Lord, in this day of our confusion and struggle grant us the boldness of open hearts to approach the throne of your grace, so that we may receive mercy and find + grace to help in time of need. Amen. (Hebrews 4:16)
It’s Friday. In the Hebrew Jewish calendar it’s the sixth day, the day when God created humanity. In God’s own image God created us, male and female he created us. In this day God saw everything that God had made, and behold it was very good. It’s the day of preparation for the Sabbath, when God rested, and when God commanded all creation to rest.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. –John 19:26-30
It’s Friday. It’s a hard day. It’s a day when we need to be reminded: “behold, God’s creation is very good.” For those of us in Jesus’s flock, today does not seem like a good day. Today’s the day of betrayal, pain, death, and mourning.
It’s Friday. Those of us who have been part of Jesus’s flock for a while know that Sunday is coming. We know that Jesus’s friends will find his tomb empty on that day. But Sunday is not today. His friends did not know his tomb would be empty. All they had left after Jesus gave up his breath was betrayal, pain, death, and loss.
Does this Friday, when Jesus gave up his breath, make the sixth day of creation – in which God saw that everything was very good – into some kind of cruel mockery? Can that be? Was that the experience of Jesus’s friends standing a ways off from the cross watching him die? Do you and I experience that mockery? Were you joking, Oh God, when you said that your creation is very good?
At sunrise a week ago–last Friday–my mother Anna gave up her breath. I visited with her the night before, when she still had her breath. I also visited with her in the morning soon after she gave up that breath. I sat with her while she gave up the warmth that gave me life. When the undertakers arrived, my mother was quiet, cool, and at peace.
In many ways her death was nothing like Jesus’s. He was killed by a frightened and furious elite, and she was acclaimed in life and death by all who knew her. His students and friends (meaning Peter and James, and you and me) denied that they knew him. Her friends and students rallied around and gave honor to her.
She had the privilege of dignity that he did not have. The circumstances of her last hours were comforting and private. Not so for Jesus. During his death he was put on display for all to see and hear.
But, they did share something in their time of death: dignity and grace. Hers was private, his was very public.
Our culture fears death. When the undertakers came, they asked me if it would disturb me to watch them move Mom from her bed to their stretcher. Then they closed all the doors to other peoples’ rooms in her skilled nursing place. They whisked her out the back door so nobody would see. The only sound they made was the click of the door closing behind them. It was an odd ritual of stealth and of control. They went to some trouble to avoid stirring up the fear of death, in me or in Mom’s fellow patients.
Similar rituals of stealth and control happened after Jesus died. Joseph and Nicodemus came and claimed Jesus’s body. They wrapped him up and weighed him down with a large quantity of aloes and spices, and placed him in a tomb.
O God, are you joking? If your sixth-day, your Friday, creation is very good, then why, why do we fear this part of it so much?
Could it be that our horror of death is cultural, and is not God’s doing? Could it be that we contemplate the events of Friday – the scandal of the cross of Jesus – and recoil? Could it be that we miss the point?
Jesus’s death on the cross certainly was brutal and repugnant. My mom’s death also had its pain and unpleasantness: she died because her body wore out after being ravaged by disease. But Mom, and Jesus, passed through this part of their lives with grace and dignity.
Near the end of her life Mom blessed us her family and reminded us to care for each other. So did Jesus as his body was being ruined. He said “woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” These simple words — take care of each other! Love one another! — spoken as he was dying are an overwhelming proclamation of God’s kingdom, the kingdom where death has no power, where life continues without end. These dying words — these Friday words — proclaim the resurrection and the life strongly. Almost, but not quite, as strongly as Sunday event to come. They make no mysterious promises – no claims of rising up in three days.
They demand no leap of faith except the greatest one: continuing to care for each other the same way Jesus cares for us. These words from the cross proclaim life and resurrection in the midst of suffering and death.
