Easter Day – Year B
And Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was [him.]
– From the Gospel According to St. John
I know that you carry a lot of extra stuff with you into the church on Easter morning. Some of it can seen: fancy dresses, new shoes, great hats, cards and gifts and candy, the skeptical friend or relative, a check for the church … a posy. But the biggies – the stuff we carry here with us today that is really substantial – are all the invisible things that we bring here with us.
Like any great holy day: Christmas, a wedding anniversary or a birthday – we greet this day and come to this place with a ton of memories. I remember dazzling Easter outfits to celebrate this day, including my first ever necktie – a snazzy red, white & blue striped clip-on – that was part of an ensemble Johnny Whitaker peddled to his young fans in about 1971. I remember dying eggs, and how those tiny grey and brown tablets would dissolve into brilliant, shimmering glasses of pure color, a rainbow on the kitchen counter, that made the house smell like vinegar for a whole day. I remember long Easter egg hunts both in and out-of-doors and how I used to beg my mom to give me hints about where to look, because she and dad hid the eggs too well. One year in response to my pleas she told me to “go blow your nose” about ten times, before I realized that that was the hint! The egg was in the bathroom tissue box.
My memories beyond childhood shift to church and the dinner table. I remember serving the altar as a high school kid and always feeling welcome in that work even though I was prone to asking snotty questions of the priests and to wearing bright purple sneakers that poked out from under my acolyte robes. I remember my first Easter in college – and having to find a phone book and call all around town to figure out where an Episcopal church might be and at what time they might be worshipping on Sunday morning.
I remember seminary, and gathering around our apartment table to which each of our best friends brought the Easter dish from home that they missed the most. Nathan brought “butterhorn” rolls from Maine and Lisa brought chicken curry from Dallas and Sara brought a lamb-shaped cake from Chicago covered with coconut for white fur and adorned with a single red jellybean for a great bulging eye. We all come this day with such memories. A potent brew from the past that we carry with us all the time. Memories of which we are particularly cognizant on a holy day like this.
We shoulder a lot of hope on Easter too – lugging it into this place and to all the different gatherings to which we may travel later on today. Our hopes run the gamut. For some of us, it’s all we dare to imagine that we’ll get through the day without some calamity rearing up in the hours ahead. Some of us will be happy if the new Easter pants don’t get ripped in the churchyard after the service, if Uncle John can just restrain himself from drinking so much wine at dinner that he starts insulting everybody, if the weather holds so that the drive back west on Interstate 80 isn’t awful. Some of us hope for more than just averting disaster. Maybe Tom will make the connection in Pittsburgh and make it to brunch after all. Maybe the weather will stay nice and the yard will dry out and the kids will be able to run around outside a little bit. Maybe dad will feel well enough to come to the table and sit with us…
Maybe the sermon won’t be too long!
We shoulder a lot of hope on a day like this – we lug it around this place and everywhere we’ll go.
The other thing we carry around this Easter morning is pain. In these last few days around here, a boy took his own life and a beloved father died after a long illness. A wife filed for divorce and an old friend lost her car insurance. A dad is fighting cancer every day and a daughter has a bad cold. A business is failing, and a beloved teen is seriously messing up in school. And that’s just the stuff I happen to know about.
The truth is that it’s a rare human life that’s not touched by some kind of sadness or hurt at any given moment. If you have friends and if you are serious about trying to love others in your life, then you will be heartsick and blue on many days. Even Easter mornings.
We carry a lot of extra stuff with us into the church on Easter morning. Some visible. Some invisible. But we’ve definitely got our hands full.
We can only imagine that on that very first Easter Day – the one we heard about in this morning’s Gospel reading – Mary and Peter and the others, came to that tomb with their hands full too. They may have been carrying burial ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body which they’d been unable to do in their haste to get him into the grave before sunset on Friday night. They may have been carrying memories: of Passover celebrations from better times … of traveling, eating and serving on the road with their friend … of all the wise things he said and did in their short time together. They were certainly bearing some extraordinary pain. At the death of their friend. At the scary and tortured way in which he died. At their own failure to stand by him at the end: falling asleep in the Garden, denying him at the palace, even the awful knowledge that one of their own inner circle had betrayed him to the authorities.
And hope? Maybe. A little. Maybe they hoped the guards would leave them alone as they prepared Jesus’ body? Maybe the hoped the Sanhedrin would be satisfied with destroying Jesus, and would let his followers be? Maybe they hoped their old jobs would still be open when they returned to their homes? We can only imagine all that those disciples carried on that first Easter Day.
It’s a weird thing that happens when Mary meets the risen Jesus on that first Easter morn. I don’t know if you noticed what happened when we read that part of the story this morning? Mary is crying at the empty tomb and wondering whether someone has stolen Jesus body. And then, the story says:
She turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” And Jesus said to her, “Mary.” And she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni?”
How can this be? Mary was one of his best friends. She’d known him for years. You know what it’s like when somebody you love has just died – not recognize them if they rose from the dead and spoke to you? Good Lord that’s what we dream of in such moments. That’s what we yearn for with every fiber of our being.
