Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
“Feed my sheep.” We hear these words of Jesus to Peter in a specific context. We are in the midst of our Easter celebration of the Great 50 Days. We hear them in the context, as always, of our personal life situation and whatever we carry in our hearts as we walk through the doors. We hear them in the context of the life of this magnificent Cathedral Church as you continue to fulfill your ministry as a center of prayer, worship and mission in the service of Christ’s people. We hear them in the context of those receiving the laying on of hands from the Bishop, and through the apostolic office reminding all of us of our connection to the Church of all generations, past, present and future, each of us joined to Jesus by our baptism into his death and resurrection.
“Feed my sheep” comes too in the context of today’s readings, where we discover two amazing encounters with the Risen Christ. One is where we find Paul on a business trip riding a horse to the city of Damascus. Along the way his life of violent persecution of Jesus’ followers is challenged. Knocked to the ground and blinded, he was completely undone. His entire worldview died right there and like scales falling from his eyes, he was raised to see a new possibility, a new truth. He is baptized and Christ becomes his new identity.
The other occurs on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, back in Galilee, where the fishermen disciples return to work at their former livelihood after the events of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. They are catching nothing (I hate when that happens), only to come into an amazing abundance of fish when the Risen Jesus shows up and Peter himself, after denying Jesus 3 times during Jesus’ trial, is beautifully restored to the community, healed and forgiven by a 3-time call to love.
Both events speak to God’s power to change lives, to redirect them for God’s purposes on the earth and yes, even our lives, which occasionally get off-track. Yet be aware that what we see in Paul and Peter is not a mere realignment of thoughts and emotions. This is about death to life. This is about liberation. It is about an entire new identity where “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice too that the life-changing events were not only for the benefit of the individuals receiving the gift. Even more it is to bear witness to the work of God for the sake of others, bringing new life into their midst, seeing even in the present moment the new creation, the new heaven and new earth God seeks to make real in his vision of love that ushers in justice, peace and dignity for all people. That’s the business of “feeding sheep.”
Let me tell you of a disciple not unlike Paul or Peter, who in her own life, witnesses to the life of the Risen Christ. Her name is Allouise Story, who does not allow fear or even the status quo define her or her world. Allouise is elderly, widowed, and the only occupant of a magnificent, dazzling white house in the midst of an urban ghetto. Her home has polished oak moldings, furniture covered with plastic – neat and tidy. She’s thought about moving away.
Outside, across the alley, is Doc’s Liquor Store. Patrons are found slouched against tree trunks and get into no-good. This infuriates Allouise. In her house are two pianos and an organ that she plays every day and when the weather is nice, she has the windows open so that music can escape to fill the neighborhood with an alternative sound, a feast of the ears. Outside she sees the children of the street and worries for their future.
She, if anyone, has the right to panic and weep. She has watched the rotting of the neighborhood. But she maintains that house as a sheer act of the will to show that not everything or everyone must succumb to decay or leave the city in order to survive. Her very presence is a symbol of life despite the odds. Ordinarily one might see an elderly woman in the city and think of her as powerless, but not Allouise. She is full of power.
It is said she prays the Lord’s Prayer so clearly and firmly that when she says “Amen” it makes people jump. She fights for good education and good teachers. She maintains the struggle with signs of defeat all around: just like in the Bible events today of no catch of fish, betrayals, acts of violence against people; but, she never descends into self-pity. Allouise sings the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” so powerfully that someone said, “No one should be able to sing it like that.”
When asked why she hasn’t followed up on her plans to move, Allouise responds, “I don’t see it the same anymore. The people outside my windows aren’t my enemies. Gosh, they’re not even my project. They’re God’s beloved children. The Lord says ‘feed my sheep.’ I am his, and this is how he has called me to do it.” Plans change. Paul was on a horse to Damascus. His plans changed. Peter and the apostles were looking to return to what they knew, fishing. Plans changed. Three years ago I thought I was retiring. Again, plans changed. Saying one’s prayer can be dangerous – plans can change if we’re listening. We are all being prepared, just as all of you coming forward are, to be ever more clear of the call to love by feeding the sheep Jesus gives us. Allouise, you, me, we are called to live this truth, to be this truth.
It has been said that the great Easter truth is not so much that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the Resurrection (Philips Brooks, 1893). And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
The Second Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2019
Today in Acts we read, “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” As witnesses we proclaim Christ is risen, exalted by God as “Leader and Savior,” and today we have the great joy of renewing this truth through Barbara and Bonny as they reaffirm their faith.
How might Thomas inform our witness as he is presented to us in today’s Gospel? He refused to believe the testimony of anyone else, even that of his closest friends. Then Jesus appeared to him and Thomas was challenged by Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds still visible in his resurrected body. Thomas yielded with perhaps one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”
But, not so fast. Let’s go back to those wounds. What do we make of the marks of crucifixion on the resurrected body of Jesus? The Gospel writer is seeking to portray the Jesus in the closed up house as the same Jesus who was crucified. That part is clear. I think it’s more than that, however.
