4-28-17 - To Have, Not Hold

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

The post-resurrection Jesus had astonishing properties – he could appear in locked rooms and disappear at will. Perhaps it wasn’t so much “appear” and “disappear” as “materialize” and “dematerialize.” After all, the risen Jesus was spirit – not a ghost, he points out, but spirit. He seemed to be able to take on substance, or matter, when he needed to be seen. (Perhaps he had those properties before resurrection as well… His little stroll upon the Sea of Galilee and transfiguration on the mountain offer a tantalizing hint into the physics of Jesus’ incarnation…).

Jesus pulls this disappearing act in several resurrection appearances, the Gospels tell us. He says to Mary in the garden, “Don’t hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:11-18) He did hang out and have breakfast with the disciples on the beach after the miraculous catch of fish (John 21), but his interview with Peter implies his coming absence. In Luke’s account of the upper room appearance, he talks about sending the Spirit to them (Luke 24:36-49). It is clear he’s not sticking around.

Jesus was not back to stay. His post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension walkabout had a purpose, to reinforce the teaching he’d given his followers for three years, and to prepare them to receive the Holy Spirit, who would kick the whole operation into gear. And here we are, more or less still in gear, two thousand-plus years later.

We tend to want to keep what feels good, to rest in it. And that is not God’s gift to us. Jesus always seems to be moving on to the next place we will find him. Maybe our wiring is too weak to withstand the frequency of God’s presence all the time. I know I have trouble abiding with Jesus for even a little while, though there is something about that presence that I crave. Maybe Jesus’ appearances, whether in those 40 days, or in our prayers and worship and ministry and community now, are always brief and for a purpose. Maybe he leads us on to new ways to experience him and new ways to make him known to the world, because there are so many who do not know him and need a multiplicity of on-ramps.

Where did you last experience the presence of Christ? How long did that experience last? Did you feel ready for it to end? If you would you like to experience the presence of Christ, and aren’t aware of having done so, here’s a prayer for today: “Risen Lord – I want to know you, to feel your presence, your love. Open my eyes, ears, heart and hands, and find me where I am today. Amen.”
I don’t know what will come of that prayer, but you can pray and release it. God will answer in God’s time and in a way that works for you. I don’t believe God hides from us. 

And whenever you do encounter that presence, tell someone! Those disciples got up from the table and ran seven miles back the way they’d just come to tell the story, only to find that Jesus had showed up in Jerusalem the same evening.

I don’t think anyone, even the most prayer-soaked mystic, experiences God’s presence in a constant, unbroken way. Jesus did make a promise, though, that we can rest in, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.” At the end of the ages, we’ll be able to sit in his presence full time.

For now, we take the moments and string them together like pearls of great price.

4-27-17 - Breaking Bread

“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past…” So begins a well-loved prayer from the Episcopal service of Compline, or “night prayer.” It comes from this week’s Gospel story. The two disciples do not recognize Jesus, despite his insight and authority on sacred history, but they want to continue conversation with him, to remain in his presence. Even as they reach their destination, and he is preparing to walk on, they urge him to stay:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…

Something about Jesus’ resurrection body must have been different – in nearly every post-Easter appearance we read in the Gospels, people who knew and loved Jesus did not recognize him until he did or said something familiar. At the supper table that night in Emmaus, when Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them, they suddenly saw who it was they’d spent the afternoon with. How often had they seen him bless and break bread – when they fed 5,000 people on a hillside with five loaves and two fish; when they’d gathered only a few nights ago in the upper room for the Passover feast. Such strange words had accompanied that action: “Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Whenever you eat this bread, do it in remembrance of me.” The familiar action made manifest the holy.

Breaking bread is a universal rite of community, whether gathered at end of day, to celebrate a special occasion, to reconvene family or reconcile the estranged. It became a central act for Christian communities, not only the Eucharistic blessing, breaking and sharing, but also a common meal celebrating the people gathered.

At our Eucharistic feast, the bread is a symbol of Christ’s body. It is broken so as to be shared, given away, as his life was. So, too, the community (also the Body of Christ) is broken apart after worship to feed the world. As a friend once described the eucharist: “You give us this little piece of bread, and we give it away all week, and come back for more.” Yes. And when next the Body comes back together, reconstituted, there is a new loaf of bread to be broken. And on it goes, this breaking and making whole in Jesus’ name.

With what do you associate “the breaking of bread?” What are the holy feasts in your life? They may not be centered around worship, but around family or holidays or celebrations – picnics, banquets.
Do you think of Jesus when the bread in those feasts is broken and shared? Such moments can become a quotidian reminder that his presence is a promise to us, a daily invitation to enter his brokenness and his wholeness.

Maybe you would like to make that Compline prayer part of your end-of-day practice: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

For the sake of His love, he has already granted that prayer. That way is ready for us to walk in.

4-26-17 - The Guidebook

Do you ever read guidebooks about a place before you visit it? I try, and find I can’t really retain the details – it’s too abstract, too flat. Once I’ve been there, though, I enjoy going back to the book, to let its information fill out what I’ve now seen and experienced.

The Bible can be that way – a whole lot of information and other people’s stories, until we experience God for ourselves and have a personal context from which to process those writings. Perhaps that’s how the Scriptures were for Jesus’ followers before the resurrection, sacred writings that spoke of God’s activity in the past and promised some future restoration that they couldn’t imagine. But after Jesus rose from the dead? Ah, now, let’s read that prophecy again.

