Friday, April 24, 2015

Always Room in the Flock for More Sheep

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 10th Chapter
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

As a pastor I’ve been called many things.  A few I can mention in church.  Pastor is common.  Father, I don't mind and one guy in Colorado always called me Reverend, which made me feel like a televangelist, but he meant well.  Many of the other things I’ve been called I can’t mention in church, but one thing I get called every once in a while is a shepherd.  They say I am the shepherd and the people in the church are my flock.  Now, you all might be sheep, but I’m no shepherd.  Sheepdog maybe... a fuzzy, sometimes excitable, sheepdog who loves naps and dinner time like any other dog... maybe.  A mutt who loves his Master and loves his Master’s sheep, maybe... but ya’ll are the SHEPHERD’S sheep... not mine.   

Thankfully, all of us... dog and sheep alike... have a deeply, powerfully loving, committed master… The Good Shepherd... Jesus.  When we listen, the flock, dog and Good Shepherd all move together as a unit.  We’re a community... bound together.  It’s a good image for us... like sheep, we humans weren’t created to go it alone.  We were created to live together... because together is where we thrive and together is how we are safe when the nights get cold and the wolves start to prowl.  As a flock bound together and cared for by the Good Shepherd we have life!  Scattered, going it alone, running off in different directions... we’re not a flock... we’re wolf food.  

But even though we KNOW our shepherd is the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd will do anything and everything for us... even lay down his life... deep down, we still would really like to at least know where we’re being led, wouldn’t we?  It’s funny when you think about it... a bunch of sheep and a drooling mutt wanting the Shepherd to consult with US about his plans for the flock!  

The truth is, we really don’t have a say in which way we’re going.  Neither Sheep nor Dog has a vote for what comes next in this life.  When we’re honest, we know we’re not in control... but we still don’t really like it, do we?  We don’t like being out of control.  After all, there’s some dangerous and scary territory out there!  We’d like to know what’s coming around the bend.  What about wolves?  What about shadowy valleys?  We really ARE, just the sheep and a dog, but deep down we still want to say to the Good Shepherd, “Are you sure that’s the best way?  Is that really a greener pasture?  Do you know how fast we’re eating through the grass?  That water doesn’t look all that still over there, shouldn’t we stay here?”   

The promise from the Good Shepherd is, that as we walk along the pathways of this life, both through green pastures and even through the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd is always with us.  Calling us, coaxing us, sometimes poking us with his staff or maybe sending a sheepdog to nip a sheep in the rear!  But the truth in all of this is that when we are with the Good Shepherd, even in the worst of all of life’s possible valleys, the WORST valley we could ever possibly walk through is ONLY the valley of the SHADOW of death.  There is no Valley of Death.  Death is gone; the Good Shepherd would not lead sheep or dog to a place where death still resides!  Plus, THERE IS NO PLACE WHERE DEATH STILL RESIDES!  The path may be unknown to us, the Good Shepherd may not be consulting sheep nor dog on the best way forward, the way may look very different and scary, it may feel cold and sometimes the shadows in the valley can block the warmth of the Sun for what seems like far too long, but the truth is that death is no more!  The Sun is risen!

This particular dog and these two particular flocks... we’ve been led by the Good Shepherd to come together.  That seems to be one of the Good Shepherd’s goals... to bring sheep together... to create one flock.  But now that we’re together, we’ve found ourselves in some territory we never saw coming... territory we’ve never been in before and we worry about what’s out there.  What’s going to happen next?  What’s the Good Shepherd planning?  Where are we going?  We worry if German Merino Sheep, Swedish Gute Sheep and Norwegian Dala Sheep can really get along with British Shetland and Black Welsh Sheep, all in the same flock?  We worry about what other sheep this Good Shepherd might be planning to bring into our flock!  But you know what?  For a bunch of sheep and a drooling mutt, we sure do worry a lot, don’t we?

