For all the alleluias

For all the alleluias 
that fall into the empty grave 
before the earth is cast down; 
alleluias that burst 
like a disappointed balloon 
upon the tongue; 
alleluias that took a wrong turn 
and never came home; 
for all of the alleluias 
that become ululations 
for the still dead 
and dying; 
alleluias gasping;  
alleluias splitting the air 
like a protest, 
like a chant; 
alleluias whispering 
over the grave 
and troubled earth.

Alleluia Cover, H.N.Werkman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. This post first appeared at

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Reeking of resurrection

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2023. John 20:19-31

Usually at this time of the year I come to tell those of us for whom resurrection is slow, delayed, or feels too hard that this story, of Jesus coming back for Thomas, is for us. Jesus gets it when we need time to raise the alleluias, or even our heads. Jesus loved Thomas, lost in doubt and depression, knotted into his grief, enough to come back just for him.

All of that is still true. But there’s something else bothering me about it this time around.

Thomas was in the midst of his friends, who were also the people closest to Jesus, who had become his family. And they were simply unable to persuade Thomas, to show him, that love of Christ that raises even the dead.

It made me wonder: how well are we doing at showing those around us the love of God in ways that they can truly grasp and believe? Are we making real the mercy of God, the joy of resurrection, in our neighbours’ lives?

The week before Easter, we had a call come into the office to tell us that children were playing basketball in our back parking lot. Well, we knew that. We gave them a trash can, which has helped tremendously with the litter situation. And yes, we have noticed the fence damage; some of it may be from the games, some has historically been from more mature neighbours using the lot as a turnaround. The neighbour who called had no complaints for us, but they did want to complain about those children playing.

The next day, a couple of youngsters were out there playing ball, so I went out to strike up a conversation. It both was and was not their basketball hoop, they gave out, and I told them that I was happy for them to play, if they would be careful of the cars that might come in and out of the lot; only that there were times when the fence was getting hit, and times when the wind storms came through that the hoop came down, and I asked them what they thought we could do to make it safer to play out there, for them and for the fence. They suggested moving the hoop a little way. I agreed. I left them, reiterating that I was fine with them playing out there, only if they could take care of the fence that would save me some complaints, and that they were not, under any circumstances, to get themselves run over by cars coming in and out.

The next time I looked out, they had the hoop set up on the street, as they used to do before the neighbours complained about that. I had told them, at least twice, that it was ok for them to play outside here; I don’t think that they believed me. And it breaks my heart to think that I was the source not of encouragement to these young people, who are in sore need of it in these days, but just another barrier to the understanding that they are beloved, well-beloved children of God, who belong in God’s garden, yard, parking lot, what have you.

So I guess, for once, reading today’s Gospel, my heart was less with Thomas than with his friends, who wanted to comfort him, to encourage him, to convince him that Jesus’ resurrection was real, that God was still with them, that all was not lost, and that, on the contrary, death itself had lost the battle against life, and that the powers that be had fallen before the pitiful; but Thomas did not believe them.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” asked Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And blessed, he might have added, are those who have the words, the wisdom, the love, and the compassion to show them how to believe in the overwhelming love of God in Christ.

This is not, by the way, about converting people. It isn’t about telling anyone that we have the right way to God and they have the wrong idea. Rather, it’s like this:

When it was evening, and Jesus came to his disciples, he breathed on them: “Peace be with you.” He breathed on them the forgiveness of sins, which, forgive me, I imagine smells like olive oil, pressed from the groves in the Garden of Gethsemane; oil for the troubled soul, the conscience of the betrayer, the healing of the ears of the slaves. He breathed on them the scent of grave-clothes and spices, the scent of myrrh and aloes. He showed them the wounds on his hands and his feet. The house must have reeked of him!

Imagine, then, the disciples going about their business in the days to come, shedding the stench of mercy wherever they went, turning heads with the aroma of resurrection, breathing with each passing greeting the sweet fragrance of, “Peace be with you.”

Imagine them living as though they could not shake off the residue of Christ and his sacrifice, the Cross and the tomb, and all that it meant for how much God so loves the world; as though they could not wash away the new smell of resurrection, that had filled the upper room with wonder.

That is how the disciples blessed those who had not seen, but yet believed.

