Sunday, April 30, 2017

Third Sunday of Easter

I was originally scheduled to be at St Bartholomew's, Granite City today, but some exceptional circumstances in that Eucharistic Community dictated that the visit be postponed. So my fallback was, of course, St Paul's Cathedral. I preached at 8:00 and presided as well as preached at 10:30. The plan had also been for us to retrieve Brenda's sister from California at SPI mid-afternoon (actually, she was supposed to come in yesterday) and then I would head to southern Indiana for the night ahead of being in Cincinnati by midday for the spring board meeting of Forward Movement. But I'm hanging out in Springfield, as this is posted, hoping to still retrieve the sister-in-law sometime just prior to midnight, and just be late for the meeting tomorrow.

Sermon for Easter III

Springfield Cathedral--Luke 24:13-35

Back in the late 1940s, there was a young man named Elson who was from overseas and worked in his country’s embassy in Washington, DC. There was also a young American woman named Elizabeth who had a job as a typist in the same embassy. Elizabeth shared an apartment with her sister Virginia, and Elson made friends with both of them. After work, he would often come by their apartment with his “little black book” and use their phone to call women for dates. Elson obviously saw Elizabeth and her sister as “friends” and not potential “girlfriends.” He saw them one-dimensionally, in a certain way. It didn’t occur to him that either Virginia or Elizabeth could be for him what was represented by the names in his little black book.

Indeed, how often are we so consumed by our own anxiety over some adverse circumstances that we pay scant attention to what’s actually going on right in front of us? The year before I began college, the college I went to had just concluded a long and exhaustive search for a new president, and everyone was very excited about him. He was bright, energetic, had an excellent track record, and seemed just the ticket for what the school needed at that time in its history. But, right at the end of my freshman year, he resigned, plunging the trustees back into a funk of anxiety.

This is the situation Cleopas and his unnamed companion found themselves in on the afternoon of the first Easter day. They had been disciples of Jesus—not part of the inner core of the 12, but part of the larger group that followed him around. Just a few days earlier, that had held onto high hopes that he was the promised Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel from the yoke of Roman oppression. But now those high hopes were dashed. Jesus was dead, executed by those same Roman oppressors. Their disposition was sour. Their heads hung low with sadness.

Then a third person, a stranger whom they do not recognize, joins them on their late afternoon walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. He seems to be completely clueless. He asks them why they’re so dejected and it makes them want to put their faces in their palms. How could he be so ignorant? How could he not be aware of the world-shattering events that had just transpired? Cleopas and his companion only have the eyes to “see” their new traveling companion in one dimension. They can only see him as an ignorant fool.

During all those times Elson came over to his friends Elizabeth and Virginia’s apartment to make phone calls from his little black book, Elizabeth got in the habit of cooking for him. I’m sure he was polite and said “Thank-you,” but he kept messing with his book and kept dialing numbers and, presumably, going on dates.

The ignorant and foolish stranger who found Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus began to gently interrogate them. He began to gradually remind them of things that they already knew, or at least should have known, clues scattered around the holy books of their common religious tradition. He most likely reminded them of Moses, through whom God had revealed his righteous will for his chosen people. He probably reminded them of the great prophet Samuel, who had identified and anointed not one, but the first two of Israel’s kings, Saul and David.  And he no doubt mentioned the prophet Elijah, the original speaker-of-truth-to-power. And I’m sure Isaiah’s name came up as well, the consummate servant of the Lord, in whose writings Israel’s hope for a Messiah is most clearly documented. He probably also mentioned Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Hosea and Joel and many others.  

After a while, Elson put his little black book away and started paying attention to the one who was cooking for him. I’m sure it involved a variety of foods, but meat loaf seemed to be emerging as his favorite.

When Cleopas and his companion and their new friend arrive at the village of Emmaus, they invite him to stay and eat with them. I doubt meat loaf was on the menu, but in the process of sharing a meal at the end of a long day’s journey, they were somehow able to see the mysterious stranger, who at first had seemed so ignorant but turned out to be very much not so—they were able to see him in a very different light, through different eyes. It dawned on them that he was, in fact, none other than Jesus, the one whom they had been talking about in the first place when they first encountered him. Talk about a face-palm moment, they probably wanted to slap themselves over how stupid and blind they had been.

After a few more meat loafs, Elson’s eyes were opened, and he saw Elizabeth in a completely different light, and probably wanted to slap himself over how stupid and blind he had been. What he had been looking for all that time in his little black book had been right there, under his nose. His eyes were opened in the cutting of the meat loaf. He asked her to marry him, and she said Yes, and, a couple of years later, Elson and Elizabeth became my parents.

The trustees of Westmont College were worn out by the earlier presidential search process that turned out to be a bust. Suddenly, they began to see a bright and popular member of the faculty in a way they had not previously seen him. He was a known quantity; there was no mystery about him. They reminded themselves of things they had known all along, since the beginning of the first presidential search, and began to see this professor in a different light, with different eyes. To everyone’s amazement and acclaim, they made him the next president of the college, and his signature is on my diploma.

