Thursday, May 25, 2017

Burnt Offering

Propers: The Seventh Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

On the 40th day after His Resurrection, Jesus Christ Ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is there to this day, serving as our great High Priest in that Temple not made with hands, praying for us, interceding for us, that we might all be made one in Him to the glory of God the Father Almighty.

When we as Christians speak of Jesus’ sacrifice, we usually limit ourselves to the Cross: He died for our sins. The Resurrection and Ascension, then, are sort of the aftereffects, the victory lap. Jesus returns to Heaven because His work is done. But this is to misunderstand the Atonement. The Ascension, Christ’s returning to the Father, is not only part and parcel of His sacrifice; it is in fact the most important part, the culmination of His work.

Sacrifice is a big deal in the Old Testament. The very heart of Israelite religion for a thousand years was the great Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God on earth. And there smoke went up continually from the animal sacrifices offered day and night upon the altar of the Lord. The sacrifice of an animal represents the giving of oneself. Animals are valuable, life-giving. It costs us, in more ways than one, to sacrifice a living creature.  And so the animal would be offered on our behalf, and the fire would transform it and carry it up to God, who would accept the sacrifice and claim it as His own.

The heart of sacrifice, in the Bible, is that we offer to God our lives and ourselves, and God in turn accepts us, transforms us, and claims us for His own.

Now, it would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in the Old Testament God does not require from His people much in the way of animal sacrifice until after they’ve rebelled against Him at Sinai, when they made for themselves a golden calf. The majority of sacrificial law appears to be God’s response to this apostasy, as though He knew that the Israelites throughout their generations would need constant and visceral reminders that faith is grounded not in our own prosperity and livestock but in the true God who alone is faithful and keeps His promises.

As the Psalmist and Prophets make clear, God does not require the blood of bulls or flesh of goats. Rather, He requires of us that we love our God with all we have, and live out this love in showing justice and compassion to our neighbor in his need. This is not pagan sacrifice to a hungry god. Rather, my act of offering myself to you, in a real and visceral way, and you then accepting and elevating me in return, is the clear embodiment a reciprocal relationship of love.

That’s what the Temple is all about—not scapegoating violence, but embodying, making manifest, the sure and constant bond of love between God and His people. And so this bond is not some wispy ideal but a real thing of fire and smoke and blood.

Of course, when Jesus comes to earth, He flips the whole system of Temple sacrifice on its head. Jesus, we know, is God in the flesh, God come down to heal us, to teach us, to sweat and laugh and cry with us. He goes about willy-nilly, speaking truth to power, lifting up the lowly, raising the dead! And in response to this astounding, unmerited grace—we kill Him.

The Crucifixion is not humanity offering up a perfect sacrifice to an angry God. It’s not an act of vicarious punishment that must satisfy divine justice in order for the world to be forgiven. No: first Jesus forgives, and then we kill Him for it. The Cross does not offer an innocent Man up to the violence of God, but instead it is God who offers Himself up on the Cross to the violence of humanity. And when we murder Him—when we slaughter Him as the Passover Lamb whose Blood sets us free—even then He speaks the words of our forgiveness from the very wood of the Cross, and pours out His life for love of the world.

But that’s not the end of it. For in His Resurrection, in His Rising body and soul from the dead, Jesus is transfigured, transformed and glorified! He is now so fully alive that at first even His closest friends can no longer recognize Him. He has been transformed body and soul by the fire of the Holy Spirit within His flesh, just as the animals slaughtered in the Temple were transformed by sacrificial fire.

And just as with those sacrifices in the Temple, so now must Jesus’ own humanity be lifted up into Heaven, claimed by the Father, accepted as His own. And so the sacrifice is complete! In Jesus, humanity itself has been perfected, offered up, transformed, accepted, and claimed as God’s own! This was the plan all along! God the Son came down to earth, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made Man, so that He could then Ascend back up into Heaven, returning to the Father with all of humanity brought into union with God’s eternal Being. That’s what Heaven really is: it’s perfect union with God.

Eternal life doesn’t mean that we just get to go to a nice place after we die. Eternal life is nothing less than to live in perfect relationship, perfect union with God in Christ Jesus—that we may all be one, just as He and the Father are One. And this starts now! Not later, not in another world. We are forgiven and accepted and claimed by God, brought into relationship and union with God, here and now. The same fire that transformed Jesus’ humanity, the fire of the Holy Spirit, burns now inside of us.

That’s why St Paul calls our bodies Temples of God’s Spirit, and calls God a consuming fire, and why he says some will be saved “as through fire.” We are called to live lives of love and self-sacrifice—which are really the same thing—forever offering ourselves to God, that God may transform us, accept us, glorify and exalt us, claiming us as His own. And this is a lifelong process.