One of the glad burdens we are to bear, along with the whole Church, is the one of prayer, interceding for the needs of God’s people locally and around the world. Right now my intercessions, perhaps yours too, are heavy with great need and longing expressed by many. There are a number of folks I am holding before God’s mercy who are struggling with varying stages of cancer. I have been holding in prayer a mother whose son went missing for several weeks. I hold before God places of war and conflict, our parishes and our sad divisions in the Church, suffering children in Myanmar, hopes of justice for refugees fleeing the violence of their countries, the unending attacks on innocent people in the name of religion as in the latest horror in Sri Lanka, and just yesterday in California a killing out of anti-Semitic hatred. You have your list.
These and all so many others you can name are the wounds of the world. Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to touch the wounds on his body is an invitation to stare straight into the woundedness of the world through his wounds. We are not only to enter the world’s pain through our prayer, as important as that is, but Jesus invites us to touch the places of pain, to go where the pain is and confront it, sit with it, cry with it, and bring Christ’s breath of peace, “Shalom,” by our very presence. We do this because the Spirit has breathed on us and we are witnesses.
Today’s Gospel teaches us that it is in solidarity with the world at the margins that we come to the opportunity to believe. We are called to faithfulness not merely when everything is perceived to be okay, but at the place of deepest hurt and longing. There, in Christ’s wounds is the brokenness of the world. We are to be treating the most vulnerable of our world as we would treat Christ himself, not causing harm to those Jesus calls the least of these.
Perhaps Thomas’ proclamation of “My Lord and my God” is not only a statement of faithfulness. Maybe it is also a plea, a crying out of hope against hope that in the midst of the wounds of the world all around us that somehow, even there, we can meet God. The Gospel does indeed want us to understand clearly that the One risen is also the innocent One who was executed. We are being invited to adore him who made himself supremely vulnerable in bearing the brokenness, the sin, of the world. Looking at Jesus, we see the worst that humanity can dish out, and yet believe.
Thomas then is a bridge, a bridge for all future believers, us, who may find it difficult to make the leap from death into resurrection territory. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” The account gives us mistaken turnings, confused demands and puzzled longings. Such is our experience of life. The struggle of faith is not a smooth, level road to perfection. Misunderstanding and a bumpy ride are par for the course. Thomas represents us in our humanity and the Gospel hopes we will identify with him.
And look how Jesus responds. The first thing he does for his companions locked in that room, holed up in death and doom: death by fear; death by guilt; death by alienation; is offer them empowerment and invitation – unconditional, open arms, lavish love, welcoming us to new life and new possibilities.
Rather than savoring alienation, Jesus responds with complete acceptance. Note that he comes into the room with the traditional Jewish formal greeting, “Shalom Aleichem,” “Peace be with you,” shalom not being merely the absence of conflict, but well-being, wholeness, completeness, that encourages one to give back and create just relationships.
Christian community is rooted in that love offered in the upper room that night as it continues to show up in seemingly impossible situations. Alienation is ended. Released from cowering behind locked doors, we are empowered to go forth and be servants of Jesus. We are now set free from all of our locked rooms, whatever they might be, to be God’s person in God’s world, witnesses of the One raised up. Go ahead. Go into the world and face its brokenness with resurrection hope. He’s already there, waiting to receive you with a word of “Shalom,” “Peace be with you.”
Easter Day: April 21, 2019
There is a curious thing about the various biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We hear about an empty tomb, the appearance of angels, linen burial cloths, visits by disciples, women and men. Yet even with all of that, the Easter Gospels, any of them, seem much more interested with what happened to Jesus’ followers than what happened to Jesus. Incredibly, none of the Gospels describe the specific moment of resurrection, even as all of them proclaim in some way “He is Risen!” What I see is that it is in the lives of his followers where we discover that, “…God raised him (Jesus) on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…” (Acts 10:40-41). Today Xavier, in Confirmation, you affirm that you stand with us as a witness.
The Easter story is one of human beings becoming empowered by Christ’s resurrection to find ways out of apparent failure. Then and now disciples find the courage not to stand impotent in the face of systemic evil, not giving into inclinations to betray what we love most. We are being set free, liberated, to overcome all that holds us imprisoned, and living into the promise of hope when we are bombarded by the lies that diminish human beings and refuse to celebrate who God has made us to be. As St. Paul says today, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Corinthians 15:25). It is the story of all of us as we rediscover our deep longing for healing, forgiveness and restoration to fullness of life. It is about real life, life that makes a difference and is deeply connected to God and one another. “Love God. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
The great panorama of the Bible is full of people who share this story. Peter has moved from his act of betrayal to the sermon of faith we heard in Acts today. What happened? The truth is the life you and I live, like Peter’s, is full of betrayal and faith; death and life; absence and presence; emptiness and fullness. What we often experience at first glance as polar opposites are not so at all. Death and life as well as absence and presence are not opposites, but twins. They are a part of one story, our human story, not different stories. We find this is so in John’s Gospel account of the resurrection, noting that absence precedes presence—empty tomb before recognition.
