The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Promise and the responsibility

Easter Day
Matthew 28:1-10

In the name of Christ.  Amen.

It’s almost hard, surrounded by the bright buds of spring, to remember that winter has only just passed.  It wasn’t that long ago that the world was dark and cold, and the trees were spindly and bare.  It wasn’t that long ago that the birds sang their songs somewhere else, in retreat from the harsh winter we stayed behind to endure.  It wasn’t that long ago that most of our days were entombed in an icy shroud of white that we seemed to fear might never melt into spring.

But this morning, the daffodils are standing tall.  The tips of the trees are glowing with the pale, unhardened green of new growth.  The sun is shining warmer and longer than we earlier remembered was even possible.

Once-dormant life is transitioning back.  We knew it would, but for a while there, we wondered.  The encroaching warmth is still more a promise at this point, than an expectation - we can’t quite rely on it just yet - but we’re starting to see the cycle take shape.

For centuries - basically since the beginning of Christianity - comparisons have been made between the renewed life of springtime and the renewed life of Christ in the Resurrection.  It’s a confluence that would be hard to miss.  Even nature seems to be speaking Resurrection - however dull her whisper may yet be.

But on that first Easter morning, the women who would be the first of Jesus’ followers to learn of the Resurrection didn’t know that yet.  For them, the budding wildflowers they passed on their early morning walk must have felt like some sort of cruel joke.  Day was breaking, but it didn’t feel like the light of dawning hope.  For them, the sun must have felt like it was highlighting their pain and their community’s now-brokenness.  The sun was shining light where they might have been more comfortable hidden away in the dark.  The world was growing warmer and brighter and bursting with life, but their lives were imperiled.  Their hope had been snuffed.

I’ll admit that my image of the angel we hear about this morning is probably shaped more than anything by the late-90s movie Dogma, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play the roles of disgruntled angels.  Having seen God with their own eyes, they’re denied the innocence of faith.  Instead, they have facts and knowledge.  In the absence of faith, they miss the chance to wonder at God’s work.  And in the absence of wonder, they second-guess God’s choices.

They’re smart-mouthed and blasphemous; brilliant, and yet playful.  Yet, even they sometimes stand back in awe when they learn that God has done some new thing.

That’s how I imagine the angel that met the women on that Easter morning.  I imagine him almost smirking as he sat on that stone.  Perhaps he was a little jealous about what the women are about to learn - jealous of the wonder and relief that they would experience - but he was also surely in awe of the new thing that God had done.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

That’s when we hear the promise of Easter: it’s not just that Jesus had been raised.  You’d think that would be promise enough, but even so, there’s more.  The real promise of Easter is that we will see Christ again.  He’s not just gone from the tomb, but back in the world.

That Easter promise is still being realized in the world around us.  If we look - if we train ourselves to notice - we will see that Christ still walks among us.  The world is bursting with renewed life, and not just in the flowers and in the trees.  Whenever we see suffering and act with compassion, life is renewed.  Whenever we see shame and despair and respond with blessing, life is renewed.  When the hungry are fed, when the lonely are comforted, when the cold and vulnerable are clothed, life is renewed.  Christ is renewed.

And with the promise of Easter, there also is the responsibility of Easter.  The angel told those women who went planning to mourn: He has been raised; you will see him again; now go and spread the word!

That’s the responsibility of Easter - to spread the word of the risen Christ to the rest of the world.

St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Christian mystic and nun, said it, perhaps better than anyone.  She said:

            Christ has no body but yours.

            No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
            Yours are the eyes with which he looks
            Compassion on this world,
            Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
            Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

            Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
            Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

            Christ has no body now but yours.

The Easter promise is that we will see Christ again.  And the Easter responsibility is to ensure that others see Christ, too.

On a beautiful morning in the early spring, it’s hard to remember the winter that’s only just passed.  In the midst of Easter’s beauty and joy, it’s hard to remember that Good Friday was just the other day.

But there are still people around us who haven’t passed through Good Friday.

Easter came first to the women.  Then it was their responsibility to spread the promise.  Now it’s ours.

Christ has no body now but yours.  Yours are the hands.  Yours are the feet.  Yours are the eyes.

That’s what we get for Easter - the promise, but also the responsibility.  Spread the joy.  Spread the relief.  Spread the salvation.

The Good News is that Christ has been raised, and we will see him again.  Now we’re called to go out and show the world!  Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Strange fruit

Good Friday
John 18:1-19:42

I want to be very careful today.

I want to be careful that we don’t fall into that age-old trap of Holy Week, and particularly Good Friday, of laying blame for the death of Jesus on Jewish people - as if there is something inherently broken or unholy among the Jews that makes them and their faith more broken or less holy than any of the rest of us.

It’s simply not the case.

When we read the Passion narrative - and perhaps even more explicitly here in the Passion According to John - the people that the author simply calls “the Jews” are cast as the sort of “bad guys” in the story.  Their leaders - the chief priests and scribes - are the first ones to condemn Jesus.  They are the ones who call for the release of Barabbas.  They are the ones left unsatisfied by the cruelty of the beatings.  They are the ones who shout “crucify him!”

But that doesn’t mean that “the Jews” are the villains.

As I’ve been making my Holy Week journey - and particularly today, on Good Friday - my soundtrack has been a set of African American protest songs as interpreted by Nina Simone.

When we behold the hard wood of the cross, it’s hard not to be reminded of that haunting ballad, “Strange Fruit”.  This tree also bears strange fruit.

Good Friday is not a time to lay blame on any people or any faith.  It’s not a time to point fingers, or to look away.  Good Friday is a time to look within ourselves.  The cross is a mirror to every failing we are prone to have: violence, oppression, degradation… the list goes on and on.