Is this what the two disciples on the Emmaus road experienced when the stranger walking with them began to teach them? “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Later, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” With interpretation, all those words and stories of God suddenly made a kind of sense. They were leading somewhere. Yes, they had their own validity in their original times and communities – and now they also had a new interpretation, both broader and narrower, pointing to what God was up to in the mission of Jesus Christ on earth.

Guidebooks are great, but we often benefit from having a guide as well, someone who’s been further up the road, to help us interpret the path we’re traveling. In Jesus, those sojourners found a Guide who could help interpret the Guidebook. In the Holy Spirit, we get the same gift – as we read the Scriptures alone or with others, aided by Christ’s Spirit, they come to life, and bring life to us.

Who has helped you better understand parts of the Bible that you’ve read? Who have you helped?
What other guides have come alongside you on the spiritual path, to help make sense of your surroundings – spiritual directors, teachers, authors?

If reading the bible is a challenge for you, you might take a small chunk each day and pray before you read, “Holy Spirit, be with me in my reading and receiving – show me what gifts your Word has for me today.” Read and see what catches your attention. Read it again. Try reading it aloud. Stay with that passage for another day if it’s giving you life.

If you’re not part of a bible study group, I highly recommend joining one – having other people’s insights and perspectives opens it up for us.

This Book of ours is a good guidebook, even as some parts can be dull, and others seem out of touch, even angering. The terrain it describes is vast and intricate, ancient and yet to come. But with the Spirit’s help, this Word can nurture our spirits and strengthen our faith… and occasionally even start a fire in our hearts.

4-25-17 - Dashed Hopes

Every so often I have an “under a rock” moment; I get too busy to check the news (or Facebook…) and am unaware of major events, celebrities, social moments and movements. The stranger whom the two disciples encounter on the road to Emmaus seems like that, shockingly ignorant of the big news in Jerusalem. Surely even those beyond Jesus’ circle had heard the weekend’s big story, the holy man condemned by the temple leaders, crucified by the Romans – and mysteriously missing from the tomb into which his body had been placed just 48 hours ago… But here he is, asking,

"What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’"They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?’"They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”

Maybe something about this stranger invites them deeper, for they go beyond the facts to the feelings they are wrestling with: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” There it is. “We had hoped…” In addition to the trauma of the past week, they are face to face with their own lost hopes. It was hard enough to put their trust in someone of such simple origins, from Galilee; a rabbi, teacher. Oh yes, there were the miracles, but also the upside-down teachings… Were they just plain wrong?

Are we? Be honest – have you never felt disappointed by God? I don't think it’s possible to be a person of faith and not be disappointed by God. We are invited to put our trust, our weight on someone we cannot see, touch or feel, except in indirect and inward ways. Anyone who’s ever gone out on a limb in prayer and not seen it answered in any positive way, or faced a heartbreak in life, can have a beef with God. Our Scriptures are full of people who have a beef with God – and often express it in eloquent and poetic ways. That’s the key – to express it, have it out with God in prayer, the way we do in any relationship we hope will be lasting and life-giving.

Those men did not know they were confessing their disappointment to the Lord himself – but we do. Tell God the big life stuff, and the little, niggling things. If you feel like you’re at a wall in your faith, say so. The very act of expressing it creates space for the Holy Spirit’s healing, restoring love to work in us.

And, while we're at it, give thanks for the times we have not been disappointed. It’s all part of the picture, and the more complete the picture is, the stronger our faith can be.

Those men on the road had more to say, crazy stuff: “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’”

We don’t always know what God is up to when our hopes are dashed. Sometimes we find out later that God has moved heaven and earth on our behalf. Sometimes we discover that Jesus is right in front of us, even if we don’t see him.

4-24-17 - Strangers on the Way

I’ve known several people who have walked all or part of El Camino del Santiago, the pilgrimage route through France and Spain to the shrine of St. James (Sant’Iago) at Campostella. They observed that people who came together did not always end up walking together. Walking speeds and rhythms diverge; disagreements can crop up. For varied reasons, people often fall in with strangers on that trail, and sometimes those strangers have just the gifts they need for the spiritual journey that parallels the physical one. (For a decent film about this, check out “The Way,” starting Martin Sheen as a reluctant pilgrim on the Camino…)

If I ever make that pilgrimage, I will be thinking of this week’s gospel story, about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the traveling companion who joined them. In our Sunday readings, it's still the Day of Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we visit the events of that morning. On Easter 2, it’s that evening. On Easter 3 this year, we find ourselves in the late afternoon of that same day, on a road outside Jerusalem, with two of Jesus’ followers:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"

Why were their “their eyes were kept from recognizing him?” Sometimes we just don’t see what we don’t expect to see, especially if it is far outside the bounds of probability. These two were already under great stress from the events of the past few days – watching their Lord betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified… and just as they were coming to terms with that reality, Reality itself was turned upside down with the empty tomb and reports that people had seen Jesus alive, had talked with him. Could these things be? Was it a conspiracy? A hoax? Could it possibly be true?

We process things by talking about them. So these two, in the midst of great upheaval, were discussing it, trying to make some sense of it all. And along comes a stranger who doesn’t even seem to know the events of which they are speaking - yet knows more than anyone they've ever met. He helps them understand, and sends them running seven miles back the way they’d come, their world transformed.

Have you ever found yourself talking about traumatic events with total strangers? 
Sometimes such conversations happen in hospital waiting rooms, or in the midst of disasters. 
Have you ever been the stranger that helped someone else process something painful? 
Were you aware of the presence of Christ in such an encounter? Of Christ in you, or in another?

