Think of a time when you had a community around you. A community that stuck around you and supported you. This could either be when you were growing up- a neighborhood clique. It could be in college- a sorority, fraternity, or other club. It could be later in life- maybe a dinner group or your church family. Whatever group it was, whenever it was, remember how you felt being around them. Remember how you cared for one another. Remember how you were present with one another. Remember that solidarity you shared with one another and the feelings that that brings up.

I learned what the word community means through my church growing up. It was a church that my parents took us to every week… even when we put on a good show telling them we were sick. The back of the hand to the forehead never worked. But I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for those memories. For all those Sunday mornings in Sunday school. And especially for those nights when we would gather for a potluck. Parents would gather to talk. My friends and I would run around the church playing games. We shared food. We shared our time. We shared our lives. We shared our prayers.

And most profoundly of all, we shared Jello salad.

I don’t know about you, but where I grew up in the Midwest, Jello salad was a staple of all church potlucks. Where I’m from, the only potluck dish classier than a Jello salad… is the seven-layer jello salad.

It’s easy to imagine how this was invented. “Honey, we’ve been eating out a bit too much lately. It’s time to go on a salad diet.” “No problem. I love salads. Mine is made of Jello, cream cheese, marshmallows,cottage cheese, and some fruit and nuts, because salads are good for you.”

It’s an odd concoction, this molded mound of gelatinous sugar and fillings. It’s an odd concoction, but it somehow works.

And, you know, regardless of its origins, it was always sure to fill the community with a feeling of home, of comfort, of solidarity with our neighbors. A feeling of we’re in this together. When I run across a Jello salad now, I remember that community, those relationships I had growing up in that church. And I love the special oddness of it all.

And this special, and at times odd, community that I felt at potlucks growing up, is what we focus on today. When the early church began, Jesus had died and risen, and his followers were left to figure things out. In our Acts reading the Holy Spirit had already descended among them, but the shape by which these believers were to gather, and be together, was far from settled. It’s not like Jesus handed them all a Book of Common Prayer right before he rose and said, ‘Here you go, this should get you started.” No, they were trying to figure out how to be a community who believed in, and gave witness to, a resurrected Lord named Jesus. And even more, they were doing so in the midst of a Roman Government and culture that witnessed to a different lord and lordship.

And this is what we hear them doing: devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the prayers and the breaking of bread. They sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all in need. They worshipped together. They shared themselves, their time, their money, their food, and their lives with one another. They shared for the good of the community. The Catholic writer Flannery O’connor is purported to have said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” These early followers of Jesus surely had to seem a bit odd. They were different. Because of their life together, they stood out from the norm.

This group of baptized folks cultivated a certain type of culture. A culture that was not set apart, or above, or outside, but a culture in the midst the other cultures. A culture they did not come up with alone, but received through their baptism into the very one who creates and patterns life- Jesus. For Jesus did not stay on the outside, but came into our very world, into our very bodies, to redeem our very world, and our very bodies. So as Jesus came, lived, died, and rose, these early disciples began living into their baptized way of life- into the way of Jesus’ life. Into the way of providing for the poor and lonely, of caring for the sick and dying, and of bringing those who had been marginalized back into the fold. Their lives took on the pattern of Jesus’s life. They began to be the body of Christ for their community. They became Christ to their neighbors. They were even accused like Jesus was of sedition (Acts 19.40), of interrupting local economic systems (Acts 16.16ff), and of turning the World upside-down (Acts 17). As Jesus arose, so did the Church, to be for the world the body of Christ.

And so we fast forward to today. For centuries Christianity has been the presumed religion of the West. When you met people, they told you where they went to church. Shops were closed on Sundays because people were expected to be in church. Christendom, as it is called, was the way of the land, the norm, embedded deeply within Western culture. Or at least it was presumed to be. But this idea of Christendom is beginning to change. Sundays aren’t just for church anymore. Other religions and spiritual practices are stretching out more and more in Western society. There are fewer people in church. Christendom is fading. And for some, this is a scary idea. How are we to be in a society where Christianity isn’t the norm?

