Sunday, April 22, 2018

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday
April 22, 2018

Psalm 23; John 10.1-10

+ Once, when I was just beginning my ordained ministry in the Church, I was told that I was maybe modeling my ministry a bit too much on the so-called  “Father Mulcahy School of Ministry. “

This was an insult, by the way.

For those of you who might not know, Father John Francis Patrick Mulcahy was a loveable character in the TV show M.A.S.H. in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was the chaplain at the medical camp.

And this so-called Father Mulcahy School of Ministry meant that, like Father Mulcahy, a priest was more interested in talking with patients about golf or the weather than about spiritual things.  The thinking was that it was more important to be personable and friendly than to be a spiritual consolation to people in need.

I shrugged off such criticism. Because, I will wholeheartedly defend Father
Mulcahy and the way he did ministry on that show In fact, I will not only say that, yes, I maybe did subconsciously model much of my ministry on the Father Mulcahy character, I don’t understand why others don’t. Father Mulcahy was a very positive example of pastoral care when I was growing up. While priests and pastors were often depicted as dour, sour, stern holier-than-thou men in black, there was Father Mulcahy, kind, gentle and meeting people where they were, talking with them on their own level, legitemately caring  their concerns.

And let me tell you, very early on ministry, I learned that sometimes when the priest walks into a room, the last thing people want to do is talk about it spiritual things.

Father Mulcahy was a prime example to me of what it means to be a Good Shepherd. And that’s why I always liked him.  In fact, if there were more Father Mulcahy-like priests in our churches, we’d all be better off, I think.

Father Mulcahy is a very appropriate person to talk about today because today is, of course, Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd.  This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him in that day and age. They would have “got” this.  They understood the difference between a good shepherd  and  a bad shepherd.

The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock.  He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock.  He guided and led the flock to a place to eat. This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock. Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves.

In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd.  He is not the co-dependent shepherd.  The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep.  Rather, he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves. The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there.  He protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water.

Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there.  There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt.  We all need a Good Shepherd to help us avoid those pitfalls of life.

Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one.  We can still get hurt along the way.  Bad things can still happen to us.  There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us.  There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting to rain down upon us.

But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us.  We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us. More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock.  He knows each of the sheep.  If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold.

In our collect for today, there is a wonderful reference to the Good Shepherd.  In the prayer, we ask God:

“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’

Jesus sets the standard here for us.  Yes, we are called. But, in our calling, we then, in turn, are, of course, to be good shepherds to those around us.  We are called to serve, to look out for those people around us who need us. We are called to lead others to those choice places of refreshment. We are called to help and guide others.  And, most importantly, we are called to see and know those people we come into contact with in this world.

We are not called to simply exist in this world, vaguely acknowledging the people who are around us. We are to be actively engaged in the world and it the lives of others.  How often do we walk around not really “seeing” anyone around us? We are called to actually “know” the people we are called to serve.

The God Jesus shows us is not some vague, distant God.  We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves.  We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock.

We have the God who, in Psalm 23, that very familiar psalm we have all hear so many times in our lives, is a God who knows us and loves us and cares for us.  But God accomplishes this love and knowledge through us. We, by being good shepherds, allow God to be the ultimate Good Shepherd.

We were commissioned to be good shepherds by our very baptisms. On that day we were baptized, we were called to be a Good Shepherds to others.  

Anyone can be a good shepherd. Certainly, priests and pastors have long clung to that image and applied it to their vocation.  And, they should. We’ve known the good shepherds in our clergy and ministers, cast in mode of Father Mulcahy.  I hope I have, at least sometimes, been a good shepherd to the people I have been called to serve.  And we’ve all known the bad shepherds.  Bad Shepherds who have been clergy, or political leaders or business leaders.

But, today, we don’t have to worry about those bad shepherds. Today, we celebrate the Good Shepherd—the Good Shepherd that is showing us the way forward to being good shepherds in our own lives.  Because in celebrating the Good Shepherd, we celebrate goodness. We celebrate being good and doing good and embodying goodness in our lives.

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Good Shepherd, let us be what he is.  Let us live out our vocation to be good shepherds to those around us.  Let us truly “see” and know those people who share this life with us.  And let us know that being a good shepherd does make a difference in this world.  Let us make a difference. Emboldened by our baptism, strengthened by a God who knows us and love us, let us in turn know and love others as we are called to do.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Requiem Mass for Kathie Durben

Kathie Durben
(March 12, 1951 – April 17, 2018)

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

April 20, 2018

Wisdom 3.1-5, 9

+ I will be honest with you this morning: I do not want to be here right now. I do not want to be doing this service for Kathie today. I do not want to have to face the fact that I am not going to talk with Kathie again, or see her again, or laugh with her again.

For me, I have known Kathie for over ten years. Actually, for some time, we had lost touch with each other. But over a year ago, when Kathie was preparing to for her last journey, she tracked me down and we had a wonderful reunion.

Every week for the last year, I visited her to bring her Holy Communion. Holy Communion was very important to her—which is why we are having Holy Communion as part of this service today.

Now, before you think that was all sweet and holy and nice—I gotta say: it wasn’t. We were pretty raucous at times. We laughed a lot. We complained a lot.

And one time, when I got there, I realized that I didn’t have any hosts or wafers in my Communion kit. Because I can be a real forgetful ditz sometimes. A fact which made Kathie laugh quite a lot.

On this particular day when I didn’t have any hosts, Kathie said, “Well, I guess we won’t get communion today.”

I said, “Oh, not so fast!’

I noticed she had some Saltine Crackers there. I said, “Let’s use these.”

Now Kathie, who was a lifelong Episcopalian, looked at me with that look of absolute disbelief she had sometimes, as if to say, “Excuse me?”

And we did. We had Holy Communion with Saltine Crackers. Let me tell you, she laughed so hard—with that deep laugh—throughout the whole thing. For a long time afterward we laughed about that Communion.

I was even tempted to use Saltine crackers for Communion this morning. But instead we’ll use real bread.

Kathie and I got to know each other very well. And, as we all know this morning, there was only one Kathie Durben. The world will not see again someone quite like her. She was a fiercely independent, strong, determined person. And I, like everyone here this morning, am so very grateful that I knew her, counted her as a friend, loved her.

But this only makes her passing so much harder. It is hard to believe today that Kathie is not here. It is very hard to wrap our minds around the fact that she is no longer with us in this world. And we are feeling that loss today.

As I said when I began, I do not want to be here. I do not want here to be here on this Friday morning, preaching the funeral sermon for Kathie Durben. Of course, we knew this day was coming. Kathie definitely knew this day was coming. She planned for this day. She was prepared for this day.  We knew it would inevitably be here.
But I still can’t help but feel that it’s all so unfair. I think many of us feel that way this morning. And that’s all right to feel that way. It’s honest.

Let’s face it: Kathie should have had many years of life and love ahead of her. There was so much life ahead. There were so many wonderful things she could’ve done and experienced. So, yes, it is horribly unfair.

But, for those of us who live by faith, who, like Kathie, knew that life is more than just this, we have great consolation this morning. We simply need to shift our perspective, to see things differently. All that we loved and will miss about Kathie—all that life and vitality and love—none of that is gone.  None of that is lost.

Kathie and all that she was to us is now in a place beyond this sadness and loss, beyond the many tears that we will shed. She is in a place of light and unending life and joy and beauty. And we will see her again. We will experience that love and joy with her again. And this time, it will not end. That is our consolation on this day, even in the midst of the seeming unfairness of all this.

Kathie and I talked often of what comes after death. And I, as her priest, can assure you that she knew where she was going. She had a strong faith—a faith as strong as she was.  And she believed fully in that place to which she was headed.

Her daughters told me that some of the last words she said to her nurse right before she died was,

“I am so surprised.”

She was no doubt surprised at how beautiful the place was toward which she was headed.  For Kathie, and for all of us who have faith, our hope this morning is in that place of beauty and surprise.

Yes, we are unhappy this morning. Death is an ugly, terrible thing.  But we know that death is not eternal.

Our life in God is eternal. Kathie believed strongly and firmly in a God of grace and mercy. She believed in a God who loved her and protected her and surprised her with beauty.

In our reading from the Book of Wisdom today, we heard about the grace and mercy of God with these wonderful words:

 “Those who trust in [God] will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with [God] in love,
because grace and mercy are upon [God’s] holy ones.”

“Grace and mercy are upon God’s holy ones.”

 That grace and mercy is not just something Kathie is experiencing today.  That grace and mercy is upon each and every one of us this morning. And with that grace and mercy upon us, we know we have the strength to move forward, to go on.

At this end of this service, you will hear these very powerful and amazing words: All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our son: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

“Alleluia” is a word that encompasses all our faith and hope and mercy. It is a word we say quite a lot during this Easter season. The word means, “Praise God!”
It is a joyous word, that we can say even when everyone tells us we should despair.  And, in face of death, saying “Alleluia!” “Praise God!” is a defiant thing!  Kathie would really like that. She could be defiant at times! She would like something that is defiant in the face of death. Because, she was defiant in the face of death. That’s just who she was.

We—all of us—have been embraced today by God’s grace and mercy. And because we have, we have faith, like Kathie, to go on from the grave. We have the strength, and dare I say even the defiance, to say, in the face of what seems to be loss and death, “Alleluia!” ‘Praise God!”

Even here, now, even in our sadness, even here at the grave, we can say, defiantly and joyfully, “Alleluia.”

Kathie’s life and love are too powerful and too strong to be defeated by death. God’s grace and mercy are definitely too powerful to be defeated by death and the grave.  With that grace and mercy upon us and upon Kathie, we can say, “Alleluia.” And mean it.

I am also grateful this morning. I am grateful that I knew Kathie. I am grateful  that I could say she was a friend. All of here this morning are grateful for all that was Kathie was to each of us, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a friend. We should all be grateful for having known her. We are all better people because Kathie Durben was a part of our lives.

But we can also be grateful that our relationship with her does not end today. It will continue on, and one day it will be complete and unending. I hope in that day. I look forward to that wonderful day. And it will be a wonderful day!

The traditional closing sentences for this funeral from the Book of Common Prayer are some very beautiful words. They are:

“Into paradise may the angels lead you; and at your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.”

We are echoing those words today as well.

Into paradise the angels have led you, Kathie.

May all the martyrs receive you.

Today, you have been brought into the holy city Jerusalem.

One day we too will be received there with you as well.  One day, we too will experience that wonderful paradise with you.  One day we too will know the unending joy of that holy place in which you now dwell.

So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Kathie is now complete and whole and beautiful at this very holy moment and for every moment to come from now on.

She is smiling there for all eternity!

Let us take consolation in that paradise to which she has been received by martyrs and angels.  And let us be glad that one day we too will be there with her as well, sharing with her in that joy and mercy and love that will never end.  Knowing that, what more can we say but,


Sunday, April 8, 2018

2 Easter

April 8, 2018

John 20.19-31

+ You have to admit. I’m probably one of the few priests you know who mentions atheism in my sermons. And mentions it not in a negative way.  I know. It’s unusual.

But, I really find it frustrating when I hear Christians disparage atheists.  I always say that we, as the Church, have to accept the fact that we have probably produced more atheists by our not-so-wonderful behavior, our self-righteousness, our hypocrisy than anything else.  The Church has done a good job of driving people way, of nudging others toward atheism.

