Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Week Journal, 2016 -- Good Friday, The People's Victory, and the Cross

Let me introduce you to an unlikely icon. His name is Nick. He grew up in Oregon in a Greek immigrant family. Though he served as an acolyte at the Greek Orthodox church in Portland from time-to-time, much of his childhood and youth were spent in the hills, mountains, and valleys of the Oregon Coast Range in the then-booming logging industry. His world was made of mill-towns, and gravel roads, filled with the sounds of whistle-punks issuing their life-or-death orders, loaded log trucks grunting up steep inclines, and shouts of workers over the whine of saws. He knew the bracing scent of fresh-milled lumber and the smoke from wigwam burners settling throughout a forested draw. He also knew men to be maimed and killed in frequent logging accidents, and a life that was as insecure as it was hard.

Along the way, Nick had picked up tuberculosis—which had damaged his jaw and neck—and done a fair bit of hard drinking, hard smoking, and general “hard living.” His voice, purchased at the cost of immense amounts of whiskey and cigarettes, was something like rock sliding out of the bed of a dump truck. His manner was gruff and surly. He had left the Orthodox Church of his childhood after a deep disappointment with it, he said. He was “his own man” and had worked as an electrician, hunted, and didn’t like being told what to think or do. To me was a classic Oregonian in most respects.

But, he was at church regularly, and that set him apart and made me very interested.

He had found his way back to church when he met his wife. She was an Episcopalian and drug him to church to get married and he kept coming. Week by week, Nick worshipped in his rather reserved way, not mixing it up with other folks much at coffee hour. But once in a while, he would show up at church and want to talk with me—about his family, about his faith, about his life. It took him a while to warm up to this very green priest…but eventually, he did so, and shared with me something I am thinking about today a good deal.

We sat at the table in my office. He was his usual slow-talking, gravelly, tough self. He didn’t smoke any more, but his style and pace of speech made you imagine he was taking long draws on a cigarette between sentences. He spoke about his childhood, the church and its hypocrisy, the tough breaks he had known and his time away from God. “What brought you back?” I wondered aloud. He fixed his gaze on me intently and said these words, which I have shared with you before: “Father, I believe in God’s 2x4 kind of love. Because it took a 2x4 from God in the form of a severe heart attack to make this stubborn Greek to see that he loves me. Until then, I just kept trying to make life work my own way—angry, resentful. But when he laid me low with that, I learned something; I knew I had to change my ways. And that’s why you see me here today, and why I have such a happy attitude.”

On a deep level, Nick was living proof of the power of accepting God’s love from the Cross. We take infinite care to try and meet God in our strength, our abilities, our gifts. But this is not where Christ came on Good Friday. He did not walk peacefully to a palace or a perfectly manicured garden to meet us on that day. He stumbled, fell, and struggled on to a desolate patch of raw earth, probably the town dump of his day, to meet us in all our imperfection and brokenness—where we need him the most. It was in our need, our poverty he encountered us. Only that was the suitable ground for his battle with Death and Sin, and it is there we meet him still.

We began Lent by kneeling, and we are ending it the same way. We started this season on our knees on Ash Wednesday in penitence for our sins, acknowledging our mortality. Christ Jesus came into the world as a human being precisely so God could share our humanity, experience our frailty, and then to die as we do. It is this fact from which we are tempted to turn very quickly. God, in some mysterious and shocking way, dies on the Cross. The deathless One partakes of the horror of the world He fashioned and gave the freedom to go so very wrong. As has been pointed out many times before, if Jesus was who he said he was (and is), then it is not his resurrection that is his most incredible miracle: it is his death. It is that death, accomplished on the Cross, that provides the complete access point between us and God, between a world seemingly consecrated to death and the God of eternal life.

When a person becomes a part of Christ’s Body through baptism, the Cross is always marked on the forehead. It is the beginning of many times when that sign is traced there: by the bishop at confirmation, when receiving holy oil in times of sickness, when receiving absolution in a sacramental confession, and when we die. Most of these times are occasions when we are seeking God’s strength in the face of trial, when are vulnerable, when we seek victory over what assails us. And here is where Nick comes in again….

