Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hearing Jesus’ Voice Amidst the Noise

This sermon was given by the Revd. Luther Zeigler at our last evening service of the semester this past Sunday, May 11. We look forward to worshiping together again at the resumption of our services in the fall!

“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   John 10:3-4
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”  Acts 2:42

“The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   John 10:3-4.  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites us to listen for his voice, and seems to assure us that we will know it when we hear it, and that we will be able to distinguish his voice from all the other voices competing for our attention – the voices of strangers, thieves, bandits, and others who may not have our best interests at heart.  And so, with this invitation in mind, in our opening collect today we prayed for the grace to “hear Jesus’ voice,” so that we might “follow where he leads.”  

And yet, if we have learned anything during the Easter season, it is that listening for Jesus’ voice is not quite so simple, as the first disciples prove time and again.  Last week, for example, we heard Luke’s story of the two disciples who are passionately in conversation with a stranger on the road to Emmaus without even knowing it is the risen Christ himself.  Buried in their own grief and sense of disappointed expectations, Cleopas and his friend walk with Jesus for miles, engaging him in animated discussion, all the while failing to recognize either the face or the voice of Jesus even as he teaches them during their journey.  Not until Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of the bread do these disciples see and hear their great Teacher.  

And a few weeks before that, on Easter morning, we heard John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb.  Panicked and confused by the disappearance of Jesus’ body, Mary encounters a stranger outside the tomb.  Believing the stranger to be a gardener, Mary interrogates him concerning the whereabouts of Jesus’ body.  It is, of course, the risen Jesus to whom she is speaking.  But she is so engulfed by her own grief that she recognizes neither his voice nor his face, until Jesus calls out her name:  “Mary!”  

These scenes would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so true to our own experience, so illustrative of our own deafness to God’s voice.  What these resurrection narratives teach is that the voice of Jesus often comes to us in unexpected ways, that he can sneak up on us unaware, that he speaks to us through the seemingly ordinary people in our lives, and that all too often we are so preoccupied with our own stuff that we end up being deaf to his presence in our very midst.

So, if the first disciples were so consistently unable to recognize Jesus’ voice when he was literally whispering in their ears, what gives us any confidence that we will hear him?  What hope do we have of hearing Jesus’ voice amidst all the noise in our lives?

I want to suggest that this very question lies at the heart of our first lesson today from the Book of Acts.  We are so accustomed to the institutional presence of the Church in our lives that it is difficult to imagine a time when there was no church.  Yet, after the disciples’ initial pattern of desertion, doubt, despair, confusion, and enough raw fear to hide behind locked doors – and after their eyewitness encounters with the risen Christ – it is only then that Jesus’ first followers begin to develop a growing awareness of the enormity of what has happened.  Its only then that they ask themselves:  now what?

To be sure, they are not left entirely to their own devices, thank God.  They are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experience the Spirit’s guidance and power directing them in new and fresh ways. And they know enough from what Jesus has taught them to go out into the world, led by Peter, preaching the gospel and baptizing all who are willing to listen.  But what then?  How are these newly converted souls to relate to one another, what practices will hold them together in community, what will they do to ensure that Christ remains at the center of their lives so that they will continue to hear and follow his voice?

Our lesson today from Acts seeks to answer this question by articulating the four foundations of a distinctively Christian life:  namely, a community devoted to (1) the apostles’ teaching, (2) to fellowship, (3) to the breaking of the bread, and (4) to the prayers.  Acts 2:42.  By adhering faithfully to these principles of Christian community, the apostles teach us, we are given a framework for “holy listening,” one that makes room for Jesus to speak amidst the cacophony of all that surrounds us.  Let us briefly reflect on each:

First, the discernment of Jesus’ voice requires careful attention to the teaching of the apostles, as handed down by tradition; what we now know as the study of Scripture.  The regular and careful reading of the Bible, in light of the challenges and opportunities of our daily life, provides the appropriate framework for discerning Christ’s call to us at any particular moment.  Rather than obsessing about our own individual stories, we immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative so as to understand how we are a part of God’s story.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when we dig deeply into a tradition that lives outside of ourselves, that is bigger than we are, and that brings fresh truth and light to our role in God’s life.

Second, as Christians we practice fellowship, or what the early church called koinonia – we stay in community with one another as a guard against the vicissitudes of self-interest, self-deception, and individualism.  Left to our own devices, we too often see things the way we want to, rather than the way God wants us to.  By remaining in community, we keep one another honest.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is searching for meaning in community, where other people might call us on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with us.  Communal discernment turns I-questions into God-questions.  We ask not what will fulfill me or satisfy my wants and desires, but rather, where does God want me, want us to be?

