Holy Week

Seven days.
Seven shades of suffering
silence.
Seven last words:
thirst, famine, fever,
finality, yet,
too, there is
forgiveness,
family,
a future
spit from split lips,
a dry tongue still
willing
to kiss
the face of God

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Palms and passion

A sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an acclaimed theologian of the twentieth century. He became iconic after his martyrdom at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi government, shortly before the end of the second World War. According to Bonhoeffer, it was not necessary that Jesus should suffer alone, but that he should be rejected. Rejected by the authorities, secular and religious; rejected by his friends, Judas and Peter and the others; rejected by the very people who on Palm Sunday had cheered him into town in a parody of a parade, riding on a donkey.

There is a distinction here between suffering and rejection. Had he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah. All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion. It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity, and honour. But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory.[i]

Such rejection was inevitable, given that Jesus is ahead of his time, and beyond it; because he is the ultimate image of God made human. He is everything to which we aspire and everything which we deny within ourselves. His rejection was inevitable.

It was necessary, in order that we should know that he is not king because we made him one. He is not Truth because we believe in him. He is not Life because we let him live. He is not the Way because we follow him. He was not elected on a wave of populism and celebrated at rallies across the nation – it is easy to see where Bonhoeffer’s imagination was running over to self-anointed, popularly-appointed leaders of men.

The rejection of Jesus was necessary because we would still need to know, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that Jesus is Lord not because of us, but despite us. That his Truth endures whether or not we believe it. That his Way is not the path of least resistance, but the lonely and lunatic way of the cross.

Even the resurrection was not a popular story, to begin with. They tried to bury it before it had even happened. Those whom we reject, they felt, should remain as quiet as the grave, out of sight, out of mind, off of our collective conscience.

It is that mindset that allows us to weep for the children of Syria, to express our outrage in an act of measured violence, all the while continuing to reject the applications of their siblings for refuge. It allows us to mourn the children of Newtown, while defeating any attempt to rein in the proliferation of the weapons that allowed their efficient slaughter. It is the mindset that writes off whole regions of the African continent threatened by famine, and whole cities of our own country where the water is poisonous to yet more small, brown children.

The prayerful gymnastics of Palm Sunday and the Passion, in which Jesus is welcomed into town as the Messiah and crucified as a madman are the prayers of a people who have decided ahead of time what is the mind of God, and whose side God is on. It is a mindset exemplified by a rigid adherence to the belief that we are right, that God is on our side. When it is challenged – when Jesus turns over the temple tables, for example, or allows himself to be taken prisoner without violence, turning the other cheek, absorbing evil to turn it to good, embodying death in order to turn it to life; such measures we reject out of hand.

It is much easier to decide in advance the direction of Jesus and his destination of glory than to follow in the way of the cross.

Jesus had to be rejected so that we would know that we did not make him in our own image, sanctified and glorified and altogether unreal, bearing no relation to those middle-eastern men weeping on our television screens. Jesus had to be rejected so that he would be remembered not as the hastily-crowned leader of the moment, before whom we spread our coats and branches of palms; not as the leader that we want, but as the saviour that we need.

You have heard it said that it was all about politics, his arrest and trial; that it was all about religion; that it was all about the afterlife, or justice in the here and now. But life is more than politics, more than religion. The life that God has given us spans eternity, and it is not divided into then and now, but in God it always is.

That is the life that Jesus led: always and in all things remembering from whom he came, in whose image he was made, to whom he would be restored. Loving God more than self, putting the interests of others before his own. It is such a perfect way that too often we reject it as unreasonable, unattainable, unworkable in the real world.

In the real world, we say, there is danger and there is terror and we cannot be too careful. But the real world is God’s world, and it was into our reality that Jesus came. He knew danger. He knew terror. He knew the outrages perpetrated by Pilate, mass murder by the roadside. He knew all too well the real pain and suffering of rejection, and still, he insisted that the way of the cross was the way of God: the way of sacrifice, of love beyond any reasonable boundaries, and mercy beyond any measure of our justice. No wonder we rejected him.

In the end, of course, the resurrection proved him right; and that is how we are able to return time and again to the streets of Jerusalem, strewing palms in his way, hoping each time that this time, we will not be called to follow him to the cross, but might be able to skip straight to the resurrection.

But he rejected our calls to save himself. He rejected our populism and the prophets who cry “Peace!” where there is no peace. He rejected our glory so that we might know the true glory of God: the compassion that passes our comprehension, the love big enough to break our hearts; the peace that still surpasses our understanding.

Amen.

___________________________

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan, translated edition 1949), 95-96

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The prayer of Lazarus

The prayer of Lazarus,
silent by necessity: words
swallowed by folds of flesh
falling in upon itself;
wrapped cloth swaddling his
fragile form, fragrant with decay.