Nick was short, of course, for Nicholas; and the root of that name in Greek is the word for “victory” combined with the word for “the people.” So, his name really meant “the people’s victory.” But it is only when combined with his middle name that I came to understand why Nick was such a powerful icon for me, even though he was so very different from me. That middle name was “Stavros,” a name given by Greeks that means “Cross” – the Cross of Christ. So, his names added up to “The People’s Victory is through the Cross of Christ.”

Nick’s long journey back to God and the Church could only happen when he truly embraced the Cross of Christ in his life. That embrace happened when he had to make a choice about how to respond to a crisis, a Greek word that means “decision.” He had to decide for life or against it. He chose life and returned to God. In that moment—as it is for each of us whenever we repent and return, no matter how many times we do so—the entire story of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension happens once more. Our adoption by God is manifested each time we take hold the Cross in our life each time we recognize our poverty and need. There we experience the relationship of love between the crucified Christ and the Father. And God never tires of seeking that moment with us.

Our journey has come full circle. We began Lent on our knees with ash crosses on our foreheads; we end it on our knees before the Cross that makes possible all growth, all hope, all restoration with God, our neighbor, and our potential own self. We have made this pilgrimage, perhaps followed a Lenten Rule, so that we may come to this moment and claim for our own the People’s Victory through the Cross.

Whether it took a gentle word, the memory of a childhood faith, an invitation from a friend, the loss of a loved-one, a big setback, a close call, or God’s 2x4 kind of love, we are here together as equally needy recipients of God’s restoring love. This is what Christ came to give us; it is what he desired to do above all things. Receive it. Give thanks for it at the foot of the Cross. If you let the Cross slip from your grasp through sin or negligence, remember: it is marked on you forever; keep coming back, again and again. Christ stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross not only once, but forever so that not one may fail to share in his Victory.

The Collect for Good Friday:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday – One Cup, One Lord, One Body

In a recent interview, our Presiding Bishop was asked how it was that his father, a Baptist, had become an Episcopalian and (eventually) an Episcopal priest. He said:

He was dating my mother, who was an Episcopalian, and he went to church with her at some point. When it came time for communion, in the Episcopal Church people drink out of the same cup. They were one of the only black couples sitting in the congregation, and this was in the late ’40s, in southern Ohio, which then really was still the South. Watching that, he said that it just hit him that any church where people of different races drink from the same cup knows something about the Gospel, and that he wants to be a part of that.

For us, the oneness of this Sacrament, instituted this night by Jesus, is essential. It shows the one-ness of our whole life as Christians: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of us all;” one Church in heaven and on earth, spread through the ages and across the globe; One Body sharing in the Lord’s once-for-all self-offering of his Life and Death. But, beyond this the essential oneness, wholeness, and integrity of our life and witness in Christ. There can be no division is what is essentially whole.

Sin is, by definition, a division between God’s will and ours. The tragic sweep of human history is filled with stories of people who were absolutely certain that their will was right, unassailable, and—perhaps worst of all—the will of God. Instead of coming before God in humility, we have all too often chosen to come before a mirror in arrogance and cry out, in one form or another: “Thy will be done.”

Today we have begun the Holy Triduum, another experience of one-ness. These Great Three Days are treated by the Church as one day, one reality and mystery in three parts. Each is essential and has its integrity but may not be separated from the other. Together they form one collective Truth: the Paschal Mystery of our salvation.

At this service we experience the unity of Christ and his disciples. It was not a perfect unity, of course; one of them was about to betray Jesus; others were soon to abandon him. But, it was a unity nonetheless. In Jesus Christ, human and divine natures are brought into a perfect union. He gives the disciples the bread and wine, now his Body and Blood, as the means to remember him, to make him present, not only that night but always. And where Christ is, there is always available his union with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Thus, this and every celebration of the Eucharist is a sacrament of union, of “knowing something about the Gospel.”

Yet, this union is not something that exists only in the realm of the mind; it is a dynamic, active unity made known in our actions, our wills, our affections. What we do and how we do it are essential expressions of who we are and what we are becoming. To show this, after supper, he washes the disciples feet in a tender, personal, yet almost invasive expression of what following him must entail. There is no standing at arm’s length, no turning away. There must be a sacred encounter where I become “me” by serving, loving “you.” That is the unity of Communion not only in the elements of the Eucharist, but in the Body of the Church.

