I’ve been a church organist all my adult life and my experience as a church musician has included providing music for all kinds of weddings. Wedding celebrations can be memorable for many reasons–sometimes for how very lovely they are and sometimes for the very interesting, unexpected, and maybe even bizarre things that may happen. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a very particular wedding banquet. No matter what sort of wedding mishaps you may personally have witnessed or experienced, I’m pretty sure you have not attended a wedding celebration quite like this one!
This parable has much in common with the Parable of the Great Banquet recorded in Luke’s Gospel. In that story, a man prepares for a great banquet, invites many guests, and sends his servant to let the guests know when the feast is ready. The invited guests make various (rather lame) excuses for not attending: one has bought a field, one is trying out some new oxen, and one has recently gotten married. The master of the house gets angry at their complacency and sends his servant out–not once but twice–to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” He also determines that none of those who first refused the invitation will ever get a taste of his banquet.
This story is fairly easy for us to interpret, right? Those who were called–God’s Chosen People–have ignored God’s invitation and He has responded by opening the doors to extend an invitation to all those who had formerly been considered outcast, all those on the margins.
Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Great Banquet, on the other hand, is darker and a bit more complicated. There is, in fact, a certain “Game of Thrones” quality to this narrative.
The main character is a king rather than the master of a house. The banquet is the feast given to celebrate the marriage of the king’s son. The king sends out his servants to let the guests know the wedding feast is ready but the guests will not come. Some of those invited just go about their daily business (which is a little hard to understand because who ignores an invitation to a royal wedding?). Other invited guests mistreat the messengers and even kill them.
The king is furious. He sends out his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city! (Which maybe is his city?) Imagine what it would be like to be the poor bride marrying into this family! The fatted calf has been slaughtered and cooked, in fact all is ready for the feast, but your soon-to-be father-in-law has rallied his troops and gone off to battle to avenge family honor before supper.
When the king does return, he sends his servants out into the streets to invite everyone they find. Those who had previously been invited are deemed to be unworthy. (A lot of them have also been killed at this point.) The slaves go out and bring in everyone they can find, both good and bad.
Just when you think you may have arrived at the end of this tale, Jesus adds an unexpected twist.
When the king arrives at the feast, he notices a man there with no wedding robe.
“Friend,” he says….
And you know the man is in trouble. In fact the man has nothing to say in his own defense when the king asks why he is not appropriately dressed. He orders the man to be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness. Many are called but few are chosen.
I’ve always had a great deal of sympathy–even empathy–for this surprised guest. Haven’t you ever arrived at a gathering, walked in the door and thought, “Oh my goodness, I wish I had known what folks were wearing and had dressed more appropriately?” The man obviously didn’t know when he left home that morning that he would end up attending a royal wedding! Did he deserve to be kicked out of this party when the invitation was extended to all? How are we to understand this strange story?
One important thing to remember is the context in which this parable was taught in Matthew’s Gospel. At this point, we are in the middle of Holy Week. It is a dark time. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples and the listening crowds but also by his enemies, the religious leaders of the day. The tension is growing by the minute. In this parable, we hear about the king’s servants (God’s prophets) who have been mistreated and murdered. We know what is just ahead for Jesus. The local leaders knew Jesus was condemning them in his stories but they were afraid of the crowds and didn’t know how to stop him. The very next verse after today’s reading states: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”
Secondly, we have to consider carefully who is being invited into the banquet. The story isn’t about a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Those who were first invited are deemed to be “unworthy” and those who do make it in are both “good and bad.” This story isn’t so much about replacing Jews with Gentiles as it is about replacing unworthy followers (especially the current Jewish leaders) with both Jews and Gentiles who are believers in Christ and who respond to His call.
So what about the guest who was cast out? He responded to the call to come in. Why was he judged “unworthy”?
The custom of the time was that a host would provide wedding garments for guests in need. All the guest had to do was to accept the garment and put it on. Whether we think about the garment as a symbol for God’s righteousness or even for Christ himself, the point is to be a proper guest at this party, you need to take action and respond. And so it is with us. To be part of the wedding feast in the kingdom of heaven, we need to take part. We aren’t there just to be enjoying free food at the buffet line.
Make no mistake: this is not about earning salvation through good works or trying to be more righteous than the next guest. It is about being open to God’s work in you and willing to grow into the person God wants you to be. In a few moments, we will join together to renew our Baptismal Covenant. These vows are all part of being guests at the Kingdom Banquet: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace among all people.