Mary Magdalene comes upon the tomb and the stone is already removed – a kind of absence. “The Lord has been taken from the tomb,” Mary says. Absence. Even when she reports that, “we do not know where they have laid him,” her unknowing is another kind of absence. Then Peter and the other disciple arrive at the absence, yet Peter as the account goes, hesitates before the absence as he gazes in from the outside upon the remnants of the burial clothes. The arranged pile is a gloriously tantalizing hint of presence in the midst of absence.
Then what do Peter and the unnamed disciple do? They go home! I have a fear for myself and all of you, that today, after hearing the greatest Good News of God’s liberating love for all humanity, we will go home and be content with the status quo and the same old way of living for ourselves and the world around us – that nothing will be different.
But, and this is exciting, look at Mary Magdalene. Thanks be to God for her! She dares to return to the absence and through the splendid lens of her tears, a prism to her soul, she recognizes two angels occupying the absence. Now there is presence, the angels and Mary. The conclusion to which I come is that her heart had been nurtured by absence, which became a longing that enabled her to recognize Jesus in the beckoning gardener when he spoke. Love drew here there and it is in love that God’s resurrected Love was recognized. The movement is from fear to love. Then Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!”
Perhaps this is where we start today. Recognizing our fear. Christian faith is honest about that. We name the brokenness of our own life and that of the world. We dare to look straight into it, the tomb of death, that is. We see the violence of our cities, war that continues to devastate children in places like Yemen and Myanmar, the scourge of the new Jim Crow in prison industrial complex, the lack of basic human rights of food, shelter, medical care, right in the midst of the richest country ever to exist, our dear United States.
Yet staring into the tomb of absence, we find that love can break in and is present even there. There is nowhere God is not. It looks like a neat pile of burial clothes. The presence and fullness of God cannot be obliterated, even by death. It can be seen in all the gardeners of the world as well as all the gardens, in all the pain of the world as well as its beauty. And what we discover, perhaps most of all, is that death can never again be the end of the story. Love is.
The resurrection of Jesus as God’s supreme gift signals that the new outpouring of life has begun. Like a row of standing dominos set up in line with each other, it starts a chain reaction that leaves nothing, no-thing, no person, not one part of the creation outside God’s embrace. That includes you Xavier as you come forward for the laying on of hands. All the seeming invincible forces of death, enslavement and separation are extinguished, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).
A place has been prepared for us ALL. Don’t go back to the status quo. God raised Jesus. God raises us, even now. Nurture the power of Christ in you so that you can be a presence of the transforming love of Christ for the sake of the world. The gardener waits to be recognized anywhere and in anyone.
Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
In 1979, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church endorsed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would add to the U.S. Constitution these words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The 76th General Convention in 2009 renewed the Church’s support for the ERA. As a Bishop I was present at that General Convention and voted in favor of the resolution.
As you may know, constitutional amendments require at least three-fourths of the states, 38, to ratify by legislative action before they can be adopted. This year, South Carolina has a historic opportunity to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. A bill has been introduced in the South Carolina House of Representatives, H.3391, for ratification of the ERA, and other legislation is likely to be forthcoming. Many people in our communities, including members of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, are playing important roles in supporting this effort both locally and in the Statehouse in Columbia.
I fully support the Equal Rights Amendment, and I encourage you to learn about it, study the issues carefully and prayerfully, and consider contacting your state Representatives and Senators about legislation to ratify the ERA. Resources for doing so are included at the end of this message.
The Equal Rights Amendment, and all efforts aimed at ending discrimination based on sex, are in keeping with what we believe as followers of Jesus. Genesis 1:26-27 teaches us that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Throughout the Bible, Jesus teaches us about the inherent dignity and worth of every person. As Episcopalians, we promise in our Baptismal Vows to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”
As your Bishop, it is my joy to work among people who are called and committed to seeking justice, combatting oppression, and proclaiming God’s love for every human being. I am grateful for that shared ministry and hold all of you in my prayers as we seek to be witnesses to that love in our communities, our state, and our nation.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
CLICK HERE to read and download information and resources compiled by the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area.
(Audio from Holy Cross Faith Memorial can be found here)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
If all of Scripture were to be lost to us and I could choose only one piece to keep, today’s Gospel is the one I would have remain. I believe it is THE Gospel parable. Let’s do some exploring.