For Thomas, it was not enough, but that did not mean that he was lost, nor that they should worry about him, still less badger him with the truth. They cared for him in those sorrowing days, understanding his depression, and patient, because they knew, because they had seen it happen, that Jesus would come back for him, too.

Because they knew the love of Jesus, they were able to be that loving kindness for those who would believe, and for those who waited for the touch of Christ himself upon their shoulder, even for those who would not see.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” asked Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And blessed are those whose lives reek so strongly of mercy, of grace, of resurrection, that all who encounter them know that God is indeed living and loving and with us yet.

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He breathed on them the scent 
of grave-clothes, myrrh, and aloes, 
the stench of forgiveness; 
I imagine that smells of olive oil 
pressed from the groves in the Garden 
of Gethsemane, drowning out with unction 
the fetor of betrayal and blood. 

All day long they shed the reek 
of that “Peace be with you” 
behind them like a trace 
for the dogs to follow.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:29b

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Time was when the siren 
was a singer of sea mist; 
her music has hardened, 
and her figure, smooth 
and long like steel; 
still, she kills, 
and from a distance 
the echo returns as a wail 
falling and rising 
like smoke foreshadowing 
the ashes of the dead

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Easter 2023: it’s (still) a love story

Early in the new year, a certain writer of self-published romance novels made her return to the land of the living. Her death had been, if not announced, then heavily implied and allowed to lie, as it were, in the imaginations of her fans and followers for more than two years. Now, in the third year, she announced her re-emergence from the shadowlands.

It made a lot of people very angry, which she found hurtful, which made them angrier still.

We are not always good at life and death, still less resurrection, which at times seems beyond us; but here we are, nevertheless, on Easter morning: because Christ is risen, and life will never be the same again.

[According to Matthew] Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, the women slipped like ghosts through the city toward the tomb. You will remember that Pilate had allowed a guard to be set upon it, as though Jesus might escape the prison of death, or more cynically, that his disciples might steal his body and pretend that he had returned to the living. What the women planned to say to the soldiers, how they trembled as they practised their lines, all of that was lost in the earthquake that greeted their arrival.

The guards fell down as though dead; although what had they expected from this graveyard assignment?

The women beheld the angel, sitting with their feet up on the rolled rock, smug with their secret: “He is not here! He has been raised already.”

With great joy and with fear, the women started back when suddenly, there he was, Jesus, their Lord and their great love, and they fell down at his feet.

Resurrection is a funny thing. It doesn’t undo what has gone before. Jesus returned from his descent into hell with his wounds intact, his hands and feet barely beginning to scab over, wearing his heart virtually on his sleeve by way of his wounded side. Nothing about coming back from all of that makes the Cross, the torture, the mock trial, the sheer injustice of it all – nothing about the resurrection makes that death, his judicial murder, right. We are not excused.

On the contrary, by taking on our worst impulses, to crucify our enemies, sometimes even our friends, Jesus took them to hell, where they belong, and buried them there.

The life with which he returned was one transformed. We are not excused, but we are forgiven.

We go through this cycle every spring, don’t we? The crowd, the anger, the crucifixion, the horror, the agony, the harrowing of hell, the empty tomb, while daffodils do their best demonstration of how bulbs buried in the earth can return to blooming life, and birds are going wild with ecstasy, feathering their nests, anticipating new life.

But the resurrection of Jesus is not a cyclical thing. It is the thing that interrupts the cycle of sin, if we will let it transform us. Once was enough for us to know that God is with us, Emmanuel, and that even though death and life’s worst impulses do their best to intervene, God is yet with us, and will not abandon us, even for the grave.

There are two things that I noticed anew this time around the story. We know, we believe, or are given to understand that by the time the rock is rolled away from the tomb, Jesus has already risen and left. We do not know how or when. But the implication is or might be (and this is the first thing I noticed new this spring) that the earthquake did not signify the moment of his resurrection, but rather heralded the arrival of the first disciples come to find him, come in fear and faith and love to witness the empty tomb.

The second is like it. The insouciant angel gave its instructions, and the women hastened to follow, to go home and pack and get the heck on the road to Galilee – but Jesus couldn’t wait. Jesus could not wait to see them. While they were still dizzy from the movement of the earth and the dazzling brightness of the angel and the confusion and hope of the empty tomb, he came to them, greeted them, embraced them.

I know some of you think I’m a broken record, but this is a love story.

What if no one had gone back to the tomb? What if all of the disciples, the rich men who had enough influence with the priests and Pilate to demand the body, the poor men who wondered whether they still had nets at home with which to fish, the women who watched them all and wondered at their practical concerns at this, the most impractical time, when time should stand still, and observe a moment of silence in the presence of grief – what if all of them had stayed away, out of fear or despair, the anger of disappointment, the guilt of grief? What if none of them had gone to the tomb? Would the earthquake still have happened?

What if no one had heard the message of the angel, that he was risen, still Emmanuel, God with us: would they have found him on the road, or at Galilee, or would they have seen someone like him, and turned away; no, it couldn’t be?

But that isn’t what happen, because this is a love story.

It isn’t like a self-published romance, except that it sort of is, because it was written by the Author of everything, the Creator of love.

It isn’t romantic, in that there is no happily ever after – spoiler alert, many of the disciples went on to become martyrs in the footsteps of their Lord – except that there sort of is, because no matter what life comes up with in the way of injustice, betrayal, crucifixion, we know that God is with us, and we know that life with God is better, more hopeful, more loving than any kind of life we could imagine without Them.

It isn’t like any love story we could conjure up, because it is true, a true story: Jesus lived among us, the Son of God was crucified, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again, and he could not wait to greet his beloved disciples on the road, could not wait to see their shining, astonished faces; he could not wait to love them back.

And so here we are, once again, caught up in the web of God’s love for us. Christ is risen, and we have come to meet him in the road, because with him, life (even death) will never be the same again.

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A special place

To celebrate the day of its harrowing, and because the phrase came up again just the other day …

No, there should not be 
a special place in hell. 
Isn’t hell itself, 
after all, 
As such, 
to disappoint Dante,
it should have no layers,
no geological strata 
of special and ordinary places; 
hell might as well be 
on earth as in eternity.

Which brings us, neatly,
to the spiritual,
if you will, 
in which 
we should not be 
hoping or praying,
creating in our minds carved-out 
corners for the torment of sinners
we like the least, 
but wringing our hearts 
for their conversion, 
burning our souls’ midnight oil 
for their redemption, 
pitching our forks into manure,
and piling on the stench of mercy.

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Good Friday

The cross is a mirror. 
It shows us what we are not, 
as well as what we are; 
the embodiment of God, 
the epitome of humanity: 
images mundane and immortal 
in one body.
The cross is a mirror. 

The cross is a mirror.  
The hammer falls 
and innocent flesh is torn 
and cannot be pieced back together; 
we see it in the reflective 
surfaces of tv screens 
and mobile devices 
screaming murder; 
in blurry tears; we 
can no longer tell apart 
war movies from the news. 
The cross is our mirror. 

The cross is our mirror:
the mockers and the mourners, 
beloveds and betrayers, 
little despots and disciples of despair; 
humanity at breaking point. 
God breaks down
and weeps with us:
Your sins cover me 
with purple
and scarlet 
and thorns. Why 
have you forsaken me, 
and are so far from me?
The cross is God’s mirror. 

The cross is God’s mirror, 
love laid out like a specimen 
laid open for all to see, 
the love of God for creation, 
bleeding into the tree,
spilling inane forgiveness 
like water over
a mostly insensate crowd.
The cross is a mirror.

The cross is a mirror. 
As we kneel before it, 
transfixed at least by our own
sinful glory, 
if not by the mystery of mercy, 
the enormity of grace, 
even to us, 
deep within its background 
graves are opening, 
saints emerging, wondering 
who it is has called them out, 
and what they might do 
The cross is their mirror.

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Maundy Thursday message

During our Lenten book study, I was struck by a passing phrase from the Revd Mark Bozzuti-Jones, who wrote in a reflection, “Anybody who has broken bread with others in good faith knows that betrayal sits at the table of fellowship.”[i]

My God. I told the gathered group that no doubt this chilling sentiment would make its return during my Maundy Thursday sermon. But here we are, and I am still turning it over in my mind and my spirit, wondering whether it is true, and what it means.

I suppose I grew up with a heart for the tragic, and that must include Judas Iscariot, surely. Here is a man who was as close as anyone to Jesus, who followed him, served him, was loved by him. On that night, at supper, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and Judas let him.