When the Bible talks about God “testing” us, always testing, it doesn’t mean that God is issuing some cosmic standardized exam that some will pass and others fail. Rather, it means that we are tested as silver in the furnace, as metal in the fire, burning away our dross, being transformed by the fire, so that we may daily offer ourselves to God and that God—in the mysterious workings of His providence and mercy—may make us stronger, purer, brighter, hotter, liberating us from our slag and shaping us into who and what we were meant to be all along.

And yeah, that hurts. Growth always does. To love is to give of oneself, to suffer for the beloved, just as Jesus did and continues to do for us every moment of every day. Life is suffering, yet it always surprises us. What is most amazing to me is that we chose to make God suffer, and in response God chose to suffer for us. If that’s not sacrifice, then I don’t know what is.

When we suffer, when we grieve, when we despair—when we are afflicted by disease or loss or the specter of untimely death—know, my brothers and sisters, that you are not alone. God is not blind to your sufferings, but shares in them along with you. In Jesus, God knows what it is to suffer unjustly, to be persecuted and afflicted and to perish all alone. And He will not abandon us to the same. Eternal life is not just some hope beyond the horizon; eternal life is to know the fiery love of God and to be drawn into ever deeper union with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Offer to Him your sufferings, offer them as sacrifice, and He will take them all upon Himself. He will accept them, transform them, and claim them for His own. He does not cause your sufferings, He does not will your sufferings, but by the fires of His grace He can transform them into something strange and terribly wondrous: He can make your wounds the means by which He pours out His life into you.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Credit to whom credit is due: the above interpretation of the Ascension, placing emphasis on the sacrificial fire of the Holy Spirit, comes from Fr Patrick Henry Reardon of the Antiochean Orthodox Church, in his reflections on Ascension Thursday from the St James Daily Devotional Guide. The understanding of sacrificial law as penance for the apostasy of the golden calf is to be found in the writings of several Church Fathers, compiled by Dr Scott Hahn in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Exodus.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

St John's Fire

Pastor’s Epistle—June, A.D. 2017 A

The liturgical and sanctoral calendar of the Church contains a host of spring and summer celebrations we often leave by the wayside. This is in part because they are (rightly) overshadowed by Holy Week and the entire Easter season right up through Pentecost. But it’s also because spring and summer struggle to compete for our hearts and minds against the truly evocative holidays of autumn and winter.

I see this turning around somewhat, however. May Day, for example—more often called Beltane these days—has been staging a decent comeback, as has Lammas, to a lesser degree. But the holiday I’d really like to see take off goes by many names: we call it Midsummer, Litha, or St John’s Eve. Personally, I prefer its more northerly title, Johnsmas. This is, as the name would imply, the Nativity of St John the Baptist celebrated on June 24th.

John is a powerful figure in Christianity. He bridges for us the Old and New Testaments of the Scriptures. A cousin of Jesus Himself, John serves as the Forerunner of the Messiah. Everything Jesus does is prefigured by John: John preaches a baptism of repentance in the wilderness; he points to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; and several of John’s disciples go on to become Jesus’ Apostles. Even John’s death, unjustly executed by a corrupt government, heralds Jesus’ Crucifixion.

Little wonder, then, that we celebrate John’s Nativity six months before Jesus’ own. That’s right; we’re halfway to Christmas already. Note that celebrating birthdays is a rarity in the Church. Most saints are honored on dates corresponding to their martyrdom or to the consecration of churches dedicated in their name. John’s is one of only three nativities on our religious calendar, the other two being those of Mary and Jesus. That’s because these three were considered holy even before their births.

John famously said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” meaning that Jesus’ arrival was the fulfilment of John’s mission. By happy coincidence, Johnsmas falls near the summer solstice, while Christmas falls near the winter solstice. (Both were originally dated from the reference point of Easter.) After St John’s Eve, the hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere gradually decrease and the nights wax long, until the Light of God’s Son dawns anew at Christmas. I rather like how that works out.

In Scandinavia, the great Johnsmas tradition is to burn gigantic bonfires. And by gigantic, I mean that some top out at 100 to 130 feet high. Many assume that the bonfire tradition hails from an ancient pagan past celebrating the longest day and shortest night of the year, but that’s not actually true. According to the Center for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands,

In the North of Scandinavia, the turning point of the sun is actually not visible, as the sun is above the horizon continuously for up to nine hundred and sixty hours, depending on how far north you are. Therefore it makes no sense to celebrate the longest day at any particular 24-hour point of that stretch.

