THOUGHTS FROM OUR PRIEST-IN-CHARGE
29 June 2020
My dear people,
On Sunday, we spoke a bit about Lucas Cranach, the Elder’s altar painting, which was created – after the vagaries of protestant iconoclasm – for St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany, That altar piece was surely intended as a corrective for what had, and an explanation of what was, going on there – both in church and society – at the time of the Reformation. I spoke particularly of the predella which appears under a larger painting of the Last Supper. The Last Supper image is interesting in itself – anachronistically depicting the disciples in the dress of the day. They look for the world like a bunch of 16th c. northern European protestants.
I am sure that the image below (in the predella) – which is of Luther preaching to his congregation from a “wren’s nest” pulpit (high on the right wall) – is meant to interpret what is painted above. I am just as sure that that painting of Luther preaching, in an absolutely unadorned [no pictures, no statues, no windows] and otherwise empty room, to a congregation gathered on the far left side of the hall, is meant to communicate the sacramental nature, if not the sacrament itself, of the proclaimed Word of God in preaching! View the full image and information here: https://www.medieval.eu/ways-cranach/
If you look at the Cranach predella, you will see what appears to be another anachronism. Between Luther and his congregation, the crucified Christ, has materialized, in the very same way that the Christ is materialized and sitting at the table in the depiction of the Last Supper, painted above.
Now, you might ask, why is this so important to us now? Dennis Ngien in themelios says it most concisely in these words:
“Luther elevated preaching as an indispensable means of grace, seeing it as central to the church liturgy. ‘To hear mass means nothing else but to hear God’s Word and thereby serve God.’ In his On the Councils and the Church (1539), Luther asserted that the preaching office constitutes the sure sign of a true church: Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true Catholic church: ‘a Christian holy people’ must be there, even though their number is small.”
And, so the situation is precisely the same for us now as we deal – and struggle – with the limitations imposed on our eucharistic sacramental life in response to the Covid-19 virus. We may indeed be without bread and wine – but we are NEVER without the nourishment of the Word in which we encounter the Almighty God alive.
This is neither a novel idea nor simply theological tenet from the Lutheran Reformaion. We recall the words of St. John 1:14
”And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
And so, friends, we may not be sharing bread and wine at the moment, but we are NOT WITHOUT the SACRAMENT of the real presence of a living loving God who comes to us in the person of the Christ as the Good News is both proclaimed and lived out among us.
Later in John’s Gospel 14:18, we are assured:
“I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
Our recorded worship service for June 28, 2020, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost via Zoom may be enjoyed here:
22 June 2020
My dear people,
Yesterday, I indicated my excitement about the times in which we live. Believing, as we do, that God calls all of creation out of chaos; and that God is capable of making a NEW creation by RE-creating the old world and former things. Therein is my hope, and, I believe, the hope of the entire church and world.
I provided an example, yesterday, of a Lutheran Pastor in New Jersey who just this week resigned, ostensibly for having been asked NOT to be “political” – meaning NOT to talk about American racism and race-baiting from the highest offices in this land, because that: “would likely prove to be divisive within the church.”
I propose that the Church of Jesus Christ, simply CANNOT be understood to support racism in any of its permutations. The church, by it’s very nature, must speak out against – and NAME – racism wherever it occurs, starting within our own hearts. If there is a place, organization, system or government where racism is NOT named, NOT called out, NOT rebuked, that simply is NOT the church! Anyone who attempts to USE the church as a pious white sheet to cover his/her own racism, hatred, bigotry, and sin simply has NO IDEA of what the church really is.
We know that our nation was built in large part on the backs of humans who were tragically torn from their homes, transported in sub-human conditions, divided from their families, subjected to unimaginable indignities and abuse, who were objectified and understood and treated as animals and forced to work to make their white ‘owners’ financially wealthy and, coincidentally, simultaneously morally and spiritually bankrupt. That – shameful as it is – is our heritage.
We know that Jesus opposed every aspect of slavery. We know that Jesus advocated for women, for children, for the outcast, for the ill and the dis-abled, for widows, for orphans, for the sinner and for all marginalized and objectified people. The behaviors of our slave-owning forbears prove that they did NOT agree with Jesus. When we subscribe – wittingly or not – to racist attitudes and behaviors we betray the fact that we too DIS-agree with Jesus and that we then are not, in fact, the church: the body of Christ.
When public policy, social systems, economies, attitudes, educational and employment opportunities, public services provided by governments and agencies either favor or dis-favor any human being for any reason, it is our job as Christians to NAME that evil as contrary to our understanding of Jesus’ message and the church’s purpose and mission. It is offensive to us and our faith to argue racism, racist behaviors, racist policies, etc. as in any way “Christian.”
As the Christian community we gather to RE-member the body of Christ and to do Christ’s will in the world. It is our job to remind ourselves and the world around us what Jesus’ message was. In doing that, we must ask ourselves – sincerely – what would Jesus say or do about any given situation. And, after lifetimes of “practicing” our religion, we are enabled to be clear and we are called to SPEAK that TRUTH in LOVE, come what may.
The argument that believing our faith might have something to do with the world in which we live and how we live in it is “political” – meaning, NOT in the purview of the church – is a clever dodge and a feeble invitation for the church NOT to be the church. If ‘political’ positions, postures and policies are CONTRARY to the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, then we must say so, and SAY so CLEARLY. We are constrained neither to whisper nor to dissemble about our faith. If anyone in public life subscribes to policies, and positions which are contrary to that Gospel, then no amount of Bible-waving or picture-taking in front of historic church buildings will alter our Christian reality. Truth cannot be denied, no matter how difficult some may attempt to make life for those who do, in fact, tell the truth.
Is being a Christian about how we live in this world as we grow to understand ourselves ever more clearly as Christ’s body? I am certain it is. Are we to be talked down about our faith, by clever arguments and expectations, that we should preserve some kind of perverse ‘peace’ (or truce?) in our congregations by NOT telling the TRUTH? I certainly hope not!
Are we on the brink of God’s new creation which is being called out of our current chaos? I am just as certain of that as I am that our work as the Body of Christ will never come to an end. The poor we will always have with us. Hatred, bigotry, prejudice, ignorance and racism and the lie of white supremacy will always be with us during our lifetimes. But, so will the immutable TRUTH of the love of GOD for all of creation, which is not just long-lived, but ETERNAL; and therein is our joy and our hope.
Bless you, one and all!
For your pleasure, our recorded Zoom worship service for Sunday, June 21, 2020, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Please enjoy our recorded Zoom worship service for Sunday, June 14, 2020, Second Sunday after Pentecost:
8 June 2020
My dear people,
Thinking about the complexities of the Holy Trinity took up much of yesterday’s sermon and today’s earlier “For the Flock.”
There are, however, some extremely important issues about our current national and world situations which warrant our attention.
Yesterday I shared an encounter between me and a Viet Nam vet in an antique store in Ellsworth, Maine, on the 21st of August in 2014. When I asked the man who was tending that store what he expected of a Trump presidency, for which he hoped. He responded with one simple word. He said: “Chaos.” I have come to believe that his wish has been fulfilled.
Chaos is very unsettling and even frightening. But I suggested yesterday that chaos is not necessarily a cause of us to lose hope in these very uncertain times. Not only has the political expectation of that vet in Maine been fulfilled, it has been exponentially compounded by the global virus pandemic. That has brought with it a complexity of chaoses: not only in the medical, financial, social and political worlds in which we live, it has also often brought chaos into our personal lives.
What can we do about all of this? Losing hope is one option. But losing hope is NOT OUR OPTION!
I remind you that our very lengthy first lesson yesterday, from chapters one and two of Genesis, reported an account of God calling forth all of creation from complete and utter chaos.
I would like to re-visit OUR belief in a God who can create the Garden of Eden out of chaotic nothingness and into which God places his dearly-beloved people: you and me.
I ask you to consider the current chaos as in no way beyond God’s creative and ordering power and influence. I ask you to remember what God did “in the beginning.” And I ask you to consider the possibility that God is not only capable of – but desirous of – making a ‘new creation’ out of our currently chaotic crises.
I have seen in the past week sustained and peaceful protests and demonstrations aimed at seeking freedom, justice and air to breathe for all. I have heard the requests of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eric Garner, George Floyd and others for their oppressors to remove their feet and knees from their necks so that they might breathe. I have seen people of all stripes and stations – and from around the world – make this demand, and make it peacefully and lovingly. Already I see change. By God’s grace and activity, I have hope for much more to come that is positive.