It’s true.  We do live in interesting times.  The Church is changing.  Not just ours, but all of Christianity and we live in a part of the country that is on the leading edge of that change. Some call that a tragedy.  Others call it an opportunity, but no matter what we call it, we all want to know who’s going to bring order to this chaos.  The vestry?  The council?  A Bishop?  Two Bishops!?  You? Me?  Hey, we’re all just a bunch of sheep and a dog!  What do we know!?  

The truth is, not one of us can control what happens next.  What we CAN DO is trust that the Good Shepherd is leading us to a place where souls are restored, heads are anointed with oil and cups run over.  We can remember that when the sheep and the dog focus on the Good Shepherd, storms are calmed, our hunger is fed, our wounds are healed, and we find ourselves led on right pathways to green pastures, beside still waters and we have LIFE.  

It’s a frightening thing to give up trying to be in control, but the Good Shepherd loves us... loves us to death... loves us to death and back again... and plus, he’s got a really big stick!  Like it or not, we don’t get to choose where we are being led.  What we can choose is how we will follow and the way we follow matters!  The way we follow matters, because there are other sheep out there who are looking at us to see what kind of Shepherd we follow.  How we follow is a window through which others are looking to see God.  The better we are able to follow that Good Shepherd... the more trusting of the Good Shepherd we can be, the better others will be able to see that this is a flock which isn’t just cared for by any old shepherd, but this flock and dog belong to the Good Shepherd and here in this fold, there is always love and compassion, abundance and joy, safety and room for any sheep out there who are in need of a fold.  Amen.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Cioppino is a seafood stew originating, as best as anyone knows, among fishermen of Portuguese
heritage in the San Francisco Bay area.  

This version uses Maine seafood but it is meant to use whatever fresh, local seafood is in season where you live.  This recipe makes enough for 6-8 people.  

First Make the Sauce

1/4 C Olive Oil
2 C Coarsely Chopped Onions
3 Bell Peppers Coarsely Chopped
Bay Leaves
1t Dried Oregano
1t Dried Basil
1T Brown Sugar
dash Cinnamon
1/4 t Celery Salt
1 Can     15oz. Clam Stock
1 Can     28oz. Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
2 C Chi-Chi's Medium Chunky Salsa

Heat olive oil in stock pot over medium heat for 2 minutes.  Add onions and peppers and cook until onions are translucent.  Add herbs and spices stirring for an additional minute.  Add remaining ingredients, and salt to taste, stir and simmer for 1 hour.

Second, Add the Seafood

1T Butter
1T Olive Oil
4t Chopped Garlic
1 C Dry White Wine
1 Batch Cioppino Sauce (from above)
1 lb. Haddock cut in 1 inch squares
1/2 lb. Maine Day Boat Scallops cut in half
1/2 lb. Extra large Shrimp peeled & deveined
1 lb. Mussels, rinsed and beards removed

Melt butter and oil in a large, wide pot.  Add garlic and stir, warming until you can smell the aroma, but not browning.  Add wine and mussels, cover and raise heat to medium high.  Steam mussels until they open, about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat.  

Add Shrimp to Cioppino sauce and simmer 2 minutes.  Add Haddock and scallops and simmer 2 more minutes and finally add steamed mussels and steaming liquid to Cioppino Sauce.  Stir and remove from heat.   

Serve in large bowls with a hearty, crusty bread and butter, making sure to divide seafood evenly to avoid family conflicts!