We are all called to be part of God’s banquet. Perhaps the problem with the guest in the parable is, as one writer has put it, “not that he is not taking things seriously enough. No, his problem is a failure to party.”
Theologian Karl Barth writes: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”
Let us be willing to accept God’s invitation, put on our party clothes, and get up to dance!
October 12, 2014
St Catherine’s of Alexandria Episcopal Church
Temple Terrace, FL
In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 8:19-21), we have a brief snapshot of Jesus’ family and how his family members react to his ministry. This story is told in three of the Gospels. In Mark, it is a little harsher view. Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him to “take charge of him” because they are alarmed about what he is saying and the attention that he is drawing. The family is lumped in with the teachers of the law who say that Jesus is possessed by a demon. The family is “outside” (both literally and figuratively) when they send someone in to call Jesus. Jesus looks at the people seated in the circle around him and says: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has just told the crowd the parable of the Sower, emphasizing “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Seed sown on good soil stands for those who hear the word, retain it, and put it to work to produce a good crop. When Jesus’ family come to see him–no mention this time about trying to take charge of him–they can’t reach him because of the crowd. Jesus concludes his parable teaching by telling his listeners that those who hear God’s word and put it into practice are his family.
So, what does it mean for us to be part of Jesus’ family?
All of us in this room come from very different backgrounds and have had very different life experiences but we all have personally experienced some sort of family. It may have been a warm, loving, nurturing family. It may have been an unhappy, dysfunctional, or even abusive family. Whatever your personal situation might have been or still is, your family has helped form you into the person you are today. Being part of Jesus’ family means that your faith family also helps form you, giving you opportunities to learn, serve, grow, even occasionally fail, but always to experience the risen Lord in and with the community around you.
We make the decision to follow Christ on our own but we are not meant to live that way. True, there are extraordinary situations where Christians are called to live out their faith in solitude but for most of us, it is vital to live in community with other Christians. Other Christians aren’t any more or less perfect than you are, so living with them can be (and often is) a messy prospect. When we baptize someone in the Episcopal church, we promise together that we will:
- Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
- Persevere in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord
- Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
- Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself
- Strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
And that’s community! That is the life you have been called to here at St Anselm’s, whether you live here at the Chapel Center or are a part of our worshiping community. We are a part of the household of God together, brothers and sisters with Jesus.
May we learn to love one another
support each other
and grow up together
to be the people God is calling us to be.
St Anselm’s Chapel
September 23, 2014
There’s been a car insurance commercial recently that I’m sure you have all seen. It actually has little to do with cars or insurance. Beatrice is entertaining two friends in her living room. Beatrice tells the other two ladies that she saved so much time buying car insurance that she was able to post all her vacation photos to her “wall,” which actually consists of a bunch of photographs Scotch-taped to her living room wall. When one of the ladies corrects Beatrice on her car insurance “deal,” Beatrice responds:
“I un-friend you!”
In frustration, the guest replies:
“That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”
Reviewing the Gospel reading for today, I wonder what Jesus might say about some of the ways we deal with conflict resolution in the church. (Perhaps he would agree with Beatrice’s friend!)
If you do a little research on the internet, you will quickly discover that the topic of conflict in the church is a big issue, whether it manifests itself as problems between parishioners, between clergy and staff members (particularly, it would seem between clergy and choir directors/organists!), or clergy and members of the congregation. From the number of articles published on the topic, you might think that, whenever two or more are gathered together in the church, there’s probably a conflict between at least two of them!
Jesus gives a plan and process for dealing with conflict in the church. Oddly enough, when this Gospel story takes place, the “church” did not yet exist and would not be born until after Jesus’ resurrection when believers came together bound by Christ. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his followers for the future reality of the church and he reminds the faithful of the great power–and great responsibility– that they have as Christians. And so we have in this passage a plan for addressing and resolving the conflicts that will inevitably come as a part of life in community. It is, after all, not conflict that can endanger and even kill churches, but our refusal to deal with conflict that does the most harm.
“If another member of the church sins against you…..”
We sometimes have a little trouble with that word “sin,” so consider this:
“If another member of the church wrongs you….
The first step is to go to that person and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
So simple. And we make it so complicated!
Today we have an amazing number of ways to keep in touch with each other. Email, social media, texting, cell phones, face time, Skype–it is in fact increasingly difficult to purposefully “unplug” and disconnect. Unfortunately, all these great new tools have given us an increasing number of ways to avoid dealing directly with each other.
If we are wronged, we may be less likely to talk with the other person than we are to perhaps “fire off” an angry email. (Possibly copying a few other folks too so that they will know about our injured status.)
In a more general type of retaliation, we may post a complaint on Facebook. We have all heard that in the South, you can say anything if you add: “Bless their hearts!” I’m thinking we now think we can write anything online if you add the right emoticon (“smiley face”) or LOL (“Laughing Out Loud”).
Instead, Jesus says before you “unfriend,” go to the offending party, in private and in humility and love. Not to destroy them but to win them over. A private conversation gives both of you the opportunity to examine the situation and to save face if either is at fault. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. And kept a friendship.
“If, on the other hand, you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
This directive actually goes back to instructions in Deuteronomy (19:15): “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.”
At the point that the member refuses even to hear the testimony of several witnesses, Jesus says you then should tell the church and if even this final step has no effect, that person is to be to you “as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”
I think this last is hard for us to hear and comprehend. As Episcopalians, we lean toward inclusion. The idea of “shunning” a church member sounds archaic, narrow-minded, even a little barbaric. There are a few ideas to consider regarding the expulsion of a community member.
First, keep in mind that this is a last resort and it comes at the end of a careful, thoughtful, and deliberate process.
Next, it is an unfortunate truth that there can indeed be a member in a group–whether in church, the work place, or even a family–whose presence is so toxic that the health and even the very existence of the group is threatened. Those of you who have been school teachers or supervisors in work places will probably agree that a single individual can do a great deal of damage to a group. As difficult as the decision may be and as hard as that conversation may be, expulsion may be the only action left.
So, where is the Good News in this passage? (Because it sounds pretty grim!)
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”
Though this may sound at first like advocating ostracism, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. (Matthew, the author of today’s Gospel was himself a tax collector, after all!) I believe action taken in love still leaves the door open for for the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
And what are we to make of verse 18 in this context?
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage this way in “The Message:”
“A yes on earth is a yes in heaven.
A no on earth is a no in heaven.
What you say to one another is eternal.”
We are gathered together today in Jesus’ name and are charged to act in a way that exemplifies Jesus, embodies Jesus.
What we do (and how we treat each other), matters.
St Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Temple Terrace, FL
September 7, 2014
Tonight we remember Ephrem of Edessa, a deacon in the early church. Ephrem was known as “The Harp of the Holy Spirit” for the many hymns he wrote. It is believed that he attended the Council of Nicaea (325). He lived and served in Nisibis until the Persians captured the city and drove out the Christians. He moved to a cave in the hills above Edessa and lived the ascetic life, existing on barley bread, herbs, and water and dressed in rags. He wrote extensively and preached in Edessa. During a famine in 372-373, he distributed food and money to the poor and even organized an ambulance service for the sick. He died of exhaustion from his long hours of relief work.
The Gospel reading for tonight is particularly appropriate for this week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Jesus tells his disciples (and us) a little about how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, as well as giving insight into the relationship of the Trinity.
Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus by expounding him, just as Jesus had glorified his Father by expounding Him. In other words, the Spirit takes what God the Father had given to Jesus and explains it to the disciples. (“Unpacking” it, we might say.) The Spirit works on the disciples’ minds so that they can understand Jesus and then tell others what they have learned.
It sometimes seems that the personality of the Spirit is a little shadowy for us.(“Holy Spirit”? “Holy Ghost”?) This is actually very appropriate when you think about it because the Spirit never draws attention to himself. His job is to be like John the Baptist in that his ministry always points to Jesus.
In this particular passage, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth and he says the Spirit will guide us into all truth. Jesus had said earlier that if you are his disciple and live by his teaching, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
So, what does Jesus mean by “truth” here?
Where do we seek truth and how is it still hidden or forgotten for us?
How does the Holy Spirit reveal truth to us today?
A few years ago, I was wrestling with some difficult problems in my life and had gone to my priest for counseling. As we were heading out the door at the close of one session, I remember him saying, as rather a parting shot: “Well, you know what you need to do.”
At the time, that comment frustrated me terribly! If I already knew what I needed to do, why would I be seeking his counsel?