Partly Mary is surely overwrought and overburdened. Her load is too great and she is too saddened and too frazzled to she what’s happened. But more that that: Mary does not recognize Jesus because he is changed. Jesus has been transformed somehow by the experience of living and dying and rising from the dead. Jesus is not the man he was! Like a reticent church-goer who gets talked into going on a mission trip and comes back a whole different woman. Like a gravely ill man who fights his way out of the hospital and back to health only to discover that all his priorities are different now … the risen Jesus is changed. He is not easy to recognize. And that is still true today.
He’s here beloved! Right here in our midst in this little old church on this Easter Day. But like Mary we come here carrying to much stuff that we may be too burdened and frazzled to know him when we see him. With so many preoccupations and expectations and pains and burdens and regrets and “should haves” and shame. And so much sadness. And so many hopes and dreams and expectations grounded in nothing but fantasy, maybe we’re distracted from the amazing truth: he is risen. He is alive. And he is present in this particular holy and transforming moment. He is with us in this right now.
Some years ago I heard an Episcopal priest preach about resurrection at the Washington National Cathedral. Father Andrew Wyatt said in part that belief in the resurrection happens by faith:
Not what is asserted against reason as an act of will, but what lifts us into just and compassionate strength when reason can take us no further…
This is the realm of hope. Not what is wished for to escape our sullen despair, but what is affirmed as even now becoming true before we perceive it…
This is the realm of love. Not what is bartered in the marketplace of personal desire, but the promotion and protection of each other far beyond mere justice … whose cost to our self is not even notice in our good will and active delight in all God’s cherished and fragile creatures.
Christ is risen. And he can be present for us, and ours lives can be changed way beyond our hopes and dreams, if we but have the eyes of faith to look for him here.
He is risen when we gather in church parish halls every Sunday, welcoming strangers like long lost brothers and sisters, with coffee and treats and an earnest desire to connect with each other and support one another in a way that will make life better.
He is risen in our schools & workplaces when we make amends with someone we’ve hurt: when we summon the grace and courage to face our fault and say we’re sorry and set aside our self righteousness and petty need to always be right and always look good.
He is risen at our bedsides, when we have the faith to pray. When we remember to credit thank God for the great blessings of our lives. And perhaps even more, when we somehow find it in our hearts to pray in the worst moments of our lives.
He is risen when we can smile and laugh with a dying loved one at their sick bed. He is risen when we shout “Alleluia” on a funeral day.
He is risen when we come to the altar rail every Sunday. When we kneel down, and bow our heads, and dare to hope that plain old bread and plain old wine really could be transformed in this place … really could become for us food with power to nourish us like nothing we’ve tasted before, giving us forgiveness of our sins, strength in our weakness and everlasting salvation.
He is risen right here and right now. And he is calling you by name. Mary, Debbie, Sarah and Michael. Anne and John and Andy and Doug. Kurt and Melissa and Teresa and Dan. Chase and Joe and Rosanne and Ethel.
He is calling us by name every one, inviting us to let go of everything that keeps us from knowing him, and loving him, and being with him today and every day. He’s calling us by name and inviting us to see what happens when we look through the eyes of faith, and join our voices with angels and archangels and saints and martyrs and all the company of heaven, shouting out the news for which we long … for which we live: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
+ Bishop Barker
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Shape of Water.*
In this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the more memorable lines was from Pakistani-American comedian (and Best Original Screenplay nominee) Kumail Nanjiani, who in a montage about increasing diversity in Hollywood said “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” In a time when it feels like certain demographics of Americans are all but at war with others, Nanjiani reminds us that isn’t difficult to view another person’s story and identify with them even if they do not look like you. The popularity of Wonder Woman and Black Panther demonstrate that a well-told superhero movie can resonate with a wide audience (including white males) even when it’s white women or Black people who can most easily see themselves in the protagonist and the white dudes are reduced to supporting roles.
This year’s Best Picture winner, however, takes Nanjiani’s line a step further, not only decentering the straight white dude but laying bare his sins. The Shape of Water is often described as a modern fairy tale, telling the love story between a mute cleaning lady and the fish-man being experimented on at the lab where she works in 1962 Baltimore; although the film incorporates elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of those genres. The Shape of Water is best understood as a mid-century creature feature remade with a contemporary eye: there is nothing in the movie to suggest that the villain wouldn’t have been the hero if it were made fifty or sixty years ago.
Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, comes to the lab with what’s referred to as the asset, an amphibious humanoid that he captured in South America; his military superiors hope that the asset’s physiology will yield knowledge allowing the United States to regain the advantage in the space race with the Soviet Union. Strickland bears all the hallmarks of a Cold War protagonist: straight, white, male, with a successful military record and a good home life, and never questioning that he is the hero of his story. He self-identifies as “decent,” and makes genial small talk with the help. He has a comfortable, fairly new house in the suburbs where he lives with his lovely wife and well-behaved children. He is Christian (of an unspecified background) and cites the Bible in the course of his work. He is dedicated to his job, and if he seems too suspicious of the scientists or cruel to the asset, his hatred of the Russians and violent history with the creature readily excuse him.