Later, Judas would come so deeply to regret, to be so horrified at what he had done, what he had accomplished by his betrayal, that he could not live with it. Yet because he was not there, because he could not follow, because he would not see his betrayal through, he missed Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them!” He forgot Jesus’ words to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Judas was tempted by the devil to betray not only Jesus, but his own sense of hope, of mercy, of God.

I remember being taught as a young student that the essential element of tragedy is that it didn’t have to turn out this way. Judas didn’t have to betray Jesus, it’s true, but the writing was already on the arrest warrant: I don’t think that his hesitation would have averted the crucifixion. It would have lessened the suffocating weight of his conscience, but here is the tragedy: so would believing all that Jesus had come to teach him: the forgiveness of sins, the mercy of God, the everlasting plan of salvation.

This, for me, was the tragedy of Judas: that he couldn’t see how much God loved him, even when God was right in front of him, washing his feet.

Whenever we sit down at the table, the betrayer is close at hand: not Judas, but that whispering devil that tries to distract us from the love of God, that tries to detract from the salvation that Christ has offered us. That devil makes us betray one another, by undermining our confidence in the enduring love of God, the want of courage to trust that there is enough mercy to go around, the divisions that are sown between us, and the distrust that they nurture. So we betray the sons and daughters of God, condemning our neighbours for their culture or their colour or their class, for their gender or their generosity. We betray our own faith in Jesus.

That devil whispered to Peter not to allow Jesus to love him so much, to humble himself so far as to wash his feet. That devil that twisted Judas and hung him out to dry. The devil that tells us that we are too far gone, or that the world is beyond saving, or that we are unforgiven, that makes us unforgiving.

And still, and yet, Jesus kneels at the feet of Judas, and takes his flesh in his hands, and cleanses it tenderly. And still, and yet, Jesus sits at table with us, betrayals and all, and welcomes us to his salvation, if we will have the humility and the hope to receive it.

[i] Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Face to the Rising Sun: Reflections on Spirituals and Justice (Forward Movement, 2021), 32

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This morning, I took a moment to make my preparations for the days and nights that are surely coming soon: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the quiet tomb of Saturday, Easter Sunday.

I baked bread for this evening’s service. I love the stage at the beginning when the yeast is just beginning to come to life, a foretaste of the rising to come.

Then, while the dough was doing its thing, I went out to the forge, made one more cross out of gun barrels.

I can’t think of a better time to be recommitting to this work than Holy Week, when we once used wood and metal to crucify the author of life.

Yesterday, a group of us prayed the Stations of the Cross at church, and we met the women of Jerusalem, “who bewailed and lamented him”

But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

And we prayed,

Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them; that, by your pardoning grace, the results of our iniquities may not be visited upon our children and our children’s children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We met his afflicted mother, reading,

Vast as the sea is your ruin. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.
A sword will pierce your own soul also: And fill your heart with bitter pain

and my mind was flooded with those images from the news feeds outside schools and reunification centres; the twisted faces of mothers who would never be the same again.

Teach us to mourn our sins, to repent and forsake them, that the results of them may not be visited upon our children and their mothers.

And yet, the closer we came to Christ’s death on the Cross, and the quiet tomb, the louder the whispers of resurrection.

Death would not defeat God. Death would not be permitted to have the final word. The Word of God, the author of life, had other plans for the Cross, and we no longer fear it.

How we get from here to there with gun violence is fraught, but I am convinced that the way of the Cross is our roadmap, and that the Prince of Peace is our leader.

It is past time, one way or another, for us to repent of our employment of metal and wood to mar the life that God has freely given to us and to all of God’s children, all who are made in the image of God. Whether that looks like an individual change of heart and priorities, or a petition to the legislature to help us to rein in the proliferation of deadly weaponry in our communities, or interventions and support to turn aside the intentions of one who would harm themselves, or another, there is never nothing that we can do. With God, nothing will be impossible.

When we pray for an end to gun violence, for an end to school shootings, for a reversal of the trend that has made injuries from firearms the leading cause of death for America’s children and teenagers, may we turn toward the Cross.

As we take Christ’s body in our hands tonight, may we learn from Jesus’ embodiment of the prayers he had for his people.

May we, however hard it is, however long it takes, however heavy the stone across the tombs, the massed and multiplying graves of our people; may we find with him our resurrection.

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We pray in awkward whispers
against the reredos of white towels
fumbling over nervous feet
held in stumbling hands,
certain of nothing but betrayal,
the cross to come,
and sunset’s pale
inversion in the water

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