Third, we draw close to Jesus’ voice by breaking and sharing bread together.  This is, after all, what Jesus instructed us to do at the Last Supper, and what the Emmaus story from last week showed us is the true touchstone for discerning Christ’s presence in our lives.  In the mystery of the Eucharist, the offering of our lives meets the offering of Christ’s life for us at the altar. In communion, we invite Jesus into the depths of our hearts, and ask him to do whatever he needs to do to transform us.  In these moments, we know ourselves to be, not discrete individual egos, as we normally imagine ourselves, but rather, and as we’ll sing in our Offertory Hymn, one in the Body of Christ.

And finally, we pray.  Prayer is that central act of relationship with God in which we intentionally and attentively make room for him in our lives.  Through private prayer, corporate prayer, and praying for each other, we open our ears to Jesus’ voice by pushing to the periphery all the clutter that we normally let fill our heads and our hearts.

When I was at seminary in Virginia, I learned much about becoming a priest from my professors in the classroom, I gained practical experience in leading worship in field education, I grew in my pastoral caregiving skills by doing the required hospital ministry, and I was profoundly formed by daily corporate worship as well. But what stands out most in my memory from those days was Virginia’s practice of “small group worship on Friday mornings.”

Each entering class at the beginning of the year was organized into small groups of about 8-12 students and paired with one faculty advisor. Then, every Friday morning during term, we met together in the advisor’s home for several hours.  During this time, we did Bible study, each taking turns leading the discussion; we also took time just to “check in,” listening deeply to each other’s lives, and our personal and professional struggles; we prayed together, in silence, out loud, in song, sometimes scripted, sometimes not; we committed to stay in relationship with one another throughout the year, and to pray for each other every day; and we ended our time on Friday mornings by breaking bread together, either Eucharistically, if our faculty priest was available to celebrate the sacrament, or sometimes just over Blueberry scones and coffee.

It was in that intimate gathering – anchored by the four practices described by the Acts of the Apostles – that I truly learned for the first time in my life what authentic, intentional, Christian community and worship looks and feels like.

My hope is that our Chaplaincy community this year has at least approximated this apostolic ideal for each of you.  While part of me wishes that our numbers were even greater than they are, one of the great advantages of who we are as a small community is that we have an intimacy, a depth of relationship and care, that is often lost in larger congregations. And for that I am deeply grateful. I hope it has served you well. And I pray that whatever the future may hold for you – whether you are returning to us next fall or are moving on to a new place of opportunity – that you will find a community of faith that gently and lovingly holds you in its palm just as we have sought to do so here.  God bless you all.
Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harvard Chaplains Speak Out Against a "Black Mass"



The Reverend Luther Zeigler
President of the Harvard Chaplains and Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard

This statement will appear in the Harvard Crimson on Monday, May 13.

As Harvard Chaplains, we write to express our concern about the plans of a student group at Harvard’s Extension School to host a re-enactment of a “Black Mass” on campus this coming Monday evening. The students, who call themselves the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, are partnering with a New York-based organization known as the “Satanic Temple” to put on the event. Although the students have not released details of the performance they intend to stage, a “Black Mass” by its very nature typically involves the mockery and ridicule of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion.

For many Christians, the practice of sharing the bread and the wine of Communion embodies some of our deepest beliefs about humanity’s relationship to the transcendent as reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus.  It is for us a sacred rite to be treated with the utmost respect and love.  For this reason, many in our community – including especially our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, who appear to be the target of this event – are understandably distraught and hurt when they learn that some of our students believe that an appropriate way to engage in learning about the religious beliefs and practices of others is to denigrate them through a mock performance like a “Black Mass.” 

The Harvard Chaplains represent a wide diversity of religious and philosophical perspectives – including most of the major Western and Eastern religious traditions, as well as the perspectives of atheists, agnostics, and those genuinely uncertain about what they believe.  One value that we share, however, is a commitment to engaging in discourse about life’s “big questions” in a manner that is open and honest, but also respectful.  Our aim is to support the wider Harvard community in framing a thoughtful conversation about issues of meaning and value without the need to vilify or parody those with whom we differ.  As chaplains we desire to help the wider community seek mutual understanding about religious matters; but just as importantly, when there is disagreement, as there often is, our hope is that we can learn to disagree in ways that are civil, caring, and supportive of our shared humanity.

We hasten to add that we do not think the issue presented here is primarily one of “academic freedom.” Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good.  Whether or not these students are “entitled” to express themselves through the ceremony of a “Black Mass” as a matter of law or University policy is a distinct question from whether this is a healthy form of intellectual discourse or community life.  We submit it is not.

We urge the student organizers of the “Black Mass” to re-consider going forward with this event.  If the event does go forward as planned, we would urge the rest of the community not to dignify it with your presence.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” A Farewell Sermon from the Kellogg Fellow

This is the last sermon given by Emily Garcia as our Kellogg Fellow, on the Sunday of Easter, May 4th. The readings for the day (in particular the Psalm and the Emmaus story) can be found here.