But writer/director Guillermo del Toro exposes the dark realities of such white masculinity that Cold War movies usually ignored. Strickland’s small talk is crude, and by casually discussing urination habits with two cleaning ladies, he is at best exhibiting extreme tone-deafness and at worst committing sexual harassment. He treats his wife and children as objects, and propositions the mute cleaning lady in the hopes of fulfilling his fantasy to have sex while the woman is totally silent (which definitely is sexual harassment, and of a particularly concerning sort because of the power differential between the characters). The only evidence of his religion is when he cites Genesis to identify the asset as an affront to creation and the story of Samson and Delilah to intimidate a cleaning lady in her own home; if his faith taught him to love his neighbor at all, he only does so within a very limited definition of ‘neighbor.’ He gladly shoots and tortures not just the asset but several people after his superior reminds him that the only “decency” they care about is not screwing up.
As a straight white dude, The Shape of Water thus presents a twofold challenge. First, to get into the story I must empathize with two women (one mute, the other Black), a gay man, an undercover Russian, and a fish-man. At this point, I’ve enjoyed sufficient entertainments with protagonists who don’t resemble me that this isn’t really difficult, except insofar as I forget that it’s still unusual for folks who aren’t straight white dudes to watch protagonists to whom they can readily relate. The second, harder challenge is to accept that not only does the villain look like me but everything he does would be considered acceptable and heroic by straight white dudes of his time, and indeed there are many straight white dudes today who would consider Strickland a hero for his military service and obedience, stable home life, Christian decency, and enmity toward Russians and inhuman creatures.
All of this is relevant because straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church today face the same two challenges. In the past forty years, we have grown increasingly comfortable with clergy who are homosexual, female, and/or come from non-Caucasian racial and ethnic backgrounds, and I hope and believe that most straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church have no problem seeing those who do not resemble them as their pastors and priests. But there is still much work to do, both in promoting full equality (for example, increasing the number of female bishops and eliminating the pay gap between male and female priests) and in fully incorporating children of God across less-well-trod lines of difference (such as those who are transsexual, gender-nonconforming, or facing physical disabilities).
With regard to some of the ways straight white dudes have acted as villains in the past, the Episcopal Church (and some Dioceses, parishes, and other institutions thereof) has already begun the hard work of listening as those sins are named, identifying and recognizing those whose voices were disregarded in the past, and crafting policy to address such problems going forward. Right now, for example, the University of the South is studying how its sinful racist history is encoded on its campus and considering how the work of racial reconciliation might progress. But there is much of this work still to do, and it is painful both to tell and to hear. In January, the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies issued a joint letter calling the Episcopal Church to examine and repent of our history of sexual harassment and discrimination. At the end of February, the President of the House of Deputies appointed a special committee (including two Nebraska clergy among the forty-seven members) to draft legislation for this summer’s General Convention considering gender in our theological language, addressing gender inequality in pay and benefits, and creating a truth and reconciliation process to bring our sexist sins into the light of God’s truth, among other things.
Such processes invite straight white dudes in the Church to listen to those who have been disregarded, to loose our historical grip on power, and to empathize with those who differ from us. It takes a certain mental flexibility to relate to stories that differ so greatly from our own, and a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude to hear of the sins committed by folks who look and perhaps think like us without becoming defensive, but as Kumail Nanjiani reminded us, it shouldn’t be that hard, especially when we do so with God’s help.
The Rev. John Adams
Many congregations participated in the learning of Invite*Welcome*Connect, led by ministry founder and director, Mary Parmer, the first weekend of March. We generated a plethora of ideas and ideas for our congregations on how to invite people into our midst, how to greet them with hospitality once they are present, and how to engage them in the ministries and programs of our congregations. Then, we came home.
At St. Andrew’s we have held an organizational meeting on Palm Sunday lead by Sharon Kryger (email@example.com), chair of IWC for our congregation. The group watched a video from Mary Parmer to remind us of the purpose of this ministry, and to acquaint those who could not be with us for the learning. Following the video, the group broke into three teams – INVITE, WELCOME, CONNECT. Each team identified short term goals, some with deadlines. And each team has a convener who will call the next meeting.
So, now what?
Below are a few suggestions you might want to consider for your “next steps.”
- Invite as many people as you can to be involved with IWC. We used small notebooks for folks to sign up. It’s a good chance practicing the invite part of our ministry.
- Get together for a “pep rally.” The videos and resources on the IWC site are open source. Use them liberally! invitewelcomeconnect.com. The overview video can be found here: (http://www.invitewelcomeconnect.com/menu-1-3/). Show this to your teams. Get them excited.
- Break into small groups by interest area – INVITE, WELCOME, CONNECT. No fewer than 2 -3 in a group. Remember, Jesus sent the disciples 2 by 2 into the world. This is NOT a solo ministry! This is the “agenda” we used for our first meeting at St. Andrew’s:
- Add to Ideas
- Prioritize Ideas
- Identify the low Hanging fruit
- First steps
- Longer term Projects
- Down the road…
- Complete charts
- Look at the ideas that were generated at the seminar. If you didn’t attend, please refer to the resources on the IWC site – there are checklists and TONS of ideas. What are you already doing? What can you implement easily? Where is the low-hanging fruit for your congregation?
