Wednesday, April 30, 2014
A long day: Left the house at 7:30. Drove to Champaign, arriving at Emmanuel an hour ahead of the 10am funeral liturgy for Fr Alan Herbst. Consulted with Deacon Chris Hopkins, who did a sterling job coordinating the event. Presided, preached, and greeted people at the reception. Pointed the YFNBmobile back west and slightly north at around 12:30, heading for Bloomington. Spent most of the afternoon at St Matthew's, enjoying a substantive visit with Fr Dave Halt over a range of matters, partially processing an impressive stack of email, then meeting and greatly enjoying talking with a potential aspirant to the diaconate. At 6pm, it was my privilege to preside at the official opening and blessing of a recently-constructed annex to their physical plant, providing a new entrance from the parking lot, two up-to-code restrooms on the main floor, and a spacious new sacristy. This was fun. After enjoying a few bites of ham, fried chicken, sloppy joe, and a homemade eclair, I hit the road again, this time north on I-39. This trip concluded about three and a quarter hours later with a check-in at the Hilton Garden in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Tomorrow the Presiding Bishop visits Nashotah House, and I will be there for the occasion in my capacity as chairman of the board.
Alan Herbst was many things to those who are gathered here this morning, or who wish they could be gathered here. He was a brother, a brother-in-law, and a stepson. To the clergy of the diocese he served for nearly three decades, he was a colleague and friend—one who, I am told, delivered some superb meditations in his role as chaplain to the synods in 2010 that resulted in my election as bishop of this wonderful diocese. And shortly following that election, Alan was among the first to reach out to me in welcome by telephone even as I was still trying to process the news of the impending change in my life. But to the great majority of those have come together today in worship and prayer, song and remembrance, Alan Herbst was a pastor and priest, the long-tenured rector of this historic and vital parish.
And that is, I’m sure, how Father Alan would most want to be remembered: as a priest. It’s usually quite healthy and necessary for us to maintain a boundary between our identity and our work, between our being and our doing. But I can tell you from experience that this is a very difficult distinction to maintain when one’s vocation is the priesthood. It is, in fact, one of the wonderful things about the priesthood. A priest gets to integrate being and doing in a way that has the capacity to lead to great wholeness, great integrity, especially if a priest is mindful that the severe mercy, the sacrificial privilege, of the vocation is to pour one’s life out as a libation, a drink-offering, for the glory of God, the salvation of souls, the building up of the Church, and the life of the world. Yes, I’m fairly certain that the Reverend Alan Herbst would want to be remembered as someone who did just that.
Most of us are familiar with what a priest does on a practical level. I can tell you that, as most priests feel the weight of their responsibility, Job One is simply to make sure that Sunday morning, along with everything associated with it, just happens … smoothly and without incident … that hymns get sung, prayers get prayed, sermons get preached, and sacraments get celebrated. All that is not nearly as easy as it might seem, and Fr Alan made sure that it got done, not only in a minimalist sort of way, but with great care and love. Emmanuel has a rich tradition of worship that your new rector will inherit in a few weeks—a tradition that is liturgical and spiritual, to be sure, but also quite tangible; the very physical fabric of this place in many of its details is part of that inheritance. This is, in fact, a great gift, and one that comes largely as a result of the life and labor of Alan Herbst.
But there is also a more generic meaning to priesthood, a meaning that transcends even the familiar categories of the Christian presbyterate. A priest is one who stands in the gap between God’s holiness and human sinfulness, between God’s original and infinite real-ness, and our contingent finitude, our quite flimsy real-ness. A priest transforms the glory of God down to a voltage at which others can encounter it and not turn to dust. Alan made himself available for that ministry as well, although, as a contingent and finite human being himself, he had to rely solely on the grace of the One who alone is our Great High Priest, the One who continually makes intercession for us, who stands in the gap on our behalf before God the Father. I speak, of course, of our risen Lord, Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
I was kind of joking with Deacon Chris over the phone last week, in a macabre sort of way, that nobody consults those who will be most affected by the timing of their death, about whether it will be convenient for anybody. Most of the time, a death is quite inconvenient, and appropriately so, I suppose. But I have to say, Alan did an extraordinarily good job choosing to pass on at the time of year he did. We are in the midst of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, a “week of weeks,” wherein we are at every turn put in mind of the central verities of our faith: that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. We are put in mind of the fact that death does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is life forevermore. Because Jesus is risen from the dead, those of us who have “clothed ourselves in Christ” in the waters of baptism have our destiny inextricably tied up with his destiny. Jesus rose from the dead and left death in the grave, not so that we don’t have to also experience death—we do—but so that death would no more have dominion over us, that as we have been configured to Christ in a death like his, so we will be configured to Christ in a resurrection like his. As Job cried out, in anticipation of the redemption wrought by Christ, “and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Our destiny in Christ is indeed to see God face to face and not die as a result of the encounter, because we have been conformed to the image of Jesus, who is himself the perfect image of the Father.
This is the hope in which Alan Herbst was baptized, in which he lived, and in which he died. Our job now is to commend him on the next phase of his journey toward being configured perfectly to the image of God in Christ. It is our job now, collectively, to be a priestly people on Alan’s behalf, to stand in the gap for him as he stood in the gap for so many who are here and so many who are not here. As we lift up our hearts in thanks and praise, as we lift up the consecrated bread and wine, become in that moment the very Body and Blood of the risen Christ, we are, as a “kingdom of priests” (to use the words of St Peter in his first epistle) making intercession for Alan, saying to God the Father, “Look on your servant Alan not as he is in this moment—broken, incomplete—but look on him as he will be when you are finished with him—completely whole, completely healed, completely as you intended him to be when he was conceived in his mother’s womb. We plead the offering of your Son Jesus on Alan’s behalf.”
And then, having done that important work for Alan, we come to the altar and stretch our hands across the communion rail into heaven itself, where we partake the bread of angels, where we are fed with same celestial food with which Alan is now being fed by the one true and great High Priest. Praised be Jesus Christ. Alleluia and Amen.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
- 38 available tasks ... 13 selected for completion today.
- Debriefed with the Archdeacon on events transpiring during my absence from the office.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Gave final approval to the draft bulletin for Fr Herbst's funeral tomorrow.
- Took care of a pesky detail concerning one of the credit cards I use for business expenses.
- Made hotel reservations in Dallas for next week's meeting of the Living Church Foundation board.