Today, let’s give thanks for the companions who join us along our way. If you’re willing, ask God to send you alongside someone today who needs the gift you bring, the gift of the presence of Christ in you. Tonight, think back and see how that prayer was answered. Try it again tomorrow.

If I ever walk the Camino, I will assume that Christ is showing up beside me in the people with whom I walk. In fact, this principle may well be true on the roads I find myself walking today, actual or virtual. Where is the risen Christ joining you on the Way today?

4-21-17 - Believing For Your Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Why did John write down the Jesus story? He tells us in this week’s gospel passage: so that his readers may come to believe in Jesus’ messianic and divine identity, and “through believing you may have life in his name.” Paul, too, links spiritual vitality with believing in Jesus’ divine self. Even Jesus says that those who believe he is who he says he is will have eternal life. This believing stuff is not a minor detail.

Yet reading a story about Jesus’ resurrection activities and conversations does not by itself confer faith. Most of us need to experience the power of the Risen Christ for ourselves if we are to put our faith in him. What the written record does is invite us into the Great Story of God’s love for us expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It brings us to the threshold. It’s up to us to step in and live it.

Do you feel you have experienced the reality of Christ in some way or fashion? If we expect to see him the way Mary or the Eleven or the two on the Emmaus road did, we may feel we’re lacking that experience. Visual and aural Jesus sightings are rare… possibly non-existent. Jesus said as much to his followers – he said when he left, the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them. It is the Spirit who brings the presence of Christ to us in a way we can experience.

When we feel the Holy Spirit in or around us – whether by a sensation, or an insight, or seeing answer to prayer, or some other way – it is the Spirit of Christ we are experiencing. When we have a holy encounter with another person, it may be that we are meeting Christ in them. As we become more attuned to that presence, we can more readily accept that Christ is a part of us, in our lives – and thus we are led to believe more fully. His life in us leads to believing, and believing leads to more of His life in us. We become vessels for others experiencing his life, and on and on it goes.

The word for “I believe” is Credo. The creeds of the church are statements of what the gathered community came to affirm as its core beliefs. They deal mostly with matters that were confusing or controversial – they’re not comprehensive.
So what are your beliefs about Christ?
Can you take some time today to write your own Credo?
Has it changed from earlier times? Do you think it is still evolving? If you don’t know what you believe about Christ, that would be a good thing to bring up in prayer.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas after he affirms Jesus as his Lord and God. You and I have not had the advantage that Thomas and the others did, of seeing Jesus with our eyes and hearing his voice and touching his wounds. I guess that means we are blessed indeed, for we have had to develop our “faith vision.”

Did you ever think that not seeing would be an asset? When it comes to believing, it is.

4-20-17 - Believing Before Knowing

There’s always one. Somebody who missed it, didn’t see the big moment, was looking the other way, in the bathroom at the wrong time. But few people are forever identified with missing it, to the extent that the word “Doubting” becomes appended to their name. Poor Thomas. So many others have doubted; he had so many sterling qualities. Yet for two thousand years his name has been synonymous with doubt.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned. In Mark we read, “Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mk 16:14)

Thomas stands wrongly accused of doubting. The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. That’s what Thomas wanted; he didn’t want to have to go on faith. Neither do we – faith is hard work. It means, by definition, not knowing for sure. Once we have proof, who needs faith?

Yet we exercise faith all the time – we place faith in the engineering of bridges and elevators, in the attention of other drivers, in the unseen hand of “The Market,” God help us. Why is it a greater stretch to place faith in a God whose presence is felt by millions, who has inspired uncountable acts of generosity and sacrifice? Why not believe in the risen Christ, when faith in his life in us has been affirmed for over two thousand years, by every kind of person, rich, poor, simple, erudite, good of heart and ethically challenged?

The operative word is “exercise.” Our faith is a muscle that grows stronger with use. We start out affirming our faith in God’s activity in our lives in small ways, and gradually try on bigger challenges. Jesus invites us to seek confirmation; when he shows up again the following week and Thomas is there, he invites him to touch his wounds and see for himself. But he also urges Thomas to greater faith:

Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

What aspect of God’s life or the Christian Good News do you having trouble putting faith in?
How about having a conversation with Jesus about that in prayer. “Hey, I don’t believe that story…” or “How can I have faith in your healing, when it doesn’t always happen?” As with any conversation, speak and listen. What word or thought or image comes to mind as you sit with your doubts?

Jesus’ gentleness with Thomas should encourage us. He knows faith is hard. He also knows it is the currency of God’s realm in this world, and the stronger ours is, the richer we are. One day we’ll see everything we now only affirm by faith. Believing before we see draws us that much closer to the One who is our future.

4-19-17 - Breath of God

When Jesus appeared in that locked room on Easter night, he wasn’t just dropping in to catch up with his buddies. He had some business to do. Once their lower jaws returned to normal position, he said to them again, “Peace be with you.” And then he got to it:

“’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Now that they had a better grasp on just what Jesus meant when he said, “As the Father has sent me…” I wonder how they felt about the daunting, “So I send you.” But he wasn’t done. He was not only sending them, but also equipping them with the only power they would need, the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament records two occasions on which Jesus’ followers receive the Holy Spirit. The better known is at Pentecost, when a sound like a mighty wind fills the house where they are praying, and flames seem to alight on each one, and suddenly they have spiritual gifts and abilities they didn’t have before. That’s how Luke tells it in Acts. In the Fourth Gospel, John says they receive the Spirit directly from the Risen Christ on Easter night. No fifty-day wait. Right here, right now. He breathes upon them; the Spirit is given.

In the Genesis creation story, the Spirit of God breathes upon the waters in the beginning. This ruach, Spirit-wind or breath of God, also fills the mud creature Adam with life. So Jesus, in breathing the Spirit upon his followers, is re-creating them, making them anew – no longer just disciples who followed him in faith, but now apostles equipped to bear witness to their risen Lord. Not only will they carry within themselves the power that created all things, they will also have the spiritual authority to forgive sins. They can release, or they can retain. (I’m not sure when it’s appropriate to retain someone’s sin – perhaps in cases of extreme non- repentance. All I know is Jesus forgave an awful lot.)

Are you aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in you? That gift Jesus gave his disciples has come down to us, through faith enacted in the rites of the church. Are you conscious of the spiritual authority you have to forgive or retain? It’s not only clergy who can forgive – it’s all saints, you and me.

What if the Church really took up its ministry of forgiveness of sin – not mindlessly, but thoughtfully, lovingly? How many people do you know who carry a burden of guilt around with them that we could help ease? It’s not our own forgiveness we declare, but that of God, through God’s Spirit in us.

Jesus was sent to set humanity free. Now he sends us to participate in that mission, and he breathes upon us his Holy Spirit. Take a deep breath in…. hold it, let it expand in you…. Feel the life of God fill you. And then exhale, breathing God’s forgiving love out upon someone else (even yourself..). And then do it again. And again.

4-18-17 - Peace Be With You

Time is very elastic in our gospels. Each one spends about half its pages on the three years of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching, miracles, and exploits. When we get to his final days, we slow down considerably, spending several chapters on the events of his suffering and death. And then we get to the Sunday of the Resurrection – and we really slow down, with whole chapters devoted to just that one day, that first day of the week, that First Day of our new lives.

The church will spend the next several Sundays exploring that one day, a day that began in the dark, when some women hurried to the tomb to do for Jesus’ body what Sabbath laws forbade them to do on Friday afternoon. The day went from sad to joyful and bizarre as they were met at the now-empty tomb by an angel (or two) announcing that Jesus is risen. And then there he is, right there on the road in front of them, saying, “Tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee,” a message which has always struck me as laughably prosaic from someone who’s just been to hell and back…

In church, we don’t get to linger on that Easter morning because by the next Sunday we’ve jumped to that evening. We find that Jesus’ disciples have not gone to Galilee as instructed, but are holed up in a room – presumably the one where they’d celebrated the Passover a few nights earlier, a lifetime ago:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (This week's gospel is here.)

“Peace be with you.” I can imagine many emotions those men and women probably experienced that day, and none of them involve peace. Here they are, trying to process the cosmic developments they’ve witnessed, hiding in a locked room because the threat to their lives has just intensified. And here is Jesus, just suddenly there, despite the doors shut and locked? “Peace be with you?”

But Jesus doesn’t only say, “Peace.” He can impart peace. This is the man whom they saw still a violent storm and calm a violent man. This is the friend they watched endure torture and ridicule and betrayal and a horrible death. When Jesus says, “Peace,” he carries the power to generate it. It worked on them – soon they are rejoicing.

How would you feel if you were one of those followers?
Today you might read through this passage and play it out in your imagination, with you at that table… what do you feel? What do you want to ask Jesus? What does he answer?
Do you feel his presence with you, both “there” in the scene in your imagination, and “here,” with you as you pray? Might you invite his peace to spread through you?
What happens when you pray that way?

I believe Jesus invites us to rejoice, no matter what’s going on in our lives. He speaks peace to us too, and as we let his presence live in us, we begin to feel that peace spreading through our minds and our bodies and our spirits. That is one way that Easter becomes real for us.

4-15-17 - Holy Saturday: Joseph of Arimathea

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. 

Joseph of Arimathea: Am I to have the last word, then? I, who am most on the edges of this story? Even my friend Nicodemus, who helped me prepare Jesus' body for burial, even he has his own chapter in the tale. But what do you know about me?

That I am a rich man, rich enough to have my own tomb set aside, waiting for my death. That I come from Arimathea – a place you’ve never heard of, a village in the hill country of Ephraim, in Judea, 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. That I am a prominent member of the Council, the Jewish leadership, like Nicodemus. That I was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because, unlike my Lord, I was afraid of what my brethren on the Council would do to me if they knew what I believed. Who I believed in. I was not ready to lose my position, my livelihood, my life. I was not ready to die.

But I can offer what I can offer. That’s all any of us can do. I had a tomb, and Jesus’ broken, bloodied body needed a place of rest. I had the connections to approach Pilate and get permission to take Jesus’ body away from that place of skulls. I had the means to provide the proper linens and spices for burial, so that Jesus’ body in death would receive the care it never had in life. I offered what I could. What can you offer?

God never asks us to give something we don’t have… and among all that we do have, there is much that can advance God’s mission of restoration and renewal in this world. What might you give?

Today, offer the gift of time and worship - if you are in the DC area, please come to our Great Vigil of Easter at St. Columba’s. It is a magical, mysterious, multi-media experience that takes us from the shadows of death into the light of Life. (4201 Albemarle Street, NW, Washington DC) Bring bells!