- Give yourself one or two things that you can accomplish between Easter and Pentecost. Assign someone to be the lead for the initiative(s) and a team to help implement. Identify something doable – don’t go for a complete system overhaul right now!
- Do it!
I know Bishop Barker would like to hear what successes you have in your congregations as a result of your work with IWC. Mary would definitely like to hear your stories! If you have a story to share, please consider putting it on video (your camera phone is fine!) and sending it to me. I will forward it to Mary.
Blessings in your work. Please let us know what you need to keep the momentum high.
The Rev. Diane M Pike firstname.lastname@example.org 402-391-1950
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Omaha
A week ago, those of us who observe Ash Wednesday and want to encourage others to practice those things that give us a holy beginning to Lent were wondering how much of a shadow Valentine’s Day would cast over the beginning of Lent in the greater culture. What would people be thinking about Wednesday evening — hearts and flowers, or the beginning of our forty day wilderness journey? By evening, though, the nation’s focus was on yet another in a series of horrible acts of violence, this one a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed seventeen people. Once again, American children were killed at school. Once again, our nation’s leaders were big on thoughts and prayers but not so interested in talking about what substantial policy changes they proposed to help protect our children from deadly violence at school.
We are in the wilderness, and not just the figurative wilderness of our Lenten journey. We are lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and frightening. Taken as a group, the adults of our nation have forsaken our responsibilities to our children. We have said we love our nation’s children even as we allow greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins to keep us from having policies such as those in other nations that would make our public places, including our schools, much safer places for children.
That we Americans allow sin to keep us from protecting our children is no new revelation, of course. We have been in the wilderness a long time, watching global temperatures rise along with concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere while greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins keep our leaders from developing policies that could mitigate the effects of climate change.
Much has been made of the hollowness of “thoughts and prayers” without action after events like mass shootings. Prayers of confession and repentance, though, necessarily result in action. Truly changed hearts result in truly changed lives. Truly changed hearts in our nation’s adults would produce genuine love that would not let sin get in the way of protecting our children. That said, we as a culture are far from that point of conversion. So long as a short-sighted desire for a perceived private gain trumps any impulse toward the public good in the hearts of voters and the people they choose to develop our public policies, we will remain in the wilderness.
At its best, the wilderness is a place where so much is stripped away that we see ourselves as we are — our sins along with the gift of being beloved children of God — and repent. This is why many Christians choose some sort of discipline for Lent that echoes the wilderness experience; that wilderness experience can bring us closer to God when it results in penitent hearts. When we see clearly who we are and the things that tempt us and then choose to turn our backs on the temptations, we are ready to leave the wilderness.
But some of us won’t even acknowledge that we are in the wilderness. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of our situation, if we pretend that we can continue living as we do and putting our sinful desires before our love of God and our neighbors — including our children — we will remain stuck in the wilderness, lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and, if only we would let ourselves feel it, frightening.
This week, much of our nation was shaken by yet another school shooting. This week also the Bering Sea lost a shocking amount of sea ice, something that should not be happening at all in February. The upshot of these big changes in the Arctic region is that changes in the Arctic create changes in weather patterns further south that promise to be very disruptive. An unstable Arctic means an unstable planet, and an unstable planet means a terrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.
We are in the wilderness. Some of us want to do what we must to get out of the wilderness, and some of us don’t care enough about ourselves or others to even tell ourselves the truth about where we are. Our work is to do our own work of repentance, and then take the news — both the news of the reality of our situation on earth and the good news of repentance and restoration — to others.
For everyone this year, not just observant Christians, Ash Wednesday revealed just how far astray we have gone. Jesus calls us back to the discipline of love that will make all the difference in how we live.
Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennet
You can follow Archdeacon Betsy’s Green Sprouts blog at https://nebraskagreensprouts.blogspot.com/
As an at least somewhat politically aware American, I frequently have thoughts (and come across the thoughts of others) about the relationship between Christianity and the United States of America. One of the most prevalent of these thoughts is the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation,” which depending on whose thoughts I’m reading might mean that our governmental structures are products of (European) Christian tradition, or our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian values,” or the United States is meant to be led by Christians and for Christians, or God chose this nation to bring the divine light to a benighted world, by force if necessary. I find it noteworthy that I have yet to encounter a real argument for the thought that the United States is a Christian nation because it’s the government and society Jesus would have organized. That in turn raises an always interesting thought experiment: what would a truly Christian society, something that would lead Jesus to say “yeah, that’s my Kingdom,” look like today?
The obvious answer is to study the Acts of the Apostles (which I hope we all will be doing this April and May with the Good Book Club), but I find it very challenging to imagine how that earliest church might practically translate into contemporary society. For example, among the earliest disciples in Jerusalem, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32), and that has worked reasonably well for some small, self-contained communes, but not for large nations.