For a long time my favorite Psalm was 42: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. / When shall I come before the presence of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, / “Where now is your God?” / When shall I come before the presence of the living God?”
            This was the Psalm I prayed, the Psalm I prayed on or in, the Psalm where I rested. It affirms a love and hope in God’s comfort, but the poem never reaches that comfort. It remembers times of strength, it hopes for God’s presence, but it stays in longing and distress. That’s where I was, in much of my life and in much of my relationship with God.
            But things changed. I was healed, through the love and patient care of friends and family, and new friends in the Church. I was healed by God’s love mediated to me through my priest, Steve White, and my Bible Study friends Laura Johnson, Alana King, Rebecca Legett, Jill Young; I was healed by good pastoral teachers like Elaine Pagels and Ellen Charry; I was healed by the Book of Common Prayer and the quiet high liturgy of a Gothic chapel.
Through these things God healed me, and my life changed, and my relationship with God changed. Somehow, in the last few years, I happened upon Psalm 116, of which we read excerpts today. “I love the Lord because he has heard the voice of my supplication; / I came to grief and sorrow, / I was brought very low, and he helped me. / Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. / How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? / I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the Name of the Lord. / I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”
Being confident in God’s love means that my relationship with God has changed. The more confident I am in his love, the stronger I am, the more I know him—then the more responsibility I have in mediating God’s love. Having been healed, standing strong in my relationship with God, I must ask,  “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”

How shall I repay him? How shall I fulfill my vows in the presence of his people.
The story of Emmaus shows me one way.
Before we even get to Emmaus we hear hints of it: in our Collect we pray that God will “open the eyes of our faith”; the multitude hears Peter speaking and is “cut to the heart”; Paul says that we have been born again, made pure by obedience to the truth, and now that we have “genuine mutual love,” we are to love one another deeply, from the heart. But these are just hints! And in the story of Emmaus, we see our task more clearly.
Jesus was always listening to people who you were supposed to ignore or dismiss. In the Emmaus story, he gets to play the other side. He’s gone back to being some back-country rube, who doesn’t know any of the big city news.
These two followers respond to this stranger’s innocent question with incredulity—“Who IS this guy?” or “Are you kidding me, man?” They take pity on this poor guy out of the loop, they fill him in. And then this stranger (who apparently knew less than they did), says straight out, “Oh, how foolish you are.” Perhaps translated to our time and context, it might sound more like, “I can’t believe you guys,” or “You know you’re totally missing the point, right?”
This stranger keeps talking, and the two followers keep listening, and their hearts burn as he speaks, and they want him to stay with them and keep talking together. They are rewarded with God’s own wisdom about God’s self, from a person they may have at first dismissed. They were with God and didn’t even know it.
How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? When we “love one another deeply from the heart,” when we are strong enough and steady enough, we can listen to other Christians say, “Oh how foolish you are!” We can listen to other Christians implicitly or explicitly call our beliefs wrong or harmful or offensive; we can listen to Christians share their own beliefs that we might find wrong or harmful or offensive.
And then! It’s not enough just to listen—we need to ask God to open the eyes of our faith; we need to love this other person deeply, from the heart, with a genuine mutual love. And we need to be open to being “cut to the heart,” to feeling our hearts burn—because we might be hearing God without knowing it.
That’s the task that Emmaus sets before us. That’s what we’re getting ourselves into    when we’re born anew in God’s love—when we go from the longing of Psalm 42 to the confidence and praise of Psalm 116.

In my own life, this has looked like many different things. Mostly, it’s looked like trying and failing, and trying, and failing and so on. The few times it’s looked better, it’s been first because of God’s grace—that inexplicable gift that occasionally helps us to do something we couldn’t do alone. It’s also because of friends and family situated along the spectrum of Christianity who are respectful and loving, with this genuine mutual love Paul exhorts us to. So here are two quick examples.
When I went from “grief and sorrow” to “praise and thanksgiving,” for me it meant leaving the Evangelical Free Church of my parents for the Episcopal Church. I had been hurt by the church, as many have been, and for a long time I did need some distance. But slowly that changed, and eventually I found myself sitting at breakfast with my Dad, talking about homosexuality (as one does). We ate beignets and drank chicory and Dad said that he thought it was a sin, and I said I didn’t, and we asked each other how we’d come to believe these things, and we kept eating breakfast, and then we moved on to talking about men’s ministries, and bicycles and things (as one does). Big disagreement, hard conversation, no big deal.
What made this possible was my father’s and my love for each other. I had learned to keep my eyes open to all the ways that Dad was living a beautiful Christian life—his patience in all kinds of situations, his kindness to everyone, his forgiveness and his asking for forgiveness. I didn’t trample on his beliefs or his devotion to God. And Dad didn’t try to convince me to change my mind; he had his eyes open to the work God was doing in my life, and could appreciate that even as he disagreed with me.

My other example is a crowd I call my “Conservative Young Men’s Discussion Group,” (a.k.a. Handsome Men in Bow Tiesthough to be fair they don’t all wear bow ties). This is a group of three young men, all Christians, who believe things that I do not believe. Their own beliefs differ, including as they do a liberalish Mormon, a somewhat radical Anglo-Catholic, and a traditionalist Episcopalian. I love talking with each of them. They can express respectfully ideas which I might find harmful, and we can have clear debates about complex theological issues which are, with other people, too hot to handle. We can do this because we each believe that the others are in close relationships with God. If one of them were to say to me that he isn’t sure women should be leaders in church, I could hear this without reaching across the table to slap him, because I have seen how he loves God! And seen how he has formed so much of his life around loving others and caring for them. And I think they, too, can hear what I say because they trust that I try to listen to God and be close to Him.

So those are two ways I have tried to listen to strangers on the way to Emmaus. I think God has spoken to me through these people with whom I disagree. There was a big dose of God’s grace involved, the kind of grace that opens your heart bigger than you think is possible. And, like I said, I’ve been lucky to have such amazing friends and family, because this isn’t the sort of thing you can do on your own. “Genuine mutual love” means you need at least two people to be loving each other!

But you know, IDEALLY, it’s not just two people—it’s a whole community! A community likesaya chaplaincy!

One of the things I love about how ECH has grown in the last four years is that increasingly we are able to behold God in each other and in the world around us.
When I first came it was a quiet and thoughtful community, one that I needed. I found special welcome in the persons of Cameron Partridge, Emma Brown, Lorel Clafton, and Jerome Fung. But something needed to change; there was a kind of narrowness to our conversation, to what we found acceptable or sensible or right. And things did change! Our new chaplain, Luther—our student leaders Graham Simpson, Emma Brown, and Alice Kenney—our first Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis, and our current Fellow, Abi Strait—our unofficial professorial advocate, Adrian Vermeule—and other leaders, official or no, slowly helped change the culture.
            And it wasn’t just the official leaders who effected this change; it was all of you! When you came, you decided to be a part of this. You decided to love each other.

We still have some growing to do, but we’ve come a long way! Now, we include people from a variety of different backgrounds, different ways of praying, different tastes in worship and prayer styles and sounds—we don’t just “include” these people, we are these people. We have different ideas and different ways of relating to God, and many of us feel them very strongly. We get along and are a family together not because we have wishy washy ideas that don’t really matter—we get along because we have decided to love each other, deeply, from the heart. We have decided to love each other.

I can’t really believe that I’m leaving ECH, but I guess it’s happening, and I guess it’s happening soon, and so I want to share one of my hopes for our community—for those of us leaving and for all of you who will stay and continue to grow together. I hope that this will be a place where you can meet God in those with whom you disagree. I hope that this will be a place where we love each other regardless of who we vote for or how we sing or how we dress or which creed we prefer.
I hope that this is a place where we are born anew and know a genuine mutual love. Where we can say, “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. / How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"My Lord and My God": An Easter Sermon from Our Student President

This sermon was given by our Student President, Ms. Emma L. Brown '14, on the Second Sunday in Easter 2014. The readings for the day are available here

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Poor Thomas. If we take this story at face value, a grieving Thomas is so saddened and shocked by the events of Good Friday that he doesn’t break bread with the other disciples on Sunday evening. He’s scared and hurt and lonely, and he doesn’t want to be around the people who remind him of Jesus, his lost friend and leader, who he thinks is gone forever.

The gospel notes that the disciples are all still scared, and that they lock their door for fear of further violence. We can imagine how shocking the events of Good Friday must have been to the disciples, and how tensions in Jerusalem must still have been very high. Thomas watched as Jesus was convicted, beaten, taunted, and violently killed. So on the night of this scripture, he doesn’t feel like fellowship. He doesn’t eat supper with his friends. But as a result, he doesn’t get to see Jesus like all of the other disciples. He didn’t get to see the looks of joy and wonder on his friends’ faces when their savior appears. He doesn’t receive the peace that Jesus grants them. He doesn’t receive the holy spirit or the authority to forgive others for their sins. He doesn’t see for himself Jesus’ wounded hands and side, and he is not reassured.

So imagine how Thomas must have felt when he heard from his friends the next day. “Either my friends are playing a joke on me,” he must have thought, “or, I just missed the greatest miracle there could be. I missed the opportunity to be comforted in a time of great pain by the person who could have comforted me most. I missed the opportunity to see for myself that Jesus is alive.” But Thomas, because of his hurt and his anger and maybe because of his jealousy, refuses to believe his friends’ story. He says: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Fatalistic and pessimistic and wholly swayed by the events of the past week, Thomas doesn’t even want to let himself hope that Jesus is alive. That could only lead to more sorrow, right? He was protecting himself.

