Faith and Doubt

A sermon by the Rev. David A. Ames, St. Martin’s Church, 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Throughout this year, and I believe for the rest of our lives, the Church and all of us will be paying particular attention to the care of God’s creation.  During this past season of Lent St. Martin’s, along with many other Episcopal churches used the publication, “A Life of Grace for the Whole World.” Its purpose was for discussion groups to focus on the suffering of the earth.  It is time for us and for the whole world to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable planet for the flourishing of all life.  We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.

As our rector stated in his Easter sermon our epic Biblical story of salvation history including the Resurrection is about the repair of creation by bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. The first Christians recognized that raising Jesus to new life revealed in real time a foretaste of the future promise of a new heaven and a new earth. They felt called to a new way of living, in a new kind of community, where the goal was to leave this world in a better state than the one into which they were born.  

The Resurrection event itself was not, however, an immediate and decisive experience for all of Jesus’ disciples.  Today’s Gospel story about Thomas poses a certain tension between belief and doubt.  I find myself resonating to this story every year because Thomas raises some significant questions for all of us who tend toward skepticism as we continue the human quest for meaning and direction in our lives.  We live with science and technology as our constant companions.  We want to know that the products of scientific research and technological development will fulfill what they promise.  It is the same with our belief and our faith.  We want to know that what we believe is true and that our faith can be trusted.

In the earliest days of the Christian movement following the Resurrection of Christ, there were a number of different groups of Christians.  Near the end of the first century these groups were known by their loyalty to a particular apostle.  There were, for example, Peter Christians, Thomas Christians, and others devoted to Matthew, Mary Magdalene, John, or Paul. 

Since 1945, with the discovery of several early texts near Nag Hammadi in northern Egypt, biblical and historical scholars have been studying these documents for their impact on the early Christian movement.  Four of them are considered most important and examine differences among groups of Jesus’ followers.  They are the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Secret Book of John.  It wasn’t until the end of the second century that the Canon of the New Testament as we know it came to be the accepted norm for all Christians.

The biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, in her book titled Beyond Belief, has a chapter about the differences between the authors of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.  For example, “John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in

Jesus.”  Thomas, however, goes in a different direction.  He says, “the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made ‘in the image of God.'” John challenged Thomas’ claim that “this light was present in everyone.” (pp, 40-41)

John also makes the point that belief is crucial: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  What does John mean by belief?  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus berates his disciples for their lack of faith.  Those who beg for healing are required to have faith before Jesus can work a miraculous cure, and some of them pray, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” 

The Greek word translated as faith is pisteo, which means “I trust.”  It has to do with loyalty and commitment.  When the Greek was translated into Latin, the noun for faith became fides, and the scholar Jerome, used the word credo, which means “I give my heart.”  It was not until the late seventeenth century that our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, and the word “belief” was used to describe intellectual assent to a hypothetical proposition. 

Jesus did not ask people to believe, nor did he make claims about his divinity.  What he asked for was commitment, he wanted his followers to engage with his mission, to give all they could to the poor, to feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon pride, put aside their sense of self-importance, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and to trust in God.  They were to live compassionate lives. 

In John’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, Thomas is singled out from the other disciples.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Thomas is referred to as “one of the twelve” and is not labeled a skeptic or doubter.

According to John, Thomas however, was skeptical and rightly so, because he was not present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them.  When the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas replied, “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.” “I will not trust what you are saying.”

We don’t know where Thomas was or what he was doing when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but we can imagine that he was grieving the loss of his friend.  In fact, all the disciples had been grieving, collectively and individually. But then, when Jesus appeared to them it was a Resurrection experience.  Jesus said, “Peace be with you…receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

Elaine Pagels cites three instances in which the Gospel of John sets Thomas apart by focusing on his skepticism.  John’s writing was near the end of the first century following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It was from that point onward that Thomas would be known as “Doubting Thomas.”

The first instance of this occurred for John when he reported that Thomas, when hearing that Jesus was going to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, did not believe Jesus could do this.  He said, “Let us go, so that we may die with him.”  Here, Thomas is pictured “as one who listens to Jesus in disbelief, imagining that he is merely human like everyone else.”