Rather, the Johnsmas bonfires are of Christian origin:

It was king Olaf Tryggvason who instituted Johnsmas on the 24th of June as a drinking feast to St John in Norway in the year 994. Olaf Tryggvason was one of the kings responsible for the Christian conversion of Norway.

King Olaf was a complicated fellow. To paraphrase one historian of the Viking age, Olaf and his men were deeply devoted to Christ—not big on the Ten Commandments, but deeply devoted to Christ. Nevertheless, he brought the celebration of Midsummer to the Christian North with fire, ale, and song. I for one can think of no better way to celebrate the glories of God’s good Creation, the ministry of St John the Baptist, and the heralding of Jesus’ own birth.

In six months’ time we shall gather not around great bonfires beneath the summer sun, but around all the warmth of hearth and home beneath the moon of wintertime. So raise a glass and toast a s’more to St John, to King Olaf, and to Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Be Not Afraid

Propers: The Sixth Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Congratulations, Confirmands, on the completion of your catechetical instruction. For three years, you have studied the Old and New Testaments of the sacred Scriptures, along with the Small Catechism of the Lutheran tradition. You have read and prayed, worshipped and studied, as individuals, as families, and as a congregation. And you have come at last to your Confirmation, in which the Body of Christ shall pour out upon you all the blessings of the Holy Spirit, that you may be confirmed in the faith, welcomed as full and responsible members of our ecclesiastical body, anointed with holy oil, and slapped in the face.

Moreover, this is a moment of triumph for your parents, godparents, and all of us here in your congregation. Most of you were first brought to the font of your Baptism at an age when you could not affirm the promises of Christ for yourselves. It was your family, and your community, who promised on your behalf to live with you among God’s faithful people, to bring you to the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper, to teach you the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, to place in your hands the holy Scriptures, and to nurture you in faith and prayer, all so that you might learn to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

Today is proof that your parents have kept their promises. And now you are called upon to keep them for yourselves. That’s actually why we slap you—gently, I promise. So that you remember the promises given this day, and bravely live them out.

Confirmation is not the end of anything. It is the beginning of a lifelong journey of faith, welcoming you as fellow travelers in our pilgrimage together through this foreign, fallen world toward the New Jerusalem and our true citizenship in Heaven. Today we confirm that before anything else, before any other identities or claims upon us, we are first and foremost Christians, marked with the Cross, bought with a price, subjects of the one true King of Kings who will return to claim His own.

And we need you out there. We need your strength and your faith, your insight and your questions. We are all of us members of the same Body, living stones of the New Temple. And this is no easy calling. To be a Christian is to never truly be at home in this world. We are called to love as Christ has first loved us, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and heal the sick and rebuke the sinner, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and to witness always to the Goodness and Truth and Beauty of God.

We are called to be “little Christs” at work in the world—in short, to be Jesus for our neighbor. And we all know how the world treated Jesus.

Now, as Providence would have it, we are blessed this morning with two remarkable passages from Scripture giving witness to what it looks like to live as Christians amidst a pagan world: namely, the witnesses of Sts Peter and Paul.

The Book of Acts finds Paul this morning at the Areopagus, the Rock of Mars, in the dead center of Western civilization: Athens. Make no mistake. When we speak of the golden age of classical Greece, we are speaking of Athens: birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and theater, champion of the free market, dedicated to peace through the use of overwhelming military might.

And Paul says to this pagan society, so very much like our own, that God indeed delights in the wondrous variety of human cultures, in their variegated religions and pursuits of truth, “that they would search for God and perhaps grope for Him and find Him—though indeed He is not far from each one of us.” You worship Him already without realizing it, Paul tells the Athenians, in your piety and your poetry and all the beauty of your civilization. But the God glimpsed in flashes by all the religions of the world has come now in the flesh and made Himself known by becoming one of us, freeing us from sin and death, liberating our minds from ignorance and our souls from wickedness, that all might now be one in the Risen life of Jesus Christ.

And so we see how Paul lifts up what is good and true and beautiful in the peoples and societies he encounters: how, wherever Paul goes, God is there before him, preparing the way for Christ to be known in a new culture, in a new generation. Christ does not eliminate our individual identities, but in uniting God and Man in Him, He makes us into who we were truly meant to be all along.

There is good and evil admixed in all cultures, and right through the middle of every human heart. The Good News is that Christ sees us through the eyes of Heaven. He knows the good within us, knows our potential and our destiny as human beings, and so He purifies the good within as silver in the furnace, burning away the rest as dross. As Paul writes elsewhere, we are to test all things and keep the good.

Peter, meanwhile, in writing to a series of churches in Asia Minor suffering persecution for the faith, tells us to take heart. The Lord is not ignorant of our sufferings, he assures us. If we suffer for doing what is right then we are truly Jesus’ disciples, for the Lord Himself suffered and died for the unrighteous, for His very murderers, upon the Cross. And then Peter tells us something truly remarkable.