We gather together. We give thanks. We break bread. We worship. We care for one another. We remember our pattern of life, that pattern that Jesus creates and sustains in us through the workings of the Spirit,  through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, so that we might be the body of Christ in our culture. We can’t hide behind the veil of Christendom anymore, so we live out this public way of life in the name of Christ, giving witness to the his love. We care for the poor, the outcast, the odd ones out, the ones that our systems of power forget and choose not to care for because of the color of their skin, their nationality, or how much money they make. We care for one another. We will do this, and we will look odd. You will look odd. You will look different. We will look different. And in this difference, people will see the light of Christ. They will see the life of Christ.

They will see the community of those believers baptized into the death and life of the resurrected Christ. They will see it in you, and they will see it in us, the members of the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We are an odd bunch. And thank God for that.
Amen.

(A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina on May 7th, 2017- Easter 4. Readings for the day: Acts 2:42-471 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10Psalm 23 )

Weeks ago we gathered on Ash Wednesday. We each received ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We heard of the breath of God that breathes life into lifeless dust. A creative act that illumines our nature as created beings, made through the workings of a holy, life giving God. We remembered that it is only by this life giving, creative God, that we move and have our being. That we are contingent beings, our very existence reliant on the work of God, alive not by own will, but by our relationship to God. Our life, our breath is contingent on the life, the breath of our God.

And tonight, we learn and remember once again that our salvation is contingent solely on the salvation given by our God.

Moses is leading his people through the wilderness when they see Pharaoh drawing near. Their oppressor they had known for far too long was after them, certain to catch up with them. Their existence, their lives and their deaths, had been so enmeshed in their reality in Egypt. The only life they knew was under his rule. And because of this, their imaginations were created and reinforced by their existence as Pharaoh’s slaves. This is the life they knew. And to know this way of living, at least, was better than dying in the wilderness. So they cried to Moses, “Why have you brought us here to die in the wilderness. Didn’t we tell you it would be better for us to stay back and serve the Egyptians?” They couldn’t see their salvation because their imaginations had been limited and formed by their enslavement and death under Pharaoh.

And this is not to call them ignorant or to say that I wouldn’t have cried out with the same fear. When we are in a certain situation for so long, it is hard to think of life and death with any other lens than the one we have been formed to see through. Creativity decreases. Imagination ceases. Life is as life is. That’s just how things are.

But by the Grace of God Moses saw their deliverance. He saw something different. He saw their salvation, their life as God wanted their life to be. “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”And the Israelites lived into this salvation.

We, likewise, in Lent are called during this time to see anew our salvation, and to expand our imaginations of salvation. We are called to repent of trying to circumscribe what is possible for God by limiting our own imaginations of what God can do. We repent of limiting our imaginations to that which we are used to. We repent of not using the creativity and creative capacity God formed in us. We repent of limiting our salvation to the means by which we know how to save ourselves- through violence and oppression. We repent of limiting in our imagination God’s infinite potential to the finite potential we ascribe to God.

And in so repenting of these things, we remember anew the nature of our salvation.That we are dust, brought into life by the life giving God. That through Jesus, though we will die, we will live. That our God has offered freely his blood of life to us so that we may live. That our God is recreating, redeeming, and offering this world a renewed imagination of what life is, what death is, and what salvation is in the Kingdom of God. We remember that our creation, our life, our salvation is solely dependant on the Grace of God. And as we remember our creatureliness, we repent of the notion that we are self dependent, which enables us to live into the salvation offered through the Grace of our God.

Our salvation through the grace of God invites us into a renewed, recreated, redeemed imagination of how this world is and how it should be. How our relationships are and how they should be. How death is and how it should be. How life is and how it should be. And this imagination enables us to stand hopeful in the salvation of our God. “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”

May God our creator grant us the strength and knowledge to repent of our self-assurance. By the strength of God may we turn like the Israelites from our fears and live into the salvation of God.

