By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Confession: I get impatient with church buildings and campuses, which can so often become idols that distract us from following Christ. And yet, this past Monday, my heart leapt into my throat when I learned of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. At the time it was still unclear whether the church could be saved. News and social media outlets exploded as people shared their pictures and stories of Notre Dame, as they mourned the potential loss of such iconic art and history. One friend said when the church’s spire fell, they were immediately taken back to the moment they saw the towers fall on 9/11. A former CNN correspondent, Frida Ghitis, wrote: “The massive, majestic cathedral looked like it had been there forever, and would remain until the end of time. If only for a moment, Notre Dame ablaze reminded us that we all share this world; that human history means everyone’s past.”
It is easy to forget that we are all connected as one human family woven into God’s creation. It seems as though it takes tragedies, wars, plagues, and feelings of outer darkness to remind us that we are in this life together, that we share a common history, and that any suffering and pain in this life is a burden we are meant to carry together.
Good Friday is just such a day. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, beaten in prison, tried, and executed.
I’m not convinced it had to be that way or that it was by God’s design.
How easy it is for us, both then and now, to play the blame game:
Well, it was Judas, his own disciple who betrayed him…
...or, it was the Pharisees’ fault for being so resistant to change…
...it was really the temple police’ inability to stand up to their bosses…
...it was Annas, after all he sent Jesus to the high priest for further interrogation…
...no, it was Caiaphas; he is the one that suggested giving the Romans a scapegoat…
...well, really it was Peter, how could he have ever denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times…
...actually, at the end of the day, it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order…
...or it was the soldiers, after all, they are the ones that crucified Jesus…
...or it was the disciples who scattered in fear…
This list could go on, and on.
At the end of the day, there is no one person responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor, do I believe, that it was the plan of God to send his only beloved and precious child to the cross, as some final sacrifice that would allow the atonement practices of old to be fulfilled.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is known for saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” We also heard him say at the revival that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness.
It makes much more sense to me, that the cross is not some perfect plan of restitution, but rather the result of our shared human selfishness. Every single person that I mentioned who played a role on the way to the cross, at some moment in that journey choose themselves over love. Love was just too great a risk to bear.
Yet those folks are not alone. Each of us at different times, has chosen ourselves over the greater well being of others. We have played it safe, we’ve taken the path of least resistance, we’ve done what we needed to do to survive. Yet those actions have also caused harm to those around us. Anytime we are selfish, there is a cost. Jesus of Nazareth’s execution was not any one person’s fault. It was the result of our shared human family choosing selfishness one too many times.
On this day, we remember the way of the cross. We remember an arrest, beating, trial, and execution of an innocent man who simply wanted us to choose love instead of selfishness. It is a tall ask, and it is our calling to wake up tomorrow morning and do everything in our power to choose to live a life of love day in and day out. So that we may share the light bearing, life changing, love and hope of God into our world and that we might draw upon that love as our human family faces tragedies, wars, plagues and feelings of outer darkness. Instead of letting those things overwhelm us, fear and shame us into complacency and inaction, we are being asked to choose the way of love.
As we prepare for tomorrow, about what it means to choose the way of love, let us remember what the great poet and priest, John O’Donohue wrote about resurrection:
“When the cross hits your life, a loneliness, a blindness and a darkness come all around you. Darkness and lostness are the worst parts of suffering. The wonder of the Resurrection is that this darkness was opened out and at the heart of the darkness a secret light was discovered. Each one of us who has come here hasn’t come to this place out of curiosity but we have come because we know the need that is in our lives and we know the frailty that is in our hearts and minds. We are strangers in the world. In our journey through life anything can befall us. It seems to be very difficult for us as humans to learn how to love, to learn how to let the fear and the resentment and the blindness fall away from us and to come into the special joy and peace and freedom of love. No matter how assured or competent we may feel, there is none of us who has not large territories of fear in our hearts, fear of sharing ourselves, of opening ourselves, of entering life. That is why we [will] come to an ancient holy place like this, before the dawn, to let the new tender light of the resurrection touch our helpless fear and transfigure it and open it into courage.”*
Let us come together tomorrow to find that secret light hidden in tonight's darkness. Amen.
*John O'Donohue from his Easter Homily at Corcomroe Abbey 1992. Included in "Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O'Donohue in Conversation with John Quinn".
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
It’s six days before the Passover, and you are on your way to Jerusalem. You stop a mile or so outside the city, in the village of Bethany, so you might have dinner at your friend Lazarus’ house. His sister Martha, known for her hospitality, has prepared a beautiful meal. One of Lazarus’ friends, Jesus of Nazareth and his inner circle of followers, are also at the table. As you break bread together, Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, retrieves a jar of what looks to be costly perfume and sits down at Jesus’ feet. She begins to anoint his feet with perfume, and then wiped them dry with her hair. It seems a profoundly intimate thing to do; it was almost as if she was anointing his body for burial. Then things grew even more uncomfortable when another guest, Judas Iscariot, challenged Jesus as to why he was allowing Mary to waste such an expensive jar of perfume on him, when they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and helped the poor. You consider stepping out for some fresh air while these folks sort out their business, when Jesus says something that stops you in your tracks. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
What ends a dinner party faster than discussions of religion and politics? Death. Just as none of the guests at Lazarus’ table wanted to keep talking after Jesus spoke of his nearing death, our culture avoids looking at our own mortality head on. Instead we are inundated with messages from social media, news, medical professionals, and friends that tells us the things we must do to maintain our youth. And since it feels good to feel young, we buy in, often hook, line, and sinker. Yet, that is not what our faith asks of us.
Have you noticed that starting with Ash Wednesday, the readings in Lent have been focused on our mortality?
This theme continues today and all the way through Holy Week. We are being asked to consider our own mortality, to grapple with what it means to live well and to die well.
I hope that every week we leave here with a renewed sense of how we are called to live as followers of Christ. There is a reason you hear us end so many worships with, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us...” There is no time to waste. God is inviting us to live well now, as there are no guarantees of tomorrows. We have this day. We have right now. How will we live a life of love? Yet as important as living well, is planning well for our death.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on p.445 is a little known instruction that asks parish priests to talk to their community about planning well for death. It reads as follows: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”
According to the Diocese of California, 50% of Americans die without a valid will, and allow the state courts to distribute their assets however the state thinks best. They also note that spring is a common time to write wills because of upcoming summer travels. I think it also makes sense that we would think about making wills, planning our burial services, our healthcare wishes, and any legacy gifts in the lead up to Holy Week. As we grapple with Jesus’ looming death, might we consider our own mortality.
A will or trust is a testament of our faith and values. Our will is one final chance to tell the people we leave behind what matters to us. It is a chance to ensure our children and loved ones are well cared for. It is a chance to give back to our faith community with a legacy gift. Alice Kells’ legacy gift allowed for the renovation of the lower level to include a three story lift, making our entire parish hall building accessible. Whitney Robbins’ legacy gift allowed for funds to sponsor our mission to the community, particularly Whitney’s Pantry. The John Whiteman and Richardson Trust made a legacy gift that subsidizes nearly 10% of our annual budget each year.
In my first year serving former St. James, we were celebrating our bicentennial. Our Stewardship Chair at the time, Dennis O’Rourke, asked that all of us become legacy givers, before we then ask the congregation to consider doing the same. On the church’s end, this meant we would fill out the legacy giving form. On Jason’s and my end, it meant we had to create a will. We met with Kate Downes, an estate planning attorney in Shelburne Falls. We made decisions about who would have guardianship of our children should something happen to us, we made decisions around our healthcare, we named our legacy gifts and our beneficiaries. It had been a task nagging at us since our eldest was born, and it was a relief to have this work done. In addition to estate planning, we made healthcare decisions, and used the church’s form to plan our burial services. Seven years later, Jason and I are now 39 and 35. We do not own a house, but we do have other small assets, and more importantly, we have children that need to be well cared for. My point is, you can neither be too old or too young to do this work. It is a gift for those you leave behind, and it is a testimony of your faith. It is a way for you to take seriously our call to live life well now, and plan for a holy death.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to do this planning.
My friends, remember that life is short, and we must live well now, and plan well for those we will leave behind. While this life may come to an end, eternal life in Christ will be the next chapter.
At the end of the burial service we say a prayer that holds the tension of living and dying well, together:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499).
In today’s lesson, we witness an argument between the Pharisees and Jesus. But there is so much more at stake then first meets the eye. We are witnessing a contest, in which fear seeks to triumph over love.
Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, while stopping along the way to teach, preach, and heal. And as Jesus was preaching to a crowd some Pharisees came up to him and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). Jesus responds by saying,
“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:32-34)”
The emotion in this exchange is palpable. Both Herod, who made the threat, and the Pharisees, who delivered it--and not out of kindness, are threatened by this wandering preacher, who was teaching, and healing, and bringing the message of God’s love to society’s outcasts. Jesus was bringing people together in a way that caused him to become a credible threat--both to the religious establishment and the local government. They thought if they threatened murder, it would scare Jesus and his followers into compliance. Except, much to their dismay, it didn’t work like that because Jesus was the real deal and no amount of fear tactics could ever drive him away.
There are two things that I think are particularly important to notice in this exchange.
The first has to do with the fact Jesus calls Herod a fox. In a lenten podcast, Bishop Fisher reminds us that foxes did not have the same characteristics we give them today, such as cleverness or sexiness. Instead, rabbis of the time considered foxes to be useless and worthless. Herod thought of himself as a lion, a mighty leader who had complete dominion over his kingdom. Yet Jesus flipped this idea on its head when he describes Herod as a useless and worthless fox.
In essence, he is saying, Herod, “Herod, you have no power over me. I’m performing cures, and healing. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
In his podcast, Bishop Fisher suggests we do the same. What has power over us? Is it fear, is it addiction, is it depression, is it the copious amount of stuff in our homes? What if we were to to turn to that thing that holds us back, from being our fullest and best self, and say, “You have no power over me. I have important work to do. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
The second important thing to notice in this passage, is that Jesus describes himself as a mother hen who longs to gather up her brood under her wings. It’s not the first time God has self described with feminine imagery. In Deuteronomy God is described as a mother eagle, and in Hosea God is described as a fierce mother bear. For some of us, it might be a bit uncomfortable to lean into the feminine aspects of God, given so much of our liturgy refers to God using masculine language. And know, that there’s nothing inexplicably wrong with praying to our father in heaven. It’s when we only pray to God using masculine language that we miss out on a deeper connection with our creator.
In Genesis, it describes how in the beginning, God created us in the image and likeness of God, both male and female. Then in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he writes that there is no longer male or female, for we are now all one in Christ. The scriptures attempt to paint a picture of God, one where God is both male and female and at the same time no gender at all. The nature of God is bigger than anything we could ever conceive or imagine, so it is important that we notice Jesus describing himself as our mother hen.
As a parent, I take great comfort in these images of a mother eagle, bear, and hen. In fact, this past week there was not one, but two incidents, where my children were hurt, and my blood has still not stopped racing. I want to swoop in like a mother eagle, to roar at my adversaries like a mother bear, and to hide my children under my wings, so that I might protect them. Honestly, I couldn’t even imagine preaching on this text as my blood boiled within me.
And yet, isn’t that the point? That is how much our God loves us. Jesus is our mother hen, who wants to gather us under her wings, to protect us from the dangers of this world, even though she knows what awaits her in Jerusalem. To help us grow and flourish into the people we were born to be, so that together, we might transform this world into what God created it to be. Have you ever loved someone or something in that mother hen kind of way that Jesus loves us?
Do you remember how it felt when that someone or something was in danger? That is how God feels about us--that overwhelming kind of love that will stop at nothing to give us our very best chance.
In her book, Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene from today’s gospel in a way I can’t stop thinking about.
“It may have looked like a minor skirmish to those who were there, but the contest between the chicken and the fox turned out to be the cosmic battle of all time, in which the power of tooth and fang was put up against the power of a mother’s love for her chicks. And God bet the farm on the hen.”
“Depending on whom you believe she won. It did not look that way at first, with feathers all over the place and chicks running for cover. But as time went on it became clear what she had done. She had refused to run from the foxes, and she had refused to become one of them. Having loved her own, who were in the world, she loved them to the end. She died a mother hen, and afterwards she came back to them with teeth marks on her body to make sure they got the point: that the power of foxes could not kill her love for them, nor could it steal them away from her. They might have to go through what she went through in order to get past the foxes, but she would be waiting for them on the other side with love stronger than death” (p. 129-130).
Our mother hen, Jesus, longs to gather us under her wings. So that we can gather all the strength and love possible, before we take those brave steps and leave the safety of our mother’s wings. Where we might dare to overcome our fears, to be our best selves, to come together and change this world into God’s greatest dream for creation. To tell that fear or addiction or depression or stuff that holds us hostage, “You have no power over me. I have important work to do. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
We know it’s possible, we know it can happen, because we know what happens at Easter. We know that love will always conquer fear. Amen.