I think it’s easy to see things from Thomas’s point of view. Or it’s easy for me to be sympathetic. But maybe that’s because when I got to college, I felt let down by my church, and by God. I felt really alone, and like God wasn’t with me, and like if he had ever been with me, then he certainly wasn’t here with me in Cambridge. I was far away from home, really for the first time, and I didn’t make the effort to go to church, or even to find a church. I missed the disciples’ Sunday supper, let’s say, for my whole first semester of college. I don’t know what I was waiting for, or what I was looking for. I didn’t have specific demands like Thomas either. I didn’t feel the need to touch Jesus or see him in the flesh to know that he had died for me. Unlike Thomas, I wasn’t even consciously looking for a sign. In that way I guess I’m a little worse than Thomas. And yet people haven’t adopted the phrase “Doubting Emma” to mean someone without faith.

In the scripture, a week later, Thomas has healed enough to go to Sunday supper and be with the other disciples. Jesus comes to them again, he grants them his peace, and then he looks Thomas in the eye and addresses him directly. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

During my second semester of college I shopped a class called Leverett 74: The Question of God. It was a seminar taught by Armand Nicholi in which texts by C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud were read and discussed in dialogue with each other – like a debate over the existence of God. Looking back, I know that there was a reason that I was interested in this course, even though there was a required essay and interview to even be considered to take it. And I was a freshman, and I was intimidated by everything, and I usually didn’t take chances like this. But I got into the course. And I was the youngest person there. And for a semester I read the texts that encompassed this grand debate, and I wrote about them, and I debated them myself. And, needless to say, at least for me, C.S. Lewis won. It was like he was directly answering every question I had in texts that he had written 50 years ago. And you know what? That course, which Professor Nicholi had been traching for about 50 years, that was the last time he taught it. He retired. And now it seems very clear to me, however murky it was at the time, that that course was Jesus looking me in the eye and addressing me directly. “Here, read this. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answers Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I think the uncomfortable thing about this story is that we all have doubts occasionally, or we have had doubts in our lives – about God, or about why we’re here – and it can be an awkward conversation, as open as we try to be here in discussing doubts and questions and hesitation, to say, “Hey. Wait. I’m not sure.” Because if we’re doubting Thomases, why are we here? Doesn’t doubting somehow exclude us from the body of Christ, from this community? Isn’t it something to be ashamed of, something that we should try to ignore until it goes away? No. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Thomas has gotten a bad reputation. We call faithless people “Doubting Thomas,” and we mean it as a bad thing – you pessimist, you skeptic, O ye of little faith. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” But I think it’s the “come to believe” that’s the important part of that sentence. Jesus doesn’t insult Thomas for needing guidance and support. He seeks Thomas out to give it, in fact, and once Thomas sees Jesus, he cries, “My Lord and my God!” He comes to believe. Eventually. Passionately. And for the rest of his life he travels as a missionary (as far as India) to provide others with reassurance when they need it.

Thomas asked for reassurance of his faith. He was a human, a sinner, in a moment of extreme sadness. He had his doubts, and he asked for a sign from God to renew his faith. Have we not all prayed, or asked in some way, for God to lead us back to our faith? Have we not all asked for a sign, or guidance? Have we not all had our doubts? I don’t even think I asked. I just doubted. And I was lead to this place. And all I can say is thank you, and hope that I can help assuage some doubts, or at least talk about them, without shame or judgment, with the rest of my time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jesus's Willing Executioners: A Palm Sunday Sermon

This sermon was given on Palm Sunday at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard by Richard Parker. Richard is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Chaplaincy board. 

Today is Palm Sunday—and with over one billion fellow Christians worldwide, we are celebrating it, here at Christ Church, to mark the coming of Our Lord into Jerusalem.  Waving our palms, shouting our hosannas, we sing:  “All glory, laud, and honor--all glory, laud and honor.”

But let me ask you for just this one moment to pause, to put down your palms—and reflect with me on exactly what it is that we are celebrating.

What is it that begins today as Jesus enters Jerusalem—if not the solemn and horrifying march toward Friday, the inexorable start of his arrest, humiliation, execution and death, including his sorrowful march toward Golgotha, his painful hours on the cross, and then the overwhelming first reality of an empty tomb?

This Sunday it feels far too early to celebrate His resurrection—that will come a week from now, and is the purpose and meaning of Easter, not Palm Sunday.  So instead contemplate what’s before us and before Him--the weight, the darkness, and the misery that in fact begins this Sunday--in order to see it anew.