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Not a Vacuum But a Piece of Broiled Fish

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 24th Chapter
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. 
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

This week’s Gospel starts with a quick, but important, reminder from last week.  Jesus stands among the disciples on the beach and says, “Peace be with you.”  Just like last week, this isn’t a suggestion.  This is Jesus ORDERING peace to be in, with and under the disciples’ entire beings... and it WAS... and it IS!  Both for the disciples then AND for us disciples now!  Peace be with you!  BOOM!  DONE!  YOU HAVE IT!
Apparently though, they had trouble fully living into the peace Christ gave them... filled with joy, disbelief and wondering as they were.  But it’s important to understand that their joy, disbelief and wondering were not an indication of whether or not they possessed Christ’s peace... They had it alright.  No, their joy, disbelief and wondering were indications of their struggle (like our struggle) to recognize it, live into it, and accept it as real.
When Hanna, our oldest, was a toddler, she told us one night, “I NOT have a bath.”  We said, “You can have a bath the happy way or the sad way.”  She chose the sad way... She often chose the sad way.  After she was bathed, we dried her off and said, “So... you had a bath.”  She said, “NO! I NOT HAVE A BATH!”  She had a bath, but we couldn’t make her admit that she’d had one.  We disciples are sometimes like that with Christ’s peace.  “I NOT HAVE CHRIST’S PEACE!”
After giving the disciples his peace, Jesus invited them to look at his hands and feet... to TOUCH his wounds and SEE he was really there... flesh and bones.  Then he asks them for something to eat and the disciples give him a piece of broiled fish.  Broiled fish.  Isn’t that oddly specific?  Broiled fish.  Not grilled, fried or poached but broiled.  Not baked, steamed, roasted or sauteed, but broiled.  Not sushi style or en papillote, but broiled!  Why would that detail... Jesus eating BROILED fish... be important enough for Luke to include?
It turns out that the detail of Jesus eating broiled fish was important for Luke to include because way back then, when Luke wrote his Gospel, there were people who were convinced that Jesus was not concerned with matters of the flesh.  They believed that focusing on Jesus meant they should focus ONLY on the place where they believed Jesus now was... the spiritual world... heaven... the hear-after.  They believed things of the flesh were evil and things of the spirit were holy.  The day to day concerns of their neighbor’s flesh and blood needs, therefore, weren’t important.  Only their spirit mattered... only the after life mattered.  Wounds and hunger in THIS world were simply unchangeable facts of the evil world of the flesh.  It was something we all simply had to endure.  They could not be changed.  Things would be better in the sweet by and by and that should be enough.
Luke told of Christ giving his peace and of Jesus having the disciples TOUCH his wounds and FEED him fish, because Luke wanted to remind all who read his Gospel that JESUS was of the flesh!  There was no separation of “so called” evil flesh from righteous spirit!  Human, earthly concerns WERE Christ’s concerns!  This world, these bodies, these people, our neighbors ARE all holy, because God made them holy.  Luke wanted to remind the people then, and us now, that when we TOUCH the flesh and blood, real-life wounds of our neighbors in THIS world, we touch something holy... we encounter Christ.  It is in feeding our neighbor who needs something to eat... it is THERE that we SEE Christ in THIS world... and Luke makes this story SO specific and SO detailed, telling us that Jesus ate BROILED fish so that we would not mistake this story to be about some sort of spiritual meal.
Luke gives us those details so it is crystal clear.  Disciples are called to fill the ACTUAL bellies of real, FLESH and BLOOD people, with REAL, chewable, belly-filling food.  He wants us to understand that it is in the nitty, gritty, real life, here and now act of giving food to someone who is hungry... In THAT act, we meet Christ.  By walking THAT path... walking the JESUS WAY of flesh and blood, wounds and hunger that we live into the PEACE which Christ has already given us all as a gift.
God has a deep desire to connect with humanity and all of creation.  In earlier times, the Jewish people encountered God in the Temple, but as Luke wrote this, that had been destroyed.  Followers of Jesus had connected to God through the person of Jesus and his teachings and his life but now he too seemed to be gone.  So, there were many in Luke’s day... and there are still many today... who believe we no longer have that physical connection with God.  They believe God is just “up there” and so “up there” should be our focus.  Focus on the spiritual.  Focus on the day we’ll be vacuumed up to join him in glory... focus on saving souls, winning hearts for Christ, making sure sinners get to heaven (or keep them out of hell)... focus on making sure we turn ‘em before they burn!
But here’s the thing.  In Luke’s time, that focus on the spiritual... the insistence that God had no part in flesh and bones or the wounds and hunger of the people in the world... that was a misguided notion Luke fought with a passion.  Luke insisted, with “broiled fish” detail, that Jesus isn’t “Up There” concerned about our souls.  Luke insists that Christ is RIGHT HERE... in, with and under the wounds and in the hunger of the people we encounter every single day.  We’re reminded of that, right over there, every Sunday when we see and touch broken body... when our hunger is fed at the Table.
I think Luke had it right.  We have Christ’s peace.  We’ve been freed from having to worry about our souls and heaven.  That strife is o’r!  That victory’s won!  Heaven doesn’t need our focus... heaven’s been handled for us on that first Easter.  Where our focus is called for now, is to be on Jesus, and we meet Jesus HERE in the flesh and bone of the people of the world who are wounded and hungry.  The wounded, the hurt, the broken... they are asking to be touched and seen.  The hungry... they are looking for something to eat.  Luke is telling us, touch the wounded and you will touch Christ.  Feed the hungry and you will see the face of God.  Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 20th Chapter
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  THAT is the hard, seemingly impossible question we have before us.  Not just for today and not just because this is the text for today.  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  That’s the question, because there are always good disciples who find themselves locked in an “upper room” behind powerful doors locked in fear.  I know what fear looks like.  It’s a look I’ve seen before in the mirror.  I’ve been there.  I know what it looks like.  I know how it drains your hope, your life, your imagination.  I know how it makes you lash out.  I know how bitter it tastes.  I know.  I know because I’ve lived in that room locked with fear.  I've locked myself away in fear before.  Lashed out in fear.  I know.  Fear is powerful.  Fear is paralyzing.  Fear is debilitating.  The disciples locked the doors out of their powerful, paralyzing, debilitating FEAR.  The only thing they could see ahead of them was their own bitter, terrible, disappointing, inevitable end... an end like Jesus’s end.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  