In the last two weeks we have celebrated Pentecost and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in which we ask for God to breathe onto and into us. We have talked about the liturgical symbols we use in celebrating our liturgies which focus on that request. We thought about the eipiclesis – the liturgical action of the extension and ‘imposition of hands’ – in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come specifically to a person or to accompany earthly elements (oil, water, wine) in order to do God’s will through ordinary things in the sacraments and even in our own flesh!
We spoke of the very obvious symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in the insufflation or ‘blowing on’ of the waters at baptism in the blessing of the font and on the holy oils at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Mass.
We believe that God’s Holy Spirit comes to us and to the ordinary things of this world in order to be with us and to empower us to make that “new creation” happen. As the Holy Spirit empowers us ordinary people to speak truth, advocate for freedom and justice, and to trample down satan under our feet we can see the beginnings of that ‘new creation’ starting to take shape. That should, I believe, in some measure, relieve our anxieties. In a “new creation” old things pass away. We very clearly know what some of those old things are: racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, inequality of every kind, and ideas that aggrandize one at the expense of another.
I welcome God’s ‘new creation’ which I firmly believe can and will come – yes, even a new global Jerusalem – which I firmly believe God can create out of this chaos by using us to live and love as did Jesus: humbly before the Throne of God and no other.
Bless you, Fr. Ron
8 June 2020
My dear people,
Yesterday we celebrated Trinity Sunday and spent some time thinking about the very peculiar Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity : one God in three persons.
Over the centuries, many and serious attempts have been made to promulgate, define and explain this ‘doctrine.’ As you know the word itself – “Trinity” – is not to be found in scripture. These complex ideas about God have evolved (I referred to the the Council of Nicea in 325, the Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451) over a very long time and are rooted in the early life of the church. I believe such “evolutions” in thinking continue to this day and ought to!
We can only imagine what Christians must look like to other monotheistic folks of faith, such as Jews and Muslims, when they encounter our inexplicable doctrine of the Holy Trinity! My joy in our position, however, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is really an expression (or perhaps a confession) of a faith community which – in its early life, at least – seems to have an EXPANDING understanding of who God is: more accurately, HOW God is and HOW God works. That ‘understanding’ suggests that we are clearly aware of what GOD DOES without a clear understanding of all that God is. We must confess that God really cannot be fully understood or grasped by the human mind. If that were possible, we would NOT have a God at all, would we!
The doctrine of the Trinity is not without its problems – nor is it without its benefits. It is problematic for me that the ‘gender’ of two of the three persons of the Trinity is ‘male.’ A Father Creator and a Son Redeemer. The Holy Spirit is usually portrayed as a bird: a dove. I need not explain the difficulties that presents for much of the child-bearing, female population without whom humanity could not procreate. Consequently, we can understand the roots – even the inevitability – of the cult of Mary which, in the Middle Ages, comes to confess and believe in St. Mary as both Mediatrix, and along with her Son, the Co-Redemptrix. These issues and ideas are still very much alive in the Roman Church and elsewhere today.
It is my concern that beyond our peculiar doctrines as Trinitarian Christians, our understanding of Jesus as the second person of the God-head has lead some to take positions based on words, which I do not believe that Jesus ever spoke. Those words are recorded in John 14:6:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In coming to believe, and in arguing, that Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity, it is apparent that the early church felt a need – for whatever reason – to make Jesus an indispensable part or “person” of the God-head. Eventually, creedal agreement became necessary for ‘true communion’ with the body of believers who subscribed to this doctrine. So there were those who agreed and those who did not. The result was the church came to see itself as the purveyor and protector of commonly agreed upon ideas about who God WAS rather than WHAT GOD DOES. Having so very clearly seen what God DID in Jesus, the equation became simple: that Jesus WAS God rather than that Jesus DID (lived, spoke and acted like) God!
The early church quickly became more occupied with the business of working out WHO GOD WAS rather than WHAT GOD DOES in and with human beings.
That’s the point of keeping our understanding of Jesus as FULLY HUMAN as well as fully divine. That prevents us from arguing that his example is impossible for us to follow because we are not fully Divine! That means, in fact, that God can do in and with us (as the Body of Christ) exactly what God did in and with Jesus!
In its early understanding of itself as the Body of Christ, the church confessed its need to continue and be about the work of Jesus which was simply allowing GOD TO ACT in and through them – and now, us. In many ways, Jesus’ life and work were often in conflict with what others thought about God. In doing the WILL of God, Jesus contradicted what many folks thought God was and was like. Often, Jesus was seen to be out of bounds and in violation of the law. But NEVER was Jesus seen not to be healing the sick of body, mind and soul. Never was Jesus seen not to be caring for the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant, the outcast and the sinner. The scandal of Jesus was that he proved that God could and did in fact live in a human being and did, in fact, do the Divine work of loving human kind in human flesh. Jesus simply lived what he believed. That belief is the foundation of all monotheistic belief. One God creates the whole world and all who live in it; and that God loves what that One God creates. Jesus didn’t worry so much – or at all – about what anyone thought God was. He simply spent his life doing what God did at creation: i.e. he loved all of creation and everyone in it. The creeds which we inherit seem more concerned with WHAT we BELIEVE about God, and about Jesus in particular than about how God lived in and through Jesus.
I firmly believe it is way more important for us to pay attention to, and be concerned, about how Jesus’ lived his life and loved and served others than it is to worry overmuch what others have said they believe about him.
I see no evidence in Scripture that Jesus ever asked people what they believed, before he ministered to them. Rather, he allowed those whom he heard, and healed and loved, to come to belief about him and his motivation: his God. Jesus simply made what he believed about God manifest and visible by how he lived and associated with others. Because Jesus saw all people as equally beloved of God and as his brothers and sisters, the early church quite naturally compared him with and eventually equated him to his Divine motivation: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who was also the God of Joseph and Mary. Of course it was understandable that folks “came to the Father” by observing and knowing Jesus. But, I find nothing which suggests that God is limited to being known in God’s own creation by the singular necessity of knowing Jesus. I don’t think Jesus did either. We must also remember what Jesus is reported to have said in Mark 3:35
“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Do we come to know what God is like and what God does by knowing Jesus? Of course! Can others come to know God without doing that our way? I certainly believe so! How could I possibly imagine that I could confine or restrict God from being known by others if they did not subscribe to a doctrine which I can hardly explain or contemplate myself?
My question of Christians is : “Has God done such a bad job of loving all of the rest of God’s own creation that I could possibly say that others cannot come to the Father [which implies that God cannot go to them!] unless they believe exactly the way I do? Do you see a problem in this?
I do believe we have much to share with others and their traditions. I also believe we have much to learn from them as well.
Here are a couple of words from other traditions which I believe – without compromising a jot or tittle of our own theology – we can share and use. These words might open some small doors for us to peek at other traditions and begin to glimpse a God at work who is larger than our ability to define. That is a God who is alive and present among all people, even those who neither know the name of Jesus or ever will.
Ahimsa – is an ancient Indian principle of nonviolence which applies to all living beings. It is a key virtue in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
And, I believe, according to Jesus, in Christianity as well.
Namaskar – a traditional Indian greeting or gesture of respect, made by bringing the palms together before the face or chest and bowing.
I see parallels in this with the Christian liturgical use of the kiss of peace and the use of incense in which those things and people which are greeted and ‘censed’ are honored as ‘holy.’ What is NOT CHRISTIAN about acknowledging the bodies of others, as well as one’s own, as temples of the Lord?
Namaste – what one says when giving a Namaskar.
Don’t we say the same when we greet each other with: “The Lord be with you.”
Satyagraha – holding onto truth, or truth force, is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. Someone who practices satyagraha is a satyagrahi.
Did Jesus do anything less in always speaking truth in love to all in need and all in authority?
