "My Lord and my God!" It is the profound truth of the resurrection. All that Jesus said and did in his lifetime were signs pointing to the nature of his being. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the final sign.

It is not a resuscitated Jesus who is alive again, but an entirely new form of life. Because of Thomas’ insistence that he see more evidence before he can believe, Jesus comes to him and gives him more than he asked for. Contrary to popular understanding, Thomas never actually touches Jesus. He sees, and believes, and proclaims him to be God.

Thomas’ words “My Lord and my God” are spoken on behalf of the entire Christian community. They are the last words spoken by a disciple in the Fourth Gospel and are meant to have a covenantal aspect. It is these words which invite us to look again at what Jesus says in the midst of his friends, behind doors shut tight against their powerful fears.

Peace be with you. He has said this before. At the Last Supper, when he was predicting his death, he said pointedly,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.....
"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me;
Because I live, you also will live.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”. (John 14:18-20)

This is what Thomas realizes as he gazes on the wounded risen Christ before his eyes. It’s not the wounds, but the memory of Jesus’ promise that penetrates his fear. It is an “Aha!” moment that allows everything to fall into place.

All the mystery of Jesus’ strange yet familiar post-resurrection presence coincides with the realization of who he really is. He is the man they remember, yet he is changed. This is what he promised them would happen. But who, in their right mind could believe such a thing was possible?

What finally moves us all from fear to faith is a profound shifting of the ground we walk on. We remember with clarity that everything was leading up to this moment. We see with new eyes that the moments in our lives are all connected. We are just a tiny piece of God’s miraculous creation.

This is the day, in the darkness of a room filled with fear when the disciples finally understand that Jesus is in the Father, and they are in Jesus, and he is in them.

When he breathes on them he blows new life into them, just as God breathed the breath of life into the first human ‘Adam’, and blew a living spirit into Ezekiel’s dry bones. This Holy Breath of God is now what sustains them, advocates for them, and draws them together in community.

The disciples are to go out from the dark, closed room, into the light of day and fear no more. The Holy Spirit within them is now breathing the truth of Jesus into their DNA, and they will never be the same again.

When we share the peace with each other it is this moment that we remember. May the Peace of the risen Christ be always with you. Amen.

Maundy Thursday notes

April 1, 2010

Maundy is short for the Latin word Maundatum (commandment) Love one another How?
Tonight is chock full of sacramental gifts.
The sacraments are Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. (BCP)
• Meal – Agape (love) feast.
o Our meal together is a sign of the meal the disciples ate with Jesus – the Last Supper.
• Water – wash/bathe the feet –
o In remembrance of Jesus bathing the disciple’s feet
o reminds us of our own baptism and points us toward the baptisms awaiting us at the Easter Vigil.
o We are washed clean in the water of Christ so that we can follow the path of Jesus with pure souls
• Bread – used by Jesus first to signify who will betray him –
o and then to become the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven
o We receive the bread of Christ tonight for the last time before the altar is stripped and it is taken away from us
• Wine –
o Bread most likely dipped in a mixture of wine and olive oil before it is given to Judas
o both the bread and the wine are first used to point out betrayal before they become the Body and Blood of Christ
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”(5:23-24)
Why are the gifts of the Eucharist so wrapped up in betrayal?
It is probable that Tiger Woods understands this better than anyone.
After the entire world learned of his betrayal of his wife, Elin, Tiger Woods was admitted to a strenuous rehabilitation center ironically called “Gentle Path”
12 Step Program that helps you face the ugly face of your own addiction. In this case – addiction to sex.
First admit powerlessness over your own ability to manage your life, then make a decision to allow God to do the managing from here on out.
Before you can come to the altar and receive sacramental grace, Jesus asks us first to be reconciled to those whom we’ve hurt the most.
Full Disclosure: Tiger had to face his wife and fully disclose the nature of his addiction.
Not such a “gentle” path
The hardest step is letting go of the outcome of your full disclosure. Confession with a priest is one thing, but confession to a partner is something else altogether.
Last Sunday we saws how quickly the crowd could turn against Jesus. We went from Palm fronds, hosannas and carpeted runways to Pilate’s headquarters where we shouted, “crucify him!”
As Jesus washes the feet of his closest followers he knows who will betray him. We will.
The intimacy of the foot washing ceremony is meant to jar us.
If we imagine Jesus at our feet looking up into our eyes as he washes us clean we get a hint of the intimacy involved in God’s love for us. It is trusting in that love that will bring us through the grief of Good Friday. We can’t predict how the Resurrection makes all things new, but we can have faith that it will. It is through Love.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Widow's Mite

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene, OSH

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 and Mark 12:38-44

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes – they devour widow’s houses and say long prayers just for the sake of appearance!” Then, he calls his disciples to come near and watch one widow in particular. We don’t know her circumstances. She could be young, old, infirm, or healthy. We can tell by her offering that she is destitute. Widows in First Century Jerusalem were at the bottom of the social strata pile – along with the diseased and crippled, foreigners and most women. The self- important scribes that Jesus refers to would scoff at the amount of money this poor widow placed in the temple’s treasury.

But we are familiar with her offering as the famous “Widow’s mite” – the tiny donation that represents everything this woman has. The same “everything” that we are asked to give to the God of Love and Justice. Jesus makes a point of calling the disciples to observe the widow as a teaching moment. What is it, exactly, that he wants them to understand? They know very well about giving everything they have. They have already given up their jobs, homes, and family in order to follow Jesus.

Those of us in religious orders know what it feels like to give up everything and follow a call. It’s a pretty heady feeling. I got quite a bit of attention when I told my fellow teachers that I was quitting my job as a Speech Therapist, selling my home, and moving to a convent in New York. I felt a bit special, unique and important for a few, brief months. I watched my motley collection of furniture go out the door to friends, family, and strangers, and I sent boxes and boxes of trash and recycling to their various resting places. I was starting over again and allowed a chance at a new life. I was headed forward toward a new adventure that beckoned me toward the unknown, but much fantasized convent.

As soon as I arrived at the convent the novelty of my situation evaporated. All of the women I was now living with had given everything up years ago and they were less than impressed with my sacrifices. In fact, as they watched my many “essentials” move in, they remembered the days when they brought all that they owned in one small suitcase. I had a little travel trailer stuffed to the gills with books, clothes, bedding, and favorite pictures, chairs, and bookshelves.

I soon learned that this business of giving everything up for Jesus was meant to be more of a day-to-day offering of self than an audible clink in the collection plate. The kind of offering that Jesus attempts to teach his thick-skinned disciples and the rest of us who are less than spiritually brilliant, is the moment-by-moment offering of our steadfast love and undying commitment to God.

The Hebrew word for this lovingly tenacious spirit is hesed – the steadfast love of God given freely to us as an act of grace. And, nowhere in the Bible is hesed better illustrated than in the Book of Ruth.

I’m going to fill in what is missing from our reading this morning so that the impact of Ruth’s unusual actions on the threshing floor can affect us more powerfully.

The story begins in Bethlehem, literally, the House of Bread in Hebrew. Naomi, her husband, and two sons leave Bethlehem because of a severe famine in the land. Ironically, there is no bread in the House of Bread.

They travel very far away to the land of Moab – one of Israel’s historic enemies on the far side of the Jordan River. They go to a land held in contempt, yet find abundance there. They prosper on all counts. The sons marry Moabite women and the family settles in to their new home for the next ten years.

Then disaster hits in ways that remind us of Job. First Naomi’s husband dies, and then both of her sons. Suddenly there are three widows: Naomi, the Israelite, and two young Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.

Hebrew customs leave widows with very few viable options. The Torah demands that the oldest brother of the deceased will marry his widow so that the father’s line can be continued. Naomi knows that if she has any chance of survival it will be with her own people back in Bethlehem. In addition to family she has heard that the famine is over. She sets her face to return to the House of Bread and her daughters-in-law follow in her footsteps.

But Naomi stops, turns back to them, and tells them that they must not follow her. They have no male relatives in Bethlehem and Naomi knows that no self-respecting Israelite would marry a Moabite woman. “Go back to your mother’s home,” she tells them, “and may God grant that there you will find a new husband.”

But the young women surprisingly resist. They show their mother-in-law Naomi an abundance of hesed – a steadfast loving-kindness that refuses to part from her. Naomi gets more explicit with them. “What hope do you have of getting a husband from me? I am old. I have no more sons in my womb and I have no hope of ever having another husband. I am without hope, and am so bitter that my name is no longer Naomi, which means Pleasant, but Mara, which means Bitter. Your only hope, my daughters is to return to your own mother and find a husband among your people.”

Orpah listens to Naomi’s pleas and returns, tearfully, to her home in Moab. Ruth however, clings tenaciously and lovingly to Naomi, in a direct imitation of the quality of God’s love for us.

“Do not press me to leave you,” Ruth says, “Where you go I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” Here is the hesed of a new convert to Judaism, demonstrating that even from the land of the enemy can emerge the most faithful of God’s people.

When Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem it is harvest time. The people of Bethlehem are gathering the abundance of grain that will go into their famous bread. It is a new day and famine no longer rules the land. One of the most prominent land-owners is a man named Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. With Naomi’s blessings, Ruth makes her way to Boaz’ fields and begins to gather up the scraps behind the harvesters, as is the custom of the poor.

Boaz notices this beautiful and strangely exotic new woman among the gleaners. He asks about her and is unperturbed by her troublesome ancestry. He watches as Ruth works tirelessly, without taking any breaks. Boaz approaches her and tells her that he has heard of what she did for Naomi. He blesses her for showing such tenacious love for Naomi that she left her own people to come to a land she did not know and worship the God of Israel.

He promises to protect Ruth and asks her to eat with him and his men. Then he prays for her, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

When Naomi finds out that Ruth has found favor with Boaz, she hatches the plan for Ruth to sneak down to the threshing floor at night and lay at the feet of Boaz. She instructs Ruth that when Boaz wakes and discovers her there he will tell her what to do. Ruth obediently follows Naomi’s plan to the letter.

We don’t know the symbolism of Ruth uncovering Boaz’ feet, but the implication is that the intimacy of her actions, coupled with the fact that it was the middle of the night, forced Boaz to take some action.

When Boaz takes Ruth as his wife he takes possession of Ruth’s deceased husband’s name, continuing the important line of inheritance. His decision, essentially, restores the fortunes of Naomi, who lost her sons and had no grandchildren to carry on the line. By marrying Ruth, Boaz brings new hope to Naomi’s bitterness.

The child that Ruth bears is given to Naomi to nurse. What was once barren in her is now fertile, because of Ruth’s self-giving hesed – her faithful and tenacious love. And by giving Naomi her first-born child, Ruth is giving her mother-in-law everything she has. Just as the widow at the temple gave her two copper coins.

The story of Ruth and Naomi is continued in the line of descendants that come from this special child. They name him Obed, and he becomes the father of David. It is from David’s line that Jesus comes. It is because of these family ties that Joseph and Mary must return to Bethlehem for the census. Jesus is born in the same House of Bread where his female ancestors found the abundance of new life.

It is this abundance that Jesus wants the disciples to learn from the widow at the temple. What the widow offers to God is her undying, faithful, and abiding love for her creator. It is this love that is represented in the two small coins. When there are no more coins to give, she will continue to give her love and willingness to do whatever God asks of her.

What we offer to God is much larger than a yearly pledge or a frantic fishing in our wallets for some loose change to put in the plate. What God asks of us is a never-ending supply of our own hesed – to mirror back to God the same tenaciously faithful love he has shown to us through Jesus Christ.

If you watch today while the offerings go up to the altar you will see how we reenact our faithful love for God. The wine and the bread are at the back of the church for a reason. They come from us, and are given back to God in recognition that all that we have is ours only because God gave it to us in the first place.

Our offerings of money and food for the food bank are symbolic gestures of what we give to God from our inner being. Yes, we need the money to run this church and to uphold our responsibilities as a member of this diocese. But, the money is really not the point.

The meaning comes from what that money means to us. We prosper in this life when we recognize that our lives are completely dependent upon God. The offering we give here is a wake-up call. We come together as a community to watch our offerings of tangible gifts travel up to the altar where they are transformed into the intangible hesed- filled gift of God to us through the broken body of Christ.

We lift the offerings up to God in recognition of all that he gives us, and what little we are able to give back. Then we move into the Great Thanksgiving where we sing God’s praise before we recount in the prayer what Jesus did for us.

We dine on nothing less than Christ himself, giving us his entire being. It is harvest time, and as Christians, we gather together to offer God our abundance. We give of ourselves in order to see a communal reminder of what we’re asked to give God every moment of every day – our undying and tenaciously faithful love of Christ and each other. May we walk in that love always.