It’s not that there was no reason for their fear.  The disciples didn’t wake up all happy-go-lucky without a care in the world, filled with joy and then sometime after a casual latte at Starbucks, stroke their beards and say, “I think I’ll lock the door and hide in life paralyzing fear today.”  No!  They had methodically and painfully been dragged down into the depths of this fear by the soul crushing events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday where, in less than a week, EVERYTHING they had lived for, every moment of the day for three whole years of their lives, had ended in this pain-filled place of hopelessness where they were physically, and emotionally UNABLE to see anything else.  Fear had them locked away more completely than the strongest dead bolt, padlock or cell block.  They were locked inside that room with FEAR blocking out every other possibility... where the only imaginable future was DEATH.  Any chance at HOPE and LIFE were locked securely outside that door.  

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And yet... through doors and locks and fears, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”  THEY didn’t come to Jesus.  They didn’t go and FIND Jesus.  Jesus came to THEM.  Now, you might want to say that IF the disciples HADN’T been paralyzed with debilitating fear and IF they had faith, then they could have seen the possibility of Jesus breaking through death into life.  They SHOULD have seen it because Jesus had, after all, spent the last three years breaking through seemingly unbreakable barriers... gender barriers, cultural barriers, religious barriers and physical barriers to bring the truth of God’s love to all of creation but let's not "SHOULD" on the disciples.  They had NOTHING that could unlock that door THIS IS DEATH we’re talking about.  There was NO way out of DEATH, no other place they could have ever even imagined that they could be, but locked in a room imprisoned by fear.  