- Met with Sandy Moore, Chair of the Department of National and World Mission.
- Lunch from ChiTown's Finest, eaten at home.
- Took care of some administrative details pertaining to the Canterbury pilgrimage.
- Took care of some administrative details pertaining to the transition of clergy leadership at the cathedral.
- Hand-wrote notes to clergy celebrating birthdays and ordination anniversaries in May.
- Conceived, hatched, drafted, refined, and printed a homily for tomorrow's funeral.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral. Home around 6:30, whereupon I was prevailed upon to take Brenda's dog for a long walk around the neighborhood so Brenda could fix dinner. When things are presented to me that way, I can be quite accommodating.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Slept in until the rather embarrassing hour of 9am. Don't do that often. Don't get to do that often. After packing up (in the Chicago condo occupied by our son and his wife), we headed northwest about 40 miles to the small exurban community of Cary, where my mother lives at an assisted living facility there. We visited for about an hour, then headed home, traversing a violent thunderstorm in the vicinity of Lincoln. Home around 7. Now unpacked and facing a daunting week, with yet more travel.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Spent the day in Chicago visiting with our son and daughter-in-law. Went to the 11am Solemn High at Ascension. Met the new rector, and chatted a bit with an assisting priest there who is a recent Nashotah alum. Great lunch and great dinner at local Logan Square establishments. Did some sight-seeing in the Hyde Park/University of Chicago area, and looked in on an art exhibition there. On the opposite end of town, we enjoyed a bird sanctuary near Montrose Avenue beach. After dinner, we took in the film The Grand Budapest Hotel at the local cinema. A very good day.
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Now happily ensconced for the night in the Chicago condo where our son and daughter-in-law live. We will be ordinary pew-sitters tomorrow morning, then spend the rest of the day and Monday morning in the Windy City before heading home Monday afternoon. It was a joy earlier today to take part in the consecration of the Rt Revd Matthew Gunter as 8th Bishop of Fond du Lac. The deed was done in a large mega-church facility in Appleton.
Friday, April 25, 2014
Up at ... well, I blanch to even mention the hour, but our departure by air from ABQ was at 6am, so you do the math, factoring in returning a rental car and clearing security. After a layover in Denver long enough to get some breakfast, we were back on a plane to Chicago, touching down around 11:30am local time. After retrieving our bags, riding a train and a shuttle bus, we were back in the YFNBmobile, which we pointed northward. About three and a half hours later, we were checking in at the Hilton Garden in Appleton, WI. Through the day, I'd had two substantive emails and a phone conversation involving three different individuals, but pertaining to the same subject, which then became the subject of another substantive email, this time from me to all of them. We then enjoyed a lovely dinner with our friend Bishop Ed Little of Northern Indiana. Looking forward to tomorrow's consecration of Matt Gunter as Bishop of Fond du Lac.
Thursday, April 24, 2014
This was a planned "play day" in our gathering of Class of 2011 bishops and spouses in Albuquerque (I'm so tired of spelling that!). We took a day trip to Santa Fe via the (newish) Rail Runner train service. Slightly reduced in number, we were a gang of thirteen, which can become a little unwieldy even among mature adults. We ate well, drank a bit, shopped a bit, toured a bit (churches and museums), and made it, safely and together, onto the 6:46pm departure, with a train car pretty much to ourselves, which was a good thing because we were ever so slightly raucous.
Yet, even in the midst of life, we are in death, and the progress in communication technology over recent decades makes it more and more difficult to escape that reality. While on the train this morning, I learned via cell phone of the sudden death of Fr Alan Herbst, recently retired rector of Emmanuel, Champaign. This spawned a handful of texts and emails and phone calls to which I devoted my attention through the course of the day. On the whole, I'm grateful that technology enabled me to do so.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
We have now concluded the working portion of our Class of 2011 bishops continuing education retreat. This has involved dividing into two groups of five and presenting "critical incident reports." This would be a situation or conflict that has arisen in the course of our ministry that we find challenging and/or perplexing. The person presenting the critical incident lays out the facts, names the key players, and gives background information. Then the others ask questions of information and clarification. At that point, the presenter recedes and remains mute while the others discuss the situation, offer observations, and suggest possible strategies. Then the presenter is brought back into the conversation and given the opportunity to articulate any new insights gained. I have found this a very valuable exercise, both when I have been a presenter and when I have been listening and offering observations.
Tomorrow is a play day. We're making a day trip to Santa Fe via the Rail Runner Express. Not only do I love Santa Fe, but I love train travel, so I'm looking forward to a good day!
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014
Left the Chicago condo at 7am to head out to O'Hare for a 10:05 departure to Albuquerque. Everything went smoothly, save that, for the first time in a string of flights going back to November, I did not receive "TSA-Pre" status on my boarding pass. Brenda, however, did. So she cleared security about 15 minutes earlier than I did. We landed in New Mexico around noon local time, retrieved our bags, picked up our rental car, drove to the Hampton Inn off Coors Road, checked in, got some lunch at a nearby Mexican place (not memorable), came back to the hotel and got unpacked and otherwise settled in, rested for a while (still greatly in need of that), caught up on some emails, made a shopping foray to a nearby Whole Foods, and eventually made our way to the Bosque Center--a complex that houses a conference center, a retreat house, and the offices of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. Here for some self-engineered continuing education with other members of the Class of 2011 bishops. We're here until Friday morning.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I saw a cartoon on Facebook. There was an empty tomb, and somebody evidently meant to be understood as the risen Christ. Others are asking him, "Since you don't need it anymore, do you mind if we lie down here for a while? Just come by in three days and wake us up. Thank-you, all clergy everywhere." So ... that's pretty much how I felt after celebrating and preaching at both cathedral liturgies this morning. Still, after only a brief afternoon nap, we had to pack up and head north to Chicago, where we have an AM departure from O'Hare to Albuquerque for four days of self-organized continuing education for the Class of 2011 bishops (and, this time, spouses). Spending the night at our Logan Square condo that we rent to our son and daughter-in-law.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
- Spent most of the morning at the cathedral, helping the Altar Guild get set up for tonight and tomorrow. I logged nearly a mile and half on my pedometer just puttering around there.
- Got a haircut, did some laundry, took a long walk on a beautiful day, and shopped a bit in the afternoon.
