The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
March 25, 2018
St. Philip’s, Voorhees College
“Hosanna.” Is it a cheer or is it a prayer? Is it a proclamation or a plea?
I had a strange experience some years ago when I walked into a store the week before Palm Sunday. I was in clerical garb. The clerk at the register said hello. We had met before and in fact had had several conversations. Then, all of a sudden, as if my priestly dress triggered something in him, he exclaimed, “Oh no, we have that long service this Sunday. That whole dang Passion Gospel gets read.” “Dang” was not the word he used.
All kinds of thoughts and feelings whirled around inside of me. Many were rather judgmental of him and I was working real hard not to come off that way in my response. But I was so surprised and caught off guard I wasn’t sure of what to say. So all that came out was, “Robert! (not his name) What is all of that about?” To which he replied, “I’ve heard that thing 50 or more times in my life. I know what it says.” Still taken aback, all I could reply was, “Think how many times I have heard it and read it. I always feel like I need to hear it again.” The response from him this time was, “Maybe that’s why you do what you do and I do what I do.” At those words some others walked into the store and our conversation ended.
Yet the conversation continued in my head and heart and I was full of questions. Where was Robert in his life of faith? After all, I was glad he even went to church. How might I have responded differently or more helpfully? Where was God in that exchange? What did God expect me to do with it? Was God trying to teach me something? Was I to have another conversation with Robert that followed up on this one? One of my imaginary tapes plays it back in my head with the response, “Robert, maybe the reason the reading of the Passion feels like drudgery to you, an unnecessary lengthening of the service, is that even though you say you’ve heard it 50 times before, in fact you’ve never really heard it, at least not deeply.”
Would that be too confrontational? Perhaps I’d be wrong. I do remember, however, a time in a nursing home celebrating the Eucharist. When it came time to administer communion I came to an elderly woman in a wheel chair as tears were quietly running down her cheeks. As she sat there, hands extended, I asked, “Are you okay?” She said, “Yes, I am fine. It’s just that after all these years, I think I just heard the words for the first time.”
So I know – that’s one reason why we need to rehearse the events of this most holy of weeks over and over again. It is not that it is merely a story that we hear year after year and have all the facts and events clear in our brain. It is so that we would hear the invitation to enter the story ourselves and know, perhaps anew, that it is OUR story, and God’s story in us. Because we are different each year and bring different realities of our own life to God’s table, the story changes every time we encounter it. We can discover with Andrew of Crete, writing in the 8th century: “It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not our coats or lifeless branches of palm, matter which wastes away. But we have been clothed with Christ’s grace. He rides into Jerusalem for us, so let us spread ourselves under his feet.”
Thus we shout, “Hosanna,” which means by the way, “Save us, we beg of you!” We do so stating our own willingness to follow Jesus through the suffering and death of his Passion. It is the very meaning of our baptism into Christ: To be united with him in a death like his in order to be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6). Is there any one of us who cannot appreciate the whole scene played out before Jesus as he moves toward execution: the buzz of the crowd; the excitement of the people who hope beyond hope that he would save them from the oppression of the Roman political system; all the violent methods of control and economic poverty that worked to keep people captive? And after the shouts of “Hosanna” have stopped, perhaps the last human voices on earth he would hear to express their hope in him and his way of love and mercy, it all gives way not long after to the starkly different shout of “Crucify him, crucify him.” Be rid of him and his dangerous voice of truth challenging those who have cast their lot with the empire.
We dare to gaze at him on the Cross, which is part of our Holy Week invitation, to be confronted by his loneliness, to recognize deeply his suffering, because there we witness our own suffering and pain: the loss of a stricken family member or a broken relationship; the horrors of Syria and her children; the ravages of the epidemic of gun violence in our land; the wanton disregard of all those who we as a culture sometimes choose not to see or cast aside; the patterns of racism that remain imbedded in every part of our society; and dare I say it – words of violence cavalierly thrown about in our political arena. And what does Christ do in return? From the Cross he offers nothing but love and makes it the means of new life for all. If we dare to face life with the One who hangs on that Cross, we face it, in the end, with hope.
Of course I know now, at least in part, what was going on in that store. Oh yes, it was God all right. But God wasn’t calling on me to be concerned about Robert. God’s invitation was to Skip and likewise all of you. Will you merely read of his Passion one more time, one of many gone by, one of many yet to come? Or will you today, one more time, receive the life of Jesus and in turn give him your life? “Hosanna!” is our cry. Save us O God, we beg of you.
Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
I returned this past weekend from a very rich week meeting with the House of Bishops at Camp Allen, the Episcopal conference center in the Diocese of Texas. Our focus all week was evangelism, especially our role as bishops in presenting the Good News of Jesus. I found our time inspiring and hopeful as we continue to engage, in the words of our Presiding Bishop, our loving, liberating and life-giving God as revealed to us in the person of Jesus the Christ.
There were several written pieces that I want you to know about that are attached by the links shown below in this note from me:
First is a letter sent to the bishops from Philip and April Schentrup, the parents of Carmen, an Episcopalian young person who died in the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Carmen was very active in her Episcopal parish and attended youth events at Kanuga. I commend that letter to you for your reflection and prayer.
Not as a direct response to the Schentrup’s, but certainly as a part of our national conversation, please see the unanimously adopted statement on gun violence from the bishops. Regardless of your positions, it is hard to argue that this conversation must not happen. The letter is specifically in support of the young people of our beloved country who are seeking a conversation of substance in the face of the continual sweeping of the issues of cultural violence in the United States under the rug. In addition, I invite you to join me on March 24 for the “March for Our Lives” event. We will gather in Riverfront Park, North Charleston at 3:30 p.m.
Lastly, I call your attention to the bishops' statement on sexual harassment and gender bias. Once again, it was adopted unanimously. I believe the statement speaks for itself. Also know that I as we are one of the owning dioceses of Sewanee, the University of the South, I was a signatory to the letter from the bishops to the Board of Regents regarding their action not to rescind the honorary degree offered to Charlie Rose.
Regarding all of the above, I hope you can see that these letters and statements are not political statements from the bishops, although they may have political implications for some. They are perspectives born in what we (I) believe are matters of faith as disciples of Jesus. They bear Gospel values to which we believe we must not be silent, or we remain complicit.
Also know that, it is my perspective that I will not seek to comment on every issue, action or world event that comes to my attention. Nor will the House of Bishops. There are times, however, that circumstances call for our voice so that faithful and loving conversation can be had, even and perhaps especially when we might honestly disagree.
Blessings and peace to all in Christ Jesus,
Trinity Sunday: May 27, 2018
Imagine we are playing the game “Jeopardy.” The column is “Church Trivia” for $500. The answer is: “The only day of the church year named for a doctrine rather than a person or event.” The question is: “What is Trinity Sunday?” Today we focus on the Trinity, the grand mystery of a way in which we talk about God’s nature as three persons yet still one in substance.
There is a playful story about St. Augustine who wrestled for years with trying to understand God as three yet one. Walking on a beach on the Mediterranean one day, he noticed a boy digging a hole. Coming up to the boy Augustine asked what he was doing. The boy said he was trying to get the sea into the hole. Augustine said in response that was impossible to which the boy replied, “Well, you’ll never explain the Trinity either.”
So you will be relieved to know that I am not going to attempt to explain the Trinity today, but I do want us to have an experience of the Trinity, so allow me to tell you of an account of the creation written by Rabbi Marc Gellman from his book, Does God Have a Big Toe. The story as he tells it goes this way:
“Before there was anything there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling gob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, ‘Why don’t you clean up this mess?’” Gellman then colorfully retells every stage of the creation process. After each step an impatient angel asks, “Is the world finished now?” and God eloquently replies, “Nope.” Finally God creates a man and a woman and asks them to “finish up the world for me…really, it is almost done.” They object, pleading, “We are too little and only you O God know the plans.” But God reassures them, “If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”
Then God describes the partnership this way: “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.”
This time, when the angels asked if the world was finished, God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.” That’s what all of us were baptized into and what all of us are reminded of again today. We are born from above by the Spirit and thereby drawn into a partnership to finish the world with God and to live on this earth in a manner that reflects that relationship. Why? “For God so loved the world…”
When we speak of God as three, we recognize that the very nature of God is partnership, a community. And note that Augustine did say, most helpfully I think, that, “any time you see love you see the Trinity.” This community we call the Trinity is in a perpetual conversation of love so that when we pray, what we are doing is joining a conversation of love that has been and is going on within God throughout all eternity. In this way the creation itself can be understood as a manifestation of the love found within the Trinity, as the world is spoken into existence by the Creator. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son, joins history as one who continues the conversation on earth and invites us to join in. The Spirit is the conversation planted deep within every human being longing to gain expression in holiness and always leading us back to the eternal conversation of union with God and one another.