I recently finished the novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. Although it is not talking about a Christian society (and, indeed, does not include a Christian perspective even when people achieve something like immortality by digitally recording their brains), I nonetheless find it a very provocative contributor to this thought experiment. Walkaway is set in a near future where the problem of wealth and power accumulating in the hands of a select few is even more pronounced than it is now and 3D printing has evolved to the point where whole buildings can be fabricated from readily available materials. In such a world, Doctorow imagines increasing numbers of people walking away from their default reality, abandoning dead-end jobs or chronic unemployment, debts and taxes, property and possessions to live in the unpopulated wilderness. The walkaways operate in a post-scarcity economy: by ignoring intellectual property rights around the plans for printing buildings, furniture, food, medicine, and everything else, everyone’s basic survival needs are met and at least some communal comfort is provided without one person’s needs coming at another’s expense. The rich periodically send forces to attack walkaway settlements, killing or arresting those who do not flee, in an attempt to discourage others from walking away and further eroding their power base.
In one of the book’s most compelling scenes, the woman who’s done the most work toward operating a walkaway tavern/boardinghouse returns from the woods to find that another group of walkaways have arrived and begun to reorganize the establishment as a meritocracy (that food, beds, and comforts are doled out according to the work a person does rather than being given freely to all). Their leader, who had previously argued with her about this subject while living there, hopes that she will either accept their changes (under which she easily ranks as the hardest worker) or fight them for control. Instead, she announces her intention to walk away, telling him “You’ve made it clear that you’re so obsessed with this place that you’ll impose your will on it. You have shown yourself to be a monster. When you meet a monster, you back away and let it gnaw at whatever bone it’s fascinated with. There are other bones. We know how to make bones. We can live like it’s the first days of a better world, not like it’s the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Have this place, but you can’t have us. We withdraw our company.” Like the apostles in Acts 4, she and the friends who join her have concluded that people are more important than property and they will always sacrifice property in order to benefit everyone.
What makes Doctorow’s society of walkaways particularly striking is its willingness, in the name of building a better world, to discard ideas about society that I take for granted: that money is a necessary medium of exchange and store of wealth, that a relationship (even if it’s only fictive) exists between merit and power, that competition between people is necessary for societal improvement, that some manner of coercive force is needed to maintain order, that my specialness entitles me to more than you. The resulting society includes a number of features that might fit a Christian nation better than anything in America currently: the behavior of giving people what they need without considering whether they can afford it or do something to earn it (Luke 6:30), the refusal to wield guns or lethally defend property (Matthew 26:52), the mentality that there is an abundance if only we can trust each other to share it rather than hoard it (John 10:10), the understanding that common values are of more importance than common nationality (Galatians 3:28).
In all this, there might well be a contemporary blueprint for following the example of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) or the seventy disciples (Luke 10:4), walking away from the only society we’ve ever known without bag or sandals in order to follow our Lord, but I’m certainly not advocating that (or prepared to do it myself). However, thinking about the juxtaposition of Walkaway and Jesus’ teachings does make me wonder if things that have been part of the United States from the beginning, like our monetary system, our understanding of private property, or our personal and corporate notions of defense, might be actively holding us back from being a truly Christian nation. As one character in the book observes, drawing from game theory, if you expect your neighbor to answer the door with a gun, you’re likely to answer the door with a gun yourself, and vice versa, but that same feedback loop also applies when offering a casserole. As Doctorow put it, “You get the world you hope for or the world you fear – your hope or your fear makes it so.” What fears might we walk away from, in order to be a more recognizably Christian nation?
The Rev. John Adams
When we had kids at home, we used to draw household chores every week. There were eight jobs in the rotation, each written on a little slip of paper we kept in a basket in the kitchen. On Saturday mornings, every member of the family would draw two slips of paper out of the basket. They might say “Vacuum stairs,” “Kitchen” (which meant wiping down and moping the kitchen or “Dog Poop” – you can pretty much guess what that one’s about.) It was a good system because it was fair: over time, everybody drew equally both the easy jobs and the tough ones.
My least favorite chore was “Up Bath.” Whoever drew that chore had to clean the upstairs bathroom top to bottom: tub, toilet, sink, floors – the whole deal. In theory, I didn’t so much mind cleaning the bathroom. I could handle the week-in-week-out family messes. What made that job difficult was the light. The “Up Bath” was the brightest room in our house, and when the sun shone through the window, and all the bathroom lights were on, on Saturday morning, you could see everything. I’m not talking about just the ring in the tub or the soapy stuff on the edge of the sink. I’m talking about the fingerprints on the switch plate where we all felt around in the dark to turn on the light. I’m talking about the mousy little clumps of dust that would get lodged in the deep corners of the room and in the tiny cracks between the quarter-round along the baseboard and the linoleum floor. I’m talking about the tiny streaks on the mirror that appeared after you hit it with the Windex to make the big streaks go away. That bright light in the Up Bath revealed a whole lot of messiness in that room … messiness which needed to be absolutely attacked in order to do the job right.