Bless you, Fr. Ron
Tuesday 2 June 2020
My very dear people,
Please do not make the mistake of believing that when Donald J. Trump walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. for a photo-op yesterday, that in that moment, the president of the United States had somehow ‘gone to church.’ We just celebrated Pentecost on Sunday. In that celebration we remembered that the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church has ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING to do with BEING CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD in every language. That includes ‘body language.’ And that includes the language of photographic images which is what “photo-ops” are all about. Yesterday, the unexpected arrival of a party from the neighboring WHITE HOUSE – made up entirely of White people – at the boarded-up building of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. was not a matter of church attendance. It was not a matter of prayer: no knee was bowed, no hands were folded, no eyes were closed, no silence was kept. Nor was that unexpected visit to that place a matter of Bible study or the celebration of a liturgy. In the president’s own words “a Bible” which he could not call his own, was there. That Bible was used as a ‘totem.’ That Bible was neither opened nor read. The Word which that Bible contained was kept and remained silent. That Bible was offered as a visual image meant to portray a religious piety which was not displayed in any fashion, either private or public. That Bible and the background of the church building were (ab)used to convey a message that what the president says and does is either somehow related to or rooted in scripture and the church. But NOTHING that was done in that photo-op yesterday was, in any way, related to either. You and I both know that the ‘Church of Jesus Christ’ is not a building made with hands. The Church is constructed by God’s Holy Spirit with the ‘living stones’ of the faithful people of God. Without a shadow of a doubt, our need to be ’socially-distant’ in response to the Covid-19 virus has proven reality of that truth for us and for the world. Our St. John’s lives on and thrives right now, outside of, and without the regular use of a ‘temple’ or church ‘building.’ Simply put: “The Church is not a building.” Simply put: the president did NOT visit a Church yesterday. The world famous duo of Richard Avery and Don Marsh – for more than 40 years, pastor and musician from the First Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, NY – published a song we all know, and last sang together at the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper. Here’s the full text. Please “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” these words, because “they are true and can be trusted.”
Refrain: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together! 1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people. (Refrain) 2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places. (Refrain) 3. Sometimes the church is marching; sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding; always it’s learning. (Refrain) 4. And when the people gather, there’s singing and there’s praying; there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes, all of it saying: (Refrain) 5. At Pentecost some people received the Holy Spirit and told the Good News through the world to all who would hear it. (Refrain) Now, just a couple of things about visiting churches. There is a well-known etiquette – both social and ecclesiastical – about joining groups of people at worship (being the church) and visiting church buildings. That etiquette is one of respect. Even the Queen of England, the Head of State – who personally owns Westminster Abbey – does not show up there unannounced. In some ecclesiastical traditions, when bishops visit parish churches, they perform a quaint, but significant act, of requesting entry by rapping, from the outside, on the door of the parish church with their croziers (pastoral staffs) and waiting for permission and an invitation from the parish priest, to enter. And when we ourselves visit churches, synagogues, mosques or temples of other traditions, we show respect. We go to see, and learn, and sometimes even to participate with others, in their faithful expressions. NONE of that happened yesterday when the White House rudely and violently pushed its way through peaceful, respectful protestors to arrive, unannounced and unexpected, at an historic Episcopal house of worship, to create a falsely-pious photographic image intending to use the well-known language of a ‘photo-op’ to dissemble to the nation and the world visual assumptions which are not coincident with the Episcopal Church in particular or Christianity in general. That inappropriate behavior elicited the response of The Rt. Rev’d. Marianne Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C. This is a report, from the New York Daily News of her reaction, and of what she said: “A Washington, D.C., bishop criticized President Trump for standing in front of a church and holding a Bible near the White House after protesters were cleared from the area near Lafayette Park by police with tear gas. “Let me be clear: The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for,” Episcopal Diocese of Washington Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde told CNN shortly after the president walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church to give a short speech declaring his intent to be a “law and order” president. “And to do so… he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged,” Budde said.” I offer this to you, Lutheran pastor that I am, serving as your Episcopal priest-in-charge, so that you may hear – and understand as clearly as the Holy Spirit of Pentecost makes it possible to understand – from your “own Episcopal bishop” who is on the front lines in the nation’s capitol and bishop of St John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square in D.C. I thank God for our membership together in the Spirit-filled Body of Christ. I delight in our mission to speak truth to power as well as our mission to speak mercy, promise and hope to the poor, the powerless and those in need. Let the voice of the Lord be heard in all the land! Bless you, Fr. Ron, Priest-In-Charge St. John’s Episcopal Church Hamlin, Pennsylvania
Monday, June 1, 2020
My dear people,
Just in case you’re interested in the Maxwell Anderson text to “Lost in the Stars” which I read at the beginning of my sermon yesterday, here ’tis:
LOST IN THE STARS
Before Lord God made the Sea and the Land
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand
And one little star fell alone
So the Lord God hunted through the white night air
For the little dark star on the wind down there
And he stated and promised
To take special care
So it wouldn’t get lost again
Now a man don’t mind if the stars grow dim
And the clouds blow over and darken him
So long as the Lord God ‘s watching over him
Keeping track how it all goes on~
So the Lord God hunted through the white night air
For the little dark star on the wind down there
And he stated and promised
To take special care
So it wouldn’t get lost again
But I’ve been walking through the night, through the day
Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away
Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say
And we’re lost out here in the stars
Little stars and big stars
Blowing through the night
And we’re lost out here in the stars
Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say
Little stars and big stars
Blowing through the night
And we’re lost out here in the stars
As you know, reading this verse brought me to tears, and that was for more than one reason. But as our nation and our world seems to be spinning out of control, we can certainly understand the poet’s concern that:
“. . . sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say”
And surely friends, it is our job “at all times and in all places and under all circumstances” to proclaim the promise of God’s love as well as to prove our belief kin that promise by how we live and act and treat each other.
Racism, nationalism, sexism, Nazism, injustice, oppression and inequality of any kind deny that promise and take our BREATH away. When Jesus was crucified, he essentially died of SUFFOCATION. But we know that before his death “HE BREATHED ON” his disciples with a BREATH that can neither be suffocated nor taken away: the Holy Spirit. It is up to us now, as much as ever, to use GOD’S BREATH to speak the language of God’s eternal love for ALL PEOPLE by speaking truth, seeking justice, advocating for the poor and powerless, providing health care for all, asylum for the refugee and succor for all in need.
Why? So that we may never be:
“. . . lost out here in the stars Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say”
View our recorded Zoom virtual worship service for May 31, 20, The Day of Pentecost:
27 May 2020
My dear people,
The lilies-of-the-valley, which have created a carpet of leaves on the floor of the garden behind my home and spread elsewhere as well, are just beginning to bloom, as they always do in the month of May, the month in which many Christians remember the Virgin May who is sometimes called the “Queen of Mary.”
There is an old tradition that these tiny, gorgeous, bell-like flowers, with an enormous fragrance, first sprang forth miraculously from the earth at the foot of the cross precisely where the tears of the Virgin Mary fell. In fact, there are those who refer to the lilies of the valley as Our Lady’s Tears. A lovely tradition indeed!
Despite the beauty of the season and the improvement in the weather and the promise of impending summer, there is much about which we might – and recently have – shed tears: and sorrowful ones at that.
We might weep for ourselves and the on-going exigencies of wondering and worrying about how to be safe and stay sane in the throes of a global pandemic. There are, however, some lilies beginning to grow where some tears have fallen. Last evening Jim Griffin, asked by Michael to be proxy Sr. Warden, and Jean Pettinato, as a member of our Parish Nursing Program, and I attended a Zoom meeting with Bishop Kevin and other diocesan leaders to discuss crafting individually-tailored plans to return to our parish church buildings. There are, in fact, lilies beginning to spring forth from where those tears have fallen. As you know, cultivating growing things takes time, intelligence, science, care, and agreeable conditions for success. We are taking the necessary time – and I assure you, we are not dragging our feet! – in this matter. We are relying on the gathered intelligence from the Center for Disease Control and the information gathered by our diocesan leadership in this matter. We are relying on science and not making plans based on wishful thinking, or economic exigencies or political partisan politics. We are engaging in on-going rational and logical thinking in this matter. You will know in absolutely every step of the way where we are in the decision-making process.
Very soon, you will hear from Jean, and separately from Jim, with a report about last night’s meeting, and suggestions about early first steps for us to take. A primary concern for us at St. John’s is the nature of our aging and aged congregation which places us among the most vulnerable to the virus.
As you know, all proposals for returning to the campus at St. John’s will require the action of your vestry. Nothing will come to the vestry for action which has not first been discussed with and approved by Bishop Kevin personally. That’s how this will work – and work it will. Lilies will grow where tears have fallen, for sure. We must, however, be patient.