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
They were scared, they felt defeated, they could not see a future, they were paralyzed, they were out of faith, out of hope, out of strength, out of energy and out of life.  They had NOTHING!  Not a hope in the world and into ALL THAT MESS Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  He didn’t say, “You know, I see you’re a bit blue.  Perhaps I might suggest a little peace to perk you up a bit?”  NO!  Jesus said “Peace BE with YOU!”  He SAID it and it WAS!  This was not a suggestion!  This was the Christ ORDERING PEACE to be with them!  AND IT WAS!  It was IN, WITH and UNDER every molecule of their being!  ... And in that moment, they no longer had nothing.  In that moment the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it!  In that moment they were full to overflowing.  In that moment they had everything.  They had faith, hope, courage, purpose, a future... in that moment they had life.  

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Here’s the thing... I know that some of us are scared, a few of us feel defeated, and a handful of us can’t see a future.  I know that some feel paralyzed, out of faith, out of hope, out of strength, out of energy and out of life.  I know you are trapped in a room, locked away, paralyzed with fear... I know.  I know.

I know that’s where you are today, but I also know for all of us fear-filled disciples... THIS IS THE DAY!  TODAY there is nothing in all of creation, no lock big enough, no door strong enough... TODAY IS THE DAY when nothing on heaven or on earth will stop Jesus from standing HERE among us all... TODAY YOU WILL SEE JESUS... TODAY, Christ’s Peace WILL be with you!  TODAY!  TODAY, the Cup will be raised and the Bread will be broken and Jesus will be standing here among YOU ALL and YOU WILL HAVE PEACE the peace which passes all understanding!

So come to the Table!  Come as you are.  Empty.  With nothing.  Come without faith, without hope, without a future to imagine.  Come without courage, strength or an ounce of remaining energy... Come to the Table without the faintest flicker of light.  Come to the Table without even life itself and you WILL leave with EVERYTHING!  Leave Christ’s Table FILLED with faith.  Leave FILLED with hope.  Leave FILLED with courage, strength, light and nourishment for the journey ahead.  Come empty... and leave with EVERYTHING, leave filled to overflowing! Come broken and leave healed!  Come filled with fear and leave with the courage of a disciple filled with the power of God a power that is able to transform death into life!  Do not doubt but believe!  

What would you do if you weren't afraid?  Amen.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