According to the Book of Genesis, sin was so rife and humanity so corrupt in the time of Noah that our every thought was only evil all the time. Can you imagine? Every single thought, day and night, only evil all the time. What utter horror. And yet, says Peter, when Jesus died—when His soul descended to the dead, descended into hell—these were the very spirits He had come to save! People whose every thought was only evil all the time! Jesus suffered for them, died for them, went to hell and back for them, to liberate them, to bring them up, to raise them to new life.

Grace of that magnitude, the immensity of that mercy, boggles the mind. Such is the power of Christ’s mercy to raise a world drowned in sin—the same mercy poured out for us, into us, that we might now pour it out upon the world.

As you enter your adult lives, dear Confirmands, you will be sent out into a fallen world, a world corrupted by lies and delusions and despair. Our society is as pagan as any that’s ever been, for indeed ours is a consumerist society, and a consumerist society is one founded entirely upon lies.

You will be told to love things as if they were people and to use people as if they were things. You will be told that happiness is to be found in selecting ever more options from a menu of infinite choice. You will be told that children are pollutants, old people are burdens, and family is for suckers. You will be offered therapy but never goodness; expedience but never truth; insatiable desire but never any real beauty to fill that empty hole within the human heart.

You will be told that if you buy the right things, pay the right price, then you will be young and beautiful and strong and respected and immortal. And everywhere you look there will be screens to distract you, to seduce you, to entertain you to death. In a consumerist society you are first and foremost a consumer, and the world and all the flesh within it are yours to consume. Of course, the problem with a consumerist society is that it ends up consuming you.

Don’t be fooled. You know the Truth. You are not your possessions or your pocketbook or your political party. You are a child of God. You are marked by the Cross and claimed by the Christ. You are the hands and feet of Jesus still at work in this world, and this world needs you. Read your Bible, love your neighbor, give freely, live bravely, speak truth to power, worship the Lord your God, and raise the dead wherever you go. Find the goodness, truth, and beauty in everyone you meet, and lift them up in the Light of Christ.

Be not afraid! Lies have no power over you, death cannot claim you, and darkness flees before the fire of the Spirit that burns within your breast. This is what it is to be a Christian, the mission we share for the sake of the world.

Love the world. Save the world. And trust in Christ, your King.

This is the faith in which you are confirmed.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Martyrs' Cross

Propers: The Fifth Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Lutheran tradition speaks of Seven Marks of the Church, seven anchors which hold us fast to the Body of Christ. These are Baptism, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins, the Scriptures, the clergy, prayer—especially communal prayer in the Divine Liturgy—and finally the Cross. Lose even one of these, and we lose our moorings, we drift away. We cease to be the  Church and we become something else entirely.

Of these seven, the one that has become most baffling to our culture and our context is the Cross. When we call the Cross a Mark of the Church, we’re not just talking about a symbol. We don’t mean crosses of wood or iron, embroidery or ink. We have plenty of those scattered all about this place. Rather, to be marked by the Cross of Christ is to be marked by suffering, by struggle, by self-sacrificial love. For indeed, that is what the Cross is: it is the ultimate sign of love, the sign of giving of oneself, pouring yourself out, for the other, for the neighbor, even for the enemy.

And this doesn’t make sense in 21st Century America. Our entire society is predicated upon easing struggle, easing pain. We seek the path of least resistance. Our household gods are health, wealth, and pleasure, as frankly they’ve always been. So often, in school, in sports, in finding a career, we think that things come naturally, come easily, to the intelligent and the talented. The rest of us just weren’t born that way. And so if something is hard, we quit; it wasn’t for us; our talents must lie elsewhere. If it isn’t easy, we don’t do it.

And we carry this mindset over into our spiritual lives as well. There is this notion, very prevalent in our culture, that religion is primarily therapeutic. It exists to solve your problems, to ease your struggles. If you suffer, if you mourn, if you grieve, if you grapple with addiction or disease or doubt or fear, religion is supposed to solve all that, or at least take the edge off. The opiate of the masses, Marx called it.

And what’s really insidious about this is that if someone then comes to the Church, comes to faith, gets Baptized and prays and sings and kneels at the altar, yet continues to struggle, continues to suffer, we think that something has gone wrong. We think that religion has failed us—or worse yet, that we’ve failed God. It wasn’t easy, it didn’t come naturally, so I guess I’m just not cut out for Jesus.

But just the opposite is true. Jesus Christ never promised us a life of ease. Quite the contrary: He told us to take up our cross and follow Him. Life is suffering, and becoming a Christian only exacerbates that fact. But what Christ has promised us is that He is with us in all of our sufferings, and that He can take upon Himself our struggles and our strife so that they may have redemptive purpose and meaning.

We read this morning the story of St Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, and more importantly the first Christian martyr. Stephen was murdered for his faith in Jesus Christ, and because of that we see his death conformed to Jesus’ own. Now, the word martyr has been tainted of late by those at work in the wider world who think that to be a martyr is to die in the act of murdering others—as many others as possible, in fact. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The word martyr simply means “witness,” a witness to Jesus, a witness to the truth. And 2,000 years ago, that could get you killed. Stephen is murdered by the same religious authorities who handed Jesus over to be crucified. His crime is his claim that the Holy Spirit of God is not contained within a building of wood and stone, but dwells now within the hearts of sinful human beings, making us into the living stones of His true Temple, the Body of Christ. And for this apparent blasphemy, Stephen is dragged out of the city and stoned.

Yet even as he perishes, he proves the truth of his own words: he commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended His own to God the Father from the Cross; and he echoes the words of Christ, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” For this, Stephen is known as the Protomartyr: not simply the first, but the archetype, the model for all martyrs to come. To be proclaimed a martyr by the early Church, a Christian’s death had to meet three criteria: (1) it had to be an innocent death; (2) the martyr had to die forgiving and blessing his or her enemies; and (3) there had to be some holy moment, some prayer or invocation of God’s mercy.

Never could someone claim martyrdom while killing another. Even St Olav threw away his sword in the end.

In the words of Robin Philips, “The struggle-less approach to Christianity is at odds with the most ancient expressions of the faith, which saw comfort as a danger and put a high premium on spiritual struggle. In the earliest days of the Church, no one needed to be reminded that being a Christian was difficult.” Peter was crucified, Paul beheaded, Polycarp burned, Ignatius eaten. In time, however, things changed. The very Empire that persecuted the Church, the same which had nailed Jesus to the Cross, eventually came not only to legalize but also to embrace whole-heartedly the Christian faith. Jesus conquered the Rome that killed Him, and He did it through forgiveness and love, through the witness of the martyrs.

The bad old days were done. But this raised for us a new dilemma. Who were Christians, if not a people who suffered for love, who offered up their very lives for truth? Who were we, if we were no longer martyrs? Our answer was that if we could no longer die for Christ, as Stephen did, then we would live for Christ instead. We would give generously, forgive freely, live simply. We would pour out our lives for others, no longer in the arena, but in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our communities. Martyrdom was never about dying; it was about giving of oneself, even unto death.

Some would be monks. Some would be priests. Most would be faithful Christians living a life of self-sacrificial love in whatever their calling happened to be. And so the struggle, the witness, the Cross itself would be carried forward into a new age.

So what does all this mean for us today? Well, there are two things that I want each and every person here to be sure of as we go out into the world this week. The first is that if you are struggling, if you are suffering, if you are wrestling with doubts and temptations, and it feels like you fall and rise up only to fall down again, you are not alone. God has not abandoned you, and you have not failed God.

The Holy Spirit does not do away with our struggles; rather, struggles are often the surest sign we have that the Holy Spirit is hard at work within us, knitting us back together, burning away our dross like silver in the furnace. Christianity does not promise us ease. Christianity promises the Cross! But it is a Cross with a purpose. Our struggles make us stronger; discomfort is how we grow. Without the Cross, we’re not the Church.

In the Cross, suffering and love are inextricably intertwined. To love someone is to pour out yourself for them, and that hurts! But it is a glorious and a noble and a godly thing. This is the love God pours out into us, overflowing into others, that the whole world may not only be joined to God in Christ, but that we ourselves might at last become what we were always meant to be: truly human.

And the second thing of which we must be certain is that we are already loved and forgiven and redeemed. We do not earn God’s love through our struggles. We do not climb a thorny ladder of suffering back up into Heaven. On the Cross, God comes down to us! By grace you have been saved! None of this is about works-righteousness. Christians do not seek out fresh new crosses of our own design. We do not go abroad seeking monsters to destroy.

But as Christians, baptized in Christ’s Spirit, fed and nourished by His Body and Blood, we are made into the Body of Christ still at work in this world. Our job is to be Jesus—a calling more wondrous and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. And when you’re Jesus, you love. And when you love, you suffer. And when you suffer, know that it is nothing less than Jesus pouring out His own life for the world, and He is doing it through you.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Propers: The Fourth Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Why doesn’t God just show Himself to everyone, so that everyone may believe in Him?

This was a question posed by one of our confirmands in a sermon note from last week, and I think it dovetails nicely with our Gospel reading this morning.

Why doesn’t God just show Himself to everyone? Of course, one day He will. There shall come a time when the division between God and Man is done away with entirely. Then there shall be no more shadows, no more darkness, no more lies. There will only be the light of God’s own truth shining forth upon us all. This healing—this Resurrection—was inaugurated by Christ upon the Cross, when the curtain of the Temple, veiling the Holy of Holies, was torn in two. And it shall achieve its final fruition at the end of the age, when the harvest comes in full. Then all of us will know God face to face.

But what about in the meantime? What about before the end of the world? Why don’t we see Christ walking about on this earth the way He used to, showing us the wounds in His hands, commanding us to touch the tear in His side? For 40 days after the Resurrection, the Risen Christ appeared to His disciples, to His Mother, to Peter and Cleopas and Mary Magdalene, to Thomas and the Eleven. None of them believed until they saw Him and touched Him for themselves.

And finally, as to one untimely born, the Risen Christ appeared to Paul, the great persecutor of Jesus’ Church. God chose to punish Paul by forgiving him his sins and drawing him into the family of God; Paul’s penance was to become the very thing he had hated. Through the terrible grace of God’s mysterious Providence, Paul’s zeal for persecution was turned to joy, to love, to a zealous, open heart. Before Jesus appears, Paul is our greatest enemy; after Jesus appears, he becomes our greatest champion.

So why doesn’t God appear like that to everyone? What would it be like, if the Risen Christ took up residence in Jerusalem or Rome, with a street address and a telephone number? We could just call Him up: “Is Jesus Risen?” “Yep, here I am!” Or better yet, what if God were to rend open the heavens, as at the Baptism of Our Lord, and the voice of the Father thundered aloud on primetime television: “This is My Son, the Beloved! Listen to Him!”

That would settle the whole thing right there, wouldn’t it? No more doubt or division or religious persecution. After all, seeing is believing! If God would just show Himself to everyone, then everyone would believe. Right…?

But then, if that were the best way to go about saving the world, then that’s what God would’ve done. And He would’ve done it a long time ago. He would not have left Adam and Eve alone with the serpent. He would’ve shown Himself to Pharaoh, rather than sending Moses with a bag of plagues. He would have written His promises in flaming letters across the sky, rather than through the pens of the prophets. And when He came to earth it would’ve been with unspeakable fanfare!—rather than being born in a cave in obscurity, welcomed by shepherds, and raised by a carpenter.

God appears to us, reveals Himself to us. But not in the ways that we would expect. His thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways not our ways. He does not act as we would act, were we God. He is subtle and clever. He teaches us in parables. He comes to us in the elderly, in the enslaved, in the dispossessed. He comes to us on a winter’s night through the guts of a girl! And when we want for proof, when we demand clear signs and reasonable explanations, He offers to us only the Cross: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

And Jesus says it’s better this way. That’s the kicker. When it comes time for the Risen Christ to Ascend into Heaven, to return to the right hand of the Father, the Apostles ask Him why He must go. Can’t He stay? Can’t He be with us always in this manner? And He says no, He has to go; He must Ascend. But it is better this way, better for us. Because not only does He go to prepare a place for us in His Father’s House—to hallow Heaven by casting out the Accuser and to serve as our heavenly High Priest, ever interceding on our behalf—but He goes also to send us the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the very life and breath of God, who will dwell within us and make us one, who raises us all as the Body of Christ.

Instead of Jesus walking about on one pair of feet, healing and feeding with one pair of hands, proclaiming forgiveness and new life with but a single tongue, now His Body will walk about on two billion pairs of feet, two billion sets of healing hands, two billion tongues proclaiming new life in the Risen Christ to the world! When the world demands proof that Christ is Risen—when the world demands to see the Body, to see the evidence, to touch His wounded hands and side—God sends us. We are His proof. We are His evidence. We are the Body of Christ in the world. How we live out the Gospel will be all the proof the needy will need.

And it’s better this way, He says. Because there’s a difference between facts and faith. A fact is something that you have to believe whether you want to or not. Two and two are four, no matter how one may protest. But faith demands more. The truth revealed by faith—the truth that’s really true—is not propositional but relational. It isn’t about checking the right boxes or knowing the right things. It’s about how we love God by loving our neighbor; that’s who we truly are.

And this love is not an emotion, not some sappy saccharine sentiment. Christian love is a sacrificial love, a self-giving love. It is the pouring out of ourselves for the benefit of the other. That’s how God has always worked, pouring out His life for the world. This, then, is what it means to pick up our cross and follow Him.

If God were to light up the sky in bright neon letters, revealing Himself to the world on the evening news, that would not accomplish what He intends. All the wonders worked by Moses didn’t soften Pharaoh’s heart. Even the demons believe in God—and shudder. God doesn’t want us to believe in Him because we have to. He wants us to choose Him, to want Him, to welcome Him—because God is love and that’s how love works.

In truth, our universe offers us a superabundance of evidence. We can find plenty in our world to justify whatever belief. For those who know and love and seek out God, He is manifest all around us: in the glories of Creation; in scientific discovery and logical proof; in the innate capabilities of the human mind and soul. God appears to us in both the mundane and the miraculous, in Word and in Sacrament, by the empty Cross and open Tomb. He is not some genie, summoned when we snap our fingers, but rather we are drawn toward Him. Our love is not unrequited. The sheep will follow the Shepherd because they know His voice and are His own.

But for those who reject God, who would rather worship sex and self, possessions and pride, no amount of proof will prove enough. If they believe neither Creation nor the Scriptures nor even the wondrous and inexplicable in their own lives, neither then will they believe even if a Man were to return from the dead. For those who have faith, there is plenty of proof; for those who do not, no proof could be sufficient. Indeed, the question isn’t whether God exists—for God is Being itself—but whether we want to know and live His love in our lives, hard as that may be. That’s the truth God would have us seek; that’s the faith that runs deeper than fact.

So to return to the question that started it all: Why doesn’t God show Himself to everybody? Well, sometimes He does. And someday He will. But in the meantime it is better—so says the Risen Christ Himself—that when someone seeks out the living God, God sends to that someone you.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Unexpected Road

Propers: The Third Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is Easter morning in the Gospel. And Cleopas, along with another disciple—in all likelihood his wife—is on his way out of Jerusalem along the road to Emmaus.

They are disappointed, confused, and afraid. When a fellow traveler meets them on the road and inquires as to their distress, they look at him as though he has a third eye. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” they ask him. “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed Him over to be condemned to death and crucified Him.”

Then Cleopas utters perhaps the saddest words in Scripture: “But we had hoped …” Ah, how we had hoped. We had hoped for a Christ who would unite God’s fractured, fallen people and liberate Israel from the yoke of pagan Rome. We had hoped for a better age, a Messianic Age, in which the world would be reborn and the promises of the prophets fulfilled. Instead we found suffering, persecution, disappointment and death. And what are we left with, but wild stories of an empty tomb and the hysterical ravings of grief-stricken women who claim to see angels in the night?

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” their bold companion replies. Wasn’t this necessary? Wasn’t this foreseen? Wasn’t this part of the plan all along? And beginning with Moses, the very first books of Scripture, he expounds with verve upon all the things written of the Christ throughout the Hebrew Bible. And Cleopas and his companion are amazed, their hearts burning within them, as though encountering the Word of God for the very first time.

And they don’t turn around, mind you. They don’t hightail it back to Jerusalem right away. But they listen, astounded, as they begin to realize not that Christ had failed their expectations but that their expectations had failed the Christ. And as evening sets, they turn toward a village to find shelter for the night, and their companion moves to continue on alone—until they entreat him, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.” They are eager to rekindle their hope.

So he comes to share dinner with them. And as he takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, suddenly their eyes are opened and they recognize him—it is Jesus Himself, Christ the Lord, whom they had known so well in life! And the moment their eyes are opened—the moment they see Him for who He truly is—He vanishes abruptly from their sight.

Looking back now, their whole journey is transformed. Christ was with them the entire time along the road to Emmaus, even as they lamented their disappointment at His death. And that very hour, to heck with the darkness, they rise up from the table and rush back to Jerusalem, where they find the Apostles in an uproar, declaring that they’ve encountered the Risen Christ victorious over the grave! And as Peter shares his story, so Cleopas and his companion share theirs: how Jesus made Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Of all the Resurrection appearances recorded in the Scriptures, the Road to Emmaus proves one of the most memorable and evocative. Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all known disappointment and despair in our lives. We’ve all returned with mourning from a hope beyond all hope. And to have our mourning turned to dancing, our disappointment drowned in joy—why, that’s nothing less than a little resurrection of our own!

We all plan fantastic futures, we all dream great dreams. And then when something unexpected erupts and sweeps all that away—the best-laid plans of mice and men—we find ourselves turning back, commiserating in the universal refrain: “But we had hoped.” And we encounter fellow-travelers along the way who walk with us in our grief, who encourage us and support us and tell us how foolish we are when that’s really what we need to hear.

Yet for the faithful, for those who have eyes to see, we get these brief flashes that reveal to us the divine reality hidden beneath the surface of things. We see that God has been with us all along, with us in our turning, in our grieving, in our lamentations. God has never left our side! And indeed, He has foreseen the troubles that befall us and in His mysterious Providence has devised ways to extract good even from them. Evil cannot produce a result that God cannot anticipate.

And sometimes the detours, the disappointments, the tragedies, in the end, turn out to be best things that ever happened to us—not because God caused us to suffer, but because He was with us in it, working to heal, to resurrect, to bring about new beginnings and new birth. That’s the way He works: always surprising, always making things new. But rarely can we see that at the time, until we look back upon our lives in the Light of the Risen Christ. And we see our entire story is transformed.

The Road to Emmaus is the story of all of us who had one life, one set of expectations, all laid out in our heads, only then to collide jarringly with a reality we never saw coming. There was the future we wanted, and the future we got. But the Resurrection of Christ means that we have a new future, the one God has always intended for us: an immortal future, an infinite future, a future of love and joy and healing and life: a future in which every wound is healed, every sin forgiven, and every hope fulfilled in ways far more wondrous and surprising than any we could have dreamt up for ourselves!

And we can see this future—we can see the Risen Christ—when He opens to us the Scriptures, when He breaks for us the Bread of Life. We find our Lord in Word and in Sacrament, which is why we gather here together every Sunday. Yet He is with us all the time, even when we can’t see Him. He is with us in the stranger, in the hungry, in the homeless and the poor. He is with us in every person we meet wheresoever the journey may take us.

Remember this, when despair creeps in and we turn back upon the road we’re given. Remember this, when we lament in our mourning, “But we had hoped.” Christ is Risen! He lives! He is with us even now! And it’s wonderful when we see Him so clearly, when reality deep and true is revealed to us in the opening of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. But such moments, alas, in this world are fleeting, like glimpses of glory glanced in a shattered mirror. Then they vanish—and we are left transformed by wonder.

Such glimpses remind us that the promises of God are so much greater than our hopes could ever hope to be! And they invigorate us with their reality to rush headlong through the night, proclaiming to the world that Christ is Risen!—He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!—and He is with us even now along this unexpected road.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Crowning May

Pastor’s Epistle—May, A.D. 2017 A

May and June. Soft syllables, gentle names for the two best months in the garden year: cool, misty mornings gently burned away with a warming spring sun, followed by breezy afternoons and chilly nights. The discussion of philosophy is over; it's time for work to begin.
—Peter Loewer  

The world's favorite season is the spring.
All things seem possible in May.
—Edwin Way Teale

May is one of my very favorite months. It’s light, it’s breezy, it’s joyful and fun. Flowers and lawns alike are sprouting; grills and bonfires tinge the evening air with wafts of delicious smoke. As darkness wanes, children play out in the yard deep into the night. The winds and rains, not yet as brutal as they tend to grow later in the summer, have a refreshing bite to them. And the sky is alive with clouds.

May has no one single overarching holiday in popular imagination, but a host of minor ones all strung together. May Day, the first of the month, is a welcome to warmer weather. Those of a Gaelic bent call it Beltane, when herdsmen would drive their flocks between bonfires both to bless and to fumigate them. May baskets would be left anonymously on neighbor’s porches, and a Queen of May—the Virgin Mary, in the churches—would be crowned with flowers. Even the full May moon is the Flower Moon.

‘Tis the season for graduations as well, another sort of new life. On the first Sunday in May, St Peter’s will be blessing the quilts made by our Piecemakers ministry, some of which will be wrapped about our graduating high school seniors as their parents, along with the entire congregation, pray a blessing upon them at their entry into adulthood. That Wednesday, May 10th, will be our celebratory Graduates and Confirmands Dinner, both for our seniors and for those receiving the Rite of Confirmation later in the month.

The second Sunday of May is Mother’s Day, for which I assume we all have plans. That week also celebrates Sts Brendan and Alcuin, as well as Syttende Mai (for the Norse, of course). The third Sunday, May 21st, is both our Confirmation Sunday and Rogation Sunday. For the former, we’ll be welcoming those who have completed three years of Confirmation instruction into full membership within the ELCA; for the latter, we’ll be processing about the parish grounds, beating the bounds with brooms and reciting the Great Litany. Bring a broom from home, along with seeds and tools and earth to bless. It’s all good fun.

Most importantly, however, May is the month of Easter. The festival of Our Lord’s Resurrection has never been a single-day affair, mind you, but an entire 50 day season, culminating in Pentecost first thing in June. It is as though Creation herself proclaims her Maker’s Resurrection, bringing forth new life and light and warmth to revive us after winter’s long slumber. Amidst the movies, the marriages, and the marigolds—all the merriments of May—let us rejoice most of all that Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! And our Easter joy is bright.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.