These two commandments we see instituted this night, to “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “Love one another as I have loved you,” are one commandment: to dwell so truly in Christ that we may share in his very life. In the words of St. Augustine: “behold what you are; become what you receive.” Only then, in this unity, may our wills be shaped and reformed into his. Only when Christians take their participation in the Body of Christ so seriously, so lovingly, will the divisions in families, communities, and nations be challenged and healed.

In the early 1960’s, in a parish in New York, the rector became aware that a local golf club had refused to allow a young man who had converted from Judaism (with his parents’ blessings) and whom the priest had baptized two years before from being a chaperone at a club event because of what was termed “Jewish parentage.” The priest also knew that members of club who had supported this were members of his own parish. In personal conversations with them, he urged them to recognize that, whatever their so-called “private” lives, their life as Christians required they forsake their membership in such a club for the division, the disunion, it had forced upon the Body of the Church. Taking the nature of the Sacraments and his ministry with complete seriousness, he preached a sermon noting that if Jesus Christ himself were to come to their town that day, he would be barred from attending the event by members of his own Church for his “Jewish parentage.” The priest then stated that all in the parish who maintained membership in the club would be barred from receiving communion. As the Prayer Book says, to this day:

When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other.

And, so they were. This event shocked many who thought they understood the Church, but had done so on purely social, human grounds. Instead, the true nature of life in Christ and his sacraments was revealed—perhaps for the first time—to members of Christ’s own Body in that parish.

And so we come to the altar this evening judging ourselves that we may not be judged. If we want a way to gauge our maturity in faith, we may reflect on this: how unified is my life? How much of my ethics, my use of money, of electronic media, my politics, my response to people different from me, my treatment of those I know well and those I know hardly at all is fully in communion with Jesus who washes my feet? What am I still holding back? How am I receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood but looking the other way while doing so, not looking into his eyes of truth and love, his soul of perfect unity with the Father— a unity that I may share through him if I but have the faintest desire?

Speak truly and openly to Christ who kneels before us—yes, on this night, kneels before us now—and do not put it off until the day when we come before him and he says: “All this time I gave you, and what did you do with it?”

Thus, perhaps the greatest tool any of us have for spiritual self-judgment is this: “In thus many days, I will take Christ’s own Body and Blood into myself. How does my life reflect this?” When we do so, we—in the Presiding Bishop’s words—“know something about the Gospel” and are ready to follow Christ and share him with others.

But tonight—it is essential to come to him; come in imperfection, with humility, for this is what he desires from us as we gather with him. Here, let us receive the medicine that heals, that binds together, that reveals the one cup revealing the one Lord in the one Body.

The Collect for Maundy Thursday:

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Holy Week Journal 2016: Palm Sunday & Beginning an Unedited Holy Week

We have come now to the beginning of the Great Week in our faith, the stripping away of all that is secondary and the entrance into the Mystery of our salvation. And today we have taken our first steps on that journey—one where we know the ending, the destination. Perhaps, though, we are so familiar with that destination we have forgotten something very precious about it.

So, I am going to tell you a familiar story, but in an edited way.

Once there was a man named Jesus who was also God’s only Son—the Savior known as the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus taught, healed, and preached Good News to his people. Many people looked upon him with great hope. While in his ministry, he told his closest followers a number of times that he would eventually have to confront the religious and political authorities, be tried and executed in the cruelest possible way, and then would rise again. They did not understand this. Eventually, he and his disciples came to the Great City that was the seat of political and religious power. On a certain day, Jesus entered into that city with much pomp and acclaim, being hailed as king and savior by many.

Then, he appeared to his closest followers and said: “I am risen from the dead.” And they were all amazed, confused, and joyful.

And that’s all you need to know. The End.

You might be thinking: there is something wrong with this story, it leaves out some very important things! Where is the Last Supper? The foot-washing? The agony in the garden? Christ’s arrest, his trial and sufferings, his crucifixion, death, and burial? How can you say this is “all you need to know?” It is only part of the story.