The truth I know is that to this very day, there are lots of places in our house where such small messes and modest dirty spots are located. It’s just that usually we do not see them. They appear gradually (like those fingerprints at certain spots on the walls and rails), and because they accumulate bit by bit over time, we just don’t notice them as they gradually build up. They are often located in the hidden parts of the house or a room (like the dust bunnies in those deep corners), and so if you don’t go looking for them, you will never see them. Some of those messes we actually choose not to see. If I let it register that there is a leaf just barely poking out of the high gutter over the driveway, then I’ll have to also let it register that I have not cleaned our gutters since we moved into our new home. Way easier just not to think about that at all!
Lent is a housecleaning for our souls. A whole season of the Christian year devoted to straightening up the messes in our hearts, minds, and spirits where bad stuff has built up over time. We will use the ancient cleaning methods of penitence, confession, fasting, alms-giving, and self-discipline to let God fix what is messed up and broken with us, and thereby bring new hope, energy and life to our weary souls. The “soul messes” that we’re going after in this season are much like the house-messes that only appear in the bright light. We’ll go after those bad habits that appear gradually and build up over time like fingerprints on the switch plate: the stuff that starts small but multiplies over months and years to become debilitating and dangerous. We’ll go after those things that are “hidden” from the rest of the world – like the dirt in the dark corners of our homes. We will confess those sins that are committed only in our minds and hearts – and so are invisible to our neighbors. We will renounce those sins we commit in private – the stuff we’d never do in the bright light of our public lives. And we will do what we can to take on the stuff that is so big and bad we simply cannot bear to face it at all. The hard histories, shattered relationships, binding addictions and those other truly fearsome messes in our lives that we mostly deal with by not dealing with them at all, so great is our hopelessness of ever being healed and freed from them.
Let’s clean house this Lent. For real.
Maybe you’re a little scared, but don’t be. There is nothing you can confess that God does not already know. There is no sin so great that Christ does not have the power to forgive it.
Maybe you’re a little grumpy and tired. We get defensive and angry when we are convicted of our sins … but I guarantee you that letting God into your life to straighten up what’s out of whack will feel wonderful in the long run.
And maybe you just did not get organized yet about identifying the places in your life where you need God’s help to fix what is broken and to clean things up. No matter. Just start somewhere, and know that your effort to please God does, in fact, please God.
This season is about drawing our chores. We do so in the knowledge that as disciples beloved of Jesus we are ultimately forgiven and free. The work of this season is not about earning God’s favor or working our way into deeper relationship with God, but rather about shining the bright light of God’s love onto the totality of our beautiful but imperfect and ultimately sinful human lives … and giving God the chance through confession, penitence and the forgiving power of Jesus to transform us into whole new people, shining in the bright image of the God who made us.
A Blessed Lent to All!
+ Bishop Barker
Thursday, February 15, 2018
You have surely heard that yesterday another shooting took place in a school – I’m told the 18th time that has happened so far in the 45 days of 2018, or one every 2 ½ days. The emerging story seems to indicate that a young white man about 19 years old legally purchased an AR-15 and quite a bit of ammunition, went to his former school, pulled a fire alarm, and began firing. Actions on the ground may have prevented a worse catastrophe: a janitor redirected fleeing students to safety; a teacher literally took bullets for his students; “lock-down” procedures were used to shelter in place and lock doors. The alleged perpetrator temporarily fled by removing a gas mask and blending in with fleeing students before being arrested.
How does our faith respond?
Friends, since arriving here, I have written about shootings in my weekly reflections at least three times, and preached after several of the larger occasions. If I wanted to, I could find an example each week. Some colleagues in urban ministries name the victims each week in their Prayers of the People. It’s raw, and takes them time. Priests I know have suggested sermons to try to shock us from complacency with such acts as placing an AR-15 on the altar beside the Gospel book and asking which we shall worship. Organized groups in Chicago – a city often cited as a “failure of local gun control” – plead with elected officials for common federal rules and better inter-state enforcement, as an open-secret trade of un-background-checked handguns are bought at gun shows in Indiana, then sold from the trunks of cars to gangs in impoverished neighborhoods, continuing a cycle of violence, no matter how many guns real police work removes from the streets. The companies turn their profits, and turn a blind eye. They lobby elected officials to do the same, and match large campaign donations to that voice.
I am not anti-gun. Many of our members, and certainly many neighbors throughout this and other states, own weapons, and I have every reason to believe the majority of them do so responsibly. (And if you do own firearms and are not taking simple steps of registering them with the police, and securing them in a gun safe or with a trigger lock, so that they couldn’t be used in anger or by an overwhelmed young person who finds it, please take yesterday’s events for what they might always be: the final warning before it is your gun that is misused.)
How does our faith respond?
God has given us minds and the will to use them. When I think of these shootings, I’m aware of the criminology formula, “Opportunity + Motive + Means = Crime.” The opportunity seems constant: people will never cease gathering together, whether in schools or concerts or churches or baseball practice or campaign rallies outside shopping malls.
Part 2, Motive, is a common bogeyman: “Well, that was just one bad apple.” Or “That one was just ‘mentally ill.’” This is a frustrating pairing for the majority of those who manage mental illness perfectly reasonably, but even so, if mental illness is one part of the cause, let us address it, and support mental health research and treatment, especially for adolescents. If isolation is one cause, let us address it, and support school counselors and campaigns like the DARE officers, this time reminding our young people that they all need one another, and encouraging bonds of fellowship and respect. If you believe that motive was the deepest problem here, please call on your representatives to address it.