Jesus enters Jerusalem today, knowing what unfolds next.  We do too—but His disciples don’t, nor does anyone else in Israel.  Indeed many at that moment of this first Palm Sunday clearly anticipate not Jesus’s death but his coronation, the embrace of this poor carpenter’s son by the multitudes, the recognition that this whispered bastard (for surely it was whispered) is, unimaginably of all people, the Messiah, the Deliverer, that Israel has so long awaited. 

We as Christians must grasp something more: that at this seminal moment in the Gospels Jesus is still a Jew, and his act of entry into the Jewish capital is a sign of impending redemption for the Jews--not for us as Christians because on that first Palm Sunday there are as yet no Christians in the world.

So then if, like his followers that first Palm Sunday, we are celebrating—but know what his disciples didn’t and couldn’t have then—what, after all, are we celebrating?  That’s the question I ask you to consider now in all seriousness—because the answer I’m afraid to admit is this second question: paradoxically, are we not celebrating his execution? 

And if we are, to what extent are we—as much as the high priests and scribes, the Saducees, the Pharisees, and the Jewish mob are poised to do—on this Palm Sunday ourselves calling for his death? 

And if that is so, are we not acting, each one of us here as--- to adapt a phrase from our own times--Jesus’s Willing Executioners?

I ask this because I’m also aware of Palm Sunday’s place in the life of a man I count a contemporary Christian saint.  On Palm Sunday 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer celebrated his final communion in a Nazi concentration camp. Fellow prisoners had asked him to conduct the service, but he had initially refused because among them was an atheist, and Bonhoeffer wanted to do nothing that would exclude the man from their shared final moments. 

But the atheist himself had then asked Bonhoeffer to proceed, and thus he had—and so the tiny group had knelt together that Palm Sunday, in  a dank and windowless cell, knowing as surely as Christ had that first Palm Sunday what awaited them as well.

I would ask you today to hold in your minds two images.

First, consider Christ, the Son of God, entering Jerusalem, knowing that with his death on the cross, he would return to His Father.

Second, contemplate Bonhoeffer and his fellow prisoners--including the atheist, all sons of men, none a son of God--facing the same impending end of their lives on earth.  Realize, then let the realization sink into you: unlike Jesus,  they are united by fragile human faith, not certain divine knowing, of what is to come.

The men were hanged days later, guilty of the crime of attempting to assassinate Hitler, the man who’d instigated a war of men against men that had taken over 50,000,000 lives. 

Hitler himself would be dead three weeks later, and the war in Europe over a week after that.

Two millennia ago Christ came to teach, and in our own time Bonhoeffer had tried to learn—and learning why sometimes acts of cruelty and finality are part of God’s demanding love, he had offered up his life in order to take another man’s, not for himself but for mankind.  He had failed to kill that other man, so now had only his own life left to offer.

 None of us here is the son or daughter of God, and so we must use the meaning of Palm Sunday to renew our understanding of what it means, in all its complexity, freed of treacly dreams, to stand in the name of God for God’s love and justice amidst our fellows and against evil. 

If we do, I believe we will be able to understand what Bonhoeffer said, as the noose was placed round his neck, the end of his own Golgotha Road:

“This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.” 

Today, on Palm Sunday, we owe Our Savior all glory, laud, and honor for submitting to our willing execution.  Today, on Palm Sunday, we no less importantly owe one another not just the promise offered but the rededication of our lives to love and justice, remembering the courage of the Bonhoeffers before us who willingly gave their own lives on the promise—without the fact—of Jesus’s return.

A coda: we owe that atheist our thoughts—and, offered silently in utmost humility, our prayers.  Unnamed and today unknown, he the disbeliever, gave the followers of a god he didn’t know or believe in, something remarkable.  Out of his love (that’s the only possible word here) he allowed them (and perhaps himself) needed communion that Bonhoeffer led in that prison cell.  In some powerful way I can’t begin to articulate but can see, his willingness to love proved to be the manifested sign of God’s presence in plain answer to all the other men’s prayers.

And seeing that, seeing in him as much as in Bonhoeffer—perhaps as much as in Jesus the Man Who Knew He Was God’s Son---what it means to be transfigured by Faith when Love is its source, I am myself transformed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knowing God

This talk was given by Rachel Johnston during Morning Prayers at Memorial Church on Monday, April 14. Rachel is a senior at Harvard and a steadfast member of the Chaplaincy community.

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

God found me at Harvard. I say this with a great deal of hesitancy and humility, because reason tells me that that’s not really God’s M.O.: He is everywhere and in everything, after all, and therefore doesn't need to play much hide and seek. But it seems unfair to say “I found God at Harvard” because that implies a certain amount of willingness on my part, and let’s be honest—I tried really hard to avoid God. A staunch atheist during my last two years of high school, I approached the subject of God in college from a purely academic and ethnographic standpoint: I studied how other people conceived of God because it made for a fascinating scholarly pursuit. I wasn't really after the mysteries of the universe, here.