4-14-17 - Good Friday: Mary of Magdala

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus.

Mary of Magdala: My name is Mary. I’m from Magdala. I’m one of those women, one of those who followed Jesus from Galilee and helped take care of him and the disciples.

This man, this man they killed today? This man healed me. He set me free from the worst kind of bondage you can imagine. He cast out seven demons from me, who were torturing me. I didn’t think I’d ever get free of those voices, the constant chatter inside, telling me how worthless I was, how I’d be better off dead. He gave me back my life.

After that he was my life. I would have followed him anywhere. He was my Lord. So following him and tending to his needs and those of his disciples – what else could I do? The only thing that made sense now was serving him. He set me free, you see, and all I wanted to use my freedom for was to serve him.

That’s how it was for all of us – this motley collection of people who had been set free – from demons, from sin and degradation, some from blindness, crippling diseases; some from despair and loneliness and meaningless lives; some from greed and lust. Just a bunch of people who love him because of what he did for them. Fairly selfish kind of love, when you think about it. But it was real, it was real when you were with him. He made it real. He made us all able to love in a way we didn’t naturally know. (Pause.) And now he's gone.

So... now we have to bury him. I hear some guy from the Sanhedrin has given him a tomb. We’ll have to see to it. I guess it’s too late now to anoint him before the Sabbath begins. We’ll have to do it first thing Sunday morning…

I’d better find the others and see where they’re taking him.

Understanding what Jesus has given us helps to deepen our devotion to him. That can be easier when our spiritual story has a before/after conversion aspect. But even those of us who have grown up in this faith can discover who Jesus is to us, and uncover our deep need for the healing only he can bring. For Mary it came through redemption from spiritual bondage and emotional pain. What is it for you?

Wherever you are on that journey of discovery, whether or not you feel the freedom Mary and others experienced in Jesus’ love, pause today in prayer to give thanks for what is possible, and invite the Holy Spirit to make that knowledge more real and specific for you. That’s why we call this Good Friday.

4-13-17 - Maundy Thursday: Peter of Galilee

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. 

Simon Peter of Galilee: I know what you’re thinking – a tough guy like me? Crying like a baby? But I couldn’t help it. After what I did… after what I didn’t do? He told me, you know? He said one of us was going to betray him and we were all going to deny we knew him, and I said, “Oh, no, Lord, I’ll never deny you! Even if I have to die with you!”

But he told me, he knew, that before the cock crowed twice this morning, I would. And he was right. I was worthless to him! I couldn’t even stand it for an hour. I couldn’t even stay awake with him last night, I couldn’t defend him…

But I guess he didn’t want us to fight. He said it had to happen this way. This, from a guy with power and authority like you’ve never seen. And this man, last night, got down on his knees and washed our feet (John 13:1-11). Like a servant. Like a slave. He knelt down in front of me with this basin and started to wash my feet. I pulled them back! The idea of him, touching my feet! My feet… my feet are filthy. They smell like the oldest, ripest piece of cheese you left lying around your kitchen for too many weeks. They’re caked in mud and dirt and God knows what. They’ve got sores…

But he said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” Okay, then, I said, but don’t stop with my feet. Wash my hands and my head too! But he just said, no, I was clean. And then he washed my feet like they were babies, like they were precious. He washed my feet like he loved them, and me along with them.

Everything he’d ever said made sense right then, because he loved me so much. I don’t understand it. I’m loud, crude, ornery, always charging in without thinking… but he loves me. There’s nothing I’ve done to make it so. I betrayed him tonight, as much as Judas. I ran like a coward. I lied about him, three times. (Matthew 26:69-75)

But just now, they brought him out and as he passed, he looked at me. He knew what I had done, but he looked at me with those eyes that see everything, and he still loved me. No matter what I do. It’s an amazing thing. And I’ll tell you something, that is love I’d die for.

So, how are you at receiving love and care from others?
It’s tricky, this giving and receiving thing – Jesus implies we have to be equally good at both.
Who do you let get close to you, close enough to see your flaws and blemishes? 
 Who lets you show them love? How does it feel? Would you withhold that feeling from another?

Tonight, if you’re at a service that includes footwashing, are you going to let someone wash your feet? I hope so – and as that person is giving you that gift, imagine it is Jesus. And when you wash another’s feet, know that it is Jesus’ feet you are washing. And then you’ll “have a part” with him.

4-12-17 - Holy Wednesday: Judas

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus.

Judas Iscariot: I know, I’m the bad guy in all this. “How could you do it?” they all ask. And he asked… “With a kiss? Did you have to betray me with a symbol of love and friendship?” But what did he want? He as good as made me do it – he said, at dinner, “What you have to do, do it quickly.” He knew. I’m just a pawn in all this. But no one’s going to understand that, are they? I’m the bad guy. The one.

You’re wondering why I would betray him, why betray someone who showed me so much love and acceptance. But, you see, it wasn’t about him. In the end it couldn’t be about him – it had to be about the work, right? Feeding the poor, empowering the weak, kicking out the Romans. Revolution.

“The Kingdom of God is coming,” he said. Bring it on! We had that parade into Jerusalem and the crowd was all worked up, shouting hosanna. That must have given the Romans a thing to think about. Then he kicked butt up at the temple, giving it to those collaborationist Jewish leaders … it was great.