As it turned out, I think at some level, deep down, I did know what I needed to do to act on the situation and I think I made the right choice in the path I chose to follow.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie “A Few Good Men,” I’m sure you have seen that iconic courtroom dialogue between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. Cruise as the prosecutor has Nicholson on the stand and has backed him into a corner in his cross examination. He finally demands answers and says: “I want the truth!”
Nicholson responds: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
I think that’s true for us sometimes. It’s more than we can bear. We have hard choices to make, difficult actions to undertake, bad news that we know is coming. Or, it may not necessarily be bad news. We may be challenged to grow and stretch and use talents and abilities that we aren’t altogether sure we possess, and we draw back, afraid of what might be required of us.
We say we are looking for answers but really we don’t want the truth if it is going to be hard. We don’t want to handle the truth. We want to write our own story the way we think it should turn out, even when, deep down, we know that that will be fiction and not real life.
But the Holy Spirit is right along with us, patiently trying to lead us into truth. I know for me there have been times when I have been forced to make a hard choice or finally ask a difficult question when I didn’t want to hear the answer. And when that decision was made or the answer to the question came, I knew it was OK. It resonated within me, like casting a pebble out on water and seeing the circles grow and expand. I knew it was OK and that I was going to be OK. And I believe that was the Holy Spirit.
But remember that the Holy Spirit does not force himself on us. Sometimes we just need to be still and listen for his guidance. Sometimes we need to be aware of own physical response to choices; I think the Holy Spirit speaks to us in the reality of our bodies, which carry more wisdom than our busy minds know. Trust that the Holy Spirit is leading you to your Truth and as Jesus said, this is the truth that will set you free to be the person God has created you to be.
If this, then that…..
There’s this website: ifttt.com, which is an acronym for “If this, then that.” The website is a community of users who have all contributed what are called “recipes” for setting up simple commands to create technological shortcuts with email, smart phones, etc. The recipes involve an initial action (If this…) which serves as a trigger to make something else happen (then that).
As you scroll through the recipes on the website, you will see that many of them are designed to help people manage business communication, organize projects, and generally be more productive. Others are perhaps a little less essential. They include commands such as:
If there will be rain tomorrow, send me an email reminder to carry my umbrella.
When I leave work in the afternoon, send my spouse a text saying I’m heading home.
And there is even one that says:
When I get to church, remind me to silence my phone.
The purpose of this website, as they put it, is “to create powerful connections with one simple statement,” which I think is applicable to today’s reading from the Gospel of John.
In this reading from what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse, Jesus has just finished his last supper with his disciples. Judas has left to betray him. Jesus gives final words of comfort and hope to his disciples, preparing them for the long day ahead. A full one third of John’s Gospel is devoted to the 24 hour period before Jesus’ death. Time seems to slow and almost come to a stop in this scene. There is nothing like it in the rest of the Bible.
Jesus tells the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In Chapter 13, he has told them about a new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” And again in Chap 15, “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for this friends.”
It is interesting to think that Jesus’ commandment is to love. Can you command someone to love? We don’t usually consider love as a response that can be ordered or directed. An employer dealing with two contentious employees can require that they work as a team but he can’t make them love each other. A teacher with two confrontational students can insist that they behave in class but she can’t make them love each other. And, as every parent who has made a long car trip with two fussy kids in the back seat knows, you may get the older to temporarily stop picking on the younger (or vice versa), but neither one is going to feel too lovable towards the other for a while. We can control behavior but we can’t override feelings.
Not only that, but the commandment Jesus gives is a new one: “Love others as I have loved you.” It is no longer enough to follow Mosaic law and love others as you love yourself. Now you must love others as Jesus loves them. You must be willing to lay down your life for them.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
If this, then that….
For the disciples and for us, it must be our love for God which motivates our obedience to this commandment. Our love for Jesus results in our conformity to his commandment. Perhaps that seems like too abstract an idea for how to treat others in your daily life.
Think for just a moment about a person in your life who loves you, believes in you, and always expects the very best of you. It might be a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, mentor. It might be someone alive today or someone from your past. How does this person’s presence in your life affect your behavior and actions? Doesn’t the thought of this person always elicit the very best from you, not because you fear punishment or are coerced, but because of love? You want to be that best version of yourself that they believe to be true. You could almost say that this person represents Jesus in your life.