I will leave you with these words from the book of James 5:7, which Johannes Brahms crafted so beautifully into his Ein deutsches Requiem:
So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder, bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn. Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde und is geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe den Morgenregen und Abendregen.
Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
Say nothing of the Virgin’s Tears and our own lilies-of-the-valley!
Bless you,Fr. Ron
Our Zoom Worship Service – Sunday, May 24, 2020 – 7th Sunday of Easter:
Our Zoom Worship Service Sunday, May 17, 2020 – 6th Sunday of Easter:
18 May 2020
My dear people,
It was forty-five years ago today that I was ordained at Christ-St. John Lutheran Church in West New York, New Jersey. I remained in that congregation for the next twenty-four and a half years. During those years we worshipped in German and English and Spanish.
I shared this with you yesterday during the sermon, in an attempt to make the point – the point that I believe Jesus was making – that the IMPORTANCE of the GOSPEL is that it be sincerely and joyfully proclaimed in a sensitive and INTELLIGIBLE fashion to all people, at all times and in all places.
I shared with you St. Paul’s concern, from 1st Corinthians 14, that:
“. . . .the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.”
The point is that religion, as Jesus understood it, has no ‘professionals,’ and holds no ‘secrets.’ The Gnostic Heresy tried that one on a long time ago, and was resoundingly denounced by the church. [You know, as a Lutheran, I was not allowed to join any club or fraternal lodge – even though based on Scripture – which kept secrets, because my job was NEVER to keep secrets about the Gospel!]. So when it comes to the Gospel there is NO secret language, NO secret hand-shake, NO secret vocabulary. NO secret tongue. Period!
On looking for an excuse NOT to communicate the Gospel, the question is sometimes asked: “How can we communicate God’s love, if THEY won’t learn to speak ENGLISH as we did; or the way our forefathers did (and we didn’t have to!)?” Do you sense an ‘edge’ or an ‘attitude’ just in how that question is posed? That attitude communicates something like: “This is our secret language; unless you learn it you will not be admitted to the secret society of God’s love for us and our kind.” There is absolutely NOTHING EVANGELICAL about that kind of attitude. [I’m using the word “evangelical” here to mean “of the Good News” and NOT as a description of a denominational preference! The word comes from the Greek word “aggelos” which means “messenger” and is the same root as the word “angel.” Just FYI double ‘gg’ in Greek is pronounced “ng.”] That is an attitude which is way too prevalent in our world and in our country. NO! You did not hear me say that it’s not a good idea to learn English. If you live here and don’t have the language, you will certainly be at a disadvantage. BUT, neither did you hear me say that if your neighbor, an immigrant, an asylum-seeker, a foreigner does not speak English that he or she should not be a beneficiary of the Good News just as freely and fully as we are. There are NO BARS TO SHARING THE GOOD NEWS OF GOD’S LOVE FOR ALL PEOPLE. But, as we know, there are a few excuses. Sometimes one of those excuses is “they need to learn English.”
You and I both know that way before we ever get to a common spoken lingua franca, we speak a very intelligible and clearly understood lingua franca of attitude, posture, gesture and yes, politics, which clearly betray exactly what we think long before we ever speak a word. You’ve heard of ‘body language.’ Well, I believe there is also un-spoken ‘religious body language’, which is also expressed not only in our bodies but also in our attitudes and our spirits toward others.
Religion often sees itself as having the right kind of ‘religious behaviors.’ These are theologies, attitudes, forms of worship and languages of prayers which make what we really believe about God, and ourselves and others patently clear. People KNOW whether or not ours is a God of welcome, love, succor, encouragement, mercy and love, or not. That happens long before we ever SPEAK a word with our mouths. It happens long before they may ever come to see us at worship, or hear our prayers or speak “English the way we do.”
Paul implies that if what we say with our mouth does NOT coincide with how we live – i.e. those attitudes and body languages and spiritual attitudes of ours – we will be seen as hypocrites! Funny isn’t it that Paul and Jesus agree with God! Paul and Jesus understand – AND PENTECOST PROCLAIMS – that language and all that which is “foreign” to us is not, will not be, and cannot be a BARRIER to the proclamation of God’s love which we are called and enabled to share by the grace of the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will make us and God’s love INTELLIGIBLE to others, not arcane. Simply put: “religious body language’ communicates either for good or for ill. Actions do indeed speak louder than words!
This Thursday (the 21st) is ASCENSION DAY. If we were in the church building and worshipping on that day, we would extinguish the PASCAL CANDLE at the reading of the Gospel. Alternatively, if we did not celebrate on Ascension Thursday, we would extinguish the Paschal Candle at the reading of the Gospel on PENTECOST SUNDAY (the 31st). This quiet act is the great symbol that Jesus has finally been taken up into heaven never to be seen again in flesh.This is also the initiating act of the church’s major celebration of the descent of the HOLY SPIRIT on the disciples and the charge to them (and to us) to continue the em-BODY-ment and proclamation of God’s love “to all nations,” and in their own languages!
As we come to the end of the Easter Octave and anticipate what we will celebrate in the ASCENSION and at PENTECOST, let us acknowledge that we understand that by ourselves, and without the Holy Spirit, we are completely incapable of embodying Christ, as the church or proclaiming God’s Gospel with either the right attitudes or the right languages. Let us acknowledge that without the presence of God in our lives, in the person of the HOLY SPIRIT, our religion would be empty hypocrisy: “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Let us humbly ask for God’s Holy Spirit to descend upon us all – individually and corporately – so that we may be empowered to share God’s love INTELLIGIBLY with all people, at all times and in all places, as freely as God has shared that love with us.
We used to sing a lovely song at summer camp. I’m sure many of you know it. Simply sung and simply put it was: “They will know we are Christians by our love!” Love is the God we worship. Love is the language we speak. Love is our lingua franca. Love is the universally-understood language of God. Love is often spoken WITHOUT A WORD. And love is never sincerely spoken WITHOUT BEING UNDERSTOOD!
Bless you in being UNDERSTOOD for what you believe by how you live!
P. S. THIS IS FROM THE BIRDS! Just after 5am this morning, I went out on the front porch, with my first cup of coffee in hand, and delighted in the ‘morning chorus’ of birdsong. Chirping and tweeting and twittering and whoo-whooing, and cawing and even screeching. I was astounded by the joyous cacophony.
It occurred to me that although I don’t understand the vocabulary of what the birds are saying to each other (and I’m not sure that the the dove’s coo is understood by the cawing crow), I do understand this: that is – all of it – the extraordinarily beautiful sound of MATING CALLS and invitations to love-making. I wonder, dear friends, whether we hear the extraordinarily beautiful call from God to us, in Pentecost, to join the daily “morning chorus” in order to sing the song of God’s love for all people?
11 May 2020
My dear people,
Yesterday we managed – yet again – another successful Zoom-session worship service. I cannot tell you how much it pleases me to see and be in touch with you, and to hear and watch the interaction among yourselves. I’m told that our attendance total was 43. I know for sure that there were folks there from New Jersey and Massachusetts.
We began with words of caution about adopting the cultural celebration of “Mother’s Day” into the church calendar. You may have noticed that I purposely shared my concerns BEFORE worship began. You’ve heard this from me before. However, it bears repeating. What we receive as “Mother’s Day” today – was NOT what was intended by its founders. In fact, the founders Ann Jarvis and her daughter Anna opposed what “Mother’s Day” soon turned into and what we know now as Mother’s Day: commercial cards, carnations, etc. It’s worth a peek at the history of the celebration on-line.
My concern is that for very good reason, many women find “Mother’s Day” offensive and hurtful. “Mother’s Day” is quite naturally gender-specific and therefore – despite the ‘Father’s Day’ sequel – not sufficiently inclusive to be a part of our celebrations of the Universality of the Gospel : for all people, at all times and in all places. And those “places” include the physical as well as emotional and mental and spiritual. I remind you that there are those women who have wanted and were not able to have children. Women who had children they didn’t want. Women who had children they wanted but couldn’t care for. Women who had children who predeceased them. For example, Ann Jarvis herself bore between eleven and thirteen children over the course of seventeen years. Of these children, only four survived to adulthood. Her intention was NOT commercial greeting cards and color-coded carnations! Her concerns were sanitation to prevent infant death from childhood diseases and healing, clothing, feeding and caring for wounded soldiers from BOTH sides of the Civil War. Her concerns seem to be way more like those of people today – both men and women – who advocate, against great odds, for UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE – to address epidemic health crises! “Mothering” understood as “ministering” to needs, and advocating for the poor and understanding SCIENCE’S relationship to HEALTH – as opposed to gestation and the biological function of females – is what, I believe, “Mother’s Day” was originally intended to celebrate and encourage. Now that does coincide with the Gospel!
Another challenge we faced yesterday was the problematic text from John 14, in which Jesus says to Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I am aware that this text bothers many folks, including myself. It appears to be the slogan of an empire: unless you agree with “our understanding” of who Jesus is, you are not Christian! Surely, Jesus never said those words! I do believe that the early church put those words in Jesus’ mouth to authenticate itself and enlisted adherents. That’s just my guess. But what I do believe this text might say to us is that “Christianity” may be more about Jesus’ understanding of what God believes about us than our understanding of what the church says about Jesus!
I came to that conclusion by suggesting that this text might be useful for those who find it difficult if we were to adjust the translation. I suggested that we might simply re-translate the first person singular nominative pronoun “I” as a first person singular possessive pronoun “mine.” That would render the text something like: “Mine [or my Way] is the way and the truth and the life. No one “gets” to the Father except this way!” Now, I can live with that. Could there possibly be any other way to God than truth and life? That was Jesus’ way. And I really don’t believe that anything less that truth and light and life and love are Godly. Do you?
A little bit further on, in the very same pericope [how’s that for a fancy church word, meaning the Scriptural ‘clipping for the day’], we read that Jesus said to Philip: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” Now I find that really helpful. Apparently someone knew – early on in the life of the church – that there was going to be a problem with what the church was coming to believe about Jesus. And somehow, the voice of Jesus seems to sneak through the chatter of the church to speak the truth again, clearly and plainly. Here, Jesus himself essentially says: No matter what you believe about me – believe what you SEE ME DOING. Believe what you see in HOW I LIVE MY LIFE. Then, who cares what you ‘say or think’ about me. If you follow me and do what I do in loving service to others, it absolutely WILL NOT MATTER what you think, or say, or confess about me. You will be engaged in doing GOD’S WORK and therefore you will be showing the world what GOD THINKS about you and all of your brothers and sisters in the world. That seems to be a good enough definition of CHRISTIANITY for Jesus; and I suppose if it’s good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us!
So then, here’s the question: “How do we say what we believe about Jesus in what we do as opposed to what we say?”
Bless you, each and every one.
Zoom service for May 11, 2020, the 5th Sunday of Easter links, part I and II:
Our worship service via Zoom from Sunday, May 3, 2020. 4th Sunday of Easter can be viewed here:
Bishop Kevin’s May 3 Sermon at the Cathedral
THOUGHTS FROM OUR PRIEST-IN-CHARGE:
2 May 2020
My dear people,
I know there are lots of people who go camping in the out-of-doors. I have very fond memories of working nine wonderful summers at three Lutheran church youth camps, at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware. Those properties are all now within the Delaware National Recreational Area. Those camping programs have long since moved to Bear Creek, near Wilkes-Barre. I have often wondered about the “attraction” of camping. Certainly, in those days, at least, some of the “attraction” of camping had to do with “doing without.” Doing without a very comfortable bed. Doing without a fully-equipped kitchen. Doing without electricity and central heating and air conditioning. Doing without communication: ‘phone, radio, TV. And that was in the days before cell ‘phones. We slept outside, or in rough cabins. When we did not cook out of doors we ate in a barn which had been converted into a mess hall. We hiked. We lit fires and used flashlights – or found our way in the dark. And in reverting to – and imagining – earlier times and ways of doing things, we “endured” the charming inconveniences of camp life and learned from them. In “doing without” together, we had UNMITIGATED FUN and forged LIFETIME RELATIONSHIPS with folks we had never met before.
Since then, I have perceived that things have changed in camping. More recently, as I have bicycled through Promised Land State Park, I have mused at the campers there, and all the accoutrements they brought with them: comfortable beds, fully-equipped kitchens, indoor plumbing, satellite dish TV, cell ‘phones, microwave ovens, all terrain vehicles, etc. I can only suppose that they too are having fun, but certainly with very few inconveniences, by comparison with my youthful camping experiences. My guess is, that despite the fact that they are camping, by “doing with” and taking every imaginable comfort along, they may not be having the same kind of fun we had by “doing without” and learning how to deal with and accommodate our lives to our more primitive situation. To me, that was a major piece of the camping experience and a source of great pleasure and fun, and, after the fact, even a source of some pride. We did it!
That, of course, brings me to today and our on-going situation in responding to the COVID-19 virus. We are, at the moment – and for VERY GOOD REASON – having to “do without.” We are having to do without a great deal of that which has been convenient and comfortable for us. We are being challenged for a longer time than our patience wants to endure. And yet, I am somehow certain, that just as my experiences at those camps at Shawnee-On-The-Delaware were INCONVENIENT, they were also PRODUCTIVE and CONSTRUCTIVE times in which I learned much about myself and others and during which my future work in the church was richly fertilized. My hope and prayer for us at this time is that this season of “doing without” – as were those nine summers I spent “doing without” at Camps Ministerium, Miller and Hagan – will be for us an instructive, productive, enriching and life-enhancing time, despite, and maybe even because of, “doing without.”
Being in the out-of-doors and in the wilderness is being in God’s garden just as much as being in the highly managed (and some might even say ‘tortured’) highly patterned and parterred Luxembourg Gardens in Paris!
The gardens – the campsites – the wildernesses – in which we live and move and have our being ALL belong to GOD. We believe, teach and confess that God chooses to meet us in whatever garden we find ourselves and wherever and whenever that may be. Yes, She does, ‘walk with me and talk with me’ in the garden! But never is God mine alone. His are the gardens – all of them. Hers are the people in those gardens: all of us. His is the presence with us “at all times and in all places.” We are firmly convinced that we are never – ever – alone in the garden. God is surely with us right here, right now, in this season!
We always referred to our time at camp as a “season.” Hers too is this “season” in which we now find ourselves. We hear and believe again what Jesus says in “The Great Commission” in Matthew’s Gospel: “And lo, I am with you always.” Even unto the end of this ‘season’ and into the next.
When I asked how he was doing during this crisis, James’ nephew, who is out of work in London said: “Uncle, Ron, I am getting ready for my next season of blessings.” Let’s join him in that, here and now, in God’s rich garden of blessings.
Bless you, Fr. Ron
May 2, 2020
My dear people,
In addition to the Prayers of the People which came from the Lutheran World Federation and which we used during yesterday’s liturgy, I want to share with you the prayer I offered at the conclusion of our service. I read it from a 1761 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Bibliophiles will be interested to know that that copy was printed at Cambridge by the famous 18th century type designer John Baskerville.
From the service for the Visitation of the Sick, I used the following prayer, adjusting the pronouns to plural, for our use. The old-fashioned use of what looks to us like the letter ‘f’ for the letter ’s’ when printed within words is retained here. Those are not typos!
O Blessed Lord, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts; We beseech thee, look down in pity and compassion upon us thy afflicted servants. Thou writeſt bitter things againſt us, and makeſt us to possess our former iniquities; thy wrath lieth hard upon us, and our souls are full of trouble: But, O merciful God, who haſt written thy holy Word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of thy holy Scriptures, might have hope; give us a right underſtanding of ourselves, and of thy threats and promises; that we may neither caſt away our confidence in thee, nor place it any where but in thee. Give us ſtrength againſt all our temptations, and heal all our diſtempers. Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Shut not up thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make us to hear of joy and gladness, that the bones which thou haſt broken may rejoice. Deliver us from fear of the enemy, and lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, and give us peace, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Chriſt our Lord. Amen.
Although we may disagree with some of the ‘ideas’ about the nature of God in this ancient prayer, there is much in it that is good and beautiful. I commend it to your use in these unusual times, in which the entire world is either ill or threatened with illness and death.
Bless you, Fr. Ron
Please enjoy our worship service from April 19, 2020:
The Second Sunday of Easter – 19 April 2020
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A-men.