But the perspective of the distanced observer that I clung to quickly revealed a void in my life. I felt absent from my studies and from my social life, and it was out of the depths of that void God called to me. As a medievalist who studies early Christian mystics, I am normally quick to distinguish between physical and mental manifestations of God’s voice—but this was both. While I didn't hear God with my ears, I felt a physical ache—a breathless, constant physical pain akin to heartache—that pulled me to prayer, of all things.  

Last Wednesday night, the Episcopal priest Rev. Steven White shared with the Episcopal Chaplaincy his story of saying no to God’s call. He has said, “Never say no to a call from God. You can say yes, or you can say maybe, but you never say no.” I think I must have instinctively understood that I shouldn't say no, because even though the idea of prayer felt foreign and downright silly, I started to pray anyway. In an effort to mitigate my perceived awkwardness of talking to God, I wrote my first prayers. A few months into my freshman year, a few months after trying to ignore or cover up the ache that drew me to God, I sighed and I faced the ache. I wrote, “God, I want to know you. I want to understand you. Help me know you.”

Out of my pain and wrestling came a desire to know God that defied all reason. Brother Geoffrey from the Episcopal monastery down the street recognizes that this is not an unusual manifestation of God’s love; after all, before Paul was writing down his own desire to know God, he was Saul, being struck blind by God on his way to Damascus to persecute Jesus’ followers. Brother Geoffrey writes, “…our truest selves…become real to us as we struggle to make sense of our own lives. The revelation comes through the struggle. It seems that God likes to struggle with us, and it is often through the struggle that we become who we most truly are, that we come to recognize God and recognize that God’s name is love.”

During Holy Week, we are plunged into the remembrance and recognition of Jesus’ suffering. I wonder if we might take the time this week to dig into that, to sink into the struggle and pain in the Bible and in our own lives, instead of only looking ahead toward what we know will be the glorious renewal of Jesus’ resurrection, because we might see God’s love that much clearer, and experience it that much more strongly, if we first understand the depths of the pain and struggle out of which it has risen.

Let us pray: “Almighty God, whose Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son, Amen.”

Breath of Forgiveness

This sermon was given by Laura Shatzer on Sunday, April 6 at Church of the Covenant in Boston. Laura is a Life Together fellow living in our shared space at 2 Garden Street and working with Massachusetts Council of Churches.

By the end of July 1994, the country of Rwanda was a valley of dry bones. Driven by government propaganda, many Hutus slaughtered their neighbors, the Tutsis.

More than 1 million people lost their lives, and millions more lost their loved ones and homes.

Limbs were brutally severed and other people were buried alive. Their bodies were not discovered for months, and what remained were bones.

This April marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. The official commemoration in Rwanda begins tomorrow.

In some ways, Rwanda today is prospering, at least according to government officials. There are more than four million Rwandans today that weren’t alive during the genocide, there is a growing business sector in the country, and healthcare is improving, especially with aid from organizations like the Boston-based Partners in Health.

However, there are still dry valleys: deserts of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and lack of land. And the bones remain.

One image from the Internet struck me in particular: a genocide survivor stands in a church next to rows and rows of skulls and femurs, praying.

At genocide memorials around the country, coffins and display cases are filled with bones. They are open graves, and they speak for themselves.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the people of Israel lament: our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. And the Lord God tells Ezekiel to prophecy: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from them. I am going to give you new life, new spirit, and new breath.

Ezekiel writes from exile in Babylon, imagining secondhand the destruction of Jerusalem. Dry bones name the desolation he and his people are feeling. Ezekiel, a priest, understands this temporary desolation as punishment for the Israelites’ idolatry and ritual impurity.

In this prophecy, however, the bones are re-membered. The people of Israel are put back together.

God forgives them.

They will always carry the memory of displacement and destruction with them, but they will also carry the reminder of God’s restoration and healing in their very breath.

Ezekiel’s dry bones prophecy is a story of forgiveness, and of resurrection. As you know, Easter is not here yet.

And yet, what I love about this passage, and what makes it fitting for this last leg of our Lenten journey, is that the resurrection of the body of Israel is not immediate. It is gradual, a process.

First, the bones come together, forming a skeleton of rebirth. Then, Ezekiel observes, there were muscles, and then flesh, and then skin. But still: no breath.

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they MAY LIVE.

It is only after this second prophesy that breath reanimates the dry bones. And it’s only after they’ve received this gift of breath that these bones are able to stand, ready to live again. 

The dry bones have heard the word of the Lord, and now they can speak for themselves. They are ready to tell the story of a forgiven people, a people who have been given new life.