But then he slowed down again – telling these weird stories that hardly made sense. We were wasting so much time. And there was the thing at that dinner in Bethany, where this woman, Mary, emptied like a whole bottle of really expensive perfumed oil on his head. We could have fed a whole village for a month with what that cost! But he defended her. “She’s preparing me for death,” he said, like that was supposed to make sense. All this death stuff all the time, and he wasn’t even fighting it.

All of a sudden he thought he was more important than the poor? I mean, he was completely out of touch. What was I supposed to do, sit back and watch the whole think unravel? We need a revolution. We need justice. I couldn’t just turn my back on…

But I don’t expect you to understand. And you should know – I gave the money back!

So, who is Judas? Traitor? Zeolot? Freedom fighter? God’s patsy? Can you relate to him on any level?

Today, let’s pray for the Judases in our lives, and in ourselves. If we have free will, so do they… and wholeness must be possible for them too.

For a beautiful take on Judas that emphasizes the enormity of God’s grace, listen to U2’s “Until the End of the World,” which imagines a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Concert version; Official video (clearer lyrics, dumber visuals…) 

4-11-17 - Holy Tuesday: Caiaphas, the High Priest

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus.

Caiaphas: I’m the chief priest this year. I’m not going to take up much of your time. I just think it’s important you hear from one of us before you judge too harshly. I know we come off badly here – this guy was a much-loved rabbi, after all. He taught some truth, I’ll grant you, and he does seem to have had amazing powers. He did much good, you’ll get no argument from us on that score.

But he was a troublemaker. His following got too large, and when the crowds are too big, the Romans start nosing around. We go to a lot of effort to keep the Romans focusing attention elsewhere. This guy and his followers – they were putting all of us at risk.

That sounds self-serving, isn’t it? I don’t want you to think we were just trying to protect ourselves. I know that’s what some of his followers are saying, but that’s not really it. Much more important is this: the claims this Jesus made about himself were blasphemy. You don’t go around saying you’re the son of God and have the power to forgive sins! You just don’t. Only God can do that – and if God were to show up in the temple as a human being, don’t you think he would have let us, the guardians of the Torah know about it?

This Jesus has no regard for the law, God's holy truth. You don’t go changing the rules whenever you like. The law is a sacred gift of God to our people. And God gave the care and protection of this law to us. Not to some itinerant rabbi who thinks he’s the Messiah! He gave it to us, and it’s our job to make sure the law is kept and that it is preserved for our children and our children’s children.

Do you understand? That’s all I want, for you to see it from our point of view…

So, where do Jesus’ claims conflict with your understanding of the way things “should” be?
How does he rub you the wrong way?
And when have authorities misunderstood and judged you? Have you been able to forgive them?

Today in prayer, we might draw near to Jesus and stand with him as he is condemned at this false trial… and maybe draw near to those who sought to silence him. They need our forgiveness too…

4-10-17 - Holy Monday: Mary of Bethany

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. Today's Gospel: John 12:1-11

Mary of Bethany:

I know it was a very intimate thing to do, even scandalous. You should have seen my sister Martha’s face when I poured a whole pound of pure nard on Jesus’ feet! But Jesus was like my brother. I mean, he was my Lord, but I also loved him like I loved my own brother. It just seemed the most natural and full way to honor him before he… before he, you know…

How did I know he was going to die soon? It wasn’t because he said so. I just felt it. After Lazarus’ death, when Jesus… raised him… I just stood at that tomb and was filled with a knowing: “Before too long we will have to bury the Teacher.” It was like I saw into his spirit, and I knew he would be taken from us. He said it often enough; we just didn’t want to believe him. I knew at the Passover he would go to Jerusalem, even though it was dangerous for him there.

This might be the last time he was in our home. I had bought the nard thinking we would need it to anoint him after his death; I didn’t want them using anything cheap on him. I took all the money I’d gotten from the clothes I made and sold. I wanted the best for him. But that night I looked at him in the flickering light, as we all sat at the table after the meal, talking and talking, as we always did… and I thought, “No, this shouldn’t be for him after his death. Why waste it then? He should be honored like this in life.” And that was it; I just got up and took the jar and broke it and poured it all over his feet, the whole thing, everything for him.

“Oh the waste!” they cried, Judas leading the charge. “This could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor!” Oh, they laid into me. Well, of course it could have. But that wasn’t the point that night. The point was to honor Jesus, to give him comfort and love and protection because we would not be able to protect him from what was ahead...

It was shocking to hear him say it so bluntly, that we wouldn’t always have him with us. I still don’t think they really heard him, or understood. But he let me know I had done the right thing, as wrong as it seemed to everyone else there. Seems he was always having to defend me. But this was one time I could show love to him.

He was going to lay down his life for us. I didn’t know what would happen after that. He had talked about being raised on the third day. He had said something to Martha at the tomb about being the resurrection and the life, and “Do you believe this?” But I didn’t know what would be.

But now I do know, and I ask you: was my action any more “wasteful” than the Son of God pouring out his life for the likes of me? For those who wouldn’t even recognize the gift?

Mary’s act of devotion and worship is unbelievably extravagant, seemingly wasteful. She held nothing back. Do you ever feel that toward Jesus… maybe toward someone else in your life?
The time you are spending now is precious to God… and as we give this, we can begin to look at what we’re holding back and release that too.

4-7-17 - Hosanna

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’"

It continues to amaze us in this story that the same throng who laud Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem could a few days later call with equal ardor for his crucifixion. It’s not so surprising – anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows how quickly strong and seemingly incompatible emotions can pass through us in swift succession. “I love so-and-so!” “I can’t stand so-and-so!” “I’ll die if you don’t let me go to that concert!” “I’m never leaving my room!”