And so the next question must be: where is Jesus himself real in your life and how does that impact your daily walk? Does your love for him motivate you to be your best self for others?
Does this sound like too much to carry? Too high an expectation?
If these things happen–If you love me and keep my commandments– then, Jesus goes on to say, something else will also happen.
I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.
The Holy Spirit is alternately described as a Helper, Counselor, Advocate, one who encourages and strengthens. This is also new. The Spirit of God came upon believers in the Old Testament but did not stay. Jesus describes an abiding relationship, one in which the Spirit remains with and in believers. Controlled, strengthened, encouraged by the Spirit, we are guided into the will and work of God. One of the prayers we make at Baptism is that God will teach the newly baptized to love others in the power of the Spirit. It is through this daily indwelling that we are empowered to love others as Jesus loves them.
Jesus says he will not leave us orphaned. We do not serve, as Paul said, an “unknown god” but one in whom we live and move and have our being. We celebrate Baptism because, in the words of the Prayer Book: “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. We are adopted as God’s own children, incorporating us into the holy Church and making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
Today we honor Frances Perkins, public servant and prophetic witness. She was the US Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and is largely responsible for the adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and the adoption of the federal minimum wage. The scripture readings for today reflect Perkins’ commitment to those in need. The Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy reminds us to: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” The Gospel reading from Luke recounts the miraculous feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.
I thought the epistle reading for tonight was particularly timely, perhaps not so much thinking about Frances Perkins as the season in which we currently find ourselves. We have just come through graduation ceremonies at USF and the weeks ahead will bring many more such commencements from schools big and small all over the country. As I read this selection from Ephesians, I thought about commencement speeches which are generally written to give graduates a blueprint for living a meaningful life.
It’s a shame that most graduates probably don’t hear the commencement speech being delivered as they wait impatiently to walk the stage for their diploma and get on to graduation celebrations. We hear about commencement speeches that are especially humorous or radical or maybe even profound but the truth of the matter is that “the rules” for living a good life are surprisingly simple. In Ephesians (written from a prison cell, by the way), Paul opens with several chapters of good news and closes with this advice to young church at Ephesus:
- Speak the truth
- It’s OK to get angry but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge
- Thieves should stop thieving
- Don’t tear down others with your words
- Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God
- Put away bitterness, wrath, and malice
- Be kind to one another
It’s that last one that got me.
Last year, author George Saunders gave a commencement address at Syracuse University. In it, he advised the graduating class to always “err on the side of kindness.”
The following story is in his words:
I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
But kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.
He’s right, isn’t he? Kindness can be easy if you happen to be in a kindly mood but beyond that, well, it’s hard. We live in a world where we can be surprisingly unkind to each other from the anonymous safety (and distance) of our computer keyboards, a world where the most innocuous interpersonal interactions can erupt into heated exchanges and violence. We witness this on a daily basis in our newspapers and on the six o’clock news.
You would think kindness would be a pretty easy quality for Christians. After all, we are nice people, aren’t we? But I think St Paul and George Saunders would say, that’s where we’ve got it wrong. Kindness is not the same thing as a lack of meanness. Kindness and niceness are not the same thing.
Paul says that being kind means being tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Being kind means imitating God as beloved children and living in love as Christ himself loved us and gave himself up for us.
Not easy, right?
But not impossible either.
With God, nothing is impossible.
C.P.Estes has said:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale…to be fierce and to show mercy to others, both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
So be fierce.
Always err on the side of kindness.
Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
We’ve just heard the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. And it is so hard to listen to this story of betrayal, sorrow, pain, and death. Generally speaking, death is hard for us. Even when we know it is coming (and in this case we’ve had forty days of Lent to prepare), we don’t know how to handle it. What to do, what to say. And in such cases, we often say nothing. We are silent.
Silence can be an awkward, in-between place for us. We tend to fill silence in our lives with the background noise from televisions, radios, ipods, computers. We jump ahead to fill silence in conversations. Even here in worship, we can be a little unsettled by silence.
I’ve been thinking about silence this week from a musician’s perspective. I think, in music, that silence is not so much the absence of sound as it is a critical part of our experience.
For example, consider what it is like to attend a concert. There is a cacophony of noise as instruments warm up–nothing scripted but it always sounds the same. Finally, everything becomes quiet, silent. The conductor comes on stage, steps up to the podium and everyone is waiting. For musicians and audience alike, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. I think Christmas Eve is a bit like that. No matter how noisy and hectic the season, when you arrive here at church for the Christmas Eve service, you become silent and still, waiting for the coming miracle of the baby Jesus.