And may God offer us the hope of our salvation again, strengthening in us a renewed imagination of how we are to live as the body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

(A sermon given at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, NC on April 15th, 2017 at the Easter Vigil service. Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation] Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea] Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all] Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]        )

 

During Lent we have been talking about life in the midst of death. We began on Ash Wednesday when we were marked by our mortality in the dust of the earth.“You are dust and to dust you shall return.” This dust receives the breathe of God, giving life to what was lifeless. From dust to life. This is the creative, life giving work of God in us and in the world. Our God is about life. About giving life, creating life, redeeming life.

And Ash Wednesday leads us to this week, Holy Week, marked specifically by three days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Last night we remembered our Lord as he sat with his disciples, sharing a final meal with them, before he is arrested and taken away. Today, on this Good Friday, we remember Jesus upon the cross. We remember his death and the blood he shed for us.

And this death and this blood is what I want us to focus in on today. So far in Lent we have been talking about life, and of recreation, and redemption, so it almost seems odd now that the end of Lent offers us a story of death. To think of this story arc from the beginning of Lent, about God breathing life into what was dead, about creation, to move from that story of life to Good Friday, which often focuses on Jesus’ death, seems to undercut the notion that God is all about life. But it does seem like the normal life arc that we experience. We live. Then we die. Death is the end of life. We will all follow this same arc. This is the norm. “And to dust you shall return.” This is just how things are.

Right?

Well, today is called Good Friday. And death, and the process of dying, is rarely described as good.

Good Friday questions this ‘norm,’ this notion that death is just a part of life. Remember a few weeks back when Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”? Jesus is teaching Martha that death is not really death, because the life Jesus offers somehow counteracts and negates our death by his life. You will die, you will return to dust, but you will never die. You will live. Jesus offers us this reimagined way of thinking about what is life and what is death. Jesus is recreating the ‘norm’ of what death and life are. Jesus is recreating life and death, through himself. Through this life, Jesus is changing “How things typically are,” which is all around us now, and is initiating the Kingdom of God, where things are, and will be, “as they should be.”

So then how ought we think of Jesus’ death and his spilt blood on this Good Friday? At the beginning of the Gospel of John, when John the Baptist first comes into contact with Jesus, he announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World (Jn. 1.29). Here John is likening Jesus to a lamb, which will be sacrificed. This notion of ‘Jesus as a lamb’ is important for John, the Gospel writer, and for John the Baptist, due to their Jewish context. In the story of the Exodus, God tells Moses to have the ‘whole congregation of Israel’ take the blood of a lamb and put it in on the doorposts of their houses so that when the angel of the Lord comes, the lord will see the blood and will pass over the house, causing no harm to the first-born son (Exodus 12.1-13). The blood of the lamb will save the Israelites. This story of the original, and continued remembrance of, Passover, colors John’s account of Jesus’ death and blood.

And so this Good Friday, we see Jesus on a cross, dying and bleeding, on the day of the preparation of the passover. Our Gospel lesson stresses this day on which Jesus is crucified. The day of the preparation of the Passover was when the priests began the kill and prepare the lambs for Passover. Unlike the other three Gospels, John emphasizes that Jesus dies on the day of the preparation of the Passover. By doing this, John brings together the account of the Passover and John the Baptist’s declaration that Jesus is a lamb. By telling us that Jesus death was on the day of the preparation for Passover, John wants to show that the blood of Jesus, like the blood of the lamb, will offer salvation to the world.

This idea of sacrifice though, that Jesus is the lamb that was slaughtered for a sacrifice to God,seems for some a bit harsh- that God would demand death for some sort of repayment for sins; that God would demand death to satisfy God’s wrath against us and creation. This idea that Jesus is killed and his blood spilled in order to appease an angry God that demands death, does not seem like a Good Friday. It does not sound like: the God that breaths life into the death of dust and the dry bones; the God who weeps with Mary and Martha; the God who says that through Jesus you will live and never die.