In our readings over the past few weeks and including today, Jesus is consciously and deliberately on his way to Jerusalem, the place of his execution. Along the way he comes upon a group of religious and political leaders in Jerusalem who will not accept a Messiah who works by dying. To be sure, Jesus desires to gather all people under the banner of God’s love, but it is becoming increasingly evident that it will only happen through his death. The human race’s attempt to get its act together has not worked. This is true corporately and individually. The evidence is clear enough by simply gazing at the news or even our own life if we are honest. Our only home is Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the radical forgiveness it offers, for like the lost son in today’s parable, you and I, on our own merit, are no longer worthy to be called son or daughter; although, as we will see, the father begs to differ with that assessment.
Our “lostness” is not the focus of this parable. We can get caught in an inappropriate and overly exaggerated sense of our unworthiness to a degree that it is spiritually damaging, even abusive. I recall a woman some years ago with whom I was doing spiritual direction. She recounted to me that as a child, she would practice going out to the family car and jumping for the steering wheel, for her Christian upbringing had so convinced her of how awful she was, she was convinced that when Jesus returned her parents would be taken by God and she would be left. She had to be prepared to grab the wheel to avoid a horrible accident. That’s spiritual abuse.
Many non-churched people out there think that is what we all believe inside these walls and will never darken the door much less stay. Poll after poll tells us that the primary way Christians are seen by the un-churched world is that we are mostly a people of judgment. Jesus, however, would have us look more closely at the behavior of the father, who is really the focus of the parable. If we read it closely, what we find is that rather than a parable of the prodigal son, the emphasis is on the generous, welcome-home, beyond-all-bounds-and-reason, gracious father.
Look at what happens! When the son who had run off in “dissolute living” found all of his resources depleted and decided his only resort was to make his way home, “while he was still far off,” he hadn’t yet got home, his father “ran to him, put his arms around him and kissed him.” All the father could see was his lost, even dead to him son, and in a moment of completely undignified glee completely inappropriate for a proper first century Jewish man, the father “sprints,” the actual word here for “run,” in absolute, self-abandoned joy. He does this because raising dead sons, or daughters, to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite thing to do.
Somehow, in that incredible moment, the son realizes that being the father’s child is who he is. He is not a hired hand – the father wouldn’t hear of it. The welcome is overwhelming. In the embrace and kiss he discovers that he is a dead son who is alive again, all because the father was willing, out of love, to allow the risk of the possibility that his son would never come back. It can be the hardest thing a parent can ever do, as in when a dear friend of mine recently had to allow her severely addicted daughter to walk away as she watched her daughter’s self-destructive choices ruing her life and that of the family. She never stopped loving, but her heart was breaking, longing for the day when she might welcome her home.
Jesus’ point here I trust you see, is that God is like the father of the story. That’s why the story is really about his behavior. Not until we are confronted by the unqualified gift of someone who died to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession really has little to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Instead, confession is the last gasp, like in the son, that acknowledges and accepts the need for new life. The father had already forgiven the son who was still far off. My friend has already forgiven her daughter and has never stopped loving her. The gift is already there and waiting, looking out the window, longing and waiting for us to come home so that love and kisses and hugs can be offered and the party can begin.
This is the kind of God we have Jesus is telling us. We are forgiven not because we have made ourselves forgivable or even because we have faith. WE ARE FORGIVEN BECAUSE WE HAVE A FORGIVER! The parable reveals the way God is toward everything God has made. My son was dead and is now alive. So just like God, the father throws a party. The story goes right to it. Notice – no testing of behavior first to see if the son means it or has integrated the learning into his life. We see the best robe, best ring, best shoes, best calf – so let’s eat, even if we do have a kill-joy of an older brother who like us sometimes struggles with this kind of life-giving grace. We’re so afraid someone will get something they don’t deserve of haven’t earned.
This is about God’s party of love. It’s all grace! And note it is not cheap. A calf, the best one, is sacrificed for the meal. It costs something, just as it cost Jesus his life and it costs us our life as we place our life on this altar for this Eucharistic meal. We are offering our life to God who welcomes us home, who sprints to meet us in our far off places and even before we get home on our own, embraces us with love and kisses all around. And note here, that the most frequently used word in the NT Greek translated “worship” is “proskuneo,” which means, “to kiss toward.”
The whole Gospel story today turns on the kiss, the kiss extended by God to us even at this table. We dare to approach the Holy Table because we have first been kissed. The kiss does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that God’s radical welcome of you and me is a call to offer our own kiss to the world that so desperately needs it. Kissed by the Christ is who we are.
Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
The Gospel today raises some interesting questions as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus and not merely in passive resignation to what we find swirling around us. As Jesus continues to move toward Jerusalem, the place of his execution, the context reflects the commonly held conviction of the day that illness and misfortune were God’s punishment for sin.