Silence before music is one thing. Silence within music is something else. Think about how crucial silence is within music. If everyone sang, everyone played their instrument all the time, how boring would that be? Instead, musicians share the gift of deliberately scheduled silence. Isn’t it ironic that silence in music is designated by symbols known as “rests”? I’ve accompanied students who will describe the difficulty of their music by the lack of rests. (“There’s no place for me to breathe in this piece.”) Some of us have spent this Lenten season looking for this very type of silence, a place to rest and a time to breathe. Too few rests (in music and in life) can be a problem.
But there’s another difficulty with silence in music for some musicians: too many rests! Think of the lone cymbal player who must sit attentively through measures and measures of “rest,” focused and counting, waiting for that moment when he or she is called to play that all-important part. Some of us have spent Lent here, too, waiting and watching for an important event in our own life or that of a loved one. It may look easy to others but such active waiting and watching is anything but “resting.”
Today, however, we have come to a very different type of silence. Not in anticipation, not in active waiting. We are finally still. We have made our Lenten journey. We have, once more, passed through the Stations of the Cross. We have, once more, been with those at the foot of the cross and seen Jesus carried to his tomb. And now for a brief time we are silent.
And that made me think of one more type of silence that I associate with music.
When a concert concludes, the audience may respond in one of several ways. Some times there is, of course, immediate and enthusiastic applause with perhaps a spontaneous standing ovation. On the other hand, if the concert has been more lengthy and less engaging, the audience may rouse themselves to applaud politely while secretly thankful to be finally released. (The performer has to move quickly to get back on stage for that second bow before the applause stops!)
But once in a while, if you are very fortunate you will be witness to a musical performance that was so moving, so emotionally profound, that when it is finished, the audience is momentarily silent. And as that silence stretches out, it speaks more loudly than the applause which ultimately does follow, ever could.
That is the silence we share here on Good Friday–God’s Friday, as it was once called.
We may ponder questions that this narrative raises for us:
How could Judas betray his Lord? Why did the shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday turn so quickly to “Crucify him”? Which group bore the greater responsibility for Jesus’ death–the religious leaders or political overlords? What caused Pilate to wash his hands and allow the execution of someone he believed to be innocent?
But ultimately we are faced with the real question as we stand at the foot of the cross and wait by the tomb in the garden: what does Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross mean for me today? How am I to understand and respond to God’s love for me in Christ?
I think that here on Good Friday we are captured by silence, contemplating guilt and forgiveness, in awe and astonishment at what our Lord has done for us. We sit together in silence, waiting the coming of Easter morning and the joy of resurrection.
And we say in words from final verse of the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
We have had several remarkable stories from the Gospel of John during this Lenten season: Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus healing the man born blind, and now Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.
These last two are in a group categorized as “signs.” Sign stories include turning water into wine, healing the cripple in the pool, healing the man born blind, and feeding the five thousand. A sign story is a miraculous act of Jesus surrounded or followed by a theological discussion of its meaning. Sign stories usually show Jesus is acting in his own time and not according to external pressures. The primary function of a sign story is revelation, revealing some truth about God’s glory and presence in the world through Jesus’ ministry.
This particular story is a little more complicated because it is about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and at some level, we know Mary and Martha (if not Lazarus) more personally than the cripple in the pool, the man born blind and the multitudes who ate loaves and fishes.
From Luke’s account of Mary and Martha, we have already seen Jesus in their domestic setting. I’ve always felt a great deal of empathy with Martha, the sister who was “distracted with many things.” We tend to be a little judgmental towards her as she is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, busily working in the kitchen while Jesus was teaching in their home, complaining to Jesus that her sister Mary wasn’t helping. However, keep in mind that Martha was also an active presence in that story and in today’s Gospel; she is the family member who goes out to meet Jesus in today’s story and who calls her sister to go to Jesus. Martha is also the first to correctly acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God.
And then there is Mary….
We tend to see her portrayed as the mystic, the dreamer, the one sitting passively at Jesus’ feet. However, bear in mind that in Luke’s account, Mary had adopted the form of a disciple at the feet of his rabbi, a role that would have been scandalous for a woman in her day. She is also the one who, in a few more short verses ahead in John’s Gospel, will enter a room full of men, let down her hair and anoint Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, wiping it away with her hair. I think we are too quick to discount how radical Mary’s actions really are.