- Back to St Paul's a little for before 7:00. Walked through the liturgy with the key players, then began the celebration. Nine baptisms, ranging from infants to youth to adults. Six confirmations--three youth and three adult. Here I am after the liturgy with the kids. Great night at St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield. The Holy Spirit was kinetic. Christos aneste!
St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
Death is all around us. A little more than a month ago, this church was filled for the funeral of its own priest. On most mornings, it’s part of my routine to look at the obituaries in the State Journal-Register, and I know many of you do the same. Since nearly the beginning of Lent, the attention of the news media has been fixed on the fate of a Malaysian airliner with 239 souls on board. It’s a number that is surely impressive enough. But, as a number, it allows us to distance ourselves from the fact that we’re talking about 239 real people with real lives and real loved ones, and real stories—stories that ended sooner than anybody had planned on. Each one of those lives is precious—precious to those who loved them, and precious to God.
But while there have not been any other spectacular plane crashes since that aircraft went missing, there are still those who became sudden victims of the mudslide near Seattle, those who perished in yet another shooting spree at Fort Hood, and a busload of high school students in California on their way to a college visit who died because a truck crossed the center divide on a rural interstate highway. And this is to say nothing, of course, of all the ordinary and unspectacular deaths that are recorded on the obituary pages of newspapers large and small all across the land, all across the world. Each one of those lives is utterly precious to those who loved them, utterly precious to God.
Death is all around us. Even the little ones whose new birth in Christ we celebrate tonight, will some day suffer death. Death is our deepest fear. We fear death—and love life—so much that our first impulse is to resist it with any means available. Even an animal—a mouse being stalked by a cat, or an antelope being tracked by a leopard—even an animal, that has no conception of time, no particular plans for the future, will ferociously cling to life with every ounce of its strength. Yes, there are conditions under which we would wish for death. Those whose quality of life has been degraded by pain or weakness due to disease or age understandably often feel that death would be an attractive alternative to their suffering. But in such cases, death is the lesser of two evils. Death is never preferable in itself, but only as an alternative to something we consider even more horrible
So, what can we do? How can we respond to such a gloomy reality? Well, one possible response is good, old-fashioned denial. Most of us are very good at denial in general; some of us are virtual masters of the art! When it comes to denying death, 20-years olds who race motorcycles without helmets are probably at the top of their form. For the rest of us, however, denying the reality of death isn’t much of an option. I find myself at the age now when a sobering percentage of those who populate the obituaries are younger than I am.
So if denial doesn’t work, what else is available? Well, how about glorification? If you can’t beat it, celebrate it. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you know who the Klingons are, and are probably familiar with the motto of a Klingon warrior: “Today is a good day to die” —the implication being, to die in combat. One might also think of so-called “suicide bombers,” who consider themselves martyrs for a holy cause, with the deaths they cause, including their own, constituting a glorious offering to God, who is quite pleased by the whole thing. In the cold light of day, however, the only people who think death in combat is glorious are those who have never been in combat.
Another attitude we might take toward the unpleasant reality of death is simply to accept it. Death is completely natural, part of the organic cycle of the universe, just a part of life, etc. etc.
This view is commended by the fact that it’s realistic, to say the least. One could perhaps even say that it’s “scientific,” and thereby invest it with the glow of unassailable authority. It seems to be a mature, grown-up, attitude to take, and I know that many parents have attempted to explain death to their children along these lines. And for a while, I suspect, we may be able to talk ourselves into finding it comforting. Sooner or later, however—usually when faced with the imminent prospect of our own death, or the death of someone close to us, the knot in the pit of our stomachs returns, and we become that wildebeest on the Serengeti again, willing to do whatever it takes to escape the tenacious clutches of death. Acceptance is a nice concept, but is often flawed in execution.
My friends in Christ, Easter offers us an alternative. Easter offers us another way of dealing with the fear and anxiety that flow from the reality of death—an alternative to the foolishness of denial, the blindness of glorification, and the fatalism of passive acceptance. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead transforms death. Easter does not deny the reality of death. Jesus was really dead—stone cold dead as a doornail. It was not a charade. It was not a trick. He died on the cross. His body was taken down from the cross, dressed for burial according to Jewish custom, and placed in a tomb. His body began to decompose. He was dead.
And Easter certainly does not glorify death. Death is the sacramental sign of the presence of Sin and Evil in the world. Death is a constant reminder that the “bad guys” have been in charge; the thieves have been minding the store. Death is ugly. Death is cruel. Death is bitter. There is no glory in it.
Most importantly, however, Easter does not accept death. Death is still our Grand Enemy. It is the font from which all human suffering ultimately flows. Even—or I should say, especially—when it puts on a kind and gentle mask by appearing as the bearer of relief from suffering, death is a fraud, because it is in reality the very source of that suffering that it pretends to relieve.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead transforms death. We might say that it domesticates death, it tames death, even as a skilled horse trainer “breaks” a wild stallion, and makes it do his bidding and channels its energy for his own purposes. St Paul tells us that death is “swallowed up in victory.” Swallowed up—that’s a very concrete and graphic image, is it not? So just what is it that “swallows” death? Here’s the really good part: What swallows death is death itself! When Jesus died, death died with him. When Jesus rose, death was left in the grave. What a masterful trick God played on our most feared enemy! It’s like tricking a snake to swallow its own tail, and then watching it choke itself to … well…death. Death chokes on death. Death is swallowed up in victory. Death becomes the gateway to the nearer presence of God, and eternal life in the joy of His love. “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
With our Easter faith, we will still try to avoid death and still cling to life. It cannot be otherwise, as life is what we, as human beings created in the image of God, are “about.” Life is what the gospel is about; life is what God is about. We still grieve and we still mourn—but with a difference: we are not “as those who have no hope.” Every Friday, those who pray the evening office from the Book of Common Prayer repeat a collect that has become very dear to my own heart. It begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you, and wake up in your likeness…”. Jesus does not take away death, either by denying it, or glorifying it, or passively accepting it. But he does take away takes its “sting,” by transforming it, taming it, making it work for him. He then allows us to “fall asleep peacefully” in him, and then—this is the really good part!—to “wake up in [his] likeness.” Alleluia and Amen.
Friday, April 18, 2014
Up and out at the usual hour, but upon arrival at the office-cathedral complex I was immediately waylaid by a sequence of small but emergent concerns, mostly relating to tonight's liturgy. Finally got to read Morning Prayer in my office, but it was decidedly mid-morning by that time. I was actually fairly productive on a day that suggests a quiet demeanor, but I did get some praying in amid my work. And I'm an inveterate liturgical putterer on the days of the Triduum, so I was back and forth to the cathedral several times for various reasons. I spent a good chunk of the midday consulting commentaries and otherwise closely studying the readings for Ascension. This was in preparation for making a guest preaching appearance outside the diocese. It was a little surreal to be contemplating the ascension on Good Friday, but I handled it. I also checked off a major piece of Nashotah House-related work, did a little bit of online shopping for ecclesiastical haberdashery, and belatedly posted the alternative Prayers of the People forms that I am wont to encourage for the Sundays of Lent and Easter. At around 6, I drifted across the alley once again to talk through the choreography of tonights service with the altar party. The liturgy went very smoothly, with nary a wrinkle, and we did it well. Again, attendance was disappointing, but for those who were there, it was a blessing.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
- Usual Thursday morning exercise.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Puttered around with the cathedral altar guild directress in preparation for tonight's liturgy.
- Worked on tying up the loose ends of a clergy deployment issue.
- Reported to the Central Illinois Blood Bank for my 11am appointment, only to be eventually turned away because of last November's visit to Tanzania. Donating blood is complicated when one has a well-stamped passport.
- Resumed working on, and completed for the time being, the aforementioned clergy deployment issue.
- Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
- Put some substantial meat on the bones of a pretty spare outline for a homily on Easter III (May 4 at St Bartholomew's, Granite City).
- Dealt sequentially with three different administrative issues that have been in the queue for quite some time. Glad to have them checked off
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Puttered around with more preparations, morphing eventually into the scheduled rehearsal with those serving.
- Presided and preached at the proper liturgy of the day. Attendance was less than stellar (probably due to nobody in particular driving the boat at the cathedral presently), but the essential work got done. It's always been my custom to quietly say something kindly and pastoral to those whose feet I wash. Tonight it was easy. I didn't know in advance who it was going to be, but when I looked at each person who sat down in front of me, it seemed like they were the very ones whose service animates the ministry of the cathedral congregation. The Mass got celebrated and the altar got stripped, of course, but it was in those moments with a pitcher and towel in my hands that Maundy Thursday "happened" for me.
St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
What is tonight about? What are we doing here, anyway?
We’re going to wash some feet. That, in itself, is pretty ordinary. Feet get washed all the time. I washed my own this morning. You probably washed yours too. But most of us don’t usually have somebody else wash our feet, and feet don’t ordinarily get washed even in public, let alone in church. In our culture, feet are not among those body parts that we consider most private and intimate. But neither are they the most presentable, like our faces. They’re somewhere in between. So we’re doing a very ordinary thing in a very extraordinary context.
Then, after we’ve washed feet, we’re going to take some rather tasteless wafers made from ultra-refined wheat, and some after-dinner wine, and say some prayers over them and then reverently consume them in token quantities per person, and just as reverently save the leftovers to be used in tomorrow night’s liturgy. Again, how utterly ordinary this is—eating bread and drinking wine. It’s been part of the everyday fabric of human life since there’s been human life. Yet, how completely odd it seems in this context. The bread is nearly devoid of taste, which is a good thing, because we’re not really eating enough of it to make what would be considered a decent meal.
Then, before we go home, while the choir sings a rather depressing 3000-year old poem set to a subdued minor key, and while the congregation just sits and watches, the clergy and the members of the Altar Guild will solemnly remove just about everything from the sanctuary that isn’t bolted down, or too heavy to move conveniently. How ordinary that is. We all do little bits of straightening and tidying up in our living environments nearly every day. And, from time to time, we redecorate those living spaces, and move furniture around. But how odd it will seem in this context, to just be moving things around for ritual purposes, without any practical end in mind.
What is tonight about? What are we doing here, anyway?
Many of you have no doubt seen the hugely popular film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you haven’t seen the movie, maybe you’ve read the book. The linchpin of the plot, of course, involves a musty old armoire, a free-standing closet, sitting in an unused room in an English country estate house. In that context, it’s a very ordinary thing. But four visiting children discover that, if they make their way past the fur coats that are hanging there, under the right circumstances, they never run into the back of the closet or the wall of the room. The wardrobe is in fact a portal into another world, a place that isn’t found on any earthly maps, a place where a great deal is the same as what they’re used to, but a great deal is also different, very different.
If you’re familiar with the story, it will strike you as no great feat of literary analysis when I make four observations about the magic wardrobe that leads to the land of Narnia:
- Something unremarkably ordinary was the gateway to something absolutely extraordinary. In the early 1940s, there were free-standing closets in country estates all over England. There was nothing obviously unique about this wardrobe. But it was the gateway to an unmistakably extraordinary world, where animals and trees talk and witches cast spells.
- Those who went through that gateway from rural England into Narnia were transformed from being passive victims of world events to central actors in cosmic events. The reason the four children were at the country estate in the first place was to escape the blitz—the intensive bombing of London by the German air forces. Thousands of other children were doing the same thing, scattered in homes all over the English countryside. But when the kids got to Narnia, they were stars. They were key characters in an unfolding drama. Eventually, they were kings and queens.
- When anyone returned from Narnia, time in the “real world” resumed exactly at the instant they had left it; to the “real world,” it was as if they had never left. Lucy, the little girl who first discovered Narnia, wandered into the wardrobe during a game of Hide-and-Seek. When she tumbled out of it, after what seemed like hours to her, her first thought was to reassure her siblings that she was all right. But they weren’t concerned at all, because, to them, it was as if she’d never been gone.
- Those who returned from Narnia were forever changed by the experience. When Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy all came back to their “real” world together, after being in Narnia for years, and, in fact, growing into young adults there, they were English children once again. But they retained a memory of all that had transpired. They were, in fact, wiser for their experience.
What is tonight about? What are we doing here anyway?
We’re doing a series of odd things that all come under the category of “liturgical action”—washing feet, celebrating the Eucharist, and stripping the altar. My suggestion to you is that, as the magic wardrobe was for Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy, liturgical action is for us. The odd things we’re doing tonight serve as our “wardrobe”—our portal into not only another place, but another kind of place. Sacraments, like the Eucharist, and quasi-sacraments, like the washing of feet, and even mere symbolic actions, like the stripping of the altars, bear the same four characteristics, and lend themselves to the same four observations that we made about the magic wardrobe:
- Tonight, we are doing ordinary things that serve for us as the gateway to participation in something truly extraordinary—the Paschal Mystery. We are participating in God’s redemption of the cosmos, his re-weaving of the fabric of reality. The dying and rising of Christ is the hinge on which human history turns, and these sacramental and symbolic actions transport us to the place where it’s all happening.
- Instead of being passive victims of all that makes us anxious and fearful, what we do tonight enables us to become principal actors in the drama of redemption, God’s work of making all things new. The gifts that Aslan gives the four human visitors to Narnia—Peter’s sword, Susan’s bow and arrow, Lucy’s magic liquid—these gifts stand for the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we are given in baptism, gifts that enable us to fight a battle just as real and just as significant as that in the final scenes of the Narnia story.
- When we return, out the doors of the church, to the “real world,” the world will not believe where we’ve been! Those in the cars and trucks driving up and down Second Street during this service take little, if any, notice that there’s anything going on inside these venerable walls. When we join that traffic ourselves, it will be just as if we’d never left, and the world will try to seduce us into believing that it is the only reality there is.
- Those who have visited the Celestial Banquet through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are never the same, but forever changed. Eventually Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy went to live in Narnia permanently, as it is our destiny to live permanently where we now only visit.
So…this is what tonight is about. This is what we are doing here. This is why we are doing these ordinary but odd things—because they are at the same time more extraordinary and more real than we can possibly imagine. Amen.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared for the 12:15 Mass.
- Consulted with the Archdeacon on a couple of pastoral/administrative matters.
- Took care of registering for the June Province V House of Bishops meeting.
- Attended to an administrative/pastoral matter pertaining to one of our Eucharistic Communities that is both important and relatively urgent.
- Ditto the above, only a different church.
- Began the process of finishing and refining my Easter sermon.
- Showed up to celebrate the midday Mass in the cathedral chapel, but ... no congregation. Since it's a Prayer Book Holy Day, I felt obliged to say the Ante-Communion--the Eucharist up to the Offertory, where customary Anglican discipline dictates I could go no further.
- Lunch from Hardee's (yes, a new place for me), eaten at home.
- Completed the work on my Easter homily that I began before lunch.
- Attended to yet another pastoral/administrative issue, this one involving an individual.
- Wrote a substantive and belated reply to a letter concerning last month's dustup in the larger Nashotah House universe.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- Drove home, grabbed Brenda, and headed to St John's, Decatur for the sixth consecutive Wednesday. Only, this time, it was just to sit in the congregation for a surpassingly lovely rendition of Office of Tenebrae, done in conjunction with an elite vocal ensemble from Millikin University. Tenebrae is a poetic gloss, a textual echo, of the essential Holy Week narrative. It never tells the story, so if you don't already known the story, it's a pastiche of incoherence. But for those whose story it is, Tenebrae creates a space to just *be* in it. What a blessing this was.
- Started the day with 16 tasks. Accomplished 7 of them.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
- 57 potential items for the to-do list for today. 17 made the cut.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Addressed a small but not insignificant administrative chore.
- Placed a more or less annual phone order for four starched cotton clergy collars from J. Wippell's U.S. office in Branchville, NJ.
- Worked on refining and printing my homily for Maundy Thursday (at the cathedral).
- Welcomed one our priests and his wife into my office for an hour-long discussion of an imminent deployment issue.
- Attended the 12:15 Mass in the cathedral chapel.
- Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
- Spent a larger portion of my afternoon than I would have liked wrestling with the technicalities of enabling two churches that missed the memo when official portraits of YFNB were easily available to obtain one. Mission accomplished. More or less.
- Followed up on something I had promised one of the members of the cathedral chapter at the last meeting.
- Took care of some pending emails and administrivia, following up with a rather more weighty email.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- Productivity report: Accomplished 11 of those 17 tasks.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Today reminded me that I indeed do work for a living, though that's always a good thing. Presided and preached at the 8am cathedral liturgy--"solo" on the sense that they don't have an in-charge priest at the moment, so when it came time to do things like make the announcements, I was momentarily flummoxed. Between services, I led--"listened to" might be more appropriate--a forum at which parishioners could express their views on the qualities they would like to see in their next priest (who will be, as was the late Fr Roderick, a priest-in-charge styled Provost). I'm doing this in close consultation with the wardens and chapter, but it will be a streamlined process. The 10:30 Liturgy of the Palms had to be held in the atrium because it started to rain right then. But we still had a proper parade, and the power of Palm Sunday still worked its magic. Looking forward to walking the path of Holy Week with the people of the cathedral.
Yard work in the afternoon ... before the rains came.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Arrived at the cathedral-office complex around 9am to begin to get ready for the 11am Chrism Mass. Read Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Got straight in my mind some choreography details for the liturgy. Took care of some last minute physical preparations. Conferred with Barber Potts, the Head Verger of the cathedral on some pertinent details. Greeted clergy and spouses as they began to arrive. Presided and preached at what turned out to be a quite lively service. I find it very moving to be together with the clergy. I see each of them individually and serially, but it's a different experience to be simultaneous and plenary. After Mass we enjoyed our customary repast, this time in the Round House. Then I met privately with one of our clerics for an extended discussion of the congregation he serves. When that meeting concluded, I turned my attention to tomorrow's homily, which still needed to be refined and printed. After stopping for gas, it was nearly 4pm before I got home. When I'd had a chance to rest some, I took a long walk--though not a hard one, as I never did achieve my usual cruising speed today. It was more like a four mile stroll.
St Paul's Cathedral, April 12
“We receive you into the household of God…”.
Three years into episcopal ministry now, I am aware that one of the aspects of parish ministry that I miss is administering the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the process leading up to it. So I get almost giddy with excitement when a priest tells me there are baptisms waiting for me at my next visit. I’m thrilled to preside at a baptism, and one of my favorite parts of the experience is when we’re all finished and the whole congregation says together, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess with us the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” I was at a parish recently where the choir sang a choral setting of that text, and I nearly broke down into tears as I heard it while trying to deliver the body of Christ to people kneeling at the communion rail in front of me.
We are on the brink now, in the various Eucharistic Communities of the diocese, of plunging once again into the heart of the Paschal Mystery, as we sacramentally and liturgically transcend time and space and place ourselves among those who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” with those who gather with him in the Upper Room as he repurposes the bread and wine of a Jewish ritual meal to be his own body and blood given for the life of the world, with those who gather outside the Praetorium and shout “Crucify him!” and “Give us Barabbas!”, among those who keep vigil at the cross as he commends his spirit into the hands of his Father, among those who make their way to the tomb in the early light of the first day of the week and are told to look for him elsewhere because he is risen from the dead. The identity of the People of God is formed by these events, and it is into that identity, and not something else, that we are conformed when we come to the waters of the baptismal font. This, and not something else, is what we are welcoming people into when we receive them into the household of God.
Confess the faith of Christ crucified …
“Christ crucified” is a reality that is also a symbol. It means more than it says. It contains within itself the entire “Christ event”—prophecy, incarnation, birth, life, baptism, ministry, passion, death by crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, ongoing intercession. It is the baton that has been passed along to us by those who received it from others, who received it from the hand of Jesus himself when he breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples and commissioned them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Proclaim his resurrection …
Christ risen from the dead is the beginning, middle, and end of the story it is ours to tell to the world around us. Everything else is an amplification and elaboration of this central data point. I was awestruck some years ago when I first encountered these words from the renowned Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” Let me repeat that, because it really is quite breathtaking in how it says so much so concisely: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” You and I hear lots of chatter on the internet and on the media about waxing atheism and debates about whether God “exists,” as it that’s the definitive question. But what this quote from Jenson reminds us of is that the definitive question is not “Does God exist?” but “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Once we answer that question—and a careful examination of the available evidence, the same way we examine evidence for any other purported historical event that far back in time, will demand only an affirmative conclusion—once we answer the question “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”, then most everything else falls into place without any extraordinary effort. The “existence of God” question become more or less a footnote.
Today we’re going to bless oil to be used in the sacrament of unction and the ministry of healing. There are many ways of proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, but the ministry of healing is surely one of the most compelling. Through the sacramental use of oil, along with prayer and the laying-on of hands, we consecrate our illnesses and injuries, placing them at God’s disposal for the revelation and outworking of his redemptive purposes in the world and in human experience, redemptive purposes that are galvanized by and precisely the fruit of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Some among us are gifted with a special charism—the gift of healing—through which God manifests the truth that he is a God of health, not sickness; a God of life, not death. Healing ministry is part of the proclamation of the resurrection, and even as we share in the blessing of this oil, we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and our faith in the God who raised him from the dead.
Share with us in his eternal priesthood …
Christ is the one true and only priest. He is the one who stands before God the Father, bearing the human nature that he shares with us, and entreats the Father to look on us not as we are, but as we will someday be in him. The whole company of the baptized, precisely as the Body of Christ, bears the mark of priesthood. We are, all together, a priestly people—indeed, as St Peter tells us in the bit of post-baptismal catechesis known as his first epistle, a royal priesthood. Then, from among the whole number of the baptized, some are called to an intensification of that baptismal mark. Any priest, generically, stands in the gap between human sinfulness and divine holiness, between human contingency and divine completion. Abraham acted as a priest when he begged the Lord to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses acted as a priest when he begged the Lord to spare Israel after their apostasy in the wilderness, at the foot of Mt Sinai. Jesus acted as a priest as he hung on the cross, and he continues that high priestly ministry as he continually make intercession for us as our advocate before the Father. Those of us who are called into the particular and peculiar ministry of the presbyterate, the ordained priesthood, exercise that ministry on behalf of, for the sake of, and in the name of the whole priestly community of the baptized.
Of course, those who are called to iconic servanthood, whom we name as deacons, and those who are called to iconic shepherd-hood, whom we name as bishops, also proclaim Christ’s resurrection in their ministries by manifesting in their being and in their doing the Risen One himself.
My beloved, as we enter once again into the solemn remembrance of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, as we prepare in many of our communities to add to the number of the offspring of Abraham through the paschal sacrament, it is my hope and prayer that we will take heart, that we will be encouraged, by the precious gifts that are ours as members of the household of God, that we will confess together the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood. Amen.
Friday, April 11, 2014
- After deciding that some of the tasks tagged "this week" are really more organically appropriate to weeks in the future, and adding three that were generated yesterday, there were 31 actions to choose from, I optimistically selected 11 for the potential honor of being checked off today.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Attended to a small detail pertaining to the Chrism Mass.
- Attended to a more time-consuming detail pertaining to the Good Friday liturgy ... time-consuming because it involved using some music publishing software that I used to be familiar with, but which has a steep learning curve if one lets one's skills get rusty.
- Conceived, hatched, and put some meat on the bones of a sermon for Easter--Vigil and Morning.
- Lunch from China One, eaten at home.
- Processed a considerable pile in my physical inbox--mostly by scanning, which, in turn, generated a handful of emails and secondary tasks.
- Friday prayer time: Listening to Tomas Luis de Victoria's setting of the Good Friday Reproaches.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- I felt like it was difficult to get traction today. Easily distractible. Maybe tired from a pretty full week. Only accomplished four of the eleven items marked for today.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
- Usual Thursday weight and treadmill workout. I couldn't get Netflix to come up on my iPad for some reason, so ... guess what? I offered Morning Prayer, the Angelus, and some sustained intercession while working out on the treadmill. Talk about multi-tasking!
- Surveyed the 48 remaining tasks pegged for this week and selected 19 to tackle today. That may be a little ambitious in number, but many of them can be handled very quickly.
- Took care of a small detail pertaining to the Chrism Mass.
- Finished drafting, then tweaked, refined, and printed my sermon for the Chrism Mass. The text will appear in cyberspace even before it's preached--right at 11am on Saturday.
- Reviewed and approved a request for a marital judgment.
- Lunch from Chi-Town's Finest, eaten at hone.
- Created an account online with a company that I hope will be able to take care of photo printing and order fulfillment of YFNB's official portraits, given the passing of my photographer brother last year. Not yet entirely clear that this option is going to work, so I didn't give myself credit for an accomplished task.
- Read and responded to four Ember Day letters from people who are in some stage of the ordination process.
- Dealt quickly by email with a couple of minor pastoral/administrative issues.
- Dealt less quickly by email with a fairly substantial pastoral matter.
- Created a draft of new committee assignments for Nashotah House trustees. This required more speculative imagination than it might seem.
- After assisting the Bishop's Warden of the cathedral and an officer of the Springfield Police Department with trying to figure out what the cathedral's security alarm got set off (an effort at which we were unsuccessful), I read the evening office in the cathedral.
- Counting the two personal tasks I accomplished at home in the evening, there are only two to carry over until tomorrow of the original 19.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
- After assigning some of the tasks that had been marked for this week start dates further off in the future, there were 50 candidates remaining. I chose 12 of the best and brightest (OK, maybe some because they're old and/or short and easy) to take on today.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared readings and the seed of a homily for the midday Mass.
- Phoned one of our priests, whom I had heard took a nasty fall in his home last night. All seems to be well.
- Put finishing touches on the liturgy booklet for Saturday's Chrism Mass, and worked with Sue to figure how to get it printed. I used to do this easily when I was in parish work, but that was with a different printer, which makes a huge difference in how you format a document, etc. etc. We're just not set up for that in the diocesan office, so it's a learning curve every time.
- Attended to a request for continuing ed financial support from one of our priests.
- Attended to an administrative detail pertaining to the Canterbury pilgrimage.
- Attended to an administrative detail regarding the cathedral chapter.
- Replied to an email from Fr David Peters, canonically resident in the diocese of serving as an Army reserve chaplain in Austin, TX. He happened to have been at Fort Hood when the shooting occurred last week, and had occasion to minister to soldiers who were with one of those who died, a sergeant from Effingham.
- Dealt with two other administrivia items by email.
- Presided and preached at the 12:15 Mass in the cathedral chapel, observing the lesser feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor & Martyr.
- Somewhat quick lunch at Obed & Isaac with Fr David Copley of the national church staff, who is the designated liaison officer with the Diocese of Springfield.
- Met with Fr Copley and five of the six Rural Deans plus the Archdeacon for about 90 minutes. He was here for an introductory visit, share some of the resources available through the Church Center staff, and listen to some of our feedback. We did have some.
- Organized and spent some time prayerfully sitting with the scripture readings for Ascension (May 29), the first step in the construction of a homily for the occasion to be delivered at Christ Church, Fitchburg, MA.
- Dealt with a long-delayed chore that will help me be better prepared for next month's Nashotah House Board of Trustees meeting. This was the last of the 12 tasks for the day that I took on in the morning, so ... a good day from that perspective.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- Drove out to Decatur to deliver the final of my five Leten teaching presentations. Back home a little before 9:00.
- Watched the Cubs close out a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
- Task planning for the week and the day at home. 75 to-do candidates for the week, most of which will not get done. Judiciously chose ten to try to accomplish today.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Attended to some details pertaining to this Saturday's Chrism Mass.
- Attended to some details pertaining to June's youth pilgrimage to Canterbury.
- Attended to some details pertaining to clergy deployment.
- Attended to some details pertaining to Trinity, Mattoon's role as a provider of campus ministry at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
- Drove to Havana to have lunch with Fr James Fedosuk, rector of St Barnabas' Church there many years ago, now serving as supply priest for St James' across the river in Lewiston (formerly of the Diocese of Quincy, now in Chicago). This included a drive to Lewiston and a tour of St James'.
- En route back, returned a call from a priest of the diocese, and spoke with a priest from outside the diocese regarding potential deployment possibilities in Springfield.
- Laid out the broad strokes and began to put meat on the bones of sermons for Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, both to be delivered at St Paul's Cathedral.
- Made air travel and car rental reservations for a rather complicated trip the first full week of May--to Washington, D.C. for a Forward Movement board meeting, then to Dallas for a Living Church Foundation board meeting.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Counting what I did at home in the evening (while watching the Cubs lose to the Pirates in yet another one-run game), I accomplished nine of the ten task items I started the day with.
Monday, April 7, 2014
Most of the day was spent in and around the B concourse of Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Our 9:10 departure from Jackson, leading to an 11:15 (eastern) arrival in Atlanta was uneventful. But we already had a two hour layover on the schedule, and our connection to St Louis is delayed nearly two more hours. So it was 5pm (central) before we were waiting in front of the baggage carousel at Lambert International in St Louis. After a stop for dinner at our casual dining chain of choice, Ruby Tuesday, in Litchfield, it was around 8:30 before we greeted the quadrupeds at home. What a great trip, though. However, next time, we'll drive.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Drove the vehicle lent to us by one of the parishioners of Trinity, Yazoo City (MS) from our hotel to the church in time to arrive at 9am. Met with the rector and a handful of laity to pray together before the morning activities. The regular Sunday morning adult class convened at 9:30, during which I held forth on the Seven Habits of Well-Formed Christian Disciples. They were an attentive group. At 10:30 we celebrated the Mass for Lent V, at which it was my joy to preside, preach, and confirm five adults, as well as lay hands on four others who desired to reaffirm their commitment of Christ. After a hearty post-liturgical lunch in the parish hall, there was a fairly intense plenary session at which I fielded an array of questions, all of which served to underscore in one way or another the very reason I was there at all, serving as a special bishop visitor under DEPO. We returned to the hotel around 1:30 for some much needed down time. I had hoped to take a walk, but it rained rather steadily, and I had to settle for a nice nap instead. At 6:30, we gathered back at the church--driving through torrential rain and water-covered streets in the midst of flash flood warnings, and then caravaned to a Mexican restaurant (fortuitously, in the part of town at rather higher elevation than the old city center), where we dined a conversed with the Woodliffs and two other priests of the diocese who are part of the same tradition-minded minority that Trinity represents. I find that I take a special delight in being around southerners. Not sure why that is.
Trinity Church, Yazoo City, MS--John 11:1-44
When I was growing up, there was a great interest among church people in what is called in academic circles "Christian apologetics.” Christian apologetics is the art and science of persuading skeptical non-believers that Christian faith is plausible and intelligible. It's a way of answering the various objections, the "hard questions,”
that lead some to suppose that the only way to be a Christian is to check your brain at the door of the church and completely turn your back on rationality and common sense. A Christian apologist seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.
I wonder, however, whether, in our own time, the apologetic task is altogether different. There is a body of concrete evidence to suggest that the cry of the non-believer today is not "show me that it's true!” but, rather, "show me that it matters!” Show me that it means anything. Show me that whether or not I am a believing, practicing Christian actually makes a tangible difference—to me or to anyone else. To many of us—and I say "us" because I suspect that many church members, as well as most of the unchurched, fall into this category—to many of us,
Christian faith is a sort of ethereal "pie in the sky bye and bye,” you know . . . "eternal life.” If I live right and say an occasional prayer, I'll go to heaven when I die.
When I die.
This is just too far removed from the world of our ordinary experience to be of much interest or concern. Jesus offers me eternal life. That will be very nice, I'm sure, when I need it. But in the meantime, I've got to make the house payment, drive the kids to piano lessons and soccer practice, get ready for an important meeting, close another sale, and lose twenty pounds. Talk to me when I've done all that and maybe I'll sign up for eternal life. Right now, I haven't got the time.
This is not a difficult move to make. People you and I know—maybe sometimes we ourselves—make such a move every day. We don't look on Christianity with scorn, as a falsehood, but with benign apathy, as an irrelevancy. We understand the promise of eternal life to be not yet applicable, because we understand eternal life itself to be essentially the continuation, the extension, of spiritual life even after the event of physical death. When we die, we'll need eternal life; before then, we don't.
So if Christian faith is about eternal life, and we don't yet need eternal life, then Christian faith is, understandably, of marginal interest. It's like the spare tire in my trunk. I'm glad to know it's there if I have a flat, and a couple of times a year, maybe around Christmas and Easter, I may get sentimental about the joys of tire irons and lug nuts, but it really isn't in the forefront of my consciousness during my daily routine of driving around town.
This is one case when it pays to look deeper than the face value meaning of the words themselves. When Jesus speaks of eternal like, he's talking about something much more profound, much richer in meaning, than the mere continuation of existence after the death of the body. And what Jesus did in response to the death of a friend of his named Lazarus, in the village of Bethany, stands as a beacon, a sign, of the richness and the profundity with which Jesus uses the term "eternal life.” As John the Evangelist tells the story, this incident takes place just before Jesus's final entry into Jerusalem to be tried and crucified. (So it's appropriate that we're observing it liturgically the week before Palm Sunday.) It represents the climax to this point of his mission which will be completed only on the cross, the mission of confronting and defeating the evil powers of this universe which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, the evil powers of this universe which blind us to who we really are by filling our lives with suffering and pain, the evil powers of this universe which cause us to think so little of ourselves that we look for affirmation in all the wrong places and engage in a thousand forms of self-destructive behavior, the evil powers of this universe which rob us of any sense of meaning and purpose for our lives by constantly drawing us away from the love of God.
This mission began in the desert, four weeks ago for us in liturgical time, where Jesus wrestled with the tempter, who invited him to take matters into his own hands rather than obey the will of his Father. It continued in his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, three weeks ago, in which Jesus revealed that the only route to peace with God and victory over these evil powers is not through our own efforts at moral perfection, but through new birth and transformation from within. It continued still two weeks ago in his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, where he proclaimed that God's grace, God's favorable disposition towards us, is like living water, all around us, ready to renew our spirits, wash away that which doesn't belong, and sustain our lives in the face of the evil powers which we confront. Jesus's mission continued still just last Sunday in his gift of sight to the man born blind, a gift which demonstrated his desire and ability to illuminate our lives, to enable us to see what we need to see in the clear light of day, and remove us from vulnerability to the forces of darkness. And now, at last, Jesus confronts the ultimate expression of the power of evil—death itself. In a way, it's a warm-up round, an exhibition match, between Jesus and death, for despite Jesus's victory on this occasion, they will meet again, and death will have Jesus himself in its jaws.
As Jesus enters the outskirts of the village of Bethany, he is met by Lazarus's sister Martha. "Jesus, if you'd only been here, my brother would not have died!" This is an emotionally-charged situation! Lazarus was Jesus's friend. Martha and her sister Mary were Jesus's friends. There's a good chance that Jesus habitually lodged with them whenever he visited the Jerusalem area. Martha is grieving and Jesus is deeply moved by her sorrow, and he says, "Martha, your brother will rise again." It would be only natural for Jesus to comfort Martha with some words of reassurance, and this is exactly how Martha hears Jesus's statement, "your brother will rise again." He was comforting her with the hope that was then common among many pious Jews that on the coming "day of the Lord" the dead would be raised and the community of Israel would be made whole, as in Ezekiel's vision of the Lord re-assembling the dry bones and re-clothing them with living, breathing flesh. "Thank-you, Jesus," she might have said, "that's an inspiring thought. I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. It's very sweet of you to remind me of that."
But was Martha really comforted? Did the idea of a general resurrection of the dead on some distant day of the Lord fill the gaping hole in her heart left by the death of her brother? Who can say? But, for what it's worth, it appears that Jesus didn't think so. His response says, in effect, "Martha, you've missed my point. I am resurrection and I am life." Notice the present tense here. Jesus does not say, "I will be resurrection and I will be life." I am resurrection, I am life.
Jesus then proceeds to call Lazarus, alive and well, grave clothes and all, out from the tomb which his decomposing body had inhabited for four days. That death-conquering act is a sign to us—a blazing, unmistakably visible sign—that eternal life is not only "then and there", but also "here and now.” Eternal Life is a reality that is available to us presently, an experience that is relevant to our lives as we live them minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. The eternal life that Jesus offers us supplies meaning for our lives in a time when it is very easy to believe that life is meaningless. It tells us that we are unique creatures made in the very image of God, and meant to enjoy a relationship with Him. Eternal Life gives us a sense of direction in a time when there seems to be an absence of trustworthy compasses, gyroscopes, and direction-finders. Eternal Life rescues us from the fatalistic observation that life is simply "nasty, brutish, and short" by putting all our suffering—from the irritation of a moment, to the deep pain of a lifetime—in the redeeming context of God's ubiquitous grace.
Eternal Life supplies us with purpose, in a time when it is all too easy to assume that our lives have no purpose: our purpose is to be torches—torches by which the light of Christ proclaims to a world besieged by darkness that morning indeed will come.
Eternal life assures us that our faith in Christ, and our practice of Christian religion, is as relevant to our lives as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the blood that flows through our veins. In particular, it assures us that it is good that we are here today, doing what we're doing, remembering and celebrating in word and sacrament the awe-ful mystery that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life to those who dwell in the tomb, whether that tomb holds a corpse with a heart that no longer beats and lungs that no longer breathe, or a corpse that lives and breathes but is devoid of meaning, purpose, and hope.
Eternal Life assures us that when we come together next week for more "church"—and more intense "church"—than any self-respecting Episcopalian is comfortable with, we will be re-connecting with and drawing sustenance from the bracingly, refreshingly, and presently relevant gospel of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages.