A Sermon for 2 Easter
“Do not hold on to me…”
Rather, she was to inform the disciples that the resurrected Christ would soon be ascending to God.
In her sermon last week, Molly reminded us of Bishop Fisher’s words at our most recent diocesan convention. He reflected: “...[Mary] just wanted the old body back, and the gardener turned out to be the Risen Jesus. She embraces him but the Risen Jesus tells her he needs to keep on moving. But tell the disciples he is Risen. And she becomes the apostle to the apostles…We, too, want the old body back. 2019. Or 1955. But, the old body is gone and Resurrection to something unknown and a little scary is here. And Mary Magdalene goes with this new reality and gives a message to the apostles that changes the world.”*
Mary Magdalene could have remained stuck in her fear, grief, and uncertainty, continuing to yearn for and cling to the old body. Instead, she embraces this new reality, and takes Christ’s instruction to heart: ‘Do not hold on to me…’ She shares Christ’s message to the disciples; a message that turns this world upside down and right side up again, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say.
Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson. It is now evening on that very same day. Having received Mary Magdalene’s messages, the disciples are now gathered in a house, behind locked doors. John’s gospel states it was their fear that locked them in.
Fear of the news they’ve just received and its implications.
Fear of how leaders within the Judean community might respond.
Fear for their safety.
Fear of what was to come.
Fear of everything.
These disciples, who had dedicated their lives to helping Jesus’ share God’s dream for this world, have now locked themselves behind closed doors.
This is most certainly a temptation we have all faced at one juncture or another. The unknown can leave us feeling terrified and stuck. It is also a ripe environment for nostalgia. When we feel like things are falling apart and beyond our control, many of us long for the safety of the familiar, a yearning for the way things used to be. That same desire that initially left Mary longing to cling to the old body.
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown unpacks the dangers of nostalgia. She writes,
“Across our research, nostalgia emerged as a double-edged sword, a tool for both connection and disconnection. It can be an imaginary refuge from a world we don’t understand and a dog whistle used to resist important growth in families, organizations, and the broader culture and to protect power, including white supremacy.
I wish things were the way they used to be in the good ol’ days.’
What’s not spoken:
When people knew their places.
When there was no accountability for the way my behaviors affect other people.
When we ignored other people’s pain if it caused us discomfort.
When my authority was absolute and never challenged.” **
Nostalgia may at first seem harmless on the surface. Yet it can be a mask for our desire for control, power, and an excuse for pursuing our own selfish desires above the needs of the wider community.
Like Mary, when she went to the tomb, we may want to cling to the old body. Like the disciples, locked in the house, we may want to remain in our fear; yearning for some false illusion of safety, ignoring the impermanent nature of a life of faith. Yet we know Mary embraces the new reality of the resurrection, and in today’s gospel, we see the disciples do the same.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the resurrected Christ appears in the locked house. The risen Christ offers the disciples a familiar greeting, and then shows them his hands and his side. They rejoice.
While Acts of the Apostles describes the Holy Spirit being shared with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, John’s gospel describes it taking place at this moment in today’s lesson. Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. In doing so, Christ has empowered them to share the Good News of God’s love and dream for this world, through the forgiveness of sins. The hour had come for the disciples to abandon their fear and uncertainty, in order to embrace this new reality. While they may not have yet understood the full meaning of this new reality, the disciples chose to trust in the hope and promise of the resurrected Christ. They knew they must move forward in faith, whatever that may mean.
John’s gospel continues by telling us one of the disciples, Thomas the Twin, was not present when this all took place. When the disciples shared what had happened with him, Thomas explained he could not believe without seeing for himself.
The following week, the risen Christ appeared again at the house where the disciples were shut up together in the same house (though not locked up, so they've grown a little). Christ greeted them, and then instructed Thomas to touch his hands and side. This moves Thomas to believe.
The resurrected Christ then says something that was important for the disciples to hear, and even more important for us to hear. The risen Christ says,
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
While we sometimes like to offer judgemental commentary on Thomas’ kinesthetic need to see and touch to believe, I do not think that the point of this story is to judge Thomas’ learning style. Rather, I think the resurrected Christ was offering a message to everyone who would come after the disciples, meaning every generation after, including ours. Christ was blessing us for believing even though we did not bear witness to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the empty tomb, or encounter the resurrected Christ. We walk by faith, with each generation building upon the faith of those who have gone before us.
Friends, this is exactly what we are here to do today. In just a few minutes, one of our parish’s little ones, Simon Cox, will be baptized and welcomed into the household of God. In our tradition, we welcome infants and little ones to be baptized because the parents, sponsors, and local faith community commit to raising the child in faith. We promise to believe on their behalf, to support, encourage, and foster their faith. Then when they have grown up and become young adults, they can decide whether or not to choose this path for themselves in a confirmation liturgy.
Today Simon’s parents, sponsors, and our parish are committing to believe on his behalf. As a faith community, each and every time we baptize a little one or a young person, we are promising that we will be there for them as the body of Christ.
When little ones and youth are ready, they too will take on the mantle of faith along with the rest of the community, to support the next generation of the faithful.
…we join Mary Magdalene in stepping away from our uncertainty to embrace a new reality.
…we join the disciples in releasing our fears and nostalgia to receive the Holy Spirit as our guide.
…we join the generations of the faithful who have gone before us, believing even though we have not seen or known firsthand.
…we do all this as the body of Christ.
As we prepare to head back into the world today, I would encourage us to do some reflecting this week:
* The Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, Diocesan Convention address, Diocese of Western Massachusetts, October 2022
Teaching Sermon: Holy Week & Easter
While this is an information heavy sermon, I hope it will enhance your experience of journeying through Holy Week.
Palm Sunday 3 / 4
The earliest recorded observance of Palm Sunday comes from the writing of a 4th century female pilgrim named Egeria (Ege·ria). She describes how Christians gathered near the Mount of Olives and would read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The pilgrims would then form a procession and make their way across the hillside into Jerusalem, all while waving palm or olive branches. They sang psalms, and shouted, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ This practice spread, and by the early 5th century it had reached Spain.
By the 9th century, it was common to sing “All glory laud and honor”, as we did today. By the 12th century, the custom of blessing palms was incorporated. At least one version of the liturgy, included an “exorcism” of the flowers and leaves, before the priest would bless the branches and sprinkle them with holy water. It is worth noting, many churches have historically used local greenery or flowers. While we use palms, some year we may choose to wave pine branches or forsythia.
With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, values shifted, and the blessing of palms and the procession were altogether eliminated. These elements were reincorporated into the liturgy in the 1928 Prayer Book.
For much of the middle ages, the Palm Sunday procession included several stations where pilgrims stopped and prayed. Upon arrival at the church, the focus shifted entirely to the passion narrative. Over the course of the the week, pilgrims would hear all four versions: Matthew on Sunday, Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, John on Friday.
Over time, some churches stopped reading the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday. Yet with the liturgical renewal and ecumenical movements of the 1960s and 70s, a three year lectionary, shared across denominations came into use. 6 This brought back the tradition of reading the Passion Gospel, and the 1979 Prayer Book renamed the day - The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Some churches, like ours, chose to only read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, saving the passion narrative for Good Friday. This is to encourage worshipers to be present to one piece of the story at a time, as we make our journey through holy week.
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 3
It is customary to have a simple service of Holy Eucharist on these days. While we no longer read all four passion narratives throughout the week, the assigned readings highlight different events from the last week of Jesus’ life. On Holy Monday is the anointing of Jesus at Bethany; on Holy Tuesday, Jesus predicts his death; on Holy Wednesday, Jesus predicts his betrayal from Judas.
In 2019, here at James and Andrew, we began to experiment with offering different liturgies to help prepare us for the Triduum (trid·yoo·uhm). Triduum is a word taken from the Latin root for three days, referring to the three final days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. Our hope is these new liturgies will invite us to clear our hearts, souls, and minds in order to be fully present to God. To that end we added a Taize service on Holy Monday; a meditative service with readings, silent reflection, and repetitive sung refrains. This type of service has a way of forcing us to embrace non-doing; and the result is often a quieting of our internal noise. With the noise softened, we are often clearer on what burdens and distractions we have been carrying that we need to entrust to God. To that end, on Holy Tuesday, we offer a healing service with readings, prayers, and the option to share your burdens with a pastoral leader and be prayed for.
Finally, on Holy Wednesday, are simple bedtime prayers, better known as Compline. The hope is by this point in the week, we are feeling clearer, lighter, and ready to be fully present to God as a community in these final days of Holy Week. The tradition of walking through Holy Week, especially the Triduum, connects us to Christians across time, cultures, and denominations. Together, we are one body of Christ.
Maundy Thursday 3 / 4
The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word for commandment. The liturgy helps us to recall Jesus’ commandment to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ at the institution of the Last Supper, and the command to ‘love one another as Christ loved us’ in the ceremony of the footwashing. The first docmented celebration of Maundy Thursday comes from the 4th century pilgrim, Egeria (Ege·ria). Pilgrims would gather at important religious sites from the life of Jesus, many of which had churches built on them. They read scripture, prayed, and sang hymns as they moved from the site of the cross; to the tomb; to the cave where Jesus taught during his final week in Jerusalem; to the top of the Mount of Olives; to Gethsemane; and back to the site of the cross. The services lasted well over fifteen hours, ending shortly after daybreak. So, if you think this sermon or our services are too long, know we could always make them longer!
Since the early 4th century, the service was known as ‘The Supper of the Lord’, and has included Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, and John’s account of the footwashing. By the early 7th century, the day became known as Maundy Thursday, and the liturgy began to include a ceremonial footwashing. At that time abbots would wash the feet of the monks in their order, and kings would wash the feet of peasants; a practice that went on for centuries. According to Marion Hatchett, “...it is recorded that in 1560 Queen Elizabeth I ‘kept her maundy’ [ie kept her commandment] in the great hall at Westminister by washing the feet of twenty poor women.” 4
While the tradition of the footwashing has been around for centuries, it did not appear in our prayer book until the 1979 edition. There are different practices around the ceremony of the footwashing. In some places a specific number of people will have their feet washed, or the clergy will wash everyone’s feet. In other places, such as here at James and Andrew, we are all invited to wash feet and have our feet washed. This models a mutual servanthood where we are all served and we are all servants. This sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and I believe it is a good kind of uncomfortable; the kind we experience when we dare to be vulnerable with one another, which deepens our relationship with God and our community.
Our diocese also has the tradition of offering anointing - proclaiming the other half of the great truth we declare on Ash Wednesday. There we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to that dust you are returned.’ Now we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are Love, and to that Love you are returned.’
It is worth noting that some churches, like ours, will share communion for the last time until the Great Vigil of Easter, consuming what remains of the reserve sacrament. Other churches will consecrate extra bread and wine so that on Good Friday they can have holy communion from the reserve sacrament. When the reserve is kept for Good Friday, there is often an Altar of Repose, where people will take turns staying awake all night, keeping vigil by the reserve, echoing the disciples at Gethsemane.
Another tradition that dates back to the 7th century, yet still does not appear in our prayer book, is the stripping of the altar followed by the priest washing the altar in preparation for Good Friday. The services ends with the 22 Psalm, and then the ministers and congregation depart in silence, as a reminder of the solemnity of Good Friday.
Good Friday 3 / 4
Scholars disagree on the meaning of the name ‘Good Friday’. Some believe it originates from a word meant for pious or holy living, so the day might be known as ‘Holy Friday’. Others believe ‘Good’ is a corruption of ‘God’, meaning God’s Friday. Still others believe it is ‘good’ as in positive, because of the transformative good that happens through the cross.
The early Church, commemorated both the death and resurrection of Jesus in a single service; yet by the 4th century it had evolved into two separate observances. The pilgrim Egeria (Ege·ria) described Good Friday in great detail. Pilgrims gathered from 8am until noon to venerate the wood of the csross that Jesus was believed to have died on, often referred to as the ‘true cross’. Then at noon, there was a service with psalms, readings, hymns, and prayers which lasted until 3pm; and then John’s passion narrative was read. Following all this was an optional vigil at the tomb that lasted through the night.
As pieces of the ‘true cross’ were acquired by other communities, similar practices of venerating the cross, prayer, and the reading of the passion narrative spread. Eventually the practice spread beyond communities with pieces of the ‘true cross’. While venerating the cross is optional in our current prayer book, here at James and Andrew, we continue to offer the opportunity, primarily because some find the practice very meaningful. We have shifted the language from venerating the cross, to reflecting on the cross, with the option to light a candle as a way of honoring Christ.
By the middle ages, it became customary for the ministers to enter and exit in silence. Silence was also included in the Solemn Collects, where we pray for people everywhere; our sins and redemption; for the church throughout the world; for all nations; creation; and all those who suffer. Around this time, the Reproaches appeared in the liturgy. This hymn like litany was a dialogue between God sorrowing over the sins and destructiveness of humanity, and God’s people asking for mercy. 7. It is worth noting the Reproaches are no longer a part of the Good Friday liturgy.
For much of Christian history, the Reproaches, along with the Solemn Collects, and portions of John’s passion narrative had anti-semitic content, which blamed those practicing Judaism for the death of Christ. 7. The Christian tradition still has a long way to go to reconcile the damage we have caused through our anti-semitic liturgy and preaching over the centuries. Bishop Doug recently approved modifications the wider church is exploring implementing to the Good Friday liturgy, and Molly has written about it in this coming week’s Newsletter. I encourage you to read about these changes there, or in the Good Friday leaflet.
Similarly complicated, is how Christianity has interpreted the meaning of the cross over the centuries. If you are interested in exploring the meaning of the cross, I would encourage you to read the sermons listed in your leaflet, accessible on our website. 8
Holy Saturday 3 / 4
In the early Church, when the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection were a singular event instead of two, Christians would fast for the two days prior. If you were pregnant or had health complications you could skip Friday, but all were expected to fast on the Saturday before Easter. With time, some communities began to gather for a simple service of the word. Throughout the Church’s history, there has been universal agreement that communion is not to be celebrated on Holy Saturday, as we prepare for Easter. In our current prayer book, there are provisions made for a collect, a few readings, and an anthem from the burial liturgy. The mood is quiet and still, reflecting an old tradition that required silence all day. We do not offer a Holy Saturday service, nor is fasting still required, but folks are encouraged to engage in reflection as a way of preparing for the resurrection.
The Great Vigil of Easter 3 / 4
It is worth noting that in almost every language except English, the word for the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter is one and the same - pascha. For many years this liturgy was referred to as the Christian Passover or Paschal Vigil. That said, we know that Christianity evolved into its own religion, and out of respect for the distinct Jewish tradition of Passover, let’s refer to this liturgy as the Great Vigil of Easter, as our current prayer book does.
This liturgy is one of the most ancient that we have beyond the Holy Eucharist. It is believed that Jesus’ disciples may have practiced a version of this liturgy, and we know it can be documented as early as the 2nd century. This service is considered one of the four most appropriate times in the church year for a baptism to take place. While we do not usually have a baptism scheduled, the baptismal themes remain, as we renew our baptismal covenant.
From the early Church onward, it was customary to keep vigil over night, listening to readings and instructions. At the first cockcrow, the baptismal water would be blessed, and a prayer of thanksgiving said over the chrism oil and an oil the church once used for exorcisms. The baptismal candidates would then renounce Satan and all evil, and then would be anointed with the exorcism oil. As our understanding of mental and physical health has evolved, the need for the exorcism oil fell out of practice, but to this day, we still renounce evil prior to our baptism. The candidates would then be baptized, they would affirm a profession of the faith that would become the Apostles’ Creed, and when they emerged from the water, they were anointed with the chrism oil used at baptism. By the 5th century, it became common for baptismal candidates to make a threefold renunciation of evil, and a threefold confession of faith.Each of these elements continues to be an important part of the baptismal liturgy.
By the 5th century, this the Great Vigil began with a new fire. The paschal candle would be lit and processed into the church. We believe the paschal candle was celtic in origin, brought to us by St. Patrick. The liturgy would continue with the chanting of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn that proclaims God’s love overcoming all else. This was followed by a series of four to twelve readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each reading followed by psalms, canticles, and prayers. This practice continues to this day, with many of the readings being the same. They include stories of creation, the flood, the exodus, the valley of the dry bones, and so forth.
As pressure grew to baptize infants, the Great Vigil was no longer a pragmatic time for baptisms, and the liturgy began to lose some of its importance. By the time of the Protestant Reformation and the creation of the 1549 Prayer Book, the liturgy was abandoned altogether, and baptismal themes were shifted to Easter Day. The rite was not fully recovered in our prayer book until the current edition. I imagine this means many longtime Episcopalians who grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book, grew up without the Great Vigil. I grew up with the 1979 Prayer Book in a community taught that it was the singular most important liturgy in the Church year.
Easter Sunday 3 / 4
Because every Sunday is a type of little Easter, this liturgy is the most familiar to us. It is a celebration of the resurrection and God’s dream for this world. We keep the paschal candle in front of the church for all fifty days of Easter, as a reminder that the joy of Easter expands through all fifty days of the season, lasting through the Day of Pentecost.
1 Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pgs 81, 101
2 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 272
3 Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices by Scott Gunn and Melody WIlson Shobe, pgs 139-152
4 Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pgs 223-250
5 1928 Book of Common Prayer
6 See David Lose’s Palm/Passion Sunday A and The United Methodist Church’s Why Palm/Passion Sunday and Not Just Palm Sunday?
7 See the United Church of Christ’s Good Friday Reproarches - Morley
8. See previous mentioned sermons below:
Palm Sunday Sermons
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - What does God need from us right now?
April 2020 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Palm Sunday 2020
Maundy Thursday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Maundy Thursday
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - Do this in remembrance of me
Good Friday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Heather Blais - Good Friday
April 2021 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Good Friday
What does reconciliation look like?
She also reminded us that the Pharisees understood interpretation of scripture as an ongoing process of revelation, which is likely why Nicodemus would have sought Jesus out. He was curious about Jesus’ understanding of scripture. Given the tensions that existed between Jesus and some of the Pharisees regarding how the law should be applied, Nicodemus chose to approach him under the cover of night.
In their conversation, Jesus made a profound claim about the meaning of his life and ministry in scripture’s most well known verse - John 3:16: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’”
In her sermon, Molly reflected, “This verse…has sometimes been interpreted from an exclusive rather than inclusive perspective. Rather than emphasizing God’s love for the world… and God’s act to lead the world into abundant and eternal life, some focus on belief in Jesus as an absolute prerequisite for salvation, as if the text said ‘God gave his Son so that ONLY those who believe in him may have eternal life.’”
I believe our tradition interprets this verse from an inclusive perspective. That Jesus is telling Nicodemus the meaning of his life and ministry is to lead the entire world into abundant and eternal life. What we would call God’s dream, that we try to embody every week in the Eucharist, when here at James and Andrew, we proclaim: This is God’s table, and all are welcome here; no exceptions.
All of this is important background information as we turn to today’s gospel lesson. Here Jesus transitions from proclaiming with his words that he has come for the entire world, to embodying that message in his actions.
Jesus and his disciples had left Judea and were traveling towards Galilee. This was typically a six day journey, as Jewish travelers would add a three day detour in order to avoid the region of Samaria. That was how contentious things were between the Jewish and Samaritan communities. These tensions had existed for centuries, in spite of the fact that the Jewish and Samaritan communities shared so much in common. They shared the Torah; they shared a common history; and they even shared much of the same bloodlines.*
Yet when the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE, most of the Israelites were carried off to a distant land as slaves, never to see their home again.* While some were left behind, marrying people from other cultures and beliefs systems; eventually becoming known as Samaritans. You can imagine the resentment that might bubble up between a community torn apart, each going through their own intense challenges.
Yet John’s gospel tells us that Jesus “...had to go through Samaria.” (4:4) There was no pressing appointment that caused him to take this shortcut, and culturally, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to go through Samaria. Unless, there was a theological reason.** Which we know there was from Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’” The reason Jesus had to go through Samaria, was to embody this message.
When Jesus and his disciples arrived outside a Samaritan city, Jesus took rest by a well, while the disciples went in search of food. In the heat of midday, a woman came to the well by herself, long after the other women had come and gone. Due to her complicated history with marriage, she was considered an outcast by her own community. As she drew water, she would have ignored Jesus, and expected him to do the same.
Yet an astonishing thing happens. Jesus begins a conversation with her. It is Jesus’ longest recorded conversation in scripture.* With each exchange, their relationship deepens.
It begins when he breaks social norms, and instructs her to give him water.
She is taken aback by his directness, and asks:
“How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”***
In response, he provokes her curiosity:
“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”***
Yet this quick witted woman pushes back:
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? ***
He assures her anyone who drinks the living water will never thirst, and with sarcasm, she responds, give me some of that water so I never have to come back here!
He tells her, go and get your husband; she acknowledges, she has no husband. They are circling in on a truth, and they both know it.
He then mentions her five husbands, and the man she lives with now. Not to shame her, the way we often hear this story interpreted, but to convey Jesus is a prophet, someone with God-given insight.
He knows her, as God knows her.
Feeling uncomfortably seen, she pushes back.
If you're such a prophet, surely you have some answers about the differences between my community’s beliefs and yours.
To which Jesus tells her, none of that matters; and she concedes, when the Messiah comes, he’ll explain things.
Then he tells her, I am he - the Messiah.
This is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus identifies as I am, as God incarnate.
The woman abandons her bucket, and races back to the city, saying to people: “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?”***
The people left the city to go and find out for themselves.
Theologian Karoline Lewis speaks of how this passage embodies Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. These words were meant to remind the disciples, Samaritans, and each of us that God’s blessing was, and is, meant for the whole world.** She emphasizes how this passage is about the belonging that we find in the relationship we nurture with God and Jesus. A relationship that is offered to each and every person in this world. Not just those who choose it. She goes on to say, something that I think we would be wise to hold onto as we make our ways towards Holy Week.
“Salvation is not located in the event of the cross, but in the larger reality of God’s’ invitation to relationship through Jesus.”
Jesus told Nicodemus - I am here to bring God’s blessing to the whole world. He embodies that in his exchange with the Samaritan woman. She then passes on that blessing of God’s love with her community, even though they do not act in love or kindness towards her.
If God’s blessing is meant for the whole world, that means it is meant for those who have hurt us, those who get under our skin, those we cannot seem to understand. We live in a time of increasing division. A division that is devastating, maddening, and deeply terrifying. What if today’s passage is an invitation for us to join Jesus in the work of reconciliation? Reconciliation is what Jesus modeled for the disciples and the Samaritan community in today’s story, and it is something profoundly needed in our world.
The Catechism within The Book of Common Prayer, asks the question:
What is the ministry of the laity?
The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Like the Samaritan woman, we are each called to bear witness to Christ in our context - our families, our work, our social network, according to the unique gifts we have been blessed with, in order to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. We know the vision of God’s dream, and we each have an opportunity to help bring about that dream in our small little corner of God’s world. Part of communicating that vision of God’s dream, is striving to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. An impossible task if we try to do it on our own, but completely plausible when we remember we are in this together as a universal body of Christ.
As we make our way towards Holy Week, I would invite us each to do some reflecting:
* Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible Women: All their words and why they matter, pg 419.
** This idea was unpacked and explored in great detail by Karoline Lewis in the WorkingPreacher podcast for 3 Lent.
*** The Message John 4
We made eye contact with those who walked by, offering a warm smile and friendly greeting. For those who slowed or paused, for even a brief moment, we would offer ashes and a blessing. We interacted with a wide variety of parishioners, neighbors, and spiritually curious folks who recognized something sacred in the ritual.
For many who come to receive ashes, there is a desire to reground themselves. Our day to day lives are already full of stress; and our society pressures us to live life at an increasingly impossible pace. All the while our world can feel like it is falling apart. More climate disasters; more racism; more gun violence; more of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. More illness; more caregiving; more strained relationships; more unhappiness. Is it any wonder we might begin the season of Lent feeling disoriented, disjointed, and drained?
One of the folks who came to receive ashes noted how much he needed this Lent, given all that is going on in our world. It warmed my heart that he could so clearly see the goodness of this season; the way Lent calls us to reconnect with ourselves, God, and one another. Lent is a time to recall God’s dream for this world and recommit to working in concert with God and one another to help bring that dream into fruition.
In the early Church, Lent emerged as a final season of preparation for those about to be baptized. You may remember from our teaching sermon on baptism, that in the early Church, baptism required an extensive, three year period of study and preparation, which would culminate in baptism at the first cockcrow on Easter morning.*
Lent emerged as a communal season, where the entire Christian community walked alongside those preparing to commit their lives to Christ.** It was the Church’s way of telling those about to to be baptized: Walking the Way of Love is not something we do in isolation. It is a communal act, done together in solidarity.
Over time, Lent also began to address our need for penitence. A season where we are invited to face our own brokenness as individuals, as communities, and as a society. In order to stay healthy and grounded in our faith, we need to see where things have gone awry; repent; and turn back towards God’s dream of Love for this world. It is why parts of our liturgy this Lent will call our attention to the corporate brokenness of our world, especially with regard to the climate crisis, gun violence, racial and economic injustice. It is also why so many of us take on Lenten disciplines. We want to reconnect with our why; that ultimate reason we said “yes” to a life of faith in the first place, and continue to say “yes” every time we renew the promises we made in our baptism.
This is hard and important work. Yet engaging in the work is what will bring transformation, joy, and renewed life. Together, with God, we can do the work. We can heal what has been broken. We can rediscover and walk the Way of Love.
In today’s gospel lesson, following Jesus baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness. Having just finished forty days and nights of fasting, he was famished. It was then that the tempter, or ‘devil’, came and spoke to him.
I sometimes get distracted by the word ‘devil’, as my own imagination runs wild. Yet when I sit with the meaning behind the word, I imagine the tempter is really Jesus’ own inner critic. We all have that inner voice that judges ourselves, usually much too harshly. The voice distorts the truth, distracts us from God’s love, and encourages us to put our own self-interest before the greater good. It offers all sorts of quick and easy ways to numb the pain.
Shortcuts to bypass suffering. Though in truth these usually lead us to more pain and suffering, by avoiding the very work we needed to engage with in the first place. That hard work that Lent calls us to journey through.
In the gospel, Jesus faces three temptations, and each time, he leans on the Torah. For the Jewish people, the Torah was the embodiment of God. By responding to each temptation with a quote from the Torah, Jesus is entrusting all of his faith in God.
First, Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread, to use his own power as God’s Son to alleviate his own suffering. Jesus leans on his faith.
Then, he is tempted by the idea of testing God’s fidelity -- surely God will catch me if I fall, but let’s just test God on this one. Instead, Jesus again leans on his faith. He knows deep down there is no need to test God’s fidelity. God is within him.
As Theophilus of Antioch would later write,
“God has given to the earth the breath that feeds it. God’s breath vibrates in yours, in your voice. It is the breath of God that you breathe.”***
God is always with us.
In the final temptation, Jesus ponders for a moment what it might be like to have all the power and wealth imaginable, if he were to put his own self interest before all else. Again, Jesus leans on his faith, affirming that his only interest is worshiping and serving God.
The story ends with the tempter, those loud internal noises, vanishing, and angels coming to wait on him. Maybe that means Jesus had a delightful meal, and was fed grapes by cherubs. Yet what I imagine this to mean, is Jesus found an inner peace and calm that soothed all the questions, doubts, and insecurities. That feeling of peace that surpasses all understanding. God's very breathe within him. He found this peace by remaining faithful, leaning on God at each and every turn.
This Lent, we join Jesus in the wilderness. There we find more space, less external noise.There is something about the wild - ness of the wilderness that helps break us open to encounter the sacred and mystical; to discover truth; to remember our why. This Lent, we each have an opportunity to reflect on where our self-interest may have distracted us from practicing our faith. To reframe the messages of our inner critic, by asking ourselves, do these messages line up with what we know about God? Do they line up with what we know about God’s abundant and unconditional love for each and every creature?
I intend to embrace the wilderness of this Lent by slowing down. An act of quiet resistance. By taking the time to be with God each day and listen. One of the ways I am paying closer attention is by making three lists each day.
In the first list, I write down five ways that I practiced self care the day before. I do this because it helps quiet the inner critic, and because when I take care of myself, I’m better able to show up for the people in my life. I am better able to strive towards God’s dream for this world.
In the second list, I write down five ways I was mindful in my work and relationships the day before. I do this because life is precious and short, and our relationships matter. And I want to communicate my care and appreciation for those I walk beside.
Finally, in the third list, I write down five things I am grateful for. I do this because we know gratitude is almost magical in its ability to help us reframe our hearts, souls, and minds. Recently, I heard paralympic Blake Leeper describe the importance of his gratitude list, and it convinced me to resume the practice again. He said:
“I do my gratitude list, especially when I’m having my bad days, where I get a no, or something just doesn’t go right, and I feel myself going down that hole of negativity. I get a pen and paper out and I work my gratitude list. I write all the things I’m thankful for. It’s easy to do it when you get that big check, or everything’s going right, or your boss just gave you a promotion, like it’s easy to talk about all the things you’re thankful for. Do it when you’re pissed off. Do it when you're mad. I mean do it when you have tears rolling down your eyes and you’re just full of emotions, and you’re trying to find the strength to keep fighting. Do it then and see how powerful and strong it can truly be.” ****
This Lent, I invite us all to do some reflecting:
* Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pages in order of reference: 253,
** Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pg. 60
*** Theophilus of Antioch, Three Books to Autolychus, I, 7, cited in Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, trans. T.. Berkeley (London: New City Press, 1993), 7.
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