As for me personally, as you know, I actually read a lot of atheist theology. OK. Maybe those words “atheist theology” sound somewhat oxymoronic, but you get what I’m saying… And I have read most of it. From Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris (who are probably the most famous of the best selling atheists of recent years), from Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to H.L. Mencken and Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the notorious founder of American Atheists—I think I’ve read them all.  

I enjoy reading atheist theology because it’s often, surprisingly enough, quite insightful. It challenges me. It helps me develop a critical eye about the Church, about theology in general and about my own personal faith in particular.  And none of us should live in a vacuum, certainly not priests.  It’s good for all of us to step outside our comfort zone and explore other areas.

What disturbs me about atheist theology isn’t its anger, its rebellion, its single-mindedness about how wrong religion is. What disturbs me about atheism is how simple it is—how beautifully uncomplicated it is.  And I think in many ways it would be so easy for me to be an atheist.

Let’s face it—it’s just so easy to not see God anywhere.  It’s easy to look up into the sky and say, I see no God. It’s easy to believe that science has the only answers and that everything is provable and rational. (And just to be clear, I am fully 100%  pro-science, by the way)

Atheism in a very uncomplicated way to look at life. And I don’t mean that to sound condescending.  For atheists, there are no ghosts, no demons, no angels. There are no hidden secrets. There are no frightening unanswered questions about existence. No one is watching us, looking over us, observing us.  There’s no all-seeing, all knowing “Eye in the sky” for them.  

For atheists, there are no surprises awaiting them when they shed this mortal coil and head into the darkness of death.  There is no hell, and no heaven.  There’s no unending existence following death.  As the poet Tory Dent (1958-2005) wrote in her poem “Immigrant in my own life” as she was dying of AIDS:

“At least when I was dying, I knew where I was going:
Into atheistic air and dirt, into the Atlantic Ocean…”

I get that. I almost—ALMOST—envy that.  And when I hear any of my many atheist friends state their disbelief in the white-bearded male god who sits on a throne in heaven, I realize: if that is what they don’t believe in, then…I guess I’m also an atheist.

In fact, any God that I can observe by looking at the sky, or into the cosmos is definitely a God in which I don’t believe. I don’t want a God so easily provable, so easily observed and examined and quantified and…materially real.    I don’t believe in a God that is so made in our image. I don’t believe in a God that is simply a projection of our own image and self.  Who would want that God?  We might as well go back and start worshipping the pantheon of pagan gods our ancestors worshipped.  We might as well start worshipping trees and rocks again.

It’s actually so easy to say there’s no God.  It is easy to say that we live in some random existence—without purpose or meaning. And I guess that’s why I’m kind of envious of atheists. That’s why I jokingly say: “there but for the grace of the God in which they don’t believe go I.”

For us, however, as Christians, it isn’t as easy. Being a Christian is actually quite hard. I hate to break that news to you.  Believing is actually hard.  

Yes, we do believe in the existence of God. And by doing so, we are essentially taking the word of a pre-scientific (dare we say “primitive”) group of people who lived at least two thousand years ago. We are now in the season of Easter—a season in which we celebrate and live into the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus. But even that is based on some incredible evidence.  We are believing what a group of pre-Enlightenment, Pre-rational, superstitious Jewish people from what was considered at the time to be a backwater country are telling us they saw.

But we believe because we know, in our hearts, that this is somehow true. We know these things really did happen and that because they did, life is different—life is better, despite everything that happens.  We believe these things in true faith.

We didn’t see Jesus while he was alive and walking about. We didn’t see him after he rose from the tomb.  We don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel.

Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus.  It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh—how many of us would only jump at that chance? For Thomas, Jesus stood there before him, in the flesh—wounds and all.  And only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.

It’s interesting to see and it’s interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas.  But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy. Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh. At least, not on this side of the Veil—not while we are still alive.  And if he does, you need to have a little talk with your priest! We are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus, as Thomas did.

Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy.  It takes work and discipline. A strong relationship with God—this invisible being we might sense, we might feel emotionally or spiritually, but we can’t pin-point—takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work. It takes discipline. It takes concentrated effort.

Being a Christian does not just involve being good and ethical all the time.  Atheists do that too. The atheists I know are all are ethical, upright, good people too. Atheists are committed the same ideals most of us are committed to here this morning.  And they are sometimes even better at it all than I am sometimes, I’ll admit

But, being a Christian doesn’t mean just being ethical and “good.” (Though we should all still be ethical and “good”) Being a Christian means living one’s faith life fully and completely as a Christian. It means being a reflection of God’s love, God’s Presence, God’s joy and goodness in the world. It means that we might not touch the wounds of Jesus as Thomas did, but we do touch the wounds of Jesus when we reach out in love to help those who need our love.

As St. Augustine said, “Being a Christian means being an Alleluia from head to toe.”

Remember when I preached last Sunday about Alleluia meaning “Praise God?” We should be a walking, talking, living praise of God. Praise of God should be in our very core, our very marrow.  Even if the God whose praise we are embodying is a mystery of us.  Even if the God we embody is not seen. By embodying God, by being a Alleluia from head to toe, we embody that God and make God real in this world.  And by being an Alleluia from head to toe, we must be an Alleluia to others too.

“Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning.

We are those blessed ones. We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel. Blessed are you all. You  believe, but don’t see. We are the ones who, despite what our rational mind might tell us at times, we still have faith. We, in the face of doubt and fear, can still say, with all conviction, “Alleluia!”

“Praise God!”

We can’t objectively make sense of it. Sometimes all we can do is live and experience the joy of this resurrection and somehow, like sunlight shining in us and sinking deep into us, we simply bask in its glory.   Seen or unseen, we know God is there.  And our faith is not based on seeing God here in front of us in the flesh or proving the existence of God, or finding scientific proof for the Resurrection.  Because we actually have known God, right here, right now. God has been embodied in us. We know God through love—love of God and love of one another.  Blessed are we who believe but don’t see now.  The Kingdom of Heaven is truly ours.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Sunday, April 1, 2018


April 1, 2018

+  As many of you know, I lost my mother in January. It has been a very hard couple of months. I really have had a hard time these past few months. And many of you have journeyed with me through this dark journey.

But, way back in February, as we began our season of Lent, I shared a story in my sermon on the First Sunday in Lent. I shared the story of how my parents’ former pastor sent me a card following my mother’s death, in which she closed with these words:

“Easter’s coming.”

Those two words have kept me going over some very dark days these past few months.

“Easter’s coming,” I would remind myself when things were hard.

Now, of course, she didn’t literally mean this day. She meant what this day represents. She meant, all the joy, all the glory, all that this day embodies.

And, here it is!


I have never made a secret of this fact…but, I LOVE Easter. Some people are Christmas people. Some people are Easter people. I’m definitely an Easter person.  

Easter, after all, is all about life.

Real life.

Unending life.

A life that does not end.

It is about the dawn that comes after a very long night. And it is about our response to that life.

This word we keep hearing today, “Alleluia,” is the word we use to show our joy, our excitement at this wonderful reality.

Now, Alleluia is a word we take for granted. We will hear it hundreds of times during the 50 fifty days of Easter that begins today. But the word is important to us. It means “Praised to Yah” or Jah, which of course means Yahweh or Jehovah.  For us is means, “God be praised” or “praise God.”

And that is what we are doing today. We are praising God.  We are praising God that God gave us life. And that God’s gift of life will not be taken from us. It is an eternal gift.

See, this is why I LOVE Easter.

But what’s even better about Easter in my opinion is that, unlike Christmas, which when it’s over it’s over (people put out that Christmas tree the day after Christmas), Easter happens again and again for us who are followers of Jesus. We get to experience it and all it represents multiple times over the year.  Certainly every Sunday we celebrate a mini-Easter. And every funeral is also a celebration of Resurrection and all that Easter represents.

And why shouldn’t we celebrate it beyond this season?  When we celebrate Easter, we are celebrating life.

Eternal life.

The truly wonderful Christian writer, Rob Bell, once said,

“Eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

I love that. Resurrection is a kind reality that we, as Christians, are called to live into. Right now. It’s not just something we believe happens after we die.  We are called to live into that Resurrection NOW.  By raising Jesus from the dead, God calls us to live into that joy and that beautiful life NOW.  The alleluias we sing this morning are not for some beautiful moment after we have breathed our last. Those alleluias are for now, as well as for later.

We are essentially saying, Praise God for the life unending that God has given us!  Those alleluias, those joyful sounds we make, this Light we celebrate, is a Light that shines now—in this moment.

We are alive now!

Right now!

Easter and our whole lives as Christians is all about this fact.

Our lives should be joyful because of this fact—this reality—that Jesus died and is risen and by doing so has destroyed our deaths.  This is what it means to be a Christian. Easter is about this radical new life.  It is about living in another dimension that, to our rational minds, makes no sense.  

Even, sometimes, with us, it doesn’t make sense.  It almost seems too good to be true.  And that’s all right to have that kind of doubt. It doesn’t make sense that we are celebrating an event that seems so wonderful that it couldn’t possibly be true. It doesn’t make sense that this event that seems so super-human can bring such joy in our lives.

Today we are commemorating the fact that Jesus, who died and was buried in a tomb and is now…alive. That God raised Jesus from the darkness of death, and he is now alive.   Fully and completely alive.  Alive in a real body.  Alive in a body that only a day before was lying, broken and dead, in a tomb.

And…as if that wasn’t enough, we are also celebrating the fact that we truly believe we too are experiencing this too.  Experiencing this—in the present tense.  We are already living, by our very lives, faith in God and our faith in in the eternal, unending, glorious life that God shows in the resurrection of Jesus.

We will live because God raised Jesus to life. Now as wonderful as this all seems, the fact is, we aren’t deceiving ourselves.  We’re not a naïve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful. We know what darkness is. We know what death is. We know what suffering and pain are.

Most of us here this morning have had losses in our lives. We know the depths of pain and despair in our lives. What Easter reminds us, again and again, is that darkness is not eternal.  It will not ultimately win out.  Light will always win. This Light will always succeed.  This Light will be eternal.

I am honest when I say that part of me wishes I could always live in this Easter Light.  I wish I could always feel this joy that I feel this morning.  But the fact is, this Light will lose its luster faster than I even want to admit.  This joy will fade too. But I do believe that whatever heaven is—and none of us knows for certain what it will be like—I have no doubt that it is very similar this the joy we feel this morning.  I believe with all that is in me that it is very much like the experience of this Light that we are celebrating this morning—an unending Easter.  And if that is what Heaven is, then it is a joy that will not die, and it is a Light that will not fade and grow dim. And if that’s all I know of heaven, then that is enough for me.

The fact is, Easter doesn’t end when the sun sets today. Easter is what we carry within us as Christians ALL the time.  Easter is living out the Resurrection by our very presence.  We are, each of us, carrying within us this Easter Light we celebrate this morning and always.  All the time.

Easter is here!

It is here, in our very souls, in our very bodies, in our very selves. With that Easter Light burning within us, being reflected in what we do and say, in the love we show to God and to each other, what more can we say on this glorious, glorious morning?  What more can we say when God’s glorious, all-loving, resurrected realty breaks through to us in glorious light and transforms us;

So, what do we say?

We say, Alleluia!

Praise God!

Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Holy Saturday

March 31, 2018

Matthew 27.57-66

+ This morning of course is a liturgically bare and solemn morning. We gather today in a church stripped to its barest bones. The Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is gone—the aumbry’s door lies open, the sanctuary light is extinguished and is gone.  The crosses are veiled in black shrouds of mourning. 

It is a bleak and colorless place.

It is a time of mourning.

It is a time of loss.

This liturgy purposely, intentionally, has the feel of a burial service.  And liturgically we ponder the fact that Jesus’ murdered and tortured body this morning lies in a tomb.

Despite all this, as I have said many time over the years, I truly do love to participate in the liturgy this morning.  I love to preach about Holy Saturday.  I love to talk about it.  I love to mediate on it throughout the year. And I guess I do because it’s kind of an ignored day.

For the most part, Holy Saturday is not given a lot of attention by a majority of churches, at least here in the U.S. In places like Mexico, it is a big day. Holy Saturday in Mexico is also called Judas Day and it is on this day they burn effigies of Judas Iscariot.  It is called Judas day because it is popularly believed that Judas committed suicide early on this day. 

Now, Judas has become one of the most maligned and hated figures in human history. His act of betrayal is seen as the ultimate form of treason and cowardice. And of course, the tradition has always been that Judas, after he went out and hung himself, went to hell.  The end of the story.

There have been a few traditions about what happened to his body.   One says that he was the first one buried in the Potter’s Field that was used by the money he returned to the Priests.  It is also said, to this day, that anybody buried in that Potter’s Field decomposes within twenty-four hours.

So, like that, Judas—the symbol of deceit—disappears completely, without a trace.  It’s a sad end to a sad man. But there is a little glimmer of hope in all of this. 

Today, on this Holy Saturday, we also think about a popular tradition in the Church that you know I really love.You know I love it, because I peach about it regularly.   

The Harrowing of Hell, of course, is the event in which we imagine Jesus, on this Holy Saturday, descending among the dead in hell and bringing them back.   Most years on Holy Saturday I preach about the Harrowing of Hell and reference the famous icon of Jesus standing over the broken-open tombs pulling out Adam from one tomb and Eve from the other.  I always place that icon on the votive candle stand in the Narthex.

But there is another image I would like to draw your attention to—a more interactive image.  That image is, of course, the image of the labyrinth. One of the many images used in walking the labyrinth is, of course, the Harrowing of Hell.  When you think of the labyrinth, you can almost imagine Jesus trekking his way down to the very bowels of hell. There, he takes those waiting for him and gently and lovingly leads them back through the winding path to heaven. 

On this Holy Saturday, I also like imagine that one person Jesus greets and leads back is, of course, the new-arrived Judas.   Judas was, after all, one of the closest of the apostles.  And Jesus knew from the beginning what Judas was going to do.

In a sense, Jesus needed Judas to fulfill his destiny on that cross. I can imagine, then, that Jesus, upon reaching the bowels of hell on this day, sought Judas out especially, embraced him and quietly led him out, along with the others. It’s lovely to imagine and, whether it’s true or not, I like to cling to that image.

I do, because, I will confess, of all the apostles, I sometimes identify with Judas. I think we all do at times. 

 The image of the Harrowing of Hell—the image of the labyrinth—never becomes
more real for me than when I imagine myself as Judas, at that very center—shivering there in the dark, bracing myself for an eternity of separation from others and from God. I imagine myself as the Judas who deserves to have his effigy burned, who deserves to be maligned and shown as the epitome of treason. And in that dark, cold, lonely place, I, like Judas, am amazed when I see that glimmer of light in the darkness.

I, like Judas, am filled with a steadily-growing joy as the light grows larger and bolder and I realize that within that light is Jesus.  I, like Judas, am overwhelmed in that moment when God in Jesus comes to me in my desolation and my isolation and reaches out to me to embrace me and lead me away from that prison that I have made for myself by my foolish actions and cold-hearted ways.  

See, God is so powerful that even the depths of Hell are not out of God’s reach. Even there, God can come. Even there, God’s Light can permeate. Even there, God can break open the walls of the prison of hell and can let that freeing Light shine. This is what Holy Saturday is all about.