In the second instance Jesus anticipated his own death and urged the disciples to trust in God as he promised to “prepare a place for you.”  He said, “You know where I am going, and you know the way.”  Thomas replied, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Here, Jesus’ response to Thomas was, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.”

Then, in the third instance Jesus returns after his death to rebuke Thomas.  He says, after Thomas was invited to see and touch the wounds of his crucified body, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Both Matthew and Luke have Jesus appearing to “the eleven” disciples.  Only Judas Iscariot was not present when Jesus conferred the power of the Holy Spirit upon them.  John’s account is different.  He stated, “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  (Pagels, pp. 70-71)

What are we to make of this?  The fact that Thomas had to see, touch and feel is not at all bad.  It presumed a level of intimacy.  The story about Thomas also tells us that doubt and faith are related.  The more intelligent and deep the doubt, the more mature will be the depth of faith that needs to be expressed.  Doubt and faith are always in tension.

Thomas wanted his faith to be grounded in Jesus, not in what the other disciples said.  Our situation today is similar; we have received our “belief” and “faith” from our families, communities, and the generations that have preceded ours.  The meaning and the essential point of the story about Thomas has to do with Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus allowed Thomas to satisfy his “doubt” by letting him experience his wounds.  Thomas responded with a statement of profound reverence: “My Lord and my God!”  It was a feeling of deep respect, love and awe.  It is a “knowing,” a Resurrection experience of divine love.  It is also contemplative.  Jesus wanted his followers to have this experience of being loved by God and of being one with God. 

Today, in our wrestling with faith and doubt we are invited through Christ’s resurrection to new life to experience God’s love and to do the compassionate work of loving and caring for others and for all of God’s creation.  It is about trusting in Jesus and committing our lives to his ministry of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight for the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.  It is by doing the compassionate work of ministry to those in need, and by caring for God’s creation that we trust in Christ and faithfully practice resurrection to new life.  Amen.

Tell Me The Old, Old Story

Tell Me the Old, Old Story

Tell me the old, old story, of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled. 

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Some stories are really old, and I mean, really, – really old.

This really old story was the story about a liberation of a people uniquely touched by their encounter with a God whom they identified not only as the creator but as a liberator and the giver of a blueprint for a new way of life. The key element in this blueprint was an invitation. God invited a people to take their rightful place as collaborators in the task of caring for the creation and of ensuring that their liberation from slavery became the foundation stone of a new kind of society. Caring for the creation and honoring the experience of liberation from slavery became a password – the Hebrew words Tikkun olam – the repairing of the world or putting the world to rights – in real time.

Some 2000 years ago, this already really old story broke anew into the conscious awareness of a small band of men and women whose experience had become reshaped over a three-year period as followers of a wandering rabbi from Nazareth. Without realizing it, their imaginations had been prepared for a startlingly new twist on the experience of their ancient national story.

This old, old story was given a new and completely unforeseen twist that created a new chapter to the old, old story among the Jewish followers of Jesus – this new chapter of Jesus and God’s love.

In the old, old story, God promised to repair the creation thus bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. In the new twist on the old, old story, the first Christians came to recognize that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had taken a decisive step in realizing this dream. Raising Jesus to new life revealed in real time a foretaste of the future promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

The followers of Jesus now saw themselves as living between two bookends; between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Between these bookends they felt called to a new way of living, in a new kind of community, where the goal was now to leave this world in a better state than the one they were born into.

Whenever the word resurrection is mentioned it’s important to clear up a widely held misunderstanding in America today. Resurrection is not a spiritual hope for a future life after death. It’s way more startling than that! As faithful Jews, the first Christians understood resurrection to mean – not spiritual life after physical death – but a new physical life after physical death as part of God’s plan for the remaking of the physical world envisioned for the end of time.

The new twist for the followers of Jesus was that they came to believe that while not under any illusions that the process of tikkun olam had been completed, God had nevertheless through his resurrection of Jesus – as in a return to physical life after physical death,  inaugurated in real time  the ahead-of-time promise of the resurrection of the whole of creation. From henceforth, life is to be lived between the two bookends of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the eventual resurrection of the world.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in–
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin;
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon,
The “early dew” of morning, has passed away at noon.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
    Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love. 

So, this sermon is a tale of two stories – the original old, old, very old story of the Jews, and the newer twist on this story we call the Christian story – a story which for most of us is also now a pretty old one. The problem with stories is that most of us still cling to unsophisticated notions of true or false.

Stories are all we human beings have to make sense of our experience of the world around us. We can’t understand our experience until we find a way to articulate it. That articulation always involves the construction of a story. Even so-called objective scientific observation of the hard reality that we can see and touch only makes sense within the larger story that is modern science.

Stories are never simply true or false. Instead, we might better ask – is this story effective or not – how complete or incomplete a description of experience is it – is it expansive or restrictive – inclusive or exclusionary; a story of love or a story of fear?

Stories that are more complete, more expansive, more inclusionary are more effective than stories that restrict human experience. Expansive stories give us room to breathe and to grow.

In 2019 we seem to be learning all over again, because what we cannot remember we are only destined to repeat, restrictive stories based on fear and exclusion, on competition – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is potentially mine tomorrow, imprison us in definitions of identity and worldviews that are too small and cramped to allow us to flourish.

Stories are rooted in culture. The old, old, story of tikkun olan – of making new that which has grown old, and its new twist of resurrection, is our religious story, by which I mean the religious story of Western Culture.

The old, old, story is a story about creation and the values and dreams that creation inspires coming to a final fulfilment in the recreation of a new heaven and a new earth. Within the old, old story is another story of Jesus and his love; a story of the death and resurrection of Jesus through which God has shown us a preview of the end. This preview is important. Just as in a movie to see the preview is not to have seen the whole film but it does change the way one anticipates the ending.

In the meantime, between preview and ending lies life as we know it. Given my premise that all we ever have are stories – then can we not see that the stories we choose or that choose us – if we are not careful – dictate the shape of the lives we live, and the worldviews we hold.

What stories will we choose to actively shape a future better than the present one we are living through?

Given the conflicting worldviews embodied in stories that shape our lives, some of them stories of power and greed; some of competition and exploitation; others of inclusion and exclusion based on skin or genitalia; on what we do with our genitals – and with whom we do it. These are especially pernicious stories, incompatible with human flourishing.

When measured against such stories- perhaps the old, old story is not such a bad one to live by, after all?

Tell me the same old story,
  When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
  Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
  Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story:
 “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.


Meditation for Good Friday.

Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on our suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.

It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has set for him, seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he knows ahead of time how things will end.

But we must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants in Jesus’ Passion. You see, if we are to be participants then Jesus has to be more like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our lives unscathed. And so if he is to be more like us, then neither is Jesus.

He treads his path, a path he chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time. Jesus is no noble victim sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. If we just stop there, no matter how thankful we might feel, we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love. For Jesus’ chooses the way of love.

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Rose Verse 2

The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for it is

It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taking, who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live …

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

Entering into the way of love leads us to challenge the status quo – risking the consequences. As a community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and its collective memory. It means risking loving without expecting to be rewarded.

Entering upon the way of love – above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of being, one step at a time – a transformation from timid and grateful children into collaborators with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.

From mere spectators to active participation with Jesus on the way of the cross is a movement through belonging into believing; a risking that moves us from fear into loving and being loved.

This is not a hero’s path.  Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On Good Friday, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but motivated by what is for God -the impossibility of not loving enough.

The Rose Final Verse

The italicized text comes from The Rose by Bette Midler

Maundy Thursday: Do This, Because I Love You!

A Meditation from the Rev. Linda Mackie Grigg

The disciples are feeling whiplashed by now. Just a few days ago there was so much hope. The crowds had hailed Jesus as Messiah, Son of David—with hosannas so loud they couldn’t hear themselves think, and palm branches so thick on the ground that the donkey’s feet never touched the dirt. But now the hosannas are silent and all that remains of the palm carpet is a stray frond here and there, curling and forgotten by the roadside.