And let us also, finally, turn to part 3: “Means.”
Over and over again, the means is a gun. Polls show 80 or even 90% of Americans supporting universal background checks, but political officials balk, afraid they’ll lose funding or votes, or that this will be a “slippery slope” that might thereafter ban bump stocks or the AR-15 the way that tommy-guns were banned in the 1930’s. Other objections are raised: that a knife or a bomb or a car can kill. But we license drivers, and regulate fertilizer and monitor bomb-info websites, and a knife doesn’t kill 17 at a time. There are a number of things that can be done, all without preventing responsible gun ownership, which will also make a meaningful reduction in this national sin that has frozen us into inaction. You can educate yourself through Moms Against Gun Violence or Mother Jones or any number of groups, and call your representatives there, as well.
How else does our faith respond?
We pray. But if our prayer is that God will help us forget, so that we don’t experience the pain of these children who have died, or that we put out of our hearts and our minds the truth that our negligence has set a course such that our country is careening steadily towards the next dozen children who will be killed at school, the next score of concert-goers that will be shot from a window, the next domestic abuse that turns lethal because an angry man grabs the gun that his restraining order hasn’t prevented him from legally buying – then we are praying the wrong prayer.
Prayer is supposed to convict and convert us. Not to be “democrats” or “bleeding hearts” or “republicans.” Prayer is supposed to convert us to be better followers of Jesus.
Jesus said “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.” Jesus said “Two swords are enough” when Peter wanted to arm the disciples. Jesus did not call for angels to rescue him from the cross. When Roman soldiers taunted him, and a thief dared him, “Save yourself, and us!” Jesus instead offered a prayer: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But the suffering of Jesus is not there to tell us that we should seek a world full of suffering.
The suffering of Jesus is there to show us how terrible the consequences of sin are, when we do nothing to stop its advance. We who behold the crucifixion of Jesus are called to make the Resurrection of the world the calling of our lives. Today, that means repenting of the sins of negligence and indifference, and taking up the unpopular, courageous work of confronting the resistance to change.
The line doesn’t need to move dramatically: we don’t have to throw every gun into the ocean. But we need to stop this literal bleeding. And the God who calls us through Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves is calling us to join in this work, however carefully, on whichever front.
Pray, and hear what God asks of you, and go forth to do the work that you have been given to do.
The Reverend Benedict Varnum
Priest and Rector
St Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Elkhorn, NE
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
The time has arrived for me to share, with great joy, some important news of my life and vocation with all of you. As many of you know, during these past two years, I have been discerning the direction of my vocation, sensing that God was calling me in a different direction than my community – the Order of the Holy Cross. Throughout this process, there has been no doubt that I am a monk and would continue to be one. Monasticism is so central to who I am that I cannot imagine living my life in any other way.
But there are many expressions of the monastic life and it has been becoming increasingly obvious that I had to respond to that call. Hospitality is central to Benedictine life, and, in fact, in Chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict (the Rule that Benedictine monks live by) it states that “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.” That connection of offering hospitality to and being present with both the poor and the seeker (pilgrim) has defined for me what it means to be both active and contemplative. And, in order to do so, a change had to be made.
And so, after much prayerful discernment I have requested that my membership in the Order of the Holy Cross be terminated. That request was granted late last week. I will be forever grateful for Holy Cross – for many years of prayer and service alongside good men. While this is not easy for any of us, it became very clear that it was the right thing to do.
On Tuesday, January 30th, I renewed (re-upped, if you will) my vow as a Benedictine monk with Bishop J. Scott Barker and the Diocese of Nebraska at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha, with my vow of stability being planted here in this diocese. My call to live a contemplative life combined with service to the poor and marginalized of our culture has been fully embraced by Bishop Barker and this Diocese. For me, this combination of the contemplative and active is exactly right and I am incredibly grateful to Bishop Barker and so many in the diocese for affirming and encouraging this call.
Our goal is nothing less than planting Benedictine life in the Diocese of Nebraska. We see that as a three-step process:
The first step is, well, me. By living here, paying here, and being given the great privilege of having already ministered in this geographically vast diocese, we have begun to establish the presence of Benedictine spirituality.
The second step is well underway and is called the Benedictine Service Corps which is scheduled to commence in August of this year. The Benedictine Service Corps (BSC) is a new Christian community plant in the Diocese, living in the context of Benedictine spirituality, according to a modified Rule of Benedict. Young adults interested in growing their lives of prayer, service and hospitality to community, especially among the poor and those searching for God, and the care for creation will be the members of this community. Already we have young adults who have committed to this year of service and others still who are seriously discerning it.
The third step will be called the Community of St. Benedict and will be a way of life for monastics and non-monastics to seek and serve God in the context of Benedictine spirituality. More on that in the next few months!
To serve God as a Benedictine monk is, for me, an awesome calling. It brings me so much joy that it’s sometimes hard to contain. With each passing year of my vowed life, I have often been more and more humbled by the “awe-someness” of what it means to be a Benedictine monk. I am eternally grateful to all those who have helped me to be that monk. But there is so much more monastic to “become”. Please pray with me during this time of transition and as we dive joyfully into the future. Peace in Christ.
Br. James, OSB
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Trip trilogy (2010, 2014, 2017, the latter two of which are on Netflix), and The Journey (2016, also on Netflix), although since these aren’t movies one watches for the plot, it won’t hurt you to read this.*
Among the claims of Christianity that are hard for us to believe is the assertion that love can and does conquer hate. When particular countries are constantly at war, when so much of world politics is defined by certain groups hating certain other groups, when we tend to focus more on how our neighbors might hurt us than how we might help them, it is difficult to believe that St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he stated that nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of God. In America particularly, this difficulty is exacerbated by a culture that mostly talks about love within familial or romantic relationships, offering comparatively few examples of love conquering hate without blood or physical attraction underpinning that love. Of course, hate (and its constant companion, fear) makes for great visual entertainment in a way that love without dramatic conflict and romantic entanglement rarely does.
An exception to that is the small genre of conversational films, of which My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013) are the best known examples. Such movies focus tightly (though not necessarily exclusively) on the interactions between two people, and the interest for the viewer lies not in the story (of which there usually isn’t much) but in the evolving dynamics of the characters in relationship as they talk.
I recently watched a pair of excellent conversational movies that remind us of the necessity of non-familial, non-romantic love to the good life and the ability of such love, developed in conversational relationship, to overcome hate. The Trip to Spain is the third of Michael Winterbottom’s films (condensed from television series) in which British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, go on restaurant tours of different parts of Europe. The trips are, in many ways, nothing more than celebrations of the good life: traversing beautiful scenery (of which Winterbottom gives us many lovely shots), eating excellent food, and talking with a good friend. Their conversations range from the purely silly (competing impersonations of Michael Caine or discussing Spanish history while deliberately confusing the Moors with famous Brits named Moore) to the deeply serious (professional struggles and jealousies or their difficulties in relating to girlfriends, wives, and children). Watching, I see a modern, upper-class distillation of several elements of the good life as identified in the ministry of Jesus. In addition to healing the sick and preaching the word, our Savior frequently left town or retreated up a mountain, to pray and perhaps be refreshed and recharged by taking in the scenery. Much of his activity seems to have taken place while dining, he scandalized the Pharisees with his willingness to eat with notorious sinners, and he left his followers with a ritual meal to observe. And I find it hard to imagine that Jesus and the twelve would have stuck together as long as they did, making only sporadic contact with their family and friends back home, if they did not genuinely enjoy talking to each other. The Trip movies remind me that Jesus liked time apart, food, and good friends, and that there is nothing selfish about making time for such things in the midst of our more active ministries of service. Sometimes embracing beauty, food, and fellowship in the face of difficulties is an important triumph of love over hate.
The Journey, although very different in tone, is also about a conversation while on a road trip between two fictionalized versions of real people. In 2006, talks at St Andrews between the British and Irish governments and leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties led to a breakthrough agreement about the governing and policing of Northern Ireland, which a year later resulted in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, leaders of diametrically opposed parties, having a close and effective working relationship as Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers. The film imagines the beginnings of that relationship when, during the talks, unusual circumstances orchestrated by MI5 compel the two to share a ride to the airport. Initially inhabiting separate spheres of stony silence, the two begin talking after a detour through the woods makes them wonder if MI5 is planning to kill them. Each winds up admitting things to the other that he could not admit to members of his own party (McGuinness’ regrets over some of the IRA’s violence, Paisley’s thwarted desire for martyrdom) and they together realize that part of the problem is that, to stop the cycle of violence with something less than total extermination or expulsion of one side, each party will have to agree to a peace that their own strongest supporters will hate. In the end, after reiterating that each despises what the other has stood for and done, they shake hands, agreeing to work together to give peace a chance. Although fictional, the core idea of the film rings true to the process, that peace, or at least a reduction in reciprocal hate and violence, had to begin with a deep conversation between two enemies who admit that, although they have no reason to trust each other, talking is better than killing. If we believe, as Genesis tells us, that God created humankind as good, then we have to believe that transformative conversations like this, shifting a relationship based on hate to one growing in love (or something adjacent to it), are possible.
As Christians living in hate-filled times, we must not only believe such conversations are possible but be open to participating in such conversations ourselves. Even when they are not personally felt, hate and fear in a culture have an isolating effect, separating groups according to skin color, gender, sexuality, political position, and other points of dissimilarity and through such separation making it harder for good-hearted individuals to cross such divides. But even in our smallest communities, there are individuals who social hate would pit against each other, and between whom real conversation could plant the seeds of love. And throughout this Diocese of Nebraska, there are plenty of opportunities to visit beautiful places, eat delicious food, and talk with friendly people so that, in the midst of all the hate around us, we will not lose sight of the good life that we hope, in Christ, all can enjoy.
The Rev. John Adams