Okay, but weren't those are supposed to be adults in the crowd? Yet any rational behavior we might expect from a group of adults (perhaps unrealistic in itself; I'll stop there…) is neutralized by the Crowd Effect – which can quickly become mob rule. Something happens to human beings in crowds; normal inhibitions and rational thinking can be overcome by fervent emotion, which can quickly grow destructive. We see it in stadiums, where excitement about a team can turn into a murderous rampage.

And when you add a threat to people’s security, it’s not difficult to see how this crowd turned on Jesus. The temple authorities not-so-subtly suggested that Jesus’ continued activity and renown would awaken the wrath of the Romans, and all their Jewish subjects would suffer. “…It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish,” said the high priest Caiaphas. Anyone who had witnessed Roman oppression would do much to avoid a repeat occurrence.

In a way, the “crucify him!”s are easier to understand than the adulation when Jesus entered Jerusalem. The chant of the crowd explicitly acknowledges Jesus’ Messiahship as the Son of David. People put their own cloaks on the ground, presumably so the feet of the donkeys’ bearing the holy cargo wouldn't have to touch the ground. Those who shouted “Hosanna!” were putting their trust in Jesus. When they saw him a few days later, in custody, beaten, seemingly powerless, perhaps their sense of trust felt betrayed, which fueled their rage.

Christians the world over will participate in the re-telling of this story on Palm Sunday, asked to join the crowd in both the hosannas and the calls for execution. I suspect many have trouble relating to both cries. We’re too familiar with the Jesus story to feel the excitement of recognizing the Messiah, and perhaps too removed from oppression to feel a strong need for a savior; to call for his death is bewildering. Where do you locate yourself between those positions?

Consider praying your way through the whole story before Sunday (Matthew 26:14- 27:66), being attentive to where you respond, who you relate to as it unfolds. Can you find in yourself that impulse to praise Jesus for who he is to you? If you feel he’s a stranger, if you’re one of the curious in the crowd, you might ask him to show you who he is.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shouted, something many of us sing every week in the eucharist. If you feel Jesus has blessed you, tell him. See what that opens up.

4-6-17 - Who Is This?

Every once in a while I come across a news item about some reality or sports star I’ve never heard of, who has gained some notoriety, or picked up another million or so Twitter followers – and I go, “Who the heck is that?” Evidently that’s how some people on the edges of that crowd hailing Jesus with palm branches and “Hosanna!”s felt:

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?’"The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

Some in the crowd recognized him as the Christ, the Messiah. Many assumed that the Messiah would have a military mission, liberating them from the hated Romans as their forebears had been liberated from Egyptian domination. A greater majority probably saw Jesus as a prophet, for only a prophet sent from God could do the kind of miracles Jesus was doing, and speak with the authority with which he spoke. It was a big deal to be regarded as a prophet – but to be seen as Messiah? That was less likely.

The proportions in that crowd may be similar to the way Jesus is seen in the world today. To many he is a prophet. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and other traditions, as well as some atheists and agnostics, see him as an important world religious figure of inestimable influence. I suspect some who claim the title “Christian” also view him this way, as an important moral teacher and prophet, but not divine. Baha'i see Christ as divine, though not in quite the same way as Christians do. To credal Christians, though, and to some in that crowd that day, Jesus was more than prophet. He had been revealed as Lord, Adonai, the long-awaited Deliverer.

Many people in our own day still say, when they hear of Jesus, “Who is this?” It is our privilege to make the introductions, to say who we have experienced Jesus to be. We can also be sure people hear of Jesus. We don’t have to spout a party line or to tell other people’s stories – we can speak out of our own experience, and out of our tradition.

This time in our church year, when we mark Holy Week and Easter, is a particularly good time to tell our stories and make our introductions – invite people to come and experience the story for themselves on Palm Sunday, to hear the scope of God’s love for humanity at the Great Vigil of Easter, to soak up the celebration and joy on Easter Sunday.

And if our experience of Jesus is limited to what we’ve heard or read; if we’re still asking “Who is this?” ourselves, then we can ask him to make himself real to us in a new way this year, so that we can receive - and share - the gift more fully.

Wherever we find ourselves in this story, I hope we will share the ministry of that donkey – to bear Christ into the crowds, humble and patient, lifting him up for all to see, getting him to the places he needs to be in order to transform the world.

4-5-17 - God Provides

As Jesus moved through his final days in this life, many details seemed to be supernaturally pre-arranged. Twice he sends out disciples to take care of needs, adding a mysterious element – “Go to x, do y, and if anyone asks you, here’s what you say…” When they need a room in which to celebrate the Passover feast, it’s very “cloak and dagger” - “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.”

And here, when the need is for a donkey, the disciples sent are also told what signs to look for: 
"Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately.’”

How did Jesus know they will find a donkey as soon as they enter the next village? And that the donkey’s owner will respond affirmatively to the notion that “the Lord” needed the animals? That means he was someone who knew Jesus to be Adonai, the Lord, not just Master and Teacher.

In the Bible,we find a principle at work: that God provides what God needs to accomplish God’s mission, whether it’s stables, rooms, loaves and fish, donkeys – or tombs. AND we see that God relies upon human beings to collaborate in that mission if it is to bear fruit. Theoretically the man with the donkeys could have refused, or asked a fee, or the man with the guest room say, “It’s already rented.”