So then what are we to think about Jesus’ death and his blood that was spilled?

In Leviticus we learn the rules for making a proper sacrifice. And a key section of these rules is the teaching about the meaning of blood in the sacrifice. For when you made a sacrifice, you weren’t supposed to drink the blood, because that is where the life is. The life is in the blood.

It says, “For the life of every creature- its blood is its life…” (Lev 17.14a). So when John here talks of the day of preparation, and the lamb to be slaughtered, the focus is on what comes from the preparation and the slaughtering of the lamb, not the slaughtering in and of itself. It is not the death of the lamb that is key, but the blood, which is the life, of the lamb that is key. It is the blood, the life, that is given and offered to the world. “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you.” This is my life, shed for you, so that you might have life in me. It is in the blood of Christ that we are given the life of Christ.

So to read again a portion of today’s Hebrews lesson, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us the curtain…” the writer is bringing to mind that it is by the living blood of Jesus that we stand reconciled with our God.

It is by the blood that is shed, it is by the life that is shed, for us that makes today a Good Friday. Today is about the life of Christ that he offers to us freely in his blood, in his life. It is about him taking upon himself our sin, our death, and covering it with his blood, his life, so that we may live in the freedom of our God. It is about our God saying that death is not how things should be. It is about our God saying that we are created for life, not death, and so by Jesus’ life our God will conquer death to give us life. And though we might die, we will live.

Today is a Good Friday. Let us give thanks for the blood, the life, of the lamb who offers his life to us freely so that we may live in the abundance of our God.
(A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina on Good Friday, April 14th, 2017.)

Good Friday Readings:

We were lost. It was about five years ago in the mountains just outside of Asheville. A girl that I had just started dating and I were hiking in the mid-afternoon brisk spring weather. We found a nice trail that was supposed to take a couple of hours to complete, which seemed easy enough, and then we’d have time to travel back into town for a nice dinner in downtown Asheville. We took with us only a little water, and a single snack bar, confident that our hike wouldn’t be too strenuous or take more than the couple of hours we had planned on. As we were on our way back to the car, we noticed a signpost that looked familiar. ‘Great,’ I thought, happy to see something familiar. We were headed in the right direction.

Another 45 minutes or so passed by and we came across the same signpost. “Hmmm…” I accidentally muttered out loud, letting on that I was now confused and had possibly lead us astray. For I had just been confidently detailing my time as a scout and how I was an Eagle Scout. Though I knew we were turned around, and I had no idea where to go next, I held my chin high and assured the girl, who was now sure to dump me if we survived this trek, that we had probably just missed a turn right ahead. It was now on hour three (or four), the sun was beginning to set, and we had to backtrack two more times due to me getting us more turned around. My mind kept racing, “How can this be? I’m an Eagle Scout; I’m good at this stuff; I’m gonna have our deaths on my hands  because we only brought a little bit of water and a single snack bar.” Finally, I admitted, “I think we’re lost.”

I could see the signs of the trail, but I didn’t know which direction we were supposed to go. I had lost the big picture, how the trail system fit together. But how freeing to admit that I was lost. I didn’t have to keep up pretenses any longer. We made many jokes at my expense, rightly deserved, but now I could focus more on finding the way instead of insisting I already knew the way. We were now free to find the way with my ego rightly left back at that one sign post. Thankfully, we found the car before the sun set and were able to get a table for dinner just as the restaurant was about to close.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by the cover of night. He had seen the signs Jesus had been performing and made notice of their special qualities. Although Nicodemus asks no question, Jesus responds with talk about being born anew and from above and the Kingdom of God. It seems that Nicodemus had found and pushed one of Jesus’ buttons and was not expecting such a response. A response filled with grandeur and mystery and divinity. And so Nicodemus responds twice with, “Wait, what?” (that’s my paraphrase) How is one born from above? What is this talk of being born of water and the Spirit? What is this idea about knowing where the wind blows and where it goes, and how those born anew of the Spirit/Wind are like that? “How can these things be?”

I’m not sure of what Nicodemus’ intentions were in starting this conversation, for the text does not make it abundantly clear, but this conversation seems to have put Nicodemus back onto his heels. It sets him back a bit. It makes him question himself and what he knows. It makes him consider if he has missed something, if he was somehow lost,  seeing only the signs, as he said, and not the bigger picture. These follow up questions he asks Jesus, then, are not out of a lack of faith, but a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge. He is trying to figure it out. Jesus’ final pointed question at Nicodemus is not, then, a rebuke so much as it is a challenge, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” “Shouldn’t you know this stuff already?”, Jesus seems to say.

Nicodemus could have taken this challenge as a threat. Jesus has just questioned his knowledge and authority as a pharisee, a leader of the Jews. But what this encounter with Jesus seems to do, though, for Nicodemus, is give him reason for pause and reflection. Because he is no longer the authority,it gives him the space to question what he knows and how he interprets his world and his God. This space of uncertainty and challenge created by Jesus’ question, could be seen as a threat, something that could push him away from Jesus, but it seems to open Nicodemus’ eyes to something greater, something mysterious, the Kingdom of God. Under the cover of dark, Nicodemus, whether he was looking for it or not, found the freedom to start asking, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus is a character we only meet in the Gospel according to John, and in this Gospel, there are only three mentions of him. The first is this initial conversation with Jesus. The second comes as a group of chief priests and pharisees asked the temple police why they had not arrested Jesus for his teachings: “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?” they asked of the police. “Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” Answering their question, Nicodemus asked the chief priests and the other pharisees whether their law would allow for such an arrest, as Jesus deserved a hearing first (Jn. 7.45ff). Nicodemus was pushing back, no longer in the shadows of night. And then the third time we find Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, where he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapping it in burial spices and linen cloth (Jn. 19.38ff).

Without this initial conversation with Jesus, without finding the freedom to ask Jesus and himself, “How can these things be?”, Nicodemus would not have been at the cross that Good Friday night. That question allowed him to start seeing more. It allowed his vision of God and God’s work in this world to move in and about him in ways he most likely didn’t expect. Such is the way of the Spirit. It is the breath that comes to bring life out of death, out of dust. It is the wind that blows in all directions, resisting any of our attempts to control it by our own feats of knowledge, pride, or stubbornness. The Spirit is that which sweeps us off of our own feet so that we must rely solely on the movement and faithfulness of our God.

With his question of, “How can these things be?”, Nicodemus begins to allow himself to be moved by the Spirit. He begins to see not only the signs of the kingdom, but the kingdom itself. This is not an overnight,  instantaneous reaction; it is a process. A process that leads him from his initial conversation with Jesus under the cover of night, to what must have been a difficult position in questioning his peers, to the foot of the cross, caring for the body of Jesus. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn. 3.8)  The wind, the Spirit, moves Nicodemus from a secret conversation, to the spot of the redemption of the world.

Nicodemus shows us the freedom of Lent. Lent is a time when we can admit we are lost. When we don’t have to put up airs pretending that we know exactly who we are or exactly where we are going. It allows us to stop and admit that we are lost. It allows us to acknowledge we don’t have it all figured out quite yet. It allows us and it bids us to do this work of questioning. It bids us to let ourselves ask the questions we are too proud or scared to ask at other times: “What is controlling my life?”,“What do I fear most?”, “What do I think about God?”, “What does God think about me?”.

Lent bids us to check our ego back at that one sign post and try to imagine again the bigger picture of the love of God and the salvation of the world by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Lent bids us to this freedom, the safety of confessing that our vision has become narrowed, having lost our vision of the Kingdom of God.

So this Lent, what questions do you need to allow yourself to ask of yourself? What questions do you need to ask God? What questions does God have for you?  

(A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina on March 12th, 2017, for Lent 2. Gospel Reading: John 3.1-17)

%d bloggers like this: