Monday, April 23, 2012

The Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24:36b-48

Coming to the Table

Then He opened their minds to understand”

Instant mashed potatoes! Now, I am positive that many of you out there this morning will strongly disagree with me, but I swear that one of the absolute most delicious meals that I have ever had in my entire life consisted of one simple bag of instant mashed potatoes. Let me put in context for you. In the summer of 2001, four of my best high school friends and I set out to backpack the Tahoe Rim Trail, an incredibly beautiful one hundred and sixty-five mile trek around the peaks of Lake Tahoe. Throughout this challenging yet completely amazing journey, from high altitude peak to sandy lake shore, from dry Nevada desert to lush California green, many memories were collected and will forever be close to my heart. One memory in particular, however, will always stand out, and that is of the absolute divine experience that is instant mashed potatoes.

So there we were, my buddies and me, about a week into the two week trip, and thus far sustaining ourselves on a diet of peanut butter tortillas, ramen noodles, granola bars, and lemonade drink mix, when during a particularly dreary evening packed inside our tents, I decided to pull out a little surprise dinner treat that I had picked up on our last pass through civilization: instant mashed potatoes. Three cheese flavored mashed potatoes actually, and though I know it sounds totally strange to you all now, I look back on that event and honestly call it spiritual. You see I call it spiritual because somehow that event changed us. Somehow that experience altered what it was that we were doing. It was that event that transformed us, transformed us from a group of friends sharing a meal in the mountains, to a band of brothers, brothers in Christ, breaking bread in God's paradise and presence.

I kid you not, those instant mashed potatoes became our sacrament. They became that which brought us together for our nightly ritual of passing and taking turns in eating from the holy skillet, only one spoonful at a time of course, and they became that which kept us going during our long days, supportive, encouraging, unified. Now, looking back on it, I of course realize that that transformation actually had nothing to do with the food we were eating, even though I must admit that the amazing experience of the mashed potatoes was like a firework explosion of flavor in our taste deprived mouths. Rather, what that transformation and truly holy experience was really about was our being gathered together and our sharing time with one another. It was the bringing of our open selves into the presence of one another around the backpacker stove, around the campfire, around the table if you will, to truly experience the glory of God residing in each of us and which is ever dwelling in His beautiful Creation that surrounded us. Coming to the table, God within us and all around us. That is what I saw in our Gospel lesson this morning.

See this morning's Gospel is interesting and even a bit challenging. It is overflowing with completely worthy sermon topics and teaching points, and yet at the same time, the main theme seems initially at least to be missing. As Jesus appears now for the second time in a day to different disciples, they are scared and He comforts them. The corporeality of Jesus is stressed as He requests food and eats, and a focus on the importance of the role of Holy Scripture in the lives of believers is highlighted. The centrality and sanctity of Jerusalem as the heart of the movement is alluded to, and the disciples are commissioned to go forth from there making new disciples of all nations. Clearly there is a lot of good stuff in this morning's Gospel, but when you put it all together, what is the point? What was Jesus really getting at? What was the author of Luke trying to stress to his audience? What are we to take home with us from this?

Instant mashed potatoes. The table. That is what stands out for me in today's Gospel. It is the symbol of the breaking of the bread coming full circle in Christ's resurrection meal with His disciples, His most intimate friends. I believe that it is no coincidence that this is how Jesus also chooses to reveal the truth and open the disciples to His reality. I mean they weren't getting it, and often times we don't either, but I think it not insignificant that it was around that table, in community, fully present, in unity, that Jesus decided to open His followers to the Truth.

I see now that that is what my Tahoe experience really was. It didn't matter what food we shared together or that Jesus shared with His friends, broiled fish, a steak dinner, or simple potatoes. It didn't matter where we or they were gathered, around the table, around the backpacker stove, or around a camp fire. What really matters in today's Gospel, and the message that we need to be opened to this morning, is the undeniable importance of the relationship. Our relationship with Christ. The bringing of our true selves to the proverbial table of God.

That is what we are to take with us this morning. The reminder that the Resurrected Christ comes to each of us. The Resurrected Christ comes to each of us in exactly the same, fully present way that He came to His disciples on that day. He comes to us for community, for sharing, for relationship, and all that He asks of us in return, is our full presence with Him. That, though we so often don't understand like the disciples, and though we might be afraid like they were too, we might, as our collect today prays, open the eyes of our faith to behold Him in all His redeeming work. Brothers and Sisters today Jesus invites us to the table, and all He asks is that we actually show up.

The great news this morning is, that we really already know just how important this showing up is, and maybe just need to put it into practice. We see this in our families. In a world that is so busy we rarely even have the time to break bread together, our families can begin to fall apart. Or if we do break bread together regularly, we often are so ever distracted that no one person at the table is fully present with the other. We see this in our friends. Friends are those individuals who have opened themselves, who have been present with us, and we with them. When the openly bringing of ourselves into the sacred presence of the other stops, so too does that relationship. When friends are no longer willing to gather around the table, that relationship dies.

Most importantly, we see this in our spirituality, in our relationship with Christ. For when we come to this table, over and over and over again, to receive the meal that He has prepared for us, invited us to, brought and indeed poured His whole, true, and real presence in, the truth is that we have a choice. We can choose to prepare our hearts and minds, to present our true and open selves before the presence of Christ and be in relationship, or we can come forward unconsciously, distracted, and unwilling to be opened by the love and truth of God. You see the disciples may not have understood, and we often give them a hard time about that, but at least they showed up. At least they were present and open to God, eager and willing to be in relationship. It is this same lesson, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, that we are to take with us today, not at all just for how we engage in our practice of Holy Eucharist, but for how we are able, and should engage the Resurrected Christ in our every day lives, in our prayer life, in our relationships with others, within ourselves and in all that surrounds us.

That is our call: To be openly present with and engage the Risen Christ in God's Creation which surrounds us. To be openly present with and engage the Risen Christ in our families, friends, and all who we encounter. To be openly present with and fully engage the Risen Christ in ourselves. To bring our real selves to the table in order to truly welcome and receive the Risen Christ in all we do. To bring the symbol of the breaking of the bread full circle. For only when we open ourselves to one another and to the God who seeks us out, only when we openly bring our real selves to the table which God has already prepared, will we, just as the disciples, finally come to know and be opened to our true place in relationship with the Risen Christ, Jesus our Lord.

Then He opened their minds to understand”


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Palm Sunday, Year B (April 1, 2012) The Church of the Ascension

Who do you say that I am?” The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: Here we are today, you and I, in this present moment confronted with the profound question posed by Jesus to Peter in Mark 8.39. This question conveys the core, integrative theme of the gospel of Mark, “Who do you say that I am?” We are surrounded as we ponder our own response by a broad array of others who are grappling with this same question: the disoriented disciples; the broken-hearted Marys; the powerful, but skittish Romans; the vengeful, scheming priests; and, as always, the crowd, following where the wind blows.

We see this morning that Mark answers Jesus’ core question in the closing moments of the Passion narrative. It is the unnamed Centurion, facing Jesus immediately after he died on the cross, who proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” The Centurion’s answer was direct and definitive. Is it not curious that this key response would have been spoken by a leader of the occupying Roman forces who were charged with the nasty task of overseeing crucifixion? I believe, however, that it is no mistake that the Centurion is the bearer of this revelation. You see, so often the truth of our faith is lifted up in unlikely places by unlikely people. Those of us who know the Christ can so easily forget and scream “Crucify him,” while others of us who have just met Christ, as had the Centurion, perhaps can see Him with greater clarity. As I listened to the Centurion’s words this week, I grasped a deeper understanding of his words: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Jesus the Christ was fully human and fully divine. “Who do you say that I am?”

II. Two Processions. Interestingly, the Centurion could be viewed as a bridge figure between the opposing sets of forces in the passion story. Borg and Crossan in their book The Last Week (2006) propose that it is likely that there were two separate processions entering Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. From the east came a somewhat ragtag group led by Jesus, his disciples, and Jewish pilgrim crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” which means “Save (us) we pray.” This ragtag group processed right in the line of vision of the Antonia Fortress, which was the headquarters of the Roman legions in Jerusalem, and Jesus rode a donkey – a symbol of peaceful entry.

Entering Jerusalem from the west, say Borg and Crossan, was another procession – a military procession led by Pontius Pilate. He was most likely riding on horseback, leading the military reinforcements that had been moved from Caesarea Philippi to keep order in the city, now packed with over one million people. Have no question, the second procession was designed to convey power, control, and occupation. These two processions were juxtaposed against one another, both politically and theologically. They originated from alternative understandings of the universe. Borg and Crossan emphasize that the procession of Jesus was a “peasant procession,” designed to bring Jesus faced to face with the immense forces of evil which he was to confront the following week. Pilate’s procession was to solidify the unrivaled position of the God-Emperor, Tiberius. Two competing Gods were coming into the city at the same time – the Emperor God, encased in unbridled pomp, and the Son of God, humbly bringing peace, grace, and forgiveness. One could not and cannot follow both of these Gods.

III. Conclusion. “Who do you say that I am?” It always comes back to choice, doesn’t it? It comes back to where we choose to stand as the two processions unfold. Are we drawn to the grandeur of Roman power with all its trappings and illusory protection? Or are we drawn to the spontaneous and joyful entry of Jesus? Or perhaps we are drawn to hide out somewhere in between the two processions; to take a pass and go about our own business, to stay safely on the margins. Wherever we are this morning and wherever we will be throughout this next week, I invite each of us to allow Jesus’ powerful question and the Centurion’s answer to reverberate within our deepest spirit:

Who do you say that I am?” (David)


Truly, this man was God’s Son!” (Centurion) Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Practicing Resurrection

The Rev. Amy Morehous
April 15, 2012
Easter 2, Year B

What are the best parts of Easter Sunday for you? Perhaps it’s the flowers. Maybe it’s the Easter acclamation - when Fr. Howard says, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!”, and we respond, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Perhaps it’s the music - the celebratory brass section, the best efforts of our very good choir, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus at the end. There are so many things about that day that make it like no other.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I noticed a distinct lack of all those things when I got home on Sunday. When I walked in the door, there was no glorious choir to welcome me, (although my cats did do their best, after missing me for most of the week). As I spent the past week washing all the accumulated dirty laundry, there was no celebratory brass section to greet me in the laundry room. I received no flowers whatsoever for producing dinner on a regular basis. And when I cleaned off my desk, Jim Garvey did not play a celebratory ‘Toccata’ for the occasion.

We walked through Lent with Christ, we moved through Holy Week with inexorably steady steps, and we celebrated a festive resurrection day, when Christ returned from the dead. If you were here, it was a truly glorious day, full of all of the things that we do so joyfully here. But sometimes it’s much harder to spy the resurrected Christ in our everyday lives, without all the Easter dressing.

After spending so much time walking closely with Christ last week, I’d like to tell you that I am a transformed person, full of new life, and new hope. Instead, I’m a bit disappointed to report that I went home, and promptly fell right back into regular life, just as I left it, just as if the resurrection hadn’t happened, just as if something miraculous hadn’t taken place. After all, who has time for resurrection on a regular basis when there are still people to be fed, and clothes to be washed, and work to be done?

That’s one of the reasons I’m extremely thankful that we get this gospel reading from John every year at this time. When we find the disciples, they too have returned to their pre-resurrection lives. They are huddled together in fear, locked behind barred doors, in hopes that they will not be suspected of anything. All they know for sure from Peter and another disciple is that Jesus is missing from his tomb, and his grave wrappings have been left behind. They are petrified. At best they will be shunned by their neighbors, who will remember their part in the past week’s events. At worst, they will be blamed for Jesus’ disappearance, and will themselves be in danger of being killed. Sure, Mary has come to tell them that she has seen the risen Lord - a Lord who came to her, spoke gently to her, and called her by name. But if this is true --- how are they to feel? After all, these are the same disciples who deserted Jesus in his hour of need, who ran and hid when he was arrested, who denied him in fear of their lives. Why should they be anything but frightened of what the future held?

But Jesus appears to them, and speaks words of peace, and forgiveness. “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, his hands and his side. Just as we did last Easter Sunday, the disciples rejoice with great feeling at Jesus’ return. He who had been lost is returned to them! In the midst of the great celebration, Jesus bids them peace again, and then gives them specific instructions: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Here, he even gifts them with the Holy Spirit, and reminds them of their special gift for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The disciples are so thankful for Jesus’ restoration to them, so happy to meet the resurrected Lord, so overcome with joy that they immediately rush out and do just as Jesus instructed.

Wait...that’s not actually what happens. Not that we read here, anyway.

A week passes, and Jesus returns to speak to the disciples, and to poor Thomas, who missed the first party. When Jesus appears, he finds them all together...again...still behind locked doors. But Jesus Christ cannot be kept out with locked doors, or fearful hearts. He sent the disciples forth to be a resurrection people, to bring forgiveness to a world in need. But they find it hard to live into those new be Easter people. The disciples need second chances - they need practice living into fearless resurrection lives...just as we all do.

There’s a reason we celebrate Eastertide for a full 50 days. Because this resurrection life we are called to takes some practicing - takes some living into. Knowing myself, I have a feeling I’ll be working into it all of my days.

But notice that Jesus does not appear angry on finding the disciples again together, hidden behind closed doors. He doesn’t ask for an accounting of their time, or rebuke them for not being about his business. He offers them peace, and understanding. In the face of Thomas’ doubts, he doesn’t greet him with shame or anger. Instead, he offers to Thomas a chance to learn, and to understand, and to change. He offers Thomas a chance to do just as he said he wanted - he offers him proof in the face of his doubt. But Thomas does not, in fact, put his hands in Jesus’ wounds as he said he must do. Given the opportunity that most doubters have wished for throughout the centuries, Thomas doesn’t do it. Instead, he acclaims Christ before all the disciples. In awe and amazement at how he is truly known by Christ, he says “My Lord and My God!”

Jesus Christ offers Thomas, as he offers us, a chance to turn and be new people. To be resurrection people, people who really struggle to live into our new lives in Christ. Christ does not promise that road will be easy or simple. Jesus Christ knew then and knows now that we are people who will wrestle with our fears...people who will fall into that fear from time to time … people who will fail.

What kind of fear holds us in its grip these days? We probably aren’t afraid we’ll be imprisoned or killed, as the disciples were, but we can come up with plenty of other things to be fearful about. Listen to the news. Listen to what passes for political discourse. You can even hear it in discussions in and about the Episcopal Church. It is easy, at times, to find conversations dominated by fear. When our fear festers, it turns to anger. Anger at the world. Anger at ourselves. Anger at our neighbor. Anger at God.

What are we afraid of, on this post-resurrection Sunday? What is holding us back from the life Christ calls us to live - a life dominated by love, and not by fear? A life of baptism, and inclusion, and reconciliation. What’s changed for our our hearts … since Christ rose from the dead? Are we leaving this place, and going forth to be Christ’s people in the world, to offer hope and forgiveness in world in need of both? Or are we all still trapped in that locked upper room, paralyzed by our fear, waiting for something more?

We are not here to crowd together in fear of the world outside. We’re here to encounter the risen Christ - in each other. In the liturgy and prayers and the Eucharist. We’re not passing through this life to be subsumed by the ordinary, or to be buried by the minutia of daily life, as hard as that is to resist. We are not here to live in fear, but in love - Christ’s love, that perfect love that casts out fear.

Wherever we find ourselves this week, whatever we’re doing - the resurrected Christ goes before us, and will meet us wherever we are. Sure, there won’t be flowers, or choirs, or bells. But as we practice being a resurrection people, the risen Christ will be there. Where will you see him this week? Will you find him in a colleague at work who needs a listening ear? In the friend who listens to you? In a child whose tears need drying? Or in the person who hands you a tissue when you need it? In a stranger who strikes up a conversation in the grocery store?

Where in our lives can we find the risen Lord? Everywhere - everywhere we find ourselves keeping company with God’s people. We are a free people, a baptism people, an Easter people, free to cast out fear, and take Christ’s message of love and forgiveness and reconciliation to a world that hungers and thirsts for both.

Christ calls us to move beyond these doors, to live into our renewed baptismal lives in him. To live lives free from the shackles of fear. This Eastertide, may we all move toward being the resurrection people we are called to be. This Easter, and all those to come.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Sunday 2012, Year B The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

The Continuity of Easter: Jesus Christ’s Constancy

Introduction: The Easter experience is unlike any other – it is firmly rooted in the past, projected into the future, but most fully powerfully experienced in the present moment. There is immediacy to the joy of Easter that is infused with the memories of earlier Easters and grounded in the promise that, for those who follow Christ, Easter will never end. For each one of us, there are threads that weave our Easters together. One of the meaningful threads of Easter for me is the hymn we sang after this morning’s Gospel, “Up From the Grave He Arose.” All week, as I reflected upon my Easter sermon, this hymn played over and over in my mind. So this morning, it has served as the beginning of my sermon. This hymn clearly evokes the Christian images of the Easters of my childhood. Of waking up at 5:00 AM to prepare for our Easter Sunrise Service which was held on a large pier extending out over the Atlantic Ocean. As the sun began its movement above the Eastern horizon of the ocean, accompanied by the trumpets we would begin to sing “Up from the Grave He Arose.” The light, the music, and wonder of the moment were profoundly moving. I can remember those early Easter mornings as if they had just happened.

But other Easters have come and gone since then. There were Easters when
I had wandered away from church and Easter seemed dim, not absent, but dim. There were several Easters after I had returned to the church when, as the first hymn began, I found myself weeping. Each Easter has had its own unique character as I’ve moved through different life stages, said good-bye to some I loved and welcomed others into my life. But in the midst of it all, I have come to understand that the continuity of Easter that has never really depended upon where I have been or whom I have worshipped with. The continuity of Easter emanates out of the unchanging person of Jesus Christ. As the writer of Hebrews tells us: “ Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (13.8). Jesus Christ is the only source of fully reliable continuity in our lives. We have all fallen short in our promises, in our dreams, and in our perseverance. But Christ, fully capable of working with and through change, has been the solid ground beneath our feet. Christ has been and continues to be the source of both continuity and constancy in our lives.

II. Christ, the source of constancy. In psychological terms, constancy is crucial to our healthy development as human beings. We must have sources of affection and guidance that will be reliable and responsive to our needs. We must receive care from others who know us so well that they can even anticipate our needs before we express them. Our early life experiences become the basis of our sense of security and our capacity to trust and love others. For Christians, the absolute core source of constancy is Jesus Christ. The constancy of Jesus Christ is built upon promises made and promises kept. He promised that he would bring new life to those who followed him and that he would die and be raised again. And he promised that we would be able to spend eternity in Heaven with him. In sum, he modeled a new life, lived what he taught, and was and is totally trustworthy. No other source in human history can make such a claim or offer us new life. Whether it was in Jesus’ healing, his teaching, fellowship with the poor and oppressed, or his death and Resurrection, Jesus was, and continues to be, totally present and constant. It is he who weaves the threads of all our Easters together.

III. Ironically, it can sometimes be very difficult to trust Christ’s constant presence and to understand what he was and is trying to say to us. Let me give an example of how this can work. When I was in 8th grade, my father asked me to talk with him privately. He had had several heart attacks and in retrospect, I believe he knew that most likely he was dying. He said, “I may not have much longer to live. I want you to always remember how much I love you. I want you to go to college and work hard to become the person you can be. Take care of your mother and sister when you can. I am very proud of you.” He was tender and loving as he spoke to me. I said, “Dad, you’re not going to die. It’s all in your mind. If you make up your mind that you want to live, you will – you won’t die.” He smiled, and after a pause said, “It may not always be that easy, but remember I love you.” Although I was not ready to comprehend that my father was telling me goodbye at the time, later the memory of this moment has proved meaningful in my formation. My father has always been with me since he died.

So it was with Jesus’ disciples – with the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning. For them and all of Jesus’ disciples, the dream of Jesus was dead. Jesus was gone, and they were in despair. The women went to anoint his dead body, not to meet Jesus. Their experience at the tomb was not what they had anticipated. Mark tells us that “they . . . fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” This is called the shorter ending of Mark. It is not the joyful conclusion of Matthew, Luke, or John. These women were confused and afraid. There are different theories about the end of Mark. Some believe that the original final ending was torn off of the scroll and lost; others believe that Mark was killed before he could finish the work. I believe the Gospel intentionally ends this way in order to move us, the witnesses and the hearers, to determine how we will respond to the empty tomb. Of course the empty tomb frightened the women and it frightens us. The constancy of a Jesus who can defy death is something all humanity had never experienced before. We know death to be final, but Christ demonstrated unequivocally that death is an event, not an ending. The constancy of Christ is not limited by what we see or understand.

Look at one more way that Jesus communicated his constant presence. He told the women: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter.” Peter was the strong leader who had bailed on Jesus, who had such fear and remorse that no doubt he was ready to give up. But Jesus loved Peter and knew him well, and so he said, “Go and tell Peter.” At our finer moments this is what we do with the people we love. When they fail us, when they go off-line, when they hurt us, we invite them back and offer a path of reconciliation and growth. This is what constancy does – it stays steady, transcends the disappointments, and offers forgiveness and the possibility of reconciliation.

V. Conclusion. One of the great joys of Easter is the grace-filled constancy of Jesus Christ, which outlasts our limited ability to understand and respond. I couldn’t understand the fullness of my father’s words as a young boy. But now as a father and grandfather myself, I understand the meaning of my father’s blessing much more deeply. We may have personally rejected Christ’s offer to be constantly present in our lives. But the offer still stands today. We are invited to become one with him, including his invitation to overcome death in our lives. The continuity of all our Easters is the limitless constancy of Jesus Christ, in this life and the life to come. Death has been defeated. Amen and Amen.