He Blew the Doors Off That Place!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 16th Chapter
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone
for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Icons are an amazing gift we have from the Orthodox Christian tradition.  They are wonderful pieces of art for sure, but they’re way, way more than that.  In fact, icons are much, much less concerned with accurately representing what an event might have looked like and are way, WAY more concerned with communicating the deep, powerful meanings inside the stories of the faith.
For me, what a story MEANS is SO much more interesting and way more helpful to me than worrying about any one story’s literal details.  The details don’t really help me that much when I’m trying to make sense of my sometimes strange and sometimes wonderful and sometimes painful life.  Debating whether there were two angels at the empty tomb or just one doesn’t do anything but give me a headache.  BUT... looking deep into the powerful MEANINGS of these stories DO make a real difference in my life.  I know for me and for many others, the meanings of these stories of the faith have even meant the difference hope and despair or even the difference between life and death.  It’s the MEANING... the TRUTH inside of these stories that really matters!  
A Native American story teller once said, “I don’t know if it really happened this way or not, but I know that it’s TRUE!”  That’s what the writers of icons are concerned with as well.  What does this crazy, strange, wonderful story MEAN?  What is the TRUTH inside that will make a difference for my life?  How is this story going to help me make sense of this crazy world and my hectic life in the here and now?
Take out your bulletin and look at the picture on the front cover.  It’s an Easter icon... an icon of the Resurrection.  It follows a very traditional and ancient structure.  Clearly, they didn’t make it to pretend to be a photograph of the event.  Instead, it is painted, or “written” as they say in creating icons, to convey deep TRUTHS... to convey what the story of the resurrection MEANS!  
The big guy in the center of the picture... that’s Jesus.  He’s bigger than all the others and he’s robed in heavenly white and surrounded by that almond shaped oval that represents the Glory of God.  What all that MEANS is that Jesus has received God’s Divine stamp of approval!  What Jesus taught, how he lived, his faithfulness to his mission, his dedication to making this world work the way God wants it to work where everyone has enough... enough food, peace, shelter, self worth, and meaning... All who Jesus was and all who Jesus now IS has received God’s full, super official, holy, heavenly endorsement.  
The people Jesus is pulling up out of those two coffins on either side are Adam and Eve.  What this MEANS is that in Christ’s resurrection Jesus has pulled, not just Adam and Eve, but all the people Adam and Eve represent.  Jesus has pulled ALL of humanity... you, me, nutty uncle Joe... EVERYONE... past, present and future... out of death and into new life!  Now, look close and see HOW Jesus is pulling them out of death and into life.  He’s pulling them out of death by their wrists.  That’s really important!  You see, THEY didn’t grab hold of Jesus.  Jesus grabbed hold of THEM!  JESUS DID ALL THE WORK... Neither of them were even able to help... even just a little tiny bit!  Salvation, heaven, resurrection, new life, abundant life, life everlasting whatever you want to call it, is something that God in Christ has done TO us!  We play no part in getting our new life at all!  We can be thankful for it, we can respond to it and spread the joy that we get from it and in the picture, Adam and Eve seem to like where they’re being pulled, but the choice, the work, the effort is none of ours... it’s ALL done by Christ!  To me, that's an amazing gift because frankly, if it was left to me, I would no doubt, screw it up!  
Now, take a look at what Jesus is standing on.  Those are the doors to death... the doors to hell.  Notice that those doors are no longer on their hinges.  In some icons like this, there are even images of broken hinges and hardware scattered all over the place.  What this MEANS is that in Jesus’s death he went down there and on his way out, in Jesus’s resurrection, he blew the doors off of hell!  Those doors are now permanently broken, the hinges no longer work... this means that there is nothing keeping anyone, ANYONE trapped in hell, trapped in death, trapped in a place apart from God’s infinite and unconditional love any more! 
Now, look down at the bottom of the icon, into that hole in the ground.  In this icon there’s a dragon wrapped in chains, in other icons of the resurrection it’s a man bound in chains.  Either way, that’s the image of death, wrapped in chains and made powerless by Christ.  It’s interesting that even though death is powerless and the doors of hell have been blown off their hinges, hell still exists... the hole is still here.  For me the MEANING of this part of the icon is a painful truth.  That hole is the ground acknowledges that there are times and there are days where I find myself choosing to spend time in hell.  God doesn’t send me there.  There are no doors keeping me there and there is no power that can overcome me there. BUT, some days, I walk down there, sit in the pit and churn and burn and pout and spout.
We’ve all had those days... some of us have had those years!  Times when we find ourselves stewing in hate, bitterness, anger and resentment... that’s hell.  Times when we’re anxious and worried and filled with fear, that’s hell.  Times when we exclude others, tear people down or bully others to get our way, that’s hell.  We aren’t sent there, but the sad MEANING and the terrible TRUTH of that hole at the bottom of that icon, is that all too often we choose to go there and refuse the live the life God has pulled us out to live!  
The Good News is that is NOT where God wants us to be!  God WANTS us to LIVE out of that hole!  THAT is what God intends for all of creation to really live, FILLED with LIFE... ALIVE with Christ, out of the pit, THIS is where God wants us to be and in this icon, nobody’s left in the hole!  Everyone is free!  Everyone is alive and living an abundant life filled with meaning, purpose and worth, completely and forever gathered into God’s infinite, loving embrace. 
THAT is the MEANING of Easter!  We ALL have been given, not just life, but ABUNDANT life!  It’s better than bunnies, baskets and even Cadbury Creme Eggs!  Each of you, and all of creation has been set free with God’s infinite love to really, really live!  May you embrace the TRUTH that you are completely and deeply loved by God, no matter who you are, what you've done or where you've been you have been loved by God from death into LIFE!  May you go and spread the JOY of that the MEANING of Easter in every place you go!  Amen. 

Spoiler Alert!

The Passion According to St. John
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.
First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Today we are asked to remember and reflect and sit uncomfortably in the reality of Jesus’s death.  We’re not, however, expected to pretend today, like we don’t know what’s coming on Sunday.  Even tonight... even with everything so dark and stark and heavy... we’re still supposed to remember that Easter IS coming.  In fact, here’s the kicker... without Jesus’s death, there would never have been a resurrection!  Death, it turns out, is the one prerequisite for resurrection.

Without Good Friday, there could be no Easter Sunday and here’s the promise... After that first Good Friday and Easter, our promise from God is that there will never be a Good Friday time in our lives... there will never be a death... there will never be an ending... which is NOT followed up through God’s power and love, with a radiantly shining and glorious empty tomb on Easter... with new and abundant LIFE... or with a new beginning in an amazing promised land, flowing with milk and honey!  

THIS... death AND resurrection... THIS is how God works.  Death AND Resurrection... God has made them permanently go inseparably together.   Better than... chips and salsa, salt and pepper or Shaggy and Scooby.  They are more infinitely linked than Astaire and Rogers, peas and carrots, Kirk and Spock or lobster and drawn butter!  They simply forever and always will go together... and yet... it seems like whenever we face a Good Friday time in our lives... whenever something we know, or love or are familiar with or comfortable with... whenever something like that faces its end or approaches its death, we seem to fight that ending... we seem to struggle against that death... we seem to dig in our heals and sometimes even flop down on the floor like a toddler and have a temper tantrum!  We fight those endings with all of our being.  Whenever we face an ending, something coming to a close, the death of something in our lives which we loved, we act as if we’ve never God's promise, that Easter ALWAYS follows Good Friday.  We act out as if we have forgotten that God always, always, ALWAYS follows every terrible, difficult and seemingly hopeless ending with a glorious, triumphant and abundant resurrection... with NEW and abundant life... with a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey!  

That first Good Friday and Easter was way MORE than just a one-time event that accomplished the salvation of the world.  It was that, but that first Good Friday and Easter was God showing us God’s new method of transformation for us as individuals and for all of creation.  We tell this story again and again every year, not just to recall an event from history.  We tell this story every year because as we live our lives... as we struggle with death... the death of people, relationships, comfortable places, familiar patterns and long-planned hopes... the story of those deaths becomes DIS-MEMBERED from God's promise of resurrection.   We tell this story again every year so that the inseparable bond God has created between between death and resurrection, might be RE-MEMBERed in the telling and the hearing of this story... we tell this story not to feel guilty or sad or broken or bad... but so that we can RE-MEMBER God’s promise and God’s forever truth... that not only is there never a resurrection without death... but that there is no death that will not be followed by a glorious and beautiful resurrection!

Tonight we reflect on the reality of death and endings with all the legitimate pain and sorrow that goes with them.  We reflect on the reality of life’s struggles and fears.  BUT tonight we also remember and  RE-MEMBER the promise of Easter as the inevitable conclusion that ALWAYS follows the painful reality of death.  No matter how dark, stark and heavy life may feel for us at times, tonight we remember... Easter is always, ALWAYS coming!  Amen.  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Love Story in Three Parts

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 13th Chapter
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Most people like a really good story and whether you know it or not, you’ve just entered into the first part on an AMAZING one!  Today we hear the introduction... the set up... tomorrow, Good Friday is the main, cruel, plot twist and then on Sunday morning we’ll hear the stunning, exciting, unexpected conclusion!  These three days together are ONE worship service, divided into three parts.  The ancient church did it that way on purpose... both to allow us to follow Jesus through each of these days, but also to allow us the time we need for the enormity of each piece of the story to really sink in.  It’s like an intense novel that you simply have to put down, for just a little while, so that you can catch your breath.  