My father didn’t ask my mother to marry him because he found out some new and startling information about her. He just started to see her differently. The trustees of my college alma mater didn’t randomly do a background check on a young professor and discover that he was good presidential material. In both cases, it was what they already knew about somebody that enabled them to look through a different set of eyes.

Jesus didn’t tell Cleopas and his companion anything new as they walked to Emmaus together that afternoon. It was stuff they already knew, because it was in their own scriptures. They experienced Jesus present with them in the present because they knew him to have been present with them in the past. That’s the way God rolls. God is present to us in the present precisely when we remember him being present with us in the past.

And the most powerful way we experience this is in the very thing we’re doing at this moment—celebrating the Eucharist. We have read scripture together this morning—from the Book of Acts, from the First Epistle of Peter, and from St Luke’s Gospel. We have offered verses of a Psalm together in prayer. Now a teacher is standing up and doing the best he can to shine a light on one of the passages of scripture. None of this material is new. We’ve read and heard it all before. We’re on the road together, walking toward our destination. Soon we will gather at the table, and in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of a meal, we will know Jesus to be with us. We will know him and the Father and the Holy Spirit to be the same God who has been our hope in ages past, the one who has sustained the generations of believers who have come before us, the one who has been present in each of our lives from and even before the day we were made his children in baptism, the one who sustains us now with his very life, with his Body and Blood.

Every celebration of the Eucharist is an enactment of the walk to Emmaus. In every celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus comes to us, first in Word, then in Sacrament, drawing us ever more tightly into the orbit of his love. Alleluia and Amen.

Friday, April 28, 2017


Back home now after a renewing and reinvigorating week with my Class of 2011 bishop colleagues and spouses. We have an exceptionally strong bond as a group, and form an important network of support and accountability for one another. The expression "it's lonely at the top" may be a worn-out cliché, but it is not without truth. Our annual time together is like a deep draught of oxygen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon for II Easter

St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel--John 20:19-31

“Holy and gracious Father, in your infinite love, you made us for yourself…”.  Those words are probably familiar to you. They are from the beginning of one of the prayers which we use to consecrate the bread and wine in the Eucharist. In it, we acknowledge to God that, not only has God made us, he has made us for a particular purpose—fe has made us for himself. He has made us to be in relationship with him. The Presbyterians have a document called the Westminster Catechism. The first question in the catechism is, “What is the chief end of Man?” And the answer is, “The chief end of Man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To be fully human, to be fully alive, is to know and glorify and enjoy God.

God also made us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings. Yes, there are introverts and there are hermits and there are misanthropes—but the fact remains, people need people. Without human contact, we shrivel up inside. We become smaller than ourselves. To be fully human, to be fully alive, is to be in harmonious, life-giving relationship with others.                 

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, on both counts—in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people—it’s an ideal that we fall consistently short of. We are, in fact, highly conflicted. We are conflicted vertically—toward God—and we are conflicted horizontally —toward one another. We are conflicted globally; nations take up arms against nations, as we have concretely discovered once again only in the last couple of weeks. We are conflicted locally; witness the pervasively negative tone of election campaigning in recent years, not just nationally, but locally. We are conflicted internally; depression and anxiety are epidemic in the “developed world” of the industrialized west. “World peace”—whether we think of it globally, locally, or internally—is such an elusive ideal that we laugh and the cliché of the beauty pageant contestant who is asked by the official interviewer what her main goal in life is, and she answers, “World peace.”

Living, then, as we do, in the midst of such widespread and profound conflict, there is no escaping its impact on our lives. In fact, conflict regularly reaches crisis proportions. If the truth were known, just about every household—even when there is a sincere desire and effort to love one another—just about every household is at least frequently, if not chronically, dysfunctional. There is a great deal of pain and woundedness that is concealed behind the public smiles of apparently happy families.  The effects of substance abuse—drugs, alcohol, tobacco—inflict fresh damage on precious human lives on a daily basis. Suicide is a sign of how difficult it is to hide the crippling mental and emotional pain that so many people live with all the time. And we haven’t even mentioned litigation—people suing each other at the drop of a hat—or street crime, organized crime, civil strife, terrorism, or war.

We are like the disciples of Jesus on the evening of that first Easter day—hunkered down together in an upper room, paralyzed by fear that they would be presumed guilty by association, that the same powers that had crucified Jesus were now going to come after them. You and I are too often paralyzed by fear of the powers that remind us of our conflicted state, and we create our own versions of that upper room. For at least the last twenty years, I have had in my home a place that I can literally use to escape to—sometimes it’s actually been an “upper room.” We’re talking about a desk, a TV, a phone, a recliner, and a book table, everything I need to be quite happy in that room for an extended period. But our “upper room” can be a lot of things; it’s wherever we go to escape our fears. It can be work, it can be recreation, it can be exercise, it can be drinking, or any one of a number of more overtly destructive activities. Where is your “upper room”?