Now, lest we think that this understanding was held only by ancient and unsophisticated people who did not know better, think again. Can we debunk this kind of thinking, at least among us, once and for all? Last hurricane season, in the face of natural disasters, we heard some popular TV preachers say that certain storms were sent by God to punish us for our sins. Or more to the extreme, we get people of Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas (not fair to all Baptists by the way), who demonstrate at military funerals and scream out epithets saying that the reason these dedicated soldiers have died is God’s punishment on the United States for its tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Even last week, there were Islamophobic rants from people blaming the victims of the murders in the two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, saying that they deserved what they got.
Those are attitudes that are rather easily seen as nonsense if we use our brain just a little bit. Why isn’t God zapping us for how we treat the planet in the pollution of our water and soil as we continue to feed our addiction to fossil fuels, or sending major calamities on parts of the international banking industry for its collusion with the governments of Iran and Iraq, in effect stealing from the pockets of people like you and me as well as aiding and abetting terrorist activity? Or again, unless we think we are too sophisticated for such thinking, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say from a hospital bed, “I wonder what I have done to deserve this,” thereby linking personal behavior to being punished by God with sickness and misery.
Jesus is saying – there is no necessary connection at all! And he uses the story of the horrible murder of some Galileans and the tower of Siloam falling on the eighteen people to say that their sin was no worse than anyone else’s. So the first thing of which Jesus is asking us to repent, in order to walk in a new direction, is theological thinking that makes God into a terrorist going around looking to pick off who God can pick off when you or I or anyone else misbehaves or even is perceived to have misbehaved! Jesus says, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Even more, he points us to shift our attention toward impending catastrophes for which human beings, not God, bear total responsibility. While wanting to give comfort and assurance for a person who stumbles, he is also looking to light a fire under the too comfortable, the self-righteous, and other unproductive disciples. We have work to do in the life of faith! Look again to the commitments to which we are called in our baptism and the vows those being received today are making with us: calls to be disciples of Jesus’ justice and peace; standing for the dignity for every human being. Let’s go back to the story. What was happening there when Jesus says, “Repent, or you will all perish as they did?”
Pilate, the Roman governor, had just had killed some people from Galilee. Apparently he had killed them in Jerusalem, where sacrifices are offered at the temple, because Jesus is told that Pilate “mingled their own blood with their sacrifices.” So a question – why would Pilate be killing Galileans in Jerusalem, in the temple? Only one answer is possible: he believed they were rebel insurgents. He had brought the power of Roman rule down on them.
Even the tower of Siloam falling on the 18 people is most probably one of the towers of the wall of Jerusalem that had been toppled in a siege attempt by the Roman soldiers under Pilate’s command. Key here, again asking the question of what to repent or change one’s mind, is when Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” AS THEY DID, that is, at the hands of the Roman army under Pilate’s direction. The repentance, or change of mind and new direction Jesus is calling forth here is not personal sin. He is saying, and get this, unless you stop participating in this armed violent rebellion, you will all get killed in the same way they did; compliments of Pilate and the Roman army.
Jesus saw people caught in self-destructive behavior and was seeking to warn them, pulling them back from the edge of the cliff. His message was precisely the opposite of “God is punishing you.” We see this in the parable of the fig tree where the owner is looking to cut it down for its non-production, but the farmer wants to give it more time. The image conveys God’s patience with us, God’s never failing mercy, giving us always the opportunity to change course, to adjust behavior, like giving a gardener another chance to fertilize a fruitless tree.
So what at first glance today may have looked like a word of threat is in fact a word of promise and hope. Jesus, on the Cross, is our intercessor. He is the Gardener who in the act of the Cross and Resurrection accomplishes the new chance you and I and all of creation has to be made new. Jesus is working the soil, if you will, so that new life can happen and the sign will be when you and I have a change of heart and mind, when in response to God’s patience we are more awake to the Spirit’s movement, more just and more compassionate in God’s service.
In Lent, Jesus recruits us for this work of insisting on a collective repentance for policies, plans and attitudes, that are threatening entire systems on which human well-being depends. It is the work we are called to do as Christ’s people. Who will do it if we don’t?
First Sunday in Lent: March 10, 2019
Jesus would have known of the public ritual set forth in Deuteronomy today, whereby the people recall God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. He would have done this himself some thirty times over his life to this point. Beyond that he would have heard it read and likely read it himself hundreds of times.
Jesus was formed by this story from his time as a child through the synagogue lectionary as well as at home. It would give him his grounding as he faces his own time in the Judean wilderness. In Luke’s account we note at least two things. First, Jesus was tempted. This may be obvious, but it is important since it informs us that Jesus experienced temptation in every way we do and links his humanity to ours. As Hebrews tells us: “We do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every way has been tempted as we are, yet did not sin.”