But this is exactly what one takes away from Holy Week if one participates in Palm Sunday and Easter only. And that is my message to you.

The Episcopal Church is not normally a church of extremes. We do not require adherence to a complicated set of fasting rules. We do not forbid dancing or playing cards because of their potential for sinfulness. We do not make members sign lengthy documents stating exactly what they believe on an ever-increasing number of doctrinal and “hot-button” issues. Our tradition does not make membership contingent on shunning society and socializing only with other Episcopalians. In many things, we are a tradition that emphasizes the mean, the balance between extremes, the moderation that allows for discernment, wisdom, wholeness.

This balance and discernment must never degenerate into tepidness or lukewarmness, for there is nothing tepid or lukewarm about Christ’s love for us, and our response must be fitted to what we have received: love for love, faithfulness for faithfulness.

What we have begun today is an encounter, one which will change us if we allow it. But we must be willing to share all of Christ’s journey—not only the parts we enjoy or find easy. Beginning with the words of the Passion Gospel today, we must descend into the struggle, betrayal, fear, pain, loss, abandonment, and—yes—the catastrophe of death and the tragedy of humanity itself if we are to greet the Paschal light of Resurrection.

And so we share in the liturgies of Holy Week…long, tiring, schedule-altering and often emotional times of worship where there is more personal participation and sacrifice than at any other time of the year.

We do this not so we can say: “I have fulfilled my obligation.” We can never do that. Besides, what would that mean beside the vastness of God’s love for us this week? Instead, we journey along with Christ in this holy encounter so that we might be able to encounter him in the life of others, and in our own journey through joys, sorrows, and even through death itself. We make this pilgrimage because without it we may not know how to be Christ to another when it most counts.

Many years ago there was a member of the parish I served who became very ill. His children lived far away, and reluctantly, he called them to tell them he was dying. When his older daughter came to the hospital, I met her. She had a great deal to say about her father: he had not been a loving father to his family and, she felt, especially to her. He had broken up the family through divorce and had gone on to live apart from them. Coming back to be with him as he died was very hard. There was much to be mended.

She spent time with her father each day as he gradually withdrew from the world. They came to speak freely and with great affection and tears. He asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it to him. Finally, when he was near death, she decided there was only one thing left to do: she climbed into the hospital bed and nestled close to her father—imperfect, at times deeply selfish, yet the father she loved and desired to have peace with—and she sang to him. She was the parent to him that he had not been to her. As he passed from this life, she embraced him with the affection of a young child. Their lives had been mended through mercy, compassion, truth, and love. The final barrier was broken.

St. Paul tells us in the lesson from Philippians always read on this day that Christ, though in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be exploited, or as another translation of the Greek text says, “grasped” like a jealously-guarded private possession. Instead of holding his divinity to himself, Christ offers his divine love to all, to the point of emptying himself completely for us, dying with us, “even death on a cross.” In his death, he annihilates the barrier that divides God from humanity and person from person.

By walking through this week together, Christ’s total identification with us in all of our struggles and pains will be revealed. We will find not only that Christ has broken the barriers between God and us, climbing into our own bed of suffering so that we may never be alone, but that he will give us the courage to break down the barriers between us and the others in our life, and between the false self we have developed, the mask we wear, and the true self, the child of God that he has loved and for which given his life.

But this knowledge, this courage and love cannot be had if we skip over what frightens us or we find inconvenient this week. Without the foot-washing, the stripping of the altar, the veneration of the Cross, the weeping at the tomb…we remain unchanged, still pretending that we can live as always. For us, Christ will have remained a distant figure, not one who has climbed into the mess and confusion of our life and loved us, embraced us, sung to us, to the end.

And so the Church invites her members to be at every step in the journey not because Christ needs us to be there, but because we need it. The burning love of Christ for us made him go through this week of tragedy and trial so that we might live in him and share in his victorious love when we face our own passion, our own Gethsemane, our own Golgotha—as well as our Resurrection with our Risen Lord.

The time ahead is precious; every moment of this encounter is reconciling us to God, our neighbor, and our destiny in the Kingdom. Christ chose this way and no other. None of it may be “edited out.” Let us walk these steps together with him.