Wherever it is, I hope you’re ready for some company. Because just when the disciples are at a low emotional ebb, hiding in their upper room, Jesus shows up. I think the expression, “shocked but not surprised” applies here. They’d heard some reports of the empty tomb and the risen Christ, but they weren’t really from a source that would be considered absolutely reliable. Now they’re looking at him, very much in the flesh, the same flesh they had watched die on the cross barely 48 hours earlier, but yet, it’s now a different kind of flesh—the kind that can enter a locked room without the burden of opening the door. The risen Christ enters the room where the disciples are hidden, and the first thing he says is not, “Hey, look at me, I’m back!” It’s “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you.

This is one of those instances when the English language is not quite up to the task. The Hebrew word that is behind the Aramaic word that Jesus would have actually spoken, which is rendered in Greek when St John writes his gospel, and is then translated into English as “peace” —that word is shalom. And shalom has much broader connotations than the mere absence of hostility. Shalom is deep peace, deep harmony, a convergence and a congruence at a cellular level. It’s an alignment of energy and resources in the same direction. Shalom is peace within, and peace without; peace that is global, peace that is local, and peace that is internal. This is the peace that the risen Jesus brings into the upper room where his followers are huddled in fear. And he doesn’t just wish peace on them, or invite them to have peace; he supplies the peace, he is the peace.

That same Jesus wants to enter our “upper room” as well, and bring us peace, bring us shalom. He wants to be our peace—peace that integrates us internally and reconciles us externally, peace that is local and peace that is global. Wishing for “world peace” may be a beauty pageant cliché, but sometimes clichés make a valuable point. One such cliché is found on more than a few automobile bumper stickers. It’s a pun—it says “No [spelled n-o]…no Jesus, no peace—and then, just underneath that phrase, “Know [spelled k-n-o-w]…know Jesus, know peace.” Despite the fact that it appears on bumper stickers, there is great truth here. Jesus isn’t called the “Prince of Peace” for nothing. He is the bringer of shalom, the rich, multi-level Hebraic notion of peace.

The peace that Jesus brings doesn’t—in the near term, at any rate—eliminate all conflict. It’s not going to make wars go away or cure all the ills of society. It brings about the cessation of struggle, but the struggle that ends is our struggle against God. In God’s will is our peace; in God’s service is our perfect freedom. Shalom brings us rest, the way St Augustine meant it when he said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

It is profoundly and tragically ironic—in the light of one conflict that catches headlines every day—that our Lord’s disciples were gathered, filled with fear, in Jerusalem. The very name “Jerusalem” means “city of shalom”—city of peace. Yet, Jerusalem has always been the site of conflict. We are bidden in Psalm 122 to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Nonetheless, at every stage in its conflicted history, there have been those in Jerusalem who have known the peace of God, the peace of Christ, who have experienced authentic shalom. Even in the midst of strife and violence, shalom has been present in that city, shalom has been present in the upper room. Those who have experienced this peace have been able to bear witness to it, and continue to live in Jerusalem even while hostility and violence appear to reign. Wherever our “Jerusalem” is, wherever our “upper room” is, wherever we are hidden for fear of those who would be our undoing, today Jesus enters that room in the glory of his resurrected life, and says “Peace be with you.” Alleluia and Amen.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday in Easter Week

Slow morning at home ... long treadmill workout ... packing and other preparations for being away for several days. Left home after supper, around 6:30, and headed for Effingham with Brenda. We're bedding down here tonight ahead of moving on in the morning to Mt Carmel and a visitation to St John the Baptist there. Then it's off to St Louis, from whence we will fly to our annual Continuing Education meeting (I believe I've previously described "critical incident reports") with my Class of 2011 bishop colleagues and most of their spouses. We'll be home Friday afternoon, and I'll probably be "dark" in this venue until then.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday in Easter Week

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent the rest of the morning working on a narrative as part of the process of the annual evaluation of the Dean of Nashotah House. It took longer than I expected, for multiple reasons. 
  • Before heading out for lunch, spent 45 minutes on a conference call regarding some personal/family concerns.
  • Chinese food from HyVee, eaten at home.
  • Returned to the decanal evaluation task and brought to it completion.
  • Refined and printed my homily for Easter III, which will now be given at the cathedral, since St Bart's, Granite City needed to delay my April 30 visitation.
  • Revised a sermon text for Easter IV from several years ago for use this year at the Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign.
  • As a prayer practice, spent some time at the cathedral organ playing through hymns from the Hymnal 1940. There are usually good reasons why several items from that book didn't make it into the 1982 revision. But that doesn't mean I can't feel nostalgic and miss some of them. Which I do. So those are the ones I focused on.
  • While I was there, Evening Prayer a bit on the early side.
  • Wrote out notes of greeting to clergy and spouses with birthdays or wedding anniversaries in May. I'll take care of the ordination anniversaries by email.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Thursday in Easter Week

  • Extended treadmill workout to start the day.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral, around 10am.
  • Attended briefly to some business related to my latest round of formal portraits.
  • Assembled and reviewed résumés and other expressions of interest in the Communications Coordinator position. Reached out by email to the applicants.
  • Processed my physical inbox, a routine but somewhat time-consuming chore that mostly involves scanning.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Substantive pre-arranged phone conversation with the Senior Warden of one of our Eucharistic Communities.
  • Substance phone conversation with the Rector of one of our Eucharistic Communities.
  • Exchanged emails with the President of the diocesan ECW over a possible fundraising project.
  • Spent the rest of the afternoon continuing and completing the work I began last week on an article for the Covenant blog.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wednesday in Easter Week

Spent the morning and the first part of the afternoon pulling my weight as a member of the Board of Directors of the Living Church Foundation, meeting in Dallas. All went well. Got to visit a bit with folks after our business was concluded. Then it was back to DFW, dropped off the rental car, cleared security, and all else unfolded smoothly. Really nice to have a direct flight back to Springfield; layovers contribute a great deal to the stress and anxiety of traveling by air. Home around 9:15.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tuesday in Easter Week

Up at 4:00am in order to get out in time for the 5:48 American Airlines departure from SPI to DFW. After flying, collecting my luggage, picking up my rental car, and driving to my hotel, I will still in time to catch breakfast at the Doubletree Campbell Centre restaurant. Very grateful that my room was ready at such an hour. I'm in Dallas for the spring meeting of the Living Church Foundation board, but my first obligation in that connection wasn't until 4:30, so I had time both for a nice long walk (in a not very pedestrian-friendly part of town) and to knock off a handful of fairly prosaic items on my to-do list, and, of course, process some emails. The bulk of the meeting is tomorrow, and I fly home late in the afternoon. Nonstop is nice.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Day

Back to the cathedral to preside and preach at the 8am Mass. Then, thanks to the kindness of Dean Andy Hook, I was relieved of my commitment to do the same at 10:30. Not often do we make a day trip to the Chicago area (200 miles), but we're just back from one--a family gathering the centerpiece of whom was my 91-year old mother, who is under hospice care.

Easter Homily

Springfield Cathedral

I've sometimes wondered what it would be like to celebrate Easter in the southern hemisphere: South America, Australia, Southern Africa. It would come right about the time summer turns into autumn. The days would be getting noticeably shorter. At really southern latitudes the leaves might be getting ready to turn, and there would be a chill in the air, a harbinger of the approaching winter.

Wouldn't that be strange?! It would feel strange to us because of all the associations we make between Easter and springtime: new beginnings for caterpillars turned into butterflies, new life for baby chicks, the sheer reproductive fecundity of rabbits. All of these symbols that our culture associates with Easter speak loudly of the sheer persistence of birth and life in the face of death and decay. It leads us to an understanding of Easter that sees it as about death being survived—survived, but not particularly defeated, challenged but not necessarily conquered. The lengthening days we are enjoying will, around the twenty-third of June, start to get shorter again. There will be another winter. The baby chick that gives us an Easter feeling will end up on somebody's dinner table, and that Easter bunny in the backyard will become a meal for a hungry owl.

These realities push us to re-interpret Easter in terms that are less than fully concrete: “It's a spiritual reality,” “Grandpa will live on in our memories,” “Aunt Betty is alive in our hearts,” “When something dies, it is absorbed into the cosmic life principle,” or some such. The sheer unlikelihood— in terms of our ordinary experience, that is—the sheer unlikelihood of real resurrection causes us to water down the meaning of Easter. We have, after all, never seen water flow uphill. The sun has never risen in the west. And dead people don't come back to life.

Now, if all we had to go on, in terms of written accounts of the resurrection, were the appearances of Jesus to his friends and disciples in the forty days following his crucifixion, we could be forgiven for our attempts to “spiritualize” Easter. Jesus does come across as somewhat ghost-like—walking          through walls and on top of water, suddenly appearing and disappearing, sort of recognizable but sort of strange-looking at the same time. But these stories are not all we have. We still have to deal—somehow —with the empty tomb, with the experience of those women who came to anoint the body of Jesus early on Easter morning and found that it was not there. They were told by an angel that he was not there precisely because he was risen! This is not a spiritual event we're talking about here. The same flesh and blood that was nailed to a cross, breathed its last, and was laid in a tomb, got up and walked out of that tomb!

The witness of the empty tomb is that Christ's resurrection is not about “surviving” death, spiritually or otherwise. It is not about living on in somebody's memory, or in somebody's descendants, or about being absorbed as a   drop in the great sea of life. The resurrection of Christ is about the annihilation of death, the defeat of death, the conquest of death. And not just any particular death—not just my death or your death, but the very underlying principle of death, the notion of death, the idea of death.

I want to share with you some lines from a poem by the late John Updike:

            Make no mistake: if He rose at all
            it was as His body;
            if the cells' dissolution did not reverse,
            the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
            the Church will fall.

            It was not as the flowers,
            each soft Spring recurrent;
            it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
                        eyes of the eleven apostles;
            it was as His flesh: ours.

            The same hinged thumbs and toes,
            the same valved heart that—pierced—
            died, withered, paused,
            and then regathered out of enduring Might
            new strength to enclose.

            Let us not mock God with metaphor,
            analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
            making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
                        faded credulity of earlier ages:
            let us walk through the door.

            The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache,
            not a stone in a story,
            but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
                        grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
                        the wide light of day.

            Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
            for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
            lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,
            we are embarrassed by the miracle,
            and crushed by remonstrance.

My friends, our Easter hope is as concrete as the lives we live and the bodies we live in. Our Easter hope is not that anyone whom death has separated from us will live on in our memories or in our hearts. Our Easter hope is that we will once again embrace them in our bodies—bodies, yes, that are more glorious and incorruptible than we can contemplate, but bodies that are, nevertheless, still bodies, which can be seen and touched and recognized.

Christ is risen—we are risen. Death is swallowed up in victory. Christ is risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. Alleluia and Amen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Saturday / Easter Eve

Gathered, according to one of my favorite customs, with the cathedral Altar Guild at 9am for the brief proper liturgy for Holy Saturday, which features the magnificent ancient homily on Christ's harrowing of hell. Then I joined the workforce in preparing the church for the Easter Vigil. I came home around 11, rested for a bit, had some lunch, and took a substantial walk on a beautiful day. Napped a bit, read a bit, and attended to a few emails. Had another modest bit to eat and headed back to the ranch to get ready for the Great Vigil. We baptized a young girl (neither an infant nor a toddler, but not yet a teen) and confirmed two adults. What wonderful work to be involved in!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

  • Spent a tad bit of extra time at home catching up on some "internet reading" (i.e. articles and blog posts that people have sent links to saying, "This is worth a look").
  • Devotions and Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Caught up with the Archdeacon on a couple of things.
  • Reviewed the draft Easter Vigil program and walked it back across the alley to offer some suggestions. Between the Dean and the Altar Guild Directress, I got sucked into a good bit of liturgical puttering.
  • A quarterly (or so) task: Master sermon planning for a chunk of time, in this case, Propers 6 through 17 (basically, early June to early September). Much of that time I'm going to be either in Tanzania or on vacation, so there weren't actually eleven Sundays involved. So, what I do is look and see whether there's any old material than can be retreaded. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. Then I schedule the specific tasks associated with either crafting a sermon from scratch or reworking an old one.
  • Refined and printed the working text of my homily for Easter II (April 23 at St John's the Baptist, Mt Carmel).
  • Went home for a while, just for a change of pace. Took a substantial walk. Watched a bit of the Cubs game.
  • Responded by email to a query from a lay leader in one of our Eucharistic Communities.
  • Spent about 40 minutes in prayer with Jesus, sacramentally present on the Altar of Repose in the cathedral chapel.
  • Took a first homiletical pass at the readings for Trinity Sunday (June 11 at Trinity, Mt Vernon).
  • Worked on an article for the Covenant blog that is due next week.
  • Evening Prayer in my office.
  • Went to retrieve Brenda at home so she could be in time for choir practice ahead of the Good Friday cathedral liturgy.
  • Assisted and preached the Good Friday liturgy.

Good Friday Homily

Springfield Cathedral

There are a great many “good” things we can say about the cross of Christ on this “Good” Friday. What took place there was complex, multi-layered, and rich with a variety of meanings.

One of these levels of meaning sees Christ on the cross as an example for us to emulate—the supreme example of servanthood and self-giving, sacrificing the narrow interests of one in order to bring great blessing to many. The eternal Word, the One who was with God at creation, and was himself God, in the words of St Paul, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”. Taking the form of a servant. The notion of “servant leadership” is very much in fashion these days. I’m not only speaking of the church, where one might expect servant leadership to get at least a good bit of lip service. And I’m not speaking only of government positions—both elected and appointed—where the expression “public service” has a long history. In fact, servant leadership has a strong foothold in that most pragmatic, non-idealistic, bottom line-oriented arena: the world of business.  Top management gurus are touting servant leadership as not only a good thing to do, or the right thing to do, but as the most effective, profit-making, thing to do. And there can be no more effective example of servant leadership than the voluntary self-offering of Jesus on the cross.

Another level of meaning for the cross is as an image, an illustration, of the magnitude of God’s love for us. God is infinite and holy, and so it can be enormously difficult for us who are finite and sinful to even conceive of God, let alone God’s love. When we allow ourselves to dwell too exclusively on those passages of scripture that paint a vivid picture of the righteous wrath of God —God’s justifiable anger—we can easily develop an attitude that sees God as chronically irritated with us. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross is a balancing corrective to that attitude. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the painting that seems to answer an unspoken question, “Lord, how much do you love me?” The painting depicts Jesus hanging on the cross, with his arms outstretched. There’s a caption that reads, “I love you this much.” The cross is an illustration of the breadth and depth of God’s love. He loves us “this much.”

But as good and as true as these explanations of the meaning of the cross of Christ are, they are not in themselves adequate. They buckle under the load of what this day—this Friday we call “good”—is about. If the cross is only an example of sacrificial servanthood, then it is of no help to us, because we have no hope being able to fully emulate that example. We’ve never had the option of “counting equality with God a thing to be grasped” because we were never equal with God in the first place.  No other human being can possibly be as humble as Christ, because no one else has “traveled”—so to speak—as far as he has to descend to the humility he manifests on the cross. The higher one is to begin with, the lower one can fall. None of us, therefore, can truly imitate Jesus’ example of humility, of servanthood.

And knowing that God loves us “this much” is comforting. I don’t want for a second to diminish the power of that illustration. But when we remove the layer of sentimentality that accompanies the image, what exactly are we left with? What does it actually do for us? It’s like telling a person who’s gravely ill, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be just fine.” Those are encouraging words, and very welcome in the moment. But they are no substitute for actual medical treatment that results in more favorable lab work or X-rays or whatever. We need more than encouraging words to be able to really call this Friday “good.”

So I’m here to tell you: The cross is more than an example for us to inadequately attempt to emulate. The cross is more than an illustration of the extent of God’s love. The cross is itself God’s love in action, God’s love, as it were, “on the job.” It is the peak, the summit, of God’s love. The cross is itself God’s ultimate act of love for us, because, on the cross, God becomes vulnerable. In many years of walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent, my attention has been frequently arrested at the Tenth Station, the one where Jesus is stripped of his garment, his seamless robe. Now, when we see illustrations of the crucifixion, Jesus is wearing a discreet loincloth. But, from the information I’ve gathered, there’s a very good chance that the Roman soldiers did not leave him even with that small dignity. Crucifixion was not meant merely to put a person to death; one blow of a sword could accomplish that much quite a bit more efficiently. Rather, crucifixion was intended to utterly humiliate the condemned person in the process. And what is more humiliating that being exposed, stark naked, several feet off the ground, for all the world to see. People could say things and throw things and the person on the cross had no defense. As he hung there, Jesus was completely vulnerable. And only by being completely vulnerable could he absorb everything “we” had to throw at Him. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were. Each of us was there. We were the ones hurling the insults. As we sing in one of the most powerful of our Passiontide hymns: “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.” In his naked vulnerability, Jesus absorbed the whole force of human sin, the whole force of cosmic evil. Rather than reflecting it back, he absorbed it, and in absorbing it, he disarmed it, he neutralized it, he defanged it. Jesus on the cross is a veritable “black hole” for sin and evil. They go in, but they don’t come out. They are, in fact, transformed, and we realize in the end that evil itself doesn’t exist in its own right; it is only the distortion of good.

Christmas is the first sign of God’s vulnerability. He is present with as a baby, a helpless infant. On Good Friday, that sign is lit up, in the brightest neon, for all the world to see. The words of the sixth century poet Venatius Honorius Fortunatus capture this image of the cross as an emblem of light: “The royal banners forward go, the cross shines forth in mystic glow, where he through whom our flesh was made, in that same flesh our ransom paid. … O tree of beauty, tree most fair, ordained those holy limbs to bear, gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough proclaims the king of glory now.”


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday

  • Extended treadmill workout first thing in the morning. In the office around 9:30.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Dealt via email with some detritus from yesterday's tutorial on our database system (Gnosis for Nonprofits).
  • Refined, formatted, and printed my Easter homily (here at the cathedral, both for the Vigil and Easter Day).
  • Began to attend to some Nashotah-related issues (reading and assessing texts pertaining to the annual evaluation of the Dean).
  • When reminded by my electronic minions, headed out the door on foot a few blocks to Obed & Isaac's, where I had a lunch appointment with my United Methodist counterpart, Bishop Frank Beard.
  • Consulted briefly with the Archdeacon on an ongoing matter, and reviewed some documents pertaining to that matter.
  • Reviewed and developed comments on the draft program for the Good Friday liturgy at the cathedral.
  • Blew through a sheaf of relatively "short and sharp" tasks: financial reports from organizations whose boards I serve on (Forward Movement, SKCM), a Communion Partners document).
  • Left to take Brenda to a healthcare appointment.
  • Returned to the office about 90 minutes later. Worked on my sermon for Easter VI (May 21 at Emmanuel, Champaign), sitting with the scripture texts yet again, along with the notes I made week before last from the commentaries I consulted. Finally arrived at my message statement, and made a few notes about how to develop it.
  • Without there being any requirement to do so, a couple of out clergy write me an annual report, quite detailed, about how things are going in their cures. I am immensely grateful for this. Read and responded to one such report.
  • Evening Prayer (as well as a bit of liturgical puttering) in the cathedral.
  • Home briefly for a light supper, then back in for the Maundy Thursday liturgy, at which I presided while the Dean preached a fine homily.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday in Holy Week

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Prepped for the midday Mass.
  • Updated and revised the text of an Easter homily from a earlier for use this weekend at the cathedral.
  • Participated in a two-hour training/tutorial on our new database system given by our coach/consultant Pete Sherman.
  • Celebrated and preached the liturgy for Holy Wednesday.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Processed a short stack of emails.
  • Made my pre-Easter confession (to a retired priest whom I recruited for special duty).
  • Read and made some notes on a substantial draft response from the Executive Council to a document on ecumenism from the "faith and order" section of the World Council of Churches. The draft has been circulated for comment by the Executive Council.
  • Took note of a message from another diocese regarding a disciplined (or, in this case, restored) member of the clergy. Bishops get a pretty steady supply of such notices.
  • Responded substantively via email to a pastoral issue raised by one of our clergy.
  • Consulted with the Archdeacon on an ongoing pastoral/administrative matter.
  • Read Evening Prayer in the cathedral about 15-30 minutes earlier than usual so I could get home and take a walk before dinner. #10,000steps

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tuesday in Holy Week

  • Daily and weekly task planning at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Consulted with the Archdeacon over a small array of emerging and ongoing concerns, administrative and pastoral.
  • Followed through by email with some administrivia related to a couple of those concerns.
  • Took a brisk walk down Second to South Grand, over to Spring, and back up.
  • Read and made a few notes the ten-page document that sets out the terms of a proposed full-communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. (I have a lunch appointment with the Methodist bishop on Thursday.)
  • Operated on the text of a Good Friday homily from several years ago toward the end of re-deploying it this week at the cathedral.
  • Attended Mass in the cathedral chapel for Tuesday in Holy Week.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Made some final decisions with respect to a new round of official portraits that will soon be made available (including a legacy B&W for the rogue's gallery in the conference room) to those who didn't get in on the action six years ago or are tired of the one they got then.
  • Took my homily for Easter III (St Bartholomew's, Granite City) from developed notes to rough draft stage.
  • Afternoon walk: north on Second to Capitol, east to Eighth, south to Lawrence and back to the corral.
  • Wrote a confirming email to the presenters at our clergy conference in November, nailing down what we discussed by phone a couple of weeks ago.
  • Did some due diligence on the bishop-elect of North Carolina. After an exchange of Facebook messages with a priest whom I know in that diocese, made the decision to consent, and executed the form.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

It has been my custom since taking up my current ministry to spend all of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Easter, at my "home church," i.e. St Paul's Cathedral in Springfield. So I presided at the two liturgies this morning, while Dean Andy Hook did a fine job of preaching. Palms were blessed, the Passion was dramatically read, the Eucharist was celebrated. This is my 40th Holy Week using the full traditional rites of the 1979 Prayer Book. What a joyful privilege.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Saturday (Wm. Augustus Muhlenberg)

The main event of the day was the annual Chrism Mass at the cathedral. I arrived at the cathedral-office complex around 9:30 ahead of an 11am liturgy. Bishop Tony Clavier preached, using an image none of us who heard it will soon forget. The clergy renewed their ordination vows, we celebrated the Eucharist, and we consecrated the Oil of Chrism and the Oil of the Sick. It was all capped off by a luncheon for the clergy and spouses. A wonderful time of collegiality.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday (St Tikhon)

Apologies for being AWOL all week. Tuesday through Thursday I was occupied with a meeting of the Communion Partner bishops at the "interestingly" named Camp Week, about 90 miles west of Jacksonville, Florida. It was a gratifyingly focused and fruitful meeting. We heard a report on the work of the Marriage Task Force. (The expectation is that they will introduce legislation at the 2018 General Convention to revise the Book of Common Prayer piecemeal, beginning with making it completely "gender neutral," especially with respect to marriage, starting with a draft to be approved on first reading in 2018 and adopted for use in 2021.) We heard reports from the Lambeth Design Group (one of our number is a member), the situation among the Global South provinces (drifting toward a tighter connection with GAFCON), the situation in the Anglican Church of Canada (those who are communion-minded and hold a traditional biblical understanding of marriage make up nearly one-third of their House of Bishops), the situation in Province IX (all but one of the dioceses are led by bishops who number themselves among us), and the situation in the Church of England (intense conflict, but overwhelming support for traditional marriage doctrine). We discussed strategic approaches to the 2018 General Convention and the 2020 Lambeth Conference. And ... with flight delays on both ends of my journey, I got home at 1:15am.
So I got a bit of a late start on the day:
  • Picked up my laptop computer from the shop where I had left it for diagnosis and cure. A thorough dust abatement and addition of RAM have made it much happier.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Conferred with the Dean on sundry matters, most relating to Holy Week liturgies.
  • Devoted the rest of the morning to a long list of administrative and pastoral minutia (I don't mean that last term to imply that any of it was unimportant or trivial.) In the midst of this, walked several laps around the cathedral nave.
  • Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
  • Reviewed and revised the text of a homily from a prior year for Easter II, which I will redeploy at St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel on the 23rd of this month.
  • Yet more administrative and pastoral minutia.
  • Prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
  • Offered Evening Prayer, a tad bit on the early side.
  • Left at 4:15 to retrieve Brenda and head east in the YFNBmobile for dinner in Champaign and then a spectacular musical/poetic/devotional event at the Chapel of St John the Divine--a performance of Marcel Dupré's musical interpretation of the Stations of the Cross by Stephen Buzzard, music director at St James' Cathedral in Chicago. It was stunning.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fifth Sunday in Lent

With our already being in Carbondale, and wth the regular liturgy at St Andrew's not until 10:00, it was a relatively leisurely morning, with time for Brenda and me to have a sit-down breakfast at the Golden Corral near the Hampton Inn. Then it was on the presiding, preaching, and confirming three adults. There was good energy all around and God was glorified. We were on the road just past noon, and with a stop for lunch in Nashville (IL, of course), we were home around 3:30.

Sermon for Lent V

St Andrew's, Carbondale--John 11:1-44, Ezekiel 37:1-14

These are tough times we live in, right?

I suspect that nobody here this morning wants to disagree with that statement. But I also suspect that no two of us would understand it in quite the same way. We may disagree about exactly what makes the times tough, but we agree about the basic facts of the human condition: We are surrounded by uncertainty and anxiety in every dimension. We’re told that we’re nearing the end of a long stretch of economic recovery from the last recession, but I know plenty of people who would say, “What recovery?” Global political instability is threatening us at every turn: ISIS taking credit for a deadly attack in London week before last, North Korea testing ballistic missiles, Russia involved in all sorts of international skullduggery. We read doomsday scenarios of environmental degradation—unbreathable air in Chinese cities, misbehaving ocean currents creating havoc in Peru, drought causing severe famine in Tanzania; my friends, I’ve just mentioned two places where our diocese has companion relationships, where people we actually know have been affected by these events. The list could go on: human trafficking, epidemic opioid addition, etc. etc.

The Jews of the time of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel had ample reason for these same feelings. After centuries of armed conflict and political instability, they are now in exile in a strange land, several hundred miles from the territory they call home. They are in collective grief over what they have lost: they have lost their freedom, they have lost their dignity and self-respect as a nation, as a people. They are consumed with hopelessness about their future.

Grief and loss on a collective scale is one thing, and certainly bad enough, but when it becomes personal—and collective grief is always personal for a great many people—the pain becomes all the more pointed. This is the position of Mary and Martha, the two sisters who, along with their brother Lazarus, were close personal friends of Jesus, and it becomes Jesus’ position as well, when Lazarus takes ill and fairly quickly dies. It’s very personal, and there is grief all around. The shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, occurs in this narrative: Jesus wept. And not only is Jesus said to have wept in both personal and compassionate grief over the death of his friend, but there are two others occasions in this passage when the Evangelist uses Greek words that denote intense emotion—deep sighs and groans.

But in his dialogue with Martha, Jesus introduces a game-changing element. At first, she mistakes it for the sort of shallow platitudinous comfort that we so often hear when someone is trying to express condolences but doesn’t know how—stuff like, “God needed another angel in heaven,” or “It was just her time to go” (by the way, don’t ever say those things; it’s terrible theology). But when Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” he wasn’t just perpetuating a cliché. He was introducing a new ingredient into the recipe. It’s not a matter of anything that Jesus does, or, by extension, anything that God does. It’s not a matter of doing at all; rather, it’s a matter of being. It’s a matter of who Jesus—and, by extension, God—is: “I am the resurrection and the life…” Yes, it would be true to say that Jesus gives resurrection and life, but only because he first is resurrection and life.

In this moment of offering comfort to Martha, Jesus reveals the heart of God as one of love-fueled life. He is clearly operating out of love for Lazarus and for Lazarus’ sisters, and that love fuels his action of restoring Lazarus to life. Life is bound up in God’s very identity. God bestows life not merely as something he chooses to do, but from the heart of his essential being, from the heart of who he is.

Now, don’t think that I’m getting all Christian Science on you and suggesting that suffering and grief are not real, all in our minds. Remember, the one who is in his own self “resurrection and life,” Jesus himself, wept. And sighed and groaned with grief. Our loss, our pain, our grief—it’s all real. But where the game gets changed by Jesus is right here: suffering and loss are real, but they are not the last word. Suffering and loss are real, but they are not the end of the story. The God of life still reigns, and will have the last word.

The Jews in exile in Babylon were feeling the pointed end of the spear of grief and loss as they tried to navigate their way around their new and unfamiliar surroundings. It was in that context that Ezekiel, who was one of these exiled Jews—it was in this context that Ezekiel had his magnificent vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. He sees what seems literally to be an above-ground graveyard. It’s a scene of utter hopelessness. But, before his watchful eyes, the bones assemble themselves into skeletons. Then, muscle tissue and skin attach themselves to the bones. The Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy, and, when he does so, the breath of life comes into the innumerable lifeless bodies, and they stand upright. The Lord tells Ezekiel,
Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.
Ezekiel’s vision was God’s word of hope to the people of Israel. It’s a powerful image of a love-fueled God of life, even as Jesus’ raising of Lazarus was God’s word of hope to his people in that time and place. And both of them are God’s word of hope to us in the loss and grief that we experience, both collective and personal.

We stand now on the brink of our annual plunge into the depths of the Paschal Mystery. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then we’re into Holy Week and the sacred Triduum—one liturgy in three segments: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. The God of love-fueled life, the God who breathed life into the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, the God who raised Lazarus from the dead in the face of his family’s grief—this God will be waiting for you right here as you come together to observe with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. I know you will be richly blessed in your remembrance. Amen.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Saturday (F.D. Maurice)

Treated myself to a treadmill super-workout, cleaned up, packed, and hit the road with Brenda at noon for points south. Arrived at St Andrew's, Carbondale in time to keep a 3:15 appointment with the rector, which lasted about 90 minutes. Then we got settled in our Hampton Inn accommodations before heading out to a buffet dinner party at the home of longtime parish pillar Trish Guyon, which featured Chicago-style hotdogs and lots of Cubs bling.