Even dead and lying in a tomb, Jesus still manages to make a difference—to do good. Even when it seems like the ultimate defeat has occurred, the ultimate victory is going on, right under the surface.

Holy Saturday is that glimmer of light in the darkest places of our souls. And that light that is about to dawn on us tomorrow morning—that light of ultimate and unending joy and gladness—is more glorious than anything we can even begin to fathom in this moment.

So let us this morning, strain into the dark.  Let us look with hope and joy toward that light that is approaching us.  And when we see him, there, in that light, coming toward us with his arms outstretched, let us run to him with that Easter joy.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

March 30, 2018

+ I preached last Sunday about how I dreaded Holy Week this year. I dreaded it—I still dread it—because of today. This moment. This dark, silent moment.

What I have been keeping with me this week is that the story of Jesus, for us as followers of Jesus, is our story too. What we commemorate today isn’t just something that happened then, back then, in the distant past, to someone else—to Jesus.

It is where we are too. This is our story. And it is happening now, right now, for us.

This is our story.

This is our death. This is the death of those we love the most.

This is the part of the story we don’t want to be ours.

This bleakness.

This stripped away austerity.

This violence.


We have reached the lowest point in this long, dark week.  Everything seems to have led to this moment.  To this moment—this moment of the cross, the nails, the thorns.

To this moment of blood and pain and death.

To this moment of violence and utter destruction.

We are here, in this moment, not finding much comfort, not finding much consolation. We have, after all, known in our lives what this despair is.

The day after my mother died last January, as her body was being cremated, I
The Pietà at Sts Anne & Joachim Catholic Church, Fargo. January 29, 2018
went to what is called the Grief Shrine at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church here in Fargo. There, tucked away in a far corner of the church, is a shrine for those who mourn. In it is a representation of the 
Pietà—the famous statue of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. In her arms, Jesus has been taken off the cross and lies on her lap, while she gazes upward toward God, grief written on her face.

That day after my mother died, that statue was very potent reflection of my own grief at that moment.  In that statue, I saw myself and my mother. Though, for me, our saw our roles were changed. For me, it was not the mother holding the son. It was rather the son holding the body of the mother.

I too held my mother’s body that Sunday afternoon I found her, very much as Mary holds her Son in that statue. And because I recognized out shared place, though switched a bit, I saw that, yes, it too was my story.

See, this is our story too. What Jesus shows us in his life—and death—is that we are not alone. We don’t go through all this alone. Jesus went there too. And because Jesus did, God knows what we are experiencing in this awful thing called death.

Today—in the death of Jesus—we see that this is also the death of our loved ones. And it is our death as well.  And nothing fills us with more fear than this.

This is why, in this awful moment, we know despair.  In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real.  We can feel this brokenness now in a way we never have before.  Our brokenness is shown back to us like the reflection in a dark mirror as we look upon that broken, emaciated body on the cross, or held in the arms of his mother.

But…as broken as we are, as much of a reminder of our own death this day might be, as overwhelmed as we might be by the presence of death in our lives at times, so too is the next 48 hours or so.

What seems like a bleak, black moment will be replaced by the blinding Light of the Resurrection.

What seems like a moment of unrelenting despair will soon be replaced by an unleashing of unrestrained joy.

What seems like an eternal brokenness will replaced by complete wholeness.

Yes, we might die, but God is not dead. Yes, we might be broken, but God will restore all that is broken. Just as God restored the broken Body of Jesus, so God will restore us and our loved ones as well.

In short order, this present despair will be turned completely around.  This present darkness will be vanquished. This present pain will be replaced with a comfort that brings about peace.  This present brokenness will be healed fully and completely, leaving not even a scar.

God will prevail even over even…this.  Even death has no power over the God of unending life!  This is what today is about too.  This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us. All we need to do is go where the journey leads us and trust in the one who leads.