My thoughts both personal and professional are deeply immersed in Holy Week at this point, and when I walked past this abandoned train which has become a canvas for creative graffiti writers, what came to mind was this from the Book of Common Prayer Good Friday service: “… let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new … “There is just so much we need to raise up and make new, with God’s help (not necessarily including abandoned railroad cars, but beauty is important, too).
Because we want to let today’s service really focus on the Passion Gospel, instead of having a sermon right after the Gospel we’ll observe a minute or so of silence before we move onto the prayers, to let the story sink and perhaps to recover a little from the heartbreak of it. And I want to warn you about that now, so don’t think we’re having technical problems when we pause and you don’t hear anything. And again, in order to keep the focus during the servce on the Gospel itself, I’m going offer a short reflection here before we begin the service. I want to just mention a few things to listen for.
The Gospel we’re about to hear is a story of human weakness and self-giving love. It’s about betrayal, injustice, political intrigue, lost hope, fear, jealousy, abuse of power, bitter bitter regret, pain, loneliness, and finally, death. It shows how a mob can be swayed by angry voices, and it shows just how dangerous that can be.
It’s really a terrible story, a heartbreaking story, but like most stories about human nature, it also has some shining moments of faith and bravery and loyalty and tenderness.
So, a very basic outline: It begins with the cheering crowd that greets Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem, but some people feel threatened by his popularity and they’re plotting to have him killed. He’s betrayed by one of his closest firneds, and the rest of his friends are so frightened they run for their lives. His trial is a travesty of justice. He’s condemned and mocked by soldiers. He suffers horribly. He dies a brutal and shameful death, and he’s buried in someone else’s tomb.
Because it’s such a familiar story for many of us, I think it can be hard to hear it with fresh ears, so I’d like to suggest just a couple of things to listen for.
The first is what it tells us about the nature of God. How it shows us that selfless, self-giving love, the kind of love that isn’t always sweet and easy. It’s tough love. It’s hard love. And we, too, are called to give ourselves following this example.
Another thing it shows us is about friendship and loyalty. When Jesus asks his friends to stay with him they fall asleep in the garden. They run when he’s arrested. One is in such a hurry he leaves his clothes behind. In the courtyard that night, Peter denies him. Jesus knows our human sorrow and pain and he is with us in it no matter what’s going on in our lives. And we, too, are called to stay with him in this story, and to stay with everyone who is in any kind of pain, just to be there with them.
And finally Jesus stands agains the powers that be. The Empire has no use for him. His own religious leaders fail him utterly, because his teachings contradict their values. Because they’re jealous, as I said, of his popularity. But we, too, are called to stand by the values he taught, even when it means going against the prevailing culture, no matter what. And we, too, are called to stand up against the powers that be in our own society when they impose injustice on those who are powerless to defend themselves.
Today’s Gospel ends with the stone rolled to close the entry to the tomb, but even as Jesus dies, we hear the centurion say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
That is our faith, and the source of all our hope.
Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.
It’s difficult to hear over the sound of rushing water, but some hidden cellist in a house near the road is playing Bach’s Cello Suite No 2 with the windows open. Creation and creation making a duet together. Sublime.
It goes right along with Makoto Fujimura’s Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, which I’ve been reading lately. I like it a lot for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I found a good start to an Easter sermon in his discussion of the New Creation that’s born out of the Resurrection. And then I read on and came to his long reflection on “doubting” Thomas and thought, wonderful, he’s got Easter 2 covered for me as well.
This creek runs along one of my favorite local cycling roads. It was like a bike highway out there today, but in a show of the abundance of divine and human creativity, there was enough road, music, air, and view for all of us.
Beauty and mercy are two paths into the sacred work of Making into the New Creation.Makoto Fujimura
All the people who are mentioned in today’s Gospel are religious pilgrims. Jesus, Philip, Andrew, and even those Greeks They’re all pilgrims who have traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover there.
Jesus and his companions have been on the road for a while now. Most recently, they’ve been out in the wild hill country near Jerusalem, hiding from those religious authorities who are increasingly determined to have him killed.
We don’t know exactly where the people that are called Greeks in the story came from. The word Greeks here simply means that they aren’t Jews, but they’ve turned away from pagan religion to embrace Judaism. And they too have come to Jerusalem for the festival.
That is what it means to be a pilgrim, at least in the way we usually think of it. It means leaving home to travel to a holy place, seeking a spiritual experience.Continue reading
I’ve been reflecting on this photo of mine and what it’s actually about. It’s one of 25 images selected for a show titled “Essential Work 2020: A Community Portrait,” which opens today at the Michener Museum in Doylestown. When I submitted it a few months ago I was thinking about the heroic work of ordinary parish clergy this past year and how my fellow priests and deacons have stepped up during this covid time to meet challenges they could never have imagined.
But when I was interviewed by folks from the museum as they prepared for the opening I found myself telling a different story, talking not about hardship but about joy. Liturgy, as they taught us in seminary, is “the work of the people,” and the people in this picture were just so glad to be together, even if it meant bundling up and standing outside on a cold December morning. They were so glad to see each other again and to have communion again. (And maybe, from what folks said to me, in that order.)Continue reading
I wonder: what would you say if someone were to ask you later today what church was about this morning? And let’s say it was someone who wasn’t a regular churchgoer, and you really wanted that person to understand what you find meaningful in this great story that we tell.
I’m guessing you wouldn’t start with that strange story in our first reading about the healing power of a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. That one sounds a little pagan to me, so that might be kind of awkward.
I think I’d probably go with the safe choice, which is said to be the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world.” That’s the one that you see on t-shirts. You see John 3:16 on signs in the end zone at football games. For some reason. I really don’t get the connection with football, but be that as it may.
BibleGateway, which is a website and an app, confirmed that once again in the year 2020, “God so loved the world” – when we so needed that love – was the most popular Bible verse again. And love itself is the most popular keyword search.Continue reading
Well, I don’t have any pictures to go with this week’s sermon.
I changed my virtual background last time, from a picture of the altar in church to an image of the desert where Jesus went to face his personal demons.
Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the animals and the money changers he found there. It’s a scene that’s been painted by a lot of artists; El Greco is perhaps the most famous of those. But today, instead of looking at someone else’s picture, I’d like us to paint our own picture, each one of us, our own mental image of this scene.
I’ve been reading a novel by a writer named David Bradley and I came across a line yesterday that said, “If you cannot imagine, you will never know the truth.” And I think that’s true. So let’s imagine this scene in the temple. What do you see in your mind, in your own mental image, when you picture this scene?
It’s right before Passover and people are going up to Jerusalem to get ready to celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The animals in this scene would be offered in sacrifice as a ritual of purification, to get ready for that celebration. So although they’re quite different from our customs, maybe you could say these preparations were a little bit like Lent for us, our time of preparation for Easter.Continue reading
One measure of how long this strange time of constrained activity has lasted: I’m starting to read the books (the ones stacked sideways) that I always meant to get to … some day …
It’s not that we didn’t already know that “the church” is actually the people of God, the living body of Christ, and not the building where those people gather to worship. But that point has certainly been driven home for us during this past year of pandemic, and what a comfort it has been. It means that “church” can continue even when we’re not able to be together in our buildings, no matter how much we miss them. And it has opened new possibilities we could never have imagined in “normal” times—including my presence in the Ascension community this Lent and Easter. This blessing was never part of my plans back in the time when I made plans and fully expected I’d be able to live them out.
So many of our plans have evaporated during this past year. One of the plans I did have for 2020 was to join a 10-day group pilgrimage to the mountainside town of Assisi in Italy, home to saints Francis and Clare. I was looking forward to making photographs in Assisi’s clear light, spending time with its art treasures, getting to know Francis and Clare and my fellow pilgrims better, spending time in community and precious time alone in that holy and peaceful place, and enjoying good, wholesome Italian food and wine. It was all supposed to happen last May. And of course it never did.
And that’s exactly the thing about pilgrimage. It means letting go of our own carefully laid plans and putting one foot in front of the other, living life as it comes to us and opening our hearts to receive the grace present in each moment. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the author of a titled Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. He says that as pilgrims “we open ourselves to each event, each person, each sorrow, each suffering, and each joy that we discover, daily, on our path.” In doing so we find blessings where we weren’t expecting them, and we find that God has been there with us all along.Continue reading
Well, first of all, I’m going to tell you that I’m not actually sitting in front of the altar at the Church of the Ascension this morning. Some of you have probably figured that out. Through the miracle of Zoom, you see me sitting in front of a picture of your church, but I’m really still at home in New Hope. And I’m going to change my background just while we talk about Jesus in the desert so we can see exactly what the desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan River looks like.
This is where Jesus went in today’s gospel. So what do you think of when you hear the word desert, when you hear that Jesus went out to the desert? You might think of rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon, but this desert actually is not like that. It’s not a sweeping landscape of dunes. It’s not sandy, it’s actually rocky and hilly.
There are wild animals here, as the gospel mentions, but there also are flowing streams down at the bottom of those canyons. And sometimes there are flowers. So there are unexpected blessings, even in the desert. Jesus was in this desert for 40 days after his baptism and before he began his ministry in Galilee. It was a place where he could get away from the distractions of daily living and focus. And that’s exactly what Lent should be for us. It’s a time to take a good look at who we really are, to look at who we really want to be.Continue reading