Can you think of a time when you’ve received provision unexpectedly as you went about God’s work? I bet that’s a story to tell… who needs to hear it?

And how would you respond if something as precious as livestock or a car were asked of you? 
Think back… What have you given for God’s use? What have you held back?
What do you sense God asking you to lend at this time in your life? Time? Family? A skill or talent? A house, or money? I’m not asking what you have to offer – I’m asking what you sense the Holy Spirit asking for. It could be that there isn’t anything… or it could be that we need to inquire, to offer, to make ourselves receptive to the request.

Think about it: God tied himself in with human beings a long time ago, at least in the Story we have (maybe God has a whole other story going with wolves or pigeons or bees…). God created the world without help, and then created humankind to help tend the whole enterprise. And even after that little initiative ran into trouble, God continued to rely upon people - upon the movement of patriarchs, and the voices of prophets, and the hands and feet of apostles to spread God’s message and reveal God’s power. It’s an intricate relationship between us and the Holy Spirit at work in us – and it is how God will to continue to reveal God’s self in the world until he has restored all things to wholeness.

Which makes me wonder how much more whole things would be if we all offered our donkeys and extra rooms and special gifts as generously as the unnamed people in our stories did. What you got?

4-4-17 - The Donkey(s)

This is why it’s good to really spend some time with a passage. You notice all kinds of things that you often miss. Like, a donkey and a colt? Which was it?

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.’”

This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

He sat on them? That’s a stretch, to say the least! Now, maybe we can chalk this up to Matthew’s penchant for tying every event he can to an Old Testament prophecy, no matter how far a reach (ba-dum-bum...) Mark and Luke each speak only of a colt, singular. Or maybe Matthew wants to be sure we get the connection to kingship, at the risk of absurdity. This ride of Jesus’ is not a mere victory lap – it is the entry of a king into his capital. But this is a king so humble, he not only rides upon a donkey, but even upon its foal.

We don’t always associate monarchy with humility, but they merge in so many stories of Jesus’ earthly life, from his birth in a rough-hewn animal shelter to his traveling company of fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors. In fact, it’s not the humility that is hard to locate in this story – it’s the kingship. The royal gifts presented by the magi, the defensive measures of King Herod, and ultimately the crown of thorns - these disclose Jesus’ true nature, a monarch disguised as a commoner. That is why the epistle reading for Palm Sunday is always the hymn about Jesus found in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Unless we really think about where the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, came from, it can be hard to grasp just how dramatic a lowering of status he endured, consenting to be bounded in a human body, in time and space, to be subject to the care and cruelties of limited human beings. (Matthew West and Vince Gill sing a song I like, called Leaving Heaven, which flips the perspective…)

Today in prayer let’s try exalting Jesus, even imagining him in the courts of heaven or a throne room, whatever those might look like for you. And then let’s imagine ourselves there with him. What feelings come up in you? Do you want to praise him? Flee from that presence? Go nearer? Go with the feelings, pray into them.

The divine reality we celebrate is that the God who made everything loved us so much, he decided to come into our earthly reality to woo us, to court us, to come and sit with us. Maybe that other colt is meant for you, for me, to ride along next to him, to the cross and beyond, into Life.

4-3-17 - To Jerusalem

How to focus Water Daily the next two weeks? The Gospel for Palm Sunday is the whole Passion story, and the following week it’s Easter. But I don’t want us exploring the empty tomb while we’re still in Holy Week; that’s like peeking at the last page while you’re still in chapter 5. This week we’ll do the “other” Gospel story for next Sunday, the story of the palms for which the day is named, which we dispense with after the first ten minutes of the service.

So… onward, to Jerusalem, where the week begins with Jesus’ riding in triumphantly, lauded by crowds, and goes horribly, horribly wrong, ending with his brutal crucifixion. Jesus had been saying for some time that he must go to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, tried and executed. Earlier, Pharisees had warned him to avoid Jerusalem, because Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus responded,

“Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” - Luke 13:32-35

The people of Israel had a funny relationship to their prophets. They revered them – and frequently sought to have them killed because they didn’t like their messages. Those messages veered between, “You’d better, or else…” or “It’s too late; you’re in trouble..” Amidst those, however, we can hear another kind of message from God: “I love you. I want so much for us to be together. If you might only do what you promised, honor me, honor each other…” But the people never could. How could they relate to such a fearsome God?

Philip Yancey offers an analogy to the incarnation in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew – he talks about how the fish in his fish tank regarded him with terror, even though he fed them faithfully, and kept their water clean and chemically balanced. His interventions seemed to them like destruction, and they fled to their hiding places whenever he came near. “To my fish I was a deity. I was too large for them, too incomprehensible.” He thought one day, “I would have to become a fish and ‘speak’ to them in a language they could understand.”

Only, it turned out that even when God came among us in a form like ours, those who were deeply invested in the old ways, who had gained power by fostering people’s fear of God, weren’t any more receptive. This prophet, too, must be silenced, eliminated.

How do you think you would have regarded Jesus in his earthly time? Would you have been drawn to his miracles and messages, or put off? Would you have gone to him for healing or forgiveness? Would you have been unsettled by the threat to good order he represented, or thrilled that at last deliverance from oppression might be at hand? With what aspect of Jesus do you most easily connect? Least?

Knowing how we most naturally connect to Jesus can help us strengthen the relationship, and balance it. And there’s no wrong answer, even if we identify with the Pharisees. We know Jesus forgave them too.