The prayer of Lazarus lies
deep in the soil, the colour
of Adam’s clay; bound
to the rock of our salvation.

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Why Jesus wept

The fifth Sunday of Lent in Year A: the raising of Lazarus, and other stories.

When I was about six years old, my Grandpa died. I must have been playing outside, because I remember coming into the house to find everyone gathered around the telephone, crying. They told me he had died; but I was very young, and while I knew the words, I didn’t really know what the words meant. Their tears told me more.

A couple of years later, my brother and I were locking up and leaving the house for school in the morning. He said, “No one knows what it’s like to be dead.” I thought for a moment. “Grandpa knows.”

He tried once more to explain it.

“No one knows, because no one can come back and tell you what it’s like.”

“That doesn’t mean that no one knows,” I persisted. “Grandpa knows. And George V knows.” George was the fifth in a succession of short-lived hamsters that my brother had loved and lost. I was not allowed to talk about George V, so he hit me.

“I’m telling,” I said.

“If you do,” my older, wiser brother replied, “I’ll tell them what you said about Grandpa.”

*

Even Jesus found it hard to tell a straight story about death. First, he denies that Lazarus’ illness could be fatal; then, when he discovers that his friend has died, he first tells his disciples that he has fallen asleep.

“Oh, that’s alright then,” they reply, and he is forced to backtrack and tell them plainly, “He is dead.”

Thomas is afraid that mortality might be catching. It is not clear whether he speaks out of courage, bravado, or that cynical graveyard humour typical of grief when he says,

“Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”

*

While Jesus appears in some ways to have all of the control and authority over the life and death of Lazarus, he is not unaffected by the grief of his sisters, nor by his own emotions. Twice in a short space of narrative we are told that he was greatly disturbed in his spirit. Greatly disturbed: what does it take to shake God’s spirit?

I would say that it is compassion that shakes God’s spirit. The fellow feeling that cannot help but weep with those who are distressed, and that cannot hold back from wanting to relieve another’s pain. Jesus knows that his own time in the tomb is coming; but I do not think that this is what holds him back from visiting Lazarus sooner. It is his sisters. It is knowing that he will be charged with doing something that is against the holy order of life and death, and that he will be powerless to resist the grief of his friends.

For some, the grace in this story is in the knowledge that Jesus has this power to raise Lazarus at will. For all of his waiting and weeping, there is satisfaction in knowing that, in the end, he will work a miracle.

For others, the grace is that even when the miracle seems a world away, locked between the pages of an old book, dried up as the bones of Ezekiel’s army, still Jesus’ tears are fresh and his compassion as urgent and as close as flesh to sinew, breath to heartbeat. Knowing that Jesus faced the same grief, the same core-shaking earthquake of the spirit that afflicts each of us in our time, and that he still found the strength to face the sisters, and even to enter the tomb on his own account, wrapped in a winding sheet, relying only on the voice of God to call him forth.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

*

Jesus will return to Bethany, to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus on his way to Jerusalem in a short week or two, heading up to the city for the Passover celebration. He knows well enough how that will end. Does he return to say goodbye? Or does he want, against his better judgement and despite his trembling spirit, to ask Lazarus what it was like, being dead?

The good news is that the family welcome him back. They do not blame him for letting Lazarus die, and they do not blame him for bringing him back from the grave.

For none of us lives to himself, reads the Anthem at the Burial of the Dead;
and no one dies to himself.
For if we live, we live unto the Lord;
and if we die, we die unto the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s possession. (BCP,469,491)

*

I think that this is what my eight-year-old spirit was unable to explain to my brother: that while there is separation in death, and grief, and sorrow that greatly disturbs the spirit; still, death is not the unbreachable division that he described. For I am convinced, as Paul wrote to the Romans,

that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Lazarus, lying in the tomb, locked in death, was not deaf to the call of Jesus upon his body, and his spirit, and his enduring life. I was not, I think, wrong to maintain that Grandpa knew, and knows, what it is to be dead; because he lives in that realm that is beyond our reach, for now, but where we will find him, and Lazarus, unbound and alive, on the day of our resurrection; where sorrow and pain shall be no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. (BCP, 499)

Amen.

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Marked men

For Jesus and Lazarus

Clouds the colour of linen unwinding;
rain falls in sheets, breaking water
over the dead man’s head;
the dead man walking.

Their eyes do not meet. He
casts his gaze to heaven, while
the other shakes himself awake,
like a dog shedding water from the river.

Later, they sit silent as the grave side by side,
watching the shadows stretch across the Jordan;
where the naked carcass of a young tree rolls,
careless, towards the Dead Sea.

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Telling stories

A sermon on John 9, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year A, at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

Tell us some true story, Thou great Author of life; and in your life story let us find our own. Amen.

When Jesus’ disciples see a blind man begging at the side of the road, they are tempted to turn his life story into a theological conundrum for Jesus to answer: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Jesus, true to form, answers a wholly other question, healing the man, and directing the disciples’ attention to the surprising and transgressive grace of God.

This doesn’t go down too well in the neighbourhood. People confront and condemn the man for getting himself healed, because his story contradicts their understanding of how things are supposed to work; and of how God is supposed to work for them.

To be clear, this is not a problem of the Law, nor of the Jews. It happens in every religion and in every human heart: the pull, the temptation, the unblessed security of making God in our own image; in making God’s judgements our own; and the utter rout that is incurred by God’s magnificent refusal to be bound by our imaginations.

That said, I, like the disciples, am going to indulge in a little imagination, a little biblical speculation here, to wonder aloud about the backstory of the man found begging by the side of the road.

He was not alone in the world. Although he lived with a disability, he is not, thank God, portrayed by the evangelist as helpless, meek, or without impressive personal strength and wit. He is a grown man, but he is still in a close and recognized relationship with his parents. He may be a very young man, I think, new to his own authority, because the authorities who question him decide to follow up with his parents, rather than allowing his own answers to stand alone. So perhaps he still lives at home.

The picture of our begging blind man is shifting slightly, colouring in as we speculate, admittedly, and imagine a young man, the age of some our own sons, living at home but just beginning to branch out on his own account. He is not filthy or destitute, but he has an expectation of his village, his community, his people that they have some investment in his economic welfare and continued security of place in their society.

There is then, perhaps, a social contract that allows a young, blind man to become an entrepreneur of sorts, making his living as a beggar at the gates, while he saves up for his parents’ retirement or removal from this mortal coil, for the day when he will be left truly alone, at the mercy of his neighbours. He is training them in habits of generosity towards him.

And what do the neighbours get out of this contract? Well, that is where it begins to get interesting.

There is, of course, ample provision and instruction in the Law for the people of God to provide for those unable by reason of status or stature to provide for themselves. The law of compassion is a good foundational ethic, grounded in the everlasting mercy and steadfast kindness of God. The opportunity for the people to do good by doing right by their neighbour is one aspect of this social contract.

But other, less lofty motivations may be at work, as we discover when the contract is upended by the man’s sudden restoration to sight and to mobility of social status. What is it that his neighbours stand to lose when the beggar receives his sight?

For, to his accusers, this is all wrong. They refuse to celebrate the healing of their son, their neighbour, one of their own. Instead of receiving his healing with joy and the hope of further blessings to follow, they criticize this interruption of their carefully constructed social order, their carefully metred generosity, their cautiously regulated religion.

As long as he remained as a child, kept his place as a beggar, as a sinner, as a boy, they could pretend to love him, scattering pennies in his path. But condescension is not the same as compassion, and as soon as they were invited to confront him as an equal, equally blessed, equally loved, equally justified by God, then they set about to undermine his conversion to one of them.

They questioned his identity. They questioned his parents. They questioned his story. This is not how the world is supposed to work, they say. This is not how healthcare is supposed to work, they mutter. We can all relate to the shock of a miracle, the bewilderment, disorientation, and reorientation that must follow events outside of our understanding. He, stalwart, steadfast, and sassy, answered their doubts until there was only one place left for them to go: it didn’t count anyway, because the God that they knew didn’t work through people like him and his Jesus.

The god that they knew knows his place.

And as soon as we say that, we have entered that prison where God is locked away within our imaginations, restricted by our rules of engagement.

If only they had taken the trouble to open their eyes, their ears, their hearts, to listen to the story that the blind man told, to see his joy and wonder mirrored in their own eyes. If only they had taken a moment, caught their breath, to utter a prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, of celebration for the mystery of God’s unbidden grace.

They were offered a window into the raucous and unkempt, wild and overflowing mercy of God; but they turned their backs, drew down the blinds, and then asked without irony, “What is it that we don’t see?” In their desperation to keep their own story alive, to keep the status quo, they resorted to describing the Son of God as a sinner, so that they would not have to accept the reality of their own blind and deliberate sin.

But we can’t help ourselves, can we? We make judgements all of the time, telling ourselves stories about the people we encounter in the store or on the road, deciding whether or not they deserve good fortune or a good lesson in the realities of life.

This week, in the wake of an awful attack on ordinary people on an ordinary day, in the midst of shock and grief, anger – and gratitude for all of the good that was done to counter such evil intent – in the aftermath, people began making up stories about a snapshot photo of a woman on Westminster Bridge, and reaching some quite stark judgements about her character, her history, her moral value. Others countered with other photos of other people with equally made-up stories. The clamour for categorical judgement, the instinct to assign relative value to our neighbours outweighed any attempt to tell the true story of real, shocked, and hurting human beings.