Secondly, note that the temptations are not trivial. They are related to the very core of Jesus’ calling and identity. Jesus is tempted here to modify his ministry to serve purposes other than what brings life, freedom and hope.
If you are hungry – get some bread. What could that hurt? Isn’t eating a good thing? Rule over the kingdoms of the world – gosh, you’re a good guy. You’d probably do a great job of it. Jump off the temple roof – didn’t God promise to protect you? Do you trust God or not? In the exchange the character of the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” do this! Do you see what is going on here? The clever plot seeks to plant the thought in Jesus’ mind that he needs to prove his identity through these parlor tricks after he had just been told at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Make no mistake. Jesus is being tempted here to the depth of his being. He is being tempted to forget who he is, to whom he belongs, and to live out his mission and ministry in a manner better suited to what the world tends to value rather than God’s desire for us. The enemy, the liar and deceiver, seeks to sow in the human heart the promise of bread and comfort conjoined to greatness, fame, being number one, power and prestige, at the expense of others. The warning here is to measure such desires at the cost of one’s soul, for often the battle waged is not an exterior, objectified wilderness, but the wilderness of our own heart.
Our worth is found in who God says we are: beloved, made in his image, worthy of respect, of inherent value for no other reason than that we were born. Anything that tells us that we, or for that matter any other human being, is not of infinite worth to God, loved beyond our wildest imaginings, is a lie. It is true even when Scripture itself is used to devalue, dehumanize or demonize any person of the earth. We learn from Jesus in the wilderness that this is Satan’s ruse. This is where bigotry in all its forms is born. Jesus didn’t fall for it. Nor should we. Lent takes us back to the wilderness once again to give us the opportunity to consider deeply who we are and who we want to be as Christ’s own. It has us ask the question of how we engage our neighbor, whether here in Denmark or halfway around the world.
To engage the wilderness to where the Holy Spirit led Jesus, or even to enter the wilderness of the Israelites, can perhaps challenge us to see that our address right now is just that, wilderness. It is true for each of us individually, for us as a Diocese, and for us on planet earth. In our wilderness we get to confront our deepest fears, reestablish where we find our identity, and embrace what gives us hope. We also get the amazing opportunity to reconnect to all who are in their various wildernesses with us, all who are oppressed, treated wrongly, judged, devalued. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…,” and there with him we find sibling journeyers, migrants, refugees, all of us together on the way seeking liberation. The wilderness experience can give us our life back in order to be set free for a true home that trusts in God’s who has said through Christ that you and I and all are worth dying for.
One of Jesus’ responses to the lies was to do what? Worship! That means, among other things, to become ever more clear about what truly is of worth, as in “worth-ship.” In worship we give supreme worth to God, and by a beautiful turn of grace find ourselves “made worthy to stand before him.” We come together to hear the sacred story over and over, to remember, to be sustained by one another, have our imaginations stirred, then set free to be who God calls us to be.
The discipline of Lent is to get clear one more time about our center, our identity in Christ. When temptation comes, and it will, we have an opportunity through a life of prayer and worship to remain grounded in who we are in Christ and to live out of that truth alone. Then, when we fail, and we will, we know we are forgiven and still loved as we find our center once again. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom is not when everyone gets it all right. His vision is when all will worship the One God.
You and I go through Lent and indeed all of life knowing the end of the story – Jesus is Risen! We are resurrection people called to worship God above and before anything else. As Christians our life is to be rooted in thanksgiving that leads us to be profoundly grateful for God’s act in Christ on the cross. Only there will we find that we are truly set free to be who God calls us to be, to see others as God sees them, and remember who we truly are – God’s own people.
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
On Ash Wednesday we go to the altar twice. We go first to receive the imposition of ashes and second to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Both of these actions name a reality and a hope.
Going forward to receive ashes marked on our foreheads is an imposition, even a startling one. We are told that we “are dust and to dust you shall return.” The truth is we are mortal, finite, and subject to all the chances and changes of what it is to be human. Our Prayer Book calls it this “transitory life.” We hear similar words uttered by God to Adam in Genesis. We hear them at every funeral. It is a statement not of curse, but of reality. We are dust.
To be dust is, however, also a sign of hope. To embrace this truth means that we have named who we are without sentiment and come to the awareness that we have no hope in and of ourselves. We are stripped of our nonsensical illusions about our own power and ability to control, and are taken back to the wilderness where we can rediscover our need of God’s grace and mercy. To acknowledge that we are dust can prepare in us a place for God.
Now we are hungry and thirsty. Now we long for something that can refresh us and make us new. Now we return to the altar to be fed with Christ’s very self offered for us in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. The reality that gets named is that we come forward needy and incomplete. Even more importantly, however, we come forward to meet the ultimate reality, God, and our God reaches out to feed us and make us whole. We are made worthy in Christ in the very act of eating and drinking from what God offers us in Christ.