And then, there’s Lazarus. Truth be told, we don’t know much about Lazarus but we do know that Jesus loved him and Mary and Martha, and at the beginning of this reading their little family is in crisis.
I think all of us here have experienced family crises before and know that they have some characteristics in common. For one thing, there is always an element of imminent danger. At the beginning of this story, we know that Lazarus is ill and in danger of dying. We may forget that Jesus is also in danger in this story. If he returns to Bethany, which is very near Jerusalem, he is likely to be in danger from the authorities. His disciples know this and warn him. We can certainly presume that Mary and Martha also know this, but despite this very real threat to their dear friend, they are desperate and know that they must reach out to him for help.
In crisis situations, there is usually the possibility of miscommunication with other people. Look at the conversations Jesus has with his disciples in this story! They seem unable to grasp the idea that Lazarus’s “sleep” is something other than a temporary nap! Jesus finally has to be blunt and say that Lazarus has indeed died and that he is going to Bethany to wake him.
Crisis situations can be emotional roller coasters. Mary and Martha both react to Jesus’ return with what might be construed as a rebuke (“If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened”) followed by a statement of faith. Jesus likewise enters the scene in confidence but is overwhelmed by his own emotions when he sees the grief that surrounds Lazarus’ death. The words used to describe his grief also can be translated as describing strong emotion such as anger: is Jesus, the Lord of Life, perhaps overcome by anger at the grief and misery Death can cause?
So, a crisis can produce danger, miscommunication, high emotions. But a crisis can also be a turning point. That is what we see here. This is not just about one family’s crisis but the redemption of the world.
The puzzling question about this story seems to be: why did Jesus wait? Why did he hesitate when he received news of Lazarus’ illness? The answer goes back to the idea of “signs” which Jesus did in his own time and which reveal a truth of God’s presence in the world.
We remember Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Think about how his first response to his mother’s request seems almost brusque (“My hour has not yet come”)?
Jesus likewise responds to news of Lazarus’ illness by saying it will be “for the glory of God and the Son of God will be glorified by it.” To the disciples he says that it will be “so that you may believe.” He promises Martha that she will see the glory of God:
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The raising of Lazarus is a definitely a turning point for Mary and Martha, returning their beloved brother to his place in the family. A journey from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.
The raising of Lazarus is also a turning point in Jesus’ story. Next week we will celebrate Palm Sunday and begin Holy Week but the raising of Lazarus is really where the Passion narrative begins. For the high priests and Pharisees, this act is the final straw and they begin to plan how they might put Jesus to death. As Jesus says to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, he is facing his own impending death and the stone on his own tomb.
And this story is a turning point for all of us in the church. As Jesus calls Lazarus forth, he is calling all of us to life, promising that if we believe, though we die yet shall we live. Jesus tells us: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This story is not about the resolution of one family’s crisis but instead the redemption of the world. As Fred Caddock phrased it: “Faith is always first generation, with an immediacy about it that does not distinguish between our being there and his being here.”
Easter is coming!
If you have ever tried to row a boat, you know that to go forward you have to pull with both oars. If you only paddle on one side of the boat, you will end up just going around in circles! In fact, to say that someone “doesn’t have both oars in the water” means that they don’t know what they are doing and they are just being foolish.
James is talking about the two oars that pull us forward in Christian living: faith and works. You must have both or you will end up just running around in circles! Just talking about faith doesn’t mean you have it. For example, if you see an old friend dressed in rags and starving and you say “Jesus loves you! Have a great day!” but you don’t do anything to help them, your “faith” isn’t real.
James says: “I by my works will show you my faith.” Good works alone aren’t enough; we don’t “earn” our way into heaven by doing more good deeds than the other people around us. We certainly don’t do good deeds to make ourselves look important or to feel good. Instead, our good works are a response to the faith we have in God and a way we make that faith visible to everyone around us.
Faith and works are so closely tied together that they are like a physical body and the spirit of the person who lives in that body. If you take away the life spirit of that person, the body by itself would be dead. Faith without some sort of works is dead too. Take a moment today to think about how you respond to God’s love? What are your works of faith?
And try to keep both oars in the water!