The adrenalin excitement has been replaced by furtive anxiety. Jerusalem is on edge: The crowds who had followed Jesus are simmering; the Roman and Temple authorities are ready to pounce. The friends had worried who was watching as they made Passover preparations according to Jesus’ careful instructions–double- and triple-checking to make sure they had not been observed as they gathered one by one in the upper room of a nondescript house down a narrow street.

And now? What should have been a celebration for some reason feels more like—a wake.  Jesus seems withdrawn, somehow both focused and distracted at the same time. For once he seems at a loss for words.

Quietly and suddenly he stands, takes a basin of water and a towel, and kneels in front of Andrew. The air is electric as the water pours over his feet and into the basin. Jesus moves to Philip, and then Judas, then Nathanael. Then Peter.

At first Peter draws back in dismay. What kind of a king does this? What kind of a king stoops to serve in such a menial way? Jesus persists, Peter surrenders. The water splashes softly, the towel gently dries.

This is what we do for one another, Jesus says. Wash. Love. Serve. And in turn offer your care-worn, callused, travel-weary and broken self to be comforted and healed. Giving and receiving in a constant flow of care. This is what love looks like. This is who we are, and how people will know us. Do this, he says. Because I love you.

Their hearts are burning. Something begins to shift in the air.

For three years Jesus has spoken of the Dream of God—a kingdom unlike any they can comprehend. Sometimes, in flashes, it has all made sense; but then the world intervenes and they forget. So Jesus tries again to make them understand. And again. And again.

Tonight Jesus knows that there are no more agains to spare. No more time for parables or sermons or signs. But there is bread. And wine. He gazes around the room at his friends. No more time for telling. It is time to show.

He takes bread. Made of wheat; sown, cut, ground, baked. Wine; from grapes, pruned, thirsted to sweetness, crushed, and fermented in darkness. Both from the earth, made by human hands; the embodiment of life made whole through suffering and struggle. This is my body, he says. Given for you. This is my blood, the blood of all who suffer, shed for you. Eat, drink, remembering me.

Do they understand? No; still no. But sometimes it isn’t about understanding. They do know that they are in the presence of Mystery, not to be solved but to be shared.

Do this, he says. Because I love you. This much they can understand.

James, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and the other gathered disciples gaze into the eyes of Jesus and see only love. Their hearts are full.

Judas looks away, and slips silently, almost unnoticed, out the door.

Fatal Intersections: Palm Sunday 2019

Featured Image comes from Mountain View United Methodist Church

He had come to celebrate the Passover. Having traveled from Bethany, Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates to wild acclaim from the crowds that greeted him. They stripped the fronds from the palm trees and lay them as a carpet before him as he entered the city gates.

Present day actions often echo memories of the past. The waving of palms was a gesture that not only tells us something of popular expectations for Jesus, but is also an echo of collective memory. Some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple, bearing palm branches they cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement by the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanies.

The waving of palm branches tells us something of the crowd’s expectations of Jesus as another national liberator, who in the mold of Judas Maccabeus has come to free them from the hated Roman occupation?

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. He chose to avoid the city’s ancient warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. Pilate and his Roman administration preferred the sea breezes and Mar A Largo conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima; now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea.

Pilate hated and feared the crowds of Jerusalem. He feared them most during the Passover which required him to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection. For Passover was the collective memory of liberation from an earlier period of slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus, were in insurrection mood.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. Three narratives or storylines intersect and clash with an alarming result as Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus all become caught up in an escalation of events none could control.

The storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersects with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing for liberation at whatever cost. Both confront the third storyline which concerns the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world.

Events take an unexpected turn and rapidly spiral out of control, culminating on the eve of the Passover (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples. During this last supper, Jesus graphically demonstrates God’s vision for the world. He turns hierarchy on its head and washes his disciples feet. He takes bread and wine and associates them with his body and blood. He ends the meal with a simple mandate – in Latin mandatum from which we get the Middle English name maundy meaning commandment: love one another as I have loved you. But love has consequences: arrest, show trial, and crucifixion.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion surfaces in identification with that of Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. We journey with Jesus as part of a community that journeys to the cross bearing within us not only our individual maladies and sufferings but the maladies and sufferings of the world around us.

Liturgy is a form of dramatic reenactment that transports a community through sacred time to where we move beyond memory, becoming participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, he or she no longer is.

We long to do the brave thing, until that is, the moment when we don’t.

In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week:

  • Like them at his Last Supper, we experience the uncomfortable intimacy and embarrassing humility symbolized in washing one another’s feet.
  • With the disciples, we share in the breaking and sharing of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup – actions that not only render us a community, but which we can only perform as a community.
  • With the disciples, we accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we fight sleep to keep watch with him until Midnight. Like them we long to do the brave thing, until the moment when we don’t.
  • Over the following 15 hours of Thursday evening and into the Friday we call Good, we follow as part of the band of his disciples viewing with dismay, but from a safe distance, the unfolding of frightening events – Jesus’ arrest, show trial, and crucifixion. In the end, like them we always opt for playing it safe.

Historical associations trigger memory in real time, giving expression to our contemporary tensions. You see, human beings don’t change much over time.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, he or she no longer is.
We long to do the brave thing, until that is, the moment when we don’t.

Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.

The Aroma of Christ: John 12:1-8



A Sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

 The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

The writer of John’s gospel surely knew the power of scent to trigger memory and emotion; surely knew that the reader of this passage would have a physical response to the image of the house filled with the fragrance. It is intended to carry us to a place of close presence and physicality; of bodies.

It is virtually impossible to talk about this passage without talking about bodies. Lazarus’ own body has been raised from the dead, emerging blinking into the light, his wrappings fluttering to the ground as his friends removed them. And now, at dinner at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we smell the earthy musky mossy scent of nard, redolent of the fertile beginnings of Creation. We see the dusty journey-worn feet of Jesus. We see Mary’s hair, intimately undone, as it caresses her friend’s callused skin. These images are not thought—they are felt—they leap off the pages and into our senses. It is all in the seeing, the touching, the smelling. These are what connect us to the story, and to the Good News that wafts almost elusively through it.

So now imagine the flush of indignation felt by Judas as he inhales the expensive scent—the rapid calculation of the quantity of nard—one pound– divided by the rough cost—300 denarii; compared to the amount of food, clothing, or medicine that could be provided for the poor for the same amount—the conclusion of outrageous extravagance—all culminating in an indignant outburst from the Keeper of the Purse: “Silly woman, what are you thinking?”

John would have us see him as insincere in this moment—Judas has no credibility regarding fiscal responsibility because he has his hand in the till. But we know that John, and we, have a particular point of view when it comes to Judas. Maybe Judas was stealing from his colleagues. But maybe John has offered that little detail in order to hammer home Judas’ unsavory character. As if we needed that. But. Judas was one of the disciples. His later betrayal of Jesus doesn’t mean that he was never right about anything. Resources that went to buy a pound of nard (a year’s wages) could have been used for another, less extravagant and more charitable, purpose. Think about it; if it wasn’t Judas saying it, we might actually agree with him.

That’s a sobering thought.

But if we did agree with Judas, then we, like Judas, would be missing the point.

This isn’t about cost/benefit analysis. It’s about love.

Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

This is arguably one of the most misunderstood statements in the Gospel, and possibly one of the most abused.

More on that in a minute, but first shift our gaze from Judas’ outrage back to Jesus and Mary, as she anticipates his burial.

The care of a body after death is one of the last acts of kindness a person can do for the deceased. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, using herbs and oils or modern materials and technology, the gentle and competent care of a body is an act of love and respect, both for the deceased and for those who grieve. It is a tender time, and this act of care is a true and valuable gift.

Jesus acknowledges this gift from Mary, made all the more special for its extravagance. He and everyone present are witnesses to the depth of her caring for her friend. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The greater the love, the greater the grief.”

This is lost on Judas, who has couched Mary’s gift in zero-sum either/or binary terms; she has shown great love for Jesus, therefore people will go hungry as a result.

But not, admonishes Jesus, if you are participating in the Dream of God. In God’s economy the binary is erased. This is not a matter of choosing Jesus or the poor. In the economy of the Kingdom, it isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.

And this is where we confront one of the most problematic quotes in scripture: “You will always have the poor with you.”

This has historically been an excuse for not addressing the plight of the disadvantaged, particularly in a systemic way. The argument goes that there is no point in addressing a problem as intractable as poverty, because this is just the way it is and ever shall be; Jesus said so, right there in John 12: 8, right?

This is what I call, “the convenient ‘No’”. When cherry-picked and misread, this quote makes it easy to say that the problem is too big and our resources are too small. That makes it easy to stay comfortably within the status quo.

When has Jesus ever asked us to do that?

You will always have the poor with you.

Interestingly, the Greek word for “to have” can be the same in both the indicative tense (a statement of what is) and the imperative tense (a statement of what should be.) So it could be read, “You will always have the poor with you…”

…or, “You should always have the poor with you.”

Now that sounds like Jesus. When has he not sided with the poor and called us to do the same?

You should always have the poor among you. Not either/or. Both/and.

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, anticipating his death. Her grief and her tenderness are woven together. And in the face of Judas’ indignation, Jesus guides his attention away from money to relationship. Because grief only occurs in the presence of relationship.

Do the privileged grieve the situations of the unprivileged? Do they see the outrageous income disparities, the food deserts, the inequities in housing, healthcare and education? Do we truly see the people left vulnerable by climate change? Do we grieve for them as we would for Jesus?

It’s a crucial question, because Jesus tells us that they are one and the same—the poor are as worthy of Mary’s tender, extravagant, loving care as Jesus.

It’s not about cost/benefit; it’s about relationship.

Where Judas sees a gap between privileged and unprivileged, Jesus sees a relationship.  In the Dream of God, charitable giving is transformed into mutual ministry; a place where giving and receiving are not two sides of a transaction, but a multidimensional tapestry of shared vulnerability and experience. Where names and stories are known, laughter and hugs and tears shared. Where each can see in the other—in the hands, the feet and the faces, the divine traces of the God who created us. This is what St. Paul calls the aroma of Christ.

You shall always be with the poor. A challenging invitation. Do we expect any different from Jesus?

Every Saturday afternoon, in Burnside Park, Church Beyond the Walls takes that invitation seriously. They are a street-church community that meets out of doors; a special mission of the Diocese with a Eucharist-centered focus on building solidarity between people from all walks of life and circumstances. It’s the Dream of God in action, and it’s a couple of miles away.

Here is how the community is invited to Eucharist:

This is Christ’s table. Come, you who feel weak, and unworthy, you who come often, and you who have stayed away. Come, you who love Jesus, and you who wish you could. Come sinners and saints, women and men, gay and straight. Come you who are homeless and you who have a place to rest your heads. Come you who are citizens of this land and you who are not. Here you are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Now join God’s people at this feast prepared for you from the beginning of the world.

Lois Atwood R.I.P.

Sage advice from the Apostle Paul: 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12.

My first encounter with Lois and Pres was in the summer of 2014. I had been in the parish a couple of weeks and Pres had just returned home following his recovery from a broken hip – I hope I recall that correctly, Pres? Being fresh to New England, my mind already colored by stereotypes of frigid Yankee stoicism – and with Susan Esposito’s words ringing in my ears about Lois and Pres being two of the St Martin’s most venerable members, I set out to bring Holy Communion to them at home in the firm expectation of encountering two ancient and crusty WASPS.

My expectations were of course, utterly dashed. For I met two warm and witty persons who seemed greatly surprised that I should have taken the trouble to visit them at home – after all as Lois would continue to remind me at every subsequent visit: This is wonderful Fr. Mark, that you should find the time in your busy schedule to bring Communion to us – to which I would mutter some such throw away rejoinder about it being a privilege. But – and here Lois do forgive me for beginning a sentence with a preposition – it was a privilege! So much was it a privilege that with Lois and Pres, the Rector had to take his turn in the que of Eucharistic Ministers keen to visit them each Sunday after it seemed safer for them not to risk coming to church. In fact, David Whitman, I always envied the fact that you were offered sherry afterwards and I never was. Well, such is the burden of being too busy – I guess.

I don’t think Lois ever really understood how much of a privilege for me, and I know for others, it was. Because Lois was a woman who did not think more highly of herself than she ought to have thought. Lois carried herself through life girded by a very sober judgment of herself, according to the measure of faith God accorded her.

Soon after my first visit , I was summoned – for this time it felt a bit like a royal command – by Lois and her prayer partner Jean Richardson, who taken together presented a most formidable couple! This was my first discovery of the rich depth of Lois’ spirituality. Lois was a formidable intercessor, and with Jean they operated an extensive prayer chain. I felt the purpose of this visit was to be assessed as to my support for the efficacy of prayer. I think I must have passed. Again, another stereotype of WASP crustiness – crushed.

I am conscious that everyone here today has more numerous and richer memories of Lois than I can have given the shortness of my time knowing her. Elsewhere five years might be considered a long time, but in Rhode Island not so! Yet we will all agree that Lois had that rare gift for friendship. John Bracken commented to me that: She had such a bright smile. Always made you think she was happy to see you even if she barely knew you. A real gift. A real gift indeed! Lois was a friend to those she met, and she was a friend to the many countless more she carried in her prayers.

In a modern world where sharpness of intellect, keenness of perception, and soundness of judgement are no longer qualities normally associated with so call ‘religious’ people, Lois had the sharpest intellect, the keenest perception, and the soundest judgment of any one I have ever known. What’s more, she faithfully read my sermon blog each week, and when she was able to be in church delivered that rear combination of insightful and charitable comment. Her professional literary career when placed alongside her Christian faithfulness should be an inspiration to each and every one of us of how we might better integrate mind and heart in fruitful living.

However, my central task this morning is to speak about the Christian vision of life. This is a bifocal because in near sight it’s a vision of what is, and in far sight it’s a vision of what will be.

We live in a world where many of us are in thrall to a materialist vision of life. This is a vision of life as simply a biological process that unfolds within the three dimensions of matter, time, and space. I think therefore I am; I feel therefore I am. Lois would have agreed with both these statements, but she would have gone on to add: I pray, therefore I am.

There is another vision in today’s world that masquerades as Christian. This is the vision of life where you can turn a blind eye to the injustices and corruptions of this world so long as you can recite the religious formulas that will buy your ticket on the heaven bound express. We see how this vision infuses the so-called Christian Right with an ends (heaven) justify means (toleration of injustice) approach to living.

Then there is the vision of life that Lois espoused. Lois believed that biological life was simply the first stage in a longer process of growing into the fullness of life with God. She believed in the on-going-ness of life beyond biological death, which for her was only a junction point. How do I know this? Did she ever communicate this understanding to me? Well not in so many words, but I infer it from her life life-long practice of intercessory prayer and faithful public worship.

I imagine that as with all questioning and curious minds, doubt was an ever-present companion for Lois. Yet, she knew two things. The first was that doubt is not the enemy of faith, she knew that was fear. And she knew that despite her human inability to fully comprehend the how and the what of the next phase of life, she knew it that her sense of a larger life, that there was more to life than this, mattered.

And here is the crux! Lois knew that the ongoing greater life in God’s love mattered not because it was an end in itself – a pie in the sky when you die sort of thing – but because the prospect of eternal life continually refocused her attention on this life and what mattered, really mattered for her, in this life. Authentic Christian living is to live with our attention focused on this world where with every fiber of our being we need to work tirelessly for the unfolding of God’s vision of the good creation as a reality in real time. Lois knew the truth of the sentence in the Lord’s prayer: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done – in this world – regardless of how we might imagine it being done in heaven.

Curiosity is the most important quality in the spiritual life and Lois possessed it in spades.  As I administered the ritual of the Last Rites to her seemingly unconscious body, a palpable sense of her curiosity as she navigated the transition between dimensions, flooded the room. None of us present could be left in any doubt of Lois’ excitement as she began the process the Book of Common Prayer refers to as life changed but not an ended.  

Through her death, Lois has passed on the baton. And our task now is to run with it for the rest of our earthly lives, and hand it on at our death! I hope we might be worthy of her example.

God’s speed dear friend. We know you will continue to keep us in your prayers.

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