Glory surely does follow after suffering and death. Jesus’s empty tomb surely follows his occupied one. Sunday surely follows Friday. That Sunday claim is true. But these Friday words do not rely on that claim. His pain and suffering surely will be healed come Sunday. But these words proclaim something else: the glory and grace that shine forth in the midst of death. Jesus’s dying words of love and hope show us and teach us that death has no sting. They show is that death IS swallowed up in victory.
When we sit in the company of loved ones at the ends of their lives, and as we draw near to the end of our own lives, let us see, as Jesus saw, beyond the pain. When we gaze upon the cross, let us face it completely. It is scandalous and horrible – that is undeniable. But let us open the eyes of our hearts. Let us see beyond the horror of the cross to the love and grace that Jesus proclaims in that moment. That’s how Jesus, in his dying, conquers death. That’s how Jesus teaches us to love one another as he loves us in life and death. That’s how Jesus invites us into his eternal kingdom. For what God has created, on this sixth day, this Friday, is indeed very good.
Jesus, remember us as you come into your kingdom. Amen.
This is a day of contradictions. This liturgy flows from tones of jubilant welcome to the discord of fierce violence – From cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify”. This liturgy today holds within it the two elements of crisis – great opportunity and great danger. And in the middle of it stands the man, Jesus, the most focused expression of God ever to wear human flesh.
That is the human narrative that plays out in the Passion Gospel from Luke that we are about to bring to life among us once again. But our second reading from the letter to the Philippians takes us back further to the moment of the incarnation – a bit like the prologue to John’s Gospel. This passage from Philippians is thought to be an early Christian hymn about Christ that Paul incorporates into his letter. In an article on this hymn in The Christian Century Magazine Benjamin M. Stewart observes that the contradictions of this day are matched by the contradictions God becoming human are all distilled into this early hymn. He writes:
“Christ Jesus, Paul writes, is in both the form of God and the form of a slave. It is in reverence for this apparent contradiction that everything ‘in heaven and on earth and under the earth’ may find common purpose, culminating in what Paul envisions as a sort of cosmic liturgy in which everything everywhere bows before the mystery.”
Part of the mystery is that it is only through darkness that the light shines out. In her recently composed hymn, Holy God, Holy and Glorious” Susan Briehl borrows imagery from our first lesson – the suffering servant passage in Isaiah- and the Christ hymn of Phillipians. In her modern weaving together of those images she has us sing:
“You are despised, rejected;
Scorned, you hold us fast,
And we behold your beauty.
You bend to us in weakness;
Emptied, you draw near,
And we behold your power”
The mystery of seeming contradiction. The mystery of jubilant welcome melting into calls for a violent death, which then gives rise to abundant new life. The mystery of God in Christ becoming human to give us power to ride our own waves of death to the paradoxical dawn of our own Easter. With that pattern at the center of our faith we begin to glimpse the underlying truth that all things – almost impossibly – work toward a common purpose. And so seeing we come to believe that in the end all will bow to the Divine Mystery.
All this week here at St. Paul’s we will have the opportunity to step into this contradiction laden story through our liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. These liturgies will carry us along together toward the paradoxical mystery of Easter Light which we will first see this flames of the new fire at the Easter Vigil and then fully ablaze in the light of Easter morning. The more we enter in, the more the power the story has to touch and transform us. And the greater our Easter joy.
So come often this week my friends and join in the common purpose of being changed more deeply into his most glorious likeness.
In the power of Christ’s story and of his name. Amen+
Hello, my name is Erika Almquist and I want to start by thanking you all for welcoming me into your church today to speak regarding some moving experiences and learnings that I was lucky enough to be exposed to during my yearlong mission trip to El Salvador. I know that some of you here today have had a chance to personally experience mission work in El Salvador and I hope my story will ring true to what you have witnessed and experienced.
In preaching today, I would like to pull from the gospel reading in which Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with costly perfume and then wipes them with her hair, in an act of true grace and love.
When I think of Mary’s actions and love for Jesus, I can’t help but think about a woman from El Salvador that I hold very close to my heart. Dona Lucy was one of many women in the community of El Pital that lived each day with the love of Jesus in their hearts. I’ve often heard this term before but never really understood it until my exposure to the church community in El Pital. El Pital is a small community about 45 minutes outside of El Salvador, ridden with the burden of poverty and the violence of local gangs but is also proud to be the home of “La Primera Via Anglicana” or in English, “The First Anglican Road”. The first thing that you see on the entrance to El Pital is the church, San Francisco de Asis, and the school that the Episcopal Church built over a decade ago. El Pital is the community that I spent that majority of my time, volunteering within the community health center, teaching health education classes within the school, teaching yoga within the church, and San Francisco de Asis was my home church in El Salvador.
Many of God’s teachings stress the importance of reaching out to those less fortunate than you and how service to others is a rewarding experience to both parties involved. Even in today’s Gospel reading, with the impending death of Jesus, Mary’s act of caring as she washes his feet emanates from love and is a service that is highly meaningful for both parties involved. When I joined the congregation at San Francisco de Asis, in El Pital, it was with all good intentions to serve those who were less fortunate than I, those who had less money, lived in block house with corrugated roofs, barely got by day to day with enough food but little did I know that I was going to be the one who benefited most, as I was surrounded by love and slowly learned what it really meant to live each day with the love of Jesus in your heart.
Christian faith has been a part of my life since I was born. Although I did not have a parish I could call my own until fourth grade, I was raised within a family that surrounded me with God’s love. Of all the Christian values that I have been taught, the importance of showing others the same love and acceptance that God shows us is the most important to me. When my family moved to Massachusetts, we joined the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, and as I became more involved with the services and various youth groups, Christian faith took on new meaning for me. I learned that part of Christian faith is to serve everybody no matter who they are or where they’re from. This is a lesson that played a big part in my decision to do mission work in El Salvador and it is a part of faith that showed brightly in the care that the congregation of San Francisco showed to me.
The congregation of San Francisco de Asis, treated me like a part of their family and always looked out for me to make sure that I was fed, had a place to sleep, was happy, and always felt included. Specifically Dona Lucy showered me in love; despite the fact that throughout the year that I was in El Salvador, she suffered some painful losses, with the death of both of her parents, two very kind individuals that were very active in the church. You would think that with loved ones dying around you, you might turn inwards and have trouble opening your heart to the friends and strangers around you but Lucy was so strong, it seemed as though her faith in Jesus and love of God just kept her going; like Mary she always acted out of true grace and love. I was fortunate enough to have many opportunities to be surrounded by her love: I spent the majority of my lunch breaks from the clinic, eating beans and rice in the back of her modest house, which she would never allow me to pay for. If I came to a late service, she would always insist that I stay the night and would not allow me to drive back to the city after dark, always taking whatever steps would keep me the safest. When her mother passed away, a few months after her father, I was included in every step of the vigil and memorial service; in which she opened her house to her 7 brothers and sisters and their many children.
It was not only Dona Lucy who made me feel like an integral part of the San Francisco de Asis community, as there was Rev. Irma, Yesinia, and Luisa, to name a few of the people who truly became my Salvadoran family. I was invited to participate in many church and community events and in hopes of giving you all a little better picture of the community I was welcomed into, I want to read two of my blogs regarding events involving women from the San Francisco de Asis community that were full of happiness and love.
The first being:
#1-las fiestas patronales de San Francisco de Asis (or in English the celebration of the patron saint of Saint Francis de Asis).
On Sat. Nov 5, 2011, I took a series of three buses in a span of two hours, to El Pital to be a part of the “fiestas”, which started with the election of the queen of San Francisco de Asis. Saint Francis de Asis is a big deal to the church in El Pital because the church is named after him. The election started with a parade of the 5 queen delegates (between the age or 4 and 8). Three cars were nicely decorated with balloons and streamers and then the little girls were placed on the hoods of the cars to be paraded around the town. After the parade we started the election process. I had the pleasure of being a judge, which meant I got to count the money put forth towards one of the girls. My little girl was named Carolina, and guess what she won! In between the ballots, the women from JUL (a community women’s group) shared information on violence prevention and several of the kids performed skits and dances. After the elections and the crowning of the queen, there were fireworks and pupusas (yum). They had fireworks that went up into the sky and also a “bull of fireworks” which was held by one of the young men and as he ran around fireworks shot off in little spirals (it was kind of crazy).
The next day, I woke up at 4:40Am, in time to leave Rev. Irma’s house at 5AM to go to an early mass at San Francisco de Asis in El Pital and ate “shuco”, a traditional soup/drink made out of corn (it’s very similar to grits). After mass I got the pleasure to help (or it might be better just to say learn because I’m not sure how much of a help I was) make tamales. I got to be part of the process from the beginning to the end. We started with the corn kernels, which we took to the “molido” (the mill) to turn the kernels into “masa” (which is basically ground up corn with some ground up vegetables and water). Then we added chicken stock, butter, and oil to the batch and brought everything to a boil. The next step is to actually form the tamales, putting a little bit of the “masa” into a banana leaf, adding a little potato and chicken, and then rolling the banana leaf up. Then the rolled up banana leafs are put back into water to boil and then the next step is to eat the tamales. It was such a treat to be able to learn from the great cooks of El Pital and just to get a chance to chill and talk with them about daily life. During the cooking process there was also games and a piñata for the kids and more decorating of the church to prepare for a second mass at 2pm that the bishop was coming to. I unfortunately had to leave before the second mass but the women sent some of the tamales home with me, so I got to try my handy work when I got home.
The second event that I got to participate in was:
An Episcopal women’s retreat.
I had the opportunity to join a group of energetic, lively, and spiritual women on a women’s retreat with the Anglican church to “Cielo Mar”, the Anglican retreat center on the ocean. Although a simple and rustic retreat center, in which no one could sleep on the top beds because of fear of falling through the wooden slabs on to the person sleeping bellow, it was the perfect place for a group of women to relax, let loose a little, and get some work done (elect a new Anglican women’s committee). For me it was an amazing opportunity to become more connected with the El Salvadoran Anglican church on more of a diocesan level, as I got to connect with various women from all of the different Anglican churches around El Salvador. It also gave me an opportunity to build stronger friendships with the women from San Francisco de Asis. It was very sweet how the women from San Francisco de Asis looked after me, making sure that I felt comfortable and included the whole time.
Some of my favorite memories from the retreat were the evening talent show, the evening prayer service, everybody sleeping on cots covering all of the floor space, and the bus ride back to the city from the beach. For the talent show, me, Luisa, and Mary Lou (the two women representatives from San Francisco de Asis), picked a song about the silly things that couples can fight over, and lip-synched and acted out a skit. I was the man, so I dressed up by drawing a distinguished mustache with Mary Lou’s eyeliner. The evening prayer service was just very beautiful and tranquil, as we started out in the courtyard around a fire and then slowly lit candles, one at a time using the fire as the starting flame. I have to say, the bus ride home was probably my favorite memory, as the women decided that they wanted to finish the retreat off with a dance party, so they asked the bus driver to crank up the music and then everybody stood up in the aisle and twisted, turned, and shook. Overall it was an awesome weekend!
These stories are just two events out of many in which I was surrounded by women, similar to Mary, who lived each day with the love of Jesus in their hearts. My year in El Salvador was a year of discovery, learning, and change; thanks to the influences of the women in El Pital and many others, I believe it was a change for the better and I encourage all of you, in this room today, to seek out opportunities that challenge you to change what you believe, how you act and even how you love.
I would like to end my sermon but reading a prayer called “Our lives are changing”
Our local director of youth services, Andi Egmont, has a terrific article in the Newburyport Daily News about teens getting jobs. If you are a teen looking for work, or if you know one, read this article! Click Here.
The remarkable thing about the parables of Jesus is that they can teach a different lesson each time you hear them depending on how the landscape of your life and that of the parable intersect. This year as I listen to this parable again, I am drawn to the interactions between these two sons and their father. I myself am the younger of two children, and I myself am a mother of two children. So the emotional triangle in this parable catches my interest and resonates with my own experience as daughter, sister and mother.
This parable catches these three characters at a pivotal point in their family relationship. We are not told what leads the younger son to take the audacious action of asking their father for his share of the family wealth. This runs counter to social norms then and now. The elder son does not join this audacious act. Though we are told the family wealth is divided between them, the elder son does not act in any way differently from the way he was acting before. While his brother pulls up stakes and heads into unknown territory with his treasure, the elder remains with his father, doing as he has always done.
For any who have brothers and sisters, this biblical landscape can ring some bells. For me at this point in life my sister and I have come together in a new way around the journey with our parents into their senior years. I am blessed with a sister who is thoughtful, kind, creative and generous. I try to be as good a sister to her as she is to me. As good as our relationship is now, there is no denying that in earlier chapters of our story we had our own share of sibling rivalry and disagreement.
Our parents have worked hard all our lives to treat my sister and me fairly. If they give one of us a large gift, they give the other a gift of equal value. But sometimes I have felt that my sister has gotten more attention and approval from my parents than I have, and I know at other times she has felt the same way. I am sure most of this was highly subjective on our part but sometimes it led us into cycles of one-ups-man-ship that never ended in anything good. I am reminded of those times when I hear the elder son in this parable say to his father:
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Did you hear that – this elder son could not even bring himself to say “my brother” instead referring to the younger as “this son of yours”. But many of us with siblings know that this is how it can sometimes be with our brothers and sisters.
It was not until I, myself, was a parent of two children that I began to realize that a parent really can access an infinite supply of love for each individual child who has been given into your care. I guess somehow before that I assumed our parent’s love was in limited supply, and at times it needed to be competed for.
So when encountering this parable this week, the dynamics between these two brother and their father led me to reflect again on my relationship with my sister and parents – not a bad place to spend some time in this season of preparation for resurrection. And it was from that location, standing in the shoes of the siblings, that I turned my gaze toward the father in this parable, and his actions made be ask, who is this guy?
Who is this father? First of all, this father is someone who trusts his children and the process of maturing that they are going through. At the pivotal moment in which we meet him and his two sons, he does not seek to force his will on their lives. In this moment he goes against social norm in order to cooperate with his youngest son’s plan for his life. He offers no words of advice, he simply supplies this son with the wealth he requests and then lets him go.
In a meditation that the great spiritual thinker, Henri Nouwen, once gave on this parable he noted that this father does not just embrace his younger son on his return home, he embraces him in his leaving as well. He embraces this son’s need to find himself on the road, and he fully entrusts his life to him.
At the same time, we see this father embracing his elder son who chooses to remain at home. In this father’s words to his eldest toward the end to the parable, he shows that though this son remained at home, the father no longer viewed him as a dependant, but rather as a full partner in their life together. He tells him, “All that is mine is yours.” In this way he shows that he also fully embraces his elder son’s chosen path even though it did not lead off their homestead. And as he did with his younger son, he fully entrusts his life to him. Wow! What a father!
I also noticed in reading this parable this time around that though the two sons had chosen two very different paths, they ended up relating to their father in a very similar way. The youngest son returns home with his mind set on becoming a hired hand because he feels he has forfeited his right to be his father’s son. And the elder brother, though he has remained at home, reveals his strikingly similar sense of relationship to his father when he says, “For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you.” But at this pivotal point in their life together, the father will not accept this from either of them. Before the parable ends he has wrapped the arms of his boundless love and compassion around the younger of the two, and as the parable is drawing to a close he is extending the same life altering embrace to his eldest.
Then Jesus says no more! And we are left wondering. What will become of them all? We can only find out by reading the rest of the story in our own lives for we are the siblings and God is our exceptional parent. Can we let go of any sense of being unworthy when it comes to our relationship with God? Can we wear the mantle of the birthright of the children of God, confident in the unfathomable well of God’s love for each human being? Are we doing our best to resist the forces that would rather we feel a need to compete for an imagined limited supply? Do we recognize the strong family resemblance we share with our sisters and brothers – those related to us by blood and those related to us by water- even when our histories and choices have led us down very different paths? Do we seek to bind up the wounds of the past with the balm of compassionate forgiveness, trusting that as with the father in the parable, God’s greatest desire for all is community based on mutual respect and understanding? Do we have hope that even our most halting efforts in those directions matter?
No Hollywood ending to this one – just the unfolding of real life answers to a multitude of questions. How will this story end? How will it live on?
In the name of the parable teller. Amen+
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I wonder how close we come to missing the most important things to happen in our lives? Very close, I suspect. Most of us have probably missed some very important things. Sometimes it’s more comfortable for us to miss the important things… at least so it seems.
Take the example of Moses in our Exodus reading. Here he is, a fugitive from the Pharaoh. (Recall that he’d killed a cruel Egyptian slavedriver.) He’s fled the noise and conflict of Egypt, and he’d found a home and a spouse in the Sinai wilderness. Bad things were happening back in Egypt to his people the Israelites, but he seems to have been ignoring them. Instead, here he was in the desert, living an idyllic life, taking care of his new family’s needs and minding his flock. It sounds like an idyllic and peaceful life, even if a little detached.
And he saw a peculiar sight out of the corner of his eye … the bush. This bush that burned without being burned up. If it had been you or me, I wonder: would we have rubbed our eyes and thought to ourselves, “it sure is hot out here! I must be seeing things.” We would have taken a drink of water and moved on. We might well have missed it. Deliberately missed it, even.
And Moses almost missed it too. But he decided to “turn aside” — to divert his gaze from his idyllic and peaceful life for a moment – and take a look. It was only when he made that decision that God spoke to him. It was only when God got his attention … only when he turned aside … that he learned the holy Name of God, and received his mission to lead his people out of Egypt. It’s a good thing for the people of God that Moses didn’t shake his head and move on when he saw that burning bush. He could have.
Notice, though, for Moses that just seeing the bush burning and hearing God speak and tell him to go and confront the Pharaoh wasn’t enough. He was a tougher case than that. He wasn’t letting God disrupt the comfort of his life quite so easily. It wasn’t a case of “wow, you’re awesome, God! I’ll do whatever you ask.”
Moses didn’t want this assignment. He knew how to gripe with the best of us. He offered up objection after objection and did his best to wiggle out of it.
He needed God to surprise him, persuade him, and help him, every step of the way. And that’s what God did. God revealed God’s self. God acted, Moses responded, and history unfolded the way it did. The Israelites moved from slavery into freedom.
Here’s a question for us to consider. It is Lent, so it’s appropriate for us to meditate on questions of sin and repentance. In those idyllic days in Sinai, had Moses somehow fallen away from God? To use Christian language, was he a sinner in those days? We know he turned aside from his life as a mountain shepherd. What was his motivation? Did he feel a deep inner sense of his own weakness? Did he have a conscientious need to turn aside, turn toward God, and lead a regenerate life?
Let’s bring it closer to home. Do you and I have that interior need to turn toward God? How do we understand that need in ourselves? In our collect of the day we confessed to God. “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Powerlessness is a good starting point for asking God to defend our bodies from adversity and our souls from evil thoughts. The prayer acknowledges the reality of bodily death and spiritual evil. When you and I pray that prayer we admit that we’re finite and weak creatures in need of God’s help. It’s through our guilt and sorrow that this prayer brings us to beg for and rejoice in the saving work of God. It’s a long way of saying the ancient prayer … “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Now, only you know if this private way of suffering and sorrow is how you understand yourself and your personal need to become closer to God and God’s purpose for your life. It’s probably a good part of your experience, but not all of it. I know that’s true for me.
If you’re like Moses, it seems likely that it’s a very small part of your experience. The time in Sinai – the time that ended with his turning aside – doesn’t seem like a time of interior suffering for him. Instead, it seems like a time of peace and clarity. He didn’t carry a sense of guilt about it. In fact, God had to remind him how bad things were for his people back in Egypt.