This three day story is high drama for sure, but at it’s core it’s really a love story.  It is the story of our God and our God’s love... our God’s PASSION... for us and all of creation.  It’s not the story of an angry or violent God who demands satisfaction.  It’s the story that proclaims the lengths God is willing to go to insure we understand the depth of God’s love, because in that love, God knows that we will have LIFE!  It is a story meant to inspire us to take that love and reflect it with every molecule of our being out into the world.

Tonight we hear the story of Jesus passing on to his disciples exactly what that love is all about.  It’s not that Jesus had kept that a secret over the last three years of ministry, by any means.  Literally everything that Jesus did, showed the kind of love that God was about.  It was the same love that Jesus talked about and acted out every single day.  That night, Jesus simply took all of the parables, all of the healings, all of the feedings, dinners and miracles and bound them up into a powerful package and gave them to us as a gift.  “Love one another as I have first loved you.”  

THAT is our one, overarching, Christian Value; that we love one another as Jesus first loved us.  This commandment is THE commandment that we are to live by.  It is the commandment that informs and interprets all other commandments from cover to cover.  Love one another as I have first loved you.  There is a lot of talk in our world about Christian values and religious freedom, but unlike the talk that so often leads to hate, exclusion and discrimination, this commandment comes from Christ himself, and it is a commandment for us to LOVE.  

God’s love... Jesus’s love... is a specific sort of love too.  It is not at all sentimental.  It is a love that by it’s nature, changes everything it touches!  It is a love that starts small like a mustard seed and grows into a tree that has room for every bird!  It is a love like a hidden treasure, worth selling all you have to buy the land in which that treasure is buried.  It is a love that never asks for selfish protections or personal comforts, but offers every ounce of our being in sacrificial service to the other.  It is a love that demands care for the least, the lost and the last in our society and around the world.  It is a love which is about making sure the hungry are fed, because when the 5000 needed to eat, Jesus told his disciples, “YOU FEED THEM!” never asking for the disciples to check if they were worthy, employed or addicted.  Jesus said, “YOU FEED THEM” because being a disciple means reflecting his love and that unquestioning inclusion and care is the way Jesus first loved us... WITH NO QUESTIONS ASKED!  This love is about making sure the old and weak are cared for, the outcasts are brought back into the community, the vulnerable defended and the sick find healing because THAT is the way Jesus first loved us.  This love is about giving water in the desert, giving sight to the blind and giving life to the dead.  THIS love is about changing the world!  

You simply can’t love like Jesus loved and turn your back on the weak, powerless and poor.  You simply can’t love like Jesus loved and only worry about the afterlife.  You can’t love like Jesus loved and turn away from the places where the politics of power, pain, hurt, prejudice, discrimination and death live, because Jesus never turned away from those places... Jesus never backed away from them.  Jesus paraded right into them on Palm Sunday and if we are going to be his disciples, THAT is the kind of love-in-action we are called to reflect to the world.  Jesus loved you and me and every single molecule of creation, head on, no holds barred and literally to death... THAT is the kind of love we are called to reflect to the world. 

That is the kind of love that God loves you with.  We are reminded of that every time we come to this table and eat the bread and drink the wine.  We are reminded that Jesus’s love is a radically inclusive love... Jesus ate with EVERYONE.  This meal reminds us too of the first Passover, and in that, we are reminded that God’s love is about freeing those in bondage and providing food for the journey and this meal reminds us as disciples, that when we reflect God’s love and work to transform our world into the Kingdom of God, the world may very well look to do us harm, even to the point where they try to violently separate blood from body.

Love is at the core of this whole story and tonight we get a glimpse again of how deep that love really is.  That command, to love one another as Jesus first loved you, is not an easy command to follow.  It is not a command that we can faithfully follow only in words, or only within these walls.  For disciples, this command compels each of us to transform ourselves and our world into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, and we are to do that with Christ’s love, regardless of the cost.  This story reminds us that it will cost us everything. Amen.