We can’t help ourselves, telling stories and doling out moralistic endings, telling them out loud to the television news, or posting them online to invite agreement, bolster our sense of self-righteousness.

We doubt with a religious fervour any good intentions of those we view as our enemies, politically or socially, even out of faith; and we make any excuse for our own exercise of condescension and collusion with the creation of that prison for the god of our imaginations. We tell stories about others so that we do not have to confront, much less convert, the stories we dare not tell about ourselves.

What we do much less often is to listen, much less to seek out the stories that others are telling about themselves; or the story that God is telling.

When his disciples asked him what kind of sin had caused the young man to be born blind, Jesus refused to make up a backstory, to justify his suffering or his misfortune, such as it was. Instead, he told the story of a man born to bear witness to the glory of God, the unbridled compassion, the unstoppable stream of God’s grace and mercy.

For this is what Jesus did. Rather than keep things in their proper places, their created categories, Jesus was born as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God. Not condescending but co-existing with the most human of compassion, he listened to our stories from within. He heard our hearts break as one with a pulse. He loved, he laughed, he caught his breath. He would not allow God to be kept in a compartment, safely locked in heaven and out of harm’s way. He broke the mould. He broke the tomb. He broke his mother’s heart, and then he turned around and came right back home.

He broke open the prison of our imaginations, and revealed the glory of God in the simplest of ways: by treating each person, every blind beggar among us, as one made in God’s image, with the potential to show forth that glory in their own, sacred lives.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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An open letter on the proposed budget

A letter to my congressional representatives. Please note that this is my personal opinion, and not sent on behalf of any congregation or organization. 

My fellow Americans,

I would like to take a moment of your time to consider the inhuman budget proposal put before our government last week.

Allow me to explain such a stark characterization of its content:

We humans came into being as a product of our environment. We live on a planet with the ideal “Goldilocks” conditions for life. Well-tended and cared for, this earth provides everything that we have needed to survive and thrive. But it is vulnerable to abuse and poison. We owe it to our very humanity to nurture its health, even if only for the sake of our own.

Speaking of health, we humans have developed phenomenal knowledge and artfulness in the practice of healing. We have eradicated some plagues that struck terror into our ancestors. We have pioneered tiny techniques that have saved small lives barely begun, and extended our families’ time together.

It is a mark of our humanity that we have the capacity for empathy, which drives us to seek to ease the suffering and hurt of those whom we see around us. It is that empathy that moves us to feed a hungry child, knowing that the distraction of that gnawing void will keep her otherwise from growing in stature and in knowledge. It is compassion that organizes the delivery of company and a warm meal to an elderly widower.

We communicate not only by means of compassion. We have an almost supernatural and celebrated ability to commune quite universally, through the means of art and music, drama and dance. Surely, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

And we know our history. These United States are a human construct. If we sell our humanity, then we lose it all, and no wall can keep it in, and no army can win it back. “For what will it profit them,” asked one great leader, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26a)

And the same wise one said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 7:21)

In all humility and humanity, I recommend, and as my representatives dare I say that I require, that you reject this budget where it falls short in its humanity; for that is a deficit we simply cannot afford.

Respectfully,

The Reverend Rosalind C Hughes

************************************************

Annotated version, for the biblically inclined:

We humans came into being as a product of our environment. We live on a planet with the ideal “Goldilocks” conditions for life. Well-tended and cared for, this earth provides everything that we have needed to survive and thrive. But it is vulnerable to abuse and poison. We owe it to our very humanity to nurture its health, even if only for the sake of our own.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens … then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food … The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:4b,7-9a,15)

Speaking of health, we humans have developed phenomenal knowledge and artfulness in the practice of healing. We have eradicated some plagues that struck terror into our ancestors. We have pioneered tiny techniques that have saved small lives barely begun, and extended our families’ time together.

For he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men. (Lamentations 3:33)

It is a mark of our humanity that we have the capacity for empathy, which drives us to seek to ease the suffering and hurt of those whom we see around us. It is that empathy that moves us to feed a hungry child, knowing that the distraction of that gnawing void will keep her otherwise from growing in stature and in knowledge. It is compassion that organizes the delivery of company and a warm meal to an elderly widower.

But [Jesus] answered them, “You give them something to eat.” (Mark 6:37a)

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty ad give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

We communicate not only by means of compassion. We humans have an almost supernatural and celebrated ability to commune quite universally, through the means of art and music, drama and dance. Surely, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

And we know our history. These United States are a human construct. If we sell our humanity, then we lose it all, and no wall can keep it in, and no army can win it back. “For what will it profit them,” asked one great leader, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26a)

And the same wise one said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 7:21)

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