Forgiveness is a process. The process of forgiveness is about re-membering, in both senses of the word.

It requires recalling past pain and grievances in order to let go of them. And it requires the coming together of individuals and groups to hear one another.

One of the most amazing things that has happened in Rwanda is that perpetrators and survivors are now, years later, coming together to seek forgiveness and to forgive. Genocide itself is unforgiveable. And yet, some Rwandans have been able to individually forgive perpetrators.

In today’s New York Times magazine, the feature is titled “Portraits of Reconciliation.”[1] Genocide survivors and perpetrators stand or sit side by side in each photograph.

I wish I could show you these photos now, and I implore you to look them up. They are incredible…haunting…hopeful.

In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and her brothers. In another, a perpetrator and survivor stand side by side with arms folded across their chests. Their faces are worn by struggle, and yet there they are, together.

In a third photo, Dominique Ndahimana and Cansilde Munganyinka, stand up straight and clasp hands, as if they are walking into the future together. 

With each photo, the Rwandans tell their story of forgiveness.

Dominique, who looted Cansilde’s village, said: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

Cansilde shared this: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’

The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or rationalizing behavior. It does not mean ignoring or denying real pain and harm.

Forgiveness is possible only when are able to see ourselves reflected in another human being, each bearing the image of God. Forgiveness is possible only when we see our own capacity to do what we cannot imagine ourselves doing. Forgiveness is possible only when we remember that we all fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us.

This is the message of the Gospel we heard this morning: we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven. Jesus proclaims to the crowd who accuses a woman of adultery: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

And no stones are thrown.  

We are given only the bare bones of this nameless accused woman’s story. We don’t hear from her; she never shares her perspective or confesses her guilt or innocence. We can only imagine what Jesus might have written in the dust with his finger while the Pharisees and scribes tested his legal knowledge. 

But perhaps all of this is not important. Perhaps the story does not need to be fleshed out. What is important is that Jesus forgives the woman.

In the midst of a crowd of dry bones and stony hearts, Jesus breathes forgiveness and gives the woman a chance to start anew. He does not accuse or condemn the woman. He simply tells her not to sin again, from that point forward.

Flesh is often used as a symbol of human weakness. It is a catch-all metaphor used to describe human sins –as in sins of the flesh. And yet, I think that it’s our very vulnerability – the warmth and softness our flesh represents – that catalyzes forgiveness. God replaces of hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

Forgiveness asks us to become vulnerable. It asks us to get in touch with the skeletons deep in the closets of our souls: Those things we have never forgiven ourselves for from the past, those people whom we have not forgiven, and those parts of ourselves we would rather forget.

First we have to greet those skeletons, and then we have to be willing to expose them for what they are: dry bones.

In this moment on our Lenten journey, what are the skeletons in the valleys of your soul?

Where are the dry bones in your life and in your relationships?

Have you fallen into the pattern of casting stones, either in your mind or through your actions?

Who do you need to forgive? 

Whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?

Sometimes, it is harder to forgive those closest to us than strangers. We can shrug off the driver who merged right in front of us or tail-gated us too closely, maybe after uttering a few choice words, but we might carry a grudge against an old friend for years.

It might take a few minutes for us to forgive the barista for making us the wrong beverage, but it takes a lifetime to come to terms with the baggage our parents passed on to their children.

For me personally, the most challenging thing of all is to forgive myself.

In this season of Lent, it is all too easy for Christians to become less forgiving of self. If you’ve taken on a practice of self-discipline this Lent, and, like me, you’ve struggling to keep it up or have decidedly failed – you might be feeling guilty or frustrated with yourself. You might even devise a new practice to punish yourself, or compensate for messing up the first one.

Take it from me: this doesn’t really work. And this striving mentality is so far from the point of Lent. It is so far from the breath of forgiveness that the Holy Spirit is constantly moving through us.

The next time you find yourself self-blaming and shaming, try this: take a deep breath. And know that breath is a gift from God. That in that breath, God gives you a new heart, and a new spirit, and a chance to begin again.

This is how it is, when dry bones are restored to new life.

Tomorrow, Rwanda will begin commemorating 20 years of healing. Next week, during Holy Week, the city of Boston will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the marathon bombings.

Since then, new runners have been born, inspired by the courage of first-responders and law-enforcement. Survivors who lost legs have learned to stand again on prosthetic limbs. Runners are preparing to race again.

For some, it is still too soon and too difficult to forgive the Tsarnaev brothers.

And yet, we have good news: that God’s mercy is wide enough, and deep enough and vast enough fill up all of the times we struggle to forgive others, or ourselves.

Thanks be to God for the gentle breath that enters us and reminds us again and again, you shall live.  Amen.



            [1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?_r=0