In this way the Trinity not only is the locus of a conversation occurring beyond us, the Trinity becomes a story, even our stories, in the context of our own life. Here’s what I mean. I once received a phone call from an intensive care unit nurse on behalf of an out-of-town family who was looking for an Episcopal priest. The family had been on vacation when the 53-year-old father had a heart attack. He was on life support and I walked onto the unit to find a family in deep anguish as I gazed upon the tears and pain of their eyes. I had been thrust into a time of chaos that at the same time I knew was holy and intimate.
After a time of being drawn into the story of how they got to this place and mostly just listening, the woman asked that I give her husband last rites. Looking at her distraught face and the faces of her three sons, I opened the Book of Common Prayer and prayed, “Depart, O Christian soul out of this world; in the name of God the Father Almighty who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.”
Before arriving at the hospital that family and I had no knowledge of each other. A simple request to a nurse and her kind phone call led to being bound at the deepest level in the Trinitarian God as we stood before the great mystery of death – created, restored and made holy. The Trinity is community. The Trinity is story. The Trinity is a great partnership of love. At the Trinity’s table is a seat reserved for us all. And it is from that table we are sent. Partners.
Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018
Jesus was nobody’s fool. St. Paul does say that, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” That is understandable I think – I mean, how can a means of execution that is a sign primarily of death and destruction possibly be an instrument of goodness and love? So yes, the cross may appear as utter foolishness, but Jesus is no fool.
He had a sense of what he was getting into. In our Lenten journey, we continue to walk with him on the way to Jerusalem, the place where he will be lifted high on that shameful instrument of death. Entering the temple and driving out those who were selfishly seeking to profit off of the offerings of the people, overturning tables and challenging the prevailing system of power that destroyed relationships and held up unjust structures – he knew where that might end up.
After all, in response to the question, “What sign can you show us for doing this,” he did say, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” His challengers, in a mistaken literalism, think he means the actual temple structure, but Jesus was of course speaking of the temple of his body.
So what was Jesus up to? As a faithful Jew, he was well versed in the ancient texts, the call of the prophets, and rise of the temple. He would have known that the Commandments delivered to Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai were first and foremost about God’s passionate commitment to all his people and keeping right relationship with God and with one’s neighbor. He understood that the Temple was a sign and symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. Why then the angry outburst and inflammatory words?
It is because the temple and many in support of it forgot why the temple existed. Jesus was not saying the temple had no value. He was saying that the temple had abandoned its purpose as an instrument of God’s compassionate love, mercy and justice for the transformation of the world. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” he warns.
There is a poignant story told by the Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, Canadian Anglican preacher “par excellence,” about an oasis in the desert where people would stop to get water. Each time someone stopped they marked the place with a stone. Over time those stones were shaped into a stunning cathedral, but there was a problem. The building blocked any access to the water. This is the problem Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel as the temple abandoned its purpose to bring life to all God’s people.
Jesus, one more time, is challenging the status quo of his day. The events portrayed by John in this Gospel add one more piece of evidence to those who would be rid of him. It feeds the controversy of whether he was preaching morality or immorality, that he was anti-biblical, and that he did not respect the tradition. And certainly his behavior could lead one to come to that conclusion. He was always doing things that upset the religious establishment: One never knew with whom he would be hanging out next, and was accused often of dining with reprobates and sinners. He constantly challenged theological assumptions. And he was always telling interesting little stories about God. Interesting little stories I say; they were really quite radical. St. Paul might call them foolish, but really they were the power of God.
God’s foolishness you see is a crucified Christ. The idea of a suffering savior was hard to tolerate and it still is. But it is exactly the kind of savior we need and it points to the kind of God we have. Over the last few weeks we have again been assaulted by horrific images of pain and tragedy. Not only in Parkland, Florida, but in Central Michigan where there was another shooting, white nationalist sabre rattling around the country, Atlantic Coast and Northeast storm destruction, nuclear threats from Putin and the United States, and the list goes on. Jesus enters into this pain with us, even taking it on himself. It makes no sense to the rational Greek mind, the wisdom of the wise, nor to the religious looking for signs or displays of miracles.
All Jesus was trying to say is that God loves us, and God’s love and acceptance of us is unconditional and free, bought with the price of his own life. And that is exactly what some people did not want to hear and still don’t. We want conditions. We want people to show they deserve it somehow. Not for ourselves of course, just those others, whoever they are. He kept chiding the religious authorities for being so rigid about their rules that tried to force people to do the “right thing” or be labeled as sinners, as if that was ever going to save anyone. Jesus kept saying God loves you, God loves you, God loves you; your sins are forgiven.