For the very same reasons that the Johannine account of the raising of Lazarus disturbed me a couple of weeks ago – and for that matter, the Easter accounts of the empty tomb, last week – this text does too. Quite simply put: I, just as Thomas did, doubt! I want empirical evidence. I want to see in order to believe. I want to touch that resurrected erstwhile corpse which still bears the wounds of crucifixion. Despite the risen Savior’s admonition, often reported in Latin as “Noli me tangere” or “Do not touch (or do not cling to) me,” recorded in John 20:17, I want to ‘touch and see,’ rather than simply to believe, without the use of my senses. That seems sense-less to me! What is empirical evidence all about anyway? And Jesus’ advice to un-bind Lazarus and “let him go” prefigures this statement from the risen Christ to “let him go!”
My mothers advice to me as a child: “Don’t touch that. It’s not yours. You might break it!” Touching and breaking things makes them ours! MERCHANTS’ SIGNS: “YOU BREAK IT. YOU BOUGHT IT!”
“Right on, Thomas. I’m with you! And yet, even you, get a second chance. Jesus comes back – and suspending the natural orders of matter, time and space – appears to the disciples, including you – in that locked room, and invites you personally to see, touch, and believe. I would find that same opportunity very helpful indeed. I’m sure everyone else here, in the 21st century, would too.”
But, my friends, as you and I both know, that’s NOT going to happen. Seeing and touching Jesus, in order to believe, is – for us – NOT an option. I’m sorry about that. And quite frankly, I feel put out and a bit cheated by that reality.
So, what’s left for us to do? We have exercised our first option. We have read John’s report literally: as if it were ‘historically’ factual, if not scientifically improbable. As you know by now, I have a lot of trouble with that. So, I am left to struggle with these texts for meanings which I believe to be there but missed by me, if I simply read them cursively.
I have a growing suspicion, that when the disciples were locked in that room out of fear — fear of their own kind, fear of their own tradition, fear of the challenge of the Gospel for which Jesus gave his life and for which theirs might be sacrificed too — that they looked at each other — a rag-tag, grief-stricken pack of traitors, all of whom denied and abandoned their Lord — and saw the Christ of the Gospel em-bodied in themselves. THEY WERE FINISHED. They sensed that if the message and work of sharing the unmitigated love of God for all of Her children were to continue, it was, finally and unequivocally, up to them : they THEMSELVES. They, in fact, constituted the wounded, broken, crucified and now rising body of Christ himself. Together, I believe, they experienced what psychologists today refer to as an “A-ha moment” or what the advertising moguls have coined a “V-8 Moment!” In a moment of extraordinary clarity, they came to understand that no matter how beaten down, defeated, and unlikely their chances of success were – that if the Gospel were to live on, it required a body. Heretofore, the only body they knew who did that was Jesus. So they knew that now it was up to them to re-constitute that body – they had to re-in-CORPOR-ate Christ. And if they did not give their bodies to become the Christ – as Mary gave hers at the Nativity – then the battle would have been lost. Then, Jesus’ life-giving work would have failed. Then, evil would have won.
But not so! Locked up (or down!) together, they realized who they had become and were becoming. It is here where I really begin to enjoy this text because I believe it shows us the birth of the church – and the re-birth or resurrection of the ‘Body of Christ’ in the body of the church – long before Pentecost, when we acknowledge and celebrate the eventual descent of the Holy Spirit upon the early church.
So, left in the middle of their grief – either with the dead or apparently-missing body of Jesus – the church begins to grasp, very early on, that what had become so important to them [the Divine] came to them in what was so common and ordinary to them [the flesh]. They all knew that which was Divine gave them life – and they wanted to live. They knew that a body had been killed. But, they were also learning that THE BODY – their corporate body – did not have to die with that single body, but could live on as THE BODY and that The Very Body of Christ which gave them what they needed to live life abundantly and whose TRUTH was ETERNAL. In that way The Body of Christ could indeed rise from the dead, could indeed live on and could indeed proclaim the Good News, if they allowed themselves and their very own bodies to be grafted into the business of living out the Eternal Truth shown to them by Jesus and believed by them now, ever more strongly!
Christ could be risen. Christ would be risen. Christ was risen. And now friends, it is up to us! The proclamation must be made by us – or the truth will not be known. The world – with Thomas and with me and with you – wants to see, and touch, and feel. The world wants to put its fingers in the holes in His hands and thrust their hands into His side, in order to believe! And, why not? So, just as it was with Thomas, we return again and again to the enclave of the Christian Community to find there the PROOF – the absolute EMPIRICAL PROOF that CHRIST IS RISEN bodily! HE IS RISEN INDEED – in you, in me, in the church whenever and wherever the truth is told, the Gospel proclaimed and our physical bodies are used together to raise Christ from the dead to live again in this world and eternity.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Our Easter Sunday Sermon may be heard here:
My dear people,
Herewith the sermon I had written for use on Easter Day. After having received some gentle criticism about ‘reading’ Palm Sunday’s sermon – I decided to lay aside the manuscript yesterday and preach as usual. You can see the difference if you want to compare this written text with what ‘really happened’ by tuning into the recording of yesterday’s liturgy which is available on our web page and social media pages.
I wish you a very rich and blessed Easter Monday!
12 April 2020
My dear people,
Who would ever imagined CLOSED CHURCHES on Easter Day?
Who could ever have imagined the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed? Do you remember the hate-filled pogrom by SA paramilitary forces which smashed and burned synagogues in Germany on the night of the 9th of November, 1938? Do you remember the hateful destruction, by the Taliban, of the ancient (6th c.) and beautiful Buddhas of Bamyan in March of 2001? Do you remember two consecutive mass shootings which occurred at mosques in a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday Prayer on 15 March 2019? The attack, carried out by a single gunman who entered both mosques, began at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at 1:40 p.m. and continued at Linwood Islamic Centre at 1:52 p.m.It killed 51 people[ and injured 49. And let’s remember — or maybe learn about — the fact that there have been at least a dozen burnings of African-American churches in our own country in the 21st century alone; and not all of those were in the south.
[This, as I speak to you from the home of a black man many of us knew and loved who was born in Charlottesville, Virginia where, as a child, he was forbidden to go into the library by white racist ignorance and hatred. That’s the same Charlottesville where the infamous Unite the Right rally — a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally, which our CURRENT national leadership was loathe to condemn — was conducted from August 11 to 12 in 2017.]
The closure of churches today as a part of the national and international effort to fight the spread of communicable disease is neither a terrorist act nor an act of destruction of worship spaces such as those I just mentioned. That is not the kind of loss we are experiencing here. Rather, this temporary ‘loss’ of ours is a noble, right and good thing. It is a matter of private and public health that our churches are closed for the time being: Easter notwithstanding. And the church, you may know, has had experience and lived through plagues of communicable diseases such as this one – and possibly even worse ones – before.
Here, for example, is part of a rubric from the Rite for the Visitation of the Sick from the 1552 Book of Common Prayer:
¶ In the tyme of plague, Swette, or suche other lyke contagious tymes of syckenesses or dyseases, when none of the parysh or neyghbours can be gotten to communicate wyth the syck in theyr houses, for feare of the infeccion. upon special request of the diseased, the minister may alonly communicate wyth hym.
Now, the destruction of houses of worship by ignorance, hatred, malice and fear must always be remembered, abhorred and prevented. And it is particularly poignant on this holy – and I trust, for you, happy – Easter Day to remember that Jesus had an idea [and who’s surprised: a radical one at that] that God could (and maybe even should!) be worshiped OUTSIDE of buildings: just as we are doing right now.
Do you remember this? In John 2:19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Those words were spoken just after Jesus upset the tables of the money changers in the Temple : an event known to us as the ‘Cleansing of the Temple.’ And, of course, those whose usurious behaviors, which took place in the Temple BUILDING, were threatened and angry that Jesus was suggesting that their livelihood and their abusive economy (taking advantage of poor people by selling that which was not theirs to sell: God’s favor) was irreligious and wrong. They who heard this believed Jesus’ reference to his body as the ‘Temple of the Lord,’ and his prediction to re-build that ‘Temple’ in three days, was a seditious terrorist threat against the Temple building itself. [By the way, it took 46 years to build that Temple in Jerusalem. It was no small thing.]
Now we’re getting down to the real meat and matter of Easter. Easter is about resurrection. And Easter is NOT a once a year commemoration celebrated only on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. NO! Easter is celebrated at every Eucharist. Easter is always before us. The fair linen on the altar [always there, except on Good Friday] is a symbol of the Jesus’ winding sheet which is seen by the first witnesses of the resurrection lying empty and folded in the tomb. For us, it remains unfolded and open on our altars, all year long, silently proclaiming: “He is NOT here. He is RISEN!”
Jesus had a clear vision about the love of God for all people which could neither be bought nor sold nor confined to a place, a people, a language, a culture or even to a particular theology. Jesus understood that those who believe, teach, confess and practice the truth that God IS love, constitute the Body of Christ, which itself is a Temple: in fact the ONLY TEMPLE, the only place of true worship. And that body is one which cannot be destroyed; and that body is one that is always being renewed and resurrected. That’s why there is such great joy at every baptism : the Temple of the Body of Christ continues to be built! That is why there is such great joy at the celebration of every eucharist : the Temple of the Body of Christ continues to be nourished. That is why there is such great joy at the rites of passage and growth such as confirmation and holy matrimony : the Temple of the Body of Christ continues to grow and mature. That is why there is even joy at the burial of the dead. Amid the grief of our loss of those we love, we have the hope that the Body of Christ – built by God in the first place – is a Temple which belongs to God alone and one which God builds with living stones, and one which cannot be destroyed. And if we are a part of that eternal structure in this world, we are certain that we shall continue to be members of that same eternal body, and building blocks of that same eternal Temple, in the next.
This is what gives us the great HOPE of EASTER resurrection. Our Temple cannot be destroyed or closed down. In three days, Jesus says, I will rebuild the Temple – and us with it!
Our Bishop posts the following message: As we continue to learn more about the current pandemic, we are discovering that more drastic measures must be taken in order to protect, not just the vulnerable, but all people in our communities. In light of recommendations from medical experts, our Governor, and our President, I once again call upon all congregations of the Diocese of Bethlehem to suspend in-person gatherings, including worship, until May 3, 2020. Please visit diobeth.org for more information
A PRAYER FOR OUR TIMES: O God, you desire that your church bear witness to you at all times and in all places: grant unto your faithful people, in the middle of all the distress and challenges of these extraordinary times, boldness to confess your name and the truth of your love for all people, everywhere.
Give us the Holy Spirit to be in your world and among your people in appropriate ways. May the examples of those who care and risk and serve others in this trying time of frightening contagion, show forth your glory and proclaim your loving intentions for all your people.
Help us, O Lord, to lift up the weak, to comfort the sorrowing, to speak peace to the desolate and the afflicted. Support us in speaking, as did Jesus, Eternal Truth to temporal power.
All this we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, raised the dead and taught the grieving how to rejoice. A-men.
Maundy Thursday, 9 April 2020
My dear people,
This past Sunday – Palm Sunday – we experienced our first “Cyber Dry Mass”: “virtual” worship together – at a distance – by means of tele-communication. I felt – and I know others did too – that as an alternative to gathering personally, which is not yet possible for us, this first effort was a successful one.
We talked about the histories of the Medieval ‘Dry Mass’ which included what we call on Sundays the “Liturgy of the Word of God” : the Collect, the Gloria, the Lessons, the Prayers, etc. but did NOT INCLUDE the Offertory, Consecration or the Communion. In the past, there were ‘reasons’ other than quarantine, for that. A priest was required to celebrate one mass a day but restricted to only one mass a day. So, if a priest had celebrated his mass in the morning and needed to preside at a funeral or wedding later in the day – he was limited to saying a ‘Dry Mass.’
In fact, in my early days as a Lutheran – and I know this was the case in other traditions as well – the ‘normal’ or the ‘average’ Sunday service was in fact a “Dry Mass.” We celebrated Holy Communion less frequently than we do now: usually only once a month. So on all the other Sundays we did exactly what is described as a Mediaeval “Dry Mass” and is sometimes called “Ante-Communion,” meaning that part of the mass liturgy which precedes the offertory and comes “Before the Communion.”
The church and the world are not strangers to infectious contagions. And, we are fortunate to live in times when we understand – better than ever before – how diseases spread, and how to respond to those threats. Interestingly, there are historic rubrics and ecclesiastical guidelines which inform us what was done about these situations in the past.
On Sunday I quoted the rubric from the rite for the Visitation of the Sick which was printed in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer :
¶ But yf any man either by reason of extremitie of syckenes, or for lacke of warning in due tyme to the Curate, or for lacke of company to receyve with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receyve the Sacrament of Christes body and bloud; then the Curate shal instruct him that yf he do truly repent him of his synnes, and stedfastly beleve that Jesus Christ hath suffred death upon the crosse for him, and shed his bloud for his redempcion, earnestly remembring the benefites he hath therby, and gaving him heartie thanks therfore: he doeth eate and drinke the body and bloude of our Saviour Christ, profytably to his soules health, althoughe he doe not receyve the Sacrament with hys mouth.
And although such a ‘mass’ might be called ‘dry’ it could never be understood to be anything other than ‘spiritual,’ as our own experience has taught us!
All of this is a prelude to our consideration of MAUNDY THURSDAY.
Thursday in Holy Week has always been a very special day for me. That, I suppose, in part, because Holy Thursday has been a day of expanding meaning throughout my ministry. There is always more to learn and discover as I dig deeper into the history, practices and customs which gather around this very special day. The Germans call this day Gruendonnerstag or Green Thursday. The historical explanations for this are both complex and un-clear. Gruen may have indicated a repentant sinner – the custom of eating green vegetables as a part of the Lenten fast – or etymologically – mourning. Spanish is a bit more straightforward in referring to the day simply as Jueves Santo or Holy Thursday. In England we get Maundy Thursday which is understood to derive from the Latin word mandatum : “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” ”A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The words Jesus spoke to his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’.
In recollection of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, there is a Mediaeval English custom which perdures to this day, in which the monarch used to wash the feet of the poor and distribute money for food and clothing to them. The Pope too, to this day, washes and kisses feet on Maundy Thursday. For the British Monarch, that has now evolved into a highly-formalized ceremony, called the Royal Maundy, during which the monarch distributes little leather pouches of specially-minted coins (known as Maundy Money) to as many men and as many women as the monarch is years old. Today, the recipients of those ‘gifts’ are not necessarily ‘poor’ but usually elders who have provided significant and humble service to their churches and communities. The Royal Maundy takes place on Maundy Thursday in a different cathedral in England every year. Interestingly, this is the only time the British Monarch ever walks toward her subjects (in service): to distribute the Maundy Money. Otherwise, it is they who approach her throne.
As you know, Maundy Thursday is also the traditional day for bishops to celebrate the Chrism Mass, which involves the blessing and consecration of the oils to be used throughout the dioceses in the coming year for all baptisms, confirmations, sick calls, etc. This very moving service traditionally includes a rite for the clergy to renew their ordination vows.
In parish churches such as ours, the Maundy Thursday liturgy always includes the usually very uncomfortable but always moving rite of foot-washing, which emphasizes the full account of what happened at the Last Supper, the profoundly stunning stripping of the altar signifying the subsequent abuse and the abandonment of Christ after the meal, and leaving the church denuded, prepared for the silent adoration of the crucified on Good Friday.
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks and think a little bit about this most significant of pre-Easter days, and particularly about Maundy Thursday this year!
You are probably aware that in April this year faithful people the world over will celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan. I find that significant. It’s what I meant, when I said, above, that Maundy Thursday has been a day of “expanding meaning for me” . . . as I dig deeper and learn more about the history and customs related to this day.
In the United States, of course, April contains an important tax deadline for us to “render unto Caesar.” There is no secret, that in our hemisphere April shows the splendid signs of Spring: longer days, re-birth in the natural world, things sprouting in the garden, the return of the robins and the geese. Say nothing of the rhythm of the moon. Speaking of rhythms, you do know that Easter is always celebrated in the West on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of Spring. And in the East it must also follow Passover, in order to retain the flow of Biblical-historical events. But, there is also a melancholy reality to this time of year as well. You may recall T. S. Elliot’s famous first lines from The Waste Land:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
My guess is that the coincidence of major religious festivals at this time of year – and this month in particular – is way more deeply buried in our common humanity that we can imagine. It is not surprising to imagine that long before religions were ever codified and people started to think that the way they thought and believed made them superior to others, that EVERYONE EXPERIENCED the rhythms of nature, as we still do, in the rise, development and conclusion of life. Religions, I believe, attempt to make sense of life itself and its inexorable rhythms. And so, in the midst of a global health crisis, we find ourselves having to take stock again – as of old – of a BROAD VIEW of CREATION and HUMANITY. The pandemic we are experiencing is about as UNIVERSAL as things get. We know for a fact that we are ALL in this TOGETHER, just as we have ALWAYS been TOGETHER in life and its global and universal rhythms! Let us take advantage of our current dis-advantage. Let us reclaim the center and core of our particular beliefs about Jesus, who, I believe, encouraged us to look at the world the way things always were, even BEFORE RELIGION and the way things are RIGHT NOW during a global pandemic. We do live in a world in which we are REALLY ALL TOGETHER and understand ourselves ALL to belong to the SAME GOD, without whom we are ALL surely lost!