Participating in Eucharist is then also our hope. We meet Christ Risen and alive in us and among us. It reminds us of who we really are: the redeemed, loved and embraced people of God empowered to be Christ for the world. Once again you are invited by God through the Church to begin the Lenten journey. Walk with us and discover again your reality and even more, your hope.
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany: March 3, 2019
Listen to Good Shepherd's podcast of this sermon.
We stand at the edge of the season of renewal we know as Lent. Ready or not, we transition into its wilderness of honest introspection of who we are as God’s own people. Yet before we make this shift, we are given the opportunity to look through the window of the Transfiguration, the crowning event of this season of light, as we are introduced once again to the clarity of Jesus’ identity. From the holy mount we hear: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” His Baptism and Transfiguration are bookends of the season after the Epiphany, each a manifestation – an epiphany – of who Jesus is.
Note, however, that this day is not only about who Jesus is. It is also about who you and I are. We are invited to contemplate the heart of God as seen reflected in the radiant Christ, and see ourselves through the One who is unbounded love, shown forth perfectly in his departure, that is, his exodus, on the cross.
On the holy mountain Jesus’ identity was affirmed amongst the community of Peter, John and James, descendants of the historical witness of Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also had experiences of the glory of God on holy mountains. We too are descendants of what occurred on the mountain, as the identity of those receiving the laying on of hands by the bishop is reaffirmed. Just as Jesus, you are God’s chosen, sealed by the Spirit, Christ’s own forever, and empowered for service to be God’s ambassador of love and grace for the sake of the world.
One of the purposes of the liturgy is to draw us into a relationship with God and one another, where the veil is pulled back just a bit, in order to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We are given the opportunity to fall in love with the Holy One as we bask in the light of God’s love for us. Hopefully, we find ourselves reminded of who God is, who we are, and what God intends the world to be. We see on the holy mountain a vision that all creation is full of God’s glory, that beauty is everywhere, and that each moment vibrates with God’s presence, if only we had eyes to see and hearts ready to be opened. Such awakening, or heart-opening, is the primary purpose of prayer, where bit by bit our marination in the Spirit occurs, and we are formed more deeply into the mind of Christ.
Some years ago I was travelling on a warm summer day on my way to a diocesan meeting. Part way there I came upon road construction where one lane was shut down. There was the guy doing his job, holding the sign that said “Stop!” in large letters, causing us to wait for the other side to clear. I found myself irrationally irritated that this interruption in schedule might cause me to be late, because clearly, the universe is all about me.
While waiting, however, by grace I was able to slow my breathing and look around, slowly letting it all go. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a Wooly Bear, one of those fuzzy fat caterpillars walking across the yellows stripe of the road. Each undulation of its body and the manipulation of its many legs moved it along at a rather rapid pace. I found myself relieved when it made it to the side of the road not being squished by a tire.
I looked out the window on the other side and gazed upon a red-winged blackbird, perched on a cattail as it swayed back and forth in the breeze, glowing iridescently in the sun. Transfiguration? All of the sudden what seemed like an inconvenient interruption was transformed into a moment of grace, even contemplation on the beauty of God’s creation. I was awakened by that grace to a reality that was present whether I noticed or not, but fortunately circumstances caused me to slow way down, pause, and see with different eyes. The veil was being pulled back.
I wonder if you have heard of something called “the sacrament of the moment?” In essence it means that each second of life, every breath we take, is full of the grandeur and wonder of God. Too often, however, we are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to notice. Someone has said that in our time we are not suffering from a decay of beliefs as much as a loss of solitude. We are being called to stand boldly before the radiance of Jesus. Today, as some of you come forward, I hope you will know that it is not as much about standing before the bishop as it is standing before the Christ, veils removed, in the desire to be made new.
That is what this day seeks to do as it calls forth from us a new way of seeing. This life isn’t the only one there is, but we are called to live this life in a way that respects what God has made, including ourselves, and calls us to be stewards of every relationship on earth to which we are called. What we discover in Jesus’ Transfiguration is that each human being is made in God’s image. How we treat every human being matters, and is why we promise again today in the Baptismal Covenant to “work for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
The nature of life is always to be in transition. We often resist since we human beings really like the status quo. Yet this day teaches us, once again, that the journey into holiness is not only to change, but to change often. Or to put it more eloquently from today’s Collect as it echoes II Corinthians, to be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Hopefully, by grace, we’ll be opened to the possibility, discover the joy of being co-creators with God for the “metamorphosis” of the world, and find ourselves transfigured along the way.
A Message from Bishop Adams:
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
I am taking what may seem to be the unusual step of requesting that you consider my sermon preached this past Sunday at St. Alban’s, Kingstree on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. I make this request as I believe the Scriptures for the day address in compelling ways this particular time in our life as a diocese, and I offer this sermon as a perspective for your pondering and discussion.