“Strange Fruit” is a Good Friday hymn of our greatest and original sin here in the United States.  It’s a hymn to those who once hung on trees in our own backyard.  But sadly, humanity’s Good Friday isn’t even that long ago.

Gay and lesbian people are being hunted, tortured, killed, and imprisoned right now in places like Russia, India, Nigeria and Uganda.

Syria and South Sudan stand on the cusp of genocide.

Transgender people have recently been murdered on the streets of Oakland, Washington, New York, and literally all around the world.

All sorts of people on the margins of society are being bullied into submission and sometimes even to death.

And in the midst of all of this, the heartbeat of racism beats, even still.

The cross stands, still, as a mirror into our own worst selves.  This human tree does bear strange fruit.  We let it.

Nina Simone said that “Strange Fruit” was the ugliest song she’d ever heard - beautiful in its rich emotion, but ugly because it shows in such a raw way how ugly we can all be.

Good Friday isn’t a time to point fingers and to blame.  It’s time to look within ourselves.

We keep bearing strange fruit.

"Strange Fruit"
Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin'
From the poplar trees
Pastoral scene
Of the gallant south
Them big bulging eyes
And the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia
Clean and fresh
Then the sudden smell
Of burnin' flesh
Here is a fruit
For the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the leaves to drop
Here is a
Strange and bitter crop

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Maundy Thursday
Luke 22:14-30

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is an odd myth among - and about - Christians, that says that we’re supposed to ‘have it all together’.  We’re supposed to always be happy.  We’re supposed to always be content.  We’re never supposed to worry, or fear, or be anxious.

The myth is, that our faith gives us everything we need - or at least everything we’re supposed to need.

It’s partly a myth that’s thrust upon us, but also partly one we too easily embrace for ourselves.

One of the methods of training that we priests have is that we spend some time working in hospital chaplaincies.  It’s called Clinical Pastoral Education.  During that program, we spend time worshiping and studying methods of pastoral care in an ecumenical context, but the vast majority of the time is spent providing pastoral care for the patients of the hospital and reflecting on our experiences.

Each student is assigned a particular area of the hospital to serve as the primary provider of pastoral care.  In the hospital where I studied, we each had two units - one more general unit, like orthopedic care, or oncology, or something like that, and one critical care unit - be it the ICU, or the CCU, or the NICU, or the Neuro-ICU.  Beyond that, we also had to regularly serve as the chaplain on-call on overnight shifts.

Each week, as a part of the training, we had to meet one-on-one with the program supervisor to discuss what we had encountered, and perhaps more importantly, how it was effecting us.

I remember vividly one week after I had just had my first on-call night.  I was the chaplain on-call on the eve of my 29th birthday, and I had spent that night sitting at the bedside of an old man who had suffered a massive stroke earlier that day and was actively dying.  His daughter was with him, and she had no one else.  It was just the two of them and she was navigating her father’s sudden and surprising death.

As that week progressed, it seemed that every time I walked into a room, someone was dying.

In the course of just that one week, I had been actually present in the room as three people let go of their last breaths, and I had prayed with grieving family members on four other occasions just moments after their loved one had died.

While I maintained composure, and tried my best to provide thorough and nurturing pastoral care to everyone I encountered, I felt the weight of my work heavily on my shoulders in everything else I encountered that week.

Being God’s representative in some of these people’s most difficult times was wearing me down.

When I spoke the CPE supervisor that week, one of the things I talked about was how much I was dreading going to the church where I was working on the following Sunday.  She asked why, and I explained that I simply couldn’t bear having to be so happy.  That I was feeling broken from the week that I’d had, and that the idea of having to act like everything was okay was simply too much to bear.

I think I expected her to be compassionate.  I expected her to say something like, “It will be okay, just find a way to get through it.”  But instead, she surprised me.  She said, “Why do you think you have to be happy?”

I said something stupid, like, “It’s my job, isn’t it?” or something equally un-thought-out.

She just said, “Why do you think it’s your job to be happy?  You’re going to be a priest, right?  Does a priest always have to be happy?”

It was a very unsatisfying conversation for me.  In that moment, she didn’t give me any quick skills to bear the burden I was feeling.  But I’ve thought about that conversation a lot in the years since then.

The myth that Christians are supposed to always be happy and fulfilled and “have it all together” is not only untrue, it’s short-sighted and misguided.

The principle image for our faith is a cross.  It’s been co-opted by the faith for thousands of years now, so we’ve largely forgotten what it initially meant.  But in Holy Week, in particular, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always a sign of hope.  It started out as a symbol of torture, destruction, and pain.

And on this night, when we remember the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the image goes even further: “he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.’”

“He broke it.”

Each week, when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, the bread is broken.  Just as Jesus was broken.  Just as we are broken.

Rather than perpetuating the myth that Christians should always be happy and always have it all together, we’d be wise to remember - even if it’s only once a year - that brokenness is a central image in our faith.  We don’t always have to be smiling.  We don’t always have to be perfect.  Sometimes God works through brokenness.

It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but it’s important for a mature faith to grow.

Easter morning will come.  As the psalmist says, “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

With the sure and certain faith that Easter and joy are on their way, it’s okay to be a little broken right now.  Sometimes God works through the brokenness.

I had to learn that for my priesthood.  I can’t be strong enough to bear everyone’s burdens.  None of us can.  But we can learn, through our brokenness, to depend on the strength of God, even when the world is heavy.

That’s the best gift we, as Christians, could give to the world: not to feign perfection, but to live into our brokenness.  To show the world that the love of God is strong enough not only to overcome brokenness, but to use it.

That’s what I think about each week as I see the bread broken.  We don’t hide the brokenness.  We lift it up.  We celebrate it.  Because it’s only through brokenness that the bread can be shared.

And that’s the gift we receive in the Holy Eucharist: brokenness that nourishes.  Amen.