Disease – just like sin – is no respecter of persons. We can all get physically sick just as we are all – at times – spiritually sick. We say at every mass: “We are by nature sinful and unclean and cannot save ourselves.” I think Jesus understood this aspect of the human condition as no one else ever has. Jesus also had a crystal clear understanding of the Divine Nature of our universal Creating Parent who hates none of Her children and — now this is where it gets hard for everyone, perhaps especially ‘religious people.’ — who intends life and wholeness and forgiveness for even, in Jesus’ own words: “the LEAST of THESE” : that means EVERYBODY, that MEANS THE WHOLE WORLD, that means men and women, the rich, the poor, the young the old, the healthy, the ill, the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous,’ the ‘deserving’ and the undeserving,’ etc. Simply put, Jesus believed and spent his life believing that God, in fact, loves YOU — and even me — and every other sinner in the world. Period. And if that love – which can only come from God alone – is not sufficient “for us and for our salvation,” nothing else will help. No, not even our precious religious differences!
So, I think it is safe to say that Jesus saw the world as suffering a pandemic of the human condition [“sin, death and the power of the devil”] and understood the solution to be a full and sincere grasp of the unimaginable love of the Creator God for all people everywhere. That love was most beautifully expressed in His simple gesture of washing feet: not because they ‘deserved’ washing but because they ‘needed’ washing. That love is most beautifully expressed in His sharing of the simplest of meals, in which God’s intention to BE WITH and NEVER TO ABANDON humanity is believed and celebrated, just as it is at every mass: wet or dry!
Jesus believed in the Creator God’s divine desire to heal all creation, and perhaps most especially his closest friends whose abandonment and lethal denials he suffered most poignantly. Jesus’ suggestion to us of how to do that in our lives is what this day – this Maundy Thursday – is all about.
These words of Jesus are simple. These words of Jesus are plain. These are the words of Maundy Thursday for the world:
”A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
So, here’s the question: If a disease can make us understand that we, in fact, live in a global community, and are universally connected, albeit by disease, should not the love of God — which Jesus modeled so profoundly and powerfully in his life and death — make us see that those with whom we live are, as much as we are, the same objects of the same Divine love which none of us deserves but which all of us need in order to live and move and have our being?
A blessed Maundy Thursday to one and to all.
5 April 2020 Palm Sunday Sermon
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A-men.
It is customary in churches throughout the world to read, re-enact or even sing the History of the Passion of Our Lord during the service or mass on Palm Sunday. I remember being profoundly moved, in Westminster Abbey, on Palm Sunday in 2017, when the choir and soloists sang the old, old story from St. Matthew’s Gospel in that gorgeous and ancient space. My vivid memory is of the soloist who sang the voice of Jesus. That same account from St. Matthew’s Gospel is appointed for use by us again this year.
You know the story as well as I do. And, I encourage you to give it your full attention and re-reading as you might if you were in church on Palm Sunday.
You may know that it is often the case that Palm Sunday attendances are larger than Easter attendances at church. There are probably many reasons (and possibly even some excuses) for that. But let us imagine that it is far easier for people to connect with, to grasp, and to understand the brutal realities of the “passion history” than it is to grasp and believe the intention of the author of the Gospel account, which is to bring us to belief in the resurrection of Christ at Easter.
We don’t have to look far to find betrayal, sloth (disciples too tired to ‘wake and watch’ with Jesus – depicted in the window over our altar), horror at the truth, mockery of Him who told the truth, physical and psychological abuse (hitting, spitting and name-calling), financial gain being made on someone else’s mis-fortune (gambling for Jesus’ garments), ignoring visions that things ought to be different (Pilate’s wife’s dream), etc. Does any of that sound or look at all familiar to you today, in our world and our own country? We don’t have to stretch our imaginations very far, to see the same things happening around us today, do we? Who know? Maybe our ability to understand and identify with these harsh realities contributes to the ‘popularity’ of Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday) in a way that Easter does not. We get – and we ‘get’ all too well – the nasty stuff and the ugly stuff in the History of the Passion. And, if the truth be told, we are not only the recipients of such ugliness, we are, from time to time – and this MUST be confessed – engaged in committing these offenses ourselves as well. Haven’t we just spent all of Lent thinking about the importance of taking responsibility and the need for confession, repentance and absolution, and turning around and back toward God?
So, here we are, yet again, at Palm Sunday. And although Covid-19 prevents us from gathering in the same place, we are still able to gather in the same Spirit. I still love a parade. I’m sure you do too. Some parades, such as the New Year’s Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, California, the New Year’s Day Mummers’ Parade in Philadelpia and [although I lived and worked in and around New York City for more than 30 years] the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Pararde, are all parades I have only ever – in all of my 72 years – seen from a distance, on TV. And, I still love to see them!
It’s easy for us to remember and to cheer on the ‘GRAND MARSHALL’ as he rides by, often on a glorious stallion. And on Palm Sunday we too watch, yet again, our Spiritual Grand Marshall parade humbly by, seated on an ass. We do love to shout “Hosannah” and “Alleluia.” But, at the end of the day, and at the end of that parade, we must be honestly sober about the disappearance of our own enthusiasm for Him who comes in the Name of the Lord. After that parade, after the palms and the garments are strewn in His way, and after the sound of our Hosannahs! is silent — AFTER all that, AFTER the hoo-ha of the parade — that’s when group pressure, the darkness of human sinfulness, the selfish love of money, sin, death and the power of the devil become more attractive to us than our own personal integrity, than the light of truth, than generosity toward others and even – or especially – toward the undeserving. That is when truth, forgiveness, justice, peace and health for us and for all people become crucifiable along with our real “GRAND MARSHALL” and our own True God.
We know that we are capable and often guilty of abandoning Jesus, right after we praise and glorify him. We often prefer to protect ourselves and our idolatries rather than the truth of God’s love for all people. Eventually, we too betray and allow Jesus to twist in the breeze as we seek some false security in something other than the truth. Palm Sunday is NOT EASTER. Palm Sunday is, however, the culmination of LENT – and, oh my, what an astounding reality we face on this day! Palm Sunday may be more about US and our duplicity than it is about Jesus and his integrity and truth telling – even unto death. The week that follows Palm Sunday [Holy Week] really uncovers us and our humanity. The week that follows Palm Sunday will find us – all of us – asleep in the garden and unable to wait and watch and pray. The week that follows Palm Sunday will find us – all of us – guests at the Lord’s table asking: “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” The week that follows Palm Sunday will find us dipping our sop in the cup with Judas, or will find us allowing Judas to take the whole rap for the guilt of abandoning and betraying the Savior, knowing that that is a guilt in which we ALL share.
It very well may be that, in fact, it is easier for us as humans to understand, grasp and embrace the ugly realities about ourselves that the Palm Sunday Procession guides us toward, than to grasp the promise and hope of truth-telling and Easter and the Resurrection. Remember, we do, in fact, regularly and publicly confess: “we are by nature sinful and unclean and cannot save ourselves.” Alas………..
And although Palm Sunday may teach us more about ourselves than we are comfortable with or even want to know, Palm Sunday is NOT the end of the story. Rather, we believe, teach and confess something more than ourselves and greater than our human condition. We believe, teach and confess the unimaginable love of a Creator God who hates nothing and no one She has ever created, and whose intention is to forgive and to heal and to save. We, in fact, have hope beyond ourselves and beyond our sinful and unclean human ‘condition.’ We have hope in One True God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
repared: Easter packs a punch. And that punch is HOPE!
More about that next Sunday…………..
Bless today, as you greet Him who comes in the Name of the Lord!