Please know how grateful I am for all of you and for your engagement in our common mission to be a faithful community of the Risen Christ.
Grace to you in the peace that passes all understanding,
The Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany: February 24, 2019
As I wrestled with all of the Scriptures for today, I could not avoid how I experienced them addressing me as your bishop, our common life as a diocese, as well as our individual faith communities such as St. Alban’s. These Propers arrive in our liturgical calendar at a time in our diocesan life of an extended period of waiting. The words of Psalm 13 echo in my mind: “How long O Lord?” They come when many of us are frustrated, to varying degrees depending on your context, by the apparent inactivity of the court process. It can seem like nothing is happening. Thus, this sermon is not just for you at St. Alban’s, but also for our Diocese.
The Gospel presents us with the radical core of the ethics of the reign of God, “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is addressed to would-be disciples then and now. We are learning from Jesus what it means to live under the authority of God. What we find is challenging to be sure. “It speaks of reconciliation, risky solidarity, love that is unconditional and generous, indifferent to profit or even breaking even” (Martin L. Smith), all to resemble more completely the God who created us in his image.
Let’s start with the note of challenge found in Psalm 37. In the ancient hymnody of the Temple, it addresses the very real human fear that someone, somewhere, might be getting away with something. Our sense of justice has been offended. We want the scales balanced and those who have offended us to get what’s coming. Most of us, and I’m including myself here, find it very difficult to extract ourselves from the hodge-podge of emotions that arise when we believe we, or even our community, have been wronged.
The Psalmist responds, “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers,” that is, the ones who work against God’s justice. As hard as it is to put into practice, the Psalm calls us, just as the ancient Israelites were in their time of waiting, to “Put your trust in the Lord and do good.” “Take delight in the Lord.” “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” The call here is to go deep, that is, to drill down into the bedrock of what it means to be a child of God. It is not content to leave us in the superficiality of mere slogan in perhaps well meaning yet pie-in-the-sky utterings. You know, things like, “Don’t worry, everything will come out okay.” Here we are called to a deep trust in God. Our hope is not in outcomes, but only in the depths of God’s love and justice. It is this for which we are to wait, patiently.
I wonder if you are moved as I am by the awe-inspiring story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. After being left for dead by his brothers out of raw jealousy, Joseph is able to see his time of estrangement as being used by God for the benefit of the Hebrew people. Once again our sense of justice is turned topsy-turvy. Joseph’s words to his brothers were, “Come closer to me,” when he had every right by any code of fairness you may want to apply, to be rid of them forever. The one wronged was the one who took the initiative. No one would call the brothers’ treatment of Joseph a good thing, but grace entered the picture and God used it for good and the ongoing formation of what was to become Israel.
I have said in several places that perhaps this time of waiting on our part, as a diocese, is a time of formation, a crucible if you will, to learn again that our dependence is solely on God. No one in her or his right mind would have chosen a split in the Church, but it happened, and in the middle of it and as scary as it sometimes is, we are finding new ways of being church, new ways of being in relationship, and new liberation to be the Church we believe God calls us to be.
We discover such depth in Luke’s direction that, “the measure we give is the measure we will get back.” Do good even if, and perhaps especially if, you get nothing in return, not even expecting to do so! As the Collect clearly says, “Without love, whatever we do is worth nothing.”
So what do we do in the meantime? Our waiting, even our frustration, can have meaning, be redemptive, and participate in God’s grand sweep of justice. The Scriptures today call us to continue to go deep, grow up and mature in Christ, and embrace ever more willingly the fullness of what it means to be an instrument of our loving, liberating and life-giving God (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry). Some of the answer is we do what we have always done. We pray, but even more deeply. We worship, but even more joyfully. We cast our cares on God, but even more trustingly. We engage the people of God in mission as we seek to transform everything that holds God’s people captive, but even more boldly.
I Corinthians reminds us that, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” “What is sown in weakness is raised in power.” Our hope lies nowhere but in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I would then ask this. What in us, individually and as a community, is to die in order that God’s life might burst forth? Of what must we let go, whether it be our sense of fairness, specific outcomes, or even deep hurt and mistreatment, in order that it can all die in Christ? And once released to die to God’s mercy and love, is it possible that it could be given back to us, not because we deserve it, but as a complete gift of God’s grace for the use of the Kingdom? Then we would be a renewed people, a renewed Church, one that God can surely use for the transformation and renewal of the world.
What we do now is get down to business to demonstrate to each other and the world how we will look like the one who created us, the one who redeemed us, the one who continues to make us new. Grace and reconciliation are not passive. It cost Jesus his life. The work we are about is hard. We must be diligent as we speak hard truths to one another and those who disagree with us. And we must listen well. It is the work we have been doing and the work we remain committed to do. Now, “Act as if it all depends on you. Pray knowing it all depends on God.”
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.