Our call, and the call of Noel as she is confirmed today, is to more clearly reflect God’s vision as seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We promise to support her in this process of transformation, hers and ours, for it is never ending. t is through our presence, by what we do here in and through this temple of St. Alban’s, that we become a part of God’s new creation and serve as instruments of God’s grace, mercy, love and justice, challenging every system or structure of our community and world that keeps God’s people from living the life abundant called forth in Christ. It is why he overturned the tables, it is why he gave his life, it is why we are a church, and it is why we celebrate with Noel.
The Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 3, 2018
At baptism and reaffirmed in Confirmation we, or others on our behalf, vow to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. The English word “lord” is a contraction for “loaf warden,” meaning “keeper of the bread.” This might prompt all kinds of images for us in the faith tradition, from Bethlehem meaning “house of bread,” to Eucharist, to “give us this day our daily bread.” In today’s scriptural context it points to the sovereignty of God as found in Christ, as he “is lord even of the Sabbath.”
We, along with the five confirmands today, recommit our life to the lordship Christ. How do we go about aligning our life with God’s rather than trying to squeeze God into ours? This is the work of what we call discernment. If you can stand another definition, to discern literally means, “to sift.”
Whenever I think of sifting I think of my father. He loved to garden. Across the street from the house where I grew up was a lush woods with deep, moist, dark topsoil as its bed. I loved to watch him push his hands into the soil, lift it up and let it fall between his fingers. It had a sweet, aromatic, earthy fragrance that infused the air around us and drew me into the dust from which I was formed. “Fearfully and wonderfully made” are we. He taught me that the nutrients of that rich black earth were being prepared from the beginning of time for that very moment.
For the gardens of azaleas, boxwoods, figs and roses, however, it needed further sifting. So he built a sifter, welding a large open grid steel cage three feet by four feet mounted on legs into which one could shovel the earth taken by wheel barrel from the woods. A crank on the end would turn the entire contraption and when there were chunks inside that needed further breaking up, there was a second crank handle on the opposite end that rotated an interior forked blade that I would turn when working with him, in order to break up the clumps. As all of this spun on an axis, a very fine mound of soil would build up under the sifter that could be taken to the garden into which the various plant life would be placed and rooted.
It is this work of sifting that we discover in the account of I Samuel today. The boy Samuel heard a voice that he believed was that of Eli, running down the hall to check it out. This happens three times before Eli comes to the awareness that the voice is indeed that of God. Rooted in his own life of prayer and worship, Eli is able to sift out whose voice the boy was hearing. We learn here that discernment must be done with another, in a community, immersed in the tradition that has gone before.
You and I live in a world bombarded by voices of all sorts competing for our attention. Each one is seeking to be lord of our life. These voices clamoring for our attention are the lords of power and domination, retaliation rather than love, conspicuous consumption at the expense of the other, politics without morality, religion without sacrifice, and the list goes on. We make countless decisions each day as to what we are going to give our attention. How do we sift out what is of God and what is not? Is the tingling of our ears consistent with the Good News of the death and resurrection of Jesus, or something else? Perhaps we will even have to break up a clump or two within ourselves along the way, anything that indicates our own heart-resistance to the Spirit’s movement.
Simone Weil has said that “prayer is an act of paying attention.” Our call is to continually mature in faith so that whatever gets our attention falls within the lordship of Christ. We are on this planet first to give glory to God and do what we can to have our spirits awakened to God’s Spirit already residing in us. Or to put it another way, we are here to open our hearts to the conversation of love and mercy that is always going on within the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Do our actions bring peace and foster love? Do we respect the dignity of every human being, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace among all people? Any act of discernment must tend to whether we are manifesting such fruit of the Spirit in shaping our life consistent with our prayer: “thy kingdom come.”
That is what Jesus was doing when he proclaimed in today’s Gospel the incredibly radical awareness that, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Breathtaking! We, the Church, get this wrong all of the time when we forget who is Lord. Just as with the Pharisees, dogma and doctrine end up taking precedence over love. Jesus preached good news that was always challenging boundaries, rules and law, in effect throwing open the doors and shutters to the wind of the Spirit, yet historically we human beings too often spend our time closing it down and restricting that love out of fear that someone, somewhere, just might get something they don’t deserve – like grace and mercy. It was so threatening that the authorities from then on sought to destroy him.
The life of faithfulness can be difficult. It is supposed to cost us something, and many of our Diocese, including some of you, have come to know this truth in new ways over the last few years. St. Paul describes it well in II Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” “We have this treasure in clay jars,” to be sure, yet in the midst of the chances and changes of life, we continually examine which voices will get our attention.
Be the sifter. Receive the richness of what has been placed in you by the Spirit. Awaken to God’s work in us “so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” Listen. Breathe. Keep silence. Hope. Love. For in it all, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.